In Prague, Part 2
…I got a job handing out flyers. I had thought I would get a job as an English teacher. Which isn’t as stupid as it sounds. You get a job teaching Berlitz classes; you don’t have to know Czech. I thought I’d be a teacher, but instead I stood in the town square and handed out flyers for an English-language bookstore, the village idiot of Prague. Most of the people in the town square were German tourists, and I didn’t speak German, so it didn’t matter much what I said. I should have just thrown out the flyers out each day, but instead, some idiotic scruple possessed me, and I handed them out all day instead. I made a dollar an hour.
“Read a book,” I would say to the crowd.
Sometimes I would speak in an English accent for no particular reason.
“Read a book.” I did this for weeks and weeks, saying the same thing. Or sometimes I would try to be funny, but you can’t be funny if no one is listening and no one cares. Sometimes I would just get depressed. “Death is impending,” I would say. “Life is fleeting. Literature is salvation. Read a book.” I would vary whatever I said according to my mood each day. Occasional people would take a flyer from me out of pity, grunt, and move on.
Tiffany met me at the end of my shift. I threw my leftover fliers in the trash; she was all in a tizzy about something. A guy had hit on her in a bar and made a date with her; the guy was from Kansas City, Missouri. We were not doing a good job of meeting actual Czech people.
“So you have to meet me and pretend that we bumped into each other. To break up the date.”
“Bumped into each other in Prague?”
“So like, I didn’t know you were in Prague, and we’re running into each other.”
“That’s not going to work.”
“There isn’t much time. I see him. Go away and come back!”
I left, turned right down an alleyway, right down another alley, and did that for several more minutes. I figured eight right turns would be enough time. I reemerged into the square; all of the roads funneled down into the square by the astronomical clock and the Charles Bridge. Tiffany and her date were by the statue of Jan Hus. Jan Hus was burned to death for asking for religious freedom. They couldn’t get the fire high enough to burn him though. After a while, an old lady come up from the crowd and threw a dumbly small amount of twigs on the fire. “Holy simplicity!” Jan Hus said. People still say this in Prague to comment on something stupid — Holy simplicity – Svatá prostota. None of this has anything to do with my story. I walked up to her and her date. “Uh-huh,” Tiffany was saying. “Ha ha.”
“Hi, Tiffany!” I said.
“Oliver!” she said. “This is Rob.” She had already f-cked up. She should have been surprised first, then introduced him.
“Tiffany,” I said. “It’s so crazy to see you here.” We were doing terribly.
“It’s amazing,” she murmured back.
“So you guys know each other,” Rob said.
“He’s one of my best friends,” she said. Which was true, though we were involved sexually as well — all that dry-humping — in addition to the friends part. The problem was we weren’t acting excited enough. If you ran into your friend, randomly, thousands of miles away from home, you’d jump up and down and shriek and hug. But having seen each other not five minutes before, we were having trouble summoning up the necessary emotion.
“Oh, ha, ha. What have you been up to for all these years, Oliver?”
“Not a lot, Tiffany.”
“You look incredible.”
I gave up. “She asked me to do this,” I said.
“We’re not really meeting by random accident,” she said.
“I figured,” he said.
We were all so traumatized by the fake reunion that we went to a bar. We met a professional rugby player at the bar. He was the largest man I had ever seen. His neck was like a tree-trunk. His wrists were like tree trunks. “Me and this guy,” I announced, “can kick the ass of anyone in this bar.”
The rugby player was English. He took a shine to Tiffany. She gave him a book of mine that I hadn’t read yet, that I didn’t want her to give to him. Then Tiffany remembered that we had to go meet her relatives. She had Czech relatives who we were meeting for a family reunion. This seemed like the sort of thing you would keep in mind, and not remember suddenly at a bar, but I was glad to get her away from the two men.
On the tram, we got into a fight about Mazzy Star. Not the band, just the singer, and not over the quality of their music, over whether I would actually like the singer. It would be our last fight, and also the dumbest fight. Not our dumbest fight; the dumbest fight that anyone could ever have had.
I had a Mazzy Star song playing on my Walkman on the tram, and I commented about how Hope Sandoval was the most beautiful girl on the face of the earth. I had no problem saying stuff like this around Tiffany, because she didn’t truly love me. But this time she got offended.
“You wouldn’t really like her in real life.”
“Yes, I would. What do you mean?”
“You’d find something not to like about her in real life. You’d nit-pick. You’d find something.”
“Is this about the book? I hadn’t even read that book yet.”
“I’m just saying, you wouldn’t really like her.”
This was irritating. “How can you say that, when by definition I’m the one who gets to decide if I’d like her? It’s like me telling you that you don’t like ice cream. But you do like ice cream. I can’t tell you that you don’t like ice cream.”
No one was staring at us yet, because we weren’t screaming at each other yet.
“You wouldn’t like ice cream if you had to hang out with it all the time.”
“You’d find something wrong with ice cream in the end.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Very, very relevant.” Now I was shouting, the result of weeks and months of built-up sexual frustration.
“I’m just saying if you met the girl from Mazzy Star in real life, you wouldn’t really like her.” Now she was shouting.
“You don’t get to decide that!”
“I get to decide that if it’s true!”
“I hate you!”
