These writings are the full-length versions of the written submissions that have been published as excerpts in Periphery No. 53.
It was a perfect day for a funeral, I supposed. If such a thing really existed. It was a gray, blustery late March morning, and that day stuck out because spring had already settled in, giving us lots of beautiful blue-sky days. But today was different, a little out of place with the chill in the air and the bite of the wind. It was the kind of day that was then labeled unseasonable. I felt that Mother Nature had pulled out all the stops for my first funeral, which at 20 was somewhat delayed, and certainly unwelcome, as inevitable as it was.
My cousin, Kevin, whom I was neither especially close to nor distant from, had died five days before in a car accident. He lost control taking a turn on his way home from visiting a friend. He was going too fast or the turn was too sharp or his eyes drifted a second too long, and he flipped his car. Dead on impact, people liked to remind us, because it should help knowing he hadn’t been in an inordinate amount of pain as he was crushed between steel and dirt. In the grand scheme of untimely, unseasonable deaths I found a car accident to be very disappointing and very unoriginal.
This wasn’t the first death in the family, but it was the first that stung. Kevin was preceded by a pair of great aunts we never knew very well who were old enough that it was ok when they bit it. He was survived by everyone else. The list was so long they didn’t include it in the obituary, and because I think it was presumed that when a 27 year-old dies, he is survived by most of his family. It was the preceded part that mattered, softened the blow I’d always thought. Whereas the survived by was more like the feeling of poking a bruise, reminding us of the pain we obviously knew, could physically see was there, surviving.
Our family formed a procession into the church, all in black. We were thirty minutes early, there to make sure flowers had arrived and the slideshow would play, and a few select songs would be forever ruined by association with this day, and this death.
I felt my father put an arm around me and I leaned into him a bit. I looked down at myself, feeling ridiculous and overdone. I’d curled my hair and could feel the tendrils bouncing almost obscenely, inappropriately. I raked my fingers through them for the hundredth time that morning, but felt them spring back nonetheless. I’d bought this black dress before Christmas, on sale. The only black thing I had for the cold weather. I’d asked my mother repeatedly if it was too happy, like it was out of place, unseasonable. I wondered how much I’d wear it after today.
“How’re you doing, honey?” My father asked, his voice scooping low and landing somewhere in his normal register by the end.
“Never been better,” I said. I felt Dad wince and then nod his head. I had been making these kind of instinctual sarcastic comments for the past five days. My parents had learned to dismiss it as a coping mechanism. I honestly wasn’t sure what it was. I was numb, though I hated thinking of it like that, but I couldn’t find any other words that fit my emotions, or lack thereof.
“I’m sorry,” I added. “This is…it feels unreal.” This was truer than I would have expected it to be five days ago. My mother said I was still in the “shock” stage of grieving. I’d heard her whisper it to my father that morning. I’d been eavesdropping so I didn’t mention that the stages of grief seemed bogus to me, but I figured it had to do with finding comfort in reason amid the completely unreasonable, or something like that.
“Yeah,” Dad nodded again. Every word and gesture seemed heavier, worth more, in the past week. It was wearing on all of us. I saw it in the stoop of my dad’s shoulders and the defeated expression my mom had been wearing all week. “It probably won’t feel real for a while still. It takes time.”
It takes time, I thought, repeating the phrase to myself. Of course it took time. It wasn’t like there was another way around it.
Dad gave me a pained smile, withdrew his arm and made his way over to my aunt and uncle, the ones whose children were still all alive.
I walked to the front of the church and surveyed a dozen or so flower arrangements lining the oak pews and making a stark contrast against the red carpeting. There was a good mix: lilies, roses, and other things I didn’t recognize but that must have been expensive, and were probably meant to look expensive as they sat there apologizing for our dead family member.
If Kevin was here he would have asked that people just give him the money rather than waste it on flowers. Then he would have used that money to buy some new amp for his guitar or something I would have found equally wasteful.
If Kevin was here… I’d been playing that game a lot the last few days. I suspected we all had. It was a frustrating exercise that often turned in on itself. It pointed out the loss again, by trying to find Kevin in this space. But he wasn’t. It was an annoying cycle in my head, both because of what little it really did to help and because it felt heavy-handed somehow. I guess I’d heard it too many times before. It was what you were supposed to say or think, it seemed, and I was frustrated with myself for falling back on such a banality.
A photo of Kevin sat on the altar, glaring from a spotlight above and flanked by two giant white taper candles, as if we were here to worship him. It was a nice picture, I supposed, but he wasn’t smiling, not really. His mouth was a straight line, even slightly downturned. He looked taller, broader, and a little pudgy with weight he’d gained last summer after tearing his ACL. Then again, that may have been because the photo was blown up to fit its foot and half frame and was a little fuzzy. He didn’t look like him though, maybe because the picture was at an altar and not where it belonged, saved to someone’s phone or posted online as it likely had been.
