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Manhattan Metamorphosis

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“It’s zo nice to finally meet you after all theze weeks,” said Stefan, giving Saul a warm, sensuous hug. “And you vere right—on a beautiful day like dees, an outdoor café vas really the perfect choice.”

“It’s so nice to finally meet you, too,” said Saul, smiling bashfully, as they sat down across from each other around a small circular table. “The Skyping and video-chatting with you has been great, but it can’t beat being together in person. I’ve been really looking forward to this.”

“Me too,” said Stefan, his royal-blue eyes glimmering and his thin cheeks dimpling. “Dank you tousand times for die flowers, by the vay. They arrived dees morning. They’re really lovely. They’ll really brighten up my summer apartment.”

“You’re very welcome. I’m glad you like them. I hope Columbia student housing gave you a decent place to stay.”

“Vell,” said Stefan, shrugging his slim shoulders and running his right hand through his wavy black hair, “it vill do. I’m only here for one month. And I’ll be spending mozt of my time in the library, anyvay. My Humboldt U. summer-study-abroad fellowship iz contingent upon me being able to produze at leazt die first chapter of my thesis. Zo I vill have my vork cut hard for me.”

“You mean you will have your work ‘cut out’ for you?”

“Iz dat how you zay it? I am steel not zo good with die idioms.”

“Your English is excellent, Stefan.”

“Dank you, dank you tousend times! I must zay,” said Stefan, leaning forward and grazing his right index finger with his chin, “you are much better looking in perzon den you are on screen.” Saul’s cheeks reddened. “And your match.com profile picture nowhere near makes you justice.”

“’Does you justice.’”

“Yes, dank you, dank you tousend times…”

Saul thought about telling Stefan that he found his English malapropisms charming and his thick German accent strangely seductive, but he decided against it; it would have been the truth, but it would not have helped him convey the other truth that he knew he needed to reveal to Stefan.

“I vould tell you to change the picture, but, den again,” continued Stefan, his eyes lighting up like lamps and his rose-red lips stretching into a broad, beaming smile, “at dees point, I von’t—I vouldn’t vant anyone elze to have you.”

Saul laughed, his cheeks turning an even deeper shade of red. He knew that he should have been profoundly happy—even exuberant—that the meeting that he had for weeks been terribly hoping would go well was going even better than he could have ever imagined. He had done everything he could think of to make sure that it would. He knew that his German was not good, but that morning he had sent Stefan a text in German, trying his best to impress him: “Ich bin sehr glücklich das du kommest zu New York! Ich hoffe das du haben guten Reisen gestern und ich hoffe das du (enjoy) dich Unterhalt bei uns in USA!” He couldn’t remember how to say “enjoy”—“lustig”? “Froh”? “Freude”? None of them sounded right to him, so he simply, and embarrassingly, left the English word in the sentence, hoping that Stefan would at least appreciate the effort he was making to communicate with him in his language. He had put on his best blue dress shirt and his Calvin Klein khakis and his new wingtip shoes. He had even put product in his sandy-blond hair—and he never put product in his hair. But he still felt uneasy; the reality of what he knew he would have to tell Stefan was weighing on him like an entire stack of checked out Butler Library books.

A waiter came over to their table to take their order. Saul was so distracted by his own thoughts that he didn’t even hear what Stefan ordered.

“And for you, sir?” asked the waiter, turning to Saul.

“Oh…uh…just a glass of water.”

“Are you sure?” asked Stefan, a look of concern coming across his olive-skinned face, which was clean-shaven save for a few specks of well-manicured stubble on the bottom and edges of his strong square chin. “I’ll pay for it.”

“Yes, I’m sure…thank you, Stefan, but I really shouldn’t stay for long.”

“Is everything alright?” asked Stefan, the light in his eyes slightly dimming and the luster of his smile somewhat fading. “Yes, everything’s fine, Stefan. It’s just that—Oh, God, I feel so awful about this, but…” He bit his lip.

“It’s ok, Saul,” said Stefan, moving to Saul’s side of the table and pulling up his chair beside his. “You can tell me anything. Anything. Ever zinse vee started skyping zu months ago, I promised I vould only ever be completely honezt with you, and I hope you can be the zame vay with me too. Vee have no reazon zu hide anything from each other.”

Saul curled his lips upwards into a grateful, hesitant smile. He looked at Stefan appreciatively, admiring the stylish, clean-cut way he had dressed for the occasion: black boots, gray slacks, and a superfluous navy-blue sweater over a high-collared white dress shirt that perfectly complemented his tall, slender frame. In his heart, he still wanted to please him, but his head told him he needed to tell Stefan the truth.

