Sari Wilson




Daily Commerce

Third Coast. Fall 2001

Once he had given up trying to get in touch with Marcia, Gerard petitioned his editor for a month-long reporting assignment in Prague. Czechoslovakia had voted the previous year to divide itself into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia; it was now, in the early months of 1993, that the currency split — economic "autonomy" — occurred. Gerard, a business journalist with a San Francisco daily, was fascinated by the mechanisms of this national divorce, the creation of new financial systems out of virtually nothing. The foreign desk editor also wanted coverage of hot-button cultural issues — misguided nationalism, he called it, nostalgia for a past that had never really existed.

A woman named Jitka met Gerard's plane at the airport. She had been sent by the agency through which he had rented an apartment, a place near the Old Town Square, they told him. He had said to the girl on the phone, "Nothing too beautiful," and the girl had said, "But sir, Prague is beautiful. That is why you must go there." When he was in Poland, he had lived with his "family" of five in an apartment in a concrete block housing project, and the ugliness of the place was part of the feeling he had about it.

Jitka held a little white sign, too dainty to read, with his name on it and a bunch of sad-looking yellow flowers. He registered two things about her right away: her breasts were disproportionately large for her small body and her face looked like a child's — pale, with a pointed chin and shadows under her eyes. She looked at him as if he were someone who might provide her with food. Then she smiled and talked, and she was a grown woman, charming in a harried kind of way. She took his arm in a gesture that was both familiar and impersonal — she had a strong minty smell, slightly artificial — and led him outside to her beat-up, two-door Lada.

He jogged in place to keep warm while she bent over fiddling with the lock on the passenger door. A scraping noise threaded out into the air. Gerard asked her what she was doing; hearing his voice near her ear, she turned quickly. With a bright apologetic smile, she held up between them a very small metal tube, which she explained was used to defrost locks. Her coat flapped open. She had on black stretch pants, a tight white sweater and vinyl boots with tottering heels. "It create heat and so the metal gets soft again," she said. "I am not sure but I want to try it. A friend in Denmark sent it to me." Gerard gave her a generous smile of encouragement. She went back to work.

Gerard surveyed the dull sky and the bleak, elephant-colored earth. They were in a small, packed parking lot. Only the air, which was a tangible mist, felt real to him. Gerard wondered how this tiny woman, dependent on a Danish connection for modern gadgets, could survive in such a harsh landscape. He felt an absurdly strong desire to protect her. It seemed to him that this woman, like the landscape, was barely viable.

"I'll send you a real lock defroster," Gerard said, "when I get back."

"Oh!" said Jitka with a high-pitched laugh that faded quickly. "Perhaps," she said. "If this is not a good one."

He was growing unbearably cold in his light wool suit jacket, so, after a few minutes, he asked Jitka if he should wait in the terminal. Her face turned red with embarrassment or effort. "Oh no," she said. She rushed around to the driver's side of the car, opened the door and motioned for him to get in. He looked at her small, emphatic face and climbed into the narrow front seat. Why, he wondered, couldn't he just slide over to the passenger side and they would be on their way. Jitka handed him the keys with another apology and told him to turn on the car so that the heater would run. Then she went back to defrosting the lock on the passenger door. Gerard recalled the dogged hospitality of the Polish family he had lived with fifteen years ago on an exchange program in Warsaw — his Polish "mother" Teresa's belligerent eagerness when offering him more food; no matter how many times he declined, more would find its way onto his plate. It was, perhaps, an Eastern European trait. He made a mental note to ask someone about it. "Militant hospitality" you could call it — except that was too negative a term. "Stubborn hospitality" was probably the best way to put it. Perhaps he would use the phrase, do a puffy Sunday magazine travel piece about local customs.

Gerard turned the ignition, and the little car began to rattle and shake. The dashboard heater sputtered gusts of hot, dusty air at his face. He reached across the passenger seat and tapped on the window. Just then the lock came unstuck, the door opened with an icy crack and Jitka's face hung in the doorframe with a triumphant smile. The freezing air attacked him. "Stupid Russian car," she said and shut the door again. Then, in a rigid pantomime of courtesy, she motioned for him to walk around the car and climb back in through the passenger side while she held the door open for him.

