“I’m gonna wait till she reaches the crosswalk then run her over,” I explained calmly, despite the fear that crept inside me. It no longer seemed so easy, but I was glad I wasn’t alone.
One crime that changes the life of five young people forever. All of them finally make it into a big city, all of them are independent, making their own decisions for the first time. Thinking what possibilities the city would give them, they think they will make their dreams come true. Life is supposed to be fun and easy for young and full of hope people, but what if they are wrong and nothing goes as planned. What if life serves you curved balls one after another? What will you do to help yourself in a hapless situation? Will you kill to save your life?
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright: ©2021 by Karolina Wójciak
All rights reserved.
Original title: Matylda
Translated by: Anna Standowicz-Chojnacka
Edited by: Jeni Chappelle
For more information please contact:
To Marta Kaczmarek
for having read every word I wrote.
Every single one and there are hundreds of thousands of them!
To Marta Susło
for her faith in me and my writing.
“How are you going to do it, then?”
“I’m gonna wait till she reaches the crosswalk then run her over,” I explained calmly, despite the fear that crept inside me. It no longer seemed so easy, but I was glad I wasn’t alone.
“You’ve got some balls, man.”
We stared at the entrance door of her apartment building, waiting for her to come out. It was so dark that we had to strain our eyes. Whenever a person came out, we asked each other if it was her; in that black winter jacket, she was unrecognizable. We agreed that it had to be her because both the time and place were right. As she walked down the sidewalk toward us, I pulled out without turning the headlights on.
I had thought I would hit her so hard that her body would fly up into the air then thud aside and she’d be dead in an instant. But the speed was too low. The impact only knocked her over, and she fell under the wheels.
Running over her whole body was a terrifying experience. Firstly, the noise of her body hitting the chassis was the same as driving on a bumpy road. Secondly, it happened so quickly that when I stopped the car I didn’t know what to do next. We were both petrified.
“Run her over again,” Kamil suggested after a while. “You know, just in case she’s still alive.”
We couldn’t stay here. I had to make a quick decision.
I hesitated for a moment then put the car in reverse, but at the same moment, a dog barked so close to us. I shifted gears and took off.
Ten months before…
Everything about me was average. The skin, the hair, the figure, even the IQ. An ordinary girl, one among millions of similar girls on this planet. I didn’t have anything in me that could draw other people’s attention, anything that would make me stand out. After all, mousy hair, hazel eyes and pale complexion are all characteristics of a typical Pole. Well, what did I expect, having such average parents?
Once, we were sitting at a table, eating Sunday dinner.
“Do you guys still talk with each other?” I asked.
They looked at each other, surprised by my question, but for a long time, neither of them knew what to say. Finally, Mom broke the silence.
“Of course,” she said, putting another helping of salad on her plate. “Every day.”
“Really?” I was dubious. “So what did you talk about today?” I set my cutlery aside, ready to confront them, turning my eyes from one to the other.
“And why are you being so nosy?” Mom was trying to avoid giving me an answer. Then she called Dad out. “Tadeusz, say something.”
“Mom told me today that you were going to come,” Dad spoke finally, without even looking at me.
“Is that all?” I raised an eyebrow, disappointed with their answers. “You no longer talk about your passions, your life, your expectations, your plans? About the things that worry you, about those that make you happy, that make a day special? Oh, I don’t know…about anything that’s happened…?”
“Well, yes, about that as well,” Mom agreed and stretched her arm with a serving dish in my direction. “Help yourself. I bought fresh vegetables today in the marketplace…”
She paused for a moment and then started talking about a cousin of mine, whose mother she met by chance, pushing her way through the crowd in the marketplace. That woman, in turn, had some interesting news about the life of another mutual friend.
It didn’t surprise me at all that she changed subject. Other people’s lives were more interesting than theirs. No emotions, major changes or adventures. Every day the same. Sometimes I pitied them because the worst of all was that they didn’t consider it a problem. They seemed used to the state of affairs and stopped hoping for something different, something better. As if their lives had ended and they were only waiting for the Grim Reaper to come for them.
I hated it so much that I made every effort to infuse them with more life. But whenever I mentioned traveling or meeting new people, they would only shrug, indifferent. Mom maintained that they appreciated peace and quiet after so many years of hard work, which was just a name for a boring and passive life. They were like dead already – just eating, breathing and taking care about their basic needs It was so sad to see them gave up so quickly.
But I couldn’t complain about my family. They gave me everything I needed, but I felt like I was invisible. Their upbringing didn’t teach me to be self-confident or to have faith in my own abilities or to have the courage to take risks in life. I had to force myself to do all that, persuading myself that everybody wrestles with the same problem, at least to some extent. I tried to convince myself that people only pretended to be self-confident, that I only saw an outer shell, a sort of camouflage, but in fact they fought internal battle, just like mine.
My situation was even more difficult, because my parents simply prevented me from taking on any challenges that could have negative consequences. They would explain to me that risk and adrenalin were bad advisors and warn me against anything that was new and unknown. Maybe they thought so because I was their only child and, if anything had happened to me, their life would have completely lost meaning.
My life was finally about to change because in the last year of my studies I got an internship at a big company. They only chose a small group, the best.
I only managed to do it because I worked in the university administration and, according to the HR department, I had an interesting job profile. Like everything in my life, I didn’t really deserve it. Suspecting there was some kind of misunderstanding and somebody else’s data was in my folder instead of mine, I smiled. But I never voiced my thoughts, just in case they’d take the internship away from me. I also wanted to believe that this job was meant for me, that it would be my first true, adult challenge that would give me wings.
