The way I spend all morning just thinking: blue! No way is this here blue. You must have been crazy or had some kind of color disability or been a total joker to call this green blue, to insist for years, stubborn as a mule and absolutely serious, that there was an ocean-blue sofa in this room.
The way I sit here and shake my head and think: it’s crazy, it’s incredible, crazy blue! The way I sit here and think: all that’s left over, all it is is this totally green sofa? Everyone who saw how damn green your ocean blue was laughed at you. And you didn’t care at all. The way I wanted to argue and you just shrugged your shoulders and told me that was exactly what the Pacific Ocean looked like, and you didn’t give a shit whether it was called blue or green or even urinal cake pink. And the way you always knew everything better anyway.
The way I sit here in the middle of your room and whistle, because I can’t stand that you’re not sitting here whistling, even though I hated your damn whistling, the long, off-key notes. Like a very determined child at his first recorder lesson. I always thought, Surely someone who whistles so much ought to learn how to whistle at some point. But not you. You probably didn’t even care that it’s possible to make whistling sound good.
A long time ago, me, reading in the kitchen, music behind the door to your room, the rustling of my newspaper. Suddenly your door springs open and you’re all determined in the hallway, pulling on your jacket and sitting down on the floor. With your ass on the carpet and your knees drawn up in the air, you tug your shoes over your feet, ungainly in your winter jacket like a chubby little boy. I laugh. You laugh. I look at you, you look at me.
Penny candy, the store’s closing in a minute!
Then you’re gone and back again five minutes later with sour gummy bears, licorice, and cola chews, just like that, a long time ago.
Your mother on the phone, her voice quiet: They’ve officially abandoned the search, and I nod, as if she could see me and at the same time I think the words “incorrupt corpse” and out comes a wheezy laugh. No results is good results, I say, and I could have done without saying it. Is Sunday all right with me? Yes, Sunday’s fine for me. Fine for what? His father and I would like to come and collect his room.
Collect your room! Cut it out of the house and put it down in your back yard, sure, go ahead. Feel free, see you Sunday.
How did you imagine it? Did you think I’d go on playing along, even now, that I’d rearrange the apartment so no one gets the right impression? Or did you think I wouldn’t? Maybe you’d even find it funny to let the bomb drop now.
His room, I say, of course. I’ll be home from around noon. Have a good evening.
You still owe me forty euros. Who’s going to pay me back now, who’s going to pay your unpaid bills? You think I’m going to ask your parents when they come by? Tell them they have to give me forty euros, please? You think I’m going to pocket your ID, make an appointment with your boss: Hello, Mr. Boss, I’m his—what, what would I say? Roommate? He still owes me forty euros. Give me forty euros out of his last wages; I’m entitled to forty euros, at the very least.
What’s going to happen to it all? The potted plants, the apartment, the salami pizza in the freezer compartment? It’s your turn to do the dishes, mine for the bathroom but yours for the dishes, your leftover salad has been rotting for weeks in the bowl on top of the washing machine, what’s going to happen to it all? Cheese, margarine and rye bread, muesli, orange marmalade, who eats all that crap?
It’s a misunderstanding, you once said, that we’re made to be happy. You were disgustingly drunk and slurring your words. I can still see you sitting at some long-finished party and punching your knees in pain when you found out your father had cancer. Maybe the only time anything ever really hurt you; I can’t remember any other time. You raised the herb liqueur to your mouth and drank and lowered the bottle and raised it again, you stood up, fell down, puked under the little, I remember, white table and I got you out of that stranger’s apartment.
I can’t wait to see how long you’ll stay, until you’re a character I can call up whenever and however I like, a character who no longer resists, with maybe other anecdotes left, letters, photos, a memory that warps itself, malleable, brightly colored, neutral-smelling like Play-Doh.
When I sense you won’t be coming back, I get up and open your window. Then the tiny door to the birdcage. I close your bedroom door from the outside, wondering how long a budgie can survive in the city. In the kitchen, I throw the feed, the seeds, the sand in the trash.
I sit down and drink coffee with cardamom. Your feet that were once in the desert, your laugh that you laughed into the Nile, your beard that you brought back from Syria.
Sunday morning and I carry, lug, drag all your stuff and your furniture into the hallway, then I sit down at the kitchen table you bought, but your parents have to prove that first, and drink eight cups of coffee until the doorbell rings at last.
Would you be so kind as to carry the desk and the sofa downstairs with me, your father asks.
Which sofa, I ask.
The green one, says your father, we gave it him for his sixteenth, we’d like to take it back with us.
It’s not even forty minutes until we’re done and your parents walk around the apartment with nervous eyes, their last chance not to lose any memories. They take everything they can allocate to you, the empty cage, the bed, the shelves, all the books and the music. In the kitchen, the plates that were once your mother’s, she says, when she was a student. I just sit there and drink more and more coffee, I sit and tremble and your mother keeps coming in the kitchen and stirring up the air with some object or other—what a puppet show—and I just nod and sweat.
