Perchance To Dream
by Sam Bluefarb (October 2014)
She told him that it was all over between them--they would not marry in the spring. She'd given him the news quietly, matter-of-factly, a stunning contrast to those ardent protests of love throughout the previous year. But for weeks after, as though unable to let go of him completely, or perhaps out of some vain, sadistic streak, she still kept him on a string. She would occasionally let him take her to dinner, to that French restaurant downtown where he had taken her on their first date. But all of his appeals to her to "Come back, Connie! Come back. . . !" would only elicit a slow shake of the head: "I can't, Joe. I can't. . ." And he would try to take her in his arms, but she would gently push him away. And, again, he found himself pleading, "Come back, Connie! Come back!" And again, "I can't, Joe. . . I can’t! Forget the past... Forget me!” And again he tried to take her in his arms, and again she pushed him away. . . .
Suddenly, he awoke. Naomi's voice in the darkness, full of concern. "Joe! What's going on?" "Nothing. . . I was dreaming." Of course, its setting a long way from this hotel room in Zurich, at another time, twenty years ago, its "reality" more real than any dream he had ever had. "Joe, are you okay? The way you were tossing and turning and mumbling, you must have been having a nightmare." "Sort of. I'm okay now. Go back to sleep." "I'm not sure I can. I thought I was having a nightmare myself!" she gave a nervous laugh.
His dream--or nightmare--had all of the reality and despair of the original event. Now, in that bed, twenty years later, recovering from something more immediate than this hotel room. He glanced at the luminous dial on his watch. Almost five, and the first pale signs of dawn were beginning to filter through the curtained windows. Impossible to go back to sleep now. In a few hours, they would be boarding the plane to return to the United States. Naomi would go back to her job at Water and Power, and he would return to another year of teaching. They had taken off almost every summer. Spain, Israel, and now Switzerland. But this year it went beyond the routine vacation; it was, in part, to celebrate the recent publication of his book on Yeats, a book whose major thrust had been the part the unattainable Maud Gonne had played in the poet's life, how she had touched so much of his work, especially the short lyric poems. Maybe he'd been inspired to write the book on Yeats because he'd identified so strongly with his hopeless love. One day a couple of years ago, he'd done something he never thought he'd have the courage to do: he called long-married Connie, invited her to lunch (her phone number was listed under her husband's name, he an attorney for a large chain of real estate franchises in Southern California). That was the summer he decided to stay home so that he could finish up the Yeats book. On that morning, he'd made a phone call. Almost twenty years since he'd last seen her. It had not been a very happy occasion then; all of the bitterness and anger he'd stored up in the months after she'd broken up with him had come pouring out in a stream of bitter accusation and invective. Could she have forgotten that fine frenzy of his? More than likely she'd buried it in the nether reaches of her memory, along with other unpleasantnesses. She had had a child a year or so after her marriage. But things hadn't worked out so nicely for Naomi. she had lost the first one, and there would never be another. The obstetrician had urged the removal of an ovary because of frequent episodes of severe and irregular bleeding, the likelihood of uterine cancer. That summer, after Naomi underwent the surgery, he'd taken her over to Paris, her first trip abroad--small consolation that was no consolation. But Paris held its own memories--February, 1945, that last winter of the war, when he and Tim Pritchett had been given a 72-hour pass from the Saar-Moselle triangle where 88s were whistling in with deadly accuracy from across the Moselle River, and three guys had been KIA'd in one day, a big number for an engineer company. He and Tim had been lucky—surviving that day of heavy shelling and having picked short straws in the company lottery for that pass to Paris. On their second night there, they had ended up in a noisy, gimcrack Bal Tabarin in Montmartre, where a couple of demimondaines sat down with them in a booth. Tim's girl was a mousy Parisienne, while his was a dark-eyed, chestnut-haired Spanish girl from Barcelona who'd come north over the Pyranees with that flood of refugees in the winter of 1939, after the Franco victory and Loyalist defeat. They'd come over those mountains in a blinding storm, only to end up in holding camps on the French side of the border. Eventually, she had made her way up to Paris. Now, during the day, she worked in a dressmaking establishment; nights, she and her amie dropped in to spend a couple of hours in that cavern with its 3-man combo knocking out unintentional parodies of pre-war American jazz. He and Maria had spent the night at a hotel off the Boulevard Clichy. The room was a large garret seven stories up; it reminded him of the old silent movie "Seventh Heaven," co-starring the early Janet Gaynor-Charles Farrell team, about Verdun and the Army of the Marne and the Paris taxis on their way to the front, and that garret refuge of Charles and Janet, their "seventh heaven." In this room now, The walls were a bordello scarlet, which seemed to reflect the hotelier's taste. On entering and switching on the weak electric bulb, they could see the vapor of their breaths in the frosty air. There was no heat, the gas outlet having been capped for the duration. She'd come up to him, drawn close, trembled, and whispered, "C'est froid!" There was something vulnerable about her, wounded, perhaps tragic. He would come to understand that better when, later, in bed, his hand had brushed against a welt-like scar on her belly. And when he'd asked, "Q'est-ce-que c'est?" she'd come back with a careless laugh. "Ah, mi querido, it is my souvenier. . .from Franco!" She'd been hit by shrapnel from an exploding aerial bomb dropped by Italian planes when they had come over the city. That was when she had been on her way to pick up rationed beans and rice for her madre, her kid brother and sister, her father, a Loyalist soldier, having later been killed on the Catalonian front.
