The Most Beautiful Girl

She really was the most beautiful girl. The people who came to the park, even those who’d been coming there for years, couldn’t recall another girl who’d hold a candle to her. She undermined your faith in the materiality of the world. Those who passed by the bench where she sat came under the impression they’d taken five steps into a different world. Even the old man with the pointy-tipped cane who’d been coming there for years–even his mouth dropped, and he walked that way to the end of the path. But the old man had seen a lot, there was a lot he could say about May nights when, choking on malicious satisfaction, he’d driven away flocks of poor lovers.

The girl was sitting on the bench with a boy. The boy couldn’t have been older than her by a year. He was nineteen or twenty. He was handsome, too, but she eclipsed him in everything, even the most meaningless movement or glance. She had inside of her, this girl, a ray of sunshine. That’s what the passersby were thinking to themselves. At a certain moment the girl said, “It’s late already. I’ve got to go.”

“Whatever you say,” said the boy. “It’s not bad here.”

“Will you do what I asked you or not?”

“I already told you.”

“You’ll be sorry.”

“That’s my business,” said the boy. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, flicked the crown, pulled out a smoke and lit it. He put the pack away.

“Thanks for offering,” said the girl. “I smoke, too.”

“That’s too bad. Nicotine damages your health. Plus it’s a drag on your looks.”

She peered out at him from beneath a scowl. She had brown eyes, dark. There were flashes of honey in them. She wanted to say something, but a man in a lousy blue suit walked by.

He was a lowly office worker. He’d achieved nothing in life. He had no talent, no perseverance. He felt he’d been wronged, was misunderstood, like all of his kind. He looked at the beautiful girl and thought, “Dear God. If only I had me one like her. Maybe everything would have turned out differently. A woman like that can change everything. Maybe I’d have been able to make something of myself, for her sake. But as it is–a wasted life. Ah, dammit. I ought to go see a movie. A man starts going to pieces…” He grew sad, quickened his pace.

As soon as he’d passed, the girl asked the boy, “You going to give it to me or not?”

He said, “I don’t like to repeat myself.”

She looked at him with her dark eyes.

“You son of a bitch,” she said softly.

He burst out laughing. With the tip of his boot, he kicked a pebble lying on the path and answered in a soft, melodious voice:

“You’re making a little mistake. I’m not your child.”

“If you were my child,” she said, “I’d know what to do with you, alright.”

He cocked his head at her:

“Then why ask me about the one you’ve got?”

“It’s as much yours as it is mine.”

“You talk pretty,” he said, “and it’s touching, really. But I wasn’t the only one, then. Mietek was there, and Roman, and a few others. Why come to to me for cash? What am I, Saint Nick?”

“I didn’t have anything with those guys.”

“You went outside with them.”

“So we could get some air and walk around a little. It was so pretty that night.”

“Eh, sure,” he said indifferently. He put out his cigarette and, with his arm on the armrest of the bench, he stretched out. He stared for a minute at the darkening sky, then said, “Sorry, but it’s a long time since I believed in fairy tales. Now there’s one I haven’t heard yet: a girl goes down to the river with a fellow just to get a peek at the moon. Usually it’s the moon’s got something to peek down on.”

The girl lifted her head and looked him in the eye. She was quiet. She snapped the twig she was holding in two. She had the hands of a Madonna in the old paintings: long, slender, nervous, as if they were living their own pretty lives. A man walking by just then looked at her, then at her hands, and his heart jumped. He was a young writer and he dreamed of writing a great love story, one people had been aching for, waiting for, a long time. At that moment he saw it in its completeness in terrifying clarity. For months, scenes, dialogues, faces, had been fluttering around in his head, but only now, at this moment, did he see his creation as a finished thought.

“I’ve got it,” he repeated, getting worked up. “Now I’ve got it. They meet by chance on a bench here, in this park. A romance unfolds, the first night of love. They treat everything cynically, sportingly, because they’ve decided to avoid any complications or disappointments. But over time, it starts to look like love. A great, incapacitating love, a love that knocks you to your knees. But they aren’t able to believe it. They’re hampered by their cynical start. In the end they understand, though: they’ll stay together, forever united by this great feeling. It’ll be full of passion…” He hurried home, overcome with joy.

“Fine. If you want,” the girl said to the boy. “But I’ve got one for you. I’ll make sure others find out about our sweet little secrets. They’ll expel you and you can forget you ever wanted to be an engineer. Oh, I’ll help you with that.”

Without wincing, he said, “Sweetie, you’ll be a laughingstock, and that’s no good. Personally there’s nothing I fear more in life than being laughed at.”

“Whatever you say, it’s you they’ll laugh at.”

“Not exactly. I can recall some details, too. For example: It’s night. A certain boy in the army is thinking of his girl and dreaming of the moment they’ll be together. He’s standing guard… Pretty, no? Meanwhile…”

He brought his face close to hers and said in a hard voice, “Meanwhile the girl is hanging out in a fancy restaurant with two admiring patrons, fellows with stubby legs who’ve got their little shops on Chmielna Street. This girl goes to see one of their apartments, gets good and tight. And then this girl wanders around with these fellows till morning. And in the morning, of course, she tells them a real touching story, about how her father’s sitting in jail falsely accused and her mother’s going hungry. Then she borrows five hundred zloty from one of them and buys herself two pairs of nylon stockings. Pretty good, eh?”

