Birthing the Girl in a Bubble.
Edie's own mother, Andula, was a pencil-thin woman who suffered a nutritional condition that thinned her pale hair to patchy baldness, adding to Edie's impression of her evaporation from family life. She was so often away at her bookkeeping, bartending, and eldercare jobs that her influence on Edie was more abstract than concrete. Work a lot, was her influence. Her dream, it seems, was to pay the bills.
In Andula's absence, Edie developed her competitive philosophy at the knee of her father, Kirk, a faithfully ambitious tennis coach and newspaper deliverer. Kirk drove his patched-up Skoda sedan through sleeping suburbs, window down, throwing rolled copies of the Prague Post with an athlete's arm to one stony doorstep after another, spying into night-lit windows at the interiors of the downtrodden and successful and all points between, from three to five every morning. Then he headed home to get his children ready for school before beginning his real job at a neighborhood racket club. He was devoted to this work, coinciding as it did with his dream of creating a perfect tennis hatchery for his children.
"Story time!" Kirk would call to Edie and Karl, after two or three glasses of lager in the evening.
"Papa, we know the story," Edie would answer.
"God, not again." At eight, her brother Karl was two years older and degrees more disrespectful.
Kirk continued over their complaints, beginning in a whisper and building to great volume by the time he took his first breath.
"Deep in the Bohemian Forest, a tailor named Krejci--like us, Krejci!--too poor to feed his ten hungry children ..."
"Also like us," Karl said.
Kirk stepped over that.
"Poor Krejci climbed up to Obri Hrad--the Giant Castle--to beg nine giants who lived there for charity. But instead of giving him food, the giants mocked his incompetence!"
Kirk grimaced, miming cruelty.
"Then eight giants rolled Krejci down the mountain." Kirk spun his big hands. "At bottom, the ninth giant threw a rock at his head. A perfect round rock!"
Kirk pulled a tennis ball from his pocket and squeezed it in front of their eyes. "Like this!" He drew his ball-holding fist behind him and made a throwing motion without letting go of the ball. Though she knew this gesture was coming, Edie flinched, as usual, feeling Krejci-the-Tailor's pain and humiliation. Karl yawned.
"When Krejci woke up, he saw underneath his blood, the round rock was gold! Gold!" Kirk squeezed the tennis ball hard, so the muscles in his forearm flexed with emphasis. Then he dropped his fist to his lap. "Krejci put the rock in his pocket and walked home. And because that rock hit him in the head, and the rock turned out to be gold, he never had to work another day!" He raised his fist and pumped the ball at the money shot--Krejci-the-Tailor never worked another day.
Kirk told it like it was more than a fairy tale, like it was family history, lineage, genetics. Like it was his cellular religion, an explanation for everything that had happened or would happen to the Krejcis.
Six-year-old Edie, however, was agnostic.
Work your way to the top, the story seemed to say, and you won't have to work anymore. This didn't make sense to Edie, who liked to work, liked making her numbers line up neatly in columns, liked cleaning her room just so, with her hand-me-down tennis rackets in formation against the wall, in a chorus line of tools. She certainly liked returning every single serve to her father in that last hour of practice before potato soup and bedtime. She liked the sense of accomplishment work brought, not just knowing she'd mastered useful things, but being rewarded for it--"Good volley, Edie! Nice footwork!" She especially liked thinking of the heights she'd reach because she'd worked so hard.
Edie also disagreed with the moral of the story, from a practical point of view. If Krejci hadn't stopped working, maybe, one hundred generations later, the current Krejcis, last of the tailor's descendants, might have had a little something to show for the whole gold rock episode. What was the point if there wasn't something to show at the end?
And there was one more thing. She could never quite understand why Krejcf-the-Tailor worked so hard to get to the top of the mountain just for the chance to beg. Beg? Why didn't he sneak into the castle, steal some golden rocks and hustle down, buy new needles and thread, paint a new sign, attract new customers? Why would he embarrass himself, risking death at the feet of the giants? To Edie, even then, Krejcf-the-Tailor seemed softheaded and inefficient.
