Slice of Prague: The Voyeur

The Voyeur by J. Hurewitz
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I met Ben tonight at Karlovo náměstí and we took the metro to Anděl. Ben had met a girl and she told him to meet her and a girlfriend at a hospoda in Smíchov. 

He had a piece of paper with directions on it but we still get lost. Smíchov: the coal-laden air has caused the buildings to go gray with soot. The air stinks of car exhaust. The sidewalks are covered in uneven slabs of concrete and cobblestones, little pimples of dog sh*t.

We finally find what we think is the street and the pub but when we go inside Ben's girls aren't there. We think they might be late, or they left because we were late but we sit down and have a beer. Mostly old men sit in the bar with sullen faces that look at us with suspicion. The waitress comes over and leans down with her pen and paper and doesn't say anything, only looks at us with a face that asked what could we possibly want.

"Dva pivo, prosim vas." (2 beers please)

And they are set down before us, nice heads of Gambrinus. We toast and drink, drink a couple, but the girls don't show up.

We are sitting by a window on the long wooden benches. It's hot and there is blue smoke hanging about mid-level in the bar. It stinks of body odor and beer and cheap cigarettes. I fiddle with the rusty switch on the window and finally get it open but the waitress rushes over looking very upset and said "Ne, Ne!" and shuts it, looking at me like I wanted to sh*t on the floor.

At the end of our table is a strange crew that keeps looking at us. There is a young, normal looking Czech guy, a nasty looking fat gypsy with curly hair and a sweet-faced blond girl with big moon-blue eyes.

To our surprise the blond girl suddenly comes rushing over and sits down with us. "You are American?"

"Yes."She looks like she can't believe it.

"What do you do here?"

"I was just wondering the same thing", says Ben and we laugh but she looks confused.

"We are just having a pivo", I tell her.

"I like practice my English."

So we talk with her and I'm charmed. She's exploding with innocent enthusiasm. She's a little blond bud bursting with life. It's plain to see her clothes are cheap, I especially notice the grey acid-wash jeans and the crappy sneakers that the Vietnamese sell at the makeshift markets around town.

But her small rose-bud breasts press against her blue shirt and she fills out those jeans with this little Lolita figure very well. I want to put my arm around her. To feel the pulse of that life against me. She smiles, she laughs, and she keeps asking questions and testing her English and even though it is very bad she isn't afraid to make mistakes. I can tell that's the way she does everything, as she had come over to us: rushing headlong.

But this doesn't last long as soon the guy and the gypsy slid over next to them and we talk with them a little too. But he's dull and she's wretched.

The Czechs are unbelievably racist and shockingly up front about it and the gypsies have it in a bad way here, not able to get jobs and not able to put their kids into school with regular Czechs. But still seeing the Gypsies around town it's hard to not automatically pass judgment. I try not to look at these people with any racist lens, even when I see them working the trams as pickpockets. There are good people and bad people, I tell myself, nothing more.

And I'm convinced this gypsy is one of the bad ones. It's in the way she leans over the table and surveys the scene, leaning on those meaty forearms. It slithers down the sweat that marks the side of her shirt and the sharp smell that wafts over to us. It seems so strange for her to be sitting with these two Czechs, who are cousins it turns out. Our girl tell us that the gypsy is actually Greek and the Greek smiles at us and I see that she is missing some teeth in front.

In my horror over the visage of the Greek woman I didn't notice that our girls cousin is stroking one of her acid-washed legs. Then he has his arm around her waist. He seems to be very intimate with her.

"You two are cousins?", I ask.

"Yes, we cousins", she says, all innocence, not even realizing that I am noticing his hands. Maybe she doesn't know there is anything wrong with it. He smokes a cigarette and eyes me with a sly smile. He knows what I'm thinking.

"How old are you?"

"A...sixenten."

"Sixteen?"

"Yes", she exclaims, leaping up and his hand falls off her leg. "I am sixteen."

Jesus. She might not even know that what this cousin of hers does, even if it's just the way he touches her, is wrong. He gets up to go to the bathroom or something and the Greek slides over.

They start talking quietly and then they are leaning in and looking at something in the Greek's lap. I lean in discreetly to see what it is and I see it is a porno mag. 'Cats'

magazine, a half-sized lesbian journal. The Greek is pointing at one girl licking another and saying something. Our girl just looks on silently but not reluctantly, as if she was in school and she was bent on doing well. 

