Sleeping in Flameby Jonathan Carroll
Walker Easterling is a retired actor turned successful screenwriter living in the Vienna of strong coffee, fascinating friends, and mysterious cafes. When he falls in love with Maris York, a beautiful artist who creates cities, his life becomes alive in fantastic and unsettling ways. As Walker's love for Maris grows, his life gets more and more bizarre-he discovers… See more details below
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Walker Easterling is a retired actor turned successful screenwriter living in the Vienna of strong coffee, fascinating friends, and mysterious cafes. When he falls in love with Maris York, a beautiful artist who creates cities, his life becomes alive in fantastic and unsettling ways. As Walker's love for Maris grows, his life gets more and more bizarre-he discovers he can see things happening just before they happen, and at the same time feels an incredibly strong tug from his past-so a friend steers him to Venasque, an odd little man reputed to be a powerful shaman. Venasque helps Walker discover and unravel his many interconnected past lives, and it is soon clear that an unresolved conflict from these past lives has resurfaced, and now threatens to undo Walker and Maris's love.
At once lyrical, frightening, funny, and sexy, Sleeping in Flame is a spellbinding tale where reality and fantasy merge in astonishing convolutions of magic and suspense. It confirms that Jonathan Carroll is one of the very few novelists who-by constantly surprising us-give us an entirely new perspective on our world. It is no wonder that he is generally considered to be the most original and provocative novelist of his generation.
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SLEEPING IN FLAME
IT TOOK ME LESS THAN HALF A LIFETIME TO REALIZE THAT REGRET IS one of the few guaranteed certainties. Sooner or later everything is touched by it, despite our naive and senseless hope that just this time we will be spared its cold hand on our heart.
The day after we met, Maris York told me I had saved her life. We were in a café, and she said this through the folds of a black sweater she was pulling over her head. I was glad she was lost in the middle of that pullover because the statement, although true, made me feel much too brave and adult and embarrassed. I didn't know what to answer.
"It's quite true, Walker. The next time I saw him he would have killed me."
"Maybe he just wanted to go on scaring you."
"No, he would have tried to kill me."
The voice carried no emotion. Her big hands lay open and still on the pink and blue marble table. I wondered if thestone was cold under her palms. If I had been really brave I would have covered her hand with mine. I didn't.
Every once in a while my friend Nicholas Sylvian calls, in a huff, and says he wants us to make another movie together. He's got some new moneybags lined up to finance one of the many projects we've discussed. When that happens, I usually stop what I'm doing and give him my full attention. Life with Nicholas is fun and exciting, and sometimes very peculiar. I think in our past lives we were probably related in some close and aggravating wayrevolutionaries who couldn't agree on tactics, or brothers in love with the same woman. We always fight a lot when we're together, but that's only because we love the same things, despite seeing them from different angles.
This time there was a Herr Nashorn in Munich who was very interested in producing Secret Feet, our adaptation of an obscure short story by Henry de Montherlant to which I owned the rights. The scoop was, Herr Nashorn wanted us to fly to Munich that weekend and talk the whole idea over, courtesy of Nashorn Industries.
So at 6 A.M. on Saturday, forty-five minutes before our flight was due to leave, Nicholas picked me up in his little white delivery truck. The first time I saw that odd vehicle, I asked my friend what had possessed him to buy it.
"Because it looks like the kind of truck the Pope tours in."
When I got into the Popemobile that dark morning, Nicholas looked at me and said, "We've got four problems. One, I don't have any gas. Two, I think I forgot my passport. Three, the radio says the traffic out to the airport is impossible. Four ... I can'tremember, but I'll think of it. Do you have any money for gas?"
There was no fourth problem, he had his passport, and we made it to the airport on time. When we were settled on the plane and had ordered coffee, he lit a cigarette and smiled to himself.
"Listen to me, Walker. No matter what happens with this Nashorn meeting today, there's a woman in Munich I've got to call. She's an American sculptress you have to meet. You'll love her." He said no more about it for the rest of the trip, but kept the same smile on his face.
The idea excited me. I had always liked blind dates. If nothing else, it was an interesting way of discovering what people thought of you. How often do we have the chance to see what we are in a friend's eyes? On a blind date you're told "You'll love her. I think she's very much your kind of woman." And whether she is or not, you end the evening knowing something new: As far as this friend is concerned, you're the "sexy blond" type. Or a "smoky brunette who has to be convinced" kind of guy.
My wife and I met on a blind date and that date led to seven good years together. In the end we separated after both of us spent time in other people's beds for greedy, bad reasons, and even worse results. The divorce consisted of two raw, mean people saying sordid half-truths about each other.
Why did things go wrong? Perhaps because wonderful as it can sometimes be, you can be sure marriage is at all times a quirky, difficult thing to maintain. In certain ways, it is very much like the solid gold family heirloom watch your father gives you for graduation. You love looking at it and owning it, but it isn't like the twenty-dollar liquid-crystal thing made of plastic and rubber that needs no maintenance to keep perfect time.
Every day you have to wind the gold beauty to make it runright, and you have to keep setting it, and you have to take it to the jeweler to be cleaned ... . It is lovely and rare and valuable, but the rubber watch keeps better time with no work at all. The problem with twenty-dollar watches is that they all suddenly stop dead at some point. All you can do then is throw them away and buy another.
I realized this after my marriage wound down and stopped. It made me feel stupid and bitterly sad, but by then things were way beyond fixing, and neither of us wanted to see the other again.
My wife, Victoria (a name I still say slowly and carefully), remained in the United States after our divorce and entered graduate school. I am sure she is a serious, diligent student.
The worst part of being alone was memories often cornered me and wouldn't let me get away. A pumpkin-colored coat in a women's boutique froze me in front of the store window, remembering a meal with Victoria in Cyprus where most of the things on the table were that same Halloween orange. Or waking with a fierce cold, and the first thing you think of is, the last time I had one this bad, someone right here was genuinely worried about how high my temperature was.
In the year after the divorce, I returned to Europe and wrote two good screenplays for films that had only an outside chance of ever being made. But that wasn't bad because the work kept me busy and eager to see what the final drafts would look like.
There are long quiet periods in life that are very much like waiting for a bus on a nice day. You don't mind being there so much because the weather is sunny and nice, and you're in no hurry. But after a while you start looking at your watch because there are more interesting things you could be doing, and it really is time the bus came.
Maris just read these pages, and indignantly said I hadn't once mentioned where all of this happened. I told her I was going to get around to that; I had been saving Vienna for a place in our story where I would be able to describe it in the roundabout, leisurely way it deserves. But since there is less and less time now, perhaps she is right.
Victoria and I had come to Vienna eight years before, newly married, full of zip, curiosity, and enthusiastic love for each other. I was acting in a low-budget spy movie being filmed there. I'd gotten the role because I have the looks of a vaguely sinister pretty boy. In my short acting career, I'd played a cowardly Nazi soldier, a show-off baseball player, an arrogant college student, and a mad killer in a Hawaiian shirt. The Vienna role, which turned out to be one of my last, was that of a golden boyIvy League diplomat in the American Embassy who just happened to be a Russian spy.
One of the first things that struck me about Vienna was the funny-sounding street names: Schulz-Strassnitzkigasse, Ottakringer Strasse, Adalbert Stifter Strasse, Blutgasse. Usually you took a big breath before saying one of these names so you wouldn't run out of air halfway through the pronunciation.
Everything was clean and gray and too heavy with history. Round a corner, and there would be a white plaque on the side of some building describing Schubert's birth here, Freud's office there.
American cities shrug at their brief histories. There are few signs of pride in past tenants or events, notwithstanding the kitschy Disneyland atmosphere of places like "Colonial Williamsburg." It isas if the places are saying no, we're not so old, but who cares? Look how far we have come. Look what we've got now.
