The new boy with the big ears stood in the cold neon light of the cloakroom, right in the middle of the room, and his school slippers seemed to be stuck to the green linoleum. Take off your pants, Aunt Edeltraut said, and the new boy pressed his hands against the seams of his cords. All the children take off their pants here, said Aunt Edeltraut. Her voice still sounded friendly, but it had that slight quaver that signaled danger. The boy wasn’t familiar with the danger, it was his first day in kindergarten. Slippers, tights, sweater, smock, said Aunt Edeltraut. The dress code was set. The boys wore boys’ smocks, which looked like oversized bibs that crisscrossed and buttoned in the back, the girls wore girls’ smocks in bright colors, some with little gathered pleats. They all wore the same tights, ribbed cotton with one seam in front, two in back. There were children who never learned. The tights bagged at the knees and the backside, and after naptime skinny little Matthias Seibt, one of those who never learned, bagged at his stomach and at the backs of his knees.
We don’t want to introduce any new fashions here, said Aunt Edeltraut. She fixed the new boy with a look that would have had every single one of them staring at the floor. But the new boy held her gaze.
Take off your pants!
No! the new boy said and looked Aunt Edeltraut straight in the eye.
He said it loudly and clearly. His voice revealed neither fear nor provocation. It was a no that excluded all possibility of doubt.
Oh, so you can speak, said Aunt Edeltraut, and surprisingly her voice sounded a withdrawal. Then will you tell the other children what your name is?? She took pleasure in drawing out the question mark.
What?? How’s that?? Aunt Edeltraut’s battalion had regrouped for ambush.
Ah, Jahnpole, said Aunt Edeltraut. Jahnpole! She said it like a bad word, like something that would breed decay if you held it for too long in your mouth. And soon enough Matthias Seibt, who was always squealing on others to hide the fact that he could neither tie a knot nor put his tights on right, would pipe up and say, Aunt Edeltraut said a naughty word!
Jahnpole, Jahnpole, Jahnpole, Jahnpole. Aunt Edeltraut savored the thrill of the forbidden, clapping her hands in excitement, and all of the children clapped with her, louder and louder. Except for Skarlet. But before she was forced to see how the new boy, who now didn’t seem strange to her at all, turned away in tears, her unconscious took pity on her and released her from her dream.
Dreams about Aunt Edeltraut were the second-worst kind of dream. There was barely a night she didn’t have a dream, but most of them dissolved as soon as she tried to recall them, like a cube of sugar in a cup of hot tea, leaving behind only a taste, sweet or bitter, depending. But there were exceptions. One of them was Aunt Edeltraut. Even after she awoke, Aunt Edeltraut continued to run through Skarlet’s head, clearly visible in her orthopedically correct shoes. Her bouncing gait, her pinned-up hair, the white smock buttoned up to her chin left no doubt. Good morning, children. Good morning, Aunt Edeltraut. When Aunt Edeltraut raised her voice even the Punch and Judy dolls on the toy shelf took on a solemn expression. But maybe it had just been a bang on the street, a whistling sound, one of countless little detonations, which had interrupted her dream and caused Skarlet to sit bolt upright in bed. For a moment she was annoyed, trying to fit the sound into her dream, but then everything was all too clear: Aunt Edeltraut had neither fired a gun nor been blown to bits. It was New Year’s Eve and Paul was dead.
The last day of the year had always been the hardest day of the year. A day of forced cheer mixed with contrived self-reflection. Why, at the end of the year, did you have to resolve that everything would be different?
She had wanted to celebrate this last, this final day with Paul, but hadn’t this also been a form of self-deception? What do you want to drink on New Year’s Eve, she had asked. And he had laughed and then given her that look that excluded all possibility of doubt. Nevertheless, the next day she had made a few calls and then traveled halfway across the city to buy a bottle of the grappa he liked, Tenuta di Sesta, the grappa they all had drunk back then, on the night Lukas was born.
Paul had never liked New Year’s Eve. Even in kindergarten he had stayed home sick during Karneval, So, who’s wearing the best costume today? He never showed up for any of the Children’s Day celebrations or at the annual lantern processions commemorating the founding of the German Democratic Republic. Paul could develop a fever at will.
