Fiction

Harriet, Harriet!

By Gaither Stewart

                        What might have been and what has been
                        Point to one end, which is always present.
                        Footfalls echo in the memory
                        Down the passage which we did not take….             
                        T.S. Eliot

                                                          1.

          After Alessandra killed herself with barbiturates in a countryside house near Oxford, a psychically transformed Karl Rasch renounced a brilliant academic career in England and returned once and for all to his native Germany. Though he had a German father, a German mother, and a German passport, Karl had never actually lived there before. “Return” was a euphemism for discovery: his aim was to re-discover Germany. So at thirty-two years he set about building a new life in a new country. He had an inheritance, a profession, an apartment in Munich, new friends and he soon found the ideal job for him as a teacher in a German Gymnasium. Karl felt rejuvenated; he was starting his new life with a mission that occupied both his earthly body and his spiritual soul. Above all he hoped it would erase his weighty memory of memories of Alessandra. At the same time he perceived the co-existence in himself of stormy and contradictory desires: love and sadness, fears of today and bright hopes for the morrow.

          Though he disliked academic life as such, Karl loved teaching. With his superior qualifications he secured a position at the city’s most exclusive Gymnasium as the teacher of a course he himself designed: he tailored “the Humanities” for thirteenth school year students and had wide freedom to determine the course subject matter which, he felt, reflected the School Board’s appreciation of the caliber of his scholarship. So he was at first startled though not displeased by the disproportionate number of nineteen-year old young ladies who signed up for the Humanities.

          A few details about Karl’s physical features are necessary here. So I will describe him in a few quick strokes and have done with it. Karl Maria Rasch was tall and slim with thick dark hair, the high cheekbones and forehead of his Prussian father, the large sparkling wide-set light blue eyes of his Rhineland mother. He was well-dressed in an innate sloppy sort of way which was part of his charm. So that when Karl stood before the class theorizing on the existence of the soul, his look fastened on one or the other of his students, his piercing eyes entranced the young ladies each of whom seemed to feel special and the center of the world. The school board members called it the Karl Rasch Effect.  

          The girls’ attraction to him was nothing new for Karl. Women had always found him fascinating and for as long as he could remember women had been a major part of his life. The quality Karl loved most about women was what he considered their instinct for true beauty. Not the superficial beauty of face and body they saw in him, but soul beauty, as he called it. For that reason, he said, he loved women passionately, which he believed accounted for their attraction to him. Even his mother had favored him among his siblings. Karl was convinced that women loved him also because he truly understood them … and was not afraid of them as many men seemed to be. Moreover, he believed in love. And love, he thought, was not for the weak. The weak could only be loved; to truly love another requires open-minded generosity and moral character. Love was selflessness.

          When envious friends asked for his advice on their relationships with women, he answered with the cliché: “Don’t ever ask a woman what women are like.”

          The downside of his easy-going relationship with the opposite sex was that he wandered through life from the loving arms of one woman to the embrace of another, loving them all and being loved in return, but also breaking hearts and having his own broken along the way. His ordered world had been convulsed a couple of years earlier when after his sudden break-up with Sara, his best male friend in England had remarked that he seemed to enjoy using his charm to make women love him for the joy of then leaving them; Karl broke violently with Harold, too, aware however that he was in the wrong for at break-up time he too had wondered if some suppressed part of his past was not responsible. So at around that time he became conscious of an unarticulated battle in his subconscious between his conscience and his self-esteem.

          “But Karl, what about all those women in your life?” insisted his closest Munich colleague. He and Manfred were sitting at a rough wooden table in a beer garden across the river. A half liter of light beerand an empty shot glass of a vodka-like Dornkaat stood in front of each. It was their second round. On this late afternoon of a beautiful October day a light southern breeze was blowing through the chestnut trees and pines of the English Garden. The quiet, tenacious day drinkers had gone and it was still early for the noisy evening crowd; they were nearly alone with the waitresses. “You loved them, and then you, er, you left them … or they left you,” the historian Manfred said hesitantly. “What about the pain and the grief? Didn’t you suffer when one left you?  Donnerwetter! I think I would suffer too much to live that uncertain kind of love life. Makes you sound like a gigolo of the spirit.”

          “Well, love doesn’t come for free, that’s certain.”

          “Yes, one or the other always suffers more from a separation,” Manfred insisted. “So it’s a case of you or her?”

          “I never thought of it that way. Still, except for Alessandra I have few regrets … maybe because each love was so limited in time. But admittedly my love has never seemed to bring anyone lasting happiness, you know, maybe because I never made any major sacrifices for those I loved. For me the first rapture of falling in love was pure joy. Something real. That’s what counted. That’s what I looked forward to. It was never painful. I’ve never suffered the ‘pangs of love’ of love songs. The pain of separation, yes. What’s hard for me is not to be loved. But then I learned to accept the break-up pain as the price of love.”

          “Strange world you live in,  Karl. Funny that you seldom speak of a specific woman. Or why you loved her.” Manfred drained the last drop of beer, raised his hand and called to the approaching waitress who knew her drinkers’ desires before they did: “Noch zwei, bitte”. Then he added: “Seems you were loving yourself more than the loved one.”

          “Maybe you’re right. To some extent. I think to satisfy the demands of my heart for joy and … still, you know, there’s something wild in me that makes me also destroy love. But each time I soon wake up and realize that those early sensations of rapture have vanished … and I have to begin again, over and over and over.”

          “Your situation is curious, you know that, eh? Or is that an English outlook? So what are you looking for? Perfection? Did none of the women of your life measure up?”

