(Produced ca. 1983, revised 2013 & 2014, all rights reserved)
It was like her, Sandy thought now, that even after this she had kept on attending University Presbyterian. “I guess I thought a church like that was better than no church at all.” It was easy enough to avoid Pastor Bobbie, who didn’t preach that often and who wasn’t involved in the fix-up ministry Sandy led. Sandy had no time to go to the college-career group meetings anyway that late winter and spring; she had too much to do to finish up her senior year.
The one session with Rev. Watkins hadn’t been a total waste. Even though she could accept very little of what the pastor had said, Sandy saw her own feelings and opinions about her relationship with Werner thrown into sharper relief against it. “We’re basically friends,” she decided. “Friends with a few kisses between us. I haven’t let him think I want to be more than that, so why not go on as we are?” Whether this was at odds with her thinking of herself as his exclusive girlfriend, she never at the time stopped to consider. It crossed her mind that a more traditional pastoral counsellor who knew her doubts about Werner’s spirituality might recommend she stop seeing him altogether. But why should she? She liked him, he obviously liked her, and otherwise, it was nobody’s business.
Being just more-than-good-friends was not a hard state to maintain over those weeks, for she wasn’t seeing as much of Werner, either. He was in the throes of completing his Master’s thesis project, a concerto for solo violin and chamber orchestra, and spent many of his evenings in the practice rooms at the Conservatory. Though occasionally Sandy joined him there to listen to his latest ideas and tell him what she thought, he found more useful critics in Andreas and their fellow musicians.
“I understood that. How would I have liked him hanging over my drafting table telling me how to do my designs?”
Though when it came to her senior project, on certain points Werner’s opinion was more than welcome. Out of her own interest and to please him (“I loved him to that extent, I guess”), she had chosen to design a small concert hall. The research involved made it necessary for her to spend even more hours than usual in the Architecture school library, and then there were the interviews she did with the professors at the conservatory, and even, by telephone, a consultation with a famous concert hall architect headquartered in Boston. All this on top of fulfilling the assignment’s standard requirements of a full set of working drawings, specifications, and a colored presentation rendering.
She noticed– and was relieved to notice– that Werner wasn’t spouting as much esoteric religious philosophy as he had in months past. Whether that was because she made it clear by her deliberate and chilly silence that the subject was not welcome to her or because he had lost interest in it himself, she didn’t know. She hoped the latter.
There had been one evening, though, when she’d finally asked him about the laughing Buddha figurine.
“Werner,” she said casually, as she picked it up off the speaker, “tell me about this. Did someone give it to you, or was it a souvenir from a trip?”
“Nein, I myself bought him, here, at the head shop on Spencer.”
She smiled to hear him use the American slang term. It sounded so humorously incongruent in his German accent. The shop was probably where he’d gotten the brass incense burners, too.
“I know the place. Not that I go there much. Is this one– ” She held the little statue out to him– “a particularly good example of Oriental art?” She knew it wasn’t, but the question might lead him to tell her what she really wanted to find out.
“I do not know,” he replied. “I got him for what he means. This is not the great Buddha, you understand. This is Budai, or Hotei, a disciple of his, a monk, from China. He is the reincarnation of the great Siddhartha, they say. Or perhaps the pre-incarnation of Maitreya, the Future Buddha who is to come. He is fat and jolly, and he brings happiness, prosperity, and joy.”
“Like a good luck charm?” If that’s all it was, it was harmless enough.
“Ach, ja. But more than that!” Werner’s tone was eager; he was moving into teaching mode. “Hotei lived almost one thousand years after Jesus Christ. Man sagt he was the Christ come back to earth again, to remind us how to live in love and harmony with all of creation.”
Christ come back to earth again? “‘ . . . He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.’” Ineluctably, the lines from the Apostles’ Creed flashed through her head. The legend Werner was recounting and the Creed could not both be true. She was betting on the Creed.
“Do you believe that?” she asked him.
