(For a friend)
Kate was cold, tired, and alone. It had been many long nights since her apartment had heating, and while this was tolerable during the summer months, it was now well into winter. Bundled under a knitted wool quilt and clutching a cup of Earl Grey, she watched as the snow drifts began to gather outside her window.
“Great,” she thought, “Another frigid night in frigid Germany. Just my luck.”
Kate arrived in Berlin from Northamptonshireside a mere 6 months ago for work- and found it wanting. While her new position provided adequate exposure to her native English tongue, everything else was a challenge. Like the millions of British expats to arrive in the German capital, she believed learning German wouldn’t be critical for day-to-day life. After all, why would any citizen of the UK ever have to worry about having to get a visa in the EU? It’s not like the free movement of Brits across mainland Europe would ever be an issue!
Nevertheless, Kate felt a loneliness in her heart- and her loins. About a month into her stay, her then-boyfriend came for a short visit. They did all the usual romantic Berlin things- went on a “free” graffiti art tour, took a boat ride with 50 German retirees and 100 Chinese tourists, watched a homeless man masturbate in the Monbijoupark. Yet despite all that romance, the realization that they were having a long distance relationship cast a long shadow. He left her after a few short days and took an early flight home that actually did not cost a lot, since again Britain was part of a larger economic basket that meant tariffs for travel within the EU were significantly lowered. And so she remained in Berlin, cold, tired, and alone.
Well, not entirely alone- for there was another suitor. From the moment she met her Hausmeister Jan, she could sense a similar longing within him. Though he was 20 years her senior, had a potbelly that jiggled whenever he took out his enormous key ring, and smelled something like cabbage and wet cigar smoke, the tension between them was intense. He was also the only Berliner to speak English with her- something which she took as a sign. Many a late night, Kate would recall their interactions. The day when he gave her the keys. All the mornings she saw him dragging different recycling bins to the street. The passive aggressive note he left on her door, reminding her that the courtyard was a common space and it was not appropriate to leave her bicycle there. It was enough to light a fire deep inside her soul, a fire that could only be quenched with his gruff responses to her inquiries of how his day was going. It was a little game they played.
He played his own games as well. Despite not having heat for the entirety of her stay in his building, he was particularly hard to find when it came to maintenance requests. Yes, he was always there to chide the tenants whenever someone was particularly loud at 10:01pm, but when it came to actually getting him to come to her fucking apartment and fix the fucking radiator he was almost nowhere to be found. Until now.
It had happened so fast she could hardly believe it. After two months of waiting, waiting, she had finally found a note from Jan informing her that he would be by her flat to fix the heat. The details were sparse- be sure to have everything tidy so he could work, he would arrive between 13:00 and 20:00, she must be present or else he would have to reschedule in a month. Kate did all that and more, even setting out a lovely dinner with candles on her IKEA lawn table she collected from one of her friends when his start-up job went under and forced him to move back to the United States. Thank God she was part of the EU and didn’t have to worry about being deported if she lost her job and visa status!
But it was now 21:00. The candles had nearly guttered out, she ended up eating the entire meal by herself, and was seriously considering calling the Hausmeister- when there was a knock on the door. Gathering the quilt closer to herself, she shuffled to the front door and opened it. There he was- standing 5’5”, wearing a plaid button up shirt, and traditional Lederhosen. Around his waist was a tool belt- Kate knew he meant business.
“You are problems with heating device having?” Jan asked in a voice as rough as his hands.
“Yes! Thank you, finally- it’s so cold here.”
“I fix. Please show me where heating problem is?”
Kate thought for a moment- was he asking to help fix her heating problem, or her heating problem?
“The radiator is just in here,” she said, deciding the former.
Jan entered without wiping his feet. The gravel he spread on the icy sidewalk now spread on her floor as he made his way to the bedroom/living room/kitchen/bathroom that was her flat. He knelt in front of the radiator, making a series of grunting noises as he analyzed the problem. While he did, Kate admired his features- his sloped shoulders, his receding and sweaty hairline, his sausage fingers working at the radiator knob. She wondered how those fingers felt when working on her-
“Ok. I fix now. Please, you allow me a moment to have.”
With brute force he yanked off the knob and revealed a bolt. Using a wrench, he gave it a few quick turns, then placed the knob back on. As he began to slowly turn the knob, Kate felt a rising warmth as well. Whether it was from the radiator or something else, she could not decide.
“Problem is fix. Heat was not turned on. Heat turned on now.”
“Oh,” Kate said, flustered, “You mean it was just a matter of… turning a knob?”
“Yes. But problem is now closed. You are heating now having.” He began to rise, placing his tools back in his tool belt.
“I must find some way of thanking you Jan-“
“…Herr Schmidt. I prepared a meal, I thought we could share it… but that was some time ago.”
“Nein, that is no problem. I have already eaten.”
“Perhaps… a glass of wine, then?”
“I have already three beers. I do not require more alcohol. Thank you.”
Jan made his way to the door, the snow he had tracked in already melting with the repaired radiator operating at full capacity. Kate began to feel herself flush. It was now or never.
“Herr Schmidt,” she began, “I want you. Please. Put your hands on me like a Bavarian at Oktoberfest, or a Rhinelander at Karneval, or really any German at any festival where there is drinking involved, which is pretty much all of them.”
Jan stopped in his literal tracks. He breathed in, then let out a sigh as his head began to sink.
“Frau Kate… it cannot be. I know that you have attraction. This is the life of a Hausmeister. Always there is the tenants attempting to seduce me. When I was young man I had many Hausfraurn. I repaired radiators from morning until night!” He placed his hand on her cheek. “This hand- it has held many cheeks.” He pulled off his tool belt. “This belt- it has been on many waists!” He put her fingers on his moustache. “This moustache- it has been on many other moustaches. But I am old man- nearly 40, and knowing my place in German society. Now- I fix the radiator because it is work, I leave angry note because it is work, and I yell at immigrant family because I enjoy.”
Kate lowered her eyes. “Is there nothing I can do to convince you to stay?”
“Nein. My life is now an organized monotony. It will be like this until I am 60 and can retire to my garden house on outskirts of city, where I will watch football and drink beer until my stomach explodes.”
As he opened the door to leave, Kate asked, “When will I see you again, Herr Schmidt?”
Jan met her gaze.
“If you desire to see me again, put your recyclables in the wrong bin and I will find you.”
And with that final glance, Jan left her apartment- and her heart. From time to time, Kate would place her white glass in the green glass bin. And from time to time, Jan would leave a stern note informing her of the cost of incorrectly sorted recyclables. Kate took these notes and placed them on the ceiling above her bed so that she may look upon them while lying in her bed as the radiator ran at full blast because she couldn’t figure out how to turn it down after he left that fateful night.
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