Frau Meiser doesn't know much about her lodger. Herr Nazim is clean and is neat. He speaks pretty German and his wife is dead. An article of the "Berlin Anthology" about a secret love.
He was cleaner and neater than any lodger who had ever shared the apartment with her, quieter too. She rarely heard him fiddling about in his room or walking around. He never had visitors.
Frau Meiser often had the need to talk about him and to give vent to her astonishment. She told the woman in the dairy shop about how he stuffed his shoes with newsprint and that when he used the stove he never left behind the slightest trace, not even a spot of grease. She talked about him with Rita too. Rita, who sat with her in the small, stuffy room next to the lunch counter on Thursdays and Fridays, when they had their hands full at the lottery retailer’s. “You don’t smell him in the apartment, you understand?” she said. “You don’t even notice he’s there.” And Rita, who was in love again at the moment and laughed a lot more than was necessary, rocked her head and said, “Still waters …” Frau Meiser laughed with her, but only out of embarrassment. She couldn’t fathom why she secretly wished to hear him sing in the shower as her deceased husband had done, God rest his soul, or how reassuring she would have found it if he had jangled his keys and slammed the door when coming home in the evenings, as men do when coming home. No doubt it was because she was lonely. In any case he slipped in without a sound, like a specter, and only by the strip of light under his door could she tell that he was once more under her roof, as she called it. He lived in the former study, facing the street. When the windows were open one could see the heads of the people passing by like in a puppet theater, he had said – but without smiling or complaining. He never complained.
His name was Nazim, and he was from Istanbul. A short, somewhat stooped man whose age she couldn’t guess precisely. His hair was still black and full, but his eyes – dark eyes that shone dully like slate – looked tired and as if amazed that they could still see everything. But perhaps that was because they were set in brownish caves, in a face that was otherwise pale and surprisingly smooth. German men simply age differently, Frau Meiser thought, and she thought it tenderly, as if that knowledge encased some secret that formed a common ground between her and Herr Nazim.
“At first I didn’t even want to have him, you understand, Rita? I told that woman who brought him to me: Is this really necessary, a guy like that, from some other place? Who knows how he wants to live, who knows what he’s used to, you understand?”
Rita understood; she had listened to this story many times before. She checked a young man’s lottery ticket, in her raised hand the ballpoint pen that was attached to the counter by a spiral. Frau Meiser counted the money and handed it over. And she said that the man had been through some bad things. “Give your heart a shove, Frau Meiser,” that's what she said, “your heart a shove.”
Of course she sometimes cleaned in his room, even though he didn’t want her to – under the bed and behind the mirror, it was simply the proper thing to do. Over his bed hung a colorful, embroidered cloth, and a piece of the cloth was also spread over his night- stand. On the stand stood a photograph of a woman, a bright profile with a prettily extended nose and a fine, long eyebrow above. One could see that she had wanted to smile, had lowered her eyes and suppressed the smile – only in the brow was there a hint of it! Frau Meiser always looked closely at the photographs of the children too. She carried them to the window and took her glasses out of her jacket pocket. She wiped off the frames, even though they didn’t need it. Something had happened with this woman and these children. He wasn’t the kind of man who deserted his wife; she knew that. She would have liked to speak with him about it; yes, she would have liked to set a flower in front of the photographs, but of course one didn’t do that. Her Kurt, who regarded her from the silver frame on her nightstand, always had flowers around him, primroses and cyclamen and sometimes lilies of the valley; those had been his favorites.
On the little table by the window lay books and papers. He wrote a lot and cut articles out of newspapers in order to bundle and save them; that was how he spent his mornings. In the afternoons he went out and didn’t come back until evening, his books under his arm, his groceries in a cloth bag with “Save the Whales” written on it. “Maybe he gives language lessons,” Rita said, filing her nails. She was getting together with her new love interest that evening and had shown Frau Meiser the dress she had on, hidden under her wool jacket. “Maybe he does translations; he does speak such good German.”
Frau Meiser nodded absentmindedly. Yes, he spoke German, possibly prettier German than she did. He searched for words when he wanted to express something, even the slightest thing, and came up with outlandish phrases that were unfamiliar to Frau Meiser. When she had called him from his room and he had stood with her by the gas stove that was constantly going out and hissing menacingly, he had taken a toothpick and cleaned the little openings where the small blue flames normally flickered, had bent down and blown. “I have breathed new life breath into it,” he had said, and smiled. His smile – it came so rarely – went straight to Frau Meiser’s heart, and she thought of the shove she had given her heart a year ago, when
he moved in, and told herself what a childish old woman she was to be having such thoughts, and she didn’t dare tell them to Rita, who surely would have laughed, since Rita had already told her once, “You’re in love with your lodger,” and for days after that Frau Meiser had been embarrassed whenever she crossed paths with Herr Nazim in the hall or when their hands touched, in the mornings, when he brought in the newspaper for her.
