To the Lighthouse by Christopher Maher

pink apartment building in prague nice architectural detail

 

But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. – To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

 

Genevieve ran her hand over a few copies of To the Lighthouse. “You can have this one,” she says passing me a spine I vaguely recognized. A beautiful dreamy beach on the front, almost fading away. And along the pages little post-it bits, pointing to specific sentences. “You can ignore those. Sorry, I just wrote an essay on it.”

The loan was by request. A few weeks earlier, shocked by how few female novelists I’d read, I’d insisted that Genevieve assist me in broadening my horizons.

I read the book shortly thereafter and was first confounded and then astounded how the years within the book swiftly slipped away. The Post-it notes covered certain lines, and I peeled them back, first at the top and then at the bottom, so that they never had to be fully removed. I cherished the connection I felt with Genevieve, as if we were reading the book side-by-side, and it felt like a desecration if I were to remove the Post-its and destroy her placeholders, even if they were already used and done with.

I tried to return the book to Genevieve a year later, before I left for a semester abroad in Prague, but I let slip that I wanted to re-read it and she insisted that I take it with me on the plane ride. So I climbed aboard armed with To The Lighthouse, an empty notebook my friend Dust had insisted I fill, and a copy of Big Sur, my love for Kerouac finally fully awakened.

I hadn’t slept on the plane and arrived dry-eyed in the middle of the day. It was cold. Riding in the taxi we passed frosted fields, and I had trouble remembering I’d left Ithaca and was an ocean away. Same stretches of dead grass and low gray clouds. But on the city corner I was greeted by tightly packed buildings and endless pastel pink, mint green, mustard yellow, all four stories tall with ancient double doors. The streets felt sleepy. The cabbie dumped me and my suitcases, and he took off without a word of good luck. I called my “Czech Buddy” to let me into the apartment building, praying I was on the correct corner. He told me ours was pink. Half the buildings were pink.

Eventually I was inside the right building, where my buddy rushed me up some stairs and onto the balcony to the outdoor elevator. Bleary-eyed from travel, I dropped my bags in my apartment. I was the fourteenth of fourteen exchange students to arrive, late by a few days due to passport trouble I created for myself. So here came a cascade of faces and names and shaking hands. Eventually I excused myself to lie wide-eyed in bed unable to think, unable to sleep, in a waking dream.

That night we went out to dinner, and while I was out tracking down a ATM with two nameless boys from the program the kitchen closed. I returned to pity and everyone insisting I have a bite of what they ordered. I ate the food shoved at me while everyone laughed about how much food they were shoving at me. We all got beers except Adan who got a shot of absinthe and then excused himself to throw up in the bathroom.

Finally, the names started to come back to me, fixing onto their people as we wandered through the streets. Slowly the night became more tangible, even if still within a dream. I made pals with Frank because we both read Bukowski and had just finished Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. We led the crew to a bar, where I drank whiskey with ice, and everyone else got beers or mixed drinks.

Sitting around the table in the back shouting over each other, a girl named Kat ordered a flaming shot called a B-52. Leaving the small plastic straw that came with it in the shot glass she lit the top of the shot and watched with delayed fascination as the straw melted into the drink. She slurped down half the drink, but too late to save the writhing, dying straw. Frank’s attempt met with a similar plastic-straw-fatality.

The endeavor appeared to be failure. But there was one more on the way for a girl named Ruth, who carefully removed the straw, had Frank light the surface on fire and then, straw to her purple painted lips, she plunged it into the drink and finished the whole thing mightily, swiftly, extinguishing the fire as she finished its fuel. She left her straw, perfectly intact, in the shot glass. I may have fallen in love with her as early as that first night.

A few weeks later, after a ballet I hadn’t been able to see because I’d left my glasses at home, Adan led us to a bar at the base of a hotel. The center bar revolved, but we sat at a table. I was being well-behaved and ordered only one beer.

The conversation took a bend to the future, and Mo, a veteran of study abroad and a pragmatic person, talked about how strange it’d be when we weren’t talking anymore, after going out together every single night. Everyone was appalled and protested (though we had only known each other for two weeks by that point). No! We were friends forever.

I didn’t protest. Mo was being honest. I couldn’t tell if everyone else couldn’t accept it, or just wanted to shove it under the rug for the time being and pretend it wasn’t so.

Later that night we partied in Déjà Vu for the first time and all got too drunk.

