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I reached my destination. The neon buzzing with green…

Jaroslav Kalfař

(text inspired by the residency stay)

I reached my destination. The neon buzzing with green to clearly signal this was a friendly absinthe mecca. I entered through the glass door and found the place empty. It was early, still – absinthe bars were the midpoint destinations, to be visited after proper drinking at the pub to achieve the transcendental drunkenness (and, for those who wanted it, the fake impression of hallucinating) before moving on to clubs and bordellos.

I sat in one of the handcrafted wooden chairs. The smell of hashish emanated from the kitchen. The familiarity of this scene, the scent in particular, comforted me. This was one of the smaller absinthe bars in the neighborhood, only meant to seat about a dozen customers, but the owners justified the size with the feeling of exclusivity. She emerged from the kitchen, and I suppressed a smile that would acknowledge my relief that it was her shift. She paused after exiting the kitchen, then broke into a fit of stoned laughter, giving me the finger.

She cut her hair. It used to reach her back and she was proud of it, ran her hands through and tossed it to the side as if dipping her fingers into a wild mountain stream. Now it barely reached her ears, and I found myself stunned. I realized I had never seen the entirety of her neckline until now, and her eyes seemed much darker when not concealed by hair falling over her forehead.

“He doesn’t Skype, he doesn’t Snapchat,” she said as she sat with me, recovering the pipe from her pocket and lighting it up.

I had met Sofia four years ago, when I took a couple of American friends out for their first absinthe experience. She described every item on the menu, spoke to me in Czech and to my friends in English while occasionally dipping into accidental Ukrainian. She was new in the country back then, and excited about the job. Felt like she was a tour guide inducting people into a new world. While serving our second round her hand slipped and a drop of flaming alcohol fell on my American friend’s forearm. I could tell that though they didn’t consider it a major offense, my friends were taken aback when Sofia and I laughed about this and she continued her task without apology. In America, this act would’ve been considered costumer service tragedy, over-described on Yelp in powerful, scathing prose (My Server Burned Me: The Novel); here, you had no business going to restaurants if you didn’t consider you might encounter fire. As my American friend studied his arm for damage, Sofia and I looked at each other for a second too long.

Every year I returned to my country for a month and we carried on with our affair. We remained unattached, didn’t shack up with other people even though no such rules were ever discussed and we were not interested in making a life together. I didn’t want to live with anyone who wasn’t Lisa, and Lisa was gone.

We chatted about the attack, her applications to graduate school for economics, my mother. Sofia got up and brought over a bottle, poured each of us a glass over a cube of sugar, ran the cube over the edge of each glass, then lit the surface of the liquid on fire. She put both of her hands over the glasses to put the flame out, then showed me her unburned palms. The same trick she showed us when we first met. I took her palms and kissed them both. She sat in my lap and we both drank down.

“I always love to see you,” I said.

I sat for a few hours, with Sofia having to leave the table eventually to serve the new wave of guests. At eleven, I helped bus the tables and close – reasonable absinthe bar owners closed their shops early, as the myth of the hallucinating drinker encouraged tourists to act out dark thoughts under the guise of a placebo delirium. I walked Sofia to her apartment building, then her door, then her kitchen counter, then her bed; we ended up in the bathtub, far too short for both of us. The grout around the tile was stained, almost black, the bathtub yellowed with time like an old tooth, likely dating back to the Prague Spring. In the blue water and foam around us floated incandescent clouds of cum, hers and mine, and I stirred the water to make them mix. My jaw was sore. She was always honest about what she wanted, about taking my time, she took my hands and placed them exactly where she wanted them, tracing lines along her body in patterns I was bound to memorize. It was odd to be so close and able to make each other happy, then return to our normal lives where the other had no place. I went about the work of serving food that smelled of home in New York and watching Americans poke it with their forks. She went about pursuing her studies, getting stoned in the bar kitchen while dreaming of the day she’d work for the UN or teach at Charles University. During those periods apart I made myself believe our relationship was artificial, that I built fantasies in her absence. And yet we were back together again after a year and all was as I remembered, and we couldn’t stop until both of us ached to the touch and there was nothing else to do but sleep an athlete’s slumber, intermingled, scratched, the redness of hand and finger marks still present when we’d wake up.