          “Manfred, you’re married, have children, you’ve found yourself. I think I’m always looking for something that might be different. I’ve long thought I’m searching for the source.”

          “The source?”

          “The root of everything. The source of all things. Like the most satisfying part of my studies in linguistics in England was the search for the Indo-European root of words.”

          Karl had lovingly christened his lady friends with nicknames reflecting their characters or the characteristics he would have wanted in them. Peculiar source names like “Waterdrop” or  “Trickle” or “Spring” or “Root”. He still thought of Janet, the London girl he’d loved the longest, as “Fountainhead”. At the time he’d been writing his dissertation on the relationship between the origins of the Danube River, the Donau, and the diverse languages spoken along its route to the sea. His work was based on a Wandersommer with schoolmates from England, hiking through the mountains and hills and vales of southwestern Germany searching for the source of the Danube. He perceived an enormous satisfaction when he found it and tasted the first drops of water bubbling and trickling from the earth at the great river’s source. Therefore subsequent cruises along the blue Danube from Vienna were each time major life events. He loved elaborating on his visits over the Danube’s 2,850 kilometer length through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine to its mouth where it drains into the Black Sea.      “Consequently I came to understand that deep sea between Europe and Asia in the same way I did the female sex. The ancient sea was deep, dark and mysterious and concealed old secrets: disturbingly magical, the Sea’s waters flow in two directions, a surface current carrying the Black Sea’s cold waters southwards into the Aegean Sea of the Greeks and an undercurrent from the warmer Aegean flowing in the opposite direction. Must be why the Black Sea terrified Persian and Greek sailors of yore.”

          Terrifying and unnatural to others, but not to Karl who had long experienced his mind as the battleground between his lower current conscience and his high current self-esteem.       

                                                          2.

Although Karl Rasch was eternally on the qui vive for love, since he began teaching in the Gymnasium he had followed strictly one rule of exclusivity: no romantic involvement with any of the nineteen-year old beauties in his class who flirted outrageously with him. Never! In fact, his abrupt departure from England after his years of school and university was caused by the definitive break-up with that Italian graduate student at Essex where he read history. And he knew that in his manner he had loved in a special way his Alessandra, who in that terrible, “romantic” way put a final end to their relationship and to his life in England.

          Earlier in his life Karl had become convinced that ordinary passion was only an idea. If, on the other hand, passion was genuine it lasted a lifetime, though in forms not usually associated with the first rapture of love. It might begin simply as the uncontrolled explosion of the youthful heart, a heart perhaps not even ready for romantic love. Ordinary love passion was like that quiet source of the Danube in southern Germany, like those first bubbles quickly becoming drops, joining together in rivulets, merging then into a gentle stream becoming love which, near Ingolstadt, transforms into a river and takes the name, the Donau. Die schöne blaue Donau. The Danube meets other rivers and grows and matures and ages on its way to the Black Sea. His imaginary utopian love was like that river he had followed for so long. He understood. A beautiful image indeed. But he had remained immune to the lures of “falling in love”.

          The pure passion of what is called ‘falling in love’—a theoretical step that Karl had avoided like a microbe in the times of the plague—begins noisily like a great waterfall fully aware that it is a great waterfall, only to slow gradually and, if it is what it seems, it finds its real path as its waters become great rivers. The passion he meant had the power to cement a relationship of love.

          “Body and soul,” he began his eleven o’clock lesson one morning. From the moment he’d taken his place before the class that day, distracted by Gloria’s exposed thighs and her amber wolfish eyes fixed in his, he was already regretting he’d chosen the body subject for these sex-driven maidens. Her incessant shifting around in her chair just in front of him and her sensually crossing and uncrossing her beautiful tanned legs added to his befuddlement.

          “Uh, yes … so goes the love song. To love, uh, body and soul. Well, we know what the body is and we” ….

          Karl paused, pretending to check his notes once more but in reality flustered by Gloria’s drawn out un-crossing of one leg and then lifting unnecessarily high the other in her constant adjusting of her position. Was her smile not unusually mocking today? Was she not deriding his inability to control his embarrassment? In any case Karl was uncertain as to how to handle this authentic Teutonic Messalina.

          “But again and again we ask what is the body, er, no, no, that is to say, what is the soul?” Someone suppressed a giggle. Gloria laughed out loud. And the only two boys in the class nudged each other and smirked.

          “Nobody knows,” Karl managed to continue, raising one hand to shush the girls and again wishing he’d never gotten into the body business. Dangerous topic in this room of female scents drifting erotically through the still air before swirling around the susceptible head of Professor Rasch.

          “But if the soul does exist, which comes first? Body or soul? Which depends on which? Maybe they are independent one of the other … if the soul even exists, that is. In any case this philosophical soul hypothesis enhances and elevates the role of the mind also. For as they thought in the times of Socrates the mind counts. Yet, among the philosopher’s followers the human’s capacity of recollection assumed the existence of the soul which, though not necessarily immortal, is an invisible force that animates us. Thus the soul is associated with memories, passions and values, things that each of us care about. In any case Socrates ultimately discarded the idea of the existence of a soul … he concluded that we don’t need one since we have the brain that controls all. However, Plato, the great soul speculator then postulated that we do not really learn new things at all; we simply recall things we knew before birth. And that, he surmised, is the role of the soul and perhaps also the mind. Even though they have no mass, no space nor location, the mind and the soul do regulate the … er, the body. And, Ladies and Gentlemen, the body is something real.”

          He paused and looked over the class as if expecting their cynical applause. That word, body, still hung over him and the girls like a neon sign. He had gotten into the body thing, and somehow he had to finish this lecture once and for all.  Hopefully on a high point and not a gaffe.

