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by Caroline Bruckner

The wind breathed in the leaves and the sun glittered in your eyes and I said it. The earth sang its ancient song and my heart sang with it and I said it. A car drove past and a woman walked by and a child wailed like mad and I saw a cloud the shape of God above your head and I said it. The city turned sweet and I had the taste of blood in my mouth and I felt beautiful and I said it.

I had never said it loudly, not even when I was alone in front of the mirror in the bathroom. The words had poured out of a mysterious and dark part of myself like fireflies coming out of shadows. What had felt sacred and joyful inside the dreamy night of me turned out to sound small and trivial out in the bright open.

The problem with telling a person is this: immediately you will have the truth sit in your lap. Stare you in the face. Slap your shoulder regretfully.  

I had probably known—who was I to be loved by someone like him? And still, the glances across empty wine bottles? The touches as if by mistake right at the top of my hips. The way he had thrown his head back at my poor attempts at guessing the right answer on Trivial Pursuit.

Xavier. The crooked nose and slanted smile. The slightly tired look on his face that suddenly sparkled with mirth and that loud, almost girlish giggle. He was an artist and a musician and the most wonderful creature I had ever had the pleasure of stumbling upon.

There had been a party. There had been temporary blackouts brought on by various substances, there had been some accidental dancing, and then there had been me crashing on the couch, someone’s dirty shoe pressed against my chin. The next morning, while feeling the very best part of me had been lost in the toilet the night before, I fell over this lifeless body on the floor.

“Ouch! Those were my nuts!” came the wail as I hit the carpet and all its goodies.

“I am so sorry!” I rubbed my eyes.

The world a sickening blur, my eyes met his, and that was it. Have you heard that thing about the two violins? If you play one string on one violin, the violin next to it will vibrate the same string?

God was playing on Xavier and as soon as I was close to him, I started vibrating with him.

I was used to being one of life’s standers-by, but with Xavier I felt as if finally stepping into the center of the pulsating universe. I was nothing but a common sales girl folding one T-shirt after the other, over and over again, while teenagers with perfectly skinny little bodies in scuba shorts ripped them open again just to toss them aside one second later. I was trying hard not to scream. I was trying hard not to let into myself the mind-numbing pop, the frustrated crowds, the senseless merry-go-round of it. Working in a store was something my successful brother felt beneath someone associated with him. Once he came into the store with a girlfriend. Seeing me there he did that thing with the eyes, when you pretend not to have noticed someone. We never talked about it. When he spoke it always meant giving me an idea about how to move up in the world. “Linnea, you should talk about getting a job in the head office,” or, “At your age I was already junior manager; you need to be more goal oriented or you’ll never get anywhere. Why don’t you open your own shop?”

With Xavier, money and status and being perfect had no value, only poetry and music and being able to genuinely speak from the heart.

I had friends, many of them. I had friends who, like me, didn’t quite know how to live this life. Friends who desperately tried to fit in, who posted sun-drenched selfies of themselves looking gorgeous on Facebook while their insides were weeping with loneliness. Friends who starved themselves half to death in order to be able to approve of themselves. Friends who thought they were better than others because they wore the right brand of skinny jeans, the smallest size. I knew a girl who went into a depression because she lost her handbag. It had cost her several months’ salary, she had waited weeks for the thing to arrive; she had placed her whole self-worth in that piece of leather, and when it got stolen, she had a panic attack that lasted for hours.

I tried so hard not to be like these girls, but I was letting the same set of rules govern my life. I refused to post beautified photos of myself on Facebook, instead telling everyone how silly I found it. In fact, I just didn’t feel good-looking enough; I feared people would laugh at me. I heard them whisper to each other, “Oh my god, look at Linnea, she really should lose a pound or two.”

And then. Xavier.

I rolled out of that sofa, with the clear notion of having to vomit, when I fell face forward and straight onto the love of my life.

“Coffee.”

“Coffee?”

“Buying me a coffee is the least you can do after destroying my possibility of having children.”

Still drunk and with the pattern of a Converse sole on my cheek, I went for a coffee with the most beautiful man in the world. Heading down the stairs he did not walk before me or after me but right next to me. Our arms touched and the sensation stirred me and grounded me equally. I had not known him more than five minutes, but when the hairs of his arm tickled mine, I could have turned around and kissed him. Sitting opposite of him in a dingy cafe booth, I felt happier than I had ever felt, for no apparent reason whatsoever but the simple fact that I was there with him. Looking into his eyes was like staring into something mad and instinctive. I had to turn away. I could not hold the force of it, the possibilities of it, the intimacy of it. No. Looking at him meant not to see him, but to have him see me. Embarrassed I tried to say something clever or at least interesting, but all that came out of my mouth was a giddy giggle. When other people look at you, they usually see the faults of you, the shoes that don’t fit perfectly with your jacket or the nose that should be a bit straighter or less pronounced or the freaky ear that is much larger than the other. Xavier narrowed his eyes and he didn’t look at my freaky ear; he looked straight into my very being. How I wished in that moment that I was someone great. An artist dressing in Japanese kimonos. A musician singing, strange and lonesome. A writer telling the raw truth about humanity. I desperately wanted him to know that I was all of these things; I just hadn’t gotten around to actually becoming any of them at this point in time.

