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The Appointment, Page 2

Herta Müller

  Don’t fret, I’m not drinking out of desperation. I drink because I like it.

  That may be the case, I say, since you seem to think with your tongue.

  Paul looks out the kitchen window at the sky, or into his cup. He dabs at the drops of coffee on the table, as if to confirm that they’re wet and really will spread if he smears them with a finger. He takes my hand, I look out the kitchen window at the sky, into the cup, I too dab at the odd drop of coffee on the table. The red enamel tin stares at us and I stare back. But Paul does not, because that would mean doing something different today from what he did yesterday. Is he being strong or weak when he remains silent instead of saying for once: I’m not going to drink today. Yesterday Paul again said:

  Don’t you fret, your man drinks because he likes it.

  His legs carried him down the hall—at once too heavy and too light—as if they contained a mix of sand and air. I placed my hand upon his neck and stroked the stubble I love to touch in the mornings, the whiskers that grow in his sleep. He drew my hand up under his eye, it slid down his cheek to his chin. I didn’t take away my fingers, but I did think to myself:

  I wouldn’t count on any of this cheek-to-cheek business after you’ve seen that picture of the two plums.

  I like to hear Paul talk that way, so late in the morning, and yet I don’t like it either. Whenever I take a step away from him, he nudges his love up to me, so naked, so close that he doesn’t need to say anything else. He doesn’t have to wait, I’m ready with my approval, not a single reproach on the tip of my tongue. The one in my head quickly fades. It’s good I can’t see myself, since my face feels stupid and pale. Yesterday morning, Paul’s hangover once again yielded up an unexpected pussycat gentleness that came padding on soft paws. Your man—the only people who talk like that have shallow wits and too much pride tucked around the corners of their mouths. Although the noontime tenderness paves the way for the evening’s drinking, I depend on it, and I don’t like the way I need it.

  Major Albu says: I can see what you’re thinking, there’s no point in denying it, we’re just wasting time. Actually, it’s only my time being wasted; after all, he’s doing his job. He rolls up his sleeve and glances at the clock. The time is easy to see, but not what I’m thinking. If Paul can’t see what I’m thinking, then certainly this man can’t.

  Paul sleeps next to the wall, while my place is toward the front edge of the bed, since I’m often unable to sleep. Still, whenever he wakes up he says:

  You were taking up the whole bed and shoved me right up against the wall.

  To which I reply:

  No way, I was on this little strip here no wider than a clothesline, you were the one taking up the middle.

  One of us could sleep in the bed and the other on the sofa. We’ve tried it. For two nights we took turns. Both nights I did nothing but toss around. My brain was grinding down thought after thought, and toward morning, when I was half asleep, I had a series of bad dreams. Two nights of bad dreams that kept reaching out and clutching at me all day long. The night I was on the sofa, my first husband put the suitcase on the bridge over the river, gripped me by the back of my neck, and roared with laughter. Then he looked at the water and whistled that song about love falling apart and the river water turning black as ink. The water in my dream was not like ink, I could see it, and in the water I saw his face, turned upside down and peering up from the depths, from where the pebbles had settled. Then a white horse ate apricots in a thicket of trees. With every apricot it raised its head and spat out the stone like a human being. And the night I had the bed to myself, someone grabbed my shoulder from behind and said:

  Don’t turn around, I’m not here.

  Without moving my head, I just squinted out of the corners of my eyes. Lilli’s fingers were gripping me, her voice was that of a man, so it wasn’t her. I raised my hand to touch her and the voice said:

  What you can’t see you can’t touch.

  I saw the fingers, they were hers, but someone else was using them. Someone I couldn’t see. And in the next dream, my grandfather was pruning back a hydrangea that had been frost-burnt by the snow. He called me over: Come take a look, I’ve got a lamb here.

  Snow was falling on his trousers, his shears were clipping off the heads of the frost-browned flowers. I said:

  That’s not a lamb.

  It’s not a person, either, he said.

