Chapter 7: The Proposal

Neither Kerstin nor Martin were exactly what you would call the marrying kind. Martin was already married to his job, and Kerstin had grown up witnessing too many of her parents’ arguments to be under any illusion that the big wedding at the end of a romantic comedy was really a happy end. So it came as a surprise to many when they both decided to tie the knot a mere two years into their relationship.

There was of course a rather pragmatic reason for their sudden haste to commit: In her third year, when the students had to select their graduate job from a list made available by the university, Kerstin found that her own choice had been limited to three of the most dire places in East Germany, none of them in Berlin where she wanted to stay. On paper the university was entitled to do this, since every aspiring student had to sign a document committing themselves to working for three years in a company and location considered ’vital to the socialist economy’. In practice this led to downright abuse, with universities offering the more convenient students the pick of the crop and reserving the worst places for those not toeing the line. Three years in an abysmal place and job feels like a very long time to anyone in their early twenties, so Kerstin was angry and more than a little shocked the day she was told she had a week to decide between the three equally unappealing options. What was particularly upsetting was the fact that the list presented to all the students still contained a number of available jobs in Berlin which, so she was told, she was not eligible for since she had no family there.

“Of course I have, my boyfriend lives here“, she said at the interview.

“Oh, I can’t let boyfriends count, otherwise everyone would claim they have a boyfriend here“, replied the Head of Design with a smirk that didn’t escape Kerstin. “It would be different if you were married, which of course you aren’t.“

“Didn’t I read somewhere that this system aims to place students near where they’re from?“, she asked. “None of the three options you’re offering me are anywhere near my home. Here, take this place: How is that anywhere near my hometown? It’s twice as far as Berlin, and it’s right by the West German border, in the 50-kilometer-exclusion zone. Anyone wanting to visit me there would need to apply for a special permit to do so.“

“I already told you: The Berlin options need to be kept open for those with family in Berlin. This is what’s available to you.“ His voice was patronising now, whith a nasty edge.

“But I happen to know the Berliners have all been placed already. So who are you keeping these for?“

“Don’t you think it’s down to us to decide whether they have been placed?  Now, I will see you back a week from today when you will let me know your choice out of your three options.“

“Excuse me but why are you doing this to me?“, Kerstin asked, looking him straight in the eye. It didn’t matter now. “If this is some sort of prison sentence, what’s my crime?“

“Now don’t get shirty with me, lady“, the Head said, suddenly thrown off-track by this rather daring insinuation. He clearly enjoyed having power over people, though he didn’t quite know how to handle that either. It was obvious that he hadn’t got his job thanks to his abilities. Many were puzzled as to what those were. He tried a smile, but it came out as another smirk. He put on his lecturing voice:

“Do you call these prison sentences? You should be grateful to be given a job, there are many countries in the world where people are unemployed, as you very well know.“ He dismissed her with a patronising wave of his hand:

“Off you go, I’ll see you next Wednesday.“

When she told Martin about the interview that evening, his reaction was swift:

“We can marry if that helps you.“

Kerstin stared at him. This hadn’t even occured to her. “You’re joking“, she said.

“I’m perfectly serious. Wouldn’t that be the most straightforward way to solve the problem? The guy said so himself, didn’t he?“ Martin’s uncompromising logic never failed to astonish Kerstin. In a way he was absolutely right of course. Though as far as proposals were concerned, this one took some beating in its lack of decorum and romanticism.

“I wasn’t aiming for that, if that’s what you think“, she said.

“I don’t. And since we’re both not keen to get married, at least here’s a proper reason to. Or do you expect me to go down on one knee?“ He grinned.

She pummeled his chest with her fists: “You really are the most – “

“You’d have to organise it all, of course“, he continued, not interested in what she thought he was. “And you’d have to be quick, you know I’m leaving for Hungary in five weeks. And“, he added, almost as an afterthought,  “I might not come back. In which case you can keep my flat, as you will be my wife by then. See, another good reason to get married – I’m surprised I didn’t think of that earlier!“

“Well, thanks“, Kerstin said, although she couldn’t quite decide whether to be grateful or offended. He was right: She didn’t think much of marriage, and she knew perfectly well that he didn’t either. Still, she was slightly in shock. What was she to him, she wondered. Was this his way of declaring his love for her, since he didn’t ’do romantic’? Should she be flattered he trusted her this much? Or did he really not care about whom he was married to, and why? Of course it didn’t matter to her. Or did it? The more she thought about it, the more confusing it all became.  And how on earth would she break this to her parents? They hadn’t even met him yet. Well, they had to cope with it, surely they wouldn’t agree with her being pushed around by some little jobsworth. Or would they?

