Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski



You were waiting for me in the light of a street lamp. You wore a brown corduroy jacket and your hair was combed to the side, like that time you’d stopped me in the street in your suit, the day of the flyers. Like that day, you looked like a different person, and this both scared and excited me.

‘Very chic,’ I said, clicking my tongue, hiding my discomfort.

You smiled. ‘You look great too.’

I’d worn my only jacket, a white shirt and my good shoes. ‘Are you sure it’s not strange for me to go to her party?’

You laughed briefly and placed your hand on the back of my neck. ‘There’ll be lots of people there. You’ll blend right in.’

We walked down the avenue along the park, past the tall government buildings patrolled by soldiers in berets. Only some windows were illuminated, the rest dark and dormant. You led us into a side street, lined by pre-war buildings with large balconies on each floor. In front of us a woman in a fur coat and high heels was walking a sausage dog, her coat as shiny as her pet, a cigarette burning lazily in her gloved fingers. We stopped by a large entrance gate.

You pressed a button on the domofon, and a crackling man’s voice came from the grid, asking who it was. You said your name. There was a buzzing noise and you pushed the massive door open with the weight of your whole body.

I had never been to a house like this. It was a splendid kamienica, an apartment building from before the war, one of the few that had survived. The entrance hall was high and vaulted, the ceiling covered in stucco flowers. A carpet led towards another set of doors, revealing a staircase, old and curved, with iron railings. You called the lift. We got in and rose weightlessly in the little silent box. In the glow of the single light bulb we inspected ourselves in the mirror. We looked serious and strangely put together, more grown-up than I’d ever seen us. The lift came to a halt and we got out, and you rang the bell by a wide double door. Subdued music and chatter emanated from behind it. Footsteps approached, the door opened and a hulking figure appeared.

‘Janusz!’ He opened his arms wide and you embraced, kissing each other on the cheek. It took me a moment to realise it was the friend I’d seen you with at camp, Maksio Karowski. He wore a velvet jacket and a shirt with a big collar, and had the same confident and indifferent way about him that had struck me before. We shook hands, his almost crushing mine.

‘Nice to meet you,’ he said, his hand strong and warm, something about his momentary attention making me feel strangely charmed.

We followed him through a wood-panelled corridor into a large room filled with smoke and people. Music blasted throughout the place, hot and loud, rockingly hypnotic. Couples danced in the middle of the room or lay spread out on a white yeti carpet. The only light came from lamps on the floor, one by a large television, another behind a pair of giant palm trees in pots. Maksio led us to the end of the room, where grand bay windows looked out on to the dark and seemingly infinite treetops of the park.

‘Help yourself,’ he said, pointing to a table covered in bottles and plates. ‘I need to check on somebody.’ He winked at us and disappeared in the crowd.

There were vodkas and whiskies and gins and vermouths, and bottles I had never seen before, and colourful plates of aspic meats and pineapple rings and cheese cubes. I wanted to taste everything. I ate some grapes and downed some whisky, feeling the liquid’s journey through my body, earthy and sweet and unburdening. The music and the laughter of the people all merged in my mind, spinning me into its net. I didn’t recognise anyone in the dim light of the room, every silhouette seemed equally important and glamorous: girls in dresses and clogs and hair piled high, boys in high-waisted blue jeans and tight shirts and jackets.

‘This place is out of this world!’ I cried into your ear, over the sound of the music, and you nodded and your mouth formed the words I know.

We had another drink and had just started to move to the music when an arm snaked itself around my waist from behind, orange fingernails and dangling bracelets.

‘I almost didn’t recognise you with that hair, handsome,’ said a mouth by my ear.

It was Karolina. Lips the colour of pomegranates, lashes large and thick and heavy with mascara like clotted spider legs.

‘What are you doing here?’ I pressed her against me, relieved to see a familiar face.

‘I was invited, I swear!’ she cried, taking my head in-between her hands, kissing me on the mouth. I could feel her lipstick rubbing off, the petrol smell of her breath.