Writer in Residence · 02/14/2011

heartbeat

You must forgive me, ladies and gentlemen, for having only a German heart. It happens to beat, “bum-bum” – in a correct two-beat. But the Sanskrit heartbeat is a triad, a beautiful, “kikira” while the English apparently beats in four-four time with its “pitter-patter”.

— Helmut Braem, “Languages Are Comparable Yet Unique”.

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Four weeks after we met, we stood side-by-side in front of the wood furnace of the house we had rented for our first amorous weekend together. I was holding a box of matches, she was trying to stuff paper beneath the stack of logs. We had forgotten the initial step of paper-below-wood in our haste to heat the house.

She shook her head. “This is ghostly.”

“Don’t be afraid, dearest.”

“No, no,” she frowned. “Terriful. Terriful.”

To reassure her, I brandished the iron poker I had found against the pile of wood. I would save our weekend if I had to build a fire in the living room out of our ski clothes. I tried to lift the logs so she could put more paper below them. The wood did not budge.

“Dear darling,” she said, pointing at the thick binder of instructions we had received with the keys to the little cottage.

I shook my head. I have been building fires for fifty years and this rudimentary furnace would not get the better of me. I put the poker back against the wall, noticing a box of small twigs we had overlooked. “Kindling!” I said, relieved.

She furrowed her brow.

“Small wood,” I explained. “We’ve gone about this backwards.”

At her obvious confusion, I reached for our electronic dictionary but then changed my mind, gesturing that we must unload all the wood and start again. Her beautiful face clouded for a second, but she picked up the first log. I didn’t really mean for her to move everything alone, but really, she’s so much stronger than me.

We rebuilt the fire correctly this time. Paper, kindling, wood. I fussed with the heaviest logs, pretending to re-arrange them. She did not protest. She only stood back, statuesque in her ski pants, picking bits of wood and paper from her sweater. My Scandinavian goddess. My Freyja.

“Frida!”

“No, my dear, it’s a compliment, you are my Goddess.”

She rolled her eyes but I could tell she was pleased I had taken an interest in her heritage. She pointed at a mysterious panel attached to the furnace. Some sort of brain to guide the heat from this rustic appliance up through the house.

I pushed a button. The machine whirred to life, beeping optimistically. I gripped the box of matches in my sweaty palm, removed one from the carton.

“Life!” she said.

“Light,” I corrected.

I took her hand as we watched the orange flames curl the paper and snap those little twigs. I turned to embrace her as the fire grew. I whispered endearments, thinking of another reason to discard our ski clothes on the carpet in the other room. Somewhere at the back of the machine a fan began to turn. The flames were pulled up toward the chimney and the fire began to rage. Oh, the thrill of success!

“My lovely Frida,” I began, but suddenly the fire went out. No life, no light. Only charred bits of newspaper flapping in the wind tunnel created by the fan.

Frida shouted and took the box of matches from me, leaned over the yawning mouth of the furnace and tried several times to get the fire restarted. Nothing. I leaned over her shoulder, murmuring encouraging words until she turned in reproach. My heart went thump-thump. Such fire in her ice-blue eyes.

“Call,” she said, pointing at my cell phone.

“Who?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Who is mans this house?”

I am not a man to quibble with such a firmly-delivered directive, even if I did not quite understand. I started dialing a phone number at random. I held the cell phone to my ear while Frida began to take the furnace computer apart with a screwdriver she had pulled out of her purse.

“Wait!” I said, certain I should stop her.

She ignored my concerns for proper renter behavior, and secretly I was proud of her nerve. She worked on boats, my Frida. We had met by chance, by fate, really, one afternoon when I had strayed too far into the harbor district while in search of my new accountant’s office. When we first spoke, she was standing beneath the hull of a yacht, power-washing the barnacles to oblivion.

An hour later and the house was getting colder. Frida had the furnace computer in several hundred pieces across the floor and I was still pretending to speak to someone about our problem.

Then it struck me. If I wanted to save this weekend, save my heart, keep my dearest Frida until her next Atlantic voyage took her from me, I must take things in hand. I reached for my wallet and flashed a shiny credit card to catch her attention.

“Let’s get out of here!” I said.

Jag working!”

“A hotel, my dearest. A hotel!”

She stood up and dropped her tools, her face aglow. She shouted the word smack and so I ducked to avoid the blow. But she only kissed me as I came back to standing.

Alas, it was our very last kiss.

In the morning, over our cup of instant coffee, after we had slept in separate beds in the only hotel with a vacancy in that snowy little hamlet, a hotel with dampish sheets and a mysterious odor, with midnight scratchings and scramblings in the walls, my darling turned to me and whispered something I choose to remember as a sweet and tender goodbye. Her eyes were narrowed, her face tense.

I will never forget the silence of our drive back to the city. My heart trilled for her. My heart thumped and bumped along in apologetic regret. I listened, I strained, I hoped. But I could hear nothing from her chest that resembled a kindred rhythm. Nothing but the wrathful sigh of a Goddess who has been deceived by a mere mortal.

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posted by Michelle Bailat-Jones