Take a look at this picture. If I didn’t tell you where this was taken, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a random scene from a nameless street that could exist anywhere. And If I twisted your arm and asked you to pick the intended subject of this photo, you’d be forgiven for shrugging and pointing at a random passerby.
I took this last December while in Strasbourg and was interested in the phone booth you can barely make out in the background. Ten years earlier, on my first trip to Europe, I made the most important call of my life from that phone booth. The person on the other line on that mid-July afternoon in 2002 was my then-girlfriend, Victoria.
“Hi is Victoria there, please?” Phone Manners Dave always got past the screeners.
“It’s me, David,” she said. Full Name Dave couldn’t tell the difference between Victoria’s phone voice and that of her sister or mother. Victoria could have greeted me with “Really? Still?” without losing the sense, tone, and meaning of what she was putting down. After a shared giggle at how much of a horse’s ass I was, we cue the lovey-doveys:
[redacted] (You’re welcome.)
“Where are you?”
“Strasbourg – it’s right by the border of Germany. I’m headed there next. I could probably walk there from here.” Hyperbole Dave speaks in hyperbole.
“What made you go to Strasbourg?”
“I dunno. Looked really close to Germany on the map and i saw a sweet deal for a hotel nearby on the internet. By the way? I was the only non-dreadlocked, non-Birkenstock-wearing, non-hippy at that internet cafe in Paris. Watching travel hippies sit in front of a computer is kinda like watching a dog use the toilet. It’s fascinating but also off-putting because you know a person has to sit there next.” Joker Dave polished that “gem” the entire train ride in from Paris. Ooph…
She laughed like she always did at my jokes – especially the duds. For what it’s worth, I’m much more positive on my crunchy fellow wanderers these days.
From there, the conversation was a bit labored. All my questions about what she’s been up to since I’ve been gone or “how was [x]?” were answered with, “Okay,” “Good,” or “Nothing.” She finally threw me a bone.
“I have to tell you something. At my MRI yesterday, the doctor said my AVM is starting to hemorrhage. He said I can’t wait for the Fall – I’m going in for surgery in two days.”
Of AVMs and Asses
Victoria had been born with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) on her brain – a tangled clump of blood vessels that formed in her frontal lobe. The only reason she knew this ahead of her MRI was she had been diagnosed a few months earlier after finally seeing a top-notch neurologist. For years, starting from about adolescence, she’d faint randomly while out and about or would have seizure-like fits in her sleep. These were rare and were usually chalked up to her skipping breakfast or having her father’s sleep pattern.
One morning, it took twenty very tense minutes to wake Victoria from her sleep fit despite the jostling and shouting of her family who tried everything to snap her out of it. Since then, she saw specialists pretty much nonstop until a round of testing with a kick-ass neurologist solved the mystery. Her prognosis was actually pretty good at first. Initially, her doctor said it didn’t look serious and, while it needed treatment, she had time to weigh her options with the doctor. The doc figured if she started treatment in the Fall, she’d actually be ahead of the game. To be safe, she was scheduled for a few intermittent checkups to track the behavior of her AVM.
At the time of her prognosis, I was a total zilch. I lost my scholarships to a good school a year before, decided I was too smart for the local college, and began working full time at a Sam Goody instead. The explicit purpose of which in my mind at the time was to squirrel away as much money as I could for my first solo trip abroad where, surely, I would find my purpose. Today I know the real purpose was to continue to indulge myself in the notion that the badass life I wanted was waiting to be “found” somewhere else. All the circumstances I had created for myself were “signs” the “universe” were putting out there beckoning me to find my fortunes elsewhere. All the while, even after her diagnosis and as she continued to prop me up in ways I can’t begin to enumerate here without spinning off into another story, Victoria was excited for me and encouraging as I planned my trip. Without her.
