AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Michelle Hart’s “Hiddensee” is about a young woman’s affair with her college professor. “The girl” and “the woman,” as they are known, exhibit little affection toward one another despite their mutual attraction. And yet, their relationship takes on tender significance to the girl, who narrates the story, and to the reader.
Reading “Hiddensee,” I thought of Alice Munro’s “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship.” In that story, a housekeeper is fooled by mischievous children into thinking that her employer’s son is in love with her. It’s a story I read with my hands over my eyes; a setup for disaster that somehow turns out okay. Reading “Hiddensee” was similar in that I feared the damage this relationship will do to the girl. The woman has all the power and is often cruel. She remarks that “Relationships are hard. Often they’re not worth it,” and tells the girl, “No one is loveable at your age.”
Perhaps it’s worth noting the obvious: that this isn’t the story of a vulnerable girl and an older man. It’s the story of a girl and a woman, of a girl becoming a woman over time, and in moments, of a woman becoming a girl. The power differential is not always clear. Hart’s prose is terse, but like Munro’s, is alleviated by unexpected moments of beauty. At dinner, when the woman can tell the girl is ashamed to be seen in public together, Hart writes that “her despondency, usually kept hidden, blew across the table like a draft.”
It’s the story of a girl and a woman, of a girl becoming a woman over time, and in moments, of a woman becoming a girl.
While the plots and characters of these two stories actually have little in common, the core of both remain resolutely hopeful despite constant discouragement by people and circumstance. And in the case of “Hiddensee,” despite declaring allegiance to misery. “I think that when you’re miserable, you often do things that extend that misery,” says the woman, a phrase that becomes the girl’s mantra. But there is another, much more famous, expression about misery that also proves true. Like Munro, Hart upends her readers’ expectations for what love is, where it comes from, and what it is supposed to mean.
Editor in Chief, Recommended Reading
A Professor’s Affair With Her Student
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By Michelle Hart
When the girl was in college she had an affair with a woman twice her age. The woman herself had had an affair when she was sixteen with a man in his forties. The girl admired the woman so much that any similarity between them flattered her.
They met at the college’s gym. The girl, whose mother had died months before, had become haunted by the prospect of poor health. Also, she was a student, and worried about letting something free go to waste. For weeks, they ran next to one another on adjacent treadmills. The girl could not stop gawking at the woman, whose body was taut and muscular, the kind of body that seemed like it would never be stricken by disease.
Despite the drawn-out nature of her mother’s illness, the death had come as a shock. The girl sometimes felt she no longer knew how to live now that the life of the person who gave her life had ended. Yet whenever the girl was with the woman she was not occupied by grief; with the woman, the girl had hardly any thoughts at all.
The girl went to the woman’s house in Farmingdale twice a week. She would go whenever the woman wanted. Every time the woman invited the girl to her house the girl felt as though the woman was doing her a favor.
At first, the woman offered next to nothing about herself and answered the girl’s slight inquiries with as few words as possible. The girl could have dug more forcefully into the woman’s biography, but she didn’t. Mostly, she did not want to be an intrusion or a bother. Yet also, the girl was not entirely interested in the woman’s marriage or interests; she cared only that those interests included her. The girl would look at the woman’s polished fingernails, a strange pastel yellow, and forget that they belonged to someone twice her age. She would look around the woman’s house and forget that the woman shared it with someone else.
The woman asked the girl many questions about her life and would nod her head thoughtfully at the answers. Sometimes if the woman liked the girl’s answer, she would give the girl a kiss. When the woman didn’t kiss her, the girl assumed she’d said something wrong. The woman listened to the girl calmly and deliberately, often, it seemed, waiting for the girl to say something interesting. The girl became conscious of summoning only the details from her life that were unusual and arresting. The woman was a children’s book author. Whenever the girl was around the woman, she had the sensation that she could be a character in one of the woman’s stories, and would often find herself trying to come up with experiences from her life that the woman could put in a book.
