Whenever my alarm clock goes off in the morning, I stay in bed for a little while. Ten, fifteen minutes. I’ve heard that drunks sometimes die in their sleep. That they fall asleep and never wake up again, just like that. So I lie there and listen.
In class, I sit in the very front. Those, who return from lunch before everyone else, always sit in first row. Keeping a low profile. Not standing in anyone’s way. Our teacher’s name is Mrs. Stolz. She wears glasses that weigh heavy enough to keep slipping down her nose. Today, she looks really small behind the teacher’s desk, small and old. She salutes: “Good morning, class.“ There’s a woman standing next to her. I’ve never seen her before. Short blond hair, dark suit. I wonder if she’s the reason why Mrs. Stolz is looking so old today.
Mrs. Stolz makes a cautious gesture with her hand and says: “This is Ms. Engels.“
“Doesn’t look like an angel,“ one of the boys says, everyone’s laughing.
“Ms. Engels,“ Mrs. Stolz continues , “is our student teacher.“
I always wondered why someone would want to become a teacher. What would make you wanna do that? Ms. Engels doesn’t write her name on the blackboard, she doesn’t repeat it either. She tells us that she’ll be attending our class now from time to time. I’m not really listening, only contemplating her face. Her lips moving. Her smile here and there in between her words. After her speech, she looks up to the ceiling for a moment, and seats herself at one of the free desks. Then Mrs. Stolz writes a math problem on the blackboard. Pythagoras‘ theorem. I keep mixing up cathetus and hypotenuse. As I look up from my book, Ms. Engels is standing right next to me and leaning over.
“Are you doin‘ all right with that?“
I look back down at my books. For a few seconds, I don’t recognize my own handwriting. She places her hand on my shoulder, her fingers are slender but strong.
“Yes,“ I whisper, not looking at her, my view going right past her out the window.
During break I go into the library. I sit down at a table at the very end between two shelves, and open a book. Nothing specific, just some book. I like the smell of the pages. Now and then I read a sentence, repeating it in my mind. Meanwhile, I imagine every single word, one after the other, as they gradually merge into significance.
Somebody says: “I put my whole fist into that one.“
I recognize the voice, it’s Frank. He’s one grade ahead of me. He lives just down the street from my place, nevertheless, I rarely ever see him outside of school. Most of the time, he hangs out with his friends in front of the corner shop at an intersection nearby. He already smokes and drinks alcohol.
“I took her from behind, too. I’m telling you, there’s nothing better than a decent butt-fuck.“
“Where did you get the money for that?“
“My uncle paid.“
I wonder what it was like. His fist and all. And what you get paid for that. Then Frank says: “You can’t do stuff like that with the girls around here. They don’t even let you put a finger up their snatch.“
I stare into my book again. Mother used to read a lot, my father says. Supposedly, I’m a chip off the old block.
I wear our key around my neck on a shoe string with three knots. I fumble for it every other minute, and press the cold metal against my chest. I’m afraid of losing it. Sometimes, I imagine someone might find it, someone, who knows whom it belongs to. How he sneaks into our apartment to scan through our stuff. Traces of our existence, evidence that we are more than just a name on the mailbox.
As soon as I open the door, I can hear his rattling breath. He’s fallen asleep in the armchair, the TV is on mute. Sometimes, he only has his eyes shut, but I can always tell the difference. I go into my room and lie down on my bed. Rolling over I pull my knees up to my chest and stroke my bare feet. I’m thinking of that fine, dreary hair on the back of her hand, and that there was something in her smile, something warm that was meant for me. It sounds weird, I don’t know her at all. I know absolutely nothing about her, and she doesn’t know anything about me. Perhaps that’s exactly why I felt that way: because she doesn’t know a single thing about me.
I’m standing in an entrance, the door is only ajar. Darkness behind, only at the very end, there’s a dim light. As I step in, there’s a sour smell which I follow while it grows stronger. I’m approaching a low table made of stone, white doves are lying on top side by side. I touch their bodies, they’re taut and cold. Their heads have been cut off, but I don’t see any blood. Only their white, immaculate corpses, and the delicately consolidated feathers.
As I open my eyes, he’s sitting in front of my bed in semi-darkness. Sitting there in silence. He’s looking straight at me, though it feels as if he’s got no eyes, only black holes instead.
“You were in dreamland.“
“I got money,“ he says.
Of course I know what he wants.
“You can keep the change.“
“Yeah“, I say, “all right.“
So he gets up and places a bill onto the chair. In the doorway he turns around and says: “You don’t do anything bad, do you?“
“No,“ I say, “I don’t do anything bad.“
I take the path around the courtyard. Past the trash cans and the bulky waste. Kaiser’s (*) is not an option, they won’t sell any booze to me, but Winnie knows my father from way back. And he says that he trusts me, that I won’t take advantage of it. His store is just about the size of my room. As he sees me, he wipes across his face with his sleeve.
