By: Alison Goeller
She wasn’t sure why she had deliberately banged her head against the door jamb that night.
Or why she had asked his permission beforehand. She guessed it was her way of diffusing the frustration she felt at being misunderstood and a way of breaking the tension. Apparently, he thought she’d been joking and said, “Sure; go ahead.” But when she grabbed the jamb with both hands and knocked her forehead against it–not too hard– he had stared at her, appalled. “What the hell? Are you nuts? I didn’t really think you’d go through with it.”
Despite his reaction, she felt better afterwards. The energy between them had changed, though whether that was a good thing she didn’t know. Only later, much later, when she analyzed their brief time together had the theatrics of the moment been a source of shame. Her father hadn’t called her Sarah Bernhardt for nothing.
It wasn’t just that she felt misunderstood by him; she felt wounded. Earlier that evening, after a sun-drenched day on the beach, they had retreated to the bay-front deck at her mother’s cottage–still wearing their damp bathing suits– to drink gin and tonics and watch the sun slowly descend towards the horizon. A dozen ducks had appeared, floating near the edge of the shore as if in greeting.
“I envy those ducks,” Frederick had said. “Not a care in the world. They go about their business, following their natural instincts. How I’d love to feel that peaceful.” He held up his glass. “Here’s to the ducks,” he had said with a wistful smile.
“To the ducks,” Anna had said, touching her glass to his. Across the bay the sun had tucked itself behind a few low-lying clouds, painting the evening sky in streaks of deep pink and orange. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so good.
As if following her own instincts, she rose from her chair, took a step towards Frederick, and bent over to kiss him.
That’s when he had reached up and pushed her away with his free hand. It was such an unexpected gesture that, at first, she thought she had misinterpreted his movement, that his hand was somehow clumsily drawing her to him. Until she saw the look on his face. He seemed as surprised as she had been.
He might as well have slammed a door in her face or slapped her, it had felt that bad.
The night before, their lovemaking had been playful yet tender, warm even. Anna felt she was teetering on the edge of love, about to enter a new life full of promise. She thought maybe he had felt the same. But now this. What did it mean?
She had sat back down in her chair, not knowing what to say, and watched as the sun disappeared below the horizon. The ducks were swimming away from the shore now, towards the shelter of the neighbor’s dock, where they would tuck in for the night.
When she and Frederick finished their drinks, Anna said she was getting cold, so they went inside. She showered while he made clams and spaghetti– perhaps as a kind of recompense for pushing her? Or perhaps he had forgotten it altogether?
After several glasses of chianti, Anna finally found the courage to ask him why he had rejected her in that way.
“To be honest, I’m not really sure,” he had said. “Except that suddenly there was this sensation of being closed in, as if I were about to suffocate. I can’t really explain it.”
Anna felt the need to defend herself. “But it was just a kiss, Frederick, a spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment gesture. It didn’t really mean anything, except that I was feeling so good, being with you.”
Frederick poured himself another glass of chianti, then took a long sip. “You know, I was married for over twenty years, happily I thought, until my wife turned to me in bed one night and announced our marriage was over. She’d been thinking about it a long time, she said. She wanted to move on with her life, whatever that meant. It came as a complete surprise to me. When I told her I didn’t understand, she just laughed and said that was exactly why she was leaving. A week later she was gone, taking the kids with her. I was devastated, confused. I’d find myself crying in the middle of a lecture or in front of colleagues. I couldn’t sleep at night and lost weight. Here I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together and she just up and left. Refused to talk about it. Maybe I’m afraid of getting close again.”
It was funny because Anna had been through a divorce herself and so many relationships after that she couldn’t remember all their names. But she had never felt afraid. Foolish, maybe. Angry. Betrayed, even. But never afraid, though she had to admit her willingness to risk had gotten her into some uncomfortable–even potentially dangerous– situations.
There had been the American psychologist living in Amsterdam who placed a pithy personals ad in the International Herald Tribune: “If you love Roethke and drinking wine by firelight, contact me.” She had emailed him immediately from her flat in Germany, and they had begun a regular correspondence, even exchanged photos. They shared favorite poems and talked about traveling. But when they met in Amsterdam several weeks later, he hadn’t looked anything like the handsome man in his photo. He was so crippled from a skiing accident he walked with two canes and, to ease the pain, smoked dope constantly. Anna had left her hotel early the next day, feeling duped and angry.
Then there was the seventy-year-old playwright from Brooklyn who had a house in Tuscany and wrote long, feverish letters to her about Plato and Karl Marx, the Iraq war and Woodie Allen. She was attracted to his eccentricity and erudition, thought their connection was worth pursuing. Until one day a letter showed up in her mailbox from him, accusing her of anti-Semitism. “What decent person would live in a country that murdered 8 million Jews?” he had written.
