He bought a record from some musicians while he and she were waiting for a plane.
When he returns to their apartment alone, he sits down on a makeshift floor-couch she fashioned from fabric and foam and gazes at a window on the opposite side of the room framing a row of black iron steps. He settles back numb, overwhelmed by the emptiness and silence. After a few moments he feels a corner of the record pressing into the side of one of his thighs. He stands, peels the cellophane wrap from the record's jacket, and walks the shiny vinyl disc over to a turntable.
The turntable no longer works automatically, so his lifts the needle and places it down on the spinning disc.
Incan pan flute music.
He stares down at it, recalling the face of one of the musicians who had a clay-colored pudgy nose, piercing black eyes, shiny gold front tooth, and who was wearing a splendidly colorful hat with ear flaps.
The music starts out light and cheerful, but as the composition progresses it reflects the mixed feelings about what it must be like to come from another place and time to play music for money in an airport terminal in a modern American city.
The place inside him where mixed feelings can churn is already full. He gingerly lifts the needle from the record, turns the turntable off, and then sits back down and listens again to the silence. He breathes in, closes his eyes, and can feel the life he and she made here settle. Nearly four years of internal construction.
He feels it weigh down on him like a lead-filled x-ray jacket. When he manages to breathe out again he opens his eyes and his vision is acute: the room and everything in it is throbbing in synch with the inflated beat of his heart. Familiar objects that were muted and blurred stand out loud and distinct: a brownish cluster of dry leaves on the end of a stem of fern crackle, cracks in the walls and ceiling creeping like spider legs whistle.
They demand his attention; he does nothing, just stares.
Then his hands move out in front of him as his eyes travel out through the window and his mind follows: he thinks he can hear and feel her ordering a glass of wine in the airplane right now. “ Un verre de vin, s'il vous plaît.” Then. “Aucun, no de non, ne font cette eau.”
Oddly, perhaps, it's not his ears or eyes that hear and see this, but his arms and his nostrils.
He lets his eyes close softly again.
He's overwhelmed by the lingering fragrance of her scent -- as exotic and familiar to this room as she had been. A soft, clean and vibrant scent, like lemony linen. The fragrance wafts over him, bringing back enticing vibrations of coolness and earthiness, fun, excitement; and now, worry, sorrow.
He opens his eyes and looks into the darkening sheaths of clouds visible through the steps of the fire escape. His first night without her, drawing near.
‘How much I miss you already.'
He smiles wanly, wondering, ‘Then why are you gone?'
There's no response to that question, only a dizzying paroxysm of sensation, making him unable to move, physically or mentally.
He stares at his desk with the big metallic IBM typewriter atop it and the piles of paper next to it. The pile of paper is the story he started writing here, completed in Paris on yellow legal pads, and is now revising and typing. He asked for a year alone to turn it into a publishable novel.
His upper body moves forward toward the work, as his gaze goes in the direction of the window. Then he sits still, stuck like the biblical ass that starves between two equidistant piles of hay.
His feeling of paralysis is augmented by a kaleidoscopic series of images replaying every questionable decision he'd ever made in his life. From the time as a child he won a contest and picked a prize that his siblings disliked and ridiculed, to taking the wrong exit tonight on the way home from the airport. It's gut wrenching – how the potential for each decision to be wrong, no matter how trite or borrowed from long ago, brings up freshly piquant feelings of loss, fear, failure.
He forces his eyes open wide, breathes out and wills his thoughts, paradoxically, to just let it all be, even the fears. Then he closes his eyes, breathes in softly and conjures an affirmation to fortify his resolve.
He sighs: ‘Just let it be. Accept life as it is, and yourself as you are. She's gone. That's it, for now.'
The room sways more gently. Objects do not return to a mute blur, though they stop glaring at him noisily. His thoughts and heartbeat pulse more regularly. The chatter in his mind no longer mimics the cadence of the click click click sound of her heels across the wood floors when they argued, and his heart stop ballooning to the recollections of the quiet explosions of optimism that took place here when they shared hopes, dreams, made love...
From within this quiet, his mind moves forward closer to the present. He recalls how at the airport when they were waiting in line for the plane that would take her away, he left to go off by himself to buy a record from the Peruvian musicians. She smiled at him on his way back for doing something so mundane and characteristic at a time like that.
Then, how, as they continued waiting together in the plodding line, without saying a word to one another they agreed to part before the pace of waiting and empty time somehow set them off on one another. Something that was taking place frequently, unpredictably, and without any apparent reason or resolution. They never knew what would start them off at one another, or how to stop it.
