As I walked along the warm sand towards the pair, I saw Halim sitting on the small sandy beach that lay to the north of the barnacle-encrusted piles supporting the old, timbered wharf. His arms were wrapped around his knees and his head rested on his knees. Jasmine knelt beside him with one of her arms around his shoulders. Halim wore a bright blue, long-sleeved dress shirt, khaki chinos, and dress shoes, an outfit at odds with the vacationing family picnicking nearby. Halim was a creature of habit, and neither the weather nor the landscape were enough to cause him to cease the habits he said soothed him.
“Halim!” I called, when I was still some distance away.
Jasmine turned to me and waved, her inky black hair gleaming almost blue in the sunlight. I closed the remaining distance and stopped beside them. Halim did not look up at my approach.
“Hi, Daniel. Nice to see you again. Glad you could make it,” she said.
“I’m happy I was able to get away. How was your trip, Halim? I haven’t seen you since you left for Africa.”
Halim had just arrived back in Canada and had arranged to meet us at the ferry terminal before he crossed the channel to his home on the other side. Jasmine and I had become close friends with Halim as we helped him navigate his way around adjusting to life in Canada and gaining citizenship. Apparently, Jasmine had reached him first.
“I could not find her,” he said, looking up for the first time, his cheeks slack and his eyes red.
“That’s unfortunate. Is there some other way? Perhaps the Canadian consulate?” I suggested as I walked around to Halim’s other side, shoving my hands in my pockets.
He shook his head slowly. “No, my friend. I spent many days at the consulate, and they worked very hard to help me, but they did not have any information about her.”
“Were you able to go through any records?” I asked.
“Yes, what little were left. So many records were destroyed during the war. I found nothing,” he said sadly.
“What was it like…when you were there this time?” Jasmine asked as she sat back. “It must have changed a lot.”
“It was different, very different…and much safer than before. There were soldiers with guns, but this time I walked among them as a Canadian, and I did not feel afraid,” Halim said.
“Where did you go? Did you visit the camps?” I asked.
“Yes, but there were so many refugees this time, and they were from all around,” Halim explained, holding his palms out in a gesture of futility. “Most did not want to speak of people they knew before…before the war. It was too painful,” he said, clasping his knees again and rocking slightly.
I chose a dry patch of sand close to Halim, brushed away a piece of wind-blown seaweed, and sat down beside him.
“Was it dangerous to travel in Sudan?” Jasmine asked as I sat down.
Halim turned to look at her.
“Yes, but I travelled with the peacekeepers, and I was dressed in western clothes, so people showed respect. They believed I was a government official,” Halim explained.
“Were you able to find your old friends?” Jasmin asked.
Halim sighed, slowly shook his head, and then dropped it and stared at his feet. He absently scuffed the soft white sand before he spoke.
“No. I fear they are dead.”
“You’ve not spoken much about those times. Was it painful to go back?” Jasmine said.
Halim nodded, looking at me for support before turning his sad gaze back to Jasmine.
“I was frightened at first as I left the airport, but I shared a taxi with some officials from the United States, and they reassured me I would be safe at the hotel.”
“What will you do now, Halim?” I interjected.
“I do not know. I do not know if Eufrasia is alive or dead. It was many years ago. A long time ago.”
“You were lucky,” I commented.
“Yes. But by the time I was able to flee my old country and get to a refugee camp, many months had passed since Eufrasia and I had been separated. Then I spent a year in the refugee camps before I was accepted by Canada. I was lucky there was an organization willing to sponsor me.”
“You haven’t mentioned that before,” I said. “When you first came to Canada and Jasmine and I met you at the airport, you said you had been living in a hostel.”
“Yes,” Halim answered, nodding his head slowly. “I was ashamed...perhaps a little proud. I did not want you to see me as a burden. You were so good to sponsor me, my friend.”
Halim turned his brightening gaze to Jasmine. “Jasmine, my soul is forever bonded to you. You gave me hope when you got me my first job.”
Jasmine gently took hold of Halim’s shoulder. “I could see in your eyes you would become a wonderful Canadian,” Jasmine told him. “And you have. But Halim, I had no idea you had endured such hardships.”
“I wanted to forget, to move on, as you say in Canada. It was good that I was an oil and gas engineer in my country. I think that helped.”
“We’re all glad you’re here now, though, Halim,” I put my hand on his arm, “…and safe,” I added.
“Halim?” Jasmine asked. “Is it hard to talk about it...about Eufrasia?”
“I do not know...sometimes it is…it is easier to talk about it than to think about it. When I am alone...” Halim said, lowering his eyes.
“I understand,” Jasmine murmured.
He lifted his head and I saw his jaw set firmly as he looked far away across the water, sparkling in the sun, towards the distant firs standing as sentinels on the opposite shore.
“As much as I want to forget the pain, I will not forget Eufrasia because she cannot be gone. I feel it...here!” Halim said, pounding his clenched fist against his heart.
“Nor should you,” was all I could think to say, weak though it was.
“How did you first meet Eufrasia? I mean, did you meet her through your work?” Jasmine asked, wanting to soothe Halim’s anguish.
“Oh, no. We grew up in the same village. She and I played as children. There was an old acacia tree in the centre of our village, and we would chase each other around it. She squealed so much when I caught her, I had to let her go for fear her mother would be angry and not let me see her again. We just stayed together as we got older.”
“That’s so sweet!” Jasmine said.
“When did you get married?” I prompted.
“It was just before the war started. Those were good days. We were very happy, but we were both troubled by the rumours that we heard every day in our village. We hoped there would be no conflict, and for a while the rumours stopped. We thought there was peace. That was just before the soldiers came.”
“You don’t have to tell us,” Jasmine said softly.
“No. It is all right. I have told this story many times, and it is easier now.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, my friend.”
Halim paused, looked out over the water towards the ferry, which had recently left the opposite side of the passage. It was slowly inching its way closer, its small profile getting larger by the minute.