The worst had been the so-called commercial pilot whom she’d met in St. James Park, in London. He had approached her as she sat in the warm April sun, half-heartedly writing in her journal and people-watching. He asked for the time, then, ten minutes later, invited her to tea at a nearby hotel. It was pleasant enough, sharing stories; Anna had been grateful for the human contact. Over the next few weeks they met again for lunch or coffee. Their meetings were always friendly, enjoyable. Then one day they were coming up from the Tube station at Covent Garden. It was rush hour; the station was so packed with people that Anna suddenly felt herself being swept up in the crowd. When she emerged from the station onto the street, Frederick was nowhere to be seen. And her shoulder bag was gone.
Of course, the circumstances with Frederick were entirely different.
They met at a conference in Philadelphia where they were both participating in a workshop on Italian American literature. Anna knew Frederick’s work–he was a recognized scholar in the field– and had seen him at other conferences. But they had never actually spoken. After the workshop was over, he came up to her, complimented her on her talk, and said he thought she should submit it for publication. “I’ll send you the contact information,” he had said to her. Then he asked if she knew of a good but inexpensive place to eat.
Before moving to Europe, Anna had lived in Philadelphia. But that was back in the 80’s; a lot had changed since then: higher skyscrapers, more upscale restaurants, trendier coffee bars. But she thought Chinatown hadn’t changed much. Besides, it wasn’t far from the conference hotel. He could walk. “And you won’t have to take out a second mortgage,” she had said playfully.
He invited her to go with him.
They chose a place– one of a dozen Chinese restaurants lining Arch Street, the main thoroughfare in Chinatown–that looked warm and inviting. They were escorted to a small table in the back of a brightly lit dining room whose walls were draped in faux-velvet curtains. Red and green paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. “It’s perfect,” Frederick had said. “A breath of fresh air after all those sanitized conference rooms. I can’t wait to dig in.”
He ordered corn crab soup and Peking duck; Anna ordered spring rolls and sauteed vegetables. They talked about future projects, upcoming conferences. He was halfway through a book on Italian humor; she was working on a collection of essays on African American dance. Then they turned to the more personal. He said he envied her life as an expat but imagined it could be difficult, living outside one’s culture. “And on your own,” he had added. “I’ve only begun to discover how tough that can be. It’s been a year now since my divorce, and it hasn’t been easy.”
Anna nodded, recalling how long it had taken her to adjust to being single: the sleepless nights spent without the warmth of her husband’s body, the lonely meals she had eaten standing up because she couldn’t bear sitting at the table by herself. “I know it’s hard,” she had said to Frederick. “But in time you’ll get used to it. There are advantages, you know. I feel so much more myself now.”
On their way back to the conference hotel, he had stopped on the street, turned to her and said, “You’re a beautiful woman; you could have any man you wanted, including me.” Her first reaction was confusion. Was this a proposition? Although he had made it clear he was single, he hadn’t given off any of the usual signs of flirtation that, over the years, she had learned to read: a prolonged squeeze of the hand, a lingering look, nervous laughter.
Her second reaction was panic; she hadn’t been prepared for personal compliments, let alone propositions, and immediately brushed them off. “Well, it’s nice of you to say, but I don’t exactly see men lining up at my doorstop.” They both laughed.
When they got to the hotel elevator, he turned to face her; she thought maybe he was going to kiss her. Instead he suggested they meet for lunch the next day. “I enjoyed myself tonight. You’re so easy to talk to. Thanks for the company.”
In the morning Anna made coffee in her room and listened to the news. The Iraqis had just executed Saddam Hussein. NBC was showing images of him moments before his execution, standing beneath the gallows, clutching the Koran and invoking the god of Islam: “Allahu akbar.” He had dark circles under his eyes and a mess of graying beard: he looked like a trapped animal and not at all the powerful dictator who had sent thousands of Iraqis to their deaths. It fascinated Anna to think how quickly a person’s life could change: one minute you’re one of the most powerful men in the world, surrounded by supporters, and the next you’re completely alone, on the brink of death.
But it could also occur in the reverse: love could suddenly replace loneliness.
She took a sip of coffee and felt sick to her stomach.
She spent the entire morning in the bathroom, vomiting up the sauteed vegetables from the night before. By noon she managed to take a shower, dressed, then made her way down to the lobby. Frederick was sitting in a quiet corner, reading the paper.
“Sorry to be late, but I’m afraid lunch is out. I’ve been sick all morning,” she had said with a sigh.
He seemed genuinely disappointed and asked what he could do for her. “A cup pf tea? Some saltines?” She was touched by his thoughtfulness. “I was so looking forward to lunch,” Anna had said. “Who knows when we’ll meet again?” It was the last day of the conference; she’d be flying back to Germany that evening.
