A Novel by Mira Steffan
Emma was beaming. Because Charlotte and Justus and Karl joined forces to sing the song by Rolf Zuckowski: “Wie schön, dass Du geboren bist…”. It was Emma’s 13th birthday, and her parents and grandpa had woken her up with the song, as they had done every birthday so far. In her pajamas and slippers, Emma had walked briskly down the stairs and on to the dining room. There they stood, singing wrongly and loudly and with happy faces, and on the table were large and small packages, 13 candles, cocoa, coffee, and rolls. Emma clapped her hands enthusiastically. After the last wry note, the three pounced on Emma, congratulating her and kissing her until Emma broke free laughing.
“First blow out the candles. Then you get to open the presents,” Charlotte said.
Touched, Charlotte watched Emma, who accompanied each gift with an enthusiastic exclamation. The last few years had flown by. Her little girl was now a teenager. How sad that her mother didn’t live to see it.
“I’m so much looking forward to bowling this afternoon. It’s mega that Liam and Marie are coming too,” said Emma, who was mighty proud that her so much older cousin and cousin wanted to join in the celebration.
Charlotte shook off her gloom and smiled at Emma, “Yes, it will be great fun.” Of Emma’s school friends, ten had agreed to go, plus the twins. Hopefully that went well with Liam as the only male. The prospect of smitten 13-year-olds made Charlotte a little nervous. That’s why she was glad to have Pauline’s support.
They clucked and cackled, screeched and hopped, and were harder to herd than a bunch of capuchin monkeys. Yet it was just a matter of picking out loaner shoes.
“Were we like that once?” asked Charlotte of her sister.
Pauline grinned to herself, “Sure. But you were worse than me.”
“Nah, sure,” Charlotte bent her right arm over her head and tapped her left temple, and they both burst out laughing.
“Do you remember Christian, my big crush?”
Charlotte nodded emphatically, “He was cute. I wonder what ever happened to him?”
Pauline shrugged, “He went to law school, got his PhD, and now runs a big company,” seeing Charlotte’s questioning expression, she added, “I googled him.”
“Why? Should I be worried?”
“Nonsense. I was bored. Then I do that every now and then. Me I also google to check what info there is about me on the net. I highly recommend it.”
But Charlotte was not distracted, “Did you find a photo of him?” Pauline nodded.
“I almost didn’t recognize him. He’s put on at least 20 kilograms, has a belly that hangs over the belt of his pants, wears glasses, has gray, light hair. I recognized him only by the shape of his mouth. Otherwise, not much is left of the handsome young man with the thick brown hair.”
“Have we changed that much, too?” asked Charlotte thoughtfully.
Pauline shook her head vigorously, “We’re no more than five kilos heavier than we used to be, and we don’t have gray, thinning hair.”
Charlotte laughed, raised her hand and slapped hers against Pauline’s, “I’m reassured then.”
“Mom, we’re done with the shoes. We’re ready to go.” Charlotte waved her arm widely, “Follow me then.”
Bowling, Emma and her friends continued to giggle and giggle, sneaking around Liam, trying to catch his attention, while the twins put on a decidedly nonchalant expression and didn’t respond.
Pauline pointed to the group, “Do you want to be that age again?”
“No way. It’s way too exhausting. Come on, let’s get the drinks. I think we can leave them alone for a few minutes.”
When they returned with the loaded trays, there was great excitement. Emma’s best friend Eva had dropped a bowling ball on Jule’s other best friend’s foot, and Jule screeched at her, “What did you do. You stupid bitch. I’m going to kick your ass,” pushing Eva against the sofa so that she plopped down on a seat.
Charlotte raised her voice, “Stop, stop right now. What’s going on?”
“She,” Jule said, still upset, jabbing her index finger at Eva’s chest, “dropped the bullet on my foot on purpose.”
“That’s not true. It slipped out of my hand. After all, I’ve never bowled before,” Eva said meekly.
“Nothing bad could have happened, though, the way she’s getting all excited and bouncing around,” Pauline whispered in Charlotte’s ear.
Charlotte walked over to the bowling balls and lifted one of them, “Mmm, these are big. I can believe Eva.” Then she turned to Jule, “How is your foot. Does it hurt? Please take off your shoe and move it.”
