The tram pulled out of the station with a jolt.
The foreign passengers were caught off guard and swung wildly from the greasy handlebars. It was late in the evening but the night trams were still a few hours away. The twenty two was half empty. Still, Jenda had to free his seat for an elderly lady with a crutch. “They’re hell bent on sitting at the front,” he said, sticking his ticket into the orange machine.
We both pretended to ignore the smell coming from one of the back seats, where a drunkard had managed to throw up on himself. Jenda was a hardened citizen, but even he had to slide the little window open. Next stop: an incomprehensible assortment of syllables. “It’s pronounced ‘ř’,” Jenda said, contorting his tongue at me.
“Yindreezhskah!,” I replied, confident that after three months I’ve finally nailed it. Jenda shook his head and laughed. He was tall, lanky, and his camping pants screamed bumpkin. The ponytail didn’t help. His outfit was halfway between a disguise and a uniform for an “inženýr” working in I.T. Through his awkwardness I could see he was kind at heart.
As we continued with our small talk, we failed to notice the ticket inspector approach us. Without a word he flashed his little DP badge at us and waited, never once looking away from the window, while we shuffled through our pockets for tickets. Jenda was diligent enough to acquire a temporary one on the very day his hideous “Lítačka” expired. I myself was not so lucky. My text never left my mobile phone and even with intense negotiation and pleading I wound up with a fine, which required me to show up at the brutalist DP headquarters within the week.
“Shit happens, man,” Jenda said, with his best American accent. I was feeling rather distraught so Jenda tried to cheer me up by describing more of his homeland to me. I was impressed by his knowledge and enthusiasm about local history, especially his pride over the defenestration that kicked off the Thirty Years’ War. Afterall, it was a small nation’s claim to fame. He went on to describe all the must-sees from Kutná Hora to Český Krumlov.
“And don’t call it Czechia,” he added.
I assured him I would never even consider it. The Czech Republic has always been a place with a wounded sense of pride. Proud of their pacifism, the Czechs prefer to resolve their problems grumbling over a beer in a “hospoda” rather than confronting them head on. Decades of enforced communism would break anybody, I suppose. Jenda cracked a couple bittersweet jokes on that topic. If anything can be said about the Czechs it’s that they are not afraid to make fun of themselves.
As we laughed away the long minutes of waiting at Lazarská, I noticed a shabby, punk looking girl get on. She seemed agitated. “What’s her deal?” I asked, putting an end to the fading laughter. “Meth,” Jenda asserted dryly. “It’s everywhere. We invented it.”
“I had no idea,” I replied, my eyes widening as the girl stomped towards us. She seemed to have a problem with the window Jenda opened earlier. Jenda explained about the smell and offered to close it. As he turned around and leaned over to slide it shut, which required some effort, the girl made a move for the wallet in his back pocket. She was so hyper focused she didn’t notice me looking.
“Hey! Let go!” I yelled, grabbing her wrist. The girl responded by barging into me. Her timing was lucky with the tram flying around a sharp corner. I fell over and plunged all the way down the steep three steps. Jenda looked startled and frozen. Confrontation was not his thing.
“Ty vole, co děláš, pičo?”
I could make out the few words I understood.
“She went for your wallet,” I moaned from the depths of the pit, clutching my elbow. Jenda tensed up, but his hesitation whether he could strike a woman was apparent. . He resorted to more verbal assault and wild gesticulation. The dazed girl gradually backed off, and used the opportunity of a stop to make a quick getaway into the night. Jenda shook his head, sighed, and proceeded to reach down for me. As he pulled me up he asked whether I was alright and apologised profusely.
“I’ll be okay,” I replied. We didn’t even have a chance to sit down before our stop came up. I oohed and aahed my way down the steps. Jenda patted me on the back and said this occasion called for a beer. Any occasion is right for a beer here, it seems.
“Man, doing drugs is gambling with happiness.”
Jenda was clearly not a philosopher, but I understood what he meant. “That poor girl was so desperate,” he added, clearly shaken by the ordeal. We made our way down the slippery cobbled streets towards the pub. When I limped too much for his liking, Jenda offered me his arm for support. He navigated us through the haphazard streets towards U Sudu.
At the bar there were people in the doorway and it took many “s dovolením” to get through. Finally, we collapsed down at our table and laughed and sighed as we peeled off our winter layers. The waiter showed up promptly.
“Two ten degrees and two Božkovs,” Jenda stated boldly. I didn’t have time to oppose. The waiter scrawled two lines and two Xs onto the little paper and vanished into the crowd. “What a night!” I said. “You don’t see that every day.”
“You fight like Czech girl,” Jenda mocked me. He recounted the time his cousin Alena was about to punch a gypsy fortune teller before the police broke them up. The waiter arrived with our drinks.
We toasted to the twenty two and talked about decriminalised marijuana late into the night.
