Hausfrau: A Novel - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Hausfrau: A Novel

(The Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to present an excerpt* from Hausfrau: A Novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum. “Sexy and insightful, this gorgeously written novel opens a window into one woman’s desperate soul.” – People.  Hausfrau is available in Baltimore at the Johns Hopkins University Bookstore (Barnes & Noble) and online at Amazon.)

 

ANNA WAS A GOOD WIFE, MOSTLY.

It was mid-afternoon, and the train she rode first wrenched then eased around a bend in the track before it pulled into Bahnhof Dietlikon at thirty-four past the hour, as ever. It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time. The S8 originated in Pfäffikon, a small town thirty kilometers away. From Pfäffikon, its route sliced upward along the shores of the Zürichsee, through Horgen on the lake’s west bank, through Thalwil, through Kilchberg. Tiny towns in which tiny lives were led. From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led. Thus the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans. Dietlikon’s bus didn’t run into the city. Taxicabs were expensive and impractical. And while the Benz family owned a car, Anna didn’t drive. She did not have a license.

So her world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives, by the willingness of Bruno, Anna’s husband, or Ursula, Bruno’s mother, to drive her places unreachable by bus, and by the engine of her own legs and what distance they could carry her, which was rarely as far as she’d have liked to go.

But Swiss trains really do run on time and Anna managed with minimal hassle. And she liked riding the trains; she found a lulling comfort in the way they rocked side to side as they moved forward.

Edith Hammer, another expatriate, once told Anna that there was only one reason the Swiss trains ever ran late.

“When someone jumps in front of one.”

FRAU DOKTOR MESSELRI ASKED Anna if she had ever considered or attempted suicide. “Yes,” Anna admitted to the first question. And to the second, “Define ‘attempt.’?”

ESSBAUM_HausfrauDoktor Messerli was blond, small-bodied, and of an ambiguous but late middle age. She saw clients in an office on Tritt-ligasse, a cobbled, lightly trafficked street just west of Zürich’s art museum. She’d studied medical psychiatry in America but had received her analytic training at the Jung Institute in Küsnacht, a Zürich municipality not less than seven kilometers away. Swiss by birth, Doktor Messerli nonetheless spoke an impeccable, if heavily accented, English. Her w’s masqueraded as v’s and her vowels were as open and elongated as parabolic arches: Vhat dooo yooo sink, Anna? she’d often ask (usually when Anna was least likely to give an honest answer).

There was a television commercial that promoted a well-known language school. In the ad, a novice naval radio operator is shown to his post by his commanding officer. Seconds into his watch the receiver pings. “Mayday! Mayday!” a markedly American voice grates through the speaker. “Can you hear us? We are sinking! We are sinking!” The operator pauses then leans toward his transmitter and replies, quite graciously, “Dis is dee Germ-ahn Coast Guard.” And then: “Vhat are yooo sinking about?”

Anna would invariably shrug a sluggard’s shrug and speak the only words that seemed worth speaking. “I don’t know.”

Except, of course, Anna most always did.

IT WAS A DRIZZLY afternoon. Swiss weather is mutable, though rarely extreme in Kanton Zürich, and typically not in September. It was September, for Anna’s sons had already returned to school. From the station Anna walked slowly the culpable half kilometer up Dietlikon’s center street, lingering over shop windows, biding small bits of time. All postcoital euphorics had evaporated, and she was left with the reins of ennui, slack in her hand. This wasn’t a feeling she was new to. It was often like this, a languor that dragged and jaded. The optometrist’s on-sale eyeglass display dulled her. She yawned at the Apotheke’s pyramid of homeopathic remedies. The bin of discount dishtowels by the SPAR bored her nearly beyond repair.

Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days.

Is that true? Anna thought. That can’t be entirely true. It wasn’t. An hour earlier Anna lay naked, wet and open atop a stranger’s bed in an apartment in Zürich’s Niederdorf district, four stories above the old town’s wending alleys and mortared stone streets upon which kiosks vended doner kebabs and bistros served communal pots of melted Emmental.

What little shame I had before is gone, she thought.

“IS THERE A DIFFERENCE between shame and guilt?” Anna asked.

“Shame is psychic extortion,” Doktor Messerli answered. “Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent. The only confidence she will have will be in her failures. You will never convince her otherwise.”

IT WAS ALMOST 3:00 P.M. when Anna reached her sons’ school. Primarschule Dorf was positioned next to the town square between the library and a three-hundred-year-old house. A month earlier on the Swiss national holiday, the square was thick with citizens eating sausages and swaying like drunkards to the live music of a folk band under a sky made bright with fireworks. During army maneuvers, soldiers parked supply trucks in sloppy diagonals next to the square’s central fountain, which on summer days would be filled with splashing, naked children whose mothers sat on nearby benches reading books and eating yogurt. Bruno had finished his reserve duty years earlier. All that was left of the experience was an assault rifle in the basement. As for Anna, she didn’t care for paperbacks and when her sons wanted to swim she took them to the city pool.

