The envelope, brown and oversized, was lying on the lobby floor underneath the row of mail slots along the lobby wall. Mara, who had been out buying rolls, had just walked through the archway and up the step when she saw it, the brown envelope propped against the wall. No need to switch on the hallway light for this one. She could read the label fine: Mara Strum, Grossbrunnen Strasse 34. She knew what this was. This was not a good way to start the day.
First off, there was the mailman. He couldn’t just knock on the door? Okay, she hadn’t even been home when he made the delivery, and this was how some post arrived—especially the post too big for the cubbies —but he couldn’t even leave a note or something? Then there was the issue of the envelope itself. The same goddamn envelope that had been sent to her for the last three years, for as long as she’d been in university, with the same damn questions. As if anything had changed.
At the foot of the staircase Mara reached into her pocket for her keys and then started up the stairs to her apartment. The stairs at Grossbrunnen Strasse weren’t as steep as the ones at her last place. Plus, they were wider. The plant was the best thing, though. Because each floor looked nearly identical, it was easy to lose track of which floor was which on the way up. But she always knew she was about to reach her floor, the fifth, because a neighbor had placed a plant on the landing between four and five. You know Germans—they love their sunlight and their plants.
The apartment was dark and quiet. By the door, she hung her coat on the coat rack and shouted “Hello.” No answer. Good, he was out. Sharing an apartment, especially with a man, wasn’t exactly an ideal situation, but there was no choice. It had to do with money. When you don’t have that much money, you don’t have the luxury of not having a roommate. Dirk slept in a small bedroom across the hall but he dominated the living room and the other rooms in the apartment, which was old but nice because of the high ceilings. He was probably out giving music lessons that morning. Mara looked around her bedroom and then down at the brown envelope in her hand. As if anything hand changed. She threw it across the room and it landed at the foot of the hamper.
The red light on her answering machine was blinking.
“Mara—I’m going to be in your neighborhood later. Should I come over? We can have tea or something. I have to go to a store first but I can come over after. Call me.”
It was Romy, Mara’s best friend. Well, Mara’s decent friend. All right, Romy was her best friend, but to be honest Romy annoyed Mara. Mara didn’t even know why sometimes. Maybe it was the way Romy never put her own dishes in the sink after she ate. Or how she still didn’t know her way around Hamburg—even after living in Hamburg her whole life. Even after 24 years, Romy still couldn’t tell you what streets to take to get to Sternschanze from Landungsbrücken, by the port, where she lived. She knew which subway to take, sure. But if you asked her if she knew the same route on foot, she’d tell you she didn’t.
Mara’s mom was next on the machine.
“Hello little one. How goes it? I’m going to be making dinner tonight—Spanish, paella. Do you want to stop by? Oh, if you need to use the printer at my job tomorrow, you have to come very early. I won’t be around if you come later. I just wanted to let you know. Okay, that’s it. Stop by for some yummy food if you want. Ciao.”
That one annoyed Mara even more. Her mom knew that she had been really tired because she had been opening at the ice cream store all week. Why the hell, then, would she tell her to get up even earlier to use the stupid printer? Things weren’t terrible enough already. No, of course they weren’t. Maybe Mara should call her mom back. “Yeah,” she’d tell her, “You know what, Mom? The goddamn envelope from the offices came today. Do you want to open it? No, go on, I think it would be a really good idea if you opened it, Mom.
The envelope was still by the hamper. Maybe she’d just call Romy back. At least, after all this bullshit today, the idea of drinking some tea still sounded nice.
Mara stood at the railing outside her door and looked all the way down five flights to the square of lobby floor. She wanted to see what kind of hand would grab the staircase banister. When she saw that it was a female’s, and then saw the edge of the coat, she knew it was Romy who was climbing the stairs. Still, Mara always liked to make sure that whomever she’d just buzzed into the lobby was the person she thought, at least while she still had the high ground.
“Well, you. How are you?” Mara said. Romy wiped her feet on the mat.
“What were you doing around here anyway?”
“Returning a shirt for my mom...” Romy took off her shoes and they both walked down the hall to the kitchen.
“No, my mom bought this shirt, which wound up being too small, at this really pretty boutique—”
“By the Schäferkamps Allee?”
“No, but have you seen how many new boutiques they’ve opened there lately?”
“Yeah, I love that.”
“Me, too. No, it was actually by this cute place near Schulterblatt. I figured I’d just go return it for her, and maybe look around a little.”
“That’s nice. You are always so sweet with your mamacita, Romy-litta.” Romy giggled. Mara noticed that Romy had lost some weight. She hadn’t seen it by the door, but Romy definitely had lost a kilo or so, which probably had to do with her not drinking Guinness every day like she had been when she was abroad in Ireland. Or was it because her hair was down?
“So what did you want to tell me?” Romy said.
Mara got up and took the teapot off the burner even though it wasn’t exactly whistling yet. She poured the hot water into the two cups on the table.
“I don’t know. I just feel like shit.”
“I don’t know. You know how I told you my new semester starts in October? I’ve got to take care of all this shit with the offices. The German offices. They want all this information from me.”
“Yeah, but that’s normal. Right?” Romy said. “They are going to give you money, though, right? I mean, they had before so…”
“Yeah, I know. But it just makes me feel like shit having to go through them. I fucking can’t stand my mom for...ugh! I don’t know. Dumb cow.
“Mara. Don’t be so mean. You shouldn’t say that about your mom.”
“Yeah, it’s easy for you to say. Your mom pays for your school, right? Right, because you have the money, which is fine. I’d be happy if I had the money, too. I know I’d probably never be having conversations like these, but—”
“No, I understand.”
