You Want Details?

tagFirst TimeYou Want Details?

Dear Charity,
You ask me to tell you about my marriage to Brand. You say you've heard the stories of it that everyone else in the family has heard, but you want to be a writer, and therefore need to study people IN DETAIL. Ah, my dear! I wonder: is this the chance I have sometimes wished for? To tell IN DETAIL the story of the man I loved for so many years? You are, if I remember correctly, twenty years old, exactly the age I was when I met Brand. I have no idea what your experience of men is, but you are MUCH more beautiful than I was, so you must have had many chances. So, as Americans say, here goes.
You know what everyone in our large family knows. How Brand and I met while he was passing out Gospel leaflets in the Marienplatz in Munich. How, since I passed that way every day on my way to work, we started a brief, joking relationship about how I wasn't salvation material, in fact I was a bit of a devil. And Brand smiled and assured me, in poor German but with dancing eyes, that both he and God could see something quite beautiful in me. That was all—no dates, just a few brief unserious conversations on a crowded sidewalk. But when he had to return to California, he asked for my address and we stayed in touch through letters (yes, on paper, that took two weeks to get between California and Germany! that was how we lived then!) for the next several months.
Now I will pause here and give you some of the detail. Why did I even notice this man who was doing something that no one else had the slightest interest in? Practically nobody took his leaflets, and those few who did only glanced and then dropped them. I had watched him as I approached from far down the street. And, like all Europeans, I first felt a flicker of condescension. Even though he was not dressed differently from Germans, you could tell from a kilometer away he was an American. Americans were not popular in Europe then (or now, for that matter). I had picked up one of the leaflets somebody had dropped, and while my English then wasn't very good, I could make out it was just standard come-to-Jesus-or-go-to-hell stuff. Religion meant nothing to me then. As a Hungarian, I had been raised Catholic but no longer cared at all about it. I certainly wasn't interested in the crude religious brands popular in America.
And yet. You know from photos that your grandfather was a handsome man–tall, dark-haired, wide-shouldered. I would not be telling the truth if I pretended I hadn't immediately noticed that he was, on the outside, the kind of man I sometimes had fantasies about. A brief detailed aside, which will be relevant later: I was not a virgin when I met your grandfather. I had slept casually with a couple of young men. They had left me a bit puzzled why everybody thought sex was such a big thing. I had no boyfriend, had never had one, and with school and work felt I had no time for one.
But Brand's looks weren't the main thing. It was his manner. Here he was, doing something that most people, at least in Europe, looked down on, and he was doing it like there was nothing in this world he enjoyed more! His smile was like a bright light, even in the summer midday I first saw it. He was polite with everybody. His German was very awkward, but that didn't discourage him at all. He felt the spirit of the Gospel transcended little things like language—that you really shared it in ways other than words. (As I was to learn over the years, about that he was right.) As I watched him, I thought: This man is completely unafraid. Unafraid of who he is, and therefore unafraid of others.
And so I made sure to pass near enough that he would hand me a leaflet, and we would speak briefly. I already wanted him to notice me, even though I couldn't have said why. I had no interest in what he was selling. I wasn't looking for a boyfriend. But I sensed the man passing out those leaflets was solid, and that interested me.
Well, you already know the next part of the story: How, after months of correspondence, I agreed to come to California and meet his family. How the plan was for me to return to Germany after three weeks, with no commitment on either side. I had made that very explicit in my letters. How, both in the letters, and after I arrived, Brand pressed me to "get saved." In California I went to church services with him and his family, which was okay, but I told him frankly I didn't see how I could possibly believe everything he did. In spite of that, we still had a lot of fun for the first two weeks. As religious as his family were, I liked them, and they seemed to like me.
Now for some important detail I have never shared with others. You are the first, Charity.
Brand and I had, of course, slept in separate rooms at his family's house. There was no question of premarital sex. Brand hadn't even permitted us to be in the same room alone together without leaving a door open. But on the fourth day before I was to leave, he asked me to come into his bedroom and sit on the bed.
