I bought a ticket for the one-way bus ride, emailed him to confirm, and asked you to drop me off at the Ulm station toward midnight. Had it been daytime, I would have not been able to leave you. You were my light and he was dark, and I was heading his way.
This overnight commute, definitely not made for tourists, meant 3 things: I would cross the border and have to step off a bus in a foreign land to show my American passport in the middle of the night, I would see nothing of the landscape, and I would arrive into Prague at an hour that is neither night nor dawn, full of shadows and silences. I didn’t prepare for this 2-day jaunt. Not really. I used a computer at work to find the closest hostel to the bus stop I planned to take, noted the street name, and that I had to turn right then left. I have a good sense of direction, I reassured myself. Yet, Prague at 4:30 a.m. in winter is dipped in fog. I walked through it and under it. Sometimes, climbing that hill to the right, it felt like I was even walking on it. The moist air was chilly and dense, coating the concrete roads and buildings—gray on gray on gray.
I was unsure what street I was on. When an orange fluorescent glow shining through steamy windows just up ahead caught my attention, I figured I had no choice but to step through this door. Music was playing loudly and seemed too muffled by my lack of sleep and the cigarette smoke for me to make out a song. About half a dozen stragglers were left at the bar, confiding in close huddles, arms over shoulders, a smidge of course laughter. All eyes soon turned to me, my haphazard layers pulled together in a last attempt to prepare for the Eastern cold, my red backpack like a guilty flame among ashes. Trying to downplay my obvious foreignness yet knowing nothing of the Czech language, I offered a low and humble, “Hi.”
No reply. One of the men, with light brown eyes and matching-colored dreadlocks falling long, came close. “Do you know where there might be a hostel nearby?” I managed to blurt. He said nothing and came closer, staring me intensely in the eyes [more silence]. Maybe, he’s wasted, I thought, or just simply mean, or pissed I broke up their bohemian reverie. In the next instant, he broke my nerves as he slowly walked towards the entrance at my back, turning to look over his shoulder at me, which I assumed meant that I should follow. So I did—I followed a seemingly wasted and mean stranger into a dark and empty street. He was the only beating thing in a few block radius and willing to show symptoms of hospitality. I was too cold and tired to be scared. I was impatient for the warm, off-smelling hostel and the horribly lumpy bed of my imminent future. He walked just 100 meters up the street and silently directed me through the hostel door. I had been on the right path but, doubting myself, allowed to be phased by the saturating dreariness of Prague in an ungodly hour. I gave him a true smile in gratitude, sometimes the only true currency and language of travel.
For the first time in my journeys, I booked a private hostel room for just me and him. It had a twin bed with a heater at its foot under the window on one side and a bunk bed on the other. I attempted to catch up on sleep before heading out to see what the lore of a romantic Prague was about.
During December, festive markets fill Prague’s main squares. Booths sell traditional food, handmade winter necessities, mulled wine, wooden toys, and Christmas ornaments along with the locally painted matryoshka—nesting dolls—and I didn’t make it to the Charles Bridge without purchasing one and tucking it into my shoulder bag. Charles Bridge is every bit a masterpiece of ancient architecture. Suspended and wrapped in mist rising from the Vltava River, the second half of the bridge was eclipsed from site as I stepped onto its ancient stones. Over 600 years old and nearly 600m long, it’s thirty baroque statues of splendor called for pause as I made my way across and toward the Prague Castle on the other side, its peaks poking out into view.
Flyers posted on shop walls and tourism kiosks advertised a violin performance in the castle. Tickets were cheap. I jumped at the experience. Prague Castle is enormous and vast; walking its grounds can take up half a day in itself. So this is where the Kings of Bohemia held court, not unimpressed. Since it was already evening and my hands and face were without feeling, I headed straight to the room where the concert was held in hopes that it would be warm. Castles are hard to heat. The audience kept their coats on. Yet, the violinist in long-sleeved velvet black filled the venue with tender notes to thaw if not our hands our spirits. The room, narrow and long, appeared to have been used as a minor chapel once. The songs rang like prayers that night, askance that held the faithful in a trance, grateful to be momentarily delivered from the grasp of winter.
