it was night in a second floor apartment on a balcony in a crowded urban center. We were expecting a guest and he arrived, an old and bearded professor bringing French bread and a peculiar gourd-shaped bottle of German white wine that proved to be superior. I don’t know much about wine, I said, but this certainly is delicious. A gracious sophisticate, he told us exactly how much it cost and where it might be found.
After which, we were ourselves guests in a new and foreign city that seemed, nevertheless, strikingly familiar. In the evening we sauntered out and made acquaintance with the citizenry. There was no one who did not but take to us at first, and several times that initial, memorable evening the drinks were on the house.
Some time after that our heady ex-pat group began to drift apart, until late one night in a crowded upstairs “shoebox” bar, my last remaining original companion presented me with a drunken ultimatum, Come home with me now or be left forever behind in this alien place and among its people. I did not hesitate as I ordered another round.
Then everything sped up and there were bars and bands and drinks, and it was always night, or nearly night, or perhaps even the same evening. Occasionally I thought to look for the professor’s splendid wine, which I was certain to recognize by the distinctive shape of the bottle.
Somewhere along that time someone got killed, a stranger it seemed, but the killer we knew. He had tried to strong-arm a club owner into a contract for his awful alternative band. Events conspired and went from bad to worse. It was a shame, we all felt. He had been a sweet good-natured boy at first and was one of the early stalwarts of our little group.
Toward the end I was driving alone in the pre-dawn hours along one of the central arteries of the sleeping city when a wrong turn found me in the countryside on a narrow dirt and gravel road. The heavy sky and dismal landscape appeared as if lit from behind in washed-out shades of ashy gray, calling to mind Carlyle’s description (in his enormous biography of Frederick the Great) of the long drear stretches of sandy waste that compose the Prussian plain.
At a broad turn in the road I turned the car around. Among a phalanx of one-way surface streets headed north, I came upon a single roadway going south. (I had been headed downtown toward the nightclub district when first I found myself here, lost.) My attention relaxed as I drove down the now familiar lanes, the very street on which my old best friend once lived, or perhaps was living still, in his comfortable if frugal house.
Someday, I thought, in the not too distant future, this whole town will seem a shrine to something I have lost somewhere in its confines, or am bound to lose before I come to leave here, or am losing even now.