Ithaca is about Felix Miller who, upon discovering his soul as a teenager, has it stolen from him by a manipulative lover. He stumbles into a lifelong search to find it again. In midlife, Felix sails from America to the Azores, to Spain, and to Istanbul. In each place he finds himself entangled in relationships in which he feels a familiar dilemma of giving up too much of himself or escaping to protect the privacy of his feelings and thoughts. When he meets a woman who struggles with the same challenges, they fall in love. She keeps cycling through wanting him and withdrawing. He persists through her confusion until he discovers something shocking to him at the core of her being: disillusionment with love itself. It makes him realize how much he had been willing to sacrifice just to be loved by another instead of doing what he had wanted to do all his life: find peace and fulfillment in solitude. Ithaca is a story about where we look for love, our dependency on it, our self-imprisonment in it, and for some people, like Felix, finding it in the last place we end up looking: in ourselves.
The novel is set against the background of cultural differences between East and West, an increasingly authoritarian Turkish regime, and it weaves together essences of The Odyssey, Islamic folk tales and Western literature.
The mere thought of a huge sailboat on land, propped up on stilts, was so unnatural that as hard as Felix tried to suppress revulsion, he couldn’t help but feel it rise.
He was fourteen and the only times he had seen sailboats were years earlier when they lived in America and he was in the backseat as his parents drove along the Hudson or within glimpsing distance of Long Island Sound. They were birds, that’s what sailboats were. Birds skimming the ripples of water. Complete unto themselves. Untethered. Free. Their only conversation with wind and currents. And just like birds, they had a magnetic constant to let them know which way the Earth tilted.
Felix’s mother had driven him from West Berlin to Hamburg to visit and help with the restoration of Uncle Sigurd’s boat, Delphinus. It had never occurred to Felix that boats could be or had to be hauled out of water. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. How could Sigurd’s boat be in a warehouse? It felt wrong. Just as surgeons were surely numb in that way which allowed them to slice into human flesh, so it must be with those who hauled boats out of water.
Up until that point, all Felix had known about Delphinus were fragments his mother, Ursula, would exhort from Sigurd during dinners when Ursula was already slurring her words, resulting in even curter responses from her brother. Without looking up from his dinner, Felix would listen intently, wishing his mother would shut up before Sigurd would fall silent again. What he pieced together from this embarrassing ritual during holiday dinners, was as an image, a projection in his mind, that was as fantastical as it was improbable: that Sigurd, a “cripple” as he called himself, could single-handedly command a sixty-foot boat under sail, heeling over and cutting through the waves, and all that by himself.
Inevitably, often before Sigurd could even take a reasonable breath between sentences, his mother’s loose tongue would loll on. “More. Tell him more.” Though she knew Felix loved sailboats, it was her own addictive nostalgia that needed to be fed.
She would continue without waiting for Sigurd, repeating the line she always did. “The Kaiser sailed on her at her commissioning.” Felix knew the next line by heart as well, just as he knew she would hold up her crooked finger for emphasis. “Even the newspapers at her launch said a more beautiful figurehead of swan had never been carved.” And then, with her slightly wavering finger still raised, her glassy eyes would round the table as if expecting, as if for the first time, a reaction to such a proclamation of provenance.
Sigurd drove them to the shipyard in his Citroen, a huge sedan with pillowy springs. Felix’s mother sat up front with Sigurd, chattering on and on, and sending roils of cigarette smoke into the back where Felix sat with his two cousins. Olivia, older than Felix by a year, sat in the middle. Lorenz, her older brother, was on the far side. None of them said a word.
It was springtime and the winter-wilted fields of northern Germany’s low-lying alluvial lands were beginning to green. As they neared the city and the Elbe, huge metal-clad warehouses sprouted up. Felix could see freighters, tugboats, stacked containers, and an industrial forest of smokestacks and cranes. The Citroen slowed and turned on its soft suspension into a boatyard entrance, forcing Felix’s weight against Olivia. He put his hand out instinctively to brace himself and it landed on her bare thigh below her jean cut-offs. He flushed red with embarrassment and immediately pulled his hand back but Olivia never even twitched. Just kept looking dead ahead, hands loosely together in her lap. He straightened himself. It would have been natural if he had apologized immediately, but now, a moment later, it would just make the whole thing even more awkward. From the far side, Lorenz put his arm up and slid it around Olivia’s shoulder.
