*warning: this novel contains a lot of profanity.*
We stood on the corner of Bořivojova and U Rajské zahrady. It was a cool night, but I felt warm from carrying my pack.
“So this is Žižkov. We are in Praha 3,” Marco said holding out his arms in a great sweeping motion. He led me over half-paved, half cobble-stoned streets. “It is the most affordable area in Praha proper and is where all us kids live. After that if you want cheap you gotta go way out to Prague 18 or 14. Praha by the way is Prague in Czech. I mix-n-match that shit up all the time.”
We cut and weaved through more sharp angled streets and across business lots and lawns. I kept trying to take in as much as the night would allow. I wondered how old the district was. Was this the neighborhood of painters and writers, or was this where ordinary working-class people raised their families? What was an ordinary Czech family anyway? Was this Bohemia? Would I finally be inspired and find my place? Prague: city of history, city of joy and suffering, city of oppression, revolution, and rebirth. What was born on these streets? These same streets we were now walking on. Could some of that life seep into the soles of my boots and into the soul of my person? Could I be great here? Fit in? I felt like Žižkov was special. I could feel it. This would be my Paris.
“You can get snacks there if you want,” Marco said, pointing at a modern-looking gas station with bright-green neon lighting. “But I might have something at home. Can’t make any promises, though.”
“I can wait. I want to put this pack down.”
“These are some tricky streets,” Marco said over his shoulder, “so if you get lost, don’t feel bad. I got lost so many times it’s stupid.”
We cut through an area that looked like a school. The paved walkways wrapped around and through the buildings. Benches lined the manicured lawns along the sidewalks and faced the pathways. We passed a large bronze statue of a man leaning on a cane. I stopped and looked up at the face.
“Is that Winston Churchill?” I asked.
Marco stopped to look up. “Huh, I don’t think I ever noticed there was a statue there before.” He continued to walk.
“How could you miss it? Its huge.” I looked around, tracing the area with my hand. “And there is nothing else here but grass and benches. And this huge statue.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. There are a lot of things here that will take you by surprise. Every day I step out of my place and notice something I never noticed before, some amazing beautiful shit. I can’t notice everything, especially some crazy bronze statue of a dead politician. It just doesn’t stand out to me.”
We stood at the edge of a busy street with multiple lanes and tram tracks. In the center of the traffic was an island with several bus and tram stops.
“This is Seifertova,” he said. “You can catch most of the trams here. And you can get some good chicken there. Kind of oily but good.”
“What do you mean the statue doesn’t stand out?”
“It doesn’t. You see what you see, and I see what I see.”
He grabbed my shoulder to get me to move and we ran across the road dodging cars and skipping over tracks with my bouncing backpack pulling me from left to right.
We turned up a pot-holed street with a slight incline. I was feeling a little discombobulated from all the turns, the short cuts, and hills.
“I have no idea which way we are facing,” I said. “I feel like we’ve just walked in a circle.”
“I told you. Stupid.”
It was too dark for me to make out the street. In the purple night the flush buildings appeared to be growing taller as we moved closer. They made me think of tin soldiers from the nutcracker, standing silently, as the children passed, seconds before the soldiers turned into rats. The shadows they cast spilled like buckets of ink over the cars that were parked on both sides of the street.
“You gotta look out for dog shit,” said Marco. “One thing about Prague, always, always look up because there is so much beauty. You don’t want to miss any of it. But don’t forget to look down because there is about as much dog shit on the ground as there is art on the buildings. I swear people do not pick up their dog shit. It’s disgusting.”
We crossed to the opposite side of the street; I kept my eyes peeled on the ground in search of dark piles to avoid. We stopped in front of a decayed wooden door. I shifted my weight back and forth to adjust my straps, and Marco fiddled with the buttons on the side of the wall. There was a loud buzzing. He pushed the door open as the buzzing continued.
“It’s sort of broken,” he said. “There is no key to this door — just a code — and most of the time it takes me fuckin’ forever to get in. And that’s when I’m sober.” The door shut behind us. The buzzing continued.
“Okay, I’m sorry but this muthafuckin’ building doesn’t have an elevator and we live at the top,” he said.
I groaned under the weight of my pack. “How many flights is it?”
The door continued to buzz.
“How long does it buzz?” I asked.
“Till it stops.”
“So can people just walk in when it’s buzzing?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.” He shrugged his shoulders and then gave me a once over. “Ready?” he asked.
We started up the stairwell. I was straining under the weight. My arms felt as if they were slipping from the sockets. My legs were beginning to feel like taffy, weak and sticking in place.
“God, I hope we’re almost there,” I mumbled.
Marco took large strides, sometimes skipping steps and using the guardrail to pull himself up. I swear he was rubbing in the fact that he knew exactly how much it sucked to climb a flight of stairs after traveling for fourteen hours with your entire life on your back.
“Hey come out here,” he said, stepping off the apartment landing through what should have been a window or maybe a door, but was now an open square in the wall, and stood on a small balcony, which was just big enough for the two of us to fit. I followed him maneuvering my backpack through the small space.
I leaned my weight forward onto the steel railing. The air was cool and a light breeze lifted the fine strands of hair around my face. I could feel the sweat on my back as I rested. It was too dark to make much out other than the street below. There was an empty lot separating us from what looked to be a building directly behind us. I couldn’t tell whether it was an open field or a parking lot.
“You see that light over there?” he asked, pointing to a single-story building behind the empty lot.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That is a non-stop. They serve alcohol twenty-four hours a day. You can get the craziest people in that place. The lowest forms of humanity you could ever imagine, plus kids who are way too fucked up to know any better. It’s fun. We’ll have to go one of these days. Course knowin’ this place like I do, you will sooner or later.” He slapped his hand against the railing and gripped it a moment.
I leaned into my elbow on the railing with a deep sigh. I dropped my arms over the edge for a quick stretch. I let out a great sigh of relief, relief that I was finally here. I could feel Marco staring at me. I looked over at him.
“I wouldn’t lean on that thing. Muthufucka’s got no support. I don’t even like being on it.” He pointed to the balcony beside us. “I don’t even know why I took you out here. I’m getting the fuck off this thing.” He walked back into the stairwell.
I looked at the balcony where he had pointed and saw that it was a cracked slab of concrete jutting out from the bricks with no base supports — just the balustrade attaching it to the side of the building. I felt my heart skip. It was strange that there weren’t any windows or doors to these small balconies like they had broken off and had never been replaced. Maybe it was just how they were built, but the building looked in serious disrepair and I quickly followed Marco.
“Final flight,” I heard Marco call above me.
I caught up to him at the door where he was fiddling with the lock. “It’s a mess; I’ve been lazy lately. But you know me — normally I’m clean.”
I did know him. This would be our third time living together. He had always been clean and organized whether he was in a squat or a nice apartment. The front door opened into a tiny foyer. Behind the front door sitting on a box crate was a large phone that looked like it was from a 1950s science fiction film. A phone was a real plus. I felt like I hadn’t lived in a place with a phone for years. I didn’t care how old it looked it could have been a rotary phone and I would have been excited to not have to buy a phone card that was just going to get eaten in the phone booth. I hadn’t spoken with my parents in about a month, not that we had much to say to each other. Every once in awhile I would feel this need to connect with my family. I would imagine that they would be excited to hear from me and want to know about all of my adventures, but they never did. It was like sometimes I would forget who my family really was. It wasn’t that they didn’t love me, I was pretty sure they loved me they just never knew what to say or what to ask. They never had any interest in knowing what the world was like outside of their home. They had no curiosity and that was something I couldn’t understand. I quickly lost my interest in the phone.