A long time ago, I ran away to Prague.
Why? Didn’t I have a good life where I was?
I’m going to tell you. I promised it to my newsletter subscribers, after all – to answer this question: “When and why did you leave the US and how did you decide to settle in Prague?”
So hold on tight. Here we go.
The roots for it begin far in my childhood, when I was five years old and my dad took my brother and me to the mall to get my mom a birthday present. I utilized the “pretty-pretty-please” look with my dad and we came back with a kitten instead (and, so my mom says, no birthday present).
I loved that cat, but she was fierce. I still have scars twenty years later. Under my eye, across my cheek, across my palm. My dad finally kicked her out of the house for tearing up the furniture, and she became an even more ferocious outdoor cat. Once, she attacked a humongous stray dog that was running straight at me in our yard. She hissed and smacked his nose until he flinched and ran off.
By the time I was seven, I knew something was off about me. It wasn’t the visions of vast armies that were going to end the world and that gave me a feeling of utter hopelessness–I never told anyone about those–but the constant feeling that I didn’t belong. I wasn’t quite normal. It wasn’t even anything I could quite pinpoint, just a feeling of being…off.
First, I wanted to move to another state to live with my grandparents–maybe I would belong there.
But, of course, my parents wouldn’t let me go. I was only seven.
In high school, I wanted to study abroad in London–maybe I would belong there.
But I was too shy to really look into it. I got distracted trying to find a boyfriend, even though no one wanted me. I was invisible to guys even though my friends swore I was pretty. Four years passed and I watched them all pair up one by one while I slumped along, unseen, on the sidelines.
By college, I knew I didn’t belong. I didn’t quite fit anywhere, like a puzzle piece that had lost its board and was trying to squeeze into another picture.
At the beginning of my junior year of university, I applied to study abroad in Berlin.
They refused me.
I was shuffled instead like unwanted moldy bread into the program in Vienna, Austria. I wasn’t enthused, but I was like, “I’ve got to get out of here”, so I took it. The departure date was set for January 1997.
Then, in October 1996, I met him.
I was with my roommate, wandering around campus one evening. Our rambles brought us into the communal center of the university. A guy from one of my classes was sitting on a glossy black couch…with another guy who was pretty much lounging on it in a lazy sprawl and grinning.
I met the lounging guy’s eyes, and I’d never had a more pivotal moment in my life. I swear my inner world had tilted on its axis and upended everything I’d ever known with the certainty that he would change my life.
He had a foreign accent and an insane name that I recited back to him perfectly after the first time he told it to me (and I still can). He had a broad, fun grin, messy black hair, and wore holey t-shirts and pants that hung on his hips. He was tall, skinny, came from some gorgeous tropical island, had lived in Florida, and had family friends in San Antonio where our university was. He listened when I spoke, laughed a lot, said the funniest things (well, I thought so), and I was pretty much head-over-heels in love within a week.
Occasionally, though, he smiled as if he knew a secret I didn’t. My roommate told me he was rich…as in filthy rich. I laughed because he wore holey clothes and never combed his hair. I didn’t care about grooming myself (I probably haven’t combed my hair since I was thirteen), but wouldn’t he care about grooming if he were from the ‘upper echelons’?
Apparently, people who grow up rich sometimes dress like they aren’t because they’re sick of people cozying up to them just for their money.
Apparently, that’s what he did. Because when I asked him about it, he laughed and fessed up. He outright admitted that he’d grown up traveling the Indian Ocean on ships with his father. He’d been in countless countries around the world, and his family was rich.
It didn’t change anything for me, except for the fact that he’d been all over the world and I hadn’t been anywhere outside of the States. Where had he been? What was it like? I wanted to know a million things.
In November, I started to freak out a bit. I was supposed to leave for Vienna in January for half a year, and I didn’t want to leave him. My heart did funny things whenever I thought of it.
I asked him if I should cancel the study abroad trip.
He said no. He’d traveled the world. I should travel it, too.
Unhappily, I agreed. I didn’t want to leave our beautiful haven.
But I did.
After he spent Christmas with me and my family (during which a few strange things came to the surface that I’d rather not mention), I packed up my things.
Things were getting stressful by then. I yelled at him once because he didn’t even seem to care I was leaving. I was upset; why wasn’t he? It felt like he was shutting me out.
