Andrew in Prague

Miloš, a hobbled old man who looked, as his name suggested, portly, round, and humbled, was a guide by profession. His tour was our first look at Prague, and his points of reference were pitiful and ill-suited to our group. This is where they filmed the concert scene in Amadeus, he told us, gesturing toward an old baroque building with a coronated façade. And this, Miloš continued blocks later, is where they filmed another scene in Amadeus. Eventually, he led us to a park.

The last building of interest was an unassuming, brown bureaucratic block shielded by a layer of thin trees that separated our woodland walk from the city proper. That building there was used for torture during the communist regime; if you walked this path during interrogations, said Miloš, stamping his foot into the ochre dirt, you could hear people screaming from inside. His voice wavered as he said this, suggesting friends of his had fallen victim to the hands of interrogators, or possibly even Miloš himself. But this fact had no significance for any of us. It was our first jetlagged day in a new country, and the bodies and potential of the other students were our focus. We sized each other up with hunger, dark bags like trench coats under our eyes; we licked our chops and lips, as if we were wolves.

Lips, then, are what first come to mind when I picture Andrew. Big, wet, red lips. The punch-stained lips of a child on the face of a thirty-year old man. Not that Andrew metaphorically licked them with the rest of us that first afternoon in the park. In fact, he was the most relatively sober of the group, for this was his second time in Prague; he had been invited

back into the program as an elder to help acclimate the new students to the strange customs of the city. The excitements and anticipations that giddied us were to him old news.

This may be why there was also a tiredness about him, as I remember, different than that in the rest of us; more of a wearied calm than a wired exhaustion. Walking through the city and now through the park, Andrew stuck to the edges of the group. Perhaps he had taken the tour last year, and this information, too, was old. In any case, my first impressions of him little more than a cursory observation of his demeanor, a quick note that he was a few years older than myself. He wore an aquamarine shirt and, while Miloš talked, Andrew looked up into the trees and at the palm-sized birds picking crumbs off the cobblestone.

At dinner, Andrew told me he was a poet. He had been tasked to select a restaurant for the group and, after a brief hesitation, uneager or unfamiliar as he was with deciding something for such a large number of people, he picked a modern Italian number with monochrome interior, gas-lit fireplaces installed behind glass, and low-slung tubular chairs. Though the menu showcased a variety of pastas, everyone ordered woodfired pizzas, and it seemed the entire kitchen staff was recruited to bring them to the table. I counted six Czechs carrying our twenty-odd piping hot pizzas. During the meal, we discovered the beer truly was cheaper than water in this country; pint after pint covered the table top, countless glasses filled with the pale amber of pilsner and topped with a signature creamy foam head.

Andrew’s penchant for poetry was the only thing I learned about him that night, or, at least, the only thing I remember learning. After dinner, the group continued drinking at a hilltop bar not far from our dorms. Andrew was the only one who didn’t come. I take it pretty easy these

days, he said as he turned the other way at the tram stop, taking the dark path back to his bed as the rest of us sauntered up the hill, the neon signs of the bar window glowing like flames.

A week later, Andrew took a select few of us to a monastery, or perhaps a repurposed monastery, that served beer and delicious food. Both Andrew and I ordered the ribs served charred and covered in a sticky maroon sauce so thick it drowned any possibility of table manners—we gingerly picked each rib by the tip of the bone, but even then, our faces were slathered in that maroon sauce; briefly, our lips were the same color. The other two at the table ordered chicken.

Andrew told us about his first time in Prague the previous summer, and, for some reason, the affair he had then with a married woman, also a poet. In workshop, he said, she’d take her shoes off and stroke his leg with her toes underneath the table. Andrew wore shorts that summer, for the weather had been so unbearably humid in those cramped and shuttered classrooms cloistered high in an unused building of Charles University, and could feel the purple painted toes of the married woman tickle the whispery blonde hair of his shins. Though bashful at first, a glint slowly emerged in Andrew’s eye as he told us the story, as more monkish brew was ordered for the table. At group dinners, too, he continued, she’d do sensual things with her feet and hands until neither of them could stand it any longer: they’d run off into the woods and, on the trail that led to the Prague Tower, have sex out of sight in the brush.

We wanted to see that tower, the other three of us at the table. It looked like the Eiffel Tower, except in miniature. Kafka had written about it.

