These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
I start every day in the gym with my personal trainer. He’s a gorgeous young thing, but I think he’s gay. It’s been awhile. He keeps me looking good for when the right opportunity arises. My last one was almost as young, about fifteen years younger than I am. Lasted about seven months. He was from Norway and had to get back home to the farm. I couldn’t believe he’d bow to that sort of family pressure. But today is Friday, so I’m off to the spa right after this: we start with a massage and a facial, then the hair, and while I’m waiting for the dye to work its magic, I have my feet and hands done. Every four weeks I get my brows and chin and upper lip waxed. I fast on Fridays, too. Keeps my appetite in control.
While my feet are being done, I check my texts – can’t do it during a massage or when my nails are being painted. And I like to watch when they work on my hair. These young girls get sloppy when they think I’m too old for this to matter.
“Liebe Mutti…” begins the first text. God help me! That’s not what I really think – I mean, the God part – but dealing with this girl is a nightmare. This girl is my daughter-in-law. What did my son think? Did he think that if he married someone opposite of his mother that the marriage would last? She is my opposite, too. She’s from the south in the mountains, dark as an Italian and Catholic as one, too. She hasn’t been pregnant since that first one was born (more on him in a minute). Do they even do it? She is curvy and doesn’t seem to mind, puts cream in her coffee and butter on her toast. She wears dresses all the time and a scarf on her head when she is at home. She attends church every Sunday, every Holy Day of Obligation. She calls me “Mutti”. “I’m not your ‘Mutti’,” I want to scream. She has no ear for music, no culture – her parents are country people in the worst possible way. Her mother is stout and wears her hair in a net, has stubble on her chin and a shadow on her upper lip. The father (my “poppi” she says – ugh!) wears suspenders and pants that are rolled up at the bottom. They attend Mass every day when they are in the city “because it is so hard to get to the church” where they live. When they can’t get to Mass, they say the Rosary and the Angelus. Oh, yes, the child, my grandson. I don’t tell people I’m a grandmother, and I wouldn’t admit being related to that boy anyway. People used to be honest. They’d call him an “idiot savant”. Now there are all sorts of names, but this girl won’t even bow to that. No, he is her “special gift”.
The text continues, “I hope you will consider coming with us to the Christmas Eve Mass tonight. My Mamma and Poppi are here, too. We are having coffee and cake before. It isn’t far to the church. We’ll leave to walk there about ½ hour before the service. Must say goodbye. Fritz says that Anna is on the phone. Ingrid.” “Anna is on the phone…” Well, if this text hasn’t unpleasant enough, that dreadful American has to pop up in the scene again. Where should I even start with this one?
Starting with this one brings up the whole sloppy mess, so I might as well start from the beginning. The beginning for now will be when I was eighteen years old and attending the University. I came from a certain class in society. I was expected to marry well, and, until that happened, I had to do whatever it took to make myself marketable (crass as this sounds, that’s what we do). And, sure enough, I caught the eye of a young musician from a family of known and respected musicians. The story was progressing as it was supposed to. My parents approved; I found him tolerable. What did I know about living day to day when I was eighteen?
When I was just twenty, Stefan Haselbock and I married. Yes, he was a good man, so good I wanted to screech. Yes, he was a tender and considerate lover -- when he was home. But he was in the orchestra – a violinist who eventually became the concertmaster – and they toured, gone sometimes for a month at a time. This was before email and texts and cell phones. What was I supposed to do? Eventually I had Fritz, and for a while the care of an infant and toddler took up my time and attention. But then he went to school and also began to play the violin. When he wasn’t in school, he was practicing. Loneliness can eat you alive; let me tell you. Stefan suggested we have more children, but what would that solve? They’d just go away, too. We were stuck in something that could not be changed. Being in that orchestra was much more than Stefan’s job; it was a calling. He thought it should be my calling, too, but I couldn’t bring myself to make the sacrifice. The whole problem was incomprehensible to him. He looked at me once and said, “What else do you want from life?” I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know; I just knew I was lonely and empty.
Then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had a surgery that rendered him impotent. I screamed hideous things and begged for the marriage to be ended. Fritz heard; I know that. Stefan didn’t put up a fight, which angered me more.
This is all a long way of explaining who Anna is. Anna is an American – some sort of keyboard player – who Stefan met when they were on tour in the States. Well, wasn’t she the thing for him! She’s a musician, lives in a foreign country – far away from the responsibilities of being a husband. I probably never would have met her except that the cancer finally took Stefan’s life, and she became a link for Fritz to his father. I suppose I should be that link except that I asked to be excused from the picture. She came to Fritz’s wedding. Lovely, trim woman who was so poised and kind I wanted to spit. From her behavior at the service, she also appeared to be religious, which added to my disdain.
Well, I should figure out how to respond to Ingrid’s text, shouldn’t I? Why would I go? The Mass does nothing for me. The hackneyed carols irritate me. The priest is only going to preach things that revolt me. Should I go to sit with my grandson who can still not speak even though he will be singing along with everything he hears? I have no way of relating to Ingrid’s parents. Ingrid’s attempts to be kind to me annoy me, too, because I know she is doing it out of duty.
From my son, all I feel is his disappointment and recrimination. And he walks just like his father. I get a chill through my middle every time I see him walking toward me. It’s like seeing a ghost.
“Ingrid – will try to make it. Don’t know exactly when. Don’t wait for me. Monika.”
