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Nothing but Ghosts
Judith Hermann


The staging of The Misanthrope was straightforward and faithful to the original, far removed from the chaotic and improvisational student productions. At first I was bored; then I found it beautiful, perhaps because, for the first time, I saw Ruth as if from afar, unencumbered by pretentious suspensions from steel scaffolding. She was wearing a kind of white children’s sailor suit with her hair twisted into a braid; her face was clearly defined, thoughtful and sensible. Perhaps her voice was a little too trembly for Eliante, too cracked, as if she were choking, and not quite authentic: ‘That isn’t really how love works at all for most people. You find that a man in love always justifies his own choice. His passion makes him blind to all faults and in his eyes everything in the woman he loves is lovable. He counts her defects as perfections or finds flattering names for them.’

I was disappointed and at the same time relieved not to see her in the role of Céelimèene, the foolish, vulnerable, loving Céelimèene. There was sustained applause after each act; but, then, I had expected nothing less in this small town. Ruth took a deep bow, beaming, radiant. She had a new habit of immediately running off stage like a child; in other productions she had gone off hesitantly and reluctantly.

I remained in my seat till the last person in the audience had left the auditorium. The stagehands were beginning to dismantle the sets and the lights were turned off. Dust rained down onto the stage. There were times when I had envied Ruth her talent, her profession, the applause, the possibility of fame. But this envy faded at some point when I realized that I was absolutely unsuited, really quite impossible, for the theatre. I sat in the empty row of seats, leaning forwards, and tried to understand Ruth, to understand what she was doing here, how she worked, what she felt. I couldn’t, didn’t understand a thing, and then I stood up and went to the theatre canteen. Raoul’s performance on the second stage would be finished at about eleven o’clock; Ruth had asked me to wait with her for him.

On the day she moved out of the apartment we shared and left Berlin for this small town, I was in no state to carry even a single box out to the removal van. Her entire family had come to help with the move, her mother, her two sisters, and her brother and his wife. We all had breakfasted together; it was January and the harsh winter sunlight streamed pitilessly through the windows. I had tried to draw out breakfast as long as possible but then it was over, and everybody got up and began to pack Ruth’s things, while I sat as if turned to stone in my chair at the table, with the remains of our breakfast. I clutched the arms of the chair; I couldn’t move; couldn’t even get up.

Ruth’s family worked around me; they pushed bureaus, chairs, cartons across the room, carried Ruth’s suitcases and boxes, her bed, her bookshelves, her kitchen cupboard, her desk, all of her things, down the three flights of stairs, all the while making it clear how impossible and rude they thought I was. I couldn’t help it; I sat there motionless, mute.

The apartment door was wide open, and cold air swept in from time to time. Ruth briefly came over, putting her dirty hand on my cheek; then she left again. When everything was packed, one of her sisters put the breakfast dishes into the last of the removal boxes and managed to get the table outside as well. Eggshells, a jam jar and one coffee cup were left on the floor. I got up. The family disappeared down the stairwell; in the van Ruth’s brother blew the horn. Ruth put on her coat; we stood facing each other in the empty hall, then we embraced. She said, ‘See you soon.’ Or maybe I said it. Then she left. I closed the apartment door behind her and stood there until I was certain they were gone.

For a long time I didn’t know what to do with Ruth’s room. It stood empty for a month, two months, three. At some point I began using it to watch Super 8 home movies. I would sit on a chair, the projector humming, and on the white wall a child, supposedly me once upon a time, walked across a sand dune. In May or June, I moved my bed into Ruth’s room, to the same spot where hers had stood.

The theatre canteen was small, stuffy and filled with cigarette smoke. It had Formica-topped tables, wooden benches, spherical light fixtures and mirrored walls that did nothing to make the room look larger. Instead it seemed smaller in a labyrinthine, chaotic way. The stagehands were sitting at tables in the rear, the actors in the front. Behind the counter, a fat woman, who was the cook and looked dead tired, drew beer from the tap. Ruth was nowhere to be seen.