I was in the awkward position of being close to the deceased without being very close to him. Kevin was the oldest of all the cousins, I the youngest, and it occurred to me then that we had probably the least interaction of all my family members. I hadn’t disliked him, but we could never find much to talk about. Our relationship wasn’t something I gave much thought, and I’m sure he felt the same. I assumed we’d have time. I figured we’d grow closer as we aged and could then discuss health insurance or the teething toys our kids liked.
This distance gave me the chance to overanalyze, to be selfish, which I expected would be a better way to spend a funeral than the alternative: mourning, crying, the works. I knew if I were to ever say these thoughts out loud, I would be reminded that I should take this as a lesson. Hold the ones you love close, I imagined my father would tell me. Make the most of the time you have, my mother would say.
I heard my cousins arrive, Kevin’s brother and sister, and turned back down the aisle. They were talking to my grandparents who were ineffectively propped up in metal folding chairs along the back wall of the church entrance. Everywhere I looked was black and frowns and surprise at where we were.
David and Megan stood shoulder to shoulder before my grandparents. David’s arms hung loosely at his sides. Megan’s were crossed tight over her chest as if she were cold or leaning away from someone about to scare her. There was shiftiness to her eyes that I didn’t remember seeing before, but I’d heard from my parents that she hadn’t been sleeping.
I didn’t know what to say to them. Whatever I said had to be good. They’d remember it, much like I knew I’d remember what I’d heard. Something about a death, realizing that I didn’t remember all I wanted to, was making me extra observant, taking note of everything and everyone. I hadn’t known what to say in the days leading us here, sitting silent with them as they watched their father plan Kevin’s funeral. I knew this uncertainty and confusion would likely last for a while, so I stuck to generalities, trying not to lean too happy or too somber.
I slid in next to them as my grandfather said, “It’s a damn cold day.” I couldn’t help but smile a little at that. “I’d rather be home,” he added. The small smile slid from my face.
“Me too, Gramps,” Megan agreed, unfolding her arms and putting a hand on his shoulder, patting it a couple times while Grandpa looked down, nodding slowly. This was about as much emotion as we could expect to get from Grandpa who had been withdrawn and cranky all week, not deviating all that much from his usual temperament.
“Too bad we couldn’t do a destination funeral. Like a wedding,” David said. “Kevin always loved Key West.”
“Destination funerals?” Megan repeated, an eyebrow raised over a red threaded eye that was straining open. “Do they do those?”
He shrugged. “Why not?”
“Key West would be nice. Warm. Sunny,” I said, filling the silence.
I did the rounds, talking, or really listening, for a few minutes here and there with all my family members. Conversation was staggered, sputtering, and more effort than I could ever remember it being. We didn’t know how to be or what to do with ourselves.
Guests began to trickle in. They often zeroed in on Megan and David or spent a moment looking around for Kevin’s parents before eventually taking their seats. I quickly learned to jump in and direct them into the sanctuary before they could engage my cousins. One woman who did, a lady in her sixties whom I vaguely recognized as my cousins’ old piano teacher, was the last offender I allowed. She walked in sobbing, howled when she saw my cousins, and then tried to redeem herself by moaning something about time healing all wounds. It was a jumbled up mess, but we all knew that was what she was getting at. As much as she was crying, it was hard to trust she really believed what she was preaching, but she said it nonetheless.
Now we were just waiting on Kevin’s parents to arrive. “Dad couldn’t pick out a tie, and Mom was trying to find some guitar pick Kevin had. She thought he might want it, you know, with him,” Megan told me.
My mother passed around two dozen white, brand new handkerchiefs, saying she figured we’d need them today. I took one and passed the pile on, watching as my grandmother took two and my grandfather took none.
Pastor Stan, a tall man who looked as dour as the weather and the occasion, instructed us to wait outside the sanctuary. “We’ll have a moment of prayer with the family, go over the service, and then I’ll lead you all in.” There were two rows saved at the front for us. I couldn’t help but feel that any number of the people here today deserved that seat before I did, but then I reasoned it was a funeral, not a play, and there wouldn’t be much to see anyway. It was a closed casket, thank God.
My aunt and uncle arrived ten minutes before the funeral was set to start, bringing in a gust of cold air with them. My uncle waved away the offered hugs and went straight to the bathroom, wiping at his cheeks with the back of his hand. My grandmother cried into her first handkerchief in the corner.
“I couldn’t find the guitar pick,” my aunt said with a shrug. The bags under her eyes were hard to look at. I wondered if she would always look like this now. It seemed that some people wore their grief, dressed and lived in it. I didn’t want that for my aunt, for my family, but I could see her in it in the years to come, a deep exhaustion and laughs that ended sooner or never quite took off.
We waited a few moments in tense silence until my uncle rejoined us, and then followed Pastor Stan to a back room where he walked us through the ceremony. I half paid attention, gazing around the room and taking in the strange, downturned expressions of my family members. They wiped their eyes, sniffled. Every so often my uncle would shake himself lightly and make an effort to stand a bit taller before slowly settling back into a slump. When the pastor had finished a quick prayer, we followed him out to the sanctuary. I watched the white linen of his robe dragging across the red carpet before realizing that wasn’t what I should be focused on, and looked up.
