Part I: Getting There is Half the Fun
The train ride out of Dresden was pleasant enough. The scenery was green and lush. Prague waited at the end of the line—a line wrought with the romance and tragedy of other people’s history. So much had happened on those tracks, blood and love and metamorphosis.
In contrast to the old that engulfed us was the bright youth of our day. It was young, and so were we. I was traveling with two friends, D and M, and we were full of promise and adventure, our heads heavy with lust and liquor. We carried them high with the occasional nodding.
We met some American girls on the train and found comfort in their kinship while drinking lazily between sunbeams and darkened tunnels. There was much in the way of eyelashes and laughter, a tango of social graces that started at their smiles and drifted gently downward. We spun. We dipped. It was an afternoon on a dance card, and the songs were softly humming.
There were two stops in Prague and ours was the second, which appeared to be the case with all of the tourists. The car echoed with the heaving of countless backpacks, and the finishing of liquors that had got them this far.
A man appeared, then many more. They boarded at the first stop, and it was easy to see that this was their livelihood, the constant commute between two stations, rubbing against the wanderers of the world and selling their wares. In the case of our visitor, it was the goods of lodging.
It startled us to have someone offer us a room in a private flat, but a quick aside and we agreed to the terms. The previous unspoken plan had been to get off the train and track down one of the many hostels that filled our traveling books, and then to woo women. We had gone further on less.
The American girls, as women are prone to do, were already prepared and had a hotel room booked in advance. They were much more organized than we had ever considered being.
The apartment in question belonged to a jazz musician that was currently on tour. The room had three cots, one for each of us, and access to the kitchen, which we used as a place to sit beneath low-swinging lightbulbs while drinking midday beers out of old, glass jelly jars. There were good, long talkings there.
We decided to get something to eat and stepped outside with nowhere to go and all the time to get there. We took the first right and ran into the American girls stepping from their hotel. They smiled again. Our eyes wandered.
Together we ate some bland food, drank heavily, and made our way to the main square in old Prague. It breathed deeply of pain and fairy tales, not much different than what Kafka would have walked through, but with less bugs and slightly more neon.
There is a clock there, in that old square, that is the most beautiful timepiece I have ever seen. In fact, the story goes that upon its completion, the monarch that sanctioned it had taken the artist and cut his eyes out so that he could never create another clock that might surpass its grandeur.
I can’t help but think that the artist found his loss well worth it.
Part II: The Pretty Americans
There was a club, downstairs and through a dark, damp hallway, that, according to locals, had once been a dungeon. Now it was a bar filled with cheap beer and dancing women. We went in and found a table.
The place echoed with a lifetime of screams and sweat—only now they were accompanied by a house beat rather than the shadow of a looming noose. Hang the DJ and chalk one up for progress.
We were weeks into our trip, and by the time we got to Prague we had already spent time in Paris and Amsterdam, not to mention one confusing night in Germany; it wasn’t our first bar, and it wouldn’t be the last, however, it was the best.
We found ourselves sitting at a community table with an assortment of young men from all over Europe that were visibly interested in the girls that had entered with us. Someone bought beer, and it, as they say, was on.
My companions and I had long been traveling under the single purpose of not becoming a stereotype: the “Ugly American,” which, of course, had nothing to do with our appearance (because we’re handsome). One of the topics that we had avoided throughout our trip was politics. It felt like a good idea.
That night, drunk in a dungeon, America, as a topic, was brought out for us. Young men from a handful of different countries went on… and on, about our military and our might. They wanted to know about California and the streets of gold. They were curious and excited about America, which frankly, was the last response we had expected. This was a time before George W., and apparently the world still loved us. I sipped my beer and watched the night spin on the dance floor.
The American girls found better ways to have their egos stroked, and had long been swept away by men with dangerous accents and possible facial scars. We had plans to attend a show with them the next afternoon, Rage Against the Machine, and the last words I heard from them involved breakfast. Then they disappeared until the epilogue.
In the meantime, we had become celebrities of sorts, based on nothing more than our presence and our passports. I found myself the focus of attention by throngs of beautiful women. It was either the greatest night ever or we were being set up for a huge rolling in the alley. We drank our beer and we took our chances.
At one point, the girl that I had been dancing with asked me to teach her how to two-step, which I knew to be some sort of cowboy dance and she knew to be undeniably American. I figured I could wing it. Hell, I could fake the jitterbug if I thought it was foreplay.
The DJ was more than happy to oblige with a nod and a country music staple. I got ready to dazzle them with my boot-scoot boogie, and I may have. I honestly don’t recall if I danced or not. I was drunk and being seduced by a 6′ Czech beauty, the night was quick with blurry. I remember I was prepared, but when the music started, which set-off the second all bar sing-along of the night, I may have been too busy laughing to dance. It happens.
By the time the chorus came around I felt like I was in a Coors Light commercial. We all raised our beers, and we sang our hearts out:
…the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky.
