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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Rings, Part Two
In the middle of our blossoming attraction, Ondra leaves to go to St. Petersberg for a week with his parents. During this week, a new friend asks me to pose nude with her for a photo shoot with Rudy, a Slovak artist obsessed with Andy Warhol. I think about it for a minute and then say, “Why not?” New experiences are the theme of this trip. We take a bus out to his studio in a small town outside of Prague. The trip is an hour long and we sit in the back on a seat lit up by the late day sun. Though we don’t know one another very well, we start in on the juicy details of our lives. I confess my attraction for Ondra and equally strong feeling that marrying Ben is the wrong thing. She tells me about her younger lover and what he brings to her married life. By the time we arrive at Rudy’s studio and exchange our clothes for towels, it seems natural for us to be naked. With colorful towels wrapped around us, we sit cross-legged, eat chocolate wafers, sip tea, and wait for instructions from Rudy. On this hot summer day, even the black and white poster on the wall behind me sweats. After Rudy tells us exactly how he wants us to stand against his backdrop of strewn branches and hanging dresses, I drop my towel. As I am standing still, I realize that I have left my engagement ring on the shelf above my bed in the dorm. I wonder if Ben will ever see these pictures and if he will notice that I have taken his ring off. I think of telling him that the photographer wanted us to wear absolutely nothing. But then, I glance quickly at my friend’s left hand and see that she is wearing both her engagement ring and wedding band. When Rudy instructs me to turn my head, “Turn, turn, turn,” I don’t know when he will want me to stop, so I move slowly. I want this moment on record.
After the shoot, Rudy joins us on the bus ride back to Prague. The sun is setting and Rudy is almost breathless, talking excitedly about how his studio was a commercial space under Communism and how after he and some friends spent years renovating it to use it as their studio. A few minutes out of town, the bus stops in front of a vast yellow field. Two boys dressed in all black and carrying guitar cases get on the bus. One of them wears a t-shirt that reads “Fuck me Jesus” in white block letters. Rudy stops himself, looks at the boys, and says, “This is beautiful. Ah, I could do a documentary here. Life is beautiful and so sincere.”
During this week, Ondra calls me every night at 10pm. One of these nights, I call Ben around 9:30pm. It is only the second time that we have spoken since I left Boston. Our relationship hadn’t recovered since his proposal, since we both started to realize that we had grown apart. I’d spent the last year in New York at graduate school, while he stayed in Boston, to wrap up some business with the band before moving to New York in the coming fall. During that year, Ben felt guilty for not coming with me. Often, when I tried to express loneliness or even just missing him, it was met with great resistance. One night in February he told me that he had a very important letter to read me. Was he finally going to let me in?
“Dear Bill…” the letter began. Ben went on to read a very heartfelt, quasi-break-up letter to his best friend and bandmate of many years. Dear Bill, our musical collaboration means so much to me. Dear Bill, you are so talented—please don’t stop playing music. Dear Bill, I will never find anyone like you in New York. Dear Bill, life will never be the same.
When I tell Ben about my nude photo shoot, he is incredulous: “Wow! Look at you. Well, I won’t tell anyone…” I don’t care if he tells anyone.
“Hey, I met a friend in boxing.” I am tentative, jittery. “We had dinner the other night.”
Ben quickly changes the subject. Wouldn’t I rather hear about the earth-shattering album that he is recording with his band? His approach in the studio is becoming more sophisticated; the result is intricately layered songs. I am only half-listening. When we hang up we say, “Love you”.
I place the phone back in its cradle and sigh. Then the phone rings again, immediately.
“Hello, Suzie. It’s Ondra.” Over the phone, he sounds French. “I was trying to call, but your line, it was engaged.”
I smile. “No, I’m engaged. The line is busy, but I am engaged.”
When I tell him about the photo shoot, his response is quick, guttural laughter. “You are so unlike Czech women. This is wonderful.”
When Ondra returns, I invite him to dinner with friends. Jane, a woman in my non-fiction class, follows me when I go to the bathroom at the restaurant: “What are you going to do? He’s so cute!”
“God, Jane, I don’t know,” I say as I lather my hands with a creamy soap. “I’m just so filled with lust. I feel—everything. I don’t know.”
Jane is a small, pretty woman with white short hair who is also the same age as my mother, sixty-two years old. She says, “Oh, isn’t that the greatest feeling? There was a group of us here last year who were all feeling lusty and sexy.” Her elbows are pulled tight to her body and her hands are clenched in rocking fists as she says “lusty” and “sexy”. “Lasted the whole year for me.”
I don’t know what I am going to do. I don’t necessarily care, either. I am aware of the blood in my veins, the nerves in my fingers and this is all that matters.
