“In the life of each of us…there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness.”
-Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs
Once, between the stage of life when time moves slowly, like a child’s school day in winter, and the stage when time leapfrogs overhead, I sat atop a grey-and-white dappled horse in the middle of a city neighborhood surrounded by narrow homes with slick-tiled roofs and flower boxes offering blooms in all the colors of joy. The perfume of flowers mixed with that of coffee and the sweet yeast of bread left to cool on a sill. Cyclists sped past, their wire baskets cradling mesh bags of apples, loaves of pumpernickel wrapped in parchment, marzipan. A cyclist’s bell chimed, triple-sectioned: the windup press of the thumb, the peak, the reverb of return. A sweat drip travelled a winding path down my jaw and dropped a long mark onto my shirt, already soaked through in the back. The horse swished her tail and pushed a hoof forward, rocking me to one side.
Pay attention. Her careful reminder.
I am what the professional opera singers call a hobbyist – I only sing in the chorus, never the named roles.
In one hour, on the verge of my 40th birthday, I will perform the role of Kanva in Schubert’s Sakontala on my home stage with the Florida Grand Opera. I should be nervous. Shaking. But I’m not. I have practiced every free minute of every day since I won the role of Kanva. This part might be the door that opens just wide enough to walk through. Or it could be my only chance, my one time to shine.
And, if that’s the case, I’m okay with it. I’m calm because I have nothing to lose. No matter what happens, I am one of the few, lucky souls who can step into the light of an opera stage and know its warmth.
A couple hours before I sat atop the horse, my new family met me in the waiting area of my arrival gate at the Frankfurt Airport. Helmut, the father, held a sign with my name scrawled in slanted German cursive. The mother, Dagmar, pulled a small German flag through her fingers and their son, Lars, waved a piece of graph paper limp from the weight of a hand-drawn American flag. I tugged at the hem of my shirt, approached them and said hello. Lars had his mother’s curly hair and his father’s ruddy cheeks, his father’s easy smile and, as I would soon learn, his mother’s plain adherence to truth. He was nine, all boy and wore it under his fingernails.
Being placed with a family in Heidelberg was like winning the exchange-student lottery. Heidelberg is an old city wedged in the valley of a river, the Neckar, surrounded by hills. Main Street is a cobblestone road that leads pedestrians past centuries’-old buildings. Street cars clang through the middle of the busy streets and at night, Heidelberg’s castle glows atop a high hill. On the hill that faces the castle, Mark Twain was rumored to have sat and worked on Huckleberry Finn. Heidelberg, after all, is derived from a word which translates to Huckleberry Mountain.
Helmut drove through the city, then parked at the bottom of the path opposite the castle, the Philosophenweg, and we began to hike up the narrow cement walk. Almost immediately it became steep and required huge reaching steps with every stride. We paused at the top of the first crest and I wiped sweat from my brow with the inside of my elbow. They found a cement table and sat.
What do you think of the view? asked Helmut.
I cleared sweat from my eyes with the hem of my T shirt. Super, I said, slumped on the bench, panting.
The Trägers looked at each other.
Okay, then, said Dagmar. Now we go home.
Their house was bright in the right places – the entrance, the kitchen – while also perfectly shaded for a nap in others – the family room, the bedrooms. The open windows moved fresh air room to room, picking up hints of tea, grass and laundry soap to make their home’s unique scent, something every home has, like a homing beacon for the family who lives within to carry while they’re away. I wouldn’t understand until many years later that a home isn’t made of walls, framed prints, and armchairs. A home becomes another member of the family that inhabits it, absorbing their personalities to form one of its own.
On that day, I believed Dagmar had baked a plum cake especially for me. Soon after, I came to realize she baked a pastry every other day for Mittagspause, our mid-day break. She spooned tea into a double-pot coffee maker, one pot for coffee, one for tea, then Lars ran me around the house. He skipped sideways through the hall, speaking in a continuous chain of German, none of which I understood at the time, though now I inexplicably remember.
What is your school like? Do you watch television? I hear Americans watch a lot of television. Here’s your room. Do you like it? There’s a TV for you.
He flung open the kitchen door, and I hurried after him down the stairs best I could.
Helmut looked up from his newspaper, amused by the pair of us. It’s going to be a loud year. Then, to Dagmar, Two boys. Are you ready?
Bitte schön, she said, dragging out the o. You mean three boys. She held up her thumb and first two fingers.
Remember, said Helmut to Dagmar. I’m no boy. They raised their eyebrows at each other, amused, daring the other to speak. Helmut folded his paper. Lars started pulling plates from the cabinet.
- I lifted my damp shirt with my fingertips. Change.
Ja, ja, said Dagmar. We’ll wait for you. Dagmar’s lips were shaped by the frequent pronunciation of ü, like someone who’d just finished playing the trumpet.
Dagmar had laid a washcloth and towel on the low foam couch that unfolded into my bed for the coming year. I took a quick shower, not quite sure of which bottle was shampoo, which soap or conditioner, but figured I’d be clean no matter what so rushed through and went back to the kitchen. As soon as I sat, they began to eat.
Dagmar pulled an upside-down spoon of cream from between her lips. Does the cake taste good?
The plum cake was sweet and tart, but not so much it hurt the back of my jaw. The cake is number one, I said. From everything.
She nodded, happy I realized what she already knew.
After this, Yulli, said Lars. We’ll go across the street to the stalls and take Blume for a trot.
What? I said.
Yulli, said Lars. You don’t say ‘What.’ You say ‘How, please?’
Okay. How, please?
He stood from the table, too full of energy to sit. My horse, Blume needs exercise. We have a stall across the street and a fenced in pasture.
I don’t understand, I said. How could a horse be across the street in the middle of the city?
Come on, he said. Have you ever been on a horse?
I not go horse, I said. Tired. I don’t know how. I never go horse. And, I am heavy.
Blume can handle you, Lars said. But, yes, you are quite fat.
My affection for Lars was already the kind a wisp-furred teddy bear might feel for the boy who kept him viced tight to his side.
Okay, I said. I’ll try.
Super geil! Lars raised his arms, accidentally flinging his spoon, full of cream, at the wall.
Dagmar sighed. You have to learn to control yourself, Lars.
Make sure you clean that up, said Helmut.
I help, I said. The way it worked, I cleaned the wall while Lars talked.
My dad rides Blume all the time. She’ll teach you what to do. She’s a good horse. You’ll see. Do you go to lots of rodeos back home?
Six months earlier, my German teacher, Frau Williams had approached me in the hallway between classes to ask if I would be interested in a year abroad. I sputtered a response about how I was interested, but doubted that my mom would let me go.
“Think about it,” she said. “A year abroad would be good for you.” We both knew what she meant. Being different in a small town was a job. Frau was different – her curly hair, always alight with static, framed her face like fur edging a hood. A year prior she’d started a theater troupe with a few brave souls and drove an old Japanese car. The Japanese car alone –
“But I’d miss an entire year of band.” I wanted to study music after high school. A year off could have very real consequences.
