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a geography of secrets
By FREDERICK REUSS
Copyright © 2010 Frederick Reuss
All right reserved.
Chapter One Breitenrainplatz 46?57'30.25"N 7?27'14.74"E
Driving into work one day, I found myself in a different city. Geographically, it coincided with Washington, D.C., yet it was a completely new place. It happened as I was crossing the Fourteenth Street bridge. The sky, which was overcast, suddenly became brighter. Everything stood out crisply and distinctly, the way things look after a heavy thunderstorm, but the monuments and landmarks all seemed diminished, mere objects laid down on the landscape. Traffic on the bridge flowed like the surface of the river, emptying onto the flat estuary of the Mall and downtown. I got off at the next exit, parked on Ohio Drive, and sat in the car staring out at the unfamiliar landscape. I didn't know what to make of it.
After a while, I got out and walked to the water's edge. A cement walkway, littered with debris washed up from the river, runs the entire perimeter of East Potomac Park. An elderly black man wearing a desert camouflage cap was fishing over the railing. A veteran, I figured. It was hard not to think he'd always been there. Just beyond him a group of teenagers was listening to hip-hop on a boom box. Farther down, a man in a suit stood smoking a cigarette. A Park Police cruiser pulled up, idled briefly at the curb, then slowly drove on.
I sat down on a bench and watched the old man work his reel. A large schooner was moored in the middle of Boundary Channel. Behind it were the Maine Avenue waterfront, the Southeast/Southwest Freeway, and the drab brown federal buildings of L'Enfant Plaza. I felt as if I knew exactly what was happening behind every louvered window and ciphered door in every one of those buildings as well as downriver in the generals' houses at Fort McNair, at the War College, the Anacostia Naval Air Station, Boiling Air Force Base-even in the heart of the old veteran, who didn't seem bored or frustrated by his poor catch, just tired and lonely. I knew all this, and yet where I was had become unfamiliar.
It felt good. Not euphoria-that's not in my nature. Just it's-all-there-and-I'm-all-here-and-it's-all-okay good. For the first time, I was looking at the place as it really existed on the landscape, not as a complex of fixed coordinates and bundled meanings. I felt unburdened. A trio of blue air force Hueys came choppering up the channel and passed overhead, rotor wake trembling on the surface of the water. The man glanced up indifferently and began to reel in his line. I wondered if choppers roaring overhead could be felt by the fish, if they scared them away or caused them to bite.
It's easy to feel like a stranger in Washington, D.C. Even with a house inside the Beltway, a family and a career, it's hard not to feel that you're merely holding down a place until someone else steps in to take over. The White House is the symbol of this permanent flux at the top, but it's no less so in the middle and at the bottom rungs of government-from General's Row to highway planning, education programming, nutrition guidelines, or the three-bedroom, two-bath brick colonial up the street that came on the market yesterday. When I was growing up, change came in the form of Allied Van Lines and huge wooden crates stenciled with an APO address. The mystery of where we were going was never made clear until the last minute, when my father's travel orders were finalized. Until then, there was only guessing. Delhi? Athens? Perhaps. Cairo? Not sure. Ouagadougou? Then came the thrill of arriving in a new place and being a stranger all over again. American? Yes. From Washington. It was added only by way of explanation, not as one would invoke a hometown. People understood right away. As a Foreign Service brat, 1 grew up with vagueness and a fluidity of identity that made fitting in anywhere easy. I became a real pro. As an adult, separating where I am and where I'm from, what I do from who I am comes naturally, even if the distance between them is never greater than my own self-delusion. I suppose I have my father's example to thank for that. It's a gift I plan not to pass on.
Actually, I wasn't going to work that day. I wasn't going anywhere, in fact, but was just driving around aimlessly, looking for distraction. My father had died a few weeks earlier. Long retired, he'd been living in Switzerland with his second wife. We were close but not really intimate. I hadn't seen him for several years and declined to view the body when I arrived in Bern for the funeral. I didn't want the sight of his corpse to become the coda of his memory. Waxy skin, blue lips. I've never understood why people insist on viewing the dead. I wasn't even tempted.
The women had no such qualms. They all went to the morgue for a last look. They left the apartment together, and I couldn't help seeing some element of sexual revenge in it, a settling of accounts on some high archetypal plane. It was cozy inside the apartment. Outside, it had started to snow. I watched from the window as they waited at the tram stop, bundled against the cold. They returned an hour later, shook their overcoats and stamped their feet in that levity of mood that comes with new-fallen snow. A pot was put on for coffee. A bottle of kirsch appeared on the kitchen table. The doorbell rang, and people began arriving with things to eat.
