By Jozef Leyden
“Jake, it’s time you started thinking about a serious relationship,” Uncle Maurice says on the day of my thirty-fifth birthday. “Serious,” he accentuates.
“You need to find a good person. A good woman!” he stresses.
“Character is more important than riches and beauty.” Uncle Maurice is not averse to clichés.
He should know, he first married when he was only twenty-one; now, he struggles with his fourth marriage at retirement age.
It is a Sunday afternoon at my parents’ house; early spring sunshine fills the living room; my mother has baked an apple-strudel; my father has opened a bottle of old Armagnac, all in honour of my birthday.
Listening in, my mother eagerly nods several times; she seems to agree with her brother. In her mind, she adds to his criteria “preferably Jewish, a doctor or a lawyer;” no doubt about it. My father does not offer any opinion, but his facial expression speaks volumes. He does not think highly of Maurice’s wisdom when it comes to relationships.
Me, I nod too; only once and unconvincingly. Just to get them off my back. My current status of romantic affairs (they have probably dissected this subject already before my arrival) is uncomplicated ̶ single again. A month ago, Luzia and I had split. Not considered as a tragedy by anyone around the table. Not even by myself. No regrets.
It was a passionate liaison, flamed up like fireworks. We met by chance at Lisbon airport; a week later, we were a couple, madly in love. She put her microbiology research at the University of Lisbon on hold, arranged a sabbatical and followed me to Canada.
After a year of fiery love, the flame suddenly went out, as abruptly as it had ignited. She could not stop herself from flirting; or even worse, who knows, with other men. Mistrust killed my affection.
We had a few harsh altercations; Luzia returned to Lisbon; an ocean came between us. Memories and expired love declaration emails were all that was left. Strangely, I was not heartbroken when she disappeared from my life; I was open to new encounters when the time would come.
“It’s hard to find my ideal match, a girl with spunk, characterful, intelligent, an art-lover, well-read.” I pick up the thread of the birthday-Sunday round-table conversation.
“Nay, Jake, that would be just a retouched, idealized version of you. Seek a goodhearted better-half; you’ll never get bored,” experienced Maurice preaches again.
No further comments are uttered; the strudel is consumed in harmony.
“Have to leave now; to look for a clairvoyant matchmaker,” I announce and kiss everyone in the room on both cheeks. A family habit inherited from my East European grandparents.
I did not tell them that a quest for a new amour could not be my priority in the coming months. First, I must finish my badly belated study on algal Photosynthesis, already a year behind; my research grant at the university is as good as depleted.
The whole summer, I slaved away, browsed through zillions of articles online, mostly penned by researchers desperate to comply with the holy commandment of frequent publishing, a prerequisite for entering the iron gates of the remunerated academic world. I am no exception.
When autumn came, my scientific creativity was drained; I felt I needed to resume my inspirational trips to the National Art Gallery. And I mean ‘inspirational.’ Photosynthesis and visual arts have got to be correlated; both are essentials of human life; both depend on solar light. My proprietary hypothesis. I might quote it in my dissertation if I ever finish it.
For years now, I have regularly sought my refuge in this glass castle above the river. There are specific pieces on exhibit which I favour for a while for whatever reasons. This fall, an oversized bronze bust of Friedrich Nietzsche is my pick. The old guy’s face fascinates me, implies a trove of human insight behind his arched forehead, sage eyes look off into the space, a grin hidden behind a monumental moustache; his trademark.
He looks intensely pensive; had probably practised in front of a mirror for this pose; now, immortalized in bronze by the artist-sculptor.
It is not because of the philosopher’s works that I like the sculpture ̶ my knowledge of philosophy is limited to basics, mostly extracted from reading popular literature ̶ it is the aura of the sculpture. Positioned among European post-impressionist paintings; a sombre face between brightly coloured landscapes ̶ that keeps me captivated for months.
There is a low wooden bench in front of the sculpture, my vantage point for this season. Gallery guards had taken note.
After all those years of frequently visiting the Gallery, the guards got used to my fluctuating fascination with specific artworks. First, they watched me with suspicion when I lingered too long and too often in front of a masterpiece; now, they wordlessly greet me in friendly acknowledgment of my presence. I have become a recognized regular.
Along with the aesthetic appeal of my chosen artworks that compels me to return to them, I love to overhear observations and commentaries of other admirers of my ‘darling-pieces.’
‘My Nietzsche’ is a hidden gem, strictly for connoisseurs.
I keep tabs on Friedrich’s incidental aficionados. Some of them are regulars, just like me.
Father and daughter; he is in his fifties; she is in her early teens. I have caught them twice already, eyeing the philosopher. Father subtly tries to educate his cherished offshoot; the loving daughter pretends to hear his nuggets of wisdom for the first time.
