Short stories


– paralyzed. Is that how I felt? Stuck would be another word for it. Eyes wide open, snow flurries and brisk wind, I was sitting on a motionless train unable to relax, read or eat. Years ago I sacrificed my present for the promise of the future, that existed only in the form of a memory of a child whose passion for life once seemed unstoppable.

I started the journey at 9.30 in the morning. Everyone’s been waiting for the snow since early November and it has finally arrived. My train for Trieste was supposed to leave at 10 past 10 and with a backpack full of books I walked towards the station. But, the winter wonderland image started to crumble faster than it could be appreciated. The train was delayed for 10 minutes, then 20, then 30. I was waiting patiently, in the snow, trying not to lose the hope that I in fact already lost more than a decade ago when I finished highschool and realized that the future I have been so excited for was moving away with each step I took.

They promised us shorter work schedules and better pensions; they stood there full of big words such as »education«, »doors wide open« and »bright future«, that later on turned out to not belong to the same sentence at all. Not more than »a subway sandwich« and »ending world hunger« at least. They gave us hope, only to take it away from us later on little by little when we were too busy fulfilling their expectations to notice. 

The first thing that crossed my mind was that I could be sleeping. The obsession with this basic yet elusive need, that only opened itself to me as a possibility when I couldn’t afford it, kept growing with each sleepless night. There is so much that I should be doing now, in this moment, in this life, but instead I was just standing here, unable to move, to think. Eyes wide open, brain receptive, echoes of past desires slowly fading away while the world was moving forward – one two three, one to three, people shouting, running around. But where have you been? I’m here. I never left.

Excuse me – you’re not allowed to stand here, he said with a firm look of an authority whose identity does not live beyond the black uniform. It’s -5 degrees out, sir, I have been waiting for the train for the past three hours. It was of no use. His eyes were non-negotiable. You’re not allowed to wait here, he repeated one more time, and sent me out in the snow. The bag full of books was pressing on my shoulder, but the train could arrive any minute now. My freezing toes were aching in pain while my mind kept saying: if only I would … if only I would … in the regretful rhythm of an endlesly postponed train.

I stopped sleeping around the 15th of September. All of a sudden I found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep. I moved places, changed my job, started meditating and stopped drinking alcohol but nothing helped. The worst thing about it were the hours of waiting that seemed to be never ending. The slightest indication of the approaching night triggered unimaginable fear, which subsided only with the greeting of the first moring light. The feeling of incapability anchored in my brain with the dedication of someone ready to stay, and all I could see as my once so promising future was moving back with my parents or suffocating under the rent half the size of my salary for the so called freedom of independence while working in some office ten hours per day only to be awarded 20 days of vacation per year. How did it come so far? This was not what I had imagined as living in the now but it ended up being exactly that: living from day to day. Yet instead of enjoying every moment as the most important one it quickly turned into one big mass of tiny particles, all resonating in fear. I prioritized career over fun for I believed it was leading me to a life of stability and peace, but I overlooked a seemingly unimportant, yet what turned out to be a crucial detail: I prioritized a career in art.

The train station was full of people coming and going, drinking coffee and waiting for the trains to arrive. I have seen buses arriving from and leaving for my home town yet none for the place I was supposed to go to. Valentina was waiting for me in Trieste while the gift I got for her was slowly falling apart in my soaking bag. The train has been delayed for over four hours at this point. No one could predict when it would arrive, so there was no other option but to keep checking the arrivals board and wait. The feeling was similar to the one so often felt during the sleepless nights, and no less devastating. The calls I needed to make, the emails I had to reply to, all of it was accumulating in my head while the time was passing by, hour by hour, with the speed of a snail on cocaine. I felt useless. With everything going on, I had no right to wait around. My life had become a no-loitering sign whilst my body craved for exactly that: some aimless hanging around.

It became hard for me to talk to people, so I started avoiding them. With each But where have you been and What do you do I felt the suffocating feeling of failure mingling in my chest. I’m here, I thought. Waiting for it to arrive. The excuse of being a student that I used for never having enough money was not convincing anymore. People were getting married and being financially stable became a way of measuring one’s worth. I had to grow up.

But how does one do something so elementary? It’s simply supposed to happen – but what if it doesn’t? Does anyone talk about that?

It had been close to my fifth hour on the train station and all I could think of was if Ana Karenina had a retirement plan. Ma’am, you’re not allowed to wait here.

Let me wait, sir. Please, just let me wait.

I didn’t even notice when the snowing stopped.

(Published in Simulacrum magazine, May 2024)

A ridiculous concept

He only invited her out of courtesy; she can’t recall why she accepted. Courtesy. Cour-te-sy. The end of all that is real and pure. A ridiculous concept.

The thought of having to prove she was fun to a group of people she barely knew was tiresome. So tiresome, god, she could easily just leave, go home, but then again, it would still be chasing her, this goddamn guilt of being young and simply not feeling it yet having to live up to the expectations – how unbelievably tiresome that is. 

Someone once told her the first sign of growing old is preferring sparkling water over still one. 

The second one must’ve been the moment she started wearing slippers inside. 

She was looking at the lights in the windows, paying special attention to the ones through which shelves full of books could be seen. Who lives there, what do you think; it must be someone for whom time is simply something that passes, a perfect absolute, completely separated from their graspable reality. 

Time. Intuition. Earthquake. Force Majeure. Accident. Loneliness. Movement. Hurricane. Fear.

She imagined a person slowly moving from the kitchen to the living room where the book he’s reading is placed on an armrest, its cover facing up. It’s always a he in her head, a tall man in his late 70s, her ideal state. She imagined slippers being dragged across the wooden floor,  a disembodied voice murmuring something to itself, lost in thought without addressing anyone in particular; a shaky hand carefully pouring tea in a cup, an expression tense with focus followed by a barely noticeable yet approving nod. 

