by Brege Shinn
Trying to decide what to wear—without clothes.
I awake naked. I’m on my bed but there are no sheets. The pillow case is gone. I scramble to my backpack for something to wear, but there’s not a stitch of clothing to be found. Confused, I look in my travel-mate’s pack, but she too has no clothes.
Damn it, I gave all my clothes to the hostel’s owners for laundering yesterday. Washing and ironing every last stitch of clothing for two dollars doesn’t seem quite the steal it did before.
Trying to assess the situation and retrace my steps, I light my last cigarette from a crushed pack and take a look around. No one is here. Alyssa, my travel mate, is missing and her bed is without sheets as well. I look down from the loft to the sparse, but clean, room below. There are four other beds and, again, the sheets are missing.
My head is pounding. I take a long drag and exhale a plume of dark gray smoke. The familiar comfort of nicotine makes me feel queasy today. I find a sneaker and use its bottom as an impromptu ashtray. I am sitting, without so much as a thong, holding a cigarette butt.
Thank God I treated myself to a Brazilian in Paris last week.
Over the pounding, I hear the resonating laughter of Alyssa down the hall. She has a voice that can carry through city blocks; it can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end while your whole body tenses in trepidation of her Leo-like need for attention. As irritating as that quality has become throughout these many months of joint travel, I feel a bit of relief today. If I can follow her voice, perhaps I can learn how I came to be in this au natural state.
Not having enough hands to cover all of my naughty bits, I must improvise some coverage if I want to find any answers to the multitude of questions now whirling about my mind. I have two pillows within reach and a roll of my trusty silver duct tape in my pack. Taping the two pillows on top of each other lengthwise, I make a short puffy skirt and slip it on. I consider ripping off smaller pieces to make pasties, and therefore cover at least part of my top half, but decide against it: the pain of ripping them off later couldn’t possibly be worth it. As I descend from the loft via a wooden and shaky ladder, I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror.
Thank the good Lord for duct tape.
My arms wrapped around me, with hands firmly cupping my exposed breasts, I make my way down the hallway towards the cluttered and ever-crowded common area. My body feels heavy. My heart thumps with a seemingly irregular beat. My bare feet toddle along a dampened carpet.
Alyssa’s voice becomes louder as I approach the paint-chipped door frame. I hear other, indistinguishable voices around the bend. My face tightens as the noise decimal grows deafening. I take in a deep breath and attempt a hard swallow, but my mouth is too dry.
Screw the clothes and explanations; I need caffeine and aspirin pronto.
I peek around the corner. One by one, each person turns to look in my direction and stops speaking mid-sentence. Thankful for the sudden silence, I lift my head and scan the room: Dead stares. Pursed lips. Condescending eye rolls. I am openly and collectively abhorred.
Fight or flight, fight or flight.
I slip farther into the room and reveal my avant-garde, duct-taped ensemble. The roar of laughter is so piercing and immediate that I cannot help but throw my hands up over my ears. Jaws drop.
Tits: always a crowd pleaser.
I plop down on a thread-bare green sofa and cross my legs, having already flashed everyone in the room; I try to keep a miniscule amount of dignity by not revealing any more of myself than necessary. Still laughing, Alyssa throws me a pillow to cover my top half more comfortably. I lean back; the couch’s scratchy material irritates my unprotected back.
Another backpacker, a good-looking, muscular, twenty-something, who seems oddly familiar, squeezes my shoulders from behind and messes with my hair in a too-affectionate, quick and circular tussle. I am annoyed; I adjust my pony tail. My hair is damp. He asks me how I like my coffee.
“Black,”� I barely manage to mutter with any decipherable volume.
Alyssa sees my confusion and tells me his name is John.
Like I care.
He hands me a mug of coffee. I nod in gratitude.
Oh sweet delicious hot cup of blessed caffeine, how I love thee.
After a good bit of ribbing, and a generous gift of three extra-strength aspirin, my fellow backpackers begin telling my twisted tale. It all started at Joe’s Bar.
Right off the Charles Bridge, on the stunning waters of the Vltava River, there is a small building crammed in among Prague’s many souvenir shops. This non-descript structure, with the same white exterior walls and bright orange roof as its neighbors and a small luminous neon sign flickering in its corner window, is the home of Joe’s Bar: a three-story, happy-hour-loving backpacker bar. Pumping American classics like “Mustang Sally”� and “Born on the Bayou”� through its speakers, Joe’s is a much-appreciated and familiar respite from the many months of travel.
I had been there once before. For the equivalent of one American quarter, you could buy a tall, and delightfully cold – by European standards, – pilsner of Czech’s finest ale and one chilled shot of well vodka. If you wanted to splurge, a shot of absinthe “the green-eyed monster”was all of fifty cents.
Of course I would want to splurge.
I danced, sometimes on tables. I sang, always poorly. I played pool, surprisingly well. I became friends with a visiting professional soccer team from Bavaria. I spoke at length of my love of the freshly picked cherries, particularly the white ones, which I had bought for an eighteen-hour train trip from Amsterdam to Prague only a few days before. I lit my nipples on fire ”my infamous party trick” for a laugh.