Like so many European cities, Vienna has an old heart and is arrogantly proud of its long, confused life. Its art school rejected the candidacy of young Adolf Hitler. Yet some years later, the Viennese greeted him with delighted fervor in one of their most revered places, Heldenplatz (Heroes' Square), a few days after he had invaded their country. In the first years of his life, Mozart blossomed fully in Vienna into the exquisite short-lived orchid he was. Then, only a couple of decades later, he died there and was dumped into a paupers' grave somewhere outside the city walls. They're still not sure where.
Because so many old people live there, the city's personality is a reflection of theirs: careful, suspicious, orderly, conservative. It is a town where you needn't be afraid, where taking a walk is still a great visual pleasure, where real cream is used in the cafés.
Victoria and I had never been to Europe together, so being in Vienna in those first days of our marriage was one long adrenaline rush to wonder.
Nicholas Sylvian was the director of the film, and our friendship began quickly when we discovered how similar our tastes were.
When shooting for the day was over, we often went together to the Café Zartl where we talked about rock and roll, how both of us had at one time wanted to be painters, and only as an end-of-the-evening subject, how to make our movie better than it was.
The producers had taken a chance on Nicholas because he was still relatively young and, until then, had never made a "big" film. But his lovely documentary about old Russians living in Vienna, Opa Suppe (Grandfather Soup), had won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and caused a lot of talk.
Women loved Nicholas because he was completely attentive to them and seemed to promise every good trait they ever wanted in a man. But he was volatile and moody, and quick to wipe you off his list if he ever felt you weren't with him all the way.
I learned all of this in the three months it took to shoot the film. And working with Nicholas Sylvian, director, I learned I was a mediocre actor. I knew I would be able to play golden bad boys for a few more years, but that didn't matter: I didn't want to spend my life working hard to be just okay at what I did, no matter what it happened to be. After a time, when I felt I could trust my new friend with a few big secrets, I told Nicholas my doubts.
"No, Walker, you're not a bad actor. You've just got that perverse face up against a sunny temperature."
"You mean temperament?"
"Exactly. It takes a really great actor to overcome that. A man can have a baby's face and be a villain in the movies, but it's hard to be the reverse. People in the audience don't believe it. In real life it's okay, but not in the movies.
"You don't want to be an actor anyway. I keep waiting to see that script you wrote."
"How did you know about that?"
"Victoria told me. She said you're dying to show it to me, but won't because you're too afraid."
"I'm not a writer, Nicholas. As soon as I show it to you, I start pretending I am."
He shook his head and rubbed his nose at the same time. "You don't have to be Tolstoy to write a movie. You were a painter once. Writing for the movies is like giving the eyes direction. Dialog comes second in this kind of writing. Only guys like Lubitsch andWoody Allen get away with great language. If you want great words, read a book. Let me see the script tomorrow."
After I had finished my part in the film, we decided to stay in Vienna to enjoy some of a spring that had arrived in the quick, unexpected way it often does in Central Europe: two days ago sleet, today summery-slow pink clouds, and all tops down on the horse-drawn carriages.
Nicholas didn't like my screenplay, but surprisingly, did like the way I wrote. He said I should start another. That gave me heart to leap into another story idea I had hiding in my shadows.
Every morning I kissed my sleeping wife good-bye and, full of inspiration, marched out the door of our apartment, notebook and fountain pen ready to go.
Two blocks away was my beloved Café Stein where, after coffee strong as a stone and a fresh croissant, I would get down to work on my newest magnum opus. The waiters glided by in a professional hush. If I looked up and caught their eye, they'd nod approvingly at the fact I was writing in their café. They carried silver trays that caught the early sun's rays, which threw silver back against the smoke-stained walls.
Anyone who doesn't want to be an "artist" in Europe, raise your hand.
If you are very lucky, you're allowed to be in certain places during just the right season of your life: by the sea for the summer when you're seven or eight and full of the absolute need to swim until dark and exhaustion close their hands together, cupping you in between. Or in another country when there is both an exciting now and enough dust and scent of the past everywhere to give falllight a different, violent color, the air a mixed aroma of open flower markets, people named Zwitkovitz, a passing tram's dry electricity.
Victoria and I were very lucky. While I wrote my movie, she discovered the Wiener Werkstätte group, which resulted in her eagerly enrolling in a Viennese architecture and design course at the university.
A month, then two, came and went. Whenever we discussed leaving Europe and returning to the United States, a blank look crossed both our faces, and we either smiled or shrugged: Neither of us was ready to go, so why even talk about it?
One day a friend of Nicholas's called and sheepishly asked if I would be interested in acting in a television commercial. They would dub a German voice over mine after filming, so all I would have to do would be to smile convincingly and mouth how much I loved feeding Frolic to my bulldog.
Things worked out well, and I talked with a number of people on the set. A few days later one of them called and asked if I wanted another job.
For the next two years, my modeling for magazines and television commercials allowed us to continue living in Vienna. By then, both of us had made contacts all over the place. Victoria had been hired as a researcher by a professor at the School for Applied Art. In addition to modeling, I was working at an assortment of freelance jobs, including a commissioned script for Nicholas.
Since we had first met, he had made a reputation as a smart, able director who put together good-looking highbrow films for very little money. Our spy film had been his only real shot at a big commercial success, but it had done only so-so. He worked all the time, but never on as large a scale as he wished.
Along the way, he had married a woman who designed furniture and had a last name so long and impressive that even she couldn't put all of her money in it. Unfortunately, Eva Sylvian didn't like Victoria Easterling (and vice versa), so most of the time just Nicholas and I went out together.
He knew so many different peopleopera singers, neo-Nazi politicians, a black American who owned the only Mexican restaurant in all of Austria. Nicholas wanted you to meet all of his friends. They were the greatest gift he could give: He wanted to give you to them. Some of these people became friends, others simply filled the evenings with funny lines or pompous chatter.
At first, Victoria wanted to hear all about these gatherings, but as time passed, only about who famous was there, or the juiciest morsels.
We had so many things together, Victoria and I. A life fully shared three-quarters of the time. But from the beginning, my wife and I plotted our courses on separate, albeit adjoining, maps. I don't know if that's what led to the death of our marriage, but I don't think so. Those different courses made our time together richer and more precious. When we met in the evening, it was to give each other the gift of our day, how it had opened, what it meant or had done to us.
But in the midst of one of those death-throe arguments you have at the end of a long and successful relationship, Victoria said we were guilty of having given each other too much room, too much rope, too much time away. I said that wasn't true. We were guilty of having grown lazy about things that should have been checked and rechecked all the time; adjusted quickly when we saw the gauges registering in the red zone of the heart. I am not being facile, either. Life itself is fine-tuning. Marriage, that, times two.
Life starts to go bad when irony begins. Or is it the converse? The ironies in our life began with my first lover outside marriage: a classmate of Victoria's from the university who came to our apartment one night to discuss a project they were doing together on Josef Hoffmann.
Victoria's first lover? Naturally, an actor I introduced her to, who owned a lot of Josef Hoffmann-designed furniture.
Having an affair is like trying to hide an alligator under the bed. It is much too dangerous and big to be there, it sure doesn't fit, and no matter how carefully you try to conceal it, some part of the beast inevitably sticks out, is seen, sends everyone running and screaming.
The last time we traveled together was to America to get a divorce. Victoria said divorce was never having to say you're sorry ... again.
After it was over, my family urged me to stay with them in Atlanta awhile, but I used pain as my excuse to escape to Vienna: My friends were there, my work, everything. So I returned to the town as if it were an old best friend who would put its arms around me and, over drinks, listen sympathetically to my problems.
I was thirty, and that is a turning point for anyone, even those not freshly divorced and out on the track again.
Nicholas and some other nice people were wonderful. They squired me around, fed me lots of delicious meals, often called late at night to make sure I wasn't leaning too far out the window ... .
