When They Asked Me If I Knew You

I had a strange dream last night – one of those dreams that doesn’t evaporate into the mist of your mind when you wake up.

It’s been a long time since I dreamt something I could actually remember when an endless day repeated itself all over again, as if God had decided to have fun and make every Monday loop:

As in … getting the kids up, clothed and fed; Emma for school, Michael kindergarten; exchanging a few routines with Jon before he is off to patrol, reassuring myself that he will be home again tonight as always. As if nothing bad will happen to him if I just pretend that this is completely normal work; and finally getting my own behind hauled off to the nursing home.

If only I could have done something important before my life got sucked up in this routine.

If only I could have done something out of the ordinary.

I know it sounds pathetic because I’m only 32, but don’t you have the feeling sometimes that the race is run?

That this is all there is: … Rat racing …

Sometimes I feel so worn out already that I think I should be a resident in the nursing home, and not the one giving old Mr. Porter a hand to safely traverse the distance from wheelchair to dining room chair, and then making sure he doesn’t spill dinner all over himself when trying to get it to traverse from from plate to mouth.

Perhaps it’s because it’s Friday, and after another 9 hours there will be a freedom, of sorts, for a whole two days. Freedom enough at least to up on the Everest-sized piles of laundry and maybe get that last paint job done in the old barn. And maybe, if the kids fall asleep early, Jon and I could … you know.

But then again, since it’s the end of the week there is every chance that both he and I will fall asleep early, too.

I didn’t last night, though.

And perhaps that book had something to do with it.
*

I had poured over the book all evening before, as if it was necessary reading for some term paper. But I haven’t done one of those since Cuyahoga High in the good ol’ mid-nineties, when you still danced to Haddaway.

Jon had peered at me suspiciously, from above his stack of week-old newspapers:

“Is that a German book you are reading, honey?”

“Doch.”

“Wow – you are the brainy one,” he said and blinked at me in a way I didn’t quite know whether to interpret as a compliment or … “I’ve always said that.”

And then he leafed through his issue of National Geographic with feigned rapidity, like he wanted to indicate that he – Jonathan Reese, hardworking cop in the Arizona state police – could do no better than look at pictures.

I shrugged: “I know it sounds masochistic, but grammar is my crosswords.”

“I knew that,” Jon said. “What I didn’t know was that you could actually read that damn language.”

“We learned it when I transferred to the community school in Portree. I had a few courses in high school as well.”

“I thought all pupils hated German.”

“I’m good with languages … the ones I want to remember.”

He nods, knowing full well this particular personal border of mine and just how close he can get to it, without crossing it.

I hate Gaelic. If I never utter another word of it, I’ll be happy.

It’s funny, though, that I should have felt like brushing up on German now. Not just because there are quite a few similarities, pronunciation-wise to Scots Gaelic, I feel.

No, Jon is right: It was ages ago. And even though I took a class in high school, because I had this short-lived teenager-seeking-identity burst of interest in my great-grandfather … I had indeed forgotten a lot.

Well, almost everything in fact.

But after Anne died, it had felt like a strange necessity. I had only known her so briefly, after that meeting on the bus from Bakersfield (where my mum now resides with her new guru).

Marvelous creature, Anne … I really wish I’d known her longer: Short and incredibly delicate; simple but elegant dresses; strong glint in her eye but always gentleness in her tone. And she was at least 10 years older than some of the pensioners at the nursing home, but her mind was younger than the mind of most people my own age. Including my own …

We had talked really well on that never-ending bus trip from Bakersfield to Yuma; and then she invited me to visit her when I came back to Bakersfield; and I did. Once. When I came back the second time to look her up … she was gone.

86 is of course quite ‘fair’ … and all that. You ‘have lived’. There’s ‘no need for more’. And yet, I still miss her like … But I guess that’s what death is all about for us living folks:

Selfishness.

We want people who have died to come back, not because we feel sorry for them that they missed living some more, but because it’s to painful not to have them in our own lives.

And yet we have to.

And I wouldn’t have wanted Anne to end up in a nursing home anyway. She would have been as trapped there as she was in that munitions factory in Nazi Germany in her youth.