And later, when everybody who could escape their parents’ parties would gather at the Youth Club, he was only there so he wouldn’t have to spend the evening alone with his mother in front of the TV. It was the time when they were all so young they believed the only good excuse for a party was to get drunk. Paul wasn’t one of those for whom New Year’s Eve was over long before midnight. When everyone who was left standing went outside at midnight to fire the last of their rockets—and even Skarlet played revolutionary, aiming her firecrackers at some invisible barricade—he would stand off at a distance, a passive onlooker. He didn’t get why she thought it was fun to shoot flame-spewing rockets at traffic signs. And despite all her pleading, he vehemently refused to go to the stationery store to pick up his allotted ration of fireworks, which would have doubled Skarlet’s munitions: five rockets, a can of exploding peas and two packets of firecrackers. Under Socialism, even New Year’s fireworks were a scarce commodity.
In those days, Skarlet considered everything that was forbidden at home to be a form of liberation. At midnight, the whole family would stand at the window in the stairwell and watch as other people’s money lit up the sky. One-fifty-five, her father would say every time there was a bang. Every New Year’s celebration at home followed the protocol he dictated. Right after breakfast he would go down to the basement to haul up the box of New Year’s things, while her mother prepared the punch in the bedroom. Pale strawberries so squishy they fell apart when she picked them up, only to have new life breathed into them by a soak in overseas rum. Once she put the water on, to boil unpeeled potatoes for the salad, they could begin to decorate the living room. First the garland that stretched from the curtain rod to the ceiling light, then the garland from the ceiling light to a hook screwed into the doorframe specifically for that purpose. Then from the hook to the still life hanging above the sofa, and from there back to the curtain rod. Though the garlands were numbered and the order of things precisely established, there were always mix-ups that only her mother could be guilty of. She had handed her father garland 3 instead of garland 2, all she had to do was be able to count to four, but no, she wasn’t even capable of that. He had to stand on the chair and couldn’t take care of everything. And while her parents fought, the potatoes boiled down to nothing. One has to do everything oneself! She only did it because it was his sister who was coming to visit.
Skarlet kept a safe distance. Her job was the streamers. But that, too, was not without its dangers. The once bright, now faded paper became more brittle with each year, and sometimes one of the streamers would tear as she unrolled it. Can’t you watch what you’re doing! New streamers were a waste, you might as well throw the money out the window. She’d just been too lazy to roll them up right last year. And so, every New Year’s Day, Skarlet would carefully pluck the streamers from the rubber plant and the ceiling light. Rolling them up was an art. On the one hand she had to roll them tightly enough that they wouldn’t come undone, and on the other, if she wound them too tightly they would tear. But if one did tear, her father was the one to decide which pieces could be thrown away, for even small bits of paper could later be used as table decoration, and he wasn’t willing to stand by and watch as she drove the family to ruin. The money, the money, the money! If she had to name the one word she heard most often in her childhood, it would be: THEMONEY!
Skarlet lay in bed, not knowing how she would get through the day. Theater, movie, concert? Or stay at home in front of the TV? Watch the sitcoms and the eternal “Dinner for One.” “Skol, Mr. Winterbottom!” At least Miss Sophie still had her butler, James, to drink with. “The same procedure as every year, Miss Sophie? ” “The same procedure as every year, James! ” Skarlet had never spent a New Year’s Eve alone, she could always find someone to celebrate with. She often went off with friends, New Year’s Eve on the beach at Hiddensee, New Year’s Eve at the top of the Fichtelberg, at the Rila Monastery, and later, after the fall of the Wall, New Year’s Eve on the Champs-Élysées, New Year’s Eve stoned on weed in a coffee shop in Amsterdam. She would flee wherever opportunity took her. The opposite of Paul, who always remained in the city on New Year’s Eve. His New Year’s celebrations were like experiments he performed on himself. One year when he was a student, he decided to spend it alone in his flat. On top of which, a friend had loaned him three books by Sigmund Freud for a few days, and Paul maintained that New Year’s with Freud topped New Year’s with Sachsen-Bräu. Better the interpretation of dreams than headache pills the next day. And he had always wanted to read Freud, so rather than fill out a lot of elaborate applications and take himself off to the “Poison Chamber” at the German National Library, where they kept forbidden volumes such as Freud’s under lock and key, he’d spend New Year’s Eve with him instead. What better time to tackle psychoanalysis than on this particular night. Normally he wasn’t prone to this kind of thing, and Skarlet found the idea alarming. At that point Paul lived in an old apartment building in the southern part of the city, in which the stairway walls hadn’t been painted for decades, nor any other repairs done. The entryway smelled musty and the peeling baseboards bloomed with saltpeter. Paul’s room lay directly over the arched gateway to the building, and one winter when he spilled a pot of tea under the window, the rug froze solid to the floorboards. And the view wasn’t particularly cheerful either, with its dilapidated shed in the back courtyard, in front of which Klempner, who owned it, piled up old bathtubs and toilets, just in case the “People’s Economy” should totally collapse.
