Johanna Lenné is an active, successful lawyer in her late thirties who lives in Zurich and generally enjoys life: Hiking with friends, singing in a choir, taking long bike rides, traveling, and work. Life could be quite perfect if there wasn't this one black hole which she falls or is pushed into, every now and then: Jo is single. Her best friend Klara's wedding is, naturally, another occasion for a free fall into the black hole, and Jo bets with an equally single colleague that they would find partners, within a year. In the ensuing months, she works her way through the methods of modern partner search - studiously and unsuccessfully: Speed flirting, dating websites, clubs, visits at concerts or museums, old-fashioned set-ups by friends. Her dating spree leads her to a Porsche driver working his way through the Kama Sutra, a likably huggable Saint Bernard with a not so likable attachment on the upper end of the leach, a testosterone evaporating gym junkie, many guys too shy to say hi, or a couple therapist who doesn't believe in twosomeness - and more. When she increasingly questions whether there really is such a thing as eternal love or whether she has just fallen prey to a well-advertised myth, too many Jane Austen novels and rom coms, or exaggerated expectations, she meets Dr Mark Kinsey, a man who knows what he wants: Johanna. But is he really what she wants? Her better half? Her soulmate? The time has come for Johanna to decide what really matters in her life.
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The fact that a frog you kiss
Doesn’t turn into a prince
That you’re not a princess
M1 – M10
For what felt like the 375th time, I was sitting in a church that was dressed up for the occasion, just like me and the strangers around me were, and I smiled. Smiled. Smiled.
‘Konrad Paul Dobberin, do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to live together according to God’s ordinance in the Holy Estate of Matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep you only unto her as long as you both shall live?’
Konrad turned around. His eyes wandered from face to face, looking for the one face his heart was yearning for: Mine. His look dived into my eyes and delved into my heart. The united beat of our churning hearts took our breath away. He wrested his hand from hers, left his previous life behind, flying on the wings of his suddenly burning love, straight to his destiny. He came rushing towards me, fell on his knees. ‘Johanna, when I just saw you, I knew: You are the woman I have always been searching for. The woman with whom I want to share my life and my dreams and never grow old. The woman of my dreams and of my life. Johanna, will you marry me?’
My eyes filled with tears. This was somewhat unexpected. I did not really know him. And he was just about to marry my best friend. Really, I could not... On the other hand...
Konrad’s response hit me right in the face and beat the silly daydream out of my head. He was still standing in front of the altar to marry Klara, he was still holding her hand, he was still smiling at her. Of course he was.
And I realized that I had just watched too many romantic comedies.
‘Klara Miller, do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband, to live together according to God’s ordinance in the Holy Estate of Matrimony? Will you love him, comfort him, honour and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep you only unto him as long as you both shall live?’
Klara’s smile was beaming at her Konrad, her family, her friends, the day – her life. She was a beautiful bride: tall, slim, in a classic dress – white, of course – that underlined her impeccable figure, with pink flowers in her blonde hair, matching her bouquet, to which she had been clinging as if her life had depended on it and which she, now that the question of questions had been answered in the positive, held in an almost relaxed manner. Had it not been Klara, I would have fallen easy prey to jealousy.
The late summer sun sent its light through the stained glass windows and bathed the faces of the happy couple in a soft, warm glow.
Klara had planned all the details of this day, ever since our schooldays, so that it felt like I had known the bridegroom for ages, even though Klara had only introduced us earlier in the day. Well, in a way, he was an old acquaintance, after all: Klara and I had spent hours on the phone, discussing this charming, friendly, humorous, educated and, on top of it all, attractive, in summary perfect doctor.
Him, who had been living next door to Klara briefly before moving to the other end of Berlin. ‘But not because of a woman or anything like that. Not that this would be any of my business, of course. Or matter to me. But, anyway, well, at the moment, he is single.’ – ‘Yes, of course, Klara, whatever you say.’
Him, whose departure naturally was completely unrelated to the fact that Klara had also moved close to him, shortly thereafter.
Him, who – Coincidence, thou moody master of fate! – by mere chance had crossed Klara’s path at the local riding club. ‘What? You did not know that I have started to take riding lessons? Jo, I always wanted to do that. Didn’t I tell you?’ – Yeah, right.
Him, whom she had invited to the opera when a friend had unfortunately and unexpectedly become ill and could not join her. – Had she ever told me that friend’s name, by the way?
Him, with whom it had clicked ‘so unexpectedly – for both of us’. – As previously indicated: Yeah, right.
Him – the man she was just marrying.
The Konrad whom she loved so much that she was now overcoming one of her greatest fears. Even during music class in school, Klara had been confined to the triangle while the others were singing, due to her stage-fright-induced lack of talent. But now she turned around to the congregation: ‘Dear friends, dear family. You know how much I dislike singing. In particular in public. But now, I have found the person with whom I am not afraid of anything or anyone any more. And this is why I now want to sing our song for him. Konrad, do you recall? It was playing when you brought me home after the opera, after our first, kind-of-date. And it expresses exactly what I feel with you. What I feel for you. This will not be an artistic highlight, but, Konrad, with you, I am more than I can be. With you, I am strong – and I can even sing.’
So, Klara sang ‘You Raise Me Up’ in front of her family, in front of her friends, but mostly for her Konrad.
With every wrong note and every Kleenex that made its way out of a handbag or pocket, my heart felt happier. And with every word, it felt sadder. I was happy for Klara. Of course, I was happy for Klara. And for Konrad. For both. Sincerely. From the bottom of my heart. But while I enjoyed being happy with and for those dear to me, I would equally have enjoyed being happy for myself, for a change. Egoistic? Of course. But it became harder and harder to suppress this feeling of ‘What about me?’, here and now. Weddings are always a milestone. Naturally for the newlyweds. But the solemnly-happy ‘I do’ of the protagonists also calls us onlookers to take stock of our own state of mind and state of heart. To ask ourselves where we stand in life and in love, why things are the way they are and what we really want.