At night as she dreamt, her imagination took the story's dissatisfying plot and protagonist as a starting point, stretching them in new directions, mostly turning Krejci-the-Tailor into a plucky teenage girl--Krejci-the-Actress, Krejci-the-Pop-Vocalist, Krejci-the-Tennis-Star. That last was the one that stuck, supported as it was by her father's fundamentalist belief that the golden rock was a tennis ball. Kirk was a very literal person and once he'd figured that symbolism out in his youth, he took it as fact and arranged his life around it, watching tennis, playing tennis, coaching tennis and, now, fathering tennis. It was convenient for Edie to build on Kirk's focus by practicing every bit as hard at the game as he asked her and Karl to do, always picturing herself at the top of a podium.
If not exactly inspired by the game itself, Edie was inspired by its promise of upward mobility based on the accumulation of points through winning matches, points which allowed one to compete in better and better tournaments. With this ladder in mind, she pushed herself hard, following Kirk's most minute directions, whereas her brother Karl, a naturally talented laze-about, had to be dragged, moaning and grousing, to practice, to matches, to new clubs forever escalating in reputation, clubs where their father was hired due to Karl's undeserved record of wins. But Karl's petulance would ruin him, Edie knew, so she was patient and waited for his comeuppance, at which point she would have had years of preparation to take his place as best in the family, a more significant competition than you might think.
Edie worked harder than any other child in their tennis orbit, longer hours, more deliberately, following all the directions, all the guidelines. And so, of course, she became incredibly, reliably proficient. Any coach would be glad to have her on his team, such a good example for the others. Kirk certainly acted glad to have her herding Karl, nipping his heels, pushing him up the slope. But for some ineffable reason, all that work didn't add up to the level of success Edie expected. Something was missing. What was it? Though it bothered her, of course, she continued to believe in the power of mind over matter, in practice and persistence. Edie played the long game. So that was what she did, improving Karl and all her team members with the example of her habits, expecting it to pay off in the end.
Things went on this way for a decade, her brother winning tournaments in spite of his shameful work ethic, which wasn't supposed to happen, according to everything everybody ever said about winning, and Edie coming close through diligence and height--she was five-eleven, so promising!--though she always finished in semis, never a final. Another girl might have been fine with things as they stood, but the situation tore at Edie, the wrongness of her brother's success and the fact that her father, who claimed to value effort and attitude, blissfully celebrated Karl's wins and barely seemed to notice anymore Edie's near-misses.
Kirk did often compliment her on her shiny hair and sparkly blue eyes, but that was a too-weak ointment, failing to treat her underlying condition. But Edie understood. Wins mattered.
By 1992, twenty-year-old Karl was winning enough pro matches--his playing career actually at its peak, poised to begin its downward tumble--to keep their parents working now six jobs between them to fund his activities. (Andula added office cleaning to her resume.)
In the month before the Franco Pros, as Edie finalized her travel plans--she didn't ask her father to do that, as Karl did--Kirk came into her room and sat on the edge of her bed, near her desk, where she was entering details into a calendar.
"What are you doing, Edie?"
"What do you think? Training plan, food, transportation ..."
"Look at this room." He gestured at her walls, papered with posters of tennis stars--Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini, Martina Navratilova, Jennifer Capriati. And over her desk, the greatest, Chris Evert, beaming, blonde, holding over her head the Wimbledon Ladies' singles trophy, which was not really a trophy like the men got, but a plate, the Venus Rosewater Dish, which rankled Edie. She'd prefer a trophy. But still, Chris won that plate and held it up like the sun over Edie's private shrine to achievement.
"It's like tennis is all you have," Kirk said.
She put down her pen and gaped at him.
"Of course it's all I have."
"I'm saying you should have something else."
She thought he meant money, which she certainly could use. They all could.
"Well, I'm going to get that. With the tennis."
"How are you going to do that? You won't date the other players."
"How would that get me money?"
"Love! You should get a husband! You shouldn't just have tennis!"
Edie snorted. "I'm eighteen."
"That's what I'm saying. You're too focused on tennis to do what you should be doing. You look good now, the best you'll ever look. But you have no prospects. No man on the horizon."
"What? What about Krejci-the-Tailor?"
"That's what I'm saying."
"The gold rock is tennis!"
"Not for you! For Karl! For Karl the gold rock is tennis. For you, the gold rock's a ring!"