“I’m sure you can arrange lessons.” She patted me on the shoulder and rushed off. Frau was always in a hurry.
When I told Mom, she didn’t say anything at first. Then, after a few moments, she said, “An entire year?”
“A school year – technically, ten months.”
“And, how much?”
“Nothing beyond spending money,” I said. “There’s a scholarship for kids who can’t afford the fees.”
She thought about it, then said, “Let’s see what your grandpa thinks.”
A few days later I was practicing my bassoon in the kitchen when Mom came in.
“I heard the tail end,” she said, rubbing her forehead. “It was very good.”
“Why are you home?”
“I think I’m coming down with the flu,” she said.
I packed up my bassoon and took it, along with my music stand, to my room. When I came back, she was lying on the couch with the orange crocheted afghan over her.
“Do you want some water?”
“Ginger ale might be better,” she said.
I poured her a glass in the kitchen and brought it to her.
She took a few sips and offered the glass back to me. “You should go to Germany.” She rolled over, pulling the blanket tight around her shoulders.
I waited until Chore Day – Saturday to everyone else – to talk to Grandpa. We were cleaning out the back gutter and I was on the ladder, which I hated. Every move I made, creak. Then there was Grandpa. He had all day and worked slow because he could. I just wanted to get the cleaning over with, so I grabbed by the handful and he complained I was doing a sloppy job.
“Now, dammit, listen when I tell you. Whether it’s playing the horn or clearing leaves,” he said. “Do it right.”
We were almost finished by the time I got the courage to speak. I said my piece about going to Germany and he kept working, pulling a thick twig from the downspout. After a while, I figured his silence was a “no” and started to climb down.
“Why Germany?” he asked.
I steadied myself on the ladder. “Because the high school offers two languages – French and German – and I picked German.” I stepped to the ground, took his full trash bag and handed him a new one. “Besides,” I said. “This whole county was drained and cleared by the Germans. We’re all just a bunch of Krauts anyway.”
“We’re no Krauts, son.” He paused to catch his breath, leaning his forearm on the gutter.
I moved the ladder a few feet away and made my way up.
“I saw.” He stared at me until I looked him in the eyes. “Germans are a cruel people. Especially to those who don’t fit.” He stepped down a rung. “Like you.”
Yulli, Follow me, said Helmut. Let’s fix Dagmar’s bike chain. He wore purple glasses, tight red jeans, and green socks with sandals. I couldn’t figure out how it all went together, but it suited him. Look here, he said when we reached his work bench in the garage. He showed me the chain, wiping the grease away with his thumb. The link broke. Good thing she was almost home when it happened.
I stared at the small prongs bent wide. Only one link?Defective, he said.
Helmut pulled open the tiniest wooden drawer with a knob the size of a pea. When repairing a chain you must replace two links, not one. The links are paired.
Why not just buy a new chain?
The back cassette wears at the same rate as the chain. When you put a new chain on, it isn’t worn the same as the sprockets in the back. They don’t work together as well as with the old one. His fingers had already begun to turn black from the grease. It was strange to see him with dirty hands. What are you going to study at the Uni?
He pulled the loose chain across the counter. The bassoon?
I think so. I’d practiced a few times since arriving, but not nearly enough.
Then you must have lessons while you’re here, he said. Pass me the chain tool. He pointed at a small tool with a handle and metal bar that spun.
I passed it to him. My grandfather thinks I should study something more practical.
He threaded the chain into the tool’s channel and turned the metal bar. You must have lessons. He met some resistance and shook with the effort. Don’t push the pin all the way out. You’ll never get it back in. He put the new links in and pushed one of the pins. After the chain’s on the bike – the other pin.
The door leading to the kitchen opened and slammed. What are you doing out here? Lars wedged himself between us.
Fixing your mother’s bike chain.
I want to help.
Helmut kneeled next to the bike. Hold this steady while I put on the chain, he said.
Both Lars and I reached for the seat. I pulled my hand back and let him hold it. I should probably do my homework, I said.
Lars watched his father work.
I thought they might tell me to stay, but they were already caught up in their own conversation.
I met with my new music teacher, Herr Keller, after Gymnasium. At first, lessons were twice a week, then I trudged up to the attic room nearly every weekday. The windowless room smelled of sweat, musty spit and wet wood. Lessons became something I dreaded. Herr Keller refused to speak German and only criticized me. Never encouraged. But I knew, somehow, the criticism meant he believed I was worth the effort. I’d heard him with other students as I waited for my lesson to begin and, to them, he spoke in surprisingly hushed German. Those students were his bread and butter. With me, he was forever impatient. Now I understand – every teacher is looking for his prodigy. The low pay, the long hours, the squandered personal time – they must all amount to something. And that something is a prodigy the teacher can point to and say, I did that. The student understands this from deep within and feels an obligation to achieve success and pushes and fights to reach this goal for both of them. If the student doesn’t feel this obligation, then he is not the prodigy and the teacher must find another.
Herr Keller scheduled extra lessons the Trägers didn’t pay for. I knew because I brought them the bill every month.
In one lesson, I could not get the pitch right. The notes kept breaking. The bassoon is almost like a bagpipe, except the notes are supposed to be steady, not wavering.
Herr Keller stopped me and put away the music. I knew this meant he had reached the end of his tolerance. He rubbed his temple with his right hand, which was missing half an index finger. One day, I hoped to find the courage to ask what happened.
“If you desire to play zeh bassoon,” he said, “ziss is a difficult instrument, ga? When it is false, the sound is terrible. Only when zeh player has it perfect – ” He dropped a fist in his palm. “There is beauty.”
“Zenn why choose?”
“It fits me.”
“No,” said Herr Keller. “Zeh tuba fits.”
“But the bassoon matches what’s inside,” I said.
Herr Keller, folded his hands at his bellybutton. “In ziss you are wrong. On the inside you are zeh harp.”
I exhaled, not sure of what to do. Start over with a new instrument? And where would I get a harp? It wasn’t like I could strap it to the back of my bike. Then there was the money I’d need to lease one. And, really, harpists mainly ended up playing weddings and charity events.
“What do you in truth want?” asked Herr Keller.
“To go to school for music,” I said.
No! This is not something a person wants. To go to school. Think, goddamnit. Think beyond school. What do you want?
I was close to tears, but would rather be stabbed in the foot than cry in front of Herr Keller.
Tell me. What do you want?
I took a breath so my voice would be steady. To sing.
He pressed his mouth into a line and nodded once. Now. We can quit wasting time – yours, but, more importantly, mine. As well as the Trägers’ money. He began packing his briefcase.
The lesson’s over?
I am not a voice instructor, he said. I will ask one of my friends, Frau Doktor Schmidt, at the Hochschule für Musik in Mannheim and see if she can take you on.
But, I said. You’re my instructor.