“The soldiers separated the men from the women and children, and I was both angry and terrified. One soldier started dragging Eufrasia away. She was screaming as I ran towards her. I was hit very hard with something, maybe the butt of a rifle, for I fell into a bush. Before I lost consciousness, I saw many men break free and heard gunfire.”
“Oh…that’s terrible…” Jasmine murmured.
“When I awoke, there was a lot of blood on my head, and on my face, from where I had been hit.”
“So that’s how you got that scar,” I noted, as Halim slowly lifted his arm and absently touched his temple.
“Yes. It reminds me of that time. I was lucky to be alive. When I fell into the bush, my body was concealed, and they did not shoot me afterwards like they did the others. There were many bodies on the ground. They were my friends, yet I could not mourn them. I had to find Eufrasia, but I never saw her again.”
Jasmine wrapped her arm around Halim’s strong shoulders and pulled him close to her. I watched a tear run down his cheek, across his glistening dark skin, and onto the bright blue cloth of his shirt.
“Don’t speak of that anymore. Tell me more of what it was like when you and Eufrasia were young and played together. Those are the important memories,” Jasmine said.
“Yes, those were good times, and even though we had little, we were very close. One day, a group of young people from Canada’s foreign service arrived in our village. Besides the doctors and nurses, there were university students and other workers who were there to help our country. I remember one of the doctors poked me with a needle that stung like a wasp. I was very angry until a nurse put a ball of candy on a white stick into my mouth. I had never tasted such a thing, and I forgot about the sting in my arm.”
“They do that here too,” I said with a chuckle.
“One of the nurses gave Eufrasia a doll. It was not like the dolls we had that were made of sticks, mud, and cloth. It was made of plastic, and the doll’s hair glistened like gold. Eufrasia had never seen such a thing and felt very honoured to have been given that doll. She cared for it as if it were a living, breathing thing while she had it. Its eyes closed when she laid it down.”
“I had a doll like that when I was a child, except it also said ‘Mama’ when I rocked it,” Jasmine said.
“Unfortunately, she lost it soon afterwards,” Halim said.
“Oh! That’s awful!” Jasmine said.
“That same day, the foreign workers had just finished building a circular rock wall around a well they had dug beside our village. I watched them mix concrete in a wheelbarrow and cement the rocks together. They had just finished the wall and had left for the day when a group of older boys came up to us. One of them grabbed the doll and tore off its head. He said it was infected with an evil spirit, and he had to banish it. He pulled a small rock out of the wall and replaced it with the head of the doll, pushing it deep into the still-pliant concrete. They ran off with the body of the doll.”
“What horrible boys!” Jasmine said.
“When we came back the next morning, the concrete had hardened, and we could not get the head out of the wall. We never found the body of the doll.”
“That’s terrible! Every time she went to the well, she would see the head and be reminded of what had happened…poor girl,” Jasmine commiserated.
“It was not that bad. They had shoved it head first into the space vacated by the rock, so the neck opening faced outwards. When we became teenagers, we used the doll’s head to pass love notes to each other that we did not want others to see. It was a mailbox of sorts. I was always excited to find a note that my Eufrasia had left me.”
“Oh…that’s interesting…I wonder…” Jasmine said softly, her hand on her chin and her head cocked as she became lost in thought.
“Wonder what?” I asked.
The ferry had reached the dock, the crew had opened the gate, and a group of foot passengers were walking away from the ferry. Soon the cars would drive up the ramp and rumble along the old, wooden deck boards. Before waiting for her answer, I prompted Halim.
“Come on, Halim, I don’t want you to miss your ferry. They’ll be loading the passengers soon. Let’s walk back,” I said.
Halim and I walked along the beach towards the overgrown trail that led to the dock abutment. For a while, Jasmine held back, deep in thought. Suddenly, she broke into a run and caught up to us.
“Halim! You must go back!” Jasmine announced, grabbing his arm.
“What do you mean?” Halim said, turning to face her.
“I mean, you have to go back to Africa,” she said breathlessly.
“I don’t understand,” Halim said.
“The doll’s head. It’s in the doll’s head. Eufrasia has left you a message in the doll’s head. She would have…she must have. I know it!”
Jasmine grabbed Halim’s shoulders, watching the understanding dawn on his once puzzled face.
“Of course!” Halim shouted, leaning back and running his hands through his wiry black hair. “I am a fool, such a fool! Oh, Eufrasia, will you ever forgive me? I will go home for now, but I will go back to Africa as soon as I can.”
Jasmine stepped back from Halim, and I saw the intensity in his eyes, wet with the excitement of hope. He reached out and grabbed me in a hug that expelled the breath from my lungs. He released me and then took Jasmine’s face gently in his large, strong hands, and kissed her forehead as a tear ran down his face. He said something to her that was drowned out by the rumble of the vehicles along the old wharf.
Months later, I received an email that puzzled me at first—until I read all the way to the end. It was from Halim, and the subject line was missing.
I am sorry, my friend, for not keeping in touch with you. I have been travelling in areas that have little electricity, let alone a connection to the internet. I will have to return to Canada as I need to be back at work, so I will see you again soon.
I have had a very difficult time, and I have been sick for a while. Some of the water was not good to drink, but that was all there was. I am well now, thanks to Allah.
Peacekeepers recently repaired the well wall, so it was very different than it was when I was young. I searched for our secret mailbox and did not find it until I recognized one of the stones. I had to chip away some of the new concrete before I could expose the doll’s head.
I was very hesitant to feel inside the plastic head for fear there would be nothing. My friend—Jasmine was right! There was a note, and it was from Eufrasia. She was working as a nurse with Médecins Sans Frontières. One day, she travelled with a team of doctors who visited her old village. It was very hard for her as she has such painful memories.
She told me the well was still damaged when she found it, and she had to pull away the rubble to find where the doll’s head was cemented. That’s when she left the note in the hope that I was still alive and would find it.
When I finally found Eufrasia, she was working at a camp on the east side of the country. It was very remote, and it took me some weeks to reach it. Daniel, my friend, my heart could not contain all the joy I felt that day. When I first saw her, I ran so fast that I could not stop, and I crashed into her. She had a bruise on her face for days afterwards. Many times, I was laughed at by the doctors and the nurses.
