“The Most Beautiful Dress”

Peter Stamm, Translated by Michael Hofmann

December 21, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Peter Stamm's short story collection, It's Getting Dark. Stamm's books have been translated into more than thirty languages. For his body of work, he was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, and won the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize in 2014. Michael Hofmann has translated the work of Gottfried Benn, Hans Fallada, Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, and others. In 2012, he was awarded the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The first time I saw Felix, I had been working for him for several months, and had heard all sorts of stories about him. He was the George Clooney of dendrochronology, said Nicole, our boss, after their first meeting. Daniela, the project manager, also had the most amazing things to say about our chief archaeologist. During coffee breaks the two vied with one another to tell the most outrageous stories. Felix was incredibly good-looking, he was fit, well educated and intelligent, and a perfect gentleman. He goes swimming in the lake at lunchtime every day, said Daniela. She had a meeting with him and was wearing her bathing suit under her light summer dress. Are you going swimming with him? asked Nicole incredulously. In that case, I’ll come too.

When they came back to the office at two, it turned out that things hadn’t progressed beyond lunch. They were both a bit irritable. I wouldn’t mind meeting him myself, I said. I hardly think that’s necessary, said Nicole.

Then, two weeks later, I did meet Felix after all. I had finished the draft texts for the information boards that were going to be put up around the diggings, and because neither Nicole nor Daniela were around, the boss said I should take them around myself and talk them over with the chief archaeologist. He could give me his views in person. I called him, and we agreed to meet at eleven.

Hi, I’m Felix, he said, putting out his hand. He was tanned and was wearing a white plastic helmet, and I have to say he did look good. Brigitte, I said, I’m the graphic designer. If it was up to him, Felix said, then he wouldn’t have all this onsite communication. We’re here to dig. If it upsets people, we can’t help it. He showed me into his office, which was in a shipping container, and I laid the folder in front of him on the table. He looked through the draft material without displaying much interest. Does the agency employ only women? he asked casually. No, I said, but all the women want to be working on this project. He looked up quickly and asked if it was because we were all so passionately interested in archaeology. Archaeologists, I’d say, and I smiled. He didn’t seem to get it and closed the folder. You decide. You’re the specialist. The specialista, I said, even though I wear my hair short. He looked at me and forced a smile. So you’re interested in archaeology? The others couldn’t make it, I said curtly, and could have smacked myself. Felix’s cellphone rang and he took the call without speaking. As he listened, his expression darkened. It’s the man in charge of the dig, he said, pocketing his phone. I’ve got to go down.

There were advanced plans for an underground parking area, but when traces of stilt houses were found, the construction was delayed by a year. A sheet of concrete—which later would be used as the roof of the carpark—was laid over the excavation, and let in it was a square opening, below which a metal staircase led down. Felix scuttled down the steps, and I followed him with the folder jammed under my arm. It was a warm day, and I was wearing sandals and had to take care not to slip on the metal steps. Felix got into some dispute with a squat little man with a ponytail and tattooed lower arms. An engineer was crouching in front of them, struggling with a big pump and cursing. I stopped just behind Felix. The other man

stared at me unpleasantly and asked what I was doing there. I’m waiting for a decision, I said. Felix turned around and looked at me in annoyance. You can’t come here dressed like that, he said, and took off his hard hat and draped it on my head, as though I was a child.

He introduced me to the man in charge of the excavation and said they were experiencing problems with the pump. If we didn’t keep pumping water out, we could be doing our archaeology underwater.

