1. Ginger, Ollie, Inisha and Kim
Ginger has a late lunch/early dinner meeting with Ollie, Ollie Daumen, an executive from Heart Cell Records. The task at hand is only obliquely related to music. All they are doing is looking at photographs. On the table in front of Ginger is a thick sheaf of prints.
They are having lunch in Chez Guevara, on Alte Schonehauser Allee, where the waitresses are twice as pretty as the food is good, and the food is ten times better than the service, except for the breakfasts. The breakfasts are equal to the service. The waitresses are all wearing berets. More than once, as Ginger sits there with Ollie, songs with which he has had something to do warble at them from the low-key speakers over the bar. I repudiate you, he thinks, each time. One, especially, sung by a kid from Munich with the most irritating voice since Alvin and the Chipmunks, makes him very nearly physically ill.
Ollie is younger than Ginger but looks older. He has a jowly face, rough with perpetual stubble, under a sexy boy haircut. Everyone at the record company envies Ollie’s hair. You can tell, because they all make fun of it. His nickname at the company is Duran Duran. His eyes have the secretive twinkle of a sherry-tippling grandmother’s. It was Ollie to whom Ginger once explained, during a punishingly long recording session with a talent-free German rap act that had to be rushed out to market a week before Christmas, the German national character versus the American national character as exemplified in Dusty Springfield’s two versions of the Bacharach/David song “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” her German cover of which was called “Warten und Hoffen.”
Now, in the American version of this elegant Jane Austenesque pearl of ‘60s era romanticism, the chorus is: Wishin’, and hopin’, and thinkin’, and prayin’, plannin’ and dreamin’ each night of his charms… that won’t get you into his arms. In other words, it is a call to action…it advocates aggressive measures in a carpe diem sort of way. If you want some attention from the dreamed-of love object, girl, you best go get him…don’t sit around on your sumptuous ass in the rumpus room just sighing. Do something about it. Whereas the German version of the chorus states the exact opposite. It advises the listener: Nur warten und hoffen und hoffen und warten, Sehnen und träumen, Tag aus und tag ein, Dann bist du bald nicht mehr allein… Just waiting and hoping and hoping and waiting, longing and dreaming, day out and day in, then soon you won’t be alone anymore…
“You see, Ollie? Right there is the key…”
“Oh, come on!”
“…it’s the whole fucking problem with your country! You’re always Warten und Hoffen…”
“Like there are no problems with America!”
“…you’re a bunch of day-dreamers, baby. A bunch of talkers and planners…”
“A bunch of thinkers, perhaps, yes. Yes, we Germans think before we do… whereas you Americans tend to shoot before you think…” Ollie had then mimed aiming, Oswald-like, a rifle at Ginger from the other end of the control room sofa and pulling the trigger.
The material they have in front of them has been distilled from sixty rolls of film. There is a black girl (not really black, but half-German and half-African), an Asian girl (of Japanese descent, but with bleached-blonde hair, born in Berlin), and one very white girl, tall, striking, with enamel-blue eyes and blue-black waist-long hair. Together they are going to be known as “Q-Teez,” and Ginger is being asked to write the songs for their first record. The photos range from class-picture cute to insincerely Sapphic; it is Ginger’s general opinion that if you’re going to photograph girls kissing each other, they should be given a few days to practice first.
“I like the way this one looks,” he says, “…even though she needs a new hair style,” sliding a photo of the tall one, dressed like a Geisha but leaning across a motorcycle, back across the table towards Ollie, “…but the other two look like truck-stop chippies. How old is she?” Ginger taps a photo of the “black” one.
“We’re claiming… I don’t know. What do you think? Seventeen?”
“She doesn’t look a day under twenty one. And I’d say very near to celebrating her twenty third.”
Ollie salutes him. “Good guess.”
“And the Japanese girl looks like a transvestite. Why is she wearing a scarf around her neck in every picture?” He strokes his Adam’s apple. “How big are her hands?”
Ollie shrugs. “These three tested the best together.”
“Which one can sing?”
“Yumi. The Japanese.”
Ginger taps a picture of the tall one again. “Too bad it’s not her.”
“Couldn’t sing with a gun to her head and a canary in her mouth and… Tom Jones as her biological father.”
“Don’t tell me the black girl is the dancer…”
“Okay, I won’t tell you.” Another Ollie shrug. Ollie has honed his shrug, over the years, into a tapered, elegant tool of detachment. “There is a reason that stereotypes are stereotypes.”