Back at the table, my plate is still covered with chicken while everyone else has already moved on to dessert. My head is dizzy, but calm. My eyes are locked with Ondra’s as we talk about nothing of particular importance. First, we talk about movies we’ve seen and then move onto movie stars we find “sexy”. When dealing with a language barrier, communication is all about the one or two key words.
“Did you see Tomb Raider?” Ondra asks.
“No, but I think Angelina Jolie is sexy.”
(Pause. Longing look that seems to make the lights flicker in the restaurant.)
Later, when Ondra drives me home, I look out the window toward the sun setting behind the bridges over the Vltava. The ripples of the yellow, cloud-filled sky are opening up.
When I say goodbye to Ondra and take the elevator up to my room alone, I bump into Elise, who had also been at the dinner. Like Jane, Elise is also in her sixties; she has incredibly slim and muscular legs and her toenails are always painted a dark metallic blue shade. Her distinct Southern drawl makes her an exceptionally good reader of her own poetry. “He’s very cute,” she says.
When I nod, she adds, “You know, men have been having affairs since the beginning of time. You’re allowed to have a private life.”
“Yeah, I just need some time to really think about it, though.”
As the elevator stops at my floor, I step out and wave goodbye.
“And remember, honey,” she yells as the door is closing. “It is always better to regret the things we have done than the things we haven’t!”
I walk down the dark maze of corridors, with its KGB ghosts, to get to my room. By now, I have walked this path many, many times and tonight it is still confusing. My pace quickens as I walk by windows that overlook the courtyard. From one window, I only see other windows across the way, where a couple of girls are preparing to go out for the evening. But from another window I see a sliver of a bright, moonlit sky. My neighbors are blaring twangy, sad country songs. I am on a high-speed escalator and there is no way to get off. It is not the ground beneath me that is moving, but rather the world around me. I open the door to my room, turn on the light and grab a notebook from the wooden shelf above my bed, the same shelf where the engagement ring sits. I have something urgent that I need to remember.
Help! I write. You are very, very alive.
We are in the ring, but only I have gloves on. “You must look like you want to kill me,” Ondra says, holding the pads in front of his body. I shake my head, “Impossible.” But still I try to look mean, try to get at that nasty expression that always seemed so accessible to me in Boston. We laugh and it is awkward, but I am trying my damnedest to think about the sport. Focus, Suzie, focus.
Ondra is focused on me. Really, we are focused on each other. I don’t yet know that he will stroke my hair and tell me that I am beautiful when I cry, that without emotion, I would not be a woman he wants to be with. I do not yet know that we will stay in his apartment for a whole weekend taking bubble baths and listening to the Amelie soundtrack or that when I insist on helping him paint his bedroom walls a beautiful orange, he will leave a square of white, cover my hands with the paint and ask me to leave my mark on the wall. I don’t yet know that he will write me letters with lines like: “I want to stop for a while and hug you so strong how I can…” I don’t yet know that after trying to explain to Ben—in many different ways—how I want to relate to my lover that I will have this kind of instant experience with Ondra, who holds my face and kisses me. I don’t know any of these things and I am glad—because they are not the point.
What I do know is that, technically, I am not free to pursue anything with Ondra, but that to honor my feelings, I have to face this mess and all my own imperfections. I look at the small scar on Ondra’s mouth, which I now know he got from a boxing match, and admire the character it gives his face. Before I left for Prague, I had desperately wished that I could return from my trip with a wholehearted resolve to marry my boyfriend of five years. I wanted our engagement to finally feel right, something that I was sure would please Ben, our friends, and our families. Now, standing in the ring, moving into punches with my whole body, I am far, so far from where I was. The space in which I live has opened; and from my life, I want only truth, the kind that travels freely from head to chest to groin and back again. I have never “cheated” on Ben, though somehow, I feel like this—an honest feeling of lust in my body—is truer than the ring, truer than the expectation, and the circumstances of being engaged.
“Come on, you can try to look mean,” Ondra says.
In a flash, I realize that because of my engagement, this—standing in the ring landing punches—is the closest that our bodies may ever come to actually touching, that the sweat on his t-shirt is as much as I may ever know of him, that his lifting me off the floor from behind to crack my back is as close as we may ever come to an embrace.
And that’s enough to piss me off.
I swell inside, twist, and explode with a right jab. When it meets the pad, a sure, satisfied smack rings out. Knockout. Ondra closes then opens his eyes slowly. His tongue traces his upper lip. He nods his head and says, “Now that was a good sound.”
A writer and occasional storyteller, Suzanne Guillette’s work has appeared in Tin House, Self, O Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Time Out New York and elsewhere. She’s the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment , a non-fiction account of the year she spent collecting embarrassing stories from strangers on the streets of Manhattan. Suzanne holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Philosophy from George Washington University and a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College.