chapter one

chapter one

chapter one

chapter one


On this particular Sunday, the last Sunday in August, at the sweltering end of a summer of endless rain, the sky was shamelessly cloudless. There was nothing to stop the scorching sun from cooking the city asphalt into a stinky, sticky mess, and the earnest luminary did its ruthless job well. As if smuggled in, one lonesome spider’s web of a cloud began to gather itself into a nebulous formation in the middle of the weightless dome, received no encouragement and dissolved at once. For us mere mortals who happened to be in the habit of inhabiting a pale blue spot of a planet (atop its northern hemisphere) suspended in the golden rays of a smallish yellow sun, adrift on the outskirts of an ordinary galaxy, the eighth month was the muggiest of all.

Heading for a lake to escape the tired and dusty city had been Karl’s idea. If you will allow it, shall we pause here for a second? My story, technically speaking, began not here—ahem…far from it—but for our purposes, this moment might be a great place to start. So with no further delays, and your permission, ladies and gentlemen, I would like you to meet my current boyfriend, Karl—a six-foot-four, blue-eyed, yellow-haired, wide-shouldered, poster-worthy German with a soft spot for whole-wheat blueberry pancakes. Less than an hour ago, he had been preoccupied with driving his BMW motorbike, of a solid build, on a Bavarian road, also of solid build, not taking his eyes from the road for an instant. (In fact, the way this road of envious sturdiness had been constructed was the way roads everywhere ought to be built.) On his monument of a bike, Karl evoked silent respect in whoever encountered him, and on his bike or off it, he was not someone to mess with. He dealt with things in a thorough, unhurried manner, and true to his character, his even-paced speech was often irksome.

At the moment, he was slathering a suntan lotion all over his pasty body, splashing the spicy aroma of tropical oils around him; maximum strength, with the utmost thoroughness. Five wasps, crying with joy, rushed to investigate. They parked themselves in irregular orbits around Karl, but being unable to use this aromatic bacchanalia to their advantage, decided against pursuing it any further and took off, buzzing in a businesslike manner, carrying their promise of trouble elsewhere. Focused on the task at hand, and too busy to attend to uninvited annoyances, Karl ignored these intruders. Perhaps because of this thoroughness of his, I felt safe around him, safer than I had felt in a long time. As far as unshakeable rocks go—Karl was mine. Who knows why I thought no harm could come to me when I was in his presence, but I did.

And over there, on the moss-green, double-folded cotton blanket near Karl, can you see that woman?

Please, call me Anna.

No, no, not the blonde babe. On the blanket. To his left…there. The petite, slim, and tanned short-haired brunette with intelligent hazel eyes, which had been busy for the moment admiring Karl with unfathomable delight. And admiring. Several happy minutes passed by, and there I was, still admiring. Nothing exciting seemed to be happening, though. His movements had fallen into monotonous, sleep-inducing routine, and to cheat the embrace of oncoming drowsiness, and also for lack of better things to do, my eyes wandered from him and onto the forest surrounding the lake.

The whole picturesque landscape gave the impression that the position of every tree and bush and rock had been well thought out, as if here, nature, not unlike a model housewife, felt an incredible amount of pressure to leave nothing to chance and had been driven halfway to insanity by the uncontrollable urge to keep things in perfect order. Well, one never knew when Monsieur Monet might be passing by, now did one? He might be enchanted by the presentation, and, deciding on the spur of the moment to immortalize all of this, this whole magnificence thingy, might even place his easel over there near that moss-choked stump.

Clear as day, the unleashed sun was on a mission to blaze up everything beneath it. Half-blinded both by the life-giving, bright orb and its reflection in the lake, I shielded my eyes by placing my hand at my forehead, instantly gaining a better perspective on things. Yes, this would be the ideal patch for the easel. Now, what could Karl have possibly done with my sunglasses?

I gazed at him. His ritual of self-anointing completed, he stretched his impressive frame out on the ground and conked out. Poor man; he deserved the rest. Another inquisitive wasp checked out Karl’s checkered shorts, carefully folded over his backpack, and headed toward Karl’s belly. I brushed it away.

“You don’t look German.” A baritone with a Bavarian lilt made me turn around to find a solidly built redheaded man with meaty cheeks and a thick neck, a declaration of friendliness blooming on his face. The sun lit a million tiny starched tongues of flame on his manly, hairy torso, arms, and legs, singing a hymn to the color orange.

I smiled back and whispered, so not to disturb Karl, “I’m from Moscow.”

He got excited. “Mein Gott! I’ve heard polar bears roam the streets of that city!”

