“Freida, have you seen my socks?”
“Oh how perfect, Lukas! You cannot keep track even of your own socks and you think it is good to go and live by yourself!”
“I won’t be alone. I’ll be in the barracks with twenty other men.”
“And which of all those men is going to keep track of your socks like I can?”
“None of them, Freida. I suppose I’ll just have to get used to walking around barefoot.”
Freida didn’t find Lukas’s solution very funny. She turned in a huff and walked walked out of the room.
“Freida…” Lukas implored, dropping the bundle of clothes on the floor and hurrying after her into the small kitchen that doubled as a receiving room. Freida tried to hurry out the front door before Lukas could catch her, but as her hand turned the knob his powerful fingers held hers fast.
“Let go of me!” she protested. “Let go of me, you brute!”
“Freida, please! You aren’t being very fair.”
“Fair?! What of any of this is fair? Is leaving behind the woman who loved you fair?!”
“The woman who loves me, Freida.”
Freida pursed her lips and looked upward defiantly.
“The woman who loves me, Freida. And I love her, too.”
He released her hand, bent down, and kissed her brow, but she did not return his affection.
“Freida, please. You know that I go for both our sakes. For a better future together. I go because of our love!”
“Ecch!” she scoffed. “Such a love! This was not how my father showed his love for my mother. He stayed at home and fed her until she was fat and held her close!”
“I, too, intend to feed you until you are fat and hold you close,” Lukas’s hand playfully reached around Freida’s waist but she slapped it, hard enough to hurt. Lukas withdrew his hand and looked at fingers in surprise. “But not all of us were born as wealthy butchers!” he concluded, then stormed back to the bedroom.
“But you don’t have to be!” now it was Freida’s turn to chase after him. “You’re right, my father was born well, he didn’t have to earn his way, but that means we don’t have to either! He would help us if we just asked him.”
“Freida, we’ve been through this. If I am to marry you I have to know that I can provide for you with my own two hands. How could I live knowing that I can only provide for you through another man? What if something unfortunate happened to him?”
“If something should happen to my father then we would get a fat inheritance. Good!”
“Freida!” Lukas scolded.
“Never mind my father. So you don’t want to rely on him, fine. I am content to play poor with you, Lukas, but why does it have to be so long apart? You could find work here in the city.”
“Work that doesn’t pay half of what the mines do, and not enough to keep our rent.”
“And I would find work, too.”
“That wouldn’t pay a fourth what the mines do, and still not enough to keep our rent! And who would be home to watch the babies then?”
“There will be no babies either way. I can’t even stand to look at you anymore.”
“Freida, be reasonable.”
“No, Lukas! You ask me to be poor, I accept that. But you ask me to be poor and alone?! That is not reasonable!”
Lukas looked up from his packing thoughtfully. “I see, Freida. Now you are speaking plainly.”
“You are trying to put me through hardship without even your company to make it tolerable, and I do not accept that!”
“I see, I see…. This life of mine, it is too much for you.”
“Yes! It is too much!”
Lukas lifted the last of the clothes off the floor and slowly placed them in his traveling case.
“But still you pack?”
“This is my life, Freida. I am sorry.”
Freida’s eyes went wide and her nostrils narrow. “So…this is what you choose?”
“For me there is no choice. My life is what it is. I am who I am.”
“Very well…” she placed her hands on her hips, foot stamping furiously. “Yes, it is your life, it is who you are. But this is not us anymore, Lukas. Do you hear me?! I am done!”
“Yes, Freida. I understand.” Lukas shut the suitcase, closed its clasps, and lowered it off the bed and to his side. Somberly he began his walk towards the front door.
“Get out of here, Lukas!” Freida shouted. “Get out and do not come back! Or do. It won’t matter. I won’t be here!”
“I understand, Freida,” he shuffled to the door and turned the knob in his hands.
“Find yourself another woman in the mining town! Someone poor and dirty woman who loves men covered in soot!”
Lukas paused for a moment in the doorway and turned as if about to say something, but then shook his head and turned back again. “Goodbye, Freida,” he murmured, then closed the door behind him and stumped his way down the stairs.
“How dare you waste my year!” Freida continued to shout at the closed door. “How dare you try to waste my whole life!”
And though there never came any response, Freida continued her tirade, on and off for another hour. Then she went to bed, though she wasn’t tired, and lay there fuming through the night.
Freida did not linger at the old apartment, though. The very next day she turned in her key and caught the first train back to her home in Bavaria. Her mother met her on the doorstep with open arms and an outpouring of sympathy. Together they entered the house to commiserate.
“I’m so sorry, my darling,” Freida’s mother stroked her hair as they sat together. “Such a terrible thing to go through.”
“I really thought, mother, I really thought we were going to be able to work it out. That we would not end like this!”
“But of course it would end like this, my darling. I did tell you so, didn’t I? He lives a brutish life. He should have known better than to try and pull you down to that level.”
