The trouble began in Bratislava.
Something in the Slovakian water? The hand-tossed salad I ate at the bus depot? Whatever the culprit, my stomach was queasy by the time my Flixbus pulled in to Prague Central Station on a Friday at 6:00 PM. I wrote it off as travel fatigue, a low-grade cold — something to push through and not slow down my itinerary. I had a whole city to see!
I went to the Airbnb I was sharing with a host named Anna.* We had agreed to meet up at 6:30 PM after I walked over from the train station. Anna was punctual, it seemed, as she could no longer meet up with me to show me the flat when I arrived fifteen minutes late at 6:45 PM — she had plans to get to. Instead, I picked up an intimidating key ring with six color-coded keys on it from a guy named Petr at the bar across the street, drawing looks from the Czech regulars as I hauled my American-size suitcase up and down the steps to the underground bar.
Anna, in lieu of her presence, had messaged me an eight-step instructional manual for entering the Airbnb on the second floor. First, one opened the outer and inner security door with the black-colored key. These doors thankfully closed and automatically locked behind me.
The next step was up a flight of stairs to the landing of her flat, with the entrance to the balcony on the left — a balcony with which I would become intimately familiar. It seemed Anna had divided her flat into separate apartments — whereby instead of entering through the front door, like a normal human, I would have to get into my room via the balcony and a series of locked doors to the back entrance of the flat.
Second step — the blue-colored key to open the balcony doors. A Stickie note attached to the window of the door read “REMEMBER TO LOCK BEHIND YOU :)!!!” Europeans don’t make their locks easy to open, each key is intricate enough to unlock some Secret Garden from the 1800's, and had to be inserted upside down and rotated either clockwise or counter-clockwise (it seemed haphazard which way any particular lock turned) by 2.5 turns, then turned back half a turn to remove the key.
Next, I had to use the orange key to open another set of completely unnecessary doors from the private balcony to the corridor. There was another Stickie note on the door, this one worded more sternly: “DOOR MUST BE LOCK!!! ALL THE TIME.” The excessive use of smiley faces, capitalized letters, and cat decals was beginning to disturb me.
Finally, I faced the back door to the actual apartment itself, which required the most intricate key yet: a colorless Skeleton Key surely repurposed from the crypts of some 17th-century Czech monarch. There seemed no accurate way to get the key in the lock other than shoving it in and twisting for about 30 seconds left or right until it clicked. I unbarred the final door and smacked my head charging into another inner door — this one unlocked and purely for decoration.
There was an optional key I could use to lock my room; I didn’t use it. I couldn’t handle another lock. I was a stupid American, and it took me over 8 minutes just to unlock and re-lock the doors to get inside my flat. I wondered how well I’d do in a fire.
The first thing I noticed was the over-abundance of decals everywhere in the apartment. The decals were mostly feline-themed, cats above each light switch:
But, there were also warnings and reminders. A giant decal over the door: “Before Leaving: Keys — Purse — Phone — Smile!!!”
On the toilet, a command: Put Me Down!
And there was this ominous, human-shaped coat rack:
I was beginning to understand the temperament of Anna, my Airbnb host.
That night, I managed to rally, despite my upset stomach, and have a drink at the nearest gay watering hole. I enjoyed a cocktail and the company of no one except the book I was reading: Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed — about a man trying to survive on a foreign world. I got back to the apartment around midnight, making a racket as my untrained hands fiddled with each lock and key. I opened the final door to the pitch-black entrance and bumped into the human shaped coat rack. I caught it before it fell and put it back upright. I fumbled my way in the dark to my room, unsure of where the cat light switches were and managed to bump a vase of flowers by my room. Again, surprised at my own deftness, I caught the vase and put it upright before any disaster. I got inside, shut the door, and crashed on my bed.
The next morning, I awoke and found a message via Airbnb from Anna:
“This morning in the corridor, I found vase with flowers moved and the black coat hook wasn’t on its usual place and its position, so what was happening please??? You were drunk probably, is it? Otherwise I have no idea how could you move with flowers and hanger, especially when mentioned equipment is out of way in the corners…”
“Oh,” I realized, “I’m living with a psychopath.”
I messaged something about not being drunk, just unfamiliar with the set-up of the apartment when navigating it in the dark. Nothing was damaged and everything was fine, and I’d be more careful going forward.
“Ok, no worries! :) :) Just be careful!” Anna replied, I imagined in-between chopping up bodies.
