One of those little pleasures your subconscious gifts you with, from time to time: the rolled-up bills in an overlooked pocket you rediscover a few years after. Or, in this case, a short story I’d forgotten about. A perfect recreation of my state of mind at the age of 35, teetering on the queasy cusp of no-longer-young. I wrote it in a raw, accurate rush about the New Year’s Eve of 1994-’95 on the Reeperbahn; a failed (unmentioned) romance with a Bulgarian actress, Anna S., from a famous family of actresses, foiled by gossip and a jealous friend. I got it all down and put it away, still tender to the touch, and finally wrote it up in 2002 or so, put it away again until posting it, on my first website of stories, in 2006. And promptly forgot it. Still too painful, probably. But what a pleasure, now, to find it again and remember how bleak I’d felt, ten years before meeting my second (final) Wife, eleven years before the birth of our Daughter. Fifteen years before I learned to write… which involved, of course, getting my sense of humor back…
He’d been meaning to start a notebook with all such examples but the resolve to do so faded every time. The same with the general notion of keeping a journal. In school he’d had friends who’d faithfully recorded their thoughts and experiences, inspired to do so by a certain charismatic English teacher. He could imagine these friends as responsible old women and men of the future, clear-eyed and crisply dressed, validated by framed children and grandchildren as they angled pens over diaries on rolltop desks, recording in a fine clean script another day in each orderly life. The steady accretion of meaning.
Every attempt he made at starting a journal devolved into parody and then boredom. He always found it impossible to pretend that what he was writing during these attempts was unselfconscious and private and for his or its own sake. He immediately pictured an audience and what he should and yet couldn’t reveal and whether the style was literary enough. He’d lost track of the number of nice little moleskin notebooks he’d bought, only to leave enigmatic markings on their first few pages and toss them in the trash with a sigh of relief. And yet the urge to write things down kept coming back, a compulsion that refused to cure itself.
His grandfather, as dead as the Mesopotamians now, had kept a journal. Hundreds of volumes were found boxed in the basement after his death. They were stacked like bricks behind old luggage and the rusted treasure of a 1930s Tyco electric train set, an epic of secrecy recorded in stingy, leftslanting code. Secrets so faithfully kept increase in profundity until the eventual deaths of all concerned devalue both the secrets and the effort of keeping them and render the keeper quaint or absurd. A figure of vain pathos. Even if he started keeping a record there were so many important events that had lingered in vain for so long before disappearing completely from his thoughts, erased by subsequent moments of greater intensity but far less meaning, usually to do with sex, the pursuit of which had occupied his twenties after an embarrassingly late start and precious little return on the investment, that to start now would only prove that his life was already largely forgotten.
Warned to get to the station early, he’d been up before dawn. Dressed in a strange cold room in fumbling darkness because he couldn’t find the switch. Borrowed flats were usually poor ones. Student housing or workspaces without bathtubs and in this case the only heat was supposed to have been provided by a coalburning stove he’d been afraid to meddle with. He could feel he could see his breath, moist as ectoplasm, dark as it was, dark as not being, or never having been or seen, as he blew on his hands as he polished the catechism of streets and corners and left and right turns in the path to the Altona station, the reverse sequence of the path to this flat inscribed on the envelope the key had come in. The envelope he’d carelessly tossed in the trash and which he had no intention of digging for. He got his clothes on and patted the floor around the mattress for any small possessions gone accidentally unpacked and found his passport.
The sound of the lock engaging as he shut the front door and the irreversible gesture of the key pushed back through the letter slot and the heft of a sack over his shoulder plus the rundown beauty of the hard blue sidestreets at dawn were the sensual pleasures of departure he always looked forward to. The selfpity he’d felt about having to wake in a strange cold flat before sunrise to make his train changed, quickly, as his head cleared, into a smug glee, the sense he was getting away with something he imagined having to do with disturbing the sleep of schoolkids with his bootsteps up the cobbled slope in a narrow pass between red brick buildings that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Chicago. The slot between the buildings like a flute and the rising birds the bubbles in it.