He held me close and I no longer even know what he said. Maybe that he was trying to distance himself because it would hurt him too much when I left. I just know that his answer left me unsatisfied.
I left my home state of Texas—and my home country for the first time—as planned in January 1997.
I barely made my connecting flight to Vienna—and my suitcases didn’t make it. By the time the suitcases arrived, I’d missed the bus to the train station. Then I missed the train to the small Austrian town where all the study abroad students were to meet.
I arrived the next morning, after most of the students and before the stragglers who had all found each other, so I wasn’t acquainted with anyone. I was the only American below the Mason-Dixon Line, and as such, the only one who didn’t know how to cross-country ski. I couldn’t stand up on them and fell down so much my thighs from knee to hip were purple with bruising. One instructor stayed with me while everyone else shot off. Then the instructor left me, too. I was completely alone in a snow-covered Austrian forest. No idea how to get back.
That was indicative of my entire stay in Austria. I was always the odd one left out.
I didn’t get assigned housing with roommates my age, but ended up by myself hosted in the apartment of an old lady who constantly told me my German was sh*t. I called my boyfriend and wrote him, of course, and he seemed happy whenever we talked, but he never wrote me anything in return. Cell phones weren’t yet a thing.
I was lonely. I tried to make friends but still felt like that odd puzzle piece that didn’t fit.
Then I befriended a cellist who started following me. Slowly, I realized he was a little…too obsessed, and he wouldn’t stop showing up. One day, I ran (as in I really ran, not jogged) ten minutes to the school, even across busy intersections when I had a red light, to try to get away from him. He chased me, and after I got through the door of the school before him and shut it behind me, he stood in wait for another girl to enter, then shoved her aside, breaking into the building, and finally found the classroom five stories up that I was in. They grabbed him by the door and physically hauled him back while he shouted that I’d been abused and was mentally hurt and he wanted to help me get over it. His eyes were crazed; he truly thought I needed help. That led to my teacher taking me to the police station to talk about this dude when I just felt bad for him and said he was harmless.
No one really understood me, and I still didn’t feel like I belonged. The only thing that made me feel happy was knowing I had a boyfriend, but the other students noticed I never got any mail, and some of them asked me outright why the boyfriend I hailed so highly never wrote. Did he even exist?
What was I supposed to say to that? My entire life, I’d never had a boyfriend, and now that I did, people didn’t believe me because he was just…absent. I was the one making all the effort.
As a test, I stopped calling or writing him to see if he would even notice…but for me, things kept getting worse. I hardly had money for food and ran out for three days because of a stupid purchase. I got so hungry I ended up eating sugar and salt from the containers at restaurants I went to with my friends.
I got propositioned in the park by a guy in a wheelchair with headlights, got flirted with by a shifty-eyed drug dealer, and still my boyfriend never wrote.
Then I was groped by an old man at my first ball. Afterward, I roamed the frozen streets at 4am until I called my boyfriend from a pay phone and got his answering machine. I sobbed into it something incoherent.
I thought surely after that, he would write?
A month passed.
I got a letter from an acquaintance who said she’d run into him at the university and he’d asked what was wrong with me, that I’d called him crying on his answering machine.
Inside, I withered. He could have sat his butt down and written me himself if he wanted to know.
Spring began to peek around the corner, and things began to look up. My father sent me a gold credit card so I could eat without fear of running out of money. One of the other students said he was going to Italy and did I want to come with?
I said sure, why not? I hadn’t left Austrian borders because finances, but now I could because of the credit card (and my dad really wanted me to visit Italy because he’d been there in the navy and said I would love it), so I did, and it was–well, if not wonderful, then precisely what I needed right then.
I let my friend (purely a friend, which was also exactly what I needed right then) dictate the itinerary, and essentially all we did was travel to southern Italy and wander castle ruins in tiny towns. We would pack up oranges and chocolate and hike up to some ruins, then just bask in the sun and write or chat and snack. In the evenings, we’d eat pizza at candlelit ristorantes and wander quaint, cobblestone alleyways.
One night, we stayed in a town with no hostels and had to share a hotel room. I was a bit nervous when I emerged from the bathroom in my red silk teddy, and while he was like WTH, I had to explain sheepishly that in order to conserve room in my backpack, I’d packed the strip of silk because it took up a lot less space than more conservative pajamas.
