Whenever Dawn thinks of her, she is Dear because it’s the language that creates the illusion; it’s the language that misdirects, that denies the implication that ‘mother’ assumes carrier and caregiver alike. For Dawn, to deny that duality is to say we may be connected, Dear, but we owe each other nothing.
And now, as the shadows creep between the skyscrapers and another night falls on Manhattan, Dawn paces past the crinkled copies of The New Yorker and the volumes of melancholic Czech poetry that lay scattered on the floor of her studio. Before, when the approach of evening made her anxious, she would get into her car and drive because there was something soothing in the familiarity of hand to wheel and foot to pedal, in the way the loop and curve of the road led her down tree-lined streets and past Fairmount Park, before the final bend revealed Mount Rubidoux framed against a horizon whose pinks and reds were like streaks of blood produced by the columns of cypress stabbing at the sky. And on those nights, with the California horizon bleeding before her, she’d turn the radio on as high as it would go and sing along to the kitschy hits of Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, secure that no one could hear her belt out lyrics that would remain trapped within the confines of a coup now sold to help finance an exodus from bubblegum pop, a wounded sky and the lightheartedness of youth.
If Dawn allows herself a weakness, it’s that she thinks too much, too often about Dear. About the idea of her. About what it all means and how it all might have played out. Dawn thinks she might’ve been able to forgive Dear if Dear had been smart about it. If Dear had had a plan, a notion of things to come. If Dear had latched onto someone who might’ve been a ticket to greater comforts, greater excitements, greater things. But from the stories and pictures and rumors whose reality Dawn can never truly parse, she can only gather that Dear hadn’t been smart, that she didn’t have a plan, that she’d been fifteen and curious about the effect her body had on the boys around her, about the desire it aroused.
Dawn has never enjoyed the malaise of dusk; it’s as though the slow transition from day into night invites a greater prospect of Dear coming to her, invading her thoughts and ravaging her mind, and without her coup she is defenseless, save for her books and the half empty bottles of wine stopped with corks that are swollen just enough to make their return to the bottle arduous. Dawn’s broken enough necks to know to be careful, yet she still jams them down as though there is some joy in the prospect of the tinted glass snapping off in her hand. There is an awesome power in knowing she has the ability to break something, to damage and wreck at a whim.
Now, on these nights when restlessness overtakes her, Dawn abandons her books and her wine and heads south on Second Avenue. Moist air brushes against her cheeks and blows back her long hair. There’s nothing to shield her. There are no windows to close. There’s no radio to switch on. No volume knob to amp up. She can’t sing in public, and instead of song lyrics running through her mind there are pictures, images of Dear. Attempts to imagine how her mo—Dear—might’ve appeared. How those boys might have seen her: a nymph of the mid ’80s with a short, pixy haircut, hoop earrings, an exposed midriff between a threadbare Ramones t-shirt and cut-off jeans so small that only the frayed, white fibers of sheared denim covered the inviting flesh of her tanned legs. If Dawn has been decadent, liberal with the amount of wine she’s allowed herself, she tries to envision what she would have done in the same situation. She thinks she could have stayed, would have stayed, would have taken it as a reason to stay, but it’s always easier to look back on a situation than to be drowned by it. From a distance proclamations ring truer, sound prettier, float more eloquently to the ears of the crowd. From the outside everything looks simpler, more alluring, and Dawn knows that she’d probably have done the same thing.
When she passes people on the street, hears parts of their conversation, broken phrases and parts of speech, Dawn doesn’t like to think how a girl of seventeen, one without a high school diploma and means of her own, survived in a country whose language she didn’t speak and whose customs were unknown to her, when she—Dawn—educated and capable, can barely exist in another part of her native country. And though Dawn is sure that there were more than enough waitressing, bartending and cleaning jobs to sustain Dear, she can’t help but think that the reality is more sinister, more clandestine—perhaps, in a certain way, more brave. Because escape artists always seem to find a way to stay alive.