Eufrasia travelled with me to the capital where we have applied for her to join me in Canada. I told her she will become a citizen. I said to her, “she will live with me, and we will have many children, and they will have many grandchildren.” She was very happy to hear me say that. You will have to buy many hot dogs and burgers when we are old and join you for your summer barbecues.
I was sad when Eufrasia had to return to the camp. She is a good nurse, and the doctors want her to be a doctor too. I think that is good because she will need to look after our children when they are not well.
I have been filling out many forms, and it has taken a lot of time. The Canadian government has needed much proof and a lot of information that I did not have. Fortunately, I met a man from a village near mine who works at the embassy, and we have become strong friends.
When Eufrasia can come to Canada, I will go back to Africa to help her. She has not travelled on an airplane and told me she would be very frightened. I promised that I would hold her hand the whole way. And then all will be as it should be, thanks to you and Jasmine, my wonderful friends.
Your happy friend, Halim!
I came to Canada in 1983, during turbulent times; when my own country was coping from the havoc wrecked by the South Asian War.
That was the first sentence my Uber driver said to me while on my way to the International Airport. I was going home after a short tourist break in Toronto and was ready to join the usual thrum of normal life back in Thunder Bay. I was listening to songs, blasting full music into my ears to drown the horrible traffic. I could have almost missed his sentence, and something tells me he never would have repeated it again. Not to me, and not to any other person of colour, but just when he had started speaking, I had instinctively looked at the rear-view mirror and noticed that he was saying something. Quickly, pulling off my left earpiece, right in the middle of his sentence, I said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch that”.
He looked at me in the rear-view mirror. And repeated, “I came to Canada in 1983, during turbulent times; when my own country was coping from the havoc wrecked by the South Asian War”. I think because I was Indian, he must have confused me with being Bangladeshi. I did think of correcting him, but what did it matter. We were all South Asians anyway. When I was in school, it had taken me a long time to understand that South Asian people were not Asians. Asian people were different from us. Even though we all came from the continent of Asia, there were Asians, South Asians, and then Middle Eastern.
‘Oh,” I smiled, pulling the other earpiece out of my right ear and tucking the earphones into my purse along with my phone.
“Oh yes, I have been here since then. I remember walking around downtown; it was much less grand than it is now. It was just starting to grow. There was one McDonalds, and wonderful dine-ins and hotels. There was a cafe I visited a lot. It was demolished in 1999, I think. That was the only place I could go to. Most of the hotels had a sign which said, NO BLACK OR BROWN PEOPLE ALLOWED INSIDE. It was in a much harsher voice than the one I am using now. But things changed in 1997 when I got my Canadian citizenship. Would you like to see the card?” Not waiting for my answer, his hand darted towards the dashboard to a small, laminated piece of paper that was kept there.
This was the third Uber I had taken in the city, and the third time I had a South Asian driver. First, it was a student from India, who drove a silver Porsche. I had started a brief conversation with him, hoping to get to know a bit about the city. However, due to being familiar with each other’s geographical cultures, the conversation had taken a U-turn. It was heading in the direction of something more casual, like a chat that you have with your friend after a tiring day at work. He had finished his studies a year back and was on a Work Permit. I couldn’t help it, he said. “Even after being employed as an Engineer for a great company here in Toronto, I was still not getting enough money to pay off my student loans, rent a house, or pay my bills. So I thought to myself, you know what? Let’s quit. I quit my job, which is a dicey thing to do for an immigrant – I mean who knows where they leave us right? So I quit, bought this Porsche on loan, and started doing Uber. It doesn’t pay much, but still much more than my other job – can you imagine?”
I could not. I had so many questions, how was he paying for housing? How was he paying his bills? But he didn’t give me a chance to ask any of those, he dove right back into his head. Looking back at it now, I think the conversation was more for him. He told me he didn’t have enough time to even see his University friends. Since graduating, his only companion was himself and how to make enough money that could let him live an affordable life. He wasn’t even finished, but by the time we reached St Michael’s Cathedral – which was supposed to be my first tourist destination of the day - he had started using me as a reminder-list. “Oh, remind me I need to call my mother, she called me yesterday and the day before but I was doing deliveries (Uber), and I had to let it go to voice mail. She still doesn’t understand voice- what? We have already reached? I can’t believe it. Time flew by, it was so nice to talk to you. Thank you, your name again?”
I read the name on my Uber driver’s citizenship card. Yousef Jazan. I keep looking at the card, and eventually drop it on my lap. He doesn’t say anything for a long time, but something tells me he would start a conversation again, so I don’t pull out my phone and earphones, and instead look out the window. The traffic is unbearable, and so is the rain. Before I could complete the thought, Yousef says “When we came here, I made a lot of money.” By this time I know that I should not interrupt them when they speak, and Yousef seems more like an introvert than the others. So even though I desperately want to know who the “we” are, I control myself and instead nod looking at the rear-view mirror. The mirror acts as a buffer to two different worlds: the world that I occupy – 2019 Canada, and the world he talks about – 1983 Canada.
“I made a lot of money at the stock market. I bought shares. My elder brother who came with me wanted me to go to high school. But that wasn’t for me. I was always someone who wanted to make fast money. I knew what my parents were going through and I wanted to make as much money to send some back to them. I dropped out of 11 th grade, a decision that my brother criticised so much he eventually stopped talking to me and still doesn’t talk to me even though it has been years. But I made so much money. So much money, you won’t believe it. I bought two condos – right here in Toronto in 2004. I might have the receipt here somewhere. Two condos. Can you believe it?”
Could I? I was getting used to these rhetorical questions, can I imagine? Can I question it? Can I believe it? So I stayed silent again, nodding through it all; sometimes making really animated facial expressions just to show that I was listening. I didn’t do it in a mean way; I just did it because I expected them to expect this from me. I was just filling an unimportant role.