Is your hearing defective? I don’t teach voice. He snapped his briefcase shut.
I don’t want another instructor.
It isn’t about what you want, he said. It’s about what you need.
Surely if you can teach instruments, you can teach voice. It’s just another instrument.
He set his briefcase on the music stand and paused to think. You would be better off with a voice instructor.
He lifted his briefcase from the stand. You must learn from a teacher who understands pitch and tone. The exact – he stabbed at the air with a flat hand, moving it lower with every word – correct placement of each note.
You understand that, I said. I know you do.
I didn’t realize you had such a thick skull. He knocked twice on his head. Tomorrow, then.
Tomorrow, I said.
Life in Heidelberg was a happy adjustment. School ended daily at two, at which time, we students merged into the flow of bikes pedaling homeward or toward café tables for Mittagspause. Every now and then, Helmut or Dagmar had a work meeting and couldn’t make it home in time, so Lars and I met and parked our bikes near the city center. We walked the shops eating a gyro or pizza or some type of humongous sausage with a roll on the side. Or we went to the Penny Markt for a snack and stood in the long line as little old ladies shuffled to the front in a slow drip. The cashier shouted out the total in a monotone voice with his hand held close to my nose waiting for the money. A few times, we went to a Konditerei, my personal version of heaven with chocolate pastries of all flavors – hazelnut, orange, passionfruit, almond, pistachio. Once we crossed the bridge and spent an hour on the swingset close to the banks of the Neckar. I’d never felt so much like a kid than in that hour, stretching my legs toward sky, weightless for a moment.
At school, kids ate lunch in groups outside. I was a curiosity – a real, live American who understood them and spoke their language instead of one who asked in English for directions or to have his picture taken. As far as I could tell, if Id’ve stepped out of the TV right in front of them, they’d have nodded once, as if to say, That’s what we figured. But their interest in me waned when they realized I wasn’t all that different from them.
Karsten and I moved closer to each other every day at break until eventually we sat side by side, me eating sliced eggs, him eating cucumbers, both on buttered pumpernickel. His appearance was strange to me at first. With his dark hair cropped close on the sides and bouncy on top and his collared Polo shirts straining against arm muscles, he looked American. Not to mention he was freshly showered every day. Certainly out of place amongst the slim-muscled, messy-haired German boys who showered twice a week. Karsten wanted to speak English. I didn’t, but spoke just enough to keep him talking.
“Does Heidelberg please you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Very much.”
“And the school? Does the school please you?”
“It’s difficult for me,” I said. “My German is not good enough to be studying chemistry or geometry in another language, but my host father helps me.”
“If you prefer, I may also help.” He ate his sandwich in big bites, then took his time chewing. His jaw muscles flexed with each new attack.
Sakontala is an opera about an Indian king who happens upon a hermitage in the woods as he’s leading an army in slaying beasts. He meets a beautiful woman, Shakuntala, daughter of a holy sage, Kanva. The king is confused as to how she can be the daughter of a holy man and she tells him she is, in fact, the daughter of a nymph, deserted at birth and cared for by birds until found and raised by the holy Kanva. The king, Dushyanta, promises to make her queen and care for their heir if she marries him on that day. They marry, consecrate the marriage and he leaves with promises to send an army for her. She bears a son who has magical powers over savage beasts. After years of waiting for the army to arrive, Kanva urges Shakuntala to journey to the king. As she stands before the king and asks that their son be crowned prince, the king denies both Shakuntala and their son and orders her to leave. Devastated by the betrayal, she urges him to keep his promise. As she begins to walk away, the gods speak, confirming Shakuntala’s account as truth. The king then accepts his wife and son, claiming that, without the words of the gods, the veracity of their son would have been doubted throughout the kingdom.
Sakontala was a controversial choice for the FGO because Schubert left the opera unfinished and the completed version by Rassmussen wasn’t well received. “An experiment without consequence,” one reviewer said of the Saarbrücken production. Another, “an overloading of exotic stuff.” But FGO’s director wanted an opera entirely new to American audiences, if only for the right to say so. Plus, the criticism centered mainly on the stage direction. Our director believes he has nowhere to go but up.
Dagmar told me we were going on a trip to the North Sea. I needed to pack a pair of shoes I didn’t mind throwing away. Since I didn’t have any shoes to spare, I brought my tennis shoes and hoped for the best. Helmut hooked a tiny trailer to the diesel-engine Mercedes and off we went. I never knew a car could cook at 160 kph with a trailer attached. I death-gripped the door handle with both hands and sighed relief when we exited to a two-lane road. After a few kilometers Helmut moved the car far to the right. The cars, semis and busses coming at us in the opposite direction moved to their edge and a car behind us drove through the middle. I shut my eyes and crossed myself when it was over. Then, a few minutes later, same thing.
We finally arrived at the campground. Helmut backed the trailer into a spot, turning the steering wheel one-handed and parking it exactly straight on the first try. He was that kind of driver – like he was born knowing how. We all unloaded the trunk while Helmut unhitched the trailer.
Dagmar checked her watch. The ferry leaves in 40 minutes. Then, to me, Are those the shoes you can throw away?
I looked down at my black Oxfords and tugged the hem of my shirt. No. I sat on the picnic bench, changed into my tennis shoes and hurried into the car.
On the boat, I had to stay up top in the open air. When I sat downstairs with the Trägers, I got seasick. Every so often Lars came up to check on me.
Yulli, come sit with us, he shouted. We’re having a snack.
I can’t. I’ll get sick. I stood in the back by the German flag snapping the wind. I loved the sound.
He brought his sandwich and Fanta upstairs along with mine and we sat in deck chairs eating buttered bread with slices of hard boiled eggs, lettuce and cucumbers.
It was a quick ride. We arrived at a little island and docked. We walked in shops looking at tchotchkes and T shirts then sat and ate a bit more: quark, my favorite, like a mix of yogurt and whipped cream, cookies shaped like rolled newspaper with one end dipped in chocolate, tart cheese pressed with two fingers to a swatch of bread and eaten with our back teeth. Helmut offered me a piece of dried meat.
Beef? I asked.
Eel, he said.
I shuddered. No, thank you.
Come on, Yulli. One bite. Lars ripped off a huge chunk and chewed.
I shook my head no.
Dagmar started collecting napkins and empty containers to throw away.
Can I take a picture? For once, I’d remembered my camera.
Helmut stood. You sit. I’ll take it.
No, please, I said. First you.
I took three pictures of them, then Helmut waved down a passing tourist who took a picture of the four of us.
We sat for a while longer, then packed the leftovers and made our way back to the dock. The boat was gone. So was the water. We joined a group of people waiting, then a short, stocky woman walked up and called us all to attention.
Now we begin our return, she said. At some points we will walk through the water, maybe up to our knees. But most of the journey we will be in the mud.
I looked at Dagmar. Walk?
Yes, Yulli, she said. We walk back.
The whole way?
She laughed. The whole way.
