Maybe, after all
They had good seats. Kačenka was sitting by the window during the entire flight, even though it was Alice’s seat. She was next to the isle, that’s how she wanted it. David was in-between.
“You can choose, Kačenka. Fish or chicken. Then also a little dessert, maybe fruit salad and a small cup of juice, that’s how it usually is. So get ready for when the flight attendant asks.” Dad was explaining as the metal cart was approaching.
“And can I have two desserts instead of the fruit salad?” They both laughed.
“Kačenka,” corrected her mom, “imagine if everyone got two desserts and nobody had the fruit salad. There wouldn’t be enough.”
“So the pilot would eat the fruit salad. And flight attendants.”
“But the two desserts would only be enough for half the passengers.” Now Kačenka had to think about it. It was complicated. Dad David continued. “Think of it like this. They have one dessert for each passenger. They have them prepared before the plane takes off; they can’t get new ones on the way. Every passenger would get their dessert, and then those sitting on the right, like we are, would hand over their dessert to the people on the left. One whole half of the plane would give away their desserts to the other side….”
“…so then the plane would lean to one side.”
“That’s true too,” laughed David.
It was drizzling out. The end of October brought with it a change in weather. It cooled down markedly and the mornings now witnessed the first frost. Wet wind pulled down leaves from trees, driving them through gardens and buildings. High above the heavy grey veil of lead-colored clouds, however, the sun was beaming in a clean azure sky. That was also sort of how David understood his philosophy.
It was the end of October two thousand and one. Their house was not very full yet. Mattresses on the floor, dishes in simple temporary shelves, and in the kitchen a new table with new chairs. In one of the rooms they could smell a new, deeply red carpet. That was enough for now; more precisely, it had to be enough. Alice got a raise of twenty-five cents per hour. David had stopped working at the airport. That was Alice’s wish. She was scared; the experience was too vivid, scary and unacceptable. In the warehouse David too received a raise in his hourly wage – in his case twenty cents an hour. But he had the opportunity to work overtime, which multiplied his income by one and a half. It also helped that they no longer paid storage fees for their boxes and saved on food. They now ate together and didn’t have to separate their expenses. Still, so far David hadn’t received a positive answer to any of his job applications as an electrocardiological technician. Such a position would mean over twenty dollars an hour pay. If only he could have such a job.
“Your eyes are closing. You can pull down the window shutter and sleep. We still have a long way ahead of us. Up here we’ve got a blanket, if you want.”
“Ok,” said Kačenka tiredly, “so pass me the blanket, please.” In a moment she slept like a kitten.
Alice and David were watching the in-flight movie but didn’t pay much attention to the story-line. They had so much to think about. Should they look forward to it? To what? To the past? To what awaits them? David didn’t want to think about it. Every time he recalled the voice he’d heard on the phone, when he’d called to the hospital over a month ago, he was flooded by a wave of endless sadness, pain and guilt. Maybe he should’ve taken the bus, then maybe a ship. Nonsense. There was nothing else he could do. Again and again he heard those words: “They are really good to me here, Davídek. Don’t you worry. I’m just a little weak. So they’re giving me medicine….” Is it really possible that he will never hear that voice again? How could he have let it happen? He’s a criminal. An insensitive villain. Couldn’t he have figured something out? He was glad that both Alice and Kačenka were asleep. He didn’t have to talk to anyone. What use are affirmations that it wasn’t his fault and that he can’t torture himself with feelings of guilt. He’s a physician and still he let it end like this. Couldn’t he have managed things better? Almost all their money they had back home went toward transporting their boxes across the ocean, and the rest went toward his exams and dozens of fees. And what came of it? Where’s the pay-off? What is he doing wrong? Everything. That’s the truth. He doesn’t deserve to be the ‘captain’ of their boat.
Alice on one side, Kačenka on the other, both rested their heads on David. With a serious expression on his face, he was staring in front of him, over the heads of other passengers. The plane was dim, some passengers were reading, but only David was thinking about the black suit and long black dress in their suitcases.
That October afternoon, gorgeous weather greeted them at Ruzynĕ airport. It was obvious that fall had taken the reign, but the sky still wanted to pretend it was summer. In the clear air they could see far over the horizon, trees that looked as though they’d been painted with Chagall’s palette.
“Kačenka, that’s the first time you’ll be sleeping in a real hotel.”
“And what are they going to do to me there?”
“Nothing. They will take care of you there. Like a very special guest. They will make sure you always have clean towels, maybe three at once, and soap. Every day. That’s how it is in hotels.”
“And are they going to bring me a new toothbrush every day too?”
“I have never heard of that. Let’s not try that, though, just keep yours the whole week, the yellow one you’ve brought.”
They were riding in the back of the taxi and David with Alice were quite. They were looking around and felt as if the driver deliberately drove through the most breathtaking corners. So wonderful was that magical city. Kačenka was quiet too. She finally asked a question that she’d evidently thought about since the flight.
“And can I kiss grandma?” David looked at her and actually he didn’t know.
“I would like to, too, Kačenka. I don’t know what it will be like over there. Sad. Very sad. Even if we can’t kiss her, we will always have a soft kiss for her in our hearts, if you know what I mean.” She nodded and didn’t ask anymore.
In the hotel room they were able to take their mind off it all, even for a moment. Kačenka was thrilled about everything she saw. The TV, phone, fridge, sparkling bathroom, everything was so different and interesting. Heavy curtains on the windows, fancy beds, a painting of tulips on the wall.
