“Every war on Earth is, in the end, a battle of the sexes.”-Azzedine El-Hadi
In the three months between the time I signed the lease on my new flat and the day I returned to Berlin with two suitcases of meager possessions, the building next door was knocked to the ground, and construction started on an above-ground parking garage. I’d been charmed by the old fashioned quality of this corner of the neighborhood and now they were modernizing it.
The day I’d first looked at this flat, flipping light switches and opening and closing cabinets in an amateurish pantomime of my father, the caretaker assured me it was a quiet neighborhood. It’s standard in Berlin that you’re allowed to deduct a portion of your rent for inconveniences such as malfunctioning heat in the winter or quality-of-life-damaging construction on or near your dwelling, but there is so much development happening in this suddenly fashionable neighborhood that there’s a special clause in my rental contract that negates the reduced rent option ‘in the event’ of construction, which, obviously, though unknown to me, was a certainty when I signed the contract. I signed it, flew back to California a week later, then returned to Berlin on the last day of summer.
The taxi driver who drove me from Tegel to August Strasse was not German; he was a London-born Pakistani named Shadz (a contraction, he informed me, of a name that sounded, as he pronounced it, like Sa-Heedz). Shadz lifted my two large suitcases of meager possessions into the trunk of his BMW-built taxi and guessed that I wasn’t a tourist. “Are you a scientist?” he asked, after I’d given him the address in halting German. I can’t say why, exactly, this offended me. Perhaps I’d rather have been mistaken for a rock star.
“A scientist? No.”
“You absolutely wouldn’t believe how many scientists I end up driving.”
“Oh, yeah. Something like, I dunno. Half a dozen a week, maybe more?” He didn’t in any way resemble the voice coming out of his mouth. He stared into the car that we were passing on the left as though its driver was insane. I looked too and saw that it was an extremely attractive woman at the wheel, brushing her teeth.
We drove through leafy green lanes that gave way to narrow, treeless, cobblestone streets. There was a fenced-in muddy lot of old touring coaches emblazoned with Cyrillic lettering, across the street from a row of run-down stucco cottages with boarded-up windows. Then a quaint shopping district populated almost entirely, it seemed to me, with women in Turkish headscarves. Then a mile of much-graffiti’d brown brick buildings. The scenery changed quickly and in unexpected ways and felt like a haphazardly-edited montage of many cities from different eras. Which, in a way, is what Berlin is.
“Are they working on some kind of big project, do you think?”
He eyed me in the mirror. “That’s the question I was going to put to you sir, actually.” We both laughed. Shadz said, “A machine for influencing your dreams, maybe?”
“Exactly. Top Secret stuff.”
“Imagine the possibilities if you could beam adverts directly into people’s skulls while they were sleeping,” he said wistfully. I smiled but couldn’t think of a clever comeback and soon found myself dozing… nodding off… my chin touched my collar bone twice. Each time I awoke with a sudden start and a snort. Embarrassed, to prove I was awake I said to Shadz:
“But how do you know they’re scientists?”
“How else would they get the job?”
When we pulled up in front of my building it was shortly after noon, and so the construction workers were on a break, but I saw the skyscraping crane anchored in the building-sized crater next door with a sinking heart. I was too tired to care much at that point, however. Shadz quoted the amount I owed him, I handed him two bills fresh from the money-changing kiosk at Tegel, and he popped the trunk and hopped out. He was yanking my bags with virile grunts and lowering them onto the pavement before I could manage to get my door open. That’s how wobbly the flight had left me.
Before he climbed in, he handed back one of the bills I’d given him. “Keep your eye on the ball, mate.” He winked. “This time the lesson was kostenlos,” he said, using the German word for ‘free,’ and he drove off, leaving me jet-lagged and constipated and with two large suitcases in the middle of the road, facing a construction site.
The only thing I like more than packing a suitcase is unpacking a suitcase; the former indicates an adventure to come and the latter an ordeal survived. My pleasure would be magnified in this case by unpacking my suitcases in an absolutely empty flat… just walls, floor, windows, doors and ceiling… a ritual I was, however, too exhausted to enjoy before getting a little sleep. In the top layer of suitcase number one was a cloth-covered air mattress I’d purchased from a bankrupt Army Surplus store as a much younger man always on the look out for bargains, novelties and items that nobody else had or wanted. I’d finally unpacked the thing, to air it out, the day before my flight, and it gave off a sad, dry rot odor of Korean War memorabilia when I first unboxed it. The odor managed to taint the entire contents of the suitcase, which I had wisely refrained from packing with clothes; suit case number two had all the clothes in it, along with a five hundred page manuscript (single-spaced, narrow margins, tiny font) I was nowhere near being finished with.
When I yanked the rip-cord dangling from the panel with the stenciled warning on it (WARNING: DO NOT PULL: JERK!), I expected the cord to snap off in my hand, or for nothing to happen, but, to my surprise, the mattress inflated rapidly with a loud hiss that changed in pitch as the mattress plumped out. The compressed air canister continued until the mattress bulged asymmetrically and I backed out of the room with my fingers in my ears and it exploded in a cloud of dust. Of course. I unpacked half the clothing from suitcase number two, arranged it in a thick rectangle in the middle of the room and laid the blown mattress on top. I kicked off my shoes and curled up on the makeshift bed.
I dreamed I was climbing a steep, grassy hill on a sunny day with The Beatles. They were long-haired and bearded and young-looking, younger than I had been in years, and I was slightly embarrassed, in this dream, to be an over-thirty, someone they might not trust, or, even worse, someone they might mock with their rapid, cutting, inside jokes. John was the one I had to be especially careful with, I remember thinking in this dream, and I put an effort into watching his face very carefully for reactions to my cautious remarks: a lifted eyebrow or a curling lip or a conspiratorial glance at George. It was difficult as he was the furthest from me. To my immediate left was Ringo in a bright red caftan and then to my right the order went George, Paul and then John. Climbing the hill in the heat had winded me but they, The Beatles, didn’t seem visibly affected. Their long hair was shiny, fragrant and beautiful in the golden light; in fact they were pretty as girls, even with their beards, and I couldn’t stop thinking how it was really them, The Beatles, and here I was climbing this hill in the sunlight with them.
At what point as the dream unfolded did it become clear to me that these four young men weren’t The Beatles at all? They had merely resembled The Beatles. But as I stared at the profile of the one I had taken to be John Lennon, the one who was furthest from me, with most of his face eclipsed by his hair, I could no longer locate even the faintest resemblance between his face and Lennon’s and it seemed to me (or does so now) that his facial features were changing, subtly, even as I watched, into something very strange.
The brilliant sunlight had dulled and darkened, too. The wind was picking up, whipping the tall grass, and, back down the hill into a vast valley that reached for miles to a poisonous black seam of clouds on the horizon, I watched white bits and large gray chunks of some kind of debris blowing; bouncing; rolling down the hill. The four young men I was climbing with were menacing, unambiguously hostile towards me and united in some kind of mission or scheme and their grim faces and dark clothing in combination with the cold wind and violent storm overtaking us made me shake with despair.
The noise that woke me was so loud that it seemed to push me to the floor but I was already on the floor, or close to floor level, gasping as my heart raced. I didn’t know where I was, but it felt like I was in an earthquake, back in California, having a heart attack. What was I doing on the floor of an empty, high-ceilinged room with strange windows and two narrow doors and a power socket in the wall shaped like nothing I was familiar with, rattled in my bones by a deafening rumble? A cheap ceiling lamp on the end of a white chord was swinging left and right. I stumbled in a panic to the door jamb and wedged myself there with my arms covering my head until I suddenly remembered where I was exactly and under what circumstances and laughed at my stupidity, right there where I squatted in the vibrating doorway. I slipped my shoes on, confronted a sleep-smashed face in the bathroom mirror (soft; middle-aged), splashed some water on it, and left the building to go for a walk, since sleep was impossible.
The day… a late spring/early summer day… was streaked with low, fast moving clouds like dark fish in a cold creek and the chill in the air made me consider going back to unpack a light jacket. But going back would have felt like the first small failure of my new life so I went forward instead, my hands jammed in my pockets and my collar turned up. It was early afternoon and there was only one other person on the street, a tall, pretty girl with brilliant orange hair. She wore a pale green diaphanous scarf over her hair and she didn’t once look up as she hurried past me on loud boots in the direction from which I’d come, the noise of her loud boots disappearing into the roar of construction. Turning to watch, I saw her cross towards my building and let herself into it while dust clouds and diesel fumes from the frenzy of construction next door blew over her.
I had followed her half-way back and waited to see if she’d appear in a window in the upper floors, pulling a curtain or lifting a blind to catch me spying from the corner. I lingered awhile, saw nothing and continued my walk. I started thinking of her as ‘the little red headed girl.’ I’d never had a neighbor that pretty in any apartment building I’d ever lived in in America but I had observed women like that in some of the houses I’d worked in, chatting amiably with harmless me over a mug of coffee from the other side of the invisible barrier of comfort.
Most of the work we did was at one or another of the gated communities that had mushroomed beyond the suburbs in response to opportunities in new technology at office parks that were an hour’s drive from the city. The rows upon row of brand new houses were identically over-large, poorly designed, thrown up far too quickly and in need of paint. The owners were invariably young, college-educated and friendly to a fault with the workers, all the way down to the Mexican maids and gardeners. I always made it a point to have at least one conversation with the lady of the house to assert myself, I suppose, as a reader of books and an appreciator of culture. Which Richard, my partner (my boss, actually; they were his bids, and he had me on an hourly wage), considered embarrassing not only for me, he said, but for the client and himself and the tradition of house painting.
“No matter how smart you may think you are, to them you’re just a beat up old house painter, just like me, John.”
“I’m only doing this to finance the writing of my book, Richard. You know that.”
“All I’m saying is how you see it ain’t how they see it so the point is what? Plus it’s fucking unprofessional. Okay?”
I was careful not to let him catch me talking with the homeowners after that exchange. Once, I walked into a living room carrying a step ladder and found the client’s blonde wife curled up on the Cadillac-sized leather couch in a bright red jogging outfit, chewing a finger and reading a brand new paperback of Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. She just happened to look up from the book as I entered the room in my cover-alls and cap, ladder over one shoulder, paint on my face. As she made eye contact I pointed and said, because I knew Richard was out in the van, mixing paint, “There’s textual evidence in there that Quilty is Lo’s biological father,” and her eyes went wide and her mouth fell open as though a talking dog had walked in on its hind legs and asked for a date.
Rosenthaler Strasse is the nearest main road and a trolley runs up and down both sides of it. There were more pedestrians there than on the side streets that led me to it and there was eerily quiet, clogged traffic packed with makes of cars and trucks I’d never seen before and for the first time since I’d arrived I had the thrilling sense of being in a foreign capital… the implication of infinite possibility and vague threat that middle-aged Bohemians travel for. The wind whipped flimsy spring coats against the short-skirted legs of business women or secretaries hurrying back to the office from lunch breaks and I wondered if the eros of foreign travel was more in the anonymity of it… as though anonymity in and of itself is an invitation to transgress… or in my subconscious superstition that European women find American men sexy. I turned left on Rosenthaler Strasse, under a whole city of clouds in places so black they looked rotten and I was chilled to the bone by the same wind that was flirting so rudely with the secretaries.
I hadn’t gone twenty paces when I came upon a pale older man, his thin hair wind-blown, painting a picture on the wall of a block-long building. The building housed a bakery and a barber shop and a travel agent among other ground level businesses. The building was made of huge black blocks of stone and he was very carefully taping a stencil to the wall and spray-painting it with slashing strokes. He then taped a second stencil on top of the first, lining up the edges of the two stencils with deft-but-nervous fingers and sprayed again with a different color. He was blowing on the fresh paint, his lips just inches from the black wall, as I came up on him, and he didn’t look my way but cocked his head at my footfalls. He carefully peeled the stencils off and slipped them into a backpack, then produced, from where I don’t know, a telescoping, red-tipped stick and hurried off, tapping the base of the black wall with the stick.
I looked at the image he had so carefully double-stenciled and saw that it was a formless mess of red and green paint running together into brown drips down the wall. I looked up again in time to see him hurrying across the street, his cane like a taut lead on an invisible dog. Almost without realizing it I decided to follow.
The title of the book I’m struggling to finish is ‘The Bomb Collector’. Set towards the end of the 1960s, it concerns the personal life of Azzedine El-Hadi, an Algerian émigré living in upstate New York. El-Hadi is a writer and bon-vivant, a silver-haired, worldly man of fifty with three American girlfriends. He teaches a creative writing class at a community arts center in his small town in the Wisselvallig Valley, and the youngest of his girlfriends, thirty years his junior, is a star of the writing class. The second girlfriend is married to a teacher of an evening class for working adults called ‘Generational Dissonance in Post-War Jewish Literature: from Singer and Malamud to Bellow and Roth,’ at the same arts center. His third occasional girlfriend, Ruth, his ex-wife, is the woman he married for his green card. Ruth is an amateur landscape painter and the mother of two grown children from a previous marriage.
El-Hadi has published one French novel, years ago, which he is busy translating for the English market; his second mistress has promised to show the manuscript to a publisher with whom she may or may not be having a parallel affair. The title of the French version of the book, Le Collecteur de Bombe, is from an Algerian saying that Azzedine’s father, a devout Muslim, often admonished his son with during the boy’s sex-mad adolescence: a man with too many women is like a bomb collector.
The Bomb Collector is comprised of thirteen linked short stories or vignettes on the theme of adultery; there are Moroccan, French, British and Nigerian adulterers featured in interwoven tales all set in Algiers, the great North African city. Cora (the second mistress, married to his colleague) has suggested that beyond translating the book, Azzedine should also include a new chapter, featuring an American, in order to increase the chances of getting the English version published. He initially resists her idea because to add a chapter would violate the numerology of the book. ‘Thirteen’ is one of its ordering motifs.
“Well,” suggests Cora, “simply replace one of the existing chapters.”
“Which chapter would you suggest I replace?”
Without hesitating in order to think about it, Cora answers, “Love is Blind. I think it’s the least-charming chapter in the book, to be honest. It denigrates women… also men, when I think of it. The book will be better without it.”
How can Azzedine admit, then, after Cora’s judgment, that the Love is Blind chapter is his favorite… the very heart of the book? A handsome man, an epic womanizer with philosophical inclinations, goes to his Moroccan apothecary one day and requests a philtre that will render him blind, but only temporarily. The apothecary, a man as versed in modern pharmacology as he is in Moroccan folk medicine, mixes a concoction that will blind his client for thirteen days exactly. Take this with a glass of wine on the morning of the first day and your vision will return to you on the evening of the thirteenth. The apothecary, who knows the womanizer well (having provided the man with condoms as well as penicillin and various other salves and ointments in the past), adds, But if you don’t mind my curiosity: why?
The womanizer explains: As you know, I rarely go without extremely desirable female companionship. However, it’s often occurred to me that for every impossibly beautiful woman I allow (or cajole) to climb into bed with me, there are at least a hundred of her sisters, all too willing but, unfortunately, too ugly to meet my silly standards. I curse my good taste but, as you know, there’s nothing to do about it… the male organ can’t be reasoned with in terms of what it finds attractive or not. However, I realized, one need only sneak a lover past the sentry box of the eyes in order to…
Ah yes, says the apothecary.
Following the apothecary’s instructions, the womanizer stirs the bitter substance into a glass of wine early the next morning. It’s a brilliant day, and he doesn’t even realize, at first, that what seems to be the encroaching gloom of cloud cover in an unseasonable display of weather before lunchtime is, in fact, the drug taking effect. By dinner time he is utterly blind. After spending a few days getting used to the situation (with the help of his servant), the womanizer tests his theory that by being free of the tyranny of the aesthetic prejudices of his eyes, his lovemaking will enjoy new freedoms and varieties… new intensities. Guided to the marketplace on the arm of his servant, he says: point me in the direction of a real sow. The servant does so; the womanizer makes contact with a lady of that description and finds himself escorting her home (just as he is escorted by his servant) in no time at all. The resulting sexual encounter is the best he’s ever had.
By the time his vision fades gradually back in on the evening of the thirteenth day, the womanizer has bedded dozens of women… fat, tall, short, skinny, old, young, poorly-dressed, exquisitely-dressed, European, African and everything else… and all with the same high level of energy and pleasure. The experiment has been a success. So much so that he hurries back to the apothecary the morning after the regrettable return of his vision and asks that the prescription be refilled. As you wish, cautions the apothecary, but I must tell you that the third time you use this drug, the effects are permanent.
Another thirteen days of carnal amazements follow. At the end of this journey into the ravishingly sensual night, the womanizer opts for a third, permanent dose, reasoning that he is no longer a young man; he’s seen enough of the world’s picture; to trade just one of his grossly limited senses for limitless pleasure would be more than worth it. With logical eloquence he persuades the apothecary to sell him the third dose.
A year goes by. The apothecary has nearly forgotten the strange case of the self-blinding womanizer when the man appears one morning at the counter on the arm of his harried-looking servant, looking pale and skinny and with his formerly distinguished head of gray hair gone white. The apothecary is filled with guilt and pity: it strikes him that the poor fellow has returned to plead for his sight back.Which is, as he was warned, impossible. As the apothecary approaches the counter with a heavy heart he is surprised to see the blind womanizer detect his presence with a cocked head and give off a sly and boyish grin.
How can I help you today, my friend? asks the non-plussed apothecary. Are all things right with your chosen life?
Righter than ever, answers the blind womanizer. I’ve broken my own previous record for number of conquests in a week several times over and show no signs of slowing down. There’s only one thing I need from you now to make my bliss complete, says the blind womanizer, lowering his voice so that the apothecary draws near.
And what would that one thing be? inquires the very curious apothecary.
A drug to render me deaf, responds the womanizer.
The parallels between the blind womanizer from the book within my book, able to ‘see’ all women as equally desirable in his darkness, and the blind graffiti artist, able to falsely ‘see’ his art as beautiful (or well-executed), were amusing to me. As I followed the blind man on his route, along which he stopped to stencil his runny brown blobs on various buildings, I began to feel that I knew him because I had created the character he was an offshoot from. I began to predict the buildings he would chose to mark (or to ‘piss’ on; wasn’t it territorial behaviour? Wasn’t it canine?) with impressive accuracy. He went right for the newest, cleanest buildings, despite his blindness. He’d walk right by the buildings with too much graffiti on them. The unstylish buildings, too. He didn’t seem to find those very attractive. I assumed by this behaviour that up until relatively recently he’d been able to see.
I was miles from home already but unpanicked because we’d followed a straight line through a commercial district with a tram running up and down it and I could always hop on to ride one home. Figuring out how to buy a ticket (I speak less German than the average pre-schooler here) was another matter, but I’d face that hurdle when the time came. The street I followed the blind man along is called Kastanien Allee.
It’s a neighborhood of young people, good-looking young people sitting inside and in front of the packed cafes (despite the threat of rain) and smoking languorously, or with emphasis, like movie stars. Young people strolling in and out of funky record shops and quirky boutiques. The girls are all stylish and tall like the ‘the little red head girl’ living in my building and I marveled at their uniform beauty. Not a fat body or failed outfit or wrinkled face among them. I began to feel quite self-conscious as a voyeuristic emissary from the awful fraternity of the aged and unhip and almost wished I’d picked a dowdier neighborhood to live in. I didn’t need to have my unfuckable mortality rubbed in my face every time I stepped outside to buy butter. But the blind man was above all that; those beautiful girls were as invisible to him as I was to the beautiful girls and so they had lost their power to tantalize and diminish him. He was flying through outer space with his spray paint. He would have been impossible in California and I realized that it was up to me not to become impossible in Berlin. Enough with the bitterness; expect nothing and you can’t be disappointed, I told myself. Finish your novel.
The writer character in my book, Azzedine El-Hadi, creator of the character of the blind womanizer, is based on a real person (of the same name) I’d met as a house painter. I suppose I never bothered to change the name of the fictional version of Azzedine because I either never really expected to publish the book, or assumed that he’d be dead by the time the miracle happened.
While the fictional Azzedine El-Hadi is a writer, the real-life El-Hadi runs an antique shop, with a sideline in contraband antiquities. Richard and I had been hired to paint the little apartment that Azzedine keeps over the shop which is situated in a row of genteel businesses in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego. Richard had said, You’re going to get a kick out of this guy on the way over in the van that first morning and he was right. El-Hadi looked like something out of an Agatha Christie novel when he answered the door, a silver-haired gentleman with a fastidious mustache wearing red satin pyjamas and velvet slippers.
The walls of his bedroom were covered from floor to ceiling with framed photographs of beautiful women; photographs it was our task to remove and eventually replace in exactly the same order. There was more preparation than actual painting involved in this particular job and I had the pleasure of chatting with Azzedine, or listening to him chat, while I worked. Richard had learned by this point in the history of our partnership to behave like a real boss, leaving me to do the great majority of the work. He’d be gone a few hours every day (at the race track for all I knew), therefore I was free to chat with the witty, literate El-Hadi while I stripped the wall paper in his bedroom or sanded the moldings.
It gradually dawned on me that El-Hadi’s wit wasn’t the main reason I enjoyed his company. Unlike every other citizen of the state of California, he was able to distinguish easily between my soul and my occupation. In short, he treated me as an equal, a fellow human being, and not a middle-aged house painter. If he hadn’t hired me to paint his flat, he never would have known, not being impolite enough to ask, how I earned my money… it was of no concern to him, the details of my material wealth or my social standing. What he needed to know about me he gathered with his eyes and ears; it was the quality of my conversation he noticed, my ideas and opinions.
Richard’s return from his four hour lunch break was always jarring: I became a house painter again the moment he climbed the back staircase with his thermos of coffee and the paint-layered cuticles of his fingernails. Richard’s idea of egalitarianism was to display contempt for us both (Richard and me). At which El-Hadi would shrug and wink, preserving the secret of my humanity until our conversation could resume.
As my admiration for El-Hadi increased during the three weeks we worked to refinish his apartment in an oriental theme of greens and golds, my stubborn tolerance of Richard shaded gradually into resentment. I saw that an ugly aura radiated from the man and that my first assumption… that being a house painter had turned him sour over the years… was wrong. His job, posture, manner of speech, living arrangement and outlook on life were all just accessories, after the fact, to the original core of his negativity. We’ve all known gloomy or even vicious children from our childhoods; maybe it starts in the womb, or in the miserable upbringing of the mother. It was finally clear to me in any case that time in Richard’s company was more toxic than exposure to any of the noxious chemicals we handled and for the sake of my own health I should get out, despite the money he paid to keep me near and under his control.
I brought up the taboo topic of novel-writing with El-Hadi one day about five minutes after Richard drove off to whatever he did on his own for half of every working day but he came back. He came back for the wallet he’d left in the jacket on top of the toolbox. He caught me standing on the top of my step ladder, scrubbing the ceiling with trisodium phosphate and discussing the problem of particularizing character in the context of a first-person narrative; how to separate the narrator’s voice from both the writer’s and the reader’s? Azzedine stood at the foot of the ladder with his chin in his hand, looking up. Even Azzedine jumped a little when Richard shouted at me.
“Hey! Don’t we have an agreement that you keep your mouth shut and paint shit? Nobody wants to listen to your wannabe crap!”
“Calm down shit!”
I climbed down off the ladder. “Forget it, Richard” I said. “It’s over. I quit.”
“Fine. Get the fuck out of here.”
“Fine,” I said, wiping my hands.
