Continued from Little Cheaters on God.
Our first evening together again, we ventured down to the street and crossed a footbridge over the narrow, serene Neckar, its polished green surface bearing placid swans. I felt like I was watching myself in a fairytale that wasn’t what it looked like at all. We strolled up the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town, to a restaurant in a castle that dated to the fifteenth century. There, I fell in love again, but not with R—with my first German food. The restaurant specialized in maultaschen, a southern German version of a ravioli, stuffed with meat, spinach, onions, breadcrumbs, and a dash of nutmeg, and served in a rich meat broth. In this landlocked province where fish is hard to find, the savory dumplings are traditionally served on Good Friday, when the Catholic church forbids eating meat, because the meat is concealed inside the dumpling. If you can’t see what’s inside, it doesn’t really count, was the reasoning. Their nickname, in the tongue-tying Swäbian dialect, is “herrgottsbescheisserle,” which translates as “little cheaters on God.”
Each day, I walked from our flat into the old town, over footbridges, and across the cobblestones, to my language classes. The cobblestones were the reason R insisted on buying such horrible cheap shoes: they would be chewed to death by cobbles anyway.
“Buy the expensive shoes,” I urged. “Why do you think they are so much more teuer? Because they’re made better. They will last.”
“They will all fall apart,” he said. He believed Cole Haan headed a giant conspiracy to make consumers pay more for the same shoes you could get at Kinney’s. It was as though he could not imagine a pair of shoes that were comfortable and lasted, too. I could not help wondering what his hopes were for our marriage.
He ended up with a pair of German shoes costing twenty-three marcs, thirty-eight dollars. They were plum and prune-colored saddle shoes. I couldn’t stand his shoes, his miserliness, and his pessimism. The shoes fell apart. Fast. In two months he was sitting at the tiny table berating German craftsmanship and wielding a tube of superglue. Meanwhile, the crack between our pushed-together twin beds came to feel like a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon.
In the evenings, R would come home dejected from work and I seemed to have no power to cheer him, although we were doing all the things a young couple with very little money in Germany does. Weekends, we explored the countryside in the reliable old red Saab. We slid across the polished stone floors of minor castles in fabric booties; we ate käse and völlkorn brot in fields overlooking lush valleys. Once we splurged and spent the day at Bad Urach, a spa town with a health club built around a mineral spring, which appeared to be popular among the elderly. Clothing was optional. At this point, soft pretzels, hasselnuss chocolade, and apfel strudel had become a very real part of me. But seeing all those old, wrinkled legs, drooping abdomens, and soft dimpled bottoms and breasts in more shapes and sizes than I could have imagined—like the offerings behind the counter at the backerei—mine suddenly didn’t seem distinctive one way or the other.
R signed me up for a German class that was held in small classroom on the second floor of a narrow, otherwise empty building above the Neckar. Around town, the Swäbian dialect, which occupies its own dictionary with a spine three inches thick, settled around me every day like a muffling blanket, rendering me mute. The inability to communicate transported me back to the seventh grade, of never knowing what to say. Here, I knew what to say, but I didn’t know how to say it.
My fellow classmates were much older than I, and just as mute, a Turk and an Italian and two Spaniards and one Brit and three men from Afghanistan and a French woman. I never knew what was going on. But one day, we opened our workbook to an outline of a fat naked man with no eyes or ears or penis and had to draw body parts and then identify them in German. I gave the gelded German man big crossed eyes and labeled them augen, and pointed elf ohren on either side of his head, sharp vampire zähne and a fuzzy ring of Bozo haar. Then the instructor told us other words to write in the correct places. He had a stomachache. I fitted him with a wide belt and a giant buckle that read magenschmerz. The man had a headache, she said. I wrote kopfschmerzen inside a pointed party hat.
When it was my turn to hold up the workbook to show my fellow classmates, the Afghan men and the Turk and the Italian and Spaniards made appreciative eye contact and broke into chuckles. That’s when I realized I hadn’t laughed for days.
But I loved the ancient crooked streets of Tubingen, the old logging trails through the forest on which I would walk for miles, my mind reeling with the fact that every single inch of these hills had been tread for millennia. I loved the built-in history, I loved the happy drunks at every festival. And of course, the food—I logged leagues those trails trying to outrun the apfel strudel. What I didn’t know was that every single inch of my predicament had been tread for millenia, and that there was no outrunning it.
Three months went by, then four. From beside the Neckar River I watched the swans, paddling, unconcerned, with one wedge of black foot, the other tucked among the wing feathers on their backs, and wrote my mother letters. They went like this: “Everything is fine. R is fine. I am fine. There are swans here. They are fine. I am learning German, and German is fine.”
I had never written such a dull letter in my life. But where I had, in my letters to him from Australia, found a voice I’d loved, here I found another voice. It was one of my first hands-on experiences with using fiction in order to achieve a deeper truth. I could not admit to anyone that something was wrong but I could not pretend any different. It didn’t help that I didn’t know what was wrong. But I knew if I sent out those wooden missives, alarm bells would ring from Idaho to Virginia. And I was frantic to be heard. Franticness can be happening within one body walking into the postampt with a handful of thin envelopes. An insect drowning, in the sea or in a puddle. Several seconds, a minute at most, legs scrambling, not meant for swimming. It is small and it is private, the state of being frantic.
[And as that’s over 1,000 words, I’ll leave it there for the moment. Third installment next Sunday: Little Cheaters on God, Part 3]