She imagined Paul, with his view of rusty bathtubs and urine-stained toilets, wrapped in a blanket in front of his stove, reading The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. On a night no one would voluntarily want to spend alone he would cross the threshold of perception and push his way into the depths of his existence, and they’d find him the next morning floating above his I, his id, like a cloud of gas. But her pleas went unheeded, for as always, once Paul had resolved to do something, he was not to be dissuaded. They made a date for the next day, and around noon, once her headache had begun to subside, she found him still sitting at the stove in his flat, wrapped in a wool blanket and reading The Ego and the Id.
At first she was impressed. After all, in elementary school he had been the one who could work his way through one of the “trumpet boy” books in under an hour. But then she got suspicious and starting asking questions, and as Paul had a hard time lying, he admitted that his speed reading skills had failed with Freud. The type was too small, the text too difficult, and an hour before midnight he had given up. Rather than inner enlightenment, bloodshot eyes. But that, he said, was something he hadn’t wanted to admit to himself, and so long before midnight he had simply gone to bed and withdrawn from the world. Dreamless, he had to confess.
And now? Now he had withdrawn again. Forever. And she was alone. Paul’s illness had drawn an invisible circle around Skarlet. At first, many of their friends continued to ask how Paul was doing, how his treatments were going. But the more serious his situation became, the fewer the questions. No one was really interested in the truth. She felt they held her stories of Paul’s slow demise against her. But she was incapable of just closing her eyes and joining in on the everything-will-be-just-fine inanities. She could gauge the hopelessness of his situation down to the last centimeter. She had continued to hope in spite of her despair, she had prayed, but she had never lied. Why must hope and truth be mutually exclusive? Of course it was true that any friend she called right now would say: Come over! But it was clear to her that she wouldn’t have anything to add to any celebration today, everyone would try to be considerate and secretly hate her for it, and the artificial camaraderie would make her feel even lonelier than she already was. For the first time since her split with Christian she felt alone. For years she had longed to live alone again, and when he moved out she had felt liberated, released from seventeen years of confinement. After he moved out she had taken a few of his things down to the garbage and it was as if she were throwing away prescriptions for an illness she could no longer recall. She had been shocked at her lack of pain.
The only strange thing, at first, was lying in bed by herself, but that changed after a few weeks. She could get up in the middle of the night whenever she wanted, read, listen to music or just look out the window at the darkness. And she didn’t have to sit down together with him at breakfast each morning and eat when she wasn’t hungry.
Now she vacillated between getting up and staying in bed, she was afraid to leave the protective warmth, but also felt a restlessness that got her up and into the cold. It was amazing in itself that she had been able to sleep at all the night before. She ran barefoot across the cold floor to the kitchen to put on water for tea. The plate of spaghetti, the remains of yesterday’s meal, was still sitting on the table. The tomatoes and cheese had developed a crust. At Aunt Edeltraut’s everyone cleaned their plates and emptied their cups.
