Closing the Gap | Chapter 4: Prague
I was on a plane to a new destination every month, running to keep away from the painful knot in my stomach.
Find the previous 3 chapters here.
Chapter 4: Prague
Only a few short weeks after moving in with my new roommates, and I was already on a flight out of town. I traded spending evenings on park benches to spending early mornings on airplanes and then on foreign streets. I was flying to Prague for the weekend to meet my childhood best friend, my almost-sister ever since we were 11 years old.
Sitting in the aisle seat of the plane, I had to keep shrinking away from bags and elbows bumping into me as their owners passed by in search of their own seats. Life kept bumping into me lately and my body had become an armor of stiff muscles. For the sake of my well-being, I needed to take a break from my daily route between the office, a park or another, and the flat.
When instructed, I fastened my seatbelt. When instructed again, I put my phone on airplane mode and slipped it in the purse crammed between my boots, under the seat in front of me. Hands resting in my lap, I was being carted on the runway. My head was bumping from side to side on the headrest, in sync with the wheels hitting pavement imperfections. I was letting myself be carried away, I needed to not be in charge of my life for a minute. I needed an external entity to take care of me and that day it came in the shape of an airplane, keeping me fastened down and rolling me away.
The captain announced through the intercom that the flight attendants could take their seats for take-off and then — silence. The plane gathered increasing speed on the runway. The moment it took off, feeling the sheer force lifting it from the ground with a quiet hum, I burst into tears.
I didn’t dare to look left or right to see if my seat mates saw me. I cried a cry of relief as all the cannon balls tugging at my body when I was on the ground seemed to stay there, being denied boarding. Like a quick band-aid removal, I was being ripped apart from the piece of land where my then-husband and my old life stayed behind. The plane was taking me to new lands, new people, friendly arms.
Up in the clouds, I was finally starting to feel a thrill for the unknown. The thrill of discovering a new city, of tasting unfamiliar food, of hearing a foreign language. I was starting to feel the good kind of the unknown, not the troubled kind. Not the laying in a new bed, in a stranger’s house, eyes wide open every night at 3am kind.
Flying makes me absurdly ecstatic, giving me a sense of security mixed with excitement, even in my darkest days. It’s the ante-chamber of a great adventure about to start. I was stepping away from my tedious day-to-day and I was becoming an explorer again, even if just for one weekend. The trip was a revival for my soul that had been pinned to the ground, grieving the loss of my micro-Universe. It was part healing, part running away from a painful reality, I knew that.
That first year after my separation I took more trips than in the next four years combined. I was on a plane to a new destination every month, running to keep away from the painful knot in my stomach.
Stepping out of the plane and into the Prague airport, I inhaled the smell of conveyor-belt rubber, and with it the scent of adventure. A new city was waiting for my childhood friend and I to discover. Suitcase in my hand, I hurried towards the exit where I would meet her. She had arrived from Verona earlier in the day and was waiting for me so we can ride together in town, to our weekend rental. Our airport encounters were always something out of movies. Two women, once inseparable girls, arriving from different countries, two distinct worlds colliding in an embrace. Those were the golden days of carefree travel, when the eccentric ambition of preserving a friendship intact across borders and continents was totally doable.
When I saw her from a distance, my shoulders relaxed and I suddenly felt safe. She had acquired an exquisite look even when dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. All those years spent in Italy rubbed off on her identity. But still, every time I saw her full oval face and big dark eyes I saw my 11-year-old friend I had met during a summer English course. She brought with her the comforting presence of someone who has been witness to my life story for many years. The safety of a childhood stuffed bear. We embraced and the carefree past came rushing into the present. Our annual tradition, meeting in a different European city for a summer weekend, came at a convenient time for me that year. I was part looking forward to discovering a new city with her, part grasping at my almost-sister for comfort during a time of chaos.
We caught a bus downtown and after checking in our weekend flat, we jumped on the couch by the window, ready to catch up. Our suitcases were barely unzipped, two small bottles of water on the coffee table next to us, leftovers from each of our plane trips. We didn’t need anything else, we had each other’s presence. Stories overflowing, we were taking turns in recollecting events we had saved to tell in person. We were trying to condense a year of friendship into a weekend.
I didn’t open the topic of my separation from the beginning as I knew it might dampen the mood. But I had it pounding in my chest, asking for air time, every time I spoke of something else.
When evening came, we did the usual, we went out for dinner and planned our sightseeing route for the next day. We stayed up too late, watching photos and telling each other big and small secrets, in the dim light of the night lamps. As usual, the city we were in was just an exotic background to our never-ending tête à tête.
We woke up on our second day of exploring Prague to a cloudy sky. The April weather in Prague was unpredictable, so we added a few layers before leaving the flat. We liked our weekends together to have a slow pace, allowing us to meander through the unknown streets of each new city.
We walked through the Old Town, we zig-zagged through cobblestone streets over old tramlines, we gazed up at the Medieval astronomical clock and we stopped by shop windows of ochre and olive-green Gothic buildings. The only difference from the afterschool strolls of our childhood days was us not holding hands anymore, like the two schoolgirls we used to be.
The cloudy sky kept the temperature chilly throughout midday, forcing us to look for shelter after a couple of hours. We stopped at Kakao for a late brunch. It could have been any place in town, as long as we were together. We didn’t see or hear anyone around, we were busy enjoying our annual reunion.
