The German Guy

My relationship with the German guy — or lack thereof — was nothing but liberating.

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He swiveled around on his bar stool and leaned close to me and put his hands down my shirt. They gave off little sparks. I leaped off my stool like someone escaping flames.

“What the fuck are you doing? I’m married?”

“So what?”

He obviously had no respect for the institution.

He followed me clear across the bar to the door marked Caballeras. When he reached me, he held his frosty mug of beer in front of my face in restitution. The ice on the side that touched his lips had evaporated from his breath.

I was 23 years old. I considered a V-neck T-shirt too risqué and wore only scoop-necks or turtle necks or a blouse with the collar buttoned. I didn’t dare wear short dresses or nylons. I hadn’t gained weight or stopped brushing my teeth but I no longer felt beautiful. Unlike the German guy, I respected the institution of marriage. I liked the security. I liked having someone to cook for, even if my husband retreated to his studio when it was time to clean up instead of offering to help. Although my husband was a brilliant artist, he made it clear that I would never attain his level. One of my writing teachers, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet, had given me a recommendation for a summer teaching job. Instead of praising my talent in that letter, he listed my husband’s attributes, mentioning what a good artist he was and that the two of us had started a film series together on campus. My husband wasn’t one of his students, but instead of praising me, he praised my husband and a project we had worked on together. The German guy praised me, me, me, while he whispered German poetry in my ear — Rilke, …strange violin why are you following me?…(he was a doctoral student in German literature) — his breath tingling all the way down through my spine.

We returned to our seats at the bar and I let him stroke the skin on the back of my hand, move his fingers slowly up my arm. He seemed lonely, but he was good-looking. He had the kind of springy black hair that hung in his eyes and he was constantly shaking his head or tossing it back.

He lived around the corner from the street where the student bars and pizza parlors were located. All he wanted, he said, was to “tumble around on the floor” of his apartment with me. I didn’t believe him. I knew it had to have a different meaning in German. Something more overtly sexual than “hit the hay.” I told him I wasn’t there to pick up a guy and go home with him only to be overcome with panic that I had ruined my life for a one-night stand. This was the same week when my writing was under attack.

The workshop climate was backbiting. I’d left the session in tears, which is how I ended up alone in a bar, talking to him. I’d spent a couple of weeks perfecting a poem that my professor and classmates derided for its ordinariness, using me as an example of how not to write. After dissecting my poem, our professor handed out a mimeograph listing the one hundred most commonly used words in poems over the centuries. The word bone topped that list. Also moon and stars. You couldn’t use those words in a poem if you wanted to be original. Not anymore. I had used all three of them.

A month later, the second time my work was under attack, Esther, a classmate, followed me after the session. “I know how you must feel,” she said.

Having grown up in a town about forty miles outside Iowa City, she was the one homegrown student in the program, more big-boned than the girls from either coast, with a softer, slower way of speaking. “The whole time you were being slaughtered in there, I kept thinking what if that were me?” she said.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said, wishing it had been.

We continued walking in silence, took the elevator together in tacit understanding down to the ground floor, so we were still together when we got to the spot where she had parked her car — a white Ford Pinto. She didn’t live in a shoddy student apartment dwelling in town. She lived in Coralville, not on a farm, not in one of those haunted, shuttered up towns off the Interstate, but in a shiny tract neighborhood with a strip mall about twenty miles out.

“It’s good to get away from all this and remember why you are writing poetry in the first place,” she said, turning the lining of her purse inside out to search for her car key in among the balled up tissues and candy wrappers.

“Why is that?” I said.

She never gave me an answer, because who should be walking past just then but the German guy?

“Hey,” I said and introduced them.

He ran his hand through his hair. I watched her face as she saw the flexion in the strands bouncing back. She could have him if she wanted to. I’d give her that. She wasn’t married. It was a beautiful spring day. “Want to go for a ride?” she asked both of us. She should have asked me first, though, not that I owned him or anything.

It was good to get out of the confines of the town out to the sloping hills and the bluer, larger pieces of sky risen above them with someone like her. She had encyclopedic knowledge about the state of Iowa. She would try to teach us how to honor this land.

She called out the botanical names of flowers and species of cattle. She told us that the suburb she lived in was called Coralville because fossils had been discovered in the limestone along the river. The landlocked plains that covered the state were once a glacial deposit. She showed us the exact spot near 5th and 10th, where the Mormons who traveled cross country by rail stopped to build wagon carts from hardwoods to continue their journey on to Utah. She couldn’t find the historic marker. We clamored out of the car anyway to help her look for it.

In the weeks to come, Esther and the German guy didn’t hide from me that they had become a couple. In fact it seemed like they — or more likely he — had arranged for me to walk in on them. Esther was going to take us out on another excursion and the three of us had made plans to meet at his apartment.

“Come on in,” he called, after I knocked on the door.

