Leaving Montparnasse

Ralf Rothmann

Translated by: Susan Thorne

Original text: "Abschied von Montparnasse "

Artwork by Molly Lamb Bobak

           Her time was up, and she really didn’t know whether to be anxious or happy. Nearly a year of nerve-wracking work, hearing loss, and two excess kilos, all for one half-sentence on a piece of paper … At least she had formulated that herself, and in the future it might not be insignificant to have the word “Paris” appearing alongside the usual terms like “allocation” or “the top-down approach.” That was her biography, people would ask her about it. But what about life itself?

          She had the afternoon off and wanted to buy a few presents. Yet as she walked past the shop windows of the Rue de Rennes, she was paying more attention to her reflection than to the window displays. A young woman with a confident bearing: you could have guessed her profession if she had dressed accordingly.  But she preferred jeans and twin-sets, black if possible; that was good enough for her work behind the screen, even in Paris. All that mattered were your shoes and wearing the right nail polish.

          She lived on the Rue Delambre, in a tenement off the rear courtyard with a dribbling shower and light switches that made a crackling noise. Shuddering at the thought of its dark rooms with the two suitcases waiting to be packed, she decided to go to the Dome for a coffee, even though she didn’t particularly like the place. But a cool wind had sprung up that morning, and the café had a glassed-in terrace. 

          The inevitable Pierre was leaning in the doorway as usual ‒ “Pierre Camembert,” as she secretly called him. No matter how generous her tips had been, she had found no favor in his eyes during all these months ‒ not in her jeans and twin-set, anyway. It didn’t matter that she lived next door. Only her fox-red hair redeemed her in Pierre’s eyes now and then, and on days like today, when the moon was full, you could see the gleam of lechery showing through his arrogant indifference. He nodded curtly and stepped aside ‒ just enough so that their clothing didn’t touch. “Bonjour, Mademoiselle. Playing hooky?”

          Then he held the windbreak open for her, a curtain of dark green felt, and she exhaled heavily and ordered a grande crème. The terrace was almost empty on this early afternoon, only one older man in a dark blue suit sat at the table in the furthest corner, drinking a small glass of wine and looking out at the boulevard. A book was sticking out of his pocket, a few feathers between the pages, and a hat lay on the empty wicker armchair next to him ‒ or rather, it was sitting up like a bowl. A deer-brown hat, filled to the brim with mushrooms.

          She sat down some distance away and crossed her legs. Her time was up, and what now? She started thinking about Berlin ‒ the small country villa which Bertram had selected for her (a ridiculous number of rooms), and the expanded company headquarters and new office which she would move into after the wedding ‒ and she had a sudden twinge of despondencyYet she raised her chin when the waiter brought her latte. There was a score to settle.

          She knew how appealing her smile was; she used it almost daily, it was her signature, in a way. Something relaxed in Pierre’s expression, too: little Camembert was starting to feel a stirring of hope, understandably. She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and said, “Thank you, Monsieur. Very kind. Actually I wanted a large coffee, but never mind …  Did you know, by the way, that you have very unusual legs?” Surprise lit up in his hunter’s eyes, and he tilted his head and wrinkled his brows; his mouth was quite pretty, in fact. She pressed the tips of her fingers together. “Yes, it’s true. Practically a perfect ‘O’.”

          Someone of his type couldn’t be expected to lose his composure, though that composure caused his throat to tighten briefly. He opened the pot with the sugar packets, tore off the receipt, and took the money she had left on the table. “Oui, Madame,” he said hoarsely while counting out her change, almost sounding anxious. “But what can you do? It comes from riding pigs.”

          Then he left her alone, and she sank back, breathing deeply and looking out at the intersection and the stream of pedestrians in front of the Rotonde. Some of them were photographing the tarnished green statue of the writer ‒ what was his name? Anyway, it was by Rodin, and it was standing in Paris. My God: Paris, this worn-out beauty. This brilliance of yesteryear. She hadn’t gotten to know a single person during the year, apart from some law students and business people. She ‒ the young, initially even somewhat helpless German woman ‒ hadn’t been invited anywhere even once by her French colleagues. She had hardly spoken with anyone outside her office hours, at least not with anybody who aroused her curiosity. And the men who stood next to her at the bar of the Select for a beer at the end of the day were so obvious in their intentions that she could hardly believe it. Manger et coucher: life could be that simple ‒ it made you want to scream.

