Chapter 03.05

It was at our engagement party when I first set eyes upon the man whom I will love forever.

Shortly after Rachel and I arrived in Florida, I had begged Henry to throw a party so that I could meet his friends.  I was sitting shyly at the table next to my fiance’; he had his hand wrapped fiercely around mine.  As every new couple walked through the door, they would swoop by our table, Henry would introduce us, and they would leave to find their own table.  But William was never one to be outshone by anyone, not even his best friend and bride-to-be.

We were in a great big sun room that was attached to a quiet restaurant, and it was after dark.   Candles were lit at every table, and a gentle breeze fluttered the flames around, almost as though it was intent on making the whole thing seem quite magical.

When William arrived, an hour after he was expected, he walked in with larger than life gusto.  Entire tables of folks rose to their feet to greet him.

Henry stood, too.  His hand still wrapped around mine, he pulled me to my feet and led me through the crowds of mingling people.

“William!  Hello!” shouted one man.

“Howdy, Hi!” glowed William, exuberant from the top of his head to the ends of his toes.

It was strange to see all of these people fawning over this one single, albeit lavishly handsome man.   Yet, I, too, was sucked in almost instantly.

William opened his arms wide to my fiance’.  “Henry! You lucky fellow!  You really did have a bride waiting to come home to you!”  he bellowed as he reached to wrap his arms around my Henry.

Then he turned to me.

“And this? Who is this gorgeous dame?” He play-shoved Joseph away and dropped to his knees before me, grabbing at my hands.   I giggled at the show Henry’s friend was presenting for me.  William blinked dramatically, still holding my wrists and stuttered, “Will, will, will,” and gasped, making a large gesture with his arms, grappling for his hat, “Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry!”  He took his hat from his head, giving me back one of her wrists and clutched the hat to his chest.  “Will you marry me?” William spat out the punctuated words with mock pleading in his face.

“Sorry old chap,” Henry said as he wrapped his arm around me, “this fine woman has been spoken for.”

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Chapter 03.04

“I’m trying to be happy, William.”

“You’re going about it the wrong way.”

“And how would you propose I go about being happy?”

“By following your heart.”

“I thought that’s what I was doing with you.”

“Maybe a bit. But you are so young still.  How could you possibly know what you want already?”

“Don’t you know?” I asked.

“No,” he admitted.  “Do you think that messing around with my best friend’s wife was on my life program?  Certainly I had no intentions of going this far.”

I fell silent.  I was crushed by his words.

“Look, I realize this isn’t ideal for us, but this is what it is.  Why can’t we just play it out? See where it takes us?” I could hear the pleading in my voice, and I didn’t like it.  Not one bit.

“Come away with me? Leave Lila here with her father.  We can start a new life together, just us.”

“William, I can’t…” I hated myself for saying it.

“We’re done, Toni,” he said with a sigh.

“What? No!”

“Yeah.  I can’t do this anymore.”

 

 

Chapter 03.03

I met Rachel before we had even acquired our sea legs.

The boat set sail at night, and after a evening filled with sadness and coated with booze, my family sent me away to marry my husband.

The whole night was wretched, and I wretched the whole night.

The lolling sea did no favors for my woozy head and sickly stomach.  I was in no shape to be wandering about the next morning, but I had to put something in my belly to see if I could hold food down.  I was on a mission for crackers or anything else easy to look at.

She found me in the mess hall, crying into my hands.

“Are you okay?” she quietly spoke to me.

I looked up at her, surely a wreck. “No, I’m not okay,” I sobbed.

Clearly I wasn’t, and I was too miserable to hide it.

“What do you need?” she asked, and she patted my shoulder.

“I need my Mutti and my pillow.”

“Aw, why is that?” she cooed.

“I need a glass of water and a cracker.”

“Well, that, my friend, I can help with.”

On a mission, she stood and aimed herself toward the rows of cupboards that lined the hall.  She opened them up, one by one, until she uncovered a box of crackers.  At the table that was decorated with a sweating glass pitcher of water, she pulled a cup from the stack of them, flipped it over, and filled it.  When she came back to me, she offered these treasures as though they were gifts from heaven.  And to me on that rotten morning, that’s precisely what they were.

From that moment on, we were fast friends.  Rachel was every bit as kind as I was demanding.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Hamburg.  But I’m a Jew,” she responded.