“I’m sure our paths will cross again,” Frederick had said. He kissed her on the cheek and said if she didn’t mind, he was starving and thought he’d go back to Chinatown for lunch. “I’ll think of you when I’m there.” He wished her a good flight.
All through the spring they exchanged occasional emails, mostly about work. He sometimes mentioned his kids and problems he was having with his ex-wife. She wrote about her teaching, some of the traveling she had done. Then in June he emailed her to say he would be visiting relatives in Italy. If she liked, he could stop off in Heidelberg on his way to see her. Anna was thrilled, felt emboldened. “You can stay with me if you like,” she had written. “No point in spending money on a hotel.”
The evening of his arrival, they took the funicular up to the castle. Anna had gotten tickets to see TheStudent Prince. “It’s an incredibly corny operetta,” she had warned him, “but it’s a popular tradition here in Heidelberg. Tourists come from all over the world to see it. And the music’s not bad.”
They sat in the courtyard beneath the shadows of the ruined castle walls as the story of the young prince unfolded before them. Sent to the university by his grandfather to experience something of the world, the prince falls deeply in love with a tavern owner’s daughter and revels in the life of a student. However, when his grandfather dies, he is sadly forced to abandon his true in order to marry a princess to whom he has been betrothed. But he never forgets the tavern owner’s daughter.
“You were right,” Frederick had said as they walked back to her flat. “It was pretty corny. And, of course, wildly unrealistic. Did the prince ever really think he was going to end up with the tavern owner’s daughter?”
“I guess he wasn’t really thinking about much of anything,” Anna had said. “He was so smitten by love, grabbing happiness while he could. Maybe it’s better to seize the moment, even when you know it won’t last, even if in the end it hurts when you have to let go. What’s that Janis Joplin song? ‘Get it while you can’?”
“‘Don’t you turn your back on love?'”
Anna smiled. “I adored her when I was a teenager. She had a tragic life–and death– but she really lived life to the fullest, with her crazy feathers and her mournful blues lyrics.”
They had sex for the first time that night. It was awkward, but Anna chalked it up to Frederick’s jet lag and the fact that she hadn’t been with anyone in a long time. It could only get better, she assured him. And it did. Over the next two days they both began to relax, and their lovemaking was more comfortable and comforting. She was sorry to see him go.
In August Anna flew back to the States for her annual visit at her mother’s beach house on the Jersey shore. She emailed him to say she hoped he would come for a visit.
Now they were together again, taking up where they had left off. He seemed happy to be with her. Until the afternoon on the deck when he had pushed her away and she had banged her head against the door jamb. Now she wondered what she could do so he wouldn’t feel closed in by her.
The next day they rode bikes to the ocean and swam. It was August, so the water was warm and so salty it stung her eyes. Anna kept a slight distance from Frederick, throwing her whole body into the waves. She wanted to feel strong and alive. Maybe it didn’t matter that he had pushed her away. She thought of the student prince; although in the end, he lost his true love, he had known happiness. “Get it while you can,” she shouted, as she rode wave after wave. “Don’t turn your back on love.”
Later, dark, ominous clouds began moving in from the south. The lifeguard was running up and down the shoreline, blowing his whistle, telling everyone to clear the beach. A storm was coming up from Atlantic City. Anna and Frederick gathered up their towels and chairs, rode back to her mother’s house, and made love to the sound of thunder.
In the evening, after the storm had passed, they went to dinner at a clam bar, then drove to the end of the island. The night was so clear they could see the lights of Atlantic City in the distance. She recalled the times she and her husband had driven there–in the dead of winter–to walk on the deserted boardwalk and eat shrimp. That had been so long ago, another lifetime. Love had come and gone.
The next morning Frederick packed his bag–too enthusiastically, Anna thought– and thanked her for their time together. “It was fun, he said. “We’ll have to do this again.” He hugged her, then kissed the top of her head. “Take care of yourself, Anna.”
She followed him down the steps and out to the car. Just before he backed out of the driveway, he rolled down his window.
“That night I pushed you me away? I’ve thought a lot about it. Do you recall what you said? That you couldn’t remember the last time you were so happy. That terrified me. It was as though your whole life–your happiness– depended on me. And I just can’t be responsible for that, Anna. I’m so sorry.”
When he was gone, Anna went out onto the deck with her coffee and watched the ducks. Ten of them had formed pairs and, because it was low tide, were nestled on a narrow stretch of beach just beyond the bulkhead, cleaning their feathers with their beaks. A few hundred yards out a small fishing boat had dropped its anchor.
Suddenly one of the ducks broke from its partner and began swimming out into the bay. It seemed to Anna such an arbitrary movement. What had prompted it to leave, she wondered? And where exactly was it going?