Michal Viewegh was born in 1962 in Prague. He graduated at the Charles University, where he studied Czech language and pedagogy, then took up a job as a school teacher and after working in a publishing house as an editor he became a full time writer. He published a number of successful novels - Opinions on Murder (1990), The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living (1992), Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia (1994), Tourists on Excursion (1996), which were translated into many languages and some of them were made into successful films. His latest tragicomic novel Notes On Fatherly Love (1998) deals with the relationship between fathers and daughters and the screenplay for Czech TV film is currently being written. Michal Viewegh lives in Prague and is now working on a collection of short stories due to appear soon. He has been nominated for the 1999 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Hooter (short story)
When, early one Saturday morning in June, Oscar rolled over in bed and glanced briefly at his sleeping wife through eyes still puffy with sleep, it suddenly flashed through his mind that her face was somehow ugly today, even though he had always considered her to be pretty. My God, that nose! How come he had never noticed what a big and pointy nose his wife had?! He shut his eyes, buried his face in the pillow and tried to sleep for a while longer, but the thing that he had seen a moment ago kept going round and round in his head. He tried to think of the almost cruel image as yet another of the usual morning unpleasantnesses such as flat hair, bad breath or sleep dirt in the eyes; in short, as one of those things that irritates you sometimes but that after ten minutes in the bathroom pretty much disappears. He felt, however, that he was deceiving himself. He already sensed that this time it was different.
He raised himself onto his elbows and looked at his wife’s nose once again, this time more carefully. What he saw woke him up properly: the nose was unbelievably big and pointy with huge black pores, and it dominated her whole face in a particularly unlovely way. Oscar was appalled. He could hardly assume that this awful hooter had grown up over night, so how come he hadn’t noticed it earlier? Was he completely blind?
He couldn’t understand it. It completely ruined his mood. He lay unmoving, looking alternately at the ceiling and his wife’s nose, and waited in dread for the moment that this big-nosed monster next to him would wake up. He felt repulsion, disgust, but also love and sadness. He genuinely loved his wife – and now this.
After his wife had gone off to the bathroom and he heard the sound of the shower, he ran into the living room, grabbed the photo album and began to leaf through it quickly.
There it was.
Right from the beginning. In every photo. Big and pointy. Impossible for anyone to overlook except Oscar. Some of the wedding guests’ smiles were unmistakably malicious. Oscar’s usual morning feelings were supplemented by a new one: now he felt like he had been deceived.
At breakfast he forced himself to crack jokes in front of his son as usual, but his wife’s nose kept attracting his attention. He couldn’t help himself.
“What is it? What are you looking at?” his wife questioned him suspiciously.
“How every time the joy of family life lights those two satisfied little flames in your eyes,” he gushed as convincingly as possible.
His wife smiled, but an unasked question lingered in her eyes.
It occurred to him how brave she must be: for her whole life to have to carry on her face – in the most visible place – such an abomination, and not to stop smiling. He could imagine how much the other children at school must have tormented her, and he was overcome by emotion. He longed to save her from the world. He controlled himself and kissed her.
His son giggled.
What are you laughing at? said Oscar’s strict, irritated expression. You know nothing about life! One day you’ll work out that beauty isn’t everything.
“What did I do?” said his son, offended, and shook his head.
Originally they had planned to go this Saturday to the Exhibition Centre at Holešovice where a computer technology fair was taking place (their son’s passion, and Oscar was also thinking about buying a new computer), but the idea of squeezing through all those people with his big-nosed wife was more than Oscar could bear.
“Do you really want to go there? Amongst all those mad crowds?” he said as breakfast was finishing.
His son looked in dismay at his mother.
“So we’re not going then?” His face grew longer.
“We! You suggested it, if you recall,” objected his wife, logically.
He shrugged his shoulders and fled from them to the toilet.
