Author: Eva Menasse
Translator: Anna Altman
Martine had just turned seventeen. She was long, thin, tan for the time being, and certainly still wet behind the ears. The camping trip with her boyfriend had been a real catastrophe and she was glad to finally be away from him. They had absolutely no money, so the idea to drive to Tuscany had been pretty stupid from the start. They spent the entire time hanging out on the one beach that could be reached on foot from the campsite, eating food from the supermarket: bread, tomatoes, cheese, nothing warm for three weeks, something Martine wasn’t used to. Her boyfriend, ten years older than her, couldn’t tolerate the sun, which, she had to say, was almost a perk. She had bought an inflatable mattress for fifteen thousand lira on the very first day, not yet knowing that money would be so tight. And so she bobbed, day in and day out, on the float on the sea, on her “water barbecue,” and held onto a buoy with her hand so as not to float away. He sat, meanwhile, on the beach, in the shade, in a long shirt, a ridiculous cap on his head, and read Freud, the entire Interpretation of Dreams and then also all the introductory lectures to psychoanalysis. It was far too hot for any other activities. By the time they reached the beach at mid-morning, her circulation was already suffering. In the evenings they sat in the dust in front of their tent and played cards. They had slept with each other three times. They immediately began to sweat and only slid around on top of each other. He was her first lover, and at first, for half a year, they had done everything else besides the real thing. She had really liked everything else. But with the real thing, she simply didn’t feel anything. And on top of the sweat the dust, too, and also in a tent.
Actually, for the entire three weeks she had only daydreamed, scatterbrained. At home in the city, there was this doctor whom she helped out during the holidays, twenty-two years older than her, who had blatantly come on to her. When she thought about it, it was as if something in her stomach, directly behind her navel, dropped. Like with a rollercoaster ride, only there it lurched up. On the evening before her departure, the doctor had kissed her and pressed himself against her like mad. She thought about it often, and the thing behind her navel always dropped. Almost always. Her father had warned her about the doctor: un hommes à femmes, a real ladies man, that’s what they say, but she had just laughed. That old guy? she’d asked, and her father had smiled. It was so easy to reassure her father. He wanted to be reassured, that’s why.
Lying on the float, she made it clear to herself that she couldn’t imagine anything further with the doctor. Only the tingling memory of the goodbye kiss, but no daydreams of the future. It was impossible to picture that she could do the same thing with the doctor as she did with her boyfriend in the tent. She didn’t want to; she was certain about that.
She hardly thought about Fiona on the float. It was like back then, as a child at Christmas: she had always tried to think as little as possible about the holiday because she had believed that then the joy would be bigger, purer. Not like her little brother, who constantly asked when Santa was coming, although he had to have known that he would surely come some time. When you know something wonderful is going to happen, you hold your breath mentally, so to speak.
Just like she never, under any circumstances, looked down when she climbed up to the Gloriette at the top of the Schönbrunn Palace Garden. Never looked at the city, only rigidly down at her toes, and only turned around when she was all the way at the top. When the height difference is the biggest, so is the feeling, too. If she had been Orpheus, she wouldn’t have failed, but at school she kept that to herself.
She had tried once to explain it to Fiona, not on the way up to the Gloriette, but in the car on Höhenstraße. Fiona steered the car easily through one switchback after another, and Martine was entranced. She tried not to look at Fiona directly, but only out of the corner of her eye. She thought hard about an interesting remark and then decided to divulge her secret child’s game. It wasn’t really a child’s game; she still did it just like that. But she kept that to herself. As she described her principle of Not Looking Down, of avoiding anticipation, she had the feeling again that she was gesticulating too much. Suddenly her T-shirt, embroidered with a peacock made of sequins, seemed totally embarrassing to her, but it was too late for that. Fiona wore an apple green Fred Perry polo shirt, with two of three buttons fastened; with anyone else it would have seemed stuffy and square. Martine looked over at Fiona’s profile. She seemed to be smiling. Tell me more, Fiona said, and reached for the sugar candies that lay beside the hand-brake. In a fit of cockiness, Martine took the candy away and began to open the package. She explained further, almost hysterically, with words that were much too big. Formulations like strongest sensation, diluted intermediary stages, self-control of the eyes and one’s feelings tumbled out of her mouth as the little perforated yellow strip around the candy ripped off, of course. She scratched off the rest of the foil with her fingernail as she spoke, with exaggerated irony, about how most people can’t even control themselves, which meant they missed out on the greatest sensations. Word repetition!, scolded the critical being in her head. The word “sensation” is unfavorable in this situation anyway. She had finally opened the candy’s square package. She leaned over to Fiona and wondered if it could really be true, what she was doing right then, and held the candy in front of Fiona’s mouth, trying at the same time not to block her view with her arm. Fiona furrowed her brow and, with her immaculately painted lips, snatched the candy and drew her head back immediately. There hadn’t been the slightest touch. You terrible little romantic, Fiona said, and by the way, your sandals stink.
