I Heard My Soul Singing Behind a Leaf
“Now repeat after me, zum wohl,” their tour group’s German sommelier said as he raised up a shot glass of wine at the other end of the long, candle-laden table.
“Zum wohl,” everyone repeated.
“Zis is zee proper way to toast zee wine. It means to good health and zee way it has been done for over four hundred years in zis wine cellar,” he said gesturing to the underground cylindrical chamber lined with oversized wine barrels and soft lighting.
From the low chatter patting the cellar walls it seemed Amsterdam had made friends of everyone in Walter’s absence. Even Curt and Kourtney had new friends they were conversing with instead of him since he had gone out of his way to sequester himself from them since boarding the bus earlier that day. Although they tried to talked to him, he told them he was too tired, then pretended to sleep or actually slept with his earbuds in for the entirety of the trip from Amsterdam to St. Goar. He just needed time to find words again. Everything felt different about himself. Not so much he’d been changed, but exposed, and someone forgot to stitch the skin back on. Now it was “real life” that felt like a dream, while his night with Shiva felt like the first time he’d actually been living. There seemed no point to the trip now. It wasn’t about writing a book, paying tribute to Amber, or any of the reasons he thought he came on this trip for. The reason was her.
So why didn’t he go on living then instead of choosing to remain dead by continuing this bus tour? Why didn’t he turn himself into the police to be with her instead of here where it seemed no one cared any differently if he was there or not? Even Curt and Kourtney had moved on from him. But who could blame them for not wanting to be around someone they were constantly having to talk off ledges? Maybe it was time Walter did the world a favor and just jumped. The universe had given him his one opportunity for love and he walked away because he was afraid. He was a coward. He was a sad and pathetic coward no one wanted to be around. The world was tired of Walter Huxley and his whining. He should just go down to the river, walk in and drown.
Silently boiling over inside, Walter excused himself to go to the restroom, but instead went upstairs and out the cellar door, toward the river.
From the darkness of the cellar, Walter emerged into twilight light atop one of the many steep and narrow brick roads of the small German town of St. Goar. Located in the lush and historic Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the surrounding slopes were dotted with medieval castles and vineyards, and the town itself kept a comparable medieval, gothic character. The streets were silent and vacated being almost nine in the evening before the Corpus Christi holiday. All the shops were closed, and even most of the houses he passed on his way to the river were shuttered and abandoned as much of the citizenry had left town.
Upon reaching the river bank, Walter hiked his pants up and waded into the water. In front of him, passing cargo ships plunged in and out of the setting sun wedging itself into the wide river gulch, spilling its blood-orange innards over the storied and fertile hills that had been battled over since the time of the Romans. Momentarily forgetting his present-day woes in imaginations of the past, Walter stayed standing in the river until it swallowed the sun whole. Then when the stars began opening their eyes, he returned to the river shore to ruminate in them as it’d been a long time since he could see and communicate with so many. But as his eyes adjusted to the light of the dark diamond sea, he noticed he was not alone in his stargazing. Up on a grassy knoll just adjacent to him was Kourtney.
“I was wondering when you were going to notice me,” she said as Walter walked over and sat beside her.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Oh about as long as you. I followed you to make sure you weren’t going to drown yourself.”
He laughed. “How’d you know?”
“Happy people don’t isolate themselves from their friends all day, suicidal people do. But furthermore, last night you told me you were going to the ‘restroom’ then disappeared for the entire night only to reappear on the bus today a completely different person. So either the real Walter got abducted by aliens last night and you were coming down here to go back to your spaceship, or, by the look on your face when you left, you were coming down here to drown yourself. Either way, I’m not letting you out of my sight again until I find out what happened last night, because obviously something happened last night.”
Walter took a few moments before responding. “Yes,” he said, “a lot happened last night, so much so I’m still trying to tally it all up and that’s why I haven’t said anything. And I'm not really suicidal, I just sometimes need to idle insignificantly in suicide’s waters to soothe the desire. That’s why I came down to the river, to soak in a little perception and find an explanation for what happened last night, because to be honest, it all still feels unexplainable.”
“And the soak didn’t help?”
“I no longer feel like killing myself, however, as far as finding an explanation, no. I was too distracted by that sunset to think about last night, which is probably good because I’ve been thinking and worrying about last night all day. That might’ve been the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen.”
“And to think we had it all to ourselves.”
“Where’s everyone else?”
“At the hostel’s pub. It’s the only place open in town. Don’t know how they could be though with this on our doorstep. Plus, this is a lot better view to drink to,” she said holding up a bottle of the town’s exclusive ice wine their sommelier had been pushing during their tasting.
“Curt too?” Walter asked.
“Yeah. And to be honest, I needed a little break from him anyhow. Not that we’re not getting along, I’m just used to being alone more, where he likes to always be in on the action. While we might be brother and sister, I’m discovering we’re also very different people. Anyway...” she held out the bottle to him, “...if a soak in the river didn’t help find an explanation, maybe a soak in this wine bottle can. Care to split it and talk last night over with me? Two heads are better than one you know. Also I restocked on joints in Amsterdam.” She then reached into her jacket pocket and handed him one.
“You always know the way to my heart Kourtney,” Walter said smiling as he took it. “And I suppose talking to someone is probably a better way of going about it.”
“Good,” she said as she began uncorking the wine. “Hopefully you’re okay with drinking a sixty-euro bottle of wine straight from the spout though. I didn’t bring glasses. Wine’s more about who than what you drink it with anyway.”
“Zum wohl to that,” Walter said lighting the joint, then taking a hit before passing it to Kourtney in exchange for the bottle.