He sat on the loo and forced himself to remember all the nice things that he and his wife had shared together over the six years that they had been together. Surely all that hadn’t just disappeared… He decided that they might as well go. He thought up a strategy for confronting the stares that he feared so much. He mustn’t let himself be put on the defensive. He mustn’t look defeatist, like a sacrifice. He must look cheerful, content, victorious, and in this way cast doubt on their opinions, their aesthetic criteria. They must ask themselves the question why he, Oscar, quite a handsome man, had joined himself to a woman like this of his own free will…
They set off. While driving Oscar could easily pretend that he was concentrating on the fairly heavy Saturday traffic in front of him, and answer his wife’s questions and comments nicely while keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the road in front. Nevertheless, every set of traffic lights that Oscar had to stop at literally tested of his suddenly fragile love for his wife to breaking point: while waiting for the green light he could not, however hard he tried, avoid looking at her profile. What was worse, he sometimes had the impression that his wife’s enormous nose was being examined with amused interest by the passengers in the cars in the next lane.
The last remnants of the morning’s noble resolutions deserted him at the petrol station. While Oscar filled up, his wife, fortunately, remained sitting in the car; but when he was getting ready to go pay she unexpectedly got out of the car and made to go with him.
“Do you want to buy something?” he asked her with his friendliest smile.
“Hmm,” his wife smiled, peckishly.
He knew what she would do next, and sure enough she did it: she stuck out her tongue, ran it lightly over her upper lip and then she put the tip of tongue between her pretty teeth. Oscar had always found this gesture to be rather cute (at the beginning of their relationship it had even had a definite erotic attraction for him), but this morning he found it literally repulsive. He had to concentrate as hard as possible so that his wife wouldn’t guess his feelings.
“Ice cream,” predicted Oscar, as he knew his wife’s tastes very well.
“Hmm,” his wife smiled.
Her tongue was still sticking out.
Oscar smiled too. It seemed very brave to him.
“I’ll bring you both one. You can wait in the car. What sort do you want? Ice cream?” he called to his son in the car.
His wife pressed her hands to her breasts.
“Hmm!” she smacked her lips, knowingly.
“So you want a Cornetto too.”
If he could have done he would have ordered her to have one.
His wife thought about it.
“No. I’ll choose for myself.”
She even took his arm.
Oscar was slightly horrified but then he called to his rescue the strategy that he had thought up that morning in the toilet, and so they walked into the shop like the best of friends, wreathed in smiles. His wife unhooked herself from him and immediately headed for the freezer cabinet. Oscar stopped briefly at the newspaper stand – this was no more than a gesture as in reality he didn’t have the slightest interest in any newspaper – and then got in the queue for the cash desk behind some kind of young couple in matching brand-name track suits. Oscar had never been able to understand this strange fashion but he was willing – for instance in his son’s case – to tolerate it. This morning, however, all those coloured stripes and bands made him want to puke.
His wife took a Cornetto for their son and a white chocolate Magnum for herself.
“I’m going to unwrap it right now. I can’t wait any longer,” she blurted out coquettishly, half to Oscar and half to the sales assistant. He was a podgy but friendly-looking fifty-year old in a cotton T-shirt and blue work dungarees. He glanced at her briefly.
“Of course, love, of course. It’s one of those things that shouldn’t wait till later, isn’t it?” he smiled, but Oscar could see very well where he was looking. The fact that the sales assistant was willing to pretend to flirt just testified to his professional politeness. Or maybe he was so bored after a long day at work that he was grateful for any distraction – even a woman with a hooter like that, thought Oscar to himself. He paid with a cheerful smile, but at the same time he examined the sales assistant’s face carefully. Just then the man’s young colleague came out from behind a curtain behind the cash desk: he was blond, in the same work dungarees, though instead of a T-shirt he had a black jeans shirt with rolled up sleeves. He had muscular forearms and on his right wrist he had rather a massive gold chain. Behind his back the older man noted him out of the corner of his eye and continued returning the change to Oscar, but his previously cheerful expression was suddenly supplemented by a gentle, but perceptible ironical smirk.
It hit Oscar like an ice-cold shower. He tried to mobilise his forces and shake the sale assistant’s opinion with his inexplicable self-confidence, his mysterious contentment, but in vain. He felt how with every passing second he was moving towards the very place where he had never wanted to find himself: onto the defensive. He shoved the banknotes into his wallet like some poor, contemptible old sod who couldn’t manage a better woman than this one… He couldn’t say why but now he was absolutely certain that as soon as the automatic sliding doors shut behind him and his wife, both sales assistants would lose control of themselves: Did you see that hooter? Hey, Karel, tell me one thing: How does a woman like that give you a blow job?
