|Chagrin River Review||
I’d begun to ask myself, how did I get here, but I hadn’t yet realized that I was already on my way home. A man with a cowboy hat pointed to a sign saying: ‘No self-service’ and then filled my Coupe de Ville. He asked me where I came from.
“San Jose,“ I said.
“That’s a long way, young lady.”
It was pointless to tell him that my way had been much longer. Instead, I waited for him to praise my car. More than twenty years old, it still looked like new.
He started to clean the windshield and said, “Better get new wipers.”
I remembered how I had first sunk into the red leather upholstery and how my hands had held the wheel and how my foot had pushed down the gas. “They’re gonna love it in the East,” I said.
He laughed and I paid. Then I went to the diner at the other side of the road and ordered a double-cheese and a beer. The waitress asked me whether I was from Eastern or Western Europe.
The Wall had been history for two years. Nevertheless, I answered, “West Germany.”
A woman sat down next to me, saying, “I’m from Germany, too.”
My heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t heard my mother tongue for such a long time. “Where from?”
“I don’t remember.” She started to laugh. “From some one-horse town up North.”
“Me, too,” I cried. “From the North, I mean.” And it turned out that I knew that one-horse town.
She smiled as if I’d just shared a secret with her, then she said, “It ain’t like driving from Flensburg to Munich.”
“Right,“ I said even if highways all around the world are grey lines that never end.
To make things short: Her name was Karen, and she offered me a place to stay for the night. In her pick-up she led me along a dirt road, and I thought about all those stories and movies where that wasn’t a good idea. After what seemed like ages, she stopped, got out, and lightly closed the door. “Our little house in the prairie,“ she said, after I had parked my car.
We sat on the porch to have a beer. Above us the sky dripped with stars. Karen asked me if I liked it here.
“You mean at your place?”
She grinned. “I mean in the States.”
I thought of the first couple of months here. I’d felt so free I‘d even forgotten my birthday. “I feel lonely sometimes.”
She had taken off her cowboy boots and put her feet onto the table. “Don’t you have a sweetheart?”
“I got two,“ I said, “one here and one over there in Germany.”
I was meant to meet Ben at his parents’ house in Baltimore the next evening. I had told him that it was an old dream of mine to drive from the West to the East. All by myself. “Usually, it’s the other way round,“ he’d said.
Karen lit a cigarillo. “Then you haven’t met the right one yet,“ she said, watching the smoke. “What are you waiting for?”
I tried to remember what she had told me at the diner about her husband, other than that he had died from cancer three years ago. “Waiting’s just a bad habit,” I said.
She got up and returned with two more beers. “How old are you?”
Old as the hills, I thought, and then said, “Twenty-two.”
A German shepherd came out of nowhere and sat next to her. Observing me, it lay down beneath her chair. “She is just shy,“ Karen said and opened the bottles on the porch fence. “I was twenty-two when I came here. Then I met Ray. You can guess the rest.”
I couldn’t but nodded anyway. “Don’t you have any kids?”
She shrugged. “We were on the road all the time, then we were getting used to having a real home, and when I started thinking about it, Ray came back from the doctor’s.”
The beer caps had left little marks in the wood, as if a child had sunk its teeth into it. “You still can have some,“ I said.
She laughed. Then she sat there saying nothing for a long time. It seemed that she had forgotten about me. “And you? Aren’t you afraid?” she finally asked.
The night before two kids had been jumping on the roof of my car while I was trying to catch some sleep at a parking lot. I climbed into the driver’s seat, turned the key, and hit the gas. “No,” I said.
“It’s a big country,“ Karen said. “You easily get lost.”
I remembered how lost I had felt in little Germany and asked her if she ever got homesick.
“Ten years ago we were over there. Me and Ray. After a few days we went nuts.” She shooed away the cat that had been lying on a box in the corner and took a blanket out of it. “Claustrophobic,” she said, looking at my bare legs. “Nights are getting colder now.”
The only jeans I hadn’t already cut off were buried deep down in my backpack. Unwashed. “We’re in the middle of nowhere,” I said. “What if someone robs you?”
She pointed to the shotgun that was leaning against the wall like a broom. “Don’t worry, I haven’t touched it in years.” Then she wanted to know if I would like to see the stables. I was happy enough just to be sitting there on the porch, but the way she was looking at me made me get up again.
“Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone,” she said, undoing her hair. “Paul Tillich said that. He’s German, too.”
I had no idea who that guy was, but I could have listened to her for hours. Two days ago Ben and I had our first fight. I didn’t have a chance. I couldn’t keep looking at the dictionary, could I?
Touching and petting the animals, Karen went ahead of me. She told me stories about each one: about her horse, about her husband’s horse, about the pigs. The oldest sow was supposed to go to the butcher’s the following day. “She had a good life,“ Karen said. “What about you? Any future plans?”