I sat down at the only unoccupied table, ordered a cup of coffee and a glass of wine, not sure whether I wanted to wake up or get drunk. I wondered where my suitcase was. Ruth had taken it either into her dressing room or left it with the doorman. Suddenly I wanted to have my things back again, my book, my appointment calendar. I felt insecure sitting at this table, a stranger, someone who had absolutely nothing to do with the theatre. I looked over at the actors; there was no one sitting there who was ‘so tall’ with a shaved skull and a face at once childish and manly, and then the canteen door opened and he came in.

I recognized him instantly. It was a two-fold recognition, and it was so unmistakable that impulsively I actually ducked, hunching my shoulders and drawing in my head. I hastily moved my chair out of the circle of light cast by the ceiling lamps, and he walked by me without noticing me and sat down with the actors, who seemed delighted to see him. He took off his jacket without getting up, a suede jacket with a brown fur collar. Touching someone’s arm, he laughed, spoke, I could hear his voice distinctly among all the other voices. I tried not to listen; I would rather have seen him first with Ruth, Raoul as Ruth’s Raoul. You have to tell me what you think of him.

I searched for my cigarettes in my coat pockets; the cigarettes weren’t there; they were in my bag, probably in Ruth’s dressing room; I felt a brief flash of anger. I wanted to analyse what I was feeling, to examine some particular thought, and a cigarette might have helped. I could still hear his voice and I could see his face in the mirror, an alert, open face; he wasn’t wearing his glasses; his look was one of attentive concentration, the dark eyes narrowed; there were remnants of white theatrical make-up at his temples. His profile, on the other hand, was not beautiful, but dull, complacent and ordinary, a protruding chin, a low forehead. He really was very tall, his body heavy and massive, and he had coarse hands with which he gesticulated and rubbed his shaved head. I could hear Ruth’s voice – I don’t know, physically, maybe a bit common – I knew what she had meant to say, but that’s not what he was. I stared at him. I thought I knew everything there was to know about him and yet nothing at all. I carefully moved my chair back to the table. My breathing was shallow, soft; suddenly I felt at a loss. Then the door opened and Ruth came in.

She came in and saw Raoul immediately. Her eyes went straight to him, and her face took on an expression that was new to me, and then she looked over the heads of the others, across the room until finally she saw me. She made an indecipherable signal with her right hand, stopped at the counter and ordered a beer. She was standing very erect, like someone who thinks she is being watched, but Raoul hadn’t even seen her yet. Then she came over to my table, sat down next to me, thirstily drank some beer, put the glass down, and said, ‘How was it?’ and then, ‘Did you see him?’ I said clearly, ‘By any chance would you have a cigarette?’ and she raised her eyebrows, irritated, then smiled and pulled some cigarettes from her pocket.

She was wearing her blue dress again, her hair still in the Eliante hairdo; she looked beautiful, tired; she said, ‘It’s good that you’re here.’ And then again, ‘Did you see him?’ She nodded her head in his direction, and I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘He’s already here, he’s sitting over there.’ I said, ‘Where?’ She whispered, ‘At the third table on the left in the middle.’ I lit my cigarette, repeated to myself the words we had just exchanged – did you see him, no, did you see him, where – turned my head and looked over at Raoul, and just then he turned round in our direction.

He looked at Ruth and smiled, and Ruth smiled back while she pressed her leg against mine under the table. I puffed on my cigarette, I said, ‘I really liked the play’; I said it again. Raoul got up. It looked as though he wanted to excuse himself from the others, was held back, pulled himself away, came over to our table, slowly, calmly, all the while very clearly presenting his body, his entire person. I looked away, and then I looked back; somehow I felt embarrassed. Raoul sat down, he could have sat next to Ruth, but he took the chair across from us. Ruth introduced me, and we shook hands across the table; I quickly pulled mine back. Under the table Ruth’s leg kept pressing against mine. He said, ‘Ruth told me a lot about you,’ and he smiled; his eyes revealed nothing even though they were fixed directly on mine for a long time. The cook called out his name, ‘Raauuul,’ like a howl. He got up again and went over to the counter. Ruth said, ‘Good Lord,’ and then, ‘What do you think; quick, tell me,’ and I had to laugh and I said, ‘Ruth, I met him less than sixty seconds ago.’