They parked and walked toward a gigantic warehouse. A slab of a door, two- or three-stories high, was slid open. Crowded inside were colossal hulks of ships, all balanced by slanted jack stands. Felix walked slowly, while the others passed ahead and disappeared into the cavernous maw. He was used to what was seeping into him now. Invisible like temperature. Prickly as caution. Standing on the threshold, he felt his gut swirl with vertigo as he tried to adjust to the distorted dimensions. He felt like he was walking into a morbid laboratory. Once inside, he was lost under towering rumps. He wandered through a grove of ladders, support jacks, and scaffolding. The ground was laced with extension cords, scattered with buckets and toolboxes, used bits of sandpaper and empty paint cans.
Olivia appeared in front of him.
She slalomed between ladders, ducked under bows, and moved like a fox skipping over pails and vacuum cleaners. Felix could barely keep up, and when he made a turn around one hull, he almost stumbled into her. She stood, leaning with extended arm against a bulged flank sanded to bare wood. He froze. She looked at him, smiled, then scrambled up the scaffold. Was she allowed? Felix looked both ways, expecting someone to appear from behind a rudder and shoo them off. He looked up at her. She kept her eyes on him, smiling as she walked out on the long board partway up the hull. A circus performance. The dazzling acrobat on the high wire. She seemed to be floating, hovering just above the bowing plank.
Her smile crumpled into a frown. “Come!”
He climbed the scaffold but didn’t dare to edge out. With an insistent face, Olivia reeled her index finger, ending with it pointing downward to where she was. He shook his head. The board was already bending. Two people and it would surely snap. She rolled her eyes, stepped toward him, and reached out her hand. Just as he was about to grab on, she put both her hands on her head, pirouetted and walked back toward the center. He slid a foot, then the other, and again, until he was next to her. He felt the heat of her body.
“Lay your hand on her.” She ebbed the board’s swell.
“I feel her.”
“No,” she said. “You can’t feel if your eyes are open.”
Felix closed his eyes and felt raw wood, warm to his touch.
“You can’t feel unless you move.”
He slid his open hand slowly across the sanded planks.
He raised his touch until his fingers were merely grazing the surface.
“Yes!” Olivia whispered, inhaling sharply as if sucking in her word.
Without sight, all other senses were heightened: the smell of sawdust and cigarette smoke. Conversational murmurings between his mother and Uncle Sigurd drifted down from above. Distant dueling hammers, the whir of a sanding machine, a clattering ladder being set up. And then all that softly muted in his blindness. Quiet sealed his ears and filled the dark. He sensed the ship inches away. He was getting lighter, his whole being expanding. He lifted all other fingers and concentrated just on his index finger hovering along, plowing through the grainy slough. It dropped into a grove, traced the crevice, then rose again onto a plank. The sawdust, loose and grainy, billowed up on his skin. He could visualize the bare wake his finger left behind on the wood. Then a hitch. In the smoothness. No, inside him. He stopped breathing. He could hear the blood in his head whoosh and subside, whoosh and subside. He felt something move into him. Delphinus. She was aware of him. Inflating him. Silently telegraphing to him in a language he didn’t know but understood to convey something about the solidity of existence and the reassurance of being.
“Put your cheek to her.” Olivia’s whisper seemed to come from far away.
With eyes still closed, Felix turned his head sideways and began leaning in. His breath quickened.
And then, the impossible. He was kissed by Delphinus.
As close as he had ever come to the experience was a fumbled puckered lip pressing with a girl who broke up with him the next day. But this!
He pulled away and his hand rose instinctively to his cheek. He opened his eyes and stared at the honey-brown grains of freshly sanded wood on his fingers. He was confused. Disoriented. It was as if a trick had been performed on him. Lulled into a spell. Kissed by a ship. He focused on Delphinus’ bare planks so close to his face, and followed the grain’s meandering lines. Inexplicable that wood touching his skin could inject adrenaline and arouse such curiosity and hunger. He had felt Delphinus breathe into him, expanding him, creating a space deep inside and then filling it with … Is this what they called the soul?
In the late 1950s, a few years before Felix was born, Ursula left Germany and immigrated to America. The America of the GIs who had handed out candy bars when they took Berlin. The America that before any other means than just black-and-white photographs and dubbed Hollywood movies was imagined more than known. The America not just of New York, Berlin’s cultural cousin, but also that country just beyond the border of conceivable to the European mind of drive-in eateries and motels described in Ursula’s favorite, just-released novel, Lolita. She never left Lolita out of the story whenever Felix heard her tell it to new neighbors or friends of friends at a dinner party.
She met Benjamin Miller, “his father” she would say flicking a nod at Felix, at a cocktail party on the Upper West Side, “and I fell in love with him because he looked like Hemingway and said he wanted to write like Thomas Mann.” Taking another drag of her Kool, she kept talking through the exhale as the words smoked out. “He told me once he would be in the shower, remembering a conversation we’d had days earlier, and only then find the cuts my wit left in his ego.”
