Chapter 30: CONFESSION
I arrived at work on time the next morning but was met with fierceness in the air. Frau Franke stormed into the staff rooms and called for me, immediately. I knew there was a possibility of this happening. I left the house shortly after one o’clock yesterday, and despite their good intentions, Lena and Johann couldn’t possibly account for my whereabouts the whole time I was gone.
“I warned you, Fräulein Kühn.” Her jaw set as her nostrils flared. This familiar expression made it hard for me to envision her as Stefan and Katharina’s real mother.
“I’m sorry, Frau Franke. I wasn’t feeling well. It won’t happen again.”
“You’re correct. It will not happen again!” She walked over to my shelf and ripped my nametag off. “You’re dismissed! And . . .”
“Mother,” Stefan entered behind her and gave her a light kiss on the cheek. This stunned me. I’d never seen him do that before.
“Calm down, dear mother,” Stefan grabbed the tag and replaced it.
“I gave Miss Kühn the day off, myself.”
Frau Franke’s eyes grew wide and rivaled the rest of the staff present as well.
“She was feeling ill, and I thought it best she not get our guests sick.”
She glimpsed between us both. Her face revealed nothing.
“Are you feeling better, Miss Kühn?” He stared directly at me.
“Yes, much better, thank you.” I tried to hold his gaze, but the others were still present. Stefan then put an arm around his mother and gently guided her out and down the hall.
I was somewhat relieved, but Stefan’s rescue may have conflicted things between us even more, if that was possible.
Not too much got past Frau Franke. She had to suspect something was amiss. My thoughts returned to Stefan and the wrangle that filled my head the night before. I knew Stefan was burdened with a fairly difficult situation. It wasn’t hard to see now he had scarcely any room for choice and freedom. We had much more in common these days than we ever had before, and I felt guilty, guilty and ashamed for the way I treated him. I needed to find a way to see him, to not only thank him for preserving my job, but also to apologize.
I knew I must be extra careful today. Frau Franke would jump at any opportunity to find me at fault. To avoid the risk, my plan was to try and locate Stefan during lunch, since realistically, the break was my own personal time.
I slipped back through the large doors to the mortuary a little after 12 noon, but hesitated. Stefan hadn’t been forewarned of my visit. He may not even want to see me. I stood still in the hallway as the options were debated in my head. It didn’t take long for me to convince myself Stefan was worth the risk.
I checked the office, but it was empty. After searching the back receiving area and the waiting room, my pursuit still came up emptyhanded, but I didn’t give up. As I came to the only other room I hadn’t checked, besides the crematorium, I stepped inside. The light was on, and the air was unusually cold. A strong, strange odor permeated my senses forcing me to cover my nose with my hand as I moved about. I’m not even sure why I stayed, but it might have been the organized rows of doors that piqued my curiosity.
As I approached, each individual compartment had a hand-written note attached. The closer I got, the more I realized they were people’s names. I ran my finger across them slowly, Hoffmann Y, Madler P, Frankert J, Schwarz S . . . When I reached the end, I intrusively grasped the handle.
I jumped at the sound of his voice and my hand jerked, popping the lever. The door cracked open.
“I’m sorry,” I stuttered, gawking between him and the flesh that suddenly became visible through the gap.
Stefan calmly moved towards me and casually sealed the compartment once again. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Ella. What are you doing in here?”
“I-I’m sorry.” I felt bad for snooping . . . again. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be in the mortuary, but my intentions were good. “I’m looking for you.”
“Why in here?” Removing his work gloves, he washed his hands as he waited for my answer.
“I checked all over. I knew you had to be somewhere nearby.”
He smiled. “Why were you searching for me?” He grabbed my hand and led me out of the room. Happily, I took a deep breath of clean air.
“Are those names of people? Are those all dead—” I couldn’t even get an audible sentence out.
“Don’t think about it, Ella. Please come sit down.” I let him grasp my hand and direct me to a nearby sofa. My thoughts battled between both the people in the room and the closeness with which Stefan sat next to me. His cologne masked the awful smell that had imprinted in my nose. His hand still intertwined with mine, rested on my knee, but his eyes never left my face as he waited for me to speak.
“I—” Focus, Ella! I reprimanded myself for being juvenile. “I wanted to say thank you for what happened back there, with your mother.” Stefan smiled humbly, then I mumbled, “And . . . I’m sorry.”
“For everything!” I blurted.
Stefan’s eyebrows lifted inquisitively.
“I’m sorry I judged you, Stefan. I know the decisions you must make can’t be easy. I was wrong to assume you are willingly . . . you know . . .” I was afraid to finish the sentence.
