The most diabolical trick biology has played on us: When we are young, time passes so slowly. When we gain a little wisdom and experience, time flies by.
As soon as I blink, the week is over. It’s seems like it’s always Sunday and I’m getting ready for the work week. The thirty-four years since I first landed in Germany will pale next to the coming twenty, the good years I figure I have left if I don’t eat myself to death, if I can steer wide of the bottle and live a sober life, if I stay on my medication and avoid hanging myself.
I went back to little Wawern recently on the expressed purpose of staying with Josef and Marlies. I had not seen them in five years but the years have been good to them. They remain healthy but note they don’t do what they used to. Josef greatly reduced the size of his garden and sold his orchard because it was too much for him. When Marlies and I took her daily walks, we strolled at a slow pace, unlike years before when I struggled to keep up with her.
Marlies had generously invited me to have friends come by to overnight. Udo came in his work van from Reutlingen. The American writer Eddy Harris came on the train from his home in the west of France. I was afraid three, strapping men in their 50s and early 60s would be too much for Josef and Marlies. But they enjoyed their three days with Udo and Eddy. Josef and Marlies told the stories of their youth, of their meeting and marriage over 65 years before, of their children and life in the old Weingut.
Between our long conversations with the Fricks, Eddy, Udo, and I had busy days. We walked up into the vineyard above the town, as I had done many times with Joachim and Josef and Marlies. I had to show them the vistas that influenced my way of looking at the world. We talked of my time in Germany, life in the Saarstrasse, and of the opera singer.
“You never use her name,” Eddy noted. “You talk of her like she was an event.”
“Yes,” Udo agreed. “Like an earthquake or tsunami.”
“Well, she was kind of like an earthquake. She changed the direction of my whole life.”
“We all have our earthquakes and tornadoes,” said Eddy. “I’ve had a few of them myself.” We stopped for a minute on the steep path above the vineyard. The day was soft—cloudy with no rain. The forest next to us was dark beneath the canopy. We took in the view wordlessly for a few minutes, likely thinking of our earthquakes.
“You know, I think of Monika more than the opera singer,” I said finally. “I miss her.”
“It’s likely unfinished business,” Udo said. “Something you started but didn’t finish.”
“I was a boob back then,” I said. “I was young and drunk and distracted by a million things. I’m sorry I didn’t stick with her but glad I didn’t, given the way things have turned out.”
“Have you ever looked for her?” Eddy asked.
“Yes, I have,” I said. “More than once. I can’t find her anywhere. She wouldn’t be the kind of person who has an internet presence. I wonder if she ever thinks of me.”
“Of course, she does,” Eddy said. “She probably thinks of you all the time. She thought of you now.”
It was a nice thought.
That afternoon, we drove Udo’s van to Schengen, Luxemburg, to visit my winemaker friend Paul Legill. We toured his small winery and Paul shared some vintages with Eddy and Udo, standing in Paul’s small tasting room, atmospheric with soft lighting and bottles illuminated in small arched openings in the walls. Conversation flowed without hindrance as Paul and I caught up and Eddy and Udo got to know Paul a little. Languages flew about the space. Paul speaks French, German, and a little English; Eddy French; and Udo German, English, and some French. I had only written to Paul twice in the five years since I’d seen him last.
“There’s one great thing, Patrick,” Paul said. “Every time we get together, it’s as if we pick up exactly where we left off, like you were never gone.”
Paul took us out to dinner. We drove back to Wawern along a winding road that led through vaguely lit villages that had gone inside for the night, windows glowing, lone streetlights illuminating the darkness.
Udo, Eddy, and I went into Trier the next day. I’d thought I would want some time to see the corners and niches I had not seen in thirty-plus years. But walking through the Palastgarten and into the center of town, I somehow lost that necessity. Everything was much smaller and more compact that I remembered. We met our old friend from the Saarstrasse Stephan Weinert, who worked near the cathedral for the church’s radio station. Udo and Stephan had not seen each other in almost thirty years. We sat around a table at an old restaurant near the center of Trier. Udo and Stephan didn’t leave Eddy out of the conversation. After two and a half hours, Stephan had to get back to work. On our way back to the car, we stopped in at the stained-glass restoration firm where Udo had done his apprenticeship and earned his Meister. Udo still knew people who worked there, including the director. One of Udo’s old workmates took us on a tour of the firm—the offices, workshop, and an attic that contained the rolled-up plans of every window the firm had restored in over a century of existence.