I was 39. And had never really been in love. When I was attracted to a man, he inevitably mentioned his girlfriend / fiancée / wife or, if not that, his boyfriend / fiancé / husband. Or he was about to emigrate abroad or to a monastery or – no, not even I had met an astronaut about to leave on a mission to Mars. Yet.
Years ago, life had seemed clear: high school, college, university, PhD, job. And somewhere along the way, fate would automatically guide me to the one it had chosen for me. We would get married, or not, have children, or not, have a house, or not. In any event, we would enjoy life, solve all the problems of mankind in long and deep discussions or just fool around. We would go to the theatre, the movies, museums or dancing, hang out on the sofa, have friends over for dinner, laugh, hike, bike, travel, cook, sing – we would just do everything that is more fun when doing it with the right someone rather than by yourself. But then, without me noticing, one year after another had come and gone, and I had stayed alone. Around me, everyone was getting married and having children, but I stayed alone. When the I-love-you virus had hit the office, some years ago, I had been the only one who had not opened the infected email. Someone loving me? That seemed fishy. Well, coming from my boss (who had obviously not seen anything fishy in the world’s loving him), such a confession would have shocked rather than tickled me, admittedly.
My friends tried to reassure me by telling me about couples that had met at a – yes, at this point in time, it was undeniably an ‘advanced’ age. However, the coincidences became more and more coincidental (‘You! Won’t! Believe! This! So, she arrives at the top of the mountain, and there is no one around, apart from this one guy sitting there, leaning against the summit cross. They look at each other, and – boom!’). At some point, I would really no longer believe it. And I would still be alone. Soon, it would no longer be my friends but their children inviting me to their weddings. ‘Oh, please invite Aunt Johanna. She would be so happy to come. And maybe, you could find someone you can seat her next to.’ Nice try.
The music tore me away from my musing. The married couple was walking down the aisle. The choir was singing. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. ‘For He shall give His angels charge over thee, that they shall protect thee in all the ways thou goest, that their hands shall uphold and guide thee, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.’
Sigh. What a wonderful thought. Konrad would be this angel for Klara, just like she would be for him. This was the life and the love that Klara had dreamt of. And me, too. I sank into my inner cloud of kitsch and self-pity.
Upon recovering from myself, I joined the congregation’s procession out into the sunlight – and there, again, everything was perfect: The sun was shining, the bells were ringing. Klara was still stunningly beautiful (of course). Konrad was still attractive (of course). Granted – who cares about the looks of the groom at a wedding, anyway? As long as he puts on his suit and tie properly and with the front at the front and the back at the back, and manages to keep it clean, he meets all the key requirements. It was probably no coincidence that the basic word was ‘bride’ and the ‘bridegroom’ a deviation. Usually, the male form is the basis – heir and heiress, mister and mistress, governor and governess … no, that was not right. Anyway: Adam first, then Eve, I guess. Only for the wedding, things were different. It must have been Eve’s idea. Apparently, there was a message hidden somewhere. But I did not really have time to dig for it.
I postponed the thinking and started taking photos of Klara and Konrad at the reception line, engulfed in a parade of smiles, embraces and good wishes.
Of course, Klara had a professional photographer, but she had asked me to take snapshots of the guests. Apparently, the photographer was also fine with this distribution of tasks, so that he only tried to push me away when I got too close to the married couple, sneering ‘This is my angle!’ While this was certainly not a friendly gesture among almost-colleagues, I understood that he had to make a living, after all.
I liked taking pictures at weddings, and given that I never participated in the main action, I had a wealth of practice. At weddings, everyone at least subjectively looks good, everyone smiles – unless they cry. But even the crying at weddings tends to be of the photogenic type. And behind the camera, I also did not have to worry about any photographers proudly presenting the atrocities they had been able to ban for eternity, claiming that the photo of me chewing too big a bite of my sandwich was one of their best works so far. Digital photography certainly constituted technical progress – but socially, it had taken us a big step back. While the legal scholars were still disputing how to protect privacy in the digital age, the bearers of this right frantically pilloried each other socially or at least aesthetically online. And they called this ‘social’. Just to make sure that the great-grandchildren, too, would see great-grandma enjoying her first drunken stupor. And while cautious people installed timers to pretend they were at home during their absence, they also spread the word on all available channels that they were on vacation, for two weeks, at the movies or just now at a wedding in Potsdam. Well, I did not have to understand everything that happened around me. Obviously, I was too old for that. Or too complicated. Or too simple.
I have to admit though, that when Sinéad and Bernd stepped forward, I was a tiny little bit tempted to just shoot whatever passed by my lens. I had met the two of them in the morning – briefly, but long enough.
‘Hi, I am Bernd. And this is my wife SinHead.’
Obviously, he loved his Sinéad so much that he felt she deserved her very own version of her beautiful name.
‘I have known Konrad for years. I manage his insurances. Great guy. Here is my card. You never know, do you? Are you also a doctor?’
‘Thank you, that is…’
‘Actually, this is the second wedding for us, this week. And my SinHead looks stag-ge-ring, again. She easily gets one up on any bride.’
Sinéad took a deep breath to interrupt him, but he continued, ‘Darling, you do not have to be so modest. Don’t you agree that she looks just stag-ge-ring, Mrs …? What was your name, again?’
‘Well, anyway, I told her this morning ‘Darling,’ I said, I mean, ‘You just look stag-ge-ring. You are just the hottest ever.’ Well, that’s just a fact, she just looks stag-gering. Don’t you agree that she looks stag-ge-ring?’
I hoped that Sinéad would punch him and send him stag-ge-ring, preferably right into a one-day-coma.
Naturally, Sinéad could look or be as hot as she wanted to for a proper assessment, I lacked both true expertise and investigative interest. But the mere question was completely misplaced. I would not begrudge her the fact that Bernd viewed creation as completed through his wife. But here and today, no Sinéad could be as gorgeous and beautiful as Klara, the radiant bride. Period.