“I was ready to, mother. I was ready to live simply. But he doesn’t appreciate how much I was sacrificing already. He wasn’t willing to meet in the middle. I gave up my pride, why couldn’t he give up his?”
“My darling, it isn’t as simple as that. You mustn’t go looking for a prince among frogs. Men of principle, men of decency do not come from mean streets. You can’t breathe dirty air and be refined inside, now can you?”
“I suppose not, mother. What a fool I’ve been.”
“There, there. It’s a lesson learned, my darling. At least you came to your senses before you were ruined.”
“Can you imagine?! Sulking in that hovel today, all by myself?”
“Terrible. Terrible! But you’re not there. You’re here. Here where you belong.”
Freida’s father had less to say on the matter. When he came home for dinner Freida’s mother announced “Look, Karl. It’s Freida.”
“Oh, she’s here again is she?”
“Yes. I told you she wired this morning. She’s finished with that ruffian and he isn’t to be spoken of again.”
“Ehhh,” he grunted, then skewered a sausage with his knife.
Freida’s sister was even less sympathetic to her woes.
“So you and Lukas are truly finished?” she asked.
“Yes, Ingrid. I hate him.”
“Good. I shall write him now.”
“I shall write him.”
“You cannot write to him!”
“You said you hate him, didn’t you? That the two of you are finished, didn’t you? So what is it if I write?”
“You conniving little worm! You would swoop in beneath your sister and take her man?”
“But he isn’t your man anymore. You just said so!”
“What would you want with Lukas? You would not understand him. He is so bull-headed, so irresponsibly sure of himself, so uncompromising in his principles!”
Ingrid leaned back against the wall and fanned herself with her hand. “Mmm, I like that!”
“Get out here! Witch!”
Freida looked for something to throw but Ingrid skipped out of the room laughing, so Freida collapsed on her bed instead and had a fresh set of sobbing.
Fortunately, Freida’s mother had anticipated her daughter’s pining, and next morning she announced that they were all going to Oktoberfest together. Soon the three ladies were gathered upon the Bräurosl, sampling cheese and sausage and beer, and watching Father as he tried to bowl with a stein in one hand.
Then the races began, and the ladies left for the hillsides and took their seats. They watched as the jockeys flogged their horses and pushed them across the grueling track until the steeds were frothing and sweaty, but still obediently surging forward, all the way to the finish line.
Something about the sight of those straining horses made Freida feel very peculiar, and when she paused to consider why she suddenly found herself with head in her hands, sobbing yet again.
“My darling, what is it?” Freida’s mother asked.
“It’s just–it’s just those poor steeds. They’re rather like Lukas, aren’t they? Pushed so hard, giving all that they can to win their race. Why must they work so hard and never be allowed to rest? It’s just–it’s just so noble!”
Freida’s mother didn’t really follow, but she told her daughter not to waste another word on that “filthy boy,” and took her away to the booths to find some shade to sit under.
“I can’t help it, mother,” Freida blubbered. “Everywhere I look I see him. And he really is such a poor boy, isn’t he?”
“He’s a miserable boy! And conceited to want to make you live in poverty, remember?”
“Yes, I know I said that. But what about–“
“No ‘what about!’ You are a daughter of well-upbringing. You must find yourself a man who understands that you are a creature of refinement, who never asks you to lift a finger, who spoils you and takes you to nice places like this festival! That is the man for you!”
There came a sound of raucous laughter and the two women looked to the side. There, at the bowling alley were Freida’s father and some friends he had just made. Freida’s father and another man were down on all fours, carrying other fat men on their backs and trying to crawl as quickly as possible around an imaginary racetrack.
“Faster Blue Louie, faster!” the man on Freida’s father’s back cried and slapped his bottom.
“Oh dear!” Freida’s face was lost in the palms of her hands as she burst into tears once more.
Over the next two weeks Freida genuinely tried her best to put Lukas out of her mind, but every day found new ways to remind her of the emptiness of life in her parents’ home. She saw what a quiet and vain woman her mother was, someone who fretted only about parties and gossip, and ever tried to humor her fat, childish husband. Freida was terrified that such a fate awaited her as well.
Now she remembered that this was the very reason she had run away with Lukas in the first place. To get away from hollowness. To live a life that was real. Everything had always felt more vibrant whenever he was around, even when things weren’t easy they still had substance. Even their fights had felt like they really meant something. But now?
Freida took a bite of crumb cake one evening and it all flaked apart and fell across her dress, so many little fluffs of nothing. She cried again.
“So why not go back to the slums?” Freida’s best friend Adelaide asked her the next morning. “Find another man. Someone who doesn’t think he has to go to the mines.”
“It isn’t that I’m in love with the slums!” Freida protested. “I never once met another man down there like Lukas. Most of them are just as dead inside as the men here.”
