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Authors: Peter Stamm

Seven Years

BOOK: Seven Years
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Copyright © 2009 by Peter Stamm

Originally published in German as
Sieben Jahre
by S. Fischer Verlag
GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2009.

Translation copyright © 2010 Michael Hofmann
Production Editor:
Yvonne E. Cárdenas

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from Other Press LLC, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast. For information write to Other Press LLC, 2 Park Avenue, 24th Floor, New York, NY 10016. Or visit our Web site:
www.otherpress.com

The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

Stamm, Peter, 1963-
    [Sieben Jahre. English]
    Seven years / Peter Stamm ; translated [from the German] by Michael Hofmann.
        p. cm.
    eISBN: 978-1-59051-395-8   1. Married people — Fiction.   2. Husband and wife — Fiction.   3. Triangles (Interpersonal relations) — Fiction.   4. Psychological fiction.   I. Hofmann, Michael, 1957 Aug. 25-   II. Title.
    PT2681.T3234S5413 2011
    833′.914—dc22

2010040658

P
UBLISHER

S
N
OTE:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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S
onia stood in the middle of the brightly lit space; she liked to be at the center of things. Her head was slightly lowered, and she kept her arms close to her sides. She was smiling with her lips, but her eyes were narrowed, as though she were dazzled or in pain. Like the paintings on the walls, to which no one paid any attention but that were supposed to be the occasion for the presence of all these people, she seemed somehow not there, or only superficially there.

I was smoking a cigarillo, and watched through the plate glass gallery window as a good-looking man went up to Sonia and spoke to her. It was as though she woke up from her slumbers. She broke into a smile and touched glasses with him. His lips moved, and I could see an almost childlike astonishment come over her, then she smiled again, but even from where I was I could see she wasn’t listening to the man, she was thinking about something else.

Then Sophie was standing next to me. She seemed to have something on her mind as well. She said, Mama is the most beautiful woman in the world. Yes, I said, and I stroked her hair. She is, your mama is the most beautiful woman in the world.

It had been snowing since morning, but the snow melted as soon as it touched the ground. I’m cold, said Sophie, and she slipped back into the gallery, through the door that someone had just opened. A tall bald man had come out, with a cigarette between his lips. He stood far too close to me—as though we knew each other—and lit it. Ghastly pictures, he said. When I didn’t reply, he turned and took a couple of steps away. Suddenly he seemed a little uncertain and awkward.

I kept watching through the gallery window. Sophie had run in to Sonia, whose face brightened. The good-looking man, who was still next to her, looked sternly, almost offended, at the girl. Sonia bent down to Sophie, and the two of them had a short conversation, and Sophie pointed outside. Sonia shielded her eyes with her hand and peered in my direction with a strained smile, creasing her brow. I was pretty sure she couldn’t make me out in the darkness. She said something to Sophie and gave her a little push toward the door. I felt a momentary impulse to run away, to merge with the crowds getting off work and striding through the light that poured out of the gallery. The passersby glanced cursorily at the elegant, nicely dressed people within, and then hurried on their way, heading home with the rest of the crowd.

I hadn’t seen Antje for almost twenty years, and even so I recognized her right away. She must be about sixty, but her face was still youthful. Well, she said, and kissed me on both cheeks. Before I could say anything a young man with a silly-looking ornamental beard appeared by her side, whispered into her ear, and pulled her away from me. I saw him lead her to a man in a dark suit whose face was familiar, maybe from the newspapers. Sophie had collared the man who a moment ago had approached Sonia, and was flirting with him, to his evident embarrassment. Sonia listened with an amused expression, but once more I had the feeling her thoughts were elsewhere. I went over to her and laid my arm around her waist. I enjoyed the man’s jealous look. He was asking Sophie how old she was. Guess, she said. He pretended to think. Twelve? She’s ten, said Sonia, and Sophie said, you’re mean. You’re very much like your mother, said the man. Sophie thanked him with a curtsey. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world, she said. She seemed to know just exactly what was going on.

Do you mind if I take Sophie home now? Sonia asked. Antje will probably have to stay till the end. I offered to take Sophie home myself so she could stay, but she shook her head and said she was really tired. She and Antje had the whole weekend to look forward to anyway.

Sophie had asked her beau to fetch her a glass of orange juice. He asked if he could get anyone else a drink. Will you stop ordering other people around? I said. I wonder who she gets it from, Sonia said. She bit her lip and looked down at the ground and then into my eyes, but I pretended I hadn’t heard. We’re out of here, she said, and kissed me quickly on the mouth. Try not to make any noise when you get home.