On their way into the city, Jitka drove erratically, alternately speeding up and slowing down. There was no snow on the ground, but the landscape looked sheathed in ice, as if suspended beneath a frozen river. They passed rows of domino-shaped apartment buildings jutting out from the earth. The distance of the apartment complexes from the road gave them a visual power, like ancient natural wonders. The same type of Stalinist-era housing project he had lived in Warsaw! How brutal they were. How wonderful!

"I lived in Warsaw once, a number of years ago," said Gerard.

"In Poland?"

"Yes," he said, trying to control a grin that, like a spasm, kept seizing his mouth.

"You will like Czech better. It is more beautiful, more history."

"Oh, I found Poland beautiful. In its own way."

They drove silently for several minutes. Then she said, "I was in Los Angles last year. This is amazing city. A city for the future. Disneyland. Steven Spielberg. Kevin Costner. They are great businessmen."

He decided to humor her. "They certainly are." Jitka turned her pale face to him with her brows together — a dark expression, hungry again. She turned back to the road and then shot another glance at him, this time a light, playful one. He felt himself being appraised and blushed. "Are you here for business?" she asked.

Gerard explained his assignment. He tried asking Jitka about her opinions on the currency split, but she didn't seem interested. She turned the conversation back to him.

"Are you a businessman, as well?"

"I am a businessman." This was a lie, but Gerard sensed this is what she wanted to hear.

Jitka took a hand off the wheel and extended it. "I am pleased to meet you," she said. Gerard removed his glove before shaking her hand.

Jitka slowed as the car in front of them flexed its brake lights. It seemed like the haze was growing thicker around them. It was hard to tell, though, whether it was just the strange quality of a gloaming on another continent.

"You must know many rich people," she said.

"Tons and tons," he said. "Too many."

"Oh," she said, laughing as if he had told a joke. "Never too many."

Jitka said she, too, was a businesswoman. She was going to open a clothing store, a boutique — she said the word proudly — with all the latest styles. She had been doing research. There were some French wholesalers from whom you could buy certain things at a discount. When she made her first profit, she was going to buy herself a dishwasher. New ones cost 12,000 Czech crowns, but she knew of a place in Brno where you could get remodeled German ones for only 8,000. She catalogued for Gerard the change in the price of dishwashers in the last four years, since '89. Of course, she said, they had gotten more expensive, but it was still better because of the number of choices available.

Gerard looked out the window and fidgeted with the gloves in his lap. To Gerard, what he wrote about had more in common with physics, a speculative, theoretical discipline difficult for outsiders to grasp. The world of high finance really had nothing to do with money the way most people thought of money. Perhaps because of this, he hated dealing with day-to-day money issues: budgeting, shopping, price comparisons. He felt, somehow, coerced and vaguely humiliated by conversations about long distance phone rates, salary caps, or the changing costs of major appliances. Back home, he would manage these exchanges — which always seemed, for some reason, to be taking place in an elevator — carefully; afterwards he would feel strangely fortified, as if he had done some brave but difficult thing that everyone knew was good for you, like starting an exercise program or taking a dip in a cold mountain stream.

"Tak," Jitka said with finality when she'd finished her run down of dishwasher prices. She looked at him over her driving arm. "It is very important for business people to meet each other and share information." In the tilt of her head — which seemed exaggerated, held too long, like a pose — Gerard saw the suggestion of future encounters between them. He began to sweat a fine, happy sweat.

He asked her some more questions and found out that she worked, in addition to her job at the apartment rental agency, as a private secretary for an elderly man who used to be important "in the time of the Russians."

"Two jobs. You must be tired."

She shrugged in a peculiarly un-American way, as if work were not a subject worthy of conversation. "I also study business management with a Czech man who lived in America for twenty years. Now he has come here to live." She gave a shy smile that suggested this was a point in her favor.

