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The Prague Metro

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It’s a Tuesday. I look out the window, up at the sky, contemplating if I should go with rain boots or moccasins. Typical overcast day, the sun trying its best to break through the thick ceiling of clouds and failing to do so. I see the people four floors below, walking to whatever it is they try to convince themselves matters. Slowly marching toward the unavoidable underground fate that awaits us all. They are wearing hats and scarves and boots, so the march today is a cold one. I go to my mirror boudoir, and stare into the eyes looking back at me. The light from the window behind me, pouring into my room, casting a halo around my reflection. These eyes are so much older than the ones I remember. I curse myself for not being braver, for not seeing more than I have, for not accomplishing something great. Not loving enough, or hurting enough or helping enough.  The blank expression of the person in front of me isn’t the person I thought I’d become. I tell myself that today will be the day that I become something, but it’s only Tuesday. Seems like the weekend would be better for such dreams.

I open the mirrored door, ridden with oily fingerprints, and reach for my winter coat. I run my arm through one sleeve, then the other, finick with the broken zipper until I get it binded, then zip it up to my neck. I reach for the brown suede boots and slip my feet into them, heading toward the door with key in hand. Then, down the four flights of winding stairs and automatic lights to the front gate. Someone’s left it open again, so I pull it open without having to use the key. I slam it hard behind me, harder than I meant to.

Although the air has a hue of grey and the cold is biting at my earlobes and finger tips, I’m happy to be here. To be outside, the crisp air filling my lungs, recirculating my blood. I’m walking up the hill toward I.P. Pavlova. Past the small potraviny that charges too much for bread, past the large non-stop potraviny where I buy most of my groceries. I see strawberries in the window. Still overpriced and out of season. I begin salivating for spring time and fresh produce and the promise of a sun that will break through the clouds and warm my face. I long for the feeling of a hot sun beating down through chilled air. I take a sharp right turn and run across the street toward Namesti Miru; the green line. I cross when the pedestrian walking signal is red because I know it’s about to change. I’ve only been here a few months, but I’ve figured out the traffic enough to know when it’s my turn. The Czech people stand waiting at the same light, knowing better than I, yet they stand obediently waiting for the little man to turn green. Bred by communism, afraid to step before the little green man grants them permission.

Up the hill toward Namesti Miru, walking quickly, passing up the clicking of women’s heels against cobblestone streets. I defy another red man, walking into the park toward the metro entrance. I pass a man sitting on a bench, his hands cupped in front of him, a hat covering most of his face. He’s smiling slightly, lips bent up with admiration and jealousy,as he watches his dog chase pigeons through the grass. Fat birds teasing the Labrador by flying just out of his reach. They are bored, unamused, yet desperate to collect the microscopic crumbs around the garbage can. The dog runs, his tongue hanging out of his smiling mouth, jumping and spinning and playing the way that dogs do. It makes me smile unintentionally as well, joyous envy for his carefree leaps. I think to myself that there is a lesson here somewhere; the fat rummaging pigeons, the crumbs, the careless leaping dog and the old man with the hat.

I walk past the people standing at the tram with their briefcases and backpacks and morning cigarettes. Past the hotdog stand that smells like a highschool football game. Soggy wieners steaming in metal, filling the air with the smell of cooking flesh, mixing with the choking smoke of tobacco. If you ask me what Prague smells like, that would be my answer: sausage and Marlboros. It sounds repulsive, but the smell soon becomes addicting. It becomes morning, afternoon and night. It is the vivaciousness of the city and the people and everything that life here embodies. Burning meat and smoke.

I quickly move down the stairs into the metro, the cold air rushing past me, chilling the sweat around my hairline. On the escalator, and a long journey down. Some days I run down the stairs, but today I’m just standing, watching the people on the escalator on their way out. A young man stands on the step behind a woman, equal height. He kisses her on her cheek, and her eye and her neck and she smiles and kisses him on the lips. I glance at them, catching eyes with the man and becoming embarrassed, waiting for his gaze to fall back on her so I can look at them again. I can’t help but stare, to watch them, their delicate kisses, as if they are the only ones in the world, as if their touch will last forever. I remind myself it won’t and move my gaze in front of me, looking down to the end of the escalator and the still ground waiting below.

When I step off the escalator and onto the platform, I turn lazily, waiting for the metro that will take me into town. The clock says 8:54. The car clock says that it has been 1:52 minutes since the last car. It’s Tuesday, so another will be along shortly. To my right, an old woman stands, her arms crossed in front of her, lazily staring at the walls in front of her without really looking at anything. Just past her, another young couple stands in embrace. The girl this time, pushed up against the wall and the boy with her, burying his tongue deep in her mouth. Their heads swaying back and forth, shamelessly, as if everyone in the metro is doing the same. I wonder what it’s like to feel that free. To feel such a passionate burst of affection so suddenly and ardently that you cannot wait until you are alone. We must act now, in this moment, without shame. I wonder if that’s love. I tell myself it’s just two stupid kids.

Then, the cold air starts moving past me, brushing my hair slowly across my face at first, then with more force. That’s the thing about the metro. You feel it before you see it. The breeze becomes heavier and colder and stronger, my hair is blowing wildly over my shoulder and across my face and I let it. I close my eyes and breathe in the cold air and let the stray hair tickle my cheeks and nose. Then I hear the rumbling of the car coming down the tunnel, subtle at first, then louder and more intense. Then a small flicker of light bounces off the walls, until the headlights are in view. The people step closer to the platform, nearly in sync, anticipating the opening doors. The car pulls before us and screeches to a stop. The doors open, and the busy people with their briefcases and backpacks step out, going wherever it is that people go on a Tuesday.

The old woman with the lazy stare is standing across from me, waiting to step on the car. She’s older than I realized at first. The roots of her hair white, the thin skin of her hands hardly able to contain the veins standing above the surface of her skin. She has no wedding ring, and I wonder if she is a widow. I wonder if that’s why her expression is so lazy, as if she’s seen all that she expects. As if she was once a young person on the metro, embracing her love, having her eyes and nose kissed, and now she has no one. She steps onto the car, revealing white sox and black tennis shoes under her long skirt. I step on behind her, disgusted with her, feeling sorry for her, and I tell myself not to look on her anymore. I spin facing the doors I just stepped through. They close, and I see a reflection in the glass windows of the doors, a pair of eyes much like those of the old woman staring back.

I’m startled when I realize they are my own, and the car slowly pulls away from the platform.