Before the first date Petra already knows how futile it all is. She is aware of how inadequate she looks, standing half-undressed in the middle of her room, three or four discarded dresses at her feet. Last night, unable to sleep, she visualised herself sitting opposite Hans. She could picture everything. The Café Olympia in the late afternoon. The cold lemonade they’d drink from tall, old-fashioned tumblers. Their knees casually touching beneath the marble table – as if by accident. The bittersweet taste of sour cherry cake. And again: herself sitting with Hans. It was a flat, quietly impenetrable vision, like a page torn from a foreign magazine. They don’t know each other so well. What would they say? Picking up a green dress from the floor, Petra is overcome by a feeling of great weariness. She knows all is hopeless in this world, unquestionably doomed from the very start. Yet she still wants to go – to find out what being in the world is like.
The place is west Berlin, the year 1971.
Petra has lived alone in her grandmother’s flat for three months now – long enough to cram the tiny icebox with cream cakes and jars of marmalade and pretend the place is her very own. Her grandmother is dying and Petra dreams of love. When Petra dreams she forgets her grandma’s wasted body, her thin hands lying so still and unfamiliar on the hospital coverlet, so tiny in Petra’s plump, strong hands. Sometimes one whole week passes without her visiting the ward. Her exams are over now. The summer vacation has begun and Petra lives in some sort of perpetual stupor. She can barely tell the nights from the days. The sun seems to hardly ever set on the city. She absently pets the cat, reads inane detective stories she immediately forgets, and stuffs herself with sugary, heavy things. She thinks of Hans in abstract terms. His name has become a symbol for something else, for another reality – a promise of escape.
During the university year Hans and Petra hardly spoke. When they happened to cross paths in the narrow corridors of the Institute they made sure their bodies wouldn’t brush. They were so attracted to one another that they intuitively stayed far apart. It is a well-known chemical phenomenon: attraction creates repulsion.
When Hans asked Petra for a date he wasn’t expecting her to accept – yet she did. She remembered the Café Olympia from her childhood. The soft banquettes, the aura of unreality clinging to the heavy furniture, the uneven, dusty mirrors where one’s reflection appears blurred, softly distorted. Something about the café made her think of the hazy years before the war. Of course, Petra is far too young to remember the war. Yet she heard so much about it that sometimes she can almost feel its taste, cold and metallic, in her mouth.
Petra loves her grandma. She loves her infinitely more than any of the students of the Institute, any of her friends. She loves her more even than the parents and the younger sister she left behind in the countryside. Yet Petra needs to forget how much she loves her grandma. She has to try and bury the knowledge of their special bond. She goes and sees her less and less often. This way she can pretend her grandmother is not really dying, not lying almost completely paralysed on her hospital bed – growing increasingly faint and transparent as the days go by, disappearing.
At the chemist’s Petra has purchased a small bottle of rose-scented cologne and a tube of pink lipstick. She owns very few cosmetics. For her seventeenth birthday a friend gave her a palette of eyeshadow colours – all the shades neatly arranged in a rainbow. Sometimes she opens the box and gazes at the colours, never thinking of applying them to her skin.
Hans noticed months ago how intently she’d listen to the professor’s words, how diligently she visited the library straight after the lecture was over. He often sat behind her during classes – daydreaming, staring at her milky white neck, imagining the softness of her skin. What it would be like to hold her.
He’s been half in love with her for months. But he’s hardly given to sentimentalism. Hans is a dark-eyed, handsome student of twenty, filled with the petulant callousness, arrogance and misogyny so common amongst young men, in those years. He has decided he wanted to make love to as many beautiful women as possible: he thinks it is what life is for. He coarsely thinks of sex as some kind of superior goal.
Petra doesn’t know any of this. She unsuspectedly washes her hair in the bathroom sink and gathers it in one long thick braid. She often wears it that way. Now she is thinking – should she perhaps let it down? Isn’t the braid too forbiddingly austere, or too much like a schoolgirl’s compulsory plait? She looks at herself doubtfully, disapprovingly, in the mirror of the medicine cabinet.
She wonders whether Hans will kiss her. Whether she should wear the newly acquired lipstick. She vaguely wonders, too, what she will say if he asks her back to his lodgings. She cannot invite him to her grandma’s apartment. It is impossible. Physical love is still unreal to Petra. She has had so few experiences of sex – most of them furtive and unpleasant.
Her grandma has often warned her against the brutality of men. How they were pigs – all of them.
Petra holds up the crumpled green dress to her chest. Somewhere in another part of the city her grandma is dying but Petra is getting ready for her date. She puts on the dress with gentle, unhurried determination – as one slips into a fate. Petra is irresistibly sinking, or perhaps something – she doesn’t know what exactly – is slowly sinking or giving way within her. The girl she has been is soon to disappear.
Elodie A. Roy is a French-born writer living in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Her short stories and essays have appeared in journals including The Stinging Fly, The Oxonian Review, The Drouth, and Scrawl Place. As a cultural theorist, she’s the author of two nonfiction academic books.