Thursday, January 12, 2012



A man stands in the pouring rain; a single dark figure among shadows. He leans against a stone wall, his head bowed as if in prayer, but his lips don’t move. Partly obscured by majestic oak trees a house stands as a silhouette against the glow from the city. More than an hour has passed since the lights were turned off in the upstairs bedroom. Not that the man counts the hours; time has lost its meaning to him. One hour A lifetime... He has walked twelve years in one direction and one day in another and the world he knew is gone.
He pulls out a flask and takes a couple of sips.
He never intended to spend the night under a dead lamppost, but here he is. His dark blue Armani clings to his body and his normally impeccable black hair hangs in limp strings over his forehead. No part of him is dry, and he stamps his feet in the mud to stay warm. Not many hours ago he had been David Lowenstein, a handsome 36-year old professional with intense and sincere brown eyes and a self-confident aura about him. If someone saw him now, they would see a creature of the night. Not a predator but a shivering thing hiding in dark places.
The trip had been on his agenda for several months. Travelling was part of what he did; as the regional manager of a Fortune 500 Corporation, his Gold Traveler card had more bonus miles on it than he could ever use. This trip was different, though. His division had been given the BBJ-2 corporate jet for a tour of Europe, and, depending on the outcome of the raid—for that’s what it was—a promotion to a corner office on the 27th floor would wait for him at his return. Not since he had closed his first deal as a young novice had he been this energized. Illyana, his wife of more than a decade, had packed four of his “power suits” and placed a black briefcase and a pair of shoes next to his bed. He was, however, too excited to sleep.
“Honey? Are you okay?”  Illyana reached for her cell phone and squinted at the display. “It’s almost three o’clock, David…”
Without makeup and with her short blond hair in an un-harnessed mess, she looked like a girl. A 20-year younger Illyana who’d driven the boys of Prividza crazy simply by being herself. An Illyana he had not known then, but who had caught his eye on his first day at Stanford. She‘d sat in the shade, leaning against a tree. Next to her, a pile of chemistry and biology books were spread out on the lawn.
“Um, excuse me,” he had said. “Could you tell me how to get to the bookstore?” 
She’d looked up at him and just smiled. Even with no intention of flirting she had spellbound him with her eyes and the cute wrinkling of the nose. She had studied him for a few seconds, then nodded to the left. Less than 30 yards away he saw a huge display window filled with books. He’d felt embarrassed, and she had laughed.
Almost 15 years had passed since that day.
“I’m okay,” David whispered as he leaned over to her side of the bed and brushed some hair back from her eyes. “Don’t worry about me.”

Next evening, onboard the BBJ-2 David gathered the team for a last go-through of strategies. They were on a conquest, and in the horizon bonuses and promotions glittered in the sun. Men in suits clenched their fists and exchanged high-fives over contracts that had been looked over by at least a dozen corporate legal experts.
“Liz, would you please hand me the Fallwell.”
David’s personal assistant, a petite dark haired woman, handed him a portfolio. She was pretty. Not stunning, but cute. Liz was twenty-eight, and she had ambitions. 
“Thanks,” he said. “Did they call back to confirm?”
“Yup, late last night. I didn’t leave the office until after midnight so I really think I deserve a reward this time.” Liz leaned over and touched his nose with one finger. It was a teasing gesture, part of a little game she played. A game David had come to enjoy.
“I know, Liz. I owe you, but if Europe goes the way I hope…”
David had decided to bring his assistant with him to the 27th floor, even if it ruffled some VP feathers. He felt comfortable around Liz; she made him a better man. Well, maybe not better, but bigger. More powerful and attractive. Besides, Liz knew his game-plan as well as he did, and she definitely deserved the promotion. He hadn’t told her yet, but he would be adamant about it.
“All right, if there’s nothing else, let’s get some sleep.”
David Lowenstein, alpha male, gray-back, regional manager and soon-to-be VP of an international corporation pushed a button and with a buzzing sound his wide chair transformed to a comfortable bed. David knew that, unlike the night before, he would fall asleep within seconds; he was relaxed now that the waiting was over. He was in control, and it felt good to be in the big league!
David was as close to heaven as he had ever been.

