The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Wake the Goddamn World

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Maybe I’m remembering it wrong. It happened over a decade ago, and that’s plenty of time for the mind to play tricks. She was screaming—that much is certain—and scared. Right? Wasn’t she? It sounded like it, but maybe I’m thinking of all the movies and TV shows and news broadcasts I’ve seen where the man raises his hand and the woman cowers. Maybe I’m using bits and pieces from those stories to fill in this one.

Here’s what I know for sure: It was the middle of the night. I heard screaming. I got out of bed and went to the window. Four stories down, the two of them were in front of our building. There was a street lamp. I saw some, but not all.

There was pushing.

Dull smacking sounds—palm on skin? Fist on bone?

But maybe I’m making that part up.

*

I spent the bulk of 2004 in Prague, teaching Kafka for an American study abroad program. My boyfriend and I paid $500 a month for a one-bedroom walk-up, fully furnished from IKEA, with huge windows that overlooked an idyllic cobblestone street. I hung wet clothes from those windows to dry. Sometime birds flew in, getting stuck in corners where the ceiling met the walls.

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One time, I threw coconuts to the ground, four stories below, trying to crack them open. We were making gumbo from a recipe we got off the internet; for some reason, it called for coconuts. Where do you get a coconut in the Czech Republic? “Kokosovy orech?” we asked grocer after grocer, our accents cutting pinpricks into the thick, tongue-heavy Czech. Finally, we found some at the Prazska Trznice and bought them all—an enormous stack of impossible, impenetrable fruit sitting on the counter and taunting us. Our furnished kitchen with its fully-stocked drawers held nothing that resembled a meat cleaver. Or a screwdriver. Or a blow torch, or a buzz saw, or a machete.

It was the ultimate defeat.

It’s worth mentioning that, at the time, I was starting to feel a bit crazy: a head full of Kafka, homesick, and reeling from the recent U.S. presidential election. It was mid-November and a permanent gray mist had blanketed the castles and cobblestone, perfect and Goth and mysterious for the first few months, but then—gray. In Chicago, Seasonal Depression is a thing; we prep for the winter the way others might for the apocalypse, and for the record, it has little to do with temperature. My brother in Fairbanks, Alaska, plugs his car into a generator every night so the engine won’t freeze, and he laughs when I complain about Midwest winters. But truly, the gray is no joke; it slides into your psyche, every month getting darker. By March, we’re ready to climb out of our skin. I start to resemble a character from The Shining.

I hadn’t expected it to happen in Prague, but there I was in the first week of November, throwing coconuts out a four-story window.

*

Their bodies were stumbling in and out of the spotlight, so I couldn’t tell who started what, who was grabbing who, or who was trying to stay or go. Maybe she wanted to run away and he caught her. That made sense. What father would let his teenage daughter roam the streets in the middle of the night? But maybe, maybe he’s a big ol’ dickwad, and she was trying to get away from him. There are rules about that stuff in the Czech Republic, right? Wait—were they Czech? They weren’t speaking Czech. At least, I didn’t think so, but my Czech was pretty shitty, then and always, even after I took tons of classes and did the Rosetta Stone CDs.

How do you say, “My dad’s a dick?”

How do you say, “Leave me the hell alone?”

How do you say, “Help me.”

Pomozte mi.

Pomozte mi. Prosim.

*

The building we lived in was owned by an older Russian guy, who was in his fifties, I’d guess. He lived on the second floor, rented out the third and fourth floors to expats like us, and ran an audio studio on the first. That’s what it was called: Audio Studio, stenciled on the front door in English, Czech, and Russian. It consisted of two black pleather couches facing each other in the center of the room, surrounded on all sides by speakers: floorstanding, architectural, and sub/sat systems; source, processing, and amplifier components; two dimension; three dimension. Customers would sit on the couches, and my landlord would blast his favorite songs—think American 80’s pop like Bon Jovi and Peter Gabriel and Lionel Ritchie. Now think Bon Jovi and Peter Gabriel and Lionel Richie all day, every day, over and over, through every possible kind of speaker. I had no idea there were so many—the bass and volume and reverb and vibration, the different qualities of sound.

Renting from him was a bit of a process. He spoke no English; we spoke no

Russian. Our transactions were conducted through his daughter, a very lovely, very awkward teenager in ironed blue jeans and pristine white sneakers who was always reading magazines in the corner of the room, always plugged into an iPod, living in her own music, her own world. In the middle of the culture shock, everything so strange and new, this girl felt so gloriously familiar; not that long ago, I’d been in those same white shoes—fourteen, fifteen years old—waiting in my parents’ living room, waiting for my moment to run free.

