Photograph by Michael Howarth (2022)
Looming chestnut trees lined the concrete walking paths. Some were freshly paved and deep black, smelling of tar, others were worn and fractured by the snaking tree roots underneath. Cheatgrass and puncture vine, purple chicory and pink thistle poured out from the cracks, hungrily emerging from their hibernation. It was early spring, warm in the late morning sun, but her hands were cold and her nose running.
The stone arched entryway that Sonja had passed through was crowded, but the only person she could discern now was an elderly Viennese man, ambling along, hands clasped behind his back. The entire Sunday belonged to her, the morning unspooling with promise but no clear direction.
To one side, through knee deep grass, the stones were old and lichen covered, and she conjured fantastical shapes in their broken forms – the maw of a lion, the pointed ears of a donkey, a cresting wave. On the other side of the path, the growth was freshly cut back and neatly manicured, and a shiny reflection caught her eye. The imposing face of the stone was polished black marble, and the glare of the sun off its surface briefly blinded her. She stepped towards it, a hand shielding her eyes from above.
Sonja made out two laser engraved figures, a man and a woman, dressed formally but dated. They stood together, their faces serious, almost scowling. Behind them was a gleaming streak of grey. As she stepped closer still, the blur slowly came into focus. It was a titanic silver car, careening outwards, far out of scale to the man and woman. The car seemed to be sneaking up on the two unsuspecting figures, its headlights glowing. She wondered if they intended to be buried with the car. Or perhaps inside of it.
Their years of birth, decades before hers, were followed by unrequited dashes, the engraver leaving only the final touch for a time yet to come. Or possibly it already had, who knows how quickly the gravestone might be updated, she thought. Or maybe it had been forgotten altogether. Some people move away, after all.
A light dizziness came upon her. She felt a sense of blank panic, an awareness that she had failed to grasp something, perhaps irreparably. She glanced down and saw she was standing on the mushy white petals of an unidentifiable bouquet, lying withered before a flat gravestone. She looked around to check if anyone had seen her. The elderly man had vanished.
That evening, Sonja returned her mother’s call.
'So, what kept you away this weekend?' her mother asked.
'I just had some work I had to catch up on,' she said, thinking quickly.
'You’re not overdoing, are you?' her mother asked. 'I hope you’re not forgetting it’s only a job, and it isn’t worth stressing yourself over a bunch of paperwork.'
'Yes, I know,' Sonja said, pausing. There was never a follow up question. “How was your weekend?”
'You know, busy as always,' her mother said. 'Your father was doing a few repairs around the store, and the new shelves we ordered arrived. But I’m a little worried about your father installing them. He’s too proud to say anything, but I know his back is acting up again.'
Her parents owned a shoe store in the small city she had grown up in, only an hour away by train. They were proud of sustaining the store over the years, even surviving the rise of the big chains. They credited this in part to their proud membership in the country’s premier shoe association, which Sonja believed promised more than it delivered.
'Just make sure that he’s not doing anything stupid,' Sonja said.
'I almost forgot, we went out to see Bettina on Saturday,' her mother said. 'The new house is coming along well. Maybe a little too much space for just two people though.'
Sonja’s sister Bettina had got married right before Christmas, and she and her husband had just moved to the town where he grew up. She expected Bettina would be announcing a pregnancy any day now, and it was not likely that she would be moving back home anytime soon.
'So can we expect to see you next weekend?' her mother asked. 'I know your father could use some help with the shelves.'
Her parents had never explicitly asked her to take over the store, but the expectation seemed to hang in the air, ever weightier now that Bettina was setting down roots elsewhere. And while Sonja had never rejected the idea, she had set out to create a life of her own. She would not let go of what she had accomplished.
'Yes, I’ll give you a call when I’m on the train Friday,' she said. 'Hopefully work won’t go too late.'
Early Monday morning, Sonja boarded the first of two trams she took into the office every day. The commute gave her plenty of time to think or catch up on work. The final stretch of her commute brought her along the Ringstrasse encircling Vienna’s first district, and she would peer down from the tram’s windows at the cyclists and tourists crowding the sidewalks. It was always busiest during the summer and the weeks before Christmas. This time of year, the streets were still quiet.
She worked as an assistant to the city’s Education Minister, who oversaw its sprawling school system. She had first imagined that a job in the city’s bureaucracy would be predictable and monotonous, but she was surprised to discover all the same conflicts that dogged any human interaction. There was ambition and hard work and the occasional bright idea, but there was also competition and disorganisation and empty words. Perhaps it was the same everywhere, Sonja thought.
The Minister himself was tall, middle aged, and uncommonly stylish, but always somehow a year or two behind in trends, as if he were subscribed to men’s fashion magazines that were forever getting held up in the mail. He had the appearance of someone who cycles to work, which was in no small part deliberate, but this was misleading. He had a boyish passion for cars, in a way that seemed sufficiently outdated that he had to conceal it from the public like a secret affair. But she had listened to him wax on about the varying qualities of car models they passed as he drove her to meetings, even while Sonja hardly saw a difference.
