by: Laurie Blanton ((Header art by Leonid Afremov.))
What if what once felt like love, now feels like shackles? A story about a contentious love triangle set against the backdrop of the Czech Republic…
“Where have you been?” I balance my cigarette on the edge of the overflowing ashtray and take a sip of lukewarm coffee, staring into swirls of clotted cream. I size Mitch up out of the corner of my eye. He looks different.
The sound of a key turning in the lock awoke me from my Sunday morning mental fog. Unbathed, curled up in plaid flannel pajamas, sipping coffee and chain smoking by the window, I’d been trying to focus on lesson plans for the upcoming week, wondering where my husband was and if I should call his mother. Now, he’s here.
“Out.” Mitch responds. The door shuts with a click behind him. He stuffs hands into jean pockets loosened from twenty-four hour wear.
“Yeah, I know. But where? At a bar? Drinking?”
“Yes,” he responds coldly, shifting his weight from side to side, looking like a caged animal.
“With Dan?” I glance away from him to the Rorschach-like Ikea poster on the wall.
“No.” He stares past me out the high arched windows. There’s not much to see on our quiet street — Máchova — named for a Czech poet who died the day before his wedding.
I stub out my cigarette, stand, and walk past him. In a few steps I go from the bedroom to the kitchenette in our tiny Vinohrady studio. I grab the yellow sponge from behind the stainless steel sink and start wiping down the gray counter.
“Why didn’t you answer your phone?” I scrub at a spot I can’t remove before realizing it’s part of the pattern.
“I was thinking.”
“I was worried.” My scrubbing slows. “Were you alone?”
“Who were you with?”
I lock eyes with her and move in for a kiss. She backs away. What the fuck? She was all over me at the bar.
“Wait here,” Candice says.
I admire her trim body as she walks towards the bathroom of her sparse apartment, her pink thong peeking out over jean cutoffs. Hurry back, I plead silently. I don’t want to lose my erection, or my nerve.
My phone vibrates in my pocket. I turn it off without looking. It’s Kara no doubt. I try not to let thoughts of my wife or what I’m about to do enter my mind, but it’s too late. I see her image before me—blonde curls, brains, and a sharp tongue. My cock gets painfully hard, then shrivels as I picture her squinting at it saying, “You can’t satisfy me, what makes you think you can satisfy her?”
“Are you okay?” Candice calls from the bathroom.
“Yes.” I squeeze my eyes shut to block my wife’s image, but the damage is done. Damn you, Kara. I turn towards the entryway, contemplating a hasty exit.
The rattle of the pipes shuddering in the wall stop my retreat. I marvel that a country which couldn’t even construct a building properly managed to maintain an illusion of world power. If Americans had penetrated the Iron Curtain to take a shower, the Cold War would have ended much sooner — like a cold shower.
I laugh. How quickly my mind shifts from penetration of a woman to penetration of a regime. Kara, why? Why did you insist we leave a comfy life in the United States to teach English in the Czech Republic? I wouldn’t be here, if you hadn’t. Fuck it! Time to forget you and have some fun. I walk towards the sound of running water.
“Do you even like me, let alone love me anymore?” I held my breath, manically shaking red pepper flakes on a thin slice of mushroom pizza.
Mitch gulped down his Pilsner Urquell and set the pint glass on the wooden table. “That’s a difficult question to answer.” I raised my head seeking his eyes for an answer. He looked away, threw some Korunas on the table, shoved his chair back, stood up, and walked out of the little pizzeria a few blocks from our new Prague apartment. It was noon. That was the last time I saw him that day.
Finally a moment alone. I use the time to shimmy out of my constricting jean shorts and slip a gray tank top over my head. He might have enjoyed this strip tease, but I can’t bear the thought of him touching me until I’ve washed off the smoky bar and Prague’s grit. Why didn’t we just do it in the bathroom at the bar? My buzz is wearing off. What have I gotten myself into?
