They met only briefly, when they were both on their way somewhere else. He was lost, he'd be the first to admit it. Trying to make the best out of a bad situation. He didn't speak the language, which to him sounded like someone dragging a stick across an old picket fence. It had this strange chopping rhythm he couldn't begin to attach any real meaning to. On top of that, the maps were a mystery to him. He'd been lost before. He'd driven through rural Mexico on half a tank of gas and gotten though alright. But this was a different story. Here he couldn't really negotiate the day-to-day. He thought he had North and South worked out, he was pretty sure he had at least that much, but then he'd hit the side of a church when he was expecting the riverbank. He'd find himself standing in the middle of a park somewhere miles off-course. The novelty of the situation was wearing perilously thin.
Most of the others had thrown in the towel already, retreating into the relative safety of CNN and the hotel bar. They'd drink down huge glasses of cheap pilsner and local rum and watch looping reels of disaster footage until it was time to stagger back to their rooms upstairs. He could see why, he wasn't blind to the appeal of giving up, but he wasn't ready yet. So he zipped up his jacket and headed out the door.
The city had a real problem with fires, she explained. Every few blocks and there'd be another monument to some poor guy who went up in flames. She'd translate it for him and he'd do his best to keep up. The Catholics set fire to the Protestants over here, a few yards from where the Turkish t-shirt vendor was standing now. Down the street the police set fire to the Jews. The Nazis rolled in and set fire to pretty much everything on that side of the river and then the Russians came in and torched all the bridges. The Americans never set any fires, she told him. They never needed to.
She was tall and thinner than he could fathom. She had spent some time in Chicago a long time ago, she said, but she was too young to know what a long time was. She had a real flair for self-dramatization. She wore a blue raincoat and strange chunky shoes, made her eyes up like Cleopatra. She drank gin out of the bottle she carried around in her bag and he suspected she was insane. She had this way of keeping him at a distance without keeping him away. He knew what she was doing but he didn't quite know how, and he didn't mind as much as he might have. They met at the castle gates. Met where they first met, where they always met.
She had a brother. She had a mother. Had he ever been to Chicago? What was his wife like? He hadn't mentioned a wife. She reminded him of a girl he knew a long time ago. A girl he used to go to the movies with once upon a time. They'd sit in the back rows of Cinema Village, holding hands and sharing a pack of Camels. Back when things were like that. But that girl was as all-American as the day was long, Boston cheerleader with a broken nose, and this girl was anything but.