Love What I Write Instead

by Alexandra Donchuk

“… flight FC1701 to Katowice now boarding, please proceed to Gate 15. Dear passengers…”

The airport buzz is familiar and strange at the same time. No matter how often you travel, be it for a business meeting every week in a city two hours up north or for a vacation once a year four hours down south, you never quite get used to that uncomfortable feeling of urgency. And you never quite manage to forget– Long lines to the check-in desks, snaking through blue-ribboned labyrinths to stop at an angry yellow line, socked feet marching through metal detectors, never really knowing but always having an idea of who’s going to be swept away for a random check-up, bright lights of countless duty-free shops filled with overpriced perfume and sandwiches– it creates a cocktail of anxiety and excitement, and it’s just a question of what will prevail this time.

Jen’s been sitting at Gate 15 for an hour and a half, as if she needed further proof that her anxiety was winning. A red cup from a nameless coffee shop is sitting next to her, the remains of sweet brown goo sloshing around the bottom. A gray backpack is pressed against her right calf. The tight-bunned woman at the check-in desk with a tiny airplane pin on her collar gives Jen the boarding pass thirty seconds after learning that she’s traveling with hand luggage. The man with the black mustache and something that looks like a gun on his belt doesn’t even look at her as her tiny bottles of shampoo and hand cream go past him on the conveyor belt. The longest line she stands in is for coffee and bagel bites and then she waits for a few minutes at the bright blue screen with cities and numbers, because she’s so early that her gate hasn’t even been announced yet.

He’s always said that being average was not something she should aspire to be, but at the airport, it seems like a good thing.

Jen looks at her laptop. An empty document blinks at her, a reminder that it’s been an hour since the last bagel bite disappeared from the paper bag and the word count still remains at zero. Part of her knew it was going to happen, her writer’s block a solid brick wall between her and a blank page, but another, more stubborn part insisted that the excitement would overtake the anxiety and the words would flow and finally give form to the vague and shapeless ideas Jen’s been chasing for weeks, always on the verge of catching it only to feel it slip through her fingers. This time the creature is gone before she even manages to spot it, and the words don’t come at all.

Booking a week-long trip to Poland is probably the most spontaneous thing Jen’s ever done. One moment she is staring at the dirty dishes in the sink, mechanically lathering bits of pesto from the plates, and the next there are two notifications on her phone: one confirming that she reserved an Airbnb in Katowice and the other saying that her flight is in two days. 

Coming up with excuses is easy: she tells her friend Anna that it’s a job opportunity to write for a very immersive travel blog (somewhat true) and explains to her parents that she’s overdue for a vacation (also somewhat true). Anna raises her eyebrows, saying I didn’t know freelance pays so much now, and tells her to bring back a postcard. Her reminds her to be careful and wishes she’d go somewhere warmer and sunnier. Jen says that there’s always next time and drives to the store to buy 100 ml bottles.

He’d probably say that it’s unlike anything she’s ever done and sound surprised, almost unpleasantly so. If Jen didn’t care, she wouldn’t have thought about it at all.

The gate opens with two women in dark blue uniforms swiftly checking passports and boarding passes and wishing everyone a safe flight with somewhat robotic smiles plastered to their faces. Jen stretches her arms above her head and closes the laptop, telling herself that she’ll try again on the plane once the seatbelts signs are off. The empty page manages to blink at her one more time.

***

Jen watches sleepily as people around her murmur in relief and get up from their seats, even though the flight attendant hasn’t even finished saying that everyone should remain seated. It’s the middle of the night and she’s too tired to feel guilty about anything, her anxiety leaving her in a breath as soon as they touch down. She expects excitement to finally kick in, to punch her with the realization that she has a full week of all things new and undiscovered ahead of her, a week away from everything she so desperately wants to avoid, but it’s not there. She’ll try again in the morning.

They stand in the line for customs which splits at the end to EU and non-EU travellers, a blunt reminder that even right now, at three in the morning in a place far away from everyone’s homes, some people are still more equal than others. A young woman in a heavy jacket sits behind the glass and scans Jen’s passport with practiced automated movements.

