EXCERPTS FROM “THE VELVETEEN GULAG” [a memoir]: CHAPTER 5: NEVER TRUST A HIPPIE

One day in the year 1969 I heard my Uncle C— say to my mother that “Hippie stands for hypocrite.” This statement made an impression. I was nine or ten when he said it and my understanding at the time was that the Hippies were all about wonderful things like Peace and Love and colorful clothing, so to hear this negative judgement of Hippies from a source as trusted as Uncle C—, who had attended the University of Chicago and was the smartest person I knew: that was intriguing. It opened me at an early age to the notion that the wrapping does not necessarily indicate the contents of the package.

In the late summer of the year 1995 I was 36 and preparing to leave Berlin after five straight years of sex and exasperation. I touch on this period in another chapter. It was a complex fall, with lots of characters suddenly appearing in my life, and there’s no doubt that having the ticket in my pocket had an effect on my aura, which took on a “I’m leaving this town forever in a few weeks” carelessness that has a liberating effect on the inhibited German conditioning. I call it Train Station Elation. Or, have you ever been to a party in which the host paid you very little attention during most of the party but became effusive and talkative and full of plans for future parties the moment you were backing out of the front door after thanking them for a great party and announcing it was time to go?

I was walking around Berlin with this “Goodbye Forever, You Crazy Fucking Town!” look on my face and girls were falling out of the trees. Maybe some of them wanted me to take them with me (as was the case with Ursula, the girl I tell all about in the above-linked Chapter) but most of them were turned on by the fact that they’d never ever be seeing me again (or so we all thought) and so nothing that might happen between us could be construed as binding. I had already had a busy romantic life in Berlin the first four years I was there but things were about to get crazy.

I was on the U-Bahn on the way into the famous and cinematic Turkish ghetto called Kreuzberg, when I happened to look through the window in the back of the wagon and see, just as she saw me, M., who I’ll call Melody, a girl I’d known from a couple of years before when she was dating a friend, another non-German who is roughly my age. Americans are scandalized by this kind of thing, but, let me assure you, Yankee readers: thirty-something men dating girls in their early twenties is not a big deal in Europe and I doubt if it’s a big deal to other National Psychologies the Pilgrims never managed to pervert. It’s an obvious thing to do, mixing the young adults with the less young, and both sides of the age-gap-equation have rational reasons for doing it (versus your superstitious arguments against it), and only Puritans give (or refuse to give) a fuck about it. The Age of Consent in Berlin is not what it is in Cleveland. And why should it be? A 19-year-old is the opposite of a 39-year-old and the opposite of a child, as well. Children are genderless (dresses and bow-ties on children are a form of drag; everyone under fifteen should be dressed in shapeless, functional, stain-proof boiler suits) but most 19-year-olds are sloshing vessels of pure gender and, to be frank, very near to the mammalian peak, after which it’s all down-hill and a matter compensatory strategies of wit and lighting. However: two 19-year-olds fucking is somewhat like the blind teaching the deaf to drive. The ideal sexual pairing weds experience to physical perfection…. no matter what you Puritanical fuckheads have to say about it (I’m 17 years older than my beautiful Wife and it’s been 11 great years already).

So I looked through the window and saw Melody smiling and waving and when the train came to a stop at the next station, Melody, who was all dressed up and carrying a birthday cake, actually left her wagon and entered mine and we struck up a brief conversation. If she hadn’t broken up with my friend a year or two before that, I never would have exchanged phone numbers with her.

A few days later we were out on a date at the the beer garden on the corner of the Kreuzberg park, called Golgotha, and it was a delight. Melody had a thousand-watt smile against the ripening blue of the sultry twilight and a freckled nose and cool dry hands and the dumb music over drunken chatter formed the nicest backdrop for a free-form mating waltz. I was about to leave Berlin for the US, and Melody had a plane ticket to leave even sooner than I was, for India, and the stage was set for a torrid little adventure.

