K was already up and making the first cup of coffee of the day by nine o’clock, early by almost any standard in Berlin. He was awake and busy so early because of the phone call he’d gotten from P, a Brit that K knew from his early days in the city. P had called to ask if K was still planning to give up his old flat, and if so, would K consider giving the flat to P’s friend, an Artist? “She’s German,” P warned, “But you’ll like her.”
Ten minutes later the Artist herself called and they agreed, through the medium of her awkward English and his pidgin German, that she should come over to look at the flat at noon. He’d taken both calls in bed and dozed again for a little while after laying the phone on the pillow beside him.
He had a disturbing dream and woke to the sound that the phone makes when the receiver lies out of its cradle for too long, which his dream had re-invented as the ambulance-mocking siren of a blood-red hearse. He backed out of the bed, rubbing his arms as though its sheets were soaked with the nightmare.
K put the espresso pot on the boil and got straight to tending the oven. There were three ceramic ovens in the flat, all beautifully ornamented in Belle Epoque style, because the flat was quite old, but he only used the biggest oven, a gigantic green monster in the living room, to heat with. In fifteen years he’d mastered the technique that the oven required… putting a certain number of coal bricks in at certain intervals, and never letting the fire go out completely. Also, the key was keeping the flue shut at all times, unless he’d overslept and was forced to start a fire from scratch. Keeping the flue shut bottled the heat in the oven, where before he’d let it escape up the chimney, a lot of expensive hot smoke. Nowadays the flat was always warm, even during that very cold winter. K looked out the living room windows, rubbing his hands together.
He looked out across the frozen park and the long row of cookie-colored buildings on the other side of the boulevard, behind which the naked sun sheltered, and dogs fussed and sprinted while a short broad Turkish woman in a tan raincoat and a frown-framing white scarf crossed towards K’s building in a slow diagonal across the stiff mud. He imagined she was walking straight from Istanbul with news of a death in the family.
What a morbid fantasy! He began to worry that the nightmare he’d had would infect his thoughts all day. He stared with hunger out the window, looking for an image to replace the optical aftertaste of the nightmare. He wanted to crowd his eyes with Life. Unfortunately, because of the season, and the neighborhood, he only managed to gather faint impressions of it. There was a blue haze of smoke, pressed down below the roof-level by the heavy lid of the cold sky, soaking the buildings in ectoplasm. All those coal-burning ovens. He opened a window and leaned out and inhaled and it could have been the smell of a mining town in Kentucky. But the neighborhood, poor yet chic, was called Kreuzberg, the ghetto assigned to Berlin’s congenital underclass of Turks, invited and then snubbed as post war labor. Turks and Bohemian Germans and thrill-seeking American students, who were easily identified because the heels of their shoes were always new, mingled in the cafés and on the streets in the summer.
K was surprised when the doorbell rang: if it was P’s friend, she was three hours early. It was also too early to be the mailman with a package. One could never rule out the possibility that it was the man who spot-checked to see if you had paid for your radio and television licenses; a separate fee for each individual television or radio. K had thus far eluded that fine, the kind of luck that was exactly equivalent to his managing to have lived in Berlin for fifteen years without once being splattered with pigeon shit. But he knew his time was coming.
When K opened the door he broke out in a huge grin and hugged the man standing there, who had to drop the two suitcases he was carrying in order to receive the hug. Just like him to show up this way, after four years, without warning!
“You bastard!” shouted K, with pleasure.
They had coffee together in the kitchen, where K tilted away from the table on the back legs of his chair and laughed into his coffee cup at his friend’s stories. His friend, who had married a pretty-but-icy German girl and moved to The States with her, was now fleeing back to Berlin, an optimistic refugee, talking hopefully about a divorce, and looking for a nicer girl to forget his recent mistake in. She didn’t have to be stunning, but she had to be nice, after what he’d been through.
Of course, he mused, all the better if she’s stunning and nice. And rich, with her own big flat. Why not? And what would it hurt if she was also a good cook who could cut his hair and tighten the buttons on his coat occasionally? And who was he to look a gift horse in the mouth if she was fluent in English, loved his stories, and encouraged him to publish? And a nymphomaniac on top of it?
They laughed with their hands clamped over their eyes. They couldn’t stop laughing.
K told his friend that he himself was moving to a trendy neighborhood in the East, to Prenzlauer Berg, and that his friend could take over the old flat… he gestured dismissively at the whitewashed walls… in exactly two weeks. It was cheap, K had renovated it extensively, and the neighbors were relatively quiet. His friend asked him exactly how much the rent was and he couldn’t believe it when K told him…it was half of what he paid, in California, for an apartment that was a quarter of the size. That was a good sign: his first day back in Berlin had produced a windfall.
He said “God, I’m tired!” and K showed him to a little room with a neatly made bed in it, and a lamp on a table and a small white ceramic oven at the other end of the room; it would take hours for the oven to become even mildly warm, and K hadn’t used it in so long that he was sure that it needed to be cleaned. They put the suitcases together at the foot of the bed and K went and got an electric radiator, rolling it down the hallway with a jovial admonishment not to use it so much that the room actually felt warm…electricity in Berlin was still expensive.
The traveler kicked off his shoes and got under the covers fully clothed, because the sheets were so cold. The electric radiator hummed soothingly beside the bed. K had pulled the curtains and the room was dark enough to sleep in. The switch on the radiator glowed orange, like a Christmas light, and he slipped into sleep as his eyes directed his soul into the hearth-like color.