The apartment soon filled with friends and neighbors. It was impossible not to feel warmly enveloped. There was little talk of him. I don't think there was much talk at all beyond who was arriving when from where. Jan, a saxophone player, was ferrying people from the airport and the train station. He had picked me up in Zürich early that morning. We'd never met before, but somehow the fact that he was driving my father's car made it seem we were old friends. On the autobahn I broke down and cried. Everything seemed so familiar, even the highway signs. It was those drives to and from the Zürich airport that concretized what having an expat father meant. Zipping along a Swiss highway in a thrilling easiness of place. To be always at home and always far from home. Did it matter who was coming and who was going?
Michel, the downstairs neighbor, shuffled over and greeted me with his customary "I don't know if you recall." I've always wondered if he does this only with me or if the stroke five years back made it necessary to verify things before talking. It was good to see him, always charming and alert, teetering on the verge of fashion and ill health. It was good to see everyone, even the people I didn't know who came up to me and said, "Your father has told me a lot about you." To be told this by so many strangers! There wasn't anyone back in Washington he'd have talked to about me. But here, in Switzerland, he seemed to have freely indulged in fatherly pride. It was nice to know that.
I talked to Michel for a long time. Of course, I no longer recall what was said. VII have to admit so next time I see him. I talked to lots of people. The apartment was packed. Somehow not surprisingly, it had turned into a party. Shortly before midnight, I went out onto the balcony for some fresh air. The sky was clearing, the air was cold and dry. The sign flickered on the building across the street, a big orange letter M, which stood for Migros, the grocery store chain. The snow had stopped. The streets were empty. The tram came and went.
Fifteen years earlier, I'd sat out there with my father and asked what he planned to do in his Swiss retirement. "Smoke and stare at mountains," he said. The next day he came home with a dog, a snuffling, wriggling black puppy. He stood at the front door in a rumpled green track suit, scratching the stubble on his cheek and beaming as his little prize squatted and pissed all over the floor. "No. Not a dog!" Nicole groaned. "Please. Not a dog."
"She's not a dog." He scooped the overexcited animal up and cradled it in his arms. "She's a retriever."
I'd never seen that side of him. Was it a put-on? Or was I seeing something only a child can see in a parent who has suddenly and with embarrassing effort opted for light and joy and youth over plodding age and habit? Nicole played up her part as well. "You're going to clean up every mess. You're not going let it chew up the furniture. You're not feeding it from the table. Don't think I'm taking it out to do its business." She went on far longer than was necessary, and, naturally, every one of her stipulations was turned on its head within days.
All fathers have a Byronic streak in the eyes of their children. Some more, some less. Even the most conventional and domesticated preserve a core of mystery and dash that is both the source of their authority and the reason for its ultimate overthrow My father's Byronic streak had less to do with his faithful hound and imaginary rambles through the mountains than with the smoking, drinking, two-courses-and-a-desert Byron-spiced with cayenne and easily unphilosophized. I was astounded at how much he enjoyed being led around town by that wriggling black smudge. How happy it made him.
When I returned inside, people were beginning to leave. In an hour, all had left but the seriously drunk, who were whittled down at last to a German academic who'd come from Bonn and an American named Blake, who introduced himself with bleary sincerity as "your father's oldest friend." He was dressed in a rumpled, once fashionable Italian suit and had brought with him two bottles of Gordon's gin and an enormous bouquet of flowers, which he had grandly presented to Nicole.
"Who is he?" I asked in the kitchen.
Nicole rolled her eyes. "I told him not to come, but he came anyway."
"But who is he?"
"An old colleague. He lives near Geneva. On the lake. Last time he was here I had to throw him out."
Nicole does not generally take a dislike to people. She tends in precisely the opposite direction, is the epicenter of an ever-widening circle of friends and is especially drawn to oddballs and eccentrics. Her gregarious nature was the driving force in the marriage, a force that over the years worked big changes. My father went from a person who generally avoided socializing to being surrounded by admirers, people charmed by his gruff reserve, the sentimental tough guy. He loved being typisch Amerikanisch-as long as typical meant Humphrey Bogart.
Nicole lit a cigarette and began moving empty glasses from the cluttered counter into the sink. She was covering her grief with a get-to-work ethos and heavy smoking.
"Should I ask him to leave?"
"Don't bother," she said.
"He'll be drunk soon. We'll call a taxi."
But he was already drunk and talking fluently in German to the professor.
"Sie waren nie in Bayreuth? Das kann doch nicht wahr sein!" Blake waved his glass at me as I entered the room. "He's never been to Bayreuth!"
