By Read Trammel
The moment she saw the inflatable pink rabbit drunkenly folded over in decreasing tumescence, Samantha longed to kick it. More, she wanted to beat it, to feel that smack slap of hands against plastic. She wanted to make it bob and then topple. But it was too big. She would look ridiculous and small against it. Like a young girl.
“What’s with the rabbit?” she asked her older sister, Kathryn.
“Milan likes levity.”
Music buzzed as a low hum, floor throbbing with the bass beat, subwoofer. The volume was low, but that bass shook. A high-ceiling room overseen by the sagging rabbit. It wore a cartoonish grin pressed almost to its chest. There were people gathered, sitting on sagging couches or standing in groups, shadows on the wall. Dim light made it hard to see.
The sisters were in Prague, where Kathryn had been living for the past two years. The room was part of a converted warehouse owned by Milan Hornik, a Czech artist, known mostly for slightly vulgar sculptures that stirred controversy. One of his pieces—a naked statue of Winston Churchill straddling a pole sticking out from a building—had even caused some panic when pedestrians mistook it for a suicidal man. Or so Samantha’s quick Google search informed her. Kathryn just said he was “brilliant.” The warehouse functioned as a communal space that offered young artists a place to work and in some cases live. Kathryn worked there as a publicist, while also having time to produce her own art—she said.
“I’m glad you came,” Kathryn said, sipping her drink. The shadows were drinking too. “You haven’t said much since you got here—to Prague.”
“You haven’t been around,” Samantha said, her own hand drink free as she’d just arrived from a solo dinner in Kathryn’s small apartment where she’d slept the afternoon away with sweat in hair from warm day and walking to take in sights that Kathryn had suggested. Kathryn always knew the best sights.
“I know. I’m sorry. I’ve been busy with work.”
“I’m here now,” Kathryn said. She had a frown. Maybe it was squinting to see through the murky room. Two years she’d lived here and only one visit home the first Christmas. She’d given Samantha a Czech beer mug that year, and small wooden bird with pegs for legs. It was a private thing between them, giving birds. Whenever one sister found one, especially silly, they bought it to give to the other.
“How does it feel to be done with college?” Kathryn asked, not for the first time.
“It’s good. Really.”
“No more homework.”
“A relief,” Samantha yawned and wondered where this was going. She’d showered, but not washed her hair, so it was pulled back into a sloppy bun. It felt gross.
“It’s good to take a break. Mom and dad aren’t giving you a hard time living at home, are they?”
“No. It’s fine,” Samantha said. That past summer was sleeping in her old bed that now felt so small, waking to find parents at work and the big house quiet, empty. She went to the neighborhood pool until she got tired of the high school boys staring at her and then she stayed home and read and napped and watched Netflix. College friends were dispersed, high school friends were forgotten.
“You were smart to wait until after the summer to come here. God, I swear all of Europe fills up with fat Americans. I don’t know what’s worse, the tour groups blocking everything or the families waddling around aimlessly,” Kathryn said.
“I’m just glad I could come. I haven’t seen you in so long,” Samantha said. She’d saved up that last year of college, but her parents had to give her some money to cover it all in the end.
“I’m glad you came too,” Kathryn said. She put her arm around Samantha’s shoulders. “You need a drink.”
“Sure.” Samantha let herself be led to the impromptu bar, a table littered with bottles of wine, beer, and liquor, plastic cups with smudged lip marks and finger prints. She found a clean cup and poured herself some wine. It looked dark, deep red going to black, in that dimness.
Kathryn had told her that this was the room where the artists relaxed. It was filled with a hodge-podge of sagging couches and creaking chairs. There was an old piano, the dented keys’ wooden cores permanently exposed, but no one played. Everyone seemed to be watching Milan, even if they were involved in other conversations. Even the rabbit seemed to watch him. He lounged on one of the couches with legs crossed. His voice, at the end of some story, carried across the room.
“So I told the asshole he could give it back. Same thing to me,” Milan said through grinning teeth. “He still owed me $10,000 either way.” The young people around him laughed.
