Waiting for Love in Munich

 

by Victorino Cristito Briones

 

In July 2010, Jacob waited by the lake in Seefeld for Carla. They had agreed to meet at nine, but it was almost midnight. He looked at his watch and then checked messages in his phone. Nothing. He waited until 6 a.m., then gave up and drove back to Munich, resigned to the reality that she was not going to go away with him. He sent Carla a text message: “Tell me you’re all right.” He didn’t ask why she had changed her mind. That was how they had agreed to play it — no regrets or recriminations.

     A few minutes later, he received a reply: “I’m fine.”

    Jacob was hurt and confused, not so much because Carla had changed her mind but because she had not appeared at the lake to confront him. He knew, however, that he would get over it. He drove back to his hotel in Munich and made arrangements to return to Washington, D.C., to his home, to his wife and two daughters.

 

     He and Carla had first met in 2002 during the annual policy review of European Union economists in Munich. As deputy director of the European department at the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, Jacob presented papers on the topic of monetary policy in post-conflict countries such as Bosnia and Serbia. That year the Nobel Prize Winner Maximillian Bischoff had predicted that the new single European currency, the euro, would break up within ten years. Many of those who attended the summit were skeptical of Bischoff’s prognosis, Jacob included.

     One morning, after breakfast, he left the conference hotel and took a short walk before starting his long day of meetings. Just outside the main entrance, close to the revolving doors, a lady in her early thirties was trying to calm a brilliantly white Pomeranian dog, soothing it with treats she held in her hand. Tied to a leash, the animal tried to pull away from the exasperated woman. Seeing Jacob staring at her, she blushed like a mother with an unruly toddler.

     “Do you need help?” Jacob asked. He petted the dog. The animal sniffed and then licked his fingers, which still smelled of bacon grease from breakfast.

     “The hotel won’t let me bring Anton in,” she explained.

     She had golden hair and languorous arms, sapphire eyes and a small mouth. They talked briefly, and she explained that Anton appeared to be sick that morning and she had brought him to the vet. Jacob stayed a while longer than he had expected just to keep her company. Without looking at her watch, she informed him that the conference had begun. Her husband, she said, must have already started his presentation. They said good-bye and parted ways, though not before Jacob had petted the dog one last time. Not until later, when he saw her sitting with the Nobel prize-winner at dinner, did he realize that she was married to Bischoff.

     Jacob walked over to Bischoff’s table to say hello, exchanged pleasantries, and updated him on what was happening economically in Slovakia, where he was currently overseeing an IMF program. Then he turned to Carla and asked about the dog. She replied and said that the hotel relented and decided to make an exception for her, allowing the dog to “attend” the conference inside a portable cage at the back of the hall. It turned out that she, too, was an economist and her husband’s co-author on their last book. Before marrying him, she had been his student at the London School of Economics.

     That first encounter with Carla became just one among many chance meetings during his annual visits to Munich. Often Jacob was reluctant to see these encounters end. The problem was with the complexity of their schedules. Unable to stay in one place very long, they couldn’t overcome the impediment of being mere acquaintances.

     At the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, Jacob encountered Carla in March of 2010 while waiting for a flight to Dubai. She had just come from burying her mother, who had died after a long illness. Both passengers had at least two hours to kill and shared a cup of coffee at a café. Together for more than a fleeting moment at last, they made the most of it. Carla talked about her mother’s illness and death, and Jacob shared his own fears about his aging parents. While other passengers rushed, pulling luggage and baby strollers, appearing and disappearing as they turned the corner to catch their planes, Jacob and Carla stayed put, taking their time, allowing the world to spin without them. As they said farewell, Jacob promised to email her about a rendezvous in Munich, perhaps after the Economic meeting later that year.

     Jacob had been tempted to stray before but he had always been wary of going too far or getting involved with other men’s wives. Back at work in Washington, however, he found it hard to forget Carla.

Through a constant exchange of emails, they settled upon meeting at a PanAsian restaurant in Munich during his next annual visit. She was sitting with her back to him as he walked in, and at first he noticed only a lady with blonde hair and her nose in a book. He walked past her, turned back, and said hello only after making certain it was Carla.

