A Love Portrait
It’s not that I don’t like parties. It’s just that I don’t really excel at social situations. I’m not good at talking to people. And it’s not even really that. I mean, I can fake it when I need to. It’s more that I don’t enjoytalking to people. Well, most people. I like talking to interesting people just fine. But when was the last time you met a properly interesting person at a party?
When I ran with an academic crowd, years ago, I met loads of interesting people. Interesting in how far up their own asses they were. And later, when I ran with a tech crowd, I met plenty of people whom I was told were interesting. But I never knew what the hell they were on about. And thank the gods for that.
So I decided to give the artist crowd a try. Turns out they’re both up their and own assesandI had no idea what they’re on about. Worst of both worlds, if you will. I was actually about to give up on the artist crowd. But last weekend, I was invited to an artist party. In a perfect world, I probably would have declined the invitation. But this was the first party I’d been invited to since The Lockdown was lifted. So what the hell, am I right?
Anyway, there was this girl there. Said she was a witch. And I don’t mean a goth, nature loving Wiccan. I mean an actual, honest to Satan, witch. Well, maybe it was all a joke. But there was something about her eyes. The way she looked at me. She seemed to see right into my soul. Yeah, look, I know how that sounds. But just listen to this.
“Hi, I’m Dave,” I said. I would have offered her my hand, but you know, PLSD: Post Lockdown Stress Disorder. Anyway, I introduced myself and she just starts laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked, not a little annoyed.
“You are,” she giggled. “I mean, I’m a witch, right? But you…you’re just plain weird!” This is what I mean when I say she saw right into my soul.
“You’re a witch,” I repeated. It wasn’t a question. I mean, it was a question. But in Alex Trebek, olav’a’shalom, terms, I hadn’t phrased my response in the form of a question. “And I’m supposed to know that, how exactly?” Because she’d said it as if it were obvious. But it was not, in point of fact, obvious. She was wearing a yellow sundress. She was not wearing black eye shadow. And the cross that hung from her neck was not upside down. Am I an expert on witches? No. Am I possibly trading in offensive stereotypes? Perhaps. But to a Yid like me, she just looked like any other shixa. Albeit a cute shixa.
“You’re a witch,” I said again. “And I’m the weird one?”
“I’m pretty sure,” she answered with a mischievous smile.
“We’ll come back to that,” I rolled my eyes. “But in the meantime, would you mind if I asked you some questions? I mean, I’ve never met a proper witch before.” Which was true. So far as I know, anyway.
“Sure,” she shrugged. “Anything’s better than talking to thoseclowns.” And she waved her arm to indicate the rest of the room. “It’ll be nice to talk to a normal person for a change.”
“I thought you said I was weird,” I countered.
“Oh, you are, honey. Normal is weird these days. Or haven’t you heard?”
“I suppose.” The times, they are a-changin’. “So, umm, where do you live?” Well now, that was a stupid question. But like I said, I’m not good at social interactions.
“Here in Berlin,” she offered nonchalantly.
“Well, yeah, I figured that. But where in Berlin?” She didn’t have an accent, so I assumed she was a fellow expat. But then again, if she really was a witch, was the mastery of any tongue within her power? Yes, I was seriously entertaining the notion.
“Just outside Köpenick. Say, didn’t you used to live in Köpenick?” I don’t know what surprised me more. The fact that she knew I used to live in Köpenick, or the fact that she introduced a sentence with the word ‘say’ like it was 1947.
“How did you know…”
“Hello? I’m a witch.”
“Right, right, what was I thinking.” I’m not sure I was buying her story just yet, but I was willing to play along. “Just outside Köpenick. Where exactly?”
“In the woods, by the Müggelsee. You used to go for walks there, actually. Though I’m sure you never saw me.” I did used to go for walks in the woods by the Müggelsee. I used to love that, in fact.
“And you know that because you’re a witch,” I suggested.
