Jaroslav wants my passport. This is pissing me off in a way that is gargantuan, elephantine, all of those words to which his faulty English does not allow him access. "This is bullshit, Jaroslav," I say. I am gripping the black plastic phone by its sternum. I am glaring out the window of my small garage-conversion apartment.
"This is bullshit," I say again. My originality has gone down the toilet. It's sharing space with my optimism, my goodwill, and my hope. My patience long ago jumped ship. I am on the first month of a semester-long teaching stint in the rural Czech Republic. The five months that remain are as incomprehensible as the silent snow outside, the flakes that enthusiastically cover every inch of brown, dead ground.
I'm trying to find artistic ways of telling you that I'm disappointed. I'm unimpressed. This small town sounded so much better, so much more charming, when I was sitting disenchanted on the other side of the world. But disenchantment travels, and it travels well, no worries of breaking or spoilage.
And Jaroslav wants my passport.
"It will be only for week," he says. The Czechs have difficulty with articles. They don't have an equivalent to prefaces like the and an. I'm constantly correcting my students on this one. Sometimes they get it. Sometimes they ask why, and I don't have an answer. Sometimes I just say "because," and even though it's not enough, it's the only thing I can say.
I'm teaching without training or qualifications. I hadn't known it was possible to do that, but here you can. It's called being an ESL teacher. The ads will tell you that you can teach and travel the world. All you need is a passport and English as your mother tongue.
Perhaps Jaroslav will take my vocal cords next.
He was the school liaison who placed the online ad: SMALL CZECH SCHOOL LOOK AT TEACHER. I emailed him my resume and he liked what he saw. I was excited. The town was on a direct train line to Prague. Everyone loved Prague.
In my excitement I'd forgotten that living on a direct train line to a major city is not the same as living in a major city. I'd also forgotten my tendency to hate what everyone else loves.
"Is not bullshit," Jaroslav says now. "Must sticker in at Los Angeles embassy."
There's something that needs to be placed in my passport. He'd forgotten to ask me to do it before I left the country. Or I'd been asked and my mind misplaced the request. Someone's at fault here, and as I stand in this cold foreign country and watch the snow, I decide it's going to be him.
"It is time brief only," he says. "Unless you suck my cock. Then we can speed things along."
Damn Becherovka. The Czechs claim it's an herbal liquor, healing, but drink three fingers' worth and it'll fuck with your head. Did he say that? Does it matter?
"Look," I say. "I've been here a month and already I've been stopped twice by the Czech cops. Each time, they asked for ID. If I don't have my passport, what the hell am I going to show them? My membership card for 24 Hour Fitness?"
"Speak English." My words are snakelike, a hiss. My students use Czech as a weapon - especially the phrase for I don't understand. Outside the snow is slowing and the sky is becoming clearer. The weather here is a backstabber. Once you think you know it, it changes.
"You must slow. Your words I cannot understand."
"Okay. I'll be clear. Sesame-Street clear. Sunny days, sweeping the clouds away, that sort of shit?" I can just about hear his confusion through the phone lines. I feel my anger folding me in its arms, acting as a separate being from the rest of me. My anger is sometimes the only active part of me. The rest will sit on the sidelines, watching, fist held to its mouth in worry.
I've invoked a show from my childhood and now I'm thinking of its theme music, its rhyme and the way I sat cross-legged on my family's turquoise shag rug while watching it. I've still got the phone by the chest, crushing it. My knuckles feel white-hot. Twin spots of color are in bloom on my cheeks. "I'm not giving you the passport," I say, my words measured as the ingredients they use to make explosives in this town. This place is known for two things: Semtex and and horse-racing.
"Prosim? ... I, uh, sorry?"
"I'm not giving you the passport," I say. "You made the problem, now fix it." There's that grim thrill. I felt it while snooping through my mother's journal as a kid, when stealing money from the nonprofit organization where I briefly held some sort of peon position. It's the I'm-right, especially when I know damn well I couldn't be more wrong.
"Fuck you," he says, slowly and clearly, enunciating his words. "You loser. If you were in your precious America, your beautiful Bay Area that you constantly bore us with, what would you be doing?"
Good question. Rarely can I make the rent on my dark and dingy apartment. Even when I do, it doesn't stop the walls from whispering their loneliness. My career alternates between sliding and stagnation.
"That's right," Jaroslav says. "When you bring the passport to school tomorrow, put it in an envelope. Leave it under my office door. I'll take care of the rest."
The next day I do as he says. In the week and a half that my passport is gone, no police officer stops me. There's never a need to prove I am who I claim to be. It comes back to me in an orange-and-white FedEx envelope. I open it and there's a new stamp, a new seal, a set of signatory initials. I am rebuked. I have five more months to wait.
About the author:
Allison Landa's work has been featured in CleanSheets, Defenestration, Word Riot, The Furnace Review, and The Ledge. She received her MFA in creative writing from St. Mary's College of California. She's not very trustworthy, but she does like to spin a good yarn. Her website is allisonlanda.com.