These are the things Tee learned in Prague, before his father came and flew him back to Mass General Hospital in September of 2002:
1. If someone sneezes while you’re talking, what you are saying is true.
2. If your nose is soft, you’re lying.
3. If you cut an apple in half and see a star, it’s good luck; if not, it’s bad.
4. If you step in shit, it’s good luck.
5. If you pour molten lead into water, you can tell the future from the form it makes.
6. If your hand itches, you’ll get into a fight.
7. If your nose itches, you’ll get beaten up.
8. If you pour something and it overflows, someone you know will get pregnant.
9. If you lift your feet for someone to sweep under them, you’ll never marry.
10. “To cry at the wrong grave” means “to bark up the wrong tree.”
11. Often the legends of Prague have to do with selling one’s soul to the devil.
12. Half of Prague will be destroyed by fire, half by water.
13. When the Czech Republic is in its most desperate hour of need, a sleeping army under the hill Bla’ni’k will awaken and defeat its enemies.
Tee spent his first few months in Prague posing for a series of paintings by the Czech artist known by the nickname, Pavel Picasso. Pavel had become famous during the Velvet Revolution, in 1989, when Prague intellectuals led a nonviolent revolt against the Communists. While he worked, his wife, Katka, would tell Czech legends like that of the Devil’s Pillar, dropped by the devil through the roof of a minor basilica in Vys’ehrad. Pavel would peer down his cigarette at Tee and say, “Now try to being more American.”
The last, and best, painting depicted a dark figure beside the Orloj, an astronomical clock in Old Town, where Tee had met the couple on New Year’s morning. Below his black bangs, Tee’s half-white cheeks seemed to burn with faith. He thought that maybe his Korean half—some moment during his first months of life, after his birth mother’s death but before his adoption—had caused this odd credulity. Katka said Pavel always painted more real than life.
One of Katka’s favorite legends was that of the Orloj’s maker, Hanus’. Upon the clock’s completion, an executioner blinded him with a hot poker. “The city’s orders,” she said. “So that he could never make another.” She told Tee how the story split in two. “At some point afterward, the clock broke. Some say he took revenge. He thrust his hands into the gears and killed himself. But others say the clock broke on its own. And no one but Hanus’ could fix it. He fixed the thing he had been blinded for making.”
“Either way,” Tee said, “that was a man who knew what could live forever.”
Katka smiled and asked if he would like a cup of tea. She spoke English with a slight British accent, an inheritance from her late father. Behind the rising intonation was her mother’s guttural Czech. Hard consonants, throated vowels, rolled, nearly hiccupped r’s. Tee found the combination exciting, like a car race in which one watches to see how the next crash will unfold.
“You are too young for these old stories to interest you,” she said. She was ten years his senior, Pavel twelve.
The studio was in their bedroom, where the light pooled during the day through two windows set high in the wall. Tee sat on a chair dragged in from the kitchen while Pavel painted across the room, by the bed. Paint splattered the newspaper Katka had laid over the floor that morning.
Tee looked up into her marlin-blue eyes and said he liked the feeling of a culture rising around him. In middle school, he’d helped build the Roman set of a school play, papier-mâchéing columns; he’d stood in the center of a temple, like a god in the myths his father had read to him, able to destroy or to grant completion. “Do you believe in your legends?” he asked her.
She dipped her shoulders ambiguously. The smell of cocoa butter filled the empty space. He wondered why they’d chosen him to model.
Each day, he waited to hear about her and Pavel’s pasts, and the city’s, while his body came to life on the canvas. The couple would never have seemed right for each other without art, Tee thought. Her height and confidence; Pavel’s jittery smallness, always curled in on himself, appearing shorter than he was. Tee learned she’d run off from her mother and her small Czech town, Beroun, in 1988; she’d gone to university in Prague and never looked back. He told her he was ridding himself of Boston, though he didn’t admit his uncle’s suicide, or how he hadn’t finished college. Pavel had never needed college. Tee posed with his chest hunched over his knees, the blood rushing into his head. He wanted to tell them how lonely he was, tingling with nerves, but he didn’t. Out the windows, the twelfth district of Prague shimmered with snow.
He could almost believe that the paintings gave him a place in the city. He watched Katka lean back in her chair and sip tea, or wine, her lipstick printing her lips on the cup.
“What is it?” she asked as he fell quiet.
He pointed to her cheek. “You have something there.” She ran her finger along her nose, and without thinking, he licked his thumb and pressed it to her skin, lifting off the eyelash; immediately, he felt himself blush.
Pavel kept painting, eyes fixed to the canvas. She blew on his thumb, wishing, then asked again what was wrong. “Why did you come here?” she said. “Because of the terror attacks?”
Tee swallowed. “I came here because here is somewhere else.”
