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The Formula

ISSUE:  Spring 1987

The Passport Bureau in Wroclaw stands a block from Kosciuszko Square, near the SB headquarters, the city jail, the Court of Justice. Nina had been there more times than she could count. There was a second entrance now to ease the traffic, but before they opened it, the lines of people wanting to leave were as long as the lines for bananas.

This morning she chose the main door. Climbing the stairs, she sifted through her mind all of her transgressions. Her worst sins took place three years ago, and they were comparatively minor. She’d distributed leaflets, yelled “Gestapo” at the Zomos. She and her husband had also sheltered, for an evening, an underground activist, but he had left the country a long time ago. She knew that in all likelihood the note calling her to appear as a “witness” was somehow connected to her trip. In all likelihood, she was about to have an encounter with the Passport SB.

The second floor was empty except for an old man who sat in a chair reading Slowo Polskie. She scanned the numbers above the doors, walked the length of the hall twice, but she couldn’t find 214. It was almost nine o’clock. You couldn’t be late for an appointment like hers.

A big guy with a droopy moustache emerged from 211. His stylish jeans outfit made her think he worked here. At the SB headquarters, she recalled, everybody cultivated the student-intellectual look. As if they had just left a Solidarity rally.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I’m supposed to report to room 214.”

His gaze traversed her figure. The white missy dress, red purse, coral necklace, lipstick, and sunglasses puzzled. This wasn’t a place you dressed up for.

Which was why she’d dressed up.

“Do you have a summons?”

If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have been here. She dug into her purse.

“Okay. And your ID?”

She pulled the green booklet from her wallet. He opened it, looked at the picture, at her, then at the picture again. Exactly like East German border officials.

He grinned. “You don’t look the same as in the picture.”

“I’m older now.”

“You don’t look older. Younger, I’d say. And prettier.”

She grinned right back at him.

He led her to a door that had no number. It also had no doorknob. She should have known this was the one.

He pressed a button. She heard a thin ring. The door opened a few inches. “Tell Heniek he’s got a guest,” her guide said to someone she couldn’t see.

The door closed. Her guide returned her ID and summons, nodded good-by. As he turned to go, she said, “You know, you remind me of someone. I can’t think who.”

He leered. “An old boyfriend, maybe?”

She snapped her fingers. “Walesa!” she cried. “You look like Walesa!”

“Please,” he said, wincing. He hurried off down the hall.

A minute or so later, the door was reopened by a fit-looking man who wore a pair of black-rimmed glasses and had, Nina thought, the build of a cyclist. She handed him her note and her ID. He glanced at them, put them in his pocket, then gestured at a chair in the hall. “Why don’t you take a seat,” he said. “I’ll be right with you.”

The usual tactic: making you wait to show you who had the power. And if you got scared in the meantime, so much the better. She was familiar with the trick.

Two years ago she had received a similar summons, though it had called her not to the Passport Bureau but to SB headquarters.

At the reception desk an old SBek had examined her summons, her ID, and her face, which she tried to make blank, then had barked “Wait!” and disappeared behind a door. She waited half an hour, during which time all sorts of possibilities occurred to her. Perhaps they had arrested someone who worked with her, or perhaps they had photographed her at a demonstration. She always carried her toothbrush to demonstrations, and she wished she’d brought it now. Martial law was still the law, and she was no longer a passive antisocialist element.

That day another SBek had finally materialized and introduced himself as “Captain Poniatowski.” In the elevator, on the way up to the sixth floor, he attempted small talk, asking her if she planned to attend the football match. She sensed that he was a dullard. She had a cousin, a likable fellow named Wladyslaw, who on even his brightest day remained a victim of a mental-energy shortage. He failed his college entrance exams, he mangled numerous engines when he attempted auto mechanics. Finally, one day at a family picnic, he let slip the fact that he had gone to work for “them.” Her uncle Zenek, her cousins Krzysztof and Marek asked Wladyslaw to go behind some trees. They came back rubbing their knuckles. Wladyslaw slunk off and drove away.

Her interview with Poniatowski had taken place in a tiny office that contained a coffee table, two chairs, and a small desk. The room had a side door that had been left ajar. They sat down at the coffee table, and he offered her a cigarette. She declined.

“Good you don’t smoke,” he said, lighting up. “Pity to lose such an attractive woman to lung cancer.”

She wondered where they learned their lines. A training film, probably, since reading would be too taxing.

