Maundy Thursday, 29 March 2018. The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof was flooded with mild evening sunlight, and the passengers waiting on platform 9 cast long shadows. At 18.30, Tanja Arnheim arrived on the 375 express from Berlin, punctual to the minute. When Jerome Daimler, who was holding a paper bag of fresh pastries, saw her get off from somewhere near the restaurant car, he wondered for a moment whether he should walk up the platform to meet her, but then decided it looked more charming if he just stayed where he was. Tanja’s straight hair was waxed flat against her head and tucked behind her ears. She was wearing headphones and wheeling her small suitcase straight towards Jerome without seeing him. Jerome couldn’t help but smile, and when Tanja finally spotted him among the milling passengers, she beamed as well, which was always something of a revelation for Jerome; you might assume Tanja Arnheim was someone whose expression never changed. And then, suddenly: lively, shining eyes; straight teeth. Tanja took off her headphones, and they kissed. ‘How’s it going – are you hungry?’ That was a question Jerome didn’t really have to ask; Tanja was usually hungry, and after a four-hour train journey she was sure to be.
‘I ate in the restaurant car. The Maultaschen were actually okay.’
They kissed again.
‘Do you want to go straight home? Or shall we get a drink somewhere around here?’ Jerome winked. And Tanja winked, too. ‘Let’s have a drink at home.’
They walked hand in hand towards the U4. In the past, it had been a rare thing for Jerome to hold a girlfriend’s hand as they walked through crowds. But with Tanja, he no longer thought twice about it. A small queue had formed in front of a stall selling freshly squeezed fruit juices, and there were still customers visiting the enormous newsagent next to Burger King to buy glossy magazines.
On her last visit, Tanja had told him that she thought it was much more fun to send short videos and photos from the periphery than from the capital city, which everyone had seen. She often took fast trains across Germany, Austria and Switzerland for work, and she tried to make at least one long-distance trip a year as well. She thought a lot of people wasted their potential by not leaving their own little worlds often enough. Jerome had agreed with her.
In the busy U-Bahn carriage they sat side by side and kissed with their eyes closed. Jerome was infatuated with the role of the blissfully happy heterosexual partner. One moment he was turning the eastbound U4 into his own personal movie set, and the next he forgot his surroundings completely. During a pause in the kissing, he placed his right arm around Tanja’s comparatively broad shoulders with an extravagant gesture and gave her a tender smile. He realised that he didn’t have full control over his facial expressions and took that as a good sign. Jerome liked the thought that if he could see himself from the outside, here on the U4, he might find himself insufferable. Liking a thought that would unsettle other people was typical of the new Jerome, who now drew a playful line between an inner personality that only he himself could know, and an outer personality assembled from qualities that other people attributed to him. He could recognise his outer personality in photos and in the mirror, where he automatically saw himself through other people’s eyes, through their assumptions and associations. His inner personality was something he felt most strongly when he closed his eyes once a day to pretend he was meditating. In the past eleven months, he hadn’t once achieved a state he would have described as ‘classically meditative’ – he had no interest in emptying his mind – but he still found his attempts at meditation worthwhile. He believed that the voice that spoke within him then, which reminded him of his laptop’s read-aloud function, was the voice of his inner personality. Since Jerome had come to know this voice, he’d almost stopped worrying about how other people saw him, and so there was nothing to stop him from occasionally sporting conspicuous accessories, like the orange vintage Oakleys he’d worn the Friday evening before last.
Jerome was surprised to see that comparatively few passengers in the U4 were looking at their phones. A teenage girl was staring at Tanja. She was noticeably well made up. ‘Do you think she follows you on Insta?’ Jerome whispered. Tanja had developed a sure sense for the attention of strangers. ‘She just likes my shoes,’ she said. Since Tanja’s short novel NovoPanopticon had been published three and a half years ago, the occasional person with an interest in the arts had started to recognise her face. Her book was about four male friends who have a meaningful virtual-reality experience in the dormitory of a disused rural school – and so, among other things, she had been invited onto Markus Lanz’s talk show as an expert in VR.
