Warsaw, 1987


1. Good Times, Noodle Salad

When Janek is 15, his father says to him, "You want to be a doctor in Poland? Go ahead. You'll end up living in a dump like this one – if they even let you stay in Warsaw."

Janek glances around with a mental shrug. He's always liked this apartment. But apparently he won't when he's a grown-up, he considers. He also doesn't want to live in the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, among peasants with missing teeth and funny accents.

"If I were you, I'd get serious before you get thrown off the team." He wipes his chin, throws his napkin on the table. "I'm not saying you have to neglect your studies, but…" He shakes his finger at Janek half-heartedly "…a big, strong boy like you…It's an opportunity, I'm just saying. These days athletes make a lot of money. You might end up recruited by one of those Italian teams, and then…you can go be a doctor anywhere you want."

Then he laughs benevolently, as though Janek is just going through some sort of adolescent megalomania. Janek, as usual, says nothing.

His father always gives him this feeling of tiredness, a weariness that makes him not want to tell him anything, because it always seems to be amusing, there's always a pun to be made, and it's always a little sad to watch him laugh at his own jokes. It used to confuse him, but now he sees through it, sees the insincerity, though he struggles to identify what's behind it.

His two younger brothers laugh, and his sister parrots them with that forced giggle that all small children seem programmed to emit. It makes him remember a time when he still tried.

Janek doesn't know if his mother ever tried, but if so, she stopped a long time ago. He sometimes catches her glance before she averts her eyes with a badly concealed sigh.

"Just leave the boy alone, will you? Let him do what he likes." She gets up and starts clearing the table, still muttering under her breath. "Just when you think you've seen everything, a father telling his son to study less so he can chase a ball around."

"Hey, it's my obligation as a father to lay his options out for him, that's all." He nudges the air with his elbow in Janek's direction. "You'll see, with all the women who'll be throwing themselves at your feet, I'll bet you'll forget about this doctor business, eh?"

Janek gets up to help clear the table, seeming a little less distant and more self-conscious.

Roman, who, as far as Janek is concerned, is the thirteen-year-old incarnation of the devil, chimes in with "maybe he's a fag", and gets a playful whack on the back of the head from his father, who just laughs more.

*

Janek grows up in the company of books. He never develops a reverence for the written word, like some of the other students in his class seem to have, he just wants good stories about interesting people, he wants the knowledge of interesting things, like Cossacks and quasars and DNA. Once he's done, he'll go to the used book store and trade it for something else. He's not a collector. He just likes to read.

He also likes to read people. He'll sometimes get hypnotized by the careful choreography of gestures and expressions set to the melodies of their voices as they try to control the flow of information from their brains to the world.

That is, he reckons, how he ends up knowing things he's not supposed to know. His father, a co-worker, a picnic on a surly Warsaw summer day, something in the way they didn't look at each other, something strained in their postures, almost like fear…that was all it took.

He's sixteen then. When he's alone with father, he says calmly, looking straight into his eyes, unwavering, "I know." And then he waits.

His father laughs that same old phony laugh. "Know what?"

Janek doesn't answer, doesn't move, doesn't even blink. When his father's eyes start to search him nervously, Janek glances in the direction of a woman sitting on the grass, laughing as a tall, strong, sandy-haired boy about five years old plays catch with a pearly-grey Weimaraner. His anger is mitigated by the strange and unexpected pain of catching true emotions on his father's face for the first time.

At eighteen, he comes back from army duty when his mother is away on holiday with his siblings. The apartment is empty except for his father, who is on the phone, and starts whispering hastily when Janek comes in.

Janek grabs him by the collar until he's standing, and manages to get a hold of his urge to throw him across the room. "Will you ever," he starts, but his voice is about to crack. He huffs a few breaths until it's safe to try again. "Will you ever show some fucking decency?"

*

A week after his father's speech about volleyball and money and women, Janek sits through another speech, this time from the club coach. It's the same story: a big, strong boy like him, it's an opportunity, a blessing.

On the court, other boys blessed with height and athleticism stand in a line that forms itself anew every few seconds. One by one, they move in wide strides toward the net and take off gracefully, stopping mid-air for a fraction of a second, then landing with a small bounce as the thunderous sound of the ball hitting the floor echoes around the gym. In a continuous movement, they duck under the net and jog back to the end of line. It's all very striking, but what stands out in Janek's mind is the image of those boys walking around the locker room, towels wrapped precariously around their waists.

