"We Were Fishing For Rockets" is a story about dreams and fear. It’s about being left and about falling. About hanging on in there. Two people, against all odds, are happy with one another, insofar as that’s possible. They like each other in a rattly, ramshackle way, which punishes too much love with a slap round the face. What would happiness be? A relief, but certainly nothing lasting. Romance is a mixtape. It is a special feature of Karen Köhler’s narrative that she gets a staggeringly long way in the never-ending and intractable challenge of getting down to the nitty gritty of life in her writing. Because the part of life that counts is in the gaps. Karen Köhler teaches us that beauty is born of reduction. Such pared-down beauty often elicits the response ‘It takes my breath away’, but breathing is not the problem here; there is ample space to breathe. Another special feature is her offbeat sentences. No one has yet answered the never-ending and intractable question whether literature subsists more on the great overarching story, or rather on the little explosions of individual twists. At Hanser, we sometimes take the liberty of printing eye-catching quotations from our books on small bars of chocolate which we give to booksellers to distribute. Start printing Karen Köhler’s best quotations on chocolate bars, and you’ll soon put on weight. And in the end "We Were Fishing For Rockets" is also a proper short story – a story with a twist so lovely, you can’t believe it at first. Not that it gets you anywhere – as usual. But – as usual – that doesn’t matter in the slightest.
You pressed your Nazi grandfather’s signet ring into my hand and asked me to throw it in the sea or some other body of water. Because you couldn’t. And I said: I’m not doing that; he isn’t my arsehole relative. I’ve got skeletons of my own in the cupboard. It’s chock full; there’s no room for yours.
I put the ring in my box of horrors along with the plastic spider and other yucky things, and kept it for you. It’s still there – been joined by another one since.
Although we have names, and perfectly normal names too – nothing mega stupid like Babsi or Horst or anything – we don’t use them. We have these pet thingies. You call me Krasivaya and I call you Libero. Libero, because I think of you as free. Nothing to do with football or defence systems, as you always claim. I think of you as Italian, although you’re half Romanian – Italian and free, a partisan in the mountains or whatever. Sometimes, high up on the ridge, we break bread and cheese without a knife, and throw ourselves into cover against the clouds. There’s an explosion behind us. They won’t get us. Not in a million years.
Krasivaya because – no idea why. Because my head’s in outer space and my feet only just touch the ground. Because my gaze is always weightless.
I wanted to be an astronaut. I know all about parachutes, because at some point along the way my wings broke off. I must have been about eleven or twelve at the time.
Out hiking one day we found a cave in the middle of the woods, and because we were cold and soaked by the rain – because it was dropping dark, and the next hostel was fifteen kilometres off, I suggested we spend the night in the cave. And you said: No way. You were afraid we’d find a sleeping bear in there. I couldn’t help wishing you were braver – like a warrior or a cowboy – like a Red Indian who would have shot my fear to pieces with his arrows. As it was, I had to go on ahead and fight the bear until you’d fallen asleep between the stalagmites and stalactites on the muddy floor of the cave.
We’re bombardiers. Every Friday between five and eight in the evening, we take our boules and bombard the park.
When we pass Sugar, the most beautiful streetwalker in the red-light district, we pull up on our bikes with screeching brakes and enquire about her corns. She got them from her red platforms, and they’ve been giving her hell for weeks. Sugar is a beauty. Her real name is Satwan, and she used to be a man. Now she has a designer clitoris fashioned for her by a star surgeon from Bangkok and gives the best blowjobs in town. At least that’s what she says. We believe her and ask for no proof.
Gipsy boy – that’s what your ringless grandfather called you. We crochet the most beautiful laurels around the photo of your father, who is never talked about. We tell ourselves that he’s been at sea since leaving your mother – that he didn’t hang himself from a tree in the woods, as she claims. A grave, a grave, what’s a grave? Nothing but a name on a stone. We toast his health and your roots, and chuck glasses at the walls until your flatmate starts yelling that we’re arseholes. Filthy whore – that’s what your Nazi grandad called his own daughter. You raised your arm, took aim and struck – and the next day you left the village. I gave you a homemade certificate for that and sewed a free swimmer’s badge on your red T-shirt.