Once, the girl explained why she’d chosen the college she was attending. When she was in kindergarten, the younger brother of a boy in her class had accidentally hung himself on the cord attached to the window-blinds. The boy’s brother was only three years old, which seemed like the most dreadful thing. The boy in her class had worn a sweatshirt with the college’s name emblazoned on it, the only thing the girl remembered about that time in her life other than the accidental suicide. When it came time for her to look at colleges, she became captivated by the idea of attending a school she associated with tragedy.
A laugh billowed from the woman’s body, as if she wasn’t expecting to find this funny. The girl was accustomed to making people laugh; she had always been “the funny one.” That the girl could make this woman laugh — a shrewd and elegant woman who was not easily amused — made the girl feel as though she was living a life that mattered.
She also told the woman that she had only one ovary, which was true. Because of a cyst, it had to be removed when she was born. The girl believed this was an interesting detail — at once tragic and funny. The woman asked, “Can you have children?”
“I don’t know,” the girl said. “I don’t think I want kids anyway. Do you?”
“I wouldn’t have made a very good parent. I wouldn’t have known how.”
The woman asked the girl about her parents. The girl lied and told the woman they were both still alive. She did not want the woman to see her as complicated.
The girl did eventually learn about the woman. It happened one night when they shared a bottle of wine. The woman refilled her own glass again and again without offering more to the girl. When the bottle was empty, the woman, drunk and slumped on the sofa, stared at the girl, her eyes rheumy with uncertainty. It seemed she wanted to tell the girl something; it was similar to the look she gave before they had sex, a look of thrift and want. The girl, who was on the other end of the sofa, was about to inch towards the woman and offer herself, when the woman began telling her a story, her story, as if the alcohol had uncorked it. The woman was born in Germany and moved to upstate New York with her parents and older sister when she was six. Her parents were stingy. The only time they ever spent money was to take her and her sister into Manhattan once a year to see a Yankees’ game and to eat at Lüchow’s, a famous German restaurant on the Lower East Side. One year the woman’s sister took her into the bathroom stall at Yankee Stadium and lifted up her shirt to reveal a vague heart-shaped stain on her chest. It was a lupus rash.
Because lupus was an autoimmune disorder, the woman’s sister, much like the girl’s mother, was frequently sick. This meant that she — the woman, then just a girl — was often ignored or left alone. The man with whom she’d had the affair was a family friend. He was not German. The first time he came over to offer his condolences, he brought the family an upmarket bottle of wine and a set of pens bearing his company’s logo; he had traveled for work and learned that it was customary to gift expensive wine and stationary. The woman used the pens to write and draw in her journal, which was how she started creating stories. He saw her doodling one day and he asked, his voice low and suggestive, “Do you ever write about me?” It was euphoric, the woman said, to be seen that way. It was euphoric to be seen at all.
At this, the girl nearly cracked open. She brimmed with so much affection for the woman that she thought she might burst. She wanted to tell the woman how grateful she was, how the woman’s desire for her allayed a lifetime of feeling ugly, how being seen by the woman meant that she was truly there.
But the woman misinterpreted the girl’s silence. She thought she wanted an explanation. “I think that when you’re miserable, you often do things that extend that misery,” the woman said. “There’s something about being miserable that makes it seem as though time has stopped.” This was not in any children’s book the girl had ever read.
Being with the woman reminded the girl of why she loved reading: to have her own life and innermost thoughts and feelings reflected back to her. Sometimes the girl worried that her own life would not make sense without the woman in it, without the woman articulating precisely how she — the girl — felt. She’d never imagined meeting someone who shared the same aches. That their childhoods shared similarities gave the girl the impression, upon looking at the woman, that she was looking at some future version of herself. That the woman had also had a traumatic childhood and still led a good life made the girl think she also could.
