“…Where is where is?” I said, just for the hell of it. The prostitute made an expansive gesture with her arms. Wherever is is, we were there. We were at the house where you sleep with prostitutes. But we had to wait outside. The house — a big old apartment building — looked like everything else in Prague. In New York, it would be a historical monument, $6,000 a month rent. In Prague, it was just another sh-thole.
We had to wait and wait. Ah, the burning sincerity of all boredom. Every second that I waited, I wanted to leave more, and every second that I waited made it more impossible to leave. “It may be possible,” said the gatekeeper, “but not at this moment.” I snuck a look at the prostitute who resembled Tiffany. She looked so much like Tiffany, but like a Tiffany whose make-up had been applied with a trowel. Tiffany-One. Tiffany was Tiffany-Prime and this was Tiffany-One; the unknown Tiffany, the alternate Earth circling the real Earth, undiscovered by science. I snuck another look. Any residual drunkenness and therefore courage that I had was long gone. I knew it was her job to be bored but I couldn’t bear standing there and boring her, but we couldn’t talk.
“So what town are you from,” I said.
“…” she said. “Prosim?” she said. Yes? Please?
“What’s your name,” I said.
I had a small notebook in my messenger bag. I removed it and began to sketch. I drew a crown. I held it up and showed it to her. “Crown,” I said. “King,” I added illogically. A crown doesn’t necessarily imply a king. I waited for her to say “crown” in her accent. She did not say it. I handed her the notebook. It was my intent that we draw pictures, teach each other each other’s languages like that. She was probably deep, if I could learn her language and speak with her. She had had hopes and dreams, once. She had had a crush on a boy in the neighboring village. His name was Charles or something. She had grown up tall and strong with her raven-black hair, standing among fields of wheat in Slovakia; a black crow in the wheat field. She had loved something once. In time, when we could speak to one another, she would love me.
She handed me back the notebook. She had drawn an identical cartoon of a crown. Great. An idiot.
I did another drawing. I tried to convey in fractured basic English and hand gestures what I wanted. I drew a dog and the word “dog.” I drew a cat and the word “cat.”
I got a dog back and a cat back but no words back. Great. A f-cking idiot.
I drew a flower with the word flower.
She handed me something. A f-cking idiot.
…I forgot to tell you the most important part of the Kafka story. It’s not really the most important part, but still. The man just doesn’t stand passively in front of the door. He does consider entering it in defiance of the first gatekeeper. But the first gatekeeper warns him not to even bother. For beyond the first gatekeeper is another door with another gatekeeper, and then another, and another. An infinity of gatekeepers, an infinite regression of gatekeepers. “And already…” the first gatekeeper says to the man. And already… “And already, the third gatekeeper is so terrible that even I cannot bear to look upon him.” An infinity of gatekeepers. …It made me think of an old Conan the Barbarian comic book, where Conan is also lost in a hallway with infinite doorways — and then there’s a disembodied cackling, and all the doors slam shut at once. Once, I was out in a blizzard as a kid, along with my friend Colin. We’d been sledding. The blizzard came up out of nowhere. And he panicked in his neon red snowsuit and started running towards home. It seemed that he knew the way home and I didn’t. The snow, with the wind, gusted into pockets. He wasn’t waiting for me. He had forgotten about me. And with the snow and the wind, for minutes at a time you’d be caught in a complete whiteout where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. …And then you’d step into a sudden silent pocket of wind and the snow would die and you could see again. I’d run in a straight line, see Colin, then he’d disappear out of the other side of a pocket, and then I’d run after and be blinded again. I kept glimpsing him in pockets, but I couldn’t follow him through them all. He would appear in one snowy doorway, and I followed him through some of them, through never-ending rows of white rooms — but then I got lost. I found a stop sign and stood next to it until the blizzard ended, for no particular reason other than that the sign was red and I could still see it no matter how much it snowed. …Which is also what I think of when I think of that Kafka story and then I think of people, who you can also follow. You can follow them for a while, but you can’t follow them all the way — you can’t follow them through every door and every room — for beyond the first door is another door and then another and another, and though you can get past the first gatekeeper, you cannot get past all the gatekeepers: and already the third gatekeeper is so terrible that even I cannot bear to look upon him. How many rooms had I followed Tiffany through? Let’s say forty; let’s say forty rooms — but there were still infinite rooms left and I couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t even follow the prostitute through a single door because I couldn’t even get her to write a single goddamn word down.
It was time to go up. The prostitute signaled it to me. Maybe prostitutes had an internal clock? I had seen nothing happen that was different.
She handed me her drawing of the flower. I had crumpled the other drawings up in irritation. I snapped my notebook shut on the last one. F-cking idiot. This was a time in my life when I didn’t notice things. In those days, I was so tense that I never noticed things in my hands, never noticed what my hands were doing. I would leave our house in Prague and fifteen blocks later, would unclench my hands to find my housekeys still balled up in them. I would buy a chocolate bar and carry it twenty blocks. Then would find it weeks later, under my bed, uneaten, unopened and forgotten.
On the way up the staircase, we passed a middle-aged German man who was walking down with another prostitute. He had just finished. He smiled at me, a smile both all-encompassing and complicit. His smile said: brother, fellow traveler, yes, yes, yes. I’ve jerry-rigged many smiles in my lifetime, but I’ve never come up with a smile that was as contemptible as the one I flashed him back.
