Germany. February. The terminal isn’t as crowded as Teo expected. He sits on a plastic bench facing a dozen screens listing flight schedules. Beside him: Christa, cross-legged. She is uncomfortable, shifts her weight side to side, as though trying to catch sunlight through the glass windows behind them. A female voice on the loudspeaker announces the boarding of a plane to Venice. It is morning, early, they are sleepy still. He has yet to check in his luggage. She wants to finish her coffee. Her skin is paler than usual and the dark under her eyes seems darker. He considers asking if she slept well but then realizes he has already asked this earlier in the car.
He is taking Lufthansa. Lufthansa, he says, though she does not seem to hear him. It is a word that you exhale.
Christa yawns, slides down on the plastic seat and leans her head against him. Her eyes are closed.
I don’t remember anymore when we met exactly, she says.
Years ago, he says.
But the date?
He does not know either.
It was in Heidelberg. Spring. She was painting the river. She lives there. Ever since, they have met at various destinations to have reunions. This time it was Berlin. The previous was New York, where Teo has an apartment. They have been to England and Prague. They are planning to go to Madrid. Other places.
A latent secrecy, he feels, lies in their meetings, though he is not sure why. They are not committing infidelity. No one else is involved. Perhaps it is because their meetings are sporadic. Or because a journey is required, as though they are fleeing something. When they see each other they make use of the little time they have. A week, at most. She does not know his friends. He does not know hers. In those moments they are each other and no more.
At first, it thrilled him. Her as well. But it has turned into fatigue, he would say, but in truth it is indifference. He is not sure why. Time, perhaps. Repetition. Even in traveling, in arriving at someplace new, there exists the patterns. There are these airports. These terminals. The rooms. The goodbyes.
Yet no matter how much he considers the possibility of an ending there is always a next. It goes on. They meet. He calls her, she calls him. They fly. And it is fine and he thinks it is love because he cannot think of any other explanation. Or: he does not want to.
He takes her hand. She squeezes. It is time to go.
There is a difference between walking through an airport and walking on the street or the inside of a building. As though the terminals are not physically touching ground but floating. Or the floors are slightly tilted, perspectives skewed. It is the knowledge of impending flight, my brother Teo tells me. Your mind is already lifting.
We have met in London. He has moved here. He takes me to Covent Garden. The stalls outdoors sell silverware, books, trinkets. Inside the main building with its glass roof are the retail stores. A crowd gathers, as if they have suddenly appeared in unison. A place one should be wise to avoid. The food is terrible. The antiques overpriced.
But I wanted you to see it, Teo says.
He waves his hand up in the air, like swatting a fly. It is autumn, cold, the sky dull. We stand beside a stall with rows of postcards organized by geography. The paper tabs indicate: Oxford, Norwich, Cambridge, and so on. They are old, these postcards. The paper worn, yellowed, their edges creased. The colors faded. Teo flips through them. The man selling them speaks Thai to another vendor across the path.
Once, in New York, Teo opened his closet and took out a shoebox. He presented it to me. Open it, he said. Inside were dozens of postcards from Germany, England, Prague, and Madrid. Most were from our father, addressed to our mother. Photographs of mountains in Wales, a clock tower in Prague, the Philosopher’s Way in Heidelberg. There were others signed by a name I did not recognize.
Who is Christa?
She is magnificent, he replied.
This was many years ago.
He does not know where she is these days. He does not speak of her often. I never met her. I know her only in photographs and what he used to tell me. She was taller than he. Blonde hair that fell past her shoulders. For Teo, her accent was unnoticeable although he wonders if it were a matter of acclimation—whether someone else would have noticed. She had a pair of blue corduroy pants she found in a thrift store in the East Village that she wore every Sunday. She kept them for years. Until the fabric around her thighs began to lighten, thin, you could see skin. Sometimes she neglected to shave and he found it erotic.
Why do I tell you this? He shook his head. Laughter.
In the section designated as London he pulls out a postcard of the Thames. It is a reproduction of a painting from above and away, perhaps on a bridge. With a steamboat and crates being unloaded along the pale banks. We wonder when it was made. He turns it over.
We are startled. There is writing. Thick strokes of cursive, black ink. It is dated: 1948.
Your gift arrived yesterday. I know already where it will be kept. Until the next time we meet.
We have all sent postcards. And received them. Are these then the ones lost? Or is it that when we are gone, this is where they go? I do not say anything. I am waiting for Teo. Because he is my older brother and I have looked to him since we were children. He is silent. I watch his face, his wide eyes, his dark eyebrows. It is all empty, open. His skin has relaxed, as though he is asleep. He swallows, his Adam’s apple rises then settles back into place.
