Independence Day

Franz Jørgen Neumann

I met Christine on my flight back from Berlin while helping her restrain an unruly passenger. In her crisp flight attendant uniform and golden cravat, Christine possessed a serene, goddess-like quality as she wound yards of Lufthansa-blue tape around the passenger and his seat, the ribbon of color spiraling swiftly around his belly and chest, sparing his neck but sealing his mouth. It was like a piece of performance art. There was applause.

We got to talking in the rear galley afterwards about flying, the aurora borealis, dogs. I asked her out to breakfast as we disembarked, then waited for her outside baggage claim. After an hour, I returned to reality and to why I was back in Chicago: to personally appeal my rejected grant renewal. Without it, I would be in the clutches of The Great Unknown, which I’d rechristened Floyd, a personification of my wildly uncertain and looming debt-burdened, post-university future. It was Floyd I should be on the lookout for, driving something out of Mad Max, spitting fire as it jumped the curb. Instead, a silver Audi pulled in front of me, Christine at the wheel, hair down. A reprieve. The trunk popped and I threw in my bag. We were off, Floyd trapped in traffic far behind us, fuming.

Christine and I drank mimosas at her favorite café, then she took me to her high-rise apartment where napping off the jet lag was as delicious as the tender sex that preceded it. Between Christine’s white-noise machine and the bedroom window’s view of pure sky, I felt like I was cruising at a heavenly 35,000 feet.

Christine woke me before dawn. She had showered and dressed. “Want to stick around? I’ll be back tonight.”

She returned that evening carrying a worn doggy bed, a plastic tub of dog food, and a small bundle named Slinky. She went over the instructions for watching the dachshund. The idea was that I’d stay, watch Slinky, and work on my grant appeal while Christine flew to the capitols of the world.

That week, as fall stiffened into winter, Slinky and I moved our walks to the vacant floors of Christine’s new building. I trained Slinky to run through the uninstalled ductwork lying on the floor. The only sign of life around us was the screech of the elevator. I imagined a pterodactyl-like creature scrambling up and down the shaft. Floyd, in a new form, was hunting me.

On Christine’s rare days off, we hit the town with the dog. We looked like a married couple, rather than nearly strangers. I liked my life’s sudden domesticity. Christine was ready-made, with a career and a home, unlike the women I’d dated who only had plans and roommates. The strange thing about Christine’s home, though, was how it held no photos, books, or personal items. The medicine cabinet was bare. She didn’t even have a TV or Wi-Fi. The place seemed purpose-built for me to concentrate on university paperwork. The only personal item I came across was a utility bill in Christine’s name in a kitchen drawer. The address was different. I pulled it up on my phone and saw a large house out in the suburbs. Two cars in the drive, a trampoline in the backyard. I felt dense as lead. I was Christine’s pet, here in her secret love nest. She’d told me to stay and I’d obeyed.

I confronted her when she returned. “You’re married, right? Kids?”

“You don’t want to know,” she said.

“Try me,” I said, dropping a pod into the dishwasher and starting a cycle.

She put down her drink. “Not tonight.”

“I’m not comfortable with the married part,” I said. It was a lie, a crowbar into the rest of her life. I wanted to hear all about what she wasn’t getting at home. I wanted to be thought of as the real husband.

Christine finished her drink and placed her glass in the empty sink, then she turned and leaned against the kitchen counter. “A friend of mine moved and couldn’t keep Slinky,” she said. “I thought the boys could use a dog. I didn’t know they would be allergic. Barry can manage. He just has to avoid walnuts and cinnamon. But Nathan is allergic to dogs, cats, birds, soy, and wheat,” she said, touching her fingertips. “And corn,” she added, squeezing the thumb of her opposite hand. “Corn is everywhere.”

I didn’t follow. Christine told me that her brother and her sister-in-law died in a car accident in Belize three months ago, leaving her to raise her young teenage nephews. She’d had this apartment for only a couple of weeks when it happened. She’d never had a chance to properly move in.

“Nathan has terrible hives because of Slinky. I asked around, but no one can keep her. I was about to take her to the shelter when you showed up, all fresh and take-action. And you like dogs, too.”