More than anything in the world, I wanted to leave that mediocrity, that being average in every way, behind.
My first day at work was overwhelming. First, I worked with a girl who made me painfully aware of the fact that she would rather be someplace else than waste her time on a newbie. I met a lot of people but couldn’t remember anyone. All the faces merged into one, big white-collar worker. With each new person I was introduced to, I faked a smile, repeated my name and walked away, dazed. Everything happened so fast, and with each passing minute, I felt more and more overwhelmed.
After a while, I started working like a robot: mechanically shook hands and received congratulations. Every now and then, I saw people with documents, who presented graphs to some big clients. They talked about things that didn’t make sense to me at all. I don’t recall ever hearing the terms they were using.
Nevertheless, all this made me feel special. As if I had gotten to NASA.
My guide hastily showed me the most important places in the office, talking so fast that some words merged into one foreign-sounding, meaningless expression. After a sprint through the hall, she finally stopped beside an open-space cubicle with a small desk, a laptop and a chair. Explaining that sooner or later someone would come to me, she ordered me to organize my workspace and left me alone.
It felt like I was visiting someone at work, as if it wasn’t my job. I kept standing up to check what the people next to me were doing. When I watched them, it was like a scene from Matrix. Everybody in suits, ready to be summoned before the board at any second.
I used this moment of solitude to gather my thoughts, or rather, to switch my thinking off. To rest. Wondering what I could do to make this tiny space cozier, I flopped down on the chair. Besides the laptop and a desk lamp, which suggested working nights—in other words, overtime—there was nothing else there.
The admin dropped in. He had barely introduced himself when he showed me how to log into the systems, gave me the passwords, safeguards, and token —everything with lightning speed. Then he disappeared, leaving me even more dumbfounded. Every time I thought it couldn’t get more overwhelming, something new happened and proved me wrong. I don’t know why I expected it to be easier, slow, more personal. This was how it was at a big corporation, right?
I expected that somebody would come to help me find my place there, but watching the hustle and bustle, I figured the person who was responsible for that had probably gotten consumed by the crush of work. Trying to reset my mind, I took a deep breath, went to the kitchen, and stood in line for the coffee machine. Nobody even stopped talking when I approached them. As if they hadn’t noticed that I’d joined them. I wondered if they took me for one of the permanent employees or if there were so many new faces there that they no longer paid attention to the people around them, and only focused on people they knew. Having taken my phone out of the pocket, I pretended to be busy and started reading some gossip site.
“Are you new here?” a voice beside me asked.
“Yes.” I lifted my eyes.
A man stood right in front of me. I couldn’t recall him standing there. Either he’d wedged himself in or he’d joined someone who had already been standing there. Or maybe I was so good at pretending to be busy that I’d missed his arrival. I would certainly have spotted a man of his appearance right away. He was so ginger that I gasped. Even his eyelashes were red. He was all ginger. For the first time had I seen someone so ginger so close. He stepped in my personal space, so trying to figure out how to back off, I shifted from foot to foot and backed away from him to a safer distance.
“Karol.” He held out his hand.
His handshake was so strong. From the moment I lifted my eyes through that handshake, his energy was almost palpable.
It was his turn to make the coffee, and he chatted me up, pushing the buttons on the coffee machine. “Which department did you land in?”
“In the sales department.”
“Did you graduate from the Faculty of International Relations?”
“I’m still a student,” I said. “Last year. I’m an intern.”
“Welcome in the team.” The same slogan that everybody seemed to use here. It wouldn’t surprise me if the security guard downstairs said the same thing to all the interns going through the turnstiles in the building entrance.
“And which department are you from?” I asked trying to keep the conversation going.
“The same.” He smiled. “I’m the manager.”
“Oh!” I said, gaping.
I didn’t know how to react. Should I speak so openly with the manager? I wanted to say something, to sparkle with wit, to show that I was funny and clever, but my mediocrity claimed me like a repo man.
So I said nothing. Nothing.
My “Oh!” hung in the air, and Karol smiled, showing a row of even, perfectly white teeth. It crossed my mind that he was white and red, like the Polish flag, and I smiled at the goofy connotation.
“Calm down.” He gave me the eye. “I’m not the CEO. Yet. I’ll send you an email with some tasks so you don’t spend all day doing nothing. The golden rule is that if you occupy yourself with work, you forget the stress.”
“OK,” I hastily agreed.
With a mug of steaming coffee, he left, and I stared at the buttons of the machine offering me so many choices between different coffees. Finally, I pressed a random one.
I came back to my cubicle, and trying to figure out the notes the admin had left me, I logged into the system. Giving myself some time to understand the procedures, I slowed my movements down. I probably looked like an elderly lady who got her first computer and was afraid of pressing anything that could destroy it.
There were already two emails in my inbox, one welcoming me in the team and another containing a request to deliver documents to the HR department. The welcoming email was probably twenty pages long and included all the necessary information: extensions of the people I’d contact, Xerox machine codes, dress code, rules for parking, going out for lunch and for a cigarette break and even rules for using the elevator. In a word, everything that someone could think of asking. I read carefully every single page.
When I finished, a new email appeared—the red Karol asking me to go downstairs to pick up a parcel from the courier. In the attachment, there was the tracking number and a short memo authorizing me for pickup. In addition, he told me to take my iPad along.
I rummaged through the drawers. To my surprise, in one of them there was a smartphone and an iPad, both charged and waiting for me. Apparently they had been previously used by someone else, but technology-wise they were still better than what I had personally.