“Anyway, I just can’t stand it, you know? It’s just like saying, ‘Strip yourself naked and show us what you got.’ It’s like the offices put me down so bad when they do this shit. They did it to my mom, too, you know. I told you. When she was really having a hard time, when things were really bad. I told you about that one-euro-a-day job she had, cleaning. That was crazy. One goddamn euro.”
“But the state supplemented her, right?”
“Still! You’re earning one fucking euro a day. Do you know how much that bothers you? And then they check up on your every move. They want you to submit all your paperwork, all your receipts, all your bills.”
“I know.” Romy put her teacup down. “But just get it over with.”
“Yeah, well, what else am I supposed to do, you know?”
“And that’s the only way that you can get money? Like, I mean, if you don’t…then you don’t…”
“Right, if I don’t prove it, then I don’t get shit.”
“So when do you have to have it in by?”
“Did you get it yet?”
“Yes, of course I did. It’s in my bedroom. I just threw it on the ground.”
“Well, you should do it, so...”
“Yeah...let’s just talk about something else. I don’t feel like talking about this anymore...”
The sunlight was pouring in through the window by the bed. For some reason, Mara sat there and watched the whole time. She watched Romy slowly cross the street, walk up the block and then disappear around the corner at the intersection. Romy said that she wanted to go meet up with her boyfriend, Dennis, which was fine, but now Mara didn’t know what to do exactly.
She lied down on the bed and looked up at the poster on the wall. “The Kiss” by Robert Doisneau, 1950. Such a great picture. So simple. Just a guy kissing a girl on a busy street in Paris...but really kissing her. Exactly: If you really love someone, you show it—no matter what. Mara looked around her room. The walls looked incredibly white because of the strong sun but the laundry on the line was drying well. The passing cars outside rumbled over the cobblestones. She was bored.
She read the movie titles on the spines of the DVDs, which were on the rack near the dresser: “Paris, Je’taime”—no; “Love Me if You Dare”—no; “What a Girl Wants”—no; “Together we Are Less Alone”—hmm...no. Yeah, she was definitely bored.
The envelope was still lying there by the hamper. Mara rolled her eyes and then got out of bed to go pick it up. For a second she pretended that a friend had sent this envelope and it contained a long letter on thick paper from some faraway place, perhaps the Near East. The handwriting would be curly and the message would be concerning the difficulties of finding the exotic brass trinket that Mara had requested as a souvenir. But no. This letter in the brown envelope was concerning something else:
Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz. Federal aid for students.
She opened it. There were the papers—really, just a small packet—that she needed to fill out if she wanted to get money from the state that semester. And she needed the money—she needed that aid. She hated to say it, but she did. She needed it to pay tuition, to pay rent, to eat, to do everything that a living, breathing university student in Germany does. Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz. The word was long by even German standards. No wonder almost everyone abbreviated it. They called it Bafög. But even that sounded ugly, “bah fuhg.”
Mara sat at her desk and took out a pen. The first few pages were easy. Address, employment history, current boss’ name if applicable, phone numbers, university details. The first few pages were always easy. The form at the end less so. And she knew it’d be there. It was there every other year, and Germans don’t like variation.
There it was.
She printed her name on the very first line at the top of the page, Mara Hellblau Strum. Right next to that, they wanted her reference number, 700103.
The title was in bold and was underlined:
“Statement regarding a parent’s failure to fill out Form 3 due to ignorance of that parent’s whereabouts”
She read on, to the beginning of the sworn text:
“I know that I am first and foremost required under the law to furnish a Form 3 detailing both my parents’ personal data and financial affairs in order to be granted federal aid to study."
“However, I am not able to provide a complete form because I’m ignorant of the whereabouts of my...”
Mara checked the first box. “Father.”
“I haven’t been able to locate my parent since...”
Yeah, Mara knew. She was supposed to write some sort of year here. But her circumstances were a little different.
“My whole life.”
“My parents were 1) never married or 2) married to each other until...”
That space after 2 was reserved for yet another year, the one your parents broke up if they’d been married. Mara chose 1.
She put her pen down for a second. She wanted to call up her mom right at that exact moment, call her up and yell at her, just scream at her: “You fill this crap out.” And if it all wasn’t bad enough already, the offices were asking for more information this year.
“I undertook the following unsuccessful efforts to try and determine the current address of my missing parent:”
There were only two lines to answer this one, so Mara wrote really, really, really damn small.
“Well, since my father’s name is Gustave and there are about 20,000 Gustaves in France—I know, I’ve looked at phone books—and since I don’t know his last name, and since I don’t even know what city in France he lives in or came from—or if he even still lives in France—and since my mother never wrote down his last name, and since he stopped writing me letters when I was 2, and since we have no idea what shipping company he worked for when he met my mom at the port in 1986, I would have to say it’s a little difficult for me to determine his address or even try to.”
Then Mara wrote something she knew the German offices wouldn’t be happy about:
“You try and find one kernel of corn in a cornfield.”
What else did they want?
“My relatives and any other personal contacts believe that this is the last known address of my mother/father...”
Mara just wrote “France.” She then checked another box:
“I have never received financial support from the parent in question.”
“I assure that everything written on this form is true and complete and I will immediately report any new developments if the situation changes.”
Mara signed her name and filled in the date and place of her signing.
Mara Hellblau Strum, 14 September, 2010; Hamburg, Germany.
She took out her own envelope, licked the sweet flap and sealed it. She was going to put it in the bin downstairs for outgoing mail. But that would be too long. She went to the post office to mail it. She did it that very same day.