Chapter 28: DAFNE’S
I hadn’t seen Stefan since the dinner a week ago. Despite my resolve to forget him, I still made sure I fixed my hair, cleaned my face, and stayed in my routine—in case he ever came searching for me, but he didn’t. I felt a small twinge of disappointment but reminded myself this was the way it was meant to be. Yes, the picnic in the art room was pleasant; better than I was willing to admit, including the escort home, but it was unrealistic for me to believe it would go any further. We were far from equals.
The following Friday, near the end of the day, I was oiling the wood shelves in the library. Normally, the books distracted me, but as I slowly moved about, other things were on my mind. When I turned, my heart jumped. Stefan had entered the room unseen and was sitting on a sofa lounge watching me.
“You scared me!” I cried as I set the jar and cloth down and wiped my hands on my dirty apron. Stefan laughed, but appeared apologetic.
“I’m sorry,” he said, although he couldn’t stop chuckling at my reaction. “Really, I am. You were working hard, I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“Next time,” —I shook my finger at him— “disturb me!”
“OK, I promise. Come sit with me.” He casually patted the seat next to him.
I knew the oil on my apron would definitely stain the fabric, thus I sat opposite him on the vinyl chair.
“How has your week been?” he asked sincerely.
“Good, nothing too eventful.” Overall, the job itself was quite boring; it was the staff and guests who seemed to spice it up from time to time. “And yours?” I asked politely.
“Busy.” His answer was short.
I watched him carefully, forcing myself not to think of why his week was busy. I hoped it wasn’t due to more “law breakers” according to the government’s definition of the word.
“I’ve wanted to see you all week, but with mother and father out of town on business, I’ve had much to do. Will you join me at Dafne’s tomorrow night?”
I wasn’t sure if he was asking me on a date or wanted to meet as friends, like the last time he was there with his “friend”. I tried not to stare. He wore a casual brown coat over matching pants and appeared quite handsome for a work day. I gazed down at my hands as they rested on my soiled apron. Why in the world would he want to spend time with me?
When I didn’t answer right away, Stefan chuckled.
“You are trying to think of an excuse not to go aren’t you?” He sat forward and leaned closer. “I don’t bite.” He smiled wide. His teeth were perfectly straight.
I matched his laugh, because despite the short amount of time it’s been, he’s had me figured out from the beginning. I thought about my struggle. The more Stefan’s face inched closer, the more Anton’s face slowly faded. I took a deep breath. I was sure I was making a mistake.
“OK.” I surprised us both when I said it. “What time?”
“Is 7 o’clock a good time for you?” He was quite close, I could feel the energy radiate from his skin. My chest rose a half second faster than before.
I nodded, yes. He winked and then he was gone.
If I thought I was distracted before, it hardly compared to the next twenty-four hours of my life. The best way to describe it would be thrilled agony.
As I faced my bedroom mirror the next evening, the woman standing in front of me was barely recognizable. Since I started at the Frankes’, my hair had always been worn in a braid or bun every day. Tonight, as I prepared to meet Stefan at Dafne’s, my dark curls fell softly past my shoulders and down my back. Being fortunate enough to not have to crimp my hair with a fire iron to make it roll, it waved naturally on its own despite the limited freedom I allowed.
My pale-blue, sleeveless dress narrowed barely above my knees. I had only worn it once before when I went out for coffee with Lena. It was like the dress at the Waisenhaus, the one used only on special occasions. I added a small amount of black liner to my eyelids and pink gloss on my lips.
Mama G whistled when I walked out of my room. “Heaven help that boy!” she cried as she washed her dishes. “What boy?”
“The boy who will be staring at you all night,” she snickered.
“Have mercy on his soul!”
I smiled, kissed her on the cheek, and grabbed my mother’s sweater before walking out.
I arrived to Dafne’s in time but paced slowly back and forth on the walkway. What was I doing? I started to play the ping pong game in my head. We are opposites in every way . . . Opposites attract. How can I possibly believe Stefan is interested in me . . . we’re just friends though, right? I struggled hard to keep Anton’s image in my mind.
