"The United States"
Later we will tell how we happen to be here in the first-class lounge of the United States, but for the time being: there are three of us, and we are, incredibly, the only persons seated in a space that is at least fifteen meters wide and perhaps twenty-five meters long. At this moment a steward is coming to our table with a tray of martinis, two up and one on the rocks. Even after last night, Patricia and I are too effete to sip our drinks around ice; Donald believes that a drink on the rocks lasts longer and is less debilitating than a drink served without ice in a stemmed glass--he truly thinks about such things--while I am presently far more concerned for the textures and warmths slightly above Patricia's shapely knee; this sort of thing is a constant preoccupation with me, ever since Patricia's husband sailed for America on board the Olympia, three months ago. And now the steward is beside our table, arranging the drinks before us; each martini costs one dollar US. All of us are offended by the price. I wonder if we remembered to tell you that the year is 1953.
We have driven to the ship in Patricia's husband's Jaguar Mark VII Saloon--a quite remarkable machine, perhaps a trifle short on headroom, but lovely nevertheless. The motorcar is a deep burgundy in color; it has wire wheels and those wide whitewalls hardly anyone will know in twenty years, until all at once they begin to "come back," and its interior appointments (as they say) especially include tan leather upholstery whose odor is in its way as heady as the scent Patricia is wearing, and whose appearance is as rich but understated as the white linen suit she has chosen to wear today. It's a hell of a car, really. The speedometer changes colors in ascending kilometer ranges, turning from green to soft orange to a suffusion of anxious red. Donald and I have been driving the Jaguar for the past two months--Patricia is afraid of motorcars and cannot drive--and just last week we reached 180 kilometers per hour on the autobahn from Bremen to Hamburg. God, what a car it is. Then, as now, Patricia huddled against me in the back seat and helped me place my hands so the outrageous speeds would make neither of us nervous. Did we say the ship is docked in Bremerhaven? During the summer months--the "season"--the United States docks here every two or three weeks. If I am not mistaken, she stops at Le Havre inbound and Southampton outbound--or it may be the other way around. In any event, her sister ship, the America, docks here all year. Whichever ship you choose, the tourist-class passage to New York costs 186 dollars US.
In 1953 a great many things seem possible. We are all young: Patricia is 24, Donald is 23, I am 23; our best estimate at this moment of a humid afternoon in July is that the English-speaking world is just our age, and that it is careless, unencumbered, bright, in superb good health, ready to try anything at least twice, and well enough off to afford anything genuinely worth the purchasing. Nothing will change our minds. Once, in a pellucid instant, Patricia has suggested to me that we shall for the rest of our lives retain this judgment of the world, and that whatever happens we will hug to ourselves our faith in our own rightness, our own worthiness. This extraordinary wisdom while she was teasing me and giggling at the shock on Donald's face.
In fact, our world-view is somewhat blurred as we leave from Patricia's apartment and set out to the Columbus Quai. There has been a farewell party; it began the afternoon of the day before, and it was a proper affair--with a guest list, formal invitations written out in Patricia's artful little hand, a time span (3:30 to 5:30) specified, and a gorgeous subtle punch concocted mostly from champagne and vodka. Some twenty or so guests: A/2C and Mrs. Bradley Archer, whose mutual ambition is to enter the diplomatic service; A/2C James Neubauer and the Fräulein Ingeborg Theisse; S/Sgt Stanley ("Stosh") Borzyskowski; A/1C Mark Greenawald, who has dedicated his life to finding and marrying the richest girl in the Cincinnati/Covington area; A/B Gerald Barker, a gambler (poker, especially seven-card stud); three Special Services hostesses--Jean, Virginia, and Constance Elaine; Carlotte and Heinz Schmitt, the German nationals who own the building, who are Patricia's landlady and landlord, whose punch recipe it is that we have followed and praised; and (finally) a German girl no one seems ever to have met before whose full name is Gertrud Maria Magdalena Schüssler, and whose unclothed body will some time be described--by Greenawald--as "purest gold." And for all our mutual worthiness, the American air force is the sole deep occasion for our meeting here on Burgomeister-Schmidt-Strasse 29, Bremerhaven, Bremen Enclave, West Germany, on Saturday the llth of July, in the Year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Fifty-Three. Pros't, Schatz.