“Excuse me for interrupting, my friends,” said Azzedine, with his mellifluous voice and his unreadable smile. He nodded at me. “John and I were having a conversation that I would very much like to finish.”
“But you heard him, Mr. El-Hadi: the damn fool just quit!”
“Perhaps you can send me a bill for work completed, yes?” Azzedine turned to me. “Can you finish it on your own, John?”
I shrugged, then nodded. Richard turned red. He put his hands on his hips. “We agreed on a price.”
Azzedine’s smile took on extra depths as he made a very compact little voila gesture, saying, “Ah, but we have signed no contract, sir, correct?”
Richard laughed as though he enjoyed being out-maneuvered.
It was sometime after I’d watched the blind artist spray, with meticulous care, the fourth brown blob on an otherwise immaculate building that he lost me. He must have slipped into a doorway or up a side street while I was watching an unreachably pretty girl walk by. Ahead of me stood the massive overhead girderwork of the overground link of the U-Bahn system at Eberswalderstrasse, an old green hooded train bridge straddling a complicated five-way intersection thronged with cars and walkers. To get to the other side of the U-Bahn station I had to cross under it and against three traffic lights in a crowd of people. It felt like a group activity: a sight-seer’s hike or school kids on a class outing, five minutes of camaraderie with people I’d never seen before and would, for the most part, never see again. I imagined the crowd holding hands, two by two. A big girl to my immediate right, dark-haired and sweet-faced and over-dressed in a puffy orange jacket, must have thought the same thing because she seemed so amused by it all when we made eye contact. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have considered her even remotely attractive but loneliness in a foreign city can be a powerful aphrodisiac.
“Welcome to the International Society of Pedestrians Crossing Schönhauser Allee,” she said, with a pronouncedly Philadelphian accent. She walked as though weighed down by an invisible, book-laden backpack. I guessed her age at 29-ish.
“Membership is free, I take it.”
“All you need to join are your feet.”
“And you’re the president.”
“No, sir, I’m the ombudsman.”
“I always loved that word.”
“Me too. Ombudsman, stipend, satyr, druse… ”
“An incrustation of small crystals on the surface of a rock or mineral.”
She pressed her hands together in a mockery of prayer. “I’ve been waiting for years for someone to ask me the definition of that word.”
We all completed the complicated task of crossing under and to the other side of the vast green riveted structure. The group was dispersing. “Now what?”
“Ask me the definition of drupaceous.”
“Resembling or related to a drupe.”
There was a cafe in the shadow of the U-Bahn station and we sat there with cake and coffee while the weather, miraculously, cleared up. Her name was Amanda Nye and she’d been in Berlin for five years.
“Came as a German language student but defected when I figured out I don’t like speaking German.”
“If you don’t like speaking German, why stay in Germany at all?”
“Because Germans don’t like speaking German either. It’s easy to get by with your English and a native vocab of about twenty six words. Besides, Berlin is the least German city in Germany. I just pretend it’s South East London in an alternative universe where the Nazis won the war. How old are you?”
“Okay. That’s not so old.”
“Wanna come watch porno at my place? It’s not far from here. No big dogs or roommates.”
Funny girl. I paid for our coffees and half-eaten cakes and followed Amanda out the door of the cafe in time for a lurid sunset. All of the clouds had been pushed to the westernmost corner of the sky like damp kindling. She produced a wafer-thin camera and aimed it over my head and clicked without looking, paying attention to me instead. She said,
“Personal anecdote. I thought I was Dianne Arbus when I was nine years old. I had an old Kodak Instamatic and I photographed the ugliest people in my neighborhood. Fat kids, acne cases, crones with dowager’s hump, shrinking violets with faint mustaches… you name it. I kept developing these rolls of film and getting them back and they looked nothing like Dianne Arbus. You know: haunted, shunned and auguring extinction? Nothing at all like that. Nothing like I had hoped to capture.”
“Did you try using black and white film?”
“That was my next step. My uncle Dan drove to a flea market and got me a banged up old Pentax for twenty bucks. So back I went to re-photograph every freak and outcast in my neighborhood, and then I did my church and my grammar school too. The custodial staff at school was a god-send. They were Existential super-models. Wet eyes and stubble. I shot rolls and rolls of black and white 35 millimeter film and spent all my savings… every single Kennedy Half in my piggy bank… getting those damn rolls developed. And guess what?”
“You still weren’t Dianne Arbus.”
She pantomimed tearing her hair out. “I still wasn’t Dianne Arbus. It was very frustrating to a nine year old girl who’d come that close to knowing what she was going to spend the rest of her life doing.”
“You tacked every print to the bedroom wall and stared for hours trying to grasp the difference. While all the other kids were playing you were staring intensely with the curtains drawn. You took a magnifying glass and studied gray, blurry, low-contrast images down to the finest molecular grain to locate whatever it was that wasn’t quite there. You studied between the grains. You ran your fingers over the photos in the dark… ”
“I sure did. And guess what?”
“I came to a profound conclusion. See, all my freaks were… smiling… smiling. In every single photo I’d taken. Listen, it’s hard to look like a freak and an outcast when you’re smiling. Arbus was a fraud. Those famously eerie and depressing pictures of hers would have looked exactly the same no matter who she was photographing… as long as she put ’em in a bad enough mood first!”
I laughed, but it was also some kind of genuine insight. Funny girl; smart girl. But still not any version of pretty.
“See, artists, first and foremost… if they’re any ‘good’… ” She simulated quotation marks with her fingers, seeming to quote her own head. “… they’re con men. Con Artists. It’s all a scam. Because of that precocious little revelation, I lost the desire to be an artist very very young… but I couldn’t find anything else to replace it. Some epiphanies suck.” She sighed. Or ‘sighed’.
I thought: I should study her face the way she studied those photographs and get to the bottom of this ‘attractiveness’ thing. Was there no hope for her? We walked in silence for half a block until she perked up and skipped ahead and turned, walking backwards to face me and ask, “So, I guess being forty two and all means you already know what you became when you grew up, huh.”
“Well, yeah. ‘What’ and ‘how’ are pretty young questions. ‘Why’ is the one I’m dealing with now.”
Still walking backwards she held the camera out at me like it was I.D.. “Ask an oblique question and get an oblique answer, I guess. Smile?”
“Best I can do is leer.”
She stopped abruptly and I bumped into her, making us both laugh while also confirming my suspicion that she was flat-chested. Her bones were like a heavy old iron bed frame.
“So here’s my building and so forth.”
“Am I coming in?”
She shouldered a massive door and we passed through a dark hallway, one wall of which was a bank of letterboxes, and across a barren courtyard the most interesting feature of which was the wire-fenced enclosure for two wheeled dumpsters and three barrels for various colors of recyclable glass. Meaning beer bottles. She lived in the rearmost wing of the building, what the Germans call the hinterhof, and up five flights of stairs. Her voice and our footsteps echoed in the otherwise deathly quiet stairwell.
“I arrived in Berlin about two weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers, right? First thing I noticed was the airport… I flew out of Newark… the airport was empty. No lines, no waiting. I got upgraded to First Class and I got all kinds of free drinks. It was like everyone was feeling sorry for me. Then I land in Berlin and the Germans… you never saw Germans acting so compassionate. It freaked me out. I saw an ad in the paper and came to look at this flat… I was staying in a youth hostel up the road a ways… and the lady practically begged me to take it. Didn’t ask about my financial status or anything. All she needed was to hear that I was American. I was like a celebrity… I was living, breathing history and she wanted to be a part of it, and to show her solidarity with the American way of life.”
We were huffing and puffing as we trudged ever upwards.
“She told me she was leaving for Jamaica… a friend wanted her to run a bed and breakfast there… she proposed I sublet until she returned in March and then we’d talk about it. Fully furnished, washing machine, the works. Reasonable rent… all the utilities bills are deducted automatically from her bank account. All I have to do is deposit money in her account before the fifth of every month, right? She says I’ll call in a week in case you have any questions. She doesn’t leave a number or an address she can be reached at but I figure nothing that bad can happen in a week… if the toilet backs up I’ll bang on a neighbor’s door or something.”
We stood on the landing in front of the door while she dug in her puffy orange jacket for the keys. We were both winded and panted heavily while smiling at each other like idiots. She said,
“But she didn’t call in a week. Or in three weeks. Or, like, ever. It’s been five years and I haven’t heard a word.” She unlocked the door and pushed it open and gestured that I should enter first.
It was an airless flat with hardwood floors and overstuffed, maiden-aunt furniture. The distant odor of rotten cherries. Every flat horizontal surface (windowsill, counter-top, book shelf, banquette and faux mantelpiece) was covered with obsessive-compulsive kitsch. Porcelain figurines, miniature spoons, plasticine cartoon characters, antique thimbles, keys, ink pens, buttons and egg cups and so on. The living room opened, theoretically, onto a balcony but the double doors were blocked by a small table supporting a very large vintage radio and had a sealed look about them. There was a large box or trunk on the balcony, exposed to the elements. To the right of the table supporting the radio, on the floor, was a television on top of a VCR angled to face the overstuffed couch that Amanda gestured with mock grandiosity that I should sit on.
“Do you know what a vollmacht is?”
“Okay, it’s like this signed declaration authorizing you to pick up a parcel at the post office on the signatory’s behalf, for example. Okay. She left one for me on the kitchen table figuring there’d be packages for her from time to time.”
To the right of the television were two old steamer trunks which, unlike all the old steamer trunks I’d ever seen, had obviously once belonged to the profoundly wealthy, with ornately bracketed corners and complex locking mechanisms. The larger of the two stood on end, on metal wheels, and the one nearest the television lay on its bottom face, handle facing us. She opened this one and removed a video cassette and shoved it into the mouth of the VCR.
“Just about every two months I get a little green notification in the mail that the mailman has supposedly attempted to deliver a parcel… which is a lie, he’s just too lazy to come up the stairs and he assumes people will be at work during the day… and so here’s me in a taxi to fetch a package that isn’t even mine because it’s way too heavy to use my bike.”
She aimed a remote control at the television.
“About a year ago I figured, what the hell? So I started opening the parcels.”
A sinister-looking copyright warning in Cyrillic lettering appeared on the screen.
“It’s all porno. Hundreds of videocassettes of porno porno and more porno. Every kind of porno known to man, no pun intended. This trunk here is full of them but these are only the ones I’ve gotten to… the bedroom is stacked to the ceiling with ’em. Hey, what can I say, I’m on a tight budget… I can’t afford to go to the movies, pay for cable, or rent something from the videothek, so… you know. This is my entertainment. I can see you’re surprised. Some of them are actually pretty good and even clever in a theory of film kind of way but, well, duh, most of them are amateurish and evil but they’re all fascinating. I’m becoming kind of an expert. The neighbors must be pretty acclimatized to the moaning by now… moanin’ noon and night… moanin’ and groanin’ and horrible horrible music and so forth. I tried watching with the sound off a few times but a soundless porno is like a silent martial arts film and it was definitely missing a dimension.”
“So, you weren’t kidding about the porno.”
She shook her head just once and tossed her jacket on a chair near the kitchen door. “I wasn’t kidding about the porno.”
She plopped down beside me on the couch. “I’m not an expert on the terminology, okay, because I never studied it in school, so give me a break, but I’ve managed to break the films down into three basic categories: mind control, rape, and torture. The mind control ones are the easiest to watch. It goes like this. Some guy exchanges a chatty kind of dialogue with some chick with boobs out to here… I mean, I assume it’s chatty from the general sound of it… and within a few minutes she’s got his thingy-do in her mouth and they’re off an running. Some of the guys look fit enough and sometimes even slightly, weirdly cute… in a sideburned way… but most of them are bushy, freckled pot-bellied beasts so that’s the mind control aspect. It’s a certain kind of male fantasy for a certain kind of male… usually the gentler ones… that they can have sex with a mind-bogglingly attractive woman by merely coming up with the correct combination of words, all things being equal. I love it. But this one we’re about to see is from a rape batch, I’m pretty sure. Yeah, it’s definitely going to be rape. So, like, fasten your seat belt… ”
A tiny, black-haired, Middle Eastern type with dirigible breasts climbs out of a limousine as it comes to rest on a circular driveway. She’s done up in a way we’re meant to accept as wealthy: a low-cut black micro-dress and gaudy jewelry. Her hair hangs down as far as her thighs and she is pretty in a hard bronze way, with kohl-rimmed eyes and cheekbones of almost Mongol severity. She lets herself into a pillared house we accept as a mansion. Cut: to two gangly gentlemen (resembling nothing so much as retired second-string basketball players) dressed in black leather and berets, ransacking the master bedroom. Cut: to the ‘wealthy’ beauty ascending her spiral staircase, a half-finished bottle of champagne in one hand and her stiletto heels dangling by their straps from the other.
I cleared my throat and scratched my forehead and said, “Is this some sort of test, Amanda?”
“Um, you could think of it as a lie detector test in a way, yeah.” She giggled. Or ‘giggled’. I didn’t giggle back. What if I suffered a terribly obvious erection while these two black gentlemen beat and raped the Persian? What would that say about me and how could I deny the verdict? Amanda had mercy and flicked the remote and the picture froze with the blacks crouched on the obscure side of the bedroom door. It was a striking image. Figures on an urn. “Want some tea?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You think I’m weird now.”
“I’m not weird. I’m just acclimatized to Germans. You’re the first American I’ve ever had up here. I’ve forgotten certain standards of normal.You’re new in Berlin, okay, so you don’t know it yet but the cultural distance between, like, Germany and America isn’t that much smaller than the one between, say, Iceland and Iran. You’ll see what I mean.”
El-Hadi is in a quandary about his book. If he leaves the thirteenth chapter, Love is Blind, untouched, there’s a good chance that Cora (with her hairy privates; such a contrast to her polished nails) will renege on her promise to get the manuscript to Mr. X, the powerful, mysterious publisher she might also be screwing on the side. Azzedine doesn’t care who else she’s screwing beyond her husband; it’s good for his book if she sleeps with this man. He will encourage her to if she hasn’t already. He will even give her pointers. He wants to be a published American writer.
He realizes that he’s suffering the kind of cultural problem, the problem of truth, he’d expected on first arriving in his adopted country but until now naively believed he’d escaped. An illusion, of course. Has a man who hasn’t died young or even in middle-age escaped death? He’d expected the Americans to seem like Martians to him, and to treat him as though he himself were from the Moon, but his first weeks in New York had been a perfect dream of endless, seamless welcome. It was only now, all these years later, that he saw that the wall he’d expected to walk into had all this time been behind him. He was free to move forward in America but not to turn back. Not even to look back. Love is Blind, the tale of the blind womanizer… this looked too far back to Algeria. Cora was offended by the animal truth in his beautiful story and rightly saw in the center of the soul of the blind womanizer, as Azzedine had crafted him, Azzedine’s own eye winking back at her. The cold eye of a proper deity. That is art; that is truth. That is the heart of his book.
The evening of the day of Cora’s infuriating suggestion that he mutilate this creation of his; that he castrate it; Azzedine found himself alone with his young mistress, Noa, in the classroom he occupied on weekends at the community arts center. It was not a serious class and Azzedine was not paid a ‘serious’ fee for teaching it but he felt there was a serious dialogue about literature being held under all the small talk, hot air, topical blather, chit chat, empty banter and other forms of static the class was good for generating. The serious dialogue about literature was going on surreptitiously between his mistress and himself and their lovemaking was the distilled conversation in its arcane form. El-Hadi could just as well have quit the futile attempt to open these money-mad materialists up to the spirituality of a pure sentence and held the discussion in bed alone with Noa. There was something valuable in the mundane presence of the others, though. He couldn’t decide if it was as contrast or padding, or, even, protection, that the others served to magnify his pleasure in having Noa. Of seeing her amongst them like the high priestess to El-Hadi their minor god. He chuckled at this thought. But he felt it had truth.
The last lingering student, a housewife whose weekly ration of creativity was wasted in the selection of the garish hats she affected every Saturday in class, finally left them alone together. He sat for a good long time on the edge of his desk, trouser leg dangling from the desk’s corner and shining black Brogan swinging to the buzz of the overhead fluorescents with a boy’s indolence, and he luxuriated in their ability to stretch a purposeless moment. She sat at her student desk with skinny arms folded over that exquisite sparrow’s chest of hers (the violet welts of her breasts) and rolled her blue eyes around the room, smirking. Her sandy-blonde hair was short and boyishly cut and added to the aura of middle class mischief he associated with her dungarees and sandals and untucked shirt. Like that luminous gamine from Peyton Place. A woman like that, to get the full benefit of her, one makes love as one did as a boy, with a boy, that pungency under the tented bed sheet.
“Why were you so late today?”
“The truth would be indelicate, honey.”
She gave Azzedine a certain look and he turned away with embarrassment and said, “Aha. I see. Your strawberry days… ”
With a perverse glee she said, “I’m unclean.”
It was a clear, mild twilight in the shallow bowl of the Wisselwallig Valley, the sky resembled an inverted parfait with its dulcet bands of orange and pink at the bottom and deep dark grape at top. The breezes were warm breath and Azzedine went without his suit jacket, draping it over one shoulder on the hook of his forefinger a la Sinatra, and Noa’s white shirt provocatively unbuttoned to the level of her heart. The community arts center was all glass and dark metal (though brilliantly lit), a modern structure set down upon the northernmost hill of Wisselwallig Park. They strolled down the grassy slope towards the parking lot holding hands. Holding her hand in public produced in him the kind of prideful frisson you’d expect in a man who’d overcome a phobia. They could hear a basketball smacking the concrete on the court on the other side of the lot in which El-Hadi’s car stood alone. Floodlights blazed to reveal the disconcerting delay between the dribbled ball and the sound of it while gangling Negroes and a solitary paleface chased it around the court. Azzedine brought up the topic of Cora.
Noa was shaking her head. “What do you see in that wrinkled old bag, anyway?”
“Without the other women in my life I would rely too much on you, I think, Noa,” El-Hadi joked. But it was also true: keeping several women was insurance against any one woman taking over. Especially a young woman. With her untapped dowry of as-yet-unleashed cruelties. “Otherwise one upsets the balance, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I agree in principle but why her?”
He touched two fingers to his lips and frowned, one of the gestures she found most attractive in him. He spoke as though repeating sentences that were being whispered to him. “She’s convenient. I always know where her husband is. She’s grateful for the attention. And I must also admit that I like the fact that her husband is an academic Jew. You know… it’s the sibling rivalry of the Middle East, still sleeping in my Westernized bones. It wakes up in me when I see his wife naked, you see.” He laughed. “The aura of scholarly refinement I glimpse reflected in his wife’s neglected body inflames me.”
She said, “Jews are funny. They call themselves ‘Jews’. Isn’t that funny?”
He put a hand on her shoulder, certain that no one was watching. “I find the word ‘Caucasian’ rather more amusing, to be honest.”
“I’d tell that Cora Simon creature to screw off with her suggestions, if you ask me. Since when did she become Maxwell Perkins?”
“But I very much want this book to find a home in America, Noa. Until I’m published in this country, what am I? What’s my purpose? I’m living as a man of the past and I find that intolerable. Sometimes one must hang a man to keep him from harming himself, so to speak. Is Cora ignorant of art? We could say so. But there are politics… strategies… ”
“These are all rather arch ways of saying ‘sell out’ if you want my opinion.”
“You like Cora because she’s had three kids and her box is capacious enough to accommodate that massive bronze thingy-do of yours. And you like me because I’m smart like a boy.”
“As I’ve already told you.”
“And I let you screw me like a boy, too.”
El-Hadi offered a courtly gesture of assent.
“Promise you’re not a queer?”
“A queer is a man pretending to be a woman. Or longing to be a woman. I am a man inside and out. I was a man already at seven.” He pretended to pretend to make a muscle of his right arm like Charles Atlas. “You could ask my father. There are two of everything on this planet and a time for everything… a tool for every job, so to speak. When I take pleasure from a male’s body it’s a matter of power and utility. Do you understand what I mean? The exchange is between master and servant. Not between two bearded dreamers in pink.”
“Is it this way between us, too? Master and servant?”
“Teacher and pupil, I should say.”
“With the twist being that I’m the teacher,” she said, skipping ahead of him and walking backwards to face him as they walked.
“Exactly,” nodded El-Hadi.
“Exactly!” shrieked Noa, and she turned and ran ahead to his car. Just watching her tired him out, and he wondered if he himself had ever in this life run. She was swift and awkward like a child; her limbs seemed to fly from her torso in an ecstasy of flight and reassemble at her destination. But when she reached his car in her game of tag she seemed to recoil from it. She cupped her hands to her mouth and called back to him, “Hey, Rudolph Valentino!”
“Hey Jean Seberg!” he responded, impulsively, feeling very foolish… feeling light-headed. Feeling for half-a-second drugged. If this was his attempt to participate in the exuberance of the era it had taught him, instantaneously, that he couldn’t. Which was a relief. He was confused, however, to see Noa examining his dear old second-hand convertible, sneaking around it in the twilight. Her head appeared above the pale ragtop and she waved.
“You’re not going to like this!”
“What?” he shouted. Shouting gave him a headache. His normal tone was a whisper.
“You’ll see when you get here!” she shouted back.
After my confusing encounter with Amanda Nye earlier in the day I realized that the character of Noa needed re-writing, so I went back to the passage in which I had first attacked the problem of her with any depth and made her less grimly enigmatic and more sexual, less of a sphinx and more Puckish. Unpredictably young. After Amanda Nye it struck me that I couldn’t allow ‘god’ to write his characters with more verve than I did and that any novelist half-worth the term is better than ‘god’ (or god) at just about everything that matters. The novelist learns from god’s mistakes. Literature is the imposition of order and meaning on god’s untidy experiment. The passage I was re-wiring was only about half-way through the 500 or so pages (single-spaced, narrow margins, tiny font) I already had. Meaning massive revisions for the remainder.
My method is to write it out by hand in a notebook and type out the ‘completed’ chapters. Every time I change any passage anywhere (other than at the very end of the text ) it means a lot of work. But it seems to me that getting it right is a question of life and death. Getting it wrong would leave me with nothing to show for my time on the planet. A credo, if you will.
If Amanda Nye can bring a strange man, a rootless traveler (I might easily be a killer who has fled America to elude prosecution) home to watch hardcore porno with her, what is Noa Reese, twenty years old and beautiful in that magical year of 1968, capable of? I had to explore that within the themes of the book I had already developed. I had to let Noa flower without running amok. But I realized that Noa was a much more important character than I first assumed, and that Azzedine’s ex-wife Ruth was less so. Much of the writer’s block that marooned me on the 500th page was due to the strategic mistake of relying on Ruth’s character to catalyze plot developments. Ruth was too passive, content, even-tempered and willing to give. The dangerous energy of the re-configured Noa (capable, even, of violence) was my solution.
Noa wagged her finger. “Don’t touch.”
She grabbed Azzedine’s shirt sleeve as he reached for the driver-side door handle. He looked at her as though she were being bothersome and shoved her and reached for the door again. She shoved him back and said, “Christ, are you blind? Can’t you see? Somebody crapped on it.”
She pointed at swirls of what at first appeared to be ruddy rich mud on the driver-side door and on the handle and across the windshield in greasy figure eights. A thick-limbed stickman sketched in shit on the ragtop like a Roualt or a Klee. Where the tarry mud had smeared on thin it was dried and cracking but in the thicker, slopped-on gouts it oozed and glistened and fallen clumps piled under the chassis. It was not dog shit; there were mosaics of undigested food exposed in the smear. The dulled colors of a cheap cafeteria lunch. El-Hadi stood back from his car with a disgust so intense it looked to Noa, who couldn’t help laughing, like terror.
