Eryn said get this he unzips his pants and asks is it big enough. The waitress still hadn’t fetched their drinks. Eryn gave the room an orphaned look and continued so the dirty is done and I’m combing my ‘fro in the dresser mirror. Okay? And the bathroom door is cracked open yea wide. Okay? And I kind of glimpse my new friend is doing his pee pee like literally sitting down on the toilet. The hell is that?
They were slouched at the bar in Chez Guevara, laughing so American that nearby patrons turned tolerant smiles on them. If tolerant smiles were deathrays they’d be cinders. Edwina said Eryn, my dear, don’t you know all German men pee pee sitting down?
-Ever since Hitler, said Eryn. Hitler in Berlin is never a non-sequitur.
The restaurant was full of flatscreen televisions in fractured blue strips over the bar and on the walls and mounted in the vaulted brick ceiling. Like welcome to the video age. They saw vineyards and pokerfaced newscasters shuffle typescripts of massacre and disaster. They saw the imported copshow, or was it a German ersatz, duck and shoot, shoot and run, run and jump. Steaming orders on multiple plates hovered by on the fringe of their chit chat. Several of the screens displayed ‘70s softcore from Holland, blonde boobs and a picturesque canal you could dye your jeans in. The pigtailed girl was panting shut-eyed and heave-titted but the sound was off and Eryn imagined her strapped to a gurney in a nursing home of the present reminiscing out loud about the good old days of the beaver shot. Eryn was already homesick but determined to stick it out according to the terms of her grant. You could order cheeses in this restaurant that would make a vulture puke. Eryn’s mother’s mother’s mother had coveted locusts in honey and shat near the river by starlight. Fragments of the long-dead woman had made it to the first world and were now sitting in the second, waiting for a drink.
The biggest screen, over the bar, showed a couple of North American celebrities arm in arm at some premiere or benefit or beheading or whatever, the female demonstrating her tolerant smile against a sustained bombardment of strobes intense as the fall of Saigon. The male was just listening, looking on, did he ever talk any more, worried about dinner or money or whatever run-of-the-mill medical issue is typical for a male in the autumn of his spate. The piss comes out in a trickle and you shrink from your own edges like day-old wedding cake. Celebrities are there to remind us that the body dies. Edwina winked oh look, it’s Evadolph.
-They follow me wherever I go, said Eryn.
-White people eat that shit up. Haven’t you heard? Adoption is the new slavery.
Eryn was skinny and bakelite deco black and Edwina was proud of Eryn’s attention-getting Afro, though she wouldn’t have worn one herself, though she could have if she wanted to, with professional help, being part black (a hook-dicked Alderman on her mother’s side). Edwina’s hair was straight and coarse as an Inca’s which matched her flat features. Edwina’s face looked somehow under-utilized: maybe it was the baby fat. Her eye-popping tits. She was one of those light-skinned not-really-black black women.
Edwina was not well-read. She’d never heard of Luigi Pirandello. Eryn had but had forgotten that she had and was preoccupied with fears that she’d picked up a German yeast infection. She picked up yeast infections like corduroy picks up lint. Corduroy has the word for king in it. There was a foreign quality to her discomfort. She was itching like young red ants between her legs and prayed hard for the folk cure of her Caipirinha. Her vagina would go up in flames if the waitress didn’t show up soon to douse it. Her Afro was too big to avoid touching people. Her Afro touched up to hundreds of people a day.
Edwina was married to a beefy bisexual black lawyer named Kevin Brandischauer with whom she lived in a condominium in the Marina Towers, literally overlooking the Chicago River. Kevin said if you jumped from the observation deck you would splat on the other side of the river. Edwina came to Europe on ostentatious shopping sprees not despite, but because of, the weak dollar. Eryn wasn’t sure if she considered Edwina an African-American but you could only think of her as pretty if you thought of her as black. She knew that was a ridiculous thought. She said,
-It’s not like Europeans aren’t racist. Of course they are. But the difference I’m feeling since I’ve been over here is me. Back home, some educated-looking white person gives me a dirty look, deep down I think I deserve it. Am I right?
Eryn had been over for a week, her first ever trip out of the country of her birth, her first ever six-hour sleep at an altitude higher than clouds, the sensation of making a minor appearance in the pilot’s recurrent dream.
Eryn wasn’t attracted to black men and black men were only circumstantially attracted to her, she felt, though educated white men, as a rule, were absolutely nuts on the topic. They super-tipped in her presence; they copied out unattributed poems from nostalgic textbooks while daydreaming they were leaving their wives, especially the professors who volunteered to pick her up in their litter-filled cars at regional airports. She specialized in neglected dick with tenure. Every time Eryn had tried to have a learnedly witty conversation with a man of her background about the meaning of life she’d been afflicted with a self-mocking self-consciousness that killed the topic, though she admitted it was her own fault; she admitted the problem was hers.