The look that had been decided on is sporty casual, plus incongruous accessories of glamour (running suits and diamond necklaces, say)… Ollie and Ginger put the photos away and they decide to order. Before Chez Guevara, the in-place had been right up the street: The PsycheDeli. Ginger is sorry that The PsycheDeli is no longer “hip,” because the food there is still much better, and he eats there whenever it isn’t important, meaning, whenever he is alone, simply for the pleasure of the food and the atmosphere. A hundred years ago (or so it seemed), when Ginger had a wife, they would go to The PsycheDeli for pepper cheese cake, or bagel/ice cream sandwiches, and lounge on the terrace out back, finger-feeding each other and making an afternoon of it.
It is the late lunch rush, and Chez Guevara is full of faux film producers, out of work actors, and the spoiled sons of Zehlendorf (Berlin suburb) with their tier-3 model girlfriends, along with a handful of very well dressed but solo gray-at-the-temples nobodies who are leering around the room and eating their hearts out. Ginger has four shots of Elke, the tallest Q-T, fanned out in front of him like Tarot cards: The Queen of Pentacles; The Tower: The Virgin; Death.
“She’s definitely the sexiest.”
“And the biggest bitch to work with.”
“Viva la Resistance.”
“You won’t think it’s so funny when you’re in the studio with her.”
“I’m not afraid of a little controversy.”
“You know Udo? The photographer?”
They’ve been sitting there almost an hour already when their waitress shows up, asking if they require menus, or if they know what they want already. Ollie orders a capirinia and a rum-and-coke, and a plate of little sandwiches, to start with. She almost leaves before Ginger can order, assuming that Ollie’s drinks are for both of them.
“Udo said something about Kiery…the black one…the one with the huge boobs? That she needed to loose a little weight? That’s all. You need to lose a kilo or two, honey. Yes? Kiery was fine with it, she’s a sweetheart and a real pro, but this Elke…”
“She says, ‘look at you!‘ To Udo! In front of everyone! She says, ‘You’re fat and old and bald and you’ve got the nerve to criticize us?’“
“Good for her.”
“Hey, Udo thought it was pretty funny. He tells her, ‘Honey, I’m not the one having my picture taken,’ and she replies, ‘Damn right you aren’t.'”
“I bet Udo was careful what he said to her after that.”
“He didn’t refuse to work with them again, he only let it be known that he would be charging more the next time. So, she’s already costing us money. Even Willie’s afraid of her! Personally, I think it was a mistake. To cast her, I mean. There’s plenty of subservient little blow-job artistes out there who would kill for this opportunity, no? So, why this one?” He counts on his fingers. “One, she’s too tall…she’s a head taller than the other two. They look like her children in some of these pictures. Two, she has a big attitude. Attitude is something you should only get with a gold record. Three, she can’t fucking sing and she can’t fucking dance, right? So what is she doing there?”
Ginger gently removes a creased photo of her (faking a karate kick at the camera) from Ollie’s grip. “Because she’s the one you can’t take your eyes off of.”
Ollie leans across the table. With a low voice and that grandmotherly twinkle in his eye he corrects Ginger. “Because she’s the one Willie can’t take his schwanz out of.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Shitting you? There’s no equivalent for that phrase in the German language, sir.” Ollie leans back in his chair again and runs his fingers through his thick blonde hi-lighted hair and wipes a hand down his grandmotherly face and the waitress comes with their provision of drinks.
“When I first started working for Willie,” Ginger reminisces, sipping his Tom Collins, “I assumed Willie was doing that boy… what was his name? Top ten record five years ago? Had a big hit called fools in paradise? Looks a little like…”
“Yeah, him. I assumed he was…”
“Without a doubt.”
“So Willie Gold likes Redskins and Yankees.”
“Boys and girls.”
“Willie likes anything that’s half his age, minus ten. That’s the formula.” Ollie poured a rum and coke through his smile. “Half his age minus ten. I worked it out.”
“Glad I’m not his wife.”
“Tell me, what is it you pity most about her? Her life of unimaginable luxury, or the fact that she hasn’t had to touch Willie’s willy in thirty years?”
“So this Elke is nineteen.”
“That’s what she claims.”
There is an attention-getting Turkish girl sitting at a table on a diagonal from them that Ollie has positioned his chair… otherwise his back was to her… in order to see. She is laughing at something that her female dinner date has said and Ollie’s mouth is open in a sympathetic response, holding his glass like he is about to spit his heart into it.
