Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999
Milos is a big man, his belly slung low on his hips from too much beer but I liked when it slapped into mine. Big loud slaps that shook the bed and made the neighbors in our first apartment pound on the wall.
In the beginning, he only hit me when he came back from Ezra's bar, when he tripped on the steps and couldn't find the doorknob, when the apartment was strange and he couldn't remember where we put the furniture. Milos was a boxer before he went into the Army. Every time we rented another apartment, the first thing we did was hang up the picture of him in black shorts with the gloves tied tightly around his wrists, taken at his first fight. When he came home from Ezra's and found me sitting on the couch waiting for him, he'd circle me, shifting his weight back and forth from one leg to another, waiting for me to open my mouth. His face resembled the one captured by the photograph: his eyes half-closed and puffy, his lips stretched tightly across his teeth.
"I heard Pavel say you were a slut. Are you a slut Eva? Why is the apartment a mess? The dog's hungry. Where's my dinner?" And no matter what I said or how still I sat, his arms would curl up in front of his chest, and his fists would tighten and I'd close my eyes and let him win.
When I opened my eyes again, he'd still be standing there, his arms swinging loose at his sides. I'd lead him to our small bedroom and unbuckle the belt, unbutton the shirt, unzip the jeans. In the bed, he'd curve his heavy body towards me beneath the blanket, reaching for my breast with a tentative hand. He wanted so much for us. He would buy me house, he said, a big house like his parents had. I deserved it.
It only happened once a month or so. It wasn't that bad.
The women who stood beside me on the assembly line, their fingers pinched red from packing fish hooks into boxes, thought it was bad. They'd never tell me to my face, but I know they talked about the bruise on my cheek at lunchtime or when they huddled in the smoking room lighting each other's cigarettes. "What a husband she has. What does she do to make him hit her?"
I didn't wash the curtains. Mounds of cigarettes filled the ashtrays. The dog needed a bath. The dishes sat in the sink for a week so that when I lifted a plate, a roach scampered out and disappeared behind a canister of flour. Things would change, Milos said. We saved our money. He bought us a house.
It was a small house with a bricked-in front and aluminum siding along the sides and back. Milos picked it out himself and didn't tell me about it. It had an apple orchard, twenty-five trees. I let the apples fall to the ground and rot.
But when we first moved in, I bought brand new furniture: a beige upholstered couch and a glass-topped coffee table for the living room, a brass bed and a princess vanity for the bedroom. I covered the bed with a white comforter, pink pillows, and a flounce of white lace which just brushed the shag carpet. And when the house was finished, when there were new copper pots in the kitchen, and fluffy pink towels with matching carpets in the bathroom, I thought that maybe we could be the people we wanted to be when we first saw the tip of the Terminal Tower through the clouds.
The first time we made love on top of the new white comforter; my head sank into pink pillows that still smelled of plastic wrap and the store I bought them in. Milos kissed me between my legs; a kiss so deep and so final that I thought he really meant it. I thought that everything would be easier; that he would know what I meant when I said I was lonely, that the women at work would talk to me about something other than the weather, that I would speak English and the lady behind the counter in the grocery store would understand, and that the wives of the men who drank at Ezra's with Milos would stop accusing me of sleeping with their husbands.
The next morning, I woke up with Milos's head resting on my chest. I moved his head onto the pillow and stood naked before the window. Milos slid out of bed and stood behind me, pushing my body against the glass until my nipples pressed into it. I watched the dog darting between the apple trees, his tail waving behind him like a feathered fan. The grass needed to be cut. I would dig a plot for a garden like my mother's behind the house, tomorrow.
Then Milos decided we would throw a party. He didn't even hit me when I said I didn't want to. We had held parties before, in the second apartment off Prospect Avenue, the street with the whores, and the movie marquee with SEX spelled out in red neon. There was a group of us Czechs who all arrived in Cleveland about the same time. We'd buy beer and someone would bring whiskey. I'd make pots of potato salad that I'd spread on slices of French bread and decorate with salami and ham slices. Jirka would bring his guitar and we'd sing tramp songs until we were drunk with homesickness. And while Milos sat on the couch with his arms around someone's wife, I'd stumble into the bathroom with another man, and he'd lean me up against the sink and fuck me, watching his own face twist and his eyes grow bigger in the mirror above my head.
The day of the party, I greeted everyone at the door. I was wearing a new dress and had washed my hair. The husbands kissed me and their wives tugged on their arms, pulling them in toward the table Milos had set up as a bar. Jaromil the doctor was there with his wife Marketa, so was Jan, the owner of the Prague Castle restaurant and Olina, Ladislav and Alena, Slavka and Jindra, Venca and Milena. About 30 people crowded into the living room, listening to the latest Supraphon record my mother sent me.
