One sentence, “Will you marry me?” might have made me a happy, responsible man. Unfortunately, at the time I should have said it, I was hardly responsible and more horndog than man. I got swept up in the false image of being a player who walked into bars with three or four stunning nannies on his arm. I wanted all of them, but I really only needed one - Ilka. Now, thirty years later, I’m alone, unable to remember the sound of her voice or the touch of her hand.
The irony is we never should have met in the first place.
I was forty-four, still trolling the bars, trying to ingratiate myself with girls half my age. I still had my washboard abs, shoulders you could land a plane on, and infectious smile. Sometimes being the only black man in the crowd was like playing Tonto to the Lone Ranger, but when it came to nannies and au pairs, being different was like having a magnet in my pants.
The night I met Ilka I was playing wingman for Chauncey Bowen, nicknamed “Captain Love Pants” because of his prowess with the opposite sex.
Captain Love Pants set his sights on a towering Teutonic blonde beauty with the flawless features of a model.
“I need you to run interference with the girlfriend.”
I nonchalantly glanced at the girlfriend. She was a near duplicate, with long platinum hair and crystal blue eyes. She wasn’t a bra-breaker and had bee-stung lips that looked too swollen for her face, but I didn’t plan on kissing them anyway.
“You owe me, man,” I said.
“C’mon, Mike. It’s not like she’s hideous.”
“Yeah, you’re right. She’s just not my type.”
“You’re type only exists in magazines and on cable TV,” the Captain replied.
Captain Love Pants laid on the charm, flashing his best smutty smile.
“Go away, peasant,” the stately blonde said.
All of twenty-five seconds had passed. The Captain was sunk. I was now flying alone.
There was no longer any need for me to stay, but when I casually mentioned I worked for an orchestra, Ilka responded with such enthusiasm I felt compelled to remain until she got bored with me.
After listening to us talk for half an hour, the stately blonde rolled her eyes for the umpteenth time, stuck her nose in the air, muttered something in German, and left.
Ilka was unerringly polite, well-rounded, and intelligent – not at all what I was used to. She wasn’t a zany party girl; she was a woman. Ilka was so well-mannered that she often covered her mouth – even when she laughed. But not a single hormone stirred when I looked at her. I never even considered asking her for her phone number.
“It’s been nice talking with you,” I said, beginning to turn away.
“Where are you going?”
“Home. It’s two o’clock.”
“Do you mind taking me home? My ride left hours ago.”
I walked Ilka to the door. Normally I would have at least tried for a lengthy good-night kiss. I shook her hand instead.
“I’ll see you next Friday,” she said.
Ilka’s voice dropped a few notches. “One thing you’ll learn about me, Michael, is I always keep my word.”
Ilka’s word was indeed her bond. She showed up the next four Fridays, often in the company of two equally stunning blondes. Gabriela seemed to have the same disdain for American men that the stately blonde had. Her disgust may have been brought on by one of my less-than-sober friends chasing her around like a needy lap dog. The more she dissed him, the harder he tried.
Ladina was Gabriela’s polar opposite, a man-famished manipulator who showed as much flesh as was legally allowable and as a result, never had to buy a drink. We always had problems pinpointing her whereabouts come closing time.
I enjoyed talking with Ilka, even when I had to repeatedly explain what I was trying to say. Like everything else about her, Ilka’s grasp of the English language was unique. She spoke English much better than she understood it.
A month into our Friday night chat fests I happened to bring a disposable camera with me. I guess I wanted proof later in life that I was once with three beautiful blondes every Friday night.
Ilka wrapped her arms around me just before the photo was snapped. I still cherish that photo, because that was the moment I realized my hormones were beginning to stir.
Ilka was a sophisticated woman who constantly tried to improve herself. Because she was an au pair, she spent a great part of her day looking at T.V. with the children she babysat. She improved her English by watching game shows. Sometimes speaking with her on the phone was like stepping onto the set of “The Price is Right.”
“How was your day, Ilka?”
“I feel like I’ve thrown craps.”
“Would you like to go out tonight?” I asked.
“You too can win the grand prize.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Pick you up at nine.”
“Yes, we’ll go for the daily double.”
I knew I was dating well above my station. Ilka loved museums, the theater, fine wine (but only a glass or two), and classical music. She was an excellent cook and played guitar like Segovia.
She was always in control of her emotions, so when she called me, frantically scrambling her words, I knew there was a monumental crisis that could threaten our relationship.
“I have to go back to Germany,” she said sadly.
“Soon. A week, maybe two. I thought I could get a longer period…”
“Yes, but I can’t. I don’t want to go, not yet.”
The three months we’d had together was a cruel tease. But if I really was falling in love with Ilka, this was my chance to prove it.