And now, this stag-ge-ring couple approached Klara. Bernd was baring his teeth, his Sinéad was wearing a hat. Dark blue velvet. With a wide brim and a peacock’s feather. And a huge bird dropping. Placed in the middle like a medal, well visible and still very fresh. I tipped Bernd on the shoulder and hinted at the portable bird loo. His complexion assimilated the bird poo’s colour. He grabbed his Sinéad’s arm and skeltered towards the parking lot. ‘I told you not to wait under the tree with all the birds. Obviously, this had to happen, but, no, Madam has to sit in the shade, in direct shooting line. Shooting line? Shitting line! Because of Madam’s delicate skin. Too stupid to sit. You know that I promised my boss to lend her the hat, tomorrow. And how are we going to get the shit off? That’s velvet! Velvet! But don’t count on me, you can do that yourself, Madam. You are just too stupid.’
Now, I almost pitied his Sinéad. On the other side, she had picked him among several billion men on this planet. Probably, he was the price you had to pay for being the pride of creation.
The newlyweds handshook, hugged and kissed through the parade one after the other, and I, too, got in line. Konrad first. He smiled. Inquiring. No, he could not have noticed my little escapism in church. Could he? Probably, he just didn’t remember who I was. I put my hand forward. ‘I am Johanna, Klara’s friend from school. Hey, look after her. Klara is a very special person. Make her happy!’ He ignored my hand, hugged me and placed a big kiss on my cheek. His beard was tickling. ‘Of course! Johanna! Klara has told me so much about you. Sorry that I did not recognize you, at first. So many new people. No worries, I know how lucky I am to have Klara.’ He pulled her towards him, they looked at each other and their looks merged. Can looks merge? It did not matter. At weddings, I tended to fall easy prey to kitsch. Again, I allowed myself to.
I whispered into Klara’s ear. ‘I am so happy for you. Be happy.’
She hugged me. ‘I am. And next time, we dance on your wedding, Jo.’
That was too much. Now, I had to cry.
In a flower-bedecked limousine, the newlyweds and the photographer left for the obligatory photo session, and the crowd took a break.
Fortunately, Bernd and his Sinéad had made it just in time to congratulate the happy couple; Bernd storming and his hatless Sinéad looking to the ground. Now, I really pitied Bernd’s Sinéad.
I approached her. ‘That was really bad luck, with the bird. On the dark hat at that… Try vinegar and lemon. Or soap water. I saw a drugstore near the post office. And you look staggering, even without the hat.’
Bernd’s Sinéad smiled. ‘Thank you, that is sweet of you. You know, it is just because Bernd had promised his boss he’d lend her the hat. It is really important for his career.’
‘That’s unfortunate, of course, but such is life. Sometimes, shit just happ…’ Too late, I had almost said it. Stupid me! Fortunately, Bernd’s Sinéad’s basset gaze told me that she had missed the unintended irony.
Still, I preferred to relocate temporarily. ‘I think I should take some more photos. Klara has asked me to. After all, she will marry just once. And the crowd is disappearing, anyway. See you later!’
Returning to the church door, I found the unmated aunts who belong to any wedding and who were just exchanging the latest news.
‘What, you haven’t heard about that? Yes, all of a sudden. Heart attack and whoops. She’s so lucky – or rather was. Of course, not so nice for the children. But it was a beautiful ceremony. Very dignified and tasteful. The pastor was really marvellous.’
‘Was that the same one that Trudy had? I want him to speak at my funeral, too. I really like him.’
‘Oh no, Ruth! Hancock is about to retire. So, I really hope that you stay with us a bit longer than that. And, by the way, if you like him that much, then you should make sure to get his attention before your death and not thereafter. One hears he is a widower.’
They were giggling like debutantes awaiting their first ball – and I had my shot. Three gaudy aunts. All a matter of perspective and patience. In life and in photography. By the way, another word with a female root: Widow.
I pushed the lingering guests around back and forth and relentlessly thrust my camera into their faces until they had to laugh. Real laughter. I did not like photo smiles, it made people look the same, on all photos, just never like themselves.
Finally, on my last round, a familiar face. Desi, actually Lady Adalberta Desideria Georgina Kestrell, a former colleague from the time when Klara and I – and Desi, of course – had worked for the same law firm in Berlin. Gosh, five years had passed already, since those days.
‘Johanna? Johanna, is that you? I almost did not recognize you. Did you lose weight? You look marvellous.’
‘Hello, Desideria!’ Of course, I would never call her Desi, certainly not into her face. ‘How are you? Yes, I did. Is that so obvious?’
‘Yes, absolutely. It is very becoming, indeed.’
‘Well, it was really about time. Too much work, all the fast food, no sports, no sleep, no vacation. But who am I talking to?’
Truth being told, Desi had always demonstrated her noblesse by gracefully allowing the lower ranks to take the bigger chunks of the work. But that was water under a bridge that I no longer wanted to cross, anyway.
‘Johanna, now I can say it: You really did work too much. In any event: Congratulations. You look very well.’
‘That is sweet of you. Thank you. Well, you always look great, so can’t tell you anything new, in this regard. So, how is everyone at the office doing? Who is even still there from the old troops?’
The question was justified. We had seen many come and succumb to work intoxication, to the exaltation derived from the awareness of their own indispensability, and to their hope for a thriving career. I, too, had proudly received my first work mobile phone, in the fulfilling awareness that I had just been granted the seal of importance. Shortly thereafter, I sometimes wished to neither be nor seem important. My first thought in the morning and my last at night belonged to the mailbox, just like so many thoughts in between. Life was shaped by permanent availability, all-nighters, cancelled holidays and an allencompassing Amour Fou with our mobile phones. Until the highly qualified work drudge realized that, taking into account hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime, it actually made less money than its cleaning lady. The plodder left the hamster’s wheel to be replaced by talented, hungry new blood. And the wheel continued to spin.
Oh, how right I was. ‘I believe you would know hardly anyone any more. Some of the old secretaries are still around, but there, too, a lot has changed. Of the lawyers, only Schlump and I have stayed. And REX, of course.’
