She glanced out the hotel window. Not much to see. She’s glanced out this window every day this week. Nothing of note and no difference beyond the shade of the sky. Her room faced an unremarkable street off one of the boulevards radiating from the Bahnhof, the train station. One visual interest – the dome crowning the station plaza – fronted the lake bordering the Alstadt, the historic center of Lucerne, Switzerland, where she planned to wander this late afternoon.
A hint of pink light shimmered beyond the dome, the sky nearly cobalt blue at its edges. Autumn days make for cozy evenings, but rush the traveler. She had already scoffed a light lunch, filed her post-conference reports and dispatched the last emails, so she snapped the laptop closed. Job done. Workweek concluded. Rather than relief, she had a familiar sensation of disconnection that shadows her through restless weekends. And she was tired. She never sleeps well anymore. Nevertheless, she was determined to stretch her legs and see the sights, even if she’d rather burrow under the duvet on the soft feather bed watching English language television.
As she turned from the window, she noticed a man gazing from a window opposite. He peered down to the street from roughly the fifth floor of a modest building marked by a flat façade, tall narrow windows and a steep roofline. The sort of architecture meant to suggest a seriousness of purpose. Although his features were vague from a distance, he stood tall, he wore a pale shirt, white or blue, no tie or jacket, and he had graying, perhaps blonde hair. A businessman, no doubt, she thought. A fellow work machine rejoicing, or bracing himself, for another Friday night.
She was in Lucerne to attend an industry conference, the first since she relocated to London. The closing meeting ended Friday midday so participants might make trains and planes to return to their homes before nightfall. All week they had been confined to artificially lit seminar rooms, buried as if in a crypt while the Alps loomed on the perimeter like mythological gods. She had caught a glimpse of the lake only on the day she arrived. Midweek, when most of the eighty participants broke for a guided historic city tour, she declined, ostensibly to review her notes. In truth, she suffocates easily in crowds, breath stifled beyond her personal atmosphere. Now she has the time, and inclination, to explore, and a weekend here preferable to another weekend home alone.
She stored her attaché case and laptop under the bed and switched from the charcoal gray silk blouse she wore over black slacks into a plum merino V-neck sweater, another of the dark colors she wears that are nearly black, but not black, then took a brush through her shoulder-length brown hair and dabbed a bit of bronzer on her cheeks, if only to appear a little less worn out to herself.
She wrapped a complementary shade of scarf around her neck, grabbed jacket and purse, and glanced once more to the window across the street. The man was no longer in sight, as if an apparition, and she had to shake off a surprising sense of disappointment.
She might have taken one steep flight of stairs to the lobby, but she stepped instead into the square lift, pulling the accordion metal gate to seal her inside. As a rule, she avoids cramped spaces and these old elevators feel like prison cells; however today, the snug space seemed an embrace and she has learned to take comfort wherever she finds it.
At the reception desk, she dropped off the room key – an oversized iron relic that might have fit the lock of a 16th century dungeon, an artifact of the reformation, perhaps, hung from a large brass ring to discourage guests from taking the key with them. The desk clerk was surprised to see her. She was one of the few not staying at the larger hotel hosting the conference, and throughout the week she dashed out early mornings and slipped back in the evenings, without engaging with staff the way other visitors do.
All well, Madam? the clerk asked, with a trained smile. She answered with a pronounced nod and the woman echoed the nod and wished her a pleasant evening. To you as well, she responded.
She stepped out of the hotel and headed toward the corner in the direction of the lake, and when she got to the crosswalk, she saw the man, as discernible as if she knew him, waiting with a cluster of pedestrians for the cross signal. He wore a black three-quarter-length coat now, unbuttoned in the cool, not yet cold air. The style of coat that hugs the shoulders and makes a man seem sturdy. She saw now the shirt was blue and his hair like polished silver. A tan leather messenger bag, streaked with age, hung from a thick strap over his chest, as if containing state secrets or, more likely, the weekend work of the overworked.
She watched him cross the street. He had long legs and a long stride, although his gait was more of an amble, as if retracing steps he has taken many times. Without thought, or reason, she followed him.