One wishes for clarity in such moments but must usually settle for what might have been. Blake was baiting the professor, playing the boorish American. It was a sophomoric bully sport passed down through Foreign Service generations and always played for the benefit of others in the know. The object was to build up and then suddenly demolish preconceived notions and prejudices, reducing the victim to wondering how little he or she might really know and understand; a bit of professional jujitsu adapted for the cocktail party. My father had been a master. It was always embarrassing when he got going. Had I been thinking clearly, I would have immediately left the room and let the drunkards have at each other. Instead, I fell into the role I'd always played and took sides with the professor. "I'm not too fond of Wagner, either," I said.
"The man you can hate. But certainly not the music." Blake grinned, sipping his gin.
"Ach, Quatsch!" the professor spat back, rising unsteadily from his chair.
"But you agree with me," Blake pressed on. "The model of the German bourgeois interior that mixes history with myth." His smile had that turned-up quality, that presages the opening of another front, but the professor stumbled against the corner of the table and nearly knocked over a lamp.
Nicole came into the room. "I've called a taxi," she announced.
"I'll walk." The professor tugged on his cuffs. "My hotel is just around the corner."
Blake called across the room, "You sure? I'm happy to share a taxi."
"I would prefer to walk," the professor said. "The fresh air will be good."
Blake raised his glass as Nicole escorted the professor from the room. He was sitting with one leg crossed over the other, shin exposed, clutching his scepter of gin, leering as if remembering me in diapers. I was waiting for him to start in with some sort of your-father-once-told-me comment-but he didn't. He seemed perfectly comfortable keeping silent.
"So. You're an old friend of my father?"
"That I am, yes."
Nicole and the professor were talking in low tones by the front door. Blake was clearly aware that he was the subject of their conversation and, as some people do who know themselves to be unwelcome, settled back into his chair in an attitude of graceful quiet. I was sitting at the long dining table across the room, fidgeting. The front door closed as Nicole bade the professor good-bye. Rather than join us, she went back into the kitchen.
"So, where are you living these days?" Blake asked.
I ignored the question. "My father didn't have many friends."
Blake swished his gin.
"You say you're an old friend?" I pressed on.
"I think he would have put me in that category."
"I don't remember him ever mentioning you."
He frowned into his glass. "What can I say? He was the soul of discretion, your father was."
"You aren't surprised?"
"Surprised? By what?"
"That I have no idea who you are."
Blake took it in very calmly, then tossed back the remainder of his drink and glanced in silent debate with himself at the bottle on the side table. The vulnerability in his look softened me somewhat. I hadn't meant to attack the man, but I had no patience for the mysterious-stranger game he was playing. I didn't give a damn. The parlor aspect of the last decade of my father's life had worn thin. Since his retirement, the string of people who had trailed through this apartment could have stretched around the block. I don't remember when I began to find their eccentric friends and busy social life depressing, but I'd seen enough of the coming and goings during my visits to know better than to attach significance to anyone claiming deep friendship. Observing Blake as he reached for the bottle, I was struck by a weird irony. It was true that my father had never had any close friends. He was the type who would sit back and watch things unfold with a kind of wistful absorption that suggested an interest in, but not much time for, intimacy. The superficiality of the acquaintanceships that gathered around him made the appearance of someone claiming intimate friendship both impossible and curious. There was an error in the poor man's perception that was to be pitied, not exposed. I felt sorry for him. "Can I get you some ice?" I asked.
"Sure, if you've got it." As I left the room, he called after me, "An olive would be lovely, too. If you've got it."
It was a familiar errand and took the charge out of the atmosphere. As a Foreign Service brat, I'd grown up around the protocols of cocktails and drinking. Nicole was putting things away in the kitchen. "What did he tell you?" she asked.
"What is there to tell?" I took out the ice and the olives, expecting her to put some sort of time limit on the continued hospitality. But she didn't. She followed me back into the living room, where Blake was now sitting with his chin on his chest. His head jerked up as we entered. I handed him a fresh glass with ice and olives. He peered into it with drunken ceremony and said, "I'm not big in the friend department, either. Your father was the best one I ever had."
Nicole sat down, lit another cigarette, and swept away a loose strand of hair with the back of her hand. Her dislike was now as unpleasant as his presence. I felt a pang of shame for the seedy atmosphere that had overtaken the room. It wasn't just Blake. It was also Nicole, distraughtly puffing away at her cigarettes, the disorder of the apartment, the dreary winter weather, the shabbiness of lives foreshortened by cocktails and weltschmerz. I found myself wishing for a different setting, a different cast of characters, people who didn't pretend to know everything and who hadn't come into my father's life-and mine-so lately. Best of all would have been to go back to less sophisticated times, when everyone felt a little less secure of their place in the world. I was sorry and sad to see how it all had come to this.
Excerpted from a geography of secrets by FREDERICK REUSS Copyright © 2010 by Frederick Reuss. Excerpted by permission.
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