It was, by all accounts, a decidedly ugly day.
Early March. The sky had been grey for a week, maybe two, maybe two hundred. Anna began to believe that there was no such thing as sunshine. Snow had fallen during the night, condensing on the roofs, streets, and sidewalks of Prague like mush. A light wind blew, but at temperatures of scarcely above zero, this wind was not only nipping, but biting. Like an unhappy puppy.
To make everything worse, it was nearly the year anniversary of the start of the COVID pandemic in the Czech Republic. The government had just announced that the districts would close for at least three weeks, forbidding all travel outside one's city or town, until the case numbers started to decline (everyone in Anna's various social bubbles knew that this was a tacit lie - the government was 'cooking with water', a convenient Czech phrase meaning to make shit up as they went along without knowing the facts). Anna, an American expat, had been in Prague for three years by this point; it frustrated her to no end that a third, a third!, of her experience in this country had been various shades of lockdown.
So when Kristoff, an amiable American expat with Nordic roots, and one of Anna's first friends in Prague, invited her for a wintertime walk with a small group of people, Anna accepted. She wasn't sure if groups of six people were still allowed to walk together, but to hell with it. They'd all be wearing their masks, and warm gloves on their hands, and maybe even walking 2 m apart from each other. The risk of catching or transmitting the virus was very low. And Anna was desperate to get outside and away from her flatmate, who was constantly bitching about the unfairness of it all. Why did she ever decide to let this older guy room with her in the first place? That thinning hair and his awful toupee should have tipped her off. Duke (for that is what he insisted on being called) kept saying he was just going to give up and go back home to Florida, back to where he was safe and appreciated. Anna wanted to tell him not to let the door hit him on the way out. Ten months with him was ten months too long.
Niceness. Just because he was newer to Prague, eight years older, the son of one of her parents' friends, and kicked out by his previous flatmates only to end up in her place, didn't necessarily mean she had to be nice, did it? She could do her own kicking, couldn't she? She had been worried at first about her finances; her previous flatmate had left in the first wave of the pandemic, and Anna didn't want to pay for all the rent by herself. So she had allowed 'Duke' to move in, even though he was strangely old for his years and … simply strange.
As Anna dressed in her warm clothes that day, feeling snarkier than expected due to the constant grey skies and the effects of long-term isolation cooped up with someone she despised, she decided that enough was enough. The pandemic had been teaching her this at least; that time and life were more precious than she'd realised, and why was she wasting her time and energy on a lowlife like him? She'd live alone if she had to in order to get away from him and his constant negativity, his whinging about how life should have treated him better.
Whinging. Now there was a great British English word. Anna had learned a lot of British English since coming to Prague. She chuckled as she recalled how she tried to correct her students when they called a band-aid a plaster, though she still despised the word 'cooker' instead of stove. But, bless the Czechs, most of them grew up studying from British English textbooks, so Anna learned British English right along with the adult students whom she taught. It could be funny at times to compare British to her American English. As she pulled her rainbow coloured wool beanie over her thick red hair which she had done up in two braids, Anna wondered if Kristoff had invited some of his Czech friends to join them on this walk. She hadn't asked for any details, she had been just that excited to have any opportunity to leave the flat.
Thank God Duke was out of the flat right now; he was going to meet his marijuana dealer. Sure. The man barely had money to pay rent, but he still somehow found enough to pay for his weed. Anna wondered how long she could contrive to stay outside with Kristoff's friends. Maybe Kristoff would invite her back to his flat, something they did rather rarely, all things concerned. They could play cards, drink a beer or two, and compare all the cute girls they saw from a distance of at least 2 m. Until 9 pm, at least, and the start of the nightly curfew.
Anna paused in the hallway to look in the mirror. She looked younger than her thirty four years, or at least that's what everyone kept telling her. It wasn't always a point in her favour. She was wearing warm black leggings, a stylish yet warm dark green coat, and a fluffy white scarf that made her happy each time she wore it; she imagined it came from gleeful sheep that pranced all willy nilly over the verdant pastures of the nearby Alps. She had packed a small backpack with the essential supplies: an extra face mask, her wallet, hand sanitizer, a battery pack and her charging cord in case her phone died, a bottle of water, two cans of beer (for herself and anyone else thirsty, she was happy to share), a sandwich and a few snacks. Sometimes Kristoff's 'walks' turned into rather epic hikes. They had been on a rather memorable walk in the autumn while visiting a nearby castle. The trails had been slick and greasy with mud and of course clumsy Anna had fallen. On the train back to Prague, she had caught glances and a variety of Czech words from other passengers which she wished she recognised; did bláto mean mud or fool? Perhaps both.
Thinking herself perfectly prepared, she nevertheless patted her pockets one more time, feeling her keys, her phone… oh, her earbuds! She grabbed them with a whirl, then looked one last time in the mirror. "Hey good lookin'," she said to herself. I wonder if Sára is going to be there?
Hold on, Anna. She's bi. And you've had some disastrous results dating bi women since coming to Prague.
Anna fired another thought right back at herself, Hey, just because it's gone wrong before doesn't mean it will go wrong this time.
Oh, Anna. You're such an optimist.
You say that like it's a bad thing.
Get going, Anna, or you're going to miss your tram!
She glanced at her phone. Her voice was right! She shoved her feet into her clunky winter boots, adjusted the straps of her pack, and put her favourite mask on her face; it was bright blue with a repeating pattern of a silly looking snowman with a bulbous carrot for a nose. Most people wore such boring masks these long winter days; Anna was determined to show her irritating optimism even through her face covering.