Edie thought of her mother, working four jobs, never home. She couldn't even picture her mother's ring. Could barely picture her mother! Was that what he wanted for Edie?
"Have you had a stroke? You're making no sense. You never said this before."
"I didn't think it needed saying. It's obvious. You're eighteen. You're not going to be Chris Evert. She was far beyond you at this age. She was in U.S. Open semis at sixteen. You're no Chris Evert! You need to find a man while you can."
Blood pounded so hard in her ears she thought they would shoot off her head to her postered walls.
"This isn't about me! This is about money! You don't want to pay for me anymore."
"This is about what's best for you."
"Tell me the truth!"
"It's best for you to find a man." He took a big breath. "And we're not going to pay for your tennis anymore. If you want to continue, you're going to have to do it yourself."
"How would I ..."
"You could do night work at the racket club. Work like Mama."
"That would give me no time for practice! Zero chance of winning!"
"That's why it's best if you ..."
"What about Karl? Are you cutting him off too?"
"Obviously not," he answered, simply.
"You're sexist!" she yelled, using a word she'd heard mumbled by a circle of un-groomed women at an Old Town cafe.
"Sexish? What does that even mean?" Kirk got up and gripped her shoulders. "Edie, you're beautiful. You're a good girl. You'll find a good husband. But Karl, he won't make it without tennis."
Had she spent thirteen years working this hard at tennis in order to find a good Czech husband? That was never her plan!
"You used me to make Karl better! You used me like you use Mama!"
Who was this man? Why had she loved and honored him?
She ran out of her room, downstairs to the phone to call the butcher shop, where her mother was bookkeeping in a chilled back room, and told her what was happening. "Mama, do something! Please! For once!"
Edie thought she could hear the scratch of a pencil, the rub of an eraser in the pause before Andula answered in a voice cool and flat as a slab of beef. "Darling, it doesn't add up."
Edie had never asked anything of her mother. This was her chance, when she might be a hero on her daughter's behalf, and this was her response? It doesn't add up?
Edie slammed the phone, cutting the connection. She'd never forgive Kirk for backing the wrong Krejci, nor Andula for failing to rise in her defense. Edie'd done everything she could but they'd not done what they should. She'd given them a long leash, an eighteen-year leash, but they'd finally snapped it. She knew well enough that the parents of most of her school friends would act in exactly the same way, but that knowledge didn't help. This was happening to her, to Edie Krejci, and she wouldn't take it. She wouldn't stop due to this parental humiliation. She would stand up for herself if no one else would stand for her. She didn't need them. She could do what needed doing. By herself. Edie Krejci would get to the top of that podium, alone, which was the way it had to be, she thought. Winners got there alone.
As a non-star player, she was in a pay-to-play situation. No coach, no agent, no endorsements. Sleeping on the sofas of tournament club members, riding red-eye trains to suburban courts, brown bag meals tucked in her duffel. Going home always before semis. The life of a backpacking student, not that of a world class athlete. She didn't mind hard work, obviously--not at all, she relished it--but she needed to know it would lead somewhere, and she was beginning to see that tennis would not. It would shoot her right back into the same neighborhood where she was already living, hoping for a job like her father's, which wasn't good enough. Edie was not a girl for lost causes.
Though it was awful at first to accept it, after a year without backing, Edie saw the truth in her father's humiliating assessment. She would have more options than Karl. Just not, as her father thought, because she was pretty. She was much more than that. She would use her intelligence and her practical knowledge of the world gained through a lifetime of tennis to create a future where she'd be recognized for her excellence. The recognition was the important part. It didn't matter whether it was for tennis or something else.
Every afternoon, Tom Steinhart took the center treadmill at the Univerzita Karlova tennis center where she worked. A California boy visiting Prague for his semester abroad, Tom was loose-limbed and fluid, shoulder-length, sun-bleached hair curling up in the back when he sweated, a runner with a big-throated laugh. He stood half a head over Edie's nearly six feet, taller than almost all the men in the center, so that when she passed him, she felt a Tightness to their relation. He was higher, but within reach. On the treadmill, his long arms pumped forward and back, forward and back, his chin up, sweat slicking his delts. Watching him move that way warmed her through. He looked like he could go wherever he wanted, running on that conveyer belt. He laughed and waved whenever Edie passed in her tennis skirt, toting towels or disinfectant bottles, though honestly he waved at most of the athletes and staff--it seemed to cost him nothing to be friendly with everyone. Edie liked that in him, especially as friendliness felt like work to her. There was something so warm, so golden and reflective about him.
