In the German city of Cologne there is a very tall, old and famous church named the Dom Kirsche. On one side, in a tall spire that reaches all the way to heaven it seems, there is a circular staircase with many hundreds of steps leading to the top. I remember someone said that there was a similar staircase in the twin spire next to it, but it was closed for renovation that year.
The artwork of this church is very Gothic, having sharp angles, much stained glass, and enormous inner spaces where the faithful can pray. Sometimes it seems a bit dark to me, but there is certainly a sacrosanct air to the place. If it weren’t a church, I don’t know what they’d make of it.
One thursday in April it was especially drizzly, and I decided to walk up the stairs to get beyond the reach of the weather’s malaise. Up at least four-hundred steps (I stopped counting), to see a view of the pretty German city. Being American, it’s hard to relate to the age of German cities. Whereas I think of the seventeeth century as being quite a long time ago, Cologne could rightly measure it’s age as a multiple of American governmental lifetimes. In fact, I think Cologne is as old as my own county times five, at least. The Dom Kirsche itself predates the Revolution, and yet it’s hard to imagine in my racial consciousness that nothing of my present country existed when that first step was built.
Blithely then I put my foot down and began the journey. Physical endurance is not my strong suite, and this climb was going to take its toll, but the strength of one’s will can often make up for natural deficiencies
I marked the time of my beginning by the position of the sun. It was hiding behind a cloud, but visible by the bright stain it made on the dreary canopy. That would make it about four o’clock, with four more hours until sunset.
The first fifty steps fill one with a false sense of well-being. The problem is that it cannot all be tackled in one go. Each step is not that much effort: just lifting the foot about eight inches upward. Then again, and again – and again. By the fifty-first step you are committed, but only now has the reality of the task dawned on you. Seven more sets of fifty left to go! If it were presented as a single leap, the proportions of that leap would stop nearly everyone from trying, but because of the deceptiveness of the first easy step, countless travelers plunge themselves into that feat of quite some magnitude.
By the two-hundredth step, I met her. She was blonde, and had a blonde’s smile which was warm with something like sunshine from within. This attracted me to her right away, and as I noticed the beauty of her figure I was quite taken. Fortunately she had just dropped something on her way down (an earring I think it was), and I was able to introduce myself by way of helping her.
She thanked me and was going to continue downward, when I asked her suddenly if she would accompany me to the top.
Now, there are some people who say that if a woman withstands your getting sick on the first date, or doing something else equally terrible, she’s a “keeper”. This was on that level of magnitude. I don’t know why she agreed, and it still seems to me quite impossible that she did. But I asked, and she responded yes. So up she went, with me ahead and her following.
Every few steps I would turn back to ask her about simple details – mostly because the narrowness of the steps required concentration. Her name was Monica; she was actually Belgian, living in London; her family had brought her here many years ago as a child, and she was coming back for a nostalgia trip. She was a student at Oxford, enjoyed sports and actually did not find the stair-climb too tiring.
I in turn told her that I was studying Philosophy in America, had lived all my life in America in various states, and found the climb extremely tiring.
She was younger than I by a few years, and liked hearing about American life. It is fun to be an instant celebrity because of one’s citizenship. She wanted to know about American universities, sports, and what kinds of things we do for recreation. This made the conversation very easy, without the dreadful pauses that can kill any possibility of going further. We were able to fill up the whole climb with empty, though informative, discussion about the particular of everyday life.
In actuality I very much dislike talking about trivial things. New love interests, however, have a way of making everything tedious seem interesting. Whereas normally I would have responded with a serious of one or two word answers, now I became a fount of information about American society.
Monica also shared a lot with me about her life in England: her move there, the things she did to keep herself interested. It was nice, but I didn’t really listen to much of it. That’s the other strange thing about new love interests. I love to hear them and watch them talk, but I don’t listen very much – at least not while we’re at the trivial stage. It’s later on that things deepen.
Depending on the woman, I can see this in her eyes too. She’s not really listening either. In fact, we both recognize and acknowledge the fact that we’re engaging in banter for the sake of paving the way for something else. That something else can’t start the conversation; some unwritten convention does not allow it. First there has to be a friendly negotiation of barriers, before the tone can change. And when it does change, it can do so so radically as to eliminate the need for spoken communication at all. This is what I wait for: the immediately contact of enraptured souls. That time when her presence becomes like food, and I can drink her in through my thirsty eyes. But meanwhile I patiently wait for the banter to end. I remember all of it – my memory is good about such things – but this is not the stuff of life. People have so much more to offer, which can only be found once we dispense with the need to entertain one another.
As an option, entertaining one another is fun, playful; but when it is necessary during the interpersonal negotiation period, it lacks frivolity. She understood this too, I could tell. Her eyes told me, and I let her know through my eyes. Once the eyes share a common understanding, everything is certain to go well.
We cleared the top of the stairs and moved aside to rest against the wall. With her eight hundred steps (up once, down half, and back up again), she was about as tired as I was. We sat down on the cement floor with our backs against the wall and watched the other people catch their breath as they moved through the room. From this room it connected to another that was under construction, where the bell tower is. Not much else was up here, so I imagine people come up for the climb as much as for the view of the city.
In the ceiling were spaces where I could see the gray of the sky again. Monica looked up too.
“The sky is often gray in London,” she said. I turned to watch her face as she watched the sky. She was beautiful. Until then we had only seen each other’s eyes in brief glimpses during the climb. Enough to communicate meaning, but not sufficient for study. Hers were glacial blue, but not cold. They had a marbled texture in the pupil, with wondering black centers which made me want to stare at those eyes for as long as possible. Then I saw her neck muscles start to turn, so I quickly averted my eyes so as to prolong that moment until a better time.
“What is it like in California at night?” she asked. The delicate uncommonness of the question carried a subtext which was designed to open the way to me for the next move. In a way these games can be the most satisfying form of human parley. There is an understood formalism to the speech which one can use (and where we all learn this, I do not know), but the whole meaning of the conversation is communicated through highly subtle shifts of meaning, or forms of expression. Asking what it is like in California says nothing, but simply adding “at night” makes the question uncommon enough for the intent to be clear. That is, not that it has anything to do with nocturnal activity, but I am now being given the OK to answer with an equally uncommon response. Before this permission is granted, anything uncommon sounds forward; but once the door is opened, I’m welcomed to step in.