When money needed to change hands, either from customers buying speakers or the renters living upstairs, she’d take off her headphones and conduct business in a complicated mix of Czech, Russian, English, and hand gestures, while her father sat on his couches playing “Purple Rain” or “Livin’ On a Prayer.” Over many months, this girl and I built our own language, yelling our heads off over the music and passing paperwork back and forth about the rent, the lease, the neighborhood. I remember loving her voice, all that youth and sweetness wrapped around the thick, heavy Slavic. It made me think of boxing—the delicacy of the footwork and the power of the punch.

I wish I could tell you more about her.

There are a lot of things I wish.

*

I didn’t know what they were fighting about. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know the cultural norms of Eastern Europe. I didn’t know if they were European. I didn’t know where to buy a coconut. I didn’t know how to convert money. I didn’t know how simple it was to renew a VISA. I didn’t know the Czech equivalent of 9-1-1. I didn’t know what would happen if I called the police. If he was put in jail, what happened to her? Where would she go? In all the months of living there, I’d never seen a mother. I didn’t know if she had a mother. I didn’t know if she went to school. I didn’t know how old she was. I didn’t know a thing about her story, and I didn’t know if it was appropriate or acceptable or advisable to ask. I didn’t know if she was screaming in fear or fury or both. I didn’t know how often I’d think of this moment, trying to fit it all together like a broken vase with superglue, and I didn’t know how many pieces were missing—blanks in my memory like a self-imposed force-quit.

*

I love Chicago. The pulse of this place is my heartbeat. I’m raising my child here. Every day, I’m grateful to zip in and out of its grid, and I work to give back as fully and completely as I’ve been given.

But Prague.

Prague is in my dreams; its streets are the streets I see when I shut my eyes. Every time I trip over something—and I’m stupidly clumsy, so it happens a lot—I can feel Prague in my body, its uneven jags of cobblestone under my rumpus-1feet. Those first several months of living there, so young and free and open, remain the best in my life. In Prague, I was writing. In Prague, I moved slowly, deliciously. In Prague, I was in love; the boyfriend and I got together a month before I left Chicago, and we decided he’d come with me, which was a little shocking but also the most exactly right thing. Remember when you first fell in love? You couldn’t be apart for more than an hour. You had to have sex all the time. You had to make elaborate dinners, drink tons of cheap wine, and stay up all night discovering every ridiculous detail about each other—“You like Philip Glass? I heard one of his songs one time fifteen years ago! Let’s make out!”—because everything is so perfectly, so breathtakingly new. One day, he came home from Tesco with a bottle of Mr. Proper, which is the same thing as the American Mr. Clean, the cleaning liquid. Same product, same packaging, same bald guy on the label. Why is that important? I have no idea, except when he told me, when he excitedly showed me the bottle—this vast and profound discovery—I looked up through my magical, lovesick, half-sane haze and knew he was the one.

To this day, if you show me a picture or film set in that city, if you quote a line of Hrabal or Macha or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, if you even mention the word Prague, I’m right back in the haze.

It’s been ten years, and still—snap your fingers—I’m right there.

“Are you enjoying your time in Prague?” our landlord’s daughter would ask, month after month, taking off her iPod to count our rent.

I didn’t know how to answer the question.

I didn’t have the language for it.

*

Maybe she wasn’t his daughter; that’s an assumption on my part. He is older and she is younger, and in the absence of factual information, my memory filled in the blank: Father/daughter. But what about the other possibilities? Employer/Assistant? Let’s run with that one. It’s nicer, and I’d rather think of nice things than not-so-nice things, things that you read in newspapers or see on Law & Order SVU. Like, maybe he bought her on the black market and forced her into prostitution; or maybe he kidnapped her and made her steal speakers and everything in the building is stolen, and the Czech-equivalent of the Feds will raid our apartment any day now; or maybe, maybe they’re lovers in a totally gross and unethical fifty-something guy/fifteen-year-old girl sort of a way; or maybe she’s not even fifteen—I’m assuming that, too—but if she was, there’s no way that shit was consensual, I don’t care what Lolita did or not do, Lolita is fiction and this girl was real. She was real. She was screaming on the cobblestone four stories below me, and what should I have done? Called the police? What would I have said? Hi, nemluvim cesky and no, I don’t have a VISA, but something is happening. Can you sem si pospisit prosim, please?

*

When I first met Marketa, the woman who would become my closest Czech friend, she said, “There is an election soon in your country. Before we may be friends, I must know which you will vote.”

“Kerry,” I told her. “I already sent an absentee ballot for Kerry.”

“Good,” she said. “Now we will do this.”

It was fall of 2004. The United States government had recently asked the Czech Republic to pledge soldiers to Iraq. Anti-Bush graffiti was everywhere, the international media didn’t try to hide their disdain, and it never once occurred to me that he might actually win, which is probably why it hit me so hard when he did. After Kerry conceded the election, Marketa sent me an email that read: “Do not be sad, Megan. I will still be your friend. You are not one of them.”

