Cool summer air whizzed in through the driver’s side window as I sped away from the city down the road to I don’t know where. My hair was pressed against my skull from the wind and the sun was not yet above the horizon. A bluish hue painted the sky which made the orange sodium vapor based street lights that dotted the sidewalks pop in the sky beyond the freeway. I was startled as the constant hum of the wind screaming in through the window was suddenly replaced by a moment of quiet as I drove beneath an overpass.
I realized I had done it again. I had been thinking of her. The person I needed to connect with, or in this case, reconnect with. I could see her in my mind’s eye. She had beaming green eyes and brown hair which flowed across her olive skin as she danced in a flowered dress next to a river somewhere in Europe to a lonely drifter’s tune. The sunlight danced on the water behind her giving her a magical glow and I kissed her. I remembered.
But in reality, I had not just kissed her. I was on the freeway. And I was speeding.
During my reverie some time had passed–five minutes, maybe ten–where I was by all accounts driving. I was switching lanes, using my turn signal, switching from high-beams to low beams–and, as it turns out, speeding. Yet I had no recollection of those decisions. They weren’t conscious. I wondered how much the human brain could do on this strange sort of unconscious ‘muscle memory’. I wondered how much of life is experienced in this way and how much of my own experience I was missing out on. It seemed possible that I could have been unaware of potentially important moments in my life because of my own preoccupations. If I had paid more attention, maybe I would’ve had more meaningful relationships with people. I might have had more of those magical moments where a stranger makes your day with a kind gesture. Those rare moments. There must be more of them out there, they cannot be so fleeting as they seem. I just had to uncover them. It seems that missing out on a beautiful moment because of self-involved preoccupation must be the most common tragedy of the twenty-first century. I decided that I should seek inspiration, diligently, every day.
Just then a jetliner flew low overhead, I watched it through the generic sunroof of my generic beige sedan. I noticed the smoke coming from the tail before it dissipated into the atmosphere. Was the pilot operating on muscle memory as well? Were the passengers?…
The streetlights went out signaling that the day had begun. The day I had been looking forward to; the day I finally called in sick and went to the airport. The day that I bought a one-way ticket to Prague to find Olivia, the woman that I had met, courted, dated, fell in love with, lived with, and moved a world away from in the span of 32 days.
We had not spoken in almost a year, but I thought about her almost every day.
We first met near the film school we both attended that Spring, it was in the heart of the historic Old Towne Prague, Czech Republic, known as Prague 1 or Hlavni Mestro to the locals. I was smoking a Czech-made Lucky Strike in the cobblestone alley adjacent to the school behind a small church, peering out toward the river through the end of the next street. Swans were floating on the water; I was admiring their graceful posture when Olivia and Dina came out of the corner Potraviny with bottles of water and loaves of bread. They were laughing together in Spanish about something, I don’t know what.
Dina saw me, stopped and said hello, we had met in a documentary class that I sat in on earlier that first week. She was born in Serbia, but raised in Italy, beautiful in her own right, she spoke many languages and has recently finished shooting a film in India. We kissed on the cheek twice in typical European fashion, and she introduced me to Olivia, who smiled at me in her unassuming way, her big green eyes glowing. I was instantly disarmed by her, I don’t even remember what I said, I stumbled over some words and put out my cigarette. I wasn’t sure if custom dictated that I kiss her on the cheek so I shook her hand instead. After a few more polite words and awkward smiles on my part, they continued on their way, returning to Olivia’s native Spanish. They laughed again. I watched as they disappeared around the corner back toward the front of the school. I admired the beauty of the language and of the women, my God I loved Europe.
I lit another cigarette.
Months later, Olivia was working on a project and asked me to help her with lighting. I, of course, said yes; we had not spoken much in the preceding months and I was excited at the opportunity to get to know her. After the shoot, the crew all got drinks and danced at Cross Club, an old gothic church that was converted into an enormous night club in the heart of the city. Fueled by Absynth and the customary Czech synthetic marijuana, I found the courage to approach her. Right away she playfully poked fun at my dancing and that broke the ice. We laughed and talked casually as the night went on about filmmaking and about our lives back home and our hopes for the future. Later, we laid on the cool, damp cobblestone of Old Towne Square looking up past the astronomical clock to the stars behind a clear night’s sky. A pretty gypsy woman in non-matching clothes came and tried to pick a friend’s pocket which prompted us to leave the square. As the sun came up Olivia and I went our separate ways, the night had gone.