He needed time, and so for the second time that day he fled to the toilet where he washed his hands for a long time and looked at himself in the mirror.
“Are you alright, love?” his wife wanted to know when he returned to the car.
“Absolutely,” he said.
For a moment he wondered whether he shouldn’t escape from this whole family outing by pretending to have some kind of health problem, but in the end he rejected the idea. It was too much like hard work. He thought of something else.
“I’m just not feeling very sociable,” he added, and started driving away.
His wife didn’t understand: When had he found this out? At the petrol station? Why? That sales assistant had been rather nice.
Oscar answered as vaguely as possible. He thought about it. A few moments later he turned to his son.
“I’ll tell you straight: I really don’t feel like going to this exhibition.”
He saw his son’s disappointment in the rear view mirror, but he was ready for it.
“I have a suggestion: you can go there on your own. I’ll give you some money for bits and pieces. Your mum and I will go for a walk in Stromovka since it’s so lovely today, and then we’ll come and get you. Does that suit you?”
His son’s face lit up.
“It suits me!”
His wife looked pleased as well.
“But you wanted to pick up some catalogues…” she objected.
“I’ll get them,” their son assured them.
It really was lovely in Stromovka: the sun gently warmed the cold air, the trees were ablaze with colour, squirrels peeped out from beneath the tree trunks – but to Oscar’s taste there were still too many people. As soon as they left the path, however, and set off across the grass, he gradually began to relax and even put his arm around his wife’s waist. He was suddenly ashamed of all his earlier manoeuvres. It’s all so ridiculous, he realised. How old do I think I am that I’m competing with everyone else as to who has the prettiest girlfriend: seventeen? Can a good marriage be influenced by something as unimportant as the size of your wife’s nose?
He was determined to ignore the whole pseudo-problem completely. He looked around tactfully to see if there were any people nearby and then started running and poked his wife in the shoulder.
“You’re it!” he yelled, and ran off amongst the huge trees.
At first his wife refused to take part in anything so childish as playing “it”, but Oscar hovered around her so closely for so long that he eventually provoked her and she shot off after him. The chase lasted longer than he would have expected. In the breathless seconds when they both stopped to rest before a new attack he looked her over thoroughly: she had tied her sweater around her waist and was just wearing a T-shirt with no bra underneath. She still had rather lovely breasts. Her face had gone slightly red from running and this – at least Oscar had the feeling – optically made her nose look a little smaller. Oscar let himself be caught, pulled her to him, and reached under her T-shirt with his right hand.
That night they made love. Oscar was amazed. Everything was fine at the beginning but as soon as his wife – despite his limp protests – took his penis in her mouth, he quickly lost his erection.
He felt her look even in the dark.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Somehow I’m not myself.”
Sunday passed – a day marked by his wife’s searching looks, careful questions, and Oscar’s evasive, generally rather forced jokey answers. That week he had so much to do at work that he didn’t get home until around seven every evening, so tired that fortunately he had neither the energy nor the time for any kind of detailed examination of his wife’s nose. He wolfed down his supper, turned on the news, had a bath and soon fell asleep in bed with a book.
But on Saturday at breakfast there was his wife’s nose again: threateningly big, revoltingly pointy and on top of everything full of energy: it wanted to go for a walk in town, go to some photographic exhibition, have supper with Petr and Andrea and maybe even go to the cinema! Oscar had the feeling that he couldn’t cope with this. Of course he wanted to carry on being considerate towards his wife, but for this he would need to be strong enough to pretend, and today he simply didn’t have the strength. He was powerless against it. He even took a completely unhidden look at her hooter.
“What is it?” his wife said immediately. “What are you looking at?”
He didn’t have the strength to make excuses, cover his tracks or make a joke, but neither did he have the strength to tell her right out, never mind the rest of it. You might say to your wife at breakfast that she should wear different clothes – although that was already enough of a risk – but it would be difficult to ask her at breakfast whether she shouldn’t have her nose surgically reduced.