The sanctuary was filled, with a handful of people taking folding seats along the back wall as well. I didn’t recognize most of the faces and there seemed to be quite a mix of family friends, my aunt and uncle’s colleagues and Kevin’s own friends. I took a spot in the second pew, between my parents and grandparents. I got my handkerchief out and at the ready, though I didn’t feel much like crying just then.
Where we were, what we were doing didn’t seem real. It was surreal, though it felt even more than that. I now realized I’d had very few truly surreal experiences and sitting at my cousin’s funeral seemed to require a more powerful adjective. It didn’t feel like enough to describe it, but neither did shock or numbness, though I supposed those were also accurate descriptions of me, sitting dry-eyed and disconnected at Kevin’s funeral.
I looked at the flower arrangement my mother had bought for Kevin, “from the cousins” and the sight was both impossible to conceive and like a punch deep in the gut.
The pastor spoke about Kevin, relying heavily on the kind of trite, overworked lines that needled at me. All week long neighbors and family friends met the tragedy with the same practiced evenness, expressing their condolences but holding back anything more. Although, they always left us with some heavy-handed line on how to deal or what we should think about as we pieced ourselves back together. Like Pastor Stan, they were constantly offering up these bits of wisdom, phrases and platitudes I’d heard a hundred times before, though I couldn’t say where, exactly. Their composure and ability to find words, even words that meant very little or annoyed me, revealed their experience with death and loss and funerals. An experience I lacked.
It made me wonder if grieving was something you could get good at, a skill you honed, or maybe just another part of growing up that you got used to, like realizing your parents had sex. It wasn’t pretty, wasn’t anything anyone wanted to talk about or think about, but it happened and you didn’t have much choice beyond moving forward and letting the fact settle into some corner of your brain where you could make peace with it. I wondered if grieving was like that.
I felt the pastor look down pointedly at me from the pulpit. I squirmed under his gaze, feeling judged for not crying more, or at all, as if he thought I was doing this all wrong. I didn’t know whether I should be stoic like my grandfather, or falling apart like my grandmother. I felt somewhere between the two. Perhaps had I done this before I would have been like Pastor Stan and all the others, prepared with clichés and a sympathetic grimace.
Pastor Stan’s mouth opened wider than seemed necessary as he spoke, “Although we can’t know it now, God has a plan. And while his plan for Kevin seems unfair and confusing right now, all will be revealed. In time.”
I’d never heard any one talk about time as much as I had in the past few days. All it takes is time. In time. Remember the times. Time spent. Time lost or gone or ahead of us. The word was being used so much I was starting to question what it meant, like over thinking the simplest nouns to the point of incomprehension at language entirely.
He continued, “I didn’t know Kevin, but it’s clear to me that in his time here on Earth he made a strong impact on his friends, family, and community.” I didn’t think Pastor Stan could have come up with a more generic speech but I knew people would tell us it was a nice service after regardless, because that was what you did. It was expected, a part of the funereal decorum.
The funeral continued and I listened to songs I’d never heard before but knew their trilling notes and somber lyrics would be ruined from that day on. We had communion, my uncle, the one with all his children still breathing, read a Bible passage and told a story about Kevin breaking his window a decade ago. It was only sort of funny, but there were spots of laughter. I think at that point we were all looking for something to break the weighty feeling of the 27 year-old in the casket.
The pastor stood before us, just in front of Kevin’s blurry portrait. He held up a hand, a Bible balanced in his other, and claimed to release Kevin’s soul or spirit or whatever onto the afterlife. The harsh sound of sniffles jumped around the pews of people behind me, breaking the hush that followed Pastor Stan’s pronouncement. I clenched the white, unused handkerchief in my hand, feeling the stiffness of the fabric and the texture of the threads, steeling myself, but not feeling a rush of emotion like I expected, which was staggering in its own way.
Grandma was double fisting her handkerchiefs now, switching between the two. Grandpa was still, unflinching.
Then it was over. We stood and followed the pastor back out of the church. I watched my aunt, uncle, and cousins line up near the entrance to shake hands and trade hugs to the long line of guests that was quickly forming. I took my place beside my parents, waiting, watching, often cringing at the weepy guests practically melting onto my aunt and uncle. Megan stood with her arms crossed again. David stared at the floor with determination. Both of them had matching pink, splotchy faces, making me all the more aware of the dry handkerchief still in my hand.
When at last the final guest had made it through, Kevin’s parents disappeared in the back with the pastor again, leaving us to painfully converse once more.
“Is the worst part over yet?” I asked my parents, a tone of impatience to my voice. It felt like a stupid question, but also one I wanted an honest answer to. My dad looked down at me, his upper lip twitching, breaking his composure for a split second. I suddenly felt like a child, a very tired child, one who’s just thrown a tantrum and is beginning to come down from the hysterics.