Once outside the apartment building, she nearly ended her outing then and there by slipping and skidding on the mushy snow. Hands wheeling to each side for balance, Anna finally regained her footing, her heart tripping at a fantastic rate. "Stupid snow," she muttered under her breath. She had rarely seen snow before coming to Prague, let alone having to learn how to walk in it. It did not snow much in Phoenix, Arizona, as she constantly reminded her students. She hurried down the slick sidewalk, taking the path in the middle that had been cleared by other pedestrians.
Pedestrian. Chodník, wasn't it? Wait, wasn't that the word for sidewalk as well?
Two intersections and four minutes later she could see the tram lumbering down the street. She picked up her pace, just shy of running; the tram drivers would not wait for her. That was one of the first lessons she learned regarding transit in this city. She had also learned (and been recently reminded, as of four minutes ago) that the cobblestone sidewalks here got rather treacherous when wet. It would be just like Anna to slip and fall just as she was racing for a tram.
Mercifully, she managed to reach the last door of the tram just as the little bell began to ding that the doors were going to close. She raced up the little steps and crowed aloud with satisfaction, earning herself several hard looks from the dourly dressed and dourly faced passengers. She put in her earbuds and was rocking out to her favourite playlist when the tram came to a stop in front of the metro station; Anna dashed down onto the concourse level and then took the escalator to the platforms for the subway.
Hmm. Green line. Meetup point is Nádraží Veleslavín. So, I need to go to the very front of the metro in order to be closest to the escalator to exit…
Back before the pandemic hit, Anna had become an old hand at taking Prague's very reliable and world-class public transit, as she travelled from company to company in order to teach English as a Foreign Language to men and women at their place of work. For at least a dozen metro stations on Prague's three lines, she knew exactly where to stand on the platform in order to be closest to the stairs or escalator when exiting.
Not that this was something she could put on a future CV, but it did make her proud of how familiar with the city she'd become in just two years. She and her friends knew just where in Old Town they could pay 'normal' prices for beer, and not get fleeced for being tourists (oh, if only she could speak Czech without her American accent giving her away!). She knew where to find hidden gardens and remote works of sculpture and street art. She knew how creepy the Bohnice cemetery was (made sense, as it housed the dead from the now abandoned psychiatric hospital nearby), and how cute and somewhat creepy the pet cemetery right next to Bohnice was.
The train came exactly when predicted on the digital signs; Anna stepped aboard and stood with her legs spread just far apart to 'surf'. There were empty seats, but she preferred to rock out to her music and surf the train's movement as it went from station to station.
Her mood was already improving; the music helped, as did simply getting out of the house and doing something a little different.
Fifteen minutes later, the train pulled into the stop at Nádraží Veleslavín; Anna was the first off the train and up the escalator. On the concourse level she looked at her phone to remind herself which of the six exits was the meeting point. She had never tried to access the beautiful and wild Divoká Šárka forest and park from here; usually she took a tram two more stops to the place where the park met the road. Grateful she could read enough Czech in the signage, Anna guided herself up a set of stairs and was happy to see Kristoff already there, his German shepherd, Sven, enthusiastically wagging his tail to recognise Anna.
"Are you huggable?" she asked as she approached. Kristoff was bundled in his own winter gear, and he was still wearing a Christmas-themed face mask.
"For you, feisty pants, yes!" he said as he opened his arms wide. They gave each other a solid thumping and then Anna bent to scratch Sven's ears. "You're actually on time, Anna. Colour me shocked."
"Hey!" she protested. "I've been on time before. I was always on time when I taught in person."
"Let me guess. Now that you teach online, you slide into your office chair with your cup of coffee seconds before the hour."
"It's still called being on time. Who are we expecting today?"
"Jakub and his girlfriend. And Hans is bringing a colleague from work."
"That's quick. He only started his job at the real estate agency two weeks ago. And he works from home, too."
"I think he's trying to get to know this girl better. She is, and I quote, 'The most beautiful girl you've ever seen.' I tried to remind him that many people who look great on the screen don't look so great in real life. I mean, the screen never shows you in your leggings and your rainbow socks."
"Hey! I object! I also have socks with pieces of sushi on them."
"Ha!" he laughed. "Apparently Elsa has a car, she's bringing Hans with her. Jakub and Jessica are walking, they live close by. In fact, there they are. Hey!" he called out as two figures came closer. There was another round of greetings; Anna didn't know Jakub nor Jessica very well, but she still gave them both hugs. She missed hugs so much! And she'd rather hug a cactus than get a hug from Duke.
"Beautiful day for a walk, isn't it?" Jakub said, without the slightest trace of sarcasm. He had to be in the running with Anna for the most optimistic person in the city.
"Forgive him," Jessica said, amiably elbowing him in the ribs. "He took his happy pills today."
"You mean there are happy pills?" Kristoff asked. "I want happy pills."
Jessica looked him up and down and replied, "I think you'd overdose. When are you never not happy, Kristoff? Every time I see you, you have perma-grin on your face. I think you're grinning even now, even though I can't see past your mask."
"Last Tuesday. 8:15. Lasted ten minutes. I realised I ran out of my favourite cereal. I ate toast instead and got happy again."
