Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

‘Are you alright? You look a little … something.’

‘I’m OK,’ I lied. The cake was a layered chocolate and cream affair, surprisingly heavy and wet. I could feel it through the flimsy, Bible-paper-thin napkin.

‘Have some,’ you said, biting into your piece. ‘It’s good.’

‘I don’t feel like it.’

You wiped your mouth with the back of your hand and looked me over.

‘What is it?’

For a moment I said nothing, determined to punish you through silence. But then the need to speak up became inevitable and the words came to me all at once, rising up and taking shape like a balloon.

‘She’s your contact, isn’t she?’ I said.

To my surprise your face remained relaxed, unconcerned.

You took another bite from the cake. ‘Is that your problem?’ You said this with your mouth full. It disgusted me, and I realised then that your power over me went so unthinkingly far beyond the physical. You swallowed and looked at me. ‘Yes, she is. So?’

‘So?’ I looked you over, braced myself to continue, trying not to leave the path of confrontation I had chosen. ‘She’s in love with you, Janusz. Clearly so. And you’re leading her on.’

‘Keep your voice down, will you?’ There was urgency in your tone, and you put the half-finished piece of cake back on to the napkin with an irritated look. ‘Stop being so dramatic. Aren’t we having fun? Just enjoy. Enjoy it, Ludwik.’

‘Enjoy?’ I was stunned, confused, searched your face for an explanation that would give all this some meaning. ‘Do you think this is fun for me, watching you two dancing together like lovers?’

You surveyed the room with one quick look and leaned into me, your mouth by my ear.

‘I told you I can take care of things for us. Don’t you trust me?’

I moved away from you, from your words. ‘You think you’re doing me a favour with this? I can do without that sort of help.’ I made to get up but you held me back.

‘Oh yeah? You’d rather let Pani Kolecka cough herself to death?’ You looked at me challengingly then. ‘Everyone is leading someone on,’ you continued, your eyes narrowed. ‘Isn’t that what you say? That the country is mismanaged, that everything is unfair? So what’s wrong with taking things into your own hands and not letting yourself go under? Huh?’

My untouched piece of cake had soaked through the napkin, lying sticky and heavy in my hand. I looked at you, your previously familiar features, and it seemed like your face had transformed before my eyes. There was a tightness around your eyes and lips that I had never seen before. Out on the dance floor, Hania swayed softly in the arms of the blond guy with the sunglasses. She looked serene. The boy’s face was immobile, only his mouth opened to smile from time to time, revealing a set of perfect white teeth.

‘There must be other ways,’ I said quietly.

You looked weary. ‘Oh yeah? Which ones? Tell me.’

‘I don’t know. Going away, for example.’

‘You mean running away?’ You looked at me imploringly. ‘Trust me. I am not promising her anything. I am not hurting her.’

‘Not yet,’ I said.

‘I can handle it,’ you insisted. ‘There is no harm in this. And it needs to be done.’

‘Why? Tell me. There is nothing we need from them any more. Pani Kolecka is healthy again. We’re fine now.’

Your face distorted, hardened again. ‘You still don’t understand, do you? We will need something again soon enough. Life is full of these times. And how will we cope then?’

I tried to assemble my thoughts, to resist. But nothing came.

‘You’re the one who didn’t see a future in our country,’ you said, your voice soothing. ‘Here it is.’

I followed your eyes, taking in that splendid room. Among the people dancing I saw Karolina, with her arms around a boy I’d never seen before, a glowing cigarette drooping from her fingers.

‘You’ll get to know them,’ you went on, encouraged by my silence. ‘You’ll see. I told Hania about your doctorate – she seemed impressed. We’re having dinner on Wednesday night at Mozaika. She said you should come.’

Again, I said nothing. The night was growing old, and behind the wide windows of the splendid room, darkness was giving way to another morning.