What are you dreaming to achieve next year? What would you like to accomplish? Was the 2015 successful? Usually end of the year is a time to do think of a personal profit and loss statement. And plan the future, dream big, the bigger the more champagne you had. But Janusz, one of the main characters in Absolute Sunset, has one, very simple dream: all he wants is just ordinary life.
Janusz always says that all he wants is an ordinary life.
“I don’t need rapture, I don’t need disasters, I don’t need extreme emotions. I feel all right when things are just normal—neither hot, nor cold. I want an ordinary life.”
“But every life is unusual,” I answered. “It won’t be normal. Each of us is significant, of great importance…”
All our conversations on the topic end the same way. Janusz will snort and turn, go into the kitchen, and brew some tea—which he then won’t drink. I know his habits. I’ve been looking after him for decades now. Each time, he thinks I’ll believe that he’s actually thirsty, so he leaves and fiddles with the kettle, with the burners, pours water, searches for mugs. I just shake my head and sigh. He simply refuses to understand that there’s no such thing as an ordinary life.
He repeats this over and over again. “I don’t need a lot, an ordinary life will be enough for me.” But “ordinary” is a tricky word. To be exceptional is easy—it’s enough to do something incredibly good, or to go the other way and to fill the headlines of the newspapers with details that will make the hair on one’s head bristle. And apart from that, as I said, we are each unusual by definition, just on a different scales. One gets a Nobel prize, while another rescues the neighbor’s cat from a tree. Scale—different. The act—unusual. I try to explain this to Janusz.
“What’s your dream?” I often ask.
“My dream is just this: family, work, home. A pet—a cat or a dog. From time to time little treats: birthdays, cake, Christmas.”
“And what do you have?”
“None of that.”
“Is this about Sabina?”
“None of your business.” Janusz says, indignant. “And anyway, it has nothing to do with her.”
He thinks that I don’t know how things really are with his wife. Of course I know. From time to time he makes remarks about Sabina—enough that I can draw some conclusions. And even when he doesn’t say anything, I can see it. I know him very well and I can see that things aren’t going well. But Janusz won’t let me help him.
Janusz’s parents died when he was eight years old—suddenly, without any warning, announcement, or prophetic dream. Once Sabina told me, on one of the rare occasions when we met and spoke a little, that she had dreams that foretold the future.
“And what do you see?” I asked. I don’t believe in that kind of rubbish, but I asked anyway just to make conversation. It had started when we read our horoscopes in the daily newspaper—I cooked, while Sabina read them aloud.
“I can’t describe it exactly. It’s a kind of—fluttering—like a bird—I see something, but then afterward I can’t remember. But I feel like I could remember and then I’d know what the future would be. That’s how it seems to me.” Then she went quiet. It was one of our last conversations—after that Sabina got furious with me because Janusz was spending time with me without telling her.
“She yells at me, says that I spend too much time with you and not enough at home,” he explained. I didn’t comment. Why would I? He’d just go and make tea.
It’s a pity that he so rarely drops by to see me. We used to spend whole days together once I finally managed to tear him out of the children’s home—the adoption procedure ground on mercilessly—and he settled in with me. I thought that I’d go crazy, with everything taking so long. I could barely look at this poor child, who I was allowed to visit only once a day for two hours. But the clerks and the guards of the children’s lives weren’t in any hurry. And there were set requirements. A grandmother was too old—couldn’t deal with a child properly. Fortunately they accepted me in the end, although they complained a bit that I was single.
“Fuck you all!” I felt like saying, but I didn’t. It wouldn’t do any good so I kept it to myself.
In the end, after almost a year in the orphanage, Janusz found his way to me. But the year that he spent there was imprinted on him, and I couldn’t remove it. That’s how life is, memory reacts to trauma. Moments that were exceptional are forgotten, while the things that hurt are remembered and there’s no way to get rid of them. The effect stays forever, skulking in the background, influencing your choices without you even being conscious that it’s affecting you. Does Janusz still remember that year? I don’t think so. Did he deal with it? No, and what’s more you can see it in his attitude toward Sabina, in his persistent hope—hope against all odds, against the facts—to have a real home and family with her. But he refuses to talk about it.
Things were going all right between us until Sabina appeared. Where did she come from? I don’t have a clue—Janusz never told me. He simply came home one day and announced that he’d fallen in love.
“I fell in love and I we’ll probably get married,” he said. His tone didn’t fit with what he was saying, as if he wasn’t entirely convinced of it himself. I thought at the time that it was just normal hesitancy—men can be like that before making a serious commitment.
“Great!” I said. “When will I get to meet her?”
“We’ll have dinner on Sunday”
They came, but not on the Sunday we’d arranged—much later. Sabina never had time, or she was ill, or she had to meet with somebody else urgently.
“I understand,” I said each time. I didn’t understand, but I didn’t say that—women can hesitate, too, when it comes to serious decisions.
