Brooks Rexroat

Posted on April 20, 2011

2


Theft Against Such Beauty

If the cobblestones hadn’t already been worn to their core by a thousand years of foot traffic, I’d have carved a path that day with my pacing as I tried to pick out from a sea of blonde-over-cherry-lipstick the woman I’d agreed to meet. Around me, everyone moved. Some walked with hurried purpose; others meandered. But there I stood in the middle of it all, waiting and alone.

Nikole from Detroit, I reminded myself. I tried to picture her exactly as she’d looked a night earlier when she sidled up to the hostel’s basement bar and left one vacant stool between us in an otherwise empty room. I was glad for that distance. Newly single and half the world from my studio apartment in Indianapolis, I was far more interested in forgetting anything that originated west of the International Dateline than picking up an American woman in Prague. But there we sat in that cavernous room with its low, arced brick ceiling, where in fractured Czech she ordered a Kozel, the same beer I was nursing, the beer with a majestic cartoon goat on its label. The one Americans get when they don’t know any better. Nikole pushed a fifty-crown tip across the bar to its tender, who made change and gave most of it back.

“Too much,” the girl said in the crisp English of middle-western America, the dialect of someone with a double-bachelor’s from Gustavus Adolphus and two perturbed parents back home, impatient for their daughter to do something of consequence. Nikole from Detroit showed up five minutes too late to have known this.

“You’ll piss them off,” the bartender added, “if you over-tip. It’s taken as boastful.”

Three Kozels apiece and three proportionately correct tips later, we had a date for the opera.

“You shouldn’t leave without seeing it,” the bartender said as she refilled our mugs. “It’s amazing.”

“No sense being alone, alone,” Nikole said. “When we can be alone together. Meet at 6?”

I nodded. “I’ll get the tickets.”

I paced around the square and wondered how she’d look outdoors and under the light of dusk, with different clothes and different hair, maybe a hat—had she been wearing makeup? I waited, quietly terrified—afraid I’d fail to recognize her, that I’d lose the tickets, that we’d show up late and be locked out, that she’d met a Czech man whose chiseled jaw line had convinced her to stand me up, leaving me to trace a rut around an iron statue of Jan Hus. As I worked myself to a near panic for the twentieth time, Nikole from Detroit tapped me on the back.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Shall we?”

I smiled. She looked precisely the same as she had in the bar. No way I’d have missed her. But while I stood there processing her arrival, she didn’t bother to stop and wait for an answer—she barely even paused. By the time I collected myself and moved forward, she was three paces ahead of me, tearing toward Wenceslas Square with long, confident strides. I caught up after a few meters, but spent the rest of the walk trying to control my breathing so she wouldn’t catch on to just how wretchedly unfit I was.

We seemed to blend in with the hordes of winter tourists around us—she in jeans, white walking shoes, and a heavy red wool coat; me in black slacks, white shirt, black tie, grey overcoat, and (the only footwear in my suitcase) a pair of beat-up black Converse sneakers. Jeans and casual shoes were explicitly forbidden (in English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish) on the ticket stubs I’d read at least 20 times by then.

“Excited?” she asked as we weaved through mobs of slow-motion sightseers and the seedy hustlers who waved frantically at us, trying to coax us down snow-slush-covered stairways into basement dens from which poured the sounds of jazz and gypsy music, women, and card games. I nodded, then added, “There’s a guest lead tonight. From Russia.” I’d seen this on a sign in the ticket office and figured she’d be impressed with my knowledge and observational skills.

“A Russian singing in Italian?” she asked. “That should sound pretty.”

She smiled to make certain I’d caught her sarcasm. She checked her watch as we passed a weathered old espresso shop.

“I guess we’ll have to skip the pre-show coffee.”

“No worries,” I said as we passed the shop’s busier neighbor, Starbucks.

The price of two admissions to the upper balcony—about twelve U.S. dollars—was the same a couple would pay for a set of 24-hour passes on the Prague Metro. The difference: our attire was entirely suitable for the train. Men in crisp tuxedos and their companions in spectacular satin gowns ascended marble stairs to the entrance. Golden jewelry and strings of pearls glimmered in the twilight, dresses sparkled, shoes gleamed. Everyone was shiny except us. Nikole’s strides contracted, grew less certain. My breath returned, but my pulse did not slow. We shared a quick glance of panic, and then started up the stairway, past a huddle of last-minute smokers.

I’d suspected this was coming. Earlier in the day, I followed the advice of my second-hand guidebook and bought the slacks on clearance then haggled with a fat thrift shop clerk over the tie. Nikole apologetically told me she had come in the clothes she wore for her guided Segway tour of the Jewish quarter. The group got knocked off schedule when one of its members, a Portuguese lady, accidentally accelerated her machine into the passenger door of a parked Mercedes. The ensuing combination of police reports and gawking crowds left her no time to return to the hostel and change into the dress and shoes she’d packed with this evening in mind.

