She takes the U-Bahn across town to visit him where he is cat-sitting for friends. She carries a bag containing sunscreen, a T-shirt in case it gets warm, a book she fancies reading on the sofa while the cats drift from room to room.
Why are you carrying panties around in this bag? he says. What do you think you need them for? And not even nice ones.
I don’t have any nice ones, she says.
I know that.
Well, I could need them.
Why? Why would you need them? Let alone ones that look like a tablecloth.
You know, maybe, she says.
He is not interested in activities that might cause her to need to change her panties for a second pair of dingy panties. At least they’re a string cut, she thinks.
Really, she should’ve brought a thong. Thongs are what he likes. He’s probably wearing one right now. She is too far into this relationship to inquire into why.
We’re going for a walk in the park, he says, groping further through her bag. You don’t need a book.
The Tempelhofer Park is an enormous old airfield, expanses of grass and blacktop, an S-shaped road from the terminal where planes once taxied to the runway. A wood-sided hut bears a sign claiming it’s a meteorological station. People whiz by on bikes and a guy blasting disco on his phone scissor-skates back and forth through a series of red chalk dots.
That’s really gay, he says.
You shouldn’t say shit like that, she says, but doubts that he hears her.
They come upon a fenced-off macadam lot, a half-finished colony of white plasticine-looking sheds like tiny shipping containers or luxury doghouses, each on four cement blocks with a front door and a corrugated window shade. Nobody has moved in. Yet.
Tempohome, a sign says. Some of the structures are bare frames, end and beginning at once. He takes pictures.
Something goes wrong with his phone and he curses at it.
Go fuck yourself. Dumb-ass bitch.
What are you saying that for? Don’t say stupid shit like that, she says, and hopes that he hears her.
A woman walking her bike stops to talk to them about the shelters. What do you think of these? she asks, waving an imperious arm. In the wind she keeps tucking strands of red hair behind her ears, her bright eyes scanning their faces.
She tells the woman she thinks it’s sad and disturbing.
What it is is all business, she says. Big business for the politicians.
The woman issues a disquisition about her mother, a Danish refugee after the war. All the poor refugees traipsing around Europe after the war. They were poor and these refugees are not so poor. Clearly the poor refugees were of higher quality.
And I don’t know how educated they are, the woman says, gazing down her skinny nose. What do they know about European history?
The woman asks about their parents and grandparents. She wants to bond with them, because they are white like her. Were their people refugees? she wants to know, casting an eye over their whiteness. What did they do after the war?
He tells the woman his grandfather was forced to make shoes for the Soviet occupiers and his grandfather’s brother was in the gulag for seven years.
She forgets that her great-great-great grandparents who fled Ireland penniless in 1846 would count as refugees. She could’ve impressed the woman as being of morally superior stock to the layabout middle-class refugees in their airfield plastic huts, never integrating themselves or learning a thing about the continent. She feels an odd regret as they part that she hasn’t boasted about her forebears.
Why didn’t you ever tell me your grandfather’s brother was in the gulag? she says when they turn around to go back. Her throat and her eyes swell and she tries to swallow down the snot. Quietly, without making snot noises. The sun is probably burning her face.
I want to hear your stories, she says. I ask to hear your stories but you never tell me.
Who cares? he says. I’m not even sure whose brother he was. Maybe he was my grandmother’s brother. They all had the same name.
They bicker about the untold stories he will keep away from her forever. He says she is yelling at him and imitates her in a whiny voice.
The heat presses down on her dark hair and from the trees on the periphery she hears birdsong. She squints because she never buys sunglasses and expects a future of macular degeneration.
She ponders important questions. What kind of panties would her great-great-great-grandmother have worn on the ship called The Perseverance at five months pregnant? Did they have long underwear in the gulag beneath their threadbare trousers?
Back at his friends’ flat he unlatches the kitchen window and the cats hop out into the garden and back in again, tracking across the breakfast table.
This place stinks, he says.
He pours her a glass of water and fixes her a cup of bagged darjeeling.
You need to drink more water, he says. You’re getting dehydrated. You must be hungry. Why are you dieting? You’re a bag of bones. Have a banana.
It’s always a banana. He eats them in three bites.
Inside the toilet door he has hung a sparkly pair of nylon sleep shorts beside his dirty sports socks. The filmy fabric tickles her palm, feels cool against her tongue, delicate between her teeth when she pulls. It tastes of cling film.
The average age of her panties would be four years, give or take.
MARIAN RYAN is a writer living in Berlin. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta Online, Catapult, the New York Times, Slate, and other publications. She is working on a collection of essays.