  His fingers were numb and he could only open and close the shears slowly, so that I wasn’t sure whether it was the shears that were squeaking or his hand. I tossed the shears into the snow. They sank in so that it was impossible to tell where they had fallen. He combed the entire yard looking for them, his nose practically touching the snow. When he reached the garden gate I stepped on his hands so he’d look up and not go wandering off through the gate, searching the whole white street. I said:

  Stop it, the lamb’s frozen and the wool got burnt in the frost.

  By the garden fence was another hydrangea, one that had been pruned bare. I gestured to it:

  What’s wrong with that one.

  That one’s the worst, he said. Come spring it’ll be having little ones. We can’t have that.

  The morning after the second night, Paul said:

  If we’re in each other’s way, at least it means we each have someone. The only place you sleep alone is in your coffin, and that’ll happen soon enough. We should stay together at night. Who knows the dreams he had and promptly forgot.

  He was talking about sleeping, however, not dreaming. At half past four in the morning I saw Paul asleep in the gray light, a twisted face above a double chin. And at that early hour, down by the shops, people were cursing out loud and laughing. Lilli said:

  Curses ward off evil spirits.

  Idiot, get your foot out of the way. Move, or do you have shit in your shoes. Open those great flapping ears of yours and you’ll hear what I’m saying, but watch you don’t blow away in this wind. Never mind your hair, we haven’t finished unloading. A woman was clucking, short and hoarse like a hen. A van door slammed. Lend a hand, you moron. If you want a rest you should check into a sanatorium.

  Paul’s clothes were strewn on the floor. The new day was already in the wardrobe mirror, the day on which I have been summoned, today. I got up, careful to place my right foot on the floor before my left, as I always do when I’ve been summoned. I can’t say for sure I really believe in it, but how could it hurt.

  What I’d like to know is whether other people’s brains control their good fortune as well as their thoughts. My brain’s only good for a little fortune. It’s not up to shaping a whole life. At least not mine. I’ve already come to terms with what fortune I have, even though Paul wouldn’t consider it very good at all. Every other day or so I declare:

  I’m doing just fine.

  Paul’s face is right in front of me, quiet and still, gaping at what I’ve just said, as if our having each other didn’t count. He says:

  You feel fine because you’ve forgotten what that means for other people.

  Others might mean their life as a whole when they say: I’m doing just fine. All I’m talking about is my good fortune. Paul realizes that life is something I haven’t come to terms with—and I don’t simply mean I haven’t done so yet, that it’s only a matter of time.

  Just look at us, says Paul, how can you go on about being fortunate.

  Quick as a handful of flour hitting a windowpane, the bathroom light cast a face into the mirror, a face with froggy creases over its eyes which looked like me. I held my hands in the water, it felt warm; on my face it felt cold. Brushing my teeth, I look up and see toothpaste come frothing out of my eyes—it’s not the first time I’ve had this happen. I feel nauseous, I spit out what’s in my mouth and stop. Ever since my first summons, I’ve begun to distinguish between life and fortune. When I go in for questioning, I have no choice but to leave my good fortune at home. I leave it in Paul’s face, around his eyes, his mouth, amid his stubble
. If it could be seen, you’d see it on his face like a transparent glaze. Every time I have to go, I want to stay behind in the flat, like the fear I always leave behind and which I can’t take away from Paul. Like the fortune I leave at home when I’m away. He doesn’t know how much my good fortune has come to rely upon his fear. He couldn’t bear to know that. What he does know is obvious to anyone with eyes: that whenever I’ve been summoned, I put on my green blouse and eat a walnut. The blouse is one I inherited from Lilli, but its name comes from me: the blouse that grows. If I were to take my good fortune with me, it would weaken my nerves. Albu says:

  You don’t mean you’re losing your nerve already—we’re just warming up.

  I’m not losing my nerve, not at all: in fact, I’m overloaded with nerves. And every one of them is humming like a moving streetcar.