He had a brief discussion with the head of the excavation, then waved me away, and I followed him down the vast hole to a group of young people who were squatting on the ground and scraping away a foot-deep layer of humus, using little trowels. Most of the stuff they just dropped behind them in a heap, but some small bits were carefully placed in cardboard boxes. I repeated that I needed a decision from him. This layer is around five thousand years old, said Felix. It’s from the Neolithic period. He talked about pieces of material they had found, potsherds, bones and other food waste. The din from the drills was deafening, and there was a smell of exhaust fumes and damp earth. I picked up a scrap of blackened wood on the ground and asked if I could keep it. Why not, said Felix. What will you do with it? He said I had to put it in water when I got home, otherwise it would rot in no time. He walked on, then suddenly grabbed me by the arm and pulled me in with a quick movement. Watch out, he said. A digger passed close by me. This is where we found the skeleton, he said, under the layers of occupation. It was a young woman. She must have died over five thousand years ago. Maybe she fell in the lake and drowned. It was fascinating to listen to him,

and slowly it dawned on me what Daniela and Nicole saw in him.

After about an hour, we went up again. My sandals were filthy, and my legs were splashed with mud. Well? I asked, did you decide which draft you wanted? You can be pretty obstinate, can’t you? said Felix, and took the hard hat off my head.

He complimented me on my dress, said Nicole during our coffee break a couple of days later. The only females he’s interested in are skeletons, said Daniela with irritation. In that case you’re probably in with a good chance, aren’t you? said the polygrapher with a grin. I asked if Felix had said anything about my designs. Nicole gestured dismissively. How do you like this: You dig history? We dig it up. Daniela pulled a face and left the kitchen. What’s the matter with her? I asked. Nicole said she was probably upset that she had taken over the project.

A couple of weeks later, the boss said Felix had asked after me. He asked me where the little graphic designer was, he said, with a wink at me. I think Nicole schedules meetings with him deliberately on days when I’m not working.

Early in June, Felix sent a circular email to everyone involved with the project. They had collected some twenty thousand pieces of wood and processed ten thousand microsites, and wanted to celebrate with a little party tomorrow night. When I walked into the ladies’ room at the end of the day, Nicole and Daniela were just getting themselves ready. Nicole was putting her hair up. She was wearing a dress of lime-green taffeta silk and heels. Daniela was got up like a

princess as well. She looked me up and down and asked if I was going to the reception dressed as I was? I had just a simple cotton wrap dress and flats and next to the two of them I felt quite the ugly duckling.

I was about to leave when the boss called me in and gave me something that needed doing right away. By the time I got out of the agency, it was nine o’clock. I took the streetcar as far as the opera. The lakefront was full of nicely dressed people strutting up and down, all making an exhibition of themselves. I seemed to be the only one who was on my own. I had a strong sense of exclusion, and felt the stares of the men and the scowls of the women.

The baths where the reception was taking place was an old wooden construction set on piles out in the lake. When I saw it in front of me, I realized I wasn’t in any sort of party mood. I sat down on the parapet of the quay. In the light of the setting sun, the opposite shore was nothing but a black outline. In the silvery glittering water I saw the heads of one or two evening swimmers. I had the sense I might as well be in the Stone Age. I had spent the day gathering berries and mushrooms on the wooded slopes of the Zurich Berg, then maybe I had woven cloth or ground corn. I felt sweaty, my back hurt, my hands were calloused. At the end of my long day, I had come down to the lake to swim in the light of the setting sun. I slipped off my shoes and undressed. A few passersby stopped and looked in astonishment as I got into the water stark naked, but it didn’t bother me.

The cool water received me, and as I swam out, I suddenly felt the size of this mighty body that contained in its depths the history of millennia. I thought about the woman whose body had been found in the excavation; she had maybe struck out into the lake one summer evening, like me, and never made it back. The low sun was dazzling. When I turned away, I saw the stilted structure of the baths in front of me. The party guests had congregated on one of the wooden decks. I could hear them talking and laughing, the music and the noise from the nearby road, but all the sounds seemed to reach me from far away. I swam closer, and saw Felix standing by the wooden rails between Nicole and Daniela, looking out onto the lake. Nicole had her hand on Felix’s shoulder, and seemed to be having an animated conversation with him. She looked quite lovely, and I felt a violent pang of jealousy that almost hurt me. I don’t know what got into me when I swam a couple of strokes over to the stairs and climbed out of the water. It took a moment for the guests to notice me and turn in my direction. Conversations stopped, the shrill laughter of one woman died in her throat, then there was complete silence. Everyone was staring, recoiling from me as I made my way to the drinks table. I picked up a glass of chardonnay and toasted Felix, who was maybe ten feet away. Briefly I thought he wanted to say something, but then he mutely raised his glass. Although I felt perhaps more naked than at any time in my life, I had no sense of humiliation. It was a strange feeling of pride and sacrifice at once. This was about Felix and me, no one else, and the other guests in their glad rags were just extras, visitors from another era. I put the glass down untouched, walked over to the edge and dived in.