A car drives slowly past the man and down the broad tree-lined street. In the wet asphalt he can see reflections of the car’s tail-lights, and music from its stereo mesh with the sound of splashing rain. He still feels confused after nearly two hours in the freezing downpour. He feels tempted to walk up to the house, use his keys and go to sleep in one of the guest rooms. He can feel he is about to catch a cold as he takes few more sips from the flask. Will he be able to look Illyana in the eye and explain? Explain what? That he had “made a mistake” and was sorry? He should have seen it coming. Of course he should have seen it coming! It had been coming for the last twenty-five years.
Scenes from his high school days pop up in his head; pictures that bring back feelings of humiliation and shame. His father had worked two jobs so they could live in an affluent neighborhood. He had insisted that David should attend good schools, so they moved into a duplex on the “right” side of town, and for the next eleven years it had been their home.
David had not been rich enough to hang with the preppy crowd, and not robust enough to hang with the jocks. He was smart, that’s true, but smart boys didn’t date cheerleaders. At least not at Santa Cruz High. So David had spent most weekends alone with his books.
Then Janet Moore moved to town.
David remembers how out of place she’d looked. Her pale face, the unhip clothes, her desperate attempt to blend in with the background. May had been overwhelmingly green and warm and he recalls how he’d walked over to her and introduced himself—rather clumsily—and offered to show her around campus. How grateful she’d been. And how she became his first love; the one he would never forget.
He also remembers Bruce Barrus.
Bruce was a walking cliché. He was on the football team, had larger muscles than brains, and he drove a car his father had given him for his sixteenth birthday. Bruce’s self-confidence was larger than his biceps and David grew to hate him.
During the summer and fall David and Janet spent together Janet had changed from a centipede to a butterfly. The sun and salt water had tanned her skin and lightened her hair, and she’d tossed her drab clothes. She’d also discovered the jazz café in Capitola, and she soon became part of its clientele.  David had never enjoyed jazz—it made him nervous and edgy—but he had quietly endured the syncopated torment just to be with Janet. They had spent hours on the beach almost every day during the break. Janet had especially loved the Big Dipper—the old rollercoaster at the Boardwalk—and insisted they’d go there as often as possible. Every single time they’d reached the top she’d been exited to see all the way to Monterey, and every time, on the way down, she’d laugh and squeeze David’s arm. He had been an honor student with a scholarship and a beautiful girlfriend. Life had been good.
It was Vincent Barberi who’d told him about Janet and Bruce. He’d seen them together several times, often when David had thought she’d been studying with Miriam.
“I hate to be the messenger of bad news” Vinnie had said,” but I can’t take it anymore! You’re the only one around here who don’t know…”
David had been devastated. At first he’d refused to believe it; he’d even been angry at Vinnie, but the cold truth had finally crept up his spine and into his head, and when he’d confronted Janet, she had tearfully confirmed everything Vinnie had told him. David had then, emotionally, descended into a deep, black void, and that winter he’d spent more time with his books than ever.
Bruce and Janet lasted for two more weeks.

Illyana did not get pregnant. She and David had tried for years, and it had begun to take its toll on him. He felt pressured to perform on commando, not so much for Illyana as for the cause: getting pregnant. Slowly, he began to feel relief when he had to be out of town on business at certain dates.
They—or, rather, Illyana— had explored all options. Nothing seemed to be physically wrong with either of them. One doctor claimed the problem was their attitude; if they were only willing to develop a “higher level of trust…”  Illyana never understood what trust had to do with it. Ovulation + sperm = baby. Who needed trust, the egg or the sperm? So, when another physician placed a pamphlet in her hand titled “Tantric Techniques to Pregnancy,” Illyana decided to talk seriously with David about adopting. They could easily afford it on David’s income so she could stay home with the child. David agreed, and together they went through a rigorous research. He’d signed checks, visited hospitals, and at last David and Illyana decided on an agency that had connections in Indochina. The necessary forms were signed, and a rather large amount of money was handed over to a woman who claimed she cared about childless couples. If things went according to plan, they would fly to Vietnam on short notice within the next three months. After all the barren years Illyana began to plan their future as a real family.