The Turkish girl has toothpick arms (silky with dark hair) and breasts like…breasts. Not deformity-large, these breasts, but wonderfully useful-looking. Wearing a short beige low-cut dress she is darker than, with her hair in a thick braid that could be a high-tension cable. Like a lot of girls who end up on television, she is so pretty that she is very nearly ugly… eyes too big, jawline so narrow it’s extraterrestrial, neck impossibly long. They would probably laugh at her in Ankara. Ollie, meanwhile, is projecting future events on the canvas of her terracotta skin… his blink rate is dangerously slow… Ginger isn’t even sure if Ollie’s heart is still beating.
Ginger clears his throat and says “How’s Kim?”
“The female that you…”
“Ooops, I forgot: you’re American. Don’t ask don’t tell, right?” He winks and speaks softly. “Kim is fine. She reads a lot of classics these days… Kant, Goethe, Nietzsche. Very impressive. She’s in bed all day with a stack of books on one side and a box of chocolates on the other. She says she wants to improve her German. But who does she want to improve her German for, I ask myself. Is she having an affair with a seventy year old professor of Philosophy at Humboldt University? But no, she can’t be, because even professors of Philosophy prefer skinny young students to middle-aged wives who are getting fatter every day.” He finishes his drink. “Don’t look so uncomfortable. And how is your beautiful German wife? Oops, I forgot, you’re divorced, she hates your guts and you haven’t spoken in years. May I please go back to staring at the Turkish girl again?”
“She’s certainly worth your tawdry dick.”
Ollie nods at her when he catches her eye. “That she is. Ever fuck around on Birdy, when you two were married?”
“Ever hate yourself for it?”
Ginger pauses before answering. “Sure.”
“Maybe Kim’s depressed,” Ginger offers. Ollie snorts. Ginger thinks: that’s the worst thing about the Unhappy… the funniest, sometimes, too. They can never seem to imagine the suffering of others.
“Excuse me for one moment, please,” says Ollie.
He gets up and saunters to the girls’ table with his hands in his pockets, a move that will call attention to his beautifully tailored suit, and he stands there, his back to Ginger, rocking on his heels. The Turkish girl’s dinner date, a chubby blonde (it isn’t poor fat, but rich fat) in a backless dress with a waist-long ponytail (fake), smiles over her shoulder at Ginger. She lifts her wine glass in a pantomime toast and mouths some big-voweled words he can’t make out. There is lipstick on her capped teeth.
Ollie’s wife Kim came over to Berlin on the same boat that Ginger did, so to speak. He saw her around town quite a lot back then, in all the expat clubs, a sweet-faced little woman in outlandish platform shoes who developed a reputation for being somewhat of a fag-hag. This was years before Ollie even knew that black doesn’t rub off with a rag. Ginger heard he met Kim at a party that featured a German professional Michael Jackson imitator who later performed at their wedding.
Marrying Kim may have temporarily alienated his parents, but it changed Ollie’s career forever: a German record exec with a black American wife gains knowledge and experience overnight; he shines with the quasi-authentic gleam of reflected soul. Ollie became super-credible and his higher-ups at Heart Cell began to behave as though he suddenly knew what he was talking about. His marrying black, a calculated move or not, benefited him musically in much the same way that Sammy Davis Jr.’s conversion to Judaism about 50 years prior had benefited him; in any case, it only really mattered to insiders. Ollie started getting the jobs… signing groups, matching the singer with the single, executive-producing albums. So what if his black wife Kim is about as funky as the Archbishop of Canterbury?
Ollie brings the two girls, Inisha (accent on the first syllable), the Turkish one, and Petra, the blonde, back to his and Ginger’s table, dragging their chairs for them. Inisha Ozgören, born and raised in Munich, of pure Turkish descent, is first of all German, however. This is clear in her posture, the angular disposition of her neck, the way she purses her lips when speaking. Her posture is quite regal.
“Petra, Ginger, Inisha, Ginger. Ginger, I’ve been explaining to the girls,” he says, spinning his chair around and sitting in it backwards, “that we could use a little expert opinion over here. Otherwise, it’s gonna be a long long night.” He winks at Ginger, and Ginger winks back. Ginger finds it extremely amusing, as usual, that they are all speaking English. The girls speak English with an English accent. Ollie gestures at the promo stills of Q-Teez that are fanned across the table and says, to their guests, “So what do you think? Be brutally honest.”
He winks at Ginger again. “Market research.”
“She’s attractive,” says cherub-faced Petra, dismissively, ruddy-cheeked with wine, smirking at a photo of Kiery. Before this, Ginger had no particular feeling about this light-skinned black girl, Kiery, but now he feels protective of her. He remembers Ollie saying that Udo the photographer had warned her in front of everyone that she needed to lose weight, and that Kiery had taken the criticism cheerfully, and it makes him want to hug her.