REX, in full Richard Ernest Xavier, was the managing partner of the law firm. Generally travelling and with each cell of his body fully aware of his preeminent importance for the history of mankind. When he, as an exception, happened to be at the office, his sheer presence disseminated stress and unproductive hectic. One could physically sense his presence in the whole building, down to the main entrance hall – even though his office was on the 18th floor. REX, who fired and hired his assistant Susan on an hourly basis. And then opened ‘her’ I-love-you email. Who claimed that one had to make a secretary cry at least once a month so that she would be at one’s beck and call. And at least in the beginning, one had to keep her at work until midnight, every day, so that she knew who was wearing the breeches. Well, I had just asked my secretary whether she would stay late if necessary. She had said yes, and that had settled the issue to my full satisfaction. I was wondering why personality disorders like those REX displayed so abundantly obviously pushed your career. That had also been one of the reasons for me to leave the law firm. I did not want to become like that.
‘We also have some new colleagues, though. One of them is a countess. Very likeable. It is markedly pleasant to be in a position to have an exchange with someone of noble descent.’
Hallelujah! ‘Someone of noble descent.’ I decided that I did not have to comment on this quirk of our baroness.
‘Is REX talking to Schlump, again?’ During my years at the firm, the two had only communicated in writing or via their assistants. Rumour had it that the root cause was a disagreement over the formatting of the Christmas card. Apparently, the epicentre of the crisis was the life-and-death decision whether the text should be centred (‘That’s elegant!’ ‘That’s what everyone does!’) or left-aligned (‘That looks like a business letter.’ ‘That’s right. Because we are a business.’). Like cranky three-year-olds. It was not known to me whether any cards had been sent that or any subsequent year, at all.
‘Absolutely, they talk to each other, now. But they no longer talk to the colleagues in Paris. And you? What do you do, these days?’
‘I am still with Blau-Weiss Insurance in Zurich. Legal department. I’m in charge of whatever comes my way from a billion dollar US class action to a customer complaint because the sun does not shine. And all in English, German or French. When I start work in the morning, I never know what I will have done by the end of the day. I enjoy that. And this time, I am really lucky with my boss. Brilliant lawyer, still always friendly, takes his time, listens, discusses, lets me finish my sentence, responds to email, says thank you. Can you imagine that from REX? Simply a constructive working relationship. I had almost forgotten what that was.’
Desi sighed. ‘Yes, with REX, things are not that easy. Last week, he fired Susan. Again. And this time, she really left, for good.’
‘What? Susan has left? Susan? But she is married to the firm.’ I could not believe it.
‘Yes. This time, she just had enough. She had come to the office in the afternoon after her varicose vein operation, because REX was around. But REX was his usual inconsiderate self. She was not as fast as usual, so he yelled at her, asking who had shit into her brain and whether he was surrounded by cripples and idiots. Excuse my language, I am quoting. He said that once she was at the office, she had to work. Susan calmly responded that if she had wanted to work with spoiled three-year-old brats, she would have become a kindergarten teacher. And then she left.’
Desi seemed to be asking herself the painful question why she was not leaving herself.
I changed subject. ‘Say, what else is going on in your life besides work?’
Desi shook her head. ‘I am still single. Where should I meet someone, anyway? At the office? In my car? In my apartment? At my parents’ place? And, naturally, the choice is even more limited when you are aristocratic.’
I could not let her nobility-isms go by twice. ‘Well, that should really not be a limiting factor. In case of doubt, such a title only means that some ancestor was better at robbing, murdering, machinating and pillaging than the average. Just like in Australia, where the really old families all derive from criminals. You should really look for something better than such a degenerated noble bod.’
Actually, this was not really nice of me. But I trusted in the superior self-control of the Lady and was not disappointed.
Indeed, after her instant of shock paralysis had passed, she responded. ‘And, what about you? Have you found someone?’
Touché! ‘No, I am also still single. At our age, almost everyone is married. At least the good ones. Plus in Switzerland, it is more difficult to meet people, anyway.’
‘More difficult than in Germany?’
‘Yes, I would say so. The Swiss make their real friends in kindergarten or at the latest at school. Well, at the very, very latest at university or the military. Of course, it is great if you happen to be one of those old friends, but otherwise it is difficult. Besides, they hardly ever invite more than one friend or a couple at a time. Granted, it is a compliment that they really want to spend the evening just with you, but it simply means that you will never meet someone through mutual friends.’
‘And if you invite them?’
‘Oh, I do that - trust me. But I know my guests, so by inviting them I will not meet anyone new. Everyone enjoys my parties and loves to come, but they hardly ever invite me in return. And if they do, it is a huge party every ten years with all the couples they know. Plus me.’
‘What has become of the parties where we would stand in the kitchen with a glass of wine, discuss everything between heaven and earth and just meet new people?’
‘I am afraid those are still taking place, but without us. At our age almost everyone is in a relationship. And for the few who are not, there is often a good reason.’
Desi laughed. ‘Do you also have these discussions with your friends when they go through their mental address books searching for eligible candidates? For you are such a wonderful woman, no, such a marvellous person that it simply cannot be that you do not find a partner? And then they go through their friends, one by one, and whenever one suggests someone, the other one provides a striking argument why that candidate does not belong by your side but in psychiatric care.’
‘Oh yes, I know those, too. Johanna’s all season sale. ‘Darling, you know, Johanna is interested in arts. What about Anthony?’ ‘Darling, you can’t be serious. Anthony does colouring by numbers. That’s not very artistic. And he does not have time, anyway. Because he does colouring by numbers 24/7.’ Or ‘Darling, what about Malcolm?’ ‘Are you serious? Malcolm? I don’t know. He is still living with his mom. And, by the way, Johanna, what do you think about Sadomaso?’ They seriously expected a response. True. This has really happened, I am not joking.’
Desi had to laugh. ‘Recently, friends recommended a potential partner who was, as they called it, ‘a bit lala on the upper deck’. They assured me that he would never argue with me. I would basically be able to continue my life as if he did not exist. Or as if I had a dog.’ She hesitated but eventually burst into laughter. ‘But he was aristocratic. Ancient nobility. A prince.’
I could not leave this ball lying in my court. ‘Definitely a further argument for marriage outside nobility. Reduced lala risk.’