She'd not focused on the romantic arts in her teens, as busy as she was with tennis. She had very little experience in how to attract a boy like Tom. Obviously she was pretty, with high, round cheeks and a charming cleft chin, but the club was filled with pretty university girls, every kind of pretty. Brooding, coppery, Amazonian, pocket-sized, frightening, cheery. All of them smart, she assumed--they were in college. What did she have, beyond that? Finding no answer, she stopped asking that question and asked instead, what does a boy like this want? And then she found it.
One afternoon, from behind the desk, Edie handed Tom a towel, looking straight at his green eyes, whites streaked red from the night before, and asked, "You've been here a month, but you haven't been to Stred Terce yet, have you?"
His brow wrinkled. "Strut...?"
"Stred Terce--Bulls Eye Bar. None of your friends, none of these--she jerked her head to the room of students--go there, I assume. You go to college bars, tourist traps, beer halls, right?"
She'd aimed at a slim target and felt it hit. He leaned in an inch.
"It's authentic Czech. Not like places you go. It's cool."
She'd gleaned from eavesdropped conversations that insider knowledge of unknown but essential bars was the curriculum a certain kind of American male was reputation-bound to gain in his semester abroad. In a pre-Yelp era, this was the bait Tom would bite.
"Take me," he said, hopeful, a belly-up puppy.
They went to Bulls Eye Bar together that night and then almost every night that month for drinks, until they were a recognizable pair. Each night more of the friends Tom had told about it were there to greet them, which pushed him even higher than he'd already been among his set, though it no doubt ruined Bulls Eye for the regulars.
She saw he was wealthy, the way he spilled korunas out of his pocket, loosely, buying rounds for the rest of them. But he'd dress for the bar as if he didn't care what he threw on, sometimes wearing ripped jeans, moth nibbles at the edge of his polo collar, which confused her at first. Edie recognized the brands he wore as expensive, so his disinterest in their upkeep began to set off their quality. Of course, if she'd taken this logic further, she might have seen that his wearing of such tattered things was every bit as self-conscious a decision as ironing them might have been. American class was hard to unravel. But she was a good student and vowed she'd break the code. She wouldn't wear dilapidated clothes herself--the rules were different for females than males, Czechs than Americans. She knew not to choose the garish, primary colors of the American girls, which made her look cheap, nor the utilitarian clothes of the girls in her neighborhood--depressing. She settled on simple, muted, one-color outfits--tans, ice-blues, creams--which worked like a neutral mat around the shimmer of her moonlight hair, the unlikely blue of her eyes, her pearly skin. She had a talent for costuming, she saw.
She liked the way people looked at her when she arrived at Bulls Eye on Tom's arm after they'd burrowed through twisting ancient tunnels to the lowest lounge below the city, where skunky smoke mixed with the yeast and bitter herbs of beer and spirits. Together they were so bright and beautiful the crowd parted when they arrived, opening a path to the cave's final bar, stitching up again behind them, so that together they were insulated by a thrumming body of admiration.
Even in 1993, a nineteen-year-old girl like Edie could see that marriage was a valid way to gain status and she felt herself finally beginning to put down tennis. She believed she had what it took to snag this American prince, to escape Prague and her insufficient family. The air around her thinned, just thinking of that, making her dizzier each night with the beer and the pot and her hand entwined in this big, warm palm, her cheek near this broad, muscled shoulder.
Tom would open doors to entirely new rooms, to palaces, for her, as she'd opened this tunnel to the bar for him. Maybe she'd go to college in California. Become a doctor, a lawyer, a TV personality. Tom was the route to new opportunities she now wanted. In return for all he'd give her, Tom would win the ideal wife--beautiful, smart, practical--so that would be very nice for him. This is what Edie thought.