“What is the purpose of your visit?” she asks. Her accent is subtle but very different from the one that Jen’s used to. Something inside Jen fidgets nervously. She doesn’t really look like the photo in her passport anymore; it’d been taken seven years ago. She was nothing but a child then, looking at the camera with big eyes and self-conscious about the way her hair fanned around her shoulders. The hair is probably the biggest change: she’s since cut it so short that people sometimes mistake her for a boy from behind, and it’s flaming red in a way that even she is yet to get used to. Buying a box of hair dye was an attempt of regaining control over something, anything in her life, and for some reason red color disappearing in the shower drain made it feel like a success.

He would’ve probably told her that she looks great and turned around, hiding the disapproval rooted deep in his eyes. Jen has to remind herself that she doesn’t have to think about that anymore.

“Tourism,” Jen answers. The woman types into her computer and asks Jen a few other questions. In the booth next to her a guy asks the officer talking to him about the best places to eat in Katowice. He’s all smiles and nonchalance in a way that Jen can never allow herself to be, but she’s not sure that it’s the thing that keeps him from being questioned. He disappears in the corridor leading to the baggage claim while the woman is telling Jen that she needs her fingerprints.

Jen’s bus doesn’t come for another hour and she wanders through the little airport, debating having another coffee or just powering through on the thought that the hour will pass quicker than she thinks. When the time is almost up, she buys a bottle of water from a bleary-eyed cashier in a kiosk and steps outside, startled for a second by a chill winter air. The airport is on the outskirts of the city and the sunrise isn’t due for another couple of hours, so there’s nothing to look at apart from the brightly lit advertising boards and rows of cars in the parking lot, covered in a thin layer of frost. The bus is a few minutes late, but as Jen shows her ticket to the driver and says dziękuję bardzo she finally feels that she’s right where she needs to be.

Jen stands in the tiny kitchen of her Airbnb, watching the steam rise from a generic white mug she found in the cupboard above the stove. There’s a tiny Christmas tree on the breakfast bar next to a pile of city maps. A note pinned under a sunflower magnet on the fridge tells her to enjoy her stay, and Jen intends to do just that. The laptop is lying on the floor next to the bed, ready to threaten her with the blank page once she opens it again, but it’s easy to pretend it’s not there, it’s easy to pretend that Jen’s really just on vacation in her small apartment in the attic with hardwood floors, open space planning, and a red roof that’s visible from the windows, that she’s not running from one thing while trying to chase another. She turns the heater off and fishes a scarf from her backpack, leaving the creature to continue lingering in the shadows under the bed.

It’s still the holiday season so the streets are mostly empty as she aimlessly walks through an unfamiliar neighborhood, taking in the road signs, traffic lights, and one-stop shops. Everything is different: the temperature is a little above zero and the roads are covered with puddles that froze over during the night, and an occasional car unwillingly spreads the wetness so there’s not a dry spot on the whole street. The buildings are a mix of old gothic structures, tall and grand in their gloominess, every brick a thread in the fabric of the history of a hospital, church, or university. Twentieth century apartment complexes built in the 80s and 90s that look exactly the same inside and out, eight floors of compact balconies and plastic windows, all carrying the legacy of not standing out until a new and better ideology comes along. Most shops are closed, their windows dark and hidden behind blinds, a lonely pharmacy sign the only bright stroke against gray walls, and even its doors are shut with the sign stating opening hours as a green cross blinks on and off over the doorway.

Jen stumbles upon the train station almost by accident. It appears in front of her seemingly out of nowhere, hidden in a maze of paving stones and coffee shops. Big neon letters spell out Katowice from behind a Christmas tree, and Jen passes a sparkling gingerbread man on her way in. It seems like the only thing that’s open in the entire city with people busily walking up and down the stairs, chatting between muffin bites in the cafe, noisily rustling pages at the newspaper stand, checking out the timetables and looking at their watch, and Jen feels like a kid in the candy shop. The big departures timetable glows with an endless list of destinations, and someone’s train is leaving right now as they push past her and sprint down the stairs, clutching a ticket in their hand. Jen goes to the ticket office and asks about the earliest reasonable train that goes to Wrocław the next day.

