In Prague my attractive friend and I meet two Swedish men at a vegetarian restaurant. We share a communal table. Outside it is raining, as is the case all this summer in various locations around Europe. Instantly, the men begin smiling and then whispering to each other in Swedish. I am eating soup—lentil, I think it is—and though I don’t speak Swedish, I understand the nuances of their conversation and their subde hand gestures. They are having the which one? conversation. I want to interrupt them and say, “You don’t have to argue about who ‘gets’ me. Neither of you ‘gets’ me.” I want to tell them in their native tongue that I have already been gotten, thank you, and that the getter is back in the States, waiting patiently for me to complete my summer vacation with my friend, over whom they are fighting.
Understand: I am the ugly friend. I have always been the ugly friend, the one boys, and then men, gesture toward, while the one they want—the pretty friend, the blond friend, the friend with long hair and the demure laugh—smiles and says with her eyes, “Come on. She’s really nice. “Before I left the United States for this just-two-girls-palling-around-Europe trip, I shaved my head. I decided to stop shaving my legs. Who cared? I had just gotten engaged, so I wasn’t traveling to Europe to shop for men. I wanted to see things and drink coffee and wine and eat some other things and maybe drink some beer and see some art. I did not want to sit at this large wooden table and be scrutinized by two Swedish men, who, frankly, could have used some self-scrutiny. There was a tall one with a strange hat and a short one with round glasses and an inward sort of shoulder structure.
These two men accompany us through the rain and back to our hostel, which, during the academic year, is a music school. The tall man plays the piano in our room as my friend looks on adoringly. When he is done, we all clap. I think about the small, aseptic packs of wine I saw a vendor selling by the bridge and a book I could be reading. I wonder if Kafka killed himself, and, if so, I know why.
Later, we go to a bar where the negotiations continue. I want to point out to the two Swedish men that it is rude to talk in Swedish in front of two women who speak only English, with a little German and some Spanish for good measure. In response to my friend’s idea that she is going to write a poem about how painters painted paintings over other paintings, the short man tells my friend that she may write poems about anything she wishes, which does not directly contradict what I just told her—namely that I had read a poem about paintings beneath paintings, which included the line “the bar beneath the bar,” and that I liked the poem a lot.
I take this opportunity to tell the two Swedish men that I am engaged. I do not have an engagement ring because it is being handmade by a Danish man in Washington state who has eyes as blue as glaciers. I take a cheap, silver ring off my right hand and put it on my left hand. The short man points out that I just moved my ring, proving to him that I am not, in fact, engaged. Yes, I say, I moved my ring. I explain about the Danish man, but the Swedish men are nodding and smiling. When we leave, the short man tells me not to over-tip. It’s like bragging about how much money you have. Apparently, Americans are seen as rude for over-tipping. I start to say something about how we can’t win but decide against it. My friend has spent our time in Europe trying not to seem American by wearing dresses and clogs. I wear T-shirts and shorts and tennis shoes. Sometimes, I wear a baseball cap.
We make our way through the dark streets to a jazz bar where everything is American except the electricity. When the lights go out, I excuse myself and walk back to the hostel. Prague, the dark heart Kafka made famous, constricts around me. The streets are a maze, and when I awake in the morning, I see myself for the monstrous vermin, the ugly friend, that I am.