This scene: It is the day before the sailing of the United States, about halfway through the farewell party at Patricia's apartment. The heat in the apartment is beyond endurance; on the hall staircase leading upward to the Schmitt rooms we are strewn like toys, sweating, nursing our drinks. No one left at 5:30; at seven, Neubauer and Fräulein Theisse flagged a Mercedes taxi and directed its driver to the Butterfly Bar, where they bought a quantity of hot bockwurst, then returned to the Burgomeister-Schmidt-Strasse address at about 8:15. Neubauer claims to have made love to Fräulein Theisse three times during the errand--once going and twice returning--and he has marched the taxi driver upstairs as witness. Neubauer is a short man, Fräulein Theisse is a plump lady; anything is possible. We are all grateful for the wurst.
This scene: We are sprawled on the staircase, sweating and belching. Someone at the top of the stairs has actually fallen asleep. We hear him snoring; we hear the punch glass topple out of his grasp and roll down two steps before Mrs. Archer, Caroline, pushes it through the balustrade uprights with her elbow. The glass bounces before it breaks in front of Patricia's open door. An odd sight; it is as if the glass has levitated from the hall floor and burst in midair. At the sound of the breaking, Constance Elaine rushes out to ask what the noise is. She is barefoot, and when we finally get her to the military hospital a bemused German doctor has to take seven stitches in her foot.
Finally, this scene: The staircase is like the vanes in some sort of vertical heat duct, and we are half-lying, half-fainting against varnished surfaces. Patricia is on the fifth step, sprawled, leaning against the wall, her eyes half-closed and gazing--apparently--at the light fixture above us. She is humming; in her left hand is a nearly empty champagne glass, the bowl cradled in her fingers, the stem free and swaying like a pendulum. It is Patricia who once explained that you can tell whether a woman is married or unmarried by the way she holds a stemmed glass. If she has anything to explain to me now, or if she is even thinking of anything, no evidence presents itself. I can see in her half-hidden eyes the reduced reflections of the light bulb overhead, can make out the tune she is humming--"You Belong to Me," an out-of-date Jo Stafford song--and assume from the looseness of her wrist that she is only floating down the long staircase into her concealed world of memory and idle daydream. I am seated below her, on the second step. I have laid my head back between her thighs, my left temple resting against the bare flesh above her stocking-top and below the white (silk?) panties she wears, the back of my head pillowed on her belly. In my left hand I hold what remains of a water glass of punch; my right arm is laid along Patricia's right leg, my hand stroking her ankle. I cannot begin to describe how drenched with sweat I am, how lethargic I feel. If the world ended now, if the sky fell, if the Russians attacked...it would all be one and indifferent. The heat between Patricia's legs is like the sun's, the softness of her thighs is clouds and flowers; against the back of my head is the throbbing of a secret engine waiting to drive the world wherever it desires. I imagine her sheer sexual energy directed toward no end, an idling, a dim green light in our shared darkness. I say to Patricia:
"The punch is drunk up."
She stirs; I ride, giddy, with her small movement. "Oh, I know," Patricia says. "This bunch of people...." She shifts the champagne glass to her right hand, strokes the stem between the thumb and fingers of her left. I am looking up at her, my head far back; I see her face through the curve of her glass, and I feel the hem of her skirt over my right ear. The hot odor between Patricia's thighs is the ozone of that obscure engine driving us, driving me.
But we are all under inhuman pressures. In the spring a British Lancaster was shot down by MIG-17s of the --- Soviet Air Army (Rostock) in the corridor between Hamburg and Berlin. Soon after, two American jet fighters were intercepted and destroyed along the Czech border by MIGs of the --- Air Army (Zwickau). We monitored both incidents, in each case listening to the Soviet ground controller vector his fighters to the target, hearing the command to open fire, startled to realize--because the appropriate code words are so rare--the attack is real, people are dying. We sit in our barracks rooms all through the wet spring months, drinking Tuborg beer and talking of war, of pre-emptive nuclear strikes, of our closeness to the enemy zone (ten air minutes), of our own importance, of whether we are interested in dying. From Rotenburg, in the British Zone, where our officers go to record the flying time necessary to keep their flight pay, it is said that both the British and American pilots in their ray-shaped Hawkers fly hedgehopping missions across the zonal border to provoke the Soviet radar; we find this an exciting notion, fun. We are all Romance, espionage, cloak and dagger, ready to have the life coaxed out of us. If the tanks roll in East Berlin, may we not someday march with the citizens against them?
