IWAS SERVED WITH divorce papers this morning. I’ve had better starts to the day. And though I knew they were coming, the actual moment when they landed in my hand still threw me. Because their arrival announced: this is the beginning of the end.
I live in a small cottage. It’s located on a back road near the town of Edgecomb, Maine. The cottage is simple: two bedrooms, a study, an open-plan living/kitchen area, whitewashed walls, stained floorboards. I bought it a year ago when I came into some money. My father had just died. Though broke by the time that his heart exploded, he still had an insurance policy in place from his days as a corporate man. The policy paid out $300,000. As I was the sole child and the sole survivor—my mother having left this life years earlier—I was also the sole beneficiary. My father and I weren’t close. We spoke weekly on the phone. I made an annual three-day visit to his retirement bungalow in Arizona. And I did send him each of my travel books as they were published. Beyond that, there was minimal contact—a long-ingrained awkwardness always curtailing any ease or familiarity between us. When I flew out alone to Phoenix to organize the funeral and close up his house, a local lawyer got in touch with me. He said that he’d drawn up Dad’s will, and did I know I was about to receive a nice little payoff from the Mutual of Omaha Insurance Corporation?
“But Dad was hard up for years,” I told the lawyer. “So why didn’t he cash in the policy and live on the proceeds?”
“Good question,” the lawyer said. “Especially as I advised him to do that myself. But the old guy was very stubborn, very proud.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “I tried sending him some money once, not that I had much to offer him. He returned my check.”
“The few times I saw your dad, he bragged to me about his son the well-known writer.”
“I’m hardly well known.”
“But you are published. And he was very proud of what you had accomplished.”
“That’s news to me,” I said, remembering how Dad had hardly said anything about my books.
“That generation of men—they often couldn’t articulate a damn thing they were feeling,” the lawyer said. “But he obviously wanted you to have some sort of legacy from him—so expect a payout of three hundred grand in the next couple of weeks.”
I flew back east the next day. Instead of returning home to the house in Cambridge that I shared with my wife, I found myself renting a car at Logan Airport and pointing it in the direction of places north. It was early evening when I left the airport. I guided the car onto Interstate 95 and drove. Three hours later, I was on Route 1 in Maine. I passed through the town of Wiscasset, then crossed the Sheepscot River and pulled into a motel. It was mid-January. The mercury was well below freezing. A recent snowfall had bleached everything white, and I was the only guest at the inn.
“What brings you up here at this time of year?” the clerk at the reception desk asked me.
“No idea,” I said.
I couldn’t sleep that night and drank most of the fifth of bourbon I had packed in my travel bag. At first light I got back into my rental car and started driving. I followed the road east, a narrow two-lane blacktop that snaked its way down a hill and around a curvy bend. Once that bend was negotiated, the payoff was spectacular. For there in front of me was a frozen expanse, shaded in aquamarine, a vast sheltered bay, fringed by iced woodlands, with a low-lying fog hovering above its glaciated surface. I braked, then got out of the car. A boreal wind was blowing. It chafed my face and nettled my eyes. But I forced myself to walk down to the water’s edge. A meager sun was attempting to light up the world. Its wattage was so low that the bay remained dappled in mist, making it seem both ethereal and haunted. Though the cold was brutal, I couldn’t take my gaze off this spectral landscape. Until another blast of wind made me turn away from it.
And at that precise moment I saw the cottage.
It was positioned on a small plot of land, elevated above the bay. Its design was very basic—a one-storey structure, sided in weatherbeaten white clapboard. Its little driveway was empty. There were no lights on inside. But there was a “For Sale” sign positioned out in front. I pulled out my notebook, writing down the name and number of the Wiscasset real estate agent who was handling it. I was going to approach it, but the cold finally forced me back to the car. I drove off in search of a diner that served breakfast. I discovered one on the outskirts of town. Then I found the agent’s office on the main street. Thirty minutes after I crossed his threshold, we were back at the cottage.
“Now I have to warn you that the place is a bit primitive,” the real estate agent said. “But it’s got great bones. And, of course, it’s right on the water. Better yet, it’s an estate sale. It’s been on the market for sixteen months, so the family will accept a reasonable offer.”
The agent was right. The cottage was the wrong side of rustic. But it had been winterized. And thanks to Dad, the $220,000 asking price was now affordable. I offered one eighty-five on the spot. By the end of the morning, the offer had been accepted. The next morning I had—courtesy of the real estate agent—met a local contractor who was willing to redo the cottage within my budget of $60,000. By the end of the same day I finally called home and had to answer a lot of questions from my wife, Jan, about why I had been out of contact for the last seventy-two hours.
“Because on the way back from my father’s funeral I bought a house.”
The silence that followed this statement was an extended one—and, I realize now, the moment when her patience with me finally cracked.
“Please tell me this is a joke,” she said.
But it wasn’t a joke. It was a declaration of sorts, and one with a considerable amount of subtext to it. Jan understood that. Just as I knew that, once I informed her of this impulse buy, the landscape between us would be irreparably damaged.
Yet I still went ahead and bought the place. Which, in turn, must mean that I really did want things to turn out this way.
But that moment of permanent schism didn’t happen for another eight months. A marriage—especially one of twenty years’ duration—rarely ends with a decisive bang. It’s more like all the phases you go through when confronting a terminal illness: anger, denial, pleading, more anger, denial . . . though we never seemed to reach the “acceptance” part of the “journey.” Instead, during an August weekend when we came up to the now-renovated cottage, Jan chose to tell me that, for her, the marriage was over. And she left town on the next bus.
Not with a bang, just with a . . .
I stayed on at the cottage for the rest of the summer, only returning once to our house in Cambridge—when she was away for the weekend—to pack up all my worldly goods (books and papers and the few clothes I owned). Then I headed back north.
Not with a bang, just with . . .
Months passed. I didn’t travel for a while. My daughter, Candace, visited me at the cottage one weekend per month. Every second Tuesday (her choice) I would drive the half hour from my house down to her college in Brunswick and take her out for dinner. When we got together we talked about her classes and friends and the book I was writing. But we rarely mentioned her mother, except for one night after Christmas when she asked me:
“You doing okay, Dad?”
“Not bad,” I said, knowing that I was sounding reticent.
“You should meet someone.”
