Antwerp, Belgium cir.1929
Karlene Wesstenberg squinted her eyes against the flashes of sunlight reflecting off the swirling currents of the Scheldt River and took a sip of her anisette coffee. Hans wasn’t usually this late. She reached a hand into the navy blue pocketbook that matched her dress, pulled out her cigarette case and settled in to wait. With glossy, red-tipped fingers, she plucked a smoke from the neat line of six nestled into the silver rectangle and snapped it shut with a click. A waiter in a white coat stepped over with a light and she nodded her thanks, inhaling and letting her gaze wander over the scene spread out before her like an Impressionist painting.
The Saturday afternoon air was brisk, and she could smell brine and algae on the wind. Families were out walking along the quay, and the café around her was humming with quiet conversations and the clinking of cutlery and glasses. Across the street, a little girl in a lemon yellow frock was eating a dripping honeyed waffle and trying to sneak up on a fat, beady-eyed sandpiper. Karlene’s hazel irises took this all in but her mind was elsewhere. Her thumb traced circles over the etched designs in the cigarette case, picking out the minute details: a diamond pattern with raised floral swirls and her initials stylized and overlapping in the center. The edges were smooth but the face felt like the finest grain of sandpaper.
As her fingers traced the perpendicular strokes of silver, her thoughts traced the lines of her heart. She and Hans had known each other since they were children, yet it was only in the last year that things had somehow changed. Where once their exchanges were easy and forgettable—like a song heard over and over with the lyrics never comprehended—now their words had a weight to them. A touch of the hand left a tingling impression. A moment of silence never felt empty.
She brought the smoldering cigarette to her lips and breathed in. The nicotine made her feel light-headed…just like Hansi’s lips on her neck the last time she saw him. The snake of translucent smoke coiling up from her lips was slow and warm…like his strong hands circling her waist. Of heat, they’d discovered, they had plenty.
They could live comfortably. Hans would continue working behind the counter of his father’s shop in the diamond quarter just east of Vestingstraat. He would eventually inherit the business and provide for her and any children they had—they’d probably have smiling blue eyes just like him.
Passion, stability, family—these things she understood. But did she love him? She’d never really been in love before. How did one know, and was it the kind that would last? She couldn’t honestly have answered. That is, until last week when he’d walked her home after dinner with his parents. Standing under the rustling plane tree, the sun just beginning to pinken the horizon at the end of the cobblestoned avenue, he’d chastely kissed her on the forehead and slipped the silver case into her coat pocket. Then he’d turned on his heel and left her standing there with her eyes closed and a weighted fluttering in her chest.
Later that night, upon opening the case and reading the engraved inscription inside, she’d realized he truly loved her. “Deinem.” Yours. He was hers for the taking. All she had to do was say yes.
Karlene tapped her ashes onto the porcelain saucer holding her cup. She inhaled again.
The most verdoemde thing was, the flutter hadn’t gone away. As if a fuzzy brown dumi moth, soft and gentle, slow and heavy, were bumbling around in the darkness of her ribs, she could feel it growing. Was this it?
Over the scent of her cigarette, Karlene caught a whiff of sandalwood. The wooden chair across from her grumbled as it was pulled away from the table to allow space for an occupant. She lifted her eyelids to golden hair and a brilliant smile. He took her hand in his, warmth flooding up her arm.
“Hallo mein Leibling.”