Everyone laughed. Just then, a silvery BMW whipped around the corner and slid into a parking spot across the street. The swiftness of the drivers' movements and the sheer impeccability of the parking took them all by surprise. They were again surprised to see Hans get out of the car; Anna had met him a handful of times before and hadn't been impressed. He felt… slick to her, like a salesman. He was rather conceited as well, just because he was moderately good looking and had an athlete's body. (Okay, other girls said he was drop-dead gorgeous, but Anna wasn't really looking. Notwithstanding her gayness, his sideburns were a definitely turn-off.)
Well, for all his conceit, he had excellent taste in women. Anna had to keep her jaw from dropping as Elsa emerged.
Elsa rose up and out of the car with sinuous grace, then paused to stretch a bit and put her aviator sunglasses on her head. She reached into the car and brought out a small black backpack, swinging it on with easy grace. She was wearing black jeans and rather stylish black winter boots. Her winter jacket was a steely, sky blue and it fit her perfectly, accentuating the slimness of her waist. A darker blue scarf was wound around her neck. Her hair was astonishing beyond words; it was a sleek platinum blonde that caught even the gauzy grey light that permeated the city of Prague, reflecting it like motes of golden dust. It fell over her shoulder in a thick and glossy braid, leaving some tendrils to fall by her face. Anna could only speculate about the rest of her face, as she was wearing a standard white respirator.
"Close your mouth," Kristoff murmured under his breath. "You're gawking."
"You don't know my mouth is open, I'm wearing a mask. And she's gawk-worthy." Still, Anna schooled her features into a more friendly and seemly appreciation as Elsa and Hans crossed the street to join the small group. Elsa seemed a little wary; certainly it wasn't easy to just join a group of strangers in the middle of a global pandemic, even if she and Hans were colleagues.
Strangers or not, it was hard for Anna to just accept an elbow bump from Elsa and Hans, as she was much more of a hugger in normal times. The round of introductions were made, and did Anna imagine that Elsa gave her a more thorough look when they were introduced? If she was here with Hans, she was probably straight. Sigh. The Universe was cruel.
Wait. Maybe she was bi. Anna had a chance!
There's that eternal optimism again!
"Well, Elsa, you're the local expert," Kristoff unexpectedly said. "Lead the way!"
Any attempt Anna made to somehow glom onto the front of the group was thwarted by the still slick sidewalks and Fate itself. Anna found herself bringing up the rear of the group, walking next to the perpetual sunbeam named Jakub. Czech by birth, he and Jessica (another American) had met ten years ago and were pretty much married. "So, Anna, still teaching online?" he asked.
They chummed together for the first fifteen minutes as Elsa led them down side streets until they finally saw an opening into the forest. Anna had her suspicions… this icy and muddy trail looked like it was going to go down. A lot down.
Please God, if there is a God, don't let me fall on my ass in front of Elsa.
They paused to regroup at this opening into the forest. As Anna and Jakub caught up, she could hear Elsa and Jessica chatting away completely fluently in Czech, of which Anna caught only one word in ten. Or twenty. Figured that Elsa would be as clever as she was beautiful. Anna could hear her heart beating hard and fast as they stood in the little group. Her cheeks reddened as Elsa looked at her; she could tell that Elsa was smiling under her mask. There was a crinkle by the corners of her gorgeous eyes. Oh. Those lashes. Anna could swoon.
Oh, infatuation. You never let me down.
Elsa began to lead them down; the trail was narrow, and they could only go single file. Anna finally began to relax and enjoy herself. The perpetual grey had turned rather enchanting now that they were descending into the forest. The forest was a mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees; the bark was often coloured with moss and lichen in shades of green and burnt orange. The entire park was within a rocky valley with steep cliffs and many outcrops of stone; the translation of the name of the park was 'Wild Šárka'. Anna remembered only fragments of the Šárka myth; there had been a legendary female warrior named Šárka, who led an army of maidens in a war against some enemy. Had she been killed here, or had she killed herself? Didn't a bunch of these maidens either jump or fall to their deaths here?
Despite being early March, the birds were rather enthusiastic, and singing riotously about whatever birds happen to sing about. Anna took off her mask for a minute or two at a time, to take deep breaths of this amazing pine-scented winter air, before putting her mask back on again.
On the long slope down, Anna only slipped twice on the icy muddy trail, once taking Jakub's hand as he helped steady her. "Wait, how do you say blackbird?" she asked as she saw a curious little bird darting through the trees.
"Kos," Jakub supplied.
"Isn't that the word for bone?"
"Pish. One little sound."
"You could say the same for the words beach and bitch, Anna."
Anna laughed so hard that she lost her footing and almost fell again. Everyone in the group stopped and looked back at them. It made her laugh even harder, and she began waving her hands to tell everyone to get on with their business, even as her sides began to ache.
"Um, it wasn't really that funny," Jakub said as they began to walk again.
"Believe me, Jakub. It's been a long time since I've heard something to make me laugh so hard. You know. COVID and all."
Finally they were finished with the rather treacherous trail that led down into the valley, and came upon a paved path that led along a stream. This was Prague, a city of over a million, and there were plenty of people here, some masked, some not, many with dogs, some with bikes (crazies, all cyclists were varying degrees of crazy). Her own group slowed down and spread out; Anna found herself next to… Hans.
"So, how's the new job?" she asked. "Real estate, right?"
She wished she hadn't asked. Hans started this whole spiel about the real estate industry, and how he was already such a valued member of the team. Anna grunted the obligatory grunt, added the occasional uh-huh, and looked ahead to where Elsa continued to lead their group. Sometimes Elsa lifted her head to laugh as well, a warm and throaty laugh that made Anna shiver with delight.
