Behind the door
“Do you think she did it on purpose?” They were sitting in the food court of a mall, eating an Asian-style menu selection.
“She wants to get rid of us,” replied David, “she sees that you’re earning money, Kačenka is enrolled in school so there’ll be more commotion at home, she’s fed up.”
“That was clear from the beginning. I don’t think it was a good tip. There are probably better landlords who’d give us a better rate. Are we able to make it, David? Kačenka needs a new wardrobe, she outgrew everything. It’s true that I haven’t outgrown anything, but I also haven’t bought anything new since we got here.”
It was snowing outside, the year ninety-nine began with a tough cold, and they didn’t feel like going outside into the freezing discomfort. They felt more privacy at the mall. There was so much to talk about.
“I know. It’s not a matter of the landlord. Everyone will take as much of our money as we’ll be willing to give them. We have to buy something of our own. The sooner, the better. Since you’re asking, I’ll tell you honestly. It’s not going as I’d hoped.”
People passed through the food court, teenagers taking advantage of the wide hallway for ‘chance’ encounters and mutual exchanging of glances. It would probably be interesting to watch the crowd’s dynamic, if one was in the mood. David took a sip of coke from his paper cup and counted.
“Old hag James officially raised our rent to eleven hundred, beginning the first of February ninety-nine. Phone and laundry are extra. It’s a crime, but what can we do. We’re also paying for the storage of our boxes that arrived from the Czech Republic. Then came the transmission repair; we can’t avoid that. Car insurance and health insurance and now also the student loans for medical exams. I had to buy the textbooks – no way around it. Winter clothes, also unavoidable. And we have to eat something. You have nine dollar an hour for the occasional cleaning, but they only call you when someone else calls in sick.”
“Starting in March I might get a ‘point seven’ contract. Maybe.”
“Yes. That would help a lot. I get paid twelve an hour in the warehouse and it’s also part-time. Right now. If I completed the certification for a fork-lift operator, it would be more. Right now, if I’m also going to do those medical exams, it’s not enough.” Kačenka didn’t understand everything, but she knew that she couldn’t have everything the other girls in her classroom had. At least it was lucky that she was picking up English fast. She hadn’t even noticed that she understood TV shows at Mrs. James’ better than mom and dad did.
“So what will we do? And when do you think you’ll actually finish those exams?”
“It won’t be right away. But if I end up earning what physicians here make, maybe we’ll be laughing in a few months or a year. You’ll see.”
“But what do we do now? Maybe you could talk to that woman. Surely she doesn’t pay for her mortgage what she’s charging us for rent.”
“You’re right, but what does it have to do with us? But maybe I have another solution, Alice.”
They hung around the mall a little longer, looking into store windows. The weather outside was unwelcoming. The deepfreeze of minus twenty was supposed to last another week, then it should warm up.
They arrived back at the house around eight in the evening. Mrs. James was sitting in front of the television, watching a contest where audience members guessed the prices of various items. David turned to Alice, taking advantage of his knowledge of a mysterious European tongue. He said casually: “Nobody in the world would guess the price this withered hag is charging for our rent.”
Alice knew what proposal he would suggest to Mrs. James. She didn’t love the idea but at the same time she let herself be convinced that it would only be temporary. There were two options. Mrs. James will either grasp the situation and reduce her horrendous price, or she’ll just accept the proposal. In either case, it’s a success.
As soon as they’d settled in a little, David approached Mrs. James.
“We really appreciate that we’re able to live here, and feel…we feel safe here. The two small bedrooms and a bathroom in the basement are a good space. I was wondering whether it would be alright for us to free up the larger of the two rooms for you. You mentioned there was a student who wanted to rent. I trust it may allow you to decrease our rent.” Mrs. James turned down the volume on her TV and looked at Říha.
“But you can’t fit three beds into the small bedroom. What do you mean?”
David took a breath and continued: “There’s a Christian organization that lets small rooms at no cost. The shower’s in the hallway, but I could go there. My wife and daughter would stay here and I’d move into the dorm. We’re planning to apply for a mortgage to buy a house soon. Within two months we’d like to buy something of our own. We think we may qualify for a mortgage now. I’d also have a quieter place to study. A temporary solution.” Judy James was looking from one to the other and couldn’t figure whether David’s declaration was real or ironic. She’ll agree and see what the ‘doctor’ will do.
“If you’re serious, you can move out tomorrow, and I’ll count four-fifty for rent monthly. Today’s the ninth of February, so we’ll count back to the first, if you leave tomorrow. You’re right. There’s a girl from the Philippines, who’s going to pay nine hundred for that room. But if you’d like the larger one, it would be more. For the smaller one, four hundred and eighty.”
“A moment ago you said four-fifty.”
“Now I’m saying four-eighty.” Alice and David exchanged glances and David nodded.
“It works for us.” Mrs. James shrugged and turned up the TV volume.
They walked back downstairs into the room they’d rented until now. David began folding in silence his shirts and pants, underwear, socks, and textbooks. Alice watched him with tight lips and tears in her eyes.
“It’s not a big deal, Alice. Just for now. We need the money, so that we can really start up here. I booked the room over there in the dorm – they’re holding it for me. For forty-eight hours. There’s nothing else we can do. We’ll phone each other. And soon we’ll buy a house, I’ll complete the exams, and return to medicine. Don’t forget this is a temporary phase. Everyone goes through it.”
“I don’t know if I have the strength for it.”
“Of course you do. Because we’re together. You know, it’s like this. We don’t know enough. Nobody will tell you the truth, what it’s really like here. That’s because it’s too intimate. We only got distorted images from those who live here. I’m a cardiologist. I have the right to say it out loud. If we go into it with our heart, it’ll happen for us. Will you help me pack?”
She nodded and slowly, without speaking, folded things together with David. Towels, shaving, shoes.
“My saxophone can probably stay here. I don’t think I’ll be jamming there. But you never know.”
Before eleven o’clock, two suitcases stood by the door, one smaller and the other larger. David couldn’t help himself and dialed Superb Charity Accommodations. They were there twenty-four hours a day, and he somehow couldn’t help but fear that the room perhaps wasn’t reserved. Then he’d have no choice and would have to stay. No question. He’d unpack immediately, put his shaving supplies back on the shelf and everything would go on just the same.
The phone didn’t ring for long. Alice heard clearly.
“…yes…yes…thank you…so, tomorrow morning,…yes, I will be there…have a good night.”
They waited for Kačenka to fall asleep. They so wanted privacy. But, in the end, neither of them was in the mood for anything but staring at the ceiling. Until they both fell asleep.