How long does it take?
Oh, not long. Five hours.
My mouth dropped.
Lars said, Yulli. It’s going to be super geil. We’ll see crabs and worms. Sometimes you get stuck in the mud and we have to pull you out. Sometimes the mud takes your shoes and won’t give them back.
And it happened just as he said. Worm trails like miniature serpent mounds in the mud. Lars pulling at my wrists when I got sucked into a mud sinkhole, which let me keep my shoes. The crabs posturing with their claws. The tan, hairy-legged guide caught one and held it up.
You see? she said. A male crab has two penises. She pointed to one like a curved awl, then the other.
When we finished we laughed at ourselves, legs stiff with dried mud.
What did you think? asked Dagmar.
I smiled. When can we do it again?
On the first Sunday of every month, I pulled out my calling card and dialed home. I told Mom about our trip to the North Sea.
“Quite an adventure, son,” she said, then coughed.
“Have you been to the doctor?” I asked, even though I knew the answer. She never went to the doctor. I was lucky if I found an aspirin or a band aid in the medicine cabinet when I needed one.
“It’s not worth the trip,” she said. “I’m around sick people all the time. I pick up their junk every once in a while.”
I waited a moment, then said, “I’ve been thinking – ” I could almost hear her mind saying, Now what? “About maybe staying – and finishing school here.”
“But I thought that’s what you were doing,” she said. “Isn’t it over in July?”
I wound the cord around my finger. “I mean – finishing high school.” There was a long pause. I heard the echo of my own voice reaching her.
“That family has already done enough for you,” she said. “You can’t ask them to take you on for another year.”
The phone was on a table in the hallway next to the kitchen. Even though the Trägers spoke a little English, I knew they weren’t listening. They were caught up in their own Sunday night activities – laundry, TV, reading.
“I’ve thought about that, Mom,” I said. “I’ll be old enough to work here. I can get a job and either pay them rent or I can rent a room somewhere else.”
She exhaled. “Have you talked to them about it?”
“No,” I said. “I wanted to talk to you first.”
Later that night, as we all ate our regular Sunday-night dinner of open-faced sandwiches, Dagmar asked me how my mom was.
She’s okay, I said. She has a cold. I cut a huge bite of sandwich with my fork and knife. I mentioned something to her about staying in Germany to finish high school and she didn’t think it was a good idea, but I told her I’d get a job to pay for a room. I shoved the bite of food in my mouth and chewed.
Pay for a room where? asked Dagmar.
I shrugged. Wherever I can find one.
Quatsch, she said. You know you can stay here.
I wiped my mouth with my napkin. I’ll get a job and pay rent. You’ve all done so much for me. I couldn’t ask any more of you.
She gave Helmut a look like What do you think? and he responded with a look of his own. Possibly.
Once a week Lars and I gave Blume a bath and scrub behind the ears. When she heard us coming, she scraped a hoof against the wood of her stall door, as if she had an internal clock with an alarm set for her bath. She didn’t hoof the stall when we came to feed her. Only for bath.
I tossed soapy water over her back and at her ribs and Lars scrubbed in quick circles with the brush. Blume shuddered her hide close to where he touched while I washed her mane – wetting it, rubbing it between my palms, squeezing out the soapy water in my fist, combing it with my fingers. Then Lars used a tool to scrape out the dried mud from her hooves. After we finished she pranced around the pasture with her head tilted, shaking her mane. She knew she looked pretty.
Want to try again? Lars pointed at Blume with his head.
No, I said. Once was enough.
But she was so easy with you, said Lars.
I know, I said. I don’t want to press my luck.
Blume stretched her neck through the fence rail to reach a patch of wildflowers. She wound her tongue around some stems, pulled and chomped them with her back teeth.
Besides, I said. She’s your horse. She only wants you to guide her.
Du spinnt, said Lars, shaking an open hand in front of his face, the German version of circling a finger next to your temple.
Karsten was happy I finally asked him for help with something. He researched exactly what I needed to do to get a work permit, then he brought me an application to fill out. One day after school, we rode our bikes to a building just outside the city center and went inside.
I give them the application and then, what? They give me the permit? I asked as we locked our bikes.
Karsten smiled at this. You have a lot to learn.
We waited in line a couple of hours, at which time, I handed the clerk my application, she stamped it and said I’d receive the paperwork in the mail.
How long will it take to get the permit in the mail? I asked Karsten.
Oh, they aren’t sending you the permit, he said. They’re sending you the permission to apply for a permit.
I thought that’s what I just did, I said.
He held the door open for me. No, you filled out the request for permission. They’re sending you their approval – you hope – then you can fill out the permit application. After that, more waiting in lines. We unlocked our bikes. You’ll see – we Germans love procedure.
Herr Keller insisted I audition for the Heidelberg Madrigal Choir. The director, he said, was also the director and head instructor of choir at the Mannheim Music School. If I won a spot with the Heidelberg Choir, I would almost be guaranteed to study at Mannheim after high school. Herr Keller was two steps ahead of me. I was focused on finishing this school year and possibly staying for another. Never had I entertained the idea of continuing on through university. But I went along with Keller because why not? It was good experience. And if I decided to leave, in June or a year later, it could only help with college applications in the U.S.
He took the audition more seriously than I did. To me, the Madrigal Choir was extracurricular, a bonus. To him, whether we succeeded or failed was on the line. He had been torn about which song to choose for the audition. The song they’d ask me to sing would surely be in German, but what about my own selection? For weeks, we’d practiced Bach’s “Sanctus in D Major,” which was in Latin. Herr Keller felt it was a safe choice, neither German nor English, but then he’d suddenly switched the week before the audition to wanting a deeply American song.
So long as it isn’t “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I said to him. Everyone uses that song. It’s audition cliché and almost guarantees a “no.”
Then he started listing American pop songs.
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy?” I said. You aren’t serious.
We Germans invented kitsch. They’ll eat it up.
He wanted Copland. As far as Keller was concerned, Copland was America’s only composer worth a damn and I must show them the unique voice I would bring to the choir. He pushed for “The Boatman’s Dance,” part of Copland’s Old American Songs.
It fit my voice exactly. But Keller wanted me to play with the song. Dance a little, drag out words as if I were at a honkey tonk. I refused and sang it straight, which frustrated him and around we went.
Again, he said.
“High row the boatman row, floatin’ down the river. The Ohio.”
No, he said. Not the o-HI-o. The O-hi-O. Stress on the O’s.
Not both O’s. Just the first.
I think I know how to pronounce Ohio.
This is for a song. Follow the notes on the page. He shook the sheet music in my face. Again.
I began to sing. He interrupted me.
Wrong. Start again.
I sang two notes.
I wanted to leave. Why was I there? The audition seemed more for him than me. I started again.
What do you want from me! I shouted. Perfection?
What else is there?
We stared at each other.
Failure. There is perfection and there is failure. Nothing between.
Then I fail. I picked up my jacket and walked toward the door.
