I got in line and got a number. I shuffled into a waiting room with sallow walls and flickering lights. Everyone in there was slack-jawed and bloody-eyed. I took my seat and cracked a book. After about an hour, my number was called. I grabbed my heavy pack and walked over to the booth. The guy behind the desk was a slight, perspiring man. He wore a periwinkle V-neck and had an Adam’s apple the size of a baby fist.
“Sit,” he spat.
I sat down and opened my pack. I was having trouble finding the right folder. Homeboy flicked his eyes at me to hurry up. I finally found the thing and lobbed it on his desk.
“I’m applying for my permanent residency today,” I said. “But I’d also like to apply for a one-year visa to cover me while I wait.”
The guy uncurled his praying mantis hands and clicked something up on his computer. Then he leered at me.
“It says here your appointment today is only for a permanent residency application. I can’t allow you to apply for the one-year.”
My face went flush.
“Are you kidding me? My current visa expires in a month. If I don’t get that one-year, there’ll be a break in my visa record. Then I’ll have to wait another five years before I get a chance to apply for permanent residency!”
Mantis Hands unhinged his bony jaw and yawned. His disgusting Adam’s apple dandled up and down. I wished I’d had a scalpel in my pocket. I stared him pointedly till he spoke.
“This really isn’t my problem,” he said, exhaling. “But … I guess if you have all the paperwork ready I can make an exception just this once.”
I smiled obsequiously and clasped my hands together.
“Thank you so much!” I said.
Mantis Hands spiked his lip at me and unpicked my folder. He splayed everything out across his desk and started fluttering through it. He inspected papers top to bottom, back to front. Then he clicked at his computer again.
“I’m sorry sir, but it says here you’re not allowed to apply for permanent residency until mid-December. You’ll have to come back then.”
“What?! But half my documents will be invalid by then. Not to mention I have plans to go home for Christmas. I can’t be tied up renewing stuff and coming here during that time. It’s the holidays, for God’s sake!”
He sniffed laughingly at me.
“Again,” he said. “Not my problem.”
My blood shrieked. I almost lifted both my hands and shoved that mountain of bureaucracy right into the fucker’s lap. I took a few deep breaths. Then I looked up at him.
“Well, could you please at least put my one-year application through and give me a bridging visa so I don’t get deported?”
“I suppose,” he said.
I got my shitty, shitty bridging visa and stormed outta the building. I lifelessly taught my two lessons for the day then went home. I nuked a bowl of noodles and got on the computer. I emailed my folks with something to the tune of:
Guess what? “Visas R Us” just fucked the chaps off me again. Now, I hafta stick around here during Christmas, renewing documents and whatnot, so they don’t filch me of my shot at permanent residency. I won’t bore you with the finer details. Suffice it to say, I won’t be coming home for the holidays.
I got an email from my mother a nanosecond later. It went something like:
Oh Goosy, that’s terrible! What happened? How could they do this?! The darn jerks! Oh my God, Goosy, I’m so sorry. I know how much you were looking forward to being done with all this. Be patient and have hope. And don’t worry, I just talked to Dad about it. We’re looking into flights to Prague now :)
Then she wrote at length about how some neighbor’s cat had just died, going into great detail about the little service they’d had for it, and telling stories she remembered of it; how it farted when it purred too hard, how licked its asshole with one leg straight up in the air, how it once crapped in my dad’s garden slipper, and on and on and on. I nodded off while reading it. Then I heard a loud, mechanical American voice say, “YOU’VE GOT MAIL!”
I jittered awake and clicked my box. It was an email from my dad. Its contents were two words:
My folks would be arriving on December 18th. This gave me a three full months to plan. I set to building an itinerary in earnest. I was eager to wow them because the last time they’d visited (in June of 2011), I was still a rookie in this bitch and knew next to nothing about how to be a tour guide. I’d taken them to a bunch of lame sights and overpriced restaurants all along the tourist trail. I doubt they remember much more than squid-induced indigestion while standing in line at Prague castle. I was determined not to repeat this. I based my new itinerary not around big sights and bullshit, but around five concrete goals that I felt would really give my folks an authentic experience of both Prague and the greater Czech Republic during the holidays. These goals in brief were the following:
1. Show folks Žižkov (my hood), including my flat, my favorite restaurants, and one cool, unique spot.
2. Take folks to beautiful but lesser known parts of Prague, both in and around the center.
3. Cook a traditional Czech Christmas dinner of smažený kapr s bramborovým salátem (fried carp with potato salad) in Český Krumlov.
