by Lindsey Schauer
It was after our first pints of Pilsner downstairs and after Jake told me he was "distant" in relationships. It was after this and during our second round that the word "sex" entered the discussion, a smoke-ring question mark floating from my lips. "We should wait." It spilled out of us simultaneously like a chorus. I knew he knew we knew we were right. For a few reasons. We had only met four days ago. A kiss occurred. A few even. But we were friends now: a situation between anyone or at anytime always complicated by sex. My heart had recently been, not broken (that implies quickness), rather, poisoned over time. And the summer air in Prague, the perfume of cigarettes and rose bushes made everything taste better. It made everything seem like a good idea. We were being cautious. We were trying to convince each other that we were even-minded adults. Not sex-crazed college students out for a study-abroad romp.
He is sitting on a bench waiting for me and has his backpack with his initials, JMS, stitched in white thread on the back with a water bottle hanging off of it. He looks eager, like a kid on his first day of school. We smile sleepily and follow the line of people toward two idling busses in front of our dorm. Jake offers me the window seat, and after nestling in, he rests his head on my shoulder, quickly falling asleep. I realize he is wearing all tan. This isn't the first time. Khaki shorts and a beige button-down short-sleeve shirt make him look like a yuppie safari guide. With his light brown hair and tanned skin, he would all but disappear if standing in the desert. His tennis shoes and scrunched-down tube socks prompted me, on a previous day, to say to my roommate, "He dresses like my dad."
I look down and inspect my own outfit: men's cargo shorts, an olive hoodie, and a green tie-dyed tank top. After rolling out of bed and giving Jake a tight-lipped morning breath kiss, I had been forced to stand in front of my closet with an unfamiliar dilemma. What does one wear to visit a Holocaust holding camp?
With light snores vibrating against my shoulder, I slip on my headphones and close my own eyes. Trying not to think too much, and trying to stifle my expectations. An hour later, the bus driver jams the shift to "Park," waking Jake from his deep sleep and jarring me from vague drowsiness. We are here. We are in Terezín. I look out the window and am struck with the sight of gravestones. Row after row, never ending, of pristine stone slabs set against impossibly green grass and flowering red shrubs.
The path to the front gate of the fortress divides the cemetery in two, both sides with their own tall fixture, towering over the tombs. The sculptures' faint shadows angle across the graves in the appropriately grey morning light. The right side has a cross. A metal ring of thorns hangs in the middle. The left side has a Star of David. At the end of the path, there is a red-brick wall, the gates of the camp. Our group files off the idling buses.
Jake is in front of me as we step off onto the path. And he walks next to me as we move toward the fortress. We don't touch or talk, but stare straight ahead. Partly out of fatigue. There is a trench around the fortress, and when we get up to the gates, our group of about eighty people wanders without really going anywhere, conversing in tones barely audible. I want to touch Jake's arm, to find some reassurance that he remembers last night. It wasn't that we were drunk, but I worry it was a delusion or a dream. I just need some acknowledgement. Before I can reach him, he moves away to take a picture. So I cross my arms over the top of a short wall and watch the birds flit in and out of the small barred windows.
I leaned over the table as I was prone to do no matter how much it made my back ache, and Jake set his mug down with what I assumed was an unintentional bang. I jumped a little. Three students at the booth adjacent raised shots of amber-colored Becherovka. It reminded me of this dorm bar. The yellow walls, dark wood tables, and cheap orange light bulbs. "Na zdraví!" But it came out as a butchered round. The Czech language felt like chewing on someone else's tongue. I longed for my own spicy shot but Jake said he was tired. So he took me by the hand. We watched the steel elevator doors swallow us. Numbers illuminating sequentially. 1. 2. 3. The doors spread apart. Walking down my hall to my room where I knew my roommate wouldn't be, I absorbed the warmth of his palm. Its slight moisture. And remembered our chorus.
The door to my room closed behind us. Click. His arm brushed my side. We should wait. His eyes cut through the dark stillness of the room, looking at mine with some thought that seemed en route to his mouth. He opened it as though to speak. We should wait. Instead, he inhaled. He pulled me in by the waist.
Five days ago I didn't know Jake existed. Now his face was so close I could smell his breath. It smelled different. Heavy. Not bad. Just unfamiliar. A goodnight kiss before retreating to bed. The tip of his tongue touching my upper lip. We should wait. A moment of fear.
