I saw him for the first time when I was fifteen, which was at the end of the 1970s. I was in second year of secondary school, living in Toruń, a middle-sized Polish town known for its Teutonic past, well preserved in its architecture and a certain dislike of things perceived by its inhabitants as excessive or (too) Polish. I was walking along the street with my best friend, Jola, and he was walking in front of us. I told Jola to look at him. I did not need to point him out, as she was looking at him already. Then he passed us by, without even taking a glance at us. The whole experience lasted about a minute. Although he soon disappeared around the corner, he did not disappear from our mind or life.
That afternoon we were discussing him in Jola’s tiny bedroom, while drinking tea and listening to her favourite music. We agreed that he was not like anybody whom we’d ever seen previously, because he was perfect. There was nothing in particular which was perfect about him; he was perfect all over, therefore we named him ‘Generally Perfect’. We agreed that it would be great to see him again in order to observe more of his perfection. We had no further plans for him, maybe because we felt below him, did not know how to approach him or just needed men to look at, rather than talk, touch or kiss. In fact, we did not lack men to look at either because there were several pop and movie stars, pinned to the wall of Jola’s bedroom.
However, Generally Perfect was different, as he was real, and he came across as more perfect than Jola’s favourite pin-ups. I felt as if it was a miracle to have such perfection in Toruń. Jola, being fiercely patriotic, looked at it somewhat differently – Generally Perfect’s ascent to Toruń was for her a sign that our town was special, not unlike the birth of Jesus being proof that Betlehem had a privileged place in God’s design.
Several weeks passed and then we saw him again. This time it was during a motorcycle speedway race. At the time Toruń had one of the best teams in the country and this sport was very popular, probably even more so than football. Jola, who started attending speedway races with her father when she was less than ten years old, introduced me to this sport when we met at secondary school. I found the competition itself rather tedious, but I liked our expeditions to the stadium. The best part was the smell of exhaust fumes mixed with burning rubber as the motorcycles sped past on the hot shale. I believed that this smell was as intoxicating as drugs which I never had the courage to touch. Another attraction was the crowd of hardcore fans. I fooled myself into feeling like I was part of it, although I was never more than Jola’s companion. At the time I followed her in most things because I had little identity of my own.
That day we were sitting in the middle row and I noticed him several rows in front of us. He was with some male friends. All of them, as we figured out, must have been in their late teens or early twenties. He was dressed in jeans and a dark red shirt made of soft crumpled cotton, fashionable at the time. After much effort Jola bought herself a shirt which was very similar to the one worn by Generally Perfect. She still has it and it fit her as she retained her teenage frame, although she wears it rarely.
That day, in our eyes, he seemed very different to the several young men who were surrounding him; he seemed more detached, cooler, although he was doing all the right gestures and was chatting to his friends. When the event finished, we followed the whole group of boys who dispersed somewhere on one of the high-rise estates near Chełmońska Street, not far from the city centre. After that race we were always searching for him at the speedway matches. He came to them frequently, usually with his pals. But it was when he was by himself that he noticed us following him, as he accelerated his step. We figured that he was embarrassed by our behaviour. We were too, but we were also emboldened by our transgression.
By this point Generally Perfect wasn’t only our idol, he was also our artistic project. We could discuss him for hours, without sinking into obscenity or even mentioning sex. Our power of sublimation seemed to have no limits. The same was true about our power of abstraction. Without realising it we became followers of Plato. Generally Perfect was the first stage on our road to the idea of perfection. Not being entirely unpractical, we also thought about how to perfect ourselves, only to realise that it was in vain, because the key to perfection was not caring about acquiring it. Perfection, like Camp, had to be naïve. Generally Perfect was a case in point. He had no obvious hairstyle, and apart from this dark-red shirt, there was nothing to show that he cared for fashion. The fact that he wore it so often even suggested that he dressed for comfort. From the way he behaved with his pals it was also clear that he did not care to be the leader, but neither was he anybody’s pansy. He seemed to be happy with where he was.
These days we would be defined as stalkers, but we never used this word. It did not exist in the state socialist vocabulary and came to Poland only in the 1990s, on the free market wave, together with unemployment, anorexia, depression, and many other similar terms, which killed the mystery of people’s existence, for better or for worse. Our stalking stopped in the last year of secondary school. During this time I realised that I had learnt little during my school years and became very worried about failing my final exams. I stopped spending so much time with my friend and started to study in earnest. My worry was not without reason as Jola had to repeat the last year.
I managed to pass everything, not with great results but good enough to move to Warsaw and begin my new life as a student at Warsaw University. I did not forget about Generally Perfect, but he slipped to the back of my mind, pushed aside by other people and other interests. One year later I was reunited with Jola, who also came to Warsaw to study, but our friendship became less intense, perhaps because during her absence I started to speak with my own voice, rather than merely copy her.
After completing my education I stayed in Warsaw and then moved to Britain. Jola returned to her hometown and in the subsequent years displayed an entrepreneurial spirit, without picking up any of the usual material entrapments of the nouveau riche, perhaps because practical considerations always played a small part in her life. She was never interested in what money could buy, similarly to how she was not interested in the flesh of Generally Perfect. She was interested in the abstract element of both. In the subsequent years she told me that she saw Generally Perfect a couple of times at speedway matches or near the street where he lived, but later lost track, perhaps because she stopped attending speedway races herself. By the time we reached thirty, we stopped discussing Generally Perfect, except mentioning him as a centrepiece of a certain stage of our lives. We conceded that Generally Perfect was not perfect by himself, but thanks to our intellectual investment in him.