The next morning, she was up before him, the sound of running water in the bathroom waking him. When she came out, she had on her slip. She reached over for the rest of her things, and began to dress. Then she got up and went over to the seedy art-deco armoire, where she inspected herself in the fly-specked mirror and applied lipstick, pursing her lips to enhance the effect. He asked her to have breakfast with him. She came over, kissed him. "No, thank you, chéri, I must go to work now. Me and camarades--we make breakfast in shop. . . but you come see Maria again, verdad?" He had to tell her that was unlikely, short-term. "I must go back tomorrow--to the east." She shook her head. "Pobrecito!" Suddenly, tears came. She reached into her purse and took a handkerchief from it and dried them. Then, with resolve, she pulled out a pencil and a slip of paper, and scrawled her name and an address in the Montmartre district. "Write me, Joe, por favor.“ He took the slip of paper and placed it in his wallet. "I'll write," he promised. Dressed, she moved to the door--and hesitated; then came back, and touched his cheek. "Escribeme!" Her smile was tremulous. Last night, when she'd approached him down at that gimcrack dance hall, she'd spoken French, but with the passing of the hours, her native tongue had taken over, and with it a transition from the all-business, utilitarian French to something more tender, more urgent. "I'll write," he repeated; but he never did. Now, with the Connie interlude over, he felt free to contact Maria--if not too late. But why should he expect her to answer a letter from someone who'd made an impulsive promise in a moment of vulnerability during the war--and broken it? Of course, it could be a futile endeavor, she now married and quite happy. If she remembered him at all...
He arranged to meet Connie in a restaurant over in the Valley, where she'd been living since her marriage. They had been civil with each other, polite, even made a show of warmth--genuine for him; was it for her?--yet under it all, he could see that she was excited at seeing him after all these years. Occasionally, her large dark eyes would light up in a sad smile, as though retrieving some shared memory from the past. He ordered a cocktail for her, her old standy, as he remembered, and a glass of Rhine wine for him. They talked about old friends, her job at the school, his work, nothing about the past. He told her about the Yeats book he was at work on, and she said, "Make sure you send me an autographed copy when it comes out!" A flash of the old mischief in her dark eyes, a hint of the old coquetry reawakened. "I'll do more; I'll inscribe it 'To Connie--for the good memories'," he returned her smile. She stared at him for a long moment, then she said, "Joe, why such strong feelings after all these years?" The question caught him off guard. Afterwards, he thought of an answer: "If you don't know, I can't tell you; and if you do, there's no need." But as usual with such hackneyed, after-the fact responses, he'd thought of it too late. Instead, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of (once again) delighting in his misery, he said, wanting to believe it, "I got over it long ago, Connie." But the skeptical look in her eyes told him that he wasn't fooling her. A Frenchman had once said it better: "No disguise can long conceal love where it exists, or long feign it where it is lacking." For months after that meeting, he wondered what had prompted her to ask such a question. Was it vanity? Curiosity? A womanly delight in knowing that, in spite of her graceful aging (her hair had turned to an undisguised aristocratic gray), she still had that power over him? When they walked out of the restaurant, she again made him promise to send her a copy of the book when it came out.
Several days after he and Naomi got back to California from Switzerland, he went down to the campus to pick up the backlog of mail that had accumulated over the summer. Among the letters, brochures from textbook publishers, there was a clean, square envelope; the return address, a legal department of some corporation. But when he noted the name of the sender--Albert Halprin--above the return address, his gut tightened. Her husband. After that meeting of a couple of years ago, he'd sent her a copy of the book as promised, and, occasionally, reprints of articles. It felt good knowing they were friends again--after a fashion. The day wasn't particularly warm, yet he felt the sweat seep out of him as he slit open the envelope. Was it a threat of legal action accusing him of the alienation of a wife's affections? The man was a lawyer, (that streak of paranoia in him!) He took the square sheet of paper out of the envelope, unfolded it at its single fold, and in a large, bold hand, a short message that began: "Dear Joe." (Would someone with hostile intent address a letter in such a non-threatening way?) Then he read on. “I wish I had better news for you, since I know how you always felt about Connie. But I don't. She recently passed away after a ten month bout with cancer. All I can say is: you have your memories and I have my great loss. Sincerely, Bert.” He folded the letter at its fold and put it back in its envelope. And now he remembered Connie's words in that dream. "I can't come back... I can't. . . ." The letter was dated three weeks earlier.
[This story was excerpted from a collection of short stories titled The Dubious Benefits of Nostalgia c. 2003, with permission of the author. Some editing and revisions from the original were made. Creative Arts Publisher of Berkeley, California ceased publishing circa 2004.]
Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.
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