Notes for a Story about What Happened

photo by SG

I’m going to tell you a lie and you’re going to believe it. You will have no choice. I will tell you the truth, too, but that you’ll doubt. Also inevitable. The lie will be seductive because it is something you already know.

I didn’t love her.

I got the call on the train, at lunchtime, and believe it or not I was actually watching the news (the Nth iteration of it) on a ceiling-mounted monitor as I answered the phone, swaying with the train. A Hollywood coincidence. The Malaysian with his infuriating grin. I was thinking give me ten minutes with that cunt in his padded cell. I was thinking ten minutes and a hammer. I could do it in five. Hello?

-Is this Steven?

She was five foot seven, about one hundred and twenty pounds. I don’t know if they weighed her after; what the procedure is; what she even looked like. Put her on a scale in a plastic bag. I do know that she’d just signed up for a fitness course and that is what always angers me when I think about it, the time and effort she wasted. Getting back in the game. But then some stupid cunt with his grand ideas. His belief system. Some vast sea of stupid cunts with their million raised fists called a belief system.

Note: the fistfight we got into in Limbo.

Note: also, the argument in class with Herr Wieland about the word “Jew” in the story and how I then lost my job over it. He hadn’t written the story: I had. It was a published story. Wieland claimed the term was pejorative.

Note: tie it together. Something about violence. But what?

-Is this okay? Does it hurt?

-No, it’s good. It’s okay, it’s good.

-Can she hear us?

-She’s asleep.

-We shouldn’t wake her.

-Are you saying I’m noisy?

-I’m just saying.

-You’re sweet.

But I’m not. I am what I am, and I was doing what I wanted to her, without asking first, on the gold batik bedspread on the fold-out sofa in her borrowed living room, capitalizing on her position of relative weakness as a single mother of 28 without any real career prospects. New age music down low. Or a recording of the ocean with gulls dubbed in. The inevitable candles. The inevitably post-coital, anticipated-with-genuine-dread looks of searching depth. The kinds of looks that make one’s face feel as though it’s crawling with tiny people. I buried my nose in her hair. Went to the bathroom. Anything to escape those searching looks. Jogging with Ginger the next day, I was too out of breath to go into detail. I said,

“What can I say? The earth didn’t move.”

“For you or for her?”

He gestured at a rain-glazed croissant of merd on the sidewalk and we veered. We usually veer together; this time we veered apart. Significant? Ginger, whose man-of-the-world self-image has a tendency to grate at precisely the moment I most need his worldly advice, said, “Any woman who lets you fuck her in the ass is the kind of woman you should never under any circumstance fuck in the ass.”

“So the only acceptable option is forcible sodomy, in your opinion.” I was so out of breath that it ruined my timing and killed the joke.

“Were you wearing a condom?”

“Were you?”

When?”

“Whenever.”

Last night she came back to me again: most of her hair burned off and half of her face crunchy black. I was thinking I hope I don’t see any bone. Don’t let me see the bones. Any skull or ribs or lidless eyeball. She was trying to kiss me and I was forced to be honest.

It was August of that year that I bumped into Indra while walking along Golt Strasse. I hadn’t seen her since the early part of the last decade, but walking along Golt Strasse on a Friday afternoon is a reliable method for bumping into long-lost Berliners of a certain generation. The veterans of this fossilizing in-crowd still haunt the area on weekends, shocking (and reassuring) each other with toddlers and wrinkles and receding hairlines, waltzing towards the same precipice with touching synchrony, clearing the way for the next great wave.

I knew her from the golden age on the cusp between my boredom and my stupid youth, an appetizing girl whose last name I never caught, one of the faces I’ll always associate with my first few ecstatic months in Berlin, before my increasing familiarity with the language, and its native speakers, ruined everything. Beware the expat who masters his German. We had always flirted and nothing more. We never risked touching (each assumed the other had fucked or been fucked too much), but had sometimes exchanged a certain kind of laden look on the packed dance floors of an era during which it now seems to me we all had been rather hysterically afraid to go home.