K went about his business quietly around the flat, so as not to disturb his slumbering friend. He closed the kitchen door and washed the dishes with a trickle of water, stopping himself, in the middle of a song he’d started to hum, with a disbelieving grin. Four years and not a word, and now boom! Just like that! But K admired the nerve of it; the spontaneity. He thought of the days to come.
His friend will sit on the edge of the wobbly old table in the living room, staring out across the park through these open windows. Birds will remember their immemorial songs and dogs will tussle and bark and sprint on the firm mud. Turkish women, in their tan raincoats and white head-scarves, will cross the park in plodding diagonals towards Prinzessinnen Strasse…
Just at that moment, the doorbell rang, and K thought: shit.
P’s friend, looking for a flat. K’s first ridiculous impulse was to hide, to remain absolutely still, pretending that he wasn’t home, which would cause her to press the button repeatedly, which would wake up his friend, which would complicate the situation further. He didn’t have time to improvise a story; an excuse for why he couldn’t give her the flat; as he hurried down the hallway.
He opened the door with a finger over his lips to hush her greeting. She smiled and reached for his hand and whispered “I am the Artist,” and K gestured for her to follow him into the living room. She was unusually attractive. She was so striking, as it turns out, that his face was burning and he was glad for the chance to turn his back to her as he led her down the long dark hallway.
Rather than working in her favor with him, however, her beauty irritated K. She looked like a Nazi’s idea of a perfect specimen, with the razor-sharp platinum haircut and precise manner to match. She was tall, and elegantly slim, with just enough bust to be alluring, but not so buxom to ruin the lines of her outfit, which looked to K (who admittedly knew nothing of women’s clothing) to be expensive.
There are men who love men, and men who love women, and rarely a type that loves both (the type called “Saint”) and K was a man who loved men. Not sexually. When it came time for sex, his choice of a partner was invariably female. Homosexuality was nothing more than a concept to be generous about in his well-educated circle. His love for men wasn’t erotic. He lusted after women but he preferred the friendship and the company and the stories of men. For K and many of his friends, women were an exotic-but-tired topic of discussion, like Hong Kong.
When P first called that morning, asking for a place for his friend The Artist to stay in, and he’d said “She’s German, but you’ll like her,” is that what P had meant? Only that she was beautiful? K was insulted.
Flustered at first by her chemical effect on him, he was actually relieved that she looked the way she looked as he ushered her into the living room, closing the big double doors behind them as she crossed towards the bright windows, raising her arms as though to herald the sun. It would make it simpler… even pleasurable… to say “no” to her. He didn’t feel one bit sorry for her. Born with everything and still she expected more.
“This is the wonderful flat!” she whispered sharply, obediently humoring K’s peculiar edict of sickroom-silence. “And the address,” she winked, “It is what is perfect for me! ‘Prinzessinnen strasse’. Yes, living here I will feel like the princess! I have seen this place in my dream!”
Embarrassed by her futile enthusiasm, K gestured at the little round table beside her, where he took most of his meals, and asked her if she’d like a cup of coffee. Thinking that it was expected of her to agree to everything, she said yes.
She took a place at the scarred wooden table as he left the room for the coffee pot, telling herself to calm down. Her heart was beating so fast and so hard that she could barely hear anything else above it. The flat was so large and so cheap…it was unbelievable. She could live here like a human being. A human being again! Things had looked so black only a few weeks before. She wouldn’t allow herself to have the thought that not very long ago, she’d seriously contemplated the most drastic cure for her suffering. Cutting herself with the same unsentimental gesture with which she destroyed certain canvasses.
It was important to bury, if not erase, those hideous thoughts… to hide them from the American. Americans love success, and positive people…they love uninhibited winners, and abhor the miserable, the lost, the unsure or depressed. She would impress him with her positive outlook… with her luck… and he would give her the flat. She wasn’t above flirting mildly with him. P had said, looking her up and down himself, “He’ll fall in love the second he lays eyes upon you!” and she had profited, and suffered, countless times from the ability to trigger that reflex.
Being so beautiful was like having the ambiguous power to spit fire: you were as likely to burn yourself as illuminate the room. Usually both. She had come to think of her beauty as a kind of signal beacon that invariably attracted her nemesis, the malevolent spirit that she’d been on the look out for since adolescence. It flitted from man to man like a wolf crossing a stream on the only available stones… exactly the way in which an apparently arbitrary path can be said to be predestined.
K returned with his little pot of espresso, closing the double doors carefully behind himself so as not to awaken his friend, and approached her solemnly where she sat smiling at her place at the table… the little round table he’d rescued from the curb in front of his first flat in Berlin… and it gave him pleasure to think that if she knew the table’s history, she’d lift her elbows off of it in horror. He’d fucked his Italian girlfriend on that table, holding her by the ankles like a gardener pushing a wheel barrow full of flowers up a hill. Some of the best, and worst, meals of his life had been eaten on it.
A stupendously drunk Brazilian actor, in this very flat, had sat at that table late one summer night and played that game, the macho game of sharp knife and a hand palm-down on a table with the blade hopping with increasing speed between the splayed fingers and he had cut the index finger of his left hand almost entirely off, at which point he started crying like an innocent victim of the world’s relentless injustice.
K took a good long look at the Artist and asked her, quietly, if she liked the view.