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a f f i l i a t e s

Berlin

by Jen Westmoreland Bouchard | 2010

I reach down to grab my dingy leather suitcase as it rattles by on the baggage carousel. Hers comes down the shoot and I look up to make sure she noticed it. She's elsewhere, staring at a "Wilkommen in Berlin" poster but not seeing it. I wonder if it was a mistake to bring her. Our relationship has never been easy and I have regrets, lots of them. They sneak up on me when we're together. I inhale sharply as I bend down to grab her small black bag and the tattered tartan fabric on the handle grazes my hand.

"Okay."

"Oh, sorry... thanks," she wraps her wool coat around her shoulders and we exit Tegel International Airport under the ashen afternoon sky.

* * *

I wake up in the middle of the night and shuffle my way through our sterile Communist-era hotel room to get a drink of water. The icy bathroom tiles sting my bare, callused feet and I catch a glimpse of myself in the small mirror above the sink. Several strands of grey hair defiantly streak my widow's peak. Thirty and going grey. I smile and think about how being with her always makes me feel no older than a high schooler. Like time stopped in 1996.

On my way back to bed I hear a sniffle. It's different from the one caused by her allergies when she was 3 and I was 6, drifting off to sleep in our bunk beds.

"You okay?"

"No."

I crawl onto the foldout couch and curl up next to her under the covers. "Maybe he's a sociopath?" I offer.

"That doesn't make it better."

"I know."

A wave of protectiveness comes over me.

* * *

We're back in Catholic grade school. We pile into the back of the Oldsmobile and wait for Mom to lock up her classroom and drive us home. She's quiet, slumped down in her seat, skinny arms crossed over her chest, sage eyes hiding behind oversized plastic glasses. I don't need to ask—I know they mocked her again today... her slight lisp, the fact that she is smarter than the whole class combined, not to mention most of her teachers. I feel helpless, not sure what I can say without making her feel worse. I opt for silence. I turn to look at her and her eyes well up. She leans her head on my shoulder, the bow on her headband lightly scratching my cheek.

* * *

She's suffering again now. Fifteen years later and I feel as helpless as I did in the back seat of Mom's station wagon. I tell her I understand. We both have the tendency to fall too hard. "You get that from me," Dad always tells us, usually after a break-up. I had hoped coming to Berlin would help separate her from the source of her pain. I squeeze her hand and yawn, defeated.

* * *

I wake up next to her tear-soaked pillow; streaks of sun pierce the vertical blinds. We go to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in former East Berlin. It's designed to make the viewer—rather, those experiencing it—feel disoriented, anxious, lost. As we head deeper into the maze, we are separated by a line of statuesque men crossing our path, a few carrying children on their shoulders and large backpacks. I peer through them and keep walking straight ahead. I've lost her. I think of the times in the last 30 years when I wasn't there, when I could have been there.

"Hey."

I turn around.

"I found you."

* * *

We walk toward the Berliner Dom, past two men selling old Russian fur hats and a line of food vendors. I glance over to ask if she's hungry, and she's smiling. I want to tell her she's stronger, more intuitive, more connected than I'll ever be. In her 27 years, she's amassed more wisdom than I could hope to in a lifetime—and it is clear her brain and heart have not yet reached their saturation point. I wonder if she knows that I always feel better about an idea after running it by her, that in my best moment I could only aspire to have a fraction of her insight. Mostly, I want to tell her that I wish I had been there more and at the right times. Instead, I take her by the arm, gesture toward the food stalls across the sidewalk and ask in my best worst German accent "Currywurst? Nudelgeflügelpfanne?" Her eyes sparkle and a laugh escapes that takes both of us by surprise.

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