And here she was sitting in sunlight. That same black-haired girl, now a woman, or old enough to claim the title, sitting on a bench in front of a restaurant a few doors down from the café I had always seen her showing off in, looking almost exactly as she had a decade before. Half-Indian, father German, she was a mischling, as the Germans put it. Coin-colored, round-faced, voluptuous under spectacular black blades of hair. I jogged to her, grinning, and was rewarded with a crushing hug that felt more genuine than what I’d expect. Bent by the hug, I smiled meaninglessly at a toddler seated near her on the bench, hoping the child wasn’t hers, but she was.

“This is Jinny,” said Indra, introducing me to Jinny, but not Jinny to me (most probably because she couldn’t recall or had never known my name) as I took a place between them. I toasted Jinny with a Coke I ordered.

“To once being young,” I said, but Jinny just stared and Indra corrected me. She tapped her temple. “To staying young,” she smiled. “Both of us.”

Which made me feel extremely old. Several times during the conversation, Indra touched my arm and stared unwaveringly in my eyes and invited me to visit her in Bali. She painted a dreamy picture of a murmuring sea and laid-back days and Caligulan disco nights and I was touched to realize that she was looking for a man.

“Anyway” she said, as I eventually stood to leave, “Let’s hook up soon. We should really do something. It’s so good to see you again! Ciao!”

Jinny waved back (note: as though prompted) as I saluted a jaunty goodbye from the corner. It was the end of my lunch break.

I’d lucked into this incredible corporate gig, teaching creative writing to the executives of a company called Eurologika. The CEO wanted his underlings not only to speak and write English fluently but to be able to do so creatively. He wanted them to do that supposedly American thing called thinking outside the box. A dreadful cliché, yes, but I had a year’s contract.

Herr Weiss, Herr Brückner, Herr Richter, Herr Gumpenhölzl, Herr Wieland, Herr Woyczechowski, Herr Sonnabend, Herr Schlegel.

The first day (the class was on a Friday afternoon, in a conference room with a view of the canal, when most people with good jobs were already wherever they’d be spending the long weekend) saw me facing down the bemused tolerance/ mild contempt, for non-famous artists, of the typical German of a certain class. If you’re so good, why haven’t we heard of you? What is it that you do, exactly, that a hundred other people off the streets, with a little time on their hands, can’t do as well or better?

I turned the tables on them: what is it that you do?

“We design and manage systems protocols for capital storage and retrieval patterns on the Hannover model,” sighed Herr Wieland, the youngest in the room, whose headset never, in the three months I knew him, left the bluish egg of his balding head.

“Can you repeat that in plain English?”

He couldn’t. Pressing my momentary advantage, I said: “Your race, your class, your sexual preferences, national identity, earliest childhood memories, religion, education and professional standing are all stories that you have been told, and that you re-tell to others, without having a clue what the techniques and mechanics of storytelling are all about. I’m surprised you’d rather be so sloppy and haphazard about something you will do for every waking moment of your life. And in your dreams, too, and long after you die, possibly. You will be storytelling, but you don’t even really know how to. Is that a satisfactory state of affairs?”

-Is this Steven?

-Yes.

-Steven, you don’t know me. This is Indra’s sister Padme.

I was on the train during the lunch break on the ninth Friday of the class. Classes were held from 14:00 until 15:00, then a forty five minute lunch break, after which another hour or so until I dismissed them to fly off to Ibiza or Gstaad. On this ninth Friday we were critiquing the first bona fide assignment I’d given them: write a 600-word story about another member of the class.

Note: every single story they handed in was about me.

Note: exactly 600 words each.

I was staring at that little fucker’s monkey-grin face on the monitor. I’d assumed it was Ginger, calling with a new number. I looked at the phone and said,

-Excuse me?

-It’s about Indra.

A light dawned as I frowned at the monitor. Note: It’s astonishing how much thinking we’re capable of in a millisecond. Goosebumps. The coroners had shipped the recovered cellphones to the next of kin.

-Wow.

-I second that emotion.

-Your English is pretty good, you know that?

-I had good teachers.

-Is that was this is about? Free lessons?

-(laughs) I’m so glad I called you. Are you glad I called you?

-Of course I am.

