Oct/Nov 2016 Travel

A Good Swiss Name

by Jillian Schedneck

Image courtesy of the British Library Online Photo Collection

When I noticed the old man looking out onto the Sea of Gibraltar from our riad rooftop in Tangier, I wanted him to like me in that gushy, breathless way that people like you. I wanted him to be impressed by the off-handed way I might mention all the languages I knew or cities I'd lived, wild accounts set in Lisbon, Moscow, Dubai. Your life's stories—the one about learning Italian to impress your first love or losing a million dollars in the dotcom crash—were effortlessly thrilling and charming to everyone but me. I'd heard them too many times, during too many lonely lunches where you were the undeniable center.

The old man smiled at the sea, or something else out of reach, like last night's dream. I found him handsome. I know, even now, you find this doubtful. You always had trouble believing I could find any man handsome besides you. And then there was his age. Yet even in his 70s, anyone besides you would have been struck by this man's dignified, silver-haired elegance. With the sun glinting off the tile tabletops and onto his still-smooth skin, he appeared otherworldly.

"My wife is down there, at the beach," the man said in a European accent I couldn't place. I hadn't even known the man was aware of my presence. "She's with our baby."

He didn't smile or chuckle at the word baby, the ridiculousness of this striking grandfather siring a newborn.

"Why aren't you on the beach, with your family?" I thrilled at talking to someone other than you, someone who looked me in the eye. All the other men in Morocco treated me as though I were a puff of air occupying the dense, important space next to you. That wasn't your fault, but I still blamed you.

The old man waved away my question, not dismissively, but as though the answer was too obvious to state. Perhaps he didn't like the ocean, or carrying baby accoutrements. Maybe he couldn't stand to miss our riad's breakfast: all those small, colorful bowls of butter, jams, and honey, the thin slices of toast. Perhaps he had seen me yesterday in the hall of our riad and sensed I needed another person's presence that morning. I know you think I'm foolish. Why would I want someone else's attention when I had yours?

"My son probably won't remember much about me when he's grown," he said. "But this woman, my new wife, insisted we have a child, that I give her a child, before she got too old herself."

He chuckled, as if whimsical women of late childbearing age often asked him to father their children. I felt proud he had divulged this to me, and thought I should share something of my own history with him. Should I tell him I was bored of being your sidekick? Or about a few nights ago, when we met two American women who shared their stories of bargaining in the Marrakesh medina, and I wished I was travelling with a girlfriend instead?

I didn't say a word and clutched my gurgling stomach. "Is it me?" you had asked the night before when you heard me whimpering in the bathroom. "Are you not having a good time?" As if my tears could only concern you and our time together rather than the waves of nausea that overtook me every quarter hour. You went out to explore the city the next day, returning in the evening with stories of Tangier. "It's our only chance to see this city," you said, as if your sightseeing counted for the two of us, as if I wasn't really lying on that bed but existed somewhere inside you.

You materialized on the riad rooftop, wearing a red soccer T-shirt and khaki shorts, hands on hips, as if you had just conquered this small space for your kingdom. At that moment I hated how young you looked. At 37, you still appeared boyish, and no amount of stress or sun seemed to affect you. I shouldn't have envied you this. I should have been pleased that my boyfriend looked so youthful. But youth was my thing, one of the few attributes I could hold over you with indisputable dominion. At 26, I had this, but I wouldn't always. Yet it seemed on that morning that you held perpetual youth, and here was something else to begrudge you for.

A few days ago in the Fez medina, you were paces ahead of me, walking with the porter at your side. You treated that porter with such reverence, as if he were an elderly king who expected visitors' admiration and indulgence. I lagged behind but overhead you both speaking at the same time, interrupting each other. You said, "I'm sorry," and then laughed coyly. "No, you go first." And then the porter had replied, "No, sir, please go on with your story." You repeated your wish for him to speak, and the porter again implored you to go on, and it was as though you two were the lovers and I was your young cousin, some insignificant charge. There was always something about a stranger that appealed to you so much more than me, your girlfriend of one year. I wanted to be that stranger again, like when we had first met, when only I had captivated you. That morning on our riad rooftop, I vowed to do the next best thing. This time, I was intrigued by a stranger, and he was going to be intrigued by me—only me.

You took a seat across from me, green eyes alighting on the barren table as if a feast were already set down before us, and said to me, "You should only eat dry toast. Orange juice is too acidic."

"Oh, let the girl eat," the old man said. "She looks well."

"You didn't see her yesterday," you said, laughing. "She hasn't seen any of Tangier besides the view outside our window."

"I'm sure it was a nice view." The man peered over the edge of the roof, still privately bemused.

The hotel waiter arrived with our toast, jams, croissants, and cheeses. My stomach grumbled in anticipation, and I felt so glad to be well that I wanted to squeeze your hand. But I didn't.