“Then stay here. If there was a Lukas among the slums, there must be a Lukas among the rich. It’s just a matter of time looking.”
“I don’t know about that…. I mean, yes, I’m sure you are right. I’m sure there are other men who are vibrant and alive, even here. But I believe they are very rare. And even if I did find another…”
“It still wouldn’t be Lukas.”
“Well wouldn’t that be good?”
“You hate Lukas after all.”
“I–oh yes, that’s right…. I’d forgotten. Do you think he’s furious with me right now?”
“Yes. Like how I’ve been so angry at him, do you think he’s also seething just by thinking about me? Do you think he’s wondering how many men I might have kissed at Oktoberfest?”
“You mean is he jealous?”
“Yes, that, too. Angry at me, and jealous of me. Oh, I’ll bet he has been. I’ll bet he’s had to go out and start fights, just to get all his anger out.”
“Well…I mean…I suppose he might have, but–“
“Oh, you don’t think he’s forgotten about me, do you?” Freida’s face shone with sudden earnestness.
“Forget about you? Impossible!”
“Or even if not forgotten, what if he’s already getting cozy with another woman? Just to spite me?!”
“Freida…you know I can’t know about any of these things.”
“Ohh, I’ll kill her,” Freida started wringing her own glove like it was a scrawny neck.
“But why, Freida? You hate Lukas, remember.”
“Yes. How I hate him. I hate him so much that I can hardly stand to love him!”
Adelaide said nothing, but smiled.
“He vexes me so, and I’m furious he has the power to do that! I’m a rich woman, Adelaide. I could have any man in our village and he would die before he dared cross me. He would always do just what I wanted. But Lukas…he never shouts, he never hits, but he stands up to me all the same. And I hate that about him.”
“And you love it.”
“And I love it!” Freida exclaimed, all at once burying her face in Adelaide’s skirts and sobbing uncontrollably yet again. “What sort of woman am I? I must be ill!”
“Nothing of the sort,” Adelaide patted Freida’s back. “I’ve never told you this before, but the way I know how much I love Anton is how much me makes me hate him, too.”
Freida lifted her shining eyes from the skirt. “Oh Adelaide, that’s so beautiful!” Then Freida let go of her friend and leaped up from the bench. “I have to go, Adelaide! I have to write Lukas a letter!”
All the rest of the afternoon she tried to craft the epistle, and soon a heap of crumpled pages littered her bedroom floor. Each draft oscillated from passionate to coy to inquisitive to accusing. There was simply too much of her heart to fit onto the page, and everything she read back to herself didn’t resonate the way she wanted it to. As the hours wore on, she moved from intentional drafting to just letting the pen scratch across the page however it wished. Every so often she would pick up the page, crumple it with hardly a second look, and then move on to the next piece of paper. The longer she went, the broader her sentiments ranged. She wrote out her shame, her disgust with her family, and the way her shoulders radiated with warmth when Lukas held her. In a trance she picked up the next page and just as she began to crumple it, she paused.
Dear Lukas, I hate you. But if you can forgive that small indiscretion, I would very much like to see you again. I will never stop being me, Lukas...but neither do I wish you to stop being you. It is impossible for me to say whether things could ever work between us. Quite possibly they never will. But at least now we are honest, and I do think that gives us a chance. But what is true of me now and forever is that I love you Lukas. May I see you again? Freida
It was just what she wanted to say. She gave the page a kiss and stuffed it into an envelope. Then she looked out the window and realized it was too late to go to the post office, but for the first time since Lukas had left her she slept peacefully, knowing that all would be all in the morning.
The next day Freida didn’t even wait for her breakfast. She hurriedly threw on her boots, pulled her cloak tight against the morning frost, and rushed down the street to the post office.
“One letter going out,” the postmaster squinted at the letter and nodded approvingly. “And actually, it’s perfect timing you’re being here. Something just came in for you.”
“For me?!” she asked in shock. “From where?”
“Hmm…” the postmaster reached up to the box on the wall and fished out a small telegram. He squinted to read its heading. “From Ruhr Valley…same as where your letter is headed to, isn’t it? Well, that’s convenient!”
“Yes, it is!” Freida beamed, taking the small paper in her hand. “Thank you very much!”
Hands trembling, Freida stepped out of the building and paused on the porch to turn the paper over in her hand. As she did so, her excited smile began to soften. The sender was not Lukas. It was from the Ruhr Mining Coalition. The telegram was only three lines long.
Miss Freida Huber, you have been listed as next-of-kin by Mister Lukas Bergmann, to be notified in the event of his death. We regret to inform you that Mister Bergmann passed away on Thursday, the 5th, as the result of a cave-in. Please come to our front offices to claim his personal effects.
“What?” Freida choked. A gust of wind rushed by and she pulled her cloak tighter, but it did no good. She was chilled from within, and she stood frozen on the spot, shivering uncontrollably.