Only when Hans said Elsa's name did she realise he had changed the subject, and then her attention became rather focused. "So she's the daughter of the company's owner?" Anna repeated.
"Not just this company. A fleet of companies."
Dude. Wrong metaphor. A fleet of companies?
"There's rumours that the family is royal on one side or the other. I mean, look at what she wears, what she drives. They're loaded."
"But she works at the company. I mean. Works there. It's not like she's some heiress." Great, I'm already Elsa's knight, defending her from various low-lifes.
To hell with it. Bring on the dragons!
"Yeah, she speaks fluent Czech, Russian, and French. Oh, and English, of course. She handles all the VIP clients. She's been in Prague for more than half her life, or so I understand, so she knows this city better than anyone I've ever met." He swaggered a little as he continued, "So, you know, I'm gonna put on the old charm. Office gossip says she's never dated someone from work, but there's a first chance for everything."
Anna was overjoyed to find that the group had stopped to admire a ruined building beyond a stream and a frozen marsh, causing the group to coalesce again. To her delight, she found Elsa moving to stand next to her. "Beautiful, isn't it?" Elsa said quietly.
"Very," Anna said. "Have… have you ever been inside it?"
Elsa turned to look at her, those blue eyes so warm yet keen! "No, I haven't. It's not exactly easy to access."
"See that log there? If you're nimble and lucky, you can cross it over the stream. You'll get your feet wet on the other side because it's so marshy, but then you can see inside the ruins."
"I assume this is an adventure you've undertaken."
"God, you have beautiful English."
Anna could feel her cheeks reddening in embarrassment. "I'm an English teacher. I hear so much bad English, so many mistakes, that I've discovered a newfound appreciation for native English. Yours is beautiful."
"My English isn't native, so I'll take that as a compliment. And hold on to the rest, I'll ask you more in a second," Elsa smoothly said. "Finish telling me about getting to the ruin and what's inside."
"Well…" Anna continued to regale an attentive Elsa with how she and Kristoff and Sven made it across the stream via the fallen log (Sven swam across the stream and smelled like wet dog for the rest of their walk) and explored the ruin only to find heaps of trash, old mattresses and bottles. "But small trees are already starting to grow inside the building," she continued. "The nature doesn't take long to embrace whatever we humans allow to fall derelict."
"The nature!" Elsa laughed. "You have been teaching too long, haven't you?"
The group had started to walk again, heading on the paved path along the stream. The day, which had dawned decidedly ugly, had taken a completely different tone and hue in Anna's heart. "I just think that 'the nature' is a wonderful phrase. What's the English equivalent anyway, the countryside? I'd rather take a weekend trip into the nature than into the countryside any day of the week."
Elsa laughed again. God, Anna would make it the purpose of her life to make Elsa laugh!
As they walked, Elsa asked more questions about Anna's job as a teacher of adult students in companies, and how she adapted to teaching online during the pandemic. Anna in turn felt emboldened enough to ask about Elsa's work; the radiant blonde admitted to her knowledge of no less than five languages and how she worked for her dad at his real estate company.
"But, my real love is art," Elsa began to say, before suddenly stopping in her tracks and grabbing Anna's elbow. "Look, Anna!"
They had come to a part of the forest where the stream forked, and where the trees formed an avenue for the streams; the streams bubbled and giggled as they flowed over smooth stones, separating for a time before coming together again. Anna was familiar with this spot; every time she came into Divoká Šárka she had stopped to appreciate this particular scene. The island between the forked stream was mossy and the waving grasses were green with clumps of dirty snow at their base. Another fallen log connected the bank of the stream with the island.
Someone had placed a bird feeder here, and the stream with its trees was alive with almost a dozen small birds. They chirped as they darted from tree to tree before perching on the feeder. "Are they chickadees, Elsa?" Anna asked.
"Sýkorky. I'm not sure if that translates to chickadee. The British English word is 'tit', which I'm rather careful of using in front of strangers," Elsa calmly remarked as she cast her glance sideways at Anna, her amazing blue eyes crinkling again.
Anna couldn't help but laugh. 'So what are you supposed to do when you visit some noblewoman's estate in the middle of England and see these birds? Say aloud, 'Wow, you have nice tits?'"
Elsa laughed so much she turned to the side to take off her mask; Anna got her first view of the perfection that was Elsa's cheeks and lips. Her laughter ignited Anna's own, and they two of them simply dissolved into giggles. The rest of the group had been ambling slowly up the path but they stopped and looked back at the two women as both of them continued to laugh. Hans looked rather petulant that Anna had managed to make Elsa laugh like this. "Uh, what's so funny?" he called out as he began to rejoin them.
"Just enjoying the…" Elsa began.
"Don't say tits!" Anna hissed so only Elsa could hear.
"Sýkorky," Elsa concluded, and then she and Anna hung on to each other as they began to laugh again; Elsa saw a group of people coming and put her mask back on. Even through their laughter they heard this small group of Czech people, with their own dog, walking past them, chatting away. They were subjected to all manner of looks, though two of the Czechs seemed to have smiling eyes. Damn these face masks! As this group passed their own, Anna heard one of them say something that sounded like the word 'American'.
"What was that?" she asked Elsa as Elsa dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
"Oh, just them saying that we were loud Americans."
"But you're not American, right?"
Elsa looked back at her. "Not at all. You can't place my accent, can you?"
"Nope. You are an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. Please, enlighten me."
