A Crack in the Bubble
by Richard Zeikowitz
7 P.M. was announced by the discordant sounding of church bells throughout the old city of Zurich. John was making his way along a path that followed the canal which separated the two old sections of the city. There was a late summer chill in the early evening air; the sun, a low hazy ball settled somewhere out of view. John, well accustomed by now to the periodic outpouring of church bells in European cities, walked with his hands deep in his jeans pockets, looking out on the canal which emptied into a broad lake. Way in the distance stood mountains, already cloaked mysteriously in dusk. He paused at a plaza-like bridge that contained some benches, and watched an old, worn-looking woman feed ravenous pigeons pieces of bread. Tired of standing, he sat down on a bench, glancing from the woman to the serenity of the water. Some children ran by, scaring the pigeons away. He felt sorry for the old woman who sat with a look of helpless sadness at the departure of the pigeons. She looked at the dirty, stained pavement, holding a large crust of bread. But her face suddenly lightened as few by few the pigeons returned. And in a moment she was smilingly engaged in her activity. The church bells finished their announcements one by one, leaving a vacuous silence hinged by distant traffic across the several bridges which spanned the canal. John opened his small knapsack and took out a well-worn pullover, easily fitting it over his colored T-shirt. He was just about to take out a pack of cigarettes when a young, attractive woman approached him.
"Sorry, no verstehen German," he replied, not really sure what language she was speaking.
"Oh ... do you speak English?" She looked warmly at him. He was momentarily at a loss for words, as he glanced over her dark blond hair blowing gently in the breeze, her fresh face beaming in the glistening dusk. Her eyes awaited his reply.
"Uh ... yeah."
"Do you have a light," she asked.
"Yeah, just a second." He fumbled in his pack, pawing through his assorted wares. "Here you go," he said, handing her a plastic lighter.
"Thanks." She drew in deeply on her cigarette, glancing for a moment over her shoulder to a dark haired man standing against the railing looking their way. John drew the conclusion that they were together and that she would trot on back to him. But she lingered calmly next to John. She studied him a moment.
"You are American," she stated rather than asked.
"Is it so obvious?" he chuckled.
"Well, yes," she smiled, "but there are always many Americans traveling around Europe in the summer, so it is a good guess."
"Yeah, I suppose so," he uttered flatly. He felt nervous all of a sudden. He hadn’t anticipated a conversation with this striking foreign woman. He reached for his cigarettes but had difficulty finding them in his pack. The woman merely watched, a slight hint of amusement on her face. He finally gripped the pack in his hand.
"Well, I must go now," she said suddenly. "See you, maybe." John looked up a bit dazed. She walked lightly back to the waiting man, who didn’t seem agitated at the woman’s friendly dawdling. They walked off together crossing to the other side of the canal, their faces beaming, their mouths echoing distant chatter and laughter. John followed them with his eyes, but then lost sight of them. He returned to his surroundings, noticing that the old woman and most of the pigeons had left. Twilight was engulfing the city; the canal seemed to lead off into a vast blue-grey haze. Lights were beginning to come on, forming glittering beads on both sides of the canal. John felt a restless chill in his back. He stood up, slinging his knapsack over his shoulder, and walked back to the waterside path he had come along.
Darkness fell rather suddenly, as it often appears to do when not watched carefully. But the narrow, stone paved streets of the old city were teeming with lights, people, and activity. John maneuvered easily through the crowd, his feet leading him on a directionless path. A large group of people had gathered in a small plaza, the object of their attention not visible, merely audible. A male voice was ranting in a harsh tone, breaking periodically into song, accompanying himself on a guitar. John approached the crowd and peered into the center of attraction which oddly enough was a small, middle-aged man, colorfully dressed, but shabby. He wore a very serious expression, his face nearly bursting in emotional vehemence, yet people smiled or laughed, joking among themselves. Though quite small, his voice resonated powerfully throughout the open area, attracting more and more people. John felt uncomfortable not being able to understand what the man was saying or singing, yet he couldn’t tear himself away.
"Ah, my American friend. Hello." John, deeply engrossed in the scene, was startled to see the same attractive woman who had earlier approached him at the canal.
"Hi," he answered automatically.
"Do you enjoy the show?" she smiled.
"Yeah, sorta. But I can’t understand what he’s saying."
"Oh, no problem, nobody can," she laughed lightly, "he speaks in different languages."
"Oh, no wonder," he laughed too, not uncovering the realization that unless the man spoke English he would be just as lost.
"He is very good tonight," she spoke in the direction of the performer.
"You mean you’ve seen him before?" He looked at her.
"Oh, yes, often." She matched his eyes. He turned back to the attraction.