Then it happened. Click. Like a bomb. An explosion of kissing. Gasping for air. Grasping for clothes. For flesh. For warmth. "We should wait." This time is was out loud. From me. Then him. "We should wait," as he took off my shirt. "We should wait," as I fumbled with his belt buckle.
Just as quickly, we stopped. Paralyzed as though in sudden danger. Searching each other's face for something in the dark. Perhaps a sign of emotion. A relief to our fears of what this could potentially be. And he nodded. Slowly. Seemingly involuntary. Like a marionette puppet hanging at a corner souvenir stand in Old Town. Right. Wait.
We move forward, en masse, through the gates of the Little Fortress, and tour guides separate us into three groups. Our guide is a man who speaks no English and a Czech woman from our school has to translate for him. He spits out harsh syllables and the translator listens closely before repeating in accented English. "This fortress was built in 1780 by Joseph the second. He wanted to protect the country from invasions. Both the fortress and city are named Terezín, and during World War Two, the Nazis told the Jews that the town would be a safe haven. So thousands were moved to the town. But then they just suffered terribly. There was starvation and violence and illness. Over thirty thousand of them died, and the people that did not die were usually sent to extermination camps like Auschwitz. So, it was a very bad place to be."
The guide points to a yellow sign above an iron gate, continuing his lecture. The gate leads to the prisoner's quarters. Arbeit Macht Frei. "It means work will set you free," says the translator. "The Nazis put the sign up to scare the prisoners. The Jews knew that these signs were hung at the extermination camps, and the Nazis wanted them to think there was a gas chamber at this camp, even though there was not."
Everyone takes pictures. Jake points a small silver camera and clicks. I decide to do the same. As we move through the gate, I capture one of the heavy metal padlock, crusted with rust. The shudder clicks louder out here. The guide says something else. His voice booms, like a normal tour, as though this group of American students will understand. "The Little Fortress we are in right now housed mostly political prisoners," explains the translator. "It held approximately fifteen hundred Jews, and around five hundred of them were tortured and killed here. The ghetto, the city of Terezín was built for five thousand people. It ended up housing fifty five thousand at one point." The guide nods and motions us to follow.
In The Little Fortress we file through each room. We are shown hard wooden beds where prisoners lay side to side with no space to move. We see blurry windows with cracks looking out into nothing but emptiness and dirt. Jake and I walk together, but we don't say much. In the streets of Prague, as we would wander without direction, marveling at the beauty of a door or a leashless mutt, he would always be fidgeting with heavy coins. The ceaseless clinking had quickly become familiar. But now his hands are empty and the silence is audible. I search his profile for comfort, but he doesn't look back at me. His grey eyes scan each space carefully, landing on everything but me.
We are led into an empty room, small, with a single window high up on the wall. We are all urged to squeeze in, to get the full effect. I hesitate. Jake assures me it will be fine, and I stand next to him. There is no room to move. "The Nazis would force up to sixty Jews to stay in this one little room. Often people were crushed," says the translator. "Right now there are maybe thirty people in here. So, there you have about half of what it might have been like."
Something in her voice is dimming, and I can see the breath of everyone in the room, despite the summer warmth. It is strangling, and Jake glances at me, but looks away as I'm about to take his hand, intent on paying attention to the guide. I thrust myself from the packed room to the outside air and sit on the ground. Breathing hard, I drink some water. It is several minutes before my breathing slows. When I stand up I feel uneasy on my feet and decide to explore the camp on my own. The nearness of everyone is uncomfortable. I feel outside myself. I swear there are ghosts in this place. I want this fieldtrip to be over. I want to go back to last night.
Our clothes floated to the floor, crumpling on impact. Falling into themselves. The chorus had dissipated. It meant nothing now, and we knew this. Just words without meaning. Syllables tumbling off tongues for the sake of tumbling. Who removed my pants? My bra? I hadn't thought to take inventory. I wanted to make notes. There seemed so many hands struggling to remove it all. And then everything peeled away. My pale skin glowing in the dark. Freckles like reverse stars. Jake traced out the constellations while I stood in fear. Aware of being examined.
It wasn't my first time being naked with eyes upon me. The moment seemed juvenile. But it was new. And so I felt different. As though something were hiding in the past. Back when I was comfortable. Now unfamiliar eyes like unfamiliar hands. Passing over me. Both exotic and frightening.