***

Wrocław greets her with light gray skies, a noisy square in front of the station, and faint dings of a tram bell. At the exit, Jen notices big letters wrapped in silver tinsel that spell out ‘I ❤ Wrocław.’ She smiles to herself. Who’s to say that she won’t.

Today, the laptop is with her. It was staring daggers at her when she returned to the apartment yesterday, her feet tired from walking and her fingers numb from constantly taking her gloves off to take pictures, and she felt guilty enough to put it in her backpack as she was leaving the next day, telling it (and herself) that she’ll be able to spot the creature running through the forests and fields of the Polish countryside and finally catch it hiding in the corner of the Wrocław Christmas market. The laptop is quiet right now, a solid weight against her back, yet she feels its judgment as its corners jab her as she walks.

He never understood her career. 

Jen would’ve probably guessed it even if he wasn’t so vocal about it, expressing his displeasure every time he found her in sweatpants on the couch with a pencil behind her ear. He said once that their minds were wired differently and then kept repeating it when she stayed up until sunrise typing with a frantic glint in her eyes and cups of coffee crowding the kitchen table, when she got up in the middle of the night to write something and didn’t return to bed for another hour, when she got so caught up in the story unfolding in front of her that she didn’t respond to her own name. He ran that sentiment into the ground so much that she stopped reacting to it, even though what read as amazement at first quickly turned into annoyance. Jen was almost impressed when he told her the magic was gone. It sounded almost poetic, as if he’d suddenly gotten why she’d given up on explaining it to him long ago, but then the true venom of his words hit her. What she’d mistaken for lilies turned out to be oleander.

The Rynek isn’t far away from the train station, and as Jen walks along the avenue, asphalt gradually turns into paving stones. She’s only been in Poland for two days, but it’s enough to recognize the patterns: old historical buildings looming over newer ones in a way that’s almost threatening under the cloudy winter skies. But when she steps on the square, she feels like she entered the set of The Nutcracker. Small colorful buildings no more than three stories high are pressed together side by side, their pointed roofs not quite reaching the clouds above, stretching behind the silver and gold Christmas tree that’s looming above them. The brightly lit merry-go-round is spinning languidly to the delight of the children around it, and the stage is decorated as a wooden house with the clock tower, wrapped in baubles and string lights. As Jen walks further into the square, she sees rows of tiny wooden booths and allows herself to be whisked away with the crowd, breathing in the smell of freshly baked bread, cotton candy, and the inevitable rain.

As soon as Jen sees the church of St. Elizabeth topped off with an observation tower, something tells her that it’s a bad idea. Maybe it’s the laptop that’s still digging into her shoulder blades, angry that she’s been in Wrocław for hours and still hasn’t begun the hunt for the creature tormenting her day and night, hiding in the creases between the red bricks and taking cover in the cracks in the paving stones. Jen tightens the straps of her backpack and thinks that the creature will be easier to spot from above; once she has the whole city at the palm of her hand, she’ll have no excuses anymore.

She starts to regret her decision somewhere in the middle of the tower; it’s hard to be sure when it seems like she’s been walking for ages but the stairs still keep spiraling up and up and up. She stops for a breath on one of the larger steps. Her lungs are screaming, her throat tight with the effort to take in a proper-sized breath. She runs her fingers across the stone walls. Tiny windows are scattered along the path to the top, all of them hidden behind bars and some also closed off or painted black, but this one lets in enough natural light to illuminate the names and profanities scribbled onto the walls by those who mistakenly think they are adding to history.

Jen follows the names with her eyes. They’re surrounded by stars and hearts, dates in day-month-year and dates in year-day-month, confessions of everything under the sun in every language on the Earth, left by those acting as the main character in their own story, blinded by their desire to leave a mark, arrogant in their belief that that’s how it should be done.

He probably has their names carved into a famous landmark somewhere dirtying the smooth marble of a column with his too narrow handwriting in an attempt to let the world know how much in love he is. 