“I just work at H&M,” I said, my voice high-pitched, without even having been asked.

“Let’s go to your favorite place in the city,” he answered.

 

A church bell rang out as we climbed the high old wall. It was six in the morning on a Sunday in Vienna. The clouds lay thick and heavy over the city, like a lid on a pot.

“Maybe not the most cheerful place,” I whispered, suddenly regretting bringing him here.

“But interesting,” he said, taking a deep breath, looking out over the old graves. “It’s remarkable. One doesn’t have a clue from the outside at all.”

He started singing, just like that, wandering between the dead, placing his hands on the overturned gravestones. And as if having been pulled toward it, he stopped by one to read the name carefully.

“Linnea Sara Weissmann. 1920 to 1940.” He didn’t look up. “Oh, beautiful Linnea,” he sang. He sang about the tragedy of life and he made me understand all of the things I had never been able to put words on before.

It was clear then that I had never been in love. I had had boyfriends. I had thought I loved them even. The air got stuck in my chest as I realized what being in love actually felt like. Every little thing got me laughing. A funny T-shirt in the shop. A cute dog on the street. People kissing in corners. I was so full of laughter, anyone could bring it out. I felt like embracing every skeletal teenager who came into the store, like saying something kind to beggars passing on the street, like shouting a big thank you to the world for the weightless rapture that I had been given.

Xavier came into the shop and instead of nodding hello and leaving in embarrassment, he stayed, helping me fold T-shirts and trying on dresses, anything to make me roll my eyes toward the sky. I watched my own body in the mirror and I forgave it any imperfection. How could I hold anything against this sacred vessel that carried me close to him? This vessel that let me sense him, the stuff he was made of. I got carried away by the dream of my own happiness. I danced and I talked, and when no one was listening, I even raised my voice and sang.

 

We met in parks for slow strolls. We took the bus to the last station up on the hill and picnicked at sunset looking out over the boiling city. We played cards at night, in my tiny studio flat, until the candles burned down and the first rays of the sun made the birds chirp outside the window.

 

The wind breathed in the leaves and the sun glittered in your eyes and I said it.

I love you.

 

The earth sang its ancient song and my heart sang with it and I said it. I love you, Xavier. A car drove past and a woman walked by and a child wailed like mad and I saw a cloud the shape of God above your head and I said it. I love you more than anything.

 

His gaze was set on the horizon as he spoke. “We hardly know each other.”

Had I been photographed at that moment, I would not have been visible in the print. It was true we had only met just a few weeks before. It was true I didn’t know his parents or exactly where he had come from. I didn’t know what party he would vote for or what schools he had been to. But I knew him. I had a felt sense for everything that could possibly matter; I knew the core of starlight he had been made of. And Xavier knew me, the real me, the nameless, exuberating, wild rhythm of me.

“Yes, you are right,” I coughed, feeling life drip out of me like blood from an open wound. How could one regain dignity in a situation like this?

I performed my duties. I folded my T-shirts and I picked up blouses from the floor. I looked at what the other girls were eating at lunchtime and I copied them. I would become the skinniest girl ever. I would show the world. I even posted photos of myself on Facebook, chin up, lips pouting, overhead angle. I went to all the places we had ever been to, desperate to see him. I spent hours on Google trying to find out more about who he was, where he’d been, who he knew. I slept with my phone under my ear should he, against all odds, send me a message in the middle of the night. I cursed myself for my incredible stupidity. Had I not spoken he would still be calling me, inviting me for a midnight picnic in the park. Had I not spoken he would still be coming into the store to try on dresses and fold clothes. Had I not spoken he would still be looking into my eyes and setting my world on fire. I cursed the wind and the stars and all clouds in the shape of God.

Three weeks later I saw him with another woman.

She was tall and pale and had hair that danced around her face like flames of fire. He touched her hip and she laughed and he made her spin around in a playful pirouette. He was the great puppeteer and she the beautiful puppet. He saw me and did that thing with his eyes when you pretend not to have noticed. She was ridiculous and I knew then I had been also.

I was used to being nothing. The torture was to have known being something, something wonderful even, and being reduced to nothing again. Once one had tasted the enchantment of being with Xavier, how was one supposed to live without its exhilaration?

I hated myself. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and I hated it with all my might.

When a heart breaks a person loses all orientation in life. The golden inner compass drops its arrows and instead of showing the way, the arrows become weapons.

Gravity was too much for me. I had no strength to keep myself upright, no purpose to break the spell of the earth. Standing there in the middle of pink strapless bras and see-through halter tops, I knew death by love was possible. I could not, I did not want to, live without Xavier. Some people are born in the center, or close to it. The rest of us gravitate toward them like flies to a bright lightbulb in the dark of night. What happens then, when we find the light, and it is then cruelly snatched away from us?

