Authors: Lana N. May
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Lana N. May
Translation copyright © 2015 Terry Laster
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Previously published as
Gekommen, um zu gehen
by Amazon Publishing in Germany in 2015. Translated from German by Terry Laster.
First published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2015.
Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle.
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and AmazonCrossing are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Shasti O’Leary-Soudant
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
When a person doesn’t have anything to lose, they might just win it all; well, at least some of it. She had everything in front of her and yet so much behind. Her name was Johanna and her life was exceptionally unexceptional—until everything changed one late-autumn day.
Some people can walk into a room and magically change nearly everyone in it with their mere presence; they have the ability to charm anyone who’s had the fortune (or misfortune) to enter their world. It doesn’t matter whether they are short, tall, fat, thin, young, or old; few are immune to that special person’s spell. They possess a certain aura to which others are mysteriously attracted. Their slightest movements exude charisma, attracting attention with each bat of their lashes and with every seemingly insignificant twitch of the mouth. Their laugh is infectious, and their hapless victims are prone to getting caught up in these merry gales of laughter. Johanna didn’t belong to this rare breed, especially in these last few years when jokes and laughter were hard to come by. She had about as much magnetism as German chancellor Angela Merkel.
She was inconspicuous—almost as unobtrusive as a drop of water in a full bathtub—but she did possess a certain indefinable grace, even if it wasn’t always obvious. She was charming in her own way. She often laid in her small studio (which was long overdue for renovation) for days, staring at her crumbling white walls and rearranging countless books and magazines: bestsellers, scrapbooks, library books she hadn’t returned, and every magazine imaginable from 2000 to 2013. She’d open her nearly bare fridge, shut it, then go for a walk until dawn. She’d avoid going outside during the daytime so that she wouldn’t have to talk to anyone or answer questions about how she was doing and what she was up to. She wouldn’t have to hear them say things like, “Long time no see” or answer dumb questions that only fed their morbid curiosity. She couldn’t answer their questions anyway because, well, what
she do all day long? Well, she hung around, unmotivated, cursing the damned day, drinking black coffee because she almost never had milk at home, even though she didn’t like it black. She worked a few hours a day for a call center, invisible to her virtual colleagues. Her only joy was going to visit her grandmother, who loved her dearly, but after a while, she didn’t even want to do that, for reasons that were unknown to her. She didn’t understand herself anymore; how could she love someone when she couldn’t even love herself?
The fog hung low and thick over the street. It was the middle of autumn as Johanna set off to visit her grandmother at the nursing home. It wasn’t cold, but the breeze hinted that summer was over. It was time for people to pack up their summer clothes, wean themselves from beloved, frayed flip-flops, forget balmy summer nights, and put away the Aperol they used for spritz cocktails on warm July and August nights. It was time to organize photos of the vacation in Capri, put them in a folder and label them “Last Summer’s Vacation”—or, in time-honored fashion, let them go until the frigid winter days, when the sight of turquoise salt water would be warming and exotic. It was time to savor a roaring fireplace and the wonderful red, yellow, and gold autumn days. It was time to pull out wool sweaters from the deepest recesses of the closet, checking them to see whether they still fit and were still fashionable.
Johanna made a habit of visiting her grandmother every other day. Grandmother wouldn’t live much longer, and, for Johanna, the visits weren’t just her granddaughterly duty but were almost as important as breathing. She needed her grandmother; before the nursing home, they had lived together, ever since Johanna’s parents had died in a car accident when she was fifteen. When the tragedy struck, Johanna had been stinking drunk with friends on her way to a disco. She’d never liked discos, but other entertainment options in the boonies were practically nonexistent. She’d stopped talking about her parents since their death. She was different now, as if her heart and her mind had exchanged places. Johanna realized that she simply couldn’t escape from the black hole of her grief. The accident was ripping her apart a little more each and every day.
On this autumn day, she simply sat and stared at her grandmother, whom she rarely touched anymore. Hours elapsed. Sometimes the old lady would snort, distend her belly, and gasp something unintelligible. That’s how she thought of her now—“the old lady”—trying to distance herself from the woman’s imminent death; before, she’d always been “Oma.” Johanna read a few pages from a book, glanced up, and lowered her head again. She recognized the snorting, the muttering, and the labored breathing, and it didn’t bother her. Well, it had at first, but she was used to it now. Before she left, she fluffed the old lady’s pillow, kissed her forehead, and walked out without even saying good-bye. She slowly descended the stairs to the foyer.
When Johanna entered the large common area, the elderly residents looked up from their books, board games, and gossip rags, putting down their coffee cups, laying down their dessert forks. Some examined Johanna, mouths open, lips sprinkled with cake crumbs; others put on their old horn-rimmed glasses in order to get a better look. They stared until she disappeared through the door. Though the old folks probably would have been delighted to regale her with their life stories, Johanna couldn’t have been less interested. A lot of them would have loved to know more about this regular visitor, but she never revealed anything about herself. She came every other day, hurried up to her grandmother’s room, and sat for a while. Then she disappeared again, never giving anyone the opportunity to speak to her. Ever.
Back in her building, Johanna unlocked her door. Her sparsely furnished apartment possessed no hint of frivolity. There were no photos to catch the eye, no rugs to warm cold feet, no lovely fragrances to delight the nose. Sober and cool, just like Johanna. She went to the fridge, opened it, and took out a small box of orange juice. Today was lucky—she’d found some juice boxes at the discount supermarket. The boxes weren’t chilled yet. She’d go grocery shopping one of these days, when she was in the mood.