The gallery started to empty, but it was a long time until the last of the visitors had gone. In the end, there was only Antje and me, and an elderly gentleman whom she didn’t introduce. The two of them were standing side by side in front of one of the pictures, talking together in such quiet voices that I instinctively left them alone. I flipped through the price list and kept glancing at the two of them. Finally Antje put her arms around the man, kissed him on the forehead, and walked him to the door. That was Georg, she said, I used to be crazy about him. She laughed. Weird, isn’t it? That was a hundred years ago. She went to the bar and came back with two glasses of red wine. She held one out to me, but I shook my head. I’ve given it up. She smiled doubtfully, emptied her glass in a single swallow, and said, well in that case, I’m all set.

The gallery owner had left the keys with Antje. She spent ages flicking the light switches until it was completely dark. Once outside, she slipped her arm through mine and asked if the car was parked nearby. It was still just snowing. What weather, she said. Next time we should meet in Marseilles. She asked me if I liked the paintings. You’ve gotten a little calmer, I said. Subtler, I hope, said Antje. I don’t understand art, I said, but unlike before, I could imagine having a painting of yours up on the wall at home. Antje said she wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not.

I asked her if she had invited Sonia’s parents to the opening. I had expected them to be there. Antje didn’t reply. If you want to visit them, I can loan you the car, it’s just a hop and a skip to Starnberg anyway. Antje still didn’t say a word. Not until we got to the car did she answer that she hardly had any time, and she was too tired to go driving around the countryside. Getting the show ready had really taken it out of her. I asked her if there was anything the matter. She hesitated. No, she said, or maybe there is. They’ve gotten old and narrow-minded. Surely they always were, I replied. Antje shook her head. Of course Sonia’s parents were conservative, she said, but her father at least used to be genuinely interested in art. She had had many conversations with him about it. Of late, he had become more and more inaccessible, perhaps it was an age thing. He didn’t have any use for anything new, and had turned bitter. He doesn’t need to agree with me, she said, but I wish he would at least listen to what I have to say. The last time we met, we had a huge argument about Gursky. Since then I haven’t felt like seeing him.

I wondered whether there might not be other reasons for Antje not to see Sonia’s father. I often suspected there might have been something between them. When I ran it by Sonia once, she reacted indignantly, and said her parents had a good marriage. Just like us, I thought, and said nothing more.

Even though there wasn’t much in the way of traffic, it still took us a long while to get clear of the city. Antje didn’t speak. I looked across to her and saw she had closed her eyes. I thought she was asleep when she suddenly said she sometimes wondered if she had done me a favor back then. How do you mean? What with? Sonia wasn’t sure, Antje said. For a while neither of us spoke, and then Antje said Sonia wasn’t sure whether we were a good match. You mean if I was good enough for her?, I asked. You had potential, Antje said, I think that was her word. The other boy … Rüdiger, I said. Yes, Rüdiger was fun to be with, but he wasn’t focused enough. And then there was someone else. She tried to recall the name. The one who later married the musician. Ferdy?, I said. Maybe, said Antje.

I couldn’t imagine Sonia ever being interested in Ferdy. It didn’t last long, Antje said. Did she really have a thing with him? We were stuck at a light, and I turned to Antje. She smiled apologetically. I don’t think she slept with him, if that’s what you mean. Didn’t she tell you?

Sonia never did talk much. It often felt as though she’d had no previous life, or whatever it was had left no traces except in the photograph albums on her bookshelf, which she never took out. When I looked at the pictures, I had the sense that they came from another life. Now and then I asked Sonia about her time with Rüdiger, and she gave me monosyllabic replies. She said she never asked me what I’d done before either. It doesn’t bother me, I said. After all, you’re mine now. But Sonia was stubbornly silent. Sometimes I wondered if it wasn’t that there was just nothing to say.

Antje’s smile had changed, she looked a little mocking now. You men like to make conquests, she said. Try and see it in a positive light. She checked through her possibilities, and chose you.

A car honked behind me, and I accelerated so fast the tires squealed. And what was your part in the whole thing?, I asked. Can you remember the first night the two of you stayed at my place?, asked Antje. Sonia went to bed early, and we sat up and looked at my pictures together. I had half a mind to seduce you. I liked you, clean-cut little college kid. But instead I just led you up the garden path, and told you Sonia was in love with you. And the next day I gave her a spiel. What did you do that for? Antje shrugged her shoulders. Are you annoyed? Her question sounded serious. It was for fun, she said finally, I put in a good word for you. There was something with another woman, a foreigner, if I remember. Ivona, I said, and I sighed. That’s a long story.