“The Jew did this… “ he said, surprised to hear his father’s quaking voice. Surprised most of all that the voice had survived the purifying crossing to America. Something chilling occurred to him as he hugged himself and headed for the floodlights of the basketball court, Noa running after him, seeking the possibility of a witnesses among those colored boys with their ball. Something very odd.
Chapter Four in The Bomb Collector… the chapter called A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods… didn’t something similar to this happen in chapter four of his book? Someone smears shit with his bare hands on a Nigerian art dealer’s front door and the Nigerian can’t bear the idea of ever setting foot in the defiled house again. And all the precious art in the house, the paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts and fetish figures he’s collected from Africa and Mediterranean Europe for twenty five years, he decides to destroy it all along with the house. He packs the perimeter of the building with dry brush and sets fire to it and watches the flames twist and rise and roar in an ecstasy of devils without realizing that the girl of his dreams is upstairs in bed waiting for him, a gift from his incorrigible brother.
I tried to sleep but I couldn’t, in no small part because I still didn’t have a bed. Buying one was the top of my list for the next day’s activities, but the resolution to do so didn’t much help at 2 in the morning as I lay on the rubberized canvas hide of the burst inflatable and a few layers of towels and sweaters under that for padding. I couldn’t sleep but I was exhausted. Not from the day’s walk but the night’s writing. Was it really an art or a compulsion? The more I wrote the less I cared about the answer to that question… which case being, in and of itself, of course, the answer.
My flat… the building… was quiet except for the sputters and hum of the student-sized refrigerator in the little kitchen. I began to imagine the most ancient former tenants of the place, which is the oldest building in the neighborhood: built at the end of the nineteenth century. Grim German ghosts. Because the games the mind plays with itself are usually uncontrollable, I had a vivid fantasy of a young peasant (shapeless hat; rope belt) hanging himself from a beam (now gone) in the living room where I was trying to sleep… kicking and swinging in front of the high window with its view of the park. When someone tapped on the window I nearly jumped out of my skin.
I opened the window and looked down and saw that it was Amanda Nye, standing on her tiptoes in a faint drizzle on the sidewalk. I put on my pants and shoes and let her into the building. “It’s 4 in the morning,” I whispered.
“It’s the human timepiece!” she said in a middle-of-the-day voice. There was a bike in the hallway, chained to the balustrade at the bottom of the staircase. “Is this your bike? We should ride to Wannsee before the weather gets too cold.”
“It’s not my bike.” I ushered her into the flat. I had to admit to myself that I was grateful for the company after the vivid suicide reverie of a few minutes prior. She peered into the kitchen, then turned left and I followed her into my living room, switching on the light as I entered. She was wearing her orange jacket and a dark beret and beadlets of rain were sparkling on her face. She was taller than me in very high heels.
She said, “I figured you could use some company,” and from the look on her face I couldn’t tell if she was making a guilty joke or congratulating herself on her amazing generosity. She looked around the room and her face fell. “No bed.”
“No nothing,” I added. I nearly mentioned the fact that I had to sit on the toilet just to write in my notebook but I didn’t want her to know I was writing.
“You’re a real little Abelard, aren’t you?”
“You don’t know the story of Abelard and what’s-her-name? Heloise?”
“No, and at the risk of sounding like a bad host, I don’t really care to, either.”
She patted my cheek and handed me her jacket. I hung it on the door handle. She fossicked around in her backpack and said, “Look, I brought some candles. And some absolutely exquisite hot cocoa. Ohhh, and some embarrassingly old digestive biscuits from the UK.” She handed me each item after announcing it.
“I don’t have a pot to make the cocoa in.”
“This is where my sheer genius comes in handy.” She handed me a small electric tea kettle and two tin cups.
She removed her heels and we sat on the floor in the candle-lit kitchen using mounds of my clothing, wrapped up in sweatshirts, as pillows. I took note of the fact that either the candles flattered her or she was wearing a cleverly subtle layer of makeup or that a combination of the hour, the circumstance and general loneliness was eroding my faculties of discrimination: her lips seemed plumper, her eyes rounder and the bridge of her nose not quite so broad. Also, the soft white sweater she had on seemed to me to be an order of magnitude bustier than I remembered her being. I wondered what kind of inventory she was performing on me, meanwhile. I could only hope I wasn’t being judged solely by the lights of the content of my character, because that would mean I was a shit.
“You must be the only person in Berlin who speaks less German than I do.” She gave me a thumbs-up. “What nobody can seem to get through their thick skulls is that I like not being able to speak the language… my isolation is a luxury, man, it’s precious to me. Most writers, like, pay for solitude like this.” She peered at me from under the rim of her beret as she sipped her cocoa.
“You’re a writer?”
“Didn’t I tell you? Oh my. That’s why I came to Berlin, to write my second book.”
“I thought you came to take language lessons.”
“That too.” She smiled and carefully placed her cup beside the electric kettle. “I’ve had two novels published and one twee little book of short stories. It’s practically an oeuvre, dah-ling. Surprised?”
“You said you were disillusioned with art at a young age, though, yes?”
“Writing isn’t an art, it’s an addiction, silly boy.”
I was glad that I hadn’t mentioned The Bomb Collector; how foolish would that have made me look? Strutting dilettante with his chest puffed out. The ghost of Richard, pointing and laughing. When and if she does ask what I ‘do’, I decided, my answer will be simple: housepainter.
“It’s cozy in here,” she said, “even without the furniture. You’re lucky… my flat gives me the creeps. Too many ghosts.”
“Doesn’t anyone ever come there looking for the former tenant?”
“No… I don’t think she knew very many people, poor girl. She was here illegally, you know… even the government didn’t know. Iranian. Persian if you want to get poetic and towel-head if you want to exercise your freedom of speech. Two heads worth of hair on her head… best thing about Iran has got to be all that hair in that country. The women have hairy arms and faint mustaches and the boys are capable of beards at seven. She was a pretty little thing, though. I suppose she’s packed in a box in an abandoned building in Haiti by now,” she giggled. “Not to be morbid. Jamaica, I mean,” she corrected herself. “How long do you think you’ll stay in Berlin?”
She sat with her back against the kitchen wall, hugging her knees. She seemed less larger-than-life than before… nicely so. It occurred to me in any case that I had fucked less likable women and even fallen in love with ones who were not nearly as bright. It also struck me that ‘personality’ is almost always a defense mechanism; a diversion. Wit, charm, gregarious vitality: they’re all a performance. The core being is a mysterious bundle of thoughts and sensations much closer to animal than we care to admit… it may well be that the ‘human’ aspect exists solely in the performance… the human bit is an avatar we project to interact with other avatars. The more her performance faded (out of sheer exhaustion), the more I liked her.
“I mean,” she yawned, resting her chin on her knees and closing her eyes, “do you even like Berlin so far, or are you already kicking yourself for coming here?”
I yawned back and didn’t bother answering. I just stared, determined to make her do all the work.
She stood and crossed the kitchen towards the countertop, dragging her fingers through my hair along the way, and cradled her hand around each candle flame before blowing it out. Because it was dawn, however, the room was no darker after than it had been before, and I watched her undress.
“Voyeur,” said Amanda.
It rained all day, the next day (or, that is, later the same day), and I found myself under a cheap umbrella on Schönhauser Allee, looking for a mattress store. I hadn’t told Amanda about my plan to go mattress shopping simply because I hadn’t wanted the activity to take on symbolic significance; a tacky conjugal milestone; I just wanted to make a basic purchase. After an adventurous few hours on the makeshift campsite of my living room floor, we’d separated drowsily at the front door of my building with a plan to meet later for dinner. I ended up wandering for quite a while in a light drizzle after it became obvious that most shops weren’t open before ten or eleven a.m.. I window-shopped a sex boutique with a row of huge black topologically accurate dildos on display like biblical serpents. Next door was a travel agent advertizing discount flights to Johannesburg.
There’s a wretched majesty to the city in the rain that fulfills its romantic image. I’ve seen Berlin on a bright hot summer day and there’s something sad about it under those conditions… ugly and vulnerable like an old queen kicked out at closing time and caught staggering home in a blast of work-a-day sunshine. Berlin is properly a city of mists and fogs and water-stained stone. Buildings rarely burn here, but they go black with time. To stand near one of these black edifices is to feel the cold serenity of the utterly hopeless.
When it started raining so hard that drops were bursting through the fabric of the umbrella in a fine spray, I stepped off the street into a cafe packed with refugees from the sudden downpour. Most of the refugees were standing with styrofoam cups of coffee at the glass wall of the cafe, watching the rain, waiting for a break in it, so there were several free tables. I picked one near the back, propped my drenched umbrella against the wall and dug a little notepad out of the capacious side-pocket of my raincoat. I always carry a notepad and pencil, never knowing when I’ll have the opportunity to write.
I flipped open the notebook, stared at the blank page on the table, licked my pencil and wrote: She is lying. Then I looked at what I’d written and wondered what I meant by it.
Azzedine El-Hadi once made a remark to me that was so powerful that I seriously considered either framing it or making a tattoo of it. We were using a chart to replace the hundreds of framed photos (of every size and style of framing) of beautiful women on the walls of his bedroom. The walls were freshly painted a lovely, subtle green called Statue Patina. I don’t remember what specific conversational thread led to this but he said:
“Women are liars and men are their lies.”
I went home after work that day and put the same line in the mouth of Azzedine’s doppelgänger in the untitled novel I’d just started (having scrapped the first attempt: a novel concerning the adventures of two house painters), inspired by our conversations. I was yet to have the book’s title as Azzedine was yet to pass it on to me (unawares) as the memory of his father’s favorite aphorism. The manuscript was thirty or forty pages of first draft at that stage and the few characters that populated it were stick figures who spoke like comic book characters and moved in a jerky, mechanical fashion.
Cora was standing in El-Hadi’s bathtub, one foot up on the bathtub’s rim, while El-Hadi sponged her reddening flesh. Rosewater. There was evidence of his attitude towards the female sex, she was thinking, in the vociferousness with which he soaps and scrubs my cunt. She sighed and said, “You can’t really agree with that, Azzedine. Tell me you can’t. Having a cunt doesn’t automatically make me a liar.” She usually pinned up her shoulder-length hair when he bathed her but she felt particularly exposed this time; shy about her old neck. My mother’s neck. Red as a radish. As a lobster. El-Hadi said,
“Whether I agree with it or not is immaterial, Mrs. Simon. The saying was already old before America itself was only a dream! Who are we to quibble with its wisdom? Perhaps you take it too literally.” A hand-rolled cigarette batted up and down between his lips as he spoke and his right eye squinted against the smoke that rose into it. “Okay,” he said. He clapped. “Out.” He fetched a towel and patted her dry.
I looked up from the declarative sentence in my notebook. I saw that it had stopped raining, so I left the cafe without having ordered a thing, feeling as though I’d gotten away with something. The scrubbed air tingled on my face and the clouds had lifted to the level of the tree tops like a blur of ghostly kites. The ground was a dark mirror of stone and asphalt; cars drove on their reflections.
“Are you always so mind-bogglingly observant?”
I jumped. It was Amanda, laughing in my ear. I was walking at a good clip but she was right beside me, clopping along in her heels. “I was sitting right there in the Supreme Bean!”
She took my arm in hers. “Possibly the name of the cafe you just came out of, Captain Kirk?”
“When I was a kid we had a cat that was forced to wear a bell around its neck… ”
“Droll. You walked right by me when you came in the cafe. You sat at a table in the back and wrote something in your notebook and just sat there staring at it in a trance for, like, fifteen minutes. Then you got up and left. What were you writing?”
“Nothing. List of things I need to buy today.”
“Do you mind if I look at it?” She reached in the pocket of my raincoat and fished out the notebook. It was a brand new notebook, so there was nothing else to find in it but what I’d just written. “She is lying. Who’s lying?”
“Not you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I wasn’t thinking that.”
“Okay. But only for as long as it took me to read, reflect on and be hurt by it.”
“Hey, aren’t we meeting for dinner tonight?”
“Hint taken. Well, here’s my bike, you silver-tongued devil.”
It was chained to what looked like a German No Parking sign. It was too beat up to require security measures more stringent than sticking a Free Bike sign to it. She unchained it, wiped the cracked vinyl rain-beaded seat with the arm of her orange jacket and swung a leg over. “Anyway, that’s what we do.”
“Writers. That’s what we do. We lie. Fair warning. So bring a decent bottle of wine and your toothbrush tonight. Or feel free to use mine. You haven’t even bothered to ask me who I was sitting in the cafe with. Tootles.” She pedaled off, leaving me in a quandary as to whether or not I liked her.
It wasn’t even 11 a.m. yet but I was too tired to continue this quest for a mattress. I made my way home and collapsed on the pile I called a bed and dozed off until the construction workers’ lunchbreak was over. The building shook and I let loose with a primal scream of rage and frustration that no one could even hear. Or so I thought.
Five minutes later my doorbell was ringing. I heard it during a two-second gap in the roar of construction. I assumed it was Amanda and snatched the door open wearing nothing but my pants and was non-plussed by the apparition of ‘the little red-headed girl,’ standing with a tentative smile in my doorway. I find that clichés work best in the description of beauty: she was cat-eyed and breathtaking. With perfect posture and pearly-white teeth. She spoke with the faintest of German accents.
“Are you okay? You screamed. It sounded like you hurt yourself.” As wild and irrational as I felt I must look to her at that moment, she didn’t seem afraid. She extended her perfectly sculpted hand in greeting. “I’m your upstairs neighbor, Nico. I heard an American was moving in.”
I shook hands with her. “John.”
“John! John… what?”
“Hi John just-John. So I guess you’re okay, then?”
“Great. Except, you know… the noise… ”
“Speaking of which.” She winked and lowered her voice and leaned near; the smell of her hair was tantalizing. “I heard you this morning. I thought you were watching a porno until I saw your girlfriend staggering out of the building… ”
“Who? Oh! That’s not my girlfriend.”
“Well, I hope she’s not your daughter!”
“No, neither. You know. I don’t know. It’s Berlin, right?”
“I’m a Christian, ” she beamed. Oh god. Well, the Christianity explained her boldness. Proselytizers are bold of a necessity, but I felt it was unfair for her to harbor an agenda like this and be so physically attractive. “Christians don’t do that. In Berlin or anywhere else.”
“Christians look like this?”
“You should see my little sister.”
“What do I get if I convert?”
“Unsurpassed peace and blessings everlasting.”
“Is that a euphemism?”
She wiggled her fingers in a bye-bye wave and turned towards the staircase. “You’re asking a virgin?”
“Have a nice day, Nico.”
“Same to you, John.”
And she ascended the staircase. What stuck with me was how she’d pronounced ‘unsurpassed,’ emphasizing the third and fourth syllables of the word. Like an Elizabethan. Her pale skin and orange hair and striking blue eyes supported this impression.
At Amanda’s that evening I experimented with pretending that Amanda was Nico. Nico lighting a dozen candles around her living room, bustling back and forth from the kitchen in an apron. A kitsch apron embroidered with a German aphorism girdling Nico’s hips. The touchingly harried look of a woman trying to get the first meal just right… but not on Amanda’s face… on Nico’s. It was impossible, though, to imagine Nico demonstrating one of Amanda’s feats of strength: the trunk. She was using the steamer trunks for dinner tables and the one edge-up on its wheels had to be laid on its side with the other. She was grunting and groaning as she maneuvered it, so I jumped from the sofa to help. I was stunned to discover that the thing must have weighed as much as I do.
“It’s okay, I’ve got it.”
“Honey, the thing weighs a ton, let me… ”
“Don’t be a male chauvinist pig, John-John… I said I’ve got it. Sit down, okay? You’re my guest. Sit fucking down and relax.” She lowered it carefully onto its side and let it fall the last inch or so with a flat-shaking thud. Her sleeves were rolled up and I saw the veins bulging in her forearms. I thought: I better never make this girl really mad.
She spread a white lace table cloth over each trunk and brought in two plates but no utensils. I was forbidden entry to the kitchen so when she went off to stir something or turn a flame down or whatever she was up to we communicated by shouting between the two rooms, which were separated by a short hallway. Both to make small talk, and to indulge in the surreptitious erotic delight of discussing Nico with Amanda, I said, “Turns out there’s a Christian living in my building. Right upstairs.”
“A Christian?” Amanda yelled, over the sound of chopping. “Is he a German?”
“She’s a German, yeah.”
“Germans can never really be Christians. They’re too pagan in the blood. They revert to their roots in times of great need or stress. I’d watch out for her. She’s probably horny as a stampede of cattle. Where do you stand on salt in your food?”
“No particular stance.”
She poked her head around the corner. “No issues with hypertension?”
“Well, you know. Forty two and so forth.”
“I’m a healthy specimen.”
“So I’ve noticed.” She disappeared. When she came out of the kitchen again she was carrying a paperback. She said, “Dinner’ll be ready in twenty minutes, sir. By the way, in case you’re curious.” She handed me the book.
“The Passenger. By Amanda Nye, Harridan Press. Nice cover.”
The cover was a black and white period-type photo of a station platform. Couple of ‘colored’ porters in the background and a pale-skinned, black-haired female traveler in the foreground, looking a bit camp in a pinstriped, shoulder-padded, wide-lapeled business suit of the ’40s. The dame was glancing at her chunky, modern, steel-banded wristwatch, the anachronism (no pun intended) which falsified the image. Glancing at the watch with a look of concern. Was someone late for a rendezvous? A suspect? A lover? I handed the book back.
“Oh no, please. Keep it.”
“Thanks. I’ll have a look later. Is it post modern?”
“Genre. Sub-genre. Lipstick-lesbian murder mystery.”
“There’s a market?”
“Large enough to keep me in Ramen Noodles.”
“I thought I recognized the smell of monosodium glutamate wafting from the kitchen.”
“Give that man a cigar! It’s the beef flavor packet, so your Riesling should go well with it.”
I tapped the female on the book cover. “Victim or sleuth?”
“Neither. The publisher’s girlfriend. Actually, this is true, I made the publisher a minor character in the book.”
“So it is post modern.”
“Though nobody yet has managed to define the term to my satisfaction.”
“Well, it’s like the definition of pornography, isn’t it.”
“You know it when you see it?”
“You know it when you do it. Ooops! Gotta go check on Ramen.”
The mention of the word pornography reminded me of the fact that the table-cloth-covered steamer trunk I would be eating on was full of it. This gave me a funny little thrill. I’d be dining atop all those pumping, heaving, spasming body-parts. All those pink and brown gurgling holes. It was very nearly disgusting, like some new Japanese restaurant fad.
I agreed with Amanda’s assessment of her flat: it gave me the creeps. There was an aura of the taxidermied and shellacked about it that the candle light, with its twitching shadows and orangey wood-tones, exacerbated. But did this creepiness emanate from Amanda or the previous tenant or something inherit in the apartment? Could the previous tenant really be blamed for the Victorian attic ambiance if Amanda had been living here for five years already?
I yelled, “Hey, I have an idea for a book you can write.” But she didn’t answer. I waited a good long time and called out, “Amanda?” and there was silence, though I heard the creaking of floorboards in other rooms in the apartment.
Just as I was deciding to go check on her she entered the room carrying a large silver serving tray, dressed in the style of an orthodox Muslim: from head to toe in a dark Burka, only her hands and eyes exposed. Her eyes were kohl-rimmed and the grim fabric of the Burka billowed and despite her attempt at being exotic or even seductive she was frightening. There was no trace… no remnant… nothing to indicate that within that macabre shroud there existed a human in any way known to me. She knelt with the tray and set it on the edges between the two trunks and spooned dollops of hummus, tabouli, tahini, etc., on my plate. Her plate remained empty.
I said, “Amanda…” But she cocked her Burka’d head with a perfectly alien movement and stared me down, a finger over the shroud where her lips would be.
I realized that in this role-playing fantasy, she couldn’t eat until after I was finished. I was very hungry and the food was delicious; she knelt beside me as I ate. The apartment was quiet as a crypt, which magnified the sound of my chewing and swallowing. She remained in character throughout, and I tried not to look at her, but it was impossible. There were no utensils; I just scooped and mopped with hunks of pita bread; and I’d stuff some in my mouth and glance over and there she’d be, eyes downcast, swaying almost imperceptibly as I ate. The horror of the Burka is the sinister magic of it… how the woman shrouded in it becomes all women and no woman, with less personality than a dog.
I ate quickly, finishing about half of the food, then leaned back from the plate and gestured that she should continue where I’d left off. She was reluctant until I moved entirely away from the ‘table’ and sat on the couch. She then crawled to the plate and balanced on her haunches, lifting the front flap of her cowl with one hand and stuffing the food in with the other, careful not to expose any of her own flesh in the process. There was a hypnotic rhythm to the mechanics of it and a dream-like blankness in her kohl-rimmed eyes which she fixed on me without acknowledging my presence. The eyes looked decorative, flat, painted-on… but it also struck me that they could be gazing on some bearded Imam of the 19th century for the absolute absence of recognition I saw in them.
Abruptly, she stopped shoveling it in and angled away from the plate for a still moment, eyes closed, and then she stood, with a rustle of fabric, and crossed to where I sat on the couch. Kneeling before me, pushing my legs apart, she fussed with my zipper. She reached in with thumb and forefinger and plucked it out deftly while lifting the front flap of her cowl. I only caught a glimpse of my swelling dick before it disappeared into her mouth under the shroud. Her head bobbed and I gripped at the couch, holding my breath while she nodded and gulped in prayer.
I closed my eyes and arched my back and pushed into the dark warmth. I made sounds… I said things… I’m not sure. If I hadn’t opened my eyes again before coming I wouldn’t have seen Amanda, in a bathrobe, walk into the room with that smirk of hers.
I shoved the Burka away and jumped up and snatched at the door and stumbled down five flights two steps at a time in the dark, barely able to breathe. I ran across the black courtyard to the front of the building and shouldered through the heavy door afraid that they might follow me and I ran when I hit the sidewalk and the laughter I had heard or imagined I heard as I escaped from Amanda’s flat… the dirty laughter that followed me down the stairs as though the witch it came out of was flying down the stairs behind me… her laughter was smokey, Middle Eastern; the dusty throat of the Levant. Amanda wasn’t laughing but her friend in the Burka was. This is like a movie, I kept thinking. This is like a horror movie. I even considered, for a wild second, flagging down a cop car. Had I just been raped? If not, I’d been severely fucked with. I couldn’t tell if the chest pains were from the trauma or from running down five flights of stairs.
I vowed to myself that I’d never cross paths with Amanda Nye again, although, the further I got from her flat, the less frightened, the less angry, I became. I could see the creepy Zen of it… the decadent, artistic Choderlos de Laclos wit of it, even. Still, I had never been less than ambivalent about a relationship with Amanda, as interesting as she had proven herself to be, and this was the perfect excuse for a righteous exit. She couldn’t drench me in guilt or seek revenge over my breaking things off with her because by almost any system of reckoning, what she had done was ‘wrong’. I could well remember her saying, I’m not weird, I’m just acclimatized to Germans. I’ve forgotten certain standards of normal. Damn right. But it wasn’t as though she’d killed anyone. Knowing Ms. Nye, I realized, meant never knowing when the floor was about to drop out from under you. Some people might enjoy that.
