Though Taylor never imagined Tomáš cheating on her, she could have. Her perceptibility was in no way lacking. The signs, however vague, were there. Tomáš was a Swiss train and he would arrive at their Žižkov apartment disheveled after his walk from Prague’s old town, with his shirt unbuttoned and untucked and his beard bisected by a disjointed wave, at precisely 7:30 each night until his lapses compounded into regularity. His breakfast routine of boiling water for oatmeal, crafting espresso in a Moka pot, and performing wild misinterpretations of aerobic exercise in the spare room were all delayed by a newfound habit of smoking a pair of wake-up cigarettes.
Only in hindsight did she know that some part of Tomáš had been punctured. His spirit was leaking from his body, a loose outline of slight muscle and faint gut, until all he could muster were the tentative gestures of a rag doll. The time spent during the weekends haunting their living room together, after a slice of sun sawed through the bleak curtains, reading and chatting on their firm and antique furniture like exhibits in a museum, decreased. Taylor didn’t notice that, in the few instances that he’d caress her shoulder or his fingers would glide over her arm, his touch steadily grew colder. These warnings of Tomáš’s infidelity could have wailed on Taylor’s sonar.
When they first arrived in Prague, they stood in the long bureaucratic line at the blocky Foreign Police station to register their marriage and her long-term presence in the Czech Republic. It was a long wait as the day cycled from warm to windy to chilly. Tomáš was antsy, leaving Taylor alone to walk around the block to keep his blood moving every so often. He would return with exaggerated stories about Prague to regale her with.
“The Russians control everything,” he said.
“Underground crime? Russians. Segway rentals? Russians? This line? Relegated by Russians. If you wanted to get in early, you’d need to bribe them. This whole city,” Tomáš said as if introducing her to an old friend. “Is one illicit arrangement.”
This arrangement was lost to her; she was busy counting her blessings, mumbling them like a mantra.
When they moved to Tomáš’s birth city, Taylor adopted it, grasped the silver jewel in her hands, and graced it with unconditional adoration. She forgave Prague. Prague, which despite having linguistic credentials that equaled her husband’s (sans Czech and Russian fluency), could only loan her a mediocre mercenary teaching job at a company called Budoucnost. Prague, with its valley-like inclines. Prague who strained Taylor’s bicep with an eternal crick as she held tight to the loose inertia of the metro.
Taylor merely assumed that Tomáš, in a fit of insomnia had risen from his bed, dressed in silent contemplation and gallantly swirled his scarf around his neck before departing into the blossoming twilight, deciding to perform his morning rituals at his shared office. She, after all, understood that he had not been sleeping well and that it behooved her too to use the extra hours of wakefulness to catch up on her tireless grading and preparation. Yet, as Taylor reaffirmed her love of Prague, she missed the symptoms of her husband’s infidelity, and certainly missed the cause.
It had taken Tomáš months of ragged insistence to his wavering and asexual fiancée, Taylor, that his commitment to their sexless marriage was to be sacrosanct. He belabored her with his certainty, breaking from his terse and humdrum monosyllables to enamor her to his high-pitched persistence and flurry of superlatives: absolutely, indefatigably, unconditionally. He did not admit that his self-estimation proved incorrect, and Taylor could not have known that he had slunk from his bed before the encumbrance of daybreak and tiptoed up the apartment buildings’ staircase to be wordlessly welcomed into their neighbor’s home.
That morning, Taylor trekked to clientele at Fiat, instructing a trio of under-caffeinated men, helping them extract veggie-tables and italias from their lexicons. Then she took a bus to a metro station, rode the line from end to end, and walked to a quiet house in the suburban fringes to teach a pair of teenage siblings.
The city was an antidote to itself. More than the old castles, more than the brilliant gold of the astronomical clock that dances on the hour. It was the minutiae of daily affairs, such as the chime of trolleys and the stoic rush of commuters, that stabilized her. Taylor’s job was to craft lessons that targeted specific complications of English, and it was her everyday teaching anxieties, as well as her day-long treks across the length of Prague from client to client, that lulled her into a sweaty fatigue.