Stefan’s touch was soothing, his fingers moved from my hand to my cheek. Despite where we were, it was a very tender moment.
“Ella, you’re right. It seems wrong to feel one way and act another, but I’m merely trying to do what is necessary to carry on. I´m slowly realizing everything has a price.” Stefan now placed both his hands over mine. “Every time I think things are getting better in Berlin, something happens to make it worse, but please don’t lose faith in me, Ella. I’m still the same man from the café.”
I shook my head, the familiar sting in my nose that comes prior to the tears began. “It’s not you . . . it’s the system we’re a part of. It’s the deceit and control and lack of conscience I’m struggling with. I’m thoroughly afraid someday we will blink and not even realize we have become the very thing we feared.”
“Not everyone has to concede. We can find a way to rise above it.” Stefan’s finger moved to retrieve the tear sliding down my cheek. He smiled. “Just think, we’re actually the lucky ones. Imagine being separated from your loved ones by the wall.”
My mind was filled with confusion . . . did he always believe this, or was this empathy part of the new Stefan?
When I didn’t speak, Stefan pressed, “Are you OK, Ella?”
I took another deep breath. “Do you really care about those people?”
“Why are you asking?” Stefan seemed startled by my question, his face twisting as if my inquiry offended him. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because . . .” I stuttered, “. . . because your father . . . he’s involved with making the wall, you know . . . a success . . . and now you are a part of it too.” I watched Stefan carefully, nervous I had possibly crossed the line, again.
“My father does what he has to to survive—”
I crinkled my nose a bit. Our definitions of the word “survive” were extremely different.
“—Ella, you have to believe I will do all I can to do the right thing,” he continued. “Why do you ask?”
Was I ready to tell him? I remained quiet.
“Ella, I’m not my father.”
“I know . . .” I really did know there was a difference. It was hard for me to believe the son of a communist devotee wasn’t molded by his father . . . like Anton. Even at his young age, I was sure Anton was taught to hate the Jews by his own father. It seems natural for a child to follow the same path as a parent.
“Stefan,” I stared him in the eyes, “I’m one of those people you´re talking about.”
“What do you mean?” His eyebrows rose.
“My brother, Josef, and my best friend, Anton, left me for the west the night the wall went up.”
Stefan was silent as he processed this, then he whispered, “Why didn’t you go with them?”
“My father was ill” —my eyes became moist again thinking about it— “and then . . . well, you know the rest . . . you were there when my papa was buried. I saw you on the patio, do you remember?”
“Oh, right,” Stefan realized. “I forgot, it was only you and the priest. You seemed really angry . . .” My face went blank as he retracted. “Of course you had every right to be upset . . . you just buried your father.”
“He was my adoptive father. Actually, my only real father.”
Stefan’s arm went around my shoulder, his hand rubbing gently against my sleeve. This unintentionally triggered the memory of another man’s touch in the exact same place hundreds of times. The recollection of Anton caught me off guard.
“How old were you when you were adopted?”
“I was eleven when the Kühns came. I’d been an orphan since birth . . .” I paused, “ . . .They could have picked any blond, blue-eyed little girl, and they chose me, a mixed-race tumbleweed.” I always recognized the significance of their decision but rarely spoke of it out loud. I braced for a reaction, but it wasn’t the one I expected.
Stefan leaned in, his whisper tickled my ear as he spoke, “You have more people who care about you than you think.” Both his arms wrapped around me and pulled me towards his chest. The embrace was both welcome and intoxicating.
“Ouch.” Stefan pulled back and rubbed his chest.
“Are you alright?” I tilted my head, my eyes dropping to where his fingers patted his shirt, but I didn’t see anything.
“Yes, I just felt a pinch.” His hand reached for the top of my dress, and there, sticking out, was the sharp end of Anton’s pin. Somehow, it had unclasped.
“Oh.” I quickly retrieved it and turned it over to inspect the back. Stefan reached for it. My hand froze. What would I say about its origin if he asked?
“This is beautiful.” His eyes followed the detail. “Why don’t you wear it on the outside?”
“It is special to me,” I whispered. “I don’t want anyone to see it and take it.”
“I understand.” Stefan smiled and placed it in my palm. Every time he touched me, my skin quivered. “Be careful, Ella, it looks like the clasp is loose.”
“Thanks.” I slipped it into my dress pocket.
Stefan brought the conversation back to the orphanage. “Do you know who your parents are?”
“Not the ones who gave birth to me. I don’t really consider them my parents though; the Kühns are my mama and papa.”
