Copyright 2005 by Jessica Langlois
The night before I was to leave for Europe I broke out in hives. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college, my wrists were swelling and red, and the large itchy bumps behind my ears were congealing together into a miserable mass on the back of my neck. I had been hungrily awaiting my six-month escape from the States for months. College depressed me, New York depressed me, Bush depressed me. Maybe I had decided to go to Europe right then because the previous year—filled with protests, causes, and an atmosphere of bitter disillusionment amongst my friends—had left me jaded and hopeless for my future in this country. Or maybe New York City was just becoming too overwhelming in contrast to my quiet, relaxed Northern California home, and I was ready to return to Vienna—where family, friends and childhood memories awaited me—and see what it had to offer me now.
The hives and skin rash weren't new to me, since they usually would accompany an episode of sporadic crying and anxiety. But I had simply not expected to have a panic attack the night before a departure I had been dreaming of all winter. Then again, my emotional mood swings always seem to come about when everything is supposed to be running smoothly. Pre-college, mid-college, post-college, just when you thought you've grown up and figured out what is best for you, you realize life isn't going to let you off that easily.
The white stucco Spanish-style house with pale blue trim that I had grown up in, nestled in the safe and secluded suburbs of the East Bay, had already been sold. By the end of the summer my mother and step-father would have moved into a three-story dark brown wooden house with way too many balconies looking right onto the San Francisco Bay forty minutes away. When I was to return to California in December it would be to a new room, the guest room.
"Don't worry," my mother had assured me, "you and your sister and are more than welcome to stay with us anytime you like. We're putting two beds in the guest room for you girls." The extra bedrooms would be an office for both my mother and my step-father, and a library. They were replacing their kids with books.
Although it didn't faze my sister, who had been out of the house a couple of years longer than I had, I was appalled. "Thanks so much for letting us feel welcome in your home," I retorted bitterly.
I knew what my mom meant, though. She was just trying to give me an extra little shove out of the cozy nest she had made for me, but I was still confused about when I had stopped being the baby of the family whom she loved to nurture.
Then there was college. I was taking an eight-month leave from New York City, which would have no friends left to offer me when I returned. This was solely my doing—I had decided to study abroad in the fall semester of my junior year while nearly every one of my friends had decided to go abroad in the spring. The good part was that I got to go to Vienna first for two months, where at least I had some family and friends, and no language barrier. It was the semester in a then-foreign Prague thereafter that was exhausting my nerves. It was also the first time I would travel across the Atlantic for so many months, without the safety of being a child in someone else's care.
Of course, there was a boy. His response to the panicked email I had sent out with itchy fingers hours before my flight was,
Bella, Life opens up when there's nothing left to fall back on.
Demian was in Italy, doing his first solo tour of Europe, en route with so many other nomadic ex-pats jumping from hostel to hostel. We planned to meet up in Interlaken in early July for several days together in the Swiss Alps.
He wasn't the reason I decided to go to Europe, but knowing he would be there waiting to see me—even for only a few days—certainly helped. We had met in one of the progressive campus clubs my sophomore, his freshman year. He had chained himself to three other environmentalists in front of a Citibank to protest rainforest destruction; he marched next to me in peace rallies on bitter cold February mornings; he knew the debate against Globalization backwards and forwards. He told me "your dedication and perspicacity amaze me" and I was simultaneously drunk on his.
Besides being the quintessential activist, Demian adored me. Once, exhausted and exasperated with all my responsibilities in our club I delivered a plea to the group for help organizing a march against police brutality in Albany. Within days Demian had arranged for speakers to appear at the teach-in preceding the event and organized the bus that would take us to New York's capitol. He would listen to me talk about feminism for hours. He was the first straight boy I had found who would do so without mocking me and throwing sarcastic retorts back in my face. When I was with him, he heard and respected every word I said. At that time, our spring together in New York City, whenever I was with him I was floating.
Back in California on a foggy San Francisco morning, I did get on that plane to Europe. I made it to Vienna and then weeks later I traveled twelve hours by train to the rural town in southern Switzerland. During the ride I relaxed into the thought of someone comforting awaiting me, possibly my only solace left in my turbulent world.
During our days in the Alps, Demian and I climbed hundreds of meters under the soft Swiss sun. He packed us peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and carried the giant water bottle, and we fought through cramps and fatigue until we achieved a gratifying elevation at which the soft-petaled Edelweiss flower could grow. I had seen this rare treasure—Austria's national flower—growing from mountain soil only once before, and when we touched its thick, pointed petals, they felt like velvety fur. We shivered in the spray of magnificent, torrential waterfalls hidden inside cavernous mountains. We drank and chattered and laughed with other hostelers—late teens and early twenty-somethings coming from familiar Southern California and distant Australia.
On our last night in the Alps we went on a dangerous midnight mission with our new clique—who we met and would say good-bye to in that Swiss hostel—in search of sheep. Day and night we had listened to the ceaseless, hollow clanging of rustic bells attached to sheep wandering through the rolling green hills around the hostel.
"You are crazy. You can't do it." It was my voice protesting. "It's so dangerous—you could get arrested. What if you get caught, you won't be able to leave Switzerland!"
But he and the guys from Australia and LA were already planning their raid of the sheep bells. They left me and the other girls in the opaque blackness of the fresh countryside while they chased after the innocent clanging.
shuffle…clangclangclang!… "F--k!"…tumble…thump!… "Yeah! Yes!"