He returned with a plate of soup, sat down again, and began to eat, saying nothing. Ruth watched him as though she had never seen anyone eat before, so I watched him too; I had no choice. Actually his eating was quite odd; perhaps he had some particular role in mind, a special way of eating, a Franciscan monk at a wooden table in the refectory of his monastery, a South Tyrolean peasant holding a tin plate on his lap, or something equally absurd. He ate bent forwards over his food in stolid absorption. He slurped and carried his spoon to his mouth and back to the plate with the regularity of a machine, swallowed noisily, and none of us said a word until he had finished. Then he pushed away the empty plate, and for a moment I expected him to emit a loud burp, but the performance was over. He seemed to be a master of brevity. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, leaned back, smiled at us, and said, ‘Well, how are you?’

The tone of voice in which Ruth said ‘All right, thanks’ was new to me; it had a note of stiffness and insecurity that I hadn’t heard before; she seemed nervous, testy, and there was a strained expression around her mouth. ‘How did the performance go?’ Raoul asked; actually he was making it easy for her, he asked it pleasantly, showing real interest, and Ruth answered sarcastically, ‘As usual, a roaring success.’ She made a disparaging face, as though to indicate that the small-town public was an undemanding one, an attitude I knew was foreign to her. ‘I didn’t have to give it my all.’ With that she finally moved her leg away from mine and looked around the canteen with feigned nonchalance. Raoul smiled, still pleasantly; it seemed that he neither expected this kind of capri-ciousness from her nor found it appropriate. Ruth, however, was sticking to that line, or perhaps she couldn’t backtrack; it was as though she wanted to prove something to him.

Raoul simply ignored me; it wasn’t rudeness – actually, it was rather pleasant. He was very attentive to Ruth, yet to me he conveyed the vague feeling that this attitude of his was supposed to tell me something about him. He asked her about the simplest things, and she didn’t give straight answers but instead became involved in such twisted subtleties that I got up and excused myself because it was becoming unbearable. I went to the toilet, stood in front of the mirror for a while and gazed helplessly at my face. I wondered what Raoul thought of me. Then I went back out and walked up and down the corridor outside the dressing rooms.

The performance by the theatre’s resident ballet troupe had just finished; all the performers were rushing to the canteen, fat trumpeters, tipsy violinists, lean, cheerful dancers. I squeezed my way along the wall, took momentary pleasure in the palpable post-performance euphoria that emanated from them and immediately came down to earth again. The neon lighting was harsh and the musicians looked tired and seedy. ‘That Mozart shit,’ one of the dancers said to a cellist who was dragging his instrument case along behind him as if it were an old suitcase.

When I came back to the canteen, Raoul and Ruth seemed to have calmed down, or at least Ruth had calmed down; she looked more relaxed and her cheeks were flushed. She was leaning across the table, talking insistently to Raoul. When I sat down again, she stopped and leaned back, slightly embarrassed. Both looked at me, and I didn’t know what to say; I felt foolish, stared stubbornly at the tabletop. I tried to make Ruth understand that I didn’t feel up to this, didn’t feel like talking, not ready to help out, at least not now, but she smiled absent-mindedly and blissfully past me, put her hand on mine in an outlandish gesture, and said, ‘Would you two like something else to drink?’ I said dully, ‘A glass of wine, please,’ then I pulled my hand away. Raoul said, ‘Nothing, thanks.’

Ruth got up to order the wine, and as she passed Raoul, he turned towards her and suddenly grabbed her between the legs from behind – it was the ultimate of obscene gestures. She stopped, the expression on her face did not change a bit; she stood there in his grip and looked into space, he looked at her; no one was watching although they were like a sculpture caught in the beam of a searchlight. They remained there like that for a long time, much too long, then he let her go. Ruth swayed a little, straightened up, walked over to the counter. Raoul turned to me and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like you in all my life.’