They crawled, stuck in traffic, toward the city in the distance, which was locked inside a purple and brownish glow, so pronounced and strange a color that Gerard took it as a personal affront to his senses and did not ask Jitka about it. Later that evening, in his apartment, on the phone with a business contact, he learned that Prague was experiencing a temperature inversion, a weather system in which cold air became trapped underneath warmer air and recirculated until the pattern broke up. Burning coal, factory waste and car exhaust had been in the air for several days, growing denser and denser, and the pollution was now at an unsafe level. There had been a picture in the paper of teachers handing out gas masks to children on a school trip. Citizens wandered about the hazy streets of the downtown with scarves over their mouths. In the twilight, though, the streetlights bounced off the thick air and made it glow ethereally, giving the city a gorgeous contusion-colored halo.

His apartment was located on a side street off an impressive looking boulevard whose main feature was an austere 1960s-era concrete structure that Jitka pointed out proudly as the Intercontinental Hotel. The apartment itself was a dim cramped place filled with tchotchkes and the pungent, brittle musk of dried flowers and old rugs. A weak, tethered light from a street lamp drained through the lace curtains. Jitka showed him around his apartment with a real estate agent's brisk professionalism. She flicked on the light and waved her arm at the orange-bedspreaded bed with the fluffy pillows and the old, scratched mahogany bookcases that held only cloisonné figurines. He wondered if he propositioned her right here and now, would she accept? He could give her the fifty in his wallet, and they could go at it on the bed right now. The place, she said to him as she flicked off the bedroom light and headed back toward the kitchen, belonged to an elderly couple who had moved out of the city for the winter.

Jitka demonstrated how to turn on the hot water heater, a small blue and white cistern suspended over the bathtub, and how to point a gadget at the gas burners to make them roar to life. She explained to him that he shared a phone line with the couple upstairs and that if he should hear talking when he picked up the phone, he should just replace the receiver and try again later. Gerard was ready to object, saying he needed his own phone line, but he decided to play nice. He had, by now, assigned Jitka a past informed by his experience in Warsaw: the standard humiliations of life under communism — food shortages, long lines, dehumanizing jobs, bad health care. The struggles of the Polish people he had stayed with had filled him, for a while, with a goodwill and generosity that he no longer recalled the details of.

He would say nothing now, but he would talk to some people tomorrow morning and figure out how to get another phone line.

On the threshold of the apartment, Jitka handed him the key.

"Tak," she said. "Okay . . ." She smiled and clutched her purse tightly against her stomach.

Gerard leaned against the crumbling doorframe. "Can I," he said, "can I take you to dinner? To thank you for taking care of me today." He laughed — he could hear it, a terrible laugh, high-pitched, girlish — and felt the dart of reckless excitement that always, for him, accompanied self-loathing.

Jitka looked at him as if she were considering her options carefully before signing a contract. " Velice dekuji. Yes, thank you. Of course." Then she smiled in a way that reminded him she was older than she looked. He loved the way cocky, smart-ass expressions you see on teenage girls would sometimes flicker across the faces of older women.

"Perhaps you would like to hear some traditional Czech music . . ." she said, then added quickly, "I will phone you." She turned and pressed the light switch so that the dark stairway lit up in front of her. Gerard wondered, as he watched her descend, how it was that he was the one who had asked her out, but it was she who was going to call him.

Gerard had returned from Poland in March of 1978. His mother said the trip had cured him of his sour face. "It sucks for them so bad over there," he had told her, his face drawing down in a mask of sympathy. Everything in Poland had to be sanctioned by a government that was as far-reaching and pervasive as a silent-but-deadly fart. He remembered one cousin of Teresa's in particular, a pretty girl who was engaged to a limp-haired fellow University student. They had just applied to the state for an apartment. They would have to wait seven years before they could move in together. Secretly, he had loved the absurdity of trying to live within the rules set by a lumbering, clanking state apparatus that, like all giant machinery, was always breaking down somewhere in its innards, but still hobbled fiercely and dramatically on.

When he got back to the States, a series of letters went back and forth between Gerard and his host family like a flurry of last minute hugs at the airport. Then, inspiration left him. A letter from Teresa and her husband Maciek lay unopened on his desk for months. He never got around to answering it, with track and the newspaper, yearbook and Ultimate team. He had had such an amazing senior year; he had finally achieved a kind of critical mass of popularity. Poland with its hard-ass daily routine, getting up at five to be at school by seven, the soft sounds but urgent cadence of the language that made him feel like people were telling each other terrible secrets all day long — all this was left behind. The memories went into remission.

