Chapter 42: A SOLDIER’S FAREWELL
I couldn’t sleep at all the night before Stefan was scheduled to be transported to a military training camp far away from Berlin. I tossed and turned. The NVA was a large army. Much of it was made up of former Wehrmacht like my Papa—that is until the draft was enforced. I struggled to feel comfort knowing this legion primarily served the interests of East Germany. They rarely saw conflict overseas, so the possibility Stefan would remain close to the city was real. Not close enough to see unless he marched in a parade or . . . the thought frightened me . . . unless he was assigned Border Guard at the wall, but again his fate could have been much worse. For this I really was grateful.
Staring at the ceiling, I traced the cracks. The ticks of a nearby clock, second by second, echoed through the room presumptuously. Light from the moon moved the shadows eerily across my bedroom walls, but it was the thought of not seeing Stefan for ten years or longer that haunted me. Today he would be leaving Berlin and leaving me, I could not just lie here and do nothing . . .How do you say goodbye to the man whose love altered your life forever? A man who envisioned the better part of me when I couldn’t see it myself.
I had to go, even if it was only for a final glimpse.
It was still dark when I arose and located my blue dress from the closet, the one I wore on our first date to Dafne’s. The black belt positioned around my waist was tightened to its last hole so the dress would not look as big as it felt, and then I slipped my feet easily into the tall boots. Only my bony knees were exposed.
I let my hair fall to my shoulders, grateful its length camouflaged my thin torso quite well and wrapped a matching blue ribbon around my head, sliding the bow underneath. I wanted to look my best for Stefan, even if he may never see me.
Except for the way my striking cheekbones protruded more than before, my face almost appeared as though nothing had changed. I rolled the black liner above my eyelid to pull the view away from the dark circles that formed underneath and brushed just enough red to hide my cracked lips. I was almost eighteen years old but appeared thirty.
I stared in the mirror. I was different. Despite the image facing me, it was what blazed beneath the skin that had really changed. I knew I appeared frail, but I was not broken.
Before leaving, I peeked in on Mama. Her steady snore told me she had settled into a deep slumber, perhaps the most peaceful sleep she had received since the attack. If I awoke her and told her of my intentions, she would either try to stop me or feel obligated to accompany me, and I couldn’t allow either result. I tiptoed quietly out of the flat. Despite the pre-dawn darkness looming, a calm peace confirmed I was doing the right thing, and even though I had no assurance I could get anywhere near Stefan, I trusted my heart. I wanted to see his face, and I needed to know if he blamed me.
The fifteen-minute walk to Griebnitzsee station took thirty with all the stops I made. It had been almost a month since I’d exerted that much energy, and my body just couldn’t keep up with my desire. Yet nothing could stop me from going. How ironic Stefan’s departure would be at Griebnitzsee, considering that’s where we first crossed paths two years ago. I reflected on that experience and how far we had come. The transformation was undeniable.
As I got closer to the station, I saw the military police stretched out along the deck. Some paced with dogs, others with guns, and a handful were checking every crack under the train. It was routine, people in the east used any opportunity to escape, no matter how risky or dangerous. I glanced around and there, on the opposite side of the station, a small emotional farewell took place. I slipped behind a tree trunk and watched. Stefan stood in the center, barely a bus length away, and my heart leapt as I peered over a thick branch for a better view. Although Stefan’s shoulders bent in a way that indicated fatigue, he was still as handsome as ever.
Dressed in military green, he no longer appeared as though he came from wealth. No more dress slacks, sweaters, or suits. And although he was one of many soldiers, I could easily distinguish the outline of his jaw and the curl of his eyelash from anywhere. He would always be my Stefan.
Emotion began to build in my throat as I watched him gently embrace his weeping mother. This was the most sentiment I had ever seen from her. I didn’t even know she was capable of releasing a tear. One of his arms then reached for Katharina and pulled her close. Her body shook as well with obvious cries. Herr Franke closed the gap, placing both arms around his family, and their farewell circle became quite intimate.
I pulled away as tears glided down my face. I should not have come. This moment was meant for family only. I didn’t belong here.
The train whistle blew. I peeked around to see one final embrace between them all. Stefan glanced past them. His eyes scanned the area behind his family. It was as if he expected something else. A skip in my heart made me want to believe he wished I was there, but maybe he too held me responsible for his dire circumstances.
They parted. Katharina handed Stefan the pack they had prepared for him and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. Stefan’s face twisted with distress. He kissed her on the cheek and the family departed the opposite direction. Stefan reached the door of a passenger car and hesitated. I watched. My mouth opened as if to cry for him, but no words came. He turned his back and boarded.