Later I find the half-used roll of toilet paper that was next to your pillow on the floor next to the toilet; apart from that, they took everything of yours. Outside the house, a rental van that swallows up all your stuff.
Please take the orange marmalade too, that’s his too, I say, I can’t eat it, I can’t stand that bittersweet junk.
They shake my hand and nod. I hear their footsteps in the stairwell. I’ll never say another word to your parents. Through the open window in the kitchen, I hear the engine starting and then it’s quiet, the apartment humming. The radiators, the fridge, the blood in my ears, a knocking in my belly. The room an empty gap. Gaps everywhere: between the mugs and the towels, on the shoe rack, on the DVD shelves, they took everything, everything and left nothing here, not forty euros either, just the half-used roll of toilet paper and your tobacco. In the middle of the kitchen table; your parents had no idea. There’s not a single photo of you with a cigarette. I’ve looked through everything I own, not a single picture of us that might give anything away, not a single picture with a cigarette. You were real careful about that, too. Thirty-six years old and your parents weren’t allowed to know that you smoke a cigarette after breakfast and sometimes ten or more at night when you’ve been drinking.
Forty euros, I think, forty euros that have just disappeared off the face of the earth, that just don’t exist any more because you don’t exist anymore, that no one cares about anymore. Forty euros, who’s gonna give me them back? Who’s gonna make up for my loss?
Drum, it says on the tobacco packet. In German you pronounce it with a short u and it means that’s why, like everything had a reason. Its yawning mouth has been gaping in the middle of the kitchen table for weeks, the tobacco dry and crumbly. When I put my hand in the mouth and rub it between my fingers it disintegrates to coarse dust. Halfzware Shag, it says and to be honest I have no idea how to pronounce that or what it means. I don’t understand it and I keep repeating it out loud: Halfzware Shag, Halfzware Shag, Halfzware Shag, Halfzware Shag.
That’s why, like everything had a reason.
The cigarette papers are thinner than the pages in the Gideon Bible. You’d make jokes about my thick fingers that can’t get the paper rolled in on itself. If I hold the cigarette at the slightest slant the tobacco comes trickling right out, half the cigarette trickles out. I fold up a tobacco sausage and stick it together with a lot of spit, the filter loose. Then I smoke it, even though I never smoke, but what else am I supposed to do with your tobacco?
How much is a pack like this worth? Maybe four euros; it’s still almost half full. Thirty-eight euros, I think, and I inhale and cough and the filter gets stuck between my lips and I remember how you hated it when that happened to you, how you’d groan, put out the cigarette and instantly roll a new one. I always asked myself—never you—why you didn’t just stick the filter back in the cigarette and keep on smoking. As if the cigarette was unusable, I thought, sick and lost. And I try it out and find out instantly: you can’t do it, it just doesn’t work. In my head, I hear myself saying: you see, you can find answers, maybe answers you’d never have found otherwise, who knows. I put out the cigarette and roll myself a new one, which is no better than the first one but this time I hold the filter firmly between my forefinger and thumb, you can find a solution for every problem, and I smoke.
I wake up cold, lying outstretched on the floor of your completely empty room. It’s already light outside, of course, that’s the way summer is, the birds screeching as if that was what life was for, screeching and whistling and warbling.
The children next door woke me with their banging and screaming and I think: How can that be? Why didn’t I even know that, didn’t ever hear anything, why did you never tell me that? If I was you I’d have complained, I’d have cursed those children every day, their noise, it’s maybe six in the morning and the children are screaming and making noise as if they were birds, as if life was for being loud in the morning and making noise. Did it really never bother you? Or why didn’t you ever say anything? It’s not normal.
We’d got a handle on things, we’d sorted everything out. I made a real effort so it worked out, I’d have listened to you, screaming children from the apartment next to your room, that’s no big deal, that’s something you just mention at the breakfast table, just in passing. Like friends, you can share that kind of thing, it was fine, I’d got the message. I didn’t come chasing after you any more, not one bit. I would have just got annoyed along with you and planned revenge, hated children, out of friendship, just friendship, there was nothing more than that any more. I’d have been up for intimidation tactics, stabbed toys, cut jump ropes, ketchup through the mail slot in the front door, water bombs from the balcony over the back yard. We’d have spread fear and loathing, at least in our minds; they deserve some kind of punishment. If none of it had helped: cookies laced with sleeping pills. Abduction, hot cocoa laced with arsenic.
You walk, I walk. You’ve never been here, I’ve never been here. You turn your head like a baby chick, I turn my head like a baby chick. Your excited glances, my excited glances. You stop, I stop. You look at me, I look at you. You compose yourself, I compose myself. You with all the time in the world, me with all the time in the world. You don’t say a word, I don’t say a word. You breathe, I breathe. You get it and I get it. You walk on, I walk on. We turn our heads.