At one of those dinners, someone asked me if I knew how flamingoes got their color. I didn't. Apparently those funny, longlegged birds are not naturally that psychedelic coral pink. They're born a sort of dirty white. But from the beginning, they exist on a diet of plants rich in carotene, "a red hydrocarbon." If you are aflamingo, you turn from white to pink when you eat enough carotene.
Anyway, the image fascinated me. I kept thinking I had gone through almost a decade with Victoria, largely unaware of either our original colors or the shade our relationship had eventually turned us after all that time together.
And almost more important, what color was I then, back in Vienna, alone? To go from a good marriage to a stranger's bed was a pretty big change from a "carotene diet." It is not only God who is in the details, it is also very much us.
It was time for me to pay attention to those details. Next time around, assuming I would be lucky enough to have another chance at a shared lifetime with someone, I would know the color of my skin (and heart!) before offering it to another.
Did that mean carrying a hand mirror with me at all times so I could see myself from every angle? No, nothing so drastic or inane. Self-examination is usually a half-hearted, spontaneous thing we do when we're either scared or bored. As a result, whatever conclusions we reach are distorted either by a clumsy urgency or a listless sigh. But in my own case, I simply wanted to be less surprised by what I did after I did it.
About six months after I returned to Austria, luck, like a boomerang, came flying back to me on a wide slow arc. The movie I had been commissioned to write was shot. For some unknown, delightful reason, it did great business in Italy and Spain. Its success led to another Nicholas SylvianWalker Easterling collaboration that happened at just the right time. I also liked the idea of this new one more, so the actual writing came much more easily. It was a romantic comedy and I was able to plug many of my own good memories into the story. Another time, those memorieswould have left me feeling blue and failed. But integrating them into a film world that ended happily, with a long kiss and a fortune in the pocket of the lovers was the best way to relive that part of the recent past.
The film was never made, but it led to another producer, another script, and a basic assurance that, for the time being, I would be able to rely on the writing profession to keep me going.
I bought a small, sunny apartment on Bennogasse, two black leather chairs that looked like matching pistols, and a blind cat from the Tierheim that somewhere had picked up the mysterious name Orlando. He came when I called and spent the first week in my new home walking carefully through the rooms like an astronaut just landed on a new planet. He was the salt-and-pepper gray of week-old snow, and spent most of his day asleep on top of an old baseball glove I kept on the edge of my desk. Orlando's greatest, his only, trick was knowing when the telephone was going to ring before it did. If he was asleep on the desk, a few seconds before the call came he would lift his head suddenly and move it left and right, as if a fly were somewhere in his neighborhood. Then, ring! I liked to think that being both a cat and blind made him privy to certain small cosmic secrets. But the longer we lived together, his early-warning telephone look appeared to be his only talent in that direction.
I also tried to make the days more orderly and worthwhile. Wake up, exercise, eat, write, go for a long walk ... . In certain ways I felt like a lucky survivor; someone just out of the hospital after a dangerous operation or terrible illness.
A direct result of all this reshuffling and reappraisal was that, despite meeting a number of attractive and interesting women, I did not want to get involved in any kind of relationship then, not evenjust to "fool around." Sex with new faces held little appeal in those days, although that had been one of the prime causes of my dead marriage. There were so many other things that needed to be sorted out and understood before I visited the Land of Ladies again.
Four months later I was married again.
THE WHOLE RIDE IN FROM THE MUNICH AIRPORT NICHOLAS TALKED about the woman he wanted me to meet. It was characteristic though, because whatever Nicholas liked, he liked whole-heartedly and described in glowing, mountainous terms.
"Do you know Ovo, the fashion photographer?"
"Sure, he's the guy who does models parachuting out of planes in ball gowns, doesn't he?"
"That's right. Maris York was his main model for two years. You'll know her face when you see it, I'm sure."
"Is she beautiful?"
He frowned, hesitated before answering. "Beautiful? I don't know about that. She is six feet tall, has hair as short as yours, and brown eyes that are a miracle. But no, she's not what most people would call beautiful. But she's the kind of woman you see someplace and wish you were going to spend the rest of your life with."
I laughed and nodded to show I was impressed. He wasn't finished.
"She drives an old Renault R4 with no heater and the radio isalways broken. The wires stick out of the dashboard. You love her even more for that car."
"Have you ever been together with her?"
He looked at me as if I had said something terrible.
"Hell no! It would be like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Walker, some people you touch and some you dream about."
Herr Nashorn looked like a goldfish in aviator glasses. We had coffee and cake in his office and talked about films we'd all enjoyed. It was get-acquainted chatter, and we were all waiting to see who would be the first to mention our project.
In the middle of the gabbing, Nicholas stood up abruptly and asked if he could make a telephone call. He winked at me, and started dialing from a phone in the corner of the office.
While he called, Nashorn began talking to me, so I couldn't really hear what my friend was saying. But when he reached her, his voice went low and sexy, and his face was truly happy.
"Herr Nashorn, where are we eating lunch, and at what time?"
"The Vier Jahreszeiten, I guess. About two o'clock."
"Good." Nicholas held the receiver up and pointed to it. "Do you mind if I bring a guest?"
We waited half an hour before ordering. She didn't show up. The food came, we ate and talked, she didn't show up. Nicholas went twice to look for her, but came back both times shaking his head.
"It's not like Maris to do this, damn it. I wonder if something is wrong. It has me worried."
"Did you call her?"
"Yes, but there was no answer."
After lunch we went back to the office and spent the afternoon talking, but Nicholas was clearly preoccupied with his friend and not much help selling our picture. Every half hour he got up to call again. Nashorn didn't like these interruptions one bit. He kept shooting exasperated, annoyed looks at one or another of his associates every time Nicholas excused himself to go to the phone.
I did what I could to keep the ball rolling, describing wonderful scenes I already had in mind to write, suggesting actors I thought would be right for the different roles. Whenever someone made a suggestion or comment, I listened carefully and even pretended to take notes.
Someone said you should never be a housepainter because others all think they know how to do it and, as a result, will always be telling you how to do it better. The same is true with making movies. Some of the things said in the meeting that afternoon were so dumb and off-base that I frequently had to gulp to keep my exasperation down.
Fortunately, Nashorn was very interested in making a movie, and despite Nicholas's strange behavior, our meeting ended with the boss of Nashorn Industries smiling and actually rubbing his hands together.
"This kind of work is what I like. Lay the plans and then get going. I think we can pull something together here, Mr. Sylvian. And Mr. Easterling, you have the right ideas for the screenplay:clever, funny, and sexy. Don't forget those sexy parts thoughthat's what makes people like me go to the movies!"
Everyone shook hands, backs were patted, and finally we were out on the street in an adamant winter rain before either of us spoke again.
"'Don't forget the sexy parts!' Nicholas, are we really going to have to work with that dope?"
"He's just an asshole, Walker. Don't worry about him. We'll take his big money and make our own film. Come on, I've got to find a phone. I want to try her one more time before we go to the airport. What time is the flight?"
I looked at my watch. "A little under two hours."
We walked some blocks in the rain before spying the ghostly yellow block of a lit phone booth. While Nicholas called, I stood outside and tried to shield myself from the mean, icy drops that were coming down like ball bearings.
He reached her and gave me a big thumbs up. But he spoke only a few words before shouting "He did what?" and slamming his hand hard against one of the walls. The booth shook.
With the phone to his ear he looked at me and said, "The fucking guy tried to kill her!"
I didn't know which fucking guy he was talking about, but assumed he meant the man she was living with.
"He killed me" is one of the more overused phrases of our already hyperbolic times. As a result, it has lost most of its punch. People use it to say "killed" in business, in bed, on the golf course. I've learned not to pay attention when people use it, butthe look on Nicholas's face behind the wet glass said there was no fooling around here.
He spoke for a short time into the receiver, looking at me while he mumbled and nodded and tightened his lips repeatedly. Suddenly, he hung up with a bang and came out.
