Novak turns away, Richter goes into the living room and forgets about the bathroom light. There’s too little movement over there, I say, and step closer to the window, only the flickering of TVs and the on-and-off of lights, it’s an unexciting game. Sunday, December thirteenth, eight forty-three P.M. I want to see the lights on. Novak’s husband has been sitting motionless for half an hour now. Just turn, I whisper, there you go. He lifts his arm and lowers it slowly back down, his head toward the kitchen. Is he speaking to her? I don’t see it, the pink jacket she wears on Sunday evenings as if other colors didn’t exist ‒ she must be wearing it again today. Novak doesn’t know a thing about colors and she doesn’t know a thing about windows, not once has she ever looked over here, even though it wouldn’t take much. Lift your head for a moment or better yet, first take a step toward the windowsill, lightly place your hands on it, you can feel the warmth of the radiator immediately. It got cold in late November. Despite the warm temperatures, the wind brings in the chill. Novak will have turned up the heat, she’ll say: Heinz, close the window, I’m so cold. Like the first time we went over there for a visit, the air was filled with smoke, but she said: Leave the window shut, I’m fine with your smoke. Your smoke, Karla said, although she herself had done nothing else the entire time.
Novak, for God’s sake, move. As if he were staring at the wall all evening, I know they’ve mounted the TV there, I know the apartment looks different now. On that first evening together, it had still been a box TV, and it ran quietly in the background. At regular intervals, Karla went out onto the balcony to fetch the plastic bottles of premixed cola and red wine. Why she mixed the drinks beforehand, I couldn’t say. That evening, she answered my question as follows: when I come home from shopping, I’d rather get it over with right away, I don’t have the energy later in the evening. And I laughed, because Peter laughed and so did Heinz, the energy to mix red wine and cola, he repeated, but Karla simply gazed at the television, where an ad for televisions was running. I like wine without cola, too, I said, but Heinz had already gone out onto the balcony, and Peter was staring at the television on television with Karla, until she said: I don’t believe that.
We stayed for a long time that evening, we drank a lot, our lips all turned purple. I said: at least we don’t have far to get home. Karla let the chinchilla out, and we talked about what this home was, where we were still so new and where the first tenants to move in three years earlier now counted as longtime residents. I would never move back into an apartment someone had lived in before, Heinz said. You never know what might have happened there. It’s only been three years with your apartment, he added, and I interrupted him: I don’t want to hear it. Don’t worry, in your apartment, he began. I don’t want to hear it, I said and went out onto the balcony.
I had to lift my head to see over to our place. Peter had left the light on in the bedroom, it shone brightly. We all have our reasons for choosing an apartment, I said when I came back into the room. We like the view of the tracks. You do, Princess, you do, Peter murmured. The chinchilla, Heinz exclaimed, and I still remember that at that moment, Karla began scratching at the label on the plastic bottle. She rolled up tiny wads of the paper, she began to chew on one. Karla, Heinz said. We chose this apartment, he added after a while, because there’s no way anyone’s ever died here. You get used to the sound of the trains, I replied, I like having activity outside my window, just a view of a landscape wouldn’t be enough for me, I need the noise of the city. And Karla laughed, she laughed out loud and began to cough as one of the paper wads lodged in her throat. I’ll grab another bottle, Heinz said, you don’t have far to go.
Novak stretches, it’s not late yet, it’s far too early to be tired. He had talked about it back then, after all: fatigue shows in the eyes and not the mouth, I can see your eyes fine, you’re not tired, Peter, you’ll stay a little while longer.
We didn’t choose the apartment just because of the train tracks, I said that evening, after it had gotten late and our eyelids had grown heavy. My shin, I said, and then: we like that the houses are different colors here. Green, blue, ochre, yellow. We don’t live in seven, we live in the “green” one ‒ pretty good, right? We live in the brown one, Heinz said, and I don’t think much of your color theory. Anyway, said Peter, we’re happy to be here now, we used to live on the first floor. Peter, my shin, I repeated. From the first floor up to the twelfth, Heinz said and clicked his tongue, although with a bit of difficulty. Karla was wearing a blue sweater and white jeans that day, I still remember that because really, it was already too warm for a sweater like that, but she’s always cold. Luckily you don’t live in Sweden, I said to her on some days, winter there would kill you. They have heating there, too, you know, she would say, or: you’ve never even been there.
I’d like to see more action. Novak is sitting motionless again. Here comes Richter, Richter gets off the couch, that’s good, she goes into the bathroom, turns off the light, where is she now? There she is, in the living room, she’s small and at this distance, it’s easy to miss her. Over all those years, I never once spoke to Richter ‒ only about her. Richter is a loud woman, Karla said time and again: she slams doors. But she’s so little and old, I responded, does she still have the strength? Karla nodded: the way she slams doors, we hear whenever she comes home or leaves a room. Retiree, Karla said, whenever she wasn’t talking about Richter’s doors. Socialist, February Uprising, she was in the paper, wearing pink lipstick. I just nodded, I hadn’t read the article, although it was much more about seeing it, like Karla said, the photo, the lips, I’ve lived next door to her from the very start and not once has she invited me over. I’m sure she had her reasons, I thought and stared at the picture on the wall.
Richter draws the curtains, no, wait, it’s too early to go to bed. Richter draws the curtains. The grandkids visit on Sundays, they stay for a long time, till it gets dark, they sit at the table and go back and forth to the kitchen. That’s right, there was one time I spoke to Richter, when she said: I’ve gotten myself into an awkward situation, I forgot my key in my apartment. She was carrying her cat in a shopping bag, she had been at the vet, the cat was old and wasn’t moving. It was a cloth bag, and the locksmith came quickly. I know what you do, Richter said as we waited for him. Karla didn’t come out, although she must have been at the door, listening from behind the colorful Novak nameplate: green, yellow, red, yellow, blue. I know, Richter repeated: you get up late and then stay up late, that way you see more. It doesn’t bother me, she added after a pause. You have a nice cat, I replied.
Now here comes Novak, Novak’s in pink, without glancing up she goes into the living room, as if there were no window here, look up at me. Look at how I’ve done up my lips, take in the view. Between us are the playgrounds which the first of the children have grown out of, the kids who now spend their free time lying under cars and dreaming of more speed. Between us are the playgrounds, the one with a basketball hoop for the big kids and the one for the little kids with the elephant swing, a fence around each. The playgrounds have been between us, the trains behind us, for how many weeks now? Do you hear that, I say, there are hardly any freight trains anymore, that’s a bad sign. What are you talking about, she said, I don’t hear anything, you watch the trains too much, concentrate on the other side.
And suddenly, Novak, she comes to the window quickly from the left and stops, her gaze upward. Hello, Novak. I place my hands on the radiator, I stand here. I live here and I’m staying here, I said that afternoon and she shook her head: we don’t need your sort. Karla, I said. Novak, she said, from now on just Novak, that’s enough. Novak’s husband moves closer to the television, maybe he can’t read the text anymore, he doesn’t notice her, the way she’s standing at the window. Richter’s curtains remain drawn. Novak waits, I don’t move. I don’t think much of a fence concept, I repeat and open the window, I don’t like fences in Europe, I shout, I don’t want that.
First published in Literatur und Kritik, May 2016.