Neal fell in love with Linda in a single, violent onslaught of emotion, a torrent filled with restaurants, unexpected encounters, and flowers that were never roses.
There was something disquieting in how easily he poured out passion. After swimming naked in the ocean, after sherbet in the park, after watching thunderstorms move in from an open field and the lightning arch across the sky, Linda began to accept that this was what her life was supposed to look like, that she was due at least this much. But she wondered at the source of it all; she never really felt as though she had seen the headwaters of this river.
What she could not entirely accept was the suddenness of it: that one day this man had appeared in her life, buying her food, taking her out, and writing her poems that weren’t stupid. She asked him repeatedly, shaking her head, smiling in disbelief, “How many times have you done this? How many names have been in that poem?”
She quit asking after he threw up his hands one night, tossed his car keys at her feet, and walked away. She called after him, and he didn’t turn around, just shouted that he was taking the bus. For a moment, she was afraid that this would be her last sight of him.
“What will it take,” he asked her when she had caught up to him, “before you realize that this is about you?”
Even so, she could never forget the suddenness of his love for her. It was never far away — like an old injury that flared up with every change in the weather.
Neal’s doctoral thesis was on the Spanish Civil War. He became animated — almost incoherent — discussing it, which he would do with anyone, even after they had stopped listening.
“It’s got everything!” he would shout. “Nazis, lies, betrayals, valiant, doomed heroes, corrupt Communists, pigheaded anarchists, sex, literature, art, music — my God, how much more could you want in a war?”
Once he was going on like this to Linda, and he stopped and stared at his bookshelf for a long moment.
“What I would give to have been there,” he whispered.
“You could take a bus right out to the front. I’m pretty sure it was the number 34 bus, running through the Plaza del Sol, and then west, right out to the university, right out to where the militia and the International Brigades were holding up the Fascists.
“In how many wars have soldiers commuted to the front, taking the bus in, kissing the wife adiós on the way to work?
“And the bus drivers! What heroes! Each day, driving the bus up, wondering if the front might have moved from the day before, wondering if you’d be blasted to hell by a Stuka dive bomber or stopped by an Italian tank in the middle of the road. To be caught transporting militia — and all the bus drivers were guilty of this — meant immediate execution.
“Yet there they were, middle-aged men, daring heroes with sweaty smiles and broad paunches, and more courage than we’ll ever know or have to have.
“Banal? Maybe now. But they had to live that. Banality didn’t stop them, nor did certain defeat, nor international isolation, nor Stalinist betrayal, nor lack of weapons, or uniforms, or leadership, or food. They just held on, and Madrid never fell, not until the final Fascist victory.”
“It’s like this,” Linda says, and spreads her hands, and then clasps them together in front of her mouth. Ben adjusts his glasses, and sits forward on the edge of the couch to indicate that he is listening.
“Every now and then, we’ll be walking along, or in a bookstore, or in a restaurant, and some woman will walk by, and I’ll watch Neal’s eyes follow her.”
“That doesn’t sound very strange.”
“I know, but one day he just made the decision that I was it, and that scared me, but now I’m scared that he’ll make another decision one day. What’s to stop him from looking at some beautiful Danish woman here on vacation and saying, ‘Well, I’m off to Denmark. Thanks for everything. Do take care of the goldfish, will you?’ You can’t say that he’s not impulsive enough to do that.”
“So what’s to stop him from just . . . just going?”
Ben nods, the light reflecting off his glasses. “I believe you have just hit upon one of the mysteries of this pain we call existence.”
“What makes these people heroic was the psychological terror they had to face. The Catholic Church all across Europe had sided with the Fascists. Death squads roamed behind the lines, and at night, unseen hands would plaster the plazas and the walls with Fascist posters. Spies for Franco were everywhere.
“The dive bombers were totally new then, and they would scream down out of the air, with no warning at all, and the bombs would screech on the way down, and in an instant, a car, a family, a friend, a street would be obliterated, gone from this world entirely, leaving behind a pile of rubble and guts, and maybe a single empty shoe.”
Linda unwraps the Sunday comics from around the shoe box.
“It feels light,” she says.
She opens the box. The T-shirt bears a reproduction of a poster showing an anarchist, a Communist, and a Trotskyist all grasping a flaming sword. The bottom of the poster reads ¡No pasarán!
“This is your favorite shirt.”
“Why do you think I never wore it? Now it’s yours.”
“I can’t take this.”
“I want you to.”
“Are you sure?”
He leans over and embraces her, holding her tightly.
“Yes,” he says.
“Let’s say you were walking down K Street in D.C. and suddenly, helicopters are everywhere and all the TVs in the store windows are showing the same test pattern and all the radios are playing military music. People are running down the street, some of them cheering, some of them crying, some of them panicking. Rumors are everywhere — the Congress has been disbanded, some of them have been shot, the president has fled the country, storm troopers have taken over the banks.
“What would you do? Run to find a loved one? Hide? Go home and burn incriminating papers or magazines? Where would you go? Who would you choose to trust?