One evening, the girl fell asleep in the woman’s bed, and when she woke, she found the woman in her office with the door closed. The girl stood by the door and listened. “I don’t know what I’ll have,” the woman said into the phone. “Maybe I’ll order something.” She said, “I miss you.” She said, “I love you.” Her voice was so tender, so sweet, so unlike the tone she used in conversation with the girl. The girl’s stomach ached with jealousy, but with that came a warm sense of vindication; if the woman found happiness, then maybe the girl could too.
They agreed to stop seeing each other once the woman’s husband returned. At that point they’d been together for three months. On what she thought was their last night together, the girl met the woman in Manhattan. They went out for sushi, a food the girl had never eaten before. The restaurant was long and narrow, illuminated only by rectangular lanterns that seemed suspended freely in the air. Throughout the meal her eyes darted between the diners to their left and to their right. She was suddenly afraid they knew she and the woman were lovers. Their relationship had only ever occurred in the woman’s bedroom and now it was as if they had invited others into that bedroom.
The woman asked the girl what was wrong.
The girl said, “I’ve never been out before.”
“With a woman?”
“Are you ashamed?”
“No,” the girl said. She didn’t know how to have a conversation about shame, or even why she felt it. The woman nodded. Her despondency, usually kept hidden, blew across the table like a draft. Many of the woman’s books seemed to be about shame, as much as children’s books could be about that, and the girl wondered whether the woman’s adolescent shame — her not being from America, her having been poor, her having an affair with a much older man, her having relationships with women, her living a semi-normal life while her sister was sick — had dissipated, or whether it was still there. The girl wondered if shame could become so outsized that it went away, like a balloon that swells until it pops.
After dinner, they walked through Washington Square Park. It was December, and being in Manhattan in December gave the girl the sense that she was in a movie. Despite the cold air she felt warm. She sighed and watched the faint cloud of her breath fade into the night.
The woman brought the girl underneath the stone archway at the end of the park and kissed her. The kiss was passionate, sloppy, as if the woman had become possessed by a teenager’s spirit — the ghost of who she used to be, who she never was. After a while, the woman pulled away. She looked wistful, her face filled with the flush of girlhood. In this moment, the girl could see the shape and color of the woman’s youth. The woman had told the girl previously that she’d gone to Columbia for graduate school, and the girl wondered now, having no sense of the city’s geography, if they were close to Columbia’s campus.
“I wish I could have been here with you,” the girl said.
“You wouldn’t have wanted to be with me then. I was not a very lovable person.”
The girl said, “I don’t think I’m a very lovable person either.”
She wanted the woman to tell her she was, to tell her that she could be.
“No one is lovable at your age,” the woman said.
The woman had said to the girl once, while they were naked in bed, that the girl would drive someone crazy one day. At the time, the girl swelled with pride, filled with promise and lust. She ignored the future tense. Now she panicked at the thought of finding this someone. No one is lovable at your age.
She met a boy in her philosophy class whom she considered soliciting for sex, but found it more pleasurable to imagine the act than to engage in its reality. Because she hadn’t spoken to him, she was able to long for him with ridiculous intensity. In her Jane Austen seminar, the girl wrote a story about her imagined tryst with him. She then sent it to the woman.
After corresponding for days about her imagined tryst with the boy in her class, the woman’s replies ranging from curious to callous, the affair eventually continued. The woman’s husband was home now, however, and the woman seemed frequently distressed. For the most part, the girl liked to imagine that it was the woman’s husband who was the thorn in the woman’s side.
She and the woman met infrequently — weeks went by without them seeing one another — and whenever they were together, the woman was in a rush. The girl was still so overcome with desire for the woman that she had to masturbate every day; this meant that when they did have sex, the girl often took a long time to come. If she took longer than usual she would feel as though she was wasting the woman’s time.
It was springtime. On an especially warm day the girl and her roommate brought their spare bath towels out onto the quad and lay, luxuriating in the light. While they were talking a boy walked by. He wore tight black jeans. The knot between his legs loomed. The girl and her roommate looked at each and laughed, at once acknowledging and trying to conceal their arousal. The roommate had a boyfriend back home, but said on days like these she wished she wasn’t attached. That was how she put it: “attached.” The girl was not attached. The roommate, whom the girl considered both prettier and smarter, said she envied the girl. There was nothing else in the world other than the girl’s solitude that could make the girl the object of her roommate’s envy.
