Authors: Daniel Kehlmann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Adult, #Contemporary
But he didn’t come. Only nerds from yesterday who looked at me and grinned and whispered. I swear to you: if I weren’t such a peaceable person, then it would be pumpguns, hell, shots to the head, inferno, the whole load.
Finally went out into the hall. The woman behind the Reception desk was already shaking her head: “no, no, no Internet yet.”
“Want to speak to Leo Richter!”
“He’s no longer here.”
“Left last night.”
Okay, so I got a little loud. I shouldn’t have banged on the table, at least not with both fists. But I shouldn’t have asked her whose room I’d just totally zeroed. Luckily her understanding pierced nothing and I clammed asap, I do not have a brain of mush. Then I abandoned the field and called mother.
All alone, she said. Had cried all day. “Are you going to keep doing this? Do you have a tramp?”
None, I promised her. Anywhere!
“Don’t believe you!”
I began to cry too. I know it sounds crazy-pitiful. But I’m telling you because you don’t know me and you don’t know who I am. Right there in the lobby.
Okay, she said, it’s all right. “I do believe you. But promise you won’t ever do it again. The whole weekend. Alone in the house. Never again, okay?”
So okay, why not? I had no problem with it. Would anyone else ever want to spend time with me? At least I now had some stuff for the SpottheStars forum. But I can see already that it has no punch line, no hooks, nothing. No basis for a story.
For I’ll never see Leo again. I did a posting on literaturehouse.com
that his books are all shit, did it on Amazon too, bigtime. But this changes nothing. He’ll never read that stuff.
The hotel guys didn’t want to give me a thing, no address, no phone number. He won’t write anything about me, I’ll never meet Lara. Reality will be the only thing I have: job and mother at home and the boss and the Überpig Lobenmeier, and the only escape forums like this. (At least I’m no troll like lordoftheflakes, or a brainless custard like icu_lop or pray4us.) All I have forever is me. Only right here, on this side. I’ll never get onto the other side, never. No alternative universe. Early tomorrow, back to work. Weather forecast terrible. Even if it were good, so what? Everything goes on the way it always has. And I know now that I’ll never, ever, be in a story.
How I Lied and Died
met Luzia one Wednesday evening at a reception in the Bureau of Regulation of Telecommunications Licenses, and from that day on I became a liar and I was lost.
I had been together with Hannah for nine years—in principle at least, for she lived with our son and our baby daughter, a somewhat strange infant, in a peaceful dull town on a lake in southern Germany where I had been born and now spent the weekends. The workweeks, however, I spent alone in a gray suburb of Hannover which the enterprise that employed me had chosen as its headquarters. Hannah was a little older than I was and she was comfortable being on her own. I wasn’t that important to her anymore—she knew it, and I knew it too, and each of us knew that the other one knew. But she was Hannah, we had a noisily suckling baby at home, and it was clear to me immediately that Luzia must remain unaware of this.
I’ll describe her later, when the moment comes. Here, let
me just say that she was tall, with dark blond hair, and her eyes were brown and round like a hamster’s: brilliant, never focusing on anything for more than a few seconds, a little anxious. I noticed her when she dropped her glass on the floor and then immediately broke a vase of flowers that someone had foolishly left standing around on a pedestal. She was wearing a sleeveless dress, the skin on her upper arms was flawless, and as I saw her standing over the debris, I knew I would rather die than renounce the chance to hold her in my arms, mingle my breath with hers, and watch her eyes right up close as they rolled back under their lids.
She was a chemist. I didn’t understand what she did; it involved carbon and the synthesis of something, and even tangentially with nuclear fusion and the production of energy out of nothing. I nodded a lot, said Aha, yes, of course, and bent over to smell her perfume. When she asked what I did and what had brought me here—I didn’t know if she meant the city or this reception—I had to think before I was able to answer her: the circumstances of my life now seemed as foreign and as far away as the weather on the other side of the planet.
