He arranged to meet Zofia at eight. She called in the morning and asked to see him. He thought “No.” He said “OK.” He regretted it afterwards, but it was too late. She seemed upset. She stuttered on the phone and inhaled loudly while talking.
“I have to see you,” she said. “I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t really important.”
As always he felt powerless when faced with this quiet, low voice, with her emphasized “w” and “m” pronounced too nasally, as if a little fidgety animal settled deep in her throat and tickled her pharynx with its tail. He automatically gave into the emotion, before he could even think, before he could remember that all those gracefully sounding syllables were not his any more. Delicate, elegant Zofia with her cute speech impediment had stopped noticing him. And yet she called… Why? What for? Has something happened? Again he felt worried. Zofia was always surrounded by a certain mystique. That was what attracted him to her. From the moment they met.
She was the last one to arrive on Thursdays. She sat by the wall during meetings. Didn’t say much and left quietly without saying goodbye to anybody. At first she caused certain discomfort but eventually everybody got used to her silent presence. Every now and then the leader asked her a question, which she answered briefly and matter-of-factly. Others quickly lost interest. Everybody but him. He waited for Zofia every Thursday. He furtively watched her white hands, her brown, moist eyes, her auburn hair veiling her face. After a month, not asking for permission, he moved from his seat in the circle and sat by the wall. He invited her out for coffee on that same day. Two weeks later, the leader summoned them for a serious conversation. He forbade them to remain in touch privately and told them to sit separately. He didn’t beat about the bush, he said explicitly that he wouldn’t tolerate insubordination in the group. He mainly addressed Zofia.
“I’ve been watching you for a longer while,” he said. “I don’t understand why you bother coming here at all. You need to ask yourself. You are a bad influence on others.”
She listened to him composedly, then grabbed her coat and bag.
“OK.” She turned around in the doorstep. “I won’t be back here.”
He ran after her. He knew he would not be able to go back to the meetings but that didn’t bother him at all. That was the beginning of the three most beautiful months in his life.
He lowered his head and flinched, as if the sight of his own hands surprised and scared him. Old feelings came back in a quivering, rocking wave. Three months, he winced. Three months of believing that he had become really important to somebody. It didn’t last long… The affair ended as suddenly as it had started. They didn’t even get to know each other well. He knew so little about her… But he didn’t ask about anything. He preferred for their love to blossom slowly, to get more powerful, to gather momentum. He didn’t want to press her, didn’t want to rush things. He dreamed about spending holidays together, he waited to be finally introduced to her parents. Then he would move in with her, they would renovate the place, buy a double bed… In time they would buy a bigger flat for children… For three months, he made more and more far-reaching plans for the future, he felt calm and certain. And then everything suddenly ended. Zofia stopped answering his calls. He went there to check what was up with her. He knocked on the door. She didn’t open, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was somebody inside. He sat on the stairs and could hear muffled conversation, some shuffling and squeaking of the floor. For the first time in three months, he thought about Thursday meetings, and he was filled with fear. He went back home. The following day he went there again. She opened but didn’t let him in. She blocked the entrance. It immediately came to his head that somebody was hiding behind her back. A lover?, he thought and felt so despaired and so weak that he had to lean against the wall. Zofia’s large, moist eyes examined him with seriousness.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have dealt with it this way, but…”
He heard his own loud, uneven breath. He could feel he was going pale. He felt dizzy.
“Something’s happened,” she added emphatically. “We can’t see each other anymore.”
And that was it. Like a guillotine cut. No explanations, no justifications. They met one more time, and she repeated the exact same words: some changes took place in her life, and as a result, they won’t be seeing each other anymore. Her eyes lost their former softness. They became cold and assertive. “Some changes” – that must have meant somebody else, of that he was sure.
