Will You Still Love Me Yesterday? is a comedy of manners, and also a ‘What if?’ book. Not only does it explore what a long-married couple would do if they could live their lives again, it also asks what political and social choices a country would make if it could jump back in time and relive its history from a different starting point.
The story begins in 2016, when Grażyna and Ludwik are getting ready to celebrate their 50th anniversary – not of the day they met, or of their wedding, but of the first night they ever spent together. He’s now 83, and she’s 78, but as every year, they’re determined to mark the occasion by making love – an ever more physically challenging ambition. As well as discussing the joys and regrets of the past half century, they do make love – but when they wake up, they find they’ve jumped back in time and are 50 years younger, with the memory of the life they’ve already had, but also the ability to live it all over again. Will they make the same choices as before? And how will they cope with the new reality? And what will become of Poland? Because this time around, history has not repeated itself, and post-war Poland is on the other side of the Iron Curtain, under the political domination of… France.
In the first of these extracts from early in the book, 78-year-old Grażyna prepares for their night of passion with a visit to a lingerie store, and in the second extract Ludwik wakes up 50 years younger and wonders what on earth has happened.
I have no idea what on earth prompted me to go into that store. I should have ordered something online, in several sizes, then I could have sent it back. But I couldn’t make up my mind, I wasn’t sure if I’d deciphered the size chart properly, and soon it was too late to have anything delivered. I could still have gone to a normal department store, but I came here, to the swankiest boutique in the shiniest shopping mall in town. At least I came straight from having my hair done. Small consolation, but still.
“Yeeeah?” said the store assistant.
Alright, not “How may I help?” or “What can I get you, Ma’am?” More like “yeeeah, are you lost? Yeeeah, looking for the pharmacy? Or the restroom? Yeeah?”
I felt like turning tail, and it cost me quite an effort to keep shuffling toward the sales desk.
“I’m looking for something sexy,” I said.
The young lady, whose age I’d guess at somewhere in between the labor ward and high school, emerged from behind the desk and pretty much wrung her hands. She came close to exclaiming “ohmygod!” and crossing herself.
For a while she was speechless. “Is it a gift?” she said at last.
“It’s a gift for me.”
“Okay…” she said, and that was all, as if after okaying anything she always had to take a rest––ohmygod it was such an effort! On a big screen behind her a naked girl was writhing, making weird faces that were meant to express growing ecstasy.
“How sexy?” she asked.
“Sexy enough to give an eighty-three-year-old a hard-on. Extremely sexy.”
And she was lost for words again. I felt sorry for the poor kid.
“Young lady,” I said in the tone of a dear old granny from out of town. “This is not a joke. I’d rather go straight to the changing room, but I’m going to explain instead. I’m seventy-eight years old, and my husband is eighty-three. Today it’s exactly fifty years since the day we first had sexual intercourse. Do you have sexual intercourse?”
I imagine I couldn’t have put it in simpler terms, so I gave her a while to think about it.
“To tell you the truth, no, not yet,” she finally admitted.
“I’m happy for you––you still have that wonderful moment ahead of you. But would you please fall back on your theoretical knowledge of the subject and try to see where I’m coming from? My husband and I have a very important anniversary today, and I know he’s going to do everything he can to rise to the demands of the occasion. He’s sure to pack himself full of drugs, I hope it doesn’t kill him. Instead I’d like to give him some help. Give him a bit of stimulus. Men are quite simple to operate, as you’ll soon see, and their hearts can only pump the blood to one major organ at a time. A bit of red lace and a man will get an erection even if he’s standing up to his knees in cold water––and then you can give them any old legal document to sign. They’ll give you a house, a car, whatever you desire.”
The girl snorted with laughter.
“To put it straight,” I went on, “you’ve got to find me something to make me look like the dream gal of the kind of pervert who’s got a thing about wrinkled old babes.”
I couldn’t have put it more simply or concisely. Now all I had to do was wait.
“I think I’ll show you what the gentlemen most often choose. I guess that’s what turns them on the most, doesn’t it?”
Several jokes on that theme sprang to mind, but I figured I’d better not to risk destroying our temporary shared wavelength across God knows how many generations. The girl bustled about, and then laid on the counter several flimsy lace negligees, possession of which would probably land you in jail in the Polish provinces.
She gave me a while to admire them.
“What do you think?”
I was telling the truth. I was wondering how to outsmart the sexy underwear. Its usual task is to pretend it’s hiding something, when in actual fact it’s displaying everything there is on offer. But I needed a lacy slip that would suggest it was revealing something, when in fact it would be concealing the bits that gave away how old I was. Stilettos hide crooked big toes. Black stockings solve the problem of orange-peel thighs. But what about higher up?
“If I were you, I’d combine these two items,” said the girl, waking me from my reverie, and laying a pair of red lacy shorts and a black camisole side by side.
With a glance I encouraged her to explain.
“Red shorts, because like you said, they’re red. And shorts are quite concealing––I guess you haven’t time to get the gym today to work on tightening your butt.”