Six blocks away from the scene of the crime I began to laugh. I laughed hard. More had already happened to me in my first few days in Berlin than in ten years of living in San Diego. I felt free, the sky was bruise-blue and moonlit and beaded with stellar ova; the air was a cool drink and Kastanien Allee was jumping. A Babel of music pumped out of every cafe, club, restaurant and idling car on both sides of the long long street and young people were everywhere, endearingly willing to dress up in loud fashions and prance across my path. I was glad I hadn’t come in the Burka’s mouth. I was glad I hadn’t wasted the day’s orgasm.
A skinny blonde came skipping out of an Indian bistro sing-songing something in German. Taking note of my incomprehension, she said, “Do you please have the extra money you can give me, sir?” She was late-teens, early twenties and dressed like a pirate, with leggings and tall boots and a red bandana tied over her ratty blonde shoulder-length hair. She smelled like hard candy and cigarettes. There was a spot high in the middle of her forehead that it had obviously been the bandanna’s job, before slipping, to hide. “An Euro, perhaps?”
“Sure,” I said, and handed her a five. This appeared to impress her.
“You must be American,” she said. “Brits are as cheap like the Germans. Are all Americans so rich?”
“No, but we’re all fools.”
“I like fools!”
“Lucky you. I’m a one man ship of fools.”
“Hey, you talk like a book by Jack Kerouac, man. You must be, so, a Schriftsteller. I am correct?”
“What’s a Schriftsteller?”
She mimed writing. “You must be a psychic,” I said.
“For another five I am reading your palm.”
“I’ll give you ten to listen to me talk for forty minutes.”
She made a praying gesture with her hands. “Fifteen?”
We walked arm-in-arm up Kastanien Allee, a forty two year old American and a nineteen year old waif of Central Europe. Being a nameless, faceless traveler, I was immune to shame or the pressure of public opinion, like a long-time member of the Milwaukee chapter of the Kiwanis Club with his arm around a fifteen year old hooker in Saigon. I was still half-hard from the unfinished blow-job and rattled, still, by the prank. But I refused to remain creeped-out for the rest of the evening. I refused to let Amanda have the last laugh or dominate my thoughts by becoming a phobia. Let’s speak of things Amanda knows not of, I thought. I told the girl,
“I had an unhappy childhood. My parents divorced before I could even walk, and my father was nothing but an authoritarian voice on the telephone who would only make the special trip to where my mother and I lived if I had done something bad enough to deserve a spanking.”
“I soon figured out the relationship between misbehaving and seeing my father, so I misbehaved constantly. Those spankings were the high point of my week. I usually made sure to misbehave on the weekend so the spankings wouldn’t interfere with homework.”
“Meanwhile, my mother, my gentle mother, whom I’d loved obsessively as an infant, seemed less perfect as I grew older and went to school. She was not a bright woman… my father had married her for her looks and her ability in the kitchen and her natural genius was in her optimism and kindness. But I was a so-called gifted child… too smart to be happy, or to fit in anywhere… and I soon lost patience with the idiotic aphorisms and catch-phrases she faced life with. I was a cruel little tyrant of eight or nine the first time I told my poor sweet mother to shut up. What’s worse, rather than spank the shit out of me for that filthy impertinence, she obeyed me. Which had the effect, to make a long story short, of ruining my life.”
“I was accepted into an expensive private college, on a full scholarship, at the age of 15. The student body was equal parts whiz-kids and trust-fund brats and quite a few members of the faculty were bonafide geniuses and or masters of their discipline and taught classes that in some cases featured three pale students with large, pulsing craniums. It should have been exactly the kind of place I’d find myself in, but, instead, I spent my two years on campus staging elaborate pranks and fucking beautiful coeds from all over the world. I’d always wanted to write a book, I could write extremely well but only in spurts, but it had never occurred to me that writing could be a profession… something that people paid you to do. It never occurred to me that this private college was anything other than a symbol for everything I hated about people who’d been born having more than I did.”
“I quit in the middle of my sophomore year to follow a girl to California. I was still just barely seventeen. This was the late ’70s. I jumped into her Volkswagen minibus with a duffel bag full of my meager possessions and that was that.”
“The thing I noticed real quick was that whereas in prep school and college, smart people were paid or otherwise motivated to listen to you, outside of college, the density of smart people not only dropped to something close to the vacuum of interstellar space, but, also, the dumb fucks you suddenly found yourself surrounded by… whether on the job or in your run-down apartment building or even on the streets… could not give less than half a blind monkey’s bent-dicked fuck about your theories, dreams, quips or observations. In fact, it soon becomes painfully clear that many dumb people are too dumb to know they’re dumb or that you, in contrast, are smart… they even, some of them, misinterpreting the eccentric behaviour of the intellectually gifted for stupidity, might take to calling you retard.”
“The moistly voluptuous Jewish American Princess I had run away from school with wised-up fairly quick and opted out of the situation by playing her trump card: blaming me. Daddy sent a friend of the family… a crewcut jock attending the school I’d bailed out of… to get her the fuck out of our hovel with a minimum of incident and drive her back to the family compound in Rhode Island. When I got home from my job on the loading dock that day, I saw them driving off, and when I entered the open door of the apartment I noticed that all the good furniture, all the booze, most of the records and all of the silverware… was gone. The only thing she left me… and this hurt… was the hand-painted book of poetry I’d written for her birthday. That she left in the empty refrigerator, strangely, and I’m still working out the symbolism there. Her family had staged an intervention and pried her easily out of a poverty cult of two, no deprogramming necessary. Have I mentioned already that it was her idea to quit school and move to California? Life, as we now know, is unfair.”
The girl I was walking with (who called herself ‘Motte’… German for Moth) took all of this in and said,”You must be lucky to write. I dream of this, or to make music.” She reached up and adjusted her bandanna, self-conscious about her Third Eye. “To eat from what you create!”
She assumed, of course, that I was a published writer; that I earned my living from words. I could have taken her back to Amanda Nye’s place and introduced her, saying Now, this is a real writer, Moth; she has a book out and everything… unlike me. Instead, I acted the part for my little fan. To lie about being a published writer is to be closer to being a published writer than if one is honest about not being one, after all. I went into great detail about my book. If there’s one thing anyone who’s committed a year or two of his or her life to the founding and maintenance of a text knows, people with whom one can discuss the effort are far and few between. Songwriters have it easy: they ask for between three and five minutes of your time, on average. Painters even easier: usually, a glance will do it. But a writer… someone working on a novel… is truly a wretch, waiting for that rare patient angel with hours, days, weeks of attention to dedicate towards the reading and discussing of one’s god-damned creation.
The real Azzedine El-Hadi had been the only such listener in my life (while Richard was the perfect embodiment of the anti-listener); there would have been no The Bomb Collector (whatever degree of a shambles the manuscript is in at this moment) without our conversations. Rigorous conversations about aesthetics, language, vision, purpose, life. Everything. It was refreshing, in America, to have what Americans might consider a self-indulgence or a hobby treated by this cultured Algerian as a sacred duty imposed upon me by my sincere willingness to undertake it. Not that he had ever read the result, or even knew that I was working on a fabulated version of his life. He respected my serious desire to write and proved this respect by listening.
And now there was this nineteen year old runaway (I assumed she was a runaway), who’d listen to anything I cared to ramble about in exchange for a pathetic €15. She seemed smart enough; her English wasn’t bad; and, most importantly, she was at an age during which interest in Art is at its peak, if it is present at all. Not to mention the fact that €15 would probably feed her for three days. I only escaped feeling guilt about this exploitative arrangement by floating the mitigating (and experimental?) thought that at least I wasn’t expecting a blow job.
The first time El-Hadi was bold enough to go on a ‘date’ with Noa in public, he drove the precautionary distance from his conservative bedroom community in the Wisselwallig valley to Manhattan. If he couldn’t get away with it in Manhattan, there was nowhere in America that he could reasonably expect to. Noa considered her lover’s caution quaint (fatherly) at best and paranoid (grandmotherly) at worst, and El-Hadi was torn between wanting to have a pleasantly uneventful experience and hoping that his young mistress might learn a lesson about the dangers inherent in crossing certain lines, not only in America but around the world. Her assumption that she could go anywhere and do anything (the driving force behind the Peace Corps, no?) was her middle-class, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant birthright and El-Hadi resented and admired this birthright in equal measure. Noa Reese wouldn’t know the caliphate from a Caliban but she had a Mullah’s pig-headed arrogance.
The first part of the journey, El-Hadi kept the top up on his convertible, but ten miles along the Henry Hudson Parkway he pulled over into a scenic rest stop (Howard Johnson’s) and put the top down and they enjoyed the rest of the drive with the wind and the sun as fellow passengers. There was an AM radio in the car and Noa was in charge of it, so El-Hadi was treated to the cacophony of musical so-called ‘youth culture,’ which was owned, promoted, often created and sometimes even performed by middle-aged men. They had a good-natured argument about Paul Anka.
“No he’s not!”
“Oh, I’m afraid he is, my dear. His biggest pop hit is ‘Diana’, yes? You remember this song?”
“Yes I remember that dusty old thing.”
“It was about a Lebanese girl named Diana Ayoub!” El-Hadi laughed with great relish. “He’s now married to the daughter of an Egyptian count! You are unaware the extent to which the Arab world is taking over, my dear! But not to worry, I’ll put in a good word for you!”
“It’s just music for squares, anyway. Who cares? I suppose the Jefferson Airplane are Arabs, too?”
“I would not be shocked by this! Although I rather suspect they are Jews.”
“In point of fact it is, in many cases, but don’t tell anyone I uttered such blasphemy.” He dragged a finger across his neck. “It is an unpopular opinion among the boys with the sharp knives.”
“And so they have found Manhattan?” asked Moth.
“They have found Manhattan.”
“They found a good place to park?”
“They found the best of all possible parking places.”
“Did they park in the sun or under a tree?”
I began to seriously reconsider the blow job option. I said, “Moth, can you really read my palm?”
“I have done it like my nine-to-five job since I am twelve. Everybody knows that Motte is the girl who reads palms like they are U-Bahn maps.” We were standing in front of the crowded entrance to a club/cafe called Rash wherein a live band was banging away on their laptops. It didn’t strike me as the most congenial atmosphere for tuning into the ether but Moth grabbed my right hand and held it up in the brilliant red glare of the neon RASH sign.
As Noa and El-Hadi waited at the bus stop for the number 6a (because his car, smeared with human feces, was now untouchable), he thought of the time they’d driven into Manhattan together, a little more than a year before. He’d had the same damp palms; the anxiety like sand in his lungs. What did he expect to happen on a city bus, a lynching? He’d never in his life ridden one. Noa was in charge on this mission and it was she who held the two adult fares of thirty five cents each (including the nickle charge for a transfer) as the bus rounded the corner onto the main street that ran along the southern edge of Wisselwallig Park. The bus was a gleaming cage, a mobile exhibit from the zoo. It wasn’t packed but it was far from empty and, after Noa dropped their money in the slot and the machine collated and digested the coins, making a sound like a tiny washing machine, El-Hadi followed her up the aisle, careful not to make eye contact with any of the piles of clothing that sat motionless on the filthy green seats. The experience was marginally less disgusting than driving home in his shit-besmeared car would have been.
Last year, summer, a near-lunch in Manhattan and the Diane Arbus show at MoMa. El-Hadi had parked his car in a lot owned by distant cousins who’d preceded him to America and the cousin on site at the lot, the short dark one who now called himself Sammy, had given Azzedine a sly and complicated look which Azzedine recognized from his youth. That’s nice what you’ve got there, cousin… how about sharing?
A subway ride later they were on Fifth Avenue, headed for West 53rd Street. The tension in Azzedine’s neck by then made him feel like a robot who could only turn his head left or right by moving his entire torso. Noa, in contrast, was energized by the Manhattan shop windows and babbling giddily. Several times she reached spontaneously for his hand to drag him to see something… a purse or a shoe or a shockingly short skirt on a mannequin… and he dodged the gesture. Everywhere he looked he saw red-faced Irish cops, plainclothes detectives or bohunk sailors on shore leave, savagely drunk. The hipsters, freaks, fashion-plates, matrons and sniffy plutocrats who also thronged the street were invisible to him, or flat as cartoons and resolutely backgrounded as he picked out one after another of the vivid threats to his dignity and physical well-being as he and Noa walked by.
Who would intercede if there were to be trouble? The pathetic, black-skinned shoe-shine boy? The Puerto Rican queers cackling on the corner? Noa’s fine-featured, fair-skinned beauty made him feel blatantly dark and coarse in comparison, as though his charcoal touch had left smudges and pawprints on her. To make matters worse, Noa had dressed like a proper woman for a change. The knee-length skirt and frilly top and suede boots… the little purse and those big round sunglasses… he looked like her sweaty old chauffeur when he opened the car door for her and she poured out, long legs first, like a drink from an aristocrat’s refrigerator.
The Arbus show confirmed his mood. “My god,” whispered Noa, glancing at the museum guard over her shoulder as though what she was about to say might get them kicked out of the exhibition, “I didn’t realize there were so many ugly people… ”
Azzedine pressed two fingers to his lips and lowered his chin and said, “Is it that they are so ugly, or that they have seen so much ugliness?”
“Well, I bet they never dreamed they’d be hung on the walls like this, for all the world to see.”
“All the world? Not even a millionth of it.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know all too well what you mean.”
She tried to slip her arm around his waist but he sidestepped the gesture. “Not here, Noa,” he whispered. Now it was his turn to glance at the guard.
“If not here, then where? Christ, Azzy, it’s not… Nazi Germany!”
“For you it’s not,” he answered, too quickly, with too much passion, and he realized, immediately, how idiotic he sounded. Like a frightened old woman. To prove he was a man he reached and pulled Noa to his side and kissed her full on the mouth.
“That’s enough of that, Jack,” said the museum guard, tapping Azzedine on the shoulder. A thick-lipped Polack with sour-milk breath. “This is public property! Take it outside to the gutter!”
“We’ll probably just screw in the car, thanks,” said Noa, sweetly. It was exactly what the day needed… it broke the spell… Azzedine and Noa left the exhibition hand in hand, laughing, strolling down the famous spiral ramp of the museum like any other culture-loving couple. They didn’t notice the man who followed them out into the sunlit street.
Azzedine, who hadn’t been in Manhattan since his arrival in America more than a decade earlier, was on the lookout for a restaurant in which to treat his young mistress to a proper meal; he was torn between wanting to keep a low profile for fear of trouble and wanting to show off the prize on his arm in a commensurate venue. Noa continued to lobby for something casual, by which she meant, without being blunt enough to put it that way, an establishment frequented by young people. Azzedine had brought a navy-blue blazer to wear with his white turtleneck and gray slacks and oxfords, despite the heat, and the thought of sitting in a dining room full of similarly-attired people filled Noa with anticipatory boredom so powerful that she nearly yawned from it. Dining with her parents upstate every blue moon provided more than enough of the required yearly dosage of that particular character-building vitamin.
Her Algerian lover, so forcefully young in bed and so self-possessedly fascinating in the classroom, was half the man, however, under other circumstances. He aged and shrank in the context of the mindless chores and mundane confrontations of daily life; how else could she explain his vassalage to the snap judgments of absolute nobodies? It was Noa’s job, she felt, to support him… be his crutch, his shield or even his red-tipped cane… when he wasn’t fucking or lecturing. She’d read his story A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods but hadn’t understood it in the context of their relationship.
Noa won the restaurant battle because El-Hadi couldn’t find anything satisfactory after forty minutes of walking. By then they’d wandered into an aromatically fecund corner of the East Village and Noa stamped her feet in a mock tantrum in front of a place called The Star’s Bangled Jammer. Laughing, wringing his hands and rolling his eyes to a putatively Christian heaven for strength, Azzedine gave in.
They pushed through the heavy curtains of the entrance and found a table near the window and Azzedine, seating Noa and then himself said, “This looks like a madman’s idea of a restaurant.” The walls were covered in primitively hand-painted faces. “Or a child’s,” he added.
Noa shrugged. “Everything is relative, Azzy.”
“Relativism is merely nihilism without the courage of its convictions, my dear. Is bright light merely on a continuum with utter darkness? Pleasure interchangeable with pain? Aesthetics may seem to many to be a wholly subjective affair, but, I assure you, it is no more subjective a matter than biological or physical properties. There are laws. Rules.” He picked up his menu with a patient smile; he’d said what he’d said without bitterness or emphasis. Noa enjoyed his comment, in fact, and he knew it. She was reassured to see him become fully himself again. The lecturer. The stern lover. The confidently big-dicked intellectual.
A waiter came and sat at their table, scooting in next to Noa. He was a pale, thin Brit with his incisors missing and copper wires twined here and there in his shaggy hair. He said, “Here at The Jammer we believe in removing the artificial barrier between customer and the waitstaff. I’m Jeremy… pleased to meet you.” He reached across the table to shake Azzedine’s hand. Winking at Noa, Azzedine seized Jeremy’s hand in a manly shake and said,
“Tell me, Jeremy, do you also believe in removing the artificial prices as well?”
Both Jeremy and Noa laughed at this. Noa said, “Jeremy, what’s the story behind your teeth? I’ve seen other people in the area sporting the same fashion today. Is it religious?”
El-Hadi was surprised and impressed by Noa’s powers of observation; he’d noticed no such thing on the street himself. He’d assumed the condition of the young man’s teeth was drug-related.
“The canines? Had them removed.We inherit them from carnivorous ancestors, but in our case… myself, and the others you’ve noticed… we find them no longer necessary. You’d be surprised at how having these teeth pulled will purify your thoughts?”
Jeremy settled back in his seat. His gappy smile made him resemble a backwoods character from the popular televsion show called Hee Haw. The exquisite little cross-reference being that the dipthonged and glottal speech patterns of much of the American South were handed down from 18th century Cockneys marooned there in British penal colonies. It pained El-Hadi to have to forego the pleasure of sharing this observation. He smiled at Jeremy and said,
“How do you handle the lunchtime crowds with such a… relaxed… attitude towards service, if I may ask, young man?”
“If things get too hectic, actually? We close?”
Noa said, “Hey, Jeremy. I think we might be ready to order.”
“You haven’t told me your names.”
“Heckle and Jeckle,” said Azzedine. He was pleased no end when Noa rested her chin on her interwoven fingers and, batting her eyelashes, cooed, “I’m Jeckle.”
“Awe-inspiring,” said Jeremy, looking bemused, and he took their orders. “We’ll call your names when the food is ready.” Noa twisted in her seat to wave as Jeremy shuffled off, but when she turned to face Azzedine again she had a puzzled look on her face.
“I must say,” said Azzedine, “I’m impressed. This incisor matter. I noticed no such thing. Your powers of observation are truly amazing, my dear. I’m extremely proud of you.”
“Oh, I can do better than that. Much better. Behind me? The nondescript gentleman in the hat, with a camera around his neck?”
Azzedine peered over her shoulder. The man she described was frowning at a menu. He looked like a G-man from a B movie and he was surrealistically out of place in The Star’s Bangled Jammer. Noa said, “I recognize him from the museum. He was in the room with us when the guard kicked us out.”
“What’s even more interesting, Azzy, is the camera around his neck. It’s a real nice camera… a Hasselblad reflex, okay. He’s got a Zeiss telephoto lens on it. Viewfinder is on top. It’s really the only way to go if you want to take pictures of somebody without them noticing. Oh, and by the way? I see that the lens cap is off. Say cheese, baby.”
El-Hadi tried to adopt a lighthearted tone. “Paparazzi?”
“Are we so famous?”
“As you know,” joked Azzedine, “fame, like everything else, is relative.”
“I shouldn’t have told you.”
“Nonsense.” But he felt the tension return like a plague, spreading across his shoulders and up his neck and solidifying like lead in his jaw muscles. He looked at his watch. “Let’s go.”
“Without even eating?”
“But I was looking forward… ”
“I know. Heckle and Jeckle.” Azzedine stood, placed a five dollar bill on the table, and pulled an exasperated Noa out of the restaurant. The man with the camera put his menu down, scooped the five off the table they’d just vacated, and followed.
My first snow in Berlin arrived on the evening of November 1st. By this time, nearly ten months after moving to Berlin, I had a second-hand sofa bed in the living room, a kitchen table with two chairs, a basic set of plates, cups, pots, pans and utensils, and a futon in the narrow, windowless room next door to the living room.
I had re-worked The Bomb Collector considerably, but it was still, basically, poised at the same spot in the arc of the tale where it had stalled as I fled The States: the end movement remained unresolved. But the first two thirds of the manuscript had changed so much that it energized me to read through it. I had learned, ‘on the job’, as it were, to throw things away. Even good things; if they didn’t add to the forward-momentum of the tale, I crossed out. Any narrative threads that led to dead-ends were either crossed out or the walls that the dead-ends led to were dynamited.
By the evening of my first snow in Berlin, I hadn’t heard from or about Amanda Nye in months, not a peep or a note since her grotesque prank (the night of the Burka). My upstairs neighbor, Nico Taubkind, the pretty, orange-haired Christian, had eased into a harmless, chatty friendship with me, though she sometimes (and increasingly so) gave me funny looks. These looks of hers (troubled, intrigued) undoubtedly related to the fact that my living situation had taken rather a curious turn that any woman over a certain age would frown on.
I was scrawling in a fresh notebook on my kitchen table by the parchment light of a brass-based lamp I’d gotten at an Estate Sale (cancer in Pankow) when I heard a key jut into the door lock. The door jangled open and jangled shut like the exaggerated sound effect from an old time radio show, and boots stomped a little war dance on the muddy rug in the short hall of the entrance.
Moth came in with a dozen fat snowflakes impaled and trembling intact on the spikes of her platinum hair. She pecked me once on each cheek and I noticed, again, how her nose looked bigger with her hair so short, and her eyes looked smaller and closer together with her nose so big. But her skin had cleared up since I’d taken on the responsibility of feeding her in a more-or-less healthy way. Her white-sugar consumption was drastically down and every day spent inside the flat, sleeping late, bathing long and listening to music in the windowless room I let her have, was a day without smoking or exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. I’d even bought two cell phones, the cheap kind you buy minutes for, and given her one as a safety measure.
Discussing books with Moth was pointless: in the system she’d worked out, books and paintings are there to make us better people; popular movies and songs to keep us up to date; and everything else is mindless entertainment. Any discussion about a book that went deeper than the question of plot was lost on her, and she had a knack for changing the subject (sometimes by seducing me: an effective method). We rarely ate out or went dancing or strolled through Berlin’s surplus of galleries and museums because both of us were frankly embarrassed about the age gap. Our only public appearances together were shopping trips… clothes for Moth, mostly (clothes she preferred looking for in the Men or Boys departments). We rarely ever even ate together at home; she preferred taking a jar or a tin or a box of something into her room and chowing with her headphones on. I tried to make sure she had warm soup or a sandwhich and a big salad for lunch and dinner a few times a week but I never pressured her to dine with me. My eating habits, after years of living alone, were as solitary and unceremonious as her own, and I can remember, more than once, in California, coming home from ten hours of housepainting and drinking a ‘gourmet’ vegetable soup from Whole Foods cold, straight out of the can. In an almost Swiftian way we were a perfectly suitable couple, though I never deluded myself that it was a stable union. I knew she’d be gone by the time she was twenty.
I folded my notebook closed, lay the pen across it and watched Moth think with her body in the middle of the kitchen. The tip of her nose was as cold as it was red and it was running. She sniffed and back-handed it and said, “It’s snowing cats and dogs out there!”
“I haven’t seen snow in fifteen years.”