"As I said, English isn't my native language. My dad is Finnish and my mom is Czech. I learned English at an international school here in Prague, and then lived in England for a few years to nail down the nuances."
"But you don't have a British accent, either."
Elsa companiably linked her arm with Anna's arm as they strode ahead to join their group; Hans looked particularly miffed about missing out on the levity. And, most likely, at seeing Anna arm in arm with his chosen date. "That's probably because my parents hired a gazillion tutors for me and my languages. I had a speech coach for a while as well, to ensure that my Russian sounded Russian, my French sounded French, and so on. She also helped smooth out my English. I wish sometimes I had more zip to my English, I think it's rather bland. Like Eidam cheese."
Jubilant at the way their hips swayed together as they walked along the path, Anna chuckled at Elsa's last comment. "Eidam cheese makes an amazing smažák, Elsa. Just fry up your bland English cheese and serve it with tartar sauce and boiled potatoes."
Elsa laughed again, squeezing Anna's arm as she did so. "Along with a pint of Pilsner beer drafted right from the tank, I assume? God, Anna, I haven't laughed so hard in months. How long have you been in Prague? How have we never met each other until now?"
"Three years this May. I guess our circles never collided until Hans joined your company." Anna spied the man in question surreptitiously looking behind him to note how Anna and Elsa were still walking together. She couldn't see his expression, but she could imagine that he was feeling frustrated at how his 'date' wasn't paying attention to him. "What's he like to work with, if you'll forgive my asking?"
"He has just the right amount of swagger, confidence and arrogance that our sales people need," Elsa smoothly replied in a very low voice. "The only reason I decided to join him on this walk today was the prospect of meeting new people. I'm so glad I did."
"Be careful, though. Hans looks like the jealous type. All 'dance with the one who brought you' machoism."
"That's not a word."
"I just said it, so yes, it's a word."
Elsa laughed again. They turned a corner and saw their little group waiting for them by a snowy meadow where there were several wooden sculptures. "Le sigh," Elsa said quietly as she disengaged her arm from Anna's as they joined the group. Anna couldn't ask her what she meant as Sven bounced over to her, wagging his tail and holding a stick in his mouth for Anna to throw. Anna gladly took the stick and chucked it into the meadow, watching as Sven bounded through the slightly dirty snow to fetch it.
"So, we all seem to know this park fairly well," Jakub said. "We have several trails to choose from to extend our hike…" The group debated the merits of various trails through the park. As they wished to remain apart from the crowds of people simply enjoying a grey-day amble, they decided to take one of the steeper gravel paths up the valley to the crown of the hill and the viewpoint thereon.
The next hour didn't afford much space or time for chitchat, as each of them focused on navigating the occasionally slippery trail uphill. By mutual agreement, and by the fact that they hiked single file, they each took off their masks. Elsa was near the front of the column again; she sometimes looked back at Anna, giving her an encouraging grin. Not that Anna was any less skilled at hiking than the rest of the group, she was just so goddamn clumsy! If there was a rock to be slipped on, she slipped on it. If there was a hidden patch of ice in the shadow of a tree, she slid on it.
Anna consoled herself with the dazzling brilliance of Elsa's smile. Elsa had gorgeous lips and cheeks that were rosy in this wintery air. Anna found herself wondering what Elsa's lips tasted like. And then she stopped herself from these foolish imaginations; it wasn't fair to Elsa. Anna was an out and proud lesbian, but the topic still hadn't come up in casual conversation. Anna was determined to find a way to out herself in front of Elsa, just so everything was fair and square.
About an hour later, they had hiked up the entire length of the valley, alighting on the grassy, windy plateau of the park. There were other small groups of people here, taking in the landscape around them. The sky was still a uniform grey, though the clouds occasionally swirled and twisted above them. "Snack time?" Jakub asked. "Me hungry."
There was a jumble of boulders and a couple scraggly trees nearby. Standing somewhat apart from each other, everyone swung down their packs. Jakub surprised them with individually wrapped muffins to share before bringing out beer. Anna inwardly sighed with relief; she didn't want to be the first person to reach for the beer, even though it was one of her favourite things about living in this country. She didn't mind that it was so cold outside; Czech beer was so refreshing! There were some forests in the city that had their own pubs frequented by families taking their day trips. In the days of COVID, these pubs now had so-called 'hunger windows' where walkers could take their beer and roasted sausage and Sumava bread to go. She unpacked her own sandwich, and brought out the two cans of beer. "Elsa?" she asked, proffering the can of beer. "It's an 11 from Vinohradský pivovar. One of the best 11s I've ever had. They started canning their beer when the pandemic hit; it's still better on tap, but this is pretty good."
"That's so kind, Anna, but I'm driving," Elsa said as she opened a bottle of aloe vera juice.
"Duh. I forgot. I'm too used to North American driving rules."
"If you're offering," Hans said, stretching out his hand to take the beer Anna had offered to Elsa.
A little surprised and angry, Anna handed over the beer without further comment. She opened hers and then tapped it against Jakub's can of Svijani, saying, "Na zdravi!" The group ate and drank and talked, mostly about COVID and the various lockdowns, what they were watching on Netflix, how much weed they were smoking, how much weight they'd gained over the winter. They asked about Duke - the man's exploits were near legendary by now, with Kristoff at least, and everyone present encouraged Anna to either find a new flatmate or a new place to live (as no one deserved to live with a man who got drunk and then danced like a chicken with the face of a monkey). The talk turned to the tentative plans they would all like to make, which country they would visit first when the borders opened again, what kind of vacation they would all take, whether relaxing by a beach or hiking in the Alps.