Hey, why not traipse around looking sexy in a hostel when it’s ergonomic, right?
Anyway, he said he’d never had such a relaxing vacation because usually people were hounding him to go to this museum or that monument, and I was just happy to be wandering in another place.
When we returned to Vienna, he pointed out that he had three letters from a girl who was just a friend, and I had yet to get a single one from my boyfriend.
I decided enough was enough.
I went to the post office with change for the payphone. For years, I knew the exact cost of the phone call I placed to him.
After two months of no communication, he picked up the phone.
At my greeting, his voice went all warm and fuzzy and happy as if no time had passed at all.
I completely fell apart inside. After the months of isolation, the constant feelings of not-belonging, the hardly eating, the groping, the stalker, and having my hopes of finally having a real boyfriend dashed, I couldn’t take it.
I cut off whatever he was saying, and with the last vestiges of my self-control, through teeth gritted against what not even I knew was rage or a sob, I asked, “All I want to know is: Is it over.”
There was a moment of silence.
The warm, fuzzy side of him shut up. A few seconds passed.
Then he said: “Yes, it is.” Clipped, frosty, emotionally absent.
Barely holding myself together, I said, “Thank you for your time.”
And I hung up.
I walked out of that post office crying while not making a sound.
I walked the streets like that, shaking my head at passersby who asked me if I was okay. Of course I wasn’t, but they couldn’t do anything for me.
I got to the school, where no one knew what to do with me because I just slumped against the wall with my silent tears and couldn’t stop weeping.
I walked home, and the tears still wouldn’t stop.
After four hours, I called my dad and told him that my boyfriend had broken up with me.
And that’s when I stopped crying. Out of shock. Because I was heartbroken and my father had laughed.
I don’t know how he knew, but it helped.
Somehow, over the following weeks, I crawled out of the black pit of despair I was in.
But my father got all my emails about how much it hurt. He told me later that they always made his heart beat a million miles a minute because they were so emotionally fraught.
Spring sparkled on, and my friends in Vienna invited me on their trip to Prague.
I tagged along, curious and utterly unsuspecting.
And once I stepped off the train and breathed in the air, I sensed something…different. Something right. Something that tugged at me a little inside like a string attached to my heart.
The city was unlike any place I’d been to before. It felt a little like expecting a discovery around every corner, never knowing what might pop up.
After that first trip, I kept going back by myself, each trip a little treasure, something like a blossom unfurling bit by bit.
Then summer came to Vienna, and with it, the Austrians began to smile and bid every passerby, “grüß Gott“.
One guy in the park in particular began to smile.
He introduced me to pumpkin seed and cheese spread, to the Austrian countryside and taught me how to drive a tractor. I wore his old jeans and he wrote songs and played the guitar, singing about my sweet clumsiness. We nearly got hit by a tram because we weren’t paying attention when we stepped into the street.
My semester in Vienna ended, but I didn’t want to go home. Secretly, I still thought of my boyfriend—not the new Austrian one, but the first, the one with the long name and the pretty accent who’d broken up with me and whom my heart wouldn’t forget.
My dad and stepmom came to visit me in Vienna and we met my father’s relatives in Budapest. After my dad and stepmom left, I stayed in Hungary. I grew plump on sugared strawberries, so red and juicy and ripe, and on cauliflower soup and gomoc—a Hungarian dumpling dish with a sweet-tangy yogurt sauce that no other food has ever trumped in my life.
While I was staying with them, my Austrian sent me a telegram because there weren’t cell phones back then and he only had my address and an urgent message. The telegram freaked my Hungarian relatives out. They came running into their flat, all wide-eyed panic, and asked me to read it quick because people only sent telegrams if they were informing someone of some dire news.
He just wanted to tell me he was coming for a visit.
He came and left, and my Hungarian relatives told me he wasn’t for me. He was nice, but I wasn’t into it.
Even strangers could tell, but I smiled and politely ignored it—and ignored the secret ache in my heart for my first boyfriend.
My Austrian asked me to write a letter to his mother for her birthday. I didn’t know it was a trap, because his mother could read (interpret) handwriting and mine alarmed her. She told him to get rid of me, that I was going to break his heart.
He told her I wasn’t like that.
I found out much later that I was.
At the end of the summer, I returned to Texas and reunited with my mom and my dad and stepmom and my ferocious cat. I loved my ferocious cat, hisses and purrs and all. I’d missed her.