The next morning was a Friday, which meant only one thing to Jenda: cabin. I watched him from my cubicle in our open space office at Deloitte. He looked a tad worn out, but then again most Czechs are pasty, and their glum facial expressions don’t help. There was a certain agitation about him though. I caught him glancing at the clock whenever I looked up from my screen. In my time in Prague I learned that this is typical Friday behaviour. If you pay close attention, you can see the number of workers dwindling from about 3pm onwards. Lenka vanishes first, then a while later the two blokes from the copy centre disappear too. By five it’s usually only me and the rest of the naïve foreigners. It’s astounding how much the Czechs have perfected this vanishing act to avoid afternoon traffic to the countryside over the decades that they have been denied foreign travel.
That Friday, Jenda brought his cup of Nescafé Classic over to my desk. “Have you ever been to Zbraslav? I have a cabin in a community garden allotment there, you should join us, get out of the city…”. I was in need of a break, that much was true. I had nothing better to do that weekend, having made very few friends so far, so I agreed to meet him at Smíchovské Nádraží after work with my bag. “Smícháč”, as I have learned, is where time stood still since 1985. The surroundings were drab and the benches made your cheeks clench at the very idea of sitting down. It was the final frontier before the vast expanse of the Prague 5 suburbs and general nothingness. Just then, Jenda swung round the corner in his green Škoda. It was packed to the brim, making me wonder where in the array of children, luggage, a dog, a wife and a new boiler I would fit in. The children stared at me with their bovine brown eyes and blank expressions as I squeezed in next to them. I will never understand the habit of dressing four year old boys in stretched out woollen tights. A bus was honking relentlessly at us so I had to make do with greeting the wife from the back seat. “Jana, ahoj” – she twisted herself round in her seat to shake my hand – “nice to meet you”. She had a round face emphasised with unfashionable, large, round glasses, short, curly brown hair and wore a purple floral smock over her turtleneck. She looked a decade older than what Jenda once mentioned she was.
We reached the cabin two hours later after dolefully sitting in traffic for what would normally be a forty minute drive. The cabin was small, really small, dank, and closely neighbouring 30 other cabins that were all variations on the same 80s design. The interior, with a few ill-fitting exceptions, remained unchanged. The kids settled quickly and played eagerly with the vintage toys while I helped Jana and Jenda move the patio furniture outside. Jenda declared he had to greet the other guys at the local pub and asked me to come along while Jana watched the children and reheated the schnitzels she made earlier. Jenda walked me down the grassy driveway between the other cabins to the local pub, situated in the corner of a barely surviving communist era Culture Centre. The smell of refried oil, spoiled spilled beer and smoke hit me hard. The room was filled with local bums, grubby old men, and a few holiday-makers from the community gardens. They were all glued to the flat screen TV mounted on the yellowish wall with wooden panelling. Football was on and the Czech national team was playing. We sat down at one of the heavy wooden tables to join a group of Jenda’s acquaintances. They all had pints and insisted we have some too. One of them offered me a Start cigarette but I declined. The conversation turned to the football.
“Ty vole, zase ten negr”. The sound of the word made me tense. The men were raising their pints and fists at the screen, where a mulatto player featured in the replays. “And this is supposed to be the Czech national team” Jenda sneered, fishing for an agreement on my part, “some Czech that is”. I opened my mouth to protest, I nearly called Jenda a racist git, but seeing the company he was in I realised the ensuing argument would be vastly unpleasant and ultimately futile. I bit my tongue and took a gulp of my beer. It didn’t stop there. “They opened up a Kebab shop in Zbraslav. They are everywhere”, Jenda said with a scowl. When I asked who “they” were supposed to be, I opened Pandora ’s Box. I got an earful of racist slurs on the topic of immigrants. Bile rose to my throat. “They’ve come to destroy our Christian values!” he roared. Jenda continued to suggest that the Czechs should reestablish mandatory army service and the “Spartakiáda”, to better prepare for the imminent migrant invasion. His beer must’ve really taken hold when he proposed that the forest rangers should defend the national border after the state and the police inevitably fail. I laughed in his face.
Then his phone beeped. Jenda picked it up mid rant and froze, silent. He looked at me with a wide-eyed mixture of confusion and sheer terror. “What’s wrong?” I gestured. Jenda took a moment to cough up a stuttered answer. “I, I, have problem” – he passed me the phone to see – “She says she’s pregnant”. I assumed he meant Jana and was simply worried about the prospect of a third child, but his mortified demeanour suggested far worse. Jenda insisted he needed some air so we went outside. He lit a cigarette and leaned on the grey stucco. Inhaling, he confessed to infidelity. I pried him for answers. He said her name was Michaela. “Not the Michaela from Human Resources?” I half-joked, but apparently I was bang on the money. “How could you?” Jenda sighed and told me the story.
Jenda met Michaela a year ago, when she first started at the office as an intern. She was 22, bleach blonde, voluptuous and shamelessly seductive. Her office fame rose after a video of her twerking on all fours at a University of Economy event went viral. Michaela was ambitious, and the size of her ego was countered only by the length of her pencil skirts. She got around. Jenda might’ve been lanky and awkward, but he was high up enough in the corporate ladder to be interesting. Michaela coquettishly flirted on given any opportunity, and it wasn’t long before she blew him in the stationary cupboard. Jenda became a fiend. They’d skip lunch and screw in the smoking area, on the roof, in his car, in the park, and on the fire escape. Six weeks ago, Michaela broke her wrist and wore a cast to work. She needed help with a box of paper for the printer. Jenda offered a hand. They found themselves alone in the photocopy room. Jenda suavely locked the door. Michaela whorishly dropped a red whiteboard marker. Jenda approached her with his groin in her face. She undid his belt and his fly and did what she did best. Two pairs of watery eyes later Jenda picked her up off her knees and bent her over the photocopier. He hitched up her skirt, spat on his fingers, slapped her cunt and rubbed it in. Her staged little moans were as fake as her tits, banging on the copy glass. Jenda lost control.