          She waved at Pierre, ordered herself a Martell to go with her coffee, and took the opportunity to get a closer look at the hat of the man sitting on the terrace. There was no doubt about it: they were mushrooms, forest mushrooms like the ones her father had often gathered, usually at the Schlachtensee. She could identify Ritterlinge, Schirmlinge, and Rotkappen, and suddenly she smelled the earthy aroma and wondered how anybody could have come by a hatful of forest mushrooms here, in the middle of the city, where you could feel the Metro under your feet and the buses coming and going on Boulevard Montparnasse, corner of Raspail, causing the thin little sidewalktrees to tremble.

          She tapped her front incisors with her spoon and turned slightly in her chair to look at the man more closely. He was wearing ankle-high boots, good for hiking, and was probably just a bit taller than she was. He wore glasses and had a small moustache, a fine curved nose and an unusually high, somewhat intimidating forehead. A man who had gone through some pain in his life, judging by his furrowed face; had thought and also read a lot, yet had nothing of the intellectual about him. On the contrary: he looked tanned by wind and weather; a pine needle hung in his medium-length hair, impressively thick on the back of his head, with only occasional grey. He held his chin steady, slightly raised, with his hands resting calmly on the arms of his chair. Large and strong yet delicate, with clearly visible moons on the fingernails, they were the hands of a sensitive man, a connoisseur even. How did she know that? All mushroom pickers have tender hands.

          The leather hem of the wind curtain glided over the floor. As he passed, Pierre put her cognac down in front of her, stepped up to the man’s table and asked, after a short bow, whether he wanted anything more. The man shook his head, pushed his empty wine glass and a saucer holding some coins toward the waiter, and stood up, buttoning his jacket. Something clicked in his pockets (it sounded like pebbles) as he reached carefully under the hat and raised it from the chair.

          How substantial he looked next to that Camembert, who apparently took himself for God’s greatest gift to women ‒ how free of arrogance yet sure of himself, with those same qualities in his voice. He said something about the weather, and his voice had no particular emphasis, just as his earlier viewing of the street had a look-and-see quality, without any presumption. His voice was surprisingly soft and apparently defensive, yet more powerful than the inhibited deep tones of the waiter. She realized instinctively that she had left silence behind: for the first time in the entire year she felt she was seeing a really interesting man ‒ all the more interesting since he appeared not to notice her or her gaze. Or when she cleared her throat. 

          He walked through the café, looking at his mushrooms with the obvious pride of a collector. One of the feathers sticking out of the book came from a jay, and she sipped at her cognac and sat up a bit straighter.  An expensive pinstripe suit, evidently (the brand label still hung down from one sleeve), a washed-out T-shirt and old hiking boots: the man seemed familiar to her somehow. But maybe she was mistaken, maybe that was more a wish than the truth, particularly since she had heard the trace of an accent ‒ Austrian or German ‒ in his French.

          He walked lightly despite the heavy footwear, and was already past her table and grabbing hold of the green felt when she gathered all her courage ‒ my God, it was her last day ‒ took a deep breath and said, “Excuse me? I know you!”

          Surprised, he stood still and looked around. There were fingerprints on the lenses of his rimless glasses, and at the sight of his eyes, the goodness and the intensity in them despite their darkness, she was so ashamed that for a moment she didn’t know which way to look. She saved herself with her smile, but it faded immediately. “From a dream …,” she added in a subdued tone, and could scarcely believe it; it hurt to swallow.

          What on earth had got into her? Had she lost her mind? Was she really so needy? It made her think of the many lonely women at the cocktail hours: sad figures who were no longer asked about their biographies, whose only experience of tenderness that day had obviously come from a powder brush. And what answer, if any, would she give to some guy who approached her like that? Fortunately she had spoken German, so at least she didn’t have to be afraid of the waiter’s mockery, his ice-blue glance. “I know you from a dream”: good God!

          But the man, who had regarded her attentively, didn’t appear to be annoyed. He loosened up the mushrooms in the hat, plucking a blade of grass out of the gills. “Yes!” he said finally, and smiled solemnly. “I remember …”

          Then he briefly closed his eyes, a soft greeting, pushed the curtain aside with the back of his hand, and went out. The windowpane, vibrating from the buses which had just pulled up, was dusty, his image blurred, and whether he waved once more from the curb ‒ she couldn’t see because of her tears. 


Ralf Rothmann

Ralf Rothmann (b. 1953) is a dramatist, poet, and author of fiction recognized as one of Germany's foremost contemporary writers—a status confirmed by his receipt of prestigious literary awards including the 2005 Heinrich Boll and 2006 Max Frisch prizes.

Susan Thorne

Susan Thorne has translated German-language fiction, travel literature and poetry by writers including Uwe Johnson, Wolfgang Koeppen, and Jurek Becker. Her work has appeared in Two Lines Online, ORIGINS, and the Oxygen Press CityPick series, among others, and she has been an instructor of German to English literary translation at New York University.