It was summer in Berlin and time for a family to disintegrate. Emma, 16, had refused to even pretend she was with the others because after the way Martin had treated her she wasn’t interested in patching things up, only breaking them down.
She deliberately went five paces ahead of everyone else whenever they dared sortie from the hotel to navigate the bustling metropolis that seemed to have gotten a second lease of life after the pandemic.
If only there had been a second lease for her parents, it might have gone differently, but despite Jon and Carrie walking hand in hand, Emma had no doubt that it was all for show and that the recent arguments about divorce were about to come true. They might as well just get it over with like Martin had when he dumped her – by text message – just before they were to fly out of JFK and head for her second trip to Europe.
Making out the rearguard were grandmother and her new man, Marcus Chen. Well, he wasn’t that new. This was the third time, apparently, they were a couple and Emma could never really figure out what it meant. Were they good friends who had sex? Were they lovers? Were they, well, a real couple? She wanted badly to figure it out because it would give some stability to her world. It would show her that things could be for real and forever and all the things you could read in the books, at least.
She turned left and the ugly slab of concrete that was the Bahnhof Zoo station greeted her, but she went right past it hardly bothering to look at the map on her phone. With a bit of luck, she thought, she might stumble into a jungle part of the actual zoo on the other side and become lost if she kept going without looking. Or lose the others. She almost stumbled into a truck instead, as it pulled out from the parking lot behind the station.
“Wait up, young lady,” her father called. Voice firm as always, even if joy had long since left it.
Emma reluctantly slowed, feeling more caged than the animals in the Zoo they were going to gawk at any moment now. Or so she imagined.
She suddenly felt all energy leave her. Even her anger at feeling lost and alone for the nth time wasn’t enough to keep her moving. Her heartbeat like a heavy machine and the sound of the traffic around her was like a silent dream. Dust from the park ascended in the heated afternoon, and the whole day felt tired from the lead in the air. Like it was seeping into her pores. She hated Yuma but at least they had clean air in the desert, even if it was always hot as hell to breathe this time of year.
In Berlin, the air was just heavy, and there was no redemption. It was supposed to be a marvelous chance to see an old city in Europe …
“You feeling alright?” Marcus Chen asked as he came up. They had all stopped in the parking lot as if they dared not go any further. As if there had been a crack in the collective agreement to have a conciliatory family trip to the zoo, as the first of many sights.
“I’m okay.” Emma brushed away Marcus’ hand as she felt it closing in on her shoulder.
Marcus sighed and looked at Emma’s grandmother. “Well, it’s just over there. But if you feeling like going someplace to sit down first, have a cup of coffee … ?”
“We’re fine,” Carrie said through thin lips before her own mother could answer. “Let’s go.”
“Yeah.” Emma’s father nodded but it was clear the lead had gotten into his pores as well.
Then Emma’s phone buzzed and, of course, it was from Martin. Messaging her all the way from his safe hideout in some desert suburb on the other side of the world.
Emma held the phone up and looked at it as if it was a cockroach. Then she muted it.
“Who was that?” Her father asked because he needed to ask about something that had nothing to do with the decision they had to make. To go on, into the zoo. To be tourists, normal, find something to smile at.
Her mother had looked like she wanted to ask, too, but instead, she had fallen back on her usual ask-me-no-questions demeanor, as if she was the one everything devolved around. Emma wanted to ask her many things. Like, what was going to happen with her and dad? Emma and Carrie had always been able to talk about anything, but right now that was almost non-existent, like a muted Facebook message.
Emma’s screen kept lighting up with one more message. Then another. Then she realized she was looking at it and hadn’t pushed the button that darkened the screen.
“Perhaps we should go ahead?” her grandmother suggested, smiling her wizened smile, her gray-green eyes not having lost any of their steadiness. “I’m sure Emma can find us. You have those tracking things in your fancy phones, haven’t you?”
“I’ll text you,” Emma said, not sure why she said it. She was definitely not going to forgive Martin. But she wanted to be alone.
“You can’t stay here in this … ” Her father looked around. A steady stream of cars passed them, trying to find space either to park or a way around other cars that wanted to find a way out.
“I’ll sit over there, on the bench,” Emma said and pointed.
“Let’s go,” her grandmother urged, letting her hand rest on Carrie’s shoulders that slumped a bit.
It was a done deal then, and the rest of the family were led away by grandmother, as usual, like driftwood for uncertain destinations.
Emma said the standard things she needed to say to reassure her father especially and then she was finally free. She looked at the messages:
<Can we talk?> The last one said.
Emma hesitated, then began typing:
<What is there to talk about?>
She smiled, but it was a sad smile. He had a guilty conscience because she had refused to talk to him after he broke up like that, and it was kind of sweet. Also kind of useless.
But if she refused to talk and at least try to mend some things, what then? School would be so awkward …
She gazed after the others. They were out of sight, probably standing in line somewhere in the zoo.
There were other things that had to be mended, which she had no control over. But at least she had this.
Emma typed again.
The lead felt as if it was evaporating slightly in the summer air.