Jen’s lungs still burn, but she pushes herself from the wall and resumes the ascent. There are more scribbles at the top, but Jen pays them no mind, losing herself in the view. The whole city unfolds itself in front of her, showing every hill, dip, and crevice, parading colorful roofs with windows reflecting the bleak daylight, long roads snaking around houses that look like they came from a box of Legos. The river streaming through Wrocław, wraps it up like a present containing all of its beauty inside a box of asphalt and concrete. The big factory chimneys are puffing smoke into the air, mixing with the clouds and disappearing into the sky. Black-and-white metropolitan buildings with offices, documents, and important people are neighboring the dark and grand Catholic churches pointing crosses towards Heaven, full of important people who are maybe less sure about their importance, and there’s more of it stretching beyond the horizon. Jen looks, looks and looks until her eyes can’t see anymore.

She sees the creature, then. It’s settled in a row of witch hat-like houses, neither approaching her but also not running away, observing and studying instead of attacking.

Jen follows suit. She looks at the creature’s movements; how its whiskers are flowing with the wind, how its paws are softly kneading the ground, how its tail twitches in the mixture of anxiety and curiosity, how its eyes follow her every movement right back. Maybe the creature needs to be approached differently, Jen thinks, slowly completing the small circle around the tower, feeling the creature’s stare on the back of her head hot with alarm and interest. Maybe she doesn’t need to chase it; maybe it’ll come to her on the right terms.

The creature doesn’t confirm her theory, but it doesn’t deny it either, so Jen pushes past a group of wheezing tourists and starts her way down.

As soon as she’s back on the ground, the skies open up. Throughout the day it seemed like the clouds were gradually getting angrier, bottling up their dismay inside, getting fuller, darker, thicker until they couldn’t take it anymore, releasing all their pent-up feelings in a healthy winter downpour. The square still doesn’t clear out: people huddle underneath the tents, squeezing cups of coffee and glasses of mulled wine tighter, and watch the raindrops fall and break on the stones, mesmerized, as if in awe of the outbreak of emotion, as the skies shudder, heave, and sigh in pain.

Mulled wine in a rainboot-shaped glass seems very appealing, but the creature now lurks closer, and Jen starts to feel a familiar itch under her skin that begins somewhere around her heart and spreads all the way to the tips of her fingers. It’s faint; a shadow of what kept her awake night after night, urging her to keep going despite the edges of the sky coloring in yellow and blue because she just got to the most exciting place, just a couple more sentences, just another paragraph, just finish this page, and only then allowing herself to crawl into bed, drunk on the feeling of satisfaction that only comes from successfully wrapping up another part of her imagination. It’s faint but it’s still there, so Jen hides from the rain in a cafe, orders a mushroom toast, and asks for wifi. When she opens the laptop that’s practically glowing with smugness, her phone buzzes.

“you left your green jumper at my place” The text message reads.

The walk up the stairs to the top of St. Elizabeth’s church that made her taste her own lungs suddenly feels like the easiest, breeziest thing in the world.

The creature, timidly eyeing the cafe from outside, suddenly howls loudly, excruciatingly, with so much emotion that it almost overflows the rain, and it angrily claws at the door with such power that Jen’s felt the earth shake. The creature’s tail is up, its fur is sticking out at ugly, impossible angles; it howls once more, with just as much pain and sorrow, and disappears before Jen can do anything, leaving her rooted to the place, helpless, empty, with a crushing feeling of disappointment, because she was right there and she did everything right, and the buzz of her phone created a hurricane that swept a house of cards she so painstakingly put together without a shade of remorse.

The page isn’t empty anymore, but the words staring back at her say that she shouldn’t have even tried.

***

The early morning air is chilly, nipping at Jen’s cheeks and nose as she pulls up the scarf a little higher. The winter sun rises late, appearing from behind the horizon lazily, begrudgingly, as if in solidarity with everyone who doesn’t want to get up from bed, tangled under thick warm covers. There’s snow on roofs and trees, left from when the temperature dropped below zero during the night, glistening in the first unsure rays of the sun with all the colors of the rainbow. It is a rare occasion, to see the sun come up on the usually cloudy skies, creating strange shadows and disappearing just as suddenly as it came, leaving everyone below to wonder if it was just a fragment of their sunlight-starved imagination.

It’s Jen’s fifth day in Poland, and she’s catching a ridiculously early train to Kraków.

