During a hot summer in Germany, Lowry became enchanted by a dance aerobics tape he used in his study at home. He would dance along and sometimes dance along again, drawn in by the instructor’s sweet face, a woman he could like. One Saturday afternoon in late August, he ran the tape through three times. Afterward he sat down to catch his breath. When he tried to get up, he couldn’t. He had fractured metatarsals in both feet and ended up in a Bonn orthopedist’s office where he was told he must not walk farther than the bathroom for a month.
How did you do this to yourself? the doctor asked, a pretty woman with dark blue eyes and red hair pulled into a ponytail. Lowry was so upset by his broken feet that his modesty collapsed. He said he used a dance videotape too much because he didn’t get enough sex in his marriage. The doctor asked how much would be enough. Lowry said more often than twice a year.
“You have no other partner with whom you could…?”
“I’m too emotional. I’d fall in love. I have two daughters. The family would blow up.”
“Maybe you will blow up first.”
“If that’s the way it’s going to be…”
The doctor took a step back. He looked younger than fifty-one with his brawny torso, slim waist, and muscular thighs.
“How do you keep such a body, Mr. Lowry? It can’t be just by dancing.”
“I lift weights.”
“A lot of weights?”
“Yes, it gives me a release.”
“What do you mean by a release?”
“I wake up feeling terrible. Riding my bike to the embassy helps, but I can’t cry until after I bust myself lifting in the workout room before anyone else is there. Then I can go to my office and work.”
“You are depressed, Mr. Lowry.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
“Who would know? Your daughters?”
Lowry thought about Kara and Lucy, fifteen and twelve, giggling their way into his study one day and dancing with him. Maybe Kara knew. She looked at him as if embarrassed to have stumbled upon his lust for the instructor on the screen. Lowry began goofing around to conceal what she saw. They all dissolved in laughter and fell onto the carpet and the girls began tickling and hugging him.
“Look, I’m down because you’re telling me I’m going to be out of the office for a month, stuck at home.”
“Meaning stuck at home with your wife?”
“Not really. She’s always busy with the girls and her friends. There’s nothing I can do about my marriage except try not to think about it.”
“Maybe when your feet are healed, you could do something to resolve your problem.”
“Such as what?”
She told him about a brothel in Bad Godesberg where she had some clients. The women were healthy, and the activity was quite normal and positive. She wrote the address on a prescription pad.
“Go around to the back door.”
“Are you serious?”
“Mr. Lowry, sex with emotion is serious. Sex without it is therapeutic.”
Lowry had never been to a whorehouse. He imagined being found out and being sent back to the U.S., exactly what his wife wanted, all the way back to Indiana, but not what he wanted. He was administrative chief of a large embassy with several consulates. Stepping into a pile of his own shit would kill him. But in late September when his feet could take it, he resumed riding his bike along the Rhine to the embassy and on a Saturday afternoon, Bad Godesberg.
The mustard-colored house with brown trim had a deep porch and many windows through which nothing could be seen from the street. He pedaled around back, locked his bike, and climbed the stairs. The kitchen was an ordinary German kitchen, spic and span. Two women were sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes at the table. They introduced themselves as Hilda, with pink hair, and Greta, a brunette. Greta’s expression told him he was too early. Lowry began to apologize. She cut him off.
“No, it’s okay, come join us.”
Lowry accepted some coffee and asked why they began speaking English to him right away.
“Because of the way you walk,” Hilda said.
“How do I walk?”
“Like an American. Loose.” She shimmied her shoulders to illustrate. “Won’t you have a cookie?”
The madam came in. She asked how he had heard about them. The doctor, he said. Oh, the doctor! the madam said. The doctor had worked on her elbow after she had taken a bad fall. Greta said that the doctor had treated her knee when she tore her meniscus. Lowry told them about his feet.
“Come, now let’s care of the middle foot,” Hilda said. She led him upstairs. Her pussy was pink, too.
The next Saturday Lowry encountered two different women in the kitchen. Eva spoke English poorly and had a poor complexion. Marie spoke English well although with a low hum in it. She was quite pretty.
“Would you like to come upstairs?” she asked.
