The Other Half of the World
She would miss America. New York and Philadelphia had been exciting; she had enjoyed belonging to a large city again; but she would miss still more the towns. Countless, spread over the continent, wonderfully different and yet bound by the things they shared: the school halls where Victor had stood on stages usually graced by recitations and variety shows, preaching freedom and bringing tears to his listeners with stories of war. The white-painted churches, with preachers made self-conscious by the gaunt, straight-backed man with the scar above one eye. The Sunday lunches afterwards… eaten in so many different kitchens, with ironed tablecloths and cluttered hutches, Victor in his turn self-conscious accepting the second helpings which were always pressed. The conversations: with those childless who, for the space of a few hours, adopted the young couple as their own; with those whose windows were darkened by a service flag; in families with children made solemn or gregarious by the presence of strangers. Most of all she had cherished the times of staying in people's homes. Sitting quiet in the evenings, on the front porch or in the front parlor, listening to the wireless, or just talking, sipping lemonade, or real coffee—how long had it been since she and her husband had sat quiet, without the tension of immediate danger in the air? The nights of open windows and the smell of lavender in the guest rooms. The love-making, quiet and slow, the sense of a shared secret at the breakfast table. It had been, reflected Ilse, as they drove in the open car towards New York, perhaps one of the happiest times of her life. Like Paris.
The thought came, as always, unbidden, disturbing her peace with memories—of champagne with another man, of music, sunlight in the avenues, starlit evenings, of a degree of insouciance that fate had forbidden her to share with Victor. They had been happy, and had not asked the reason why, or thought to wonder when it would end. And then came the hollow-eyed messenger, unmaking her world with the news that she had prayed for ten months earlier. Much later, the twinge of memory in front of the neon sign, the tension that melted into disbelief at sight of the pianist, the torture of conscience, the sense of double betrayal. The landing strip in the rain, and her own impassioned pleading to stay with the man who made her an adulteress… Ilse shivered.
"Not much… yes." She nestled into the curve of his shoulder, and tried to forget the division of her heart. Not today, not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life. Was it true that she would have regretted the other choice? Had there been only one other choice? Ilse shut her eyes, and tried to forget, to wipe out the persistent voice that gnawed on her present happiness. The present was all they had. And any moment it could be wiped into oblivion, this, now. She breathed deeply, and tried to take it all in: the smell of the night around them; the mild scent peculiar to Victor's overcoat, its coarse hairs against her skin. Her husband's profile, its sharp bones traced against the darkness, the streak of gray hair that could look raffish or tragic depending on his mood. She reached up, traced the curve of his jaw with the back of one hand. As she was drawing away, he took one hand from the steering wheel, caught and held hers. She drew in her breath sharply; shut her eyes as he kissed her palm.
"Yes, Ilse?" Both hands were back on the wheel, now.
The intensity of his face still surprised her, sometimes. "Victor… why me?"
He raised one eyebrow, glanced at her, then back at the straight line of asphalt.
"What I'm trying to say is… the world draws on your strength; you give and give to them, and are never the less for it." She plaited her fingers together in her lap. "And yet—I am needed by you. Sometimes it almost frightens me, to be loved so much. And I don't feel… strong enough. I don't feel strong enough to give you strength. I am not." She shook her head, lips pressed together, holding back the tears. "I'm not."
He was silent for what seemed a long time, while she listened to the sound of the tires on the road, and wondered what would become of them. At last he sighed, and spoke, the words coming slowly, forced past a barrier of reserve. "I don't have a rational answer for you, Ilse. I—I only know that breathing comes more easily when you are in the room. I cannot remember what I thought was the most beautiful thing in the world, before I saw the starlight reflected in your eyes. Ilse… I can only say how much I regret that we have loved in a time of war. I wish I could have swept you off your feet, courted you as you deserved. I wish that we could have had a—a proper wedding, a honeymoon... that I could have seen you with orange blossom in your hair." He swallowed. "I cherish every time we have danced together. And I pray that, for your sake—for both our sakes—that peace will come soon; that we will live to see long years of peace, together, undivided. …Does that help you, Ilse?" He stole a glance at her. "Darling, you're not crying?"
"No! Yes… I'm alright." She swallowed hard, choked down a sob. "I don't deserve you, Victor."
"And what fate determined that I deserved you? This miracle, to be mine… you…" He pulled her to him, and she hid her face against his shoulder. "No woman could be more courageous, or more beautiful; none more wise, or strong. Much has been demanded of you, too, Ilse—the strain of secrecy, of daily danger—always you have met these demands with grace. Perhaps we do not deserve each other, Ilse… but surely we may love each other, for as long as is given to us?"
Soon, and for the rest of your life. She prayed that someday, in the next world if not in this, somehow, she and Victor and Richard could all find peace, together… but for now… for as long as was given to them…
"Yes," she murmured, and leaned into her husband's embrace. For now, at least, it was enough.