If the sour cherry liqueur was the last gift that Matthew made and offered to friends who came by our flat for dinner, Agnes and Claire’s wine glasses were the first presents that we received as a couple. They arrived for a supper and birimba bearing a shopping bag festooned with swirls of blue and green ribbon. I had just moved into Matthew’s old studio flat a week earlier and it was the first time we had had anyone over as a couple. Matthew didn’t even have a proper kitchen. We cooked on a hotplate and a propane gas burner.
“It’s just a little house-warming gift now that you’ve moved in,” Agnes said. “Something to mark the beginning.”
She didn’t say the beginning of what, but I knew it was more than just a housewarming present. It was their recognition that the bond between Matthew and me was something enduring and worthy of being commemorated. It was a wedding gift, of sorts: a set of six wine glasses. Nowadays we wouldn’t consider them wine glasses. They were too small. The stem was the height of three stacked fingers, the bowl just enough to accommodate a couple of swigs. It was somewhere between the small tumbler that Greeks once drank wine from (and often in tavernas still do) and a proper wine glass. But Matthew and I didn’t have any wine glasses, and we were thrilled with the gift.
Agnes and Claire were sisters who had grown up in a poor, working-class district of the city and went to university and became a dentist and civil engineer, respectively, back then when the class boundaries in the society were particularly porous and the free public education system was actually free and not, as it would be later, skewed in favor of those who could afford to pay a quartet of private tutors to supplement the instruction their children received in the classroom and prepare them for the university admission examinations.
Though they could have lived almost anywhere in the city, they both chose to remain in the neighborhood where they grew up. Agnes actually did leave the area for a time when she got married and her journalist husband more or less demanded they move to an affluent suburb a 45-minute train ride from her dental office, a place, he said, where they could “properly raise a child.” He seemed not to appreciate the irony that his wife was “properly raised”—and indeed, much more so than he had been in his leafy suburb—in just the neighborhood he wanted to extradite her from. Agnes moved back to her old neighborhood after the divorce.
The gals were Communists. More precisely, they were members of the reform wing that splintered from the somewhat Stalinist orthodox core to form a more modern, forward-looking party that only occasionally managed to amass enough votes to be represented in Parliament. Matthew, who was essentially an apolitical cynic (and deeply conservative at heart) said he respected the party because they were the only ones who had cloth banners at their rallies instead of the usual plastic ones.
Although I had grown up and long shed myself of the images of my childhood years in which Communists figured as a menacing, unscrupulous body of subversives bent on world dominion, the fact that Agnes and Claire actually were Communists, the first I had ever met, endowed them with an aura of the exotic. I thought they would be citing Marx and Althusser but instead they talked about the theater and books as well as social justice. They were brilliant and witty, perspicacious and engaging. And they sang. They must have known hundreds of songs. Not just songs of uprising and exile, but poignant ballads and post-war chansons, bluesy rembetika and island folk songs. Claire especially had a beautiful voice. That evening, after our last round of birimba and slightly drunk with the Peter Heering we had filled the new glasses with—an extravagance for us at the time—they started singing along to a song on the radio. And then they turned the radio and sang on their own. Matthew joined in, as did the gals’ boyfriends.
I was too unskilled in the language at first to appreciate either the songs or the repartee, and too unsure of myself to participate much. If I was able to move within the constellations of friends that assembled around Matthew, it was only because he held me in his orbit. I was his satellite. It didn’t bother me then, I was so love with him, but I was frustrated at my inability to express myself well. I always felt half a person with his friends, at least in the early years of my life here. I must have come across as simplistic or shallow or maybe even just dumb. Maybe Agnes and Claire took Matthew’s word for it that I was bright, though even he knew that only by approximation. Anyway, for some unfathomable reason, they liked me.
We would spend a lot of time together for a few years afterwards. We even took vacations together. And then we drifted apart, and then came briefly together again, and then lost touch after Matthew and I split up. Agnes called me last spring to ask if I’d help her son with a college application for the States, which I was glad to do. She and Claire took me out to dinner a few times, and they were just as vibrant and delightful and fun to be with as I remember they were from my first year with Matthew.
I never use the glasses now. The bowl is too small to hold even a proper scoop of ice-cream, and even I could loosen up enough to use them to serve liqueur, there are only two of them left and besides, people don’t seem to drink liqueurs any more. Friends ask for grappa and single malts and eaux de vie.
But despite their uselessness, I don’t want to throw them away. These funky plastic-stemmed glasses are a reminder of a time of promise, the beginning that Agnes had talked about, a time when we had set about making a home instead of simply equipping a house, and each thing we bought together grew out of our passion instead of substituting for it. The longer Matthew and I lived together, the more specialized the stemware we bought. We had big-bowled Burgundy wine glasses and champagne flutes, glasses for Riesling and glasses for Sauvignon Blanc, slender crystal for port and tapered glasses for Sauternes. Glasses would break, but during our last years together we never bothered replacing them. What’s left is a motley assortment of differently shaped glasses that can only be used in the company of one or two at the most. I’ll toss them all, but not today. Today belongs to Agnes and Claire’s glasses. They are different from the leftover Riesling glass. They are like an anchor to that chain of possessions Matthew and I forged in our years of domesticity, and I think that if can unloose this mooring, it will be easier to throw out the rest.
I gathered up the glasses in a small bag and brought them to the recycling bin. The city recycling crew must have come by last night because it’s empty. I lower the bag into the bin and tip out the two stubby glasses. I promise myself I’ll arrange to see Agnes and Claire next week. Maybe even have them over for dinner.
I stumbled across the first rule of discarding when confronted with what to do with Agnes and Claire’s dollhouse glasses. It would have been cheating to throw one glass away today and the other later on. If I allowed myself that handicap, I could spend a year chucking out one CD a day and still have half the collection left. So, rule #1:
Objects that arrive in a set must depart in a set.
Obviously that doesn’t apply to CDs or books or clothes, so I will have to come up with a variation on this rule if I’m not to dispose of my entire wardrobe or clear out my library in one afternoon. Perhaps genre might be appropriate, but I will need to get the cladistics right and calibrate at the right level of detail. Fiction is too broad, crime novels written set in Weimar Germany may be too narrow (though surprisingly this is not a set of one).
I will need rules if I am to give some meaning to this project. Rules appeal to me, more than they should, Dieter says, which, coming from a German, says something about my peculiar delight in order. But I like the structure that a set of rules provides, and the order—and potential for creativity—that arises from their application. Because there are often various ways to attain a desired result within given constraints, the application of rules is always marked by a mix of the predictable and the unforeseeable; some solutions are elegant in their economy of means and clarity of purpose, others clunky and cumbersome.
Dieter reminds me of examples in history in which a slavish observance of rules has been catastrophic not only for the individual for entire nations. He tells me it is one of characteristics of ataxophobia, a fear of disorder. I tell him I’m not there yet.