At a Christmas party, a fir tree overburdened with ornaments tips slowly forward from its corner. The party guests, red-faced and mostly drunk, scream, laugh, and run for cover, while Gerhard watches, rooted to the floor. He hears, strangely separate from the hubbub, the tinkling of the baubles against the boughs, the creak of the falling trunk, and the fizzing of the fluted champagne in his hand. The tree crashes through a glass coffee table, his glass coffee table, or rather his wife’s; she picked it out. At the sound of the shattering glass the excitement of the party turns to concern. Violence drags behind it a backdraft, hushed and fragile. Gerhard searches the room for his wife. She is safe in the kitchen, holding a bucket of ice.
Teenage Gerhard dresses in the clean, bright apartment of a thirtyish woman. This woman has just taken his virginity, and now regards him with a strained/conflicted smile. Her expression makes him blush and mishandle the belt he’s trying to fasten. Part of him wishes to parse the conflict on his lover’s face, but the part of him that wishes to flee wins out. They will never see each other again, but Gerhard will remember her face for his entire life; he’ll think of it on the day he dies, sick at sea and very confused. It will bother him to not know whether she remembers his face, too.
Gerhard smiles at Trudy, a young student like himself, on a particular stairway of Julianlaan, the complex of buildings devoted to architecture at the University of Technology Delft. He does not yet know her name is Trudy. Icy eyes and inky hair give her a Northern look; plump cheeks and freckles don’t belong on this strong/feral face, and yet they too are putting in an appearance. Way out, at the horizon of his imagination, Gerhard thinks he can see this face doing something he’s never seen it do. He can see the face splitting open into a blinding/deafening/obliterating smile. He wants to see this smile more than anything he’s ever wanted in his young life. His strategy to produce it is smiling at her.
A model of a bridge Gerhard built in school has been damaged in the moving truck. He should have packed it away in the car. The balsa wood has splintered, and fragments of the bridge lay scattered across the flat chromium blue he painted to represent a river. He didn’t paint the bridge, but imagined it red. As a student he realized the folly of naming a bridge that would never be built, an academic bridge, but he named it anyway, in secret, and told only Trudy this name. He brings the broken model into the house to show her. She’s cleaving the packing plastic off their couch with a razor. He doesn’t know quite what to say about the broken model, but hopes Trudy will at least notice; perhaps comment; at best understand. He places it within her view. When she doesn’t notice, he makes a remark about the movers and getting what you pay for. She says something sympathetic, but she’s still caroming around the room, arranging their possessions, looking at neither Gerhard nor his model. He decides not to tell her about the sense of loss he feels. She asks him, about a week later, whether he intends to keep the broken model. Without hesitation he says he’ll take it out to the trash.
He’s smiling at her again, on the stairway of Julianlaan. They pass each other around the same place every Tuesday and Thursday. Some days she looks at him; those he counts as good days.
Trudy cries hard enough to make her face into a strafed/red/uninhabitable landscape. She’s sitting on the toilet in the tile bathroom that has good, clean light, though it doesn’t have a window. Her panties lie on the floor by her feet, bunched and limp like a beached jellyfish. Gerhard towers in the small space. He’s been trying to hold her, touch her, do something to make her feel better, but she’s intent on staying seated and crying. He’s given up on kneeling. Finally she gets on her feet and struggles into her pants. She’s left her panties on the floor. She pushes past Gerhard with a sniffing grunt that seems, to him, put on, overly dramatic, teenage. A smirk he immediately regrets appears on his face. His eyes fall to the jellyfish on the floor. He feels he might deserve to be stung. He’s glad he’s wearing heavy shoes.
Gerhard stands on the back lawn of the second home he’s owned in his lifetime, which is glass and slab-like and hovering behind him now. It’s dusk, the lights are on inside, and the house glows all the more without the interrupting shapes of furniture. He’s handling and tossing a tennis ball. It makes loops in the air above his palm. He tosses it out onto the lawn, which is finely clipped for the sake of the future occupants of the home. The soft, swishy sound of the ball bouncing on grass makes Gerhard want to experience something of what the ball experienced. So, he takes off his shoes and socks, wiggles his toes, and swishes his feet through the grass. He fixes his eyes on the resting place of his tennis ball. It’s looking kind of final over there…yes, it has an air of finality, unearned, almost haughty, but undeniable. The ball deserves to stay put without further interference from Gerhard. It’s the context, he decides, that makes it look so right in its current position. The lawn would be too perfect without it. He feels compelled to leave the ball behind. He hopes some soul will notice. Even an animal.