She got cold a lot. When that happened, she’d lie down on the couch under the thick brown blanket, a relic from her childhood; the cheap couch’s uncomfortable metal springs bored into her butt each time. Sometimes she’d turn on the television. She didn’t own a huge flat-screen, just an ancient small TV. It was 24” × 20” × 18”—fully functional without high-definition, 3-D, or any of that other new garbage. Sometimes she’d leaf through a book or magazine she’d already read. She felt alternately listless, then hyperactive, as if she didn’t know what to do or, more likely, what she wanted to do. She’d never been able to conjure up a purpose in life, but not just for herself. She couldn’t see anyone’s purpose in life: the nosy bus drivers, the salespeople, the mail carriers, her grandmother.
Thomas was good-looking, very good-looking. He worked for a large company that belonged to his uncle and partly to his mother, though she wasn’t much more than a passive shareholder. At the main entrance, a large sign announced “Lehmann & Partners”; the janitors always kept it well polished. Thomas had studied computer science, and for the last three years he’d been the head of the data-processing department. Internal surveys indicated his management skills were above average. This was also reflected in the appreciation he got from his staff—not too bad for a young man of thirty. He owned a nice condo, a real gem in a great location; and of course, he also owned all the latest high-tech equipment, including a flat-screen HD 3-D TV, which he traded in annually for a newer and larger model. Money was no object. His place was better equipped than many of Vienna’s computer and home-entertainment stores.
Thomas was definitely the charismatic type, with a shock of dark hair and dark-brown eyes. His complexion suggested that he spent a good deal of time outdoors or, at the very least, sailed on the Mediterranean or off the coast of Croatia during summer vacations. He usually wore jeans and a T-shirt, showing off an athletic build that instantly betrayed his passion for exercise. “Most IT people are such nerds, but you’re different,” his girlfriend, Clarissa, had said when she first met him. They’d been together for more than two years now. She’d recently moved into his place in Vienna’s Fourth District, right near the Naschmarkt, the city’s famous open-air market. He’d decided to buy the condo as an investment, since the economic crisis had lowered interest rates so much that traditional savings models were untenable.
Clarissa traveled a lot for her work as a model. She had met Thomas at a birthday party thrown by her friend Martin. Thomas had immediately intrigued her. She had been very coy, but less than a month later, they ended up in bed and, from that point on, were inseparable. She was a rarity in this age of bottled blondes: a natural blonde with long, wavy hair—not kinky, just nice, smooth waves. If her hairdresser cut one wave wrong, it took hours to make it right. She’d been a travel agent when a model scout approached her on the street. At the tender age of seventeen she was in the midst of selling vacation packages, when her Gisele Bündchen–fairy-tale career took off.
Clarissa was anything but a wallflower; she knew how to party, but she also knew mornings came all too soon and that vodka had fewer calories than wine. In the modeling industry, you had to pay attention to things like that.
Thomas liked to party, too. Lately, though, he’d been somewhat less enthusiastic; he liked feeling rested enough in the morning to get in a good run. Today, he’d run to the city center, where he did a few wind sprints as he thought about Clarissa and his life. Lately, he’d been thinking a lot.
“Hey, sweetheart, what’s going on?” Clarissa asked when he got home from work, as she slowly put her hands down his pants and lightly nibbled his lips.
“I’m tired, Clarissa. Today was really hard.”
“Ooo, we’d better make love then.”
She knew how to cast a spell over Thomas; resistance was futile. Thomas felt better, even though the postcoital pillow talk wasn’t the most romantic. But it did the trick and eased the internal tension he’d felt for days. Clarissa brushed her hair, put on her black lace bra, and lay down to wriggle back into her gartered silk stockings.
“Know what? We should go to Julia’s tomorrow. It’ll be fun,” she said as she carefully applied red lipstick.
Her face was very expressive, and she was even more stunning when she wore red lipstick. She spent a good deal of time in the morning on her makeup routine. Not only did she know the top beauty experts, at least the German and English ones, she knew all their beauty secrets. She was fond of makeup, perfume, and designer clothing—so much so that her closet threatened to burst. She often took clothes as payment for modeling jobs instead of cash.
“I don’t know. The party at Julia’s isn’t going to be that great,” answered Thomas.
“But we haven’t gone out in so long.”
“What about last Saturday? That was only a week ago.”
“Well, I’m definitely going—with or without you,” she snorted on her way out of the room. “I’m off to meet Katrin. Bye! Think about it! You might change your mind.” She smiled broadly, showing her bleached teeth.
He collapsed onto the big beige sofa they’d bought a month ago. They also had a new bed, a new flat-screen, a newly renovated kitchen, and a fancy new toilet. When Clarissa had moved in, she’d wanted to change everything. Thomas had held his ground on a few things, but as always, he gave in to most of her requests.
When her grandmother died, Johanna went to the nursing home one last time. On her way upstairs, she noticed the overwhelming smell of roasted nuts, plums, and vanilla, which seemed to emanate from an old lady struggling behind her walker. She was so engrossed in arriving at her destination that she didn’t even notice Johanna. The sweet old thing had put on way too much perfume, probably forgetting that she’d already sprayed it behind her ears and on her wrists.
Her grandmother’s body wasn’t in her room, so Johanna sat down in the visitor’s chair and stared at the empty hospital bed. There was a slight outline of her grandmother’s body on the sheets; it was evident the staff had just taken her away. A tear ran down Johanna’s cheek, then a second, then a third. Then the floodgates opened and she wept bitterly. She could hardly wrap her mind around it. Instead of death, the room smelled like eucalyptus spray, which Johanna had brought her grandmother a few weeks earlier. The half-full container had at least three more weeks of spray left. Couldn’t her grandmother have lived three more measly weeks? Johanna felt numb, and at the same time, she thought or hoped her grandmother would walk in the room at any moment and say, “My sweetheart, Johanna . . .” But that wasn’t going to happen again. Johanna stood and opened the large suitcase she’d brought for her grandmother’s things. She felt compelled to clean out the room right away. “Take your time; nobody’s signed up to move into this room right now,” a nursing home staff member had assured her. But Johanna didn’t want to waste any time; she wanted to put this all behind her as quickly as possible. Suddenly, though, she found she couldn’t do it. When she picked up her grandmother’s shoes, she collapsed.