She’s left the laptop at the apartment, well-hidden under the bed, even though it put up a good fight, protesting and screaming, using the now non-blank page as it’s only and the most valid argument, but Jen just put her fingers in her ears and pushed it under the bed with her foot. She hasn’t seen the creature since returning from Wrocław, exhausted to the point where she was unsure if she really ever saw it at all; but she hears it, a faint howl from outside her door, reminding her that it’s still here, still waiting to be caught, still not really approaching her but not running away, nonetheless. If anything, Jen thinks, it has to count as progress.

She takes a screenshot of the message and just sends it to Anna with a simple ‘Please.’ If Anna has any questions or concerns, she chooses to keep them to herself.

“What should I tell him?” comes the reply instead.

Jen considers typing “Tell him to go fuck himself.” She almost spells it out, but settles with, “I don’t care,” finding, to her surprise, that she really doesn’t.

The ticket in her hand tells her that she’s just in time for the 9:03 train that makes a two-minute stop at Katowice Główny and she’s inclined to believe it. It’s still pretty cold, the pale winter sun isn’t doing much to warm up the air, and she settles into the window seat with a sigh.

It’s blissfully empty, and she feels a tinge of guilt. Maybe she should’ve taken the laptop with her and waited for the magic to happen, looking at the snow-covered fields, dark leafless forests, and ponds covered in a layer of ice so thin that even pigeons don’t dare step on their surface.

Maybe, as they pass the next station with an arrow pointing in the direction of Kraków she could’ve grasped onto something that’s been slipping through her fingers for weeks, maybe all she needed was an empty compartment on a fast train going east and the creature would’ve jumped in her hands, soft and compliant and ready to guide her through the pages that have been empty for so long that it starts to hurt her eyes. But the creature is still nowhere to be seen, it doesn’t show itself or make a sound, and Jen pushes her guilt to the back of her mind as an older German couple settles in the seats opposite her, quickly falling into an easy conversation and drinking fruit juice. Jen tells herself to give it time.

She doesn’t care about the green jumper. It’s old with a few holes in the bottom from being worn so much, a coffee stain on the left sleeve that’s proven to be irresistible to all laundry detergents, and she’s bought it years ago on sale not thinking much about it. She doesn’t even care about my place that was so close into turning to our place that, with her lease coming to an end in a couple of months, she almost told her landlord that she doesn’t want to extend it around three times, with something causing her to bite her tongue every time. When he finally asked her if she was going to stay for another year, she’s already heard the magic is gone and I wish I could apologize to you properly, so she signed the papers without a second thought.

Jen still doesn’t think he’s a bad person. That’s what she tells Anna when she comes to check up on her a few days after the lease was signed and a couple of days before the tickets to Poland were bought. Anna just raised her eyebrows.

“You’ve told me that already.”

“You didn’t believe me.”

“Do you want me to believe you?” Anna asks. Her exterior is calm as usual, her body language relaxed and open, and only her eyes reveal that she’s already made up her mind about the situation and is not keen on changing it.

Jen doesn’t know what she wants. She wants to go back to a week ago when she was writing until the sun was fully up and then fell asleep at lunch, knocking her coffee over, when he rolled his eyes, passing her the napkins, and told her that this is the last time he’s doing it, and she just laughed, not knowing that he well and truly meant it. She wants the last year to never happen, so she’d never spent three hours talking to a handsome stranger at a party only to ask him the time and get “It’s 9:32, the perfect time to give me your number,” in response. She wants him to disappear from her memory so that he stops showing up uninvited, telling her his opinions on everything around her and providing unhelpful commentary on how he thinks she should’ve acted here and reacted there. Actually, she wants a lot of things, but admitting it to Anna won’t make any of them come true.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jen says, because it really doesn’t.

***

Kraków welcomes her with a cafe right outside the exit from the train station and a little ice rink next to a big Christmas tree that’s covered in red tinsel and giant silver baubles. The snow from the night is long gone but the rink is still surrounded by piles of it, although the lowly whirring machines with gray hoses give away its artificial nature way too quickly. It’s still quite early, and there are only a few people skating, all laughing and tripping over their own feet with the exception of a guy in a fancy tracksuit who’s landing triple axles in every corner of the rink, looking like he’s astonished by his own athleticism every time. The wind’s died down, the coffee is absurdly cheap, and the presence of a guy who’s trying way too hard is pretty much required on any ice rink, so Jen stays for a bit and indulges in her latte and people-watching.