He made his way down one long street, in the shadow of imposing buildings, before he turned and crossed over to a sidewalk parallel to the river leading to the lake. He passed, without stopping, the iconic Chapel Bridge, where a throng of tourists congregated taking photographs. According to the travel notes included with the conference packet, that wooden footbridge is the oldest of its type in Europe. Pink and purple flowers overflowed the window boxes along the length of it. She should have stopped to look closer; that was, after all, her intention for the walk. Instead, she followed his lead.
Along the river, slow-moving currents tumbled like tiny rapids over a series of locks, before spilling at last into the lake. This water has made its way all through this country, she thought, perhaps other countries as well, across hillsides and rocky channels to this lake. Meandering, but with intent, as she seemed to be, although she had no intention.
The man turned toward the next footbridge, where a scrolled-iron railing shed circular shadows underfoot. She was momentarily mesmerized by the pattern and might have lost sight of him, but when she looked up, there he was, a beacon, of sorts, like the landmark medieval water tower she glimpsed beyond the Chapel Bridge: the eponymous lucerna.
Fortunately, he walked leisurely enough for her to keep up. A chronic ache in her hip and a slight limp stalk her every move, the scar tissue penance and punishment for an accident over a year ago that left her a solo traveler.
She stopped briefly and closed her eyes to shutter the memory. A couple of consciously deep breaths usually calm her down. When she opened her eyes again, she searched out the man in the crowd and easily caught up with his unhurried stride into the cobblestone streets. A parade of shop windows floated in her peripheral vision like the mountains beyond the lake. Hard to resist mounds of artistic notepapers, leather-bound journals, metallic pens, gleaming bejeweled watches, and the mélange of colorful home accessories, all piled artistically to attract shoppers. Clusters of café tables were already set out on the narrow streets, enticing Friday revelers. The old city bustled, visitors and locals en route to evening activities. Some strolled. Others rushed. They chatted with friends or into phones. Tourists stopped to photograph architectural elements, while others gushed over chocolates melting in their mouths. The atmosphere felt like the opening scene of an opera – a throng arriving on stage from the wings all at once, ad alta voce.
The man shifted into an alley and she picked up her pace to follow. He turned again into another and at the end of this passage made an abrupt sharp turn to climb a short flight of stone steps to a French restaurant. At the foot of the steps, a wooden sign framed a blackboard announcing in blue chalk an impressive selection of Bordeaux wines and listing the specials of the day: coq au vin, blanquette de veau and mussels meuniere.
She imagined he must be there to meet someone – a wife, lover, friend or colleague. She stood at the bottom of the steps pretending to study the menu. Why linger? What was she doing following a stranger into a strange city? She meant only to make good use of free time in order to still her mind, see the sites, and return soon enough to the next workweek. Still, her feet seemed bolted to the stones, weighted down by an invisible force field, and when she galvanized her legs and turned to leave, she stopped in her tracks, turned back, and mounted the steps hurriedly, as if she were late. As if someone expected her.
In the vestibule, she took a moment to adjust to the low lighting. She sniffed the preparatory aromas of garlic and lemon, also cigarette smoke, still common in this part of the world, as if to protest modernity. Once in focus, she saw five or six café tables lined up to her left, parallel to a long dark wood bar to the right. More formal dining tables were hidden on the other side of the bar. The walls were painted gold, the tabletops white and gold tile, each with bright white napkins folded in the center into a cross, like the Swiss flag.
The man sat at a far table, the only patron; too early for a European dinner. His coat hung on a nearby rack and he was chatting with a waiter, likely a bartender doing double duty. He dressed the part: a crisp white shirt with a cognac-colored vest and a white towel folded over his belt. He poured red wine from a carafe into a large stemmed glass.
One glass. One place setting. The man was alone.
She observed him more closely. Handsomer than at first sight, in a Germanic way: a wide forehead, deep set dark eyes, squared chin and ruddy cheeks. The face of nefarious Nazis in war films, also the faces of members of the resistance or sympathetic neighbors. Perhaps one has to peer into their eyes, she thought, to know if they are to be feared or trusted, although even then, uncertain.