          “One and a half millennia later Descartes differentiated between soul and mind. For him the mind was linked closely to the body. Like the body the mind was mortal and divided into different parts, he thought; the soul on the other hand was eternal and indivisible. Then for two hundred years Descartes’ eternal soul hypothesis faded, almost forgotten. But today in our times a swerve has occurred: the soul is again fashionable. A philosophical splurge is spreading. The soul marks every good poem we read, every song we hear, every work of art that holds us. Read your Wordsworth. That sudden Wordsworthian revelation arrives like an epiphany and you perceive the click of harmony between you and the world. The soul has revealed itself to you.

          “Today we talk and speculate about the soul. Yet, at the same time, we accept—albeit many people reluctantly—that the brain performs all the functions attributed to the soul: mental activity, perception of sensations, storage for memories like the memory of what we have been, reasoning about the soul itself, and decision-making about how to deal with life. But the reality is that none, not the soul, mind or brain, are for the human being a satisfying substitute for the body … without which all the rest is just intellectual, religious masturbation.”

          In that moment he heard as if from afar, apart from form and body, like a breath, the enchanting melodious voice of Gloria-Messalina sing: “Amen.”

          “Now, friends and fellow learners, make your choices. Les jeux sont faits, rien ne va plus.”

          On the spot he chose to raise the white flag and abandon the Gymnasium ship. The subject was too difficult to discuss with a room full of tantalizing females. A bell echoed somewhere in the distance. He appeared deep in soulful thought. Unhurriedly, the girls made their way out, looking over their shoulder at glorious Gloria who remained seated, her knees now pressed primly together. They stared at each other. She blushing in victory, he confused in retreat. She smiled her challenging smile. Karl was undecided: tear up his notes ostentatiously in front of her or file them away with the others. He cleared his throat, smiled professorially, folded the notes into a precise square and stuffed them into his back pocket.

          “Auf Wiedersehen, Gloria,” he said, and left the room somewhat piously. He had just laid out for Gloria his rule: no fucking around with women under twenty.

          However, in the preparation of the body lesson, Karl had forgotten that Catholic Bavaria was still what it had always been: super Catholic and bigoted up to the priests’ ears. Someone in his class, likely one of the two jealous males, he suspected, went to the powerful Studienrat and reported his unabashed sexual allusions made to the cream of Bavarian Catholic womanhood. Consequently Karl was summoned to appear before the dreaded Study Council at ten a.m. the following morning.

          When Karl entered the conference room and saw the four women and one man of the Council on one side of the notorious long oak table, he breathed a sigh of relief: he knew his academic survival had greater chances before a group of mature women. He greeted them and smiled modestly as he took the chair opposite them. After the Committee Chairwoman stated the reasons for the summons—certain unspecified allusions to a class of honorable young ladies, the cream of Munich society—the Council felt obligated to hear professor Rasch’s version of events before reaching a decision on the proper action to take.

          Karl cleared his throat, crossed one leg over the other reminding himself—verdamnt noch mal—of Gloria, and began rather pompously the prepared spiel he was certain the ladies wanted to hear: “Ladies and Gentleman, I want to assure you that the lodestar, the very guiding principle in my lectures to these young people preparing to step into the world, has always been—and always will be—my firm endeavor to propose thoughts and ideas for them to resolve in their own search for truth. The mystery of the soul in the human being is currently the subject of wide debate and discussion in intellectual circles which these graduating young people will soon experience. Now, as religious people understand, any discussion of the soul concerns first of all its very existence. What is the soul? Where is it? What is its role? Such discussion invariably involves the mind, the brain and last but not least the body which hosts them, That in short was the subject of my eleven a.m. lecture yesterday, the notes for which are in my files and available to any and all.”

          The ladies, not surprisingly easily and quickly convinced by a few well-selected intellectual-ringing words—and coming from their handsome Humanities Professor—looked one to the other, nodding in obvious agreement with Karl’s words. “Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary Professor Rasch. You have clarified the situation as reported to us to our satisfaction.” It had taken less than four minutes. The formality was thus accomplished; they could now assure other parents that their children were in the best of hands, so to speak. After a brief deliberation the Gymnasium Council decided the informal hearing sufficient to muzzle any charges that the Gymnasium was dithering in the world of sex masked as Humanities.

          When the closure bell sounded the day after the Studienrat Hearing Karl asked the two male students in his class to remain for a moment. They shrugged carelessly and came forward just as matter-of-factly. “Yes, Professor Rasch.” “Let’s see, you are Heinrich and Hartmund,” Karl said checking the list of fifteen names. “So who’s who?” “I’m Heinrich,” said one. “So I’m Hartmund,” said the other. “Okay, listen, guys, I got into a bit of trouble about that lesson … you know which lesson I mean. I want to know one thing. Did you guys report it as improper?” “Honest to God, we didn’t squeal on you,” Heinrich or Hartmund said, hand over heart. “But we suspect one of the girls did,” the other said. “Which girl, Heinrich?” “I’m Hartmund and I suspect the one who stayed behind after the others left the room, the one who…” “Whoa there, Heinrich-Hartmund, I just told Gloria she had to understand that I don’t f… , uh, that I don’t play around with teenagers … and good-bye.”

                                                3.

