Fiction

In the Port of Odessa

By Gaither Stewart

On the day their love affair began Wally and Dietrich were sitting on Rome’s flower-garlanded Spanish Steps. And unlike any other day in either of their lives, their meeting was indelibly stamped in their memories because of the erotic manner in which it all began. They were about a meter apart near the top level of the stone staircase overlooking the narrow cobblestoned streets of the city and along each side of the Steps flat-roofed apartment houses with exotic roof gardens with Japanese dwarf trees in great red pots, silver pools, lounge chairs, multicolored tables. At their feet opened the Via Condotti, the street of Italian fashion and the ancient Caffé Greco where Nikolai Gogol wrote Dead Souls. The perfumed scent of pink azaleas and violet bougainvillea along the coulisses of the steps blended with the sweetish smells floating upwards from the amiable ageless horses with sore ankles harnessed to the colorful buggies waiting on the piazza below, the whole amalgamating into the fragrance of the late May air. Near them buzzes of conversations in the world’s languages; below on the piazza taxi motors purring, the clip-clop clip clop of hoofs on cobblestones of a passing rival buggy; little green white and red flags waving in the morning wind; the steady gushing of sparkling silver waters into the Bernini Fountain; two nuns and a class of regimented dark-haired school girls in white blouses and blue skirts headed for the metro; the cries and laughter of children running around the fountain and petting the weary horses; life on the streets and the melancholy sounds of silence, the silence of the cobblestones of the three-thousand year old city.

Dietrich stared brazenly at the alluring girl with the brown legs; and she, surreptitiously, at the attractive man. That dark day the May sun never broke through the blanket of darkening clouds. As the temperature plummeted precipitously, shivering Spanish Steps sitters moved down the wide staircase to the piazza and fanned out into the city in search of warm cafés. At the top of the staircase, Wally’s multicolored scarf fluttered in the nippy breeze sweeping over them in short bursts while the low-lying clouds continued to darken. She buttoned her yellow sweater and looked at him looking at her tanned legs that seemed less sensitive to the chill. Yellow and brown, he saw. Yellow and brown held his eyes.

Remember, Dove?

Remember, Dietrich?

Wally smiled when he rolled down the sleeves of his cotton shirt and at the same time noted the gray bird blithely hopping down the steps just to his right.

“Oh, a dove!” she said spontaneously.

“No, it’s only a pigeon,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the bird suddenly nervous at their shifting around and the human voices.

“No! That’s not a pigeon,” Wally said. “It’s a dove.”

“Looks like a pigeon.”

“There’s a difference.”

“Actually, the names pigeon and dove are interchangeable but they’re really the same bird. Same species. Sometimes the dove is smaller and it likes a rural setting. Pigeons like the city better. That one is a pigeon.”

Sliding a little at a time toward Wally, Dietrich was soon pressing against her … intimately. Then leaning forward and twisting his head, he spoke directly into her mouth.

Wally smiled coolly straight into his eyes. “That cute one is smaller than the others around us,” she said as matter-of-factly as possible in that position. “Much cuter. It’s a dove. The bird of peace and love.”

“The word dove comes from the German,” Dietrich insisted. “Related to, uh, close, to, uh, hey, you know I really need to kiss you,” he said. “I want to dive into you, Dove.”

“Oh, okay,” she said. “Then dive, Dove.”

“Ours is going to be a great love, Dove! The greatest.”

And then, Dietrich, remember, you kissed me again and again, long, soft and hard and passionate, forever-and-ever kisses, while your hands moved up and down my open thighs. Right there on the Spanish Steps in the center of Rome, amidst the pink and violet against the green of the bougainvillea and azalea and bombarded by those cool winds.

When kissing and touching became too taxing, I pushed you away. The pink and violet of the flowers against the greenery flashed and flared, but you stayed close, examining the big red badge plushy on blue velvet pinned to my sweater. It had scratched your left shoulder during the kissing.

You touched it and smiled. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Possibly. Probably. What do you think it is?”

“Is that not an emblem of the former Soviet Union? You still see them in Berlin.”

“Bingo! Most certainly it is that. Don’t you know what today is?”

“No idea. That is, it’s the day I met the love of my life, Dove. Among the birds and flowers of my life.”