“Look out girls, this one’s a fast learner,” she shot back sarcastically. I narrowed my eyes in matching sarcasm. “Sorry,” she shrugged. “It’s a bad habit.”
“It’s all good. I appreciate a bit of banter.”
“I bet you do,” she winked. Was the witch flirting with me? But being socially inept, I went straight on with my questions.
“So you live in the woods?”
“All real witches live in nature,” she assured me. “I mean, I have an apartment in Neukölln, but I’m hardly ever there. It’s hard to cast a good spell indoors. And anyway, it’s much easier to get all the bits and bobs you need when you’re in a forest.”
“Bits and bobs,” I echoed. “Are you British?”
“My soul is, I suppose.”
“And what does that mean exactly?”
“Well, think of it this way,” she tried to explain. “You’re from Brooklyn.” Of course she knew that. “But you still carry around a bit of the shtetl with you.”
“Emes?” I instinctively answered in Yiddish. “I mean, I do?”
“You see my point,” she smiled.
“I suppose I do. But anyway, what do you mean by ‘bits and bobs’?”
bitchwitch was alluring, if nothing else. “Well, what sort of bits and bobs would a witch need from the forest?” I pondered aloud. “Rats’ tails? Spider legs? Bird shit? Sorry, I suppose I’m stereotyping now. But you told me to guess.” I was rambling.
“So, I’m actually a vegan witch,” she started.
“Typical Berlin,” I muttered.
“Nothing, sorry. Please, enlighten me.” I looked around to see if anybody was listening in. It didn’t appear that anybody was.
“Well, as a vegan witch, spider legs and rat tails are right out. And as far as bird shit, just, eww. I mean, gross!” She started laughing. It was enchanting. Pun possibly intended? “No, I’m more of a mushroom and moss kinda gal.”
“I see,” I said, not at all seeing.
“No you don’t,” she called me out. “But that’s OK. Hey, don’t feel bad. I’ve never met a Jew before. I’m sure I’ve got loads of questions for you too.”
“Jewish person,” I corrected.
“When you say ‘Jew,’ it sounds a little…”
“Dude. You literally just asked me if I collected bird shit. Maybe we can cut each other some slack here?” Her tone was more playful than annoyed. But she had a point.
“Fair enough,” I conceded. “So you live in the woods,” I pressed, trying to pick up the thread of our conversation again.
“That’s right,” she nodded. “Well, in the summer, anyway. I spend the winters in Neukölln. I mean, winters in this town are shit, aren’t they?”
“Oh, my god, they’re fucking terrible!” We both started laughing. “Like, all you can do is just stay in bed and Netflix it til spring.”
“Exactly!” She exhaled a sigh of relief. “Finally, someone who gets it. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who are all ‘Well, if you only live in the woods in the summer, you can’t be very serious about your witchery.’ Like, dude, come on. Gimme a fuckin’ break!”
“Gimme a fuckin’ break!” I repeated enthusiastically. Gods, it’s been so long since I’d heard another person say that. I mean, it’s such a New York expression. That idiom has been absent from my life ever since I moved to this town. But then a chill went up my spine. Wasn’t her ‘soul’ supposed to be British? How did she know that phrase?
“And now you’re wondering how I knew to say ‘Gimme a fuckin’ break.” Her eyes were shining. Deep, green eyes. “Dude, I’m a witch. I’m full of surprises.”
“I’m getting that,” I conceded. “I guess I’ll have to get used to that.”
“I guess you will,” she grinned. Were she anybody else, I would have said that she grinned wickedly. But I somehow had the feeling that ‘wicked’ was not a word to be thrown about casually with this broad.
“So you live in the woods, in the summer,” I tried again. She nodded. “And do you like…this is such a stupid question, but…do you, like, bathe?”
“Well, that depends on what you mean by the word ‘bathe.’” Poker face.
“I don’t follow,” I answered honestly.