What was the last words she said to me, as we said goodbye?

“Don’t hold on to it for too long …”

She was the only one who was allowed to call me that and she had meant the book, of course. I had borrowed it from her: A brick, yes – but not so much as to scare me away.

It was just in from the German bookstore in Sacramento, the owner of which Anne had known for 20 years and who always kept a few copies of the really good stuff for her, when everything else had sold out. She didn’t come up there so often as she had done … 20 years earlier.

I wasn’t sure, though, if I was going to read it. After all, it had been almost 20 years for me to – as regards German classes.

But Anne had taken some cooing old-womanish delight in my demonstrated ability to still translating single lines from Brecht and a few other books in the original German, so many of which presented themselves on her brimming shelves: ‘Take me … take me’ …

I think she had great fun with it the first hours I was there, and then later it became a test, and then a game to her once more.

I never quite got to figuring Anne out, and I’m not sure I would have gotten the chance, had I known her for 5 years more and not just 5 months. She had her quirks, yes, but she didn’t have an evil bone in her body – that I already knew for sure.

It was more than I could say for the people she grew up with, though. The book was about them, too.

And about the few people who dared to stand up against them.

*

In the dream I was walking through a dark wood, and then I came upon a campground with a single fire lit. There was a girl sitting there – in the a brown uniform, with tie and all: It was the Jungmädel-uniform I knew instantly, sort of a Hitler-Jugend for girls. She was staring into the fire, brooding.

I also knew instantly that I was somewhere in Nazi Germany, but although I thought it was real, as you usually do when dreaming, I was not afraid.

The girl wasn’t a beauty by any measurement; she was rather bland and normal-looking, I thought: And she had short, cropped hair, almost as a boy. And hardly any shapes to speak of … but then again – I wouldn’t have taken her to be more than 15.

Or maybe it was the ugly brown shirt that did it – the uniform. She might have looked better in a simple dress.

And there was something about her eyes – as if they beheld the whole world.

I sat down beside her. She hardly noticed me.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked her cautiously.

“I am thinking of how unfair it is.”

“What?”

“That women aren’t allowed to do much in the Party.”

“They aren’t?”

She looked at me, oddly, as if she recognized me as a complete stranger – and yet someone she had known.

“Of course not,” she then said, as if taking a few second to gauge how stupid I was – how simple she had to put it ” – we can only do so much in the Youth Movements, and then in the homes. If you really want to fight for Germany, you have to be a man.”

“Do you want to go to war?”

She scoffed at me: “There’s no war.”

“No yet ” – I felt a spark of cold coming from the fire ” – but … there might be.”

She looked as if she chewed on something.

“Perhaps,” she then said. “But I would still like to help Germany become great again. I am good with music – and children. I could teach … but I am also a good leader.”

She didn’t need to tell me who had said that to her. It was obvious she trusted completely in her own abilities. I couldn’t help feeling a sting of perverse jealousy.

I mean, sure, she was some brainwashed Nazi-teen, but at least she knew what she wanted. I was twice as old as her and had just drifted along, being thrown back and forth between cities, jobs … men. I had nothing to show for it, and probably never would.

All the old dreams … of becoming an artist, or a lawyer … all too late.

As if on cue, the young woman pulled out a picture from her rucksack.

I recoiled: It was a drawing of

… him.

“Tell me your opinion” she solicited – and with an insisting frankness, too. She didn’t want just another stranger telling her how “good” she was at everything she touched, without any substantial critique.

And yet that’s what I did:

“It’s … very lifelike,” I tried, working overtime not to show my disgust. “It’s good – really is.”

“But you don’t like who I have drawn?” she guessed immediately.

My God, she was so … sharp …

I have ducked Jon’s inquiries with that poker-face several times; and many more from my “broom sisters” – in the nursing home staff:

‘Are you all right, honey?’ – ‘Not coming down with something, are you?’ –  ‘Feeling down again, Carrie?’

But I could poker-face them every time (well, almost). It was an art.

But she saw right through me: The little Nazi-girl.

And still … I didn’t feel in any danger. Not yet.

