I started teaching myself German the day after the love of my life left me. I suppose ‘left me’ is a bit too generous of a phrase. In reality, Lukas blocked me on every form of social media as well as my phone number, saying to me in the act that he didn’t want me in his life, let alone his virtual one.
I first met Lukas three years prior when I was traveling through New Zealand. I was in the country alone—a fact that enraptured me with both excitement and anxiety. I had recently graduated from college, leaving campus in debt with no serious job prospects. I staved off time and decision making by moving to Middle Earth with a working holiday visa tucked in the pages of my passport, finding refuge in hostel beds and odd jobs that kept me steady for a while.
We were in Queenstown, a backpacker’s paradise and my favorite place in the entire country. I was taking a run around Lake Wakatipu and paused immediately when I saw him, trying to catch my breath. When people speak of love at first sight there is some sort of conventional wisdom that it comes from the locking of eyes, a type of mutual recognition. But the first time I saw Lukas I didn’t see his eyes. I saw the back of his head. Brown, short hair, bent downward. He was sitting, leaning against a tree stump at the base of the lake, writing in a notebook against his knees. This tree stump could have been carved from nature, this sort of natural armchair that fit the mold of his back perfectly. There was something so beautiful about that scene: only nature surrounding him, the green of the trees a canopy, the water at the edge of his feet tempting him, the mountains just beyond it clearer than any dream.
I stood there for a while, watching him. One minute? Two minutes? Twenty? I watched him move his hand back and forth as he lifted his pen to write. I took out my headphones. He didn’t have any in his ear, he was just listening to the music of the trees. There weren’t birds around that morning, but I like to think there were. Maybe if they were chirping the story would be lovelier, calmer. Maybe if they were chirping I wouldn’t have downloaded an app to teach myself German in a futile effort to become someone I could never be, for the boy I first fell for when I saw the back of his head peering out from a tree stump.
“Ich liebe dich.”
I repeated the phrase to the mirror in front of me, studying the way the German words sounded against my American accent. I imagined if I said the phrase time and again that after a point it would become natural, roll off the tongue, that perhaps I would pass as a native speaker.
If I told Lukas, “Ich liebe dich,” what would he think? Would he hear the meaning behind the words, the effort it took to learn them, the courage it took to say them? I wondered if the space between us was not a matter of distance but really one of language—the inability to bridge the gap between what we said and what we meant.
“Ich liebe dich,” I’d say to him.
“I love you, too,” he’d say back to me.
Lukas and I shared our first kiss during a four-hour bus ride to Milford Sound. Almost everyone on the bus was sleeping, so that even though it was mid-day, the blinds were drawn, lending to the façade of darkness. Lukas was sitting by the window and I was sitting at the aisle.
I don’t remember what we were talking about. Politics, maybe? I play with the idea today that it could have been politics, since we spoke about the subject so much in the years following that day. But in that very moment, I don’t believe we approached the subject. All I remember is this: we stopped talking, our eyes held the other, and our heads inched toward each other as we met to share our first kiss. I could smell the remnants of the cigarette he has smoked earlier that day. I wasn’t a smoker and tried to avoid being around those who did, but with him, my tongue savored the taste. Our lips touching didn’t feel like they were meeting for the first time, exploring one another, examining the feel of the other—instead it felt like meeting a long lost friend, a friend who had voluntarily left you long ago and who you had tried in vain to forget, a friend you only realized how much you missed until you were reunited.
Lukas rested his head on my shoulder a few minutes later, and I felt the tickle of his dark brown hair against my cheek. My heart was pounding harder and faster than usual, but I welcomed the discomfort. My body was telling me what I had first known when I spotted his dark brown hair from afar: there was no going back.
I learned the word a few weeks into teaching myself German, and seeing its translation made me pause. I lifted my finger off the screen of my phone and shut it off, powering down the app that was teaching me to become conversational in his language.
That was the key to it all, wasn’t it?
For years I tortured myself with thoughts about that night, that last night in New Zealand. Lukas was there, standing up, his arm outstretched, waiting for me to grab it, to follow him. The moonlight would be our guide. We would have only each other and that’s all that would matter. Two people seeking refuge in another hemisphere, in the arms of the other. Lovers and friends and strangers and family.