If the night went one drink too long, then the neighbor or friends of friends would hear how the ferocity of their passion produced Felix nine months later, then nothing but fights, which petered out into bickering until, like a death rattle, all that was left was a small flair-up of energy in arguing over the divorce agreement details. “It was quiet in the lawyer’s office that day we signed the papers. It was the last thing we ever did together.”
She returned to Germany after ten years, Felix in tow, hoping for some solace being closer to her ancestry and to her brother whose compassion was restrained, but at least reliably consistent. She knew she could not depend on him to console her, but neither would he judge her for a failed marriage. Sigurd tried talking her out of settling in West Berlin with its claustrophobic wall, and instead live closer to him and Heidrun in Hamburg, but she refused because for generations, trailing all the way back to the famed musician, Felicia von Freudenheim, Berlin was the family’s geographical headwaters.
“Berlin died,” Sigurd said. “All that’s left is a military outpost.”
“Home isn’t something you get to choose,” Ursula said.
Sitting in a German classroom for six hours a day, Felix lived inside his head while foreign words floated in the classroom like motes in the sunlight. He would look out from inside his mind, sometimes trying to follow each word, each sentence, but often just drifting back into his own musings of nothing in particular. Sometimes, during those hours of those days of weeks and months, he would focus on a world map hanging in the front of the classroom. It was the sole item of continuity from his life in America to this one in Germany because it reminded him of a similar map which had hung in his public school depicting the exploratory voyages during The Age of Discovery. Even back in Manhattan, back in the fluency of understanding everything being said, he had often retreated from listening to the teacher and let his imagination sail along those dashed lines depicting the voyages of Columbus, Vespucci, Vasco da Gama, Drake, Magellan, and Frobisher. Europe, coastal Africa and Asia were blocked in colors on the map. The unexplored landmasses were muted beige. Between the colors and the beige ran a hatched line labeled: Limits of the Known World in 1492. The beige shores were labeled as Terra Incognita. The oceans lurked with sea monsters. What did it feel like to sail beyond the known?
His mother drilled German into him every day after school. Hours of practicing the linguistic calculus of nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, combined with the arbitrary assignments of any of three genders, spiraled with the formal and the informal address. Writing pages and pages of exercises. Reciting conjugations in front of her, and if a stumble was perceived by her to be because of laziness, he was slapped so quickly he didn’t have time to turn away.
Felix spent almost all his time in his room. Writing in his journal. Reading. Just as people had different bodies, or divergent abilities, or were sucked from the cosmos and spat out into this family or that, this country here or that one there, Felix considered aloneness simply the random existence into which he was born. While others lived in a world of people, he walked through a social desert. Any interactions he had with other humans were always at the edge of that realm and, hopefully, mercifully brief. All he had to do were the basics: say hello and goodbye. Ask a clerk for a price. Give an answer to a question and the teacher moved on to the next student. And though there was a sense of safety in the sanctuary of himself, he felt claustrophobic. His desert was airless. He longed to escape. No matter where he was – in the classroom, the recess yard, at home – he wanted to be somewhere else. Some emotional elsewhere.
The year after Delphinus’ restoration, Sigurd had her returned to the slip in Makkum, a village on Holland’s inland sea, the Ijsselmeer. After school was out, Ursula braved the eight-hours on the autobahn with Felix for a weeklong visit. Sigurd and Heidrun slept on the boat with Olivia and Lorenz while Ursula stayed with Felix at a small hotel in the village.
Felix quickly regretted they had come. He felt inadequate. He felt it was him who bumbled awkwardly aboard Delphinus compared to Sigurd with his wooden leg and body riddled with shrapnel from the landmine in the Battle of the Bulge. Sigurd moved on the boat in ways he couldn’t on land. Everywhere his hands reached out, Delphinus reciprocated with support. A shroud, a winch, a railing, the helm. The ship and he were dance partners, each always in motion, but each knowing exactly where and how they would connect. Felix yearned for that feeling of weightlessness. Release from one’s own body. It was as if Delphinus lifted spells of the land bound. Aboard me, you shall be free, were the words Felix had Delphinus speak to him in his journal.
In his style as captain, Sigurd was calm but brusque.
“Don’t coil that way. Come here. I’ll show you.” He grabbed the jumble from Felix’s hands and threw it into the cockpit footwell. Then, as if conducting an orchestra through a slow movement, he arced his arms apart and together again, all the while forming the dock line into a large, loose loop. “Look. This hand receives. This hand twists and loops. You must twist, because rope is made of strands and yarns, each spun against each other in opposite directions, but always resulting in the line wanting to be coiled while twisted clockwise.”