4. Have a kick-ass spa experience in the spa town of Karlovy Vary.
5. Top the whole thing off with a New Year’s dinner party on a steam boat back in Prague.
To get around, I told my folks we’d have to rent a car. My Dad resisted this at first on the grounds that it would be “a pain in the cookies parking the thing.” I kept pushing for it. Not just because I wanted us to enjoy our familial privacy on the road, but because there was no way in Little Richard’s tutti-frutti hell I was gonna travel around the entire country by train, acting as translator, tour guide and pack mule extraordinaire for two cranky sexagenarians with bad knees and gout. To convince my father that my way was better, I knew I had to find the perfect automobile; one that was not only roomy and reliable, but reasonably priced as well. In the end, I settled on a slick, new Škoda Octavia. It possessed all of the aforementioned qualities, and hey, it was Czech.
As the arrival date neared, I took to booking accommodation. I was very discerning during the selection process because my folks (especially my father) are huge creatures of comfort. The hotels I picked in Prague were equidistant from my hood and the center, with five-star ratings and big, comfy rooms. The flats I picked in Český Krumlov and Karlovy Vary were situated just outside the center – ensuring both privacy and minimal walking – and were equipped with all the necessary goodies.
When all was sliced and styled, I sent the booking info to my father. He responded with his usual, “Thanks,” then paid the bill in full.
Eight days before my folks flew in I had my second appointment for permanent residency. Same as last time, I showed up at “Visas R Us” with a tower of shit in my pack. When I finally got up to the booth, I saw that I had a new case-handler. She couldn’t have been more than twenty but was uglier than a sack of rat puke. I sat down in front of her and opened my pack. Her beady eyes crawled all over me like night spiders. I pulled out my folder and handed it to her. She picked it open, glanced at a few documents then clicked something up on her computer.
“You’re here to apply for your permanent residency?” she asked.
“Well, you’ll have to come back in a month.”
“What?! But your colleague Mantis Hands told me I could apply now!”
“Yes, but he’s new here. He made a mistake. Come back in a month, please.”
My heart shrunk to a raisin. My fists balled into little white knots. I could feel the rage boiling behind my eyeballs. I’d have given ten years of my life to have ten hours alone with that slimy cunt strapped to a steel slab in an underground morgue. I collected my papers and slowly slipped them into my folder. Rat Cunt cocked her head and gave me an awkward smile. I nearly retched when I saw her teeth. She looked like she’d been gnashing licorice and boogers for the past half hour. I stuffed everything in my pack and zipped it up.
“Thanks so much for everything,” I said.
I spent the next four nights getting tremendously drunk and stoned. When Monday rolled around I was a ragged, wisp of a man. I got a text from my mother reminding me it was my 34th birthday. I celebrated by vomiting in the men’s room at the Ministry of Agriculture then dining on a “Be Smart Box” from KFC.
When my day finally ended, I climbed on a bus to Žižkov. It was filled with bundled and screaming brats, geriatrics with crutches, reeking bums, snoozing alcoholics, etc. I stuffed plugs in my ears and looked out the window. The dirty streets were lit up with cheap Christmas lights and there was a tree in every cracked window. I started thinking on my parents’ visit. I was a mess to beat hell, but I knew that seeing their spry faces and getting their warm hugs and telling funny stories and eating good food and drinking good booze and road-tripping and celebrating and doing all that hot jazz would pump a whole bunch’a life back into my fried-out veins. My mood started to perk up a little. The bus chugged to a stop and I got off. I walked back to my pad with a half-smile on my face. I even stopped at the store and dropped some coin on a little birthday gift to myself.
