Maria liked watching her husband while he was reading. A noticeable air of dignity, an ambiance almost sacred surrounded the beloved figure, the frown on his forehead while concentrating just made her even more inclined to run up to him and distract him. However, self-discipline was a value highly appreciated as an RE teacher, so instead of letting herself loose she would sit for hours perched in a cosy rocking chair, fulfilling her recently found mission of writing scripts for morality plays based on the Old Testament. Her husband, an agnostic, was not bothered about his wife’s latest hobby-horse, sticking to his scientific books with passion and perseverance he kept exploring new dimensions of human knowledge. Still, tonight he looked somewhat disconcerted and weary. From the corner of her eye Maria was watching his head lowering after each turned page, until he gradually dozed off.
Watching his chin fall onto his chest, Maria’s sharpened senses noted a barely audible noise, as if a folded paper plane was fluttering around the room. Leaning forward, she saw her husband’s bookmark peacefully lying on the carpet. With an automatic movement she bent to pick it up, and couldn’t help throwing a furtive glance at it. There was a sentence in an embroidered frame, with one outstanding word: ‘Dad’.
Ignorance is bliss, so they say – but this time she knew that self-protection and respecting the privacy of others had been the strategy for her too many times already, so her hungry eyes devoured the sentence in one bite causing instant and involuntary cramps in her stomach: ‘If Dads were flowers, I’d pick you’. Her feet froze to the ground, her hands chose not to obey the logical command of placing the bookmark back where it belonged. The revealing object stayed stuck to her fingers and she read and reread the concise message over and over again, until her eyes blurred with tears. ‘It must be a Father’s Day greeting or something like that’ – she imagined. But whose child? Finally, her hands shaking, and her mind numb, looking up at her husband, she reflected bitterly on their conversation about having children.
They had long ago discussed the issue: she had been infertile before their marriage so they managed to reach a consensus on this painful subject, leaving the prospect of having children out of their vows and everyone seemed reconciled to the unamendable fact. Unamendable? Maybe not, came the realization. It appears it must have dawned on him that he doesn’t want to die childless after all, and he took action. Who is the fortunate mother? There is a child for sure, but why did he keep it a secret? Secrets can kill’ – Maria’s tears by this point almost inundated the bookmark and she just about had enough composure to place it back on the floor before she left the room for the darkness of the garden, the dark thoughts, the burning questions, prowling around her like jackals.
The next morning the conversation was sparse.
‘You’re going to the usual place?’ – the question even sounded artificial to herself but it was casual enough not to arouse suspicion.
‘Uhum. Back by lunchtime’. And he took his jacket and left. The woman had been gazing after him for so long that only her alarm clock reminded her of the Sunday service, but this time in vain. She felt no urgency to pray, instead she dressed carefully and was out of the door soon, following the footsteps of her traitor husband toward the bar he frequented. Treading downstairs, she had a clear image of herself marching toward Hell: not only did she miss out on the adoration that God always deserves on the festive day, but she was about to spy on a man who so far had placed his trust in her and vica versa. ‘Entirely and for nothing!’ – a voice echoed from within. Go and fight for him!
The bar nestled among worn apartment blocks. Upon seeing the bullet holes on the walls, Maria felt she was likewise on her way to disintegration, where only ruins will remain as a consequence of neglecting her husband’s innermost desires. She had to brush aside these thoughts as soon as she arrived at the sinful place of self-destroying habits, as finding a proper hiding place was crucial. She chose to go to the second floor as it offered a better vantage point and she knew he wasn’t keen on stairs, and from a corner table she soon caught sight of him sitting below in the courtyard, smoking a cigarette and glancing at his watch at shorter and shorter intervals. It was a perfect angle for Maria to observe everything but she hated what she was doing and her nerves were on edge.
Before long a woman – who must have been in her early forties – appeared. She wasn’t alone. She was leading a little girl with pigtails, who was bouncing excitedly toward Maria’s husband finally flinging herself into his arms to say a passionate hello. The scene made Maria tremble, but she kept following their body language although she couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation which was more muted. It didn’t escape her attention that her husband didn’t greet the woman with the intimacy he showed the child, there was only a perfunctory embrace and kiss on the cheek. Most likely he’s holding himself back in public places, she thought. They were sipping their drinks with a relaxed demeanour and talking in such a light-hearted manner that she could never imagine reproducing at home. The child was wandering from lap to lap, her excitement seemed to grow as they talked. An hour passed and her mind started making a tightrope walk between reality and imagination, she saw the woman in her husband’s arms, getting impregnated and growing a large stomach, she saw him leaning over a cot with a triumphant smile, and windowshopping for toys. Her mind conjured up an endless number of images until she noticed him stand up, bend down and kiss the little girl goodbye. ‘Time to head back home, too’ – it occurred to her, but she needed confirmation of what she thought she’d seen, so with heavy legs she climbed downstairs to face the inevitable reality.