I dreaded the return to the university, though, because my boyfriend–ex-boyfriend–went there.
But when I finally went, I discovered he’d been expelled. Apparently, after I left, his grades tanked.
I could last one more year of university, I told myself. He wouldn’t come back.
My Austrian came to visit me, and it was terrible. I was terrible. I didn’t want him to touch me. I could barely talk to him. My father said he’d never been ashamed of me before, but he was then when he saw how I treated this guy.
I broke up with him. I felt terrible, but was still in love with my first boyfriend no matter how much I didn’t want to be. I took refuge in my cat and my stories and…then my ex-boyfriend returned to the university the next semester, my last semester there.
He pretended I didn’t exist.
He just walked right past me every time, as though I were invisible.
I started exercising every day for hours. I went laser-focused on anything I could in order to keep myself from thinking about him, from pining, from being stupidly broken and crying. I didn’t understand why I was so broken. Yes, I’d had the feeling the instant I met him that said he would change my life, but it was over; he didn’t want me. Why couldn’t my mind and heart just move on?
One day, I simply collapsed in tears alone in the dorm room because I understood why people committed suicide, how someone could reach a point where they don’t see any way out, when the fight to keep oneself from despair becomes too relentless, and the person has grown too weary. We’re finite vessels, and some things fill us up too much. Even emptiness, and that’s the worst, because it’s not an open emptiness ready to be filled, but a void that eats any light coming in.
It was like crawling from day to day and smiling and pretending while only chaos reigned inside, and I couldn’t curb it. It only seemed to grow until it nearly consumed me. I hated it, but it hurt so much, and my friends didn’t understand. The university counselor finally explained to me that some people simply experience emotions on a much deeper level than others, and I can’t expect someone who’s never been to the depths to understand how hard it is to climb back out from so far down, only to slide back again and again.
At Spring Break, I went to Paris with a new friend. She taught me how to dress. Got me to have some liquor on the plane so that we arrived in France already giggling and tipsy. She took me shopping and helped me choose the sexiest outfit I’d ever worn. It got me into Paris clubs with her, where she taught me how to drink and dance. We went to cafes and creperies and the Eiffel Tower.
Then we returned to the mundane routine of the university.
A week before the end of the semester—a week before I was to graduate and leave the university forever—I decided I couldn’t leave the gaping wound inside my heart open anymore. I had to close it. To cauterize it.
I confronted my ex-boyfriend.
I went up to him in the communal center where we’d met. He was sitting there with his friend, chatting and laughing.
At a pause in the conversation, when he looked over at me finally, I asked him—evenly, politely, though maybe with a tremor, “Can you please pretend I exist for a single minute?”
He tilted his head at me, visibly thinking about it.
His friend sputtered laughter, spewing his drink over the table.
I wanted to sink into the floor, but I stood my ground, stone-faced and waiting.
My ex, after a brief contemplation, nodded. “Yes.”
I have no idea what I said to him. Only that afterward, during that last week at the university, it was a complete turnaround.
He asked me to drive him to the store. To drive him to the mall. He gave me CDs, wanted to see the sexy outfit I’d brought back from Paris. Wanted to borrow my scissors. We spent time together every day.
It confused the heck out of me. Did he want to get back together? Why had he gone from ignoring me to coming up with excuses to meet every day?
We were alone in his dorm room when I asked him. I was sitting on the floor while he was on his bed.
He told me I’d broken his heart.
I was like WHAT? You didn’t write me for months! How did I break your heart?
He wouldn’t say. Wouldn’t explain. Or not in terms I could understand. I didn’t understand, only that if I’d broken his heart, that must have meant he hadn’t wanted to break up, so why not…try again?
I suggested it to him. Let’s try again.
His reluctance didn’t make sense.
At one point, he finally stood up.
I rose up on my knees, begging him to explain. It was like a bad soap opera, with me kneeling before him on the verge of tears, and him practically shouting that he didn’t want to do something he’d regret.
Why would he regret it? Why couldn’t we make it work?
It was tense, dramatic, and came to level nothing. I wrote about the scene in one of my journals, but I can’t look at it. It’s locked in a chest at my mom’s apartment in West Virginia and should probably never be opened again.
I’d fought for him—‘us’—the best way I’d known how, and at least I graduated university in May 1998 knowing I’d tried. The wound was still there, but I’d cauterized it.