The boy was twelve and would frequently ask for Taylor’s help translating video game nomenclature. The girl was fourteen and would ask for definitions of British slang she unearthed from decrepit paperbacks. Taylor didn’t have much to teach them.
The afternoon after Tomáš disappeared to fumble around in a ritualistic tug-of-war with Jana, their neighbor whose bedroom was ten-or-so feet above theirs, Taylor was in the family’s living room. A still, sterile atmosphere crowded around a dining table. The girl, reaching in her bag for a book, instead produced a carton of Marlboros. Her brother and Taylor both glimpsed the small box before she could hide it away. An argument ensued.
“You can’t smoke those,” the brother said.
“You don’t know anything except for computers,” the sister said.
“Mom quit smoking before we were born, Taylor, so she knows she shouldn’t.”
“It is not your business, right, Taylor?”
Taylor was thrilled that she was not their mother or their babysitter. She had no horse in their cigareta race.
“I don’t care for the smell. But it is also none of my business,” Taylor said, adding natural emphasis to the ‘none.’ “Marl-bore-oh,” she said, sounding out the word. “Do you know, nicotine? Lungs? Cancer? Say them with me.”
The stop closest to her home was on the corner of a plaza outside a cathedral. In her first year in Prague, Taylor would sometimes pass by a protest outside one of the many looming cathedrals, though, thankfully, not this one. Czech and British voices railed against a supposed cultural shift. Crowds buzzed with sentiments hot to the touch, railing against the influx of refugees from Syria whom she never saw much of. Why gather outside a church in a country famous for its atheism? And, why did their ire stop at the middle easterners and not extend to ex-pats? She, after all, was the in-grown hair in the belly of Czechia, married to a citizen, but ignorant of its customs, the language slipping off her like oil.
The night after Tomáš skipped work to, as Taylor later speculated, to brandish and be brandished, she rose from the underground in Prague 3. Every part of the city throbbed with character, but Žižkov was her favorite. It felt even-keeled, bustling with the fervor of short strides. Rarely did she see someone peeing in the street or trying to obnoxiously flirt with her. She appreciated the former working-class neighborhood’s tangle of gothic architecture. On that night in autumn, alight with red leaves and warm Victorian street lamps, she still expected Tomáš’s head to peek out from a doorway when she called his name.
She checked their spare room, living room, and then their bedroom. His black sheets, laced with childish geometric shapes, were as smoothly made as when she had woken up that morning. It wasn’t uncommon for him to wake up as early as he had, either returning from a brisk walk around a cathedral pavilion as Taylor awoke, or heading straight to the office. Yet, he always made it home by night. As she sat to catch her breath, her clotted legs aching as if they were rooted into the boards of a heeling ship, she assumed that he had a meeting he forgot to tell her about.
Tomáš was always forgetting his students’ names, which Zuzie was which, regretting how the list of the Czech government’s sanctioned names was skewed too small. He would, sucking in his mouth, admit to Taylor when he lost his students’ essays. Often forgetting that he was cooking, he had accumulated cow-loads of burnt beef. Taylor felt she could never critique her husband for his quirks because she shared them. She knew that, once freed from her whirlwind days of teaching at Budoucnost and she was affixed to a more permanent gig, she’d be just as forgetful. Her meals, too, had skinned, crisp edges.
She thought that he may have forgotten to tell her that he was going to the pub with his Slovenian co-worker in the linguistics department. Those creaky and rustic bars whose beer, at 50 Koruna, were so cheap that it felt like plucking low-hanging fruit. Or, she considered too that he may have planned a mushroom foraging trip and neglected to mention it. She imagined him sitting in a taxi with dirty jeans, cupping the fringes of a growingly fierce beard, fretting.
“Remember the park bench?” he once asked Taylor one Friday the spring before, as they spiraled into drunkenness at one of these pubs. It was on a rainy Seattle afternoon, under Taylor’s own extra-large umbrella, that Tomáš proposed, sliding the box over to her as if passing a note. Taylor of course remembered, still battling doubts that their relationship could last. She, asexual, didn’t have room in her life for sex. She avoided obsessive physicality. However, she still was a romantic, and after losing multiple relationships to sexual mismatch, she foresaw this one ending the same. Tomáš’s proposal was security; he said that he didn’t see her lack of sexuality as baggage, and she trusted it would stay that way.