What is immediate, of course, is that we finish the farewell party for Patricia. She is returning to the States, to her husband, and Donald and I must drive her in her husband's Jaguar to the Columbus Quai.
Our lives have a particular purpose.
I say this ("Our lives have purpose.") to Patricia in the living room of her apartment. It is exceedingly late--actually Sunday morning, the day of her departure, around three o'clock. We are lying on the floor together; I cannot tell where the others are, though in some dim corner of my brain I must know they are still in the building, in the hallway, probably even in the room with us. The truth is that we have all drunk so much--first the punch, and then a putting together of all the wines, whiskies, aromatics, liqueurs, and mixes left in the apartment, all poured mindlessly into the emptied punch bowl and then parceled out among the party--we have all drunk so much, we are deep inside ourselves and scarcely able to connect with a world discrete from us. When I say, "Our lives have purpose," Patricia says, "Mmm," and turns her face toward me; I touch my lips to her forehead and taste sweat, delicately salt.
Somewhere in time she has changed her clothes. As I touch her it seems to me she is wearing only a robe, a black robe with red and orange appliqué flowers patterned on the lapels, a robe tied at her waist by a black slender belt frayed at the ends. I put one hand against the robe--is it silk?--and feel her breasts beneath the smooth fabric; they are unexpectedly soft, as if she were older, as if she were someone's mother. She raises her left hand and rests it on the back of my fingers--not to take my hand away, but neither to encourage me. I kiss her eyes, the closed lids; I kiss her cheeks, the corners of her mouth. Now I kiss her full on the mouth, open her lips, insist my tongue between her teeth.
She bites my tongue.
When I pull my head back, startled, she opens her eyes to read my face. What she sees makes her laugh, and no matter what I do or say I cannot stop her laughing.
Patricia's husband is one of those who had no dealings with the city's whores, who visited the bars rarely, who lived even under the obligations of a military occupation (and a military presence looking ahead) as if the barracks were a row of brownstones and the parqueted floors of our modest rooms were aglow under the reading lamps of The Club. Before Patricia flew to Germany to marry him, he was my roommate and tried to teach me grace, to encourage me to recognize style. Every afternoon at four--unless we worked the day shift out at Squadron Operations--he mixed a pitcher of martinis; we sat, like two gentlemen of Cambridge, sipping our drinks, listening to Barbara Carroll or Mabel Mercer or Hugh Shannon or the most-prized Greta Keller, not so much weighing the problems of our world as settling them.
Once in a great while Donald joined us for cocktails, and it was Donald who, only a week before Patricia's arrival at the Bremen airfield, innocently brought her bridegroom into the Butterfly for his famous encounter with Ingeborg Theisse--plump, ripe Ingeborg, with the reddest hair, the best English, of all the prostitutes in the Enclave.
"They say he's cherry," we told her.
"Now wait a second," said the groom.
"I can give you advice," Ingeborg said. "Always ride high; the woman has more sensation high."
"But honestly, you never touched a woman?" Ingeborg took his hand and drew it under her skirt--a black skirt, long, but slit at the sides. He tried to pull away, but she is a woman of great strength and held him; she pressed his hand up between her legs--he blushing, she smiling--and rocked against him. All of us looked part wise, part perplexed.
Then: "God, please! Please leave me alone!"
He startled us, there was such pain in the words, and when we looked at his face we saw tears bright in his eyes and wet on his cheeks. Ingeborg stopped moving, stopped smiling. She backed away from him and slid his hand out from under her clothes; he held the hand up as if it were hurt. No one said much, and poor Donald looked like death.
