Editor’s note: “Johnsoninski” originally appeared in the late great Bananafish Magazine. It has been reprinted here with the author’s permission. (We couldn’t let a great story like this one fall by the literary wayside, could we? No.)
White people are so lame. You hate being a white person. Such a blank and embarrassing race, so much to be ashamed about. You decided a while ago, during that course on Native American Literature at your newfound city college, that you were going to renounce your whiteness. You called your grandmamma, who talked to you for an hour telling you all about the family tree you never cared about until right now. Apparently you’re a quarter English, a quarter German and half Polish. That’s something! Being white is nothing; being European nearly just as bad. But being from Poland: now that’s specific, that’s somewhere.
After you get off work one day at the movie theater, you print out a giant Polish flag at Kinko’s banner-style and hang it on your living room wall. Your roommates Brady and Brody are pissed at first, but whatever, they have the giant poster of Bob Marley smoking a doobie so this is democratic, like your native country of Poland. Your grandmamma quickly tires of your daily post-work phone calls, you asking questions about Poland, a country she left at age three. Your co-workers at the movie theater seem like they don’t know what to say to you anymore, because you’re always talking about what it’s like to be a minority in this country, an outsider, a member of a race that people make lightbulb jokes about, etc. Your supervisor Juanita demotes you to janitor, where you won’t be so “offensive and boring.” She doesn’t understand you. Americans just don’t understand you.
You submit paperwork to change your last name, a reclamation of your Polishness: white bread Johnson will now become babka Johnsoninski. Brady and Brody seem to find this news funny, taunting you from the couch, calling you “Inski” from now on. This is when the rift begins, and you understand racism is still rampant. In protest, you stop joining them for Sunday night video gaming. They’re persecuting you. You suddenly understand the word oppression that you’ve written several C- papers about in school. You call your father to ask about his connections to Poland, if he ever went back to visit the “mother country.” But he only offers a “shit no,” a long coughing fit, and a rant about kielbasa versus bratwurst. He doesn’t even understand when you tell him goodbye in your grandmother tongue: pozegnanie.
You rent “Learn Polish in 10 Days!” CDs from the library. Renew, renew again. Truth be told, you’re having a really hard time memorizing or understanding this language. It’s rough on the mouth and its letters don’t even look the same. Still, you lie in bed with your headphones on. Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji urodzin! That means Happy Birthday. This language is hard. Your people really must have been a smart bunch to be able to remember phrases like that. The way you say Polish in Polish is polski.
When you call your grandmother and ask her if she knows any nice Polish girls, she hangs up on you. When you call your father he only tells some joke about a Polish girl with a broken finger. He is drunk. You can hear the TV blaring, an infomercial, drifting words every now and then like new and call now and supplies are limited. You remember why you moved a hundred miles in the opposite direction of him to the woodsy town where you now work at the only movie theater and attend a small high-school sized city college. But it’s lonely. Brady and Brody are different breeds. They don’t like the artsy Polish movies you’re renting from the video store just as much as you dislike their kung fu flicks and constant bong hits.
There is a map of Poland on your wall and you save extra cash left over from the janitor at the movie theater gig for a trip to Poland. Next summer, maybe. For now, you decide the only people who will understand you are your kind. You’re tired of beating off to Polish XXX films and you’re disgusted by the idea of dating an American girl – so shallow. So you join a Polish-American dating site. You arrange to meet up with a woman your age named Sara. Sara’s picture that she attached to the email is quite small, the size of your pinkynail, but you think she probably looks pretty nice. A lovely blond and flesh-colored blur.
After your shift cleaning movie theater toilets and vacuuming popcorn off the busy red-purple carpets is over, you meet up with Sara outside the restaurant she picked. Sara is blond, short, plump, flushed cheeks, nervous laugh. She wears an all-white ensemble with little pink flowers that reminds you of something a seven-year-old might wear to church. Still, you beam at 100% Polish-American Sara as the two of you enter the restaurant, a place called Mel’s. You’re disappointed she picked a place so American, hamburgers and French fries, vinyl booths. Elvis is playing on the loudspeakers. You ask the waiter if they serve smalec, a delicious lard-based spread you’ve grown quite fond of. He only stares at you. Sara giggles and then apologizes for giggling.
She asks you typical questions, hiccupping through them. As you describe your janitorial duties, your boredom of the city college classes and their despicable lack of any Polish history or art classes, you decide your date is quite drunk. You decide she has been drunk (or pijak as they say) this whole time. You nevermind this, asking her about her Polish heritage as she wolfs down a hamburger. She says she went to Poland last summer to visit her dying grandmamma and she hated it.
You ask her what she hated.
Everything, she says, pointing a fry at you. The people, the weather, the stupid museums, she hated it all.
You draw in a sharp breath and touch the high collar of your button up shirt when she says this. You ask her if she realizes she has a severe case of internalized racism.
She becomes belligerent and you decide she is certainly drunk – as she leans over the table and begins to swear at you in Polish, her breath reeks of whiskey and hamburger. You don’t understand what she’s saying. Other restauranters are looking at you. She stands up and yells “Dupek!” at you several times, and the waiter brings your check with a meaningful look. She is yelling in Polish as you leave the restaurant, a Polish that drifts back into English now and then for a phrase: idiot … not even understanding me, are you? … don’t even LIKE Polish boys, my PARENTS made me do this.
Posegnanie, you say, and head home heavyhearted.
Brady and Brody are playing Scrabble when you return to the smoky apartment. They don’t invite you to play. You tell them about your horrible date with the drunken internal racist. They seem unperturbed. There are two words on the Scrabble board: JERK and KRAM. You tell them KRAM is not a word, but that you think it might mean something in Polish. They tell you you can KRAM Polish up your ass. And, by the way, you got a letter over there.
You take your letter into your bedroom and wonder if being from Poland is worth it in the end. You call your grandmamma but she doesn’t answer. You decide, after dialing six numbers, that your father would only make things worse. You stare at the map of Poland above your bed and calculate how much time it will take you to get there at the rate you’ve been saving: thirty-two months. If only you could transfer to a Polish university! But the language is so impossible. Things were so simple before when you were just another Lame White Guy. Think about Brady and Brody, contented and united in ignorance, their culture countryless, a hodgepodge of ganja and pizza slices and Family Guy.
You sit on your bed and open your letter. It’s from the government. Like it or not, you’re officially Johnsoninski now.
Faith lives in Oakland. Find her at faithgardner.com.