Thea De Armond
When she needs to ground herself, Katy imagines her fourteen-year-old self reacting to Adult Katy. Fourteen-year-old Katy, for example, is very impressed with Adult Katy’s liquor cabinet. She likes to run her fingers across the bottles of alcohol and pick at the corners of their labels. Sometimes – but only rarely – she likes to sample the bottles’ contents – but never to excess. Fourteen-year-old Katy never drinks so much that she vomits in the sink or passes out in the kitchen and wakes up in the morning, plastered against the sticky, linoleum floor.
Fourteen-year-old Katy is embarrassed by Adult Katy’s fear of the dark. This is not to say that Fourteen-year-old Katy is not afraid of the dark – both Katies fumble, panicked, for light switches when they enter dark rooms. But Fourteen-year-old Katy had hoped that she would have gotten past that fear long before she hit thirty. Now, both Katies look forward to middle age; surely, Fifty-year-old Katy will not be afraid of the dark.
Fourteen-year-old Katy reserves her most profound disgust for Adult Katy’s relationship with Andy, her married coworker. Certainly, the younger Katy’s stringent adherence to her moral code is facilitated by a lack of temptations within her closely circumscribed teenage orbit – for one thing, none of Fourteen-year-old Katy’s peers are married, and marriage complicates things (this is what Adult Katy tells herself). That said, Adult Katy – Thirty-year-old Katy – must admit that she also feels a little bit queasy when she thinks about her relationship with Andy. And even if Katy did not object to the affair on principle (in middle school, they called her a “prude”), that Adult Katy chooses to have an affair with someone like Andy is unconscionable. Andy is perpetually rosy, perpetually sweaty. His clothing is usually food-stained. He slurs his words, even when he is sober. When he is drunk, he is completely unintelligible; sometimes, Adult Katy thinks that this is why she likes him – she can imagine that he is saying anything she’d like, and, usually, what she’d like is quite nice.
That Katy and Andy’s fling lasted for a full month is a source of great shame for Fourteen-year-old Katy (but fourteen-year-olds, Adult Katy remembers, are ashamed of everything). And – another source of shame, for both Katies – the affair did not end on Adult Katy’s terms. In fact, Andy had a moral awakening, albeit one precipitated by his wife’s interception of a series of text messages from Adult Katy. Adult Katy, pathetically, cried when Andy ended things, though she retained enough self-respect to let it go after that.
Fourteen-year-old Katy is pleased with the route that Adult Katy is taking to forget about Andy – not the route that she took two nights ago, from bar to stranger’s bed, but the route that she is about to take, from Houston to Munich to Prague. Now, Fourteen-year-old Katy sits beside Adult Katy on the plane, humming softly (Boyz II Men?) and flipping through a duty-free catalogue. She turns to Adult Katy, with a question on her lips.
Adult Katy preempts the question. “We are not getting any duty-free,” she hisses.
Adult Katy is less than pleased to have a teenager accompanying her on her first trip to Europe, much less her teenage self. Not only has it practically doubled the cost of her trip, but Adult Katy also feels uncomfortable being seen with Fourteen-year-old Katy. She has already noticed the way that some of the other passengers on the plane are looking at them, trying to determine their relationship.
“But it’s cheaper,” Fourteen-year-old Katy is telling her, pointing at a box of chocolates shaped like seashells. “You don’t have to pay tax.”
“I know what duty-free is,” Adult Katy says wearily. “And it’s not cheaper than not buying anything.” She reclines her seat and closes her eyes.
Adult Katy pretends to sleep for most of the flight to Munich. She opens her eyes only for meals and once, grumbling, to let Fourteen-year-old Katy go to the bathroom. Beside her, Fourteen-year-old Katy watches several romantic comedies and Zodiac on the screen in the headrest in front of her. She laughs uproariously during the romantic comedies and is very quiet during Zodiac.
The Munich airport is very clean. The Katies share a twenty-Euro breakfast in a café opposite their gate. Adult Katy is thoughtfully chewing a piece of bread when she suddenly realizes that Fourteen-year-old Katy is gone. She scans the airport. It is ten AM in Munich, and she is surrounded by sleek, smooth-haired Europeans. They converse in low tones, and none of them wear sweatpants. Fourteen-year-old Katy is nowhere to be seen.
Adult Katy stands up and sits down again. Can she leave their bags? Can she leave Fourteen-year-old Katy’s bag? Is she free of her? She stands up again. She looks down at their luggage. Fourteen-year-old Katy carries a bright purple canvas backpack, with several keychains dangling from the zippers – a flip-flop, a Magic Eight Ball, a small, stuffed lion. Adult Katy makes a decision. She stands up and fumbles in her pockets for change.
And then Fourteen-year-old Katy is approaching from several gates down. “Relax,” she tells Adult Katy when she opens her mouth. “I was just in the bathroom.”
