Walking across the Charles Bridge that dark morning was the loneliest I’ve been in my life. My so-called friends had “borrowed” my last crowns for a cab ride home. It was the night after New Year’s, where we had spent the holiday in some village outside of Prague, where donkeys still pulled carts down the country roads. My new friends, whom I would never see again, were friends of my host family, two or three Czech guys, I can’t remember, and two women from Munich. We drove in Jan’s car, out to a country inn, to celebrate New Year’s.
I have two or three distinct memories of that evening. One is about twenty Czech guys dancing around me, pointing at me, singing along to the chorus of the Pet Shop Boys remake of “Go West,” laughing as if that was possibly the funniest joke ever created.
My other memory is Marek handing me glass after glass of champagne, which I politely declined, or that’s what I thought, but I still ended up seeing double, something I’d never experienced before, nor since.
The rest of the night I don’t remember nor do I want to, but it lasted well into the next day, and into the next night, and ended sometime in the dark of the morning in a smoky techno club in the center of Prague, until Marek, Jan, and the two German girls piled into a cab without me, with my last crowns, leaving me all alone, finally, to face my thoughts.
The walk home to Zavěrka street wasn’t too far, although it seemed that way at 2a.m. The once crisp white snow had turned to a gray sludge, nestled between the cobblestones. The illuminated statues on the Charles Bridge, my only friends it seemed, looked about as lonely as I felt, stoicly facing the horizon. I didn’t want to walk anymore. I wanted to stop. What was the point. My mom had already told me I needed to stop calling home. She said I needed to snap out of it. I needed to seize the day. Take Prague by storm. Paint the town red. Like it was all so easy. But how could it be easy. I didn’t speak the language. I was crippled.
By Christmas time, I had stopped telling her the truth, because the truth meant I was failing. All of her letters in response provided solutions to all of my problems, but all I wanted her to say was that she understood the pain I was in, but how could she understand. If I wasn’t making it, it simply had to be a question of attitude. Just find that silver lining. You can do it, chin up. But do what, when asking for a rohlik at a kiosk is the scariest thing you can do, when fumbling for words to ask for the price really means, Help me. I’m falling.
My letters home were lies, some of which she proudly published in her newspaper devoted to autocrossing, so the entire subscription base, mostly family friends, could see how successful and brave her daughter was, thriving in a former Soviet country like that.
I stood at the edge of the bridge, and I looked down at the rippling water, and I had this thought. If I jumped off this bridge, probably, no one would notice that I was gone. I’d probably float for a long time, and die from hypothermia. Word would probably not even make it back to California, not for weeks and weeks, because the Czech system at that time was so slow. I couldn’t even get my mail delivered in a reasonable amount of time, if at all. How could I trust the country’s officials to notify my parents of my demise. How was this going to work. Would it work.
Then there was the film issue. In the pocket of my purple Humi parka — my very own butt ugly Czech-made purple parka that differentiated me from the other ex-patriates who would never go that far to look like a local; it was hard enough saying “Kolik!” (how much?) — was my camera, and in that camera was some film, and I really wanted to see those pictures.
Then there was the issue of the parka itself. I really liked that parka. Markéta took me to buy it one day, in a shop run by Chinese immigrants. I had no idea what they were saying, and Markéta said she barely did either, but there was some yelling and a lot of handwaving, and out from the back came my purple Humi jacket, my very own.
I couldn’t throw myself off that bridge. I had too many things to live for.
I walked home, in the dead of night, up the stairs ’round the Prague Castle, back to Zavěrka street. Michal and Markéta were waiting for me. The apartment was warm. They had more champagne. They wanted to know all about New Year’s. “Good, good,” I said. I couldn’t tell them anything else.
I still have that purple parka. I still wear it, when the weather calls for it. It’s so ugly, that when I wear it, I look like a purple Michellin man. It is not fashionable. I like the snap on hood, which is handy on cold days. I can tighten the strings so that only my nose sticks out. It is warm and comforting. I can handle any terrain under any weather conditions.
I have scared away past boyfriends with that jacket, like, how dare I wear that in public, like, don’t I have any sense of style or pride.
They don’t know how that purple parka saved my life.