“Mrs. Bober,” he said, puffing on his cigarette, “do you have a dog?”

She said she did. She would have lied if she thought he was really interested in her dog. But they always began by asking you about something that didn’t really interest them.

“Could you describe this animal for me?”

“She’s just a little brown dog. There’s nothing really outstanding about her.”


“Cocker spaniel.”

“You’re sure?”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I have her registration and a picture too. I’ll show you.” She reached for her purse.

“Never mind,” he said. “I was just asking about the dog because one of our officers was bitten on your street. But the dog that did that was a German Shepherd. You don’t know anything about it, do you?”

“Was the officer trespassing?”

“Trespassing?” he said incredulously. “You must know that during the present state of affairs, it’s impossible for an officer of the security service to trespass.”

She knew it, but she bet the dog didn’t. “Oh, that’s right,” she said.

“Oh, well,” he said, “this business about the dog doesn’t matter so much. Since you’re here, though, perhaps we can discuss another little matter.”

He said he had noticed that she planned to go to Mexico. That was a Western country, he informed her, one whose aims and goals were, quite frankly, opposed to those of Poland.

“You’ll be on your own there,” he said, “and you must be careful.”

“Yes,” she said, as innocently as she could, “I remember what happened to Trotsky.”

“Trotsky? Who . . . oh, well, yes. But what I meant is that if, say, someone there asks you to do something contrary to the best interests of our state, you must refuse. More importantly, if someone here in Poland—banned Solidarity activists, you know—if they ask you to carry something out of the country— even if they say it’s just a box of dried mushrooms for relatives in the West—you mustn’t do it. Bring it to us.”

It was time now to play stupid. She hoped he was smart enough to recognize stupidity when he saw it. “Would they do that?” she breathed.

“They very well might,” he said grimly. “You can’t put anything past them.”

She had paid her Solidarity fees the previous day. “I’ll certainly do that,” she said.

“You’re a responsible citizen,” he said. “We appreciate your help. Perhaps I’ll talk to you again when you’ve returned from your trip.”

She never took that trip because the Mexican government refused her a visa. She never head from Poniatowski again, either, and for that she was infinitely grateful. Because she knew that she had been called there for a purpose that had nothing to do with packages or, for that matter, with the good of the country. And at some point in the interview, Poniatowski had judged her unfit.

Yesterday, when she received the new summons, her first thought was that perhaps they had changed their minds.

They had changed their minds about her before. Ten years ago, she had wanted to go the Netherlands. When she went to the Passport Bureau, the official she had to deal with was a former classmate at the Romance Languages Department. She remembered him as a hippie intellectual. He used to serve as a guide for the Wroclaw Open Theatre Festival. He was fiercely avant-garde.

“Couldn’t get a job as a French teacher in Wroclaw,” he told her, “and you know, I’ve lived here all my life. Didn’t see myself in a provincial school in some godforsaken little village. I’m not Doctor Judym. Here they at least pay you decently and I might get an apartment in a year or two. Malta’s pregnant, you know. We can’t stay in my parents’ two rooms forever.”

He shuffled papers. “You’ve come for your passport,” he said. “You didn’t get it.”

“Why?” she asked cooly, as if it didn’t matter, though it did—very much. “I got one last year. Everything was okay then.”

He looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Nina,” he said. “Really I am. But just between you and me, your chances don’t look good. It says in your file that you got involved with the BBC and refused to offer an explanation.”

She opened her eyes wide to show that the charge offended her.

The charge, of course, was true. She had taken part in a peace demonstration in London and been interviewed by the BBC. When she returned to Poland and handed in her passport, an official asked her if she had participated in any demonstrations.

Since they obviously already knew, she saw no point in discussing it. She said no. But their devotion to the confession was priestly, and because she refused to offer one, they kept her at home for two years.

The knobless door opened. The man called Heniek stepped out and asked her to come with him. Behind the door there was a long corridor with three doors on each side. (These, she noticed, had knobs.) Heniek ushered her into the first room on the left.

Sunlight streamed through two big windows. A coffee table stood in the center of the room, an armchair parked on either side. There was also a side door. It had been left ajar.

“Sit down,” Heniek told her.

When they were seated, he pulled out his cigarettes. “Care for one?”

“No,” she said, “I’m too scared of getting lung cancer.”

