Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

‘You need to hold on to what you have,’ she murmured, more to herself than to me, her veiny hands clasped around a cup of tea. ‘You never know when you’ll lose what you hold dearest.’

I nodded, pulling her in for a hug. She smelt like home, of mothballs and comfort. I thought of you.

Finally, the rains stopped. The world had been washed, and the city was still standing. Soon after, I received a note from Professor Mielewicz, asking me to come to his office the following week. I went into the bathroom with the big pair of scissors from the kitchen and began to cut my hair. Strands floated into the sink and on to the floor, lightly, like feathers, like the flocks of leaflets released by my hands. My head felt lighter. I looked at my face, smiled at myself, cut everything even. I looked good, I thought, shorn and new. Outside, the air already smelled different. Fresher, sharper – summer was gone. The autumn wind caressed my head, made it feel like new skin. The ladies walking their dogs down in the courtyards had changed into coats, wore them unbuttoned as they gossiped with one another, leashes tied around their soft wrinkled wrists. Puddles filled the holes in the streets. The flowers and berries had disappeared from the market stalls, replaced by mushrooms.

I boarded the tram, rattled along with it, saw the banks of Praga coloured in a riot of dark greens and reds. I got to your street, to your house, ran up the stairs to your door. You opened up and we held each other, my face in your neck and your warm breath in my ear like gentle whispering. Your hand caressing my new hair.

‘Is she feeling better?’ you asked in a whisper.

I nodded, holding on to you tighter. ‘Thank you,’ I said into your neck. I could feel you smiling against my cheek. I had meant to ask you again how you’d managed it, the doctor, the chicken; I’d planned the questions before coming – about Hania too, especially about her. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I was too happy to see you, too relieved. Too weary to struggle. I let myself fall on the bed. The cold air gave us goosebumps as we undressed. We found warmth beneath your covers. We tested our strengths, wrestled with the urgency of desire, conjured up heat. Our bodies like firestones. You had me and I had you. But it didn’t feel like the other times, the first times. It felt like we were settling a score, evening something out. Like we needed this, this language, this code, to know where we were, and who. And that we were both still holding on.

Afterwards you got up and switched on the radio, sitting on your haunches, turning the tune button. Your arched back defined, your ass resting on your heels. Your tan had faded, I realised, and so had mine. Finally you found a station, a piano concerto, maybe Mozart. You lit a cigarette and came back to bed, the smoke gently floating, caressing the air. I felt weightless, again like one of the leaflets I had released into the air. I closed my eyes.

‘Maybe you were right,’ I said, feeling you lie down next to me.

‘About what?’ You blew out your smoke. It mingled with the air above us.

‘About needing to stay calm and finding other ways. I was foolish.’

It felt good to say this, to shed conscience like a coat. If only the lightness would last, like another toke, another exhalation. The piano played joyfully, relentlessly. My eyes remained closed.

‘You were scared,’ you whispered. ‘But now you know that there’s no need for that.’ Your mouth covered mine. The smoke flowed from you to me, down into my lungs, filling me up, making me feel, for one moment, like I would burst.

That Saturday you and I met by the Łazienki Gardens. It was my favourite park in the city and the only place I remember visiting the one time I’d come to Warszawa as a child with Mother and Granny. We’d taken a boat on the lake, fed the swans and the squirrels, had seen the other, complete families – mothers, fathers and children. We’d visited the white palace on the island of the lake, the same palace that had been part of the king’s pleasure gardens and now served as a distraction for good workers and their families. As we were leaving, climbing up a gentle slope, we’d seen a man stacking blocks of hay under a small thatched roof. ‘Who is this for?’ Mother had asked him. She was so elegant that day; I remember the moss-green hat she wore, the matching gloves. ‘The deer,’ he’d said, and continued working. This had seemed incredible to me. That deer should live in the park, hidden from everyone’s sight.

That Saturday night, when it was already dark and the gates of the gardens were locked, I imagined them, the deer, racing unhindered through the grounds, across the untended meadows, up and down the hills, along the tree-lined paths, their hooves clattering on the gravel and stirring the sleeping swans. What freedom to live like that, protected and boundless at once.