“That was our twelfth or so walk around that park,” he said. “And it was the third time I planned on proposing. The first two times I kept leaving the ring at home.”
Despite any difficulties, Taylor was an optimist. She couldn’t imagine Tomáš cheating because she saw him as incapable of keeping a deception going. He was a horrendous texter, loathing any and all correspondence.
When they would go out to drink or eat in neighborhoods less frequented by tourists, she would notice the occasional glance her way, different from the wandering eyes of lonely men. Though most people were friendly, others were unimpressed by her pluckiness. Cashiers were nonplussed by faint attempts (nemluvím cesky she would say, “I don’t speak Czech,” the only phrase she’d been able to squarely pronounce), and waitresses hid frustration behind pursed lips when Taylor ordered French fries and tomato-soup ketchup by way of pointing and garbled Czech. Taylor thought her treatment well-deserved, especially since her othering was non-invasive. Comforting, even, being merely arm’s length in their gilded cage of lumber floors. Prague was her anxious contradiction, a deluge of emotion. She wanted it to love her, she wanted it to hate her, and the city softened all of these extremes.
Whenever she expressed fears about their relationship, or how she felt like some freeloader living off the charitable bilingualism of the locals, Tomáš would not let these negative feelings stand uncontested.
“I know what you’re going through,” he once said. “These emotions—they’re like running the washer to get the acid out of new blue jeans. Keep running them through!”
For a year Taylor let herself be pommeled by these fears and self-doubts, and due to Tomáš ‘s unrelenting drive to be a good husband, she had trouble conjuring any angle from which their adoration was not reciprocated. She thought that their marriage was healthy, free of desperate attachment she saw around her.
Her trust prevented her from noticing something off about their dark-haired upstairs neighbor. Taylor mistook her aloof and frazzled disposition as forgetful. In the quiet of night, Taylor would joke to her husband that Jana was getting rid of drugs whenever she would repeatedly flush her toilet three-four times in a row. Whenever Jana saw her, Taylor was dressed like an American: sweatpants, tank top, sneakers—dressed to fetch the mail or a take a walk around the nearby cathedral plaza.
“How are you? What do you do?” Jana would always ask. “I feel like I see you here all the time. When do you have time to work?”
And so, she went to sleep and thought of him arriving in the dead of night, sitting on his bed, pulling off his boots one at a time before collapsing. She did not imagine the truth. Taylor was unaware that Jana’s frequent flushing was her and Tomáš’s signal: an invitation, one that he accepted again and again, always careful to make it home no more out-of-order than usual, the evidence of his weakened will held in his chest with the careful parceling of panicked exhales. On this particular excursion, however, he stayed at Jana’s from the early morning through the night.
When Tomáš’s bed remained empty in the morning, Taylor called his phone and immediately got his incoherent voice mail. She called his office, only for his co-worker to answer.
“I have not heard from him,” he said. Unlike Tomáš, his accent was more pronounced and the stress of his syllables had the air of sketched-out calculation.
“Did you see him at all yesterday?” she asked.
“He didn’t come in yesterday. One of his students asked me if he ‘dozed of,’ as if I am his handler or something.”
“Will you call me if you see him?”
“I will not see him.”
Taylor set out to find her husband. If something was off, he’d be in Prague 1, she reasoned, to gain distance and perspective. She rode the metro to the nearest stop. She passed by scores of slow tourists crossing the Charles Bridge. She passed the always-guarded American embassy, climbing the steep, stoned road. During their first weeks in the city, they often would come to the Starbucks placed near Prague castle, looking out over the city’s peak. Somehow, Taylor thought she’d find Tomáš, lost in retrospection, taking in the sweep of stacked buildings.
She climbed the stairs into a vegetarian restaurant they used to love, but found it empty. She entered the Catholic Church nearby, whose name eluded her but she remembered that Tomáš’s mother wished that they had been married there and not in a Washington courthouse. Inside were specks of people in prayer spread across the pews, hangers-on to an eschewed faith. There was no way she’d ever find her husband on foot. They had no friends she could ask; they hadn’t made any since moving, were too self-involved with each other, a pair of forgetful phantoms leaving for work before returning to congregate together. The sun was setting and members of the church were filing in for a weekday Mass. Taylor needed to involve the police.