     “How were the meetings?” she asked. Carla had decided not to attend because her husband was in Sienna, presenting a paper in a different economic conference.

     “Same as last year,” Jacob replied. He complained about the fruitless deliberations concerning the Greek debt crisis.

     After dinner, they walked until they reached a sidewalk lined on one side by the Alter Sudlinger Friedhof cemetery. They found the entrance and went inside. Soon they were holding hands, and then at an abandoned corner occupied by a stone angel with forlorn expression, they faced each other and kissed.       

     Afterwards, they both laughed. Their amusement seemed to flow from the ease with which they had crossed a barrier without feeling awkward about it.

     They spent the next couple of days together in Munich. Maxi would not be back in a week, and Jacob emailed his wife that work had forced him to extend his stay. Jacob and Carla walked around the streets like tourists, traveling to Salzburg during the Music Festival, where they attended a performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony at the theater. They made love in Jacob’s hotel room that night. He felt they had reached a point where they might consider something more permanent. In a rush of passion, he suggested running away together. Although hesitant at first, surprisingly, Carla came around, but she wanted to tell Maxi about her decision. She drove back to Seefeld, agreeing to meet Jacob at the lake, only a few minutes walk away from where she lived. By which time she would have informed Maxi of her decision.

 

     Jacob had not been angry at Carla’s failure to show up. But when she broke off all contact, he felt betrayed. A year later, days before the 2011 Economic conference in Munich, he received an email from her asking whether they could meet afterwards. A day after the seminars, the great pianist Alfred Brendel would be giving a recital at the National Theater and she proposed that they attend the performance together. He agreed.

     At the conference, Jacob was bored by the proceedings, dominated as they were by brilliant old men preoccupied with theories, quoting or misquoting Milton Friedman, and harshly criticizing Obama for his socialist policies. Constantly looking at his watch, he wished that the day would end soon so that he could keep his rendezvous.

     Finally he arrived at the National Theater. As agreed, they met at 6 p.m., and he was pleased that she’d remembered to wear the silk scarf he’d bought her the previous year in Salzburg. They said hello on the steps—and no more. Carla disliked showing affection in public, and they both seemed tongue-tied.

     As he had the previous year, Jacob had purchased four tickets at the Royal box. Most of the time the tickets went unsold because of the box’s awkward location at the side of the stage, where patrons could see only a portion of the performance unless they stretched their necks and half their torsos over the balcony’s edge. They were dreadful seats, and Jacob had complained enough to trick an usher into exchanging the single chairs for a small sofa. In this way, he and Carla could lock the door and be assured of privacy while they held hands and caressed each other. Away from the public eye, Carla reciprocated his advances. They were two vague figures, concealed in the shadows, located in a spot in the theater where they could see everyone, but nobody could see them.

     As Jacob explored her delicate frame, he wondered what she thought about his body. Next year he was going to be fifty. He was still fit and trim, with all of his black hair, but old age had ravaged his joints, particularly his knees. He had run the Boston Marathon in his thirties, but as he walked up the steps in the theater he heard a clicking sound, like a broken clock trying to catch up. He was falling apart, though he was too embarrassed to ask Carla whether they could ride the elevator to the second floor instead of taking the stairs.

     The pianist played a Beethoven sonata, followed by two Brahms compositions. After he finished the first part of the performance, the audience gave him a standing ovation.

     “Done already?” said Jacob.

     “Life is like that, isn’t it?” said Carla. “One moment you’re enjoying everything, then the next moment it’s finished.”

     “It’s unfair.”

     She chuckled, “For an economist, you’re quite accurate.”

    Jacob headed for the concession stand when Carla stopped him. “Could we skip the rest of the recital and go somewhere else?” she asked.

     “Of course.”

     Rain was falling, and they waited just inside the theater for it to let up.

     “It’ll be over in a few minutes,” he said.

    “I don’t have a few minutes,” she replied. She walked out across the street towards the Marian-Platz and her favorite restaurant, Guido’s. Jacob ran after her and was drenched by the time he caught up.

     “Are you trying to kill me?” he joked. He felt the weight of his jacket, which the rain had soaked, the water creeping inside his shirt and pants.

     “It’s only water, Jacob,” she said. “It’s time you started living wild.”

