The Marionette Theater ~ Mary Elizabeth Pope

They had arrived in Prague in the middle of a rainstorm, the water pooling in gutters that ran down the center of the streets and prevented puddles as they rolled their wheeled suitcases over the cobblestones of Sokolovska to the apartment where Jonathan stayed on business trips, and to which he had returned each afternoon from his meetings to whisk Josie off on a tour of the castle, or a walk over the Charles Bridge, or a lecture on the history of the Jewish Cemetery.  It was not their honeymoon—a cruise to Barbados that would leave port the day after the wedding—but Josie’s friends kept calling it one anyway.  “The first honeymoon,” they said, and when Jonathan overheard them, he flashed the women a smile.  “We’re so happy,” he told them, “we need two!”

And now they were here, and the city was every bit as beautiful as Jonathan had promised it would be, if not moreso, in the slanting August light.  But as they strolled along the cobblestones of the Golden Lane, stood in the tiny house where Kafka had written The Metamorphosis, took an evening cruise down the Voltava sipping champagne from slender crystal flutes, Josie could not shake the feeling that none of it was real.  The castle looked like the one she had seen at Disney World, the Charles Bridge as if it were built of styrafoam bricks, the exterior of St. Vitus like a façade supported by scaffolding, so that when they had walked inside, the organ pipes and pulpits had surprised her.

It was a feeling that had dogged her long before their arrival in Prague.  Ever since Jonathan had pulled the diamond ring from his pocket and slipped it in on her finger in the horse-drawn carriage he’d hired to take them around the park at Christmastime, nothing had seemed real.  The ring itself was so bright and gold it could have dropped from a gumball machine, and when Jonathan said, “Will you marry me?” his words did not seem to come from deep inside him, as Josie felt a question like that should.  And then there were the wedding preparations: cakes that looked like sculptures, flowers so perfect she had to touch them to know they weren’t silk, wedding gowns so white they looked almost blue.  And the showers: Josie sat amidst grinning women who stroked her arms as if in welcome to the world of mixmasters and food processors and something called “the clean up factor” but as she unwrapped each new blender or microwave or toaster oven, they felt as flimsy as the cardboard kitchen set she’d had as a child, which had disintigrated into pulpy lumps when the basement had flooded.

Tonight they had tickets for the National Marionette Theater, the event Jonathan had saved for their last night in Prague, and as they ordered plates of goulash under the awning of a café in Old Town before heading to the theater, Josie thought back to their first date when he’d described it all to her—the performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the black-cloaked puppeteers that made the darkness behind the set seems more alive than the puppets themselves, the way the tradition stretched back for centuries.  “And the puppets,” he’d said, reaching for her hand across the table of the trendy bar where he’d taken her that first night.  “You will love the puppets.”  But in truth it had never been his description of their painted faces, or their elaborate costumes, or the crowds that packed the theater to see them each night that convinced her that she would.  It was the way he had said will, as if this was already their future together, because she was thirty-one years old and tired of the men her parents kept inviting over on the Sundays she joined them for dinner at their house in Gladstone.  “A Chiefs fan,” her father would say by way of explaining why a young man from the gun club or the son of one of the Elks was joining them, and to prove this wasn’t a set-up, Josie’s father would hand him a beer and lead him downstairs to watch the game.

And now she was in Prague with Jonathan just as he’d promised she would be on that very first date, but even Jonathan did not seem real to her, hadn’t seemed real since the moment he’d reclined in the carriage after proposing and began rehearsing all the things he’d soon be saying.  “I’d like you to meet my wife,” he tried.  Or: “My wife always says . . .”  Then: “I was just telling my wife.”  It was supposed to be a joke, but Josie had the feeling he wasn’t telling it to her, and she’d felt a sudden hollowness in her stomach then that hadn’t gone away.  But ever since they’d called their parents from a pay phone at the west end of the park she hadn’t had time to think about that hollowness because there were invitations to order and venues to reserve and the registry to fill out, and then the engagement party Aunt Mildred had planned and that family reunion of Jonathan’s they’d promised to attend in Vermont, and now the wedding was only three weeks away and Josie knew that she did not want to marry him.

For a week she had been trying to tell him.  They would arrive at the apartment after a concert in St. George’s, or find themselves alone in the Palace Gardens, or pause to inspect a set of vases in the window of a shop in Wenceslaus Square, and there would be a lull in all their forward motion, an opening, and she’d turn to him to say look or listen or we need to talk.  But whenever she tried to speak, her mouth would not form the words.  And now the week was over and they were leaving Prague in the morning, and as soon as the plane touched down in Kansas City there would be the response cards to count and the seating charts to arrange and the second alteration with the shop girls who wanted her gown to be more fitted, though she could not breathe in the thing as it was, and before she knew it they’d be on that cruise to Barbados, the wedding already behind them.

Now she faced Jonathan across the table, watching him lift spoonfuls of soup to his mouth.  She stared at him so long that he paused, his spoon in midair.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

She did not know what would happen afterward.  She could not picture his expression, nor the shock of their parents and neighbors and friends, nor the magnitude of the plans that would have to be undone.  She only knew she had to tell him the truth.

But she heard herself answer, as if from a distance: “Nothing, darling.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.  “You look pale.”

“I’m fine,” she said.

They were words that did not come from inside her.  They came from somewhere else instead, and they satisfied Jonathan, who turned back to his soup, nodded at a passing waiter, smiled when the Orloj in the square behind them began ringing out seven o’clock.  But with each clang Josie felt herself growing numb, and by the time the waitress delivered their goulash, she realized she could not feel her limbs.  Then Jonathan paid the bill, and Josie felt herself being steered through the narrow streets to a tiny theater at the top of a cramped staircase that smelled of the Voltava.  There was a moment before they entered when she might have spoken, and another when Jonathan paused to adjust his tie, and another after they were ushered down the aisle just before the show began.  But by then it was too late.  The doors had closed and the curtain had lifted and the puppets were already clattering away, whirling through the dance they’d been performing for centuries.