Inisha picks up another photo of Kiery wearing an evening gown and motorcycle boots and she squints at it, biting her lip. It seems to Ginger that sensing a sudden opportunity has sobered her; she begins thinking very hard. “This one looks a bit butch, I think,” continues Petra, with a giggle, indicating Yumi. Petra’s counterfeit of an Oxford accent is flawless.
“Inisha, don’t you agree with Petra that Kiery is attractive?” asks Ollie.
“And this one,” adds Petra, raising her eyebrows, indicating Elke. “Rather arrogant, I’d say. Too skinny. I don’t find her one bit….”
Ollie cuts in. “But I’m still interested in Inisha’s opinion…”
His persistence is comically nightmarish; he is pushing at something, shouldering a door, forcing it, until it gives way. He is too drunk to see that the door isn’t even locked. “Don’t be shy,” he is saying. Let it go, Ginger is thinking. He suddenly hates all the drunks in the room. All the horny old men; all the hard-eyed daughters of pragmatism. He wants to go home, eat a snack, read a magazine and masturbate, but Ollie is holding the afternoon hostage. They can’t leave the table until his demands are met.
Inisha shrugs and smiles helplessly. She is thinking, and telegraphing the thought, that this other dark girl in the photograph is cute, yes… but… certainly no better looking than Inisha herself, who is bound by good manners to keep this opinion to herself. Thank her good upbringing. Ginger glances at his watch. Ollie nods at Ginger gravely, as though he is still meant to take both Ollie and the conversation seriously, and Ollie is drumming on the table with pensive fingers, concluding, “Something tells me that our Inisha doesn’t quite agree.”
Ginger wants to say: who gives a fuck?
“It’s obvious,” Ginger says, to tease everyone, “that Inisha doesn’t care for this pop music nonsense, Ollie. Give the girl some credit for having a brain! Why don’t we talk about something interesting for a change?” Ginger gathers up the promo shots as though to put them away, yanking two from Petra’s fat fingers. He says, “Ollie and I were discussing Nietzsche earlier. One of Ollie’s best friends is an expert on Nietzsche. Her name is Kim, right, Ollie? Kim something, I forget her last name. Ollie, what is it you told me that Kim was saying about Nietzsche? Something about…”
“You have the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen on a man,” says Inisha suddenly, turning to Ollie, ignoring Ginger utterly, “may I touch it?”
He bends sideways towards her and gives her his head like a puppy, like a lamb, resting with a sigh on her bosom, and she clutches at his yellow hair with her graceful hands with a yelp of delight. Ginger ignores this, leafing through the stack of photos. He says, for the sake of saying something, gesturing at a photo of Elke, “Is this her natural hair color?”
“What?” Ollie is in an awkward position from which to see the photos, being as his head is wedged in Inisha’s cappuccino bosom.
“This girl, Elke. Is black her natural color?”
Ollie sits up. Inisha, Ginger notices, manages to keep a hand on Ollie. Ollie is no Fred Astaire, but to an Ausländer female he is a rare commodity: an upper class German with a glamorous job who doesn’t mind flirting with a foreigner. Being Turkish, there is no way in Hell this girl is going to give him a sliver of pussy without an engagement ring, reflects Ginger, which means that poor Kim, his wife, will have to go, even if Ollie doesn’t actually end up proposing to Inisha. Ginger thinks all this in the time it takes for Ollie to reach into the inner pocket of his blazer and extract a credit-card-sized digital camera. Scrolling through shots, he finally finds what he is looking for. He hands Ginger the camera. “It’s a wig,” Ollie says.
Ginger is shocked: he is looking at a pre-makeup, pre-wardrobe photo of a pretty blonde… and he recognizes her. “This is Elke?”
Ollie nods. “I like her better in the black wig. She’s kinda boring as a blonde. I mean: a blonde in Germany… what a concept.” Ollie reaches for his camera. “As a blonde she looks like a fucking… hooker. Which is…”
“Exactly what she is,” says Ginger.
2. Ginger, Birdy, Cough
When Ollie settled the bill and all four left Chez Guevara together, he took Ginger aside, and tickled his ear with his lips, like a drunk will do, whispering, “Sure you don’t want to join us?” and “Don’t forget: I’m with you for the next two hours. Call me tomorrow.” He tossed his car keys to Inisha.