Tanja had accepted the misunderstanding with thanks, but once she was on the show, she’d pointed out that she only knew as much about VR as anyone else who had looked up the term. This was either coquettish and arrogant or refreshingly honest, depending on whom you asked. Liam, the main character in Tanja’s miniature novel, creates a mindfulness VR, through which his friends increasingly manage to control their addiction to sexual validation – at least until a jealous ex-boyfriend hacks the system and starts playing the protagonists off against one another. Jerome had laughed a great deal as he was reading it. He had only read the numerous critiques of the book once he’d got to know Tanja personally. It seemed that a lot of different people had found a lot of different things in NovoPanopticon. A few fans even went so far as to say that reading it had changed their lives. And those who didn’t like the book seemed weirdly proud of not liking it; a distaste for something that had been meaningful to other people gave them an obscure sense of superiority. Two women had written essays criticising the fact that Tanja was a woman writing about men. And there was an article by a junior professor which said that Tanja Arnheim, whose facial features were repeatedly described as striking, was a kind of icon for gay academics between the ages of twenty and forty-five.
Jerome had parked his one-year-old rented Tesla at the Kruppstraße U-Bahn station, not far from the Hessen-Center – an indoor shopping mall on the outskirts of the city, which held countless, largely positive childhood memories for Jerome. He had often gone for Chinese food there with his mother at the start of the school holidays, though the Chinese restaurant was now a thing of the past. Jerome thought he’d last had lunch in the dimly lit restaurant with the aquarium in 2004. It was a place from another age and yet Jerome’s memories of it were very much alive. During Tanja’s last visit, they had wandered through the Hessen-Center together, and he’d talked to her about how much the mall had changed, and the extent to which these changes reflected a transformation of consumer behaviour in general. In the 1990s, a visit to an out-of-town shopping centre still had a certain attraction even for well-off city-dwellers, which meant that the Hessen-Center was able to house more upmarket boutiques, as well as restaurants you wanted to spend more than half an hour in. In the course of his monologue, Jerome had uttered the words crispy sweet-and-sour duck in a way that suggested a kind of burning nostalgia, and as he was speaking, it occurred to him that he sometimes told Tanja things that weren’t necessarily of any interest to her. Tanja had replied that this was precisely what she liked about him. So few people, she said, dared to talk about genuine memories, since by their nature those stories were short on punchlines – and she thought this was part of a structural problem that was closely tied to the global economy. ‘But my boyfriend Jerome Daimler is evidently immune to problems of this sort,’ she said in the Hessen-Center, smiling at Jerome. Jerome felt a warm sensation in his belly and kissed Tanja on the lips.
Jerome had never felt immune at any point in his life. He had always been preoccupied with the world around him. But in the noughties, when he was in his early to mid-twenties, other people’s concerns had begun to weigh more heavily on him. When he used to see a mother arguing with her child, he would first consider how he would react as a child, and shortly thereafter, what arguments he would make as a mother. He’d found considering both these things debilitating. But now Jerome didn’t think about anything when he saw a mother and child arguing. He had the confidence to distance himself from these situations, though without sacrificing empathy – quite the reverse: he now found it easier to understand other people’s troubles, he was fairer and kinder, but he no longer suffered along with them. Jerome always reminded himself of this improvement in his general attitude towards life when he was on the point of getting nostalgic. Nostalgia was just a sad reflex that sprang from a lack of ideas – his mother had told him something along these lines, in English, a little over ten years ago.