I
’d been sitting for hours with Ferdy and Rüdiger in a beer garden near the English Garden. It was a hot July afternoon, and the sunlight was a dazzling white. We’d handed in our final thesis projects ten days before, and in another week we had to go and defend them. We didn’t have much else to do except while away the time and give each other courage. All three of us had chosen the design of a modern museum on a site bordering the Hofgarten, and we were sketching out our plans and pushing notepads back and forth. Our voices were loud and excited, and we didn’t care that the other customers kept turning around to look at us. Rüdiger said my plans reminded him of Aldo Rossi. I was offended, and said what did he know? There are worse people to imitate than the old masters, said Ferdy, but Alex tries to reinvent the wheel every time he draws something. Then tell me where Rossi fits in, I said, and pushed my plan across the table. But Rüdiger had already moved on. He was talking about Deconstructivism, saying the architect was the psychotherapist of pure form, and more bullshit of that type.

A couple of girls were sitting at our table. They were wearing light summer dresses and were attractive enough in an uninteresting way. After a while we got talking. One of them worked for an advertising agency, and the other was studying art history or ethnology or something like that. It was a flip sort of conversation, made up of one-liners, jokes and comebacks, all going nowhere. When the girls paid to leave, Ferdy suggested we all go to the English Garden together. They hesitated briefly, and conferred in whispers, then the advertising girl said they had other plans, but we might meet up later at Monopteros. As they left, they had their heads together, and after a couple of steps, they turned and waved and laughed at us.

I’m having the blonde, said Ferdy. The brunette is much prettier, said Rüdiger. But the blonde is really stacked, said Ferdy. There you go, deconstructing again, said Rüdiger. Two women between three guys doesn’t work. Ferdy looked at me. You’d better find yourself a girl. Why me?, I protested. Ferdy grinned. You’re the best-looking of the three of us. That girl over there has hardly taken her eyes off of us.

I saw a woman reading a couple of tables away in the shadow of a big linden tree. She was probably our age, but she was completely unattractive. Her face was puffy, and she wore her midlength hair loose. Presumably she had gotten a perm some time ago, but it had grown out, and her hair was hanging in her face. Her clothing looked cheap and worn. She had on a brown corduroy skirt, a patterned blouse in wishy-washy pastel colors, and a scarf around her neck. Her nose was reddened, and a few crumpled-up tissues were on the table in front of her. While I was still taking her in, she looked up and our glances met. Her face twisted into an anxious smile, and in a sort of reflex I smiled back. She lowered her eyes, but even her shyness seemed inappropriate and disagreeably flirtatious.

Women are helpless in the face of his charms, said Ferdy. He’ll never get her, said Rüdiger. You wanna bet? Before I could answer, he went on. I bet you don’t get her. There was something sad about his eyes now. I said I wouldn’t even take her if she was offered. Well, we’ll just have to see about that, said Ferdy, getting to his feet. The woman was watching us again. When she saw Ferdy making straight for her, her expression changed to a mixture of dread and expectation. He’s mad, I groaned, and turned away. The whole thing was embarrassing to me already. I looked around for the waitress. Surely you won’t bail at this stage, said Rüdiger, come on, be a man. What’s the sense of this, I said, and stretched my legs. My good mood was gone, I felt useless and rotten, and was angry at myself. It was as though the voices and laughter faded into the background, and through the sound I heard the approach of steps across the gravel.

Meet Ivona, said Ferdy. She’s from Poland. This is Rüdiger, and
this
—is Alexander. He was standing behind me, I had to look almost vertically up at him. Have a seat, said Ferdy. The woman put her glass down on the table, and next to it her tissues and her book, which was a romance novel with a brightly colored cover showing a man and a woman on horseback. She sat down between me and Rüdiger. She sat there with her hands folded in her lap and a very straight back. She looked restlessly between us. There was something stiff about her posture, but her whole appearance was somehow sagging and feeble. She seemed to have given up all hope of ever pleasing anyone, even herself.