We both had to laugh. Unfortunately, though, the two of us were listed items in this all season sale, as well. Maybe, friends of ours were talking to their male single friend, right now. ‘JimPeterPaulTomBill, you are such a wonderful man, no, such a marvellous person that it simply cannot be that you do not find a partner.’ ‘Darling, what about Johanna?’ ‘Darling, you can’t be serious. Johanna is…’
Whatever followed, no one would ever tell me. Even though I would have liked to know why I was not considered – how had Desi put it? – ‘eligible’.
Desi bid me farewell to change dresses. ‘After all, you cannot celebrate two occasions in the same dress.’
Actually, just that was exactly my plan. And given that my closet was in Zurich, about 470 miles away, this gruesome fate was now inevitable. I deemed it survivable, though. Given that no living soul took notice of the groom, there should also be enough room under the radar for me. After all, it was not about me but about the bride – well, and a little bit about the groom. And my name was not Sinéad and I was not the property of any Bernd. Accordingly, I did not have to look stag-ge-ring.
Of course, I knew that this attitude was not helpful in the search for a partner. I just happened to be too in-vain. Or was it un-vain? Was there even a word for the opposite of vain? Or was that such a rare condition that it lacked an adjective? How had my father said? ‘Child, you have to do more for your looks. Men are much better lookers than thinkers.’ Of course, he was right. Intelligent women had to look twice as stunning. Or pretend to be a little less intelligent than they were. But I had not come to that point. Yet. Furthermore, I was convinced that the most optically-oriented man, too, would at some point realize that even a female head that wore make-up and a proper hairdo, yes, even a head wearing a hat actually tended to accommodate a brain. Well, unless that man’s name was Bernd, maybe. But he was clearly a class of his own.
Anyway, it was too late for a new dress, and if today was to be the day of days on which Mr Oneandonly was to step into my life, then he would have to actuate his brain and not his hormone level.
While the guests whose parents had apparently read them the relevant chapters from Debrett’s as a bedtime story were gearing up appropriately for the second occasion, and while the married couple was having its love eternalized in bits and bytes and maybe even on kodachrome, I set off to Kartzow Castle. Ever since a school trip far too many years ago, this had been the place where Klara and I would marry a couple of twins or at least brothers in an overwhelming festival of love. We had spent hours imagining our big day. And today, Klara was celebrating there, in real life. Konrad was a single child. Of course.
When I arrived at the Castle after a good walk (smart choice not to wear high heels), I found the usual situation at weddings: Couples, hit by Amor’s wildly and abundantly disseminated ricochets, engulfed by the reignited love they had almost lost under heaps of diapers and annuity payments, who would much rather have been alone.
Given that there was no designated singles table, I joined one of the seemingly less smitten couples.
Her: ‘Nice location.’ Silence.
Him: ‘Yes, really nice location.’ Silence.
Her: ‘The ceremony was also nice.’ Silence.
Me: ‘Hi, my name is Johanna. I am a friend of Klara’s, from school.’ Silence.
Him: ‘Yes. Really nice ceremony.’
Ah, yes, that was an answer, too. And quite an accomplishment on my side to be the fifth wheel – on a bike. I got myself lost – which was not too hard.
Unfortunately, my other attempts at making contact were equally successful. I switched to my photographerme, and the miracle happened: Take a picture, and the world will smile at you! That never failed. And it further clarified the situation. ‘Closer together, please – and please embrace each other!’ People who were looking at each other and at me in alienation, forcing themselves to approach each other by the inch were (hopefully) not joined in matrimony as long as they both shall live. However, the first impression had not fooled me: Couples wherever I looked. Click.
While re-endlessed love was still floating through the garden in waves, showers and shocks, Bernd sprinted past me to the gate, dragging his Sinéad along. She was wearing a perfect (and, in particular, clean) evening gown. She looked stag-ge-ring. Seriously. Of course, I would not have worn a dress cut so low in the back, given the temperatures. Plus you never knew who had been sitting in the chair which Sinéad’s sexily exposed back would lean against naked-back-to-backrest, tonight. But that was her decision, not mine. Obviously, I was too in-vain, indeed.
The source of the commotion that quickly took hold of the whole congregation? The married couple’s limousine had arrived. Konrad got off and rushed to help his wife – ‘that their hands shall uphold and guide thee, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone’. And Klara needed the help, because the vision in white that she was wearing did not leave her much room to breathe or move, despite her slender physique. Whatever, Klara was beaming.
The official photographer had cleared the arena after his private audience, but his services were no longer required, anyway. At least half the attendees pulled out their mobile phones and flashed Klara’s path through the early dusk. I was happy for her that she had this Hollywood entrance. Did I mention? Klara was beaming.
Konrad led Klara to a red velvet chair, no, throne. He stood next to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. Klara held his hand as he read. ‘Dear family, dear friends, dear colleagues! Most importantly: Dear Klara. As you know, I am not really a man of words. Anyway, words can never describe how happy I am to have you, Klara, here by my side today, as my wife. Accordingly, I will make it short: This is the happiest day in my life, and I thank each and every one of you that you share it with us – especially as some of you have travelled from afar to witness this unexpected event. Yes, unexpected. In the past 20 years, my mates from university have used every appropriate and inappropriate opportunity – in particular the inappropriate ones – to prophesy to me and the world that a queer old stick like me would stay single. And that this was a blessing for womankind. Well, guys, you did not expect this, did you! In particular, I want to thank our former landlady, Ms Beanston, who certainly had no clue that Amor was sitting on Klara’s shoulder when she moved into the apartment next to mine. Fortunately, this little guy remained adamant when I moved away, shortly thereafter, and he also pushed Klara all over Berlin, straight to me. Some men apparently do not only need a broad hint but rather a broad hit on the head. And so, I ask you all to raise the glass with me to Amor, to the luck of the old sticks, to my gorgeous, intelligent, fun and simply perfect wife and to an evening on which we want to celebrate all of that. Klara, you are the best that ever happened to me, you are the wind beneath my wings. I love you.’