When I took my second Uber in the city, it was pouring buckets. I could not even stand at the sidewalk, or I would have been drenched. I was internally cursing myself- why did I not take the transport passes? Why did I have to come to Habour front today? Why was I wearing flip flops? Why why why? As soon as I sat in the car, the pitter-patter of the rain hitting the glass and the evening sky collectively made me want to cry. I was on a trip, and I was crying. Pathetic. To stop myself from crying I pulled out my phone from my back pocket and flipped through my photos, searching for the good ones that I could put on Instagram. The tears kept pooling, and I kept blinking furiously.
Due to the chaos of the rain, the darkening sky, and the cold – I had ended up sitting in the passenger seat. I could see that the driver was getting uncomfortable because I had not greeted him. So I asked the usual “Hi, how are you doing?” without waiting for a response. Instead, he asked, “so are you a student here?” Somehow the conversation took off, and my mood lifted. Turns out, he was from Pakistan, and he had just got married. He was more conversational than the last Uber driver. We bonded on the perils of living in a completely different country with a different culture, where one always had to be on their toes so that they didn’t offend anyone. More so the fact that our friends and family back home thought that we were having the time of our lives did nothing but add more frustration.
He told me about his new apartment that he had shifted in. And that he worked two jobs, and his wife worked one. He did Uber in his free time, but it was so much harder to manage in Toronto with family. He asked me if I had the very famous falafel and shawarma here in Toronto, and when I replied in the affirmative, he said his wife cooks great shawarma too.
“You know if you had told me two years ago that I would be driving and working in Canada, I would have thought you had gone mad. The idea was so unthinkable to me. We don’t have a Canadian embassy in Pakistan, and there was no way to apply even for a visitor’s visa. The only way to come here was to reach out to relatives, and we didn’t have any relatives who lived here. When I started thinking of applying for the visa, it was more because of the pressure from my family. My Abba’s factory had burned down, and the Government was not giving him any insurance money. Instead, case-after-case (in courts) were being dragged out. My Abba urged me, said that Son, there is no future for you and your family here so go where you can – leave before it is late. So under all that pressure, I applied. My visa application was sent to England, where it stayed for six months, and then it went to India for two months. When it came back to Pakistan there were comments and a ‘rejected’ stamp: I had forgotten to put my loan papers. So again I filed, then again it went to England and again to India. I was so irritated. Often I would tell my Ammi, what is the point? I would get helpless and hopeless –, and the applications take so much money to file too. But then, what can I do? Can you really question anything? Can you question it?”
I look at the citizenship card on my lap. The card feels heavy. I think back to a sentence that my first Uber driver had said: In both countries, we are the educated unemployed, or literate capital going to waste – but it is better to fail here. I look back at the rear-view mirror and realize Yousef is saying something, but I only catch the end of it.
“. . . recession of 2007, I lost everything. I flew very high, and my wings melted. I should have trusted my brother, I should have listened to myself – but money had made me addicted to it. And since then I haven’t been able to find my footing. I do Uber – a pathetic job compared to what I did earlier. The money that comes barely sustains me. I can never think of doing it forever.”
Again I think back to my first Uber driver. It would have been interesting to have both of them in the same room, talking about what Uber financially means to them.
“Ah! Here we are. Right near departures, terminal three. Where is it? There! Terminal three, I’ll park at the side so I can drop your bags out front or they will charge extra. Before you go, I have one last question for you beta ?” he says. I haven’t asked a single question, and as far as I heard, I know this is his first question to me.
“When we are all in South Asia – me in Bangladesh, you in India, and say someone else in Pakistan – we never get along. But when we come here, we hold on to each other; tight. I rent my house to students for a lesser price, I go to Pakistani Mosques and Indian Temples, eat at the langar , celebrate Holi and Eid together, I help people with finding jobs, loan them cash, and even file taxes for them. Why is it that here, in Canada, we are together, but back home we never get along?”
I smile. Truth is I don’t know why. And I don’t think the answer matters. It seems like one of those rhetorical questions again.
“We believe we are at home in the immediate circle of beings. That which is, is familiar, reliable, ordinary.” – Martin Heidegger
It’s during Reinhard’s lecture that Thomas realizes he’s making mistakes in his life. Earlier, he left his clinic in Bilk for the Great Hall at Heinrich Heine University to see first-hand the metamorphosis everyone is talking about. Reinhard the drummer, the argumentative student, has become the institutional darling. He stands in front of the crowd of professors, holding them rapt like a preacher. Dark curls still spiral onto his face, but his cowboy boots and leather vest are gone, and his combative nature is being re-interpreted as passion for his subject. He paces at the front of the room, making provocative claims in an authoritative voice, smiling when his eyes settle on a single face.
He will be a superstar, Thomas thinks.
Though he and Reinhard were never quite friends, they had on occasion studied together or gone for a beer in the Altstadt. Now they see each other at psychology conferences and Thomas reads Reinhard’s articles in the journal that comes to the Bilker Youth Psychology clinic.
That’s how he’s done it, Thomas thinks. He’s made the journal his manifesto.
At the point when Reinhard appeals to his audience for referrals, Thomas leaves the room through a side door to hurry back to work. He places a call to his secretary to tell her he will make his 11 o’clock. “Don’t let Ahmed leave,” he says. Then he asks if he can pick her up a coffee as he walks to the closest S-Bahn stop.
Professors crave the practitioner’s experience; practitioners crave a niche. All Reinhard has done, as far as Thomas can see, is take a classic theory, turn it on its side, and defend the new position using data from his practice. It’s possible he doesn’t even believe in it. As the S11 arrives and Thomas queues to step aboard, he decides that his old classmate is smarter than he thought, and that he should call him later to ask for a meeting.
The text comes in at 11:07 from Siegrid.
I don’t think she should take him. It isn’t safe.
She used to phone sometimes when she thought Thomas was on break but then she said she didn’t want to risk disturbing him. Now she sends text messages to her son that can be answered at his convenience.
The flights are booked. But don’t worry, he’s healthy and it’s safe.