Stepping away from the sanctuary of the tree, I shuffled slowly towards the station. Vulnerability raced through my veins as I approached the nearly-vacant platform. Most everyone had either departed or boarded. Even the Frankes had vanished. I observed Stefan maneuver through a train car and position his baggage above his head. I could not pull my eyes away. I wanted so badly to be next to him, to feel his face, see his smile, and receive his touch. I yearned to memorize every detail I could.
I inched closer, my boots hovered near the edge of the deck as I stretched to see every move he made. He seemed content. He even smiled at a fellow soldier as the conductor made the final preparations for the train to leave. I lowered my head in defeat. This is it! In a matter of moments, he will be gone. The train whistle bellowed piercingly as the last of the military police boarded. A thick, gray cloud of smoke puffed in increments simultaneous to a constrained squeak of the engine. Every second seemed to last an eternity.
I peered up. Stefan’s hand was pressed against the window, his eyes firmly on me while he mouthed my name. I tried to smile with assurance, but my mock happiness only disguised deep sorrow. I lifted my hand to wave, when Stefan’s face suddenly disappeared. A commotion stirred at the door as Stefan jumped off the train and onto the platform. Regardless of its noisy intentions, the train had not yet started to move, and Stefan was instantly at my side.
The police jumped off the train to detain Stefan. However, they never reached us. They may have stopped once they realized he was not trying to escape, but my concern no longer fell upon them, my eyes fixated only on Stefan.
Everything happened so fast, I hardly had time to react, but my shock melted to relief as he wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me close. The urgency in his kiss and the charge in his touch, awakened the numbness in my senses. I could barely hear the whistles blowing all around us.
Stefan pulled back and gazed at my face. His fingers brushed my cheeks, my forehead, and the fresh scar on the bridge of my nose. He touched everything as if he needed reassurance I was real and in one piece.
He drew me towards his chest and whispered in my ear, “I love you, Ella.” My heart raced. I couldn’t speak.
“I’m sorry I didn’t protect you,” he added. The pain in his voice was deafening.
Although I yearned to keep my resting head against him, I withdrew just enough to absorb his presence face to face. My palm cupped his cheek. My eyes held every inch of him, yet even at this distance Stefan appeared restless and clinched my body tightly against him once more as if our closeness was the only remedy.
His lips vibrated against my ear as he spoke. “It’s not your fault.” My chest swelled. It was his response to Katharina’s message to him from me. This was the precise memory I wanted to seal in my heart.
The train whistle blew one last time as the wheels thrust into motion. One guard grabbed his arm and yelled, “It’s time!” Our bodies remained intertwined.
“I love you, Stefan,” I finally spoke. My words were soft but full of conviction. There was no doubt in my mind how I felt about this man.
Stefan exhaled in relief. The guard grabbed his arm and pulled him away, “That’s enough,” he demanded.
Stefan shook loose and reached for my face with both his hands. The intensity of his lips left a warm imprint. His assurance brought me to tears. I grabbed the ribbon from my hair and placed it in Stefan’s hand. He gripped it tightly as the impatient guards became more physical, nearly dragging, then pushing Stefan towards a train that had started to increase in speed.
“I love you, Ella,” he yelled as all three men jumped to the opening between cars. While the police moved to the inside cabin, Stefan held the railing on the outside and never took his eyes off me.
Within seconds, I could no longer see his face or the end of the ribbon flapping in his grasp. The train had become a small dot on the landscape and took with it my hopes and dreams. I fell to my knees, my head buried in my hands.
“Ten years!!” I cried. Grief seared through me. Ten years was forever. I sobbed nearly uncontrollable. I clutched my chest, my hands turning white from my grasp. The pain was excruciating—as if my heart was physically ripping in half.
Pulling in deep breaths, I opened my eyes. The station now appeared empty, all evidence of a train, soldiers, or Stefan had disappeared. In a moment, everything changed. Because of one moment, the happiness I had once shared with Stefan was stolen from me. My mind spun in fear. Anything could happen in ten years, anything could happen in one! What fate awaits us? Will our love survive? Will we survive?
I stumbled awkwardly to my feet, weakly forcing myself to take a step, the first painful step in a new direction. One that would no longer have the foundation of a man who loved me, even cherished me despite my many imperfections. I glanced one last time at the empty track. A long curl had stuck to the wetness on my face, and as I pulled it behind my ear, thoughts of the smudge on my mirror earlier in the week resurfaced, and I pondered my fate. I would never be the same. For nearly two years I had tallied the remaining days of service on that glass, but now . . . now a new number would be etched each morning . . . the countdown to Stefan Franke’s return home.