The police police, not the bureaucrats that managed her foreign status. She traveled down back to Žižkov. The route to the station snaked through a network of grey streets and across the lavish expanse of hilly green in a park. She peeked her head into a few pubs along the way. She passed by parents and their booming children in strollers, past pet owners speaking to their dogs as family members instead of pets. Taylor rounded down uneven stone steps, the color fading as she submerged into a harsh cobblestone ravine. The police station’s façade was an ugly canvas. It’s automatic doors and windows looked like a face caught out of position. An officer with sheening silver hair smoked a cigarette out front.
Taylor knew that she was watching her, but not menacingly. Her eyes darted between the road and Taylor, curious and patient. Taylor worked up her nerves. She would walk in, say that she needed a translator, and pronounce her husband missing. She would sit down at an officer’s desk and answer questions she would be embarrassed to give the answer to. When did she last see her husband? Forty-eight hours earlier. Had she tried to reach him? Yes, but they never text or call anyway. Taylor’s nerves stirred her body. To the officer, Taylor figured, she didn’t look like a woman with a missing husband but a criminal coming in to confess.
What was one of the last things they did together? Sell their King-sized mattress in favor of two, smaller beds to improve their sleep schedules. How could she explain that their hands didn’t need to be clenched together at all times? They didn’t need to be glued to one another on the same end of a booth? That they just knew how the other felt because it was obvious, and no more than the odd head on his shoulder, blanket compliment, teamwork in keeping their small apartment running was necessary to prove it? His nasty business didn’t need to include her, she’d need to say.
Would she also include that after two years of successful marriage, Taylor saw, within her nest of anxiety, an ounce of superiority growing? Though subconscious, an inkling within her believed the affectionate exchanges she saw in other couples were desperate clings to parting waves. She and her husband were, arm in arm, resisting any notions that their lives together needed flavor beyond what it already was.
She couldn’t imagine anyone believing that. She’d seem careless, clueless even. And as she imagined the doubt on an imaginary police officer’s face hearing her story, her own doubt encroached.
The officer out front approached her, asking a question in Czech and, seeing that Taylor didn’t understand, asked in English:
“Do you need help, miss?” she asked. She put her cigarette out, dropping it to the dirty sidewalk.
A furtive suspicion unwrapped in Taylor’s brain. Her avoidant thoughts lead her to recall her bizarre upstairs neighbor. She remembered Jana’s questions, the repeated flushing of her toilet.
“Miss?” she asked again.
Nemluvím cesky was all Taylor replied with, not even making eye contact, before heading home.
Tomáš only brought Taylor to Prague after asking no fewer than a dozen times if she really wanted to even go.
“Are you prepared? Living abroad isn’t easy. Most Praguers speak English. But,” he told her. “It can be a bit stark. If you don’t want to go, we don’t have to go. Just tell me. Just let me know.” He never blamed her for not picking up Czech the way he did English and Russian.
A week before Tomáš’s disappearance, the foreign police came to their apartment for an unannounced inspection. They passed. They had pictures of themselves together stationed in the living room, their clothes mingled in the closet. There was one bed that they shared. They were a real couple, both in fact, and in the eyes of the authorities.
“Do you think,” Taylor asked Tomáš, a few days later as they sipped cheap beer from a nearby pub. “Do you think we should sell the mattress, like we talked about? Our hours are so different now. I just feel like we’re uncomfortable Tetris pieces. We talked about getting separate bed—I don’t know, would that be okay?”
“Absolutely,” Tomáš said, enthusiastic spittle from his beer shooting onto the table between them.
“I think spreading out would be easier. But we don’t have to.”
“Yes, we do, if that’s what you want.”
Just as he never made demands, neither did she. They each had a veto; they each had an out.
How could Taylor have known that behind that total agreement was a man who was finished? Taylor had asked many times when they were dating if this was the relationship that he wanted. That she could never please him in ways that all her past boyfriends wanted. Their trust was ironclad and so Taylor didn’t mind his quirky early mornings, and was only bothered in the way that she did when she couldn’t solve the final clue of a crossword. How could there have been, behind all his enthusiasm and zest, under that beard the light donned with red affectation, an unspooled thread of acquiescence?