Coming from the chaos of his mother’s unpredictable outbursts of violence and wine-soaked pleas for forgiveness, the simplicity of taming line was mesmerizing. Every day, Felix practiced the fluid rhythm of coiling, sensing it was an initiation.
While Sigurd was implacable, Lorenz and Olivia were merciless. Once, Felix wiped water from the cockpit bench before sitting and, for the rest of that vacation, his cousins called him a dry sitter. He didn’t know if that was a German phrase or an impromptu shaming tailored just for him. They told him he had to prove himself by jumping off the pier into the mud below. The pier must have been twelve feet high. He refused. He thought they were luring him into something stupid. Then they both jumped. Lorenz first. Then Olivia. They landed, deep footprints in the mud, and pointed up at him, laughing that he was still standing there. He jumped. A surge of pride rushed his head but didn’t wash away his anger and residual slick of cowardice.
Toward summer’s end, Ursula told Felix he had been invited to join Sigurd and Heidrun on the boat but that if he wanted to go, he would have to take the train. She wasn’t going this time because she didn’t have it in her to do what she called “another taunting dance with death on the autobahn.” He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to expose himself, once again, to his own dance with humiliation in front of his cousins, especially Olivia. Lorenz’s disdain, like an acid, etched his self-confidence, but it was Olivia’s teasing that cut him to the quick.
Felix told his mother no.
“Then at least have the courtesy to call them yourself.”
That night, in bed, Felix tried to come up with what he would say to Heidrun. He awoke in the middle of the night, sweating. He had dreamt about Delphinus but was unable to remember details. Something about Delphinus not being a finite thing, but vastness itself. He lay in the dark, confused and terrified that despite the nightmare, he felt compelled to go.
“Oh good,” Heidrun said when he called. “Olivia will be glad she doesn’t have to spend the time with us alone.”
“He has taken up fencing and will be at training.”
Felix walked the two blocks to the tram, slung himself into a seat, rode to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, transferred trains in Hamburg and Amsterdam, and then got on a bus to Makkum. As it arrived in the village, he saw, through the tinted windows, Olivia standing there. He wasn’t expecting to be picked up but there she was, her blond hair lit by the sun.
As he stepped off the bus, Olivia put a cigarette in her lips, cupped her hands to light it, turned and started walking away. Only then, over her shoulder, did she say, “How’s it going?” He followed behind her. “I’m good. How are you?” “Americans. You’re always good. Drink Coca Cola. Be happy.” Felix brooded over her remark as they walked out of the village to the marina. It was a clean stab. She knew that a dismissal of his congeniality would sting all the more if she infused it with a guilt-by-nationality dig at American capitalism. He had fallen for it again. Her trap. An offering and then as soon as he reached for it, a hand-smack. Niceness, then derision for being naïve.
At the marina, the floating dock pontoons creaked in the joints, sounding almost like the overhead seagulls. The sound of mast-slapping halyards was that incessant clanking which drove Heidrun mad but to Felix was calming, as if it was the wind’s playful performance with maracas and washboard. Olivia was twenty, thirty strides ahead of him. He could never walk past the white fiberglass sailboats with aluminum fittings and plexiglass windows, and not hear Sigurd, echoing Nathanael Herreshoff, scoffing at fiberglass as nothing more than frozen snot. “Clorox bottle!” Sigurd would mutter when, out on open water, they would sail past a particularly ugly one.
Felix loved the final stretch to the end of the dock. He enjoyed knowing that the first he would see of Delphinus was her swan figurehead, with its yellow head and white eyes dotted black in the center. Within three more steps, the rest would come into view. Her glowing white body with her feathers filigreed in black. Then, there she was: Delphinus secured in her slip with the ends of her dock lines spiraled neatly into Flemish flakes. Her sheer, from bowsprit to broad beam and back to slender stern, lulled Felix’s eyes along the pleasing curve of her proportions. The cabin and spars gleamed with varnish. The teak deck was smooth and pinstriped black with caulk. The bronze winches, cleats and portlights were all mottled green-black with patina. The white mainsail was flaked on the boom like a folded bed sheet. He couldn’t look for too long, otherwise it would ache. He knew he would be exposed to every little detail anyway over the coming days, like the boom gallows’ leather chafe guard secured with tiny bronze nails in such close but perfectly spaced increments that surely someone had used a millimeter rule. Her stanchions geometrically enmeshed with cockscombing. The woven-rope ladder mats. The boat hook grip, a spiral of French hitching. The bowlines, the splices, the whippings, the decorative Turk’s heads, and the bell rope finished in a Matthew Walker knot. Even her stem fender was made of woven hemp line. All of them were products of patience. Of endless time away from all else that wants to erode time. Of skills passed on with few words, demonstrated by rough hands wrinkled by the sun.