“Wow! You haven’t seen snow since the year I learned the word for it. That’s what you call poetic creepiness.” She grabbed the electric tea kettle and stuck it under the spigot. Her English had taken on an idiosyncratic suavity in the two months we’d been living together. She filled the kettle with hot water, a tic I’ll always remember her for, and said, “So, are you Mr. Busy right now?”
“Not really. Not anymore. I ran out of steam an hour ago. I’m just doodling now. Wanna see?”
“Wanna get fucked in the virgin snow?”
“Lemme put some warm tea in the Moth-motor first.”
“And then you get fucked.” She nodded with and that’s-that curtness.
I appreciated the offer. We hadn’t fucked in a week. I never pressured her; sometimes we fucked a lot and sometimes we fucked a little and it was my job to act as though I didn’t notice, it was all the same to me, etc. She, of course, was free to fuck whoever whenever as long as I didn’t have to meet them or smell the evidence. I therefore assumed that when our fucking suddenly dried up for a week, she was involved in a furiously passionate little affair. I never asked or commented. The only ground rules were: no smoking in the flat; no bringing others home to the flat; no fucking with notorious bisexuals or intravenous drug users. Moth was on the pill but we weren’t using condoms. Stupid, I know. But all too human.
As for my end of the open arrangement: I wasn’t fucking anyone but Moth. I didn’t need the trouble, and, at the age of forty two (soon to be forty three), an affair with a seventeen year old girl (sixteen the day we met: surprise) was as decadent as things should get. Twice, with her gangling, fidgety, sinewy form and her now-short hair, she’d been mistaken (once in a department store and once at the cinema) for my son. I must admit that sometimes even I saw her that way, catching a glimpse of her in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, eating peanut butter out of the jar.
She swallowed a slug of tea from our Mr. T mug (her purchase, her pun) and went “Ahhhh,” and belched loudly, exactly as a teenage son would have. “Herbal tea is my heroin,” she moaned, rubbing her parka’d belly. She glugged down more and slammed the mug on the counter with comical machismo and said, “Ready.”
If our arrangement generated collateral health benefits for Moth in the realm of her diet, for me it meant a healthy cut in the kind of days that Doctor Johnson would have marked in his diary with discreet little M’s. Having a young and often-willing sex partner on the premises for the first time in eons made jerking off feel wasteful and silly. Even when I went for a week bereft of her amazingly naked embrace, I preferred to sit it out rather than waltz alone, with the results being that I rediscovered a spring in my step and a fire in my loins and could approach such undertakings as my book with a crackling fund of stored energy. And, coming at it from another direction, in the hours of my palpable relief after every time Moth deigned to fuck me, the writing discovered a sense of reconnected humanity. I was a better writer for not masturbating.
There are any number of bluestockings of my acquaintance and in my age-class who would abhor this happiness in Moth’s skin. Fucking her wouldn’t even be legal for a teenage boy in most of the 50 states, and, even I, before weathering the existential sandstorm of being a forty-ish house painter with a high I.Q. in Southern California, would have looked askance at what I’m doing with her now. But, well, why not throw buckets of cold water on copulating dogs all day? Shoo away flies in mid-fuck, and haul your randy, gray-shanked baboons and goats and cocks and rabbits off to re-education camps. If Nature never intended middle aged males to fuck teenage females, She wouldn’t have made teenage males so useless.
There’s bio-karma at work here, too, since many of the middle-aged women who would stone me for fucking Moth now… broke my heart by shunning me when they were young and I was a useless teenager myself. They were all busy with older men, back then, of course. One day, perhaps, Moth herself will be a middle-aged woman shaking her fist at the same disparity. Existence is a joke written in a dead language on a Möbius strip.
I pushed the front door of the building open against a gritty white wind and a doorstop of snow. Everything was padded and numb with white. The little park across the street was an enameled triangle and the mercury arc street lamps along the street were hung with streaked veils that flapped and hung in a row. Moth and I had our parka hoods up and she gestured right and I followed her with the wind at our backs, which was howling and shoving like kids at a concert. I was curious as to how Moth planned for us to fuck in all this.
We trudged about fifteen paces and turned right, trespassing on the construction site next door, which could easily have passed for a bombed building at this stage in its development. The ten-story crane looming over it groaned and pinged like an old iron ship under all that ice in the wind, the top bit blazing in a beacon packed with snow flakes. We scrambled over the gouged, rutted, rock-hard mud under the snow and into the perimeter of the superstructure. There were eight floors, each floor featuring a checkerboard of huge gaps, and no walls, and snow-frosted pipes and cables dangling everywhere. The first few stories were connected by aluminum extension ladders and we scrambled up to a dark corner of the fourth level. The ladders, within the form of the building, were sheltered from all but the obliquest blowing snow; otherwise I wouldn’t have dared. After all those years as a house painter, I knew which stunts qualified as dangerous on an extension ladder, and scrambling up icy rungs with a fearless teenager in the dark was one of them.
Berlin is a city with a low physical profile, and you can see surprisingly far from shockingly low. Being on the fourth level of the skeleton enabled us to see a few miles in three cardinal directions. The famous Telekomm (Tele-Commie?) tower, nicknamed Sputnik, with its needle spire to the west of us (ironically) seemed as though it could be hopped on like playground equipment from where we were standing, though it was a twenty minute walk away. S potlights carved the low blocky clouds like glass blades from various points around the neighborhood, but whether they advertized gallery openings, portended aviational emergencies, or were merely first-snow exuberances… we couldn’t tell and wouldn’t have cared. The wind was weaker within the form of the building and we pulled our hoods off.
Moth, with her black back to me and the bright view of the sky in front of us like an enormous screen (on which the snowfall kept abruptly changing direction like schools of fish), said, “Do you think I’m a lesbian?”
“If you’re a lesbian, I am.”
“Maybe you’re a fag hag.”
“I don’t think that term applies to male groupies of lesbians.”
“What is the proper term, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know… I should know.”
“I totally made love with a woman for the first time last Friday. A real woman, almost as old as you. I really liked it.”
I should have seen the foreshadowing in that; the feminine ‘made love’ vs the masculine ‘fucked’ thing. Instead I merely suppressed the impulse to put a hand on Moth’s shoulder and give her a Son, you’re a man now speech. I said, “So that’s why… ”
“That’s why I slightly cut you off for a while there. Yeah. Completely, I mean. She lives in London most of the time and she flew back yesterday… so… she… ”
I felt my emotions shading very quickly from bemused to touched to devastated. Moth was crying. I caught myself thinking, bitterly, woundedly, absurdly: you can’t even trust a seventeen year old girl these days not to fall for someone else until I reclaimed my slippery grip on sanity and re-phrased the thought as: thank goodness she’s a healthy enough seventeen year old girl to fall for someone else…
“I can’t call her, I don’t have her address in London, she told me that when she’s back in Berlin she’ll… she’ll just… let me know.”
“How’d you meet her?” I know that speaking of the Beloved always helps, for some reason. I flashed on that night at Amanda Nye’s, when I’d thought of clever little ways to slip Nico into the conversation, back when I thought I was in love with Nico. Invoking the Beloved through the vocal avatar of the Beloved’s logos works; the sound of the name is part of the effect, like a post-hypnotic suggestion.
“The first time I met her when I was too young, outside all the time… when you’re homeless and young, before you become fucked up and smelly, you meet everyone in the neighborhood. You sit on a wall and the world walks by. Pretty soon she’d wave whenever she saw me. Then she started giving me good money when I was panhandling.”
She said, “Remember the night you and I first met?”
“You read my palm.”
“Yeah. We talked about love seriously for the first time that night. She was with a friend and they took me to dinner at that Indian place. We talked about everything.”
“So you didn’t even have to spend any of the money I gave you for the palm reading.”
“Yeah,” she sniffed, through a web of tears and snot, “it was brilliant.” I could hear that she was smiling. “It was like being rich. I wasn’t even attracted to her at first but she kinda grew on me. It wasn’t until after I moved in with you that I thought anyone would seriously be interesting in fucking me, and then I realized she’d been flirting the whole time. And then I thought, maybe I was, too.”
“At first I thought she was kinda shy and uncool. Then I understood that she was the strongest person I’d ever met.”
She said, “I know you think I’m a runaway because my dad did something to me, don’t you?”
I nodded in the dark.
“Well he didn’t. He was always good. But I had read so much about that shit and seen so many movies and special television shows and counselors at school telling us about inappropriate touching and this and that… I thought he was definitely going to one day… I thought it was a fact of life like puberty. You turn thirteen and your dad does something to you. Know what I mean? Like a nature film. So I ran away so he wouldn’t.”
“A pound of prevention.”
“What you did was crazy, stupid, or wise.”
She laughed. “That’s me alright.” She spit over the edge of the black semi-floor we were perched on; she was leaning against a vertical girder, back still to me, with the phoney insouciance of a perfected James Dean slouch. The falling snow was thinning out and as the air went hard and clear something in Moth’s voice changed, too. “Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Azizam pointed out to me… ”
“It means Beloved,” she said, proudly.
“Yeah, she pointed out that you’re just like my father now… shit, you’re even older than him, and you’re fucking me, so, it’s like, Moth is out of the frying pan into the fire! It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” She faced me, arms crossed, while spotlights criss-crossed behind her.
I had begun shaking. I said, with a fair amount of anger, “Wait a minute. I can’t be ‘like’ your father because I didn’t raise you or adopt you and you’re not my flesh and blood. The incest taboo isn’t based on an age gap, it’s based on, well, the violation of the, you know… direct kin reproducing. Birth defects and so on… ”
Moth laughed. “You think that’s why it’s wrong for a man to fuck his daughter? Because if she gets pregnant the kids will be retarded?” She laughed harder.
“Hold on now, Moth. You said this Azizam of yours… you said she’s almost as old as I am, right?”
“She’s thirty seven.”
“What’s the difference between her doing stuff to you or me doing it? My penis?”
“Give that man a cigar!”
“Oh come on.”
Sarcastically I said, “I thought you came out here to fuck me?”
With brilliant timing and delivery she retorted, “Don’t you feel like you’ve just been fucked?” And she punched me in the shoulder, dropped her copy of my keys at my feet and climbed down the ladder to the next level down, and again, further down. The soles of her boots ringing on the rungs. Genuinely concerned for her well-being I called out, in the dark, “Wait! Moth! Where are you going? Where will you sleep tonight?”
Down on the sidewalk she shouted, “She keeps a flat in Berlin! I have the keys! No hard feelings?”
“No hard feelings!” I shouted.
“Are we quit?” She meant are we even? Two months of her body for two months of my shelter is what she meant.
“We’re even!” I shouted. Maybe I screamed.
She waved goodbye and ran up the street.
The pain that hit me as a result of all this was like a crude old bomb dropped from a stratospheric height, taking its time in free fall, punching through clouds and whistling down a long lazy spiral over a map of the hemisphere, the continent, the city, my street. I managed to make my way back down the four levels of shakey extension ladder in the dark, though I shivered almost convulsively while doing it, as cold as the buried dead in my parka.
I almost snapped my ankle in half on the deep ruts in the frozen mud, twisting it at the foot of the last ladder and twisting it again hard as I stumbled to keep from falling. I limped off the site and around to the front of my building. It was hard to believe that a short while ago I had walked out this very door in high spirits, expecting bliss.
When the bomb of true suffering hit I was leaning with most of my weight on the kitchen table and staring at the dirty puddle of melted snow in front of the sink where Moth had been standing. A forty two year old man desperately in love with the seventeen year old girl who’s just dumped him: without a doubt the low point of my life. My ankle was broken, too.
Too crippled to unfold the sofa-bed in my living room, I hopped on one leg into what had been Moth’s room, hit the light and eased myself down into her futon, which was drenched with her scent. The odor was a comfort and a torture. I managed to untie my right shoe and get both it and its sock off without fainting, only to see what looked like a kind of purple half-sock wrapped around an ankle that had already swollen to the circumference of a coffee can. If I so much as tried to move the foot a centimeter in any direction I got a jolt of pain that manifested itself as a flash of green light and I was certain it was broken. I was also certain that I had no health insurance yet (which was ironic, since one reason I’d come to Germany was for the brilliant, socialized health care), knew not a soul in the whole damn country and I wasn’t even sure what I would do when I had to take an inevitable piss.
An answer to that last, existential question presented itself at least. Like everyone in Berlin, Moth only ever drank tap water in tea… otherwise her drinking water came in bottles, with or without ‘gas’ (carbonation: kohlensaure). The bottles have a twenty-cent deposit on them, and the walls of Moth’s windowless little room (which I had been forbidden entry to for two months) were ringed with empty deposit bottles. Moth’s little dowry… which I calculated was worth about €15. At least taking a piss in my crippled condition wouldn’t be impossible. There was food in the room, too: a secret stash of sweets (including two large bags of peanut M&Ms) in a laundry bag next to the futon. Shitting would be a problem, but a week or two of eating M&Ms would no doubt minimize that as an issue.
The things I’d bought for Moth, along with the rest of her meager possessions, were gone, of course: the CD player and its accessories; a dozen CDs; the cell phone and its accessories; several pairs of sunglasses; the costume jewelry; a book or two; the clothing, etc. She’d been secretly shifting the stuff to her lover’s flat in preparation for this break-up (or break-off) for days, probably, a few items secreted in her parka pockets at a time. She’d either assumed I was too petty for her to be open on the subject after her announcement, or she thought of these items not as gifts but as payments. Both, probably. And while both possibilities were unflattering to my self-image to say the least, the latter was crushing: I had been paying for a live-in teenage sex-servant for two months, and not, as I had framed it, having an affair. I had pictured myself rescuing her but it turned out it was a soft kidnapping instead. What I had pictured as love-making was consensual rape. I thought, hating myself: if I’d never fucked her, she’d still be here. But then I thought: that’s a dishonest thought. If we hadn’t been fucking, I wouldn’t have wanted her here.
I had a mental picture of the woman who had facilitated the becomingness of Moth’s selfhood (as certain theoriticians might put it in all seriousness) and I couldn’t get it out of my head: Susan Sontag. I kept seeing the thirty seven year old assassin of my happiness as looking like Susan Sontag. The thirty seven year old Sontag, when she was still beautiful enough to be physically as well as intellectually authoritarian. The diamond-cut features and the ink-black coif with a white streak in it. She was sneering at me. She was gloating in the acquisition of Moth’s skin, the skin I had purified for Susan’s delectation. I could see it: Moth squirming on Sontag’s face with an ecstasy she’d never bothered faking with me. But it wasn’t Susan Sontag (being left for a celebrity has, at least, some value)… it was just some hypocritical Dyke who had out-maneuvered me before I’d even known there was a war on. Blitzkrieg.
It was hard to think at all because of the pain. I began to wonder, feverishly, why this violence had been done to my unspectacular happiness and I remembered my fictional fictionalist’s story, A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods. My eyes were swimming. The overhead light burned and I couldn’t stand up again to switch it off and the hours crept across the futon, stepping on my ankle, which had swollen to such a grotesque size that glancing at it gave me palpitations. I could smell Moth’s scalp on the mattress and maybe I could smell her armpits and the faintest whiff of her ass and pussy, too. Unbelievably, in all my agony, I had an erection. This is the real battle of the sexes… between middle-aged men and middle-aged women. Sexually desirable young girls are the casus belli, the prisoners of war, the weapons of mass destruction and the battlefield too.
The ceiling of the narrow room I was in was much higher than any ceiling I’d lived under as an adult in America. There was no window, so I assumed that the wall partitioning the room off was a recent development. The entire four-story building had undoubtedly been intended, in the year of its completion (1888), as a one-family dwelling; most of my flat had probably originally been one grand room… the library, say. The area around the house had probably been a field and the field would have featured a road leading a mile towards a denser part of the city. Without being properly the countryside, still, the field would have featured its distant treelines and its idle cows or even sheep here and there without any of the elements in the composition sharing a purpose or meaning with their modern counterparts except in the most general sense. When I see a cow I think of MacDonalds; when I see sheep I think of Benetton; when I see a distant treeline I think of highways, future housing developments, or environmentally protected land. I don’t think home, hearth or Fatherland.
What kind of people would have inhabited this house and its surrounding landscape in 1888? Angels, compared to ‘us,’ or devils? When I note the vast differences, sometimes, as exist between various contemporary humans… compare a working class Brit to a wealthy Nigerian, both living in Berlin: their paths will rarely intersect and there’s more than likely trouble in store if they do… can we even really consider our ancestors human in the fullest sense, or they us?
I lay there under the bare, hypnotic bulb hanging from the high, high ceiling, thinking: am I more… or less… human… the lonelier I become, the more I suffer? If time can isolate you from the tribe as it marches on, can poverty, disability or crossing a ‘moral’ line too far do the same? It’s a discussion ‘we’ rarely allow ourselves but it’s an argument the body responds to: that filthy, reeking beggar in a puddle of his own sick on the sidewalk… do we really consider him human? And how far did he have to sink before his status changed? And can that status be changed without ‘sinking’… what about a lateral displacement? Too far left or right; ahead or behind? Is the state of being ‘human’ provisional… context-based… temporary? There’s a natural consensus on all this but it’s strictly unspoken; it may well be the last taboo in an era when the few that are left have to be carefully rationed.
As I finally drifted off under that bare bulb I thought I heard the faintest sound of a woman weeping, but I assumed it was the preview of my coming dreams.
Being bed-ridden for two weeks with a broken ankle in a small flat in a foreign city with a little food, some money, a cell phone (though, who the hell would I call?) and a few dozen empty Evian bottles was not as bad an experience as one would think. The first few days were the worst, before I got used to (and then bored by) the pain, and before it was even possible to half-stand and hop or even crawl to the bathroom. The Evian bottles filled up, one after another along the wall like some kind of ancient or conceptual clock, each bottle the slightest gradation of acid orange darker (as I dehydrated) than the bottle immediately preceding it. I had only as much sense of the shifting hours of the day or night as I could gather from the snow-muffled traffic sounds that filtered in from the living room windows. I became intimately familiar with certain patterns of my Christian neighbor upstairs.
Every morning I listened to her watch some chatty chirpy German version of an early morning wake-up show (chit chat, introduction, applause, chit chat, introduction, applause, on-location segment, national news, local traffic report, weather, musical interlude, wrap up, applause… all in a language I’m 99.99 percent deaf to). Then an excercise show that had her hopping up and down (with her light frame) on the floor directly over my head. Then a morning movie (during which can be heard the three classes of water-based event a morning’s toilet consists of), an afternoon talk show (introduction, unprofessional voice modulations, shrieks, boos, cheers from the audience, moderation), and a German-dubbed American sitcom rerun from the ’80s or even the ’60s… sometimes it was the ‘The Love Boat’ and sometimes it was ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. Both shows I recognized, of course, from their theme music; the dialogue was dubbed entirely in German. In the case of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’, the show came without a laugh track. In other words she was watching, in German, an American sitcom about a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War… with ominous dead air where there would have been canned laughter. The philosophical implications were weighty. Not that ‘The Love Boat’ generated no food for thought itself… especially when Nico, four out of five times, sang along (in a surprisingly strong voice) with the theme song. Being an invalid in that room under her bedroom was like living with her. Or, more like: being the ghost assigned to haunt her.
She would leave the flat so late every day (and often not at all), and return again after so short an interval, that it seemed unlikely that she had a job. Early afternoon (at which point on a winter’s day it’s already dark in Central Europe) I’d hear her strap her wooden-heeled boots on, hammer across her uncarpeted floor and hammer down the stairwell and out the door, clop clop clopping up the street. ‘Observing’ her served to keep my mind off of my awful physical circumstances, and off of Moth as well. Moth I was thinking of less and less frequently.
Considering the shocking intensity of the ‘love’ I felt for her at the moment she dumped me, my relative ambivalence towards the very notion of her existence just a few days after the break caused me to examine the nature of this post-hypnotic suggestion called ‘love’. In the absence of species-propagating hormone surges… at the age of forty two, that is… what is it, somewhere in my head, that still has the power to drive me to the brink of madness, or self-destructive obsession, in the name of it? And how does this tie in with that other mystery I tried to tackle the night of my injury… the mystery of human/non-human?
The answer can only be that a man in love; a man who is loved; is certain of his humanity. In the absence of love, the certainty vanishes. I’m quite sure, thinking back on it, that my real panic as I stood on the fourth floor of the open construction site next door and listened to the passionate narrative of Moth leaving me was the fear that my humanity was being rescinded. Even lying on the futon with my broken ankle under a bare bulb in a narrow room the walls of which were gradually being circumnavigated by bottles of my urine and facing this philosophical problem head-on, there was no guarantee that I wasn’t not human. Of course I panicked when Moth walked out on me. And that’s why some men (and even some women) will kill to prevent the leaving.
El-Hadi once told me, while we were replacing the hundreds of framed photographs of on his freshly painted wall (referring constantly to a chart we’d made to make sure the photos returned to their original spots), of an ex-lover who had attempted to poison him a few weeks after the affair was called off. What made this even more extraordinary was the fact that she, not El-Hadi, had been the one to call things off. So why the vengeful act?
“It wasn’t vengeance motivating her,” said El-Hadi, handing me a large black and white portrait of the would-be poisoner herself. “She wanted to make sure that I remembered her for the rest of my life.”
“By killing you?”
He shrugged. “The reasoning is sound, if less than ethical.”
The photograph was in the High School yearbook modus of the early ’60s… an off-the-shoulders gown, pearls and a towering blonde ‘beehive’ hairdo. The smile seemed to tilt subtly under the weight of the hairdo. I hung it on its nail. El-Hadi frowned at it, adjusted it so it hung a bit straighter, and said,
“She invited me to dinner a few weeks after breaking things off with me. I was pleasantly surprised by the invitation, though slightly nervous, despite assurances that her husband, a computer scientist working for Univac, was overseas at a conference on artificial intelligence, delivering a paper. He was in Germany for two weeks. I accepted the invitation. Perhaps it was the superstitions that surround the act of making love to a married woman that kept me on my guard.”
“I’d never been to their home before, as you can imagine. I got lost twice trying to find it, but I avoided asking directions, for obvious reasons. The house was an isolated and imposing structure on a very large plot of land, the perfect place, I realized, in retrospect, for getting rid of someone.”
“I was late in arriving for dinner. She’d been afraid I wasn’t going to show up, she said, and had been preparing to throw dinner away when I rang the doorbell. I remember thinking: these Americans! So rich they can throw food away!” He chuckled.
“I was quite ready to eat. As a precaution against her cooking being mediocre or even bad, I had starved myself before dinner. I was hoping to be led directly to the dinner table, but she wanted to make love, ‘one last time,’ before eating. I have to confess that at that point, I was so hungry, the offer of making love before dinner was not the most attractive proposition.”
“In the interest of not being rude, however, I allowed her to lead me by the hand, up a carpeted flight of stairs such as were often depicted in movies of the era… a thoroughly upper-middle class staircase… to the master bedroom. I was wearing a dinner jacket and penny loafers if I recall and she was wearing the gown you see here in this picture.We weren’t Rock Hudson and Doris Day but you get the idea. She threatened to rip my clothes off. I performed heroically, under the circumstances. She was blonde… my first blonde… but not beautiful. Exquisite body, yes, but she had a squint and a bit of an underbite that made her look permanetly resentful. But I did my duty… spurred on by the unusual degree of passion on display. She behaved as though I were to be shipped off to the war in Indochina at dawn the next morning. The war was just beginning to get public attention back then and I imagine there were many such dramatic partings. In this case, obviously, it was different.”