I was—at that time at least, because I’m unemployed today, and the likelihood of being hired by another company is not large—the head of the department of the administration and assignment of phone numbers in one of the large telecommunications companies. It may sound boring, but in reality it’s even more boring than that. It wasn’t what was forecast over my cradle, and it wasn’t what my mother
expected when she talked about her son’s brilliant future. I once played the piano well, I could paint adequately, and all the photos of me show a pretty child with intelligent eyes. But the world breaks almost all of us, and why should my particular dreams have come true, reading books isn’t a profession, my father said, and angry as I was at the time, when my children reach that age I’ll tell them the same thing: reading books isn’t a profession. So I studied applied electronics with an emphasis on mobile communications, learned about the then-still-standard analog mobile phones (it seems an eternity ago), about SID and MIN codes, and all the methods for sending a human voice around the world in millionths of a second, started work, and gradually got used to sluggish afternoons in the office with the pervasive smell of coffee and ozone. At first I supervised five people, then seven, then nine, discovered to my amazement that people cannot work together without hating one another, and if you tell them what to do they detest you, met Hannah, whom I loved more than she loved me, became head of a department, and then was moved to another town; it’s called a career. I was being paid well, I was very lonely, and in the evenings I read books in Latin with the help of a dictionary or watched TV sitcoms with laugh tracks and accepted that life is what it is, and that there were a few choices you could make yourself, but not many.
And now I was standing in front of Luzia, my heart was racing quite ridiculously, and I heard myself like a detective asking more and more systematic questions to find out
whether she had a family or if there was someone in her life, in other words if there was any chance that someday or better quite soon or even better this evening I could put my lips on the little hollow above her clavicle. She laughed now and then, lifted and lowered her glass, and I saw her long neck and the play of muscles under the skin of her shoulders and the play of light on her silky hair, and all the while shadowy figures moved at the edge of my field of vision. Glasses clinked, people laughed, sentences were exchanged, and somewhere someone was giving a speech, but none of it interested me. She had only, said Luzia, arrived here recently, and, well, to tell the truth she didn’t really like it; she laughed softly and I wasn’t sure whether she’d really given me a flirtatious look or whether it was merely an illusion conjured up by the poor lighting and my desire.
“Do you have a phone?”
“Yes,” I said, surprised. “Do you want to call someone?”
“No, it’s ringing.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled it out. The music I’d been hearing for awhile did indeed get louder. Hannah’s name was on the screen. I hit the disconnect button. Luzia watched me, amused. I didn’t understand why. I felt hot, and hoped I hadn’t turned red.
“I’ve only had mine for a short time,” she said. “I find it eerie. It makes everything unreal.”
It took me a moment to understand that she was talking about her cell phone. I nodded and assured her she was absolutely right. I had no idea what she meant.
Only a few guests remained, glasses in hand, scattered around the room, and I wondered why she’d stayed this long, why in particular with me. I said we could go and find a drink elsewhere, the old well-worn formula, and she, as if she didn’t understand or as if I didn’t know she understood perfectly well, or as if she didn’t know I knew, said yes, let’s.
So we ended up in a rather uninviting bar, and Luzia talked, and I nodded, and now and again I said something too. The room seemed to be spinning slowly, I was incredibly conscious of her perfume, and when she touched my upper arm as if by accident, an electrical charge ran through my body, and when her hand brushed across my waist she didn’t pull it back, and when at some point I came so close to her that I could see the tiny veins in the depth of her irises, I realized that I wasn’t just living a wish or a dream anymore, or a fantasy born of my solitude, it was really happening.
“Do you live around here?” she asked.
At that moment my phone rang.
“A friend. He has a lot of problems. Calls at the oddest times: mornings, lunchtime, at night.” I wasn’t yet a practiced liar back then, and yet as I was saying it, I could see him in front of me in all his misery. Sad, drunk, unshaven, crushed by life, and desperate for my advice.
“Poor him,” she said smiling. “Poor you.”
“Yes,” I said, in answer to her previous question. “Right around here.”