“It’s not like you can just abandon your Segway in the middle of the street,” she said. “Once you start, you’re pretty much committed.”

I told her not to worry about it, pointed at my shoes—specifically, the spots where they’d worn through and my white socks were visible. She smiled.

“What a match we are,” she said.

I pulled open the front door, and we entered the main foyer. One couple stopped mid-stride and stared at us. Others whispered. But most everyone simply turned away from us, refused to look. Nikole’s eyes were wide open, and I slowed, ready to follow her out if she bolted back toward the door—or maybe ready to turn and lead her out myself. What kept us moving forward was the brilliance above us. The room itself was golden and lustrous—captivating. Ours were the only shoes that made no noise as we walked across pure white marble, underneath a chandelier the size of a small house.

“Are those real candles?” she whispered. We stopped and watched. “Oh my God,” she said. “They are.” There were hundreds of tiny flames up there, and we couldn’t help but stare. I wondered how one obtains the job, candle lighter, state opera, and was about to ask her just that question when it struck me that to most of the people in this room, such beauty was so commonplace we were actually the more interesting spectacle.

A grey-haired woman in a prim black dress hesitated when I presented our tickets. She looked us over, and then reluctantly accepted them, but didn’t scan them before turning away to looked toward the offices, as if she were afraid she would be reprimanded for allowing us to walk past her. No one returned her glance, so she said something to us in Czech, something that sounded unkind, then pointed to the sweeping corkscrew stairway that led to the balconies. She raised four fingers for our benefit.

“Děkuji,” I told her. She inhaled through her teeth and looked away, as if that were the last and most concise insult: shabby interlopers daring to thank her in such a sad rendition of her own language.

“I’m voting,” Nikole said very softly, “that we find our seats quickly, and that we do not leave them.”

“Exactly,” I said. We climbed the stairs and presented our tickets to the usher, but he pinched the wool collar of my coat and shook his head. He pointed us toward the cloakroom, where thirty others already queued, waiting at an unmanned counter.

We stood and absorbed muffled laughter and insulted glares. We were simply ignored downstairs; up here, it felt like everyone in the room was watching us, like we were the opening act—a comedy.

“You know what?” I asked as I helped her out of her coat.  “Forget them. You look lovely.” I shrugged out of my own coat, and we stood there, seeming quite lost, quite ugly, quite like central European kudzu.

“I came here to see beauty, not to try and be it,” she said, and took my hand, not with the intertwined fingers of lovers, but with the familiar grip of a handshake.

For perhaps the first time all day I let it all go, dropped the delusions of blending in and just smiled.

The coat check man arrived; Nikole openly laughed when he inserted hangars into our garments at arm’s length, as though they were infested with the plague. The man dropped our claim numbers on the counter instead of handing them to us, which he’d done for everyone else.

“Děkuji moc!” I told him, with just a touch of a bow.

He glared, and Nikole smiled and elbowed me. “Are you trying to make it worse?”

“That would be a trick.”

We presented our tickets once more, and followed the usher to seats in the precise center, at the apex of four gilded balconies. Below us, the inhabitants of box seats peeked out through privacy curtains. Orchestra players tightened bows and checked valves. Overhead, a giant golden rotunda supported an even larger chandelier. This one seemed as though it could take out a small village, were it to fall.

An elderly English gentleman seated on the other side of Nikole reached and gently patted her hand. “Don’t worry if they give you a hard time,” he said. “You paid just as much for your tickets as they did.”

His wife leaned forward and smiled at us.

“But you can understand why they treasure it, why they’re so protective,” she said.

“Certainly,” Nikole said, and I nodded, still unable to articulate.

The lights dimmed, the curtain lifted, and we were relieved of our role as a spectacle.

We stayed in our seats until the house was empty—half from reluctance to leave, half in order to avoid gawkers as we gathered our coats and descended the stairs. I made the mistake of looking down, and saw my beat up shoes tramping on the plush red carpet. I cringed. I began to understand.

Back on Wenceslas Square, we skipped the coffee again and instead bought cider and enormous pretzels and trdlnek pastries (she got vanilla and I had almond so we could share) from vendors who charged us twice what we would have paid anywhere else in the city.

“Have you seen the bridge yet?”

She elbowed me, taking mock offense.

“It was only, like, the first thing I did,” she said.

I stopped and looked at her. “At night?”

She lifted her eyebrows, shook her head no, and smiled. “Is it so different?” I grabbed her hand, which she’d covered in a purple knit mitten, and led her in what I thought was likely to be the right direction.

We took a thirty-minute path across what was probably ten minutes’ worth of distance, wound our way down narrow streets until we reached the Vltava. I took her to a bluff that overlooked Charles Bridge, its ten bold arches lit both from above and below, the whole image reflected perfectly onto the still pool of water. She grabbed onto my arm, pulled me close. I felt her inhale. We stood enraptured before the bridge, the forward walls of Prague Castle peeking over its shoulder and, farther off, the gothic peaks of St. Vitus Cathedral jabbing up into darkness.

