Last summer my son got mixed up in a fight. I was waiting for him to be released from surgery in the hospital cafeteria when a man dropped his sports bag on the floor and asked if he could join me. There were no other free seats, so I nodded and continued browsing through the magazine someone had left on the table. After a while I realized that he was watching me. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine,” he said as I looked up.
“Your son’s in the same room as mine.” The man smiled and said, “What was his name again?”
“What happened to Paul?”
“He broke his arm.”
The man took off his jacket and hung it on the back of the chair. The shirt looked expensive and stuck to his body, as if beneath he was wet from sweating. Or as if he’d taken a shower just a few moments ago and hadn’t had the time to dry himself. I looked down again to continue my indifferent browsing through the magazine.
I raised my head. The man really wanted to know. But maybe that’s normal in hospitals, I told myself, maybe it makes you less sad if you hear that other people suffer too. “He tripped over a table,” I said.
The man continued looking at me. I felt heat rising to my cheeks. That type of man usually doesn’t notice me. The women they have by their side resemble the ones I was just looking at in the magazine, actresses, starlets, the like.
“They get the strangest ideas at that age, don’t they?” The sun hit his eyes, turning the pale green into a radiant turquoise. “Officially they’re still kids but they become taller than you, shave, and borrow your clothes.”
I had to laugh.
“See? Now you’re laughing again. It’s important. If we worry, they worry.”
I wanted to tell him that I didn’t worry, that my son would be all right, that it was just a broken arm. But then I just nodded and went back to my magazine.
“How’s the coffee?” the man said.
I looked at my cup, trying to remember the taste when it was still hot. “Good,” I said, “but they don’t come to the table.”
“I know.” He wiped his hands on his trousers. They were dark blue, with white pin stripes, tailor-made, at least that’s what they looked like, matching the jacket. He was the only one wearing a suit. Doctors and students wore white tunics, nurses blue tunics, orderlies green tunics. Patients wore bathrobes or sweat pants. Visitors wore all kinds of clothes, but no suits. “A Parents’ Guide to Puberty,” the man said, putting a flyer onto the table. We had the same ones at work. “I loved every age,” he said.
None of this would have happened if I’d brought my book, I thought. I could have pretended to be so absorbed that I didn’t hear him. I usually was so absorbed that I didn’t hear anything. I wanted to get up and leave, but then I remembered that our sons were sharing a room.
“We’re constantly worrying about education and grades and manners, but in the end they just turn out so much better than we.” The man paused, then went on. “Once Leander didn’t eat for a week,” he said. “He’d been at a veteran’s center with his class. He wanted to make a sacrifice.”
Paul had gained ten kilos since he was living on pizza and French fries, which he mostly ate in his bedroom. I had given up calling him for dinner. I had given up making dinner at all.
I pushed back my chair and said, “My son will be in his room by now.”
“You have plenty of time,” the man said. “They keep them downstairs until they wake up.” He tilted his head. “Can I invite you for another cup of coffee?”
“No thanks.” I lowered my gaze again. He couldn’t expect me to go on chatting forever. It was a hospital, people had to sit in the same rooms or at the same table. There was no obligation to talk to everybody, was it? I looked at the huge photo of some famous teenage girl and some smaller ones of her funeral, with the parents up front, heads bent down, eyes hidden behind huge sunglasses.
“It’s against nature if kids die first,” the man said.
I quickly turned the page. Nothing in these magazines was of any interest to me, but I hoped that the man would get the message if I constantly went back to it.
“In any case,” he said, “they are much more mature than we were.”
I looked up. Behind him, separated by a panorama window, were patients in striped bathrobes, smoking. Paul was a smoker now too. Only a few years ago, he used to steal my cigarettes; he destroyed them, saying, “I don’t want you to die.”
“When I had to print out a dossier last year, my printer didn’t work,” the man said. “I tried to fix it until two in the morning, and then I finally knocked at my son’s door.”