“Fräulein, you dropped your sweater.” A man held it up. Horrified I’d let Mama’s sweater fall to the ground, I reached for it. I brought it specifically hoping it would will some strength into me.
“Thank you,” I said as he held the door open.
“Are you coming in?”
I glanced at the door and then to the nice man and nodded my head. “Yes, thank you.” Maybe, in some strange way, this was the sign I was waiting for from her.
I stepped inside and thanked the man as he joined his party. Stefan sat in the corner behind a small table. His head lifted, dropped, and then shot up my direction once again. I felt my face get warm with embarrassment. I shouldn’t have tried this hard.
As I approached Stefan, he was slow in rising from his chair. His face told me he did not expect to see me this way.
“Your hair . . .” he stuttered, “it’s . . . really pretty down.”
I blushed. I don’t think I’ve ever blushed. Thankfully, my skin hid color well. He held out my chair like a perfect gentleman as if we were on a date. I assumed this was how dates would go, although, I’d never really been on one alone with a man. Was I supposed to pretend this is what we were doing? I sat at his request, but the wrinkles in my forehead gave away more than I planned.
“You seem concerned?”
“Um . . .” I didn’t want to tell him I’d never done this before. He waited without pressure.
“I’m not really good at this.”
He chuckled. “Do you happen to have a mirror at home?”
I was instantly self-conscious. Do I have something on my face?
Did I do something wrong? “Yes, . . .” I paused.
“Because if you saw, what I see now, I can assure you . . . you’re good at it.”
My eyes dropped to my hands.
“Relax, you’re doing fine,” he urged with a smile in his voice.
I took a breath and peeked back up as he carried on.
“If I remember correctly,” —Stefan handed me a menu— “you didn’t eat the last time we were here.”
I giggled, remembering that night. It was the time I came with Lena and Rainer. I drank a glass of water as I waited impatiently for the time to pass quickly. It was awful.
Stefan seemed to understand my humor and added, “It was a strange night.”
“The food here is fantastic. You have to try the Erdbeerkuchen.” He lit up like a schoolboy as his eyes danced around the menu. “It isn’t like any strawberry tart you have ever tasted.”
I’d never tasted any type of tart. Money made all the difference as to whether your food had pretty words like “tart” or not. I’d grown accustomed to soups, noodles, or beans as opposed to desserts and pastries.
When the waitress appeared, Stefan faced me and asked what I would like to order. Having recently been paid, I knew I could afford something small. Stefan sensed my apprehension.
“Two Erdbeerkuchen please, and a large plate of Currywurst and fries.” He smiled and handed her the menu. “Traditionally, the man pays for the date.” He smiled again.
So, this is a date . . . It was a relief to have that clarified.
I was nervous. All this time, I wanted to be angry with him, but he was doing everything right. He apologized. He was charming, handsome, and funny. I suddenly realized it was a dangerous combination for trouble.
I gazed around the room. Nobody watched us. Nobody cared what happened in our tiny corner of the café. Stefan’s full attention was all mine. I took a deep breath and relaxed.
“Stefan, you mentioned the night of the dinner you never wanted to go into your family business. How do you feel about the mortuary now?” I asked as I placed my napkin on my lap. “You know, now that you don’t have a choice of whether you’re taking over the business or not?”
“I struggled at first,” Stefan reasoned. “My heart was never into
“Then what happened?”
“A few months ago, a body was brought to me; a body presumed to be dead.” Stefan hesitated, his jawline went rigid, the muscles constricting, his eyes like glass as he recalled something only he could see.
He faced me, but his lips didn’t move. Finally, he whispered, “. . . but the woman wasn’t dead.”
My eyes went wide.