Hadn’t meant to say that. …But I had decided it. And if you decide to say something, then it becomes true. Now it was true. “I hate you, and I hate old people relatives! I don’t want to go to your family reunion!”
And I stepped off the tram.
I started walking to the McDonald’s. I was sick of that McDonald’s. I would go to Prostitute Street.
“Where are you going?” Tiffany had yelled at me, as I left the tram.
“Anywhere but here!” I said.
Except that she hadn’t. I had wanted her to yell, to ask where I was going, but she hadn’t. Before the Law stands a gatekeeper, I thought furiously. A man from the country comes, craving admittance to the Law…
The key to the story is the word “possible.” It is possible that the door will one day be opened for the man. After all, the door was built specifically for him. There is nothing in the story that prevents the door from ever being opened; it is only that it isn’t ever opened. If it just had been impossible to get in, then the man could have left. But it wasn’t impossible, so he had to stay.
I’d like to say that I suddenly found myself on Prostitute Street, but one doesn’t suddenly find oneself anywhere. That happens in books and TV, but not for real. In real life, I had to make many active decisions in order to end up at Prostitute Street: right, left, then left again, then right at the McDonald’s. Prostitute Street. There they were. Nothing looks more like something in a movie than a prostitute. You can’t believe that they actually dress like that, but they do: the heels, the earrings, the wigs, the skin-tight short skirts. If I hadn’t dropped out of college, maybe I’d be in a class at that moment, well, not at night, in the summertime, but you get the idea. Maybe I’d be in one of my classes where we discussed feminist literary theory: the male gaze, the patriarchal society. Whatever. Out in the country, people were working for a quarter an hour or less, and these women were in the city, and making good money.
I had, of course, picked one out in advance.
She was the most retro one. She was my favorite. I had noticed her before, while walking with Tiffany. She really had the sadness down. She was mod, if mod is a thing that prostitutes are. She wore a white vinyl dress and white go-go boots; the rest of her was an advertisement for long black hair and long black eyelashes.
“Ano,” the prostitute says. I have shocked myself by approaching her. That did happen without my noticing.
“How much,” I said.
“…” the prostitute said. I couldn’t understand it because it was in Czech. Eventually, I managed to convey that I was English, American. For some reason she didn’t speak English.
“40,” she said. 40 crowns, I think that was how much it cost. It cost 10 dollars, American. I think. I wasn’t very good at the exchange rate. And foreign money never seems like real money anyway. And everything was so cheap, you never killed yourself trying to work out the exact exchange rate.
I wish I could recall more of what happened next, but I had drunk many drinks during my walk over. That also sort of happened without my noticing.
What happened next is that we walked away from the line of other prostitutes, the small gaggle of them standing on the street. I had the best one. I felt proud. I felt bad, too, taking her away from her friends like that. Granted, probably they weren’t really her friends. Probably they hated each other. Still, it felt like a terrible thing to do, taking her away like that. It made her seem alone and defenseless. As always in this sort of situation, I thought to myself: But what if I was an ax-murderer? But she was almost as tall as me, in her high heels, which made me feel better.
We walked down streets and streets and side-streets. I hadn’t anticipated this aspect of prostitution-ness. We were looking for some sort of house where you had sex with prostitutes, that sort of house. I’d try to reproduce our conversation, but it mainly consisted of her saying “Mister?” or “Prosim?” to anything I said, and to type anything else, I’d have to know Czech, which I still don’t know. Mister and prosim were about the extent of her conversational abilities. Only one of those is English, but I knew that prosim means “please?” or the more formal form of “yes.” Sort of like “Yes, oh grand exalted sir?” is what it means.
At one point, she said “Slovak,” so I knew she was from Slovakia. If Prague is like New York City, then Slovakia is like Moscow, Idaho or Cedar Rapids, Iowa. If you’re from Slovakia, you’re a hillbilly. You don’t want to be from there. That’s why she spoke no English. She was a hick.
We walked for much much much longer than seemed possible. What could I say to the prostitute without knowing her language? I had never wanted to have sex less. I was remembering that I loathed not being around Tiffany. Without her being around, ordering me around, distracting me with the possibility of sex, I was left to my own devices, which was bad. Already I was worrying about being an axe-murderer, and she had only been gone for a hour. Now I was feeling guilty about boring the prostitute, which isn’t even a concept. Prostitutes don’t get bored. Do you worry that your server at Burger King is bored? Prostitution is something that they do on purpose, for money. But it’s their resemblance to normal females that causes all the trouble. You get confused. Normal females get bored, prostitutes don’t. Plus, of course, she looked exactly like Tiffany, which is why I had chosen her over all the other prostitutes.
I was boring her. I wanted to die. The only sentence I knew in Czech was this: “GED-DAY-YE AUTO-BUS-OV-NEY NA-DRAS-JEN?” Which means “where is the bus station?” I had browsed through a phrase book once, in a America, leafing through it in a bookstore, not buying it. Out of all the sentences in the phrase book, it was the only one that had stuck in my mind. I had never said it. There many not have been a bus station.
I strongly considered asking her if she knew where the bus station was.
Or I could just say the first part. “Where is?” And just leave her hanging like that. Seem mysterious and profound. Let her fill in the blanks.
Read Part Three here.
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