I ran into her on the outskirts of town, sitting by the little stream with her bicycle. It was late afternoon, and I was on my way home from the village library, a few books at my hip. Only a day passed since the last consciousness raising meeting but my forearms were already permanently stained with paint. I must have done dozens of signs by now, each bearing a different slogan or symbol.
I walked up to her, “Hey”
“Hey,” she looked up. She was holding a magazine, one of those colorful women’s magazines that tell you how to stay thin, how to dress, how to be a better woman.
There was a silent pause.
“Look, I’m sorry you had to see that Ada. My father…he’s um–”
“It’s okay. Really. Just bad timing.” I said, cutting her off.
Hana gazed into the slow flowing water of the stream. She twirled a blade of grass in her hand.
“It’s not just that… well it is, it’s been my whole life, like this, with him,” she paused, “forget it. I’m not even making any sense.”
“No, you are. You can tell me, I’ll listen.”
“It gets tiring, you know, having to take care of your own father. Sometimes I get so angry when he does this, and he always swears he’ll get better. He tried to get sober a million times, then he comes back totally drunk. And it’s always when I’m having a good day, when something for once is going right in my life,” she turned toward me, “like the other day.”
I paused, not really knowing what to say, so I babbled out a stupid “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Forget it. I don’t wanna think about it.”
I nodded, and we sat there for a while. I watched her play with the blade of grass, twisting it into a knot and then undoing it.
“What are you up to?” Hana gestured at my books.
“I went to the library, found a few decent-looking novels.”
“Ugh, you and your books,” she groaned as she leaped off the ground, “let’s do something fun.”
“Don’t know. Aren’t you the creative one?”
“Okay, let’s go paint something then,” Hana smiled, her eyes shining.
The sun set behind our backs as we walked to Baba’s place. I dropped off my books, grabbed a few paintbrushes, and a bucket of paint. Then clumsily climbed on board Hana’s bicycle.
We rode back into town as buildings began to disappear into dusk. I didn’t know whether Hana had anywhere specific in mind. I did know, however, that painting over public or private property was considered vandalism–regardless where it was.
Hana stopped the bike before the city hall. “Here,” she said.
“Let’s paint it,” she gestured at the wide, white expanse of the wall.
“Because it’s vandalism!”
I got to know the other women better. They told me stories of what it was like to live under communism, having to learn Russian in school; how they stood in lines to get a block of rubbery cheese. I welcomed any, and all, distractions.
Hana narrowed her eyes, “Aren’t you an artist?”
“Yeah. But vandalism is not art.” I exclaimed.
“So? Let’s make it art then,” she smirked and grabbed a paintbrush along with the bucket of paint.
“Hana, I really don’t think this is–” But it was too late, she had opened the paint, dipped the paintbrush and smeared a huge circle on the white, white wall.
“Didn’t you want to protest the government law or something? Well, here’s your chance,” Hana said, gleaming.
She handed me the paintbrush.
I stared at the wall, then at the brush. I could feel Hana’s eyes just burning into me. What the hell.
I touched the tip of the brush to the wall. My hands drew a giant O, then a small cross attached to its base: the symbol for woman. Underneath it I wrote: no country for a woman. Hana came up to me and crossed out the o in country. She smiled, almost bursting out laughing.
“This is crazy,” I whispered.
We stepped back to examine our work. This was probably the most important painting I’ve done.
“Wow. This is really something,” Hana stood next to me, her eyes wild with contentment, “aren’t you happy?”
I was. Happier than I’d ever been. It felt like I could do anything, like wings had suddenly sprouted on my back, and if only I’d leap up I’d fly.
I turned toward her, leaned into her face and pressed my lips to her lips.
We stood like that for a moment, before she pulled away violently, furrowing her brow. She turned around and, without saying a single word, biked away.
My heart dropped as I stood there.
* * *
Over the next few days protest preparations were happening at Baba’s house. Women sat around for hours, discussing who would organize the transport, how to spread the word and get more people involved. Hana never came. I hadn’t seen her since that night, but I distracted myself with the work that needed to be done: painting posters, attaching wooden handles, helping Baba fix the old printer. My grandfather walked incessantly back and forth to the kitchen, bringing more tea, more biscuits. I got to know the other women better. They told me stories of what it was like to live under communism, having to learn Russian in school; how they stood in lines to get a block of rubbery cheese. I welcomed any, and all, distractions.
The day before the protest arrived, and everything was finally coming together. Final details were taken care of as we gathered in Baba’s living room to celebrate. Sparkling wine flowed, and Ewa played the fiddle as my grandfather clapped his hands. One after another, women began to stand up, sway and dance. Someone caught my hand and pulled me up, it was Basia. We danced, jumping up and down to the quick pace of the music. I hopped from foot to foot, laughing and laughing. Everyone was howling, clapping, smiling. A wild energy coursed through the room, and I surged after it. I wanted to dance, leap outward, to move without inhibition. Just as I was about to turn to Hana and confide in her this feeling, I realized she wasn’t there.
I stopped dancing, and sat down. Suddenly the sound of a car engine cut through the music. Then a loud thud, and a crash: a rock came flying into the living room. It landed past the “dance floor” just at my feet. “Duck down!” someone yelled, as a handful of fist-size stones crashed through Baba’s windows, smashing the glass, darting across the room. I heard a few squeals as people got hit, but none touched me. I moved closer to a wall, towards the window, where I stood, flat against the wall.
“Goddamn witches!! Burn!” several male voices shouted from outside, followed by a string of profanities.
Baba stood up from the floor where she was lying. She walked up towards me, to the broken window, and looked out across the yard to where the car was parked. Baba stood there in silence, in full view of the rock throwers. I saw her eyes narrow, her breathing stop, and then– a loud cracking sound. Glass was breaking. But not inside the house, all the windows were still intact. I looked outside and there I saw the car windows, all six of them, shatter. The men stood there, shards of broken glass at their feet, with jaws open. Then quietly, they got into the car and started the engine.
Just before the car took off, I saw a familiar face, disfigured by a grotesque smile. It was Hana’s father.
* * *