“You have to turn right in here.” Charlotte sat in the passenger seat and cheerfully gave Justus instructions.
He promptly rolled his eyes, “I know how to drive. I know the way.”
Charlotte didn’t let him spoil her good mood. She grinned and poked her tongue out at him. Justus wasn’t responding. Instead, he looked out at the road through the windshield without flinching. She knew that look. Justus always unpacked it when he found something or someone silly.
They were on their way to Dorothea’s birthday party. Charlotte was the only one Dorothea had invited from the office. And she was very happy about that.
“Who’s coming?” asked Justus after a while in awkward silence.
Charlotte shrugged and said curtly, “Friends, family, and former colleagues. No one we know.”
“She lives alone?”
Charlotte nodded, “Dorothea has been divorced for three years and has no children.”
They stopped in front of a modern Bauhaus-style apartment building. The elevator took them directly to Dorothea’s penthouse. Wow, Charlotte thought, as the door slid aside to reveal a tastefully and expensively furnished apartment. Dorothea came to meet them, greeted them warmly, and took their coats. Their living room was a bright, light-filled space with a fireplace, fair hardwood floors, and panoramic windows overlooking a rooftop terrace and the Rhine River. Amazed, Charlotte looked around as Dorothea directed her to a high table and introduced her acquaintance, whose name she immediately forgot. A blond, slender girl of about 14 approached her with an open, friendly smile and a tray of drinks.
With a proud look, Dorothea introduced her, “This is Anna, my niece.”
Justus and Charlotte each took a glass of champagne and smiled back involuntarily. “Come, I’ll show you the place.”
The living room and dining room contained a masterly mix of modern and antique furniture. Large abstract paintings were hanging on the walls, and sculptures made of iron and wood were placed on the ground. The white kitchen furniture was gleaming in high gloss. All the home appliances, from the coffee maker to the toaster were brushed steel, set off with black elements. The bedroom, study, bathroom and guest toilet also had the clean lines of the main rooms. Charlotte was delighted with the elegant style and told her so.
Dorothea nodded with pleasure: “That was the good thing about the separation. I was able to decorate according to my liking.”
“Aunt Dorothea, the caterer has just arrived and is asking where to set up the food.”
“Excuse me, please. I have to go check on things,” Dorothea said, disappearing with her niece toward the dining room. Charlotte faced Justus alone. Wordlessness was settling over them. It made Charlotte uneasy. She couldn’t stand the silence very well. She feverishly searched for a topic of conversation and began to babble haphazardly: “Great apartment, isn’t it elegant. Have a look, the sculptures are extraordinary and so is the painting.” She was pointing to a painting about 1.50 meters by 1.50 meters that was depicting ripples of water with white crests of foam. “Such momentum and depth. It’s like the waves are jumping out of the painting.”
As if drawn by a magnet, Charlotte walked toward the painting. Justus followed her and looked demonstratively around the room, sipping from his champagne glass. “She has an eye for good art,” he said appreciatively after a while, looking at Charlotte longer than necessary. She couldn’t place the look. And feeling uncertain, she asked aggressively, “What?”
“I’d forgotten how much painting excites you,” he said, smiling.
Charlotte smiled back, pleased and flattered, “Yes, me too. Come, let’s look at the other paintings.”
As Dorothea opened the buffet, Charlotte and Justus were having an intense discussion about a sculpture. Justus interrupted his reflections on the figure’s facial features and posture, “I’m hungry. And I can’t think of anything clever to say on an empty stomach.” He took her hand and pulled her with him. Where their palms touched, her skin tingled. Charlotte searched Justus’ gaze and found an affectionate response. So he had noticed it, too. Before she could think about it further, however, they had reached the buffet. In front of it stood a couple, looking indecisively at the many different dishes. Both were elegantly dressed. The woman’s signal red costume was complemented by a white blouse. Her bright red lips emphasized the pale, almost white face framed by black hair cut into a bob. The man looked overdressed in his blue suit, white shirt with gray tie. Charlotte started a small talk about the varied buffet to create a friendly atmosphere. But the couple just looked at her silently from top to bottom. Charlotte ignored the rudeness and kept trying. Now about the objets d’art. But the woman only pinched her lips together into a blood-red line. Very unflattering, that lipstick. But the man smiled. There you go. That’s when Charlotte saw the corners of the woman’s mouth droop.