"I can’t believe he does this over and over again," John said, shaking his head.
"It is his work. I have seen him in other cities too," she smiled. John continued to look at the man. "Do you know anyone here?" she asked.
"Ah...no...I’m just traveling around."
"Well, you know us," she beamed. "Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Bergit and this is Franz." She pointed to the man standing next to her, the same dark haired man John had seen her with before.
"I’m John, pleased to meet you." He extended his arm to Franz.
"Hello John." Franz grasped his hand warmly, gazing directly at John. Feeling uncomfortable at Franz’s genuine friendliness, John retreated to the more familiar Bergit.
"Would you like to have a little drink with us?" Bergit asked, radiating a smile that reached John in the pit of his stomach.
"Yeah, sure." He had already forgotten the odd performer who moments before had glued his attention. He followed Bergit and Franz out of the thick crowd. They moved away from the open plaza and down a narrow pedestrian street lined on both sides with shops, bars, and restaurants. It was the highpoint of evening, with small groups of people of all ages engaged in their individual plans. Bergit walked in between the two men, graciously taking in the passing people. John looked straight ahead, periodically glancing down at the pavement. He wasn’t talkative, merely answering whatever questions Bergit put to him concerning the general data of his background. They arrived at a dim cafe-bar which echoed the glorious days of the Belle Epoque. How long ago those days were was reflected in the shabby, compromised appearance inside. Bergit led them to a table against a mirrored wall. She sat on the worn-cushioned sofa, John fitting in next to her, leaving Franz to sit on a curved, somewhat creaking chair. The place was nearly full, with people sitting at tables outside as well. There was a smoky, stale smell inside, which, together with the loud drone of voices, gave it a cosy, confined atmosphere.
"Do you like this cafe?" Bergit asked.
"Yeah," John looked casually around. The marble pillars, the dusty chandelier caught his eye. "Yeah, it’s real nice." Looking back over his stay in Europe, he realized that he hadn’t visited places where the "locals" went. Here was an environment he wouldn’t easily find back home. There were quite a few odd-looking people too, eccentrics of some sort, he thought. "Yeah, it’s interesting," he spoke half aloud.
"Do you like a cigarette?" Franz held out a pack to John.
"Thanks ... it’s O.K. I have a light." John leaned back against the cushioned seat taking in the scene. He hadn’t noticed that anyone had ordered any drinks, but a waiter brought over three coffees and three large round glasses with a small amount of bronze-colored liquid in them.
"Here you are John," Bergit handed him a glass.
"What is it, some kind of brandy?" he asked, turning the glass around with his hand.
"It is cognac," Franz smiled, "cheers." He raised his glass, clinking first with Bergit and then with John.
"Bottoms up," John smiled and drank it down in one gulp. When he put down his glass the other two were laughing, Bergit nearly tearing.
"I’m sorry," she gasped between her fits of laughter, "I’m not meaning to make fun..." She tried to continue but was overcome with laughter. John began to laugh too from contagious contact. Franz, able to restrain himself, spoke for Bergit.
"It was just your face expression when you drank it," he smiled broadly at John, then turned to the waiter who had noticed the happening.
"Bringe noch ein cognac, bitte," he instructed.
"I just thought that you wolf the stuff down like vodka," John shrugged.
"You try it next time with little tastes, and with the coffee. You will like it better," Bergit said, tapping John gently on the arm.
The waiter brought the cognac, placing it in front of John, who brought it slowly to his lips, taking a very little sip, aware that Bergit and Franz were watching. More cognacs followed, the coffees falling behind. The three faces grew warmer in color, the gulf separating John from the other two grew narrower, as he let himself be carried away by the magic of the evening.
The party of three had been so self contained that no one noticed that the cafe had emptied, leaving only a few solitary figures. The waiter stood against the bar smoking a cigarette, eyeing his few remaining customers. Franz scanned the cafe, then looked at his watch.
"Oh, it’s very late," he remarked.
"Yeah? What time is it?" John asked nervously.
"Oh no. I forgot all about the time," John said, looking pale suddenly.
"It doesn’t matter, John," Bergit reassured.
"But I can’t get into the hostel now." John looked worriedly around him, as if expecting to find a place to sleep there.
"Don’t worry," she put her arm affectionately around his shoulder, "you can stay by us."
"Of course," Franz spoke easily, his dark complexion expressing such open friendliness that John relaxed.
"That’s real nice of you," John looked at them both.
"Good, let’s go then." Bergit ushered them up. They followed her to the door, John looking back at the near empty cafe in which they had passed several warm hours. He took a mental photograph, then went lightly out the door. Franz and Bergit were already standing at a motorcycle, Franz putting on his helmet, Bergit reaching for hers.
