Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Simple Past

Simple Past
Photograph via Unsplash by Noah Silliman

SUBJUNCTIVE [16c: from Latin modus subjunctivus subjunctive mood, from subiungere, subiunctium to bind together]. A grammatical category that that contrasts particularly with indicative in the mood system of verbs in various languages, and expresses uncertainty or non-factuality.


PAST [13c: a variant of passed]. A term for a tense of the verb concerned with events, actions, and states that no longer occur. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Ed. Tom McCarthur. Oxford University Press, 1992.

It was ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in a city on the Eastern side of the Soviet border, Dresden. In our class at the Goethe Institute, we performed exercises with prepositions, practiced the endings that went with various cases, read selections from Heinrich Heine and poems by Goethe. The neighboring class was learning Communist songs: the teacher’s way of making fun of the Soviet era in East Germany.  Stefan’s face darkened when we heard their singing, and it was rumored he made them stop. He taught us a romantic song of longing, a song in the subjunctive:

Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär,
Und auch zwei Flüglein hätt,
Flög ich zu dir
Weils aber nicht kann sein
Weils aber nicht kann sein,
Bleib ich allhier

If I were a little bird
And had two little wings,
I’d fly to you.
But since it can’t be
But since it can’t be,
I remain here.

We had an unspoken agreement: if I lingered in the classroom during the breaks, Stefan would stay and talk with me. We gazed out at the deserted, muddy lot behind the classroom—the former site of the Soviet barracks, he told me.  I asked questions, he answered: What was military duty like? He was put in solitary confinement for laughing. Who are your favorite writers? The Expressionist poets: Rilke, Gottfried Benn, Else Lasker-Schuler. How did you meet your wife?  She was the girlfriend of a guy on his soccer team.

We shared a complex past: I was the child of a Holocaust survivor; he was the child of a Wehrmacht soldier, and had grown up under Soviet rule. We both loved literature; were both susceptible to tenderness, especially towards others afflicted with historical melancholy. One important difference: I was lonely; he was married, with a wife and young daughter. There were questions I couldn’t ask: are you interested in me because I am Jewish? Because we share a complex past? Probably better not to know. Nobody could doubt my ethnic heritage—I was so obviously, stereotypically Jewish-looking: short, with brown curly hair, and the big, curved nose.  I was perhaps not a pretty girl, but I was that rare and fascinating creature: a German Jew. He was slender and blue-eyed, always impeccably dressed in linen trousers and a button-down shirt. Elegant and suffused with nervous energy, his habitual expression was tense, alert.

When the eight weeks at the Goethe Institute in Dresden were over, I would return to New York, where I was working on a dissertation: representations of the Holocaust in the United States, 1980-2000. At the beginning of the process, I immersed myself in first-person Holocaust narratives (Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo) and material about intergenerational transmission of trauma: a phase in which I saw myself as the child of a survivor. These stories were my inheritance.

When that phase ended, I began reading the work of the scholars who critiqued the American obsession with the Holocaust in the 1990s, and saw it against the background of US politics. I wrote about the “Schindler’s List Project,” when Black high school students were taken to the movie and encouraged to see Oscar Schindler (a White capitalist father figure) as a hero and an emblem of “tolerance”; I wrote about Holocaust tchochkes, kitschy items for sale in Holocaust museum shops; I piggybacked on historian Peter Novick’s critique of Holocaust memorial culture serving “an intransigent and self-righteous posture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” That summer, though, riding on a grant for German language study, I neglected the dissertation entirely. I wanted intense conversations with Stefan, walks along the Elbe river, and visits to the Gallery of Old Masters. In mid-August, we said goodbye on the train, returning from a bike ride we had taken with the class to the nearby town of Meissen. We promised to send each other books, what Stefan called a Leseprogram—a reading program. We hugged awkwardly, and he got off at a stop on the outskirts of Dresden, where he lived with his family.

The first postcard arrived in September.  In the picture, the round, bright moon was partially obscured by clouds.  Against the dramatic chiaroscuro sky, four iconic buildings of Dresden stood out: the Frauenkirche, Katholische Hofkirche, the Schloss, the Zwinger.  The white light of the moon was reflected in the river, and near the banks were the silhouettes of horses and their riders. Two bonfires, sparks of orange light, burned on the bank, and more could be seen on the opposite side, through the massive trestles of the bridge.   It was a view of the Dresden Altstadt from the across the Elbe river, painted in 1839 by Johann Christian Dahl, titled “Blick Auf Dresden bei Vollmondschein”–“A View of Dresden by the Light of the Full Moon.”