“Have I mentioned that she was a brilliant woman? Before marrying, she’d been some sort of scientist, or mathematician, herself. She had a mathematician’s quantitative interest in the Arts that passes for being cultured in some circles. But she was quite brilliant… intimidatingly so… nervous, neurotic, cold at times and given to strange moods, sudden outbursts of temper. I was extremely suspicious when I sat down finally to dinner. The brilliant ones are the ones to watch out for, and they are the most likely, as it turns out… I’ve done some research on the matter. The ignorant use knives, the stolid, church-going middle class have their guns but the clever usually opt for poison. I stared long and hard into my cream of mushroom soup… it had come out of a can, by the way.” El-Hadi made a face as though the fact that the soup had come out of a can was more distasteful to him than that it was laced with poison.
“A strong chemical odor rose from my bowl. So strong in fact it stung my eyes. It was a very poor job… an impulsive attempt at a poisoning. I pushed away from the table and began to laugh. And so did she.”
“I said, Marion… is it possible that you’ve tampered with my soup?”
“Her laughter became hysterical, shading into tears… very theatrical. And not very convincing. She was having her moment in the spotlight, I suppose.”
“I stood from the table and said, My God, you meant to poison me! I was quite obliging in those days, you see. Playing my role to the hilt. I was a pretty good sport, considering the fact that she’d emptied half a can of rat poison into my soup.”
“That’s when she stopped laughing and adopted the sly look of a Borgia, or the cat who swallowed the canary. ‘And how can you be sure,’ she said, ‘that I didn’t poison my pussycat too?’ She was, of course, referring indirectly to a sexual act I’d been known to experiment with, in those days, in a misguided effort to be modern.” El-Hadi chuckled again and handed me another picture to hang on the wall: an open-mouthed young redhead in tennis whites, posing with her racket as though it were a guitar.
“I saw myself to the front door and said, before making my exit, I’m fairly sure that if you’d really poisoned your pussycat, my dear, you’d have taken the trouble to wash it first. It was quite a zinger, as you say. She threw a wineglass at the door as I closed it, sealing my triumph. But halfway home I began to feel quite ill. There was a strange, metallic flavor in my mouth.”
“I had to pull over twice, on the road shoulder, to be violently ill. I felt feverish, dizzy, my heart was racing… I thought I was dying. You can imagine how frightened I was. I thought: my god! The madwoman really did it! She poisoned her private parts before inducing me to put my mouth on them! I’m going to die!”
“This was when I lived in a neighborhood of L.A. which was not too bad then, although today it’s a notorious ghetto; a no-go area. Back then it was a mildly integrated neighborhood of working class Mexicans, shabby-genteel white professionals, a few beatniks, artists, and some college students. To be honest I wouldn’t have been comfortable living in a suburban enclave of privelege. I drove myself to the Queen of Angels Hospital.”
“I had to fill out a form and sit in the waiting room along with the typical assortment of injured Americans. Household mishaps and matrimonial assaults… in decades to come, one supposes, self-mutilators and the morbidly obese would come to rule the territory. After filling out a form and while waiting in great discomfort to be seen by a doctor, I took note of the most beautiful colored girl; a sort of dream-Negress. This is far from a politically correct term and I trust you not to repeat the story, but we’re men of the world and you’ll know what I mean when I describe her as such. She was a living breathing daydream, with long legs and an exquisite small bosom. She had wrapped up her visit with the doctor and emerged looking a little shaky. She was gathering her coat and purse from the chair beside me… I still marvel at the social trust… the civility… in that gesture: imagine leaving a purse or a wallet unattended anywhere in America today! Not even in a jewelry store on Rodeo Drive, my friend. It could only mean the purse contained an explosive device!” Laughing a smoker’s hacking laugh, El-Hadi offered me a cigarette, which I declined, and lit one for himself.
“She put her coat on but sat down to tie her shoes… I noticed that she was wearing the same sort of white, crepe-soled shoe as the nurses wore, despite the fact that she was otherwise outfitted in ordinary street clothes… a pleated skirt and a sleeveless blouse. Her outfit was about ten years out of fashion but this was clearly not an eccentricity on her part. No, it was the sexual spice called poverty. After tying and re-tying her shoes, she slumped in her seat, her dark elbows on her skirt and her head in her hands… as though her thoughts were too heavy for her to hold her beautiful head up unsupported.”
“By now I was fascinated, and my own medical problems were the last thing on my mind. Who was this dusky vision, lovely enough to have been Shakespeare’s dark lady, and why did the weight of the world seem to be on her shoulders? There was some mystery as to her background, as well, I might add. She didn’t look entirely Negro… her nose was blunt, but her hair was lustrous and long. Staring at her flattened profile I thought I could detect an Asian, or even Mexican, influence. It struck me that an opportunity for adventure had dropped in my lap, give or take a few centimeters, and I decided to seize it. ”
“Can I offer you a ride?”
“Ain’t you sick, baby? Don’t you want to see the doctor?”
She gave me a skeptical smile, said El-Hadi. But I told her, “I have the rest of my life to be sick.” I knew there’d be only once chance at this. She let me help her gather her things and we left the hospital together. I showed her to my car. I took the trouble to put the top down on the convertible; it was a beautiful evening.
“Nice.” She ran a finger along the contours of the dashboard and then clawed at and shook her hair out in the wind as though washing it. “Nice to ride in a car once in a while. I showed up at the hospital tonight on a bus. Shoot, I had to walk six blocks to the goddamn stop, too. Pardon my French.” She sank back in her seat with a chuckle and closed her eyes and when he asked her Where to? she responded, with a drowsy smile and a far-off voice, Anywhere but home sweet home, baby.
Her profile was more mysterious than the full-on view of her face, with its soft-spread Negro features. In her profile El-Hadi decided she was Polynesian, one of Gaugin’s black virgins, the lustrous mane and perfectly tooled white teeth. He pictured her topless, a flimsy skirt around her cool dark legs, with less than subtle results in the crotch of his trousers. He felt none of the shame about this that he would’ve felt with a white woman riding beside him in the car, and no shame, in turn, about his lack of shame about this frankly racist distinction. You were allowed (even expected) to be a racist in deed in hysterically egalitarian America, El-Hadi had observed, but never a racist in principle. In the Old World, he’d been with black North Africans of both sexes and in every case they’d been servants or of the servant class and pragmatically interested in pleasing him. El-Hadi sensed that with Americans, one could persuade them to go along with nearly any idea as long as it remained unspoken.
El-Hadi said, “Then we drive to the beach.”
“Why not?” she cooed. “It’s your gasoline.”
El-Hadi switched on the radio and lucked out with a favorite song, played from a point very near its beginning: Nat ‘King’ Cole singing Ramblin’ Rose. Steering with his arm at rest on the driver-side door, El-Hadi reached over and took possession of her hand, which was hot to the touch, and lifted it gingerly to his side of the car seat, her arm offering only the slightest resistance. He placed her hand between his trouser legs, where it added heat to the pressure, and stroked it like a smooth little cat in his lap as he drove. Glancing, he noticed that although she still hadn’t opened her eyes, the drowsy smile on her lips of a moment before had been replaced with what one could interpret either as acceptance of the inevitable or the burden of knowing precisely how every such situation in life would turn out, long before it came to pass. As if she could already quite clearly see El-Hadi doing the trivial thing he wanted to do to her and disappearing very soon afterwards, never to be heard from again. Still, her little black hand remained where it was, sandwiched between his arousal and the hand with which an Algerian eats… alive with fine tremors, riding the force of his heartbeat.
This was still several years before the Johnson administration’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Azzedine took note of the heady feeling this entailed. Of course, back in Algiers, he’d had his social inferiors, but it was really a matter there of the aristocracy, the Europeans, and everyone else. An Algerian of Azzedine’s class rarely enjoyed this Lord of the Manor feeling in Algeria. It was profound to contemplate that here he was, in America, the shining Atlantis of the West, where even the poor lived better than many merchants could afford to in the land of his birth, and riding beside him in his car was this beautiful American native, an order of magnitude below him on the scale of the human, by law. El-Hadi’s passport stated his race as Caucasian, though he was sure that the darkest part of his body… the part he meant to acquaint her with soon… wasn’t much lighter than the lightest flesh on hers. She was biting her lower lip and her upper lip curled back in a sexual sneer.
“Fuck the beach,” she said, suddenly. “Buy us a six-pack and we can party at my place.” She removed her hand from between his legs to point at a neon Liquor sign, blurry and red, blinking on the other side of the wide and complicated road. He changed lanes and waited at the next light with the turn-signal ticking while she watched him in a strange state of suspense. As though she’d made a joke, or set up a prank, that he was yet to pick up on.
“Well?” she said.
“What?” he said, as he leaned into the left turn.
“You didn’t say ‘thank you’.”
Azzedine laughed. “I’ll say ‘thank you’ when I see where you live.”
She laughed with him. “No you won’t.”
This remark worried him but he pulled into the lot beside the little stucco building (barred windows and door; a hand-painted cardboard sign in the window reading The Cashier is Armed) and sent her inside with a five dollar bill.
El-Hadi had noticed before in neighborhoods like this that as soon as the speed of your auto dropped under a few miles per hour you were overwhelmed by cooking odors, commercial and private, and as he sat there waiting for his Gaugin to fetch their drinks and his change, a powerful odor of fried onions wafted from the stucco building on the other side of the lot. He remembered that he hadn’t eaten dinner; that less than an hour before he’d been driving himself to the hospital with sharp pains in his gut as a result of a psychosomatic poisoning.
When she came out with a six-pack of edible-looking beer bottles under one arm and a grocery sack under the other, she was grinning widely. He opened her door for her and she slid onto the seat with the bundle in her arms like a baby. El-Hadi nodded towards the source of the food odor. “Are you hungry?”
“That place? That place is a dump. We can do better than that.”
The convertible eased out into traffic like a boat with her as its navigator. What El-Hadi liked was their tacit adherence to a rule he’d never before realized was one of his sweetest fantasies: no names. A short while later, two king-size fried shrimp dinners to-go sat steaming on the space between them. He was in a part of the city he’d never seen before, surprising not so much by its poverty but because of how rural it all ooked. White clapboard houses and red dirt roads and shirtless black boys peddling ‘no-hand’ on their bicycles. Under the harsh glare of streetlights their black flesh looked to be made of the asphalt missing from the roads.
She said, “You know what this here little party of ours is lacking?”
“What?” El-Hadi found himself growing impatient.
“You’d like her. I like her too. Verna’s my cousin and we’re so close we kiss goodnight on the lips.”
Despite his impatience, El-Hadi’s sexual greed got the better of him, and he soon found himself turning left and right and then left again on roads that were sometimes dirt, sometimes gravel. The first house they stopped at produced no results; the Gaugin girl ran back down the front steps to the car and informed El-Hadi that Verna was at church, so they drove to church.
“I was under the impression that Americans only went to church on Sunday.”
“You ain’t in America right now, baby,” she laughed, pulling a fried shrimp out of its greasey white box and re-sealing the box lest El-Hadi consider doing the same, “This here is a suburb of Africa.”
How ironic that of the two of us, I’m the actual African, thought El-Hadi.
They pulled up in front of the church, a dark box of a building with lavender curtains in all of its windows and a white cross each painted on two of them; a building, minus the detail of the windows, which might just as easily have been another liquor store. There was no boisterous music or primitive ululations, despite his expectations; the only sound was the wind whipping a chain against the aluminum flagpole in front of the building.
The temperature had been dropping gradually all evening and El-Hadi felt a chill setting in. But his resolve to have his sexual experience only solidified as the minutes turned to hours. He’d never had relations with a genuine American colored girl and this intersection of opportunity and desire (she was more attractive than the few of her race that he sometimes came in contact with… shop girls and meter maids, mostly) would most likely never repeat itself. So he waited.
By the time Verna Williams emerged from the building in a thick plug of people, followed by a trickle of stragglers, a light drizzle turned the sidewalks into a dark cloth and beaded on the windshield, and El-Hadi had had to put the top on the convertible up again. When Verna came out the Gaugin said That’s her and stretched provocatively across El-Hadi and honked the horn. The girl who ran towards the car in response was heavyset and darker than her cousin, medium height and somewhere in her middle twenties, although El-Hadi, of course, had been fantasizing about a younger, more slender and sloe-eyed version of the Polynesian. Verna’s dark dress hid neither the round weight of her stomach nor that of her breasts, which bounced in a Disney ballet as she skipped towards them with a grin that struck El-Hadi as their only common feature. Verna leaned into the window and the cousins kissed, as promised, on the lips.
“Girl, how you doin’? I was gonna call you later to see if everything turned out okay.”
“You know me, Verna.”
“Too well, child.”
“Verna, this is my friend Rudy. You wanna come with me an’ Rudy to my place an’ celebrate?”
El-Hadi got out and opened the Gaugin’s door so she could get out in turn and let Verna Williams push her way onto the back seat. Close up, he noticed that Verna was a pretty girl, though heavyset, and his disappointment healed itself. He developed a wolfish interest in seeing all that flesh unpacked and set in contrast with the slender form of her cousin. He even got a hand on her hips as he helped her into the car and this re-animated his dozing erection. He glanced at Verna in the rearview mirror and wondered how far the two girls had gone in the past. The trick would be to get them to exceed the previous limit without calling attention to the moment of truth, and the beers they had with them would no doubt play a role. El-Hadi’s dark beauty handed one of the shrimp dinners back to her cousin and they ate the food quickly while chatting, polishing off two handfuls of shrimp, some coleslaw and their complimentary Saltine crackers.
“How long you got off now, girl?”
“He said I could come back to work on Monday.”
“A four-day weekend. That ain’t bad.”
“Least he could do, considering.”
Verna curled her lip and cocked her head. “Considering. You sure you okay?”
“Okay as I’m gonna get.”
Verna licked her fingers and met El-Hadi’s eyes in the rearview. “Rudy, what do you do?”
“He’s a male nurse,” answered the Gaugin.
“Oh. Should would be talking about… ?”
“Different hospital. He just started working at St. Luke’s.”
“That’s right,” said the Gaugin girl.
“How you like working there, Rudy?”
“I love it,” said El-Hadi, and all three of them laughed, each for a different reason.
They drove up a very long gravel alley and parked behind a tilted garage so weathered that it had nearly managed to unpaint itself. The Gaugin girl was through the gate and up the walk to the back door of the house before El-Hadi could help Verna out of the back seat. The Gaugin had either run ahead to warn someone about this unexpected arrival or to hide something El-Hadi shouldn’t see, he thought, but still he was surprised that it was a house and not a wretched little apartment after all. It was Verna who led him up the uneven walk in the rain, speaking in a museum-goer’s hush.
“Maybe Mr. Reyes home,” she said.
“Who’s Mr. Reyes?”
When they entered the kitchen through the screen door the air they met was the sealed air of a sickroom, though the lighting was over-bright as on a stage in a theatre as the curtain rises. There were four unshaded table lamps glaring from various spots around the kitchen. Seeing El-Hadi squint, Verna whispered, “The poor man losin’ his vision.”
A gray-haired man of indeterminate race slumped at the kitchen table with El-Hadi’s sixpack in front of his downed head and the pillow of his folded arms. Tugged by Verna, El-Hadi followed the two women out of the kitchen into a dimly lit hallway, thence left into a doorless room. The room would have been just about a comfortable size for one adult, with its permanently unfolded and unmade sofa bed on the far wall and its two playpens, side-by-side, under the heavily draped window nearest El-Hadi. In each playpen stood a curly-haired child, wide awake but silent, the one aged two or three perhaps and the other three or four and resembling each other not very much at all. El-Hadi remained in the doorway with Verna while his Polynesian extracted two loud bags of cheesecorn from the Liquor store grocery sack and handed one to each. Whatever purchase remained in the sack, which she did not crumple but placed discreetly on a chair near the playpens, was clearly allocated for the night. She said, over her shoulder, “Y’all go on to the other room and I’ll be right with you.”
Azzedine, overwhelmed by the unpredictability of living things and stunned by the fact of the children, allowed himself to be tugged further by Verna into a large, dark room at the end of the hallway. There was a massive console television set in front of drapes faintly aglow with streetlight and a sofa angled to face the television.
Verna came at him with the fervently awkward kisses of a twelve-year old. She placed his hands on her body and moved in them like a novice teaching the tango. He stumbled around the room with her like this, smelling the sweat baked in layers into her dress and the meal that he’d paid for on her lips, nurturing his arousal with brutal thoughts: he saw himself yanking her by her hair to her knees, forcing himself in her mouth. He fantasized pinning her belly-down to the floor and forcing an entrance or having both her and her beautiful cousin prone and compliant, side-by-side, like a buffet; anything to protect his arousal against her clumsy, giggly, anti-erotic behaviour. He unzipped her dress and gestured for her to pull it off over her shoulders, thinking, The important thing is to have her naked before the pretty one comes back into the room; if the line is already crossed, she can’t fear to cross it.
Under Verna’s dress was a tightly-packed slip instead of brassiere and panties. She backed away from El-Hadi and sprawled on the sofa in a gynecological posture. Her breasts were rounded slabs. He unzipped his pants and freed himself with a sigh of relief, pointing at the ceiling as though a string was pulling him. He knelt on the couch with one knee as she said, not in a whisper but in a very small voice, “I hope your cock bone strong… “
“Your cock bone… I hope it good and strong ‘cuz I got a hard cherry… “
“What are you talking about?”
“The bone in your cock… “
El-Hadi emitted an Algerian curse appropriate to being sold ten cracked eggs out of a dozen and dragged her up off the couch, to do a lurch-and-stumble tango of weak resistance across the room and up the hallway. Verna grunted and groaned, pleading No all the way. He dragged her to the doorway of the Gaugin’s bedroom. The light was off so he slapped on the light in the hall and he noticed that the bedroom smelled as though it had gotten a quick wipe-down from a kerosene-soaked rag by an arsonist: The Gaugin’s nightcap. She was snoring softly on her sofa bed between her doomed half-castes, one of whom blinked in the wedge of light that cut across his mother’s stockingless legs from the doorway as El-Hadi hurried to stuff himself back in his trousers.
She hadn’t even undressed; she was still wearing her crepe-soled shoes and Verna had Azzedine’s arm and pulled her mouth up to his ear and she said, “The poor thing had that operation today, you know what I mean. Let her sleep, Rudy. You can do it to me instead. Anything you want, I promise, I’ll take you to the moon and back just let my Raylene sleep.”
By the time El-Hadi had reached this part of the story, we were re-hanging the last of the framed beauties: a polaroid of a handsome gray-haired woman behind a desk, gesturing with a phone at the camera. Strange to say it but she didn’t look to me like a trustworthy woman. Something in her eyes caused the phrase “she’s lying” to pop, out of nowhere, into my mind. Not that I’d have been impertinent enough to say so to El-Hadi.
“My current love,” he said, wiping a smudge off the glass of the little gold frame. He kissed his bunched fingertips in a gourmet’s gesture. “Real Estate.”
“What about Raylene?”
“I never saw her again. But I bore her no grudge. What would you have done in her place? She taught me a valuable philosophical lesson.” El-Hadi counted on his fingers, “She got herself a free ride home, a dinner for herself, a dinner for her cousin, an evening’s worth of cheap fuel for her step-father, dinner of a sorts for her children and a bottle for bedtime in the bargain. She knew how to take when the taking is good. She really taught me something.”
“Verna wasn’t twenty five. She was thirty seven.”
I laughed. El-Hadi got a wistful look on his face. “It took three separate attempts, over the course of a week or two, to relieve her of the burden of her virginity.”
It took me four days to record that passage in my notebook, piecing it together (as Azzedine had told it to me) from memory and polishing it into a style close to his speech patterns. I did this with a thought to working it later into The Bomb Collector somehow… an adventure El-Hadi recalls for Noa’s amusement, maybe, or an adventure he has in ‘real time’, behind her back, cheating on his three mistresses. I’d have to change the setting from early 1960’s Los Angeles to late 1960’s New York State, but the transposition wouldn’t be too technically difficult. The story would lose some truth in the process (the ironic evocations of innocence in the original setting would be totally misplaced just a decade later) but the loss would be ineffable; known only to me.
I had started writing again four or five days into my crippled state. On the morning of the third day already I forced myself to hop into the bathroom and take a painful, backed-up shit… my ankle throbbed while I slumped on the toilet, sick with pain. Still, I experienced something like the catharsis of giving birth when I finally cleansed my system of the dense black bomb that had boiled in my guts since the night Moth dumped me. On my way back to the sick room I had a drink of tapwater in the kitchen and grabbed a notebook and two pens, determined to make my incapacitation worth something.
The break in my ankle, I began to realize, represented a larger ‘break’ that had been necessary for a long time: a break with my past. Had I come all the way from San Diego to Berlin in order merely to continue the life of failure I had lived up until the point of departure? Transcribing El-Hadi’s tale in the state of my extremity caused me to reflect not only on myself but life itself… the realities versus the perceptions. Why had I, unlike El-Hadi’s Gaugin, never taken while the taking was good? I wasn’t an actor, I was a reactor. I was essentially passive, a failure of the ego typical of the thinking man. Even this grand and all-consuming project of the last few years, my book, The Bomb Collector… why was I so busy fantasizing about a life (or lives) when I should have been living one myself? Worse, it became clear to me that writing about Azzedine at all had been my vicarious method for living the life of a self-assured male. The only thing worse than a writer’s totalitarian dominance of a created character is his pathetic reliance on one.
After I transcribed El-Hadi’s tale of the white poisoner and the black con artist and the overweight virgin, I made a new rule: I could only allow myself to write something in the evening if I had earned the right to do so with a bold action during the day. To go into effect as soon as my ankle had healed to the extent that I was capable of leaving the flat.
Two weeks of carefully rationed sweets, despite my lack of exercise (and the occasional pizza or chinese takeout I ordered from various flyers slid under my door), chiseled my features… or perhaps it was merely the loss of water weight (I was down to a glass a day)… in any case, that and my new facial hair gave me a romantically gaunt look. When I reached the point that I was able to support my weight (wincingly) on both legs, I trimmed the beard into a sort of Robert Louis Stevenson affair; a rakish van dyke. I hobbled around the flat with an umbrella for a cane, liking my new style. I would never again be so pathetic as the middle-aged man I had become, dumped by an empty-headed seventeen year old girl.
Almost three weeks after the accident, I exited my flat and limped up the stairs to the second floor, dressed in a dark suit, with the umbrella as a cane. I knocked on the door with the umbrella’s wooden handle and waited, knowing that my neighbor was preparing to leave the building, her television droning on in the background as she went from room to room doing her makeup or brushing her teeth. When she came to the door my confidence faltered for a split-second: she was far more beautiful than I’d ever seen her… or any woman, within touching distance, for that matter.
Her long orange hair had become a precise and luminous platinum bob, and her cheekbones looked to be sharpened on a whetstone. We took in each other’s changes, each taking also a deep breath, before I said, quite bravely,
“Hi John just-John.”
“I was wondering.”
“I hurt my leg recently…,” I touched my ankle through my suit pants with the metal spike of the umbrella, “… and I was wondering if you know where I might buy a stylish-looking walking stick?”
She was wearing a fashion I’d noticed a lot of in the neighborhood that year: a knee-length skirt over trousers. Her top, the skirt and the trousers were all black denim; the top featured pale bone buttons and the skirt featured thick white stitching in an almost oriental pattern for trim. She said, “Oh, yes, I know a very trendy shop where you can get yourself a walking stick. I like your hair.” She touched the shaggy edge that hung over my collar.