Young Ahmed Kotil is in the chair across from Thomas, fiddling with his shoelace. He’s a baby-faced Turkish adolescent who has trouble sitting still and concentrating during their sessions. Thomas asks him for the tracking sheet they’ve started using to monitor his behaviour.
Will you come over on Sunday? I’ll bake a plum strudel (since I know you don’t get them at home anymore).
He examines the paper Ahmed has handed him and finds it mostly blank. “Ahmed, we agreed on doing this daily.”
“I can’t remember, yeah?” Ahmed kicks out the leg that he was sitting on. “It doesn’t work for me.”
That night as Thomas leaves the clinic for home he passes a newspaper stand that displays Die Welt, Die Zeit, Le Monde , and two other newspapers in languages he can’t read. As a student he used to excel at languages, at Latin, Spanish, French, and English, but he has no experience with Turkish or Arabic.
On the other side of the Rhine, in Oberkassel, he hears the television before he walks through the door. Inside a light is burning in the empty hallway and the rush of heat feels like a rash breaking out on his skin. We can afford it, his wife would say in her defence, but how many times has he tried to explain: it’s not about the money, it’s about the waste. He removes his shoes, turns off the light, and hangs his coat up in the closet.
“Margot?” he calls. He finds her in the kitchen leaning over a menu, wearing a t-shirt, sweatpants, and the sandals she calls flip-flops.
“Hi,” she says and lets him kiss her cheek. “Jay’s already asleep.”
He nods and reaches out to stroke the top of her wrist.
She says, “Your mother called. She wants us to come for dinner.”
“She’s going to give me a hard time about Christmas.”
On the windowsill a ceramic vase holds the tulips he bought her on the weekend. From where he’s standing the petals still look bright and yellow, but he knows she won’t have refreshed the water and that’s why the heads are drooping.
“Want Indian?” she asks.
Without answering, he crosses the room to the window sill, lifts up the vase and takes it over to the sink. “Sure,” he says. “Indian’s fine.”
While Margot dials the number to place the order, he walks through the apartment to their bedroom to change. Discarded clothes lay on the floor next to an oil-on-canvas abstract leaning against the wall. A graduation gift from Tante Grete.
“We should put Jay’s photo here instead,” Margot told him one day, having removed the painting from its hook. Fish swimming through garbage in a lake, is what she saw in it.
With a foot, Thomas pushes aside a blouse, its arms inside out, its bodice twisted. Margot is coming through to the bedroom, the slapping of her flip-flops against the hardwood floor like a rubber mallet against his skull.
“You can pick it up in thirty minutes,” she says.
Why me, he wants to ask, when I have just got home and don’t feel like going back out again? Then he remembers that the night is long and full of possibility. He pictures them walking to get their dinner together, his hand slipping over the curve of Margot’s hip, a finger tucking into her waistband. “Will you come with me?” he says, suddenly hopeful. “We could walk together?”
“And leave Jay alone?”
He hesitates for a second. “But isn’t he sleeping? We wouldn’t be ten minutes.”
She shifts her weight and folds her arms across her chest. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “No. I won’t do it. No way.”
He sits down on the bed and looks at the floor, all the air going out of him. He sees her bare feet, toenails freshly painted, dark red like a Roma might wear. For the rest of the evening, he doesn’t listen to anything else his wife has to say.
The next morning Thomas leaves earlier than usual, telling Margot he has a new appointment. He will get his coffee at the Bäkerei Hinkel and sit down to read the newspaper for a change. As he walks down Leostrasse towards the S-Bahn stop, the front of his unbuttoned coat flaps open and the freshness of the wind hits his chest like a football. It’s November; he remembers running through fields as green as the felt of a billiard table under a vast, dull sky in Kaiserswerth. A dog, what was its name?, an Airedale Terrier, ran beside him barking madly.
He used to like November.
On the S-Bahn, Thomas dials Reinhard’s number and gets through on the first ring. After complimenting him on his lecture at the Great Hall, he makes a joke about one of their old professors. Near the end of the conversation, he explains that he’s calling because he admires how Reinhard is building his business. He tells him he has an idea too, and could use some help getting started.
Reinhard pauses. “You’re working mostly with immigrant youth, yeah?”
“Yeah. My clinic’s in Bilk.”
“I remember. So what’s your angle?”
Thomas has not thought it through. “It’s better to talk in person, I think.”
“Okay,” Reinhard says and they make plans to meet for lunch.
Later, the morning rain streams down the panes of Thomas’s top floor office window. He’s writing in his notebook while Selen Zaman, a sixteen-year-old girl from Lebanon, talks about her father. Though Thomas is trying hard to listen, the girl’s tone is flat and her accent is strong and he hears his wife’s voice instead, saying over and over, “No. I won’t do it. No way.”
He imagines opening up the window and sticking his arm out into the gushing flow. He pictures himself crawling out onto the rooftop, lying down on clay tiles until his skin is soaked and his shirt is stuck to his chest. Water cleanses, he thinks. Then he remembers the floods in Dresden last summer, the photographs of cars floating down streets, and the tsunami in Japan some years before. Selen begins to cry in her chair. He looks back at her as she falls apart again. Every time. He pushes the box of tissues forward on the little round table between them.
Margot booked two flights to Ottawa to visit her mother with Jay before Christmas. She told Thomas about it while folding clothes out of their washer/dryer.
“Why didn’t you talk to me first?” he asked. “We could have booked skiing in Wengen instead.”
“I want to go home.”
He watched as she leaned into the machine and pulled out another white onesie. Almost three years together in Düsseldorf, but she still doesn’t call it home.
“Besides.” She turned to him. “We have a baby.” That day her t-shirt was stencilled with a giant beaver and beneath it, the word Roots .
“Siegrid can watch Jay for a few days. Don’t you think we need some time alone?”
Margot shook her head. “I don’t get you. I’d never leave Jay behind.”
Outside it was and raining and a large, wet raven landed on their balcony. It pecked at the slates of rotting wood, looked up and flew away.
