After Ilona had handed in her notice, she and Karl went on holiday to Italy. Every day, they had an aperitivo at 5pm; every day, they ate out at a nice restaurant; and every day, they had sex. Karl was pleased that Ilona liked Italy. ‘This is the life!’ she said at one point. Another time, she said: ‘The Italians have got it all figured out.’
Then the two of them had gone to Berlin for a fortnight to visit a friend of Ilona’s. It seemed to Karl that Ilona had abruptly become dismissive and hostile towards him. Whenever he reached out to touch her in the night, she would pick up his hand and remove it from her body. This happened on several occasions, at first with the excuse that her friend could hear them, then later without any explanation at all. ‘Now, don’t be offended. My body is not yours to grab whenever you feel like it,’ Ilona said.
When they got home, Karl went back to work. Ilona spent her days sitting on the sofa. If Karl came home later than usual, she would say: ‘Met up with your girlfriend again, did you?’. Karl didn’t reply. In the evenings, Ilona complained of aches and pains. She said she was going through the change. She no longer felt like a real woman. Karl, wanting to comfort her, put his hand on her thigh. ‘Is that the only thing you can think about, you pervo?’ asked Ilona. Karl said nothing. It occurred to him that there was no such word as ‘pervo’. He tried to make the aperitivo exactly as it had been when they had had it in Italy. But it just didn’t taste the same. And it didn’t do the trick.
Once, they were out driving somewhere and had stopped at a red light. Karl gazed out of the passenger window, lost in thought. Ilona, who had been watching him, seemed to assume he had been staring at the female cyclist waiting at the lights.
‘So, does she pass inspection?’ asked Ilona.
‘What are you talking about?’ asked Karl.
‘The girl on the bike. You like her?’
Karl said nothing.
Ilona drove on. ‘She really does have an amazing arse on her,’ she said. ‘Does your girlfriend, the one you meet after work, have an arse like that, too? If this carries on, I’m asking for a divorce.’
In the old days, Ilona used to spend her lunch break with her friends at work and Karl hadn’t been allowed to call her. But now she was sitting at home and kept sending Karl texts. One of them read: You were seen. Last week. On the Burggasse. Holding hands with some blonde woman. I’ve had enough of this.
So now she had informers working for her. Karl wondered when he might have been spotted on the Burggasse. He crossed that street occasionally, but he couldn’t remember having been to a bar or a shop there recently, or even having walked down the street. He texted back: What has got into you now? Let’s talk this evening.
Ilona had wanted to meet in a bar. Karl was glad that she was at least leaving the house again. They met in a café. No sooner than Ilona had sat down, it started: ‘So, what’s she called?’ No waiter to be seen anywhere. Karl slid the salt and pepper cruet, which included a toothpick holder, from one edge of the table to the other. ‘Silvia,’ he said.
‘Silvia,’ replied Ilona, her tone already a little friendlier. ‘And does she happen to have a surname, too?’
Karl kept fiddling with the salt shaker. Without warning, Ilona snatched it out of his hands.
‘Would you stop that? It’s driving me nuts,’ she said.
Karl knew that was bad luck. He’d read it in a magazine: Hindus believed it brings bad luck if one person hands salt directly to another person. Karl looked out of the window. Across the street, he saw a sign: Böhmert Opticians.
‘So,’ said Ilona, ‘do you want to tell me her surname now?’
‘Böhmert,’ said Karl. ‘Silvia Böhmert.’
Ilona was satisfied. ‘Do you know her from Facebook?’
Karl shook his head. ‘She isn’t on Facebook.’