Kathryn went over to join Milan, but Samantha hesitated. She drank her wine in hard swallows that brought out the burn from the cheap bottle. A girl came to the bar to get a drink and Samantha recognized her as Misha, Kathryn’s roommate. She smiled to her, but Misha gave a blank look and left with beer in hand. Alone in the crowded room, Samantha poured more wine for company.
There were other Americans here. Milan taught at a local study abroad program run for college kids from the States. Kathryn had arranged the gig. That’s what she did, it seemed. Arrange things. What would that class be like? Probably just Milan telling stories and making rude comments, judging by what she’d seen of him so far. But study abroad classes were supposed to be easy anyway, right? She’d studied in Spain a couple of years ago and couldn’t remember any of the coursework. Instead, she remembered the plazas with numbered windows filled with people at night, the tapas places with floors covered in discarded napkins and toothpicks. She remembered the Mediterranean’s green-blue. The kids here looked amused for the most part. Amused and drunk. Funny to think of them as kids when she was only a few months out of college herself.
Muggy. Crowded room—even with the high ceiling it was muggy. That was a word her mom would use fanning hand in front of face and Kathryn would roll her eyes at Samantha as if to say, “Can you believe her?” and if mom saw that, they might get into it, about attitude and give me a break. The fuse was always short between those two. Dad silent, long tired of trying to make peace. But muggy was the right word.
Now there was this guy wrapped in a typical European scarf, unwashed and unshaved, edging closer and looking at her with blood-rimmed eyes. An artist interested only in getting laid. Samantha grabbed her cup and brushed past him to join Kathryn at the couches.
“Ah, Katerine’s sister,” Milan said when she slumped down next on a couch. He called her that. “I like sisters,” he added and his teeth were small beneath thick lips.
“Having fun?” Kathryn asked her and Samantha managed a nod. She shared the couch with a fragile blonde with a pixie cut. The girl swayed with eyes closed. Kathryn prodded Milan.
“Katerine tells me you are done with university?” he said.
“Me too. Though I never started really.” The young people again laughed in the automatic way of an entourage. “And what do you do now?”
“I’m—between things,” Samantha said. Always that question, even here.
“Ah, that is my favorite position. Between things.”
Kathryn giggled with the others, but she touched his shoulder and shook her head. His eyes dropped. He kissed her hand.
“Tell me, sister,” he said, eyes on Kathryn, “how do you like Prague? My city?”
“It’s very beautiful.”
“Samantha enjoyed the Kafka museum,” Kathryn added.
“Oh yes, we have many museums. Kafka, Holocaust—the whole town is a fucking museum. All of them nice—except for the DOX.”
“That’s the modern art museum,” Kathryn told Samantha.
“Modern? How can it be modern when they have Svodoba? It is garbage—really. He paints on records so they won’t play and then they play them and it’s horrible. Svodoba is a relic anyway. Maybe he was interesting in the sixties, but now? He still fights against Communism,” Milan concluded with a smirk. The students all smirked too.
“No, here, we are modern. Here we make art. We challenge, we destroy. Yes?” Milan spoke with his hands, rising gestures. Slender hands. Long. He rocked and bobbed. The faces around him agreed.
“Kathryn, you destroy?” Samantha said.
“Katerine, she is not destroying, not yet,” Milan said.
“I’ve been painting,” Kathryn said. “Experimenting with paint at least.”
“Experimenting with many things,” Milan said, rubbing her shoulder.
“Can I see? I’m not sure I follow,” Samantha said. The paintings, she wanted to add.
“I can—yeah. If you want to,” Kathryn stood. “We won’t be long,” she said to Milan.
Samantha followed her through clumps of people, in front of the pink rabbit, and down a hall. The hallway was even darker than the main room, lit only by a green sign for the bathrooms in the distance. Walls, partitions separated what would have once been part of the same large, warehouse room. They entered one of these smaller rooms and Kathryn flipped a light switch.
The fluorescent bulbs were jarring after the semi-darkness of the hall. Samantha squinted at canvases on easels or propped up against walls. They were all abstracts with slashes of color and white. The paint was thick on some, wrinkled and cut as if by a blade. Vibrant red blooming.