“Funny,” she said, “while she was still alive, my mother kept telling me that I would marry a Ukrainian man. That no one else would understand my need to be wild. And she told me that man would bring me back home. It sounds so goddamn oppressive now that I say it out loud, but I think for her it was a kind fantasy. She worried that I would forget about her and my country, cease contact, that life here would steal me away. A Ukrainian man would keep me connected to my roots. What she didn’t understand is that there is an inseparable longing in me to be Ukrainian. I might give it up if it was possible, you know? But it’s not. You do know. Both languages feel like your second. Your friends forget you and your family grows without you. It would be easier to be just that one thing, either Ukrainian or Czech, not both. It’s horrible, but of course I’ve thought of it, and I know you have too. Forgetting where you were born, the people there, burning your first passport. But it isn’t a decision, because I am always and forever a Ukrainian, and being a Czech will always be a supplement, an addition. What my mom didn’t realize is that I don’t need reminders because I think of home every day, of who I could’ve been there had I stayed. And if I were to be with a Ukrainian man, he’d be just another reminder I don’t need of what I could be missing, what life I could’ve lived, just another way to romanticize Kiev. She meant so well, my mother, she wanted to keep me close. Perhaps, were she still alive, I could’ve explained this to her and she would’ve been glad I thought this much about what she said.”

“My mother hopes for the exact same thing,” I said, “you will find a Czech girl, I just know it. It’s part nativism, part religion.”

“If they really wanted good for us, they’d pray we’re just left alone to be who we are.”

“I like it less and less,” I said, “you get too used to being alone. It becomes a handicap.”

“Because fundamentally, you’re a sap,” she said and leaned into me. She took my arm and put it around her shoulders. I traced the edge of her collarbone, she reached backward with both hands and took turns tussling my hair and pulling at it. I wasn’t aware of being naked, worried that my body, seated and contorted, wasn’t portrayed in its best light, betraying excess folds of skin and fat, the normalcies of having a body. It seemed the ultimate comfort. There was us and there was the water. I wanted to stay there, stay the night until the closeness became too frightening for us to endure.

***

I dreamed of my mother’s eye sockets hollowed out by the burn of chlorine. She was dead and yet she coughed, choked, reached for me to help. I woke up Sofia and told her I had something to take care of.

I walked the twenty blocks home, relieved by a city much smaller than New York – no sprawl, no two-hour train rides. The subways were barely needed. While New York hid its treasures in mazes and layers built atop each other without any order in mind, Prague seemed to be a result of creationism, every piece carefully designed to appear and function exactly as planned, like a nativity scene. Even the howling foreigners seeking hedonist release were somewhat orderly against the backdrop of gothic gates that once withheld hordes of invaders, entitled boy-kings settling down Bohemian rebellions. We’d spent so much time building these gates and walls, then tore them down to allow the globalized metropolis its uninterrupted growth. Now we were looking to rebuild the walls again, this time with invaders imaginary as the monstrous bubák under children’s beds. As capricious as a dandelion seed, humans.

Again, I was back at the church. I walked down the alleyway between its eastern wall and the dumpsters lined up behind an apartment building. Here the illumination of storefronts and glowing windows ceased. There was only the light provided by the streetlight orange seeping out from the street ahead. Shadows grew monstrous in the light, my skin appeared to be on fire. Ahead I heard voices, recognized shapes by a lone tree. A cackle. It was too late to hesitate, to turn back – they spotted me. A few bodies sat on the grass surrounding the tree, and a couple more leaned against one of the dumpsters. They emitted clouds of smoke like horses in winter. The ground was littered with empty beer and liquor bottles, plastic wrappings from deli baguettes, empty matchboxes. I spotted another body facing the church wall, with an arm raised against the surface. A stream of black shot out of its palm and letters appeared on the wall. I paced my steps, not too fast as to appear alarmed and afraid, not too slow as to appear to be easy prey. Finally, I was close enough to see faces, boys and girls who couldn’t be older than sixteen. One of them sneered at me. A bottle exploded behind me and I wished for the trusty switchblade I left in New York. I dared look left to read the spray-paint creation on the wall. Strength in numbers. The boy holding the can of paint turned around, our faces so close that I could see the sweat forming on his forehead, the dead opiate look in his eyes. The can fell from his hand and he took a quick, staggered step toward me. I dodged and hastened my steps, feeling the bodies rise behind me. I dared look back once more. The boy was following me, a few steps behind, and from the depths of his jacket he produced a bottle in one hand and a zippo lighter in another. I broke into a run as the boy splashed the bottle’s contents my way, soaking my pants and the back of my shirt. Something small tapped my shoulder blade and I heard the scratch of metal on the sidewalk. I touched my back and my legs, expecting flames rising. At last I was out of the alleyway and heard the children behind me howling at the moon. They’d soiled their hands. They did not recoil at this violence – they were ready for the new world. My clothes were soaked with bodega vodka, but I had avoided immolation.

I made it to the building entrance. I unlocked it with surprisingly steady hands and walked up to my apartment, terrified but envious of the children who’d attacked me, their hunger to do away with the sickness of their world by living in the night.





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