They spent every spare moment together when Tom wasn't in economics classes or drinking with friends, and when Edie wasn't working at the club. She made herself indispensable, meeting needs he hadn't yet expressed, coffee while he dozed, fellatio as he studied. Thinking always of him, pleasing him, winning him. But she began to see that one semester might not be enough time to establish her merit as a wife. So much of Tom's interest in her still seemed to turn on her skin and eyes and breasts, rather than her intelligent sturdiness, the thing that would actually make her an excellent partner.
His winter days and weeks and months in Prague flew off the calendar, Edie's opportunities dropping like icicles.
Alone in her family's house between work at the university and Bulls Eye with Tom, Edie would tune the TV to reruns of American soap operas playing on the Top Hits in English time slot--General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, One Life to Live and, most importantly, All My Children. This TV study time taught her not only the proper conjugation of cheat and lie and love but also the many ways in which a modern Cinderella might clinch the deal.
One such afternoon she sat eating popcorn on the linoleum before the flickering black and white screen, watching her favorite character, Erica Kane, a practical dreamer, strong woman in a man's world, conspire to abort her unwanted baby without revealing her pregnancy to the father. Erica was so misunderstood, Edie thought, constantly accused of irrelevant things by the jealous mealy-mouths of Pine Valley, who were always aiming to block her happiness. Edie yearned for Erica to get what she wanted. Staring into Erica's eyes, moist but resolute at the moment of her decision to abort, Edie saw it. Even post-tennis, her body was still the source of great power. She made a plan to use it in a new, purposeful way.
She pierced her diaphragm with an upholstery needle pilfered from her mother's gold-stitched needlework supply purse--Tom always watched her insert the diaphragm, would have known if she hadn't--and began to escalate their sexual activity even above what had been required to keep Tom at her side all semester. She acted thrilled, actually made herself feel thrilled, to indulge in all manner of sex, so long as it culminated in vaginal intercourse protected only by the pierced rubber membrane. As a result, all through the months of March and April, Prague must have seemed a fairytale landscape for Tom, existing almost entirely indoors. Edie hid her exhaustion from the effort.
But near the end of his semester, he may also have begun to feel the pull of his home in California or his dorm in Providence or perhaps he began to sense an odd level of desperation in Edie that may have made him uncomfortable. He was someone who didn't have to try hard. He was effortlessly appealing, which was not true of Edie. Standing so close to her, he may have detected the effort shimmering on her forehead as she chuckled at his jokes, even the obvious ones, or softening her eyes while he shared his economic philosophies.
She'd leveraged such garden-variety effort with other, more superstitious tactics, wearing the same lacy bikini panties every night, rinsing them every morning, drying them in the afternoon, arriving before him at his unlocked apartment, putting his favorite Lou Reed song--Candy Says--on the turntable when she heard his step in the stairwell.
But she felt called to do more, leave no stone unturned. So she phoned in sick at the club one morning and went to Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, to the home of her mother's childhood friend, Tereza, a fat old woman who was just the latest of many generations of inhabitants who had idiosyncratically tended her thirteenth century home, un-persuaded by koruna-waving opportunists.
Tereza admitted Edie, kissing both cheeks, offering her tea in the warm kitchen.
Polite, not rushing, Edie answered her questions.
"Yes, Mama still does books for the baker whose yeast caused the sickness."
"No, she doesn't mop floors at Jedova Chyseat at closing anymore."
"Yes, she is too old for that now."
"No, Karl hasn't quit his carousing, the young girls."
Having sated Tereza's curiosity, Edie said she was there for the alchemist. Tereza nodded. "Yes, I guessed so. Help with the tennis?"
Edie blushed that Tereza thought her game needed alchemical help but nodded the lie.
Tereza waddled ahead of her down a hall to a closet door, which she opened to a small anteroom, turning a stone knob, which caused the back limestone wall of the closet to pivot open into dark.
"I'll leave it ajar for you," Tereza said. "I'm cleaning the oven. Sausages make such a mess when they burst." She handed Edie the flashlight that hung on a hook in the closet.