I want him. I had from the moment I saw him photocopying a vocabulary word search in the school’s cellar library. Sure he’s a little paunchy and prematurely balding, but he has penetrating eyes and an electric smile. Meeting his wife should have cooled me off, but it made me want him more. It fueled my internal drive to beat her — the conventional, curvy, blonde cheerleader that she was. I make him laugh. She makes him sad. I’m sick of being his shoulder to whine on.
At it again Candice? I ignore the voice inside my head. You can’t ignore me, honey.
“Shut up.” I clench my fists and pound them against my temples.
Punishing yourself before the crime, you little slut?
“It’s not a crime.”
It’s different this time. I can feel it. I step into the bathtub, squat down, unwind the shower head from the faucet, and turn on the water. I hate the sit-down shower. Squatting as I clean myself feels primitive. I long for a stand-up shower with a flood of hot water streaming down the curving slopes of my body.
I grab the cracked bar of Ivory soap, rub it over my breasts, and aim the shower head towards my torso. Will he compare my tits to Kara’s? Hers are larger, plump like peaches. Mine are tiny, pointed martini glasses.
I scrub between my legs, wondering if she is waxed, shaved, or au naturel. I keep myself neat and tidy. I hope it will be good enough for him. Soapy bubbles circle towards the drain. I jump when I feel his hand on my back.
Why isn’t he answering? I drop my phone on the faux wood surface next to an overflowing ashtray and an empty glass of wine. I hope he’s okay. I sit in the wooden chair in our kitchenette, stand up, then sit back down again. I light my twentieth cigarette of the day, crush the empty pack, and throw it in the direction of the metallic trash can. I scold myself for being messy, but everything feels chaotic. I want to create a little chaos of my own.
I pour more Frankovka into a glass. It tastes young and tart. I long for a Napa Valley Cabernet instead of this cheap Czech shit, but this is what we can afford on our budget. This is what I wanted, right? The romantic expat adventure abroad? So La Boheme. I sit down, take a sip of wine, then rest my forehead in my hand. Where is he?
It’s not like Mitch to be late, to not answer his phone. In my worry I made an international call to my mother. A few seconds into the call I realize that was a huge mistake.
“Is he on drugs, Kara?”
“No mom.” I roll my eyes. “Please. I’m worried.”
“Well you should be. Who knows what trouble he’s getting into in that heathen nation. I’m praying for you!”
Wine and cigarettes offer better comfort, but maybe she’s onto something. Or maybe he’s lying in the street, hit by a car and bleeding to death, and here I am sitting safe at home thinking only of myself and awful thoughts about him.
I stand up, almost knocking over my wine glass, and walk the short distance from the kitchen through the bedroom to the window. Mitch is right, this place is too small for two people, even if it is in a good location. I pull back the blue curtains, stare out, and hold my breath. I hope to see him walking down the cobblestoned street so I can relax and bitch him out for making me worry. The streets are empty, to be expected at two in the morning, except for a lone man weaving under street lights. If he comes home like that…
I look at the blue face of my watch wondering when the next bus will come. I can’t see the time, just Kara’s face. She gave me this watch to celebrate our engagement four years ago. What once felt like love now feels like shackles. I unhook the clasp and shove it into my pocket. It clangs against my wedding band.
The air is flat and gray like concrete. Row after row of Communist bloc paneláks line the road, fencing me in. I rub my hand over my bald head. Fuck, I wish I had hair. I’m only twenty-six, but I feel so much older.
We only lived here for half a second before Kara threw a fit about being so far from the city. She thinks she deserves better and I’m tired of trying to live up to her standards. Why can’t she just loosen up and have fun? I love it when she smiles. Even better when she laughs. It’s been awhile since she’s done either. Our place in Vinohrady is cute. It’s an excellent location, but it’s just a studio. In Kansas City we had a house, two cars, two dogs, and a comfortable life.