‘Excuse me, is this seat free? It’s very crowded in here.’
‘Certainly.’ The woman pointed at the empty chairs. There were two of them so Maria chose the one next to the little girl. She felt giddy, and spilled a drop of her juice on the table.
‘No worries.’ The woman took a tissue out of her pocket and handed it to Maria. ‘Are you all right? You look very pale.’
‘Thanks… I’m…OK.’ She took the opportunity to strike up a conversation. ‘How old is your daughter?’
’10 tomorrow, aren’t you sweety?’
‘Yes, and I’ll have a big party!’ The girl boasted. Maria’s puritanic way of thinking was against pampering kids, so her reply sounded somewhat unnatural.
‘That’s wonderful.’ An awkward silence ensued which was broken by the arrival of another woman who had obviously been in a hurry, a little breathless as she spoke.
‘Sorry, darlings. I bumped into Tom and we managed to have a chat about next Sunday, done the shopping, too’, and she hopped on the empty chair. ‘Everything OK?’
That was when she noticed Maria.
‘We were just talking about Lena’s birthday, this is…sorry. I didn’t get your name?
‘I’m Laura. This is Petra, my partner. And Lena you’ve already met.’
‘Oh,’ – Maria responded, a little confused. ‘What kind of business are you in?’
‘I don’t think you understand…’ Laura started, but was interrupted by Lena, who had spotted a girl with a rucksack.
‘Mummy, Mummy, can I get a new Hello Kitty rucksack, pleeeease, please?’ Lena was fiddling in her chair, grabbing Petra’s hand.
‘Lena, we’ve discussed that this year we’re going to Vienna instead, to the Prater. You’ll get your rucksack for your name day just before school starts.’
‘Enough.’ Having cut the pleading off with a scornful look, turning toward Maria, Petra smiled: ‘That’s kids for you. We’d wanted one for so long’ -she said, reaching out to kiss Laura’s hand , ‘and now that we have one, we have to be very wise indeed.’
‘Oh.’ – Maria was flabbergasted as a thunderbolt of understanding struck her. ‘They are Lesbians, a couple! How did they get pregnant?’
As though reading her thoughts, Petra continued: ‘Sperm bank. Strange, isn’t it? We only recently met the father. We thought it was important for Lena to know where she came from. It took us ages to track him down, but he’s been wonderful about everything. I don’t think he imagined having a child twenty-five years after making a donation..
The stone in Maria’s heart lifted. That must have been when he was a student. She looked down at Lena looking for a part of him, tears of relief came, as she recognised him in those beautiful hazel eyes.
‘Our little mischievous fairy.’ Petra stroked Lena’s hair gently. ‘Laura was desperate to have a girl, thinking they are easier to bring up, but I told her it’s not so, didn’t I honey?’ And she put her arms round her.
‘Look, look, I’ve drawn this house with just one line!’ Lena interrupted them.
Maria’s phone beeped and she read the text: ‘Where are you, my love?’ She automatically pressed the reply button as always and after a few seconds of hesitation she wrote, her hands trembling: ‘Back soon’. She didn’t want him to call her now, she needed time to think things over.
‘Look, Auntie, I didn’t even lift the pen drawing this!’ Lena showed her work of art to her now. She couldn’t help smiling at her enthusiasm despite her tears.
Laura leaned forward and took Maria’s hand. ‘Are you all right?’
In the ensuing short and melancholic conversation she revealed to the women that she couldn’t have children so worked with school children by way of compensation. She received a silent and deep understanding from them. Without giving unnecessary advice, they just listened attentively as if she’d been at confession. Drying her tears she said goodbye to the family and walked home in a dazed and dreamlike state, the enormity of the day’s events slowly sinking into her mind. Still reeling, she arrived at the front door and automatically entered. Dashing upstairs, she locked herself in the bathroom and sat down to think.
‘You’re all right, love?’ Her husband shouted up the stairs.
‘Fine, fine. Just women’s problems. Might lie down for a bit.’
‘Oh, okay. Just let me know if you need anything.’
‘Thanks, I’m all right.’ She quietly slipped the bolt on the bathroom door and went into their bedroom, lay down and rapidly fell into a deep sleep.
She woke up some time later, her watch told her it was 2 am. Her husband was sleeping alongside her. A surge of warming love lifted her head off the pillow. Heading downstairs, she knew what she was going to do. Some four hours later, she lay down again, exhausted but happy for the first time in a long time. As she drifted off, she noted a greeting card from her husband that was resting on her bedside table. It read: ‘Love and do what you want!’
When her husband went into the kitchen to make his morning tea on the festive day, his wife had already left. When he opened the fridge door, he found a lavishly decorated birthday cake stretching over the bottom shelf, marzipan figurines depicting animals lining up on the creamy top. And the carving on the icing read: ‘Happy birthday, Lena!