“Je t’aime,” the young soldier declared to the farmgirl in German-inflected French as they strolled hand-in-hand through peaceable pastures. “I love your smile. Your eyes. Your lovely long hair…”
But she couldn’t forget her neighbors’ wrathful warning: “Someday we’ll drive out the pigs. Then we’ll come for you with shears.”
Alex Markovich is old enough to remember World War II.
I visit him in the nursing home every week. He’s in the lunchroom now, his food untouched, diligently filling in coloring book outlines with crayons. He no longer recognizes me.
“Are you here to eat or to color?” he asks.
“To color,” I say as I sit close beside him.
Alex thinks that most nursing homes are simply repositories for human flotsam.
“Wow! You’re one tough little lady.”
“I’m a black belt. And I’m not 16. I’m 22.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll drive you home, and we’ll just forget this ever happened. Nobody’d believe you anyway. I’m a powerful man in this community.”
“Not anymore. I’m a cop, and I’m wearing a wire.”
A long time ago, Alex married an 18-year-old.
Dreams and reality sometimes ravel and blur in the longest hours of the night. That’s when I reach out and touch your arm, your back, your thigh, lightly, ever so lightly, so I don’t wake you. We’ve grown old and frail together, you and I. Now, constantly, we seek reassurance.
Alex lives in a suburb of the Big Apple.
Tattered memories: My first language, now long faded. A fence, reassuringly high, around a garden where time slept. Day trips through virgin forests, gathering wild berries and mushrooms. Suddenly, columns of soldiers goose-stepping in lock-step like a well-oiled machine. A week-long Atlantic crossing. Asking where, asking why. Getting no answers.
Alex has faint memories of 1930s Czechoslovakia.
All is tranquil, sleekly efficient, sterile. I’d been visiting my old friend. Now I’m out on the perfectly manicured grounds, pausing on a bench to catch my breath before shuffling off to my car. Passing staffers chirp cheerful good-afternoons. They see gray hair and a cane and make an assumption.
Alex likes to spread his wings and soar.
I remember him when we were just kids. Giggly, noisy, nearly manic, and already world-renowned. He practiced and practiced, eight hours a day, and his violin sang and cried for him.
He died alone at 35. Some people whispered that he’d climbed onto his kitchen counter and dived off headfirst.
Alex knew Michael.
As she was leaving the office, she bade her coworkers farewell. “The end of days is coming at 12:27,” she reminded them, “and I’m stepping outside to witness the glory. I pray that one day we’ll meet again in a better place.”
Everyone was tactful when she returned at 1:00.
Alex believes that one person’s truth is another’s heresy.
The neighbors who’d once welcomed the Joneses with home-baked cookies are milling restively outside. The sheriff’s car stops briefly, then slowly pulls away, and the rampage begins.
Finally the mob disperses, leaving an uprooted sapling at the curb. Again the Joneses’ house looks like all the others on Pleasant Lane.
Alex has the only red car on his street.
You were the tomboy next door. We played children’s games: raced, wrestled, bickered. One day, suddenly, you were grown up. Poised, complicated, spellbinding.
You left for the city. Texted me that you were in love.
I suppose we’d known each other too long and too well ever to be lovers.
Alex’s story is what it is.