The look on my face must have been something akin to shock, though I’m sure it was entirely free from dismay.  I was not raised to be prejudiced, and Hitler’s brainwashing tactics never worked for me.  No one could tell me a person’s worth; I have always been quite capable of determining that sort of thing for myself.

“I was in hiding,” she said.

“And now?” I asked.

“Now I’m off to America to find my parents.”

“Wow.” I filled my cheeks and blew air up my sweaty face and across my glistening forehead.

“Yeah.”

“Are you afraid?” I asked her.

“No,” she said, “this is much less frightening than where I came from.”

Nowadays, I understand her bravery much better than I used to. Contrast is everything.  But when we were younger, practically children, sailing across the great waters between our old lives and our new ones, I couldn’t help but wonder at her intense courage.

Chapter 03.02

My dreams disturbed me a bit.

While I didn’t mean to be cranky with Lila, I found myself slapping her hand and saying, “No” to her more forcefully than usual.   Our guests left, and here I was, trying to be happy with my little family.  Henry was home for the weekend, and I was set on going about our pretend happy little life for the next several days.

Henry, being the innocent type, went on through his day, whistling and making small talk.

“Peach?” he asked.

“What is it Henry?”

“Will you make me a roast sandwich for lunch today?”

“Yes, Henry.” I didn’t particularly want to, but I was his wife, and that was my job.

“Peach?” he asked.

“What is it, Henry?”

“Will you help me with this chair?”

“Yes, Henry.” I would help him repair the leg of a chair that had been broken.

“Peach?” he asked.

“What do you want, Henry?”

He stopped, a look of surprise slipped on to his face.  I suppose I said it in a tone that was a little less inviting than it ought to have been.

“Are you happy?” he asked.

“Of course, Henry.”

 

Chapter 03.01

Henry’s breath against my shoulder is hot.

I’d like to let it burn and keep me here in the present moment, but I am tired and the toxic ribbons still weave their way in and out of my internal organs.  I must sleep it off.

In and out, I drift between worlds.  I wish I had the energy to wish for the future, but so much is unknown that I cannot bring myself to wonder about it.  I will probably just go on like this for every day of the rest of my life.  And that makes me a little sick to think of it.

So I let go and fall back in time.

Lily and I are little girls again.  We are at the Fluss, the river. Six years older than me, at fourteen, she is able to be in charge.  We are there alone. She wants to play mommy, and I want to hunt for frogs.  She grabs at my arm, hard, trying to pull me down to sit in front of her.  She wants to plait my hair.  But she is not Mutti, and I don’t have to let her.

With a quick jerk, I rip away from her and sprint away like a wild animal.  I think I hear her at my ankles, so I run faster.  Run, Toni!  I encourage myself to go faster, farther. I duck under branches of trees and leap over giant rocks and barely register the tickle of the leaves as they brush past my arms, my fingers, my waist.  My sister keeps up with me, and it is when I feel like I can go no longer, as the fire grows within my lungs, I slow to a halt and give up.  Fine, I think.  She can do the stupid plaits.

But she doesn’t grab me hard again, like I expected. In fact, she doesn’t grab me at all.  “For heaven’s sake, Lily,” I turn and acquiesce, “You win.”

My words float up to the birds on branches, and they crawl down to the squirrel on fallen logs, but they do not reach my sister’s ears.  For she is not here.  She’s not behind me.  She’s nowhere to be seen or heard.

“Lily?” I holler, briefly panicked to discover that which I believed to be to be true actually false.

However, that terror didn’t last long.  I have ways of consoling myself when there’s nothing else to be done.

I’m not sure which direction points back at Lily, and I have no idea how far she followed me as I ran.  Maybe she did not follow me at all?

So I do what any other reasonable young lady would do.  I listened for the river, and set forth to find it.  Of course it would lead back to my sister, eventually.  And in the mean time, while I walked, I would search for lizards and frogs.

The sun was low in the sky when I finally came upon our usual bank of the river.   Lily was asleep with her head on her knees.

“Why would you fall asleep in such an awkward position?”

She started awake, and when she lifted her face, I could see her eyes were swollen with tears.

“What on earth have you been crying about?”

She was angry.  My guts told me to run again, but I knew that would help nothing.

“You…” she seethed and spoke through her clenched teeth. “You… stupid, little, rotten, self-centered, spoiled, horrible BRAT!”

Uh oh.  This wasn’t going to be good, I thought.

