Translated from the German by Rachel McNicholl.
does anyone open the car door for a lady these days, girls and boys, says ophelia, shaking her head and forgetting to add the question mark.
she covers her eyes with her hands. the skin on ophelia’s hands is old, old too on her wrists, on her fingers, in her face—ophelia’s skin is old all over. you could cut her skin open and peel it off, undress ophelia, fold her skin and hang it on a clothes horse.
ophelia’s skin is old. not ophelia.
does anyone write letters at all these days, boys and girls, says ophelia, sitting in her armchair and sliding her hands under her thighs. it’s my back, she says; the base of my spine, she says.
ophelia has a lot of whys and becauses, and sometimes when we visit ophelia—we just say we’re going to see ophelia because she says ‘going to the old folks’ home’ has a bit of death about it—then ophelia has lots of onceuponatimes too, and smiles a lot, and her smile looks like washing fresh out of the tumble-drier.
in the top drawer of her bedside table ophelia keeps sweets; they’re like scratchy marbles in your mouth, and they suit ophelia’s voice, the way it rewinds and spools and sometimes stalls when she’s talking about the past. ever so slowly ophelia coils a backthen and a wheniwasyourage around her neck until every word is a rope.
ophelia likes us because she has someone to listen to her; she doesn’t remember our faces or our names.
girls and boys, boys and girls, says ophelia.
in my day we were always going out; we went dancing in short skirts and high heels, and the men’s eyes would follow us, and really tom was the only one i was interested in, with his blue eyes, that look that would make you think of paris, says ophelia, but the look in her eyes doesn’t make you think of paris, more of a vase teetering on the edge of the table.
ophelia talks and tells stories and sighs often in between. we laugh a lot so that ophelia can feel amusing, ask a lot of questions so that ophelia can feel interesting, and we’re there so that ophelia can feel younger. ophelia: we say it a lot, it’s a nice name; it doesn’t suit the woman who paces up and down in her room and straightens out the fringes of her rug with a big wide comb. ophelia: it goes with puckered red lips, giggly glasses of champagne, smudged kisses on cheeks. ophelia sounds like curtain calls and bows and glances tossed over your shoulder.
i was never in the theatre, children, no, says ophelia and laughs; she has forgotten how to laugh, it tumbles awkwardly from her lips, falls on to the rug with a muffled thud. we nod, but that doesn’t change anything; for us, ophelia has always been on stage, only in main roles. she was a singer, she was in the opera. that’s how it is, that’s how ophelia is. for us.
when ophelia walks from her room to the lounge, it looks a bit like an aubergine being carried by two forks. ophelia’s breathing is dry; when ophelia’s asleep, one of us says death is coming. it creeps into the body and creeps out again. that’s okay for a while, but when the while is up, the body is just a hollow body, and death creeps in and lies down to sleep, and we nod and hold ophelia’s hands, stroke her cheeks; the skin there looks as if it was left behind by mistake. if we visit in the evening and ophelia’s asleep, the moment feels a bit like in church when you accidentally drop the car keys you’ve been fidgeting away with.
we talk about death because it’s part of it all; the same way we often talk about feet. because one of us knows that people don’t talk nearly enough about feet; that isn’t right; we all end at our feet, don’t we? and so we talk about death and we talk about ophelia too, and in between we put ands, and before that a few ifs and whens and us.
ophelia’s breathing is an inflatable ball that’s gone a bit flat, and when she talks she stretches her voice around the stories until it tears. ophelia might die soon, we know that. we’re there so that only ophelia’s body will die in this white bed, in this white room, and not ophelia.
ophelia only tells us the stories that make us blush for her; she likes our red cheeks; she reaches out to touch them; beetroot children, she says, and we laugh so that ophelia can laugh too.
ophelia tells stories and we sit on the edge of her bed, say yes, ophelia, and pull the covers up to her chin so that our hands have something to do when she’s talking about tom’s hands, which are so like his mouth, soft and sure. we fix her sheets, tucking them in well so that we don’t have to look at each other when ophelia’s talking about tom’s mouth, about tom’s mouth between her legs. we blush. for ourselves, maybe, but mainly for ophelia, lying there all wrinkles and folds.
what happened with tom in the end? one of us asks and ophelia says: jan. jan? we ask, and ophelia says: josef and anton and bernd. and then ophelia tells us about josefantonbernd sitting naked on the kitchen table and herself in her underwear washing last night’s dishes and josefantonbernd laughing. in ophelia’s stories everyone is always beautiful.
it’s sunday and ophelia’s mouth is full of flour. one of us found her in the afternoon, on the rug, with a comb. heart attack, the one of us says and we nod. death. ophelia. in between an and.
it feels like in church when you accidentally drop the car keys you’ve been fidgeting away with. it feels like having breathed in, and trembling and waiting and waiting, until someone says you can breathe out. and that’s how it should be.
ophelia, we say, and lie down with our feet sole to sole on the rug.