Ja, ja. Dangerous creatures too. Once, I’ve seen with my own eyes—and it happens often!—two hungry bears maul a freckle-faced child in the Red Square. A big crowd gathered to watch. Bi-iig! What a spectacle! The largest beast bit off the child’s head—the blood spurted everywhere. Fountains of blood! The mother screamed and—Where are you going?”

Too late. Whoever he had been, he had run for the nearest trees.

“Who was that?” Karl sounded groggy, his sonorous rumble of a voice breaking up.

“Nobody,” I said.

“What did he want?”

“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”

Not a single leaf stirred on the trees of a mature dark-green, now late in August. The sea of greens with its transitory richness, flecked with yellows and reds, flooded the distant woody hills. One adventurous cloud assembled itself for a moment—a perfect white puff—and a lazy, deep-blue shadow swam across the faces of fat, complacent, sleeping-the-sleep-of-the-innocent hills.

The canopy of nearby trees, while fulfilling their obligation to provide the comfort of a cool shade, also harbored an ear-piercing, uncoordinated choir of a flock of small and gray, whatever-they-are-called birds, skittish little darlings, if a bit chaotic. Each bird kept lifting in the air for an instant and settling back on the branch straightaway, hobnobbing, singing the afternoon away, and disrupting the otherwise flawless order of things without giving it a thought. There seemed to be some sort of insignificant misunderstanding of local regulations on the part of birds. Ah well; “birdbrained” was not just an expression.

A chipmunk, conducting himself like a neat shopkeeper, attended to his hot-summer-afternoon chipmunk business and discreetly chirped between the roots of the spreading old oak, where a few rays of amber sunlight filtered through the leaves. By quite a coincidence, it happened to be the same old oak that a dog passing by had pissed on ten minutes earlier—a warm and sluggish stream—before the canine crashed through the tangled underbrush like a wild boar and disappeared forever. An adorable calico mutt with a curled-up tail of course had certain needs, but this fact had no significance whatsoever.

Farther to the left, my venture-prone eyes stumbled upon an enormous and hairy—um, make that “furry”—bottom positioned at a coquettish angle on a plaid blanket and well lit by the sun. The golden sphere itself had clambered high into the polished sky—gloriously mindless, stretched-to-infinity solid azure. Good God, how could have I forgotten? For future reference, it is not all that difficult to distract me, providing the object responsible for the distraction was worthy enough.

Now, I feel obliged to mention that Karl and I were not just on any beach—we were on a nudist beach, common here in Germany (and in my mind’s eye, I saw Mother shaking her finger at me, her other hand on her hip, hearing her shout, “You have no shame!”). Not an attractive crowd. I thought I would never get used to it, but as with everything else in life, there are no guarantees. Who knew what might happen after twenty years of intensive exposure? And besides, it had been noted on previous occasions by several independent observers that I was capable of making judgment calls that were not entirely correct (please read: “I could not have been more wrong”) and behaving in general with an insane amount of optimism. But in my defense, this was not every day.

Perhaps instead of just goggling at the world, being as absentminded as I was, I should get up and wander around a bit, yes? I gave it a try. One, two, three…and nothing. Again, one, two, three…

I got up, arched my back, and stretched my arms over my head, ignoring the open stares coming from several directions at once. Men ogle me. As it so happened, the one guy I was interested in was sprawled at my feet basking in the sun, flat on his back with one arm thrown out on an odd angle, legs splayed, mouth open, snuffling and grumbling in his slumber. I looked at him. Alfresco, the whey-colored skin on his torso and limbs reddened as bright as that of a boiled crustacean’s, his face sheltered by a carefully folded T-shirt. Karl grunted in his sleep, mumbled something, growled, then turned on his semipale side.

Ah, at last, there they were, hiding from me under his thigh—my sunglasses. They looked intact from up here. I bent down, picked them up, checked for damage, found none, and slid them up on my nose where they belonged. With my vision less restricted by the stupefying glare, I was pleased that I could stop squinting, and I turned around only to discover the guy on the neighboring blanket winking at me with brazen assurance.

“Hey, cupcake,” he murmured.

“Ah, kerfuffle.” I looked away from him in the other direction, then tentatively squatted down, reached into my beach bag for the tattered volume of Great Expectations, and hugged it to my chest with both hands. Good prose had always been my reliable place of escape, my lone place of comfort where, giddy with anticipation, I could lose or find myself.

. . .