On the weekend they drive out to Kaiserswerth to visit with Thomas’s mother. For the twenty minutes it takes, they ride in silence while Margot looks out the window. After an early dinner, Thomas takes the boy to sit in front of the fire and overhears the conversation in the kitchen.
“But Margot, are you not concerned?” Siegrid says. Though they both struggle with each other’s language, it’s Siegrid who’s making the effort to speak English.
“No,” Margot says, shaking her head. “There’s no risk now that the infection cleared up. I checked it with my doctor.”
Something else his mother will resent her for: not considering her son a doctor. He’s told her he’s not a medical doctor, but she thinks he’s qualified to advise this much.
They leave Siegrid’s house before the light fades so that Jay can sleep at his usual time at home.
“Can’t he sleep in the car?” Siegrid asks Thomas. “You haven’t been here very long.”
Thomas is too tired to explain. He kisses his mother’s cheek while Margot brings out the baby’s bag.
“Bet you loved that strudel,” Margot says when they’re in the car.
Jay falls asleep before they reach the end of the driveway.
When Thomas told his mother he would marry overseas, he hadn’t wanted to upset her. But she never travelled, not outside Europe, so he knew she’d miss the wedding. He took her out for dinner and gave her the news once they’d finished the meal and were stirring their coffee. He squeezed her fingers and said he was sorry but he wanted to please his bride. She lowered her head, stared into her cup as if watching sugar dissolve on the spoon. When she looked up, her eyes had filled with tears.
“You’ve found someone,” she said. “Oh, Schatz .”
Of course, she was thinking of Thomas’s father. It was then that Thomas realized, this is for life, this thing we’re cobbling together. He’d met Margot in Aspen on a ski holiday, and in Montréal and Chamonix and elsewhere afterwards. Theirs had been a long-distance affair; not once had they spent more than two weeks together.
But she’s so pretty, he thought, and exotic.
The first time he saw her was at the J-Bar in Aspen. He was ordering a whisky when she fell into him, straight over as if pushed, laughing with pure abandon. She didn’t care! She grabbed onto his forearm and pulled herself up.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said and laughed again. Her eyelids were dusted with some kind of sparkly makeup; they were softly shimmering, lavender.
The first of December, all through the morning, Thomas thinks about his practice.
You’re working mostly with immigrant youth, yeah?
But it’s only because the rent is cheap that he operates out of Bilk.
At lunch he leaves his clinic to get a sandwich, recalling passages in a book he’s reading about the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh was killed by a young Islamist enraged over his latest film. In a mosque, behind a veil, a battered Muslim woman claims the abuse she suffers is sanctioned by her religion. The attacker shot van Gogh in the stomach then tried to decapitate him with a machete. People were shocked, the Dutch were disgusted, yet conversations were guarded. Were they racist to talk of the man’s Moroccan roots? Were they condemning an Islamist or a killer? Thomas thinks of the sentences he has highlighted in the book where the author asks if the Dutch are becoming tolerant of intolerance.
He watches two old men waiting at a red light as he pays for his lunch at a take-away window. Margot laughs at how people wait for traffic lights in Germany.
“It’s clear!” she says and skips across the road.
Other mothers put their hands over their children’s eyes.
He takes a bite of his sandwich and savours the sour taste of rye, reminded of how his wife still doesn’t appreciate good bread. One day he came home to find a plastic-wrapped loaf of Wonder Bread on the counter.
“What’s this?” he asked.
If she hadn’t said “duh” he might let it go but he couldn’t stand the rudeness. He picked up the package and, with both hands, squished it together like an accordion.
“ Not bread,” he said and let it fall to the counter.
They moved into the apartment in Oberkassel after returning from their honeymoon in New England. It was in a tall narrow townhouse on a cobbled street two blocks back from the river. Doctor Wendorf, the most senior doctor at the clinic, nodded his approval when he heard.
“Oberkassel, eh? They must be paying new psychologists a lot more than they did when I started out.”
They settled into an easy routine, Margot finding work with the marketing arm of an American company that had just purchased a chain of German spas and was looking for native English speakers. He told Dr. Wendorf about it at coffee one morning.
Dr. Wendorf said, “She’s a marketing specialist?”
“Not exactly,” Thomas answered, the word ‘specialist’ being too grand. “She used to run campaigns for a fitness centre in Canada, so she learned something about promotion.” He’d seen where she’d worked, in a small office in a small building, when he flew to Ottawa for the wedding. Instead of staying with her family, he stayed in a hotel to avoid causing them any inconvenience or stress. He toured the Mint and the National Gallery, and walked on Parliament Hill. When he stopped for a rest, he looked up at the Gothic buildings, jagged spires against a blue sky. The Reichstag is different, he thought at the time, more solid and less ornamental. But what goes on inside, that must be the same, they’re just buildings that house democracy. It was then that he first noticed a tick in his left eye, an involuntary twitching of the muscle beneath it. He looked away from the buildings, away from the sky, figuring it had to do with the sun.
Moritz Kitzner is in the chair at 16:00. He’s been sent to Thomas because of a charge of inciting hatred at his school.
“Why are they sending him to me?” Thomas asks his secretary, leaving Moritz alone in his office. “Who recommended him to us?”
“The school,” the secretary answers. “Or the school board, I’m not sure. Is there a problem? I thought—”
“No, it’s okay, it’s good. But why me?” Thomas asks again. He glances at the file in his hand to find the name of the referring doctor. He shakes his head and returns to his office.
“I don’t hate anyone,” Moritz says when Thomas asks him about the charge. “I just don’t want certain people around me.” The boy looks normal in physical appearance, tall with short hair, glasses, and acne.
Thomas takes meticulous notes, aware he might have to read them in court.
When the weekend arrives, Thomas plans to visit the library at the university to read the latest research on immigrant youth. He’s packing up his laptop when Margot stops by the door, Jay in her arms, to ask where he thinks he’s going.
“The library. For work. Why do you ask me like that?”
“Why do I? Why do I?”
He can see where this is going.