Jenda’s phone rang and interrupted his story. It was Michaela, upset that he hadn’t replied. Her angry muffled voice poured out of the speaker as Jenda held it to his ear. After a twenty minute argument, Jenda put the phone down and looked up at me. “She wants to tell my wife”. We stood staring at each other in silence in the dimly lit street. “I told the skank it can’t be mine”. I’ve never seen this side of Jenda before. He was noisome. He zipped up his ski jacket and set off on an erratic but determined march back to the cabin. I followed suit. When we reached it Jenda was in no mood to converse, so we whispered good night and then quietly crept into the cabin careful not to wake the family. That was the last thing Jenda wanted to do right now.
I woke up to the sound of a lawn mower. Peering out the window, I saw Jenda scooting back and forth with the yellow mower while the kids climbed the apple tree with Besina the dachshund running in manic circles. Downstairs, I was greeted by a pan of scrambled “hemenex”, or ham and eggs, and fried slices of brown bread that served as toast. It was a welcome treat after a demanding night. Jana was making jam. She manoeuvred her large, tubby body around the tiny kitchen with clear expertise. She had a cheerful, focused look on her face. I could tell she was oblivious to the events of last night. I ate my eggs outside on the patio and observed Jenda at work. He wore paint stained green overalls over a Deloitte team building exercise shirt and socks with sandals. His expression was morose; he was drowning in a sea of grief and he mowed the grass as though he hated it. I approached him, asking how things were going. He stressed that Jana must never find out. It was clear he was at a loss about what to do. I asked how he felt about Michaela.
“She is so hot, ty vole, she just paraded that pussy in front of me, ty vole, I don’t get to do the same things to Jana, ty vole, you know, vole?” He stopped mowing and turned the mower off. Jana walked out of the cabin, so Jenda avoided contact and escaped his troubles the only way he knew how – repairs. The boiler urgently needed replacing. Meanwhile, Jana, still in her countryside haze, proceeded to move the rocks from the rock garden from one end of the property to the other, because it will look better there. The radio was gently playing Chinaski and I went to have a nap in the soviet era deck chair.
I can’t tell how long I was asleep for before I woke up to commotion. The kids were crying, Jana was shouting, Besina howled. Jenda was opening the gate to the driveway. I came to and saw that Jana was bent over at a near 90° angle, unable to straighten up. She threw her back out moving the rock garden. Jenda ushered her into the Škoda. He turned to me, “we’re going to the emergency room, get in!”. I obliged. I squeezed myself back in next to the children and Besina, while Jana cursed with pain in the front seat and urged Jenda to get on with it. It was a tense drive to the hospital in Motol with Jenda and Jana arguing and the kids still crying. I held Besina for solace.
At the ER we waited a few gruelling hours while the unpleasant staff treated everyone present like hostile invaders. The waiting room consisted of us and dozens of other injured holiday-makers. Jana’s actual treatment didn’t take long. A couple snaps of the back and injections later we were once again in the car, headed back to the cabin because Jenda forgot to turn off the electricity.
A text appeared on Jenda’s phone screen. Jana looked down into the compartment and, much to Jenda’s horror, saw the text. A sharp interrogation ensued. The children started wailing away again. By the time we reached the cabin, it was a full blown row.
“Who do you think you are?! You filthy swine! You have two children! You’re in debt! Our stuff is about to get repossessed because you haven’t been paying the electricity bill for this place like I told you to! And then you go out and screw the first slut you come across, and get her pregnant!” Jana was a raging bull. Jenda did everything he could to appease her. He swore he would talk Michaela out of it, he promised Jana a holiday in Egypt or Croatia when things blew over, and he swore he would be nicer to his mother in law. Jana was reduced to a crying heap. She felt utterly betrayed. This was not the Jenda she married. She wanted him gone and wanted to move back in with her mother.
“I want a divorce” Jana finally said, heartbroken. I witnessed this while comforting Besina and the wailing children on the padded bench in the cabin.
Monday morning at work was awkward. Jenda couldn’t hold eye contact with anyone. Michaela called in sick. Jenda told me that she called him last night; apparently she got hold of a different pregnancy test that indicated how long she was pregnant for, which got Jenda off the hook. The baby was somebody else’s problem, but the office rumours spread fast. Jenda still wasn’t relieved. Michaela dumped him over the phone for calling her a skank and mailed all the expensive gifts he gave her to his wife. Jenda was in trouble with HR for weeks and Jana divorced him a month later.
Looking back, I am relieved my visa expired when it did. Czechia is a weird, weird place.