Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998
"Antoinette," flash fiction by Joachim Frank
So here is my brother lying in my own bed reading one of my girlfriend’s letters, with the curved teenage handwriting on blue-lined paper, the letter that had given me an extra heartbeat when it first arrived; with his fat fingers he touches and soils and desecrates what is mine, and one of his fingers that has just visited and probed one of his nostrils now moves about along the trace of the actual ink that had flowed from Antoinette’s fountain pen. For those were the days when kids got fountain pens from their aunts or godmothers or grandparents for their birthdays, pens that as a rule lasted for three weeks, then you left the cap off and the ink dried out and clogged the fine channel through which the ink was supposed to flow. My realization that she has struggled with one of these contraptions for the sake of sending a message to me brought me closer to her; till then, we had very little more to share than the memory of feeling the boat glide over the water, of feeling the breeze on our faces, the very breeze that lifted her chestnut-brown hair – the way I captured her with my camera –, of feeling the joy of looking into each other’s eyes for a few seconds — from quite a distance, actually — and see them light up in mutual appreciation. That was all so much and so little in the end, making me crave for more, if not her presence then at least more hard evidence of spiritual kinship. For this I hate my brother now with hopeless unrequited hate, as I stand motionless at the door in the hallway watching him, as he smeared a layer of his grime on Antoinette’s immaculate testimony of affection, in which she tried out on me not only her fountain pen but also her newly acquired German, with innocent eagerness and all the charming mistakes in diction and grammar. Through those blue curly words I heard her shy voice address me, shy underneath her earnest as yet unshaved, unplucked eyebrows. An-toi-nette, I pronounced the exotic syllables, marks of wide-world sophistication. The picture is granular and noisy because I have blown up her tiny head from the group picture on the boat, spending time in the darkroom. Just as Antoinette popped up from nowhere on our high school trip on Lac Leman, so did she again emerge from nothingness in the dim red light of the darkroom, gained her boundaries quickly – the outline of her hair against the sky – and then fill in the contours with her face, build up her smile. This is all I have of her, and a small bundle of letters that my brother has in his fat hands. My girlfriends were always far away, in other towns, countries, continents, writing letters expressing their desires in riddles that only I will understand. Oh, our love is like an arc, a rainbow, stretching from here to there, burning us separately and connecting our fires. We know nothing of more importance, we mechanically eat our food, exchanging glances with our parents for the sole reason of making them think we are OK; we go about our business, hanging out with our friends, but deep down we are consumed with fire. My brother, you see, should know better. A few years earlier he brought Irene home, introduced her, a beautiful blond petite girl with a slight overbite. I was consumed with envy, already saw them getting married; I saw my future as a man coveting his brother's wife, struggling daily to avoid laying eyes on her. But then she disappeared: first her visits stopped, then her name was no longer mentioned at the dinner table. He should have known better, to respect the stirrings of what we called, in our innocence, love. Kowalski, now the name comes back, a Polish name, invoking the images of World War II refugees, sturdy legs, potato fields, and a cold steady kind of rain. The smell of garlic. But Antoinette —this was a different promise by far, the promise of bridging the whole of Europe, of introducing French charm and laissez-fair along with Swiss thoroughness into the barren Siegerland, the place I call home. The arc went south, rather than toward the east; it promised to connect me to the tongue of Voltaire and Descartes and the land of Paul Klee. I still believe my brother changed the drift of events by putting his imprints on the letters. Watching him through the open door inflamed me with the determination to be Antoinette’s protector, as though he had physically threatened her with his big greasy thumb. Because, much later, when she came to visit me in Munich during college, I played the knight, greeted her with a bouquet of flowers at the train station, wearing my best suit. And when we were caught in a rainstorm on the Lehnbachplatz and I slid out and fell into a puddle with my best suit, and she stood there laughing at me, to the point that I took offense, that all can be traced back to my brother’s spiritual rape of Antoinette that afternoon and my passionate, unconditional defense.
Joachim Frank is a scientist and writer who lives in New York City. He has published short stories, flash fiction and poems in a number of magazines, including Offcourse, elimae, Cezanne's Carrot, Eclectica, The Noneuclidean Cafe, Hamilton Stone Review, Bartleby Snopes, Red Ochre Lit, StepAway Magazine, Fiction Fix, Short Fast and Deadly, The New Poet, Rivet Journal, *82 Review, Conium Review, theeel, and Black&White. A more complete list along with a blog on the state of the world is found on his website franxfiction.com