In the end, though, they came. She didn’t appeal to me. I don’t mean her appearance—that dress and her pretentious habits. Nor how much she drank—that happens. I mean that I felt that she was hiding something from me. She was playing at something.
Janusz couldn’t see it. She was beautiful, perfect, wonderful—she was everything a man might want. She was talkative, and Janusz was usually silent because he’s sparing with words. She chatted and chatted and it impressed him—she was a bit drunk, after all. She swept her hair out of her face, she laughed, and he looked at her with worship and a certain terror, as if he didn’t understand why she had chosen him. Honestly? I didn’t know why either. Even now I don’t know. I think she and Janusz had been persuaded that it was the thing to do.
“Are you sure that you want this marriage?” I asked him when we went together to buy him a suit for the ceremony.
“Maybe you can think about it? It was a quick decision.”
“Quick or not, it doesn’t matter.”
“You’re hesitating, aren’t you?”
“Why?” I asked, and I stopped. He stopped too, and we sat down on a bench.
“Because…” I didn’t interrupt. I waited to see what he would say. “Because I think that she’s dangerous. She is… I’ll just say it straight out: she’s crazy. I don’t know… maybe I should stay away from her.”
“You have to make the decision.”
“But things happened so fast…”
He sighed. It turned out that he couldn’t stand up to the hunger that Sabina and her family had for a wedding. I didn’t say any more—just turned up for the ceremony, gave them my best wishes, and really hoped that those wishes would come true. That Janusz would have the ordinary life he’d dreamed of. “Not likely,” I thought.
Then, of course, came the pregnancy. Janusz was happy. Sabina not as much, but she was. She made plans, read books, prepared. It seemed to me that she was doing better and had a chance to dig herself out of the trouble she’d made—drinking too much and sometimes disappearing without explanation—which I knew about through the neighbors’ grapevine. My prediction of “poor chances” was put out to pasture. It seemed that everything would be all right. Or it would have been.
Then, one after the other, her parents died—the father tragically, during a fire in Czechowice. Everything that Janusz had built, everything he’d precisely assembled in order to get his ordinary life, fell apart. And it didn’t simply collapse—it began to whirl and spin, finding a new, horrifying shape.
Janusz came to me then and cried.
“Sabina told me about the raven. She said that she’d seen him in a dream and that she saw her father. She’s had these dreams for a while now. She woke up with a shout, asked me to do something, to stop it from happening.”
“What were you supposed to do?”
“I don’t know. Now she says that she knew that the father would die and did nothing. And the raven keeps coming.”
“She told me one time about her prophetic dreams—I think it’s nonsense. She’s looking for attention—poor me, with my terrible visions, take care of me.”
“Don’t say that!”
“Well it’s true!”
“Listen… I don’t know what to say, I can’t collect… my thoughts. She’s pregnant, she about to deliver the baby. That’s probably the reason she’s been unsteady on her feet.”
“Or vodka.” It was the first time that I said openly that I knew that she was drinking.
“She isn’t drinking” Janusz insisted—they always deny it. “One way or another, sooner or later, she’ll be fine. She’ll give birth, take care of our child.”
“Sure, of course.”
“You know what? I am not going to talk to you anymore” he said. He got up, flipping the chair over, and left.
I didn’t see him for a long time, but I knew what was going on. I knew about Hanka, and I knew that Sabina, just as I’d predicted, wasn’t interested in her. At first I resolved not to butt in, but I loved Janusz. And I loved Hanka, even though I’d never seen her.
The first time I had the chance she was nearly five months old. I simply went to their place without asking, knocked, and entered, even though Sabina’s face said distinctly that she wasn’t happy to see me. I went to the bedroom where the small bed stood. I bent down.
I saw a girl who didn’t look her age—she was tiny, and too skinny. Dirty. And sad. My heart simply broke into pieces. I lowered myself more in order to pick her up, and she closed her eyes tightly as if she was afraid of me, afraid to be touched.
“What are you doing to her?” I asked Sabina, who was standing in the doorway watching us. I hugged the child.
“Nothing,” she replied and went to the kitchen. After a moment I smelled the odor of cigarettes—she was smoking.
When Janusz came home from work, we took Hanka for a walk. He didn’t look good, slumped and more silent than usual. He moved slowly, and his shoes were untied but he didn’t seem to notice. He was indifferent, as if he’d fallen into some kind of lethargy.
“What’s going on with you?” I asked. I wanted to stroke his back, but he moved away. He reacted just like Hanka.
“Sabina is having trouble dealing with… the house… the child”
“Janusz!” I stopped. I put my hands on his shoulders. “Leave her. I’m not stupid, I can see what’s happening”
“Hanka,” he pointed at the child.
“Give me Hanka for a while. I’ll take care of her.”
“Sabina will never agree.”
“Jesus!” I raised my voice. “If she’s not taking care of Hanka, she shouldn’t have a problem with it!”