There are hundreds. We run our fingers across the rows in the stall. Dead letters. He picks out another one. We both do. We read them out loud to each other. An hour passes. Perhaps more. We do not care. Behind us, the crowd is ceaseless. They come in waves. A magician performs in front of the cathedral. Clapping. Cheering.
In the end, Teo opens his wallet. He asks me how much money I have. We combine the total. He hands it to the Thai vendor, who clasps the bills with his thick fingers, astonished.
I am a collector, Teo assures him.
The man licks his thumb.
A hotel room. They have been arguing. It starts as something trivial, perhaps. How Teo enjoys the cold of the air conditioner. How much it is a waste. His strange habit of making sure the curtains are entirely closed, without a single line of light, even though they are high up and no one will see them. She has misunderstood. He needs the dark to fall asleep. It needs to be whole. No, she says. You feel vulnerable. Closed. I hate this. And then the conversation changes. All of a sudden it has heightened. They speak of America. Why she refuses to live there. Why he is a lesser person for living there already.
Throughout this they also speak of when they will see each other next, neither of them knowing, and, on account of this, frustrated. So they blame the other.
She sits beside the desk, facing a mirror. She watches his reflection at the edge of the bed. The engines of an airplane thunder beyond the brown curtains. And then the quiet. Sudden. And it is as if the sound has taken with it their anger.
I will miss you, she says.
A year has passed. There is still the newness, which is evolving into what they think of as depth.
I will write to you, she adds.
We will work, he says.
There is nothing more to be said, it seems. He is empty of words. They have apologized. He stares at her back, the pale of her skin. And it brings forth loneliness and he is surprised. She is right there. He can reach towards her and touch her shoulders if he wishes. Yet he is alone.
This conviction continues as they lie in bed. The lights off. She is asleep. His eyes, having grown accustomed to the dark, sees her body as shades. She is on her side, facing him. Her breathing: settled, slow, at peace. She is most vulnerable then. He smells her breath, the mint of toothpaste. He faces the ceiling, which begins to lift. And then the bed lengthens in all directions until it resembles a field and Christa he imagines as a mountain range. She is land. She is a destination. She is not a person. He is about to travel. He is about to embark. He sees a passage.
He blinks. The fantasy, before it has begun in earnest, is gone. Ephemeral. Christa shifts closer to him. Her nose touches the side of his face, her chin on his shoulder. And just then, she wakes for a moment, rises to kiss him, and then returns to the pillow.
Teo thinks of how often she has done this. How well, it seems, he knows her sleeping habits, although they have only shared a bed a few times. He touches the side of her face, the arc of her jaw. She does not feel his hand. And, as quietly as he can, with his lips pressed together, he cries.
In Snowdonia they take the least difficult path. It is also the slowest. It rises gradually, between boulders, around hills, across a manmade bridge that arcs over a narrow ravine. Instead of the rocks, they climb a ladder built by the guides. They place their feet where others have stepped. They are careful. The mountain here consists of five peaks, the highest reaching 3,560 feet. The air is damp and cold, the sky as gray as stone.
Throughout their ascent Teo tells her of the view that will welcome them. All of Wales, he says. All of England. He says this as though it is all his. He has never been here before. They are tourists.
They carry backpacks with packed lunches. Sandwiches of turkey and avocado, wrapped in foil. Bottles of water. They rest often. It grows colder. Their sweat has chilled under their sweaters and parkas.
They have been climbing for two hours, though it does not seem that long. Their bodies, while in motion, forget time. They are somewhere between earth and sky and even though their breaths grow short, it does not feel as though they are moving upwards. Even though the village, which now lies below them, is proof of their height. Even when the clouds lower and fog begins to settle.
Onward. Through a narrow pass with steep stone walls and then a clearing, grass, a lake. They pause, breathless. The water sharp and silver and still. The reflection of sky. The surface is pure. It appears, however illogical, that they are the first to discover it. That no one and nothing has ever touched the water.
She takes his hand. His grip is firm, his fingers stiff and red from the cold. Beyond them a group of tourists continue the climb.
We walk around it, he says, grinning, like a child, she thinks.
Yes, she says.
There is a folktale he knows about a man who was able to transform into anything he desired and speak all languages and in this way enter any kingdom. For the longest time, he says, I believed it.
He tells her this and she listens and falls in love with him.
Will you keep me warm? he says.
She senses it. Mischief.
He strips to his underwear. His chest is pale. He runs. Breaks water. Screams from the cold and his voice echoes up towards the peak of the mountain and the groups of tourists look down. Some begin to cheer.
