Prologue

“Leni, breathe... Do you hear me? You have to breathe!” She shakes me vigorously and though I know she is moving my body, I can’t feel anything. I can hear her muffled voice. I can see her. I can sense her, but nothing gets through to me. I simply stare vacantly ahead, helpless as a child. And that’s what I am—a child! Only seventeen years old. Too young to qualify as an adult. Right now I am just a kid sitting on the closed toilet lid in my best friend’s bathroom.

My gaze focuses on the white tiles sporadically painted with intricate, colorful balloons. Perhaps a bit childish for someone Elli’s age, but they’ve been there for at least the last fifteen years. As long as I’ve known her, as long as I can remember. All the balloons seem to float in the same direction and each one has a little laughing teddy bear attached to the end of its string. My attention is now rigidly fixed on the playful design. It is the first time I have actually taken a proper look at the antiquated decor.

The dripping tap beside the toilet echoes dully and persistently. Drip, drip, drip...slowly...calmly...monotonously. Like my heartbeat. I should really freak out, lose it, scream in desperation, wail and weep—maybe all at the same time. I wouldn’t need to feel embarrassed. Everyone would understand my outburst. Instead I simply sit here, filled with this odd, calm sensation which worries me. But I can’t change that. So I tenaciously focus on the tiles which have cast such a strange spell over me. Shouldn’t I feel happy at a moment like this? Deep down I actually do feel elated for a fraction of a second, but my rational mind, my conscience, judges my joy inappropriate and warns me to stick to social etiquette.

“Please talk to me. You’re scaring me...” I hear Elli trying to persuade me. Her voice sounds so sweet and caring, gentle and understanding, yet it also resonates with so much fear and pity. I feel a teardrop forming in the corner of my eye; I wait for it to become large enough to quietly and softly travel down my cheek. A cord ties itself around my throat and slows my breathing. Then it slides down to my heart where it contracts even more tightly. It’s not a normal kind of cord, although the strength and tightness of most any rope would suffice to damage my heart. This feels more like barbed wire, each sharp point digging into my heart, making it bleed, wounding it greatly. How will I breathe if it keeps contracting like that?

“Shall I get Paul?” Elli kneels in front of me, holds my hands and looks at me searchingly. Paralyzed, I stare at the teddy bears floating with the balloons and in the background I hear the water dripping into the ceramic sink. Drip, drip, drip... Only after Elli vigorously shakes me again do I dare to look into her eyes. But her delicate features, the gentle sweep of her lips, her small button nose and the fine blond hair which usually frames her face so beautifully are all blurred and hazy. I lower my eyelashes and feel the tears streaming down my cheeks. Now when I try to look at her, I can’t. The tears in my eyes cloud my vision. “Lena, please talk to me... You’re scaring me.”

Panic enshrouds my body like a dark cloak, crippling me. I want to answer her, but I am mute. “I’ll go and get Paul now.” She speaks forcefully and starts to get up.

“No!” My voice is faltering, hoarse and throaty, but then I grab her wrist to show my conviction.

“So talk to me, Leni... How can I help you?” She kneels down again and waits for my reaction—so do I.

“I don’t know...” I finally whisper in torment. “I don’t know.” Sniffling, I look at my hands. “I just don’t know what to do!”

“You guys can deal with it, I know you can. Hey, you’re Leni and Paul! What could possibly come between you?” Elli tries to cheer me up, gently nudges me with her elbow, but only the words “Leni and Paul” get through to me, invading my head like a mantra. Leni and Paul, Leni and Paul… Leni and… Leni… What on earth shall I do?

 

 

One

“Mrs. Ames, how are you today?”

“No different than last week,” I reply without emotion.

“Just describe your mood...”

How I hate these sessions. The same insipid questions every week. I feel as if I’m imprisoned behind bullet-proof glass. Everything is happening in front of me—and then again nothing touches me. I watch my life unfold like a casual spectator. A polite observer. People are constantly chatting behind the pane of glass that protects me from any sensation. They talk to me, ask me questions; I often reply, but all I register is a sluggish succession of words. Faint, irrelevant, trivial—these people don’t reach me, their words don’t interest me. Nothing moves me, nothing scratches the surface or arouses my curiosity—nothing stirs the emotions all these words should provoke. Every conversation, every encounter in my life seems dull and empty. I notice changes around me, but don’t respond to them. I am indifferent, listless to the point of being apathetic.

I’m merely functioning—not living—and that’s how it’s been for quite some time. I feel like I’m floating on the surface of a dark lake, my gaze directed at the night sky, my ears submerged in the water. Voices surround me, but the only thing that reminds me I am alive is the heart strongly pounding inside my breast, drowning out the sound of everything else. Mine is a suspended, weightless existence. Still even now something in me vehemently tries to fight the lack of sensation, to break through the apathy; it is screaming inside me—it wants to shake me out of this stupor, it wants to rouse me.

