Jessu John is a journalist, writer and runner. Her poems have been published in The Rusty Nail, Sugar Mule and Urban Confustions. Short stories – reading them or writing them – are her ideal break from poetry. As a journalist, she writes on a range of subjects featuring small and emerging businesses to large consumer brands. The half marathon is her favourite distance.
Eliza Loves A Warm Kitchen
MUNICH, July 2002
“Always knew something was wrong,” he says, shaking his head. A flicker of sadness crosses his angular face. He looks out the window, and suddenly, he is no longer wooden like he has seemed in all the years Eliza has known him.
A year after she left Hamburg, she has returned to his country. She hadn’t imagined making her way back to Germany ever again. In Munich for a brief visit with an aunt, she called on Andreas. He has changed jobs, something she thought he’d never do. She remembers him saying also that he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Hamburg had all the excitement he needed.
Andreas knew so much about nearly everything. He was like Johannes, her husband, in that way. But after every road trip the three of them took together, she wished that these two men would travel the whole world without her. Johannes’ pride was inflamed at Andreas’ vast knowledge. At home, Johannes would seethe at her for not talking, for not interrupting Andreas’ thesis on the latest jet by Airbus. A wearying long argument at the end of a leisurely evening meant that Eliza would just fall into bed without even taking her shoes off. “Not going anywhere with Andreas again,” she’d promise herself.
It’s Sunday. They’re at Café am Beethovenplatz, the continuous hum of families and tourist groups at brunch backing a live piano, the buzz at its peak at noon.
She catches him turning the glass of Riesling around in his pale fingers, blue eyes limpid in the light from the chandeliers. Munich seems to have quietened Andreas. There was nothing or no one between them now, and that was a new feeling. Four hours on, Eliza has alternated between cups of coffee and tea. She hasn’t missed the hard bread one bit, but the gouda, the camembert, blue Cambozola warm her up inside like the most pleasant of memories.
“Du hast nie gesagt… aber warum? You should’ve talked to someone.” He sighs and leans back, eyes cast upward, where they briefly rest on the cream stucco ceiling.
Swilling a white cup with the remnants of her cappuccino, she studies Andreas and realizes she finds his ordinary features loveable. His was a familiar face after all; there was comfort in it. It told her that aside from the circumstances, some things may remain the same. Andreas seemed like the same person she once knew, just less talkative.
The piano falls silent. The calm of the café in the late afternoon is broken abruptly by chairs dragging and strings squawking.
“Du hast nie gefragt. You say now you always knew.” She toys with an unfinished piece of Knäckebrot, Bavarian crisp bread, on her plate.
A group of students has walked in and taken over the neighbouring long table. The fiddlers are setting up for the evening.
Jars of orange juice and baskets of bread float by. Brunch is being cleared away and the students are calling out names of pizzas, the air ringing with Schinken, Käse, Tomate and Oliven. Eliza can’t help but try and match der, die and das to the words. Her early days in Hamburg were spent trying to get her head around many forms of the article for different nouns.
“So funny how English pop music plays nearly all the time over FM here but I couldn’t move an inch in your country without German,” she says, bringing a wink and a low chuckle out of Andreas.
Eliza takes in the name on the waitress’ badge. Angelika. “Polish, nearly always Polish,” she notes to herself.
Andreas sighs like a full man sighs, flashes a smile at the waitress, throws her a “Sehr gut, danke!” and motions for the check.
“Polish, oder?” he remarks when she has left. Eliza smiles.
“We had all the time in the world, for all of four years… you never asked.”
Later, at dinner, Eliza speaks of it all with me. It’s wonderful to see her again. She’d left so abruptly, I remember feeling like someone had died. She has not let go of my hand all evening.
It’s the second time here for us both. Eliza and I last dined at The Hofbräuhaus along with Johannes. Having her to myself this time feels like a dream.
