It is August of 2013 and I am applying red lipstick in a train bathroom. The train wiggles and jiggles on the tracks but it’s a motion I’ve grown used to over the past 48 hours. Right now I am in Oregon. I woke up with the Cascades surrounding me, which is to say I woke up crying. Until yesterday, I hadn’t ever seen a mountain and now my soul feels full with them. I rush to throw on my lipstick because I haven’t showered in three days and I hope this will make me feel less disgusting, but I don’t want to miss any more of the peaks than I have to. When I come back to my seat the mountains are still there, cut across with lines from the years they’ve existed, reflected in the water of the mighty river running beside the Empire Builder. I am sure that love exists because mountains are love and this trip is not about finding love, but I have! I think about all the times I announced my intentions to run away from this country, but I’d never even seen it.
I am on my way to Portland from Chicago. By plane the trip takes roughly four hours, by train it takes over two days. Back in Chicago it is Lollapalooza weekend. It is steaming hot, the air so thick you’re sure that you’ve been breathing in soup forever and the image of snow, though you know its marching towards you, feels totally impossible. This summer had been uneventful. I hadn’t found a boy to keep me occupied, I hadn’t seen anything particularly earth shattering. One of my friends was moving to Boston, another spent the summer in Vermont. I had one semester left of college and I was beginning to wonder where I would go next.
Which is why I am rolling into Portland now, Elliott Smith singing in my ears. I am on the West Coast. The West Coast, like the Pacific Ocean and Northern Exposure and so close to Canada and the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades and all of those little boxes I had seen on maps and globes but had never thought I’d see in real life. Portland’s city scape is not really a city scape. There is a bridge and in the distance you can see the snow capped tip of Mt. Hood. I wanted to feel my soul coming home to rest, some voice in the back of my head saying, “this is where you should go next.” But there is only Elliott and the growing anticipation of walking with my backpack for the first time in two days.
It is Sunday at 11 am when I get off of the train. I call my mom.
“I am on the West Coast.” And the realization still sends shivers down my spine. The same way it did when I called her from Prague the summer before. There is something about knowing your toes are in a different part of the world than they’ve ever been before that thrills me beyond all else.
“How is it so far?” She asks. It’s a ghost town. There are bus stops and I have directions on my phone from my host telling me where to go, but I am very new here.
“Um, it’s really empty.”
Even on Chicago’s slowest days it’s full. There are people waiting at bus stops, or couples walking down the streets holding hands. There are tourists with cameras around their necks, and panhandlers shaking dirty white cups at you while they plead for help. In Portland at that moment, I felt like I was alone.
For all intents and purposes, I was alone. I had been alone for the past two days. One of the reasons I decided to take the train was for the time I would spend in solitude, thinking about myself and my future and the boy who had broken my heart and the boy who’s heart I’d broken, and what I thought I wanted and what I thought I could do. Being alone was something I could handle. So I said goodbye to my mom and I walked to a bus stop where I waited.
A little over a year prior, I wasn’t sure that I could handle even one hour on my own. In May of 2012, the night before I was meant to board a plane with my best friend to go to Prague, I sat in bed next to someone I thought loved, waiting to hear him say the one thing I wanted him to say. I think I wanted to tell him that I loved him, that even though he refused a significant commitment, all I wanted was him. I wanted him to tell me he loved me, he wanted me, he wanted me to stay with him. I started crying, blaming my fear of traveling (of which I have absolutely none, I love traveling.) But the truth was that I knew he would take off and I would never have him again if I left him in Chicago while I haunted Kafka’s paths in Prague.
It’s essential to understand that this is not what love is. Love is not about keeping someone close to you so they can’t leave you. It’s not about curbing your dreams to make things easier for them. I don’t know what love is, but it is not that.
“I’m going to be so lonely over there. You’ll Skype with me, right?” I’d asked, tears settling in my eyes.
“Sure.” He never sounded convincing. He was staring up at my ceiling, at my Kurt Cobain poster. He blinked slowly as if to let me know he would fall asleep soon, still curved into me in the way I had gotten so used to over the past few months.
“You’ll miss me, right?”
“Yeah.” But his voice was limp. How many times had I asked that same question? I needed the answer to make me feel safe. Those words were breathed into the air and I pulled them down and stuffed them into my chest. When I recalled them later, in Prague, I would make them sound more passionate. I would push away how cold he had gotten.
I pressed my face into his chest and tried to breathe. That moment, when his arms were still around me, and in the next morning when he kissed me goodbye and I watched him walk out my front door towards his car, was the end of that chapter. And I knew it even though I would warm myself with his memory for weeks to come.
In Portland I meet the lovely individuals I will be staying with and then wander down the street for a cappuccino. I write in my journal, “I am on the West Coast. I am in Portland. It is beautiful.” Because things are blooming everywhere, and the oppressive summer heat is stayed by soft breezes. It feels strange to be settled in one spot. I miss the mountains. I can’t stop thinking about where I belong. I had a similar discussion with my best friend, James, a month prior when his job offered to re-locate him to Boston so he could keep it. He struggled with the decision for a while, professing his love for Chicago, but admitted that after the offer was made, the city felt a little strange. Almost like he had overstayed his welcome. Chicago was growing stale for me as well, encouraging me in its friendly, Midwestern way to move on. Was Portland the right place?
