I never even saw most of the men Glass had affairs with. They used to come to Visible late at night, when Dianne and I were fast asleep. Then doors would slam and unknown voices would penetrate our dreams. In the morning we used to find telltale signs of their existence: a warm mug of hastily gulped coffee abandoned on the kitchen table; a toothbrush wrapper in the bathroom, crumpled carelessly and dropped on the floor. Sometimes it was no more than a sleepy aroma hanging in the air like a strange shadow.
Once it was the telephones. Dianne and I had spent the weekend with Tereza, and when we got home, there were the phones in our bedrooms, connected to newly laid cables, and the plaster still damp on the walls. Glass had pulled an electrician.
“Now each of us has our own phone,” she stated smugly, with Dianne on her left arm and me on her right. “Isn’t that fantastic? Don’t you think it’s terribly American?”
I’m sprawled on my bed when the telephone rings. The July heat has wiped me out--even at night it crawls through the rooms and passages like a tired animal, looking for a place to bed down. I know who it is--I’ve been waiting for this call for the past three weeks. Kat (her name is Katja, but apart from her parents and some of the teachers, no one calls her by her full name) is back from holiday.
“I’m back again, Phil,” she shrieks down the line.
“Sounds like it. How was it?”
“A nightmare, and stop grinning, I can tell you are! I’m suffering from parental abuse, and that island was the absolute pits, you can’t imagine. I want to see you.”
I look at my watch. “In half an hour on the castle hill?”
“I’d have died if you’d said no.”
“Join the club. I’ve been bored out of my mind the last three weeks.”
“Listen, I need a bit, longer--about an hour? I’ve got to unpack.”
“Can’t wait to see you. . . . Phil?”
“I missed you.”
“Didn’t miss you.”
“Thought so. Asshole!”
I put down the phone and stay lying on my back, blinking at the blinding white ceiling for the next quarter of an hour. The scent of cypress comes wafting in waves on the summer breeze through the open windows. I roll over and get out of the sweaty bed, grab boxer shorts and T-shirt, and pad along the creaking floorboards in the passage to the shower.
I hate the bathroom on this floor of the house. The door frame is so warped, you have to lean against the door with all your weight to get it open. Inside, you’re met with broken black and white tiles, cracks in the ceiling, and flaking plaster. The antiquated plumbing takes three minutes before the water finally comes through. In the winter, the rusty boiler connected to it comes to life only after you’ve given it several hefty kicks. I turn on the tap, hear the familiar wheezing of the system, and once again regret that Glass never got involved with a plumber.
“For the sake of the plumbing?” she asked in astonishment when I once suggested how practical such a relationship could be. “What d’you take me for, darling--a hooker?”
Visible’s architect must have been just as crazy as my aunt Stella, who discovered the house, already then in an advanced state of disrepair, a quarter of a century ago while on a trip to Europe. She fell in love with its southern charm, quite uncharacteristic of this part of the world, and promptly bought it. For peanuts, my little chick, she proudly wrote to Glass in America. I’ve even got some money left over for the essential repairs!
Stella was financially independent. Hers had been the classic career path of the American high school beauty, not thinking about the future until it was almost over and done with--early marriage, early divorce, overdue but relatively generous alimony payments. The money wasn’t enough for Stella to live in great style, but it allowed for a life more or less free of financial worries. It was enough to buy Visible.
Surrounded by an extensive plot of land, Stella wrote, the house stood on a hill overlooking the edge of a tiny town on the other side of the river. The two-story façade with its colonnaded porch, the tiny bay windows and the tall casement windows, the innumerable gables and the battlemented roof were visible for all to see from a distance of miles. Seeking to give it an appropriately American name, she quite logically called the entire estate--the house, with its outhouses and garden sheds at the rear, as well as the huge garden bordering the wood, where life-sized statues of discolored sandstone stood about like lost souls--by the name Visible. It soon became evident that the money left over from the purchase was barely enough to cover the merest fraction of the renovation costs. The masonry was crumbling, the roof leaked in several places, and the garden was a jungle.
In its dilapidated state, Visible seems to be waiting and dreaming of better times, wrote Stella in one of her increasingly rare letters to Boston. And the residents of the town seem to be waiting too. They don’t like this house. The tall windows scare them. And d’you know why, little one? Because you only have to see these windows from afar to know and feel they call for a broader view of the world.
I grew up with photos of Stella, countless snaps that Glass had dug out from her sister’s papers a few months after her death and put up all around the house. They are everywhere: in the dark entrance hall, up the staircase, in almost every room. In their cheap frames they hang there like kitschy religious images, propped up on wobbly chests of drawers and tables, crowding on windowsills and window seats.
My favorite portrait of Stella shows her angular suntanned face. She had large, clear eyes and a lot of laugh lines. It’s the only photo where my aunt looks soft and vulnerable. All the other pictures show a mixture of childish defiance and stormy provocation. These make Stella look like glowing steel tempered in fire.
Three days before Glass arrived at Visible, my aunt Stella’s broad view on the world proved her undoing. She was cleaning the windows on the second floor when she fell to the drive below, where the postman found her next day. With her head resting on one arm and her legs slightly drawn up, she looked as if she was asleep. She had broken her neck. Later Glass found the cable she herself had wired from on board ship, and the draft of a reply her older, only sister had been unable to send. Baby, looking forward to you and your offspring. Love, Stella.
Stella’s death affected Glass deeply. She had idolized her sister, even after she had left America. Their mother had died young of the Big C, as Glass put it, and their father had shown more interest in alcohol than in the fate of his daughters. The fact that both of them disappeared to Europe was met with drunken indifference. No one knew what had become of him. Once when I asked Glass about my grandfather, her curt reply was that the continent of America had swallowed him, and she hoped it would not spew him up again. After her initial mourning over Stella, she adopted a pragmatic attitude to her death. One of her favorite sayings was “As one door closes, another opens.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Center of the World by Andreas Steinhofel. Copyright © 2005 by Andreas Steinhofel. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.