Sidewalk musicians play the blues on the Charles Bridge while the blazing embers of the summer sun begin to fade behind Prague Castle. Rounded cobblestones meet the perpendicular angles of the platform mules I balance in with sharp abrasive taps. I tighten my core as I weave through ambling crowds of tourists gawking at the saints perched on the thousand year old passageway, training for competition with the beautiful Slovakian princesses and Italian models that now glide past me, smoothly sailing past short pig-tailed families with snapping cameras and quickly dripping ice cream cones. They have Armani suited arms to help them sail around on haute couture stilettos, strappy feats of engineering. I have only the energy it took to get here in the first place, on my wooden heels.
New Orleans melodies hover above the Vltava, carrying me from one weathered stone-top to the next. The air is spiked with perfume, sweets and money. My dress chafes as a single drop of sweat trickles down my back from hair that has gotten longer here this summer. The curls I spent hours making don’t help it feel less heavy. Buskers paint tourists for a few hundred korunas next to a legless man dressed in rags, huddled over his whimpering dog, with an upturned empty hat near his fleshy stumps.
Reaching the streets of Old Town on the other side of the bridge, I follow the windy narrow passages till I reach the dark, smoke infused door of Duendé. Months have passed since I first arrived in Prague and the only thing that ever stays the same for me here is this pub, where a man of dangerous charm gives the place its mojo.
“Ahoy,” with a courteous nod, his dark amber tinted eyes invite me. Please come in. Sit down. He always recognizes my face, though I’m pretty sure he’s never said my name out loud.
I manage not to trip as I find an empty table, with vacant chairs. In the corner, by the open window, I sit and pull out a slightly crumpled pack of cigarettes. Round marble tabletops on sparse wooden frames, most bolted to the medieval floor. They remind me of the Victorian furniture I used to put together, stain and lacquer in dollhouses as a child. The chairs are all different, in every stage of repair.
My favorite is the coat rack in the corner by the door. A doll’s head sits atop and watches over the attic full of contents strewn about the walls. A guitar, suspended above the bar, is sometimes taken down and played late at night. I have brought a notebook for something to do, never sure what to expect here. I find my lack of language is not so much a problem as the barriers thrown up with every word not spoken.
He moves with an undercurrent of kinetic charisma, a true flamenco. Black curls stretched back and bound in a purple tie that only a man who looks like he does could pull off. The same shirt as last week I notice. Grey ribbed cotton frames the sculpted power of his shoulders. I think of the clothing scattered about the hard wood floor of his room in the brightness of the early morning summer sun.
He is talking to a traveler at the bar, a man wearing a tee shirt and black laced-up boots that look like they have been through most of Europe. I only recognize a few words here and there. The traveler is hunched over a thick Hungarian goulash and black beer. He says “Zivot je jako pokriveny klacek.” Life is a crooked stick. You never know what may lie around the next corner, what happiness or sorrow, the beauty of each passing season.
I understand a little, but have forgotten how to speak. Through dark corridors of the verbal jungle I trespass. Finally, an opening emerges. The barman locks his gaze on my empty table top and saunters toward me. I brace my-self, unintentionally holding my breath.
“What will you have?” he pronounces in the beautiful sing-song cadence of Eastern European accent like a baritone trombone.
I fumble my way toward him, barely noticing he is speaking English instead of Czech. It is the same question waiters everywhere ask when they come to your table. It needs no translation but he is speaking English for me.
I open my mouth and nothing comes out. I smile.
His lips curl upward, but nothing reaches his golden brown eyes. I have seen fire there, but at the moment, they are cool embers taking in all but revealing nothing.
“We have some nice green tea,” he suggests.
“Ano. Zelany Chai, prosim.” Yes, green tea please.
He turns on a dime. I watch him slip behind the bar to fill a tall porcelain tea cup with scalding water. I can see the steam rising from the surface.
The traveler pushes away his empty bowl of Goulash and takes a long swig from his dark beer, finishing it and slapping the thick glass down on the marble countertop. With the lithe jump of a gymnast, he stands on his stool and pulls down the guitar hanging above the bar. His dreaded hair is meshed under a green cap and he smiles as the fading amber sun catches a glint of his gold tooth. Just as quickly, he is back on the barstool, facing the half empty café.
Oba tak stejní, oba tak jinni
Both the same and yet so different
Podivně osud jejich život řidí
Estranged by fate, life is controlled
Když se potkaj, sota se vidí
When they meet, they hardly see
Nikdo z nás neví, jak se lidem cesty křiží
Nobody knows why people cross our paths
The traveler sings and strums the guitar. He looks directly at me. There aren’t many people here this early in the night. Singing and strumming he nods to the barman, who pours him a shot of slivovitsa, a clear Slovakian liquor made from plums.
Oba trapí nejasný pocit viny
Trapped by a vague sense of guilt
Starch z každý další chyby
Learned from each other’s mistakes
Tvaří se přísně, za svůj cit se stydí
Punished severely, for feeling ashamed
Jejich těžkej uděl, sotva něco změní
Wishes granted, but hardly a change
He had warned me about the Gypsy children running loose, as we went up endless flights of stairs to his flat on the top floor. I had only been in Prague a few weeks then, most of that time too busy to realize how deep the conflicts that exist here and how they divide people, a heavy drumbeat of discord.
I probably shouldn’t have asked him if the water was all right to drink when he offered me a glass from the tap, at his home. How could he know I was thinking of Smallville, USA, where the tap smells like sulfur and no one drinks it unless they want to have kids with thirteen toes and a harelip.
I didn’t know then what it might seem like to him. Maybe he saw through the shallow layer of optimism hiding a naively wounded heart with a desperate camouflage of arched back and open mouth.
Ona je krásná až to bolí
She has beautiful but broken intention
A on je velkej kouzelnik
He is a bag of magic tricks
Oba se trápí ve svých rolích
Both trapped in their roles
Každej je sám jak trosečník
Everyone here is a castaway
He sits down in the empty chair at my table, holding his shot glass of juice, watching his friend perform. What I meant to say slithers to the dark recesses of my mind, distant and unspoken. Instead, jumbled American platitudes dance from my lips and pile on top of clichés and other stupid things. He looks at my messy spew of confusion with the patience a parent has for a toddler’s misbehavior.
The guitar wails its melodic tale. He drinks his juice from the glass, leaves it on my table and returns to the bar. I know I will be going home alone tonight. I finish my tea and leave thirty korunas in ten crown coins on the table. The drink is twenty-seven.
Oba tak stejní, oba tak jinni
Both of the jinn, only different tribes
Dva přiběhy všední, každej z jiný knihy
Two ordinary stories, each from a different book
Denně se potkaj, denně se míjí
Passing each day, meeting in passing
Dvě ztracený duse ve světě plnym lidí
Two lost souls in a world full of people
I hesitate for a moment at the door and look back. People are trickling in, lured from the street by the guitar playing musician. The fading fuchsia and indigo remnants of the sunset cast a smoky softness over the room. I don’t see him anywhere in the café, so I leave.