Raoul doesn’t waste time with me, she tells herself. I help
him work. Why is he rude? Does every love require misery?
Every ecstacy an anguish? Ignoring hunger, fatigue, the
teeming airport, the flopping flight number boards, she
begins to write with the single-mindedness of science she
learned only after the Howard fiasco, the idyllic Chicago
days. “Dear Raoul.” At that moment the airport lights dim.
For her they go out entirely. She mutters, “Dear Raoul. Yes,
dammit, Dear Raoul. I address this to you but you’ll never
see it. I write for myself. Perhaps you can’t be open with me
but I’ll tell it like it happened—to me and maybe even to
This year July lasted longer than any other month. The Rhine
Castle at Marksburg, beyond Filsen, was started in the fourteenth
century and took two centuries to finish. No lichens on
its walls. “Here somewhere,” announced the British botanist
Mitchell Gregson, “must be coal—or a petroleum refinery. The
sulfur dioxide content of the surrounding air is too high for
lichens. The other castles here, Stahleck and Pfalz, for
example, are covered with lichens— lichens abound here in
Germany, they always thrive if atmospheric sulfur dioxide is
below ten parts per million.” We lowered our heads to go
through passageways, the fourteenth century Rhinelanders
must have stood smaller than us. You and I and Dr. Mitchell
Gregson—the Englishman who wrote that great book on the
microbiology of air—were together. We all stumbled into a
room hidden behind a passage from which the other tourists
were blocked by a velvet cord. Now a delicious odor reached
us. I squinted at lights far off and uncertain. I saw rows of candles.
The glow behind the candle lineup explained the odor. A
spit, roasting meat over a huge fire! We were the Lord’s
guests! The Knights’ Hall adjoined the fourteenth century
kitchen. A medieval feast was set. This was the surprise they
had referred to—I hadn’t any idea, nor did the other scientists
realize that at Marksburg Castle, three-and-a-half hours down
the Rhine from where the boat had left Biebrich just south of
Wiesbaden, we’d be so entertained.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off your scarred face. You twinkleeyed,
small, intense man with the scar. We had passed the
Loreleifelsen, the legend of someone, not quite a Siren. We
embarked at Biebrich, the Rhine port town, suburb of
Wiesbaden, with our German hosts led by the neat, trim
spokeswoman Mrs. Brunger. We all obediently followed her.
“We must have a drink,” she announced, “while we await the
boat.” In that tourist square beneath a tower, the patio, surrounded
by small flags from all countries. Boy Scouts queued
up to enter a ski lift through the tower. Gay colors, khakis and
neckerchiefs. A young, pretty woman next to me introduced
herself as Mrs. Taumann, who wanted to practice English.
“Yes, my husband and I had our happiest days in California,
San Jose. Americans speak frankly. You can send the children
out to play. You can tell American neighbors your feelings. You
all have capacitisch freezers so you only need go to market
twice a week. My children were at school all day so I worked
a bit and studied English. My good American friends still send
us Christmas cards.”
Mrs. Taumann said the next in a hushed voice. “I lost my
husband, you know, just three months ago. He was only fortyfour.
He had worked for Dr. Brunger for years, second in
charge of our Max Planck Institute.” She clung now to the
white-haired, cool Mrs. Brunger who has grown old with dignity
and beauty, the way I hope I will grow old.
“In Germany, here I mean, life is different,” continued Mrs.
Taumann. “I’m working now. They all told me to take it slowly,
to work no more than twice a week. I never worked while I was
married, of course not. But I have been lucky. I mean, even
though he died young and left me with two children, the Max
Planck Institute is like a family, my family. They have all taken
care of me. They knew my husband very well of course. They
have given me a partial job. It must be difficult for you to
believe, but there are very few such jobs in all of Germany.
What do you say? Half-time? Part-time? These jobs are very
few, here. Married women don’t work. It’s changing, I guess,
but slowly. The Institute here has wonderful people. I’ve been
lucky,” she sighed, “but I miss the U.S.”
Mrs. Brunger nodded at me, “You must drink, girl,” she said
in a motherly, definite way, and looked, dismayed, at the left
half of the table—where all seven atmosphericists and their
guests had slipped into German.
“I apologize for my countrymen. They are not comfortable
with English. They have not, like us, me and Mrs. Taumann
here, lived in the States. We lived there in Lexington,
Massachusetts, near Boston, for four years. Do you know it?
My husband worked in Bedford, at the Armed Forces
Atmosphere Research Laboratory. Some of our best years
were there in New England, as you probably—but my goodness,
the boat may leave without us—we must get down to
We all followed Mrs. Brunger again. Her neat white hair tied
in the back in a bun helped lead us in single file down to the
boat. Our international meeting honored her husband: Klaus
Brunger, a jolly, sparkling man articulate in American English.