Upstairs was predictable. A hallway of rooms with one mattress in each room. But not an endless hallway, not endless rooms. A limited number of rooms. We went into one. She took off her clothes. I was surprised — why am I so often surprised? I had expected foreplay. I had confused prostitutes with high-price escorts. There was no foreplay here. This was the deed itself, dirty and simple.
She lay down on a dirty mattress and gestured for me to lay down as well. I recognized these as being my last remaining seconds to be like Holden Caulfield; just pay for a hooker, not have sex with her — just talk about my feelings about life; but she couldn’t speak English.
I was putting a condom on. She couldn’t speak English, but of course if she could have spoken English I never would have done it in the first place — who really wants to talk to a hooker? Not me. But now, since I couldn’t talk, I also couldn’t back out of it. I was not Holden Caulfield. I finished unrolling the condom around my penis. I got on top of her, straddled her on the disgusting mattress. I had sex with her for maybe one, two minutes. Then I stopped having sex with her; stopping moving up and down, just lay there for a second. I had never felt less sexy. I understood now why people hated men. I understood, briefly, why all of the problems in the world were caused by men — men; who can never leave well enough alone. Then, that understanding vanished; I blinked it away.
I exited from the prostitute. I stood up and started buckling my pants. While buckling, I made a speech to her that was conciliatory and apologetic and vague. It was a grand speech; a magnificent speech, really — with grandiose, sweeping hand gestures. “I’m sorry!” I said. I insanely gave her more money — as though she would be mad! As though she was a real girl who was disappointed by coitus being interrupted. I put my clothes back on. “Dobrý večer,” I said. Good night. Though that actually means “good evening,” and is probably more appropriate for meeting someone at a fancy dinner party. Good evening, prostitute. She squinted curiously at me as I left.
I spent the night at a cheap hotel where I watched dubbed German softcore porn, which played for free on the TV. I masturbated. Masturbating when you’re sad and don’t particularly feel like masturbating is a curious exercise.
The next day, I walked back across the Charles Bridge to our house. “I’m leaving Prague,” I told Tiffany when I arrived. “I’m going home,” I said. “No; you’re not,” she said.
Tiffany and I got in a fight where she tried to lock me in our room, to keep me from leaving. Actually, she did lock me in the room. Because I lied before about the fight on the tram being our last fight; this was the last one. She locked the door, but I also had a key on the inside. So to keep it locked, she had to grasp the doorknob from the outside, and quickly relock the door every time I started unlocking it. Which involved her standing outside the door for several hours. She had also stolen my passport. Our snobby English housemates saw her standing outside the room and heard me yelling from inside the room. They already hated us. They thought we had eaten someone’s birthday cake from the house refrigerator, which we had not done. “F-ck, you f-cking crazy bitch,” I said. “Let me out.” “…Not until you change your mind,” she yelled. “Never,” I yelled. The English housemates tut-tutted and failed to pretend that they weren’t savoring every second of it. “…You can’t hold the door shut forever,” I yelled. “Watch me,” she yelled. It was an embarrassing time for us all.
Eventually Tiffany released the doorknob.
“I’m going home,” I told her.
“Okay,” she said.
I left. I flew back to America, having accomplished nothing in Prague. I went back to my dad’s house. Have you ever taken a two-day journey on multiple planes, buses, and trains where you’re spending every second dreading arriving at the place that you’re going to? That was what I did.
I arrived at my father’s house. “…So,” he said, in a very “my dad” voice. “So,” he said. “What are your plans.” Very flat like that, was the way he said it, with no question mark. I proposed a bold life-plan that involved me living at my father’s place and not paying rent and writing poetry for a living. My father failed to give his consent to this imaginative plan. …After two weeks, I got a job working at an inn nearby. During the day, I was the dishwasher in the inn. At night, I was “on duty” as the night innkeeper who theoretically would save the entire inn if a fire broke out. In return for this, I got to live at the inn.
I stared out the window a lot. I called my girlfriend on the phone. I schemed my little schemes; dreamed my little dreams — while staring out at the flat Pennsylvanian lawn of the inn. The lawn was American; it was nothing special. I was an American. I had been to Europe and learned nothing, accomplished nothing.
I had picked up new clothes at my dad’s, so it took me three weeks to get around to unpacking my enormous backpack from Prague. When I opened the backpack, everything inside it was coated with irritating pieces of red fluff. The fluff wafted out and coated the corners of my room. I unfolded piles of clothes that I would never wear again. If you travel with the same clothes for months and months, you grow to hate them so much. In a burst of creative anger, I threw out the fluff-covered clothes. …What else? I looked in the backpack. At the bottom of the the bag I found a small notebook. I fished the notebook out; it contained several half-finished terrible free-verse poems. I tore these out of the notebook and threw them in the trash. Also in the notebook was a small single drawing, done in a crabbed, childish hand. It was a drawing of rose or a violet or maybe a lily of the valley. I held it up. Next to the drawing was one word: “Květina,” it said. Next to this word was another word. “Květina,” it said, “flower.” It was the only thing that I saved.