Booking a ticket the last minute for the New Year’s weekend had tripled the fare, straining his budget, which had kept him out of trouble in the end. His ears were still ringing from the witless fury of firecrackers on Saturday. The fucking things had bounced down the street and rained from apartments, the air a black sack of bright hot beads, the aggressive cheer of the Germans, their inherited urge to make war reduced to this loud slapstick with the meretricious beauty of pyrotechnics attached. So now it was Monday morning, day after the aftermath and his ears were still ringing. His boot heels loud on the cobbles. If as a child he’d have heard such bootsteps echoing outside his bedroom window at dawn on a school day he’d have dreamed a whole future of farflung adventures for the man in the boots, the sailor/troubadour/Christ figure of his childish imagination, but he himself was now this figure, or less.
When he boarded the train at Altona he found the carriage almost empty and the aisles still wet from a mopping. The vinegary disinfectant the Germans think smells fresh. He slid the compartment door open and saw that he had his compartment, which would normally seat four comfortably, entirely to himself, and the next thing he’d noticed was the weak oppression of a cheap perfume, the type with the faintest whiff of vulva about it, some working class teenager’s erotic Christmas gift. He saw the torn silver square of wrapping paper in the ashtray built into the window sill and he fingered it, imagining the smalleyed boy who’d hoped to receive pleasure in exchange for the offering. Feeling superior to this boy he’d dropped onto his seat and thanked his good luck in being alone. But now he thinks, staring at the Slav reflections on the window backed by rolling snowfields, that some version of this same thing keeps happening to him, over and over again and that it must be the fundamental scenario of not just his life but Life itself, this kind of twist, these mean little inversions of fortune, the mournful catchphrase about a thing being too good to have been true.
The first stop after Altona he’d held his breath. Few climbed on the train and all of those who had walked right by the sliding glass doors of his compartment. So far so good. Sigh of relief as the train edged out of that station. The morning was lowceilinged and it shredded into a flurry over the tops of the old stone buildings he rolled past and then the flurry thickened as the countryside opened its hollowed flank to the tracks, the deathly ice of bronchial trees in a hardcream field fanning out. The view from the train was splendid and evoked the euphoriainducing religions that predate all cities. He felt the euphoria himself, a feeling of pride towards existence and solidarity with the living world whether or not this world ever held him in its thoughts.
It was the fourth or fifth station, after twenty minutes of peace. Twenty minutes of the warm compartment and the clotting snow and old German lithograph view and him there drifting in his thoughts. It was then that his mood fell. As the train eased to a halt along a platform dark with the shifting jostle and rucksacks and hills of worn luggage several rows deep his thoughts all turned to shit. Lüneburg, the city near where they’d caught Himmler, he knew that for some reason, all those fucking people, the jig is up. He gathered his duffle bag and the book he’d unpacked from it and drew himself up. He’d seen many young hatless heads in the crowd and many blondes at that so there lingered a good chance that the bad fortune of being on a train that pulled up to such a crowded platform would turn into the good fortune of a female shape as foretold in all those wet sessions alone with his disgusted selves. Maybe even a pretty one, with English, but not so much she was haughty, quick to correct him. On her way home after New Year’s. He’d had Germans attempt to correct his grammar more than once and the next time it happened he’d be ready for it.
But there they were, not a pretty girl at all, at the sliding glass door of his compartment, the father fumbling with the mechanism of the handle as though he’d never been in the 20th century before, scowling, shaking his big mop of graystreaked hair and scratching at stubble with the air of a mountain village patriarch, disdainfully ignorant and tough as old roots. The headscarved woman in a shapeless bundle beside him and then somebody’s grandmother and the chronically ashamed teenage daughter behind them all, lugging the stunned baby like a depressing cold lunch.