On the very first day I told you not to fall in love with me. When you did anyway, I slapped you round the face.
We had worked out that it would take 21.3 days to get to the Black Sea on your Vespa – driving slowly. It took us 43 days and made stomach sleepers out of us. In Hungary we had that row and I almost turned around. But what with the full moon and the Danube and your musicians – mesečina, mesečina – I couldn’t hack it and flew back into your arms.
A-Side (Your Side)
Françoise Hardy / ‘Oh Oh Chéri’
Ernst Busch / ‘Heimlicher Aufmarsch’
Goran Bregović / ‘Mesečina’ and ‘Ederlezi’
Jacques Brel / ‘Ne Me Quitte pas’
Danzig / ‘Mother’
D.A.D. / ‘Sleeping My Day Away’
The The / ‘Love is Stronger Than Death’
Your zigzag choreography made me dizzy.
B-Side (My Side)
Nouvelle Vague / ‘This is Not a Love Song’
Kim Wilde / ‘Cambodia’
Dead Kennedys / ‘Holiday in Cambodia’
Lard / ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!’
Fugazi / ‘Waiting Room’
Pixies / ‘Debaser’
The Notwist / ‘Moron’
Nouvelle Vague / ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’
So when are you finally going to get married?
So why aren’t you a couple?
We shared a bottle of Jameson’s and bitched about the world. Then you sat down at the drums, and I grabbed the microphone and sang along to the beat in a wig and a pair of shades – first for you and then into the video camera, until I got tangled up in the mic cable and ended up on the floor, camera and all, laughing uncontrollably. When I saw the video the following morning I noticed that we’d kissed – some time before I fell asleep and you pressed stop.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.
You, in a filthy mood:
‘Are you still in bed?’
Five seconds later, you again:
‘Shit. What’s the time?’
‘Don’t tell me you’re still in bed?’
‘Because it’s half bloody three in the afternoon. That’s why.’
Lighting-up sounds at your end of the line.
‘Missed an appointment?’
‘When did you leave last night, by the way?’
‘Dunno. Some time this morning.’
I listen to you smoking. Then I say:
‘Can I borrow your bike? Somebody’s nicked mine.’
‘We kissed yesterday.’
‘Was it good? The thing is, you see, I can’t remember.’
‘You were great, baby.’
‘See you in a minute.’
My birthday is always in the winter. Every year. I’m not happy about that. Because I’d like to have a big party with all my friends – in the park, or else by a lake, with a bonfire and sleeping out in the open and all that. Last summer you came round to persuade me to go swimming and strapped me on the back of your Vespa. You carried me over your shoulder from the car park to the edge of the lake, and I sang a nursery rhyme all the way. When I saw the table by the water laid for a party and all our friends sitting round it saying happy birthday to me, I knew you were crazy and I ran away. What a good thing you’re faster than me.
We only ever fight at our typefighter, an old Olympia, and the rules go like this:
Only one person at the keys at a time.
No speaking; you’re only allowed to write.
After one sentence, it’s the other person’s turn.
The fight minutes are filed chronologically by year.
‘Hands up!’ I shouted, the day I held up the café where you had a job behind the bar – my secret-agent water pistol pointed firmly in your direction. You looked at your boss, who had stuck up all his fingers immediately. Then you grinned, put down the tea towel you were holding, and slowly – bloody slowly – you stuck up your hands. ‘This is a kidnapping!’ I told your boss with a wink. I caught your confused eye, pulled the trigger, hit you on the forehead and ordered you to come out from behind the bar. Outside the café I blindfolded you, slipped Walkman headphones over your ears and spun you round a few times to make you lose your bearings. I carried you off to the station by a zigzag route and then on a train to the sea, which we reached that evening.
Christmas with your mother. Your grandad was already in his grave and your mother was lonely, so we asked her to celebrate with us. Christmas Eve at yours with goose and red cabbage and dumplings and wine and carols. Christmas Day at mine on the couch with leftovers, biscuits and The Godfather I-III. On Boxing Day I left the two of you and felt lonely by myself.