His institute was leader in measurements of air. He retires this
year. Over twenty years ago Brunger discovered many compounds
in the atmosphere; terpenes, nitrous oxide. Before
others, he realized that these gases, compounds, and structures,
even “formed elements” like pollen, tiny seeds, and
fungal spores, come from life.
The meeting was organized by Brunger’s colleague, Werner
Zeiloff, who in my opinion wisely titled it, “The Biological
Contribution to the Atmosphere.” Zeiloff, I think, founded a
field of science by his choice of words. As Darly-James had
told me, after his Yale seminar last year, the gases are kept in
place by the incessant breathing and farting of microbes, animals,
and plants. The atmospheric scientists don’t know that
yet. They say life passively adapts and therefore is irrelevant.
Zeiloff, an original, is only just beginning to see. I wanted to
meet him. I recognized him from photos. Meteorologists mentioned
stratospheric balloons and the influence of plants on
clouds. Chromatographers talked about columns. Nitrogen on
Mars was compared with Earth and Venus. I think, anyway I
hope, I was invited not just because I was a woman (the program
does have three women) but because of my own work. I
published support for Brunger’s ideas that life makes gas. I’m
probably a Brunger disciple. The first morning Zeiloff reviewed
the oxides of carbon: measured in a box. Up in light, down in
dark—if plants were in there. Plants were crucial. Zeiloff, a
chemist, notices that microbes and plants speed up nature’s
chemistry. The American Donald Peterson took hundreds of
samples of ocean air—he idolizes Brunger.
Peterson followed most closely behind Mrs. Brunger. She
led us from our drinks on the hill down the brick-paved, flowerbox-
lined stony street to the dock. I stayed behind as our scientist
crowd ascended the large Rhine boat. An announcement
I barely understood was in British English. They said something
about a special dining room assigned to our International
Atmospheric Congress. The broad-faced, big-chested lady in
her blue uniform and wide blue skirt announced, “Note,
please, members of the international atmosphere congress
descend please to B4, mind the step, mind your head.”
International? Not really very international. Among our whitebadged
group I heard a Dutch accent, but the blond man had
“Boulder, Colorado” on his name badge. Charles Van Warden.
Yes, he had come from Holland years ago as a boy. Only
Americans, Germans, and a few Englishmen. Hardly international.
Nearly the entire crowd of two hundred atmosphere
people squeezed down one by one to the B4 deck. I took my
time and monitored the flow. The few exceptions I could see to
the usual white Anglo-Saxon-Protestant-scientist types were
the German wives, most wearing crosses.
I knew Van Warden only by mail and telephone, I know he’s
a member of the Atmosphere Establishment. He’s head of the
National Center for Atmospheric Research–NCAR? No. NOAA?
NOAA—what is it? National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, USA? Before this meeting, some eighteen
months ago, I wrote him to ask if I could do research in his lab.
Friends told me Van Warden let his people follow their own scientific
instincts. Van Warden wrote that his positions involve
deployment of heavy equipment into the field. It was a way to
tell me that he is reluctant to employ women, I don’t think any
of his post-docs or good students have been women. (The
proof is in the pudding.) His letter made me dislike him. He
also wrote that I did work “out-of-his-field” that therefore he
I was excited by the fact that the important Van Warden—I
even managed to speak to him once after penetrating a baffle
of secretaries—stood only five feet away from me on the
sunny Rhineland boat dock. I felt bold when I said: “You are
Van Warden.” “Yes.” Pause. I asked him about Will Kellogg, his
co-author. Kellogg, the summer I was a National Science
Foundation fellow, was my horny boss. I said, “Is our mutual
friend Kellogg still married to his wife?” Van Warden shook and
became icy. “I do not talk about the private lives of my friends.”
OK, no shit, I thought and smiled. So much for an NCAR or
NOAA job for me.
I filed slowly into the dining room, nearly everyone already
seated at tables of eight, Van Warden near me at a table of
seven with a conspicuous hole for a single. A gray-bearded
German colleague motioned to me to join. Just then I spied
you. You, scarred-face Frenchman, were right there at the
next, but full, table. I mumbled, “Hoping to have a French
lesson.” Gautier, you didn’t understand me until I repeated
myself again very clearly. You said, “No one here speaks my
languages, not even French.” I knew you meant science language.
“Come here.” You said it so definitely in a tone that
ordered me to follow. You got up, and left the table of eight.
I followed to the dark far edge of the group. The Ionescus,
Romanians, sat alone there with six empty chairs. For the next
two days we smiled at beautiful Mrs. Ionescu and her largeeared
husband. We never had any languages in common.
“Deutsch?” they asked. “Nein. English?” “No,” they responded.