“Well, I wash myself in the river every other day or so. But I bathein goat’s blood by the light of the full moon once a month.” I searched her face for any sign that she might be kidding, but she just stared at me with those green eyes. I was getting goose bumps. But my fear was soon overpowered by my sense of logic.
“I thought you were a vegan,” I said coldly. But she just kept staring at me, those deep, green eyes penetrating my very being. Maybe she did bathe in goat’s blood. Nevermind where she got the goats from. I mean, this is Berlin. I’m sure there’s some hipster shop that fucking specializes in ritualistic goat blood. Or maybe it was some kind of vegan ‘goat blood.’ You know, Portobello mushroom juice and cranberry sauce or some such shit. A smile crept over face as she tracked my mental gymnastics.
“Dude, relax! I’m just fucking with you!” She reached out and touched my elbow. Human contact! I’d forgotten what that felt like. #PLSD
“You bitch!” I exclaimed with a laugh.
“Witch,” she corrected. “Bitch sounds so…”
“Yeah, yeah,” I rolled my eyes. “Cut me some slack.”
“Slack cut,” she giggled. “Hey, you know something? You’re pretty sweet.”
“Sure,” she answered, touching her bright red hair. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re weird af, but you’re sweet.” I looked at my feet as I grabbed my left elbow with my right hand. I didn’t know where else to look. “And you’re kinda cute, too,” she added softly. I looked up. But now she was the one looking at her feet whilst grabbing her right elbow with her left hand. Was she left handed?
“OK, so you don’t bathe in goat’s blood,” I said by way of confirmation.
“Of course not! Fucking gross! Gods, I mean, could you imagine?”
“Gods,” I repeated. “Did you just say ‘gods’? Plural?”
“I did,” she affirmed. “But so do you.”
“Well, yeah,” I admitted. “But that’s just something I picked up from – “
“Battlestar Galactica, I know,” she smiled. “That show was sooo good!”
“I know, right?!” Green eyes, red hair, sarcastic, Battlestar fan. Was I falling in love with a witch?
“But in all seriousness,” she went on, “I do bathe in the lake every other day or so when I’m living in the woods. But when I’m in my apartment, I shower just like everybody else.” I looked at her. “Ew. Don’t picture it. Perv!” And she smacked my forearm.
“I wasn’t – “
“Picturing it and yes you were. I can read your thoughts, don’t forget.”
“You can, huh?” I mean, she’d already proven as much. But we were flirting now (I think), so why not play along? “Then what am I thinking right now?”
“You’re wondering if I’m really a redhead,” she answered sharply. I wasn’t, actually. I’d already inspected her eyebrows and was sufficiently satisfied in that regard. But then, she knew that. Which made her next words all the more enticing. “And if you play your cards right, you might just find out.”
“Tarot cards?” I volleyed.
“If you like. But you’ll learn more than you bargain for,” she returned.
“There’s nothing I don’t want to learn about you.” Nope, that shot went straight into the net.
“Stoopid,” she rolled her eyes. “Tarot cards are for you to learn about yourself not to learn about me.” She smiled. “But nice try.” Clearly, I had a lot to learn about us both.
“Anyway, gods,” I tried again.
“Oh, right. So, as a witch, I do believe in a variety of greater and lesser deities. Well, ‘deities’ really isn’t the best word. More like ‘spirits.’ But that sounds so new-age-y, you know? And ‘nymphs’ carries with it a whole host of inappropriate sexual overtones. So ‘deities’ will have to do.”
“You’re being serious now?” It was so hard to tell with her.
“I am. I mean, it’s hard to talk about these things without sounding like a complete whack-job, unfortunately. But like, everything has a…gods, I hate this word…spirit? What I mean is, we’re not alone on this planet. We share it with everything else that’s alive here. Life on this world is greater than the sum of its parts. But we can start by recognizing that everything that’s alive does have a part. And we need to…or, rather, I try to…respect those parts. Humans, sure. But also fungi, fish, even the water. And let’s not forget,” and now she touched my hand, “the birds and the bees.”