Thoughts of commitment, marriage, and babies kept my lips sealed.
“I have to stay home for three months, then I can come back. Will you take me to the airport? Will you wait for me?”
“I’m not waiting at the airport for three months.”
That got a little chuckle from Ilka, but that wasn’t what I really needed to say to her.
“Are you sure you’re coming back?”
“I have a reason to, don’t I? I give you my word, Michael. I’ll be back. You’ll wait for me, won’t you?”
I swallowed hard and lied.
The first thing I did after her plane took off was stop at the first bar so I could find a girl completely the opposite of Ilka. I woke up the next day in Queens lying next to a short-haired busty brunette with a dragon tattoo on her back. Did I feel guilty? No. I was certain I’d never see Ilka again.
Ilka was a relentless letter writer, so keeping abreast of her activities was no problem. Then the letter I never expected to get came. She was coming back in a week!
She ran down the tarmac and into my arms, knocking me over. (At 5’ 7” she was shapely, but no waif.) She kissed me in a manner that said she’d been storing up her passion since the last time we’d seen each other.
Her game show English was gone, as was almost every trace of an accent, and she had started wearing short skirts that accented her stunning legs. Five minutes with her and I already felt humbled by the things she had done just to please me.
When the family she worked for went away for the weekend I invited Ilka to my backwoods cottage. It was small, just five rooms, but I wanted us to be bumping into one another.
I’d forgotten that Ilka wasn’t a drinker. The first night the bottle of champagne I fed her to get her in the mood put her to sleep. I was better prepared the next night.
“No excuses tonight, Ilka. You’re well rested.”
“Is that what you think this weekend is about? First the mind, Michael, then maybe the body.”
“Maybe? Are you-“
“A virgin. Of course not. I just don’t think sex makes the relationship. Convince me,” she whispered.
I tried to make the evening as romantic as possible. Flowers, candles (including one that singed the curtains), more champagne, and mood music.
“This is all very nice,” Ilka said. “But you have to give me what I want.”
“Tell me how you feel about me. About us.”
DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!
This was a landmark moment. I really cared about Ilka, and it was obvious that despite my chicken-hearted fear of commitment, she was crazy about me.
“…I … I love… I love you.”
Ilka and I tore each other’s clothes off.
It wasn’t worth the wait. Ilka was clumsy, stiff, nervous, the classic let-me-lay-here-until it’s-over type of girl. But at least the more I said “I love you” the more she smiled.
A few months later she told me she had to go back home again.
“You’re coming back, aren’t you?”
“What have I told you all along?”
“You mean what you say.”
“You know, there’s a way we can avoid having to wait, having to start all over again.”
My voice shot up seven octaves. “Marriage?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
She dropped her head, sighing. It was the first time she was so upset she couldn’t help but show her disappointment. It wouldn’t be the last.
“You know, Michael. One of these days I’m going to get on the plane, and I won’t come back. And you can have my word on that too.”
Ilka came back three months later, just as she’d promised. But this time she was with her mother, Dachma, and her father, Rolf. They were curious about the man who wanted to take away their little girl.
When Mrs. Gerritsen laid her eyes on me and frowned, uttering “schwartza,” I knew I’d never earn her approval. The fact that I was black, and Ilka was white was irrelevant to us, but number one on Dachma Gerritsen’s long list of why her daughter shouldn’t be with me.
Her mother’s second objection was our twenty-year age difference. Objection number three: Dachma had seen the tapes of 9/11 a few too many times and was convinced terrorists would kill her daughter.
Dachma’s also wanted Ilka to go to college in Germany. She was unconvinced I’d have the ways, means, or even the interest in providing Ilka with a decent education in the States.
“I won’t let Ilka give up her life for you,” Dachma said. “I gave up my life for Rolf. I could have been a dancer. I don’t want my daughter regretting what could have been.”
“But what about love?” I asked. “What about happiness?”
“They’re vastly overrated.”
Rolf Gerritsen was much less militant, especially after I took him to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox. It helped that they won and that he liked American beer.
But Dachma Gerritsen continued to try and drive a wedge between me and Ilka right up to the moment she went wheels up back to Germany.
The hangover from Dachma’s insidious effort to break us up led to Ilka regressing in the bedroom. Her imitation of a dead carp meant I didn’t even try to get her into the bedroom very often.
At the end of three months, Ilka said she had to go home again.
“I’m not going to do this forever,” she said as she grabbed her boarding pass.
“But in three months…”
“You’re not listening to what I’m saying.”
Au contraire. I’d heard her as if she was as loud as the Liberty Bell. But I couldn’t get the words “marry me” out.
“It’s three strikes in baseball, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, “but this isn’t baseball.”