He sat facing me. He took my hands in his and asked, "Hanna, will you pray with me?" There was nothing melodramatic about it, but his sincerity simply crushed my heart. Everything the man was, was in those six words. It was so important to him. You could hear it in his voice. There was nothing I could do but nod. My throat was all choked up.
Then Brand got up and slowly, quietly closed the door (please note that detail!). He knelt and asked me to kneel. We were close, but not touching. Brand began to pray. Not in strong, confident tones, the way he would lead a prayer in church, or with his family, But haltingly, almost fumbling, as if he were praying for something he didn't even understand. On its surface, the prayer was simply that Jesus would open my heart to the wonderful mystery of God's grace and make it possible for me to accept the Gospel, someday. (I thought that "someday" was respectful of me.) His words were not so unusual, but this time I heard something entirely different from conventional sentiments: De profundis clamavi ad Te, Domine. That is Latin from a Psalm, which I remember from my primary schooling in Hungary long ago. It means, "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord." For that is what Brand sounded like this time. For the first time since I had met him, he was not self-assured, not knowing just what to say or how to handle a situation. I could tell exactly what he was feeling. He was afraid that I might return to Germany without accepting Jesus, and then he would lose me. For he had been just as explicit with me as I had been with him: that he could marry only a woman who was "saved," and who accepted his ambitions for the ministry. If I went back, I would drift into my old life, I would forget about "getting saved," and then would forget about him.
I was facing him. My hands were tightly clasped. My head was bowed, so he couldn't see my tears until they were already dropping splash-splash on the hardwood floor. He actually interrupted his prayer, reached over, and lifted my chin. (Other than briefly holding hands or taking my elbow a few times he had never touched me.) He looked right into my overflowing eyes, and brushed a few tears away. And then—and this, dear Charity, is the most important detail in my whole story: he lifted his finger to his mouth and tasted my tears, like a child would.
That tiny act decided my whole future. After that, THIS was the man I wanted, and no other. The religion stuff was secondary. It would never mean to me what it meant to him, but it would be, for me, no harder than using a language that wasn't mine from birth, and I was used to that. All I cared about then was that this man was as solid as good Black Forest oak.
And, frankly, I was now suddenly eager to get into bed with him. (Just a detail! Charity, I hope you're not too shocked at this kind of detail. There will be a good bit more of it, if I ever finish this letter! ) I wasn't, at that moment, thinking specifically of what I may as well just call "fucking" (which, after all, is what your grandfather and I called it all the years we were together). I just suddenly felt wild to wrap my arms (and legs!) around the Oaken Man who had just tasted my tears.
Of course, that couldn't happen just yet. Brand wouldn't sleep with me unless we were actually married. And we couldn't be married until I was "saved." So I told him that I was crying because I felt so moved by his prayer, that I didn't think anyone had ever cared more than he did about what was best for me, and that I, too, wanted Jesus to come into my heart. I meant it. I had envied Brand and his family, who seemed so at home in their Baptist church. They all went to church three times a week, and they all seemed to like it! I had never known a community like that. I had been so lonely in Munich. My work and studies were unexciting, my friendships superficial. I was not close with my family, who were in Hungary, where I had no intention of ever returning as long as it was under communist rule. If Jesus could give me Brand, and also what Brand and his family had, then I'd willingly walk with Jesus. That was a decision I've never regretted.
Now Brand and I held hands, both of mine in both of his. Brand prayed, still stumbling. There were tears in his eyes, too. He asked God to accept me and guide me through the Holy Spirit. Then I prayed to the same effect. I asked God to forgive my sins and let the salvation of Jesus come into my soul. I was still sobbing, like a little child. And I thought: a man who can make me cry like this, so happily, so cleansingly, is better than any I have ever known.
Well, that is the most important detail I have to give you. The rest, really, is footnotes, though I will make them detailed footnotes! I wouldn't have made my life with your grandfather had it not been for that moment in his bedroom. I cannot say there were never any regrets. There were, but those came much later. (And none of them ever made me question how solid the man was.) In the early years, Brand and I joyously built our lives together. And, frankly, dear Charity, sex was a big part of it–a HUGE part of it. That, too, is detail you would need to have in order to understand how it was with us.