He couldn’t possibly have managed to disguise the look of horror they must have seen through the door the moment before they and their sole possessions crowded into the compartment with him. They heaved a suitcasesized toaster oven on the space beside him and then a clanking box of kitchenware on top. They were still stacking shopping bags on the luggage rack overhead when two college-age girls appeared in the doorway of the compartment like the final torment, frowning at their tickets and then at the compartment number over the door and back at their tickets again. There was no doubt that they all would have gotten along wonderfully well together for the duration of the trip to Berlin.
‘I’m sorry,’ smiled the blonde, who was not sorry at all, in her ski pullover and tight jeans. She spoke in the formally condescending German she’d have used in a bakery. ‘I think there is somehow a mistake. Perhaps your tickets…’
The patriarch cut her off. ‘You want to complain? Go get the police,’ he said, without for a second even looking at her or otherwise interrupting his work. He and his headscarved wife were securing things in the overhead while the daughter and grandmother sat on opposite ends of the facing banquette. The baby could have been a doll, or dead, for as much as it moved or made noise in the girl’s lap. The blonde blinked a few times and said, ‘This is not very polite!’ and she and her darkhaired girlfriend marched off.
For a long time after their departure he nurtured the hope that the girls had gone to fetch a ticket collector or porter but he knew it was more likely that, being young, they were flexible enough to find other seats and still not well-formed enough to know how to handle a confrontation so ruefully he pictured them sitting with their arms around pulled-up knees on the black-hard carpet with the rest of the student overflow in the dining car or some lounge, joking about it with handsome boys. American girls, especially middle or upper-middle class, would have handled it as an affront to their human rights. Would indeed have gone to fetch someone in uniform, the driver of the train if necessary. This was one instance when he’d wished for Americans or even the old kind of German. But that last thought and its implications made him feel so guilty that he tried to catch either the grandmother’s or the teenage daughter’s eye to give them a reassuring smile as though it were in his power to give. But this didn’t happen. Not once in two hours of travel.
We hate because we are hated.
From right to left, reflected in the window, floating like slackjawed ghosts over snowscape, the teenager, patriarch, headscarved wife and old crone with sexy thick black hair in two plaits to her lap down her layered top. None of them had much to say and when they did speak in their coughing, swallowed language, whoever spoke would not look but continue to stare into the middle distance, just as whoever the remark had been aimed at would not so much as tilt a head or cock an eye to respond. Clearly, history was having its way with these people. He thought: that’s the mistake, the belief that it’s a constant roar of white noise that we’re all contributing to, all being affected by, all the time, forever. In fact, the sound of history being made is discrete, a sharp shock or a series. Gunfire, near or far. What was the suburban America of his and his parents’ youth but a safe haven from history? Where time is quiet. Mute.
Several times the patriarch leaned over him, so close that the heat from his lap was felt; actually seemed to brush his cheek; and he handed first tangerines, then later salami and later still crumbly bread and cheese for the headscarved woman to prepare in her lap, tossing it down without looking. Mundane circus trick. When she passed the lobed tangerines to the family she made a perfunctory gesture of old world manners across the compartment at him but he smiled and he shook his head no, the smile wasted because she picked up the ‘no’ with her peripheral vision, and that was the first and last effort to communicate between the two camps. The American and the refugees.
The first fifteen minutes of the journey after their appearance stretched to accommodate what seemed like a week’s worth of thoughts. Three days back. Wandering the cold, surprisingly empty lanes of The Reeperbahn, all alone, in the late afternoon of the last day of the year, the sky already black, he had felt as cut off from any sense of human purpose or belonging as he ever had in life. He remembered feeling dizzy from it, the sense that it didn’t matter in which direction he chose to walk or how fast or with what facial expression or whether he bothered to remain on the sidewalk or suddenly walked into traffic: it truly didn’t didn’t matter. A vertiginous feeling. He’d thought: I could scream obscenities, or gouge my own eye out. What is it that holds everything together? You could slash a hooker’s throat with a boxcutter or use the same tool to slice your own thing off instead. The sun wouldn’t fail to rise the next morning.