Feeling as if I were the president of the company, I took the elevator downstairs and sat in an armchair near an artificial pond, waiting for the parcel. Through the glass walls, I saw a man arrive by bike and chain it to a metal no parking sign. When he turned around, on his backpack I noticed a tagline advertising his company as the best and the fastest service in the city. He came inside and walked up to the security guard’s desk.
I approached him and immediately took two steps aside. He reeked like a homeless man. He was so sweaty that the hair on his forehead congealed in wet tufts, glued to his skin. Shiny trickles of perspiration ran down from his temple to his chin, dripping to his chest. Under his arms there were stains so big they reached almost to his waist. With the back of his hand, he wiped his chin, but the gesture left a black smudge. Even his hands were dirty.
“This parcel is for me,” I told the security guard.
“Tracking number,” said the man, opening his backpack.
I read the numbers out from my device and showed him the authorization—from afar.
He must have understood my actions because he said stiffly, with a scornful look on his face, “Not everybody has a job where they can sit and smell nice.”
I didn’t react. It’s not that I didn’t have respect towards physical laborers. I thought they deserved even more recognition for the hardship and discomfort they had to deal with. But the reek created a bodily reaction in me I couldn’t suppress. Like when I met Karol beside the coffee machine.
I scolded myself for not being able to pretend, not being able to bluff. Mask my natural reflexes. My behavior was disgraceful, and I felt ashamed, but I didn’t have the courage to simply apologize and explain it to him.
Silently, I picked the parcel up, and he left without a word.
I heard a grunt. Smiling at me, the security guard asked me if there was anything else he could do for me, and I realized that I had been standing there for too long, so I shook my head and moved towards the elevator.
When I brought him the parcel, Karol was talking on the phone. With a gesture, he indicated the desk, so I gently put the documents down. At the same moment, he lifted his finger, which stopped me from leaving. He wrote something on a Post-it and gave it to me. A request for a coffee. My job description didn’t include making coffee, but I couldn’t refuse. When I left, I stopped for a moment beside his secretary’s desk.
“Excuse me.” I spoke quietly to the girl gazing at the computer screen. “I wanted to ask you what kind of coffee I should prepare for Karol.”
“Is he still on the phone?” she asked, taking her eyes off the display.
The first thing that caught my eye was her perfect skin. I felt like touching her skin to find out if it was as soft as it looked like. She was beautiful, fresh, and so delicate. As if she’d been painted by someone.
“Come, I’ll show you,” she offered, standing up from her desk.
Together we went to the kitchen. While she explained to me how to prepare the coffee for the boss, I stared slack-jawed at her movements. Not a single piece of information stayed in my head, I was sure of that.
“Too much going on?” She understood me immediately.
“Yeah, I guess so.” I drew in a breath. “It feels like my brain is switching off. And I have no idea if it’s because I’m stressed, overloaded, or whether I have always been like that, only I haven’t noticed before.”
“That’s a good one!” She smiled broadly. “It’s not you. It’s this place. The same thing happened to me in the beginning. If you need anything, just come to me and I’ll help. What’s your name, anyway?”
“Matilda.” I held out my hand. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m afraid I’ll make use of it quite often.”
“Gosia.” She shook my hand firmly. “Don’t mention it. Come whenever you feel overwhelmed. Our interns either go to Pete and support the sales department or to Karol and support the both of us. Do you already know you’ll be working for?”
“Well, I got an email with names, but nobody told me anything. I was sure that someone would tell me exactly what to do, who to go to…”
“On Friday there was a lot of commotion in the office, and probably not much changed over the weekend so they’ve been making do since this morning. I’m sure they’ll take interest in you soon. Besides, tonight there’s a small farewell party for a girl from our department. She and her husband are moving to another city. We’re meeting in a club for a round. I’ll send you the invitation email.”
“Thanks, but I’m not sure if she’ll want to see me at her farewell party.”
“Oh, come on.” Gosia put the coffee on a saucer in my hands. “The company is paying for the grub and a drink. People are going because they have to, not because they want to have fun. It’s an official farewell. There will be an unofficial one too, where there will only be people who worked with her directly. From now on, you’re on the team, so you have to go, whether you like it or not. Come on, take the opportunity to have some free snacks.
She urged me on with the coffee and went for a cigarette break on the top floor of the building, where a small terrace had been converted into a smoking area. Shyly, I headed towards Karol’s office. I didn’t know how to carry coffee on a saucer because I was used to mugs with solid handles. I walked carefully and went into his office backwards, so I wouldn’t hit the cup on the door. He was so busy that he didn’t even notice me. I put the coffee down and left.
Before I finished my work, I got another email, this time with the information that Karol was my supervisor. The next sentence was a directive to support Gosia and Karol from the next day on, trying to relieve their workload. The attachment included a list of my standard duties, with the final point summing everything up and clearly stating that I had to follow the orders of both of them.
In the evening, as it had been agreed earlier, I was supposed to go to my parents’ place to tell them about my first day on the job, but I was so tired that I threw myself into the armchair and fell asleep for a fifteen minutes, hoping it would recharge me. I didn’t feel like going out, at all. Even less so with perfect strangers.
Not thinking about it too much, I called my friend Monika and asked her to come, like it wasn’t planned, to the same club and rescue me from having to spend time with my coworkers. She resisted, claiming she had an exam and had to study in order to pass, but I bribed her with my free meal and drink. I really, really, didn’t want to be there on my own.
Finally, she gave in. We agreed that she would find me and talk to me, pretending it was a chance meeting.
I changed into fresh clothes and left. Once again, I had to go back to the area by the office building. It wasn’t surprising that they’d chosen a club only a few blocks away.