The handwriting on the back of the postcard was only partly legible.  Given the holes, this is what I understood:

Dear Sandie,

Isn’t this a…romantic view of the city?  With it, I send my best wishes for her birthday.  …the transatlantic journey. Hopefully, you have been successful with…so that you can also celebrate…

Unfortunately, I can only write you a postcard, since I must return immediately to my desk…I have not yet heard about the grant; however, I am…with the project, as if I had the grant.  It is distracting.

Write and let me know how you are doing, and how…with your work.  

Best wishes,

After this, when a letter from Stefan arrived, I carried the precious object upstairs and propped it up on the pile of bricks that served as my bedside table.  I allowed it to ripen. It had to ripen until Friday, when the Met had evening hours, and a chamber ensemble played on the balcony. According to the ritual, it had to be dark outside when I entered the museum.  On Friday afternoon, shortly before sunset, I took the M4 bus, which crossed from the West to the East side and headed down Fifth Avenue. It dropped me off before the magical fountains that flanked the entrance, which where especially beautiful at night, illuminated.  There were the grand steps, the tourists from many countries meeting on the steps, and inside, the foyer with it special echoing sound, the high ceilings and the mezzanine. At 5PM on Friday evenings, the chamber ensemble played on the mezzanine: Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven.  There were small tables with deep red tablecloths, lit with candles, and a small bowl full of goldfish crackers.

I rarely drank, and never alone, but the ritual of opening Stefan’s letters required ordering a glass of white wine.  I brought with me a volume of Heine or something else in German because I was not allowed to break the seal on the letter until I had sipped the wine down to half a glass.  This half a glass was enough to bathe the world in a magical glow, to infuse everything with a soft, seductive light. Then I was allowed to insert my index finger under the flap and tear gently along the seam, to unfold, to see the greeting “Liebe Sandie.”  While I knew that “Liebe..” was a neutral greeting, something one addressed to colleagues or students, I could not help seeing the word “love” there. I had maintained my discipline this long, but once I opened the letter, it often evaporated, and I scanned the letter hurriedly, looking for signs that this was the one: the confession of love, the dates of the visit.  Even though the letter never contained any promises, I was still euphoric. When I had finished my wine and read the letter three times or more, I wandered through the museum in a state of elation, close to tears. I visited my favorite, most sacred parts of the museum: the Indian miniatures, the Noguchi fountain in the Japanese wing, the Chinese scrolls. Reality only began to return when I was waiting on Madison Avenue for the bus home.  

Stefan wrote to me when he was traveling—for instance, on the trip he took to Rothenberg to do research at the university. He felt exiled in the picturesque provincial town of Rothenberg, which was overrun by tourists.  As he described it: “little houses, garden gnomes, low fences, painfully clean streets, little dogs, polished cars.” Though he did his best to stay out of the house all day, he still found himself confined there in the evenings with nothing to do, but somehow unable to work on his projects.  Trapped in the little room, he wrote:

There is a full moon, and for days/nights, I have been pacing crazily in my room, certainly unable to sit at my desk.  I am what we call in Germany voll daneben (completely beside myself).  That’s how it is here. But maybe only for me.  Write me and tell me how you are. What does it look like where you live?  What kinds of people live there? Send me one of the stories you must have!  And, if you want, tell me something about your family.  

Voll daneben.  That was exactly how I felt, alone in the apartment I sublet from a friend who had left the city.  I was way uptown, on Claremont Avenue, while everyone I knew was in Brooklyn or Astoria. I was supposed to be working on my dissertation or at the very least, grading student papers.  Instead, I was pacing back and forth or dancing to Portishead (which Stefan introduced me to), imagining the walk I took with him from the café where we ate apple cake to Bahnhoff Mitte, where he caught the train home.  

He wrote to me in November from Kassell, where he visited one of his closest friends, stayed up late singing Beatles songs, with his friend on guitar.  On the way back to Dresden, he wrote: “One travels through snowfall straight across Germany and writes a letter to New York, America, where it is now 7 am on a Sunday morning.  There are really such moments when the world is small and beautiful and good.” I could picture the snow falling and blanketing the fields, Stefan sitting in the compartment with pen and paper on the desk in front of him. Someday, I thought, we might travel through Germany together.  

In the spring, there was a crisis involving vindictive behavior on the part of colleagues he had trusted and regarded as friends.  The upshot was that he had resigned his post as editor of a literary magazine. He wrote: “For your letter, my heartfelt thanks. To know that there is such a place as America, not in the geographical sense, but rather as a possibility, was very important over the last three months.  This insistence on possibility, the possibility of possibility.” I never knew what Stefan felt about me, but I suspected it had something to do with this: “the possibility of possibility,” the fantasy of another life in another city. Something fainter than possibility.

