by Johanna Miklos
Children have friends; adults have contacts, Mama had told me when I asked who her friends were. My introduction to what a contact is coincided with her first absence from our lives. Sep, Susanne, and I came back from school one day and Mama had “gone to see her sister.” Papa, whom we mainly saw tired or stressed from work at the dinner table, was for the first time left alone with us.
At first, my younger brother, sister, and I had fun. There was no control of our homework, what we wore to school, or when we went to bed. Then Sep fell behind in reading and his teacher sent a nasty note; Susanne got detention for indecent gym clothes; I grew tired of kitchen and laundry duties.
“Tomorrow. After school. Café Kreutzkamm,” Papa announced over dinner in our third week without Mama.
“Chocolate cake with whipped cream,” Sep immediately placed his order. At age seven, he had ambivalent feelings about family outings involving best behavior and always threw in a promise he could keep and use for barter when something else went wrong. “I won’t wipe my mouth on my sleeve. Howgh!” he sealed with a Winnetou oath. Now – the same age Papa was then, he still quotes Karl May.
“Is Mama coming?” Susanne, the fearless middle-child, asked what we all wanted to know. “I’d give anything for one of her Schnitzel dinners. Howgh!”
“Only Hannerl’s going,” Papa ignored the question about Mama. “She’s meeting Ruth Kaltwanger.”
“Senior editor at Kasper Verlag.”
“You know the senior editor?” I had been talking about becoming a writer since I was six years old and Papa had never mentioned her before.
“She’s a good contact in the publishing world. I thought, you’d like to meet her.”
Only an idiot would have said no.
Papa left the table and disappeared into his study. Sep tried to escape to his friend in the apartment below.
“Dishes. Homework. Clean neck,” Susanne commanded and sounded like a miniature version of Papa. “Then you can play Cowboys and Indians.”
I cleared the table in a trance. Kasper Verlag was Munich’s top publishing house and Papa knew the Senior Editor!
“Coffee and Baumkuchen,” Ruth Kaltwanger orderd Kreutzkamm’s specialty. I chose the same though I prefer chocolate cake like my brother. My thoughts were with my essays in the school bag at my feet.
“I wondered what you looked like,” Ruth said before I could mention my stories. “Your father’s hair. Your mother’s a blonde, right?”
“My brother and sister are fair. I have Mama’s green eyes.”
“Right,” she sighed. “There are three of you.”
The waitress brought the coffee, glasses of water, and huge slices of Baumkuchen on china plates with little silver knives and forks.
“Your father has some nerve calling me,” Ruth said. “After what he did! Some nerve!”
“Biggest coward I ever met,” she said.
My mouth went dry. What had Papa done to be called a coward by this fat, white-haired woman in a blue suit?
“You have that too – the wide-eyed innocent look,” she said stabbing her fork at me.
I felt my cheeks burn and my hand trembled as I picked up the water glass.
“Didn’t even have the guts to tell me he was getting married!” she continued. “A friend called me with the happy news. A wedding and a baby!”
A nasty suspicion formed in my mind. Could it be? Papa and this old woman? I was thirteen, Papa forty-six, and Ruth Kaltwanger — well, she seemed ancient.
“Gun-shot wedding,” she said with a full mouth.
We couldn’t agree on a date, was how Mama explained why I was born only three months after their wedding. But opposite Ruth Kaltwanger, in the elegant setting of Café Kreutzkamm, I had the sick feeling that I was going to hear a different version of the story.
“He’s up to his old tricks!” she continued her tirade against my father. My hands shook so much I had to put down the silverware.
“Now, it’s your mother’s turn to cry. Well, I don’t feel sorry for her. Not one bit. We host the Olympics, but Munich’s still a provincial town. Word gets around pretty fast about him and his women.”
To thirteen-year-old me, my father was a middle-aged man who combed his hair to cover a bald spot. I had to laugh at the idea of Papa as Dom Juan.
“You think it’s funny?” Ruth hissed. Her lipstick-smeared crooked teeth were centimeters from my face. “Let me tell you something – I loved that man. We lived together for five years. Five years! And one day – pouf! – he was gone.”
When I came home, Papa took one look at my face and never asked about the meeting. Mama returned a few days later. I told her what Ruth Kaltwanger had said and we both cried. “He didn’t mean to hurt you,” Mama said, rocking me in her arms. “Whatever your father does, he would never hurt you three.”
That, now forty years ago, was my first experience with a contact. I have treated them with caution since. And I made a promise then that I have kept: when I meet the child of an old love I am discrete and kind. Howgh!
Johanna Miklos hails from Munich, Germany. She lived in Germany, England, and France before calling New York home. She has an MFA in playwrighting and spent several years doing everything and anything from sewing costumes to directing plays and then decided to use those skills to actually make a living in other industries. Johanna has stories and plays published or forthcoming at Bewildering Stories, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Short Story America, and Corvus.