As they undressed, he tried to corral his emotions by asking her about herself.
“No, we don’t go into that,” she said.
“It ruins the fun.”
Fun? She didn’t sound as though this was fun. That hum was a sad sound.
After they were done, he got her to say she was Russian, couldn’t he tell? He said, no, not by her perfect English.
“But my accent?”
“You don’t have an accent. It’s just sounds like you hold back on what you say a little.”
“Do you mean I sound nasal?” She covered her nose with her hands.
Lowry said no, don’t do that. Not nasal. He took her hands off her nose.
“I love your nose.”
“What else do you like about me?”
“You’re obviously educated.” In fact, she could be someone who worked in one of the embassy sections he supervised although he knew she wasn’t. He met all his employees when they were hired, he memorized their names, he always said hello to them.
“That pleases you?”
It did please him. “It puts us more— how do I put this? —on the same level, but it does make me wonder—”
“— I said we don’t talk about that.”
“What do you think I was going to say?”
“You were going to ask where I was educated. Go back to what else you like about me.”
“I shouldn’t say this, but you’re built like a girl.”
“Why shouldn’t you say that?”
“Maybe that’s not how you would like to be built.”
“I’m not a girl, I’m a mother. Being pregnant made no difference.”
A mother? That disturbed him.
“Well, not in your body maybe but having a kid does make a difference.”
“I only meant my body.”
He asked if he could see her again. She said she worked a few hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. If he came then, yes, she would like to see him again.
When he saw the doctor for his last visit, she asked about his other problem. “Is it better?”
“Yes, but I don’t know if I can handle it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve turned one of the girls into what I think of as a girlfriend, like I have a date. I think about her all week. It’s not only sex. She has a kid, and I wonder about the kid. I wonder about where she grew up in Russia and where she was educated. It’s like I’m alive again.”
“How often have you seen her?”
“You’re not happy that you’re happy?”
“You could put it that way.”
The doctor offered him a sympathetic smile. “Do you think about saving her?”
“I think about saving almost everyone I meet. It’s what I do in my work. Save people from their mistakes.”
“Even though you know she has sex with you for money?”
“I know that.”
“Remember it, then, Mr. Lowry. Prostitution is difficult work. That’s why you must pay so much for it.”
Lowry saw Marie a fourth time. She seemed to give him more of herself, more smiles, more touches, more sounds. He wanted to say something to her about his feelings but was afraid to. Maybe if he kept seeing Marie, she’d be the one to say something. He hoped so.
In November the Marines staged their annual embassy ball. Lowry had to go even though his wife wouldn’t join him. She hadn’t gone to the Marine Ball last year, either. So. he would have a glass of champagne, talk with people, and leave early. As it turned out, he left earlier than he expected when he saw Riley from the political section arrive with his date.
On days when he wasn’t traveling, Riley biked down the paved path to the embassy, riding by the strand of villages, parks, and woods on his side of the Rhine and the forested mountains on the other side. One morning on the eve of winter, he thought the sky looked touchy; gray clouds were skidding down from the north. Eventually he came to the hotel where Hitler told Chamberlain that he had changed his position on the Sudetenland. That was the only sour note on the ride. For some reason Riley took Hitler’s affection for the hotel personally. Nonetheless he had been in the hotel with ministry and Bundestag contacts for lunch or a drink many times. Alternative meeting places in Bonn were drying up even before the government moved to Berlin following reunification. That was where the action was building—in Berlin and throughout the east—and Riley traveled there whenever he could, flying from Cologne in the morning, spending a day in Berlin, and on the next day taking a car or train deeper east in search of more political insight. You had to talk with the liberated but ambivalent Ossies face-to-face to connect with them. You had to listen to them carefully. One night in Leipzig he passed a couple staring at a jewelry shop window full of expensive Rolexes. The woman was crying. So much turmoil, for what, watches? And one day in Weimar he visited a soon-to-be-liquidated school for aspirants to international governmental posts where he listened to a young Russian woman named Marie Pavlova teach her native tongue. No ring on her finger, so he invited her to have a drink at the Elephant, unfortunately another Hitler favorite. At five o’clock she showed up accompanied by her seven-year-old son who had the same fox face as his slender young mother and the same uncanny composure. Usually, women concealed their children until at least the second date, but Marie wanted it known her son came first. Speaking in perfect German—Riley’s German was almost as good, his mother was German, which was why until now, at the end of his career, he had avoided being posted in Germany—she talked about how Weimar, where she wouldn’t have a job for long, was so easy for her as a single mother.
