Home / Issue 34 / The Looking Glass Café

The Looking Glass Café

By Michelle Brooks

            I knocked and buzzed and waited at the hostel entrance. Nothing. Tina knocked and buzzed. Nothing. Then Tina started screaming ―Let us in! Let us in! I’d known her for less than six months, and she was already my ex-girlfriend. Her histrionics didn’t surprise me.  

            Finally, an angry man stuck his head out of a second-floor window and screamed at us. All we could see was a disembodied, bearded face contorted in exaggerated fury.

            We gave up, defeated by someone crazier than we were. There was no way that face was going to let us in after curfew. We’d have to get our stuff in the morning.

            Tina concocted a plan to sneak into a nearby hotel, maybe sleep in a maid’s closet. We found a hotel near our hostel in Vaduz. A pool of light suggested an opening, but the glass doors were locked.

            “This would not have happened if that guy hadn’t kept sending me drinks,” she said. She fiddled with a small crucifix that dangled between her breasts which were marked with scars from her recent breast reduction surgery. At eighteen, she’d been hit by a car as she biked to The Looking Class Café where she worked as a waitress. I’d met her there one night, the night I agreed to travel with her to Europe. She’d received a settlement from the accident, one that enabled her to have the breast-reduction surgery with enough money left to travel to an archeological site in a remote Bavarian village.

            “It’s an adventure,” I said. I was twenty-two, lured here by her beauty. And then there was the cocaine she’d procured from an ex-boyfriend after work that night. We stayed up for another day and night, forcing me to call in sick from my pizza delivery job while we planned this trip.

            We walked around a little, and Tina held on to me to stay warm.  

            “I’m glad we’re here,” she said, kissing me on the cheek. “Even if you didn’t remember the hostel curfew.”

            I thought she would continue, but she stopped talking, her propensity for drama giving way to exhaustion. She shivered in her thin dress, one that made her look like an actress in a Fellini film.

            In the dark between streetlamps, we rounded a corner by the place we’d had dinner and carafes of sangria. There was an outdoor café next to it, with the tables pulled together in pairs and their canopy umbrellas in lockdown like deflated balloons. This would be the place, at least until cops or owners drove us out.

            There was no way to get comfortable, so we huddled together, even laughed about it for a little while, and tried to catch some sleep. I thought about the last month in which I’d met Tina again, two weeks after we’d split up in Paris, with her heading for London and me taking a bullet train to Lyon. We rendezvoused at the Glockenspiel in Munich, like some scene out of The Third Man. From Munich, through a combination of hitchhiking and trains, we made it to Florence, where Tina had money waiting for her at the American Express.

            While she made it clear that I wasn’t her boyfriend, we had a few days to kill before she was scheduled to be at the Bavarian village.

            “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. This isn’t real,” she told me, even as we slept together and hitchhiked our way through Europe.

            None of it felt real, and I didn’t care. On the outskirts of an Alpine village near the Swiss border, we walked up a small mountain road, sticking out thumbs until a dapper-looking man pulled up in a burnished Alfa Romeo Series 3 Spider with hard top. We hopped in, rucksacks and all. 

            He introduced himself as Carlos and turned down the radio.

            “Young lovers,” he said. “I remember how it was. Not a care in the world,” he said.  I saw Tina’s eyes widen and followed her gaze – the man had hooks for hands and his steering was abetted by special pulleys and footgear. He was speeding around mountain curves in narrow lanes. Let’s Go Europe had not prepared us for this.

            “We’re not together,” Tina said.

            “Could have fooled me,” Carlos said. “What’s wrong with him?”

            Tina shrugged. “I don’t know.”

            “My wife divorced me after my accident,” Carlos said, holding up a hook. “I know what’s wrong with me.”

            Tina talked to him for the rest of the ride, telling him stories about her family, her accident, her ex-boyfriends. I’d heard versions of them all, albeit differing in significant details. She was always asking me, “Have I told you this before?” as she launched into another epic tragi-comedy from her past.

            We crossed the border into Liechtenstein, and I asked him to let us off. There was a sign for a convent, and I said we were going there.

            “Of course you are,” Carlos said.  

            I worried he wouldn’t let us out, but he pulled over in Vaduz. He gave us a wave with his hook.

            “Arriverderci, my friends,” he said, pealing out as soon as we were on the ground. We were free.

            Underneath the table, I dreamed we were meeting again at The Looking Glass Café, a small diner lined with mirrors. I’d been entranced by all the Tinas when I met her. In my dream, the mirrors were on the walls, but reflected no images. The blankness unnerved me, and I woke up a few minutes before Tina did and looked out onto the empty street until Tina woke up and nearly hit her head on a café table. 

            “What time is it?” she asked.

            I looked at my watch. “It’s only 6 a.m.,” I said. “We can go back to the hostel in half an hour and get breakfast.”

            “I’m sleeping until check-out,” she said.

            “I need coffee.”

            “I’m with you,” she said. But she wasn’t for much longer, once I got her to the field site. I thought about asking her if she ever wanted to live abroad. I could picture us in Prague or Barcelona, ex-pats ordering espresso at quaint outdoor restaurants like the one whose table underneath which we had slept.  But I remembered what Carlos said about his wife trying to pretend he had hands. You can’t fake it forever, he said, speeding around those hairpin turns like a man with nothing to lose.