“Easier said than done in backwoods Maine. Anyway I’ve a book to finish.”
“Mom always said that, for you, the books came first.”
“Do you agree with that?”
“Yes and no. You were away a lot. But when you were home, you were cool.”
“Am I still cool?”
“Way cool,” she said, giving my arm a squeeze. “But I wish you weren’t so alone.”
“The writer’s curse,” I said. “You have to be alone, you have to be obsessive, and those nearest to you frequently find that hard to bear. And who can blame them?”
“Mom once said that you never really loved her, that your heart was elsewhere.”
I looked at her carefully.
“There were many things before your mom,” I said. “Still, I did love her.”
“But not always.”
“It was a marriage—with all that that implies. And it did last twenty years.”
“Even if your heart was elsewhere?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“Only because you’re so evasive, Dad.”
“The past is very much the past.”
“And you really want to dodge that question, don’t you?”
I smiled at my far too precocious daughter and suggested we have another glass of wine.
“I have a German question,” she said.
“We were translating Luther the other day in class.”
“Is your professor a sadist?”
“No, just German. Anyway, while working our way through a collection of Luther’s aphorisms, I found something pertinent . . .”
“Pertinent to whom?”
“No particular person. But I’m not certain if I got the quote exactly right.”
“And you think I can help you?”
“You’re fluent, Dad. Du sprichst die Sprache.”
“Only after a couple of glasses of wine.”
“Modesty is tedious, Dad.”
“So, go on: tell me the quote from Luther.”
“Wie bald ‘nicht jetz’ ‘nie’ wird.”
I didn’t flinch. I just translated.
“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never.’”
“It’s a great quote,” Candace said.
“And, like all great quotes, it speaks a certain truth. What made you single it out?”
“Because I worry I’m a ‘not now’ sort of person.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I can’t live in the moment; I can’t let myself be happy with where I am.”
“Aren’t you being a little hard on yourself?”
“Hardly. Because I know that’s how you are, too.”
Wie bald ‘nicht jetz’ ‘nie’ wird.
“The moment . . . ,” I said, as if trying out the word for the first time. “It’s a very overrated place.”
“But it’s all we have, right? This night, this conversation, this moment. What else is there?”
“I knew you’d say that—because that’s your obsession. It’s in all your books. Why ‘the past,’ Dad?”
“It always informs the present.”
And because you can never really escape its grip, any more than you can come to terms with that which is terminal in life. Consider: my marriage may have started to disintegrate a decade ago, and the first sign of the endgame may have been that day last January when I bought the cottage in Maine. But I didn’t really accept the finality of it all until the morning after my dinner with Candace, when a knock came on my cottage door around eight fifteen.
Now the few neighbors I have do know that I am not a morning person. This makes me rare in this corner of Maine, where everyone seems to get up an hour or so before dawn and where nine a.m. is already considered the middle of the day.
But I never emerge into the world before noon. I’m a night man. I usually start writing after ten in the evening and generally work until three, at which point I nurse a nocturnal whiskey or two, watch an old film or read, and eventually climb into bed around five. I’ve been living this way since I started writing twenty-seven years ago—a fact my wife found somewhat charming at the beginning of our marriage and a source of great frustration thereafter. “Between the travel and the all-night work binges, I have no life with you” was a common lament —to which I could only reply, “Guilty as charged.” Now, with my fiftieth birthday well behind me, I’m stuck with my vampiric lifestyle, the few times I ever see the dawn being those occasional nights when I’m on a roll and write until first light.
But on this January morning a series of loud authoritarian knocks snapped me awake just as the tentative rays of a winter sun were cleaving the night sky. For a befuddled moment I thought I was in the middle of a mad Kafkaesque reverie—with the forces of some sinister state about to arrest me for unspecified thought crimes. But then I came to. Glancing at my bedside clock I saw that it was just after seven thirty a.m. The banging intensified. There really was someone pounding on the front door.
I got out of bed, grabbed a bathrobe, and wandered to the front door. When I opened it I saw a squat man in a parka and a knitted hat standing outside. One hand was behind his back. He looked cold and aggrieved.
“So you’re here after all,” he said, a fog of frozen breath accompanying his words.
“Yes . . .”
Suddenly the hand behind his back emerged. It was holding a large manila envelope. Like a Victorian schoolteacher using a ruler to discipline a child, he slammed the envelope right into the palm of my right hand.
“You’ve been served, Mr. Nesbitt,” he said. Then he turned and got into his car.
I stood in the doorway for several minutes, oblivious to the cold. I kept looking down at the large legal envelope, trying to come to terms with what had just transpired. When I felt my fingers going numb I finally went inside. Sitting down at the kitchen table I opened the envelope. Contained within was a petition for divorce from the State of Massachusetts. My name—Thomas Alden Nesbitt—was printed alongside that of my wife—Jan Rogers Stafford. She was named as the Petitioner. I was named as the Respondent. Before my eyes could take in anything else, I pushed the document away from me. I swallowed hard. I knew this was coming. But there a vast difference between the theoretical and the hard-faced typography of the actual. A divorce—no matter how expected—is still a terrible admission of failure. The sense of loss—especially after twenty years—is immense. And now . . .
This document. This definitive statement.
How can we let go that which we once held so essential?
On this January morning I had no reply to such a question. All I had was a petition telling me that my marriage was over, and the relentless disquieting question: could we—I—have found a way through this dark wood?
“Mom once said that you never really loved her, that your heart was elsewhere.”
It wasn’t as facile as that. But there’s no doubt that the historic so informs everything in our lives, and that it is so hard to break free of certain immutable things that continue to burden us.
But why look for answers when none will balm anything? I told myself, glancing across the table at the petition. Do what you always do when life gangs up on you. Run.
So while waiting for a pot of coffee to percolate I worked the phones. A call to my lawyer in Boston, who asked me to sign the petition and send it back to her. She also gave me a fast piece of advice: don’t panic. A call to a small hotel five hours north of here to find out if they had a room available for the next seven days. When they confirmed they had a vacancy, I told them to expect me around six that evening. Within an hour I had showered and shaved and packed a bag. I grabbed my laptop and a set of cross-country skis, then loaded everything into my Jeep. I called my daughter on her cell phone and left her a message that I would be away for the next seven days but would see her for dinner two weeks from Tuesday. I closed up my cottage. I checked my watch. Nine a.m. As I climbed into my vehicle snow had begun to fall. Within moments the conditions were near-blizzard. But I still forced my vehicle out onto the road and carefully navigated myself toward the intersection with Route 1. Looking in my rearview mirror, I saw that my cottage had vanished. A simple climatic shift and all that is concrete and crucial to us can disappear in an instant, whited out from view.