A couple of years ago, when I’d driven up to Munich with the two of them, we stayed a weekend just before the Oktoberfest mania kicked off. September here is beautiful. The end of summer carries a spirit that chooses happiness in the manner of those deeply aware that the days ahead are only getting darker. Eliza was always beautiful, but her smile betrayed a secret strain in those days. It was clear to me Johannes had a face, one among multiple faces, that only Eliza had to deal with.
Eliza didn’t like winters, so in my kitchen was where we’d end up.
In full-blown summer, everything is just gorgeous in this part of Germany. Through the chaos of clinking beer mugs now, and the babble on our long table, I am silenced more by Eliza. Squashed together by merry strangers on either side of us, our Weißbier breaths mingling, I follow her smiles and I’m happy.
“Und?” she asks, trying to get me to talk, between bursts of chatter. I don’t get to speak all that much, because she keeps launching into something she’s remembered and wants to tell me. I’ve taken an early ICE from Hamburg. I’m tired, but I’d listen to Eliza all day, even if Andreas crops up often, and it unsettles me.
She’d been back home in India for a year and I’m surprised at how eventful a time Eliza has had for someone as subdued as I knew her to be. But I remind myself I could not know everything about her. She’d had another life way before her years in Hamburg, one that I wasn’t a part of. I note every detail of her face as she talks away, and I’m caught between the desire to kiss her and waiting a moment longer so that I don’t miss anything – her eyes, every cock of her head, dance of those raven eyebrows and a distinct tremor of the lips before a smile spreads on her tender face.
I’ve missed Eliza.
WASHINGTON D.C., April 2003
Home, to me, was where Eliza and I took long walks over Hamburg’s bridges along myriad canals, stopping for Kaffee und Kuchen in the city centre, or visiting museums.
Summers were just the best. When I treated her to crêpes for the first time by the river, she’d said, “Sehr lecker! Closest thing to Paper Masala Dosa, only this is sweet!”
“I’ve heard of Dosa, yeah…” I’d replied, amused at the delight on her face.
“It’s Pfannkuchen, the savoury kind,” she explained, the corners of her mouth glistening with apfelmus. Eliza had a bit of an addiction to sweet apple sauce, sometimes eating teaspoons of it on its own.
If she could, even for the tiny second it took for her brown eyes to flutter, see how I felt, we’d have a chance – Eliza and Berndt. I’ll confess I feel like a hapless bum in America in spite of all the trappings of convenience I enjoy here. But I would follow Eliza to the ends of the earth.
I had managed to find a role I thought I would enjoy at the World Bank. As luck would have it, I got the job. I followed her to smoggy D.C. She’d already been here a few months, enrolled at the University. Back home, I could bury my frustrations over Eliza’s blindness in the company of friends. Some of them were beautiful women, but I never took any of them home. I took Eliza home a lot, but she was such a sweet picture as she sat in my kitchen, prattling thoughtfully, that all my ideas of making love to her had to be forcefully pushed aside.
It was a cold November in 1998 in Hamburg when she started to visit me more and more. Johannes was away a lot. The first time, she walked right into my kitchen and we sat there all evening, just talking. “Love how warm it is in here,” she’d remark every time. Eliza didn’t like winters, so in my kitchen was where we’d end up.
There’s a café down the road from my apartment here. It’s not quite like Hamburg’s Schmidt, where she and I often spent time together. Mary and Joe’s has lounge chairs, and although they need reupholstering, there’s warmth to the place. Mary lights up whenever Eliza and I walk in. She thinks we’re sweethearts.
It’s Thursday. By three o’clock, I’ve cleared my desk at work, so I phone her. I knew this was a lighter day of the week for her.
“Hey, you doing anything you can’t abandon?”
“See you in an hour?” I can feel her smiling into the phone.
The weather’s great, like a good sign for anything. I walk five blocks to the florist. I think I’m going to do it today.
“Who are they for?” Janice asks, mixing a few yellow roses into the red ones.
“The girl I want to marry, but I haven’t asked her out yet.”
Snipping away the extra length of the stems, she looks up briefly and smiles. I want to tell someone, anyone, about Eliza.