"Look, kids who grow as fast as you tend to walk around tripping over their own feet, but you're a natural, Jan. See those guys? They all have a chance to make the national junior team. If you work hard, you'll be training with them in a few months."

Janek finally turns to his coach. "I thought you had to be sixteen…"

"Exceptions are made all the time." He looks past Janek's head and waves. "Wait here, I'll be back in a minute."

Janek sits there alone, feeling suddenly conspicuous. He looks away, stretches his legs and examines his running shoes, putting on his best impression of nonchalance. He doesn't even know why he does it. It's that vague sense of paranoia that's been building lately, gripping him with a little more intensity every time he's faced with a display of healthy youthful disdain for everything a man is not supposed to want.

A boy runs toward him and leans down to pick up a towel on the bench, right next to Janek. His arms are long and wiry with taut muscle, his shoulders broad and strong, and he moves with ease and fluidity. Janek manages to notice all that with a quick glance, which is all he allows himself. He expects to be studiously ignored, but when he risks another glance, the boy is smiling down at him.

"You new on the team?"

"No. Maybe next semester," he says indifferently, suddenly more preoccupied with his pride than with his lust.

The boy runs the towel over his face and neck, continues to smile and sweat and breathe heavily. Janek tenses.

"You're not sixteen yet?"

"No."

"Wow. Pretty impressive."

It'd be a huge understatement to say that Janek is not much of a talker. He's been referred to as the mute boy ever since he can remember. He tells himself that he's better off being like this, silence is golden and all that, because the alternative is wanting to be friendly, communicative and easygoing, and that's what Roman is, and Janek wouldn't be caught dead wanting to have anything that Roman has, the frivolous little twat.

"Filip," the boy says, and then there's a big, rough hand waiting to be shaken.

Janek takes it. "Jan," he replies, and lets go quickly.

"Well, good luck, Jan," Filip says, still smiling widely, as though toweling off and meeting Janek is a carnival of fun. Janek tries, but for some reason, can't summon up his usual disdain.

"Thanks," he nods, and even manages an indulgent little half-smile, but as he watches Filip jog back to the court, he swallows, wondering how much more difficult his life is going to be when he's surrounded by people like Filip, all taut muscles and easy smiles.

*

As it turns out, Janek never finds himself in any of the nightmare situations he'd envisioned while tossing and turning in his bed. Instead, he is lured into a dream so wonderful that he wouldn't have hesitated to declare it a complete impossibility if he'd even been capable of dreaming it.

It starts with chance encounters with Filip in the club locker rooms. Filip talks and talks, about jumps and spikes and blocks, his vertical, his dreams of playing for the national team and traveling the world. He reads comic books and tells jokes, he likes cars and motorcycles, he laughs and enjoys himself, and Janek doesn't hate him.

Janek can't bring himself to hate Filip even when the boy sneaks up on him and grabs his school calendar from his hands.
Filip stares at him, confused. "How can you be in the second year of Lyceum?"

Janek sighs and explains that he's one of those kids, the ones that athletes tend to point and laugh at, because who in their right mind wants to be intelligent and know things, right? It comes out with a little more venom than he intended, but he's had years of practice in being defensive. It's a reflex.

"I'm not like that," Filip says, looking hurt. "And I may not be like you, but I'm not stupid either. Well, except for algebra. You good at algebra?"

Janek answers with a little bit of petulance, still unsure of where he stands. "I'm good at everything."

After getting thumped with his own calendar, Janek finds himself in a headlock, Filip laughing and ruffling his hair until he agrees to help him with algebra the next day.

Filip's idea of working on algebra, it turns out, consists of getting out of the shower, sitting next to Janek with only a towel wrapped around his waist, and staring at him. Janek can feel the blood rising to his face. He's caught between feeling highly aroused and extremely pissed off, until he sees Filip swallow, flushed and unsure, and then it's like a revelation.

This kid – this tall, strong, beautifulboy with a bright smile and a generous, honest nature – this kid is like him. That's why Janek could never dislike him, that's why he could never resist him. And now he is sitting here in awe of him, of how brave he is, because even if Janek had been entirely obvious about his preferences – which is something he will have to worry about later – even so, Filip is practically naked, staring at him, blushing, breathless and obviously aroused, plausible deniability be damned.

Janek reaches for Filip's face with both hands, touching his cheeks gently, overwhelmed with relief and gratitude because Filip did everything for him, took on all the risks so that all Janek had to do was reach out and take what he'd never even dreamed of being offered.