She followed Charlotte’s prompting, and Charlotte and Pauline looked closely at the foot. They asked Jule to wiggle her toes. Then Charlotte tested the foot, “Nothing broken. No bruises. It went well again,” she said, secretly breathing a sigh of relief.
Pauline turned to Eva: “Eva, please apologize to Jule. Then let’s finally start the game.”
Reluctantly, Eva complied with the request. Afterwards, the bowling began.
Charlotte gently nudged Pauline’s waist with her elbow and whispered, “Well done, teacher. Thank you.”
Smiling, Pauline patted Charlotte’s upper arm, “Anytime.”
Although Jule sprayed venomous glances at the beginning, overall, to Charlotte’s great relief, the rest of the afternoon went off without a hitch, ending after two hours of bowling at the specially set-up birthday table. The celebrations continued, however. For no sooner were they home than the doorbell rang. Emma dashed to the front door, opened it, and let out cheers. Charlotte, who was pouring champagne for herself, Justus, Karl and Pauline, and her just-arrived in-laws, looked up from her glasses. In came Julia with a large, flat-wrapped present.
“Hello Julia, how nice that you’re here,” Charlotte said and hugged her full of joy. Julia had realized her big dream and was now studying in Berlin. During the semester breaks, she regularly visited Charlotte and her family. Since Charlotte had recommended her works to the Sass Gallery, which turned out to be a stroke of luck for both artist and gallery owner, a friendship had developed between Charlotte and Julia that included Justus, Karl and Emma. Lara Sass took intensive care of Julia, organized exhibitions at home and abroad, took her and her works to art fairs and introduced them to collectors. Emma’s paintings sold well, and recently Julia had applied for an art award that came with a commission for a large painting.
Julia presented her gift to Emma.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Emma, smiling mischievously. “I don’t know. Open it.”
Impatiently, Emma tore down the paper. To reveal an abstractly painted picture, its colors glowing intensely. On a snow-white, glittering background, orange, blue, and green orbs were painted.
Emma excitedly slapped her right hand in front of her mouth, “That’s beautiful, Julia. Thank you so much.”
“The eye for good art, she clearly got from me,” Charlotte noted with self-irony, but still with a touch of pride.
“I’ll hang that above my desk.” “What are we going to do with your bulletin board then?”
“Mom,” Emma said in a put-upon annoyance, “that’s easy. The bulletin board goes on the opposite wall, next to the closet.”
A few hours later, Justus put Emma to bed and Kurt and her in-laws had already left, Charlotte and Julia sat relaxing together, sipping champagne and chatting about art.
“I’m so glad Lara sent me the tip about the call for entries. It would be really great if I won the prize.” Julia’s eyes took on a hopeful gleam.
“You’re certainly good enough.”
“The judges have to think so, though.”
“We’ll see,” Charlotte said, pouring more champagne.
“Now enough about me,” Julia said, looking intently at Charlotte, “how are you?”
Charlotte waved her hand through the air, “Good. I’m very happy with my family.”
“And how are things professionally?”
Charlotte considered, then shrugged, “It’s okay.” “Not happy?”
“Mmm, in phases, yes. Sometimes I’m satisfied, then again I’m overcome with annoyance. It’s just the way it is in everyday working life.” Julia nodded thoughtfully, “You know, I don’t understand why you don’t work at Lara. You have a good sense of talent and art. Lara would hire you in a second.”
“I know. But I deserve more now.” „BlahBlah.“
“Don’t dismiss it like that. Money is important. You can’t pay bills and raise a kid without money, and it’s good for retirement, too.”
“Yeah right. But there are the two of you. So you have two salaries,” she demonstratively held up her index and middle fingers, “and you’re not supposed to work for Lara for free. You discovered me, doesn’t that count for anything?”
“It does, but security is important to me. What do I get out of my satisfaction and all the art and education if I don’t have enough money?”
“Now I understand. You mean if you don’t have money, you’re a loser?”
“Well, our society measures achievement and success in terms of money.”
Julia wrinkled her nose, “Oh, come on. Have the courage to change.”
Charlotte laughed unhappily, “You mean jump and see where it takes me?”
“Why not. I’d be annoyed by stagnation.”
“You’re a few years younger than me, too.”
