Beth Goldner, 1/30/2017

Current occupation: Protocol associate for clinical trials
Previous occupation: Medical Editor
Contact Information: Beth Goldner is the author of the short story collection, Wake, and the novel, The Number We End Up With. She does the 9-to-5 thing and writes in her free time. She lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her one-eyed mutt, Millie.

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SHE WAS WELL AGAIN

 

Daniel Cartwright’s vendor booth was next to hers. He worked for a science publisher selling anatomy books, tomes with four-color spreads of carefully drawn hearts and livers, x-rays of kidneys and bones, and images of cerebellums and spines. She sold cadaver tables for a German company that made and distributed products for medical schools. They were in Austria, in the southern city of Graz, for the yearly conference of the International Anatomy Association. She had been at her booth for less than five minutes when he came up to her with an outstretched arm, giving her hand a firm shake. He talked for the next several minutes, so rapidly that all she took away was that he was from London and hated his job. She was disarmed by his unwavering eye contact, but she knew he wasn’t attracted to her. Men know quickly whom they want to sleep with, and a woman knows just as quickly if she’s the one he wants to sleep with.

She still didn’t look very good, but he probably thought she was just a thin woman with thin hair and pale skin. He told her he wanted to hear her sales pitch, and he clapped his hands together, rubbing them back and forth. Come on, he said, let’s see what you got. She gave him a tentative smile and untied the rope from a mooring that, for two years, had held her. She put her hand on the cold steel and, using the inflections of her sales voice, explained how the table was part of a new line, designed to meet the needs for handling obese cadavers. Large bodies hang over the sides of standard tables, she explained, and this causes problems with blood pooling and limb release. She pointed to the accompanying organ trays, handed him dissecting instruments to look at, and showed him glossy brochures that detailed the specs of storage units, funnel drains, and body lifts. Daniel Cartwright nodded throughout her presentation and then, with a wink, asked if she had ever put herself up on that table, flat on her back, as part of her sales demonstration. She laughed softly. He smiled. Then she laughed more when she realized that it had snuck up on her: that casual, meaningless laugh we laugh. Her eyes brightened, head back, looking at the ceiling in relief.

She wound up with the job the way people wind up with most anything—husbands and wives, addictions, houses—she fell into it. The company she worked for wanted a salesperson that was American, for they believed that Americans know best how to convince others to spend their money. When she began the job, she was living in Heidelberg with her then-husband Juergen. She ran exhibit booths at anatomy conferences and visited medical schools across the globe, to Rome, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Helsinki. Juergen travelled extensively for his job, too. All of that absence did not make their hearts grow fonder. But they soldiered on. They loved each other.  Eventually their parting did come, and as no surprise. In a marriage, you need regular sex, or even occasional sex, even boring, married sex, to not turn into roommates. In the end, it was like a farewell of old friends in which one of them was moving out of town, except they both stayed in Heidelberg.

When she was sick, Juergen and his new wife, Sabine, came to her apartment every week, sometimes more. Sabine was spunky and wiry, always bossing her around. They were well intentioned if a bit dense, bringing her pot-roast and homemade sausages with spicy mustard. Food made her sick, but she would eat it anyway and then throw up after they left. They would clean the apartment, do laundry, and wash dishes. Sabine would rearrange a closet or drawer, telling her she needed to become more organized. Their assumption that she would be fine sustained her. She was thirty-four years old. She would have been desperate otherwise.

“I need help buying a souvenir for my wife,” Daniel Cartwright said a few hours after their day began.

“Let’s go sit outside somewhere and have coffee, then do some shopping.”

“I can’t just leave,” she said, and her chuckle was laced with seriousness.

She hadn’t become awash in carpe diem after everything. She still sweated over small, insignificant things. She was offended by rude people and impatient in long lines. She relied on these petty annoyances, for they reestablished the minutia of normalcy. And when it came to work, she remained hyper-diligent and feared recourse for bad decisions, whether real or imagined.

“Maybe a piece of jewelry,” he said, as if she hadn’t spoken.

He took his blazer from the chair and put it on, smoothing his lapel and checking his reflection at the nearby window.

“Come on, let’s go,” he said. “We’ll see if you have good taste.”