Despite his misgivings, Thomas finally agreed to go to the party.
Clarissa sighed. “I wish I’d worn a different dress. I wore this one only because you told me to, but it doesn’t fit right. Look, it doesn’t do a thing for me!”
“You look beautiful, Clarissa. I don’t even know what you’re talking about. You look stunning. You’ll be the center of attention like always, you’ll see.” Thomas tried to calm her down and took her hand. The taxi driver nodded in affirmation and stole glances at her in the rearview mirror.
When she got out at Julia’s doorstep, Clarissa smiled and said, “Oh, you’re probably right. Would you mind paying the driver, please?”
Thomas paid the fifteen-euro fare, added a generous tip, and then followed Clarissa into the elevator to the top floor. Julia welcomed the two warmly: Thomas with a nod and Clarissa with breathy kisses on both cheeks.
“You’re finally here! We’ve been waiting for you. I thought you’d never come,” Julia said with annoyance.
“As usual, Thomas had to work late. You know how it is.”
“Well, actually, Clarissa had to . . .” Thomas began to explain, but the women had already disappeared into the kitchen to make vodka tonics.
“Thomas, the beer is in the fridge,” Julia announced when she reemerged.
Furnished like a place in a lifestyle magazine, the apartment was a bit too extravagant for Thomas’s taste, but that was Julia: too much makeup, too many shoes, too many purses, too much jewelry, and an apartment that intimidated everyone who entered. The women, mostly Clarissa’s modeling friends, were generally in the majority at Julia’s parties, which didn’t bother the male guests one bit. Later that evening, they would all get cheerfully drunk, dancing barefoot on the tables, tossing back vodka, champagne, or whatever was available. The single men inevitably hit on the girls, or at least tried to, seduced by the short skirts and dresses exposing their fishnet-stockinged legs. The girls feigned disinterest, an effective ploy. Though these parties weren’t 100 percent compulsory for him, Thomas went to pacify Clarissa. He was disappointed to find that his best friend, Martin, wasn’t there this time. His grandmother had died, so he’d had to go back home, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Thomas didn’t know exactly where, though, because Martin was reluctant to talk about his hometown.
Johanna stayed awake the whole night thinking about her grandmother. She thought about the good old days when her parents were still alive. She thought about her brother, who she hadn’t seen in more than four months. She felt awful, really awful, about referring to her grandmother as “the old lady.” Martin, her only brother, had moved away after their parents’ death. He was older and could do whatever he wanted. He didn’t seem to have a problem getting over what happened, as if their parents had only been in a fender bender. He had an apartment in Vienna, but Johanna had never visited him. She often wished that it had been her sitting in that car instead of her parents. Empty. Quiet. Numb. She wished she were dead so she didn’t have to think or feel anything. Once, she decided, in all seriousness, to end it all. She longed to be enveloped by the sweet fog of death, but she couldn’t bring herself to do the deed. She was afraid, afraid of the unknown. Sometime in the future, she thought, she would be brave enough not to put the bottle of sleeping pills away.
Johanna stared at the remnants of squashed mosquitoes on the ceiling. Last summer, mosquitoes had plagued her apartment. A surprise flood had overwhelmed the town, followed by intense summer heat, which brought an infestation.
The tiny beasts have such a short life expectancy
, Johanna thought as she counted the sixth bloodstain above her.
Why do they need so much blood?
She had read somewhere that only the female mosquitoes buzzed and that they were a lot bigger than their male counterparts. Johanna fixed her attention on the partially smeared stains until she fell asleep.
The next morning, she didn’t feel any better. Her feet felt leaden, her neck and shoulders ached, and her head felt like it was about to burst. The pressure in her head was particularly strange. It crept slowly up her spine, then to her neck, then to the back of her head, and then lodged in her forehead. As this was happening, it started to rain. A light drumming turned into an enormous roar, which pounded on the leaves of the maple tree right outside her window. She had to get up. She couldn’t stay here any longer. She had to go to the funeral.
At the funeral, Martin came over and hugged Johanna.
“How are you holding up?” he asked worriedly as he scrutinized her.
She looked old and haggard; her skin was sallow and pale. There was no indication that she had spent the summer holidays with friends on the coast, having barbecues, drinking way too much sparkling wine. Instead, it looked as though she’d spent all summer working at the call center and reading books on the old couch in her apartment with barely enough food to keep her alive. She was so thin and wan; it didn’t suit her at all.
Martin pulled his gaze away. As he should have expected under the circumstances, Johanna didn’t say a word and turned away from him. The many condolences barely infiltrated her brain. “Dearest Johanna, I’m so sorry for your loss . . .” “First, it was your beloved parents and now your grandmother. If you need anything at all . . .” All the people seemed vague and unreal. There were only about fifteen mourners; so many of her grandmother’s friends had already died. They all whispered the standard compassionate words of consolation; it was like they’d said the same things so often lately that they knew them by heart.
The funeral ended, and all that remained was the memory of the woman who had meant so much to Johanna in recent years. How could anyone really understand the indescribable depths of her grief? The memory of her parents overwhelmed her. It was good that she still remembered them; it was terrifying to think that when someone dies all memory of them could fade until there was nothing left. Her brother ripped Johanna away from her thoughts.
“I know that you don’t want to talk to me, but I need to know what’s going on with you, Johanna. Are you alone? How about coming to Vienna with me?” Martin asked his sister.
Johanna stared at him, surprised.
“Come on, it will do you good. You need to leave this town behind, let go of your sadness, and start to live again. What have you been doing all year? Are you happy?” he asked, touching her hand lovingly.
Johanna remained mute.