"Will you join us?" I said to the old man. You looked at me in surprise as the old man turned and smiled, then glided over to sit at the head of our table. His white hair glistened in the misty sunlight, bluish veins surfacing along the thin skin of his neck and high cheekbones.

He turned toward you. "I was telling your wife that my family is down at the beach, my wife and baby boy."

Your eyes registered no shock, not at being called my husband or at the mention of this man's child. I twisted the diamond cocktail ring around my engagement finger. We had traveled through Morocco, proclaiming ourselves husband and wife until that farce, once funny and even exhilarating, became banal. Yet the assumption we were married sounded wrong coming from this man. Out of all the people we had met in Morocco, he at least should know that we were only playing at being married.

"What's your baby's name?" I asked.

"A good Swiss name," he answered, smiling. "Jacques, after me."

"So you've come from Switzerland, then?"

"Yes, but I've lived all over Europe, selling buttons as my trade. Those were the days. A woman in every port, as they say. I never wanted to settle."

You presented Jacques with your international resume, and he appeared disinterested. I imagined him in a brown tweed suit, hat tilted slightly forward, pedaling buttons of all shapes and colors, adoring their small distinctions, the way certain styles could make a blouse fashionable or ruined, the way a set of buttons could blend in or add just the right accent. This attention to detail, I imagined, worked with women, too. He would have noticed a woman's summer auburn highlights, or the way a girl's eyes turned a brighter green when she wore red. He would remember who hoped to become a paralegal instead of an office assistant. He knew that details mattered.

"I swore I would never have children," Jacques began again, apropos of nothing, when you rounded off your work history with your current job search. "My father had me at 60, and I never forgave him for dying when I was ten, for having me so late, and now I've done worse to my own boy."

I watched your face, attentive but not sympathetic. I wondered if Jacques had been destined to repeat this mistake, and if they were mistakes at all. "He's lucky to have you as his father," I said.

Jacques continued, unfazed by my comment. "Then Mira said she wanted to have a baby. At first it was just for her, but then she decided she wanted to have my child, because she loved me and wanted me to leave a legacy. I wanted that, too. My last name is Heinman." Jacques looked down at his hands. "At least my boy will carry that name."

You glared at Jacques, puzzled and then delighted. You turned away from us, took out one of your business cards, and scribbled something on the back. You cupped your free hand over what you had written, hoarding a secret.

You grabbed the man's wrist, hard, and stared at him with grave seriousness, as if you were about to change his life. You did this with strangers, and they seemed unafraid, even excited, believing that you could see something in them that others couldn't. I wondered when I stopped believing that.

You pushed the business card toward Jacques. "Is your name spelled like this?"

He touched the letters as if they were tactile. "H-e-i-n-m-a-n," he spelled. "Yes, that's right."

"I'm Heinman," you said, and I scowled at you, sure you were playing a cruel joke. You are Andres Pedroso, not Heinman.

"My mother," you explained. "Her maiden name is Heinman. Her family migrated to Cuba from Europe. It must have been Switzerland. Do you know what this means?"

"We're related!" cried Jacques, slamming his hand on the chipped blue tile. I looked at you with scorn, and wondered if this, then, was what it meant to love you, this gradual shift from admiration to contempt, the wish to return to our enchanted beginning over and over again while watching you enchant strangers.

"Do you know what this means?" you asked again, turning to me, but didn't wait for a reply. "This man is my relative going back hundreds of years. We found each other on a rooftop in Tangier!" Your voiced squeaked, just as it did when you spoke about the elections in France or Castro's imminent demise.

You and Jacques spent the next half hour marveling about your relation. Jacques suddenly appeared older, more wan, but still so regal, so very different from you. Then, after all the bowls of jam and butter had been scraped onto white toast, we parted and returned to our rooms. I lay on the bed, satisfied from the food but exhausted by my wretched attempt to woo a stranger, to be like you. After ten minutes, there was a knock on our door. It was Jacques. I got up and answered it, but Jacques looked beyond me to find you, standing near the bed packing. You both marveled once again over your incredible meeting and made plans to reunite in Switzerland on your next trip to Europe. You promised to check with your mother about the details of your ancestry, but you were both certain it was so. Jacques promised to tell his son about you one day.

I laid back down on the white sheets and stared onto the medina street, the same scene I had watched the day before: the woman selling dates, the boys riding old bikes, the scarlet-colored German tourists scrutinizing their street maps. I felt a great, private swell of joy. Months later, after we had broken up, you sent me an email about meeting Jacques for lunch while you were both travelling through France. You were gushing again, stating how unbelievable your life was, how certain you were of your connection to this man. I felt certain of something, too. After Tangier we had travelled on to Rabat, Marrakesh, and Casablanca, but I knew our connection had ended by the time we left that rooftop riad in Tangier. When you joined Jacques in the hallway, I had never felt so happy to be alone.


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