I composed myself. I accepted my fate. I knew I could will my heart to stop. I knew I could, and had to, relieve myself of this torture. I regarded my act unselfish, reasonable even. I knew exactly where I’d do it, of course. The graveyard that had the stone with my name on it. I’d lay down and watch the great lime tree, the sheer volume of its leafy crown. I’d gaze up at the intricate pattern on light and shadow, let it lull me to sleep. To the long sleep.

Linnea Sara Weissmann, 1995–2015. Oh, beautiful Linnea.

 

There is something to be said for a near-death experience. It does have the advantage of putting one’s life into perspective. The perspective I got as my head smacked against the unforgiving asphalt was instant and marvelous. I saw with my entire being, as if I had eyes everywhere. I saw through the space between particles, and I saw swirling lights and I saw my heart and I saw it had been torn to pieces and there was a part missing.

 

The first thing my brother said as he showed up next to my bed in the hospital was “I had to leave a very important meeting.”

“I am sorry,” I said.

“Jumping out into the street like that, not very clever,” he continued, sighing and loosening his bright, stripy tie. “Don’t you have eyes in your head? The dude on the bike said you came from nowhere.”

“I wish it had killed me,” I said.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Linn!” he wailed and sat down. “That’s too pathetic even for you.”

“No one loves me,” I whispered.

“No one loves me either, but I’ve never seen that as an excuse for risking my own and other people’s lives because of it.” He clicked his teeth angrily.

I started crying. He buried his face in his hands and sighed, then took my hand and patted it awkwardly. I steeled myself and gazed out the window.

“Listen,” he said then, voice raw with emotion, “whoever took it, go get it back.”

“Get it back?”

“Get it back.”

I had to look at him, at this man beside me, to see if it was really my brother. And he in turn looked at me, straight in the eyes. After a moment of thought, as if deciding something vital, he started unbuttoning his shirt. He pulled the fabric back like curtains in a theatre, and there, painted on his skin, was a tattoo of a glowing, radiant heart. It was not an anatomical drawing, but a flaming heart of passion, with delicate feathered wings growing out of its sides. There were beams of light shining out from behind so that the heart seemed to float in front of his chest. The sight was breathtaking, a thing of real beauty.

“We’ve all got our hearts stolen, Linn; the trick is to get it back again.”

I stared at him, at this person who had never, not once, uttered a word about love for as long as I could remember.

“And when you get it back, you make it your own. You make your heart your own, and you make your life your own. There is nothing more important than that, little sister.”

 

As the sun came down, I dressed in the Japanese kimono I had sewn with a vintage fabric found on eBay. The fabric had yellow roses and exquisite butterflies on a deep purple background. I chose a bright red lipstick to go with it, and pulled my hair up in a bun at the nape of my neck. I stood in front of the mirror for a moment, and thought how nice I looked, how much more like me it felt to wear the cascade of cool silk than the tight jeans and T-shirts I usually dressed in.

With careful hands I placed the silver jewelry box that had been my mother’s into a bag. I looked around the room and relished the sight. I had made pillowcases and curtains and even a rug out of vintage fabric found online. The sewing machine stood gleaming on the kitchen table.

Xavier was waiting for me under the light of a lamppost. There were yellow roses tumbling around it, I realized with feverish delight, trailing the hem of my kimono. His raven hair fell over his eyes when he turned to greet me. He looked exhausted and beautiful, as always.

“Hello, you.” His eyebrows arched in surprise, taking in my dress. “I’ve missed you.”

He took a step closer and put his hand, lightly, on my hip. For one moment I was stunned like a rabbit in the headlights, stunned by the gravity of him, of how much I wanted his touch, his eyes to rest in mine, his wry smile to loosen the knot in my stomach.

“I’ve got us a bottle; let’s sit down by the pond and fill the ducks in on the newest fashion gossip.”

I held the silver box out toward him, my movements chunky with nerves. His smile disappeared then, seeing the color drain from my face.

 

The wind breathed in the leaves and the moon glittered in your eyes and I said it. The earth sang its ancient song and my heart sang with it and I said it. A bird flew past and a woman walked by and a dog barked like mad and I saw a cloud the shape of God above your head and I said it. The city turned dark and I had the taste of blood in my mouth and I felt beautiful and I said it.

“I have come to take my heart back,” I said.

 

I danced all the way home. The heart-puppet I had sewn out of the kimono leftovers hung over my chest, fragrant with the scent of roses and jasmine and earth. He had been gracious enough to understand, to open the lid of the silver jewelry box and hand me my handmade heart back. He had looked strangely deflated afterward, asking me if he could at least walk me home. I resisted, placing a hand over my chest, keeping my heart in its right place.

“Good-bye, Xavier,” I whispered. I walked away and I did not turn. I felt condensed into a single point in the universe. All parts of me were finally collected; it was an extraordinary feeling, this having a center inside of myself. I had to stop just to enjoy the sensation of it, to allow with my entire being to belong to myself only. I had been a sick and wounded animal, always hungry, always scared. Now I was a great lion, or falcon, prepared for the unexpected, on friendly terms with the world.

“I love you, Linnea,” I said then.

 

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