When I first got there, the place was reasonably empty, but minute by minute, it filled up with people, just like our table, which more and more people joined. For the second time, I shook hands and met people I’d already met. It was embarrassing, but for the second time I didn’t remember any names.
Finally, the appetizers were served, together with a couple of beer pitchers. Everybody served themselves. After a while, I felt a bit more relaxed and even started to joke with the others. Fortunately, a lot of them were very young, open and cheerful. Working at the company for a relatively short time, they understood my situation.
After some time, I noticed that Karol was sitting at the other end of the table. Once again, he’d appeared out of thin air. I hadn’t spotted him until a waitress gave him the bill.
“Those snacks were the free food you told me about?” I leaned to Gosia, who immediately burst out laughing.
“Don’t tell me you expected a bowl of soup and a pork chop.”
“Guess so,” I said lightly, irritated that I hadn’t eaten anything at home.
“Come on.” She indicated the pitchers. “This is the cheapest near beer in this place.”
“In that case, I don’t understand why we need a farewell party like this,” I said.
“Because,” the guy sitting next to me spoke, “it’s supposed to raise our morale. To show that they take care of us, that we’re a team and go out together.”
“But it’s a sham,” I insisted.
“Like everything in life,” he summed up. “It shows that you’ve never worked in an office before.”
“Are you going to stay after Mr. Pretty has paid?” Gosia asked him.
I took a peek at Karol at the other side of the table. The music drowned Gosia’s words, so he didn’t hear what she called him. He was entering his PIN on the payment terminal.
“Maybe for a while.” The guy’s reluctance was almost palpable. “I have to finish something for work, and if I don’t do it today, tomorrow I’ll have to be at work at six. Like they couldn’t organize a night out on Friday instead of Monday, when people try to make up for the weekend.”
“Cool. What about you, Mati?” she spoke to me, unfazed by his words.
“Mati?” I focused only on what she’s called me.
“Well, Matilda is such a long name. Don’t you like Mati?”
“I do.” I smiled.
“Are you staying?”
“I asked my friend to come, but—”
“Okay,” she interrupted me. “Wait a second. I’ll ask Pete and his crew.”
Gosia slid out from behind the table and disappeared for a while. Trying to outshout the music, Karol thanked everyone for coming, and then he shook a woman’s hand. I figured she was the one who was leaving.
We waited till Karol and the rest left. The waitress moved the tables away from one another, leaving just enough room for the remaining six of us: Gosia, Pete and Maciek, analysts; Wiolka, the department assistant who had earlier taken me on the lightning-fast tour around the office; Greg, Karol’s assistant manger; and me.
Gosia called the waitress again and ordered another portion of snacks and two pitchers of beer. Then she suggested we go Dutch.
In the meantime, Monika came. I introduced her to my coworkers, and she immediately started talking to them with ease. I envied her ability to do that. Unlike me, she didn’t feel uncomfortable that she’d just met those people. What’s more, she started flirting with Maciek, and with her third sentence, she was already gently probing to see if he was single. It was so cleverly done that it didn’t seem pushy or tactless. What would I’ve given for skills like that!
Monika came to the university from the south of Poland. She would always say that if she hadn’t elbowed her way in, she wouldn’t have achieved anything. She had three older siblings, and judging by what she said, they were a nice family. Her relationship with her parents was enviable as well. I had never met them, but I still liked them. Sometimes I even wondered how it would be if I’d been born into a different family. A family like Monika’s, where the parents had a sense of humor and were brave and supportive. They encouraged her to try everything, to get to know the world, even to make mistakes.
We’d met during the first year of university, and since then we’d spent a lot of time together. I asked her to be my roommate. At first, I felt sorry for her because she was living with an elderly lady, but then I just wanted to have someone so fun-loving and positive near me. Her presence guaranteed good fun. Boredom did not exist where she were.
However, moving to my flat would mean Monika would have to kick in for rent. Her current deal was that she had her apartment for free—she didn’t have to pay utilities either—and in return she took care of her landlady. She often complained, though, that the neighbors snitched on her to the lady’s daughter who, besides making use of Monika as far as taking care of her mother went, added her more and more chores every year. The first year, she only cooked and cleaned the flat. Then she had to wash the elderly lady, dress her, and take care of her. In the end, she did everything, including taking her to the doctor, to the cemetery or anywhere else she wanted to go.
Despite having more and more responsibilities, Monika got by really well. Sometimes she complained, but she seemed aware of the alternatives, so after getting it off her chest, she’d change the topic, unconcerned.
When we had finished off our beers, Maciek offered to see Monika home, and she gladly agreed. They went out together, thanking us for a nice evening. Gosia settled the bill, and we went out in front of the pub. Clicking in her phone, she divided the bill evenly, regardless of how much a given person drank. Everybody unanimously assured her that they would give everything back the next day, and then Greg changed the subject and asked me if he could walk me home. Explaining that I lived nearby, I refused.
I just finished speaking with Magda. She called me, again, to ask about the money, about the e-transfer she was supposed to get two weeks ago. I refused her, again. Every single conversation with her ended in the same way: she threatened to put me behind bars, and I called her names without shame, not even sure what would be better for me—to do time or to pay her. To have a normal life, to make up for everything that went wrong, I worked to exhaustion, and it still didn’t fix everything. It seemed like I had bad luck.
But not so long ago I was happy. We were happy. I met Magda in the pub. She applied for a job as a waitress, and at that time, I did the hiring. From the very beginning, she flirted with me, but she wasn’t pushy. Rather, it was a challenge. Besides, I liked her attitude.
