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The Quietest Man - Molly Antopol
Read a short story from Molly Antopol's collection, The UnAmericans...
The news was waiting when I came home from class: my daughter had sold a play. Not the kind she’d put on as a girl, with a cardboard stage and paper-bag puppets, but a real one, Off-Broadway, with a set designer and professional actors – one of whom would portray me, because this was, Daniela said in her breathless phone message, a play about our family.
I set down my briefcase, stuffed with my students’ bluebooks, and hit rewind. Then I called Katka.
“She’s twenty-four!” I said. “So?”
“So when we were her age we were living under Husák, and we’re not writing autobiographical plays.”
“Your fatherly pride astounds me.”
I wondered how the wife I had known when Daniela was first born – the quiet, sunken woman who read the Czech newspapers in the library every morning and then wrote long letters to her mother in Prague, letters Katka had known would be swallowed by security – could have become this confident voice on the line.
“I’m just suggesting,” I said, “that Daniela may not know what she’s getting into.”
“Well, she’s the one with the play, and you’re an aging man who begins sentences with ‘When we were her age.’”
“Ha,” I said, and after we hung up I spent the rest of the evening calling Daniela, getting her voicemail each time. Finally, just before eleven, she answered.
“Congratulations!” I said. “I hope I’m not waking you.”
“No, now that people are actually going to see the thing, I’m up trying to fix it.”
So there was still time for revising.
“Why don’t I fly down this weekend to take you out?” I said. “Dinner, a show, whatever you want.”
“What about July?”
My yearly New York trip. “I’ll come then also.”
“You don’t want to be down here,” she said. “It’s a hundred degrees and pouring.”
I told her I’d fly her up to Maine, then. It was humid here for May, too, but being on the water was almost pleasant. She’d never been up and it was an easy ninety-minute flight; we could make a leisurely weekend of it, driving along the jagged green coastline, stopping at Ocean Street Pier for taffy. “They have this big machine,” I said, “where they’ll make your own flavor right in front of you.”
“Sorry,” she said, and my heart flopped: didn’t she used to have a sweet tooth? I had no idea what she did like. I pictured her in her apartment on 103rd Street, a glum shoebox studio she had brightened up by painting it yellow and lining the sill with ferns. She would be on her bed, doing ballet stretches, and her hair, long and thick and the color of cola, would be falling into her mouth. “I’ve got a lot of work.”
“So?” I said. “Me, too.”
“I figured as much.”
Ah, this directness was new. The young artiste emboldened by a sale. “I’m so proud of you, Daniela. I just want to celebrate,” I said, and finally her voice softened and she said okay. I knew I was laying it on thick, but what were my options? I pictured a velvet curtain pulled open to reveal the stage. I saw that Queens backdrop: the low huddle of brick tenements with the metallic sparks of the city beyond. Under the spotlight sat a girl on her stoop, pudgy and pale with dark brown bangs cut straight across. She was waiting for her father. It was his weekend; he should have arrived an hour ago. She waited and waited. The theater lights brightened as the afternoon got hotter, and when the mother returned from the third house she’d cleaned that day, she took one look at her daughter and led her inside. The mother, tired and tall in bleach-stained sweats and sneakers, called the father long-distance as her daughter slumped on the sofa, still clutching her lavender suitcase with both hands. And when the father told the truth, that somehow the Saturday pickup had become Sunday in his mind, the whole strained story of their relationship was revealed in the way the mother drew in a breath to stop from yelling, before ripping open a package of cold cuts and making their lunch.
We wrote by hand – the government had a record of everyone who owned type-writers – and late at night I’d sneak into different university buildings to type the materials.
I knew any good parent would have been thrilled. And I wanted to be. In some ways it would have been easier if I’d been a monster – at least I’d know what was coming. Instead, I just hadn’t been around much. And so, for the next few days, sitting through office hours or doing laundry in preparation for Daniela’s visit, all I could think about was being written into her life story – especially because I knew just where she had gotten her facts.
Daniela was two when Katka and I separated; she was bred on a lifetime of her mother’s tales about me. Katka, I imagined, would begin by saying that I was the one who dragged her to America in the first place. In Prague we had written anonymously with our colleagues for the journal the Chronicle of Our Time. We wrote by hand – the government had a record of everyone who owned type-writers – and late at night I’d sneak into different university buildings to type the materials. Every time we finished an issue, we’d distribute it to people we knew, who then passed it along to people they knew, until we had thousands of readers throughout the country. But when the StB still managed to link me to a typewriter, I was brought in for questioning and fired from my teaching post in the political science department. At the time Katka had seemed like the lucky one: she was on maternity leave from the economics department that term, and so avoided suspicion. But it was my name people chanted outside the university. It was my name that made international headlines and reached the desk of Saul Sandalowski, the Collins College professor who campaigned to get me a visa and a teaching job to avoid imprisonment.
She’d tell Daniela about packing our entire flat in three days before boarding the long flight to the States. She’d talk about the brick faculty apartment that awaited us in Vermont: boxy and carpeted and new; a million times nicer than our flat on Bořivojova Street, but dimly quiet without our friends crowded around the living room, chatting away the evening. She’d talk about how my assistant professor’s salary barely covered our rent, let alone food or doctor’s bills – and she’d talk about working the early morning shift as a janitor at the college, mopping the same mahogany classrooms I lectured in, emptying the garbage can full of my students’ crumpled napkins and paper coffee cups.
