Why We Took the Car (8 page)

“At your

“That's right, at my
business meeting
.” He looked at me angrily.

He made another call to my mother, pretending he was worried, and while he was on the phone his assistant arrived to pick him up. I went straight downstairs to see whether it was still the same one. Because she's extremely hot, and only a few years older than me — probably nineteen or so. And she always laughs. It's almost unbelievable how much she laughs. I had met her for the first time about two years earlier when I visited my father at his office. And she had run her fingers through my hair and laughed when I used the copy machine to make images of the right and left sides of my face, my hands, and my bare feet. She doesn't do that anymore, unfortunately. Run her fingers through my hair, I mean.

She hopped out of the car wearing shorts and a skintight sweater, and it was immediately clear what sort of business meeting this was going to be. The sweater was so tight you could see every detail. I decided it was okay that my father hadn't bothered to put on a big show of hiding the whole thing. He didn't need to. Both of my parents knew the score. My mother knew what my father was up to, and my father knew what my mother was up to. And when they were alone together, they screamed at each other.

The thing I didn't understand for a long time was why they didn't just get separated. For a while I thought I was the reason. Or money was the reason. But eventually I decided they actually liked screaming at each other. That they liked being unhappy. I read about it in a magazine somewhere — that there were people who liked being unhappy. People who were actually happy when they were unhappy. Though I have to admit that I didn't entirely understand the article. I mean, on the one hand a light went on in my head, but on the other I didn't really get it.

Still, I've never come up with a better explanation for the way my parents are. And I've thought about it a lot. So much sometimes that I get a headache thinking about it. It's like when you look at those 3-D pictures, where you have to stare at a pattern until an invisible shape pops out. Other people were always better at that than I was — with me, I could barely get it to work at all. And as soon as I was able to see the invisible shape — usually a flower or a deer or whatever — it disappeared again immediately and I'd get a headache. That's exactly how it is when I try to figure out what the deal is with my parents: I just get a headache. So I don't think about it anymore.

While my father packed his suitcase upstairs, I made conversation with Mona downstairs. That's her name, Mona. The assistant. The first thing she said to me was how warm it was and how it was supposed to get even warmer in the next few days. The usual. But when she heard I'd have to spend my summer vacation alone, she looked at me with such a sad face that my own tragic fate nearly brought tears to my eyes. Abandoned by my parents, God, and the world! I thought about asking her to run her fingers through my hair again like she had next to the copier that time. But I was too shy to ask. Instead, I stared the whole time at her skintight sweater while pretending to be looking past her and studying the landscape, out the window, as she jabbered on about what a highly responsible man my father was, blah, blah, blah. Getting older had its pluses and its minuses.

I was deeply engrossed in studying the landscape when my father came down the stairs with his suitcase.

“Don't feel sorry for him,” he said. He gave me the same warnings he had given me before, told me for the third time where he had left the two hundred Euros, then put his arm around Mona's waist and walked out with her to the car. He could have spared me that. Putting his arm around her, I mean. I think it's fine that they don't put on some sort of show of secrecy, but he could at least wait to put his arm around her until they're off our property. That's my opinion. I slammed the door, closed my eyes, and stood there silent and still for a minute. Then I threw myself down onto the tile floor and started to sob.

“Mona!” I cried. My throat tightened. “I have to confess something to you!” My voice echoed ominously in the empty foyer, and Mona, who already seemed to have sensed that I needed to confess something to her, put her hands to her mouth in horror.

“Oh, God, oh, God!” she cried.

“You can't take this the wrong way,” I sobbed. “I'd never work for the CIA voluntarily! But they've got us by the throat — do you understand?” Of course she understood. She collapsed next to me, crying.

“But what are we supposed to do?” she cried frantically.

“There's nothing we can do!” I answered. “We just have to play along with their game. The most important thing is to keep up the façade. You have to keep reminding yourself that I'm an
eighth grader
, and that I
like an eighth grader, and that we have to live our lives as if everything's normal — we have to pretend for another year or two that we don't even know each other!”

“Oh, God, oh, God!” cried Mona, throwing her arms around my neck. “How could I ever doubt you?”

“Oh, God, oh, God!” I cried, pressing my forehead onto the cold tile floor and doubling over. I cried on the floor for about half an hour. And after that I felt better.


I cried until the Vietnamese woman showed up. She normally comes three times a week. The Vietnamese woman is pretty old — about sixty, I guess — and can't really speak German. Without a word, she shuffled past me into the kitchen and came back out with the vacuum cleaner. I watched her working for a while; then I went over to her and told her that she didn't need to work the next two weeks. I wanted to be alone. I told her that my parents would be away during that time, and that if she just came by two weeks from Tuesday and whipped things into shape, that would be great. It was tough to put it in a way that she understood. I thought she'd drop the vacuum out of pure joy, but that's not what happened at all. At first she didn't believe me. So I showed her the list of chores my father had left for me to do, and all the things he'd stocked up on for me, and then I showed her the calendar where my father had circled in red the Wednesday he'd be back. But she still didn't believe me, so I showed her the two hundred Euros he had left. And that's when I realized why she was so stubbornly clinging to her vacuum cleaner. Because she thought she wouldn't get paid if she didn't work. So then I had to explain that she'd get paid anyway. Man, I was so embarrassed. Nobody will notice, I told her. It took a lot of effort to get it across to her because she doesn't speak German. But at some point she did leave — after we'd gone back to the calendar and both pointed several times at the Tuesday in two weeks and looked in each other's eyes and nodded. I was worn out by the time she left. I never know what to say in these situations. We had an Indian working as a gardener for a while too, though he was let go to save money. But it was the same with him. It's so embarrassing. I want to treat them like regular people, but they act like they're servants who are there just to move the dirt out of your way — which, granted, is why they're there. But I'm only fourteen! My parents don't have a problem with it. And if they are around it's no problem for me either. But when I'm alone in a room with the Vietnamese woman I feel like Hitler. I always want to grab the rags out of her hand and clean everything up myself.

