City of Bridges
by Rebecca Hall
I fear bridges. Gephyrophobia. My therapist said that I fear change, fear moving forward. This fear is common, he said. But it’s not the opposite side that scares me, I told him. It’s the middle. My therapist shifted in his chair. You’re walking across a bridge, he said. Are you with me? The Aurora bridge tilted upward like an off-kilter aqueduct in a dream. Yes, I replied. How does it feel, he asked. I closed my eyes, watched gray, billowing sky drop from above like a velvety stretch of river-wide curtain. My lungs groped at the air, pantomimed claustrophobia. I feel trapped, I said. There’s nowhere to go. My therapist nodded. He rested his chin in his hands. Do you think about death, he asked.
I’ve been wandering since daybreak. I’m in the heart of Prague on an island, Strelecky Ostrov, which floats in the Vlatva like a heart in flesh. Marksmen’s Island. If I look sideways, I can see the Charles Bridge. Sooty statues guard its stone rail. Earlier in the day, I crossed the bridge. The statues were closer to the edge than I was, someone to talk to if I lost my balance. Their carved stone hands looked nice to hold.
Now the statues turn their backs, watch tourists swarm vendors’ wares. It’s nearly spring, but blades of icy grass crunch beneath my feet. This island is deserted, and trees grasp tight to fistfuls of brown leaves. The trees look angry, though my therapist would say the anger belongs to me.
I have a right. Yesterday I walked in on my Czech lover in the back room of his restaurant, his hands all over a crow-faced Slavic blonde. The woman buttoned her silk blouse and walked braless to the front room to serve aperitifs to locals. Danek called me naïve.
I shut my mind to the memory. I wrap my scarf higher around my neck. If I’m so afraid, I ask, how did I end up in the City of Bridges alone? How did I follow a Czech lover I barely knew? How did I cross the threshold of that airplane, its cabin like the center of a bridge heaved recklessly into the sky?
When I’m upset, I like to be around books. The Globe is an expat hangout tucked neatly into a side street. It’s in all the travel guides, but still hard to find. I pull open the jangling door and head straight to the café, squeeze between a table set up as a shrine to Czech writers—Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Kafka—and a line of people surfing the internet from high stools. A chandelier hangs from the café ceiling, and I find an empty place on a bench beneath the balcony.
A waiter nods to a young couple at the computers, the woman on a stool, the man behind her, his arms wrapped beneath hers, chin on her shoulder. The man kisses the woman’s head and follows the waiter, who sets onion soup and a beer on the table beside mine. The man slides in next to me on the long bench.
The waiter pivots and asks for my order, bending from the waist with his pencil poised, like a waiter in a play. Pilsner, I say. And the B.L.T.
The waiter disappears behind swinging, louvered doors.
I study the man next to me, his soup-eating hands reflected in a gilt-framed mirror near the bar. He looks like a children’s book character I know but can’t name. His skin is powder pale, his face wide. He wears black jeans with a starched white shirt and a navy sports coat. His head sits low on his neck, like a cat’s.
He catches my eye in the mirror.
“My girlfriend and I love bacon,” he says.
His English is perfect, his accent faint, and as he crisply pronounces the word ‘bacon,’ his girlfriend leaves her computer, as if on cue. She sits between us, speaking on her cell phone, and places one hand on her lover’s knee, knocking a foot against mine. Her voice is curt and nasally so that she sounds like a rabbit sneezing. The couple is odd, but he speaks English.
“My name is Milo,” he says.
Milo’s girlfriend balances her phone against one shoulder. I lean forward to shake Milo’s hand. It’s soft as a woman’s. I want to fall into someone’s lap and close my eyes.
“I’m Beatrice,” I say.
It’s awkward talking past Milo’s girlfriend, so I pull out my journal and doodle in the margins. Trees, I write, and draw a few. Prague, bridges, asshole. I’m relieved to see the waiter approach with my sandwich and beer.
Milo still watches me, so I feign a smile and lift my glass. He leans back with an arm behind his girlfriend, who lays a hand over one ear to block the noise of laughter and clinking silverware.
