by Suzanne Reisman
After work, Magda went to meet her lover in Plac Bankowy. As always, she had aimed to look her best, dressing in a slim blue dress and matching hat. Several men ogled her as she sat down at the base of the fountain. Usually she would flirt back, but today thinking about men turned her stomach.
She had arrived at the appointed time, but Motl was nowhere in sight. Magda looked at her watch and began to sweat. What if something happened to him on the way to meet her? He could have been mugged, or a neighbor could have overheard their plan and turned Motl over to the authorities. How long would it be before they came for her, too?
Two tall men, dressed in fine suits with red silk ties, matching pocket squares, and bowler hats approached. Magda swallowed hard. The men stopped a few feet from her and lit cigarettes.
“My brother is moving back from Berlin next week,” the taller one said in Polish.
“Oh? Things are very bad there, I hear,” the other replied.
“He had to hide that night they burned the books. The mobs were terrifying, tens of thousands of people standing around the university while Goebbels encouraged students to rid society of Jewish trash.”
His friend whistled. “I read about that.”
The tall man threw his cigarette to the ground and crushed it under a polished shoe. “‘Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.’ That’s what one of the banned poets had written. I don’t know how long my brother and his family will stay with me, but thank God I have a large flat.”
The men moved on. Magda lit a cigarette to calm her nerves. As she neared the end of her smoke, Motl arrived. Even in her distressed state, she could not help notice how dashing he looked in his fedora and triple breasted suit. They had always made an attractive couple. She sprang up and grabbed his arm. “Where were you?” she hissed.
“I needed to be sure I was not followed,” he said, green eyes darting around the square.
She leaned in as if to kiss him, and whispered, “Do you have the money?”
“Give it to me.”
Motl stared at her. “No, I’m coming with you,” he said.
Magda again looked at her watch. It had a thin silver chain and had been a gift from a high-ranking officer in the military. She wondered what happened to him. “Fine. Let’s go.”
She led him through the crowded streets, dodging people, cars, and trolleys. Horses with wagons blocked curbs when they tried to cross the streets, and Magda cursed under her breath. She was wearing a pair of high heeled shoes which made walking quickly on cobblestones difficult. Motl placed his hand on her back to steady her, and she initially recoiled from his touch before accepting his support.
When Magda finally stopped, Motl nearly stepped on her. They stood side-by-side for a full minute until Magda finally turned to him. He took her hand and she cringed. His palm was slick with sweat. They entered the building.
The stairwell, like the rest of Warsaw, had seen better days. Dust and grime accumulated in the corners. The electric lights were out, but thin rays of sunlight entered through small dirty windows, making it possible to see. It took a moment for Magda’s eyes to adjust, and she felt for the banister. Motl followed her up the stairs to the second floor. She wondered what he was thinking.
They stepped onto the landing. The smell of iodine made her heart pound faster. Magda approached the door and knocked out a pattern: three rapid strikes against the dark wood, followed by a pause, then three more rapid knocks. It was met by silence. As they waited, Magda looked at Motl. Her eyes welled. She gasped for breath. He took her hand in his and squeezed it. This time, she squeezed back.
The door opened a crack but not enough to see who was behind it. “Yes?” a woman’s voice intoned.
Magda coughed. “I’m here about the cleaning job advertised,” she mumbled. She wiped her eyes on the soft cotton sleeve of her dress.
“And who is he?”
Magda hesitated. She realized that she had told the woman who arranged the appointment that she would come alone. What could she say that would convince this woman that this was not a trap to arrest her and the doctor? Thoughts raced through her mind. “My brother insisted that he accompany me to protect me against possible exploitation.”
The woman grunted and shut the door. Magda felt the tears surging. Hand trembling, she raised her arm to knock again. “Please, please,” she said, her shaking voice becoming increasingly loud. “I need this… this job.”
The door opened. A stout, short woman with light brown hair pulled back from her face appeared. She wore a starched white nurse’s uniform. “Come in. Quickly now.”
The couple stepped into a small dank waiting room and the door shut behind them. “Where’s the money?” the woman asked. Magda reached into her dainty purse and pulled out a wad of crumpled bills. At the same time, Motl dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out neatly folded money held together with a money clip. Magda watched as he peeled off bills and handed them to the woman.
