They say that murder is the only legitimate theme in crime fiction; that anything else would fall short of the requirements for a good story. It’s the same with love in a romantic story. Of course, love has many faces, but which one corresponds to murder? Which one is the most mutable, insensible, irredeemable of them all? Which one is the most tangled in all kinds of feelings and situations? Which one give us the richer material for literature? They call it romantic love and there’s a reason why they call it like that: Because feelings prevail over reason; hence the rich source for literature.
Fate came to Paul in his dreams and told him: “I have a precious gift for you, but you need to give up your life.”
“What do you mean, give up my life?” he said to her.
“Give up what you believe your life is. Renounce every rule that gives you a sense of security, every single value you’ve embraced through time, and you´ll be reborn. Fail to comply and you’ll perish.”
“But what for? Why would I do that? Why?!!”
And he woke up, sobbing. He was at once soothed by the tangibility of reality. All the objects around him had well defined contours which he could take in and meditate upon. The air coming in his lungs had volume and weight. Even sunlight was palpable when it hit particles of dust in the air. A dream may be psychologically real, but it holds no water in reality. After a few minutes the dream was gone and reality was on. He needed to get to work and he was going to be late, as usual.
His routine was quite simple: Wash his face and mouth, pee if he had to, wet his hair, combing it with his fingers, get the food he’d prepared the evening before out of the fridge and put it in his bag, pick his clothes and put them on, remember to take his keycard so he wouldn’t have to go out of the garage to the lounge to be able to enter the building, remember to take his phone so he would have something to listen to at lunch, grab his sunglasses to acclimatize to life outside, unlock his bike and ride the four hundred meters that separated him from his job, and all of it in the twenty minutes allotted by his alarm clock.
Paul was so lost in his routine that he forgot to read the SMS from his boss which he’d received at 8:15 am. He got there at 8:55; he just needed to park his bike and he’d still have a few minutes to spare; it was one of the few times he’d been on time to work. The garage was closed, so he parked his bike outside, but when he went to the main door, he saw that there was no one at the reception and the lights were off. He walked around the building till an observant passerby felt in the obligation to stop and tell him that a national day of mourning was declared because of the death of the Pope. He’d never been so happy about someone’s death: A whole day free, with morning included, it was something he’d rarely had the chance to enjoy, since he overslept every time he had a chance.
He decided not to go directly back home, so as not to be tempted to nap for the rest of the morning. He turned on his mp3, grabbed his bike and started pedaling towards a nearby park. A pigeon crossed his path. He generally slowed down when this happened, because no matter how much he trusted the pigeon’s ability to fly away as soon as he came one meter away from it, he was still afraid that the bird might flutter all over his face and make him lose balance, or that he would come against a suicidal pigeon who was simply too tired to escape imminent death by a bicycle wheel. He could imagine the blood splashing all over his face and clothes, and this was more than he was willing to risk. So, he braked and waited for the pigeon to calmly walk across his path. To compensate for this annoying waste of time, he didn’t brake at all, two minutes later, when a kid crossed his path. After all, kids don’t splash you all over with blood. He just maneuvered towards his right, taking a guess, like in a penalty shot; and he guessed well, because the kid plunged towards Paul’s left, thus dodging the wheel.
He got to a nearby park and sat on a bench, always listening to his mp3. He felt vividly the sun on his skin and eyes, the sweat on his back, the wood on his buttocks and the heat in his shoes. He took them off and sat Indian style. A couple sat beside him unceremoniously. “The more the merrier,” he thought and swiped on his phone to try to finally download a book for which he’d been waitlisted. It was Laughable Loves by Kundera, and he’d unsuccessfully searched for it everywhere on the net, till he found it on an online library. The book had already been borrowed, though, so he had to wait for it. Who would’ve thought that online libraries would one day emulate physical ones. Nothing to do but to go on listening to his audiobook: Some French short stories. The couple was Ukrainian. He deduced from the simple fact that he could hear their conversation because they spoke as if there was no one else in the park. He tried to focus more on the audio to tune out of the Ukrainian words he was hearing, but some of them kept recurring, as if trying to make a dent in his mind. “U menia” was a clear example. He knew what it meant, because he’d studied a little of Russian, and this made it even worse. He recollected that it was similar at work. He worked as customer service on an open space, where all the divisions and languages were mingled together like in a pencil case. He didn’t mind people speaking Dutch or German around him, because he didn’t understand it, but when he heard Spanish or English being spoken, he sometimes lost concentration. “U menia” is the Russian way of saying “I have,” and he found this profoundly annoying. Russians and Ukrainians don’t have the verb “to be” or “to have” in their language, so they communicate as if they were a bunch of Buddhists on their way to Nirvana. “Just say you have it, stupid Ukrainian. Admit to something for once in your silly life.”
