Written 2014. Edited 2017.
Ana’s words to me were, “I had feelings for you in Finland. I don’t have them anymore.” This was after I visited her in Prague, after I tried to put my arm around her and she froze, after she embraced me while we were waiting for the tram, after she leaned her head against my shoulder in the plaza overlooking the Charles river with the perfect skateboarding ledges, and after we were out at a bar giving each other ballpoint pen tattoos and I pulled up my shirt and she said, “That will have to wait until we get home.”
We met in Finland. She thought I was popular because my friend Bo and I did fun things like organize barbecues, paddle across lakes to jump off cliffs, and try to sneak into Russia. One day our group went to a lake and Ana and I swam across on a tiny raft and lay on a sun-baked rock and she taught me how to say “rock”, “sky,” and “lake” in Czech. I taught her the same words in Spanish; we laughed at each other’s pronunciation and at one point I might’ve touched her stomach. A few days later, while making pizza from scratch together courtesy of the Italian group leader who showed me how to make my own dough, we kissed.
At first I avoided kissing her on the lips. I had this idea that being intimate with a girl changed me and turned me into some kind of useless, groveling slug, so I avoided kissing her on the lips until she became offended. “Why won’t you kiss me?” she asked, at which point I of course did.
We became a couple of sorts our last week in Savonlinna. We hung out in my little Finnish dorm room, made pizza, went on walks, and went to the island where our group hung out, always with the understanding that at some point in the night, when the Scandinavian afternoon had finally melted into dusk, we’d be alone, holding hands on a quiet country road.
Eventually the program ended and she went back to the Czech Republic. I stayed in Finland a few more days and then took a bus to Russia where I get horribly sick and met a guy named Alexei whose non-English speaking parents shared hard-boiled eggs with me and took me to a monastery. Ana and I kept in touch. After Russia I went home to the US, started studying Czech at the University of Washington, and a year later, after graduating, found myself in Prague.
She welcomed me into her apartment and that night we watched some kind of terrible movie (Zoolander, I think) and things seemed weird but I thought maybe it was because we hadn’t seen each other in awhile and the physical contact barrier needed to be broken. I put my arm around her and her body turned the temperature of liquid nitrogen. My arm dangled there, as if detached from my body. Finally I asked her what was wrong, and she said she didn’t want to talk about it.
The next day I broached the subject again and she told me something had happened recently that had “changed everything.” I wondered what on earth that could be. Was she pregnant? Was she married? Was she a javelin finalist in the Summer Olympics? “That’s fine,” I said, “Thank you for telling me. I hope everything’s OK.”
We continued to hang out and after this everything was great. With no romantic potential between us we could finally be as two humans are supposed to be, enjoying each other’s company with no expectations or pre-requisites. We explored Prague and lay in a park in the sun where she read to me from a Czech children’s book to model correct pronunciation. We walked up to Letna Park, above the city, so I could watch the skateboarders. She took me to her school and showed me where she was studying Finnish. And at night we watched another movie, though this time, despite our shoulders touching, there were no theatrics.
What I didn’t understand was that after I stopped trying to be affectionate with her she began to be affectionate with me. While she was reading to me in the park she began rubbing my back, then a few minutes later while we were waiting for the train she inexplicably embraced me. And then of course there was the night in the bar where I spent much of the time talking to her friend who spoke better English and had a great interest in going to the States and Ana made the comment about “waiting until we got home.” I didn’t understand it at the time but understand it now. There’s nothing to understand. It doesn’t matter. We both simply acted how it was natural for us to act, and for her that involved hugging me from time to time and making cute comments.
The next day I left for a small Czech country town. Ana and I didn’t stay in touch but the visit ended on good terms. Ultimately, I realized we weren’t right for each other. She liked the band Nickleback, for starters, and seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with a Finnish ski-jumper. I don’t regret going to Prague and I certainly don’t regret trying to be affectionate. Sometimes it’s good to go out on a limb and even if that limb comes crashing to the ground. There are a slough of aphorisms for this, but probably the most applicable is, “It’s better to have bloodied your nose on the field of battle than to not have fought at all.” Though I didn’t go to Prague to fight, of course. I went for an elementary lesson in love.