The university building housing the conference was all square edges and straight lines, more windows than walls. Their walk was a slow transition from antiseptic city streets, through a leafy park, to the center of the Old City, where they found the Hauptplatz, an open square with cafes and shops. The buildings of the square were colors of mint and sienna and pale yellows, with facades of wedding-cake swirls, gargoyles, and sculpted women holding vases on their shoulders. They sat outside and drank coffee. It was April, a sunny day. She didn’t like his hair, which was short frizz that stuck on his head like a helmet, but he had solid hands and his button-up shirt fit so well it made her wonder what his chest looked like. They talked about him. She asked him questions, and mostly listened. She found him interesting because what poured out of his mouth was the flow of all the things we do in this world—complain about our neighbors, tell small stories, wax philosophical, make restaurant recommendations, brag, talk about our spouses and our jobs—the everything of everything. As pretty girls walked by, his gaze followed them. She knew she would never be looked at that way, her body and mere presence, slighted forever. And, despite the fact that she was never looked at that way in the first place, she mourned the loss of the potential.

He cocked his head after his last sip of coffee and suggested they go get a beer. It was one o’clock in the afternoon.

“I never buy jewelry sober.”

 

Three months before her trip to Graz, she had a conference to attend in St. Petersburg. It was her first trip since she started working again. It was a ridiculous notion, to travel so soon. She was fine in many aspects, but still simply so tired that it seemed like she dreamed her way through her days and nights, like life was one hour, the same hour, and most of the time that hour was two o’clock in the morning. But she insisted on going to the conference, anyway. She wanted to be on an airplane. She liked closing her eyes and imagining she was on a city bus in the sky, so high up but with everyday people. She wanted crowds.

St. Petersburg was her favorite city, dripping with history and sadness and churches that held stories of Tsars and saints. Her favorite was Church on Spilled Blood, with massive domes covered in blue and green tiles, some wrapped in colored swirls, and some just a smooth angry gold. The domes clustered proudly against the church, looking over the Neva River, mirror-imaging itself. The church made her think that all people who have been ill, so very ill, should walk through its doors to be reminded they aren’t alone. Because Tsar Alexander II—assassinated on the church grounds, his body bleeding out—a ruler who we imagine as brimming with strength, was, like the rest of us, taken down. Not that special. It’s just that most of us don’t get columns made of lapis and saints painted on ceilings and Christ at the altar.

On her flight home from St. Petersburg, she had had a layover in Frankfurt. She had worn her heaviest coat. She sat sweating at the gate waiting for her flight and smelled in deep the smell of travel, musty and ripe, how everything is touched and pushed. At each gate was a coffee machine with Styrofoam cups and sweeteners. A young man in a yellow shirt and blue jeans rode a bicycle from gate to gate, barely a hundred paces between. A metal box was attached to the back of his bicycle and, at each coffee station, he’d open the box, take out new filters and ground coffee, creamers and stirrers. He started new pots of coffee, tidied the station. Then he’d get back on his bicycle, ride to the next gate: repeat.

What an amazing job, she thought, to bicycle around the Frankfurt airport! Riding by those who are passing by! She wondered if she could get a job doing that. She knew she would look silly. Daniel Cartwright, she later thought, on her way home from Graz, he with his mouthy ways, his European style, his command, could definitely get paid to ride a bicycle through the Frankfurt airport.

She wanted to ask the boy how he got his job, if he had always liked riding bikes, if he liked coffee. She wanted to see the look on his face of, Who the hell are you, lady? But he wouldn’t say that. He didn’t look like that kind of boy. But she wanted that right to ask. It was another reason she started to travel again so soon. She wanted casual conversations, like the ones you have at conferences, with as many people as possible, casual conversations that were more than a few sentences exchanged between yourself and the cashier at the supermarket or a bank teller.  Because people you meet, she thought, new people, people you have conversations with, well, they just never have any idea what a person has been through. They don’t even think to think about that. You move to new cities and towns, or start new jobs, or date new people, sit on a three-hour plane ride talking to the person in the seat next to you, and you never have to offer your tragedy, nor will it be solicited. Not for a while, at least. Many will offer theirs to you. But, if classy and discrete, you won’t reciprocate and you’ll keep your problems to yourself. You are thin because you simply are. Your hair is thin because it simply is. That’s how it has always been as far as they are concerned. You can simply have a conversation with a man or woman, and they never think to ask, What has been your tragedy? You settle into a place, even eight days at an anatomy conference in Austria and, unless somebody asks and pushes, they will not notice what to you and loved ones are known, and greatly noticeable.