“She’s got brown eyes – not too light or too dark. Just the perfect shade.”
“Awww,” she sighs. “She from around here?”
Janice’s family is from China, but she has an American passport now. She just likes to know where everyone else is from.
“Bangalore, a city in the southern part of India.”
“Oh, I can imagine, oh, Indian women have beautiful eyes,” she nods furiously, throwing me a friendly wink.
“Her smile is like the sun in springtime…” There’s a tiny wave of anxiety coursing through me as Andreas crosses my mind.
“Okay, big bunch of red for your lady with some sunny yellows smiling back at her,” Janice coos, handing me the bouquet.
I hail a taxi to Mary and Joe’s. I first met Eliza at the gym I used to frequent in Hamburg. She was ordering a protein shake. Her eyes were a warm brown; they twinkled even when she wasn’t smiling. When she got her drink, she swivelled on the stool and caught my eye. I smiled, she smiled back, then picked up her duffel bag and left.
I kept looking out for her after that. A couple of weeks later, I ran into her on the stairs to the changing rooms. I said, “Hey!” She smiled at me, flicked the bangs off her face, and I noticed a gold wedding band, when someone called out to her.
Beautiful name, I thought. She skipped down the stairs towards the treadmills in the direction of a 30-something guy. He said something to her quickly, index finger poking behind him, and continued his run. She went over to where the dumbbells were and brought him a couple.
I wasn’t crushed that she was married, but I couldn’t stop myself from trying to talk to her. Eliza was friendly, only betraying uneasiness when Johannes was around. I chatted away with him too, although usually he managed most of the talking. The three of us even got around to meeting some Saturdays just to walk about in the Stadtzentrum and enjoy afternoon coffee. She didn’t have much to say in the beginning, but she was always polite. Sometimes I’d let Johannes hog the conversations so that I could just look at Eliza, pretend to take in every word of his waffling.
At the time, our little excursions worked well for me. Friends I had had in common with Petra, my ex-girlfriend, were just not that available anymore. A blessing, perhaps. Six years of sharing a space with someone meant there was so much forgetting to do. Together, Johannes and Eliza filled a hole I was not always keen to acknowledge. And how do you forget when old friends tend to remind you of an old life?
New to the single life all over again, my work at Berenberg Bank was soothingly busy that quarter. But coming back to the apartment wasn’t as comforting. I didn’t let myself go on cleaning the house or washing but I ate junk a lot of the time, the pantry well-stocked with Lays and Lindt and sweet, dense Zitronenkuchen from the neighbourhood bakery just a block away. About three months into hanging out with each other often enough, Eliza would sometimes bring me home-cooked food, as if she sensed I needed some nurturing. Then with Johannes travelling on weekends, she and I kept up the Saturday afternoon coffee tradition. I began to enjoy it when I had her all to myself, and soon, the odd times he was there began to feel awkward.
At Mary and Joe’s, Eliza’s already seated in her favourite corner of the café. She has a white dress on, I rehearse lines as I walk up to her. She sees me, flashes her smile, and says, “Hello, darling, are those for me?”
Mary comes up to us right then and gushes over the flowers. She says her Joe used to buy her roses every week. I hand Eliza the bouquet, land a peck on her cheek, ruing a lost moment.
Eliza wants a cappuccino and I order an iced tea. Her long, black hair, gathered on to one shoulder, has tints of brown in parts as the four o’ clock sun falls in on us. She pushes her books to the side on the table, places the bouquet down on it.
“Und?” I ask, squeezing her gently, my arm around her shoulders.
“Und, und, und… I have permission from the Department. Couple of hours, three days of the week, at the primary school.” She’d been telling me she wanted to set some money aside, even if her PhD program funded her well enough for the moment.
“Wunderbar! Nice that’s sorted now, eh?” I continue, playing with the tassels on her left sleeve.
“Andreas has changed jobs again. I can’t believe that man. He was never like that,” she says as I take her hand.
“But he hasn’t changed his car,” she laughs. “Going steady with her, you should see how he takes care of her!”
