Authors: Daniel Kehlmann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Adult, #Contemporary
“I’m sure you want to know the truth,” he said, looking at her as if she were a child who could be proud that an adult was taking her into his confidence. “The good news is that the bad pain doesn’t come till the very end.”
She really didn’t have a difficulty accepting the situation. She didn’t go through the famous seven stages: no rebellion, no denial, no slow struggle to arrive at an understanding—just a brief interval of incredulity followed by a night of the
deepest sadness, then as soon as morning came, an Internet search for the Swiss association she’d heard about that helped people who wanted to hasten things along.
I’m sure you know this association really does exist; I didn’t invent it, it’s headquartered in a Zurich suburb, I’m not going to name it because my lawyer said not to. Several Swiss organizations offer assisted suicide; this one is the best known. If you haven’t heard of it until now, pay attention; you can learn things even from a short story. You have to join the association, pay a not-negligible fee, send your medical records, which a doctor then examines to confirm that your condition is indeed terminal. After this is complete, you go there, install yourself in their only piece of actual real estate, the so-called death apartment: a room with a sofa, a bed, and a table, on which a gentle employee sets a glass of sodium pentobarbital. You drink it. Unassisted, and of your own free will.
When it comes to death, Rosalie is hard to impress. A cousin of her first husband’s shot himself in the head without realizing how hard that actually is to do, and often people survive. The angle wasn’t right and he vegetated for weeks, minus his lower jaw. Her friend Lore’s sister tried it four times with sleeping pills. Each time she tried a higher dose, each time she came to, covered in her own excrement and vomit; our bodies are strong, and the will to live more powerful than we suppose in the dark nights of the soul. And Rosalie’s nephew Frank, Lara Gaspard’s brother, hanged himself eleven years ago. His neck turned black from the strangulation
ligatures, and there were deep scratch marks on the ceiling. There’s no harm in turning to the experts. So after a moment’s feeling of revulsion, Rosalie reaches for the phone.
It’s answered by a Mr. Freytag. He’s polite, soft-spoken, and tactful, and he obviously has experience with these kinds of conversations.
I should really say that I’ve invented Mr. Freytag. I haven’t called the association, I don’t know who picks up the phone there and what is said. I wanted to find out, but a vague terror always stopped me, and I felt as if I were about to do something indecent, as if I were summoning up spirits for my own amusement. In addition to which, I’m not really the kind of writer who uses real facts. Others like to be meticulous and nail down every single tiny detail, so that some shop that one of their characters is wandering past has the exact right name in the book. This sort of thing leaves me cold.
“All very simple,” says Mr. Freytag. This is the address, this is the fax number, please will she just send the medical records, a psychiatrist will then want to talk to her right away to verify that she’s responsible for her actions. After that they’ll fax her the membership agreements and as soon as she returns them, they’ll be able to arrange a date. Is there any … for the first time he hesitates. Is there any particular urgency?
The doctor, says Rosalie, has spoken of a matter of weeks.
In which case, they’ll put things on a fast track.
Mr. Freytag’s voice doesn’t waver, but is full of compassion. He’s really good at it. And why not, thinks Rosalie, he could certainly earn more elsewhere, but this must be a real vocation. She even manages to feel a flash of gratitude.
In the night, she dreams in a way she hasn’t done for years. Her blood pounds, her senses are so fevered that when she wakes up she’s almost shocked at the very memory: so many people, so much noise, and the overexcited embraces. There are faces she hasn’t thought about in more than fifty years, people who’d apparently vanished into oblivion, maybe she’s the only person alive who still remembers them. How long ago it all was. It’s really time for her to go.
And yet she can’t resign herself totally to her fate. Which is why, as dawn is approaching, she turns to me and begs for mercy.
Rosalie, it’s not within my power. I can’t.
Of course you can! It’s your story.
But it’s about your last journey. If it wasn’t, there’d be nothing for me to tell about you. The story—
Could take a different turn!
It’s the only one I know. There
nothing else for you.