You’re going to throw everything away because you’re angry? Stop being a child.
I hesitated at the door. Then I said, I want a different song.
You can’t switch now. We only have two days.
I will only do the audition if it’s a different song.
He paused, grappling with whether to give in or not. Which?
“They Call the Wind Maria.”
I don’t know this one.
Then sing it for me.
I turned around and sang.
Helmut’s family came to the Trägers for Easter. The men and children chattered while the women rushed in and out of the kitchen. Dagmar and the aunts put the last bowl in place and called us to the table. We sat and began passing the food. Ham wrapped in thin beef, roasted vegetables. When Lars passed me a bowl of gelatinous tennis balls, I stared.
What’s the matter, Yulli? asked an aunt.
I looked at her, then Dagmar. What is it?
Kartoffelklöss, said Dagmar.
Potato? Now the whole table was staring at me. The hairs on the back of my neck rose.
Yes, said Dagmar. Eat, Yulli, and stop asking so many questions.
Everyone at the table had begun slipping forks of food into their mouths, so I did, too. The potatoes were like wallpaper paste.
Yulli, said the aunt who’d spoken earlier, You have to eat them with gravy. She held the gravy bowl toward me. I poured it on and had to admit, it did help.
After lunch, said Lars. We play soccer.
With the Kartoffelklösse? I said. That got a round of laughs.
“Ha, ha,” said Lars. “You are the funny guy.”
I shrugged and kept eating.
At the head of the table sat Opa Träger. He was a jolly sort of man. Wiry, but with those rosy cheeks that’d made their way to Lars. Everything about my own grandpa seemed so heavy – the way he walked, how his hand thudded on the table as he finished a mouthful of food. But then, when we’d marched in parades together, him with his veteran buddies, me with the high school band, I was surprised at how light his steps. And when I saw him, the pride I felt, as if I’d inherited his Purple Heart, like the ruddy cheeks passed down from Träger to Träger. And then I looked at Opa Träger –
Opa Träger, I spoke up so he could hear me. Were you a soldier in the war?
Everyone froze. Forks held in the air, mouths full of unchewed food.
I’d been to Dachau with The Trägers. Before we reached the Arbeit Macht Frei sign that slapped us in the face, we passed a gypsy tent city.
What are they doing here? I asked. In Heidelberg, the gypsies and Turks begged on the cobbled streets, usually with a young child as the point person while they sat some distance away. Once I saw a gypsy child defecating on a cobbled street and his mother pointing at him with both hands then lifting them, palms up, to say, You see? You see what you’ve reduced us to? Animals. Another time I saw a woman, white-gloved hand shaking with age, kneeling, face deep inside a scarf. A man pressed a Mark into her hand and as she moved to put it in her pocket I caught a glimpse of the unlined face of a teenager.
They’re protesting, said Dagmar.
A new immigration law passed that doesn’t favor the Turks, said Helmut. But they’re on this land specifically because they’re protected here. They can’t be kicked off.
We passed through the gate and under the sign. I pointed at a huge sculpture. What is that? Barbed wire?
As we approached I realized it was a tangle of black iron skeletons. We stood in front of it for a while, then walked the perimeter. All the silence was making me uncomfortable.
Well, I said. I would have done okay here. I grabbed a handful of belly. All this fat. I laughed and Lars did, too.
Boys! said Dagmar. Behave yourselves. This is not the place to laugh and joke. Think beyond the ends of your own noses.
Our laughter trailed off a little at a time and stopped after the second death stare from Dagmar. Lars and I put his parents between us. Then we stepped inside the barracks and the quiet moved through us and stopped in our throats.
Silence followed my question to Opa Träger and underlined how loud I’d spoken. My ears stung with embarrassment.
Opa Träger squinted an eye, held his hand to an ear sprouting grey hair and asked How please?
Mumbles of too young smattered throughout the chairs.
Lars said, Can’t you see, Yulli? He was too young.
Helmut told Opa Träger I’d asked if his food tasted good.
Jawohl, said Opa Träger.
I forced myself to look at Helmut. He nodded and told me without speaking, Everyone makes mistakes.
Come on, Yulli. We need a fourth person. Lars rolled a soccer ball under his foot. His two cousins waited for my answer.
But I don’t know how to play, I said. What about your other cousin? I pointed to her.
She’s two, said Lars, annoyed. It’s not difficult. You just kick the ball.
The four of us walked toward the pasture.
What about the manure? I asked.
Lars smiled. That’s part of the fun.
Blume was out of her stall. I went to her and ran a hand between her eyes. She shook her mane.
Come on, Blume. Lars led her into her stall. You might trip. Or get hit with the ball.
The cousins waited for Lars to return with instructions. This was obviously nothing new – Lars running the show. Your goal is between these two posts, he said. Yulli and I will guard between those. He pointed out our goalposts as he passed the ball from knee to knee. Martin, you kickoff. He bounced the ball off his ankle toward Martin.
Lars brought me close to him. All I need you to do is guard the goal. I can take on Martin and Hanna, no problem.
I asked again about the goalposts and he stood between them, arms spread to show what an easy time I’d have. Martin kicked off and I squatted in anticipation of the ball coming toward me, but as time went on I stood higher and higher til I was upright picking at the long grass next to the goals. Lars kept the game on their side of the pasture. I pulled a weed apart, humming Herr Keller’s latest warmup exercise.
The ball hit the post next to me so hard I jumped.
Wake up, Yulli, said Lars. The three cousins laughed.
Thank God you have good aim, I said to Lars. That could have hurt.
Being a goalie isn’t easy, said Lars. You have to pay attention at all times. And usually the ball comes at you just like that.
They moved again to the other side of the pasture. I watched for as long as I could then my eyes got tired. Lars, I shouted. I’m going in. You don’t need me.
Come on. He jogged toward me. Let them kick a couple goals. I’ll help you guard. He waved them toward us.
He lined up the ball, stood behind it rocked a couple times back and forth on his feet, took a couple steps and kicked. I pulled myself in tight and moved out of the way. The ball bounced off the fence.
Goal! Lars raised his arms. Okay, Yulli, this time, they’re going to kick and you block.
Hanna kicked first and I stuck my hand out, but the ball went wide. Martin’s kick connected with my hip.
Hey, Yulli, said Lars. Good block!
Now I’m really finished. I left the goal box and walked toward the gate, rubbing my hip. I looked toward the stall and saw Blume with her nose in her feed pail. She raised her head and watched me while she chewed. She twitched an ear.
I felt a punch to my back and all the wind went out of my lungs. I was on the ground eye to eye with a pile of manure. I stayed there for a while struggling to catch my breath. Hanna came over to me.
Are you okay, Yulli?
Yes, I said. I just need a moment. I sat up, got to my knees then pushed myself off the ground. Martin and Lars passed the ball between them.
Are you okay, Yulli? asked Lars without looking at me.
What happened? I asked Hanna.