On the plane to Prague, Adult Katy cannot decide whether or not she is relieved that Fourteen-year-old Katy is sitting beside her again. She decides that it does not matter. It is, after all, illegal to abandon teenagers in airports. Adult Katy is not sure if she, technically, has custody of her fourteen-year-old self, but if she doesn’t, who does?
There is, anyway, something comforting about having Fourteen-year-old Katy around. She knows Adult Katy so very well. And for all of her criticisms, her disappointment, Fourteen-year-old Katy can be deeply empathetic.
At the airport in Prague, Adult Katy stops at a restaurant and orders a beer. It seems appropriate. A group of English men wearing “Prague Beer Team” t-shirts are singing loudly at a table at the back of the restaurant. Fourteen-year-old Katy thinks it will be funny if she orders a beer, too. When she says, “Pilsner” to the waitress, Adult Katy smiles ruefully at her, as if to say, “You know teenagers” – something wry but sympathetic.
The waitress, who is very slim, with a very long, blond ponytail, does not smile back. She brings back two large glasses of amber-colored beer, each topped by several inches of foam.
When the waitress leaves, Fourteen-year-old Katy gingerly sips at her beer. “I thought the legal drinking age here was eighteen,” she says. “Or sixteen. Not fourteen.” She pauses. “This is not so bad.”
Adult Katy watches her grimly. “I don’t know if I should let you drink that.”
“You’re drinking it,” points out Fourteen-year-old Katy. “And I’m you.”
“I think it’s more like, I’m you,” says Adult Katy. “You know. There’s a fourteen-year-old inside every thirty-year-old, but not a thirty-year-old inside every fourteen-year-old –“
“Whatever,” Fourteen-year-old Katy interrupts her. She picks up her beer. “You can’t drink both.”
From the airport, they take a bus to the metro, and then the metro to Karlovo náměstí. Both Katies – especially Fourteen-year-old Katy – are feeling the effects of the combined liter of beer they shared at the airport. They bumble around underground for a bit before they find the right exit, Palackého náměstí.
When they exit the metro – at once, Prague.
Both Katies have been outside Houston; Adult Katy has even been to New York. Prague is something entirely different.
Before them is a street like any other, bustling with cars, but beyond that, a tiled sidewalk, a bridge, a steep drop, and the river. The river is an unassuming, dark gray color, colonized by swans, and pedal boats, and pedal boats shaped like swans. And across the river are colorful, many-windowed facades, red roofs, spires, a great green hill and, beyond that, the black angles and needles of Prague castle. The whole thing is a mirage, a postcard, a cliché.
They turn away from the river – a trolley clangs past them – and walk toward their hotel. It is only five minutes from the metro, tucked away in a smaller street, in a solidly baroque apartment building fronted by a great wooden door. Fourteen-year-old Katy rings the bell labeled “Hotel Zlatá Praha,” and the hotel receptionist lets them in.
The hotel seems to share the building with apartments. Its hallways are dank concrete, with uneven stairs. An elderly woman wearing a flowered skirt and plastic slip-on sandals with thick socks pauses in her slow descent when she sees the Katies in the hallway. She is laden with old, plastic shopping bags – from Tesco, from Albert. She asks them something in Czech. When Adult Katy uses one of the two Czech phrases she has stockpiled for just such an occasion – “nerozumím” – the woman flaps her wrist at them dismissively and continues down the stairs.
Their room is small but clean, with white walls and a large window that looks out onto a side street. The Katies share a double bed, which neither is particularly happy about, since both are restless sleepers. The first night, though, exhausted from travel and sluggish from beer, they fall asleep quickly and stay asleep.
Several days into their trip, Adult Katy is reconciled to traveling with her teenage self. There are some clear benefits. Both Katies like to skip breakfast and sleep late. They also tend to get hungry at the same time, and – for the most part – they like the same kind of food. Fourteen-year-old Katy wants to spend more time at the H&M on Wenceslas Square than Adult Katy does, and Adult Katy wants to spend more time at the National Museum than Fourteen-year-old Katy does, but, in general, they travel well together.
They visit Prague’s most trafficked sights during their first two days there. The first day, they wander across Charles Bridge, to the Lesser Quarter, up to Prague Castle, and then to Strahov Monastery, reaching it long after it has closed. Their second day is somewhat less ambitious – they wander through Charles Square to Wenceslas Square, and then to Old Town Square (Fourteen-year-old Katy is thrilled to find two H&Ms within less than a mile of one another).
The Katies spend the better part of their third afternoon in Prague in the old Jewish quarter, Josefov. Fourteen-year-old Katy is enamored of the Franz Kafka monument outside the Spanish synagogue, an empty suit of clothes with a small man perched on its shoulders. At the Jewish cemetery, the Katies watch visitors place pebbles on Rabbi Loew’s crumbling headstone. Adult Katy tells Fourteen-year-old Katy about the Golem, the great clay creature Rabbi Loew created and animated to protect the Jews of Prague.
On their way home that night, the Katies stop for dinner at a pub next to the Cathedral of the Saints Cyril and Methodius. The pub is dark and empty, except for three elderly Czech men, swilling tankards of yellow beer. They seem to know the waiter, a big-bellied man with closely cropped, gray hair.
