by Laura Freudenthaler
Novel excerpt translated by Tess Lewis on behalf of the Austrian Cultural Forum, New York. Published in the original (Geistergeschichte) by Literaturverlag Droschl, 2019.
Anne closes the apartment door from inside. She sets her purse on the stool, looks at her phone, and puts it back in the side pocket. She has gotten used to seeing a scurrying out of the corner of her eye, but it still startles her occasionally when she glimpses something disappearing through the open door to the living room as she hangs up her coat. Or when she turns around and has the impression that the door to Thomas’s room had been open and was quickly pulled shut. But the door to Thomas’s room hasn’t been left open for a long time. In the kitchen, Anne is washing the few dishes that still get used when she hears the sound of scraping wood. She turns off the water and, holding the plate in her wet hands, she looks behind her. She can’t remember where the chair stood at the table a moment ago. In the living room, she glances inadvertently at the bottom shelf with the boxes of photographs. One of the boxes is sticking out. Anne walks over and pushes it in with her foot or maybe not. More and more often she simply leaves things as they are. Most times she’s not certain how they were before. A newspaper lies on the floor next to the couch. Anne is often surprised to find that she hasn’t put her toothbrush back in the cup on the sink but on the washing machine next to the sink, or on the edge of the tub, or another time next to the dirty dishes in the kitchen. In bed in her room, she hears Thomas when he comes into the apartment, uses the bathroom, and goes quietly to his room. Anne gets up again to go to the bathroom and drink a glass of water in the kitchen. In the entryway, it occurs to Anne that the pockets in Thomas’s coat and jackets hanging in the wardrobe will have to be emptied. Thomas won’t do it. He never throws any receipts away, even if it’s just for a pack of cough drops. Once in a while, after leaving a store or a restaurant, Anne had tried to get him to toss the receipt in the next garbage can. Thomas humored her, but when he held the receipt over the garbage can he couldn’t bring himself to drop it, and Anne saw his angry expression before he turned away, shoved the receipt back in his pocket, and walked ahead with long strides. Eventually he slowed down and finally stopped, waiting for Anne. Lately they’ve started giving a receipt for every little thing and Thomas’s pockets fill up more and more quickly. Once a week Anne empties his coat and jacket pockets and goes into the kitchen, both hands full of receipts, notes, and candy wrappers of all colors. She spreads them out on the table and sorts them into three piles. Notes with appointments that have already taken place to the right, together with the candy wrappers and unimportant receipts. In the middle Anne piles restaurant receipts, and to the left, notes that are still important or those she can’t classify. She throws the pile with the candy wrappers in the trash and puts the remaining notes back in Thomas’s coat pocket. She takes the middle pile of receipts into her room. She goes back to the entryway and gets her notebook from her purse. Evenings, when the girl waits for Thomas near his office or when he picks her up, he asks if she has eaten yet. Of course not, she laughs, and Thomas says: then let’s feed you. Anne orders the slips by date. She last entered records in the notebook on Monday a week ago. There are receipts that were issued at midday or in the afternoon, often not far from Thomas’s office. There are receipts that list several cups of coffee, mineral water, tea, a small beer. These are the afternoons on which Thomas has several meetings, one after the other. There are receipts for two coffees and now and again some from a tea shop for two pots of jasmine tea, but Anne doesn’t know if these were drunk by Thomas alone or by two people. The dinners are usually work dinners with several other people. Anne puts these receipts and those from the long afternoons back in Thomas’s pocket, so he can write them off on his taxes or offset them as expenses in some other way. Anne enters Thomas’s dinners with the girl into the notebook. Late at night, once she has worked through the week, Anne leaves her room again, puts the receipts back into his coat pocket with the notes, and throws the rest away.
The girl flutters, she is a little bird with delicate wings and fine feathers, with a bit of childhood down still along her hairline and soft, glowing cheeks. You simply can’t get enough of watching the girl’s inexhaustible vivacity. Thomas is very concerned for the girl’s physical well-being, during the day, she only eats a few bites of anything, a half of a cheese sandwich, a container of plain yogurt, a Crown Prince Rudolf apple (those are the smallest). In the evening she answers “of course not” with a laugh when Thomas asks if she has eaten yet. The girl is delighted when Thomas then rushes to get her something to eat. She likes this urgency at the start of their meetings and the nervousness sparked by the excitement of seeing him. The girl doesn’t want to meet Thomas when she feels full. She’s afraid the excitement that is perhaps only possible on an empty stomach won’t come. She has to pull herself together to keep from fluttering with her hands and arms and breath, and she lets loose a flood of laughter and jokes, which clearly is too much for Thomas. He can’t follow her, she’s getting him all confused, he says, but the girl knows that her exuberance makes Thomas lively at first and later, after dinner, when she is calmer, slightly exhausted. But then Thomas escapes his own tiredness and chats and looks at the girl, now warmed up from her dinner, who sometimes ends a laugh with a sigh. Like two riders who loosen their reins and finally fall into pace and deep conversation again after a stretch of road on which one of them had been out in front before the other let his own horse run ahead. And did you really go riding often? Thomas asks. The girl makes a face that shows her irritation. Tell me, Thomas says. Sometimes, the girl replies, I have the feeling that you’d like me to be younger than I am. You have no idea how young you are, Thomas says. The girl looks at the napkin she pushes to the edge of the table. Let’s drink some sweet wine to end the evening, Thomas says, to youth. Anne is surprised by the dessert wine on the receipt. It would have made the girl tipsy. Come on, I’ll drive you home, Thomas said, I’ll put you to bed. When Thomas spends the evening with the girl, he usually doesn’t get home until after midnight. The girl is asleep before he leaves her. She sleeps deeply and Thomas envies her for that. He has gotten dressed, gone into the bathroom, and washed his face. He straightened his hair with wet hands and dried himself with the girl’s hand towel. When he turned around in the small, narrow bathroom, Thomas bumped into the shower stall: noise of metal and plastic. He swore and waited for something to stir. Thomas knows how to close the girl’s door without a sound. He also knows how to open his own apartment door with the least amount of noise. Still, Anne wakes up. She hears the key in the lock. It’s no help that he locks the door: the girl is already here. Anne listens as Thomas goes into the bathroom, then closes the door to his room and leans against it. Steps, then silence, and then steps again. He looks at his computer and again at his phone. He doesn’t realize that the girl has already climbed out and can’t find her way back in. He doesn’t know much, Anne thinks, and, as she falls asleep again, she thinks she should speak to Thomas about the girl at some point.