“Are these all yours?” Samantha said—was all she could think to say at first.
“It’s a shared space. That’s where I work,” Kathryn said and pointed to a stand where a canvas sat ready and blank. Samantha walked over to it.
“I haven’t started that—obviously,” Kathryn said. “The others, behind it.”
Samantha saw the paintings now. She saw earth tones with swirls of purple, stabs of yellow going up and curving. They were blurs of color.
“They’re interesting,” Samantha said. “When did you start doing abstracts?”
“The last month really. You like them?”
“I do. They’re just different than I was expecting because—” because Kathryn never painted like this before. She remembered Kathryn’s senior art show. University gallery with clean white walls and pale wood floors. Light focused on the artwork. Kathryn’s drawings of playful animals, something in a kid’s book and she said she could be a children’s book author or just illustrate. Kathryn in a nice dress and drinking wine with other students and Samantha dressed up and leaving her parents to say congratulations, I love these, so good. Because they reminded her of when Kathryn would babysit and together they would tell a story and in the morning there would be a drawing, something from that story, sitting at her place as if by magic. Hard to find any bedtime stories in these splashes of color.
“It’s good to change.” Kathryn said. “My other stuff was so—immature. Milan says I need to forget what I learned.”
“In four years of college?”
“Well, yeah. College isn’t the end all, be all.”
“Yeah, look at me,” Samantha muttered.
“Abstraction is more about emotion. Conveying it, but also making people feel,” Kathryn went on.
“You can’t teach emotion. You have to feel it, deeply, and put it in the piece.”
“What emotion was the naked Churchill?”
“Huh? Oh, well, Milan is doing something different there. It’s a critique of imperialism. It’s showing a famous man—an imperialist really—as what he is: vulgar.” Kathryn kept talking, but Samantha wasn’t listening. Could feel the buzz of wine now in face, in the way her cheeks blushed hot. She wasn’t used to drinking.
“He does more abstract stuff too. His newest piece is just—stunning. It’s in another room if you want to see it.”
“Maybe later,” Samantha said. Or never. Never would be better. It would be better to be somewhere else, the two of them alone and they could talk, really talk, like they used to. They used to say everything. Kathryn, two years older, had done everything first, leading the way. This is high school. These are boys and these are things they do. Kathryn had told her when Chris McWilliams put his hand in her bikini bottom in his parents’ hot tub and Samantha had wondered how that felt. Wanted it. She didn’t want to know about Milan’s hands now. She wanted to talk, to tell Kathryn how these last months it had felt like—like she was suspended, hanging, and not free to move.
“Nothing. It’s just—we better get back to the party.”
“Sure,” Kathryn said and they walked out of the room, Kathryn switching the light off behind her.
“I liked your paintings,” Samantha said and tried to make it sound genuine.
Big room. Crowd of people. More people now, it seemed. Someone had turned the music up. Music that pulsed a techno beat, driving people in groups and alone to move. Samantha moved to the bar and drank more and tried to keep an eye on Kathryn, who sat with Milan. Like silhouettes, the artists moved around her. Artists. They were like any other group at a club. Drinking quick to numb the throb of this music that was, really, too loud. Posing for each other in tight clothes to show bulge and breast and butt, better be tight but round. Better get close and fuck without fucking. It was really too loud.
She drank and found herself talking to some American named Dillon. He was here visiting a friend and Samantha saw he had a thing for this girl, but she was off somewhere, so now Samantha and he were talking and she was trying to keep an eye on Kathryn because maybe she would get tired soon and they could leave.
“Berlin?” she had to yell.
“Yeah, have you been there?”
Samantha wasn’t sure why he was talking about Berlin. He was describing its merits. She lost every other word to the music. She drank and nodded.
“It sounds nice,” she said.
“I’ll be there three more months. It’ll be hard to go home.”
Oh, another study abroad expat. Good for you, kid. Soak up that European culture and kill some brain cells, all for college credit.
“Cheers,” Samantha said and raised her cup. Dillon was confused, but he complied.
“Where are you studying?” he asked.
“I’m done,” she said.