Lars kicked the ball to you, but you didn’t see and it hit you in the back.
I looked over my shoulder and saw a smear of manure just below the blade.
At my next lesson, I told Herr Keller I’d applied for a work permit and did he have any ideas as to where I could find a job? He scribbled an address on a piece of paper and said, Ask for Ingo.
I pulled out the map I kept in my backpack and studied the index, then web of streets until I finally located it, a street so tiny, the name barely fit, even in the smallest font.
I parked my bike in front of Ingo’s Musik and immediately began to imagine how I’d help kids find the right instrument to fit their personality. I pictured myself at the piano demonstrating scales with Liberace-esque mastery. The customers would buy a piano on the spot.
I went inside and loved that it smelled of wood and resin, that the floors creaked and the register was the old kind with push buttons and a bell.
Moin, Moin, I said to the sales clerk. I take music lessons with Herr Keller. He said I should talk to Ingo about possibly working here.
The clerk looked at me for a long time.
We don’t have any jobs for people like you, he said.
My nose tingled and I actually sneezed. You mean – I sneezed again. Because I’m fat?
A short, hairy man whose grey beard had neat, defined borders came through the curtain that I presumed led to the stockroom.
No, I mean because you’re homosexual.
The bearded guy cuffed the sales clerk, who barely flinched.
Idiot, said the bearded guy. Homosexuals do good work. Then he looked at me, Very neat. Isn’t that right?
I stammered a Jawohl.
You help me with repairs, he said.
At the audition, I sweat a drip ring around myself.
It’s true you can sing, said Professor Kegelmann in an almost bored voice. However, I don’t want to offer you a spot and incorporate you into the program only to have you leave in a few months.
I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and cleared my brow. I plan to stay through the following school year, I said. After that, it depends on whether I can find placement at a music school.
Professor Kegelmann cracked a smile. I might know someone who can help you with that.
The other singers laughed.
That will be all, he said to me.
I gave a quick bow and left the room.
That evening as I was washing dishes with Dagmar, she said since I was going to stay another year, I should have a proper bed.
I’ll take you shopping this weekend.
You don’t need to do that. I’m fine with the bed I have.
We had another exchange student a couple of years ago. She circled the face of a plate with her towel and set it atop the stack in the cupboard. She was from Argentina. You know a lot of Germans went there after the war.
I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.
Her grandparents were German – that’s why she wanted to study here. She picked up a handful of silverware and started drying. We prepared everything, gave the bed you have to my sister and bought a new one. The girl flew back to Argentina two weeks after arriving. Dagmar stopped drying. That’s why we never bought you a proper bed.
I set a glass in the cupboard. Where’s the bed you bought for her?
At my sister’s, she said.
You could just swap again.
She will be so annoyed, said Dagmar. But, yes, you’re right. She folded her towel. And I do like to annoy my sister.
I considered never going back to Ingo’s, but my need for money was stronger than my fear of the sales clerk. I arrived early the day I was told to begin work. The sales clerk looked up from his newspaper and pointed me toward the back with his head, then returned to his reading.
I followed the sound of a radio and found the man in the back replacing the pads on the keys of a clarinet.
I offered my hand. Ingo? I’m Yulli.
He continued with his work. Ingo is dead. He was my brother and I never bothered changing the sign. He looked up. What kind of name is Yulli?
I blushed. It’s a nickname.
People with nicknames usually want to fill up the air with chatter, constantly talking, uncomfortable with quiet. He went back to his work. I like quiet.
I pulled my paperwork out of my jacket pocket. I have my work permit and other documents.
Good, good, he said. But right now I have a French horn that needs cleaning and maintenance. No time to waste.
The Heidelberg Madrigalchoir had just started giving concerts at the castle the year before I joined. In preparation for our upcoming concert, Professor Kegelmann wanted to practice outdoors to get a handle on the acoustics. He decided we’d practice one evening at the Thingstätte, an amphitheater built in 1934 atop a mountain amongst centuries’ old Roman and Celtic ruins. The day the amphitheater opened in 1935, 20,000 people turned out to hear Joseph Goebbels, the driving force and architect behind the Thingstätte, deliver a speech.
The amphitheater was abandoned after the war and had been converted to a park. When we went there to practice, it was near dusk and only three people sat on the weather-worn stone benches. After we finished the first song, the tiny audience clapped. The performance at the castle was to be held in about a month, five days before my return flight to America, which I hadn’t changed yet. I was still deciding whether to go home for a month and then return. I had just enough money to switch the ticket; however, I would need every cent I earned later to pay for an apartment.
At dinner one night, Helmut pulled an envelope from his front shirt pocket.
Yulli, said Helmut. This is for you.
Dagmar and Lars were curious. Whatever was inside the envelope was a surprise to them, too. I opened it.
Two tickets, I said.
For the German Chamber Philharmonic. Helmut was pleased with his surprise. I wanted you to see an opera, but the season is over. The Stuttgart Chamber Choir will be there to perform Mendelssohn’s St Paul.
Why only two tickets? asked Lars. Who’s going?
Yulli and I. You have a soccer game that night.
I can miss it, said Lars.
Dagmar spooned celeriac soup into our bowls.
We’d have to sit separate at this point, said Helmut. The show is in four days so there weren’t many tickets left.
Thank you, I said, still staring at the tickets. Lars, if you really want to go, you can have my ticket and I’ll go some other time.
Quatsch, said Helmut. It’s your birthday present.
My birthday wasn’t for another week. I had forgotten all about it.
We’ll have fun at soccer, Lars, said Dagmar. Afterwards, we’ll stop for ice cream at the place with the huge sundaes.
Super geil, said Lars, cheek in his palm.
The concert was an education. I’d been practicing all this time, focused on hitting the right notes, grappling with precision, the length of each breath. But to sing better, all I had to do was close my eyes and feel the vibration of my own voice inside myself. Because when a choir like Stuttgart’s performs, no words are needed – meaning flows through them, as if all that’s supporting their bodies are their voices.
During intermission, Helmut bought two beers and we stood at a high table. He asked about my life back home. I told him my hometown was in an area called the Great Black Swamp. In the mid 1800s, the German settlers came and broke their backs digging ditches to drain it then died from malaria in swarms. The church in the next town over, Darmstadt, is a replica of the one in Darmstadt, Germany. Across the street there is a graveyard where the stones have been removed from individual graves and arranged into a tiered arc, an altar of sorts. All the names and epitaphs on those stones are in German. And the town newspaper was printed in German until World War I, when it became apparent that all German heritage was best kept hidden.
That’s all very interesting, said Helmut. But what about your family?
I have a small family, I said. It’s just my mom, my mom’s dad and me. I drank a sip of beer. My grandpa has diabetes. We moved in with him a couple years ago after he had an episode.
And, your father? What happened to him?
I happened to him, I said with a laugh.
Helmut kept a serious face.