Isn’t the weather lovely, said Rüdiger, and giggled foolishly. Yes, said Ivona. But it’s hot, said Ferdy. Ivona nodded. I asked her if she had a cold. She said she had hay fever. She was allergic to all kinds of pollen. All kinds of Poles?, asked Ferdy, and Rüdiger laughed like a drain. No, grass, dust, said Ivona, not batting an eyelid. And so it went on. Ferdy and Rüdiger asked her stupid questions, and she answered them seemingly unaware that she was being made fun of. On the contrary, she seemed to enjoy their interest in her, and smiled after each one of her monosyllabic replies. She came from Posen. I thought you were from Poland, said Rüdiger. Posen is a town in Poland, Ivona replied patiently. Her German was almost accentless, but she spoke slowly and cautiously, as if not quite sure of herself. She said she worked in a bookstore. She was trying to improve her German, and supporting her parents back home. Her father was an invalid and her mother’s earnings weren’t enough for them both.

From the very outset, Ivona was disagreeable to me. I felt sorry for her, and at the same time I was irritated by her docile and long-suffering manner. Instead of holding Ferdy and Rüdiger back, I was closer to joining in their mean games. Ivona gave the impression of a natural-born victim. When Ferdy said we had arranged to meet up with two girls in the English Garden, and didn’t Ivona want to join us, I felt like protesting, but what would have been the use? Ivona hesitated. Four o’clock at Monopteros, said Ferdy, turning to us. Shall we go?

We were there in good time. The two girls arrived shortly after us, only there was no sign of Ivona. She’s not coming, I said, thank God. Who’s not coming?, asked one of the girls. Alex’s girlfriend, said Ferdy, and he turned to me and said, you can wait here for her, you know where we’re going.

Rüdiger said quietly he’d keep me company. We sat down on the steps of the little temple, and he passed me a cigarette. The ugly ones are the hardest to pull, he said. Because they never get a man, they think they’re something special. I shook my head. Nonsense. Ivona reminded him of a girl he’d gone out with in the early years of high school, Rüdiger said. Subsequently, he’d not been able to tell himself why. In fact he’d already been in love with Sonia at the time, but she’d been too much for him, with her looks and everything. I must have gone for the other girl because of fear, said Rüdiger, or else I was trying to get a rise out of Sonia. Brigitte wasn’t a looker, and she was really hard work, and most of the time she was in a bad mood. I wasn’t allowed to do more than kiss her and grope a little bit. But somehow I wasn’t able to break up with her. She manipulated me, I never quite understood how. He went on talking, but I stopped listening. My own mood hadn’t improved. I was tired from the beer, and sweaty, and I felt unwell. I asked myself what I was doing waiting for Ivona if her company was so unpleasant to me. Perhaps some remnant of manners, perhaps curiosity, or perhaps just because heading off would have needed a decision on my part, and my lack of initiative was crippling me.

Ivona arrived twenty minutes late. She was wearing the same outfit as at lunchtime, plus a little beige cardigan, even though it was still warm. She didn’t apologize and didn’t say what had made her late. All right then, said Rüdiger, and he stood up.

We met the others at a place by the lake where we often went. The girls said hi to Ivona, but more or less ignored her after that. We had brought blankets, and Ferdy had a couple of lukewarm bottles of beer. We lay there torpidly, passing bottles around, and talking about all kinds of things. Ivona didn’t drink anything, and she didn’t contribute to the conversation. She just sometimes blew her nose and smiled a stupid-looking smile. Once or twice she made as if to speak, but one of the others got in first, and she gave up. I noticed that she was watching me. Each time I looked across to her, she looked away, as though I’d caught her in the act. Again I felt like hurting her, being rude to her. Her ugliness and pokiness were a provocation to me, her desire to belong exposed us and made us laughable. I wondered how I might shake her off. Shall we go cool down?, I finally asked. We grabbed our things. Ivona hadn’t said anything, but she trotted along behind us to the Eisbach. The greater part of the meadow was already in shadow, and the few people who were still there clustered in the last patches of sunshine. I had expected the presence of nudity to deter Ivona, but she showed no reaction, and silently sat down on one of the blankets, as though she was entitled to it. Ferdy said he was going for more beer, and took off.

The girls were wearing bikinis under their dresses, and Rüdiger and I stripped and ran naked down to the water and jumped in. When we returned a little later, the girls were lying side by side, talking together softly. The blonde had her top off, and turned onto her stomach as we approached. Ivona was sitting in the shade, she hadn’t even taken her cardigan off. She looked at me in surprise, and my nakedness embarrassed me, and I pulled on shorts and pants. Then I played Frisbee with Rüdiger. The girls seemed to have no interest in us, presumably they were talking about what they were going to do that night and we didn’t figure in their plans. And that’s what happened, Ferdy returned finally, and they said they had to go. Ferdy half-heartedly tried to keep them, but I think basically we were all relieved when they went. Only Ivona made no move to leave.

