Me & Lili Marlene

Margaret Elysia Garcia

“I want another evening of her charms…”

I’m in a crowded room and all I can think of is how gentle his lips feel against mine. I am thankful that at middle age, I know what the perfect structure of a kiss is. I drink them in now like never before. It is a cocktail with one-part recognition, one-part sweetness, one-part desperation, one-part sorrow, and four parts lust in equal measure. I’m not sure I even know who he is.

Tonight my kids and I are at their monthly 4-H meeting. We pack into a hall with plans involving livestock and cake decorating and canning and horse back riding. My son will be raising a rabbit. My daughter will be making a quilt. The Taylorsville town sign says population 150; it’s lying. There’s probably less. When the din of excited children quiets with the gavel of the oldest child chairing the meeting you can hear the cows in the fields. It’s all very picturesque and if Republicans knew we were here, I’m sure they’d swoop down for a photo-op and then photoshop in a few churches to give it just the right touch.

There are many projects children can do in 4-H, a list of virtually endless propositions. I would volunteer, but what could I teach? That I learned my way through Lili Marlene?

Our family, like all those present will look to be the pinnacle of what is missing in America. Good old-fashioned values. Good family unity. The existential void of living filled with pull yourself up by your bootstraps meets DIY mentality. We can make our own soap, candles, quilts, sweaters—the list goes on. In some very real ways it means that my family has arrived on the doorstep of our apocalyptic nation with a firm handle on basic survival. And we live near the top of the watershed on top of it all.

My survival comes from the romance of my favorite song, Lili by Marlene Dietrich. She really didn’t need to record anything else. This is the song of war, of momentary comfort, of lasting impressions, the romance of the night, the cold chill of war in the morning. And it is from that war so it’s bleakness is tenfold. There is a man waiting for a woman in the middle of the night. There’s a highly likely chance that they, like the world, has no future. But that doesn’t matter in the moment where love is born, where love rushes out of bodies starved with desire for beauty and understanding.

I told you, I’d be a lousy teacher.

I often wonder when I’m sitting in cold metal folding chairs, taking notes absently and watching my children, if I’m the only one in the room whose mind has drifted off to lovers real and imaginary. If their lives really just consist of the recipes we’re swapping, baby showers, canned food drives, and the rush of schedules of contemporary children. What do they have to hold onto?

If there’s no other life than what they’re presenting in front of me, then I’m grateful for my secret life, for my memory, for my secret sequestered future.  They’re moving on to the next point on tonight’s agenda and I look up and smile. I’m standing on a street corner in my mind, I’m the soldier waiting for Lili Marlene to show up and create a world anew, if just for the night. That song taught me my moral code and I’m glad it did. I often picture that song in slow motion. Slow enough that I jump in and out of all the characters like a lost spirit.

Sometimes I’m the soldier.

Sometimes I’m Lili.

Sometimes I’m the street corner.

Sometimes I’m the shadow.

Sometimes I’m the cobblestone.

Sometimes I’m the rain.

Sometimes I’m the sound of her heels trying to be quiet.

Sometimes I’m the danger that lurks where lovers meet.

In the song, memory is long, but time is fleeting. Once the lover is loved, she or he is placed in the heart, in a locket. It is a sacred space not violated by time or new lovers. You’re just going to say I’m a romantic. And perhaps I am. You’re going to say that I’m gluttonous. I have many lockets in there. Some of them I have turned towards the wall so that I’m not hurt by their presence. Some of them I hold in my hands. Some I have replaced. Some I’m carving new lockets for and I wait. You’re going to say I’m a liar and a cheat.

It’s no way to live in this two by two serial monogamy stepchild America where the family unit is pushed and pushed until it comes out in pieces and reassembles with parts from other families and tries again.

I’ll always stand and wait for you at night.

Tonight I’m waiting through this meeting. The kids are slightly restless, awaiting snacks promised them at the end. The leaders are trying to herd them into compliance and my mind is with him and when I realize this I feel my body respond and I flush red at my thoughts and bend my head to take notes, to draw out the words that mean him to me.

I’ll always keep you in my heart.

I’d say half the parents at this meeting are on their second marriages, their second set of step-children. Straying fathers remarry and raise other men’s children, their own children barreling through the resentment of legal firearms. They do offer shooting here too. Mothers on the make check out the parking lots for bigger trucks, more acreage. The next one will have it together, they think. And no one knows how to have an affair any more, or how to be alone.

Lili Marlene knew how to be alone. It’s not even about her. I know that now. That’s what keeps me going. That’s what makes me happy. That’s what keeps me from being in the throes of meetings where we pledge to be upright citizens and encourage by example our children to do the same. This is the fate of people who have never lived.

My love for you renews my might.

Understand that I don’t need him. I don’t need the kisses though I’d like them again and again. I have them memorized. I know where they start, what starts them: what the moon looks like, what the cobblestone sounds as the heels touch lightly trying to keep a secret while giving it away.

Who would I be without my romanticism and its flittering scurry about my heart? Who would I be without my darkness, my shadow, that secret ingredient in my body that says he is just this moment now and no more? There’s nothing to take with you, the pitcher is empty and it is passed last call.

Then we’ll say goodbye and part.

We are adjourning. There are new tasks we’ve been assigned and schedules to keep if we are all to be prepared for the county fair and for others’ needs.  I don’t mind being a volunteer and I’m happy my kids are part of something decent, respectable and without shadow.

But I’m comfortable here in my space, beside all this, but besides all this. I walk us to the car but they are old enough to run ahead and only barely watch for other cars pulling out. It’s winter and dark outside. For a moment I do not hear the cows or smell the countryside. Instead it’s a street corner of a hundred years ago and he and I have agreed to meet at midnight under the street lamp across from the graveyard. To practice one last kiss. Tomorrow, according to our movie, and the way songs like Lili Marlene go, one of us will have to be dead. The other will place a stone upon our grave with a prayer. And I’m fine with this. I really am.