Two weeks later I asked Olivia to act in my own film, and I admit, it was partially so I could spend more time with her. She would play a painter who had an illness that caused her to lose her eyesight as she tried to finish her last painting. I had written the script. The project didn’t turn out how I wanted, but in the process of making it she and I connected. We spent hours rehearsing and talking about the character, she became my muse. I craved her company because to me she was walking inspiration, it was a cocaine for the soul I couldn’t quit. We began staying with each other and it was so incredibly exciting. I felt young and alive, everything was brilliant. Plato once said, ‘at the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.’ I became a hippie. I was idealistic and romantic and in denial. We both knew that the semester was coming to an end, and I was to move to Los Angeles for my internship; but I told her we should keep going because of how happy it made both of us. I bought her flowers. We had to suck the marrow out of love and life because who knew when something like it might come again. But like any healthy addiction, it came abruptly to an end–and the withdrawal was horrible.
On my last day in the Czech Republic she was moving into a new flat. I visited her on the pretense of helping her move but neither of us touched a box or a piece of furniture. We instead laid on her thin bed and looked into each other, saying very little. The end we both knew would come had come, and it crushed me. I saw a sadness in her normally beaming eyes, and felt a wave of guilt. I was the one who instigated this. I pursued her, asked her to act in my film, talked to her at the club; it was my fault. She didn’t deserve this pain.
We said our ‘good-byes’, I put her in a cab and, just like in the movies, I stood alone watching as it drove off. I haven’t seen her since. That was 15 months ago.
After a few days in Germany, I was on a plane to Washington DC to spend a few days with my old man, then I flew to Chicago, picked up my car and some belongings before I headed to the west coast. I traveled almost 9000 miles between my backpacking in Europe and the lonely, surreal 36 hour drive to Los Angeles. But I stayed optimistic. I was kissing life square in the mouth as I aimed at an unknown horizon with a pit in my stomach. It’s that drifter’s demise, a feeling that’s a little bit confidence and a little bit fear, something I’ve come to love and cherish in the way a drunk does whiskey.
Once I got settled in my small UCLA sublet, Olive and I video-conferenced. The connection was slow and choppy, but she was glowing as ever, we spoke in Spanish a bit–mine was sloppy, it was really only the little bit she had taught me. Pleasantries. Being absent from her for that week or so of travel made me appreciate her so much more than I could’ve realized beforehand, I fell in love with her idiosyncrasies, her organized approach to things and her passion. I realized then why I fell in love with her in the first place, it was like looking at a favorite piece of art for the why you love it as opposed to just the initial reaction of loving the work. She was so special and unique, but for some reason she felt something for me too. How could I have left something so special behind? How could I be so stupid. All of these feelings came down upon me as she said “hola, mi amour.” The rest of the conversation is almost completely black in my memory, I shut down.
I felt so conflicted when I saw her, the junkie needed a hit but couldn’t get to it. I couldn’t smell her hair or touch her soft skin or hear her quietly muttering to herself in Spanish from the next room. I missed her even as we were speaking, the pain was awful and the conversation awkward. I think she felt it as much as I did because we never video chatted after that, and she barely returned my messages or emails. I speculated as to why, I don’t know if it was too hard for her or if she was angry at me. She had every right to be upset. I wasn’t good enough to her, she deserved a lot more.
Over the next year I dedicated myself to filmmaking and learning my craft to the point of obsession. I think at first anyway, it was a way to distract myself from the loss of Olive, and it gave me a purpose in my life. I improved, I grew as a filmmaker and a cinematographer. But as a person.. I became a shell of my former self. I was distant. What used to be easy conversation started to become an inconvenience and an effort to maintain. I was bitter for a long time, unable or unwilling to open up to anyone else because of what happened. After a time I realized I had to find a way to connect with someone again or I would shut down completely, but I knew before I could do that I needed to reconnect with her. It was the only way.
I left my heart in Old Towne Square, and I was going back to get it.