She opened the massive mahogany wardrobe with a quiet screech. It was one of the pieces of furniture leaning against the wall of the room, which was shaken only slightly in the airstrike. Its aftermath was omnipresent nevertheless. She touched a tiny speck lying on the decorative contour. It was hard. She examined it for a brief moment; it could have been a piece of the wall, which had fallen down when the immense burst of energy slammed into the building. She drew back the curtain that was covering the clothes. If she hadn’t brought some of her outfits to her new apartment she wouldn’t have a single thing to wear now, forced to borrow from her handful of friends. With surprise tranquility, she reminded herself that the aerial bomb – which is what the official protocols called the large piece of metal – flew through her room. Didn’t she now have a right to live then? Wasn’t the whole catastrophe a sign that she’s to free herself from the shackles that tasted like cold metal and appeared just as unpleasant?
She touched the blue chiffon dress. Her fingers caressed the poufy fabric. It was a pre-war dress. She had it made in 1940 at a time when even in the darkest confines of her mind, she couldn’t imagine how much fear their bodies and souls would soon have to endure. She fluffed the dress and a strong whiff of lavender fanned her face. Soap that had been made before the first shot in this war was fired. A package from France. She narrowed her eyes and pictured the elegant little boxes separated by silk paper used to ship soaps and colorful scented bottles, which the maids would arrange for guests in the bathrooms. How far away are they from going back to their lives before the war? And can it all play out in similarly enchanting outlines?
An abrupt beat of her heart reminded her why she was standing in front of her wardrobe. A smile spread over her face, she swayed her hips and stepped lightly over to the vanity table. She pressed the dress to her body, realizing she had never experienced this before. She has never gotten ready to the sound of her heart pounding in her chest and butterfly wings tickling her stomach. Of course, every time she would descend the staircase for dinner, she would dress up. She dressed the part for balls, swing parties, to the cinema. But always more for herself than for Emanuel, she realized. It didn’t matter to her whether he’d like the way she looked or not. What a relief to be finally able to admit that to herself. Since the shackles loosened in her heart, she could sort out the chaos from the years past into tiny little neat boxes in her mind. And it felt so liberating, in spite of the fact that it all transpired under such tragic circumstances.
She took off the simple suit that she wore as she worked all day. She changed her nylon tights and wondered whether even generals gave their girlfriends nylon tights. She noticed the goosebumps on her skin. A cold breeze blew in from the park through the half-opened window. She quickly threw on the dress, the fabric, which felt cold at first, warmed her skin quickly. The ruffles fell elegantly at her knees. The color went well with her dark hair, which still showed no signs of grey. She thought of her mother – what would have happened had she not married so young? It was pointless to think about it now and rob herself of the beauty of the past few days when the world was changing right in front of everyone’s eyes even if the end of the war certainly had its own pains. Tears for those deceased, refugees who had nowhere to return to, empty mansions, with no one to move back into them, tattered clothes, anxious expectations of what the future would bring. The first few days of joy were cloaked in a veil of clouded anticipation. There was something ambitious hanging in the air. She had noticed it especially in young men who were quick to grab knives in their hands claiming to have been a part of the resistance. She’d remembered the young man with blond hair whom Emanuel thought to be a resistance fighter. He had mysteriously disappeared together with one of the gestapo officers.
She wasn’t quite satisfied with her reflection in the mirror. She opened the top drawer, which fit only her blush and three rouge lipsticks. She grabbed one and pressed it to her lips. She applied the color using a familiar motion. She clipped on her pearl necklace and put on a wide pearl bracelet. She reached for her perfume, stroking the golden lettering – Magnolia – with her fingers. The remainder of the perfume swiveled at the bottom of the bottle. She put some on her wrist and behind her ears. She touched the clips in her hair. When the hand on the clock moved to 5 minutes past seven, she grabbed her purse and without looking in the mirror again took a step towards the door.
Her feet floated over the soft carpet still slightly soiled with grains of the fallen wall. She tried to quiet the thumps in her chest. For a second, she felt that the sensations in her stomach were too wild as she swallowed to dissipate the nausea. Smile, Eugenie, she told herself. It’s nothing to get worked up about.
He was waiting in the same spot where he stood just a few hours before. She pressed her purse to her hip and walked towards him slowly. He was smiling. He held his gaze on her eyes but slid down to her lips for a brief moment. Eugenie suddenly felt the blue color of her dress and his eyes blending into one and the entire world seemed to radiate with hope.