By now the whole meadow was in shadow. The last of the bathers had dressed and gone, and were probably drifting through the bars and beer gardens of the city. I was seized by a mixture of melancholy and expectation, it felt as though the present moment had shrunk to something infinitesimally small, separate both from the past and from whatever lay ahead, which felt distant and notional. Rüdiger and Ferdy started talking architecture again, but it wasn’t like before. Ivona sat off to one side, her arms clasping her pale legs. She didn’t say anything, but she was still getting in the way. Ferdy, who was sitting with his back to her, made choking motions with his hands, and leaned forward to me and whispered, I think we have to throw her in the water or else we’ll never get rid of her. Rüdiger heard Ferdy and said half aloud, you asked her, she’s on your watch. She’s Alex’s responsibility, said Ferdy. I didn’t know if Ivona could hear what we were saying, but she didn’t react anyway. She had rested her head on her arms and was looking into the trees. It’s no use, said Rüdiger, and stood up.

We cleared our stuff. Ivona got to her feet awkwardly and watched as we rolled up the blankets. When we left, she followed us, without our having asked her to. She was always a couple of feet behind. At the count of three, let’s run, said Ferdy, and he sprinted off, but after a few steps he stopped and waited for us to catch up to him.

We went back to the beer garden where we’d been for lunch. We had to sit at a table with strangers. Ivona sat next to me. Again, she didn’t say a word, she didn’t even seem to be listening to our conversation. Later on, a couple of friends of ours came by, and we had to squeeze together. Ivona was pressed against me, and I felt the softness and warmth of her hips and thighs.

Eventually, my head was reeling with alcohol and noise, I dropped my hand on Ivona’s thigh and absentmindedly started stroking her. I wasn’t caressing her exactly, it was more like an animal lying next to another animal for shared warmth. When I got up shortly after and waved good night, she got up too, and followed me like a dog following its master. As we left the beer garden, she said she had to go to the ladies’ room for a moment. I thought about making a break for it, but by now I was turned on by the idea of being with her. It wasn’t the usual back-and-forth, the game of trying to seduce a woman. I had the feeling Ivona was giving herself to me, and I had absolute power over her, and could do whatever I liked with her. I felt utterly indifferent to her. I had nothing to lose and nothing to be afraid of.

It was a long time before Ivona emerged from the restroom. I asked if I should walk her home. She said it wasn’t far. We went through a small park. The air felt cooler, and there was a smell of wet earth and dogshit. At the darkest point, I grabbed hold of Ivona and kissed her. She let me, and she didn’t resist when I groped her breasts and bottom. When I tried to undo her belt, she turned away and took my hand.

She lived in a student residence hall for women. She walked up the stairs ahead of me. I was feeling a little more sober than before, and it slowly dawned on me what an idiotic thing I was doing, but I was too excited, and it didn’t seem possible to turn back now. Ivona unlocked her room and switched on the light. No sooner had she closed the door behind us than I embraced her again, and dragged her over to the narrow single bed. I tried to undress her, but she wouldn’t let me. She twisted and struggled with surprising agility. I kissed her and touched her all over, and pushed my hand down the front of her skirt, but her belt was so tight, I could hardly move my fingers. My hand was pressed flat against Ivona’s belly, and I could feel her woolly pubic hair. Ivona was whimpering, I couldn’t tell if it was desire or fear or both. I hadn’t been so excited in ages, maybe because I so completely didn’t care what Ivona thought about me. I tried to undo her belt with my free hand. Again she struggled. I said some stupid nonsense or other. She murmured no, and please no. Her voice sounded dark and soft.

When I woke up, I was muzzy and hardly knew where I was. It was brightening outside, the room was in twilight. My head hurt, and I needed to pee. I was shirtless, Ivona had all her clothes on, only the top buttons on her blouse were undone.

While I pissed into the sink, I opened the mirror cabinet, which was stuffed with shampoo samples and unfamiliar medicines. I turned and saw that Ivona was awake and watching me. I said, I’m going now. Then she got up and came over to me and whispered into my ear, I love you. It didn’t sound like a declaration of love, more like the statement of an immutable fact. I reached for my shirt and T-shirt. Ivona watched me dress with something like entitlement, her eyes were full of pride. I walked out without another word.

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