The Real Story of Nigel Embo
By Gordon Haber
I met Nigel when I lived in Poland. For a brief time, both he and I were in the Salon, a small group of artsy types who met every other Saturday to share our work. Magda was our host—lean, sexy Magda, with the bobbed black hair and porcelain skin. A politician’s daughter, she lived in Mokotów, an upscale section of Warsaw, in a pre-war apartment. We convened in the living room, where, among the books and plants, we’d talk and smoke and talk: about Paweł’s lithographs or one of my stories or Magda’s latest song. We’d say what was right or wrong with the work, how it could be improved, and if the conversation lapsed into Polish—for example, if Paweł and Ryszek fell into one of their vicious arguments about prosody that seemed to serve as their version of foreplay—then Magda would smack her palms together, shouting, “English, good people, English.”
In other words, it was sweet and innocent. And even if the preciousness of it makes my face glow with a kind of posthumous embarrassment, at the time it was exactly what I needed. I had a powerful ambivalence about my writing, a mixture of hope, sense of failure, and compulsion. There’s nothing more boring than writers writing about writing, so I’ll keep this short: at age thirty, I considered myself a failure. Which was why, when I started writing again in Poland, I told no one about it at first. I treated it like a secret vice, as if I were not writing stories for two hours every morning but masturbating. Certainly, masturbating would have been more relaxing. Still I kept working, and the stories got better, and eventually, through my contacts in New York, I began to publish. Towards the end of my first year in Poland, I had placed two stories, another had been accepted, and it was starting to look like I might—if I stayed focused, and if I ignored the persistent notion that my stories were worthless—be able to put together a book.
But I was talking about the Salon. I was invited to join after Magda, who also taught English at the university, caught me working one morning in the cafeteria. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I looked up to see her standing quite close, her pretty black eyes on my pages.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “Are you writing a story?”
“I am,” I said casually, although I felt my cheeks reddening.
“Is it good?”
I thought for a second. “It might be.”
“You should meet with us,” she said.
She explained about the Salon and who was involved. It sounded like the sort of thing that I usually avoided. It seemed pretentious, and in general I find it difficult to share my work. But I had been feeling that there was something unhealthy in my solitude: the Salon would at least be social. So I went, and I quickly saw that it was the right choice. We were all exposing ourselves, which created a sense of shared risk, of community. If their work was uneven—Ryszek’s poems had too much Polish bombast, Magda’s songs too many “homages” to Kurt Weill—their criticism was useful. Moreover, I liked Magda’s friends. Indeed, after a few weeks I considered them my friends as well.
The best part of the meetings, for me anyway, was when the agenda was finished and we would sit around and talk. Magda, I thought, was beginning to notice me as I had noticed her—I mean that I sensed an attraction, and I was waiting for the right moment to ask her out. And I loved it when the veil of preciousness was lifted from all of us, when we bitched about politics or our jobs and I could follow, if not always respond to, their rapid Polish. It got me thinking that maybe I wasn’t just a long-term visitor, that maybe I could stay here and make a life for myself.
One night Beata asked me what I had planned for Christmas—would I go see my family, or stay in Poland?
“Oh, I’ll be here,” I said. “This time of year isn’t such a big deal for Jews.”
I reached for a jelly donut (in Poland, they are outstanding), and I munched away, until I realized that everyone was looking at me.
“What?” I said.
“We didn’t know,” Paweł said.
“Didn’t know what?” I said. And then: “Oh.”
Everyone was quiet for a while.
“I have the greatest respect for the Jewish people,” Beata said, blushing.
“That’s nice,” I said. “I think I’ll be leaving now.”
On the tram ride home, I thought, That’s what you get for sharing your work.
Later, though, I wondered if I had been too sensitive. In New York, I had never experienced that kind of pregnant silence, that evident surprise, as if I had announced that I was a hermaphrodite. But there are very few Jews in Poland, and the history of Poles and Jews is complicated, to put it nicely. So it was understandable that they felt awkward about learning that I was Jewish. I decided to let it drop after Magda left a note in my office mailbox: Please excuse our rudeness. I went to the next meeting, and I pretended that nothing had happened; to my relief, they did too. Perhaps I sensed a new, studied casualness in the group demeanor, as if they were trying to act normal around me. Perhaps Ryszek was harder than usual on my next story, to prove that he lacked even a positive bias towards Jews. So what? Clearly they felt bad about that alienating silence, and they made every effort to avoid making me uncomfortable again.