Near the end of a long letter, written over the course of several days, he confided: “After a long pause in my letter and also indeed without hinting much about it at the beginning, I can share with you the news that we are expecting a second child.”   Unverhofft kommt oft, he wrote: the unhoped-for comes often. Unverhofft could be translated as “unexpected,” but also as “unhoped-for.”  I couldn’t help but read it this way, since the word contains the negation of the word “hope.”

I dwelt on Unverhofft kommt oft.  Selfishly, I wanted to believe it meant he didn’t just dread a second child, but that he didn’t want the life he had—that he wanted something else.  Perhaps a life with me in New York. I see now that there might have been many reasons why he didn’t want a second child at that moment. Since he subsisted then on grants and part-time teaching, he was probably anxious about money. Perhaps he thought his four-year-old daughter, Kati, would be better off having her parents to herself for a longer time. I chose to believe the new baby was unverhofft because he hoped for another life altogether. But I was the one who liked to fantasize about throwing my life away and starting completely fresh; I did not dream of making sensible adjustments to the life I had.  I didn’t want what was there; I wanted Stefan, I wanted Dresden.

After that, the correspondence dwindled, and as I walked around the city, pining for a letter, the old questions resurfaced: Did he even like me?  Why? Was it because I was Jewish? Finally, I resolved to ask what I didn’t dare to ask in Dresden: what our friendship meant to him, and in particular, what it meant to be friends with a German Jew.  

The subject heading of his email was “Antwort-Versuch,” attempt at an answer.   

The first paragraph of answer-attempt was philosophical, and although I could translate it in a literal way, I still did not know what it meant.  As a kind of disclaimer, he wrote: “It is difficult to think in the category of answers; for me, all statements are also questions, they are uncertainty itself.”  And still more philosophical, he reflected: “The unknown is also what is unknown between us. That stands even before the beginning. No from where, no who, no what.”  What was completely opaque then is somewhat clearer now: he meant that he could not answer the question about the meaning of the friendship because he did not know the contents of my mind.  The question implicated me, and without knowing my thoughts, there was no decisive answer. Still, he tried.

He recalled the first time he saw me, in the hallway full of students at the Goethe-Institute, waiting to be interviewed and placed in classes.  

And in this time before the beginning, there is this definite, but not self-willed, extension of sympathy, of affection.  (Usually, there is only a benevolent neutrality; but that’s not bad—on the contrary.) Who knows where this comes from. Perhaps because of how one stands, or holds one’s head, or extends one’s hand.  And with you I knew, even before I knew your name or where you were from, that if you were in my class, we would understand one another. The development of our friendship leads back to this time before the beginning.

I read and re-read this part of the letter, describing his spontaneous sense of affection towards me. This was a certainty for him; regardless of what came later, he believed in this instantaneous affinity.  He admitted that he later questioned his own motives, wondered if he was just placating himself. Was the friendship an attempt to create a fairy-tale ending—“they lived happily ever after”? He assured me that “if I had been convinced that I was being consciously and deliberately impure, I would have told you.  I believe the moment before the beginning of places, names, activities, is strong enough to carry what has followed.”
There was another dimension, perhaps an explanation for this wordless affinity:
“I once called you a ‘Landeskind,’ which you are for me.”  The word meant: a child of Germany.  He posed it as a question to me: “And don’t you find that what you do, what interests you, your conversation with me, and perhaps (as I understand it from your letters) the way you differentiate herself from your family, makes you, in a certain sense, a ‘Landeskind’?”   Yes, that was me: German.  Given the way the language intoxicated me, the fact that being in Germany seemed to lift me out of my habitual depression, I was thrilled to be called a “Landeskind.”  Yes, I was that rare and special creature, a German Jew. And because I was German, it made sense that we could feel a kind of kinship, a sense of recognizing someone from the same tribe.

In the summer of 2000, I had scrounged up enough money from teaching a summer course to visit Dresden, to see Stefan and his family. In the days before seeing them, I strolled along the terrace by the Elbe, waiting to feel the euphoria that suffused me that summer.  On an ordinary day in New York, with my habitual low-grade depression, a sluggish, toxic liquid seemed to circulate in my veins. That summer, it felt as if something fizzy, like champagne, or the German equivalent, “Sekt,” was coursing through me. But that was not what I felt now.  Dresden was no longer a fairy-tale city, but a place of dirt and stone and metal. That was the Dresden where I walked, anxiously formulating questions for Stefan and his wife, Anja. I longed for the longing, but it wasn’t there.

That evening, I leaned out my friend’s window and saw Stefan’s car pull up.   I did not know how to greet him. Hug? Shake hands? We did neither, and he kept his eyes on the road while I asked questions and pretended to understand the answers.  He told an involved story, which I couldn’t really follow, though I gathered it was an unhappy one about the journal he used to edit and the betrayal of his colleagues there.  

