And so it came that after nearly twelve years, I felt a calling to return to Berlin. God only knew why. I certainly hadn’t a clue. If the city had been bubbling with life when I had been there before, by now it was bursting at the seams. Prosperity and trendiness marked every corner and window front. The hum had grown louder, the personality of the city stronger.
I waited a few days before contacting him. Marius. Often on my mind but never on my lips, his name and his smile resonated with me since I left him on the platform all those years ago. I debated whether I should write him, but in the end, curiosity won out, and I wrote him a clipped, friendly email asking him if he was still in Berlin. Seeing the words of his response on the digital page a day later gave me just as much excitement as being back in this city. After choosing neutral ground on which to meet upon, I took a deep breath and submerged my head under the metaphorical waters of what I would come to know as unfinished business.
Not the bright-eyed young man I had known, but rather an established, well-kept forty-three year old man stood to greet me at a small table of a bustling restaurant. His eyes and smile, though, remained exactly as they had been. And our easy art of managing conversation made me feel as if it had been a few months, and not over ten years, since we had last had a proper chat.
“Marius?” A woman’s voice from behind. He turned to look and stood up.
“Hello darling.” He gave the woman a quick kiss and helped her out of her jacket. “This is Mira, the friend I was telling you about. Mira, this is Lila, my girlfriend,” he said proudly, looking from her to me and back. We shook hands and sat down. I hadn’t known what I should expect. I did know he had a girlfriend, yet her edgy, fashion-forward style threw me for a loop. Her thick blonde hair pouring over her shoulders and down her back, voluminous and straight, and her perfectly penetrating jewel-toned eyes made her attractiveness undeniable and almost uncanny. She was tall and thin and otherwise intelligent and remarkable and if I hadn’t already finished my first glass of wine, I may have even been a little intimidated by her.
But there we sat, we three. I wondered how much Lila knew about the origins of Marius and I, but in the end found it irrelevant; we were only heading forward in time, never going back.
The bristles on his face that composed the shadow of a beard were a mix of browns, blondes and grays. His hair, now a bit more clipped than it had been back then, was still dark, with the occasional strand of grey falling to light. My hair, on the other hand, had held back on the grey, the first appearing, or becoming noticed, during my three day mini-crisis. So far, it was just the one, hidden under a layer of curls on the back of my head. Proof that nothing stays the same—not even something as simple as hair color.
Feeling welcome by everything, I decided to stay in Berlin. Not having been there in ten years, I allowed myself to think that it was high time for something to be written about the city. Much older than I had been the first time, I found myself in a completely different place—both literally and figuratively. Mostly though, I spent my time with Marius and his colleagues, headphones clapped over my ears listening to the recordings they made, or practicing my rusty German in conversation with them. I would write a feature on them, I decided, and if the editors didn’t like it, I would publish it on my blog.
The neighborhood where the studio was located had become even trendier than it had been ten years ago. With shops, cafes, bistros, and hotels lining the one-way streets, it was a almost only accessible on foot or bicycle. I spent my days drinking coffee at a little blue table in a corner of my new favorite cafe, shopping at the boutiques, and dining with Marius and Lila almost every night.
“How long do you plan to stay in Berlin, Mira?” Lila asked me casually one evening over post-dinner gin and tonics.
“Until I become inspired or coerced to go somewhere else,” I replied, half-joking. She smiled.
“You know you don’t have to stay in a hotel. You can stay at my apartment if you like. It’s not nearly as luxurious, but I promise it’s clean,” Marius offered. I flicked my eyes quickly to Lila, who looked accepting enough.
“That’s a generous offer. Thanks very much,” I replied, smiling.
The next morning, I appeared on his doorstep toting my three bags. He opened the door wearing a pair of fitted grey jeans with a black t-shirt, hair still damp from a shower.
“Come in, come in,” he said, “welcome.” I smiled a thank-you and rolled my luggage over the threshold.
The apartment was an enormous upgrade from what we had shared back in the day. Two spacious and airy bedrooms with private bathrooms attached to each stretched out the length of either side of the open living room. The back wall of the living room was all glass, sliding open to the wide concrete balcony. Above the living room was a loft, his office, set up with a desk with recording equipment and a computer, a violin rested in one corner, a guitar next to it, and an electric keyboard stood against the wall across from the desk. The living room itself was dressed with a grey sofa, a love seat in front of the glass wall, and two matching chairs across from the love seat. In one corner was a a compact bar, and in the other was a baby grand piano. Luxurious was precisely the word to describe the place.
When Lila walked in two hours later, unbeknownst to us, we were sitting together at the piano; I was plinking, he was playing, and we were both singing, an open bottle of Chardonnay and two empty glasses on the table next to us. We both turned around upon hearing the sound of something large and heavy thudding onto the counter in the kitchen.
“Lila?” he called. She came out of the kitchen smiling.
“You guys sound great,” she said lightly, looking from him to me. “I see you’ve opened a nice white to start the day.” She disappeared and came back with a wine glass for herself. She filled the three. “Cheers to you and you,” she said, never taking her green eyes away from mine.