For over a week after the body incident, Karl was downcast. He felt a void inside him. His eyes were dull, his movements laggard. Yet, inside, he was far from the calm person his friends knew. Though externally sad, his inner tension was stretched to the snapping point. And he knew why. For the first time in his memory there was no woman in his life. No woman to love and to love him. He felt turned inside out, eviscerated, his heart ripped from his breast. When would he meet the woman of his life? Most certainly not in the city’s Beer Gardens. Nor among his students. So afternoons he began walking the city streets, through the winding backstreets in the Old Town, he hung around fashion boutiques in the shopping passages, he sat in cafés and frequented public places. In the theater he lingered in the lobbies at intermission. He was eternally waiting, waiting for her to appear. He sensed he would soon meet the woman who would change his life.                     

          Late one Saturday morning he was in the Lenbachhaus Art Museum to see the Blue Rider painters … good and safe lecture material. For some reason he had awakened early that morning recalling vaguely a dream image of himself just before waking and his saying in English—his most frequent dream language—to an unknown woman that today he felt he was a different kind of German. His oneiric words reflected his conscious view of himself: he felt like an internal migrant. Not English, but also a stranger in his homeland. Going from one gallery to the next in the Lenbachhaus he still felt the dream alive in him; he knew the sensation would remain with him all day, on the very surface of his consciousness.

          He was examining Jawlensky’s The Hunchback (Der Bucklige) and trying to understand why a figure like the handsome young man of the picture—whose disfigurement was not visible—should mean bad luck for anyone meeting him. At the same time, out of the corner of his eye he noted the same woman he’d seen near him earlier observing works by Kandinsky.

          “I don’t understand,” he said rather loudly in English to no one in particular.

          “I don’t either,” said the woman, despite the usual museum shhh’s sounding from other parts of the gallery.

          Karl turned to her. She looked familiar, like someone from an earlier life. Maybe in an English school when he lived with his parents in Surrey. Or was she the woman from this morning’s dream? He liked to imagine such paranormal events that he never related to anyone else.

          “Haven’t we met before?” he asked her in reference to the dream woman and wishing he’d retained a clearer image of her physical appearance. Oh, if she were only the same! he thought, remembering the time he saw a hardly moving object in a sunny afternoon sky. He was driving through the countryside on his way back from Manchester. And only the next day back at home the object’s image passed from his brain or mind or soul to his eyes: he had seen an UFO, huge, round, dark and frightening, just as it was supposed to be.

          “I don’t know … I don’t think so,” she said with all the naturalness in the world. “What do you think?” she added with a slight smile.

          Karl looked at her closely, the dream woman in his mind. “In German fairy tales hunchbacks bring bad luck. Like a broken mirror or a black cat.”

          “We have the same bad luck objects in Sweden.” She spoke with his same English accent and had deep, passionate—something between wild and demonic—surprisingly light blue eyes like his. Karl stared hard into those eyes as if remembering something of the distant past. He thought: ‘Her very soul is in those eyes.’ If Alessandra had once had a soul in her eyes, her tears had washed it away so that at the end she had none whatsoever. She needed it back but its soul was gone never to return. But Karl held his doubts secret: had he stolen and destroyed her very soul? Now there was only the fading memory of what they had been together.

          On the spur of the moment and still a little dream drunk. Karl stepped close to the woman, clamped his hands on her arms, leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. He was surprised when she kissed him back.  

          He stepped back and said: “I’m Karl Maria Rasch. According to my dream self I’m a new kind of German and you, you’re a new kind of love. You see, we did already meet … in my last night’s dream.” He looked down left and right at her arms over his shoulders. She was looking him straight in the eyes. Both ignored the shhhsing people in their gallery even though they were nearly whispering from their sudden emotion.

          “My name is Harriet.”

          “Harriet! How wonderful! Harriet! I love that name but I’ve never known one before. Never known a Harriet. Oh, at last. You’ll be Harriet forever.”

          “And I’ve never known a man called Maria before … I might call you Maria just for the hell of it.”

          “My father loved a poet named Rainer Maria Rilke who was only called Rilke … too great a poet to be called Maria. Harriet! Harriet what?”

          “Stendahl.  Harriet Stendahl. My father claimed he was a very distant relative of the other Stendahl. Who knows?”

          “Harriet, now that we’ve kissed, let’s blow this place … uh, this beloved place.” Turning back to Jawlensky, he said “Sorry for that slip Alexej. This beautiful woman’s fault.”

          Harriet was average height, short raven black hair, big unshadowed eyes, no make-up at all, shapely body down-played by a simple light blue blouse, a knee length brown skirt and a somewhat matching cardigan. She dressed like Karl, careless but tasteful … except for her breath-robbing red pumps highlighting perfect Swedish legs. Harriet was beautiful. The most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, the most beautiful woman he’d ever loved. They looked at each other in silence. Both felt an awkward timidity in their hands that found no definite place. Hesitation and indecision in their eyes … less it seemed in her soul-filled eyes in which Karl noted also a certain impishness. Yet, yet, there in the Blue Rider Gallery in the Lenbachhaus Museum still in front of The Hunchback, a secret, ancient but enduring signal passed between them. Karl felt they had known each other before they were born. They both understood the message. Only chosen souls, he thought, have the gift of understanding that they are the children of a secret Destiny. Karl saw his fate and she hers in the eyes of the other. That secret attraction arriving from existence hypnotized both Karl and Harriet. Only superficially but paltry persons would not see their Destiny standing before them. To be blind to love, Karl thought, would be to accept that the soul is just thrown into humans to amuse their creators and in order to make them suffer.                                                           

          Wordlessly they left the museum together. Words, Karl felt, would spoil the enchantment. The bright sun was switched on dim mode; the city lay in a mist; the entire solar brilliance of the morning had settled inside them. Luisenstrasse was all the streets of Munich. Harriet took his hand.

