Majka (to Vera)
I stood in the doorway to the Registrar’s Office and watched Mick reading the newspaper with his feet up on the window sill. The news from the world: while in the States two young people had got married during a marathon, in Cuba they’d begun constructing underground shelters, resulting in an acute shortage of cement and fuel all over the island.
The objectionable woman in the Registrar’s Office shouted at me to wait outside, so I took a step backwards into the corridor. Through the half-open door I saw her go over to Mick and lean over his shoulder, her huge breasts touching his back. She was helping him with some words in the articles. Mick had learned the basics of Slovak quite well in a short time. Allegedly so he could read the newspapers and chat to people about politics in the pub.
“Look here,” he pointed to another article. “What’s that you say? I can’t believe what I see!” The woman laughed: “We say ‘I can’t believe my eyes!’” I liked hearing him read aloud from the newspapers. So did the woman from the Registrar’s Office. We had never heard our mother tongue spoken with a foreign accent before. He read:
For McDonald’s from the south of Slovakia
Several kinds of fast food such as hamburgers, salads, French fries, various desserts, hot and cold beverages – and note this, Plzen beer (an exception said to be allowed by the firm of McDonald’s in only one of its 11 804 branches – the one in Prague) will be available to the public every day. Everything, of course, blessed by the continual strict control of hygiene and the quality of the food and service.
At this point he raised his eyes meaningfully and cried: “An article like this shouldn’t be among the domestic news. It’s a PR article, an advert!” He continued with the last sentence:
The Majcichov Agricultural Cooperative will supply the Prague restaurant with milk for the preparation of special products – milkshake cocktails and ice-cream sundaes.
The woman just said that she had never eaten a hamburger. The next time she visited Prague she’d be sure to go to that restaurant. “Have you been to Prague?” Just then Mick noticed that I was still standing outside the door. “Come in!” he called.
“It’s rude to listen outside the door, didn’t anyone teach you that?” the woman reproached me. He added that we should knock and resolutely step inside, that we should stop being timid. He switched to English and raised his voice. In the second person it wasn’t clear whether he was talking to me or whether I just represented everything that aggravated him about this country. Just as McDonald’s represented what he didn’t like about America.
He concluded by asking whether I read the papers and when I shook my head, he banged the paper down on the desk and swung round in his chair. He made a few gestures and thanked me for giving him an idea. He asked the woman to xerox and make copies of the article. Mick gave out these papers in the class and wrote a couple of questions on the board. Silence fell over the class, no one knowing how to relate these questions to the event of the restaurant opening in Prague. The discussion took some time to get off the ground as no one knew how to confront Mick’s zeal for discussion. “Why, why do you think anyone needed a McDonald’s here? Why?” he called to the person who ventured to speak.
Mick used to gesture wildly, put his hands to his head and make grimaces. Maybe they should have thrown him out, because at the end of the year we didn’t know the grammar and he often came late to class or he moved it to the pub opposite the university. But no one then had any idea how native speakers taught, maybe it was just meant to be like that.
Vera (to the painter, Mr Maliar)
In Bratislava I missed very much the whole sector of services from express manicure/pedicure and Chinese snack bars to the psychoanalyst. All those little people, little chats and the wealth of paid love they gave me; I missed all that there.
In New York I had built up a relationship with my pedicurist. Just imagine, she spent her adolescent years looking at calloused soles. At her age we’d been listening to loud rock music and rebelling against work; she watched the Chinese titles of a film out of the corner of her eye, while scraping and smoothing my feet with automatic movements. “Massage?” she
would ask and run her fingers over my calves, my big toe brushing against the nipple under her Hello Kitty T-shirt. I think I even dreamed about her once. She would kiss the toe knuckles I had worn the skin off running on a treadmill in my trainers, while all the time she kept one eye on the television.
And then there was the girl in the snack bar. She mistook me for some actress. She stared hard at me when she was putting sesame chicken on my plate – my little passion, my little deep-fried transgression that I eat under the picture of a waterfall in the corner, quite hidden from the world of healthy eating. Just then they were shooting some film out in the street and the girl was sure some star had come in for sesame chicken. I smiled, her interest flattered me, so I told her I was from the catering company and I had her wrap up one portion, allegedly for Woody Allen.
Another time I told her I’d been sent again to get that wonderful chicken. I invented strange stories about him; I always summed up his aberrations and manias in a couple of sentences. I said Woody usually ate raw food, just lots of shoots, but then he would suddenly shut himself up in the catering caravan, no one was allowed to see him and there he would eat a portion of sesame chicken fried in a saucepan full of oil! Woody liked to obey prohibitions, but every now and then he was naughty, so he could foster a feeling of wrongdoing that had to be suppressed by industriousness. That’s what I admire about Henryk, that he can be disciplined without it bursting out of him anywhere. What I like about you, Mr Maliar, is that you can be undisciplined and you don’t reproach yourself in any way.
In actual fact these were my own oddities, which I first disclosed to my psychoanalyst and on the way home from seeing him I got into the habit of rewarding myself with my sesame delight, while also taking away one portion for the fictive Allen. That was before I discovered that my psychoanalyst was following me. During our sessions, when I talked to him about my Lolita passion for my pedicurist, he became addicted to me. He spent the whole week dealing with patient after patient without showing the slightest interest, until at the end of the week he could at last listen to me talking. Then he would steal out of the office and follow me through the streets. While I was eating in the snack bar, he would sit in the coffee bar opposite and keep an eye on me over his open newspaper, then run out into the street to follow me, only turning round when he reached the door to my house. From there he popped into the beauty salon, where he used the toilet, from whose door he could get a glimpse of the pedicurist squeezed into a child’s T-shirt.
The doors in the toilets in New York have very wide gaps; it’s a kind of privacy/non- privacy when answering the call of nature, so we watch each other out of the corner of our eyes and we pretend we are divided off by a wall that admits no sound or sight. That psychoanalyst began visiting his own psychoanalyst, who as a result of listening to him fell in love with me and so he watched his patient watching me going for Chinese chicken and to the pedicurist. One day he told me everything and begged me to report him to the police, in order to break that knot, that sweet and sour torment. But I didn’t like that! Why would I do such a thing?
I missed this kind of very sophisticated closeness/alienation in Bratislava. Here everyone vulgarly shook hands and frowned in public. A period without a single pucker of passion awaited Henryk and I. In a number of households we sat on the same sofas and stirred sugar in the same porcelain tea cups. Tea that added colour the second, third or even fourth time it was used, as you remarked. We had come to a country, to a whole geographical area, lacking a sector of pleasure and sly desire.
I gazed down from the castle hill at the straight streets of the housing estates, then at the winding town centre… that sector must have been here at one time, but then it had been forced out over the border. In the empty spaces between the prefabricated buildings I saw market niches. This strict grey world needed colour, smells, emotions and passions. More playfulness and instability. This land needed a return of the passion that had perhaps gone away with Freud to London or with Kunder to Paris. I began by painting the whole flat. Not a nouveau riche purple, but soft pastel hues. Lavender, peach and what you called a flesh-colour.