I told myself it was my fault. He wanted me to join him. Was his proposition for that night or for the future? When he asked me to come with him, was he really saying, from this night always?
When I told him to go, did he think I meant, from this night always?
Stay. I should have said: Stay.
I couldn’t read the German menu when Lukas and I sat down to have dinner in his city just three years after our first meeting. They didn’t have a translated version, so he went through every option with me, not sparing me the details of what was in each dish and the sides that came with them.
I decided immediately I would order the chicken salad—the second option read to me—but kept silent so I could listen to him finish. I studied him as he looked down at the menu, pausing to translate in his head: the way his hair was still so short, but also how a strand was sticking up on the top of his head. I wanted to take it, to pat it down, to stroke the top of his head as if stroking the fur of a beloved pet. Lukas was finely shaven, but I could still spot the echoes of a beard that once was. In the darkness beneath his skin, just waiting to grow, I told myself I saw the potential for something grand, something familiar, something just right.
To this day I don’t know what held me more: his voice or his accent. Or are they the same? I grew up thinking German was an ugly language, one of wars and rules and harsh tones. But he—well, he made it beautiful. His English was hidden behind the drapes of his German, the two languages working in tandem, calling to me, beckoning me to another world, a world where we could exist in a space made our own.
The dinner was shorter than I had imagined it would be in my head, and at the end we parted ways: he back home, to his new life, and me, to my hotel. When he texted me shortly after that he wanted to actually continue our meeting, to pick up where we left off all those years ago, I couldn’t help but smile in the face of contradictions. But when he was supposed to be on his way over, he let me know that he had in fact changed his mind. I prodded him, devastated, told him he was making our meeting into something it didn’t have to be—all the while practicing what I would say to him in my head when he arrived.
I never got the chance.
Lukas blocked me on every form of social media within minutes.
When Lukas first told me his full name, I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion. Again, I said, could you say it again? He repeated it to me—Lukas Körrig—not once but multiple times, all the while laughing. Over time he would continue to do this out of nowhere, though most times it was because I asked him to say it to me. I wanted to hear his name pronounced the way it was meant to be pronounced in German. I told myself Lukas retreated inside himself further with every incorrect pronunciation of his name I gave—it was too glaring, too obvious that I did not belong in his world, that we did not belong together. In what scenario could I take a last name I did not even know? But there was always the question I asked myself: What if? I hoped that if I heard it enough times it would catch on, that the next time I called to him, he would hear not just my voice and his name but his whole self. He would hear and understand and finally accept that I knew him, really knew him, in the way he was meant to be known from the very start.
Each time I called to him in full, my American accent continued to disjoint his name, to the point where eventually I tired of the effort. The truth is that I don’t think Lukas ever really cared that I couldn’t pronounce his name correctly—but I still imagine it hurt him that I stopped trying.
I stopped teaching myself German when I accepted the truth that had been staring at me in the face for years: I spotted him before he spotted me. I fell in love with the form of him first, and not the face of him. There were no birds chirping when I first saw him. He tricked me into craving the scent of cigarette smoke. Our reunion was not urgent. He chose to leave.
I stopped teaching myself German when my epiphany was meaningless in the face of an even deeper truth.
The truth was that Lukas and I were separated by oceans and countries again, a separation freely chosen—but it didn’t matter. For years I imagined him seeing the city I grew up in and meeting my family, but some part of me knew even from the beginning that it would not come to be. And yet I couldn’t help but continue imagining, whispering to him when I was alone though I knew he could not hear me, that he was not listening. Softly, so softly, I would call to him—by his full name—my time spent learning German allowing for a pronunciation I didn’t think was butchered, though perhaps he still would have judged it differently. He remained the native. I, the foreigner. Yet I would continue, saying what I should have said when I had the chance.
“Bleib. Ich liebe dich.”
There was a comfort in the sound of my own voice, striking in its familiarity, like the welcoming back of a long lost friend.
About the Author: Rachel Duboff is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus and she is a winner of The Moth Los Angeles StorySLAM.