“With college. I graduated.” Samantha shouted as the beat built. She couldn’t tell if he heard, but she saw Kathryn get up and go toward the bathroom. Samantha held up a finger.
“Be right back,” she mouthed and wheeled away from Dillon.
She bumped into Milan, who was standing for the first time all night. He had been gesticulating to some girls and the collision caused him to spill beer from the cup he held. He laughed it off and shook the liquid from his hand.
“Ah, Katerine’s sister. We dance?” Milan said.
“No, we—I’m sorry.”
“It’s nothing. Plenty of beer. Have you tried it? The Czechs, we make very good beer.”
“You must try as many things as possible,” Milan said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Traveling is so—liberating. You can push outside yourself, the box. And open—you must be open to—new things.”
Open my legs, you mean. Samantha shrugged his hand off and made to walk past him.
“I have to find my sister,” she said.
Dim hallway, green light. The bathroom had two stalls, one closed. Samantha set her wine on the sink and looked into the mirror. Her eyes were red, her hair frizzy.
“Kathryn?” she said into the mirror.
“Yeah? Hey, Sam. Do you like the party?”
“How long are you going to stay here?”
“Hmm. I don’t know. A few more hours. You can go whenever you want. It’s not far of a walk and you have a key, right?” The toilet flushed and she came out of the stall.
“Though you really should stay a while longer. Try to loosen up. You’re in Europe after all,” Kathryn said as she edged around Samantha and washed her hands. She dried her hands and then inspected herself in the mirror.
“I mean, you should really talk to Milan more. He’s got so much to say about art and—much more than that, really. I’d like you to get to know him.” Kathryn was picking at her hair. She reached into her bag for some chapstick.
“I meant, how long are you going to stay here, as in Prague? Europe,” Samantha said.
“What do you mean? I live here.” The sisters watched each other in the mirror.
“It’s just—couldn’t you work on your art someplace closer? New York even?”
“I couldn’t afford New York. Prague is cheap and—older, more romantic. The narrow streets, all the sculptures and art on every corner. Besides, I have my community here.”
“You mean Milan?”
“Other people too. He—attracts people. You’ve seen them.”
“Young women. Lots of them.”
Kathryn turned to her with narrowed eyes.
“You know what’s going on,” Samantha said.
“What’s going on is I live here now and am with a famous artist who cares about my work and exposes me to this whole world. I’m happy, Sam.”
“The guy’s a creep. He flirts with everybody, even me.”
“That’s not true. Besides, he’s not flirting. That’s just—it’s European.”
Samantha laughed. “European? Really?”
“Everyone who’s here wants to be. Milan is so talented and smart. Everyone wants to work with him.”
“Under him,” Samantha couldn’t help but mutter.
“How long have you been fucking your boss?”
“No, really. Did you get the job before or after you blew him?”
“Fuck you, Samantha.”
Kathryn pulled paper towels violently out of the dispenser. She wiped her face and crumpled them in her hands. Samantha felt pinned between the sink and wall. Her face was hot.
“It’s just, I don’t know what you see in him,” Samantha said.
“I don’t have to justify who I sleep with to you—or mom. Did she put you up to this?”
“Well I don’t,” Kathryn threw the paper towels into a trashcan on her way out the door.
Samantha stood in the confined space. Her wine was still on the sink. She picked it up and drank it down quickly. The cup broke between her fingers. She looked at the jagged edges and tossed it into the trash. She splashed some cool water on her face and listened to the muffled music coming through the door. The door opened, revealing a disinterested looking girl, who moved into one of the stalls. Samantha grabbed the door as it swung shut and went outside.
In the front room, more people were standing and dancing. Milan stood in the same place, a fresh beer in his hand. He was talking with animated gestures to the always-willing listeners. Kathryn sulked at his side. Samantha walked over to Dillon, who was still against a wall. She followed his gaze to where a girl was talking to another guy. The guy had his arm around her.
“Drink?” Samantha said.
“Sure,” he shouted back.
They walked over to the bar where Samantha grabbed a fresh cup. Someone had opened a bottle of vodka and she could smell the faint fumes of alcohol. She poured some into her cup, eyeballed it, and poured some more.
