KR OnlineFiction

The Wall

“We live as we dream—alone.”
     —Joseph Conrad

1.
Here’s what I remember: emerging from my after-lunch nap in the cool shuttered bedroom of my Arizona home and saying to Georgia, “I just had the most fantastic dream!”

It was about swimming with beautiful Gerda in Bel Air.

Next thing I know I’m sitting up in a hard bed-like hospital kind of roost—almost five hours later, I’m told—and wearing my sweats, a T-shirt, no shoes or socks, and looking at two women.

Sitting side by side in chairs beside my roost, they are smiling at me.

The one on the left I am especially glad to see—and her pretty smile. She says, “Do you know who I am?”

I don’t, not exactly. But I say—hoping I sound confident—“Well, I ought to.”

The other woman says, “And me?”

I say, “I know I like you. That we’re close.”

A youngish guy in a white coat walks in saying he is Dr. Hardy.

“You look awfully young to be a doctor,” I say. “Then again, I see almost no doctors.”

Georgia is my source for most of this action, some of which I remember.

Dr. Hardy says, “We don’t know quite what’s happening. You’ve had a CAT scan and we’re looking at your blood work. We will know more very soon.”

He leaves. I remember no CAT scan, but I do remember that a CAT scan is called, informally, “the doughnut.”

The woman on the left says, “Smile for me, honey.”

I smile at her, then at the woman beside her.

“It’s still nice and even,” says the first and takes a deep breath.

Do we just sit there quietly waiting for the doctor to return? Anyway, Dr. Hardy enters the room again, along with a nurse.

He says, “Your blood work, Ted, looks great. Really, you’re a very healthy man. Blood pressure is very good, you are not dehydrated, your glucose level is where it should be, and we don’t see from the CAT scan that you’ve had a stroke.”

The second woman, I notice, reaches over and touches the other one. I do know them. I just can’t remember their names or our precise relationships.

“However,” Dr. Hardy says, “sometimes, not often, a stroke won’t show up on the initial scan. But you look good. I am very encouraged. Let’s see how things go for a while.”

He turns to the first woman. “Maybe,” he says, “Ted will be able to sleep at home tonight.”

Dr. Hardy leaves, but the nurse stays to take my pulse with her clamp. When did they start using clamps?

“What’s your name?” I ask her.

“Annette,” she says.

“You live around here?”

“I do now.”

“Where did you use to live?”

“Germany.”

“What happened?”

“Well, first, my husband knocked me up, then he left the Army. He’s a firefighter now.”

Dr. Hardy returns.

“Do you know what day it is?” he says.

“Not offhand, actually.”

“Do you know what year it is?”

“I believe the Berlin Wall has finally come down, yes? So it must be at least 1989.”

“Who’s the President?”

I draw a blank.

Dr. Hardy and Annette say they will be back.

Well, it goes on like this for I don’t know how long. I am in no pain or even discomfort. In fact, I feel pretty good, because that first woman, I realize, is my wife, Georgia. And the one beside her is our neighbor, Rachel.

 

Between cracking some jokes, I would look at her, Georgia remembered, and at Rachel—and around the room—and then ask, in a seriously puzzled kind of way, “What have I been doing?”

Back home, she will also fill me in about how things had gone, at the house, after I announced that I’d had a fantastic dream. She said I kept asking silly questions in a very flat voice: Did I have lunch, Georgia? What are we having for lunch? Have you been out in the yard all this time enjoying the pool?

It was the last question (we have no pool in the yard) that sent her to the phone to call 911, fearful I was having a stroke. Within three minutes, she said, nine EMTs were in the house, an ambulance and a fire truck waiting in the street.

I sat quietly in a chair during all this activity, she said. For myself, I remember none of it. Not the sirens, the EMTs extracting my blood, Georgia having to deal with one of them who apparently had trouble believing that a man my age was on no meds, only a daily baby aspirin. Nor did I notice the exciting ambulance ride across the Sonoran Desert to the ER, irritating the owls, I should think, and sending all those rabbits back down into their cozy warrens.

Rachel, who lives two doors away, was standing by ready to help. Good thing. Georgia, having seen me on the stretcher, my eyes open but my face ash colored, was unable to drive her car.

At the hospital as she presented herself to the appropriate desk, this dark thought assailed her: Mr. Ted Romer? Oh, I’m so sorry, Mrs. Romer. . . .