Out here, her staying up all night to study and plan lessons wouldn’t have kept me awake. We’re just teaching English. It’s not fucking brain surgery. All she does is work and is always too tired for sex. There are hot women everywhere in this city. Porno ads plaster the walls. I’m in agony. I want her to lust for me, not just offer her body out of obligation. I dig the toe of my shoe into the sidewalk. Candice wants me. It was so cute the way she slung shot her pink thong at me the other day at work.
What have I done? I shove my hands into my jean pockets, knuckles scraping against its coarse surface. Candice got what she deserved. I wanted to have sex with her. I pull out my last cigarette, light it up, inhale, and then crumple the pack in my fist and toss it towards the green trashcan. It lands a few feet short. I shrug. Sports aren’t my thing. I sink down on a nearby metal-grated bench. Where’s the fucking bus? I wonder.
The door knob turns. I clutch damp sheets around me. Who’s there? Did I forget to lock the door? Streetlight filters through blinds, illuminating the tiny studio with an eerie glow.
I freeze as purposeful footsteps cross the short distance from the door to the bed. I want to scream but I can’t find my voice. Someone is above me. Sheets are ripped from my clenched fists, exposing my nakedness. He shoves his knees between my thighs and lowers himself.
“Mitch?” I choke on his name.
I wake up in a cold sweat and roll over to embrace my husband for reassurance. He’s not there. I reach for my phone. It’s 5:00 am. Mitch’s last reply to my numerous texts was at 10:30 pm, “I’m ok. B home l8r.”
I hear air brakes engage and I jerk awake. The bus stops directly in front of me. It’s empty except for a man reeking of beer with a greasy comb-over and a hot chick bouncing a blonde baby on her knee. Pregnancy doesn’t ruin women here, and possibly because of this Kara hasn’t stopped talking about having kids since we arrived. We liquidated a stable life in the States for an adventure abroad—that she wanted. And now she wants kids? What the fuck? I don’t understand her. I can’t satisfy her. I enter the bus and stare out the scratched window as foreign landscapes scroll past, going in and out of focus.
I flick a piece of lint off my blue button-down. Smoke from the bar clings to the fabric, but at least I’m clean. I couldn’t face Kara with the smell of another woman on me. Candice looked like a sad puppy when I’d quickly washed and left her place without eating breakfast. I had to get out of there. I felt nauseous. I stare out the window with dizzying intensity. Sharp edges of efficient Communist facades merge into the soft curves and pastels of magical, Baroque Prague. It reminds me of the lost, brooding, romantic boy I was — waxing over Byron, waning for Nietzsche — before becoming the practical husband software engineer. I sag into my seat. Prague is where I’m meant to be. Just not with her.
I pull my phone from the worn pocket of my jeans. My black leather belt is cinched at the last notch to keep them up. Kara and I have dropped at least twenty pounds between us in the two months we’ve been in Prague. Has it been only two months?
My phone battery is almost dead. Shit. Five texts from Kara. One reads: “Are you okay? I’m worried.” Her worry is suffocating. I sent her one reply early in the night, before I ran into Candice at Klub Ujezd. But that was hours ago.
I don’t want to face Kara. It’s so strange to fuck a new woman. Even stranger to wake up next to her. Candice smelled and felt different. She wanted to cuddle so I let her spoon me.
It was just sex. I am a man and men have needs.
The bus flies past a red and yellow petrol station. I convert cost per liter to gallon and yawn before reaching the equal sign. I rub the scruff on my chin. My head falls onto my chest.
“Mitch, where are you?” I see Kara thrashing through rows of corn towards the stream where I’m stretched out on a lily pond. My little pink tongue flicks out to catch a fly. I’m not ignoring her, I just don’t have ears.
The bus screeches to a halt and I jolt awake. The pizza place on the corner looks familiar. Am I already home? I stand unsteadily and step onto the cobblestones of Machová — another street named after another fucking poet.
I stretch out on my back staring at the pock-marked ceiling. His male, smoky aroma lingers on my skin and between the sheets. I try to forget how he immediately washed the residue of us from his body. I curl into a ball, nesting in the tangled sheets of the cheap foam mattress shoved in the corner. I press one fist into my belly and the other into my mouth suppressing a sob. I want to fall asleep, but I’m tingling with warmth and anger. Sex heals. He’s healing me. But then he left. He’s going to her, but he’ll be back. I hug my knees into my chest and smile. I am valuable. More valuable than her.