For the next few days, he felt as if he were the subject of an odd psychological experiment. He would have a new experience on Delphinus and each time Olivia was there, saying something or touching him in a way that made him associate his feelings for Delphinus with seduction but also emotional danger. A halyard was jammed at the top of the mast, and he was hoisted up in a boson’s chair. As Sigurd cranked the winch, Felix rose, above the height of nearby lamp posts, and farther up, above the black-slate roofs, until he could see people working in their backyards, and in the far fields: windmills slowly churning. His tingling fear of heights gave way to a sense of lightness. As if he could slide off the bosun’s chair and fly. Once back on the deck, Olivia smiled crookedly at him and said, “Well, that was kind of a turn on to see your legs wrapped around her mast.” He wanted to smile back, but he was on guard.
Another time, while Delphinus puttered along under motor in a canal amid Holland’s flat fields, cows grazing on one side and green crops in neat rows on the other, Olivia beckoned him to follow her out onto the bowsprit, that long wooden spar protruding out over the swan figurehead and over the water off the front of the ship. Going first, she lay down on the bowsprit, wrapped her limbs around it and scooched forward pull by pull. Halfway toward the end, she stopped and turned her head halfway back toward him. “Do it,” she said. “And when you’re out here, lay the bone behind your ear on the wood.” Felix did as he was told, and when he was out over the water, clinging to the bowsprit and putting his skull to the wood, he heard – no, felt –Delphinus’ diesel engine chug-a-chugging a pulsing rhythm throughout his whole being. From deep inside her, Delphinus’ beating heart was tapping on his. When he looked up, he saw Olivia’s legs, fringed around her thighs by her jeans cut-offs, wrapped around the bowsprit, and he swore he saw her hips beckoning. That was the word he used in his journal. Then he crossed it out. Squiggled over it, back and forth.
On the last night, after everyone had settled in already – Sigurd and Heidrun in the curtained master berth amidships, Olivia in the quarter berth, and Felix in a sleeping bag on the salon settee – Olivia came out of her berth with blanket and pillow. She pointed and side-nodded toward the cockpit. Felix slipped out of his bag and started to reach for his pants on the hook.
“Psst!” A sharp hiss from Olivia. She was frowning, reeling her finger, so he grabbed his sleeping bag and followed in just his underwear.
She nestled the starboard bench into a bed while Felix slipped into his bag portside. He lay there, waiting for Olivia to settle down. Then waited for her to say something.
She was quiet.
And continued to be quiet, as if her silence was already saying something. A directive for him to just lay there with her. A declaration: I do not need to justify my desire for your presence.
Delphinus was still swaying ever so slightly from their movements moments ago. The air was still warm from the day’s unusual heat. Felix unzipped his bag all the way open to use it as a blanket. He lay on his back with his fingers laced behind his head. Felix had never been outside at night away from city lights. The sky was so black and yet bright with so many stars. Clouds of them. He felt that same feeling he had on the mast: Lightness. Could it be that the collective gravity of all those galaxies was making him feel as if he was levitating, and falling toward them? Was this what Lord Franklin felt as he set off to find the Northwest Passage? Or Joshua Slocum on that April day in 1895 when he cast off from Boston to become the first person to solo circumnavigate? Is this what boats promised? A world where just beyond some horizon, water becomes sky. This was freedom. The release to the unknown.
His thoughts began to stretch into a dream when his mind snapped back and he was aware of his surroundings again. He froze as he oriented himself. He was on his back. On the portside bench. He listened. Olivia’s breathing was regular. She sounded asleep. He looked over. At some point she had thrown her blanket off. Though it was a moonless night, there was enough ambient light for his eyes to ease along the silhouette of her thighs and then to the edge of her panties. Her tank top lay loosely on her breasts.
Later that night, they woke as it began to sprinkle. They grabbed their bedding and went down below and shut the hatch just as the rain showered down with the drops thudding on the deck faster and faster until it sounded as if they were under the roar of a waterfall. Felix settled into the settee again and was almost asleep again when Olivia poked her head out of the quarter berth.
“Psst!” She side-nodded for him to come.
He squeezed into the quarter berth and crawled in next to her under the blanket. Felix turned onto his side, facing away from her, terrified she might notice he was hard; terrified she would shame him with her disgust; terrified that she would reach around, slip her hand into his underwear, envelope him with her hand and whisper, “What were you thinking of doing with this?”