“You remember this guy?” the father lectures. “A giant among the thinkers; that’s why this bust is so massive. Look at the moustache; you can’t see the corners of his mouth; there must be a message behind growing such a dense, extended brush.”
“A message?” the daughter disbelieves.
“How about ‘Guess ̶ am I smiling or am I sad?’”
“Or ‘Read my lips, if you can.’”
An original angle.
Two students in their low twenties ̶ undergrads, my guess; the university campus is on walking distance from the Gallery. They don’t seem to be a couple; not yet. I wonder who is going to try to impress whom.
Him: “Here he is, my anchor point, my mental watering hole in this plantation of cultural enlightenment! Let me introduce my friend Frederic N.”
Rather pompous for an opening move.
Her: “Your role model? Frederic, eh? Wouldn’t be mine. He was Hitler’s favourite philosopher. Let me show you my favourites.”
A clincher; they wander briskly towards the Impressionists. Will Friedrich/Frederic get a second chance with her? Or will her friend readjust his preferences, choose some other sculpture to appease her? Hopefully, not the monstrous female spider of steel, dangerously spreading its eight extended legs close to the entrance of the Gallery.
Now, I must admit that it is pretty cheap to be derogative. At the same time, I watch and eavesdrop on my fellow Gallery-goers. That’s not why I am here. After the summer, my sittings on the bench have an extra purpose, pursuit of a new flame.
Casually talking to strangers, making contacts in art galleries and museums is the weapon of my choice when on the dating path. It’s a bare necessity; I am not a bar-goer. A date in a bar does not work for me. Loud music and dim lighting distract me, completely kill my sharp conversational skills, and make me appear an undesirable, dull loser. Either way, I doubt my sought ideal alter-ego would be found in a bar environment.
Meanwhile, the Nietzsche-bench becomes my lookout to discover and select worthy, long-term relationship candidates. I imagine a young woman interested in the classical philosopher could be my true soulmate, maybe even the chosen one.
With a bit of luck, such a human gem might even fit within Uncle Maurice’s realm of pristine characters. The combination of a penchant for profound art and a heart of gold should not be unusual among intellectuals, should it?
It’s a dark November afternoon; the icy wind blows dead leaves from the curb toward the tall Gallery windows. Not far from the city, deep in the forests, deer hunting season is in full gear. Hunters shiver in cold hideouts, wait for their prey. At my lookout in the Gallery, I am better off. With my buddy Friedrich, I wait and watch.
It takes a while before my perseverance is rewarded. A dark-haired girl deliberately steps into the space between my bench and the sculpture. Charcoal rib-knit dress, fashionable eyeglasses, expressive face, about my age, a laptop bag over her shoulder. These are not permitted in the Gallery; she must be an insider. Gallery catalogue in her hand.
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She notices me, looks briefly into my eyes. The moment of truth?
“Nice moustache there.” She directs her comment to Friedrich.
“Movember prophecy,” I respond from behind.
“Nothing is known about Nietzsche’s men’s health issues,” she comes back, now looks at me, adds, “Are you a Movember fundraiser-professional? Are you waiting here to ambush potential givers? A donor chaser, so to speak? This bronze thinker is a nice decoy.”
“Far from it. I’m just a humble scientist resting here. I hope this Friedrich will give me inspiration for my concept of quantum photosynthesis.”
Ouch, what colossal BS, a pretentious introduction. I need somehow to mend my image, to show some genuine interest in her.
“What about you? Are you a urologist? Are you here investigating sculpted celebrities for signs of mortal diseases?”
“Close. A dermatologist. And yes, you can learn a lot about mental and bodily ailments from artworks. No doubt about it. It’s a study I work on along with the Gallery curators.
By the way, I already noticed you sitting here last week and critically watching bystanders. Like a deer hunter on a stakeout.”
“Embarrassing; sorry. Believe me, I’m harmless. I’m just curious to see who would be attracted by this impressive artwork. My champion piece of the season. You said, ‘a hunter?’ More like a trapper, though; this bust is my bait.”
“Trapper, eh? Can I buy you a coffee, trapper?” she responds, smiling.
“Coffee? Why not. They brew decent espresso downstairs in the cafeteria.”
We settle at a table beside a large window facing the river, small cups of espresso in front of us.
Time to properly introduce myself, “Jacob Levin is the name.”
“I am Zarah Bergman. Zarah, not Sarah,” she tells me.
“My mother was teaching a course on Nietzsche at McGill at the time when I was born. She would have preferred to name me Zarathustra had my father not intervened. Zarah was a compromise. It sounds almost like ‘Sarah,’ my grandmother’s name.”
She looks at me and, out of the blue, declares, “Internet dating doesn’t work for me; I had some disappointing experience. I prefer direct encounters at places of my choice.”