“Good evening,” he greeted her.
“Good evening,” she answered.
He didn’t give awkward silence a chance. “I was thinking where I could take you in your hometown. Especially since you yourself own a hotel with a restaurant,” he spoke quickly and for a second she thought she’d have to stop him and ask him to speak slower because his words were getting lost in his thick accent. “In the end, I asked Mr. Ulč for advice…”
“Did I say his name right?” he paused.
“Oh yes, you did. I was just wondering what else you had discussed with him.”
“Nothing else,” he shook his head and gave her a wide smile. “He recommended Měšťanská Beseda,” he took care to pronounce the name properly. “He did warn me that your cuisine is better but we can get a good meal there as well. Do you agree?”
“Yes, I do. Just please bear in mind that it will still be reminiscent of war-time cuisine. Deliveries are still scarce,” she looked over her shoulder in the direction of the kitchen,“ and I expect that they have similar problems at the Beseda.”
They stepped outside. The air in the streets cooled as soon as the sun hid behind the last row of buildings and went down beyond the hills, which weren’t visible from this spot. Hinds hesitated.
“This way,” Eugenie pointed to the left.
They walked side by side towards the square and then turned right. They smiled at one another intermittently, both drawing a breath as if to say something but losing the words in their exhales.
“Where did you learn English?”
“During the war,” she answered.
He raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
“German got on my nerves and I spent my entire childhood and youth with French. And we all listened to the radio in London all the time. You can’t imagine how awful the Nazi propaganda was. At times, it seemed that people were starting to believe all those lies. Don’t be fooled, there were anti-Semites among the Czechs as well.”
He nodded his head. They walked on the path running through the grassy lawn. The flowers retracted their petals in preparation for the night. The windows of the Art Noveau building glimmered in a warm yellow light. She stopped and put her hand to her chest.
“How beautiful,” she said quietly.
“Yes it is,” he was looking at her. Gliding with his eyes from her cheeks to her lips.
She wondered if her lipstick had bled during their short walk and pressed her lips together. “The city has been so dark these past few months! Not a glow in sight. Just blackness. You brought us light, you know that?” She looked up at him.
“I have a feeling that I myself have found a shining light in this city,” he took a deep breath. “Eugenie,” he whispered.
“Let us go,” she look at him. “It’s a bit chilly.”
They seated them by the window. She had sat here with Marie the last time, just two tables over. The café was filled with young bright faces. Girls in flowery dresses, boys in suits, young men in uniforms. Some only had a small coffee cup in front of them but pints of beer stood on most tables. She glanced around the space with a tiny piercing in her heart, wondering whether the same glitz would ever return to her Continental.
Hinds ordered a bottle of wine – it seemed that everyone suddenly started pulling out their supplies, of which they had claimed to have none during the war, from secret dark hiding places. The rich red liquid absorbed the light from the candle, which the waiter lit inconspicuously. She noticed that other tables didn’t have theirs lit.
“We have a candle,” she noted.
“Yes,” he smiled at her. “We have a bottle of wine, a candle and are waiting for some delicious food. What is it that we ordered?”
“Goulash,” she reminded him. “Try saying it again, Mr. General,” she prompted him.
“That’s not right.”
“I know,” he nodded. “We’re waiting for goulash and please call me John.”
He lifted his glass and she raised hers in response. When glass touched glass without a clink, she couldn’t control the shiver that ran through her body.
“Are you cold?”
“I’ll be fine.”
They ate quietly. She watched him prod the meat with his fork. They smiled between bites, taking a sip of wine here and there. Before putting their cutlery down, she noticed that a bit of the thick sauce had remained on the General’s cheek. She hesitated.
“May I?” she leaned over the table and touched the spot with her finger. “A drop of sauce.”
“Shame to lose even a drop of such a delicacy,” he said in a deep quiet voice.
She drew her hand back and pondered. “I’d like to discuss a certain matter with you.”
“Yes, you had mentioned that before,” he reached over and poured the remainder of the wine into their glasses.
“Our family friend, Mr. Buxbaum, was forced to flee before the war started. The last message that we received from him is a few years old but it seems he had settled in New York,” she looked out the window. That night, when Emanuel took the fleeing hotel owner’s valuables up to the attic felt like a snippet from a film she had seen at the cinema. “We hid some of his things – mainly paintings and jewelry – up in the attic. Miraculously, they’ve remained intact. I’d like to get everything back to him as soon as possible. I have no idea what will happen next,” she glanced down at the table.