It feels freeing to be so far away from everyone I know. I can wander where I please, I am on my own schedule. While my friends and family marveled at my decision to travel all by myself, it seemed like the obvious option. I had always wanted to go to the West Coast and I had been waiting for an opportunity. No one had gotten me tickets to California, no one had been planning a trip to Seattle, no one said, “we should all go to Portland together.” So I went by myself. Something I had learned in the past year was that, without follow through, your dreams might turn fallow. You have to be able to move yourself; otherwise you’re useless. If you are waiting for Prince/Princess Charming to make things happen, you’ll never do anything. Or at least I wouldn’t be able to. I was tired of treading water.
It took me a few weeks to get used to Prague. For the first week I was constantly checking my email, signing onto Skype, trying to get in touch with this boy who had been by my side constantly the three months before. There was a castle on a hill and cobblestones and bridges and structures older than the discovery of my own country, but everything was ash compared to what I was missing. Missing him felt like a tornado inside of my chest. It hurt, and everything was scrambled and torn and so fucking empty. And I wanted everyone to think I was happy, that I had a happy relationship waiting for me back home. Part of me wanted nothing more than to impress the others, to show them that I did deserve love with something as superficial as showing them pictures of us together, my head on his shoulder, his head resting on the crown of mine. I knew he was vanishing and Prague was magical, and that I was in a limbo that I had never known before. Gibson_Prague02
So much of my life has been about proving to others via outside sources that I am a viable individual in the world. It’s not so easy when you are chronically single. When the whole world, in one way or another, tries to figure out what is wrong with you when you say you are not seeing anyone. There is a time limit on how long you can go without sex, without a significant other, without a first kiss. I never stay in the limits. I’m always single for too long, maybe my virginity has grown back by now, I don’t remember how to kiss because I don’t want to kiss just anyone. I want someone to deserve me, even though the world tells me that I’m expiring.
I had my own intervention after roughly 14 days of worrying myself sick over this boy’s impending absence in my life. I found a spot I could call my own in Letná Park, a little rough patch of dirt near the edge, overlooking the bridges of the city, and I wrote in my journal, “I am not this girl.” And after I got done telling myself this I realized that I was in a city that deserved my attention, and I could not think of this trip with the grey haze of heartbreak, I fell in love. I wrote in my journal, “be still and know that Prague exists.”
I meet up with the friend of a friend at a bar on my last night in Portland. She made the move I am toying with making in my head. ORD to PDX, Midwest to West. We sit at a table sipping beers and finding things in common. We are both baristas. She used to live in Wicker Park. We had gotten drunk at the same bars in Chicago. We both felt like home was a concept that was constantly moving. I realize that I am always looking to surround myself with people who want to move and not settle into a place forever. When I talk about the need I have to see so much of the world while my friends are all getting married, I don’t get judgment. She talks about Seattle. I talk about Prague.
“We wandered and wandered and we always ended up in Wenceslas Square.” I told her over my third beer. “Everything about that city seemed magical. Even when we’d come home at night and have to walk up the stairs back through the park, and there are about a million of them, and they are so steep. When you look at them at first it seems like you’re about to climb a mountain.”
“It sounds like you want to be in Prague,” she says. It is such a simple statement from someone who doesn’t really know me at all. There is no reason for it to ring so true, but I feel it in my chest. The same way I’d felt when I saw my ex on the train platform for the first time and decided to go up to him and say hello. The same way I’d felt when I saw the mountains and my blood felt fluttery and free, as if I had just seen some crucial part of my future before I was meant to.
“I do want to be in Prague.” And that is the final decision. I came to Portland to see if it would soothe my soul, to see if I could see my future.
The summer that we were there, everyone talked about moving to Prague just about every day. In between our renditions of “A Whole New World” and writing classes, we would make up a whole future for ourselves in this land. We talked about starting a reading series at the English-speaking bookstore, we talked about looking at apartments, we talked about all of us living together, hippie commune style. Everyone’s eyes would light up, and we would nod in agreement. We sunk our heels into the grass in Letná Park and read next to one another. Nothing but the buzz of the mosquitos around us, sometimes the scratching of a pen if the sentence spoke to our soul. There were nights when we drank wine straight from the bottle and bared our souls to one another. Each of us taking turns being vulnerable, speaking our untrained, early-twenties truths.
The day before the last three of us left to go back to Chicago I wrote in my journal in the Loreta Church. You have to pay to get in, and I don’t really remember what it was all about but I remember relishing in the quiet. Sitting in a pew and writing out, “remember, Prague is always with you. Be still, and know that Prague exists.”
Be still and know that Prague exists.
I am on the West Coast.
I am alone, but I am ok.
Be still and know that Prague exists.
Gibson Culbreth is a girl named after a guitar. She hails from Louisville, KY and has so far followed the Daisy Buchanan path by moving from the South to Chicago about five years ago. She has read for 2nd Story and her fiction has been published in the Story Week Reader, Hypertext and the Molotov Cocktail. In December 2013 graduated with a BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago, making her the first person in her family to go to and graduate college. Next up she will move to Prague where she will teach English and attempt to finish her novel.