Dad didn’t answer, but instead said, “What you need to do, honey, is to remember the good times you had with Kevin.”
I groaned and walked away, deciding to join David in staring at the carpet. He was still in place along the back wall, though Megan was now talking to other family members.
“If someone tells me one more version of ‘Remember the good times you had with him,’ I’m going to scream.” I whispered, my voice a biting rasp. This particular platitude bothered me for a few reasons, only one of which I could name and recognize. I didn’t have a lot of specific memories of Kevin to point to, to remember him by. I remembered his presence. I remembered his personality, what he liked to talk about, his laugh. Did that count? Was that enough? Somehow that didn’t seem like what these people meant with their sage advice.
David was silent for a moment then said evenly, “What about, ‘He’s in a better place?’”
I was surprised at first. I’d already been mentally berating myself for saying something so thoughtless around David. His mouth was downturned looking so much like Kevin in his fuzzy portrait that my stomach hurt. “Everything happens for a reason,” I returned.
“Heaven needed another angel.” He made a gagging noise.
“It was in God’s plan.”
His voice was clear and bright for the first time, “I’ve been hearing that all day. All week.”
“When the pastor said that I thought about throwing my hymnal at him.” David smiled.
“Pretty shitty plan,” he said, his words fading at the end.
“I don’t know why it bugs me so much,” I admitted. “The crappy lines people say to make it better.”
He paused then said, “My parents were talking about the memorial. They’re planting a tree for him in the park. There’ll be a plaque with his name, but it will just be another tree,” he exhaled heavily. “It really bothered me at first.”
I turned to look at him, “But not anymore?”
“Apparently, there’s a fatal car accident every thirty seconds or something ridiculous,” he almost laughed saying it. “And statistically, a lot of those accidents will involve guys around Kevin’s age.” He shook his head. “The point is there are lots of families with dead Kevins. So if my parents planting a tree, or people telling us to remember the good times we had with him makes them feel better, I can be ok with that.” He looked back down at the carpet. “I don’t know, maybe it’s easier to think it matters.”
David’s parents came back. We all circled around them, my mother reaching out for her sister, patting her arm. “We better get going,” my aunt said. There was an informal wake at my aunt’s after the funeral. They had wanted something bigger, but it was all they could do to throw together a funeral so unexpectedly. “Everyone will be at the house, waiting.”
We formed our bleak procession out of the church again.
My dad pushed open the glass double doors of the entrance and a bitter wind pushed against us, as if it were trying to blow us back into the church. Outside, it looked much how I imagined we all felt. The skies were gray, the sun hidden, as if mirroring our sadness and making it seem like the world was recognizing what we’d lost.
“It’s a good day for a funeral,” I said, trying it out, joining in the performance, and fitting our loss into a cliché. No one responded, but I saw my mom nod in agreement.
It helped. Like bracing against the cold, it was enough just then to pretend it made a difference.
Green Line | Red Line | Yellow Line
A moderately popular metaphor for how the circulatory system of the human body works is a network of streets in a city. I learned this on the homework help website, Enotes, from a high school teacher who writes, “Your circulatory system is in charge of transport and delivery, of making sure that the life giving stuff gets to the correct locations. Roads do the same thing. Without interstates and main roads and alleys and side streets, people and supplies could not be delivered and moved throughout the city. And just like a city has different sized roads, your cardiovascular system has different sized blood vessels. They range from the largest pipes called the aorta and vena cavas down to the smallest capillaries where red blood cells actually have to go through single file.” At first, I believe this if only because I sort of have to— I don’t know much about that kind of stuff and I don’t mind admitting it. But then I start to believe it because I feel it. Being a red blood cell, going through a single file line, feels familiar to me on public transportation. I’ve spent hours of my life standing in lines on skinny escalators, wondering if the decision of the person in front to either stand or to walk or to run really does makes my decision for me, too.
I wait like a blood cell, wondering if I really am a blood cell, wondering if I am one tiny thing among a million tiny things that bring oxygen to the heart. I know that when I am gone I’ll be replaced and then it will be someone else’s turn to ride the Green Line from Dejvická to Staromêstká and wait on single file escalators. Maybe they’ll also run to the front of the line as soon as the doors of the Metro swoosh open. Maybe they’ll also run to the top of the revolving staircases and excuse themselves of their cellular duties. To confirm what I feel—that today and every day it is just none of my business to decide how fast everyone’s day goes. It is not for me to decide how long it takes for others get to the top of the Green Line, exit the Metro, and begin consciously getting to the place they actually want to be. It doesn’t matter how much I resist or comply with the metaphor I’ve created, because they already call this city the Heart of Europe—Praha.