"What about you, Anna?" Kristoff asked. "I know you've been dying to live by the sea. Are you going to follow through with your idea of moving abroad again?"
Elsa looked a little shocked to hear this and seemed to pay careful attention to Anna's response. Anna said, "Yeah, it's still on my mind. To live in Greece, or Croatia, or southern Italy. I've never lived by the sea. But I'm in no rush. I'm young, I'm healthy, I can take my time." And I'd stay here forever with you, Elsa.
"What about Asia, Anna?" Elsa asked. "Thailand, or Indonesia? They have beautiful seas. Would you ever live there?"
"Maybe. But right now… it's just too far. I'm still in love with Europe. And I've made such beautiful connections here, with friends and with students, that I can't imagine living so far away. Not right now at least."
It looked as if Elsa wanted to continue this line of thought, but Hans started talking about his family's country house on the eastern coast of the United States, and how amazing it was. God, the man was in love with the sound of his own voice!
And Elsa? She was definitely setting off Anna's gay-dar. The way she strayed close to Anna as often as she could, the way her eyes would seemingly caress when their eyes accidentally touched. Feeling on top of the world, Anna relaxed into her own personality even further. Gone were the days of trying to be someone else when in the throes of first infatuation; Anna fully embraced her authentic off-beat weirdo, knowing that she would rather be herself than anyone else.
It was chilly up on the crown of this hill, now that they had stopped moving. And Anna knew herself; with this beer in her she would probably have to leave the group at some point to pee in the woods. Sigh. After a while, everyone had finished their personal refreshment and then they had a small debate on how to get back to the meeting point where Elsa had left her car. In the end, they decided to take the main trail for a while, and then a smaller, hopefully less populated trail back up to civilization.
Hans was right annoying as the group moved on, walking next to Elsa and engaging her in what seemed to be rather banal conversation. From what Anna heard, he was asking her about work, of all things. Elsa seemed to be more than capable of handling herself, though; she rebuffed him gently when his inquiries became too personal. Anna had made a mental note of what Elsa had said much earlier, something about her true love being art, and wondered if she could find a way to get Elsa somewhat alone and ask about it. In the meantime, Anna entered a rather important debate with Kristoff and Jessica about the merits of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how it held up these decades after it first aired on TV.
Anna was also smoothly able to add to the conversation that it was her fascination with Buffy that led her to fully embrace her gayness as a teenager; seeing Tara and Willow have onscreen smoochies had led her into a conversation with her folks, during which they completely accepted her curiosity about other girls and encouraged her to embrace her feelings. Hoping that Elsa heard snatches of this conversation in the midst of Hans' monologue, Anna then lost track of the conversation, seeing as she was fairly busy watching the play of gauzy light on Elsa's astonishing hair.
The group got a chance to mix again when they paused before taking the secondary trail off the paved path and into ice, snow, and gravel. Though the trail was a little narrow, Anna pushed her way forward until she was walking just behind Elsa and Hans; Elsa quickly noticed her there and began to engage her in conversation. Kristoff, the best wing-man a girl could ever have, stepped forward to ask Hans something about Fortnite, a video game they both played, and suddenly Anna and Elsa were walking side by side again. "And not a moment too soon," Anna said aloud.
"Excuse me?" Elsa asked.
"Sorry. Just continuing a conversation that had been internal until now. You know, I wasn't always that great at socialising even before the global pandemic came. My mouth often eats my foot."
"As long as it's with a side of boiled potatoes and tartar sauce, I'm sure it tastes fine."
Anna laughed. "So tell me about your art, Elsa."
Elsa looked at her. "You remembered that?"
"Yes. Go on. Regale me."
Elsa lifted her hand and ran it through her thick and gorgeous bangs; a somewhat nervous gesture that was incredibly endearing. "Art isn't really easy to talk about, Anna. Maybe I could just show it to you sometime?"
"I'd love that. Have you always been an artist?"
"From childhood fridge drawings to sculptures, yes," Elsa replied. "I dabble in all sorts of mediums, but sculpture is definitely my favorite. Here, take off your mask for a moment."
Always and forever.
Anna took off her face mask while Elsa took off her gloves. She used some sharp-tinged hand sanitizer, and then she touched Anna's face with the cool tips of the fingers of one hand, tracing Anna's eyebrow before drawing her finger down over Anna's cheekbone and to her chin.
Never in Anna's life had anyone been so bold in touching her in such a familiar, intimate way. "Hmm," Elsa murmured as she momentarily held Anna's chin in order to look at her. Their eyes touched, and held, in a way that Anna had rarely experienced; for long moments they simply looked at each other, Anna's teal eyes into Elsa's blue.
Beyond them, Hans abruptly cleared his throat.
Elsa's cheeks reddened in embarrassment even as Anna wished that some hole to Dante's purgatory would open up right underneath the offending man and take him to suffer on every level of medieval hell. "Forgive me," Elsa said as she stepped back and put her gloves back on. Then she covered her face with her mask, covering her small and awkward smile.
Anna put her mask back on as well. "It's fine, Elsa. Are you going to enlighten me, though?"
Hans shouldered his way next to them and then said, "Elsa, look at this lookout ahead. It's the perfect place for a selfie. C'mon." He grabbed her hand, but she just as deftly pulled away.
"I'm not fond of photos, Hans. I'm not photogenic. You go ahead."
