By Caleb Crain, from Necessary Errors, to be published next month by Penguin.
According to the pages on Eastern Europe that he had torn from a guide to gay life abroad purchased in Boston — burying the rest of the book at the bottom of a garbage bag full of food scraps soon after, so that no one would inadvertently come upon its advertisements for massage parlors and bathhouses — there were two gay bars in Prague, and the one not described as “rough” was to be found in a street one block long near the foot of Wenceslas Square. After his last class on Friday, he made pancakes and ate them with a can of boruvky, which he had spotted in the window of a store near school, and which he thought were blueberries, since they looked and tasted like them. (They were bilberries, he discovered years later, when he had a better dictionary.) He showered, brushed the blue off his teeth, and slipped his Penguin Typee, a book he had brought with him from Boston intact, into the pocket of his raincoat. It was a long tram ride to the subway.
The tram was nearly empty. Most residents of the outlying neighborhood where he lived stayed home on a Friday night. He looked out the window idly. The tram ran through a manufacturing district, and for a mile or so there was nothing to see but low, gray, concrete-covered walls and long vertical sheets of corrugated metal ineffectually undermined by weeds. Intermittently, a wall gave way to a fence, and then a gate, through whose iron bars one could see the tall front of a factory. standards and quality for everyone everywhere, read a slogan over the door of one of the factories. Farther on, the tram ran past a housing development — a group of dirty white concrete high-rises, called paneláky.
Since he was alone in the car, Jacob slid open a window. It was a warm night. A breeze touched him haphazardly, like someone unfolding a shirt near his bare skin. Then the breeze whipped him gently in the face; he shut his eyes. When he opened them again he took out his paperback but paused on his bookmark, a postcard from a man he had fallen in love with back in America, unhappily. He knew the words on it by heart, of course: Daniel wrote that he had taken a job at a men’s magazine, which he described ironically, and foresaw that Jacob would soon have a tall, dark Slavic lover. In a black-and-white photo on the other side, a shirtless model with a ponytail sneered angrily at the camera and seemed to be in motion toward it; the picture was blurry. Jacob had tried to convince himself he liked the image, because Daniel must have liked it, or must have thought Jacob would, or should, like it. In the time they had spent together, much of what Daniel had shared with him had taken the form of lessons. Jacob had been a poor pupil. Politics had made a path of resistance obvious. Just as he hadn’t believed Daniel’s claim that Thatcher and Reagan had brought freedom to the West as well as the East, he had declined to believe his theories of love, though he had been made to feel their power in his own case.
And now he didn’t believe this postcard. Czech men were neither tall nor dark, for the most part, and the name Daniel had imagined for Jacob’s future lover was a Russian-sounding one, which a Czech man his age, born during the Prague Spring, would be unlikely to bear. He had traveled a long way in order to know more about something than Daniel did, Jacob observed of himself, mock-tragically. He tucked the card into a later chapter and tried to read a few pages of Melville.
At Mustek, the city’s central subway station, he alighted, and rose to street level on an escalator that debouched beside a small pastry shop, now dark. He felt the sense of difference, the uneasy alertness, that comes over a person on the hunt. He would not be able to explain himself if any of his friends were to see him now. He felt painfully aware of the few people who glanced at him, as if a part of him were trying to keep a record of their faces, in case he had to answer to them later.
He found the street easily. The far end — it was no more than an alley, really — was boarded shut, and the windows of only one pub were lit, so once he had read this pub’s name off its windows and passed by it, he could have no pretext for walking here. Therefore he had to keep walking; he had to turn out of the street when, having doubled back, he reached the end of it; he didn’t stop until he came to Národní trída, a broad avenue a few minutes away.
There he rested his eyes on the books in a publisher’s display window and tried to think. He hadn’t seen any sign of the bar he was looking for, which was called T-Club. If you were to visit the street today, you wouldn’t find any sign of it, either; an establishment with the same name has opened in another part of town, but the particular club that Jacob was in search of that night has long since vanished, and the boards at the end of the block have been removed, to reveal a gated pocket park with wrought-iron benches, banks of flowers, and a long rectangle of water where children float toy ships with paper sails. Of course, Jacob didn’t know at the time what the boards hid; he wondered if the bar he wanted lay behind them, shuttered. He had to try again. The guide had given a street number. He would walk to that number and look slowly and carefully. He promised himself to look longer than felt comfortable.
When he retraced his steps, he found, to his surprise, that the street number corresponded to the pub with the well-lit windows. As he stood before it, awkwardly, he could see men drinking, talking, and smoking inside, a few in blue suits, most in street clothes. They were middle-aged, for the most part, many of them bearded. They had none of the self-watchfulness that Jacob associated with homosexuality. The name painted on the window was wrong, but perhaps the name had changed. Perhaps gay life in Prague was going to be different than he expected, more ordinary — plain, even. He stepped up onto the threshold.
No one turned, but the bartender shot him a look of dismay. Jacob saw his mistake. He was not in a gay place; Daniel had taught him that much about the gay world. He was in a straight place near a gay place, and partly out of courtesy, partly as a defense, the men here, he realized, kept up a pretense of blindness, which the bartender was afraid Jacob would break by asking a foolish question; with his look he was warning Jacob not to. It was no different here, Jacob decided. It was like home.
