It´s a rainy afternoon and I’m sipping my favourite Earl Grey tea, all alone in our little flat. Browsing through some books, I feel quite content. But there is no moment without a memory that takes us back in time.
On that occasion, too, our flat was empty and I was carrying two cups of Earl Grey tea into the living room on a tray. My hands were shaking and the fine porcelain jiggled like my heart. Ever since then, whenever I make Earl Grey, it always reminds me of Jana.
She was sitting on the sofa in our living room, her hair still dripping wet. She smelled pleasantly of the pale blue towel I had hastily snatched from my wife’s cupboard and that special fragrance you find in the bathroom of every family in the world. She was wearing my striped shirt with long sleeves, the one I kept for special occasions, which I had handed her from our wardrobe. She gazed at it with a smile, ”Sunday best, hm?” I nodded. ”Don’t worry! Just until I dry off.” While her blouse was drying on the radiator in the bedroom and her jeans in the kitchen, Jana moved around our flat in an outfit no fashion house in the world had ever invented. Sticking out of my poorly-ironed best shirt, were the remaining parts of a person called Jana. At the top, a fair-haired, rather narrow head – Gothic, an artist would say (except for the lips), at the bottom, two lovely legs with a summer tan, the long legs striding into the bliss of capitalism typical of the younger generation. The late Versace could have envied me the sight. Jana gracefully spooned sugar into her Earl Grey, picked up the saucer in a well-mannered way, using it to lift to her lips the Chinese cup with a mandarin motif left to me by my departed mother. I remember being fascinated by the elegant way Jana moved, so unusual for a tall person. I attributed this pleasing phenomenon to her mother, the charming L., a wonderful friend I had met years ago at a talk in a county town in the north of Slovakia.
Well, yes, the memory of dear L., who, if anything, differed from Jana only in that she was more beautiful, with the smaller, rounder figure of an agreeable forty-year-old, played a rather intrusive role that rainy evening. I say intrusive, but maybe it was a very fortunate role. The mere fact that we were drinking tea did not seem to suit the setting. For episodes with erotic overtones something else is usually placed on the coffee table, whisky at the very least. Of course, I did have some in the dining-room cupboard, but I had promised to drive Jana home. It was already past eleven and I don’t know how I would have explained it to dear L., or to Jana, or to myself, or even to my dear wife, who was spending the evening at a ”hen party” with her friends, if I’d left the young university student wandering through rainy Bratislava in the middle of the night.
Dressed in my shirt, Jana was sitting on the sofa, her superb legs folded under her in some kind of yoga position I couldn’t hope to copy. I sat down next to her, picked up the folder containing her poems and began to browse through it. The harmony of minds was perfect. With her long, slender fingers Jana immediately turned to the poem I liked best. I’m ashamed to say that now years later I can no longer remember those crucial verses. However, there was something there about a great search for God, alone in the evening, after a disco night (what we would call ”after a fling”) with all that followed. That’s great, I thought to myself, dear L., more a libertine than religiously minded, has no idea what emotions grip her long-legged daughter. Just then I felt a dampness on my shoulder; Jana’s hair, still wet, had touched my neck and tickled me behind the ear. In what seemed a natural gesture, I put my arm around her slender shoulders and felt their warmth burning through the pale-blue stripes of my shirt. Jana did not draw herself away and we both felt indescribably at ease. ”If your mother could see us like this,” I said the silliest thing I possibly could at that moment. Jana just wriggled, pulled one leg out from under her, mumbled ”I was getting pins and needles,” and she took hold of my finger and ran it over the text of her poem. ”Is it really good ...? Tell me!” In contrast to me, she was using the formal form of address and our grammatical inequality reflected the whole complexity of the situation. I was half holding Jana in an embrace and in a husky voice was trying to tell her that the articles she was writing for the provincial daily newspaper ”seem to me, don’t be offended, a little ephemeral and...” I stroked her shoulder, ”you should go on with, as you said it here, this longing for something higher, do you know what I mean?” She squirmed. ”But I can’t make a living out of it. And no provincial daily would take it,” she said, drawing in a breath and stretching in a delightful manner, so my striped shirt came within a few inches of my nose and filled out as if lifted by some pointed object. I gasped for breath. No, no, stay calm.
Of course, nothing happened. We finished drinking our tea and Jana went to the bedroom to see if her top had stopped dripping. In a moment she had slipped out of my Sunday shirt and into her yellow top, while her lovely legs disappeared into her frayed jeans. Once more she was Jana, the daughter of good friend L., a student I had come across outside the Arts Centre, drenched to the skin that wet evening in the middle of Bratislava, and offered to take her back to her digs in some woman’s flat in the Kramare district. In the car she was literally sitting in a pool of water and her teeth were chattering. ”You’ll get pneumonia, my girl!” I said, making for our block of flats …. ”I need a hot shower,” she stammered. So I got Jana a towel, made some tea and hung her T-shirt and jeans over the radiator.
That is how I spent a beautiful evening with the fragrance of a young girl’s body and soul. Thank you, dear Lord!
I only saw Jana once after that, when she popped up to Bratislava to arrange her American visa. We sat in Roland’s Café, but her thoughts were already elsewhere.
I don’t know whether Jana is happy. It seems she has not forgotten that rainy evening. Not long ago I received a postcard from New York, showing the huge building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Clearly her search for those enigmatic moments of peace has not come to an end.
Slovak original in the book: Anton Hykisch, Sám v cudzích mestách, Hajko& Hajková, Bratislava 2006
Translated by Heather Trebatická