"What's going on Ryan?"

"They're looking at a lesbian porno mag."

"No sh*t?"

"Really. Hey man, lets get outta here."

"Should we just leave her here?"

"What the f*ck can we do? Are we supposed to start a big scene and drag her outta here. We can't do anything. Both of us are living in this country illegally. You been outta the country in the last 30 days?" He shakes his head. "Neither have I. I'm just as inclined as you are to do something. In fact I'd really like to kill this Greek woman. I don't think I've ever hated someone so quickly before. But I'm not too keen on getting thrown outta the country if we have a hassle. Nor am I interested in what Czech jail is like. And you think any Czech cop is going to be interested in our moral crusade?"

"Let's get the f*ck outta here", says Ben, looking actually kind of sickly and blue.
We say goodbye to our girl who looks sad that we're leaving. Everything she does - the way she sits, the way she picks up her sodovká to drink, the way she smiles - is so painfully honest, without any pretence. It disarms me. She is innocence personified and the Greek is necropsy, a parasite that latches on and destroys beauty in the worst way: slowly. I really felt my hands going for her throat, shaking the dumb head that smiles at me its evil smile, gap-toothed looking down into her throat, into the void.

"You come here again...soon?", she says, looking sad and like she can't express herself well enough.

"Sure," I say as Ben pays our waitress. 

She smiles, happy.

"Ahoj," grunted the Greek, smiling me her hateful smile,hiding the trashy little magazine under haunches.

After I leave Ben at Karlovo náměstí, I don't wait for the tram but walk down Vyšehrad and towards my place. I'm thinking about appearances and how we want things to always seem in their place so that we can make sense of them. 

I have been thinking about my perceptions of an American abroad lately. How I used to think before I left the States that any American I met abroad would generally be more interesting than people back home just because they had the balls to drop out and pursue something else. I quickly learned how wrong I was and I am constantly faced with this. 

The truth is that people are people and some people don't leave their town their whole life and they are more interesting than people that have been around the world. I'm remembering this line from Neeli Cherkovski's biography on Bukowski where he was telling Buk how he was going traveling.

"Only a fool travels."

"There must be a lot of fools."

"Damn right."

Perhaps because they have been truer to some sort of inner voice and not insecure in seeking out something beyond themselves some people are more wholly formed whereas the rest of us are like unfinished products always searching and groping for that missing piece. 

We all want to be near the Buddha. We all want to know some irrefutable truth. And the ones that have a calmness, a self-assurance, or a resignation are sometimes the ones where you can see this life. And it feels good to look and watch even though you're on the outside looking in on something you can't be a part of. 

Other times its someone like the girl tonight who is like Eve in the Garden before the fall: unaware of what is wrong in all of us. If only we could combine these things in people. But usually these two different extremes burn each other out and you get either something dull and in the middle or too extreme to really work.

But in a just world these are the people that would lead, these are the people that we would turn to. I had this same feeling in Smíchov tonight with that young girl surrounded by all that deadening weight of her go-nowhere surroundings. 

I want her to have a say in the way the world turns because she burned before my eyes with beauty. I want to hear that beauty speak. I want to hear her utter a million silly things that might topple the world. I see her putting flowers in the soldier's guns though not knowing what they are.

I wanted to leave because I knew that the world, perhaps the dreary world of Smíchov (her cousin and that weird Greek trying to seduce her), would crush her and I wanted to escape this, to not watch it before my eyes. I wanted to make love to her, to be rid of my own sick orgasm, and that upset me because I couldn't escape my attraction despite the salacious people around her and how much I objected to what they wanted from her. I felt that what I wanted with her was so much purer and nicer but I know this is sh*t and it felt awful to think of her like that. I realized that I am more like them than like her and it was a soft pain that cut through me. 

Why couldn't I just see her for the beauty that was? Why do I feel I have to touch it, possess it? Sex is always the base of it - that sad dog thing I can't escape. But I also cling to something that tells me its not wrong and maybe even beautiful to want to touch the soul of burning life. But I was weary; weary of all that surrounded me and her; all the elements that made up the universe, the yin and yang of good and bad, suddenly so clear in their swampy separatism of what makes life good and what keeps it from being sublime and what can cause horror. 

I left... The sadness of the voyeur: Always understanding and reaching out to life but never really touching it.

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