We agreed even before we left his bedroom that we would be spouses. For the rest of that day we maintained the pretense that I would go back to Munich in a few days and settle matters there. Then I would return to California, we'd tell his family, and plan a wedding. But from the first moment we felt the falseness of it.
I've already told you how I felt—that I suddenly wanted the greatest possible physical closeness with Brand. But, now, after the bedroom and the tears, I knew perfectly well that he wanted it, too—I don't mean just as a distant prospect but now, right away. And in Brand's case, it wasn't just intimacy in general that he wanted. He wanted very specifically to possess me sexually. He wasn't just, as Americans say, horny; he was haunted by desire until he could relieve his need. It was always like that for him. That day was the first time I saw him, or any man, like that. I could see in his eyes he didn't want me to get on that airplane unless he had taken me and possessed me. That's the only way I can put it. It was the kind of look one imagines Tristan gave Isolde.
We both slept little that night. The next morning, Brand told me about how you could get married in Reno, Nevada, just across the state line, by getting a license and appearing briefly before a justice of the peace. We could do it in a day. He was willing to forego a church wedding, even to forego telling his parents till after the fact. I concurred. Ten hours later, we were married.
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On the drive to Nevada we agreed that our wedding night would have to be spent in a motel room. We didn't want to drive back to his family, inform them we were Just Married!, and then disappear into Brand's bedroom.
We were somewhat shy on that drive, but I knew had to say something that wasn't going to be easy: that I was not a virgin. I didn't think Brand was likely to make a fuss about it. He wanted me too badly. But, still, it is a sensitive point with some men, I think especially American men with Brand's religious background—something I was still very unfamiliar with. I wished I had told him when we were in his bedroom the day before, but I'd been so full of emotion I hadn't thought of it then.
On a scenic stretch in the mountains we came to a pullover and I asked him to park. There was no one else around. We got out and stretched our legs. As we sat on the stonework parapet looking at the view, I suddenly said, "Brand, have you been with a woman before?" He was speechless for several seconds, then stammered, "Well, n-no. But I think I can figure it out!" And then it dawned on him. "Have you been with a man?" he asked. "Yes," I said calmly. "I'm not a virgin. I probably should have told you that earlier, but . . . as you know, things have happened fast."
Brand thought this over a while. I don't think the moral part particularly bothered him—after all, I'd just the day before asked Jesus to forgive all my sins and accepted my salvation from His hands. The real issue was that, after this revelation, Brand, self-conscious about being a virgin himself, suddenly realized he was about to try to make love to an "experienced" woman. (Ha, ha!) And I could see something else unfolding in his imagination: Am I about to marry a promiscuous woman?
I touched his hand and said, "Brand, I'm not very experienced, and I really know very little about it. If you want the details about the other men, I'll tell you everything. But now—tonight—I want whatever happens, as long as we're together. I love you. I want to be your wife—for the rest of my life. Forsaking all others. Forgive me if I should have told you this earlier . . . . And, Brand . . . if you're nervous, so am I."
Brand was never an unfair man. He had the class, as you say in English, not to ask any questions about my former "lovers," and he had the innate brashness to think he could handle even an "experienced" woman, though (as you will see from the details) he didn't at that point in his life have any very educated idea of love-making. "Hanna," he said, "You never misled me. You didn't have to tell me now, for that matter. You trusted me with it. Well, I trust you, too. You've confessed your sins and asked for God's forgiveness. Who am I to judge? I'm sure God wants you to be my wife. I want you to be my wife, forever. That's all I care about."
The formalities in Reno were dreary but brief. We had little money and chose a seedy-looking motel. It, too, was dreary. With little sleep the night before, the driving, and the emotional excitement, we were both quite tired. We had picked up a little food. Only now did I realize how much I missed having wine. It would have helped me relax, simply because to Europeans wine is always there at important events. So, Charity, if you like alcohol, don't marry a Baptist minister!