On the phone with her father one day the girl asked what it was like to be married. He thought for a moment. He said marriage was like the card game War; both the pain and pleasure of it came from its longevity. After he said this he became excited, as if he was proud of his cleverness. The girl heard him gather a notebook and scratch what he had said down into it. Days are filled with small-scale squabbles, he said. Sometimes you won, sometimes you didn’t. But you just keep playing. He wrote that down too. To the girl, this seemed exhausting.
Her father said, “I’m glad we’re talking about this.”
“You are?” the girl said.
He hesitated. He had met someone, he said. She was a widow and lived in Argentina. She had some family in America, whom she visited every few months. Listening to him describe this woman, the girl understood her father’s desire for a relationship that had inherent parameters, geographic and emotional.
When she got off the phone with her father, the girl, spurred by her father’s new romantic life, found herself, as she had for the past year, oscillating between gratitude and resentment. Her father had kept the severity of her mother’s illness hidden from her, and while she was thankful to not have to confront it squarely, she begrudged him for keeping it a secret. The secret had given him a great deal of power over her, making her feel, after her mother died, like an idiot.
The next time the girl saw the woman she told her about the conversation with her father. They were in the woman’s kitchen. There was a stool by the counter on which the girl softly spun.
“I didn’t realize your parents were divorced,” the woman said.
The girl blanched. She forgot she hadn’t told the woman about her mother. “They’re not divorced,” the girl said.
The woman watched the girl struggle to sit still. To stop herself from spinning, the girl had lifted her leg and rested it on the counter. The woman leaned across the counter and studied how the girl was sitting. “Could you not put your foot on the chair?” she said.
The girl’s face became hot. “Sorry.”
The woman said, “So your parents have an open marriage.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“A marriage where both parties are free to see other people.”
“Is that what you have?”
A smile split the woman’s face. She rubbed her mouth with the back of her hand, which erased the smile. “Marriage like War,” she said. “That’s good.”
“It doesn’t sound good.”
“Relationships are hard. Often they’re not worth it.”
“How can you say that?”
“From experience. I have been with my husband for a long time. When I met him, I thought, ‘This is okay.’ Sometimes it’s not okay. There have been whole years of our marriage where I thought, ‘What is going on? Why are we doing this?’”
The girl repeated the woman’s questions back to her. She did this not because she wanted the woman to answer them, but because their silliness and simplicity surprised her. “What is going on? Why are we doing this?” They didn’t seem like questions to ask about a marriage.
The woman must have thought the girl wanted the questions answered, or that the girl was teasing her. She narrowed her eyes and cocked her head to the side. A laugh broke through, curious and brusque. Any levity that the laugh produced soon dissolved into an air of awkwardness; the girl had overplayed a hand she hadn’t even been dealt. The woman’s eyes asked, Who are you to make light of something serious, something you can’t possibly understand? “All right,” the woman said, pushing herself away from the counter, away from the girl. “I need to take care of some things.” She called a taxi for the girl and slapped a twenty-dollar bill on the countertop.
Weeks passed. By then the girl’s semester was nearly over. She began to worry she would never see the woman again. Sorrow draped over her like a quilt, warm and indulgent. She thought about nothing else but how terrible she felt; there was nothing beyond it. There was insularity in sorrow. There was decadence in loneliness. There was something about being miserable that made it seem as though time had stopped.
Wallowing in her heartache, the girl sat in the college’s arboretum, the once-denuded trees slouching with the weight of new leaves, and listened to songs about unrequited love. Her favorite was Patsy Cline’s “Faded Love.” It had come on the radio one day while she was in the car with her father, just after her mother had died. It was a love song, of course, but the girl had imagined singing the words to her mother. And remember our faded love. After she’d heard “Faded Love,” she could only ever see her mother in the lyrics of love songs. At times the girl’s pining for her mother had felt romantic, filled with a longing that belied parental loss. She was at least grateful now to have someone else onto whom she could direct that yearning.