The snow remained heavy as I turned south and stopped at the post office in Wiscasset. Once the now-signed documents were dispatched, I drove on, heading due west. Visibility was now nonexistent, making any sort of speed impossible. I should have abandoned ship, finding a motel and holing up until the blizzard passed. But I was now locked into the same ornery frame of mind that would overtake me when I found myself unable to write: you will push your way through this . . .
It took almost six more hours to reach my destination. When I finally pulled into the parking lot of my hotel in Quebec City, I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing here.
I was so tired from all the events of the day that I fell into bed at ten. I managed to sleep until dawn. When I woke up, there was the usual moment of befuddlement, followed by the arrival of anguish. Another day, another struggle to keep the pain tolerable. After breakfast I changed into the appropriate clothing and drove north along the St. Lawrence River to a cross-country skiing center I’d once visited with Jan. The temperature—according to the gauge in my car—was minus ten. I parked and climbed outside, the chill lacerating and vindictive. I pulled my skis and poles out of the hatchback door and walked over to the trail head. I stepped into the skis, my boots slotting into the bindings with a decisive click. Immediately I pushed off into the dense forest through which the trail had been cleaved. The cold was now so severe that my fingers stiffened. It was impossible to close them around the poles. But I forced myself to gain speed. Cross-country skiing is an endurance test—especially in subzero temperatures. Only when you have gained enough forward propulsion to warm your body does the unbearable become acceptable. This process took around a half hour, each finger gradually thawing with the buildup of body heat. By the third mile I was actually warm and so focused on the push-glide-push-glide rhythm of the ski movement that I was oblivious to all around me.
Until the trail turned a hairpin bend and suddenly sent me charging down a vertiginous hill. This is what you get for choosing a black run. But my past training clicked into gear and I carefully raised my left ski out of the rutted track and positioned it on the groomed snow. Then I turned its tip inward toward the other ski. Normally this maneuver should reduce your speed and allow you to control the dips and dives of the track. But the trail was so frozen, so slick with the travails of previous occupants, that I simply couldn’t slow down. I tried dragging my poles. No use. That’s when I suddenly pulled my ski back into the track, lifted my poles, and let go. I was now on a ferocious downhill trajectory—all speed, no logic, no sense of what was up ahead. For a few brief moments there was the exhilaration of the free fall, the abandonment of prudence, the sense that nothing mattered but this plunge toward . . .
A tree. It was right there, its massive trunk beckoning me forward. Gravity was sending me into its epicenter. Nothing to stop me slamming into oblivion. For a nanosecond I was about to welcome it . . . until I saw my daughter’s face in front of me and found myself overwhelmed by one thought: she will have to live with this for the rest of her life. At which point some rational instinct kicked in and I threw myself away from sudden impact. As I crashed into the snow, I skidded for yards. The snow was no pillow, rather, a sheet of frozen tundra. My left side slammed into its concrete surface, then my head, the world went blurry, and . . .
I was aware of someone crouching down beside me, checking my vital signs, speaking fast French into a phone. Beyond that, all was hazy, vague. I wasn’t aware of much, bar the fact that I was in pain everywhere. I blacked out, waking again as I was hoisted onto a stretcher, loaded onto a sled, strapped down, and . . .
I was now being dragged along undulating terrain. I regained consciousness for long enough to crane my neck and see myself being pulled along by a snowmobile. Then my brain began to fog in again and . . .
I was in a bed. In a room. Stiff white sheets, cream walls, institutional ceiling tiles. I craned my neck and saw assorted tubes and wires emanating from my body. I began to gag. A nurse came hurrying toward me. She grabbed a pan and held it in front of me as I retched. When everything was expunged, I found myself sobbing. The nurse put an arm around me and said:
“Be happy . . . you’re alive.”
A doctor came around ten minutes later. He told me I’d had a lucky escape. A dislocated shoulder—which, while I was unconscious, they’d managed to “relocate.” Some spectacular bruising on my left thigh and ribcage. As to the state of my head . . . he’d run an MRI on my cranium and could find nothing wrong with it.
“You’d been knocked cold. A concussion. But you evidently have a very hard head, as there was no serious damage whatsoever.”
Would that my head was so hard.
I subsequently discovered that I was in a hospital in Quebec City. I would remain here for another two days as I underwent physiotherapy for my battered shoulder and was kept under observation for any “unforeseen neurological complications.” The physiotherapist—a Ghanaian woman with a rather wry take on everything—told me I should thank some divine force for my well-being.
“It is evident that you should be in a very bad place right now. But you came away with very little damage, so someone was watching over you.”
“And who might that ‘someone’ be?”
“Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s some extraworldly power. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s all down to you. There was a skier behind you . . . the man who called for help . . . who said that you were racing down the hill, as if you couldn’t care less what happened to you. Then, at the very last minute, you jumped away from the tree. You saved yourself. Which evidently means that you wanted to see another day. Congratulations: you are back with us.”
I felt no exhilaration, no pleasure in having survived. But as I sat in that narrow hospital bed, looking up at the pockmarked ceiling tiles, I did keep replaying that moment when I threw myself into the snow. Up until that split second, I was in thrall to the declivitous, as there was a part of me that welcomed such existential purity, an immediate cure to all that plagued me.
But then . . .
I saved myself, ending up with nothing more than some bruising, a sore shoulder, a sore head. Within forty-eight hours of being admitted to the hospital I was able to make it out to a taxi, return to the ski area, and collect my abandoned Jeep. Though I wasn’t in a sling, my shoulder hurt every time I had to turn the wheel sharply all the way down to Maine. But the journey back was otherwise uneventful.
“You may find yourself becoming depressed now,” the physiotherapist told me during our last session together. “It often happens in the wake of such things. And who can blame you? You chose to live.”
