Heidi waits on the sidewalk outside the apartment complex. It is Sunday. Every Sunday, she waits here. The car always comes exactly at one; her brother is never late. She gets in next to him. He smiles at her, a crooked smile that is supposed to say everything he cannot say because of the audio surveillance. Heidi pretends not to see it. She looks through the windshield and makes polite conversation: How is it going at work? Oh, that’s exciting! Do you want to hear about my job? All right, now I’ll tell you about that—everything is as it usually is. And the weather—isn’t it horrible that it is still so cold? It makes you wonder if it will ever be spring again.
She speaks like a machine, and he answers like a machine.
If only they could leave it at that.
If only they could leave it at lunch. Sunday lunch with the family cannot be avoided; she cannot say no. She must sit in his fine apartment with its view of the park, and usually the sun shines through the large windows and perfectly illuminates his lovely wife and two exemplary children.
Everything is as it should be, and Heidi does what she is supposed to.
She talks to her brother’s wife about the food and the view, and answers the teasing questions about the boyfriends she never has. She plays with the younger child, who wants her to draw animals, and she draws the constantly repeated animals, always the same ones, a cat and a swan. Those are the girl’s favorite animals; this never changes. Or perhaps she does not believe that Heidi can draw anything else. The boy sits by himself and plays. He blushes if Heidi speaks to him; he is not like his father at all. Her brother. He was never introverted, never sullen. Her brother is well-spoken and charming. Smooth. He and his wife are the perfect hosts. The food is good, and the conversation is kept going all the time. It glides along like a stream: it is never serious, never difficult.
Heidi could live with that, if only she could be driven home immediately afterward. That would not be so bad. Fake, false, but not intolerable.
The worst part comes next.
“Shouldn’t we just go for a walk in the park and settle our stomachs before I drive you home?” he always asks when they have finished eating. It is understood that it is to be just the two of them. Sister and brother. Her brother’s wife kisses Heidi on the cheeks and says that it was wonderful to see her. “Wonderful”—she always uses that word. She usually once again assures Heidi that she is welcome to bring a male friend the next time. She speaks with a bright, light voice, but if Heidi looks directly into her eyes it is like looking into an abyss. When she does this, her brother’s wife turns abruptly and goes into the kitchen.
Heidi walks next to her brother. She is wearing completely new winter boots and a completely new winter jacket, but is nevertheless freezing. Her brother makes small talk until they have gone a considerable distance into the park.
All the things he says without actually saying anything.
Then he looks around, makes sure they are completely alone, and says, “I can hardly stand it any longer.” This is how it always starts. Heidi doesn’t even need to listen. He asks whether she has heard any news from home; he asks whether she knows how their mother is doing. He asks her to say hello to their mother.
All the things he does not say.
Mother writes to Heidi every week, and she never mentions him with a single word. Heidi writes back, and she never passes on his greetings.
“I hate this life,” he says, “I hate the dissimulation, the falseness. I do my job, and I’m good at it. They think I like it. They don’t know how much I dream of blowing it all up.” In the pause before he continues—always with the same sentence, always with the same childish, assumed enthusiasm—Heidi takes a deep breath. She has to control herself in order not to say anything. Your own father. You sold your own father. The pain moves around in her body, always somewhere else; every word he says strikes at what she must not do. Not shout, not run away, not react.
He did what was necessary, for the sake of the family.
Everything she has, she owes to him.
He can force her to be here, but he cannot force her to pretend that they still have something in common. That they are something special. He is pitiful to listen to. Pathetic. She is disgusted by his childish talk of blowing everything up; he has understood nothing at all of what their parents taught them.
“One day I’ll do it,” he says and stops.
He turns toward her and looks at her with shining eyes, mad eyes. He takes hold of her shoulders and shakes them gently, looking at her intently. She knows what he wants: he wants her to play along, to widen her eyes too, to gasp in horror, to pretend surprise. “No! What are you saying?” she is supposed to exclaim, but she does not. She lets herself be shaken like a rag doll, closing her eyes to avoid seeing his face. He lets go of her, and they walk on. Now he is crying; he is not even hiding it; he is sniffling and sobbing like a child.
“I wish you would talk to me,” he says. “How I wish we could talk to each other like we did when we were living at home.” He sighs deeply.
“I’m so lonely,” he says. “You must be lonely too—you must feel it, too. Don’t you feel the way I do?” She walks next to him and looks straight ahead stiffly.
Now it will not be long before it is over. He stops and kicks at the gravel. He looks around. They have reached the fountain. It is usually here he suggests that they turn back. Before he has a chance to say it, she starts walking back to the car. She walks fast.
In the car, they always say the same polite phrases, because of the audio surveillance. He drops her off, and she goes straight into her apartment and goes to bed. She takes her boots off but gets under her comforter with all of her outerwear on—so cold she feels. Cold all the way through to the bone. In the winter, this is also part of her Sunday routine. When she has gotten warm, she tugs her jacket and mittens off and fishes the latest letter from Mother out from under her pillow. She reads it but thinks only about all the things it does not say.