“It’s May 9. A historical landmark. The anniversary of the Soviet victory over the Germans in World War Two. Red on red on red.”

“No, we mustn’t forget that! Are you Russian, Dove?”

“Oh, yes. Or I am nearly. I’m on my way to Moscow to study Russian. And I’m also what the red of this badge indicates.”

“You mean … umm, well, that’s good. I, too, sometimes believe. I’m German, Dove,” he said ever so carefully. “Does that matter? Will that change our new-born love … eh, Dove?”

“Love, Dove? Well, that depends.”

“Look,” he said firmly, “we’re got to decide who is Dove and who is not. Otherwise we’ll never know who we are.”

“Well, everybody calls me Wally but most people don’t know my real name is Waltraud. My grandfather was German too.”

“Okay,” he said, “you’re Dove and I’m Dietrich.”

Wally was tallish, with long thick dark German hair and deep green eyes, strong shoulders, prominent breasts, narrow waist and beautifully sun-tanned legs freely displayed and accessible in a short black mini-skirt. Her speech was marked by a kind of ironic musicality.

Dietrich was quite tall, slender to the point of skinniness, yet hard, with long slim muscles in his arms. His hair was brown, his eyes hazel. A kind of quizzical stealth marked his good looks and he seemed to have a great reserve of energy as if about to explode. His smile was a half-smile, his facial expression playfully serious. His voice was pleasant, neither a tenor nor a baritone.

It all seemed like a dream when three months later Wally thought back on their meeting that cloudy day on the Spanish Steps. The pink and violet on the green around them, the gray dove on stone steps. Comforting memories, many of which still alive. Still meaningful. Intensely vibrant in myriad colors flashing and flaring.

Why did we do it? she would ask over and over. Who can understand how it happens? Why do we do the things we do? Why fall in love with a person we don’t even know, Wally-Dove wondered? A beautiful moment, that once-in-a-lifetime happening that happened to us: we kept leaning backwards, backwards, more and more, until we were supine on the Spanish Steps. On my back, Wally recalled, I saw the black sky and the bell towers of the church of Trinità dei Monti hovering over the pink of the azaleas and the violet of the bougainvillea. And that’s when you said those words: “Hey, Dove, we gotta get out of here”, you said, uncertain of my reaction. “My hotel is close.”

Two days passed before we even went out of your hotel and looked vaguely around us, both in a daze and uninterested in the surroundings. We had forgotten the Spanish Steps and the bell towers and the pink and violet against the green and the horse drawn buggies and the sparkling silver water. Compared to us, Via Mario di Fiori was just any street anywhere in the world and Piazza di Spagna just any square.

“Hey, there’s sunshine in Rome,” Dietrich noticed as if just reawakening. “What day of the week is it anyway?” he asked.

“Let me see,” Wally said looking toward the sunny Italian sky and watching the formations of birds circling in myriad patterns over the multicolored city of stone. “Umm, well, it looks like Wednesday.”

“What do you mean, Dove? It looks like Wednesday? How does Wednesday look?”

“Days too have their looks. Today looks like a Wednesday. But we can check with the concierge.”

“Dove, you feel okay?”

“Wednesday wonderful!”

That day we moved to my pension facing the river where I had a big top floor room with a small kitchen overlooking the gray River Tiber, the Angels Bridge, where, I read, they once hung up on display executed robbers and killers … and looming on the other river bank was Tosca’s castle. We seldom looked at any of that.

“The rapture held us,” Dietrich would say later. “Drugged us. Nothing was enough. Repetition, repetition and repetition. Over and over. How wonderfully insatiable we were. We would need the repetition forever, we said, have it forever and ever. Remember, Dove?”

“Truly an amazing thing happened,” Wally said, secretly wondering if it was only the sex, her first time that way. “Or is it that thing called love? But no, this must be something more than love. Something that makes the word love sound petty and banal, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know what this is but I’ve always thought a powerful erotic basis necessary to make love last. We didn’t analyze ourselves while it happened … the experience, I mean. Or the rapture. But I remember everything, Dove. It was nearly a month before I even learned your last name. Crazy. Names didn’t count. Now I know you and you know me. You’re Wally Dove Döllinger and I’m Dietrich Dietrich Antonow.”