Inisha and Petra had a six room flat in Stieglitz, and that’s where Ollie intended to spend the time he’d be pretending to spend with Ginger. But Ginger is a bad alibi, because he’s friends with Ollie’s wife Kim and Kim knows that Ginger is clean these days and rarely even touches red wine…his party days are over… but last minute infidelities always have a slapdash air about them that prove that the perpetrators want, most of all, to be caught. Ginger could picture poor Kim at three in the morning, woofing down a large pizza with everything on it, blinking at the television, waiting for the sound of Ollie’s key in the front door key hole. Ollie will tiptoe over the threshold, flooding the flat with pussy, hoping that Kim is asleep. Ollie’s infidelity was Kim’s punishment for getting fat, and Kim’s getting fat was Ollie’s punishment for not loving her any more, and Ollie’s not loving Kim anymore was Kim’s punishment for being human and needy and simply there…and Ollie’s ever loving Kim in the first place was his parent’s punishment for god knows what. And so on, back to the beginning of time.
Ginger, waving, walking up the street as Ollie’s car peels off towards the bloated late afternoon sun, can remember another instance, years back… this is almost a déjà vu… during which Ollie had contrived to leave Chez Guevara with a woman other than his wife with the identical monomaniacal intention of doing childishly naked, tenderly violent things for an hour or two before slithering home. That time, Ginger had been rather drunk, or drugged up, or something more characteristic for a musician than the sober introspection he is rehabilitating his reputation with these days. There had been lots of back-slapping, and mirthless hilarity, he remembers. It was late at night, or rather, an early Tuesday morning, when he found himself on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, he could remember, because he’d thought, with bemused alarm, when the party was in full swing, This is a little much for a Monday evening, eh?
“You sure you don’t want to join us?” Ollie had whispered, just as now, only in that case the girl (Thai) was giggling and climbing into the driver’s side of Ollie’s Porsche. The German Pop Economy had been much healthier then. Then, as now, Ginger had declined the offer, not that he hadn’t felt righteously tempted. His wife (Ginger was then married to a striking blonde he called Birdy) was not doing her duty in the conjugal arena… and who could’ve blamed him for getting elsewhere what wasn’t forthcoming at home? Was Ginger ready to bury his dick along with all the other pleasures of his receding youth? But, in this case, the available girl just wasn’t his cup of tea. Unlike his wife, who was his cup of tea until she went too cold and bitter for reasons he swears are unknown.
That first time Ollie said You sure you don’t want to join us?, Ginger had declined the offer to join the debauch and waved Ollie and Ollie’s new friend off and he walked a long walk through a cold-boiling fog that smelled like an old hat and swirled like curtains parting to absorb Ollie’s Porsche. Ginger remembers: it was early in the year. February, perhaps. There were still Christmas lights strung through bare-branched trees in postures of agony along the way, seams of gold in the translucent rock of the fog, and the view was magical, especially as he approached the massive black baroque bridge over the river on Friedrichstrasse, which he could never cross without thinking of sex.
Birdy and he used to call it the Fucking the Enemie bridge, because it had been spray-painted with that slogan, in neon orange, solecism included, by skinheads during a Mayday parade right after the Wall came down. The bridge became a big part of the jargon of their private mythology. Ginger would call her and say, “Meet me at Fucking the Enemie…”
Or she’d start a story with: “I was walking across Fucking the Enemie this morning…”
The graffito had long-since been removed, but not the memory. It was very quiet, the walk home that night after getting too drunk with Ollie. Standing on that bridge on that warm night in February, he had just recently begun to become what he felt was middle-aged and he was thinking of his inward-collapsing marriage, and his Unca Jerry, strangely… his great-Uncle Jerry Miller, who had put dreams of Europe in his head long before he even knew what a Big Apple was. Back when Ginger was a free-ranging waif in Chicago. Ginger’s mom had been Jerry’s confidante (Unca Jerry was the family hair stylist… he’d cut your hair and psychoanalyze you at the same time), and, years later, he tried it with Ginger, but Ginger was too young and Unca Jerry was far too old to confide in anyone. But he liked telling stories, and Ginger, as a fatherless kid, would do. He was the perfect audience, in fact.
“Germany was like a nasty drunk. The drink was power. By the time I got there, the war was over…it was like the aftermath of a wild party… some were sheepish, some were defiant. You had to be careful. It’s not common knowledge, but a lot of Americans got killed over there in the so-called peacetime… had their throats cut, or got lynched… white trash getting lynched! Army kept it quiet. See, they didn’t want popular opinion back home to turn against American involvement.” And Ginger would say, tell me about the German girls again, Unca Jerry!