Edie stepped alone into the stone passage, flashlight revealing her path down into a tunnel, cool and damp, which lead to a rubble-filled alley running through the underground city, hidden since the thirteenth century, when Praguers buried it all, building anew, higher, to protect themselves from the overflowing Vltava River. For many decades, devoted citizens like Tereza and her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents had secretly undertaken the clearing out of these tunnels, which connected Prague's most important government buildings.
Edie ran her hand along the wall to steady herself, shivering at the wet on her fingers. She passed through the first room, covered in glass tiles, without stopping to admire. She'd seen it before, many times, on family visits to Tereza. She had business to take care of now.
She passed into and through the old torture room as quickly as she could, so she wouldn't hear the moans she remembered from childhood. (Her father had said they were the sounds of traffic above, but Edie knew he was wrong.)
She passed prison walls, etched with prisoners' names. Even a game of tic-tac-toe.
She passed under Old Town's clock tower and town hall, and was surrounded underground by Gothic and Romanesque arches. She kept moving.
Finally, she reached the stretch Tereza had described as a hidden laboratory in the reign of Rudolf II, Europe's greatest promoter of occult arts and sciences. She saw scattered remains of equipment, a crucible used to turn lead into gold. This was where Rudolf's alchemists had worked and sold their elixirs, where he himself, King of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperor, murderer, father of dozens of bastards and no legitimate heirs, had established his own laboratory, concocting and collaborating underground with likeminded men.
She saw a glow ahead, around the corner, and turned into an alcove lit by kerosene lamps, which made the space look hot, the center of something. Lamps hung from the ceiling. Others sat on the floor along the edges of the alcove and within small crevices in the stone. In the middle of the room, several card-tables were set up, side by side, in a long work surface. Here sat a man in a rolling office chair. He looked to be in his thirties, wiry red hair pulled into a ponytail, wearing a black tee shirt that read Nine Below Zero, Live, Europe 1992!
He looked up from his work, whisking chemicals in Tupperware.
"Dobre rano. Who sent you?"
"Same. Tereza Cerny."
"You sight seer or customer?"
"Customer," she squeezed the thin stack of korunas in her pocket.
He revealed gray teeth too big for his small mouth. "Love potion, right?"
"That is correct," she said, defensive.
He bent below the table to bring up a box of small bottles, taking one out. Its stopper was candle-waxed in. He pulled off a label with numbers and letters written in pen.
"What does that say?"
"It's the formula. Since we found the original stuff down here, it wasn't too hard to reverse engineer."
She picked up a bottle, turning it under the light. "Is this real?"
He rolled his eyes and exhaled dramatically. "It's not magic. It's science. Somewhere in the middle, maybe. It's a mix of seventy-something herbs--top-secret combination--macerated in alcohol and opium. It stuns the senses, makes a person ... susceptible. It won't work without your doing work yourself."
Edie thought, Yes, that's how. Some magic. Some work.
She wouldn't rely on the potion. She'd continue to do the work, but this would at least boost her confidence in what she planned to make happen.
In the end, the alchemist charged her what she'd brought but threw in a small bottle of extra.
"For the road," he said.
It cost her a week's pay, but she wasn't going to let Tom go home to America without her. She wouldn't be stuck in this place where she had nothing and no one.
Every morning Edie arrived at Tom's apartment before work, letting herself in so she could add potion to his coffee, which was not hard to arrange as he was so comfortable with her serving him. She plunged dark grounds in the press, poured it, adding cream and sugar, as he liked. Then she added drops of the elixir, one, two, three, before giving it a final stir. She stood in front of him as he drank it, hoping to see it take effect in his gaze at her, but often enough he'd grab the English-language newspaper she'd brought him and begin to look at the stock reports as he sipped, tracking his inheritance.
She began to wonder if she was using enough, though Tom had started to act differently.
By early May, when they were in public, he often stood apart from her, failing to wrap his fingers in hers, looking past her at the door, as his friends snickered in their mugs. He took afternoons off from answering her calls, would miss an arranged nighttime meet-up. And when they did connect, he rushed through sex, seeming sweatier. After, his sloppy clothing looked exaggerated, suspect.
Edie was no idiot. She accelerated their sexual activity when he did come around, no longer bothering to angle for shared nights out for a movie or runs in the morning or visits to museums. She added more love potion--four, five, six drops, seven--into his drinks.