Wake up now!

My life is passing me by and I don’t seem to mind. What’s keeping me locked in this condition? The calm, the detachment, the protective wall—the silence! They are the guardians of my inner peace. But still I am constantly besieged by people, words, memories, all trying to disrupt that hard-won peace. Asking me unpleasant questions to gain access.

Cursoriness mostly saves me. All people really want are mundane, shallow and succinct answers. A theater of protagonists on a stage, pretending to live, love and enjoy themselves. Nobody cares what’s behind the façade. No one cares about the hatred, the fear and the doubt. I don’t want those people in my world but fortunately they are only interested in the show. That’s why they always settle for my reply: “Thanks, I’m fine.” For God’s sake, who actually wants to hear: “I’m alive and I wake up every day—whether I want to or not!” That’s why I give them what they want. Superficial answers.

Indifferently, I stare out the high window of the old building, looking up at the gray, dull sky and absently twirling the ring on my finger. So far my plan has worked. Not once in the last ten years did I even consider that I could be cornered. Those ten years matured me—in a way I desperately needed—and made me who I am today. A tough, career-oriented, self-disciplined and ambitious businesswoman. But Dr. Goldmann is getting to me again. He knows exactly which questions to ask and what buttons to push to bring down the wall a little more with each session, chipping away at my carefully constructed façade. I am at his mercy, helpless and without protection; I should really run away. Fleeing has always been one of man’s most basic survival instincts. Some fight—I flee. I’ve been running away my whole life. Or at least for the last ten years.

A long time ago I reduced my emotions to a minimum. I no longer allow my useless feelings to surface.

I think about what to say to Dr. Goldmann for a moment. Don’t give too much away.

“I’m impatient, I’m afraid and I feel useless...” That’s a good answer.

My therapist studies me and contemplates his next question. I coolly stare back. A dark, old-fashioned suit, clean shaven, discreet aftershave and a color-coordinated fountain pen and notepad. The way his hair is parted to the side, the horn-rimmed glasses and his meticulous dress sense lend him a trustworthy, well-groomed air. He embodies the quintessential therapist. The effect extends to his office. Luxurious, massive furniture in various shades of brown, a gigantic desk and a comfortable sofa upholstered in a heavy, patterned material; it’s all supposed to make his suite an inviting and pleasant place to be. Everything is neutral so as not to disrupt the patients’ thoughts. Dr. Goldmann is sitting opposite me in a big black leather armchair, the way he always does. The soft glow of the desk lamp underlines the warm, calm atmosphere.

His legs are crossed and he’s holding his fountain pen, ready to record everything that escapes my mouth. His practice is located in one of the pedestrian zones in the heart of Vienna and has a view of the old opera house.

Having to walk the cobbled streets in my high heels to get here would actually already provide enough of a challenge. But Tto make matters worse, his rooms are on the top floor of an old building with an ancient elevator I dread using. And then all those disagreeable questions I have to face week in and week out.

“What makes you feel uneasy?” Dr. Goldmann tears me away from my thoughts. What does he want me to say? Perhaps that I’m afraid that I will never be able to get pregnant? Perhaps that I doubt myself?

Everything is an illusion: a carefully scheduled life of days strung together, some brighter and some darker, but none expressing life’s potential in all its beauty and diversity. It’s not that I don’t know what’s missing. My heart once felt all life has to offer. The sunny side, the lightness and the joy. But that was a long time ago—so long ago that it doesn’t even seem like it happened to me, but rather like a memory of something I witnessed as an outsider. From a safe distance.

Deep inside I sense that I should change something. But how the hell could I make my mind understand? “I feel uneasy about the future,” I say very cautiously and prudently. Wary, carefully worded answers ensure that this whole thing doesn’t get too emotional.

“What are you afraid of?”

I inwardly roll my eyes. Why do therapists always have to answer one question with another? I would save a lot of money by simply questioning my thoughts myself until I reached the sobering insight: I don’t want to reply to any of this at all.

I’m only sitting here because my husband insists. We’ve been trying to conceive for the last five years. I’ve endured countless clinical examinations which, in the end, only resulted in me having to face the shrink’s uncomfortable interrogation. The doctors said that we’re both all right physically. Why doesn’t it work then? Damn it!

“That my body is not able to conceive a child,” I utter in irritation. My state of mind is hardly surprising considering all the work that’s waiting for me back at the office. These sessions always cost me at least two hours I could spend more productively.

“Mrs. Ames, I understand your anger and your doubts. Perhaps you could describe your state of mind on a scale of one to ten, with ten being a state of excited anticipation. Where are you today on that scale?”

“Zero,” I say without thinking. “Some days a two or a three perhaps.” I’ve rarely seen Dr. Goldmann at a loss for words, but apparently that wasn’t the answer he’d anticipated.