“I like yours.”
“Thanks. I’m going shopping in a few minutes. Would you like to come with me? We can stop off at the trendy shop and get your walking stick, and you can help me pick out new drapes for my flat.”
“Deal. But I’ll need my coat.”
“No you won’t. Haven’t you been outside at all in the past few days? It’s freakishly warm out. Like spring.”
“I blame you Americans,” she said, shaking her head, but she smiled and gestured that I should come into the apartment while she put the finishing touches on herself. What I saw of the interior of her flat was airy and light-filled (it amazed me how much difference one storey in elevation made viz the natural light available). I only saw her living room but it was in marked contrast to the only other flat in Berlin I’d thus far seen (beside my own), which being Amanda Nye’s artefact-stuffed lair.
It was indeed bizarrely warm outside considering that Christmas was only two days away; much warmer outside than it was within the entrance hall of our apartment building. Some trees, in fact, confused by the weather, had begun to show green, and children ran by us on the flooded sidewalk without jackets. We walked slowly, arm in arm, and I had no sense that Nico was impatient with our pace as I limped beside her on my umbrella. She took the opportunity to tell me the story of her life.
“Well,” she said, “where do I begin? I always blank out when somebody asks me a question like that. Maybe it’s easier to start with what I do. You must be curious, considering the odd hours I keep. Not that I think you pay attention to everything I do or anything. I’m an actress. I work seriously about half a dozen times a year and the rest of the year I’m either auditioning, learning a role, or doing commercials or voice-over work. You’d know some of this if you had a television.”
“I’ve known a few actors in my time,” I said, “but I’ve never seen an actor’s apartment that wasn’t full of pictures of himself.”
“You haven’t seen my bedroom… walls,” she said, and I was sure that she’d called the sentence to a halt before finishing it with ‘yet’. A violet blush suffused the flesh under the fine white powder on her face. “That’s where my vanity truly outdoes itself.”
She said, “My father was American but he died when I was very young… six. The first language I ever spoke was English and that’s why I’m not too bad at it nowadays, although I’ve spent most of my life in Germany. A few years ago I changed my last name, legally, from Silver to Taubkind, which is my mother’s maiden name, because I always, I don’t know… I thought ‘Silver’ sounded too show-bizzy.”
“The big news is that I’m up for a speaking part in a big American production… not the romantic lead but the romantic lead’s best friend who is killed in the beginning of the second act. They needed a German girl who’s English is perfect… it’s a thriller set in Berlin… so I have a pretty good chance.”
We were blocks away from home, still strolling along at my crippled pace, when I said, “It’s the blind graffiti guy again!” I pointed across the street with the umbrella like I was aiming a shotgun.
Strangely, Nico tensed… I felt it in her grip on my arm. She reached over and pulled my umbrella down. “He’s not a graffiti guy, he’s a famous artist here in Berlin,” she said, keeping an eye on him as we put his shuffling figure slowly behind us. A race of the locomotively impaired.
“A famous artist?” I wanted to laugh and spit at the same time. “He can’t even see what he’s doing! He just sprays brown blobs on new buildings!”
She shook her head. “It’s performance art. The green and the red paint represents money and blood… when they mix together it makes brown… shit. Sorry.” She blushed again. “The cane he uses has hi-tech sensors in it that respond to certain buildings that are implanted with microchips. He’s being filmed while he tags the buildings. It’s a year long project and he got a lot of grant money to do it.”
“Wow,” I said, eager to change the subject, “that’s ‘Art’, I suppose.”
“That’s the reaction of many of the tax-payers. It was quite a controversy last year. You know, the working class people say, my five year old can paint better than that! They get quite angry about it. They don’t realize that the money would never go to them either way, whether it goes to this project or not. That money is just a ghost to them, or they’re ghosts to it… they’d never even know about it if the press didn’t decide to report it. It’s no more their affair than the price of tiger’s paws in China and if they’re so worried about aesthetics why don’t you ever see the proletariat represented at art openings?”
I didn’t like being lumped in with boorish, uncomprehending, meat-and-potatoes hoi polloi, and, though normally I would have played the diplomat, steering the conversation away from her inadvertent insult, the ‘new me’ decided this was as good a place as any to assert himself.
“Bullshit,” I said.
Taken aback, but far from angry, she said, “How so?”
“Because it’s not a question of aesthetics, is it? It’s a question of the almost pathological need that the rich have to separate themselves from the middle class. Paying lots of money for utter crap that the middle class ‘don’t get’,” I mimed the quotation marks with my fingers, “serves the double-duty of snubbing the middle class and pissing on the poor. The quality of the art is never the point. The shock value is the point, and the shock value couldn’t exist without quoting the prices.”
Her head hung in thought while she considered all this and she began to nod, slowly. Again, that blush; but with an entirely different meaning this time. “I’ve often thought exactly the same thing, but you’re the first person I’ve ever known who put it into the right words.”
I leaned over and kissed her. She said, after coming up for air, “John, I should tell you I have a boyfriend.”
“Well, if you didn’t have one I’d be worried that there’s something wrong with you.”
And we kissed again.
That evening I sat in my kitchen writing, having earned the right to do so with two strong actions committed in the real world: kissing Nico and giving her my cell phone number. The second of the two acts wasn’t as profound as the first but it was a step on the path towards the act above-which-there-is-nothing-profounder, as some would argue. As far as I know, this is new in the philosophy of writing: my notion that each act of fantasy must be earned by a corresponding act in Life itself; in real time; how many pariahs, shrinking violets, shut-ins, hermits and ghouls from ‘The Canon’ could have been saved by this simple prescription?
Soon, I imagined, Nico and I would be exchanging witty and then intimate text messages. What could be more romantic than laying in my bed directly under Nico’s, separated only by the thickness of her floor and the muddled air above my head, whilst exchanging little haikus of text via the intermediaries of microwave relay stations and a satellite or two in geosynchronous orbit? And what could energize a writer in the early Autumn of his life more wonderfully than having a modern kind of goddess at his side to inspire him? I hadn’t actually been excited about a woman since college, sad but true. I flashed back on the very first moment I’d laid eyes on Nico, my first day in the flat… how she’d walked briskly up the street with her bright orange hair, astounding me. I saw myself dedicating The Bomb Collector to her. Maybe I’d end up actually publishing the damned thing after all.
I was certainly beginning to look the part of a guy who gets his picture on the back cover of a paperback. Speaking of which: propped against the wall beside me as I scribbled in my notebook was the antique blackthorn walking stick I picked up at the consignment store that Nico had directed me to. Apparently, a destitute Irishman had parted with the thing for a song.His abject shame and misery transmuted into my striking (literally) accessory.
I decided to take El-Hadi’s recently transcribed tale of The Poisoner, The Gaugin and The 37 year old Virgin and ease it into the fictional El-Hadi’s life, changing a few of the important details. For simplicity’s sake I removed Verna Williams altogether. And the would-be poisoner I decided to change into El-Hadi’s ex-wife Ruth, the obvious candidate. And The Gaugin (who I decided to name Delilah) would become El-Hadi’s new flame.
It had only been a few hours since Nico and I parted when my cell phone made the cricket-like sound indicating that I’d gotten a text message. Ah, so eager! The message read:
Meet 2morrow @ Supreme Bean @ 9am?
As luck would have it, The Supreme Bean was the only cafe I knew by name in Berlin. I typed in the answer and pressed the ‘send’ key: Perfect.
I was up early the next morning, boyishly excited about the rendezvous with Nico at the Supreme Bean. The fact that it was the day before Christmas Eve seemed appropriate. I had gone to sleep with silent-movie-type images of her face, the powerful beauty of which seemed to flutter between evoking the 1960’s or the 1920’s for me, and I felt like a man who was soon to inherit a large fortune. I washed myself quietly (for some reason I didn’t want her to hear me preparing for our meeting), trimmed my dandyish facial hair, and dressed in the second of the three suits I’d brought to Berlin with me, a brown woollen vintage bespoke suit I’d been given by Azzedine, in fact, who had brought too much heavy clothing to America on first arriving. The suit, which was forty years old, was immaculately preserved, and so old fashioned that it looked almost futuristic.
I left a little early for the two mile walk, not sure how long it would take me to limp along on the blackthorn. It was still unseasonably warm and the suit I was wearing was more than enough; halfway there I began to worry I might break into a sweat, despite the fact that it was the Christmas season.
Eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning in Berlin looks very much like six in the morning in every other major city I’ve lived in. What it is about Berlin that makes it so much like a ghost town, despite its millions of inhabitants (San Diego is less than half the population and seems to bustle and hum like Manhattan in comparison), I wasn’t qualified to say, but once, walking along with Moth (in an era that seemed shrouded in the mists of time, suddenly) past the third sex boutique on that particular street with flesh-tone appliances on display in the in the window, I asked her, only half-joking: “What does this city seem so… perverted?” And her answer had been to shrug, and say, “High unemployment? Too much time on their hands.” Academics could construct all kinds of fanciful arguments to describe the social effects of the economy on the lower classes but had any historian yet written a scholarly paper with the title, “Idle Hands: The Devil’s Workshop”? Boredom as a shaper of civilizations explained everything from the sexual decadence of ancient Rome to the murderous energy of modern Fascism. Employment was palliative care for the proletariat; even the very wealthy get up to mischief without vocational interests to harness their energies.
I limped along the sparsely populated street imagining that everyone else, from the out-of-work traffic cops to the out-of-work yoga instructors, was still crunched up in bed, sleeping the troubled sleep of the reality-persecuted. Only Berlin’s ravens, huge gray or black birds that looked like über-crows, seemed busy at that hour, making an awful racket… like rusty gears grinding… in the trees overhead. These aggressive birds, in some cases standing knee-high to a grown man, had been known to gather in large numbers (like a natural Luftwaffe) and mutilate flocks of sheep in rural areas where food is scarce, using beaks and talons to peck the animals’ eyes out.
They hop down from the tree branches to peck at litter on the sidewalk from time to time and aren’t even intimidated enough by humans to fly away or even hop aside should you find yourself approaching one. One hopped down in just such a way, in fact, as I limped along a few blocks away from my breakfast date, and I was glad I had the unbreakable blackthorn to swing at it.
When I stood in front of the door of the Supreme Bean it was quarter ’til nine and saw that it was already full of students and the glass walls were fogged with espresso steam and cigarettes. I reached for the door and saw, at the moment that I touched the handle, that the girl at the counter with her back to me, chatting with a chiselled, dark-haired man who was ringing up orders, was, unmistakably, Moth. As if in response to the emission of this non-plussed thought she turned as I opened the door. After a startled pause during which she adjusted to my new look she said,
“John? You’re all dressed up! Why do you look so horrified to see me?”
I thought: this could either end up being the most embarrassing hour of the day, or the funniest story of the year, or both. I could only hope that Nico was a little late for the appointment and I’d be done with Moth before she showed up. Of course, she’d seen Moth coming in and out of my flat more than once during the two months that Moth and I had lived together, but I didn’t want to remind her how much of a dirty old man I once had been, or, even worse, give her the impression that the affair lived on.
“Moth. You look… healthy.” We exchanged that pecking two-cheek kiss that it had taken me a dozen attempts to master. She did look healthier… rosy-cheeked and a little fleshier. Had I fed her so poorly during our time together? Perhaps my mistake had been in not playing enough of the father figure… letting her eat under her own supervision too often. I laughed at myself for this ridiculous thought even before completing it. She was wearing a pair of jeans I’d bought her; the sweater looked familiar, too. The motorcycle boots were from an entirely different patron, though.
She pointed at the handsome young man behind the counter, who I now realized was smolderingly Gay, and said, “John, this is Ramin.” Rah-meen. High cheekbones, olive skin, jet black hair, a slender frame and eyes from the frescoes at Pompeii. He wasn’t much taller than Moth; a compact little prince. If he hadn’t been Gay, I’d have been terribly jealous, despite the fact that Moth and I were no longer together and my mind, of course, was full of thoughts of Nico. Ramin seemed deeply amused at something and I wondered what Moth had told him about me. Here’s the dirty old man who stuck his dirty old thing in my mouth, ass, cunt, between my tits and my toes…
“Pleased to meet you, John.”
Moth said, “Ramin is my girlfriend’s business partner… they own The Bean together.”
“Looks like business is good.”
Ramin smiled enigmatically and said, “Well, I’ll give you two some privacy,” and he drifted off to take an order. Moth reached for my cane but I moved it. “It’s real, Moth… I need it to walk.” The amount of bitterness… of blame… I heard in my voice as I said this surprised me.
“Really?” She seemed genuinely concerned. “What happened?”
“It’s a long story.´”
“Suit yourself. I like the facial hair, by the way. You look like Johnny Depp.” She brushed by me on the way towards a few empty tables and said, “So, where do you want to sit?” and I panicked. I glanced at my watch and she added, “Okay, we’re still a little early, I guess, but… I have something important to tell you. I wanted to catch you before Christmas.”
It was only then that it dawned on me that the message to meet at the cafe that morning hadn’t come from Nico at all.
We sat at a table in the back, near the window; in fact, it was the same table I’d sat at the one time I’d been in this cafe before, early on, the morning of sleeping with Amanda Nye. This was the table I’d sat at with the notebook I wrote ‘She is lying’ in. I had ducked into this cafe while on the search for a bed, I recalled, to get in out of a downpour. I’d come in, taken a seat, written in the notebook and left again without even noticing that Amanda Nye was sitting there too. This was during an epoch even earlier than the Moth Dynasty. I’d been in Berlin less than a year and more had happened to me already than in all the time I’d lived in California. Idle hands and the Devil and so forth.
Moth said, “You want something? A hot chocolate or something? Anything we want is free.”
I was still doing my best to recover from the fact that Nico wouldn’t be coming through the door any minute. “I’ll have a look later.”
“Suit yourself. By the way, before I forget: what’s the name of the publisher your books are published with? I told my girlfriend about it and she’s curious.”
“It’s just… they’re just, you know, paperbacks. It’s a small press. Indie. Upper Midwest.”
“Yeah but we can order them on Amazon can’t we?”
I did my best to gauge whether Moth knew the truth and was needling me or if she still innocently believed my bullshit about being a published writer and therefore the intense little schoolboy horrors of dread and shame she was inflicting on me without preamble at 9 in the morning were purely unintentional; it was impossible to tell. “They’re all out of print but I guess you can try. The name of the publisher is Objets… like the French word. Objets.” I borrowed the name of Azzedine El-Hadi’s antique shop in Mission Hills, San Diego. The Objets Press sounded pretty good.
Moth said, “Listen, do you believe me when I say I’m really really sorry about how things, you know, ended up?”
“I mean, I’m not sorry I’m with my girlfriend. But I’m sorry I had to hurt you to be happy. You know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean. And I’m sorry I wasn’t a better friend to you instead of a horny old goat…, ” I lowered my voice, “who used you like… you know. Who used you.”
“Hey, I fucked you with my own free will,” she said, a little too loudly. A chubby student with blond dreadlocks (Moth’s old hairstyle) looked up from her book at us. “That wasn’t the problem.”
“What was the problem?”
She looked away, arrived at some sort of conclusion, and said, “You want to come see where I live now?”
We took the scenic route, and Moth gave me a guided tour, pointing out spots that had been her courtyard kitchens, cul-de-sac bathrooms, tree-shaded living rooms and overpass bedrooms when the entire neighborhood had been her apartment, before we’d met. I was nervous that Nico might see us walking together so I made sure to keep a distance from Moth as I hobbled along beside her. We wandered a maze of funky little side streets, left, right, left, left, right, right… until it almost felt as though we were traveling in an angular circle; as though Moth was doing her best to disorient me, or put off some kind of moment of truth.
Some of the streets felt vaguely familiar, the way streets will feel from a new approach after you’ve walked down them a few times already from the opposite direction and on the other side of the street. If she’d suddenly run off and left me limping alone, I thought, it would probably take me hours to find my way home, although I was only a few blocks, I was sure, from familiar landmarks. We followed the shattered wall of a baroque-era cemetery, crossed a railroad bridge and at some point could see the dull metal dome of a planetarium like a lead balloon rising over leafless treetops of the warm winter on this day before Christmas Eve. And then, it seemed to me, we doubled back along a parallel path, protecting ourselves from the obvious.
Just when I thought I couldn’t walk another step, Moth stopped in front of a big green door and was digging in her pockets for her latchkey. The strangest thought flitted through my head. A thought in the form of the sensation of vertigo.
“I know this place,” I said.
“All these buildings look alike. Don’t be a pussy. Let’s go up.”
We entered the dark hallway.
“Moth… ” I reached for her. In anger, possibly. She dodged my hand and bolted across the courtyard, into the rear wing of the building. I heard her on the staircase. I thought to myself: this can’t be true.
She was taking the steps two at a time and I went after her and tried to keep up on my bad leg, clutching the banister with one hand and swinging the cane with the other. The sense of deja vu that crowded in on me was so not ephemeral; so solid; that it was like a clinical symptom of insanity. Deja vu plus rage. The cracked yellow enamel on the walls; the threadbare red runner on the steps; the smells leaking out from the dark doors of silent apartments… it was like a film running backwards, returning me to the black room of a nightmare; a terrible accident; the scene of a crime. Breathless as I pounded up the stairs after her I called, “Moth… Moth… I can’t believe it… I can’t… ”
She called down, from two levels higher, “It was my idea, John! I chose you! I wanted you to be the father!”
And I remembered Amanda teasing me in front of the Supreme Bean that rainy morning with you haven’t even bothered to ask me who I was sitting with… I remembered Moth saying she was with a friend and they took me to dinner at that Indian place and I remembered Amanda joking that night, the night of the ‘dinner’, Give that man a cigar and Gotta go check on Ramen and those Kohl-rimmed eyes… the Kohl-rimmed eyes of the Burka’d ghost who sucked me… the dusky laughter as I ran down the same stairs I was now, insanely, stumbling back up again…
Moth kept running higher and higher and I was expecting, any minute, to wake from the dream.
So that was my Christmas present. After a handful of abortions with as many women over the years, I had finally been tricked into fatherhood. I celebrated the long Christmas holiday alone, paradoxically. Even Nico, who had family in Berlin, vanished from the building for a week that wasn’t even at least decorated with a snowfall. It was a cloudy, muddy, end-of-the-world Christmas. Then came New Year’s Eve, on which I received a text message from Moth while the bombs went off (New Year’s Eve in Berlin is like the 4th of July in Texas): hppy new yr & we c each othr soon. Moth.
Time after that fell away like a rope I no longer had the strength to clutch at; a rope tied to an undefined object of great weight… perhaps the heavy object had been me. Freed of this weight but only at the cost of falling. Moth filled out… her breasts lost any memory of boyishness and her face rounded many weeks before the bulge in her stomach showed. Of course, anyone privy to Moth’s nakedness would have detected the first subtle change down there immediately but I just watched from the outside of the expensive Irish sweaters Amanda kept her in throughout the mild winter.
I checked on Moth every few days by cell phone (hers was still one of only two numbers in my possession), saw her perhaps once a week for dinner. Amanda made an appearance a handful of times before Moth became so pregnant that she required constant supervision.
One night, in fact, I believe Moth was drunk, or on some kind of drug, and I was alarmed for the baby in her. She woke me up, whispering into her cell phone like a proper paranoid that all of the videotapes in that trunk in Amanda’s living room are the same film, John, and I’m really scared. Or something to that effect. I checked on her the next day and she laughed it off, but I couldn’t laugh off the drug-use. Should I bring it up with Amanda behind Moth’s back?
Seeing Amanda Nye again for the first time in months was a queer, but not entirely negative, sensation. In fact, by then, I was glad to see her, if only to have the opportunity to put some questions to her that had been driving me nuts for a very long time.
It was Moth who had phoned me on Valentine’s Day (ironically). “Amanda’s in town. Wanna come over for bagels?”
“What about we all meet at the Supreme Bean instead?” For whatever reason, I still found Amanda’s flat a place to be avoided.
“Okay. Three o’clock then?”
I was standing in my kitchen, where I’d gone to run hot water for the tea kettle while the phone was pressed to my face, and when I signed off I heard what sounded like plate glass shatter in my neighbor’s flat above me. Checking myself in my hall mirror first, I limped upstairs and knocked on Nico’s door. So much had happened since the one and only day we’d kissed that I’d almost forgotten about her. Understandably, I had lost a great deal of the force and self-confidence that had inspired me to boldness with Nico the last time I’d seen her. When she answered the door it was all I could do to resist the temptation to apologize for knocking.
“John just-John!” She broke into a huge smile. A smile, I noted, devoid of the vanity of sexual calculation. “Fancy seeing you in my doorway!”
Her razor-sharp luminous pearl of a platinum bob had devolved into a shaggier, nondescript chocolate-brown haircut in the interim. She was even wearing her reading glasses. Sweet, but hardly the stuff to incite self-immolating panics in a young man’s breast. Or even mine, for that matter. Thank goodness.
“Are you okay? I heard glass breaking.”
She frowned. “Glass breaking?” Then she laughed. “Okay, I know,” she grabbed my hand and pulled me over the threshold. “We’re editing.”
Her living room, otherwise exactly as I had seen it months ago, now featured a table at its center on top of which was a computer monitor and various other black or silver boxes of equipment, linked by a nest of cables. There were two chairs in front of the table and a young man, still with his back to us, sitting in one of them. He had curly blonde hair and a black tee-shirt on the shoulders of which there were either cigarette ashes or dandruff. My immediate thought: so that’s the boyfriend.
“John just-John,” said Nico, with a hand on the boy’s shoulder as he twisted in his seat and smiled at us, “Meet Eric-more-than-Eric,” a humorous introduction I felt slighted by. Slightly.
I realized that I still wanted her; there were still these pangs; but any dreams of actually having her now seemed fairly ludicrous. Not long ago, our paths had come so close that we might’ve touched, but that was the extent of it. My future was obviously shaping up to be too strange to include her: but even this portentous sentence makes it all sound more glamorous or full of mystery than it could possibly be.
“Whatever happened to that big Hollywood audition you were so excited about?”
Nico shrugged. “I decided to stop chasing luck,” she said, “And make some for myself.” She gestured at the computer screen as Eric returned his attention to it as well. He hit a key on the keyboard and a body went flying backwards through an un-shattering pane of glass, sucked feet-first out of the black night and into a kitschy bedroom, landing on tip-toe and freezing. “We’re making our own movie with rented digital cameras and some big software editing programs. Everyone donated their skills. That kind of thing is really ‘in’ now.”
Eric hit another key and dragged the mouse and the body went forward through the glass again, without sound and in slow motion this time, and I could see that it was somebody in a platinum blond wig (very much like the ice-cold hairstyle Nico had previously), doubling for her. The shattering glass looked like a wave smashing on a swimmer’s body. The body went back and forth through the membrane of the glass as they attempted to synch the sound-effect perfectly with the moment of impact. The sucking-and-then-spitting plume of candy-glass in the brilliant spotlight. The body’s arms as they crossed and flailed backwards and forwards, in half and double time, looked like some kind of devotional dance of the Middle East.
“It’s almost hypnotic,” I said.
“It’s the end of the film,” said Nico, softly. “This is where she kills herself.”
“Why does she kill herself?”
Nico shrugged. “She just does.”
Walking to my scheduled appointment at The Supreme Bean, I couldn’t get over that line: she just does. It was the perfect and terrifyingly unanswerable answer.