The broad front-end of the Twelve tram glides over March’s dead grass in the median—between south-bound and north-bound traffic. Twelve’s faded yellow headlights and ordinary windshield wiper form a worried expression that looks eerily like a Miyazaki character. Maybe the bus with legs, but maybe not. Twelve’s look even seems to suggest the environmental concern so many of Miyazaki’s films grapple with—a fog of cigarette smoke looms over Prague like Russia’s failed socialist dream for the former Czechoslovak state.
I am not an innocent subject in this haze of smoke. I quickly adopt Czech habits in an effort to blend in a little better. I smoke everywhere. I don’t talk on public transportation. My Czech teacher explains to me that the reasons for both are the same. They smoked to cope with Stalin’s harsh policies; they don’t talk in public because they were afraid of spies. When Stalin died, the fear didn’t. There’s still no talking on the trams, there’s still lots of cigarettes.
While the national habit of the Czechs sort of rises out of coping with Stalinism, I am a tourist of their oppression. My pack of Viceroy reds—like all other cigarette packs here—has a Czech phrase on it written inside a boldly outlined rectangle. Kouení mûže zabíjet. Smoking can kill. Smoking can kill, but it won’t kill me. The phrase has no subject. Or the subject couldn’t possibly be me. But there seem to be certain kinds of things—certain actions—that my cell-busy brain can’t think out of existence like it tries to do with most everything unpleasant. Because when I raise the cigarette to my lips and flick the lighter, I transform myself into a subject— kouření mě může zabít.
The first time I met Hazel, my pea coat was heavy with the scent of Spirits that costs four times the Viceroys I’d buy when I run out of my American habit and find a Czech one. I was at the bar in the basement of our dorm with some people I wanted to imagine were my friends that night. We didn’t know each other well, but we were acting convincingly. We all drank pilsners and a few of us smoked. They wanted to go somewhere. I thought I wanted to go somewhere, too. So I brought my coat to the bar but when they left, I went upstairs with my smoky coat under my arm.
Before the semester began, we were told the names of our roommates (Hazel), where they went to school (Colorado State University), and if they had arranged their own travel plans (yes). We were matched with our roommates based on a form that would analyze our roommate compatibility based on: cleanliness (medium), sleep schedule (stay up late, wake up late, nap a lot), if we smoked (‘no’), if we cared if our roommate smoked (a conspicuous no), and hobbies and interests (beer and wine, books, concerts, coffee). With over 70 people in the study abroad program from all over the United States, there was enough variety to have to make actual decisions about who I’d try to befriend. And according to this form, Hazel was my best shot and my path of least resistance. But also the highest stakes, the imagined friendship with the most to lose—if she wouldn’t be friends with me, I wondered if anybody would be.
I looked up Hazel on Facebook and rummaged through her profile pictures and found a photograph of her relaxing with a Bengal tiger in Thailand. She had lavender hair in her most recent photograph. Her profile said that she studied graphic design, worked at an artisan cookie store, and had over 1,000 friends.
I went to my profile to see what she might have if my name’s unusual spelling didn’t get in the way. I found an old profile picture where I was riding a sad-looking zoo camel and smiling stupidly. My most recent photo was one my mom took of my younger brother and I on my 20th birthday. Several people commented with jokes like, ‘congrats on your engagement!’ My profile would have told her that I’m from Des Moines, I go to school in Des Moines, and I’ve never lived anywhere else. She would have seen that I study English, work at a coffee shop, and that my roster of Facebook friends was barely 250. The most damning evidence on my profile was my cover photo. An animated half man/half book with ‘The Great American Novel’ scrolled across his face eats a greasy burger, wearing nothing but purple socks while watching Oprah. If you Google image search Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom, the image is on the first page of the search results. The only two people who ‘liked’ the picture were my grandma and an ex-boyfriend.
And while that photo condemned our potential friendship, I saw a glimmer of hope in her cover photo from My Neighbor Totoro. But I neutralized it by explaining that everything else said no, we would not be friends—too hip, fate sealed, she wouldn’t possibly befriend me even if I tricked her. Even if I looked deeper into Hazel’s internet-self to find out what her hobbies were, and ‘coincidentally’ brought up those interests in easy and plain conversation (funk, acid jazz, and electronic music; beer; mountains) I knew it wouldn’t matter. My genuine interest in craft beer as an Iowan would be flattened by her interest as a Coloradan. I created a mythology of cool around only three photographs and a few lines of information and willed its existence into creation. To confirm or deny that mythology’s existence seemed beyond the point after its formation.
I did not send a friend request.
Right before I met Hazel, I heard her voice from inside our room. She must have arrived while I was downstairs. I stood outside the door and listened for a while. Her voice was a pleasant alto, no sign of accent except for long vowel sounds like Colo-rah-do, and dabbled with enough shits and fucks that it felt tastefully angry and hopefully not at me for taking the bed next to the window. She was on the phone. I listened for a while longer outside the door, trying to piece together her phone conversation. It sounded like she was talking to her mom about lost luggage.