On the day that Martine was supposed to arrive, Fiona had just gotten control of herself again. The first two-and-a-half weeks in the little Italian city had been a balancing act, with days and nights spent one way or another, exploring all the boundaries she could with alcohol, cigarettes, and little pills. Twice she went out to eat with a group from her language class, but after a short while she just sat there, hardly able to differentiate between the voices. She always left early and, back in the little apartment she had rented, returned to her special rituals.
There were at least two young men in the course with whom, under different circumstances, she might have found distraction and self-affirmation, but at the moment any thought of sex triggered in Fiona a feeling of panic. And now the girl was supposed to come. She had already thought of simply not going to the train station. Then the young thing would just have to take the next train home, and in the fall she could speak of a horrible misunderstanding. But Fiona wasn’t capable of something like that; she was too much of a teacher.
Maybe the girl would even do her good, with all the romantic adoration she showed Fiona, and her youthful arrogance, which didn’t yet know of life’s hardships. It was only every couple of years that a student really interested her, and it had never been like this, with Martine, before. She had immediately stood out to Fiona, right in the very first class, because she looked so skeptical, and because she was the only one who spoke fluent French. The others appeared to accept her as their ringleader, although Martine didn’t do anything discernable to earn it. That gave her, for Fiona, another advantage. She knew all the little games and group dynamics that girls that age played, and she detested the typical dominating gestures of the queen bee, as there was in almost every class. She had sometimes found a certain pleasure in humbling the bitchy leader and then watching, with almost scientific interest, how the power dynamics shifted.
Maybe she had exaggerated it a little bit with Martine, but last spring, when she was so in love, like never before, the young girl had been exactly the right companion. They took opulent forays to surrounding areas, trips that not only helped pass the weekends that the secret lover, at the time, still had to spend with his wife and child, but also served as exploratory travels for a gleaming future for two.
Martine knew nothing about all of this. Fiona didn’t ever reveal very much of herself. Instead she let Martine tell her about her life while she daydreamed. Girls at that age are still so self-involved anyway that they don’t even notice. On a pedagogical level, Fiona was convinced, no one could accuse her of anything, either. Martine had always been the best in the class in French, on account of her father. Growing up bilingual or something like that. When they first began their outings, most of the crucial schoolwork was behind them. And it was clear from the beginning that she would only teach this class for one year, until her colleague came back from maternity leave. Fiona simply trusted that no one would find out about their private meetings. That wasn’t really like her: she was a stickler, concerned about her impeccable reputation and careful not to give herself up to anyone. But in the spring, a great deal was different than how it usually was.
And Martine was really far more mature than the others. Fiona had once mentioned to her lover what Martine, not yet seventeen, read. Sometimes she felt envious of the easy start that Martine would have in life, with her many talents and the carelessness that Fiona knew nothing of, which she could thank her parents’ money for above all.
She herself had always had to fight, but she was made for that. Anyone who knew her well, and there weren’t many, admired her tenacity. Fiona didn’t think it was anything special. She detested people who let themselves go, and whining and cowardice. And she could hate and punish from the bottom of her heart when she believed anyone, herself included, to be guilty of either of these deadly sins.
