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Authors: Anna Katharina Hahn

Shorter Days

BOOK: Shorter Days
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Anna Katharina Hahn
Shorter Days
Translated by Anne Posten
Frisch & Co. Electronic Books, Inc.
Judith

Judith smokes hungrily, her back propped against the apartment door. She draws the smoke deep into her lungs and breathes it back out through her nostrils. The craving for a cigarette, more relentless even than the pressure of a full bladder, has dogged her all day. This morning the children had crawled into her bed before she could sneak out to smoke on the kitchen balcony. She's had to wait far too long for a good opportunity. The stony face with which she made tea, poured muesli into bowls, cut up fruit, and then just sipped at her own cup is only too familiar to her family. “Sometimes Mama's grumpy in the morning,” the five-year-old Uli remarked. Judith inhales, imagining the bluish fumes mingling with her blood, flooding her heart with their warmth and calming its beat. Slowly the hunger ebbs; she regains an awareness of her surroundings and starts to feel ashamed of herself. Klaus curses in the stairwell—he probably forgot something, the flute, or Uli's hat. The lesson starts at four. She prays to no one in particular that they won't come back up. Then she hears Uli's bright, reproachful voice: “Papa, it's
there
!”, Klaus's sigh, a clattering on the steps, the outer door banging. She takes her last drag quickly and feels the glow of the butt as she stubs it out in the tiny ashtray. She shuts the lid and closes her small fist around the tin. The shiny silver box, warmed by the dying fire within, looks to Judith like an accessory for some particularly refined vice—a dandy's needle, a bohémienne's coke spoon.

She walks down the long hallway to the dining room and opens the window wide to disperse the smoke. She hasn't let herself go like that in a long time. Usually she smokes on the balcony, or in the courtyard. That's why she's made bringing out the trash her personal chore. Constantinstraße lies silent in the afternoon light. The ornate façades of the yellowish-brown sandstone buildings arch forward like fresh loaves and cakes rising from baking tins. The sun above the gray slate roofs elicits smells that even here, in the middle of the city, signal fall: the nutty aroma of trampled leaves on the sidewalk and in the surrounding courtyards; rowan-berries, elderberries, apples, damsons, some already overripe on their branches, some rotting on the lawn in the little garden behind the building. The fumes of the occasionally passing cars mix with the smoke of heating systems, harbingers of the first frost.

Judith hides the ashtray, lighter, and pack of Rothändle cigarettes in the hall closet, buried in the depths of her ugliest handbag, and pops a strong peppermint in her mouth. Then she returns to the window and shakes out the tablecloth. A girl Uli's age balances on the curb across the street, restless as a bird. Her face is painted white, and a garish scarf covers her hair; she clutches a small broom in one hand. She turns her head toward the open door of a neighboring building and shouts: “Mama, Feli, hurry up!” Halloween is still a week away, but Judith has already seen kids dressed up today. If one of them rings the bell, she won't answer. She always steers her son past stores that are decorated with grimacing pumpkins, skeletons, and vampires.

The silver Skoda is already gone. She didn't wave to Uli and Klaus. No doubt the boy was disappointed when he looked up and didn't see her. Klaus knows why she wasn't there. He probably lied for her: “I'm sure Mama's in the kitchen. Or looking after Kilian.” But he'll bring it up later in the evening: “More unnecessary tears on account of your Hackstraße bullshit.”

“Hackstraße bullshit” is Klaus's code name for the various bad habits Judith picked up during her years in a dark one-bedroom apartment in East Stuttgart. From its window you could see the slaughterhouse and its big gas boiler, the curve of the stadium, and the tower of a church whose name she still doesn't know.

On Hackstraße she would light the first one in bed, her eyes half-open and hands warm from sleep, muscles so limp she hardly had the strength to snap open the lighter. When she finally slunk out of bed—to the bathroom, to the coffee machine, and eventually to a seminar or an internship—the breakfast cigarette would follow the morning cigarette, and so on and so forth. Here on Constantinstraße, far from the grungy east, she'd gotten up at night to smoke sometimes even during her pregnancies, inhaling with relish and simultaneously agonizing over the image of her embryo twitching helplessly in amniotic fluid, its pulse speeding as its blood vessels constricted. Luckily Klaus never noticed, nor did her gynecologist or the midwife.

