My other roommate, my unemployed uncle, sequestered himself in the second bedroom, leaving it only to go to the store. It was as though my mom, my sister and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with an extra door because the second room was off limits—occupied by a ghost we never saw but knew existed. When I complained to my mother that it wasn't fair that my uncle got his own room she said, "Your uncle is doing very important work. He is writing a book about the history of Poland, so needs his privacy. Don't disturb him."
A month after we moved in, my mother announced that my eighteen-year-old cousin Kashia, Bashia's daughter, would be staying with us for six months. This trip was her graduation gift. My mother offered our extended family extravagant presents when she could not even afford a sofa. I wanted to ask her if she hadn't learned her lesson from our last visitor. And wasn't she embarrassed that we had no furniture? I did not mouth my concerns, since Kashia would be an escort for the pool.
It turned out that my cousin needed me more than I needed her, since she didn't speak a word of English, yet could not stand the thought of not knowing what was being said. When I wasn't translating every word spoken on television, I was decoding the lyrics of her favorite 80s hits by bands such as Flock of Seagulls.
"And I ran. I ran so far away. I just ran. I ran all night and day. I couldn't get away," I translated to Polish with the music blaring in the background.
"That's all they say. It makes no sense. Are you sure you didn't miss a line? Rewind it," Kashia commanded.
"No. I already rewound it twice. That is all they say over and over. I told you the song is stupid," I said.
She never believed that the songs she thought were so heartfelt were just gibberish put to a danceable beat.
Kashia rarely spoke English since her greatest fear was to mispronounce something that would make someone laugh at her. Whenever prompted to say "thank you," she would burst out in nervous giggles and plead to my mother in Polish, "Oh, Auntie. I can't do this. Don't make me." Kashia was reasonably cute with her button nose, so she worked it. Most people couldn't see through her saccharine facade, but I did.
Despite her own phobia of being mocked for her accent, she had no trouble ridiculing mine when I spoke Polish.
"She said h-ches-ni not h-chesh-ni," Kashia chuckled.
"Well if my Polish is so bad, I guess I don't have to translate anything else for you," I said.
"Okay, okay. I'm sorry," She apologized.
A few minutes later I mispronounced okulari, and the mockery resumed.
Two months into Kashia's visit, back-to-school commercials appeared. Normally, I looked forward to a new school year, but this year was different. For the last three months, I'd hardly left the house. Even with a chaperone, I was petrified. When a man entered the communal pool, we left in a panic. One time, my mom forced me to throw out the garbage, which meant crossing the parking lot. My heart beat uncontrollably. I ran the 300-feet faster than I'd ever run the 10-yard dash in PE. The only place I ever felt safe was behind the locked door of our home. So, I didn't remind my mom about enrolling me in school.
When my birthday passed in September, I knew school was already a month in, so I broke down and reminded my mom that I should enroll. She didn't think it was safe for me to walk the six blocks to school, and she had a job that she could not leave to drive me.
"Someone could kidnap you! What would I do then?" she said.
"Well, maybe Kashia would walk me," I asked.
"Are you kidding? They'll kidnap her, too. She's so cute. Then what would I tell your aunt? Besides, your cousin is only here for another few months, and you may never see her again. We'll just wait a little longer, maybe a month," my mother said.
Another month turned into five months. My cousin decided to stay out her entire six month visa. My mom thought it a shame to leave her in the house alone for the three hours a day while my sister attended her Barbizon classes, so she delayed my education.