Skarlet needed only to close her eyes to see before her the Sprela cart, its formica top covered with red plastic cups filled to the brim with a mix of warm milk and allegedly healthy buckthorn berry juice. She knew that only those who drained their cups would be allowed to go out and play. Aunt Edeltraut would lean back in her desk chair, arms crossed over her massive bosom, and wait. She kept watch over the uneaten cheese slices and spurned lentil soup. She found every piece of meat Scarlet concealed under her tongue, every slice of cheese stuck in the pocket of her smock, even the blood sausage under the doll’s bed mattress, and she knew that Skarlet’s blowing on the milk was merely a delaying tactic and that the milk had long since cooled. We drink the skin as well, Aunt Edeltraut said, summoning up the starving children of the world. Six-year-old shoeshine boys from Rio, rug weavers from India, all of whom needed to be saved by Communism. Skarlet knew that if she didn’t drink her milk the skin would just get thicker, and she knew there was no escape, for in the end Aunt Edeltraut would hold her nose for her for as long as it took Skarlet to swallow it down. See, that wasn’t so bad!
She threw the spaghetti into the garbage. Aunt Edeltraut had done it again. Whenever Skarlet failed to clean her plate, she got a bad conscience.
She put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Now only the envelope remained on the kitchen table. The envelope on which “Skarlet” was written in blue ink. The Swas a little smeared, but the handwriting was legible, which meant that Paul had written the letter some time ago.
Paul had always been afraid of getting old, sixty at most, he vowed, maintaining he’d go down with some airplane. In the middle of New York. An absurd idea in the East Germany of that time, and a macabre one now. He would never get to be an old man, never have gray hair or a bald spot, never suffer from varicose veins and NEVER have false teeth. To Paul and Skarlet false teeth were the embodiment of getting old. It was the first secret he entrusted her with: his grandfather could take out his teeth to brush them. She hadn’t believed him, so Paul took her home with him and—his grandfather asleep on the sofa, his mouth sunken in—the two of them had stood before the glass in the bathroom, staring at the teeth swimming in the cloudy water. The teeth of the pink-gummed dentures held in place by metal clips. They could clearly recognize morsels of food: little pieces of meat and sauerkraut. And then Paul counted to three and they had each stuck a finger in the glass. Even today, she got goose bumps thinking about it. But knowing about the teeth gave them a certain advantage; when Matthias Seibt was the first in their kindergarten class to lose his two front teeth, they told him about the teeth in the glass to make him cry.
Skarlet walked through the apartment gathering her things together. Her shoes near the answering machine, her stockings behind the living room door, as if, in some drunken stupor, she had dropped them on her way to bed. Her apartment felt strange to her, like when she was a child and came home from summer camp. A picture by Lydia hung in the hallway, a watercolor she had done sometime during her first years at school. A blue sweater against a background of green, a round face with sunglasses, a bright red mouth. She wasn’t one of those mothers who thought her child was a genius and plastered photos and drawings and letters all over the apartment. But she had liked this picture at the time, and it had just stayed on the wall ever since. Lydia was seventeen now, and had decided to spend a year on the other side of the ocean as an exchange student. Skarlet thought about what time it would be in Chicago now. She would call Lydia later to wish her a happy New Year, but she wasn’t sure if she would tell her that Paul had died. Perhaps it would be better to email her, to avoid all the questions. And then, as every morning, Skarlet turned on her computer to check her mail.
Good morning, Skarlet Bucklitzsch. Even after forty years she got a shock when she saw her own name. Her last name alone was bad enough, but then Skarlet with a k and only one t! The k was her mother’s idea, the missing t the midwife’s poor spelling.
In kindergarten she had wished for another name—Cornelia. Cornelia was the girl who always threw a six on the dice when they played Parcheesi, who never sang off-key in rounds, who won every race. Cornelia never cut her finger in arts and crafts, her Play-Doh figures never collapsed in a heap all of a sudden, and her watercolors never ran together on the paper. Cornelia always painted the prettiest picture. Just look how nice our little Conny’s picture is. Skarlet didn’t have a nickname.
Maybe it was their names that formed the invisible bond between them. Jean-Paul Langanke and Skarlet Bucklitzsch. A bond against all mothers of the world who held power over names. A bond against Aunt Edeltraut, who let them know that children in a socialist kindergarten had names like Petra, Monika, Bernd, Andreas or, just barely making the list, Claudia, but never Skarlet and Jean-Paul.
Translation of chapter two, Alle sterben, auch die Löffelstöre. Copyright Kathrin Aehnlich. By arrangement with Arche Literatur Verlag AG, Zürich-Hamburg. Translation copyright 2009 Edna McCown. All rights reserved.