 

She and Daniel Cartwright strolled through the narrow cobblestone streets of the Old City, passing a woman on a corner playing the harp and admiring tall doors of distressed wood with brass knockers. Storefronts displayed scarves and expensive handbags. There weren’t many tourists and she was surprised that a place so beautiful could be missed by so many. She thought of everything as a secret: the city itself, Daniel Cartwright’s la-di-dah lack of understanding of her. It was brilliant.

Neither had a map, but they found their way to Grazer Schlossberg—the Castle Mountain—with its ruined fortress and medieval clock tower. Daniel Cartwright said they had to have a tourist trap of a bar at the top. These places always do, he commented. There were two ways to reach the top: climb two hundred stone steps laid down a few centuries ago, or take a lift. Before she said anything, Daniel Cartwright told her they’d take the steps, not even looking to see she was wearing high heels. Her ears burned, and she was concerned she wouldn’t even make it to the top. She climbed the steps anyway, not doing so to please him or prove something to herself. Instead, she wanted a drink with Daniel Cartwright and she was compelled by how inconsiderate he was, his capability in just being that kind of a person.

When they got to the top, she felt like vomiting. Her back was itchy and her armpits sweaty. They sat in an overpriced beer garden next to the fortress and drank Puntigamer. She hated beer.

“Look at that view,” he said.

Below them was a spread of buildings, topped with brown and orange roofs, a cluster of angles vying for space, framed by green mountains.

“That’s what I don’t like about the States,” she said. “Sure, there’s the Grand Canyon and, well, nature. But there’s not much to look at, not like this.”

She could tell he was listening to her, but he was still looking at the view.

“But places like this,” she said, “all of these lives that have been lived. You can look, I mean, look, you can see things from the 1500s. It never gets old, you know?”

“Just older.”

“Exactly,” she said.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“How old do you think I am?”

She didn’t want to know what his answer was—she did look older now—but she was too caught up in the joy of making a quick comeback to care.

“Where do you live?” he asked, and he looked at her as if he never asked her about her age, no wink or smirk, just a face with an even curiosity, genuine.

They had been in each other’s company for six hours and he had finally asked her where she lived.

“Heidelberg.”

“How did you wind up there?”

“My ex-husband. He’s German.”

“Funny, I’ve never been there. What’s it like?”

He was looking at her now, his legs crossed and shoulders relaxed. She liked his square-toed shoes. They looked Italian.

“The old part of the city is a bit like Graz. Cobblestone streets. Big castle at the top of a hill with too many stone steps,” she said, winking at him.

“Sounds thrilling,” he said, turning his head back toward the view.

Her faced reddened. She felt protective of Heidelberg. It had defined so much of her life since she entered adulthood. It was where she met Juergen who now, along with Sabine, remained her true north. Philadelphia is not my home, she had said to her family when she was sick. They tried to convince her to come back to the States. For a short time, in the thick of it, even Germany stopped being home. My body is going to be my home, she had said to herself. So everything was okay: she was home.

“Is it worth taking my wife there for vacation?” he said, trying to recover. “Anything interesting to see?”

She didn’t want to tell him about the usual, the tourist traps and places to get good beer. And he wouldn’t care about the Old Bridge that crosses the Neckar River. She wanted to tell him about a place that was very important to her, but doing so without him knowing it was about her. So she said it, The Dokumentation Museum. It was a small step for her, telling him this, as if she was testing the waters of her life.

Her friend Lena had told her about the museum, that she had taken her mother.

“She slapped me in the face when we walked out,” Lena had said to her.

“Why?”