We ate a bit, washed down with Cokes. I tried to keep a light tone, joking about how budget-level our wedding solemnities were turning out to be. "But," I said, taking Brand's hand, "when I get on the airplane, I'll be Mrs. Brand Holloway, not Hannalore Szimmer. And I'll be coming back for sure."
Brand took me in his arms. He pressed my head down on his shoulder with one hand. "Hanna," he said huskily, "I'll tell you honestly, I'm sort of scared."
And, right there, once again, I melted down. I was so proud of this man who wasn't afraid to say that. I had to rush to reassure him, through tears, that I was just crying from happiness. I asked if we could lie down. I put my head on his broad chest and sobbed for a while. I felt so relieved, all at once. We had done the first part, and here we were about to do the second, and this man was proving as solid and real as I'd thought he was.
We rested for a while, touching each other a little, not sexually yet, but now we could both feel desire. His admission, my tears, had broken the ice. I said I needed to take a bath, I would be fast, and asked if he would mind leaving the motel room so I could already be in bed when he came back. Brand, always gallant with a lady, was happy to comply.
My face looked terrible in the mirror—bleached out, eyes red and puffy, hair stringy. Well, the room would be dark. I took a very quick bath and brushed my teeth. In those days, I couldn't afford nice things; all I had for nightwear were some pathetic old bloomers and a loose smock-top. They looked awful, that's the main reason I wanted to be under the covers before Brand could see me. I turned out all the lights, knocked on the door to signal Brand, and then dived beneath the blankets.
Brand came in, brushed his teeth, then came out and undressed. I lay there, listening to him moving in the dark, and thinking, I'm lying here waiting for my husband to completely make me his wife! There was a little light from a red bulb on the phone. I could make out that he was in his undershorts. I had seen Brand in T-shirts and hiking shorts so I knew how well-proportioned his body was, but it suddenly crashed in on me that I was terribly curious to see that broad chest naked, and those tight buttocks.
Standing beside the bed, Brand said, somewhat abruptly, "Hanna, I always pray before I get into bed." That took me by surprise; I wasn't yet used to being married to an aspiring minister. "Wait," I said. I threw back the covers and slipped onto my knees. My ugly nightclothes were nothing beside the importance of prayer in my new life. Brand knelt beside me. There was a long silence, then he said, "I'm going to have to make up a new way to pray, now. My old prayers won't feel right."
And, as the day before, he began to put words together haltingly. First generalities about God's goodness and graciousness, and that he was sorry for whatever he had done wrong, especially toward his beloved wife Hannalore. He thanked God for leading me to him—he meant to himself, not to God, though he thanked God for that, too—and asked God to bless our marriage, give us children, and to guide us in His ways, etc. Brand was never long-winded at prayer, but he needed to find the right feeling before he said amen. And when he did, you could feel it with him.
The part about children rattled me a little. Brand and I had briefly talked about both wanting to have a family, but nothing more specific. I had been thinking "someday" about that, too. I was suddenly very aware that we were about to do what makes children, and that my period was perhaps five or six days away. (Is this a little too much detail, Charity? Well, you asked.) It was not impossible, not even unlikely, that I would get pregnant tonight.
As you know, I was ultimately to have six children—six children I wanted and loved very much. But I was twenty when I married, and at that time had never actually thought of myself as a mother. It often happens when you're young, however, that risk somehow seems to give everything an extra rush. I had, after all, just started a new life in a new country (whose language I didn't yet speak well) with a man I really scarcely knew, who expected me to follow a way of life I was very unfamiliar with! It was like what gamblers call a streak, and that night I had to feel a baby, if there was one, would somehow fit in with everything else. In for a penny, in for a pound, as the English say. A man—a strong, handsome, virile man—was about to fuck me, and his seed, against which I had no protection, might make me pregnant. This may be more detail than even you want, Charity . . . but the thought of Brand's semen inside me was so suddenly, intensely, exciting I felt almost faint. I forgot instantly about the baby it might plant in me! I was so busy with my thoughts and feelings I was slow to realize that Brand had stopped speaking and now expected me to pray.

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