The crowd uttered a collective sigh, glasses were clinking, Kleenex use soared, and the evening had begun. Klara was beaming. What else? And shivering. The wedding gown was a dream, or rather a soupçon of a dream – and simply not warm enough for a late summer cocktail reception in the garden. I wrapped her into my coat, and after a short protest (‘Jo, I look ridiculous!’ ‘You look warm and like a bride who will wake up without pneumonia, tomorrow, and go on her honeymoon, on Monday.’ ‘Yes, but what about you?’ ‘I am not going on a honeymoon, on Monday. Don’t be so difficult, Klara!’), Klara spent the rest of the garden reception with wedding dress and coat. One has to suffer for beauty. If you don’t want to suffer, be beautiful on the inside. Well, today, Klara was the most beautiful woman in the world, anyway.
‘That’s what I call a caring friend,’ a deep voice behind me said. I turned around. Tall, massive, grey hair, glasses, around sixty, a glass of champagne in his hand, his mouth first dominated by a smirk, then by a pipe. No, I did not know this guy.
‘I cannot allow her to go on her honeymoon all-sick. That would be a gross violation of my fiduciary duties, after all.’
He laughed. ‘Oh, you are a lawyer? And what is the legal basis of your fiduciary duties? Well, if you are the bride’s mother, then I have to pay you a major compliment, Ma’am.’
I had to laugh, as well. ‘Johanna. Johanna Lenné. I am a school friend of Klara’s, that’s also a sufficient basis. And a lawyer. I assume that’s also true for you – the lawyer part, I mean.’
‘Kinsey. Dr Mark Kinsey, a friend of the Dobberin family. And, yes, I plead guilty on that count: I am a lawyer.’
How embarrassing for a lawyer to introduce himself with his PhD. I would never have done that. That was not me. But his voice: A bass like a bed of clouds – to sink into. Unfortunately, every sexy bass word came with a very unsexy emission of smoke.
‘Well, nice to meet you, Dr Mark Kinsey: Cheese, please!’ Click. ‘Maybe a picture with your wife?’ An old single reflex, I could not help it.
‘No, I am not…’
‘Okay, then, I will see you later.’ I was not really that interested in his status, after all.
I joined Desi who was smalltalking with Bernd and his Sinéad. Sinéad turned around. ‘Thank you, again, for the idea with the lemon juice and the vinegar. I managed to get it clean. Thank God.’ ‘No worries.’
A waiter offered finger food: spring rolls with curry sauce. When Sinéad reached for one, Bernd slapped her on the fingers. ‘No, you better stop that. One such disaster per day is totally enough. I am insurance manager and not Mr Muscle. I will not let you make a fool of me twice in one day. And in any event, you are getting too fat, anyway. Come, SinHead, let’s go in and look for our table.’
Having said that, he swung around – and stumbled into the next waiter, serving meatballs. With cocktail sauce. It never ceased to amaze me how comprehensively liquids disbursed in or on any given space. And cocktail sauce was no exception. Bernd’s suit would bring a challenge to any dry cleaner’s day. Too bad that Bernd was insurance agent and not Mr Muscle, as he had so rightfully pointed out. Too… what is worse than ‘too bad’? ‘Too worse’? Anyway, even worse that he was perfectly capable of making a fool of himself without any assistance, paving his way through the crowds towards the parking lot, ripping out with predominantly X-rated comments. I thought I saw a grin flashing on Sinéad’s face before she dutifully followed Bernd. For better, for worse and for Bernd.
Both were a little late for dinner, Bernd wearing his church suit. At least, I was no longer the only unchanged guest.
Desi and I lingered around for a little while, let the finger food come and go and exchanged our scant information on the guests when Desi suddenly straightened. The Baroness had winded. ‘Is this not Dr Kinsey?’
‘Dr Kinsey, the general counsel of the Maienwald group? What brings a man like him here?’
‘He says he’s a friend of Konrad’s family.’
‘What? You have spoken to him?’
‘Kind of. So?’
‘I reckon you are not aware of the importance of the situation. Dr Kinsey is our most important client, only REX himself is attending to him. Do you not remember? For years, I have been hoping to meet him.’
From the dark and through the mist of a complete lack of interest, the memory of long nights I spent writing memos for the Maienwald group crept up into my brain.
‘Plus he is not married. Could you please introduce me, Johanna?’
‘Desideria, I have also only just met him. Not even met him. We have exchanged three words, maybe five. And why do I have to introduce you? You are old enough to do that without me.’
Desi’s eyes begged. Of course, a Lady had to be introduced. Only plebs like me would introduce themselves. Or introduce Ladies who were chicken. ‘Alright, let’s go, then.’
‘Mr Kinsey, may I introduce you to Lady Desideria von Kestrell? Lady Kestrell – Mr Kinsey.’
‘What a pleasant surprise. Two such charming young ladies. I am delighted. But that’s just the way it is. Wherever Dr Kinsey is, you will also find the beautiful young ladies. Enchanté!’
What a bootlicker! Of course, he had to bring on the PhD. How embarrassing.
Desi was even worse, however. She giggled. ‘Dr Kinsey, the pleasure is all mine. I have heard so much about you.’
Good grief! The only thing missing were the hand kiss and the violins. Ah, yes, pink light and a boys’ choir, maybe. I pulled my camera and manoeuvred them close to each other. With this, I considered my introduction job done. Click and go.
Off to check the seating order. Another vexatious issue at weddings. If you were lucky, you ended up at a table with other singles who, however, became younger and younger the older you got. Sometimes, I felt like the governess at the children’s table. Or you were the uneven addendum to a table of couples flying on the wings of love back to their own wedding or silently holding the hand of the love of their life for a magical evening of love and devotion. How nice for them.
And today? I was placed – oops? – at the table of the married couple. Probably the only time in my life.
Luckily, Klara came by. ‘I hope you don’t mind. You know, my dad doesn’t have anyone, now that my mom is dead, so I thought you could sit next to him. He knows you.’
‘Sure, Klara. Happy to do that. I like your dad.’