The following Thursday, he tried getting back into the circle. They didn’t accept him back, but the leader set individual meetings. He didn’t try to hide the fact that he was very concerned. He said that the shock of the relationship with Zofia could have serious repercussions, not just for him but for the whole group. He went on and on about the responsibility, obligations, accepted rules of conduct. Then he asked him in detail about his relationship with Zofia: what they did during those three months, where they met, and what they talked about. He felt that the leader was too pushy, too nosey, but he still tried to answer the questions. Not much came out of it. He suffered from some strange amnesia. There was nothing left in his memory but despair slowly turning into rage and uncontrollable jealousy. If Zofia didn’t want to be with him, she couldn’t, she had no right to be with anybody else!
And then today she called, he thought. Has she decided to apologise after all? His heart started beating faster. To go back and make up after she used him and pushed him away? What was she thinking? He felt humiliated when he thought about the past weeks, about all those pleading attempts to reconnect, teary phone calls, letters, sleepless nights. He kept trying to approach Zofia, force her to talk to him, find the bygone intimacy which surely couldn’t just disappear, evaporate without a trace… He still thought he would find the right words and convince her, break the spell, and the old, delicate Zofia would pop up in front of him, his Zofia! But she remained determinedly indifferent, distant, alien… He jumped up from the chair and started circling the room, raising his hands to his face, pulling his hair, which was falling onto his forehead. He went to the window. He looked out at the wet ugly city: grey pavements covered with mud and thawing snow, colourless facades of blocks of flats opposite. Sometimes a faint figure flickered in a window. Several people stood in front of the local shop, stomping their feet and hunching under their umbrellas. She used him, as if he was a thing, an inanimate object, which can be used and disposed of and not a living, feeling being. A human being. A man, he corrected himself. He started pacing the room again, turning abruptly by the door and the opposite wall, to stop briefly by the window. Tens of blocks of flats in each direction, heavy, dreary, with a slightly musty smell. In small flats built of concrete, strangers pottered around. Same concrete modules in vertical and horizontal lines. Same tables, beds and armchairs inside. Almost identical men and women cooking lunch, watching telly together, going to the bathroom to have a hot bath or to take a piss. Does she know, does she realise how badly she had hurt him?! He checked his watch. It was almost one.
All day long, he couldn’t shake off the feeling of utmost exasperation. He tried surfing the net, he watched two episodes of Brigada, a Russian TV series about the mafia. Early in the afternoon, he went to the local gym. For an hour he ran, then lifted weights and did sit-ups. He wanted to switch off, to think only of Sasha, Kosmos, Pchela and Fil, the brutal, the risk-taking protagonists of the series. At the end, he went to sauna and took a cold shower. When he got back home, he took the milk out of the fridge and sat at the table. He drank straight from the carton in long, slow gulps. His earlier irritation turned into hard, brutal fury. He thought again about the morning conversation and realised that Zofia hadn’t called to make up. Her voice sounded hesitant but not reconciliatory. Short, matter-of-factly sentences, no “I’ve missed you” or “I’m happy that I’ll see you soon.” Only curt “Goodbye” at the end of the conversation. Bitch, he thought, staring at a plane climbing up. Grey, dense clouds were torn by a tattered weal. But what could Zofia want from him?, he asked himself for the hundredth time this day. Doesn’t matter. It will be his moment. She invited him, so will have to listen patiently to what he has to say. He imagined himself entering her flat, telling her to sit down and explaining everything briefly, concisely, in a confident tone. And her, finally understanding… But what if she won’t want to listen? He could hit her or even tie her down. Cover her mouth with a piece of tape and watch her as she cries soundlessly, petrified, helpless, at his mercy. The plane soared higher and disappeared above the clouds. Somebody put some loud dance music on in the flat above. He could hear muffled laughter and the sound of small, quick steps.