Katka came from a long line of intellectuals. She was the one who was supposed to be offered a professorship in America. Her father had been shipped to a psychiatric prison for writing his own antigovernment pieces when Katka was still a baby, and an enormous part of her childhood was watching her mother devote herself to getting him out. I remember meeting Katka back in university and trying to impress her with my big ideas, only to realize the political books I was reading for the first time were ones she had already dissected and gleaned an understanding of years ago. There was something so exciting, almost romantic, about watching this brawny college girl reduce my undercooked ideas to a lumpy pile of porridge, making me feel not like a rising star at the university but what I really was, deep down: a skinny kid from a family of uneducated dairy farmers in Moravia. A big part of me had always believed I was destined to ride her coattails. The only thing I had over her was fluency in English; I’d studied in London after college. I could see how hard the move to Vermont was on her. I could see it in the way she closed into herself when I dragged her to cocktail hour at the provost’s house, the way even meeting me for a quick lunch before class made her anxious. The woman who had once stood outside Party headquarters, chanting “StB Equals Gestapo,” was suddenly afraid to order at the campus sandwich shop because she didn’t understand the menu.
At this point, Katka would say the transition would have been difficult no matter what, but that I certainly didn’t help. She’d say even when I was home I wasn’t really there – at the dinner table, or lifting a crying Daniela from her crib, I always seemed to be silently working on another essay. How I ducked into my study at every possible moment, how birthdays and anniversaries slipped into a murky, irretrievable place in my mind – but how I never seemed to forget the dates of Saul Sandalowski’s dinner parties. And she would be right. But those dinners! Saul, with his floppy, wheat-colored hair and shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows, clamping a hand on my shoulder as he led me inside. His stone house on Seminary Road, so mazy and grand I always got lost looking for the bathroom. I was the honored guest, the man with the stories scholars and journalists and philanthropists wanted to hear.
And so, over glasses of Borelo, I told them about the two StB officials waiting outside the political science department on U Kříže Street. “Tomás Novak?” one had said, and I had said, “Why do you need to know?” and they dragged me into a black service car. It was late April, sunny but cold, and as we pulled away from the curb, I saw people outside the university, staring away or feigning conversation so they wouldn’t be witnesses. In the headquarters, the officials led me down a long hallway into a windowless room with white walls and a steel desk with a green-eyed, round-faced man behind it. He calmly asked me to name the other writers involved in the journal. I refused. He asked again. He asked again and again, so many times that the hours began to blur and I couldn’t tell if we’d entered the next day. All over Czechoslovakia, writers were breaking down and naming names. But did they really believe sleep deprivation would crack a father with a newborn? I joked to Saul’s guests – though I remembered the moment I’d started to cry, sitting in that hard-backed chair as I recalled stories of people thrown into psychiatric prisons or, worse, brought in for questioning and never heard from again. The lights were bright and one of the chair legs was shorter than the others so I felt as if I was perpetually sliding off, and every time I blinked into sleep the man would slam his desk drawer shut, jolting me awake. But I continued to refuse. And when one of Saul’s guests would ask where that bravery came from, as someone always did, I’d tell them we all had a reserve for when we needed it most. I believed that, though sometimes I wondered if I could ever depend on it again. When I was finally released, word spread and I became famous among other writers – they called me the Quietest Man.
Yet as I circulated Saul’s living room, with Brubeck on the stereo and little salmon crudités being passed around, I understood I could finally name the names of the Chronicle writers without consequence. So I told them about Ivan and Michal and Dita, and most of all about Katka Novak. My brave, brilliant wife who unfortunately wasn’t here this evening because we couldn’t find a sitter, I lied – when in truth she rarely wanted to leave the apartment except to take Daniela out in the afternoon. My wife who, for the four days I remained quiet in the interrogation room, was anything but. With a newborn on her hip, she led rallies outside the university, marching through Nové Město and up to a podium in Wenceslas Square. She spoke with such force that she persuaded an American reporter to write a piece about me. So while people with less evidence against them were jailed, enough support came through that my family and I were given emergency clearance – and when I described Katka to Saul’s guests, it was like she was back up on the podium, drawing so large a crowd that children climbed the trees to glimpse her.
But then Saul’s dinners would end and I’d tiptoe into our dark, silent apartment and find the new Katka in bed with the lights off. “You awake?” I’d whisper, a little drunk off the Borelo as I ran a finger along her pale, freckled arm. “No,” she’d say, rolling over, and it was only hours later as the sun came up and I walked her through campus that she’d unlock the lecture hall with her ring of janitor’s keys and say, “Imagine eating alone while I was at dinner parties.” That’s how Katka was: she’d pick up a conversation I thought had ended eons ago without ever reintroducing the topic. “I’m not saying we go home, I know we can’t,” she’d say, “but maybe New York.” Somewhere, she said, with people like us. Somewhere that didn’t feel like the edge of the earth. But before I could answer, the first students of the day would breeze past as if we were no more significant than the chalkboards and long wooden desks that filled the room.
Katka continued to push the idea of moving to New York, but things were changing for me, and fast: my two books of essays were translated and published by a university press, and I was invited to speak at colleges all over the Northeast, in Hartford and Amherst. Katka said I was being selfish. I told her I was working hard for all of us. She said I owed it to our daughter to be home more, that if I didn’t consider her feelings she’d leave me and take Daniela to stay with her second cousin in Queens. I begged her not to, but there was a secret part of me that wanted her to go, that longed to be free from the responsibility of my family. I wasn’t ready to leave Vermont – not when I felt my life there opening up, wider and wider.