“Why with Andrea again, for God’s sake?” he said instead, angrily.
His wife shook her head.
“Did we sleep badly then?”
He didn’t even bother to answer.
Oscar’s son stood up and went to his room without saying a word.
His wife – after hesitating briefly – tried again with the best of intentions: after all, they had the whole of Saturday before them and they couldn’t have an argument first thing in the morning. She reached across the table and took his hand.
Just don’t poke my eye out! thought Oscar.
“I’d never noticed that Andrea, of all people, bothered you. Didn’t you say yourself that she was, and I quote, an exceptionally attractive woman?”
Feebly, Oscar took the opportunity.
“She is an attractive woman but someone ought to tell her that she should get something done about her revolting chins.”
For a moment he was horrified: had he overdone it?! Christ, it was so transparent!
“Chins?!” his wife exclaimed, amused.
Oscar realised that she had completely missed the point. How could she be so blind? So stupid? Couldn’t she see herself? Didn’t she look at herself every morning in the mirror?
“Chins,” he said coldly. “Haven’t you ever noticed that she has about three chins?”
His wife watched him in amazement.
“Before dinner, I mean. After dinner she always has four. I’m just saying that her chins make her into someone completely different. She looks like a school dinner lady. Like a sweet-shop owner in some poky little town somewhere… It just seems a shame to me, especially because otherwise she really is pretty. I just can’t understand how she can’t see it, or that someone doesn’t tell her.
Surprisingly, his wife laughed. Oscar couldn’t make out whether it was a spontaneous or a forced laugh.
“So you don’t want to go to dinner with Andrea because of her three, or possibly four chins!”
But Oscar didn’t want to turn it into a joke and carried on eating his breakfast in silence for a while.
“By the way,” Oscar said at last, “while we’re talking about this, is there anything in my behaviour or appearance that I should change somehow?”
He said it without a moment’s hesitation, but he knew very well that with every word he was getting deeper and deeper into the frozen depths from which he might never be able to return. But still he finished what he wanted to say.
“I mean something that you notice immediately but that you’re afraid to tell me so that you don’t upset me, as they say.”
His wife gave nothing away, and even smiled slightly. But something in her face led Oscar to believe that she had definitely seen through his little game.
Suddenly, without warning, she lifted her head at looked straight into Oscar’s eyes. She stopped smiling.
“Something about me is bothering you, isn’t it? It’s my nose, right?”
Oscar swallowed and cowardly avoided her gaze.
“Yes or no?”
He couldn’t speak.
“I know that’s it.”
That familiar twitch appeared in the corners of her mouth – the one that turned her into a little blond girl who had just fallen over in the playground, scraped her knees, and was about to start blubbering.
Oscar longed to fall on his knees in front of his wife and beg her in tears to forgive him, but it was his wife who began to cry.
“Do you think I haven’t noticed it? Your endless sideways glances? Do you think I’m blind?” she sobbed, while the first tears ran down her face.
Oscar’s throat clenched from emotion. He wanted to take his wife’s hand but she tore it away from him and ran to the bathroom where she locked herself in.
She came out five minutes later. In the mean time her nose had gone red and seemed to have swollen.
Good God, though Oscar to himself in horror. I’m living with a freak! With a fairground attraction!
“Do you think you’re perfect? Do you think that your ever larger bald spot doesn’t bother me? That your crooked teeth and those horrible black fillings in the back don’t bother me? Or that your belly doesn’t bother me? They all bother me, but I’ve never said anything to you! Never!”
“Don’t shout,” Oscar tried to calm her down.
But this unexpectedly long list of his alleged defects had affected him unpleasantly.
He tried to push her back into the bathroom.
“Get back inside!” he roared at his son who was just getting ready to come out of his room.
“And do you know why? Because I’m not such a pig. Because I love you.
Oscar was just about getting ready to use his wife’s insult as the long awaited pretext to really take offence when suddenly, in one second, he understood what all this – starting from the previous Saturday – meant: the beginning of the end of his love for his wife.
He pressed his face against hers and kissed her, nose or no nose, but somewhere inside he knew that now that this process had started he would never be able to stop it.
Translated by James Partridge