I felt lifted. Hung dangling by strings. A puppet abandoned by its puppeteer. On display with no way of moving or shielding myself. I recalled horror stories of sororities. Girls forced to stand in bikinis or underwear while others marked the fat on their bodies. Creating topographical maps of imperfections. The ones being marked cried, tears smearing marker, carving rivers down the new map of skin. The ones marking cried too.
The moment, or was it just a second, stretched on. He seemed to be across the room, much farther than the room actually was. A spotlight being projected from somewhere in the ceiling. Still hanging precariously. Exposed. Examined. Waiting for someone to manipulate the strings. Or take me down, as the goose bumps rose up. I could hear myself breathing from someplace else.
And then he reached out to touch my side. Dissolving the strings. He asked about protection. I pointed to a desk drawer, laying on the bed as he rooted through pens and hairpins. The covers felt thick and hot. I pulled them to my neck. Trying to anticipate what would come next. Not as though I didn't know. Just wondering how it would happen. How it might feel.
I wander in and out of rooms, taking an endless amount of pictures. I have an urgent desire to record it all. It's instinct really, not a conscious decision. Perhaps I believe that if I sit down with all the pictures later, examine them in the comfort of my brightly painted apartment, that it will all make sense. Or, at the very least, that some emotion will finally hit. The current lack of it carries an unexpected guilt.
In the rooms there are sinks, crusty with minerals, lined against a cracking, peeling wall. There are showers made from pipes running along the ceiling. There are tiny metal heaters that look like they would be useless for heating the rooms. It's industrial and stark. I want so badly to feel but don't know how because I am both immersed in tragedy and completely disconnected from it.
I just keep taking pictures, mindlessly. Hoping that, at some point, I will see the connection. Where did these lives end and mine begin? I leave myself and the camera takes over. It becomes the whole and I am the part, my body merely an extension of it. I can't put it down, nor can I seem to exist without it. I think, this fortress is still here for a reason. Surely it would be easier for the people of Terezín to level it, to build a shopping mall or a restaurant, to forget about all of the deaths and suffering. But it's still here. It's institutionalized now and is the sole reason tourists visit the town.
The veil of morning clouds have gone, and I see Jake standing among specks of dust, squinting in the sunlight as I come out of the shower room. He might be smiling at me and asks how I feel. I tell him I'm okay. We follow the group, where we come to a bridge and wait outside a tunnel. He walks across the bridge, but I stop in the middle to look out at the creek and the grass. Looking down at my sandals, I notice a baby bird the size of my palm sitting on a ledge sticking out from the bottom of the bridge. I stare at it for a long time. It moves nothing but its head and looks back at me: two tiny black eyes and a yellow beak surrounded by a ball of grey fluff. It has brown tail feathers. Someone else sees me looking as they walk by and asks if I am going to save the bird. I want to. Clearly it will die, either from starvation or from falling into the creek. Completely exposed and apparently unable to fly, I wonder how it even got out to that ledge. Had its mother forgotten it? Stretching my arm between stone columns and extending my fingers as long as they will go, I try to scoop it up but can't reach. I say this to the person, and then I take a picture of the bird because it's the only thing I can think to do.
I sigh and stand up as we are instructed to congregate outside of the upcoming tunnel on the other side of the bridge.
When he crossed the room to the bed, Jake moved with an awkward grace. Striding thin legs and arms perhaps a little too long. They were stiff as though he was walking for the first time. A glimpse into the nervousness that was not only mine, but shared. He slid under the covers, touching my hair. Trying to relax me. Or to relax himself. So much surface area of skin touching. Places that weren't accustomed to physical contact. Stomach. Knee caps. Thighs.
He kissed my lips. Slowly, but without opening his mouth. Then pulled away to say, "It's been two years for me." And I was shocked. Not at the amount of time. But at this confession. At the time it was made. At his willingness to reveal himself. I kissed him as he did me, and he put my hands above my head, holding them tightly. He pressed against me and though some small part was uneasy, wanted to escape, I didn't. Instead I absorbed him. The skin against skin against skin. "Are you ready?" he asked. I managed to nod. There was no pillow beneath my head.
"Is anyone here claustrophobic?" asks the translator. Still reeling from the tiny room we had been crammed in, I raise my hand. She says she will have the guide take me around then. The man says something I can't understand, though I believe it is meant to assure and soothe me. But I don't want to go around alone, with a man who can only speak to me with gestures. I struggle to say "thanks, but no" in Czech, when Jake rescues me, my beige knight, stepping up to my side. "Don't worry, I'll take care of her," he says to the translator and the guide. I am surprised, not by his hand that reaches for mine, but by his voice. It seems ages since I have heard it.
