Short story: Milan/Ancona by Arnon Grunberg

by Arnon Grunberg

photo: Eva Pel

Everyone has the right to degenerate as they see fit. I had flown to Milan to meet, at one-thirty on a Tuesday afternoon, in a pastry shop on the Via Monte Napoleone, a woman I called “The Breadstick”.
At the appointed hour I found her sitting in the shop, a cappuccino in front of her.
“Hello, Breadstick,” I said. “The way others scrape the paint from their walls, so you scrape the money from my bank account. But I don’t begrudge you a thing, for you yourself go dressed only in rags.” Then I gave her my presents.
We ate cookies and drank fresh pear juice with champagne.
That first day we fucked in the hotel room, in the shower, in the bathroom, and we made an attempt in the ladies’ room of a restaurant we’d read about in the guidebook. Between dessert and coffee. But it was a failed attempt. Mostly because my right foot kept slamming against the door, making it seem as though someone had locked themselves in and was trying to get out. One lady had already shouted: “Everything okay in there?”
The Breadstick did, however, watch with interest while I urinated. “Your pee looks healthy,” she remarked.
“Do all men fuck the same?” I asked, because that kind of thing interests me, and because The Breadstick would know if anyone did.
“You fuck a little bit like a grasshopper,” she said.
When we left our room at around one in the afternoon, we would walk to a restaurant and eat a copious lunch, which also served as our breakfast. After that we’d be so tired that we had to go back to bed. We slept until a chambermaid knocked on the door to ask if she should straighten our room up for the night. We gave each other many little kisses.
On Saturday, in an unparalleled outburst of energy, The Breadstick decided to go out and buy a Dutch paper.
She came back with the NRC Handelsblad.
I was sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed and reading a book by Amos Oz.
Suddenly The Breadstick pounced over the bed like a tiger, the newspaper flapping in her hand. The Breadstick seized me by the throat and shouted: “Did you write this about me?”
She shoved a column I’d written two weeks earlier under my nose. It was about a man who comes home and finds new locks on his door, and about a poodle.
“It says here that I’m peanuts,” The Breadstick shouted, “and that we’re only practicing for your new book. And you called me a poodle.”
“No one reads those things,” I said. “Anyway, it’s all just made up.” And I went back to my book.
“You’re using me,” The Breadstick screamed, “you steal my memories, because you don’t have an imagination of your own. My sister warned me about you, and she’s not the only one.”
Then she grabbed my flowered T-shirt off the chair and ran into the bathroom.
I said: “No one has every reacted so strongly to one of my columns. What a victory. I’m speaking here as a writer, not as a person.”
After a few minutes I went into the bathroom to see what The Breadstick was up to.
She had tried to flush my flowered T-shirt down the toilet, but the toilet had been unable to cope.
I pulled her hair. The hair she was so proud of, the hair that had taken ten years to reach its current length and that hung every day in the coffee, the soup and the pasta.
“Fish that T-shirt out of the toilet,” I said. “I’m counting to three.”
“You’re just like my father,” she said, “he always said that too. You’re completely ridiculous.”
I pulled even harder.
“You’re hurting me,” she said.
Then she fished the T-shirt out of the toilet and threw it at my feet like a wet rag.
“There,” she said, “and you sending six faxes a day to your old girlfriend, I’m sick of that too.”
“She’s not old,” I said, “we’re still seeing each other.”
Then we lay down on the bed and I asked: “Could I watch while you masturbate, and give you little kisses on the forehead while you’re doing it?”
The Breadstick looked at me and frowned, as though she was trying to figure out whether I was serious.
“You see, I want to take a picture of your face when you come,” I continued. “It’s for a book of photographs I’m going to publish, called The Breadstick and the Orgasm. So I can always look at you while you come.”
The next day we took the train to Ancona, heading for Fabriano. We had way too much baggage.
The train from Ancona to Fabriano was supposed to leave at one minute to four, from platform five. We dragged all our suitcases and bags up to platform five.
At two minutes to four, a train really did arrive, and about sixty nuns climbed out. It looked like some kind of special transport.
We were the only ones who got on, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, who wants to take the train to Fabriano on a dark Sunday afternoon?
“Someone has already asked me,” The Breadstick said, “what it’s like to be a fictional character.”
“Oh,” I said, “believe me, you’re better off being a fictional character than a person, and the same goes for me. Do a lot of women fantasize about big penises?”
The Breadstick replied that she had heard of a correlation between big noses and big penises.
“Could I ask you something?” I said. “When you go to bed with another man, could I hide in the closet and watch?”
“You’re sick,” The Breadstick said, “in the head.”
“There’s a thin line between genius and sickness.”
At one minute to four the train still hadn’t left. Not at five past four either. But at ten after four a man in uniform knocked on the window.
From his nervous gestures, we gathered that this train wasn’t going anywhere.
We had to drag all the suitcases, bags, newspapers, books and articles of toiletry back out onto the platform. But because there was so much of it, we decided to do it in stages.
While The Breadstick waited outside, I went back in to get the rest.
At that moment, the doors closed.
The train started pulling away.
Au secours,” I shouted, and pounded on the window. But that was French, and not only that, the lights also went out.
The Breadstick ran along beside, because the train wasn’t going all that fast.
I opened the window and yelled: “Idiot, what are you running after the train for? Stay with  the stuff, otherwise it’ll get stolen. That’s all we need.” 
But she kept running and shouted: “If you’d paid attention to the signs, this would never have happened. You can’t do anything, not even read a timetable. You can’t write either, especially not screenplays.”
Then she had to give up.
Undoubtedly I’d end up in some switchyard, where I’d have to wait for hours.
The Breadstick would go for help, of course. But how do you make it clear to an Italian that a friend of yours and half your baggage is in an empty train somewhere in a switchyard? The only food I had with me was a package of stale cookies.
Then the miracle happened.
At the end of the platform the train stopped and, after pausing there for a few seconds, backed up, albeit no longer along platform five, but along platform three. Halfway down platform three it stopped again, I opened the door and threw and kicked the bags outside, afraid the engineer would suddenly decide to take off again.
That a few bags tore and one plastic sack fell apart at the seams, what did I care?
That’s how I ended up on platform three, amid an incredible pile of garbage.
Across the tracks, on platform five, The Breadstick was still standing.
We waved.