“Mrs. Ames, are you aware that zero is supposed to describe the emotional state of being at the end of one’s tether, and…” He hesitates so I complete his sentence. “No longer having the will to live? Yes, then zero would be appropriate.”

He clears his throat, takes a deep breath as he shifts in his chair then taps the notepad with his pen. “Have you considered suicide?” His next question is so abrupt that I get rattled, all my carefully rehearsed and coyly worded answers elude me in the face of such a direct and indiscreet query. Who would ever ask somebody else if they’ve wanted to kill themselves?

But if Dr. Goldmann’s plan is to confuse me to provoke a reaction, it certainly works. I simply have no idea how to respond and my thoughts are spinning. What’s he trying to get at? Of course I’ve thought about it, more than once. But can I say that out loud? Will they lock me up in a loony bin if I admit such a thing?

Instead of speaking I look at my diamond studded wristwatch. A Christmas present from my generous indulgent husband. Another t hirty minutes. How will I ever endure all that time with him? I take a deep breath. “Whatever makes you think that?” I reply coyly. It’s really none of his business; it’s not why I’m here. He presents me with a slight smile. I know, I know, no counter questions. But how else should I react when confronted with my darkest secret?

“Because patients generally rate themselves as a three or four.” Why does he always have to be so composed?

“Does that mean I’m not normal?” I ask warily, while inwardly berating myself for such a thoughtless reply. If I had more carefully considered the question, I would have named a different number on the scale, something on the low side of five, something average.

“I’m not saying that, Mrs. Ames, but we should start talking about why you consider your state of mind a zero.” He tilts his head, pronounces “zero” in a particularly harsh way and scrutinizes me without changing his expression. It’s simply impossible to read him.

“Yes, okay then. I have thought about it once or twice.” Satisfied? Can I go now?

“When?”

At least once a year for ten years, usually twice.

“I was still a teenager.” I speak casually and look as bored as possible so he doesn’t suss out that I’m lying. Another glance at my watch tells me that my answer won’t be enough for him. This is starting to annoy me.

“What happened back then?”

I take a deep breath and moan in irritation. “Dr. Goldmann, that was such a long time ago. I was a teenager; I can’t tell you because I don’t remember.” One doesn’t have to be a therapist to realize that I’m not exactly telling the truth.

“Are your memories too painful?”

“I don’t remember...”

“Mrs. Ames, if you don’t try to cooperate, this will take a long time. If that’s okay with you then it’s okay with me, too. But that way we’ll never reach your goal.” He studies me intently.

My goal. What is my goal? The thought makes my eyes water. A little girl with blond hair and greenish blue eyes. A wish that will never become reality. Without my husband’s knowledge, I have already quietly consulted an adoption agency. I can no longer cope with my present condition. Can no longer endure seeing pregnant women approaching me from every street corner with their happy smiles and round bellies. No more. They all portray this mixture of joy, hope and incredible love. My heart constricts every time and all I can do is stare enviously at their growing bumps. “My ten-year high school reunion is a week from now,” I say with a sigh to change the subject.

“Are you going?”

“No. I never go to class reunions.”

“Why not?”

“I’m never in the mood.”

“Are you in the mood this time?”

“I don’t think so.”

“It may not be such a bad idea.”

“Why?” I am genuinely confused. What is he getting at?

“Perhaps you should go to make peace with your past.”

Make peace? Why do these shrinks always have to hit the nail on the head?

“It’s not that simple…”

“Would you like to tell me about it?”

“I don’t know what I should tell you.” I feel my whole body tense.

“Something happened which depresses you to this day. That much is clear. If you don’t start to open up and acknowledge your feelings from the past, you won’t make any progress in the present.” He’s starting to repeat himself. “Perhaps I quite like where I am now.”

“Mrs. Ames, I know that opening up can be very painful and there is frequently a feeling of impotence when one places one’s life into the hands of another. But it can also feel like a load is being lifted from one’s shoulders.”

Perhaps he’s right… Why shouldn’t I face my past? Many years have gone by and I’ve grown more mature. I know how to handle myself and my emotions and I don’t get easily rattled anymore. I am a successful executive. A damn good one! I will look at it as just another negotiation, a battle from which I will inevitably emerge as the victor. I am strong and confident and nobody will doubt it.

“I’ll think about going.”

“Very good. We took a big step forward today.”

 

 

Two

What the hell am I doing here? Have I gone completely nuts? Coming here was a huge mistake. I shouldn’t have let Dr. Goldmann talk me into it. Well, okay, he didn’t actually talk me into it, but it certainly feels better to blame him for my crazy behavior than to admit that I came here of my own volition.

It was my own decision, but only because I’m so close to despair. Our attempts to get pregnant have failed miserably, year after year, and so I now find myself at the end of the line, ready to try anything before I give up and throw in the towel. It’s like clutching at the proverbial straws, except they were already starting to bend before I decided to open the door to my past. It was naive of me to believe that all I had to do was show up here and my problems would magically vanish into oblivion. What the fuck was I thinking?