The moving van pulled up in front of Martin’s apartment. Johanna’s brother had a beautiful three-room condo with a balcony overlooking a courtyard. He’d gotten lucky—an acquaintance had rented him the 650-square-foot home (750 square feet with the balcony), so he hadn’t had to pay any realtor fees. The bathroom had a tub. Johanna really liked that. She loved to take baths so she could submerge herself under the water. Martin showed Johanna her bedroom.
“We’ll put you in my old music room. It’s okay. I’ll practice in the living room. Don’t worry, though; I rarely practice these days,” he said as he opened the door.
He knew that when he practiced it got ear-piercingly loud. He often had problems with the neighbors, especially with Mrs. Sachs, who was supposedly hard of hearing but never missed an opportunity to complain to her neighbors about their real or imagined misdeeds.
Johanna’s new bedroom was small, with pale-yellow walls adorned with posters of the Rolling Stones. She could easily redecorate to her tastes after she took the posters down. Martin’s drum set stood in the middle of the room, and Johanna remembered when he began his eleven-year drum career and the unbearably loud clang of his cymbals. He’d been inspired to play when he saw a tattooed drummer in a movie who drank a lot of beer and had tons of groupies. He received his first drum set for Christmas in 1989.
“I’ll get all this stuff out of here right away.” Martin gestured to a laundry basket next to the drums that was filled to the brim with either clean or dirty clothes; Johanna wasn’t sure which. “Then we can bring in your bed and dresser.” He shoved a moving box toward the back corner. “This was the right decision, believe me.”
The next morning, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and croissants filled the apartment. It was filtered coffee, but not made with an expensive machine; Martin was proud of his old Italian stovetop espresso maker. But it was small and barely made enough for Martin. The noise from the kitchen awakened Johanna.
“Hey, Johanna, good morning,” he called out happily, juggling the hot croissants into the breadbasket. “I hope you’re hungry! I made a huge breakfast.”
Johanna smiled for the first time in a long time. She was glad to see her brother again. He seldom came back home to visit, and they didn’t talk much on the phone, as Martin didn’t like phones and always kept his calls short. Their sibling bond had weakened over the years, and an unspoken detachment had emerged between them.
“I just finished with the newspaper if you want it. There are a lot of job listings in it today.”
Johanna didn’t want to start working again so soon. She had saved a lot of money in the last few years since she hadn’t gone out much, seldom went to the salon, and didn’t buy expensive clothes. She also didn’t go on vacation—except the one time when she’d conjured up a little courage. She bit hungrily into the croissant. It was delicious.
“Thomas, did you hear that Marion and Michael got engaged?” Clarissa remarked pensively as she ran her fingers through Thomas’s hair.
“No, I didn’t know that. Wait, really?”
“But they haven’t been together for that long, have they?”
“No, exactly as long as we’ve been together—about two years.”
He let his hand wander tenderly under her panties and grabbed her butt. She moved away from him and threw back the black satin duvet.
“I like it when your hair is kind of messy, it’s just so sexy,” he noted, skillfully changing the subject as he leaned over to kiss Clarissa’s smooth skin, which had an almost imperceptible, fine, light-blue undertone, particularly on the untanned parts of her torso.
He enjoyed the sight of her lying next to him so provocatively, coiled up like a noble snake, her head resting on his arm. No longer satisfied with just looking, Thomas kissed her hard like men do when they want more than just a kiss. Clarissa knew this game and went along with it. She was a man’s dream come true—always up for a sexual adventure—and she played her role to the hilt on this cool autumn morning. This was their daily morning routine, at least most of the time. Sex defined their relationship. Great sex.
Johanna unpacked her suitcases. She hadn’t brought much, mainly clothes, but her wardrobe was pretty minimal: two pairs of black pants, two pairs of jeans, a few tops, a blouse, and a few thick sweaters, an absolute necessity for bitter-cold winters in the country. It had been a relief not to feel pressure to run around in silk stockings for the sake of beauty. In a small town, there was no shame in pulling on old, grandmotherly woolen legwarmers or wearing bulky sweaters instead of sexy, glittery purple tops—at least according to Johanna. For footwear she had a pair of black sneakers, brown boots, and classic low-heeled black shoes that she’d worn most recently to the funeral and, before that, to accompany her grandmother to a theater performance for her senior group two years ago. She carefully hung her clothes in the closet and put the shoes on the already overflowing shoe rack in the hall. Martin didn’t know the meaning of the words “order” and “system” in regard to his apartment. Johanna was determined to convince him to buy a proper shoe storage unit; a white one would fit perfectly in an empty corner of the hall. She began to stack her shoes on top of each other to make them fit.
Though Martin’s apartment was warm and inviting, the catch was that it was also ordinarily messy. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a large order from the Ikea catalog. The apartment had dark parquet floors, white curtains in every room, a wooden chest of drawers in the hall—an heirloom from their parents—and nice carpet in the bedrooms. But magazines cluttered the chest of drawers, dirty socks were strewn on the nice parquet floors, and there were stains on the carpet—probably small burn holes. The white curtains draped aside sloppily. Johanna felt the strange sensation of being comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time, and she couldn’t decide which feeling prevailed.
Martin had cleared out a few drawers in the bathroom, in which she stowed her hairbrush, toothbrush, makeup, and her favorite perfume, J’adore. She closed the drawer carefully. She really didn’t need all that space; one drawer would have been enough. Then she inspected Martin’s stuff: hair gel, an electric toothbrush, dental floss, and a tongue scrubber—or whatever it was called. She also found hairspray, a small cosmetics bag, a manual toothbrush, some women’s perfume, and other assorted items that, since Martin wasn’t gay or especially metrosexual, led her to conclude that he didn’t always sleep alone at night.
Martin didn’t say anything about a girlfriend.
