Meet Fred Kaufmann, disillusioned husband of thoroughly competent Claudia and father of surly teenager Franka. His dreams of being a movie director have long ago been shelved for marriage and a child. While Claudia sells her successful vegetarian take-out restaurant to a fast food chain and buys into Buddhism, Fred is trapped in the throes of a classic midlife crisis, made worse when Franka falls madly in love with a young guru. With the hope that brown rice and hardcore meditation will cure Franka's obsession, Fred chaperones his daughter to the meditation center in the South of France. But as a bizarre set of events unfolds, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery that only a special kind of hero can survive. Funny, incisive, and ultimately forgiving, Where Do We Go From Here? is a masterpiece of ironic social comedy from one of Germany's leading writers and filmmakers.
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I'm in the process of losing my family. My marriage is on the rocks and my daughter Franka has fallen for some guy who wants to whisk her off to India.
Call me sometime, my wife says quietly. She's standing in the middle of the street with her arms crossed. I can see the goose-flesh on her bare skin.
A cold, rainy July evening. At least the weather will be better in France. That's something, at least.
Call me, the pair of you, Claudia says a trifle louder. She smiles first at me, then at Franka. Franka props her chin on the roof of the car and gives her mother a blank, silent stare. Her jaws move twice as she shifts her chewing gum from one cheek to the other. Her hair, dyed jet-black, flops over her face and hides the pierced eyebrow. Her skin is as white and smooth as paper. Franka never goes out in the sun.
She opens and shuts her blue eyes a couple of times. She gets them from me. When she was little I used to sing her a mawkish song addressed to a blue-eyed girl: Deine blaue Augen machen mich so sentimental ... She always shook with giggles like a little jelly.
These days Franka's laughter is as rare as a hot summer in Germany. She eyes us as expressionlessly as a polar bear whose body language conveys no hint of its intentions. Is it about to pounce and tear you to pieces, or will it give you a confiding nudge in the ribs with its snout? A parting gesture: she slaps the roof of the car and slumps on to the back seat. I'd assumed she would sit up front with me, but even that's too close for her. I sigh.
Of course I'll call you, I tell Claudia.
Got the battery charger for your mobile? Claudia's voice falters. Promptly, because she could well start crying again, I put my arms around her.
She feels small. Smaller than usual. I try to sense something, a faint pang at parting from her or a trace of affection anything at all but no, there's absolutely nothing. I might be holding a laundry bag in my arms, not my wife. I've mislaid my love for her like a key and simply can't remember where I saw it last. Not that I've genuinely been looking for it. That's the real problem. I don't know what I want any more.
I give Claudia a clumsy pat on the shoulder and she detaches herself. Her lipstick is smudged. Now I've got it on my shirt collar. Only three shirts with me, and one of them's ruined even before we get started. Why bother with lipstick when she's only come downstairs for a moment to see us off? I could debate that point for a long time if I wasn't already aware that there aren't any rational answers to such questions. Claudia gives a spurious smile and backs away toward the front door. Her feet are bare. Lipstick, yes, but no shoes. No tears, either. We've almost made it. I'm relieved.
I raise a hand in farewell and get in myself, start up, pull away, and watch Claudia receding in the rear-view mirror. She gets smaller and smaller, a tiny, motionless doll in a red dress, alone in the deserted street. She waves. I don't know if I'll ever come back.
I take the Schwerer Reiter Strasse route out of town. Franka has already turned on her Discman. The music assaults my ears from the back seat like the hum of a swarm of insects. I turn on the radio. They're playing a Dylan number: 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright'. Nothing's alright, Mr Dylan, even though it's ages since I stopped thinking about it.
My daughter has fallen in love with a lama. A lama, not a llama. Something like the Dalai Lama, that's how I picture my daughter's beloved: red-robed and shaven-headed. He's twenty-four, apparently. Eight years older than Franka. I'm taking her to join him at a Buddhist meditation centre in the South of France and keep an eye on her in case she runs off with him, and some day we get a postcard from the Himalayas.
Dadfred, says Franka, can't you turn off that shitty radio? She doesn't remove her earphones. I turn the radio down a bit and try to catch her eye in the rear-view mirror, but she's keeping her head down. We hardly ever look each other in the eye these days.
Seeing that big, peculiar, black-haired creature on the back seat, I try to reconcile it with the baby it used to be, but I can't. There isn't the smallest connection between the two. Except, perhaps, the fact that I found the infant as alien as I now find the sixteen-year-old.
How often we used to drive her around Munich's inner ring-road at nights, when nothing would stop her crying except a car ride. I sometimes imagined, during those phantasmal drives through the deserted city, that the only other road users were equally desperate parents and their infants. But when she finally went to sleep ah, when she finally nodded off what joy! What sheer, unbounded joy! I had everything: a wife, a child, a car, and a clear run into a wonderful future.
We listened to the Talking Heads and Tom Waits and Van Morrison, and sometimes Claudia would roll a joint and rest her head on my lap, and I would drive on and on without stopping I couldn't afford to, not at any price, or our peace would be shattered within seconds. Every red light triggered a fear that Franka might wake up. She's stirring, she's opening her eyes ... Help! Oh God, dear God, please, please let her sleep a bit longer! On and on we drove, round and round the city. I don't think we talked much. We didn't need to in those days.
In the blue light of dawn we'd pull up in the parking lot of the Euro Industrial Estate while Claudia breast-fed Franka and the first weary, disgruntled housewives wheeled their trolleys into the supermarkets. I'd get us some breakfast from McDonald's, and there we'd sit with a well-fed, well-rested, good-humoured baby on our laps, drinking beakers of coffee and eating McMuffins, warm rolls with an egg and a slice of ham inside. They lay on the stomach like soft little cushions.
In some mysterious way, our nocturnal excursions invested the whole of the rest of the day's work at the Seventh Heaven, our vegetarian snack bar, with a special quality. Although dog-tired and tremulous with exhaustion, I had a sense of space and freedom in our little kitchen. As I slid spring rolls and spinach soufflés into the microwave, I could see the dark, deserted road ahead of me and felt sure I would never become imprisoned, like everyone else, in the daily round.
I turn left on to the Lindau autobahn. The motorway stretches ahead of us, grey and interminable. I step on the gas like all the other drivers, under the illusion that speed can release me from the gravity that weighs me down a little more each day.
Dadfred, Franka groans from the back seat, turn off that lousy music, can't you? I turn it off. Franka has evidently turned off her Discman as well, because the car is silent. I look at her closed eyes in the rear-view mirror, the baby-smooth skin of the forehead behind which I envision a murky labyrinth of tempestuous thoughts, of pain and hatred. Who knows, though? Perhaps it's a little, well-tended garden tulips, narcissi, neat gravel paths that would put Claudia and me to shame for our persistent inability to conceive of what goes on inside our daughter's head.
What the hell is she thinking about? If she thinks at all. I sometimes look at her and get the feeling that there's nothing inside her head but milk shakes sloshing to and fro. Does she realize that we're bound for the meditation centre because she stubbornly refused, some six months ago, to entertain even the glimmer of a thought?
Excerpted from WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? by Doris Dörrie. Copyright © 2000 by Doris Dörrie.
Translation copyright © 2001 John Brownjohn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.