“And educated fleas.”
“Ooh!” she exclaimed, rolling her head back in surprise. “A boy who knows Cole Porter! You’re good!”
“You ain’t so bad yourself, sister,” I said, taking hold of her hand. “I think I might be feeling that old black magic.”
“No,” she pushed my hand away. “Wecan say that. Youcan’t say that.”
“Oh, gods, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean – “
“Relax!” She grabbed my hand. “I’m just fucking with you. But you really are sweet.” She could melt me with those eyes. “For a fucking weirdo.” She giggled. And in that giggle was the sound of birds chirping, leaves rustling in the wind, water gurgling over stones in a stream. I was, perhaps, beginning to understand her connection with nature.
“What’s your name, anyway?” I was dying to know.
“Esmeralda,” she muttered dejectedly.
“Esmeralda? Like in the book?”
“You’ve read it?” she asked earnestly.
“Notre Dame de Paris? Oui, je l’ai lu,” I answered in French.
“Then you know she’s a basic bitch,” she grumbled.
“Oh, completely fucking useless,” I agreed. “But it’s still a beautiful name.”
“Well, thank you,” she smiled shyly. “But I prefer Merry. Anyway, what’s your name?”
“Dave,” I shrugged. My name was not nearly so exotic.
“David. It means ‘beloved’ in Hebrew,” she declared accurately. “That suits you.” And she squeezed my hand. The way she touched me, the way she knew the meaning of my name, it warmed my heart. But as she had no love for her namesake, I decided to downplay my own.
“Well, but Dovid’a’Melekhwas kind of a dick,” I offered, using the Yiddish epithet for King David. She started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“King David is kind of a dick,” she giggled. “Wasn’t one of his tasks to bring back a literal bag of foreskins to King Saul?” Her giggle exploded into outright laughter.
“That’s the story,” I shrugged, laughing along with her.
“But you haven’t done that, have you?” she thrusted.
“Once a month, by the light of the full moon,” I parried.
“Never buy gribenesfrom a moyel,” she countered.
“It’s so chewy!” we cried out in unison.
“A girl who knows Mel Brooks! You’re good!” Yes, I was falling in love with a witch. Not knowing what to say next, I fell back on a bit of small talk. “So, um, do you have any hobbies?”
“Well, I like to cast spells,” she said innocently.
“I was never much good at spelling,” I confessed.
“Stoopid,” she giggled. OK, I was kinda loving the way she called me ‘stoopid.’
“What kind of spells though?”
“Mostly healing spells.”
“You mean for like foxes and squirrels and shit?”
“Sometimes. But also for people.”
“Do they ever work?” I asked.
“Well, they don’t hurt,” she winked.
“I do know one thing though,” I offered.
“You do, huh? What’s that.”
“You’ve certainly put a spell on me.” Nice. Good one, Davey-boy. Smooth operator. She’s gonna eat that right –
“No I haven’t.” She looked confused. “I would never cast a spell on someone I just met. It’s unethical.” Nice. Good one, Davey-boy. Smooth operator. I lowered my glasses onto the bridge of my nose and peered over them at her with narrowed eyes. “Oh, I see,” she frowned. “Fuck, I ruin everything.” Her frown gave way to a gentle smile. “Aww, that was actually really cute. Say it again.”
“What say it again? The moment’s passed. It won’t be the same.”
“I know, but I wanna hear it anyway.”
“You just heard it though,” I protested.
“Lemme get this straight. A girl is asking you to say something sweet to her and your answer is, ‘No, sorry, I’ve already told you’? Smooth operator, Davey-boy.” She whistled in faux dismay.
“Riddle me this, sweetheart. Casting spells on someone you’ve just met is unethical but reading their thoughts ain’t?”
