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from the October 2003 issue

Berlin Bolero

"What a slimeball!" She pressed the glass against her cheek again. "And you go along with him. All this time you've been so stubborn. Then somebody like him comes along and . . . I just don't get it!"

Robert spread his fingers. He wasn't sure he would even feel the wart if it didn't rub against his middle finger. At first it had felt like a scab, now it was more like a crumb of toast.

"Four weeks at the most," he said, and glanced up briefly. She was still leaning against the windowsill in her dark blue bathrobe, her right arm under her breasts, her left elbow resting in her right hand. "If they keep to the schedule, two, two more weeks."

"So unsavory." She sipped at her brandy. The welt on her cheek was gradually fading. "I don't understand how you could do such a thing, I just don't understand it."

What was left of the brandy sloshed back and forth in the glass, like the waves in that cube he picked up each time he handed over his insurance card at the dentist: A white sailboat on enormous blue waves, always staying afloat, always with the wind in its sails, even if he turned the cube upside down. He interlaced his fingers. "We've already made it through ninety-six weeks. And now just two more . . ."

"A shitty ninety-six weeks!" She screwed her eyes shut and opened her mouth. The glass was empty. "All for nothing . . ."

"It was not ninety-six shitty weeks, Doro, it wasn't . . ."

"Not only shitty, it was . . . What do you call it, then, when the hallway turns into a hangout for bums who don't even bother to turn their backs when they pee, when the clothes in the closet are filthy because they're drilling first through one wall, then through another, there's never any light because this shitty tarp is hanging in front of the window, and then I'm supposed to be happy because it's only a tarp and not some shitty creep crouching in front of the window giving me the finger."


"Oh, Robert, where have you been living?"

"Who did that? Would you recognize him again?"

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I'm well aware of what I'm saying." He stood up. But the way she looked at him--he didn't want to stand there in front of her without being able to touch her. The dark yellow light of the CD player startled him.

"You may be aware of what you're saying, but you don't know what you're talking about. You usually show a little more common sense." She rolled the empty glass between her palms as she walked over to him.

"Doro," he said. "This dreck . . ." He had kept count. This new glassful, filled to the brim, made two more.

She knelt down, her hands propped against the coffee table, and slurped up the brandy. A strand of her hair trailed over the rim of the snifter. "It's not so bad, this dreck from your slimeball friend, from your bud-dy." She held on to the armchair as she stood. He didn't want to reproach her. He wanted this moment to fit into their life like all the other moments up to now. They should be able to think back on any given hour, without regretting anything.

"Bud-dy," she repeated, and tried to drink as she walked.

If Robert were going to reproach the man for anything, it would be for showing up with this bottle. Neither of them drank hard liquor. He should have thought of that.

"Your bud-dy."

"Just two more weeks," Robert said, looking at his hands and his bare feet. Would he recognize his feet, going by his feet alone? His hands, absolutely. Ever since he had begun trimming his cuticles his hands had become very familiar to him. "Everything's been clear from the very beginning."

"From the beginning!" She jerked around. Then she said quietly, "Every week, they have to offer more, always more, week after week--it's gone sky-high, totally sky-high. And you say we talked about it. None of you from the East will ever get it."

"Come on, sit down."

"I thought you were clever, that you were just leading them on, and in the end--" She balled up her fist. Her forehead was beaded with sweat, her upper lip as well.

"When all of this is over . . ." He looked at her, wanted to keep talking. Once they could look out from their bed again at the TV Tower, the blinking light, their star, and see the magpies on the antenna and the chimney opposite and, mornings, the shadows make their way down the building until the balconies fleetingly cast dark pennants, little flags, as if the wind were coming from Friedrichshain. Robert saw the ivy with its octopus arms, the bicycles in the courtyard . . . . She laughed.

"I didn't go through this for two years only to say, Thanks so much! It looks really great, lovely stairwell, nice paint job!"

"Not so loud!"

"You're such a fool! Where do you think he came up with that figure . . . one hundred and eighty thousand, exactly twenty thousand more! You could have demanded two hundred. Two . . ." she wrote the figures in the air with her free hand, "and five zeroes. Did he show you anything, any scrap of paper, that said the apartment belongs to him?"

The light on the CD player disturbed Robert, as if someone were lurking behind the armchair. Each week he took a classical CD from the blue ten-pack that Dorothea had given him as a gift--ten CDs for eighty-eight marks. He knew most of the composers by name, but he had to learn the titles and conductors and orchestras, just as he once had learned Russian vocabulary at the socialist school. He couldn't remember which CD he had played last.