I reached Wiscasset just before dark—in time to collect my mail at the local post office. There was a yellow slip in my box, informing me an oversized parcel was being held behind the main counter. Jim, the postmaster, noticed me wincing when I picked up the package.
“You hurt yourself?” he asked.
“That I did.”
“Something like that.”
The package he handed over was, in fact, a box—and came from my New York publishers. I made a mistake of tucking it under my left arm and winced once more as my weakened shoulder told me not to do that again. As I signed the form acknowledging that I had collected it, Jim said:
“If you’re feeling poorly tomorrow and can’t get yourself to the supermarket, call me with a shopping list and I’ll take care of it all for you.”
There were many virtues about living in Maine—but the best of all was the way everyone respected each other’s privacy, yet were also there for you if needed.
“I think I’ll be able to push a cart around the vegetable aisle,” I said. “But thanks for the offer.”
“That your new book in the box?”
“If it is, someone else must have finished for me.”
“I hear ya . . .”
I walked to the car and drove on to my cottage, the January darkness augmenting my gloom. The physiotherapist was right: escaping death turns you more inward, more alive to the melancholic nature of being here. And a failed marriage is also a death—a living one, as the person you are no longer with is still sentient, still walking among us, very much existing without you.
“You were always ambivalent about me, us,” Jan said on several occasions toward the end. How could I explain that, with the exception of our wonderful daughter, I remain ambivalent about everything? If you’re not reconciled with yourself, how can you ever be reconciled with others?
The cottage was dark and drafty when I arrived. I carried the box in from my car and placed it on the kitchen table. I cranked up the thermostat. I built a wood fire in the potbellied stove that took up one corner of the living room. I poured myself a small Scotch. As I waited for all three forms of central heating to kick in, I shuffled through the handful of letters and magazines that I had retrieved from the mailbox. Then I turned my attention to the package. I used scissors to cut through the thick tape that had sealed it shut. Once the lid was pried open I peered inside. There was a letter from Zoe, my editor’s assistant, positioned on top of a large, thickly padded envelope. As I picked up the letter I saw the handwriting on this envelope—and the German postmark and stamps. In the left-hand corner of this package was the name of the sender: Dussmann. That stopped me short. Her name. And the address: Jablonski Strasse 48, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. Was this her address since . . . ?
Her . . .
Petra . . .
I picked up the letter from Zoe.
This showed up here for you c/o us a few days ago. I didn’t want to open it in case it was personal. If it’s anything questionable or weird, do let me know and we’ll deal with it.
Hope the new book goes well. We all can’t wait to read it.
My best . . .
“If it’s anything questionable or weird . . .”
No, it’s just the past. A past that I had tried to entomb long ago.
But here it was again, back to disturb an already troubled present.
“Wie bald ‘nicht jetz’ ‘nie’ wird.”
“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never.’”
Until a package arrives . . . and everything you have spent years attempting to dodge comes rushing back into the room.
When is the past not a spectral hall of shadows?
When we can live with it.
BERLIN. THE YEAR was 1984. I had just turned twenty-six. And, like the majority of people residing in that still-juvenile district of adulthood, I actually thought I understood so much about life and its attendant complexities.
Whereas now, more than fifteen years on from all that transpired, I see how unschooled and callow I was when it came to just about everything . . . most especially, the mysteries of the heart.
Back then I always resisted falling in love. Back then I always seemed to sidestep all emotional entanglements, all big-deal declarations from the heart. We all reenact our childhoods repeatedly during adult life—and every romance struck me as a potential trap, something that would ensnare me in the sort of marriage that drove my mother to death by cigarettes and left my father feeling as if his existence had been limited, circumscribed. “Never have kids,” he once told me. “They just cage you into something you never really wanted.” Granted, he’d had about three martinis in him when he said all this. But the very fact that he could openly tell his only son that he felt trapped in his life . . . bizarrely, it made me feel closer to the guy. He had confided in me, and that was huge. Because during the majority of my childhood he was a man who spent much of his life working out ways not to be at home. When he was there, he was so often enveloped in a cloud of silent rage and cigarette smoke that he always struck me—even when I was very young—as someone who was endlessly struggling with himself. He tried to play the typical dad but couldn’t pull it off, any more than I could play the average American boy. When it came to sports or the Boy Scouts or winning prizes for civics or joining the Marines—all of the all-American stuff that my dad embraced as a kid—I was a strikeout. I was always the last kid chosen for teams at school. I always had my head in a book. By the time I was well into adolescence, I was out roaming the city every weekend, hiding myself away in movie theaters and museums and concert halls. That was the thing about a Manhattan childhood: it was all there. I was the sort of kid who went to seasons of Fritz Lang films at the Bleecker Street Cinema, who bought student tickets for Boulez conducting Stravinsky and Schoenberg at the New York Philharmonic, who haunted bookshops and Off-Off-Broadway theaters that always seemed to be run by Romanian madmen. School was never an issue, because I had already begun to develop certain diligent habits when it came to work . . . perhaps because I had begun to figure out that work was the one source of equilibrium at my disposal, that by applying myself and getting on with the tasks at hand, I could keep all the dark stuff at bay. Dad approved.
“I never thought I’d tell my only kid that I like the fact he’s always studying, always reading. But the truth is, it’s kind of impressive, considering the C’s I got at your age. The only thing I worry about—all these movies and plays and concerts you go to . . . you’re always on your own. No girlfriends, no pals you hang out with . . .”
“There’s Stan,” I said, mentioning a math whiz in my class at school who was also something of a movie addict and, like me, thought nothing of seeing four films during a Saturday. He was hugely overweight and awkward. But we were both loners—and very much outside the team player ethic that was such an integral part of the prep school to which we had both been dispatched. We often look for friends who can make us realize that we are not the only person in the world who feels maladroit with others, or who doubts himself.
“Stan’s the fatty, right?” Dad asked. He’d met him once when I had him over after school.
“That’s right,” I said, “Stan’s kind of large.”
“Kind of large,” Dad said. “If he was my son, I’d send him to a boot camp to get all that blubber off him.”
“Stan’s a good guy,” I told my dad.
“Stan’s going to be dead by the time he’s forty.”
