Over Amsterdam. Descending toward Schiphol.
The El Al stewardess bestowed an approving smile as Ben locked and tightened his seat belt.
In 1945 he had only seen Holland from the ground. He'd not known Nikki then. How old had she been? She was thirty-five now—no, thirty-six. That meant she'd been seven.
The official leafed through his passport. "How long do you stay in the Netherlands?"
Before Ben's response—"Two weeks"—was completed the official stamped his passport, slid it across the counter, waved him through the gate, and reached for the passport of the next passenger.
While he waited at the luggage belts, Ben tried to find Nikki in the crowd behind the glass wall. He'd still not found her when the luggage began arriving.
It was possible, he knew, that he was being deceived by her image of two years ago, when he'd met her in San Francisco. He'd changed in those two years; surely she had. "Oh," she'd said, in San Francisco, after they'd been together a month, "I wish I'd seen you before you began losing your hair. All those curls." As he moved now toward his two bags, his hand wandered to the top of his head to brush the remnant curls (even fewer than there had been two years ago in San Francisco).
She must have pushed to the front of the crowd at that moment because there, suddenly, she was. Waving her arms. Her hair longer than he remembered it. But even from this distance there was no mistaking those wide, almost Slavic cheeks, that strong-toothed smile. She was wearing the white denim slacks and jacket she'd worn in the photograph she'd sent him last month. He waved back now, working to restrain the alternating waves of anticipation and apprehension.
Carrying the two bags he started toward the exit. Nikki, her arms open wide, waited. "Benjamin!" They embraced, leaned back to study each other's face, laughed, fell again into each other's arms. [End Page 1]
While Nikki maneuvered her white Fiat out of the parking lot, into and out of the traffic surrounding Schiphol, and then onto the freeway, they spoke very little. But they kept smiling at each other and groping for each other's hands.
"What are you saying?" She leaned toward him.
"You were speaking. I couldn't quite hear. Ach, you must be exhausted."
He had been reading the signs aloud. "I fought at Nijmegen."
"Ah," she said. "Yes, the war."
That first night in San Francisco, he'd admitted his surprise at the absence of an accent in her English. She'd laughed. Had he, she'd asked, also expected her to be wearing wooden shoes and a little lace cap?
He noticed a very slight accent now. Was it the accent that suggested her reserve, her coolness? Or did she resent his reminding her of the war? Searching for a clue in her face, he ended up admiring her profile. A child, she'd been a child, not quite eight, when the tank he was riding had smashed open the gates of Dachau.
They reached Apeldoorn at ten minutes past noon. The shops were closed. Nikki drove slowly, grinning each time he sighed. "Five minutes," she said, as they reached the edge of town, "and we'll be home." She sounded as if the town, the home, were already his as much as they were her own.
They parked in the driveway. Nikki, holding his hand, insisted they tour the garden before going inside. In front of the house, as well as the rear, weeds and grass and shrubs and flowers grew in flamboyant disorder. On either side of nearby houses, and along the sides of houses on the opposite side of the dirt lane, the tight green lawns were bordered with pathways and flowers so precisely arranged in shape and color they might have been selected by computer.
What about her neighbors? Were they unhappy?
Nikki giggled. Her neighbors, very religious, were certain that anyone who chose to live in such...