I still have that email; it’s a plot-point on the line of my life. It brought to the forefront a tangled conversation about privilege that I’d been having with myself for years, forcing me to set aside everything I’d read, the stories I’d heard, the (what I thought had been) careful and critical listening about culture and nationality and race and difference and other, and take a terrifying look in the mirror. You are not one of them. Aren’t I? Who is this all-elusive them? The bad them, of course, but is it really that easy? Good and bad, us and them, right and wrong.

Later that day, my then boyfriend/now husband came home from the Internet café to find me throwing coconuts out the window. At first, I’d wrapped them in plastic bags, hoping to save the milk to put in a gumbo, but after the second or third, I didn’t care. I wanted to break something. I wanted to get out of my head. I wanted to find the right words.

“Are you enjoying your time in Prague?” our landlord’s daughter asked, taking off  her iPod to count our rent.

I didn’t know how to answer the question.

I didn’t have the language for it.

*

When I first heard screaming, I was safe in my bed. Safe in my secure job. My rent was paid. I was in a healthy relationship with a kind, gentle man, which is a privilege I hadn’t always had, but I had it then and I’ve had it since. I remember getting out of bed and going to the window, opening it just enough to stick out my head. Four stories below, in front of our building, I saw my Russian landlord—huge and hairy and shirtless in pajama bottoms—and what I first thought was a grown woman in high, high heels. She was still screaming—had been screaming the whole time it took me to wake up, sit up, get out of bed, go to the window, open it, and lean out—and sure, fine, that doesn’t take much time. Ten seconds, max.

Imagine what can be done to a body in ten seconds.

Imagine what can be done to a heart.

Imagine what happened before I got to the window, before my eyes adjusted from the dark of the bedroom to the glare of the streetlamp below. They were cast in a nearly perfect spotlight, like a film set or a stage show. The screams were wordless at first, but then I heard Russian and I recognized her voice—the delicacy and the power, the sweetness and the punch. I leaned out further and—underneath the more adult clothes, the jewelry, and the make-up—it was unmistakably her. I’d never seen her outside of the building; never seen her without those white, white sneakers; never imagined what her life was like. Did she have a boyfriend? A girlfriend? Maybe she wanted to be a translator, or a teacher, or a rock star. In my memory, she’s in school, she’s brilliant and funny and works her ass off, and within two years—three, tops—she’s out of the Audio Studio and running free, fast as she can away from that awful, awful man and that awful, awful night. Her heels put them at equal height and they gripped each other’s shoulders. I couldn’t tell who was pushing or who was pulling; everything was fast and blurry and loud and louder. I didn’t know if she was screaming in fear or fury or both. I didn’t know if he was throwing her out or fighting to keep her there. I didn’t know who hit who first, and of course it’s not appropriate to ask, right? None of my business, right? Someone’s getting hurt below my window; or in the building next door; or on the L; or two neighborhoods over; or in some other city or country or community; and there will always, always, always be a reason to stay silent; always a seemingly good excuse to do nothing.

He outweighed her three times over.

There was nothing to catch her but the cobblestone.

Her body was bent in impossible directions.

And I did nothing.

*

The day we moved out, our landlord turned up the bass as high as it could go. I could feel the music vibrate in the walls of our building, up through the floor, and into my shoes. It was December now; we’d been there just under a year. All of our possessions fit into two mountain backpacks, and mine felt unexpectedly light as I went down those four flights of stairs.

Inside the Audio Studio, Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” was playing in surround sound. My landlord, per usual, was on the couch with a customer, and the daughter glanced up from her magazine when I came into the room. I don’t know what I’d expected. Maybe her arm would be in a sling? Maybe he’d be on crutches? Maybe they’d be wearing sunglasses to hide the bruises? Maybe she’d be long gone?

“Hi,” she said, taking off her headphones and standing up. She was so lovely. So awkward. So fourteen-years-old and almost free to run. “You are leaving Prague now?”

This is where, in my memory, I apologize, digging through our shared patchwork language to find the right words: I’m so sorry. I should have done better. I will do better. I tell her how, this time, I will rush down the four flights of stairs and put my body between theirs. This time, I will rush down the four flights of stairs—not in time to stop it, but still in time to help, to get her to a hospital, or a friend’s, or a shelter. This time, I will grab the lamp off my bedside table, a knife out of the kitchen, a bomb out of the bathroom, and I take aim, squinting one eye at the top of his skull, knocking him out from so many stories up. And this time, I will scream. I will be so fucking loud. I’ll wake the goddamn world.


Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm, a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011, and Once I Was Cool, a book of essays forthcoming in May 2014. Her work appears in The Best American Essays 2013, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere, and she’s the Literary Director of Chicago's 2nd Story storytelling series. More from this author →