I could think of nothing else but Andrew’s affair as he led us up the winding trail to the Prague Tower. Already we could see it from the ground, lit up in an orangish glow. Had we known better, we would have stopped there; the view was more impressive from afar than directly underneath. I wondered what she looked like, this married woman, how old she was, how the ordeal began, how it ended. How European and audacious it was to me, the exact type of experience I was looking for, one filled with abandon and debauchery! Passing a field, Andrew reminisced some more over last summer: while out for a stroll, he had passed a group of Polish gentlemen drinking and smoking in that open expanse; he joined them, and the next thing he knew, it was the following morning, and he woke up in a bush without his wallet or keys.

That night, though, there were no Poles. The only ones out were three Czechs that awaited us at the top of the hill. Young like us, or, at least, in the vicinity of all our ages, and sharing a bottle of wine between them, between the legs of the tower, sitting on table tops. We talked for a while. Things went smoothly at first, then one of the Czechs said the government should kill all the gypsies. This led to another, more uncomfortable conversation, and when it finally finished, Andrew was gone, having disappeared on his own.

The next time we saw Miloš, he greeted us outside a tour bus, a slick one replete with plush seats upholstered in bright, inviting fabric. As before, Miloš wore a sad look on his pug face. Today, we will be going to Terezín and Sedlec, he said with a sigh. Everyone on the bus except Miloš had paid thirty dollars to be there, a fee that came in addition to the program’s costs. I sat with Katie, one of the two who ate at the monastery with Andrew and I, one of the two who had also gone with us to Prague Tower; she was a fiction writer, like myself, but, based

on the strength of her writing sample, had been placed in the more accomplished workshop, while I was forced to endure a tortuous month amongst the dregs—the most heated discussion in my workshop, I remember, was whether or not a student had plagiarized the central theme and ideas from the movie Despicable Me; I felt an undeniable inadequacy around Katie, but an equally undeniable attraction; rarely did we know what to say to each other, but still found ourselves eating lunches together and making various small approaches over the erupted silences in our conversations. Andrew, for his part, sat with Emma, the daughter of the program director, who, along with Andrew, was responsible for corralling us students when necessary; Emma wasn’t a writer, but an aspiring opera singer with an imperfect and affected American accent. Not that any of this mattered then. For most of the drive, each of us on the bus listened to our music and stared out the window. It was still early in our semester. Alliances were not yet secured. Romances had still yet to blossom.

Our first stop was Sedlec, home of the ossuary, the famous church with candelabras, chandeliers, crests, and crowns all made from human bone and skull. The bones were from medieval times, likely belonging to victims of the plague. The ossuary was decorated, however, by a simple woodcarver in the late 19th century, as Miloš told us. It was not the work of the fanatical and pious. The crest of the once-ruling power adorned from bone hung on the wall as a tribute. We stopped listening at this point in the lecture, forsaking Miloš and exploring the church on our own, determined to not let the last vestiges of mystery spoil. Someone took a photo of me in front of the crest. In preparation for this photo, I picked out a black shirt early that morning before dawn; I stared directly into the camera, mouth slightly ajar with a studied aloofness. Andrew was the only one among us without a smart phone. He had an ancient thing made of

cracked plastic that took photos with a low and grainy quality hardly worth preserving. I offered to take a picture of him with my phone; I could email it to him later. He stood in front of the same crest I had, his floppy hair disheveled, his lips red, wearing an oversized long-sleeved shirt, the unbuttoned cuffs flaying around his wrists, smiling.

Next was Terezín. Here, solemnity was required. A preserved Jewish ghetto was in the center of the walled town—for some, this was the last stop before Auschwitz; for others, it was the place they died. Much of what we saw had been restored. For instance, the infamous words Arbeit Macht Frei had been repainted, seemingly in fresco, over a smooth gateway that led into the ghetto. Rooms, too, had been refurnished, so as to give us tourists an accurate view of the way things were. At one point in the tour, the guide (not Miloš, who momentarily ceded his position) took us to a square stone room, no bigger than ten feet on each side. A narrow viewing slit in the wall was the only opening after the great steel door was closed. In this room, the guide said, up to sixty men would languish for days, forced to sleep and defecate in the same spot they stood, cramped shoulder to shoulder; even during winter, this room filled with so many men would become unbearably humid; when one died, the others had no choice but to abide the corpse.