It turned out Dietrich was a writer. He’d published three books of short stories and had promised his Berlin publisher a novel of which he never spoke. He seemed to have plenty of time. And I had plenty of money. Maybe not a good combination at all. But it didn’t matter. My parents were rich, second generation New York Germans and lived in the chic part of the Upper East Side. The two of us were free to love … and to risk.

It turned out Dove had advanced degrees in German and Russian studies. So that we spoke in a mishmash of German and English. She wanted to perfect her Russian and live in Russia. And in principle she could. But now there was me. A new situation. Did I want to live in Russia too? Life is so complex and the world so small, I said. And I told Dove of my recent visit to Odessa to see the staircase from Eizenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. From Bulgaria I had zipped up to Odessa on a catamaran. Only a few hours. And Odessa had always seemed to me to be on the other side of the world. Now I know that it’s a very Russian city. And the city has that famous staircase where in the film Tsarist troops and Cossacks massacre the people demonstrating in favor of the mutinous sailors on the battleship … the reason I went there. And that staircase brought me to Rome to see its staircase … wondering if there was a connection between the two. Good story material. A tale of two staircases. But then, but then, Dove was there on the Spanish Steps with the pigeons and the pink and violet of the azaleas and bougainvillea springing from the greenery. And I never found out if there was a connection.

Dietrich was more complicated than I first thought. For during those three months we felt more than we thought … or said. In Odessa they’d told him about the Ukrainian Nazis who burned alive forty-six anti-Nazi Odessa Russians in the Trade Unions House. Oh, I too know things like that. I know a lot about Russia. Unlike Dietrich who until he went there didn’t even realize that Odessa was once one of Russia’s major cities. But he agreed when I told him more about the Nazi parties running Ukraine and that when governments criminalize truth-telling, tyranny is the result. Since that’s the state of things in the West, I’d chosen to live in Russia, the homeland of his ancestors. Living in Russia might sound romantic, teenage girlish, but it was so. Dietrich didn’t understand that. Still, we had much in common even if he seemed charmingly immature and unknowledgeable for a writer. So with all that going on—Russia and now Dietrich and the father I was fleeing from—I began wondering if I would ever return to America.

Yet it was strange that we had been living together in my Rome pension a month before I began fearing that some things in our relationship were taking on a static air of unchanging constancy, among which also some of his peculiar habits. Mornings, he was pale and seemed slimmer than usual and at a certain time he would begin checking the time on his watch on the night table. Then at around eleven he would slip the watch onto his wrist. So just to tease him I began asking the time in a fake sing-song irony, suggesting my disapproval at his lack of attention to me. Eleven, he would say, embarrassed. Secretly then he still checked the time until finally at twelve o’clock sharp he would even stop love-making—which he avoided at that hour—and he would light a cigarette, and say “a-a-ah”. After which he went into the tiny kitchen and stayed there a while. He never explained.

At first his behavior puzzled me, and then I understood. I really didn’t want to know for sure even though he began smelling sourly of alcohol. But clearly the decision of what he wanted most at noon, me or his first cigarette and his visit to the kitchen, was a dilemma for him. At first I had discounted the bags of wine he bought in the shop downstairs, which vanished in a surprisingly short time. Nonetheless, the routine became fixed: the cigarette, the kitchen, the familiar alcohol smell on his breath, and the bags of empty bottles he placed outside our door. Hmm! Men and drinkers, I thought, my alcoholic father ever present.

Dietrich continued calling me Dove and he spoke of love but I began wondering if all of this was just my great European adventure, an affair in effect caused by my flight from my father. Thank God, I realized, not all of my critical faculties had vanished into the raptures of sexual love. But in any case, by the end of that first month, Dietrich had made me conscious of two things: I was a much more sensual person than I’d been aware of; and there was little basis to believe that this affair was to be enduring.

After the fire in us began to subside, he wrote two short stories. One was about a Rome wine grower and his fiery relationship with an English princess, a tale in which details taken from our own sexual rapture appeared. The second—he said dedicated to me—was about the Odessa staircase in which appeared both erotic scenes similar to our meeting on Rome’s Spanish Steps and words about the Russianness of people in the port of Odessa.

