I remember the first time i saw her. Jaw-dropping beauty, exotic and mysterious. Though I didn't understand a word she was saying, I couldn't have cared less.
It was 20 years ago and I was in an auditorium for opening night of the CILECT Student Film Festival in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. This was the early 80s, the height of Reagan's Cold War against the USSR's "evil empire," but film students from 50 countries were given travel visas to pass through the Iron Curtain.
The vision of beauty's name was Hana, and I couldn't understand her because she spoke Czech. She was master of ceremonies for the festival. Later, someone told me she was the youngest announcer on the state TV station.
Each night after the main screening we all went to the disco. Imagine several hundred students from all over the world on vacation - that's how crazy it was. Hana was there surrounded by admirers, and I do mean surrounded. At least a dozen men circled her in close orbit. Captivated though I was, I'm not one for working in a crowd, even if I'd had the confidence to approach such a great beauty.
Apparently, the first night's disco had kept half the town up all night, so it was moved into the middle of the Black Forest, to the parking lot of a small schloss (castle) Franz Kafka built for his mistress. Even a horde of drunken film students would have a hard time messing up a parking lot.
This time Hana only had four or five admirers. A student from the UK noticed me staring at her. I scoffed when he suggested I ask her to dance and got that old speech about the very beautiful being very lonely. He bet me a beer that she'd say yes, which I thought was a fair trade for a moment of rejection, so off I went.
He didn't get his beer, but only because I spent the next three hours dancing with Hana. She spoke little English and we struggled to understand each other, but it didn't matter. I wasn't going to leave the dance floor until she did. When Hana used her fingers to indicate we should walk and pointed to the road into town, I could only nod. I was speechless, but not because of the language barrier.
A hundred feet down the road into the Black Forest, her hand found mine. We kissed, tentatively at first and then with a passion that had me leaning against a tree to stay upright. A light drizzle started, and the headlights of a passing bus created a halo of light, searing her beauty, the touch of her lips into my mind.
I took the comforter from my dorm room and snuck into a common room where Hana waited. The comforter barely cushioned the hard tile floor, but I never felt the bruises that later appeared on my knees and elbows.
Brilliant sunlight woke us a few hours later. Hana hurried off to prepare for that day's screenings, absolutely terrified of being late. The reality of life behind the Iron Curtain brought us back down to earth. The rest of the week went by in a blur.
I sat backstage so I could be with Hana every moment she wasn't onstage. I saw only a handful of films.
Mostly I remember our bodies moving together with painful intensity in those few moments when my Bulgarian roommates weren't around and Hana wasn't working. She learned English so quickly. In a few days, we were almost able to speak in complete sentences. It was easy to understand why she'd succeeded on state TV.
We were walking hand in hand through the town when Hana bought me a rose, and not just any rose. Karlsbad's spas are famous for their mineral content, and roses are dipped into the mineral runoff to create petrified flowers. Her gift to me was a flower that would never wilt.
We made a plan. After I finished my film school degree, I'd get a bartending job and save money to cover the hundreds of dollars a month I'd spend calling her. Then I'd fly back so we could be together for her month-long vacation. We hoped it would be enough time to decide if we'd have a future.
Three weeks before my scheduled return to Czechoslovakia, the letters that had been arriving like clockwork stopped. Then there were problems with the phone. When I called, the connection would be broken before we could talk.
I finally got through to her a day before my flight to Prague. Through tears, she said her vacation had been cancelled and she was being sent touring with a theatrical company. I tried to be strong and tell her we wouldn't give up, but when that call got cut off, I cried like a baby.
She only sent a few letters when she was on tour. She wrote about getting a special visa, coming to visit me, but it sounded like a fantasy. A few months later, I called and a man answered the phone. I wasn't surprised. There were no tears this time when she said goodbye.
Somewhere I still have that petrified rose. I'm not sure exactly where it is. I had to put it away a long time ago.