I’ve been back from Prague for almost two weeks, and it’s still disorienting. The owner of the Korean grocery store where I go for chocolate and cucumbers gave me a quizzical look when I called, “Dobry den!” from the dairy case, out of habit. This is totally normal in Prague–not normal in Queens.
When the envelope above arrived last week from a friend in Canada, there was something familiar about it and the collection of overlapping bits the sender willed to add up to the right amount. It’s me. You think I’m projecting? Lately, I feel like my passport–worn at the edges, stamped with a bewildering assortment of remarks, stuffed full and about to run out of space, but totally useless, once back in the U.S. For the tenth month in a row, I’m out of work. (At least this month I vowed (to a New York Times correspondent on Twitter) that I’d open a biscotti shop, if it went to eleven months.)
For the Fourth of July, we ended up going to a friend’s apartment at the last minute. I was set on seeing fireworks, though I began to regret it when one of the friend’s roommates sniped, “It’s not like I’ve never seen fireworks,” which stung when I heard it from the bedroom. From the window, I could barely make out the edge of fireworks barely visible over the cluster of buildings near West 14th. Everyone else had given up, though my husband stood there behind me, for a minute, and it began to seem a candidate for the Worst Fourth of July Ever: standing in a stranger’s bedroom, looking through the window, alone, hearing fireworks but not seeing any. In any case, it had the makings of a massive pity party.
We’d called these friends at the last minute, because they have a balcony, and they’d invited us over, but when we arrived, it was clear that they hadn’t expected guests. The host scurried around, hastily tipping chips into a bowl, but everyone else stayed put, glued to their laptops.
Maybe it’s childish to want to see fireworks. I’m thirty-three, after all, and I’ve seen a good lifetime of them with my family. But sitting there on a wooden chair, a few minutes later, listening to my husband talk energy politics with his friend’s roommate, oblivious to the fireworks, was strange. Hey, I wanted to shout, I spent last Fourth of July, and a few before that, working on Leggings of 101 Rock and Pop Stars, or whatever literary gem good old crafty Tobias the Sneaky German Publisher had dreamed up in his den for us to slave over in Prague, that week. I deserve fireworks.
I should have left. After all, I’m the outsider anyway–an American among a bunch of international expats, the mopey out-of-work wife and humanities major among a bunch of hedge-fund analysts. But I stayed. And it only got worse. After the last boom reverberated outside and, faintly, in my chest, the host munched on a chip and looked at me.
“Is this a holiday that’s really important to you?” he asked.
“Of course,” I started. “It’s–”
“Because it’s hard for me to see how it has any real meaning to you, personally.” He cocked his head and sat back on the couch. “For me, you know, a big holiday is November 17, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, because it happened during my lifetime, and it really changed my life. It gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had. I was in seventh grade.” He looked at my husband, who’s also Czech, for confirmation.
J. nodded. “My parents took me to the demonstrations.”
The host continued. “Right–so it has real significance.”
If I had been thinking clearly, I would have said something like, “Well, you have a point, and for you, sure, today is not that big a deal, and it’s clear that you don’t understand or really care what this holiday means to your average American, which is fine. Hey, I dig; to each his own, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go celebrate in the fashion that generations of my American-immigrant family has enjoyed. Thanks for letting us crash your evening. Please enjoy the beer we brought.”
But the conversation went on after that, with each expat offering his or her Holiday Story of Real Significance, and I sat and felt the top of my head grow warm. When the host leaned over and asked J. if he wanted another beer, I leaped off my seat, muttered, “Well, I think I’ll go home; I have a lot of work to do,” and walked into the hallway to get my shoes.
J. followed me. “What? I thought I would stay for one more beer.”
“That’s fine, of course, but we’re not attached at the hip.” I jammed my feet into my flip-flops. “You should stay.”
“No, I’ll go, too.” He sighed.
“Really,” I urged. “I don’t want to be blamed for making you leave early.” The living room was silent. Physical and domestic fireworks! What a spectacle.
The host wandered in and stared at me. “You have to work?”
“Yeah,” I said loudly. “I got a lot of work done in Prague, and I’m trying to put it together, now.” I looked away.
“You don’t have a job yet?” he asked. “Well, I’m sure things will improve.”
“Thank you so much for letting us invade your evening,” I said. “The economy is still going to hell, so I don’t think so. But I’ll keep looking. Good night.”
When I’m angry, I walk very, very quickly, and my husband (who is well over six feet tall) has trouble keeping up. But there’s something about propelling yourself through streets and crowds at top speed that is calming, somehow. Everyone else seems to be in slow motion while you carve a swift path down the sidewalk. It’s satisfying. Behind me, I could hear J.’s footsteps in their particular rhythm, among all the other footfalls. It’s just something you tune into, after five years of marriage. But there are other things that you can remain tone-deaf to, until they suddenly ring in your ears like a fumbled chord.
So, since the Fourth of July, I’ve been trying to recreate it–unconsciously, I guess–with a barrage of archetypal American summer foods: lemonade, grilled steak, blueberries and strawberries with cake. Tonight was corn on the cob, with onion-and-chive butter.
Maybe a whole week of the Fourth of July is better than one night.
Also, feel free to place a biscotti order below.