I assumed that I would never see Generally Perfect again, but I saw him last summer. It was the first time we met not as a stalker and his victim, but as peers: passengers on a train between Warsaw and Toruń, where I was travelling to meet my old friend. We were sitting in the same compartment, opposite each other, each near the window. He did not recognise me, which was to be expected. Most likely he never paid attention to me or Jola and it must have been over thirty years since I saw him last. Obviously we’d changed, but I recognised him immediately.
There was something about him, not so much perfect, as distinct, which I memorised perfectly. Probably this was the way he moved, with a certain ease or slight laziness, as if he did not care. Apart from ageing, he hadn’t changed very much. He was no longer perfect, but still handsome, at least as handsome as a provincial man in his mid-fifties could be. He was slim, hadn’t lost his hair and had the simple hairstyle and simple clothes of a man who did not pay attention to his look. He was also wearing jeans. But something had gone or rather had emerged which was hidden from us, when we knew him only from these short moments during the speedway matches.
Most of the journey there were only two of us and we both belonged to the sort of people who look out of the window rather than at their mobile phones. He helped me with my suitcase, putting it on the shelf in his typical, slightly lazy but gracious way, commenting on its unusual colour and so we started to talk and practically carried on talking all the way to Toruń. There was, after all, much to learn about each other. He was probably two years off finishing technical college around the time we spotted him for the first time.
Later he was in the army and then worked in a local factory as a supervisor of sorts. Some years after communism collapsed he lost his job and was unemployed for over a year and subsequently moved to another city, again to work in a factory. By this time he was married and his wife worked as a nursery teacher and they had one daughter. It transpired that he had problems with making a living, lacking smartness, which back then in the late 1970s Jola and I found so charming, so nonchalant. He and his wife were living in a high-rise block, in the same apartment to which we followed him in our passion, which he inherited from his parents. His name was Marek, a common name for men of his generation, and he was four years older than me. He was returning from Warsaw because he’d been visiting his daughter who had a job there, working as a physiotherapist.
With every new bit of information Marek moved further and further from the image of perfection I carried in my heart for some thirty-five years, while my story of living abroad and working in a British university impressed him, as it tends to impress less educated provincials. He told me at one point, ‘I bet you travel a lot’ and when I confirmed, he admitted that this is something he never did. Even in these times of freedom, when a holiday to Mallorca or the Seychelles seems to be such a simple thing, he and his wife could not afford to go to Paris or Venice, plus he practically knew no English.
Generally Perfect fitted the way he behaved in these short snapshots when we captured him in our youth, as he did not come across as an intellectual or natural leader, preferring to be among his peers. Then we saw it as a marker of his perfection, as perfect people do not need to exert themselves – their beauty is inside them already. At the end of our journey he suggested that we exchange phone numbers, but I told him it is unlikely I will come to Toruń any time soon. From the station he went home by bus, while I waited for Jola to arrive in her car. She lived now in a large apartment with a beautiful view of Vistula.
Although it was very different from the small communist flat where she lived with her parents, in parts it looked like a museum of her old loves, and thus in part my loves. There were still cuttings from old magazines with pictures of Robert Smith from the Cure and Ritchie Blackmore from Rainbow, pinned to the wall and some books and films, which kept us company in our youth. Their limited number and selection demonstrated that one can be a philistine and high-art fanatic at the same time. Most likely Jola was such a high-art fanatic precisely because she was a philistine, lacking knowledge of and interest in any intellectual fashions. On the only one bookshelf she had filled one could find, next to several gardening manuals, Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, Nabokov’s ‘Ada’, ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert and DVD boxes with ‘Twin Peaks’.
In the evening we watched YouTube videos and I showed her new songs, funny adverts, performances of stand-up comedians which I discovered recently. She said they looked interesting, but she avoided new things. She stopped buying CDs a long time ago, but neither returned to vinyl nor registered on Spotify. In relation to a collection of new stories of a certain post-Yugoslav author whom I recently discovered she said that it would be better to give it to somebody else, because her English was now too poor to understand and reading, even newspapers, tired her. Moreover, when she had time to read, she returned to Proust – she was now in the third volume for the third time.
It was only some hours before my departure from Toruń that I told Jola about my meeting with Generally Perfect, as I was worried that it might spoil her mood and my stay in Toruń. As by this point I had a distinct dislike of Polish capitalism, I used Marek’s story to point how social inequality not only destroyed this once so perfect man’s near-perfect life, but also my childhood illusion. But Jola disagreed, saying: ‘Looks to me like he was always a loser. No need to defend him, or us for that matter. It only makes things worse.’
I asked her whether it would be better if Generally Perfect was now fat, bald and smelly, so all his perfection was no longer recognisable, or if it was better the way it had actually turned out: not destroyed, but merely smudged by reality. Jola replied that neither solution was good. ‘We should have had him killed thirty years ago. Like proper stalkers’, she said.
Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. Several of them are published in literary magazines.