When my wits returned and she told me this, still somewhat shaken, I delivered, to lighten things up, a jokey little scene. “Imagine,” I said, “the desk person responding, ‘Mr. Romer? Just a sec, hon.’ Desk person then yells to someone only she can see: ‘Yo, Sammy! That Romer guy—did he make it! What? I can’t understand—dammit, Sammy, you are filling your face with the last creamy doughnut, you thief!’ Desk person back to you. ‘Sorry, hon. It seems we, well, some of us, were out getting doughnuts at the wrong time, if you get what I mean?’”

 

Before releasing me, Dr. Hardy said he believed I had suffered an attack of transient global amnesia and made arrangements for me to see a neurologist for a follow-up.

“Seeing the neurologist is very important,” he stressed. “Transient global amnesia is not a diagnosis—only a description.”

 

Georgia and I sat with Dr. Diana Marquez, a neurologist from Colombia. (I immediately thought of Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian author of One Hundred Years of Solitude.) We sat in a circle on separate chairs. She listened to Georgia’s version of how I had behaved on that day we were calling, Georgia and I, “Teddy’s Post-Nap Lapse.”

I added what I could, which wasn’t much.

Dr. Marquez asked if I had had any strenuous physical activity just prior to the episode? A medical procedure? An accident causing injury to the head? Headaches? Could I remember my fantastic dream?

No, nothing physical. As for the dream, only that it was about swimming.

Did I smoke?

“In my youth. Perhaps because my father did—not unusual, in those days, for a doctor.”

“Consume alcohol?”

“Wine at dinner.”

She then had me walk heel-to-toe in a straight line. Asked me to close my eyes and touch my nose. Pressing a tuning fork to my ankles, knees, and elbows, she asked if I could feel vibrations. She tapped the fork and held it to my ears: could I hear anything? She asked me to make a muscle in each arm: she would attempt to straighten out my arms but I should resist her. Then, from a sitting position, I brought up each knee for her to try to push down. Finally, she listened to my breathing.

Then she was quiet, thinking. After a minute, she said I appeared to be in remarkably good condition and could offer three possibilities regarding my episode.

“One, you had amnesia brought on by an intense dream. Not common, but it happens. It’s reported in the literature. Two, you suffered a seizure while sleeping. Three, you had a TIA—Transient ischemic attack.”

TIA, she explained, was like a stroke. It produced similar symptoms, but lasted, usually, only a few minutes and caused no permanent damage. Basically, blood flow to the brain stops for a short period—for a variety of reasons.

“I favor the first possibility,” she said.

“An intense dream? I have them often.”

She nodded. How much wine did I consume?

“A glass or two at dinner.”

“One or two?”

“Perhaps three.”

“Every day?”

“If I can.”

“For how long have you done this?”

“Since grammar school, it seems.” I meant this as a joke.

Then I said, “I’ve been wanting to ask you something. About your fellow countryman, the writer García Márquez, winner of the Nobel Prize. Are you related?”

“No.”

“Do you read him?”

“In school I was forced to read three of his books, which I did not like. Perhaps it had something to do with his politics.”

Oh, no, I thought: a right-wing nonreading neurologist.

“I much prefer the poet Neruda,” Dr. Marquez said.

“Neruda! Well, now,” I said, relieved.

“But back to you,” she said. “Alcohol, as you must know, will injure the brain over time. Your craving—”

“My craving?”

“—is bad for you. If you must have three glasses of wine every day, yes. I recommend you stop, if you can, or at least cut back.”

“I enjoy wine with food.”

She smiled. “I also recommend a thorough work-up.” She explained what that meant—more blood work, an EEG, an MRI, CAT scans, an echocardiogram. “But this is up to you.”

I looked at Georgia, who said, “Yes.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good.” Dr. Marquez smiled, stood, and took my hand. “I will tell you a personal story,” she said. “My father, in Colombia, lay dying. I was here and only had time, I was told, to say goodbye on the phone. He too loved Neruda’s poems. I recited one of his favorites to him. Then I boarded the plane. He managed to live until I got there.”

 

2.
Swimming laps with Gerda over spring vacation, I did not think I was living Elsewhere, like so many of my father’s Hollywood patients. Nor did I think of myself as privileged, and certainly not spoiled. I thought of myself as fortunate. I was getting a good education, eagerly learning, and on my way to becoming a writer, doing only what gave me satisfaction.