  They say that walnuts on an empty stomach are good for your nerves and your powers of reason. Any child knows that, but I’d forgotten it. What sparked my memory wasn’t the fact that I was being summoned so often—it was sheer chance. One time I had to be at Albu’s at ten sharp, like today; by half past seven I was all set to go. Getting there takes an hour and a half at most. I give myself two hours, and if I’m early I walk a while around the neighborhood. I prefer it that way. I’ve always arrived on time: I can’t imagine they’d put up with any lateness.

  It was because I was all set to go by half past seven that I got to eat the walnut. I’d been ready that early for previous summonses, but on that particular morning the walnut was lying there on the kitchen table. Paul had found it in the elevator the day before. He’d put it in his pocket, since you don’t just leave a walnut sitting there. It was the first one of the year, with a little of the moist fuzz left from the green husk. I weighed it in my hand: it seemed a little light for a good fresh nut, as if it might be hollow. I couldn’t find a hammer, so I split it open with the stone that used to be in the hall but has since moved to a corner of the kitchen. The brain of the nut was loose inside. It tasted of sour cream. That day my interrogation was shorter than usual, I kept my nerve, and once I was back on the street, I thought to myself:

  That was thanks to the nut.

  Ever since then I’ve believed in nuts, that nuts help. I don’t really believe it, but I want to have done whatever I can that might help. That’s why I stick to my stone for cracking nuts, and always do it in the morning. Once the nut’s been cracked, it loses its power if it lies open overnight. Of course it would be easier on Paul and the neighbors—not to mention myself—if I split them open in the evening, but I can’t have people telling me what time to crack nuts.

  I brought the stone from the Carpathians. My first husband had been on military service since March. Every week he wrote me a whining letter and I responded with a comforting card. Summer came, and I tried to figure out exactly how many letters and cards we would have to exchange before he returned. My father-in-law wanted to take his place and sleep with me, so I soon had enough of his house and garden. I packed my rucksack and early one morning, after he’d gone to work, I stashed it in the bushes near a gap in the fence. A few hours later I strolled out to the road, with nothing in my hands. My mother-in-law was hanging out the laundry and had no idea what I was up to. Without saying a word, I pushed the rucksack through the gap in the fence and walked to the station. I took a train into the mountains and joined up with some people who’d just graduated from the music academy. Every day we trekked and stumbled from one glacial lake to the next until it grew dark. Each shoreline was marked by wooden crosses set in the rocks, bearing the dates on which people had drowned. Cemeteries underwater and crosses all around—portents of dangerous times to come. As if all those round lakes were hungry and needed their yearly ration of meat delivered on the dates inscribed. Here no one dived for the dead: the water would snuff out life in an instant, chilling you to the bone in a matter of seconds. The music graduates sang as the lake pictured them, upside down, taking their measure as potential corpses. Hiking, resting, or eating, they sang in chorus. It wouldn’t have surprised me to hear them harmonize while they slept at night, just as they did at those bleak altitudes where the sky blows into your mouth. I had to stay with the group because death makes no allowance for the wanderer who strays alone. The lakes made our eyes grow bigger by the day; in every face I could see the circles widening, the cheeks losing ground. And every day our legs grew shorter. Nevertheless, on the last day I wanted to take something back home with me, so I picked through the scree until I found a rock that looked like a child’s foot. The musicians looked for small flat pebbles they could rub in their hands as worry-stones. Their stones looked like coat buttons, and I had more than enough of those every day in the factory. But those musicians put their faith in worry-stones the way I now put mine in nuts.

  I can’t help it: I’ve put on the blouse that grows, I bang twice with the stone, rattling all the dishes in the kitchen, and the walnut is cracked. And as I’m eating it, Paul comes in, startled by the banging. He’s wearing his pajamas and downs one or two glasses of water, two if he was as blind drunk as he was last night. I don’t need to understand each individual word. I know perfectly well what he says while drinking water:

  You don’t really believe that nut helps, do you.

  Of course I don’t really believe it, just as I don’t really believe in all the other routines I’ve developed. Consequently I’m all the more stubborn.

  Let me believe what I want.