When he stood her up, not returning her calls or answering her midnight knocks on his newly-locked door for a week, she returned to Bulls Eye and learned from his sniggering crew that he'd flown back to California early with some sort of medical ailment, a poison in the blood.
"Or maybe it was psychological," one of them said. The group laughed at that.
She was slapped breathless. How could he do this to her? She rushed up and out of the bar and the cold spring air braced her, anger flooding her veins. Everything she'd done for him, for them! Rushing home, as she passed his sneering friend's Volvo, she scratched her key along its driver side.
She'd seen a life for herself in California, married to this man who could launch her. He was the only way she could get herself somewhere she wanted to be. She had to get out of Prague, to the future. Now she felt more trapped in her home than she ever had before. There was nothing for her here in this old place. Her need to get to California throbbed.
The feeling didn't abate. She suffered weeks of the blues, struggling to get out of bed, to work, to go on. She couldn't hear or see straight. When she'd spent several mornings weaving dizzy through treadmills and weight machines, vomiting in locker room toilets, she finally bought the stick, took over a stall for an entire work break in the wait to see the plus sign, which she won. It was a validation that part of her effort had succeeded, which did her great good.
Edie was a rigorous planner, but she was also adaptable. The baby was the important thing, more important than Tom.
When it was not even a bean in her belly, she decided she'd raise it with or without him. She would improve the Krejci line. Her parents had been awful, failures. All the way back to stupid Krejci-the-Tailor, she was trailed by incompetence. She would change that into the future. She would be the mother her child needed. The very best mother. She knew she could do this without Tom. But it wouldn't be without his money, his effortless money.
Edie spent weeks in the evenings in the Univerzita Karlova library, researching Tom's family--only child of Lester and Olympia. Their home--Amberton. Their work--banker and philanthropist. Their press clippings--photos at the opera opening, the ballet board meeting, the library foundation ball. Towns near Amberton, but less expensive--Riverdale, Sweet Valley. The college he went to--Brown University. And the distance between Brown and Amberton, a world away. She made plans, recording them in her notebook in a timeline that included her idea of her baby's due date.
After she'd done all this, she emptied her family's communal bank account, reserved for Karl's tournaments--into which she'd made her own weekly deposits for years--and bought a ticket to San Francisco, without telling her parents she was leaving or that she was pregnant.
As she boarded the plane, she closed the door on the Krejci family and Czechoslovakia. Her homeland split behind her, as if broken-hearted, into Czech and Slovak Republics. She traveled the firmament from one condition to the next without wasting a moment of useless tourism. By the time her plane taxied at SFO two days later she had in her mind that she'd already made herself American, though perhaps that was premature.
She bathroom-bathed at the airport and took a cab directly to the Amberton address of Tom's parents, gray-browed Lester and statuesque Olympia, blonde still at her advanced age of fifty or so. On their doorstep, she introduced herself as Tom's girlfriend from Prague. She told them she had no interest in disturbing his trajectory.
"He's nice boy," she said, "who's been good to me. But now your son needs to be good influence for our baby." She patted her tummy.
"Please," Lester said, slight bend at his knees, as if he were focused on staying upright, and gestured her toward their lemon-smelling library. Olympia's blonde brows lowered as she stared at Edie. Rude, Edie thought.
In the library, Edie looked around at leather bound books in green and gold, at a silver tray with an amber-filled crystal decanter circled by heavy squat glasses. At a crest, three feet in diameter, carved into the wood over the stone fireplace, a great bird, wings spread wide, head in profile.
Edie breathed in the furniture oil and said, "Bring Tom home or send me to him at college so we can marry. Our child needs proper father."
There was a silence before Olympia answered.
"I see you are a smart, obviously competent girl."
"Yes," Edie said, glad to be seen. "I am."
Lester leaned back like a man who didn't want to get splashed at a curb.
"But that is not going to happen. We'll pay for medical care and basic living expenses for you and your baby, within reason, as long as needed. But you will remain silent about your history with Tom."
Lester got up and stood before the window, back to the women, facing the long view of lawn and redwoods.
That offer wasn't going to be enough.
Edie wanted not just a guarantee of more than the implied minimal money but also the family connection. Sitting in their woody home, she saw how useful it would be to have this kind of family, having abandoned the insufficient Krejcis.