“Touché, salesman. Tellya what, though. I like it when you call me ‘sweetheart.’ So you’re off the hook. This time.” She was blushing, which really set off her freckles. Oh, did I mention she had freckles? Too cute. I fucking can’t.
“Anyway, spells. What else do you get up to in your free time?” Just keep the conversation moving, pal.
“Music. I like to play music.”
“Oh, cool,” I nodded. “Do you play an instrument? Sing?”
“I sing,” she said confidently. With a voice like that, it would be a tragedy if she didn’t. “And I play a bit of harp.”
“Lemme guess, your harp is made of deer antlers and catgut.” It was joke.
“Well, as a matter of fact…”
“That’s not very vegan of you,” I said with a touch of mock-scorn.
“I know, I know! I actually feel kinda guilty about it. But my grandfather made it. Different times, you know? And it would be a shame to just throw it away.”
“No, I get that. Makes perfect sense. Hey, we should jam sometime!” I made the suggestion as soon as it had come to me.
“Oh, thank gods,” she sighed.
“For a second there, I was worried you were gonna say, ‘We should make beautiful music together.’”
“Hey, now. Clumsy, not creepy.”
“Yeah, I’m getting that,” she said with a smile, touching my forearm.
“Seriously though, we should jam sometime,” I tried again.
“I dunno. I’m really shy about singing in front of other people,” she said softly, looking at her feet. Then, without looking up, she said, “But I do think…if there was anybody I would feel OK singing in front of…it would be you.” Her head was still tilted downward, but she looked up at me beneath fluttering lashes.
“I’d like that,” I smiled. And I made the bold move of brushing the back of my hand against her fiery hair. She raised her head, revealing a soft smile.
“What about you? What do you play?”
“Why don’t you tell me, you little mind-reader.”
“You,” she started, staring at me intently, “play guitar and you sing. And you have a nice voice, too.”
“Nice is subjective,” I deflected.
“Don’t be modest,” she scolded. “What kind of music do you play?”
“You’re not going to tell me?” I asked.
“Nope. I wanna hear you say it.”
“Rock and roll,” I shrugged. “But you know that, so why did you want to hear me say it?”
“Because it’s refreshing.”
“It is?” I didn’t see how.
“Of course it is,” she explained. “These days, everybody has to give you a five-minute lecture on their kind of music.” She lowered her voice into a mocking, mimicking tone. “’So, like, I play jazz-infused rockabilly, but like with synths and house beat underneath.’ It’s so fucking tedious,” she added, returning to her normal voice. “Just plain old unpretentious rock and roll. It’s refreshing.” Was it? Now would be a good time to mention that I’m not very good at knowing when to leave well enough alone.
“Well, actually though, now that you mention it, I do try to bring in elements of – “
“Shuddup,” she interrupted, with a forward thrust of her head. “Just shut up, OK?” I nodded silently. For a few moments, neither of us a said word. When the silence had become nearly unbearable, she spoke again. “So, how long have you been in Berlin?” I shrugged. “How long?” she tried again. I tilted my head to one side. “Well? Aren’t you going to answer me?” I shook my head. “Is this because I told you to shut up?” I nodded. “You’re impossible.” I nodded again. “You know I can cast a spell on you to make you talk, right?” I raised a doubtful eyebrow. “I’ll do it,” she threatened. I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I shrugged. “Hocus Pocus, Alacazam / You speak, therefore you am!” And she snapped her fingers.
“Seriously?” I exclaimed. “You speak, therefore you am? Do they not teach you English in witch school?”
“First of all, pal, it’s called The Academy of Light and Dark Arts. And second of all, I think I liked you better when you didn’t talk.” Her face was stern but those lashes were a-fluttering.
“Shoulda thought of that before you spelled me back into speakery,” I retorted.
“I’ll keep that in mind for next time. And also, ‘spelled me back into speakery’? You’re really going to lecture me on English?”
“I’m an English teacher, sweetheart. It’s literally my job.”
