“Amsterdam?” he asked. “I just bought my ticket.” The young man in Liverpool Street Station was going to the Continent too. He was draped across a bench and looked a bit haggard but seemed glad to welcome us, as if we had been friends back home. He smoothed the front of his wrinkled shirt and blinked languidly from loss of sleep and jet lag.
Three Americans on the road made small talk at an early hour, and then we parted, leaving him again to his bench. I called back, “See you on board.”
I turned and said to Mark, “I like the cut of his jib.”
“Whataya, a fuckin’ pirate, Max?”
“I live close to the sea. That makes me a romantic…”
Mark grumbled under his breath that a certain person ought to take a sailing ship and go hunt white whales. On our last day in London he had gotten grumpy…
If anyone should be annoyed, it should’ve been me. I couldn’t blame Mark for my last-minute decision to tour Europe. He already had his ticket. But the airlines had you over the old barrel for last-minute flights. I snagged a one-way charter ticket, at the “highwayman rate,” on RAT, Romanian Air Trans port. I got busy packing my gear with two days to leave. Scurrying to do final errands induced a whole range of possibilities to tickle my brain.
Instead of running to Roosevelt Field, I checked out our local store, Fisher’s Haberdashery. Hermann Fisher squinted when I walked in the door; the bell’s jangling had alerted him. He had big hairy ears and a bulbous nose. His thick eyeglasses with special imbedded smaller lenses made his eyes appear cartoonishly large. He was legally blind and came up close to peer at me, as if I would give off an identifying odor from this closeness. “Welcome, sonny boy,” he said. All the men were called sonny boy, until he knew who you were. When I spoke, he said, “Ah, Max, our local real estate magnate.”
“You know I sold out, so that’s not accurate anymore, Hermann.”
“Sold at the top! The rest of us have made bubkes.”
“What are you talking about? You own half the town.”
“My dear young shtarker, what’s half a load of shit worth? I’m too old to recoup. You’ll be back to buy at the bottom.
The old store was like a museum, with the original wood plank floors, fluted wooden pillars, and carvings on the walls. Hermann carried brandname closeouts and I found just what I needed in a lightweight safari jacket with pockets everywhere. “So, when is a strapping young man like you going to marry? You didn’t like my niece, Sarah?” Hermann had taken me by the collar, his playful way of acting tough, his face inches from mine, and his sour breath penetrating my nostrils.
“We didn’t hit it off,” I answered and left.
I showed the jacket to Mark and he said, “Nice.” This was going to be Mark’s pull-out-all-the-stops celebratory graduation tour, and he announced that we should go our separate ways on the Continent.
I concurred, because for one thing, I was older, and for another, we had different interests. He went to Fisher’s and got the same jacket.
“You couldn’t even find a different color?” I said.
Mark answered, “Nope!”
“Great, Markie, wearing matching jackets, the height of coolness!” I was leaving four days before him. But in London, when we were together I thought of us as Team Doofus with those jackets, so I figured I had more right to be grouchy than him.
Mark came from an orthodox background. He and his older brother, Larry, had each done their eight years in yeshiva. But Larry’s traditional upbringing wasn’t a hindrance to his becoming untrustworthy.
He had made trades for my stock account without my authorization. During a mad upswing in the market, I sold, took my lumps, chastened, and severed all ties with him. And Mark became my best friend by default.
The idea of friendship had become problematic. I had no women friends and didn’t care. Then there was the troubling time with Loren. Continually revisiting that period muted the stinging hurt. Mostly, I stayed reclusive, wishing to blame everything that had happened to an overactive sensitivity. My feelings were a trap that left me wondering what to do next.
I was on the run and would make a wide arc to faraway lands. I perceived the wonder of new possibilities that travel could bring, but also worried I might end up right back where I had started from unchanged, untouched…
The early morning meeting left me with thoughts of the young man at the railway ticket office: he was square shouldered, slim, and dark, probably of Mediterranean ancestry. His nose had a fine shape; I liked that. From our brief exchange, I sensed that he possessed a maturity beyond his twentytwo years, with an understated intelligence and modesty about his talents. He had majored in French and spoke Italian too. I got the impression that he didn’t like to thrust himself into the center of things or to seek attention…
Aboard the ship to the Hook of Holland, late into the night, he and I were below deck and talked at a little table. Pale lights shone in the lounge at the exits and passageways. I had never been on a ship before and neither had he. He was my companion in another kind of voyage. His mouth moved in a slow hypnotic motion, and the thrumming in my head formed an incongruous connection to the engine vibrations humming under our feet. The ship and the sea and the quiet in the dim cabin exaggerated a searching tension. Sleeping people and private whisperings nearby made the meeting more intimate. I thought his expression revealed an unspoken message that wanted to say, I like you. Finally, he said, “I must go. I’m completely useless, when I don’t get some sleep.” He got up from the chair and walked past me. When I turned seconds later to look for him, he had vanished into the dark…