“That would be a shame,” he said. “Especially since you’re such an attractive woman.” He lit his cigarette, drew deeply, and sighed. “Now then,” he said. “I know who you are. I’m Captain Kalinowski”—another Polish aristocrat—”and I asked you here today because I wanted to talk to you about your travels. You’ve been to England, West Germany, several other countries as well, and I see that you’re about to visit the United States on an exchange program. Tell me a bit about the places you’ve visited.”

She had been right. This was the Passport SB. They wanted something—it would be a while before she knew just what— and to get it, they would try waving the passport in her face.

There were two ways to handle the situation. You could be tough, tell them right away to forget it, in which case you could forget the passport. Or you could play a fool, babbling nonsense and pretending you had no idea what was going on, keeping them from getting more than a word or two in; sooner or later, your interlocutor would tire, and at that point he would either openly propose “cooperation,” or else give up and send you home—in which case you might still get the passport. She knew she ought to tell him to take the passport to hell. But she wanted to go. She hadn’t left Poland since 1981, and she thought that if she didn’t get out soon, she’d go crazy. Leaving the country for brief periods was her safety valve. She would go to the West, start hating it, and come back here purged.

If she hoped to wake up in Florida one morning and find that she had started missing Poland, she would have to be careful now. “Well,” she began, “the first time I went abroad was during my second year at the University.”

“England, right?”

“That’s right. I spent two months there at an international student camp. We all worked on a farm. It was fun. We hitchhiked to London one weekend and—”

“Did anything special happen during your stay there?”

“What do you mean?”

“Anything to do with, say, the police of that country?”

At the peace demonstration, everyone had been briefly under arrest. She knew he knew that, and she knew it didn’t interest him. She felt herself warming to the game. “You know,” she said, “I did have an encounter with the police. Nice guys they were. Big. Tall, like you. I was hitchhiking, and the woman who picked me up was so funny.” She giggled. “This woman had a plastic box with jellied eel in it, and she was eating eel with her right hand while driving with her left. She offered me some, but I do hate eels. Of course, you can’t buy them here these days.

“Anyway, she hit another car—dented its right side. You know how they drive on the left there. So the police came and took us to the police station, and I was a witness. They gave me coffee and crackers.”

“Can you imagine our police doing that?” he said. His question seemed to tickle him. He laughed until his shoulders shook and tears appeared in his eyes. She felt unsavory in his presence. “My goodness,” he said, wiping his eyes. “And so . . .nothing serious happened?”


“In England. You weren’t approached by Polish immigration circles? No one offered you anything?”

You know how it is in the West,” she said, sure that he didn’t—SBeks weren’t allowed to visit Western countries. “No one offers you anything there. They want you to pay for everything. That’s capitalism. It’s not like here, where everyone shares.”

“Oh, the West isn’t so bad,” he said. “For instance, there are no lines there.”

“Lines aren’t so bad,” she said. “I met one of my closest friends in a line. It was one of those long lines—my husband and I needed a battery for our car—and this line lasted several weeks. The line committee assigned me Monday and Thursday, two until four, and it was while standing that I met Ewa. She operates some type of machine at the carriage factory. Where in the West could a college teacher meet and become close friends with a factory worker?”

“Ah,” he said, “you’re being facetious.”

She showed him her Who, me? face.

“Let’s forget about England and such places,” he said, dismissing the whole of Western Europe with a wave of his hand, “and discuss this trip to America.”

“What do you want to know?”

“To begin with, where is this university?”

“Florida. They say it’s very hot there. I don’t know how I’ll stand the heat.”

“It’s hot in Mexico, isn’t it? How did you stand it there?”

Either they’d done a lousy job on her file or he’d done a lousy job reading it. “Were you under the impression I’d been to Mexico?” she said. “Someone gave you the wrong information. I never got a visa.”

He reddened. The myth of the omniscient SB was being debunked. “I knew that,” he said. “I just forgot.” He sat forward, all business, and told her he wanted to know what her duties in America would be, who her co-workers would be, what kind of students she would have, where she would travel in her free time, and what she would do when she got there.

She told him that she would teach French, that her co-workers would be other teachers of French, that her students would be mostly 18-year-old Floridians, that she might visit Miami in her free time, and that when she got there she would probably doze on a beach.

“Very good,” he said. “Now. What is this university itself supposed to be like?”

She tapped her forehead with a finger. “I’m so silly,” she said. “You know, I had a University of Florida catalogue and I loaned it to someone and never got it back. If I had it, it would tell you everything you need to know. But you know what? I’ll have their admissions office send you one.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“It’s no trouble.”

