This is a story from our time in Europe, and it’s a true story, and it’s coming in parts. This is part three, probably of four. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here.
Days passed. We got sick to our stomachs, stopped drinking the water, drank mostly beer instead. We ate a lot of ramen, the hostel’s “fully equipped kitchen” limited to a sink, microwave, and some mismatched flatware that was hoarded by ourselves and other guests.
We checked out of the Avantgarde with an hour before sunset. The day was still warm and we were loaded with suitcases. We had decided to walk to A.’s, the friend of a friend who had agreed to host us and who was also throwing a house concert that Dan would perform in. The walk would be forty-five minutes, we calculated, and from our map it seemed that most of it passed through a park. We looked forward to short breaks under the trees.
Dan led the way out of city center; his height and slight puff of curl at the crown of his head making him easy to follow in the crowd, though my aptitude with maps usually results in me being the guide.
There’s more to notice when you’re being led rather than leading. Details pop out of the picture and make themselves available for consideration. The sky opens up when you’re not looking at street signs. Tops of buildings have color; church steeples and chimneys and air have geometry. We paused at a curb for the light to change, and a small group of children monkeyed around on a series of statues depicting a man melting into the sidewalk, grim-faced before the transformation even began.
Streets were hacked up and construction tape obstructed our crossings more and more frequently as we exited the center. By the time we reached the park, the sun had mostly set and despite a few streetlights scattered around the perimeter, none lit the interior.
“Should we take a bus the rest of the way?” I wondered aloud.“How would we know what bus to take?”“We could try asking someone.”“Let’s just keep going; it can’t be that much longer.”
We walked side by side through the park, passing a bruised and mealy apple back and forth that one of us eventually got fed up with and threw into a bush. The wide concrete paths were a pleasant change after dragging our luggage through so much torn up cobblestone. A few joggers and bicyclists passed by, as well as one young mother pushing a stroller and talking loudly on her phone.
We didn’t talk a lot during the walk, having learned in the last nine months of traveling – a time during which we’d literally spent every minute in each other’s company – that silence was both necessary and appreciated. The other’s mere physical presence was comfort enough to quietly draw back inside our minds and hover there, detached from body and suspended in time, save for the rhythmic click of leather soles on the pavement denoting that seconds and even whole minutes were passing as we made our way to a there that was changing all the time.
And then, the road ended.
The smooth concrete dropped suddenly off a 3-inch ledge that rattled our suitcases and the bones in my wrist. Three dirt pathways stretched out in front of us, invisible only 10 paces back thanks to the immense, encompassing darkness.
We consulted our technology. The phone, still halfway charged, lost whatever satellite signal it usually picked up on, and the blue dot that was us expanded and contracted, then hovered in a meaningless gray grid. I unfolded the city map and the phone was instantly reduced to a barely serviceable flashlight.
“The map ended.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that this map doesn’t extend past the neighborhoods surrounding the city center. It only has the beginning of this park here at the top. Here, look,” I pointed, and Dan leaned in a little closer.
“Okay,” he said, drawing the last syllable out long until it trailed off, falling away from his lips like a pebble down a cliff.
“I think we should either make a left and see if we can’t go around the edge of the park on the sidewalk or just continue straight. When I looked at the map online it seemed like we were supposed to go straight the whole way through.”
“The only thing with making the turn is it might take us a long time—” “You do realize that this supposedly 40-minute walk has already turned into an hour and twenty minute extravaganza, right?” I could tell even in the dark that he was raising his eyebrows in silent disapproval of my frustration. “Sorry,” I added.
“Look, let’s just keep going straight and see what happens.” He hiked the backpack a little higher on his shoulders and picked his guitar up from where he’d set it gently in the dirt. I readjusted my purse, gripped Spike’s handle, and started walking.
Pulling a suitcase along a dirt path is work enough already; dragging it on plastic, wheel-less stumps requires a near Herculean effort. Despite the cool air, beads of sweat formed around my hairline. It might as well have been a body.
“This thing might as well be a dead body,” I huffed to Dan, who let out a short laugh and returned quickly to silence.
Time passed and it no longer mattered, minutes being less scarce and somehow easier to come by here in Poland than in New York. Each moment in the darkness seemed to swell and stretch until it resembled the murkiness of time in childhood, sifting through and trying to make sense of a hundred disparate sensations for no reason other than it seemed like a thing that must be done.
I started counting my steps and decided that was horribly boring. I thought of other places I’d rather be and how miserably short and wet the summer had been, how bad weather had chased us across the continent. I felt blisters form on the bridge of my palm and ignored them.
Dan caught sight of an orange light flickering between the trees that he hoped aloud would be a major intersection up ahead. For a few minutes, following it was enough for us to feel good, buoyed by what we’d been told over and over was our natural American optimism. It was short-lived. The disappointment we felt when it wasn’t from streetlamps but rather an empty factory surrounded in barbed wire, bathing in its own chemical glow was nothing short of painful. I swallowed hard, tamping down the belief that the last few days of illness, the persistent unfriendliness we’d encountered, and the physical and aesthetic coldness of our strange room at the Avantgarde were merely components to the story that would later be “our Polish adventure” might instead be portents of this rather darker reality that we currently faced.