Like all students, she couldn’t make it with all her bills and expenses, so she wanted to earn some extra money. More or less at the same time, Tomek promoted me from a bartender to the club manager, which turned out to be just a fancy name for working my ass off like before. He just gave me more responsibilities because the raise I got was only symbolic. I worked my fingers to the bone to earn my pay, and I was already considering quitting school.
Finally, I decided to take off a year, maximum two years. I had a plan.
I went to the dean’s office. First, they encouraged me to reduce my class load, but how could I study by day and slave away at the bar till late at night? Only after a talk with the dean did I get permission for the first year off.
I flung myself into work and took every job, saving the money I earned, down to the last penny. It was supposed to be an intense year, but later, with enough dough put aside, things were supposed to be better.
Everybody supported me. Most of my coworkers at the pub had similar situations, so we helped each other.
It was the same with Magda. She signed up for killer shifts, only to get as many tips as possible. The waitresses had it easier than the bartenders because they wore minis, flaunted their breasts, and horny dudes rewarded them generously for that.
The bartenders were rarely given any extra money. Tomek showed me how to cheat drunk clients. Sometimes he poured them less beer or vodka than they should’ve gotten or even gave too little change, on purpose. When the client realized what was going on, Tomek apologized and gave back the defrauded dough. But if they didn’t, he was glad he managed to score some groschen.
He got by as he could. He had a family, and after a few failed businesses, he focused on that bar. We did everything we could so that it wouldn’t turn out to be another failure because we needed that place. All of us. At first, Magda had trouble remembering the orders and tables or taking payments. Tomek went berserk, and several times he pointed out to me that I’d made a mistake by hiring her. We hadn’t even put up ads. One day she just knocked on our door, asking if she could make some extra money for a few months.
From day one, I knew that she was not fit for the job, but there was something in her that got me interested. Her clumsiness, her embarrassment when a client yelled at her like a farmer at his cows—it awakened some unknown desire in me to take care of her.
After her shift ended, she would grumble and ask me how much time it took me to learn everything.
“Don’t worry,” I consoled her.
“When I wait at the table, I hear what they tell me, but when I go away, the loud music makes me forget everything. Then I come back and ask them again, and they get mad at me. One of them even told me to fuck off and do something else cause I can’t even serve beer.” She sat on a high bar stool and leaned her chin on her hands.
“Wanna beer?” I offered, washing the schooners. Magda nodded and took out some creased banknotes from the black fanny pack bag she wore on the belt of her miniskirt. She started to count her tips, and after a while, she held out her hand with a banknote.
“This one’s on Tomek,” I whispered, leaning toward her and pushing the banknote back to her. Winking, I put the beer in front of her. She smiled and took a big gulp. Immediately, she offered to buy me a round in return. I bellowed and poured myself a schoonerful of the light draught near beer.
“I feel like,” she began, smiling flirtatiously, “I don’t belong here, that I’m useless.” The other girls at the club had some experience, so none of them had so many problems. She was thrown into the deep end. To make matters worse, our clients weren’t very patient.
She didn’t give up, though. She signed up for weekends and went above and beyond. With time, we started talking after work about life, about our expectations, about the necessity to make choices. She was just like me.
After less than two weeks, we started to date. At first, everything went smooth, but with time I got irritated by the fact that she let the clients feel her up. It didn’t bother her that they slapped or touched her all the time. Unable to determine if it was real jealousy or only shock caused by this lack of dignity, I tried to present it to her from my perspective, but she assured me that she did it only for the money. She explained that it didn’t matter to her, that her body was only a wrapping and she needed the money to be someone better. She told me that she treated her work at the bar like a different life altogether. For those few hours she became someone else.
I empathized because I also wanted to be someone else, someone better. But although I understood her approach all too well, I asked her to distance herself more from strangers.
For a while it was better. It even seemed like she was glad when I told her about my concerns. Back then, I couldn’t tell yet if I was more interested in her than any other girl so far. I simply spent some nice time, and it was the only thing that mattered to me.
For the first time since I had moved to this part of Warsaw, I felt happy. My shifts no longer dragged on so much. We helped each other and talked whenever we had a chance. I was blind to all the telltale signs. Glad that I finally found someone who understood me, I agreed to move in together. After only a couple of weeks of knowing each other, Magda moved into my flat.
Even my financial problems didn’t seem as bad as they’d used to. Yes, it was true that it got easier for us because we shared all the expenses, but there was more that mattered than the financial gain. The feeling of waking up in the morning next to someone who greeted me with a smile was awesome. Because of this whole pursuit of money to pay for school, I’d forgotten that life could be a pleasure as well.
“Do you think about me as your wife?” she asked me one morning. “You know… sometime in the future?”
“Honestly?” I smiled at her. “I don’t think about any future further than the end of my year off. It’s a date that petrifies me and stands like the Berlin Wall used to, blocking any vision of my future.”
“And I think about you as my husband,” she said cheerfully, running her fingers through my hair.
“But chicks start planning those things when they are little girls,” I said. “I don’t know any dude that would talk about himself standing at the altar.”
“But would you like to get married?”
“In general or now?”
“Why not? We live together, we work together…”
Trying to figure out if what she was saying was just a joke or if she was really so invested in this relationship to decide on legalizing it, I stared at her. Until the moment she mentioned it, planning a wedding had not crossed my mind even once. Overwhelmed by her expectations, I jumped out of bed. I stood over the mattress, pulling my shirt and boxers on.
“Marriage seems like something that should be planned once you’re financially stable. Who knows where life will take us?” I tried to explain. “We’re both chasing money.”
“Don’t you want to be with me?” Crossing her legs, she sat on the bed and pushed the duvet under her arms to cover her bare breasts. Her gaze intent, she waited for my answer.