          “I don’t know how I dared kiss you,” he said as they stepped onto the green park-like square where Nazis had once built party buildings and paved it with granite stones as a parade ground for their torch-lit ceremonies. Karl was more modest and old-fashioned than he’d imagined himself.

          “I know how I dared kiss you back,” Harriet said, leaning her coal black hair against his arm. “I recognized you … and I now know myself better.”

          “Why, what are you … besides a beautiful Swede … and you know yourself?”

          “I was just starting a job in the planetarium when a friend at the city newspaper of Malmo asked if I wanted to come here as a correspondent … low pay but good experience. So now I’m in München with you in my arms. That’s experience, yes. But it’s maybe also Destiny.”

          “I have a feeling you’ve got lots of that, experience, I mean. From the way you kissed me. But destiny?  I was just thinking about the same. What if one of us hadn’t gone to the museum today?”

          “Kissed you back, you mean. You started it. Oh, I have some! I do know men. I love some of them and have been loved too. Maybe I’ll share things with you. Anyway, we would have met somewhere else. Or at another time.”

          “You remind me of me. Crazy, you know! And still that we met … like that.”

          “You never know in life, do you? Say, where are we going?” 

          “Just walking. You want some lunch? I know a place. A café-restaurant. And next door the hotel I lived in for several months when I returned from merry England. Nostalgic kind of place. Lots of fond memories.”

          “Hotel, eh? Okay, let’s go there.”

          “Restaurant or hotel?”

          “Oh, you choose. But I am hungry … I’m always hungry. My hungry nature.”

          Arm in arm, an occasional kiss, they arrived at a wide avenue, a major artery reaching straight northwards toward Schwabing and outside the city to Dachau. He wondered if that name was still embarrassing to real Germans. It was to him. They stood at the stoplight looking left and right. Harriet’s hand tightened in his. He kept pressing the button for the pedestrian green light. Some people had made it to the pedestrian island in the middle of the avenue. People shouted to each other across the wide street. Clanging trams passed in both directions. Buses and trucks, plus the usual Saturday midday traffic created a mobile metal inferno. Harriet took his arm in both her hands.

          “No, no,” she said. “Not to that place out in the middle.” He looked down at her pressing against him, saw the panic on her face. “Okay, Harriet, we’ll hurry across. Don’t worry. We’ll leave the moment the light changes. Like two Galapagos turtles we’ll make to the other side.”

          Gisela’s Café was packed. Saturday noontime crowd. They got a table in the side garden. Vine-covered. Red grapes dangling. Karl saw them immediately. Only a few tables away Gloria-Messalina reigned like a queen over her circle.

          “Hey, Prof, body or soul today?” Gloria said passing nearby, a skirt about twelve inches above her knees and a dangerously low-cut décolleté. Over her shoulder she waved at her friends back at their table.

          Karl frowned.

          “Now who was that?” a revived Harriet asked sardonically. “Body and soul?”

          They’re all in my Humanities class. She’s been trying to, well, I don’t know what, maybe seduce me.”

          “Probably not hard to do.” Harriet grinned evilly. “As they say in an expression we learned at my English school, eventually the birds come home to roost.”

          “Harriet. I got into trouble over a lecture about the soul … and the body. The Studienrat summoned me for a hearing. Too much emphasis on the body for those proper girls. I convinced them the soul was discussed in intellectual circles. Somebody had reported me, maybe that girl herself … or those two boys over at the table … Heinrich and Hartmund. Could never tell them apart. They both love sexy Gloria. Jealous types, I think.”

          “Hmm! We Swedes don’t think much about the soul. But Descartes who died in Stockholm thought a lot about the dualism of mind and body … mind or soul about the same thing for him. You know, his Cogito ergo sum. Anyway I couldn’t digest his treatise Passions of the Soul. Not even interested. He was your exact opposite, too much soul and too little body.”

          “Okay, Harriet, but speaking of the body I have to ask about your fear when we crossed Leopoldstrasse. It was more than caution. It was panic. What’s that all about?”

          “I was twelve and empty-headed. One day after school a yellow government bus hit me on a busy street. Lots of operations to put me back together again. I still get anxiety attacks … in street traffic like that. Psychiatrists eliminated the panic attacks that immobilized me. The panic comes back at times … like crossing that street. But look here, Karl, are we going to sit here and watch that sexy student of yours and talk about panic or are we going to drink some beer and maybe go to that hotel.”

          “Harriet! Oh, how I … how I love to say that name.”

          “Is that what you really meant to say?”

          “Oh, I was thinking about the drinks too. Don’t you want some wine instead? We can try their Valpolicella.  That’s the red wine everybody in this city drinks. Let’s have some.”

          “Okay. But I want the beer too.”

          “Ah, you Swedes. Okay, we’ll have both. We used to drink it like that in merry England … and with a shot of whisky up front. We called it the Bloody Triangle.”

          “Marianne,” Karl said to the waitress nearby, “please give us a Bloody Triangle.”

          “Both of you?”

          “Both of us … one each … for now.”

          After the first round of that magic drink, Harriet said. “Ah, now life’s worth living. So let’s get serious. What did you intend saying before? Just say it and get it over with. And let’s have another Bloody Mary … uh, Bloody Triangle.”

          “What in the world did you study those years at the university, alcohol, its properties and effects?”

          “If you absolutely have to know I got my Phd in astrophysics at Cambridge.”

          “For Christsakes, why didn’t you say so?”

          “Say so, when?”

          “Oh, I don’t know … at some point.”

          “I’m risking saying it now.”