When Ruth is sad she cries. I remember a fight she had with her mother; afterwards she sat huddled by the telephone, inaccessible. I remember a scene on the street at night; she and a friend were having an awful argument, and he hit her, and I remember her stricken, surprised face, how she put her hand up to her cheek, not a theatrical gesture, very genuine. When Ruth was sad for reasons she couldn’t or didn’t want to talk about, she would sit in the chair at her desk, her hands on the armrests, her feet up on the edge of the seat, her body gone slack and given over entirely to her sadness. How often did I see her like that – twice, three times, maybe four? She would cry without making a sound; I would stand by the door, leaning against the doorframe and say, ‘Ruth, is there anything I can do?’ but she only shook her head and said nothing. I would push away from the door and walk through the apartment to my room, across the hall, into the kitchen, and back again.

When Ruth was this sad, I felt numb. I’d wash three plates, smoke a cigarette at the kitchen window, and read a page in some book, and then I’d go back to her room, and she would still be sitting there like that. At some point, much later, she would come over, give me a brief hug, and say, ‘Everything’s all right again.’ Her helpless, angry, hurt way of crying when we argued was different. As for me, I never cried in front of Ruth.

I stayed with Ruth for four days, one day longer than planned. Ruth had hardly any rehearsals to go to, but there were performances every evening. I had expected that she would want to spend her free time with Raoul and would have understood if she had, but Raoul had little time, and while I was there they saw each other alone only one afternoon. We dawdled over breakfast, walked into town, to the river, and along the riverbank to the outskirts of town and back. We were as close as always. Ruth talked constantly about Raoul, as if she were talking to herself, and I listened without giving her a lot of answers; actually she didn’t ask me anything. She said Raoul had withdrawn from her; she could no longer reach him; true, there was a sort of sexual attraction but everything else was baffling. In three weeks his guest appearance here would be over; then he would go to WÜurzburg for a guest engagement there, then to Munich, but they never talked about the future. ‘Maybe,’ Ruth said, ‘it’s already over. Whatever it was. But I’m sad about that, do you understand?’ I avoided looking at her.

Back at her apartment, I closed the bathroom door and looked at my face in the mirror, at the passport photo of me wedged into the mirror frame and then again at my face. In the evenings Ruth and I, the actors and Raoul sat together at the Formica-topped tables in the canteen. I drank quite a lot. Every time Ruth got up from the table and disappeared briefly, Raoul looked at me and said very distinctly, ‘I miss you.’ Nobody except me could hear it. He didn’t touch me. That first evening when Ruth went to get the drinks, he had laughed after he said that he hadn’t seen anything like me in his entire life. A happy laugh that I returned without giving it a thought. He had said, ‘Do you know who you are?’ At first I hesitated but then I did reply, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Are you the woman I think you are?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘Yes. You know.’ And then Ruth came back to the table and the words fitted into a precisely measured length of time. Just the right number of words.

When we fell asleep those nights, I turned away from Ruth, my face to the wall. I slept lightly. ‘What will you do once you’re back in Berlin?’ Ruth asked, and I said, ‘I’m not sure.’ How could I have explained to her that my whole life was suddenly open again, empty, a wide uncharted space? I stood by the window in her apartment looking at the blue neon sign of the multi-storey car park, the reflecting windows of the apartment block behind it. The moon was already up. Ruth said my name, and I turned round. We bought dresses, shoes, coats. I said, ‘I would like to stay, but I have to leave tomorrow.’

On my last evening, Ruth had an open rehearsal. Actors, onlookers and musicians sat here and there in the rows of seats; I sat on the stairs; Raoul came and sat next to me for a short while, and I moved away from him. On the stage Ruth looked over at us. We both looked at her; Raoul said, ‘You’re leaving?’ I said, ‘Tomorrow.’ He said, ‘And will we see each other again?’ I said, ‘Yes, we’ll see each other again,’ without taking my eyes off Ruth. He remained sitting there several minutes longer; then he got up and left.