"We've got to meet her at the Käfer. She'll be there in twenty minutes."
The streets were jammed with five o'clock traffic but we found a taxi. It was a brand-new Mercedes full of that great mystical new-car smell.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
He nodded. "She's been living with a French guy for about a year. Luc something. He thinks he's a director, but the only films he's ever made have been industrial shit about how to work a computer or a storm window. I don't know where she got him, but I never liked him. He's about five feet five, spends most of his time lying around home complaining, and walks around in T-shirts in winter so you'll see his muscles. A real weekend Rambo, you know?
"Anyway, she got smart about two months ago and threw him out of her house. Since then he's been following her everywhere she goes. Stands outside her apartment all night, shows up in every restaurant she goes to, calls her up and threatens her"
"Threatens her? How?"
"Hey, listen, a couple of days ago he broke into her place and tried to rape her! Tore off her clothes and threatened to stab her with a pair of scissors if she didn't come across. Jesus Christ, she's such a sweet woman. Wait till you meet her. How could somebody do that? She was able to talk him out of it, but then today he grabbed her on the street and started hitting her in the face. Said no one ever left him. Can you believe it?"
"I can believe it if he's a madman. How did she stop him?"
"Started screaming. Luckily, a couple of cops showed up. He ran away! Ran away. The guy is forty years old and he runs away! But when she went back to her apartment, he called her and said he was going to get her, no matter what she did."
Nicholas patted my knee and shook his head. "A nice man to get involved with, huh?"
The Käfer is a Munich "in" spot of the first order. It is full of people wearing leather, jewels, or very little. During the last part of the cab ride Nicholas cheered up some, and was smiling again as we went through the door of the restaurant.
It felt as if all the people there were waiting: for their date, for the right moment, for whatever they felt was their due. I have always felt uncomfortable in places like that, places where no one tastes the expensive food or drink because they are too busy watching the door to see who comes in. I was thinking about that as we made our way across the room to a staircase leading to the bar.
As we were about to start climbing, Nicholas turned to me and said something exciting, but which later turned out to be eerily prophetic.
"Walker, now you are going to fall in love with a unique woman." He said no more and moved up the stairs. I followed, curious as hell.
The bar was small and crowded. People were making lots of noise, drowning each other out. Watching the action and looking for a unique woman, I lost sight of Nicholas, who had drifted off to the left somewhere. It was very hot in there, and I decided to check my coat at the stand on my right. Moving toward it, I hadto go around a high metal table that was there for people who couldn't find space at the bar.
Standing at that table was a very tall woman dressed all in black except for a round red velvet hat that looked like something a bellboy would wear. The first thing that entered my mind was how wonderful it would be if she were waiting for me. Her face was cloud white, her eyes dark, large, and memorable. The funny hat was pushed forward and down tight on her head, but thick eyebrows said she had black or very dark hair. She was smoking an unfiltered cigarette. When her eyes saw me they were indifferent. This woman definitely wasn't waiting for me. I tried to hold those eyes with mine, but she suddenly saw something over my shoulder that made every feature on her face brighten.
Someone put his hands on my shoulders from behind and I felt myself pushed toward her.
They embraced and I watched her pull him in with a giant bearhug. So what? This woman was Maris York. Sometimes life hands you a big tip.
"I am so glad to see you."
"Me too, pal. Maris, this is my friend Walker Easterling."
She continued to hold his arm while we shook hands. She gave me a good shake: strong, totally there.
"It's good to meet you, Walker. It was so nice of you to come."
It astounded me how poised and happy she looked. A couple of hours ago she had been attacked, but now she stood there like the unruffled hostess at a diplomatic cocktail party.
"Hey, what's that?" Nicholas pointed to a dark mark below her right ear.
"A souvenir from Luc. I think my jaw is going to be a hell of a sight tomorrow. I'll look like a boxer who lost."
"Wait a minute. Let me get some wine and then we can talk about everything." He walked to the bar. Maris watched him closely. When she turned to me she was crying and smiling at the same time.
"Please excuse me, Walker. I just" She put a hand to her eyes and brusquely rubbed tears away. "It's so good to see you two. After Nicholas called this morning I was so happy. Then this stupid thing had to happen." She rubbed her eyes again. "I was really lost today. I thought I was going to drown."
"Are you all right now?"
"I want to be all right, but I'm still pretty bad. I wish we could have met under different conditions."
Nicholas came back with a large bottle of white wine and three glasses. "So, have the police caught him yet?" He handed her a glass with wine to the top.
"No, and I don't think they will, either. If I know him, he's on his way to France by now. He's been in trouble with the police before. Whenever something bad happens, Luc zips back to Paris. He's got family there. At heart he's a big scaredy-cat."
That did it. That she should call the man (monster?) who'd so recently tried to kill her a "scaredy-cat" made me love her. Believe me, it was that simple.
The keys that unlock the heart are made of funny materials: a disarming phrase that comes out of the blue, nowhere, a certain sexy walk that sends you reeling, the way someone hums when she is alone. My father said it was the way my mother danced with him.
Nicholas and Maris continued talking while I stared at herand tried to figure out what to do. When I tuned back to their conversation, he was asking what she was going to do.
"Stay with a friend. I want to leave town as soon as possible because I don't know when he'll be back. I don't know where to go yet, so I'll have to figure that out first."
"Do you want some money?"
She reached over and touched his cheek. "No, but thank you for offering. When I was home I took all of my cash and checks and passport, just in case. I'm not going back to that apartment. I'll call my friend Heidi and have her move my things to a warehouse, or something. Wherever Luc is, he won't leave me alone anymore. I didn't tell you a lot of the things that have happened. I used to think he was just angry and hurt, but he's really crazy, Nicholas."
"Why don't we take you with us to Vienna?"
I said that.
Both of them looked at me with the same expression: Huh?
Nicholas drank some wine, then looked at his watch. "He's absolutely right. Let's go, Maris. We've got forty-five minutes."
She put a hand to her mouth. Oh! The moment before she spoke was ten years long. What the hell would I do if she said no? What would the night be like back in Vienna without her? She looked from Nicholas to me, to Nicholas again.
"I think I want to do that."
"Then do it. Let's go."
Her coat was short and black and made of some kind of satiny material. I watched her pull it around her shoulders as we got ready to go. She turned and looked at me.
"Is this crazy? Should I do it?"
"I guess it's no crazier than anything else today, you know? Does Luc know you're friends with Nicholas?"
"Oh yes, but he'd never expect me to go to Vienna on the spur of the moment like this. It's not my style; I'm not usually very spontaneous."
"Then you're all set."
She took a deep breath and nodded, more to herself than to me. "Yes, you're right. Thank you."
Nicholas took her arm and started for the stairs. I followed, wondering what part God or fate or luck played in this script. There was still a fear around my heart that she would suddenly stop and say she couldn't possibly go. Maybe without thinking I walked behind them on purpose, to catch her if she began to fall back into uncertainty, or ran up hard against the wall of risk she was facing.
A few weeks later I asked Maris what she was thinking that night as we walked out of the restaurant. She gave a strange answer.
"I was thinking about a woman I know who entered contests. For years she clipped coupons and filled out forms, did all those things you do to enter contests. A real fan. Well, one day she won. Won first prize. It was a three-day trip across Colorado in a hot air balloon. Gourmet picnics, see the mountains from up high, the works. Nice, huh? The day she was to go up, she had to meet the balloon in a big field somewhere that bordered a national forest. When she arrived, there were all kinds of cameramen and TV reporters there to record the festivities. She loved that because she's kind of a ham. So now the prize was even better than she'd hoped. How many times does that happen in life? First, she'd won the contest, then she was going to be on the six o'clock news. Everything was wunderbar.