The nurse counted the money, lips pursed in concentration. When she saw that everything was in order, that they did not appear to be police informers, her shoulders relaxed and her facial expression took on a friendlier demeanor as she addressed Magda. “Yes, the doctor will see you. Your ‘brother’ must wait here.” She gestured to a rickety chair in the corner. When Motl sat down, it slid a few inches on the scarred wood floor, screeching its protest. The woman glared at him as she put her arm around Magda’s shoulder and guided her into the examination room.
Magda’s underarms were drenched. The doctor was sitting beside a table with stirrups, reading a Yiddish newspaper. She wished she could read it to distract herself. Her grandmother had grown up speaking Yiddish, but she never spoke it to Magda’s mother, wanting her to be a good Pole. If Motl was in the room, he would read and translate a story for her. Sometimes he had liked to do that when they were in her flat, and she teased him for reading the serialized stories aimed toward women. He always laughed. “I like to read them because it’s good to know everything,” he’d say. She suspected that was partly why so many women seemed to love him – he knew what they wanted to hear.
The pages rustled as the doctor folded them and set the paper aside. “Proszę, remove your undergarments and lift your skirt,” he said, and gestured for Magda to climb onto the table and put her feet in the stirrups. She felt her face flush. Although she had been with many men, this was her first womanly exam.
Magda sat on the edge of the table. With her underwear gone, she felt more naked than ever. Her shoulders shook. The nurse moved to her side and held her hand. It was cold and dry, contrasting with her warm and clammy one. Magda closed her eyes, and the nurse gave her a reassuring squeeze.
“It will only hurt for a little while,” she said, “But you must not make any noise.” She leaned toward Magda and her blue eyes were kind but serious. “Do you understand me?”
Magda nodded. The nurse nodded back at her. She gave her a rubberized stick. “Just bite down on this and squeeze my hand if it gets to be too much.”
Magda closed her eyes and leaned her head back. She felt a needle poke into a vein in her left arm and savored the prick. She had never believed in divine punishment, but at that moment, she knew she was a sinner, and she deserved whatever pain was to follow. When this was all over, she decided that she would start going to church and turn her life around. Her Catholic friends had told her it was never too late to turn to Jesus.
Something cylindrical and cold was inserted into her, prying her open further than she thought possible. She let out a small gasp of surprise as she tried to sit up. The nurse placed a firm hand on Magda’s chest and wagged her finger. “Quiet,” she whispered.
More metal objects slid in and out. She tried to lie still. The discomfort made her want to vomit. She wondered how much worse it would get, and she found out a few minutes later. Something scraped along her insides. Before she could move, the nurse was holding her down, pressing her body on Magda’s to still her. “Bite on the rod,” she said in a soothing voice. Magda grabbed the woman’s hand. Never before had she felt such all-consuming, piercing pain. Tears flowed down her face like the Wisła after a heavy rain. Her grip on the stick was so intense she thought she might crack a tooth.
After a few minutes, Magda felt her womb clenching onto the tool inside her. The doctor wrenched the tool loose. “Close your eyes,” the nurse said, but Magda looked anyway. What was he pulling out of her? Her womanhood? Suddenly she re-evaluated all of the bold statements she had made about her life.
The nurse patted her head. “Don’t worry, that’s just the placenta. You are almost done. Everything will be all right.”
Magda slumped onto the table. Although the room was warm, she shivered. Goosebumps studded her arms. It was over. She was free from her pregnancy, and was free from depending on men. It was time to start over, to create a new persona. All she felt was relief. She managed a weak smile at the woman, who patted her head again gently.
“You were very brave,” the nurse comforted her. “I know you will be just fine from now on.”
“Yes,” Magda said. “I think so, too.”
When she emerged from the examination room, Magda was pale and walking unsteadily, supported by the zaftig nurse. Motl had been fiddling with his fedora, but he dropped it and jumped to his feet when he saw her. The nurse pursed her lip.
“Don’t leave your ‘sister’ alone tonight. If the bleeding gets too heavy, take her to the hospital, but we’ve never seen either of you before.”
Motl nodded and Magda leaned against him. They exited the clinic and he helped her down the stairs. Once outside, he took a deep breath. “Let’s get you home,” he said.
With effort, Magda pulled herself off of his shoulder and slid out from under Motl’s arm. “I’m going home alone,” she said.
“But the nurse said – ”
“I don’t care what she said. I’ll be fine,” she said and smiled. “We had some good times, but it’s over. It’s time for me to take care of myself.” Magda rolled her shoulders back and gathered herself together. “Do widzenia, Motl.”
Motl sputtered at her, but she only nodded and touched his arm gently before turning and wobbling away. She never looked back.