“He’s cheating on her. And she knows it. She hates any good-looking woman,” Charlotte heard Justus’ voice whispering by her ear.
She suppressed a giggle, waved her fork indeterminately, turned to her plate, which she silently filled, preferring to leave them to their own devices. Justus blinked at her and began to fill his plate as well. The understanding without words, this harmonious togetherness: Charlotte’s heart flew to Justus. It was like before, at the beginning of their relationship, when they talked about more than everyday things. Where had all the powerful feelings disappeared to?
His voice interrupted her thoughts, “Are you done?”
Charlotte, who had reached the end of the buffet, looked up and saw Justus standing there waiting for her. She nodded. And with the food, they headed for a free bar table in the living room.
Charlotte was just popping a piece of salmon into her mouth when Dorothea approached their table with a blonde, slender woman about her age: “May I introduce Marianne. We used to work at the same law firm.”
Justus kindly asked her about her area of expertise. And while the two exchanged views on matters of building law, Dorothea murmured into Charlotte’s place, “I can’t stand her,” and rolled her eyes meaningfully.
“Then why did you invite her?” asked Charlotte in a whisper.
Dorothea shrugged her shoulders, pulled Charlotte away from the table a bit, and turned her back to Justus and Marianne so that Charlotte could no longer see her: “Because she joined us at the moment when I invited another very nice colleague from the old firm. That’s when I foolishly felt obligated to invite her, too.” Dorothea raised her eyebrows and pulled the corners of her mouth together woefully.
Charlotte stroked Dorothea’s right upper arm consolingly, “I know that. Could have happened to me, too.”
Dorothea grinned wryly, turned back to the table, and pointed at Charlotte’s plate, “I think your food is getting cold. Eat before it’s no longer palatable.”
Charlotte winked at her and then ate her fish with indulgence and complacency. But when Marianne abruptly changed the subject and asked about Dorothea’s divorced husband, she listened up. When asked how he was, Dorothea shrugged, “I don’t know. I’m not interested in that. We’ve been divorced for three years.”
Marianne didn’t let up, “Surely you hear from him now and then?”
“No,” Dorothea said, turning abruptly and waving to a woman in a brown suit, who waved cheerfully back and came strolling up to the table. Dorothea glared at her. “This is my sister-in-law Ute, she’s Anna’s mother,” she said, turning to Charlotte.
“Oh, they’re family too. How nice,” Marianne said in a shrill tone. Her right hand shot just past Dorothea’s shoulder to shake Ute’s hand. With an irritated look on her face, Ute let that happen. Dorothea then introduced her to her.
“I was just about to commend Dorothea for her bravery,” Marianne said in a theatrical tone.
Ute’s face was a single question mark, “So, is she ill?” And turning to Dorothea, continued, “Are you all right?”
“No, no,” Marianne interfered, waving her right hand away, “we were talking about her divorce. All respect to how Dorothea took it. She’s really held up well. But I always say, one has to deal with one‘s personal story.”
Ute frowned briefly and then asked abruptly and emphatically politely, “You’re a lawyer, too?”
Marianne nodded, understanding the change of subject as an invitation to talk about the challenges of being a woman in a legal profession. Charlotte turned back to her food, letting go the conversation about her importance. She only perked up again when Marianne disappeared towards the kitchen with her empty glass and she heard Dorothea breathe a sigh of relief. She raised her eyebrows questioningly.
“I can’t stand being reduced to my past.”
Ute patted Dorothea on the shoulder with a smile, “Don’t take it so seriously.” And after a short pause, she added with a grin, “Maybe she wants your exhusband.
Dorothea clicked her tongue in annoyance and rolled her eyes, but then had to laugh. Spontaneously, Charlotte raised her champagne glass, “To you and the time being.”
Dorothea raised her glass in a toast, “To us.”
Champagne glasses clinked softly together and the tense mood disappeared like ice cubes in hot water.
“Well, there are two of my favorite women.” The deep voice belonged to an attractive, blond man in his late 30s who put his arms around Ute and Dorothea.
Dorothea grinned at him. “This is one of my favorite brothers,” she said in Charlotte’s and Justus’s direction, “this one is named Robert. He’s my big brother.”