“You’re lucky I like the way the word ‘sweetheart’ sounds on your tongue,” she jabbed.
“Well, if you like that, you’re gonna love what else my tongue – “
“Just nope.” That stern look again. “Gods, I mean, you’re so close. Do you really want to ruin this now?”
“I, I am?” I stuttered. “I mean, of course not!”
“Because that would be a real shame.”
“A tragedy, even.”
“An epic tragedy,” she clarified.
“Of epic proportions,” I re-clarified. But she just looked at me, a hint of disappointment in her green eyes. “Yeah, no, I heard it.” I exhaled sharply.
“An epic tragedy…of epic proportions,” she repeated, putting it all together with a shake of her head.
“I said I heard it,” I frowned. “Ooh, of…of seismic proportions?” I tried again.
“Better,” she smiled.
“Of earth shattering proportions?” I said, giving it another shot.
“Meh. A little Wagnerian, don’t you think?”
“I suppose,” I agreed, screwing up my face. “Seismic then?”
“Seismic,” she nodded.
“Sorry, what are we even talking about? I’m afraid I may have fallen down the rabbit hole here.”
“We were talking about how close you are and how, if you blew it now, it would be an epic tragedy of seismic proportions.” Her answer came quick. I may have lost the thread for a moment, but she knew exactly where things stood.
“Right, right,” I nodded. “So, um, what do you say you and me blow this pop-stand. You know, before I say something stupid.”
“Oh, honey, that ship has left the barn,” she said, shaking her head with a grin.
“Don’t you mean, ‘that horse has sailed’?” I offered, inverting her mixed metaphor. Also, I’m a sucker for mixed metaphors. Which she surely knew.
“Six-and-a-half of one, Baker’s half-dozen of the other,” she shrugged.
“I don’t think that’s how – “
“Yes.” She cut me off abruptly.
“No…I’m quite sure it’s – “
“Stoopid.” Shining green eyes, burning red hair, glowing cheeks. “Not ‘yes,’ the idiom. ‘Yes,’ let’s blow this pop-stand.”
“Oh, I see,” I reflected. “Oh!” I realized. “Shall we?” I offered he my hand.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she cooed, taking my hand. We left the party and headed downstairs to the front door of the building. A moment later, we were standing on the sidewalk, under the streetlights on that warm, dark summer evening. I looked at her.
“You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever encountered in all my years on this earth,” is what I thought to myself. Now, here’s what I actually said. “I love your freckles. They’re like little almonds in a sea of milk.” Oh yes, friends, I am a smooth operator. And I defy you to find one smoother.
“That was…such a nice try,” she smiled. And she patted my cheek gently. I blushed.
“Like…little islands of honey in a…still sea of milk?” Never give up, that’s what I always say.
“Nah, too biblical,” she grinned.
“Wait, I can do this,” I protested. “Your freckles are like…”
“I’ve got something for this, just gimme a sec…”
“Nope. I got nothing. Sorry.”
“Then maybe shut up.” With that, she raised herself up on her tippy-toes, leaned in and kissed me sweetly on the lips. That old black magic’s got me in it’s spell…that old black magic that you weave so well…
But just then a gust of warm air blew my hat from my head. Spinning round on my heels, I was just able to grab it out of the air. But when I turned back around, she was gone. My Esmeralda had disappeared! She had vanished, in the proverbial blink of an eye.
So bewildered was I, that at first I didn’t even notice the butterfly hovering before my eyes. It was a most beautiful specimen, delicate, elegant, with wings of deep green and bright red. It hovered there for just a moment before alighting upon the tip of my nose. Twice, it fluttered its gorgeous wings. Twice, the wingtips batted against my eyelashes. A butterfly kiss.
I raised my hands, as if to take hold of it. But before I could do so, it took to the air, flying off into the warm, summer night, heading East towards Köpenick and the Müggelsee beyond…