He stayed in his college town after graduating. The people he knew from school moved away or drifted out of sight. He got work doing light construction, and he embraced his body's potential for change. He worked out in the open-air gym on the beach, but when the tourists came by and gawked at him pumping iron, he felt invisible. He reached for something that would make him feel real, and he came up with the tangled, corded fragments of memory from his stay in Poland: a dozen pair of discarded World War II-issue army boots lying mud-splattered in a playground, the stale tobacco smell of the curtained restaurants, the rickety trams, squealing and grinding past the Palace of Culture and Science, the old women in head scarves elbowing their way through the streets.

He began to recall the people he had met in Poland: Teresa's crinkled eyes and lined forehead, capped by her monthly perm, and Maciek's lumbering gait, lax facial muscles and initial reserve toward Gerard that softened with time. All the hardships in their lives were magnified in his memory, and he saw now in their faces a forbearance he hadn't recognized at the time. He searched his apartment for a pen, and, finding one, sat down to write them a letter. He wondered why he hadn't felt the repercussions of their lives on his own: the scratchy sheets, the foul toothpaste, the pink slippers that Teresa took such pride in that she washed them nightly in the sink by hand, the family's fixation on the silver coffee pot that had belonged to Maciek's great-grandparents. What did these things mean? They returned to him with such force he was sure that they meant some thing.

This was the first in a series of long, searching letters he wrote to Teresa and Maciek. Teresa wrote back a short, kind letter saying how much they had enjoyed having him there. She hoped he wouldn't forget them when he was rich and had a big house in the suburbs. He wrote that he was cursed with the "California lifestyle." He insisted that he wanted to live in Warsaw someday, if the political situation ever allowed it. He wrote a long discussion of what he thought America could learn from state socialism. After that, he didn't get a letter from them for six months, despite the fact that he kept writing, thinking that maybe something had happened to them. The letter he got half a year later was from Maciek, who said that Gerard had to stop writing and that he was a silly young man and had a lot of growing up to do. But a month after that, he received an apologetic letter from Teresa. At the end of the letter, she asked if he could send some Calvin Klein blue jeans and Chanel No.5.

Gerard felt that he had been banished by his host family. Even after he got his first real job as an assistant editor for a financial newsletter, the few isolated memories he still held reminded him of the lost promise of true human connection.

As the years passed, stray memories of Poland would bump through his brain at the oddest times — while sitting at a business meeting or while on assignment in an unfamiliar city, when he would walk out of his hotel and there would be a starchy burn in the air.

But with Marcia gone from his life, visceral memories of those days were returning strong and clear. He recalled now, with a burst of nostalgia that made his eyes water, the haggard people wandering about, crushed between layers of cheap coats and shopping bags. He saw himself in Teresa and Maciek's flat, a warm, dingy apartment bursting with congeniality and laughter. The table was set with doilies, and tiny meat sandwiches, pickles and cold potato pancakes were brought out in succession. He had brought his guitar and played for the family after dessert. It was dark, since to save electricity all lights in the flat were turned out at ten. Teresa and Maciek held glowing cigarettes on their laps, and his three "brothers" and "sisters" beamed at him beneath matches they lit to watch his fingers move as he strummed "Peace Train."

In the morning Gerard made some calls. He set up a couple of informational interviews and talked to a Czech woman who ran a translation service out of her apartment. They arranged to have a University student come to his apartment at eight every morning to read Lidove Noviny to him in English. Then he went for a walk around the narrow cobblestone streets surrounding his apartment, scanning the storefronts for remnants of the Eastern Europe he remembered. He passed some lunch counter restaurants, the kind with metal trays and thick old ladies serving compote with every meal. In Warsaw, the university cafeteria ladies had treated him well, called him "milutki amerykanin," which meant something like "cute little American."