“That’s not real bacon, you know,” Milo says. I lift up the toasted bread, and the bacon on my B.L.T. looks like thinly sliced ham. “I’ve been researching bacon.” He peers over his lady friend’s bent head and explains that pigs must be raised in a particular way to make bacon. Bacon pigs, he tells me, are leaner and more muscular. Czech bacon is either Slanina, meat that is eighty percent fat, or the precooked pork loin known as Canadian bacon. American bacon is cut from the back of a lean pig.
I struggle to swallow the thick bread. Milo is a talker, pedantic even, but I’m grateful for the company.
“What brings you to Prague?” he asks.
“I’ve been visiting a Czech asshole,” I mutter. “And crying into the Vlatva.”
“The bargain package.”
I laugh for the first time.
Milo bites his lower lip. “You have a disarming smile,” he says, straight into his girlfriend’s free ear. His eyes skip across my chest and land near my thighs. His gaze returns to my face. As if in apology, he sighs and says, “My girlfriend is studying Butoh.” He tells me that though Butoh originated in Japan, the form was heavily influenced by the German Ausdrucktanz. Ausdruck schools in Europe were now world centers for Butoh. “It’s still evolving.” I’ve finished my meal, but Milo sips his beer as he speaks. “The first documented performance in 1959 was a piece in which a young boy enacted sex with a chicken by strangling it between its legs.”
“That’s dark,” I say.
“Butoh is short for Ankoku Butoh. Dance of Darkness.”
Milo’s girlfriend snaps her phone shut. She looks at me and then to Milo. “I need to study more,” she says, her speech more heavily accented than Milo’s. She whispers into his ear, and I pick out stray English words: Leonard, perfect, west.
“Study,” Milo says to his girlfriend. “Bea and I will hang out.”
“Hi, Bea,” she says, and stares. “My name is Ingrid.”
Ingrid has a dab of white face paint smudged across her chin; otherwise, she is ruddy and beautiful. I’m aware that I look a mess. I nod and shrug. I’m booked on a morning flight to London. I’m not irrational enough to seek out Danek, I remind myself. It’s my last night.
I came to know my therapist and Danek around the same time. Danek and I witnessed a shooting together in the States. Broad daylight, two Sikh taxi drivers. The perpetrator, according to Danek, wore a turban and beard. Though the gunman was not ten feet away, I did not see him. I couldn’t take my eyes from the victim as he fell in slow motion, singing like a whale. We gave our stories to the cops, and Danek asked me to join him for a drink. Three weeks later, Danek returned to Prague. In the midst of our romance, I lost my nerve with bridges. An unusual manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder, my therapist said. Meeting you feels like fate, Danek said.
Outside The Globe, the bitter night air numbs my face. Milo and I push our way through bicycles and tourists, through a tide of bodies flowing toward Old Town, our legs pressed near.
“Have you been to Zizkov?” Milo asks. He blows his bare, cupped hands.
“I’ve seen the tower from the castle,” I say. My first day in Prague, Danek had sent me to the castle on the hill. Tourists, he’d told me, thought it nice.
Milo steers me by the arm to the Metro entrance, to the steep escalator I’ve been avoiding. We’re scuttled backwards into the gleaming pit. High-pitched voices call out to each other, like echoes. Most of the tourists are above us on the city’s cobbled streets, and Prague’s adolescents shout back and forth, smelling of whiskey and cheap cologne. Milo grabs my hand and pulls me past the dutifully standing women and their children, and we plummet three stories to the Metro platform. An approaching train whips my hair, and I wrinkle my nose as two boys practice karate around us. The subway car is full. We squeeze in. We talk, hands wrapping the metal bar above us, faces close.
I tell Milo about my years in the northwest, how I’d quit my job as a copy editor to sell flowers, only to grow tired of their sticky, cloying scent. I tell him about the small town I grew up in, the mindset there. I tell him about Danek.
“He sounds very unlike you,” Milo says.
I shrug. He’d been beautiful, and he’d seemed kind. I’d been attracted to his version of romance, I tell Milo, that turned out to be subsidized with lies. My blind courage in love, I explain, is at odds with my everyday fears.
“You seem brave,” Milo says. “What’s to fear?”