Just before the girl left for summer break, she and the woman ran into one another at the gym. Whenever this had happened, as it occasionally had, they would pretend to never have met. The charade always gave the girl a fizzy tingling. She would work out on the machine behind the woman and stare at the woman’s ass, all the while punch-drunk from having seen it bare. They would leave separately without ever acknowledging one another, though the girl often fantasized what it would be like to confront the woman in a crowded gym, to expose their affair. The girl had an improbable advantage over the woman: the woman had so much to lose — her marriage mostly — and the girl had nothing. The best part of having nothing was that it couldn’t be lost.
The girl went into the locker room and sat down on the wooden bench in front of her locker. She looked down at her body, which was more fit than it had ever been before. Everything good that will happen in my life, the girl thought, will happen because of the woman. A few minutes later the woman walked in to the locker room. Their lockers were not next to each other but they were in the same row. Silently, the woman opened hers. The woman’s eyes shifted to regard the girl peripherally, and in this clandestine look, the woman began taking off her clothes. First she took off her shirt, then her leggings, then her sports bra, and finally her underwear. This was how the woman was: she withheld and invited. The woman filled so many of the girl’s wants and at the same time left so many of her wants unfilled that the feeling of wanting in and of itself became desirable.
Seeing the woman naked, both in front of her and out of reach, reminded the girl of a picture of her mother that hung on the refrigerator door in her childhood home. The picture was taken in Florida, at the girl’s grandmother’s condo in Fort Lauderdale. The girl was young, six or seven. Her father stood in the swimming pool and she stood on his shoulders, her fists balled and her arms outstretched, like a cheerleader. The girl’s mother sat by the edge of the pool, facing the camera. In the photo she was beautiful in an arcane way; this was before she’d gotten cancer the first time, before she refused to be photographed. It must have been the girl’s aunt, also dead, who took the picture. Because it was a Polaroid, the blue of the water looked almost gold from weathering and age. Looking at the photograph now, after her mother had died, was like knocking on a locked door with no one on the other side.
The woman stood naked for a moment before putting her regular clothes on. As she turned to leave the locker room, she cupped her hand on the girl’s shoulder. The girl looked up, but before she could meet the woman’s gaze, she had drifted away and out the door.
The woman called the next day. It was the first time they’d ever spoken on the phone. The girl had forgotten she gave the woman her number. The woman hadn’t given the girl hers — they communicated only by email — and when the girl picked up, her voice wavered with confusion. The woman’s voice in the girl’s ear sounded both close and far away. “It was nice seeing you yesterday,” the woman said.
Flattered and confused, the girl let out a jittery laugh.
“Can I see you again?” the woman asked. As she asked it, she brought her voice lower, and the hiss of the whisper tickled the girl’s ear.
They arranged to meet later that same day. To make it, the girl had to skip a study session with some other students from her class. When she arrived at the woman’s house, she rang the doorbell and turned away from the door. She looked down at the whitewashed wood of the doorstep. There was a small spot where the wood had started to split and she could see the ground below it.
The woman came to the door and the girl glanced up at her, at once both jubilant and glum. The woman opened the door and stepped aside to let the girl in. “Come in,” the woman said. It felt as though it was the first time the girl had been to the woman’s house. The girl was unsure of what to do or what to say, and in this uncertainty she did and said nothing. She took her shoes off and left them by the door.
The woman closed the door behind the girl and said, “How are you?”
“Fine,” the girl said.
The woman smiled and sighed. “No one ever means that.” She kissed the girl on the cheek. “I have a friend who always answers that question by saying, ‘Great. My life is great.’ It bothers everyone.”
The girl wondered if the woman was deliberately ignoring their last two encounters. “I’m sorry,” the girl said. “For the last time I was here.” She didn’t know if she was supposed to apologize, or what she was apologizing for. The girl assumed she always had something to apologize for.