"You at least could have asked me, before you so generously declined his offer--as if I didn't even exist. Air, nothing but air . . ." She turned suddenly, went into the hallway, swung her arm around, the glass between her fingertips. Then she put it down hard on the telephone table. He was behind her in a few steps. "I'm not going to run out on you!" she cried, without turning around, spreading out her arms as if to balance herself. "You chump, you're such a damned chump!"

"Doro," he whispered. "The children."

"I've gotta go!" She closed the bathroom door behind her. His arms sank to his sides. Back in the living room, he sat down on the sofa, in the same spot where a semicircular indentation marked the place he had just stood up from.

By the time she came back into the room he would have to figure out how the evening would proceed, how they would get to bed and to sleep. Once they were in bed the worst would be over.

He followed the advice from a book he was reading during breaks at work: live in "time-proof segments." He had only to get Doro and himself through this evening, through this night.

He trusted the morning, the half hour in the kitchen after he had dressed the kids and Dorothea came in and he poured milk in her coffee. When he left the house with the children, the dishes were already in the dishwasher.

He had worked on the apartment for two and a half years, first the central heating and electricity, then each room, one after the other, sanding the floors, restoring the windows. With each plug, each bolt, each freshly-painted doorframe he had felt more secure. But it was the boys who made him feel most secure. When Dorothea invited her university crowd over and gave them a tour of the apartment and when he would appear in the living room with the boys in his arms for their goodnight kiss, and Dorothea would say, "Here they are, my three men!"--at that moment nobody had it better than him, at least nobody he knew.

Robert had trained as a carpenter and had moved from construction site to construction site for almost ten years. For three years he had installed heating systems, for a year and a half he'd delivered, schlepped, and assembled office furniture. For two and a half years now he'd been at the Magnum Catering Service. He had never been laid off. The companies had always gone bankrupt. Somebody like himself was never laid off, he'd bet any amount of money on that. There was always enough to do--well, then. And Dorothea? He'd never thought he had a chance with her and so had always just been himself. At thirty-one she became pregnant for the first time. He hadn't known that someone could study for that long. When she found work, when they let her do something or other for eight weeks or so, then it was for no pay. She would be so happy about it that each time he would assume she'd found something permanent. But she didn't need a permanent job. He took care of his family, he knew what was good for them. He didn't need any advice, particularly from these developer types.

The developers had invited them to a tenants' meeting, had stared hard at Dorothea and were astounded when they heard her speak. They hadn't expected to find a fellow Westerner here, in such an apartment. That's when he'd decided to fight for the apartment.

The lease had been taken out of the lockbox only once--for thirty minutes. That was the time it took him to get to the copy center on Greifswalder, where he could get a discount using Dorothea's card. He had to be careful not to lose the original during the numerous transfers he had to make or to put even one crease in the paper it was printed on.

He heard the toilet flush and suddenly didn't know whether he should get up or not. Dorothea was prepared by now, had laid out her argument. All he could do was to repeat that in two weeks . . . when the tarp came down, and the scaffolding . . . to see the sky again after ninety-eight weeks would be a day of celebration, of victory . . . but for the first time he felt no joy at this.

For the first six months nothing had happened. Then a notice went up that there was an increased danger of break-ins due to the scaffolding. He bought pepper spray and put a can in every room. And then the tarpaulin. There had never been talk of a tarpaulin. For ten months now they had sweltered behind it, without even once seeing a construction worker. "They're parboiling us," Dorothea had said. He told everybody, "If no one moves out, there's not a thing they can do."

When the onslaught finally started, the developers rang their doorbell every week, and in the end showed up at the door every day. He didn't want any changes made. He didn't need to have a bad experience in order to know what was good. He was in his place and wasn't ever planning to leave it.

"Shouldn't we at least look at another apartment? Just look, I mean."

He had said to Dorothea, "What is it you don't like about our apartment? What are you lacking? What have I overlooked? What do you want that you don't have? Well then."

These developer types crept in like dust, and there was no damp mop that could deal with that. He didn't want the water heater moved from the kitchen to the bath, he didn't want regional district heating, he heated with coal, he could depend on it--come electrical outage or war. He had even leased a second cellar space and had briquettes delivered, as a backup. And candles, so many they could have opened a shop.

These developers didn't know how to do anything other than to throw money around, and when that didn't work, more money and still more money. He knew what he was doing. They were the ones who were behaving badly, who lost their tempers and accused him of all kinds of things. He couldn't care less where they blew in from or whether the chief architect lived in Neukölln or Hellersdorf. He only knew that the money would destroy his family and that they couldn't give up the apartment. They had to stand the test. And he would help Dorothea to remain strong.