I decided that because she was on the phone, I was under no obligation to speak to her when I entered. But when I walked in the room, locked eyes and then immediately shifted them away from her while she was talking with her mom on the phone, with my coat under my arm and smelling like cigarettes, I still thought about smiling. Instead, I went and sat in the bathroom pretending like I had to go. Turning on and off the sink. Flushing the toilet. I wasn’t trying to avoid ever meeting her. Maybe I was just trying to buy myself some time before I confronted the part of me I had hidden in the Mythology of Hazel. I had predicated all potential for any sort of friendship with anyone I would meet in Prague on her opinion of me in that exact moment.
It never occurred to me that while I was in the bathroom I could have actually brushed my teeth instead of pretending. Or that it would be hard to hide from someone I’d share 150 square feet of space with for four months. And that in fifteen minutes when I actually had to go to the bathroom and wanted to get ready for bed it would seem strange that again I was flushing the toilet and turning on and off the sink. Or that at some point, in the very near future, it would become necessary to not only introduce myself, but to then probably talk to her several more times throughout the semester. And that eventually I might like these conversations, and then converse willingly and frequently. Or that we would travel together to nine countries. We would grocery shop and drink and be hungover and walk to class together and talk about things that were both important and not, but mostly not and that was okay, too. We’d blow smoke rings out the window and shared passwords to Netflix and Hulu. We’d Google Earth our home addresses and take each other on virtual tours of our hometowns. We’d drink hot gin and eat donuts made in potravinys that taste like pecan pie. We’d take turns falling asleep on public transit, taking shifts to watch for the stop at 1 Thákurova.
And of all these things, the least of them I expected was that when I left in four months, we would be friends. We would be friends of circumstance, or at least friends that miss each other or what each other represented in a foreign country.
Before I left Iowa, I thought that I had found in books what I’m told most people search a lifetime for and sometimes never even find —that magical something that makes all the other somethings deeply worth it. I found what made life glisten like my grandma’s plastic costume jewelry or my mom’s Christmas tree decorated entirely with bohemian crystal. It’s stupid, I know, but when I’m reading a good book there’s this absolute emotional blindness I experience from everything else that is happening around and inside me.
I didn’t go to Prague looking for a purpose or even adventure or a handful of Formidable Personal Experiences because I thought I already had it. I resented the idea that my experience was going to be the same as everyone else’s because they were still looking and I was done. I went away because I needed to leave Des Moines and I wanted to go far. I didn’t leave because I wanted to go somewhere in particular. I had chosen Prague randomly from a catalog, the destination was little more than circumstance. I had no goals or expectations and when people asked me what I was hoping to get out of this experience, my response was always, ‘I’m really hoping to meet Franz Kafka.’
I read nearly seventy books the year before, and by May of my Prague Spring I hadn’t even read fifteen. My friends and family told me that if I read away my time I would regret it. So I took to a new hobby. I became a flâneur—a habitual loafer—a botanist of the cobblestone, strolling the streets of Prague, touring the Kafka museum three separate times. He was afraid of becoming like Bakunin, and I was afraid of becoming like everyone else who came here for Kafka. Each new step with my red sneakers left no mark on the cobblestone, but the cobblestone gave me blisters and my shoes holes that they’d never forget. It was nothing like being lost in a book. When I was lost in the city, buried in my mind, even the right tram couldn’t take me back. For the first time in a very long while, I was wrapped up in something besides the pages of a book.
The tourists ride the Twenty-Two, the scenic route that circles around the castle, Old Town, and the Charles Bridge. It darts between hills carved by the roads, glides over the Vltava. Takes people to the heart of Prague. The Prague that’s in pictures and postcards. I ride it because I like the slow meandering quality of the route, dipping in and out of the center of the city and cutting through smaller districts like Dejvice, Žižkov, and Vinohrady. It is not the best way to get home; the Metro is tremendously faster. But the Metro is underground, and the trams cable cars dig into the cobblestone and screech—they screech at the city in a language I’m not a part of. I like hearing the city talk to itself.
But after a while, it gets old. The noises, the crowds, the feeling that we could topple over at any minute as the tram cars take corners hard and fast, leaning into the turns and weaving on roads that seem like they shouldn’t be there in the first place. And after I see the Twenty-Two smash five cars with nothing more than a forceful tap, I walk more often. But the more interesting excuse for why I walk along the route is that it is also the best place to see other people look at the same city, and their eyes see something completely different. They see the parts of Prague that I loved in the catalog, the parts that made it look like a hyperreal Disney World. They bumble around Staré Město sipping and spilling their svařák, slanted heads up in the air. They pull their camera lenses up to their faces and take photographs of Jan Palach’s death mask—the death mask that brings crowds to loiter in front of the only working entrance of my university.
During high tourist season, remnants of the winter months are still visible. On a rainy Wednesday after school, I try to walk the whole way home. I make it to Malá Strana before I stop by the John Lennon Wall and catch up with the Twenty-Two. But before I hop on the tram, I walk around a bit more. I see construction workers repairing a particularly dingy section of cobblestone by The Wall. The stones look like fresh graves. Mounds of the old rocks upturned and in a pile while construction workers in orange jumpsuits carefully hammer in the replacements, using twine to line up the gray, onyx, and rust colored stones. Tick tick tick. They take great care in their work, I’m envious of their commitment to anything, especially a commitment to maintaining something that had seemingly died so long before they’d even been born.