I walked her out, and I would like to have given her something too. But I didn't know what. So I just waved like an idiot as she walked off, and was incredibly relieved once I was finally alone again. I gathered up the tools that were still lying in the flower garden and then stood there in the warm evening air and took a few nice deep breaths.

Diagonally across the street the Dyckerhoffs were barbecuing. The oldest son waved with the grill tongs in his hand. Like all our neighbors he's an incredible asshole, so I quickly looked away. And that's when I saw a creaky bicycle cruising down the street. Though cruising down the street is overstating it a bit. And to call it a bicycle is also a stretch. It was the frame of an old girls' bike, but it had two different-sized wheels in the front and back. In the middle was a tattered old leather seat. There was also a hand brake dangling down from the handlebars. It looked like a broken antenna. The back tire was flat. And riding the contraption was Tschichatschow. With the exception of my father, he was pretty much the last person I wanted to run into right then. Though to be honest, other than Tatiana, everyone was the last person I wanted to run into. But the expression on his Mongolian-looking face told me he didn't feel the same way.

Tschick said, smiling as he steered his bike onto the sidewalk in front of me. “You know what happened? I was riding over there — and
. This is where you live? Hey, is that a flat-tire repair kit? How cool is that! Can I use it?”

I didn't feel like talking. I gave him all the tools and told him just to leave them there when he was done. I was busy, I said, I had to get going. Then I went straight inside and listened through the closed door to see if he was maybe going to take off with the tools. After a little while I went upstairs, lay down in my room, and tried to think about something else. But it wasn't so easy. I could hear the clang of the tools downstairs as he tinkered with his bike. He was singing in Russian too. Really badly. And somebody in the neighborhood was mowing their lawn. But when things finally quieted down around the house, it made me uneasy. I looked out the window and saw somebody walking around our backyard. Tschick walked all the way around the pool, then stood shaking his head in amazement next to the aluminum ladder while scratching his back with a screwdriver he was carrying. I opened the window.

“Awesome pool!” yelled Tschick, smiling up at me.

“Yeah, awesome pool, awesome jacket. Now what?”

He just stood there. So I went downstairs and we chatted a little. Tschick couldn't get over the pool. He wanted to know what my father did, so I told him. I wanted to know what he'd said to get the Ford Fiesta dude to stop bothering him. He shrugged his shoulders. “Russian mafia.” He grinned. And I could tell that wasn't the real answer. But he wouldn't tell me what he'd really said, despite my pestering him for a while. We talked about this and that and eventually — inevitably — we made our way over to the PlayStation and started playing
. Tschick didn't know how, and we didn't get far. But still, this was better than lying in the corner and screaming.

“And you really didn't get held back?” he asked at some point. “I mean, did you end up looking at your report card? I still don't get that. Man, you're on vacation, you'll probably go somewhere cool with your parents, you can go to that party, you've got an awesome . . .”

“What party?”

“Aren't you going to Tatiana's?”

“Nah, don't feel like it.”


“I have other plans for tomorrow,” I said, pushing madly on the triangle button of the game controller. “And besides, I'm not invited.”

“You didn't get invited? That sucks. I thought I was the only one.”

“It'll be boring anyway,” I said, running over a few people with a tanker truck.

“Maybe if you're gay. But for a guy like me that party is the ultimate. Simla will be there. And Natalie. And Laura and Corinna and Sarah. Not to mention Tatiana. And Mia. And Fadile and Cathy and Kimberley. And sweet-ass Jennifer. And that blonde from the other class. And her sister. And Melanie.”

“Huh,” I said, staring blankly at the TV screen. Tschick was staring blankly at the screen too.

“Let me try the helicopter,” he said.

I handed him the controller and we didn't talk any more about the party.

When Tschick headed home, it was almost midnight. I heard the bike creak off toward Weiden Lane, and then stood alone in front of our house for a minute. Above, stars in the night sky. And that was the best thing about the entire day: that it was finally over.


Things were better the next morning. I woke up as early as I normally did for school. Couldn't change my inner alarm clock that quickly. But the silence in the house reminded me: I'm all alone and it's summer break, the place belongs to me, and I can do whatever I feel like.

The first thing I did was carry some CDs downstairs and crank the stereo in the living room all the way up. I put on the White Stripes. Then I opened the back door and lay down by the pool with three bags of chips, a Coke, and my favorite book and tried to put all the bad shit out of my mind.

Even though it was still early, it was already ninety degrees in the shade. I dangled my feet in the water, and Count Luckner began to talk to me. That's my favorite book:
Count Luckner, The Sea Devil
. I've already read it at least three times, but I figured another time couldn't hurt. Count Luckner is a pirate during World War I and sinks one English ship after another. But he does it in a gentlemanly way. Meaning he doesn't kill anyone. He scuttles their ships but saves all the crewmen and takes them ashore, all in the service of His Majesty, the Kaiser. And the book's not made up, it all really happened. The coolest part is when he's in Australia. He works as a lighthouse keeper and a kangaroo hunter. I mean, he was
. He didn't know a soul down there. He jumped ship, joined the Salvation Army, then ended up working at the lighthouse and hunting kangaroos. But I haven't gotten that far yet this time through.

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