A meek snowfall began as we walked. Nothing that would stick, just enough to give the cobbles a damp sheen—an accent to our postcard. We passed through the entry arch, underneath the tower capped by merlons and crenals, and onto the bridge deck. We walked between the castings of saints who line the balustrade, slowing to examine each one. Just past the midpoint, we stopped and leaned against the stone railing. As St. Judas Thaddeus watched over our shoulders, we looked south at a city of red roofs that under darkness seemed murky purple, at the tiny glints reflecting off countless spires.

I turned to my right and found that I was captivated not just by the splendor of Prague by night, but also by Nikole—by the wonder in her eyes, the smile that seemed stuck to her face. She stood still and reverent, her eyes flitting around, desperate to register every stone. She leaned forward, and as she readjusted to brace herself on the railing, I felt a wool mitten rest on my hand. I looked down into the water and hoped to see a reflection, a picture of what we looked like together in this place. I saw just the reflection of a spotlight, but the ripples of current swallowed our image.

I’m not sure how long it was before we found ourselves facing each other. She was beautiful in the dim light, before the fairytale backdrop. For the briefest instant I wondered whether she’d have seemed beautiful, had we met anyplace else. Whether we would have even noticed each other. But in that moment, in that place, she was inarguably beautiful, and she stood facing me, her faint pink lips showing just the hint of a smile, her eyes warm and intent and focused on—of all the things she could have watched—me.

We stood poised to accomplish the daydream encounter, the movie script ending that filmmakers score with billowing strings. There at the verge of an unforgettable moment, we stood immobile, dumbstruck, leaning forward like schoolchildren, each anticipating the other’s move.

We did not kiss on Charles Bridge. We did not kiss under the subtle snow, before the flickering pinpricks of light reflected off the water. We did not kiss—we ignored the compulsion, the typecast romance. I’m not sure who flinched first, who turned away. I like to think it was me, that I was the one to act, to do something, but I can’t say for sure who it was, nor can I say how long it took, how long we stood there red-faced, and then flushed, confused, uncertain, and then—in love again with only the brilliance around us. Close as we came, neither could commit theft against such beauty.

I do know this: she was the one who finally stepped back from the railing, and I followed. We walked the remainder of the bridge in silence. The snow had quit, but the wind had grown bitterly cold. I draped my arm over her shoulder, concerned with warmth more than affection, but she smiled at this, and I smiled back. We strolled a few blocks into the east bank where the crowds were thin and shops were locked for the night. We turned around, walked back across the bridge, this time along the north balustrade. We stopped just once, to pat the bronze image of St. John Nepomucene, a gesture that’s supposed to ensure a return trip to the city. As she placed her fingertip on his gleaming nose, she looked at me and asked, “When we come back, do you think it’ll be together?”

“Hard to say.” We both knew that answer—there was no reason to admit it out loud.

“Well,” she said, removing her hand from the sculpture and resuming her walk. “If we do find ourselves here again, I think you should finish that kiss.”

I felt my cheeks redden.

“It’s not too la—”

“Yes it is. Come on.” She grabbed my hand and led me away from the edge, back onto the cobbled bridge deck. “Let’s get a tram. I’m freezing.”

The streetcar was packed; after a moment I gave up trying to reach the validation stamp. More frozen Czechs streamed through the doors at each stop until we found ourselves pressed into an involuntary but pleasant embrace, my jaw line resting against the top of her head. The tram jerked forward once again, jostled me so that my lips pressed against her hairline. I left them there when the tram stopped again and part of the crowd receded through the accordion doors. I remained close against her until our stop.

We ordered Kozels from the same bartender. I pushed forward a tip that was too big. I didn’t deserve to act like I belonged there. Together that night, the two of us had fallen in love with a place we could not have, a place where we did not belong. The opera house was for the elegant, the bridge for the hopeful. But we were simply lost, intruding on someone else’s splendor.

The bartender tried to push the money back, but our eyes met, and I could tell she understood.

“Děkuji,” she said, and smiled.

Nikole and I clinked our mugs then drank. In the morning, we would trade email addresses in order to begin a correspondence that would inevitably fade. She would catch a train to Vienna; I would take fly back to the States. In those last moments, we could have gone to a bedroom. We could have walked Prague’s streets until the cold numbed us. But instead we just sat, quiet and affected, until handful of other customers filtered out of the bar and up to their rooms—until it was just the two of us left, alone and waiting.

***

Brooks Rexroat is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, who has earned paychecks as a journalist, musician, advertising copywriter, teacher, and coach. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in print journalism from Morehead State University. He is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative writing at Southern Illinois University, where he teaches composition and creative writing.

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