Almost five years ago, she had started as what was effectively, despite its official title, a secretary, scheduling and rescheduling the Minister’s consistently overbooked daily calendar, up to and often including at least two out of his three daily meals. He was somewhat scattered himself, but she knew he meant well. He treated her with respect during the third and final interview when she first met him, as courteous as if she had decades of academic and professional qualifications, when in fact she had been struggling to pass her final university exams. In the end, she hadn’t managed to do so, and her name sat conspicuously degreeless on the door of the office where her cubicle was.
Her two officemates were several years older than her and numerous rungs above her in the office hierarchy. It had still fallen to Sonja to initiate a friendship between the three of them, the only one to suggest a drink after work on the occasional evening. Magda and Zuzana were reliably friendly anytime she struck up a conversation, but they seemed wary to cede their superiority in their relationship to her.
The first night they went out together after work, Sonja laughed at Zuzana’s impersonation of the Minister, knotting her scarf in the oddly youthful way he wore his and assuming the indignant but gentlemanly tone that he took on at public events. Magda, the oldest of the three, was shy and conspiratorial that first night, as if a glass of wine with her colleagues was a guilty indulgence. They got along well, despite the nearly twenty year age difference between them. Sonja had been sad when Zuzana announced that she would be leaving soon, having accepted a job back home in Bratislava.
Still, she remained closest to the Minister, given the nature of her job. She would frequently accompany him to meetings with the city’s other ministries or at its many schools. In control of his calendar, she was privy to many details about his life. She knew what foods he liked to eat (hearty and traditional Viennese), she knew how he spent his time outside the office (mostly still working), and she knew where he went on summer holidays (to the same small Greek island). But more, she knew his individual mannerisms, his speech patterns, how his mood changed over the day. She felt more intimate with him than with anyone else in her life, the two of them forced together in all kinds of circumstances over the five long days per week that they shared.
The first to arrive in her office that day, Sonja unpacked her bag, sat down, and rolled forward into her neatly organized cubicle desk. Moments later, the Minister walked in, his scarf still on.
'Did you catch the email chain this morning?' he asked.
'Good morning,' she said. 'Yes, I’m all caught up.'
'Can you believe that?' he asked. 'We’ve been discussing this for two months, and this is when he decides to chime in?'
Sonja gave what she felt was a look that mixed sympathy and exasperation. When she had first accepted the job, there had been promises about opportunities for advancement. It was true that she had taken on several new responsibilities and had received two small pay raises over the years, but she wasn’t sure what came next. All her colleagues possessed several academic degrees, and overlooking the shortage of letters after her name seemed unlikely in the education ministry.
'Can we set up a meeting for this afternoon?' the Minister asked. 'I know Mondays are always impossible, but I think we should settle this as quickly as possible.'
'I’ll work my magic,' Sonja said, smiling.
'You’re a lifesaver,' he said.
After work, she was to meet Maite at a café in the city center. Sonja had met her through a language exchange website that allowed users to meet and trade languages. Maite was Basque but advertised Spanish in her profile, and she was the first to respond to Sonja’s messages. And how many people in Vienna could be learning Basque? she had wondered. Isolated and mysterious, it was said to be impossible to learn.
Last year, Sonja had traveled to Valencia on her own for a long weekend and spent her time wandering the old town, the seafront, and the raucous streets at night, stealing glimpses at the fashionable young people. The city was blessed by warm winds and the smell of the sea, and she imagined life there to be languorous, sensual, uninhibited. She hoped to return someday and thought that learning Spanish may give her the confidence to meet people there, to see what life there really was.
At their first meeting, Sonja was struck by Maite’s beauty. She was always vague about what had brought her to Vienna. Something about a boyfriend or girlfriend who was, either way, no longer in the picture. Maite’s German was far better than Sonja’s novice Spanish, but she was sensitive to the way that she rolled the letters of a word together, collapsing the distinct German syllables.
Sonja arrived at the café that Maite had proposed, proud that she would have known better than to suggest this place. It was new, overpriced, and soulless. She didn’t see Maite anywhere, so she found a table against the glass wall facing out on the street. She made eye contact with a waiter, but he looked away.
The door opened, and Maite entered the café as if glowing. Sonja watched the man across from her stare unabashedly. Maite had long black hair and a silver nose ring and wore a knee length black coat and matching scarf, bundled up excessively for spring, Sonja thought.
'I hope you weren’t waiting long,' Maite said, leaning in to kiss her twice, in the local fashion, while unwrapping her boundless scarf.
'Oh, it’s fine' she said. Maite always led in German, and Sonja had the feeling that, if accounts were settled someday, they would have spent far more time speaking German than Spanish.
'So, how was your day then?' Maite asked.
'You know, just very long,' she said. 'I for one could use a glass of wine.'