The pain and unease in my stomach continued to get worse that day — gaseous, nauseous at times. I had small, unpleasant bowel movements at various toilets around Prague that day and discovered to my horror that no one in Europe believes in two-ply toilet paper. I took some GasX and Imodium from the local Apothecary and ignored my raw, throbbing butthole. I wasn’t going to let my vacation be interrupted. I went on a grand tour of magnificent Prague until I ended up at night at the number #1 recommended gay club by TripAdvisor: TerMAX.
TerMAX was maxed out of patrons; as in no one was there when I arrived at 11:30 PM. I tried heading over to TerMIX — its sister bar and found the same lack of gay men. Where were the gays? I googled another gay party called OMG at Club Mecca— in a more remote part of the city — and took an Uber to it. I arrived at an empty block with Mecca’s lights dark and locked. The party wasn’t happening until August, despite a misleading Facebook photo from Mecca posted that day:
I hadn’t noticed the date on the photo below that mentioned the part was August 10th. They were just excited to “See you on the dance floor” in a month.
I Uber-ed back to TerMAX — in the same car I took there. It was now 1:00 AM; there was a trickle of gays there now. I downed two gin & tonics and danced by myself, taking up nearly the whole dance floor. Where were the gays?!
Finally, a handsome, chiseled man arrived with a lady friend. He eyed me from the start and began dancing closer to me, bringing along his lady friend — I assumed operating as a Fag Hag. He seemed nervous to dance with me, his eyes darting back and forth every time I made eye contact. He danced with his lady friend, getting ever closer to me, until the DJ dropped some 1920’s-style remixed swing. This gave the man the confidence he needed to proffer his hand and twirl me round in some swing moves he knew. It was fun, and I moved in to kiss him when he stopped me, hand on my chest. “No,” he said in broken English and a Russian accent, “I not gay. This my wife.” He motioned to his lady friend.
I shouted over the music, “Why were you dancing with me?” and he shouted back, “In Prague, it OK for married man to dance with gay at club. I just a ‘little’ gay.” He measured how gay he was with his hands and showed me. His wife nodded in approval. “But,” he added, “I am barber here. You should come by me, and I cut your hair.” I ran my hand through my overgrown hair from 2.5 weeks on the road, and said, “Thanks, I’m good,” and stormed the fuck out of that bar.
I walked the streets of Prague, a storm brewing inside. What was wrong with this fucking city? Where were the gays?! I marched my petulant ass into a Burger King, the only thing open after 2 AM on a Saturday night, and found the truth: Prague is a city occupied by straight white bros on stag parties. I walked into my version of Hell: an army of twenty-something Bros in complete control of the establishment, shouting in different languages but the same unmistakable Bro tone that said: “Me! A Man! You! A Bro! We Rock! Let’s Do This!” The overworked, sole female cashier behind the counter gave me a harassed look when I got to the front of the line. “What!” she nearly screamed, “What do you want! Be quick!” There were ten more Bros behind me-in-line, speaking in their Caveman tongues.
“Just a Small Fry, sorry,” I mumbled, fumbling with the foreign Czech coins. She nodded, took the change and — to my relief — put together my Small Fry right there and then.
“Bathroom code — you need?” she said, handing me the fries and a packet of Mayo. “What?” I replied. “I thought you said you need bathroom code,” she said, brow furrowed, needing to move on from me. “No, no, I’m fine,” — I said, not realizing how prescient she had just been. Not realizing that if I had just headed straight home, without my foray into the Burger King Bros, I would have made it in time.
I ate my fries in furor, walking back to my flat. About a minute out, I felt something stir deep inside me. I ignored it and threw the bag of remaining fries in a nearby trash receptacle. I fumbled with the keys and began the arduous processing of entering my god-damn bedroom.
I inserted the black key in the ground floor lock, and that’s when I felt it. Something volcanic moving through me, rushing downwards, a tidal wave of shit roaring toward my exit hole.
“This isn’t happening,” I thought, as I opened the first door. I walked slowly, carefully, holding my lower half clenched inwards and got the second security door open. I climbed the stairs to the balcony.
The stairs are what did it. The motion of walking upwards took me to CODE RED, pushing me inexorably toward disaster. “Everything is fine,” I told myself, pulling out the blue key. My hands were sweating, and I couldn’t get it inside correctly. It took me nearly 30 seconds to unlock the balcony, open the doors, read Anna’s encouraging post-it, proffer a mental “Fuck you,” and get to the orange-key door. I opened the lock and threw open the completely unnecessary secondary door.