And they were back, jeans mud-soaked, faces caked with dirt and glowing, each holding up a traditional bell dangling from its leather strap—the ultimate Swiss souvenir. I had been pissed to be left behind in the typical gender division, and frustrated by Demian's irreverent boyish determination. But when I saw the prize, my stomach couldn't help but lurch in the excitement of unlikely victory.
Each night, Demian and I drank and danced at Lauterbrunnen's only bar. Guzzling half-liters of beer out of plastic cups and shooting tequila with an orange slice and cinnamon, we breathed in the heavy air of dirty, mountain sweat flavored with bug repellent and sunscreen. We moved our bodies to techno and euro-pop, alongside youngsters from places we had only heard about, and our bare torsos pressed together in the sticky heat.
He pretended to be pleased when I translated his English into German for waiters, bus drivers, and shop owners. I privately resented him when he snatched the train schedule from my hands, insisting on reading it for me; wouldn't allow me to help him prepare dinner, carry the backpack, or pay for anything. Our personalities began to grind against one another. We argued heatedly with each other in clandestine, echoing locations, and spoke about irrelevant subjects through gritted teeth when surrounded by others.
"I'm not going to argue about this with you," he said, abruptly turning up the hill toward the rest of our group.
"Demian, come back here. Hey! We are having a conversation," my voiced bounced off the rocks with waterfalls rushing over them, battling the serenity around us, struggling to remain steady.
He turned and glared at me, his own voice shaking now, his bare, tan chest heaving like a little boy trying to break out of a man's body. "I don't want to play these games. Why don't you come up here to me."
"Because," I screamed in a whisper, "I don't want our friends to see us fighting, please come back." I had taken on the tone I reserve for the children I baby-sit, and it startled me. "I don't want to fight. I just want to explain to you why I like to do things for myself sometimes. I'm not mad. I just need you to understand me."
"Well, I don't," he was at my level now, "I was just trying to do something nice for you. I don't understand why you don't want me to do that."
There was no answer.
He didn't have any patience for my intensified ramblings about feminist thought anymore. He said "f--k" too much and made lowbrow jokes that made my insides squirm. I was too hard on him, and reinterpreted his desire to do things for me as an attempted coup on my independence. Maybe we had changed in those two months apart, exploring new places, new people, ourselves. Maybe neither of us was ready to give up a little part of ourselves for another person.
But while we were in Switzerland, we still ran and danced and raced down mountains and held hands and whispered secrets to each other alone at night.
I love the way your skin stretches over your muscles.
Why do I like you? … You're basically everything I've ever wanted in a girl.
Everything that makes you vulnerable, that's why I'm here.
I like the feel of your belly ring. I wish we had gotten started earlier.
He was the first person I slept with, right there in a private room of the summer hostel in that small alpine town.
We held hands when he walked me to the train station the next morning. He gave me a kiss good-bye and a Kurt Vonnegut novel he had traded with someone at the hostel to replace the one I had finished on the long ride from Vienna less than a week before. We promised to keep in touch and see each other again soon; but we both knew we were lying. After that we emailed each other maybe two or three times. I stayed abroad, he transferred to a different university; beyond that, we more or less kept to our respective ends of California and never saw each other again. I came back to Vienna with a couple of hickies and a bladder infection, and went on to Prague a few weeks later without his lyrical emails to chase away the fear and loneliness rumbling deep within my belly.
I began my semester in Prague completely alone—without family, without friends, without the boy, without even a phone card. I cried in my room most evenings or mornings for the first two weeks, and considered buying a return ticket to Vienna daily. This time when the nervous hives broke out on my wrists I was convinced I was too hopelessly ill and deformed to face the other people in the program and that it would be best to go home immediately and spend the rest of the fall in my bed. Then I remembered that I no longer had a bed at home. So instead, I wore long-sleeved shirts every one of those sweltering, upper-nineties days in the central European cusp of summer and fall.
By the end of those first two weeks in Prague the rash had cleared up, and I slowly started to make friends with people who would end up becoming essential members of my life for years to come. Demian emailed me once more—after a month of silence—and I read it over and over, but eventually didn't respond.
I stepped out of my dorm onto the cobbled, winding streets in the second district of that beautiful eastern European city. I jetted down Francouszka toward the double-spired church, Namesti Miru, and pulled myself onto the sturdy red tram, squeezing my body into the mass of Czechs overcrowding it. Their exquisite, guttural words tantalized my ears—sounds I had never known people's mouths could make. We rolled past a long, low building that I would soon learn was the café where famous dissidents met secretly before the 1989 Velvet Revolution, rounded the corner where "the dancing building" designed by Frank Gehry was perched, passed the national theater, left exquisite and untouched—like all of Prague's architecture—by the war. And I spotted the luscious green Vltava through the dusty window pressed against my bare, unsteady shoulder. I maneuvered my way off the tram and let my eyes dive into the wide, peaceful river, bedecked on all sides with fairytale bridges, castles, bluffs, facades, and green and red trees. Right there I allowed myself to fall in love with Prague. The city became another one of my homes—no less familiar than northern California, New York, or Vienna.
Finding myself again at the edge of the Vltava,
months later, I traced my gloved fingers along the icy wooden rail
high above its gentle, rippling water. I pulled my thick, navy blue
hat down over my ears, and let my chin nestle into the rough lapel of
my grey wool coat. I watched the red tram—with dozens of coats
pressed together in its warm, glowing interior—roll by and
rumble to a stop. I quickened my pace to a jog, puffing my breath out
in tiny clouds, and swung myself on, just as the doors creaked shut.
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