Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

My heart beating hard, knocking against the wall of my chest, I replied: ‘Me neither.’

When we arrived in the city, light came from every corner, bounced off every facade as hotly and radiantly as I felt flooded with happiness and anxiety. I was no longer in control. I’d think back to the lake, the tent – compulsively, like the birth of something I could not yet imagine. I had found my place on your sandstone body – between your thighs and the mounds of your nipples, in the cave of your armpits. The geography of you was suddenly as clear as that of the city, skin warmed like the bricks of the tenement houses, the lines of your body like the straight and unbroken lines of the avenues, of the tram tracks and the stiff metal barriers that threw criss-crossed shadows on to the streets. The same barriers that appeared stable but could move under your weight, creaking when you leant on them for too long, threatening to release you on to the busy car-ridden tar.

When I arrived in the flat, it seemed smaller to me than before. The kitchen was to the right, as soon as you entered. It was long and narrow and only big enough to hold my landlady, Pani Kolecka. This was her territory. No matter how scarce the supplies, no matter how harsh the rationing, she was always in there, baking. Somehow, there would always be sugar and flour and something she’d scrape up or exchange. There’d be szarlotka apple tarts or babeczka cakes with cream, or layered gingerbread with plum jam. She baked like her life depended on it, and maybe it did. I had loved her ever since I’d moved in, fresh from Wrocław, referred from the centre for student accommodation. I loved her warm voice and soft presence, and her small childlike face. She seemed so old it almost made her ageless, like a being from another world. Usually she’d sleep on the brown couch in the living room, next to the table where we ate and the cabinet with the collection of rocks her husband had left behind. But in the summer the block heated up like a glasshouse, and sometimes, when I got up at night to go to the bathroom, I’d see her sleeping there on the tiled floor of the kitchen with the door open, large and peaceful like some creature swept up by the sea.

The door to my room was next to the rock cabinet. It held a foldable bed and a small desk one pushed aside to open the door to the balcony. We were on the seventh floor. All you could see were the tops of the other blocks, like the heads of people standing in front of you in a crowd.

You and I lived on opposite sides of the city: me to the west, you to the east, and separated by the Wisła. A tram connected us, passing through the Old Town and across the river. To the south, always visible, the gigantic Palace of Culture towered over the rest of the city.

I lived where the Ghetto had been, where the Nazis had razed everything to the ground to leave no trace of their crimes. Wola was the name of the neighbourhood, ‘Will’ or ‘Determination’ in English. The Party had rebuilt it as part of their socialist dream. A network of identical blocks stood lined up neatly like cardboard boxes, as far as the eye could see. We called this the blokowisko. There were new parks, new trees and new children, playing obliviously in-between the blocks on layers of invisible footprints and the dust of forgotten lives.

You lived in Praga, one of the few neighbourhoods that had made it almost unscathed through the war, where the Russians had waited and watched the destruction of the city by the Germans, where they had looked on without firing a bullet as the Germans destroyed Wola. As they quietly and clear-headedly decimated the Old Town, the museums, the libraries, the archives, allowing a whole world to burn into oblivion.

In the first weeks back, Warszawa was empty and hot. We walked the bright avenues and bought berries and sunflower heads from the old ladies and ate them at the Saski Gardens near me, by the hill with the white pavilion. We stopped at milk bars. We ate cool chłodnik soup, the sour milk and pink beetroot soothing our throats. We drank fruit kompot, which coloured our tongues, and for dessert, noodles with melted butter and raspberry jam. Later, full and content, we’d lie in the high grass near the zoo in Praga and watch the sky through the gaps in the solid branches of the trees above. Our words, our stories, poured forth like springs. I told you about Mother and Granny, and even about Father. How he’d left us when I was very young, how I could barely remember him. How I barely wanted to. He’d moved to Kalisz and never visited, and all we saw of him were the meagre alimony payments the postman brought every month. Mother always said he’d never wanted children, that he’d wanted her all to himself to love and control.

You listened, really listened, gentle eyes taking me in without judgement, making me feel more heard than I knew I could be. Then you told me about your family in the mountains. About your brothers, whom you had looked up to as a boy and who’d become ‘nothing’, drunks like so many others, passing out every payday, whose bodies the police picked up from the benches and pavements and left overnight in the sobering cells. You talked about your parents and their work in the sawmill. How ignorant they were of you. ‘They hardly know what this means,’ you said, looking around at the city. ‘I want to show them. They can be proud of me.’ You told me about your job, starting a week from then. ‘For the Office of Press Control,’ you half-whispered, as if pronouncing the name of a god. A shiver ran through me, made me forget it was summer.