Of course I didn’t really expect a woman with no money and next to no English to leave, and it was only when I made the first custody drive down the Taconic that it actually felt real. Of course I didn’t expect Katka to find steady enough work cleaning houses in New York, or that she’d parlay it into her own business with a dozen employees before eventually selling it and enrolling in business classes. And of course I didn’t expect that three years after Katka left, communism would collapse and the work I’d dedicated my life to would be done. That the dinner discussions at Saul Sandalowski’s would suddenly revolve around Bosnia and that a young female Serb would become Saul’s newest honored guest – and I certainly didn’t expect that same woman to win tenure over me. That my thirties and forties would be about mastering the delicate, tricky dance of pleading for adjunct work up and down the east coast – Albany, Durham, Burlington – and now, for the past two years, in Harpswick, Maine, which, if Katka thought of Vermont as the edge of the earth, would have made her feel she’d fallen off completely.
Her long hair was so flat it looked ironed, and her pale blue eyes – she had my eyes – were hidden by thinframed glasses.
Daniela looked different than I remembered. When I’d seen her the previous summer, she still had that self-consciously sloppy, postcollege look. Gone now were the flip-flops and baggy hooded sweat-shirt, and with that change I would have hoped – and, deep down, expected – that she’d have continued to take after her mother. I had expected her dark hair to be wavy and loose like Katka’s. I had expected that she too would straddle the precarious line between fatness and fullness, settling on the latter, and that she would have the same thick black eyebrows that first caught my attention, more than thirty years ago, on the street outside the Clementinum Library.
The sad fact was that Daniela was turning out plainer than her mother, but she was certainly more polished and put together. Though the afternoon was hot and gray, she wore a white button-down, pointy sandals and creased jeans cuffed at the ankle. Her long hair was so flat it looked ironed, and her pale blue eyes – she had my eyes – were hidden by thinframed glasses. Standing outside the arrival gate, she could have easily passed for one of the students who used to trudge slush into the classrooms Katka had just mopped. I’m certain that to anyone else Daniela would have appeared exhausted from her flight; rumpled, nervous and probably overwhelmed to be seeing her father after almost a year. But to me she looked like one of those girls, who, with one quick toss of her glossy hair, used to make me feel like an awkward foreigner with an ill-fitting sweater and tangled teeth.
“Daniela!” I got out of the car. I wondered if I should hug her. “You look ... older.”
“Thanks. You, too.”
I glanced at my shorts and striped shirt, my stomach puffing over my belt. “You got in early,” I said.
“There was a delay at JFK but the pilot said he made up for it in the air.”
People rushed past us and through the automatic glass doors. Somewhere nearby, a car alarm went off. I looked at my daughter and she looked back.
“So,” I said, just as Daniela said, “So,” and then she said, “Jinx.”
“Everything’s good with you?” I said. “Great.”
“Your semester’s almost over?”
Ever since I could remember Daniela had been so bumbling and nervous around me, so desperate for my attention that she’d blurt anything. And now she was just standing there, looking deeply amused as I sweated through the conversation, her hip cocked and her leather suitcase at her feet. Finally I swallowed and said, “We just finished the Battle of Königgrätz.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Ah,” I said, and we fell into silence.
Traffic was light for Friday night. Alfalfa fields blurred past, dotted with the occasional farmhouse before the land seemed to give up altogether and retreat into marsh. As we made our way into town, I followed Daniela’s gaze, trying to see what she did. There was the hardware store that doubled as a market now that it was May and apricots were everywhere; the movie theater, which for the past three weeks had been showing a film about a foul-mouthed man trapped in the body of a baby; the fire department, which hosted pancake breakfasts every fall. I rolled down the windows and the soupy smell of algae swelled in. I liked living a block from the water, away from the perky bakeries lining Willow Road or the Neanderthal bars closer to the college. I remembered taking long walks along the harbor when I first arrived and knew no one in the entire state of Maine, and I sat with some of the men who looked as old as the weathered wooden dock they fished on, making small talk that helped me feel less alone than I feared I was.
But when I pulled into the driveway and Daniela saw my small gray clapboard, when she saw the front yard, wild with tall grass and calla lilies and the rope swing the previous owners had left hanging from an elm, she said, “So this is it.” And then her face opened into something between a smile and a smirk, as if anyone belonged here more than I did.
I was admittedly a bit of a slob, and in anticipation of her visit I had washed the floors, vacuumed the two butterfly chairs that faced the fireplace, even organized my record collection: the Ellington I’d coveted in my twenties, the Gould that had felt like required listening at Collins, the Billy Joel I played now that I figured I was old enough not to give a shit. I had wanted Daniela to see I was stable, homey and responsible. But now, leading her inside, I wondered if she was making mental notes for the script.
“You want to wash up?” I said.
“I’m okay, thanks.”
“You need some time to settle in and unpack, then?”
“Not really,” she said. “It’s two days.”
Daniela, it seemed, was going to revel in making me work for everything this weekend. She set her backpack in the entryway and I wheeled her small suitcase into the guest room. “We can walk out to the water,” I tried.
“If you want.”
“Or maybe you’re hungry?”
“Daniela,” I said, unable, suddenly, to control the shrillness in my voice, “just tell me what you want.”
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s eat.”
I brought cheese and a baguette and a bottle of wine out to the porch and dragged two Adirondack chairs together. “To my daughter the playwright,” I said, filling her glass.
Daniela raised her drink, then took a long sip, as if unsure how to navigate the line between excitement and bragging. “The craziest part,” she said, “is that they did Mamet on that same stage.”
“Impressive,” I said, a knot pressing into my chest. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might actually be good.