She follows. Walks up to the bank and watches him floating on his back. She imagines that this is a time long ago and they have known each other all their lives and that the future is knowable and will welcome what is desired. She imagines never meeting him but it is impossible. She is here. He is there. They are each hundreds of miles away from what they have thought of as life until months ago. He is a stranger. She knows little of him. And yet she does not believe this as true. They have begun. A shape is being formed. And it is unexpected.
He rushes out, his skin dripping. He huddles, shivering, his toes in fists, and she wants nothing more than to hold him but she resists. For a moment. There he is and there is the lake and where they will climb.
Her chest is warm. She gives it.
Maps and Continents
This was when our father’s heart was still with him.
A storm one evening. The next day Teo and our father shovel while I watch through a window with our mother. I am nine or ten, Teo a few years older. We are living in a house two hours north of New York City, one of many, but that is another story.
Teo shovels fast and our father tells him to slow down, conserve his energy. And then he—our father—tells of when he was a child. When it snowed, all the kids in the village would begin to build a snow wall as high up as they could and then slide down on worn bamboo placemats stolen from their mothers’ kitchens. He tells him about how long it took to build that snow wall and compared to the thrill of sliding down—which lasted less than a second—it might not have seemed worth it. But it was, he says. It was worth every last flake of snow.
He goes on but Teo is not listening. He has lost interest. (Do you remember it? he will ask me years later, his tone pleading, the way he always talks to me about our father’s stories, his travels, where he has been.)
Clearing the driveway is all Teo cares for on that morning, his arms tense and burning. For he has discovered, through this exertion, a purpose: that in the end he is the one who will turn a tall bed of snow into a clean path. That he will make this. Less a path than movement. An opening. Like the travelers he read about in history books, heading westward. So when his shovel hits pavement and he catches sight of a sliver of blacktop like a miniature river cutting through a valley, he strikes it again with all his strength to make sure it is solid and shouts, I have made maps and I have touched continents.
Mitfahr. A carpooling service based in Germany. He says it will save them money. She calls. They wait to see if anyone is going to Prague for the New Year. Two days later, at dawn, they are in a car passing through Bavaria, the fields smooth with snow. They sit in the back. A man drives, his wife beside him. They are friendly. Teo sleeps with his head against the window. Christa speaks to them. I want to return to school, she says, and it surprises her. She wasn’t sure but now that she has voiced it she is certain. She says it again. She checks to see if Teo is still asleep. How easy it is to confess to strangers, she thinks. Because you will never see them again. Because they will forget.
At the border they enter a road that passes through a forest. Along the sides stand women dressed in long cheap coats. They wave. Teo, having awoken, waves back.
They will meet the couple after New Year’s at their hotel. They will take them back. They shake hands, wishing each other well, a good celebration, and then part.
A semicircle of tourists have gathered at the entrance of the Old Town Hall, their cameras positioned upwards at the tower where two dials hang like the path of a setting sun. Above that are three small, shut doors.
This is the Orloj. The Astronomical clock. The bottom dial is the calendar with symbols of the month. The statues beside it are the Virtues of the city: a Chronicler, an Angel, an Astronomer, and the Philosopher. The top dial is the clock, blue and brown, which shows the rotations of the sun, moon, stars, the nights, and the days. The statues beside it are: Vanity, the Miser, Death, and the Piper. In the old days, these were the four Terrors of the city.
Teo speaks slowly and his pointing finger sways like a buoy.
They aren’t very accurate, Teo says.
He tells Christa one of the many legends behind the Orloj. A man named Hanus had built it and afterwards the city councilmen had blinded him so that he would be unable to build a reproduction. Hanus sought revenge by climbing the tower at night, with the help of a friend, and twisted its gears beyond repair. From then on, those who have tried to restore it perished or went mad.
Just then Death begins to pull on a bell cord and two doors above the clock dial open.
They watch the procession of the apostles: miniature statues of St. Paul from the left door, St. Peter on the right. All twelve appear, as below, the Piper shakes his head, the Miser covets his bag, and Vanity admires himself in a mirror. At the very top, the final door reveals a cockerel, crowing, and then the bell chimes, signifying the hour. Photographs are taken.
I am a Chronicler, Christa says.
They spend their days walking through the city. They cross the Charles Bridge, over the Vlatava River, into the Old Town and the Prague Castle. They go to jazz clubs. They buy scarves and wrap them over their heads and ears.
On New Year’s, they return to the square, watch men hang out of windows and shoot fireworks into the violet sky. They kiss. They taste of champagne, cigarettes. Their mouths are dry. They spend hours there, unaware that their legs have stiffened.
At the hotel they make love in silence. They are tired. It is quick. And without the other knowing, they are each grateful to be done with it. Sleep welcomes them.
They never find the married couple. The hotel manager tells them they left two days earlier.
