Reasons to Live
Danica Klewchuk | Essays
I went to Bratislava because I was tired of being owned by other people, of being violated by them. There was the man on a Thai island, who’d waited until the porchlight switched off outside my bungalow before stepping out of the shadows. There was the boy who’d helped himself to my body when we were on a date. There were girlfriends, people I loved like sisters, who’d attempted to give me to their partners without my consent. Once, as a Christmas present.
After a particularly bad long-term relationship ended, I attempted to somehow level the field by dating indiscriminately. I saw two or three men at a time. I called them by nicknames until they blurred into one person: the man in apartment 211, the racist, the pilot, the vegan, and Mr. November.
I would follow them home with little more reason than the fact that I was curious about what their residences looked like. The next morning, I would try to find the bathroom, take a wrong turn and end up in the garage. Once I stumbled on a deer corpse suspended from the ceiling. On another occasion, I was startled to find that the man I’d accompanied home collected masks—or worse—that perhaps his mother did.
I was intent on my own destruction: walking through the woods alone at night with coyotes on the edges of the path, drinking to excess and then recuperating in the rooms of strangers. I got into the habit of leaving something of mine behind, it was akin to scrawling my initials on the wall of a bathroom stall. Closing one of my socks into the cutlery drawer before walking out with one shoe that slid around on my bare foot.
I assumed it was all the slutty bravado with which I presented myself that these men had fallen for. I thought if I showcased myself as being from the sample tray, left out under the florescent grocery store lights, anyone who was even possibly interested in me would eventually see the greasy sheen of my left behind self and move along.
It’s not that I had explicit plans to kill myself, or that I’d even mapped out how I would do it, but I was then trying to come up with reasons to live. Walling myself up in a city where no one spoke the language I did, where the tourists were few and far between and where most people living there would leave if they could, seemed like a way to test myself.
After I’d finished packing up my apartment, I went to see my previous partner and drop off the last of his things. I stood in the entryway of his apartment saying my goodbyes when he grabbed both of my wrists. When I tried to pull away he attempted to kiss me anyway. I had to struggle to get away from him, and when I managed to, I ran out into the hallway. He called after me, “If you won’t sleep with me, why do I even have a bed?”
By the looks of things, I didn’t even deserve to be asked for consent anymore. I felt so tired of myself and of my body.
Before I left Canada, I saw one of the men I’d been dating. We hung out in my airless apartment and talked. He had invited himself over though I had made it clear that I wasn’t really in any shape for company. Still, he came and played me a few songs on the guitar that sat in my living room among the boxes.
When I was younger, I would let people do the things that they wanted, because it meant that afterwards they would leave. But I refused to do that now.
“I’m tired of being touched,” I confided when he placed a hand of my knee. We both knew that he’d come over expecting something physical, and yet I was charmed when he just asked if he could hold me and then did. I cried myself out on the stiffly-carpeted floor and he left only when I was finished.
I spent the two weeks before I went to Bratislava with a good friend in Stockholm, taking as much MDMA (a drug that I quickly discovered will dig a you-shaped pit beneath your feet if you’re prone to depression) as I could handle and switching to pills when that ran out, asking only after I’d swallowed whatever it was just what I’d just taken.
We went to museums and watched movies. We took speed and I felt more trapped in my own body than I ever had. We wandered the city and drank wine together on a nearby archipelago.
On one afternoon, he took me on a sort of suicide tour of the city. “You’re twice as likely to kill yourself in Sweden as you are to die in a car accident,” he told me.
It was late afternoon, and we stood on a cliff overlooking some train tracks. There were white canvas shoes on the edge, still new, as if they’d just been purchased, walked to this spot and stepped out of. The wearer’s decision as sudden and unexpected as a muscle spasm. I didn’t tell my friend what I was planning, though he’d looked at me incredulously and asked, “Bratislava? Why the fuck would you want to go there?”
Before I left Stockholm, I rented an apartment in Bratislava, and even the woman subletting it to me was confused by my behaviour. “You want my place for a month? I mean, are you sure? Most people only stay a few days.” Even she had moved to Spain by then, only for the thin reason, according to her mother, that she loved to dance.
I couldn’t help but be a little afraid of yet another new city. It felt like I had been assaulted a hundred times while traveling, sometimes in the most unlikely of places.
Once, I had even been grabbed while praying in a temple in Laos. I was in a city that had appeared entirely holy only that morning—the parade of hundreds of monks making their way through the streets to collect alms, the orange tide of their robes pouring over me like the waters of a baptism. After seeing that, I had felt like praying. But the only other person inside the temple with me had reached out to stroke the tattoo on my foot and when I had looked up in surprise at his touch, he had grasped my instep and dragged me towards him on the tile floor. I kicked out at him and he let me go, and I ran without looking back.