That day, the traffic in the square was thin. A trio of women chatted in front of the library. One pushed a stroller, another held a leash at the end of which panted a German shepherd, and a final one simply stood with empty hands. They were mothers waiting on their children and they were younger than Anna by a factor of ten years. They were milky and buoyant in places where Anna felt curdled and sunken. They wore upon their faces, Anna thought, a luminous ease of being, a relaxed comportment, a native glow.

Anna rarely felt at ease inside her skin. I am tight-faced and thirty-seven years, Anna thought. I am the sum of all my twitches. One mother tossed her a wave and a genuine, if obligatory, smile.

SHE’D MET THIS STRANGER in her German class. But Anna – his cock’s been in your mouth, she reminded herself. He’s not really a stranger anymore. And he wasn’t. He was Archie Sutherland, Scotsman, expatriate, and, like Anna, language student. Anna Benz, Language Student. It was Doktor Messerli who had encouraged her to take the German course (and, by a backspin of redoubtable irony, it was Bruno who’d insisted she see a psychotherapist: I’ve had enough of your fucking misery, Anna. Go fix yourself, is what he’d said to her). Doktor Messerli then handed Anna a schedule of classes and said, “It’s time you steer yourself into a trajectory that will force you into participating more fully with the world around you.” The Doktor’s affected speech, while condescending, was correct. It was time. It was past time.

By the end of that appointment and with some more pointed cajoling, Anna conceded and agreed to enroll in a beginner’s German class at the Migros Klubschule, the very class she should have taken when, nine years prior, she arrived in Switzerland, tongue-tied, friendless, and already despairing of her lot.

An hour earlier Archie had called to Anna from his kitchen: Would she take a coffee? A tea? Something to eat? Was there anything she needed? Anything? Anything at all? Anna dressed cautiously, as if thorns had been sewn into the seams of her clothes.

From the street below, she heard the rising cries of children returning to school post-lunch and the voices of American sightseers who grumped about the pitch of the hill atop which Zürich’s Grossmünster was built. The cathedral is a heavy building, medieval gray and inimitable, with two symmetric towers that rise flush against the church’s façade and jut high above its vaulted roof like hare’s ears at attention.

Or cuckold’s horns.

“WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN a need and a want?”

“A want is desirable, though not essential. A need is something without which you cannot survive.” The Doktor added, “If you cannot live without something, you won’t.”

ANYTHING AT ALL? Like Doktor Messerli, Archie spoke a magnificently accented English intoned not by the shape–shifting consonants of High Alemannic, but by words that both roiled and wrenched open. Here an undulant r, there a queue of vowels rammed into one another like a smithy’s bellows pressed hotly closed. Anna drew herself to men who spoke with accents. It was the lilt of Bruno’s nonnative English that she let slide its thumb, its tongue into the waistband of her panties on their very first date (that, and the Williamsbirnen Schnaps, the pear tinctured eau-de-vie they drank themselves stupid with). In her youth Anna dreamed soft, damp dreams of the men she imagined she would one day love, men who would one day love her. She gave them proper names but indistinct, foreign faces: Michel, the French sculptor with long, clay-caked fingers; Dmitri, the verger of an Orthodox church whose skin smelled of camphor, of rockrose, of sandalwood resin and myrrh; Guillermo, her lover with matador hands. They were phantom men, girlhood ideations. But she mounted an entire international army of them.

It was the Swiss one she married.

If you cannot live without something, you won’t.

Despite Doktor Messerli’s suggestion that she enroll in these classes, Anna did know an elementary level of German. She got around. But hers was a German remarkable only in how badly it was cultivated and by the herculean effort she had to summon in order to speak it. For nine years, though, she’d managed with rudimentary competence. Anna had purchased stamps from the woman at the post office, consulted in semi-specifics with pediatricians and pharmacists, described the haircuts she desired to stylists, haggled prices at flea markets, made brief chitchat with neighbors, and indulged a pair of affable though persistent Zeugen Jehovas who, each month, arrived on her doorstep with a German-language copy of The Watchtower. Anna had also, though with less frequency, given directions to strangers, adapted recipes from cooking programs, taken notes when the chimney sweep detailed structural hazards of loose mortar joints and blocked flues, and extracted herself from citations when, upon the conductor’s request, she could not produce her rail pass for validation.