It has become impossible for him to concentrate. The rain drives him crazy, cold and relentless like Chinese water torture. His flask is half empty.
“So, I’ll tell the truth,” he thinks. “She will look at me, unable to grasp the meaning of it all. Then there will be anger. And tears.”
He could probably take her anger, but not her tears. Or, worst of all: indifference. After the tears have dried and the anger cooled off she will end up like so many of his friend’s former wives— hard and distant. From his safe place next to Illyana he has witnessed families break up. He has watched men go to pieces before his eyes, and he’s seen the transformation that takes place in their wives. A black and sticky fog fills his head. This has to be a nightmare; it can’t happen to him. It is simply too surreal.
He leans against the wall and throws up.

Liz brought David breakfast. There was a crew onboard who served food and drinks, but Liz enjoyed doing little things like this for her boss. He had slept for more than five hours, almost six, and they were soon to begin the descent to Geneva International Airport. Down and to his left he saw the lake with the Alps in the background. He tried to figure out which was Mont Blanc, but from above it was hard to tell them apart. The rising sun spread its rays over the snow-covered peaks, which created an almost supernatural effect; it was as if light radiated from Earth itself. Faded lines of poetry came to life in David’s head, and he whispered:
Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine, thou many-colored, many-voicéd vale,
over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail. Fast cloud—shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,
where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
“Shelley,” said Liz. “I love that poem! I didn’t know you were into the Romantics.”
“Neither did I, for some reason I remembered that one from school.”
In order to get a view of the scenery Liz leaned over David. She was so close that her hair brushed against his face, and he became aware of a discreet scent of dark and spicy perfume. He froze. Over the years he had gotten used to Illyana’s flowery cologne, the same she had worn since the day they met. This was different. This was exotic and… exciting. Liz did not smell like a wife; she smelled of danger!
Three cars waited for them as they arrived. From the airport they took the scenic route along Lake Geneva. Probably inspired by the Alps across the lake Walker and Harris began to discuss mountaineering, while Byrne, obviously hung-over from the day before—something that irritated David; Byrne knew that heavy drinking was unacceptable on trips like these—sat with his eyes closed, oblivious to whatever Switzerland had to offer of natural beauty. Liz pulled a document from her briefcase.
“Le Chateau d’Ouchy,” she said. “Brad recommended it, and it looks quite amazing.”
She handed David a brochure with pictures of what looked like an old castle.
“Not bad,” he said. “I believe I could get used to that. Do we have lake view?”
“Not all our rooms,” Liz answered. “But yours have, I fixed that.” She patted him on the knee. “The boss gets what he wants, you know…”

The rain seems to lighten, but David doesn’t notice. Twice he has started up the driveway meaning to wake up Illyana and tell her everything. He’s wanted to throw himself at her mercy and take whatever came his way. And twice he has returned to the spot by the wall, devastated by his own cowardice. He holds the flask in his hand; no reason to put it back just to pull it out again.
Illyana calls his cell phone several times, and when he doesn’t answer she begins to leave worried messages. He listens to the first few and ignores the rest. Then Walker calls. And Byrne. He ignores them as well. The one number that so far hasn’t shown up on the display is Liz’s. Good! He’d asked her not to call. He turns off the phone.  By now he’s grown quite disillusioned. Feelings of defeat leave him almost paralyzed, and when it starts to rain again, harder than ever, he doesn’t even try to seek shelter against the wall. He looks up at the clouds and lets water fill his mouth and eyes. He wonders if he will drown if he stands like this long enough.

Le Chateau d’Ouchy was just as impressive as the brochure had claimed. Part of the hotel was actually a 12th century castle, complete with Romanesque towers and ghosts of Shakespearian lovers restlessly wandering the halls. It was situated on the lake, and from his balcony David looked down on the marina. His room was huge with green and mahogany walls. The low, curved windows revealed Lake Geneva, which stretched toward the horizon until it disappeared in the mist. Above the clouds Alpine ridges floated on thin air. David sat down on the largest bed he had ever seen.
“This thing is too big for one person,” he thought.