“Fortunate, indeed,” said Gerda.

“I hope I will never do things simply to accumulate money,” I said.

“No, no,” she said, removing her goggles. “It’s like sex. You either enjoy your work totally, as you do life, or you hold back, become old. Why hold back?”

“When my jazz musicians friends say they are having sex, they say they are ‘working’—without the g.”

Gerda, one of my father’s patients, was not someone I met every day. Like me, she was born in Berlin to a German father and an American mother. Unlike my experience, however, she and her family (which included an older sister) got stuck there when Hitler invaded Poland to start World War II. Her father, also a doctor, found a farm in the country where his wife and children could live while he attended to his duties in the capital. Still, Gerda, a decade older than me, had keen memories of bombs falling and large explosions. I escaped all that; the summer before the war—when I was three months old—my father managed to get us out. Gerda attributed her nearly life-long erotic dreams and need for sexual satisfaction (begun in puberty) to the war.

We would sometimes talk about this in her guesthouse, where we usually went after swimming—and sometimes while taking breaks in the pool to drink Italian mineral water. In the beginning, knowing how much we had in common, she encouraged me to practice my German. But she was fluent, so I begged off, sounding, as I did, like a first grader in that language. When swimming alone, I never paused during my laps regimen to drink anything. Perhaps our lusty talk is what made me thirsty. Also, let’s face it, the pauses gave me a chance to admire Gerda’s remarkable beauty. I told her so.

“Which reminds me once again,” she said, “about the Puritan nonsense in this country regarding bathing suits! Why? Because of guilt, the sensibilities of a few! Do you think Rodin favored bathing suits? Michelangelo? Johann Wolfgang Goethe!”

“I have to caution myself about excessive sexual activity,” I said.

“But certainly never to abstain?”

“Only to be prudent.”

“How old are you, Theodore?”

“You know I am nineteen, almost twenty.”

“You are a baby. You still taste like tender chicken.”

“I am in college.”

“Anyway, I don’t like this word prudent. Much too close to prude, yes?”

Her wet and quite full lips, when making the pru sound, were shaped so invitingly, always just right for a kiss. I was about to comment on this, when she interrupted my thought.

“On the other hand, Theodore, honest introspection is a gift. It should be treated with respect.”

Gerda was the first woman, after my grandmother, to call me Theodore.

 

3.
We met, Michael and I, when I was subletting a Paris apartment from Maxine Sullivan, an American expat poet and a friend of his—one of her many expat pals she said who would be happy to assist if I needed help with anything. I preferred getting by on my own, but he appeared at my door soon after Maxine asked me not to clean any of her French cookware with soap, handed me the key, and left for Florida. She planned to be away, trying out a new man in her life, until at least the following summer. This fit in with my plans very well.

The first thing I noticed about Michael wasn’t his limp but the stutter. A frustration that happened, I would learn, only in English, his native tongue. In German, Italian, Spanish, but especially in French, Michael (not his real name) was as smooth as Fred Astaire was dancing. In the months to come, I could see how this Gallic purr no doubt contributed to the (apparently) illicit money he’d made—and largely lost. All those lovely Astrids, Brigittes, and Chloés flying from Paris to New York could not refuse helping him, n’est-ce pas?

Then the catastrophe. All good drama should have at least one. A perfectly smooth ride makes us sleepy.

Telling me about it, he seemed philosophical in the French manner. Existentially so. Even the weary hand-toss gesture. (And the word itself—catastrophe—would roll off his tongue properly Parisian.) Though I could follow him well enough in French, if it was just the two of us talking I spoke only English, forcing him to do the same. Well, forcing is not quite right. He did miss America and things American, this Midwestern boy; he enjoyed “hearing and using the American idiom,” he liked to say, “despite my occasional awkward hesitations.”

I didn’t doubt it.

In any case, an educated American whose foreign acquisitions allowed him to move about more securely than his native language did—certainly when it came to nuance and subtlety—suited my purposes. I was, after all, making notes toward putting this Yankee character in my novel—and he was a character. At different times stylish, hokey, confident, well-read, sentimental, uncertain, paranoid, and dignified to the point of stiffness.