"There were four people in the balloon, and once they wereall on board, the thing took off. The television cameras were rolling, everyone was shouting good-bye and waving, the pilot had broken out a bottle of champagne ... . Then the balloon caught on fire. Don't ask me how. The whole thing just went right up, swoosh! They were about two hundred feet in the air. No, that's too much, but they were very high, according to her. The balloon started disintegrating and dropping pieces of burning canvas on them.
"My friend and two of the other people panicked and jumped right over the side. Those other two were killed as soon as they hit the ground, but by some miracle my friend hit a tree and was slowed or deflected. She didn't die, but she spent the next three years in a hospital and walks with two canes now."
"God, what a story. But what does it have to do with the night we met?"
"That night I was wondering if flying off to Vienna so spontaneously was going to be like my friend jumping from the balloon."
"From the frying pan into the fire?"
"No, because the fire was all around me. Luc had burned that day to the ground. I thought that even if I came down and hit like an egg in Vienna, it'd be better than going down in slow mad flames."
We drove to the Munich airport in her old red car. It was as Nicholas had describeda mess. The ashtrays were packed, the back seat sported a big rip, books were scattered everywhere. I spent most of the trip trying to read the titles by passing streetlight. I wondered if she was a slob, but I was so happy about what was going on that I didn't care. Nicholas asked her to turn on the radio,but she said it had been broken the week before. He leaned over the backseat and winked at me.
"Hey, Kleine, how come you never bought a nice car? You make enough money. This thing looks like something out of Mad Max."
While shifting gears, she gave him a poke in the ribs. "That's not very nice. What am I supposed to do, be like you and buy a Porsche? An M.L.C.?"
He looked at me again. "What's an M.L.C.?"
"A Mid-Life Crisis car. Every man I know who drives one is either a twenty-year-old brat who got it from his daddy, or a forty-year-old who wants to have a last fling before admitting he's bald and looks silly with a gold Rolex and a teenage girlfriend."
"I'm not bald. I don't have a teenage girlfriend."
She looked at him, and although she was smiling, raised her eyebrows questioningly. "Maybe not, but you bought that car as soon as you turned forty. Don't forget, Nicholas, I was right there when you got it."
There was a kind of sexy, teasing tone to their banter that made me seriously doubt what Nicholas had said earlier about their not being lovers. Before the ride was over, she had said a number of things to him he wouldn't have allowed others to say without becoming very angry or defensive.
She drove the way she spoke: nervously, a little too fast, but clearly in control. I kept forgetting what she had already gone through that day. It was as if we three were out for a night on the town and not, in fact, helping her to flee a lunatic who had gone for her with a pair of scissors.
"I'm going to call Uschi from the airport and see if you can stay with her."
I quickly tried out three or four sentences in my head. "She can stay with me, Nicholas. It's no problem." "Hey, stay at my apartment, Maris. I'll bunk out on the couch if you don't mind sleeping with a cat." I tried several and then wisely decided to keep my trap shut.
At the Munich airport she put the car in a long-term parking slot and we scampered through the fast-moving traffic to the main terminal. It was nine at night and there were few people in the building. While Maris bought her ticket, Nicholas went off to find a telephone. I stood far back from the ticket booth, not sure if she wanted me nearby. When she was done she came right over.
"I haven't flown in so long. I've always hated to. It scares me right down to the bone. I usually take five Valium and sink into a dead stupor an hour before flight time. That's my way of handling it. No Valium this time."
"You don't look like the kind who'd be afraid of flying."
"Just watch my knees when we take off."
"I know! We'll sit on either side of you in the plane so you can have stereo arms to squeeze if you need to."
"You know what's so nice about this whole experience, Walker? That something so reassuring and ... human could come out of so much bad. I thought when I went to meet Nicholas it would be for an hour and he'd make me feel a little better. Nothing more than that. But afterward I'd have to go back to being frightened and unsure of what to do next. But you've so wonderfully taken all of those decisions out of my hands. You just said 'We'll take care of you' and you have. I can't tell you how grateful I am. And you don't even know me!"
I almost couldn't look at her. "I hope I will."
It was raining when Nicholas pulled up in front to the Arrivals section in his white truck. Maris laughed loudly and clapped her hands.
"It's the Good Humor man! Where's the Porsche, in the back?"
I had forgotten there were only two bucket seats in the little truck, so Maris had to ride back to town on my lap. She kept asking if she was crushing me. It would have been fine with me if the trip had lasted a few days.
Uschi Hellinger had worked with Nicholas for many years, doing all of the costuming for his films. She was probably his best female friend, and he often referred to her as his sister. I liked her for many reasons, especially because she was always dead-honest with me, but also generous and quirky. When I returned to town after my divorce, she was one of the kind ones who had kept a loving eye on me.
She lived in an atelier in the Third District, and answered the door that night in a flannel nightgown as red as a fresh poppy. I didn't know her connection to Maris, but the two of them whooped happily when they saw each other and embraced hard. A glass table in a corner of the room had a big spread of food on it. None of us had eaten in a long time, so the next half hour was devoted to consuming everything on that table, while Uschi grilled us about what had happened in Munich.
In the middle of Sachertorte, Maris began to cry. She was exhausted and the day had finally closed down on her. I have rarely seen a person in so much obvious pain. Hunched forward, hands spread over her face, there were so many tears that they actually dripped through her fingers onto the floor. Uschi got right upand put her arms around her, their heads together in what looked like prayer, or mourning.
Nicholas looked at me and gestured with his head for us to go. We got up at the same time and went for the door. I turned there and looked back into the room. Uschi looked up, smiled briefly, and then turned her attention back to her friend.
THE NEXT MORNING I WOKE TO AN ALMOST TOTAL LOSS OF MEMORY of what had happened the day before. It was only when I was pulling on my pants that everything came back in such a Technicolor rush that I could only stand there and look blankly at the wall across the room.
I don't know why this lapse occurred, but I had a hunch. Seven hours before my mind, like the rest of my body, had also dropped all of its "clothes" on the floor before crawling wearily into bed. Overtired by all the things the day had demanded it take in, or consider, reject, memorize ... my brain had simply had enough and wanted some empty hours to itself. And like a heavy drinker the morning after, it rose to the call of the day only because it had to.
Orlando broke through my remembrances of things past. Standing in his magenta cat box in the bathroom, he loudly announced that it was time for breakfast, since he had already finished his morning ablutions, etcetera.
I walked barefoot into the kitchen and opened him a can of something tasty. One good thing about Orlando: he wasn't apicky eater. Avocados or raw liver were his favorites, but he made a happy meal of almost anything I put in his bowl. He always ate very slowly, pausing sometimes between bites to think about what he was eating. If you said something to him while he was chewing, his mouth would stop moving and, blind though he was, he would look in your direction and wait for you to finish before he went on.
While preparing my own coffee and toast, I ran yesterday through my mind: backward, forward, and lots of stop-action. It reminded me of an athlete reviewing previous game movies in order to spot both his opponents' and his own weaknesses and slip-ups.
When the phone rang, I was thinking about something Maris had said to me on the plane trip home. "Today has been the kind of day that tires you out the rest of your life."
The phone had rung four times before I picked it up.
"Walker, have you called her yet?"
"No. Should I?"
"Of course! Don't you know how lonely and frightened she is?"
"Nicholas, it's nine in the morning! I don't think she's lonely and frightened yet. Listen, we talked about this, but I'm going to ask again: Is it really all right with you if I ask her out?"
"Absolutely. I know what you're thinking, but we really never went very far. Don't be paranoid before you begin."
Before I called I brushed my teeth.
"Hello, Maris? This is Walker Easterling."
"Hi! I just got back five minutes ago. I went out and bought everything I need to camp out here indefinitely: a toothbrush,soap, and mascara. I even went to a toy store and bought a couple of LEGO sets."
"LEGO? What do you do with that?"