“Of course, Stefan,” he began, taking a deep breath, unable to look him in the eyes. “We’ve only ever been absolutely truthful with one another throughout all our conversations, which is what I’ve loved about them—our absolute honesty with one another…and in that spirit, Ich habe un Geständnis zu machen.”

“I zee dat your German iz improving.”

“I don’t know…maybe a little. I apologize for butchering your beautiful language.”

Stefan laughed. “It’s fine, Saul. Don’t vorry about it. But you can zay it in English. Go further.”

“You mean ‘go ahead’?”

“Oh…yez, yez of course, dank you tausend times.”

“Ok…well…I’m so sorry, Stefan, but this afternoon, on the subway, on my way here to meet you, I saw a woman…”

“Yes? Zo what?”

“And…I was moved.”

“Moved? Vat do you mean ‘moved’?”

Attracted to her.”

Stefan leaned back in his chair and tilted his head to the right; his eyes were expressionless.

“I didn’t think it was possible, Stefan…she got on the train at 181st and got off when I did, at 116th. She had long brown hair and—you know the way people sometimes put their sunglasses on top of their head when they’re not wearing them? I always thought this looked funny, but she was wearing a pair of black sunglasses this way and it looked good on her. She was dressed very simply—a white shirt and black pants. And she was reading a hardcover copy of Amerika.

“Hmm,” Stefan murmured, licking his lips and looking at Saul inquisitively. “Vere you attracted to her, or to what she vas reading?”

“To her, Stefan. To her. Just because I’m writing my thesis on Kafka doesn’t mean I’m—”

“I’m sorry, Saul. I didn’t mean that. I take it back…”

Saul sighed. The seconds of silence that separated their sentences seemed to Saul to last for minutes.

“I’m the one who’s sorry, Stefan. I really am. I feel terrible about this. It’s just that…Stefan, have you never been moved by a woman before?”

“No, Saul. Never.”

“You were always sure of yourself?”

“Yes, Saul. Of course. Every zince I vas five years old.”

Saul nodded his head, still unable to look Stefan in the eyes.

“Well…the thing is this, Stefan…I have never been sure. My whole life—twenty-five years—I’ve never been sure. Not until today. Not until I saw her.”

“And now you are sure?” asked Stefan, his left cheek resting gently in his left hand.

“Yes…I knew it from the moment I saw her. My body—it responded to the sight of someone in a way it never had before…I’m sorry, Stefan. So sorry. I just—I mean…even through all this time we’ve been video-chatting, I still wasn’t sure…please forgive me.”

Stefan draped his left arm around Saul and looked him the in eyes.

“Of course I forgive you, Saul. But there’s no need zu apologize. Many people take a long time—some even longer den you—to dizcover who they truly are. I’m just glad that you finally have. And I’m glad if I’ve been able zu help you in any vay.”

“I just feel terrible about it, Stefan. I mean, you’ve come all the way here just to meet me, and I—”

“It’s ok, Saul. Really. It’s ok. Don’t vorry about it. I completely understand.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Stefan—this means everything to me. You have no idea.”

Saul leaned toward him and was about to give him a kiss on the cheek—it was the least he could do, Saul thought, to give Stefan some much-deserved satisfaction for reordering his life and arranging for a summer fellowship in the United States just so that he could meet him in person—but he decided against it. He gave Stefan a quick, friendly hug instead. Stefan reciprocated, gently patting him on the back as he did so.

“Let’s still talk, though,” said Saul, “yes?”

“Yez, of course. I’m sure I vill still zee you around. There iz a talk tonight at Deutsches Haus on Der Prozeß and politics, an exchange between Žižek and two of the CU Germanic Languages Department profezzors. I think you vould really enjoy dis.”

“Thanks,” said Saul, breathing easily and smiling warmly. “I think I would indeed…well, I should be going. I’ll see you later tonight at Deutsches Haus. Aus Wiedersehen!”

“’Auf Wiedersehen,’ you mean.”

“Oh, right—verzieh mich. Thanks a million. Auf Wiedersehen.

 

End

Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer, rabbi, and Ph.D. candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) of America in New York, and is studying English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University. A contributor to the Books & Arts section of The Weekly Standard, he has published in numerous academic and popular journals, magazines, and newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, Haaretz, and Harvard Divinity School Bulletin. His short stories have appeared in aadunaThe Cortland ReviewBewildering StoriesCalliope (forthcoming, Fall 2017), Aurora WolfChildren, Churches and Daddies, and The Acentos Review.

 

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