But Anna’s grasp of grammar and vocabulary was weak, her fluency was choked, and idioms and proper syntax escaped her completely. Occurring monthly, at least, were dozens of instances in which she commended a task into Bruno’s hands. It was he who dealt with local bureaucracy, he who paid the insurance, the taxes, the house note. It was he who filed the paperwork for Anna’s residency permit. And it was Bruno who handled the family’s finances, for he was employed as a mid-level management banker at Credit Suisse. Anna didn’t even have a bank account.

DOKTOR MESSERLI ENCOURAGED ANNA to take a more active role in family matters.

“I should,” Anna said. “I really should.” She wasn’t even sure she knew what Bruno did at work.

THERE WAS NO REASON Anna couldn’t join the mothers chatting in the square, no rule forbidding it, nothing that prevented her from sharing in their small talk. Two of them she knew by sight and one by name, Claudia Zwygart. Her daughter Mar-lies was in Charles’s class at school.

Anna didn’t join them.

BY WAY OF EXPLANATION, Anna offered the following self-summary: I am shy and cannot talk to strangers.

Doktor Messerli sympathized. “It is difficult for foreigners to make Swiss friends.” The problem runs deeper than a lack of command of German, itself problem enough. Switzerland is an insular country, sealed at its boundaries and neutral by choice for two centuries. With its left hand it reaches out to refugees and seekers of asylum. With its right, it snatches freshly laundered monies and Nazi gold. (Unfair? Perhaps. But when Anna was lonely she lashed out.) And like the landscape upon which they’ve settled, the Swiss themselves are closed at their edges. They tend naturally toward isolation, conspiring to keep outsiders at a distance by appointing not one, two, or three, but four whole national languages. Switzerland’s official name is in yet a fifth: Confoederatio Helvetica. Most Swiss speak German however, and it is German that’s spoken in Zürich.

But it’s not precisely German.

Written German in Switzerland is standard schoolbook Hochdeutsch. But the Swiss speak Schwiizerdütsch, which isn’t standard at all. There is no set orthography. There is no pronunciation key. There is no agreed-upon vocabulary. It varies from canton to canton. And the language itself leaps from the back of the throat like an infected tonsil trying to escape. This is only a minor exaggeration. To the non-Swiss ear it sounds as if the speaker is construing made-up words from the oddest rhythms and the queerest clipped consonants and the most perturbing arrangement of gaping, rangy vowels. It is impervious to all outside attempts to learn it, for every word is shibboleth.

Anna spoke the barest minimum of Schwiizerdütsch.

ANNA DIDN’T JOIN THE other mothers. Instead, she scuffed the sole of a brown clog against the sidewalk’s curb. She fiddled with her hair and pretended to watch an invisible bird flying overhead.

It is hard to love a man outside his native tongue. And yet, it was the Swiss one Anna married.

The school bell rang and children spilled from the building and into the courtyard. Anna noticed Victor first, roughhousing with two friends. Charles followed close behind, caught in a throng of jabbering children. He ran to Anna when he spotted her, hugged her, and began prattling about his day without Anna’s prompting. Victor lingered with his pals and dragged his feet. This was Victor being Victor – standoffish and moderately aloof. Anna indulged his reticence and settled on just mussing his hair. Victor grimaced.

Anna experienced her first pinpricks of guilt as they walked toward the house (she couldn’t really call them pangs). They were scattershot and nondebilitating. This level of indifference was fairly new to her pathology. It rendered her queerly self-satisfied.

The Benzes lived no more than a hundred meters away from Primarschule Dorf. Their house would be visible from the schoolyard but for the Kirchgemeindehaus, the nineteenth-century timber-framed parish hall of the village church, which stood exactly between the two. Anna did not usually walk her children home. But it was an hour after the fact and she still felt Archie’s hands on her breasts; a moderate remorse was in order.

They moved to Switzerland in June of ninety-eight. Anna, pregnant and exhausted, had no wherewithal for debate. She telegraphed her compliance in long, silent sighs and hid her many anxieties inside one of her heart’s thousand chambers. She looked for a bright side, a glass half full. Who, after all, wouldn’t snatch the chance to live in Europe were it offered? In high school Anna locked herself in her room most nights and obsessed over the many elsewheres her men would one day take her. In those limp, submissive dreams she gave her men entire charge. Bruno had worked for Credit Suisse for years. They wondered, Would he take a Zürich post? Anna was married and pregnant and more or less in love. That was enough. This will be enough, she thought.

And so they moved to Dietlikon. It was close enough to Zürich to be serviced by two city trains. It was near a large shopping center. Its roads were safe and its houses were well kept and the town’s motto held great promise. It was printed on the website and on pamphlets. It was posted on the sign in front of the Gemeinde, and noted on the first page of the Kurier, Dietlikon’s small weekly newspaper: Menschlich, offen, modern. Personal. Open. Modern. Anna poured all optimism into those three words.

