Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

I stood.

‘I need to go,’ I said, knowing it was true. Your face, your limbs – it was as if your entire being was trying to hold itself together, almost shaking from the effort of it. I couldn’t bear to see it. I averted my eyes and slid to the door like some retreating thief, stopping in my tracks when you called my name.

It sounded like an appeal, a right violated and invoked. My hand on the door handle, my back to you, heart pulsing in my temples. I could sense the word throbbing in the air. My name, claiming me. It wrapped its fingers around my shoulders and tried to hold me back. With a terrible jolt I thrust open the door and hurried down the dark of the stairs.

The night had grown colder. The street was empty. The light of the street lamps was dim and the cursing of invisible drunk men and women pierced the air. I knew you wouldn’t come after me, and most of me didn’t want you to. But without knowing why, I began to run, fuelled by some kind of elated panic. I ran as fast as I could on the frosted pavements, alongside the battered buildings, across a naked square. I ran without stopping, feeling the cold sting my lungs, feeling it rush through my head and out. Through the warren of the cobbled streets, past the golden dome of the Orthodox church, straight on towards the bridge. I ran until feeling returned to my body, until my legs became heavy, until the pain began to prickle and I was out of options, out of breath. When I stopped, I was standing on the bridge, clutching a rail, bent over like an upturned L. I drew in deep, hot, thorny breaths. My head was spinning. I closed my eyes. I held on tighter to the rail, much tighter. Until I sank to my knees and cried out in pain, and felt the cold, hard concrete push against me.

Later, when the spinning had stopped, the tremor had receded and the cold of the ground had seeped into my bones and I knew it wouldn’t save me, that maybe nothing could, I opened my eyes and heaved myself up. The city lay before me, oddly turned away from the river, oddly calm. The houses of the Old Town perched on the hill, the sharp spire of the palace to the left, the blokowiskos discernible behind. In the dark of that night it all seemed barely real.

Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t hurl myself off the bridge. I was terrified, saw no way out. But I suppose that right then, in the midst of despair, I felt the stirring of instinct again, the murmur of that voice. I brushed the dirt off my clothes and walked home with a rising fever. Somehow I knew that something would occur to me, a pact I could try to live with.

That night, plagued by hot flashes and frenetic dreams, I got out of bed and stood by the window of my little room. Outside, the city was a ghost filled with comatose trees. For a moment I thought of you in your room, calling my name as I left. I thought of all the times you had lied, trying to straddle her and me. It was then that the idea occurred to me. I knew, without having to think twice, that there was no other way.

The next morning I left early. I walked from the same spot where we’d met that night, along the avenue by the Łazienki Gardens, its trees and bushes leafless and naked now. How did my deer cope? I found the side street with the large kamienica. I pressed the button on the intercom.

‘Hello?’ Her voice clear and untainted.

‘It’s Ludwik,’ I said.

‘Oh.’ Surprise in her voice, a little pause. ‘Come on up.’

I took the lift, observed my burdened face in the mirror. The last time I’d been here with you felt like a lifetime ago.

The door to the flat was open as I came out of the lift. Hania stood beside it, with a conciliatory smile that pained me. She was wearing a sweater, a long red skirt and thick socks. We kissed on the cheek.

‘It’s good to see you,’ she said softly, and again I believed her, as I had every time she’d said it. I could hardly muster the strength to go in. The flat looked lighter and bigger than I remembered. We walked through to the splendid living room where the party had been, now flooded by winter light. She made me sit on the white couch.

‘Would you like something to drink? Grapefruit juice?’ She frowned, sensing my nervousness, maybe. ‘Some brandy?’

I shook my head.

She sat down, her long skirt falling from couch to carpet.

‘I need to apologise to you,’ she said, looking at me ruefully. ‘About the night in the country. I’m sorry the zupa was so strong. I feel terrible about the whole thing. It all went too far, and it was my fault.’ She looked embarrassed.

‘It’s OK,’ I said, feeling relieved. ‘You didn’t know. I’m sorry for taking off without a word.’