Installed cozily in the restaurant, I was now ready to pour my heart out to my almost-sister. I was ready for her to offer her shoulder unconditionally.
‘Listen, I want to tell you more about my moving out’, I opened up, even though she was not fully there, checking her phone.
‘Mhm, what about it?’, she answered, moving her gaze from her phone to the brunch menu.
I started telling her bits and pieces of the story of my separation, not in chronological order, but according to how much pain they ignited. She kept moving her eyes up and down from the menu to me and back, with a slight frown of multitasking concentration, until she finished scanning it.
I continued recounting what a failure I felt I was, having ruined my marriage. I was in a self-blame phase at the time. About how I felt homeless, a feeling I had never experienced before, despite having moved countries four times until then. About the confusion I felt about how to continue my life. I wanted to transplant her in every single day of the previous few weeks and make her see and feel my pain. I wanted to hand it all to her, to liberate my chest.
My persistent chatter—and her silence—went on and on, with a few short breaks, to order the food, to get served the drinks, to get the food plates and later, have them removed. I needed someone else to hold my heavy load for a long minute, and who better than my own almost-sister. After all, how many divorces would I go through in my life? Hopefully just that one time.
I noticed her occasional flustered attempts to minimize the gravity with which I wrapped my stories. I was oblivious to the fact that she was busy with the reality of her own life. I still lived in my fantasy that my childhood best friend would drop anything for me. She slapped me awake when she said:
‘Why don’t you try to focus on something else’, emphasizing the last words desperately.
I suddenly felt the poached egg I had eaten disintegrate in my stomach and a small steel ball the size of a cherry kernel zipping through my brain. I had gotten to know, throughout the years, that when I felt the steel cherry kernel move through my head, a migraine was triggered. Suddenly, the brunch room at Kakao became loud, all those people who had been muted from our world, came back invading the space all around us.
My almost-sister failed to understand that I didn’t have something else at that moment in time. I had departed my micro-Universe and I was now floating in the dark space of nothingness. Something else didn’t exist at that point. Her answers were increasingly impatient, as if she was listening to a child whining for the twelfth time that she lost her favorite doll. A child’s tantrum and a mother’s irritation in the face of it.
That was a first. The first time a tangible disconnection happened between us. But I brushed it off as wrong timing for my stories, insisting in my fantasy that our age-old friendship would continue untainted. I would have several moments like that with various close friends in the next few months. Moments where they would be incapable of empathizing with what I felt and they would tell me to cheer up, think of something else, go out more. In those moments I felt completely alone in the world. I realized nobody, not even my childhood best friend, my almost-sister, can or will go down with me in my darkest place.
We live our biggest pain all alone. Maybe it’s supposed to be like that. Maybe the laws of the universe include a hard limit to our human communication. Just as when we are moved by a piece of art and we try to explain the exact feeling to a close person, and they only grasp a fraction of our emotion. Maybe just the same, when we are in the deepest pit of suffering, not even the closest almost-sister can empathize with what we go through.
After brunch, and throughout the rest of the weekend, we continued our strolls and chats. We went from serious to pleasant topics, from trivial to heavy ones, but something had broken between us. There was another of my important relationships disintegrating before my eyes. The reason was not her lack of compassion that day. That lunchtime episode was just the catalyst to acknowledging a more profound incompatibility between us, which we kept out of touch until then.
We had managed for a few years to fulfill our extravagant wish, to keep our real-life sisterhood going, even if in small bursts. As she lived in Italy and I moved from country to country, we couldn’t meet every other weekend or spontaneously on a Thursday, after work. And there was only so much a video call or an email exchange could do.
But the distance wasn’t the only part that made it difficult. Having lived for a decade in different cultures, despite starting off from the same hometown, inevitably pulled us apart. During our childhood, we shared our days and our strawberry croissants that the parents stashed into our backpacks before school. Now our opposite breakfast choices were the smallest of our long list of differences. We were two streams born in the same river that started flowing in separate directions.
Our childhood kinship was a thing of the past, but we didn’t want to admit it. We were now two strangers, who held on tight to their previous common identity. Had we accepted we changed in essential ways and had maintained a cordial friendship, we might have survived. But we persisted in our fantasy to remain each other’s most intimate confidante, just like when we were almost-sisters, at 11 years old.
On that surprisingly chilly April day in Prague, I couldn’t avoid the reality of our friendship anymore. I had to accept that I was seeing a distant friend, and stop expecting her to empathize with a practical stranger. My throat got icy just like that chilly April day, as if to prevent me from trying to share my heartache further. The steel ball the size of a cherry kernel started spinning within my skull again. The only thing left we had in common were our memories.
The next two days we continued to discover Prague together. But I felt alone although sitting next to her in cafés or walking arm in arm on the cobblestone streets. I felt that strangeness that grows, like an unwanted monster, between two people who see the world with different eyes. The monster which announces the beginning of the end of a connection. Just like with my marriage, that moment had come for this friendship as well, another vital relationship was going up in flames. And all I could do was walk silently next to her, nodding to her stories or looking at something she would point at.
We took selfies up on the wall of the castle overlooking the entire city. We ate kurtos kalacs, a cone-shaped sweet dough rolled in walnuts, which reminded us of summers in Transylvania, back home. And the monster was silently making its way more and more between us, chewing on the threads of the fabric our former sisterhood was made of.