This equilibrium remained until the last meeting before the holiday break—which was, not coincidentally, when Nigel made his first appearance. He sat, radiating self-assurance, while Magda introduced him: he was a poet and a journalist, and he wanted feedback on his memoir-in-progress. Aside from being African (which, in Poland, is like being Jewish times twelve), he was unremarkable looking: medium height, round-faced, thin. He wore jeans, a black ball cap and a white turtleneck sweater.
Everyone murmured welcoming noises and then it was time to begin. Beata passed around copies of her new poem. She stood, tucked her blonde hair behind her ears, and read to us in her tuneless, declamatory voice. The poem was in Polish, so I had to focus, but I was distracted by Magda and Nigel, who, from opposite ends of the circle, were exchanging amatory signals, the glances and mirroring postural shifts of a new couple.
I put that out of my head, or tried to, and read along with Beata. But when it was my turn to speak I had little to add: I said that I liked the internal rhymes but that I had trouble with the idioms. “I will help you with them,” Beata said, letting me off the hook. She turned to Nigel. “And what does our new person think?”
Magda leaned towards him, expectant, ready to be dazzled.
“It’s not fair of me to criticize until you’ve seen my work,” he said, reaching for his tote bag. “Does anyone mind if I read now?”
“We haven’t finished talking about her poem,” I said.
With his bag in his lap, Nigel looked at me, and then at Beata. She tucked her hair behind her ears again and sat down. “It’s quite all right,” she said. “Nigel, let’s hear your work.” She wouldn’t stick up for herself—Beata never stuck up for herself—and it was clear that nobody else would. But if I told Nigel to wait his turn, then it might seem like I had something personal against him. Which I did, obviously, because I was jealous about Magda. Still, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. I remembered how nervous I had been at my first Salon. Thus, while it may seem otherwise, I insist that the ensuing confrontation grew out of aesthetic considerations, which, for me, are always impersonal.
Nigel handed out his pages. I don’t recall what I did with them—probably I threw them in the trash—but a year later, I found this excerpt on the Internet. It’s pretty much what he read that evening at Magda’s:
Maybe you will not believe me; that I am not writing the truth. But it’s true! This is the real story of My Life!! I was on a plane. The day was January 6, 2005. I flew back from Jo’burg, the capital of previously shackled South Africa. I planned in my head the article that I wanted to write; that would expose the terrible corruption of South African ministers and their sinistre connections to the Cameroonian Secret Service and the rebels of Gabon. I had the proof documents in my bag. Little did I know that I would soon fatally meet My Destiny. When the plane landed, I would be arrested. I would spend the next sixty-seven days of my life tortured, a prisoner! And a fugitive! Until I ended my adventure as a political refugee in the great country of Poland!
Immediately I suspected—I knew—it was all lies. I knew it from the over-specificity of dates, the extraneous details, the repeated insistence that he was not lying. I glanced up from the pages, hoping that someone would appear as mortified as I felt. No such luck: they all seemed to be absorbed by the work. Especially Magda, whose black eyes brimmed with emotion.
Nigel read slowly, savoring his incompetent prose. When he finished, I bummed a cigarette from Ryszek and stared at the burning tip.
“Benjamin,” Nigel said. “What do you think?”
I thought that he might ask me first. I considered saying something nice, or at least something neutral: It seems like you’ve had an exciting life. But then I remembered his rudeness to Beata.
“It’s terrible,” I said.
Nigel stiffened. “Please explain.”
“Well, it’s really bad,” I said. “Even the punctuation.”
Magda said, “Punctuation is bullshit. Talk about something important.”
“But punctuation is important,” I said, feeling confused and hurt.
Magda shook her head. “Talk about something specific.”
“Okay, fine” I said, not mentioning that there was nothing more specific than punctuation. “Nigel, often it’s impossible to tell where you are, physically, in the story. And I don’t understand why . . . oh, never mind.”
His cap pulled down low, Nigel held his pages to his chest. “What?” he asked.
“Forget it. Let somebody else talk.”
“Ask your question, Benjamin.”
“Okay. Why do you keep insisting that this is the truth?”
“Why should I not? Are you calling me a liar?”
“I’m not calling you anything. I’m asking you why, on every page, you insist that this really happened.”
Nigel smiled. “I think maybe you’re a racist,” he said. “Maybe you think that Africans are too stupid to write books. Maybe you believe that a black man can’t write, so you talk about punctuation.”
I sputtered, too shocked to form an immediate reply. And then I felt ashamed, and I wondered if I had been too hard on him. And then I realized that he was going on the offensive, and I grew angry. I wanted to defend myself, but every response that came to mind was a variation of the phrase, Some of my best friends are black. So I went with another cliché: “I won’t dignify that with a response.”
“Wait,” Paweł said. “It is unfair to say that Benjamin is racist. He is a Jew. He understands racism.”