Never forget to knock, that’s my first advice. It’s a sign that you acknowledge their not being children anymore. No matter what you expect them to keep there – drugs, dirty dishes, clothes that need washing – never enter their room without permission. My son usually asked me through the door what I wanted and I would tell him and go away again. The times were long over when I could go in and hug him or sit down next to him and join in the game he was playing. That door was never closed then.
“He could barely keep his eyes open, but he got it up and running within two minutes.” The man cleared his throat. “I was so proud of that boy.”
“Paul’s also good with computers,” I said.
Big potted palm trees divided the cafeteria from the hall. An architect must have been standing here with his blueprints, saying, “And this is where we’ll put palm trees.” They’d obviously tried to make the place look nice, like a regular coffee shop, but you just had to look beyond to realize that you were in a hospital. Beds and wheelchairs were being pushed from one end to the other, the ones able to walk by themselves didn’t look much healthier.
The man unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up his sleeves. “Where is his father?” he asked. “Doesn’t he want to be with him now?”
I hadn’t even thought of calling him. I hadn’t spoken to him since Paul was able to discuss his weekend plans without my help. Sometimes I overheard him talking to his father on the phone. He’d begun calling him by his first name. As if they were friends. I had to tell parents time and again that they should stop wanting to be friends with their children. “He lives in Frankfurt,” I said. “With his new family.”
“That’s no excuse.” The man pushed his chair to the side to make space for a patient in a wheelchair. Thin tubes ran from his nose to an oxygen tank. He was being pushed by a teenage girl dressed in hot-pants and laddered tights. “They need their father at that age,” the man said.
“Why is your son here?” I asked.
He stood up. “I’ll get us coffee.” He grabbed a tray and shoved it along the glass counter. He placed two cups and two plates with sandwiches onto it. He paid with a two-hundred euro bill and had to be called back to pick up his change. “I haven’t had breakfast,” he said as he sat down again. “What about you?”
“No,” I said, “I mean, no thank you.”
“I hate eating by myself.” He smiled. “Think of your son. He needs you to be strong now.”
It’s just a broken arm, I wanted to say, but the way he looked at me made me reach for a cheese sandwich. The bread stuck to the roof of my mouth. I took a sip of coffee and burnt my tongue. The man leaned forward. “Can I get you some water?”
“I’m fine.” I reached for the milk and poured it into the coffee until it overflowed.
He went to the counter and returned with napkins. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have warned you.”
“No worries,” I said.
The man reached for another sandwich and finished it within seconds. When he arrived at his third one, he said, “How old is Paul?”
“Seventeen.” I carefully lifted my cup and sipped at the coffee. “Today is his birthday.”
“It’s not the end of the world,” the man said. “He can have a party when he’s released.”
I had proposed to have dinner at a restaurant and Paul said no. I asked him to invite some friends at least, but he didn’t want that either. When he was little, he always had half of his class over.
“It’s one of these laugh-and-cry moments, isn’t it? Another year gone, just like this.” The man reached for another sandwich and in between bites asked what my son wanted for his birthday (money) and what I would give him (money). He asked about the cake. “Strawberry tart,” I said but that was a lie. I’d bought a baking mix for a lemon cake at the grocery store. The unopened package stood on the shelf.
“Strawberry tart? That was Leander’s choice as well.” He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, took out a pen, grabbed the magazine and tore a page out. “How do you make it?”
“Maybe yours is better than mine.”
I listed the ingredients I used to buy when Paul still cared and the man carefully wrote down every word. “I think that’s about it,” I said.
“You forgot something.” He bent forward, opened his bag, and produced a candle in the shape of a number 17, which he stuck into my barely touched sandwich. “Do you get along all right?”
“Me and Paul?”
“Yes,” he said. “You and Paul.”