“Every day, all day long,” she starts and is soon crying. She puts Jay on the floor and stomps around, pulling sheets off the bed, tossing them into the hallway.
“Calm down,” Thomas says, picking up Jay. Their son has his colouring, his eyes.
“You think I do nothing while you’re at work. I’m not a good Hausfrau, am I?”
“I’ve never said that.”
“I bet you don’t even remember what we’re doing today.”
He frowns and jiggles Jay in his arms. The baby is drooling; he wipes his chin.
“I knew it.”
Thomas shakes his head. “Oh, fuck. Just tell me.”
She opens her mouth like she’s going to tell him off for swearing, then changes her mind and says, “Sylvie and Jarne? And I have a hair appointment first.”
He sighs. “I forgot.”
When she leaves to gather the sheets for the washer/dryer, Thomas follows behind with Jay. “I just forgot, okay? I’m sorry. I’ll stay with Jay while you’re out and go to the library tomorrow.”
“That’s generous, Thom. Very generous.”
He watches as she shoves the laundry into the drum, pours liquid detergent into a plastic drawer then pushes buttons to start the machine.
“You’ve never done this, have you?” she says, noticing his attention. “What will you do when I’m gone?”
She walks past him into the bathroom.
After Margot leaves to get her hair cut, Thomas takes Jay to the park by the river. He dresses the boy in a red-hooded jacket, covers his feet in leather booties, and plops him down onto the furry liner in the stroller. It’s fresh outside and the sun is trying to shine through slivers of silver cloud. Sometimes a shepherd on an electric bike brings his herds of sheep to the river for grazing. The neighbours say it looks idyllic and Thomas agrees but doesn’t like the awful mess it leaves behind. Today, there are no sheep in the park but there are dozens of people flying long-tailed kites and running with them alongside the river. He finds a dry spot to sit on the hill and lifts Jay out of the stroller.
“Look Jay,” he says, pointing out towards the river.
Jay wobbles on his bottom, looks up at the sky. “ Drachen ” he says. The German word for kites.
Thomas stares at him, stunned. He doesn’t remember teaching his son the word. “Yes,” he smiles. “ Drachen . Say it again?”
“ Drachen .”
“Good boy.” Thomas’s smile becomes a laugh. When Jay is older, he will buy him a kite and maybe an Airedale Terrier.
Sylvie and Jarne live on plot of land across from a horse track in Aachen. Part field and part meadow, the grounds that surround them are marked and divided by low stone walls and let out to horse breeders whose jockeys race across the street. A light dusting of sleet is hitting the windshield as Thomas steers the car down the long gravel path leading to the house. When he opens the car door and steps out onto the grass, he feels the chill of wintery air and smells the damp of the earth. He can see the allure of the countryside, but not of a space that has been cleared of trees. Margot goes on and on about Sylvie and Jarne’s, but never has a kind word for Kaiserswerth.
“He’s walking now,” Thomas hears one of the women telling the others. They’re standing around in the kitchen drinking wine while the men watch the babies and Formula 1 in the living room.
“No!” another says. “It’s too soon.”
There’s a murmur of consensus.
“He’s strong,” he hears Margot say. “ Kraftig . I’m not surprised.”
“He’s got Guido’s legs.” They all laugh.
Dinner is Schweinshaxe – pork knuckle – in a thin gravy with dumplings and salad, set out on a large table covered in a blue-and-white damask cloth. When Thomas compliments Sylvie on the dish, she winks at Margot and says she knows the best way to keep a German man happy. A third bottle of wine is opened and he watches as Margot accepts another glass from Jarne while pushing her pork to the side of her plate.
“His mother thinks I’m the anti-Christ for bottle-feeding her grandson,” she is telling everyone at the table.
“Breast is best,” says Guido with a smile.
“I happen to agree,” says Thomas, squeezing Margot’s hand under the table.
“Of course you do. You would never disagree with Mummy, would you?” She pulls her hand away.
“If you don’t have enough—” says Margot’s friend, whose name Thomas can never remember.
“It’s not that. I just hate the feeling, like I’m a cow or a pig or –.”
“Oh, no!” The friend disagrees. “It’s wonderful.”
“But it’s her choice,” says Sylvie.
Thomas feels the muscle beneath his left eye twitch, but he says nothing more and the conversation moves on. A baby cries. Guido slaps his hand down on the table. The espresso machine steams and sputters in the kitchen. As they pack up to leave and bundle their babies, everyone wishes Margot luck on her trip.
“It won’t be easy with a baby on your own,” Sylvie says.
“We’ll miss you,” the other friend says, hugging her tight.
While they’ve been inside, the sleet has turned to snow. For the first time it feels like Christmas is coming.
The following week, on Wednesday, Thomas meets Reinhard at the Fischhaus Restaurant in the Altstadt. It’s packed, a line is forming at the door, but Reinhard has made a reservation and they’re ushered to a table. In the square the Christmas market is lively, stalls are crowded with people buying Lebkuchen and Glühwein, wooden toys, nutcrackers, tree ornaments, woollen hats and mittens.
Reinhard says, “Christmas already.”
“It always comes around so fast.”
“Are you in town this year or off skiing somewhere?”
“Home this year. We have a baby.”
Reinhard smiles. “Oh, I didn’t know.”
They order two house specials and a bottle of Australian wine and reminisce about their school days. When the waitress comes back, she pours their wine and they toast to each other’s health. It takes a few more minutes until Thomas says: “So can I ask you how you’ve done it?”
Reinhard smiles. He puts his glass down and says that, really, it was all Martina’s idea. Martina, Thomas remembers, was also a classmate and is the daughter of the chief administrator at the largest mental health clinic in Nordrhein-Westfalen.
“I’d written just a single paper,” Reinhard continues, “based on a study in my clinic. Twenty-five couples. A list of questions. That much was my idea. But we were arguing about the conclusion when Martina said, ‘Actually it doesn’t matter. Your point is valid and there’s no one else doing this.’”
He stops speaking when the waitress comes back with their meals, placing the plates down in front of them.