Please,” he said, as if already imagining the reception he would get at SB headquarters when they found out he was receiving fat envelopes from schools in the USA. “Please. Don’t bother. How is it you chose this particular university?”

“Last year we had a visiting lecturer from the University of Florida. He suggested that—”

“Your department has many lecturers from abroad.”

Now she thought she knew what he wanted. The visitors. They were always interested in Western guests. They wanted someone to inform on them.

“You get to know many of these visitors, I imagine?”

“Oh, no. You know how people from the West are—they don’t really talk. Spend a year around one of them and all you ever get to know is “Hi. How are you. Fine.”“

“You never serve as an interpreter?”

She often did. “Me? I’m too shy.”

He said he hadn’t noticed that.

“That’s because I feel relaxed now,” she said, smiling and looking him in the eye. “When I’m relaxed, I’m not shy.”

“And you’re never relaxed around Westerners?”


“That’s strange,” he said. “Especially since you go there so often.” He lit himself another cigarette. “You like to travel, don’t you?”

A threat was sewn up in that question. “I’ve always enjoyed it,” she said, “but I think I’m getting tired of it. I really do.”

“Yet you’re getting ready to leave again.”

“Only for professional enrichment. I think that when I get back this time, I’ll stay. Everything I care about is here.”

“I see,” he said. “We were talking about visitors to your department. Who spends the most time with them? What about Docent Talik?”

She remembered something. Three or four years ago, they had continually pestered one of her colleagues, calling her day and night, until finally she disconnected her phone. They had never, as far as anyone knew, been able to place an informer in the department. There weren’t even any Party members there.

The picture became clear. It was the department itself that interested them. They wanted someone to report what people said at name-day parties, at dinner, on the way home from work. A remark passed over a plate of bigos might one day be used to blackmail.

“Docent Talik?” she said. “She’s a marvelous lady. A fine scholar too. You aren’t familiar, are you, with her study of the epistolary novel?”

“I haven’t got around to that yet.”

“She was my thesis advisor.”

“I know.”

“Whenever we had a seminar with her, she would bring us these wonderful cookies she’d baked. If it snowed, she would always remind us to put on our woolen caps. She said, “A woolen cap can save your life.”“

“Yes,” he persisted, “but what about Docent Talik and the visitors?”

“She brings them cookies. This Fulbright lecturer I was telling you about? He loved her cookies so much she gave him a whole big box when he left. And a recipe. You know how Americans eat everything out of packages, ready-made.”

He leaned over and tapped ashes into the ashtray. “You know,” he said mildly, “you haven’t answered my question.”

“What question?”

“What is the atmosphere in your department? What do people talk about?”

“You didn’t ask me such a question. You asked me about Docent Talik and her cookies.”

“I didn’t ask about cookies. I asked about Docent Talik and the visitors. Now I’m asking about the department.”

She made herself sound peevish. “If you had asked me before,” she said, “I would have told you.”

“That’s quite all right. I’m asking you now.”

“What do you want to know?”

His jaw stiffened. Maybe she was getting to him. If so, this wouldn’t continue much longer. “What is the atmosphere in your department? What do people talk about?”

She said they talked about everything. She said that as for the atmosphere, it was very much familial. Everybody, she told him, looked out for everybody else. Last week they delivered cooking oil to her store, she said, and you could buy as many bottles as you wanted. So she bought one for everybody in the department, even though the other customers in the store were grumbling that she intended to hoard the cooking oil and resell it. She had to call her husband to come and pick her up, because she had more cooking oil than she could carry on the tram.

“That,” she concluded, “ought to tell you something.”

“That,” he said, “does indeed tell me something.” He leaned over and ground out his cigarette.

It was a get-down-to-business gesture. For the first time, she felt scared. Now he would propose a deal, and when she refused, he would tell her no passport. All this playing stupid would come to nothing.

“Mrs. Bober,” he said, “the reason I asked you to come is that you made a mistake filling out your passport application. You gave me an incorrect ID number.”

If there was one thing life in Poland had taught her, it was how to fill out a form. She would never have made such a mistake.

“And since I needed to see your ID to correct the mistake,” he went on, pulling out the booklet, handing it to her, “I thought I would invite you in for a chat.”

