Pauline nodded in Charlotte’s direction. She had been ranting unabated for ten minutes about the pros and cons of different grave borders. They sat across from each other at her parents’ dining room table. Impatiently, Charlotte bounced her feet, impatiently looked out the window, and when Pauline still didn’t respond, she slapped the table with the flat of her hand in exasperation: “I just explained it to you. Dad and I want a granite stone border.”
“Why didn’t you ask me before? Or better yet, why didn’t you take me to the appointment with the stonemason?” Pauline’s accusatory voice had risen in pitch.
“Because you didn’t have time,” Charlotte sparked angrily at her sister. “Who said that?” asked Pauline in a shrill voice.
Charlotte looked at her with raised eyebrows, “Well, it doesn’t matter.”
“Nothing matters,” now Pauline almost shouted, “you just didn’t want me there. You were always mommy and daddy’s favorite anyway.”
“That’s bullshit. And you know it.”
“Oh, you mean,” Pauline waved her hands in the air, “pay attention then: Our parents have always had nothing but praise for you. Charlotte is so hardworking, Charlotte works so much, Charlotte is so pretty, Charlotte has such a great husband, Charlotte is a wonderful mother…Charlotte here, Charlotte there,” she mimicked the voices. “I’m sick of this.” With the flat of her right hand, Pauline made a cutting motion below her chin.
Charlotte looked at her sister, concerned.
“Can’t think of anything clever to say, can you!” Triumph was in Pauline’s voice. “I’m flabbergasted. Our parents really said that?”
“Are you implying that I’m lying?”
“My God, don’t be so aggressive again,” Charlotte shook her head in annoyance, “I’m just confused. Because they told me all that about you, too.”
Puzzled, the sisters looked at each other. “Really?”
Charlotte nodded, “They admired you for your diligence, praised you, and were proud of your achievements.”
Pauline looked at her inquiringly and apparently concluded that her sister was telling the truth. For she slumped like a balloon deflating, “Oh boy.”
Charlotte continued to nod to herself like a bobblehead on the hat rack of a car.
It was silent for a long time. They both looked at the floor and shook their heads now and then.
“I’ve been jealous of you all these years,” Pauline said softly.
“Come to think of it,” Charlotte made a vague gesture, “I guess I have, too. Yet our parents were proud of us and loved us both.”
Pauline nodded thoughtfully, “When I think about it, I have to admit that they often told me they were proud of me. But I guess all I heard was their praise of you.”
Now they were both nodding silently to each other like a waggling dumbbell, indulging their thoughts and memories.
At some point Pauline lifted her head, smiled at Charlotte, “I’m glad you’re my sister.”
With relief, Charlotte returned the smile, whereupon Pauline stood up and spontaneously hugged and squeezed her sister. Charlotte slid to the side in her chair. The sisters held each other tightly. The warmth, the understanding, the loving words touched something in Charlotte, laid gently over the ice deep inside her, and the pain broke free and turned to tears. Pauline soothingly patted her on the back. But the tears flowed for her, too. Finally they could mourn the loss of their mother together. After a long while, Pauline handed her sister paper tissues. Noisily, they blew their noses.
“Why didn’t we talk to each other earlier? We could have saved ourselves so much.”
“Honestly – I was afraid of your reaction,” Pauline said, reaching for another tissue.
Thoughtfully, Charlotte looked down at her hands in her lap, “Is that why you were always talking such petty stuff?!”
Pauline shrugged, “It was definitely better than arguing.”
“Isn’t it sad how many restrictions you put on yourself just because you fear the supposed wrath of the other person?”
“Being able to allow your feelings – either sad or happy – it‘s a gift.”
With this sentence in mind, which she had read in a magazine this morning, Charlotte drove to work. Since the talk with Pauline, Charlotte was feeling much better. The sisters were closer than ever before. And something else had happened. Charlotte rested within herself again. She thought of her mother: Losing a beloved person was unspeakably painful. This wound never healed, no matter what good advice and sayings there were. But she had learned that the force of the pain subsided if one allowed it to. She drew breath again. Wasn’t it true that deep crises and strokes of fate are part of human life? She had experienced how unwise it had been to run away from emotional pain. It had made her numb. Her life in all its depth and diversity had passed her by. But that was over now. The dark, all-feelings-eating monster was finally gone. Charlotte breathed in and out deeply. Feelings of the joy of life were flowing through her again. Perhaps all the more intensely because she knew about losing beloved ones. She decided to now take her life into her own hands and to no longer be afraid of change. And that included her marriage.
When Charlotte entered the conference room, Heinze and Schneider were already sitting at the large oval meeting table, sipping coffee, stuffing cookies down their throats like the cookie monster, and exchanging raunchy jokes. Charlotte greeted them, put her documents on her seat and rummaged out the monthly report for the management, a copy of which was in front of each participant, when Peer Schuster also joined them. The men slapped each other on the shoulders and talked about yesterday’s friendly match of the national soccer team. Charlotte, who was ignored by the men, felt increasingly awkward. And the longer their fraternization lasted, the more uncomfortable and ill-mannered Charlotte felt about the situation. She wanted to believe it was all a coincidence. But she knew better by now. This was the usual power games of men staking out their territory. Politely, she cleared her throat. No reaction.
All right, Charlotte thought, took a deep breath and exhaled, spread her documents generously on the conference table, stood up straight and wide-legged: “Gentlemen,” she said so loudly that Heinze, Schuster and Schneider flinched and stopped talking instantly, “before you is a copy of my monthly report,” Charlotte continued in a firm voice and, before her colleagues had time to reply, she began analyzing the personnel and material costs. At the end of her presentation, Schuster nodded approvingly. Schneider did try to rattle her with questions about sales, but Schuster impatiently interrupted him in a bigoted tone and, looking at Peer Schuster, said, “We’ll clarify these points later at the board level,” and turning to Charlotte, he continued, “thank you very much Ms. Reimann. Well done.” Pleased, Charlotte smiled. But when she looked at Schneider, who fixated her with a wicked smile, her joy at the praise evaporated as quickly as a gust of wind.
Once in her office, Charlotte sat down thoughtfully at her desk. What had just happened? She rested her forearms on the desk top and her chin on her right palm. Was it all worth it? Sometimes life and people were hard to take. She thought about the conversation with Susanne. In the end, it all came down to a question that was as simple as it was difficult: What made her happy?