He reached for another sandwich. Still chewing he said, “Two years ago Leander began to lock the door to his room. I told myself that I was the same at his age, that he would come around eventually. But he didn’t and so told him that I wanted an evening with him once a week, the both of us spending time together, watching a movie, playing chess, whatever. I told him that I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Either that or he could move out.” The man finished his sandwich, and then he said, “They don’t beg for a hug. But we have to hug them anyway.” He took a napkin and wiped his mouth. He had eaten five sandwiches. And yet, he was frighteningly thin. “When we were having trouble at home, we would go away for a couple of days. He would say no at first, but in the end he always had fun.” The man winked. “Not that he would ever admit it.”
Two years ago, I’d rented a nice cabin at a lake. Paul didn’t go hiking or swimming with me once. I even brought his fishing tackle but he never touched it. That was the last time I’d asked him to come along.
The man reached into his bag again and took out a CD that was still in its original packing. “I bought it for Leander, but he had it already. It’s his favorite.” He said, “Give it to your son, will you?”
The sticker on the cover said, ‘Singer/Songwriter album of the year’. Five stars. Paul was into hip hop. I sometimes could hear the basses as soon as I turned into our street. When he was a kid, we often listened to the Beatles together. And we danced, his skinny legs slung around my hips.
“It’s like a marriage.” The man ran his fingers through his hair, most of which was gray although he didn’t seem any older than I was. “You gotta work on it. Kids shouldn’t be taken for granted.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It was exactly what I would say to the parents coming to my office.
“Why do you laugh?”
I cleared my throat and then said, “Has your son been here for long?”
A woman passed with her stroller and sat down next to us. She took out a book and started reading.
“After he is released, we’ll do one of our trips again,” the man said. “But don’t tell him. It’s a surprise.” He removed the candle from my sandwich and placed it next to it. “You have to eat,” he said. “You have to force yourself to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Still.” He pulled out a wallet from his coat and unfolded it. “That’s Leander.” He stroked the celluloid window that protected a photo of a delicate boy with curly blond hair. He was holding a fishing rod twice his size. “A little cottage in Norway. No neighbors. The next village thirty kilometres away.”
“We used to go fishing, too,” I said, “but Paul always threw them back into the water.” Then, he used to complain about his father who fried their catch for dinner. He still told me about the things they were doing together.
“Can I see your son?” The man put his wallet back and said, “You have a photo, don’t you?”
“No,” I said. Paul had wanted me to remove all the photos of him in the apartment. The most recent I’d seen was the one his father had sent me with an e-mail a few months ago, when they were on Mallorca. They were sitting in a restaurant, at a table overflowing with dishes, and they were smiling at the photographer — the new wife most probably –, showing off their tan.
“Last summer Leander was on posters all over the city.” The man put his wallet back and said, “It was an ad for a youth science program. They took them off months ago, but they forgot the one in the car park in Charlottenburg.” He smiled. “I’d like to take you there. Are you free in the afternoon?”
“I have to go to work when I’m done here,” I said.
He went with his fingers through his hair again, and then he laughed. “I haven’t even asked what you do for a living.”
“No worries,” I said.
“So?” He said, “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m with child welfare,” I said.
“Really? What kind of cases?”
He winked. “You’re not supposed to talk about them, right?”
“No,” I said. When I’d gotten the call about Paul, a father and his nine-year-old daughter had been sitting in my office. He had last seen her at the age of two. It took us some weeks until we got it all fixed up, but yesterday afternoon they finally met: the girl was frightened, the father nervous, they hardly spoke. In the end, the man started to cry and the girl reached for my hand and they made a date for the zoo on the following weekend.
“What street are you on?” The man said, “I’ll pick you up after work.”
“I have choir practice tonight.”
He bent forward. “What are you rehearsing?”
“A chorale by Bach,” I said.
A plate fell on the floor, crushed into a thousand pieces. The little boy startled and the women took him out of the stroller and rocked him in her arms. He stopped crying at once. “How Shall I Receive Thee,” I said.
