The White Cat

ireallymeanitIt all started when I was somehow tricked into visiting Former Girlfriend’s family in West Bohemia last year. I remember answering ‘yeah sure’ to the suggestion as one might a rectal exam at the hands of a new cellmate. Visiting a new partner’s family for the first time is stressful enough, let alone a family who speaks a language you are not close to fluent in. And my anxiety was based solely on the promise of 48 hours of the Czech language and FG’s family.

Nevertheless, at 9 a.m. on Friday morning, when I should have been in a warm bed, I was on a cramped bus in a snowstorm.

Her family exhibited the extremely warm hospitality that I have come to know in Czech homes. They made me feel at home, fed me and poured wine into me. Despite this warmth, by the time I got into bed Friday night I was exhausted and frustrated from a day of butchering the Czech Language. My linguistic mistakes included asking her mother to have sex (unprotected, I seemed to somehow specify) and asking her dad to do my laundry (I had tried asking him to choose the wine). I was forced to tell the one joke I know in Czech about a group of braggart submariners, and did so as five people stared at me with incredibly patient eyes.

The rest of the time was spent trying to keep up with a family game entitled: What Are We Talking About? This game involves Czechs talking at lightning speed about one topic, abruptly changing it to another and then asking a terrified American man his opinion on a third, often unrelated, topic. This game is fun for the whole family and is best played after the American man has had three or four bottles of wine.

I was great at my role of terrified American.

On Saturday morning Former Girlfriend notified me that we were visiting Grandmom. Great. More people, I thought, and then I unraveled myself from the fetal position and pulled my thumb out of my mouth.

We drove there on snow-covered roads, passing tiny villages tucked into low mountains and snowy forests. Their hamlet was in a forest clearing. The whole day was like being in a Currier and Ives engraving.

The cottage was full of people; there were aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and Grandmom and Granddad. There was a rambunctious dog whose tail was on overdrive; they eventually put him in another room. We ate a delicious meal and adjourned to the living room where they chatted and I tried to make myself invisible. Granddad was a stocky man who wore suspenders and sat in the corner of the living room watching the rest of us in quiet. He drank wine from a short water-glass that he filled every few moments from a jug he kept under the table behind him. I was forced to tell my joke again and Granddad, sensing my unease, included me in his drinking by pouring me generous helpings of sweet red wine. A live Disney version of Pinocchio was on the TV dubbed into Czech and I watched in peace as Granddad’s wine made me tall and attractive.

In the manner of intoxication meets new experience, I began to philosophize on the appropriateness of watching Pinocchio. It seemed the whole day had a fantastic, folklore feel to it – the Currier and Ives environment, the little cottage in the woods, Grandmom and Granddad, jug of wine. Things were OK.

I asked FG where the bathroom was and she sent me to a room in the back. There was a PS put on the conversation.

“Oh, Granny says don’t let the dog out. He’s in the laundry room.”

“Sure.” I continued down the hallway repeating, “Don’t let the dog out. Don’t let the dog out. Don’t let the dog out. Who let the dog out? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?” This was followed by a self-satisfied giggle in celebration for momentary wit that I now wish I had not published.

In the corner of the laundry room was the hyper active dog I had met earlier, but now he was standing in quiet. A small white cat was standing beside him. Upon closer inspection I saw that the cat was grooming the dog with long strokes of its tongue. I slid in the room fast and clicked the door closed behind me. They regarded me with nonchalance, then the cat picked up the dog’s paw and thoroughly cleaned between the dog’s digital pads. She was manicuring him.

How had this happened? They must have bartered something. I imagined the cat riding the dog through the forest, scouting squirrels and rabbits. This hallucination passed and I went into the bathroom.

As I swayed lightly, I realized this was my time to shine linguistically. I practiced. “Jak se jmenuje bíla kočka?” What’s the name of the white cat?

Back in the living room, I popped my question as naturally as I could. I was ready for this. “Jak se jmenuje bíla kočka?” My plan was to include the information that I too own a white cat. We would bond. I would become fluent in Czech and Granddad would pour me wine before the family carried me out to a shed full of pork and slivovice. But instead, everyone looked at me with highly unsettled looks. I continued with my next practiced line: “Ona ukližet pes.” She cleans dog.

The house then erupted into a frenzy of movement, resembling a shark tank seconds after someone throws in a bucket of chum. People were running everywhere; I believe Grandmom started to cry. FG turned to me and said, “We don’t have a white cat.”

A moment later, only Granddad and I were left in the room. Pinocchio was wielding his long nose around some robbers. Yes, the white cat was the perfect topper to this fairytale day. I felt like Alice chasing a white rabbit; an offspring of a drug-addled mind. Though unlike Alice, I had no hole to scurry down and hide in while I had hallucinogenic fantasies.

Granddad looked over at me. “Oy.” He lifted his jug and nodded at me. I drained my glass and stepped over to him, held out the glass. He filled it.

“Děkuji moc,“ I said. Thank you very much. I chugged the wine and stuck my glass out to him again. He laughed and retrieved his jug.

Well, at least the wine part came true.

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