Like him, you appeared out of nowhere, polite and well-behaved, quietly insistent, self-deprecatingly funny. Like him, you began confiding your story, a barbed web of lost love, obligation, compromise. Like him, you began inserting little hints into your messages, playful asides and double-entendres I blithely overlooked. And, like him, you were suddenly troubled by your receding hairline, aware of the extra poundage; you peered in the mirror and wondered whether the man staring back at you still had the power to make a woman look twice.
Unlike him in every other way, you hold out your hand and show me the magic sign inscribed in your palm that perfectly matches mine. Not a blind date with a stranger who has answered a lonely-hearts ad, responded to its taxonomy of attributes, projections, and yearnings, but imagine what that must be like: I attach the bait to a hook and cast out my line; fifty responses arrive in the mail addressed to a self-described workaholic capable of experiencing moments of luminous intensity. The first letter will contain a photograph of a young man with his hair carefully parted to the side, wearing a V-neck sweater with a blue and green zigzag pattern over a white shirt buttoned up to the neck. Dear Lonely Unknown Woman, the letter will begin. I will lay it carefully on the table in front of me and place his photograph on top. Then I will open another, and a picture of a dark-haired man sitting spread-eagle on a sauna bench and holding his cock in his fist will slip out. Dear Hysterical, the letter will begin, and I will lay it down next to the first and place Sauna Man on top of it.
Who are we searching for, and how do we know? In the end there’s never more than a handful of possibilities, but what do we have to go on, really? Narrowing down my options, I spread seven letters out on the table; six photographs (and a letter from someone named K. who explained that he didn’t like the idea of relinquishing his anonymity before I was ready to relinquish mine) stare back at me. I like K.’s quirky handwriting, his concern for symmetry, his insistence that we should both be seeing each other for the first time when we meet. A week later I am leaving the subway station to meet him. As I walk down the street in nervous anticipation, I gradually slow down until I finally come to a dismayed halt. Passersby stream past on both sides as I finally decide to wait at a newspaper kiosk where I can watch people enter the café and study them through the plate glass window. A dark-haired man in a woolen coat stops in front of the café, peers up at the sign, walks in uncertainly, and stands in the middle of the room, looking around with an air of indecision. His profile is finely chiseled, but when he glances in my direction, I see a different expression altogether, one whose lines will eventually engrave themselves into his face. That’s him, I think, but then a woman comes up from behind and slips her arm around his waist and his eyes grow warm as his expression softens into a smile. It’s strange how much more attractive he instantly becomes the moment I realize I can’t have him—and already I begin to mourn this first lost K.
Enter K. Numbers Two and Three: a large man with graying hair and a small dog on a leash walks in, glances around, and spies an empty table; immediately afterwards, a muscular type in a leather jacket appears, pulls up a stool at the bar, and perches himself squarely on it, facing into the room. K. Number Two rummages through a bag, pulls out a slightly crumpled newspaper, and begins reading as the dog lies down at his feet. That’s not a man anxious to make a first impression on a woman, I decide. For a moment my view is blocked; a few people are leaving the café now, and K. Number Three moves to a table by the window, not far from K. Number Two. A little while later, a woman in tight pants and high heels is standing in front of him; she points to her wrist and smiles. K. Number Two glances up at her distractedly and returns to his newspaper as K. Number Three checks his watch, mouths something I can’t hear, and with a jerk of the head towards an empty chair indicates that she should sit down and join him. The woman points to the bar, where two of her friends are waiting, dips to one side apologetically, and walks away again, clack-clack-clack. Not K. either, unless he thought for a moment that she might have been me.
I know that I’m conjuring up clichés; nonetheless, I try to imagine being the woman in the tight pants and high heels, and for a moment, I can almost see how she’d be interested in K. Number Three. How much of our lives do we waste with strangers? You with your Juliette, your Kathleen, your Jennifer. Your airline stewardess and your Severin; me with my litany of equally mismatched stories. But then, a few minutes later, a hectic-looking man with curly brown hair will stride to the café door, fling it open, and rush headlong inside; when he arrives in the middle of the room, he will screech to a halt, and in a flash, something in the handwriting, something in the way the penned curves pinch up into a kind of frenetic point will remind me of the movement of his limbs, and I will know it’s him. K. will look around expectantly, smoothen his jacket, and finally, in a gesture reminiscent of a rubber tire having a little bit of its air let out—he will shrink slightly, take a seat, and resign himself to waiting, his head cocked to one side.
Each time a woman enters the café, K. will look up expectantly: sometimes with an air of disapproval, and sometimes with eyes widening, ready to forgive the tardiness. I will watch his features fall each time the woman walks past him to meet someone else; in between, he will tap his middle finger on the table, now and again throwing an impatient glance out the window. Gradually, I start to understand what kind of women K. is interested in; I start to like him a little, the way his hair curls over his ears and the collar of his jacket. A half hour goes by in this way, and while I wonder how much longer he can hold out, all at once he stands up and pays for his beer. When K. finally arrives outside, I approach him on an impulse and ask him if he can give me change for a euro as the voice inside me asks incredulously, are you serious? I’ve forgotten my cell phone and need to make a telephone call, I explain, searching his face in glaring contradiction to my instinct. No, he answers, I don’t have any change, sorry. Apparently, even K. has his magical sign, has put out his antennae to search for its mirror image, and can see in a flash that I do not fit his bill. He turns to go, and I notice for the first time that he has little blond highlights applied to the tips of his brown curls. I remain there, on the broad Berlin sidewalk, and shut my eyes tightly, listening to the sound of the traffic from the square and considering how far things have come that I nearly set myself up to be rejected by this yuppie twerp.
I close my eyes and whisper into the crackling ether of my mind: but who were you, K. Number Two? Could you put down your newspaper for a moment and look at me? The dog’s tail is wagging now, its mouth trembling; it snorts and shakes it head once, then it sits, immobile, with its gaze fixed on K. Number Two’s croissant. One paw appears on K. Number Two’s knee. K. Number Two can no longer concentrate on reading; he puts down the newspaper and gives the dog a morsel, which the dog snaps at and wolfs down, snorting and wagging its tail happily. Then a paw appears on K. Number Two’s knee once again. Would you bruise yourself on what’s gone all brambly about me and love me for as long as it takes to open my shriveled soul? Can you cry over this shrunken heart long enough, laugh over it, drench it with the flood of your own being long enough to bring it miraculously back to life, like a Jericho rose? How long will I have to wait, and what if I don’t know it’s you?