Thursday, May 10, 2007

and look at you and me, still here together

We both have an umbrella in hand, a small black one for me, a big grey one for W and his son, F. Of course, protecting a child from rain with an umbrella is a rather difficult task. F’s wide and clear blue eyes take in everything. And like his father, ever the scientist, F wants to observe, touch, consider each thing he encounters in his path. He notices things someone under 3 normally might not. He meanders away to pick flowers or inspect a latch on a gate. He is fascinated by fountains and waters, likes to feel the rush and the gurgle of the water against his fingers. He jumps in puddles, pausing afterwards for a moment to observe how and where the water has splashed.

He says it is best to give K some time with the baby. We talk about little meaningless things and then lace it with important, big things- what his next move will be, the factors he considers. The conversation is stilted, for we are interrupted by our watchful, adult eyes- F has skipped off to a big sculpture, F wants a croissant, F wants to feed ducks. It does not feel stilted. There is nothing unnatural about the stops and starts of this conversation- this is what it means to be a father, and there is an unspoken, subconscious understanding of this between us. There is no need to ask the question- “what does it feel like to be a father?” There is no need to ask how he handles his evolution. We are scientists. We do not ask questions if we can surmise the answers by simple awareness.

Besides which, W was a father before I had met him. This day, with the rain drizzling on and off, falling and then stopping, evokes certain afternoons we spent walking around Boston. And back then, W wanted to examine a sculpture, wanted a croissant, crouched down to feed the ducks. At restaurants, he made eyes at babies and waved. Everything in his life has led him to fatherhood, whether he knew it or not.

W talks to me, though, of his next move, and listening to him makes me think: this must be the sound a tiger makes before he pounces. He is turning things over and over in his head. He has a million ideas and a million paths. He doesn’t talk of the things that are really on his mind. He sounds like a dreamer, the scary sort of dreamer who will spend the family fortune on a half-cooked scheme or blow the savings at the track. But those are just words. Inside the words, deep in the tone of his voice, is heaviness, a hesitation based on the weight of his own expectations. He told me once, and he repeats it later that day, that he had to lie down from chest pains when he watched a movie in which a father could not make enough money to support his family. W is deeply aware of his responsibilities, and his hesitation, his many schemes, the chess move he analyzes so stems from a pride, the best kind of pride, the pride that says “you will not want, not while I have two hands and a beating heart.”

It’s overblown, of course. I want to tell him this, but there is no telling him this. He would deny he is concerned at all. The words, after all, are light. I think of this: W has never failed the way that I have; he has never fallen flat on his face, has never had to stand up again, has never had to put himself back together. Failure feels all the more catastrophic when you haven’t experienced it in a real sense. Coupled with the weight he places on himself, the very logical weight of having two children and a wife he wants to protect and nurture, F is light perched atop W’s shoulders, contributes little to compressing his spine, the running joke every time he lifts him up.

We try to circumvent a park, but F is too fast, too astute. He sees it, a park with a big fountain in the middle. He wants to play, but the rain is falling harder. I can see that F is getting finicky. It is getting increasingly difficult to ply him from the mud and the tall, wet grass. I am starting to feel badly for the boy. We have been walking for a long time, and have been constantly dissuading him from playing with this and that, citing the rain and the mud and that we must continue on.

W insists F will be okay as he coaxes him into taking the train. Once inside the train station, F becomes a bit cheerful again, excited that he is free to run in circles and press buttons. When we arrive at our stop, the rain has quelled a bit and he is free to run at the university a bit more. W has been lecturing me intermittently about the history of the university, how it was considered quite liberal, how it was one of the first to be closed during the rise of the Nazis, how the US made it their central base once they’d occupied the city during the war. He points out the architecture, built just as Hitler was gaining popularity and notes the cold, boxy appearance. I am only half-listening but I pretend to be absorbed, amused and touched that he has kept all of this in his head to serve as my guide. He always loves to be the teacher.

When we enter the university, the entranceway is all marble, expensive and stunning in the way it is carefully cut. W points it out to me, and I nod, thinking this is why we are here, the beauty of this hallway and perhaps a stop at the café that lies just past this entrance. I have been humoring W, truth be told. We could have been walking in circles in Frankfurt, and I would not have cared. We walk up the marble steps and pause, letting swarms of students pass by. We used to be those students, gathering in a café to furiously study and sort difficult questions out before an exam, outdoing each other in panic.

But when the students pass by, we do not enter the café. Instead, we walk past it, and duck into a small room to an elevator. The tour has apparently not completed. And then I see it. The elevator arrives and we jump on it, and I barely make it. I haven’t even had a chance to process what I’ve just witnessed, but W watches me with giddy anticipation. There are no doors to this elevator, and it never stops. F is confused, and even a little scared that there is nothing to hold on to, nothing keeping us from the edge. It takes us down to the basement, creaks to the side, and then rises up to the roof, and each time we hit a floor, we lose our breath again at the unsteadiness of this exposure. It is a compressed, oval ferris wheel. I turn to W and we both break out into giggles, and for a moment, we are both 19 years old again. F mimics us out of amusement. “This is what I wanted to show you,” W confesses. I grin so widely that my cheeks hurt for a moment.

With that, we leave and F loses steam fast. He falls asleep on W’s shoulders as we walk through an affluent part of town. W holds him in his arms as we step into his favorite café to get sandwiches and macaroons to take home for lunch. Later, many things will happen, many beautiful things, things so meaningful that I will burst into overwhelmed tears at the Frankfurt airport. But on this day, my first full day in Frankfurt, I am struck by how the essence of W is contained in this walk, by how this is just like him, by how I can say this is just like him after all of these years. It’s this day that I’ll remember, that will make me acutely aware of how impossible it would be for anyone else to ever strike up this kind of friendship with me again.