The future already smells of decomposition today, though tomorrow is not yet born.
It is recess between second and third class of the morning. Time to get the small pink pill that wipes away all our troubles. It isn't amphetamine, crack or a hallucinogenic drug but simply a psychopharmaceutical which immunizes you against stress and anxiety. It prevents you from slipping out of balance and spreads a general feeling of contentment. It stabilizes you and keeps you on track for the demands of daily life.
Waldemar and Irene meet every day during recess and drink cappuccino at Anno, a hip bar at the corner. Both are senior students at the Johanneum. Waldemar Schön is a tall, lanky blond, the Nordic type often depicted in the blood-and-soil school of painting. His favorite subjects are math and philosophy. He is serious, reserved and introverted. He loves Tchaikovsky, Kandinsky and Saint Exupéry, whose late philosophical work "The Citadel" he read at age 15. His precocious nature is on a collision course with his age and his role as a student. He feels restricted by school, his parents and the entire network of dependencies which he is as yet unable to flee. For him, contentment is a sin and discontent a virtue. He considers contentment the daily dose of bean stew; a concertina wire fence drawn around the tree of knowledge, with a sign pinned to it that says, No trespassing. When the contentment stimulator was introduced at his school, he rebelled silently against the pill but took it anyway. Since then, he has been walking through life as if under a glass dome. Bad grades elicit a shrug from him at best. The daily flood of death and violence across the TV screen sparks no great rush through his veins and neither does the heavy petting upstairs in his room with Irene.
Life is a fast food joint, no subtleties or surprises, no intense joy or grief. Much like biting into a BigMac whose taste never varies with time or place, and every day tastes exactly like all that will follow.
During summer break last year, when the school's control slackened somewhat, he stopped taking the pink pills. Instantly, he was able to look forward to the next day, to be annoyed about the bad grades of the last couple of papers. He was sad when the family cat was run over by a car and he was mad at the intolerant neighbors who avoided the Turkish family on the second floor like the plague. He was able to laugh at his best friend Max Schlegel's jokes.
Irene, by contrast, hates stress and likes the pink pill. Now that she, like everyone else, is under obligation by mandate of the Cultural Ministry to swallow the contentment stimulator, Irene no longer fears tests and no longer circumvents the Schröders' barking pinscher across the street. She doesn't even mind any more when her mother interrogates her about her relationship with Waldemar and bugs her at least once a week about taking the pill. After all, her mother only wants the best for her daughter. Irene's mother doesn't mean "the pill", of course, she means the other one. Irene wasn't all that discontented with her life before the pink pill, if we use the term "contented" in a general and all-encompassing way. Irene has never been an ambitious student. But she has no doubt she'll pass the Abitur even though her grade point average won't be more than "satisfactory." Her father is a branch manager at Deutsche Bank and will no doubt find her a training position at the bank, despite the many applicants.
And then, later on… but later on is way too far into the distant future to be worth worrying about right Waldemar spots Irene as she enters the Anno. She has no aura around her, no whiff of anything. She is just a student who'll graduate next year with an average grade. She'll be happy and her parents will whisper to each other, "Thank goodness. It's done," because graduation will mean that their daughter has ceased to be a financial burden. Sometimes Waldemar wonders about the essence of his relationship with Irene. Is it just a release valve for his sexual urges through skin-on-skin contact? Is it because it's normal to have a girlfriend? Irene is neither ugly nor pretty and her body is not as curvaceous as the statue of a young woman on the front lawn of the school. Irene isn't particularly intelligent, either. So what is it? Perhaps she is the motherly type who understands and forgives, who looks after her beloved and cares for him like a cat for her kittens. Like the kittens Waldemar found not so long ago in a cardboard box in the broom closet.
Waldemar doesn't care for the nickname. It reminds him of a devoted dachshund's glance at his master, a role he wants to take on neither today nor, if he is to be married one day, later. He raises his eyebrows and says, "It's you. I didn't even see you coming."
Which of course isn't true, and Irene knows it. She sits down next to him on one of the futuristic plastic bucket seats and looks at him quizzically.
"Well, haven't we taken our pill today?"
Waldemar's defenses go up, "You're talking to me like a nurse at the Red Cross hospital. As if I were senile. But you're right. I didn't take the pill today." He raises his hand defensively. "Save your breath. I'm craving ice cream again. I'm mad that I only got seventy on the math test. In any case, today's a shitty day because it's cold and rainy."
"Period," she says and edges closer to him. She leans toward his shoulder, but he retreats. Despite the pill, Irene appears to sulk. She turns away from him and sits straight back against the chair. She doesn't say a word and looks as if she has a ruler down her back. Waldemar notes her body language with masochistic gratification even though he hasn't even used his trump card yet. He's about to launch a major strike against Irene's contentment.
"I've decided that I will never take the pill again."
She has no idea what is coming and is so unprepared that she opens and closes her mouth twice before she manages to get a word out.
"If you do that you'll get expelled. You'll never get into university then and…" She is done gasping for air like a fish out of water. She tries to breathe.
Waldemar observes her curiously and finishes the sentence for her, "if someone reports me, I can even go to jail for it."
She stares at him, stunned. "You would do that?"
"I won't pin my conviction on the bulletin board like Luther pinned his thesis on the church gate at Wittenberg ."
Irene looks doubtful.
Waldemar thinks he can detect a level of concern in her face, and he feels gratified.
"Waldi, I'm scared that you'll get into trouble. Be careful."