“That’s the way fiction writing works,” he said, boyishly proud. “You relive something here, you steal other things there. You can’t help it. You patch it all together; fill it out and voilà a short story.”

“I can’t believe it’s that simple.”

“Dove, things are never what they seem. But I’ve never been able to explain it rationally. A story is a story … but it must contain truths. Moral truths. Without a moral message, a story is not worth the paper it’s written on. Yet, you know, at the same time my own stories seem disjointed to me, too artificially constructed, I think because of the time lapse between the scenes as I write them. That’s my system. One scene at a time. You and I are such scenes in these stories. But the reader should experience a story as a whole, a whole cemented together in one solid block.”

One day just after the noon routine of his first cigarette and the visit to the kitchen, Dietrich proposed we move to his home in Berlin. Since I was still locked in our fairytale world of love, and besides, Berlin was a step nearer Russia, I agreed. I agreed so insouciantly, so compliantly that I realized I was after all not only escaping New York; I had also become—it seemed—a man’s woman in the sense that I needed this man in my life. For Dietrich—the incarnation of the European man—fascinated me as none of the egoistic men in New York I knew had. Always aware of themselves, the American men I knew had an enormous conceit of themselves, their looks and especially their scientifically cultivated sexual powers. But what do I know? Maybe European men are the same.

So it was to Berlin. Not so strange really. After all it was the land of my ancestors. And in any case it seemed the right place for me to be—whatever my justifications—on my way to Russia.

Dietrich’s apartment is in the Schöneberg district near Potsdamerstrasse and the Turks: Turkish Ottoman red flags with the white star and crescent, loud Eastern string music and flutes blasting twenty-four hours, fat women with bellies bulging out over the waist the way Turkish men like them, non-stop restaurants, the Istanbul lounge, the Istanbul snack bar, Istanbul this, Istanbul that and Dietrich threatening to study Turkish since he lived in little Istanbul. I escaped the Turks and signed up in a Russian language school a few metro stops distant where I spent mornings while Dietrich sometimes worked. Our lives were normalizing. We ourselves saw it. But to our regret also our ardor was normalizing, much of which seemed to have stayed behind in Rome. Our passion was no longer constant. Though love cooled—the price of reality—at least sparks of the memory of our original fire remained. We hung onto those moments. At times those sparks flamed up and again we burned. But too quickly the flare-up extinguished … just flickered out. Both of us were conscious of the triste reality of what was happening. And therefore each day we tried—in one way or another—to re-kindle it. I teased him with my legs. He brought me flowers and walked around the apartment half nude. All artificial. That reality saddened us.

It happened that a month or so after our arrival, Dietrich’s publisher threw a cocktail party in the famous old Hotel Adlon on Unter den Linden. The whole time we were there among the artists and writers and gaily dressed people and waiters carrying trays of drinks and the musical tinkling of glasses Dietrich sat at a small table with a journalist friend drinking vodka and ignoring the party. I was mystified. He hardly spoke a word to his publisher, the eighty- year old Heinz Naumann, who instead looked me over during most of that late Berlin afternoon. Wherever I was I felt his eyes fixed on me. Before the party was over, he invited us to dinner the very next evening in the hotel’s luxurious Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer.

At his age Heinz had his habits and preferences. Luxurious habits. And apparently he had also his harem. Dietrich said his publisher knew what he wanted and went for it by hook or by crook. Naumann goes for what is ready and waiting for him. Then he simply plucks what is already mature on the vine ready to plop into his hands. Naumann was not one to experiment, Dietrich claimed, “except in me and the novel he believes I have in me. But I don’t. I’m even uncertain about the kind of novel he expects but I’m certain I don’t have and will never have that novel in me.”

The next evening at the dinner table in the Esszimmer, the eating room, Heinz rattled on endlessly in his partially masked bullying manner, repeating from time to time his refrain about an “intriguing beautiful American girl in Berlin to study Russian.” At first I took it as a compliment. But later it became irritating. I detested him when he repeated it so impudently while Dietrich sipped vodka: “Oh, where have you been in my life, schönes Fräulein?”

Heinz Naumann talked non-stop, adventure in his voice when he spoke about the World War Two battle at Krivoy Rog in the southern part of the Ukraine … and all the time his eyes fixed on me. Krivoy Rog, Krivoy Rog, Krivoy Rog.