The tips of Janek's fingers slide over Filip's hair, and Janek moves closer until their foreheads are touching, lets his eyes close when big, rough hands slide up his arms.

"Oh, man," Filip laughs out a breath. "I thought I was going to have a heart attack."

Janek smiles, winds his arms around Filip's neck, leans his head on the boy's shoulder, and hopes he doesn't have to say anything, because all he can think is thank you, thank you, thank you.

*

Janek closes his eyes when Filip squeezes in next to him on the bed, still breathless and naked. There hadn't been enough time for Janek to take off his clothes, so his jeans are unzipped and his shirt took the brunt of two teenage boys' unbridled enthusiasm for hand jobs. Filip apparently thinks shoving Janek from the front door to his bed in a frenzy of kissing and grabbing is high on the list of hilarious things, especially once his life-or-death need for Janek's hands has been satisfied.

"Hey," Filip pokes him, and he smiles, eyes still closed. "Did you get spunk in your eye or something?"

He finally looks at Filip, a bit dumbfounded, then laughs. "No, I'm just trying to remember how many times I 'spilled something on my shirt' recently."

"Who cares?" He sits up and makes quick work of ridding Janek of his clothes. When he lies sprawled over Janek's body, they are touching in all the right places, and Janek can sense round two rapidly approaching.

He pushes back against the sloppy, forceful kiss, squirms, runs his fingertips up Filip's back until Filip gives in and breaks the kiss with a gasp while Janek feels the goose bumps rise under his hands. It's the perfect opportunity to switch positions and take the lead, and Filip moves easily under him, looks up with a dazed smile, arms stretched lazily on the pillows.

They don't talk about it, except to show their appreciation for the proceedings, usually in eloquent curses and quick exhortations. Still, the way Filip touches and stares at him is demonstrative enough to be unsettling, and for a long time Janek wonders what exactly is expected of him in those moments. He thinks the two years that separate them must hold the secret to feeling so comfortable about all this, so unafraid of not being what you're supposed to be.

So it takes months before he gathers up the courage to break the silence during one of Filip's staring games.

"Have you done this before?"

"What?"

"This…you know…"

Filip smiles and furrows his brow. "I did it yesterday. You were there, remember?" He kisses Janek's chin and starts moving slowly down his throat, one carefully chosen spot at a time.

Janek laughs uncomfortably. "You know what I mean."

"You mean with someone else."

"Yes."

"Yes."

Janek blinks, confused by the sudden tightness on his chest. "Really? Who?"

Filip interrupts his trip across Janek's collarbone and moves back up to look at him. "A cousin, then a couple of girls at school…then this guy I met last year when I was spending the summer in Krakow with the team."

"Oh…" Janek replies stupidly, suddenly wanting to be anywhere but here. He sits up, trying to be casual, wondering how obviously he's failing. "I think your mother's going to be home soon. We should get dressed."

Long arms wind around him from behind, and Filip's relentless lips pick up where they left off. "You're better," he murmurs. "Better than all of them put together."

"I'm not worried," he says sharply, and instantly deflates when Filip snorts against his neck. "Ok, fine, maybe I am", he smiles, appeased. "A little. But…why? Why am I better than them?"

Something about the way Filip goes silent and moves to face him makes Janek hear alarms go off in the distance. The pleasant sensation from the boost in confidence that Filip's comment had given him is replaced by a vague dread.

"Because you're you," Filip whispers.

Janek only has time to blame himself for this for a few seconds before he's taken over by a wild discomfort that's threatening to turn into a panic attack. He can feel his breathing about to catch up with his heart rate when Filip lifts a hand and covers his mouth gently.

"You don't have to say anything. I don't expect you to, if that's what's worrying you."

Janek's heavy exhale vibrates against Filip's hand, contradicting his muttered protest. Filip smiles and Janek is mortified. He closes his eyes and sags, defeated. "I just…don't know what to say."

"You don't have to say anything," he repeats. "This is good, isn't it? What we do here?" He glances at the bed.

"Yes." Janek is tired of feeling like a kid in this scenario, all scared and intimidated while Filip takes care of everything for him. He straightens up and repeats, "Yes, it's good. I like it."

Filip smiles manically, the way he does when he's about to come up with one of his tall tales. "Me too. So relax, ok? We cool?"

"Of course," Janek replies, and, feeling brave, leans in and seals the conversation with a quick kiss.