For the stones not hammered in yet, there’s an anemic dirt trench in their place—tourists tip-toe over metal gang-planks to reach the kitschy souvenir shops with entrances like archways, devoid of window displays because each shop has the same kinds of souvenirs. Clock faces with the façade of the astrological tower, Russian nesting dolls, bohemian crystal, tiny green bottles of Becherovka and Absinthe in addition to the usual postcards, magnets, t-shirts, and shot glasses. I bet the tourists think that the displaced cobblestones are only an inconvenience of city life, an obstacle like dodging cars in the street. But that’s not exactly the point. Replacing old cobblestone with new ones recreates Prague’s history and aesthetics over and over again. Once the holes are filled in, it’s hard to say what is new and what’s old. It’s impossible, really. A city of literature that’s meant to feel like Čapek or Kundera or Havel will write a story here tomorrow or the next day. But that can’t be true because they’re dead or gone or both.
I don’t know what the city wants of itself but it’s probably not this. And I don’t know what literature or even myself wants of the city besides a fairytale to write about and to think about. A city that’s hard to actually live in. I think about why I decided to leave Des Moines, and maybe I was looking for a place where it would be okay to live inside my head for a little while longer because there were so many new things to think about. A place where the language barrier made it okay to stay inside myself most days. But its still difficult to negotiate my existence inside and outside of the city when its so easy to see the ways that Prague banishes itself to a weird feedback loop of self-mockery and a re-creation of the aesthetics of its failure.
New cobblestones. Russian souvenirs. Swiss Liquor. Pink tanks. Upside-down statues of King Wenceslas riding a dead horse. Good-bye Stalin, hello David Černy.
The Twenty takes me home. It goes nowhere special in Prague but from school to my dorm to a coffee shop I like and to a bar that’s okay-ish and my favorite park that has lots of dead grass but I bet will be beautiful in June. There used to be the world’s largest sculpture of Stalin in this plateaued park called Letná that overlooks the Vltava. It was made of granite and it was destroyed. The granite platform remains. Years later, Michael Jackson commissioned a thirty-five foot tall sculpture of himself on top of the platform to promote a tour and some guy bought it when Michael was through with it. Now, there’s a colossal red metronome that ticks on top of Letná. There’s talk of replacing it with an aquarium. But for now, it’s where the skateboarders meet. It’s where my friends and I go to skip class and drink beer in the cold grass. We read and write, play banjos and draw, we make flower crowns out of weeds to pretend its summer because when June comes we’ll be gone like Stalin and Michael’s statues, too. Maybe somebody found our crowns of weeds, but by now they’ve decomposed like granite cant. On the platform they left behind, there are boarded-up gates that used to lead to a bomb shelter. Now, they’re called the Gates to Nowhere.
What I like about the Twenty is that I know it. I feel safe and aware of my wits here but I’m also scared of the comfort. That I can ride around Prague on the Twenty and silence the continuously repeating:
I stare out the window and things go quiet inside. No more thoughts blooming, just a really silent silence.
I notice on the Twenty that when I stare out a window long enough, I eventually stop noticing the object of my gaze. Instead, I start to see my reflection in the glass and then, all of a sudden, I can’t see anything but myself looking at the scene just outside the window and I see myself feeling deep sadness—borne out of a self-centered boredom that’s almost as maudlin or tragic or even wistful or inexplicable as whatever I was looking at before it occurred to me that I was just looking at myself and nothing else. I don’t mind getting off the Twenty to look at the castle again from a distance. It’s harder to see my reflection in stone.
The Twenty-Six avoids the center of Prague. None of the tram routes make particular sense, but I’m absorbed by the Twenty-Six’s refusal of the center. It scrapes along the northern part of Prague. It starts in Divoká Šárka, a gorge where the spring creek feeds into a lake called The Pitcher. It’s the closest place to Prague where the black woodpecker—the bird that does not migrate—lives. The Twenty-Six hovers a kilometer north of the Green Line until it exits Žižkov district, then dives sharply south and into the outskirts of the city, ending at Nádraží Hostivař. The Twenty-Six explores the borderlands, it denies a view of landmarks and of the baroque Prague, supplanting it instead with industrial and functional landscapes.
The Twenty-Six knows the ins-and-outs of Prague’s grittier side, the bars with the locals: artists, writers, gypsies, expats, ne’er-do-wells. It knows the part of Prague that’s making new things, not recreating the old. The route took Hazel and I to Prague’s outside—to Prague’s outsiders, too. We were the kind of self-identifying freaks who wanted to dance all night in an artist commune, surrounded by welded circuit boards and bike parts instead of walls. We wanted to enjoy each other more than we wanted to get drunk, which is saying something, because we drank a lot. I liked them because they were the type of people who didn’t care if other people liked them if it means sacrificing their more freakitude. They made me feel like it was okay to be strange.