The guide paused for a moment, allowing their words to sink in. The horror was impossible to imagine, as the room felt hopeless even with our small group, a fraction of the number the guide gave us, occupying the space. Suddenly, the silence was broken by quiet sobs and restrained ventilating. For one poet, this was all too much. We left, and, as the sunlight

blinded us after the suffocating darkness of the cell, people huddled the crying poet, asking if she was alright, if she needed anything, if she would be okay.

I was of a certain stormy mind as the tour ended and we were given an hour or so of free time before the bus departed. I thought the performance by the poet was just that: a performance. She was the type to do such a thing, to will her emotions to the surface, to demonstrate her level of empathy in a loud, unignorable way. How typical to do such a thing! I doubted we saw the raw, unnerved part of her in that squat little room—if she really was surmounted by anguish, it’s likely something else spurned such a reaction, I thought; for instance, perhaps she remembered the time her grandmother died or some other traumatic well that was the real source of the tears she shed.

I wanted to perform like that. I wished to be moved by the annals of suffering, as opposed to only sensing the dim flickering of intellectual curiosity budding deep within my brain as we toured the ghetto. Had I a moment to collect myself in that small cell, perhaps I would have cried, and my tears, I knew, would be genuine.

Such were my thoughts as I walked to the museum in the center, the ground floor showcasing exhibitions and placards and videos playing on loops. I felt a slight wash of relief learning the horrors of the ghetto. This place was as significant as Dachau, Treblinka, and Buchenwald. And here I was, standing in it. I wouldn’t need to visit the other camps to say I had seen something awful, the worst humanity had to offer.

In the basement of the museum was a café where you could buy coffee or colorful ice cream novelties from a branded, self-serve freezer. At the time, the observation of such a juxtaposition—ice cream in a station of the Holocaust—struck me as profound.

During the remaining half hour, I found a decrepit little junkshop outside the camp on some forgotten street in Terezín. Andrew was there. Both of us, it would have seemed, were on the hunt for strange, possibly sinister objects left behind in this forgotten European town. I broached the crying poet, asking Andrew what he made of her, distaste clear in my mouth. As I talked, he smiled like he had for the photo I took of him earlier that day in the ossuary, his lips curling upward into his cheeks, revealing incredibly tiny teeth, as if he was actually meant to be toothless. We only bought one thing each—plastic cartoon alligators, meant to be part of some children’s set, small enough to easily slip in your pocket; Andrew bought one that held open a book while sitting on a stack of others; my alligator spun a basketball over his head and wore a sports jersey that stretched over his little plastic belly. On the bus, Andrew said we would write each other letters once back in the states and include the alligators in the envelope as an exchange.

Toward the end of our amputated semester in Prague, I found myself wandering the old, serpentine streets one golden evening in a gloomy cloud. I was despondent, my chest weighted with heavy stones. The approaching terminus of my European semester finally hit me: I would be going home soon. By chance, I came across Andrew again, smoking a rolled cigarette in a public square, a fair distance by foot from the dorms. I hadn’t seen him in half a week, which, in those days, felt like a lifetime. He invited me to share a cigarette with him. I coughed and choked

through the smoke of this new habit. Andrew told me about nature books he enjoyed—titles that sounded so horribly boring to me, like A Sand County Almanac and Desert Solitaire. Mustering a hardly half-interested reply was all I could do. Andrew trudged on. He told me about a spiritual dream of his—to see a wolf in the wild. There was something about those creatures, he said, that inspired some mystical bond. It may have been the wolf’s resilience he sought—their standing against the elements when odds are stacked against them, their dependable modes of survival in the bleakest of conditions. Or, maybe, it was the elusive nature of the wolf that attracted him. The animal is rare and powerful; seeing one, let alone a pack of many, would be a thrill incomparable to intoxication. In any case, Andrew said he would one day visit Isle Royale to see wolves, which roamed freely there; the island was remote, far off the shores of Lake Superior, and if one was going there, they’d need to prepare for days alone in the woods—the only signs of civilization were the seaplane dock and the wooden ranger’s station aside it.

All of this nature talk had a point, however. A point pertinent to me. Running water is supposed to be healing, Andrew said; even if you can only hear it, it’s meant to be soothing for the soul. He had hardly finished speaking when I bleated out what was really bothering me: I had started a thing with Katie, the fiction writer better than me, and now I didn’t know where things stood, where they’d go when we went back home to our respective states.

I always thought Katie was cute, Andrew said; we did morning yoga together when she first got here. It’ll work out, he told me. Meanwhile, he was in a similar predicament. Emma, the director’s daughter, had taken a liking to Andrew. Here, the problem was not only distance, but citizenship. Emma was Czech.