The joy fell from the woman’s face. “You don’t have to apologize.”
To stop herself from apologizing for her apology, the girl asked the woman if she had any plans for the summer. The woman was going to Hiddensee, an island off the coast of Germany. What the woman said was, “We’re going to Hiddensee.” For a moment, the girl thought the woman meant the two of them.
“I want your life,” the girl said.
The woman said, “I’m sure you’ll have it someday.”
The woman walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water. The girl, dumbfounded by the portent of the woman’s words, balked, standing still for a moment in the foyer. She didn’t think the woman wanted to be followed, so instead she ambled into the living room, which was on the opposite side of the house. In the living room were two large windows side by side, so close together that the girl had often wondered, on the rare occasion she found herself in this part of the house, why they weren’t just one window. She stood in front of these windows in a way that her body was bisected by the small sliver of wall between them. Her body reflected in the glass appeared vague, as if she was a sketch that had not yet been filled in.
She took a seat on one piece of a sectional sofa. When the woman found the girl, she sat down next to her. The girl inched closer to the woman, wanting to feel the warmth of the woman’s body. Being touched by the woman felt like putting pressure on a gaping wound. After a flicker of hesitation — or maybe it was just surprise — the woman lifted her arm to accept the girl. The girl rested her head on the woman’s shoulder and wrote her name with her fingernail on the woman’s leg. What she wrote was her signature, which she had been practicing since she was a child, in the case that she became famous. Over and over the girl signed her name on the woman’s leg before erasing it with her palm.
The woman fell back into the sofa and looked up at the ceiling. Instinctively, the girl looked up too. The ceiling was high and gave the girl the sense that she was very small. This feeling of smallness was pleasing; it made the world seem larger, more open to her.
After a moment, the woman said, “Do you think I’m a bad person?” She said this with a strange lilt, almost childlike, which was off-putting and confused the girl, who bristled. Many months earlier, the woman had told the girl about running into an old friend, someone the woman considered a genuinely good person. Of this encounter, the woman had asked the girl, “Have you ever spoken to someone who is a much kinder, better person than you are, and thought, ‘I have nothing in common with this person?’” The woman and the girl had laughed together about this, their insensitivity a devious secret. The girl loved thinking of the woman as selfish because it granted the girl permission to be selfish; the woman’s willingness to behave badly, even in middle age, absolved the girl of any guilt. Now, the woman’s intimation of guilt made the girl feel as if she needed to protect the woman from something, to console her. She didn’t know to take care of the woman. “If you’re a bad person,” the girl said, “then so am I.”
After college, the girl moved to Manhattan and got a job as an editorial assistant at a small publishing company. Also, she began writing a novel, taking her laptop on weekends to a cafe near her apartment. The cafe had a patio and in warmer months, the girl would write outside, besotted with her loneliness.
She had relationships with other women, whom she saw mostly in secret. The illicitness of these relationships was thrilling at first. Eventually, however, these women expressed their desire, to live an open life. Some wanted the girl to be a part of these open lives. The girl, believing a closed life was more exhilarating and could not be ruined, lost interest and broke the relationships off. If she went out with anyone for more than a few weeks she became restless. She was happiest when writing, just her and her fantasies, slightly fictionalized spirits from her childhood that appeared only in service to her and her story; she had the sense that a relationship and its emotional commitments would diminish her artistic enterprise.
Yet living life this way — cloistered, disconnected — became wearying. One day, just after her twenty-sixth birthday, the girl was in a taxi on the way back to her apartment. The taxi took her uptown via the FDR. It was dawn and the day was just breaking. The East River looked breathtaking in the early light; it literally took her breath. Seized by a sort of frenzied horror, she began to tremble. Her eyes started to water. Her fingers worried the seatbelt strap that held her in place. She shut her eyes, imagining someone cozying up to her in the taxi’s backseat, looking out at the gilded morning.
