Story no. 22.
The day the Germans came was a Thursday.
I had let a flat in the 20eme arrondissement — a lovely flat on the third floor of a building contemporaneous with Hausmann’s dissection of the city — for a mere 1200 euro a month. Well, it was a lovely price for what it was; but I couldn’t afford it for more than a month or so, so I duly advertised for roommates.
With some irony our email correspondence happened entirely in French, both parties assuming that was what the other preferred. I suppose my last name looks rather French, and it could be, for all I know; and I know plenty of Frenchmen with Germanic monikers. It was during our Skype interview — they were just wrapping up a backpacking tour through Argentina when they answered the ad — that the truth came out.
Cristina probably could have fooled me — she was small and dark and produced her r’s from somewhere convincingly deep in her throat — but Georg kept scratching his nose thoughtfully and staring off to the corner of the screen as he searched for Latinate words.
I don’t mean to make off like I am properly European at this point — people still laugh when they watch me eat a croissant — and how do you keep it from shedding crumbs down your front, anyway? — and I like my coffee with loads of milk and sugar — but the fact is that I have been operating in French for the past five years, and I’m not too bad at it. “Parlez-vous anglais?” I said finally, and both the Germans perked up as though they had been plugged in after a day of operating on battery.
“I hope we are not inconveniencing you,” Georg said. The accent that wasn’t quite clear to me in French was abundantly so in English.
“No,” I said. “I’m American. Would you be from Hamburg, maybe?”
I was about a hundred kilometers off, but they both clucked and looked pleased.
I try not to put too much stock in nationalist stereotypes — which is another way of saying that as I was staring at Georg’s long grave face I was trying very hard not to substitute that of another boy from near Hamburg who I had known (loved) during the second part of my studies and developed a gentle sort of friendship (unrequited love for) with.
(But by gentle, I do mean gentle; my love was not unknown to him, but it did not bother him overmuch. I try not to put too much store in nationalist stereotypes, but I do have in my head a catalog of the men who have been pained by my love and those who have let it wash over, like a wave or a storm or a mudslide. Or a shower of croissant crumbs.)
When George bobbed his head and murmured “Ja,” stretching the big vowel out in a long low rumble: Yaaaaaaaah, a polite allowance for many possibilities — I knew I had already picked them to stay. The others I had talked to had all been narrow, thin-voiced, provincial French, who made painful jokes in English but did not laugh when I do the same. I liked that Cristina and Georg were in Argentina now; I liked that they had just come from Chile and before that Peru; I liked that they smiled rather than balked when I told them I had been studying German for a year and a half now, and perhaps we could converse in that language occasionally;
but most of all I liked that when I cleared my throat and said, “The truth is, I need a lot of time to myself. I can be very social — quite social, really — I do like to meet people — but I. I’d like to be friends, but we won’t be right away. I need time to be comfortable with people,” they both nodded furiously and George said, “Yes, that sounds very well.”
The day the Germans came I didn’t go into my new office — my working situation, then as now, is difficult to explain, and frankly not interesting enough to do so — but stayed in the flat and made lemon-poppy-seed muffins. My hands were nervous. I had given myself an out and now I was fretting myself into lather because I was afraid my new flatmates wouldn’t like me.
They had rented a small van in Leipzig, where one or both of their parents lived and the furniture they owned was stored in a charitable basement. It was two-day drive, the way they had split it up, and they were due to arrive in the flat at 3:00 PM with all their possessions. The flat had three rooms, and it was not clear to me — it has never been clear to me — whether they meant to live in both or one and keep the other for some other purpose. They had agreed to half the rent; I had the largest room.
It was 3:50 PM when my phone buzzed and the grave and resonant tones of Georg’s voice struck through it: ja, ja, ja. We are downstairs. Could you please come let us in?
I told you I had nervous hands, and maybe that is my excuse for not understanding exactly the order of events. I spilled down the stairs in a barely-controlled fall of feet; I propped the door open; I shook hands with Georg. Where was Cristina then? I thought she was sitting in the passenger seat of the van, but maybe that was a shadow, a play of the light on the windshield. I ran back upstairs, carrying a little box marked ‘Bücher’. I brought a muffin down in a napkin as Georg marched upstairs with three drawers from his dresser upended on his shoulders. I set the muffin on the hood of the van and took another Bücher-box, booker-box, book-box, up with me, and I didn’t count the muffins when I went back up, but the one on the van was gone when I went back down, and I don’t know what I thought, but there were fewer muffins in the kitchen than there had been, and I figured we had just got into a rhythm of just missing each other —
But at 6:30 PM I realized I hadn’t seen either of the two of them in two hours, though all of their things had been moved into the flat, and I certainly hadn’t done it all. I sat down and waited on my couch, my heart beating in my ears. I should never run up stairs; it feels like a panic attack and my body will rationalize that feeling until it is quite the only thing I can understand. I waited.
At 8:30 PM the doorbell rang. I opened it to the police.
Had I seen, they wanted to know, a young woman of medium height, dark hair, German-speaking? They had received a report of her disappearance earlier today, and this was the apartment she had been meant to move into.
When had they gotten the report? I asked, my voice lost.
At half past four, one officer said. He was perhaps in his mid-forties, his graying hair swept back from a widow’s peak, his face gentle.
From whom had they gotten this report?
A young man, blond hair, tall, also German. He is at the station now.
Georg Hanson, I said, and they nodded. He was supposed to be my new flatmate. They were supposed to be my new flatmates, both of them.
I followed the police back to the local station on my bicycle. Georg, it seemed, had not seen Cristina since I shook hands with him at the door of my apartment building. He was not disarrayed, in fact he looked quite calm, but it was as though something had poured out from behind his eyes and left a great vast emptiness there. She had been in the van when he got out to greet me, but when he came down from the first load she was gone. He had gone to the police station at a quarter to five, after she had failed to answer ten calls and he had made a circuit of the building and the immediate neighborhood. At that point he had not yet unloaded the whole van. The van was empty at six, but I was sure that I had not moved everything in that space of time.
There was some reason why George went to the police after only a forty-five minute absence, but the fact was that when Cristina’s family was called, her former places of work, her friends in Paris: none of them had heard from her, and none of them ever did. Her disappearance was so complete as to be utterly remarkable. The police put out the word for boaters on the Seine to be on the lookout, but no information ever returned. Who can say whether an unobservant vacationer saw a dark shape in the water, but chose to ignore it, or assumed it was trash? Who could know if perhaps a thin form bumped against one of the tour boats in the dark of an evening, but no one on board noticed?
Who can say?
Georg is a very good flatmate, quiet and tidy, though understandably rather sad. I am glad I do not have to share him with anyone. I am glad that he has never asked me if I saw Cristina on that Thursday.