Ginger hugged himself in the fog, and gulls were floating in linked spirals over a rusty barge that was moored to the far bank, stacked with tires. Another barge, upriver, came chugging from under the torn blanket of the fog. Before reaching the bridge, he had passed the Friedrichpalast, a relic from the Communist era. The Friedrichpalast was East Berlin’s version of Carnegie Hall, and he was recalling times that he and Birdy, in the raw fever of early courtship, had picnicked with candles on its steps in the dead of night. Being within walking distance of her flat it was a favorite spot, back before this neighborhood became chic; before, even, it was entirely safe.
It looked like Brooklyn, when the skinheads hadn’t yet been shoved by rent increases and snooty cafes deeper into the crumbling East. You’d see them swaggering out of the grocery store with their jumbo provisions of beer every morning, as fit and uniformed as any army, in jackboots and stove pipe jeans and suspenders, running in large groups to catch the tram, marching towards Prenz’lberg for a football game. What was frightening sometimes was how good looking some of them were…you could see them eliciting the secret sympathies of working-class Germans; the hero worship of children. The “skinhead” brand had enormous name recognition. Skinheads seemed to take strength from the liberal disgust heaped on them; they had the advantage of being underdogs. This area was still dilapidated enough in those days to feel like home for the scruffy arm of fascism, so Birdy and Ginger had to be alert, they had to be watchful, discreet about holding hands, because they were on their turf.
You had to be careful. It’s not common knowledge…
It was about as safe or unsafe for Ginger as living in Harlem would have been. The skinheads weren’t always necessarily looking for trouble, but they were also the least likely to miss an opportunity to send an arrogant American to the hospital. Birdy had a weird apparent compassion for them that made her even more attractive to him, at first, because she claimed to see them as a species of wild animal being robbed of its habitat by the necessary evil of encroaching development.
“Soon,” she would say, “they will have nowhere to go.”
“Except to school,” Ginger would answer.
She liked his contentiousness, he liked what he first assumed was her compassion; they’d picnic at midnight and fuck in broad daylight in isolated corners of various city parks. Her sexuality was magical, it was manic, she came to Ginger after he’d suffered through a string of detached lovers and her obsession with the basic biology at the core of the act was a revelation. She’d accompany Ginger pantyless, in a short skirt, to matinee movies that nobody wanted to see, documentaries about the DDR, and sit on his lap facing the screen, skirt hiked up, grinding her narrow hips between the armrests, and it was like fucking the narrow gap in a crowded elevator’s closing door, ripping his dick off going down. She didn’t like oral, she had no patience with anal, she never once gave him a hand job…mostly because all of these techniques represent profligate wastes of semen.
She warned him, from the beginning, that she wanted to get pregnant. They didn’t have to think about it, they didn’t have to try…but she wouldn’t work to prevent it, either. If it happens, it happens, she would say, but I’m hoping it will. Every time we screw, screw as though you’re stuffing a baby in me. Screw as though your DNA really means it, ja? He liked how she pronounced it: skvoo.
“Look at that,” Birdy would gasp, pretending to be shocked, her hand over her mouth. “Flaming elephant trunk! Bring it to me!”
She wasn’t on the pill, and she threw all his condoms away the first night he slept over, rifling through his travel bag. “I’ll raise the offspring on my own if you don’t want this,” she’d announce, climbing off of him afterwards, cupping her pussy with both hands, careful not to spill a drop. “But no more abortions, that’s clear.”
The first night they picnicked on the steps of the Friedrichpalast, she summed up her romantic history for him with a shrug, crunching a carrot and staring sadly at his lap: “Three boyfriends, three abortions.” What she didn’t say was that two of the abortions had been with one particular boy, the dangerous one preceding him, with whom she’d had the longest and most intense relationship: an “intelligent” skinhead, ten years her junior, named Frank.
Ginger got the facts six months into their relationship, when they were talking seriously about getting married. They were both 35. He confessed that he had dabbled in drugs once, long long ago (not true), and she confessed… that she had been deeply in love with a Neo-Nazi, not so very long ago at all. They had been together several years, Ginger’s Birdy and her small-town Fascist. Certain elements of that philosophy, she shrugged, are only common sense…
Ginger was shocked, but undeterred. The simple fact is that she was the prettiest woman he’d ever been with; she looked like something out of a jewelry box. Her limbs were fragile and smooth, her hair was wavy moonlight, her skin was frost on a windowpane. He could see the blue veins pulse in her opal breasts when he sucked them. She was translucent; she made him feel darker, stronger, when she straddled him, her hair pouring down on his face.