On the other hand, they didn’t talk much about anything, so when would he have told her?
She left the bathroom and opened Martin’s bedroom door. Because Martin was at work, she was able to inspect the apartment freely. A spacious, queen-sized bed with a thick mattress like the ones they had in American hotels dominated the small room. She would have been only too happy to plop down on it. She’d always envied the teens from
with their huge American beds, but decided against testing out her brother’s because it didn’t seem conducive to easing their still-rusty brother/sister relationship. There was a walk-in closet at the far-right end of the room, which stirred her curiosity. She stepped inside but browsed only briefly, as the state of Martin’s underwear didn’t interest her.
Johanna went into the kitchen and found the variety of rosehip tea she liked. The red package was unopened, and she wondered whether Martin had bought it for her. Sitting down with the boiling-hot cup of tea, she considered heading over to the city center to take a walk, since she hadn’t been there since she was a child. She’d ordered a Vienna guidebook from Amazon, but it hadn’t arrived yet.
Thomas decided to go for a run. He kept a pair of sneakers in the employee locker room and often jogged during breaks at work. If he sat in front of the computer for too long, his butt started to feel numb and the urge to move his body became overwhelming. Sometimes, he would trade his comfortable leather chair for an ergonomic stool so that his spine remained straight, healthy, and free of disc problems. As department head, he had a flexible schedule, and as the nephew and son of the respective owners, he could afford to have a little fun. He loved the feeling of freedom that running brought. Relief and joy washed over him when he finished putting on his sneakers and started running slowly, his pulse rising ever higher, everything else falling away. Sometimes, his efforts were even rewarded with the indescribable ecstasy of the runner’s high.
Today, Thomas ran to the city center. Jogging around a corner, he accidentally collided with a young woman.
Annoyed, Thomas muttered, “Watch where you’re going,” and ran on.
He didn’t like being stopped unnecessarily—not by dead batteries in his MP3 player, not by red lights, not by bicycle riders, drivers, streetcars, or stupid people who didn’t watch where they were going. His goal was to run as far as possible without bumping into any obstacles. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work out that way.
Johanna’s foot hurt a little. She hadn’t seen the jogger. It seemed like there should be large signs warning you about how reckless people in the big city could be; perhaps it would be in the city guide.
That man was so outrageously rude; he ran right into me and then blamed me for it
she thought as she headed for a small supermarket she’d spotted from a distance.
She bought some chocolate, telling herself she was hungry. In truth, she wasn’t really; she just had a sweet tooth. As a child, she was never allowed to snack between meals, though her parents sometimes allowed a little dessert after dinner. Her grandmother had been more lenient, and she’d introduced Johanna to her love of Ritter Sport chocolate with almonds. It was the kind in the beautiful red package; she took one off the shelf. She would’ve been able to recognize the square bar by its smell alone—just holding the delicious chocolate made her feel much better. She put it in the cart.
It was interesting how, no matter whether you were in the country or the city, you could count on grocery stores being organized the same way. When you first stepped inside the market, you passed aisles of mostly green things. Then you worked your shopping cart in the direction of the sausage and cheese. Eventually, you landed in the delicatessen, where, out in the country, a friendly server standing behind a counter would greet you—usually someone you knew from school or maybe a distant relative or at least someone everyone was friendly with. In the city, the best you could expect was a smile from the deli employee. After a visit to the deli—with or without a friendly greeting and a little bit of gossip—you made it to the chocolate and candy aisle. It was usually the children’s favorite aisle, and it was definitely Johanna’s. Somewhere beyond it lay the least interesting stuff: hygiene products, prepackaged foods, rice, jars of sauce, pasta, and requisite ingredients like sugar and flour.
As a child, Johanna had loved the small store just around the corner from her family’s house. It was locally owned, a mom-and-pop operation, and you could choose your own candy from open bins. A piece here, another there, and so on. Unfortunately, the store had closed before her eighth birthday, and nothing could compare to it. The big chains had come to her small town, which wasn’t so small after all these years.
Though she’d resisted the idea of moving to Vienna at first, the change had done her good. Her zest for life was returning, along with her appetite and her desire to thank her brother for taking her in. She was also curious about Martin’s girlfriend. As Johanna faced the meat counter, she texted her brother,
I’m cooking tonight. Invite your girlfriend! Love, Johanna.
He texted back promptly,
I couldn’t hide the fact that I have a girlfriend from you ;-) We’d be delighted. Thank you.
Johanna grinned and searched for the ingredients to prepare lasagna. It was impossible to mess up as long as you didn’t overcook it, and most people loved lasagna. Hopefully, Martin’s girlfriend wasn’t a vegetarian, because that probably wouldn’t be the best way to start a friendship. Should she make dessert, too? She could whip up a yummy mascarpone cream with cooked plums, rum, and cinnamon. Feeling like the famous Austrian cook Johanna Maier, she swept up to the cash register and looked forward to the evening. She hadn’t cooked in a long time. As a child, she’d loved to stand next to her mother in the kitchen. Her mother was a passionate and talented cook, both essential traits for the creation of good food.
Back at Martin’s apartment, Johanna walked into the kitchen and froze. What if she’d forgotten how to cook? She took a deep breath and put on some Beatles, which reminded her of dancing with her mother in the kitchen. She couldn’t explain it, but the Beatles always soothed her and freed her mind. Today was no different; her mood lifted immediately and she threw herself into her cooking. Johanna carefully layered the sheets of lasagna noodles, spreading the meat and the béchamel sauce between them, in a large baking pan. Satisfied, she slid her work of art into the oven.
Martin arrived home punctually, an enchanting young platinum-blonde woman in tow, carrying a huge shopping bag, which contained a large box. She reminded Johanna of the pop star Pink. She had a sharp little hairstyle and blue eyes with black eyelashes that made her eyes stand out and look even bluer. Johanna scrutinized her for a second and then reached out her hand.