It was almost half past six. He shoved the milk back into the fridge. He put on his short, ribbed jacket, gloves, and sport shoes. He pulled the cotton hood over his head. The wind outside was strong and bitter; wet snow covered and immediately drenched his shoes. But he still didn’t turn towards the metro. He walked stubbornly along KEN Avenue, not stopping, not getting out of anybody’s way. He could see Zofia’s face in front of his eyes, her wide mouth, straight nose, a small mole in the corner of her eye, and her averted gaze when she said “You must finally understand that I don’t want anything to do with you.” He recalled his own distress, his fear and burning feeling of rejection. He sped up, in the end he broke into a run, fuelled by his grief and helpless anger. “Yob tvoyu mat’!”, “Srat’ tebye v rot!”, he repeated, mechanically mimicking the voice of one of Brigada characters. He only stopped in Służewiec, went down onto a platform, and took the metro to Racławicka where again he started along a street blanketed with snow, walking past lit windows of cafes, businesses and small corner shops. Right after the school sports grounds he turned into a gate and almost bumped into an elderly man wearing a thick, woollen coat and a fur hat.
“Idi na khuy!” he barked and then brutally pushed through, sending the man into a wall.
He could barely catch his breath. Stubborn thoughts went round and round, making him sickly light headed. Thick drops of sweat trickled down his face.
Zofia came back home before five. She put the shopping bag down on the kitchen table, took her soaked shoes off and went to the bathroom, leaving wet footmarks on the floor. She lay in the bathtub and thought about how much more complicated her life had become in the past three months. And whose fault is it?, she wondered, wringing out a sponge. “Whose fault is it?”, she repeated out loud. I attract bad luck like a magnet, she went on thinking. She got up and grabbed the soap. The more I like somebody, the bigger psycho he proves to be. Is it that, for some unknown reasons, only madmen find me attractive? Or perhaps it is actually me who seeks their company. She rinsed off the suds. She got out of the tub and wrapped a towel around her head. She took grey tracksuit bottoms and warm, woollen socks out of a wicker basket. She watched her face in the mirror for a moment. What am I supposed to do now?, she asked her own reflection. What am I to do?
Despite her worries the person in the mirror definitely wasn’t going to let herself look tired or unkempt. Zofia put two fingers on her cheeks and stretched the skin gently towards her temples. She raised her eyebrows then grabbed the face powder and mascara. Refreshed and carefully made up, she left the bathroom. She made some tea in the kitchen. She put two cups and a plate with puff pastries on the counter. Suddenly she froze mid-step and stared into the table as if trying to decide something important. Eventually she grabbed her mobile phone and dialled the same number twice, unsuccessfully. In the end, she left a voicemail.
“I want to cancel our meeting,” she said, lowering her voice to sound more adamant. “Something important came up. I’m really sorry. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She looked hesitantly at the phone. There was no guarantee that the message would be received in time. She stood there for a while, drumming her fingers nervously on the windowsill. Then she shrugged and sat down on the window seat. It was almost seven. She looked at the small square enveloped in mist and the abandoned construction site separated from the street by a wooden fence. A lonely rook crouched on a dark maple branch. She needed to make certain decisions and face their consequences. In theory, no solution seemed good. She was trapped, there was no way out. The rook shook its head, ruffled its feathers, and hobbled sideways towards the tree trunk. Zofia pulled her knees up. Wind chased a plastic cup in the dark street. She closed her eyes.
Quarter past seven the house intercom buzzed. She sighed and pressed the button by the door without uttering a word. And then, following a sudden impulse, she grabbed her bag, which was lying under a coat rack. Determined, she took out the doctor’s paperwork. Walking towards the bathroom, she ripped it into small pieces and then chucked it down the toilet.
“I’m in the bathroom,” she shouted when she heard the door slam. “I’ll be with you in a moment,” she added, flushing.
And then she felt a strong blow to her temple. One, then another. It didn’t hurt. She wasn’t scared. She just felt terribly weary. Who’s that? she wanted to ask before she fell asleep, but blood was the only thing that came out of her open mouth. She tried to turn around and look at her attacker, but she only groaned and slumped into deep darkness.