“We have a very nice apartment, I can walk Jenya to his school before I teach at my school, and on weekends, I give tours while my landlady looks after him. The West Germans don’t visit much, but you Americans are here all the time.”
“So you speak English, too?” Riley asked, switching to English.
“Of course, I’m a linguist.” She stroked Jenya’s brown hair. “Weimar is a very pleasant and peaceful place for us, isn’t it, Jenya?” she asked him in English, to which Jenya replied, “I like Weimar a lot.” So he was tri-lingual, too. “We will miss it, although what is the point of missing things? Nostalgia is no good for the spirit. What do you think, Mr. Riley?”
Riley wasn’t put off by her formality and the low drone in her voice, which somehow darkened her words. To him she was just past being a kid, under thirty, but at the same time, she was a divorcee and seemed tough. Maybe that was the result of the divorce, maybe its cause. He wouldn’t get into that. Just have an evening with her and her son instead of drinking too much, eating too little, and watching tv in his room too late. Weimar was beautiful but dead, virtually mummified. He would have skipped it if he didn’t admire Goethe so much and want to see his equally mummified house.
Riley agreed. He said he had done five overseas tours and didn’t miss any of them. “When I leave a country, I’m gone for good. No nostalgia at all. Where will you go after your school shuts down? Return to Moscow?”
“What about Berlin?”
“It’s too big and noisy and expensive.”
Riley said Hamburg didn’t feel big, and it wasn’t noisy, although yes, it was expensive. “Or Bonn? When the government moves to Berlin, there will be UN agencies arriving. Lots of new jobs.”
She stopped him, apparently concerned that too much discussion of an uncertain future would upset Jenya. “Please, we will figure this out, won’t we, Jenya?” Jenya nodded, not seeming anxious in the least.
Riley suggested they go from drinks to dinner. Women who were stiff—his mother was stiff—amused him. He liked messing with them. Gradually, Marie did loosen up, although not because of him, but because of Jenya. Before long she was quizzing him about his day at school as though they were sitting in the kitchen of their little apartment. No, he hadn’t had any candy at lunch, he said. Yes, he had done his homework; in fact, he had done it yesterday.
Riley had no children. Never thought he had much to contribute to furthering humanity, and now he was too old, past fifty, ready to retire. But he kept thinking about Marie and decided to go back to Weimar and see her before she vanished into the swirl of relocation and displacement that was blowing the former East Germany into the past. His rationale was spending a day at Buchenwald, for which the Ossies blamed the Wessies, not themselves. Marie offered to go with him. Riley told her no thanks.
“I have to go because that’s why I said I needed to return to Weimar, not because I want to, or would want you to.”
“I was born in the Soviet Union and have lived in East Germany, Mr. Riley. I’m not likely to become any more disturbed.”
Riley took this as an opening to become more personal. “You would say you’re disturbed?”
She widened her eyes as if surprised. “Can’t you tell?”
She said her ex-husband, also Russian, brought her to Chemnitz—a foul, polluted city Riley knew well—where he consulted in his field, metallurgy. There he fell in love with a German woman and wanted a divorce so he could take her back to the USSR with him. You can have your divorce and take her with you, Marie said, but I will stay here. How can you stay here? he asked. I will find a way, she said. And she did. But then East Germany ceased to exist and now her school soon would cease to exist.
“All that is quite disturbing, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Riley?”
“I’m sorry, Marie. I really am.”
“Don’t feel sorry for me.”
“Does he help support Jenya?”
“No, but I have found ways to have money.”
“Enough to survive, I guess.”
“Just surviving isn’t enough.”