Whereupon she turns away and can’t get back to sleep until it’s light. There’s nothing unusual about this, the last time she slept really well was more than twenty-five years ago.
The next days go by as if everything were normal and she still had time. Her terror slowly dissipates—or more accurately: it remains, but it loses its sharp edge and changes into a constant, dull pressure, not unlike the stomach pains that have been part of her existence for so long that she can now barely remember what it’s like to have no pains at all. That is what life is when you’re over seventy: a cramp here, a burning sensation there, a permanent sense of being unwell and stiffness in every joint.
She decides to say nothing to her daughters. They’ve been expecting her to die for a long time now, you have to be realistic. She’s sure they’ve had detailed discussions about who will organize the funeral and where she’s to be buried. They’ve dutifully begged her more than once to be sensible and move into a retirement home, but because Rosalie can still manage perfectly well on her own and retirement homes are expensive, their urgings have lacked conviction. So why burden them now, why have family reunions, tearful hugs and goodbyes? It will be so much better and cleaner if a sober letter from Zurich tells them that the long-anticipated event has now occurred.
She arranges to meet her two best friends, Lore and Silvia, for coffee and cake. There they sit, three old ladies, one afternoon in the best café in town, talking about their grandchildren. After a certain age, you only talk about your family. Politics and art become abstractions that no longer have anything to do with them and are left to the younger generation, and your own memories suddenly feel too personal to be shared. Which leaves the grandchildren. Nobody is interested in anyone else’s but you listen, so that you’ll have the right to talk about your own.
“Pauli’s talking already,” says Lore.
“Heino and Lubbi are in kindergarten,” says Silvia. “The kindergarten teacher says Heino paints just wonderfully.”
“Pauli’s really good at painting too,” says Lore.
“Tommi loves playing cops and robbers,” says Rosalie. The other two nod, and although they’ve known Rosalie for thirty
years, neither of them asks who Tommi is. There is no Tommi. Rosalie invented him, she has no idea why. Nor does she know if children today still play cops and robbers, she suspects it’s anachronistic. She decides to ask her real grandson next time she sees him, then realizes that she’s not ever going to see him again. Her throat tightens, and for a little while she’s unable to speak.
To distract herself, she looks in the gold-framed mirror that’s hanging on the wall. Is that really us? These little hats and crocodile handbags and eccentrically made-up faces, these fussy gestures and ridiculous clothes? What happened? Just a moment ago we were like everyone else, we knew how to dress, we didn’t have these idiotic hairdos. That’s exactly why, thinks Rosalie, everyone likes that eccentric detective Miss Marple—she’s the absolute incarnation of unreality. Old women don’t solve murders. They’re not interested in the world, and they no longer have any desire to understand events. Every woman who hasn’t got there yet thinks she’s going to be different. Just as we did too.
They say goodbye to one another, for they’ve been sitting here for almost an hour and it’s making them all nervous to have been away this long from home. As she stands up Rosalie looks at herself in the mirror once more: a heavy jacket, although it’s summer, a waterproof rain hat, although it’s not raining. And why is this purse so enormous, when there’s almost nothing in it? Even her clothes signal that she’s superfluous, a vestige, a human residue. You’ll be next, she thinks as she gives Silvia and Lore each a kiss, wishes them luck
with grandchildren and backaches, and walks across the street.
She doesn’t see the car coming. In earlier days she would never have stepped blindly into the road, she would have paid attention without having to tell herself to do so. A horn blares, brakes scream, a red VW comes to a halt. The driver rolls down the window and yells something but she keeps walking, and now she hears a screeching noise from the other side, and a white Mercedes brakes so hard that it spins sideways; she’s only ever seen something like that in a movie. Unmoved, she keeps walking. Only when she reaches the other sidewalk does her heart begin to thump, and she feels dizzy. Passersby have stood still. That’s also a way things can work, she thinks, it’s another way to shorten things, and it saves a trip to Zurich.
A young man seizes her elbow and asks if everything’s okay.
“Yes,” she says, “all okay.”
He asks if she knows where she lives and how to get there.