Dietlikon was also Bruno’s hometown. His Heimatort. The place to which the prodigal returned. Anna was twenty-eight. Bruno at thirty-four strode effortlessly back into his native space. Easy enough to do – Ursula lived just a short walk away on Klotenerstrasse in the house in which she raised Bruno and his sister Daniela. Oskar, Bruno’s father, was over a decade dead.

Bruno argued a good case. Living in Dietlikon would merit their children (We’re having more? Are you sure? They hadn’t even really deliberated the first) a wholesome, unbounded childhood, safe and stable. Once she settled into the idea of it (and after Bruno swore that all future children would be discussed prior to their conception), Anna was able to concede the move’s virtues. So when it did happen, rarely in those first months, that she grew lonesome or wistful for people, things, or places she never dreamed she would miss, she consoled herself by imagining the baby’s face. Will I have a ruddish-cheeked Heinz to call me Mueti? A Heidi of my own with blond and braided hair? And Bruno and Anna were, more or less, in love.

THE QUALIFICATION “MORE or less” troubled Doktor Messerli.

Anna explained. “Is that not always the case? Given any two people in a relationship, one will always love more, the other less. Right?”

* * * * *

AT EIGHT, VICTOR WAS Anna’s eldest child. Charles was six. They were indeed the ruddish-toned, milk-fed children Anna had imagined. They were ash blond and hazel eyed. They were all boy, rowdy, absolutely brothers, and without a doubt the sons of the man Anna had married.

“BUT YOU HAD MORE children, yes? It must not have been entirely terrible.”

Of course not. It hadn’t been terrible at all. Not always. Not everything had not always been terrible. Anna doubled her negatives, tripled them. Ten months earlier Anna had given birth to a black-haired, bisque-skinned daughter whom she named Polly Jean.

And so they were the Benz family and they lived in the town of Dietlikon, in the district of Bülach, in the canton of Zürich. The Benzes: Bruno, Victor, Charles, Polly, Anna. A plain and mostly temperate household who lived on a street called Rosenweg – Rose Way – a private road that cul-de-sacked directly in front of their house, which itself lay at the foot of a slow, sloping hill that crested a half kilometer behind their property and leveled off at the base of the Dietlikon woods.

Anna lived on a dead end, last exit road.

But the house was nice and their yard was larger than nearly all the other ones around them. There were farmhouses to their immediate south, whose properties abutted fields of corn, sunflower, and rapeseed. Eight fully mature Apfelbäume grew in their side yard and in August when the trees were pregnant with ripe, heavy apples, fruit tumbled from the branches to the ground in a thump-tha-thump-thump rhythm that was nearly consistent with light rainfall. They had raspberry bushes and a strawberry patch and red currants and black currants both. And while the vegetable garden in the side yard was generally left untended, the Benzes enjoyed, behind a thigh-high picket fence in front of their property, a spate of rosebushes, blooms of every shade. Everything comes up roses on Rosenweg. Sometimes Anna thought this to herself.

Victor and Charles barreled through the front door. They were greeted before they passed through the boot room by a dour-faced Ursula pressing her finger to her lips. Your sister’s asleep!

Anna was grateful for Ursula – really she was. But Ursula, who was usually never blatantly unkind to Anna, still treated her as a foreign object, a means to the end of her son’s happiness (if indeed “happy” was the word for what Bruno was, and Anna was almost sure it wasn’t) and the vessel by which her grandchildren – whom she deeply loved – were carried into the world. The help that Ursula offered was for the children’s sake, not Anna’s. She had been a high school English teacher for thirty years. Her English was stilted but fluent and she conceded to speak it whenever Anna was in the room, which sometimes Bruno didn’t even do. Ursula shooed her grandsons into the kitchen for a snack.

“I’m taking a shower,” Anna said. Ursula raised an eyebrow but then lowered it as she followed Victor and Charles into the kitchen. It was no concern of hers. Anna took a towel from the linen closet and locked the bathroom door behind her.

She needed the shower. She smelled like sex.

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

*Excerpted from HAUSFRAU by Jill Alexander Essbaum. Copyright © 2015 by Jill Alexander Essbaum. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


About the author

Jill Alexander Essbaum

Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of several collections of poetry and her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, as well as its sister anthology, The Best American Erotic Poems, 1800-Present. She is the winner of the Bakeless Poetry Prize and recipient of two NEA literature fellowships. A member of the core faculty at the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program, she lives and writes in Austin, Texas. Contact the author.
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