The following excerpt is from Jana Beňová’s Away! Away!, translated by Janet Livingstone and out tomorrow from Two Dollar Radio. With Beňová’s signature effervescent prose, the story follows Rosa, who ditches her husband and takes off on the road, where she encounters the owner of a puppet theater intent on conquering the world through his production of “The Snow Queen.” In this section, Rosa reflects on her previous life with her ex-husband, Son, and their various travels to Paris and across Europe.
After a month in Paris, Son has trouble remembering some Slovak word. That’s so us—we’ve forgotten our own language and haven’t learned the foreign one.
No-body. For years we’ve only talked amongst ourselves. Linguistic incest.
In Paris. I spear the green lettuce with a big sharp knife and put it in my mouth. Exactly like my father does at home with bacon.
The same noble style.
In Paris, something devours the time. Maybe it’s the metro cars. Maybe it’s the constant walking around the city. Or that dog that’s always hungry. He growls at cucumbers and the poop of his canine compatriots. He likes to eat paper tissues and cake, which I went all the way to the Jewish Quarter to buy and then left out within his reach. Boom! That’s what happens to a soldier when he’s not on his guard.
In Paris. It’s useless to fixate on pastries.
In Paris, every minute has only a few seconds, something here swallows up the time. Digests it. I guess that’s why people here love extremely fresh baguettes. They prefer to put them under their arm—directly from the oven—with a hint of flame still burning. In Paris.
In Paris, I have two kinds of salt on the table. One with bigger and one with smaller crystals. Luxury.
In Paris, chestnuts don’t lose their shine.
They glow like the dark brown heart on my necklace. It reminds the cuckoos of a chocolate gingerbread cookie. It reminds me of gym equipment—leather, mats, horse. Something I never managed to jump over.
My friend, who’s lived here for years and speaks Slovak with an accent, has two sons. She says that their apartment is a little small for two children. “But the boys are very well-loved.”
In Paris. The windows are as big as the door.
In the dimness of the metro the nightlife is nonstop.
In Paris. In the morning, half asleep, Son traces a circle with his fingers on his chest. For lunch, there’s meat in a spicy sauce. He sweats over the plate like a woman in labor with her firstborn. Very well-loved.
In Bratislava, on the day we came back from Paris. We’re sitting on a bench in the park. Lost. Helpless. Feeling sorry for ourselves. As if someone close to us had died.
Paris in Paris.
During a bombardment in Budapest, the novelist sits in his apartment and wonders what he would regret never experiencing—seeing the ocean, walking in Paris . . .
For me, Krems.
Corman at the station. A little shorter than me. I fasten myself to his lips. I get a bouquet of flowers. Freshly wrapped in paper. Like popcorn.
A hundred years ago. Son and I began to date in the fall. A brutal winter followed. Spicy. Snow and ice. For months, the path he accompanied me down every night to my parents’ house was covered in a thick, lumpy layer of ice.
“I wasn’t born for this, to walk on ice,” I burst into tears once in the middle of the street.
In Krems there’s a room available at the Golden Angel hotel.
A morning message from Son. Sorry, but I’m afraid I’m dying. He’d never used that word before. Something like my grandmother and the word meditation.
I call him, with Corman’s ear on my hip. In my belly, a small animal sobs. A big gathering storm.
Behind the frosted glass, there’s thunder and lightning. Like backstage at the marionette theater.
She decides to run back. To comfort Son. To interrupt her journey. She’s drinking wine with Corman, it’s almost lunchtime. A bit drunk, they walk up—to the highest point in town—to the vineyards. This is Rosa’s road. Through the woods. She always found this healing. So far, she’s shared it with only two men. Both of them lagged, breathing hard.
They weren’t born for this, to walk up hills.
Corman has sweated out his Riesling. He smells like a little dog. Fruity.
Near the wood they pass a house that reminds them of a gingerbread hut. Inside, in the semi-darkness, sits an old woman. Corman calls to her, greets her, smiles, and approaches the fence. The old woman lights up and on her swollen, bright red legs comes to meet him. As if to some old lover she’d been awaiting for years. Like the uncle in America. They smile at each other. Corman tells her that she has a beautiful house.
She gestures to him that she can’t come any closer. Her legs are leaden.
Rosa. “Das ist mein Haus,” someone calls from behind us.
We greet a married couple, Grüsgot.
Grüsgots. They look at us a bit severely. I guess our eyes didn’t seem sensitive enough. Not sensitive enough to inspect their house.