I opened it. They were still lying together on the carpet, her face flushed, her belt buckle undone. For just a moment, I stared at it, catching his hand move off. Esther grabbed a pillow and pressed it against her hips. He motioned for me to sit down beside them when I continued standing. Then Esther stood up. I was still a big believer that certain people were meant for each other. I’d met the German guy by chance and now he had Esther. But I knew I could have him if I wanted.

That day, Esther took us out to see to the original tall grass prairie. It was a fourteen-acre field scattered with wildflowers and native bluestem. She led us through hushed and still. The wind through the grass made little paths that vanished as soon as we took one and we’d have to scout a new way back. Pretty soon, the three of us were lost to one another, calling out from different spots, like a marauding pack of settlers from the 1800s.

Once summer arrived, she took us swimming. In Coralville there was a man-made lake with a beach that looked real. Our favorite place to swim was in an abandoned stone quarry that had filled with rainwater. The half-mile road out to the quarry was behind a padlocked corral. We had to climb the fence slat by slat and travel the road by foot. The site was completely abandoned. We teetered in our flip-flops over sunbaked ruts in between giant gravel hills, knowing that a rain storm would flatten them and that next time we’d come here, the sharp points of the gravel would poke through to the skin on our feet, or worse, the owner would surprise us with a rifle in his arms, shouting, “Get the hell out of here, or I’ll shoot!” Again, Esther’s idea of acquainting us with the real Iowa outside the university town.

I’d climbed out on the ledge and turned around to undress. I could feel the German guy stealing looks at me. Did Esther notice? I grabbed onto a tree branch that grew out of the silt between the rocks and lowered myself into the water. Cows with spotted flanks grazed on the farmland on all sides. A solitary bull was tied to a distant tether. From the waterline, his bellows grew deeper in intensity as he released them into the air.

I was doggy-paddling, still near enough to the ledge when I felt a few rain drops and rushed back up. It was such a secluded place, the water so deep, any change in circumstances made it feel especially foreboding. The German guy felt the same way. Esther, unlike us, had dived in headfirst. She was still underwater and hadn’t felt the splatters.

“What are you doing?” she called from the water. By the time she reached the ledge from about twenty or thirty feet out, the rain shower had stopped. The only change in the weather that she perceived was the two of us sunning.

“It was raining,” I said.

“No, it isn’t. What are you doing? Are you just going to leave me here?”

“No, of course not.”

She didn’t believe me. “Not unless I drown, right?”

Around the middle of November, my husband and I drove back East to visit my grandfather in the hospital. He had been a smoker all his life. An orthopedic doctor he’d consulted, even knowing that my grandfather had fourth-stage lung cancer, promised an operation to remove his tumor from his shoulder and stop his pain. We traveled back to visit him after this particular operation. On our return to Iowa, we had arranged for Esther to pick us up at the airport at Cedar Rapids. It was the closest airport to Iowa City, still forty miles away. She arrived with the German guy in a different car, not her two-door white Ford. This was a boat-size Chevy. The driver’s door was bashed in like it had been in a recent accident. Smoke clouds rose out from the broken muffler pipe and engulfed its rear.

“What happened to your car? Were you in an accident?” I asked her.

“No. You wouldn’t know anything about it,” she said, refusing to make eye contact with me. Her thin upper lip clenched tight, she shook her head at the German guy, forbidding him to speak.

It was a warm day for November. Sun flared up from the metal door handles, hot to the touch. At first we drove with the windows down — our hair whipping around in our faces. The broken muffler pipe continued to drag, screeching whenever Esther slowed down. Smoke exhaust blew in through the windows and we had to close them. I peeled off my jacket and sweater and cursed the two of them. He was inched over toward her side, not exactly in the middle, but still close enough so they could touch, if one of them extended an arm. They were like two people balanced on a seesaw, edging toward the middle, finding out how far they could go before one of them flew off.

Halfway, we stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts and when we got back into the car, the ignition wouldn’t catch. The Amoco sign we saw towering over the brush looked at least two or three miles away. Wasn’t it the driver’s responsibility to keep her eyes on the gas gauge? As it turned out, we hadn’t run out of gas. It was an electrical problem. On the third or fourth try, the car started up. The day kept getting progressively worse. Nothing was on the radio. The sun went down and the temperature dipped. True, it was no longer hot in the car with the windows closed, but it was getting chilly and of course the heater didn’t work. I felt like we were trapped in her personality disorder and that we’d never regain normalcy again, so to break the silence I again asked what had happened to her car.

She turned from the road and back over her shoulder. “Well you can tell by now that it wasn’t my fault,” she said, as the car swiveled close to the edge of the road.

“Watch out!” my husband shouted.

She turned back to glower at him. Just then the road curved and she took the turn too hard and just missed veering off onto a field and plunging us into a cow pond. The German guy grabbed the wheel. My husband did what he always did, even when his life was at stake. He could have reached over and taken the wheel himself. Instead, he disassociated, moving closer to his side of the door.