I cling tightly to Christian, my husband, and the two of us step into my old school, a former nunnery converted for the purpose. Unfortunately, over the years of constant renovation its original character was lost. Today, the quirky central floor plan and a few other hidden oddities are the only reminders of the modern-looking concrete block’s history.

This is the place where I learned the difference between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, how to solve derivatives of mathematical functions and equations, the composition of our solar system and Darwin’s theory of evolution. I didn’t need any of that knowledge during my subsequent university education nor is it useful in my present profession. And yet I’d had to struggle with each of those subjects as a young girl.

The place still smells exactly as it did ten years ago—of industrial-strength detergents and worn-out shoes. A few hand-lettered signs point the way to the class reunion in the gym. We pass the lockers, the teachers’ staff rooms and turn at the cafeteria. My heart starts racing, pounding faster as we venture further into the building. Every room brings back memories which no longer feel like my own. It’s like watching an old movie. I know the sets, the characters and the plot, but I’m just a spectator.

Eerie silence is interrupted by the determined echo of my clicking high heels and the pounding inside my breast. No screaming teenagers or bells confirm where we are right now. Silence surrounds me and a harrowing, thundering rumbling earthquake trembles inside me. As we approach the gym, the heavy silence ebbs and loud music takes its place. Each step deeper into my past constricts the concrete walls around me. Cold and heavy, they are creeping ever closer to my body. They try to crush me, squeeze the air from my lungs; I breathe more rapidly as they encroach upon me. An insurmountably high wall rises up in front of me. Propelled forward only by Christian’s determined and unsuspecting steps, I put one foot before the other although everything inside me rebels. I want to turn around, run away, but I walk on, into a world I swore never to enter again.

The welcoming committee is composed of cheerful people who seem familiar but whose names I can’t recall. They press a tag with “Steinberg” on my chest - my maiden name - and a glass of bubbly into my hand. I feel the scrutinizing looks of the people already present. I clutch Christian’s hand and pull him close to me, hoping he doesn’t notice how nervous I am. His thumb strokes the back of my hand and he looks at me lovingly.

“Are you all right, honeydarling?” Am I all right? How could I be? I want to run away, flee, become invisible. Instead I’m standing here trying to convince my husband that I am fine. Get a grip, Lena! I am ten years older. Nothing fazes me  anymore. I force myself to smile at him. Christian is wonderful. He adores everything about me. Even if I can’t have children. He loves my cold and distant manner. He fell in love with the tough businesswoman Lena Steinberg. Uncompromising and unemotional. Successful. Driven. Ambitious. But with each step I take I feel my façade starting to crumble. Whatever was I thinking? Don’t break down, Lena; be strong. I can do this, I’ve been to a million cocktail parties. But then a new worry occurs: what if Christian doesn’t like the old me? Stories will come to light. Tales he doesn’t know about. Stories that don’t jibe with the new me. Nonsense, he won’t find out. I know how to prevent that. Why am I even worrying?

We are wonderfully compatible and both appreciate our lifestyle. Others might shake their heads if they could witness our daily routine. A routine we created, but which doesn’t really include much time together. Christian is often away on business for days on end, but I don’t mind. In the evenings we are together, we both arrive home exhausted and don’t bother with unnecessary questions or chitchat. We eat, we sleep, we are the other’s partner. We attend events and functions together, but we never probe into the other’s past. Christian respects my privacy and I value that about him.

Here, nothing has changed since my school days. The same gym equipment is still hanging from the ceiling. The smell of timeworn mats mixed with the stench of metal, plastic and sweat invades my nose and suddenly awakens long suppressed memories. When we were teenagers, this was where we hung out when we skipped class. We hid here in groups of five so nobody could see us and daydreamed about our futures.

I tell myself a few memories are okay. How can I pretend that I never experienced that time? And I’m allowed to be uneasy. Actually I’m nervous, very nervous.

I feel like running away, but the wish to finish with my past and to prove to myself that I’ve left everything behind prevails. I am strong and I am confident and I will not be thrown off balance by my nervousness and my memories.

Blondie blares from the speakers, “One Way or Another.” How apt. I can’t help rolling my eyes; they’re playing the songs from our youth. Against my will, my thoughts stray again to my school days. Damn it—what is happening to my composure?

There are a lot of folding tables in the middle of the gym and a decent buffet has been set up in one of the corners—but I’m not terribly interested in either. It’s been ten years since I’ve seen these people. A decade is a long time. Suddenly I feel old. I haven’t even celebrated my thirtieth birthday yet, but when I see all these familiar yet strange faces, I feel like I’m in another universe. A universe I left long ago. It’s like going through a wormhole I once closed, but now opens up again, transporting me instantly into my old life. My breathing is irregular and clipped. What’s wrong with me? Pull yourself together, damn it! It’s not that difficult. The fury rising inside me starts cursing the stupid little girl that was.