“Want some?” she asked Dillon.
“I’ll do a shot—or two,” he said.
They touched cups and drank. Samantha had poured enough that she couldn’t take it all in one go. She coughed and then drank again. Dillon refilled his cup and pointed the bottle at her.
“Why not?” she said.
Lights had taken on a fuzzy halo. The music throbbed on. Dillon opened a beer and held it out to her. Samantha shook her head and poured wine into the vodka cup. He wasn’t bad looking. Hair a bit shaggy, but good smile. None of that latter-day stubble so many guys her age cultivated. They walked back toward the wall and she was careful to keep her feet against the ground, sliding on the dusty, concrete floor. There was a girl in college who always shouted how her face was numb when she was drunk and would even slap herself to demonstrate. Samantha felt her own face with a hand. She was sweating.
Dillon was sweating, too, because it was fucking hot and close in here. Like the bridge today, the Charles Bridge, with its mid-day crowds and bronze saints with judging eyes. Christ on the crucifix in pain, but still judging with his eyes. She bought butterfly earrings for her mother, but the crowd was close with tourists and vendors, an organ grinder with a stuffed monkey (not real) playing the Lara theme from Dr. Zhivago. What the fuck did that have to do with Prague? It was hot and smothering and she had to get out, so she crossed the bridge and looked for a place to sit.
There was a place by the river with rocks and trees. She sat on a rock and watched the afternoon light turn to gold. A kid, scrawny legs in tight jeans, stretched on the concrete embankment and ate a sandwich. An old man with a white-faced dog leaned against a tree. Both man and dog watched the river that was silent and slick, moving by with speed. Samantha looked up at the Charles Bridge and wondered if anyone had ever jumped off.
Jump off. Slap of water and water in lungs. Samantha choked on her wine and felt it drip on her chin. She wiped at her mouth with a shaking hand. She needed to not think for a bit.
“Dance with me,” she said to Dillon. He hadn’t been watching her. Samantha tried to say it low, wanted to be seductive, but he couldn’t hear. So she shouted. Commanded.
Someone killed the droning European techno and switched it over to American hip-hop. Dillon followed her into the knot of dancers and they began to move to whatever beat stuck out beneath the torrent of words. She was usually self-conscious when dancing, too aware of her feet on the floor, her hands and her elbows. Now she forgot and moved. Lose yourself. Drink. Lose the heat and push. Drink. Lose the stagnant air and words, what could she say when Kathryn was so—drink. Samantha realized her glass was empty, so she dropped it. She could see Kathryn with Milan and Kathryn was looking at her. See? I can do it to. I can be free.
Dillon was close behind her, his chest against her back, moving. She turned to face him and ground against him, their faces pressed together. She whispered “so close, so alone,” but if he heard, he made no sign of it. The air was warm and she was sweating again. She could feel it in her hair, running down the sides of her face. Samantha looked up and she could see wires hanging down from the dark warehouse ceiling, wires that did not move or sway. And now all she could see were the wires and she panicked. She tried to push away from Dillon, but he grabbed her, a hand on her ass that was grinding, still grinding for some reason. She tore her gaze from the wires and his eyes were half-closed. He still held the beer and it was dripping on her neck. Who was he? Why him?
“I have to sit,” she shouted in his ear over the music. She couldn’t tell if he heard. His eyes were closed.
Samantha made another effort to move away and this time he yielded. They stood there, not dancing, as others danced, and then she walked away. Her hair was as wet as if she’d been swimming or taking a shower. Swimming was more accurate; she didn’t feel clean.
Few of the couches were occupied and she slumped down onto one that was made of old fabric that was ripped. She picked at a thread and ran a hand through her hair to smooth it down. Her shirt stuck to her back between her shoulder blades. Could anyone see? Her hand hung in the air and she struggled to pull it down.
She looked at Kathryn again. Thought about a bird she’d seen on the bridge. It was glass, clear with wings painted blue. She’d thought to buy it for her sister, but it wasn’t weird in the way their other birds were. It was perfect, fragile, and beautiful.