Actually my father got that one right. Stan and I stayed friends over the next thirty years. After a brilliant academic career at the University of Chicago, he ended up living in Berkeley, teaching wildly advanced calculus at the university there. We made a point of seeing each other whenever we found ourselves on either of our respective coasts. When I returned to the States in the summer of 1984 we must have phoned each other every two weeks. Stan never married, though there was always a string of girlfriends, most of whom didn’t seem to mind his ever-augmenting weight. He was the only person I ever confided to about all that went on in Berlin in 1984, and I always think about his comment to me after he heard the story: You’ll probably never get over it.
Jan was never particularly comfortable around Stan, as she knew that he considered her far too cool and distant for me.
“You’ve really constructed an interesting marriage there,” Stan said after the last weekend he spent with us in Cambridge. He was in town to address some conference at MIT. We had dinner after he read a paper on binary number theory. It was a breathtakingly obscurantist lecture. Stan being Stan, the talk also highlighted his pedantic quirks, a performance which, being his friend, I found endearing, but which Jan considered showboating. Over dinner at an Afghan restaurant (his choice) to which we repaired afterward, she dropped one or two hints that she wasn’t impressed by his displays of erudite exhibitionism. When Stan congratulated me on the publication of my most recent book—about venturing into the Canadian Arctic—Jan attempted a witticism:
“It’s possibly the first book written about the interrelationship between dogsleds and a writer’s deep-rooted solipsism.”
Stan said nothing in reply. But afterward, as Jan pleaded an early start in the morning in court, I walked my friend back to his hotel near Kendall Square. Halfway there, he noted:
“You’re a man who runs away all the time, despite the fact that what you want more than anything in life is to emotionally connect with someone. But like the rest of us, you’ve been counterintuitive. You’ve married someone who—as you’ve intimated over the years—has never really let you near her. Which, in turn, has made you travel more and fabricate the necessary distance to protect yourself from her coldness. Funny, isn’t it? She complains that you are away all the time—yet she has always done everything possible to keep you at one remove. And now you’re both locked into a pattern of behavior which only a divorce will break.”
He fell silent for a moment, letting that last comment sink in. Then, with just the slightest hint of irony in his voice, he asked:
“Of course, what do I know about such things, right?”
When his corroded arteries finally exploded a few weeks later—and I found myself crying uncontrollably in the wake of learning about his death—that final conversation en route to his Cambridge hotel continued to haunt me. Because even when others point out an essential verity about ourselves to ourselves we often reinterpret it in a way that makes it palatable. As in: “Jan may be distant and critical, but who else would put up with my absences and my need to live in my own head?” Whereas I now understand what my great and good friend was really telling me: that I deserved someone who loved me for what I was . . . and if that arrived in my life, I might just stand still for a change
Still the pattern of flight was established early on. Once I started getting involved with women, I could never really stick around. If anyone ever came too close to me, if I sensed interest or love, I would find an excuse to duck and dodge. I was expert at detaching myself from all entanglements. This became even more pronounced after I graduated from college and moved back to New York, determined to try to become a writer. What’s that old line of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s about childhood being the kingdom where nobody dies? I was a member of a generation that didn’t know economic deprivation and wasn’t shipped off to a war, so my early twenties were still a time when—outside of my mother’s death—my existence seemed detached from larger realities. I wasn’t thinking about the rapidity of passing time or the need to focus on life’s bigger pictures. Rather, I lived in the moment. As soon as I was handed my college diploma, I was on the next bus to New York and a job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. It was 1980 and my starting salary was $16,000 a year. I had little interest in the world of publishing—and I certainly never saw myself as an editor. But the job allowed me to rent a small studio on Sixth Street and Avenue C and live a loose, louche life. I showed up for work. I carved my way through huge stockpiles of unsolicited manuscripts. I went to five movies a week and used a still-valid student ID to get cheap seats for the Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet. I stayed up late most nights, trying to write short stories, often heading out of my tiny apartment to catch the last nocturnal set at a jazz club. And I found myself—much to my surprise—involved with a cellist named Ann Wentworth.
She was a young woman who could best be described as willowy. Tall and willowy, with flowing blond hair and skin that was translucent (could skin be that perfect?). I remember when I first met her at a makeshift brunch at a friend’s apartment near Columbia University. Like my own downtown garret, the apartment was small. But it had four picture windows that bathed this one room in almost ethereal light. When I first saw Ann, she was dressed in a gossamer skirt that, in the honeyed glow of a summer morning, showed off her long legs. I remember immediately thinking that this was the New York bohemian girl of my dreams . . . and one who played the cello to boot.
Not only did she play the cello, she was gifted. A student at Juilliard, she was mentioned by even her fellow students as a musician to watch, serious talent with serious intelligence.
But what I remember most of all about Ann at the outset was her mixture of worldliness and innocence. She was wildly knowledgeable about books and music. As such, our conversation was always animated—with me being the intellectual show-off (well, that was my style back then) and Ann always sounding more thoughtful, more considered. I loved that about her. Just as I loved the way her smile was always couched in a certain wistfulness, a hint that, for all her outward optimism (as Ann herself told me, she preferred to see the glass half-full and life as an enterprise full of possibility), she also had a pensive side to her. She would cry easily in bad movies and during certain passages of music (the slow movements of the Brahms sonatas would always get her). She would cry after making love—which we did at every moment possible. And she cried terribly when, four months into our relationship, I put an end to things between us.
It wasn’t as if something had gone terribly wrong, or that we ever had the sort of disagreement that led to this permanent fracture. No, Ann’s only mistake was to let me know that she genuinely loved me. She had organized a long weekend for us in the family cabin way up in the Adirondacks. It was December 30. A foot of fresh snow had fallen overnight. A fire was burning in the grate, the cabin was fragranced with pine, and we’d just eaten a wonderful dinner and had finished a bottle of wine. We were on the sofa, our arms linked around each other. Looking deep into my eyes she told me:
“You know, my parents have been together since they were twenty . . . and that’s over a quarter of a century ago. As my mom told me a few years ago, the moment she saw my father she knew that he was it. Her destiny. That’s what I felt when I first saw you.”
I smiled tightly, trying to mask my unease. But I knew that I didn’t react well to this comment—as sweetly rendered and loving as it so evidently was. Ann saw this and put her arms around me, saying that she wasn’t trying to trap me, that, on the contrary, she was willing to wait if I wanted to buzz off to Paris and write for a year, or didn’t feel like getting married until we were both twenty-five.