She picks up the bouquet, lowers her head to smell the roses. “You know, sometimes I think that he must love me.”
I want to take her chin and say, “He’s not the only one.”
Our drinks arrive. I touch her shoulder. She turns to me, and holds me in her gaze momentarily. “You know, I didn’t care then who loved me or who did not.”
The last time she’d said that, Eliza and I were having dinner at my apartment in Hamburg. “I don’t know who he is sometimes,” she had said.
There’s a tear forming in her left eye now, and she blinks it away. I know I have to wait.
“I just shut down, you know. Most of the time, I felt I couldn’t cry anymore, couldn’t laugh anymore. Four years in which I couldn’t feel a thing.”
My insides twist within me.
She had eyes that cut at the cynic I thought I was. I would do anything to have them smile again. One Saturday, back in Hamburg, was when I knew for the first time that all was not well. I had phoned her so we could head out for coffee earlier and a relaxed lunch. She was fine with the plan; Johannes had left that morning for Prague. I went over to her house, and she met me at the door red-eyed.
“Wie geht’s? All okay?”
“Ja, gut. I need your help with my bookshelf. It’s come apart.”
We entered the study and books were lying all over the floor.
“This is a flimsy shelf. I keep telling Johannes we must get me a stronger one.”
I check to see what needs fixing. She begins picking up books and stacking them.
“So what happened here really?”
“I told you, it came apart. Everything just tumbled down.”
I wasn’t so sure, because even if it were an old, cheaply made piece, a shelf coming apart on its own wouldn’t look like someone had kicked at it. It was badly broken in one place.
“I’m going to get boxes for the books, if you think it can’t be fixed.” She walks out.
I suspected the shelf did not collapse on its own. I thought I’d just help her pack her books and found her in the kitchen kneeling with boxes, her face fractured with quiet sobs. She looked up, saw me and hid her face, her shoulders convulsing. I remember we sat there on the floor, and I held her, saying nothing. We spent the afternoon at the Hamburg Museum after picking at sandwiches and ordering many rounds of coffee at the café there.
My iced tea has watered down now; I’m not enjoying it that much. “You should’ve left him a long time ago… if you’d told me something, I’d have paid for you to fly back home.” I’m not sure she even hears me.
I know it takes people time to get over unfortunate periods in their lives. I just wish I could fast forward her into times of peace and mirth. I smooth her hair away from the side of her face, and she turns to me, looking me straight in the eyes, a full encircling look that felt as good as her arms around me are sure to have felt.
“Weißt du, dein Lachen singt,” I say to her. Her smile returns, and I say again, “Your laughter sings.”
She cups her chin, her face widening slowly, a dawn breaking. I touch her chin playfully, and feel the warmth on her neck behind her palms. “And I like the sound of that music.”
Looking at her, I think she could do with more wrinkles, those that form around the eyes and mouth when people laugh a lot.
HAMBURG, June 2001
It’s Friday. I’ve asked her over to dinner to mine. Johannes has been working late every day of the week for the last two years. It’s been a while since the three of us hung out together. I’ve suspected that the man is having an affair, but I don’t want to suggest it to her, and I have a funny feeling Eliza knows.
I’ve seen sides of Johannes that I can’t understand. Like that time when we were driving around once and she got car-sick. He was occupied with talking. I took Eliza to the sidewalk and said, “Walk around a bit. You’ll feel better.”
I rubbed her back. “We’re not in a hurry to get anywhere. Is it my driving?”
“No. I get like this all the time,” she smiled at me weakly.
Eliza walked around, trying to regain her composure, breathing the country air deeply. Johannes paced beside her, talking non-stop. She leaned into me a little, saying, “I’d love to just sit here on the sidewalk; can’t think of going home.”
I recall the events of that day. An urge rises to hug her. She’s seated at the breakfast bar. I reach out for her, and she asks, “Did I ever tell you about what happened when Andreas, Johannes and I went on holiday?” I pat her head and turn my attention to the oven.