We stood on the bridge over the railway lines, half frozen to death, your old fishing gear in our hands. A fishing rod each. The sky had cooled down from all the big bangs some time earlier, and we put rockets in empty bottles and fixed fishing lines to the wooden end of the missiles. Commencing countdown, engines on. We held lighters to the fuses in sync and grabbed the fishing rods. Three. Two. One. Checked by the fishing lines, the rockets spat and whizzed into the sky with some difficulty and exploded over our heads. We were fishing for rockets. That was last New Year’s Eve.
The Top Ten Reasons Why I Can’t Be With You
- You have only one book in your possession.
- The title of that book is Excel for Dummies.
- You’re always drinking.
- You smell like my dad.
- You have no ambitions.
- You have holes in all your socks.
- You always leave the lids off everything.
- You never vote.
- Your kisses taste of ash.
- You’ll leave me.
Yesterday your mum rang. From the hospital. On your phone. I thought it was you and when I took the call I said: Where are you, you fucking idiot? and your mum burst into tears.
She said that she had a letter for me – that you were in intensive care with a pumped-out stomach and that your flatmate had found you. Then I knew why you hadn’t come to the place we’d arranged to meet that morning and I set off to see you.
A thousand tubes in your body. Monitors. Beeping. Hydraulic stuff. And you. In a coma. The consultant on duty told me you’d poisoned yourself with pills. Your breathing had stopped, your brain had been without oxygen for several minutes, so now you were in a coma, receiving artificial ventilation and artificial nutrition. The question was whether you’d ever be normal again. The chances were slim. He gave me the following tasks to carry out:
– Talk to him in a calm, friendly way
– Tell him nice things
– Be encouraging
– Touch his skin gently
– Mention familiar names and situations
The idea, said the consultant, was to persuade you to choose life and maybe come back. Although you wouldn’t be able to live the life you used to live, it was quite possible that you might, with some intensive rehab, be able to have another few good years – albeit mentally handicapped and wheelchair bound.
Where I could get at your skin, in amongst the tubes and dressings, I stroked your hand and arm. I doled out memories to you in a calm voice, sang to you, made up a fairy tale for you – and then called you names for about an hour. I took your letter home without reading it.
Your farewell letter:
You cowardly bastard.
I’ve just about had it.
Who’s going to bombard the park with me today?
And next week?
And the weeks after that?
I know the names of all your sisters now.
I have found out all about the doll’s head phenomenon. And where the brain stem is. You didn’t come back. Your mother wanted you in a grave nearby. I said: Sea burial – he belongs in the ocean! and it was all the same to her. Your heart was transplanted because you had one of those cards.
I can hardly bear the thought – that someone, somewhere, is going around with a Libero heart.
The sea burial was a complete washout. If you’d been there, we’d have laughed ourselves silly at your puking mother and the vicar droning away on board. As it was, I stood there by myself thinking how banal it all was and feeling miserable because it seemed to me something ceremonious ought to happen. Plop went the urn and my mouth went crooked.
I feel amputated. Couldn’t you be like Jesus and rise from the dead some time soon? A Friday would be good – yes, I think that would be only right and proper.
Time is like a piece of chewing gum that’s lost its taste.
I’ve sold everything, even the drum kit – sorry. I’ll take your Vespa though; it runs beautifully. Your gloves are still under the seat. The removal van is coming tomorrow. Everyone asks: Why Flensburg? I shrug and say nothing.
Her name is Simone Michalski. It wasn’t easy to find out.
My flat is in the same area as hers. She does all her shopping at an organic grocer’s. Fasten your seatbelt – I’m starting work there at the beginning of next month. Part time.
I go for walks by the sea every day. You can see Denmark. Sometimes I ride across on the Vespa, buy salty liquorice and eat a hot dog with a bright pink sausage inside. You’d love røde pølser. On the anniversary of your death I floated a candle on the water and yelled at the sea.
I look at her, searching for some trace – waiting for a spark. The worst of it is, you wouldn’t like Simone, I’m sure you wouldn’t. We’ve been meeting once a week for a few months now. She’s a useless boules player. Can’t play chess either. Her latest fad is Nordic walking, with sticks and all that. It really is a miracle there wasn’t some kind of rejection response.
I’m sitting at the typefighter breaking all the rules.
*Copyright © Carl Hanser Verlag München 2014.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.