Caroline was a Japanese translator, whom the girl had met through mutual friends. She called the girl “hachimitsu,” which was the Japanese word for “honey.” In Japan, however, the word was not used as a term of endearment — it literally referred to the slow, golden goo.
Because they had been introduced by close friends the girl felt she should at least try to embrace the possibility of partnership. It did not take very long for the girl to realize she was in love. Caroline had both a down-home affability — she was from Kansas City — and a formidable intellect. She translated passages from Japanese novels in front of the girl, who was astonished by Caroline’s ability to take a thing and make it something else.
One summer night, six months or so into their relationship, Caroline and the girl strolled along St. Mark’s. The block had an electric and ineffable beauty, especially in summer. It vibrated with life. They walked hand in hand, the first time the girl had done that in public with another woman. Blissfully, they watched a group of skateboarders, figures from the girl’s suburban youth. The sound of the board kicking off the street sounded like the striking of a match. As they walked, the girl described to Caroline the plot of The Graduate. Caroline had never seen it. Listening to someone recount the plot of a movie is often a difficult thing to endure, but Caroline listened with consideration, wide-eyed and curious. She asked the girl to explain the characters’ motivations, their backstories. The girl was so surprised by Caroline’s genuine interest — in the story, in her — that she lost track of what she was saying.
She looked down at their braided hands. Caroline’s knuckles were cracked with eczema and the girl, almost without thinking, brought the rough skin to her lips. Caroline laughed, soft and sweet. The girl thought then that a nice life would be hearing that laugh every day. She thought then that she would never want anything else. Their eyes met and they each gave a smile like a wince, as if it hurt to be happy.
A year after they’d started dating, the girl and Caroline took a trip to Hiddensee. The girl wanted to impress Caroline with an unconventional choice of vacation spot; she thought it would make her appear knowledgeable, which she believed would make her seem like a more worthwhile partner. More than that, the girl wanted to stand where the woman had stood, to breathe in the island’s salty air and its marshy verdancy. She still believed that she would be happy in life if she did everything the woman did.
She wondered often if she was living a life the woman would be proud of. Just before leaving for Hiddensee, the girl had published her first story, a copy of which she’d sent to the woman’s address. She’d spent hours trying to figure out what to say, and finally just decided to write only her name, signing it the way she had practiced on the woman’s leg. To the girl’s surprise, the woman wrote an email in reply: “You should learn to write personalized notes for your readers.” The message’s gentle admonition, both indifferent and sensible, aroused the girl, and for days afterward she was sick with longing for the woman.
They stayed at a bed and breakfast in Rügen and in the afternoon took a ferry to Hiddensee. Tourism was limited on the island since it was not accessible by car. Once they were settled on the beach, they positioned themselves on a single towel with their bodies pressed up against one another. Caroline’s face was drawn against the nape of the girl’s neck. They lay like this for so long, and it was so comfortable despite the odd grassiness of the ground beneath them, that they fell asleep.
They were awoken some time later by the arrival of other vacationers. The sound of people and the shock of being stirred from sleep so abruptly caused the girl to tear away from Caroline. “I’m going to go for a swim,” she said.
The water was refreshing and calm. She submerged herself and stayed under until she couldn’t breathe. When she surfaced, she floated on her back. The sun embraced her, and for a time, it felt as though she was melting into the ocean. She looked back at the beach, which was surrounded by golden-green pastures and ramshackle cottages. The girl could see why the woman loved Hiddensee: every inch of it was infused with gorgeous melancholy, at once warm and forlorn. There is something about misery that makes it seem as though time has stopped.
Her eyes then alighted on Caroline, who was up now, reading a novel doorstop-thick. On Caroline’s wrist was a large rose-gold watch, the face of which was so big that one could tell the time from a distance. The midday sun, muted in Hiddensee but still potent, glinted off the watch. The light hit its surface in such a way that the girl imagined it made a sound like a struck bell. The girl, who was now a woman, treaded the water and listened. It was the sound of time passing.