Dietrich drank the vodka Heinz kept ordering and tried to avoid even looking at Heinz looking at me. Only occasionally he looked up at the bully with a long malevolent look.

“That’s where the Red Army crushed our Sixth Army,” Heinz rambled. “My father, a fervent Nazi, was one of the few who got away whole. Since I’m too old to do such things, I asked Dietrich to take a look at Krivoy Rog for me … and to get something about the battle there into his novel that is trying to emerge from his mind and guts. Certainly a very European novel, nicht wahr? Schönes Fräulein, do you know what the words Krivoy Rog mean? Krummes Horn. We know it from a German children’s rhyme: Das Nashorn hat ein krummes Horn. The rhinoceros has a crooked horn. Ach, so was! But Waltraud, what do you think our Dietrich did? He didn’t go to Krivoy Rog at all. He went to Odessa where he fell back into his old vice—and at my expense. He spent his advance on the novel on Russian booze. Just sat around in taverns in the port of Odessa and drank vodka for a week … and never got to Kryvyi Rih, as the city is now called in Ukrainian … as is proper, by the way.”

At a certain point, while a disgusted Dietrich swayed toward the bar, Heinz asked me if he could call me. We had to meet. He had a premonition. There was to be something between us. Then Dietrich was on his way back, a big smile deforming his mouth and two glasses of vodka on a small tray balanced in his hands. I acted as if I hadn’t understood Heinz.

That night, a drunken Dietrich didn’t try to make love. He mumbled about Krivoy Rog and flopped onto the bed flat on his back. And for the first time, he snored. I laughed and shook him. Finally he turned on his side and slept like an angel. All that vodka and his snoring, the vodka in the port of Odessa and the wine bottles in Rome were like an echo from my past.

Still, tomorrow, it’s back to work. I at school and Dietrich presumably at his desk. But soon, very soon, I promised myself, we must speak about vodka and empty wine bottles.

Next morning at seven Dietrich was at the kitchen table, a bright alert look in his eyes set in a pale and unreal face. He seemed like a stranger. He’d made a pot of coffee and was drinking from a mug, alternating water and coffee. He wished me a good morning, poured me a coffee and after a moment said in his usual half-serious manner: “Dove, I overdid it last night. Anything not to hear that old fucker’s war stories and Krivoy Rog. Stories he never experienced anyway. His Nazi father did. Anyway, today I’ve got to get back into my writing rhythm. And then just look at you. Most of all I would like to go back to bed with you but you’re dressed and beautiful. Ein schönes Fräulein ready for school,” he added ironically. “Who knows why schools everywhere have to start so early? First graders at their desks at eight o’clock! That’s inhuman.”

I shrugged and examined him for signs of I didn’t know exactly what. I suppose for the same degenerate look in my father’s eyes. I wanted to ask him then and there about the drinking story … but there wasn’t time for what I knew was to be a long and decisive story. Though I did tell him about Heinz Naumann’s attentions and flirting … and about his invitation to meet.

“He made his intentions quite clear,” I clarified.

Dietrich exploded. He slapped the table. “That dirty Nazi son-of-a-bitch!” he shouted. “Der dreckige Hundesohn wants to sack me anyway. He and his Krummes Horn stories. And his calling you Waltraud. Fucking Nazi! Heinz Naumann. The last place I wanted to go was his fucking Krivoy Rog. And now you’re in his sights, Dove. Mark my words! One way or the other he’ll try to use you as a weapon. If you meet him, he’ll gloat over his victory and try to steal you away from me. If you don’t go, he will sack me out of pure vindictiveness. An evil bastard, my publisher and … no sense of what’s right and decent.”

I told him he was exaggerating.