And then I felt my body convulsing. There was nothing I could do stop it. I was so close — one door away from the bathroom. But it was happening — now. It was coming out of me, and I didn’t know what to do. No one was watching, the courtyard the balcony faced was silent and empty. I ripped off my pants and underwear, squatted, and shat on the ceramic tiled floor of the balcony. The last thought I had was, “This is going to make great content,” and I began to cry and laugh and shit myself.
I finished and looked up. The stars shone bright above the open courtyard. My body was trembling. Why has this happened to me? What God had I wronged? Should I have accepted the Russian man’s haircut offer? There was a pile of loose stool below me on the balcony floor, right next to the plastic black chair and pack of Anna’s Vogue cigarettes that she smoked after a long day of burying bodies.
People often think I exaggerate my stories. I don’t make anything up; the truth is stranger than fiction. But, in this moment of shock, I did think back to one lie I had told to my acting class at Northwestern University in 2006. My teacher Mary Poole had asked each of us, “What would you do if the building caught on fire? How would you react? Would you stay calm or lose control?” When it was my turn, I replied with a sad nod of my head that, “I just completely fall apart when things go wrong.” I think I said it cause it seemed like the more vulnerable answer at the time.
The truth is my Capricorn nature goes into overdrive when disaster strikes. “Something terrible has happened,” it spoke to me, “And you are living with a psychopath. Remember how she reacted when you moved her vase and coat rack by a foot? She will chop you into little pieces for this. You must redeem your mistake and clean up your mess. You must leave no trace behind of your behind.”
I took off my pants and underwear until I was naked on the balcony. My pants had survived unscathed; underwear not so much. I left them behind, opened the final door and made a beeline for the bathroom. I did my best to clean myself up. I put back on my pants commando-style. Then, I scrounged for options.
- Bleach — check
- Paper towels — Nope. They were in the kitchen, which was off-limits to me in Anna’s divided flat. But there were plenty of Baby Wipes and Toilet Paper.
- Plastic bag — just one in the trash bin and half-filled with tampons. I took it.
Using the baby wipes, soaked in bleach, and by the light of my iPhone, I began to clean up my shit on the balcony. I first used my defiled underwear to scoop the majority of crap into my sole plastic bag. “There’s something elemental to this,” I thought, as I touched my own shit with my own hands. I imagined Caveman Bros throwing feces at one another at a prehistoric Burger King. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
I soon realized I’d used too much bleach, as the fumes began to make my eyes water. Leaving Anna’s balcony smelling of ammonia would be just as bad as leaving it smelling of shit. I found a spare glass and shuffled back to wash my hands off and fill the glass with water. I returned and poured the water into the bleach-shit mixture, listening as it trickled off the edge of the balcony like a newborn waterfall. I washed and cleaned and cursed like a Gay Cinderella. I finished, sat backwards — not remembering I’d put the glass behind me. I tipped it over and — because there is no God — it broke. The shattering reverberated throughout the courtyard. A light came on in a window across the way. Now, I began to panic. I started shoving the pieces of glass, unwary of my ungloved hands or any sort of safety, into the plastic bag of shit. Just trying to end this nightmare, make it disappear, and forget this had every happened. “I’m such a fuck-up,” I thought, while the theme from Life Is Beautiful played in my head.
I took it all downstairs in the plastic bag and dumped it in the same trash receptacle on the street where I’d thrown out my French fries, not 25 minutes earlier.
The balcony was drying even by the time I returned. No sign or smell whatsoever of glass or shit or bleach. I had manned up to the challenge and dealt with my shame. I felt prouder than I had in weeks. Proud of facing the horror dead-on. I went back inside, locking each door behind me, and took the hottest and longest shower of my life.
In my remaining time in Prague, I never got a message from Anna that anything was wrong on her balcony. I had cleaned up well. I didn’t even see Anna face-face until the day I checked-out, when I walked into her in the bathroom at 8:00 AM. I startled with a yelp when I saw her; she was caked in layers of make-up, her hair in a tight pony tail, and her head swiveled to me like it was on its own axis. “Hey,” she said, and smiled. “I’ll just be five minutes.” Her sweet voice sounded like Death incarnate.
I did at least get offered a free haircut from that Russian guy:
*Names changed for privacy.