I had been in Berlin for almost four weeks, two weeks longer than I had stayed anywhere since I left Switzerland. I had a budding friendship with Lila, and found myself on a coffee date with her on a warm April Monday. She had asked me to do some shopping with her, and we had spent the morning under the soft lights of the boutiques, each of us toting three full bags by the time we seated ourselves outside a fairly empty cafe for refreshment. We had just finished talking about how she and Marius had met, and she was lighting a cigarette.
“He’s not been very affectionate lately,” she said, turning her head to the left, the cigarette smoke escaping casually from her lips. If I had been paying better attention, I would’ve seen her watching me from the corner of her eye. Instead, I shrugged.
“I dunno. I mean, as a friend, he’s usually a great big hug-giver,” I said, smiling smally into my half-drank coffee, and then at her. She took a calculated drag from her cigarette and stubbed it out in the small white ash tray between us on the table. I waited for her to speak; she looked as if she needed to say something. Instead, she averted her eyes from mine to look at the activity surrounding us on the outdoor terrace. Four o’clock: time for the cafes to fill up with people in search of a nice piece of cake and a coffee to accompany it. This cafe was no exception. I joined her in people-watching, oblivious to her observations of me.
“He’s been different, you know.” Her voice startled me. “Since you got here,” she said. Then, I felt her green eyes boring into my cheek.
“What do you mean,” I asked, cupping my cooled off coffee mug. She was silent, still staring at me.
“He’s in love with you.”
I said nothing but I felt my brows crease together. She huffed a breath of air out through her nose. I noticed my hands, warm and moist against the cool ceramic of the mug. Then I began to shake my head.
“That’s not—really, it’s not like that. He and I, I mean, it was a long time ago, we don’t—he’s not, in love, with me, anymore. We’re just fr—“
“Don’t,” she said, raising her hands, palms facing me. She lowered them slowly, as if she meant to push away the earth beneath us. “Don’t,” she said again firmly, coldly.
I was still shaking my head, frantically almost.
“I knew it, from the first moment I joined you at the restaurant that first evening. I felt like,” she waved her hand and rolled her eyes, “like I was the third wheel, like I had joined an exclusive party of two,” she finished. She rummaged in her purse. As she looked down, her blonde hair fell like a curtain between me and her face.
“I, I don’t know why you think that, really. We, we haven’t seen each other in such a long time,” I reasoned, trying to keep the rock slide from turning into a crushing avalanche.
She made a sound in her throat as she began sprinkling tobacco onto a small paper.
“I hate you for it, you know. Not you as a person, really. But the idea of you. That you could come here after all these years and he just—,” she shrugged, “forgets that there was ever another woman in his life,” she said, rolling the paper carefully shut, bringing it to her lips to be sealed. As she lit the end, I tried to think of something, anything, to say in my defense. I was speechless.
“I don’t think it’s any fault of my own, though,” she went on. “I just, well, it fucking still feels like a betrayal. From both of you,” she said, taking a deep drag and pushing it right back out.
“Lila, I—“ My speech faltered as she pushed angrily back from the table. She stood up quickly, slinging her bag over her shoulder.
“No, Mira, you don’t get to say anything.” She stubbed the cigarette out aggressively and straightened up. “I just need you to fuck off right now, ok? I like you, really, I do. But, just, fuck off.” On that note, she turned from me and walked to where her bike was chained to a light post a few meters away from the cafe’s terrace. She slid a pair of dark sunglasses onto her face, mounted the cycle, and rode away without a backward glance in my direction.
My coffee was empty and I was alone. I flagged the waitress down and asked for a glass of wine, please. While all the others drank their caffeinated hot beverages and over-indulged in sweets, I finished off my glass of wine before asking for the bottle.
Luckily, I had the good sense to cork it and take it with me while it was still a third full. But where was I to go? Back to Marius’s? He and Lila did not live together, but she still might be there, insisting that he throw me out to go back to the boutique hotel I had crawled out of. I decided I would leave, but first I would have to get my belongings.
I arrived back at his building after moseying through the alleys, taking the long way, occasionally taking a pull from the bottle of wine stashed in my bag. My shopping bags bumped against my legs, threatening to trip me and send me on a trajectory that would end in a meet-cute with the ground. I pulled the key from my pocket and let myself in to the hallway before taking the lift up to his floor. I tried to be as inconspicuous as I could when I came in, muffling the sound of the door closing with my body.
“Mira? Is that you?” he called, coming around the corner from the kitchen. Something smelled really good. He was smiling at me. “Did you have a good day? It looks to have been productive,” he said, gesturing to the bags. I remembered to breathe, and then smiled at him.
“It was good, thanks,” I said politely, walking past him to head towards the guest room.
“I’m just preparing dinner. I hope you’re hungry,” he said to my retreating form.
“Let me just, erm, freshen up, and I’ll be out in a jiff,” I replied. I shut the wooden door behind me and found myself in the welcome silence of the sleek bedroom. Before I even realized what I was doing, the clothes were stuffed and rumpled in my suitcase, and I was gathering everything I had in the bathroom and funneling it into a cosmetic bag. I straightened up and glanced at my reflection. “Get a hold of yourself Mira,” it muttered to me. It was right; if nothing else, I had to say a proper good-bye to Marius. I quickly changed my clothes and tentatively stepped out into the living room. He was putting on a record, a bottle of wine stood next to an empty glass. He turned around, bearing a full wine glass and a smile.