“Or bizarre. Mom was worried – I was working on it every night after work, and I think she was nervous about what would happen if nothing came of it.”
“Your mother’s the biggest worrier around, isn’t she?”
Daniela looked confused, or annoyed, as if she were searching for the joke in my words and couldn’t find it. I knew putting down her mother would score me no points. Katka and I worked hard at keeping up a friendship, mostly for Daniela’s benefit; sometimes I felt as if tolerating me was just another item on her long list of things to do for her daughter, right after making sure the security system in her building worked and she was getting enough protein in her diet. I wanted to change the subject to something tame and tried to remember the name of the company Daniela had been temping for this year. While I had no real interest in the job, I liked envisioning my daughter at a desk in a bright buzzing office, staring out at buildings and sky. I liked imagining that she also chewed up her pens and that she popped her knuckles while she wrote – that she’d gotten certain traits from me that were irrevocable.
“You know when I heard, I didn’t tell anyone the first day?” Daniela said, swallowing a bite of bread. “Not even Mom. I was convinced they’d made a mistake and that the producers would call to apologize.”
“I’ve always been the same way. The moment something good happens I’m waiting for a bus to speed around the corner and kill me.”
“Mom said you had that side.”
So, they did talk about me. “We’re both just really happy for you,” I said, a little too fast. “Did I ever tell you that when my first book was published here, your mother spent an entire weekend making a celebratory meal?”
“Really?” she said, her voice beginning to climb. Daniela loved stories about times she was too young to remember. When she was little I used to catch her staring at this one photo of me and a pregnant Katka outside our flat in Prague, as if looking long enough would reveal what we were saying just before the shutter clicked.
“She took the bus all the way to Burlington to get lamb and then spent the next day baking dumplings,” I said. “It was outstanding.” That was a lie; Katka used ingredients from the Stop & Shop and the dessert came out charred and inedible, but the conversation finally seemed to be flowing and I imagined us sitting up late, finishing one bottle and then the next, swapping stories and secrets. At least I thought we would, until Daniela stood up and said, “Is the guest bed ready?”
“It’s not even ten.” I hoped it didn’t sound like a plea.
“It’s been a long day.”
I’d set her up in my study, just off the kitchen. It was my favorite room: wood-paneled and dark, with a wall of books and an old copper lamp I’d bought at a yard sale years ago. But when Daniela walked in, the space felt small and dusty, and I wondered if the futon, which I napped on every afternoon, would even be comfortable for her.
“Here are towels,” I said, setting two on the desk chair. I hesitated, unsure how to say good night.
Here it came. I blinked, twice, and stepped closer. “Yes?”
“I need to change into my pajamas.”
“Right,” I said, backing toward the door. “I’m out here if you need anything.”
Her backpack was still leaning against the mail table. I coughed, masking the sound as I unzipped it.
I spread my students’ bluebooks across the kitchen table and listened as Daniela walked down the hall to the bathroom. The faucet turned on, then off, the bathroom door opened, the guest door closed. And then, finally, the band of light beneath her door went out. I opened the first bluebook and read the sentence “Austrian forces arrived near Sadowa” three times without registering a word. I got up, poured myself a glass of water, sat down. Then I took off my shoes and slid quietly through the kitchen, the living room, and into the entryway, keeping an ear out for Daniela. Her backpack was still leaning against the mail table. I coughed, masking the sound as I unzipped it. Then I thought about what I was doing, how easily I could get caught, and closed it back up. I told myself to go back to my bluebooks. But I couldn’t. I crouched on the floor, unzipped her bag in a single motion and searched the entire thing. But there was no notepad or laptop, nothing at all resembling a play – just her running clothes, a neck pillow and the Sunday crossword, and it occurred to me that Daniela wouldn’t be stupid enough to leave the play out where I could find it; I’d kept every copy of the Chronicle hidden behind my medicine cabinet until we were ready for distribution. Or was I being too cynical? Could Daniela not even trust her own father? I shut it again and returned to the kitchen. But the last thing I wanted to do was read another student essay, so I took the cordless out to the porch. It embarrassed me that I was dialing Katka’s number for a second time this week, when she never seemed to make these desperate calls – at least not to me.
“This is a disaster!” I said when she picked up. “Tomás?”
“She’s barely talking to me.”
“You got in a fight?”
“Of course not.” Right then I wanted nothing more than to confide in Katka about what I’d just done, but it felt too terrible to say aloud. “Daniela’s impossible to read. And to be honest, she’s getting on my nerves a little – the whole too-confident-to-notice-I-exist thing is a bit much. She’s hardly asked anything about my life – and you two talk about me?”
“She’s probably just stressed.”
“What does she have to be stressed about?”
“I don’t know, Tomás. Sounds like a relaxing weekend to me.”
Katka’s voice drifted. She sounded bored. “Where is she?”
“She went to bed. What twenty-four-year-old is in bed at ten?”
“Can she hear you?”
“I’m outside,” I said, but suddenly I worried that Daniela could. Living alone, I never had to consider this. I ran across the lawn and let myself into my hatchback. The interior still smelled like Daniela’s buttery lotion. I reclined the seat and closed my eyes, the way I did after takeoff. “Have you been in all night?”
“Sam and I were at a concert earlier.” Her boyfriend of the past few months.
I could see Katka as clearly as if she were in front of me, sprawled on her sofa in an oversized sweater and ankle socks, one of those crime dramas she liked on mute. It was always so comforting to slip back into Czech with her, and in the beginning I’d wonder if sitting on the phone long enough we could begin to feel like us again – not the “us” in Vermont but the “us” that was good, back on Bořivojova Street – but it never happened; she told me about Sam and all the other men she dated with loose, offhand ease, as if she could barely remember why she had married me in the first place.
“Listen,” I said, “just tell me what the play’s about.”
“I honestly have no idea.”
“You expect me to believe that? Daniela probably lets you read her diary.” I looked out the window at the clear night. I caught my reflection in the glass, small and distorted. The critics, I knew, would call the father character “unsympathetic” and “unreliable.” My neighbors would read about it in the paper. My students would laugh. In one night in some dim Off-Broadway theater, Katka’s version of the story would become the official one. My entire legacy as the Quietest Man would be erased and for the rest of my life I’d be known as The Egomaniac, The Itinerant or maybe, simply, The Asshole.
“I asked her,” Katka said, “but Daniela said talking about her work too early would kill it.” She said the last two words as through she were wrapping air quotes around them. But I knew it made her proud to hear our daughter trying to sound like an artist, and suddenly Katka seemed to be purposely flaunting their closeness. That’s how I felt this past summer in New York, anyway, seeing them together at brunch. Over waffles Daniela had talked about her temp job and the new play she was working on. She’d just read Catastrophe, and watching her enthuse over Beckett, I remembered first encountering Anna Akhmatova’s poems and feeling like I was sliding back into a conversation I’d been having for years with the writer. Even the new vocabulary Daniela was trying out – she kept talking about the “exhibitionist nature of the theater” – was offset by her genuine ease at the table: she was so animated, talking with her hands, moving the salt and pepper shakers around to enact her favorite parts of the play. Katka seemed to be reveling in every second of it, and for the first time I wondered if our daughter’s desire to be a writer allowed Katka to finally accept the fact that she no longer was one. As I watched them, squeezed in the corner booth, swapping food off each other’s plates without even asking, it seemed as through their relationship had morphed into a genuine friendship.
I knew that should have made me happy, but I hated the way Katka had kept mentioning Daniela’s friends by name that morning. I hated the way Daniela talked about the professors she’d stayed in touch with after graduation, and when she said she was going to see one of them read at the National Arts Club, I wondered if she was intentionally rubbing it in that I’d never been invited to talk there (though how could she have known?). Even Katka’s supposedly nice gesture of heading back to Queens to give us time alone had felt like an aggressive challenge: how would we fill the day?
But Daniela seemed to have it all planned out. The moment her mother said goodbye, she led me down Amsterdam, pointing out her morning running route and the Greek diner where she stopped after work. We walked and walked, long after I craved refuge in some air-conditioned store, and before I knew it, we were in the theater district.
She stopped in front of a theater, small and brick with a ticket-seller who waved to her through the glass booth, then went back to reading his magazine. “I’ve been ushering here a couple nights a week,” she said. “They let me see free shows.”
“The guy who runs it, he said he’ll read my script when it’s done.”
She was staring up at the marquee, and I knew that if Katka were there, they’d already be fantasizing about her play being sold and all the glorious things that would follow. But I was afraid it would have been cruel to indulge the dream. This was the theater that would end up taking her play, but I didn’t know that then. That summer afternoon, it didn’t seem possible that my daughter would have her name up in lights. I didn’t doubt she was intelligent – she’d always done well in school; all her life teachers had commented on how hard she worked, how creative she was, how nicely behaved. But she had always presented herself to the world in too apologetic a manner for me to take her ambitions seriously – because it hadn’t yet occurred to me that it was different to be an artist or writer or thinker here in America. That one didn’t need to be a persuasive speaker or have a charismatic presence, as every one of my colleagues had back in Prague. Daniela simply needed to live as an observer, sitting discreetly in a corner, quietly cataloging the foibles of those around her.
“I know it’s not one of the fancy places,” she said. “But it has a history. Yulian Zaitsev did his gulag plays here.”
“Zie,” I repeated. “You’re pronouncing it wrong.”
Daniela didn’t respond. She looked like such a mess in a loose black t-shirt with her hands stuffed in her denim cutoffs, her face blotchy and raw in the heat. “This is my life,” she said, quietly.
I could barely hear her. I felt as if we were on the loudest, most obnoxious street in the world. Cabbies were having detailed conversations with one another entirely through their horns, and throngs of people kept pushing past us, their foreign, sweaty arms rubbing against my own.
Daniela took a deep breath. “I’m trying to show you – my life.”
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.” I was hot, and tired, and I didn’t have the energy to tell her she was twenty-three, that this wasn’t yet her life, this was an unpaid job she did a couple days a week with a bunch of other theater kids lucky enough to live in New York.
I just wanted to get out of there. I hated Midtown, especially in summer, and though I was a tourist myself, I didn’t want to be surrounded by them, so I turned away from the theater and started up the block. The disappointment was all over Daniela – in her face, in the heavy way she walked – but the last thing I wanted was to have a conversation about any of this. All I wanted was to get through the rest of the day without making things worse, my flight back to Maine that evening the light at the end of the longest, most excruciating tunnel.
We just kept heading uptown, in the vague direction of her apartment, neither of us saying a word. She’s just guarded around everyone but her mother, I tried to tell myself, but I saw the way her entire face opened up when an acquaintance called to her from across the street, how she joked so effortlessly with the lady at the coffee cart. I loaded her up with groceries and a new fall coat she didn’t need, and after a while even the bustle of the city couldn’t cushion our silence, so I suggested we slip into an afternoon movie. It would have seemed impromptu and fun if we were different people. But I could feel how depleted that afternoon was making us both. We passed licorice back and forth and I studied her soft profile as the screen colors flickered across her skin, wondering if I could come up with anything new to say before the credits rolled and the lights came on.