Now he stepped into one, but it was all wrong: an art-student in horn-rimmed glasses was wiping down round stainless steel tables that looked like they belonged outside, each with its own little $4-a-coffee shade. He turned and exited back out to the cold, hazy street, where there was still a little of the early morning glow to the dirty air.

Gerard stared out at the empty street. Earlier that morning, the BBC announcer had reported that due to the air pollution index, the city had banned cars without catalytic converters. Beneath the cries of the hawkers in a nearby market and the low rumble of a jet overheard, there was an eerie silence. No background thrum of traffic. He felt like he was the only man on earth. A nervous buzz started up in Gerard's groin, urging him to walk.

As he walked, he thought about Marcia.

He still didn't know what it was that precipitated the breakup, what small unforgivable thing he did that made her turn from moody and non-committal to outright hostile. Then came that Saturday morning, when they sat down at their regular diner for brunch. Marcia had tucked her napkin into her shirt collar and arranged her place setting as if it were her desk.

They hadn't spoken until their food arrived — Eggs Florentine for her, a Western omelet for him — and then she picked up her fork and shoved it into her food with violence and resolution.

She said: "I've been thinking about what I want in my life, and what I deserve.

He held up his hands as if to stop her from saying any more. "Honey . . ."

"Four years of my life I wasted on you. You selfish asshole."

He was scared that if he spoke he would laugh. He was losing her to a bunch of self-help books and garbled female reasoning. He knew this wasn't really Marcia — this was the other secretaries at her new job, it was those books telling people how to live their lives. He began protesting, too feebly, he knew: it wasn't fair, she had promised, she had given her word, she had a ring to prove it.

"I'm not the girl you met four years ago," she said, wiping her eye with a tidy motion of her well-manicured hand.

Gerard's cry — "How?" — startled even him.

Jitka wanted to go to McDonalds for dinner. The first of the Golden Arches had just set up shop on a side street off of Vaclavske Namesti. He knew that Eastern Europeans were crazy about American things, but he had wanted to be able to expect a little more from Jitka.

The line for McDonalds stretched down the length of the shadowed cobblestone street. Gerard hadn't stood in a line this long for something so ridiculous since he'd waited one Saturday morning in Warsaw outside a store that had just gotten in a truckload of pie tins. A few streetlights illuminated segments of the line. The women wore skirts and heels, and some of the men even wore ties. People leaned over and whispered to each other. Inside, the crowd grew more voluble and gestured endlessly at the overhead display menu. To Gerard, it all looked the same as any old thruway pit stop, orange and yellow plastic seats, etc., except that the restaurant was cleaner and had a split-level design that gave it an airiness, a cathedral-like sense of space.

Jitka was talking to two young women in front of them in a loud, authoritative voice that he hadn't heard her use before. The other women gave him timid — or perhaps stealthy? — glances. They were prettier than Jitka. He considered offering to buy the young ladies dinner as well. At the price of a buck a burger, he could afford to buy the whole line dinner. For Czechs, McDonalds cost as much as a good restaurant, even though, according to the exchange rate, the prices were on par with McDonalds in the States. Of all the people in line, Gerard thought, only he likely had the perspective to appreciate the banal absurdity of this situation. Since he liked to regard money as a case study in equations of relativity, Gerard felt vindicated when the world confirmed the essentially amorphous nature of a currency value. It was this view that allowed Gerard to survive on a mid-five figure salary, a pittance compared to the fortunes of the men and women he wrote about.

As Gerard carried their tray (Big Macs, large fries, Cokes for them both) up the stairs, they passed the pretty girls, who were looking around the restaurant with adolescent delight. They each held a tray with only a single wrapped burger. Jitka nodded to them.

"They are coming here to meet men," she whispered to Gerard.

Something in her tone made him feel guilty. These girls were not old enough to have really known the particular suffering of the Eastern Europe he had so briefly encountered but which had left such a stubborn smudge on his mind. Only Jitka was. Okay, in the States, he would have left her drinking a cocktail with a long name in the back of the Tiki Bar where he had met her. But here, she was something of a miracle, the ghosts of a past being dismantled hovered about her. She had a survivor's battered beauty.