"Here, John, you ride with Franz, and I will ride with a taxi."
"Are you sure? I hope I’m not inconveniencing you both," John stated politely.
"No, don’t be silly," she smiled and gave him the helmet. "Have a good ride." In a moment she hailed a taxi and was off before they had got themselves organized. Franz sat and waited for John who squeezed behind him on the seat.
"Yeah, blast off," John echoed. Franz started the engine, and with a jolt they headed up the street.
John had no idea where they were going, only that they were climbing up above the city center. Franz drove at a comfortable speed and so John let himself relax, allowing the cool wind to clear his stuffy senses. They arrived at a quiet street lined with small attractive apartment buildings. Franz drove up on the sidewalk and stopped the engine. They both climbed off and took off their helmets, Franz smiling warmly as ever.
"Did you like the ride?" he asked.
"It was great," John replied enthusiastically. Franz tapped him gently on the shoulder and indicated the apartment building where he and Bergit lived. He opened the front door and switched on the light.
"We go to the top." Franz led the way up the stairs. It was an old building, yet in perfect condition. They climbed to the fourth floor, and then went up a narrow staircase leading to an attic apartment. The landing was quite small with only a door. Franz opened the door without a key.
"Hello." Franz greeted Bergit a bit out of breath. She turned around, having just finished lighting a candle.
"Hello boys. Make yourself at home, John." He looked around, dropped his knapsack on the floor and studied the small, yet cozy room. In fact, it was just that, a room, with a large double bed, a few chairs, bookshelves, paintings, plants. It was sparse, but full. A small kitchen, a bathroom, and this room, that was all. There were windows in the eaves of the house. John walked over to one and looked in awe over the jeweled glitter of the city below.
"It’s nice here," he mused half aloud. Franz turned a switch on the stereo, and the room was enveloped in the rich sound of a piano quintet. John wasn’t accustomed to listening to such music, but he welcomed the beautiful atmosphere it bestowed. He wandered over to the bookshelves and ran his eyes over the myriad titles in different languages. He recognized some English, guessed at the French and German ones, but noticed others that could have been Greek or Russian, for all he knew. He finally plopped down in an armchair and just sat quietly.
"Do you like something to drink?" Franz asked. "Beer, wine, more cognac?"
"Um... I’ll take a beer," John answered.
"Sure." He disappeared into the kitchen.
"Franz, bring me a brandy please," Bergit called into the kitchen. She sat herself down on a chair near John. He furtively studied her beautiful features in the dimly lit room. Her hair glowed softly, her perfect complexion and lips shone in such a way that John feared he would not be able to restrain himself from going over to her and kissing her. He let his eyes wander along her small breasts that rested softly under her loose cotton top. He moved further down, then looked nervously up.
"Well, here you are, John." Franz handed him a bottle of German beer and a glass, then handed the glass of brandy to Bergit. He sat down in a chair across the room with a beer as well.
"Prost," Bergit answered, John timidly following.
The three sat in silence, the music filling the room with an ethereal warmth that mesmerized John. There was a great deal of eye contact between them, as John gazed more boldly at Bergit, who returned his looks. He also felt the strong gaze of Franz from across the room. But strangely enough, he didn’t feel anything threatening in it. On the contrary, there was something in it John couldn’t explain. He felt himself returning Franz’s gaze with as much intensity as that which he directed toward Bergit. His thinking process essentially dissolved, he merely felt and floated with the moments.
The music stopped. Some of the candles had already burned out, leaving the room in near darkness. John heard footsteps and stood up. He felt hands on his shoulders, then slowly move to his waist. He wasn’t really sure ... he surrendered completely and let himself be undressed.
* * * * *
Morning light crept gently into the room. John climbed carefully out of bed and found his clothes laid neatly on a chair. He got dressed and looked for his knapsack. He took out a pen and a piece of paper and sat at the table. His mind was confused and dreamy, he couldn’t formulate any words. He was able only to scribble out "thanks, John," and left it on the table. He walked to the door and turned back for a moment. He wanted to say something, but the audience was in deep slumber. He opened the door, closing it gently behind him, and started down the stairs. He stepped outside and embraced the fresh morning air, grey and pungent with late summer flowers. He walked down the hill and allowed his feet to lead him into the city and the hostel where his backpack awaited him. As he slowly entered the main thoroughfares of the city, the dreamy cloud enwrapping his mind and body slowly dissipated. He reached the hostel, picked up his belongings, and headed for the train station. He had less than two weeks before he was to return to the U.S.