The kind of poetry that my professors favored at that time was confessional. So if I wanted to write poems that would be praised in workshop, I needed to be honest with myself. The growing estrangement from my husband gave me the necessary alone time. After that trip, we were rarely in the apartment together. Writing didn’t redeem our marriage, it actually revealed everything that was going wrong. The first solidly positive feedback I got in workshop was for a poem called “Still Moment Near Tipton” about this incident.

The Chevy returned us to Iowa City. Almost immediately I got the news that my grandfather took a turn for the worse. My husband had some important deadlines coming up. So that I wouldn’t be alone, Esther insisted on traveling East with me. I hadn’t once asked her to take me to the town where her parents lived. I should have. I had a sense that it was beautiful, a river town. She had never been to the East Coast, and now she would see it. Thanksgiving break — no classes all week. We took the train this time, like the Mormons, but in the opposite direction.

We arrived in Philadelphia way after visiting hours at Einstein Hospital. One of my former housemates had told me about a party going on in the house where I’d lived in college, not far from the hospital. Esther and I headed over. It was a hundred and fifty year-old three-story Victorian house with a center hall and a wide front porch in a neighborhood filled with abandoned store fronts. The window trim in my room had been painted over with five different layers of paint — probably lead-based, that I’d spent a whole summer scraping off with an Xacto knife, but with no mask or gloves, all summer breathing in lead dust.

The party was filled with people I knew who had done the same. Suburban kids who moved into old houses in the city and restored them in search of something authentic. Esther felt ignored and out of place. She removed herself from the crowd I was sitting with to the other side of the room. After awhile, she met someone. I noticed her talking with him, her eyes glazed trance-like, nodding her head. His name was Caruso. He’d moved in after I had already left and was still living in the house.

He wasn’t my friend, but a friend of my friends. I’d met him only one other time. He was broad and handsome, his jeans a tad darker than the faded out color most people wore in Iowa, faintly Italian looking, even if you didn’t know his name, but he seemed a little off. His rant, after he learned we were in a writing program was, “what makes your soul better than mine?” Drunk on Jagermeister, he circled the room, wagging his finger at us, saying things like, “Issac Babel didn’t go to writing school. Maxim Gorky told him to join the Red Army. That’s how Babel learned to write.” Things I already knew from having hung out with these friends of Caruso’s and obsessively reading Babel’s Red Calvary all through college.

Instead of coming back with me to my parent’s house, Esther spent the night with Caruso. The day after that, she’d made plans to meet him near City Hall in front of the giant Claes Oldenberg clothespin. She waited for him at rush hour, in one of the most bustling parts of the city, standing apart from everyone, under the clasped together legs of the clothespin. I imagine her waiting for him. She paced. She stood there for two whole hours clutching her shoulders in the cold amid the car horns and police whistles, searching people’s faces for Caruso. Because she didn’t have any change, she walked two blocks in her clunky heels to a grocery store to buy a pack of chewing gum. She found a pay phone and frantically searched her purse for the slip of paper where she’d written down his number. She dialed his number. She counted twelve rings. She called again, this time twenty-two, and again he didn’t answer.

When she returned to my parent’s house, she looked crazy. She looked like a girl I used to know in high school who wrapped her hair in a bun so tight she had all sorts of twitches from the feel of it pulling the skin on her face. Only Esther’s hair wasn’t in a bun. It hung in her face in an attempt to cover it.

“Esther, it’s my fault. All of it. I should have never brought you here.”

Esther’s eye started to twitch. She put her hand to her temple to try and control it.

“Did you hear what I said? It’s my fault. Not yours. Please don’t blame yourself.”

I tried to explain about Caruso, what a jerk he was for not showing up, and by extension, everyone who’d ever led someone else on, but she didn’t listen. She’d get a poem out of it — I saw it a few months later in workshop. She was too hurt to start writing it at that point. She’d have to wait for more tranquil moments. When we got back to Iowa, she snapped. Her feelings, her needs, had come to the surface. I knew this now. No grand finale, our friendship just fizzled out and we were no longer friends.

Some time later, I returned to the same bar where I’d first met the German guy. There he was sitting on the bar stool where I’d left him eight months ago, as if those months never existed. I felt like a teenage girl in an abandoned shack with a pack of matches, so bored, so ready for my life to begin that I would set it on fire just to see it burn. But nothing happened. He pretended not to see me or maybe he no longer considered me attractive enough to speak to. I think mainly about what had happened in between. How liberating his attention felt. How he tried to tempt me. And another thing — how maybe there were other people out there who rather than being terrified of, might make me happy. It was like waking up in the morning and going about my routine, pouring coffee then getting dressed, and as my arm tunnels through my sleeve, suddenly comprehending this: all the bad things that could happen to my husband and me — splitting up, being on my own, no longer needing one another — were going to be real. I puffed on my cigarette and blew out the smoke. • 17 November 2014

 

Harriet Levin Millan‘s debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of “Lost Boy” of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She’s the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.
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