EXCERPTS FROM “THE VELVETEEN GULAG” [a memoir]: CHAPTER 5: BOJOVAT ZA NOVY ZIVOT

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Romy and I decided on impulse to make the four hour drive to Prague.  The first thing we did was load up on bottled water and chocolate for the trip, but we also needed gas. I told her there’s an Aral station just up the street from where I’m staying at Kurt’s flat, so she said okay, we’ll pick up your things at Kurt’s, and afterwards go to the Aral.

I met Romy through Kurt, who first hated her and then seemed to like her very much.  I barely knew her, but I liked her very much too: she had an attractive talent for telling stories. Her voice and face were perfect tools in service to this talent.  She’d been raised in East Germany: she was more natural than the West Germans I knew. She was strange and beautiful.

She told me that I’d love Prague. The idea first came up at her place, in Prenzlauer Berg, when we were sitting in her living room, listening to records. I hadn’t heard a record played on a real record player in ten years. She had a great collection: old Bowie, Smokey Robinson, Roxy Music. Kurt and I had stopped by to visit her and then Kurt had to leave to make an appointment with his producers on the other side of town and I stayed. I’d known Romy for a week at that point.

After Kurt had to leave, Romy was in her kitchen fixing me tea and she asked me to put some music on. I was very happy listening to those old records, scratchy as they were.  I sat in her living room, savoring the rare attention of Berlin’s sunshine, marveling at the sweetness of those old songs. Listening, I remembered what it had been like to be so young that music could mean something.  That anything could mean something.

Romy said, do you know this song?

She crossed the room, leaned over the record player and turned to face me, gesturing that I should close my eyes. I did, and I then I heard “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. When I opened my eyes again, she was standing in front of me, swaying, gesturing that I should dance with her. Her beer-colored hair was in her face and one fragile blue eye winked at me. So we slow danced to “Angie.” Romy was laughing against my chest. She said, this is like Prague.

That night, looking for the gas station, I asked Romy what she’d meant by saying that. I reminded her that when we were dancing, she’d said this is like Prague. What had she meant by it?  She asked me if I was sure she’d said that. She kissed the tip of her finger and reached over and touched my lip with it.

When we got to the Aral station it was chaos: every pump was occupied, and jostling lines of cars had formed from every direction. The cars were very aggressive, and twice in a row some rude new car jumped ahead of us in line because we failed to move quickly enough to fill a space between us and a pump. We were three cars from a pump but soon realized it was hopeless, so Romy looked over her shoulder and slowly backed the car out of the station. The car behind us followed suit. We hadn’t backed up more than ten meters when we heard what at first seemed to be giddy screams from a car full of teenagers, but it was really a Turkish family howling in outrage and terror.  Romy jumped out of the car with the motor running and I remember thinking: now what?

The car behind us had backed over a little girl while trying to reverse its way out of the station. Her whole family, two men and two women and another little girl, were hysterical. They had been screaming for the driver to stop, and even pushing on the car, as he rolled obliviously over the legs of their child, who had been knocked to the tarmac under the rear bumper. It was dark out… 11 pm in winter in Berlin… and the little girl had been too short for the driver to see in the rear view mirror.

One of the Turkish men was shouting and slamming the car door on the legs of the German driver who was trying to climb out of his car to see what he’d done. The Turk punched the driver too; the driver was too paralyzed with guilt to retaliate.  The other Turk was kicking huge dents in the car while his white-scarved women wailed, making gestures to the rest of us that I interpreted as meaning: do you see this? Are you witnesses to this injustice, our suffering? The little girl herself remained where she was, left like a muddy doll on the spot where she’d been run over. Coincidentally, an ambulance… a krankenwagen… happened to be just up the street when the screaming started. The blue lights pulsed as it tried to negotiate a path on the tarmac.

Driving away from the scene, Romy and I both stared into the rear view mirror. Romy said what a night. I said, the thing is, it was the family’s fault, they should have been watching that child. The driver couldn’t see her. I feel sorry for him, even if he is German. Romy said yes, it’s unbelievable.

I was about to change the subject when, not a half a mile from the Aral station, up Oranienstrasse,  a Turkish family was crossing the street in front of us in a solemn procession, father first. One of the children in black pants and a dark jacket fell down on his belly right in front of the car, causing Romy to slam on her brakes. Romy and I looked at each other and burst into nervous laughter as the kid’s mother snatched him off the street. Fate seemed to be paying a peculiar amount of attention to us that evening. I said that I didn’t think that we should risk trying to go to Prague that night, considering how things were going and Romy said well, where shall we go instead?

We decided to drive around. Romy told me a story about a friend of hers who was driving through the mountains in Prague with his wife and five kids when the car made a bad move and ended up rolling like a toy, bottom over top, down a steep hill into a gully of ice, coming to rest at a dangerous angle. Many of the kids in the car were seriously injured. The mother was screaming, at the top of her lungs, save me first.