I winked at her to say she was dead on.
“And look at this, you don’t have to take them off,” she said, spreading the shorts on the counter to show the split in the crotch.
I nodded appreciatively. The kid had a head on her shoulders. In the throes of passion Ludwik wouldn’t have to tear the panties off me, and it wouldn’t cross his mind to think: “Hey, what’s with the saggy old rear?”
“I think the camisole’s great, because it’s quite concealing under the bust, and it’s loose, right? But it also has a drawstring, so you can tighten it, and then it supports the breasts well. And across the breasts it’s so gauzy it’s hardly there, and as far as I can see your bust is still in pretty good shape. Oh… I didn’t mean to…”
I waved a hand to say give the apologies a rest. After all, she’d paid me a very nice compliment. Her suggestion seemed ideal and I felt dumb for having taken her for a dimwit earlier on. I picked out some stockings too, and paid an astronomical sum for it all––calculated by the gram, these goods cost more than cocaine.
“Thank you, and please come again,” said the girl as she handed me my package. “You’re great,” she added. “I wish my grandma was like you. If she were alive, I mean.”
What could I do? I gave her a sweet farewell smile.
He felt as young as ever. In fact he felt extremely young, considering his waking consciousness was filled with the memory of the fabulous time they’d had the night before. To remain in this state of bliss as long as he could, without opening his eyes, he turned on his side, pressed his face into his wife’s hair scattered across the pillow, and inhaled its fragrance deep into his lungs.
And almost threw up. Her hair and the pillows stank appallingly of cigarette smoke, as if specially imported from the army canteen of a banana republic where no ban on smoking had ever gotten through and no one understood the harmfulness of smoking. The effect was physically revolting, and his disgust made him instantly forget his age; he threw off the quilt and leaped to his feet, fighting back the impulse to vomit.
Strangely, he didn’t faint. The rapid movement didn’t even make his head spin. Wow, sex really does work wonders.
He was in someone else’s apartment. A weird apartment. Very modern, but very old-fashioned all at once. Modern because the wall of the small bedroom was entirely made up of a window onto a balcony with a concrete balustrade and a pale blue, winter sky. Through the open bedroom door he could see a piece of hallway and a staircase going down, implying that the apartment was on two levels.
Old-fashioned, because of the furnishing––some chairs on thin legs made of bent metal, a bookcase with sliding glass doors, a rug with a geometric pattern, and above all a huge ash tray full of butts on a glass coffee table––they all looked like exhibit from a museum of everyday life in the 1960s or 1970s.
Puzzled, he ran a hand through his hair, his usual gesture for expressing reflection, amazement or impatience, depending on the situation.
Instead of the usual skull with a few thin strands of hair across it, his hand had landed on a mop as thick as a Husky dog’s coat. He looked at his hand––no spots, lumps or wrinkles. He looked at his stomach––almost flat. His chest was normal, with no gray hairs or droopy man boobs. His dick was poking out of a normal bush of fair hair, and his legs ended in normal feet, not gnarled growths with the blue talons of a hawk crookedly attached to them. In other words, he was young. Not a youth, but somewhere in between thirty and forty.
There was no mirror hanging in the bedroom, so he went up to the bookcase and inspected his reflection in the glass. The blurred face he saw there was like old photos of himself. Which meant he was in his own youthful body, dating back about fifty years.
“What the hell––” he said.
“Can’t you start the day with a nicer comment?” he heard from under the quilt. “Good morning? I love you? Coffee?”
“Jesus, what’s that stink?”
The pong of nicotine had driven Grażyna out of bed, just as it had Ludwik. She stretched, looked at the strange man standing in the strange bedroom and began to scream in horror, rapidly covering her naked body with the quilt.
“Grażyna, it’s me!”
“What do you mean, me? Who’s me, for God’s sake?”
“Ludwik, who else?”
She burst into hysterical laughter.
“Look at yourself! Grażyna, I’m telling you, look at yourself!”
She glanced under the quilt.
“Mother of God and all the saints in heaven!”
She threw off the quilt and began to touch her own naked body. It was the perfect, flawless body of a twenty-something-year-old. Ever faster, ever more eagerly she ran her hands over her neck, breasts, arms, and hips, feeling herself in such a frenzy that she began to gasp. He was afraid she was going to have a fit.
“Grażyna? Are you all right?”
She looked at him with a stunned gaze.
“Holy Mary, mother of God, what a fantastic dream. Quick, get in bed before I wake up. Come on, hop in.”
Without waiting for further encouragement, he jumped into the bed and lay on his back, his dick already standing to attention like an advert for Viagra. Giggling, she kissed its tip, and straddled it with a loud sigh. She stretched forward, wound her hands around the back of his neck with a gesture he hadn’t seen her make for a good twenty years, and got down to some energetic love-making.
This excerpt is taken from Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s novel “Jak zawsze”, originally published in Poland in 2017.
Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones