Visegrad [excerpt] – Duncan Robertson
May 8, 2020
by D. Ryely
“The real tragedy of the Visegrad thing was that it happened to us, otherwise it would have been sort of funny.”
I stayed up all night and supervised the destruction of McKayla and Lear’s passports in the morning.
It was important that the passports retain no information pertinent to security status or dates of entry, but be kept whole, in order to pass muster with the embassy. They had tried ripping out pages, smearing them with ink and expunging them with bleach.
I sat on the counter and drank black pivni, watching McKayla use kitchen tongs to dunk the passports in boiling water.
In their bedroom, Lear was dividing their possessions into individual piles.
They were to be backpackers on their way out of Visegrad, headed to Krakow and Prague respectively. To this purpose, McKayla was already in character and dipping the passports in boiling water as a version of McKayla who was a graduate student. She stewed the laminated pages and, whenever she brought them out, hissed disconsolately through her teeth.
Lear hadn’t done as much background work as McKayla, and so was dividing their possessions into individual piles as a version of me; character work is about absorbing extraneous information, spending time with a personality and sort of drinking it in.
“You’re crazy, staying behind,” he said. “Get out while you can, is what I think.”
“What good will you do here by yourself?” asked McKayla.
“There’s nowhere for me to go.” I said. I attempted to light a backward cigarette.
McKayla watched me struggle for a moment, then plucked it from my mouth, turned it around, and replaced it between my lips.
“What did he say?” called Lear.
“He said he’s got nowhere else to go.”
“Budapest,” said Lear. He appeared in the door, clutching handfuls of lingerie. “You need this?”
“Yes,” said McKayla.
“What do you mean, ‘Budapest?”
“I mean,” said Lear, pointing to himself, “Krakow,” pointing to McKayla, “Prague,” and pointing to me, “Budapest.”
“I don’t think I could live in Budapest,” I said.
“Rye,” said McKayla, “whoever you think you’re protecting, you’ll only end up hurting yourself.”
“Is that working?” I asked, indicating the passport.
“I don’t know,” said McKayla. She frowned. “I don’t think so.”
“Then it’s my turn,” said Lear. He tossed the lingerie into the bedroom behind him and she lifted Lear’s passport from the pot so we could examine it under the hot white fluorescent over the sink. The passport steamed. Its entry stamps were faded but their dates were still legible.
Lear cursed. He snatched her passport from the kitchen counter and prepared to burn it.
“Stop,” cried McKayla.
“Why?” He hesitated. His lighter flickered beneath one vinylized corner.
“Don’t you think it’s illegal to burn it?”
“Well, won’t we get in trouble if we show up with it at the embassy?”
“I don’t think burning is any worse than—” Lear yelped. He yanked his thumb from the lighter’s hot flint and nursed it, glaring.
McKayla turned to me. “Rye, what do you think? Should we burn them?”
“What will you say happened?”
“See?” said McKayla. “See?”
Lear made a betrayed grunt, then, “Accident.”
“What kind of accident?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Lear. “Workplace accident.”
“I don’t want you to feel like we’re ganging up on you here,” I said, “but what kind of workplace accident do you foresee McKayla the graduate student having?”
“It could fall into an incinerator.”
“An incinerator?” McKayla drew a sharp breath. “Like, in what capacity do you think I might be dangling my prize possessions over an incinerator?”
“Not dangling,” he said. “It could have fallen out of your pocket. Besides, nothing else has worked and we tried everything. You’ll have to come up with a reason why it’s burned.” He thrust the lighter back underneath the passport. McKayla swore and grabbed for it. He held it at arm’s length, balancing on the balls of his feet.
Then she relented and all three of us watched it smoke.
After a while, Lear yelped and stuck his thumb back into his mouth.
“Good,” said McKayla. She bent to retrieve the little book, nudging him out of the way. He lost his balance and brushed against an enormous pyramid of long-neck half liter pivni bottles that took up part of the kitchen. The whole apparatus shifted precariously. We held our breath. A soldier leaned out of formation and shattered.
“Whoops,” said Lear.
McKayla opened her passport. “Not a scratch.”
“What do you mean?” said Lear.
“You can’t burn it.” She stepped back so we could confirm her diagnosis.
“What do they make these out of?” I ran a finger along the soot that had accumulated at the bottom of the page and it came away, exposing the date on a Vlodomerian Defense Forces’ Heightened Security Status stamp. “We should be using this material on the space shuttle and in levies and the aspirations of people who give up on their childhood dreams.”
McKayla snapped her fingers. “Wait here.” She stomped out of the kitchen, pulverizing a shard of glass.
“Where would we go?” asked Lear.
I leaned against the kitchen counter, then jerked awake as my beer began to slip from my hand. I took another drink.
Lear regarded me coolly. “Jesus, would you take it easy?”
McKayla returned with a bag of large and fashionable dimensions. She rummaged through it, discarding used tissues, lip gloss, and Colin Having’s ragged copy of The Dim Corona of Lazlo Nawj.
She brought out a small bottle of nail polish and shook it. She unscrewed its top and removed the brush, placing it on the counter.
Purple dots rained onto the laminate.
She rolled back one sleeve, loosened the joints in the fingers of her hand theatrically, picked up the bottle and poured it across the open passport. She clamped it shut. “There.”
“How’ll we explain nail polish?” asked Lear.
“We’ll say the bottle broke in my bag.”
He deflated, shuddered, shimmied back and forth and gasped for air. He looked around as if awakened from a trance. “That settles it. We’re leaving.”
While McKayla doctored her passport, I watched Lear pack, drinking more and eating clumps of wet speed from a plastic baggie.
Lear and McKayla had already made an appointment at the American embassy for that morning, where they received temporary passports and their new passport numbers from a tired-looking embassy worker in her forties who observed, “It’s been a bad week for theft. This must be the tenth temporary passport I’ve issued, today. It’s some sort of counterfeiting ring, so hold on to these.”
“Theft,” said Lear, snapping his fingers and turning to McKayla. “We didn’t think of that!” McKayla jabbed him in the ribs so he sat bolt upright.
When Lear recounted the meeting, he lifted his shirt to show where McKayla had poked him, exposing yellow and purple fingerprints. I looked reprovingly at McKayla, who shrugged.
“We almost got in trouble again,” she said, “when they asked where they could ship the passports and we told them Prague and Krakow. We were the third couple she’d seen head in opposite directions.”
“Maybe someone should tell them,” I said.
“Yeah right,” said Lear. “And get run in for crimes they haven’t named yet?”
“Looks like it’s finally working, at least,” said McKayla.
“Looks that way,” I said.
“Sure,” I said.
“They’re adults,” said McKayla. “They have to take responsibility for their own choices.”
“Imagine if everyone thought that way.”
“Everybody does,” said Lear.
“Maybe that’s the problem.” I sat down on the couch in the living room among crumpled blankets. It was the couch I had woken up on the day after the police raid on the El Matador Café.
Outside the weather was damp and cloudy. “Rye,” said McKayla, “come with me.”
“You don’t mean that,” I said. “You just don’t want to feel guilty about leaving me behind.”
We sat still and listened to the sound of each other’s bad breath.
Lear cleared his throat. “Don’t wanna miss the bus.”
“That’s right.” I nodded.
McKayla was booked on an overnight to Bratislava with the intention of catching a train to Prague in the morning.
We stopped on the second floor of our prefabricated apartment complex. I unlatched the stairwell window and held it open while they lowered their possessions onto the corrugated metal roof of a shed in the courtyard. Then, one by one, we climbed out, balanced on the sill, and dropped down.
We left through a side entrance and walked to the international bus terminal where we waited in the drizzling rain and I tried to think of something to say.
“Want to help me with a math problem I’m working on?” asked McKayla.
“Okay,” said Lear.
“A bus leaves for the Slovakian border traveling at a hundred kilometers an hour. If a white van full of assholes also leaves for the border, but traveling at a hundred and fifty kilometers per hour, how much of a head start will the bus need to make it to the border before the van full of assholes?”
“About fifty minutes,” I said. “Give or take.”
Her bus pulled in.
“Cross your fingers?”
I crossed them and showed her.
She hugged me first, then she held onto Lear and they kissed each other a long time while people moved delicately around them to stow their baggage in the bus’s luggage compartment. She waved goodbye from the window, wiping away tears. I cried a little too and was glad it was raining.
Lear just stood there, jaw set, bracing against some huge invisible force, the lump in his throat moving up and down like a glottal piston. Then she was gone.
“Let’s get drunk,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
I suggested we go some place we had all loved, but the only place open was the Gouged Eye, where the electricity was out and the taps didn’t work. We huddled together in the candlelight and sucked on the necks of warm beer and took a little more wet speed. The neon eye on the sign outside was turned out, so the street was undressed in the gray weather, festooned with dog shit and cigarette butts.
We were in the city of Visegrad, that new ancient beautiful ugly scene.
I was born in Please Leave, USA. It was not originally called ‘Please Leave’. They started calling it that after white people moved there. An ethnographer pieced together what it meant around the turn of the century, but by then everyone had gotten so used to it, no one wanted to change it.
If you grew up in Please Leave, you didn’t even think about it. The name had an almost Celtic ring. You could be forgiven for thinking they’d named the whole place after one family of overabundant Scotsmen. I didn’t know it meant ‘please leave’ until seventh grade when Mr. Harbor told our fourth period english class. I was floored. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. Nobody else seemed surprised, so maybe they already knew.
It wasn’t a real city but it wasn’t rural either. It didn’t really shrink or grow, so much as it increased in proportion to everything else. It had three colleges: one Adventist, one liberal arts, one community. It had wineries and cattle and branch locations of commercial banking subsidiaries housed in squat brick buildings.
Most people never left, and I made it farther than anyone else I knew.
By the morning after the police raid on the El Matador Café, I had made it all the way to McKayla and Lear’s couch in the gypsy quarter of Visegrad, where I woke up to McKayla saying, “I told Deddy he could have the apartment while we’re in Ukraine.”
“Deddy?” said Lear. “Wouldn’t it be safer to lock a bunch of feral dogs in here?”
“Sure, if you think they’d water the plants.” McKayla was studying Vlodomerian on her laptop, seated diagonally and facing away from Lear. She took a bite of toast and marinated cheese.
“The other day he shit behind the bar at the Gouged Eye. Did you know that? I’m saying, you’d better make sure he knows not to take a dump on the kitchen table.”
“I’ll tell him,” said McKayla.
“I’ve nearly shit in here a couple times, and I never had the faintest inclination.”
“I said I’ll tell him,” she said. She squinted at her laptop. Her tongue dabbed a flake of crumbling hermelin from the corner of her mouth.
“You know how many times I’ve thought I was in the hall bathroom, when I was really squatting six feet in the air with my pants around my ankles? Only at the last minute, do I realize I’m standing over a bowl of fruit.”
“Sounds like a close one.”
“Ones,” said Lear. He set down his tablet and she took another bite of toast and cheese. He took a long sip from a mug of coffee.
“I think you’re funny,” I said.
Lear jumped. “Jesus, who let you in?”
The blankets on Lear’s couch were perpetually strewn over the body of someone no one else remembered letting into the flat. After I moved in, I took to yanking back the mound of duvets, prepared to shout at whichever liquor-sodden unnecessary was curled against its cushions. You could never quite rid yourself of the suspicion that a body was buried in that apartment.
“We did. I told him he could sleep on the couch.” McKayla looked at me over her laptop and smiled.
I screwed up my face. “I lost some motor function and was not sure what part of the city I lived in.”
Lear gave a woeful toss of his head.
He was an athletic West Texan, not as good at any one thing as at being himself. McKayla was a Trustafarian from Ohio, whose parents had operated a regional chain of home furnishing stores that folded in 2011. What they had in common was that they enjoyed terrific sex that caused everyone, roommate(s), pigeons, vermin, neighbors and neighbors’ pets, to flee or cower until the ruckus had subsided.
We had met, really met, the previous night during the raid on the El Matador Café.
This was in Visegrad1, which, if you are at all a citizen of the world, have set even one toe out of the brown paper bag you were jettisoned into post-birth/graduation/marriage, you would know is one of the great cultural cities of Central and Eastern Europe—rivaling Krakow, Kiev, Prague, Budapest, Berlin and Vienna—and overshadowing those other cities to which it is often unfairly compared: Sofia, Minsk, Belgrade, Bucharest, Zagreb, Lviv and Ljubljana. The city was uninhabitable in winter, its natives cold and distant, its food sometimes inedible, and it was, for a time, the absolute hippest place in the universe, eclipsing the suburban popularity of East Portland, Williamsburg, Shoreditch, Canal St. Martin and the Mission. This was the product of some unusual circumstances that made it possible to live there without a visa.
How I first met McKayla and Lear has been obscured by the frequency and inconsequence of those meetings. We were all in circulation, and had met in passing sometime before the police raid on the El Matador Café when all three of us sheltered behind the same enormous black velvet portrait of Tupac Shakur.
“I’m Rye,” I whispered to McKayla.
Lear poked his head out from behind her. I shook McKayla’s hand.
She said, “We’ve met.”
A police raid is exactly the kind of experience that forms lasting connections.
1 In Thom Elliott’s excellent Surviving Eastern Europe, he opens the topic of Visegrad thusly,
“Visegrad, pronounced, [ˈviʃɛɡraːd], [ʋǐʃɛɡraːd], or [vɨˈʂɔɡrut]—spelled Visegrad, Vyšehrad, Visegrád, Wyszogród, Višegrad and Ви́шгород (Vyshhorod), in Vlodomerian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Bosnian and Ukranian/Ruthenian respectively—is the largest and capital city of Vlodomeria: officially the Vlodomerian Republic, formerly the southernmost part within the Oblast of Western Volhynia and the Wołyń Voivodeship (styled Vladimir-in-Volhynia), and variously titled or within territories titled The Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, the Principality of Halych, Austrian Galicia in New Cisleithania, Galician Beskidy, Subcarpatho-Ruthenia and Transcarpatho-Ukraine.
Visegrad is from the Old East Slavic meaning «high seat,» or «high place,» so named for the city’s ancient castle, Vlodo’s Seat, or ‘Visegradgrad‘ in Vlodomerian: literally, «High Castle Castle,» but which can be taken to mean “Visegrad Castle” in the same way that “Peter’s peter” can be taken to mean “Peter’s penis” and is not indicative of any kind of nesting doll situation in which one man named Peter is subject to, or somehow couched within, another man named Peter.
The Vlodomerian Republic is perhaps the least likely of all the states to emerge in the Post-Soviet era, and is characterized by a tangible sense of cautious optimism that it will be allowed to continue to exist between Slovakia, Romania, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine.” (415-16)
Visegrad Police tended to raid all the expatriate bars on the same night, once every couple of months, going from dive to dive and collecting would-be detainees in a sort of quasifascist pub crawl. I say quasifascist, because these raids never led to the detention of anybody. Detention led to expulsion and expulsion precluded the levying of additional fines, which ran contrary to the interests of the state.
What happened after you were extracted from one of these bars, assuming you did not have a large velvet portrait of Tupac Shakur to shelter behind, was you attempted to bribe an officer, asking, “Is there a fine I can pay now?”
If you were stupid or nervous or just unlucky about this, asking it in the wrong way or within earshot of the unit’s Foreign Police officer, the second thing you did was march to an ATM. At the ATM you were made to extract a much larger amount of money, which constituted a fine levied against your person. This fine was for failing to produce a passport, which you were required by Vlodomerian law to carry at all times.
The fine was about 33500 Vlodomerian grivni (VRG), roughly equivalent to 120 USD (112 EUR, 84 GBP, 100 VRP), not an unreasonable amount given that the Vlodomerians had you on an expired visa and could put you through the wringer, which might result in you paying the cost of a last-minute plane ticket back to Wherever You Came From. If you couldn’t afford the plane ticket, the government in Wherever You Came From would extract the price of the ticket, with interest, once you were squared away on good old WYCF soil.
Even if you had your passport, which you never did, it was better to pretend that you didn’t and pay the 33500 VRG. If you produced the passport and verified your extralegality, you became the subject of a lot of angry discussion in Vlodomerian, then, as likely as not, released. But there was a fifty percent chance of catastrophe.
Fines levied for failing to produce a passport acted as an unofficial tax on the expatriate community; we had our own doctors, restaurants, coffeehouses, theaters, dentists, insurance agents, newspapers and beer halls. We lived with every conceivable luxury and convenience of home, except we were excluded from all workings of government, almost every aspect of Vlodomerian commerce, and felt, always, as though some debt were piling up in our absence that was to be ruthlessly extracted from us on our return. For about half of us this was literally true, since many Americans could not pay the debts they had accrued in college.
McKayla’s education had been paid out of her trust, but Lear had attended school without the benefit of financial aid and he had large unmanageable debts which he neglected. Yet, whenever serious money was spent, rent, nights of particular largess, Lear was McKayla’s sponsor. He worked tech support for a company that believed he resided in El Paso. This made him practically a millionaire on the Vlodomerian scale, but also meant he worked American business hours, 4:00 PM to 1:00 AM CET, which turned him into a blood quaffing maniac that was just getting started at two in the morning and was always running into people on his stagger home who were on their way to Saturday lunch.
I had come to Visegrad from Prague from Chiang Mai from Please Leave, arriving late and leaving late at each like a bad guest at a good party, dug into the couch with a small audience that did not want to be rude after everyone else had gone to bed. Habits or thoughts or facts of life built up on me all the time, and the only way I could shake them loose was by selling my possessions and moving to another country where I did not speak the language.
I had followed a Spanish girl from Prague to Visegrad after I confronted an amorous Turk she believed was trailing her around the city. The Spanish girl had been the sort of European that enjoyed funny Americans in the abstract and was a great fan of Woody Allen who I am nothing like. The thing with the Turk had not gone as expected, and I ended up drinking with him until the Spanish girl took off in a huff. That, however, didn’t stop her from texting me on New Years Eve, asking me why I wasn’t in Visegrad to kiss/be kissed.
I never extracted the kiss, received no more than a worried hug at the bus station on arrival, but the relation of this story endeared me to strangers whenever I answered the fourth inescapable question of Visegrad icebreaking protocol. The fourth question was “How did you come to Vlodomeria?” The other three inescapable questions of Visegrad icebreaking protocol were, 1) “Where are you from?” 2) “What did you study?” 3) “What do you do?”
“She never even gave you the kiss?” asked McKayla.
The raid had ended, and the El Matador had closed for the night, so we had resolved to tie one on at the Galician Whale, which was hosting a survival blowout.
“Not even a peck?” asked Lear.
I shook my head. “I don’t think I’m the sort of guy you kiss when he’s expecting it. In fact, based on personal experience, when I’m expecting to be kissed I might be the least attractive man on the planet.”
“She didn’t even touch it?” asked Lear.
“Not even a grazing elbow,” I said.
“She didn’t even tease you ’til you were just one big chafed nerve?”
“No,” I said, a little indignantly, “she did not.”
“She didn’t even ambush you in the stall when you went to the bathroom so you had to sit there and take it?”
The walls in the Galician Whale were painted to look like giant ribs.
“The trick,” said McKayla, “is to stop him before he says something he keeps you up at night telling you he wishes you’d stopped him saying.”
“Wow,” I said. “If only someone would do that for me.”
“Take her,” said Lear. He shooed her towards me with his hands. “I can’t afford her.”
Neither could I, really. McKayla did not work tech support or teach kindergarten or bar-back. She was a dreamer, an artist/photographer/poet waiting to be discovered by other artist/photographer/poets. Occasionally, in the most dire circumstance, she could be persuaded to aupair at incredible rates for turgid Vlodomerian businessmen which she despised. She was otherwise occupied with waiting to begin her life as she had envisaged it before her slide into destitution. She called this state, “accumulating personality.”
When I asked her the third question of the four inescapable questions of Visegrad icebreaking protocol (What do you do?), she told me, “I’m taking some time for myself, thinking about applying to graduate school in the fall.” This caused Lear to grunt and roll his eyes, which caused her to lean in and kiss me while Lear was in the bathroom, and say, “Maybe next time I can tell you what you look like when you’re expecting it.”
It was this sort of response to inescapable Vlodomerian icebreaking questions that convinced me to spend the night on her living room couch after Lear had nodded off in the Galician Whale (he had not slept the day before). And so there was no confusion on returning home, McKayla roused him to bang out a percussive symphony that was, in volume and rhythmic diversity, the equivalent of Deco Kulpa’s Vlodomerian Rhapsody, displacing a squadron of pigeons that began to fight or to copulate around the skylight window overhead.
I found, lying there among the blankets, that I did not care.
I did not care that the Spanish girl had not kissed me, or that McKayla had done so only to get back at Lear, or about the awful racket the pigeons were making as they copulated or fought, or that I was on the wrong side of my Schengen Area visa, or that I had no prospects and no one in the country on whom I could rely.
This feeling, which began as not caring, was the feeling that things could no longer go on as they had, that the presence of McKayla and Lear represented a colossal shift away from who I had been, and that the suspicion I had entertained as I disembarked from my international coach at the Visegrad bus station, shoes sticking to the floor beside the overflowing toilet, would prove correct; I was brimming with potential. I was funny and intelligent and attractive. And since no one knew me, how could anyone prove that this was not so? Of paramount significance was that I was among brave and interesting people, so I could no longer be the man that drank alone in his filthy apartment and received only worried hugs from Spanish women he had endured ten hour bus rides to harass. Instead of that pink ghost I would be, at last, the person that I felt I was destined to become.