Veterans

Sydney Weinberg

 

We fell into conversation one night in a bar on Manesova Street formerly owned by the Czech Veterans’ Association, probably because we were both foreigners, and both alone. I don’t remember how the joke started, just that we got steadily drunker and at one point I said, ‘Oh, you could never afford me,’ because I get like that when I’m drunk, outrageous and full of myself. Michel smiled, watching me. The whole thing was more fun than I’d had in months. He lit a cigarette and declared that his flat was eighty square metres, and I nodded and acted unimpressed, just like the expensive woman I was pretending to be would act. It wasn’t long before we slipped out and strolled hand in hand through the mellow dark, stopping on street corners to kiss.

When we entered his flat I saw that the television had been left on, and a Robert Redford movie was playing. Michel brought over a bottle of Becherovka and two shot glasses, and we sat on his IKEA couch, suddenly stiff and feigning interest in the party onscreen. Though I didn’t know it then, Michel shared his flat with a Dutch IT consultant who travelled frequently, but that first night we had the place to ourselves. A bedroom – I assumed it was Michel’s – opened off the living room, and through the door I glimpsed books and dirty teacups piled up, and a blue towel puddled up on the floor by the foot of the bed. Michel didn’t close the door or explain away the mess. He radiated confidence. I found this appealing and grew shyer. Later I would realize this attitude of his was a by-product of indifference to the mental lives of others.

A couple of minutes passed, the two of us drinking in silence, when abruptly Michel gestured at the television.

‘You see that TV?’ he said. ‘I won it in poker.’

Michel told the story to the window behind me, flapping his hand in an expression of nervous energy. A friend had invited him to a game of Texas Hold ’em where the pay-in was 10,000 crowns. This was more than half my monthly salary as an English teacher. He’d been having a bad day, he said. ‘I went,’ he said, ‘to lose my money.’ Already plastered, he paid in, his arrival delighting the other players. By the end of the night, Michel had thoroughly cleaned them out and was so drunk he couldn’t stand. He passed out under a bridge, hugging the flatscreen still in its box, his pockets stuffed with cash. He’d lain there undisturbed, as if he had an angel in his hire, till noon the next day. The cab driver who took him home turned out to be a licensed electrician, and Michel paid him to install the TV.

On the wall, Robert Redford laughed charmingly. By now I’d recognized the film. Michel rolled a spliff and smoked it by himself. I began to wonder if I should go.

That night, Michel wore cufflinks shaped like little horses. I thought they were pretty, and touched one with my index finger. He was, I thought, a supremely elegant man. Michel stood then and took his wallet from out of his back pocket. He laid a fluffy pile of thousand-crown notes on the table. My gaze skipped across the room, from the towel to the teacups to Robert Redford bloodshot with love and then back to the money. Michel met my eyes with the kind of smile that friends give each other when they’re sharing a joke.

‘Come, Mademoiselle,’ he said, with an exaggerated swoop of one arm. And so we went into the bedroom.

Afterwards I went home and put the money in the pocket of a coat I never wore. Within an hour I’d moved it under a folder on my window ledge. I transplanted that money all over my room over the course of a week, but still I could feel it pulsating like an ulcer wherever it was. The fact of its existence made me cringe. Nevertheless, I fantasized about strolling into a nice designer shop, just like a rich woman, and buying something I didn’t need – a fur vest, impractical heels – heedless of the price. In the end, I stashed the money under my mattress.

For a while after that, Michel called once or twice a week. I emailed my college roommate Lydia, who now lived in New York, and told her about my new French boyfriend. On nights when I wasn’t with Michel, I went out to bars and saw live music or listened to mediocre expat poets recite their work in English-language bookstores. It got so that I experienced a thrill every time Michel called me. I did up my hair in fancy chignons, wore lipstick and false eyelashes and elaborate lingerie – the only purchases I wound up using his money for. I’d started to feel like an actress, or a famous woman from history who suffered glamorously. I’ve never shaken the childish urge to pretend, even when the costume box is all packed away, that I swim untouched through life, trailed by a melancholy piano and at least one pair of dark and hungry eyes.

 

The first night we slept together, I’d discovered that a giant rash spanned Michel’s body like the shadow of Pangaea mapped over the oceans. From then on I always noticed it peeking out at his ankles, just above the tops of his socks. I went out and bought a special cream. Michel put it away in a drawer: ‘They don’t work,’ he said.

One night he shook me awake and sat over me like a father praying or reading a bedtime story. He’d just thrown his laptop out the window, he said, and as I struggled into confused consciousness, saying things like, ‘But Michel, did you hit someone?’ and ‘Did you back up your photos?’, he interrupted with exhilarated descriptions of his newfound euphoria, of how free and alive and human he felt again. It wasn’t until an hour later when we were sitting up in bed with tea that he told me his brother was dying of lymphoma, his brother who lived with their parents in Lyon. His name was Grégoire and he was fifteen years younger than Michel. Another night, not long after Christmas, I found Michel at the bar where we’d met, crying and telling everyone within earshot of his troubles.

The bartender gave me a grateful look when I came in. I put my arm around Michel’s back.