After that, he does relax, even when Filip is doing his staring and touching thing. At first, it helps to remember that he's not expected to say anything, and after a while he doesn't feel pinned down by Filip's eyes anymore; he's too distracted by the warm, heavy hand resting on his neck and all the pleasant ways he's being touched while the other boy is busy looking at him, and then he's so relaxed that it's just easier to let his eyes rest on Filip's face, the curve of his jaw, the fringes of his long blond hair falling messily along his forehead.

*

The coach never said it was a test, so that's what Janek tells himself when the day comes for him to train with the junior team. Instead, he thinks of it as him testing the waters – after all, it had taken two speeches from two different people to convince him to do this. It's not like he needs to be on that team, and the only reason he'd spent the summer going through all that grueling training was because Filip was so damn psyched about the whole thing.

The routine is the same as the one he follows in his own practice sessions: stand in line and wait for his turn to spike from the outside, then from the back row; follow the rotation for the block drills at the net; join the receiving row, then the serving row. The only thing that's different is the effort he has to make to ignore that these guys are as tall as he is, or taller, and most of them probably have a much better vertical jump.

He's so engrossed in doing his best and pretending not to care that he barely notices when Filip stands beside him at the end of practice. The coach and trainer glance at the chart and signal for Janek to come over.

"Lukasiewicz, Jan," the man says absently. It's as if the numbers on his charts are so much more relevant that he has to remind himself that there's a name attached to them. "You turn sixteen in November?"

Janek nods.

"Do you know what your projected height is?"

"Between 198 and 201."

"Yes, sounds about right." The man looks him up and down, and he forces himself not to squirm. "Well, let's see…the highest vertical we got from you was 52 cm."

Janek doesn't know what to make of that. He'd been jumping around 48 cm, according to his coach, so perhaps he should be happy, but for this team, he has no idea if that's good enough.

"That's pretty good, eh?" Filip says enthusiastically, and Janek has to clench his jaw to keep from cringing.

"It's well above average for your age range." The coach ignores Filip, who isn't the least bit perturbed, continues to stand next to Janek, practically vibrating with excitement.

"But you need to raise it a bit. We'll help you with that. You can't be listed in the team until November…" He glances at the form. "November 2nd. But you'll be expected to attend training and matches just like everyone else. Same schedule, no exceptions. Are we clear?"

"Yes."

"Ok, welcome to the team. See you tomorrow," the man turns back to his papers without so much as a half-smile. Janek turns to leave while Filip hooks an arm around his neck, laughing. He's is starting to think this wasn't so bad, when the trainer calls out to Filip.

"Hey, Wysocki! See if you can keep your mascot there from getting hazed too badly. I don't want that kind of trouble again."

"Don't worry, I'll protect him!"

Janek is too stunned to react.

*

The following day is the day when time starts flying. Janek leaves for school in the morning, then to the club, then to Filip's house, always with plans to do homework, almost never fulfilling them. His grades slip slightly, his volleyball improves visibly, and his adventures in Filip's bed are ever more exciting.

On Saturday morning, his mother frets about his meals, his schedule, about what Filip's parents think of him eating dinner there every single day.

"They're never there," he says before he can consider it.

Everyone continues to eat breakfast, oblivious to the conversation, except, of course, for Roman, who looks up with a malicious grin. Janek glares at him before turning to his mother.

"His dad's always traveling and his mom's a nurse. I don't think she minds."

"What about his sister, eh?" Roman asks around a mouthful of bread.

"What sister?" Janek practically growls. "He's an only child, you idiot."

"Don't you two start again –"

"So if he doesn't have a sister, then who is it that keeps making you 'spill food' on your shirts?"

"Roman!"

Janek knows he's turning pale, he can feel his bottom lip get cold and dry. He tries to stay calm. He has no reason to panic, he thinks. Roman is just baiting him, as always. But he knows he's failed when he sees realization dawning on his brother's face, and then Roman is the one in shock.

"I won't have that kind of talk at the table, boy! Go to your room. Now."

Janek's father finally puts the newspaper down. "What the hell is all this shouting for?"

"You'd know if you paid any attention to your family."

Janek takes advantage of the mandatory weekend edition of parental quarrel at the Lukasiewicz home and follows Roman to the bedroom.

Roman looks terrified when Janek grabs him and practically lifts him off the floor with one hand. "Whatever you think you know, you're wrong. Stay out of my hair, Roman, I'm only warning you once." He lets the boy go with a shove, walks back to the table and finishes his breakfast, feeling strangely calm amidst the sounds of his parents yelling and his sister's quiet sobs.