Riley spent the day at Buchenwald alone. “Jedem das Seine” the sign on the gate said, which he translated as, “You get what you have coming to you.” The experience shook him. He had gone over this era of German history and knew it quite well, but there wasn’t anything in any book he had read or film he had seen that prepared him for this open grave that never could be closed. Back in Weimar he sat with Marie on a bench watching Jenya play in a park and wondered if the time had come when he had to take life seriously.
“What about giving Bonn a closer look?” he asked Marie. “I have a house on the Rhine with three empty bedrooms and a yard where Jenya could play.”
She gave him a reproving look. “What are you suggesting?”
Riley backed up. “I only mean I could help you while you get settled.” That wasn’t all he meant but all he dared say.
“I can do whatever I have to do by myself,” she said. “I have done it. I know how.”
“Yes, of course.”
Riley returned to Weimar a third time on his own dime. He admitted he liked her but claimed all he had in mind was getting to know her.
“No, I think you feel sorry for me. I told you not to.”
They went back and forth. He was determined that he would not retreat simply because she made him uncomfortable. He admired Marie for standing on her own two feet, and he didn’t find anything to admire about himself evading consequences all his life. That was why he didn’t miss the people and places of his past.
The resolution was that she and Jenya would come to Bonn and stay with him while she looked for a job and an apartment, both of which she found in the first week. Only then did they have sex, which sometimes approached making love. At other times she seemed in a hurry to finish and talk about what she really wanted from a man. She wanted to be married but didn’t say this as though she were suggesting Riley be the man she married. She said it as though Riley was a third party whose perspective might be worthwhile. Her concern was that Jenya needed a father. It was the children who need men more than the women, she said. Riley found it disconcerting to be shunted aside as if he weren’t a man anymore, especially because Marie had the kind of independence he thought he could live with. Beyond that, he liked Jenya, Jenya was a cool kid.
The bike path took him past a stretch of large houses set back from the Rhine because of periodic flooding, including the ambassador’s residence on a hill. Then there were woods and a few untended fields and eventually a view of the Königswinter ferry and the embassy where Riley settled into his office. An easy place to get a lot of boring work done fast. He read incoming cables and signed off on outgoing cables. He had a few meetings, no outside appointments, and lunch downstairs in the cafeteria. A dull day interrupted by fantasies about Marie. Before he married her, he would have to talk to Lowry, the admin chief. That was the rule when you married a non-American overseas. The admin chief needed to say okay, but Lowry was a guy who liked to say okay. Everyone knew that.
Through the course of the day Riley looked out the window at the trees being tossed about by the wind, which seemed to be rising. Sometimes along the Rhine massive storms did barrel down from the north. This one looked wicked. He decided, as Lowry apparently had decided, to leave a bit early. They met at the bike rack and agreed to ride together. It was growing dark.
Lowry had his doubts about taking on the storm, though. Its wind was so strong and buffeting that it made his eyes tear. “Are you okay with this?” he called to Riley, who couldn’t hear him. Lowry rode closer. “Why don’t we go back and take a car?” he shouted. “We can get our bikes tomorrow.”
“No, let’s keep going,” Riley said.
“We’ll be drenched if it rains.”
“It’s not going to rain. Come on.”
Riley dropped into a crouch and swung his bike right and left as if he were climbing a steep hill. The trees along the path made a weird keening sound. The bell on the stern of a struggling freighter plowing north clanged heavily. The river’s surface was scalloped with whitecaps. A man in the hotel up ahead was leaning out the window, trying to grab a clapping shutter.
“Come on, you fucker, let go!” Riley yelled at the wind, but he wasn’t getting anywhere. Soon he had to dismount.
Lowry again suggested again that they go back to the embassy and take a car. Riley again said no. He wanted to call Marie when he got home and possibly get himself invited to her place.
“Then why not go into the hotel and have a drink until this blows itself out a little?” Lowry asked.
“I hate that hotel,” Riley said.
“Come on, we can barely walk let alone ride.”
Lowry wasn’t a drinker but sitting at the bar was better than going home. The girls already would have eaten. His meal would be warming on a plate under a pie pan on the range top. If he was lucky, one of the girls would come downstairs and do her homework beside him as he ate. When he finished his plate, he would make a sandwich for himself to keep her there and replenish his muscles from the morning’s weightlifting.