The man said, “How Meet Thee on Thy Way?”
I reached for my cup. It was empty. I put it back and said, “Where are you going?”
The man raised his eyebrows.
“You said that you’re taking him on a holiday.”
He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket again and presented a colored envelope, from which he pulled out two airline tickets. “Rome,” he said. “Ever been there?”
“Leander loves Rome. He wants to study history.”
“I studied history,” I said.
“What is Paul going to study?”
His teacher had just told me that he wouldn’t make it through high school if he continued like this. I looked closer at the tickets. “You’re leaving tomorrow?”
“Her smile, I’m sure, burnt Rome to the ground,” the man said and then he minutely described their last trip, beginning with the fountains and the squares, their visits to Pantheon and Colosseo, how many maritozzi and crostata they ate, the paintings they looked at, the books they bought, what they were talking about; I thought he would never stop, but finally he did, in the middle of a sentence, and buried his face in his hands.
“Are you all right?” I said.
“I didn’t get much sleep. I had to pack, see?” He opened the zip of his sports bag, took out some clothes, piled them up on the table: they were crumpled and smelled bad. The stink of puberty. It’s not easy for parents to tell their kids that they should take a shower more often. Paul and I had fought daily about his hygiene habits. Or rather the lack of it.
The man said, “Guess who signed it?” He pressed a basketball shirt to his face, like a kid sniffing glue. Then he held it up to me: It was full of stains, as if his son had just taken it off after a match, not in a gym though, somewhere outside. “Paul Zipser signed my boy’s shirt.” He put the clothes back and grabbed the tickets. “When was the last time you guys hugged each other?”
The woman next to us was smiling at the tiny face of her baby that was still sleeping in her arms. They both sat there undisturbed by everything that was happening around them. Nobody dared approach them, ask for a free seat, or start a conversation. I looked at the man who was waiting for an answer. I could have told him about the night a year ago when Paul came home drunk from a friend’s birthday party, when I half-carried him to the bathroom and held him while he threw up, when I half-carried him to his room and helped him to undress, when I sat down on the floor next to his bed, next to the bucket that I’d put there in case he would throw up again. But I just said, “Paul will be waiting.”
The man stood up. “I have to check on my car first. Don’t want to have a ticket again.” He reached for the handles of the sports bag. One of them had been torn off. Somebody must have sewn it back on. Somebody who hadn’t much experience in sewing: the color of the thread didn’t match and it was dissolving already – it would go off any second. “I won’t be long,” he said and then he vanished behind the potted palm trees.
I opened the CD and read the booklet from the beginning to the end. Then I went to the counter and bought two pieces of strawberry tart. I stuck the 17 on one of them. As I reached the elevators the man still hadn’t returned.
My son’s arm was wrapped in a shiny white cast. He hadn’t woken up yet. His face looked so delicate all of sudden; millions of freckles; the hardly visible scar above his right eyebrow that he got after falling down the stairs at the age of three.
(The bed next to his was empty. It had also been empty the day before as I now remembered.)
Then he opened his eyes.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said.
“Here’s some cake,” I said. But he closed his eyes again.
I put his piece on the nightstand and ate mine at the table. It was good. It was the best strawberry cake I’d ever had. Then I carried the chair next to his bed and I sat there and waited, looking at the curtains that were moving ever so slightly from the warm summer breeze, or looking at him, my son, who’d gone back to sleep and was breathing in and out, in and out.
Jessica Falzoi was born in Hamburg and raised in Lübeck, Germany. After stays in the US and France, she moved to Berlin in the early nineties, where she still lives with her three children. Her stories, as well as her translation of Donald Barthelme’s “Sentence,” have been published in American, Russian, Indian, German, Swiss, Irish, British, and Canadian magazines and anthologies. Her book on craft in German came out last year, and her first collection of English short stories and first German novel will be published soon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College.