Later it was Donald who took Ingeborg to her room--no ships were in port--and the rest of us, Stanley and Gerald and Mark, went back to the barracks. In the room--it was after midnight; we were having a last beer while the phonograph played "One Touch of Venus"--Patricia's husband said to me: "Don't ever tell Patsy." So. Just a few weeks ago his father died and he took an early discharge to go home to Kansas City to manage a packing house.
Years from now, when we hold reunions or meet accidentally at an air terminal or bump into one another at conventions, we will sit in a dark corner of some barroom nothing like the Butterfly and talk about Bremerhaven--though it is impossible, in 1953, to know what our recollections will come to. Will we remember our first days in the city: October, rain blowing in off the North Sea (a sea that is invisible to us beyond the great mounded-earth dikes), a cold whose dampness seeps to the very marrow? The rubble, seven and eight years after the end of the war, pulled to the sides of streets only beginning to be repaved, and the first new, raw apartment houses rising beside basements reeking of brown water? Or the stories we hear from everyone, American and German, about the retaliation bombing of the city after Coventry--how the British Havilands strafed and bombed from less than a hundred meters of altitude, leveling the Hafenstrasse, wasting most of the residential city, leaving wholly untouched the port facilities and the Marine barracks where all of us came to live? The foresight of the Allies: it makes us proud. Surely we will remember the whores--Inges and Margots and Karlas and Erikas--who drink and laugh with us, who know our secret projects better than our officers, who charge for their favors 300 marks when the merchant ships are in, 20 when they are not?
This scene, the last with Patricia ashore: It is shortly after dawn, a windless morning, gray from a fog that will not burn away until nearly noon. The apartment is emptied of revelers--except for Donald, asleep on a sofa under the bay window. Everything is a shambles. Glasses are on all the furniture surfaces--chair arms, table tops, bookshelves, hassocks--and on floors and carpets. A lot of things, liquid and not, have been spilled; if you look out the doorway into the hall you see glassware, paper plates, crumpled napkins, as if someone had overturned a trash barrel at the head of the stairs; the air is heavy with stale cigarette smoke, the odors of old perfume and fancy drink.
Patricia is awake first, and rouses me out of a heavy-headed sleep; my body has settled into some shape that has no life of its own--a piece of sod, a stone, a rug rolled for storage. I groan and, groaning and hearing myself, open my eyes to see where the sound comes from. Patricia and I are still joined, our bare legs stuck together with sweat, the two of us even holding hands like children on a hayride. Her robe is open and twisted under us; I am in my blue shirt, my black socks, but the rest of my uniform is in a heap in the seat of a soft chair near the kitchen door. My tongue hurts me. I remember being bitten. I remember Patricia laughing. I remember nothing else.
"What time is it?" I try to find my watch, but it is on my left wrist, and my left wrist is under Patricia's back. I try to move her, and as she rolls away from me it is like adhesive tape being ripped off my skin. Our bellies and thighs are red, our hair drenched. She reaches out to me, leans over and kisses me.
"What a hellish country this is," she says hoarsely.
We help each other to stand. We bathe and dress. We wake Donald.
We forgive ourselves everything, though we have endless parties, drink too much, make frequent fools of ourselves in the eyes of the German nationals. Sometimes we have fistfights with the infantry--our barracks neighbors, our comrades in arms. Other times we quarrel with the naval detachment nearby. Mostly we tyrannize the civilians; we say things like "Who won this war?" (though we were far too young to have fought it) and we sell cigarettes and coffee and sometimes currency on the black markets. Also we travel. We go to Amsterdam and smoke marijuana for the first time in our lives. We go to Copenhagen, spend a lot of time and money in the after-hours clubs, and stay at the Roxy Hotel because the girls are lovely and speak English. Are we not the perfect ambassadors of freedom?
The worst times are political--the rumors that our squadron will be the first evacuated in the event of war, that if there is no time for evacuation our officers have orders to shoot us. It is a glamorous notion. We argue by the hour: Would you let yourself be shot? Would you surrender? If you were tortured would you reveal military secrets? Then our lives seem rich but desperate. It is said that Lieutenant Wieczorek, the watch officer when an orange alert was called during the defection of a Polish fighter pilot, suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to kill himself.