Farther up there’s a bench. Three years ago, I would come here to read Son’s Little Book.
Now, I caress Corman under his T-shirt.
A few steps beyond the bench I dig a shallow hole. I put my mobile phone in it and cover it with dirt.
And then, further. The road. From Krems to Melk. After a couple of glasses of red wine, around midnight. Night and a fast, steady ride. (A gallop?) Our palms are crossed on each other’s thighs. The ends of our fingers are dusted with gold. In another universe. A twin planet is hurtling along.
We’re a two-headed dragon, Son whispers somewhere in the distance. And we still haven’t met a knight clever enough to take off one of our heads.
Though some have tried…
My road to pornography and back
All those evenings when I drink nearly an entire bottle of red and dance a lot. My reflection in the dark mirror is my dance partner.
Son watches. Occasionally applauds, offers a thumbs-up . . .
And the weekends, when one is helpless again, like during puberty. Lying in bed. Alone. As lonely as before one experienced being loved.
Before lovemaking filled all the spaces, pauses, rainy days, all the still moments.
A gallop . . . reindeer would have something to say about it.
Cleaning, cooking, laundry, weeping.
Gergana. When did it happen? How did it play out? First, he treats you like a goddess, and then suddenly you’re like the math teacher he mouths off to?
And those winter afternoons, when, after a couple of lunchtime cognacs, she and Son set out on the road.
Most often it was to New York. They would sit and talk about how they had nothing to lose, they had nothing anyway, so they’d step on the gas. They’d escape from this dead country.
Gergana on her extended family: Whenever we meet, we always drink and buy sailboats. Someone starts about how it’s not even that expensive and then there’s no stopping it. We dream about pooling our funds and buying a boat. A cruiser or a sailboat.
Only three hundred thousand? We can come up with that, we all shout in turn.
The next morning, we’re wandering around the house. No one’s talking about sailboats anymore—let alone about water . . .
Over lunch we look at each other and tremble with fear that someone will start in again, someone will mutter it between their teeth . . . And we get in the car as fast as we can and run from the family house.
Rosa. When my uncle from America visited, the whole family gathered together. And the more wine my uncle drank, the farther we traveled. “Tomorrow we’ll get up early, get in the car and go to the Tatra Mountains. I’ll take care of the hotel.”
He didn’t get up the next day until lunch.
When Rosa visited him in America, they sat around the table in the evening and made plans about where they’d go the next day. They drank red and traveled to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.
The next day Rosa sat waiting in her room, ready to go.
The house was asleep.
At lunchtime, her uncle got up, brewed himself a big cup of coffee, and disappeared behind the newspaper.
They waited to be rescued. By other places.
All those vacations on the Greek islands: focusing on summer.
Like in that book where the guy on vacation in Italy with a wife he doesn’t love realizes he hates his everyday life. His job. Realizes he lives—holds out—only for that month of vacation every year. And he never returns.
But it ends badly anyway.
Son. So, I thought that at the very worst, I’d sit down somewhere in a corner of the Main Station and write something, mark something down.
We weren’t born for this, after all.
On the way to work: there’s a person crawling on all fours along Commercial Street. It’s snowing. Two young people in fatigues are heading toward him. I freeze. They lift him up and sit him down on the window sill of a jewelry shop.
It’s November and in front of us is Christmas, the first Christmas without the threat of food!
After I ran away, Son gratefully began to eat what I did. Or what I didn’t.
My body was born. Legs are for running. My shoulders relaxed. They shook off their load. The walker became a runner.
Running. A way to deal with loss. Protest song.
I try not to fixate. Fixate on reindeer.
Oh, let me, let me,
Let me freeze again.
When I flew in from Munich, it was already cold everywhere. But at the airport, vacationers from Hawaii were mixing with the people in their winter coats. I was overwhelmed with pride for the north.
Confused, the summer people were running around the cold baggage that had arrived from Germany. Short-clad folk. Deceived by the south, the exoticism, the warm sea.
A man in a thick sweater and I smiled at each other. We flew in from a country where you have to deserve your warmth, work for it. Set your own fire in your own body. A blaze.
We came from menthol-green rivers, not from the sea.
When a person reaches middle age, everything having to do with the south starts to be suspicious.
We don’t have a sea. Nor do we want one . . .
Excerpted from Away! Away! by Jana Beňová, published by Two Dollar Radio. Copyright © 2018 by Jana Beňová. Translation copyright © 2018 by Janet Livingstone. By arrangement with the publisher.