“I do. But I don’t want to get married. Can’t it just be like this?”
“It can,” she said, clearly offended, but I pretended not to notice. “But I thought you took this more seriously, and I can see that you leave yourself the option of sleeping around.”
“It’s not what I said,” I protested.
“But it’s what you’re thinking about.”
“No!” I raised my voice a little, irritated at her tone. “Let’s end this daft conversation, okay? We can’t afford a wedding, we can’t afford a family, and we can’t afford a life better than what we have now.”
“Do you mean that if, let’s say, I lost my job, became a burden, you would leave me?”
She looked at me, alert, and I remained silent, unsure if I should lie to her. Her eyebrows rose, waiting for my answer.
I hesitated for a moment, and then I confirmed that yes, I would leave her. I felt that I owed her the truth.
“So it’s not love…for you?” she continued with a piercing look.
“Love?” I repeated. “Girl, I’m struggling to survive, to make money to be able to finish school. Otherwise, I’ll be left with a student loan, a disabled father and a fuck-face brother on my account, without any job perspectives, without a life.” I looked at her, feeling hostile. “Why are you complicating things? Why all this talk about love? About marriage?”
“Because I want to know where I stand.”
“This conversation isn’t getting us anywhere,” I snapped at her. “If this arrangement doesn’t suit you, you can move out. I think you’re in the wrong place.”
“Wow.” Magda stood up and caught up with me. “I should slap you, cause you’re acting like a jerk.”
“Apparently your situation is better than mine if you can afford to dream. I can’t.”
Turning my back on her, I took the keys and asked her to close the door when she left. Not interested in how she took it, I didn’t even look back. If she had raised such a stink about our relationship now, it didn’t bode well for the future. I couldn’t afford more problems in my life. I was convinced that I did the right thing, asking her to leave because even if we’d managed to talk about this, I was afraid that her plans toward me were different than what I could offer her.
I came to work earlier than I should. Tomek was receiving a delivery. Without so much as a word of explanation, I joined him and started arranging the crates with bottled beer and kegs in the storage room. When the deliver guy drove off, we sat at the bar. I didn’t want to tell Tomek about my conversation with Magda, so we just sat over shots of pure vodka, complaining about our crappy fate. It was the first time I heard about the problems at the club.
It turned out that working overtime was simply not enough to keep the place going. On weekdays, there weren’t enough people, and the weekends didn’t make enough for the salaries of the team. We talked about possible savings. According to Tomek, the best idea was to let some of the servers go. It was obvious he had Magda in mind right from the start because she was the slowest and the least experienced. She brought the lowest profit.
Aware that she’d just been left without a roof over her head, I asked him to give her one more month, hoping that something would change, a miracle would happen, and Magda could keep up with the other girls at work. Even though she’d irritated me with her attitude, I knew that she was struggling for survival, and I couldn’t let that happen to her, just because it hadn’t worked between us.
When the shift ended, Tomek shared his doubts with the whole team. The girls vied with one another to come up with ideas how to beef up the nights at the club. Karaoke, dancing, stand-up comedians even. The waitresses took the possibility of losing their jobs to heart and in the next few days handed out flyers, mainly at universities and bus stops. Everybody stepped up to the plate. Even the gauche Magda worked better.
We didn’t speak to each other more than was necessary for work. She pretended not to notice me, supposedly assuming that she’d hold out longer than me or that I’d change my mind.
The truth was that it suited me. This episode made me aware that the presence of a woman in my life should be limited to sex. Relationships, feelings, and living together meant nothing but trouble. True that I was severely hit by the necessity to pay the whole rent, but I promised myself I wouldn’t let any problematic bitch into my life ever again.
In one of the newspapers, I posted an ad that I had a room for rent. There was some junk that belonged to the owner of the apartment, who stipulated in the agreement that I was not to use that room. Thanks to that, when I signed the lease, the price was lower. But he’d moved abroad, never came round and, apart from a message every now and then, didn’t even care what was going on here. Of course the contract clearly stated that I wasn’t allowed to sublet any part of the apartment, but I did anyway. When Magda was chipping in on the bills, I soon came to the conclusion that they were too high for one person.
A decent guy called who, like most of us, came to study here. His financial stability was what concerned me, but he assured me that he had folks who paid all his expenses without so much as asking he spent their dough on. Although I let him move in, I didn’t remove the ad. Over the next three weeks, people came who were interested in being shown the apartment. Musicians, actors or kids who ran away from home to live an adult life in the capital. All of them were a worse choice than the new guy.
Finally, I gave up and removed the ad. I gave him a room that had been closed until then.
New guy didn’t ask me any questions. He signed the makeshift agreement and left a deposit for the next month. I immediately used this money to paying for my school and told him that he was to settle the accounts to me and never question my actions. Without a word, he accepted my conditions. I was aware of the fact that he’d agreed to them because my price was the lowest in the neighborhood. Even the cardboard boxes didn’t bother him.
He organized his space himself. Some of the boxes were pushed out to the hall, some to the balcony and covered with garbage bags, some were left in his room, because—as he said—he converted them into a makeshift table and shelf. I didn’t check what he changed in the room or how. The only thing that mattered to me was that he paid me.
One day Magda waited for me till I closed the bar. Usually, she left, ignoring me completely, but on that day she hung around, unable to wait for the shift to come to an end. It worried me, but like every day, I fulfilled my duties, pretending not to notice her. I cleaned the counter, mopped the floors. I even hoped that if I delayed the closing time, she’d go away, but it didn’t help. I saw her through the window, leaning on the wall, smoking one cigarette after the other. In the end, I switched the lights off and went toward her because it was the only way out of the club.