At some point before we left the country, Andrew gave me a poetry book. It might have been that evening, smoking in the public square, or it may have been shortly afterward, hours before all our trains were set to leave. On the front page of the book is a long, rambling inscription. I used to think it was written to me, but looking it over now, I’m not so sure. I think it was just written. The inscription is mostly about Emma—specifically, how she made Andrew feel. Ecstatic. He may have been drunk when he wrote it. He says he hasn’t slept for days, that he feels chosen to live in the Czech Republic. Cleansing the spine, he writes, sweating all this out. Nearly every sentence ends in an exclamation mark, and the writing toward the bottom of the page is illegible. In the beginning, though, when things are clear, he says the power I feel tonight is insurmountable! A sentence later, he declares that he will marry Emma!

The last time I saw Andrew, that is precisely what he set off to do. We had written letters, as promised. At least, he had written me a letter—it’s possible I wrote him one too, but I have a predilection for remembering things done to me more than remembering things I’ve done. I do, however, only have one of the plastic alligator figurines—the one sitting atop a stack of books, the one Andrew promised to give me. The one spinning a basketball is nowhere to be found. In his letter, Andrew said he’s moving to the Czech Republic to be with Emma. Minutes after receiving it, I texted him—if he really was moving, there was no time to waste on literary things like letters. It’s true, he replied, his farewell party was that night (drama compresses the time line here—it’s more likely our correspondence was spread out over a few days). He lived on the other side of the state, but I was invited to say goodbye if I wanted.

The drive was two hours, and I arrived around dinner time, the light outside orange from the late summer sun. I was too exhilarated by the relative spontaneity of my actions to consider what I was doing; when Andrew’s father opened the door and let me in, I looked around and my stomach sank. Everyone looked like Andrew. They were all his relatives.

As Andrew introduced me to everyone sitting at the long cloth-draped table, I felt sorry he had to feign excuse for my presence, for having to lie and say we were better friends than we actually were. I shook the hands of his uncles and aunts and cousins, seeing faint palimpsests of Andrew’s red lips in their faces, his black mammalian eyes, his round, soft tipped cheeks and nose.

Dinner was good. Afterward, Andrew took me and another friend of his to the basement. The other friend, whose name I forget, was the same age as Andrew. They had known each other since elementary. I overstayed my welcome for an hour longer before leaving, my time on the drive back spent wondering what could now be said that I, a stranger, was no longer in the room.

As I said, I haven’t seen Andrew in person since then. His move to the Czech Republic didn’t last long. Months after he left, he moved back to America. Obviously, things between he and Emma didn’t work out. I don’t remember hearing this news from him, though; rather, I heard it secondhand, perhaps online, perhaps from Katie when our haphazard line of communication was still in its death throes. After hearing Andrew was back, I sent a message, and we exchanged some words and promises that never came to fruition. The last time I spoke to him on the phone was before I moved away from Michigan, our shared home state. I had half the idea to see him one last time, but this idea remained only partly formed. He seemed happy, though, when I asked

how he was. He worked for a water treatment facility. Shifts went through the night and were spent alone—it got spooky sometimes, he said. Vaguely, I recall him finally making it to Isle Royale and seeing a wild wolf, but this just may be my mind closing the loop of his story for him.

Whenever I see something wolf-related I think of Andrew, just as I think of him whenever I’m near water, which, of the two, is much more often. While writing this, I searched for him online, and a wedding announcement was the first result. Apparently, he got married recently. His wife, at least in the photos, looks nothing like Emma, the girl so loved in Prague. Andrew looks clean and happy, still wearing the same distinctly normal clothes. In one photo, he’s wearing a shirt with a wolf on it; were it worn by any other person, I’d assume the shirt was ironic. The same kind, bashful smile outlined in red is still on his face, and he’s still hiking, bicycling, and fishing—the things he enjoyed most. When Andrew is brought to mind, my next thought, after wolves and water, is invariably the other story he told that night as he led us to the Prague Tower. Back when he was addicted, Andrew had said, he tried to rehab himself by staying at a friend’s house who lived near a river. The friend forgot to remove the prescription medicine in the cabinet, and Andrew took heavy handfuls of pills before fly-fishing. Boot-high in the trickling river, he nodded off and fell into the water, almost drowning, but ultimately not.