He sat tall with his spine pressed against the leather padding, lined up with precision like the napkins and like the merchandise in shop windows. He seemed older than first perceived, perhaps in his early fifties, like her husband, who was ten years older than she, and although she wasn’t close enough to detect, she imagined similar smile lines spreading from his eyes and tiny grooves from his lips.
She watched him. She enjoyed watching him without his knowing he was being watched. There was no host at the door so no one ushered her to a table. The bartender retrieved a bowl of nuts from behind the bar to place on the man’s table. He murmured thanks and took his first sip of the wine. He had waited for the wine to breathe. A petit verdot, she suspected, or blended with a cabernet franc, the more complex of the Bordeaux reds. He nibbled a handful of nuts and then, as he pulled from his bag a tablet like an iPad, he looked up and caught sight of her. She smiled, and he smiled, a spontaneous, cordial smile, before lowering his eyes to turn his attention to his reading.
Perhaps she was not deserving of a second glance. She’s not a looker – not one to turn heads or attract attention. She had, however, captured the attention of the only man that mattered fifteen years ago and she believes lightning does not strike twice. On the other hand, the man might suppose she was there to meet someone. He might presume, as she had, that anyone alone this early in the evening must be expected.
She breathed deeply, purposefully, in and out, still uncertain what she had in mind. Whatever had come over her, she gave herself to it like a narcoleptic sleepwalking through a bizarre waking dream. She lifted her head high and sauntered to his table. Without a word, she sat opposite him and hooked her purse over the back of the chair, as if she were only late for a date. He looked up with a bemused expression.
Do you speak English? she asked.
Yes, he answered.
May I join you? she asked.
It seems you have, he said.
She slipped off her jacket and hung that too across the back of the chair. She loosened the lavender scarf she wore to complement the plum not-black sweater, and she thought if nearly black suggests the accident only nearly happened, then sitting with a stranger in a Swiss bar might be nearly sane.
Her heart beat so urgently she feared he might feel the vibration. A flush rose from her chest to her cheeks, a typical response to an awkward situation, and as she sat, attempting to still her nerves, she marveled at her audacity.
She recalled, for some reason, years ago, she noticed a young model in a newspaper ad who reminded her of herself in college. In the photo, a group of students sprawled on a lawn wearing casual sporty clothes, posed to seem real. At the time, she couldn’t stop staring at the girl in the image, peeling the layers of her own life, and when she showed her husband the ad, he said the girl looked so much like her, he might seek her out to frolic with the younger version he never knew. They laughed about it, and he called the young model a doppelganger, although this is also considered the harbinger of bad luck, or death. She hadn’t thought about that in years but now, in a surreal moment, was she again a doppelganger of herself?
Where are you from? the man asked, interrupting her random thoughts. He spoke with a clipped Germanic accent.
The states, she answered. California, although I live in London now. I was here for a conference.
California. What part?
North. What’s called the wine country.
Ah, yes. Beautiful place. But you must miss the sun.
She wouldn’t mention she had accepted the job in London specifically for the gloom, like water seeking its own level. Instead she said, in her best imitation of an American optimist, London is the greenest city in Europe, I’m told. Great parks, an abundance of trees. So I gave up sunshine, not the green.
A good compromise, he said.
She nodded, and again shocked at her spontaneity, she said, I hate to dine alone.
The bartender, as if listening, arrived at her side. She asked him to recommend his favorite of the white Bordeaux. Perhaps a sémillon, crisp, with a clean finish, she said. He nodded appreciably and said he would be honored to select the perfect wine.
You’ve made him happy, the man remarked. He is so rarely asked to choose. People have their favorites these days.
I prefer to rely on expertise, she answered.
Which you too seem to have.
My business is the marketing of California wines to the international vendors. However, she said, leaning forward to share the secret, I prefer the French grape.
He smiled, the warmth of his smile an invitation to relax. Her heartbeat settled into a steady pace as the bartender returned with a tulip-shaped glass on a tall stem and a bottle of the Bordeaux. He presented the label, she nodded, and he poured a tasting. She swirled, sniffed and sipped. Perfectly chilled and perfectly balanced, she said, with a grateful smile. He poured a glass, replaced the cork, and then twisted the bottle deep into an ice bucket nearby.
I’ll pay for my own, of course, she said, as the man raised his glass.
I appreciate the company, he answered.