His wife’s name was Anna, or had been Anna; Frau Meiser knew that because he sometimes spoke of Anna when he sat in the kitchen, on the corner of the bench, watching the news, or at night when Frau Meiser surprised him at the icebox, where he stood eating a slice of bread with butter, engrossed in a newspaper, his plate resting on the icebox. Once, when he had scraped his hand and Frau Meiser had pulled the splinters out of the ball of his thumb with tweezers while vaguely murmuring soothing words, he had said:
“A person’s love is everlasting. I encounter Anna’s love in other people; she sends it to me, don’t you think so too, Frau Meiser? She sends it to me in the guise of other people.” And when Frau Meiser, embarrassed and confused, had said nothing and hadn’t dared raise her eyes again because otherwise he would have seen how much it moved her when someone said something beautiful, he had squeezed her hands. She was susceptible to beauty. That was, she knew, a weakness of hers. Kurt had laughed at her when she wanted to read him lines from the calendar in the mornings; he had called her a gusher or a sentimental romanticist. He was ashamed when she cried at the movies and grumbled when she read novels in bed in the evening.
That evening Frau Meiser went to bed with a book of German ballads. It was one she still had from her school days, and she read the lines
“… And my tribe, it is the Asra, Who die when they love …” a few times with moist eyes. Maybe Rita had been right about what she said, but when it came to love Frau Meiser was no expert, at least not in real life.
Rita’s young man came to pick her up. He stayed standing a lit- tle awkwardly by the door, shifting his motorcycle helmet from one hand to the other. Rita slid out from behind the counter, so happy to see him again that she forced him up against the shelves of lottery tickets with a joyful onrush. She put her arms around him, and to Frau Meiser it looked as if she were about to wind her legs around him too and climb up him like a little monkey on a tree trunk. He grinned, put the helmet on her and dragged her out of the store. Frau Meiser was left behind with a throbbing heart. “Stop it, crazy thing,” she mumbled, and laid a hand on her chest.
That evening it smelled of lilies of the valley in her apartment. Frau Meiser hung her coat up pensively – lilies of the valley – but no sooner had she spotted the familiar poncho, drawn carefully over its clothes hanger, than she noticed a misshapen, pastel green nylon jacket splayed alongside it, and just then she heard a bright, highpitched feminine laugh that, it seemed, matched the color and material of that alien garment. The laughter was coming from his room.
The woman who later stood in the kitchen doorway, in the blue twilight of the television, while Herr Nazim’s hands tugged at her, gauged Frau Meiser with a cold look. Frau Meiser sat on the bench, her feet resting on the kitchen stool, and seeing that look she crossed her arms over her chest. Herr Nazim, who was still trying to pull the woman away, took a step into the kitchen and said: “My … acquaint- ance wanted to say goodbye, Frau Meiser. This is Frau Köberlein.” Frau Köberlein made no move to hold out her hand, and Frau Meiser was glad that she had kept her arms crossed and hadn’t budged. The woman had a lot of curly hair, whether white or blond one couldn’t really tell in this light. Below it her face looked small and triangular like that of a stuffed ferret. Deceitful, Frau Meiser thought, hard and common.
She herself took a lot of pride in the shape of her face: “People with round faces are good-natured and cheerful,” Kurt had always said. She also had no need to show off with her hair. Two passes of the comb on the right and left above the ears, that was enough for Frau Meiser, that had always been enough. Herr Nazim, who had weighed up the situation with a hasty glance, vanished through the doorway with the woman.
He left the house with her, and Frau Meiser didn’t hear him come back. She went to bed, taking her supper with her. A pot of hot chocolate and three buttered rolls: at other times a snack like that had always made her happy, as it had when she was a child.
“She’s a lonely person,” Herr Nazim explained to her in the morning, without her having asked. “A, how do you say, an immobile, inaccessible person, you understand, not like the stalks that bend in the wind, like me, like you, no, how should I put it – brittle. Such people have a hard time with themselves.” Only briefly did Frau Meiser feel the urge to exploit her position of power in the apartment and forbid him to associate with “that woman,” at least under her own roof. But she let it be, feeling ashamed. Surely a bit of diversion would do him good, and hadn’t he said once that she was a good person?
He stood at the stove and toasted his black bread the way he loved it, over the gas flame. She saw the nape of his neck, not a broad nape; two symmetrical cowlicks ruffled his short hair, tiny sun gears. She had never seen them before and averted her eyes because she had an impulse to touch them. Should she stand up and embrace him from behind? Should she say, “I have a hard time with myself too”? The desire to breathe in the smell of his dressing gown came over her like a slight bout of nausea, his bare feet on the tiled floor little-boy feet. She went out of the kitchen. Once he was gone, she sat down on his bed and gazed at the photographs of the children and the woman. She picked up one of his shoes from the floor and pol- ished it a little with her sleeve. I had to get this old to be this way, she thought. Where do I go from here, and she smiled.
Rita was telling her about her evening at a bar where a belly dancer had performed: “Old,” Rita said, “around forty, but she had some hips, and boy could she make them quiver.”
Everything she heard lately was painful to Frau Meiser and stood in some dark relation to what was happening in her apartment, for something was happening there, and she had no part in it and no power to prevent it. Even worse was that Herr Nazim did everything he could not to make her a witness to his happiness – and he was happy, so it seemed. His stride sounded different when he walked down the hall, the dishes rattled differently when he did them, and he had bought himself a new shirt, a cobalt blue shirt with white buttons which looked good on him.