“We can take a shower and go out for a bite to eat,” suggested Alice.
“And I can have two desserts, right? The hotel won’t tip over to one side, will it?”
“No, the hotel won’t tip over, but you could, if you eat too many sweets at night.”
The following morning had to arrive. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but there was no way to avoid it. That single saddest morning that a person can experience in their life. Morning dreaded and unreal, filled with a faint scent of chrysanthemums and the forest aroma of tree needles. Every tone of the synthesizer sounded heavy with bottomless grief; anything that was said was sealed with heavenly eternity and tragic majesty. Nobody is ever prepared for that day. David felt that he’d done something terribly wrong. Incorrigibly wrong. The curtain that closed behind the wreath with black ribbons, as the last tones echoed, could not erase the feeling of guilt.
They were leaving with a strange sense of bitterness and the notion of some higher justice that knows how things should be. Neither of them wanted to think about the service. They’d locked that feeling of majesty within themselves, aware that any uttered word would only disturb the notion of clarity.
“I would like to have lunch at a restaurant of my choosing,” suggested David after they’d emerged into the sunny October day.
“David, you’re our captain and we will go where you go. Always. I would like you to choose the restaurant.”
“Maybe you’ll laugh, but I’ll take you up on that. You want to go right away? Hopefully they still make that excellent fried cheese there.” David wanted to lighten up the day. Alice already suspected which restaurant it would be. And she too was curious.
They let a cab drive them to the spot Alice had suspected as soon as David expressed his wish to choose the restaurant. It was adjacent to the street David would surely want to visit.
“Here then. This is it. I will just peek in there and then we’ll have lunch. It’s around the corner. I won’t keep us long.”
“David, it’s your day. We’ll wait and maybe walk around a bit in the meantime. Of course, go there.” He nodded and stepped in the direction away from the restaurant.
Around the corner David soon saw the façade. He hesitated. In front of the small building were parked four vehicles. Slowly he approached. Is he going to find the courage to enter? The name changed. He didn’t like the new one. It read ‘Medrentcentr’, without any charm. David stopped about twenty steps from the glass doors. He felt as though he’d last entered through them only yesterday. Bizarre. David suddenly didn’t feel any loss, as he read the new title, which revealed the building had changed proprietor and probably also its purpose. David was curious. But what if he runs into somebody he knows? He didn’t want that. He wouldn’t know what to talk about. It would trigger an avalanche of encounters that he didn’t actually care about. But nobody was expecting him and nobody knew that he would fly in and that he was now standing in front of Alternative Clinic.
He continued. He would go as far as he could. David walked all the way to the door and touched the door knob. He knew the familiar object in his palm and immediately recoiled a few steps back. That touch also brought back an uncomfortable feeling of cold anxiety about letters written in red. Who knows what would have happened. David felt a warming sense of assurance from the fact that he’d forever closed the door behind those anonymous letters.
Medrentcentr. That’s probably still a health center, and therefore a free entry. He pressed the door knob and stepped inside. At the reception desk sat an extravagant blonde. Immediately she seemed out of place. Her hairstyle was complicated and tall; nature must have played a prank when it complemented the gleaming white locks with thick black eye-lashes. Bright red lipstick and a perfume that hit David over the nose as soon as he’d opened the door.
The receptionist certainly wasn’t his type. David stepped closer.
“Do you have an appointment?” she began immediately with interrogation. David noted her extremely long nails, which must have posed problems anytime she needed to type.
“No. I just want to ask… I would just like to know how long are the wait times for appointments.”
“You have to know which procedure and with whom.” She was rude. It wasn’t his hurt ego or jealousy. She really was being unpleasant.
“I don’t know…, I was referred here.” David wanted to find out as much as possible, but didn’t know how to ask, “and what procedures do you offer?”
“Excuse me?” She was so unfriendly, thought David. She would deter anybody. How can she be working here? She’s such a sourpuss.
From the opposite end of the corridor, two men were approaching. They were in the middle of a loud conversation when they arrived at the reception. Laughing, they seemed to be in a jovial mood. David looked up and froze. What? That’s a surprise! He hasn’t changed one bit. Is it even possible? So he’s working here? Look what a nice belly he’s grown, too. Serves you right! Who might the other one be? David didn’t know him. He quickly lowered his head again, so as to remain unnoticed, but the duo wasn’t paying any attention anyway. He probably wouldn’t recognize him anyway. After all, David had changed a lot. His hair was graying and thinning, and he’d lost some weight.
The two were now standing next to the reception desk, sifting through some pages, making occasional notes and paid no attention whatsoever to David. He had his face partially covered by his hand and was staring into the promotional materials on the desk.
He would have never believed, as he looked in his guests’ faces that night of the party in
honor of their first profitable month, that he would meet them again in this way.
When the two men turned to leave the reception area, David mumbled something about grabbing some paperwork from the car, and left too. Besides, Alice and Kačenka were waiting for him and all of them were looking forward to a good lunch.
“So? Did you go inside?” asked Alice directly.
“I did. And I stumbled upon…, well it doesn’t matter.”
“Who? Some of your… friends?”
“Yes. Maybe more of them still work there, I’m not sure. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I could go for that fried cheese now. Let’s go, my girls, both of you.” David grabbed both Alice and Kačenka by the hands and headed to the restaurant.