So this is what they call Nihilism.
The hamburger joint with an Indian motorcycle gleaming in the window felt like a lifesaver after that train of thought and he’d realized he was powerfully hungry and with just enough money in his pocket to splurge on a grotesque meal of warm American plastic he crossed the street and pushed the door open and kissed the prospect of a discount handjob goodbye. The global American hamburger joint that the Germans he knew jokingly referred to as the American consulate. The very thought that he’d been saving his Deutschmarks for a handjob made him smile faintly as he ordered and it hit him like effusive praise from a ghost how young he was because the schoolgirl taking his order was not even young enough to respect him. He took his tray to a table at the window near the Indian motorcycle and watched the occasional clump of tourists tromp by through ankledeep snow, drunk and with their collars clutched, bored already at the sight of towering hookers dressed for Las Vegas marching in the opposite direction towards whichever sidedoor with a gray rainbow of accreted pisstains on its low right corner or whatever angerfilled car idling at a curb. He’d thought: it’s true, I’m young, there’s still time. Staring out the window and chewing that slop.
He glanced across at the headscarved woman, her man, the grandmother. In aggregate emotional age one thousand years old. But surely that’s a thought that only the old have: I’m young. If not old in years then old in chances lost. The grandmother with her carved brown face… a face like something found in the grassless black circle under an apple tree. She’d done everything she was ever going to do and had the serenely blank expression of someone who wanted no more. She would go when they called her to, easily. Who is the better human? The one with so little potential who fulfills it completely or the one with so much potential he can’t possibly hope to match it with real deeds, real accomplishments?
He was hounded by unformed talents. By his so-called potential and there wasn’t a so-called great book or movie or masterpiece of music that didn’t fill him with contempt and the thought that he could have done it, he could have created that, he could even have done it better. Nothing was beyond his reach. One simply needs a method. A technique. He could mock himself, though: I have the soul of a famous artist. The world looked, when it bothered to at all, and saw only a young man standing impatiently in the space the famous writer/painter/musician/film director was meant to occupy. A kind of place-holder.
He didn’t even have a job: he had the money his grandfather had left him. An amount just small enough, or so his grandfather had believed, to force the young man to find honest work to augment the stipend. But his grandfather had had no idea how cheaply he could live, or that he’d choose to live even more cheaply in Europe. Worse: in Germany. Where they’d threaded two bullets through the old man (then young), two bullets from opposite directions, accounting for the frogged brown arm with which the grandchildren identified him like something out of a bedtime story calling him Hoppy behind his old back. Pap Hoppy. The frogged arm, Pap Hoppy had once confessed, (with his back turned) had undercut his confidence and caused him to marry the first plain girl who’d have him. Not the formula for a happy life but the inspiration for a richly secret existence as recorded with patient care in journals no one would ever be able to read.
This girl, what was she, seventeen? Not pretty but very skinny which was attractive in and of itself. Skinny but gracelessly present in the chest, a dark line tracing the lipstick of her thin, resentful lips and her blond hair showing roots. With as much access to television as any teen North of Sicily she might have passed for American minus the shrewd expression. Worrying the dull baby’s little white fingers like prayer beads. Was that her little brother or little sister lying insensate in her lap and how had the headscarved mother, as packed away as an inherited football in layers of patches and repair tape, ever managed enough nakedness to conceive it? It would have been accomplished with a defecatory grunt in a dim room with grandmother’s black eyes shining like Pan’s from the corner. Or maybe it was the girl’s baby. He exchanged a look or two with her but there wasn’t enough imagination on the whole train or even the world to finesse those disinterested glances into any kind of flirtation.
—Berlin January 1, 1995-November 10, 2006