“Was it difficult in the orphanage?”
I remained silent. My feelings were unclear. There were many things about the orphanage I wanted to forget, but every good memory involved Anton.
“I’m sorry, Ella, am I upsetting you?”
“No.” I shrugged. “I’m alright.” Truthfully, I didn’t want to talk about my life anymore, but I knew Stefan was only being curious.
“I can’t imagine how hard it must have been,” Stefan mumbled sincerely, his hand reached for mine once again.
I knew there was much more to say, but this was not the time nor place. I glanced at the clock on the wall above us and panicked.
“I’m sorry, I have to get back before my lunch time is over.” I stood in a rush to leave. “I can’t get fired twice in one day.” I chuckled, even though it wasn’t really funny.
“Thanks for coming, Ella.” Stefan was not ready to let go. “Will you meet me tomorrow night at Dafne’s?” he asked with a wide smile as he led me down the hall. I squeezed his hand then reached for the large door handle.
“Sure. Is 7 o’clock OK?” I matched his smile.
“Yes, . . . Oh, and Ella,” Stefan turned towards me once again before I stepped out. “I almost forgot . . . I wanted to tell you this last night, but the timing wasn’t right.” Curiously, I waited for him to continue.
“I would love for you to use the art room.”
“The art room?”
“Yes.” His eyes lit up, simultaneous to his smile.
“Are you sure? It’s your own personal space, Stefan.”
“Of course, I’m sure. I know drawing is important to you, and I want you to feel comfortable in there anytime you want.”
“Thank you, Stefan. That means a lot!”
I was still smiling when I reached the staff room. It was impossible to shake.
“Uh-oh.” Lena noticed. “You saw him, didn’t you?” she whispered.
My grin broadened, but I was mute. Words could not express my feelings at that moment. I wanted to hold on to the sensation as long as I possibly could.
As I placed my apron in my box at the end of the day, Lena was at my side. I knew she would appear at some point, only I didn’t know when.
“I happen to be free tonight, Ella.” She smiled slyly. “I would like to treat you to coffee . . . only, if you are available.”
I laughed. “Yes, let’s go.”
We walked out together and down the street to a coffee shop called Karlina’s Kaffe. I’d only been in there once before, and it was with Lena, of course.
I spent the next two hours filling her in on the recent events involving Stefan, including the Fasching Dinner night and the café. She, herself, had noticed a change in him, but wasn’t aware of the jail time in
Czechoslovakia. I was careful not to give her too many details regarding Stefan’s own personal confessions to me, since it deserved some privacy.
It felt like a couple of school friends chatting about the cute boy at school, something I wondered about but never experienced—mostly because I was home schooled with the Kühns and partly because I never had a close female friend before Lena.
“Have you told him about Anton?”
“What do you mean kind of?” Lena took a sip from her second steaming mug but never took her eyes off me.
“I told him Anton was my best friend and with my brother in the west.”
“So, you didn’t really tell him about Anton.”
“What’s there to tell?” I cried defensively. “I don’t even know what we were when he left. It wasn’t like I was his girlfriend. We kissed— once—it was amazing. Papa got sick, and life got hard, and now he’s gone. How do I explain that?”
“Well, how do you feel about Anton now? Do you love him?”
“Of course, I do!” I announced with confidence. “We went through a lot together, Lena. He’s everything to me.” Then my certainty wavered a bit. “Besides, I’m not Stefan’s girlfriend either . . . we’ve only seen each other a few times.” It almost seemed like I was trying to convince myself I really was neutral. “It’s not too complicated . . . right?”
“OK . . .” Lena waved the waitress down to pay. “Whatever you say, Ella, . . . I don’t want to see this get confusing and you find yourself caught between two men.”
“Two men?” I mocked. I never would have imagined a scenario like this in my lifetime.
Lena kissed me goodbye on the cheek. “Two men who have fallen for my sweet Ella.”
As I walked home, I thought about what Lena said.
I love Anton. I’ve spent most of my life with him, and I think he feels the same way about me, but he’s not here, and right now I can’t get to him. I can’t even talk to him. I don’t even know if I’ll ever see him again. The thought brought tears to my eyes . . . but if I could . . . if I could actually find a way to the west, could I leave right now? Of course, I would go, I insisted . . . almost berating myself. Then doubted, Would it be for Josef or Anton? Could I leave Stefan? We’re only friends anyway, right? Friends who hold hands . . . is it possible things could get more serious? If so . . . would I leave Stefan then? I didn’t want to think about it. It didn’t seem fair that any one person should have to face such decisions. Decisions I never could have anticipated . . . ever.