“I do not know. It is possible. Aber this Hotei taught long ago that all people are part of the being of God, the essence that is immortal. By that we are all connected. That is what Jesus taught us also, I believe.”
“I think there was more to His teachings than that,” Sandy put in, but not very energetically. “Um, so this statue is a reminder of all that, how we should be in harmony and love our neighbor.”
“O ja, that is what you could say.”
She left it at that. She really didn’t want to know how deep her boyfriend was into the Eastern way of thinking. Better to assume it just gave color to his Christian convictions and had no definite meaning in itself.
In general, though, there wasn’t time for the matter to come up. Between his work and hers, Sandy was lucky if she and Werner saw each other more than once a week. Still, even in his absence she used his apartment as a rest stop when she had an hour or so free and didn’t feel like going up to Studio. She would let herself in with her key, make herself a snack, and sit down on one of the beanbags (the smaller one, that didn’t smell quite so bad), and get some reading in until her next class. Andreas didn’t bother her when he was there, which was seldom. He wouldn’t be going through the thesis ordeal for another year yet, but more often than not, if he wasn’t at the conservatory practicing, he was at his girlfriend’s.
One afternoon towards the end of March, Sandy was alone in the apartment when the phone rang.
“Werner’s place,” she answered it. “Sandy speaking.”
She could barely hear the breathing of someone on the other end of the line, hesitating.
“Or did you want Andreas?” Sandy tried again.
Finally, a female voice, diffident and a little faltering, asked, “Is . . . Werner there?”
“No, not right now,” Sandy said cheerfully. “May I tell him who called?”
“No, I’m . . . I just . . . ”
One of his little violin pupils, she decided. He made a few extra dollars giving private lessons, and she could imagine a high school girl finding him formidable, even at second hand.
“That’s all right,” she said, trying to sound sympathetic and big-sisterly. “If you’ll just leave your name and number, I can have him– ”
But the receiver on the other end clicked and the line went dead.
“Oh, well!” She pulled the scratchpad and pen over and wrote,
W– Girl called. No name left. Pupil? OXOXO, S
She looked at her watch to put a time to the note. “Oh my gosh, I’ve got less than ten minutes to get to Urban Soc!” She left the message as it was and ran out of the apartment, nearly forgetting to lock the door.
They weren’t together at his place until the following Tuesday. Werner was stirring soup on the stove and Sandy was leafing through a back copy of String Players’ Digest when she saw the note she’d written still sitting near the telephone.
“Hey, Werner, did you see this phone message?” she asked.
“Und what phone message would that be, Kleinchen?” he queried, still stirring.
“This one,” Sandy replied, bringing it to him.
He looked at it and instantly his face changed. It grew stern, even dark.
“When did this come in?” he demanded.
“I can’t remember, exactly. Sometime last week.”
“‘Sometime last week,’ sie sagt! Ach, Zandra, why did you not put the time? Why did you not put the date!” He seemed annoyed out of all proportion by her lapse, drawing himself up to his full height and more and glowering down on her.
“I was going to, but I was about to be late for Sociology of Urban Form. And it’s no reason for you to go snippy with me, Herr Werner Edelstein!”
“Ich? ‘Snippy,’ as you call it? Vielleicht the call, it was important!”
She stood her ground and regarded him calmly. “Yes, you, snippy. And if it’s important, she’ll call back. Maybe she already has.”
He blew out his breath and became himself again. He smiled, considered a moment, and said, “Maybe she– Ach, ja! Ich weiß es! That would be Rena!”
“Rena?” asked Sandy.
“Irena,” he amended. “She will be one of the violas in my Master’s recital. I am rewriting the viola parts, and she will be wanting to know when hers will be done.”
Irena sounded like a foreign name, and Sandy had detected a slight accent in the girl’s few words. But it hadn’t struck her as eastern European. Still, the words had been very few, and she hadn’t been paying that close attention.