“You’ll see … if you go. But Dove! Of course you won’t go. No?” He was now calmer but still couldn’t stop his tirade. “And Dove that too will make it easy for that spiteful old fart to eliminate me from his house writers … despite our contract. The only reason he published my stories was to lend a semblance of political neutrality to his Naumann Verlag. Now that’s the filthy publishing world for you! He’s a big publisher but has no sense of moral responsibility. Wants to open his own publishing house in Nazi-led Ukraine! The first one in Krivoy Rog. Just imagine where that would put me. A writer for a Nazi publisher. Most people have no idea where he really stands. I learned that he’s been financing political publishers in Kiev. But Dove there’s no way that gang of political chameleons is going to publish any more of my simple stories. Why I’m likely already branded by many neutral publishers because of him. Dove, he truly believes Nazism is the future! He sees it spreading in Europe and he wants to invest in it now. In Odessa they spoke of a chain of Nazi publishers all over East Europe. He sees his future there. A golden future. Can you even imagine his greed? Greed is his god. Nothing but greed. At the same time Heinz is more Nazi than Nazis themselves. Why that old fucker is jenseits Nazism. That’s it. Beyond Nazism. But no real belief in anything. You know, Dove, I think many of the neo-Nazis all over Europe are like Heinz. They so idealize Nazism that they magnify even the original.”

On my way home from school today I purposefully walked through Kleist Park feeling a buoyancy about my progress in the Russian language. I feel ready for Russia. I stopped under a Kleist statue to repeat some of the slang expressions learned today. But not only was the racket of Turkish pop music distracting; half of my mind was deviated by the nagging foreboding that the vodka talk with Dietrich was a menace, a menace threatening the course of our lives and bound to shatter the free life of which Dietrich in his wild freedom that first day on the Spanish Steps in Rome was the incarnation. For change had us in its sights. Undesired change: the threat of return to my former isolation in my flight from the clutches of the proximity of my rich drunkard father back in New York. I couldn’t get far enough away. Italy hadn’t been far enough. Nor was Berlin any longer far enough. How far away was enough? Russia? Just the idea of Russia had created in my mind the distance of separation I sought. Still, there was now Dietrich. And no wonder I sensed change swooping down on me. The fear was there. Collateral damage to us. To Dietrich and to me, Dove. ‘He is twenty-eight, Herr Kleist, and I, twenty-six. We’re neither too young nor too old to confront new realities. Still, we don’t even have common memories yet. Trotzdem, Herr Kleist, if I truly love Dietrich, I can’t just stand by and watch him drown us and his literary life in alcohol, can I? But, at the same time, I must protect myself too.’

Since Kleist had no answer, I took things in my own hands and decided to decide for myself. And in that moment, standing under the poet’s penetrating gaze, I knew the truth: I was going to leave Dietrich. The real truth was that ours had been only an affair.

I found Dietrich at his desk, a look of unknowing—and maybe defeat—on his face. Two glasses stood behind his computer. He said hoarsely: “Heinz called. It’s as I suspected! He wants to speak with me about some irregularities in our contract. Just as well. I’ll be glad to be out of his clutches. Didn’t take him long to set things in motion, that conniving horny old goat. I have an appointment with him at five tomorrow afternoon. Then we’ll see … But meanwhile, Dove (killing me a little more each time he called me Dove), I have to tell you more about that publisher. Things I haven’t told you out of shame that I’d needed so badly a publisher that I put my books in the hands of that Nazi bastard Heinz Naumann and knowing what he is. And he wasn’t upset that I went to Odessa at all. He just wanted one of his writers to make his presence vivid in Kryvyi Rih. And I did go to his fucking Crooked Horn and I realized that Heinz wanted me to do public relations for Naumann Verlag and pass on his sincere greetings to a man I heard was associated with the Nazi faction in the Ukrainian government, called Right Sector—most likely the ones who burned alive the Russians in Odessa. He is going to make a big donation to that gang of Nazis. Wie der Vater, so der Sohn. Like father, like son. Like all these Nazis eagerly ruining our planet. Burn the Russians in Odessa. Burn the port of Odessa. Burn the planet. ”

I was speechless.

The next afternoon at four-thirty Dietrich left for the publisher’s offices. A cold suspicion of suspense settled in me as I half-heartedly tried to get the present tense of the verb zhehch—ya zhehgu—into my head. Until as punctual as the Wannsee metro line my phone rang. It was precisely five. In this moment Dietrich would be in the publisher’s waiting room. And Heinz was on the phone with me. He called me Waltraud and asked if we could meet tomorrow at the Adlon bar. In an instant that seemed an eternity I faced the dilemma Dietrich had outlined yesterday: to go or not go? Would my meeting Heinz help or would it damage Dietrich’s career? I couldn’t decide this either. I procrastinated. For I sometimes believe that once anything goes wrong, it can never be put right again. My Humpty-Dumpty syndrome.