I thought about Ben and his proposal. Over the last days I had tried to see myself working here in America, with kids going to school, and Ben sleeping next to me every night. “Gonna take a bath,“ I said.
Karen laughed, and after a pause she said that she could use some help. She would pay me. Room and board included. She said that Tony hadn’t been well since Ray died, and I could take care of him. It took me some time until I understood that she was talking about the horse.
“300 a week?” she said.
I said, “Way too much.”
She winked at me. “There’s plenty of work here. You’re not gonna drink that beer on my porch for free no more.”
I wouldn’t mind having arms like her. “How’s winter here?”
Karen bolted the stable doors and looked at the sky. I bet she could name every one of the stars.
“Not as long as yours,” she said.
The day before leaving San Jose I had gone to the beach. While Ben was at work. I sat down next to the sea and read a book I had brought with me from Germany. I’d like to think that it was Rilke, but it could just as well have been a stupid detective story. At some point I began reading aloud. It was great to listen to my voice being that fluent. Next to me there was a couple. The girl came over and said in German that she had been studying at the Freie Universität. She couldn’t believe that I had never been to Berlin. “It must be awesome,” she had said, “now that the Wall is down.”
I followed Karen across the yard. We went past the vegetable garden and came to an old trailer. She turned on the lights. There was a Pullman kitchen, a table and two chairs, a couch and a king-size bed. There was even a small TV. “We don’t have one at the house. Ray and I came here when we wanted to know what was happening in the world.” She looked at the couch and said, “I’ll bring you some fresh sheets.”
I sunk onto the mattress. “My sleeping bag’ll do just fine.”
A bed just for myself. The first months I had given lessons in French and German to pay the rent, but then one pupil after the other had cancelled, and I had been happy enough to stay at Ben’s. “I don’t even know where I am.”
Karen touched the map which was hanging on the wall. “We’re here," her finger moved up one inch, “that’s Dresden," then further to the left, "Hanover," then down again, "Bremen."
I had to think of the German Bremen and of my boyfriend who would never leave it.
Karen opened the door. “We could have lots of fun.” Her dog was waiting for her on the stairs. It didn’t come in. It knew that she would be joining it in a while.
“Definitely,” I said. We would take the horses for a ride. On Saturday evening we would hang about at the diner. I would dance with a lonely cowboy and let him beat me at pool.
I aimed one of the wall lights at a picture and was taken aback. “Is that you?” It was as if I were looking into a mirror.
Karen returned with a box and pointed to my worn-out Chucks. “You need boots.”
I tried them all and ended up with some red ones. Blue seams. “Could I make a call?”
She grinned, “Now?”
“My boyfriend is waiting for me in Baltimore,“ I said.
Karen started to laugh. “You’re almost there.”
“Hang on,“ she said. “Which Baltimore?”
“Is there more than one?”
“There’s one right here.”
“Whatever.” I would turn Ben down the next day. I would send him a postcard in a couple of months. Maybe I would ask him to come by. It would all be different. I’d have a home and a job. My English would get better, and I wouldn’t be searching for words that long.
“Back then we took our trailer everywhere,” Karen said, running her finger along the shelf as if to check if it needed cleaning. “When we didn’t like it anymore, we just hit the road.”
There was a Polaroid of a man with long hair and a beard on the door of the fridge. I said, “That’s him, right?”
It was two o’clock in the morning when I curled into my sleeping bag. I was looking at the boots. I tried to get the picture of me wearing them and sitting on the old tractor that I’d seen in the drive. Then I composed a letter to my parents. They would tell everybody that I would not be coming back. I thought of the night when I threw away my return ticket. I thought of sleeping in my first rented room in San Jose and of buying the Cadillac and driving around for hours afterwards.
When I woke up it was still dark outside.
As I left the trailer, I could see my breath. Quietly, I went to my car and opened the trunk to get the sweater that I had worn last time on the plane.
. . .
Some time ago, our daughter was searching the basement for stuff she could use for her first apartment. She came up with my old nightstand. She unlocked the door and found the red boots. “Look at these,“ she said.
In one of them I found the letter Karen had left under the wipers. “I wish you a happy trip and a happy life,” she’d written. And I remembered how I drove back to the gas station to brush my teeth and how the man asked me why I didn’t want to stay at Karen’s for a while. And how I answered: “Two quiet people like us are better off being quiet alone.” I didn’t remember where I had heard these words, but I had waited for the perfect moment to say them.
(Illustration by Imke Staats)
Jessica Falzoi was born in Hamburg, Germany, and now lives in Berlin, where she teaches Literature and Creative Writing at a secondary school. Her stories, as well as her translation of Donald Barthelme’s “Sentence,” have appeared in Russian, German and Swiss magazines. She has just finished a writer’s guide that carries the essence of America’s creative writing programs.