‘You,’ he said, with red-eyed dislike. ‘What can you do?’

Never in my life had I felt so sure of my purpose. My skin was so thick in those days. I had that assuredness people get when they’re playing a game with children, and losing is only a sham.

I eased Michel off the stool and paid his tab. He resisted my attempts to put him in his coat, but his flat wasn’t far. The walk was silent but for our footsteps and my chattering teeth. Outside his building, Michel stood shivering and motionless as I dug through his pockets for the keys.

Once inside, I laid him out on the bed and undressed him. His skin was so cold it didn’t feel human. I got naked too because I wanted him to see me, and then I put my warm mouth where it woke him by degrees. It was a comfort and a triumph to hear him moan, to feel his hands caress my head and pull my hair.

 

A few days later, I noticed that my old roommate Lydia had posted pictures online of her new life in New York. There were dozens and dozens of photos, where previously there’d been none at all, and whether through boredom or fascination I clicked through the entire album: pictures of her Brooklyn apartment and the famous library where she studied, and a few from a Halloween party she’d attended with her boyfriend, who was Michel’s age and a writer. He’d dressed up as Jay Gatsby, and she was Daisy. She looked so classy I ached to become her. I thought of the way I dressed up for Michel, and could’ve choked on the embarrassment of it.

After the night I brought Michel back from the bar, he called me a couple of times, but only to talk. In slippery English, he delivered sublime elegies of grief that existed only in the moment of utterance; afterwards, I could never remember what he’d said. The grief was not his so much as his parents’, and it terrified him to such an extent that sometimes I thought he’d hide in Prague forever. Over and over again I repeated how sorry I was, and either he didn’t stop to listen or it wasn’t enough. At the end of January, when the snow was brutal and black in the streets, he did go home to Lyon, abruptly – I got a dramatic and misspelled text saying he was in the airport, at the gate. We didn’t keep in touch while he was gone. I carried on teaching my lessons and huddling near the radiator, trying out new recipes and reading the books I’d culled from the public library’s meagre selection of English titles. I went out to bars and gigs much less frequently than before. The cold was so fierce.

One day my lessons were cancelled, so I stuffed all the money I’d saved into a purse, went out, and bought everything I wanted. After so many penny-pinching months it was hard to get going, but once I did a certain gleefulness took hold. Altogether I came away with a green wool coat, a pair of Doc Martens, a vintage leather bag, a Swarovski bracelet, a language-learning programme called ‘Speak Czech Today!’, a lace parasol, a board-mounted Modigliani print, two Hermès scarves, three printed dresses, and a stationery set. When the tram approached Naměstí Republiky I caught sight of myself in the glass, my hair spiralling in the wind. All of a sudden I felt very tired.

Back at home, I dumped everything I’d bought onto my bed and sank down into the glittering pile. I lay there motionless and thinking for what felt like hours, until finally an image came to me, that of Daisy crying over Gatsby’s silk shirts – ‘Such beautiful shirts!’ she gasps, through tears, bringing the excess to its end.

 

Somehow I knew when Michel came back, but he didn’t call and I guessed he didn’t want to see me. I started feeling malicious, with this urge growing in me to inform other women of his rash. I was afraid of him too, for the courage he’d found to witness death. But I also longed to meet for a quiet drink, and tell him finally about my life. I wanted to be free without having to say it.

When I finally did see him again, sometime around the middle of February, it was at the bar formerly owned by the Czech Veterans’ Association. He nodded at me when I appeared at his elbow.

‘How are you?’ he asked formally.

‘OK.’

He had in his palm two oval-shaped magnets that he turned over and over so that they clicked like dice. As we spoke, his hand moved frenetically at the bottom of my vision.

‘I missed you,’ I said.

He shrugged.

‘I’m sorry about your brother.’

He ignored me, and I had the dazed impression that I hadn’t spoken at all. The bartender smiled at me with voluminous pity. He assumed we’d broken up, and this was our tentative, and tender, reunion.

Michel and I drank a couple of beers together, or we drank them side by side. We stared directly ahead, where under the shelf of liquor bottles there was a row of baffling celebrity caricatures whose identities we used to guess at, giggling.

‘Listen,’ Michel said. I looked into his eyes and saw such apathy it was like a clear window into the universe.

I rested my hand on his thigh.

Michel sighed. The woman I was pretending to be smiled as if she’d achieved a victory. She thought up a dirty sentence and whispered it into his ear.

‘It’s not like you need the money,’ he said.

At first I couldn’t speak, but then I said, ‘Michel, I love you.’

He didn’t look at me, he just shook his head so that his hair swung into his eyes.

‘Let’s leave this hellhole,’ he said.

‘OK,’ I agreed, tripping ungracefully over my bar stool.

‘Goodnight,’ called the bartender in English, with a benign and knowing look, and so I waved at him as we left in order to keep my pride intact, and in this way I got a final vision of the bar that night, warm and yellow with all the liquor bottles glinting like jewels on their shelf, the bartender transporting two fresh pints onto the bar, and the far wall of plastic roses left over from the time of the veterans, which I’d always thought rather beautiful and not at all sad.

 

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