That night, Karl slept at his mother’s flat. The flat had been standing empty anyway ever since his mother had moved to Innsbruck. Karl usually only stopped by for the fire safety inspection and annual electricity meter reading. He couldn’t be bothered to make up the bed with clean sheets, so he laid down on the sofa. He tugged off his trousers and underpants and tried to visualise Silvia. She was tall. As tall as him. Her chestnut-brown hair came to her shoulders. No, longer than that. She had a dimple in her chin. Or, wait – even better – dimples in both cheeks that only appeared when she laughed. Stunningly beautiful, pert breasts. Not too big. Slender shoulders and arms. The most beautiful neck in the world. His phone buzzed with a text: Everything OK there or have I disturbed you and Silvia mid-fuck?
The next morning, Karl made two soft-boiled eggs. That is, he tried to. His mother’s flat had an induction hob, not a gas stove like at home. Karl took out two egg cups and set them on the table, then placed spoons and the salt shaker next to them. He explained to Silvia that she should always put the salt shaker straight back onto the table after using it, and should under no circumstances hand it to him directly. That would bring bad luck. The eggs were way too soft, almost raw. That had never happened to Karl before. He apologised to Silvia and finished both eggs.
Karl set up an email address for Silvia Böhmert. She wore size 8 shoes, he decided. And he wrote down all her vital statistics in a little notebook.
A few months later, Ilona and Karl were invited to a party. The women were in the garden, while the men stood around in the kitchen. Karl wasn’t happy about the gender segregation. He went into the garden to eavesdrop on the women. The topic of conversation was religion. Ilona already looked a bit tipsy. She burst out: ‘So, we were created from the rib of man. Who believes this misogynistic bullshit? From the rib of man. What are we, a spare rib? Sounds like a bloody barbecue.’
It made Karl uncomfortable to hear Ilona go on and on like that. Back in the kitchen, one of the host’s friends was telling the others about his girlfriend’s toxic jealousy. She suspected every woman he ever met of wanting to get it on with him. Without thinking, Karl blurted out: ‘Ilona has been hassling me so much to tell her the name of the woman I’m cheating on her with, I invented one. I even set up an email address for her. I send her emails, and then I write back to myself.’ Karl was flattered by the laughter that ensued.
The drinking continued. Later on in the evening, everyone was in the garden standing around the barbecue. One of the men who’d been with the group in the kitchen earlier asked Karl in a loud voice: ‘That story you told us about the invented woman was brilliant. What was she called again? After what you told us, I’m already half in love with her myself. Silvia something?’
Karl tried to answer under his breath, but by then it was too late.
As he said ‘Böhmert’, there was Ilona, standing right in front of him.
‘Right, that’s it. I want a divorce!’ she yelled.
‘Why? Because I haven’t cheated on you?’ asked Karl.
The other party guests laughed at Karl’s retort.
Ilona tried email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and many other variations besides. She wrote:
Dear Ms Böhmert,
My husband has told me about you. Please don’t worry – this email isn’t to seek revenge or threaten you in any way. I would really like to talk to you. My husband has been cheating on me for years. We’ve been together for 18 years. I know that he feels there is something missing from our relationship.
He doesn’t hold my hand anymore, now only kisses me very briefly and reluctantly, and seems to prefer sleeping apart from me. I miss the tenderness of the early days. I wonder whether you might be able to tell me what really turns him on? I’m sure the two of you must have felt that first flush of passion for each other.
My husband denies everything. Now he’s claiming he just invented you. The whole thing is so humiliating for me. Please help me!
Sincerely, Ilona Vass
by Daniel Wisser
Translated by Lauren Harris
by Daniel Wisser
Translated by Lauren Harris
Published by Luchterhand (2022)
ACF Translation Prize 2022. Winner of the Emerging Translator’s Prize
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Daniel Wisser is an Austrian writer and musician. He has been writing prose, poetry and radio works since 1990 and is active as an editor and publisher of contemporary literature. He was awarded the Austrian Book Prize 2018 for his novel, Königin der Berge (‘Queen of the Mountains’).
Lauren Harris is a translator, interpreter and PR consultant based in Sheffield. She works as both a translator from French, German and Dutch into English and a British Sign Language interpreter. Lauren set up the consultancy Chancery Communications & Language Services Ltd in 2021.