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Vol. 3, No. 3

by Ivan Klíma


The stale greasiness of the cutlet and the taste of bad wine rose in his throat. That long car journey and now this endless evening in a room that screamed of boredom. He felt totally exhausted.
      The three locals—the witnesses to their fake wedding—were endeavoring to pay for the cutlet and the wine with their lives, or at least their lives offered in words. The one with the lump under his ear had spent eight years in various prisons, and the other two complemented his account as if they had gone through it all with him themselves.
      He tried not to listen to them. He knew the story; it was always the same, with slight variations. They were the very things he had hoped to avoid for the evening, at least: prisons, watchtowers, floodlights, passageways through barbed wire. To escape from escaping.
      Whenever he was with her he managed to detach himself—in retrospect at least—from his entire life and everything he had gone through, and just sink into total amnesia, not thinking about his family or his job. He would enter a different order of cause and effect, actions and words. Maybe the overwhelming completeness of his love lay in this absolute detachment from everything he had ever lived by.
      She was now dancing with the soldier to the scratchy music the Italian jukebox churned out three whole minutes of for one coin. Without looking, he knew the way she was dancing. And it had gone on too long.
      He realized that her dancing had only one purpose, the same purpose as all her other actions. She made love with each of her movements. She made love when she was dancing, when she was eating, and when she was walking along the pavement by herself. All her movements were the same. But maybe he was mistaken; maybe it was he who was obsessed.
      "Eight years of my life," the man with the lump said. "I'll never make up for it at my age." Glancing at the man, it occurred to him that they could be the same age, but the other man seemed totally immersed in his past. Those eight years had been too great a void not to exert a pull, too much of a gulf. Besides, the day comes for everyone when all that remains is his past, however awful; it alone is real and alive because the future is no longer alive, and without a glimmer of hope. He still had some hope—at that moment his hope was dancing just a few steps away—and he could still imagine tomorrow without a groan of despair. But for how much longer?
      For a split second he saw himself. He saw himself sitting here with weary eyes, weighed down by his whole long life, waiting. He still had something to wait for, which was why he was sitting here impatiently, waiting for the girl to finish dancing and come and sit by him.
      That was where he differed from the three men sitting at his table: his life had still managed to rouse itself to a final shout before the silence that was already stealing up on him every night. It had given out a final ray before nightfall. He was in love, which was why he was sitting here playing a game, mocking himself and his love, why he was playing her game, although for her it was only a game, all that love, the long aimless journeys, those constant protestations that had the strange attraction of words spoken at the edge of the abyss. For her it was a way of filling the time between morning and evening, between dinner and bed, between the last cigarette and sex.
      Anyone could fill that time for her, he knew. For her he was replaceable, utterly replaceable.
      He looked at her. She noticed and smiled.
      He could see that smile even when he closed his eyes, and her mouth with the broad, slightly protruding upper lip.
      He hated her at this moment and longed to push her away from him, get rid of her, rid himself at last of that hope that was no hope, in fact, but instead was wearing him out, constantly prolonging the anxiety before the inevitable fall. Rid himself of it and sink into peace at last, reject her, reject life and the future now. But he knew he wouldn't do it.
      Love me, he thought to himself wearily, love me still today, at least.
      He noticed that the girl who could belong to the soldier was sitting bolt upright at the table, watching the solitary dancing couple. She was not really ugly, but that criminal of a hairdresser had ruined her hair and her face was devoid of any hint of self-assurance. Right now her eyes were full of tears.
      He rose, called the waiter over, and settled the bill.
      The rustics stood up and wished them both the best of luck. The soldier stood facing her when they stopped dancing, just a few paces nearer the table, and gazed at her with the fixed expression of a man who has just one thing on his mind.
      "Darling," she said as they went upstairs, "that was lovely. We had a feast."
      "I'm glad you were satisfied," he said.
      "What shall we do now?"
      "We're on our honeymoon, aren't we?" he reminded her.
      The beds were old-fashioned and the washbasin boasted two taps, although both of them ran cold.
      She stood in front of the mirror removing her hair grips. Her long hair fell a third of the way down her back. He pictured her back naked, as he would soon see it. And with a sudden feeling of relief that the playacting and the senseless hours of waiting were coming to an end, he went and put his arms around her. "My beautiful girl," he said. "My little fish."
      She lit a cigarette. "Do you think that soldier is sleeping with the girl?"
      "I couldn't say," he said brusquely. "Soldiers generally sleep with any girl who happens to be willing."
      "So you think soldiers sleep with any girl," she repeated.
      "But she was on formal terms with him," he recalled. "I expect they met for the first time down there in the pub."
      She was drawing the curtains. "He told me he works in films. In 'Civvy Street.' As a lighting technician."
      "They all work in films," he said.
      "So you think everyone works in films these days?" Only now did she look around the room. "It's awfully cold in this room, don't you think?"
      "It's a perfectly adequate room for our purposes."
      "What purposes?" she asked.
      He didn't reply. He was used to not listening to her, not paying attention to her when he didn't feel like it. He just felt the distance between them.
      "Are you cross, darling?" she asked.
      "No," he assured her.
      "What shall we do now?" she asked.
      "I don't know," he said. "I really don't know. I'd say it's too late for the cinema, assuming they've got a cinema here."
      "We ought to do something special," she suggested. "Seeing we're on our honeymoon." She sat down on the bed. "Tell me something. Tell me something special at least."
      "Once"—this was how he used to start stories to his children—"when I was your age—"
      "No," she said, interrupting him, "that's not what I meant. Do you love me?"
      "Yes," he replied quickly. "You know I love you more than I've ever loved anyone."
      She said nothing. She leaned back on her pillow and half closed her eyes.
      "You're my only and my last love."
      He kissed her. "Sister of my dreams," he said. "Sometimes I used to wake up in the middle of the night and be afraid I'd never meet you."
      "Did you know me already?"
      "No, I didn't. I wished for you. I wished for you whenever I walked down the street, whenever I got into my car, whenever I drove through a landscape I found special, nostalgic, or even beautiful. And then every time I went into a hotel reception and opened the door of an empty room, every time I caught sight of a couple kissing. And I wished for you most of all when I was coming home in the summer late at night—"
      "Hold on," she stopped him, "that's what you always tell me."
      "I've never told you that before!"
      "I know, I know. But things like that."
      He said nothing.
      "Are you cross?" she asked. "I love it," she said quickly. "I love it when you say things like that to me . . . it's just that today, seeing as we're on our honeymoon . . ."
      He said nothing.
      "Darling," she said, "don't let's stay here. This is the sort of room we're always in. All we can do in it is what we always do."
      "For heaven's sake, we're planning to do what we always do, aren't we?"
      "Yes . . . but today . . . today we ought to . . ." She went over to the window and drew back the curtain. Against the dark sky loomed the even darker outline of the ruined castle.

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