It was one of those interminable winters like the kind I’d known in Prague, where you don’t see the sun for months and your life seems like it’s being filmed in black and white.
But now it was up to me. If I needed things to be relaxed, I had to make them that way. So when Daniela shuffled into the kitchen in the morning, still in her pajamas, I handed her a mug of coffee and said, in a tone I hoped wasn’t too falsely cheerful, that I had the day all planned.
“I’ll show you around town, and we can walk through campus. For lunch there’s a decent fish place on the water,” I said. “Or you can stay in and write, if you need to. You can even bounce ideas off me.”
“No,” Daniela said. “Let’s check out the town.”
But she didn’t move. Instead we both sat there holding our mugs and staring at our laps, and suddenly it was like this could have been any one of our visits – in Burlington, Durham, or, the last time she was allowed to stay with me as a kid, when she was ten and I still lived in Albany.
It was one of those interminable winters like the kind I’d known in Prague, where you don’t see the sun for months and your life seems like it’s being filmed in black and white. That year had been especially hard: Saul Sandalowski was hosting a South African performance poet, always apologizing for losing touch but things were just so busy. Even my old friend Ivan, who had immigrated to Toronto that fall, would go silent when I called and tried to talk politics. We’d been close friends since university and saw each other every week to work on the Chronicle, and at first I’d thought his silence on the phone was the residual fear of tapped lines. But after a few conversations I sensed he just wasn’t interested – he was working double shifts at a sporting-goods store, trying to save enough to move his wife and sons to the suburbs, and after we joked around and updated each other, our calls grew shorter until they finally ceased altogether.
But in the midst of my self-pity, a small press in Minneapolis had asked me to write an introduction to a new anthology of dissident writings. It felt good to be on a tight deadline again, and what I really wanted to do the Sunday of our father-daughter weekend was brew a pot of coffee and stand at the sink eating cereal straight from the box, thinking aloud. But every time I walked into the kitchen Daniela was there, wanting a push-up pop or a cheese-and-cracker pack or some other kid-friendly snack I’d forgotten to buy. Or to show me the imaginary city she’d built out of water bottles and paper-towel rolls and my coffee canister, the grounds of which she’d spilled all over the linoleum. And when I snapped that I was busy, she followed me into my cramped office and said she’d work then, too.
So she crouched on the carpet with her Hello Kitty pencil case and began, amid my piles of papers, a story. It was hard to stay annoyed while she sat writing with an eraser tucked behind her ear: her vision of an academic. I loved watching her bent over those pages, and I even loved the smell: the room smelled fresh with pencil shavings. We were quiet for hours. Every so often she’d sense my presence and look up, but then, just as fast, she’d return to her story, and I loved that too. I loved it because I got it. I knew that feeling of wanting more than anything to stay uninterrupted in your head, because there your thoughts came out with confidence and ease, as if, at that moment, a little bit of your life was lining perfectly into place.
But when I looked at her story that evening, I was disappointed: she was merely writing her way into a book that already existed – Daniela, the Witch and the Wardrobe – without even changing the other characters’ names. And I was more than disappointed when I discovered that the paper she’d used to write and illustrate it on were the first eighteen pages of my introduction. These were still the typewriter years; I’d have to retype the entire piece before the morning deadline, and I still had a stack of student essays to grade.
Daniela saw my frustration and crawled onto my lap, still in her pajamas, her breath warm and a little milky. But she was too big, and beneath her weight I felt hot and crowded, and at that second I’d known what I had feared all along: I just didn’t have it in me to take care of another person.
“Get out,” I said, pushing her off. “You just gave me about five more hours of work.”
But Daniela didn’t move. Instead she stood there swallow ing as if willing herself not to cry. Her hair was falling into her face and she kept pushing it back with her hand. I carried her into the spare bedroom and slammed the door, then walked into the study and slammed my door, and I didn’t emerge until Katka’s headlights glowed through the window. Daniela stood in the doorway of her room. She had changed into corduroys and a sweater, and when her mother walked inside, she seemed to express everything that had happened just by blinking. It was deeply uncomfortable watching my daughter wordlessly tattle on me. I’d only ever seen that kind of unspoken closeness once before, between my father and the other men out in the dairy in Moravia. They’d survived ice storms and village raids together, and though they rarely said a word to each other, even as a boy I knew an understanding existed between them that I would always be excluded from.
“Give us a couple minutes, Daniela,” Katka said, flicking on the television for her and following me into the kitchen. Usually during these Sunday night pickups I’d turn on the kettle and Katka would drag a chair to the table and fill me in on Daniela’s friends and parent-teacher meetings and any news she heard from her family in Prague. She always had good stories from the brownstones she cleaned, about the arguments she overheard and the untouched cartons of yogurt and juice those rich people let rot in their refrigerators. We’d laugh as though we were above them in some way, and sometimes, sitting together long after our tea mugs were empty, it would feel as though Katka weren’t talking with me simply for our daughter but because she truly enjoyed my company.
This time Katka stood against the refrigerator with her arms across her chest, and before I even opened my mouth I knew anything I’d say, even “You want something to drink?” would sound loud and defensive.
“Daniela’s not staying here again,” she said.
“You don’t even know what happened.” I went into the study and came back with Daniela’s scrawlings all over my introduction. I fanned the evidence across the table. “Tell me you wouldn’t have yelled.”