“I don’t want you to feel under pressure,” she told me, all quiet and loving. “I just want you to know that, for me, you are the man of my life.”
The subject was never raised again. But when we returned to the city a few days later, I spent an entire night writing a proposal for a travel book about following the Nile from Cairo to Khartoum. I spent the next week punching out a sample chapter, based on a two-week trip I’d made to Egypt in the summer after leaving college. Thanks to my work in publishing, I knew several agents and interested one of them in the proposed book. She shopped it around to several editors—one of whom informed her that she rarely took a risk on a new and very young writer, but he would be able to part with a paltry $3,000 as an advance for the book. I accepted on the spot. I asked for a four-month leave of absence from work. My boss refused, so I quit. Then I broke the news to Ann. I think what disturbed her most wasn’t the realization that I was about to disappear to the far side of North Africa for several months, but the fact that I had been working toward this goal for the past eight weeks and never once intimated to her that I had been plotting my escape.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked quietly, the hurt so evident in her eyes.
I just shrugged and looked away. She reached out and took my hand.
“I mean, on one level I’m so happy for you, Thomas. Your first book, commissioned by a major publisher. It’s fantastic news. But I just don’t understand why you kept it all a secret.”
Again, I just shrugged, hating myself for playing the coward.
“Thomas, please, talk to me. I love you, and there is so much that is good between us.”
I let go of her hand.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. Ann was now looking at me, wide-eyed.
“Can’t do what?”
“But I am not asking you to marry me.”
“Even though it’s what you want.”
“Yes, it is what I want . . . but only because I think you are a wonderful man.”
“You don’t know me.”
She stared at me as if I had slapped her face.
“How can you say that, how . . . ?”
“Because it’s the truth. Because you’d be much better off with a nicer guy who wants the little life that you . . .”
As soon as the words little life were out of my mouth, I regretted them. Because I could see the effect they had on Ann. It was as if I had punched her.
“Little life? Is that what you think I want for us?”
Of course, I knew that Ann wasn’t a reproduction of my mother. Just as I knew that she would never press me into the sort of domestic hell that so enraged my father (even if he was the co-architect of that hell). No matter how many reassurances she would give me about not pressuring me into an early marriage, the thing was . . . she had told me she loved me. She had told me I was the man with whom she wanted to spend her life. I simply couldn’t cope with such knowledge, such responsibility. So I said:
“I’m not ready for the sort of commitment you want or need.”
Again she reached for my hand. This time I wouldn’t let her take it. Again the hurt and bewilderment in her eyes was vast.
“Thomas, please, don’t push me away like this. Do your three, four months in Egypt. I’ll wait for you. It won’t change anything between us. And when you come back we can—”
“I’m not coming back.”
Her eyes filled up. She began to cry.
“I don’t understand,” she said quietly. “We’re . . .”
She paused for a moment, and then said the word I knew she’d say, the word I’d dreaded all along:
“. . . happy.”
A long silence followed as she waited for a response from me. But none was forthcoming.
Some months later, I woke up in a cheap hotel room in Cairo, very much alone, the solitude and sense of dislocation enormous. I found myself replaying that final conversation with Ann, over and over again in my head, wondering why I had so pushed her away. Of course, I knew the answer to that question. I tried to tell myself that it was better this way. After all, I had made the less conformist, more daring decision. I was a man without all those damnable ties that bind. I could float my way through life, have adventures, flings, even run off to the ends of the earth if I felt like it. And I was just in my early twenties, so why tie myself up with someone who would keep me tethered to a life that would limit the proverbial horizon?
But the question that so gnawed at me that night in that Cairo hotel room was: But did you actually love Ann Wentworth?
And the answer was: had I been open to the idea, the love would have followed. But as I had an abject terror of what it meant to love and be loved . . . best to detonate the relationship and kill off all possibilities of a future together.
So after that painful nuit blanche in Cairo, I decided to put all such difficult sentiments out of my head. I threw myself into my Egyptian travels with a vehemence that surprised even me. Every day I sought out the new, the strange, the extreme. This being Egypt I could find all of the above. I spent time in the City of the Dead—a vast ghetto made up of families so impecunious, so unable to find dwellings in a city of sixteen million citizens hemmed in by the desert, that they had to rent tombs in Cairo’s vast necropolis. I took a train down to Assyut—a university town that was Egypt’s primary breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalists—and loitered with intent among members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. I hitched a ride with two felucca men, floating down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, sleeping on a mattress and a plain sheet every night on the deck of the boat, purifying Nile water to drink. When I reached Aswan I met a French anthropology student named Stephanie, who was heading south to Khartoum. So we traveled down the Nile to the Sudanese border, and then spent a mad week on a series of buses that never traveled more than 150 kilometers a day. They deposited us in nowhere villages with primitive hotels that cost, on average, two dollars a night. I remember making love with Stephanie on a series of straw mattresses, in mud-brick buildings that frequently adjoined an outhouse, in nighttime temperatures that were never lower than ninety degrees. When we reached Khartoum, I had economized so rigorously during the five months on the road that I insisted we splurge and check into the fanciest hotel in town: the Grand Holiday Villa, best known as one of those sunstruck spots where Churchill holed up against the English winter to paint those mediocre watercolors for which he was less than famous. The desk clerk looked at Stephanie and me with suspicion, as we hadn’t bathed for days and were both covered in a thin film of dust. But after some dickering I managed to bargain us into a large, airy room with a king-sized bed and a huge bathtub for $35 per day (one of the few things that I liked about the Sudan was its cheapness). Stephanie was a small, sinewy woman with excellent English and a worldview that could be best described as sardonic. She was pretty in a severe sort of way and very passionate whenever we made love. But there was also something clinical to her worldview; the physical heat between us turning into detached dispassion afterward.
“I sense this is all far too colonial and bourgeois for me,” she said as we shared the huge bathtub in the room, soaking our bedbug-ravaged bodies. “Eric would not approve.”
“The man I live with in Paris.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Not at all,” I said.
She reached over and stroked my head, smiling wryly.
“Try not to be so sad, Thomas.”
“Who said I’m sad?”
“You are always sad, Thomas. Just as you are also so amusing and engaging. It’s an intriguing combination: so bright, yet so vulnerable and alone. It’s been a fantastic quinze jours. I’ve loved traveling with you, being with you. When you get back to the States, you should look up the woman you left behind. You obviously miss her a great deal.”