"Didn't Nicholas tell you? That's what I work with. I do LEGO constructions. I build cities with them. LEGO, balsa wood, sometimes papier-mâché. I'll show you sometime. I build my own cities for a living and people actually buy them."
"Do you show in galleries?"
"Oh yes. I had a big one in Bremen a while ago; sold almost everything. It made me so happy and lazy that I didn't do anything for two months. Then I realized I had run out of money and it was time to start working again. Unfortunately, that's when Luc started in on me."
"Maris, do you have any free time today? Can I treat you to a coffee or lunch?"
"I was going to ask you the same thing."
"Really? Do you think we could do it now? I waited breakfast, hoping you'd say you were hungry."
We met a half hour later on the Graben. One of Vienna's main walking streets, it is always a nice place to be, full of relaxed strollers, outdoor cafés, chic stores. I arrived early and, on impulse, walked into the Godiva candy store and bought Maris two chocolate golf balls.
As I was coming out, I saw her bustling down the street toward Saint Stephen's Church, our designated meeting place. I watched her for a moment. An idea struck me, and I moved fast to catch up. When I was about ten feet behind her I slowed, wanting to see other people's reactions to this tall woman in a red hat.
I wasn't disappointed. Men watched admiringly, women gave two looks: the first of recognition, the second a quick up-and-down appraisal to see what she was wearing, or what she'd done with her makeup or clothes.
I touched her elbow from behind. Instantly, she touched my hand with her own before turning to face me.
"It must be Walker. Ha, it is you!"
"You're pretty trusting. What if it hadn't been me?"
"If it hadn't been you? It had to be you. Who else do I know on the Graben today?"
"But how can you be so trusting after all that craziness in Munich you've been through?"
"Because I want to keep trusting people. If I become scared and suspicious, then Luc really has won, even when I'm so far away from him. Where should we eat? Is the Café Diglas still alive?"
To my surprise, she was thirty-five years old, much older than she looked. Her father was one of those trouble-shooting engineers who carts his family around the world with him while supervising the building of a university in Paraguay or an airport in Saudi Arabia. There were two children in the family: Maris, and her older brother Ingram, a disc jockey in Los Angeles.
She had gone to international schools in six different countries before entering the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia at eighteen to study painting and sculpture.
"But the school and I were like oil and water. From the beginning, I wanted to work with all kinds of crazy things like LEGO, and crayons, and those little rubber soldiers you buy in a plastic bag at the supermarket. You know the kind I mean? That's all Ireally wanted to do, but they didn't go for it at all. So I did the typical dumb-ass thing and quit after two years. I went to Hamburg instead because one of my greatest heroes lived thereHorst Janssen, the painter. I figured that if he lived there, then that would be my starting point. I went one summer and stayed. Took jobs in bars and restaurants, whatever I could find. I learned how to speak good German by taking orders and having to tell people how much their bills were.
"I was working in a bar called Il Giardino, which was where all of the models and photographers in Hamburg hung out after work. Right in the middle of our busiest time, around eleven-thirty one night, a man came up and asked me to hold a bouquet of white roses. Actually, he didn't ask, he just sort of handed them to me and walked away. I had a giant tray of empty glasses in one hand and suddenly all these beautiful flowers in the other. I didn't know which to put down, so I stood in the middle of the floor and started laughing.
"The man came back with a camera and started taking pictures of me. I hammed it up and posed like Betty Grable, or as best I could with all the glasses and flowers! When the guy was done, he handed me a card and told me to come to see him the next day. It was the photographer Ovo. You've heard of him, haven't you? Well, the most shocking thing was, I discovered the next day Ovo was a woman! When I got to the studio, there she was right in the middle of all her assistants and models, and it was so obvious she was a woman ... I felt terrible for ever having thought otherwise!"
Maris went on talking about her modeling career, about three months spent in Egypt, about living with a famous German opera singer. There were enough experiences and adventures for threeseparate lives. Her thirty-five years were so full and consummately interesting that it struck me, more than once, that she might be lying. I had known great liars before and had enjoyed their tales. But if this were true about Maris York, then it was both heartbreaking and dangerous. Had her Luc attacked her the day before because she was a beautiful psychopath who couldn't distinguish between what was and what she wanted things to be? Even worse, had this Luc even attacked her in the first place?
Proof came in a sexy way. While talking about life with her opera singer, she casually mentioned that he had asked her to prove her love for him in a bizarre way: He wanted her to be tattooed on the small of her back with a single musical note. She said she'd asked him which note, and then gone right out and done it.
Nervously, I asked if I could see it. She smiled at me, but it wasn't a particularly friendly smile. "Are you a music lover, or do you just want proof?"
"Maris, your life sounds like a nine-hundred-page Russian novel. It's all just too much. I mean"
Before I finished, she leaned forward and jerked her black sweater up and over her head. She was wearing a white T-shirt underneath, and this she rucked up just a little to show her back. And there it wasone bright purple musical note against the white smoothness of skin.
A long silence followed between us for the first time that morning. I thought it was because she was angry at me for doubting what she had said. She began to put the sweater back on, at the same time saying, "You know, you saved my life yesterday"
I didn't know what to answer.
"It's quite true, Walker. The next time I saw him, he would have killed me."
She knew Vienna because she had often come with her opera singer when he performed at the State Opera. On one of those visits she'd met Nicholas and Uschi. The three of them became close friends. After her affair with the singer died, Nicholas asked her to come back to Vienna to work as a set designer on one of his early television shows.
"He has been my lifesaver more than once, as you can see. I wish there was some way I could repay him, but he gets very grumpy when you say thanks for anything he does. Years ago, I made a city for him and filled it with characters from his movies. He liked it a lot, but that's the only thing he's let me do in return for his kindness. What a strange man. He wants you to love him, and that's so easy, but when you show it, he doesn't know how to handle it; it's a hot potato for him. Do you know the German phrase, 'You can steal horses with him'? It means a person you can both make love with all night, passionately, then wake up with the next morning and be completely silly. And he never makes you embarrassed or self-conscious about anything you do."
"That sounds like the perfect lover. Is that the way things are with you and Nicholas?"
"No, oh no. We've never touched each other. I have a little fantasy in the back of my head that maybe things would be like that if we were together, but neither of us has ever made the slightest movement in that direction. I think we dream about each other, but never want to go beyond that dream. It'd be too horrible if we tried something in real life and it was bad."
She looked sadly at her hands. "I've always loved that phrase, 'You can steal horses with him.' Do you think it's possible to find someone like that?"
"It's like Halley's Comet."
"Halley's Comet? How?"
"It comes around once every seventy-five years or so. You have to have a big telescope to see it, and be in exactly the right place."
"And you think it's that way with love?"
"Yes, genuine, twenty-four-carat love. I think it's easy to find the ingredients for love, but then it depends on how you mix them. There's so much work involved." I counted things off on my fingers as I cited the different points. "First you have to understand and accept. Then, you have to be best friend, always. Work on overcoming what they don't like in you. Be bighearted when it's so much easier to be small ...
"Sometimes the spark for real love is there from the beginning. But too many people mistake that spark for a flame they think will last a long time. That's why so many human fires go out. You have to work so hard at real love."
My voice fell when I saw a big smile rise on her face. "I'm sounding like an evangelist on television."
She shook her head and touched my hand. "No, like someone who believes what he's saying. But I'm smiling because I was just thinking of God. When I was a little girl I went through a long period when I breathed God and religion. I could have posed for those religious postcards they sell in Catholic bookstores. But my favorite thing then was to write letters to God. I'd have long chats with Him on yellow paper. When I'd finished one, I'd go immediately out on the balcony of our apartment and burn the letter. I was sure it'd go right to heaven. I worked hard at loving Him, you know? Just like what you're describing. I'm glad you said that."
We went on talking until each of us had so much information about the other that we tacitly agreed to stop for a while to let it all sink in.