“Haven’t seen you around lately. How’s your dad?“
“Fine,“ I feel his glance on my skin.
He shakes his head. “Well, how old are you now?“
I look at him.
“I’m just asking because of the booze for your dad, you know? Just in case someone gets curious.“
“Fourteen,“ I say, “almost fifteen.“
“Fourteen,“ he repeats, then there’s that glance again. He just doesn’t let it go. Still not, while he’s taking a bottle Zinn 40 off the shelf under the counter.
“Need a bag?“ He grins and slowly runs his hand up and down the bottleneck. I can see the muscles in his jaw moving. He scrubs his bulge and rummages around in his pocket for quite some time. I close my eyes until I hear a jingle. He holds the change in his palm in my direction. I only take the bag and leave.
As I come back, a woman is sitting on the couch. I can smell her perfume already in the hallway. She looks at me, examines my legs.
“Hey, sweetie,“ she says. Her voice sounds faceless.
“This is Marion,“ my father says and points with his finger at her as if there were more people in the room.
She eyeballs me again. “You remind me of my girl,“ she says, “she’s about your age.“
I place the bag on the table.
“Lives in Berlin, still doin‘ school.“
“School is important, I tell her that all the time, too,“ my father says, and Marion nods. “School is important.“
I try to imagine what her daughter might look like. Whether or not she’s got the same bloated face, the same flimsy blond hair? I wonder, when was the last time she actually saw her daughter, and would she even recognize her own kid? My mother certainly didn’t. When I had walked up the driveway of the house, where she lives with her new family now, she had stopped her gardening only to look at me and ask: “Yes…?“ As if I was lost. After a few seconds, it finally dawned on her.
He opens the bottle Zinn 40 and pours a little bit into a mug. Then he looks at me and says: “Thank you.“ His voice sounds gentle, almost tender. In that moment, his eyes are all clear. He hands the mug to Marion, and shortly after, it’s all as it’s been before. They don’t talk to each other in order to understand what the other person is saying. They’re only searching for the sound of someone else. I return to my room and go back to bed. Sometimes, I think that’s all I can do.
I see Frank, and I see a girl. Her face looks blurred and round, like some kind of old-fashioned test picture. Frank is standing behind the girl, whispering into her ear. We’re in my room. I see a knife in his hand, but I can’t move. He shoves the blade into her stomach, slowly, then opens the zipper of his jeans. That’s all I see.
Miss Engels says, she would like to break the bread with us. Nobody gets it. She explains it’s a school project through which we’ll get to know more about each other. It would also be about nutrition. Nutrition is important, she says, and she would like to know, what we eat in the morning – in fact, she would join each of us for a breakfast at home with our parents. At the end of the semester, she would like to discuss her conclusions with us. Then she goes on about long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, carbohydrates, how bad white refined sugar and red meat are, and of course soft drinks, too. I have a hard time believing all this stuff. And how she’s saying it. She’s talking about vitamins that I’ve never even heard of. I see her smile, her little white teeth, and then comes that moment in which I imagine her sitting in our kitchen.
“So, what do you think?“ she asks. Nobody answers. I feel the key as it’s pushing hard and cold against my chest.
Later that day, I’m standing in front of our fridge. I open it just a bit, and close it again fast. My father’s lying on the couch, his head on a pillow, his hair all scraggly in his face. Right next to him Marion, her arm hanging down like numb, her hand touching the floor. Both of them have their eyes shut, but there’s a twitch behind their eyelids, a fine tremble that reminds me of how trapped insects flap their wings. I watch them and wonder if they’re dreaming. As I open the can, in which my father keeps his cash, I have to think of the coins as they had been lying on Winnie’s clammy palm. Outside, I take my key off the shoe lace and throw it into a flower bed behind the trash bins. As I start running, I can still feel the metal on my chest.
Frank is sitting by himself on a bench in front of the corner shop. It’s already closed. He’s got a cigarette in his mouth and waves at me. I turn away and keep running.
“Hey, wait a second,“ he says. “Are you scared of me, or what?“
I stop, but I don’t answer.
“No need to be scared,“ he says and touches my breasts, gentle at first, then tight. I think of her little white teeth. And how she says: Together, we break the bread. He’s pressing himself against me from behind, I can smell his breath, cigarettes and beer.
“Are you actually still a virgin?“, he asks, his hand slides through my top. At first, his other hand slips off my zipper, but with a quick move, his fingers are already in my pants.
I see her smile, her entire face in front of me. How can a person smile like that? At some point, he finally got enough to let go of me.
On my way back, I still feel his hands on my skin, burning like dirt rubbed into an open wound. Broken asphalt below my feet, a gray surface, laced with scars, and I stare at these scars, see myself, and everyone else in them.
The key is still laying in the flower bed.