Maria

I have just alighted upon a train headed for the western part of the Czech Republic, and I’m imbued with that sense I love so much that comes with traveling: that anything could happen today, that anything will happen.

Last night I lay in bed wondering what would happen if the sun went out or if a meteor crashed into the earth. These are the sort of thoughts you have at 4am when you can’t sleep. Then I remembered that Tim Ferrrrrrrrrrisssssss had something in one of his books about playing Tetris before you sleep, how it helps to put the bits and pieces of your brain in order so your mind isn’t in a million places. My mind was just in one place. The day before I’d had a coffee and then promptly taken a nap, with the idea that I might wake up and go out on the town. But the nap became something of a “sleep,” and soon it was past 1am in the morning. This of course led to what it almost always leads to: Trying to find a pirated stream of a World Cup qualifying game, in this case the high-octane, no prisoners clash between Peru and New Zealand. I stayed awake just long enough to see that Peru was going to dominate, much to my chagrin since I’ve long been a Kiwi fan, and then went back to sleep. Or rather I lay there, thinking about the sun. How if the sun went out not only would everything be dark, but we would more or less instantly freeze to death. I had this notion of all of us huddled together, eating ramen noodles and thinking, Man, it’s cold ever since the sun went out — but at least we have each other. But no, we would all pretty much instantly freeze to death.

The “one place” my mind was in that I alluded to earlier and why I couldn’t sleep is something I’ll tell you if you promise not to laugh at me or say, “God, here we go again” and if you promise not to judge and if you promise not to think that I’m pathetic or lost or anything like that, and if you are going to judge that you look within yourself and see that in the past you might’ve behaved similarly at some point, and thus who are you to judge, though I will be the first to admit that judging is natural, and if I read what I’m about to read I would judge too, I would most certainly judge, so I guess what I’m saying is that you have my permission to judge, not that you need it, but that you please do so consciously, or conscientiously, or, at the very least, compassionately.

Because you see I met a girl.

Her name was Maria and she was half Bolivian and half Peruvian and I think she might’ve even been a little American, too. We met by the clocktower in Prague’s old town and then wandered around a bit, talking about who knows what, looking for a bar and then finally finding a place that didn’t look like much from the outside but was student-y and weird and cheap inside, and within five minutes of getting our glasses of red wine I’d said at least four times, “This place is awesome.”

She concurred that the place was, in fact, “awesome,” but didn’t seem to be quite as swept away with the nondescriptness of it all. I said when I travel I like to see how people live. That’s why I was thrilled to stay in a student dorm in Copenhagen. She said this was something she also liked, and that before coming to Prague she’d been in Paris staying in a random part of town with a family and that one evening they’d smoked sheesha and she’d thought to herself, This is so much cooler than seeing the Eiffel Tower. This is something few tourists get to see.

After the bar we walked across the Charles Bridge because she still hadn’t done that and it’s one of the most famous places in Prague, if not all of Europe. We were ostensibly trying to find food, but the only thing we seemed to find was wine. Everyone was selling wine. It seemed like every corner we turned there was a table with people huddled around it like they were at the North Pole, drinking Dixie cups of mulled wine for 30 Czech Koruna, or $1.33. So we got mulled wine before crossing the bridge, and then mulled wine after crossing the bridge, and then we found ourselves in a bar that only had Czechs and a guy was smoking a cigarette right in my face and he looked at me and said (or at least I’m pretty sure he said because I don’t speak Czech), “Is my cigarette bothering you? Because if it is you can leave.”

I assured him everything was fine and we got a glass of red wine because the place didn’t have any food. Within a few minutes a Czech man with shoulders like a yak had started talking to us and his English was limited but his enthusiasm was not. He showed us pictures of his family and of himself in uniform. Then he pulled out some dog tags that had been given to him by an American solider, and he was very proud of them. I can’t remember why the soldier had given them to him. Maybe they’d exchanged dog tags. Either way a couple minutes later he learned that we hadn’t tried some kind of Czech national drink and proceeded to approach the bartender, a middle-aged woman who just a few minutes previous had been dancing with the old bald man who’d blown cigarette smoke in my face, and ordered two glasses of some kind of red liquid that looked like liquid rose petals or maybe blood, and then we stood around sipping it and remarking how tasty it was. A couple times he looked at Maria and then back at me and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Good job,” which was of course embarrassing because Maria saw this and Maria and I were just friends.

When we finally left the bar it was colder outside and also quieter, and it seemed as in the bar we’d gone through some kind of time warp and now were rejoining the real world where time advanced at a normal rate. We kept walking, still trying to find food, and somehow we were in the general area of where I was staying and Maria, probably miffed at our failure to find food, ordered an Uber home. This was understandable, in retrospect. But in my liquid rose petal addled state I just found it confusing, so to cope I went to McDonald’s and ordered several cheeseburgers and devoured them immediately after ripping off the wrapper. A few minutes earlier, when we’d be standing outside, I’d pulled her close to me and kissed her. That’s all I wanted to do, pull her close to me, though with the amount of jackets and layers we had on it was a bit like hugging a pile of down comforters. And then suddenly and, I might add, tragically, she was many meters away from me, a mirage on a cobble-stoned street, getting into an Uber, and I was in McDonald’s, and then I was in my apartment alone listening to classical music and drinking tea and texting her about how we should meet up the next day, and then I was in bed falling asleep and not thinking about what would happen if the sun went out, not thinking about anything at all really.

So that’s the “one place” where my mind was and why I couldn’t sleep and why I downloaded Tetris on my phone, a game I probably haven’t played in 20 years. But it’s not like Tetris requires much of a refresher, so within a few minutes I was stacking the blocks on top of each other, creating solid lines, getting the blocks to disappear. I found myself thinking a thought anyone who’s ever played Tetris has thought: “Man, I hope a long one comes soon.” Tim Ferrrrrrisssssss said you need to play for at least 10 minutes, and that’s what I did. When I stopped playing it was just after 5am, and this time I fell asleep. To say that my sleep schedule has been weird since coming to Europe would be a statement. What would also be a statement is that the day after Maria and I met I went looking for her at the main castle, convinced we’d have some kind of romantic reunion, though what really happened was we never saw each other again and now I’m on a train leaving Prague and we’re going through mountains and over rivers and next to houses that look German and in a couple hours I’ll be in a different city, Karlovy Vary, in a new apartment, enjoying my last day in the Czech Republic before heading back to Germany. The train is hot and I want to open a window but can’t. The lady in the seat in front of me has a dachshund and now we’re passing a castle and I’m sick of not knowing where my heart is, and when we get to Karlovy Vary the only thing I’m going to do is drink coffee and walk around and look at all the Russians. It’s not a beautiful day but it’s not terrible either. There’s a layer of clouds that looks almost red and everything has an air of softness about it, and even though it’s not hot or sunny one thing’s for certain: The sun hasn’t gone out yet and doesn’t show signs of going out anytime soon.