Jerome would have liked to know how many Teslas were on the roads in the Rhine-Main area, but he’d never attempted to research it – he wasn’t quite that keen to know. He had already been given a customer loyalty discount at Jenny Köhler’s Electric Rental, a new institution on the Hanauer Landstraße, although this was only the third time he’d rented a car there. Coloured pennants in the American style fluttered above its car park, and the company was staffed exclusively by young women in loose, sometimes oil-smeared uniforms. From the Tesla’s rear-view mirror hung a green air-freshener tree, printed with the loops and flourishes of Jenny Köhler’s signature. Jerome didn’t even consider moving the air freshener from his field of vision. He liked using things exactly as they were presented to him. In the same way, he’d always been a fan of subletting furnished rooms and of restaurants whose menus consisted of just a few regularly changing dishes. For a long time, he’d misconstrued this attitude as modesty, but it was rooted in a longing for order and structure, which to some degree had also sparked his interest in design. Jerome believed the drive to design was closely tied to the compulsion to tidy things up. And when everything was already specified and therefore couldn’t be tidied, it came as a huge relief. Jerome was able to trace most of his characteristics back to his own biography – even as a child, he had liked to line his toys up on the rug – but he wasn’t a fan of classic psychological approaches in general. The facts of his life were easy to state: Jerome Daimler, freelance web designer, born in November 1982 in the Holy Spirit Hospital, Frankfurt am Main, grew up a few kilometres away in Maintal, studied in Düsseldorf and The Hague, began his career in Offenbach, now once again resident in Maintal.
They didn’t hit any traffic during the short journey along the A66. The Tesla’s grey-and-white interior smelled the way new cars always used to. Tanja connected her phone to the stereo via Bluetooth, and played her Spotify playlist of the week, which, as so often, Jerome liked more than he thought he would. ‘Good song,’ he said of one melancholy number. ‘That’s Bladee.’ Tanja checked. ‘Yes. The track’s called “Numb/Beverly Hills”.’
In the passenger seat, Tanja was now reading the Wikipedia entry on Bladee and looking at pictures of him. ‘Swedish, born 1994. Most of the photos of him are well staged, and a few really aren’t. Seems like a nice guy.’ Jerome had mentioned to Tanja before that music by younger artists generally did more for him than stuff by people who were his own age or older. ‘I’m glad it’s staying light so much later again now,’ said Tanja. Jerome knew that she didn’t say this kind of thing just to fill a gap in conversation, but because she was genuinely relieved. Her readiness to share the most ordinary thoughts was something that Jerome really liked about her.
Strangers sometimes assumed that she was under some kind of psychological strain, probably because she didn’t smile very much. But Jerome knew that Tanja was usually able to find something to be happy about. He couldn’t believe there were many people with a more positive outlook than Tanja. Her younger sister Sarah, by contrast, who was studying screenwriting in Potsdam, suffered from depression. Tanja had once told him that people born in 1988 were particularly susceptible to mental illnesses; apparently no cohort from any other year in the eighties and nineties was prescribed antidepressants more frequently. But in the Arnheim family it was Tanja, born in 1988, who was usually fine, while Sarah, born in 1992, would be at acute risk of suicide if she stopped taking her medication. Tanja once described this as a statistical curiosity, and at first Jerome didn’t know what to say. Later, he said: ‘You can’t help the fact that Sarah is sad.’
A lot of the buildings in Maintal looked like they had been designed by primary-school children: symmetrical triangles sitting on top of rendered facades, with married couples inside bringing up children. Most of the little town’s houses, even those with weathered, brownish roof tiles, must have been built in the last four to six decades – this was a new world. All the same, nothing about it felt new and Jerome found this oppressive and charming at the same time. Maintal was not about emergence or regeneration; it seemed mostly to be about being left in peace, and this was a desire Jerome could understand, even if it wasn’t right at the top of his list.
He parked the hire car in the driveway of his parents’ house, a bungalow with a basement floor built in 1978, an unusual style in Maintal. The anthracite-coloured walls and the flat roof stood out from the crowd. From the age of twenty-nine, Jerome had begun to feel a kind of kinship with this building on the edge of the Hartig nature reserve. It suited him now. The fact that he still thought of it as his parents’ house he attributed above all to his essential modesty, though shame certainly also played a part in it. In purely formal terms, the bungalow was now his, though he had neither designed nor paid for it. Jerome’s father had moved back to Frankfurt, to a small flat with a view of the Iron Bridge, and his mother, who had been born and grew up in Cambridge, had spent the past three years living in Lisbon, where Jerome had been to visit her five times. Originally, both parents had planned to sell the bungalow they had bought together, and which they now regarded as a sort of midlife misunderstanding. When Jerome’s father asked him if he might like to move into it himself, it had been a kind of rhetorical question, but on Christmas Day 2016, Jerome had suddenly said: ‘Actually, why not?’
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