I don’t know where he is exactly, I said. Somewhere in Vietnam or Cambodia doctoring people who’ve stepped on mines. He left when I was a baby and told my mom he’d be back in a few months. I scanned the crowd. People stood in clusters, carrying on conversations lighter than ours. Whenever I think about him, I only see the back of him, never his face. I watch him step into the jungle and then the trees close behind him like a curtain and he’s gone.
Helmut took a drink. You’ve never received a letter?
I shook my head no.
No postcard? Nothing?
I focused on the couple in front of us, both wearing scarves tied in precise, yet effortless knots.
Helmut pulled the label off the beer bottle. He panicked, he said. I know that panic. He smoothed the label on the tablecloth. When Lars was three weeks old, I left. I was overwhelmed. I packed a bag and stepped on a train and rode it til it stopped.
I blinked again and again, as if to rid myself of the image. Where did you go?
Italy, he said. Milan.
I bit the inside of my cheek.
I was there for about a month, he said. Then one night, I was in a bar with a woman and I looked at her and thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ So I told her I was going to the bathroom and left for the train station. He pressed his lips together. It took me that long to learn only boys go on adventures never to return. And I wasn’t a boy anymore.
I let that sink in for a moment, then said, Dagmar was okay with you coming back?
Oh, no, he said. You know her. No nonsense. She wouldn’t let me in the house for a long time, months maybe. But I won her over.
The lights in the hall flashed, telling us to return to our seats.
I apologized – a lot. I told her what I said to you, that I left a boy and returned a man. He finished his beer. And I promised that once a boy steps over the line into manhood, he can never cross back.
Do you believe that?
I’m not sure. But I will say – I’ve never been back to Italy.
Do you think you’ll ever go again?
Yes, but only when Dagmar’s ready.
A week later, Lars and Helmut loaded Blume into her trailer and I joined them for a trip to the country. Blume needed to be re-shoed then Lars was scheduled for a test with his riding instructor. He’d been practicing maneuvers all week prior, changing pace, moving left, then right, then left again on command, jumping low obstacles.
Lars threaded the metal bar of the bit between Blume’s teeth, which, once in place, she chewed as if it were a bunch of hay. When he finished affixing her head gear, he led her out of the stall and dropped her off for shoeing. We went to the indoor ring so Lars could watch another rider’s test.
How was soccer, Lars? I asked.
I scored a goal and blocked another from going in.
When we reached the railing he stepped onto the bottom rung to get a better view.
Next month, said Helmut, You, your mother and I are going to the opera.
I don’t know. It sounds boring to me.
Oh, no, I said. Next month it’ll be in German. And, you’ll love –
Papa? Do you see how the rider keeps her upper body still during a jump?
Ja, ja, said Helmut.
Then they fell into conversation about how Lars should approach the jump. Lars was pretty confident going in to the test, but Blume trotted left when he wanted her to move right, then, a little while later, stopped mid-canter to launch a firehose of urine into the dirt. The test ended with her refusing the jump.
I wanted to pass that test so I could start Reining, said Lars afterwards. His cheeks were high pink with anger.
We’ll schedule you for another test next week, said Helmut. It’ll only be a week delay.
But I wanted the test over with. He flung his helmet against Blume’s stall.
Pick that up, said Helmut.
Lars didn’t move.
Now. It was the only time I saw Helmut lose his temper.
Lars snatched the helmet from the dirt and brushed it off.
I’m going inside to pay dues, said Helmut. Get in some practice time while you’re here. He turned and left.
Lars watched him go, then clicked his tongue and led Blume in the direction of the outdoor practice ring. Come on, then, he said to me.
Beyond the outdoor ring were pastures with tall wildflowers and a path that meandered toward the woods then disappeared. When we got to the ring, I stopped at the fence.
Come in, said Lars.
You should ride her again.
I didn’t move. Your dad said you needed to practice.
She needs the practice, not me.
Don’t you both need the practice?
Lars waved me toward them.
But – she’s tired and could use a rest.
Quatsch, he said. She’s a horse. She wants to be out trotting the fenceline.
You know I’m not very good at this, I told him as I approached. Maybe you should ride her first, I said.
He gave her quivering flesh a few slaps down the length of her. This is the best time to ride, he said. When she’s already got her energy out. He took off his jacket and hung it on a post.
I sighed. Okay.
You remember how to get up there?
Maybe you should show me.
You don’t need me to, he said. Blume’s nostrils opened and closed as he tightened the saddle.
After a few tries and a lot of wasted breath, I made it to the top of Blume’s saddle. Lars threaded a rope through the ring at the end of Blume’s bit and led us slowly across the ring and back. He stood and had her walk in a tight circle around him, letting out the rope a little at a time. Then he brought her to a trot.
That’s fast enough. I squeezed my knees to her ribs.
Lars clicked his tongue and Blume moved into a gallop.
I gripped the reins tighter. Slower! I yelled.
He clicked his tongue again. She moved faster. I couldn’t see beyond the end of Blume. I couldn’t yell at Lars to stop. I concentrated on the saddle. If I got off this horse, I promised myself, I’d never get on another.
“Blume?” I said just loud enough for her to hear. “Don’t listen to him. Slow down, Blume.”
She kept going. The pull against her bit was annoying her, and she began to yank her head to one side, away from Lars. Then he must have let go of the rope because she ran directly toward the fence. I held tight with the reins in my fists and my thighs death-vicing the saddle. I thought about launching sideways off her, but there wasn’t time. And there was also the fence I’d surely hit. She broke stride long enough to push off the ground and flew over the top rail. We came down with a smack and I pulled on her reigns, which was a mistake because she bucked, front two legs hoofing the air. I know I was screaming, and if I wouldn’t have been the one in my predicament, I’dve laughed my head off. She dropped her hooves to the ground and bolted toward the tree line. By that time, I’d given up. She was going where she wanted and my job wasn’t to guide her, it was to stay on.
She kept pace all the way to the trees and I started to shout, “Whoa! Whoa! Stop, Blume, Stop!” because I knew there was no way I’d make it out in one piece on the other side of the woods. I expected her to lose speed a little at a time, but, just before the treeline, she stopped and I kept going. I was in tall grass rolling like a log downhill. I slammed into something – what, I didn’t know because my lids were squeezed shut. I opened my eyes and looked up at the glints of sky coming through a swath of leaves. Blume stood a few feet from me munching on wildflowers, swishing her tail. My shoulder began to tingle, then stabs of pain spiked down to my fingertips.
I heard Lars shouting my name from a ways off. I sat up and rubbed my arm. There would be a bruise, but I could lift my arm and move it.
Lars ran to me, wild-eyed and smiling. Yulli, he said. You’re crazy. Why did you stay on her?
What do you mean? I said. What else was I supposed to do?
Jump off, of course.
Jump off where? I winced and grabbed my shoulder. Head-first into the fence?
To the side. Lars held out a hand to help me up. Are you okay?
I shooed him away and moved to my knees then stood. I don’t know, I said. Why’d you do that?