“Immaterial,” Julia said with a grin.
“You know what I’m saying, don’t you.”
Julia raised both hands in the air, “Okay, you’re right. I know what you mean. I give up.” After a moment of silence, she added, “Reluctantly, though.”
The papers on her desk were piling up, in the outer office Leo Schneider was once again flirting with Bärbel Grüntal, although the Baldus had heard him and married him. And outside her window a gardener was working with a leaf vacuum cleaner, the noise of which strained her ears and nerves. She needed the meeting with Heinze as urgently as she needed a hole in her head. Hectically, she searched for her documents. On them she had arranged the important figures in a table. She knew that if she asked Grüntal about them now, Schneider would gloat. But since time was pressing and Schneider was not going to disappear, she had no choice.
“Ms. Grüntal, have you seen my investment bill?” “For the new computers?”
Hopefully, Charlotte nodded.
“Nah, I haven’t seen them.” Grüntal shook her head and continued to cackle with Schneider, who grinned contentedly to himself. She had known. Such an idiot.
The meeting had been exhausting. She desperately needed some rest and a cup of chamomile tea to relax. But before she could close the door to her office and reach for her thermos, Schneider swept in without a greeting, “I need to talk to you.”
Charlotte forced herself to adopt a friendly tone, “Not now. But I’ll have time for you in an hour, Mr. Schneider.”
Schneider spoke up, “No, I want to talk to you now.”
Charlotte took a closer look at Schneider. His ears were bright red, his posture tense, and his facial expression reminded her of a bulldog. Charlotte sighed inwardly, closed her office door and turned to Schneider.
“What’s going on that’s so urgent?”
Schneider rumbled, “I resent your interference in my private life! That is the very last thing! Mind your own business!”
Charlotte looked at him indignantly, but was too perplexed to say anything. “Now don’t look so amazed. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Charlotte frowned, shook her head slightly, and took a deep breath. But Schneider pressed on: “You called my wife. Admit it already.” Accusingly, Schneider raised his index finger and poked Charlotte’s ribcage with it. She took a startled step backward and bumped into the edge of her desk. Schneider set after her.
Charlotte yelled out, “Hey, don’t do that. Are you out of your mind.” “Hah, now you’re getting scared, what, you stupid bitch.” “Stop it!” Charlotte yelled at the top of her lungs.
Schneider didn’t seem to have expected that, because he let go of her and paused in irritation. Charlotte took the opportunity to escape behind her desk, pointed to her visitor’s chair, and put her hand on her phone. “Mr. Schneider, sit down immediately or I will call the security.”
All teint had faded from Schneider’s face, the anger in his eyes extinguished, and he slumped down on the chair.
“What is this about? I want an explanation right now.”
Resignedly, Schneider ran his hand over his eyes, “My wife received anonymous phone calls last week, yesterday and today. A woman’s voice claimed that I was having an affair at the office.”
Charlotte frowned skeptically. “Oh…I see…and that’s when you thought it was me,” Charlotte stated matter-of-factly.
“Sure. Why don’t you admit it? You’re jealous of me.”
Charlotte snorted in amusement, “Mr. Schneider…you’re crazy. Nothing could be further from my mind.”
“I don’t believe you. You want to get rid of me this way and ruin my reputation.”
Charlotte smiled grimly. “Believe me, that’s not my style,” she said and continued in an admonishing tone “so, and now I ask you to leave my office.” “You’re lying!”
“Now pull yourself together. I’ll say it one last time: it wasn’t me. And now leave me alone with your insinuations,” Charlotte said, pointing to the door.
Schneider rose without objection and strode out of the room with a contemptuous expression on his face.
Charlotte closed her eyes briefly, ran a hand over her forehead. What a day. Thoughtfully, she poured tea from her thermos into the cup on her desk, let sugar follow, stirred and drank with her eyes closed. My Lord, the guy is convinced of himself. He could be trusted to have an affair. After all, she had often overheard him flirting smugly with Grüntal, as well as with other women in the company. He obviously thought he was irresistible. She had expected more from Ricarda Baldus, however. She simply couldn’t understand why such a tough woman had fallen in love with such a self-absorbed big ego. Charlotte wrinkled her nose, opened her eyes and sighed deeply. Time to get to work.