I thought back to being in the galley of the plane, talking about dogs maybe just to get our minds off of the restrained passenger groaning in the seat beside my vacant one. She’d seen me as a solution. I’d seen her as my last chance to flirt with the Old World before setting down in the New.

“I pay their old babysitter to live with us when I’m on schedule, sometimes even when I’m free, like now. Just so I can come here and be in my neighborhood, in my apartment. It’s hard to do the right thing without some selfishness to look forward to.” She wandered out of the kitchen. Slinky took her place, sniffing at her empty food bowl.

“But that’s all over now,” Christine said. “My brother was a debt magnet. I put this place on the market the week before we met. Showings start this weekend.”

Christine knew all about Floyd, but her version had fangs and twenty-foot wings. It killed instead of maimed. It was her Great Unknown I’d heard scrabbling about in the elevator shaft. Christine looked lost in her own apartment, where I’d probably spent more time than she had. I wanted to take her out into the city. Get her tipsy somewhere and laughing. She turned around and looked at me, the muscles in her face incapable of supporting a smile.

“Every time I leave here, I’m terribly blue,” she said. “And when I arrive at my brother’s house I feel guilty for having been here. Even if I had the money to keep this place, those boys need me all the time. Maybe I can work counters at the airport, or something completely different. But I don’t know anything different. All I know is getting people from point A to point B. I’m at point C, and the flights out are few and far between.” She turned to me. “Sorry for the sucky layover.”

“Come on now,” I said, but she didn’t want pity.

“I need someone who’s loaded. Who goes crazy for a woman with debt. Who loves endless yard work and home repairs, and adores teenagers.” She’d become angry. “If you know any guys like that, send them my way, yeah?”

We took the elevator down to her car. I put my bag back into the trunk next to Slinky’s things. Christine drove and Slinky lay in my lap, drifting toward sleep. The plan was to take Slinky to an animal shelter, just for a week or two, to see if anyone might adopt an old dachshund. Then Christine was going to drop me off at my friend’s place where I’d meant to crash those many weeks ago. My flight home from studying abroad was coming to its belated end. It wasn’t what I wanted.

“Introduce me to your nephews,” I said.

“What for?”

“I might have parenting instincts.”

She shook her head, but I talked her into it. We pulled into a driveway. The house looked larger than in the satellite image. I could see an upstairs window and a glimpse of someone. Nathan? Barry? The window of another room was covered by a flag of yellow, blue, and red, with an emblem in the middle. A woman was watching TV downstairs—the live-in babysitter, ignorant of the two of us parked outside. It didn’t look like a grief-stricken house, and it didn’t matter if it was. Not if I loved Christine, or thought I could. I saw myself hopscotching into true adulthood by becoming an uncle to boys already versed in life’s ugliness. They’d ask me for advice and I’d tell them I didn’t have any but that maybe we could discover truths together. I felt myself swell with generosity.

“This is good,” I said, and took off my seatbelt.

“Wait. Not yet.” Christine put the car into reverse.

In the parking lot of a nearby motel, Christine bundled Slinky in her dog bed in the car’s backseat, then led me alone to a room. I could hear Slinky’s muffled barks over Christine’s grunts, over the galumphing headboard, over Christine puffing in my ear afterwards as she folded into sleep, her body covered in sweat. She’d been rough and selfish, unlike the other times, but I didn’t mind. I dressed and went outside. Evening had fallen, along with the season’s first snow. Slinky was overjoyed to see me, her paws drumming frantically on the door. I snuck her upstairs, her fur blissfully cold in the overheated room. She sniffed around, then I lifted her onto the bed where she curled up and settled into sleep.

I woke alone. A thin sheet of snow lay across the motel’s parking lot, except for a rectangle where the Audi had been parked. My bag sat on the parking chock. I texted. Called. I pulled the house address up on my phone and began walking. I used my rusty Spanish to talk to the men who answered the door. Six Ecuadorian brothers lived there and had been renting the place for two years. They were nice enough to let me look around. I knocked on every door on both sides of the street, but none of the neighbors who answered had heard of Christine or the two boys, or of a couple who had died in Belize.