I took a deep breath and went for it. No point tiptoeing around it. “Marius, I’m not really sure how to, well, I just had this rather startling conversation with Lila, actually. And she, well, she said that she believes that you, that you, well-oh fuck it, that you’re in love with me,” I said at last. His eyes dropped to the floor.
“I know what she thinks,” he said to the wooden paneling of the floorboards. “She’s been telling me since you arrived in Berlin.”
“And what did you say?” I asked very quietly, feeling a mounting discomfort that I had not ever known before.
“I told her she was out of her mind and left it that,” he said, shrugging. “But you know,” he continued, looking up from the floor and into my eyes, “that Lila is a self-assured woman with exceptional intuition. That’s what attracted me to her initially. And so, after awhile, I realized that she was right.”
My stomach dropped. He poured wine into the second glass and handed it over the space between us. I took it with a gulp.
“Why don’t we eat some dinner? None of this can be solved on an empty stomach,” he suggested, leading me gently toward the kitchen, toward the something that he had cooked for us. For us. Bloody fucking hell. There hadn’t been an “us” in over ten years. I grabbed his arm rather suddenly and he looked back at me in surprise. I let go immediately. “Eh, sorry, I just—do you think we could have a cigarette first?” I asked, wiping my suddenly moist palms on the thin fabric of the dress I had changed into. He smiled and gestured toward the wall of windows, the balcony an open-air piece of relief behind it.
My hands shook as I tried to gently perform the art of creating a hand-rolled cigarette. I knew he was watching me in his nonchalant, unbothered way. Finally, he gently took the crumpled, gossamer rolling paper from me and began crafting me a perfectly executed version, which he handed to me and pulled the lighter from his pocket to offer me use of its flame. I puffed deeply, coughing several times, looking away in embarrassment. For fuck’s sake.
We smoked in silence, watching the Berlin sun drop away to be borrowed by another part of the world. It was still warm, but my arms prickled into gooseflesh every time the gentle wind whispered past. He stubbed the end of his cigarette into one of the flower pots housing robust blooms. I watched him with a calculated amount of reserve, feeling painfully self-conscious while alone in his presence. I thought of the parts of him beneath his clothing I had seen, almost memorized, those years ago and found myself blushing profusely. “Jesus fucking Christ,” I muttered, casting the butt of my cigarette into the same pot. He pushed the door open and we went back indoors. I moved into my bedroom to find a shawl to drape around my shoulders, and when I came back, he was back in the kitchen removing a large pot from the stove. I hoisted myself silently onto a stool and waited patiently for the meal. Instead of offering my help, I poured a generous amount of wine into both of our glasses.
The only sounds were that of cooking and the plating of food, and the swallows of wine slipping down my throat which only I could hear.
While I had been alternating between staring at the dwindling contents of my wine glass and at the fresh manicure I had given myself that morning before shopping, Marius had been laying the table with beautiful things. “Do you want to come and sit down?” he asked me, a certain amount of hope in his eyes. I slid, somewhat unsteadily, from the stool and, clutching my glass, made my way to the place he had set for me across from his at the dining table. The fixture over the table was turned to dim, a handful of tapered candles took over the job of providing light. There was a mass of wildflowers in a vase, and a basket of freshly baked bread beside it. There was a platter of cheese, and a colorful green salad alongside it. The round white plates were artfully arranged with sautéed greens, roasted carrots, asparagus and potatoes, and there was a lush looking cut of beef glazed in a succulent sauce. “I meant to serve in courses, but I thought the meat might overcook,” he explained, gesturing to the elaborate spread. We sat down and he poured me more wine. We ate in silence until I ventured a compliment. “This is delicious. You’ve become an excellent cook. I hope you didn’t do all of this just for me,” I said, smiling. He smiled back. “Actually, I didn’t. I thought Lila would be joining us as well and we would have dinner altogether, but I gather she is otherwise indisposed,” he replied. I focused on cutting my meat, which took very little effort, and said nothing. “Mira,” he said, making me look up from my fascinating plate. He smiled smally. “Cheers.” I wiped my mouth. “Cheers,” I said, raising my glass. They came together with a delicate clink and then were drawn to our lips to have their contents ravaged.
At some point or another, normal speech resumed, and we put a form of temporary amnesia into place in order to avoid the elephant lurking, stomping about, just outside the dining room. As the wine warmed my body and I laid the shawl over back of my chair, I felt my soul warming as well. Warming to what, I could not say exactly. But I knew it was happening. Somewhere, some great mechanism was turning, creaking back to life, bringing us together again. Most importantly, I knew Lila was right; either he loved me very much, or was in love with me. The difference hardly mattered. I was not here to trifle with technicalities. No, I knew why I was here, and it had everything to with what his eyes were saying to mine, and how the now comfortable moments of silence said what words could not.