13 June 2021

Sweet (2002)

Note: I wrote this in 2002. I finally threw a soft edit at it this year when it resurfaced: I had asked the site that carried this and some other early pieces to delete them about ten years ago, but they asked to republish, which I reluctantly agreed to. I'm still ambivalent about it, but I don't think it's a bad piece of writing: just green... as I was when I was 17. 

I was 17 when I first dreamt of Elke.

I dreamt I was alone on a train but acutely aware of a girl I could not see sitting behind me: try as I might to turn to face her, I could not force myself to turn around. I woke with a feeling of vague uneasiness that lingered for the rest of the day and haunted me before I went to bed that night. Two more restless nights passed with the same dream, and the same strange feeling that unsteadied me the next day. As much as I tried to put her out of my head, I could not.

The fourth night was different. As soon as I felt her, I turned as easily in my dream as I might turn to you if you were sitting beside me, to face her.

She was a girl about my age and beautiful. Her skin, as I would later write in my journal, was like porcelain and her eyes pale blue. Her face was framed with golden hair, fine as silk, and I remember thinking that there was something about her that reminded me of pictures I had seen of wheat fields in Europe. I managed to say hello and she replied in kind, seemingly as curious about me as I was about her. I cannot remember if we said anything or conversed as the train sped on, but I do know that I asked her name, to which she replied, in a voice that I still remember, “Sweet.”

I woke the next morning longing for someone that I knew existed only in my dreams, but for whom I felt this inarticulable desire. I missed her: this girl I did not know, this girl that I had seen in the simultaneously closest and furthest place imaginable: in a dream. I went to bed early the next night, hoping to see her. Instead, I dreamt of nothing. I moped through the next few days, telling no one, and hoping to dream of her again.

I did not. As the spring dragged on that year, I eventually stopped missing her, though her face was never far from my mind.

I spent that summer with my brother and his then-wife in San Francisco. The temperature was much milder than my home climate, and I took advantage of its graces. I spent most of my time alone in cafes, happy to read voraciously and drink coffee with similar zeal. My sister-in-law was teaching ESL at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, a small town south of the city. Growing bored with my routine of solitary caffeine consumption and dollar matinee films at the Strand, I decided, one day, to go with her. The drive was pleasant, usually about 45 minutes, and the campus was much smaller than its name suggested. It sat, as far as I can remember, on a hill covered with pines, adolescent redwoods, and other trees. That summer, the air was crisp and cool, fragrant with honeyed eucalyptus and the tang of evergreens. There was a tiny cafe down a winding road, and several small gardens lined with various flowers in the brilliant reds, purples, and yellows of July, as well as cast iron and stone benches. It was a nice bit of relief from the city to walk this area with my thoughts uninterrupted, save for the chirping sparrows or the flurried of leaves and dirt from squirrels – still a novelty to me – gathering food. I'd walk around observing the world and then meet my sister-in-law in time to sit in on her class.

I first saw her during the second class.

The sounds of the other students laughing and talking in a variety of European tongues dulled to an almost inaudible mumble, and I felt my heart begin to race, then suddenly slow and ache with a familiar longing.

Sitting there was Sweet.

She wasn't joined in conversation with any of the other students, though she sat with the small faction of German students. She sat quietly, reading a book, hair slightly covering her eyes, which were indeed the same soft, pale blue as the cloudless skies. I did not think it was her: I knew it was her.

What would you say if you met someone in real life that you had known in a dream? Would you feel some assurance that they, too, must've known you in their nocturnal life? I felt no such assurance. I knew only that I had to say something and that the sooner I did, the sooner I might be able to make some sense out of all of it.

At 17, I had no talent for talking to girls that I didn’t know. So, I said nothing at all to her that day. The next day didn’t really leave me any openings, either. Neither did the day after that. While dream me had the courage that I did not, she spoke so little – to anyone – that I wasn’t at all sure she even wanted to be spoken to. I didn’t even know her name.

I still remember how badly I wanted to talk to her, how it felt as though my heart could burst. Anyone who has ever had a crush knows the mixture of apprehension and fascination, the longing and reticence, and the fevered restlessness that accompanies these pangs of adolescent love. I can still feel those traces of that longing some 30 years later, faint creases on my heart's palimpsest.

I don't recall exactly how I came to talk to her. I had tried to coolly watch her on the previous days as she walked, sat, and read, always by herself, always with a soft smile whenever she caught me looking, which, to my mortification, was often. I was walking along a trail on the campus one afternoon, plotting my next move (or lack thereof) when she crossed my path. Some awkward teenage small talk took place, and I’m sure I desperately tried to sound collected and casual, though I can't see how I managed to say anything with my tongue tied in knots. Pleasantries aside, we ended up walking together in relative silence, though not the silence of people not knowing what to say next, nor the pained silence of two people who want badly to find a reason to part company. Instead, it was the perfect silence of two people simply enjoying each other's company, the warmth of summer and the electric glow that comes when a human circuit is finally completed.

As we exited the trail, I managed to introduce myself and ask her name. Her answer was humbling.

Elke Bitter.

It was serendipitous that what was Sweet in one world should be Bitter in another. That day was perfect. She was two years older than I, from West Germany, and was studying in California before entering university in her homeland in the fall. We discussed Hesse's Demian, German authors, and everything else I could think of to extend our conversation. We bought coffee and sat for an hour in one of the gardens, surrounded by violets on an emerald carpet of grass, talking and exploring the connection that had been, perhaps divinely, made. I don't recall going home or anything else about that day. The only things I can remember are her eyes and those hours.

I spent the next few days with Elke on campus, drinking coffee and stealing more time over conversation and walks. I never so much as kissed her, felt the touch of her hand only once, but I was content. Ours was a perfect world unto itself.

She left a few weeks later. The last day we spent was much like the first. A comfortable silence only mildly burdened by her imminent departure. When the day ended and we said goodbye, I knew that the dream was breaking anew; that it would be the last time I saw her. I was thankful for having seen her at all. She wrote me once when she got home and I wrote back, but that was after the end.

I thought about Elke long after that summer ended, but never dreamt of her or heard from her again. I still think of her from time to time, especially on days with clear, pale skies when the air is thin and perfumed with eucalyptus and pine, soft, aching, and sweet.