“How DARE you leave me here to worry about whether or not you were lost forever?  You’re lucky I fell asleep crying otherwise I would have gone out and arranged a search crew for your selfish little ass!”  She reached over and grabbed me by the back of the neck.

I’d found that in times like these ones, which did happen on occasion, it was best to just let her be the boss.  She was less likely to pinch me if I just went along with it.  But her fingers did hurt a little as she squeezed them into my neck.

“Ow, ow, ow,” I said.

“Shut up,” she said.

So I did.

Chapter 02.07

My heart pounds me awake.

I was dreaming again.   Of my past life, my memories.  The apartment had been bombed – my home for my whole childhood.  For some reason, my past cannot disentangle from me.  I cannot seem to leave it where it belongs – in the past.

Before the soldiers arrived, the Americans bombed our city.   Sirens wailed and we scrambled for safety.  But no place was really safe anymore.   The laughter and jubilation that once coated our city walls, shouts and glee leaping up from our outdoor pubs, were gone; they were replaced with shrieks of terror and sadness.  What had we come to?

It was Hitler.  It was the damn man who thought he could convince every one of us that we were a higher manifestation of God.  Well, fuck God and fuck Hitler.  We were hateful of our neighbors.  We reported each other’s crimes as acts of self preservation.

I never spoke those words.  A lady never would.  Nor would a man who feared for his life in those dismal days.  And everyone feared for their life.

Yet, we were neighbors.  And when the sirens wailed and the bombs screamed down upon us, we said prayers together to a God we did not believe in.

The explosion was nothing short of a cacophony of flying bricks.  Our building had been hit.

“Get out! Get out!”

“Fire!”

Neighbors from the upper floors pounded on our door as they ran down the stairs past our second floor loft.

Papa grabbed his cello.  Mutti grabbed her mother’s silver.  Lily grabbed the jewelry box.  I pushed on the piano.

I awoke gasping and panting.

Henry scoots closer to me and wraps his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close.   I allow myself to be comforted by him.

“What is it, Peach?”  That’s what he calls me.  He’s breathing deeply, still mostly asleep.

“I was dreaming about pushing my piano out of our burning apartment.”

He breathes in one great breath.

“I almost forget about your life before us.”

“I don’t know why you forget.  You were there.”

 

Chapter 02.06

It’s three AM, and I’m drunk, sitting at my kitchen table, pleading with the room not to spin.  I trace my finger along the gold embossing on the cover of my green diary.  Most of the revelers have gone home, and are tucked away in the privacy of their own beds.  Edith and Bracks have passed out in the back yard, on a futon we dragged out there specifically for them.

Rachel is curled up on the couch next to William.  He has his arms around her.  He sounds the same when he sleeps next to her as when he sleeps next to me.

Lila is in her crib, and Henry is in our bed.

It was a good party.

When Rachel and I came out to greet our friends, I found that Henry had already lit the candle motifs along the lush pathway in our backyard.  There is magic in our space.   Orange hyacinths and lavender grow in humid clumps  along the path from our fence to the patio.  On the patio sit chairs and covered tables.  Freshly cut wildflowers lie in baskets at the center of the tables.   At first, only a few of our friends sat together, enjoying cocktails and each others’ company.  As Rach and I hopped down the steps from the house, everyone stood with open arms to greet us.   This is how we are.

We are warm and open and affectionate with each other.  It is exactly as I’d always dreamed of.   Briefly, I am happy with this simple facade.

Lila has already found Edith’s lap, and she traces stars on Edith’s cheeks with her chubby fingers.   Henry is serving bottles of cola and beer as he looks up to see me.  He still bares a light of joy for me.  I try not to be sad about how he’d hurt if he knew of my betrayal.  Our betrayal.

I don’t mean to be hurtful.

But as I sit here, alone and up in the middle of the night, drunk and tracing the gold flowers on my green book, I remember how he hurt me.  How he found the hiding place of the diary of a naive girl of sixteen.  How he watched me as I hid it away, wrapped in a roll of butcher’s paper, tucked behind the pile of lumber up against my father’s house.

I remember how he secretly snuck it out of there while I was helping Mutti prepare dinner.  How he read the words that I poured out as a giddy child playing the role of a young girl in love.

And how I found out because my sister’s new husband was the one who told me.  “We planned it.  And now I have your sister and you have your soldier. And we are happy now.  Why don’t you let it go?”

And with that knowledge, I still allowed him to slip my ruby ring onto my finger.  I was so young.  She seduced me.