“Jews own all of this,” she’d sigh, nodding at the Ku’damm, West Berlin’s equivalent of State Street, and Ginger would laugh at her, pointing out the absurdity. Birdy hated Israel and Turks and Slavs, but found anything American impossibly cool. He therefore saw himself as her patient reformer. “Oh God, these Gypsies, breeding like rats,” she’d sneer, clutching him as though for protection when they were approached by concertina-playing children on the U-Bahn. So Ginger would make a point of correcting her by giving the little beggars money, and calling them cute. No stranger is stranger than an early self, the self you were ten years ago; no mockery or disappointment more crushing, either, probably, than if the old and new you could meet. Beggars with concertinas get nothing but glares from the new Ginger. About that perhaps Birdy was right. But the rest?
Ginger didn’t think about any of Birdy’s “issues” at the time, of course…all he cared about was being in love, and fucking about four times a day, and dreaming out loud with his girl…she of the eyebrows so blonde that they couldn’t be seen unless you were kissing her… dreaming out loud about their future children… their raucous brood. They married in a civil ceremony at the Bezirksamt Prenzlauerberg; each of them brought a witness that neither of them knew; afterwards they paid the two off and went west for ice cream. He baptized her Berthe Neudorffer Green with a dollop of rum raisin on her forehead. “My uncle probably crossed this very bridge fifty years ago,” he told Birdy, as they walked back home across the Fucking the Enemie bridge that evening, “isn’t that weird? How life repeats itself? Like a loop.” And every repetition adds a layer of irony. They moved into his flat on Kantstrasse.
“Deeper! Deeper!” she’d gasp. “Don’t waste a drop!”
There were precursors of Birdy way back in ‘44, watching the Americans roar into town in their muddy jeeps, or striding in a loose phalanx across the bombed-out squares like swains on their way to a country dance, walking with the unrepeatable cool of souls that were soaking with country reels or swing music, milk-fed boys with heavy thighs, clanking with heavy equipment. Unca Jerry had entertained Ginger with his inappropriate stories, about his soldier time, maybe set in Berlin, maybe in Munich, and Ginger could picture him crossing this very bridge on Friedrichstrasse, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, helmet under an arm, chewing his clove-flavored Beekman’s gum and watching a colored platoon marching by in the other direction singing “White Christmas” with ironic gusto, changing “White” to “Weiss”.
It wasn’t until long after Ginger lost his virginity that he finally worked out that all of the tantalizing tales that Unca Jerry told him at bedtime about the hungry long-legged “frauleins” he’d encountered in the roofless clubs and waterless flats of the liberated city had more than probably been kerls, rather: boys named Fritz and Heinz and Bobby. How close “kerls” is to “girls”. In Unca Jerry’s descriptions they always had smart, short “pageboy” haircuts and “dangerous tongues” and waists like writhing serpents. Fucking the enemy: that’s a hard thrill to beat. Standing on that bridge on Friedrichstrasse in the fog, he pretended he could see Unca Jerry down there, hidden with a friend in the shadows, the tunnel echoing with the suck and slap and sighs of dark water. Of all the ghosts Ginger was then dealing with, Unca Jerry was the easiest with which to commune.
A weak-chinned man with a very low hairline and vampire-white skin (well-dressed but in a state of Dionysian disarray: his coat seemed bright and bristling new but for multiple cigarette burns on both sleeves) emerged from the fog and approached Ginger where he stood on the bridge. It was three or four in the morning…the night had boiled its last weak lumens of natural light off and was at its greatest density, the darkest liquid at the bottom of the pot. This was the time of the morning when anyone out in it found his or her self in a perfect position to deliver a soliloquy, alone on stage and clutching Yorrick’s skull, the eerie audience (of who? of what?) rapt. The slightest gesture would take on great drama…the unexpected addition to the stage of another character could only be greeted with dread.
“American?” the man inquired, with a not very posh British accent. He asked it with a smile that anticipated Ginger’s response with great pleasure. He leaned on the 19th century stone balustrade of the Fucking the Enemie bridge with his back to the water and nodded at Ginger’s curt affirmative. He put a palm on his forehead and said “Christ,” and whistled and marveled, “I’ve been at it all night, mate, and I’m not half knackered. When in Rome, as they say. Do people live in this city, or are we all just thrill-seeking tourists? Tell me, do you live here?”
Again, Ginger nodded.
“Well you’ve got more energy than me, mate, I’ll hand you that. If I did… this… more than a few times a year…”
He looked away, down the road into the fog, laughing. “Oh dear. Dear dear dear. I can read your mind, you know. You’re thinking: what’s this poof on about, right? You’re thinking: here he is, him in his quiff and his fucking New Romantic shoes, about to put that disgusting question to me.” He turned to face Ginger with a grin so huge it was frightening. “Am I right?”