The tunnel terrifies me. Not just its smallness, darkness, and length, but to be in the middle of it, surrounded by brick and concrete with no doors in sight for what feels like hundreds of miles. There are only windows with heavy spiked bars that make it impossible to escape. We walk and walk, and people are whispering. No one takes pictures here because there is not enough light. I finger the button of my camera, my other hand squeezing Jake's tightly. I fear that if I let go, this tunnel will swallow me up. With each turn, I am hopeful that the exit is near, but instead there is only another stretch of tunnel. We could be lost in here forever
I stop at a window, trying to extract as much air from the opening as I can. The green outside looks like farmland. Letting go of my hand, Jake stands behind me and grabs my shoulder, a nervous attempt to massage. People walk past us. I want to sprint to the end, pump my arms and legs until my muscles spasm and I burst through the exit. But I just stand still. He kisses my neck, and it floods me with physical memory. I lose myself in it. Short breaths, connecting to pupils, connecting to thighs, connecting to fingertips.
I've been told sexual climax is different for all. Many experience loss of control. Sensations comparable to hallucination. Verbal exclamations are made. Limbs react wildly. Others see colors. A rainbow painted inside the eyelids. Magenta. Lime-green. As the muscle spasms intensify and quicken. They can hear loud noises. The rushing of blood. Pulsing of muscles. Some call it a spiritual experience. Others believe if both parties focus, they can synchronize not just their orgasms but their heart beat. Though this has never been proven.
For me, it was a mental release. A vacation from incessant self-analysis. Sex is the physical illusion of love, reminding me that pain dissipates. Reminding me that I was, in fact, living and breathing in that dorm room in Eastern Europe
For most, a feeling of extreme relaxation follows.
The tunnel spews us out into the green grass and blue sky. The sudden mass of sunlight is both startling and warm. I breathe, reminding myself to go slow. Jake pats my back as I am bent, staring at my feet, thankful to have reached the end. As I look up, it occurs to me that this place is somehow beautiful: the creek, the grass, the trees, and I wonder if the prisoners could see the camp this way. I am about to say this, but instead I point at the trough-like crosses, shallow and filled with dirt. Three side-by-side. The group has congregated elsewhere, and we approach them.
"The gallows," says the translator, continuing on about its erection, its uses. She transforms the garbled words of the guide into something we can comprehend. Though I'm sure I never fully will. I don't listen to her because I know why it is there. Strange that such a simple device could be so ominous: dark brown wood, an upside down "L" set against a red brick wall, a small stool underneath.
Something stirs me. Perhaps the desire to cry, but I can't or won't. It feels like a gun going off in my head. Bang. Bang. Bang. The echo sounds like "Auschwitz." But it quickly dissolves to silence.
We lay on each other panting like real lovers for only a few seconds. Then stood up. We groped the floor for our clothes, bumping past like strangers at the metro station. And we pulled each found article back on, watching each other peripherally. I hadn't really looked at Jake's nakedness, and soon my chance was gone. He concealed himself. I felt as though I had not been with someone real, but a ghost. He was quickly vanishing. He smiled at me, I thought, seeing a flash in the dark. And we got back under the covers in some middle stage of undress. "What time should I set the alarm for?"
And so I did. And I laid my head on his chest like we had slept that way every night of our lives. "All of Prague must have heard us," he whispered. I suddenly wished they had.
His shoulder indented to fit my head perfectly. The past moments were already hazy. Like waking from a dream. Details quickly faded from memory. My ear suctioned against his skin. A conch vacuum swirled past my eardrum, and he convulsed before falling asleep. As one might before death. His arm was around me. I stared into the empty bed across the room, waiting for the sleep that would take me as well. It was the waiting that was hard. But I hoped for the morning.
Lindsey Schauer recently received her BA in English at Western Michigan University. In her last two years at WMU, the romance she began in Prague grew (despite a long nine months apart shortly after). On New Year's Eve 2007, she and Jake were married. After a brief stint as a proofreader in Florida, they moved to Prague and are teaching English. Currently, she is going through the process of applying to grad schools, hoping to earn her MA and work toward a career in publishing.