The three of them were near Brandenburg in the countryside last summer. One night, unwinding in a logwood pub, she was sipping on some hot chocolate. Andreas had ordered some wine. Johannes was going on about the dart boards, oblivious that no one was listening. Andreas was telling her of his parents’ cabin in the forest and of his skiing trips.
Two hours and many wines later, Andreas grabbed her hand, spoke her name out loud, and had everyone in the pub turning around. A few of them tittered, knowing he had had too much. Her face was burning. Her hand, brown and bony, was encased in his and she did not expect his skin to be so soft. His hand felt comforting, warm, protective. But she was also beginning to feel sick. All she remembers now is his forefinger stroking her wrist briefly. It felt deliberate, even if he seemed out of control. She tells me that he didn’t once take his eyes off her.
“The man knew what he was doing,” I think to myself, and hoping to move on from Andreas, I ask her, “Are you drinking tonight? Want to pick out the wine?”
Back in their room, once they had turned out the lights, she’d felt tears at the corners of her eyes as Johannes snored, his arm heavy on her shoulder. She pressed her lips together afraid that she might burst out crying. She’d held her own hand under the blankets in an attempt to relive Andreas’s touch.
I love hearing her talk, though I find the reality of her life discomfiting. She has a way of winding in and out of little stories she has collected of Andreas and Johannes. It’s like a slow wander in the woods; I get to know more and more of her. I do want to stop her sometimes and say, “Let’s talk of other things. Nice things.”
I’m leaving, she had said. Just that, and a deep, worn-out sigh.
She’d told me how on her saddest days, she’d consider walking into the Elbe to be washed away into oblivion. But when that thick cloud passed in an hour or two, she’d step into the shower and weep loudly with the water turned on at full force. That way the neighbours couldn’t hear her (the walls were as good as paper-thin). It pains me to think of her crying alone but I’ve stopped myself from asking why she won’t leave him – I can’t imagine Hamburg without her.
I turn to look at her again. She’s laying the table, meticulous about the cutlery. She looks up at me, crinkles her face shyly, admitting she’s forgotten to answer me. “No, sweetie, I won’t be drinking. How’s dinner looking?”
“It’s Kalbsrouladen tonight, all well. I’ll have some of that Merlot from yesterday.”
“You know, when he holds me at night, I feel like a prisoner in his arms. But there’s also something about Johannes that reminds me of egg shells.” She’s laying the napkins out, head cocked, perfecting the fold.
“He brings the roof down with his crying some days. It begins with a memory from far back in his childhood. His brothers being better than him at football. His twin brother marrying before him. He didn’t get toys one Christmas. That sort of thing.”
I kiss her on the cheek, rub her arms and ask her, “Ready?”
“I only know that the woman he was seeing before he married me had walked out on him. She got up while they were having dinner one evening, put her coat on and left without a goodbye.”
She smoothes the tablecloth out, her eyes shining. “I’m hungry. Smells delicious!”
The next evening, Johannes had one of his meltdowns. “I’ve been rejected all my life,” he whimpered. Then he cried and cried all night. Eliza hadn’t slept at all. She’d sat up patting his back, trying to calm him down. She met me at Schmidt in the morning, and as I watched her, I wanted to take her away from all of it.
A week from that dinner, there was a message blinking on my answering machine.
I’m leaving, she had said. Just that, and a deep, worn-out sigh.
WASHINGTON D.C., December 2003
Johannes hasn’t left her alone. Two years on, she was still receiving calls from him asking her to try working things out. He’d made a few visits to D.C., saying he was really trying to make amends with Eliza, even if he was here on a business trip.
She’s doing better, more cheerful than I’ve ever known her. Only the recent phone calls from Johannes left her unsettled all over again. The last time he’d told her of stories he’d heard at church of divorced couples getting back together. That he was back in our lives annoyed me and I saw more lines creasing Eliza’s forehead. He once got in touch with me, too. He asked to see me. The evening ended in an argument, I never saw him after that. Although I tried to make Eliza see she didn’t have to take his calls anymore, she still betrayed a dread of him.