“Listen,” he winked. “Put your mind at ease. Me, I hate queers. No, really, I fucking hate them. I hate them so much… to be honest, my lady is quite puzzled by it all… she calls it my affliction. What do you have against queers, she says, what about Freddie Mercury, she says, you bought A Night at the Opera like everyone else…” he placed his hand on his forehead again, “… ah… but what’s more queer than going on and on about how much you hate queers, is what you’re thinking, right? That’s just your entry level Freud, innit, no news there.”
He took a step towards Ginger and Ginger sobered and straightened up quite suddenly, and he made sure that his height and weight were clear and preemptively threatening but not in a provocative way (situations could escalate very rapidly… violence could strike like lightning… events occur in two seconds that participants regret for years) and he took an involuntary step backwards. But the man was simply handing Ginger a business card and saying, with the sniff of pride of a retired snooker champ now selling Caribbean cruises, “Barry Coughlin… friends call me Bazza, or Cough… and I’m the best drug dealer you’ll ever have. Take it.”
Ginger found that his wife was awake when he got home, reading Thomas Mann. She didn’t even look up from the page when he entered the bedroom, though she had buttoned her pajamas all the way up to the very last button (does any woman alone in a well-heated apartment button all the buttons of her pajamas?) when she heard him at the front door. He stripped out of his shoes and coat, hung the coat in the closet and walked down the hall to the bathroom.
Living in a household where children have been wanted badly, but are never possible, is exactly like living in a household where children have died. Or, no, it’s worse, because children who never really existed are more demanding, craftier, make greater claims on us; needy little demons with dangerous access to our imaginations. They can’t be talked away: they don’t even have names. Like the missing who never make the transition to being officially dead, they disturb our sleep, and shame us out of laughing too hard, or too long, or even at all. Not only that, but somebody has to take the never-articulated or vaguely implied blame. The terrible responsibility for un-conceived children he didn’t want with all of his heart in the first place.
When the doctor told her that she was incapable of pregnancy in large part due to an infection she’d suffered as a result of her third abortion, the first thing that happened was that Ginger’s wife’s interest in sex vanished completely, quite literally overnight. The next thing that happened was she became the missing children, the children they couldn’t have: several of them, not very lovable, brats and terrors… a petulant one, a cruel one, one who disagrees with everything you fucking want or say or stand for on principle, for the pure pleasure of throwing the battered logic right back in your face. This was hard. They had been married two years when the doctor delivered his verdict: if you ever want children, you will be forced to adopt. There are children in Romanian orphanages…
The rectangle of little bulbs around the vanity mirror in the bathroom was blinding. There was a circular magnifying mirror on a telescoping arm mounted to the wall to the immediate right of the larger mirror and Ginger could see a big red eye, making its minuscule adjustments, left and right and up and down, taking everything in. Something about the bright light (it was like Florida in that bathroom whenever he wanted it, even on the drearest and Berlinest of days or nights) cheered him up, counter-balancing Birdy’s effect on his will to live. The bathroom door was bolted and he was blinking at his complex reflection, weighing a two ounce baggie of brown flake crystals in his cold right hand. There was a hot-air balloon painted to look like a Restoration-era moon hovering directly over the building at that moment, perfectly symbolic of his predicament, but Ginger had no way of knowing this.
He was thinking: The devil approaches you on a bridge over a polluted river at three in the morning in Berlin and gives you… free of charge… a drug that nobody has ever heard of… and you… what. Take it?
He was thinking: I can crawl off to bed now and lay there, curled up, fetal, my back to her as she reads, a patch of skin on my spine the only point of contact between our bodies, there where my spine will touch her fully clothed ass or thigh, where I will feel myself glowing, and her cold flesh sucking at my desperate, generous heat… and that is our sex life. I can lay there with my useless erection, eyes shut, back to her, enduring it. My torture is her only source of strength. She’s always reading those books. I can lay there to the sound of another page turning. Hatred is healthier than this. I pray for hatred like the crucified pray for death, but it never comes. The closest I can get is sleep. Do I want to sleep?
He wasn’t even sure how to take the drug (shoot it? smoke it? lick it? sniff it? stuff it up his ass in one of Birdy’s suppositories?) but he took it. He chewed a few flakes, sitting on the toilet’s lid, head in his hands, waiting for the kick and within minutes, for the first time in months, he didn’t care. About anything.
And even Unca Jerry, way up there in Heaven, couldn’t see the harm in that.