Later on we didn’t sit at the same table in the canteen. ‘What did you talk about?’ Ruth asked. ‘About the play,’ I answered. She looked exhausted, pale and tense. The afternoon she had spent with Raoul, he had stretched out on the bed in his hotel room and watched television; Ruth had sat on the edge of the bed waiting for him to turn the TV off, but he didn’t turn it off. Ruth said, ‘I don’t know what he wants.’ That night we walked through the deserted pedestrian zone, our steps echoing on the pavement; Ruth had tucked her arm into mine; we were drunk and a little tottery; I had to laugh; Ruth’s hair brushed gently against my cheek.

The next morning she took me to the railway station; it had turned cold, windy; we hugged each other on the platform; the train was already there, doors open. ‘For heaven’s sake, what are you going to Paris for?’ Ruth said. ‘What are you going to do in Paris?’ I got on and leaned out of the open compartment window. Ruth was wearing a little black cap under which her hair had disappeared; her face looked stern. She put her hands into her coat pockets and hopped from one foot to the other; she said, ‘You haven’t told me yet what you think of him.’ Her voice sounded no different than usual. The conductor blew his whistle; the doors slammed shut. I took a breath, and then I said, ‘I don’t think he’s right for you.’ Ruth said, ‘Oh.’ I wasn’t sure she had really heard me. The train started. Ruth remained standing there; I looked out of the window as long as I could still see her slender figure in the light-coloured coat, the dark spot that was her cap; she didn’t wave. Then she was gone.

I had never travelled anywhere with Ruth. There was one winter when the temperature dropped far below freezing, and we took the S-Bahn out to the Grunewald and walked across the frozen lake; neither of us was wearing the right kind of shoes. That was our biggest excursion. Every summer we lay on the grass in the park and talked about going to Greece, Italy or Sicily, to the sea, but we never did. She went to Portugal with B. and to Poland with J. and to Italy with F. I flew to New York and London and travelled through Morocco and Spain. We didn’t miss each other during those times; maybe we had different expectations and weren’t suitable travelling companions.

In Paris I took a room in a small hotel in the north of the city, in the African quarter; for a week I walked through the city from morning to night; it was cold, the Seine was muddy and green; it rained constantly and I was freezing. What in the world was I doing in Paris?

There were long queues outside the Louvre, so I decided to forgo that pleasure and went instead to a small museum on the Rue de Cluny where there was an exhibition of talismans of twelfth-century pilgrims, tiny blackish pendants: a wheel, a Madonna, a frozen teardrop. For a long time I stood before the warmly lit exhibition cases and felt comforted without being able to say by what.

In the Metro it smelled of tobacco, metal and rain-damp coats; people’s faces were reserved and beautiful – Black Africans, Chinese, Indians. On my way back to my hotel at night there were men standing in doorways, whispering words in a foreign language behind me.

At midnight, once I was certain I wouldn’t be interrupted, I took a shower in the communal bathroom down the hall. I stood on the slippery tiles and let the hot water course over me till my skin became red and wrinkled. I thought about him, his name, and tried to understand – him, myself, Ruth, the difficulty of the situation. I couldn’t even have said what it was that was difficult. I miss you. I missed him, I kept thinking of him, of someone I didn’t know but someone I wanted to visualize. I tried again and again, but couldn’t assemble even his face from memory; there were only fragmented details, his eyes, his mouth, a gesture of his left hand – perhaps his voice was what I recalled best.

I tried to write a postcard to Ruth but couldn’t get beyond the first two words, ‘Dear Ruth…’ The rain kept falling on the silvery roofs. At night, I lay on the hotel bed smoking a cigarette in the darkness, listening to the reassuring foreign sounds from the street and tried to answer Ruth’s question at the railway station, For heaven’s sake what are you going to Paris for? Aloud, I said, ‘Ruth, maybe it’s that you keep searching for yourself and can really find yourself over and over again, and that I, on the other hand, want to lose myself, to get away from myself. And I can do that best when I’m travelling and sometimes also when I’m loved.’ I would never have spoken to Ruth like that, and I thought it would shock me to hear myself say it out loud, but I wasn’t shocked. My voice sounded strange in the dark.