Do what? He grabbed Blume’s bit and started walking her back toward the stables.
Do what, I said, As if you don’t know.
Horses can sense when you are scared, he said. You have to lead them. He stopped and waited for me to catch up.
I can’t lead a horse. I barely know how to ride one.
He smiled. Yeah, but what a ride it was.
Not funny, I said.
But, fun, though, he said.
Du spinnt, I said and shook a hand in front of my face. Don’t ever do that to me again.
Okay, okay, he said.
I’m serious. I shouted, which startled him. He’d never heard me raise my voice in anger.
Okay, Yulli, he said, quieter, as we left the forest.
In early December, we’d gone to visit Dagmar’s sister in Pforzheim, which sits at the edge of the Black Forest. Lars and I took her dog for a walk and, at the end of her street, we followed a path into the forest. The trees were sparse at the start and I was focused on the patterns of the frost-coated treetips, then all of a sudden I realized we had just stepped into The Black Forest. We approached a tower of some sort, which wasn’t that high. Lars and I guessed it was simply a lookout. We tied the dog to a tree trunk and climbed the metal rungs to the platform.
Super geil, said Lars, in awe.
Beautiful, I said.
Our words hovered in the cold air a moment before disappearing. Bouquets of ice-glazed branches brushed the sky. Layer upon layer rippled toward the horizon. I knew then that the Black Forest really was magical, because, every year, it transforms itself into a bolt of intricate lace.
The night before I was to perform with the Madrigalchoir, I called my mom and told her I was ready to come home.
“For good?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I need to get back and start thinking about college.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” She coughed. “We miss you.”
All I had to say to Dagmar was, Don’t worry about switching the bed to which she nodded once and continued folding laundry. When I told Helmut about wanting to fly back to America as soon as school ended, he said he thought I was staying longer. They’d planned a trip to Holland.
It’s just my Mom and Grandpa at home, I said. They need me.
Then you must go.
The next morning, I found Lars in the hallway on his stomach, legs bent at the knees and feet rocking back and forth in the air, drawing a tiger on graph paper.
That’s very good, I said.
It’ll be better once I color it.
I watched him erase a paw and start over. Did your papa tell you that I’m leaving soon?
Yeah. He bit his tongue with his side teeth as he drew the arc of a back leg.
Okay, I said. I just wanted to make sure you knew. I turned to go back to my room.
When will you return?
I don’t know.
He stopped drawing. But you’ll go to Gymnasium again next year?
No, Lars, I said. I have to finish school in America.
Oh. He returned to his tiger.
I’ll come back as soon as I can.
Maybe I can come see you, he said.
We looked at each other, then I said, That would be super geil.
I waited until after the concert to tell Professor Kegelmann it would be my only performance with the choir and that I was sorry. I realized I’d said I would stay, but I had to go home to my family. He said he understood and wished me well and that was that.
Herr Keller was angry at first.
You’re throwing away all this work and effort? he said.
No, I said. I plan to study music at a university in America. And, thanks to you and my participation in the choir, I already have a huge advantage over other students. How many American students can say they’ve sung with a choir in a European city?
You’re making a mistake, he said.
Probably, I said. But, only boys go on adventures never to return.
He nodded once, then gathered his things and left the practice room.
The night before I left, I met Karsten and his new girlfriend Nadine at a bar called Puparsch. The music was so loud we danced and drank instead of talking, which is, I think, how we preferred it. Who wants to hear goodbye?
Then one moment I looked up and saw Herr Keller and Ingo’s brother, whose name I eventually learned was Fred, coming toward me.
What are you guys doing here? I shouted.
We heard there was a party, said Herr Keller, smiling.
Herr Keller pointed his thumb at Karsten.
I thought you liked quiet, I said to Fred.
He tilted his head back and forth. Only when I’m working.
They went to get beers and, when they returned, Herr Keller clapped me on the shoulder and said, You’re a good kid and that the last I saw of them. They went off into the crowd and probably finished their beers and left because I never found them again.
After last call, the music died down and an oompah band parted the crowd. The tuba player led the mini-parade, followed by the accordion player, the clarinet and a woman dressed in a fluorescent clown outfit. As she walked she tossed handfuls of rainbow confetti on the crowd. Bright green and pink dots clung to the wispy hairs of the tuba player’s moustache. The band knew they were a cliché and didn’t care. Neither did the rest of us. We all smiled with our fluorescent teeth and opened our hands to the confetti making drifts on our shoulders.
The Trägers walked me to my gate at the airport, carrying all of my things despite my protests. When my flight was announced over the loudspeaker, I felt like I’d been cemented to the chair.
Looks like it’s your turn, said Helmut. He stood and the rest of the family followed. I was last.
Dagmar hugged me. She kissed me on the cheek and told me my mother would be happy to see me. She wiped away tears with the knuckle of her thumb. Helmut gave me a few slaps on my shoulder and a hug. Keep studying your music, he said.
We all stood in a circle, not wanting to be the first to break it.
He nearly tackled me into my seat. I had to plant my feet into the ground to keep the pair of us from falling.
He let go and asked, What will you do without us?
I laughed and held myself tight to keep from crying.
You’ll just have to come back next year, he said.
That would be nice. I messed his curls. I’ll miss you, Lars.
Of course you will, he said.
On the day I arrived, I’d approached Helmut. Guten Tag, I said and pointed at the sign he was holding, then my own chest.
“Chew-lian?” said Dagmar, unsure of her pronunciation.
“Julian,” I said.
After a few minutes, it became apparent my name was a struggle for them, like an oversized bite of food in their mouths. In my rudimentary German, I told them, if they’d like, they could pronounce my name Yulian. Or even Yulli. Which is how July is pronounced in German.
July? Lars said. Then his eyes widened, as if he had just remembered a lost thought. In Germany, you become a month of summer.
The Trägers and I exchanged letters at Christmas for a while, then those trailed off, as things do in life. I searched for them online a few times, but to no avail. The past couple of years, I have written them a letter at Christmas, but I can never bring myself to send it. What if they’ve moved and I find the letter marked Return to Sender in my mailbox? I’d rather go on believing they’re content in their house eating plum cake and drinking tea while Blume pulls wildflowers through the fence posts of her pasture across the street.
As for me, I went on to study music at Baldwin Wallace. After college, I tried the professional opera route, but life got in the way. I had a sick mother to care for and couldn’t fly across the country at the drop of a hat for auditions. Besides, a career as a professional opera singer is a tough gig for those who don’t have huge reputations.
But right now, the show’s about to begin. For the first time in my singing career, I have a dressing room. Even though it’s shared, just having my own table in a quiet room feels special. I even decorated it with pictures of my love and me and the friends and family we’ve made together. And, a few portraits of those who aren’t here, but who helped me earn my moment in the spotlight: my mom, my grandparents, the best friend of my youth and a family at an island picnic table just before crossing the muddy seabed to a faraway shore.