As their faces and fingers warmed up, they stopped talking about the wind and turned to shoptalk, embassy stuff. After a while, Lowry had to ask Riley how he was doing.
Riley’s non sequitur answer startled him. “I’ve been thinking that if you went to a museum and every fifteen minutes you could watch a bullet burst through one wall into another wall, you would sell a lot of tickets. People would get very keyed up, waiting for that bullet.”
“Why were you thinking that?”
“Out there on the path we’re sitting ducks from across the river. The Red Army could snipe us both.”
“Do you think about being shot often?”
“In Berlin sometimes I go over to places where I probably shouldn’t. If I don’t connect, I walk back to the hotel by myself and think morbid thoughts. I get that way when I drink too much by myself.”
“I’ve heard you don’t spend many nights by yourself.”
“I know, that’s my reputation, but things change.” Riley signaled for another round of scotch. “I have a relationship.”
“Admin counselors know everything, I guess. She’s Russian.”
“Yes, heard that, too.”
Riley decided to come out with it. “I’m thinking about marrying her and adopting her son. Her name is Marie.”
After he saw Riley and Marie at the Marine Ball, Lowry had a tough time with jealousy. He wanted her for himself, those Saturday afternoons, the bike ride to the brothel, the friendliness in the kitchen, her own friendliness, the light way she touched the back of his neck with her fingers while they were making love.
“That could be a complicated way to start being married.”
“Is any marriage simple?”
“I guess not. I have a terrible marriage.” The words just slipped out. He had never said anything like them except that once to the doctor who treated his feet.
“I didn’t know that.”
“We have nothing but the girls in common. She hates living overseas. The girls and I love it.”
“Your girls are gorgeous. How old are they?”
“Twelve and fifteen. What’s she like, this … Marie?”
“Very smart, very independent. I persuaded her to move to Bonn, but she only stayed in my house until she could get her own apartment.”
“I think I heard that.”
“Who tells you this stuff?”
“The only thing in an embassy bigger than its ears are its mouth.”
“And she’s a hard worker, very concerned about money. She teaches Russian all week and then tutors privately all weekend. I take her son to his soccer games while she’s doing it.”
The fresh drinks came. Riley raised his glass and gave a little disquisition on the hotel’s sordid history. When he finished, he suggested they have dinner. It was getting too late to call Marie.
“You just said how much you hate this place,” Lowry said.
“We’re going to need some energy to take on that wind again.”
They sat by a window overlooking the Rhine. The window was trembling. Riley was having pork and Lowry was having fish. Riley ordered a bottle of Riesling.
“I guess I still have to talk to you first if I want to marry a foreigner overseas,” he said. “That’s so antiquated, don’t you think? The Cold War is over.”
“Maybe but it’s still the rule.”
“Could we do it right now?”
“Now? Jesus, have you asked her to marry you?”
“No, but I’m going to. I took her to the Marine Ball. Did you see her there?”
“Don’t think so.”
“You’d remember. She’s a little more than half my age. Moves like a ballerina.”
Lowry said, “Great.” He couldn’t say more.
“What if we called Marie and your wife and asked them to join us?”
“Joan wouldn’t come. We don’t do anything together.”
“All she wants is to go into real estate, and she can’t sell real estate overseas. My fault.”
“Are you going to divorce?”
“Can’t do that to the girls.” Lowry didn’t want to talk about Joan and the girls and losing his family. “How does your girlfriend happen to be in Germany?”
“She came with her husband on his job.”
“What kind of job?”
“You mean was he KGB? I guess this really is our talk, then.”
“No, let’s wait until security checks her out, then talk.”
“What would happen if I wouldn’t wait?”
“You’d have to wait.”
“But what if I wouldn’t?”
“You’d get drummed out. You could lose a chunk of your pension. Wait until you’re retired. It’s next year, right?”
“The problem is I doubt Marie would come to the States unless we were married first.”
Lowry sometimes wished he had gone for the German doctor instead. She had him by the dick the moment she began asking him about sex. He told the waiter to bring him another serving of schnitzel and spätzle to settle himself.