“Hello, I’m Johanna . . . So nice to meet you.”
“Hello. Nice to meet you, too. I’m Linda,” she said with a beautiful smile. She held out the large shopping bag to Martin. “Where should we put this?”
“Thank you.” Martin kissed his girlfriend, then put the package in the kitchen.
“Now you can prepare yourselves a decent cup of coffee any time you want.” Linda grinned as Martin gave her a warm hug.
“So, Johanna, what amazing things have you made for us?” he asked as he rubbed his belly, probably more excited than either Linda or Johanna.
“We’re so hungry,” Linda said as she patted her flat-as-a-board stomach.
“Let me surprise you. Take a seat.” Johanna poured some red wine—an aged Blauer P
ortugieser. It came highly recommended by a clerk in a small wine shop on Martin’s street. The twenty-five-euro price tag promised that it would good enough, if necessary, to make up for burned lasagna.
“So, how long have you and my brother been together?” asked Johanna as they toasted and took their first sips.
“He never told you about me?” Linda patted Martin lightly on his knee.
“No, we haven’t talked much the last few years.”
“Well,” Martin began, “we’ve known each other for about four years; about a year after we first met, we ran into each other at a party. Linda was finally single, and I jumped at the opportunity and talked her ear off.”
“Yes, you were drunk and babbling like a crazy person. It’s a minor miracle that I agreed to go on a date with you after that.” Before she spoke again, she took another sip and looked at her significant other. “Martin gulped down one cup of punch after another.”
“Yeah, I was nervous. Men get that way every now and then,” he countered.
“And you were so charming . . .”
Johanna looked on in amusement as they got lost in their cute dating story. Then she stood up and went into the kitchen to check on the lasagna. She came back with two plates.
“Bon appétit!” she said as she put down the plates. “Go ahead and get started. I’ll be right back with mine.”
However, they waited politely until she came back.
“So, your turn,” said Linda. “Will you be staying here in Vienna?”
“Well, I don’t know. I like it here a lot, but honestly, I still don’t know what I want to do. Actually, I’ve never known,” Johanna said candidly, then took a big gulp of wine.
“Everything will work out great!” Martin said. He worried about making this transition as easy as possible on his sister and wanted to make sure she didn’t feel any pressure. Linda understood; he’d filled her in about Johanna at length. “You’re staying!” he continued. “And for the time being, you live with me. Linda has her own very nice apartment. If you get on my nerves, I’ll hop on over to her place.”
“I don’t think it’ll be a problem. As you know, I’m a neat freak, and I’m not afraid of housework. You could use somebody like me around here.” Johanna took another sip of the Blauer Portugieser.
She emptied her glass, then poured herself another. Johanna had a low tolerance for alcohol these days, almost no tolerance at all, actually. It had been over two years since she’d had anything to drink. This became evident when she spilled her wine on the beautifully laid table.
“Whoops,” she said.
“Wait a second, I’ll get that.” Linda dropped her knife and fork on her napkin as she hopped up.
“That’s so sweet of you,” Johanna said, thinking how nice Linda really was.
Martin started to laugh. “Do you know that I’ve never seen you drunk before?”
“Come on. I’m a little bit tipsy, maybe, but not drunk. Oh, that reminds me, I’m making a delicious dessert. It’s in the fridge, but it’s not quite finished. Crap,” Johanna slurred as she gestured toward the kitchen.
Martin stood up, went to the kitchen, and came back with the package of mascarpone. “Do you mean this?”
“Yes, but it’s not ready yet.”
“Well, that’s pretty obvious since the package is still sealed.”
“Exactly. I just have to add plums, rum, and cinnamon. And, um, warm it up and fold the mascarpone in . . .” Johanna gave up and waved her hand dismissively.
“Doesn’t matter, we’ll eat it some other time. I also bought some chocolate if anybody’s interested.” Martin held up a bar with double truffles and two kinds of nuts. “Or we can have pralines, the good kind, the expensive kind; this chocolate is the bomb, though. They’re both from Zotter. Didn’t you visit the Zotter chocolate factory once?”
His sister couldn’t follow him anymore. In the meantime, Linda had wiped up the red wine spill and changed the tablecloth.
“We were there two weeks ago,” she said. “I couldn’t drag Martin out of there. He got really sick from eating way too much chocolate, but there was just no way to hold him back.”
She poured some more wine for Martin and herself and assumed that Johanna had had her fill. But she didn’t confirm this with Johanna. Johanna reached for the bottle, but before she could get to it, Martin grabbed it and poured his sister a stingy little drink.
“Whatever, Linda, you had more than your share of chocolate, too, and you promised yourself you wouldn’t eat it again for a month . . . They had a chocolate fountain there, Johanna. I’m telling you, it was a chocolate lover’s paradise.”
“Yeah, I ate too much, but you’re a chocoholic, my darling.”
“You’re the one that bought that massive box of chocolates . . .”
“Yes, for you! Okay, fine, for both of us . . .”
Johanna observed Linda and Martin’s banter for a few minutes before growing tired of the topic. Abruptly, she interjected, “I’m not really drunk; it might seem like it, but I’m really not,” successfully regaining their full attention. She used this opportunity to ask, “Tell me, Linda, what kind of work do you do?”
“I work in a boutique. I actually own the shop.”
“Really? With clothing and stuff?” slurred Johanna as she firmly gripped her wineglass.
“Yes, with clothing and stuff. It had always been my dream, and three years ago, I decided to go for it. It wasn’t without its risks, of course. I had to take out a loan, but I really felt I had a promising concept. Now, things are going so well that I’m considering opening another location in another part of town.”
“Yes, Linda’s been very successful!” Martin bragged.
“Amazing, and she’s gorgeous, too!” said Johanna as she reached for the wine bottle again.