   People stared as they strolled down the street, smiling, holding hands, seemingly oblivious to the rain. Carla took off her shoes and walked barefoot while Jacob laughed, having a great time.

     Carla’s old friend Guido raised his arms in delight at seeing his favorite patron walk in after a year’s absence. A big man with a beard that covered his mouth and most of his jaw, he greeted her with Buona sera and a hug. He shook hands with Jacob, wrapped his arms around Carla to embrace her again and warm her up, and took the pair to a discreet corner of the restaurant.

     That evening, as they sat close to each other, Jacob noticed that Carla wore two rings in her finger. One was hers but the other one, Jacob guessed, was Maxi’s. He pointed to them as if imploring her to explain, then regretted his action because he had suddenly compelled her to disclose a secret she might not yet be ready to confess.

     “It’s time for me to be honest and tell you what happened that night at the lake,” she said to Jacob when they were alone.

     “You don’t need to tell me anything, you know,” he said unconvincingly.

    “No, I do. It’ll help me understand,” she said. “I thought I was ready to leave Maxi. Leave everything. Go with you. I knew you’d be waiting for me at the lake.”

     “I waited until the next morning. It was freezing cold.” He laughed at himself, now feeling amused at the incident because being with Carla at that moment softened the memory of that episode into nothing more than an inconsequential footnote, recounted only as reference to other events that happened to them before or afterwards.

     “So you’re not angry?”

     “Not anymore.”

    “I had composed a short letter in my head to tell Maxi why I was leaving. He had just arrived from his trip to Sienna and I thought he was still resting. I went inside the bedroom to look for him and he was sitting at the edge of the bed, staring at the wall. He turned to look at me and asked me who I was and what I had done with his wife. He seemed confused, and at first I didn’t know what was happening to him.”

     Carla described how Maxi had stood in front of her and cupped her face with his hands in surprise and horror, his expression flickering back and forth. The pain in his face was so evident as he tried to identify the woman before him, as if remembering who she was might save him.

     “I called the doctor, who thought he might have suffered a small stroke. We brought him to the hospital, and I stayed with him the whole night. He didn’t know what year it was or who the President was. He thought he was still at home and lying in his bed. The doctor was afraid that the stroke might still be evolving and causing more injury to his brain.”

     Carla had come face to face with dementia before as her mother suffered fits of rage and confusion, moments of forgetfulness, unable to recognize her spouse or children. Suddenly, she was terrified that Maxi was now in the same state.

 The following week in the hospital, MRI scans had confirmed significant damage to Maxi’s frontal lobe. He still experienced episodes of normal memory, but more often he suffered from absentmindedness. There was no hope of improvement.

     Carla explained the two rings on her finger. She had found Maxi’s ring in the sink and she guessed that it had slipped off his finger. “The man was not only losing his mind,” she said, “but also seemed to be shrinking.” Afraid that the ring would get misplaced, she decided to wear it.

     She hired a live-in nurse to help her take care of Maxi. There were hours, she said, when he would appear normal, eager and energetic. He enjoyed it when she read his book to him. During these moments of clarity he would even point out the flaws in the arguments, though not admitting that they were his own.

     “He had always outwitted everyone, now he was even outwitting himself,” said Carla.

     “I’m sorry,” said Jacob.

     “It’s devastating to see this brilliant man reduced to an infant right before my eyes. But I love him just as much as the first time I met him. I realize that now. Even when he no longer remembers who I am, wondering why a stranger is in his house, demanding that his wife should be taking care of him. I’ve walked in Maxi’s shadow ever since I met him. Maybe I don’t want to live in any other way again after being with him for so long.”

     “I wish I could be there for you,” said Jacob.

     “I’m sorry you had to wait a year to hear all this. I’m sorry you had to wait at the lake. I tried several times to write you an email or call you on the phone. But I could never seem to know how to explain it perfectly without you in front of me. After a while, it just seemed better to wait until you returned and we met again.”

     She thanked Jacob for listening to her, admitting that she wanted forgiveness from Maxi, the person who most deserved to hear what she had to say, but could not.

     Now it was Jacob’s turn to be honest. “I waited for you at the lake. But I was there only to tell you that we shouldn’t go through with the plan. That we should wait and think things through.”

