She approached the city from the Vienna airport, the highway pressed between lanes of harvested Austrian fields. At some point a skyline of concrete rose from the lowlands. Now she felt she could understand why her mother ran in the opposite direction thirty years ago. Was coming to Bratislava a bad idea?
Luba, the woman from the school who picked her up, drove her to the apartment. It was in the middle of the concrete skyline. “The rabbit warrens,” Luba said. Andrea wasn’t sure if it was a joke, so she smiled politely. She had never seen a less homey-looking apartment building, apart from the projects in New York. “I’ll be fine,” she said to Luba, although Luba didn’t ask if she would be. This was the housing the school offered its teachers and that was that. That night she cried. She was scared of the drunken voices the wind carried between the buildings. It was Friday.
She had contacted her father before signing up for the job. It was the first time they had ever spoken; she had thought it was ridiculous that she was so nervous about the phone call. Not about what she was going to propose, but about the actual call.
It took some awkward explaining before he understood who was calling. He sounded enthusiastic about her coming to Bratislava.
“I never wanted your mother to leave the country. I didn’t even know she was pregnant,” he said. “I swear!” She hadn’t known what to say.
“I would pick you up at the airport, but I don’t have a car.”
“That’s OK, they’ll send someone from the school.”
She met her father, Miro, on Sunday. He took her to a café in the city center on the other side of the Danube. The old city was charming, like a miniature of a real European capital, with the square, the medieval fountain, the historical radnica, the cafés. She took a lot of pictures. Of her father, too, though he protested and covered his face with his hands. “You’re lucky you got your mom’s looks.”
He had a Picasso visage, yes. She had the same fat lower lip as he, but it didn’t work quite as well for him. But asymmetry was what made his face interesting. Other than that, he was just fifty-five and worn out. Was it because he drank? Or smoked?
Everybody drank and smoked. Here and there faces materialized in the haze of the café. The room was filled with the language she had only spoken with her mother. Back home it was used in the familiar version with English words thrown in. She had to concentrate hard now; the tempo was set to high.
She wanted to order coffee.
“The first time I see my daughter, we will not drink coffee. Dva fernety!”
“So. It’s me. Andrea.”
“Andrea, Andrejka,” he repeated, rolling the r’s more than her mother did. He shook his head, as in I can’t believe you’re here. He almost held her face in his pale hands, but in the end he didn’t. Thank God. Instead he slapped his thighs.
“I’m so happy. Two more fernets please!”
He kept asking questions, but made it challenging to reply. He mostly answered himself, just waiting for a nod from her, not even that really. She was teaching English, she majored in English, did she always want to be a teacher, was this temporary. She came for six months. He said it was great.
“So, what do you do?” she asked. She wanted to add Dad, just for the fun of it, but couldn’t decide which was more appropriate, otec or tato.
“You know, this and that.”
“Mom said you used to work for a newspaper.”
He waved it off.
“That was long ago. I’m a businessman now.”
“That’s exciting.” Did she really say exciting? “What’s your… expertise?”
“I had this thing—I was selling plastic bags, for wholesale. But it’s over. The market was unstable.”
“I also started a company. We bred dogs, well, sold dogs. It’s complicated.”
“That sounds like fun.”
“Not really. Anyway, the money’s in real estate now.”
“Are you thinking of getting into that?”
Her mother would’ve laughed at her if she were there. How American you are, she would say and she would laugh.
“Maybe. We’ll see. Drink up, Andrejka. It’s not every day that I get drunk with my daughter.”
She stopped drinking after the sixth round. The café was closing. He insisted they go someplace else.
“It’s around the corner from here. Are you cold, do you want my jacket?”
He threw the heavy leather coat over her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. The closeness shocked her, he smelled like someone who had just returned from an unventilated country house, bringing back staleness in his clothes and hair. He smelled of must and smoke. She wondered what the Slovak word was. Could she say, My father is musty?
“How do you like the city?” he asked. “It’s a shame they put you up in Petržalka. They probably can’t afford a better neighborhood. Back in the day, we used to live near the castle, beautiful area!”
They came to a door guarded by a bouncer. Miro greeted the guy and they went in. The lights were dim and there was a stage in the middle of the room. Was he insane, bringing her to a strip club? She looked around; there wasn’t much action. The place wasn’t bad, it wasn’t dirty or anything. Maybe there was nothing else open this late. It was a Sunday after all. Maybe it was a prominent nightclub. Maybe he was trying to take her to the best spot. She couldn’t know.
“I should probably go home and get some sleep. I’m working tomorrow,” she said.
“Nonsense!” He tilted his head to one side and smiled at her like a child. “One more round, then we go.”
She ended up paying the bill. He kept saying there was an ATM machine right there on the next block. She said he shouldn’t worry about it and hailed a cab.
“I’ll pay you back!”
She watched him as he went back inside.
He called the next day. She’d just come home, relieved she didn’t have to teach in the afternoon. The kids had giggled and whispered in all her classes; it felt like they knew she had a hangover. When she woke up and saw herself in the mirror at 7 a.m., she thought she looked like a bus driver before his morning shift. She spent fifteen minutes just trying to cover up the rosy glow.
“Hello Andrejka,” he said. How did he get to be so cheerful?
“I want to invite you over to my house for lunch. How’s Saturday?”
Saturday came. “You didn’t have to,” the woman said. She took the bottle of wine from Andrea. “Look, Miro.”