The day Udo and Eddy had to leave, we moved slowly, almost as if dreading the moments we would have to say goodbyes. Udo was reflective and quiet. As time neared for him to leave that afternoon, he had tears in his eyes. We stood in the street waving after him until he turned the corner. Marlies gave me a hug and told me how great it was to meet some of my friends. Later that evening, Josef drove Eddy to the Kanzem train stop. As I put him on the train, he, too, had tears in his eyes. Whether from having to depart the Fricks’ unending hospitality or not knowing when we would see each other again, I sent Udo and Eddy off to their own lives, where we would be connected with E-mails and telephone calls.
I spent the rest of the week, another five days, being domestic with Josef and Marlies—doing laundry, talking walks, going into town for shopping and for Josef’s visit to a doctor. We reveled in each other’s company and spent long evenings at the coffee table where Marlies had shown Eddy and Udo photos and told stories of the long past. When it came time for me to take the train to Koblenz to visit Ivo, Josef, in a moment uncharacteristic of him, turned to me in the living room and hugged me.
“This is probably the last time we’ll see each other,” he said. “Be good to your family. Be happy in your home.” I didn’t want to leave. I never wanted to leave.
On the train to Koblenz, I again looked through the years and thought of my friends. I was melancholy but not morose or sad. My visits had renewed my faith again. We would be connected regardless of the distance. I had made good friends, drawn fantastic people into my orbit. They made me and, in some small way, I had helped them to make themselves.
Two days with Ivo was not enough. I met Lena, Ivo’s mate, who he is now marrying, and her daughter Mascha. They are both lively and personable people with whom conversations were intense and personal. It was as if I had always known them.
Ivo took me out on the Rhein in his little boat. The great stream washed up against the hull and Ivo looked as if he was in his element. Giant freight haulers and hotel ships passing by us as if we were standing still. He pulled the boar around the Deutsches Eck and into the mouth of Mosel, where we tied up to a pier and spent the afternoon talking.
“I have found a life’s mate in Lena,” he said. The water was calm and we could see the tourists walking the riverfront up to the Deutsches Eck. “But I often remember Andrea. I loved her more than anything and though I feel sad at her passing, I do not want to lose that connection with her. I remember the good days we had and also the difficult ones at the end of her life. They are all a part of the experience of Andrea.”
Ivo drove us one afternoon to Cologne to see Martin. Ivo and I first walked through the pedestrian zone at the center of town, taking in sights, touring and small church, and stuffing ourselves with currywurst and fries. We met Martin him in a gallery space not far off the pedestrian zone, where he had just hung some of his pieces, those ethereal expressions of his inner turmoil and peace. He had us back to his house, an apartment in a busy street near the center of town. We spent the afternoon catching up and talking of new things, the projects he has before him and the things I wanted to do. It was as if we had never been absent one another.
Ivo and I spent evenings sitting out on the patio looking out into the growing darkness and watching a bat that visits the air between his hedges every night. Conversation came without effort. I felt at home again. His cigars were excellent.
I miss my friends now that I’ve returned, and already three months have gone by. I call Josef and Marlies every week. Udo calls for long, deep conversations. Ivo rings sometimes, he says, just to hear my voice. Martin and I E-mail, and Paul writes dreamy, impressive letters that must come at a cost, as he must write them evenings after long days in the vineyard.
I dream sometimes about Joachim. I’m always aware he is gone but relish seeing him again. I tell him so. We walk through the woods, drive down lonely roads. When I wake, I go through a book of photos I have of him. Random events of the last three decades come to me. They rush through the brooks of my mind. They merge and become a sea of memory into and from which everything flows. I am 22 again, eyes fresh, everything new. Ivo, Martin, and Udo are apprentices at the stained-glass restoration firm, and we are spending the weekend together in the Saarstrasse. I relive the first time I introduced Virginia to Marlies. I remember when Sydney and Nick entered my world, the run of our lives together, and the things they have accomplished and the growth they still have to do.
In the quiet moments, I find myself lucky to have been afflicted. Without my ups and downs and the impulsivity that comes with alcoholism and mental illness, I would not have known any of the people in this tale, my story. I’m glad it’s mine. They are part of me.