Suddenly, the guy stood up and said something to him, always in Ukrainian, or maybe Russian; Paul could never distinguish the languages from each other, though he assumed it was Ukrainian because there were way more Ukrainians than Russians in Poland, and Ukrainians in Poland tended to speak Ukrainian. He could’ve been Belarusian for all that mattered, but that made no difference whatsoever to Paul. “For you to know, I’m Ukrainian,” said the guy at last in an intelligible language, which still preserved a strong Slavic accent. “Sorry?” said Paul, not yet managing to grasp the gist of the discussion. “And Ukrainian is a beautiful language, which gave birth to prolific poets and novelists, and the absence of those verbs in its lexicon just makes it even more beautiful and poetical.” “Whatever,” said Paul, rather annoyed at the fact that the Slav had peeked into his mind that at what he’d said, which he actually agreed with. “Go back to Ukraine, you, stupid Slav,” Said Paul, not really knowing why; he probably just wanted to prevent the guy from digging some compromising secrets out of his mind. And he stood up and left the couple to their stentorian chit-chat.
“How on Earth could that guy guess what he was thinking?” he kept wondering while he rode away. The experience had been too surreal to his taste. Maybe he uttered some word unawares or some grimace of his betrayed his thoughts. In any case, that Ukrainian was very perceptive. However, something caught his eye while riding through the park. A group of shirtless men were hanging from exercise bars and they were surrounded by a bunch of women. He got closer to the scene and saw that every woman, in turn, came up to the hanging men and felt their muscles, as someone would feel an orange or textile in a shop. The woman then would simply leave or pat one man twice on his bare chest or back. If the latter happened, the man would let go of the bar, get his T-shirt and go away with the woman. Paul was entranced for at least ten minutes. He watched it all and took it all in without daring to take a guess. Only after the fourth woman had examined the men and left, did his mind comprehend that this was a men giveaway. Men’s only task was to hang from those bars bare-chested, their muscles on display, and wait to be picked by a random woman. Men who lost their hold before being picked, put on their shirts and simply walked off. Whenever a bar was empty, another man took off his shirt and jumped up. Paul went up to one of the men who’d lost their hold and asked him: “What happens if an unattractive woman picks you?” and he simply answered: “There are many ways of politely turning them down. I can set a date on another day, and then simply cancel or not answer to her messages, or I can propose to simply be friends, or I can bring along a friend to our meeting and pretend I didn’t know it was a date.” “But that sounds so girlish,” said Paul, who just now had realized that the men on display were fully shaved and depilated. The man he was talking to had missed these last words, since he’d grabbed his handbag and was taking out a comb and mirror to fix his hair. When his hair was neat, he just said “Goodbye, nice to meet you” to Paul and left.
He took his bike and drove back home, mulling over these incidents. He switched on his computer, and it asked him for a password. He didn’t remember setting one, so he tried his birthday. Didn’t work. He tried the password he used for important things, such as bank accounts and Facebook, and a strange face immediately appeared on his screen. “Hello, I’m Marek Borowski and you’ve just applied for a loan at our bank.” “No, I haven’t,” said Paul, already callous to any nonsense this day may bring him. “Don’t worry, Paul. This is not a scam,” and the face on his screen proceeded to mouth all his personal details, as well as his PIN number, so Paul was convinced his bank had just contacted him. “Now, if I may have five minutes of your attention, I could provide you with a non-binding loan, that is, a loan you don’t need to pay back.” “What on earth!” said Paul, who started pinching himself to wake up. Till now, the events he’d experienced were odd, surreal maybe, but a bank offering money for free, this must be the product of some substance abuse that had induced such a vivid dream.
“Could you please get closer to the screen?” the voice said. “What the fuck is this, wake me up!” shouted Paul. “Please get closer to the screen so I can better appreciate the features of your face,” repeated the voice paternalistically. Paul realized that it was useless to struggle against a hallucination, or whatever this was, so he complied. The voice told him: “Congratulations, the harmony and sensuality of your face have just granted you the non-refundable sum of ten thousand złotys.” And his account state appeared suddenly on his screen. In effect, ten thousand złotys had been added to it. The window closed after a few seconds and his desktop appeared, as if nothing had happened.
“Mother of all fucks,” Paul said, “What did I take last night?” He knew he was sensitive to psychotropics, but till now he hadn’t explored the limits of his mind. He’d barely tried marijuana a couple of times, and only because some friend had insisted.