I had not noticed any, to quote Desi, eligible bachelors, anyway. Talking about Desi: She sat next to the Doctor. Congrats, Klara, you do know your friends. Maybe, something would come of that.
Klara had asked me to photograph all guests with a plush frog I had given her years ago – for practising, so that she would be ready when the right one would step into her life. This idea was so typical for Klara, and she had pulled it through: The wedding was frog themed. On the tables stood bowls with water lilies, surrounded by frogs made of clay, wood, china and everything one can make frogs of. One for each guest as a takeaway.
So, Froggy and I were lurking near the door, jumping at everyone who entered and coercing them to kiss my plushy companion. Fortunately, no one could keep a straight face in such ambush. Not even the Doctor, who, however, insisted on not being alone on the photo. Since when was his courtship my problem? Fortunately, Desi was lingering around, so I shoved her into the picture. Still, he was pouting, claiming that this was not what he had meant. Who cared? Click and basta la pasta. Some people were just high maintenance.
Anyway, when completing this task, I had casually found out that Messrs Miller and Kinsey were the only bachelors on the menu – aside from the cuddly students and early thirties drooling over the equally cuddly half models. Cute! Single ladies my age were abounding, though. As usual.
Mr Miller – more grey and less tall than in my recollection – stood up, ‘Good evening. May I introduce myself? My name is Horst Miller. I am Klara’s father.’ He had obviously dug out his formal side and polished it carefully.
‘Good evening, Mr Miller. It’s me, Johanna. Klara and I went to school together, don’t you remember?’
Mr Miller dropped the formalities. ‘Boy, Johanna! Wow, you have grown. Lemme look at you. You’re a real lady. I really didn’t recognize you. Who would’ve thought that?‘
‘Well, at almost 40 years, one should be fully grown. But I promise that I won’t grow any taller, now. I haven’t seen you in ages. How are you, Mr Miller? Have you made it through the day alright? Wasn’t this a beautiful wedding? Klara is such a bride-sy bride.’
Mr Miller beamed Klara’s smile at me. ‘Yes, isn’t she beautiful? My little princess. It’s like she sat on my lap just yesterday. And now, she’s a married woman. If only my wife could see that!’
I took his hand and we sat silently for a bit.
When all guests had found their place, the bridegroom wished everyone an enjoyable evening, once more, and the salad was served. Mr Miller looked at the many knives and forks near his plate and wavered. I whispered, ‘From the outside to the inside, Mr Miller. Just use what I use and you will be fine.’ We understood each other.
After the salad, the best man’s speech was prepared well and served snippily, with the right level of humour, some appropriately embarrassing anecdotes about Konrad and due admiration for Klara. He had definitely done this before and enjoyed his gig.
We raised our glasses, and after the toast, the happy couple and everyone else sat down, but Mr Miller remained standing and ticked his glass with his knife to attract attention.
Klara hissed at him. ‘Not now, dad!’
‘But, Klara, I wanna say something, too!’
‘Yes, Papa, you can, but not now.’
If looks could kill!
Mr Miller, however, was immune to input. ‘My daughter doesn’t want her old father to speak, but this just needs to be said, and it needs to be said, now.’
Klara looked at me beseechingly. I pulled Mr Miller’s sleeve as inconspicuously as possible, but he was stronger and absolutely determined. ‘Well, dear Klara, dear Konrad – or may I now say: My dear children! Today, I am the proudest father in the whole world. Klara, you make me very, very happy. Konrad is the man I wished you would find, because I know that you love each other and that he will make you happy. And this is what a father wants. More than anything else.’
He looked around. I do not know whether it was Klara’s daggering looks or the festive atmosphere; anyway, he apparently felt that he had to finish what he had started.
‘Klara, we often clashed with each other, because we are both such pig heads, but I hope that you know how much I love you. And that I have always been proud of you, even though you often made my heart stop a beat or two. I was worried when you had to climb every tree or as an itsy bitsy little worm wanted to jump from the ten-metre-board, standing up there so small that I could hardly see you. But you did dive. Or when you got your motorcycle licence at 18, bought an old machine and drove down to Greece. That’s my Klara. Gets her motorbike licence, buys a motorbike, immediately and rides to Greece, the next day. I was so worried. I mean, such a pretty young girl all alone with the Greek.’
Klara hissed. ‘Daddy, not now.’
In vain. Mr Miller had gathered way. ‘But I was always proud of you. And I am today. And of Konrad, too. You both make such a perfect couple, and this is what I was so hoping you would find. Your mom would also be so terribly, terribly proud of you. Oh, Klara, I miss your mother so much. I know that you miss her, too, especially today. But somehow, she is with us, anyway. Through you, Klara. She was a wonderful woman, and when I look at you, I see her at our wedding. She was the most beautiful bride one could imagine. Just like you are today.’
Klara had given up and looked at her father with weary emotion and swelling tears in her eyes.
‘By now, I am an old man, and so I deserve the right to give you both some advice. Never go to bed before resolving any dispute. Always resolve it. Your mother always insisted on that, no matter how much that bugged me. And she was right. Then, you can get through everything. Together. Then, you will be together until death shall part you. Like your mom and me. Oh, Klara, I so wished she was here.’
By now, everyone had pulled out their handkerchiefs, again. A chorus of snuffles filled the room, and Klara sat amidst a funeral party, on the happiest day of her life. Fortunately, her old man pulled himself together. ‘And you must not only tell each other that you love each other, you have to show it. Every day. How did old Willie say? ‘Suit the action to the word, and all of that.’ So, let us toast to my wonderful daughter Klara and to my new son-in-law, Konrad. And, while we are at it, also to good old Shakespeare. Welcome to the family, Konrad.’
Konrad and Klara embraced Mr Miller and the soup was served.
Klara burst into laughter. ‘Oh, no, I don’t believe it. Soup! We are having soup! I had completely forgotten about that.’
She obviously read the questions in our eyes, so she explained, ‘I thought we were already waiting for the rack of venison. And my inner eye saw it burning to coal, tricky as it is. This is why I wanted you to wait a little, Dad. Oh, Daddy, that was so sweet of you, but I could hardly listen, because all I could think of was that stupid venison. Daddy, I love you so much.’