“Not bad. I know even more interesting tales. I heard a story about a young man who falsified some forms to get admitted to the university and made things up about himself, when he had to. He even learned to speak like a real Warsaw boy, so people’d think he was an authentic proletarian. Meanwhile, Daddy was sending him packages from New York so the young man wouldn’t have to go around poorly dressed. And over there Daddy was making some shady deals. Daddy–who on the university form was listed as an ‘unemployed lathe operator.’ How’s that grab you?”

“I’ll give you half,” he said. “The rest you can make up yourself.”

“No, sweetie,” she said. “Either you give it all, or…”

“Or what?” he interrupted. He grabbed her hard by the arm.

“Nothing. I’m not going to repeat myself. I don’t want to be laughed at. There’s nothing I’m afraid of more, either, than being laughed at.”

“Fine,” he said rough voice. He looked at her meanly, laughed, sneered. “In two weeks I’ll give you the money.”

“Earlier. It’s late as it is.”

“You should have been careful. Goddammit.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“You don’t have to give it up to everybody who…”

“Quiet,” she hissed.

An elderly couple walked by. They were gray and stooped. They’d lived together for many years: believers both, they considered each day a gift from God, and thanked Him for it. The old woman glanced at the girl and began to cry.

“What’s wrong?” asked the husband.

“Why didn’t God give us such pretty children?” she said. “Why didn’t he give us children like that?”

The old man grasped her hand, pale and wrinkled.

“We’ve loved each other,” he said. “We were happy. God will forgive us for not leaving anyone to follow us. After all, it’s not our fault.”

“Yes,” she answered with difficulty. She wiped the tears from her eyes and sighed. “But it would have been so much better…”

The stooped couple turned off onto a green path.

The boy said, “This isn’t the end of it.” He was quiet a minute, then added, “I’ll wait till you get married.”

“Then what?”

“You’ll have children, a home, a husband.”

“And then what?”

“Oh, nothing. I’ll drop by sometime. You can introduce me to the husband. We’ll chew the fat about the old days.”

“Next week, then?”


“Fine,” she said. She lifted her face, so gorgeous, and for a minute it was lit up by the setting sun. Every hair, every inch of skin, her eyes, mouth, hands, everything was saturated by the sun, filled with the sun. She looked at the green cupolas of the trees and then said quietly, “You’ll be waiting a long time.”

“To wait for love is nothing.”

“Akh,” she whispered. “Yes.”

She didn’t say another word. The dusk was extinguishing in her face; the sun slid behind a tree.

Two men heading home from work spotted the girl in the sun’s final rays. Neither of them was young. They had puckered faces and were gray at the temples. One of them, the shorter one, glanced at the girl and a look of pain shot across his face.

“What’s with you?” asked the taller one.

“It’s stupid,” said the shorter one, trying to laugh. He moved his hand across his forehead like a very tired man and repeated, “It’s stupid. I know, I know I’m not supposed to have this sad mug. But you’ve got no idea how bad it gets sometimes. When I was doing my ten years before the war, I used to dream that as soon as the war was over there’d be another life, all our girls would look like that one. When they threw me in the hole, I was younger still than that boy there sitting with her. I was young, green, and the way I imagined communism was just as green. But after they rearranged my ribs, I saw things a little different.”

“So what’s with the sad mug?”

“It’s just, sometimes it’s hard to think I’ve never had a girl like that.”

“It’s stupid,” said his friend, and clapped the shorter one on the shoulder. “Is that so important in the end? The most important thing is, girls like that exist, they’re pretty like she is, and they love their boyfriends. Who love them back.”


Marek Hlasko

Marek Hlasko, known as the Polish James Dean, made his literary debut in 1956 with a short story collection. Born in 1934, Hlasko was a representative of the first generation to come of age after World War II, and he was known for his brutal prose style and his unflinching eye toward his surroundings. In 1956, Hlasko went to France; while there, he fell out of favor with the Polish communist authorities, and was given a choice of returning home and renouncing some of his work, or staying abroad forever. He chose the latter, and spent the next decade living and writing in many countries, from France to West Germany to the United States to Israel. Hlasko died in 1969 of a fatal mixture of alcohol and sleeping pills in Wiesbaden, West Germany, preparing for another sojourn in Israel. His memoir, Beautiful Twentysomethings, was published for the first time in English in 2013; his novels The Graveyard and Killing the Second Dog were also recently published.

Ross Ufberg

Ross Ufberg is a writer, translator, and PhD Candidate at Columbia University in the Slavic department. His translations have appeared in The New York Times, World Literature Today, Modern Poetry in Translation, Words Without Borders, The Jewish Daily Forward, and others. He recently translated Marek Hlasko's Beautiful Twentysomethings (Northern Illinois University Press), as well as The Good Life Elsewhere by Moldovan writer Vladimir Lorchenkov (New Vessel Press). Ufberg is co-founder of New Vessel Press, a publishing house specializing in literature in English translation. He lives in New York City.

Copyright (c) Andrzej Czyzewski, 1956. English translation copyright (c) Ross Ufberg, 2014.