I was fully in love with Ruth two days later. She messaged the whole group asking if anyone wanted to do tequila shots before going out. I said sure. She came up with a bottle and the two shot glasses our four apartments shared. She told me she had figured I’d respond, that she had targeted me. We had already done quite a few tequila shots together at other bars. We drank the whole bottle, with a head or two popping in to help.

That night we went to the five-story club for the first and only time. Wandering out I refused the tram, as had become my custom. The city was so beautiful, I had to walk it. Besides, we lived one street off the river. So, I made a beeline for it and walked in that direction for ten minutes before realizing I was passing dark parks and fences that I didn’t recognize. I found someone smoking a cigarette on the curb and asked, “River?!” hoping they’d understand English. They pointed back the way I’d come, so I turned around.

“It’s a weird city,” Frank told me as we walked along our tramline home. “It feels like there is a magic that everyone in the city ignores.”

We stood facing the river from on a catwalk balanced at the peak of the roof of our building. It was chilly, and we clung to the railing. This was the safest part of our journey – the roof was still coated in frost. The sky was starry but turning orange and pale pink. The sun emerged across the river, swollen and red. Some cars started across the bridges, and the trams shuttled through the crisp morning air.

Out of all those who had gone out, only three were still awake. Me, Oliver, and Ruth all bounced with exuberant joy. I am afraid of heights, but felt so warm, so large, that I rocked away from the railing, then towards it, threatening to tumble forward or backward. Tips of waves on the river caught the sun and sparkled. I had already promised to give To the Lighthouse to Ruth.

Getting back from a casino in the wee hours of the morning, Oliver and I had gone to our living room and been joined by Ruth, after she’d changed into her loose purple tee that was so large it served her as a dress and pajamas. I thought it was beautiful. Enthused by our dead drunkenness we spent the rest of the night yelling excitement at each other as the sky started to glow with morning. Oliver and I discussed the Tao Te Ching. I’d brought back down my pocket version from my room, and we’d each read our favorite sections to Ruth. Finally Oliver glanced at the sky, and said that we had to go if we wanted to catch the sunrise. I couldn’t recall agreeing to that but it was something we had to do, so out on the elevator balcony I clung to the fire escape rail as I climbed upwards and followed Oliver through the hatch he’d opened onto the frosted roof, and clinging to a wire I grappled up the slanted roof, upward ten or fifteen feet until we hit the catwalk. From safety I watched as Ruth tried to follow. There were a few times that Ruth slipped as she scaled it wearing high-heeled boots, and each time my stomach dropped. I was certain that was the last of her, but she recovered herself each time. We’d jumped chasms where the catwalk, and even the building, cut out, and now we were on the opposite side of the courtyard of our own apartments.

Before she faced the threat of death with our precarious climb, I’d promised her To the Lighthouse. I felt like she had to read it. We’d already grown close by then. Our love was tempered, in my opinion, by only one thing: her phantom boyfriend, waiting back in the states (and set to visit Prague for a week some point down the line). She wasn’t particularly committed to him as far as kissing went (something she’d made clear to us by kissing both Oliver and Frank, and something she’d made clear to him before she’d left) but I was, and forever am, seeking a more immortal type of love than just traded kisses.

I wrote about that first time I saw her in that long purple shirt (and this period of my life proves easier to reconstruct because of the journal Dust charged me with keeping):

It shocks me, this same vice (weakness), how much it too is a part of me. I know nothing about this girl (well, that’s not true, but surely sensationalize all I know) and yet I have a mythological love for her, same as my romanticized brooding and loneliness. But damn it because when I go down [to her apartment] she’s just wearing a long shirt [that same tee] – “I’m just wearing a shirt- I don’t mind, I was just warning you guys” and this I love too – because damn I love not caring, and the ability to compartmentalize – “at school I’m the sort of person you never see except on the weekend” she affirms – and this is one of the girls I know who cleans up nicest & there she is sitting in just a shabby long tee-shirt.

She had a clear plan for life: her sister had been married in her senior year of college and was her idol. I was worried my new love would lock herself in to the same goal. So I weaponized my book, To the Lighthouse, to highlight for Ruth themes of change and the uncertainty of time. Justifying my own wickedness internally, I thought it was also something she had to read. In the same way my friends had disciplined me into accepting change, I felt the same duty towards Ruthie. She told me on our first pretend date that she hadn’t changed since sixth grade. I told her that was impossible. I wanted to teach her the same truth Mo had preached – that this self and this present are not fixed.