They hesitantly leaned the tip of their glasses to clink. They sipped. They shared the sort of pleasantries strangers do: the unusually warm fall weather, the threat of global warming, the rise of wine regions throughout the world.
She noticed he wore a thick gold wedding ring, yet no wife on a Friday night. The wife too might be on a business trip or he was, she thought, although, based on his familiarity with the bartender, he might be a regular. His wife may be gone for good, and still, the golden tether. She the same, her wedding band still on her finger. She could have explained her husband’s absence, but she never speaks of it.
Confession is good for the soul, they say. Not for her. Those who needed to know – the police, family and friends – they know. They know she was the designated driver that night, because her husband suspected, correctly, there would be free-flowing wine at a birthday celebration for a friend. Ten couples enjoyed a six-course dinner with wine pairings, seated at one long narrow table set up on the ridge of a hill at a winery overlooking Napa Valley. It was a balmy evening. A gentle breeze blew. Flickering candles along the center of the table reflected in the wine glasses. She drank only half a glass of a pinot noir rosé, in favor of sobriety. Her husband enjoyed all the wines and was a bit giddy. He is, was, she now has to say, a silly drunk, and afterwards, on the drive home, they were laughing at a laughable encounter when a pick-up truck sped into an intersection, plowing into the passenger side of the car far enough to hit her. She suffered a fractured hip, a broken arm and two broken ribs. Her husband bled to death before the paramedics arrived. According to the police report, the driver was intoxicated well beyond the legal limit. She was not to blame, so they said.
She sat opposite the man swirling the wine, watching it slosh around the glass and listening for its breath. Its steady reverberation of the earth. A lovely color, this wine – pale gold, like wheat or straw, she thought. She no longer drinks red wine, the color of blood.
The man sat quietly, watching her, waiting her out. Not one of those men who cannot bear silences. Those who always feel the need to intrude. Perhaps he understood they were strangers connected briefly, sharing the moment without sharing anything of themselves. They hadn’t even introduced themselves, nor seemed to feel the need to.
The blush in her cheeks receded and she smiled to indicate she was ready to engage again in conversation.
Have you been here before? he asked. This restaurant?
No, first time. A favorite of yours?
He nodded yes. I’m not much of a cook. Weeknights, I buy dinner at the take-away. Soups and salads, a stew. Friday night, I dine on the way home at this café. I like their mussels with frites. Fries, he translated, as if she might not know.
Sort of fish and chips, she remarked, and he laughed.
So, he lived alone, he dined alone, he wore a wedding ring. They might be kindred spirits after all.
The bartender took their order and they continued to chat, gripping the stems of their wine glasses as if ballast and sipping intermittently.
What’s it like in London these days? he asked.
How do you mean?
The mood, in the shadow of Brexit.
Exasperation might be the word. The people I know have moved beyond the state of shock.
He shook his head forlornly. I fear the transition will be harder than they suspect. There will be much regret.
The Brits are steeped in tradition. The quintessence of stoicism. They soldier on.
She thought, in this way, London is exactly the right place to be. The land of stoics. Her husband used to say regret is a wasted emotion. So true, when there is none.
And what do the Swiss think of all this? she asked.
The Swiss maintain neutrality at all times. We do our own thing, as you Americans say, as we watch our European neighbors battle their demons.
Occasionally, although not this time. Their economic tsunami may flood the continent.
He refreshed his wine from the carafe on the table. Have you seen much of Switzerland?
Bern. Zurich. A quick side trip to Lake Constance.
Bern is home, most of my life. My sons are there.
Beautiful city. But you live here now?
Yes. I needed a change of scene, a change of most everything. I also changed careers. My own Brexit, I suppose.
He explained he was an international lawyer, working now with an NGO promoting migration as a means to global economic equity. He said he travels extensively. He prefers to keep moving. He likes train travel. She bemoaned the limited train lines in the U.S. They chuckled together at the obsessive-compulsive nature of the Swiss railway. They shared favorite cities: Paris, of course, also Budapest, Barcelona and Berlin.
The B-cities are the A-cities, he quipped.