Romance is life-affirming, Romance is necessary, Romance is a story that two people half-make up as they go along, I say “half-make up” because clichés are actually vital to the composition, a series of spectacular lies painted on chunks of cultural detritus,  the essence of Art and Poetry, energized by Lust and encouraged by popular song. Both of you know it can never last but how long it does last is a function of age, really, and the conventional propaganda would have it that these romances are more fleeting in youth but it’s just the opposite, for only the young can make the glittering last for more than an hour or a day. And that’s why younger women can be so attractive to the 36-year-old male, who can still, heart-breakingly, recall the best moments of the epic romances of his youth but has noticed, with mounting alarm, lately, that the women of his age are less and less likely to go in for that sort of thing, preferring to steer the conversation with deflatingly-frank efficiency towards children and purchasing power and social security. A 36-year-old woman may or may not be likely to grab your hand to go tango-dancing in a cloudburst on a third date, but if she is kind enough to do so, she will expect you to reciprocate, she will expect a little quid quo pro afterwards, maybe a sober discussion about health insurance over cups of black coffee while you’re drying off in her kitchen. Not always (I’m happily married, after all) but generally.

I always hated those conversations and I hated the mood that usually preceded those conversations and the mood that lingered after, the mood that stinks of eternity, because that’s the point, that’s what I got at 36 that the 36-year-old women of my acquaintance didn’t appear to: there’s this big black monolith called Death looming over the fairy tale kingdom. It’s there, it’s immovable, it’s unavoidable, it’s a fact, but that doesn’t mean I have to move all my shit into a bedroom with a gigantic view of it. That doesn’t mean I want to see the monolith of Death first thing in the morning when I wake up and see the monolith of Death every evening before I hit the sack and it doesn’t mean I want to lie there every night as I’m having a bit of trouble drifting off, staring at a vast, rectangular absence of stars instead of dreaming. When I was 36, 36-year-old women of my acquaintance struck me as being far more worried about Old Age than Death itself, happily planning ahead for the one without realizing that it is the doorstep to the other. Priorities wrong. Let’s dwell on living and fully inhabit the NOW; if you take care of the Present, the Future will follow.

Melody, at 18 or 19, was concerned with neither Old Age nor Death and, by extension, by taking her hand in the late summer or fall of 1995, neither was I. We turned our backs, holding hands, on Old Age and Death and ran giggling down glittering hills to the evergreen fjords of Fuck. She was a witty girl who was cultured enough to discuss English water colors and Cuban poetry with naive passion and she rode me like a wobbling amusement park oddity when we did it in the bed she’d had for most of her life, in the room she had always had, in the flat she shared with her two half sisters, the shrilly-pretty redhead and the sloppy, black-haired, overalls-wearing palm-reader. This was a little family Melody’s foxy, wicked-queen-faced mother had assembled out of affairs with three different men,  Melody’s father being the latest, a Bisexual Cuban her mother had straddled almost randomly in the warm sand on a beach on a vacation in Florida one night in the middle of the Seventies. What a record-breaking Slut! The other extreme, I suppose. Not the kind likely to sit you down to discuss health insurance or having children, despite the fact of the number of mildly-neglected kids she popped out, in a row, immediately after the Summer of Love.

The fucking with M. was very good. She had a heart-shaped ass iridescent with almost-invisibly-blond hairs; she had the coloring and thick brown hair of a freckled Greek peasant. One afternoon I came to her in her room in that sprawling flat and she said “Ta da!” and unwrapped her skirt to reveal her newly-shaped bush, trimmed into a heart for me. And when she swallowed my semen she’d wipe her chin and quip: “Salty!”

Well, but, listen: I’ve already written a short story about all this. The only thing I changed in that story were the names: I refer to M as S and myself as “The Cynic” and Berlin as “X”. Why not read the story, which was called Gently Flew the Flag…?

 

GENTLY FLEW the FLAG

 

S was a hippie. She was a hippie about thirty years too late, which is even worse than being a fourth generation punk, in that the punk ethos only needs a little tweak here and an upgrade there to fit right into prevailing attitudes. But “hippie” is deader than “commie”… both are too dead as concepts, in fact, to even work as pejoratives. No one gets jailed or punched or turns red over either of those two words anymore and The Cynic always felt that if S  hadn’t turned hippie at the age of twenty two she would have gone for commie instead. Even more embarrassing: he can easily imagine a future for her in which Jesus will figure prominently.

The Cynic fucked S  nine times when she was eighteen or nineteen, years before her conversion. He was thirty-six or so and S  was eighteen or nineteen and he was struck by how clever she was. How quick and sharp with language, even English, which was not her native tongue. She once said to him: “I’m enjoying myself,” and then she looked at him like she’d whiffed a fart and said, “Enjoying myself? What a strange thing to say! Enjoying my… self. How do you enjoy your self?”

And he just thought that was the wittiest little moment. And she was good looking, too.