My job entails attending a lot of parties and meeting any number of people. I don’t fear contact with them because I keep everyone at a distance. Superficiality. I chat as little as possible, smile out of politeness - and even that only sometimes. I am without emotion. A very important aspect of my job if I don’t want to go under. But all that changes as I move farther into the rooms of my past. One step at a time; just keep walking. I can do this! Confused, I glance at my feet which feel as if they’ve been weighed down with lead. The fragile little girl inside me is apparently winning this round. Where’s the hardened, emancipated me when I need her? For ten years she has been my faithful companion, my salvation. I feel a huge lump in my throat that I can’t swallow. I anxiously touch that constrained organ. We pass a group of women. Suddenly I hear a loud squeal. Actually it’s more like an excited screech. I can guess what’s coming and gaze through the crowd expectantly.

“Leni, is that you?”

I eradicated the “i” from my name a long time ago, Lena is not one for cute diminutives. Emma Bach comes running over to me. She gives me a huge hug, thus dislodging Christian’s arm—my last anchor to the present in this flood of long dormant emotions. Now I’m lost. I feel overwhelmed and still I let her hug me. Out of courtesy. She releases me from her embrace and we study each other very quietly. Her dark hair looks sad and drab. She doesn’t wear rouge or mascara. Her eyes seem tired. There’s not much left of the exuberant girl who used to party into the early hours with me. But her scent is still the same. Sweet, freshly showered, a mixture of soap and conditioner. In my black stilettos I am four inches taller than she is, although we used to be the same height, five foot four, in the old days. My ex former best friend firmly grabs my upper arms and looks at me with tears in her eyes. “Leni, you are here. I can hardly believe it…it’s been so long!”

So many remembered emotions surface in my memory as we gaze at each other, and I realize how much I’ve missed her. Don’t get all sentimental. Only now do I again notice the tight ring again around my heart, it tightens constricts slowly but palpably. It hurts. I haven’t felt like this for a long time.

I struggle to find something to say. “Emma, you look…”

She shrugs her shoulders and waves me off. “Cut it out—I know I’m not eighteen anymore. But I didn’t age too badly considering three kids and a divorce… What do you think?”

Three kids. Lucky her!

“You, however, look fantastic! Incredible. I nearly didn’t recognize you. You are nothing like Leni the shy tomboy I used to know. You look amazing, sophisticated!” Although I don’t show it, I’m delighted with the compliment. I am very careful about what I eat and I regularly work out in my leisure time, although I would much rather change diapers and push a buggy through the park. But I prefer to keep the sentiment to myself; the mothers at my office wouldn’t react very well to it either.

“Thank you, Emma. I work in the fashion industry, so I’ve no choice but to be…” How do I have to be actually? Half-starved, indifferent and jaded would be the adjectives to best describe it. She interrupts me before I can finish the sentence.

“I know, you little beast. You’re the chief editor of that glossy fashion mag—I read it. I envy you. What a life! Parties, mingling with the jet set, fashion shows…” She sighs dramatically. “While I’m sitting at home in the evenings with my children and knitting, you are in New York or Paris having a ball. I’m jealous, believe me. Your life must be sooo exciting. I’m so proud of you when I see your name in the papers.”

Emma’s right, my life—or, more accurately, my job—is exciting. I travel, attend glamorous functions with the glitterati. But after work I go home, have dinner with my husband and go to bed. Professionally, I meet a lot of people, but privately I meet only a handful. My life is my job and a little bit of Christian. If I didn’t have either of them it would be a pathetic succession of dull and gloomy days.

So I live one day at the a time in the world I’ve created and hope that it will never fall apart.

“It sounds better than it is, I work a lot.” I try to downplay my career. But I am well aware of my job’s importance. For me it is a life-sustaining necessity. It’s makes me tick. It’s all I know.

My husband coughs slightly. Oh God! How rude of me.

“I am so sorry. Christian, let me introduce you to Emma Bach. She was a close friend when we were at school. Emma, this is Christian, my husband…” They shake hands and Emma eyes me with mock wariness. “The understatement of the year. We were inseparable. But I hate you now. You could have warned me that you also have the perfect husband.” She smiles and playfully pokes me in the ribs. Christian grins and laps up the compliment. “Hi, I’m Emma. Leni’s best friend. At least we were back then,” she amends.

“Hello, Emma, lovely to meet you.” Christian greets her affably. Emma hugs him right away and pats his shoulder.

“Follow me. I’ll show you where you can get another drink.” She takes him by the elbow and maneuvers him to the bar. Before they disappear, Emma whispers in my ear: “Tell me about the mail order service where you got him. I want one, too.” I can’t help myself and have to smile. Christian follows her but looks back at me pleadingly. Soon after, a dark-haired woman totters over to me. Her bangs are perfectly straight and her carefully coiffed, shoulder-length hair looks like a wig. The red lipstick contributes to the alarmingly unnatural effect. While she’s still heading towards me, she pulls in her cheeks as if sucking on a straw and it suddenly dawns on me: Jana!