Later, the women stood together in the kitchen, nibbling at sandwiches and sipping their drinks. I knew that they tomorrow they would call each other on the phone and tear our new house apart just like Honza tore the fabric of the couch with the keys he chained to his back pocket, and ruin us the way Karel did when he threw up on the bed and left a stain I couldn't wash out.
They would sit on their couches drinking weak coffee and say here was a man that America couldn't help. I heard he beats her. Did you see how the dog was afraid of him? How about those Happy Hooker books on the shelf in their bedroom?
I woke up after the party with a film of whiskey on my tongue and teeth. There were bottles all over the kitchen and plates piled up on the table in the living room. Franta, who had just been deposited in Cleveland the week before, lay crumpled up on the couch.
Milos was the first to make friends with the dps. He'd invite them to the house, hand them a beer and wrapping this thick, strong arm around their shoulders, tell them all his stories: how he used to win all his fights, how he was almost promoted to sergeant in the army, how he told the boss a thing or to at his construction job, and how he had always known he was destined for great things.
I told them which factories were hiring, who to go to for their green card, and where they could find English classes at the local high school. Sometimes, if they drank with him long enough, they'd follow me into the kitchen to make a pass and when I wouldn't respond to their grinding hips, they'd talk about me with the other men at Ezra's, listen to the stories, and believe them.
But I wasn't such a bad wife. There were times when I took Milos's fat dick into my mouth when I really didn't want to. And when we first bought the house, we sat together at the kitchen table and talked about the toaster and the Mr. Coffee we would buy, and the tomatoes we would plant in the garden. Or we would read Xavier Hollander out loud to each other and laugh until Milos pushed his chair back from the table, and came over to me, lifting me up into his strong arms to carry me into the bedroom.
There I would close my eyes and remember how he looked when I first met him. He was a truck driver, steering the giant camions that carried wine across Czechoslovakia. He and his partner would pull up in the truck in front of my house so that Milos could kiss me in the doorway before they left on a run. He dressed in blue cotton overalls then, and covered his head with a brown cap that plastered his blond hair into his eyes.
On nights that he'd take me to dances in the factory in our village, he wore a brown jacket and tie, and asked me to unbutton the top button of his shirt after our fifth dance. I remember feeling his warm breath on my forehead and the blood pumping through the veins on his neck.
It felt good on the bed, with my eyes closed, his belly slapping into mine, and I could love him then and be everything that a wife should. He rested his weight on top of me when he was done. I couldn't breathe but I'd just run my hands through his sweaty hair, and try to believe that I could really be close to someone. After a few moments, he'd get up, pull on his jeans, and drive the Ford over to Ezra's.
I think I got pregnant the week of that party. I wasn't being careful and I kept forgetting to take my pill. I didn't want kids. The dog was enough. I used to take him for walks, but he'd pull on the leash and drag me behind him and I felt like people were watching me behind the lamps in their picture windows, so I let him out into the orchard and waited until some angry neighbor brought him back to me. Milos usually left him alone but one time, I was in the kitchen washing the dishes, and the dog snuffed under my skirt, and Milos kicked him in the ribs with his boot and then leaned me over the kitchen table and said that the dog didn't want me as much as he did. The next morning, the dog rested his head on Milos's knee, leaving a trail of saliva that stayed until I wiped it off with a towel.
Milos seemed happy about the baby and it's not that I wasn't. I was just tired all the time: I didn't make the beds, or sweep the kitchen floor. I rubbed the ashes of my cigarette into the carpet and didn't vacuum. In the bedroom, the sun peeked in through venetian blinds covered with dust. When I stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom, my hair was stringy, and I could feel folds of fat growing beneath my chin. The baby felt like the bags of welfare groceries I used to carry home every night from the supermarket, but now I couldn't put the weight down. I was 32 years old. I wrote my mother once a year. When she had me, her mother lived upstairs and rushed down the stairs at midnight to show my mother how to rub my chest with lard and cover it with towels for the fever.
But one night before Milos took the Ford to Ezra's, he sat down at the kitchen table with me, took my hands and clasped them between his.
"Son or daughter, it don't matter. As long as it's born healthy."
I looked down at the hands that held mine, they were rough from working at his construction job: the fingers callused, an arc of dirt under each fingernail.
"You don't ever have to worry. I'll take care of him as well as I do you. He'll be an American, you know. We can give him a better life."
His eyes were wide open: the pupils large and black, the iris' soft, pale blue, the whites clear. He wouldn't let go of my hands until I nodded. I even smiled a little.