“Is she really that shy?” Sandy inquired. “How is her playing? She won’t spook out on you onstage, will she?”
“‘Spook out on– ’? Ach! Will she get the stage fright! Nein, nein, ich denke nicht so. With the viola in hand, she is not afraid. You will see.”
“So is the viola part almost finished?”
“Beinahe. Almost. In der Tat– in fact– I told Rena that this morning am Konservatorium.”
“Well, good. That’s taken care of. Werner, that soup smells wonderful. Wish I had time after supper to hear some of your composition, but if I don’t finish the programming
for my concert hall by tomorrow, Prof. Sutpen will kill me.”
“Ach, nein!” he cried in mock horror. “This fierce Herr Professor must go through me first! I will protect you, meine Liebling!”
And half in play, half in earnest, he wrapped his arms around her and held her to his breast, dripping spoon in hand.
“Werner, the soup!” she laughed, protesting.
“Ach, ja. We do not want to be in the soup, as you Americans say.”
“Werner, I think it’s time the soup was in us.”
And so the matter of the mysterious phone call was forgotten. But later that week, when Sandy was once more there alone, the telephone rang again.
She picked it up. “Werner’s place. And Andreas’s.”
This time, she could hear the breathing, but no one said anything. It was annoying. Was that Rena that shy?
“Rena, if that’s you,” she said firmly, “Werner tells me the viola parts are practically all done. They’re almost all copied out. You’ll have yours by Monday. You don’t have to be so shy about it.”
On the other end, she heard a catch in the breath, like a tiny groan or the briefest of laughs, and then click! whoever it was hung up.
It wasn’t worth thinking about. There wasn’t the time or the energy to think about it, with everything the two of them had to accomplish before the third week in May. One of Sandy’s projects from earlier that year, a design for an energy-efficient urban clinic, won the Senior Design Award (“Take that, Jeff Chesters!” she couldn’t help thinking) and it had been a disappointment but not a surprise that Werner was unable to be there to see her receive the plaque when it was presented to her at one of the Thursday all-school meetings in the Commons in April.
“I must be at the conservatory to meet with Herr Dr. Fischer about my thesis. Will you forgive me?”
“Nothing to forgive,” she had responded, thinking the request excessive. “I totally understand.” Dr. Reinholdt Fischer was a man whose time was valuable. Before his teaching career he had been an impressive international concert violinist, and the conservatory of music had counted itself happy and honored to have him accept the headship of their String department two or three years before. He had been Werner’s teacher in West Germany, and was, in fact, the reason Werner was studying here and not someplace in Europe. A great man, not to be put off.
“But I will be mit Dir im Geist, Kleinchen,” he had assured her, holding her close and giving her hair a kiss.
Certainly she would have to make a decision about their relationship before the end of May. The first week in June she was graduating with her Architecture degree and was seriously looking into moving to Boston to begin her career. She admired the architecture being built there, and she was excited by the idea of living in a city so old (by American standards) and so rich in history. She already had a contact in the famous concert hall architect, and even better, a friend in her Studio had been raised there and knew somebody who knew somebody who could very well give her a job in one of the big firms.
As for Werner, unless he should remain at the Conservatory and pursue his doctorate, it was hardly likely he would stick around a small American university town city like Mt. Athens. They’d discussed the matter, and she knew he wanted to get a place in a major American orchestra, assuming he passed the audition and the U.S. authorities granted him his Green Card. Otherwise, he might well be going back to West Germany once he finished his Master’s and his student visa expired.
Perhaps it was inevitable they would go their separate ways. Or would she be willing to postpone her plans and go to Germany with him? She had a strong feeling he would ask. She would love to see Europe before she settled down, and she really would miss him, even if her heart wasn’t . . . even if she didn’t feel . . .
But maybe something would change in her by the end of May. She was willing for it to change, even though for now she still felt the same. The end of May, that was five or six weeks from now. With everything she had to crowd her days, hours, and minutes, that was an eternity. She would think about it later.