As the sun climbed Ruth announced as professional as could be that she had to throw up, so she walked a short way backwards on the catwalk to empty her stomach as Oliver and I leaned on the edge of the railing and discussed change. She threw up, and returned. I fell in love with her some more.

Back in my apartment I handed her To the Lighthouse.

One night while I was away in Berlin, Frank met, all in one club, the girl he’d gone to junior prom with, the girl he lost his virginity to, and his sixth-grade crush. None of them had arrived together. He made out with his sixth-grade crush “for sixth graders everywhere”.

We were walking along the river. We could see our breath. A tram whirred by. “Was she still a looker?”

“Chris, this girl is so impossibly out of my league.” He laughed his Frank laugh, gasping with his cavernous mouth, all mischievous trickster eyes: “When she was leaving Prague I texted her: see you in another club nine years from now.”

One time while we snuggled on a couch, I asked Ruthie if she felt a spark between us, even if it didn’t amount to anything because of extenuating circumstance. She told me she hadn’t thought about it.

Ruth and I adventured around the city constantly in each other’s company. I told her how I felt. Later she told me we should spend less time together. The next day I asked her if she wanted to go for a walk and we spent twelve hours together. We discovered a hidden garden in the center of the city with trees shedding white flower petals, and then rode the tram to its final stop. We wandered the outskirts of Prague, and saw gorgeous one-room cottages with enormous overripe gardens. We’d promised to move back there in five years and be neighbors.

We went on four pretend dates and kissed three times, but never on our pretend dates so as to not confuse things. She read half of To the Lighthouse on a train and forgot to read the rest.

The last night we were both in Prague we went back to the place we went on our first pretend date. Asianfeelgoodfood. It had another name, but that’s what the neon sign said.

We admitted how nervous we both were on our first pretend date. We confided in each other that we’d never been on as many real dates as we’d been on pretend dates with each other. I told her thank you, and that I hadn’t been in love with someone in a few years. It didn’t happen to me often. I don’t remember what she said back. I told her I gave her two weeks before she got sick of me. She told me never.

After riding a tram home we’d crossed the street and walked a few more paces before she realized she didn’t have her sunglasses. Had she left them at Asianfeelgoodfood? On the tram? We retraced our steps. She spotted them before I did, shattered on the crossroads where they’d been run over. I felt bad, but she shrugged. “That’s why I have to keep buying new pairs.” I fell in love with her a little dangerous bit more.

She gave me back To the Lighthouse (all the Post-its still intact) the next day and we hugged goodbye. I left with that being that.

Emmy, who was a veteran of summer camps and who, like Mo, had warned us that she probably wouldn’t say a word to us after we’d all departed forever, had us write bus notes to each other, to be read as we left the city of pastel colors. I wrote Ruthie a long note. She wrote to me on the back of a postcard. Before she left, I went to a small city in the Czech countryside to explore on my own for two days. When I returned, she was gone. I found a long note from her on my pillow. It was a response to my note. She told me she’d cheated and read mine in the bathroom before leaving, and had felt she owed me a better farewell. So she gave me one. It mentioned Lost in Translation. We’d looked up the final scene once, when we were having a debate. I’d thought the two main characters hadn’t ever kissed; she assured me that at their final meeting they had. It turned out they had. I thought that cheapened the fleeting moment. But I never thought it was a great movie, even in my own version where they hadn’t kissed.

After that we talked daily, for hours, online, but eventually she told me she couldn’t keep it up. So we didn’t. I think I may have been another in a long line of people who drift through her life. A long succession of new faces and names. She doesn’t change, she isn’t nostalgic like I am. She can keep buying new sunglasses.

We saw each other two months later in LA. I was sick the whole week. Probably just a coincidence, but it turned me sour, and she soured on me too. We parted poorly then, but talk now, every once in a while, maybe more than she wants, but she concedes to me, and less than I want, but I concede to her. It’s not what I’d call a friendship, not like it was then, just a nice ghost. I don’t know what she considers it. But it’s all right. She’s a present and future kid, and I’m a present and past kid, and our presents don’t line up right now.

christopher maherChristopher Maher is an independent writer and filmmaker from Brooklyn, New York. This piece is an excerpt from a longer piece about how lending books has reflected numerous relationships in his life. Find more of his work at www.cmaher.com.

 

 

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/marinaomi

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