The unlikely ones: The lesson

Tomasz used to spend whole periods at the school library. He and other three students were somewhat surveilled by a free teacher for forty five minutes after going to the break and then back to their lessons. He wasn’t an atheist, but he believed in science and enlightenment and he knew enough about religion to be aware that it hinders scientific and intellectual progress. He had the raw instinct that religion holds back spiritual progress as well, since it doesn’t allow for forbidden questions. He wasn’t outspoken about his views; his efforts to try to understand life and people and maybe hook up with some girl overpowered his incipient spiritual awareness. He’d given up on society as a whole a while ago, though he sought friendship as a castaway seeks an island. Fortunately he’d found one in his classmate Piotr. He was a sociable guy, who didn’t seem to be constantly waylaid by existential nonsense. He was, as his name indicates, a rock where Tomasz could find solace from the madness of teenagers’ excess of hormones and its peculiar outlets, as well as from the arbitrary impositions of school and society on their budding characters. He could actually develop his personality in front of his friend; something he wouldn’t dare to do in front of strangers. This was because his was an odd personality, built from different values than those of most of youngsters around him. He was aware it was a plain personality, with no much luster or spark, but he also knew that, in the long run, people was prone to getting fond of it. He knew he didn’t have the striking power of his more charismatic classmates and acquaintances, but he had the potential power to create meaningful relationships.

But his instinct for sacrilege had paid off. He met Sylwia during a library period. Piotr wasn’t around because he was the conservative kind. He belonged to those people who believe that there’s a meaning in everything imposed by society. He wasn’t a fervent believer, but he wanted to go through it and see what religion was all about. He would grow into a revolutionist, but the kind that revolutionizes from the inside, and not the kind that detaches itself from society and then terrorizes it from the outside. But Tomasz was from the second kind, although he didn’t know it yet. He would grow into an outcast, an eternal wanderer who couldn’t find his place in society. This would unfortunately seep into every one of his relationships. But he didn’t know it yet. He was simply but deeply in love with that girl. He was shy so he hadn’t made too much contact with her. He barely knew what she liked or did, but none of it mattered to his hungry heart. He knew she was beautiful, not according to any standard, but invested by his authoritative subjectivity. He was drunk with the power he endowed her with: the power over him. It was a sweet surrender of all the ego he’d gained through personal achievements. Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t learned a basic rule of female-male interaction: Man proposes, woman disposes. He’d read about princes saving princesses in books, but he hadn’t learned how to do it in practice. His instinct was to wait for a signal from her and then just keep contemplating. Immediate action was never an option for him.

Thus time passed by, accumulating eventful meetings with her. She’d managed to never break the spell she had on him by never having a boyfriend that he knew of. He could thus create his own romantic myth with her. However, there were some circumstances that blurred the line between his imagination and reality. Once she grabbed him spontaneously by the hand while she told him something. What did she say? He couldn’t remember if his life depended on it, but he remembered vividly the expression on her face. She was pure joy, as if she weren’t missing anything to be happy. At that moment, he didn’t miss a thing either, but for the following three years he would constantly miss the softness of her hand and her sparkling eyes poised on his. He didn’t want to admit it to himself that he cherished that childish memory. After all, he was becoming a man and it wasn’t by holding hands with girls that he would reassure his manhood. And he simply yearned for more. He wanted to experience the mystery of life and its creational power. So he went out with Piotr and other friends he’d made, on the hunt for some glimpse of the magic of sex and its allure. From the beginning he realized that he didn’t have any instinct for it, not even the pack instinct. For him to touch a girl was as artificial as every other example of his social behavior. To approach a stranger and start a conversation out of the blue was outlandish to him. He’d learn to keep it simple later on in life, and he’d simple introduce himself to girls, no matter how ridiculous this was on his mind. He wasn’t creative at all in contact with people. He was an introvert, which means that he didn’t thrive on society. He didn’t get any energy from being surrounded by people; on the contrary, sometimes it was even stressing to him. He was too self-conscious to be natural, and this just made him nervous. He didn’t give any sign of anxiety, but he was often mistaken by apathetic, even by girls he was really interested in.