He clutched her far shoulder with his hand to seal the nonverbal agreement and then hooked his fingers under the sleeve of her blouse so that she would turn to face him. Their faces drifted toward one another and then away. When they finally touched it was clumsily kinetic, like two skewed magnets no longer able to keep track of attraction and repulsion. The warmth of her breath against the side of his face made him move to kiss her, softly, lips to lips. They paused like that momentarily, breathing into one another's mouths like a couple of small frightened animals. Then he removed his lips from hers and pressed his face against the side of hers, hugging his face to hers. She clucked in her throat from the pressure and they laughed and released.
He backed away holding onto one of her hands, gazing at the long muscle rising up from her other hand as she lifted the bag next to her in order to move forward and away a few feet more.
She turned back to face him only one more time. Her voice cracked slightly, her eyes watered, but she looked at him resolute. “Je t'aime. Bye-bye.”
"Je t'aime!” he rejoined. Than added desperately, “No matter what."
The first time he traveled to Europe he was met by her in Luxembourg . She traveled by train from Paris the same day to meet him. It was circuitous, but the least expensive way for him to travel. He volunteered to take the train to Paris by himself, but she responded agreeably that she liked trains and meeting people in stations.
Their reunion at the train station felt at first the same way it had last summer when they would be apart while she visited relatives in other parts of the States. One of her relatives was a friend of his, which is how they became acquainted.
So now, after being separated for the length of time it takes a human to create a new life – nine months -- just seeing one another again was enough to make them feel a shared sense of accomplishment and relief. They had started something they each felt was special, and managed to maintain it in spite of all the sundry alternatives and distractions time relentlessly presents. They held on via cables crisscrossing the world's largest ocean, and light pieces of airborne paper flying back and forth over it.
They hug lightly and moan softly. When they disembrace they share a charmed smile.
As she walks along side of him, shorter than him by half a foot, he gazes down at the top of her head, at the sun warmed strands of thin chestnut hair falling onto the tips of her slender shoulders.
When he first saw her waiting outside the train station she was standing in the sun. He paused a few moments before calling out to her to observe. She looked younger than the last time he saw her, and even more petite.
As they walk he refrains from kissing the top of her head and just smiles gleeful ahead. It will take a little time before they can be casually sensual again. It's enough for now just to see her, to stand close enough to sense and feel her.
She looks up to read the thoughts behind his smile, and he notes that she's dressed simply: a t-shirt with faded strawberries printed on it, no bra underneath, and well-worn blue jeans. He feels immediately self-conscious that he overdressed for his ‘big trip', though he can't recall what he is wearing without looking. Then he pauses, made further self-conscious by the fact that he has no idea where to get a train ticket or how to ask for it. The collegiate French dictionary he crammed into his head during the last nine month feels like one big glob of nonsensical nouns, gerunds, verbs and tenses.
He looks around for a couple of fellow travelers he met who were also going to Paris , but he's lost track of them. He's sure she purchased a round trip for herself.
She matter-of-factly intuits his concern and directs him to a currency trading window where she tells him in English that he can exchange his money and at the same time purchase train transport.
Oui, she affirms, she already has hers.
Her perceptiveness and directness makes him smile, reminding him of how well they managed to travel and communicate together last summer, her first time in America and neither of them knowing the other's language very well.
The Luxembourg train station becomes steadily more crowded but not busy as they wait for the mid-afternoon train to Paris . He left New York Saturday evening, so it's late-morning Sunday here. The waiting room is filled mostly with local people purchasing local travel. In small clutches of families, the children and women are dressed in Sunday attire – long gauzy shirts, flowery blouses, and fast-growing young men in ill-fitting dark suits. There's an abundance of stocky men with bushy mustaches, and elderly women with hair pulled back in babushkas. Yes, the people do seem conspicuously foreign to him. Most telling is that, unlike Americans, they seem at ease being quiet and waiting – as though they'd been doing it for centuries.
The train, which appears old and antique on the outside, is surprisingly comfortable and modern inside -- more spacious and accommodating than any train he's been on in the States. The corridors lined with dark hard wood that's varnished to a sheen. The seats are freshly upholstered – fabric not plastic -- and soft.
They take a spacious compartment that could easily seat eight or a family of ten. It's vacant and he chooses a place next to a window so he can gaze out at Europe . Sitting back, he fixates, like a child getting ready to watch its first moving picture show. She takes a seat across from him in the middle of the compartment, motioning with a hand that the mid-day sun coming in through the windows bothers her eyes. She lights a cigarette, and then when she spots people she rode here with, she excuses herself and goes to sit and talk with them.