“Her father got my study into the journal,” he resumes when the waitress leaves, “and he gave me the names of his media contacts. It’s just gone from there. I play along.”
“Now you have a waitlist.”
Reinhard shakes his dark curls and laughs. “Now I’m booking celebrities!”
“At any price.”
“Christ, yeah. Thomas. It couldn’t be easier.”
Thomas laughs too but doesn’t feel the joy. He remembers how Martina used to smile at him before she started going with Reinhard.
“Now tell me,” Reinhard asks. “What’s your idea?”
Thomas looks across the table, he looks around at other diners. They are busy people, well-dressed and well-spoken, the kind of crowd his mother would like. He remembers a time shortly after the van Gogh murder when he took Siegrid and Tante Grete out for lunch and afterwards to an art exhibit at the K21 gallery. They spoke quietly about what had happened. Siegrid said, “It’s not the individuals I fear,” as she studied a collection of eclectic chairs. “It’s how all of them, together, will change what I love.” When Thomas looks back at Reinhard, the idea has come to him. “I want to hold open forums at my clinic,” he says. “To support the integration of immigrants.”
Reinhard’s leg starts shaking under the table. “Integration or assimilation?”
“Good question. I don’t know. But there are so many non-Germans in Germany now, we can’t pretend it isn’t changing us.”
“And just because we haven’t shared the same past doesn’t mean we won’t share the same future. We should talk to each other, and listen to each other.”
“And then we achieve what? Acceptance? Brotherhood?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t got the answer.”
“But it will come. Through open forums in Bilk and the help of my friend Thomas.”
Reinhard picks up his knife and fork and begins to drum on the edge of the table. Then he leans forward and says, “Tell me, what does Germany gain by opening its borders? Is it just the cheap labour we’re after?”
“God knows we have pensions to fund.”
“It’s not that.”
“A humanitarian obligation, then? To do with our grandfathers’ guilt?”
“No. It’s the future. It’s leadership.”
“It’s life in the twenty-first century. Better make the best of it.”
“Maybe. But homogeneous societies are dead anyway. Why shouldn’t we be the ones who make the next model?”
Reinhard sits back in his chair and relaxes his leg. “Your wife,” he says. “She’s not from here, is she?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Just wondering how it’s working out for her.”
In Kaiserswerth, it’s Tante Grete who greets him at the front of the house. She sees the car, or hears it, comes out and descends the steps.
“Hello Thomas, it’s lovely to see you,” she says, leaning in to kiss him. He has always admired Tante Grete, a tall, thin woman with perfect posture, a widow like his mother and a chain smoker. In a pullover and scarf, with chin-length silver hair, she still casts an elegant shadow.
As she lights up, Thomas explains that he can’t stay long, he’s only come to pick up a fleece they forgot last time they were over. It’s going to be cold in Ottawa and Margot wants to pack it for Jay.
“Is it true, she’s leaving you at Christmas?” Grete asks him, offering a cigarette which he declines.
“She going to visit her parents,” he says.
“And she’s taking Jay?”
“Her father has never seen him.”
Grete inhales deeply and nods. His mother has told her that Margot’s parents never married and that her father shows little interest in the family.
“She can’t do this to you.”
Two weeks before Christmas, they drive to the airport with three large suitcases in the trunk, a car seat, and a baby bag. In the departures area, after the cases are checked, Jay holds onto Thomas’s thumb while Thomas pulls Margot close.
“I don’t want this,” he whispers, smelling some kind of coconut product in her hair. While she rests her cheek against his chest, he slides his hand down her back.
“Yes, you do,” she says. “You just can’t do it. You don’t love me, Thom.”
“That’s not true.”
“Say it, then. Say you love me.”
“I love you, Margot.”
“No. No.” Her head shakes in a tiny, desperate spasm. “You only love the idea of me.”
He pulls her closer, clutches the fabric of her sweater until her breathing changes and he knows that she is crying. “Don’t cry,” he says. “You don’t have to go.” There’s a pain in his chest like a metal claw scraping against his ribcage.
“But I do,” Margot says and pulls away.
Her skin is pale and her lips are cranberry red; she looks very pretty today. The last he sees of her, she is walking through the security gate carrying their son in her arms.
Instead of going home, he drives to the Café Muggel where he orders a whisky and sits alone. At the bar on a stool, a blonde in a sheer blouse is laughing a little too loudly. He can see her bra and the outline of her breasts and imagine making love to her. He wants to walk over, whisper in her ear, and suggest they leave together. Once he knew a woman who took him home after they met one afternoon. It was a warm, summer day and she lived on the ground floor of a terraced house where laundry was hung outside. Through her window they watched white sheets on a line, billowing like giant flags in the wind. Why does he still remember those sheets when he’s long forgotten the woman’s name? Yet he does, he remembers them vividly. They were stark and dizzying and beautiful; ordinary as every day.
On Leostrasse, he climbs the stairs to a cold and empty apartment. With his jacket still on, he walks through to the bedroom, sits down on the bed, and stares at the wall where Jay’s photo was never hung. His son was smiling when he said good-bye, still holding onto his thumb. But he will not remember me, Thomas thinks, he will have no memory of my face or my voice. “It was a mistake,” he says out loud to the wall. “Just a mistake. Oh, God. I’m sorry.”
On Christmas Eve, Thomas drives to Kaiserswerth to spend the night. Siegrid is hosting dinner with Tante Grete, one of his cousins, his cousin’s wife and their children. The children are young and excited about Father Christmas and they help Siegrid light the candles on the tree.
Nobody asks Thomas about Margot or Jay.
In the morning, before the others are up, Thomas finds his mother in the kitchen brewing coffee. At the counter, in a wool skirt and blouse, she cuts thick slices of lemon-iced Stollen and places two plates and mugs on the table. They eat without speaking and he tells her he will come back in the afternoon. He stands up from his chair, kisses her forehead and wishes her a Merry Christmas. When he leaves, there is frost on the neighbours’ lawns, intricate as patterned lace. He gets in his car, turns the heater on high, and drives through the tangle of streets.