     “I hope you’re not just saying that to make me feel better.”

     “How about now? Would you go away with me?”

     “Do you really think I can do that, Jacob?”

     “I felt I needed to say it.”

     “I suppose I understand that you needed to ask.”

     He repeated being sorry, not knowing exactly why, and she reached out a hand to rest it on his. He embraced her, and she felt so light that he was afraid he might crush her.

     “I don’t know what to do about us,” he said.

     “Don’t make it sound so hopeless.”

     “Whatever you do, don’t leave me. What will I do in Munich without you?”

     “Rebuild,” she said, “like the rest of humanity. Munich was destroyed after the war. Look at it now.”

     “I don’t have half a century to recover.”    

     Carla excused herself to go to the lavatory. Jacob disliked sitting alone in the restaurant and was glad when she returned. Her face was bright and sad, she had removed her lipstick and make-up, her hair pulled back and neatly collected and tied with her silk scarf. She looked wounded, as vulnerable as she had been that unforgettable morning when he woke up next to her in his hotel room after they had made love for the first time.

     “Don’t look at me like that, Jacob. I haven’t been crying,” she said. “The rain irritated my eyes.”

     She sat down and rested her head against the wall, he wrapped his arm around her shoulder, she brushed the hair stuck to his forehead. Carla pulled up his sleeve to peek at his watch.

     “I’ll have to go soon,” she said

     “Stay a little bit longer.”

     “How did we end up here like this?”

     “Do you regret it?” he asked.

     “What?”

     “That we’ll never be together?”

     “We’re together now.”

     “You know what I mean.”

     She searched for the most honest answer, because Jacob deserved it.

    “No,” she replied, “Because then you’ll make me regret staying with Maxi. I don’t want to feel like that.” Then she added, “I’m afraid regret will catch up with me.”

     He kissed her, first on the forehead, then on the cheek, then on the lips. The rain had stopped. She kissed him back, but it was a hurried peck, and then she stood up.

     “Tell me I’ll see you again,” he said.

     Carla smiled and didn’t say good-bye.

     He watched her leave the restaurant, cross the street, turn the next corner and disappear.

     Jacob went back to his hotel. This was not how he had imagined the night would end. In his mind, Carla was going to wait for him at the lobby while he retrieved his bags, and they would both take the train to the airport, holding hands, flying back to Washington together, to live happily ever after, or as close to that cliché as possible.

 

     Jacob lived in Washington together with his wife, Lotta, a professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University, and two daughters. His elder daughter had recently moved to Boston to start studies in business and economics at Harvard. The other daughter was a senior at a private school in Maryland. Shortly after his return from Munich, one Saturday evening, Jacob took his wife out to dinner; afterwards they watched a performance at the Kennedy Center. The following morning he attended his youngest daughter’s lacrosse game, rooting for her from the sidelines. During the game, her daughter sprained her ankle now wrapped in bandages, and she and her mother planned to head out to the emergency room the following morning to have an x-ray taken. His life might have struck many as ideal, yet he felt incapable of enjoying it the way he used to. He knew how he had tainted this life by having the affair with Carla.

     Jacob’s wife was a good mother, caring and attentive, smart and beautiful. They met during one of the big parties hosted by the British ambassador in his house along Massachusetts Avenue. Six months later they were married. Then they had two children within three years. This was the history and pattern of his life in Washington, and he felt rejuvenated to be taking part in it. Yet even as he played the role of a good husband and father, Jacob felt uneasy.

     Snow fell early in December of 2011, covering the lawn, the neighborhood, the roads and the trees with an immaculate white blanket. There was a healing quality to the snow-covered image framed by the window as he stood in his living room. He felt as if his transgressions, including that of his affair with Carla, had been forgiven.

    The year passed by with the winter holidays partly spent in Seattle where Jacob’s parents still lived. Now in their eighties, his father had abandoned playing the violin and his mother was scheduled for cataract extraction, upset that she was having difficulty reading. Jacob was grateful that they still had their mental faculties. With light humor, funeral arrangements were discussed at the dinner table, reducing the mystery of death to the pragmatic exercise of writing obituaries, choosing the right crematorium in the city, itemizing furniture and family heirlooms for equal distribution among the children. His parents owned a bronze urn they had ordered from a catalog, in which they requested to have their ashes to be placed together. Their desire was to die at the same day, preferably in the same bed, after which they could be cremated together. Jacob guessed that his parents felt how time seemed to have gone by so fast for them.