He watched Jitka organize her food, unwrap her burger, nibble on a fry and then pop it in her mouth.

"You know," he said, "I could start a mini-venture capital thing. Right here in Prague."

He was ready to explain about venture capital companies, but Jitka didn't ask. She seemed to understand. She wanted to know, would he be interested in chic clothing?

"No, no," he added quickly. "No, I only invest in what I have some way of assessing."

"Ah," Jitka said, but nothing about her manner — her rigid posture and deep smile — changed. He wanted to yell at her: "We have one of these McDonalds on every other ghetto corner. You are nothing special! This is nothing special! We are nothing special!" Instead, he said to her: "Do you want more ketchup?"

Without waiting for her answer, he went up to the counter and purchased five more packets. The ketchup here was too damn sweet and watery, obviously locally made. Gerard wondered which company had been lucky enough to get the McDonalds' ketchup contract.

A few days later, during an interview for a feature he had proposed — "Young American Entrepreneurs in Prague" — Gerard sat opposite a twenty-six year old computer equipment dealer named Mick. Mick's office, which was also the living room of his Vinohrady apartment, was filled with twisted masses of computer equipment and cables. Mick's "gig" was importing old computers from the States, refurbishing them and selling them to businesses for a profit. Gerard was trying to get Mick, whom he immediately distrusted (the kid had dreadlocks, for God's sake), to admit how he got the stuff so cheap that he could make a profit in Czech crowns. Gerard felt like the remainder of his youth was being drained by this punk kid. Gerard's shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor as he adjusted himself in the schoolroom chair. He grunted, jerked the pull-up desk upward on its hinges and slapped it down to its resting position. Now he held the notebook casually in his lap.

"You were saying . . ."

Mick gave him a lopsided grin. "You were asking . . ."

It turned out Mick's dad was a wholesaler and, since he couldn't resell the returns or the damaged merchandise, he sent them to Mick. Mick only had to pay for the cost of shipping and the parts needed for repairs. Gerard pictured himself as he would look to this kid: the suit and tie he wore to remind himself of the professionalism he adhered to while interviewing. The kid saw the newspaper, of course, not him, not Gerard. The other night at McDonalds, he had wanted to ask Jitka, "Do you ever miss it?" meaning communism, but he had caught himself. He remembered her face as it had looked in the fluorescent lights of the McDonalds checkout counter — the harsh strips of color she had put on, like bruises on her cheeks. There was, he remembered now under Mick's ironic gaze, a certain beauty to it all: the way she said MacDonalds, as if this were an old Irish bar and eatery; the way she carried her pocketbook in front of her as if she were going to the opera; the general atmosphere, all that ready intimacy of being stuck in a meat locker together.

"So your father ships these to you," he said to Mick. "What's the turnaround time?"

The kid began entering something in one of the two computers in front of him, and Gerard couldn't tell if Mick was ignoring him or checking on something to do with the question he'd just asked.

Gerard took Jitka to dinner a second time. They ate in the Mala Strana, at a restaurant called the Zlate something, a below ground, cavernous space that Gerard had read about in his guidebook. He was impressed with Jitka's timing: she went to the restroom right before the bill came. She came back wearing too much face powder. Marcia, who wore very little makeup herself, had made him aware of other women's overuse.

He was rewarded for dinner: Jitka took him home as though it had never been a question. She hustled him through the clean but drab living room into the bedroom, clicked on a standing lamp in the corner and turned around in the lamp's mellow light. He took in the room — large motel room bed, matching dresser and vanity table. A huge brooding painting, like some art student's attempt at imagining the origins of life, all inchoate blobs of brown, red and yellow, hung over the bed; after staring at it for a minute, Gerard avoided looking at it again since it seemed to him terrifying, unformed.

Jitka gave a titillating laugh, as if they had overcome obstacles to be together. She came up to him, and he could smell her warm skin and artificial-mint scent.

"This is for the class in how to manage my business," she said, brushing her hand against the cover of a textbook that lay on the top of a stack on the night table. "Here are the rules and suggestions."