When I turned up the next day at break time, Nicole and Daniela were having a good old chinwag. They pretended not to have seen me. He drove me home, I heard Nicole whisper.

And what was he like? asked Daniela. Nicole rolled her eyes. I got a coffee from the machine and went back to work. I felt like crying.

Just before twelve, I got an email from Felix. He said it was a pity I’d looked in so briefly last night. Did I feel like having supper with him? He wrote: You had the most beautiful dress. In a fury I wrote back to say he had obviously had a pretty good time without me, and I had a lot on my plate and no time to mess around. After that I heard nothing more from him.

Nicole and Daniela didn’t refer to my appearance that evening, but they did treat me with more respect and distance. Nicole was different altogether after that evening. She was in a good mood and less impatient. And while it used to be that she stayed in the office after I left, she now regularly packed up at five, saying she had plans for the evening.

In the summer I went to Australia for a month and attended a language school. When I got back, the excavation work at the opera was over, and we had new contractors.

One evening in September I was standing around downstairs when the excavation boss walked in. Once again, his unpleasant look struck me. I wondered what he was doing here. While I spoke to the secretary, Nicole appeared and kissed and hugged him like a young thing. I wonder how long that’ll work for, said the secretary, as we watched the couple leave. Did you catch his wandering eyes?

The following day, I asked Nicole about her new boyfriend. I thought you and Felix were an item, I said. She shook her head. That was done after your appearance at the party. You were a bit underdressed, wouldn’t you say?

I thought of calling Felix, but what could I say? There wasn’t anything between us, and I was ashamed of my jealousy. Anyway, I doubted whether he was seriously interested in me. If he had been, he wouldn’t have given up so quickly, he would have written to me again. Just the same, I started going to the baths at lunchtime, in the hope of perhaps running into him. There were two decks surrounded by changing rooms, one for women, one for men, and between them, right at the entrance, an area for both sexes. Most of the time, I sat in the café there, so as not to miss Felix, in case he showed. He didn’t.

I went to the baths in all weathers. If it was raining or gloomy and there was no one else there except me, I still got changed and wandered over to the men’s deck, which happened to be where the party had been held, that time. I sat down on the boards, dangled my legs, and looked out into the gray lake.

It was on one of the last days before they closed the baths for winter. It had been gray for days. There was a light drizzle coming down, and the towel I wrapped myself in was sodden. Again, I was thinking about the Stone Age builders who had frozen in their huts right here, five thousand years ago. They must have worried if they had enough food to get them through the winter, if the snow would come early and make it impossible for them to collect firewood. They must have been terrified of illnesses, accidents, wild beasts. And suddenly I felt a great sense of freedom, and it seemed ridiculous to be waiting for a man I barely knew, with whom I had spoken once, and who had treated me like a child.

From the shore, I heard the church clocks strike one. I was about to get up when I felt a hand on my shoulder. In alarm, I spun around and saw Felix standing behind me. He was in bathing trunks and had a towel over his shoulders, and he was smiling. I’ve been expecting you, I said. Me too, he said, as he helped me up. Then, without another word between us, we fell into each other’s arms as though we’d been waiting five thousand years to do so.


Excerpted from It’s Getting Dark by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann. Forthcoming from Other Press.

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