That fall, the letters began.
Do you remember the swaying when you first met Delphinus last year?
That was her first line in her first letter. A question. A conjuring of a shared memory. The incantation of levity and defiance of gravity. Her letter opened with My Dear Felix. His eyes traced and retraced the loops of her handwriting. My, she had written.
Yes, he wrote, I remember the swaying. The scaffold and plank still vivid in his mind. I remember you bouncing. He remembered her extended hand. Her taunt. Her heat when he was close. I remember how you made me feel.
I liked watching the way you caressed Delphinus, she wrote back. I like the way you moved your hands on her. And on me this summer. You feel your way through the world like a man in a labyrinth. Here’s a secret: Lorenz doesn’t sense her. To him, Delphinus is just a boat.
In every letter, she wove memories and feelings tighter and tighter together, creating a carpet on which Felix was flying to an emotional elsewhere.
Do you remember the rain?
He remembered the rain. He remembered lying perfectly still in Delphinus’ quarter berth and breathing and listening to the rain tapering off to something so slight it sounded like a distant applause. He remembered waking up to her lips brushing his ear, whispering: “Do you still hear the rain?”
The letter had come with a book he had seen her reading. Hesse’s Steppenwolf. She had inscribed it. To the one who can’t see beyond himself. What did that mean? That he was selfish? He wasn’t, was he? That he was incapable? Then why did she like him? Her moods were kaleidoscopes, changing with every twist in circumstance, but always animating despair and loneliness. With a palette comprised of just black, she painted pain in infinite shades. She trained him to understand that everything meant something else. She morphed certainty into indistinguishables, security into spider webs, feelings into weapons.
Your hatred for your mother is disgusting, she wrote in one of her letters. I want to eat it so I can finally hate mine. You need to read Flaubert or Grass.
He hadn’t known he hated his mother. Had he? Did he, from that moment on? And yet somehow he felt seen and understood by Olivia. He felt like he had lived his life at the bottom of a bottle of doubt, and she had unscrewed the top and was granting him wishes he hadn’t even known were possible to have. Yes, he remembered the rain. He remembered hearing the rain and wanting so desperately to please her that night in the quarter berth that he asked her what the rain meant.
“It’s just rain,” she said. “Just rain.”
Her lips slid from his ear, along his jaw, her tongue into his mouth and her hand underneath the waistband of his underwear.
Every summer, his father, Benjamin, would fly Felix to America to spend four weeks with him, but Felix delayed his visit the next summer. He had been invited aboard Delphinus for a trip from Makkum to Amsterdam. Once again, Lorenz was enrolled in fencing camp.
On the third night, Olivia and Felix were alone on the boat, moored in a canal near Sneek. Sigurd and Heidrun had taken a taxi into town for dinner. Olivia was sitting on the port settee, reading Death in Venice. Felix sat starboard and was journaling. He could see from the corner of his vision that she kept looking over at him. Finally, she snapped her book shut, came over to Felix, snatched the journal from his hand, and kneeled next to him on the settee.
“Kiss me! The way I showed you last night.”
For the first time he resisted her and went on deck.
He moved past the cockpit to the aft deck, grabbing hold of the backstay. It was warm. Wind still. Half the sky was a black ocean speckled with stars. In the other half, through an overcast of thin clouds, the waning moon gleamed palely. He smelled wood smoke. From off in the field floated laughter and guitar strumming. A group of young people circled a fire. He wanted to be the kind of guy who would grab a bottle of wine from down below, walk over and join them; laugh with them before he was even sitting and blend right in, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have such ease.
He closed his eyes and could feel Delphinus rocking ever so gently in the water. His breathing slowed and deepened. He imagined her mass being buoyed by the water. Such immensity seemingly defying gravity. He opened his eyes and made his way forward, consciously registering each handhold as he stepped, reached, and grabbed until he was at the foredeck. He sat down.
He could hear Olivia coming forward, then silence, then the rasp of a flint and Olivia inhaling. He waited for that waft which always relaxed him. He wanted to ask for a cigarette even though he didn’t smoke. He thought about learning to inhale during the school year and then smoking with Olivia as if he had been a smoker all along and just hadn’t told her.
Olivia came around and sat across from him. She took a drag off her cigarette, making the tip brighten in the dark, tilted her head back and blew the smoke straight up. The thin cloud cover was dissipating, revealing more stars. The group around the fire was singing in drunken unison.
“Let’s go join them,” she said.
“Why do you have to be that way?”
She sighed. She rolled her head with her eyes closed.