Martin beat her to it and poured her just a splash—even tinier than before.
“Can’t I have just a little bit more?” Johanna pouted.
“I don’t know. It seems like you’ve had enough for one night.”
“Does it matter?” Johanna scoffed.
Martin realized that it really didn’t matter and poured her some more.
“Normally, I don’t drink. I was never really interested,” she mentioned as she aimed her wineglass toward her lips and, by sheer luck, finally managed to get it there.
“You know what, you should come to my shop and I’ll set you up with some new clothes. You have a great figure, so it won’t be hard to find something.”
Initially, Johanna was taken aback by the idea. She hated shopping for clothes and was perfectly happy with her frumpy, worn-out clothes. In her hometown, she rarely went anywhere or did anything, especially after her parents’ death. But as she gazed at Linda’s stylish outfit, she realized that she needed to update her drab wardrobe if she wanted to fit in with Vienna’s stylish citizens. They arranged a time to meet the next morning. A little later, Johanna finally realized that she’d drunk too much.
“Excuse me, I’m going to hit the hay now. I have to go shopping tomorrow. That’s going to be very tiring,” she slurred as she rocked back and forth to get the momentum to stand up. When she finally got up, she swayed slightly, saying, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
Martin smiled with embarrassment.
“She’s actually quite funny,” said Linda as Johanna stumbled down the hall, then disappeared into her room.
“Yes, she was today. That’s good, right?”
“Of course it’s good. I think it means she’s finally coming out of that awful depression you told me about.”
The couple stayed up for a while, drinking wine and getting tipsy. But not like Johanna had.
Though Johanna slept poorly, she was up early. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so hungover—probably not since she was fifteen, when she got stinking drunk at a dive called Harry’s Bar with her little high school clique. They drank house wine, of course, mostly the kind that came in two-liter bottles. Johanna lost interest in binge drinking and parted ways with her friends a few months later, which was fortunate for her liver, because as far as she knew, Stefan, Hans, and Katrin were still visiting the seedy little bar to this day. It wasn’t exactly the classiest place in town.
This morning, though, she had that same hungover feeling she remembered from the old days with her small-town pals. She’d have to drink enough water to fill a lake to get a handle on it, so she grabbed a huge bottle of mineral water from the fridge and used it to flush down some aspirin she’d found in the medicine cabinet. She never thought she’d be so happy to find aspirin; maybe this would be a good idea for a television commercial.
Do you have a hangover? Then take an aspirin and drown it with mineral water . . .
It was dark and calm in the apartment. The shades were down, making her feel a bit claustrophobic. Nobody was awake except for her, and she shuffled bleary-eyed back to her room to get cleaned up as she vowed never to drink again—exactly what everybody thinks when they have a damn hangover.
Johanna decided to go outside for some fresh air to clear her head. She closed the apartment door quietly behind her. She was about to take the stairs down, but when she heard someone noisily running up, she opted for the peace and quiet of the elevator.
Thomas came jogging up Martin’s staircase two steps at a time, breathing hard but scarcely breaking a sweat. As he rounded the corner, he noticed a young woman with long brown hair step into the elevator just before the doors shut. But he didn’t think anything of it as he rang Martin’s doorbell. Today was Thomas and Martin’s day to hang out and run together to the city park. It was a test of strength and endurance for them. They went every Saturday—not every first Saturday or every other Saturday, but every Saturday—at eight thirty sharp. A long time ago, after several beers, they had laughingly named it their “Saturday date.”
Thomas was raring to go, but Martin found it difficult to muster much enthusiasm this morning.
“Sorry, man. My sister just moved in with me, and last night we all ate dinner together and drank a lot of wine. I gotta say, I’m feeling it today. Maybe we could just do a short run and then come back here for some coffee. Okay?”
Thomas snorted and leaned forward. “What’s it going to hurt to run a lousy two-and-a-half miles? Don’t be so lame, you old fart.”
Martin grimaced. “But coffee sounds good, right?” he asked pleadingly.
“All right, we’ll do a quick run. Hey, is your sister here? I’d love to meet her,” said Thomas as he stretched a tight thigh muscle, thinking it must be a slight magnesium deficiency.
“Yeah, but I think she’s still sleeping.”
They headed out for a short jog and then doubled back to Martin’s apartment. The brand-new espresso machine that Linda had given him last night was Martin’s new favorite thing. He never thought he would like it, but she didn’t like having to wait for his old stovetop pot. Martin instantly developed a deep affinity for the shiny black machine that was as suave as George Clooney, easily whipping up lattes, espressos, cappuccinos, and the like. He even drew whimsical figures in the milk froth with cocoa, like he’d been trained by a fancy barista or something. In truth, he had stayed up late last night teaching himself by watching YouTube videos.
“I’m so happy. I can hardly believe that just yesterday I was happy with my stovetop coffee. You’re going to love this. I even have some leftover cake somewhere we can eat with it,” said Martin, looking through the fridge. “Or we can have some plain mascarpone cream.” He laughed and told Thomas the story about Johanna getting too drunk to make dessert. “How’s Clarissa?” he asked as he finally found the slice of marble cake and cut it in two.
“Really great. She flew to Paris early this morning for a shoot.”
“Aha,” said Martin.
He really wasn’t interested in Clarissa’s up-and-coming career. When they were all at a bar once, Clarissa bored Martin to death as she prattled on about the intricacies of a modeling shoot. Martin had worked his way through three whiskey colas and a beer as she went on and on about light spectrums, highlighters, posing, and flab—not that she herself had any, Clarissa emphatically pointed out, which Martin thought was a little weird. He’d nodded politely and clung to his beer bottle, hoping that Linda would rescue him soon.
“You want to play some PlayStation?”
