Johann Müller was not a sentimental man. Could not be in his position as a German. In his entire thirty-two years, accordingly, he had only allowed himself to love but once. She was a Croatian-Italian girl, Marija Matteo, two years his junior. With the dark, piercing eyes of an owl and the curvaceous frame of a pear, Johann’s stoic German sensibility was immediately penetrated upon running into her at Impala Coffee in the Kollwitzkiez neighborhood of Berlin. She sat alone at a table studying from a psychology book, of sorts, called Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz. Though it was not typically in Johann’s nature to approach anyone, let alone a woman, he knew somewhere in his heart that if he didn’t say something to her, the course of his entire life might suddenly go off-kilter.
So he did what the cinema of Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder had always taught him to do in order to invoke a conversation: manufactured a meet-cute. Since there were little materials for him to work with (he certainly couldn’t create a mishap with taking the wrong coat or some such like in The Lost Weekend), he decided it would be best to feign tripping and spilling his coffee everywhere right in front of her. Marija, somewhat accustomed to men exhibiting bombastic displays around her, was nonplussed by the sight of Johann’s crumpled body suddenly on the ground near her feet, brown liquid spreading like the blood that might gush from a gunshot wound.
Apprehending that Johann wanted her attention–her favor–she glanced up from the sentence she had just started to read: “To have the courage to accept a quality which one does not like in oneself, and which one has chosen to repress for many years, is an act of great courage. But if one does not accept the quality, then it functions behind one’s back.”
She sighed, acknowledging his presence with pursed lips and a simple, “Are you okay?” Johann, all at once, felt very, very foolish–puerile, even. His long brown hair had come out of its ponytail and was particularly disheveled-looking against an unkempt beard. He couldn’t fathom how he had possibly, just minutes before, thought this was a good idea. But he was committed to the cause of striking up a conversation with her now, and there was no reneging on the mission after such humiliation.
“I’m fine, I think… I don’t know.”
Marija rolled her eyes as she got up from her chair to lend him a hand in rising from the floor. “You seem all right. Physically.”
Johann admired her biting wit, an added bonus to her appearance, which had been the source of initial attraction (as it always will be so long as we don’t live in José Saramago’s Blindness). The touch of her hand was, as he predicted, electric. Marija didn’t seem quite so affected, returning to her seat. When she realized he was still standing over her like a buffoon, she offered, “Do you want to sit down…or something?”
He nodded. “Yes. I do. But I think I’m going to get another coffee.” He scuttled over to the counter, needing a second to compose himself. She was allowing him entrance into her life, and he needed to think quickly of the best way to render himself irresistible to her. He tried to rack his brain for anything he could remember about psychology, some tidbit that would prove his knowledgeability in the field. He was cursing his decision not to go join one of his friends in seeing A Dangerous Method at the Babylon in Kreuzberg. It might have given him something to go off of at least, to be able to speak of Sabina Spielrein and her relationship with Jung and Freud. But no, he didn’t feel like venturing out into the cold that night, figured he would just see it on his own another time. The mistake was grave. For he couldn’t think of how best to relate to her without at least appealing to her blatant love of the psychosis.
Picking up his fresh cup of coffee from the counter, it began to rattle on its saucer from Johann’s nervous tremor. He paused to correct it, not wanting Marija to think he had some sort of condition.
She wouldn’t have noticed either way, it seemed, as she had returned to being thoroughly engrossed in her literature.
In spite of her standoffishness–the metaphorical fortress that protected her being–Johann asked, “Are you in school here?”
She pried her face away from the book to answer. “Yes. I’m at the Humboldt-Universität for another semester. Then I’m going back to Croatia.”
“Ah, Croatia. Beautiful country.”
She arched her brow. “Sure, that’s what people say. Who are visiting. Now.”
“You don’t agree?”
“I think it’s going to be quite some time before my country recovers. 2008 was harder on it than on Germany. And you have the benefit of being a member of the EU. We’re still waiting to be admitted. What does anyone care for the Balkans?” she shuddered. “I know I shouldn’t call us that. My parents always told me not to give in to this geographical name after we broke with Yugoslavia. To this day, I have trouble saying it. Like I owe it to Yugoslavia to remain loyal, even though I was barely coherent when the breakup happened.”
Johann could feel himself tingling with the excitement of how eager Marija suddenly was to share this well of personal information. But, as though herself suddenly intuiting that she had shared too much, Marija bit her lip and concluded, “Anyway, I’m leaving Berlin soon enough. You oughtn’t bother with getting to know me so intimately.”
Months later, after Johann had ingratiated himself into her life in spite of her will to remain single, the inevitable hour was about to strike on the clock signaling her return to Zagreb. He had known it was coming from the moment she warned him about it, but he couldn’t rightly or in good faith accept it as reality. Though he had never lived outside of Berlin, could never imagine a world outside its grey skies and club nights, he had surmised that he would end up moving to Croatia for Marija, to keep the love he felt for her alive. Johann was one of the last people to believe in love at first sight, you see. And these are not the sort of ilk to just let go of the ones who have caused their eyes to fall down a pit of l’amour so deep they can never crawl out of it again.
Marija, of course, didn’t feel as intensely. Maybe it had to do with her being a little younger or maybe it’s simply a rule of law that in every relationship, one person must be just slightly less ardent. Or in her case, a lot less ardent. For when Johann announced that he had found a job in Zagreb as a kitchen helper for a boat that cruised along the Sava River, Marija met the news with a rather unaffected expression, remarking simply, “You can stay with me then,” as though she was doing him a great favor in allowing him to move in with her as opposed to being a willing and excited accomplice in the progression of their relationship.