Kraków feels like a city that just stepped off the pages of a history book, big and clean with tiny streets curling into its center, framed by houses with pointy roofs and colorful curtains on the windows. Jen finds her way to its heart away from the touristy quarters across the veins of busy avenues, surrounded by tall glass-like office buildings and shapely theaters and opera houses, popping a little color in the gray contemporary jungle, and follows the signs into one-way alleyways, homing little bars along with grand old universities. Once again, the contrast between past and modernity is so stark that it seems impossible for the architectural wonders to even coexist; yet they thrive next to each other, adding to each other’s energy when it seems that they should be competing for the spotlight, seamlessly blending into the landscape of a modern city that hasn’t forgotten about its roots.

Leaving the maze of streets, Jen takes the tram back to the center, feeling almost child-like excitement as she clutches onto the yellow rail. There’s something so futuristic about trams, iron carts on wheels making their way through the city, caught in the power lines by their deer-like antlers, moving slowly, with so much dignity you’d think they were carrying the Queen, not just hundreds of thousands of commoners hurrying to and from their jobs. Jen hides the ticket in her backpack as a memento and heads to the park, softly glowing with pink and purple lights as the sun begins to set.

He hated both pink and purple for some reason, and his apartment was completely free of these colors that offended him so much. In fact, it was devoid of color altogether, decorated in black, white, and beige tones from sheets to curtains, always clean, neat, and organized. The green sweater was probably upsetting the delicate balance too much.

Jen cares that it was the first thing he’s said to her in weeks. He just disappeared; having said his part, he was gone, leaving Jen to wonder what she’d done wrong, what she could’ve done differently, and what she was supposed to do next. Her calls went unanswered, her texts were left unread, and if she didn’t have a few pictures of them together smiling from ear to ear, happy out of their mind, she would’ve thought that he didn’t exist at all, just a creation of her overactive imagination from one of those sleepless nights when she felt a little lonely and wished she had somebody to share a bed with. Anger seeps at the back of her mind, no longer boiling and threatening to overflow but still simmering with a full intention to rise if left unattended for too long; after pretending to be a ghost for so long, he texts back about a fucking sweater?

The lights are coming from a miniature castle that offers a Christmas stage show for the kids, and Jen turns to one of the side streets, where the lights are bigger, brighter, and more intense. She walks on the paving stones between houses pressed so tightly together that it feels like going through a gorge – a man-made version glistening with souvenir shop windows and fast-food signs, ending with the majestic Basilica of St. Mary pointing its black peak to the cloudy skies. She remembers that Anna asked for a postcard and makes a beeline for one of the shops, absentmindedly walking along the displays of magnets, scarfs, and plush toys. There’s a dragon version of pretty much anything in the store: the hero of Polish folklore migrated from its home on Wawel Hill onto beach towels, key chains, slightly inappropriate t-shirts, and shot glasses, with its depiction ranging from a fire-breathing and scarily realistic monster to a smiling cuddly creature fit for cartoons and nursery rhymes. Anna’s postcard shows the Rynek Glówny illuminated with rainbow lights, and on the way to the cash register Jen picks up a purple dragon plushie because why not.

There’s another Christmas tree at the main square, bright and fluffy with a golden star on top, and regular trees are covered with lights as well, changing colors from yellow to white, stretching out their branches like mythical sea creatures, bathing the square in soft pastel hues. As if the scene doesn’t look fairytale enough, there’s a long line of white carriages with festively dressed horses, offering tourists and locals the chance to experience the city like royalty, watching the old Kraków open up like a book while tucked away on the pillows under a warm blanket listening to the gentle clip-clop of the hooves. They are lining up in front of the Sukiennice, a former international trade center dating back to the Polish Renaissance, a grand structure that is just beginning to light up amidst the brightness of trees, streetlamps, and house windows but is already outshining them all, standing sure and confident on elegant arches and columns, a picture of strength and perseverance with a traditional Polish flavor.

