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A Lesson on Memory by Libby Walkup

A Lesson on Memory
Essay and Photograph by Libby Walkup

We dance to a river glimmering in moonglow, we dance to Fred and Ginger above us, and we dance to St. Vitus cathedral. We dance to the accordion player in a striped shirt and black beret, unsure if he is a paid performer or arrived knowing this is the bar along the river. The Vltava River, in Prague.

This is The Bicycle Bar. None of us know if it is called The Bicycle Bar, but there’s a bicycle stenciled on the wall outside and that is enough. It’s an out of tune piano, soft cobbles our feet manage to dance round, mismatched tables, and a concession in the wall serving good Czech beer.

I arrived under the hot mid-morning sun via overnight train from Copenhagen. Two Danish women and I decide to get lunch – after all, we did spend the night together. From the station and through the streets I realize my memory has failed me. The city I once spent an entire afternoon in is now wholly unfamiliar.

Six years ago I arrived through the Czech country-side by bus. Too-young girls lined the highways in black pumps, mini skirts, and midriff tanks. I could see their lipstick through the window. Some stood with friends, playing games in two-building stop offs on the side of the road and others stood alone in the ditch, trees behind them and road ahead. I saw some sway their hips as I passed, but it could have been the wind.

Six years ago a friend and I climbed the hill to Vitus after a visit to the Sex Machine Museum. We saw a 1920s Spanish porn and explored the many devices one might use to enhance pleasure, including a dildo bouquet custom made for Kid Rock’s birthday and a floor dedicated to S&M. We left the museum to wander the merchants of St. Charles bridge with no map or timeline, only the vague destination of our hilltop hotel.

We set our sights on Vitus and climbed.

I retrace our steps becoming aware I’d avoided the route only once I found it again; becoming aware that my memories were wrong. Outside the soft cobbles feel hard, and I ascend the streets alongside the July breeze. The sun has not yet sunk into the river and I follow a family with two young children. We walk the same path the St. Vitus dancers did, where they were carried after their bodies danced for hours and moved for days.

I am sure I remember the roadside girls exactly how they were, yet I’ve incorrectly remembered Vitus as a stone-walled medieval beast with hoisted flags, square tops, and round towers. In reality, she overlooks the city nearly black with age and dirt. Four gothic spires peek over a cream, utilitarian wall. Her reality is far from the castle I remembered, and if there were young girls lining the train tracks into town I’d slept through them.

Forever uphill, the city is beautiful. I hope to happen upon the enclosed park with the stalagmite wall the way we did six years ago. Below the St. Charles bridge three dancers prepare for a lyrical production on a floating platform and overhead two boys play Nothing Else Matters on cellos. I linger, remembering what it feels like to be in an unfamiliar city with nowhere to be.

When I reach Vitus, calves pulsing, she is anticlimactic: the smooth grey cobbles continue to a foreboding gate adorned with gold and guards busy guarding. I know the structure is big enough to house the whole of my Italian and Swedish families – even those I haven’t met – but up close her grandeur is lost.

St. Vitus is closed for the evening and I’m scolded by a guard for walking the wrong way down a one-way street. I think of the family with two small children and wonder if they, too, will mismatch Vitus. If they will return to this vibrant, beautiful city after six years only to find they remember it wrong. I snap a few shots and stroll down opposite the way I came, through the quiet streets and royal vineyards, over St. Charles bridge, and back to the Bicycle Bar where the dancing has already begun.