She was freckled, olive-skinned, dark-haired… half-Cuban. She called herself a dancer but that didn’t mean that she got paid for doing it but her body was very nice, if ever-so-slightly short-legged, with the waddling soft ass of a goose. The fifth time The Cynic showed up at the huge flat on Regensburger Strasse that S was sharing with both of her half-sisters, she led him into her bedroom and told him to close his eyes. He did so and over the soft music (Cat Stevens) and the distant bug mutter of traffic and shiny percussive kitchen noises that wafted over the railing of her balcony he heard her unbuckle her jeans. When he opened his eyes there she stood, bottomless, making a ta-da gesture and thrusting her pelvis forward to present her half-Cuban bush which had been shaved by a professional into a thick black crisp kinky heart. A heart-shaped pussy, just for him.

“Surprise! It’s our five day anniversary!”

They somehow lost touch after the ninth intense long-grinding session (both wise enough to quit while ahead) and re-established contact, six or seven years and one trip to India and one unintentional daughter later, via email.  First, there was 9/11, and then S and her eight month old Shanti were suddenly The Cynic’s to care for. Two unrelated watersheds.

The Cynic had an instant family on his hands. Despite the fact that S   was an unemployed yoga-teaching single mother with a baby who would never in a million years pass for The Cynic’s child. And who no longer lived in the genteel neighborhood he’d first known her in but had moved, upon returning from Rishikesh, to a highrise in a smelly Turkish ghetto in the poorest part of city X.

S  was discreet, at first, with the hippie stuff. Like a circumspect middle-aged transvestite who doesn’t march bravely into the living room wearing his wife’s panties until a few weeks after the wedding, S  rationed her loony pronouncements and under-reasoned theories and impossible folk-certainties with amazing restraint while The Cynic eased into the role of step-daddy. The baby was placid (shell-shocked?) and The Cynic enjoyed taking Shanti out in the backpack while her finely-tuned mother calmed her nerves in the absence of both of them. The Cynic, for his part, enjoyed the responsibility. He loved those little hands tugging his ears while they went for long walks. His secret goal was to have her first words be English. He always carried a little brown ball in his pocket to give to her when she became a squirmy nomad on his back.

“Ball,” he’d say, handing it to her. “Ball.”

The sex with S  was good, if not as good as it had been when she was 18. She was only as yet 25 or 26 but some profound inner shift had re-structured the mesh of all her intangible parts. Those inner-gears like interlocking cypher-cogs spelling out so many junk novellas in the fullness of time. It’s funny how The Cynic now thinks of rational thinking as a deeply sexy and even romantic thing. When S  was 18, she was clear-eyed and rational and so avid with her warm skin glowing; her easy mainstream health. Something in the sham metaphysics later (the duped hunger for infinite power) had turned her cold and tired and self-enshrining. But back in the bright day of 18, she’d kneel before The Cynic and nod and slurp with her puffing, sucking cheeks… he’d lift her dark rush of hair and bundle it to the side, balling the mass in his fist, pulling her tight up to his balls, her eyes gazing upwards, a smile in her eyes… it was trivial and profound. In the early innocence of sex, she was thrilled and that was thrilling. She hadn’t yet reached the decadent stage when it rots into little more than a bossy voodoo, powered not by her secret strengths but a man’s obvious weaknesses… using pussy for things like coercing a devotee’s husband to fetch a pizza in the middle of the night at the ashram, for example.

But still, sex between the aging Cynic and the riper S  was worth doing, if infrequent due to baby. The sex was infrequent and less than eureka-grade but there was a new kind of sexiness implied in the set-up, for The Cynic, in a way… this hoary, footprint-in-the-rock attitude to the effect that he was now wealthy in females. The females of his Yurt. That he owned them (sweetly, of course) and now he was some kind of patriarch with his rag-tatter tribe. Gently flew the flag of their minuscule, short-lived nation.

“Ball,” said The Cynic. “B-A-L-L-”

The first day of S’s  bold coming out as an “Esoteric” coincided with The Cynic’s first deeply dubious glance at her, though the glance and the Esoterics were not connected. Not in an obvious sense. The glance of deep dubiety came after an ungaurded moment when The Cynic was persuading himself that he was happier than he’d ever been (nonsense) and asked her, while she wincingly gave suck to her Shanti, “You know what I really loved that time?”

“What?”

“When you. You know.”

The action he mimed was impossible for her to identify.

“When I…?”

“That time.”

“Which time?”

“You shaved… ”

“I shaved?”

“You shaved your… ”

“I shaved my… ?”

“The spot.”