“We have to talk,” she began when I closed the door behind me.
I went speechles, because I’d thought that we’d had this conversation weeks ago and I had neither time nor strength to go through that again.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she hissed.
“How am I supposed to look?”
“I’m pregnant,” she said, not changing her position.
“What the fuck?” I shouted.
“Bollocks. You heard me.”
“What now?” I clutched my head.
Never in my life had I suspected that I would find myself in this situation. Never had I thought about babies, about pregnancy, about having someone else I’d be responsible for. For a moment, I had a vision of me with a howling kid at my side, and it made me shudder.
“What d’you mean?” she squinted.
“Are you going to have an abortion?”
“I don’t have money for one.”
“We’ll get some together,” I assured her and started to mentally count my savings.
I realized that this one single mistake would cost me several months of hard work and, as a result, would delay my return to school.
“How much do you need?” I focused on specifics. “And when?”
“I don’t know.” She added her cigarette to the rest of the butts lying on the sidewalk and crushed it with her shoe, crushing the others in the process. “I only just found out. I didn’t look for info about abortions anywhere yet.”
“Do it tomorrow then, okay?”
“Do it?” She cocked her head. “Don’t you think that it’s your responsibility too?”
“I do, and that’s why I intend to contribute to the procedure.”
“Contribute?” She laughed. “Let me enlighten you. I don’t have anything. Maybe only a few hundred zlotys to survive till the end of the month.”
“For fuck’s sake!” I swore and kicked the door of the pub.
I tried to think of a way to get the money quickly. An extra job wasn’t an option—I’d have to give up sleeping. Even now I painted houses, cleaned windows, and took any job that paid.
“Or we could—”
“No!” I interrupted her, angry.
“I thought that considering what was between us, you would give me some support.”
“God, you’re so childish!”
I told her to find out the estimated cost of abortion and left her in the middle of the street. As soon as I got home, I sat down with the phone in my hand and checked it on my own, knowing that I couldn’t trust her. I called the numbers I found on Google, but most of the people turned me away, claiming it was the wrong number. Maybe there was some kind of code or a special way of asking that would make them take me seriously.
Finally, when I was about to give up, one of the doctors talked to me and gave me a mindboggling sum. He also proposed a less expensive alternative. There was a substance available in pharmacies that, given to a pregnant woman, induced her period and, as a result, caused a miscarriage. The only drawback of this solution was that the woman could start bleeding heavily and end up in the hospital, where doctors would take her blood for testing, detect the poison, accuse her of and then put behind bars for killing her unborn baby.
Over and over again, the doctor stressed the confidentiality of this undertaking, speaking about the trust necessary for both parties to get what they expected: him, the money, and us, freedom.
Afraid to trust Magda with such risky business, I decided to buy this substance from the doctor and give it to her in secret. So that she would miscarry, thinking it was an accident. Then she wouldn’t arouse suspicion in hospital if something went wrong.
I arranged to meet with the doctor for an exchange the very same evening. We met near his house. Having greeted me curtly, he immediately asked for the money. As soon as I gave it to him, he handed me a vial. I’d expected a prescription but didn’t complain. I even smiled at the thought that he saved me another trip. I spent everything I had saved on this vial that was supposed to save my ass.
The next day, Magda threw in my face the price she’d gotten from some quack performing the procedure in his basement. Like she wasn’t worried about herself and her own body. At the same time, I felt sorry for her and mad at myself that I had been with someone as thoughtless as her, someone so helpless in life. Watching her closely, I couldn’t understand what attracted me to her. Her stupidity and gullibility disgusted me. But those particular qualities of her character would help me carry out my plan. If she’d been a bit cleverer, she would have figured it out.
The only thing I had to wait for was the right moment. I wondered about how and when to give it to her. If she made herself a coffee or tea immediately after she arrived, it would be much easier for me, but now I waited for an opportunity, following her like a stalker. Neither could I leave the poison just anywhere, expecting she would grab that particular glass. I had no other way out of this hopeless situation, and there was no other option than success. If I wasted the poison, I wouldn’t be able to buy it again.
As far as my work permitted me, I tried to keep an eye on her. The vial was always on me, in my pocket, just in case. Ready, I waited for the right moment.
One day Tomek came to me, accompanied by one of the waitresses. First, he asked the girl to stand at the bar and then he beckoned me. The girl quickly took my place, sending me a sour smile.
“Come on. I’ll show you something,” he explained, dragging me out to the back room.
We stood opposite each other in the dark corridor, and he put his hand on my shoulder.
“The number of kegs didn’t tally with—”
“What?!” I interrupted him. “Somebody’s stealing?”
“No.” He patted my shoulder. “Listen.” He sighed and looked around the back room. After a while, his gaze returned to me. “I was looking for this missing keg, cause I knew there should be one more. I entered the storage room, and through the window that overlooks the street, I saw legs. It surprised me, cause it was the first time I saw someone there, in this back alley. Usually when someone needs to take a leak, they do it right around the corner. They don’t reach our place cause where would they go? It’s a dead end. And there were two pairs of legs, so I got interested. I climbed the stairs and looked out, cause I thought that maybe someone was getting ready to rob us or they were looking for leftovers from the empty bottles.”
“And?” I urged him, knowing that left on their own, the girls wouldn’t manage to serve and stand at the bar at the same time.
“And I saw Magda, getting fucked by some bloke.”
“What?” I bellowed at him.
“Come with me.”