The best times are parties on shipboard--but not American ships, whose liquor prices are too high. The ships of German, Greek, Swedish, Canadian registry--these are fine. Some ships become traditions: the North German Lloyd's liner Berlin, the old Gripsholm, is a regular--about 12 cents for the finest Scotch whiskey, always crowded, plenty of "nice" local girls. For all departure parties you only need to arrange a visitor's pass with a member of the ship's crew. That is simple, and it is the least the crewman can do after inflating the economy hereabouts.
The three of us sit in the barren first-class lounge of the United States, drinking our expensive martinis and finding it difficult to make conversation. I am amazed at how lovely and rested Patricia looks after last night, and I have said so; Donald agreed with me. Donald has promised we will be most careful with the Jaguar until we bring it to be shipped aboard the America next week, and I have seconded the promise; I have reminded her that we shipped home her husband's MG-TD without mishap two months ago. Patricia has confided that in an odd way, much as she loves her husband and much as she is looking forward to Kansas City and the nice new home now being built for her, she will miss dirty old Bremerhaven and all the good friends--she squeezes my hand--left behind. She says that at the very least she will try to make the people back home understand that even if we are not dying in Korea, we are all doing an important job--we are in Europe for a purpose. I look at Donald; he is making a face, a horrible face. "You are all preventing a big war," Patricia says.
An hour later we are standing on the cobbled quai, waving up at Patricia as the United States slowly pivots away from shore, the German tugs nudging her into the brown waters that flow from the North Sea. It has gotten very warm, and Patricia has taken off the long-sleeved jacket of her suit; the ruffles of her white blouse--is it silk, in this weather?--flutter as she waves down to us. There is so much noise, so many voices, music so loud to our left, that to shout more goodbyes would be useless. We only watch; and as the image of Patricia slowly diminishes in my sight I remember just for an instant what she was saying over martinis. Did she mean it? Could anyone?
A week later Donald and I drive the Mark VII Saloon back to Columbus Quai; it is going aboard the America for New York, where Patricia's husband will meet it and drive it to Kansas City. What a shame--I say this to Donald just after we have handed the car over to the dispatcher--what a terrible shame Patricia's husband will never be able to drive the car on U.S. roads at the speeds permitted on the new Bremen-Hamburg autobahn. Yes, says Donald, this motorcar is too good for him--too fast, too temperamental for the ZI. Sometimes Donald himself is too military, as when he adopts such jargon as ZI --for "Zone of the Interior"--when he means home, the States. Greenawald concurs. "A Chevy would satisfy that phony," he says. Greenawald has hung around with us since the United States sailed, boring us endlessly with the precious golden skin of Gertrud Maria Magdalena Schüssler. We walk away from the car, preoccupied by speed and beauty, and drift up a flight of steps to the restaurant overlooking dockside.
The restaurant is crowded, but we find a table near a window. We order a Beck's and two Carlsbergs. "Really," Greenawald is saying, "when she took off her clothes I felt like King Midas; she was purest gold." Donald glances at me; I shrug. For myself, Patricia has been in and out of my head since the tugs pushed her ship into the channel of the Weser. Her languor, her textures, perhaps her wealth....
We sit, drinking the beer, talking hardly at all. Once Donald points out the window, and I turn to see the Jaguar, cradled in raw wood, suspended from the cable of a crane slowly swiveling toward the America. I feel an odd, momentary churning in my stomach, and I hope they know to be careful. The auto looks like a plum, rounded and vulnerable, dangling from an artificial branch. In ten minutes it is out of our sight.
On the way to the center of the city I am absorbed in 1953 and our curious lives away from the familiar--what serious things concern us, what friends we have met, what confident future we look ahead to. I believe I have become, like Donald, too solemn for my own good, and when the yellow streetcar passes the Butterfly I motion the others to get off and follow me into the bar. I want to look for Ingeborg: I think I want to make fun of Greenawald's golden girlfriend with all her pretentious saintly names.
Copyright © 1977 by Robley Wilson Jr.