This most recent visitor had realized that, and this evening had shoved his card under the door. He was thirty at the most, even though he had so little hair on his head that you couldn't see his part for his shiny scalp. "Someone who's held out for this long isn't going to move. They're playing a game of poker with you. And they'll put me off to the very end." Robert, listening to him, found he liked the guy's familiar Lausitz dialect.

"I bought the apartment, yours here, but empty. Those guys from over there"--he meant the construction firm--"say it's only a question of money, in terms of when you move out. But I don't believe that anymore. I want my money back, a reverse transaction, you understand? I've waited for two years. They'll put me off to the absolute end."

Finally, someone got it. They were never going to move out, not even for 180,000. Why shouldn't Robert put this in writing? That way the developers would get it, too.

When Dorothea came home his visitor was just leaving. The man turned red, beamed, and, wanting to make a joke, had rung Doro's bicycle bell.

"Have you considered--" Robert, startled, came to, "how long you'd have to work to make that much money? Six years, seven years." She didn't look at him, not even when she was talking to him, and held her bathrobe at the collar, as if she were freezing. "Two hundred thousand, a two and five zeroes, we never discussed that--never that."

He felt his eyes flickering, but didn't say anything. He knew it, he, the chump, knew it only too well.

"I thought the lot of you had finally figured out how it works," she said, "but you have no idea."

He looked up. Dorothea was leaning with her shoulder against the wall.

"You know . . ." Her head moved as if she were following a melody. Robert had seen her drunk only once, before the children were born. She had bawled all the way home, kicking out at him. He had had to pull her along behind him like some obstinate dog. Luckily there was practically no one on the street. If he had left her there she would have frozen to death. She should remember that. Often she came home late, sometimes very late. But by morning, in the kitchen, everything was all right again.

"You know . . ." She let go of the robe, slid along the wall to the door, and staggered out of the room.

He followed her into the hall. The lavatory door slammed shut, the light went on, the toilet lid banged against the wall. She threw up and immediately flushed the toilet.

It was like a scene from a TV show, where characters briefly appear, say something, and disappear again, and the others look at each other helplessly as the laugh track comes in and the characters join in the laughter. That was usually the end of the show, or a commercial break.

As the flushing sound faded he heard her. The door wasn't locked.

He wasn't disturbed by her yelling, or by the hand she waved at him, trying to shoo him away. She must know that wouldn't work with him. He pushed her a little to one side, put his left arm around her and pressed her against his hip. She bent over the bowl again, vomited, coughed, spit. He held her forehead with his right hand. Her robe had fallen open, the cord rested on his toes. A thread of saliva hung down into the toilet bowl. Most of it was yellow, with bits of brownish mucus swimming around in it.

He talked to her quietly and calmly, while she plucked at the thread as if it were a string, and then threw up again. He lifted her forehead a bit and pulled the chain to flush. "Don't worry," he said. "It's all right, Doro, it's all right." Gradually the world righted itself again. If he had to, he'd stay here until morning, no question about it. As long as he could feel her forehead in his hand, nothing bad could happen.

Actually, everything had happened as it should, and his decision was final. He had done everything right. He felt like the sailboat on the blue waves, always sailing with the wind. And even this high-proof brandy, this thoughtless gift, even it had served its purpose. How else could they have made it to the next morning, without the brandy, without Dorothea's forehead resting in his hand. He was thankful to the man, this character with his shiny scalp, truly thankful. He'd even hold his forehead if he were vomiting. He would do that, regardless of what she had said.

Robert now knew how he would get her through this evening, through this night.

When this was over, he mustn't forget to turn off the CD player. Then he would finally know which CD he had heard last. The alarm was set. He let her talk.

He pushed the hair back from her neck with his left hand. That must feel to her like stroking. She couldn't stand on her own. Her forehead was damp and warm. Or was that his hand? Was what he felt his right hand or her forehead? He moved forward a little, so that he could press his elbows against his ribs. He would see it through. He just had to change sides and take her forehead in his other hand. "You have to throw it all up," he interrupted her, "all of it." Why didn't she just shut up?

Then it was nothing more than a twist of his left wrist, a gesture he knew from Dorothea when she put up her hair. For a moment he felt the full weight of her head. His right arm sank down as if it had lost all feeling. Even Robert was surprised by his quick grip, as if he were practiced in it. He felt the crumb of toast between his fingers, but her hair was wrapped around his left hand as wonderfully soft as silk. He kept pulling Dorothea's head back. Her face was directly under his. They looked at one another, sizing each other up until he realized that it was too late now, to just let her go. And so he saw, as she closed her eyes for a moment, that there was nothing left to do but kiss her open mouth.

Read more from the October 2003 issue
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