We went to the stairs and opened the door a little, so that we could see the street through the slit. Tomek told me to be quiet and wait. We stood there together in the dark, staring at the dark alley. I wanted to believe that Tomek had been seeing things, that it wasn’t true. I wanted to say that maybe Magda had met someone. Someone she got interested in, someone for real. Basically, I had it on the tip of my tongue to say that I didn’t understand why he assumed it would repeat itself.
But I didn’t manage to do it in time because right then, I saw her with some guy. She headed toward the big metal container where Tomek kept sand and salt to spread on the sidewalk in winter. Before she sat down, she rolled her skirt up and spread her legs, waiting for that guy. The man fucked her with no condom on and then gave her money.
When they finished, I went out to talk to her. Tomek did not stop me. He left us on our own.
“What are you doing?!” I yelled, and the man set off at a run. On the fly, he was adjusting his pants and his shirt.
“I’m earning money.”
“Like that?! Pregnant?”
“This pregnancy won’t last long,” she said firmly.
I wanted to slap her, yank her at least, shake her to sober her up. She looked at me like nothing had happened and then took a packet of tissues and wiped herself up, unashamed. I was disgusted, but it also gave me the idea that maybe this kid wasn’t mine, that maybe she was only trying to blame me because she wanted money, and then she would run away with what I would’ve given her for the abortion. I was mad at myself that I spent money without having checked her.
“Did you at least confirm the pregnancy?” I asked her calmly, feeling my blood boil.
“Yes. I took a test.” She gave me a look like I was the stupid one.
“And did you see a doctor?”
“No, a test is enough.”
“Not for me. We have to go and check if you really are pregnant.”
“I don’t have my period,” she said. “Isn’t that proof enough?”
It was, but I wanted to see a doctor. Get to know if there was an option to confirm or rule out paternity at such an early stage of pregnancy. If it turned out not to be my child, I wouldn’t have to speak to her at all. I could kick her in the ass, turn my back on her and follow my own path without looking back.
I couldn’t wait any longer, so I took her to the doctor, to the first appointment I managed to schedule. The medical staff in the clinic looked at us as if we were a happy couple awaiting the birth of their first child. The joy they spoke to us with irritated me. But Magda liked it and stroked her belly, which she hadn’t done before. Not more than two days ago, she eagerly spread her legs, saying that the pregnancy wouldn’t last long anyway.
In the waiting room, there were other pregnant women, some of them with bellies the size of basketballs, others as flat as flounders. Those, in turn, looked at the curves with tender emotion, looking forward to being that big. Magda smiled at everybody. Each woman sat with the father of her child, which only made the waiting room more crowded and caused unnecessary confusion who’s turn it was to walk into the examine room.
To make matters worse, they were very talkative. One of them asked Magda when she was due, which clearly put her off her stroke. That child was not supposed to live to see its own birth, but Magda surprised me again, and grinning from ear to ear, she confessed that she didn’t know yet and came to confirm the pregnancy. They congratulated each other.
I fought myself not to expose Magda in front of all those women. But what would I have gained?
Finally, it was our turn. First, the doctor asked Magda an awful lot of questions. About her last period, the state of her health, past diseases, contact with potential risk factors, but Magda’s answers made her seem like a saint. I looked at her, unable to believe that she was still playing her part and, what’s worse, having the time of her life. A thought arose in me that I should say something, out of sheer decency.
But I stopped myself from putting my foot in my mouth, from saying something that could sound strange to this man in scrubs. Accustomed to a different kind of woman, this man would be greatly astonished to know that a pregnant woman was sleeping around for money and came here to confirm the pregnancy she wanted to get rid of.
He told her to go to the adjoining restroom and take off her clothes for examination. First, he suggested doing an ultrasound. He directed her the examination bed and asked her to put her fists under her buttocks, which was supposed to lift her hips and make the access easier for him. Then, he prepared a huge probe, and without hesitation, shoved it inside. It surprised me but apparently didn’t cause any discomfort to her because she watched the doctor, awaiting any news.
After a while, the doctor turned the screen toward us and showed us something that looked like a worm or a peapod. It was not a baby. Just a creature. It consoled me, made me feel appeased somehow. I don’t know why I’d imagined a tiny person. One with arms and legs. It was stupid of me, but I really did imagine that I would see a tiny silhouette. What I saw gave me courage to carry out my plan.
But then the doctor showed us the heart. The beating heart. He said casually that Magda was nine weeks pregnant.
Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe, and my mind was a total blank. Magda smiled, and I stared at the screen until the doctor switched it off. He sent her off to the gynecological bed, examined her, and in the end asked her to put her clothes back on.
While she changed, I quickly asked him if at this stage of pregnancy it was possible to check the paternity. He looked at me and glanced at the restroom out of the corner of his eye, as if he wanted to understand if I was asking about it behind Magda’s back.
He explained that there were two different methods available on the market. One of them was cheaper but more invasive for the fetus. The other one was more expensive, but it allowed to confirm paternity without harming the baby. It surprised me that our blood was enough to do it. It turned out that the baby’s blood got through to the mother’s and it was enough to rule out paternity. A perfect solution, but as with everything in my life, the cost stood in my way. As soon as I heard the sum, I felt as if the doctor had hit me square in the face.
Magda listened in to it all in silence, and when the doctor wrote out her prescriptions, he recommended her to take care of herself and sign up for another visit in a month. She nodded, and we left.
“It’s your child,” she announced when we were walking down the street.
“I have my reasons to doubt that.”
“I wasn’t making my living like that when we were together.”
“I’m not so sure about that, and considering how cleverly you presented yourself at the doctor, I’m afraid you lie better than I thought.”
She stopped walking. “Are you trying to insult me?”
“No.” I stood opposite her.
Not waiting for her, I moved forward and gave her a quick goodbye.
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