It was actually quite far, the taxi took almost half an hour,
and we sat side by side, embarrassed, like two strangers without a thing to say to each other. The driver smoked, oriental-sounding music was cooing out of the radio, and outside ragged-looking people were standing around under shop signs blinking meaninglessly into the night. It was cold, and the whole situation suddenly struck me as ridiculous. I remembered my bed wasn’t made and I wondered how I was going to hide the plush elephant that had been in every bedroom I’d had since I was ten years old. The problem still seemed almost insoluble when we were in the stairwell. But then she didn’t even notice it, and the unmade bed didn’t matter either, nor the many dirty teacups lined up on the table, for we fell on each other before we were even through the door.
I was out of practice and when she pressed my back against the wall and her lips against my mouth, I couldn’t breathe. Her hands were clamped around my neck, her knee pushed between my legs, beside me a book fell onto the floor, then she pulled me—I heard my shirt collar tear—into the middle of the room and shoved me so hard against the table that two of the empty cups were knocked off it. I threw my arms around her and held her tight against my body, partly out of desire and partly to prevent her from doing any more damage; for a few seconds that seem to me even now as being quite outside time, I saw her eyes a mere fraction of an inch from my own, and the smell of her surrounded me and our breath was a single breath. Perhaps this is the moment to pause and describe her.
She was half a head taller than me and had the broad shoulders of someone who grew up far from a city—quite different from my dark, fragile Hannah. Everything about her was massive; only her face was fine-featured, her brows delicately arched, her lips not too plump. Her breasts were larger and rounder than those of the distant woman I didn’t want to think about right now. Was she beautiful? I couldn’t have said, I still can’t say, she was just herself, and for that reason I desired her so much that I would have given a year of my life, her life, anybody’s life unhesitatingly for the privilege of touching her, and the moment when I actually did put my lips—she inhaled sharply—on her collarbone, my existence split into two halves: a before and an after, for all time.
An hour later we weren’t even tired. Perhaps it was even longer, perhaps much less: time seemed to race forward and wind back, it folded itself into bows and tangles like unspooling film and afterward I no longer knew whether this was a result of my disordered memory or reality itself had succumbed to confusion. In one of my recollections I’m stretched out while her body lifts itself above me, silvery white in the dull light from the window, her hands on my shoulders, her head thrown back; in another she’s lying under me, her hands digging into my back, her eyes turned away from me as my hand slides down her body to the place that makes her moan in despair or in pain. Or I in her arms or she in mine and the two of us half on the bed and half on the floor, so entwined that we could be one body or Siamese twins, her hand in my mouth and my arms around her hips—and at this precise
moment Hannah’s face flashes in front of me then fades again. Then we’re on our feet and the back of my head bangs against the wall and I’m supporting her entire weight and the space around us disintegrates and then reassembles itself. Just at the moment when I succumb to gentle exhaustion, it all starts again and we clutch each other as if we were swimming in the Sargasso Sea because we don’t want it to end. But finally we become separate, and there’s her and there’s me and I would love to have listened as she started telling me her life story but I’m already drifting into a dreamless sleep.
In the early morning it began again. Was I the one who shook her awake, or did she drag me from my sleep? I don’t know, all I see is a clear, singularly pure sky in the window. Her hair on the white pillow had changed color in the dawn light and now was giving off red glints, but—she gave a sigh—we both sank back into sleep and the last dreams of the night that was ending.
When I woke up, she was fully dressed, murmured a goodbye, and was out the door; she had to get to work. I was late too. Without stopping for breakfast I ran to the car and while I was stuck as always in the 8 a.m. traffic, I called Hannah.
“Yesterday? Boring. The usual bunch of bureaucrats.”
Even as I said it, I wondered about two things. First that people, even those closest to us who know us best, don’t notice when we lie. The cliché holds the opposite, that you always betray yourself somehow and begin to stutter and sweat when you utter a falsehood, that you sound odd, that
your voice changes. But friends, it’s not true. And the fact that it’s not true surprises nobody more than the liar. Besides, even if it were true, even if your voice tightened, even if we did sweat and blush and twitch, none of it would give us away because nobody notices. People are credulous, they don’t anticipate being deceived. Who truly listens to other people, who concentrates on the chatter of his nearest and dearest? Everyone’s mind is somewhere else.