“What spot? My head? My legs? What?”

“No. Your…”

“… my…”

“You know.”

“No I don’t. I don’t know. What are you trying to tell me?”

He took the plunge. “I just thought it was nice the time you… surprised me that time by shaving your pussy that time into the shape of a… ,” and he felt strangely stupid saying this, “… heart for me. That one time.” He suddenly felt mortified, although what he claimed was perfectly true. She made her crinkle-nosed whiffing-a-fart expression.

“I did what?”

“Oh yes.”

“Huh?”

“You shaved it into a heart for me.”

“Are you kidding?”

“No. Why would…”

“Listen. You must be confusing me for somebody else. You’re saying what. I shaved my pussy into a heart? If I did I would have to remember doing it but believe me when I say I don’t so I didn’t. That’s so funny! I wonder what cool chick you’re thinking of? Are you sure you didn’t see that in a movie? Are you sure you didn’t dream it? Do you think I’m a hooker?”

The Cynic gave her the look of deep dubiety. Carefully changing the subject, he said, softly, softly, “Who are those pictures of?” Jerking his chin towards two framed photos on the wall above her head. Shanti was by then limp in her mother’s reluctant arms; everything in the shape and tension of this maternal embrace screamed mitigating factors. Screamed you were a mistake child. Screamed how can I be a mother when I’m still a child myself? Milk-tinted saliva trickled from poor Shanti’s circumflexed mouth. “That kid. Who is that?”

He was referring to the seven framed photos of a dark-haired, big-eyed adolescent that he’d been glancing at for two months around her flat, the frames of various sizes, in gold or black, on the foyer and kitchen nook walls or free-standing on the bathroom and bedroom vanities. He’d vaguely assumed it was her half-brother Pascal. He was only moderately curious. He was only changing the subject to avoid having her catch him staring speechless at her as though she were insane. If she could so easily forget ceremonially shaving her pussy into a heart, what else had she been up to during the intervening four years that would render such a gesture mundanely forgettable by comparison? And who was that kid in all the photos?

She twisted and smiled up at his image beatifically, whispering a quick prayer, and said  “That’s Babaji.” After which The Cynic got the first installment of the spiel she’d been saving to tell him ever since seeing him again by accident on the U-Bahn. Well, you just don’t go to India and live in an Ashram (where she nearly died of malaria; a doctor “tricked” her into taking the Western Medicine that saved her life by alternating her Pyrimeth/sulfadoxine injections with a bitter placebo administered from a coconut shell) for over a year for nothing. After the bulk of the spiel she waited for The Cynic to absorb the psychedelic algebra of her assertions and added, before his mind could cool off:

“Do you know what’s really beautiful about Babaji? Babaji wasn’t born like you and me… he manifested, as a teenager… intact.”

“So, one day, no Babaji, and then… poof. He’s asking for the car keys.”

“Don’t make fun.”

“I won’t.”

“Seriously.”

“I know.”

She handed Shanti over to The Cynic: a reward for his credulity. She re-wrapped her sari and glided with utter knowingness into the filthy kitchen where the dishes ached in petrified shit-green and shit-yellow and blood-brown crusts. Okay, The Cynic thought, carrying the Christ-like body of Shanti in the opposite direction, towards her crib, okay.

He’d seen the crystals and the sari and the candles and incense etc but had assumed that S  was an aesthetic hippie all this time, not a medievalist. Not some bumpkin who might seriously look for important data or late-breaking news in the color of a turd or the shape of a butchered goat’s liver. He’d assumed S  was as much of a hippie when she went barefoot in her sari and Ankh amulet as he was a pimp when he wore his leather pants and that floppy, wide-brimmed hat.

Then again, was he going to let a little ideology break up his beautiful new family? He was feeling very old (unaware of the fact that in five years he’d be feeling much younger) and did not want to be alone. Did not want to grow old alone, as far off as old might at that point be. Months went by and he learned to swallow everything. The crystals, the tarot cards, the swear-on-my-mother’s-grave claims of levitation, the infallible testimonies of long range precognition, the weekly meetings of her Geomantic Vibrational Healing Society and the holocausts of dirty dishes that exploded in their wake, the extravagantly expensive half-liter bottles of “energized” water she paid to have delivered twice a week by some guy driving a hand-painted truck when she couldn’t even afford new shoes for Shanti who had kicked the left one out of the stroller when The Cynic took her out for a walk one evening to avoid squabbling over the ludicrousness of the magazine her mother had spent fifteen Euro on just to read the cover article about the significance of the various styles and purposes of the special clothing worn by communities of elves in Germany’s forests…

Then, just as he had adjusted to the new reality, six months into the experiment, when Shanti was fourteen months old and responding to certain words with truly moving flickers of comprehension and bracing herself to invent not only walking but language itself, it all came crashing down. The end of everything started, as these things often do, innocently enough… the end announced itself in a drowsy postprandial chat. The Cynic, in yet another ungaurded moment, said, “See, what I like about our relationship is that we can speak … the truth to each other.”