Bratislava did turn out to be desolate, more so even than I had imagined. I was used to my country and the kindness of strangers, and so when I couldn’t find my apartment it was hard to locate someone who’d even look at the map I had, much less loan me their phone so I could call the woman who was waiting for me somewhere nearby.
Most of my days were spent being yelled at in a language I couldn’t begin to understand. I’d tried to learn the basics. As Alexander Graham Bell had wanted after he’d invented the telephone, the citizens of Bratislava did say “ahoy” instead of hello, but much beyond that and I got lost.
I was yelled at by old women outside churches, by bus drivers when they’d reached the end of their routes and wanted me off, by security guards at grocery stores when I mistakenly exited out the entrance. It seemed to me like communism had settled into the bones of the city and stayed there.
Even my communist block apartment seemed not to want me. When changing the sheets, I stuck my fingers into an open electrical socket behind the bed and received a shock that I felt in my right hand for days.
I got stuck in the elevator. And, after the main light in the apartment burned out, I spent days in the dark, trading out the lightbulb with several options and then finally calling my landlord’s father, who turned out to be an electrician and wanted to know why I hadn’t called him sooner.
When, in a little bar a short walk from my house, I came upon a bartender who spoke a handful of English words and had family in Ontario, I nearly climbed over the bar to hug him.
I suppose there was something about the men of the place. I liked their brusqueness. And I’m sure it was only the way it sounded to me, but it seemed to me like they were always yelling at their wives and girlfriends, yet somehow, they also behaved like gentlemen. Holding open the door for their partner while they yelled, carrying her oversized purse while they yelled, and helping her on with her coat as they screamed at the back of her head.
“I have an oversized purse,” I wanted to say, “I have a coat. Look, that door needs opening.” I was so starved for contact by then that it looked like romance to me. I was trying to distract myself from the thing that I had come to do.
Though eventually I became grateful for this perceived invisibility, the way I moved through the crowds without a second look by the men. I felt that it was safer.
Years before, alone on a beach in Vietnam, I had been playing in the surf, the cold water licking at the hem of my dress as I waded into the ocean. When the water was above my knees, my dress ballooned around me where the ocean waves caught it.
It was then that I turned to see a man on the bluff above, watching me and masturbating. I stared at him for a moment, afraid, because it was only the two of us on that beach. And then I raised my tiny waterproof camera to one eye and watched as he stumbled away, his pants still too far down for him to properly mount his motorcycle as he skidded up onto the highway and out of sight.
In Bratislava I couldn’t blame the locals for disliking me. The country suffered greatly from “The Brain Drain Effect.” There were better jobs to be had elsewhere, and so once citizens were educated, they left. So, what was I doing here, exploring a place that everyone seemed all too keen to run from?
On a walking tour through the city, the young guide—who’d been born the same year that the Czech Republic separated—told us that when the movie hostel came out (a movie supposedly set in Bratislava, but actually filmed somewhere in Prague), tourism went down 75 percent, as if it were just such a precarious thing.
The young woman, whose name I have forgotten, took us to the blue church, a huge building that was created in the Art Nouveau style, which made it look as if it were built from plasticine. “Some people call it the Smurf church,” she said, “my grandparents were married there, most people from the city are married in it, and I assume I will be one day too.” Then she pointed across the street to an asylum that had been abandoned about a decade before. The city owned it, and it was supposed to be torn down, but still it stood.
The asylum had horrific, ghoulish sculptures of tortured humans on it, their mouths open in screams. “I can’t directly translate what it says on the door,” she said, “but it’s something along the lines of, ‘if you enter here, you will not leave.”’
How odd it seemed to me then, on what was supposed to be the happiest day of your life, to walk out the front doors and see that.
In Bratislava, I felt safer than I had in many other cities and towns. Though I was careful to be home by dusk. The one night that I’d been out after dark, a group of three men surrounded me in front of the bar nearest my apartment.
I didn’t know what they were saying, but I knew what came next. They advanced, and I stood still. But just then an elderly woman came out of the bar, cane in hand, and began to yell at them. They scattered like so much smoke.
I turned to thank her, and she began her verbal assault on me. I didn’t know what she was saying, but I had the sense that it was a question of what I was doing out alone at this hour. Sheepishly, I fled too.
