By Tanja Dückers
The dragonfly in front of her trembled. Trembled, but only with fatigue, not with fear. Ebba tried to look elsewhere. Her mother had fallen asleep, her round head with thick reddish brown hair swaying to the left, to the right. The silver barrette with the dragonfly made of pierced dots jumped up and down at every curve, every turn, every pothole. Why had her mother wanted to travel by bus from Berlin to Croatia? It was crazy. Why Croatia? This country signified nothing to Ebba. Just because there were cheap holiday resorts and, don’t forget, a cheap bus trip. When her father disappeared three months ago (he had still been there to attend grandfather’s, Mum’s father’s, funeral, where Ebba had last seen him), he took the Audi. The Audi, the stereo and, according to her mother, a whole lot of money. We could at least have taken the train, thought Ebba. Even better she would have liked to go away alone, without her mother. But she wasn’t allowed to do that. Her mother, who had recently not found the returnable bottles machine at Aldi and shouted at the vendor at the hot dog stand because she thought (falsely, as it turned out) she was being ripped off; her mother, who sometimes wore different-coloured stockings under her long flowing dresses (dresses which looked like bed sheets) because she couldn’t find two matching ones; her mother thought that she, Ebba, was too young, disoriented and inexperienced to travel alone or with Maike. When Ebba lay in her bed at night, counting the plastic stars on the ceiling-sky in her room, she had often imagined that she hated her mother. But she knew she couldn’t hate her mother, she was too close to her. Her mother was simply always there, with her questioning eyes, flowing clothes, well-worn sandals, and broad, colourful scarves, which she forgot all over the flat, but quite especially in Ebba’s room. Ebba tried as best she could to ignore her mother.
Passport checkpoint, again. Her mother of course turned around to whisper unnecessarily “Passport checkpoint!” Nothing escaped her. Even the dragonfly on her thick hair seemed to Ebba like a third eye, a kind of rearward controlling organ.
Was her father also taking a holiday now? In summer he didn’t have to keep to school hours; no, he was probably sitting in Berlin, and one of these days he would be standing at the front door again, with a beard and an awkward expression on his face, a smeared thermos in his hand, just like the last few times after he disappeared. Her father would be back home, carving chess pieces, painting small boxes, and drawing Ebba sitting by the window, and then go with these things to the flea market on weekends. Why her father went away and why he came back – the beardless, fidgety, hot-headed father just before his escape, and the silent, sad, bearded father in the door with the thermos and the dirt under his fingernails –Ebba didn’t understand.
The bus rumbled on, making the silver barrette flash up and down like a camera. The early morning sun fell on her mother’s thick reddish brown hair; they had already been sitting in the bus for twenty-four hours. Once Ebba’s left, then Ebba’s right buttock fell asleep. And the loo was always occupied, just when you could barely hold it in. Mum’s “austerity”: by bus from Berlin to the Adriatic ....
The flat wasn’t as chic as it had been last year on Malta, but it was only five minutes to the beach. Every morning, her mother checked Ebba’s beach bag to see if Ebba had taken sunscreen with SPF 15 and not one with only 12 or even 8, because of her sensitive skin. Ebba wanted of course to get a tan at all costs, but with a SPF of 15 and a constantly watchful eye surveilling everything, it wasn’t possible. Is that what freedom was – to fly with Maike in the middle of the school year to Ibiza or Corsica? Freedom, adventure, would be dark brown and smell like sweat, that much was clear.
Ebba was hoping to meet some nice boys at the resort, but so far she had seen only pensioners or nagging families drifting past her with large cool bags. There was no boy at her school at home whom she liked or was not already taken. After each vacation, Maike had shown her crumpled photos of dark-skinned guys with great smiles; her parents let her travel through Europe alone via InterRail. The idea of talking to no one but her mother for the next three weeks depressed Ebba. Her mother, whom she now saw not only after school, in the evening and in the morning, had given her bilingual paperback books of Twentieth Century Short Stories back at home, which she had silently placed next to Ebba’s breakfast plate. Right after Ebba came back from her first beach walk, her mother already complained that Ebba wasn’t using the holiday to do something “for her mind”. And when Ebba at last started to read one of the paperbacks, her mother asked such subtle questions from time to time that she always managed to find out that Ebba had of course not been reading the French but only the German version.
The only trump card Ebba held in her hand was the question, “What do you think, when will dad come back this time?” With that she touched her mother’s sore spot. Her mother kept shifting about, sighing, and saying something like, “I hope before school starts again!”, or, “I hope, before my birthday!”