Pavel stomped the floor and demanded stillness. His brown hair flopped in his face, over his craggy brows, and he puffed it aside.
Once, posing with his hands over his eyes, Tee’s knee had slipped against hers. He’d pulled back quickly, though her husband was turned, mixing paint. She’d rested her palm on his thigh, either to reassure him or to question his alarm.
When Pavel’s work was going well, he would join them in speaking of legends. His accent was like a Shakespearean character’s, fluttering and iambic—tragic even then, before the attack that would crush his wrists two months later. He liked to talk about a famous Czech hero, Ja’ra Cimrman, who’d never actually existed. “So Cimrman crossed Atlantic in a steamboat,” he said. Or: “So Cimrman took submarine to moon.” Cimrman had climbed the Andes, braved the Arctic, suggested the Panama Canal but never got the credit. Katka laughed about these fake histories like the couple shared a secret joke.
What Tee really wanted to know about was the Revolution—the protests and paintings and feeling of overthrowing injustice—but until that last morning of modeling, Pavel refused to discuss actual events. As he touched up the layers of paint on the dark figure and the streets of Old Town, Katka walked across the room from where Tee stood and said, “It looks like your old work.”
“Perhaps is similar to chaos then,” Pavel granted, stubbing out his cigarette.
“What was it like?” Tee asked. He could imagine them falling in love over art, brushstrokes that incited a nation to freedom. He imagined Pavel’s paintings hung on the facade of the museum in Wenceslas Square, as a protester set himself on fire beneath. A simple act of conviction.
He’d heard about the artist’s role in the Revolution from his neighbor with the American name, Rockefeller, a hulking Czech with a shock of brown hair like a toupee. Pavel had introduced them when Tee wanted to move out of his hotel room. Rockefeller had arranged for Tee to rent the apartment across the hall from his, in Karli’n, an up-and-coming district east of the Jewish Quarter. The afternoon Tee signed the lease, they went for drinks. After the third Budvar, Rockefeller was talking about Pavel, how they’d cut their palms as brothers after Pavel’s father died in jail, how Rockefeller had used the university press to print samizdats full of Pavel’s paintings, when Pavel was known only as his father’s son—a year later, he would become the youngest dissident to sign Charter 88, a letter against the Communists that would spur the growing protests. Tee doodled the Czech flag on a napkin. He wanted to hear about the terror and glory from the artist himself.
The one other time he’d asked, Pavel had said, “Don’t listen Rockefeller. He is thinking we responsible for change. But we did nothing.”
Now the artist dabbed at the dark sky. “It felt like something, history, could never being stopped.”
“I think I understand.”
“Impossible,” Pavel said. “When I’m eleven, I saw boys I knew once try to kill a man in alley. They are taking nothing, only putting knife in him and running. Maybe he is living maybe not. I didn’t know they Secret Police or he was, maybe no one.”
“What did you do?” Tee asked, feeling strangely jealous.
“I ran away.”
“We all did what we had to do,” Katka said. “You lived. You survived.”
Pavel plucked at the hem of his shirt.
Katka said something in Czech, and as she rested her hand on the back of his neck, he went on. He talked about the political art that got his father killed; about his own paintings denouncing Communism; about how Katka and Rockefeller had hung his art around the city.
She stood beside him, as if they shared a stage, while Tee lay back on the floor. He felt the heat radiate off their bodies. He seemed to feel her heat separate from Pavel’s. Or maybe that was an illusion. He waited for an explanation of how good fortune could come from bad, of how burning their pasts was the only way to set themselves free. But instead, Pavel described the first time his father was taken to jail, in 1982, a story Tee would always remember, always imagine, as a moment of definitive loss.
Tee arrived in Prague in late December and met Pavel and Katka on New Year’s morning at the turn of 2002. During his first overcast days in the city, he almost regretted having left Boston. But then there was his aunt shrieking at his uncle’s wake, his father burying his head in his hands, their relationship impossible to hide. Tee stayed in an Art Nouveau hotel near the Vltava River and slept late each morning, despite the rooster that briefly startled him awake at dawn. A rooster in the city in winter; he dreamed of it pecking vainly at the snow.
He blamed his drowsiness on jet lag.
In the afternoons, he wandered the city, stopping at internet cafés to check his email and to search expatriate sites. He didn’t need to work—when his uncle’s air limo business sold, Tee’s share of the inheritance (a token for the son-like nephew) would be nearly three hundred thousand dollars. Yet he felt restless, and confused, the ghosts of old ambitions mingling with the ghosts of the snowbound city. Even after Katka said he should be painted, he looked for things to do. He took a short, difficult class in Czech; applied at the Prague Post, the local English newspaper; started and failed at writing a novel; enrolled in a certification class to teach English as a foreign language.