“Français?” “Non,” sadly. “Espagnole? Italiano?” “Nein,” they
answered, “Russki?” We shook our heads. We never spoke
again. Although I passed the graduate exam, even my German
is poor. Yours is worse! They became our mute witnesses.
You were patient with me, Raoul, and my stilted French. You
explained: Lorelei called out from high on the steep banks, she
seduced all passersby. I still don’t understand the difference
between Lorelei and the Sirens. You said something about
hiding vineyards, invasions from the banks, downstream
migration, castle forts. Alternation of Franco-German masters
over the centuries, European chess games. You reverted to
English each time I looked bewildered. Steve Ramsey’s hawknosed
post-doc walked past: “You may not be learning atmospheric
chemistry techniques straight from the horse’s mouth,”
he teased, “but your French is certainly improving!”
Our crowd of scientists finally disembarked onto buses and
then toward Marksburg Castle. We started on the steep rocky
path, others followed the paved road. “Verboten!” cried an
alarmed Castle guide. “Interdit,” you and I exclaimed gleefully.
Like sheep we grouped for the tour and you surveyed me. Why
did our guide speak English so fluently? He was a secondary
school history teacher, an Ulsterman, who talked liltingly of his
exile. He led us to the massive, carved, iron-studded castle
doors. You chose the English-speaking group to avoid the
Germans. I wanted even then to believe that you joined
Ulsterman because of me.
He led us through winding passageways, low ceilings, a
tunnel, to a fourteenth century chapel. Ancient Rhinelanders in
their last minutes prayed to an unreliable God for protection
from enemies. You were too tall for the chapel ceiling, I fit perfectly.
Most of the gawky Germans and Americans bent over as
they entered. Even most of the blond wives were too tall.
Dungeon chairs, thumbscrews, ankle cuffs, and rusty chains
on exhibit. I told you then that I’m from Saskatoon,
Saskatchewan, a province you’d never heard of with names
you couldn’t spell.
With perhaps 180 others, still single file, we entered the
windowless chamber, attracted by delicious odor and crackling
noises. A huge fire spilled light on the long narrow tables, rows
of Rhine wine bottles, the pageant staged for us: The Knights’
Hall of the Castle. Two stocky attendants dressed in doublet
and hose rotated enormous spit handles. Dr. Klaus Brunger
and his frau, formally dressed in matching black suits, bow
ties, and white blouses, like permanently mated penguins that
glowed in firelight. They wore their lifetime of devotion on their
breasts. I looked at you speaking science to our American colleagues.
You are missing teeth on your scarred left side. I felt
euphorique. (Is that the word?) Your talk gyrated from volatiles
of air and sea through vapors and aromas of wines. I couldn’t
eat and became silent. You put on your reading glasses and
read the bottle labels.
I spoke quietly to the gentleman on my left, Heinrich D.
Holland, about marine geochemistry and the ocean-atmosphere
system. I recognized his name, I even knew they call him
Dick. I admire his German fluency and expertise. I had bought
his textbook a week before I met you. I felt reticent. This
Harvard man reviews grant proposals for the National Science
Foundation, he will probably see mine. The impression I make
on him may affect my research support. Holland told me that
his family “had been Jewish but it wasn’t any more.” I knew,
everyone knew, that he was born and had lived in Germany
until the age of twelve. His trace of a German accent surfaces
only when he’s excited.
Steve Ramsey told his post-doc who told me that Professor
H. D. Holland had been a fundamentalist Christian in college.
“What are you now?” I asked him. He chose his words with
care and evaded a straight answer. His Christian stage, he
admitted, was when he worked with Ramsey. An aberrant
epoch, brought on from exhaustion from the burden of being
Jewish. When Holland stops worrying about his “zehr correctness”
and talks science, as on that night, he amazes me. He
described an expedition to Iceland, the geochemical activity at
the mid-Atlantic ridge. He showed me wallet-size photos of
pillow basalt, drawn out hastily from his passport holder. The
shockingly hot activity was aligned nearly straight north to
south. These rocks look like their name: “pillows” of lava. I
mentioned my colleague David’s experiments—that he measured
methane gas collected from these very rift zones, probably
from the same samples. I told Professor Holland that I
should have studied geology instead of chemistry. Chemists
are stuck in labs whereas geologists travel.
The guests leaned back in their chairs, relaxed, many
smoking, when I went outside, to see that the fresh air of dusk
had turned to night. I thought, now or never. Was I brave
enough to show my attraction to you? I closed my eyes only to
see the smooth tracery of your scar.
We rode together on the return bus, Raoul. I don’t
remember leaving the warm dining chamber. I mentioned that
I planned to visit my brother in Munich right after this meeting.
I had said he was there “on holiday” because you didn’t understand
me when I said “on vacation.”