The bartender delivered their meals and they dived in as if neither had eaten in days. They dropped empty mussel shells into a large ceramic bowl. They swept chunks of bread into the garlicky broth. They plucked crispy potatoes from tall paper cones and licked the salt off their fingers. The bartender refilled her wine glass and she thanked him again.
She became aware of the resonance of other patrons as the restaurant filled. Conversation flowed like the wine. Smoke drifted through the air on the notes of French music: a hand organ and a violin, a sultry voice. By chance, the tip of her shoe grazed his knee as she uncrossed and re-crossed her long legs, and she felt a startling jolt of desire. He said nothing and only the slightest pause suggested he noticed. The Swiss, she mused – so reserved. Thankfully, polite.
He recommended a few lesser-known museums she might enjoy and urged a boat ride on the lake. For the tourists, yes, but enchanting, particularly this time of year.
They shared a crème brulée, perfectly browned and crisp on top. He ordered espresso, which the waiter delivered in a copper pot turned upside-down to drip the old-fashioned way. They chatted a while longer, then she poured the coffee into the two small porcelain cups served with slivers of lemon to rub around the rims. Afterwards, the bartender presented brandy in two large snifters, with his compliments.
The man said, he is pleased to see me with a companion. The Swiss have a reputation for reserve, but we are romantics at heart.
He blushed. She smiled. The wine and brandy settled over her body like a soft blanket. She rarely drinks anymore, beyond tasting. She has forgotten this feeling, this penetrating pleasure: the pleasure of fine food and wine, the pleasure of good company. The proximity of an attractive man.
At long last, they left the restaurant. Cobblestones shimmered now under street lamps beneath the canopy of a midnight sky. Frivolity permeated the old town. She shivered in the chill and he held her jacket for her to slip on. Although he kept a proper distance, his fingers grazed her shoulders and she felt again the titillation of touch.
Would you like an escort to the hotel? he asked.
She wondered if this was an advance. Her heart began to race, more in alarm than anticipation.
Although, Lucerne is a city where a woman is safe to walk alone, he added.
She imagined them together in her hotel room: the slow unfastening of clothes, the first touch of skin, the tender introduction to unfamiliar bodies or, more likely, the rushed coupling of two people starved for affection. She has always enjoyed the clandestine nature of sex in hotels. Her honeymoon was an erotic revelation and, now and then, her husband booked a hotel room near his office for the grand seduction. The pretense of anonymity an aphrodisiac.
Her body craved a stronger body. Her fingers yearned for tougher skin. She felt the familiar pull deep down. She thought suddenly she might weep for the longing.
Their eyes met. He took her hand and brought it to his lips to kiss her palm. She saw her wedding band glisten in the lamplight like a neon sign: no, not yet. She smiled and withdrew her hand. Her silence was the response.
I am grateful for your company this evening, he said. He handed her a business card. I will be pleased if our paths cross again.
She pocketed the card. Thank you for indulging me, she said, and leaned in to kiss his cheek before turning to walk away. She liked the scent of him. She could have turned back, but she didn’t. No, not yet, cautioned the inner voice, the voice of reason she has always relied on, never more so.
Saturday, she admired the early works of Paul Klee in a small museum near the hotel. She followed a guided tour of the city’s historic architecture and then stood at the railing on a tour boat gazing across the expansive lake to snow-covered mountain peaks. Afterward, she sat on a bench at a lakeside square watching two casually dressed men play chess with nearly human-sized pieces on a board painted onto the pavement. Occasionally, one or the other squatted briefly to study the board before the next move. Cigarettes dangled from their lips, which they dropped, one after another, into a pail of sand after lighting the next from the embers. They never spoke to each other, not once, nor to anyone else. They may not have even known each other.
Day turned to night. On the way back to the hotel she stopped at a bistro for a light supper. She sat at a small table with a plate of mixed cheeses, which she slipped, slice after slice, onto chunks of crusty bread and washed down with a tall glass of dark beer. She watched strangers and lovers along the bar sidle up to each other for warmth, as artificially intimate as the chess players. As her dinner with a stranger. Anonymous encounters all, of mind or body.
When she arrived at the airport the next morning, she noticed the man’s business card still in her jacket pocket, but she tossed it, without a glance, before she boarded the plane. She had no need to know his name.