The late great playwright August Wilson had mentored Eryn in an innercity arts program and nicknamed her Error.
Edwina asked Eryn if she’d ever had a near-death experience. It felt like a funny thing to ask, given the circumstances. Eryn said,
-The waitress is going to have a near-death experience if we don’t get our drinks soon. Why do you ask?
-I was in a house fire the day before 9/11. I mean a ten-storey apartment building. I was living on the top floor with an awesome view of Jackson Park, deep in a dream when my boyfriend at the time starts shaking me because the bedroom is full of smoke. The smoke was floating like black milk in a fishtank and it was about three feet off the floor so you stood up it would kill your ass. Back in those days I slept on a futon mattress on a hardwood floor, you could feel the heat coming up off the floorboards. I saw flames in the cracks between the floorboards.
Edwina broke off her riveting tale to watch an arresting image on the flatscreen over the bar: a Japanese girl with no arms in a black Lycra top without armholes painting watercolour kittens in a pastiche of Hokusai with a very long brush in her mouth.
By the time I got to Chez Guevara, much later than I’d planned to, still flustered after a vicious row with my first wife, Eryn and Edwina had finally had their drinks delivered and were easing under the mellowing influence of a second round. They’d moved from the bar to a table near the bar, Eryn with her back to the view of the crowded sidewalk as I entered the restaurant through the purple curtains over the doorway. Friday night’s revelers were threading in pairs and threesomes between fashionable automobiles progressing so slowly in traffic that many of the drivers were leisurely chatting up the best-looking unattached girls on the sidewalk.
I’d be lying if I claimed I hadn’t spotted what I considered a sexual opportunity in the sight of two black female tourists of a certain age, isolated in a room full of unfriendly Germans. I didn’t know either woman, at that point, but I knew what each woman symbolized (in the slightly different contexts of home and abroad). Each had advantages and disadvantages, parceled out at birth, which anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with human psychology could exploit by setting these attributes in subtle conflict. As so-called “white” women’s sexual roles changed in the West with the advent of the revolution that took only two decades to demystify the holy of holies (the reproductive aperture of the species), black women found themselves stranded in a sexual power vacuum. It was as a man mindful of a Zeitgeist in which Billie Holiday is no longer particularly sexy to any but the hoariest of tenured academics that I approached their table and inquired if anyone would mind if I joined them.
My then-wife, a model-type raised in a suburb of northern Hamburg (a village, essentially, where every house has a four-digit telephone number), had just spent two years going through a revolution of her own in Southern California. She had managed to shed every trait (except her looks) which I had found too charming to let another week pass without proposing to her, which I did a few weeks after the moment I first saw that figure parting a crowd on a street near the harbor in Hamburg. A figure with the bearing of a Wagnerian shepherdess. A long honeymoon in San Diego became an extended visa in a hell that replaced my Wagnerian shepherdess with a name-dropping, money-mad, all-American doppelgänger who wouldn’t fuck until I successfully wheedled or bribed her. I hadn’t ejaculated within five meters of my then-wife for weeks when the pressure valve blew.
It blew in the form of a fight that climaxed with us cursing and shoving and slapping each other. I had the presence of mind to throw on a blazer and exit the flat before somebody ended up in the custody of the German police or on a stretcher with an arm dangling. We’d been dressing for dinner at Chez Guevara, a pattern we’d fallen into since returning to Berlin from our ill-fated stay in America.
Later that evening, sitting on a chair by the bed in her hotel room, I asked Eryn about her novel, which she had dropped coy allusions to in the masking hubbub of the restaurant as though speaking a code she didn’t want Edwina to pick up on. She corrected me: it wasn’t a novel, it was a play. She was in Europe on a Tubman grant to complete it. This all happened years ago and I can’t be counted on to remember my conversation with Eryn Brandischauer accurately.
-Why did you start writing plays?
-Because I could.
-What inspired you?
-I was tired of people thinking I was stupid.
-What people? Who?
-Teachers. Family. Friends.
-What did you think of working with August Wilson?
-It changed my life, but the longer I knew him, the more I developed views about his work and life I couldn’t share with anyone. They weren’t hurtful, these words about August that I had to keep secret, but they weren’t laudatory, either. An artist achieves a certain stature and anything said within earshot of the artist has to be either explicitly laudatory or implicitly laudatory, those are the rules, but I had some trouble with the fact that he spoke two languages.
-You mean he was bi-lingual?
-No, not in that sense, despite the fact he could have been, in that sense. You know his father was a German from Germany, an immigrant named Kittel.
-No, I didn’t know that.
-August spoke two languages, one that must have been true, I felt, and one I felt was false, but I could never say which was which, because it depended on who he was speaking to and also who was auditing when he was speaking to that person. But I was just some kid from Saint Paul; what did I know?
-Do you consider yourself beautiful?
-I consider myself capable of defining beauty. That’s enough.
Edwina came out of the bathroom just then and we changed the subject.