He stepped backward silently into the street and saw, as he did, his vision sharpened by fear and anger, a flight of stairs overlooked before. They led down and to the left. No sign indicated that they led to T-Club, but Jacob followed them anyway, underground. At the bottom of the stairs was a floor-to-ceiling metal grille, painted black, into which a yellowish artificial vine had been artlessly wound. On the other side of the grille, leaning against the counter of a coat-check closet, was an attendant, a short, powerfully built man in his fifties, with a white pompadour and deeply lined, cigarette-gray skin, dressed, rather formally, in a fine white shirt and black slacks. He nodded when Jacob said good evening. Beyond him, around a corner, was the bar. Jacob could hear the tinny sound of European disco played on small speakers.
Since the attendant did not offer to open the grille, Jacob tugged at it. It seemed to be locked. There was no knob to turn.
— Please, Jacob said in Czech, tracing a small circle in the air with an index finger, to signify unlocking.
“Místo není.” The man shook his head. There isn’t room. “Keine raum,” he added, in German, pronouncing the words as if he were addressing a child. He tapped a paper sign taped to the grille, on which was written a word Jacob did not know, no doubt an advisement that the bar was full.
— Later? Jacob asked.
For an answer, the man tilted his head back slightly and then looked away. The tilt might have been a variation on a shrug, an indication that the attendant didn’t know the answer to Jacob’s question, but his manner was so heavy with scorn that the gesture might equally have been a comment on the kind and number of questions it was his lot to endure. Jacob held both possibilities in mind and continued to study the man. He knew no other way to make sense of signals he didn’t understand. He knew as yet only a few words of the language, and he had to make sense of such signals often, keeping, as a conversation progressed, a larger and larger hand of possibilities, like a player losing at a card game, until at last he was given a hint — drew a card that decided possibilities — and found himself free to set a number of them down.
A couple of men in their thirties pattered quietly down the stairs. They greeted the attendant just as quietly, and he unlocked the grille with a large, old-fashioned key, admitted them, and, before Jacob had understood what was happening, locked the grille again behind them. There was no small talk as he checked their coats; they weren’t, in other words, the attendant’s friends.
It was a puzzle. Perhaps the attendant thought Jacob was too young for a gay bar and was protecting him. Or perhaps he thought Jacob, as a foreigner, might have come to the wrong place. Of course, the sight of the two men just admitted, whose aspect was not ambiguous, would have cleared up Jacob’s misapprehensions, if he had been suffering from any. — Please, Jacob said, approaching the grille again, and gesturing along the path the men had just taken. — There’s room now?
The attendant answered rapidly and angrily, flicking a hand after the two men, as in dismissal. Jacob didn’t understand, and he expected that the man would yell at him in German if he asked him to repeat himself. He watched the attendant walk away, to the far end of the short corridor that was his province, and light a cigarette.
He couldn’t tell whether pressing his case had bettered or worsened it, but the attendant didn’t seem to object to his continuing to wait, so he took out his paperback. His eyes passed hollowly over the words.
At last there were shoes on the stairs again — louder this time, a clatter — and three young Czechs rushed down. The tallest, who had a comically long face and thin, sandy curls, seemed to be telling his companions a joke, which he himself laughed loudest at. “Dobry vecer,” he saluted the attendant. There was something arch about the formality with which he spoke the greeting, and Jacob felt at once that he liked the young man. He drifted away from the wall he’d been leaning against, with the intention of slipping in behind the trio as soon as the attendant opened the grille. “Ahoj,” the curly-haired man said to Jacob out of the corner of his mouth — now his voice was feline, and the greeting, sounding very much like the sailor’s hello in English, was a familiar one — to intimate that he had noticed Jacob’s approach.
The attendant had noticed it, too, and because Jacob didn’t want to take advantage of the young men’s entrée unless he was sure of their permission, and because he was put momentarily at a loss by the touch of proposal in the young man’s voice, he hesitated, and the attendant slammed the grille in his face with a clang.
“Hey,” Jacob said in English, startled into his own language.
“Are you American?” the tall young man asked through the grille. He had heavy-lidded, drowsy-looking eyes, but the rest of him seemed to be constantly in motion — turning, stretching, adjusting.
“Come and talk to us,” he offered.
“I’d like to,” Jacob answered. It seemed superfluous to say that he wasn’t certain of getting in.
The three men checked their coats, the tall one spinning, as they did, a long commentary that seemed to touch on every detail of the transaction, even down to the numbers on their claim checks, which must have been funny or lucky, because the other men laughed when the tall one called the numbers out, but Jacob could detect nothing in the way of an appeal to the attendant on his behalf, and soon the three turned the corner, out of sight, the tall one acknowledging Jacob’s predicament by no more than a wistful half wave, his hand at waist level behind him.
Jacob paced back and forth, then looked up the stairs that led to the street, deliberating. Unexpectedly, at this moment, the attendant whistled at him, as if he were a horse or a dog, unlocked the grille, and said, in English, “Please.”
He quickly stepped inside. The attendant extended his hand for his coat, smiling with a perfect falsity, and Jacob surrendered it. Sometimes Jacob had a hateful capacity to go along. He paid the two crowns and took his claim check. The attendant had no shyness about meeting his gaze. Jacob wondered what he would have to do later on, to get his coat back.