Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

When I got to the house, Maksio and Agata were there, looking at me as if I were a ghost, asking me questions I couldn’t hear. I only saw their mouths moving. I thought I would suffocate, or faint. It was as if I hadn’t breathed at all during my run, as if I hadn’t breathed in years. There I stood and felt my head deflating, my whole being draining of air, and I began to pant like a horse after a race. I bent over, hands on my knees, trying not to drown in the emptiness, the vacuum of myself. But something inside was broken, no doubt about it.

‘Are you OK?’ asked Maksio.

I saw then that they were dressed again. I had never felt so naked in my life, so utterly vulnerable. I shook my head. Then the lights went out.

I remember I vomited during the night, convulsively. It felt like I was setting something free, ridding myself of a monster. I remember nothing else, apart from the feeling that I wasn’t in control of my body. The thought went through my mind that I might die. That I didn’t have the strength or the wits to do anything about it. That I just had to let it happen – whatever ‘it’ was going to be. And then, like something heavy and wet sliding into a black hole in the ground, I fell asleep again.

When I woke I didn’t know who I was. My mind was a clean slate, just for one beautiful moment. Until the memory came crashing down. I was lying in the bed in our room upstairs, naked under the covers. My guts and head were burning. The curtains were drawn. Faint sunlight glowed underneath and around their edges. You in the other bed, asleep. Your shoulder moved almost imperceptibly, your breathing inaudible. I pulled myself up. My body was heavy and unfamiliar; every movement felt unusual. I put on some clothes, threw the rest of my things into my bag. You didn’t stir as I walked out. I moved across the silent corridor, over the oriental carpets, downstairs to the room with the fireplace. It was cool. Empty bottles on tables, the faded smell of cigarettes. And in the middle of the room, like some bizarre offering, was a mound made up of our clothes. Outside on the veranda there was a burnt spot where a fire had been. Birds – small and fat, with orange beaks – flew around excitedly, picking at something in the dewy grass. A pair of panties. White and lacy, discarded like someone’s fantasy.

I walked out through the front door, left it open behind me – across the gravel path, through the open gate at the end of the poplared avenue. The trees and the dirt road already made me feel I was breathing more lightly. The sun was still coming up, sending butter-coloured light across the park. And I was so glad to be on this path by myself. So endlessly glad. But just when I was about to reach the road, a black limousine with tinted windows came towards me. I kept my head down, accelerated my steps, hoping it wouldn’t stop, hoping Hania’s parents – is that who was in there? – wouldn’t interrogate me. The car passed without stopping or slowing down, gravel crunching beneath its massive wheels. I reached the main road. Breathing in and out, I revelled in the emptiness. Then a church bell rang in the distance, and I decided to find it. I walked along the forest road. Horse-drawn carts with families passed by, and the ringing of the bell became more distinct. Not long after, a village appeared, along with the church. It was wooden and old, its spire almost black. People streamed in, families, old people, children in hordes. I followed them into the darkness inside. The organ was playing and a soothing cloud of heavy incense hung in the air.

I stood among boys and young men in suits, some with unruly hair, many with heavy, broad faces, burnt and weathered, blue eyes, caps in their hands held in front of their crotches. Whenever a woman came in, another boy would get up from the benches, shooed by his mother, and stand with us men, letting the woman pass. No one seemed to notice me. I was invisible in the crowd. The priest stepped up to the pulpit in white and purple robes, greeting the congregation. Then the organ started up again and everyone began to sing. The notes moved slowly through space and through the crowd, elevated, unified us, passed through the single body of us and up to the murky windows and the dark ceiling. Tears gathered in my eyes, releasing themselves. I joined in the singing.

Chapter 7

Winter came early that year. Every week pulled us deeper into its gloom, every day shorter than the last, as if time was running out. What surprised me most was how calm I was. Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe I was still in another drug-infused dimension, preternaturally wise. Or maybe it was shock. Or denial. Maybe the whole thing was just too big to comprehend. Or it didn’t mean anything yet. There were moments when I wanted to lie on the ground and feel the street’s concrete against my face. Just lie down, stop. To feel a heavy weight on me, feel my bones crack, feel myself drift off to sleep, for ever. But all this I pushed back.