Plus, there was Barbe, his French girlfriend. When would that liaison turn south? Not least, there was also Michael’s annual—and now stressful—trip to the States to see his mother. She was back in Atlanta, where she came from, after many years of living in her long-departed husband’s native Detroit, Michael’s birthplace.

To see his mother made for a stressful journey in large part, though he was reluctant to say so, because Georgia was the scene of the catastrophe. Prior to that event, “going home to inhale her cooking” was a very great pleasure.

 

So, Michael stood at the door that first time having trouble saying, in English, why he was there. I remembered his name from Maxine’s list of pals and invited him in. He sat and rubbed the calf muscle on what turned out to be a short leg.

“I see you have noticed,” he said, “this abnormally shaped limb I bear. Which comes from—that is, the oddity comes from—my refusal to wear an elevated shoe. A matter of vanity, clearly. In order not to walk lopsided—yes, lopsided—I walk on the tips of my toes. On that side. Hence the overdeveloped calf. Of course, I summarize. Summaries are never satisfactory. Perhaps one day, not too distant, you will allow me to tidy up this, well, this messy introduction over a glass of wine?”

He then bid me au revoir. What an odd duck, I thought.

 

We met, usually, at a café he favored—a Moroccan place near Centre Pompidou that was inexpensive and where we could sit outside. When Barbe did not join us, he would typically sigh and say, “Ah yes, a mood. She feels the need to be alone.”

I would be disappointed. I enjoyed her company very much. How could I not? She was beautiful, smart, and she loved poetry—Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Valery. All the romantics. A Jew, she escaped death only because she was a baby, hidden away by her mémé, and the Nazis were packing up, fleeing France.

The times Barbe and I went swimming, we would find each other in the water and embrace. Once begun, we could not stop.

 

On the anniversary that year of Michael’s catastrophe, we dined on my terrace. Barbe helped me prepare a meal of trout, asparagus, and couscous to ease his difficult memories.

“This is wonderful,” Michael said, and raising his glass he struggled to make a toast to Paris and Barbe and me, saying how much he hated leaving us even for a short time, how brief life was—“like the sycamore leaves along the Seine”—and making two or three other sentimental observations. During several pauses in this long toast, he continued to hold up his glass and smile at Barbe and me, going back and forth between us in the slowest of motions, his eyes turning wet. Barbe and I finally sipped our champagne and began eating before the fish turned cold. He eventually rejoined us from wherever it was he had gone.

At his mother’s house in Atlanta he kept a motorcycle for riding in the countryside. There came a day when a speeding motorist knocked him off the bike and kept on going. Luckily, the most important witness to this hit-and-run was an orthopedic surgeon on his way to see a football game in Athens. He stopped and pressed a finger where Michael’s blood wanted to escape, and he stayed with him in the ambulance to the hospital. Michael spent almost two years and a lot of his own money getting repaired. During that time a house he had purchased in Morocco on the Mediterranean Sea was sold by his Moroccan wife, whom he never saw again. What monies he had left he put into the German stock market—going once a month on the train to see his broker in Berlin about their health, as he put it.

Or so went the story of the catastrophe, about which, though given in bits and pieces, he was far more clear than the story of his “lost fortune.” Of course, one followed the other. He was even more vague, or secretive, about how he had come by that fortune he lost. However, after meeting Astrid, one of those French flight attendants—he brought her to the Moroccan café once when Barbe was having a mood—it was easy enough to see that she and her sister attendants would be happy to carry a suitcase or two for him to America, in those good old days when their luggage was not scanned.

I did not particularly like thinking of Michael as a runner of drugs. For my novel’s purposes, though, it dovetailed nicely with his work in New York recording studios. He was a back-up percussionist, and a good one. He could sit in with jazz, rock, or classical musicians equally well, having the born drummer’s quick hands and timing, plus perfect pitch. He was negotiating his way among music, the (I assume) cocaine business, and cool Moroccan nights with his North African bride when the catastrophe arrived.

Following our trout dinner, he flew to Atlanta. The first thing Barbe wanted to do was see Jeanne Moreau and Burt Lancaster in The Train, a film about the Nazi attempt to loot France’s great collection of works by Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Renoir, and many others.

