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Julia Powalla
On a tram

Inside the tram a woman is sitting, rocking to and fro, at first finding her position at the edge of her seat, then moving closer to the armrest, folding her hands in her lap, her back stretched. She leans her elbow on the window still and rests her head in the palm of her hand. A man with red hair is sitting opposite her. His knees touch hers each time the tram stops. Through the window she watches a man scowling at the traffic lights. A few seats further away, behind the ticket machine, there is a man longing for a cigarette - or so she assumes. She does not know whether it is true, but is quite sure she sees a passion in his gaze, which had been fixed to the floor, and is now flitting out of the window from time to time, occasionally touching the woman as well. She has never had a cigarette in her mouth herself. Perhaps she makes these kinds of assumptions because she wants to convince herself that this man is longing for something which she does not have any relation to. And so far there really is no relation between the two except that they are sitting in the same tram, which is now crossing the river. On the side of the man's chin are some uneven patches of stubble, as well as a thin cut, indicating that he is not particularly good at handling a razor. The woman suspects he will get off the tram soon. Maybe this is why he nervously runs his fingers through his hair, exposing the places where the hair has vanished left and right of his forehead. It is because he knows that he will soon get off and finally have a smoke. The tram is passing through a tunnel. Neon tubes are flickering by outside, attracting attention and allowing the woman to glance at the man unseen. The sleeves of his pullover are rolled up, exposing his hairy forearms. Maybe the sleeves are too long and he does not like them falling over his hands. The tram leaves the tunnel and stops.
The man with the red hair is standing up, ready to get off. A grey scarf is hanging from the back of his seat. The woman is wondering if it could possibly belong to him. As he leaves the tram, she convinces herself that the man with the red hair has surely noticed the scarf and can therefore not be his. Besides, the lady on the other side of the aisle has seen him too and would certainly have told him if she thought it was his. After the man with the red hair has passed outside her window, the doors close and at the same time it becomes clear to the woman that the scarf must actually belong to that man. If the scarf had been hanging from the back before, he would have taken another seat, because no-one takes a seat with a scarf hanging over it if there is another empty seat next to it.
A fat man takes the seat next to the woman. He smells of dust and cheap perfume. The woman turns her head away from him, to the window, and glances at the bushes behind the pavement. A girl with a shopping bag is running behind the already moving tram, as if she could catch up with it and jump on. The woman is angry about her lack of reaction to the lost scarf.
“Where are we going today?” the fat man is asking.
“Visiting friends,” answers the woman, now annoyed at her response to such a personal question.
The man who was longing for a cigarette has vanished from his seat. Maybe he got off, she thinks, maybe he is already smoking. But did she not see him a minute ago, sitting at the same spot behind the ticket machine?
At the next stop the door has locked itself. A wiry old woman pushes the stop button a few times, then seeks another door. The fat man is pulling a packet of gummi bears out of his pocket. He then wipes his cheek. His jacket has already pushed for a while against the woman's hips. She moves away from the contact and jiggles closer to the window, facing away from him to keep him from offering her any gummi bears.
She has taken this tram many times but today she rides further than usual and thinks to herself how the grey-brown concrete buildings through the window are completely strange to her. When the tram stops in front of one of them, the door will still not open. A woman with thick glasses knocks on it from the outside. Two girls run towards the tram and hammer together with her against the glass. It does not seem as if anyone wants to get off here. Turning around the woman spies, except for the fat man, only a few young men with moustaches and grey jackets. There are people knocking from the outside of all three doors of her carriage. Behind them other people are gathering, stretching their arms, mouths gaping. The woman does not understand what they are shouting but they are obviously angered. The young men with the moustaches take no notice of it. The woman considers standing up and testing whether the doors open from the inside with a push on the stop button. But the tram is already continuing its journey. Beyond, the concrete buildings give way to trampled green spaces and sandboxes with metal bars in them.
“You mentioned some friends,” the fat man says.
“Yes,” says the woman.
Two of the young men with moustaches are moving from their seats to sit down opposite her and the fat man; not paying attention to the scarf on the back of the seat, where the man with red hair sat before. The woman can smell the sweat of the young men.
“Tell me their names” says the fat man and bows his round face towards the woman. She leans back squeezing between window and seat and answers with a weak voice: “I can't.”
The fat man grins as if he knows a lot about the woman. His cold breath strikes the woman's cheek. She wants to stand up but not to squeeze past the fat man.
After a while, the tram stops again in front of another small set of concrete buildings. There are a few children gathering in front of the doors, trying to pull them open and hammering against the panes. The woman tries to establish eye-contact with the children. Although the children are looking here and there, their eyes never hit the woman's gaze. Meanwhile, the two men opposite her begin to talk.
“To go by car gives me the appeasing feeling that I'm contributing something to my own progress.”
“But look how much more luxurious it is to sit here and not waste a thought on the road traffic.”
“When I am in a hurry I get nervous. Then I want to at least imagine I can do something, anything to reach my destination faster.”
“I have largely rid myself of these kinds of illusions. If you add the costs of petrol to the purchase price of a car, you will never end up spending as little as you would using public transport.”
The woman watches the children at the tram stop slide past as the tram leaves.
When the fat man begins to speak again, the other two immediately become silent. He turns to the woman and looks into her eyes.
“Remove one of your pieces of clothing”, he says, fixing his gaze on the woman.
The men with the moustaches are curious about her reaction. The woman sits stiffly next to the fat man wishing there was some music playing.
“It doesn't matter what exactly you take off”, the fat man says, “the important thing is that you do it slowly.”
The men with the moustaches look at each other, nod and focus on the woman again. “Otherwise we will have to start again from scratch.”
The woman feels a tightness in her shoulders and an emptiness in her throat. The fat man makes an inviting gesture to her. She decides on her pullover, under which she is wearing a shirt with short sleeves. She crosses her arms around her waist grasping for the waistband of her pullover and lifts it up carefully, while the lower part of her shirt sticks to the pullover revealing a part of her belly. One of the men with moustaches reaches for her shirt and tugs it back down, so that it covers her belly again. The woman slides her arms out of the pullover, pulls it over her head and hands it to the fat man. He passes it on to the men with moustaches, who hastily catch hold of it and press their noses into the fabric. The fat man grins and nods to the woman.
The tram stops. Behind the windows, families are crowding round, pressing against the doors of the tram, beating against them. The banging at the windows reaches a crescendo. Then it becomes a steady rhythm. The man beckons the woman with a gesture to get up. The woman stands up. So do the men with the moustaches, in order to let her pass, each of them still hanging on to one end of her pullover. The woman walks to the door, presses the button marked 'stop' in glowing letters, and waits. The fat man begins to laugh out loud. Outside the doors, the people stop knocking and step back.
“Next time,” says the fat man and pauses for a moment, in which the door opens, “it will be two pieces.”
As the woman alights, the people queue quietly.

Translated with great support from Clare Jonas and Tracy Beatty.

Julia Powalla    15.09.2009   
Julia Powalla