He was impatient to feel comfortable in Prague, though he wouldn’t until those January afternoons of posing for Pavel, listening to Katka’s legends. Once, the radiator in his hotel room sputtered, and he shivered with the thought that maybe he didn’t know how to be happy. His ribcage seemed an empty cavity.
After he learned it was legal to drink in the streets, he took to riding trams out to other districts with a beer in each pocket. He spent twelve dollars on a monthly metro pass, less than a dollar per Pilsner, a dollar fifty per bottle of water. The buildings would have delighted the last girl he’d dated in Boston, Erin, an architecture major, sent her fingers fluttering to her lips. Centuries squashed together: a blue Renaissance church beside a black Gothic tower. “I should have known,” she said when he broke up with her. “You’re the same as your father. You’ll only ever want the wrong woman.” She meant herself.
At some point in Prague, he started taking small souvenirs from the places he went, coasters he’d doodled on, or loose bits of brick, or severed buttons, or, on the first day of modeling, a pewter golem from Pavel and Katka’s house, a little bigger than a Monopoly piece. He would slip the trinkets into his pockets and then find them when he went to do laundry. Idle hands.
His favorite place in the city was the old castle, Vys’ehrad. The ruins stretched across a cliff beside the Vltava. At the far end was a famous cemetery, behind the basilica where the devil had dropped his pillar, and a prayer maze where children wound into the center and knelt in the snow to make wishes. Later, Katka would tell him about Queen Libus’e, who sent out a white horse to look for a King and found a man stooping under a doorframe that would eventually become Kafka’s castle. After that king died, a maiden’s army would fight the men for control of Prague. Beside the maze, Tee poked a gloved finger into the snow and outlined a man and a woman, a baby slipping out of their arms. He felt cold with history, tingling as the wind blew across the graves.
Prague contradicted itself. Sometimes, after a few beers, Tee would stumble upon a hidden garden, and the city would seem alive, like a series of arteries rocking him along in the blood flow from a secret heart. Other times, when the dark curtained the streets at four in the afternoon, and the bone-deep chill reminded him of a mix of childhood illnesses that had almost killed him when he was six, he felt as if the city were searching out his weaknesses.
He had decided on Prague as a city of survivors. Both world wars, countless invasions. For thousands of years in Prague, private lives had withstood the obsessions of empires. After his uncle’s death, he said he needed more than poetry. He had buried himself in books. He talked about going abroad. Erin’s mother had visited Prague, called it an older, more mysterious Paris. By the time Erin pulled him aside at a party in Cambridge—he was complaining of his father’s indulgent grief—he had made up his mind. “Stop being so tragic,” she said. “For God’s sake, others are suffering. Not over a suicide, over terrorism.” He left the bar alone, relieved he could act as he felt. He thought maybe Prague was perfect, after all. Later, Katka’s myths would seem as real as armies.
On his fifth night in the city, New Year’s Eve, he wandered into Old Town. He’d heard explosions and singing from the square. He bought a plastic cup of beer at a stall; then he saw the fireworks. Not in the air above, but being shot horizontally, down streets, over the crowd. Industrial-grade explosions, streaming ribbons that burst into sparks and ash. He pushed through the mob in Old Town Square, wanting to feel as free from danger as the locals seemed to feel. He remembered skimming over Boston in the cockpit of his uncle’s water plane, so low he’d felt as if he could reach out and pluck the trees from the ground. As the Orloj rang in the New Year with its famous dance of figurines, people popped champagne and sprayed it on each other. A man slapped Tee on the back. Tee got hold of a bottle as it was passed around. People shook hands, sang Czech folk songs. Tee fumbled through the sounds, pulled into a circle of crisscrossing arms. He drank more champagne, whatever was thrust in front of him. A drink that tasted like Christmas, which he would later know as Becherovka. Beers produced from trench coats. The champagne wet his clothes, stuck to his skin, and suddenly, he wanted them off. He wanted everything off. He felt dizzy with the idea of starting out clean of his past, like a baby.
He slipped out of his shirt and stepped into an opening in the crowd where two businessmen shot fireworks over Ti’n Church, cutting a blue arc. They could have been having a mid-life crisis. They gave him a thumbs-up sign and lit the fuse.
When he got down to socks and boxers, dancing under the sparks, the crowd cheered him, the half-Asian kid half-naked. Out of nowhere, a mismatched couple approached, a shabby looking man and a much taller, graceful woman; they waved him over. He found himself gathering his clothes and heading toward them. Pavel gestured excitedly and spoke rapid Czech. Katka stared with dizzyingly blue eyes, and asked if Tee spoke English. He picked up a fallen piece of a rocket, as if it still had the energy for another explosion. He stuffed it under his coat, and nodded.
Photo Source: Apartments in Prague