The trouble with having so many things happen to you, is that you begin to feel like a parasite in your own life, as if you’re somehow responsible. Some years after Bratislava, when I summed up the mountain of these occurrences to a friend he had suggested, in a voice that I’m sure was intended to be gentle, “Perhaps it’s the way you present yourself that suggests to them that you’re asking for it.”
In an effort to spend more time out of my apartment in Bratislava, I developed a running obsession. I say obsession because at two in the afternoon, sometime after it’d hit 30˚C, I would run and I would try to do this every day. The path around the river where I ran was sparsely populated. There were only ever a handful of people out walking their dogs and staring at me as I went past, sure that they would get to watch my death from heat exhaustion if they just kept their eyes on me.
After one particularly hot run I returned to my apartment dizzy and confused. I went to bed and slept until the next morning, still feeling sick when I woke, but better. After that I took to running in the early evening.
It was on these later runs that I met the man who might’ve saved me. He had Down’s Syndrome, and perhaps it was the thing that made him like no one else, the openness on his face like nothing I’d seen in that city. He too ran in the evenings and when I saw him, his face lit up and he would high-five me as I passed. It was the only physical contact I had for an entire month, and by the end of that time I loved him like a soul mate.
In that lonely city, I wasn’t eating much either. It takes a certain kind of bravery to eat in restaurants alone, and I didn’t have that then. Nor did I want to be a bother or know how to explain that I was a vegetarian, though I’d practiced saying the Slovak word over and over again. So I cooked alone in my little apartment. I bought soup packs for one: a shrink-wrapped carrot, a potato, an odd root vegetable, a sprig of parsley, and a single clove of garlic.
I wrestled with the tiny oven and the burners of the stovetop that perplexed me. I hadn’t realized at first that you had to flip the thing open, and so, the first time I’d lit one of the burners, a great ball of flame came shooting out at me. I was squatting down at the time to better view the problem and lost most of both eyebrows and all but the top inch of my bangs.
I came to discover that just because you had an idea of what you wanted to make, did not mean that’s what you were going to have for supper. It was all dependant on what you could find at the grocery store. The day before there might’ve been mountains of tomatoes but today, when you wanted to concoct homemade salsa there were none. Or, say you’d decided upon mushroom soup, and now there was only one sad fungi, half-flattened on the floor, wearing the tread of someone’s shoe.
I learned to improvise, to throw in handfuls of lentils and watch as my soup came out the other side as a stew and my casseroles became watery odd things. I drank lots and lots of coffee while I waited to see what I had made, sweeping around my dark apartment in a half-run, my blood espresso-thick and my heart like a hummingbird in my chest.
I thought I was getting better. But it was perhaps more like those stories you read with some level of horror as the main character becomes more ill and yet is sure that they’re filling their bodies with light that they’ve eaten while laying on their beds in what only they can see as a perfect right angle to the face of God.
Still, over the course of the month that I was there, I fell in love with Bratislava in a way I couldn’t explain. I loved the blue bathtub, with its porcelain the same inexplicable shade of blue that my hair was. I fell in love with going to sleep to the sound of the bar near my apartment, with its strange music that was a blend of polka and electronica, like nothing I’d ever heard and haven’t since. I fell in love with the screenless window of my third-floor apartment, with the way, when I dangled my legs out of it, the hot night wrapped itself around my legs like a blanket. When I’d first arrived, I thought about tumbling out of that window all the time, but worried that with only three stories to fall, it would not do the kind of damage that I was looking for.
I walked more. I explored the neighbourhood and the vast walking paths. The desolate graffiti that marred buildings and bridges. The one English phrase I found said only, “I’m too old for this shit.” I took photos of torn-up benches and of groups of people rolling enormous tires. I listened to podcast after podcast: my daily feast of English. Ira Glass’ voice in my ear like its own melody, he was one of the handful of things that carried me through that time and I feel a deep love for him still.
And by the end of the month, I couldn’t imagine leaving. I took photos of my communist block apartment building, sure that I would need to commemorate the month I’d spent within it. But when I look at those pictures, of the rows of buildings that are exactly the same, I can’t totally be sure which one was mine.
At the train station, I bought a one-way ticket to Budapest. The woman at the desk informed me that it was only a single Euro to return to Bratislava, though it was sixteen to get all the way to Budapest. I thought about coming back, but it seemed to me that I had to leave the city behind, that for me, it had done all it could.
Danica Klewchuk is based in Edmonton, Alberta. In 2020, she was a mentee of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Mentorship program. Her work has also appeared in Event and The Gateway Review. She is currently at work on a novel.Featured Image by Charles Forerunner