Once Ebba asked her mother a particularly mean question. It was right after she involved Ebba in an intense but uninteresting conversation about the upcoming renovation of their flat in Berlin at the very moment when a boy had passed by and given Ebba a long look. As soon as the boy was out of reach, Ebba’s mother dropped the subject again and stared thoughtfully at the sea.
Ebba asked: “Tell me, can you imagine... I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s just you sometimes wonder – that dad was never really in love with you? That’s it just turned out that way for him and he comes back again and again only out of habit? Because he knows you put food on the table?”
Her mother didn’t answer. Ebba knew she was bothered by the question of why this awkward, dependent man, who was grateful for everything her mother did for him, kept abandoning her. She just couldn’t understand it. That her husband had become a vagabond free of any ambition she thought, it seemed to Ebba, was her own failure. Divorce him? Impossible! Then you would have officially admitted the mistake. And what would granny have said about that?
At that moment the boy from earlier came back with an ice cream in his hand. Ebba already heard her mother clearing her throat and trying to start a conversation, but this time she was faster: she looked up at him, and her smile was returned. A tingling sensation spread from her belly to her fingertips. She made no effort to hide her interest from her mother. She sighed pleasurably and looked after the boy, who instead of going to the holiday settlement went to a lifeguard’s observation chair. There someone called something to him from afar – it seemed to be in Croatian; then he joined the men in white shirts and shorts as if it was a matter of course. One of them was carrying binoculars around his neck. Her mother began a lecture on her experiences with boys “from southern European countries”, who tried to pick up “tourist girls” and were the most unreliable sorts imaginable.
“They only want a girl who will soon be sitting in a plane again. Why else do they hang around the beach all summer, why do you think?”
Her mother held her head at such a clever angle that she could both look directly at Ebba and point her dragonfly eye at her. The dragonfly was an enchanted imp, an evil fairy – that much was clear.
The next day, Ebba saw the Croatian three times: in the morning with binoculars in the observation chair – it looked as if one of the older men was instructing him – in the afternoon on the way to the ice cream stall, and again on the way back.
Today he had smiled first, cautiously. As Ebba made a few diary-like notes on the back of a postcard in one of her few mother-free minutes – her mother was on the loo – she remembered she didn’t know anything about the boy and wasn’t even sure she found him at all cute.
Later, her mother Ebba invited to the cinema and was very nice all evening. Ebba was almost sorry to have felt such a strong aversion to her.
Afterwards she lay in bed next to her mother and waited until her breathing had become even. Only then did Ebba think she could have moment’s peace for reflection. It crossed her mind that she used to get along quite well with her mother. Before dad had disappeared, come back, disappeared. Back then they hadn’t yet got so much in each other’s hair.
The next morning, when Ebba woke, she sensed that something was different: her mother wasn’t humming or whistling while she made coffee, the silver dragonfly wasn’t sitting in its usual place but still lying on the bedside table. Something had changed.
A minute later, Ebba's mother sat down at bed: “Ebba, your dad called me on the mobile. He wants to talk. He wants to come back ... We... we really want to try it together again. He’s stopped gambling – oh, you didn’t know? – and he’ll bring the Audi back with him ... he says.”
“And what does that mean now?” Ebba asked suspiciously.
“Ebba, I’ve predated our return trip. We’ll leave earlier.”
Ebba was sitting on the beach laying patterns of shells. She had quarrelled of course with her mother for hours. Until they were both hoarse. Her mother had finally gone to the cinema. Then Ebba had strolled alone along the sea.
“How are you?” She suddenly heard a voice behind her. Ebba turned around quickly, a hand proffered her pistachios. She took two and immediately thought that her mother would interpret this as a sign of “consent” in other things. The pistachios tasted delicious. The boy dropped down into the sand next to her. They were silent for a moment.
“How is it that you speak English so well?” Ebba asked at last. She couldn’t conceal her curiosity.
“Well, I work here ... meet a lot of tourists”, he replied, confirming the suspicion that her mother had already planted in her brain, deeper than Ebba cared to think.
“And what do you do here?” Ebba asked, looking without interest at the sky. Just don’t be too nice too soon!
The boy told her that he wanted to become a lifeguard to earn some money in the summer months. In a year he would be finished with school. After they had sat side by side for a while, he spoke more; he seemed to have shed his initial shyness, which had perhaps been just a trick. Ebba accepted an invitation to a glass of sparkling wine at a beach bar. She accepted everything he offered her. Her mother was busy with herself today, talking to her father for a fortune the whole time, though only this morning she had refused to buy Ebba a women’s magazine on the grounds that it was outrageously expensive.