Even after crashing at my friend’s place, I was still in Christine’s world. I tried animal shelters, but there were no dachshunds. I searched for her online, but her full name brought up only the world’s other Christines: a dental hygienist in Wichita, a dance student in Los Angeles, a psychologist in Saratoga. All I wanted was to know where the Christine I knew, or thought I’d known, was. Had I done something wrong? Was she okay? Without her, I grew certain that I loved her.

I spent several days at the airport, searching the faces of passing flight crews. I got nowhere with Lufthansa’s HR. I visited Christine’s apartment every few weeks until I found it occupied by an older woman and her even older mother. I glimpsed a TV and potted plants, pictures on the walls. The women were renters; they could tell me nothing.

Had Christine disappeared because she didn’t see me as the man to help her raise her nephews? Because she didn’t want to hijack my life? Because she’d made up the entire sob story? I had endless sympathy but didn’t know where to direct it.


I didn’t see Christine again until ten years later, at a public concert in Grant Park on a stifling Fourth of July evening. She’d barely aged. An older man with a thick beard and a cap sat in a folding chair beside her—perhaps the rich savior she’d wished for. Small American flags fluttered at the corners of their picnic blanket. The man leaned toward Christine and said something that made her laugh. A different laugh, more relaxed than I remembered. I was happy to see that life had worked out for Christine. My old confusion at her disappearance had long ago been reduced to a simmering background noise, and now I felt it clearing for good as I watched her enjoy the evening. The music played on. Sousa marches, some John Williams. Pops.

My wife was asleep on the blanket beside me, no orchestration capable of waking her. Our infant daughter was napping in the baby carriage. I loved my wife and daughter both, though with my deficit of sleep, what I felt in those days was more like duty. I imagined this was how Christine had felt about her nephews.

I rose as the first of the fireworks leapt into the air in corkscrews of white light. I would be quick. I walked over to Christine. “Hey you,” I said.

I immediately noticed that there was something wrong with her firework-lit face. Her eyes were wider set. Her smile broader. There was the hint of a cleft in a chin that should have been smooth. It wasn’t Christine.

I hurried back to where my eight-month-old daughter was now bawling, awakened by the fireworks. I followed my wife’s lead and folded our picnic blanket as the air crackled and boomed.

“You should have got me up before the fireworks,” my wife shouted. “This’ll damage her hearing.”

All the calm I’d felt left me; I was overcome with an urge to escape from the wrong Christine and to some place of safety. I pushed the baby carriage through open passages in the crowd, spooked by the realization that I once again didn’t know what had become of Christine. I was back at day one, lifting my bag off the parking chock, staring out at the snow.

I thought I’d ditched him years ago, but I could sense old Floyd, The Great Unknown, as he approached from the trees. I moved more quickly, the baby carriage tracing the bumps in the lawn that the grass masked, my daughter continuing her cries. I wanted to tell Floyd that I had a life, I knew my future, he couldn’t frighten me—but those would have been lies. The final swell of music and barrage of fireworks turned to applause and hollers, whistles and shouts. Floyd slipped unseen between the blankets of happiness and nearly reached me with his claws, his night shadow dancing on the grass. An arm of smoke drifted along the ground to block me, but I maneuvered around its fingers. My wife was yelling my name from far behind.

I reached the edge of the park and stopped, telling myself that I was mistaken: it was Christine I’d seen. I’d simply misremembered her face. All was well with her. All was well with me. It’s how I’d gone forward last time, making up a story of Christine’s life, leaning toward kindness instead of bitterness. I held my daughter close against my chest, trying to soothe her cries, using her as my own protection as I watched people fold their chairs, pluck flags, drain near-empty bottles into the lawn. When my wife caught up to us, I could see that she was both angry and alarmed.

“I didn’t want her to inhale all the smoke,” I said, grasping an explanation as she took our daughter from my arms. I had never told her about Floyd or Christine—about that period when I too had lived at point C, anxious and confused. We stood there, at first alone, then with thousands of concertgoers surrounding us. We moved together as one, crossing against the light, the city rising before us, here and there more feeble fireworks rising from rooftops, illuminating the drifting nebulae of earlier explosions.

Franz Jørgen Neumann’s stories have received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and have appeared in Colorado Review, The Southern Review, Water~Stone Review, and elsewhere and can be read at