I had seen Stefan’s house once before.  Our class was on a bicycle trip, and we stopped there to adjust a seat and to rest for a few minutes.  I remembered the graveyard across the street and the quaint stone entryway, framed by vines. Just as the first time I had visited, I was touched and chastened by the row of shoes just inside the doorway: Anja’s sneakers, Kati’s pink mary-janes, Stefan’s leather sandals.

I shook hands with his wife, Anja: tall, willowy, with cropped red hair.  Anja never smiled at me, but she was perfectly cordial. I asked questions about her work as an English teacher, which she answered matter-of-factly. Her students were mostly businessmen, about to be located to New York or London, she explained.  Anja switched over to speaking English, and I guessed it was because she had lost patience with my imperfect, halting German. Her English, which sounded British, was certainly better than my German. She looked into my face. “At first I thought you didn’t look thirty.  But now, I look at your face—yes, I see.” I laughed. My face felt frozen into a smile. When it was finally time to go, I asked Stefan to drop me at the trolley stop, but he insisted on driving me back to the Neustadt and dropping me off at my friend’s apartment. Again, there was the question of what to do: hug?  Instead, I got out of the car and waved, ran up the stairs and collapsed on the futon, exhausted by the strain.

His penultimate letter arrived in New York in August.  “We have been meaning to send you the enclosed photos and a letter,” it began.  “Kati spoke of you a great deal after your visit,” he wrote. In the photo with Kati, I am grinning maniacally, while she looks blankly at the camera.  In another, I am crawling on the rug with the baby: it is taken from above, so you can see our backs, but not our faces. In a third photo, the baby is in her high chair, with Kati lifting a spoon to her mouth.

Anja had returned to work after maternity leave, so things at home were hectic.  But the baby had visited Kati’s kindergarten class, “as an auditor,” and had liked it very much, which meant that her transition to daycare would be easier.  “This is just a short note to accompany the photos. You’ll also find a picture Kati painted for you.” There was the outline of a figure in yellow paint, standing alone against a blank background.  

The final letter, written over the course of some days in December, had the tone of a chatty, humorous family Christmas letter, covering the family’s activities since I had last seen them in July.  Anja was feeling overwhelmed at her job, and it had taken the family quite some time to find a rhythm again, now that she was back at work. Both children’s birthdays were in September, and for the first time, Kati wanted to invite other children.  This prospect filled the parents with trepidation, but:

Luckily Anja had the ingenious idea to make a puppet theater out of old boxes.  She quickly wrote and blocked out a play. There were three roles: a girl who called herself “Princess Wunderbar”; the grandmother of the girl; and her brother, a dummy named Karl-Heinz.  Guess who I played!

But at the party itself, he was booted from the role of Karl-Heinz (his acting was not up to snuff), and Anja played all three roles.

In November, they took a vacation in the Harz mountains; in December, they prepared for the holidays.  Anja and Kati baked Christmas cookies, and Anja had made a set of wings for Kati so she could perform her role as an angel in her school’s nativity play.  These were her lines: “Do not be afraid; I come bearing happy news. The savoir is born!” He wrote: “Who would not wish for such a daughter with such a message!”  Aside from sketching these sweet family scenes, he reported on his research on WWII literature, and a grant he received to support his fiction writing. He let me know that they were sending Herman Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel as a Christmas present.   I read this letter with a mixture of relief (finally, a letter!) and jealousy.  I was still lonely. While Stefan had written his first letters while traveling, at a safe distance from Anja and Kati, this one might have been written at the kitchen table, between spoonfuls of pudding fed to the baby.  It was the last letter I received. He never answered my emails.


Dear Stefan,

You taught us the subjunctive. I learned to say what might have been, what could still be.  

You taught us a song in the subjunctive:

Bin ich gleich weit von dir,
Bin ich doch im Traum bei dir
Und red mit dir.
Wenn ich erwachen tu,
Wenn ich erwachen tu,
Bin ich allein.

I’m just as far from you,
But, I’m in a dream with you,
And talk with you.
When I do wake up,
When I do wake up,
I am alone.

Now that I am past 50, I try to stick with the simple past:

I defended the dissertation.
I met my husband and beloved stepdaughter. We moved to Washington.
I forgot my German.

Still, it is hard not to slip into the subjunctive sometimes:

If I were a novelist living in Berlin, I would take the train to Dresden to visit you. If we were still friends.

I practice the simple present:

I have no little wings.
I am here in an apartment with a view of a gas station in Washington DC, writing this essay about you.

Or for you, if you were to read it.

Liebe Gruesse,