As Ebba took the second glass of wine and the boy put a hand on her bare thigh, she was suddenly overcome by a crippling sadness. Suddenly she doesn’t care what I do, what happens to me .... She thought of her mother hanging on the phone. Then she turned her head to the side; fortunately it was already so dark that the boy – she hadn’t understood his name – couldn’t see her tears; and, yes, then his lips were already coming towards her. Later, they rolled on the beach, and she let him push up her T-shirt. But when he started fumbling with her panties, Ebba urged him to stop. She was back at the apartment before twelve. Half a metre from the door, however, she had once again enjoyed his fierce kisses.
“Oh, here you are again”, her mother murmured distractedly, and Ebba saw that she had been crying. Without thinking, she went to her mother and hugged her. For a few minutes, they both held each other in their arms. “Well, what experiences have you been having...", her mother said, but it was just a remark, almost loving, not a question.
Later, in bed, her mother held on to Ebba’s hand as she reported in detail what her father had said. He’d grumbled about how he had not been accepted at art school back then, and why he didn’t have the confidence to try again. After all, who made it on the first try? Her mother would be seeing her father anyway in three days, but she had talked with him about these things the whole time on the mobile for a load of money. Ebba said nothing; at some point she closed her eyes – for once before her mother did. Only the dragonfly lying on the bed table still glared at Ebba.
Her falling asleep early had consequences. Ebba’s mother had said that they would not leave sooner, but, as planned, in a week. She had spent so much time talking to her father that they had together decided not to shorten the holiday, for Ebba's sake. Always this back and forth.
The phrase “decided together” was pronounced by her mother almost solemnly; uttering it seemed to make her happy. Ebba found out about it only in the afternoon, after she had arranged to meet Jiri – that was the boy’s name – for the evening, believing she had little time left. Now he thinks I can’t endure a day without him. Ebba was annoyed.
When she and Jiri met, they talked about this and that – German food, Croatian food, what kind of music they listened to, if they have brothers and sisters – and tried to get through a decent period of waiting until it was dark enough. Then they smooched around on the beach, and Ebba thought longingly of the movie Grease, which she had seen last year and which begins with a romantic scene at the sea. She always thought of some picture or movie when she kissed Jiri, constantly wondering if they were doing everything right. Sometimes she would have liked to talk to a friend, but Ebba's friends were on the North Sea, in southern France, in Scotland, on balconies in Berlin – everywhere but here. And her mother? Bad joke.
Her mother telephoned with her father every night for hours. During the day she went to a gym to spoil her few remaining days on the Adriatic in the attempt to lose 15 pounds. Ebba thought of her modest, not particularly handsome father and didn’t understand why her mother was now turning her holiday upside down. She hadn’t even got back the Audi yet.
The advantage of the new situation, however, was that her mother made no comments at all on the meetings with Jiri. I could get pregnant – what would she say then? Ebba once mused. For a moment she toyed with the idea of letting it come to that. Just to annoy her mother, who now couldn’t care less about her.
The night before she was to leave, Ebba was a little nervous. Today she would see Jiri for the last time – assuming he didn’t insist on taking her to the bus terminal. Now she would find out whether he wanted her address in Berlin or not. As she stood in the bathroom in front of the mirror, her mother came from behind and put her heavy hands on her shoulders. “Do you know that your grandfather was in this region during World War II?” “Uh uh, how should I?”. “I thought Grandad Paul would have talked about it”, sighed Ebba’s mother and turned her head so that the dragonfly glared at Ebba. “What did he do here?”, Ebba, now curious, wanted to know. Her mother shrugged. “Nothing good probably. Hunted partisans and he ... that’s what he once said. And now go – to your Croatian.” There - her mother had succeeded superbly in giving her a decent little something to take along. It had always been said that grandfather was “in Russia”. Ebba thought of Grandfather, who had recently died and whom she had liked so much.
As usual, Jiri and Ebba met at eight o’clock in “their” café, right next to the lifeguard’s observation chair. Sparkling wine with orange juice – the waiter brought it to them without asking. After the usual two glasses and inconsequential banter about which countries the nicest and the stupidest tourists on the Adriatic came from, they walked hand in hand along the sea; yes, she would miss Jiri just a bit in Berlin, even though, when her mother’s snoring had awaken her last night and she couldn’t go back to sleep, she had written down a piece of loo paper that she wasn’t really in love.
They went from one beach bar to the next, and Ebba felt that these hectic changes of scene were all about quickly ordering something to get her quickly drunk. She didn’t like the atmosphere of the bars; the women were much older and overdressed, almost slutty; she felt uncomfortable. Here and there, Jiri met friends or acquaintances, and also other girls, with whom he talked in Croatian for a long time without including her in the conversation. Actually, she would have most liked to go home. She was tired today.