Tits: always a crowd pleaser.
After a couple of hours, I felt the dizzying spins. I disappeared from my group and snuck off to the upstairs restaurant. I was seated at a corner high-top table, with full view of the restaurant, and ordered the internationally-renowned bar food of cheesy nachos.
The next thing anyone knew, I was on the floor physically sick with cheese still in the corners of my mouth. The servers were screaming, the fellow patrons were thoroughly (and understandably) disgusted, and the police were called. I was immobile and out-cold.
American buffoonery, over-indulgency, irresponsibility.
Word spread quickly of the drunken young American woman upstairs. Alyssa and my new best-friends, the orange-clad Bavarian soccer team, sprung up the stairs in a fury. My limp, dead-weighted body was carried out of the bar and onto the streets. Unable to stand, and barely conscious, I was placed face-down on the hood of a nearby car.
While Alyssa and my orange heroes went back into the bar to collect bags, jackets and fellow hostellers now partying at Joe’s, I was left behind to mumble alone about my new-found love and admiration of white cherries.
The presumed owner of the car hood, and the vehicle on which I was most likely drooling, entered the scene.
Oh boy, I remember this part.
He gently reached around my back, cupped (and squeezed for good measure) each breast, muttered some sort of compliment regarding his handfuls, and proceeded to lift my body off his car. Leaving me face down, yet again, on the cobble stone street, he drove away.
Tits: always a crowd pleaser.
After my friends return to the street, a long ordeal finding a cab driver willing to take me, and a near ejection on the side of an isolated freeway due to my mid-ride sickness, we all (minus the soccer team) made it back to the hostel safely. I asked to take a shower.
Water puts me at ease.
A fellow hosteller helped place me, clothes still on, sitting upright with knees at my chest, in the corner of the shower stall. He turned on the water, adjusted to an adequate temperature, and closed the glass doors behind him. Then, he, along with everyone else, went out on the deck to relax and smoke a thank-you joint, courtesy of my purse.
Concerned, the same hosteller who had helped me into the shower decided to check on me after a considerable, though widely unknown, time period has lapsed. As he opened the bathroom door, he saw that the water had risen three or more feet and was now leveled directly below my lower lip. My legs were stretched out and my heavy wet clothes were now covering the drain; the water had nowhere to go but up. I was unconscious. He sprinted towards the door and swung it wide open. The water rushing out of the stall created a wave and caused my body to lose its positioning. I sunk under the water for a brief moment before the deluge of water exited.
Meanwhile, Alyssa finished smoking and walked back into the hostel, dark with only a few dimly lit hall lights. She turned the corner into the main hallway and saw a flash flood of water come barreling towards her. She was ankle deep in water, her sneakers soaked through. When she entered the bathroom, I was soaked, awake and disoriented. My new hero sat against the wall looking completely terrified.
The hostellers jumped into high-gear. Everyone was woken. Sheets, pillowcases, and comforters were handed over. People, though some still sleepy and some now high, jumped on the sheets like grape crushers in an attempt to save the soaked carpets. My wet clothes were peeled off of me and thrown on an outside clothes-line to dry. My new hero threw me over his shoulder and carried my stripped body up the ladder.
Oh good Lord.
So who got the show? I ask without a hint of embarrassment.
I have no pride left.
That would be me. “Not bad,”� John says, smirking.
I need a cigarette.
By the time the storytelling has ended and my ensemble, and probable side-boob view, has lost its appeal, the common room has mostly cleared out. John stays behind and pours me another badly needed cup of coffee. Just as the throbbing feels as though it may one day, subside, the overwhelming feeling of shame and remorse for my over-indulgent and destructive actions flood in.
I am the reason people hate Americans.
I hear clamoring in the hall. Gasping; then screaming. I sink lower into the bowels of the couch, clenching onto the mug like the life-preserver it has become. I don’t understand a single word of Czech.
I don’t need to; I know.
The hostel owner, a tall, slender, curly-haired woman in her mid-forties, enters the common room. I want to flinch, jolt, recoilâ€¦ but I cannot move. I sit there in silence and wait. She is pulling on the bottom of her red knit sweater anxiously. I can hear her breathe heavily and with conviction. She too is silent. She scans the room before speaking.
I lift my hand slowly like a child unsure of the answer. My hand feels heavy. For just a second, the hair on my arm sticks to a piece of duct tape protruding from my make-shift garb.
My mouth is dry. I take a swig of burning hot coffee. I never lose eye-contact.
“Absinthe,” I answer.
She closes her eyes; her head slants down. She bounces slowly on the balls of her feet.
I stand up, having absolutely no idea how to translate my regret and embarrassment.
Her eyes lift to mine. I see a glimmer of a reluctant smile.
This is not the first time.
And then, she hands me a pile of my freshly laundered clothes. Even my socks are ironed.
Shinn won the Young Traveler Gold for “Thank the Good Lord for Duct Tape” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.