-You’re not just saying?

-Would I tell you if I were?

-What do you want to do now?

Note: again the dream. She’s burning and moaning and I’m wondering if it’s pleasure. Does it hurt to burn? In the dream I’m not sure. I turned all the lights on afterwards and watched a little television before falling asleep again. Coda?

(Work this in as dialogue-possibly ironic: I firmly believe that you fake your own reality. What is a lie but the truth with a little talent? What is life but death pretending? When a katydid pretends to be a leaf, do we call that lying? The hawk moth caterpiller resembles a snake, and I resemble a hawk moth caterpiller. I lie, I get laid, I move on.)

Herr Schlegel, who looks like a JFK who’s made it to his 70th birthday with thick white hair intact and now only dresses in black, is confused. He is Herr Wieland’s picador, just as Herr Brueckner, with his off-puns and aphorisms, is the rodeo clown who breaks things up when I challenge Wieland’s arrogance; Wieland’s default pretense that any information he doesn’t already own is trivial. Everyone else is the audience. The coliseum. Schlegel says, “This story of yours, Herr Instructor, is it true?”

Note: classes were cancelled after the 12th week, but I was paid for the year.

“Define true.” At which, of course, Herr Wieland snorts.

“Did it happen as you have written it?”

“Does that matter?”

“If it is fiction, it is mere pornography. If it is true, I think, in all honesty, one must say the writer has no shame.”

“By revealing his truth, the writer reveals the reader to himself, Herr Schlegel. It’s a sacrifice we’ve been obligated to make since before Mr. Joyce.”

“Nonsense. There is nothing of me in this story!”

Wieland picks up his copy of the stapled pages and flips them until he comes to an excerpt, which he reads with such excitement, such theatrical disgust and sarcasm, that he can barely pronounce the words, let alone contain himself.

It’s the posture of submission that turns you on: the oiled flesh, brown as furniture, rich in the flamelight. The ass up and the head down with all that hair gushing forth, gushing out, a fountain of crude oil spilling over the edge and pooling on the Persian carpet at the foot of the futon, the face inclined politely away, gasping at the wall in a prayerful rhythm, the grunts of assent or helpless recognitions. So many groans are just prayer, and so much of prayer is just begging, and almost all begging is the music of pain. Her guttural prayers and my flickering shadow on her wall and those glistening streaks of her mud on me: what’s more exciting than that?

“Goatfuckers.”

Ginger, with his Jesuit upbringing, says “Don’t start.”

“Don’t start what?”

“Don’t start that intolerance shit.”

We are back in Limbo, our old club, after two months of swearing off the smoke and the sweat and the alarming influx of rich kids in from Zehlendorf, simply because there is nowhere else to go. Twice we’d tried places where the sensation that hit us like a wall of digital locusts as we entered couldn’t even be identified as music. We’d tried places that looked and smelled like the decadent version of daycare. Sheepishly, we returned to the passé nightspot we’d sworn off, and three Turkish types in payment-plan suits and pastel loafers, sunglasses mired in their highly flammable jet-black hair, have pushed across our view of the dancefloor, tugging their blondes by the rings in their noses. Two are blondes, actually, and one is not.

I finish my drink. “What intolerance shit?”

Ginger says, “Oh, come on. Remember the day Indra flew back to Bali? You were so fucking relieved you bought me dinner. And now you’re playing the grieving fiancé. Boo fucking hoo.”

I pretend not to hear and move onto the dance floor, parting a metaphorical curtain, doing my American dance. Loose in the shoulders. Impossible for Germans and alien to Asians and instantly identifiable. That and my very good shoes. I dance from the periphery in, eyes on myself, easing towards the center. The three Turks and their escorts are trying out their modern dance lessons in the middle of the crowd and I am locked on the best-looking girl in their menagerie, the taller, thinner, slightly embarrassed and attractively reticent one in dark slacks, gold pumps and ruffled white collar and sleeves. She can’t be older than nineteen. Tossing her hair. They must have kidnapped her. First you look, and then you look away, and then they look, and then they look away. There’s a rhythm to it until your eyes meet and you can all but predict the future.

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