I was one of them, those born on the brink. We were born separately, unaware that we would soon become one. The process of disembodiment was gradual and unexciting; it went unnoticed until well under way. The process was not literal. We did not fuse into a thousand-headed anomaly, perhaps that’s the thing: we did not fuse at all. There are many ways to fragment. A metamorphosis of loss, of rupture and sudden space—an opening.
I began in a world extinct, as obscure to me today as it might be to you. Imagine: Warsaw in the early 90’s. Who can do it? The first thing I see are the chestnut trees. Their thick summer manes of ovate leaves, palatial shadows; in the fall, spiked green globules dotted the sidewalks, occasionally breaking open to reveal their shiny, brown hearts. Trams groaned by, poplars shimmered by the river, arched stone bodies lifted the intricate entryways of prewar buildings, and that word, prewar, draped midair since before I can remember.
Though they did not know it, my parents were in the business of bodily dissolution. The contraptions they brought home echoed the obscurity of what they did, something with technology, something about computations, long words we’d forget as children. The machines were ugly, heavy things that occupied our desks, fundamentally and utterly useless. My sister and I sensed the reverence adults displayed towards those objects and envied it. Computers will change the world, my father would say mystically, eyes focused faraway, as though intoning some yet-invisible but permanently altered future. No one called what my parents did anything except hard work. Hard work which secretly always meant: to escape from under the immense weight of a childhood swallowed by communism. They wanted to earn their way towards a new future, but also, towards a new past, something alterable only through our perception of it.
My parents’ edged desire to forge new selves was incomprehensible to me, as it would be to anyone who didn’t grow up in the overcrowded rooms of communist blocks, without toys to play with, endlessly waiting in line for a new pair of jeans or a single variety of cheese. They wanted to escape to an unbound world, where their shame as Poles—always the butt of some joke—would evaporate. And yet wherever they went, my parents would bitterly announce: We are Polish, not Russian. During our first holiday abroad, in the cicada heat of Southern Italy, my parents whispered to us in stressed tones: Behave! Speak English! Meanwhile, my sister and I adamantly corrected everyone: Poland, not Holland. Followed by blank looks.
During the holidays, my sister and I got in trouble often and inadvertently. What did we do wrong? Oftentimes, everything. It began with my father, a belt coiled around his fist, asking us who did it? Then proceeding to panicked looks, palms luminous with sweat. We wanted so badly to save the other from pain but were utterly terrified of it ourselves. Me, one of us would finally say. The other was forced into a separate room, where our mother was already crying behind the closed door.
The next movements were: our father ordering us to pull down our pants, then practicing a few lashes midair. We were already apologizing. It already hurt. Please, please stop! We’d yell, but our father devoutly believed in the corrective potential of pain. The end arrived in the red sizzle, instant and on fire, which spread across skin, occasionally breaking blood or bruising. A dark space was cut between us and our bodies, an abyss of self-blame, weighed with secrecy. We began to jump at loud noises, flinch away from hugs, but we never spoke a word.
There are many ways to fragment.
Our Warsaw apartment smelled different when we returned. Streets were being ripped from the earth by their asphalt skins, there was talk of tearing down the Palace of Culture, that Soviet “gift.” Little transformations erupted all around: worlds were changing. No longer in the East, not yet in the West. I was starting second grade when all everyone would talk about was joining the EU; those two mysterious letters widened, like a gyre, between the lips of teachers, cab drivers, shopkeepers. For months on end, family dinners contained a single topic of conversation. Words like sovereignty, currency, and infrastructure were uttered with vigor and devotion, as though the words themselves contained the logic of argument. My parents couldn’t be more thrilled: open borders, easier business, what was there to lose! My grandparents, on the other hand, frowned, sloping their chins against their palms. They were used to their country being pulled out from under their feet, but this time by forces less clear than war.
For some reason, I remember discussions of the roads above all else. The roads morphed into a magic formula, an ace, used to subvert all arguments. “But the roads!” people would exclaim. The despair with which the nation sought connection, movement, the fleeting freedom of the highway, a longing which grew synonymous with the West. We had seen the movies. We knew about wide open American space. We wanted the mesas, the canyons, the esoteric promise of deserts. What the movies never mentioned was how those places were never empty, but filled with the blood of people displaced. When it came to belief, myths were a more lucrative business than history books.
There was the path my grandfather would take to walk me home from school. Past the colorful stacks of Old Town buildings, down the narrow cobblestone streets, where a diagonal line cut across the pavement. Mur Getta 1940 Ghetto Wall 1943. We followed the words as they cut across lawns, edges of squares, turning corners until the line stopped at the foot of a building, vanishing beneath its foundations and continuing on. We walked like that, holding hands, until we reached the wall itself. Brick the color of rust, the color of blood, perforated with bullet holes. Beneath it candles burned. Solemn faces, badly stained by rain, stared back at us from photographs.
“Close your eyes, and touch the wall,” my grandfather said and extended his hands.
I glanced up at him, cheating, to see his face all serious, eyelids aquiver.
We came here often.
“I was twelve,” my grandfather spoke. “But I can still remember it: all our neighbors hunted down like rats.”
“I used to have a friend. He lived here.” My grandfather cleared his throat. “My friend—” He began crying, wiping tears from his cheeks with a cloth napkin.
I never heard the rest, my grandfather never got past those words. That was the story.
Prior to the global dissolution, my world was distinct and particular, singular though unfixed. Everything was divided into two times, prewar and post war. Many terrible things took place in the uncanny dimension prior to my existence, in the not yet of time. Ever since I can remember, words like ghetto, uprising, occupation weighted the air with their dark, broken forms. The word camp never evoked pleasant images of children amongst cabins, but unspeakable horror. The meaning of these words revealed itself to me symbolically and indirectly, parsed through the grave looks on my grandparents’ faces, the scars on their bodies. My proximity to these words disturbed me, as well as the possibility that it could all happen again. I dreamed terrible nightmares of men in uniform breaking into our Warsaw apartment, pointing guns to our heads and telling us to go. The persistence of absent things.
