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Her Private Devil

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Jerzy has admitted that he lied to me about his brother Henryk -- Henio -- although he didn't use the word lie. He said it was "autofiction" and that his impressions about Henryk were true at the time, the time being 1942, when Jerzy was 9 and his adopted brother was an unwelcome 2-year-old.

The autofiction was that Henryk had been uneducated, mentally impaired, and deceased. Also autofiction was that he had been Jerzy's half-brother, born of their mother's affair with a classical musician because Jerzy's father's heart disease and war trauma left him impotent. The father, assuming responsibility for his wife's philandering, had raised the child as his own. Jerzy resented it.

The truth: Henryk is alive and well -- and mentally sound -- in Poland. Henryk, the fair toddler, with Aryan features, which Jerzy also resented, had been left by his desperate parents with the Kosinskis. They were able to escape German invasion of their village under the protective cloak of ecclesiastical authority. By agreeing to take the child and shelter him, in a way, Jerzy's mother had given Henryk life.

Jerzy rationalized that since most toddlers are uneducated and deemed, by rivalrous siblings, to be mentally impaired, his impressions had been truthful at the time. His father, cold toward and critical of both Jerzy and his mother, was emotionally impotent, if not physically. Jerzy said his closest friends had known all along that Henryk and he were estranged, which, in Jerzy's mind, was the same as Henryk's being deceased. The implication, however, was that I wasn't close enough to Jerzy to know the difference. This is how a liar manipulates guilt, but I told Jerzy I was happy to know he still had a brother.

Then there was Jerzy's deceased wife, Mary Weir, of whom he spoke with a reverence bordering on pristine, parental love. I was led to believe that he had searched tirelessly for a physician or hospital that could cure her brain cancer and that no stone had been left unturned. He would fly with his infirm wife to remote places, hoping that some obscure clinic for alternative medicine might be able to save her with an herb, extract, or treatment as yet undiscovered by the world of modern medicine that had failed them. The sorrier I was for him, the more he embellished the story.

As I began to know Jerzy better, it was harder to believe that he could be genuinely nurturing toward any living thing, least of all a woman. Still, he was determined to write the story of the bereaved widower in indelible ink. I didn't question it.

A few years later, the son of one of Jerzy's oldest friends told me that Mary Weir died of depression and alcoholism. That her drunken stupors and blackouts enabled Jerzy to hide his infidelities. He was never a widower because they were divorced before she died. Laughing, the son said that if anyone had a brain tumor, it was, metaphorically, Jerzy.

There wasn't a grand finale whenJerzy and I decided to stop being lovers. At first, there was too much residual jealousy to become close friends, but we spoke intermittently and went out occasionally, without being physically intimate. I met my future husband, Andrei, at a party I went to as Jerzy's guest. When I told Jerzy I was going to marry the man he introduced me to, he recalled my former boyfriend, asleep in my bed the night Jerzy first telephoned. Life is a great equalizer, isn't it?, Jerzy said.


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