The next morning his bus from Amsterdam was hours late. The waiting room of the local station was filled with smoke and reeked of toasted ham sandwiches. Being a non-smoking vegetarian at the time, I opted to wait for him in the cold drizzle that seemed as much a part of Prague as the people weaving in and out of the city around me. By the time he arrived, I could barely force my numb face to smile, even though my heart beat more rapidly, buried deep under layers of cotton and decorum. Even this meeting that I had dreamed of for the last year and a half couldn’t cause a flush. This city was not interested in letting me become enamored.
But I hugged him tight anyways, perhaps trying to generate warmth in any form. It had been so long that I wondered if there was anything left to say, anything at all that might change things. I didn’t know what needed changing but something had to be said. I didn’t know what drove me toward him again or what I was looking for in a 2-day rendezvous, but something was yearning inside me.
We stayed linked arm-in-arm as we turned up Husitska to drop his small bag at the hostel. As expected, he was traveling light with only a schoolboys’ nylon pack and ill-prepared for this freeze. We spent the day searching second-hand shops for a wool coat that would fit, taking cash advances from ATM cards, meandering down the Old Town cobblestone streets, drinking mulled wine in front of the ornate astronomical clock, and chipping away at the layers of our relationship crusted over by distance and time. We uncovered one another slowly and, as always with us, through constant conversation as we discovered this foreign place.
I was eager to lead him to the Charles Bridge, to marvel together at the towers in the fog. After walking narrow alleys and stumbling upon a delicious Mediterranean café for dinner, we made our way at a brisker clip toward the hostel in the dark. Cold and exhausted, we decided to stay in our room for the night, chose to plant ourselves upon the twin bed with the heater at its foot, opened a bottle of Spanish wine and half a bar of Milka chocolate that one of us had saved to accompany our continuing discussion of all things except us,…until, in one of those weighty silences that often marked time throughout our talks, he looked down into his emptying glass and admitted, “You know, I don’t deny our love. I think you need to hear that.”
It must have taken courage, I’ll give him that. But I was angry it had taken this long. Two years after the fact, he finally offered me verification that my love wasn’t a guilty, useless pleasure. Not until I laid down on the bed we were sharing, as we were wont to do, did I realize I had come for that, for him to admit, in his Kunderesque-dialogue way, that he loved me too, even if he never planned to do anything about it. Lying there in the aftermath of this confession, my mind unraveled into deciphering the reasons my chosen route turns had led me here. All this time, I had felt guilty for wanting him while being happy with you, especially guilty since he had turned me away. This time I turned my back, not wanting to give him the chance to soothe me with anything more he had to say, as it was always words to which he resorted. Instead, he settled down next to me and wrapped an arm over my coiled body, as I let go into sleep.
I thought I had seen the train station while roaming around the day before he arrived and so I thought I would be able to get there fairly quickly the next morning. But we woke up late, not eager to embrace the ceaseless cold, and had to rush. I packed in a hurry, leaving my long johns for him and a shrunken wool sweater with a hole in one elbow as it was my tendency to leave things behind along the way.
As we walked from the hostel, he asked for a street name and I had none, only that amazing sense of direction that would have worked if I indeed had seen the train station. Yet, what I thought was the station was instead a different official building of an inexplicable sort, something other than the train station I needed. And so we ran.
He never liked these kind of adventures with me, and this wasn’t the first time I felt bad for getting us into a mess. The first was when I slid my little Honda along black ice into a ravine while driving us to work at 5:30 on a winter morning in California. Even though the nature of black ice is that of being invisible and unpredictable—so generally an accident attributed to it is rarely the fault of the driver—he charged up the redwood embankment and walked in a quiet rage back to the house for his car while I followed a few steps behind, dragged by inexplicable guilt. Another episode, on the islands, he locked the keys in his truck and somehow, using no words, managed to pass the blame onto me. Again, he paced along the volcanic asphalt, fuming with lips clenched tight. This time, circling a new city using old patterns, he lagged in protest through the industrial streets of Prague as I shouted back at him to hurry, “I can’t miss this train!”