A number of wicked replies occur to her, but she decides it’s not the moment, and assures him she knows perfectly well.
Back home the light on her answering machine is blinking. Mr. Freytag is letting her know that her medical records have been approved. Her shock makes her realize that she’s still been hoping they’d be rejected, that she’d be told that there’s been an error and her case isn’t incurable. She calls back, and a few moments later he’s connected her to a very polite psychiatrist.
Unfortunately she has problems understanding his accent. What is it with the Swiss, she thinks, they can do it all, so why can’t they manage to talk like normal people? She tells him things from childhood, names the American, French, and German presidents, describes the weather outside, adds fifteen and twenty-seven, and explains the difference between the concepts of optimistic and pessimistic, and skilled and unskilled. Anything else?
“No,” says the doctor. “Thank you. Clear case.”
Rosalie nods. During the additions she’s forced herself not to answer too quickly, and take an extra moment or two so that he wouldn’t think somebody’s helping her. As for the explanations of words, she expressed herself as simply as possible. She was a schoolteacher, and knows from experience: the best thing is never to let yourself stand out. If your test results are too good, you’re suspect and they think you’ve been cheating.
Now Mr. Freytag is back on the line. As time is pressing, she could come next week. “Would Monday suit you?”
“Monday,” Rosalie repeats after him. “Why not?” Then she calls the travel agency and inquires about a one-way flight to Zurich.
“One-way is more expensive. Buy a round-trip.”
“What date for the return?”
“I don’t recommend it. The cheapest tickets don’t allow you any changes in bookings.” The travel agent’s voice
sounds friendly and excessively patient, the kind of voice you only use when talking to elderly women. “Just a moment. When would you like to return?”
“I don’t want to return.”
“But you’re going to want to come back.”
“Maybe better to take a one-way ticket.”
“I could also book it with an open return. But it is more expensive.”
“More than a one-way flight?”
“Nothing is more expensive than a one-way flight.”
“And that’s logical?” asks Rosalie.
“Dear lady …” He clears his throat. “This is a travel agency. We don’t set the fares. We have no idea how they’re established. My girlfriend works for an airline. She doesn’t understand it either. I recently saw that a business-class fare to Chicago is cheaper than economy. The customer asked why, and I said, Sir, if I start asking questions like that, I’ll come unglued. Ask your computer. I ask the computer too. Everyone asks the computer, that’s how it goes!”
“Was it always this way with the pricing?”
His silence makes her realize he doesn’t even want to think about this. She’s often noticed that people under thirty aren’t interested in why things become the way they are.
“So, I’ll take the one-way ticket.”
“Are you sure?”
She thinks it over. But it’s not a long flight, why waste money? “Economy.”
He mutters, types, mutters, types some more, and after a long-drawn-out fifteen minutes he issues her ticket. Unfortunately, he says, he can’t issue it as an electronic ticket, the computer’s acting up, nothing to be done. He’ll have to have it delivered by messenger to her home. But that’ll be even more expensive.
“Just do it,” says Rosalie; she’s really had enough.
She hangs up and it dawns on her that she no longer has a care in the world. The dripping tap she’s been meaning to call the plumber about forever, the damp patch in the bathroom, the son of her neighbors who keeps staring up at her window so threateningly, as if intending to rob her—none of it matters a jot anymore, other people will take care of it all, or maybe no one will, it’s over.
That evening she calls the one person she’d like to talk to about what she’s going to do. “Where are you?”
“In San Francisco,” says Lara Gaspard.
“The phone must cost you a lot, doesn’t it?” How strange it is that these days you can reach almost anybody anywhere, without knowing where they are. It’s as if space itself is no longer what it was. On the one hand it strikes her as spooky, on the other hand she’s glad she can talk to her brilliant niece.
“No problem. What’s going on, you sound strange!”
Rosalie swallows, then tells her. The whole thing suddenly strikes her as unreal and theatrical, as if it were someone else’s
story or someone had made the whole thing up. When she gets to the end, she doesn’t know what else to say. Curiously, she finds this embarrassing. She stops talking, confused.