He still came and went as quietly and considerately as ever, even when he had company. Not a sound emerged from his room, only sometimes the laugh that Frau Meiser already knew. And after an encounter in the bathroom – the woman had been filling in her eyebrows, her face held shortsightedly close to the mirror, when Frau Meiser went in to get the laundry from the hamper – after this encounter, then, which her guest had accepted as wordlessly and as impolitely as the first, Herr Nazim had succeeded in keeping the woman away from the bathroom and the kitchen.
Frau Meiser no longer felt content in her apartment, but she was also ill at ease sitting at the lottery retailer’s or the café, like someone just passing through. Rita, whom she had told she was in love with a neighbor, tried to cheer her up, but in everything Frau Meiser did she thought of Herr Nazim. It was almost ridiculous by now; she could see that herself. In front of the butcher’s shop, with its cutlets handsomely arranged in a fan, she thought of cooking for him. Seeing the darkhaired garbage men, with their brown hands, she felt a sting; she stopped by them to listen to their language. Was that his language? She didn’t know. She inquired about Turkish courses at the adult education center and bought Turkish peppermint tea. She didn’t cry, but sometimes when she lay in bed at night, water ran from the corners of her eyes and dripped on the pillow. Kurt smiled at her, and she asked him to have patience with her. He had never liked foreigners.
"You have to tell him how things stand with you,” Rita said. She had in mind the stocky, friendly man with the broad forehead and the languid voice who lived above Frau Meiser and whose lottery ticket she sometimes filled out for him. “He suits you. I see these things!”
Frau Meiser saw her standing in front of the window with her young man: he buttoned her up with him in his leather jacket, and she wound her long hair around his neck, her eyes closed and her mouth smiling. Something strange happened to Frau Meiser; there, where she sat, on the high stool behind the counter, in the light of the office lamp, holding the ticket that an impatient old woman had just handed her, she felt arms being wrapped around her. She was a young girl, still a child, alert and fearless, she was freezing, she smelled rain, smelled the scent of grass in the park, through her thin dress she felt the body she was pressing herself against, the knees, the hard thighs, the warmth radiating from his lap and the breathing of the chest against which her chest was pressing, yes, even the buttons of his jacket, cold and round, pushing on her collarbone. She saw nothing, heard nothing, but she delighted in the taste of the strange mouth, like a sweet, warm food she had never had before.
She tore the copy out of the lottery ticket and handed it over the counter. Took the money, bundled the tickets that lay next to her, snapped a rubber band around them and stowed them in the box on the floor.
The girl from the park, a slender girl with a green dress, had been waiting for her all these years, patient and dogged, to reveal herself to her, to reemerge inside her, inconsiderately, to live once more. At this moment, a Friday afternoon, with trucks passing by outside and people nodding to her and counting their money on the table, calling her by name. For a few breaths Frau Meiser didn’t know who she was exactly and looked at her hands in bewilderment. “I have to talk with him,” she thought. The thing she feared, it had happened; even the green girl in the park had become his ally. Everything around her was, it seemed to her, taking his side.
He was home – they were home already; Frau Meiser could see that as she hung up her coat. She paced around in the kitchen, tore pages out of the calendar and wiped off the table. She crept up to the door: light trickled out from underneath and fell over the tips of her shoes. She listened. She had never permitted herself to do that before, and of course she didn’t hear much, a rustling, a high, clear sound as if someone were striking a glass with a knife, murmuring, a soft creak. The bed, Frau Meiser thought; she knew that sound.
She couldn’t stay. She got her purse from the kitchen and slipped into her coat, doing all this slowly and without knowing precisely where she ought to go. The woman shot out of the door to the room with such momentum that she stumbled and crashed against the hallway wall. Her hair stood up on her head; pressed to her breast she held a bundle of clothes from which a shoe fell, clattering, to the floor. Her naked shoulders glittered in the dim light of the ceil- ing lamp. Frau Meiser shied away as if she were in danger of being attacked.
“He’s sick, very sick.” Frau Meiser could smell her; it was like an omen of terrible things. She shoved the woman aside and let her purse fall. The door was open, and Herr Nazim lay on the bed. Frau Meiser saw his bare arms, the hair on his chest. He was reclining his upper body against the colorful cloth over the bed. By his face Frau Meiser could tell that he must be in mortal fear. He glowed in the dusky light, as if made of yellow wax.
She crouched down by the bed and embraced him. “Quick, a doctor!” she called in the direction of the hallway, but no one answered. That was as she had expected. She embraced Herr Nazim and sunk his face into the hollow of her neck, she caressed the back of his neck, she rocked him back and forth, spoke to him. He grew calmer. “Anna,” Herr Nazim said indistinctly, and he spoke to Frau Meiser softly and hurriedly, his mouth on the collar of her coat, but she didn’t understand him.
Translated from German by Philip K. Zimmerman. This story was first published in German by the Berlin Verlag. Togehter with the International Literature Festival Berlin we have called on authors to contemplate the fates of refugees and asylum-seekers in literary form. The "Berlin Anthology" is now available for download.