By Susan (Fishman) Orlins | When he answers his phone, Peter’s German-accented English sounds so familiar.
“Of course I remember you. You had very long legs and a very short skirt.”
I look down at my legs, now spotty with sun damage, and tell him, “I’m coming to Paris and thought we might meet for coffee.”
“Ach, coffee. We have to have more than coffee.” That’s what I hoped he’d say.
The last time I saw Peter was in Paris 42 years ago, during my freewheeling first trip to Europe. This time I am headed there to write a story about wheeling around on the public bicycle system. But having tracked down Peter, I am more inspired by the story that might unfold when he and I get together.
I wonder what he’ll think of me, compared to the 20-year-old I had been. Back then I would show up in a city with no idea where I’d sleep that night. And if my five dollars a day ran low, I’d make a meal from partially eaten sandwiches left behind on café tables. These days, I have rules. I require a confirmed room with white furniture. And I carry a food bag that includes five varieties of pretzels.
Peter has rules too. He tells me he eats twice a day: breakfast at noon and ribs at three o’clock at a Chinese restaurant. Suddenly, anyone eating three squares seems dull.
We agree to meet at my hotel, and I ask for his cellphone number. With the bachelor bravado of Henry Higgins, he replies, “I have no portable phone, no email, no cat, no wife; I’m a happy man.” By contrast, I have three phones, two email addresses, one dog and two ex-husbands. Like Peter, I am happy, but I’ve been pondering for years how I might recapture the spirited girl I had been.
What Peter does have, he says, is a spare bedroom I’d be welcome to use. On the flight to Paris, my right brain chirps, “Ooh, a new romance possibility.” My left brain cuts in, “Um, pining for a guy who brews his coffee at noon, an ocean away? I don’t think so.”
“We’ll see,” I tell both brains. When Peter and I first met, I had no left brain, only a right one that could fall in love with a distant stranger before he even came into focus.
On the day of our three o’clock meeting, I park my bike at two fifty-eight. As I race to meet Peter, I poof up my helmet hair. Allowing no time to change out of my neon yellow windbreaker reflects my left brain’s idea that this rendezvous is out of mere curiosity.
I soon regret the Lance Armstrong look, because at the hotel entrance, a silver-haired, movie-star-handsome man in blue jeans stands waiting in a Superman pose. He’s still slender and looks remarkably fit, given his diet.
Breathless, I exhale, “Peter!”
“No,” he answers, flashing a pity look.
A few minutes later a paunchy, older fellow wearing chinos and walking shoes arrives. Can this be Peter?
“You look good,” he says.
“You’re looking, um, fine yourself,” I say.
We set off and as we stroll past patisseries and flower shops, Peter tells me that in the late ’60s he adopted a four-year-old girl in Africa. He shows me the scar on his wrist from a ritual blood exchange with her mother. The more outlandish his story, the more attractive he becomes; eccentric men make lousy boyfriends, but they captivate me.
He pauses in front of a bar called Miramar and says, “This is where you and I first met.”
I press my face to the glass and see the narrow stairs I wandered down more than four decades ago, into a smoky jazz cave. Across the cramped room a cute, skinny guy sat strumming guitar on a small stage. That summer I was traveling with a harmonica in my pocket, so I made my way over to him and asked, “Jouez-vous ‘Swanee River?’”—the only song I knew how to play.
Peter and I performed a duet and from then on he called me “Swanee.” By daybreak I had taken up residence with him at the top of countless stairs in his bathroom-sized flat—which actually had no bathroom—where the ceiling slanted over his sliver of a cot.
I was a free spirit only as long as my Jewish parents, who lived six time zones away, did not know I was shacking up. With a German, no less. This lent a Romeo-Juliet thrill to my romance with Peter.
After two weeks of tagging along on Peter’s job, leading German tourists around Paris, I became hungry for new possibilities. There were other countries to see, other boys to meet. So with a flourish of my Eurail pass, I waved auf wiedersehen and boarded a train to Florence.
Now, 42 years later, Peter and I enter his daily Chinese restaurant. We sit down and he tells me he once worked with chickens and, therefore, does not like eating them. Then he orders chicken.
“Ribs are too messy to eat in front of a woman, with spitting out the bones,” he says.
He suggests I order my own dish, for which I am thankful.
I ask what it was like growing up in Germany. He tells me that his father, an officer in the German army, had been away until 1943, the year Peter turned four. Then Peter hands me a small photo album. As I flip through it, he provides commentary. My eyes become riveted to an old black-and-white shot of him, shirtless. I notice how quiet he’s become. I look up to see him squeezing his head between his fists, like a vise.
“I svallowed a chicken bone,” he gurgles.
“Oh, God!” I cry. “Do you want me to do the Heimlich?”
“No!” he answers, making more throat noises and pointing to the photograph. “That picture was taken in Africa the year I adopted Rose.”
“Oh, nice, really nice,” I say, trying to act normal.
“And this one is Rose with her three children.” He reaches behind his head and pounds his back with his fist.
“Cute. So cute. Just adorable,” I say, and would have gone on this way, except that he bolts up, throws a fistful of euros on the table and announces, “I’m going to the hospital.”
“Wait! I’ll go with you.”
“No! I want to go alone!”
As he dashes toward the door, I call after him, “Well phone, and let me know how you’re doing.”
The rest of the day, I alternate between worrying about him and thinking how embarrassed I’d be if I had choked on a chicken bone an hour into our reunion. I keep checking my cell. No messages.
Wait a minute, did Peter fake the chicken bone as an exit strategy? Nah, my ego won’t hear of it.
Before going to sleep, I phone him. No answer. I picture poor Peter lying in a cold hospital bed, or worse, on a cold stone slab, though I admit—due to my attraction to a good story—the idea of him dying from a chicken bone appeals to me. But no, I really want to see him again.
I keep calling. Two days after the fateful Chinese meal, I dial his number the second I wake up. You cannot imagine how relieved I am to hear his voice.
“Peter! You’re alive!”
“No, this is Fredrik. No one has seen Peter for two days.”
“Oh my God!” I relate the chicken-bone incident to Fredrik, a starving artist Peter had told me about. I ask him to call if he hears any news.
All day I keep shaking my head, thinking this can’t really be happening. That evening, I dial again. Again a man answers. “Fredrik?”
“No, it’s Peter.”
“Peter! What happened to you?”
“Well, the first hospital transferred me to a second hospital, which is the only one in the world with this special way of removing the chicken bone.” Is he making this up?
“I told the hospital I had no family and no friends, because it was embarrassing and I wasn’t going to tell anyone. But you told Fredrik and now everyone in Germany knows and everyone in Paris knows.” Then, without transition, he asks whether I want to go with him to see a Japanese Noh drama.
And I say, “No-o-o.”
I’ve seen enough drama. Disappearing for nearly three days without calling? I wave a nostalgic farewell to my free spirit and settle in with the comfort of rules. My right brain never had a chance.
Susan (Fishman) Orlins CW’67 is author of the recently published memoir, Confessions of a Worrywart: Husbands, Lovers, Mothers, and Others, from which this story is adapted.