Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski


‘Goodness,’ sighed Karolina, rolling her eyes, ‘doesn’t he tell you anything? Maksio and Hania are siblings.’

I was taken aback, without quite knowing why. ‘That makes sense, I suppose.’

‘Yes, it does,’ she said, looking at Maksio, who was now kissing the blonde. ‘The same sense of entitlement. Did you see how she dragged Janusz away from us?’

I shrugged, trying to keep my mind at bay. ‘They’re friends. Why shouldn’t she dance with him?’

A slow song was playing now, a dark, profound voice singing in English, lamenting something bygone. And the dancing couples turned and swayed in their own orbits, their own planetary paths. I couldn’t see you on the crowded dance floor. I wished it could be us out there.

‘So how are you?’ asked Karolina, seeing me look for you.

I shrugged, feeling my head spin again. ‘Good, I guess. I’m seeing Mielewicz next week. I think he’s read my proposal.’

‘And?’

‘I don’t know … He hasn’t said anything yet. But I enjoyed writing it, more than I thought I would. I’d love to do it.’

‘What if it doesn’t work out?’ She looked worried for a moment, and I wondered how real this concern was, and how much of it was bitterness concealed. Bitterness about her own situation.

‘Somehow I think it could turn out alright, you know?’ I said.

‘Wow, you’ve become awfully optimistic lately,’ she replied with only a trace of irony.

The dancing couples before us moved, parted to the sides like a curtain – revealing you. You and Hania. Entwined in your own secret constellation. Her eyes were closed, her cheek resting on your shoulder, your fingers wrapped around her gleaming sequinned waist …

I couldn’t think straight – my mind was like an erring line. But my body reacted all by itself, fossilising my insides.

‘Looks like they get on well,’ said Karolina, watching you darkly. You and Hania swayed to the waves of the song.

‘I don’t think she’s his type.’ I held on tightly to the banister of my own words.

‘Ludzio, with this house you’re everyone’s type.’ She said this without taking her eyes off you and Hania. She said it almost absent-mindedly. Then the other couples moved in their rotations and hid you from our sight again. And I looked back at Karolina. Her words remained in the air, heavy, unwilling to go away, like a fog.

‘You’re exaggerating,’ I said. ‘Since when are you such a bloody pragmatist?’

She laughed, as if to appease me. ‘Not me, Ludzio. But everyone else.’ The tip of her middle finger traced the brim of her glass. Then she looked around the room, low and mysterious with the dim light and the palm trees. Her eyes shimmered. ‘It’s beautiful here. And there are no queues for Scotch whisky.’ She clinked her glass to mine and took another deep sip.

‘You’re drunk,’ I said, feeling the drink turn bitter in my mouth. The music played on. The couples danced carelessly. ‘I need the bathroom,’ I said, and stumbled off. Someone pointed me to a door at the end of the long corridor and I slipped inside. My head was spinning. I went to the sink and splashed water over my face. The only light came from silver bulbs arranged around the wide mirror, like in a Hollywood boudoir. It made me look tired – somehow older, like Karolina had earlier. My eyes fell on a large square machine in the corner. I believe this was the first time I’d seen a washing machine with my own eyes. It glistened in the light of the room, solid and reassuring, its little round door like the entrance to a spacecraft. I thought of Granny, kneeling over a metal basin, pouring scalding water from a kettle, dipping each shirt, each sock, each handkerchief into the water, all of her life, with a block of brown soap in her sore hands – rubbing, scouring, fingers burning.

When I returned to the dancing room Karolina was gone. I sat on the couch next to a kissing couple, watched the people on the dance floor, and fell deeper and deeper into a sense of alienation. And just when I was wondering what I was doing there, and had resolved to leave, the music stopped mid-song and the lights turned off. The crowd came to a baffled standstill, and from the corridor a halo of light, and a set of deep voices began to sing: ‘Sto lat, sto lat …’ I got up to see. You and Maksio appeared in the door with a cake so big you had to hold it between the two of you. A circle of candles burned in its centre. Within an instant the whole room had joined in: ‘Sto lat, sto lat,’ they sang. ‘A hundred years, a hundred years shall you live for us.’ Even I joined in, swept up by the momentum. The cake travelled slowly through the crowd towards Hania, who stood in the middle of the room, beaming with delight. You and Maksio reached her just as the song came to an end, a storm of cheers and congratulations raging through the air, boys whistling with fingers in their mouths. Hania bent over the cake. In the darkness of the room the candles were the only source of light. They lit her face from below. She took a large breath and blew out the little flames, her eyes half-closed, her painted face strained with effort. I told myself that she looked like a witch but I hardly believed it. I couldn’t bring myself to hate her. The applause was deafening. Hania kissed Maksio on the cheek and then threw her arms around your neck. Someone called out a toast, to which the whole room lifted their glasses. And then the low lights came back on and the music started up again. I sat down, finished my drink and resolved to leave. That is when I saw you making your way towards me through the crowd with a piece of cake in each hand. You were smiling at me, but I couldn’t bring myself to smile back. Sitting down next to me, you passed me a piece of cake.