Messed up pants
Translated by Douglas McCain and Olga Zak
“So what is it?”, Honza said to himself. He looked in the mirror and made faces and tried a few poses. His was not an attractive image, maybe just average at best, he thought. He was no narcissist, and so he was a bit ashamed of all this, but he did want to figure it out. “What does Jana like about me? Maybe it’s my hair.” His mother and others of the older generation had strongly disapproved of that hair. If it were longer and thicker they might be even more displeased, and that could help. But no, he had to admit, his best feature had to be his pants.
Everyone called Vasek a “seamstress”, but they didn’t laugh at him for his woman’s job. Quite the opposite, they praised him and were glad that he made pants for the whole dormitory. He had learned to sew because you could only buy bad imitations at the local store. Anyone who once saw the real jeans from Tuzex wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a fake pair. Vasek made two or three bell bottoms each week, charging around 100 crowns for each. Supposedly, he was saving the money to travel to the Italian Dolomites because he was studying plants and was crazy about alpine flowers.
Vasek made Honza’s pants from the material used to cover an ironing board, which was a big plus over the thick and hard-to-bend window shade material more commonly used for this purpose. Jana then used black thread to stitch on the antiwar symbol – the same one used by hippies everywhere. Every morning, Honza put on his pants proudly. He looked good in them, and to top it off, they expressed where he stood, telling the world that their owner is a pacifist free thinker. At least that is what he hoped they said. The pants also compensated, to some extent, for his drab personality. Honza was wishy-washy, indecisive, not a forceful person. He wanted a more intimate physical relationship with Jana, but he wasn’t pushing it because he was afraid she would get pregnant and want more from him. Then he would be caught, tied down, unable to fulfill his dreams. The world was full of amazing opportunities. Right now, with Prague Spring and its loose restrictions, so many things were possible. Honza wanted desperately to go to London to try out his English, to talk in Piccadilly with British hippies. He knew it could be done because Vasek went there and disappeared into England six months ago. He should be back soon. Almost every night, before falling asleep, Honza told himself “Tomorrow I will take charge of my life. I will act boldly.” But each morning, he saw again how much effort that would take, and he would tell himself “not yet, not today”.
“This can’t last.”, his father moaned. “The Bolsheviks are angry. They won’t let it last.” By Bolshevik, Honza’s father meant Russian communism with its firm political control, and he pictured Brezhnev at the head of it, with eyebrows like two unkempt mustaches. But Honza was allergic to the word Bolshevik. To him it stood for old-fashioned thinking. Whenever father started in about Bolsheviks, Honza made sure he had something to do outside so he could leave. He thought to himself “Who cares about the Russians. I want to live free. I will make love to Jana, and I will travel to London. Tomorrow I will do it. I will start my new life.”
Next morning, Honza slept for a long time, and was just finishing a leisurely breakfast. With a full stomach and a new day ahead of him, he was in a good mood. He could put his legs up on the table because his parents were on vacation, enjoying Bulgaria and the sandy beaches of the Black Sea. The phone rang. He took his time to chew and swallow, then picked up the receiver. Jana!
“They attacked us!”, shouted Jana. “Who?” he asked, “Germans?”. “Yes, them too!” She was talking very fast – something about tanks and machine guns in the streets. He started to bite his nails. A tornado of awful images went spinning through his head. He pictured noisy, aggressive bomber planes. Panic roared inside him. Everything was at stake. Then, getting control of himself, he asked quietly “Do you think there will be a war?”, but Jana had already hung up.
Honza went out into the streets of Prague where he met individuals and small groups. In the behavior of younger people he read disbelief, resentment, anger, hatred, and resolution. In older citizens he saw only sad resignation; they had known this would happen. He passed a determined group led by a big guy carrying a Czech flag. Two boys were standing next to a wall with buckets of white paint. They were painting a slogan. He noticed the word “Ivan”. “That’s stupid.”, he thought, “The Russians won’t leave because of your slogans.” He was concerned that their protest was so futile. He felt like he was a pressure cooker full of desperation. It suddenly hit him how fantastic up to now had been the Prague Spring of 1968. “Those bastards in charge, and that damn Warsaw agreement!”, he thought. He should have done it all … love making with Jana…London. Who knows what will happen now? There may be no tomorrow. He must do something now to make up for all those postponements. He needed to be strong, to become a man of action. He wished he had weapons to fight back with, and then he smiled bitterly as he realized that just this morning when he woke up he had been a pacifist.
There! He saw them! Heavy monsters rattled over the cobblestones. Soldiers in the turrets were armed with machine guns. This brought discordant memories of war movies that always seemed to feature “good”, war-weary but victorious comrades fighting back against oppression. He wanted to cry, but choked back his tears. With crying you would let them know you were helpless. The bastards would like that.
“They are fighting at the radio building.”, he overheard. He ran toward Vinohradska Avenue, weaving around people. He heard shouting and shooting. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t think, but he wanted to be part of the action. Maybe he could help prevent something, or maybe he could get evidence to testify against them later. He passed tanks, armored vehicles, excited Prague citizens. In the air he could smell danger, fear, death. He must act! He found a rock and threw it toward a tank. In Russian, he shouted “Idite damoj, ruskije sabaky!” (Go home, Russian soldiers!) A machine gun started up. Somebody yelled “Don’t shoot our children!” He fell on his side. Pain…pain…blood… It rushed out from inside of him onto those fantastic pants. Blood soaked in right there next to the antiwar symbol. Some thoughts crossed his mind. “I can’t wash this out.” “I will never see London.” And his last thought belonged to the mirror where he might have seen himself tomorrow-- differently -- this time as a man of action.