The next morning I had breakfast at the mosque near the Natural History Museum, mint tea and sticky pastry. I was the only one sitting there; the windows were open and rain was getting in, and sparrows flew inside and up to the ceiling and launched themselves from there. I lost all sense of time.

A Black African came up to me at the Place de la Madeleine; he wanted money for stamps so he could mail his dissertation to the university; the university accepted only dissertations that arrived by mail; he had sent all his money to his family in South Africa. I gave him ten francs; he said, ‘Not enough’, I gave him twenty, then thirty; he continued to hold out his hand, looking at me as though I should be paying for something quite different. I gave him all the money I had in my trouser pockets, much too much; it was ridiculous. He handed me a piece of paper and a pencil and asked me to write down my address; he’d send me the money as soon as he found work. I wrote down an imaginary address that I immediately forgot, and he put the piece of paper in his pocket and mouthed the question: ‘What is your name?’ Then he walked off; I watched him go. The expression on his face was dignified and contemptuous; suddenly I knew that I had to leave, that I was no longer safe here.

People were streaming through the Gare du Nord; gypsy women squatted on baggage carts with sleeping children in their laps or draped over their shoulders. The letters on the information board announcing train departures and arrivals fell into a jumble, flashed out the names of cities and far-away places, and then disappeared again. I felt a longing, or perhaps I was running a fever; I couldn’t tell which any more. I thought, ‘Keep on going, keep on going, go away, as far as possible.’

The Asian woman in the glass ticket booth stared at me. ‘Berlin,’ I said, ‘a ticket for Berlin, please,’ and now the feeling in my stomach was clearly fear. I dropped my last coins into a pay phone and dialled Ruth’s number. I wanted to say, ‘Ruth, I’m taking a train home now, and then something will be decided.’ I hoped she would say, ‘I know,’ and maybe add, ‘Get lost,’ but she didn’t pick up. The answering machine came on, and I held the receiver out into the station concourse, recording the voices, the announcements on the public address system, and the sounds of the moving trains; then I hung up.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t me, it was Ruth who had said, ‘I’d like to be you.’ Not the other way around.

Late that evening, I arrived in Berlin. The apartment was stuffy and still, totally strange to me – whose bed was that? the chair? the books, papers, teacups, the shoes in the hall, whose were they? Ruth’s voice on the answering machine, three calls, the first one affectionate and yearning – ‘I miss you,’ she said; in the background someone seemed to be walking about in the room. In the second call she was short, ‘Are you there? Hello? Are you back?’ then she hung up. The third time it sounded as though she had been crying; her voice trembled; she said I should call her when I got back, whenever, even in the middle of the night.

I unpacked my suitcase, hung in the wardrobe the things I had bought with Ruth but hadn’t worn, not even once, opened all the windows and went to bed. I slept briefly yet soundly. The next morning was windy and grey; I went shopping, then back to the apartment, read a newspaper, did laundry, looked through the mail. And throughout, I watched myself from outside myself, from a distance, from far away, moving about lightly.

In the evening the phone rang. I let it ring four times even though it was right next to me; only then did I pick up the receiver. ‘Oh, you’re there,’ Ruth said. Her voice sounded so close it was as if she were standing beside me. I said, ‘I just got back.’ She said, ‘You don’t have to apologize.’ I said, ‘No, why should I?’ Then I had to laugh. Ruth did not laugh. She burst out crying, and I let her cry. I just sat there and looked out of the window – the night sky over the park, no moon, no stars. I imagined Ruth in her room, in the blue light of the car park sign, the silver ashtray on the table, the photo on the windowsill. Ruth’s hair, loose, her teary face. I said, ‘Ruth, oh Ruth.’ She went on crying for quite a while. Then she stopped, blew her nose; we were silent, then she said, ‘How was Paris?’ I said, ‘Nice.’ She said, ‘It’s over, you know. The thing with Raoul, I mean. It’s over,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Why. Good question.’