“How many of us would think to gather in front of the police station and demand weapons until we got them? How many of us would think to cut off the bridges from Virginia to the White House to keep the tanks from getting through?
“Yet this is what the people of Madrid did as easily as walking, just being heroic by getting to live at the right time and believing in the right things.
“Sometimes I’m wandering down the street, and I hear helicopters and my heart starts beating a little faster, and I wonder — maybe now?”
“Look,” Linda says, pulling the shirt out of her book bag. “This is what he gave me for my birthday.”
“I’ve never seen that before,” says Ben.
“It’s his favorite shirt. He never wears it because he doesn’t want anything to happen to it.”
“That’s too bad.”
“He is very attached to you, attached to this shirt, attached to this war . . . so many things. I think this is going to cause a lot of suffering.”
“I think it’s sweet of him. Don’t Buddhists celebrate birthdays?”
“What do you celebrate?”
Ben thinks for a moment.
Neal is muttering.
“What is it?”
“Just thinking about this thesis.”
“Like this guy here. He’s born in Missouri, and thinks all he’s ever going to be is a sharecropper, but he meets up with a Communist union organizer and finds himself defending Madrid.”
“Would you have left me to fight that war?”
“Of course not,” he says, without looking up. “I’d have taken you with me.”
“When did they realize they were doomed? When Barcelona fell and the massacres began? When the Communists started killing anarchists and Trotskyists instead of Fascists? When the Soviets had taken the last Spanish gold out of the country?
“Once Franco took Catalonia, there was no way to get out. No way to get to France, and no ships to take them elsewhere. England, the United States, Canada, and Australia were all looking the other way. Of those who did get to France, many were herded into concentration camps. Many were later taken to German concentration camps after France fell to Hitler. Those who survived said that the Germans fed them better.
“Maybe they knew right from the start. Maybe they knew they didn’t have a chance and chose to fight anyway. To stand against Franco, to stand for the right of people to eat and to go to school and to speak freely, and to have a doctor, and the right to have work and benefit from that work, the right to live without fear — to stand for this meant that you were absolutely doomed.”
“Why did you become a Buddhist?”
Ben purses his lips for a moment and swings his legs back up on the couch.
“I just came to believe that life is . . . tremendously futile. And I found that a very sad thought. To attain nirvana, to be released from this cage of futility, is to lose attachment to things, to ideas, to people, and that seemed like a good idea. Everyone is doomed to die, right? What matters is the amount of clarity with which that truth is faced.”
“Thank you, master.”
“You did ask,” he says, stretching his arms behind his head, shrugging his shoulders.
“You’re right, I did.” She zips up her book bag and stands.
“I do have to get going. Thanks for listening.”
“Any time at all. The talk is nothing. You have to get past the words to make it count.”
She walks out the door, a little frustrated. She steps down and makes a left on P Street, heading west to DuPont Circle. As she crosses Fifteenth Street she hears a rumble that sounds like thunder. She stops and looks up, frowning. The sky is cloudless. The thunder rumbles again, and she feels a tremor under her feet. A loud roar fills the air and three planes roar overhead, so low she can see the rivets on the wings and the fuselages. Bombs hang from the wings of the propeller-driven planes. There are swastikas painted on the tails.
She begins to run. Somewhere in the city, artillery is firing. She comes to DuPont Circle. Neal is at the back of a truck, handing out rifles and ammunition, shouting through a bullhorn. Bike couriers are racing through, gathering reports over their radios, smiling, clapping each other on the back. Businessmen are knocked down, their ties stripped off and stuffed into Molotov cocktails. The fountain is empty and machine-gun nests are being set up there. Neal looks up and sees Linda. Buds are just starting to blossom on the trees.
“The couriers tell us that Franco is past Chevy Chase, and now in the District itself. The plan, such as it is, is to take the Metro to the zoo stop and hold them on Connecticut Avenue until we can relieve American University. There is hand-to-hand fighting on the AU campus; Moroccan troops are bayoneting their way through the dorms.
“There is no time to lose. Nazi panzers backed by the Stukas of the Condor Division are past Gaithersburg; we must be in place before they arrive.
“Linda is here. She is staring at me, rooted in place, shocked, as if this were somehow unexpected. She is so beautiful. Her eyes are round and frank and daring, her hair is flowing across her shoulders, her mouth is caught in this perfect O, and I want to hold this moment forever. I want to make love with her always, I want to stay young and strong. Suddenly I don’t want this war, I don’t want to die at all, all I want is Linda, that’s all, that’s it. I drop my gun and run to her, jumping over sandbags and ammo racks and for a second there’s no war at all.
“The buses are back running around the circle, the homeless men are back on the benches shouting at each other, the old men are back playing chess on the concrete tables, women are wearing furs unmolested, businessmen are going to work. And then she runs to me too, and the war is back, she holds me as tightly as I hold her, and this illusory war is real now, stronger than the placid delusion that we used to call important or substantial; we are passionate, we are embracing, we are crying, we are smiling, we love, we are going to die, we belong entirely to life.”