Even though his ears at first prick to the sounds of his friend's voice mixing into an ongoing animated discussion of the general interests of young people everywhere -- movies, music, jobs, apartments, mutual friends, gossip -- he doesn't want to listen or talk right now. It's his first time out of the United States and he wants to just experiences the differences and take them in as they are, not through the filter of words.
He knows she understands; she was the same way last summer when they traveled. He started out playing tour guide and quickly picked up that he was not only diminishing her experience, but his own as well. The differences that manifest between places speak clearly on their own. It's more fun to discover them on one's own and then share the observations later.
The steel wheels lurch forward, and then back, as though breaking free from a gate. Then they roll smoothly and slowly as the long train inches forward.
They unhurriedly make their way out of the station and enter into the heart of the small city state of Luxembourg . It appears to him to be more like a stylized glossy of a city rather than a real one – the kind of still-life one finds on tins of holiday cakes and cookies. The town's buildings are uniformly constructed with dark wood clapboard against spotlessly clean bright white stone facades. The streets are narrow and inviting. One can smell coffee, waffles, maple syrup, cream, and hear classical music – Mozart and Brahms – coming from the small shops.
If he hadn't done some cursory research on his first destination in Europe , he would have been more surprised to find the number of banks, fine hotels, and designer shops along the city's main boulevard. But he learned beforehand that this small independent state enterprises mainly by providing exotic accommodations for money. He half-expects to see thousand dollar bills leading five- and hundred dollar bills into hotels.
The train stalls waiting for a switch in the track to open, and his attention jettisons beyond the physical landscape. It's fascinating to him, this world of money. He knows only enough about money to have worked and saved enough of it to get here. But what he is looking at now is a obviously another dimension of it he is just about totally unfamiliar with. He knows people who have more money than they need to live on, but they work desperately hard at getting it, either through legitimate or illegal means, and it shows on them. The kinds of people leisurely walking the streets here do not look overworked. It intrigues him, and he wonders wistfully in passing how so much money can come to such gentle looking people.
The city of Luxembourg is just a blip on the passing screen, however, and within a few minutes they are out of it. Without passing through any outer-city badlands or monochrome suburbs, they move eastward into barren hilly landscapes connected occasionally by venerable old wooden bridges and modern steel suspension ones.
Now and then they pass over or near a small town. These towns offer the same kinds of shops, hotels and amenities as Luxembourg City did, though on a smaller scale. Notably, the boxy glass bank towers have been replaced by lean dark gothic churches. They are dramatic looking, so he assumes they are Catholic.
He tries to imagine what it would be like to be born into a small remote town like one of these and live all your life with people more or less like you. Living in a small town isn't so hard to imagine, but living in an homogenized population is. He grew up in an urban industrialized area on the outskirts of a large, old – by American standards – city. The population of the area was divided equally among Blacks and whites – with the white population largely represented by first and second generation Polish-, Irish-, Italian- and Eastern European Jewish-Americans.
Racism was the general norm growing up at that time, the 1960s. The Black and white populations lived in proximity to one another, though they segregated themselves by a mutual unstated agreement. Whites considered Blacks to be inferior, casually referred to them as niggers, and treated them like second-class citizens. Blacks looked upon the newcomer white Americans as interlopers given advantage only because of their skin color; they resented and shunned them.
His parents were not racist and he was athletic, so growing up he had many Black friends, acquaintances, and competitors. He therefore got to see how they lived, which was with less money. That resulted in them living in small old homes that were ramshackle, within ghettoized neighborhoods that appeared bleak and threatening.
His father, like many of the whites, was a military veteran and skilled laborer. He was therefore able to get a loan through the GI Bill for a new home, and also work in a union that secured him a good wage. The union, typically, excluded Blacks. Any Black person working the same job as his father made about a third less and it showed – not just materially, but in psychological and emotional ways as well.
Knowing these things, he was less surprised than many when the city near them, on one mercilessly hot August day, ignited its store of pent up anger and frustration and went up in flames like a tinderbox.
Oddly, from a distance, he doesn't look back on those experiences as so bad, or only bad. If the world was ever going to learn how to live in harmony with all of itself, then it was going to have to go through some growing pains. People growing up in the States, like him, were simply ahead of their time.
He smiles, charmed for the very first time by the unexpected and fresh perspective traveling instigates. He knows that he would never have come up with such a pacific perspective if he were waking up and getting ready to face another day fraught with the possibility of lethal mayhem in the good old US of A.