I rang the bell but let myself in. Helen was sitting by the window in the almost empty living room when I arrived, her cheek resting in her palm. I sat across from her at a dark wooden table with a shined surface, peering through a vase of drooped lilies in the center of the table; I recognised them from the funeral. I wanted to reach out and touch Helen’s hand.
I rubbed my thumb in small circles on the table and asked how she was. She explained that even after the funeral, many things had to be organized — the insurance, what to do with William’s belongings, even the simple things, like his dress shirts, but that friends from the orchestra brought her dinners. I could see her cello in its half-open case, leaned against the wall behind her.
I asked if I could help her with anything, and she shook her head and looked out the window again. The house had a garden in the back, and from my seat I could just see an ivy covered wall and white clumps of pollen drifting in the breeze. Helen shifted in her chair, grasping her hands tightly together around her pregnant belly.
“I found a long-term place to stay,” I said.
I wondered if I should have brought something with me – more flowers. I thought of leaving and buying some and coming back. I was very afraid Helen was about to cry. Instead, she looked at me.
“I don’t want to see you again,” she said. “I’d like this to be the last time we meet.”
I said nothing.
“If I keep seeing you,” she continued, “ I’ll have to tell someone.”
I reached across the table to take her hand but she pulled back from me. I sat straight up in my seat.
“Helen,” I said.
She looked out the window a third time. I took the keys out of my pocket and placed them on the table.
“Do you expect me to leave Berlin?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“I only just found a place to stay,” I said.
“I just don’t want you to try to meet me again.”
I stood up. She tensed in her chair. I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her, to knock over the serene vase of lilies, or scratch the keys into the surface of the shining table, but I knew I would do nothing. I took my jacket from the back of the chair and left.
It was early in the morning, about 7am. I took the U-Bahn, as usual opening a book that I kept in my pocket, but I only stared at the page until I arrived. I ordered a coffee from the bakery outside the station. The sun came in slanted through the windows as I drank.
I finished my coffee and wondered if I should move back to New York, where I could sit and have my coffee refilled. I ordered another coffee and sat outside this time.
I wondered how long Helen would sit by the window in her blue dress. I imagined the light growing bright and orange and then fading into evening as she sat until a woman arrived with her dinner. She would walk to the door, not invite the woman inside, and return to her seat, the tinfoil dinner sitting heavily on the table beside my keys.
I walked up the street to my new home. My room was narrow but with a window at one side and an adjoining narrow kitchen. I made more coffee and drank sitting on the windowsill. I hadn’t slept properly in a week. I had class starting in an hour but I decided I wouldn’t go. My room was still a mess of boxes – I had too many belongings for the small apartment. Books and cups made precarious towers, candle wax dripped and stained the carpet, a spilled dish of cigarette ash made the air smell sour, my jackets and trousers hung from the corners of windows, drying after I had washed them in the sink.
I decided to go for a walk. I had told the neighbor downstairs that I would walk her dog from time to time, so I knocked on her door. I heard the peephole slide open and shut, and a minute later she arrived with the ugly thing on the end of a leash. The woman and her dog looked remarkably similar, both jowly and breathing heavily, eyes dully tired, hair stringy and twisting at the ends. The woman wore an enormous brown sweater as if she had thought to match further with the dog. I bowed my head and took the leash.
As we made our way down the street I immediately regretted my offer – the dog dragged on his leash and breathed heavily with every step. Any hope that I would gain peace or exercise from the walk vanished.
We walked around the border of the park. No one sat in the grass as it was still early and still cold in Berlin in April. The wind bent the trees and the grass over in a unison bow. I pulled the dog along as he huffed. After half an hour I thought of giving him a rest. I sat down on a park bench nestled into the leaves of a white rosebush. The dog settled at my feet and I watched a man poke for glass bottles in the trash.
Suddenly a small child appeared beside my feet, pulling at the ears and curly fur of the dog. I looked down in shock that a child would choose to give any affection to him. The little girl asked me the dog’s name. I realized I had no idea and told her this – she looked at me with clear disgust, then turned, cooing, back to the dog. The child’s mother approached us. She apologized to me and I assured her it was completely fine and that this was not even my animal but one I’d offered to walk for a friend – I surprised myself by referring to the dog’s wheezing owner as a friend – and that I had no interest in it.