I thought about the fact that Ruth had never been alone, one affair or relationship or friendship had always merged into the next, and when one love ended, there was always a new one, a greater one, a better one in the wings. It seemed that now she would be alone for the first time. I said, ‘Is it worse than usual?’ and then Ruth did laugh, softly, and said, ‘No. It’s the same as always. But in spite of that it’s shitty, isn’t it?’

They had argued, she said. He had felt hemmed in, almost threatened, she had come on too fast, too close; he wasn’t as much in love as she was, basically he wasn’t in love at all. Drunk and desperate, she had called him at his hotel one night; she knew he was there, but he didn’t answer the phone for an incredibly long time and, when he did, he said only, ‘You must be out of your mind,’ and then he just hung up.

Now he was avoiding her; in three days he’d be gone for good. She didn’t know which was worse – to see him and not be able to be with him or not to see him at all any more. She said, ‘Somehow the awful thing is that I think he didn’t recognize me for what I am, you know? He sent me away before I could show him what I’m really like; he didn’t let me get close to him, he didn’t give me a chance. That’s what’s so terrible, do you understand?’ I said, ‘Yes. I understand.’ And I really did understand. Only I thought that he had recognized her quite well, and maybe she knew that too. Ruth was silent.

Then she sighed and said, ‘Actually nothing happened, nothing at all. We kissed a little, we told each other two or three stories; once we walked through town holding hands. That’s all there was. But I fell in love in spite of that, and he didn’t want me, and that makes me furious. You said he wasn’t right for me.’ I didn’t say anything, and Ruth repeated, ‘You said that, didn’t you?’ I had to laugh, and she said seriously, ‘Actually, why wasn’t he?’ I could have said, because he’s the right one for me. Under different circumstances Ruth might have laughed at that. I didn’t know how to answer her. I said stupidly, ‘Maybe he’s a size too big for you,’ and Ruth asked, understandably nonplussed, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

I got up and walked through the apartment, taking the telephone along – Ruth’s room at the end of the hall, dark and wide; I still expected to see her bed there whenever I went in, her desk and the chair on which she sat when she was sad. Now the chair stood next to a window in her apartment in another town. I said, ‘Ruth, I don’t know either; I don’t know him at all; he’s good-looking but more than that I can’t say, except I had the feeling that you didn’t understand each other.’ ‘Yes. That’s possible,’ Ruth said simply.

In the hall I leaned against the wall, my knees were giving way; suddenly I had a feeling of utter hopelessness, Raoul far away, his face – now I remembered what it looked like. I wanted to get some information from Ruth that could prepare me for him; I didn’t know how I should phrase it, and what it really was I wanted to know. I said, ‘Did you sleep with him?’ and instantly felt the blood rush to my face. ‘No,’ Ruth said and didn’t seem to find my question odd. ‘No, we didn’t. Somehow he didn’t want to, or maybe he wanted precisely that; it was strange. At any rate, I didn’t sleep with him, and I can’t tell you how glad I am about that.’

I was silent, and she was too, or maybe she was listening to my silence, then she said, ‘Was that the right answer?’ And I laughed, embarrassed. She asked me again about Paris; I told her a little – about the Black African at the Place de la Madeleine, the hotel room, the African markets on the side streets of that section of the city. I thought, I should really have been consoling her, but I didn’t know how; also, she didn’t seem to want to be consoled. She said, ‘I’ll call you again tomorrow, all right?’ I said, ‘Ruth. Take care of yourself.’ She said, ‘You too,’ then we hung up. I drank a glass of wine in the kitchen; the refrigerator hummed. I thought he would call, soon. I was sure he would. Then I went to bed. Very late at night I woke up because the telephone was ringing. It rang three or four times; then it was still. I lay on my back and held my breath.

I could never have explained to Ruth, I couldn’t have explained what it was all about for me, how I felt. I never had to explain anything to Ruth; she didn’t ask me to, even though there must have been many times when she didn’t understand me. She was with me during all those years, in good times and in not-so-good times. Sometimes she asked, ‘Why are you doing that?’ She didn’t expect an answer and I couldn’t have given her one. She watched me; she knew me very well; sometimes she imitated me: the way I held my head to the side, smiled, looked away. She knew I had no secrets.
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