D-bag Amnesia – It’s a Thing
By the time I got to Strasbourg, I had been away for almost 2 weeks and had been to London and Paris. The plan was to continue into and through Germany stopping only when it was time to head back to London to make my flight home. Though by the time I got to Strasbourg my enthusiasm for it all had tempered. If you’ve had the curious misfortune of letting me make a first impression on you, you know first-hand that I’m usually just not good at them. Consequently, I can come across as withdrawn or intensely in-your-face. This makes me an acquired taste most of the time – not something that lends itself well to meeting lots of new people whose language I’d mangle like a mouth full of beef jerky. I had spent whole days not having any meaningful communication with other people. Loneliness had set in even before I arrived in Strasbourg.
I was strolling the Ponts Couverts in Strasbourg where the bridges were lined with flower boxes. A blue flower caught my eye – I was convinced it was the same type of flower in the same color as the one that made up Victoria’s corsage I got her for prom. I drifted off thinking about how she loved flowers and how every time we passed the honeysuckle vine on the fence 3 doors down from the Breakfast Club (actual name of an actual place at the time) in high school, I’d pick one and put it in her hair. Whenever she was over my house in the spring, it was a virtual guarantee that I wouldn’t let her leave without letting me adorn her with a cherry blossom flower from the tree in our front yard. Everything that mattered (and some things that didn’t) about my times with her, I remembered. It turns out memories have more dimensions to them than just “where” and “when.”
I snapped out of it when my stomach grumbled. I remembered I got a really good lunch really cheaply the day before but i couldn’t for the life of me remember where the hell the place was. Or what exactly I ate. Concerned dementia was setting in WAY ahead of schedule, I started to take inventory of all the meals I could remember. In the two weeks I had been there, I remembered the chicken and rice I got at a supermarket in London on my first night, the epic french fries that came with my ??? in Paris and THAT’S IT. As I thought harder, everything else about the trip to that point began to blur – did i have the warm beer in Paris or London? Were the friendly french kids on the train from London to Paris or the one from Paris to Strasbourg?
In my haste to go places and see stuff, I had forgotten to care that I was going places and seeing stuff. I was too busy being lonely and uncomfortable so I thought about how much better the next place I’m going will be instead of really taking stock of where I was. Which, sadly, might have been what motivated me to flee the States for a while to begin with.
Experiences only ever mean anything when they teach you something about yourself or the world around you – since the world around me wasn’t very accessible, I was forced to deal with some uncomfortable truths about myself. Mainly, that I was a cliché having his quarter life crisis a little early, not a misunderstood and precocious fellow who just needs the right setting. Wanting desperately to defer the imminent wave of regret and douche chills now waiting under the blinding light of my consciousness, I paused my moment of clarity to look for a phone booth to call Victoria.
Run for Your Life
I don’t remember what I said to Victoria right before I hung up the phone and bolted back to my hotel. I don’t know how long it took me to furiously pack my backpack and begin the marathon home. I do know I left most of the rolls of film from the trip in that hotel room. I don’t know how much the train tickets to London were or how many connections I made getting there. I remember begging the attendant at the Virgin Atlantic counter to find me a spot on the next possible flight and that I had just enough left in my budget to buy the ticket.
I couldn’t tell you what happened between taking off from Heathrow and walking into Victoria’s hospital room, but I do know that the leads on the sensors on her head looked like Certs. I do know that her heart monitor went way up-tempo when I entered the room and, had I been hooked up to one, we’d have been meeting each other beat for beat. And even though I know now she made it through surgery, I don’t know if she would have embarked on the next chapter of her life with me unless I had closed the book on the trite existence I was leading and opened my eyes to a reality that was already amazing because she was a part of it - now I just needed to do the work to be worthy of it. Any success I’ve enjoyed since then stemmed from this realization.
A busy street corner in…
I hope you’ll keep your eyes open to everyday moments of epic-ness in your travels. It tickles me to think someone happened to see me shoot like a rocket from that phone booth like I just received instructions from kidnappers who were hiding my family with a bomb set to detonate in an hour. The booth wasn’t really instrumental, per se, in any part of this story but it’s fun to wonder who else might have went in there one person and came out another. Who went in hopeless and came out hungry for life. Who went in knowing it all and came out utterly clueless. Who went in with a 5 year plan and came out flying by the seat of their pants for the rest of their lives. Who went in trying to reach a comforting voice and connected with the one inside their head.