The woman took a seat beside me, said her name was Isabelle. I told her my name. She looked me over carefully – I fiddled with the leash and eyed the dog, coughing, perhaps in solidarity with it. I asked Isabelle if she lived nearby. She was very beautiful, although she looked older than Helen, and dressed differently than her, in loose linen – to think I was already comparing her to Helen!
She said she lived with her husband just up the road, that she was a photographer. I told her I was finishing my masters, studying German Literature. Now I noticed a leather strap over her shoulder. She put a heavy camera between us and told me she wanted to take my photo for a project. She asked if I’d be willing. I felt my face with my own hand, forgetting for a moment that she knew nothing of me, confused why she would want to preserve my image, but then, of course, to her I was my body, my bones and flesh and hair, my gait and clothing, a stranger walking a small unknown dog. I saw suddenly in this frame a great emptiness and possibility – an expanse of nowness, a new thing in this present moment, not a man who had been forgiven or not forgiven, or who had done and not done, who had been told to leave or to stay, but a man who was a body in a time and a place, in April in Berlin, who lived in a fresh, unpacked room, who would buy new notebooks and read books and eat his meals as if he neither had or had not read or written or eaten those very things before – I consented, yes, I would like to have my photo taken by Isabelle, this photo of my body which was just a body, an assemblage, a function that would continue to function, in any way, as if any spirit could inhabit it, a spirit that was defined only by being mine. Suddenly I felt greedily grateful for time, in my lungs was a new breath. I shook Isabelle’s hand, noted the address and time the next day that she told me, gathered the grotesque dog in my arms like a beloved pet, and walked home.
I didn’t bother returning the dog to his owner. I let him into my apartment and he curled up between the boxes. I cut slices of lemon cake from a package and laid a serving on the ground for the dog. I ate standing up, watching the animal eat, then lay on my bed, with its blankets folded at the foot. I crossed my hands on my chest and closed my eyes, and thought of meeting William.
I had met him slightly before I met Helen – we made love in his room with the windows open in the morning. He had a mattress on the floor but we moved all over the room together, until the sun turned hot and we both sweat, and I thought my skin would burn in the sunlight. It was summer, Berlin was heavy and wilting in the heat, we went to the restaurant downstairs for lunch, I wore William’s white button down shirt, it stuck to me from sweat, a hot wind blew into the restaurant, we ordered white wine and cold soups. William wore a shirt with a wide neck and gold hoops in his ears. I was drunk on the wine and certain I would fall in love with him. I don’t remember what we spoke about – nothing intelligent, the soup and the wine and the wind, the people walking by outside who tied scarves around their heads for shade, the way the waitresses flirted with one another, maybe none of that. I thought of looping this day forever, moving only between his bedroom and this restaurant, with its drooping centerpiece and listless waitstaff. We ordered a cold chicken and bread, we were starving, we ordered arugula with dijon mustard and avocado. A table of women smoked in the corner and ordered cokes, then pressed the cold glasses against their flushed cheeks and their reddening necks. I could see William’s sweat creeping into the shadows of his shirt. I wanted him again already. And then Helen walked into the restaurant, keeping her sunglasses on even in the dimness.