“I never said anything to you about someone back in the States.”
She gave me a small kiss on the lips.
“You didn’t need to,” she said, then reached over and pulled me on top of her.
Stephanie caught a plane back to Paris the next day. The last I saw of her was when she boarded a taxi to Khartoum Airport. After a light final kiss on the lips, she wished me a good future and vanished off into her own. Life has many such encounters, an individual who comes into your existence courtesy of the music of chance, with whom you are intimate for a short moment or so, and who then drifts out of your ongoing narrative, never to appear again. You travel down this ever-changing line of human geography known as your life. People fall into your path. Some do you good. Some do you bad. Some become friends. Some become people you never want to see again. You fall in and out of love. You reach out for certain people and they reject you. Others reach for you and you flee. Often you are ignored, just as you ignore others. And in the midst of all these missed and made connections, you try to travel hopefully, always in search of that person who might just make you feel less alone in the world, always cognizant of the fact that, in searching for love, you are also opening yourself up to the possibility of loss. Sometimes these losses are tolerable and you can justify them with bromides like: “It was never meant to be.” Or: “Better that it ended quickly.” But sometimes you find yourself facing up to a regret that—no matter how hard you attempt to negotiate with it—simply will not leave you in peace.
I had no such lasting regrets about Stephanie. But when I headed to Khartoum Airport a few days later—and began a series of flights via Cairo and Rome that eventually deposited me in New York twenty-four hours later—the sense of emptiness hit me. I returned to my apartment—sublet in my absence for six months to an actor friend—to discover that this gentleman had the personal hygiene of a water rat. I spent the first week fumigating the place and solving a ferocious cockroach problem. Once the apartment was habitable again, I then killed another two weeks repainting it, resanding the floor, and retiling the entire bathroom. I knew the underlying purpose behind all this home renovation: it allowed me to dodge the obligation to kick-start the book into life, and it also stopped me from phoning up Ann Wentworth and gauging whether she wanted me back.
The truth was, I myself didn’t know what I wanted. I missed her, but I also knew that a single phone call to her would indicate a desire to accede to her wish. The temptation was a profound one, for so many obvious reasons. A lovely, talented, and (above all) truly nice woman who adored me—and only wanted the best for me, for us. No wonder I stared at the phone so many nights and willed myself to call her. But to do that, I told myself, would be a form of surrender.
Only now do I see the younger man convincing himself that further adventures were awaiting him in the big churning world, that stability and happiness were two synonyms for entrapment.
So the phone remained in its cradle and Ann’s number at her little apartment near Columbia was never dialed. Anyway I had a book to write. So once my apartment was freshly painted and general order restored to my tiny slice of Manhattan real estate, I began to work. I had around thirty-five hundred dollars in the bank and figured it would take six months to reshape my many notebooks into something resembling a cogent narrative. Back then, you didn’t have to be a corporate player to afford a Manhattan life. My studio set me back $380 a month in rent. You could still go to the movies for five dollars. You could get cheap seats at Carnegie Hall for eight bucks. You could eat breakfast at the local Ukrainian coffee shop on my corner for two-fifty. Knowing that the money I had in the bank would, at best, pay for four months of life, I found a job at the now-vanished Eighth Street Bookshop. Four dollars an hour, thirty hours a week. The pay covered food, utilities, even a couple of nights out every week.
I mention all this because the eight months it finally took me to write Sunstroke: An Egyptian Journey now strikes me as a time of great simplicity. I had no commitments, no debts, no ties that bind. When I typed the last line of my first book—on a January night while a blizzard was raging outside—I celebrated with a glass of wine and a cigarette, then fell into bed and slept for fourteen hours. There followed several weeks of excising all the repetitions, misfired ideas, hackneyed metaphors, and all other testaments to bad writing that always make their way into my first drafts. I delivered the manuscript by hand to my editor. Then I took off for two weeks to a college friend’s place in Key West: a cheap break in the American tropics, in which I sat in the sun, drank in bars, avoided all novels by Ernest Hemingway, and tried to keep my worry about the book at bay (a worry that has since plagued me every time I’ve submitted a manuscript, and based on a simple fear: my editor is going to hate it).
As it turned out, Judith Kaplan, my editor of the era, thought the book “most accomplished for a debut” and a “good read.” Its publication eight months later resulted in around six reviews nationwide. However, there was a crucial, positive “In Brief” notice in the New York Times. It got me several phone calls from assorted editors at good magazines. The book sold four thousand copies and was quickly remaindered. But the fact was: I had published a book. And Judith—deciding that I was worth encouraging (especially in the wake of the mention in the Times)—took me out for a good lunch at an expensive Italian restaurant a week after I had come back from Addis Ababa for National Geographic.
“Do you know what Tolstoy said about journalism?” she asked after finding out that I was flush with magazine commissions and had long since quit my bookshop job. “It’s a brothel. And like most brothels, once you become a client, you keep returning regularly.”
“I’m not looking upon magazine writing as anything but an excuse to travel the world at somebody else’s expense and get paid a dollar a word.”
“So if I was to inquire if you were thinking about a new book for us . . .”
“I would say: I already have an idea.”
“Well, that’s an excellent start. And what may this idea be?”
“It’s one word: Berlin.”
Over the next half hour I sketched out how I wanted to spend a year living in the city—and write a book that would be very much “a fiction that happened . . . twelve months in that western island floating within the Eastern bloc; the place where the two great isms of the twentieth century rubbed up against each other like tectonic plates; a town that prided itself on its anarchism, its demimonde credentials, its ongoing whiff of Weimar Republic decadence. Yet it was also a center of gravity for a certain kind of outsider who wanted to exist amidst the edgy, walled-in realities of a metropolis with a storied and hideous past, now rubbing shoulders daily with the monochromatic bleakness of Communism.”
For someone who has often been accused of being a little closed-off, I’ve always had a certain talent when it comes to pitching an idea, especially in the knowledge that it could get me on a plane somewhere. Having carefully thought through this spiel before heading out to lunch with Judith, I reeled it off with a fluency and a confidence that I hoped didn’t sound too rehearsed.