Just then he heard his intercom ring. He went and picked it up and on the other end someone said: “Hello, sir., do you have some minutes to discuss a matter of great relevance to every single person?” “I’m not interested in religion,” said Paul, used to Jehovahs always picking on him. He got angry every time he learned that someone had never been bothered by these ambulant preachers, while he was ineluctably and regularly called on by them, even after moving out or refusing to open the door. “Oh, we’re not interested either, sir., it’s about meat-eating and its repercussion on the environment.” Relieved by the fact that they didn’t want to talk about Jehovah, Paul decided to give them a chance and let them in. They talked about eating bugs and people to survive. They presented the advantages of a cannibalistic diet, and Paul listened attentively, astonished at how logic, esthetic and even ethical this idea was. After half an hour of chit-chat, he bowed to their philosophy and told them that, were he half as enlightened as they were, he’d follow on their steps, but that he was far behind their level of spiritual perfection. They handed him a leaflet about cannibalism and bug eating and left.
Finally, the book by Kundera became available. He decided to start by the last story. While reading it, he wondered why the Poles didn’t get rid of religion as the Checks did, while they had their chance during communism. Now it was too late and people were already condemned to intellectual backwardness for decades, maybe centuries to come. He couldn’t finish the story because his eyelids started to feel heavy. He knew it, even though he’d made yerba to keep sleepiness at bay, he was falling asleep. He’d rather sleep on his bed, so he laid down.
He was woken up by a voice saying: “Paul, wake up! You’re late for work again!” He unglued his eyes and stared in the direction of the voice. A beautiful woman was standing, fully dressed, beside the bed. “Helena,” he thought. He knew this woman; it was his wife. Consciousness was slowly coming back to him. “I thought there was no work today. The Pope died,” he said. “Francis died!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know. I’ll check the news.” “Yes,” he said, trying not to lose the train of his thoughts. “I had the weirdest dream.” “Tell me,” she said, full of patience. “I had to stop on my bike to let a pigeon pass, and then I almost ran over a kid who fortunately dodged me in the last second.” “Yes,” she said. “These birds have no reflex whatsoever. I hit two with the car yesterday. And I’m sorry about the kid.” “Oh, nothing happened to him, but I feel I really wanted to hit him.” “Yes, sorry about that. Did you try feigning? Sometimes they fall for that. I hit three with the car this week.” “You mean you hit kids in the street?!” he shrieked in dismay. “Who doesn’t?” she said, “They’re a plague. Need to learn to get out of the way sooner or later.” He tried to make sense of what he was hearing, but his brain drew a blank. “And then I saw men hang from bars at the park, and women picking them and taking them home with them.” “Good memories,” she uttered, as if to herself. “Remember how you hung there for ten minutes because you saw me come to the park? You refused to let go of the bar, even after been picked by two women before me. You were so tired after that that I had to help you drink and eat for a couple of days.” “For heaven’s sake!” he shouted inwardly. “What’s happening here?! It’s this madness my fate? My new reality?!” He looked at her impassive face and realized that this was a crucial moment for them. She’d probably attributed his odd behavior to his state of semi-consciousness till now, but if he went on ranting about reality, she’d realize he was crazy. He decided to change the tone of his narration. “And then I went to sit on a park bench and a Ukrainian couple read my mind.” He said, in the most nonchalant way possible. “Yes, keep away from Ukrainians,” she said. “They may steal your PIN and withdraw all your money.” “But, fortunately, a banker gave me a non-refundable loan for ten thousand złotys, just because of my pretty face, so I’m covered,” he said, with a poor attempt at a smile on his face. “I blew it,” he though. “She knows I’m crazy, and she’ll take me to the psychiatrist or worse still, she’ll just leave me. Why would she put up with my nonsense?” “Yes,” she said, “Looks are everything nowadays. I’m amazed they didn’t lend you more. But I guess I’m being subjective. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” “Exactly,” he said, rather meaning: “This is exactly what I have to do: To learn this new reality and adapt to it. Look at the beautiful woman fate has given me in exchange.”
“I’ll call in sick today; don’t worry about it,” he said. “You must be late for work.” “I don’t work today,” she said. “Oh, I thought you were leaving for work.” “It’s Sunday,” she said. “Oh, I forgot,” he said. “Yes, Paul, and, by the way, I was just messing around with you. You just had one of your vivid dreams again. I tried to wake you up early and I saw you entranced, muttering some isolated words about work, the Pope and Ukrainians. Remember that time you dreamed we were in the Amazons and you kept looking for your spear around the room? You limped around the house because you were convinced you were wounded by a jaguar.” “Helena!” he shouted, all at once coming back to his sense. “Why in hell you scare me like that?! I really thought I’d gone mad!” “I was just curious to know what you dream about so vividly. It looked like an important dream.” “It was,” he said. “It was.”