He sat back and eyed her. “You know what I don’t understand?” he said. “I don’t understand why your husband would agree to your going away. I wouldn’t let such an attractive woman go away to America by herself. I would keep her at home.”

“My husband is very liberated. Besides, I’ll only be gone for six months.” She decided to probe. “If I get a passport, that is.”

“I don’t see why you shouldn’t. In fact, I’m sure you will.”

When he said that, she thought I’m really going to get out. It was only then that she realized just how badly she wanted to be gone. She had never quite recovered from that Sunday morning when she woke to find the phone lines dead, the airwaves silent, soldiers in the street. Her husband strung wires in a web across the ceiling, but they’d jammed the BBC. The loud hopes of the past 16 months died in silence that December.

Just as she began to relax, he said, “But before you go, I do have to make a request. After you come back from the U.S., could we meet somewhere, maybe in a cafe or a restaurant, and have another little talk? You’d give me a call and we’d arrange a meeting.”

She started to tell him she couldn’t do that because her husband was a jealous man. Then she remembered she’d just said her husband was liberated. She couldn’t think of any more banter.

“No,” she said.


You must never agree to meet them anywhere except where they work. You mustn’t even meet them there unless you have something in writing that you can show someone before you go. Just in case.

“No,” she repeated. “If you want to see me, you’ll have to send me another summons to appear as a witness.”

“That’s just the formula. Let’s not be so formal.”

“I won’t do it.”

“Very well,” he said. “But I’ll give you a little call when you get back.”

Opening the door for her, he said. “Don’t tell anyone about our talk.”

She instinctively reverted to her earlier role. “Oh, I’ve already told someone,” she said.

He slammed the door. “Who?” he cried.

“Only my husband.”

“Oh, well. . . . Just tell him it was related to your passport application.”

“But it said I was to be a witness.”

“Just the formula. He’ll understand. Now . . . give me your word you won’t tell a soul about our talk.”

His hand was on the doorknob. She knew the prudent thing to do was give him her word—she could still tell anybody she wanted to. But she couldn’t resist trying to annoy him. It would make the experience less humiliating, “I’ll try not to tell,” she said. “But I’m a born blabbermouth. Things slip out.”

The hand on the doorknob went white. Heniek’s face turned beet red. “Stay here,” he ordered.

He scurried through the side-door. She heard paper tearing, angry whispers. He reappeared, slamming the door behind him.

He slapped a sheet of paper down on the coffee table. “Come here,” he said.

On the way across the room, she saw the side-door open a crack.

Heniek handed her a pen. “Write,” he commanded.

“Write what?”

“What I dictate.”

“But what will that be?”

“If you’ll shut up, I’ll tell you.”

He waited for her to shut up. Then he dictated. “I, Nina Bober, do solemnly hereby declare that I will keep secret the fact that a conversation took place between me and a member of the security service.

She knew the statement wasn’t legally binding. She signed it and handed it to him.

“Thank you,” he said, tucking it away. “Now, goodbye.” He led her to the outer door.

Within seconds she was down the stairs and out on the street.

To keep herself from hurrying, she concentrated on breathing deeply, sucking warm summer air into her lungs. As usual, the streets were full of people. That was one of the things she loved about Poland. The presence of people in the streets. They didn’t try to drive themselves everywhere. But then few of them could afford cars.

She crossed over the old moat. On a bench beside a cobblestone square where children were playing, she sat down and let her body go limp. She closed her eyes. She listened to the sounds around her—the voices of children, the clatter of a tram. Somewhere someone gunned a motorcycle.

She was going to America. She thought maybe when she got there, she would eat some peanut butter. A friend who immigrated to Long Island had sent her two jars a couple of years ago, and though she knew it was junk she loved it. This same friend of hers had written, in a letter that took almost two months to reach her: “My mother came last December. I took her to a supermarket in Lindenhurst, and when she saw all those people, hundreds of them, grabbing steak and ham and cornflakes and coffee, just grabbing items off the shelves indiscriminately and tossing them into shopping carts that already looked like mountains on wheels, it upset her so much she started shaking and we had to go home without doing any shopping. She refused to go in another store the rest of the time she was here. She went back to Poland two weeks early.”

Probably there would be such stores in Florida.

When she opened her eyes, she noticed a group of little girls playing hopscotch in the square. Nimbly they kicked the pebble and hopped from block to block. She remembered playing the game when she was a child, in the ruins across the street from her building.

She had played, it seemed to her now, with an unusual degree of agility.


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