It’s fitting, then, that the farther down Second Avenue Dawn walks, the more she thinks about it: that Dear went not to Paris, Rome, Barcelona or even Berlin, but that she went to Bohemia, that she settled in the lyrical, moody confines of Prague with its rivers and bridges and parks and churches: the capital of a people eager to return to a life of light innocence after years of Soviet oppression. To be immersed in a resurrection and renaissance simultaneously, to be free to expose publicly what had been boiling internally all along. To be in a place where it was okay to dance and to celebrate and to drink and to fuck because, at long last, one could. And it’s fitting that, as Dawn wanders past the invisible border that brings her into Greenwich Village, where cobblestones line streets that no longer run straight, Dawn wonders if she was ever a topic of conversation, a phrase uttered freely and without fear while her moth—Dear—lay in the arms of some Czech man who had earned his right to frivolity with a woman who aged but never grew up. And when she passes the bars and the clubs where, in the shadows, kissing couples slide passionate hands over each other, Dawn wonders if Dear’s allure lay in the idea that at any moment the person holding her might find themselves awash in a plume of smoke, suddenly grasping only air.
It’s an image that makes her laugh, chuckle silently to herself, but that also tends to make her think of Bill. When she does, she allows him to stay with her for a handful of blocks. Bill, whose balding head was ringed by a fringe of white hair, who was old enough to be her father, her grandfather, whose lungs were filled with cancer, who asked her to accompany him on three-hour lunch breaks during which he deliberately made his way through half a pack of Pall Malls—always offering her one before he pulled out another for himself, as though he needed company in something that resembled death—and how she always chastised him about his smoking like, she thinks, a mother, and how he responded with a smile: Cancer, all the more reason.
There are moments when she thinks he might have loved her: that, as long as she was there, the cancer was a joke, that his simple Go when she said, without quite knowing why, that she’d been saving up to move away to Manhattan and would have amassed enough to leave by the end of the summer, was evidence enough. She’d like to think that his telling her to leave expressed his affection, that it was love that propelled someone to push away that which they should have sought to keep. But, by that definition, Dear loved her more than humanly possible, because she continued to go and to go and to stay away and to give Dawn only a name that belied not that she was a mistake or a problem, but something full of optimism and promise. It’s as though the language influences the situation, acts as the smoke and mirrors, makes everything easier to understand.
Because if it’s the language that misdirects, then Dawn let the boy she met in the bookstore and who held the Seifert and Kundera and Skvorecky and whose shirt was too small and whose pants were too tight and whose mismatched assortment of garish shapes and colors harkened back to the fads of the ’80s when clashing ensembles were en vogue, then she let him sleep with her. If it’s the language that offers agency, she’d like to think that she fucked him, because it allows her to believe that she’s in control and that, like those Czech poets who tell her the silence after lovemaking resembles Death, she too can be the type of woman capable of saying everything she needs to say with as much terseness, as much sparseness, as much simplicity as possible. That she could be the woman to tell them all that they were wrong; that as the warmth rose into her stomach and spread through the rest of her body, while she rocked back and forth with her fingers curled around the boy’s shoulders and her nails dug into the skin of his back, she felt unmoored. Alive and ephemeral and capable of disappearing at any time. Because after it was over, Dawn remembers looking down at his closed eyes. How the still expression on his face and the paleness of his skin wrapped snugly around the lines of his ribs made him look fragile, frightened, made him look like something needing to be held. Which, she thinks, is why she didn’t stay in the bed; why, instead, she stepped away from him, stared out of his window towards the building across the street and stood with her back to him, imagining how she might look when he opened his eyes—the secrets of her body half in shadow yet half illuminated by the faint light glowing in the corner of his apartment; why she just stood there thinking that if anything resembled death it wasn’t the silence, and that if she had the chance, just once, she’d tell her mother what she missed most was being in a place where it was still possible to look up and see an uninterrupted sky.