There’s not much sign of warming from the young woman on the stairway of Julianlaan. Gerhard smiles, but the smiles bounce off her. She is a mirror of frustration: her face absorbs the energy of his smile and, like a black hole, emits nothing in return. He knows that some define insanity as doing something over and over again and expecting a new result. His pursuit feels too joyous to be insane, but now the question hangs. He does not seem to be unnerving her, and this comes as some relief. He doubts he’d be able to stop if she did seem unnerved. She would have to demand in no uncertain terms that he STOP SMILING. The prospect of this ultimatum is too horrifying for Gerhard to envision in detail.
Young Gerhard and young Trudy watch a fireworks display beside a river. Trudy removes her glasses to clean them, but doesn’t put them back on, because now she’s seeing the fireworks differently. The bursting coronas have blurred to abstraction. They carry a new kind of thrill, their light almost edible, a source of nourishment, energy. She tells Gerhard she wishes he could see the fireworks like this. He takes her glasses from her, puts them on, and tries.
The couch in the marriage counselor’s office has wide, somewhat supple cushions, but also coarse upholstery that would itch against naked skin. It would fit right in at Gerhard and Trudy’s condo, their third and final place of residence together. Gerhard is drunk. He had an hour to kill after work and stopped off at a bar before the session. He was drinking too fast, wolfing down salted nuts, too, which are now catching up with belches he’s trying to hide as the counselor and his wife converse. Trudy catches on, partway through the session, to Gerhard’s drunkenness. Though mystified at first, she’s not upset. In fact, the more she thinks about it, the more she finds it endearing that Gerhard got drunk before their first session with a marriage counselor. Gerhard doesn’t usually drink alone, but the fact that he did earlier this evening, a cold one in November, shows Trudy he gives enough of a shit about their marriage to let this visit upset him. When Trudy realizes he’s drunk, she smiles at him, and he reciprocates with something dopey and sheepish. She’s tearing up with warmth. She badly wants to leave the session, find a bar, and get drunk with her husband, but they’ve already paid the counselor, so they sit things out. They both get a little lost while sitting things out. By the time they leave, the impulse to drink has left Trudy. She still wishes to let Gerhard know what his action meant to her, but she gets distracted in traffic on the car ride home (she’s driving them both; he walked to the session), and doesn’t manage to articulate things the way she wishes. She comes to doubt that what she’s saying, about how she values transparency and emotional openness, is really sinking in for Gerhard. She’s right to doubt this. He’s falling asleep.
Gerhard has hacked off the stems of roses before. He knows he should buy a pair of shears for this purpose, but sees shears as a low priority on the list of household implements to acquire. He uses a serrated knife instead. Sometimes, in the past, he’s hanged the stems over the edge of the sink to saw them, but today he finds this too risky, so he lays the flowers down on the cutting board. This means he’ll have to clean the cutting board later. Since he’s not over the sink, it’s free for Trudy to fill a vase with water. He cannot see her expression while she does this, but he’s apprehensive, because he’s sure she’s not smiling. It occurs to him that she’s ranking this bunch of flowers against the many other bunches of flowers he’s purchased for her in the past. He has no idea where this bunch would rank. It frightens him a little to care.
Gerhard, hungover in blasting sunlight, stumbles along a street in a hot American city. It has taken him six blocks of painful wandering to find a mailbox. The blue, rooted bin stands as a beacon of relief. He sees no slot, but figures out the handle easily enough. The interior is filthier than most garbage cans. It seems a risk to leave his postcard there, and he’s nervous that he miscalculated the postage, but he places the postcard in anyway, closes the gate, and turns away.
Gerhard must now figure out something to say to this woman. In his state of distraction, he has gone an extra flight above his Julianlaan classroom. Unintentionally he inflicts his smile on another passing woman, and she smiles right back, but he barely notices. His vision is occupied instead with many other scenes. The scenes are flashing and possible, more fragile than reality, and for this reason more commanding. And still he wonders what to say.
In the glass house, Gerhard lounges on his and Trudy’s expansive bed. He’s fully clothed, but unshod. Trudy, out of view, is slipping into something. She’s in their open closet area, in front of a mirror, pushing at her breasts and wondering how exactly the store’s lighting was so different from that of their room. Gerhard doesn’t know she’s trying on lingerie. He thinks whatever she’s doing is taking a very long time. He starts to stir his hand on his crotch, but only because he’s bored. Because of the carpeting he can barely hear Trudy when she turns the corner in her new nightgown. The lace and mesh lash her body in a way Gerhard finds instantly appealing, and his thoughts leap to sex. He wants to rip the garment off Trudy, leave welts on her skin she’ll marvel over later. He’s hidden this fearful ripping potential for too long. But then he notices a blush has broken over Trudy’s face and neck. Her posture seems less confident than the nightgown should allow. It makes him feel warm and tender toward her, more likely to hold her than to ravage her. She wants neither of these things at this moment. She wants to put on her favorite robe.