Milo tells me about his friend, Leonard. Leonard had been eighty-one when they’d met in the States. They were in a Vegas casino playing craps. Milo was on a roll with sevens, and Leonard was betting the don’ts. They’d sat in the casino restaurant drinking coffee until dawn and, the next summer, road-tripped through France. Leonard had died in the spring, following nine years of friendship.
I picture an old man in dark glasses and a polyester suit. “Sounds like a grandfather figure.” The subway vibrates.
“I never talked to my grandfather about sex,” Milo says, and winks. He keeps his hands on the bar and blows a stray piece of hair from my face.
“I can’t imagine you’d hold anything back.”
“You’d be surprised. I’ve been known to talk about the weather.”
The Metro takes us from beneath the flat riverbed to the belly of Prague’s hills. We ride the escalator higher. I look up once to the sensation that I’m lying at the base of a tall skyscraper. After that, I keep my eyes on Milo’s overcoat. He turns toward me. “Old cemetery land,” he says. “We’re practically under it.”
I imagine loved ones standing over graves. How deep and lost the dead seem, covered in earth, and here we are beneath them.
I pull my scarf from my bag as we exit the Metro station. Milo tugs a black knit hat around his ears and tells me the TV tower was built during the Cold War to block communication signals. Ahead, the buildings open up to the tower. A few partiers spill from a pub, leaving the door ajar as muffled shouts and the smell of beer escape. The Zizkov tower looms. From a distance, figures scale the tower like ants. As we draw closer, the figures transform.
Giant babies crawl up the tower in a group trance, Prague’s surreal dream.
“The installation is called Miminka. Mummies.”
I wonder what Czech lore ties babies to mummies, but this is modern: new lives embalmed in propaganda.
“The installation was commissioned after the Velvet Revolution as a way of reclaiming the tower,” Milo adds.
The babies climb from a Jewish cemetery below. We skirt the gated graveyard, its crumbling markers peace offerings from history. Milo and I walk like familiar friends.
“Franz Kafka is buried in the newer Jewish cemetery,” Milo says.
The streets are dim, but a neon sign flashes from a corner. “Non-Stop,” it broadcasts in pink neon, Czech nomenclature, stolen from English, for twenty-four hour store.
In front of us, a wide thoroughfare opens, crisscrossed with streetcar tracks. Small cars burst by, honking their horns. We wait for a lull in traffic and approach a large cemetery. A locked gate marks our arrival, and the only light is the stars. I grab the cold bars and push my face through. Trees shake branches at darkness, and disorderly gravestones climb soft hills like sleepy drunks. Mausoleums dot the landscape, stone portals to shady inns, a haphazard shanty town. Milo leans against the mossy wall and lights a cigarette.
“Care to go in?” he asks.
It looks strangely peaceful.
He takes my wrist. The street veers from the grounds, and large trees screen us from cars and streetlamps. A smaller gate punctures the stone wall, the lock a twisted chain.
“Hold this,” Milo says, and hands me his cigarette.
He lifts the gate post from its socket, and I squeeze through the crack. Milo follows.
“Ingrid and I come here a lot,” he says, and he pulls a penlight from his coat pocket, flashing my face before turning the light on headstones.
A flat slab sits on a plot of earth. I kneel and read the faded letters with the help of my hands. Marketa Hus, 1651-1680.
“How did you and Ingrid meet?”
“We’ve known each other since we were kids.”
Kostka Hus, 1670-1680.
“And dated off and on.”
Karel Hus, 1672-1680.
All buried in 1680. A massacre, I think.
“The cemetery opened during a plague,” Milo says.
I take the flashlight and walk ahead on the path. I read inscriptions on a row of graves. Mierk Vaclavske—who shares Danek’s last name—1643-1680. Jan Maisel, 1645-1680. Tamina Chocol, 1679-1680. One year old. Tamina’s small gravestone stares back at me like a dirty face. She’s long gone, and so are those who mourned her death. I run the penlight up a tree trunk and pass the light to Milo. Across dark terrain I spot another light and the embers of several cigarettes. “Kids,” he whispers. The cemetery is vast, and the kids sail through. A wide dirt trail splits the hillside, and Milo shines his flashlight quickly. I take his arm and guide it back to where he flicked it. A heavy stone lid tilts from the earth, and an ivory skeletal hand lies near the edge, beckoning.