For the last half hour in the train, Martine was nervous. It had been a mistake not to shower. But in the end she had so completely abhorred the campsite, representative of the failed holiday—the shower rooms reminded her of a concentration camp, you had to put coins into a machine, she never had the right change, she couldn’t stop thinking of her mother and her warnings about athlete’s foot, which she had always scoffed at before, and so she had offhandedly forgone entering that nightmare one more time. Instead she imagined a cozy little bath with warm water, on the edge of which Fiona had laid white hand-towels ready. Like at home. But Fiona wasn’t actually like that. For the first time the thing with the sandals that one time occurred to her. She flushed. She slipped out of the dirty canvas shoes that she’d been wearing for weeks and sniffed them. Outside of the train compartment, a soldier went by. He laughed. She blushed and put her shoes back on. They smelled like dirty canvas shoes, only very faintly of sweat. Martine hoped it was okay. Then she imagined that she wouldn’t find Fiona, that something would have come up, and what she would do then. Normally she wasn’t particularly anxious, but she didn’t have anything else except her train ticket back home, two packs of cookies, and four thousand five hundred lira. So, practically nothing. It dawned on her now that it was her desire for humiliation that had led her to force the last big bill on her boyfriend along with the other two packs of cookies, even though he was going directly home. Who knows what will happen to you along the way, she’d said condescendingly, and that she would borrow a couple of hundred from Fiona when she saw her. That seemed ludicrous to her now. She had never asked Fiona for money before, in fact she’d never asked anyone other than her father, as everybody knew that her parents were well off. She herself only got the usual pocket money. It was part of her parents’ principles to keep their children on a short leash financially. For that reason, money was always a problem. She had exactly as much or as little as all her girlfriends, but unlike all of them, she could never complain about it.
She saw Fiona already from the train: she stood at the back, under the train station clock, wearing sunglasses and a red kerchief over her hair. Martine’s joy was irrepressible. The three weeks in the tent vanished in a dusty hole, together with the unhealthy lethargy, the disgusting dreams, and the spring came back, its light energy. Soon she would shower and put on the skirt and the linen shirt that she had left untouched in a plastic bag at the very bottom of her rucksack. And then she would be herself again, a purer Martine, who Fiona would like.
She ran, waving and calling to Fiona, but she didn’t react at all. A tall man stood beside her; he bent over to Fiona and spoke to her. Fiona shrugged her shoulders and pushed her sunglasses over the kerchief. She squinted in Martine’s direction and raised an eyebrow, something Martine perceived as a warning sign. Then she raised her hand as if to wave back, but let it sink again. She didn’t move an inch.
Martina awkwardly held out her hand to greet Fiona; they had never greeted each other otherwise. But then Fiona took her sunglasses off and offered Martine first one cheek, then the other. Then she laughed derisively and remarked that Martine smelled like a hitchhiker. Martine gushed a few exaggerated details about the campsite and its shower-barracks, fungus, infectious diseases, life-threatening, you had to have seen it, I wouldn’t have been fit to travel, she desperately hammed it up, I wouldn’t have managed to make it to you.
Fiona said she hoped that didn’t mean that Martine hadn’t showered for three weeks, and introduced her companion. He kissed her aggressively on both cheeks, and declared, in terrible French, how pleased he was to meet her and how much he’d heard about her, and then they were off, Fiona and the man in front, beginning a conversation in Italian, and Martine with her backpack behind, like a daughter behind her parents. Astonished, Martine comprehended that this man would have carried any suitcase for Fiona for miles, but she was just a little girl with a musty backpack.
Luckily, he left them somewhere along the way. At Fiona’s apartment, Martine barricaded herself in the bathroom and washed herself and her things in the sink. She would have to ask Fiona for a place to hang her laundry, itself an admission of guilt. Just like sometimes in the spring she had felt hemmed in, as if she couldn’t breathe.
As she came into the kitchen, a pile of dripping T-shirts over her arm, she said defiantly that she had, by the way, always showered at the beach. Fiona looked at her indulgently, like a child that is always offended, and suggested they take a stroll around the city to start off with. There’s something else, Martine said, suddenly utterly fearless, which is, I’m totally broke. I had hoped you would lend me something, maybe five hundred schillings, and I’ll give it back to you right away at home. Or I can call my father and he can wire it here, I’m sorry.
Tomorrow is a holiday, Fiona said, without seeming astonished or annoyed; just give me everything you have. Martine didn’t want to do as she asked, but couldn’t say why. She stood still for a moment, then rummaged in her backpack and laid the rolled-up bills on the kitchen table. Fiona stuck the money in the sugar bowl.