Was life not wonderful at the sweet beginning of a promising relationship? When everything one ever dreamed of seemed to be but a teensy-weensy step ahead? The boundless happiness of being a part of a couple now showed definite signs of being within one’s reach. One could almost smell it. Oh, this delicious, elusive union…Oh, the mystifying allure of destiny’s workings in its miraculous unfolding…Oh, the unspeakable majesty of a world without time…Those magical times when the first delicate blooms of romance, not yet wilted and still generous, give off enchanting, life-affirming scents and colors…The thrilling times when the relationship is about to flow over the rim with puppy-like infatuation. Grab it.

Alas, more often than not, it is destined for failure and will end up in tatters as soon as these infatuation levels plummet, leaving nothing in its wake, as though the magic were gone forever, to be replaced with day-to-day power struggles and annoyances. Gone. Forever.

Non, non, mes amis. C’est impossible! Only till the next sweet beginning, of course.

. . .

The ever-changing wind, as if feeling a little neglected, whistled in from nowhere like an angered Norse god, turning the mirrored surface of the lake into the wrinkled skin of a grotesque animal from an alien world. It ran over the grass, skimmed the tops of the surrounding trees, bending them sideways in the process, twisted and turned several leaves that had already managed to fall—the harbingers of the rustling showers of gold that would hit the ground before long—and at its own caprice, threw them back up into the brilliant air. A few pirouettes later, accompanied by a wave of rustling commotion in the trees’ crowns, the playful breeze brought me an offering—a puff of fresh, slightly cooler air, and with it, a small green leaf that showed a smidgen of autumn’s dazzling ochre, with a touch of vermilion around the edges.

The wind could not help it—it had been born gusty. The master manipulator just had to curl and spin around the small leaf—the first casualty of the season—which had fallen from its mother tree for the first time in its short life, so flustered and alone, riding the turmoil and shaking from head to toe. The mighty wind took the grass-colored trooper on a roller coaster ride before letting the poor thing lose altitude and rest, out of all places, on Karl’s new beer belly—a smallish protuberance on its way to pride.

I reached for this victim of violent kidnapping, picked it up by the stem, vigilant not to interrupt the peaceful rhythm of rising and falling, the up and down, up and down movement of his warm flesh. Karl was, as usual, overworked and sleep deprived. Waking up the gentle giant from his long overdue rest was not a part of the plan. Softie as I was, intrigued by the intricate symmetry of thin veins, I let the delicate splash of emerald lie for a moment in the ephemeral safety of my palm. Such a tiny piece of the puzzle, but so indispensable in playing its part in the endless circle of life, this little marvel carried as a special gift to me the fullness of the vibrant, live smell of a tree in its prime, bursting with foliage.

Though it spoke of things eternal, the wind spoke in ancient tongues, long dead, that no one comprehended nowadays. Swift to spring up, the wind died down with no less haste, recovering from its last fleeting bout of madness with no ill effects. One swooping movement, and it erased from the lake the myriad of identical ripples with matching shadows it had created mere moments ago, letting the lake be for now. What an accurate illustration of that old adage that looks can be deceiving. How very true. Again a lazy breeze, enchanting and unhurried, it delivered rationed portions of the forest’s fragrances and freshness to anyone who needed it.

The spirit of peace descended from above, and lapped in it, the lake reflected whatever it felt like reflecting—the melted white sun below, no less blinding than the one high up in impossible blueness, the comfy hills and the lacy trees flocked by the water’s edge, and the boats with oars freed, suspended in nothingness. Greedy me, I soaked it all in. The fairy-haunted world around me had come to a lull, filled with intention. Under the eerie grip of this powerful spell, I headed toward the lake in a desultory stroll.

The bluish-green water was as warm as milk freshly squirted out of a cow. I stepped into it, submerged my feet into the divine delights of slippery silt, summoning swirly clouds with tendrils of muck from the bottom. The unceremonious silt, with its innate sliminess tinged with naïveté, in its eagerness to make a meaningful connection with just about anyone or anything was not so selective in its choice of close acquaintances. It took this opportunity as an open invitation and proceeded to ooze between my toes. A string of air bubbles rose to the surface.

A flushing-red dragonfly charged headlong with a dry rattle for a closer look at the commotion, hovered over the water for an instant, then flitted away over the brocade of water lilies and algae to vanish between the reeds. A spitting distance off, a spotted trout jumped, twisted in midair, and fell back into the water with a soft slap, leaving circles on the shiny mirror stillness. And another one leaped and fell, the circles overlapped, messing things up. A small school of silvery, whatever-they-are-called fish darted by in a brush against my legs, chasing one another near the murky bottom. On this hot, but otherwise an unremarkable afternoon on one of those equally unremarkable days at the end of August, I was deliciously, shamelessly, utterly happy.

That was six years ago. Had it been so long?






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