I close my eyes and there are the remains of a dream, of you standing on a stretch of wasteland, between rubble and stinging nettles, picking raspberries out of a hedge and sticking them in your fruit-red mouth. And then there’s suddenly this woman with a big rock in her hand, so big you wonder how she can lift it up so high above your head with her skinny little arms. And when she hits you on the back of the head with it and you fall to the ground and she kneels over you and slams the rock against your skull again, over and over on your fruit-red skull, I think, that’s just the way it is, you didn’t treat people all that differently either, poetic justice. You were an asshole, plenty of times. You’re not such a great loss for humanity, if you even are lost and not sitting on some tropical island grinning and whistling out of tune and not giving a shit about the people there.
Through the window from the bed, I stare at the wall of the building opposite, two open windows at the very top where someone has hung their bed covers out to air. It looks like two yawning mouths, building mouths, hanging the sweaty tongues of the night out in the morning. Who still does that, I think, maybe some ancient old lady. And I actually say it half out loud, which makes no sense, murmur old-fashioned between your bare walls, not meaning anything, anyone. That’s how missing you comes into the world, on an empty day, just like that.
girls in skirts
Like vacuuming. Washing dishes, taking the trash out, shopping, doing the simple things, helping yourself, accepting the days.
What do I do with your mail? Who’ll cancel your newspaper subscription?
Bread, milk, sugar, cereal, apples, because life goes on, of course. Picking up the thread. Outside the front door, light and girls in skirts and markets and organic vegetables and men in the prime of life with beer and music out of open car windows and school kids with slushies and trading cards and flickering heat above the sidewalk and a very slight summer breeze in the trees. And what else? I can go out on the street, among people, and no one can tell that last night almost knocked me down.
A heart—that’s three hundred grams, five liters of blood a minute, a hundred thousand joules of work per day. A three-hundred-gram muscle like a hundred thousand others walking around town pumping. One more or less makes no difference. Anyone who says it does is queer.
On your windowsill: two dead flies and a couple of ladybugs. I sweep them into a pile, black and red husks, dry, light and dead, and I think: what is actually substantial?
That I’m naked. That I want something. I still want. And that’s a substantial thing. I can’t see anything yet, but I can see past you to some extent.
I just forget everything, your snoring, the beer, the music, and your dick; I forget your face.
I forget the plan to build the perfect tree house, one day. With a spiral staircase around the trunk and old windows as a roof. I forget the time when we meant to build ourselves a den somewhere, at the top of a big old tree. Oak would be best, two rooms, sofa on the roof terrace, at least five meters high above everyone else, cut off from the ground. To be together up there, with no interruptions or secrets, no anything, no fucking lies, no fucking separation.
Dreams don’t burst at all. Dreams aren’t soap bubbles that go plop and leave a milliliter of moisture on the ground and an inaudible sound and nothing else. Dreams die miserable deaths, slowly and over and over from the beginning. You can’t blow them along in the air ahead of you and pop them with your finger.
My cigarettes are getting better, without you ever explaining anything.
I’m standing by the open window in my underpants, eating an ice cream. I’m sweating; on the radio they say: hottest day of the year, ninety-eight degrees. No wind, a couple of tired clouds and a shitty blue, ocean blue, you’d probably call it: a mint green summer’s day. Not even cars are moving, just standing around like sleeping bumblebees, completely empty.
Between the brochures, flyers, gratis ad sheets, is a letter from my mother. She’s sent an announcement your parents made, cut out of our village newspaper. Your name in big black letters, like it’s always done, your loving parents.
Their love. Which you had nothing to do with, which hardly knew you. But what do I know, you’re gone and you’re probably not smoking a shisha in Yemen or drinking coconut milk on an island beach, you’re probably floating in some canal, swollen, pale and gnawed at, or you’re decaying in a pine copse, a couple of meters from some highway rest stop. You’re gone, for whatever reason, that’s what you get for your greed, your politeness, your ocean-blue, mint-green eyes, what do I know.
What do I do now with your room, this apartment? Do I look for a new roommate or give up the apartment? Do I build a tree house without you? Your lighter’s empty. I’m going to go into town and buy a new one. Maybe tobacco, a lighter brand. I listen to the radio, all day long, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in my room, the same station everywhere, so I can walk around the whole apartment and not hear the humming. What’s appropriate? What’s exaggerated? I don’t know yet, nothing.
Above the roofs, a yellow crane revolves at a shitty slow speed, like a trained stork, moves things from here to there, a dumb yellow here and there mover. And in the evening a man climbs out of the brain and down the ladder.
“Du drehst den Kopf, ich dreh den Kopf” © Finn-Ole Heinrich. By arrangement with mairisch Verlag. Translation © 2015 by Katy Derbyshire. All rights reserved.