When Fiona saw the girl at the train station, it was, initially, a shock. Fiona often felt like a stranger with her friends when they hadn’t seen each other for a while. But this was something else. When she had invited Martine, just before the summer vacation, she had believed that she had outsmarted herself. She regarded Martine as a third thing between a stranger and a friend, a curious bodyguard, someone who would, no matter where, always be at the same distance. There was no question of a visit from any of her few friends; these six weeks, booked at the last minute, were, after all, an escape. No one was supposed to see her this way. Only Martine, her inventions, her quirks and eccentricities, were the only small solace she wanted to permit herself. But now it turned out she had been wrong. The catastrophe of the summer was inscribed in Martine’s face, too.
Martine had become more attractive in the past few weeks, and that wasn’t only because of her tan. Sex, thought Fiona, and that gave her another pang. Luckily she had met this slick show-off Antonio on her way, who had been useful for the first half-hour as a buffer until Fiona believed that she was once again moving at a half-way secure emotional distance from the girl. In the first moments at the train station, she had feared that she would forget herself entirely; send her away, scream at her, hug her.
As Martine disappeared into the bathroom, she took two pills anyway, just in case. Shortly thereafter she felt better. The sore, wounded part that Martine had unwittingly brought with her disappeared and all that was left was a sort of numb glee.
At a café on the piazza, she sent Martine inside to order. While she was alone, her face in the sun, she had the feeling that a part of her was thawing again after a long time. The three small wounds on her lower stomach had stopped hurting a while ago, only at night, when she scratched at them. Unfortunately she had scratched a lot, in these almost unconscious nights, out of rage and defiance and because she was just someone who deeply abhorred scratching, blood, and pus. But that morning, before she had gone to the train station, she had taped them up, carefully, with iodine, gauze bandages, and medical tape, like her earlier self would have done long ago. A perfectionist, who would never let herself go, never, almost never. You took care of wounds, just like one learned to, clean, precise. Just because it bleeds doesn’t mean it has to hurt for long. Don’t act like that; others have survived it before. Images from way back in her head started to sneak up on her, images that had tortured her all night long, tubes, bags, green mummies who approached her from above, is the pain bad? But the picture faded just as quickly, as if conjured away. The little pills. Soon she’d manage without them; now that’s a joke. Fiona smiled and rolled her head, stretching. Where was Martine? She turned around and saw the girl, absorbed in conversation at the bar. A blond guy around her age, estimated Fiona, a Swede or a Dane. He looked good. He stared at Martine as if there were a world wonder before him. Fiona stuck her first two fingers in her mouth and whistled, sharp and short. Martine turned around immediately, the concentrated seriousness changing immediately to an almost childlike delight. She lay her hand for a moment on the boy’s upper arm, made gestures of excuse, and came over, the two Camparis balanced on a small tray.
Since when are you into surfing teachers? Fiona asked, and hoped it would sound like a joke. Martine beamed. Then they raised their glasses and toasted with the red drink, which Fiona had once heard was dyed with ground up lice. At that she had to laugh like crazy, and instead of an explanation she bent forward and tucked a strand of hair that had fallen into the Campari glass while she was walking over, behind Martine’s ear. Fiona could feel the young Swede or Dane behind her back, observing it all.
At seventeen, Martine still believed that there was only one true life, and that she was just too stupid or too immature to choose the right variant. As a result she often felt like a phony when she listened to Van Morrison in Fiona’s car, music you bobbed your head to, while she never uttered any contradiction when her boyfriend badmouthed his neighbor, whose “shallow pop music” could be heard through the walls in the evenings. Her boyfriend, who wore coarsely woven linen shirts and thick wool socks typical for the East Tyrolian valley he came from, would certainly have had something condescending to say about the Fred Perry polo shirt, and her parents would have found both the linen shirts and the brand-name ones, Van Morrison and the experimental brass ensemble from Graz that her boyfriend considered the non-plus-ultra for the moment, utterly peculiar. Although they would never say that out loud. Interesting, her overly polite mother might have trilled, a bit exotic, and her father, who loved Schubert, would have probably somehow implied that the brass ensemble spoke more to him, personally, than Van Morrison, but that was purely a matter of taste.