But “Hackstraße bullshit” also meant her desire to be a mummy, stiff and motionless in the surrounding darkness, wrapped up tight in resin-soaked bands, a bunch of dried herbs in her mouth, her racing, tormented heart, contrary to the burial regulations, billeted in a hieroglyphic-encrusted alabaster jug in the innermost chamber of an underground dwelling. The ceaseless muttering of her mind's poisonous, “I can't, I can't, I'm scared, I can't do it,” would seep into the brine and dissolve, the rest expelled through her nose in streams—like snot, and just as useless and disgusting. The bony cavity of her skull would be stuffed with straw, a space of pure peace. Her ears would hear only silence. No one would be able to lure this deaf Lazarus back to a life full of woe. On Hackstraße, sometimes Judith—despairing over her thesis on Otto Dix's Old-Master-style panel-paintings—wouldn't even leave her bed, in order to get as close as possible to the full burial experience. She would draw the covers over her head and turn her back to the desk, so as not to have to look at the art books from the state library, the stacks of stapled photocopies, or her laptop, its maw sealed firmly in reproach. She'd finally get up in the evening, when Sören, her on-again-off-again boyfriend, called and suggested they meet in some bar. Then she'd carefully apply her makeup, put on her leather pants, and spritz herself with Opium.

When she started her master's in Art History, Judith had been an eager and ambitious student. She never had to waitress—she'd always gotten research assistantships. She often sat in the departmental library in Keplerstraße until closing time, copying bits of wisdom from Panofsky or Aby Warburg onto index cards under the flickering neon light. She went to the Staatsgalerie every weekend and took cheap buses to Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Hamburg to catch the important exhibitions. She wore strappy red shoes to seminar and kept her slim ankles casually crossed. She did her black hair in an updo and wore Frida-Kahlo-makeup with big shiny earrings. Her appearance gave no hint of the fact that her real name was Jutta, that her parents owned a kitchen design store in Kirchheim unter Teck, and that her two married sisters already had five children between them. She spoke little, but what she did say was irrefutable. “Aha, someone who's actually thinking! Well said, Frau Seysollf.” None of the girls in her cohort had any idea that she couldn't sleep for days before a paper was due, that she would crawl under her desk and cry, unable to eat anything, or that she only trusted herself to contribute to a large discussion after writing her thoughts down and learning them by heart. Even turning in homework could trigger a panic attack. Her hesitation cost her whole semesters, which slipped by in continual correction and re-correction. At university, such behavior was tolerated—no one stopped her, no one gave her advice. At home they didn't know what to do with her. Judith escaped the handwringing—“Honey, what's the point? You gotta find yourself a husband soon.”—by restricting her visits to major holidays, despite the fact that she was quite fond of her family and actually missed the round dome of the Teck Castle, her nephews and nieces, and even the kitchen islands and wall cupboards of her parents' store.

Judith's advisor was well known, and therefore often out of the country. Office hours were rare, and appointments had to be made months in advance. Since she was his research assistant, Judith laid eyes on him perhaps three times a semester. To make matters worse, Professor Baumeister bore a frightening resemblance to Elias Canetti, and she approached him like a masochist responding to an ad placed by a particularly severe lion tamer. He had a reputation for volatility. His disputes with colleagues in the department were legendary. According to rumor, he'd thrown his own assistant's dissertation on the floor in disgust. Judith's entire body shook when she spoke to Baumeister on the telephone, though she managed to outline her arguments in a cool voice. She avoided showing him anything in writing. It seemed too dangerous to give him something he could tear up or strike through with red ink.

“Otto Dix's Old-Master phase . . . Yes, that's an area that hasn't been sufficiently investigated. Frau Seysollf, you're so diligent, I think you could do something with this. You know I don't run a kindergarten. You can work on your own, I'm not going to hold your hand. No more than seventy pages. Start with the Kunstmuseum. Then take a little trip to the Höri peninsula, to Hemmenhofen. In the evening, go to the Schiener Berg and eat at the Stag—I recommend a nice Whitefish Amandine accompanied by a Weißherbst.”

Judith didn't like Otto Dix. When she was shopping or in the tram, faces began to melt before her eyes into spiteful grimaces from Dix's city scenes. Babies in strollers suddenly morphed into bluish-red aborted fetuses. Beggars in the Keplerstraße underpass leered with grotesque, mangled faces, and the wives of fat-cat bureaucrats near Breuninger's department store gleamed with the pasty obscenity of Berlin whores. Even the icy skies in the landscapes of Old Masters made her shiver.

At the Staatsgalerie, Judith always crept off to Corinth, Liebermann, and Thoma, after she finished her dutiful visit to the Expressionists. She sat on the dark green, velvet-covered benches and looked at the forest glades, family scenes filled with children, and people working with their hands. Head propped, she gazed into a world that no longer existed, a world she would have jumped into in a heartbeat, regardless of everything she'd been taught about its socio-economic context.