“It’s a terribly upsetting place. I kind of sold it to her wrong, told her it was a museum about the gypsies—but for Christ sake don’t say the word gypsy if you go there, they’ll kick you out. They’re ethnic groups, the Roma and the Sinti. I left out the part that it was about their slaughter during Holocaust. All my mother does is complain. I wanted her to have some perspective.”

When she went to the museum, she wasn’t sick yet, but only insofar as being told by a doctor she was sick. She already knew, for months having registered subtle announcements by her body that something was wrong. Acting like it wasn’t happening wasn’t going to stop it from happening, she finally realized. So, before she went and found out what was wrong, she went to the museum. It was tucked away on Bremeneckgasse Street in the city center. She declined the audio tour headphones, not interested in what anybody had to say. The museum was small and simple, wall after wall of photos: skinny naked boys, Nazi doctors measuring the sizes of skulls of Roma women and Sinti men, groups of adults sitting on the dusty ground looking resolved. There was a picture of children on their walk to a death camp. They were smiling. This cannot be possible, she had thought. And then that one picture: six women, photographed from behind, shoulder-to-shoulder on the precipice of a trench, still ample with curves. Their skirts were blowing in the wind. Some weren’t wearing shoes. One woman was wearing only a slip, a white flutter around her knees. The picture was taken, she imagined, by someone standing next to the man who would shoot them. To not look your death in the eye, but knowing it is right behind you, must be far more terrifying than to watch it, she thought.

She was almost at the stairs to the second floor when she saw a large grainy photo from afar, black-and-white and blown wide. It was a scene of people walking down streets. She went and stood closely to it. In the cityscape was a building with smoke pluming from atop, no secret to all walkers-by, she thought, that we all burn. Two weeks later, she lay on her back on a steel table and looked at the faces above her as a nurse reassured her, and she tried to pretend that she didn’t know German, that she had no clue what the nurse was saying.

“Just what does the Dokumentation Museum document?” Daniel Cartwright asked with a grin.

“The Holocaust. It’s nothing but pictures of the gypsies, well, the Roma and the Sinti,” she said.

“What about the Jews?”

“What about them?”

“Does the museum document the Jews?”

“No.”

Daniel Cartwright, who she knew already by the way he had drank his first beer, was a man who drank too much, cocked his head.

“You’re a Jew, right?” he asked. “You look like you’re Jewish, at least. Are you?”

“Yes, why?”

“Just surprised you would live in Germany.”

 

Time passed without regard, as it does when drinking alcohol in the outdoors on beautiful days, in that languid wash of smiles and laughter. The clarity of the light, the blue sky. She drank more beer. She ate bread and cheese, some pumpkin soup. She wasn’t drunk, but there was a warm buzz through her body, and her fingers felt heavy on the arm of the chair where she sat. Daniel Cartwright kept talking. He wasn’t wear a wedding ring and she wondered if he simply wasn’t the type to do so—Juergen never did—or if it was intentional. He detailed a sad childhood, a drunk of a father, abused mother, the stereotype of a blue-collar life growing up in Stoke-on-Trent.

“My dad worked in a foundry. My mom was always waiting for him to come home dead. That’s what she would say. I took it quite literally, the idea of him walking in the house dead, eating dinner, dead, and then sitting down, dead, watching the telly with the family.”

She smiled at him.

“Then I worked in the same foundry when I finished my sixth forms. My first week there, I stood next to a fellow and watched him slip and fall into a ten-foot pit of molten steel. That was it, I gave up the working class and went to university. I mean, nothing like talking to a guy about the girl you fucked the night before and in a flash looking down and seeing him covered in steel.”

“I should get back to the booth and cover up everything,” she said, loose but feeling responsibility set in. Her beer stein was empty.

“No, you shouldn’t. We still have to go shopping.”

“Really, I have to get back.”

“Really,” he said, with a growing grin, shaking his head, “Who is going to steal a cadaver table?”

They took the lift down the mountain. Daniel Cartwright pulled out his phone and showed her a picture of his wife. She was behind the wheel of their car and was looking over at the camera, her one eye turned a bit toward the road. He told her that she was twenty-nine, and that he had just turned thirty-five. His wife wore dark red lipstick, had a magnificent grin, and a mess of curly brown hair.