Our winters are unpredictable, and this winter has been particularly hard. I just spent all this time and money on my hair, and I can’t decide whether to be freezing with my style blown apart or smash it all down with a hat to stay warm. Standing outside the spa, I see plenty of young women have chosen to wear a hats, so I do the same. When I get home, I can find one that will look good enough to wear while I’m out. No one will mind if I wear it in church.
I guess I’m deciding to go. It’s Christmas, right? I’m not sure why that really makes any difference, but it’s what other people say. I’ll go to Fritz and Ingrid’s apartment just late enough to miss the cake and coffee and boring conversation, having to act interested in that strange child and Ingrid’s bumpkin parents, having to miss Ingrid’s tutored kindness and Fritz’s barely veiled anger. I’ll dress modestly and warmly. Church is no place to look for young men, anyway. As for the church part, I don’t know. I’m not going to think about it yet. The last time I was in a church was for Fritz’s wedding. How long ago was that? Two years? Not quite. And the last time before that was Stefan’s funeral.
I forgot to leave a light on, and my apartment is so dark. It seems cold in here, too. Maybe it is just too windy for the building to hold the heat. What time is it? There’s time enough to change, and it will only take me fifteen minutes to walk there. I wonder if I should call first or maybe send a text. Maybe they tried to call me while I was coming home. No, no message from them. No message from anyone. What should I wear? Maybe this pant suit will be good – the pin stripes make it modern, but it is dark enough not to stand out. I’m not sure it matters; the church will be packed. There’ll be no room to take off my coat. The church was nearly packed for Stefan’s funeral. I think the whole orchestra was there along with their families and students. I didn’t want to go. No one respected me for ending the marriage, that’s for sure. At best, they avoided me. Those who were honest glared at me and then turned away. I still can’t answer the question of why I went to the funeral. No, that’s not true. I can answer, but not now.
I should pick a hat. I have this black fur hat that Stefan brought back from a tour to Russia. It fits snugly; it won’t blow off. I’ve never worn it. He wanted me to model it for him, said it would look good with my blond hair billowing out from the rim, but I refused. I didn’t want anything to do with those tours, and this gift was a result of a tour. He didn’t press the point which made me angrier. He politely left the room and never brought it up again.
I send Ingrid a text saying that I’ll walk towards the church and meet up with them in the front. For all her backwards ways, she is vigilant about checking and responding to texts.
It is windy – good I wore this hat – and the wet snow that fell earlier in the day is turning to ice. The wind blows hard enough to throw me a little off-balance, and all this shivering is making the end of my Friday fast challenging. I’m hungry and a little light headed. Well, I’m almost there. How am I going to pick them out of all these people I see walking to the entrance of the church? Stefan died in the winter, just after the New Year, and the funeral was at night. I didn’t want to arrive too early, so I waited until the very last moment to arrive. There was a crowd entering the church then, too. I can’t remember what the weather was like. It was winter, but I can’t remember anything distinctive. I can’t remember anything about it, really. What was the music? Was there a sermon
I see them, Ingrid’s parents and Ingrid and Fritz and their son – my grandson. I don’t tell anyone I have a grandson. I don’t tell anyone new that I even have a son or that I was married. I’m old enough for people to know I did something with the first half – or more? – of my life, and I’m always relieved when they don’t ask. The thing is, I don’t think of Fritz as my son; I think of him as Stefan’s son. He looks so much like Stefan, and he is good like Stefan was.
I wonder if maybe I should have broken my regular Friday fast with a little something. I’m so cold and shaky, and this isn’t helping me cope with all this ice and wind. I can see them, but if I shout, they probably won’t hear me. The crowds and the bells and the wind are too much for me to compete with. Dare I run feeling the way I feel? Again, the wind and ice have an upper hand. I’ll try waiving and calling out.
I hold up my hand as high as I can, waiving back and forth, “Fritz! Ingrid! I’m over here! Fritz!”
I don’t know if they see me, so I’m going to keep doing this and try to walk a little faster.
My foot is caught on something – a crack in the sidewalk I couldn’t see because of the snow. Oh, God, I’m falling. Maybe I can catch myself.
“Mutti, mutti!” Someone is shaking my shoulder. I’m really cold and lying on my back. Are my eyes frozen shut? My head hurts, and my mouth has the metal, salty taste of blood. I try to open my eyes again. It is dark, and what I can see is spinning around, spinning and spinning, gives me a stomachache. I’m so hungry.
I open my eyes again and try to focus. There he is, that beautiful man. He has so much soul and feeling and goodness. Every cell of this man is good. How could I have let him go? How could I have been so cruel? The things I said to him were horrible and base.
“Stefan,” I say, tears filling my eyes as I reach out my hand. “Stefan,” I say again, the name forming in my blood crusted lips and taking over my whole body with the wonder of his name.
I feel a hand on my forehead, and I close my eyes, lying back beneath the care and love of that skillful hand.
“Mutti, it is me, Fritz. You have had a terrible fall.”
Ingrid chimes in, “Mutti, we are getting help. Are you cold? Poppi is going to put his coat over you.”
My eyes focus, and I know where I am. I’m lying on the sidewalk near the church. Fritz and Ingrid and their son, Mathias Stefan, are on one side, and Ingrid’s parents are on the other. Her father puts his coat on me. It smells of straw. When have I smelled straw? Oh, yes, at Christmas when I was a child. What was it? The year I was twelve, I played Mary in the church school Christmas program. There was straw in the manager. Fritz is holding my hand. The child is in Ingrid’s arms. The bells of the church begin to play a Christmas tune. Mathias Stefan points towards the bell tower.
“Yes, Mathias Stefan?” his mother says. Then the child looked at each one of our group and begins to sing along.