Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski



‘You’re busy?’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘C’mon, just for one drink. We’ve been saying how much we’ve missed you.’

I could see your fingers closing tight around the strap of your bag. You wore an expression I found impossible to read.

‘I can’t tonight,’ you finally said. ‘I’m sorry. Next time.’

She looked at you for a while, until a smile curled itself around her lips. ‘Fine. But no excuses for my birthday party. At the end of the month. You’re coming. Yes?’

You nodded. She kissed you goodbye and ran off, her boots beating on the concrete. We stood for a moment without speaking, the air strangely charged. You looked gloomy, worried even.

‘Everything OK?’ I asked.

You nodded, without looking at me. ‘All good. Let’s go.’

‘Do you think she saw us?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t think so.’ Again your face was inscrutable.

We climbed a set of narrow stairs lined by a large stone wall. Behind it lay the nuns’ convent, their cloister with its orchards and grazing cows, and new residential blocks towering just above.

A group of boys in tight jeans came towards us, walking down the narrow passageway. One held a small, heavily made-up girl around the waist, while another, with a sharp face and gelled-back hair, looked you up and down with curious eyes. You noticed him and your face seemed to harden; you looked away. We reached the top of the bridge and waited at the traffic lights. To our right lay the city, the neon lights of the tall buildings glistening, advertising clubs and restaurants, to our left the Wisła and the dark shore of Praga. I thought I could sense your restlessness. You looked at me from the side.

‘What is it?’ I said.

You looked ahead, at the red light. ‘I think it’s better if I spend tonight by myself.’ You sounded careful, circumscribed. ‘Just tonight.’

‘Why?’

‘I need some time alone.’

I looked into your eyes, trying to discern what this meant. Your look was steady.

‘I’m just tired,’ you said. ‘I need to rest. Alright? I’ll see you soon.’

‘Is it because of Hania?’

You shook your head, not looking at me. ‘Don’t overthink it.’

The light turned green and a tram appeared. We said goodnight, our hands in our pockets, and then you crossed over without turning back.

Three days passed and no message came. Rather than drive myself crazy, I caught a rattling tram to the other side of the river. You opened the door shirtless, holding a razor in your hand. You seemed surprised to see me, but not displeased. You invited me in. There was a water bowl on your desk, and a little mirror propped against a pile of books.

‘I’m just getting ready to go out,’ you said, sitting down and running a hand over your stubble. ‘A drink. My boss invited us to his place.’ You tried to sound casual and threw me a glance as if to test my reaction. I was calm. You took up the razor and looked at yourself again. ‘Can we see each other tomorrow? At the pool?’

I nodded, relieved to have some certainty. ‘Sure. Have fun tonight.’ I managed to say this without sounding sarcastic. You stood and kissed me hard on the mouth, razor still in hand.

I went to a student cafe near campus and prepared for my interview with the board that would take place if I passed into the next round. I’d come to like my topic on Baldwin’s analysis of racism in America. Professor Mielewicz had praised it too, saying I’d be the first in the country to examine it. It made me think that throughout my life, up to this point, everything I’d done had felt either irrelevant or replaceable. Here, for the first time, was something wholly mine, something that needed me in order to exist. I was expecting news from the professor any day now. I tried to remain hopeful.

When the cafe closed, I took my things and made my way home. It was a balmy night, maybe the last one of the year, and so I decided to walk, taking the long route. I walked towards the Old Town, where the lights had been switched off for the night. Couples sat kissing at the foot of King Zygmunt’s Column or leaning against the walls of the reconstructed castle. I walked through the little narrow streets, past the cathedral, and out on to the old market square, which was almost empty except for some tourists taking photos of the restored baroque facades. The sky was a square, drawn by the high roofs of those houses. And then I heard the faint but steady sound of a saxophone, with a bass chasing after it. The melody drifted through the air, little more than a whisper of jazz.