Barbe bore a very favorable resemblance to Moreau, especially when she fixed her hair in 1940s style and put on a polka dot dress like the one Moreau wears in the film. She said, “Moreau should have fucked Labiche. Fucked him with all her heart.” Paul Labiche, Burt Lancaster’s character, is a French Resistance fighter. “I would have,” Barbe said.

She predicted that Michael would not be coming back, and later showed me his letter. “Alas, dear Barbe, I have taken employment with the IRS. It seems your Michael’s abilities with foreign languages appeals to them. Please keep my record collection and be well, be well.”

Barbe gave Michael’s records to his concierge, then moved her few things into my apartment. We saw The Train more than once, because it inspired her, she said, to love unreasonably. Each time, afterward, she said with great sadness, “I do not understand why Moreau does not fuck Labiche. You can see she wants to.” When I told her I had met Burt Lancaster, she said, with enthusiasm, “Well, then! You should be good! Always!”

I accepted Barbe’s unreasonable affection without reservation, doing my best to reciprocate.

“What shall we do?” I said one night.

“Ah, yes, what’s to become of us?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Thank god! The question is so absurd!”

She began to laugh. Then she cried. She finished by smiling a wonderfully tender smile, as if to say, “C’est la vie.”

 

4.
The tests for my brain that Dr. Diana Marquez ordered were all completed in one day. I had my heart, neck, and brain looked into via various methods, the MRI exam, my first encounter with that mechanism, the most impressive. I lay in a tunnel, as the MRI is informally referred to, and listened to what sounded like a monstrously shrieking train, loud and close heavy machine gun fire, air-raid sirens and fog horns blasting away—also close to my ears—and hammers of all sizes pounding against shields as fast as a dog can bark. It was madness.

The EEG exam, in which a technician pasted a number of electrodes to my skull, was the most revealing, in my view. Rather, a confirmation. I lay very still for half an hour in a darkened, quiet room, under a warm blanket, while she recorded my brainwaves. I fell asleep. Then I heard her gently say, “We’re all done.”

“I had a dream,” I said. I was with Barbe in Paris.

“I know.”

“You saw Barbe and me together? Swimming and so forth?”

“No, no,” she laughed. “Only certain waves indicating a dream state.”

I experienced these and the other tests on four hours of sleep, as instructed; they wanted me slow up there, I suppose, to better track my thoughts.

Not many, in all this, could match hearing that Diana Marquez said a Pablo Neruda poem to her dying father.

Georgia snuggled close and whispered, “Are you awake?”

It was 6 a.m., the sun rising. We lay there and looked at each other. We always loved remembering my going, on a whim, to see Les Sylphides, the romantic reverie inspired by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov’s orchestration of four Chopin pieces. A ballet without a narrative—unless you count mood, music, and sylphs dancing around a poet in the moonlight as storytelling. Do we need to be told—or shown—what will result?

Georgia was one of the sylphs and I wanted to meet her. I never paused to consider that I was much older. Yes, old enough to be her father.

“It was time, after all,” she said.

“For me?”

“For us.”

It so happens, I had a vivid dream during those four hours of sleep that I remember very clearly. To me it was intense, though not enough to give me amnesia, and all true as to certain facts—as if the events had been fixed in my brain:

I am still in Paris. My father dies. Attempts to notify me fail. Later, I learn he collapsed from a heart attack while playing golf. My mother, at that moment, was seeking relief for exhaustion in Arizona—at a spa well known in Hollywood for the treatment of various addictions. I determined that I was making love to Barbe on the terrace of my new digs (Maxine Sullivan having returned from Florida to claim her apartment back, minus the new man).

I did, however, receive a message about the memorial service and returned for it. Burt Lancaster and Gerda were among the many who came.

He was still a young man, my father. Dr. Geron Romer—called Gerry. He got us out of Hitler’s Germany on a private yacht—an impossible, crazy plan. Born of desperation. But it worked, possibly because it was impossible and crazy, though more likely we were just lucky. His best friend, who had devised what was considered a much better plan, was killed by drunken soldiers at a border crossing. We had been part of that plan, but at the last minute my father pulled out of it. He’d had a premonition, he said, that it would end badly.

Georgia never advanced beyond the corps de ballet, where she was quite happy. The day her hips began to give signs of failing, as they so often do with ballet dancers, was my birthday.

“But now,” she said, “we must get up and meet your examiners. To see, if we can, what’s going on inside that precious head of yours, my love.”