The only Dix painting that Judith liked was his portrait of the dancer Anita Berber. A poster of it hung on her closet door on Hackstraße: a woman in a bright red dress, breasts and pubis protruding like a slap in the face. One hand was propped on her hip, painted talons gleaming. Anita's mouth was an arrogant pout—she was just too cool. “I wouldn't fuck her, I wouldn't have the balls to,” Sören said, shaking his head.

In her Dix period, Judith's anxiety became almost intolerable. The feeling of failure, of total “shit-your-pants terror,” as Sören referred to it, would take over, jolting through her and making it impossible to form a coherent thought. The fear that had previously been only an intermittent guest now began to make itself at home, settling in behind her ribcage. It kept her up at night and haunted her every step, making her pulse race and her gaze unsteady.

One summer afternoon, when she couldn't even bring herself to enter the library, she left campus and went straight to the doctor—she'd mentioned something about insomnia in study group and someone had given her the name of a neurologist. “He's totally chill—he'll help you if you need something for exams or whatever.” Judith told the doctor about her anxiety and left the office with a prescription for Tavor and the order to return in a week. Thus began the era of the blue tin.

The blue tin was a souvenir from London. The lid said “General Bisquits” and had an illustration—two naked angels holding a net. A fat fish floundered in the net, a smile plastered across its broad chops despite of its perilous situation. On Constantinstraße the tin is buried at the back of a kitchen cupboard and holds Christmas cookie cutters. On Hackstraße it sat on top of the toilet for all to see. Judith stored all her medications in it—at first just painkillers and a packet of Tavor. The drugs cloaked everything in a billowing haze—Canetti/Baumeister, Dix's paintings, and Judith's future prospects in the Stuttgart art world. They temporarily dispelled her anxiety, and also helped make the grueling daily wait for Sören's call, and his personality in general, somewhat bearable. Unfortunately, the prescribed dosage wasn't enough to do much long-term good.

Soon, in addition to the neurologist from the university, Judith was regularly visiting three other doctors in different parts of the city. It was quite simple: She went without showering or making herself up, mentioned the words
stress
,
exams
, and
insomnia
, and cried a bit, which was hardly difficult. She quickly learned in which pharmacies the phrase “The doctor always prescribes this medication for me” were effective, where overworked assistants would pass a hastily-signed prescription over the counter. When she was in desperate need, she could also pay a visit to the man in the black tracksuit and knit cap with flames on it who hung around the northern entrance to the central train station. He had everything, and he softly droned out the names of medications like a psalm: “Valium, Librium, Tranxilium, Adumbran, Halcion, Rohypnol, Tramal, Fortal, Lepinal, Repocal . . .”

Judith carries the coffee dishes into the kitchen and plugs the drain. She squeezes out some dish soap and turns on the hot water. A soft jabbering and snatches of songs float out from the nursery: Kilian is still occupied, so Judith tries not to attract attention. She wipes down the table, pushes the chairs back, and slowly begins to sweep the floor. She concentrates completely on moving the broom evenly across the parquet, making each stroke equal to the one before. The bodily effort, the stooping and sweeping together of piles with the hand broom, the moving of furniture, makes her sweat. She hears nothing but her own panting and the sound of the bristles rhythmically brushing the wood. A comforting emptiness dominates her skull. She moves about the room like a fish, muffled deep under the sea, unhindered by challenges from her cerebral cortex. This is the closest Judith comes to being truly relaxed.

She first discovered the therapeutic quality of cleaning after Uli was born—she de-technified the house, getting rid of the dishwasher, the blender, and even the vacuum cleaner. “When children see a buzzing zoo of machines creating order and cleanliness in their home, and no people working, how will they learn to help, to pitch in—how will they develop?” the mild man in the lecture room in Uhlandshöhe had asked. Judith had come to the headquarters of Waldorf education rather by accident, lured by a pastel-colored leaflet she'd picked up at the gynecologist's office, but she found a liberating pleasure in the strictness of its principles. Her decision to embrace the Waldorf worldview resembled a sudden epiphany, or the entrance into a religious order. One book—a plump handbook on health and child-rearing—was enough to convince her. Judith purchased a cradle with a pink canopy, cloth diapers, and a sheepskin rug, hung Raphael's Madonna on the wall, and took up knitting. Some things would be tough, no question. But the rules were so inspiring—surely if she adhered to them, she couldn't go astray. It seemed both simple and irresistible: her children would never get sick, and they would grow into creative, upright, happy people, free from addiction and doubt, wholly unfamiliar with Hackstraße bullshit and the piercing cold at the peak of despair. She traded Dix for Hans Thoma. When she saw Ulrich and Kilian playing in their plastic-free nursery or eagerly imitating her housewifely work in the kitchen and garden, she felt she'd never been so successful at anything in her entire life.

BOOK: Shorter Days
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