“I don’t know. I’ll talk to her”
He spoke to her and she came to me, furious, her face flushed, her eyes bloodshot from drinking. I hadn’t closed the door of my flat—we all know each other here—so she came in and ran into the living room, where I was reading. She tore the book out of my hands and hurled it against the wall.
“You old whore! One more time, you say something like that one more time, and you’ll be sorry!”
“Sabina, calm down, sit down, let’s talk,” I said calmly. I made myself think of Hanka—if not for her I probably would had hauled Sabina out to the corridor by the elbow.
“We’re not talking. I already said what I had had to say. You talk to Janusz one more time and you’ll have trouble!” She wagged her finger at me. I winced but she didn’t see it—she’d already left.
She slammed the door.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t let it go.
Janusz didn’t come to me, probably because he was afraid of Sabina. I contacted him instead. It wasn’t hard. I knew where he worked and which bus he took to get there. I came to the gate of the mine and walked him to the bus stop and talked to him.
“You can’t live this way! Janusz! You have to pull yourself together somehow, you have to walk away, if not for yourself then for the child!”
“No court will give me care of Hanka”
“Did she say that? Sabina?”
“Yes. But it’s true”
“To hell with true! Please, pack your things tomorrow, leave her. You’ll stay at me.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Because I love her. I love Sabina”
“So what? Love conquers all? Ask yourself if you love your daughter! If you choose Sabina, then you don’t love Hanka.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Janusz…” I mellowed. “You wanted a different life than this. Do you remember? An ordinary life.”
“I remember. I’d rather not remember, though.”
“No, you’re supposed to remember! You’re supposed to chase after it! Janusz, you’ve had hard times in your life—now you’re giving up?”
“It not so… easy. Hope dies last.”
“And it should die first?”
“This will end in disaster.”
I tried to convince Janusz, tried to show him something what would stun him. I talked to his neighbors and gave him their reports about what happened in the flat when he wasn’t there. With Hanka. He didn’t listen.
I saw Sabina with another man at the gate in the centre of Katowice. I told him, but he ignored me.
I shouted at him, helpless against his complete capitulation. His reasoning was flimsy.
He said that he loved Hanka—maybe too much. He had good intentions and was trying to make sure that his daughter would be fine. I told him the road to the hell was paved with good intentions. In your situation, I said, you’re taking all chance of a normal future away from Hanka. He ignored me.
He said that he was doing his best, that when Hanka had been born he’d cried for joy. For once he’d felt that something in his fucked up life was good and right.
He sank into tearful rationalizations.
“Every day I can see that she’s a miracle. That miracle is having a hard time, unfortunately, because of Sabina, but I’m trying to keep Sabina form extinguishing the light that Hanka has inside. Neither of us—Sabina and I—have that light, but Hanka does. We lost our light a long time ago. Our light dimmed, but it’s still shining in Hanka, so I will do everything for my daughter, everything I can”
“So leave Sabina, instead of talking like some Bible-thumper!”
“I can’t. I can do what I can do . I am who I am. But I am trying. Are my efforts just part of that road to hell paved with my good intentions, auntie? I don’t think so.”
“I want Hanka to be happy. Happy all the time, not just at random moments. I want her to have a good job that will let her be independent. I want her to have a family that she can be proud of. I want her to grow into a strong woman who’ll know her own worth and understand herself. I want Hanka to have a better life than I do.”
“Then leave Sabina! Fuck, Janusz!”
“But I can’t give her those things,” he continued, as if he hadn’t heard me. He spoke without emotion, mechanically. “I can only do a little. Sometimes, maybe, I can protect Hanka from Sabina. Not as much as I’d like—often Sabina’s fury is too much for me. I hate myself for it, but I can’t do anything about it. I should… I should do something, I don’t know what, to demonstrate, to show some initiative…”
“Exactly. I understand that it’s hard for you, but you have to pull yourself together!”
“On the one hand I love my daughter, but I also love Sabina. On the one hand I want to provide everything for my daughter, but on the other I dream that Sabina will begin to love me.”
“It’s a trap.”
“I can see the way out of the trap, but I can’t use it.”
“Use it, before it’s too late.”
That was one of our last conversations, one of our deeper talks when Janusz opened up a little. After that? Perfunctory chats. According to a script. Me: walk away. Him: nice weather.
I couldn’t stand it.
In the end I gave up, just as he had given up. I stopped talking to him about Sabina and the house, then stopped talking to him at all, stopped going to see him. And at that point I finally understood what he felt. I hadn’t really got it as long as I’d kept repeating ad nauseam that he should do this, must do that, and so on. But now I understand. Sometimes a situation weighs down on you so completely that you give up. Just like that, without obvious sorrow or sadness. Or anger. It’s simply a point you reach—surrender to the inevitable.
I gave up. I reproach myself for it, but at the same time I understand it.
Sometimes it’s simply necessary to let go. Sometimes there is no other way.