They took an evening KLM flight on June 17, 2012. To Johann’s surprise as they boarded the airport shuttle that would lead them to the main bus station thirty minutes away, he felt instantly at home in the darkened night. Despite believing that he would be discomfited upon leaving the confines of Berlin, when they arrived in Marija’s Gornji Grad neighborhood, Johann felt instantly at ease. As though he was always meant to be a denizen of Zagreb.
The following morning, Marija awoke to the sounds of Johann making her breakfast in the kitchen. She decided she might have lucked out more than she realized in “allowing” Johann to live with her. That she could quickly grow accustomed to the acceleration of their dynamic more than she had previously believed. Long adapted to being fiercely independent as a result of being estranged from her brothers and sisters after her parents’ death, Marija suddenly found that she enjoyed the ability to count on someone other than herself.
Things between them ceased to be so picturesque when they took their leave for the nearby island of Brač in late July. It was Marija’s suggestion, and one that had initially been intended to allow her a solo getaway so as to regenerate herself before starting a new job at the Sveti Ivan psychiatric hospital. It was going to be mentally draining, time-consuming and likely prompt her to want to admit herself there. So it was only natural that she might want a relaxing and striking-in-its-beauty location to retreat to before delving into what was to become her lifelong norm of being surrounded by very literal insanity. She didn’t ask Johann to come, nor did she really want him to. Because one day she woke up and felt an unshakeable perturbation by his presence. Everything that she had first relished about living with him in the brief month of their so-called honeymoon–the fucking without abandon in a new city, the food brought to her in bed, the conversations pertaining to what they still didn’t know about one another’s pasts–had grown, to her, less charming and more stale. She couldn’t discern if it was his lack of having anything else going on other than her and his riverboat job or if his worshipful nature made her want to jump off her pedestal screaming all the more. Whatever the case, she wanted vaguely to clock him out when he insisted on accompanying her to Brač.
“What about your job?” she tried as a means of staving him off.
“I’ll quit and get another one when we get back. It will be easy now that Croatia’s been accepted into the EU.”
She sighed. “Fine.”
He chose to ignore her lack of enthusiasm, booking the tickets for their departure within the next ten minutes of their one-sided discussion.
Put any couple on an island together, and it either becomes Adam and Eve paradisiacal or The Shining hell. For Johann it was the former and for Marija it was the latter, which should give you some indication of how doomed it was to deteriorate before the trip could even conclude.
Each day, Marija would deliberately wake up around 6 a.m. so that she could leave their room without being questioned about her activities. When she returned in the afternoon for lunch, Johann would be faux understanding of her need to be alone, but, in truth, resentful of her non-desire to be with him all the time. This disparity in emotions was creating a swirl of toxicity around them, one that could be seen by any passerby who encountered them as they went to the market or climbed mountains or windsurfed semi-together (Johann never could quite get the right balance).
One night, while they dined at Taverna Riva right on the water, everything came to a head more explosive than that of a pimple. Apart from Marija’s clipped conversation–which made Johann attempt to draw her out all the more–there was an unexpected storm coming in. One the likes of which the island had never seen before, especially at this time of year.
Though everyone was warned to stay inside over the course of the next twenty-four hours, Johann was adamant about keeping their reservation, as it was, according to him, a very difficult restaurant to get into ordinarily. That the impending storm had kept everyone indoors meant that Marija and Johann were sitting alone in an empty restaurant with a waiter that despised them for showing up.
Taking a life-giving sip of her wine Marija tittered as she fully grasped what the sight of them might look like to an outsider.
And with the strength of the alcohol, she finally let what had been dormant out: “I don’t want to be with you–never did want to! You inserted yourself into my life and I let you out of exhaustion.”
Johann finished chewing his bite of lamb and set his fork down. “Then go. See how you enjoy being on your own now. Without me to support your every foolish whim and belief.” He then picked up his fork and flung it at her face, leaving a small, cat scratch-like mark on her face from the tines. Livid, she pushed back in her chair, got up and stalked out into the night.
Some weeks after, Marija’s battered corpse washed ashore, no longer missing in the wake of the storm. Johann was, in the beginning, calm about her abrupt departure the night Mother Nature plucked her, assuming she would sulk outside of their temporary lodging while she could before coming back to avoid the whipping of the Adriatic. It was roughly after the passage of two hours that he started to panic, alerting the authorities to her absence and their fight. The entire island became involved in searching high and low for her, with not a trace to be found.
Naturally, Johann felt responsible for her death. He knew that she was right. Had he never “inserted himself” into her life, as she said, she would still be alive. Would still have the chance to help other less mentally stable people become better at dealing with their own aliveness. And for that he would be eternally sorry. Perpetually pallid from the trauma.
Although many in his position might have returned to Berlin to find comfort in familiarity and avoid the painful memories now associated with Croatia, Johann stayed. Just as he told Marija he could, he found a job easily. This time, it was as a product manager at some nebulous company with equally nebulous products to manage.
While walking home from work one day, Johann came across a museum–one he had to do a double take at to believe was real. It was the Museum of Broken Relationships. Or brokenships. Apparently old news to most, Johann marveled at the beauty of the concept, of the ability to have a place to mourn a loss that so few people seem to understand is tantamount to death.
It was her copy of Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales that he donated for display, with the caption: “The book she was reading when I first saw her, the one I should have known would seal our fate.” It seemed appropriate considering the eventual sinister tone of their own failed fairy tale.
Johann visited the museum every day from the moment his artifact was accepted by the curators. Even though Marija would have found him only all the more pathetic for doing so, he couldn’t avoid presuming that this was the least he owed her. Was the least he owed love, so forceful in its ability to take each of us as its unwitting prisoner.