The waiter’s broad grin sours when Adult Katy careful says to him, “Dobrý den. English menu?” The English menu is on a grease-stained piece of paper and barely comprehensible. The Katies puzzle over it for a good ten minutes. Adult Katy orders “pig knee,” and Fourteen-year-old Katy orders “soused cheese.” They both order beers.
“I’m not sure if you should get used to that.” Adult Katy frowns. “I still haven’t decided if I mind, but once we get back home, you won’t be able to drink in public.”
“I don’t think they have this kind of beer at home,” Katy responds absently.
“You know what I mean,” says Adult Katy.
“Yes.” There is a pause. Fourteen-year-old Katy takes a great swig of her beer. “Today was nice.”
“Don’t change the subject,” Adult Katy says sternly. “Maybe you should make this your last night out. Figuratively speaking. No more beers after tonight.”
“Okay, then.” And Fourteen-year-old Katy drains half of her beer.
Fourteen-year-old Katy does not eat her “soused cheese,” which is some kind of soft cheese, greasy with oil and garnished with onions. But she does have two and a half beers in forty-five minutes, which is more than enough for a fourteen-year-old on an empty stomach. She begins to slur her words. Adult Katy wonders idly how she could have let this happen. She has also had two and a half beers, but she feels like she is in full possession of her faculties.
On their way back to the hotel, Fourteen-year-old Katy suddenly veers off the sidewalk and vomits into a bush. Adult Katy holds her long, tangled hair back from her face. Fourteen-year-old Katy coils up, springs forward, and retches again. “This is awful,” she moans.
“Yes,” Adult Katy agrees.
The next day, they take the funicular up Petřín Hill. On the hill, they climb a miniature model of the Eiffel Tower, a remnant of a past World’s Fair. They survey the red roofs of Prague from its observation deck. The tower sways slightly in the breeze. Both Katies are afraid of heights, so they quickly descend to solid ground.
Adult Katy spots the small, square structure, just as they are leaving the tower. It looks like a miniature castle, with its crenellated walls and great, arched entrance. A bronze plaque by the entrance reads:
THE MIRROR MAZE
LE LABYRINTH AUX MIROIRS
Adult Katy cocks her eyebrow at Fourteen-year-old Katy. “What do you think?”
“Sure,” says Fourteen-year-old Katy.
An American couple is turning back from the maze. The woman is pale. Sweat beads at her brow. “I feel sick,” she is saying.
The Katies enter the maze, alone.
They had imagined that the building would contain a proper labyrinth – dead ends, circuitous passages, a Minotaur, and so on. But the maze comprises a single room – just one room.
It is a lovely room, though. Rows of slender columns support its vaulted ceiling – a veritable forest of columns, multiplied by mirror facing mirror facing mirror. The floor of closely joined, wooden floorboards extends, unbounded, in all directions. The walls are mirrors, the ceiling is mirrors.
Adult Katy is impressed in spite of herself. She and Fourteen-year-old Katy stand beside one another and face their reflections.
"This is okay," says Fourteen-year-old Katy. She fusses with her hair and then looks at herself appraisingly.
Adult Katy wonders what she is thinking. She looks very sure of herself. Adult Katy cannot remember the last time she felt sure of herself.
A narrow hallway leads away from the columned room. "It's not just one room," Adult Katy tells Fourteen-year-old Katy. She pulls her away from the mirror.
Fourteen-year-old Katy shakes free of Adult Katy’s hold. "It's fine,” she says.
Adult Katy shrugs and ducks into the other hallway. It is more spare than the first, a short corridor lined with funhouse mirrors – mirrors that elongate her, flatten her, cut her into choppy waves. She eyes herself critically in one that lengthens her neck. “Maybe an improvement?” She asks Fourteen-year-old Katy.
Fourteen-year-old Katy is gone.
Adult Katy feels something rise up in the back of her throat. She backtracks into the first room. There she is – her face, her body, iterative, receding. Fourteen-year-old Katy is nowhere to be seen.
The American couple the Katies encountered at the entrance to the building enters the room. The man is filming the woman. She is laughing and beckoning to him.
“Please.” Adult Katy approaches them. “Have you seen a teenage girl? The one I came in with?”
“Sorry?” The man lowers his camera.
“A teenage girl,” Adult Katy repeats. “Brown hair, purple backpack.”
“We haven’t seen anybody,” the woman drawls. Even though the man has put down his camera, Katy has the impression that she is still voguing for him. “Even the ticket counter is empty.”
Adult Katy whirls around and rushes back through the maze. She emerges into the daylight, blinking.
A short distance away, she finds an outdoor café overlooking the city. She sits down and orders a cappuccino. She sips it very slowly. She is waiting for Fourteen-year-old Katy. The Vltava flashes and uncoils beneath her.
She nurses the cappuccino for a full hour. She orders a second coffee. The sky silvers and then grays. Katy waits.