Katka began to gather Daniela’s things from the floor – her back-pack, her schoolbooks, her socks, balled beneath the table – saying that from now on I could come to New York to see our daughter. “Do you have any idea how much Daniela looks forward to these weekends?” she said. “All her friends have birthday parties and soft-ball games back home and she never cares about missing them when she’s coming here. I’ve always known you saw her as a burden, but you had to let her know that, too?”
And when I said that was ridiculous, Katka looked around, at the coffee grounds on the table; at the dishes, sticky with food and littering the counter; then back at me, as if I were just one more thing preventing this small, dirty apartment from being child-proofed, and started using words like “selfishness” and “neglect” with the same force that had drawn people into Wenceslas Square.
Harpswick was small, just under a thousand excluding the students, and I felt its size even more now with Daniela beside me. We’d exhaust my entire afternoon of activities in under an hour, once we made our way down the two blocks of shops, circled the tiny college, and there was nothing to do but look at the bay. I walked slowly and feigned interest in the window display of a bookshop. “Pretty lamp,” Daniela said, and I followed her in.
It was one of those stores designed to rip off weekenders, with more overpriced nautical picture books than novels and Tiffany lamps like the one Daniela had pointed out. I watched her scan the bestsellers, then poke through the tiny classics section. As she made her way to the even smaller political science shelf, I watched her eyes move through the N’s. I always reflexively looked for my books, too, though they’d gone out of print fifteen years ago and I had trouble even special-ordering them online. It touched me to think that every time Daniela walked into a bookstore she thought of my essays, but it also struck me as pathetic that she’d probably never once found them, and I flushed at her witnessing another of my failures. Suddenly I wanted to be anywhere but in the N section where my books were not. I lifted the Tiffany lamp out of the display window and brought it to the counter. “We’ll take this.”
“You don’t need to buy that,” Daniela said.
“It’s a gift.”
“How am I supposed to get it on the plane?”
“We’ll figure it out,” I said. “You see anything else?” I tried to remember the setup of her apartment.
“I don’t want any of this stuff.”
“You said the lamp was pretty.”
“Would you just put it back?”
But I couldn’t stop. I pulled a mug off the shelf. I grabbed a globe. What a perfect, fitting end to the play: the aging man darting around this store while his daughter slunk back, embarrassed and ashamed. I wanted to buy Daniela the lamp and a stack of books and the plastic reading glasses dangling near the register and anything else if she would only stop writing this play, and as I watched her move through the shop, putting things back where they belonged, I felt myself starting to spin and finally I blurted, “Do you really have to do this?”
“Write about our family.”
She stared at me. “Amazing,” she said, “that you of all people would tell me what to write.”
She swung the door open and headed toward the water. She was walking swiftly, purse thumping her hip, her long dark hair ribboning out behind her. I caught up with her at the dock. She sat on a bench and put her face in her hands. She was right. I had asked her to do the one thing that went against everything I knew about myself, and yet I still wanted to destroy every copy of her play.
“Listen,” I said, “I know what you wrote.”
“How could you?”
“She doesn’t know.”
“She told me everything,” I said, and it was only when the words were out that I understood what I was doing. “So you might as well come clean.”
“But she doesn’t know,” Daniela said. “You’re lying,” she said slowly, almost like a question.
“She told me all about it,” I said. “Last night on the phone.”
And right then I remembered how I’d felt in that hardbacked chair in the interrogation room, when the StB agent sat behind his desk and told me things I never would have believed about the people I was closest to, that my friend Ivan from the Chronicle was the one who had linked me to the typewriter, that the rest of the group was quick to name me the ringleader. So much of me had known to trust my instincts, but the betrayal had felt so real in that bright, windowless room. “We had a good long talk after you went to bed.”
“But she never read it.”
“Maybe you left a copy lying around her house. Maybe she found it on your computer.” I met her eyes. “Or maybe she went into your apartment when you were at work one day, just to have a look around. She has a key, right?”
“It’s called The Quietest Man. It’s set during your last year in Prague, and how when you were brought in for questioning, you were too fearless to name names.”
When Daniela nodded, I said, “Then that’s probably it. Mothers have their ways. Your mother certainly does.”
Daniela was gazing down at the row of shops, then behind us at the water, as if searching for a way out of this, and I said, “So tell me.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“Say it, Daniela,” I said. “The play isn’t about our family. It’s just about me, isn’t it?”
And that was when her eyes filled up, and there she was, the Daniela I’d always known, whimpering and vulnerable and pale. “Just tell me,” I said, and when she didn’t respond, I said it over and over, until finally her voice broke and she said, “Yes.”
I watched a fisherman sift through his bait bucket and pull out a frozen minnow. The air was salty and humid and behind us boats bobbed silently in the harbor.
“Daniela,” I said.
But she wouldn’t look at me, and I couldn’t blame her – I didn’t want to look at myself then, either. Suddenly I had no idea what to say next. Part of me was saddened that my daughter was the kind of person who would crack so quickly, that the wall she’d built around herself could be so easily kicked down, but a bigger part just needed to know how the play would begin. Would it start with the time I forgot to pick her up in Queens, or when I missed her birthday because I was giving a talk in Hartford? Would it start with that last visit to Albany?
Daniela turned to me then and said, “It’s called The Quietest Man. It’s set during your last year in Prague, and how when you were brought in for questioning, you were too fearless to name names.”
I was so stunned I just kept swallowing, wondering if I’d heard her correctly. Finally I sat beside her on the bench and said, “I’m floored, Daniela.”