"C'mon, Elsa, you're so beautiful, of course you're photogenic. Let's stand over here."
"Hey!" Anna protested. "She said no, Hans. Or does someone need to take a course on what consent is?"
He looked positively murderous for a moment, and then smiled his slick, oily smile while lifting up his hands in placation. "I'm sorry, Elsa. I just wanted some way to remember this amazing day with you."
Behind Hans, Kristoff made a very brief and subtle gagging movement; Anna swallowed back another laugh even as she shot him a very disapproving glance. Hans was understandably upset, seeing as Elsa seemed to greatly prefer Anna's company to his.
Jessica stepped forward with a question, and the tense situation slowly eased. Elsa stepped ahead alone on the trail, her shoulders drooping a little, and Anna wished she could take Elsa aside and ask what that was all about. She was about to join Elsa when Kristoff waved her over for a selfie with him and Sven; the backdrop really was amazing right here, with the craggy valley beyond wreathed in gray wisps of cloud and mysterious with the mixed forest. They took two photos, one with their masks on, and one without.
As she put her mask back on, Anna said, "We had no clue a year ago what we were getting into, did we?"
"We don't have any clue now, either," Kristoff replied. "My gut tells me that the pandemic is far from over. Who knows what the next year might bring? Or… the next minute?" he softly leered as he gestured with his chin towards Elsa, who was now gazing up at other birds swooping through the trees. Elsa looked back at them and gave them a small wave with her hand; a nice substitute for what a smile would have done in the past. "Carpe diem, Anna," Kristoff murmured before he then shouted for Sven to come back to the trail.
Jakub reached Elsa first, and Anna found herself next to Jessica. They chatted about learning Czech for a while; Anna's attention began to drift as her need to pee intensified. At least they were on a less well-known path, but they still encountered other people seeking to get away from crowds, just like them. Finally she spotted a clump of evergreen bushes by a large boulder; it would be ideal. Anna fished a tissue from her bag, handed her pack to Kristoff to hold for her, and disappeared behind the bushes. After some fumbling, gosh it was cold out!, she hunkered down to take care of business. She never had any desire to be a guy, but peeing in the woods was a lot easier for the male population than the female!
Oh, and that wind was chilly on her tender Arizona backside!
She soon returned; Elsa was ready with her small bottle of hand sanitizer. Anna smiled up to the corners of her eyes, gratefully accepting the sharp-tinted dollop and wiping her hands. "Peeing in the woods is also something I never knew I would regularly experience when moving here," Anna said as the group continued on.
"Not exactly common practice in… goodness, Anna. Where are you from?" Elsa asked.
"A suburb of Phoenix, Arizona."
"I know you've already been asked this question a million times, but…"
"Why Prague?" Anna finished Elsa's question for her, as it was one that she had been asked a billion times over. "My mom is from Texas, and we actually have some Czech heritage. After university, I actually found a job in my field, biology and fragile ecosystems, and I worked in the desert for years. I got literally and figuratively burned out. So I decided to come here for a gap year, so to speak, and reconnect with my roots. Teaching English is the easiest way to land a job, if you're a native speaker. I didn't expect to love teaching the way I do.
"And Prague? I mean. Just look at her." Anna waved her hand about her in immense gratitude. While some days she would trade grey-ceilinged Prague in a moment for the blue skies of her native Arizona, the city's forests, chateaux, and historic neighborhoods had completely seduced her. "I agree with Franz Kafka. 'Prague won't let you go, the little mother has sharp claws.'"
"She is beautiful, isn't she? And I keep finding myself back here as well, she does have claws. However, she's been my home for most of my life, so I just don't see her the way that some expats do. Another reason I'm happy to meet with expats, for the freshness of their gaze, the way they see beauty in the little things I ignore. Those expats, at least, who try to adapt and fit in. I heard you asking Jakub about Czech earlier, are you taking lessons?"
"Ano, ale čeština je těžky. Wait. Tezka, right? To match the adjective with the noun? Gosh, I assure you I've learned more than that in two years here. Please don't think I'm inept."
Elsa chuckled again. "Yes, Czech is hard. No, I don't think you're inept. In fact, I want to thank you, Anna, for making the effort to fit in. For mixing with us locals and not just living in your expat bubble. Too many people do that."
"I'm cursed with insatiable curiosity," Anna replied brightly. "Always want to know what makes people tick, what stories they have…"
"What's inside ruined buildings…" Elsa helpfully added.
"Exa...ARGH!" Anna yelped as she skidded mightily on ice hidden underneath a skiff of dry snow; as she tried to remain upright, she could actually feel her body throwing in the towel, her balance, never a reliable houseguest, checking out entirely this most crucial of moments as she started to fall.
Elsa instantly reached for Anna, grabbing her by the arm first, yanking her upright, and then grabbing her by the waist. But Anna's feet slipped again on the ice as she tried to find safe footing, and she found herself face first on Elsa's chest as she started to laugh.
"What kind of footwear?" Elsa grunted as she tried again to help Anna regain her footing. "Only an Arizona girl would…"
Anna tried to get her feet under her, she really did. But now she was laughing so hard there was a stitch in her side, and her face was still planted on Elsa's chest, and she smelled so good this close, that Anna decided the best thing to do was just surrender. Stop moving. Stop trying. And fall on her ass. She only hoped she wouldn't take Elsa along with her.