On my way through Berlin on a warm, partly-cloudy Valentine’s Day, it felt as though I’d been living in Europe for years already. My time as a house painter in Southern California seemed like another life, or a dream, or a novel I’d been working on many years ago only to abandon before coming to the end of it, though it had not been six months since I’d flown away from all that. There were probably still molecules of house paint swirling around in my bloodstream.
Work had stopped on The Bomb Collector… the physical work of actually writing it (following my new rule that I could only earn the right to a page of writing in the evening if I’d accomplished something ‘real’ during the evening’s day) … but it occupied my mind nevertheless. Even as I limped up the street, away from my building (next door to which workmen were still scurrying around, climbing up ladders and banging on things, although the decibel level had dropped to tolerable levels and the construction site was beginning to look like a building), I was seeing Azzedine El-Hadi’s fictionalized life projected on the backdrop of my current reality. I was picturing him walking arm in arm with a woman, well-dressed and unusually relaxed, not on a first date but clearly in the early phases of a romance. Who was the woman and where were they off to? Was this the black mistress I’d given him? What about Noa?
I was still puzzling all that out at the complicated intersection of Rosenthaler platz, not far from the spot I’d first seen the blind ‘artist’ defacing a black-walled building, when I happened upon the man himself, sitting in front of a trendy new cafe called Sankt Oberholz. He hadn’t changed much in six months and I wasn’t sure but was fairly convinced, in fact, that he was wearing the same outfit I’d first seen him in. If he hadn’t been blind anyway, on the other hand, he wouldn’t have recognized me at all, I chuckled to myself. My hair was longer, I was sporting this rakish facial hair, and I was hobbling like a distinguished gentlemen on an antique walking stick. In a way, I’d grown up. Back in Southern California, I’d still dressed like a college student, despite the fact that it had been twenty years since I’d handled a textbook.
The blind painter sat close enough to me, as I waited for the traffic light to change, that I could hear him muttering to himself. The cafe had a row of silver chairs placed in front of the window facing the street I’d just come up and he’d taken one of the chairs and pulled it out towards the corner. He was drunk, I realized. Was I imagining this or could I smell the liquor on his breath? He suddenly stiffened as if aware of the fact that I was staring at him and he swung his backpack around to his lap and rummaged around in it. He pulled out a case for his sunglasses, popped it open, extracted a pair of black framed eyeglasses, removed the sunglasses he was wearing and put them in the case… and then slid the eyeglasses on. They magnified his necrotically blue eyes as he turned them upon me… in a perfect imitation of being able to see. I jumped out of my skin in fright and hurried across the street.
Crossing the street at that intersection means crossing the streetcar tracks as well, and I limped dangerously across the tracks as one was approaching, a clattering tin toy in bright yellow, despite the stories I’d heard from Moth of people being hit and sliced in half by the streetcar. I watched from the opposite corner until the chain of five wagons had pulled away again but by then the blind painter was gone. Maybe into the cafe itself. Those dead blue eyes. There was something cruel or even evil about those reading glasses over his broken eyes, but I could admit to myself that it was a witty response to my staring. But how could he tell I’d been staring? The change in the rhythm of my breathing? I was going to have nightmares about the corpse-blue of those pupils.
Half a block away from the glass box of the Supreme Bean I could see Amanda and Moth standing at the counter, chatting with Ramin, and the idea of walking in there and standing between the two of them making small talk with the man who had ‘raped’ me as part of Amanda’s little prank was not what I would call appealing. But what were my options? I could keep walking, of course, and never see any of them again if I chose to. But the idea of Moth’s young body transformed, even as I gazed upon the three of them, by my sex, my seed, was too compelling. As a writer, too, I was driven by curiosity: how was this story going to turn out?
“There he is,” said Amanda. “The mystery man.” She hugged me. “I wouldn’t have recognized you if Moth hadn’t warned me first. My my. You do look a little like Johnny Depp with that pirate style. I like it. Is that walking stick real? How’d that happen?”
Moth hugged me too. Did I imagine a certain lingering quality to the embrace that reminded me of the embrace that had gotten her pregnant? In a panic over the instant erection this produced, I suggested that we grab a table at the back of the cafe somewhere, away from eavesdroppers. I ignored Ramin completely: my passive aggressive revenge.
Moth and Amanda were dressed in what the Germans call a “partner look”. We took our seats at a table insulated with a good distance on all sides; the cafe only had a handful of patrons in it.
“John, before anything else, I just want to apologize for my behaviour. Everything, I mean. I don’t have to go into detail here but you and I know a few things happened that shouldn’t have. In a way it was a misunderstanding, but it was unfair of me to kind of toss you into the deep end of a situation… a lifestyle… you probably weren’t prepared for. You won’t believe this but Ramin is sorry, too. But that’s enough on that subject. Fair enough?”
“Good. Next topic. You’re probably wondering about… ”
“The baby. Was it an accident or on purpose?”
“I don’t believe in accidents.”
“So, there was a plan,” I said, eyeing Moth carefully. She smiled warmly at me and squeezed Amanda’s hand on the table.
“Yes, a plan. Moth was outside a lot in those days, as you know. I wasn’t happy with that but it was something she felt she had to do… it was a freedom thing, right, baby? And being outside a lot she noticed people. We were looking… ”
Moth jumped in. “We had decided a while ago we wanted to be pregnant but we wanted a certain kind of guy for the father. He had to be good-looking,” she laughed.
“And we didn’t want a German,” Amanda took over again and Moth shook her head vociferously on this last point. “We wanted someone intelligent, too, but there’s no way to tell that one by looking, is there?”
“So that day I first met you crossing the street over there under the U-Bahn tracks… ”
“Yeah. It wasn’t random. We were sitting in front of that Indian restaurant on Kastanien Allee and Moth spotted you again so I, uh… I went after you.”
“Hey, be more flattered than freaked out.”
“Yes, John… we looked at… I don’t know… hundreds of guys before we picked you.”
“I was immediately impressed by your intelligence, John.”
“And Moth moving in with me… ”
“That was part of the plan, too.”
I looked at Moth but spoke to Amanda. “So she could get pregnant.”
“It took awhile.”
“I’ve heard of women tricking men into getting them pregnant before but this… ” I was numb.
“But there’s a big big difference, John. We don’t want you to take any of the responsibility for the child. We want you to be a part of her life…, ” they squeezed hands again and exchanged a romantic look, “… but only to the extent you feel comfortable. And not as a parent.”
“How do you know it’ll be a girl already? It’s only been a few months.”
“We just know,” said Moth.
“And you don’t expect any… financial… input from me?”
Amanda laughed and for a moment the old Amanda shone through this reasonable new facade: the arrogant, mysterious, sinister prankster. “Frankly John, I’m rich. Okay? No worries.”
Amanda produced what looked like the manuscript of a short story and smoothed it out on the table.
“In fact, along those lines, here’s something I had my lawyers prepare,” continued Amanda Nye, “don’t bother reading it now. Take a look at it at home. If you want a lawyer to look at it with you I’ll pay his fee.” She slid the sheaf of papers, stapled in a corner, across the table at me.
“This is just so there’re no awkward situations in the future. As much for your protection as ours.”
It was a beautiful irony that I should be walking home alone on Valentine’s Day with a legal document limiting both the responsibilities and influence regarding my paternity of a lesbian couple’s fetus, and the smile that I wore… patient, tired, numb, self-mocking… reflected the joke. I hadn’t been laid in months but I had this paper in my hands to certify the fact that long ago I had fucked a pretty girl so well that we had to get lawyers involved. Anyone I might meet on the way home now, making the mistake of seeing me as merely a sad and stringently unfucked middle-aged man, would get this seven page contract waved in his or her face. All I had to do was sign it and we’d all have legal proof that my hard cock had been in a vagina. But what about the other orifices, I wondered. No contract attesting to the fact that Moth had sucked me off more than once, or I her; no legal paper proving that her second-favorite invasive sexual act had been anal. In the missionary position, though. That was our invention. The secret is easing in and fusing gently with the heat and desperate grip of her darkness…
Well, I got a nice hard-on as I strolled along Kastanien Allee on Valentine’s Day, one hand in my pocket and the other one clutching the contract. I had no problem making eye contact with the girls, boys, men, dogs, crows and women I passed on the sidewalk, being at an age when a longstanding hard-on is considered a triumph. The unseasonably warm breeze ruffled my hair and pressed and fluttered at my bulging trousers like a vaguely distracted whore and I thought back on the days when these hard-ons were new, like stainless steel, and would last for half a day at a time, embarrassing me in check-out lines at the supermarket or in front of the card catalogue at the library.
Oh, so many pretty girls, then and now, frail and intimidating, saturated with that hot light that young men crave and go blind for (and that the savage ones smash into darkness sometimes, with words or fists). Bright outfits, long silks of dark and pale hair, trinkets of laughter… I wanted to cry and laugh about crying and sniff my tears and get on with it, move on, get myself out of the way, self-conscious about stumbling across that brave road with its mindless, fast traffic. My God, I’m old… that’s what those eyes… the eyes I made defiant contact with… that’s what they told me: you’re old. Some smiled, most scowled, a few frowned with puzzlement: you’re old. Don’t you know it? Get out of the road!
Being old is very much like being fucked in the ass, as it turns out. It only hurts until you accept it. A girl told me that, once, about ass fucking, while smoking her post-coital Virginia Slim cigarette. Way back in the 1970s, when we (as fresh young heterosexuals) thought we’d very hiply, very exclusively, stolen the practise from British queers. She said, it only hurts if you try to pretend it isn’t happening.
Exactly. So many pretty girls, every spring. So many springs.
I took the long way home and stuck the key in the lock in the front door of my building about an hour after Amanda had slid me the contract. I noticed that the skeleton of the building under construction next door was fleshing out with electrical conduits and large panels of fiberglass insulation and the sense of frenzy had mellowed into a few hammers banging humbly away on various floors of the building. The crane was gone, as were all the forklifts and dumptrucks.
I stood in the hallway outside the door to my flat and listened to a loud swelling of choral music. It was like standing in the foyer of a packed and floodlit church, and I recognized the piece almost immediately as Bach’s Johannes Passion… one of the most moving pieces of music ever written, in my opinion. It helped not knowing the lyrics, which were based heavily on the Biblical interpretation of that famous anti-Semite and man of peace Martin Luther. It was the saddest melody I’d ever come across as a high school student, and now that I was hearing it again in the hallway outside the door to my flat on a warm, lonely Valentine’s Day of my middle-age in a foreign country, I burst into tears.
I followed the sound of the music upstairs until I found myself in front of Nico’s door, from behind which the music blasted at a level she could only get away with because our building was almost empty. I sat down right there, leaning back against the door that seemed to bulge out and suck in against the breathing weight of a full choir and a massed orchestra and I submitted to it, holding my face in my hands. All these years on earth. All these years.
I felt the pressure give way as the door suddenly opened from behind me and I stood up with great embarrassment, my face wet, too late to hide it, giving Nico a kind of half-smile and a shrug, and as if in a dream she reached and pulled me over the threshold and against her breast, rocking me in a slow, sad, desperately tender hug. I didn’t dare open my eyes and didn’t bother fighting the flood of tears that came and she pulled us clear of the door and pushed it shut with her boot and pulled the papers out of my hand and let the sheaf fall to the floor… none of these actions audible against the music… and we kissed, undressed and made love.
The completion of the act, which came quickly, right there on Nico’s living room floor, in the blast of Bach’s morbidly majestic music, satisfied a craving in both of us that I knew we’d never feel again. Naked on my back on the chilly floor with a bottomless Nico collapsed upon me, I couldn’t help wishing that it was Moth instead, my penis shrinking in sleep in the dark warm wet of her body. We weren’t embarrassed or disappointed and the mood was very sweet. I stroked her dyed brown hair as we listened to the Johannes Passion play itself out; resolve; conclude, drain from the room like a tide.
Nico climbed up off of me with a bemused smile. She was blushing, though, so her attempt to come off as modern and casual about what we’d just done… that harmless little mistake… fell somewhat short. Which was reassuring, at least. My ego couldn’t have stood up to any more post-coital experiences with fearlessly unsentimental women that day.
“Let’s not mention this to Eric,” I joked. I was on my hands and knees, gathering up my clothing.
Nico went to fetch the pants she’d tossed across the room on the couch in the heat of our moment and said, “Eric?”
“He doesn’t need to know.”
“I’ll probably mention it at some point. He’s my best… ”
“Do you think that’s wise?”
“Are you that prissy about your privacy?”
“Won’t he want to kick my ass or something?”
Nico put her hand over her open mouth. “Oh my God,” she said, finally. “You think… ”
“John,” she said, laughing, “Eric is not my boyfriend! He’s as Gay as… ” she gestured vaguely, reaching for a metaphor. She was standing in front of the stereo system near the window, making sure that the Joahnnes Passion wasn’t about to cycle into a repeat, when the doorbell rang. Two short sharp rings and a very long one. At which she seemed to go pale, glancing at the clock on the wall over the couch. “Shit shit shit! I totally forgot!”
“There’s no time,” she said. She pointed at the table that the computer sat on… the editing table… which had been pushed to the wall to make room in the middle of the floor. “Get under it. Quick! Get under it and don’t make a sound. I’m serious, John! Hurry the fuck up! Get under the fucking table! Now!” (I would marvel at the quality of that acting job-Nico’s surprise at the doorbell ringing-later, when I had time to think about it).
She pressed two buttons on the stereo and ran to press the buzzer button that would let whoever it was into the building. The Johannes Passion started again. Then she ran back into the living room with a can of air freshener and sprayed the room. I didn’t see this… I only saw her feet briefly… but I heard her do it. I was crouching under the table with my bundle of clothing in my arms, blind to anything higher than the table top. My shoes I saw standing on their own near the couch, but there wasn’t time to scurry and get them as I heard Nico open the front door of her apartment. I scooted away from the front of the table, my back to the wall, holding my breath.
I was in as absurd a position as anyone could imagine: a middle-aged man cowering naked under a table in his upstairs neighbor’s living room to the mockingly grandiose soundtrack of very loud Bach. Even more absurdly, as I listened to Nico unlock her front door and greet whoever it was I was hiding from, I thought of Azzedine El-Hadi… not my old friend, but his fictional counterpart, my creation.
I thought of his day trip with Noa into Manhattan; how it started with a blue sky with only the tiniest cloud in the distance and suddenly became black with paranoia. Why was I thinking of Azzedine as I squatted under that table? A writer’s mind has its own agenda. Azzedine and Noa have a life of their own in my thoughts.
I remembered that aborted lunch in the hippie restaurant… the man with the camera who followed Azzedine and Noa out of the restaurant and into the street. Azzedine’s tightening chest… the barely controllable impulse to run. Who was this man? What harm did he intend?
I felt like a rabbit hiding from a hound as I cowered under the table, listening, through the Bach, to Nico and her visitor, a man with a very deep voice, exchange words. Without understanding a fragment of German, it was nevertheless obvious to me that her visitor was drunk, demanding, aggressive. Nico’s tone was conciliatory… pleading. I wondered if at some point the moment would arrive that I would have to crawl from under the table and defend her. They moved from the little entrance hall into the living room. I could see their feet as they stood in front of Nico’s couch, continuing the debate, their voices rising. How could it be that this man couldn’t see that someone was squatting under the table?
Noa and Azzedine were walking at a good clip down a shaded sidestreet festooned darkly on both sides with pawn shops and iron-barred jewelry stores, a street more like an alley than a street, Azzedine glancing frequently over his shoulder. The man with the camera had yet to round the corner, but he had thus far managed to remain doggedly on their trail, over a distance of many blocks and several abrupt changes of direction, maintaining a discreet distance.
All talk between Noa and Azzedine had ceased. There was only the ambient sound of the city and their huffing breaths as they hurried. It was Azzedine’s perfect idea of a nightmare, Bergmanesque in its silence, no comfort in having Noa there with him for he was convinced that it was she who had brought this visitation upon them. This sinisterly bland yankee hounding them was an avatar of covert American violence in his ruddy-faced, square-jawed manner… Azzedine worried that he might even be a government spy… a secret agent… what was the agency called? The O.S.S.? He was becoming furious with Noa for not quite keeping up as he walked faster and faster…
They had doubled back to the parking garage and when they had gotten within fifty yards of where a man sat on a stool in a booth in front of the garage’s entrance, reading a book with a sneer of pleasure, El-Hadi, who was a good twenty paces ahead of Noa, called out to the man in a dialect they shared. The garage was owned by cousins of El-Hadi’s and the man on duty was a countryman, a retiree’s age, no doubt doing the job for money under the table. Whatever El-Hadi called out had him off the stool and scurrying into the oily shadows to fetch the car with an expression on his face that struck Noa as so theatrically grave that she wanted to laugh. But she knew better.
The car sped back up the maze of the streets they’d followed, retracing their steps, as if El-Hadi now sought the man they’d only moments before been fleeing as from the Devil itself. Where the streets narrowed and admitted no traffic in the direction El-Hadi was speeding he drove anyway. Where they turned into the mouth of an alley where it was ill-advised to drive any faster than a crawl he put the speed on. Still, they couldn’t find him…
This menacing square with a camera; the shit smeared all over El-Had’s car a year later: they were related incidents. El-Hadi knew it, he knew it in the part of his mind (which wasn’t, perhaps, his mind at all but his heart or his guts) that knew without words and saw without pictures. The obvious connection was Noa, who’d never, in all the time he’d known her, struck him as real. That eternal smirk of hers, which he’d once mistaken for the ignorant arrogance of youth. He knew better now.
All that pleasure… how could he ever have been fool enough to think that it came without a price? And then I thought: is that how the book ends? Does he lose his mind? Does he kill her?
They were arguing: the male voice slurred, belligerent. The music was loud but I’m sure I heard the muffled sound of a punch, then a slap in response. A scuffle, a grunt, a gasp, the sound of furniture sliding, a struggle that went on like a booze-fueled dance. I jammed my hands over my ears until only the Bach roared through, but then I heard something above that anyway, something awful. Evil, even. A scream, yes, but a scream of pleasure… a man’s…
I slid from under the table on my knees and there was Nico, on her knees, with her hair tight in a man’s dirty fist and his fat ugly prick bobbing and spitting and poor Nico’s sad shocked face as I lunged at him, lunged at his back, holding my breath. I was shocked too, believe me. He was strong but I hit him full force, catching him unawares, knocking the wind out of him and me both, slamming with the weight of all my hatred. Every time the bones in my fist touched his mouth or ear or the side of his cheek a fine line of blood or bloody sweat or spit popped out like sparks from a flint. He was everything I had ever hated, a truth I only discovered at the moment of impact: he was my ex-partner Richard, he was my father, he was the bully in grammar school and the rich kids in college and the smugly successful, locally famous asshole who beats his wife. We hit the wall hard together as the German choir swelled in the nearly Satanic power of that Bach and Nico was tangled in the crash, maybe she was hurt too, I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t thinking, I know she cried out, I think she screamed for me to stop and clawed my face to pull me off but mostly I remember just pounding. Pounding her lover; his blinkless deadfather eyes. Beating that monstrous blind artist with everything in me, naked in my rage.
If you’ve never had the chance to beat an ugly man in the face with all the strength in your arms, I recommend it. Do it but not for long… twenty seconds is already too much… but do it because if you have read this book for this long you can’t be very different from me and that means you’re estranged from your natural self. Your inheritance. We hate the ugly… I believe this… we hate the ugly based on species memory. Ugly represents the beast, the monster, the animals with snouts or muzzles and bristling foul fur that hunted us hungry when we were few and soft and afraid and guarding our little settlements with pathetic sticks for weapons. That has to be where hate comes from and where my hate came from. Connecting to that is a powerful thing and once the connection is made it can never be undone, I think. The county jails and federal prisons are full of born-again Neanderthals like me.
Nico and I dragged her blind boyfriend by the ankles to the bathroom; he was moaning and hot-slippery with blood and I was relieved he was alive. Or greatly relieved plus just that little bit embarrassed in front of a female witness that I hadn’t been man enough to do more serious damage to my adversary, despite my lack of restraint. She daubed his pulpy features with a wet towel and said, kind of breathless, still shaking, he’s had better beatings than that. He’s dead drunk anyway and won’t remember this tomorrow and I’ll just tell him he got in a bar fight again.
Then she said Jesus, look at you and I saw myself with her eyes, hunched naked and very erect. Go get your clothes and put them on, John, she said, before you accidentally rape me. But she wasn’t angry, just upset and shaking. Matter of fact crisis control. I tried to put my pants on and my bloody hands were heavy with pain.
I said, Why didn’t you tell me this man was your lover?
She said, it’s none of your business, John.
I was shaking, too, and fumbling with my pants and then my shirt and I gathered the rest in my arms and quietly let myself out of her flat and down the stairs with weird vision both acute and vague and clinging to a sliver of hope that I was dreaming this mess and would wake out of it chastened and laughing and deeply relieved.
It was only after letting myself into my flat and washing off my hands and lying on the bed in the narrow bedroom under Nico’s (which I still hadn’t seen and probably never would, now) that I noticed that the Bach was still playing, loud as ever. Coming to its unalterable crescendo.
I couldn’t relax. I had to get outside. I put my shoes back on and grabbed my walking stick and a jacket in case it rained and was on the street again, limping like a man with a destination in mind. But in truth I had none. Whatever I was hurrying towards was as vague as whatever I was escaping.
It was spring, despite the unseasonable warmth, and the sun was already setting behind the low, undistinguished apartment buildings on the west side of August Strasse. The restaurant on the corner, with a short row of tables-for-two on the sidewalk, was alive with dinner talk and the clink of cutlery and generic dinner music… in this case a slick gypsy band… and I made eye contact with what patrons I could in transit. It was impossible to see into their lives because I couldn’t hear into their language, but it was clear that each and every one of them was the solidly unremarkable window dressing of a culture that was rewarding them decently for playing their parts.
It was a very expensive restaurant (I’d peered cautiously at the menu posted in a display case by the entrance before) and they had the money to eat there. The men were handsome, fleshy, my age or older, in dark silk suits or beautiful pullovers and many of the women were much younger than their dinner dates, and one or two were ravishingly, if vacuously, beautiful. And yet none of them were real. Or they were proof that I wasn’t; how could both sets exist in one reality? Just limping near them on the sidewalk produced a spiritual wobble in me akin to two musical notes, neither close enough to overlap nor separated enough to harmonize, jarring as they come closer. I touched my face where I thought one of them must have tossed the dregs of a cold drink and realized I was bleeding. A billion organisms from under Nico’s nails were starting a new life in me… she had fertilized my clueless scowl… the pain would come tomorrow.
I limped on. Where August Strasse empties into Rosenthaler Strasse, the major thoroughfare down which runs the streetcar, I turned right. It was only when I saw a young woman, a simple blonde, dragging a helium balloon in the shape of a bulging red heart through the twilight behind her, that I remembered it was Valentine’s Day. The fact that she was crying… sniffing red-eyed at long evaporated-tears… was reassuring.
In fact it was the sight of this pretty young German in the voluptuous trance of her dinky opera that cheered me up. She couldn’t have been much older than seventeen and there was nothing she could tell me about the recent events of her tragic hour, if I could only interview her, which would surprise me. Those upper-middle class diners in their tight-smiled, Chablis-pouring prime had chilled me to the bone, illuminating the lie in that old maxim smile and the world smiles with you. The sad young thing was a messenger from the great beyond. Cry, she had come to inform us, and we are never alone.
I wasn’t too old to share in that.