"This is unacceptable offer," she said.
"Best of luck with your pregnancy." Olympia rose and pointed her long, crepey arm at the door.
That night, from the bed of a windowless attic room in a student-filled boarding house, Edie cried in humiliation. They'd rejected her. Thrown her down the mountain. But it wasn't over!
The next morning she sent Tom's parents a letter dictating again what she wanted, to which she received no answer from them, but one instead from their lawyer instructing her to stop harassing his clients. "You have their offer," it read. The following week, she sent a letter directly back to their lawyer, who answered again by repeating the limitations of the offer the Steinharts had made.
When she returned to their home three weeks after the first visit, their maid wouldn't admit her, handing her an ecru linen envelope labeled, "Miss Krejcf," with the enclosed cursive message, "Offer stands," no signature.
She'd already used almost all the money she'd taken from the Krejci account on the flight and renting a room, so she got herself work at a Riverdale racket club coffee counter, an inferior club, really. But still, there she was able to study the differences between Czech and California tennis ladies. She didn't talk much, mostly listened, which made her a pet of the fun-loving women. She saved every penny, working all the extra shifts they offered.
In her third trimester, Edie traveled again, belly-first, to the Steinharts' porch to negotiate a new point--that pending tests, the Steinharts would confirm the baby was their grandchild. Edie would now agree not to divulge that connection publicly until Olympia, Lester, Tom, his future wife and all his other future children and grandchildren had passed away. That chain of events seemed reasonably distant and so the Steinharts signed the documents.
Nightly, Edie fantasized Tom's arrival on her step, overwrought in love and apology, but that knock on the door never came.
In the week before Christmas, the Steinharts drove home from San Francisco in Lester's Mercedes after seeing the Nutcracker, a show Edie also attended, having ingratiated herself to a rich team captain at the club, who gifted her a spare ticket. Edie sat quite a bit back and up from the Steinharts, eyes trained on them, not the dancers, clutching a tiny gold-stitched needlepoint purse, which she dropped in the trash as she exited the ballet, too far away to catch up to Tom, too late to make him look at her that night.
Lester suffered a massive heart attack on the drive home on the Junipero Serra freeway, steering himself, Olympia and Tom--last of the Steinharts--over the edge of Highway 280, into a ravine, where they were all killed on impact. Edie read the details in the San Jose Mercury News two days later from her bed, where she cried and ate ramen and read library books about childbirth and parenting, single parenting.
She delivered her baby herself in that boarding room bed. Her baby slid out between her thighs, floating inside the thin, filmy bubble of her amniotic sac--behind the veil. Edie knew this marked her child as lucky. Everything she'd done, everything she'd been through, had created this luck, for this special girl. She held her that way for a few moments, preserving the magical protection, watching her baby's perfect fingers flex and paddle. Then she rubbed her thumb on her baby's forehead, taking the glistening tissue between her own fingers, and pulled at it, tearing it away to reveal the most beautiful, perfect child ever born, to a world in which her father and grandparents were dead, her mother permanently divorced from her own family. All the girl would have was her mother. As a girl born in a bubble, she would always be protected from the worst events. Yet if Edie hadn't rubbed her thumb against her beautiful daughter's forehead, if she hadn't seen exactly when to pull away the veil, her baby Bela might have suffocated and died alone, untouched. Sleeping beauty.
Edie met soon after with an attorney from the legal aid clinic, who arranged for the test that proved Bela's biological connection to Tom. He helped her set up a financial structure for their future, making sure Edie was ready to do every last thing she needed to establish herself and her daughter for a respectable life, from which Edie could pivot to who knows what. She could do anything she wanted.
Naturally she bought a charming ranch style home in Menlo Park, near the El Dorado Racket and Swim Club--she'd heard it was the best. With the last of the Steinharts gone, their relation to Bela confirmed, and no prospect of any other Steinharts being born to contest it, Bela inherited their fortune, which Edie managed for them both. They would never lack funds to achieve their destiny. Edie changed their last name to Steinhart, after the famous aquarium, making their transformation complete, launching Bela on her own perfect, fairy-tale arc. Edie's little princess.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.