“Hi, Leni…” Her smile is friendly but perfunctory. I am Lena! Leni no longer exists!

She extends her hand to greet me as aloofly as possible. Jana, good old Jana! I have no problem being just as distant. Her empty smile persists as she starts her critical examination of my appearance. Some people have the ability to do this discreetly, but not Jana. I never liked her and the feeling is mutual. Even in the past something in her eyes warned me not to trust her. Now I watch her scrutinizing gaze take in my tightly fitting, lace designer dress—this season’s front-runner—my barely existing cleavage, then down to my expensive shoes. Jana’s syrupy smile doesn’t deceive me because I know what she’s thinking right now. It’s all a scam, so transparent I could even see through it all those years ago. With attitude, she pushes her motionless black hair—its smoothness reminiscent of a geisha’s—over her shoulders and straightens the tight dress clinging to her extremely slim figure. I automatically scrutinize her appearance, too, but subtly. Still, I’m sure she’s aware of it. Unbelievably, she’s completely lost her voluptuous curves. Nothing today suggests that she fought a losing battle with her weight for years. I could not mention it but instead I play dumb. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?”

“I did.” Jana grins like a Cheshire cat and chirps, “A little.” Then she sucks in her cheeks, presumably to look even thinner. Apparently nobody has told her that she actually looks downright stupid that way. She has little to say to me and I wonder why she bothered coming over in the first place. I presume the reason is her changed figure. An unpleasant and silent stalemate ensues. Emma diffuses the situation when she returns with Christian. Ever the gentleman, my husband greets Jana respectfully. He doesn’t know anything about her, after all. But I’m starting to recall how eagerly she tried to pinch the other girls’ boyfriends. Then it was annoying; now it’s nothing but laughable.

“Leni, Jana, Mr. Schneider is over there…remember? Why don’t we go and say hello?” I shoot a questioning glance at my husband. He nods understandingly and I follow my two former classmates.

Mr. Schneider was our math teacher and I loved him. No, not in that way. I liked him and he liked me even though I am horrible at math. I cheated my way through his exams and he never said a word although I am sure he knew. His pupils dilate when he spots the three of us. Jana pushes her black hair over her shoulders again and puts on her lascivious smile, triggering nothing but a sarcastic grin from me. She already tried that look freshman senior  year, but it didn’t score her a lot of points then. Emma meanwhile enchants everyone with her cheerful temperament. She’s aged but she hasn’t lost an ounce of her natural charm. I envy her. She has achieved more than Jana and I, in our tight party dresses, have. We’re pretty dull by comparison.

Jana purses her lips, sucks in her cheeks again and is the first to greet our former teacher. Watching her, I want to barf. Still Mr. Schneider is happy to see us despite her over-the-top salutation. His temples have turned gray and he appears much older. Although his eyes seem tired, he still has that enthusiastic boyish and inquisitive look. He had always tried very patiently to make us appreciate his subject. I realize suddenly he started teaching us shortly after his own graduation, when he was not much older than we are now. We chat for a while. He talks about his family, his kids and his work. I keep searching the crowd. Christian is leaning against the bar, talking to Tim—another one of my former buddies. But it’s not my husband I’m looking for. Emma tugs at my dress and gestures for me to follow her. Jana uses the opportunity to blow her own trumpet. I feel a surge of pity for Mr. Schneider as I nod farewell.

When we’re a little away from the two of them, Emma claims my attention again when she nudges me.

“Leni, don’t look so worried. He didn’t confirm that he was coming.” Am I that transparent? Can she read my mind? But still that doesn’t mean he isn’t coming. After all, I only accepted the invite myself yesterday.

“Emma, nobody calls me Leni anymore… Please call me Lena.”

“Sure!” She rolls her eyes. “Did you only come here because of him?” Now she sounds a little upset.

Is it that obvious? “No, I didn’t come because of him. I wanted to see all of you again.” Why don’t I even blush when I lie? Perhaps because my whole life is a web of deceit?

Emma smiles at me with such childlike innocence; I can’t help but lovingly stroke her hair and hug her again. Then I walk over to my husband. Even my cold heart can’t bear to look into her guileless eyes while I’m lying to her. I should leave as quickly as possible. It’s still not too late.

 

“Wow, you actually managed to tame this woman! She’s even wearing your ring on her finger.” Tim snorts with laughter when I get closer. His presence worries me. It conjures up the image of the person I associate him with him, the person I hope and fear to see.

“All I can say is still waters…” People turn around and I feel myself blushing once again. Tim was our class clown. He made so many of those boring hours fun. I hug him while he admiringly slaps Christian’s shoulder. “She didn’t want me. I mean, I really tried, but she only ever had eyes for…”

I freeze. Shit, my heart’s in my mouth. Did he really just say that? Please stop talking, Tim. Christian knows nothing about my past. Tim clears his throat when I look aghast and quickly release him. I try to defuse the situation by changing the subject.