He doesn't mind the endearment this time.
Mission accomplished. The trap is sprung but someone stole the bacon meant to catch the mice. The retreat route back into the golden age is blocked.
The hands of the clock on the classroom wall show ten minutes to 12:00. It is Friday. At the end of this hour, Bruno Schwedler's weekend begins. He glances at his wrist watch to check the time.
"One more minute."
Sighs are heard throughout the classroom. Last compositions flow from eighteen ballpoint pens onto lined pages tightly filled with writing.
"That's it, ladies and gentlemen," he calls out.
Eighteen blue books are noisily closed. The act has an air of finality about it. Some who are afraid of having missed the point of the subject, "Relations between the Occult and Exorcism," are thinking that fate will run its course. Others lean back on their chairs, certain of their glorious grades.
Bruno Schwedler watches Waldemar Schön collect the blue books. Intelligent young fellow, Bruno Schwedler is thinking as he waits for the sound of the bell that signals the end of class. Difficult, though. A discontented soul. No respect for authority. Full of doubt. Bruno Schwedler suspects that Waldemar Schön is refusing to take the small pink pill.
Yet before he can delve into his thoughts further, the bell rings. Bruno Schwedler slips the books into his briefcase and says, "Have a nice weekend." He is the first to leave. He's in a hurry. He is supposed to meet his wife and daughter, Ilona, for lunch at an Italian restaurant and he detests being late. Bruno Schwedler is a conservative man. You can tell by his clothes. His suits are invariably somewhere between dark grey and navy blue. He usually wears plain shirts although, after gentle prodding from Erika, he has been known to tolerate an inoffensive stripe. He prefers neckties in gentle tones, subdued colors and, at the most, small quiet patterns or stripes. He tends not to waste much time on things, people or thoughts that elude him when they are first encountered. This trait enables him to avoid contagion by morbid thought. Hence he continues to think simplistically, black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. He likes it that way. He believes in morals and values; a revolution was never his thing. He has never been able to grasp his son's fear of a mediocre life without deeper meaning. His own life is that of the average citizen. It is a normal life after all, he tells himself a little defiantly. A life spent at work or with the family, with its peaks and valleys, its successes and setbacks. Never did he consider himself one of the chosen few who would make history, and he won't gripe about it either. He thinks of himself as a good educator, family man and husband. He's even a little proud of himself in that respect. Not everyone can make that claim.
When the police were at his door at 7 a .m. two years ago and a detective informed him of the double suicide of his son Günter and Günter's friend Walter, he insisted for a while that it had to be a mistake. Two days after, the story was in the papers in full detail, down to the red plastic tube that the two had tied to the exhaust and channeled inside the car through the window on the driver's side. Neither one of them wrote a suicide note. When Bruno Schwedler looked for an explanation in his son's room, he found a paperback copy of Nietzsche's Thus spoke Zarathustra. Since then, he has been blaming Nietzsche. For Erika, his wife, it was the second tragedy within a year after the suicide of her younger brother Guido. Their marriage has taken a beating. She's never accused him of being partially to blame for Günter's death, which as far as he was concerned would've been ridiculous. But from time to time he detects something close to contempt in her eyes. Their conversation these days is only about trivialities. If his daughter had problems of any sort, he wouldn't know about them. In any case, they would be problems she'd only discuss with another woman.
The Italian restaurant is packed. Erika and Ilona are already here and waiting. He exchanges breezy kisses on the cheek with his wife. Ilona pushes the menu across the table and drums her fingers on the table. Both women already know what they want.
Ilona Schwedler is 15 and a student at Max-Planck-High School . She is still somewhere on the threshold between puberty and adulthood, although her physique reflects maturity beyond her age. She likes to be "cool" about things and tolerates the adult world with hauteur. The psychological pattern that will turn her into a good mother and wife later on is, however, already in place. She will most certainly become a stereotype, marry an equally grounded man who, just like her father, won't waste any time on things he doesn't understand. Bruno Schwedler is not fond of Italian pasta and is grateful for the seafood and meat dishes on the menu. He chooses Piccata Milanese with carrots.
Ilona turns her nose up,
"What a modest choice today, Daddy," she declares. She is all the more immodest and orders asparagus in pink sauce as a starter, Tagliatelle alle vongole for the second and veal for the main course. She's undecided as yet whether or not to have dessert.
Erika Schwedler, choosing the golden mean between her husband's moderation and her daughter's gluttony, orders cooked ham for a starter and rainbow trout with artichokes as a main dish. For drinks, Ilona orders water while her parents decide on a bottle of Barbera. They exchange few words over lunch until Bruno Schwedler suggests a canoeing trip down the river on the weekend. All three are members of a local canoe club. Although Ilona generally acknowledges adults' escapades, as she calls the silence between her parents, with the benevolent tolerance of one far beyond such childish behavior, she's enthused about her father's idea.
With a patronizing air, she says, "You have a great idea now and then, Dad."
Erika Schwedler plays along as best she can. Hoping her husband would be loathe to cancel his weekend ritual of a skat game with three friends from work, she had planned to meet Eddy on the weekend. "Ilona is right. It's a great idea. Let's head out to sea."
It's a plan.
They work out the logistics of the trip between them. Bruno will figure out how to get there, Erika will prepare food and drinks to take. Ilona smiles at her parents. She hopes for good weather. Let the others do the work. It's enough that she'll have to move the canoe forward with the strength of her own muscles.
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