Copyright 2012, Kevin R. Hill
"For six months I was in a room with all women, and you know what happens there, Lance." Her voice was soft and sensitive, and only now do I realize the pain she tried to conceal. I watched Johanna roll another cigarette, push the packet of tobacco aside and pour herself more wine. Her movements were slowed by alcohol and sorrow. Her eyes never met mine.
"They give you only so much money a week for cigarettes and other things." She sipped the wine and stared at some memory across the tiny student apartment. "So many doctors ... with questions into all my life." Her lips pressed tightly upon each other as she shook her head, refusing to unleash any emotions. For a few minutes she was silent, but as I leaned forward to pat her arm, Johanna began to speak. "What you see ... what you live ... dees things all become part of you. Memories form the person." Her eyes widened with understanding. "Did you know that, Lance? Oh, the things I saw," she whispered. "Mein Gott!"
"Johanna," I said, wanting to hurry around the table and hold her, to console her with words and caresses, to be the friend she so needed, but I was becoming aware of another desire.
"Yes, Lance, I received one of your letters when I was... there." Tapping out the cigarette, she drank the remaining wine, and refilled the glass. As she leaned back in the chair and folded her legs beneath her, Johanna began rolling a cigarette. "But how could I read it? Written words mean nothing there. It was all for the moment, the now. I fought for every second. I could not let go of the fight, even to read.
“But tell me, were there feelings and beautiful things in the letter? Where did your words take me, Lance? Ja, you always write such wonderful letters ... for how many years now?"
Her hands shook so that the ash fell from the cigarette onto her pants, but she did not brush it away. Nor, I remember, did she ever face me, but addressed her soft words and stare toward the vacant chair at our table, as if in her reality, that was where I sat.
I know I tried to comfort Johanna with words, but I can't remember them. All I remember is her sitting there, smoking cigarettes and drinking Mosel wine, and the desire I tried to suppress. And now, two years later, as I sit in the park across from her apartment building, I search through her words and try to forgive myself. It was when the neighbor woman came to barrow the telephone that the atmosphere changed. I remember how Johanna introduced me as her boy friend from America, then sat on my lap. Feeling her warmth, smelling her faint perfume, I had to kiss her, had to lead her to the little mattress on the floor.
And yes, still I remember what she whispered as I stared down into her frightened, tear-filled eyes. Yes, Johanna, memories do form the person. When we finished I sat up and smoked a cigarette, my first in four years. And as I sat there I could feel the tension, and knew she was watching.
"I have to go, Johanna," I said, as I stood up and searched for my clothes.
"Oh Lance, not like dis ... not you and I. You make my bed wet, then smoke a cigarette and go?"She lay in the fetal position and didn't acknowledge me as I kissed her good-bye.
I never saw Johanna again. When I returned two days later, her name plate had been removed from the front porch directory.
I can smell pastries and coffee from the bakery up the street. Children shout and chase a soccer ball through the park in which I sit. I never bothered to really look at Johanna's old building. The stone blocks are surrounded by straight mortar seams. The tall, old window frames have been recently varnished and their brass hinges shine. There are ugly little gargoyles under the eves, and decorative stone work borders the windows and doors. The walls are pock-mocked from the war. Here and there chunks of stone have been broken loose. At chest height I see smaller holes, one after the other, forming a line from some long ago machine gun blast. No attempt has been made to fill in these holes. They have merely been brushed over with the same pink paint that covers the entire building. In Germany, so many things are kept unrepaired.