“So...” she said inhaling a toke then exhaling it out, “...what the hell happened last night? Curt and I were really worried this morning when no one had heard from you, especially since we ate all those hash brownies we didn’t know were hash brownies. But after that Flugel stuff the boat captain gave us, we all kind of blacked out.”
“Yeah from the canal cruise. You really don’t remember? Wow, you were as fucked up as you looked. We just thought you were joking.”
“I kind of remember the canal cruise now that you mention it. We went to a sex show after, right?”
“Yeah, where you ate that banana.”
“Yes, I definitely remember the banana. But everything after is a blank until I came to at some rave.”
“Walter! We were just a floor above the rave. Remember we went to that three-story club with a rave on the first floor, a rock club on the second, and a hip-hop club on the third? That’s where you said you had to use the ‘restroom’ then just disappeared. But you were just downstairs from us.”
“I don’t remember any rock club, but I was looking for a restroom when I came to, however, security kicked me out before I could find one.”
“You got kicked out? For what?”
Walter chuckled. “Um, pulling my dick out on the dancefloor,” he said, “but there’s much more to it than that...”
“Holy shit,” Kourtney said after Walter spilled all the beans of the evening, every event, feeling, and fear. “That’s one hell of a story and night. And you have no way of getting ahold of Shiva? Not even Facebook?”
“She’s not on any social media,” he said. “She has to keep a low profile since she’s an illegal alien. All she had was a burner phone which I stupidly never got the number to . . . I have to go back to Amsterdam. I’m going to ask Anna tomorrow if there’s any way I can hitch a ride on another bus or take a train back. I’m not supposed to be here. There’s no reason for me to continue this trip.”
“Well, hold on. Don’t throw away the trip just yet. I mean, she could be getting deported as we speak. Then instead of being across an ocean from you, she’ll only be across a state once you’re back home. Maybe just wait until then to find her. The internet’s a lot better place to find people than IRL anyway. It’s where I found my brother. Do you really think going back to Amsterdam and turning yourself into the police is a good idea? What if you don’t find her, or even worse you get jailed and miss your flight home?”
“I know, I know, but something’s just telling me to go back. And as much as I never trusted gut feelings before, as I said, with her everything is different. I don’t know how to explain it. As much as I thought people just brainwash themselves into thinking someone’s ‘the one’, I totally believe it now.”
“What?” Walter asked.
“It’s just obvious you’ve never really been in love then, otherwise you’d know ‘the one’ really is bullshit. No one is meant for each other. Only in poetry is love undyingly perfect. In the real world it’s extremely complicated, full of sacrifices, and most of the time romanceless, but that’s how it makes us better people.”
“Well, when you first fall in love with someone, all you see is a romanticized version of who they really are; you see their best qualities first. It takes time to chip away at this façade and see the real, imperfect person beneath, but that’s when love’s magic really starts to work. You’re going to have to figure out how to deal with someone who’s not completely compatible with you sexually, emotionally, and/or philosophically, and they’ll have to do the same of you. But this friction is what strengthens and transforms you both into something closer to those idealized versions of yourselves you both initially fell in love with, because ideally, you both don’t want to let the other person down. Granted, there will be certain flaws you’ll have to accept, and you’ll need to figure out what and how many flaws are worth the price of love, but as weird as it sounds, balanced friction really is true love.”
“Sounds like you speak from experience,” Walter said.
“Not exactly, but I might’ve let a few good ones get away because I thought I was looking for ‘the one’. Strangely, it’s actually been getting to know my brother that’s been the biggest reminder love is about compromise. Although I’m annoyed with him right now, he has been helping me come out of my shell more during this trip. But I guess what I’m trying to say is love is not a one shot thing. Life is filled with many shots at love. What’s more important is knowing where to aim. Not to say Shiva won’t be your ‘one’ and isn’t worth fighting for, but I guarantee you another Shiva will eventually come along if it’s not her. Besides, if she really is ‘the one’ and it’s really fate that’s guiding your destiny, it will let you know if you should go back. Until then, I think you should just get some good sleep tonight and enjoy this trip a little. After all, we’re only on the second stop of the tour.”
“You’re right . . . I guess to fate then,” Walter said and took a swig of the bottle before handing it to Kourtney.
“To fate,” she said taking a drink then putting an arm around him. “But maybe I’m being a little selfish too because I know I’d miss you terribly if you left.”
“Really? Someone you’re constantly having to talk off ledges?”
“Well, it’s better than having a boring friend. And talking to you has made me forget about my problems with my brother. So in some way, without even trying, you also talked me off a ledge—or maybe just a small mound. But regardless, friends like that are hard to come by because you can’t force that type of chemistry.”
“Well, I think the wine deserves some credit too...” Walter said shaking the nearly empty bottle, “...but I must be the luckiest person in the world then to have found you Kourtney.” He started to put his arm around her, but hesitated. “And uh... I meant that in the most strictly platonic way.”
She laughed. “I know that Walter,” she said pulling his arm around her. They then fell back into the grass and rested their heads upon each other. “But it is really romantic though, isn’t it?” she said.
“This: the wine, the stars, the castles glowing like candles around us.”
“Yes, I suppose it is. Too bad it’s being wasted on us though.”
“Why? Romance can be just as equally appreciated between friends. At least there’s someone to share it with. That’s the most depressing part of being alone. Life’s no different than a memory and you can’t share a memory with anyone but yourself, just like you can’t share last night with anyone but Shiva. That’s probably why you feel so crazy. The only person who can confirm last night wasn’t just in your head is now gone. But at least you know tonight will never be just a memory.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I love you Walter.”
He kissed her on the cheek back. “I love you too Kourtney. What I did to deserve your love I’ll never know, but I guess someone is still looking out for me.”