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby.
Rocky mountain high (Colorado) rocky mountain high (Colorado)…
It was awesome.
It was also five in the morning.
Part III: Lovers & Fighters
We didn’t have our guidebook with us. In fact, we had lost our map earlier and had been led through the city by the well-prepared ladies from Florida. What we had was the tray liner from an earlier stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken. It showed the city and the various KFC locations in it, one of which was located a short walk from where we were staying. Everything was a short walk. Some longer than others.
Before the Colonel had a chance to guide us home we were being whisked away by the Czech girl and her friend. They had another bar they wanted to take us to. Who were we to argue?
Jon Voight, you may recall, fell from The Charles Bridge, and it was ours to drink upon it, for that is where the bar was—on our end of that bridge, cloaked in fog and implying intrigue.
We went inside. M, as he was prone to do, soon found himself sitting in a chair with a girl’s face in his lap. In the lobby. The rest of us bellied up to the bar.
The girl that had guided me through the streets on a string of kiss-covered whispers had suddenly become a ball of the unfun emotions. She had a fresh wound made from man issues, and my resemblance to said man was the reason that she had attached herself to me. He sounded handsome. Very handsome. Then the ugly crying started.
It was late. Or early. I was too drunk to care. D, however, who had made his stake thus far by being the understanding type, took an interest. I sat at the bar and drank whiskey. Outside the window the sun started to shine on the deep, brown waters of the Vltava.
A man that seemed old at the time, probably nearing sixty, was talking to the girl at this point, and whatever he said it pushed her buttons. She took upset to a whole new level, and as M and his new acquaintance were standing by the door, I suggested we get the hell out of there.
We were walking in the cool morning light, M leading the way, following the trail of chicken, and the rest of us a few steps back. The girls were crying, D was soothing, and I was looking at the rapids of the river.
Suddenly it became clear that I was now the object of her anger. The girl was upset that I had not stuck up for her in the bar. I had no idea what she was talking about. Didn’t she know chivalry was dead in America?
Apparently the guy that had approached her had called her a whore. A fucking whore to be exact, because she was in the company of Americans. He had offered her money and promised her a better time. Oddly, he had no words for her friend that was obviously the easy one.
“What did you want me to do?” I asked.
“Hit him,” she cried. “Defend me.”
I looked at the river and I turned around. I walked into the bar with a beautiful crying woman on my arm, which was usually how I left them, and came face to face with the accused as he was preparing to leave.
“Did you call her a whore?” I asked.
He looked shocked. “N-n-no!” he said, waving his hands in front of me and backing down the stairs.
The girl was behind me, screaming things like “liar!” and “hit him!”
“Did you call her a fucking whore?” I continued.
“I called her what she is,” he laughed.
I punched him in the face and he fell over backwards, down a few more stairs and crashed soundly into a table on the barroom floor. I kept walking towards him, stepping over chairs and feeling her arms grow tight around me.
When I reached him he was cowering. I bent down to grab his collar and could hear the cries of the girl behind me and the heated accusations that D was now throwing at the drunk. I paused when I heard the voice of the bartender rise above the others, and suddenly I realized where I was and what I was doing. I didn’t care to test the limits of my hours old celebrity.
I glanced up and my eyes met those of the man behind the bar.
“Hit him,” he said in a thick accent. He mimed his best uppercut. “That guy is an asshole!”
Apparently I was still within the good graces of the city. I decided to stay there. I pulled the man up to what would have been his height if he had let his feet touch the ground, looked him in the eyes and whispered “fuck you” before dropping him back to the floor. I walked up the stairs, suddenly sober and fiercely focused.
I turned to watch as the girl and D lingered. My best friend D, standing at 5’7, next to the beautiful crying girl, who was 6′ easy, and the drunk, still on his ass, his hands waving through the air at a room of locals with no need to help him.
D yelled a few more times, demanding an apology from the man. I don’t know if he got it. He was kicking him in the stomach when I turned and walked back into the sun.
Part IV: I’m Not That Strong a Swimmer
M was nowhere to be seen, and I figured he had kept walking toward the flat, or was possibly in a doorway somewhere letting the friend finish what she had started. I walked to the corner, where street meets bridge, and watched as D and the crying girl stumbled into the morning.
They stopped. She was still in a bad way and D was still sensitive. I was done and tired. I started up the street and found M, alone, standing in the middle of an empty intersection, slowly turning the KFC map in his hands and looking at his surroundings with the blank stare of a man that had no clue.
Minutes passed. We hadn’t moved and D had not caught up. I mumbled to myself as I retraced my steps to retrieve him. He wasn’t there.
I decided they must have gone back into the bar, and as I had no intention of following them I approached the edge of the bridge to pass my time by watching water and dreaming of sleep.
They were in the river.
She was a good distance ahead of him and they were both swimming strongly towards the middle of the river and the heavy current of old world water that flowed there.