The following day Kerstin called the registry office. She found out that it was four weeks between submitting the necessary paperwork and the wedding. No time to lose then, she had to get a train home the same day to retrieve her birth certificate. Berlin Pankow District had the first available date, so she took that.  Next came the call to her mother at work.

“Hi Mum, I’m fine. I’m just calling because I need to come home tonight to collect my birth certificate. Could you dig it out for me, please?“

“Why, what happened?“ As always, her mother sounded concerned.

“Mum, I’m getting married. Please don’t freak out. The university want to send me to some depressing place for three years, and I’m definitey not going there, so we have to marry. Seriously, you should see the options they’ve given me, it’s outrageous – “ Kerstin heard the last coin clank through the public payphone. The call would be disconnected in a few seconds.  “I’ll explain later, I’m running out of change“, was all she could manage before she heard the long, continuous tone at the other end.

A three-hour train ride later Kerstin arrived at her parents’ flat to find her mother perched on the stool in the tiny kitchenette, sobbing quietly. Her father, not normally the caring type, conveniently made use of his wife’s upset to scold his daughter, though for a different reason: He was ashamed, he said, of this calculating move of hers.

“Can’t you for once stick to the rules like everyone else?“, he barked at her, bigging himself up. She was slightly taller than him.

“Not if what you call ’the rules’ are being used to punish me because I haven’t joined their damn party“, Kerstin replied, “why should I let them win? These are three years of my life they’re trying to ruin. And since when are you so in favour of the rules of this system? You’re the first to complain about them as long as the neighbours are out of earshot. But when it comes to someone having the guts to actually stand up to them, you don’t even want to hear them out. Even if it’s your own child.“

“Don’t you dare talk to me like that!“, fumed her father.

“Why not? Because it’s true?“ She held his gaze. He couldn’t touch her anymore.

“Get out of my house now!“, he hollered, stomping out of the room in one of his typical strops. With great pleasure, thought Kerstin. She turned to her mother. “I’m sorry Mum, but I have to do this. Do you have the certificate for me?“

“You haven’t even told me yet who you’re marrying“, sniffed her mother.

“Martin of course. I told you about him.“

“You never even brought him here. His parents know you, of course.“

“He’s your dream son-in-law, trust me. He’s a doctor, and a scientist to boot. You can show off to the neighbours now.“

“Don’t you make fun of me! I’m upset enough as it is. I hope your children will never do that to you.“ She fished a soggy-looking handkerchief out of her pocket and blew her nose.

“Mum, honestly, I could do a lot worse. It’s not as if I’d met him yesterday.“

“Am I at least invited to the wedding?“

“Wedding? Oh yeah … it will be a small party, just you and a witness for guests. In Berlin, probably Pankow. Around four weeks from now. I’ll call you about the date and place, ok?“

Back in Berlin, Martin greeted the news of Kerstin’s mother coming to the wedding with rolling his eyes.

“Does this mean we will have to have some sort of party and all that stuff?“

“Just a small lunch, to keep her happy“, promised Kerstin.

The news had travelled through the university corridors by the time she went back. In a surprising display of openness, one lecturer stopped her on the stairs to congratulate her on ’socking it to them.’ It certainly felt good to reply to the question “So which option have you dedided for?“ at her next meeting with the Head by saying:

“I’ve decided to get married.“ She produced the paperwork with the wedding date.

“I see“, said the Head, making a good impression of someone sucking on a lemon while Kerstin took her pick from the Berlin options.

When the big day came, the ‘something borrowed’-rule applied to most of Kerstin’s outfit, a cream crepe summer dress lent for the day by a fellow student she’d approached in the corridor where she’d spotted her wearing it. She’d bought the small rose bouquet herself, keen to look the part when she picked up her mother from the Underground station. She arrived there five minutes late and found Martin and her mother standing a few metres apart, looking past each other. Well, at least her father hadn’t come. Not that she’d expected him to. Martin looked slightly shocked when he saw the dress and the flowers. Kerstin ignored his expression and introduced her mother to him.

The marriage had all the pizazz of a divorce. “Is this everyone?“, asked the woman in a blue suit who was conducting the ceremony, looking in confusion at the two people assembled behind the bride and groom. “Yes please, you can go ahead“, Kerstin said in a deliberately cheerful voice. At Kerstin’s request the music was kept to just one piece, the Wedding March.

“Oh please, no“, hissed Martin, “surely ’I will survive’ would have done?“

There were no rings either, also at the couple’s behest. By now the official looked positively bewildered. With the centrally issued portrait of the thin-lipped head of state Erich Honecker watching over the ceremony, she stumbled through the closing words of her standard speech, which included something about socialism and duties. Then, suddenly, it was all over, they spilled out onto the street and were on their way to some charmless restaurant with plastic flowers on gingham tablecloths for a lunch of schnitzel and chips and some awkward conversation.

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