Or could I?
My thoughts switched tracks.
Since last night I had been telling myself I couldn’t miss this train. I had been telling myself I had to get back to you, the trusting man who I wanted to honor with equal respect by returning as was planned. I can’t miss this train.
Or could I?
I can’t stay with him in our tabula rasa land, in his shivering arms.
Or could I?
No one knows us in Prague. There would be no barriers to redefining ourselves, starting over together, for a chance to get love straight this time. Nothing would prevent us.
These were my thoughts while running in the general direction a wayward stranger had pointed, away from where I had thought I needed to go.
Nearly too late when we finally arrived, we slowed our stride to take a look at the destinations on the timetable and then rushed toward the platform where the train still waited, our nervousness releasing into grateful laughter. We gave one another our usual firm-lipped kiss and hugged unusually too quickly before I jumped onto the small steps at the train door. In his stiff hand I planted a poem I had written for him.
I placed myself at a 4-seater facing in his direction as the train began its movement away, my chest slightly pushed back by the lurch. He smiled the sad smile I knew and then bigger to hide his fear, which I also knew, as he walked along with the train car and stopped to follow my gaze out of the rail yard. I saw his diminishing frame sit down on a wooden bench and unfold the words I had given him before he fell out of sight.
It was then I breathed. My lungs opened and a shot of air choked me, glassed over my eyes. I stopped my tears or tried, turned my focus to the passing landscape now unveiled by day. The frozen fields shunned me. I couldn’t bore my eyes through the harden ground, and I had no power left to will an unyielding land to be deciphered. Perhaps it was the dim glare of winter light against the expansive sheet of ice that made my tears freeze up, or perhaps I realized that I could have stayed but didn’t—the choice this time had been mine.
I closed my eyes tight to shake the thought, turned them away from the window, and opened them upon a young man who had slipped previously undetected into the seat across from me. Black framed eye glasses against his pale face rimmed small, blue eyes. Curls of hair fell carelessly to either side of his impenetrable face ignoring my fragility. He was slumped comfortably into his seat, legs crossed in the European fashion, an army green shoulder bag thrown on the seat next to him.
And that’s when I saw it. On his bag were these French words written in a permanent black:
“Tout le monde est coupable, mais je suis plus que les autres.” – Dostoyevsky
Everyone is guilty, but I am more so than the others.
Guilty? Was I guilty?
I repeated the line like a sinner reciting from a prayer book while thinking upon her trespasses.
If so, of what? Of not staying? Of going in the first place? Of doubting my way, my decisions?
Of not believing that there’s a right answer? A noble or just one? An honest or innocent one? Of feeling divided and not as the unswerving lover you deserve? Of doing what was expected of me instead of remaining true to that corner of my heart that harbored him?
If everyone is guilty, what are the sins of this man, sitting across from me, seeming so sure of where he is going?
The train conductor announced something in Czech that initiated brief commentary among passengers. No English translations followed like in Germany, so when the train came to a stop twenty minutes later at a small station before the border and everyone got off, I had to ask the Dostoyevsky scholar what was going on.
In part-English-part-French I found out of a busted train track or some sort of impediment to the rest of the train’s journey back to Germany, back to you, my love.
It was not until then that I knew I wanted to return to you. It was not until that moment, with my intended route in jeopardy, that my free will firmly announced itself within me.
In that middle-of-nowhere Czech town, I decided my fate and who would be traveling by my side. This realization snapped me out of a hazy mind and into resolve. Aided by thick, train station coffee tasting of grinds and grease, my heart pumped more quickly as I set off to find the next bus toward a purer love, toward whom I could honestly and innocently call home.
Now, I can’t even remember the poem I offered him that day, if it had included love or the end of love. What remains is this memory of changing course, of finally traveling away from him and in a new direction all of my own.
Stay: Hostel Elf, Prague, Czech Republic
Read: The Brother’s Karamazov for more by Dostoyevsky on free will, love, guilt, and redemption.
(Photo Credit: from top to bottom—nationalgeographic.com, willsheloveparis.com, alookthroughlens.com)