I said, “That has nothing to do with Nigel’s story.”
“It is not a story,” Nigel said, still smiling. “It is my life.”
In the silence that followed, I hoped that someone else would come to mydefense. But Magda looked at me with disappointment, and Beata looked petrified. Paweł slunk off to the bathroom, and Ryszek—argumentative, confrontational Ryszek—stared at the ceiling. Curiously, though, I didn’t feel betrayed or wounded. I didn’t need these people. I could get my work done without them. I gathered up my things and I left.
Of course, I was angry again later. Later, I’d think of a dozen sharp rejoinders to Nigel, a dozen ways to call the others on their cowardice, and I was angry that in the moment I hadn’t thought of any of them. And when I caught myself wondering if, perhaps, I had been racist, I was angry that I had allowed myself to consider it.
But I got over it. Admittedly, I never got over Magda’s frosty politeness whenever I ran into her at the university. Still, I refused to indulge in any of the gossip about Magda and her new African boyfriend. I avoided the teachers’ lounge and the cafeteria, and I got on with my work.
Just as I had planned, I did nothing for Christmas. While an entire nation celebrated, I slept and wrote and read. I did accept an invitation for New Year’s Eve. Jacek, a philologist whom I knew slightly, was having a party. Jacek and his wife also lived in Mokotów: that night, as I got off the tram, I was irrationally afraid that I would run into Magda—or worse, Magda and Nigel. But I didn’t see them, and I assured myself that they wouldn’t be at the party because Magda thought that Jacek was boring.
Jacek’s place was more modest than Magda’s, more modest even than my own. Regardless, the atmosphere was festive—perhaps thirty people drinking and eating with unaffected holiday joy. In such times I was very glad to be among Poles, who have an easy way with hospitality: within seconds of my entrance, Jacek’s wife had kissed me on both cheeks, his teenaged son had taken my coat, and Jacek himself had pressed a drink into my hand. He then pulled me towards a corner where five or six people with the shabby, semi-formal look of Central European academics were having an animated conversation in Polish.
“Here he is,” Jacek said in English, practically shouting. “Now tell us about this election, Benjamin. We want to know if your country will accept a black man as its leader.”
“I thought we just did.”
“Ah, but an election is one thing. Acceptance is another.”
I pulled out a cigarette. Someone lit it for me, and I nodded my thanks. “Jacek, I don’t know how to answer you,” I said. “Do you want me to admit that Americans are racist?”
“My dear friend, I don’t want you to admit anything, I’m just asking for your opinion.”
“Jacek, let him be,” said a woman with thick glasses and tight curls. “You are always looking for an argument, even on New Year’s Eve.”
“An argument?” Jacek said. “This is an opportunity. How often do we get to hear the opinions of an actual American?”
“He is not a representative American,” another woman said. “He is a New Yorker, living in another country.”
I turned. “Hi, Magda,” I said.
I glanced around the room.
“Don’t worry, he’s not here,” she said. Then she plucked the cigarette from my fingers and put it to her lips. As she blew the smoke out the side of her mouth, she looked at my face. I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was being considered for something, assessed. It was all very dramatic and stagey and exciting.
“What’s going on with these two?” a bearded man muttered in Polish, and once again Magda had given me cause to blush.
“Benjamin,” she said. “Would you like to get drunk? Because I would very much like to get drunk.”
For the rest of the night, we weren’t exactly unfriendly to anyone; however, we did make it clear that we were interested only in each other. We staked out a corner near a bottle of vodka, and proceeded to punish it, and my cigarettes. Excited by our unexpected intimacy, I disclosed more than I usually do. I told her about the bitterness that had driven me to Warsaw, how much I missed seeing her, how I wished that I had had the nerve to ask her out. And she told me that she had wished that, too.
“You are a nice man, Benjamin, but sometimes you are spineless. Oh.” She touched my face. “I hurt your feelings. I’m sorry.”
At midnight we were making out on Jacek’s terrace, inured to the cold by drink and proximity. I walked her home and we kissed again by her door. She didn’t invite me in, which was disappointing, of course. I sensed that there was something fleeting about her attention, and I didn’t want to let it go. Nevertheless, I was so happy that I splurged on a taxi ride home, and when the driver flagrantly overcharged me, I didn’t haggle.
I called her the next afternoon.
“Oh God, I am so ill,” she said. “I feel like I am sweating vodka. Listen, Benjamin. I want to see you, but don’t expect too much from me. All I want right now is a friend.”