“Andrejka, this is Klaudia, my partner.”
He seemed to be very proud to have a partner. Klaudia looked like someone who’d punish him if he misbehaved. Next to her, he appeared boyish, smiling and flushing. Rosy glow probably ran in the family.
Before lunch was served, Miro spent five minutes yelling ‘Father!” “Come down!” and “Lunch!” He never moved an inch from his chair. Finally, a funny old man came down, grunting. He was wearing a grey striped suit. She wasn’t sure what he wore underneath, but it resembled a pajama top.
“This is my father,” Miro said. “Father, this is Andrejka, your granddaughter.”
And a grandfather, too? “Oh. So nice to meet you. I had no idea—” she said.
“Everybody wants me dead.” The old man took her hand and, to her horror, kissed it. “Enchante, darling, enchante! Welcome.”
Klaudia made Sege goulash. It was similar to the one her mother made, only greasier. Her mother always picked something leaner than pork belly. She told Andrea that it was supposed to be made with pork belly, but that she just wasn’t used to it. My grandmother cooked it like this, she always said we could afford better meat.
“Delicious, isn’t it,” Miro said.
His father murmured something.
“Very. Thank you so much for cooking, Klaudia.”
“My pleasure. I can give you the recipe if you want.”
“I’m eighty-five,” the old man said. “Can you believe it? I used to be the head of French at the Department of Languages.”
“Wow. That’s great. You really look amazing.”
“Your shoes. Suede, isn’t it? They must be made somewhere else.”
“No Father, please! You shouldn’t have made her take her shoes off. A disgusting communist habit.” He turned to Andrea. “I’ll polish them for you, don’t you worry. They look like they need a good brushing.”
“Father, stop it!”
“No Father, stop it! This is my house, I’ll polish all the shoes in it if I want!”
After they’d eaten and drunken all the wine, the old man excused himself, kissed Andrea’s hand again, and left the room.
“Don’t worry about your shoes,” Miro said. “It’s like a hobby, he’s unstoppable. But he does a pretty good job.”
He took out crystal shot glasses and started pouring something from a bottle without a label.
“Homemade calvados,” he said. “From our apples.”
He opened the blinds, and she saw two shrunken apple trees. The garden looked like the house—shabby, as if years ago the inhabitants had suddenly taken off. When she looked longer however, the garden started to emit a certain joviality. She pictured an old wooden table under the tree, people around it during a bright summer day. A man played the accordion… One of the drunken couples at the table must’ve been her mother and Miro. How pathetic I am, she thought, when she remembered what movie the scene was from. One of those Balkan films.
Her instinct was to refuse the calvados, but she didn’t want to offend them. And there was the pork belly mixed with cabbage sitting inside her, maybe the liquor would help. It would certainly make the conversation easier.
The last flowers were holding up in the front yards of houses along the road. On the bus to the town where her father lived she had caught herself making mental notes about topics of conversation. Slovak Teenagers and English, Bratislava and Its Sights, Fall Season in the Theatres. Ask him something he’s interested in, she reminded herself. Real estate questions would surely be appreciated.
She didn’t need to worry about the conversation. Miro was going into detail about how he wanted to fix things in the house. She could even stay with them the next time. Next time confused her. What next time?
Klaudia appeared with coffee, left and reappeared with dessert. “Doboška!” She announced it as if it was the next part of a show. Then she left again. Andrea could hear her washing the dishes. She half got up from the dusty green sofa in an attempt to help, but Miro grabbed her forearm and sat her down.
“Leave it, leave it.”
He said he needed to talk to her. He filled the glasses again and drank up.
“Andrejka, I need to borrow money.”
So here it was.
He needed three thousand dollars to start. There was a partner, “a very solid guy,” who had a degree from The School of Architecture, there was an office space they just needed to put a down payment on. There was a plan and a clear path to returns within a couple of months. If she could only come up with the three grand.
The rustling from the kitchen had stopped. Everybody seemed to be waiting for an answer.
“I have to think about it,” she said.
The semester got busy. Every time Miro called she told him it was a bad time. She didn’t know what she should do until finally he showed up at her door. He’d missed the bus home and needed to sleep over in the city.
“I don’t have the money, Miro.”
He gave her the look with the head tilt. The look made her shiver—it was hers too. The genes, the fucking genes.
The next morning, she called her mother and asked her to send three thousand dollars. Her mother didn’t say anything. Andrea picked it up at the bank the next week and called Miro. He was embarrassingly thankful, giving her four or five different repayment dates.
She was standing at the bus stop; her, some kids and an old lady with one of those convenient but ugly shopping bags on wheels. Her palms were hurting. She was carrying two plastic bags full of school papers that needed to be graded that night. The bus was coming and there was Miro on it, sitting by the window. He was talking to the man next to him, his face and hands fully at work.
A passionate talker.
The kids and the old lady got on. She was still watching him as the bus closed its doors. When it started moving, Miro and the man both jerked slightly in their seats. The bus took off and that was the last time she saw her father.
One morning, she woke up and realized she had slept the whole night through. The shouting from the street didn’t scare her anymore. This wasn’t so bad, this wasn’t bad at all. She had a new two-bedroom apartment entirely to herself. There was a great view of the bridge and the castle from the balcony. She enjoyed the walk to school, passing people with their dogs and morning cigarettes. She went running down the canal. Even though there was a lot of trash, she liked to watch the swans.
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