When Agnieszka was a child she believed growing up meant becoming a mom, then a dad, a grandma, and a grandpa. Now she believes it happens through habits and, like a rocket launch, by losing parts along the way; initial coffee with milk thus slowly shrinks into a macchiato, then lungo, until it eventually transforms into tea. 

Does everything get smaller and simpler with age? She thought of her grandmother reading the Bible to her as a child, her wrinkled face strict and devoid of any emotions:

By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken

She was the kind of grandma that would shake your hand when greeting you, her only grandchild.

Intimacy. Guilt. Suffering. Family. Trap. Pain. Fear. Lack. Desire. Unfulfilled.

On the way to the place Agnieszka was soaked by a drizzle, the kind that always seems perfectly harmless at first, but after ten minutes of cycling forms a separated layer on your body, a kind of second skin. With her face wrapped in a blanket-turned-poncho-turned-shawl, she was scanning the surnames next to the doorbells. Nothing seemed familiar. She checked the name again but it wasn’t there. Okay. The light in the corridor turned on and someone walked out just fast enough to avoid a possible interaction but not without casting a suspicious glance at her first. 

The wind started to increase. She wrapped the shawl tighter around her head – only her eyes could be seen now. Does this count as mild cultural appropriation? She stopped for a moment to contemplate but was quickly grounded by the doomsday scenario unfolding around her. It was getting personal.   

She went around the corner to assess the situation from a different angle. Sadly, the angle remained perfectly straight but the view was now noticeably different. There were a bunch of bicycles parked next to the entrance. Four of them were electric, there was no doubt anymore – this was the place. And yet there was no doorbell anywhere. She stopped again, this time to decide if this was perhaps a sign telling her to give up. 

Water turns to blood. Frogs. Lice. Flies. Livestock pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. The killing of firstborn children.

She recalled an anecdote from one of the books she once read in which an old man tells his wife that humans were meant to live in places where lemon trees grow. You can disagree but no one was meant to live here. 

Something in the corner of her eye caught her attention. There was a track leading from the bike racks and disappearing around the corner of the building. Another sign? Her stubborn nature comes from her father. Taurus, her mother would say. Never marry a Taurus. 

She is standing in front of the door now. It is a big glass one with the doorbells and the right surname. She doesn’t ring. She is terrified of doors – she never finds the right one. But if she does, it only opens the way to more doors. 

A faded memory of another story creeps in – Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox, the fable with a lighter, dogs and multiple doors. The story’s atmosphere fitted the one of the moment. Menacing with a pinch of despair.

She was afraid of everything. 

Arriving late. Arriving alone. Breaking a corkscrew. Public presentations. Parallel parking. Memorizing. Paraphrasing. Pregnancy. Conflicts. Cooking. Cooking well.

Over the years she realized there were three things one needed to know to be successful in life: how to drive a car (practical aspect), roll a cigarette (social aspect), and make different types of coffee (financial aspect). She was partially capable of doing one.

The moment of hesitation was also a moment of a blissful superposition that made it possible for her to be and not be there at the same time as long as no one looked out of the window to check. She thought of the No loitering signs and how embittered one must be to prohibit people from hanging around a place with no real purpose. It must’ve been a cultural thing for where she came from, loitering was all people did.

She knew exactly what Ania would say to her; that she was making everything so complicated. That she should just walk in, have a nice conversation and go home. ‘Out of courtesy’, she’d say. A ridiculous concept. 

Ania finds life to be pretty simple. She is a veterinarian with an extraordinary zest for life and performs dissection in a way it could be labelled Fun for Kids. 

She is convinced all of Agnieszka’s struggles come from her calling – her own words – because, in Ania’s opinion, suffering is an integral part of art practice. She read about it in some book.

Instead, Agnieszka decides to reassess the situation. She looks at the windows, trying to spot a familiar shadow. There was nothing but a flickering dim blue glow from someone’s tv. What are they watching? She had a strong suspicion it was Die Hard. There is no particular reason for this assumption but her intuition is that of a witch. 

She looks at the windows again. She knows how the conversation is going to go when she finally walks in. It usually alternated between general truths and silly generalisations, breaking the pleasant stillness of silence with constant Actually-, On the contrary!, But did you know, and Quite the opposite!-s. 

A day spent in the company of politesse started in April and ended in May with time passing fast yet simultaneously keeping still. 

The lobby was fairly empty. There was nothing but a metal trash bin and a red-and-yellow tricycle, the kind you saw in cartoons but never had yourself. Observing the bike, she realized how things that used to bring her joy now made her increasingly tired.

On her way there people were overtaking her like a tractor on the village road but the strength needed to press the pedals fast enough to join their rhythm was impossible to find. Lately, even an activity as simple as standing up straight took an unimaginable amount of effort. 

Shifting weight nervously from one foot to another, she started to feel suspicious. The rain had stopped, started, and stopped again while she was ng there, loitering, her purpose lost a long time ago. 

A new person walked out, or perhaps the same one as before, unable to sleep and thus keeping an eye on her – could it be that she didn’t notice them returning? A sense of panic overwhelmed her, they must think she was a thief, what else would she be doing, standing around all night if not hatching a plot most certainly harmful? 

The more she thought about it, the more possible this scenario seemed to her. Could it be that something inside of her wanted to cause harm all along? 

With an increasing conviction, she felt she had to justify her behaviour. Looking around her one last time, she grabbed the tricycle and set off into the night.

(Published in Simulacrum magazine, 2022)