Martine kept the worlds in which she moved strictly separate. Before she could be allowed to go on vacation with her boyfriend, though, he had to appear for tea. You can understand that, her father had said with a concerned face, we can’t just let you go away with someone who we’ve never even seen. Martine somehow managed to get her boyfriend to tie back his hair that day and to wear one of his white linen shirts, in which the rustic style was least noticeable. Teatime passed to everyone’s satisfaction. A quiet young man, her mother had said afterwards and giggled, hopefully we will get to know him better. And her father had only nodded thoughtfully.
Her visit to Fiona, on the other hand, had hardly merited discussion. An excursion to see the new French teacher, who could possibly object to that? Fiona’s position sufficed; no one had to meet her. Martine’s parents never went to parent-teacher meetings on principle, and never to the parent’s evening. If there are problems, we’ll find out soon enough, and so long as there aren’t any, it’s a waste of time, her father said. The limited time of the poor teachers should be given to those who really need it, her mother seconded. Only the one time when Martine’s younger brother had bitten the art teacher had her father pulled himself together and visited the school, but that was a long time ago. It remained the only time.
Martine thought about all of this as she lay in the vineyard the following day, her and Fiona, and it somehow came about that she touched Fiona’s bare upper arm with her nose and cheek and Fiona didn’t do anything against it. My brother once bit Mr. Swoboda’s hand, whispered Martine, and then her lips met Fiona’s arm, too. Fiona lay on her back and stared at the sky. I know, she said, I’m sure he deserved it.
Then it was quiet.
Martine waited, her heart beating and with closed eyes, she didn’t even know what for, but as nothing happened and everything was so clear and beautiful, she sat up, leaned on her elbows, noticed only fleetingly that the clouds in the sky were reflected in Fiona’s eyes, and kissed her. She kissed her quickly, with a closed mouth, but Fiona jolted up so quickly that they banged their heads together and Martine bit her lip, which, in the end, was the most embarrassing. Fiona walked a few steps away. Martine rolled on her back, closed her eyes, and tasted blood. She heard Fiona peeing somewhere nearby, that’s how quiet it was in the Italian vineyard. Martine considered whether Fiona had gone down the hill to pee. Whether she herself would have thought of something like that. Whether, if Fiona had gone up the hill, that should have been seen as punishment for her insolence. She didn’t know if she should ever open her eyes again, but she hoped it would somehow happen. After a while she heard Fiona coming back. She stood there, probably looking down at her, and said, Shall we?
When they finally found a supermarket that was still open, Martine had all but become a baby again. She could already walk, that at least, but otherwise she had forgotten everything and was utterly dependent. On the one hand she was ashamed to speak her mix of French and Italian, with which she’d managed so far, and hid behind Fiona. She followed her in a daze through the supermarket, only shrugging her shoulders and nodding when Fiona held out first a small Camembert and then a plastic package of mortadella slices, after which point she didn’t ask again. She stood before something that she absolutely wanted and hoped that Fiona would understand. As a child, on her first visit to London, it had been a red bus with tiny people sitting in it; the people couldn’t be taken out then, the toy industry hadn’t gotten that far yet. She had stood every day in front of the souvenir stand and turned the bus in her hands, but neither her mother nor her father had noticed. On the last day her brother had demanded a Queen’s Guard nutcracker, a model of the Tower Bridge and a soccer banner, and then he’d wanted a castle ghost mask. Her mother had chided him openly and, though he’d get the soccer banner in any case, asked that he choose one thing. Her brother had started to throw a fit and hurled the banner on the floor, her father groaned and excused himself, and her brother had gotten the mask and the nutcracker. Martine had an exact feeling for the possibilities left to her and so she’d accepted, with a childish giggle, the necklace with the Swarovski pendant that her mother had suggested. She quickly returned the bus to the shelf; she was a big, reasonable girl. And exactly like then she now stood in front of the crème caramel pudding that she loved and that she couldn’t find at home. You pulled back the foil, turned the cup around, stuck the point of a knife into a bottom, and then the pudding came out with a quiet slurp and the caramel sauce flowed over the top. What’s that, Fiona asked, coming back. I thought they only had them in France, Martine said, and pointed to the refrigerated shelf. Fiona stared at the puddings, which were only available in eight- and twelve-packs and which, under her gaze, became towers of decadence and gluttony. She bent down and took a packet of grated parmesan cheese from the neighboring shelf. I’m ready, she said, and turned in the direction of the cashier.
From Lässliche Todsünden by Eva Menasse
© 2009, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne/Germany
Translation © Anna Altman