Kathryn made eye contact and the sisters stared at each other. You are too far away. I need you. Bodies in between, bodies everywhere. Cutting her off from view, but then back again, closer, coming. Kathryn was there.
“Oh, hello,” Samantha said.
“I thought you were leaving.”
“I wanted to—I wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh, sure, so you could berate me again? You know, who are you to even judge? What are you doing? Living with mom and dad? You don’t even know, do you?”
“No,” Samantha said.
“Why don’t you try to figure out your own life and leave mine to me? I’m perfectly fucking fine.”
“I just wanted to see you.”
“Well, you did. You saw me. Goodbye,” Kathryn said.
“Can’t we just go someplace and talk, like we used to? I’m so fucked up and I don’t even—” she said almost crying, but Kathryn was gone.
Kathryn was gone. Dillon was—forget him. Forget, forget, forget. She repeated the word in a whisper. This room was too close. She stood with unsteady feet and took a moment to find her balance in case others were watching. Don’t be that drunk girl at the party, falling down, pity me. Poor me. She had to find Kathryn, but there were too many, vague, fleeting, figures. She shambled off to the side, dark hall, and into dark room.
Not quiet, but more comfortable. The air even felt cool against her slick skin. Samantha breathed. As her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, she became aware of something large hanging overhead. Amorphous shadow. She could not see. Samantha fumbled for a light switch and jerked when it came on.
Wires. Sinuous, reaching wires in a knot that came undone and the wires were hands reaching and the fingers became figures dancing. It was massive, black, cancerous. Samantha stared. Her throat burned with wine, with vomit rising. She fell back out of the room, light on still revealing that hideous, groping thing, and she fell. Back onto that dirty floor of dusty footprints. Down amongst the littered cups, bottles, party paraphernalia cast off and out. She stared—and felt watched.
There was the pink rabbit. Its slumped head watched her. Ridiculous fucking thing. It’s not funny. It’s really not. Ugly would be a better word for it. And it wasn’t even full. Might as well finish the job. Make it flat.
Samantha stood and the world was on a tilt. The rabbit spun like something in a funhouse and she stumbled. She stayed still and kept her eyes focused on it until the spinning stopped and then she walked deliberately toward the plastic creature. Gentle poke of finger and the plastic yielded. Not so tough. Samantha looked around the side for a plug, something to pull out and deflate. Her hands squeezed against it and the rabbit squeaked.
She could not find the plug. Rubber smell like latex. Foolish grin. She punched it. Punch felt good. She smacked it again. The rabbit wobbled. Samantha beat her fists against it, breathing hard. She hit wildly and kicked at it. Her hands bounced off and still it would not fall. She hit, hit, hit.
“Hey, sister, what are you doing?” Milan yelled from across the room. They were watching her. Some danced still, but watching.
“Destroying,” she said, but he probably didn’t hear her. Milan laughed and the others laughed with him. Where was Kathryn? Gone.
She fled to the bathroom, bouncing off the walls of the hallway in her drunkenness. The door swung open, two girls at the sink. One was bent over, snorting what looked like cocaine. The other turned and fixed Samantha with a glare. Samantha waved a hand—it’s all okay, hello, but fuck you, really—and walked into a stall. She had a problem closing and locking the door, but she got it eventually and sat on the toilet. The girls outside were sniffing and talking low in a language she couldn’t understand. Or maybe she could. Maybe it was English. She didn’t know—couldn’t follow it. Find the words.
World spin and spinning turn. Wires jagged on the insides of her eyelids. Samantha gradually became aware that there was writing on the stall’s walls. What at first had looked like scribbles were words and elaborate drawings. There were artists here after all. Swallow and breathe. She bent forward looked at them closely, as if trying to decipher meaning. Then she saw an awkward chick, drawn in three-quarters profile with one leg longer than the other as if to suggest a step. Uneven eyes stared back at her. It was something Kathryn might have draws and she held her fingers to it. It was all she could do.
About the Author:
Read Trammel received a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana in 2016. His work has been published in Driftwood Press, Yale Angler’s Journal, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Foothills Literary Journal.