“Lucky for you, it’s not. Understand? I’ll call you every day at six-thirty.”
And she did. I’ve always been a punctual person, but Ilka was Greenwich Mean Time.
When she stepped off the plane three months later, she ran into my arms. The aggressive way she kissed me surprised me at first, but it didn’t take long for me to adapt.
Ilka’s newfound aggressiveness wasn’t the only change. She’d cut her waist-length hair up to her shoulders, fluffing it up like Farrah Fawcett. She’d previously used traces of makeup to highlight her blue eyes. Now her makeup was heavier, sexier, darker, and more adventurous.
Ilka looked and acted like a different woman – and at first, I was all for it.
“I promise I’m only going to say this once,” she said during the drive back. “The clock is ticking.”
“Maybe we can get you a student visa this time.”
“I’d rather have a marriage license.”
I kept my eyes on the road. Ilka looked out of the window so I couldn’t see the tears in her eyes.
“Stubborn,” she said quietly. “I’ve been avoiding it, but I’ve known all along that there’s only one thing I can do that will make you take me seriously. Achtung, baby.”
Ilka reached across the seat. There was nothing clumsy or shy about her intentions this time.
“I don’t think I can drive with my pants open.”
“That’s the idea. You’re supposed to concentrate on me.”
And moments later Ilka became the woman I hoped she’d be.
The downside of Ilka’s sexual liberation was although we now communicated magnificently in bed, our conversations outside of our sexual wonderland were barren of intimacy, and most of that freeze was coming from Ilka. Now when we spoke, she was emotionless. Sometimes she wouldn’t even bother to look up.
“Are you feeling guilty about this?” I asked her.
“About enjoying sex? No.”
“You sure? You seem kind of angry sometimes.”
“I’m fine. Are you happy?”
“Then I’m happy.”
A significant amount of Victoria Secret’s sexiest lingerie wound up in my closet. She began handling liquor with more aplomb. Champagne turned her into a giddy sexual jackrabbit. Vodka made her more stern but more determined and aggressive; the kind of woman Dachma Gerritsen wouldn’t approve of.
This time Ilka managed to wrangle a six-month extension. We spent most of it in bed. When I asked her if she wanted to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she practically spat on the floor. One night after a rather intense session, I asked her if she would play some guitar for me. She played a few measures, then stood up and smashed her three-thousand-dollar guitar into splinters, laughing as she pulled me back into the bedroom. She later blamed it on too much champagne.
I wanted to cheer her up. In my lame attempt to do so, I made a mistake that nearly destroyed our relationship. I bought a ring she’d had her eye on. I didn’t think much of it at first, after all, I’d bought her rings, bracelets, and necklaces in the past. But this particular ring had diamonds in it.
“So, we’re engaged?”
The ring whizzed by my head.
Ilka ran out of the house like Richard Pryor on fire. I took me quite a while to catch up to her.
Once the poster girl for self-control, Ilka had transformed herself into anything but, thinking this was the type of woman I wanted. At that particular moment, I wasn’t sure what I wanted.
“Stop playing with my heart!” she yelled.
“I just wanted to give you something nice.”
“You know what I want. Is the idea of marrying me so frightening?”
“Of course not.”
She opened her hand.
“I’ll take that ring back.”
“Even though it’s not an engagement ring?”
“It’s expensive and it’s beautiful. I may be in a screwed-up relationship, but I’m not an idiot.”
Ilka intensified her physical assault, but the refined educated lady was gone, replaced by an emotionally blank party girl. The old Ilka who planned for tomorrow; the new Ilka threw caution to the wind. She had fun in the moment, but when that moment was gone, so was her smile.
When Ilka’s Visa expired this time, she’d already sent most of her clothes and books home.
She didn’t start crying until we got to the airport. There was no sniffling, no blubbering, no pleading, just tears.
“I love you, but you’re a stubborn idiot.”
“So, when are you coming back?”
“I changed everything about myself this time because I thought it’s what you wanted. Somewhere along the line, I lost myself. I love you but I can’t be what I’ve become. It’s over, Michael.”
Her last kiss was a soft reminder of what I’d be missing. I never should have let Ilka get on that plane. I should have married her, but I was in love with the sex, not the sexpot. The Ilka I knew was gone and I’d killed her.
Three months passed, then six. There were no letters, no phone calls.
Now that it was too late, I finally acted.
Dachma Gerritsen answered the phone.
“Is Ilka in?”
“For you? No.”
“Is she all right?”
“Yes. She’s at college. You broke her, but I’m going to fix her.”
“Tell her I called.”
“I most certainly will not,” she said, slamming down the phone.
I can still hear the relentless hum of the dead phone echoing in my ears twenty years later.