A few hours before leaving for the airport Jen calls Anna to ask if she’s being stupid. She’s never been so desperate to run away, to get off the grid, to disappear somewhere no one knows who she is, where she can learn another story and temporarily forget about her own. He would’ve never let her do such a thing, because for him she’s always been a safe and rational Jen that has a plan for five years in advance and overthinks her decisions maybe a little too much; he would’ve convinced her that it is a bad idea and she would’ve looked back on it as a strange impulse, scary and unexplained, best left not acted upon.

Anna knows that it’s never been about simply working abroad, but she’s a great friend and doesn’t bring it up, although Jen knows that she’ll be mercilessly teased for that when the time is right.

“Everyone goes through the process differently,” she tells Jen. She’s outside, and the wind howls behind her words. “There’s nothing wrong with starting a new chapter with an airplane ticket.”

“Shouldn’t there be an end to the previous chapter first?” It bothers Jen, it eats at her insides in a way she’s not ready to admit even to herself. “Shouldn’t there be closure?”

She imagines Anna’s face hardening the way it does whenever they talk about it these days. That anger, however, is never directed towards Jen. “Sometimes you have to write your own closure. This looks to be one of those times.”

“Don’t I deserve it?” Jen asks bitterly before she manages to stop herself. Anna sighs, the speaker crackling on Jen’s end.

“Of course, you do. Doesn’t mean you’re always going to get it.”

Now, standing in front of the Sukiennice basking in the glow of Christmas lights and winter twilight, Jen thinks, to hell with it. To hell with begging for an explanation, to hell with wishing for a different ending, to hell with hoping for a decent apology. To hell with waiting for things he’s never going to give her.

Something warm and fluffy touches her leg and she almost jumps, startled. The creature is looking up at her with big yellow eyes, still cautious, questioning, unsure of whether to nestle in or evaporate into thin air in the soft candlelight coming from the St. Mary’s Basilica. Its tail is twitching a little, not knowing if it should expect an attack, and its fur is unkempt, long and tangled at the back and behind the ears, but still looks soft to the touch, and Jen decides to test her luck. She kneels on the paving stones and extends her hand, her ungloved palm open, showing that she’s come as a friend, a companion, no longer an enemy.

The creature backs away

Jen waits patiently, unmoving, and slowly the creature regains enough confidence to warily approach her hand, sniffing for hidden dangers. When its wet nose touches her skin, they both shiver: Jen from not expecting it, the creature from being surprised by its own bravery. Jen stays still, even though the seconds stretch painfully in her head, and finally, the creature picks up sufficient courage to nuzzle into her hand, letting her fingers glide through its fur. Jen lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding and the creature purrs.

“So, what are we going to do with you?” Jen asks quietly, scratching behind its ears. The creature sits down, curling its tail around its legs, and looks at her expectantly.

Jen thinks about the snowy landscapes, dark forests, and unsettled rivers, a journey somewhere new accompanied by the gentle sounds of the wheels of the train. She considers watching one country gradually change into another, helped by the blurry definition of borders, as languages, culture, and people transform so slowly that it goes unnoticed until the very last moment. She remembers having two days left, a train station near her apartment, and the city of Ostrava waiting two and a half hours away, promising rivers, parks, towers, and the possibility of getting lost in a neighborhood with rainbow-painted houses.

This time the creature really purrs and pushes its head into her hand. Jen smiles.

“If that works for you, that definitely works for me.”

***

Jen wakes up only from her third alarm, jerking and nearly sending a glass of water flying to the floor. It’s early; the darkness outside is just beginning to dissipate, welcoming the morning light, and her flight is in seven hours. She’s not slept more than two.

The laptop is standing open on the floor, silent and nonthreatening. The power went out somewhere in the middle of the night, but she continued writing until the battery died and went to bed still hungry for more, the familiar itch settling deep under her skin, begging to be scratched. The creature opens one eye and looks at her sleepily from where it lays on the duvet at the end of the bed.

She’ll just have to find the charger before getting to the airport.


Alexandra was born in Moscow. She has always had a passion for literature and wrote her very first story at the age of twelve. She has a BA in English Language and Literature and she is currently teaching English as a foreign language in a school on the sunny island of Cyprus. You can follow her on Instagram @goosius to see where her passion for writing takes her next.

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