AT THE end of my shift, I walked away from the blocky white building with the huge black-and-blue Dahotz logo on its facade and straight through the gate past the security guards. Dahotz manufactured submersible pumps, and I worked there as a repairman. It wasn’t a bad place to work, but the bosses were cheap. The guards came from an agency, and even a preschooler would be able to beat them up. Half of them had some small infirmity and the other half were over sixty No one else would work for the low wages the agency paid.
On a small patch of grass near the road, I stopped and waited for my friend and coworker Hynek. A cold wind played with my hair, blowing silky, ash-brown strands into my eyes. Summer was coming to its end in Pilsen. I zipped my sweatshirt and kept watch through the wire-mesh fence. It wasn’t long before I saw Hynek in his blue-and-white baseball cap, blue vest, and jeans heading toward me through the crowd of impatient people who were desperate to get out of the area and into one of the crammed buses.
“I was starting to wonder if you had decided to take some extra hours.” I smiled at him.
“Are you nuts, Kuba?” My given name is Jakub, but everyone in the Czech Republic loved diminutives. Talk with them in a friendly manner for two minutes and they stop using the proper form of your name. “I wouldn’t stay in this madhouse any longer than I have to. Those people are driving me crazy.” Hynek grimaced and shook his head.
“Fine, let’s get to the store or there won’t be anything left,” I said once I’d stopped laughing at his extreme reaction, and we walked to Tesco for some beer and snacks.
An hour later, we entered the small apartment we shared. Hynek shared it with me, to be exact. It belonged to his parents, but they had decided to live in their cottage away from the city rush.
I put the alcohol into the fridge and slipped into my room, where I put on my favorite sweatpants, curled into a chair I’d managed to squeeze between my bookshelves and double bed, put in earplugs, and dived into the fantasy world of a book. I’d bought it about a month ago but hadn’t the chance to start reading until yesterday.
It wasn’t until Hynek knocked on the door that I realized how much time had passed. I raised my head and looked through the window. A bunch of tiny reddish clouds dotted the sky. It was evening already. I fished my mobile phone out of my pocket and stopped the music.
“Come in,” I encouraged my friend and put the book aside. He didn’t enter right away. Instead he opened the door only so he could peep in.
“Hey, I hope I didn’t interrupt you during something private.” Hynek raised his eyebrows as he stuck his big oval face through the small gap he’d made. “Took you some time to answer.”
“Don’t worry. I tend to wait until you fall asleep or leave the flat to wank.”
“Good to hear. It’s nothing I want to see.” He smiled and entered the room, then sat in the chair at my small computer desk.
“Well, I wouldn’t like you watching me do it,” I snapped back. “I was reading. What do you want?”
“Nothing, really. I have a proposal for you.” He leaned toward me.
“I didn’t know you swung that way.” I smirked.
He burst into laughter. “Sorry to let you down, but this is a different kind of offer. A friend of mine wants to hang out during the Pilsen Fires, and I would like you to go with us.”
I started shaking my head immediately after hearing “to hang out.” Why would he ask me to do something like that? I looked into his green eyes. They emitted enthusiasm. He stared at me like a dog waiting for its owner to pet it.
“I guess I should try to fight my anxiety from time to time,” I murmured, and I straightened up in the chair. “How many people are going to be there?”
“It’s just this friend of mine, and he might bring his roommate too. We grew up together, and he started college here last year. This is his first year here during the festival.”
“It’s a contest, not a festival,” I pointed out.
“It looks like a festival,” Hynek grumbled. He loved to act like a child. I guessed that was the real reason why he didn’t have a girlfriend, although he kept denying it. “I’m doing it for you, you know? There are going to be quite a lot of people waiting for the fireworks. You could meet someone and get laid if you’re lucky.”
“I’m not that desperate,” I protested. “And I’m gonna kill you if you try to ‘introduce’ me to every guy in tight trousers.”
“You wear tight trousers whenever I manage to drag you to a club. I thought it was some kind of dress code.”
I laughed out loud. How naive could this man be? “Fine, give me some time to consider it. When is it happening?”
“Next weekend, on Saturday.” He stood up and left the room. I switched the music on again and stared at the door for a while, letting the conversation soak in.
After a few minutes, I jumped out of the chair and rushed to my closet. It was rare for me to actually go anywhere other than to my job or shopping, and the number of outfits I owned reflected that fact. Four T-shirts and three other shirts lay on the top shelf, two pairs of trousers and two of shorts on the second shelf. Next to them were three outfits I wore when Hynek or my best friend, Blanka, insisted on dragging me to a club or anywhere else in public where my usual clothing style wouldn’t fit in. The rest of the shelves were filled with books that didn’t fit in my bookcase. I opened a second small closet with five coat hangers—two of them empty and one I used for my only suit. My parents bought me the suit for my graduation ball. Next to it hung an overcoat and a raincoat. I stared at the collection. What the hell should I wear? I briefly regretted spending most of my money on books and hardly ever on buying a new outfit.
The only sort of place I could imagine Hynek going to hang out with friends was a pub or a disco club. The former wouldn’t involve any special demands for clothing. But the odds were good I might meet some hot guys there. The bars would be full of people during the event.
I tried to ignore the way my back stiffened and my stomach clenched when I imagined a crowded room. I’d been working on my social anxiety for years, but it was a strong opponent that struck me whenever an opportunity arose. I reminded myself Hynek would be there too, and that calmed me a bit. But there were a few things I needed to know about the guy who was going to join us there.
I closed the closet door and looked into the mirror that hung there. What should I talk about with those people? How should I introduce myself? What if I made a total moron of myself? Would they ignore it, or would they call me on it? I had to discuss that with Hynek.