“I guess you can eat whatever you want the way you work out,” Riley said.
“4,000 calories a day.”
“The only way I’d consume that many calories would be from drinking.” Riley polished off the last of the wine and ordered glasses of cognac for them both. For a few minutes they sat there in silence, Riley sipping his cognac, Lowry finishing his second plate of food.
Riley gestured toward the wind, invisible except for its effects: a quivering street sign, the roiled apron of water illuminated by the hotel’s lights. “If I do have to die, I wouldn’t mind being plugged from over there,” he said. “Die and get it over with.”
“That’s how I’ve always wanted to go.”
“Me, too. I wouldn’t want to linger thinking about all the good things I let slip away.” He ordered a second glass of cognac.
“Hey, take mine, I haven’t touched it,” Lowry said.
“No, you drink it.”
“I don’t ordinarily drink this much.”
“Maybe you should. You’re the most tightly wound guy in the embassy, but you’re always smiling.”
“Unless you’re grimacing. Hard to tell.”
Lowry picked up his glass of cognac. The waiter brought Riley his second.
“This weekend I’ll ask her,” Riley said. “Maybe Monday you can have security start its background check.”
The words burbled out of Lowry; it felt a little like throwing up; he couldn’t swallow how disturbed he felt about Riley sweeping Marie away. “Jerry, look, I have to tell you something.”
“There’s a brothel in Bad Godesberg.”
“It seems as though Marie works there.”
Riley cut Lowry off. “That’s ridiculous. Marie works all the time teaching. She’s a mother, absolutely straight.”
“Who told you this?”
“You mean you found out yourself? That’s where you take care of your bad marriage?”
Lowry didn’t answer.
“You said you’ve never seen Marie. How would you even know?” Lowry pressed.
“Maybe I don’t, but there’s a Russian who resembles what I’ve heard about Marie.”
“Does she say her name is Marie?”
Lowry lied. “No, she calls herself Paula.”
“Okay, maybe you should just stay away from Paula.”
“I am staying away.”
Riley twisted in his chair. He asked for a cigar. The waiter said smoking wasn’t permitted. He returned to Lowry. “Does this Paula have a son?”
“She said she did, yes.”
“Seven, she said.”
Riley pushed himself up from the table, not steady, drunk. “Fuck you, Theo. Handle the bill yourself.”
Riley lurched out of the dining room. Lowry followed as quickly as he could. The wind was just as strong and relentless outside. Not far ahead, Riley was crouched over and weaving. When they had passed the embassy club and were riding along the meadow, Riley toppled over.
Lowry reached him and began pulling him up. “I’m going to get you home, Jerry.”
“No, I’ll make it on my own.”
Riley’s house was only a hundred yards past the meadow. Lowry grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him upright.
“Come on, Jerry. Let’s walk our bikes. We’re almost there.”
They covered the hundred yards slowly, neither speaking. Lowry used Riley’s key to get into the house and helped him upstairs. Riley tumbled onto his bed.
“Leave me here. I’m good.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Just one question. How much do you pay?”
“Come on, Jerry.”
“Tell me. I want to know. How much?”
“No, how much?”
“A hundred and fifty Euros.”
“That’s cheap, but she won’t need it when we’re married, and you’re not telling me no.” Riley lay on his back looking up at the ceiling as if his future was up there. “You’re saying yes unless you want security checking you out, too.”
“Say it. Say yes.”
“Yes, this is our talk. Say yes.”
Lowry said yes. He went to the bathroom to get Riley to a glass of water. By the time he returned, Riley was out. Lowry took a moment to scan the bedroom. Riley had a photograph of Marie standing behind Jenya on his bureau. Lowry didn’t dwell on it.
At his house, Joan already was upstairs in bed. Both girls were in the kitchen doing their homework and waiting for him. Lucy, the younger one, was mad. Where had he been? Kara, the older one, could tell he had been drinking and hushed her. “Lay off, now’s not the time.” She got him some milk and Graham crackers and sat beside him. He could see how worried she was. He told her not to be. Everything was all right.
This work by Robert Earle is released under a CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.