"Shhh," he said, pulling her into his arms, kissing her hard enough to stop her from speaking. Her body was small but not as fragile as he had expected. It was solid, and he wanted to make her soft, to make her float in his arms. "Shhh," he said again, although she had said nothing. She was busy kissing him in a practiced way. Her lips were soft but thin.

"I will come back very soon," she said, pushing him away gently. She disappeared into the bathroom. Gerard took off his jacket, loosened his tie and sat carefully on the edge of the bed. As he waited, he watched a pair of fuzzy, pink, high-heeled slippers propped underneath the vanity as if they might spring suddenly to life.

When Jitka emerged from the bathroom, lost inside a light-blue padded robe that looked like it had seen better times, he could tell that something had changed. Her face was washed of its makeup, and she was not pretty in the least. She looked like a person you would see in the hardware store.

"Gerard," she said. She walked to the side of the bed closest to the bathroom. "This is such a nice name, really."

"It's French. My father was French. French Canadian." He stood up and faced her from across the bed.

She propped herself up with a bunch of pillows and stretched out her legs. Then she patted the mattress next to her a few times — not come-hither but mother-to-son pats. She was slumped against the headboard, her cheek resting on the puffy collar of the robe, and her skin looked jaundiced in the bedside light. He kicked off his shoes, climbed on the bed and crawled over to her. He laid his head on her stomach and closed his eyes.

She stroked his hair. He watched her hands move above him. She took a bronze statue of Mickey Mouse from the bedside table and held it up to her face. She held the statue at eye level and rubbed her thumb over it.

"Do you think God gives you what you want or what you deserve?" Gerard mumbled into her robe. He could smell faint mildew beneath the strong scent of detergent.

"I never ask God for anything. If I am unhappy I go to church and sit in the dark and quiet. Never to pray, just to sit." She leaned over, put the statue of Mickey Mouse back on the bedside table and turned out the light. Then Jitka put her cold hands on Gerard's cheeks and leaned over to kiss him.

He gripped her arm to stop her. "What was it like for you?" he said from her lap. "To live without freedom?"

Jitka sighed and leaned back against the headboard. "Why do you always ask about the past time? We are trying to forget about that."

Gerard rolled onto his stomach and sat back on his haunches. His voice was husky, his breath a rasp. "I have never felt free. My whole life I have never felt free." He began to rock himself, holding her thigh, like a drowning man with a floating log."

This communism is mostly boring," she said. She ran a hand over the nubby bedspread, then began to untie the belt on her robe. "To have to wait on line for everything, your mind goes off. Your mind thinks: nothing for myself. Now it is not so boring. Now we can have some fun, too."

Gerard sat up and looked at her. "That's what you think you're supposed to say." A yellow nimbus of light around the window cut into the murk of the room. A wedge-shaped shadow ran along her torso like a seam.

"Stop telling me only what I want to hear."

Then she turned her head toward the door and spoke a couple of sentences in Czech; the graceful, sibilant words sounded stiff and truncated. Then she said in a low voice, "We must be quiet. Honza, my son, is sleeping."

"You have a son?"

"Don't worry," said Jitka. "He won't bother us. Just for him, let him sleep."

When he looked back up at her, he was glaring. "You have a son," he said. He covered his face with his hands. "Oh god."

"Come on," she said. "We can have a good time." Then she hid her face with her hands like Gerard had done, as if the most crucial thing was not dropping the ball on this game of peek-a-boo.

He let her sit with her face covered by her hands. They sat there, a disheveled man with jockey shorts riding up his butt, and the pallid nakedness of this woman without a face; they sat there for the longest time.

Gerard got up and headed for the bathroom. He heard her shift around on the bed, but he didn't look back. He pulled the bathroom door closed, and when it got stuck, he wrenched it the rest of the way, causing a loud splitting. Then he locked it.

Gerard shivered and looked around. A pile of dirty dishes sat soaking in a plastic bucket in the bathtub. A black long-sleeved shirt was drying on a rusty hanger suspended from the shower curtain rod. The livid yellow plaster on the walls was bubbled and cracked with age. The bathroom was freezing.

"You are just a stupid whore," he shouted as loudly as he could.