“Did you become an attorney the way you always wanted to, Tim?”

“Sure I did, sweetheart. Meet one of the best divorce attorneys in the city.” He makes a little bow. “I’ve just been chatting to your husband. You’ve actually ended up with an attorney after all. If only I had known…”

“Stop it.” I pinch his belly. He’s no longer the athletic youth he once was. His waist has expanded and there is plenty of flesh at his mid-section.

“Leave my lard alone!” He protectively places his hand in front of his stomach. “I’ve been trying to hide it from you the whole time.” He demonstratively sucks in his gut and puffs out his chest. “But seeing as you noticed my only flaw, I guess I can stop holding my breath.” He exhales laboriously and his little potbelly reappears. I chuckle and remember the fun times we spent together. He pushes his horn-rimmed specs up the bridge of his nose. His tousled hair stands on end. He’s wearing a plaid shirt and jeans.

“You look like a complete nerd.”

“I know. My glasses lend me that certain je ne sais quoi, don’t you agree? The professor look. Now I look at least as smart as Schneider…” Tim was always able to make me laugh. My buoyant grin makes Christian stare at me in amazement. Immediately, the corners of my mouth slope down again and I notice what an unusual emotion I just displayed. Christian copped it right away. The feeling was spontaneous and simple and felt strange at the same time.

“Are you still in touch with Toby?”

“Sure, he’s here as welltoo.” He winks at me with a knowing smile. Of course he remembers that Toby and I were an item at some stage.

“How nice. Perhaps I’ll see him later. If you two would excuse me, I’m going outside for a quick cigarette.” Tim looks at me quizzically and Christian rolls his eyes. He doesn’t like me smoking, but it soothes my nerves, and they desperately crave nicotine right now. Tim gives me a quick hug and strokes my back as he speaks into my ear.

“Good to see that you’re doing well. You look stunning.” I get goose bumps when he whispers those words. If only you knew! I give Christian a quick peck on the cheek. He proprietorially pulls me towards him. He’s never been a romantic or terribly demonstrative, so. H his gesture unsettles me as much as everything else around here does. In his black suit Christian looks good enough to eat. As always, his dark hair is rigorously styled back with gel. He’s clean shaven, enhancing his elegant appearance. His sparkling white teeth beam at me. If I didn’t know better, I would think there’s Italian blood pulsing through his veins. The two men are already engrossed in shop talk again as I head towards the exit.

My gynecologist recommended I should quit smoking and I did at first, but after the first three years of failing to get pregnant, I started again two years ago. On my way out, I glance over the crowd once more. Nothing suggests that he is here. I heave a sigh of relief. As soon as I make my way back to Christian again, I’ll ask him to take me home, feign a migraine. It’s a good plan. In my high heels, I click past a flock of women who instantly start talking behind my back. I really need a smoke!

“Leni?” Someone clutches my elbow halting my progress. I gaze at the hand that holds me before looking up. I normally would not tolerate any kind of bodily contact from a stranger. But this is no stranger. “Tobias! I was just talking about you with Tim.” We briefly embrace before we start surveying each other. He still has the same short, disheveled hair and looks down-to-earth yet chaotic in his wide pants and bright shirt. His fawn-colored eyes twinkle at me. I remember how I fell in love with for that loyal-puppy-dog look and his mischievous grin when I was a young girl.

“It’s great to see you. Gee, you changed a lot!”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

He scrutinizes me, considering the question.

“Well you don’t much look like the old Leni. More like a fashion doll—”

“Lena.”

“What?”

“I don’t want to be called Leni anymore. Those days are over.”

“Oh…okay.” Tobias sounds slightly amused. Why doesn’t anyone take me seriously around here?

“Do you still play guitar?” I quickly change the subject.

“Yeah! I’m in a band. But it’s only a hobby. The way it always was. What about you? Do you still sing?” he asks with interestedly.

“Oh God, no!” I shake my head and laugh.

“That’s a pity.”

“It isn’t actually, more of a public service. But last I heard Maggie still sings.” A little embarrassed with by our meeting and my thoughts, I lower my gaze.

“Yes, I heard that’s she’s pretty successful in the States.” We briefly smile at each other, remembering.

 I think back on how I used to drool over him as he stood on the stage plucking the strings of his electric guitar. Maggie and I would sing while he played Radiohead’s “Creep” in some dive. To this day, whenever I hear the song, I remember that time.

“What do you do professionally?”

“I’m the chief editor at Ella, the fashion magazine.”

“Sounds interesting…” The sarcasm in his voice is unmistakable and unsurprising. I know that Toby never much cared for things like that. I start to feel vaguely embarrassed because I’ve shared so many funny, intense and beautiful moments with him. He was my first kiss. Now I can hardly think of what to say to him. I struggle to find some common ground.