The day had started out overcast but decided on drizzle by the time we left the café. It was early afternoon and I was hungry, but since we'd just spent three hours sitting, it wasn't the right moment to suggest a bite in a cozy restaurant. We walked out toward the Ringstrasse.
The air smelled of wet streets and car exhaust. Maris walked fast, taking great long strides as she moved. While trying to keep up with her, I looked down and noticed for the first time how large her feet were. Everything about the woman was full size, impressive.
In contrast, my ex-wife Victoria was a small woman who prided herself on being able to buy shirts in the boys' department at Brooks Brothers. Her hands were slim and pretty; she liked to have her hair done once a week. She often wore dark fingernail polish to bed.
Maris was by no means raw or unfeminine in the way she looked or carried herself, but seemed to know she was impressive "as is." She didn't need to have perfect skin or fresh eyeliner on to stop your heart.
"You have wonderful feet."
"Thank you. They're the same size as my father's."
As soon as she said this, she saw something that suddenly made her break into a run.
About half a block down the street, a woman was hitting her child. That was bad enough, but she kept slapping him so hard that the little boy would have fallen down if she weren't holding his arm.
Maris sprinted toward them. People stopped to watch her zoom by. With no idea of what she was doing, I hesitated for amoment, then followed. When I got there, she had already grabbed the woman by the arm and was shaking her.
"Are you crazy? You don't hit a child like that!"
"Don't touch me! I'll call the police!"
The woman was as tall as Maris but much broader. She had a face like a month-old melon, and bulged through every seam of her clothes. The child hung limp in her hand, but his face was all fear and flutter. Something in his expression said Mama had done this before.
"Yes! Call the police! Do! I'll tell them what you're doing to that child!"
A number of people had gathered to watch. The woman looked around for support. All she saw was indifference or hard faces.
"Look at how frightened your son is! How can you do that?"
The boy started to cry. Without looking, the woman shook him and told him to shut up. Maris took a step toward her. A fistfight was one second away. Maris stuck a finger in the woman's thick cheek and said if she did that again, she was going to get hit.
Now, no one talked to this Mama that way. Looking Maris straight in the eye, she shook the child again. Maris slapped her face. The other's eyes flared, then narrowed. She kept looking at Maris while she shook the child again. Harder.
Watching the two women, I didn't see the man until he'd stepped forward and grabbed Mama by the back of the neck. He was nondescript, middle sized, bürgerlich. He held the woman so tightly in one hand that she couldn't turn around to look at him when she tried. He ignored her, and spoke to Maris.
"Go away now. I'll take care of it. The kid's mine, not hers."
"Do you love him?" Maris looked at the man, then the boy.
The man nodded instantly. "Yes. He told me she did thesethings, but I didn't believe him. She's always nice to him when I'm around. That won't happen again, the bitch. I'll kick her fat ass if it does!" Letting go of her neck, he gave her a tremendous slap across the back of her head. It sounded like two hollow wood blocks hitting. She staggered forward, let go of the boy, fell down. The boy squealed in delight and clapped his hands.
"And you know I'll kick your ass, don't you?"
Maris walked quickly away, looking once over her shoulder for me. I gave one last look at the family. Papa had the boy in his arms. Mama was just getting up off the ground. Her knees were smeared with mud, and she was trying to smile at anyone who'd look. They were real George Grosz people, and it was plain this event would do little to change any of their lives. In a day, or a week, this important tension and recognition would lose its purpose in the fog of meanness and stupidity that enclosed their lives.
I went after Maris. She was walking even faster than before, hands deep in her coat pockets. When I caught up, I touched her elbow. She turned quickly.
"Why didn't you stop me, Walker?"
"Why? You were right."
"You're sure? But I hit her! It's so embarrassing."
"Of course you shouldn't have hit her, but so what? Maybe it was time someone bopped her. Give her back some of her own medicine."
Her expression said she was unconvinced. She started walking again. "I would never hit a child. Never. No matter how bad it was."
I wanted to change the subject. "Do you want children?"
"Oh yes, although I'm getting a little old for it. At least two." She smiled and slowed a little. "Two girls."
"Girls? What would be their names?"
Her smile widened. "Names? I don't know. Jessica and Kenyon."
"Are you okay now about what happened back there?"
"Not really. My teeth are still chattering a little. Would you take me someplace happy? Do you know what I mean?"
I lit up at the idea. "I know exactly! There are three places I go in Vienna when I feel bad. I'll take you to all three."
We caught a tram and rode it around the Ring. Even in the rain, many people were out walking. Open horse-drawn carriages, full of sightseers, wheeled slowly down the middle of the street.
At Schottentor we got out and walked the Herrengasse into the center of town.
There are baroque palaces on the Herrengasse: the Spanish Riding School, the National Library, and the Albertina Museum. The Café Central, where Freud and Lenin drank black coffee and disturbed the universe, is one street over.
Some mornings, if you're lucky, you can see trainers leading the white and gray Lippizaner horses from their stables on one side of the street to the performance ring on the other side. The sound those hooves make on the stone pavement is indescribable.
When we passed the entrance to the Hofburg Palace and were about to go left onto the Kohlmarkt, Maris stopped and looked up at one of the statues in front of the gate. I thought she was going to say something about it or the palace, but I was wrong.
"My God, life is hard, isn't it, Walker? Did you ever play one of those computer games, like Donkey Kong or Lode Runner? They're terrible, because the better you get at them, the more adept, the harder they get and the faster they go. You never get rewarded for your achievementsmore like penalized!"
"Is that an analogy to life, or are you still trying to figure out why you hit that woman?"
"Both! Yesterday Luc was hitting me, today it's me hitting someone else. Don't you want to get better at life? Learn from your mistakes, make the right decisions, not feel guilty, use your energy in a good way ..." She shrugged and sighed. "How far are we to your first happy place?"
"Five minutes. It's a barbershop."
"Uh oh. The American is here!"
We walked in and sat down between an old man and a teenage boy.
The two barbers, owners of the shop, were identical gray-haired twins who forever kept up a sarcastic, funny patter with their customers. The place was Vienna's equivalent of a Norman Rockwell barbershop; talk of sports, women, and the stupidity of politicians abounded. Usually there was a group of regulars in there for nothing more than the insults and good feeling.
"Who's your pretty friend, Herr Easterling?"
How could I say we'd dropped in for a little cheering up because my new friend had just hit another woman?
But Maris winked at the barber and asked if she could have a haircut.
He was surprised, but gestured grandly toward his chair. She plopped down in it and asked for a trim.
Another man walked in, in a hurry, but stopped halfway across the floor when he saw her in the barberchair.
"That's the best-looking guy I ever saw in this damned place!"
Conversations started up again after that, and the good-hearted nastiness of men comfortable with each other returned. Maris said little but smiled the whole time. It was clear she enjoyed being there.
When the barber was finished cutting her hair he carefully brushed her off, looking thoroughly pleased with himself.
Outside again, Maris briskly rubbed her head a few times and stopped in front of a store window to check her reflection.
"They're nice in there. They all get a big kick out of each other, don't they?"
"Yes. I always come out of there feeling good."
She started walking. "I would too. What's your next happy place?"
The next was a pet shop on the Josefstädter Strasse that sold some cat and dog stuff, but also used bicycles, handmade birdhouses, and diving equipment. The owners were an old couple and a sad-eyed Saint Bernard that must have been twenty. The dog had his own full-length couch, from which he never moved. I never understood how the place survived, because no one was ever in there, and the goods for sale had the lopsided look of things that had sat in the same spot for years.
The people always asked how Orlando the cat was getting on, so we talked about my roommate for a few minutes. But then, when things got quiet, out of desperation I bought an enormous bag of kitty litter I didn't need.
Trying to see it through Maris's eyes, first-time eyes, it was both strange-looking and sad. The store smelled of coal stove, big dog, years-long failure, and dusty everything.
She asked, "What can I buy for your cat?"