She put her arm around William’s shoulders and sat down with us. William introduced her as his wife. She was wearing a blue dress – Helen always wore blue. It had long loose sleeves. She poured herself a glass of wine and pushed back her sunglasses. I felt instantly conscious of my sweat and my sunburn. She told me she was in an orchestra, had played a concert in Hamburg the night before and lodged there, that she’d just arrived back and seen us through the window. She asked me my name, about my studies. She seemed remarkably cool in the heat. She wore a thin white pashmina around her shoulders, as if the hot wind chilled her. William held her shoulder in his hand. I asked her about the orchestra and she said she played the cello and had since she was young. She often went on tour. She remarked that it was a Tuesday – and asked if I didn’t have class. “Don’t skip poetry class on account of us,” she told me. I wanted to assure her that the poets, of anyone, would understand, but feared making myself an annoyance, so I stood up, drained my wine glass, conscious of wearing William’s shirt, but he was smiling at me. As I pushed in my chair Helen asked me if I would join them for dinner. I nodded, more nervous of the invitation than at being dismissed. I sat through three hours of class, still sweating in William’s shirt, deaf to anything that was said. I guessed Helen would want to sleep together, and I hadn’t slept with a woman in over four years. I wasn’t sure I wanted to, but it didn’t occur to me not to attend. I rushed home from class, showered, dressed in a hurry, stopped by a shop to buy tulips –
I was roused rudely from my reverie by a pounding on the door – the neighbor had come for her dog. I forgot again to ask for the dog’s name. The sun filled up my small room. I lay on my bed, wishing to return to my daydream, but my thoughts felt suddenly heavy. I pictured a fishing boat filling slowly with seawater, growing heavier and heavier, sinking lower and lower until submerged. I picture a sinking stone, thrown from the sky and plunging to the seabed, to the darkness. I was on a ladder, leaned against a tree in an orange grove, around me and around the trees floated thick fog, grey and soft in gentle light. I held a woven basket in the crook of my arm which I filled with oranges, I tilted my head to breathe above the fog, the fog was warm, it huddled under my collar, I squeezed the oranges and fresh juice sweat from their pores, it covered my fingers, I filled the basket until it was heavy in my arm. My arm grew tired, my muscles shook, I reached higher and higher to pluck more oranges, the fog around me smelled of citrus, in every direction the orange grove spread – and then I could not hold it anymore, my arm shook so violently and dropped limply, the basket overturned and the oranges fell to the ground. They hit the dirt and their rinds split, cracked like clay pots, and from the cracks came a thick dark red. Blood flowed out and pooled around the fruit, it kept pooling, it filled the grove like a flood, I grew afraid of it –
I awoke drenched in sweat. The sky had already darkened. I jumped up and ran out of my apartment and down the stairs. I forgot the train, almost ran along the sidewalk, through a slick path through the park, up streets, I walked as fast as I could, no thought in my mind but Helen’s burning face. I didn’t know the time, but the streets were almost empty. After an hour I arrived in front of Helen’s house. I walked into the back garden and leaned against the wall. I could see her through the back windows. She had left the drapes open and turned a lamp on. I could see her back curved over her cello, her elbow bent and slowly skimming, a hand clutching a bow, emitting one long low sound, then another, heavy notes dripping on top of one another. I stood there in the dark and watched her. The night air caught my sweat and chilled me. The moss and dirt smell of the garden surrounded me, Helen in a blue dress, late in the night, bent over her instrument, the plants in the darkness, the roses and vines, were black and blue, my body still felt filled with exhaustion. I allowed myself to sink to my knees, but Helen with her bent back showed no tiredness. In front of me was a stone bird bath, unattended in the night but filled with water. Above the windows was a balcony, on it a table and three chairs, I remembered my last meal with William here: cut persimmons and honey, it was a Sunday, it was the day Helen was going to arrive home after a three-month tour. When she walked in, her stomach swelled, and William leaned there against the balcony railing, balancing for a moment, losing balance, head cracking cleanly on the birdbath below, leaving a thick slab of blood on the rim. He had been leaning delicately, outlined in evening light, my blow to his shoulder had been light, he fell like cloth from a line, as if blown by the wind, then Helen stood still, hands perched on the balcony edge, gazing at his crooked shape in the shrubs.
There in the dirt on my knees I sank into a dreamless sleep, lulled by Helen’s long low notes and the wetness of the garden. I fell asleep and woke in the chill of dawn, my clothes and hands covered in black earth, my cheek pressed onto a bed of ferns. I immediately looked for Helen, she was gone, her chair empty and straight, the cello with its bow leaned carelessly against the table. The birds sang, the light was weak, I stood up, I brushed leaves from my hair, and dirt from my hands, I felt strong and fresh, I splashed my face in the bird bath, I wondered at the time, took off walking – how funny that I had walked here last night, that I had wanted to glimpse Helen. How strange, I thought of her sleeping alone on that mattress on the floor, body small under the blankets, face creased even in sleep, arm perhaps reaching for a body that wasn’t there, and here I was, striding down the street in full health, completely free, alone and free. It was a few hours until I should arrive at Isabelle’s, but I could think of nothing to fill the time with. I decided to go straight away, I had the address in my pocket, I knew the name of the street, it was very near the park. As I walked I swung my arms and even whistled, even saying to myself as I walked through the parks and the streets his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside like a lamp, this spoken only in a whisper, in a rhythm, to encourage my stride, in chorus with the morning birds, I turned up her street and found the number, I rang the bell. She sounded surprised, she buzzed me up and I climbed the stairs, otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through, I chanted as I climbed the stairs, nor could a smile run through, she waited in an open doorway, rubbing her eyes like a child and wearing a bathrobe, she remarked that I was very early but to come in anyway, her husband was bent over a book at the breakfast table, greeted me quickly and continued to read, Isabelle invited me to sit down, on the table were jams and yellow butter, plates of sliced fruit, the kitchen was cramped and smelled of toast. Isabelle told me to eat what I liked, and poured me a coffee. I apologized for my earliness.