We began to spend a lot of time together. While it was nice to be around her again, the nebulousness of the situation was not good for me. My work fell off—not a lot, but enough to make me nervous—and sometimes I had trouble sleeping. I wondered if I was making a huge mistake, pursuing a girl who had been interested in a fraud. Still, as someone said, The heart wants what it wants. I saw Magda two or three nights a week, and we went out at least once every weekend. (I refused to go back to the Salon.) Despite her talk of friendship, I thought that patience and kindness would wear her down. I was right. I felt it in how she squeezed my waist when we met, in how she leaned into me for a kiss when we parted. After she left a CD in my office, I knew that I was close: her new song was called “Mężczyzna z Nowym Yorku” (The Man from New York). Never mind that it sounded suspiciously like Tom Waits. No one had ever written anything for me before.
The next time we met for a drink, I suggested that we go away for a weekend together, to Kazimierz Dolny or Zakopane. Her response was positive, even enthusiastic. But then I didn’t hear from her for days, and I stopped running into her at work. Obviously now Magda was avoiding the teachers’ lounge and the cafeteria, so I texted her a few times, and I stopped by her apartment and left a note. Then I was out of ideas—anything more and I’d be in stalker territory.
When she finally called, I was getting ready for bed and we hadn’t spoken for two weeks.
“I am with Nigel again,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Benjamin. I hope we can still be friends.”
I heard her light a cigarette. Although I don’t like to smoke after I’ve brushed my teeth, I lit one too.
“Magda,” I said. “That guy . . . there’s something wrong with him.”
“Oh, Benjamin,” she said, sighing. “When you talk about him, I think there is something wrong with you.”
I wished Magda luck and I got off the phone.
That was the last time we ever really spoke. She stopped avoiding me at work, but when we saw each other there would be a quick hello and that was all. Early in the summer break, I ran into her at the Municipal Museum. Thankfully she was alone and I was with Basia, a striking girl whom I had been dating. The conversation was strained. I think that Magda felt a little guilty, and I felt that at any moment, Nigel would appear, smiling, superior, armored in his smugness.
Later that summer I was at an Internet café, catching up on my email after a week in Sopot with Basia. I ordered coffee and lit a cigarette, and I felt very relaxed—glad to have been away and glad to be back in Warsaw. Then I detected a kind of presence nearby, and there, on the other side of the room, was Nigel. He didn’t seem to have noticed me—he was surrounded by people and talking—but the relaxed feeling went. I sent a few quick emails and paid my bill.
I was almost at the door when he called my name and waved me over. Of course I didn’t have to go to him; I owed him nothing. But I went anyway, I suppose out of morbid curiosity. He was at a table with two women and a fat, younger man, whom Nigel introduced as a journalist. Someone produced a chair for me, and although every reasonable impulse told me not to, I sat down.
“We’re celebrating,” Nigel said. “I published my memoir.”
He slid the book across the table to me; its title was The Real Story of Nigel Embo. I couldn’t bring myself to open it, so I looked at the cover. I had never heard of the publisher. In his author photo Nigel wore his black baseball cap and a white turtleneck sweater, just as he had worn to the Salon, just as he was wearing now. I wondered how he had arrived at the conclusion that this was a good look and if he had a closet full of such sweaters and hats.
“Congratulations,” I said, sliding the book back to him.
“Benjamin is also a writer. How many books have you published, Benjamin?”
“None. How’s Magda?”
“She’s fine. She went to France for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t go. Trouble with my work visa. I envy you your American passport, Benjamin.”
And I envied him. I envied him terribly. There was absolutely zero chance of his book being good, even if his editor had cleaned up the punctuation; nevertheless he had a book with his name on it, and he had Magda.
“I thought you were a political refugee,” I said.
“You said you had trouble with your work visa. I thought you were granted residency for political reasons.”
Nigel glanced at the journalist.
“You know Polish bureaucracy,” he said. “Nothing is ever straightforward.”
“Right,” I said, and stood up. “Goodbye, Nigel.”
That was the last time I ever saw him, and Magda drifted out of my life as well. When school started up again I learned that she had changed jobs.
I stayed in Poland for another full year. I broke up with Basia when she pressed me about marriage. I placed another story in a respected but little-read American magazine. I finished my collection, and a respected but small American agency agreed to represent me. When the spring term ended I turned in my notice and packed for New York. And all that time, right up until I got on the plane, I waited for Magda to call, to say that she had made a mistake, that I was the better man.
Copyright © Gordon Haber 2013
Gordon Haber was born in 1968. He is a frequent contributor of criticism and journalism to The Jewish Daily Forward and Religion Dispatches. His recent fiction includes “Uggs for Gaza” in The Normal School; his Kindle Single, “False Economies: A Novella” is available from Amazon. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is at work on a novel about the Jewish Messiah. gordonhaber.net