I shook my head:

“No, I don’t … like who you have drawn.”

“It’s okay,” she said, as-a-matter-of-fact, and put away the drawing. “There aren’t many who understand our beloved Führer, and you are obviously a foreigner. You would not understand what he does for us – why I am willing to give my life for him.”

“No … you can’t do that,” I blurted.

“Why not?” she came back sharply. “Perhaps I will get the chance despite any rules and regulations about what women can do and cannot do. You said there might be war?”

I pressed my lips together. She hesitated for a second, then continued her offensive:

“If our neighbors cast themselves on us, trying to destroy all that our Führer has rebuilt for us  – all that is good … is that not worth dying for – in order to protect that?”

I didn’t say anything, but she could see in my eyes the answer I didn’t dare to give.

She breathed in deeply, as if I now had indeed exhausted her enigmatic patience:

“Everyone will be required a great sacrifice … ” she said. “But it doesn’t matter. It is for a great cause.”

Then she turned away from me and stared into the fire once more.

We both did, for a while.

Then I said:

“Have you considered the … alternatives?”

“Alternatives?” She tasted the word as if it was some kind of strange fish.

“Now it was my turn to take a deep breath:

“Suppose it wasn’t … the others who threw themselves at Germany? Suppose it was Germany who attacked them?”

“That would not happen.”

“How can you be so … sure?”

“Our Führer says that we only want what is ours by right, and that it will come to us by means of peaceful negotiation – and the others will have to understand that. They may attack us and force us to defend ourselves, however … ”

“They won’t … ” I tried again, feeling desperation growing ” … you will attack them – all of them. And they they will respond, in self-defense.”

“But that’s not just!” she exclaimed, and with such perfectly genuine sincerity – as if she really believed that Nazism had anything to do with justice that I could not fathom she had put on that ugly brown shirt in the first place.

“No … no it’s not,” I said, getting a hold of myself. “But that’s what Adolf Hitler will do. And there will be more … much more. Everybody who is against him will be killed, or put into camps.”

Her eyes widened, and then she shook her head – but in a sad kind of way:

“You are lying.”

I had had enough. I got up.

“You’ll see … ” I said and wiped my trousers (an odd thing to do in a dream, I know – but I remember it vividly … as the rest).

She shook her head as if I was not worth explaining anything to anymore. It just made me fume even more. What did I need to sit here and try to lecture that brainwashed little Nazi-bitch? She could go on and die for all I cared.

Then our eyes met.

Christ, she was only 15 … and at 15 you really, really need a direction in life, don’t you? To make the first, best choice about who you are … preferably a choice that is sanctioned by those you care most about.

“ … Do you mind if I sit down again?” I asked.

She looked at me for two long seconds. She was sitting there, legs pulled up under her, arms around the legs, her face seemed lit up but I couldn’t tell if it was the glow of the campfire flames or …

Two seconds but they felt like two hours … as if she had to size me up definitely now.

“I don’t mind,” she finally said. “You are a very strange woman. I have never met anyone like you. I would like you to tell me more about … the place you come from.”

And so I did.

*

I don’t remember the rest of the dream, but I assume that we talked a lot more. Then my bedside clock’s alarm hammered into my poor head that it was 0630. Time to get into the race again.

Yup. I didn’t think anything else than a 1000 other things for the next 9 hours.

But when I came home … after having picked up Michael at the kindergarten …  after I had once again wrestled with the ungrateful curriculum of teaching him why he should not hit back at the other boys who hit him … after that I could finally drop down in favorite rocking chair and loose myself a bit in German verbs.

And I had a pretty big dictionary lying right beside … Anne’s book:

About the life and times of a young student and her friends, who distributed anti-Nazi propaganda, got caught and executed for it. She was 21. I knew I had to read it the moment I saw it.

I took up the book and paused before taking out the bookmark; glancing briefly at the cover again …

The resemblance to the girl from the dream was … but no, that couldn’t be.

Could.Not.

And even if it had been her, it was just a dream.

Figures, when I finally do something worthwhile, something really important

… it is not real.

*

More than a dream ...

*