Ha! That’s what you think.
“Leave me alone.”
I was in such a hurry to shower last night. Now I don’t want to bathe. I trace my nose along the inside of the arm that was wrapped around him. Male essence coats me inside and out.
He left in a such a rush. I wanted to make him coffee, scrambled eggs, toast, some hearty chleb, and smear it with creamy máslo. Just a lazy Sunday morning between lovers. He’d just wanted to bathe. He barely kissed my cheek at the door. His eyes were so distant.
What now? I promised discretion. But my roomie, a brunette ditz who is another teacher at the school where I, my lover, and his horrific wife work, already knows. This cat will crawl out of the bag on its own.
My slender fingers trace the distance between bony hip points and protruding ribs. I pretend it’s his hand. A tiny smile curls at my lips. I press his pillow into my face and inhale. I stretch, expanding beyond the mattress, toes and fingers grazing the dusty parquet floor. I unplug my phone from the charger. Tired thumbs text “Miss u, lover. When will I c u again?” I clutch the phone to my breast. A warm pulse surges through me. Love, this must be love.
“Who were you with?”
“Someone.” His cheeks flush. He stares at the faux wood floor. Track lights shine off the crown of his head.
“Do I know this person?” I clench the sponge, wringing water onto my bare foot.
“Does this person know me?” I feel like I’m interrogating a petulant child.
“A friend of Dan’s?”
“You’re asking a lot of questions.” Mitch rocks back on his heels, crosses his arms. The blue face of the watch I bought him for our engagement glints at me. I feel the weight of my matching sapphire ring.
“You’re not giving me any answers.” I want to throw the sponge at him.
“I texted you.”
“Um, that wasn’t enough.” Oh My God. I’m his mother and he missed curfew.
“Nothing is enough for you.” He shrugs his shoulders, rolls his eyes.
“Are you mad at me?” I set the sponge down, lean against the counter. Mitch always spins things around. I’ll be apologizing soon, but for what?
“No. I needed to think.”
“Okay, but it’s not safe to be out all night alone.”
I am glad he’s home. That he’s alive. I want to hold him, be held, get rid of this unnamed barrier between us.
He whips his head and words at me. “I wasn’t alone. I told you that.”
“Oh. Right.” I swallow, unsure how to process the answer I don’t want to know, but keep pushing — determined to pick this scab until it bleeds. “Who were you with? A woman?” This feels like twenty questions. I want to ask, is she is bigger than a bread box?
I sink into myself. My mind races. Who is this woman? How did I miss this? “Are you attracted to her?”
“Why all the questions?” He twists his silver wedding band around his finger.
“Did you kiss her?” I’m only asking a fraction of the questions throttling my brain. Do I want the answers? I don’t want to be alone.
“For God’s sake, Kara, how long are you going to drag this out?” His cheeks are angry red, but he looks like he’s going to cry.
“I don’t —” I gulp in air. Who’s dragging what out?
“Yes, I kissed her.”
Dizzy, I grab at the edge of the counter. Our wedding night flashes before my eyes. Clichéd perhaps. Neither of us were virgins, but we’d made a promise of ‘until death we do part’ — no other lovers. “And did you — ?”
“Fuck. Yes. I had sex with her. Are you happy now?”
Laurie Blanton, a Kansas City native, is a yoga teacher and writer living in San Francisco. She writes short fiction and is working on a novel, when she isn’t on her mat or chasing butterflies through Golden Gate Park. Her short stories have been published by Pilcrow & Dagger, The MacGuffin, and Zoetic Press, and she was the lead fiction editor for the inaugural issue of Ursa Minor, UC Berkeley Extension’s Literary Magazine. She has a short story appearing in So It Goes, the Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum, and is excited to be reading at Vonnegut Fest in November.