“Now don’t tell me all that came to you just now,” she said when I finished. “But it does sound like the makings of a damn good book . . . especially if you can do what you did with the Egypt book and make us interested in the people that you meet. That’s your greatest strength, Thomas: the fact you are fascinated by other people’s worlds, the way you really do get the idea that every life is its very own novel.”
She paused to take a sip of her wine.
“Now go home and write me a slam-dunk proposal that I can get past those stiffs in the sales and marketing department. And tell your agent to give me a call.”
The proposal was written and submitted within a week. I had a thumbs-up from my publisher three weeks later (oh, for the days when publishing was so straightforward, so willing to back a modest idea, so writer-centric). And my agent did well with the deal, garnering me a $9,000 advance—half of which was to be paid up front. Given that it was three times my first contract, I was elated. Especially as I was able to wave this new contract under the noses of several magazine editors and come away with three commissions from Harper’s, National Geographic, and The Atlantic Monthly, which added another $5,000 to my kitty. I started doing proper research about minor details like the cost of living and discovered that in a scruffy area like Wedding I could probably find a room in a shared apartment for around 150 deutsche marks a month—which, at the time, was around one hundred bucks. And thinking that it might give the book an interesting texture if I were to be somehow tangentially involved in the city’s Cold War complexities, I also sent my résumé and a copy of my Egyptian tome to Radio Liberty in Washington. They were the US-government-funded broadcasting network that beamed in news and the American worldview to all countries behind the Iron Curtain. Along with my book, I attached a résumé and a cover letter explaining that I was planning to spend a year in Berlin and might there be some sort of opening for a writer in their offices there.
I didn’t expect to hear back from them, filing the whole thing away under “long shot.” I also figured they were probably the sort of organization that only hired rabid anti-Communists who were also bilingual. But a letter did arrive from Washington one afternoon. It was from a gentleman named Huntley Cranley, the director of programming, who informed me that he found my book and my résumé most interesting, and he was dispatching them on to Jerome Wellmann, the head of Radio Liberty in Berlin. Once there I should inform him that I was in town. After that, it was all down to the discretion of Mr. Wellmann whether he granted me an audience or not.
A week later—my apartment sublet again, my one suitcase packed, a heavy army greatcoat on my back—I folded this letter into a German-English dictionary, which I then threw into my shoulder bag. After turning off the lights and double locking the door, I took the bus out to Kennedy Airport on a grim January evening when sleet simply wouldn’t transform itself to snow. There, I checked in my bag, accepted a boarding pass, passed through the usual array of detectors and security, squeezed myself into my assigned seat, watched the skyline of Manhattan recede into nocturnal midwinter gloom, and quietly drank myself to sleep as the plane achieved cruising altitude and journeyed east.
When I awoke many hours later, my head was still thick and gloomy after far too many miniatures of Scotch. I peered out the window and saw nothing but the gray density of cloud.
That’s the thing about finding yourself in the clouds, I remember thinking at the time. You are in somewhere which looks like nowhere. You are flying through a blank page . . . and you have no idea what’s to be written on it.
Then the cloud turned to mist, the mist burned away, and down below there was . . .
Land. Fields. Buildings. The outline of a city on the curved edge of the horizon. And all refracted through the numbness of a night spent sleeping sitting up in a cramped seat. We had another ten minutes or so before touchdown. Reaching into my jacket pocket, I pulled out the bag of tobacco and rolling papers that had been my constant companion since my final year at college—and which had, without question, helped me negotiate all the nervy moments at my desk over the past year. Put simply, I had become a serious smoker during the course of writing my first book and needed at least fifteen cigarettes to carry myself through most days. And now—even though the “No Smoking” sign had been switched on—I was already pulling out my smoking paraphernalia and quickly fashioning a cigarette, which could be lit up as soon as I was inside the terminal building.
Land. Fields. Buildings. Specifically: the high-rise outline of Frankfurt, that most mercantile and aesthetically flat of German cities. I had studied German since my freshman year at college. It had always been a complex relationship: a love of the language’s density of form and structural rigor coupled with the desperate grind of the dative case and the longueurs that accompany trying to drill a language into your head, especially when you are living largely outside said language. I had toyed with the idea of spending an entire year studying in Germany—but instead chose to spend my junior year editing the college newspaper. How could I have thought that being editor in chief of a student newspaper was in some way more important than having a year playing the student prince at Tübigen or Heidelberg and knocking around assorted European capitals? It was the last time I ever made a deliberately careerist decision, and
Thomas Nesbitt is a divorced writer in the midst of a rueful middle age. Living a very private life in Maine, in touch only with his daughter and still trying to recover from the end of a long marriage, his solitude is disrupted one wintry morning by the arrival of a box that is postmarked Berlin. The name on the box—Dussmann—unsettles him completely, for it belongs to the woman with whom he had an intense love affair twenty-six years ago in Berlin at a time when the city was cleaved in two and personal and political allegiances were frequently haunted by the deep shadows of the Cold War.
Refusing initially to confront what he might find in that box, Thomas nevertheless is forced to grapple with a past he has never discussed with any living person and in the process relive those months in Berlin when he discovered, for the first and only time in his life, the full, extraordinary force of true love. But Petra Dussmann, the woman to whom he lost his heart, was not just a refugee from a police state, but also someone who lived with an ongoing sorrow that gradually rewrote both their destinies.
A love story of great epic sweep and immense emotional power, The Moment explores why and how we fall in love—and the way we project on to others that which our hearts so desperately seek.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Thomas Nesbitt is a recently divorced, middle-aged writer who lives a sequestered life in the hills of Maine. His solitude is disrupted by the arrival of a box postmarked from Berlin. The return address on the box—Dussmann—is the name of the woman with whom he had an intense love affair in Berlin during a time when the city was divided and haunted by the shadows of the Cold War. Initially refusing to confront what he might find in that box, Thomas nevertheless finds himself forced to grapple with his past, and in the process, relive those months in Berlin when two people found love and vowed to escape the tragic landscape of Berlin.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Thomas Nesbitt tells his daughter “the moment…it’s a very over-rated place.” Do you agree with this statement? How does Thomas’s notion of the moment change over the course of the book?
2. Nesbitt concludes that “everyone has a part of themselves they prefer not to reveal.” What part of himself does he choose not to reveal? I see more