I’d been introduced to Romy just a week before, a few days after arriving in Berlin. She was a colleague of my best friend Kurt and they were both in the film business. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

After hearing her speak, it was the sound of her voice and her perfectly shaped thoughts that struck me as her loveliest features. Her face was a movie that I had to watch. She could speak and write Russian fluently, had lived in Moscow for years and had also lived in Manhattan, where she’d known one of the last living Beat poets, who’d been friends with Allen Ginsberg and Leon Trotsky. There’s a film of Romy and this old Beat walking arm in arm; grandfather and muse. It’s in the archives of a museum in Boston.

I spent a good part of that first meeting with Romy trying to decipher Kurt’s feelings towards her. I knew he’d just broken up with his Italian girl friend, a successful artist. Was he looking at Romy that way? I didn’t want to step on his toes if he wanted to start something with her himself but he was difficult to read. He was guarded with his feelings. We all three went to a bar and I was as witty and entertaining as I could be. Romy was very funny in response. I watched Kurt carefully.

Romy said to us that when she was a little girl, in her village in East Germany, the people called her white nigger because of the size of her lips. She also said that they didn’t have telephones or televisions and that sex was a major form of entertainment. She said now they have everything in that village that they have in the West and I said I bet they’re sorry the Wall came down. Romy said no, it’s okay, even with televisions they still have sex.

Kurt said Bojovat za novy zivot. He toasted us with his white wine and translated the Czech for us: fight for the new life.

Romy said but not for the new people.

The other customers in that basement bar, crammed into tables along one wall and packed at the bar across a narrow squeeze-through aisle, noticed us, the two Americans and the German girl. I didn’t register their interest myself until Romy commented on it. Some were casting bemused glances at us, but some were judgmental, superior, dismissive. It made me angry. I thought: this is supposed to be a world capitol and these people are acting like villagers. They were scandalized by the Americans and their red-lipped German girlfriend, laughing her head off at their stupid American jokes. Some of the men were clearly rotten green with sexual envy, sneering slit-eyed into their penny-colored beers. The women were thin-lipped and openly stared.

Rather than shrinking with shame, Romy became lascivious to taunt them. The bar had unified against us and Romy rose to the task of defying them. She draped herself across me and put her red boots in Kurt’s lap. I fed her maraschino cherries with extravagant languor,  we put on a show. Romy and Kurt were, after all, in the film business. We acted like two Richard Burtons and one Elizabeth Taylor. Forty years earlier, or fifty miles to the East,  or two Social Levels down, there would have been trouble, a bar fight. Black eyes for Kurt and me, Romy slapped. Our coats thrown after us into the street.

As it was, the well-behaved Germans merely looked at Romy as though she were a prostitute when I finally paid the bill and we left. I wanted to make a parting remark as we climbed the steps up out of their trashy cloud of cigarette smoke and Italian toilet water but I couldn’t think of anything in English that would be simple enough to be clear to their German ears, yet clever enough to shame their easy assumptions. I was seething. Kurt and Romy were arm in arm on the cobbled sidewalk ahead of me, laughing. The sky was cloudless and dusty black as an old road twinkling with crumbs of tire-crushed glass. Romy’s laughter seemed to echo off of it. I started laughing too. What had I been so mad at?

Slow down, I called to them. I looped an arm through Romy’s and she was between us. It was drizzling and the rain looked like glitter on Romy’s face.

Days went by and I didn’t see her, so when Kurt said, Let’s go visit Romy, I said yes.

We stopped by her flat and I listened to her records. We slow-danced to “Angie”. Later that night, Romy and I saw a Turkish girl run over by a car that was backing up at the gas station. We had planned to drive to Prague, but the accident shook us up. We drove around Berlin.

Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? Romy wanted to show me Berlin that night. It’s not the same city as in the day, she promised. Berlin is a night town. The streets and houses don’t look right in the sunlight. We had found another gas station to fill up at, and the tank full of petrol made us feel free. Where should we go? Driving around and around the city, Romy told me stories with her flute-like voice, and I was soothed. The last one I remember hearing was the best.

My mother and father ran a factory in East Germany. A worker there was a big-boned woman who could neither read nor write, and who had the unfortunate habit of stealing. She wasn’t a very good thief, and was always being caught by store detectives. Finally, she was summoned to court, but couldn’t even read her own mail. She only knew by the look of the document, stamped with various official seals, that it was important, and probably had to do with her shameful problems with the law. She brought the letter to my mother and asked her to read it to her, but she didn’t want my mother to know what the letter said. So in hopes of keeping the contents of the letter secret even to my mother who was reading it aloud to her, this woman clamped her hands over my mother’s ears while she was reading it.

That was a very funny story, but I just smiled at the end of it because I was so sleepy. I’m not sure which of the words I heard after that were the words of a dream, and which were spoken directly to me by Romy herself, and which were a mixture of both.

I opened my eyes, and she was steering the car with her left hand, and patting my cheek with her right. She said, Wake up, sleepy head. You snored through the whole trip. The sun was rising in a melon-colored puddle of sky in the mountains. We were slowing down to meet the drowsy guards at the Czech border.

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