          “Risking? Why risking?”

          “Astrophysics frightens men.”

          “Well, what was your specialization in that frightening field?”  

          “Extrasolar planets and their emissions across the electromagnetic spectrum. Their properties like luminosity, density, temperature and chemical composition. Of course all that involves a lot of theoretical work and observational physics.”

          “Oh, Harriet, is that all astrophysics is? Doesn’t scare fearless me in the least.”

          “Then I can tell you the rest and be done with it. I’m most fascinated by attempts to determine the properties of dark matter, dark energy, black holes and whether time travel is possible and if the multiverse even exists. What we really want to know is the origin and ultimate fate of the universe. And Karl, I also climb buildings.”

          “Climb buildings? What does that mean? And where? What buildings?    ”

          “I’m President of Free Climbers of East Malmo. Always trying to reach the stars! But I do mostly Buildering … climbing buildings. Started it at Cambridge. It’s illegal in Malmo … so I have a police record.”

          “Harriet, you’re a criminal then. Your words touch me. They’re scary. Terrifying for a pure earthling, body-oriented man like me. I’ve never thought of free climbing but I would like to know about time travel. Does that make me an aspirant astrophysicist?”

          “To answer you, I have to ask you a question first?”

          “Shoot!”

          “Do you ever have the haunting feeling that time is running out? I mean, all time is just … just running out.”

          “I have that feeling all the time. That’s my ultimate message to my class. Time is running out. But I haven’t said it yet. If the school board was upset because I talked allusively about the body, what would they say if I taught the girls that time was running out?”

          “Nothing! They would say nothing. You can’t talk about the sexual component of human life because the good hypocritical bourgeois society suppresses that form of humanness. Suppresses the most human part. They think it is a stain and must be concealed. But they have no idea about dark energy and black holes. And time running out rings romantic to them like a Graham Greene novel.”

          “So I qualify as an astrophysicist?”

          “Sort of … so tell me your secret! Now!”

          “It’s simpler than the search for the multiverse but tremendous at the same time. In this moment I’m doing what I was always afraid of, Harriet. Harriet, I’m falling in love. I always heard it came like this, like a bolt out of the blue of the universe. Extremely dangerous. One of the risky acts of your life. And also decisive. And I’m afraid it can only happen once to me. I’ve loved many times but I’ve never fallen in love. I don’t know exactly what that is but it’s different from just loving. The difference is indefinable. You fall in love and then, maybe, little by little, you learn to really love … uh, body and soul. You see, I speculate too.”      

          He studied Harriet looking him straight in the eyes as was her way. He drank off another Dornkaat that had appeared on its own … as if out of a black hole, he thought.

          “I’ve always been looking for the source of things. I loved Alessandra in England but then she fell in love … with me. And she killed herself near Oxford. That’s why I’m here now … and falling in love with a hard-drinking Swedish astrophysicist who’s gazing toward the multiverse but is afraid of crossing broad avenues.”

          “So that’s it,” Harriet muttered, her expression suddenly grim. “Some things can be fixed, some things ….”

          “Don’t say it, Harriet. Just wait a second, gotta see Gisela. Drink your Mary and I’ll be right back.” Her shot glass was empty when Karl came back. They clinked beer glasses and Karl opened his left hand on the table and pushed a red key card toward Harriet. She stared at it for long seconds, picked it up and examined it suspiciously as if it were a trap. Abruptly she stood up, her impish grin back and said:

          “Let’s go, Lover!”

          Karl hesitated, somewhat offended, and thinking, thinking, thinking. The Old Karl would have spoken her words first. After all he brought the red key card. Now he played the dummy. Let her lead the way. Did that make it all right even if he was falling in love? Was it all the same? Or was falling in love just bullshit? Like time travel bullshit. The multiverse. The audacity of these astrophysicists!

                                                          4.

          Karl felt new in the world, like an explorer arriving in a new land. He felt like he used to on his arrival in each new love. But more so. More powerful. He felt emboldened by the newness of his ‘falling in love’. He was no longer compelled to think in ordinary terms about this new self. Unlike his old self back in the times when he thought in simplified binary terms of male and female, true and false, faithful and unfaithful, loyal and treacherous. Now that he had ‘fallen in love’, Harriet became primary. He had transcended his old monotonous self. His transcendence projected a new dimension of his existence beyond mediocre considerations of the quality of the male-female relationship. With each of her breaths as she slept during the early morning hours he had perceived a sense of a restorative peace come over him which he had never experienced when he was the loved one, when he was the Benjamin in the multi-colored coat. In his nocturnal perceptions of his pre-Harriet being, he saw his love for one or the other of his former loves as mere repetition.

          This morning up here in Paradise, he roamed far and wide and endlessly free in the new territories of his sense of perception of himself. What would the Gymnasium be with “the Humanities” class? What would humanity itself be without love? Doesn’t love, this all-powerful sympathy for another person, this linking of two souls, can this same eternal love not exist also between peoples? His only answer was Harriet and himself.

          When Harriet awoke basking under the sunshine beaming through the skylight he told her about Paradise. From the top floor of Gisela’s Hotel he pointed out the views through the uncovered skylight and the wide windows looking out over the dark green carpet of the wooded corner of the English Garden. To the left, the green steeple of the Chinese Tower and to the right the twin pillars of the Frauenkirche, the view which had prompted the name Paradise he had once bestowed on this his temporary home. Harriet would always use the Swedish, Paradis.

          “What would you like to do today, Harriet?”

          “Do we have to leave Paradis?”