Her face relaxed and I thought I saw something real coming to the surface. “I’ve been so nervous all weekend. I thought you’d think it was stupid that I was writing about something I’d never lived through. That you’d see it onstage and think, She got my life all wrong. I kept trying to imagine what it was like for you.”
“It was nothing.”
“It wasn’t nothing,” she said. “They starved you. They kept you awake for days. You could have died.”
I decided not to mention the beef and gravy they fed me every day of the interrogation. The guard who pushed an extra chair under my legs so I could sleep a couple hours that first night. Relief was slowly settling in, and what I really wanted was to lie down, right here on this rusted iron bench, and close my eyes for a very long time.
“I’ve been wanting to ask you about it all weekend,” she said. “The hardest thing to get right is the meetings. When you put together the Chronicle.”
I thought back to those days. This I could help her with. This was the one thing I wanted to remember. Daniela was staring up at me, a more captive audience than anyone at my readings had ever been, than all of Saul Sandalowski’s guests combined. I leaned back and started to talk.
We always gathered at Ivan’s after lunch on Sundays to work on the journal, I told her – his was the one flat we were convinced wasn’t bugged – and as Katka and I rounded the corner to Táboritská Street we’d grow quiet and glance behind us. I told Daniela about the stray cats that darted up Ivan’s dim stairwell, and how once inside we’d slip off our shoes and close the curtains and work silently in his kitchen, all five of us cramped around the rickety wood table. We had to be completely silent, I told her, just in case we were wrong about his place being tapped – so much that when I needed to use the toilet I poured water into the bowl very slowly instead of flushing.
“We’d stay at that table for hours,” I continued, “until it got too dark to see.” I told her we wrote by hand, on thin sheets of paper I’d gather at the end of the evening to transcribe at the university, and the more I talked, the farther I felt from the bench where we were sitting. Far from Harpswick and all the other towns on this side of the Atlantic that I had tried so unsuccessfully to make my home, unpacking and repacking my books and dishes so often I finally started flattening my moving boxes and storing them in the garage. As I talked, these places started to look like nothing more than spots on a map I had marked with pushpins, and my memories of those afternoons in Ivan’s flat felt so clear it was almost as if I were back inside, the concrete floor cool beneath my bare feet, involved in the single most important project of my life.
I was taken the year we were covering the trial of Jiří Vondráček, a colleague of ours accused of crafting his syllabus from banned books. The government hadn’t allowed any journalists into the courthouse and none of it was being reported in Rudé právo, so we gathered as much information as we could from Jiří’s wife and mother, and every Sunday at Ivan’s we’d write up what we had learned. I remembered Katka beside me at the table, her forehead wrinkled like linen as she worked. I’d never been a quick writer – with the luxury of time I could spend half a day piecing together a sentence – but Katka thought in full paragraphs, and sometimes we’d all stop and watch her small white hand move briskly across the page, rarely crossing out lines. All of us assumed she’d be the writer our children and grandchildren associated with the movement, and that was the thing, I told Daniela – everything she’d probably heard about that time was about surveillance and poverty and fear, and that was all true. But there was also something beautiful about those silent afternoons as long stripes of light came in through the corners of the curtains.
“You could hear the whole city downstairs,” I said, “but it was like nothing outside that kitchen mattered.”
Daniela’s knees were tucked beneath her and her hands were clasped. She looked like a girl then, small and a little eager. “Was I there, too?”
She wasn’t. Bringing a crying baby into Ivan’s flat would have been too risky, and the most annoying part of those mornings was trying to figure out what to do with her when the downstairs neighbors weren’t around to babysit. But I saw how much Daniela wanted to hear that she’d been there. And if not in Ivan’s flat then at least somewhere in the story I was telling – and I deeply wished I could say that she was. I wished I could say I thought about her during those meetings – as much as I wished I could say I remembered birthday parties and pickup times and to stock my house with juice boxes and string cheese before her visits. That I found it endearing that she built imaginary cities and wrote her way into preexisting books, that I had flown her up this weekend not out of fear but from the selfless and uncomplicated pride her mother seemed to feel so effortlessly. I wished I could say I was the kind of person who turned to Daniela then and told her it was her mother’s story as much as it was mine – that it was Katka who deserved the attention, rather than being forced to sit in the audience, yet again, while I took center stage. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. Because I knew that with her play, Daniela was giving me the chance to feel relevant in the world again, and all she seemed to want in return was to hear she’d once been relevant in mine.
So I lied.
“Every Sunday afternoon, I’d bundle you up in a knit blanket and wheel you down Táboritská Street. I’d park your stroller outside Ivan’s flat and stare at you, completely flummoxed. The first time you opened your eyes and focused: it was on me.” The warm afternoon was all around us; in the distance I could hear the calls of the gulls. “Inside Ivan’s kitchen we’d all take turns passing you around. But I loved it when you came back to me. You were so good – you never made a sound. It was like you knew how dangerous a cry could be in that room. I’d put down my pen and whisper the same song my mother did when I was a baby. ‘Tichá Malá Panenka.’ And you were. You were my silent little doll.”
I knew the second Katka saw any of this onstage it would all be over, but I couldn’t think about that now. Because for this moment Daniela looked as if she believed every word. Or probably just wanted to badly enough. Her gaze was fixed and wide, as if she were watching television. I couldn’t tell which of us had scooted closer or if we’d done it simultaneously. But she was so near our elbows were almost touching, and as I continued to talk, I wondered if any of what I was saying would begin to feel like the truth. It didn’t yet, but I was just getting started.
LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD 'The UnAmericans' is a debut story collection of great poise.