The Woman in the Bar
I didn’t see her come in, but suddenly she’s there. She’s walking on the polished floor in her heavy boots. She’s long-legged. That’s the first thing I notice. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m drinking a cup of coffee, watching people; I had an errand to do in the neighborhood, to pick up some dry cleaning, but then I also bought a bouquet of tulips, some tea cake, and a watermelon. My grandchild is visiting tomorrow. I’ve been walking around the city for a few hours and I’m cold and my legs are tired. It’s pleasant just to sit here as it grows darker outside. I’ve always liked this restaurant. It’s large with tall ceilings, white tablecloths, and terrible acoustics. An enormous dining room. People are lingering over late lunch, others are just drinking wine or cocktails, and behind me a couple of children are playing with a small train under the table. The atmosphere is pleasant. I lean back relaxed and enjoy the view of the young woman. Now she’s standing at the bar. She’s tall and erect; her neck is long and white. It’s the end of November. This morning I was thinking about how long it’s been since the wall fell. I thought about how quickly time passes. Even though so much has happened. Now the streetlights go on. It looks like it’s started to rain.
I like watching people. And this woman is remarkable. She’s nearly bald. Her head must’ve been shaved fairly recently because there’s just a fine dark shadow of hair. She drinks carefully out of a small glass, something strong, maybe cognac, or whiskey, I can’t tell from here. There’s something about her that reminds me of a young animal, perhaps a deer, the same watchful nervousness. She’s wearing a suit that’s both elegant and a little too large. It’s grayish-green, brownish, like mud and dried grass. I have a sudden urge to touch her neck. A flood of images run through my head: I think about the canvas sacks, about my childhood, about the soldiers’ uniforms, and my mother, who, much later, is standing in front of our house outside of Leipzig. It’s plastered with thick mortar and has that color so common for East German houses: grayish-green, brownish. My mother is smiling. She’s wearing a red dress. My thoughts race. I watch the woman at the bar, this person, this creation, I can’t keep my eyes off her. Now I linger on her large, meaty hands. I imagine she has a deep sensual voice. The rain is really coming down now, it beats against the large windows, and I notice the doors keep opening. Soaked people step in and wait impatiently to be seated. They shake their umbrellas, brush off their overcoats with their hands, and try to fix their hair. Then she turns halfway. And now I can see her face. It’s pale. Her eyes are large and dark, and she’s heavily made up with black and brown makeup. I think: dramatic and tasteful. She keeps an eye on the doors, and I can’t take my eyes off her face. It’s a fantastic face. Full of expression, almost theatrical. She keeps an eye on the doors. Maybe she’s waiting for someone. She smokes and runs a hand over the top of her head. She looks at her watch. She empties her glass, throwing her head back to get the last few drops. As she’s putting the glass down in front of her, her face lights up in a smile. I turn my head to see whom she’s smiling at. He nods and smiles back, raising his hand in an awkward wave. His glasses are steamed up. He walks over, passing close by me, now he’s right in front of her. They kiss each other lightly on the cheeks. He says a few words to the waiter who shows them to a table. He shakes his jacket and hangs it over the back of the chair. Suddenly I think about roses. I breathe deeply in through my nose and almost smell the heavy, perfumed scent. I close my eyes and think about all that precedes that scent: the buds of spring, aphids and beetles, heat waves, summer rain. Then, at last, the flowers swelling and unfolding. I don’t know why, but I think about roses, about fields full of roses, endless fields of roses, white and red and yellow. When I open my eyes again, they’ve sat down facing each other and are studying the menu. A moment later they order. She fidgets nervously with her napkin. Her eyes never leave him for a second. I brush some crumbs to the floor. Then he begins to talk, intently and at length.
He does all the talking. She smiles, and her eyes move over him like caresses: his face, his hands, his chest. She beams at him. Then suddenly I can’t see anything at all. I shake my head. A moment later my sight returns. He talks and talks, leaning forward, leaning back, the mouth going, hands gesticulating, taking off his glasses, putting them on again, then he leaps up and walks over to the stairs to the bathrooms. His corduroy pants reveal a wide ass. Over his shirt he’s wearing a leather vest. His glasses flash for a moment, though I can’t make out the source of light. He disappears down the stairs. She looks longingly after him. Then she starts tearing the napkin into tiny pieces. A moment later the waiter comes with tea. There are croissants and soup, and an egg as well. She gathers up the bits of paper in her hand and lets them float down over the table. A strange, stiff smile bares her front teeth, which turn out to be separated by a large gap.
The soup is for him. The egg is too, apparently. He eats greedily as she smokes, speaking as he eats; she watches him full of admiration, and the hand she’s not smoking with moves closer to his arm, his elbow; without touching him, her hand rests on the tablecloth near the bend of his elbow, as if she were going to grab it, as if her hand were lying in wait. My vision fails again. My eyes burn and sting. I press them hard, turning my knuckles around and around. A moment later, I realize that the couple to the right of me has also noticed them. I’m sure of it. The woman whispers something to her husband.