          “We don’t have to but we can choose … a rare gift these days. A privilege really. We can go back to the café next door … or stay up here in Paradise. Harriet, do you love me?”

          “I don’t want to choose. Yes, I love you. I want to go beer drinking but I’m afraid if we go down we can lose Paradis.”

          “Look, you see that tower over there above the tree tops? We can go beer drinking there, hardly losing sight of Paradise. When we get tired of beer drinking we can return … for all today and tomorrow too we will hold onto Paradise. It’s ours for the holding. Harriet, are you in love with me?”

          “Can we have breakfast too? You know I’m always hungry. And yes, I think I’m falling in love with you, with us, with Paradis. All today. Every day. We’ll live always in today.”

          “Yes, we’ll live in today. Harriet, do you dream?”

          “I just dreamed of a dream in which you are saying we will never cry because tears are for the past. We are the present and the future, you’re saying in the dream I’m dreaming. We’ve abandoned the past.”

          “What I want to know is if in that dream you’re dreaming you’re falling in love with me.”

          “Falling, falling, falling. I’m there. I’ve arrived. I’ve fallen in love.”

          “One thing though, Harriet. That abandon the past thing was just a bad dream. Who wants to forget the past? Sometimes we say we want to forget the past. But we don’t … not really. Last night together, just hours ago, minutes ago, is the past. But it’s part of the present. Our new present, uh, a present enriched by that past. And it will get richer and richer. A person without the past is dead. The same for a whole people. A whole nation. No, Harriet, we don’t want to forget the past. We can’t even do without the pain of the past. It’s yours, only yours. Oh, most of us could have done things differently, Harriet. The past is present. Done and finished but it’s still part of the present. It’s fixed. You can trust it. It will remain the same … except for the time of your stars and interstellar bodies. Are they past or future? Maybe their past is all time, always, past-present-future. All one, if, as T.S. Eliot writes, all time is eternally present. Oh, I don’t know what I’m saying or how I got onto this subject but anyway we humans can’t change the past. Time travel is intriguing but it would turn everything upside down. Go back and do it again? Better … or worse? No, we can’t live it again but we don’t forget the past. Not all of it. It’s everything, Harriet. It’s our life. Without it, we’re nothing. It may hide behind a veil of oblivion, but as Freud says, it’s always there. It’s your shadow you, always present. If it’s not in your conscious, it lies deeper, now quietly, now rowdily, but there. Something always remains. Maybe residing in a corner of your subconscious, elusive and slippery, or wandering around lost and unwanted. But it’s there, illuminating and nourishing some … and killing others. For the past is also murderous. Slowly, ever so slowly, it kills. Like my love killed Alessandra. So did I kill Alessandra? Remembrances have the capacity to soothe you and pave the way for your acceptance of what really happened … or it can destroy you. We don’t want to admit it, Harriet, but the real mystery is the future we’re waiting for. And you’re the source of our future. It has to begin somewhere! So it springs from you.”

                                                5.

It might have been Harriet’s purposeful approach toward the row of tables near the pagoda-like five-tiered Chinesischer Turm that convinced two Lederhosen-clad oldsters from Upper Bavaria to rise unsteadily, slap down drunkenly a lavish tip and liberate a choice table near a small stream and a row of chestnut trees. “This is a sacred hour for the consumption of Hofbräu beer. God knows of what alcoholic kick today. In any case this beer is brewed for a special effect on Saturday mornings in October … and for us. Now just a moment of patience! Self-service here.”

          Karl returned with two huge Mass’ of Hofbräu beer and a bag of pretzels tucked under his arm: “Harriet, I once saw a waitress at the Oktoberfest carry ten of these one-liter mugs at once. Now off we go! Beer drinking. This is strong stuff. If it doesn’t make you drunk within the hour, nothing will.”

          “Hey, where’s the Dornkaat?” she countered suspiciously as if he were holding something back from her.

          A slight breeze blew, the chestnuts rustled, the stream trickled, white harmless clouds floated past, tourists swarmed and stopped in front of the pagoda tower to make selfies. Harrriet and Karl drank, they kissed, they drank another round, then another.

          “Harriet, your beautiful blue eyes are zonking. See, I told you so, Harriet, I told you so. You’re nearly ripe drunk.”

          “Whassh that, whassh that, rip drunk?”

          “Not rip drunk. Zonking eyes, ripe drunk.”

          “Okay, shoo what? Lessh’ go back to Paradissh then.”

          “But I wanted to talk about morality with an astrophysicist.”

          “Later, later, lessh go back to Paradissh. Oh, I’m a little sick.”   “Ashtrophysicccisst can’t drink Oktoberfest beer.”

          “Lessh ride a horshe back to Paradissh. Oh, I’m going to vomit.”

          So while Harriet threw up in the creek, drunken Karl fetched a huge jar of black coffee and aspirin. “Ah, those Bavarian Chinese, always well-prepared.”

          They drank coffee and ate pretzels until their eyes unzonked and Harriet said to cancel the horse and have lunch. With the tip the Bavarians had left they got a table on the third level and gradually returned to real life.

          Riding back through the park in a horse-drawn carriage, Harriet threw her head back onto a cushion and took several seconds long gulps of what she decided was pine-flavored air. Karl kept kissing her and repeating he couldn’t wait to get back to Paradise.

          “Paradis, Paradis, where art thou. Words of someone important. Milton? Or is it lost, Karl? Did Milton say it? Did he mean that Paradise can get lost like the biblical one? Yes, maybe Milton. Too bad you didn’t vomit too, Karl. We could have done it together.”