The meetings went well. Better than anyone had dared to hope. David performed with a king’s authority, and the Suisse gave in to his demands, one by one. The whole process took less than six intense hours, and back at the Chateau David made a few calculations; this single deal was worth at least 90 million dollars.
One down—Barcelona, Copenhagen and Oslo to go!” he told himself with a smile.
That night the team celebrated. They had one day off before Barcelona, so David permitted drinks, even though he knew Byrne would get useless right away. David, Liz, Walker, Harris, Byrne, and a few others warmed up in the hotel bar before they continued at Restaurant du Leman, a very exclusive place a short taxi ride north of Lausanne. Byrne had managed to invite Angelique, a plump blonde he’d met at the hotel, and she came along as well. The food was excellent, the wine expensive, and the smiles were wide. Again and again crystal glasses were raised; they toasted each other’s performance, and especially David’s. A little before midnight Byrne had fallen asleep in Angelique’s lap. He had gone through the entire list of behavior one would expect from a 42-year-old single semi-alcoholic, and David decided it was time to head back to Lausanne. David usually didn’t touch alcohol, but tonight he’d had plenty of reasons to refill his glass, and he felt a bit inebriated as they waited for the taxi.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said to Liz who had taken his arm on the way out. “You think I’m drunk, don’t you? But I’m not.” His speech was a little slurred.
“You don’t know what I think,” she answered.
David sighed.
“No, I guess not… I never know what you think. You’re the mystery woman! Are you a witch? I believe you’re a witch.” He laughed and pulled her close. She let him do it. “I want you to put a spell on those guys in Barcelona. You can do that, can’t you?”
Liz smiled.
“Sure,” she said and leaned her head against his shoulder. “That’s what witches do.”

The flask is empty and lies on the ground. He feels sick, but not from the whiskey. Well, that too, perhaps, but mostly from the sticky fog that has spread from his stomach and now fills his brain. It prohibits him from thinking or acting. He sees his life through a tunnel; tiny people move around at the end of it, but they are out of reach. When he tries to shout he only hears the distant echo of his own voice. When he tries to move his muscles won’t obey. David is trapped in his head and he cannot see a way out.
“That damned Bruce,” someone says. David recognizes his own voice. “He stole Janet. He has done everything he can to ruin my life for almost twenty years!”
Bruce’s laughing face floats before David’s unfocused eyes. Rich Bruce. Handsome Bruce. He then sees Janet on the beach. Tanned and smiling she runs toward him, but before she gets close she transforms into Liz. Janet and Liz… Liz and Janet… Ilyana.
Raindrops slap him in the face and the tunnel disappears. On rubber legs he walks toward the house.

Liz and David were in David’s room at the Grand Hotel in Oslo.  His “power jacket” lay on the floor while he leaned against the window, staring blindly into the night. Down below the streets were full of people hurrying back and forth in the light snow. If he leaned far enough out and looked to the right David would have seen the illuminated castle of the king. Across the street to his left the parliament building appeared like a multi-headed giant; the house where decisions were made in this remote country… However, David saw none of this. His thoughts were elsewhere.
Harris had joined them for a last drink and he slumped in one of the brown leather chairs. Barcelona and Copenhagen had gone well. Tomorrow afternoon they were to fight the last battle. The last hostile corporate take-over. David’s was a success story; he’d made his company’s stock holders amazingly rich. And as soon as they returned to the US he would be rich as well. And more powerful than ever.
“How come your room is so large?” Harris asked. Harris with the tiny eyes and receding hairline. He would never make it to the 27th floor.
“We could all camp out here—there would be plenty of room.”
Neither David nor Liz took notice of Harris and after ten minutes and a couple more drinks he mumbled something about a boring party, said good night, and left.
Over by the window David thought about Illyana. Of the markings on her calendar: little red hearts at certain dates.  David filled his glass. Drained it. Liz had picked up one of the many complimentary magazines that lay on the mahogany table, a National Geographic. David thought about the times he had been too tired to perform. Of the disappointing tone in Illyana’s voice when he rolled over with a “sorry.” He thought of how he began to feel less of a man. How he’d spent more and more time at the office. David filled his glass again.
“I love lions,” Liz suddenly said, looking up from her magazine. “Do you? I swear I want to be reborn as a lion!”
“Do I love lions..? I don’t know. I don’t hate lions.” David realized he had never given it a thought. “You wanna be a lion? I thought you were a witch?”
 Liz told him that she had been to Africa with her parents when she was 14. She’d seen lions in the wild, and ever since she’d wished she’d been a lion.
David came over to where Liz sat on the floor and placed himself next to her.
“Lions are not afraid of anything.” she said. “Except people, of course. They have to stay away from people! My father was not a hunter, you know. He was a photographer for a magazine.” She smiled.
Little hearts on a calendar… Janet on a rollercoaster… David felt tired in spite of being a corporate soldier who was about to take over a Norwegian pharmaceutical company with the stroke of his green Mont Blanc fountain pen. His sword.
“I have a huge pile of magazines with my father’s pictures at home.” Liz continued.” “Lots of lions; they were his favorite too. You know what I think? I think those lions—the ones in the pictures, I mean—are the luckiest lions ever! My dad caught them at a happy moment when they were strong and free and beautiful, and they will stay that way forever as long as nobody burns those magazines. They’ll live on in my house. And in many other houses as well, I’m sure. Don’t you think they are lucky lions, David?
“Pretty lucky lions.” he said, and emptied the glass.
“Do you see the savannah?” Liz pointed at some undefined point in front of them. “Listen! The lions are playing. They are close, I can sense it!”
David sensed it too. He closed his eyes and he sat in the sun surrounded by wildlife. But he wasn’t afraid since he was with a lion. Lions don’t kill lions; he was pretty sure about that.
“Yeah, I can sense it,” he said. “And I feel the sun. You really are a witch, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m a lioness,” she answered and clawed him gently on his arm.

