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The expedition to Suwałki didn’t exactly work out. It didn’t pay off and it was morally detrimental. Expenses will need to be calculated. They might have saved a few euros, yes, but right now there was little motivation to assess the balance.
Vanda’s husband had been sulking ever since they left Kaufland on a late Saturday afternoon, the last shop on their list. His displeasure was caused by a seemingly trivial incident. In the parking lot, the Markevičiai couple discovered a shabby bike propped against their car. Its owner, not too chic himself, was smoking studiously next to it.
“Czy to pański welosyped?” Vanda’s husband asked him, in a commanding but polite way.
The cyclist abruptly threw down his cigarette.
“Mój, mój welosyped,” he said, mockingly mimicking Vanda’s husband’s tone. This was followed by a couple of Russian swear words, clearly directed at the clueless Tutejszy visitors from Vilnius, and off he drove. Vanda’s husband, who had lived in Juodšiliai for sixty years and spent his youth and adulthood listening to Polskie Radio Program 1, was convinced that his Polish was nothing less than excellent and that there was nothing even resembling of Tutejszy nature to it. The cyclist’s speech didn’t upset him at all, but he was irritated at his own poor memory.
“I knew it was rower, and still I went with welosyped like a Belorussian,” he complained. “I even pronounced it right.”
“But you are Belorussian,” Vanda reminded him. “You can’t escape your roots. Even if you tried.”
On Monday, Vanda went to work in Verkiai Museum of Design and Interiors. She brought one of the trophies from Suwałki, a box of Śliwka w czekoladzie—plums in chocolate. The museum guards whom Vanda supervised had a tradition of bringing exotic snacks as a gift for their colleagues whenever they returned from vacations or travels. Chewing a black Finnish gumdrop stuck in Vanda’s memory as the most horrible taste she had ever experienced.
The museum guards’ lounge was empty. The other workers wouldn’t show up for another half an hour. Vanda fiddled with the chocolate box. Suddenly, the plastic wrap ripped slightly. Vanda took the wrap off and threw it away. The lid opened all by itself. “One doesn’t count,” she decided and put a plum in chocolate into her mouth.
When Nijolė, Vanda’s best friend and her unofficial right hand, entered the room briskly, there were only a few plums in chocolate left on the carton bottom of the box. They didn’t even rate as a proper offering, so Vanda decidedly closed the drawer, hiding the chocolates away from the disappointed gazes. “And anyway, Suwałki was a business trip,” thought Vanda. Nijolė threw her purse on the table. Just as she opened her mouth to greet her friend, she sneezed loudly.
Vanda delved into the chocolate box. She felt five or six remaining plums in chocolate and took another one. A little surprised, she put it in her mouth. She paused, thoughtfully. The door opened. Nijolė threw her purse on the table and tried to say hello but didn’t manage to—the sneeze engulfed her voice mid-sentence.
Vanda pulled her hand out of the chocolate box and stared at the door. In a minute, she heard the clack of heels approaching. This time, Vanda didn’t miss a beat.
“Nijolė,’ she said, “I have...No...I feel something. In short, I have found myself with a very strong déjà vu. For the third time. You’re now going to throw your purse on the table—”
Nijolė firmly pressed the accessory to her chest.
“Well all right. But in a second, you’re going to sneeze!”
The sneeze rocked the guards’ lounge.
“Aha!” cried Vanda triumphantly, but by that time, nobody heard her, and her fingers felt the five remaining plums in chocolate.
It took more than a thousand cycles before Vanda came to terms with the time trap—this was the name she chose for the episodes, exactly one and a half minute long, that would start with her hand in the chocolate box and end in various ways, depending on Vanda’s decision.
The first cycles were interesting and terrifying. Vanda learned to meet Nijolė halfway in the museum park and tell a hurried account of the whole unbelievable situation. Nijolė would unfailingly believe Vanda’s every single word. She would instantly start looking for solutions, but in ninety seconds, Vanda would have to start over again. There were some benefits—Nijolė told Vanda about Groundhog Day, a film where a man gets stuck in a time loop too, only he has the whole day to relive instead of a pitiful minute and a half. Eventually, Vanda managed to find out the whole plot of the film (“Hi Nijolė, I’m in a terrible rush. Look, can you tell me what happened after Bill Murray learned to play the piano? I need this for a crossword”), but she still ended up repeating the protagonist’s every mistake.