I begin to think about something I read somewhere: “Berlin is a wound that no longer bleeds, but a wound that still needs to be scratched.” It made me furious, how horribly pathetic that sounds.
I see his rounded back under the vest. I see his face in profile; the vague contour of his chin, lost with age. Then she bends forward and kisses him gently on the cheek. He grabs her hand and squeezes it. Their hands encircle each other’s, resting quietly on the white tablecloth. I notice the taste of blood. I must’ve bit my lip, and with my tongue I find the piece of flesh and spit it out into the napkin. It’s bleeding surprisingly hard. I notice how dark it’s become. The rain’s calming down. It’s Saturday. Outside the cranes are glowing. I begin to think about something I read somewhere: “Berlin is a wound that no longer bleeds, but a wound that still needs to be scratched.” It made me furious, how horribly pathetic that sounds. I shake my head. I unzip my bag. The tea cake has an overwhelming scent of vanilla. I search anxiously for my money and keys. Then I put the bag down on the floor. I raise my empty cup. And now they get up and move across the polished floor, in and out of the tables. The sound of her boots. She’s really tall. He’s a little shorter and stooped, and it looks to me like he drags one of his feet behind the other. I have a clear view of his left ear. I feel an affection for that ear. He pushes the door open, and she glides by him. I gather my things quickly and place myself in the window. They walk through the red light. He puts his arm around her waist. He squeezes and presses with his hand. They stop under the streetlight and kiss each other. She bends down to make herself shorter so that she can reach his mouth. He squeezes and presses and sticks his hand under her jacket.
It almost looks like she’s gnawing on him. She’s straightened her back and puts her arms around him, bends her neck, holding her head at an angle. It’s a very long kiss. All the while he presses her up against the building. The yellow light from the streetlamp falls on parts of their faces. He looks so small. The watermelon is so heavy in the plastic bag. I’m about to drop it. He’s opened her jacket, and now he’s kissing her neck. For a moment it seems like she’s looking me in the eye, and then she throws her head back. She doesn’t have a blouse on under her jacket. I get a glimpse of the skin on her stomach. He kisses her breasts. One of my legs is numb. I wiggle the foot, but it won’t go away. A young man stops and stares at them. She must’ve noticed because suddenly she closes her jacket. He looks around confused, and again there’s that light reflecting off his glasses. She grabs his arm. The young man, who is now walking away, looks back several times over his shoulder. And they take off, arm in arm, Oranienburgerstrasse, cutting over to the S-Bahn, Hackescher Markt. I get a glimpse of her looking at him smiling, and of him putting his head on her shoulder. Then they’re gone.
My left leg is asleep, there’s a deafening noise around me: the sharp sound of metal and porcelain; high-pitched voices; the music suddenly blasting. It’s unpleasant. I have to pee. I turn around and the room seems overwhelmingly large, everywhere people are laughing and shouting and drinking, people crowding the bar, while the doors constantly open and close. The handle of the plastic bag cuts into my hand. There are some spots in my vision, making everything turn so white that I get dizzy, and when I take a step forward, I’m about to fall or sink. Is it roses? Is it paper? My dress rustles and screeches like chalk on a blackboard; a pervasive smell of wet clothes and damp wax paper cuts my nose. Then, suddenly, the boy in the last row who was always throwing small rocks is here; the rock hits and falls on the floor and it startles me. I reach out to stop myself from falling and grab hold of a man’s shoulder. His face is blurry. He seems to be saying something to me while I cautiously begin to move slowly toward the stairs to the basement.
I look in the mirror. A face. Speckled, wrinkled. My eyes. A blond woman meets my gaze in the mirror. It stinks in here. My mouth, strangely thin. I splash cold water on my face, my blouse gets wet. Then I drop the watermelon. It rolls out of the bag and splits, revealing the red bursting flesh. The blond woman picks it up and hands it to me. She says something. Everything is blurry: a muddy picture, not of this world. But I can tell that I’ve received the watermelon. The woman puts her hand on my arm and says something else. I close my eyes and press the melon to my stomach. Fields of roses once more. Then my wedding bouquet as it is now, hanging in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen at home. I see it clearly through the flickering and snot. It’s sharp and dry. The image disappears. I think about how it might feel to eat dirt.
Suddenly everything becomes completely clear. I throw the watermelon in the trash and wash my hands. I open my purse and pull out a handkerchief. The scent of the tea cake is nauseating. I throw that out as well. Then I take the clip out of my hair, comb my hair with my fingers, twist it, and put it up again. It’s completely clear that the steel frames he insists on wearing are ugly. He had on a different shirt this morning when I left home. And it’s also clear that his hair hanging down like thin tassels from the top of his head means something particular and important about him, about his lifestyle, about his generation. About us. I’ve never thought about this before. When I at last sit on the toilet and pee, the relief is tremendous. On the way out I throw two coins on the bathroom attendant’s saucer. She looks at me with a wry smile. It seems like she’s spent far too many years down in the dark, where all that’s revealed is a fraction of what there is. I place my yellow tulips before her on the table. Then I walk up and out into the dark.
Translation from the Danish
By Denise Newman