A couple of weeks ago, Andreas was here, too. Eliza told me Johannes had somehow turned up in the city at the same time. It irked me that he managed to get Eliza and Andreas to meet him over an Indian dinner. I didn’t think it would go very well. For “old times’ sake” Johannes had said.
It’s been very cold here, unlike winters we’ve had in twenty years. Andreas was already at Eliza’s before Johannes turned up and asked if they could all have tea before they left for Swagat, one of the most recommended Indian restaurants in the city. After tea, Andreas was helping Eliza with her coat when Johannes began moaning.
“Need two coats, two, two,” he mumbled, shaking and slipping into his.
By the time they had locked the door and left the house, Johannes was visibly shivering and cursing. In the taxi, Eliza ignored him and kept her eyes on Andreas, who was saying he may take a break from working full-time. that he wanted a consulting role for a while. In the front seat, Johannes’ moaning got louder. The taxi driver made small talk about the unpredictability of the weather. Soon Johannes began swearing so loud that Andreas stopped mid-sentence and scolded, “You grew up in one of the coldest parts of the world, Johannes. You should know how to wrap up better.” Eliza felt herself turning red, and she cannot remember if it was because she hoped Andreas was not upset with them or because Johannes had to be reprimanded in that manner. But the moaning stopped. At dinner, thankfully, Andreas was cheerful again, Johannes had calmed down and conversation was pleasant with even some touches of light-heartedness.
Eliza said to me later that it did feel like old times, except that old times now came with flashbacks and inexplicable bouts of the flu. It’s true she’s been unwell often this year, picking up colds from the kids that she teaches at the primary school. It didn’t help that the months of October and November had her working at an especially frenetic pace. Last month, she’d had a severe bronchial infection. I moved her into my apartment for three weeks.
I haven’t had a chance yet to formally ask Eliza out. But I want to manage this before Christmas. She still speaks of Andreas way more than I can get comfortable with. I was envious of this man whom she admired even if he inspired boredom in me. I’m far better looking. He can’t cook to save his life, doesn’t seem to spend a night with anyone other than his history books and his iPad. And before you know it, he is skiing somewhere or roaming around in South-east Asia on holidays by himself. I can’t say that Eliza seemed all that excited when she spoke of him.
Maybe, one day, she’ll notice my kitchen has everything she’s always wanted.
She rings one morning, telling me that Andreas had phoned. He brought up Hamburg again. “I always knew he treated you in a way I could not ever imagine treating you, Eliza.”
I want to pipe up and say, “That’s what I’ve been saying all along. I told you to leave him. I knew you deserved better!”
Instead I begin to ask, “Eliza, would you consider…”
She butts in gently. “Andreas wants to visit for a month. I think it would be alright if he stayed with me.”
In the drawer by my bed, just under the telephone, is a blue velvet box. At the billing counter yesterday, when I seemed unsure and opened the box once more for a final look, the salesman at the jewellers’ assured me that platinum was the only way to go these days. The ring was custom-made, it had diamonds. I was going to propose to her, just cut to the chase.
Last evening, I’d imagined how the ring would encircle her slender ring finger, its cold metal accentuating her honey-brown skin. How if she cupped her face with her hands, her eyes would outshine the stories.
That loser will learn to cook, in my warm kitchen, I think. Maybe, one day, she’ll notice my kitchen has everything she’s always wanted. I’ll change the lights to the yellow, the energy-consuming kind. I don’t care about the environment anymore, I just want Eliza to drown in my blue eyes.
“Berndt?” she murmurs.
“Meet you at our café? In ten?” I ask, picking up the velvet blue box.
“I have to go, sweetie…”
“There’s something I have to say, Eliza.” My fingers, clenched around the receiver, hurt.
She says nothing. Under my collar, slow heat spreads, I feel a bite at the corners of my eyes, and the silence feels long.
“Berndt, you’re my safe place,” she breathes finally, and she’s gone.
I hate that I’m crying.
I will always return to you, she had said.