With time he would lose his shyness and he’d be able to let his feelings loose, but this would prove counterproductive. People would never be prepared for his odd outbursts of emotions and feelings. His friends and family got used to it, but regular people would simply not take it. It would even wear down some of his relationships. He was, simply speaking, too sensitive for most of people. But his sensitivity ended in him. He had too many feelings bursting out of his mind and body and the simplest stimulus could trigger them. Most of the efforts in his life were towards channeling these uncalled for emotions. One of the biggest emotions he felt during his time in high school was when saw Sylwia kiss another guy. It was a tragedy for him, but he accepted it stoically, the same as Romeo would accept it if Juliet chose not to risk her life at his side. He overheard a conversation and learned they were going out, and he was ready to conclude that love story. But a week later she came to him and for the second time in their acquaintance, she took his hand. He was already shaken by this sudden act of hers. Again he couldn’t focus on what she was saying to him, but he  knew it was just blabber; this time he realized her words were just a distraction from holding his hand, which was her only purpose. Two weeks earlier this would’ve been the happiest moment of his life, and it would’ve encouraged him to give a step forward and ask her out or hug her, maybe kiss her right there, in the middle of the school. For a moment he thought about it. But ask her out how? Everything was so artificial. A cafe? What were those places for? People who don’t have a coffee pot at home? He didn’t even like coffee after all. A restaurant? He’d never gone to one, except with his parents. Sometimes they went for a kebab with some friends after a club, but that wasn’t romantic at all. Besides, he didn’t believe in people serving him; he wasn’t an aristocrat. What an odd human behavior: to overpay for their food to pretend for an hour that they’re nobility. There was also the trump card: to invite her to his house to watch a movie or to simply go for a walk somewhere, and wander around like two characters from a Dostojevsky novel.

His mind was overloaded with options and the anguish of picking the best one transpired to his face. She saw it all at once: her impulsive act of holding his hand and his troubled reaction. She hadn’t seen it before, but now she knew from experience that that was the look of a young man in love. She waited for him to do something more: to get out of his trance, but he didn’t, so she leaned towards him, and for no particular reason, kissed him on the cheek, her eyes fixed on his. He knew that was a clear cue, not from theory but from instinct. Her eyes were asking him for more, but why now? Was the hovering question. After all these years, why would she do this to him now that she’s just gotten herself a boyfriend? Was it a Machiavellian plan to break him, to show him the futility of his emotions and the travesty of his romantic lucubration about her? Was he a joke to her? A cute baby stumbling around and amusing her with his ridiculousness? “You have a boyfriend,” he said, obviating the preliminaries of the conversation. She realized the implications of her unpremeditated action, which could’ve been overlooked by him, but instead he’d decided to read too much into it. She wasn’t sure what he read was true or not, but she knew she was left in a vulnerable position, so she defended herself: “Yes, and I love him.” It was an instinctive reaction, not a deliberate feeling. She knew that society expects a girl to be in love with the guy she’s going out with. She didn’t want to look like those kinds of girls who openly explore their sexuality. Lately in life he’d become a player. He’d learn that you need to cast a wide net to catch a single fish. He wouldn’t hold it against any girl if they went out with him and then changed their minds. It was all part of the game. It didn’t mean it wasn’t serious: much was at stake, but lightheartedness was the only way through it. But now he couldn’t deal with his disillusion. He’d seen her bail on her initial emotion and contradict herself. Of course he hadn’t given her any chance to overcome this contradiction between her situation and her actions. He’d thrown her situation to her face, and what did he expect to win by doing that? Nothing. It was too tragic for him and he saw no way back. There was no reconciling her sudden desire with her condition as a taken girl. It wasn’t on him to release her from that condition; she’d chosen it and now she’d just reaffirmed her decision. For him there was nothing else to be said. The story was over. If, and only if she freed herself from her condition, they could start anew, rewriting the ending of their tragic romance.

He wasn’t the kind of person who suffers long from romantic disillusionment. The relief effect that this closure had had on him balanced his sadness. He became a little apathetic for a couple of weeks, but the anxiety was gone. All the mental and emotional effort he’d previously put on thinking what would happen between him and her was now gone. He felt light as sea foam, swept ashore by a cyclone that has just passed. This excess of energy in the end prevailed and made him rediscover life. It was a simple turn of events. He was paying for some groceries at a store one day, when the cashier told him his bill was fake. He’d never even heard talk about fake zlotys before: he immediately thought it was an awful idea to waste so much creative energy on such valueless bills. These people could’ve made four times more by faking Euros, which by the way seemed much easier to fake. But he acknowledged to himself that he knew little about money, so he simply asked the cashier to hand him the bill to check. He did it: it looked completely normal to him; same texture, shape, color, it even gave out the characteristic twang when he tautened it fast. If he believed this was money, and if it had been handed to him and to who knows how many more people as money, what made it fake money? But this was just an inner question. He handed the money back, together with another bill which he wished was real this time. The cashier inspected it and this time she said nothing. She gave him his change an d went on with her barcode scanning ceremony.

“Money is fake,” he thought. “There is fake money, but also real money, which is the same as the fake one. So what is real money but the money we agree is real? Then life is fake too.” He meant with it that people could lead fake lives, pretending to be someone they were not. But there is no way to know, since real life is simply the life we believe is real. Faking is something we do internally; externally we’re just living. To others we aren’t a sham but a person, sometimes odd, sometimes inconsistent, but always real. That’s why we can be real assholes, even when we’re just pretending to be. We depend completely on others to have an identity. We could be earnest but not be treated seriously, or be joking and be taken literally. We could give someone fake money and they might accept it, or we could give them real money and they might mistrust and not take it. It’s all a matter of credibility. But the deceit works inwardly too. Because we yearn for identity, we observe ourselves, objectifying our behavior and feelings. When our actions and our emotions don’t match, we believe we’re fake, and we try to curtail this behavior to be more honest with ourselves. It’s currency we reject. And if we do something which we regret, we try to take it away from our identity as soon as possible. It was just a mistake, fake money which we accepted in error. This will devalue our money but never become currency.