It is too late to fly. Perhaps they can take the train. They do not know. They stand beside a telephone booth in the square, the Orloj above them. A city worker sweeps the litter and the burnt paper stuck between the cobblestone. She has been calling numbers. She asks him where she should call next. He doesn’t answer. He is distracted by the clock.
Teo, she says.
I’m waiting for the apostles, he says, looking at his watch.
He places a finger to his lips.
This is when she hits him. It is meant to get his attention but as soon as she lifts her hand she feels its force and its possibility and she is all of a sudden homesick and the city is empty and vast and she is with a man who is not listening. She does not know what to do. So she hits him. First on the shoulder, so that his body sways. And then next against his chin, her fingers this time extended, so that she claws him and he is quick to cover his face, falling, and she bends over, grabs his hair, and shouts.
Look at me, she says. You fucking prick.
Her breathing slows. It fogs against his lips. His face is that of a child’s. Absorption, curiosity, his eyes like planets. He remains motionless, his body stiff, as though waiting to be hit again. Blood along his jaw. She wipes it away so that it smears and fades copper and she says she is sorry and holds his face, presses her forehead against his, and tells him she is right here and it is where she has always been.
In Heidelberg, at the castle, he watches a painter cast her strokes like a fisherman. It is early evening. Below, the university town, the Neckar River, and across that the sloping hills of the Philosopher’s Way. It is the sunset she is after.
It is a Sunday. And he has been told that in Germany everybody walks on Sundays—a mass migration. Across the river he sees them, following the path up the hills, like moving windows reflecting the dying light of the day.
From his bag he takes out a bottle of wine and offers some to the painter. She is young, in her late twenties, and he asks her how long she has been here.
Ewigkeit, she says as her chapped lips wrap around the bottle. Ages.
He shows her a postcard from decades ago.
Perhaps you saw my father then, he says, and she smiles.
They introduce themselves. Her name is Christa.
I’m keeping you, he says. You’ll miss the light.
It’s just a hobby, Christa says, pointing at the canvas.
She then leads him toward the castle wall. She points up at the maroon tower then brings her arm down slowly, like the path of the sun, where it stops at their feet. In front of them there lies embedded a footprint within the concrete. It is smooth and in the shape of a fish. He asks how long it has been there.
Ages, she says again, then sinks her shoe into it. It matches perfectly. For good luck, she says.
And so he lifts his foot.
Our father wanted us to know that words outlasted us. Written, or drawn, as in calligraphy, on paper. This was proof in the books he owned, the scrolls hanging in his office. Our mother disagreed. It was, rather, the land: the soil and the stones. For it was here long before our existence. And it would remain long afterwards. She once picked up a rock in our driveway and brought it level to our eyes. This is the face of indifference, she said, grinning, showing teeth.
He is in the air. The plane ascends and an hour later he is above water. The Atlantic. A mother and her child sit beside him, the child closest to the window. The boy’s hair is light, curly. He stands on his seat, presses his palms against the cold oval pane and his mother holds him by the waist. He speaks to the mother briefly. She is going to meet her husband. They are considering moving to New York. Perhaps it would be good for the child. A change in culture. Perhaps then he would one day appreciate his origins. She says all this as if she is unsure of her conviction, as if she wants Teo to reassure her. He nods, agrees.
He has said goodbye to Christa. By now, she is in her car. He imagines the way she grips the steering wheel, tightly, her back hunched, the way she sometimes misuses English words and tells him that driving is painful.
She slipped a postcard into his carry-on. It is a photograph of the Rhine River during daylight. He turns it over. It is blank. He rubs the paper and then imagines his finger as a pen and so he writes: You are a mountain and I have crossed it.
The boy begins to tap the window. He tells his mother he can see a boat below them. The mother plays along, asks her son: What kind of boat?
A big one, the boy says.
Lots of people?
The boy nods with confidence.
And where are they going?
Daddy, the boy says.
Teo listens as he describes the boat. And although the boy is imagining all of this, in truth, there are most likely many boats crossing the Atlantic at this moment. He recalls then a recent incident involving dozens of stowaways—emigrants—who had drowned when a cargo ship caught fire and sunk. The news had reported that a few survived and were diverted to a country that was not their original destination. And where were they from? Where had they been going? He does not know.
He looks past the boy, out the window. They are amidst clouds. The plane rocks and the insides of him go weightless. The mother smiles at him, shrugs, ignores the turbulence. He listens to the engine. The boy plays with his seatbelt. Unbuckles it. Buckles it. His mother tells him to stop. Teo shuts his eyes. He thinks about the amount of people who have, throughout the many years, perished in the ocean. How the only ground they ever touched in the end, if they made it that far, lies miles and miles below their intended port of arrival.