“Imagine. When I was at work, my mother-in-law washed all my curtains.”
“I’d love to have a mother-in-law like that.”
“But she hung them back up all wrong. And now the pleats don’t fall right.”
“I think I’ll wash them all again and then hang them up properly.” “I’m sure your mother-in-law was just trying to help you.”
“Still, she hung the curtains the wrong way.”
“I thought that was a nice thing to do.”
“I don’t know. They’re hanging the wrong way.”
The idiocy and repetition of this exchange of words fascinated Charlotte. She was sitting in a bus on her way to work; she had taken her car to the garage for inspection. The two women in the row in front of her were still chatting her into hypnosis with their petty inanities. However, this conversation was better than the vicious gossip she sometimes heard in the office, where pomposity and importance were poured out and disaffected venom was liberally spouted. Charlotte slid deeper into her seat, looked out at the countryside and houses passing by the bus window, and surrendered to hypnosis, smiling.
Meier scrambled, rumbled, shouted around. Apparently he felt that Charlotte was unfairly criticizing his presentation on the purchase of new computers. Several times Charlotte tried to interrupt him. No chance. All objectivity had disappeared from the conversation. Now she stood there, paralyzed and like a scolded child, unable to move from the spot. Until the phone rang on Meier’s desk. That broke the spell. Wordlessly, Charlotte turned around and left the room with a measured step that cost her a lot of strength. She would have liked to run out. But she did not begrudge Meier this triumph. Her pace quickened as she strode through the anteroom, past Heidi Lah, who, as usual, was on the phone and, judging by the pompous whispering, was listening to everything as it happened.
The indignation about Meier’s behavior and the associated humiliation lay heavy on Charlotte’s chest for the rest of the day and didn’t seem to want to dissipate. She just couldn’t get used to this way of dealing with people. She was glad when she could finally call it a day. After picking up her car from the garage, she drove home. She was freezing inside. She looked at her wristwatch. She still had an hour to herself before her father brought Emma over. She parked her car in the space in front of her house, entered the hallway, threw her coat and bag on the chair next to the coat rack, let her shoes follow, and went into the kitchen, straight to the refrigerator. She found an opened bottle of cherry brandy, poured herself a shot glass and downed it quickly. She didn’t feel any of the burning heat that usually spread from the center of her body this time. So she made herself a hot water bottle, put on her jogging suit, wrapped herself in her snuggle blanket and curled up on the living room sofa. Immediately she fell asleep, exhausted, and only woke up when her father and Emma noisily entered the living room.
“Oh, did we wake you?” Karl paused, startled, when he saw Charlotte’s sleepy face.
Dazed, Charlotte waved it off, “I just laid down for a bit. No problem.”
During the night, she woke up with a pounding headache and tension in her shoulders. Quietly, so as not to wake Justus, she got up and went to the bathroom. And then came the nosebleeds. As it always did when something hit her hard. Without notice, it started to gush. A sure sign that it was more than just a dishamony. She reached for the toilet paper and cleaned her nose, at the same time pressing on the right nostril from which the blood was dripping. After standing there like that for a while, the bleeding stopped. She brushed her teeth, went to the kitchen and made herself some chamomile tea. With the cup, she sat down at the table, staring at the yellow liquid and letting her thoughts flow: The never-ending work, the rigid hours, the hierarchies, and the people with their sensitivities and shortcomings and spitefulness exhausted her. If she was honest, she had to admit that the statistics, bills and negotiations bored her. She was in danger of choking on the predictable. She no longer felt life and its vitality. Perhaps that was also the reason why she had not wanted to return to professional life after Emma’s birth. She just didn’t understand herself. Charlotte thought back again to the time without her job. But she had not been satisfied then either. But when was she satisfied? When she was occupied with art. But there was not enough money in it. And she didn’t want to do without her own money again. But was money important at all? Sure, without money you can’t pay your bills. But apart from that? She would prefer to say that it didn’t interest her. But that would be wrong. After all, it is the foundation of a way of life as she lived it. Our society is trained to seek happiness and satisfaction in the possession of “things,” she thought. But is it happiness if everything revolved around the material? And all at once she knew: happiness is fulfillment. And it is the inner fulfillment.