She performed unsuccessful suicide attempts. There were no speeding cars by the museum or in the park that she could throw herself under, nor there was a decently tall building for a final jump. At one point, she decided that death by electric shock was probably the most realistic option. She tried to take apart the electric socket and even found a screwdriver in the security guard’s office, but there wasn’t enough time to bring it to the guards’ lounge no matter how many times she tried. There was also a period of aggressive depression. Nijolė suffered a great deal from it, because Vanda decided that it was Nijolė’s sneeze that triggered the time loop. Vanda would ambush Nijolė, pinching her nose and clamping a hand over her mouth. Vanda almost strangled her once. The mission was accomplished, eventually. Nijolė would only sneeze in the dusty guards’ lounge but not in the park or the museum corridor, so all Vanda had to do was find an excuse to keep her outside. The deduction proved to be wrong, however: the ninety seconds of Vanda’s new short life started in the same place, with her hand in the chocolate box.
In a thousand (or hundreds of thousands) lifetimes, the depression, panic and apathy came to an end. Vanda came to grips with this strange life. She would usually do the same thing—she would get up, walk out into the corridor (13 seconds), take a cigarette from the security guard’s desk drawer (20 seconds. Nijolė, who was entering the lounge at the time wouldn’t see her) and go to the terrace (27 seconds). In the terrace, Vanda would look at the autumnal banks of Neris river and slowly smoke the cigarette in a minute and three seconds. Sometimes, she would spice up the routine by calling her husband. She couldn’t call her son—she’d get a busy signal every time. She would talk to Nijolė, too—about trivial matters. But mostly, out in that terrace, smoking, she would think.
Vanda realized that the trap was only meant for her. As the ninety seconds passed, Nijolė and everyone else went on with their lives. The other, parallel Vanda also went on with her life. One of them remained stuck in the cycle, the other lived on. “The other one probably can’t even remember anything. Unless she is found to be insane. Then she is reminded of everything,” wondered Vanda. She saw herself strangling her best friend, recovering from a daze, muttering something about not understanding how this happened, the terror in Nijolė’s eyes, the police and ambulance cars in the museum park, the whispering guards, the straitjacket, the worried expressions of her husband and her son. Later, Vanda decided that she must be dead and the time trap is a purgatory where everyone pays for their sins. For instance, there might be people who get ten seconds and spend them not in a cosy museum with a terrace, cigarettes and plums in chocolate but in a roofless bus stop on a highway on a windy winter evening in the sleet.
Vanda took the opportunity to count her sins and predict the length of the sentence assigned to her. But there were practically no sins. A little surprised, Vanda realized she had been a good friend, a wonderful wife, a perfect mother. Well, she did have a tendency of being a little too authoritative at times. The only suspicious episode in the context of sins was her job in a cafeteria of a huge factory some time ago, during the Soviet occupation. She had to make do, and her inventiveness might sometimes have been regarded as thieving. Finally, Vanda struck her cafeteria schemes from the list of possible sins: “And after all, it was an evil empire”. But she had to admit that she still had issues with her approach to food. It’s not that she was greedy, or stingy—you wouldn’t find a more generous hostess than Vanda in the whole of Juodšiliai! No, it was all about the details. For example, whenever she went shopping without her husband, she liked to assemble the groceries into piles whose sum didn’t exceed one and a half euros. She would categorize the piles in the shopping cart, take one of the portions and head to the checkout. With the loyalty card, one percent of the accumulated credits would become two cents instead of just one – the register would round up the fifty cents. Six trips to the checkout equalled six extra cents. And six extra cents equalled twenty-one Lithuanian cents. In a month, that added up to more than six litas. In a year, that’s almost eighty litas, or twenty-three euros. This kind of money doesn’t grow on trees. She never refused to take the leftovers home after a dinner party—a piece of cake or a box of herring, but she would never offer them to her own guests. What could she do about it? Nothing. It was just her upbringing. And her experience. Food is to be eaten, or saved. She ate the plums in chocolate by herself, too. She ate them many times.
Vanda pulled her hand out of the chocolate box again. She lingered. Nijolė’s steps clacked in the distance before she walked into the room.
“Want some Polish plums in chocolate?” asked Vanda.
“Yeah, sure...Wait a minute—” Nijolė closed her eyes, opened her mouth and took a few short breaths.
As the sneeze rumbled, Vanda automatically stood up, ready to head towards the terrace.
“So where’s that chocolate, huh? Vanda?” asked Nijolė, impatiently. “I’ll put the kettle on for coffee.”
Vanda looked around her, surprised. “What, seriously? All of this because of the chocolates? Sharing is important and all?” For a moment, she wanted to accuse “them” of being childish, petty and primitive, but decided not to tempt fate and stopped the dangerous thought right there.