That’s not to say it didn’t open again a few times, but only in trickles of blood and pus, things I could deal with. It was no longer a gush of blood from my heart, and that was the difference.
I moved in with my dad so I could save up some money while working before moving into my own place. I did write my ex-boyfriend a couple of times, too, since he’d given me his address, but I was young and stupid and probably wrote young and stupid things. I still have a song I wrote him back then, and that’s all I need to know about how young and stupid I was.
At some point in the summer, I finally stopped writing to him.
I found a job. Was saving up money. Went bike riding every night.
Then I got fired after I fell asleep at a staff meeting while sitting across the company president, who was speaking and watching me nod off right across the table from him.
After that, I decided to go into the navy, to travel and learn languages.
My dad said no way, unless I went in as an officer.
Regrettably, I didn’t have the right degree to go in as an officer, so I applied as a normal cadet.
But not even that worked. It was one hurdle after another: tests, meetings. They found out I’d been seeing a psychologist when I was fourteen after my parents divorced, and I had to hunt this woman down and ask her to write me a sealed evaluation for the navy telling them I was mentally stable.
This all took months.
During that time, I took on temp jobs while trying to find a permanent position. I tried to get my friends to go out with me so I could meet someone, but they all had their partners and weren’t interested in the party scene.
And the party scene was not kind to a single shy introvert.
The feeling that I didn’t belong and wasn’t going anywhere weighed on me more than ever. I began to feel a bit more desperate to get out. The bars felt seedy. It wasn’t safe to go alone.
Then my dad’s house was flooded and we had to be rescued by boat. My car was submerged and deemed totaled. Since my dad and stepmom’s money were going into repairing their water-damaged house, my dad couldn’t buy me another car, and I didn’t have enough money saved up to buy my own, so I was using one of their cars to get to work while they carpooled with each other.
My cat—the ferocious one who scarred me and I loved so much—was sixteen years old by then and was becoming less ferocious and more sick. It was clear she wouldn’t get better.
All during this time, I couldn’t stop thinking about Prague and the Czech Republic. I found some Czechs and Slovaks living in Houston and asked them to help me learn the basics of the Czech language. They found me more amusing than serious, I think.
The navy finally accepted me at the beginning of 1999. I was set to head out to boot camp in March.
In February, I took a month off my temp job (who wanted to take me on full time), and I flew to Prague.
I spent a month studying the language, memorizing vocabulary, going to raves, meeting new people, and falling in love all over again.
The tug on my heart became more like a claw. The nails dug in.
By the time I returned to the States, I knew where my heart lay.
But I was set to go out to boot camp. I’d taken the oath. If I broke it, it would go on my record.
I talked to my mom, who talked to her friend, whose son was in the army and said the binding oath is actually the one you take the day you ship out for boot camp.
I hadn’t taken that one yet. If I didn’t go into the navy, it wouldn’t go on my record as a felony, since I was only administratively in it.
I called my recruiter and said I wasn’t going. It was a dramatic, stressful conversation, but they set me free.
Then I told my dad I was moving to Prague and he flipped the freak out. He told me I was frigging insane (or maybe stupid, or both). My brother had to tell him to get out because I started crying and my dad wasn’t helping. It was the first time I’d ever seen my brother stand up to my dad for me.
But it was too late for me to back out. Prague was in my bones, in my soul. And what did I have that I was leaving behind? My cat was dying. My car was totaled. I had no job. My boyfriend had dumped me. I couldn’t find anyone else—didn’t even want anyone else. My family had each other, my friends had their partners, and I was the odd one out, the one going nowhere fast. I was wretched and didn’t fit in. I needed to get out, to find a place where I could not only start afresh, but finally feel like I belonged.
Of course I was terrified. I was only twenty-two, 100% introvert, I had OCD, was scared of people, of talking to strangers, was shy with everyone; I only knew about fifty words of Czech, knew no one at all in Prague, had no place to live, no job, no visa, no plan.
I had nothing but some money saved up, a claw in my heart, and the knowledge that I had to move to Prague, and I had to make it work.
And I did.
But that’s a story for another time.
Thanks for reading! If you’re curious about anything or have any questions you want me to answer regarding my books, my life, or even how I deal with my mental health, let me know in this form and I’ll answer it in one of my next blog posts!