“My school has organized a Russian bliny party for tomorrow, Heinz. I must go. But we might meet some other time … when Dietrich and I both are free. Sorry. Now I must run.” And I clicked off. Uncertainly. And prepared myself for the talk this evening.

Dietrich didn’t know whether I did right or wrong either. So when I said we had more important issues to discuss, he looked puzzled but his half serious self darkened. He understood perfectly what I meant.

“What issues do you have in mind, Dove?”

“Vodka, wine and the rest,” I said. “Dietrich, my father is an alcoholic so I have a whole life experience with the issue. That’s what I’m running from. So don’t give me any bullshit. No need to beat around the bush, Dietrich. How do things stand between you and alcohol … between alcohol and us? That’s the point: alcohol and us.”

He looked me in the eyes. His mouth was clamped shut, his eyes steely, his hands twitching. I could almost see the issues and his possible answers percolating through his mind. When he dropped his eyes and his hands stood still, I knew his answer.

“Umm! Well, drink interferes with my life,” he said, semi-darkly.

“Dietrich! Is that all it does? Interferes? And what about you? I wanted to live with you, Dietrich. But I will not live with a drunkard. I’ve seen enough of that for a lifetime.”

“I mean to say that drink sometimes seems to … it seems to steer my life. I think in certain moments, to an easier life. When you just want to yield and give in you have to follow where the spirit leads you.”

“And?”

“Again it’s taking command. It’s like living would be in … well, maybe in the peace—and the hell, too—of death. You have to understand, Dove! It’s like a long deep sleep that carries you along. In a state different from normality. I can’t explain it. Words are not enough.””

I pondered for a moment.

“How? What do you mean? I sound like a psychiatrist, I know, but we can’t stop now that we’re inside the issue. Since they are the words that you need to say, say them now and let’s have done with it.”

At the same time, I repeated to myself that I was already leaving him. I was on the train on the way to Russia. The borders. Poland, Ukraine. Russia. Actually I knew earlier but didn’t want to admit that I knew I was leaving him. Likely I have already left. Still, the physical rupture is going to hurt because of the beginning back then when Dietrich had seemed what I had always wanted. He was both love … and distance from New York.

“Dove, you’ve hit on the issue. What happens in me is to the point … if anything is to the point. You see I admit I’ve become an expert concealer. I’ve had years of experience. Conceal and conceal. A year ago I did six months of therapy and came out of it with a burning desire to, to transcend myself … to use that word. That’s exactly what I wanted to do. And I truly believed I had it beaten. Until I went to Odessa! I had come to feel a certain peace and confidence in myself. But over there, completely unplanned and unexpected, I crashed. And, Dove, all the time I knew precisely what I was doing! I think it’s that sense of freedom you get in such romantic foreign places … like the port of Odessa. All the time, I knew. That’s the truth and the tragedy. I knew. I should never have gone there, to Odessa. But how could I have known before? Not consciously anyway. And then I came back to Berlin and started over. Hooked again. Yet this time—strangely—I felt I was in charge. Not it! Never exceeding the limit I myself established. Dove, I truly came to believe I could control it … not it, me.

“Then arrives a day like this. Like so many of the days before I met you.

I said, sighed and turned away. The die was cast.

Wally was already starting her life over. Already in the act of leaving Dietrich. The love affair had ended. After six months. Six months of heaven and now the fall. Alone again. Her loneliness was like a solid physical object. She imagined the feeling was the loneliness an explorer would perceive alone in the darkness of the Mohave Desert. She was leaving behind what for the six months of time had seemed so reassuring, so restorative. Now instead she was falling. She felt herself falling. Deeper and deeper, falling into the deep. Falling into waters drawing her again close. She had gone to romantic Rome to get away. To escape. A random choice. Then, fatefully, the same thing again occurred. One thing after another. And again she had to escape. Escape from Dietrich. Flight to the East. Yes, Dietrich I am leaving you.

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Categories: Fiction

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