“Because I’m so sick and tired of it. I’m sick and tired of all the family stories. My father, the reluctant war hero who establishes Europe’s first sailing school for the handicapped. Felicia, whose music is still played today. Our grandparents who smuggled Jews to Sweden with Delphinus. Everyone in our family is brave, or successful, or noble, or smart, or ... what the fuck.”
“And then there’s my father.”
“Who can live up to that? Isn’t it enough already? I feel claustrophobic moving around in this family. I want to escape and just be. Maybe be nothing, just out of spite.”
She looked down at her cigarette, tipped the ash onto her jeans and rubbed it into the fabric. “I don’t know.” Her voice dropped to a lower register. “Maybe I’m just sick of wanting so much, and then being disappointed every time. It’s like every time you think, ‘This time; this time it’ll be good.’ And then … it’s just like … you know, life! It just yanks the carpet right out from underneath you every time.” She swallowed, as if she was about to cry.
Felix was stunned. He had never seen her cry. But then she chewed her lower lip, did this hand motion like a teacher dismissing class, and used that bohemian phrase, “C’est la guerre.”
They exchanged glances for a moment before Felix looked down.
“You know,” she said. “You know what I’m talking about.”
She rose onto her knees and leaned into him, putting her arms around him. She nuzzled her face into his neck. He hugged her back. With her lips, she brushed his earlobe. Her mouth moved along his neck, then bit it.
“I love you because you’re weak,” she whispered in his ear. “It’s easy for the strong to be strong. It’s harder for us. Our mountains are twice as high. The current twice as strong. But you, you struggle forward and when you do, you pull me forward with you. I don’t want to be pulled by the strong. They’re ruthless. You understand me. I need you.”
Felix drank in her words.
“Let’s go over there,” she said, rising. “I bet they’re smoking hash.”
“Hash?” He was shocked.
“They might even have opium. I haven’t tried opium yet.”
“You’ve taken hash?”
“Taken? Oh my god, you’re so precious.”
“Olivia, let’s just … I’m not …”
“C’mon. Club des Hashischins! Baudelaire, Dumas, Balzac. Let’s live!”
“Can’t we just go below? Your parents will be back from dinner soon.”
In an expression that surprised him, she looked down at him, her face relaxed. It wasn’t quite a smile forming on her lips, but they widened. It was the first time he had ever seen something like compassion or forgiveness radiate from her.
“Okay, but first: Let’s make a vow.”
She hunched back down and looked him in the eyes.
“Let’s swear that someday it will be Delphinus and you and me. We’ll sail to exotic places. Faraway places. Where we can be … just … somewhere else. Ourselves. Promise me, someday it will be just the three of us.”
Bliss rushed every vein in Felix. It was as if Olivia had pulled aside a curtain and was showing him an escape from this world into their own private Elysium where they would be beyond judgement, beyond expectations, unrestrained by gravity. He could want and forever be allowed to live in that narcotic state of want.
He got on his hands and knees, closed his eyes and lowered his lips to the deck of the only other woman who had ever kissed him besides Olivia.
When he sat back up, Olivia was looking at him through a triangle she had formed with her two pointer fingers and thumbs.
“This,” she said. “It will always be the three of us. Now kiss me.”
He did, his entire self dissolving into her.
As the end of high school neared, Benjamin wrote, offering to pay for tuition at Columbia University where he used to teach.
Felix didn’t even finish reading the letter. The incessant presumption that he would want to follow in his father’s shadow as a novelist was like a plague Felix repeatedly had to suffer. Regardless of how many times Felix would counter, rebut, or simply stare back, blank-faced at the swarm of tacit assumptions flying out of his father’s mouth, nothing seemed to work. Felix didn’t answer the letter.
Since your pen seems to be out of ink, – just kidding; I know you’re busy with final exams – I wrote Ursula and she said I might have more luck if I offer to pay for you to go to Maine Maritime Academy. At least we could spend your breaks together.
Maine, the epicenter of traditional maritime trades.
She says that one day you want to be a dyed-in-the-wool master of Delphinus.
Felix had thought he would move to Hamburg after graduating high school and get some job, any job, to be closer to Oliva, or that maybe they would head south to find a commune that would take them both. But Maine! And a Maritime Academy? He had never heard of it, and hoped the city library or perhaps Berlin’s American Memorial Library would have information about it, but it didn’t matter. The name alone was its own flashing beacon.