“The mood in society is very strange, is that what you mean?”
“Yes. The men with the funny bands around their sleeves came to our hotel as well. They had a strange look in their eyes. I am of course aware that deserted mansions on V Bezovce Street are being redistributed, which I find a disgusting practice.”
“He shook his head. “Politics,” he murmured so quietly she could barely hear him through his clenched teeth. “That’s what that is. As far as I know there are some indications that the Soviets won’t want to give up a territory through which they’ve paved their path.”
“It’s too bad they didn’t let you go farther.”
“Politics,” he said it again. “Patton was determined to keep going and liberate Prague. So many people didn’t have to die.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“But back to your question, Eugenie,” he said gently. He pronounced her name the English way, toying around with it in his mouth as if it were a piece of candy. “As far as I know, those who managed to escape are starting to claim their properties back. And that’s a good thing. We should try our best to give them back everything that was theirs.”
“If they’re alive…” she pointed out.
He sighed. “Well luckily, your friend lives. I know that Steinhardt, a diplomat and a lawyer, helps emigres get their belongings back,” he wrinkled his forehead and she noticed a small scar above his right eyebrow. “Perhaps I could help you.”
“Do you know him?”
“Yes I do. Of course.”
“You’re a man of influence, General.”
He shook his head and frowned a little. “John, please.” He waved to the waiter. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to take you somewhere else for coffee, for real coffee.”
“Should I be afraid?” she laughed.
“Not at all. Let’s say that there’ll also be music besides coffee.”
“I’ve missed music very much these last few months.”
He touched her elbow gently. She looked up at him with surprise. The spot where he held her arm pulsated and spread blissful joy all throughout the rest of her body, which was starting to come alive with each passing moment. He led her to his Dodge, which had its motor running and stood in front of the building. She breathed in laughing. “Do you know that I love the way your cars smell?”
“Really?” he raised his eyebrows. “Do you know what scent I love?”
She shook her head and hoped he wouldn’t answer. He smiled and sat her in the back seat, sitting down comfortably next to her. Their shoulders touched for a brief moment. “If you get cold, use the blanket, it’s clean,” he winked at her and then nodded to the young man grasping the stirring wheel with anticipation. “Go, Henry.”
They rounded the square as she kept closing and opening her eyes. The cold air tickled her face. It encompassed everything that had transpired so far but also everything that was still waiting for her. She leaned back and stopped paying attention to which direction Henry was turning the wheels.
He stopped by a field filled with cars of various sizes. All of them painted green. All of them bearing a white star. There were tents between them. She could smell grilled meat from somewhere and the scent of pine from the nearby forest blended with the earthy smells of the field, used oil and beer. She heard music. A deeper female was singing words Eugenie didn’t understand.
“I’m so sorry but it seems they’ve already started, let’s go,” he led her across the field to the large tent.
Boys in uniforms sat on various boxes, blankets and some on the ground. Most of them were only wearing shirts unbuttoned at the neck. Half of them were smoking cigarettes. The tobacco smoke hit the ceiling of the tent and the little puffs gave the impression they were swinging to the rhythm of the music.
“Isn’t that…,” Eugenie smiled.
“Marlene Dietrich,” John whispered. “Let’s go to the front, do you see those two chairs? Those are for us. Marlene fought on our side a little bit.”
“She stayed in our hotel before the war but it was all in secret.”
“She is a bit secretive,” he smiled.
Doubt poked at Eugenie’s heart. She scanned John’s face, checked his features and sighed with relief. His glance was reaching for her face once again, not the face of the blond woman in the silky dress who was now giving her bow and was awarded with whistles of adulation.
When they sat down, the orchestra relaxed while the singer took a breath and the first tones seized her voice. “Outside the barracks by the corner light…”
The soldiers whistled and clapped. “That’s our song!” someone shouted. “Shut up, Danny,” someone in the back yelled out.
Marlene smiled and her eyes skimmed along the faces of those in the front rows, up to where the army light reached. She stopped on Eugenie’s face for a brief moment and her smile grew as she winked.
“She remembers you,” John said. Eugenie felt his fingers in her palm.
“I suppose so,” she nodded and looked at her hand with surprise. “It seems that liberation has brought us women an even bigger piece of freedom than it did to the men,” she added.