They walked from store to store, finding handmade necklaces that were too glassy and earrings that were too expensive. Eventually, in the fourth boutique they entered, she found what she decided he should buy: a bracelet, a dainty rope of black leather strung with three silver beads. It was exactly what she wanted but, no doubt, something his wife wouldn’t. She imagined his wife would want a chunky silver bracelet with a charm or two.

She tried it on for him and it nearly fell off her bony wrist. She willed her hand to not shake, but if it did and he asked, she could blame it on the coffee. He seemed not to notice. He looked at the bracelet, moving his head side to side, sizing it up. He looked uncertain that it was the right bracelet, but with the twist of his mouth showed he was not certain that it was the wrong bracelet. Daniel Cartwright did not know his wife all that well.

“You sure?” he said, twirling the bracelet on her wrist.

He did not comment on how the bracelet hung so pathetically. She liked the solid feel of the cool beads and the silver clasp. It was a cold touch that made her want to show him the cadaver table again, tell him about the linear nature of illness, the art of catching the dead, the detached clinical purposes of the body and how our insides can be resected, parts removed, our blood let.

“Seems a little, I don’t know, understated,” he said. “Is that the word?

“No. It’s perfect. The word is perfect.”

 

It was dark. They went to another beer garden and she ordered schweinsbraten with cabbage. He laughed at her and remarked how he couldn’t believe that a Jew would not only live in Germany but also eat pork.

Her eyes began to tear up and Daniel Cartwright stared at her for a brief moment with an expression of bafflement, but then realized what he said was too much. He took her left wrist and held it with both hands and apologized. He kept his hands there and she wondered if this wrist was the one she would wear the bracelet on. The shop girl had boxed the bracelet, tied a ribbon around it, and put it in a pink bag. He gave it to her to hold in her tote while they walked. She had come up for air following two long and difficult years and she knew the things she did and did not want. She didn’t want a partner or a husband. Not now. That would come in time, later. She did not want children because, after everything, it seemed selfish to have them, to risk the betrayal of her body again. She wasn’t looking for happiness—that had become something she viewed as useless. She only wanted a piece of somebody else’s ease with the world, their flippancy, the smallest piece of what made them, them.

“It’s my home.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

He looked remorseful and shook his head.

“It’s okay. It’s just that it’s my home.”

“I’m sorry.”

He was looking down at the table. She waited and he raised his head back up, looking at her. She breathed in slowly, knowing that her lungs, her very body, appreciated the Graz air, knowing it would sustain her. She could rely on these simple, natural things, finally.

“God, really,” he said, “that was horrible to say to you.”

He kept shaking his head.

“Will you touch and taste my body?” she asked Daniel Cartwright. “Will you let me explain how everything is normal now? Or at least how I think it is normal. You should have seen the pictures at the museum. You should have seen them.”

It was as if she had been waiting the whole of her life to talk the way people do not talk.

Daniel Cartwright smiled widely, the smile of, Everything’s okay. He smiled as if he knew that this is the way in which the world works. He smiled like a drunk and, with the true drunk, well, you can say anything to them. She could see him contemplating whether or not he would touch her and listen to her stories. The bracelet, she knew, was hers now. They left the beer garden, and he touched her shoulder and she touched his neck and when he pulled her toward him she laughed, her head back, her skin all hers.

And later, when she got back to her hotel, the sun having risen but just barely, the hotel clerk nodding and also looking tired, morning still clinging to all of the previous day’s choices, she walked into her room and was surprised how warm it was. Her vision was skewed. She bent down and took off her shoes, her feet red and swollen. She woke up a few hours later, thought of her vendor booth unmanned, the tables never covered the day before, as if she had suddenly disappeared from the city altogether. She threw up into the toilet. She was still wearing the bracelet, and it got soaked with her vomit. And then she went back to sleep and she dreamt about how later that day she would find her way back, how Daniel Cartwright would come to the booth and find her there, lying on the table, in her bra and panties, hipbones jutting out, waiting for him, beneath her that table of steel, and she felt the bracelet’s lightness, almost slipping off, but ready to defend its new home.

 

 

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3 comments on “Beth Goldner, 1/30/2017
  1. Casey says:

    How you do what you do with language, Beth…criminally gorgeous.

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