But now Jiri was escorting her to a dark path that led in serpentines to a mountain. Jiri had a nice name for the mountain, but Ebba wasn’t able to remember it. Jiri was holding her by the hand all the time. Sometimes he stopped, pulled her close and kissed her, pushing his tongue deep into her mouth. But he realized she didn’t like this, and soon his tongue just tapped against her incisors, licked her lips, the corners of her mouth and dove, very wet and warm, into her ears. Ebba couldn’t get enough of that. Then they trudged on; the path was lined with Mediterranean stonecrops; they heard cicadas, the rustling of small animals, the distant laughter of parties at the foot of the mountain, and the deep tooting of ships, swelling and subsiding. A moment of happiness, exciting and glittering like the holiday lights of the beach bars far below, pulsed through Ebba. Now it was she who held Jiri, hugged him, and dove with her tongue into his ears.
They walked on silently, hand in hand. Finally they came to a hill with a wide view over the sea. The sight was overwhelming: all the glittering, the lights and the noise, the white lines of little ships on the horizon, birds with big wings circling over the waves. Ebba became dizzy, but not only because of her fear of heights. She sank into the grass; only a split second later, Jiri was beside her. On her. It went so fast; he suddenly lay on her, pressing her knees apart with his; his chin, his ribs, his elbows, his hipbones – everything squeezed, pressed, poked her. At last she punched him on the shoulder with her fist: “Stop ...”. “Sorry”, he said in confusion. Then, softer: “You’re just so beautiful, I can’t control myself!” Now he drew her towards him more gently, kissed her. Then again. And again his tongue. He knew what she liked. Ebba looked up into the starry sky; she didn’t know what she wanted. Jiri now seemed so strange to her again. How old was he really? She moved away a little. But he stroked her tenderly, put his mouth to her ear and began to talk ... Ebba now heard that the “soul of his father” hovered above them, in the small waft of mist that hung like a beard on the mountain. His father had died here, on this mountain, only a few years ago. Still very young. He left behind Jiri’s mother, Jiri and his three younger siblings. Jiri had seen him in the morning, before his father wanted to go to his olive trees .... His father had suffered a heart attack after climbing in the heat and couldn’t make his way down again. Ebba looked up anxiously at the mist. “And then you found him here, your father?” she asked full of compassion. “Yes, after two days ...”, Jiri replied softly. Then he put his head in her lap and she stroked his dark hair. “It’s funny”, he continued. “My grandfather died here in the mountains too ... during the Second World War. He was with the partisans, you know. The ones who fought against the Ustashe militia. They were allied with the Germans, you know, the Ustashe.” Ebba looked down at the ground. She had hashed and rehashed the Second World War at school three times, till the subject was coming out of her ears, but she knew nothing about Croatia, about this militia with the strange name allied with the Nazis and everything. Not until this very night did she even know her grandfather had been here. Didn’t Mum have any time to tell her this on the endless bus ride? No, she had to tell her on the last night of the holiday, right before her date, in passing. “Not a good place for my family! Now my dad has followed him”, murmured Jiri. Ebba was uneasily silent. For a moment, Jiri remained in his position; then the grief over his father's death seemed wiped away; his hands deftly undid her bra and were soon playing with the hem of her underpants. And he didn’t forget his tongue in all this. And Ebba had the feeling, somehow, of making up for something.
Jiri was very tender, mumbled something about “love”. She didn’t get pregnant. It was full moon, and she tried to think about Grease.
Back in Berlin, Ebba’s mother, who was a geriatric nurse, worked very hard for a while, doing countless overtime hours. She wanted to support her husband, who could barely unload his self-painted watercolours on the flea market, and spare herself, him and Ebba from having to move to a cheaper, uglier flat.
Only a few months later, she would kick Ebba’s father out, and he, used to leaving and not being left, was never to return. And then, years later, a new man was to come and make Ebba’s mother happy and want to give Ebba everything she once wanted to have as a child (she was now almost grown up herself). Her mother would also answer all the questions about her grandfather who had been hunting partisans with the so-called “Devil’s Battalion” of the Wehrmacht in the mountains of Croatia, and do a lot of research on him – just when Ebba was under the stress of her school-leaving exams. Everything always came too late. There were no simultaneities, you never got anything when you needed it, the ticking of time and your own heartbeat – the big clock of the outside world and the little “inside” one, as Ebba called it – just never fitted together.
And happiness? What was that...? Maybe for a moment the glittering of holiday lights on the beach.
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