Stefan took a long sip of his drink before he continued. “Her heart rate was quite faint to the point she was declared deceased in haste, yet due to the nature of her injuries, she died in my arms. It was—” My mouth fell open. I quickly closed it. “—It was really difficult . . . but a blessing . . .” he paused. “ . . .It changed my thoughts on life and death.” Stefan poured a bit of sugar on the top of his dessert as if it wasn’t sweet enough. I smiled as I watched him do this. He continued, “After that experience, I craved knowledge. Anything to teach me about human life, the organs, the tissues, the respiratory and circulatory systems. I found a great deal of fascination with life and death, but it was the spiritual dimension that caused me to really pay attention.” “Spiritual as in a God?” I questioned.
“Well, yes, that’s part of it.”
I was shocked. Someone else was as confused as I was about this higher power.
He continued, “Look, Ella, show me your hand.” Without hesitation, I held it out. As he reached for it, his touch made my skin tingle. He turned it over and pointed out the fine lines in my palm and the shape of my fingers and nails. “See the detail? The perfection? And this is
only a hand. Imagine your lungs, eyelashes, even lips.”
I felt my face heat up again as he studied my lips.
“Our bodies are flawless” —I listened with fascination— “Sure, there are deformities and ailments, but from the design of a toenail to the intricate valves of the heart or the nerves of the brain, only a God in his perfectness could design such a complex, absolute being.” Stefan stopped long enough to take a sip of his coffee. His energy about this subject was unexpected. I was riveted with every word.
“As I received the bodies and prepared them for burial, I realized I wasn’t only receiving a corpse or a nobody with a number. Although, sometimes, the tag was all that was attached, but they were a real person who had loved, lost, experienced fear, pain, happiness, or hope at some time in their life. I knew such a perfect being could not have been subjected to all time had to offer if our physical existence in this desolate dark time was all we had.”
Suddenly this man before me seemed perfect, absolutely perfect.
“I now felt my duty, the job of preparing their burial, had become a noble task. It was placed solely upon my shoulders. I had the opportunity to be the ‘transporter’ in a sense. Like the Egyptian God Anubis, the one who would help souls arrive at their next destination. This idea suddenly made my role more invaluable to me.” Stefan’s white skin radiated as he stopped to take a breath. “I now view each individual as they arrive with enormous respect, and as I go through the steps to prepare the body for burial or cremation, it is quite a sacred motion.”
I was nearly moved to tears. I thought of my father and his final moments. The way Stefan spoke of the change he had experienced and the personal care he engaged in for each body, I had to stop myself from reaching across the table and embracing him. I was overcome! This man only a year ago was the most selfish creature who ever lived and now has been given a second chance. It suddenly scared me how appealing he had become.
I watched Stefan carefully. I didn’t want to stare, but I couldn’t help it. He met my gaze. “What an honor you give the deceased family, Stefan. Whether they know it or not, you give them an unparalleled gift.”
Stefan’s azure eyes were misty. “I actually have never told anyone what I just told you.” he chuckled nervously, “not even my father.”
My hand moved to his across the table. “Thanks for sharing with me. It means a lot.”
“Thank you for listening.” Stefan smiled again. Although I wasn’t used to seeing him this happy, it was comforting.
“You’re different,” I whispered.
Stefan’s eyes dropped to our hands, still clasped in the center of the table.
“Is that a good thing?”
“Yes, . . . it is.” I said honestly and then anxiously removed my hands from his.
We had spent such a long time talking, we didn’t realize the café was waiting for us to leave. It was 11 o’clock and closing time, vastly different from the last time I was here. Tonight, I actually regretted the fact there wasn’t more time.
We had arrived at the café separately, but Stefan insisted on escorting me home, once more. I didn’t protest.
Back in the downstairs of my apartment building, I motioned to say goodbye, once again holding out my hand for him to shake. He laughed, then gently pulled my hand toward his lips and kissed it. My heart raced as if all my nerves were ignited. I was not used to these strong feelings stirring inside me.
“Thank you for an amazing night, Ella.” Stefan’s eyes fixated on mine. They had a way of making me feel defenseless. Not that I needed to shield my emotion as I’ve had in the past, but those eyes, those beautiful blue eyes held me captive more than I wanted to admit. My face flushed as I rushed up the steps. I hesitated then turned on the small landing. “Thank you, Stefan.” I wanted to say more, but all that followed was a simple,