She returned to their apartment, climbed an extra flight of stairs and pressed her ear to her neighbor’s door. All she could hear was the eerie screech of running air. After a minute or so of quiet, a deep voice perked up behind her. She didn’t understand the Czech accusation but recognized that it was sharp.
“Sorry,” Taylor said. Her words tumbled out in a hurried mass. “Downstairs, I live down there.”
She turned around and pointed at the ground. Before her was a man with his finger pointed as if chastising her like a child. He was older, shorter, and a protruding, hairy V-neck. Taylor recognized but couldn’t place him.
“What are you doing?” he asked in English, blinking as if his eyelids were a stoking candle.
“I’m the American. Third floor,” she said, holding three fingers up in a ring gesture.
A spark of recognition seized both of them. Though she didn’t know his name, he was her landlord. They had met briefly the year prior. Taylor had flown in a week after Tomáš had after he already moved in. The landlord came down, politely nodded to Taylor and turned to Tomáš to discuss some discrepancy in the lease in Czech.
“Ah yes,” he said. “The American. I still want to know what you are doing.”
A pause hushed them.
When they were dating, Tomáš chatted endlessly about all the Americans and Brits and Aussies he had befriended online over the family computer in his adolescence. He talked about how many of them disappeared completely, leaving behind only the legacy of their grammars and vocabularies; the composite parts he fashioned into fluency. Tomáš was an amalgamation of all things. And she forgave his forgetfulness because his memory worked like his control of Czech, English, Russian, so languid and free, until it would suddenly freeze, where a clever synthesis perched on the tip of his tongue. In these moments there was an intellectual bent to his stoppage, watching his brain scour the vast traffic of networks for one more piece of something to share with her. And when he found it, it came out as a hiccup-sized yawp.
A crack of a voice passed through the door. A spike in tone. In no language in particular the concentrated rapid-fire of syllables passed through the threshold like an unkept secret. The voice of a man who called every contact he knew to get his wife interviews. The voice of a man who proposed on a park bench, sliding the box to Taylor to avoid making a scene.
Taylor looked to her landlord. He nodded as if he had heard the same ghost that she had. This was his well-hidden secret and she so fell for his agreeableness that she naively believed that they had jointly overcome some impulse. That, deep down, she and Tomáš were the same, lacking an outward drive. But realizing that wasn’t the case meant that the precipice their lives abroad was perched upon would always topple, that there would always be a neighbor’s door for her ear to rest against, always a yawp heard in some conniving tongue. Tomáš’s voice dissipated, or was drowned out, or crashed into an unseen heap.
Taylor’s consciousness shambled, layers and layers of history and trust collapsing within her chest. She did not break down simply because she lacked the energy, the hours of worry and miles of walking halting the tears temporarily. She had the energy for a single question:
“Could you help me with something?” she asked the landlord. He nodded and she brought him down her home. She pointed to Tomáš’s bed, and he with no hesitation dragged the frame, mattress and all, from the bedroom. He carried it into the spare room and dropped it across the floor like a gash. Rubbing his hands together, he left without a word.
The next day Taylor taught the siblings like she did every Wednesday afternoon. The pair of them had uncovered a new topic to bicker about. Taylor listened and took notes about possible mispronunciations.
“Your square glasses make you look undignified,” the girl said to her brother.
That same night, as Taylor read on the living room couch, she heard the door close and his steps shuffle towards the bedroom. Then, on his way to the spare room, Taylor caught a glimpse of him in the door frame. His hair was wet and scraggly. He didn’t look her way. His beard had been shaven. Tomáš’s mouth looked as if it had shrunken, his skin resembled a pallor, and when he fell on his bed it’s creaking had the low intonation of a groan.
“You’re just—what was that word?” the brother asked.
“Pretentious,” Taylor said. “Is that what you meant?
Their argument carried for the rest of the hour. When she was done with her work, Taylor stepped outside as the sun set. The metro carried her away, passing by stop after stop, until she emerged into her favorite district. She felt like a breath dispersing into the moonlit plaza.