You asked me about bacterial gas emission in the marsh.
Methane, ammonia, nitrogen. We spoke about paleoatmospheres,
Brunger’s contribution—he moved the discussion into
the realm of polite scientific society. Why does everyone agree
that oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere is produced by living
beings whereas all the other reactive gases (nitrogen,
methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia) are just chemicals or volcanic
Then you told me that your grandmother died and you were
with her. I could not believe it when you said you had never
married. Actually my heart stopped when you told me that.
Why did your disclosure affect me so? Why was I elated?
What are you, you brown-eyed, scar-faced man, what are you
You ruffled my hair as I watched the great Rhine River, a
black ribbon stretching along the bus route on that black velvet
night. We were quiet, exciting quiet. You felt it too, I know. We
got off the bus at the Wiesbaden Spa Hotel. Do you know that
I was in pain, emotional pain, when we went out for drinks on
the street with your American colleagues? All of them seemed
ridiculous to me that night. Banal Don Peterson, fast-talking
Alton Brainerd, friendly and funny Steve Ramsey.
Peterson challenged us to join him at a porno show, the
“entertainment lounge” of gaudy painted girlies, black net
hose, and flowered garters. I offered to go only because I
hoped you would come with us, but you refused. The invitation
died. The conversation degenerated into old-times stuff. You
four had been together at the Coastal Upwelling Ecosystems
Analysis meetings. All of you were members of the oxygen and
carbon gas study section. You sounded silly speaking
American, the talky talky pained me. You bought my glass of
wine but not theirs. After we all trekked back to the Spa Hotel,
I watched you say good-bye to them and ascended my four
flights of stairs. I couldn’t sleep after that exhilarating time. I
realized at that moment, R. Gautier, you scar-faced man, I
didn’t even know your first name!
You weren’t at breakfast. Alton Brainerd told me you that are
seldom very late but you are never on time. During the lecture
Steve Ramsey, nearsighted with contact lenses, sat between
us in the front row.We (you, me, and Ramsey) all wanted to be
close to the action. I wrote you my first “lettre”—to ask your
name and room number. I crossed out my question. You
answered, correcting my French because I asked you to. That
little slip of paper was lesson one. You wrote that you hadn’t
slept well. I concluded that the feelings were there. From that
our first epistolary moment, you have matched my verbosity
I concentrated hard: I disagreed with much of Brainerd’s
work on nitrous oxide. When would these chemists wake up
and realize the power of bacteria to force the chemically
unlikely to occur? Next. Ehhalt’s summary of global cycles of
methane: could methane control the oxygen? Here, listening to
Ehhalt’s talk and Zeiloff’s questions, I suggested that methane,
produced in the absence of oxygen, may influence oxygen. I
pushed past you on my way to the ladies’ room, and dropped
you another note. Unabashed, I asked you: Are you going to
Nachenheim? Are you going to see the Guttenberg Bible? “A
ce soir,” you answered.
As dusk, the sessions over, we joined the milling group in
the rain in front of the hotel. You didn’t walk or sit with me
when the huge group toured Nachenheim—the inevitable bus
to the inevitable wine cellar. Filled with round tables, flowered
tablecloths, the cellar looked like Hollywood. The German
master of ceremonies became louder and, we suspected,
bawdier, judging from the groans and laughter.
The rain stopped. Yearning for air, moon, and stars, I went
upstairs and outside. I walked along the trellis as I approached
our parked bus. I knew you too would have to walk through the
garden, but you didn’t come to find me as I hoped you would.
The laughing company ambled upstairs also readying to leave.
Smiling, wrinkling your scar, you passed with your independent
air through the garden and said slowly, “C’est très frais ce
soir.” As we arrived and you passed by my bus seat, you
quickly invited me to walk to Brunnenkolannade, to the
Kirkviertel around the Kirkhaus on Wilhelmstrasse to seek the
ancient Roman baths. Please don’t invite your atmospheremonitoring
American friends to go with us, I thought but did
We planned to walk to the thermal fountain. But we kept on.
What was your room number? We trudged to the fifth floor and
you opened the door to gently pull me toward you. We never
saw the Brunnenkolannade, whatever that is, nor the Kirkpark,
the Kirkviertel, or any Roman baths. You turned off time, your
solid-state travel clock read 00000. Forty-six years old and
never any wife. I figure that you must have turned time off for
many women before me.
Where are you? Why haven’t you come to the airport for
me? Is it all over?
René shakes her hand, cramped from writing, signs “Love”
and becomes aware that the lights have again turned on at
Charles de Gaulle. Crowds, all unrecognized faces, bob in
the Lufthansa waiting area. The time is now 3:45. She suspects
her scribbling is drivel, but it certainly has been therapeutic.
She asks herself again, what kind of man is he?