Thirty minutes later, as he came out of the shower, she sat on the bed with her legs tucked under her.
“So small,” he thought, “so fragile.” This Liz was not a lion but a sparrow. Her skin was pale; her body a piece of art. A Michelangelo.
“So,” she said, “are you afraid to approach the lion’s den?”
She looked at him with a predator’s eyes .
“You ought to be a little afraid, you know!”
His heart beat hard. His blood boiled, and as he moved carefully toward the lioness it leaped forward, pushed him down and climbed on top of him. The sparrow was gone; here was the carnivore, and he was her prey. With the intensity of a hungry feline she chewed on his neck and clawed his chest. The sounds of the savannah grew faint, and all he could do was to accept his fate; he was about to be devoured. The lioness took her time. The lioness whimpered and snarled. 
The lioness roared as the equatorial sun blinded his eyes and he died.

He stands on the porch and digs into his pocket with cold, stiff fingers. He pulls out his keys. For a few seconds he lets the yellow light from the porch-lamp play with the metallic “L” on the key chain. He sits down. The street is empty. The night is dark. He is a lone man in the universe, a man beyond the grasp of time. Far in the distance a door opens. He hears steps. Someone sits down next to him. Illyana… it’s his wife.
“I’ve been worried, David. You have no idea…”
He is wet, cold, and guilty. He is the lowest of the low. He is a beast, crawling in the mud, and he has chosen it for himself.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
He hears Illyana’s voice. No, it’s not her! It is the voice of God—the God he’d left behind long ago. But is it the vengeful God of old or the loving Father he has looked for but never found?
“Harris called,” the voice says. “Please, David, come inside. Let us talk. I need you to tell me! I’ll have to hear it from you.”
Illyana touches his arm, and David implodes. Cascades of emotions demand to get out, and he tosses himself into her lap and sobs. His body shakes uncontrollably, and he clings to her waist in order not to be swallowed by the tsunami that washes over him.
“I’m sorry… sorry… so sorry… Oh God, I’m sooo sorry!”
His words are little more than grunts and yowls, the sounds a wounded animal lets out, but it’s the best he can manage. He buries his face in his wife’s lap and holds on for dear life. In the torrential rain the two sits. The porch light shines on Illyana, and her messy blond hair reflects it like a halo. In her lap, her husband lies; a shadow. He trembles. Illyana places a hand on his forehead and whispers:
“Let’s go indoors, David. We’ll talk tomorrow. Come, I have made a bed for you in the guest room. You’ll die if you stay here…”

© Ravneng 2011

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