  Paul lets that one go, since we both know it’s not right to quarrel before the interrogation, you need to keep a clear head. Most of the sessions are torturously long despite the nut. But how do I know they wouldn’t be worse if I didn’t eat the nut? Paul doesn’t realize that the more he pooh-poohs all my routines, with that wet mouth of his and the glass he’s draining before clearing it off the table, the more I rely on them.

  People who are summoned develop routines that help them out a little. Whether these routines really work or not is beside the point. It’s not people, though, it’s me who’s developed them; they came sneaking up on me, one by one.

  Paul says:

  The things you waste your time on.

  What he does, instead, is consider what questions they’ll ask me when I’m summoned. This is absolutely necessary, he claims, whereas what I do is crazy. He’d be right if the questions he’s preparing me for really were the ones I was asked. Up to now they’ve always been completely different.

  It’s too much to expect my routines to really help me. Actually they don’t help me so much as help move life along from one day to the next. There’s no point expecting them to fill your head with lucky thoughts. There’s a lot to be said for moving life along, but there’s essentially nothing to say when it comes to luck, because as soon as you open your mouth you jinx it away. Not even the luck you’ve missed out on can bear being talked about. The routines I’ve developed are about moving from one day to the next, and not about luck.

  I’m sure Paul’s right: the walnut and the blouse that grows only add to the fear. And what sense is there in shooting for good fortune when all that does is add to the fear. I am constantly dwelling on this, and as a result I don’t expect as much as other people. Nobody covets the fear that others make for themselves. But with luck it’s just the opposite, which is why good fortune is never a very good goal.

  On the green blouse that grows there’s a large mother-of-pearl button which I picked out from a great many buttons at the factory and took for Lilli.

  At the interrogation I sit at the small table, twisting the button in my fingers, and answer calmly, even though every one of my nerves is jangling. Albu paces to and fro; having to formulate the right questions wears at his calm, just as having to give the right answers wears at mine. As long as I keep my composure there’s the chance he’ll get something wrong—maybe everything. Back home I change into my gray blouse. This one’s called the blouse that waits. It’s a gift from Paul. Of course I often have misgivings
about these names. But they’ve never done any harm, not even on days when I haven’t been summoned. The blouse that grows helps me, and the blouse that waits may be helping Paul. His fear on my behalf is as high as the ceiling, just as mine is for him when he sits around the flat, waiting and drinking, or when he’s barhopping in town. It’s easier if you’re the one going out, if you’re the one taking your fear away and leaving your fortune at home, and if there’s someone waiting for you to come back. Sitting at home, waiting, stretches time to the brink and tightens fear to the point of snapping.

  The powers I’ve bestowed on my routines verge on the superhuman. Albu yells:

  You see, everything is connected.

  And I twist the large button on my blouse and say: In your mind they are, in my mind they aren’t.

  Shortly before he got off, the old man in the straw hat turned his watery eyes away from me. Now there’s a father with a child on his lap sitting on the seat facing me, his legs stretched out into the aisle. Watching the city go by outside the window isn’t something he can be bothered with. The child sticks a forefinger up his father’s nose. Crooking a finger and hunting for snot is something kids learn early. Later they’re told not to pick anyone’s nose but their own, and then only if no one’s watching. This father doesn’t think that later has arrived yet; he smiles, perhaps he’s enjoying it. The tram halts in the middle of the tracks, between stops, the driver gets out. Who knows how long we’ll be stranded. It’s early in the morning and already he’s sneaking a break when he should be driving his route. Everyone here does what he wants. The driver strolls over to the shops, tucking in his shirt and adjusting his trousers so no one will notice he’s abandoned his tram in mid-route. He acts like someone who’s so bored that he finally got up off his couch just to poke his nose into the sunshine. If he’s planning to buy anything in one of the shops over there, he’ll either have to say who he is or else he’ll have to wait in line. If all he’s after is a cup of coffee, I hope he doesn’t sit down to drink it. He doesn’t dare touch brandy, even if he does keep his window open. Every one of us sitting on the tram has the right to reek of brandy except for him. But he’s behaving as if it were the other way round. My summons puts me in the same position as far as brandy is concerned. I’d rather have his reason for abstaining than my own. Who knows when he’ll be back.