When I got up to my tiny flat, I stuck the frozen pizza in the oven. Then I slipped into my comfies and got on the computer. I noticed I had an email from my old friend Mason back in Livermore. This was strange because the guy hardly ever emails. I opened the thing and started reading. I got half a sentence in and broke out crying. My childhood best friend had OD’d. He was in a coma on life support at some bunk hospital. Mason didn’t have much more information than that. He told me he’d keep me updated as things developed. I closed the email and walked over to the oven. I took my birthday pizza out and dumped it in the trash. I walked back to my room and belly-flopped on my bed. I cried until my eyes turned red and my blinds turned black and the night pulled me kicking and screaming to sleep.
The rest of the week was a horror. I spent it in an agitated state, worrying and pining and praying my friend (Hawk) would miraculously wake from his coma. Fortunately, I had my buddy Tim to condole with. He was also from Livermore and had recently moved to Prague. He and I called each other incessantly. And when we spoke of Hawk, we did so in the present tense to keep him alive and with us. In the end, it did no good. The day my folks flew out, I got the word from Mason that Hawk’s brain scan had come up flat and they were pulling the plug. I told him not to mention anything to my folks. I wanted to break it to them myself.
When the 18th came I was hollow with grief. I felt less like a man and more like a shell of glass being blown along the sidewalk with the plastic bags. I mustered the cheapest smile I could and taught my few classes. Then I went home, cried in the shower and got on a bus to the airport. As I rode along, I felt a cold brewing inside me. It was hot and green and nasty and it mixed like benzene with the embers of hurt that were already smoldering in my guts. To add to it, I was in knots about my parents’ impending visit. I hadn’t let myself think about it much up to that point, what with all the planning and worrying and mourning going on, but deep in my spirit I wanted to show them (especially my father) that I wasn’t just fucking around out here, that I hadn’t skipped across the world simply to get drunk and screw cheap women, that I actually had a method to my madness, that I really did come to Prague to pound my dreams into shape, to become, dare I say it, a real writer.
I thought back on the day I’d broken it to my father. We were in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at the end of a trip across Central Asia he and my mother had taken with me in the summer of 2008 during my Peace Corps service in Turkmenistan. It was a furiously hot day. The sun was belting down in visible waves that burnt the streets white. My dad and I were walking along, hands forming awnings over our eyes as we searched for a soda stand. I’m not sure how or why we got on the topic. Maybe it was because my service would be ending that December, or because that same month I’d be turning a ripe twenty seven. Whatever the reason, we started talking about the future. At first it was just a casual chat about all the great wine and steaks we were gonna share when I got back home. But then the conversation sailed right over the grassy green cliff and fell screaming into the razor-toothed maw of reality. And it was that dreaded question, that miserable liver spot of an inquiry that all art-folk loathe to hear from their parents:
“What’s your plan?”
When the words left the old man’s mouth, my insides turned to soup. Not because I didn’t have an answer, but because after two solid years of sweating and bleeding and toiling in the desert, living off bowls of boiled goat guts and dodging the KNB, braving busted taxi rides to hell, necrotic spider bites, giardia, seeing dead children mangled and twisted in the streets then coming home to a circus of farmyard horrors and locking myself in a tiny, scorching room and scouring the wings of my haunted-mansion-heart for even a shred of who I was, I finally, by the limbs of God, had an answer.
“I want to write,” I said.
My father stopped still in his tracks. He looked down at me from his giant perch through glinting, tortoise-shell glasses. I could see his left cheek twitching. I could hear his thoughts churning my answer like filthy laundry in his vast skull. My father is an M.I.T. graduate whose 350-page thesis on organometallic chemistry arguably served as the springboard for his supervisor’s sharing the Nobel Prize in 2005. You can imagine what he thought of his only son rejecting science so he could pursue a half-baked career as a writer. His response was simple but devastating.
“It’s your life,” he said.
Note: I reserve the right to occasionally alter the character names, descriptions, and/or event details in my posts for the purposes of identity protection and “fluidity of story.” If this puts a kink in your panties, read someone else’s blog, homey.