Written March 28, 1997/Rewritten April 25, 1997
Somebody sent me the obituary; It came with a copy of her last book. To be honest, I didn’t know that she lived the last few years in France. We last saw each other in Berlin, but we had met a number of years before that.
I’ve never read any of her work even though she was a prolific and well-published author. I never could bring myself to do so, though I did ask her what she wrote about once.
“A lot of things.” She said.
I waited for her to say more, but she didn’t, so I probed a little.
“Most recently then.”
Her eyes focused and looked into mine.
“Unfulfilled love. Most recently, that is.”
“That’s so sad.” I said. “Unrequited love is so tragic.”
“Unfulfilled love even more so.” She replied.
I gave that quite a bit of thought.
I knew then that I never wanted to read her books. I have them all. All are first editions, all are signed, all were gifts, and not one of them has ever been opened. I’ve never been able to read any of them.
When we first met, we became close friends instantly. We had to, life is kind of like that at three in the morning.
Her finger tips were covered in unblotted fountain pen ink from the tablet on which she was working. Her hair was pulled back in a hasty pony tail and her focus was intent upon what she was writing. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the image clearly. I remember the cut of her jaw and the curve of her lips. And yet in that image, I remember the cold coffee and unfinished spaghetti even more.
She looked up when I entered and sized me as if examining for any redeeming value before turning back to finish the sentence she was writing.
I sat and ordered a coffee and some eggs. Hashed browned potatoes were sizzling on the grill so I asked for some of those too. I looked over to the writer at the other end of the counter and took a sip from my cup. The coffee was hot and I burned my tongue.
“You’re an artist aren’t you?” She said to me without looking up from her tablet.
“Yes.” I replied. “How did you know?”
“I can tell.” She said.
“Really?” I asked. My food came and I attacked it.
“What brings you out here at three in the morning?” She asked.
“I like the darkness.” I said. “It’s very peaceful.”
“It is at that, isn’t it?”
She handed me a bottle of Tobasco without my asking.
“You looked like the type.” She said.
I mixed the red sauce into my eggs.
“What about you?” I asked through a mouthful of eggs.
She eyed me as if reevaluating her sizing from the moment before. She reached across the counter and took the pot of coffee to refresh her cup. Coffee dripped from the percolator and burned upon the hot plate. The smell of burned coffee filled the diner and lingered in our noses.
“It’s my wedding night.” She said. “I got married today.”
I stopped eating. “Isn’t this an odd place to be then?”
“Yes, it would seem that way wouldn’t it?” She said and re-dotted an “i” on her tablet.
I moved my plate over to her end of the counter.
“He passed out at the reception.” She said by way of explanation.
“Not terribly encouraging.” I replied, not knowing what else to say.
“No, I guess it isn’t.” She said after a pause.
I forked another mouthful of potatoes and became aware of grease on my chin. The waitress dropped my check by my plate and refilled my water glass.
“Would you like to sleep with me?” She asked.
“No, for sex.” She replied.
I didn’t have anything to say to that.
That night I slept with another man’s bride on her wedding night. It was the only time we ever slept together.
I didn’t love her nor did she love me. We enjoyed each other’s company though. I was good conversation she said, and she made me laugh.
“What is love anyway?” She might say. “It’s not something I understand.”
“But you’re a married woman, surely you know what love is.” I said. It was some time later, in Prague I think.
“Someone once asked me if marriage was a product of magic or habituation.”
“And what did you say?”
“I don’t remember.” She said. “But I vote now for habituation.”
“Oh.” I said.
“Anyway, I mean, I know what respect is.” She said. “I know what attraction is; I even understand the part about duty. But love? I don’t know what love is.”
“So you’ve never been in love?” I asked.
“I didn’t say that.” She said. “I’m just saying I don’t understand it. I mean, you can fall in love, spend some years together and then break up. What is that? How can you suddenly not talk to someone you were so intimate with? Don’t they know you better than most people?
Love is messed up. In love, you don’t even have to like the person. Battered women love, and I doubt they like it. Anyway, it’s much better to like a person than to love one. Love is an abstraction.”
“That’s pretty cynical.” I said.
“Is it?” She asked. “Love is a leap of faith needing little or nothing to base it on. Mostly it’s just timing and loneliness.”
“And habituation.” I added.
“And habituation.” She smiled.
“What about romance?” I asked.
“Romance I understand.” She said. “Sex I understand; friendship I understand. Love? Love baffles me.”
“You baffle me.” I said.
“Says the man who sleeps with another man’s wife on her wedding night.”
“Never mind.” She said smiling and put her arm in mine. “Let’s go get some coffee.”
Coffee in Berlin is much the same as anywhere else. You can get any number of roasts and blends. There are indoor and outdoor cafes with views and ambiance. Natives and tourists alike frequent the shops and while Berlin is not particularly known for their coffee, it is an international addiction, and people will find their fix wherever they can.
It was a number of years now since we last saw each other.
“I’m pregnant.” She said.
“Congratulations!” I replied.
When she didn’t answer, I inquired.
“It is congratulations, isn’t it?”
“Yes…yes, I guess.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“I…I thought it would make me fulfilled, but it doesn’t.” She explained.
“I’m sorry.” I said.
“Shouldn’t it though?” She asked. “Shouldn’t it make me happy?”
As usual I didn’t know what to say. For the first and only time in our friendship I saw her cry.
“When I was a girl in school, I thought graduating would solve all my problems.” She said. “Then when it didn’t, I thought falling in love would do it. That didn’t either. It only got worse. He convinced me that marriage would be the answer, but he was wrong. He was a clod.”
“And now?” She replied. “I thought I wanted a baby, but now I’m not so sure.”
“It’s got to come from from within.” I said. “I keep telling you that. You can’t keep looking around the corner for it. It doesn’t work that way.”
“It doesn’t?” She asked with a brief hint of a smile.
“No, it doesn’t.” I said.
“Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.” She said.
“I keep hoping someday you do.” I replied.
She sipped her coffee and noted the silence in the square. A Vespa rode near the fountain and stirred up a group of pigeons.
“You are never as truly in love as you are when you are sixteen.” She said with wistful conviction. “Only when you are sixteen can you give your entire being without a thought towards anything else.”
“You don’t believe in true love?” I asked.
“I believe in real love.” She said. “But true love….True love happens when you are sixteen.”
Her eyes lost focus and stared into her cup. She swirled the coffee like absinthe in a glass letting it rise to the lip of the cup, licking its edge, before letting it sliding back into its pool. A cool air hit my cheek and I saw her turn to face it. A white zeppelin floated among the puffs of white clouds suspended in the spring sky.
I followed her gaze to a couple who were holding hands by the vast pool that flanked our cafe. The girl gave her companion a coin and, with a wish and a pause, he tossed it into the pool.
“Toss one for me.” She asked, still focused on the pair. “Make a wish and pray for me.” She looked at me faltering in her glance, then took a sip from her coffee.
I hesitated only for a moment. Then, with fleeting courage in grasp, I rose from the table and made the decisive stride to the pool. I plunged my hand into my pocket I found a handful of change. I looked at it and could feel her looking at me. I felt the weight of the money in my hand and made a silent prayer. Then, eyes closed, I opened my heart and sent the entire handful of copper and silver into the water. I heard the coins splash a tattoo upon the water, and waited for the ripples to come to us. I turned back to the table and she was gone.
The ripples washed over me alone.
The obituary said that she is survived by a husband and a son. I guess somewhere along the line she remarried.
I looked at the book titled “Soulmates” and opened the cover.
The dedication read:
“To my friend Albert, wherever you are.
You were right. It came from within.”
I turned to the first page and began to read.