'Did you see any friends over the weekend?' Maite asked. She always seemed to be angling to meet any friends of Sonja, perhaps to see if there were any better conversation partners out there.
'Yes, we stayed out late on Saturday and then just lay out in the Augarten yesterday,' she lied.
'I should’ve messaged you, I’m sorry. I’ll let you know next time.'
It was easy to assume the life that she was working towards. She knew what it was meant to include and what not. Just then, it felt within grasp, and she looked closely at Maite to see if she believed it too. Maite’s face, framed by her wavy black hair, reflected back at hers, unmovable.
They sat outside on a square that was more of a triangle, centered around a grand stone fountain that looked long out of use. Black wrought iron chairs wobbled on the uneven cobblestones. The table had worn wooden slats, and its yawning gaps threatened to swallow any silverware or cellphone that was placed at the wrong angle. Two sides of the triangle were busy roads that converged at the far end of the square, but the cars passing by moved slowly and orderly, nearly silent. No one else was brave enough to sit outside this early in the year.
The Minister sat facing her with his legs crossed, the oversized paper menu obscuring his upper half. Sonja could feel a slight headache from the three glasses of wine she had with Maite the night before. She hadn’t really been in the mood for such a late lunch after their meeting, but he had insisted. The Minister valued eating well, one of his many pleasures. She envied his ability to neatly divide his private interests and his work. He could work continuously for hours and then pause for an indulgent meal that he would eat with all the gusto and exacting commentary of a food critic. When, on the rare occasion, she felt passionate about something, it overcame her, filling her waking hours with idle daydreams and concrete plans alike. She hadn’t yet found out the secret behind such a strict division of the self, separating her wants and needs into discrete units that in no way resembled each other.
The waiter arrived to take their orders, and the Minister cycled through his usual questions about where the seasonal vegetables were sourced from, how the meat would be cooked, what white wine was recommended. Reluctantly, he handed the menu back and turned to look at Sonja, leaving his cellphone carefully angled across the slats of the table.
'So, I thought it went well today,' he said.
She bobbed her head up and down, her eyes cast downwards.
'What did you make of Lukas’ idea?' he asked.
'I understand what he was getting at,' she said. 'But honestly, I still think we would be better off going for the official procurement. I think it’d save us all a lot of time in the end.'
'Yes, right, I thought so as well,' he said. 'Maybe we bring it back to our team to discuss further and then schedule another meeting with his office?'
'Of course,' she said, making a note in her head.
The waiter brought over their drinks, a lemon water for her and a glass of wine for him.
'Zuzana told me that she gave you notice,' she said, taking a long sip through clenched lips.
'Yes, I’d been meaning to tell you,' he said. 'I’ve asked her to stay on a little longer while we look for her replacement.'
She took another sip of water, the fresh citrus clearing her head.
'When would you want me to post the job listing?' she asked.
'I’d like to sit down with you and make a few changes to the original job description,' he said. 'As you know, Zuzana really made that role her own.'
She looked out at the cars passing them on either side. The square had lost the sun for the afternoon, but it bore down bluntly on the façade of the buildings facing her. Her hands were getting cold.
'I just remembered, we still need to finalise the list of speakers for next week’s panel,' he said. 'The moderator is waiting on us.'
Later that afternoon, Sonja lay out on one of the trapezoidal plastic loungers that dotted the museum’s courtyard, absorbing the last sun of the day. She leaned back, fully reclined. Across the courtyard, a man whirled enormous bubbles, shimmering and iridescent, drifting skywards. A girl jumped to swat at them, her fingers piercing the bubbles’ luminous borders, shattering them into vaporous atoms.
A man and a woman, both middle aged, and two small children were spread across the lounger opposite hers. The two boys were stomping and banging on its plastic exterior while their parents tried to talk over them.
'Are you sure you can’t come this weekend?' the woman asked. 'My sister wanted us both to be there.'
'You know I’m swamped with work,' the man said. 'It’s not like I’m trying to avoid it.'
The woman turned and fussed with the younger of the two boys, who seemed to have something sticky on his hands. The other son abruptly slid off the lounger, hitting the stone of the courtyard squarely on his butt. He gave an expression of shock, unsure whether to cry or be brave.
'That hurt, didn’t it?' the woman asked, stepping down to help him.
Sonja got up to leave. On the way out of the courtyard, she found herself drawn into the museum store by the exit. She flipped through the art books carefully laid out on a display table, glancing over lush photographs of Japanese bonsai and Berlin in the 1980s.
She wandered toward a crowded rack of scarves and ran her fingers through them. The different colours and patterns blended together as she let the silky material drop down like falling water. Her fingers clenched tight as a purple scarf with white tulips passed through her hand. White tulips were her mother’s favourite flower. She would bring it with her as a gift when she came. She slid it forcefully off the tottering rack, and the other scarves swung back and forth, until they fell back into place.