The stairway of Julianlaan is louder than usual, filled with the sounds of clomping boots and the clicking tips of umbrellas. Gerhard spots Trudy from the bottom of a third-floor segment of stairs. She, at the top, meets his eyes at an angle of roughly 45 degrees, more or less in line with the incline of the steps. Only a few wet and bobbing heads interfere with the course of this gaze. Gerhard is aware that he’s locked up Trudy’s eyes when he lets loose today’s smile. Trudy expects him to smile at her, but it does not lessen the impact of the smile, because it is, indeed, the first time she has opened herself up to bear the thing. She will later describe Gerhard’s smile as uncommonly joyous. In this assessment she fails to perceive the smile’s fragility, for a hopeful smile, no matter how joyous it may seem, always carries too the possibility of falling, slumping down on the face in defeat, or transforming into a masking expression that blots out all trace of the smile that preceded it.
This is their third trip abroad together. They’re at the Tate Modern in London. After drifting apart to walk through different galleries at different paces, Gerhard backtracks to find Trudy. He says he wants to show her something. She assumes it’s a piece of art he likes and wants to share; they’ve done this before in museums and galleries, asked for one another’s opinions, discussed the work as if the work couldn’t hear them. Gerhard takes Trudy into a high-ceilinged gallery near the front of the museum. He points to a painting very high on the wall, up near the ceiling. It depicts a fair, nude woman lying in bed with a fish of about her size. The figures are rendered flatly, with heavy lines, and the bed is tilted in the composition, somewhat unnaturally, the better to put the coupling of woman and fish on display. The painting is by Man Ray. “This is the dream you told me about,” says Gerhard. “This is what you said you saw in your dream. Right?” Trudy blushes and makes no response. He’s right, but she’s flummoxed over the situation, over the fact that her dream is depicted there on the wall, which would suggest that a famous artist had the same dream as hers, sixty years ago. She doesn’t know why she’s feeling bashful and tongue-tied, and not knowing only intensifies these feelings. And yet her reaction produces a smile from Gerhard that’s soft and joyous, boyish in its curiosity over what she might feel and what she might say next. This smile brings Trudy comfort. She and Gerhard lock eyes in the gallery, and gradually the blush fades from her plump, freckled cheeks. The painting now delights her – all the more because Gerhard found it. She had walked through the gallery earlier, without noticing the painting of her dream. Together we are less oblivious: she thinks this thought so loudly it almost comes out in a whisper.
Another Thursday in the stairway of Julianlaan. On the lower floors some oak buds rode in on the soles of heavy boots. A dropped pencil made it safely to the corner of the fifth floor landing. Student traffic slogs on. Ascendants pass descendants. Both crowds travel at the same speed, though neither could say how they arrived at the proper speed to safely ascend/descend a stairway, nor why this speed should be appropriate for both the ascending and descending parties. Why mirror? Why reciprocate? Questions of speed/pace/reciprocity occupy Gerhard from floors one through three of his ascent. By floor four he’s wondering why the crowd can’t move a little faster. The problem, he decides, is the staircase. Widening could improve the flow. A little extra grit on the steps could increase the confidence of unsteady walkers, allowing them to move more quickly than they might otherwise. A crowd can only move as quickly as its slowest member. An ideal staircase would also feature a woman with a frank/feral allure who would smile at him. This would not affect the speed of the crowd, of course. Someone’s had enough. He’s a ginger-headed gawk of a man, leather satchel wagging on his hip like a tongue. He passes the descending crowd at twice their speed, zipping down the narrow margin between ascendants and descendants, a jostle away from falling and taking others down with him. And though Gerhard was just moments ago considering the interminable slowness of the crowd, the passing of the redhead offends him. Gerhard doesn’t see any reason this man needs/deserves to pass. It is unlikely the man is late for a lecture, as the campus administrators, in their wisdom, have provided ample buffers between periods. Here is a man with no patience, thinks Gerhard. The makings of a scowl are assembling on Gerhard’s face, long before he has time to realize he might soon be scowling. He feels his shoulder harden in preparation; if the redhead were to bump into him, he would not budge nor apologize. But a bump and a lack of apology do not occur. The redhead cuts back into the crowd, and so he no longer distracts Gerhard. Gerhard is now free to return his eyes to the other descendants, some of whom are visibly irked by the redhead, others of whom are distracted with their own thoughts, and one of whom is seeking Gerhard’s smile with hers.
Author's Note: The preceding story was originally written as part of a longer work, entitled Interview with a Plague. It’s about a young lady who starts a plague. If interested in reading Interview with a Plague, please contact Benjamin Henry DeVries at the email address below.