I’d found my people and my places on the Twenty-Six. But along the wandering path of the tram is where I also learned that U.S. regionalism is not constrained by the types of things I’d anticipated. Namely, the United States. We all ask each other questions about our homes nearly constantly for four months—especially on long rides to places, hyped up from tequila shots and Pilsners. In some of their questions, I sense that ‘Midwest cool’ is different than any other kind because Midwest functions as a limit—‘Cool for the Midwest’. A friend from Vermont tells me, seriously, that she imagines my home looks like a scene from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. I am a minority among my friends for not having a nipple piercing. I tell them that corn is a complete meal, and that the State Fair has a 600 pound cow made of butter. They ask if my parents are farmers, and I tell them that they’re managers in health-care and agriculture companies and they audibly laugh but I’m not sure why. I teach them verbs like ‘shuck’ and nouns like ‘actuary’ and ‘Dutch letter’. Words with those unforgiving ‘shhh’ sounds that when I speak them, they sort of sound like they’re telling me to shut up. They ask why I live in Iowa, and I struggle to come up with an answer—even one as simple as “I was born there”. I wonder if I was from Colorado, if I’d feel like I’d have to give an answer, or if they’d even ask me the question in the first place.
While a few friends poked and prodded at my language and mannerisms for signs of defect, kitsch, and country, Hazel didn’t. I liked her silence, it was comfortable, un-confrontational. But not cold. No, not cold. Not even ponderous, really. Just empty, without all the things attached to emptiness like disinterest or ambivalence. She made me feel like nothingness could be okay and a quiet confidence in my own silence, too. But of course, I would never be able to tell her this in any way besides this essay. I’m still the one who pretended to brush her teeth for fifteen minutes the first night we met. I don’t forget that.
Hazel and I take most of our trips to other cities with each other. We plan our trips so we get in late to Prague, and by that time the only tram back to our dorm is the Fifty-One. It comes every 30 minutes and nobody except the wind-blown tourists are sober and even sometimes that’s not the case. We caught the late bus back from Budapest, walking to the Fifty-One in a brisk May wind. Standing outside for twenty minutes, a black van with tinted windows speeds by on the tram tracks. A man the shape of a bowling ball exits the van in a florescent orange jumpsuit that wraps round his belly tightly. The safety tape on his jumpsuit makes him look much rounder, like without the safety tape his jumpsuit would burst open and his remnants would spill out like a fleshy, Czech piñata. His power drill unscrews the red rectangle that holds the tram schedule. He switches out the schedule puts the new one in, and drives around to the south-bound stops to do the same. Hazel and I go to examine the changes, but everything looks the same. Prague mediates its own change, it certainly won’t wait for Hazel and I. Our uniqueness in time and place has nothing to do with tram schedules, no matter how quickly we wanted to get back to Masarykova. I feel like I’m dissolving when I realize that whether or not we were here wouldn’t change things for Prague. I fade, I’m fading, and all of a sudden, I’m gone. Prague forgets me, if it ever even noticed I was there to begin with.
Green Line | Red Line | Yellow Line
I didn’t know how to end my story there. I didn’t know which of my new friends I should hug and for how long, who I would see again and who would want to see me again. I didn’t expect that this was a story I would want to tell. All I know is that I woke up at six in the morning to say goodbye to Hazel and to tell her we’d meet again and I suppose we both believed it. I ate lunch at Café Louvre with my mom, who had come to visit me a few days before I left Prague. I walked through Wenceslas Square. I looked at the castle from a long way a way—the very famous castle that I never went to not even once. As our train left the station, I looked into the distance and thought about whether or not it was a good idea to leave a bit of the myth in the castle by never visiting it. I wondered if it would give me a reason to come back here. Though I already know I want to go back even before I’ve left for so many more reasons than the castle, even as it disappeared from the shrinking horizon. The city taught me how to leave books and come back to them again. It taught me how to say, “I don’t know what I want”, and how to keep looking. I’m staring out the window at the castle, and I notice that I’m not looking at my reflection anymore. I’m seeing Prague for the last time, without my image obstructing the skyline.
My stomach drops. I feel sick.
I think the sickness is a sadness. A sadness for leaving, a sadness for knowing that even if I come back it won’t be the same but everything will still look like it. A sadness for knowing that this very different thing I’m feeling—different than anything I’ve ever felt before— is very normal. But as it turns out, I got water poisoning from contamination somewhere in the Dejvice neighborhood—a broken pipe, the city leaking into the water. Throwing up between my legs on a toilet in a train bathroom felt like the best way to end things. A violent rejection of something that I wasn’t sure I was apart of, explained to me by my own body. It still didn’t quite make sense—that something I loved so much didn’t need me the way I needed it. After Prague purged my body, I was still sad.