Isabelle’s husband straightened in his chair, he held his book out in front of him and began to read a passage,
“A man held a gun between his hands. He aimed it at the sky. He shot a bullet at the sun. The golden body of the sun fell backwards into the sea, sad and bright, his eyes last to sink. The world was dark. The man held the gun between his hands. It felt cold and smooth. He aimed it at the sky. He shot a bullet into the darkness and cried out loudly.”
He looked up at me.
“What a strange passage,” I said to him.
He closed his book. I poured milk into my coffee, Isabelle sat down with us. I had again the horrible feeling that I should have brought something with me. Isabelle suggested we begin. She left the kitchen to get dressed. I was left with her husband. He leaned his elbows on his book. He told me he was a translator. As he spoke an orange rolled off the table – I almost cried out in shock – he gave me a strange look, and placed the orange back in its bowl. Isabelle returned.
“I’m sorry,” I said to him, my nerves are shot, I had strange dreams all night.”
“We can get started right away,” Isabelle said. “My studio is just the extra room.”
I followed Isabelle into an empty room with a slanted ceiling and wide skylights. The walls were painted white, and in the centre was a single chair. She asked me to sit in the chair and she lifted on to my back two heavy constructions made of wire, with strips of white fabric secured to the wire with wax, to imitate two wings. A shaft of light fell down on me from the skylight. Isabelle positioned her camera on a tripod. She clicked a light meter over my chest and face. I held still. The wings felt heavy on my shoulders. I squinted in the sunlight. Isabelle talked to herself under her breath as she adjusted the light settings. I began to sweat. I leaned my elbows on my knees to rest, unbuttoned my shirt in the heat, squinted, closed my eyes. The sun blazed through my eyelids. I saw spots. I heard Isabelle begin to take photos. She took the camera off the tripod and took the photos from below.
I could tell she was moving closer to me though she took the photos slowly. A bit of wire dug into my neck. I didn’t open my eyes but felt the camera below my face. I envisioned the photo, with my face gently blurred and the sewn feathers behind me sharply in focus. I felt Isabelle’s hand on my leg. She said, “I want you to look at me.” I opened my eyes and looked at her, the sun still blazing behind me. My sight was spotted from the strain. The sun streamed around my shoulders and lit Isabelle up brilliantly as she crouched on the ground. I reached forward and touched her face. Confusion and heat pounded in my head. She placed her hand on top of mine and said, “Helen.”
I withdrew my hand instantly and sat up straight. The wings fell off my back and clattered to the ground. I was out of the shaft of sun. I asked, “Where is she?” Isabelle said nothing, only drew back into the shadow. And then I saw her. Helen, of course, had only been sitting in the shadows. In the confusion of the heat I hadn’t seen her, but she sat in the shadows, in a blue dress, her face soft and almost smiling. She was looking at me. When I met her eyes she really smiled. She reached out her hand and took mine. Her skin was cool in the shadows. I smiled back at her. I squeezed her hand and told her I was so happy she was here. I asked her where she had been. She didn’t answer. I was suddenly unsure why I had come to Isabelle’s house at all. I had to leave. Helen stood up, and I followed. Her long hair was smooth on either side of her face. We stood together in the shadows, our hands entwined, then walked out of the room. I felt perfectly calm. We walked through the kitchen and down the stairs, but I stopped her before we went outside – it’s too bright outside, I told her. She bent down and ripped a strip of cloth from her dress and we used the fabric to blindfold ourselves. Then, hand in hand and blindfolded, my mind a flat blue sea, we walked outside towards the bridge.