For a moment, I’m at a loss for words; this Zarah ̶ no beating about the bush.
“Zarah, you caught me here off guard, your openness, so to see, we are both on a quest. About online dating, not my cup of tea either.”
But why me?”
“Well, Jakob, you seem to fall into the category of ‘right guys.’ I mean, into my category of ‘right guys.’ About my age, a museumgoer interested in thinkers. You don’t look freaky. You seem to be single; I checked your hands. Last but not least, I vaguely remember seeing your face last Rosh Hashanah in the shul downtown.
Tinder wouldn’t be able to find me a better match. So, why shouldn’t I give it a try?”
A straight shooter is she, this Zarah. Her directness in the delicate matters of courtship is thrilling; I am sold.
And thus, we started dating, very conventionally, in phases. What a difference from my previous fiery liaison!
We see each other once or twice a week, have lunches downtown, go to see avant-garde films in independent movie theatres, and needless to say, regularly pay our respects to Friedrich, the matchmaker.
We become close, tell our family histories, relish each other’s company, reach a degree of intimacy, intimacy, not passion.
I like her, I like her a lot. It shows. She is not hiding her affection either.
We confess our past loves, triumphs and heartaches.
More than a month has passed when Zarah invites me for a Shabbat dinner at her place. She has made an effort to put a great meal on the table. The soft music of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition in the background. A well-orchestrated evening.
“Zarah, you indisputably beat the culinary accomplishments of my entire clan,” I declare truthfully after dessert.
“An exquisite five-course dinner with candles and challah; brachot before and bentsching after; the whole nine yards,” I share with my father over the phone later in the week. So far, he is the only one of my kin ‘who knows.’ I don’t tell him that I stayed for the night.
Yes, we are now an acknowledged couple. Acknowledged by friends and family. Spend weekends together, my place or her place. Hold hands in public. Admit being in love. A few moderate, controllable disagreements; very civil.
Rather reluctantly, I have complied with the unwritten code of the step-by-step serious dating course and asked Zarah to meet my parents. For coffee and cake on a Sunday afternoon.
My smart Zarah, unlike Luzia, has charmed the family panel, smoothly passed the litmus test.
Do I ever think about my butterfly-Luzia? N-no.
We have been dating for almost four seasons, faithfully follow contemporary social patterns and rituals. Living-apart-together; joint dinners; weekends; visit friends, family; save for a down-payment.
Her parents, the Zarathustra expert-scholars, live in Vancouver, half a continent away. That gave me some slack to prepare my ‘right guy’ act. We flew to Vancouver for Labour Day weekend. I was approved.
It is a cold November day, our first anniversary; we pay a visit to our matchmaker. We walk by Friedrich in thankful acknowledgment; we wander from painting to painting, look for our favourite pieces. I feel restless, have an inexplicable urge to provoke my Zarah.
There is our Mondrian, exhibited in the Dutch painters’ hall; we slow our pace.
“Don’t you think, Zarah, that our relationship is a bit like this painting; a neat arrangement of rectangular objects in uncomplicated primary colours, straight lines, eye-pleasing?”
Why am I saying this? Am I transmitting that I miss thrilling adventures and fireworks in our intimate association? Zarah looks up, unsettled picks up the gauntlet. She leads me to a large Jan Steen ̶ a messy family gathering tableau.
“Would you rather prefer this metaphor?”
Zarah looks agitated; I must have hurt her. She leads me to a Degas, an expressive painting of a young ballerina. She knows that the canvas is one of my favourites. Not hers.
“If you seek pictorial allegories, would this be your luscious Luzia reminiscence? Do you think you’d be better off with her?
I am startled; try not to show it. Is she right? Have I missed the boat, my Santa María underway to exciting treacherous discoveries of exotic worlds ̶ by letting Luzia go?
Renouncing my stormy affair with Luzia, am I now willingly headed towards the rationality of a well-reasoned ‘tying the knot?’
The dark clouds above the wintry landscapes on the wall threaten to diffuse into the Gallery’s spaces, to invade and contaminate our comfortably premeditated romance.
Seeking a compromise, neither of us is ready for a caustic argument, we turn to a peaceful Dutch vista ‘Calm at the Mouth of a River.’ The picture of boats with white sails mirrored on unruffled water surface emits pacifying air desperately needed for any reconciliation. The calm before the storm?
In silence, we descend to the cafeteria.
Mayday, Mayday. God help us.
Jozef Leyden (pseudonym) lives in Ottawa, Ontario. He was born and raised in Bohemia and lived for a few decades in the Netherlands before finding his home in Canada. His writings often reflect on his European roots and his career. He has worked in academia and industry as a physicist, sailor-oceanographer, environmental surveyor, and university professor.