Translation: Ron de Klerk and Lisa Friedman.
Celebrated and acclaimed novelist Arnon Grunberg was born in Amsterdam in 1971. He currently lives and works in New York. Grunberg dropped out of school at age seventeen, and started his own publishing company two years later. At age twenty-three he wrote his first novel, Blue Mondays, a European bestseller that won the Anton Wachter Prize for debut fiction. Two of his novels, Phantom Pain (Istanbul, 2007) and The Asylum Seeker, won the AKO Literature Prize, the Dutch equivalent of the Booker Prize. In 2002 it became clear that the mysterious Viennese writer Marek van der Jagt, who made his debut with the novel The Story of My Baldness, was Arnon Grunberg. The Story of My Baldness also won the Anton Wachter Prize, making Grunberg the only novelist to have won it twice. Grunberg received the Flemish Golden Owl and the Dutch Libris Literature Prize for his novel Tirza (Istanbul, 2008). The American press praised his novel The Jewish Messiah. His most recent novel is Huid en Haar. Grunberg’s works have already spawned translations in twenty-four languages. He also writes columns, essays, reviews, short stories and reports for various Dutch and Belgian newspapers, weeklies and literary magazines, e.g. de Volkskrant, NRC Handelsblad, Humo, Vrij Nederland and Hollands Maandblad. He contributed to international newspapers and magazines for example Süddeutsche Zeitung, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Die Welt, Die Zeit, L’espresso, Libération, Courrier International, and The New York Times. In addition, Arnon Grunberg maintains a weblog on
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