One Window in Heidelberg
Originally published by Flyway Magazine in January 2015
I only spent a few days with the Irish doctor in Heidelberg. I heard, somewhere around a year later, that the woman had a baby, a baby named Aidan. Aidan. It was the same name as the doctor.
The doctor’s hands in his pockets, his breath a thin wisp in the air, he turned to me and said in his heavy Irish lilt, “You’re witnessing a very weak moment. I’m sorry, I have to.”
The night air blew hard in the winter wind. It was 4 AM. We stared up at an apartment window from the snow-covered courtyard of a schoolhouse, a single lamp hung behind the curtain, a deep tan bulb and two shadows behind it. It took me time to gather his intentions. “She’s in there with another man. I just can’t stand for that.” The gray brick stood impenetrable, black sinews of age rushing along its surface, made darker by the half-moon night.
His eyes glowed in the dark. The doctor, a man of knowledge and stability, held complete focus on an ex- who I had no memory of, yet I would be agent to the union’s fruition. The wall, separating the apartment from the yard, was a man’s-length tall and reached towards the windows. “Are we climbing this?” I asked. In my half-drunk stupor, I clung to the closest thing to do.
This wasn’t some over-the-top romantic film; he hushed away my youth with his finger and took out his cell phone, tapped at it, and held it to his ear. His white breath ceased while he listened to the ringtone, and restarted when he dropped his hand to his side and put the phone back in his dark woolen overcoat. “Damn.” He bowed his head, then just as suddenly raised it. “I have an idea.” Not looking at me, but somewhere off to the alleyway opposite of where we had first arrived not five minutes earlier. He moved across the courtyard, passed a small playground and sandbox into another dark alleyway where the only light shed was at the other end. Through the alleyway, we turned the corner and stopped at an old, wooden door.
He looked at me with his arm raised to the door, “Forgive me, but I have to try.”
Earlier in the night, we jabbered around the city drunk on hearty German beer. College students gambol about the Heidelberg bar scene, like they do in America, drinking heavy and hard into the night. I looked around the first bar expecting to see a collection of people my age. Instead, the place was crowded with middle-aged men conversing over cigarettes and beer. A gruff man in a leather jacket that wore on him like his grizzled face offered the first shots when he found out I was American. I took the burn hard—cheap whiskey—in the crowded room, smoke stinging my face, an indecipherable language flowing around me, but the doctor spoke German. He fluidly switched from German to Irish-accentuated English.
The gruff spoke to us about pot and Amsterdam, the upcoming election, and the beauty of the University of Heidelberg, which was wedged between a castle and a hill with a river running through it. “We don’t get many Americans in this place.” He grabbed me by the arm, offered me a cigarette, and pointed at an open seat across from him. “Soldiers sure, big place for soldiers during the WII, but they’ve gone somewhere else to drink, not here anymore. No one knows German in your country. What brings you here anyway?”
“Getting to know the way of the land.”
“What the hell does that mean?” He lit me up.
I let out the smoke, adding to the haze of the well-lit but steel-clouded room. “Drinking and talking to strangers.”
“That’s a good boy. People need to know the Germans. We’re good people. Damn good people. Next one on me.” He bought me my third Rathaus, a heavy beer the Germans take lightly. The doctor would buy my fourth.
The walls were bare in the barroom, yellowed by the patrons, and blackened by dirt in small swatches. The bar rested next to a beaten-up wooden table where six people could sit and talk. We were all strangers sitting at the table, except for the Irish surgeon. I asked the gruff, “What do you do?”
“I drink. Work is for the daylight. Now is the time to smile and talk.” He looked over his shoulder to a couple of blond women at a small table near the front door. “See that? I’m here to smile and talk to that.”
“Not a bad idea.” The doctor said beside me. “Tonight, I’m teaching him about German women.” He patted my shoulder.
“Good luck, they’re a cold sort,” the gruff said. I nodded to him, as we walked up to the girls dodging the patrons to our left, right, and front like a bubble in the crowd opening up just enough for us. The space immediately filled in as we made our way across the bar.