     That summer, when Jacob was ready to attend the next Munich conference, he and Carla made plans to meet again.

     Carla appeared at the National Theater, on time as always, wearing the familiar red scarf around her neck.

The theater was undergoing major renovations and there were no performances that night. They walked aimlessly down to Joseph-Platz Street in the direction of the English Garden. Jacob heard the faint sound of children laughing, later followed by the noise of rushing water from the Eisbach canal. Sharing with each other what had happened to them the past year, Jacob recounted to Carla his family reunion in Seattle, while Carla found it amusing that Maxi had started flirting with her as if he had regressed to the time when they first met each other in London. They stopped to listen at a street musician playing the accordion and threw a two Euro coin into his hat. In a secluded corner of the park, they found a bench and watched from afar a father teaching his son how to play soccer in the grass. The world seemed to move on without them, similar to that moment when they sat together in the café at the Charles de Gaulle airport.

   They talked about their future, attempting to make plans and anticipating another meeting the following year.

     “Is this how it’s always going to be for us?” asked Jacob.

     “I don’t know how we can have it any other way,” she replied.

     The boy and his father picked up the ball and gathered their things, preparing to leave. A woman joined them, probably the mother, and the family left together. At that moment, Jacob wished they were a young couple starting a life together. Yet he knew that he had no desire to dismiss his life in Washington, and he was certain that Carla would continue to be dutiful to Maxi and had no inclination of changing anything.

     Jacob wasn’t certain how long they had been sitting on the bench. Carla looked at his wristwatch and told him exactly the number of minutes that had elapsed since they entered the garden and sat down. He admired that about her.

     Jacob felt that time unfairly sped up when he and Carla were together and moved slower when they were apart. Carla would have to drive back to Seefeld and a year would pass before they would meet again. As they both sat on the bench, waiting for the night to envelop them in darkness, the bulb from a nearby lamppost at first flickered and then finally lighted up a circular space around them. For a moment, Jacob thought he might have found a solution where every piece and player in the puzzle would remain unchanged, while he and Carla could also connect more permanently. He sought to find a weakness in the paradox that would resolve all issues into one clean mathematical equation, providing an irrefutable and prudent end. But as he began to speak out what was in his mind, about flying back together to live in Washington or for Jacob to rent an apartment in Munich, fumbling around with the idea of separating from his wife, rationalizing that his daughters were old enough to understand, and Carla choosing to leave Maxi behind, Jacob appeared to be running after a mirage, and the more he elaborated, the more desperate and preposterous he sounded.

     “Nothing should be done,” said Carla, and Jacob agreed particularly with her precise choice of the word “should” instead of “can.”

     Jacob was quiet, unable to reply because he felt something break inside of him, as if one of the gears in the broken clock in his aging body had missed a cog and the wheel was twisting and turning, limping along, desperate to catch up with Carla’s frank and inevitable conclusion. He wasn’t worried, however, knowing that the failure inside of him was temporary. He would heal and repair himself back in Washington together with his wife and two daughters, enough so that he could tolerate another severe blow the next year when he and Carla got together, then went in their separate ways again.

     Silence caught up with them and Carla rested her head in his shoulders, both of them feeling as if they were no longer in Munich, lost in their own little world.

     They both admitted they had begun a long and arduous journey in their lives. The passing of time would not make things easier or less complicated. Their feelings for each other would remain undiminished. As resilient individuals, however, both were confident they would survive. She bent over to let herself be held in his arms and allowed him to kiss the bare skin at the back of her neck, just above the lapel of her coat. Holding each other tight, sitting on the bench by themselves in the park, uncertain of their future, Jacob and Carla were resolved to the fact that part of loving was staying still, waiting.


   

Victorino Cristito Briones is a medical physician and research scientist currently residing both in the United States and the Philippines. Aside from his medical degree, he also has a Master of Arts from Boston University in the Department of Creating Writing and a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from Georgetown University, Washington, DC.


 


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