His currency had been never to be romantically involved with a girl with a boyfriend and that’s why he hadn’t accepted the bill she was handing him. He’d been so upset by this threat to his ego that he hadn’t spoken to her since. She hadn’t excused herself either, but how could she excuse herself for such an irredeemable act?  He went to ask Piotr what he would do in such a situation. He knew Piotr was very conservative; after all, he never missed mass. Piotr told him simply: “What’s the problem? She isn’t married to him. For Piotr marriage was the yardstick, and Tomasz had to admit that this was very practical, since it gave people more freedom of action. For Piotr, dating was therefore a way of exchanging real and fake money for a while and then, when the value of the currency was consolidated, he could endorse it by getting married. Social relationships are just another game we play to kill time till death comes, after all. They are just a way to expand our ego. I’m not only I but I also become Us. And this Us has a common currency, although the purchasing power of each individual may vary. The most equal social relationships are friendship or a couple. A friend is not supposed to let you down and your partner is not supposed to cheat on you. Conventions that help keeping our egos safe. Now Tomasz saw that he’d objectified her; he’d seen her as a potential projection of his ego. She didn’t matter if she didn’t stick to the rules. He didn’t want to understand her, just to add her to his ego and then expel her if she misbehaved.

He decided to talk to Sylwia and tell her what he felt. He was encouraged by the fact that she’d broken up with the guy. At least it looked like that, since he hadn’t seen them together for almost a month. Maybe she’d done it for him; maybe not. But after all, optimism was the only possible attitude. He knew he’d fail if he attempted any verbal feat; he knew his limitations. So he focused all his courage on his right hand, which had gathered sweat by then. He wiped it against his shirt a couple of times before walking up to her. Like a football player who moves with his eyes on the ball so as not to give away his intention, Tomasz walked blindly towards her. Not for a single moment did he look up, until he got to the penalty area, which was one meter from her. For all he knew, she must have thought he was lost in his own thoughts or deliberately avoiding her, though he needfully had to pass by her. Anyway, his goal was achieved, for she didn’t call out his name, which allowed him to get to grabbing distance. Once there, he grasped her hand as if he was trying to grab a skittish chicken, that is, fast and firmly. She had stopped talking with her friend when she saw him coming towards her, but now she was completely still. She wasn’t shocked or surprised, but she didn’t want to scary away this wild animal with any of her human movements, as she’d done the last time. This time she was ready to wait till they closed the school, if necessary, or till a teacher saw them holding hands in the hall and asked them to go back to class. She didn’t take her eyes off him, creating a sensation of intimacy for him, though she sensed her friend was staring oddly at them. “Just leave,” she said to herself, regretting that her friend didn’t have better manners. Eventually she did, but this didn’t help unjam him. She needed to take the initiative, but how? It was like leading a goat stampede into a corral. She grabbed the hand that was grasping hers with her other hand, thus implying complicity and support of whatever he wanted to do next. She decided that a submissive attitude would be better this time, since her upfrontness hadn’t worked last time. So she lowered her gaze and waited.

He was elated but extremely indecisive till the moment she put her hand on his. Everything deflated at that moment. Up to then he’d felt like in a TV show. His life wasn’t only his but also others’. He was behaving natural, though there was nothing natural in it, because deep inside he knew everything he did was for an invisible public. But now the show was over; they were backstage and there was no more pretense. He was only for himself and for her; there was no camera recording it all, so there was no false sense of eternity either. Whatever he did now would be as meaningless as the spark of a lighter among stars, and this, instead of making him sad, filled him with awe. Their lives were so irrelevant to the rest of the world and, however, there they were, holding hands against all odds. Because, really, what were the odds of finding his happiness at his same school and by the mere decision of skipping a religion lesson? Was his disregard for God the reason for his current joy? He didn’t know why this thought occupied his mind at this exact moment, but it did. He also thought of Piotr at that moment, and of the way in which he would find his own happiness. Probably he wouldn’t have to derail to do it. He would just follow the marked path and casually rub himself against a girl who called his attention. Probably there wouldn’t be anything odd about it for him. Even if she was dating someone else or even married, Piotr would just naturally woe her into his life. After all, he was casual about everything, even religion. At last he, Tomasz, had learned to be like his friend: non-present. At last he’d switched off his mind and let his happiness be. He’d learned an important lesson in life: don’t overthink it. He kissed her, and the future became instantly blurry. There was only her immediate presence; nothing else.


I'm a writer born in Argentina, but currently living in Poland. I work as an English and French teacher, translator and copywriter.

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