As a surgeon in his early thirties, slim-built and medium-framed with a slight beard covering his square head, he knew how to entice a stranger, get them to practice English, and turn their eyes to me. These women were tall, average-looking gals, heavy in the chest and light in the ankles. They were sisters with begrudged attitudes towards male chauvinism, although whether earned by me or by my country’s reputation, I wasn’t sure.
I tried my best to exchange pleasantries, but my English was no match for the surgeon’s German. They found my raw attempts at conversation too hard for them, preferring to talk through the surgeon. He garnered success, slicing his way through their tough skin, which soon found us invited to a bar called “The Cave,” where the university students drank themselves stupid.
“Later, later. I must show him the town first,” he said to them, laughing, his hand on my shoulder a warm reminder of good fortune to come.
Outside the heavy wooden door of her apartment, he looked different to me. His smile had disappeared sometime after “The Cave.” His charm was no longer the relaxed fire that first drew me to him, but a torch directed straight ahead at whoever lay beyond this door. He shook the brass ring knocker on the door, thunking it against the wood.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He turned to me. “Ruining something,” he said. He slammed the knocker again. “I don’t care.”
“She’s awake now?”
“We are,” he said.
“Do you have a cigarette? It’s cold.” My hands were shaking.
He reached into his pocket for the pack, took out two white stalks, lit one and handed the other to me. “Patience needs good company.”
I struck up mine and we stood still, hands in pockets, listening for sounds beyond the door. Every time he removed his hand from his pocket to let out smoke, I could see the long veins in his wrist, blue with cold. The doctor, who had plenty of money and good looks, shivering outside an ex-girlfriend’s apartment door. He smoked his cig quickly. This must be some woman.
At the second bar, we had struck up a conversation with a forty-year-old Japanese DJ, who bought us sake bombs. He said he owned the place and the drinks were on him tonight. We placed our fifth Rathaus on the table and threw back the strange liquor with the stranger. The liquid was hot and spicy. It burned less than whiskey and whispered in our ear: peace and light feet.
The man had played a show earlier, at the bar, to a small crowd. Between bouts of drinking with patrons, he played his sets, followed by more shots, and then karaoke. We were at the drinking stage he called “the twilight,” where he bought drinks and talked about his sets and nothing else happened until karaoke.
He said, in an inarticulate and nasally second-language English, “You speak English. Thank God!” Pointing his index finger at me, waying slightly out of drunkenness. “It’s worth it to me.” He swallowed hard, his eyes glossed slits by now. “To you really, but to me—” the effects of too much sake set his speech into a jumbled mess, “that you have another bomb.” He faced the bartender and put up two fingers. The bartender replied with three sake bombs. The doctor and I smiled. Together, we all called, “Prost,” and shot back once more.
The Japanese man let out a howl, then said, “It’s good you speak English. You can talk to anyone to get a drink in Germany. Anyone,” he emphasized.
“I’d do better with German.” I said.
“Maybe with men, but you don’t strike me as queer.”
“No, you’re right, but I don’t know what to do with women.”
The doctor budged in, “It’s easy: just admire their hair and eyes. Speak English like they know it already and buy them a drink.”
The DJ said, “Then they’ll at least think you have money.”
“And if you’re with me,” the doctor said, “then you have cash.”
“One more,” the DJ called out, “then karaoke.”
“No, we must keep going on our tour,” the doctor said.
“I insist. What song?” He put up his two fingers again to the bartender, and he received three more sake bombs. “Drink, drink, then we sing.”
We toasted and knocked back our bombs. The Japanese man hopped up onto the karaoke platform and grabbed the microphone. “This one goes out to America. Join me on stage, American.” The doctor and I shrugged our shoulders and joined him, and the DJ continued, “Because Germany can be too heavy at times.”
And then we sang, “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen. The words flooded out of my mouth, unlike any time I’d ever sang before.
At the door, I figured she wasn’t home or was sleeping or ignoring this desperate man’s attempts for reconnection. “Why don’t we go back to your house? Try tomorrow.” I was bitter with cold.
“No, her light was on.” The Irish lilt permeated into his frustration, “She’s home.”
I said, “Call her again. Then we go home.”
“I’ll call her, but we aren’t going home tonight.”
I sighed. As he called her, I tapped on the brass knocker. Then I tried the knob and the door released from its lock.