I yelled. D stopped and looked up at me, only the top of his head visible against the shadows of the stretching city.
“She’s killing herself!” he shouted, then he turned to swim again.
My mind raced. This, I thought, is some crazy shit. I stripped down to my boxers and called for M, who came running around the corner and froze, tray liner in both hands. He was about forty feet away.
“Call 911!” I shouted.
He started to turn, then stopped, and waved the paper in front of him. “They don’t have 911!”
I couldn’t let someone die. I couldn’t go home without my best friend. I saw his mother’s face and me, stumbling, trying to explain how he had drown and I had stood there, arguing in my underwear in the middle of a slowly stirring city.
“Call somebody.” I said, and I dove in.
D had reached her and was swimming back toward me. I met them halfway. She was unconscious, and he was slipping repeatedly beneath her weight into the crushing current of the river.
I took her and placed her arms around me, just as they had been but an hour ago. Only now there was no warmth. There was no tightness. She was cold and unresponsive.
It no longer mattered that someone had called her a whore. I no longer cared that she had chosen to end the night crying instead of kissing me between sighs and whispers. She grew heavy on my back as we swam in the water and I never took my eyes off of D’s face.
If there was a way out of the river we couldn’t find it. Its banks had centuries ago been grown over with bricks and cobblestones, and we found a patch against the wall beneath the street that we could place her on.
She had a pulse and the slightest of breaths. Water poured out of her mouth and ran back to the depths from which it came. She was trembling with shock and cold. We were freezing. We removed everything but her undergarments and rubbed our hands across her body, trying desperately to fend off the greedy grasp of death that she battled. I put my lips on hers and gave back every breath that she had offered me a few drinks ago, now with more fear than passion.
Sirens grew from the distance. Eventually there were voices above us. Everyone from the bar was there, even the drunk. M was looking down at us with relief and amusement. Firemen and police, all with mustaches and cigarettes, started calling to us in every language but one we understood.
Finally, a gurney of sorts was lowered. We placed the girl that had cried carefully upon it and watched as she disappeared from our lives forever.
A rope ladder was thrown down and we climbed up to a hundred faces and more questions. I remember M handing me my clothes as I watched the drunk talk to the police. He kept pointing at me.
I woke up with my head pressed flat against a heater. It was the old kind that looks like a radiator sticking out of the wall. It was on. I only moved my head enough to turn the cheek and warm the other side.
I was freezing and I was in jail. M and D were sitting beside me on a bench, equally cold and just as confused.
The drunk walked by us. “You,” he said to me. “You learn how to dive in the English Navy?”
I wasn’t sure if he had already forgotten that I was American, or if the fact that my dive was closer to a belly flop was some sort of crack against the English. I ignored him, and he was guided away.
I had assumed, as I usually did when waking in a police station, that we were in some sort of trouble. Thankfully that wasn’t the case.
“You boys are heroes,” is what they told us. They had taken us to the station to speak with an interpreter, and sometime during my sleep the entire story had come out. There were pats upon our cold, wet backs. There were pictures for the paper.
Two policemen that could have passed for teenagers if not for the thickness of their mustaches picked us up out front. Their squad car was at least 15 years old. There was duct tape on the door joints and a handful of air fresheners hanging from the rear-view mirror, which was also covered in duct tape.
They both turned to look at us as we sat in the backseat, smiling through the smoke of their cigarettes.
“Hey,” said one. “You Americans, you like to swim, no?” They both laughed.
M handed them the KFC sheet with our location circled. They looked at it like it was the most natural thing in the world, started the car, turned on the siren, and cranked the techno.
They drove fast, smoking and laughing, talking to us the entire time, and never looking at the street in front of them. I couldn’t hear a word they were saying.
It had been raining again. We had started the day with a boat tour around Lake Lucerne, nestled softly in the grace of the Swiss Alps. We had only been in Switzerland two days and the price of Guinness alone was enough to ensure that this day would be our last.
We needed to cut time anyway, as we had spent extra days in Prague drinking heavily and gently kissing girls goodbye in the open doorways of slow-moving trains crawling away from platforms, headed in the wrong direction.
Just before we left we stood in the ruins of an old castle, trying to stay dry as the showers returned. There was a group of Canadians there, and as was often the practice when traveling as we were, everyone started to trade stories from their respective journeys like so many cigarettes in prison.
One of them offered up a tale he had heard. He had met some American girls with beautiful smiles somewhere in Austria who had told him about these guys they had met in Prague—three American guys; and how those guys, those three guys drunk with lust and liquor that they had last seen waving goodbye from a fading train station, had spent one small hour defending a girl’s honor, and one long morning saving her life.
His voice trembled as the words drifted off beneath the still falling rain. Someone said it was cold. We all nodded, and I said we’d seen colder.
A little while later we caught our train without long goodbyes burdened in words or wrapped in kisses. We waved to no one but the breaking of sunbeams, and we slept the entire way to Barcelona.