Just then another arm came to the rescue; she heard Kristoff say, "Quit your howling, Anna, and stand up, wouldja?" Over her head, she heard him tell Elsa, "Feisty pants here really is one of the clumsiest humans I've ever had the fortune to meet."
Between the two of them, she was manhandled to dry ground, where she finally lifted her head from the most comfortable of bosoms, only to feel that Elsa was still holding her hand.
There they stood, face to face, mask to mask, Anna's teal eyes again sparking with Elsa's blue, and if Elsa hadn't been wearing a face mask, Anna would have done the unthinkable, she would have kissed this stranger, this goddess, for if life had taught her anything in the last year of a global fucking pandemic, it was to take your chances when they were served up to you.
Elsa stood tall and strong, and she lifted her gloved hand to touch Anna's cheek. She really loved Anna's cheeks, it seemed! "Take your time," she said quietly. "Get your bearings."
So Anna took a deep breath, and felt the runaway clatter of her heart start to ease as the others in the group began to regale each other with other near-misses they had experienced over the years. A short time later, she said, "Thank you, Elsa. My ass thanks you."
Elsa shook her head in seeming amazement. "Anna. You…." and she quietly sighed. "You are welcome."
Anna turned to meet the rest of the group and join them again on the upping and downing of this trail that would eventually bring this most glorious of days to an end, and then she felt Elsa squeeze her hand as Elsa stepped beside her. Anna looked at her, and then down at their hands, still joined, and back up at Elsa.
"Just as a precaution," Elsa smoothly said. "Can't have that sweet ass of yours bruised at all." They continued down the trail, hand in hand, Elsa's long fingers companionably wrapped around hers.
It was, by all accounts, a decidedly beautiful day.
Elsa held Anna's hand for a good fifteen minutes until the trail narrowed to single file once more. Ahead of them, Anna could see Hans simmering in childlike petulance. If he were an anime character, he'd have thunderclouds and lightning bursting above his head. Elsa squeezed Anna's hand before they parted to walk single file; Anna was grinning behind her snowman mask. Every bird in the world was singing along with her heart.
Had Elsa heard Anna's story about Willow and Tara smoochies? Or had Kristoff outed her? Whatever the reason, Anna was incredibly heartened. After a year of loneliness, perhaps they needed each other, and the friendship they could bring. Perhaps there could be more than friendship one day, but today Anna would be overjoyed just to spend more time in Elsa's company.
Anna had tramped all over this park, and thought she recognised that they were nearing the exit. It had been over three hours, and she was seriously chilled and a little hungry. But she didn't want the outing to end, not without getting Elsa's number, so they could arrange the promised art discussion. And so Anna could ask what was up with the whole face thing. Not to mention the hand holding.
But it was the nature of a global pandemic to insist that, not only shall good things end, they shall end quite quickly. Time. What had happened to fucking time? Time didn't behave as it used to; wasn't it American Thanksgiving just last week?
It didn't take long for the six of them to exit the forest and find themselves in a small warren of residential streets. By some miracle of Elsa's impeccable guidance, they had exited quite close to her silver BMW.
Was it Anna's imagination, or did Elsa's step grow a little slower as they proceeded down the street? Everyone was sharing what they hoped to do with their day or week, the little plans that kept them somewhat happy and sane even as the great district lockdown loomed. They would not be able to meet again until this three weeks (cough, cough, three months?) ended, for this particular lockdown also prohibited groups larger than two from forming. Anna had already learned that Elsa was more a listener than talker, and that she only piped in when she felt she had something meaningful to add. Anna also noticed that Elsa didn't contribute to this particular conversation, which quickly devolved into goodbyes as they found themselves at the opening to the subway.
"What an absolutely brilliant walk," Jakub said. "And no one died!"
"Oh, I cheated death today, but lived to tell the tale," Anna quipped. "Thanks to Elsa." She reached out and squeezed Elsa's arm before turning to Kristoff. "Thanks for organising this, Kristoff. It was great. I needed it." She kneeled and scratched Sven behind his ears.
"Um, Anna?" she heard Elsa ask.
Anna rose and turned to look at Elsa. "Yes?" she asked, her heart beating again.
"Do you have any plans right now? I mean, if you're okay with it, you could come back to mine for a while. I, uh, I tested negative earlier this week, so it should be safe."
"Wait, I thought we…" Hans began.
Elsa turned to him, her eyes suddenly flinty. "You have your Lítačka public transport pass, don't you?"
"So you can take public transit home. See you Monday at the sales meeting. Thanks for introducing me to your friends." Elsa once again linked her arm in Anna's.
Hans began to splutter, until Kristoff gently pulled him away, saying quietly, "Just leave it, Hans. You're outmatched, dude." Jakub and Jessica waved at the group, called out their farewells, and then began to walk away.
Leaving Anna and Elsa on the sidewalk with pearly skies above while the city of Prague ticked and hummed about them with lazy Saturday pandemic traffic. A little shocked at how fast the group had dissolved, Anna looked over at Elsa, who seemed a little bit shy now that they were alone.
So Anna stepped forward, saying, "Your place, huh? Does this mean I get to see your art?"
"That and more," Elsa said, as she took off her face mask. "If you're interested." Her eyelashes were incredibly sooty, and she swung her body slightly on one hip as she gave this beautiful invitation. It made Elsa's coat pull ever so slightly against her breasts, and Anna felt a thrill of desire, clean and pure, rocket through her body.
Anna also took off her mask. The wind was chipper and fresh on her cheeks, matching the lightheartedness she felt. "Oh, I'm interested."