"I love you," he said as he turned to leave. I wiped my hands on my duster and thought maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
Milos boasted about the baby at Ezra's. When he came home and found me sitting on the couch reading a baby care book my mother sent, he just stared at me with his puffy, half-closed eyes and tight-lipped smile. I knew he didn't see me, he saw his son curled up in the basketball that was my stomach. I rested my book there, knowing I was like a bottle that he couldn't break, because the liquor would spill onto the carpet and drain away.
The women at the fishhook factory were waiting for me to pop like champagne on New Year's Eve. They began to talk to me, asking when it was due, what I was going to name it, and what color scheme had I chosen for its room. They surprised me with a shower.
I oohed and ahhed, and said "It is wonderful," and "thank you" in my bad accent for the pink crocheted booties, the Donald Duck bibs, and sterile baby bottles. I tried to make my face as happy as those people on the Price is Right when they win the big prize, but I couldn't help wondering how soon they would change into the women whose murmuring turned into silence when I walked into the smoking lounge. In the middle of the shower I went to the ladies room, catching myself in the mirror. There was a big yellow bow teetering on my head, and I had bags under my eyes. I felt like an old dress that my mother didn't wear anymore. She would wrap it in bright new paper, write my name on the box, and stick it under the Christmas tree.
Milos brought a pair of bright red boxing gloves, Adidas, and a black felt cowboy hat to the hospital. He frowned at the nurses that brushed past him, and scowled at the doctor who turned to me when he spoke. He looked very small in that white room and he kept looking out of the window at the parking lot, rubbing the chrome bars at the side of my bed. I named the baby Josef after Milos's father. He liked that. He held Josef in his arms like something that might escape from him. "He will be tall and strong, Eva. Like me."
Milos waited three weeks after I brought Josef home before he gripped my arm and pulled me into the bedroom. When Milos was on top of me, I asked him to stop, to let me heal, but he kept going until I saw the doctors in their masks floating above my face. There was one with blue eyes that held my hand the whole time even when I screamed all the swear words that Petr Kozak taught me in the hayloft in the back of our house. Milos stroked my face. There was blood on the bed. I waited for him to leave and then went to check on Josef.
I saw that doctor with the blue eyes again when I took Josef in for his appointment. He looked at the bruise on my face, but he didn't say anything.
Soon, Milos decided to have another party. I wanted to say no, I really did, but Milos strutted around the kitchen, writing short lists of things we needed to buy on the scraps of paper by the phone, and I knew if I opened my mouth, his hand would come flying out and my knees would shake because I wasn't strong enough since the baby came. I was worried that I would cry.
"I'm going to call Venca and Milena," he told me holding the phone to his ear, "maybe that'll wake you up."
I sat in the chair in Josef's room and held him to my breast, listening to him suckle, feeling the weight of his small head in my hand.
Venca and Milena had come to our house about a month before the last party. Milos had taken Milena into our bedroom, and Venca and I took the guest room. I let it happen because I thought that Milos would finally know how good he had it with me. Venca had a ring of flesh above his hips and a widening bald spot in his curly hair, but I pretended he was one of many boys I used to walk home with after dances and made love to on a raincoat in the woods. Venca heard Milena moaning, and he stood naked above me, his dick hanging there like an old purse on a doorknob so I took him in my mouth until he stiffened, and pulled him down beside me on the bed. I knew he couldn't touch me, the same way those boys never could, no matter how deep they thrust. They thought they were strong, and powerful, and they had me, but I really had them. They would buy me dinner, take me dancing, or show up in the doorway with shaven faces and faded flowers, and sometimes hey even listened when I talked to them. So I got up on top of Venca, and ground my hips into his belly, watching his face, and I knew I had him, the same way I had those boys, the same way I had Milos.
Afterwards we sat on the living room, listening to a Karel Gott record I had placed on the phonograph, all our smells mingling with that of the open bottle of Czech rum on the table. Milena sat on one end of the couch, smoothing her rumpled skirt, her face flushed red. She cleared her throat and then told me I had a nice house. Milos tried to speak to Venca, "It's an adventure. Just like in Xavier Hollander," he said, but none of us said anything. Milos rolled the ice around in his glass and stared when Venca draped his arm casually over my shoulder.
Gott sang a ballad about love and Milena ran to the bathroom. I found her splashing cold water on her face. She looked up at me, the hair around her face flattened against her cheeks and forehead, and whispered, "I did it for him. He wanted to try it. He did." I tried to pat her on the arm, but she jerked away from me. I went into the kitchen to fix more drinks and I heard her shout, "Venco, we're going home."