          “Romantic idea! Now that’s falling in love, Harriet! You can’t even throw up without me. How did we miss each other until now? Yes, Milton, I’m pretty sure.”   

          That night at eleven Harriet was hungry. So again they descended from Paradise. Karl assured Harriet it would wait for them. The lovers would return. When they re-crossed the wide avenue, love-drunk Harriet didn’t blink. A small all-night restaurant in the Schelling Strasse. They had Kalbsbraten mit Semmelknödeln. Harriet ate half of his. They had Apfelstrudel. Harriet ate half of his. They returned to the Valpolicella. Again Karl said that everybody in Munich was drinking the same red wine.

          “Compared to the Hofbräu beer and Dornkaat it goes down like fresh water,” Harriet said.

          “Where the hell did you learn to drink like you do? Were you a sailor? Or did you work in some drink-infested tropical jungle?”

          “Swedes love alcohol. But because of alcohol control laws people take the ferry over to Finland to drink all they want. Everybody in my home in Malmo drank like fish. We’re rich and our house is big. You might not believe it but we had five bars in the house. My father had his private cognac bar, hidden in one place or another; my mother had her secret bar with her favorites; my sister, hers. So I had one too. Then there was the official bar for guests. We drank all the time. Someone of us was always drunk. I had to leave home in order to stay sober enough to study. The time I got run over by the yellow bus, my father came to the hospital stinking fish drinking drunk. Crazy home, mine.”

          “Mine was a teetotaler society in comparison. We only drank beer and cocktails if my parents threw a party. I learned on my own. Speaking of drinking habits ….”

          Karl ordered a second bottle. Thinking of their meeting in the Lenbachhaus he asked Harriet if she believed in Destiny. She took a long drink of Valpolicella and said: “I don’t know for sure but I believe Fate plays a bigger role in our lives. Like my being run over by a government bus. A yellow bus changed my life and maybe made me look for the stars and become an astrophysicist. But actually, Fate seems to be most often bad Fate. So maybe good things can be Destiny.”

          “That’s interesting because though the terms are used interchangeably some philosophers believe that our future is the will of one intelligent force or that it is simply the predetermined outcome of the laws of nature. Others think Fate is the same as Destiny, just stronger. Still others, like myself, think such matters are determined by pure chance …like our meeting in the Lenbachhaus. Now I’m changing horses. I’m falling for Destiny too. ”

          “I think it was our Destiny to meet … but not necessarily there.”

          “Yes, yes, it was. Still, Chance had us both in the same place at the same time. That’s why the God Chance has been defined as the unpredictable spontaneity of the atoms in their course, somehow linked to DNA and genetics.”

          “Pretty weak theory. No, absolutely not. No astrophysicist could seriously go along with that.”

          “Well, listen. I read of a wild theory that Destiny may be hereditary. Try to get a handle on that, Harriet! Some theory-crazed scientists decided that our defects are written in our genes. And that ipso facto the deciphered genome can reveal our fate. Fate, a matter of genetics, Harriet! That by deconstructing and stitching together the DNA’s molecules genetic engineering and molecular biology can rebuild them as a new genome, a new destiny … or a new something.”

          “Then I’ll stay with the stars …and falling in love.”

          It was two a.m. The lovers stood with heads turned upwards toward the stars. They’d forgotten the red key card. Lunar beams turned their faces deathly white. The Bloody Triangle café was closed tight. Moon rays slipped along the sides of the Gisela Hotel, spotlighting the fifth floor balcony of Paradise. They were both cold stone sober again. Harriet pawed the sidewalk in disillusionment.

          “How could we’ve been so stupid? Now what can we do? Just wait here till morning?

          “Harriet, Harriet! It’s not a tragedy. My apartment is not far away. We can go there … if we want.” Karl’s voice was marked by a sudden perceptible sense of humiliation. The falling in love, he was thinking, is not yet complete.

          “That’s not the point. We have the right to our second night right here. In Paradise. It was decided. There has to be a way.… Hey, Karl, wait a minute. I was forgetting my free climbing skills. All I have to do is scale this wall to the balcony where the door to Paradise is open. See that drainpipe? It’s a walkway to the stars. A three-minute climb at the most. I’ll drop the key card down to you.”

          “You’re nuts,” Karl said, tapping and pulling at the rusty drainpipe. “This wouldn’t support the weight of a squirrel. No, Harriet, no free climbing here.”

          “You’ll see in a moment,” Harriet said, kicking off her red pumps while her sensitive fingers found invisible holds, one hand on the drainpipe, the fingers of her other hand bent into another hidden slot.

          “Nothing stops a Builder free climber.” Before Karl could stop her she was off like a shot toward the stars. She paused between the second and third floors. A stray night cloud passed. Harriet shouted something about the moon rays. Then again she was off full speed upwards.

          Moon beams illuminated Harriet’s bare legs and her right shoulder and the side of her face looking toward the stars. Her right arm was frozen in the act of reaching toward the balcony lit up like a theater stage. “Karl,” she shouted, “you should be up here the moon rays up here are absolutely  …”

          In that instant he heard a crack like lightning striking a bundle of telephone wires. Frozen in horror he watched the drainpipe in which her left foot was embedded literally fly apart, twisting and writhing as it detached itself from the wall and from Harriet’s foot. “Karl I …”   

          And she, too, slowly, slowly began slipping and sliding and grappling with air as her body began to fall. Silence reigned. Eternal. Everything happened in slow motion as Harriet dropped downwards, fourth floor, third, now sailing as she passed the second floor, the first, and in the same instant smashed full force into the confused oblivion of her body’s merging and melding into Karl.

The End

Categories: Fiction

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