Prague Spring

by Trish Annese

Red barn on the countryside

I meet M. in Prague on a lonesome Sunday in March as I chase a lost turquoise scarf down an asphalt alley and she retrieves it, stepping from the recesses of a darkened doorway—a mistress of ceremonies stepping into the spotlight—and restoring it to me with a flourish.

She buys me a coffee, and for the first few minutes, I cannot tell if she wants to fuck me or foster me, but it doesn’t take long for her to make her first moves—the brush of a hand against mine as we both reach for the check, the wry, encouraging tip of her head when I respond to a query, the collapse of her body against mine in a narrow alley down from where she’d retrieved my errant scarf.

For three months we live together in her narrow flat at the top of a hill near the old church. From the kitchen window, I can look out, tracing the line of our street down and over the bridge until I lose its trail in the chaos of old buildings and slim thoroughfares below.

Outside of the city—beneath skies so clear and blue they feel as fragile and temporary as colored glass—the fields are aglow with yellow. Within, however, amid the red roofs and cobblestones, the world feels contained, and I along with it. The ready exuberance of her grin, punctuated by the happy wrinkles at the corners of her eyes—blue, bright, shining—should do their work; instead, there is little I can do to squelch the fear her smile arouses in me. Not that she is frightening. She is anything but. This is, of course, what terrifies me; she is as familiar as my own skin, the curve of my belly, the slope of my breasts. She nuzzles my neck and makes solemn promises. She spreads a small hand wide over mine and presses our two palms together as if we are gypsy lovers in a dark Moravian wood. She leads me through the cobbled streets of the city, past shops decked with oversized white signs advertising sales on garnets and gold, conducting our days with a gentle hand, sure of their resolution.

Some nights we make pots of paprikash, leaning our faces over the steam rising from peppers and tomatoes, stirring in red wine and cinnamon. Other nights, we fry sausages with onions and green peppers in our tiny kitchen, piling them onto brown bread with hot mustard to eat on the tiny wrought iron balcony outside our living room window. Later, we make love on the floor of the living room, our bodies lit by the orangey glow of the streetlamp, until we settle against one another on the couch, dozing to the strains of evening concerts—gypsy dances and Dvorak. In the middle of the night, she awakens to make the drawings that I find in the mornings after she leaves for rehearsal, little ink and watercolor vignettes of our life together propped haphazardly around the apartment. It takes all of my will not to tear and scatter them in the streets.

I want M. to be more Eastern European, to be Communist and alien and other to me in some exotic, depressed sort of way that she cannot understand. She is the furthest thing from morose, however; instead, she is lighthearted and sexy, warm and generous, optimistic about music, the future, and me. This exuberance overwhelms me: M. bowls me over like a tank in the street, claiming me in ways I both crave and resent.

When she told her mother she was queer after a stint in the States, she blamed her daughter’s aberration on American Decadence, but didn’t refuse her. Mostly, M. reports, she was upset that I liked Kentucky Fried Chicken, she explains with a snort. M.’s mother died years ago, just weeks shy of M.’s fortieth birthday, and she still misses her, wishes they’d had more time together, hungers for a taste of her goulash. 

My own mother had not been as forgiving, blaming the fact of me on the too-liberal liberal arts college I’d attended. We haven’t spoken since she found me spooned with my best friend from high school in my childhood bed, a week after earning my bachelor’s degree. In the middle of the night, the bedroom door swung open and in she charged, arms akimbo, to pull the sheets from our bare bodies, her rage and indignation a typhoon. I imagined she’d been living with her suspicions about me longer than I had been. That was two years and three lovers ago. When I tell her the story, M. sighs and gives me a squeeze. America, she whispers, and simultaneously strokes my cheek with one finger and slides another between my legs. We can only be what we are, she insists as I shudder under her hand.

She takes me into the countryside, laying me down in fields of canola, sliding her hand up my skirt, kissing me until I sneeze, allergic to the crop that grows like a weed outside the city. We play hide-and-go-seek and I count first, fumbling to ten in my strange new tongue. I open my eyes to white sunlight and stretches of yellow and gold. On the far horizon, a red barn hunkers. Nearby, black birds circle and dive. I give up on her too easily and stand in the field with my nose running, bursting into tears when she erupts behind me, a bunch of bluebonnets clutched in a fist. Immediately contrite, she wipes my nose with her sleeve and bundles me back into the car, plying me with honey and apricots from a farm stand we pass on the way back to the apartment. There, she arranges the flowers in a small orange pot before leaving for the theater.

That night, in the concert hall, watching her hands lift and dip like dark starlings, I perch at the edge of my seat, poised for my own kind of flight. During the applause, I see her search for me in the house, her eyes ranging the darkness for a glimpse of my silhouette. Even though I am there, sitting quietly on the red velvet cushion, she does not find me, but I can see in the momentary slump of her slight shoulders before she returns to the score that she has anticipated my absence, so I go, slipping out of the hall and into the street. The scarf lies limp at my neck, listless in the still summer heat as my suitcase, standing where I’d stowed it, tips easily into my grip.

For a moment, I turn to take in the stone hall where she makes music with her particular brand of surety and grace, but I do not linger. Instead, I pull at the scarf, letting it drop from my hand to the pavement, where it settles in a puddle of silk; I make my way to the train, the wet weight of June heavy around my head as I listen to the deep pull of the bow across its strings rise and disappear behind me.

“Prague Spring” was first published in Hawai’i Pacific Review.

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story