In the doorway Venca leaned over and kissed me full on the mouth and I smiled at him. Milos stood beside me, still holding his drink. I saw his hand tighten around his glass. The ice shook. "How could you act like that in front of me." Milos punched me in the jaw as soon as their car pulled out of the driveway.
So the same people that came to inspect our new house would come to look at Josef like he was a new piece of furniture. It's not that I didn't like them. Perhaps they'd all stared at the same map in the refugee camp in Austria, trying Cleveland out on their tongues and liking the way it sounded. It was safer than New York, had lots of factories, and their children could swim in the big Lake Erie right beside it. Since their arrival many of them did really well: Jan had the restaurant, Ezra his bar, Jaromil his practice, his office, his condo. I think Milos envied them. But he has the house now, and he threw great parties - everyone came. "They're my friends," Milos would say, "and you have none." He was right, so I bought the french bread and made potato salad, and hoped it would be over soon.
Milos invited a band from Plzen who had stopped in Cleveland as part of a tour of America to play for the party. They slept in the spare bedroom, on the couches, and on the floor for a week. They drank with Milos every night and in the mornings I tried to clear away the empty beer cans, overflowing ashtrays, underwear, and socks that littered the house. I made eggs, salad, and pots of goulash. Milos came to bed at 2:OO AM drunk and didn't wake up to shove me out of the bed when Josef cried. They poured tons of ketchup on their eggs in the morning, fed the dog beer, and tickled the bottoms of Josef's feet when I brought him into the living room.
The day of the party, Milos and the band members set up tables in the backyard while I sat in Josef's room and watched him play with his blocks. I liked the way he decided to pick up the red block and not the yellow one. His fingers barely curled over the edges. I took one of his hands in mine and saw how small they were and I wondered if they would ever fit into the boxing gloves that dangled over his crib.
I stayed all day in Josef's room. Milos didn't come to see me until I started dressing for the party. I sat in front of the vanity in the bedroom, carefully putting on makeup. Milos came up from behind me and unsnapped my bra. In the mirror, I saw the jagged scar on his left breast, and the few stray hairs that curled around his nipples. I couldn't see his face. His hands gripped my shoulder and he pressed his body into mine as my breasts tumbled forward out of the bra. He knelt down and twisted my nipples with his fingers and I sat there and let him, listening to the chords of music drifting in from the living room. The dog scratched on the door. Josef started to cry. I tried to stand, but Milos wouldn't let me, his fingers kept twisting. The harder Josef cried, the harder he squeezed my nipples in between his fingers. I couldn't leave because Milos's hands held me there, his body held me. Josef kept screaming.
Milos carried me to the bed and I closed my eyes, then opened them again. With the new house, with Josef, he was supposed to be different and I was supposed to be different. But the hand that stroked my hair was suddenly pulling it until I felt the back of my head snap back toward my neck.
"Shut that screaming kid up." He pushed me from the bed.
I stood up and tried to pull the dress I was going to wear that night, black sequins and lace, a May Company sale, over my head when I heard the door slam and his footsteps heading for Josef's room. I felt like I would suffocate beneath the heavy blackness of the dress. I couldn't find the sleeves, or the hole for my head. I threw the dress on the vanity and ran down the hall to Josef's bedroom.
Josef was crying so hard he started to hiccup. I saw Milos gripping the sides of the crib; his eyes narrowed, his knuckles white. I knew he wouldn't hit him. But he took a step toward me and I grabbed the first thing my hand touched, a Mickey Mouse lamp, and swung it at his head. The lamp struck his left temple. He staggered back and then fell to the floor.
I stepped over him, wrapped Josef in a blanket and ran into the living room. The band was playing, "My Beautiful Gypsy," my mother's favorite song. I hugged Josef to my breasts. One of the band members wandered in, chewing on a piece of bread. He stared at me while I stood there, singing to Josef, rocking my son to the music.
* * *
The floors in my new apartment in the Sunshine Hills apartment complex are wooden slats. If I swept the floor the slats would shine and I'd like to do that soon because when I picked Josef up, dust balls clung to the knees of his sleep suit. I shake out a blanket and spread it on the floor for him. Josef crawls right off it, looking for a toy. I don't get up from the couch, because I don't have to. It will take time for Milos to find me here and even if he does, I'm not afraid.
Josef grabs a square block with the letter A carved into its sides. He has my dark hair and gray eyes. He smiles at the block and puts it into his mouth. For a moment I believe it is me that he is smiling at, that the small dimple in his left cheek marks his approval.
Daniela Drazanova was born in Czechoslovakia and emigrated to the United States in 1968. She is a graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program. Her stories have appeared in Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Revolver Revue and Bohemian Verses. She has been living in Prague since 1993.
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