Then it happened: we were European. No longer precariously so, but on paper, in black and white. Conversations shifted from roads to currency: the sentimentalized, obscure, złoty. Literally, gold. The genuine panic with which people discussed the potential loss of złoty, in favor of the euro, gestured towards the loss of something less definite—a sense of self, a knowing. It was, after all, an unknown we had all entered: borders were opening, and this time not because they were being erased from the map. It was an unsettling feeling, this bright optimism, and no one knew how to behave. Stores sprouted like mushrooms after rain, new foreign names like Starbucks, KFC, H&M, Deutsche Bank appeared. Construction erupted on every corner, skyscrapers rivaled the Palace of Culture, shiny billboards blinked down at us from the once-familiar streets.
Years passed. Computers changed color, shape, diminished in size, until they rested neatly on our laps, could be picked up with one hand and carried around. A notion that would have humored my seven year old self. Gradually, these laptops became gateways into a diffuse realm, which was contained, we secretly assumed, in invisible currents of air. Buttons dissolved from telephones, screens doubled, then tripled in size. Telephones became phones, then smartphones: small computers that fit inside pockets, attaching themselves to our bodies more and more firmly each passing year. The fusion was irresolute for some, instant for others. Diminution of physical form coincided with the expansion of unseen networks. Words like social media and app traded lips. We abstracted ourselves into profiles, became global in the blink of an eye, a press of a key, a tap on a screen. We could suddenly enlarge and link. It was magnificent and baffling to so quickly become a part of something beyond understanding. A new texture of reality. A sudden filament.
Everything is changing, people said. But to those of us born on the brink, nothing changed much. We began halfway through the metamorphosis, anti-stasis, forced into accelerated becoming. At first, the rules of the structure were opaque, or rather it seemed there was no structure at all, just the vast uncharted web. Promises of unity and harmonized consciousness. A revolution, people said, finally. Then it became clear that whatever was true in life would be transposed and equally true online: bullies bullied, artists created, giant companies harnessed data like mules. Rebel intellectuals went on air saying how social media was becoming a social programming system, voluntarily downloaded, a universal religion devoutly practiced. Update your profile, generate content, post, post, post! Opiate of the masses, and we were all hooked.
At school we received mandatory computer classes where typing exercises were encouraged by gentle competition and, of course, a grade. Whole hours elapsed in that darkened room as we learned new muscle memory, fingers reined into submission. Time sifted slowly, subject to sporadic leaps, as though in this invisible network with which we communicated through our fingers even time had altered. My childhood was littered with those sunlit afternoons hunched over my desk, chatting with friends not in my room but online, that nebulous place where we assembled: both there and not there.
Red and white; blue and star-arced. The flags hung still from the top of their poles.
My grandfather saying, matter-of-factly: “Someday I won’t be there.”
Absence and presence traded place. We could sit at the breakfast table with our family and not hear a thing: our mother asking, over and over, to pass the bread. Our presence relocated from the body and into the wildering freedom of internet. New places where we converged, hated, argued, loved; battles displaced, victories immaterially won. We slept in each other’s beds, faces flashing intimately as a lover’s before drifting to sleep. We spoke to each other from places we were not. We fit into each other’s pockets, kangaroo pouches, interdependent in some nonbiological but nonetheless essential way. For good or ill, we melded.
From the individual the collective, from the private the public. An emergence. Photographs of our faces, muted by sleep, surfaced from the intimacy of our bathroom mirrors and onto the world wide web. Like a secret we were all in on: the expression of the selfie, ideally candid yet obviously aware of public intent. Playful naivete. Disembodied sight. We did not know who would see us, or when, but knew we were being seen, and wanted to. Our empty rooms swelled with voices. We could summon a song from silence, presence from absence, invoke powers that once belonged to gods. It’s not easy being multiple, it’s not easy always speaking in the plural, it’s not easy aiming each act towards an audience, but alas: here we were. Inherent in the message was the misunderstanding, the crevice. Something always evades transcription.
Our middle school visit to Auschwitz. Nothing could have prepared us for what we entered into. The smoke towers, the beds, the room filled floor to ceiling with baby shoes. Tangible, empty, right there. A boy fainted. Others cried. Barbed wire and silence, broken by tour guides who spoke of death, horror, hope. On the long drive home, late May: chestnuts, chestnuts, chestnuts. All of them blooming.
There were still things that could only be felt.
How counterintuitive to speak in particulars about dis-becoming. During the ongoing birth of this new world, another went extinct. Memories of the city I had once inhabited drifted to distortion. So little remained of that idiosyncratic time when I was still I, and we wasn’t it, but it did exist. Where was Warsaw in the 90’s? Ghosts of communism continued to sit squat in their blocks, but communism itself veered further and further into some unimaginable past. A kind of accelerated amnesia. The world was still there, but it no longer received the primacy of attention. It mattered less and less where anyone was from, borders dissipated, selves dissolved. Bodies became obsolete, made relevant only by screens, to which we pledged our allegiance, forsaking flags and their countries. We missed each other, arriving always one degree off. Instead of connection we found loneliness and the ever-increasing distance of not keeping up.
Spaces opened: no longer the vast open plains of freedom but gaps. In the opaque, outward swelling we something cracked. We fragmented into a thousand jagged-edged slivers of glass, reminiscent of the ancient I. A brief shower of reflection. Shards dropped to the ground with a clinking sound. Each fragment opened its glassy mouth and, all at once, screamed.