"Well, it's a little hard, because he's blind and can't really play with most toys."
She asked if they had a ball with a bell inside. The man brought out one as exhausted-looking as the dog. I hadn't the heart to tell Maris that Orlando already had one and hated it. It was beneath his dignity to chase a tinkling ball.
After that we went to lunch and watched the sky clear to blue through the windows of the restaurant. It was a quiet meal. I didn't know whether that was because of the fullness of the morning, or because somewhere along the line things had gone flat for her. Maybe that flatness was my fault, but I also kept forgetting: Literally, the day before, a man had tried to kill her.
"You know what I liked about that pet store?"
"You liked it? I thought I'd really bombed out with that 'happy place.'"
"Not at all, Walker. I liked the way they treated their dog like a pal and not a pet. I bet they don't have children. Dogs are the kids we've always wanted. They're totally devoted and want to live with you until they die. Not like children who can't wait to take off as soon as they grow up and don't need you anymore.
"You know what I've been doing for the last five years or so? Writing a daily letter to my daughter, even though she's not born yet. So she'll know what I was like when she grows up. I think it's more important than anything. Kids have to know who their parents are, and were."
"When would you let her read it?"
"When she is sixteen or seventeen. Old enough to understand what I was saying."
"You're crazy about children, huh? How come you've never had any?"
"Because I never met a man I loved enough to want to share that experience with. I don't care if we were married or not, or even if the relationship ended later. It's only important that at the time we decided to have the child, we were so completely involved with each other that it'd be the absolutely right thing to do."
She looked out the window and ran her hand through her new haircut. "I've been talking the whole time, haven't I?"
"I can't tell if that's good or bad. It usually takes me a long time to talk like this with a man. Especially one I just met. But maybe we didn't just meet, you know? Someone came up to me once and said 'Weren't you my wife in our last incarnation?' It was the best come-on line I'd ever heard."
"What happened to that man?"
She looked calmly at me. "It was Luc. The one who ... hit me yesterday."
"It's four hundred steps to the top, Maris, maybe more. Then we have to walk for another fifteen minutes, straight up. Are you sure you want to do it? It really doesn't matter to me. Honestly."
We stood at the bottom of a staircase in the Thirteenth District. To our right was the Lainzer Tiergarten, a private hunting reserve of Kaiser Franz Josef in the time of the Hapsburg Empire. Now it's a big, lovely park, where strange animals roam free, and you can come face to face with a family of wild boars if you're lucky. It was weeks since the park had closed for the winter. But after Marisinsisted on visiting my third happy place, we drove to this far-off corner of Vienna to see ... a field.
She looked at the steps and then at me. She let her tongue hang out as if she'd made the climb three or four times that day already. "So what's up there that's worth four hundred steps?"
"It won't sound interesting if I tell you. You have to see it for yourself."
She pulled her tongue back in. "Is it the Emerald City?"
"Better. I've never shown it to anyone. I only go there once in a while: Only when I'm either completely happy or totally sad."
"Sounds interesting. Let's go."
She started fast up the stairs, but by the halfway point I could hear her breathing hard. She finally stopped and put hands on hips. "Walker, I'm not in love with climbing four hundred stairs. How come you're not even winded?"
"I used to do a lot of mountain climbing when I first came here. One of those grizzled old guides showed me how to walk vertically."
"Teach me." She dropped her hands and gestured toward the stairs, ready to move again.
I walked ahead and spoke to her over my shoulder. "Walk more slowly than you think you should. Don't take giant steps, because that'll just tire you. Walk slow and steady, and breathe like that too: slow and steady."
"It sounds like a meditation from Bhagwan's Orange Book."
I turned and mugged at her over my shoulder. She reached out and gave my jacket a friendly tug. It felt as if she'd stroked my hand: the same little electric shock that comes whenever someone important touches you the first time.
We climbed and climbed. The steps were covered with layersof gray and brown leaves so dead they didn't even make that skittery, crackly, dead-leaf noise. Everything had gone out of them, and they were soft under our feet.
A few other people passed on the way up and, invariably, said the inevitable "Grüssgott!" when we passed. God's greetings. It's a small, nice piece of Austria I have always noticed and liked.
At the top of the stairs, Maris turned around for the first time and looked behind us. Above the treetops of the Tiergarten you could see wet rooftops and smoke from chimneys, slices of sun reflecting hard off windows everywhere, like flashy clues to God's whereabouts. The air had been washed clean by the rain, and we'd climbed high enough above the city for there to be totally different smells around uspine, fresh earth that had never been out of shadow, wet plants. After the stairs came a dirt path that wound up and into a forest. Without hesitating we kept on, walking side by side. A man with a soccer ball under his arm and a Great Dane close by came marching smartly down the path. The dog looked like a silver-brown ghost in the dim light through the trees. "Grüssgott! Are you going up to the hill?"
"Yes, we are."
"It's wonderful there now. We've just been playing ball on the field. Only a few people around, and the view is clear all the way to Czechoslovakia." He tipped his hat and the two of them moved off down the way.
"It sounds like something special up there. You're still not going to tell me?"
"No, Maris, you have to see it. It's not that much longer now. Only a few hours." I smiled to reassure her I was kidding.
Before leaving the forest, we passed a giant antenna for O.R.F., the Austrian National Broadcasting Company. Its high,intricately worked steel and busy electrical noises were completely out of place here. She looked at it for a moment, shook her head, and moved on. "It looks like some invader from Mars sitting here, trying to decide what to do next."
Two men came out of the little office at the base of the antenna. Each had a sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Both stopped in midstep and midbite when they saw Maris.
They seemed so tickled by this lovely woman in the middle of nowhere wishing them a good meal, that they grinned like the cartoon characters Max and Moritz. They tipped their bottles to her, and nodded to me their approval of my companion.
"That wouldn't be such a bad job; working up here on top of the world."
"Wait, you haven't seen anything yet."
It was another few minutes before the hill evened out into the giant open field that gave onto the most beautiful panoramic view of Vienna I knew. I'd discovered the place years before, but it was true I almost never went there. There are certain experiences in life we should hoard so we never forget to savor them when we have them.
I didn't want to look at her until the full impact of the view sank in. The late afternoon sun, perfectly round and sad yellow, had begun its slow slip to the horizon. The light at the end of a clear fall day is wise light: melancholy, able to pick out the most beautiful or important characteristics of anything it touches.
Without thinking, I said that to Maris as we stood there, and I was glad I did, but also a little embarrassed.
She turned and looked at me. "Walker, this place is superb. I can't get over how much has happened in the last twenty-fourhours. I can't. Yesterday at this time I was talking to the Munich police about what Luc had done to me. I was crying, and scared to death. More scared than I've ever been. Now, today, I'm up here on Mount Olympus, feeling comfortable with you." Her voice changed completely. "Can I say something else?"
"I think something is going to happen between us. The feeling is already there for me, and it's only the first day we've spent together, I don't know if you want that, though. I don't even know if I should be telling you."
I took a deep breath and licked my lips. My heart felt like a truck trying to burst out of my chest.
"Maris, the first time I saw you I thought it would be the greatest thing in the world if that woman in the red hat were waiting for me. As far as I'm concerned, something's been happening between us since then."
That's when we should have embraced and held each other tight. But we didn't. Instead, both of us turned away and went back to looking at Vienna below. But despite our not touching then, it was a moment I will remember the rest of my life. One of those extraordinarily rare moments when everything important is so clear, and simple, and easy to understand. It was a moment like the view of the city: perfect, tinged with a light so pure it made me sad, transient.
In the next months, we would grow so close and empathetic that she once joked she wasn't breathing air anymore, she was breathing me. All that happened, and I will tell you about it, but those minutes on top of the hill were somehow the best. They were our Eden, they were what set everything else in motion. Finally, they were what ruined us.
Copyright © 1988 by Jonathan Carroll
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