I was at ease and checked the photos from the last minutes. Klara looked like Snow White’s stepmother in cursing mode, with red flashy eyes and her lips tight. Marvellous, no photoshopping on those.
Konrad passed by behind me and looked over my shoulder. ‘Excellent, you have to keep those.’
Klara was not paying attention, and I used the opportunity to inquire about a question that had been lingering on my mind, for a while, ‘Say, Konrad, the fact that Josh Groban was, by pure coincidence, playing when you drove her home. Could it possibly be that this was not purely coincidental?’
Konrad grinned. ‘Guilty! But you must promise not to give me away to Klara. Well, Klara believes that we met, again, by mere coincidence. But, you know, I had fallen in love with her on the spot when I had first laid eyes on her. I had just not dared telling her. Until it was too late and I had to move away. When she suddenly showed up in the riding club, I swore to myself that I would not miss out on this amazing woman, a second time. This is why we ‘coincidentally’ constantly crossed each other’s path until I had melted her. And the thing with Josh Groban, that was easy. She had played the CD up and down and at quite a volume. But, please, promise not to tell her anything. She believes it was a hint of fate.’
I had goose bumps. These two were really made for each other. ‘Never. Promised.’
After dinner, a band played – waltz. Klara, the gorgeous bride, danced with her father who passed her on to her husband – and then asked me. After a teeny bit of a shock, I enjoyed the seconds on the almost deserted dance floor. And fortunately, I knew more or less how to waltz. An inexplicably small piece of this was also my bridal dance.
The band changed to the music that Klara and I had danced to at the disco, ages ago, and I had to solve the all-too-common question: What now? Quickly, a handful of couples (including Bernd and his Sinéad) graced the dance floor and levitated from side to side in perfect harmony, acquired in years of living and dancing together. Gingers and Bernds, all of them. Beautiful. Frustrating. Frustratingly beautiful. Even Mr Miller had found his Cinderella and graced the dance floor with aunt Ruth, who seemed to have forgotten all about the good-looking Mr Hancock and her funeral. Just like on every wedding, I decided to take dancing lessons. Knowing that, as always, the plan would fail for lack of a partner. Single men were a rare species in dancing classes, including those for singles. About as common as parrots in deep sea diving. And that even though dancing classes would have been the ideal place to meet women.
I had given it some thought, and come to the conclusion that it was easy for men to find a partner. All they had to do was enter the unmanned zones where women tended to hunt for men: dancing classes, cooking classes, study trips or generally anything cultural. Comparable bastions of manhood were football stadiums, Harley clubs or male choral societies. Or the virtual world. It seemed that male and female pastimes were pretty incompatible. Difficult.
After the semi-pros, it was now time for the ‘normal’ couples to enter the floor. Wait one more song, then … Bingo! Now, the boppy women with unboppy partners gave up their reserve and danced with each other. As always. Sometimes, I wondered how mankind had survived the good old times when couples met on elaborate balls, dancing dances so complicated that only specifically trained professional dancers would engage in them, these days. The average modern man seemed challenged to just avoid growing roots into the dance floor.
I approached Desi, who was standing near the dance floor, ‘Doesn’t Mr Kinsey want to dance?’
‘No, Dr Kinsey has knee issues.’
‘Well, at his age … Shall we?’
Desi wanted to, and we danced until a gong sounded.
‘We now ask all single ladies to the dance floor. The bride will throw the bouquet.’
It sounded like we were summoned to fatigue duty. Still, about twenty more or less single women gathered, including Desi and myself. I stayed in the background, expecting that Klara would aim at the one who was about to marry next, anyway. There was always a cousin or a friend already planning her own wedding, and any bride would aim at her. This was what always happened and how it had to be done. Given that I was about as far away from a wedding as a pot whale from toe dance, I considered myself safe. Unfortunately, though, Klara did not know what she was supposed to do. Or her throwing skills were even worse than her singing skills. In any event, the bridal bouquet came flying straight at me. Completely taken by surprise, my reflexes took control. After years of playing volleyball, ‘reflex’ in this context meant that I skilfully pitched the round something flying at me back to the sender. Lucky enough, Klara had not played volleyball, so she caught the flowers instead of dashing them back.
After a short second of shock, Klara laughed, ‘Well, it seems like fate is not really sure about this.’ She threw it, a second time, and the bouquet landed in Desi’s open arms. Our world was back to normal. More or less.
I approached Klara to apologize. ‘Klara, I am terribly sorry. I just hadn’t expected that you would throw in my direction.’
Such bagatelles of life could not reach Klara on Cloud Nine. ‘That’s fine. Look, Desi is all happy. So, you have done a good deed.’
Indeed, Desi was holding the flowers to her chest, took a smell at them and smiled.
I absconded from the dance floor, passing the Doctor – whose comment was about the last thing that I needed.
‘Very impressive technique, young lady! Kudos! Can I hire you if I should ever expect people to throw rotten eggs at me?’ He obviously felt very cool. No one needed this guy, really. I ignored him.
Desi was waiting for me at the bar – the bouquet in a champagne bucket. ‘Johanna, you must not take this to heart. Some people may not even have noticed. I also dropped a bridal bouquet, once. You know, I was never good at ball games. But the main thing is that I caught it today. So, even if you did not catch it, there is still hope for you, as well. Maybe at my wedding. What do you think about Dr Kinsey, by the way?’ An almost imperceptible smile escaped a corner of her mouth before it had even arrived.
Oh, no! ‘Well, given that he already thinks that he is just the greatest, I don’t have to join into this choir. And apart from that, he is not even noble.’ Had I just said that?
‘No, no, you are right. But he really is extremely charming and so cultivated. He plays the piano and he studied in Russia, when Brezhnev was still in power. And he is interested in so many things.’
‘Exactly – Brezhnev. Not Putin, not Andropov, not Gorbachev, Chern … whatever this guy’s name was. Brezhnev! He must have been dead for at least, well at the very least … how should I know how long he has been dead for!’
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