The doctor put down his phone at first in shock, then said with a hearty grin, “Thatta boy.”
The hallway was dark, but he knew the light switches to illuminate the pathway. He flicked two on, and the hall led to an open doorway, then a staircase to the second floor. At the top of the stairs, we stopped at her door, where light crept beneath its seal.
The third bar was “The Cave” and we entered into a rough hole-in-the-wall that, upon entrance, led to an old war bunker blasting techno-music. The walls were stone, cracked, graffiti-ed, and flaking. Women gyrated on the dance floor in skirts or jeans, white tops, and leather jackets. The men tried to dance, but mostly drank and watched the women. In a small corridor, away from the small dance floor, we found the girls from the first bar.
The older one, a thick and tall blonde, talked with a long-haired hipster in a leather jacket. Her eyes followed us and she proceeded to smile when we drew near. She tapped her sister beside her on the shoulder, and came towards us.
She reached immediately for the doctor, her hands sloppily groping his shoulder. “You came,” she said in a thick German accent.
With a wry smile, he said, “What do you expect from an Irishman?” They found a cozy corner where the cement turned into a half-stoop; dirty, but still cozy for two.
The sister and I stood looking at each other. She was the younger one, a bit thinner and just as tall. Didn’t go for me at the first bar, but that was before I had the doctor’s advice. I bought us two beers from the bar and came over and said, “You have a pair of amazing eyes.”
She looked to me and said, “Thank you.”
I offered her the beer I bought. She took it with a smile, and I continued to say, “How long have you lived in Germany?”
She leaned towards me and said, in a heavy German accent, “Sorry, I don’t speak English.” She turned her back and walked to the dance floor where another woman, an Italian, greeted her with a laugh. I looked at my single beer, took a gulp, and looked to my friend.
In the dark corner, he was kissing the German girl. Her hand on his leg and his hand on her cheek. They kissed for a long time, while I watched out of either drunkenness or jealousy. When he was satisfied, he turned to me, half-surprised, and said, “No luck?”
“No,” I said, “I just want to dance alone.”
He and the woman laughed. She said something in German to him, and he translated it to me. “She says you’re cute, but men don’t dance.”
“I noticed.” I looked at her smile, then back at the doctor. “Want to move on to another place?”
“I was thinking the same myself. Let me just finish with this one.” He said something in German to her. She got out her phone and tapped it. He smiled and we walked away from her.
I asked, “You don’t want her phone number?”
“No, I don’t care.”
I followed him through the crowd and into the dark street. I was surprised by his coarse response, but he had his reasons. “Where to next?”
He said, “I have a place I have to go.” I nodded and we walked for twenty minutes, through the streets, in a strange route away from the city center. We took to an alleyway that ended with a white expanse. We stopped in the middle of a snow-covered courtyard, looking up into a second story window of an apartment building.
Outside her door, I waited as he took a deep breath, readied himself, and knocked on the wood with his fist lightly. We stared at the door. Inside, I heard shuffling of feet and, finally, the door opened, casting light into the dim hallway. A thin woman with short, dark hair, a round face, and a clean, straight smile stood before us. It looked like she’d been crying. She greeted me with exasperation, turned her head back to the doctor. As they spoke their sentences switched between German and English, depending on whether I could know something.
She side-stepped and directed us to the living room. Imagination plays a jealous trick: the doctor was wrong. There was no other man in here. She asked about me politely, in an interested and tired way, small talk about my travels. The doctor and she talked in German for a few minutes, while I sat on the couch. Eventually, he said to me, “You can sleep in here tonight on the couch. It’s more comfortable than my place anyways.”
She said in her German accent, a blush to her cheeks and half-looking at the doctor, “And varmer than his apartment.”
They left the room together. I turned out the light and went to sleep with the thought of her eyes glinting as she said, “varmer,” and the broad smile across the doctor’s face. The streetlight shed a small light though the blinds onto the couch and I could see the courtyard from the window and footsteps imprinted in the snow stopping at the center then trailing off towards her door. Throughout the night, I heard their voices, some laughter, and rustling coming through the wall.
Wrapping the fleece around me, the warmth seeping into my skin, I wondered if the doctor was getting lucky in the next room.