“That can’t be real,” I say, still dizzy from my beer.
“No one tends the graves. It’s not an unusual sight.”
Vines cover the lid. The skeleton has been exposed for some time. Within reach, a thousand hands lie, hidden from view.
At the top of the hill, a thick tree stands apart from the graves, and Milo sits at its base. I join him. He shoves his hands deep in his pockets and begins to hum. From our vantage point, the city falls away, the cemetery landscape blank as water.
“Welcome, my dear,” Milo says, his tone bereft of emotion, “to the City of Bridges.”
My pulse rises, and the blood rushes past my ears. My limbs and face keep still, but I tremble. Perhaps I should run.
“Do you believe in angels?” He turns and watches me. His lashes shade the circles beneath his eyes. “Beatrice,” he says, and lifts a hand to my hair. “Follow your momentum. You have nothing to fear.”
The gesture releases something in my chest. I exhale sharply. “Things weren’t supposed to go this way,” I say, and practically choke on the words. Without fate, death is arbitrary. It could come at any time. Even with Milo sitting next to me, I’m alone. I’m reminded of how I’d felt when Danek met me at the train, his dark eyes searching mine before shutting down. On the ten minute walk to the room he’d arranged, I’d dragged my suitcase and found little to talk about.
Milo turns toward me and breathes into my hair. I’m crying, and he puts his hand on my wet cheek. I reach up and grab his fingers. He puts his other hand on my knee. “Leonard,” he says into my ear, “would have liked you. He asked me to take care of his ashes.”
“Have you?” I ask.
“Ingrid and I divvied them up.” Milo’s grasp on my knee grows tighter, and his hand moves higher. I close my eyes, lean into the experience. The whole time Danek and I were apart, I’d been faithful, just one more thing he’d taken. “Leonard loved life,” Milo says. “He wouldn’t want to be in one place.”
“Where are they?” I push Milo away and watch his face.
“In pouches. We worried about taking them through customs. We mailed them to a hotel. I let Ingrid keep them. She’s better at decisions.”
A mournful cry moves through the branches. I push myself lower along the tree’s roots, until the trunk forms a headboard behind me. My head floats at Milo’s thigh. He lights a fresh cigarette. Music emerges, bass and tin, chimes and prayer bells. Milo places his fingertips beneath my neck and lifts my head onto his lap, piling scarf beneath hair, beneath skull.
He stabs his cigarette into the dirt and nudges my hair from beneath me, turns my head. “Beatrice,” he whispers. A white figure crouches at a mausoleum’s edge, dust-white hair, white face, white cloth stretched across colorless skin and breasts, hands the white-blue of milk, bare feet gray as fog. Downcast eyes watch the ground from coal-painted caverns, looking out like blue-green souls of feathers, black makeup smudged from tear duct to temple.
The figure rolls, spinning the air onto imaginary spools. Arms and legs float adrift. Milo lies next to me, finds my waist with his hands. His sandpaper face grazes my neck. Footsteps draw near, and gauzy fabric brushes my face. Small hands pull back my sweater. I stroke Milo’s cheek and reach for his stocking-capped head while Ingrid, in her disguise of white, hovers at my side. A folded pouch hangs from her neck, and Milo reaches around me and loosens the string. Gravel rains against my chest as Milo and I enter into each other, the ghostly Ingrid falling to the side of us, curling up like a child, watching our bittersweet coupling with peacock eyes.
Beneath us, the ground arches, benign and cool. Tomorrow, I will head home. From my airplane seat, I’ll watch the tower pass beneath one tilted wing as the babies turn back into ants. I’ll think of Danek, my heart still broken, my momentum freed. I’ll believe in strange angels. Slowly, I’ll let go of fate. Fear seems far away.
Rebecca Hall’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in Salamander, Redivider, Inkwell, and other publications. A Washington State native, she has degrees in creative writing, architecture, and psychology. She currently lives in Austin, Texas, with her boyfriend, Mark, who recently cheered her on during her first triathlon. (3/2008)