He brushed his teeth with her toothbrush, using just cold water. A child! Right outside the door. He looked at himself in the mirror. Some knowledge worked its way up from his groin. Soon he would be old. Tomorrow morning he would wake up early to prepare for his meeting with the Finance Minister. He would have coffee in the afternoon at the Parizska Hotel with a Der Spiegel reporter who had been living in Prague for two years. He removed his shirt and took a deep breath. In the mirror, he watched his naked chest expand, and when his lungs were filled, he puffed out his cheeks like a blowfish and squinted at himself. He let the air out as loudly as possible. "Damn you," he said to his reflection. He reached over and grabbed the copper chain hanging from the tank above the toilet and flushed three times.

When Gerard left the bathroom, he was fully dressed again. Jitka was standing by the open bedroom door, and the room was now bright with a false cheer. Her hands rested on the head of a young boy.

"I am not prostitute, Gerard," she said as he walked toward her.

"Where did you put my coat?" Gerard faced her and the boy. "Where did you hide my goddamn coat?" The kid looked at him with the peevishness of an interrupted sleep.

"This is Honza," Jitka said. "He is a nice boy."

"Goddamn your hospitality," said Gerard. "Just give me my coat. Where have you hidden my coat?"

He pushed past her and saw his suit jacket folded neatly on the arm of the couch. Rumpled in the lap of the couch lay an Afghan blanket. Besides the kitchen, there were no other rooms in the apartment: the kid must have been sleeping on the couch the whole time. This room was bright now, too. He grabbed his jacket and turned to her, ready to leave.

"Well, I'm gonna leave."

He stood with the door open in his hand, letting their voices carry out into the hallway. He screamed some garbage at her about how all of Eastern Europe was going — deserved to go — down the tubes because they obviously did not know how to conduct themselves in a free market economy.

"I don't think nobody deserves anything that happens to him," Jitka said. Her face was paler than before. The child looked at him with a fresh, clean hate.

"There are rules," he said. "Rules!" Then he left. The last thing he heard her say was: "I cannot understand you, Gerard. You are speaking too quickly."

It took Gerard forty-five minutes to walk home, past the National History Museum down the slope of Vaclavske Namesti, which had the air of a bus terminal late at night, past the old Mozart Theater and through Staro Mesto where an iron-black, bird-shit-splattered Jan Hus preached his views on reformation. Gerard did not stop to contemplate any of these landmarks. The deserted Prague streets gave him nothing except the exaggerated sound of his own footsteps. The air was warmer, dank and organic-smelling, like fertilizer, as it had been since the inversion passed. There was nothing to confirm his anger at Jitka and her wide-eyed son.

He saw himself without kindness now, as he had been fifteen years ago (lanky, without the gut he had accrued with Marcia), stepping off the tram onto a dim Warsaw thoroughfare. Although it had been barely afternoon, the streetlights were sputtering on. The sky had been heavy and dark, almost green. People lumbered back and forth looking for a place to sit and rest. His destination, the Centralny Dom Towarowy, a six-story department store, rose up, all obscured glass and rusted metal, a prison of Warsaw's routine commercial life. He was on an expedition to buy an umbrella, and, if the store had umbrellas today, he would be sure to buy some for Teresa and Maciek and for all the children, too. He walked toward the entrance doors, one of which was shuttered with hard cardboard. In front of him, an extraordinarily tall man rushed out of the store and hurried past him. Gerard turned to watch him. He was a huge man, a giant, nearly seven feet tall. He was dressed completely in blue denim — jeans and one of those ugly jean jackets with a constellation of silver studs on the back. Everything was tight on him: he was bursting out of his denim skin. The man's shoes were as worn as rags, and the soles flapped with each step. His pale forearms swung in the open air, and in one hand this giant man carried a briefcase. Gerard watched, hypnotized, as he lumbered off toward the river on some — but what? — business.

By now, Gerard had reached his Prague apartment. He stared up at the chipping concrete friezes and jealous, mocking gargoyles with their crazy grins. Gerard stood, unwilling to let himself enter the building until he had completed the urgent, fruitless task of assigning this man some business.

©2001 Sari Wilson