“So what do you do?”

“I’m a web designer, but I spend most of my time travelling the world.” He flashes the same impish smile he had back then.

“Sounds great…” Our eyes meet again and we nod at each other. Both of us start to grin when we realize that we lead two completely different lives. But it was always like that, Toby and I were never meant to be. In those days I didn’t fit into his rock ’n’ roll world and he didn’t fit into my slightly nerdy one. And still we always felt attracted to each other; we’d had a lot of fun.

“Yep, thatit’s an interesting job, I guess.” He runs his fingers through his already tousled hair while that charming smile dances on his lips. “And you got married, I heard…”

“Yes, yes, I did. He’s here as well.” I indicate at the tall man in the black suit.

Toby glances over and nods with a chuckle. “Right…” His puppy-dog eyes focus on me searchingly. When he looks at me like that I can’t fool him.

“And you?”

“No, still single.” He clears his throat. Awkward silence. The situation is driving me mad. I should leave.

“Well, I was on my way outside for a cigarette…”

His grin broadens. “Don’t let me stop you. See you.” I’m about to leave when he grabs me once more. “It was lovely to see you again, Lena.” I look down, feel his hand gently clutching mine; his touch triggers a shiver inside me.

“Yes, it was lovely to see you, too, Tobias.” And although our meeting would easily rate a top score on the embarrassing encounters scale, I find I mean it.

“Still Toby to you. I don’t feel all that grown up yet. Tobias sounds too serious for my liking.” He amicably cuffs my shoulder with his free hand and I grin a little. “Leni Steinberg,” he whispers and winks at me cheekily before he releases me and turns around. If I’m honest with myself, it’s only now I realize how much I missed him.

One my way out I bump into Mrs. Waldmann, my former German teacher. Her yellowy-brown false teeth immediately strike me again after all these years. She still has the same perm that was in fashion thirty years ago. Some unavoidable, short, superficial small talk reveals her shock at me being the editor in chief of a magazine. Although I shared her passion for German literature and was definitely one of her favorite pupils in that respect, my dyslexia caused me untold problems when it came to spelling and the my resulting grades in her subject reflected that. I’m all the more happy to face her today, having proven that I am better than those mediocre scoresat. At times she made my life hell. But her interest in me doesn’t last long and soon she starts telling me about her cats. She always used those stories to kill time in class and presumably thought they would entertain us during her lessons. Even then Tim and Paul used to tease her, asking questions about them, but she was never aware that they were laughing at her instead of her stories. I really, really need a cigarette now. Therefore So I end our conversation after the tale about her four-legged friend who deliberately killed himself by jumping from her balcony. I sympathize as I can only assume that the poor feline was just as bored with her stories as we were. I know it’s mean, but her ramblings are as dull today as they’ve always been.

The cool September wind blows through my coiffed blond hair when I finally make it outside. I’ve secured it in a knot at my neck. Eight years ago I decided to grow my hair again; after I had it cut extremely short right after leaving school. At that time, everything inside me screamed for change and my hair had been the first thing to go. After that, some parts of my skin were burned or tattooed in the aftermath of drunken nights. But that’s a different story. Luckily one that’s easy to hide. At the thought of my indiscretions, I adjust the ring on my finger and push some errant hair back behind my ears to cover the lingering bald spot. I stroke my exposed upper arms a few times and extract the cigarettes from my purse. Christ, it’s cold out here. My fingers tremble whileen I light my cigarette and take the first puff. Is it the cold or my nervousness making my body shiver? The aromatic scent of the tobacco causes a comforting and calming feeling in my lungs that spreads throughout my body. At last! I deeply inhale a few times. The air is wonderful. My nerves relax. I gaze into the dark night sky, which keeps disappearing behind the smoke when I tilt my head back and exhale. The stars are shining in all their splendor and a serene sigh escapes my breast. I can hear muffled music and voices from the gym and close my eyes to enjoy the moment. Standing here all alone, I start to unwind again.

©All rights are reserved to Mela Wagner. 

Music that inspired me to write the book:

 

  • "The Story" - Brandi Carlile

  • "Shake it out" - Florence and the Machine

  • "Gravity"- Sara Bareilles

  • "Stealing"- Gavin deGraw

  • "Honey Bee"- Zee Avi

 

 

Music which appears in the book:

 

  • "One way or another" - Blondie: Leni arrives at the high school reunion

  • "Iris"- Goo Goo Dolls: Toby sings for Leni

  • "Don´t rain on my parade"- Barbra  Streisand: Leni’s ringtone

  • "The way you make me feel"- Michael Jackson: Leni dances and remembers the past  

  • "Creep"- Radiohead

  • "Help me make it through the night"- Gladys Knight: Leni in Paris

 

Book trailer song:

 

  • "Stay"- Jesse Thomas – song rights purchased