“You wanna do something fun?”
We'd spent the day doing laundry and packing, and I needed a break. It was the second week of July, and we were dead in the middle of a midsummer heat wave. You can't escape the summer heat in Berlin: None of the older apartment buildings have air conditioning, and when the early summer rains stop and the temperature starts to peak all of the floor-length windows turn the fashionable lofts into greenhouses. That's when the smart Berliners break camp and head for the lakes surrounding the city, or Scandinavia if they can get the time off work.
But we were stuck at home getting Martha's life boxed up for her move back to the States. We'd already divided up the kitchenware – I never realized how many peelers I owned, and conversely how few of the forks actually belonged to me, and how did we get so many tea towels and tiny sauce pans? – and had begun cleaning and folding her clothes and layering them between the fragile plates and framed paintings. Our apartment had begun to look like it had been raided by some oddly considerate burglar – there were gaping holes in our bookshelves, the curtains were gone but the curtain rods remained.
We'd spent the past six months trying to get her visa extended, and finally, at the end of June, she'd said she was tired of fighting. She was tired of living paycheck to paycheck from what she could make translating; she was tired of only half understanding doctors and landlords; she was tired of going to the foreigners office every year to prove she had some reason to exist. She came home one day with two bottles of wine and we made pesto together and got very drunk, and she told me she'd decided to move back to New York. I tried to protest – I'd told her that I wasn't tired of fighting, not yet – but she said, “Sometimes you just have to know when a thing is ending.” So we'd agreed that she'd stay through the summer, and then I'd help her get her things together without making a fuss.
She looked up at me over the box she was taping shut. She tried to blow the hair out of her face, but it was plastered to her forehead. “What did you have in mind?”
I put down the jeans I was holding. “Let's go boating. We always said we should, and we never did.”
She smiled and wiped the sweat from her face. “Alright. But we have to be back here by seven, I have someone coming to pick up the piano.”
“You're selling the piano?”
“It's too heavy to move, and I've barely been playing it.” She stood up and started looking for her shoes. “I thought someone else might appreciate it more.”
We'd first met when Martha took a German class that I was teaching. I'd originally moved from Heidelberg to do a graduate program in philosophy, then ended up lingering around the outskirts of the art scene while I tried to figure out what to do with a master's in philosophy and no clearly identifiable job skills. She'd later tell me that she moved to escape a job in finance and the perpetual feeling of being buried alive that went along with it; and even later she'd add that she was escaping an engagement as well, to a man whose name I never learned. If I had to sum up the differences between us, I suppose it would suffice to say that I linger and she doesn't.
I'd seen her trying to translate Rilke in the break room between classes and asked her if she wanted help. We started spending more time together: First it was shared cigarette breaks, then we'd get coffee together on the way to the school in the morning. I showed her the few local holdouts left in a neighborhood slowly being devoured by Italian espresso bars and Australian brunch cafes, and she told me about her life in the US – the glamour of making a small fortune, the perpetual fear of losing it.
Then one day we went on a school trip to the Spreewald, a little forest an hour southeast of the city that's carved up into canals just big enough for two kayaks to pass side by side. You're meant to paddle languorously past the little vacation houses and beer gardens lining the banks, enjoying the rustic charm and locally produced pickles and not drinking so much that you can't safely pilot your boat. I followed the first two imperatives, but failed at the third; half because I'd had too much to drink and half because I was trying to impress Martha, I leapt from the dock to my canoe with too much vigor and ended up in the water.
Martha couldn't contain her glee at the ass I'd made of myself. But later that night, when everyone had dragged their boats back onto the docks and we were sitting around a bonfire, my soaked clothes gradually drying in the heat, my teeth still chattering, she sat next to me with her plate of food and her beer and said, “You're an idiot.” Then she'd rested her head on my shoulder, as if we had established some kind of shared understanding of something.
Three months later her class ended and she decided to stay, and another year after that she moved into my flat. We didn't talk about how long she'd stay in the country, but time went by without her making any move to leave.
We decided to make for a spot on the river near Treptower Park where there were boats to rent and little islands within easy rowing distance, and we packed ourselves a picnic of whatever food we could find around the apartment – half a baguette, some Camembert that a smell test verified was still edible, a few pears, a handful of cherries. But I could see Martha still surveying the work we'd have to do later, the dining table that we had to take apart, the bedding we'd have to divvy up, the stack of paperwork she still needed to fill out to shut off her phone and end her gym membership and take herself off the lease. There's a point at which you've removed so much from a home that suddenly what remains is just a collection of things, without any familiarity left – the cutlery looks like any other set, the furniture looks sterile and mismatched, the philodendron that you watered has become indistinguishable from any other philodendron.
“Come on,” I said. “This'll be great. We have plenty of time.”
But our plans fell apart almost immediately. There was a train conductor strike, and we spent twenty minutes waiting for the ring line to arrive. When it finally pulled into the station it was already packed, and Martha and I had to squeeze in. A tattooed and mohawked punk forced his way in after me, crushing our little picnic bag between our bodies. Martha gave me a weak smile, but the car was boiling and no one had thought to open any of the windows. At Suedkreuz the train broke down and we had to climb off with the rest of the mass of people to wait for the next one.
“Do you want to just get a cab?” Martha asked me. I didn't want to spend the money, but I could see the enthusiasm draining from her face by the minute, so I hailed the first taxi at the stand.
Our driver was in a talkative mood, and went on and on about how badly the city was falling apart. “Look at that!” he said, gesturing with his cigarette. “Three years they've been working on this road. Three years! And they still haven't finished.” I was nodding along in the front seat, Martha was in the back staring out the window. “My god, I could've built it in the time it's taken them. I swear, nothing ever gets done in this city, it just falls further and further to shit. Have you heard about the airport? Another delay. I heard that this time it's the sprinkler system, they spent millions on it and the thing doesn't work. Nothing here ever works.”
When we finally made it to the little boat rental hut, they told us we'd need to wait an hour for the next boat to be free – apparently everyone in town had had the same idea. So we sat in the grass and picked at our crushed cherries and our warm Camembert. I made a pass at small talk, but Martha kept looking at her watch nervously.
Then it was our turn. The teenager renting out the boats led us to a little red rowboat, and we got in, me rowing and Martha directing us. We rowed out to the middle of the river then let ourselves drift aimlessly, allowing the speed boats and lunch cruises to pass us by, bobbing up and down in their wake. Martha leaned back in the back of the boat and stared up at the sky. For the first time that day, she seemed to be content.
“Do you remember when we first met? When I tried to impress you, and ended up jumping in the canal?”
She looked at me and smiled. “Of course I do. It was such a silly thing to do, but you seemed so sweet. I just couldn't believe what a moron you were.”
I thought about asking her to stay – to give us another month to figure out her visa, another month to look for more translating clients, another month to try to make life together work. But right then she looked happy, and I just let the boat glide along on the water. The day had cooled down and for a moment we could enjoy the sun and the breeze. We had another few hours before we had to be home to sell the piano, another few days to pack, another few weeks to play house before everything would change.
After a while Martha turned to me. “It's getting late,” she said. “Think we should start heading back?” So I started rowing. I couldn't see where we were going. But I guess that's the nature of rowing – you face where you came from, you keep your back turned towards where you're going, and you put your whole body into pulling, moving forwards into the unknown. It's about knowing when a thing is ending, even when you don't know what comes next.