“Me too.”

“It’s rare.”

“It is very rare.”

“Tell me about it. Most couples, they live on lies.”

“Lies and games. Games and lies. It’s very sad.”

The Cynic had introduced the topic in preparation for making the announcement that although he still failed to share in S’s  so-called esoteric so-called beliefs, he was sure that they loved each other so much that it wouldn’t matter, in the end. Romantic Love and the profound respect attending it would always be their common ground. More and more, The Cynic had taken upon himself S’s  parental responsibilities. It had gotten to the point that four days out of the week, The Cynic had Shanti the whole day…from before sunrise, when he mixed her grain-based formula and warmed it in her bottle with the electric tea-kettle in a state of purposeful pre-dawn befuddlement, until he put her to bed, properly exhausted after fifteen hours of his absolute attention, at nine p.m.  S would meanwhile have run her errands, sat in cafes, gone for long restful walks alone while The Cynic took upon himself not her sins exactly but her role of single parent like some kind of bachelor Christ.

Four days a week, sixteen hours a day. It was exhausting. He wasn’t getting any work done or bringing in much money but he was dedicated to the task. Kitchen, bathroom, living room floor… that was The Cynic’s new reality as a pantomime father and though he had developed a visible, irritating tremor in his right eyelid from the lack of sleep he reveled in the challenge of this thirty-million-year old task. No true parent ever suffered an Existential crisis. Not while the children were children. Worrying about whether or not Shanti’s formula was precisely the right temperature…neither cold enough to hurt her tiny stomach nor hot enough to burn her tiny tongue…pushed fears of eternal non-existence right out of his head, right along with that nasty inner tally of his life-long lack of accomplishments.

The Cynic said, “See…”

But S  interrupted him. She took a deep breath and said, “I am having an affair with the Vital-Aqua man. The guy who delivers the energized water. Rudy. I always suspected he was coming on to me, you know? I have a sixth-sense about these things… I mean, as you know, I have the sixth sense about everything…everyone agreed my precognition was among the most developed at the Ashram… it’s really not an ego thing. Maybe it’s the Cuban blood? My mother said I was different as a child, always staring off into the distance. I guess I was seeing things, even then. Beloved, you should know that Rudy and I make love on your off days, on the days when he delivers the water. I told him all about you… about us ….I think he was really moved. He said to say Hi. He’s really funny. He’s so young… I feel like his spiritual mother sometimes although we are exactly the same age! You would approve of the way he touches me… it’s very… conscious. Did I tell you he gives us a discount on the Vital-Aqua? Beloved, you’re so… wise. Why do people feel they must own each other? Can you tell me that? Oh Beloved… Beloved, look at my heart beating! Look at it! Look how it beats and beats! Oh, Beloved, I’m so glad, like you said, we can be honest to each other. Thank you! No games, no lies. It is really special. Isn’t it? What we have… it feels so… ascended… to me…”

While S  slouched at the table in her intestinal kitchen, free-associating in tones alternating between hushed awe and giddy incredulity through the glass-beaded curtain of the kitchen’s low portico, The Cynic made his rounds of the several small rooms of the flat, quietly gathering his possessions. With an armful he then tip-toed into Shanti’s room and watched her sleep. Mouth open, fists clinched. The wispy blonde hair like frayed nylon. The life ahead of her was so clearly hard that she looked exhausted anticipating it. For a ridiculous and heart-jolting split-second he imagined he saw Shanti mouthing the word ball in her sleep but really she was just dreaming of her mother’s selfish breasts. Which gave him a sudden, clarifying insight. He could finally see how easy it was to believe in the patently absurd as long it served one’s own purposes to do so.

He slipped out the door into the hallway and waited for the elevator in her Turkish tenement high-rise to return to the twentieth floor and fetch him back down to earth. There was some kid’s cheap plastic tricycle near the elevator with a Turkish flag stuck in the handlebars commemorating a recent soccer victory.

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