Thomas nodded excitedly and they went into the living room, fixated on their latest game. They didn’t even notice Johanna when she came back home after an hour, took a shower, and washed her hair. Back in her bedroom, she turned on the radio full blast and sang along with a popular song. It seemed like every DJ was playing it practically nonstop. Meanwhile, Thomas left the apartment.
Johanna had a thick head of hair, but it wasn’t very shiny because she didn’t use conditioners or fancy hair treatments. In this respect, she was a minimalist. She wasn’t aware of the latest hair products, since she never watched those commercials where models seductively toss their shimmering, 100 percent split end–free hair over their shoulders. Johanna’s hair was easy to care for. Her natural color was a very nice shade, not an ash brown or mousy brown, but more hazelnut. It may not have been shiny, but it was probably about 80 percent split end–free, no thanks to any special products.
Feeling better from her hangover-curing walk, Johanna threw on some low-key makeup to emphasize her eyes and cheekbones, and then rode Martin’s bike to Linda’s boutique, which was in the very chicest part of the city center. Caught up in her excitement over trying on new clothes for the first time in ages, Johanna almost ran over a pedestrian. She was insecure about what would look good on her and realized she hardly knew Linda at all. She lacked any kind of fashion know-how, since her mother had never really cared much about fashion. Her grandmother had never been much help in that department, either; she usually wore a threadbare housedress underneath an apron dating from the sixties for twelve hours a day. Even when she went out, she’d simply dig into the deepest recesses of her closet and pull out an old flowery dress that she thought hid her love handles. Even knowing that Linda was warm and sympathetic didn’t assuage Johanna’s anxiety. On the contrary, she didn’t want this self-possessed woman to know how clueless she was.
As Johanna stepped into the boutique, Linda was busy helping an older woman who was clutching her shopping bag as if clinging for dear life to the beautiful new outfits inside. The old lady’s Maltese, on the other hand, was obviously done with his mistress’s shopping spree and kept straining toward the door, but her tight grip on his leash held him back. Maybe the little dog was also distressed at the prospect of humans on the street accosting him with squeals of “Oh, aren’t you sweet?” and “Look, how cute!” after the poor thing was squeezed into a precious red-and-green knitted 100 percent organic fiber jacket.
The greedy old woman wasn’t in any hurry to leave the shop, so Johanna looked around a bit while she waited. A green T-shirt caught her eye. She’d had a similar shirt when she was a young girl. Just a year later, she had been wearing nothing but dark colors: dark blue, brown, black, dark gray, dark purple. She guessed on a size small and held up the shirt to her chest. Her build was rather slight, and she wore an A cup. At fourteen, she’d hoped for a C, but by seventeen, she knew that was never going to happen. She didn’t have the right genes, and besides, you needed a little meat on your bones for plump breasts.
As a child, she’d baked cakes and cookies with her mother, and had even been a touch chubby. However, her appetite had largely disappeared in the wake of her parents’ death, and with it, her lust for life. Her grandmother had worried about her and filled the table with stews and delicious pies, but Johanna had often refused to eat; she’d spend most of her time in her room, lying on her couch and staring numbly at the ceiling. She might get up hours later, only to move from the couch to her bed. In school, the children teased her about her weight. “Skinny Johanna, the bean pole!” they would shout. Johanna tried not to remember their cruelty. She had let it go a long time ago.
“Johanna, nice to see you!” called Linda, beaming at her. “Oh, you don’t want the green one, right?” she said as she shook her head emphatically.
Johanna shook her head tentatively in agreement.
“Come on, I’ll show you a few things,” she said, and took her new customer by the hand toward the changing room on the other side of the store.
“I’m sure you already have those kinds of basics. Let’s take a look at a pretty skirt with matching boots. Check this out.” Linda took a denim skirt from the rack. “What size shoe do you wear?”
“Seven and a half.”
Linda went to the front of the shop and came back with black leather boots. “Aren’t these awesome?”
Actually, Johanna liked the boots a lot. “Yeah, they’re awesome,” she said as she tried on the 250-euro treasures.
“You head into the fitting room and try them on with the skirt. I’ll bring you some leggings—or do you prefer panty hose?”
“Uh, I’m not sure,” Johanna sputtered because she really didn’t have a clue.
“All right, then. I’ll bring you both! And I’ll try to find you a couple of tops to complete the look. You’ll see; it’ll be great.” Martin’s girlfriend beamed as she exuberantly clapped her hands.
Linda was the complete opposite of Johanna: lively, enthusiastic, and relaxed. Linda came back with a colorful stack of clothes and handed Johanna a top. She had a good sense of what would suit Johanna and showered her with compliments. After some initial uncertainty, Johanna felt increasingly comfortable in the fancy new clothes.
“Do you know what I’m going to do?”
Johanna shook her head as she raised her eyebrows.
“I’m going to give you a really good discount.”
Meanwhile, Thomas headed to a typical Viennese café in the city center, not far from Linda’s boutique. It was one of his favorite places to visit with his mother, Henriette. He probably wouldn’t have met Martin or another friend there, but it was perfectly suited for afternoon tea with Mama. It was a popular, old-fashioned café with lots of unfriendly Viennese waiters. Being unfriendly was unofficially part of the job description for a waiter in the city—one of the typical “Viennese grand traditions.” The quota of female servers was hardly ever filled because the profession was traditionally male. Men served the special Viennese coffee, made extra dark with whipped cream and accompanied by apple strudel, an assortment of cakes, and the obligatory scowl.
“Tell me, Thomas. When do you plan to propose to your girlfriend? You know that pretty girls won’t stay with a man forever without a commitment,” Henriette said as she stirred her black tea. She loved tea more than anything. Even coffee didn’t win her over, as it was too tart, too strong. “Oh, pass me the sugar, please,” she continued, beaming at her son as if he’d made her the happiest mother in the world for coming to the café—but he would make her even happier if he’d just get married or give her a grandchild.