Felix held off until the next visit with Olivia to tell her. He waited until they were in bed together, in a safe and intimate space. At first, it was half sentences in bits and restarts. She was quiet. Lying on her back. Eyes closed. Not moving a muscle. He was on his side, propped up on one elbow, stroking her arm, not daring to venture anywhere more intimately. She twisted away from him and curled up in a fetal position. “Fine. Go fuck all the pussies over there.” “No! I meant us. Then I won’t go.” He apologized and said it was just an idea and that he just thought, well, it would free living in America for both of them with his dad paying and all, and that he thought it would be good to learn everything so they could one day cast off and never have to return to land. Ever. And when she didn’t answer, he kept repeating himself, promising they didn’t have to go until she harrumphed herself back toward him and interrupted. “Will you shut up! Just go and quit babbling about it.” Then she rolled back away from him again, and he waited for more. And waited until he could tell by her breathing that she was asleep. Later that night, he woke and even though it was dark, he could tell she was facing him, looking at him.
“I know you’re coming back,” she said.
“Of course I will.”
“Because you know I’m not done with you yet. I’ll never be done with you.”
They corresponded by a flurry of letters. International mail by ship took about four to six weeks. Sometimes they saved up enough money, wrote on onionskin paper to reduce the postage, and sent letters by airmail. But even with delivery cut to two weeks, many letters overlapped in the news they were exchanging. It didn’t matter. What mattered was maintaining the umbilical connection through words.
During summer breaks, after spending a couple of weeks with his father in Manhattan, Benjamin would pay for a flight to Germany as a birthday gift. Felix and Olivia would spend some of their time with Sigurd and Heidrun on Delphinus and for the rest, they would hitchhike all over Europe. There were distant relatives in Meersburg on Lake Constance who had a small wooden sailing dory. To alleviate their guilt about that being the main attraction, Felix and Olivia helped their relatives in the garden every day before heading down to the water. Felix was at the tiller one sunny day with just barely enough wind to make it seem as if Felicia, the little dory, was gliding over the water instead of sailing. Olivia had draped herself on the leeward side, one arm overboard with her finger trailing the water. She was singing. Ich weiß nicht was soll es bedeuten, daß ich so trauig bin. Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten, das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn. The Lorelei: Germany’s anthem of woe and self-oblation to melancholy. I don’t know what meaning to make of my sadness. A fairy tale of ancient times, refuses to leave my mind. They were heading toward the island of Mainau where they planned to steal aground, avoid paying for tickets, and sneak into the greenhouse with its thousands of butterflies.
“I ... know ... where ... we’re ... going.” Olivia interrupted her song with those words which she seemingly wrote in the water as she slalomed her finger in the lake, leaving a trail of wavelets behind.
“It was your harebrained idea to begin with.”
“You’re always caught up in the now. I mean where you and I and Delphinus will go.”
“Yes.” She sharply inhaled the word in a habit Felix found affected but couldn’t resist liking. “But then. After that. After that, we sail to Istanbul.”
If he had been in love with Olivia until then, then what was this new feeling? It was as if she was some sort of magician on a stage, pulling back curtain after curtain to other dimensions. From his earliest days, Felix had felt a powerful attraction to Istanbul for reasons he couldn’t explain. The ancient city of ancient lands. The city of more names than anybody living today even knew. Lygos, Byzantium, Nova Roma, Constantinople, Islambol, Stamboul. And its latest, so beautiful to Felix in its simplicity: Istanbul, meaning: in the city. Istanbul had always evoked all he had ever associated with adventure and the exotic. It was the nexus of two continents. Where Viking met pasha. Christian, Muslim. Where occident met orient. Abendland, Morgenland. The city was the very embodiment of opposites, the zygote of antipodes.
“You know it’s the city of Earth’s most passionate kiss?” She was still trailing her finger, talking to her wavy reflection in the water. “Two continents with lips moistened by the Bosphorus.”
It was more than one kiss. From his mother’s bookshelf, he had often fingered the National Geographic Magazine edition that showcased Istanbul and its ferries and caiques of the Bosphorus. It wasn’t one kiss; it was hundreds of kisses a day with ferries touching their bows first on this continent, then on that, exchanging thousands of humans. And on their soles: sands from Syria tracked into Europe; mud from Romania heading towards Armenia. Two continents that were cousins, really. Siamese twins. Attached at their lips.
“And in the middle of that kiss,” Olivia murmured on, almost to herself, “is Maiden’s Tower. That’s where we’ll get married.”
Olivia’s first letter to Felix after that summer started with another question.
Do you remember, when I was trailing my finger in the lake and saw my wavy reflection in Lake Constance as if it were something between a Landuyt and de Kooning?
Olivia was his Narcissus and he was blissfully her Echo.
Yes, my Love, he wrote back. I remember your finger, your reflection, the butterfly you cupped with your hands in the arboretum and took outside to set free.