Every year when I get my eyes dilated, I have the same strange sensation. Not only that things are brighter and blurrier, but that every noise is louder. The hum of a radiator, the patter of ice against the windows, the thrumming of blood in my temples. All of it is louder.
I don’t know if this is because my brain associates the symptoms of eye dilation with migraines or if it’s synesthesia, but my sense of sound is as affected as my sense of sight. I have always found this to be so, and have spent years trying to put my finger on what exactly it is that has changed about the world beyond how I see it. It’s hard to pin such things down when they only happen once a year.
And there is always more to something new than a simple change in your way of seeing it.
Fourteen years ago, my life as I had carefully created it imploded. I had built for myself a safe little bubble, my cozy nest of a studio apartment, where I cooked and sewed and sang and painted and played my music and read my books and wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote books of poetry each year, mostly unpublished, about anything and everything. I wrote haiku and sonnets and screenplays, short stories and essays and drafts of theses I never planned to complete. And I met somebody who violated my space and my person, who used my empathy as a weapon and made me feel afraid of being alone.
I was so full of rage and fear and desperation, I decided to run away. The city of Prague had always held a fascination for me. Maybe because of the Golem, maybe because of Milan Kundera, maybe because of the red roofs and the endless spires and the bridges and the palace on a hill, maybe because I was reading Kafka and drinking absinthe and watching Amadeus on the tiny television beside my computer. Whatever it was, Prague called me.
As I began to casually mention the desire to move, just as hypothetical, I insisted, my father told me his cousin lived in Prague. His cousin’s wife was an editor at a major English language women’s magazine. He was certain I could depend on them for a little help getting myself started out, maybe a lead on an internship at the magazine, a few tips on cheap rooms to rent. Just enough to plant my feet on new soil.
I had gone as far as appraising all of my possessions, my easels and furniture and computer and sewing machine and even my books, ascertaining I had just enough to buy a one way ticket and survive for two months, when a man I only knew online began to help me heal without running away.
Prague can wait, I told myself. I’ll let this play out. Nothing is going to change.
I didn’t know I was letting things play out with the man I would marry, with a man carrying a quiet tumor around in his brain. And although the choices I made were absolute, though if I was in the same place and same situation I would make them again and again and again, as we wed and began IVF and bought a home and lost jobs and got pregnant again and went back to school, Prague moved farther away from me.
Somehow, I always imagined that this was for the best. That I would have failed in Prague the way I failed so often, unable to keep a job, struggling with a new language, slipping easily into abusive relationships because I mistook danger or exoticism for romance. I believed Mike had saved me, from self-destruction and escapism. He saved me from my own absurd attempts at saving myself.
I’ve been watching Doctor Who with my kids. I love that they’re mature enough for me to share my favorite things with them in a collaborative way. Near the end of David Tenant’s tenure, something stuck with me. “You have something on your back,” and it was death, really. But it was the change of a decision in one moment, one small, unremarkable thing.
I don’t like to think it’s the mundane little details that life hinges on, that the pendulum swings through. But it is. And in retrospect, you can see them writ large, highlighted, humming and hissing and pounding in the blinding light.
When the children are in bed, I watch The Good Place and Kimmy Schmidt. I watch over and over again Chidi’s break with sanity, quoting Nietzche and making marshmallow chili, then his horror and awe of the Time Knife, “I just saw a trillion different realities folding onto each other like thin sheets of metal forming a single blade…”
Then I watch over and over again the look on Kimmy’s face when she refuses the thought experiment, how would your life be different if you hadn’t gotten in that van?
She says this has to be the best version of her life because if she believed for even a second that it wasn’t, she’d lose her mind. For her, it has to be the best version of the world.
Four hundred years ago, Voltaire said much the same thing.
In Doctor Who, the mirror darkly is the nightmare. For Kimmy, the now might well be the nightmare. I think of myself on the day Mike’s surgeon told me he had brain cancer, and that he would be dead in a year or so.
Like Kimmy, I knew better than to look at what-ifs. But that doesn’t mean when I quote Voltaire, I’m wrong.
I spent five days in Prague last month, and I cried the whole time. It was like dipping a toe into an alternate dimension.
I love my life. I love my family. I love my home and my friends, and more than anything I love Mike. But suddenly that life that had almost been mine became real, so real I could touch it. I could put my palms over its glassy surface and find it supple as water. Immersed in this potential world, I felt what I had never allowed myself to really feel since the day I decided not to sell everything and move to Prague. A rumbling inside me of love and awe and unfathomable gratitude for the fact of being there, in that place, whispered, “You could have succeeded here, you could have grown and matured and succeeded, you could have had this, too.”
Coming home was hard, so hard I almost couldn’t bear it. I thought about running away all over again, summoning Mike and the children and explaining that Prague was as much inside me now as it was then, and that leaving it behind was like lopping off a part of myself that had only begun to grow back. Stepping onto the plane was agony, tempered by my reminders to myself that I have Mike and the children and so much more in Chicago, waiting for me. I did miss them, but it ached differently than when I’m away at a conference or the children are visiting their grandparents for a week. It was an open wound that tasted almost, almost, of regret.
I landed in Chicago, and my phone exploded with news that one daughter was sick, and that the weather was turning deadly cold. In the days since I returned home I have been mired in the tasks of changing vomit buckets and washing fouled sheets, all while leavng careful drizzles running in faucets to protect pipes from freezing in the -55 chill, and stoking fires, and cooking endless soups and breads, and Prague is like a dream I woke up from, and as much as I cling to the beauty of moments it is drifting ever away from me.
Today is an MRI day. Today is an all-the-things kind of medical day. My optometry appointment, the sleep lab, a spinal adjustment, the MRI and neuro-oncology. Today I am tired even imagining how I’ll find a scrap of dinner, today everything is loud.
I swear, I can hear the imaging machines from where I sit in the waiting room, typing in sunglasses to protect my diluted eyes against the glare. It’s one of those quiet noises that grates at you, like a phone vibrating on a table just behind you while you’re trying to read. The deafening grinding of the MRI reduced to rapid ticking in the walls. I hear the thrum of the machines, the whirr of the Keurig in the waiting area, the hiss of the fluorescent lights, the vibration of the floors as hot air courses through the ventilation.
In the reflections between my prescription glasses and the truck stop sunglasses curved against them, I can see the spires of Prague, the decaying rectangles of the elevated Jewish cemetery, the faces of clocks that run backward in reflection, back to Europe, back to 2004, back to the first time I read about the Golem, the first time I picked up The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the first time I read about the Velvet Revolution, the day I was fourteen and decided I would become an opera singer and fantasized about singing on a Prague Spring stage.
One eye is looking forward, towards MRI results and treatment plans and explanations of little white spots in blurry grey pictures. One eye is looking back at blackened stone towers that have stood for nine hundred years. But my feet are planted in now, in what must be done now, in where I am now, in who I am now.
In his inaugural episode of Doctor Who, Matt Smith runs his fingers along the crack in Amy Pond’s wall, two pieces of space and time that were never meant to touch.
Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles, Voltaire said.
I do believe it is.
I wonder, though, whether I am, as well.
Read what I would say to myself if I could go back in time here: A Letter From the Future
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