Barry lectures: One out of every hundred people, or perhaps one out of every two hundred, harbors the seed of a cardinal talent. By cardinal talent meaning: the extraordinary ability to write or write music or paint or craft technical inventions (and nowadays to write code for software) and so on. But only a fraction of that fraction will have the strength or unstoppable compulsion to bring the talent to any useful level of fruition. Many of the talented will dabble, in school, at an age at which it’s safe to dabble, and then stop when society and hormones force them to move on into the ranks of the quotidianly functional (those who produce on the assembly line and/or make children in order to replenish the ranks of the assembly-line workers).
Very few of the potentially cardinally talented, already a small number, will become actively talented, the smallest number. Whereas people who are active shits number perhaps two out of seven? At best two out of ten, a number not so small and also guaranteed, unlike the picayune numbers of the cardinally talented, to swell as the shits who are children become adult shits.
Because society encourages shits.
Barry lectures: Society forces shits to multiply. The shits at the top require the support of the shits at the bottom: they wink at the little boy who tortures the frog and cheats at trivial games to win. They turn a blind eye to the slender girl who torments the fatty and/or cackles mercilessly at the poor boy with holes in his not-even-ever-fashionable shoes. They encourage the venal, smelly, success-abscessed businessman who brings nothing of value to this world but the huge debts he incurs, never intending to pay them off, and the lost years of the workers he humiliates in exchange for the virtual symbol of money they can never own. The shits at the top encourage the teen shit who is nothing but a sex doll to become an alcoholic wife who is nothing but a consumer.
He lectures: Of those who are neither shits nor cardinal talents (regarding talents who are also shits we will speak later), perhaps three out of five are hapless, floating, not-all-there, killing time in a long loud haze before the end puts them out of their misery. They are put out of this misery with an intense coda of physical pain and bewildered, obscenely resentful, wretchedness. The hapless often hasten the end with booze, drugs, cigarettes, the over-consumption of shitty foods (marketed by amoral shits) and so on. They are the first of the elderly to reek obliviously of piss. They are driven neither to activate a cardinal talent nor pursue the destructive obsessions of the shits, they are simply here (or there), but without the grace of animals, who are there (or here) with horripilating intensity, relying on thoughtless reflexes to survive in a hostile world.
The clubs were so smoky, in those days, it required a certain amount of physical discipline to enter them, cheap as the cover charges were. The smoke was unbearable. There were tongue-like flames in her eyes like the tongues of poisonous frogs.
“It can’t be bad as all that!” he shouted.
Her eyes were pushed into the jumpered crook of her right elbow. She laughed; only her big red lips and tiny white teeth were visible. Her hair ran in an invisible black rope down her slender back.
“I’m Stef!” he shouted.
“The thing is,” he said, in a softly seductive (fluent, unbothered) tone, over a large orange juice in the cafe around the corner, “Americans who come here to escape boredom don’t understand that this place is the capital city of boredom. People who dance in a club from three a.m. until noon, they are bored, just like people who paint on the city walls or who do performance art totally naked with wild dogs or like the people who march in thirty meaningless protests a year. It’s all because of boredom.”
What she liked about Stefan was his refusal to qualify his opinions with the wish-washy “in my opinion” curse of her generation. She also liked that he was half-German, which was infinitely more exotic than just plain German, or just plain American, to her. He was a first.
When he switched (or lapsed) into speaking German, ordering in a cafe or telling a beggar off, his face changed completely. It was only during this change that he became handsome to her. It didn’t matter to her that she didn’t understand a word of what he was saying during the transformation. Within an hour of first meeting her in the club, as he paid for their coffee (milchkaffee) and large orange juice, he joked, right in front of the counter girl,
“I got the worst of both worlds: American lack of self-consciousness and a German dick size.”
Not two hours later he was demanding that she choke him harder as he went down on her.
He began coughing and gagging and gasping for breath as he licked. Her resultant orgasm was vast and Stefan’s curly head between her legs looked like a swollen, cartoonish version of her own unruly bush, a reminder to wax, and so she laughed immediately after coming. She laughed uncontrollably, her hands gripping fistfuls of Stefan’s hair without thinking; he didn’t laugh when she finally explained herself. He lit a cigarette and stared at her calmly through his smoke. Analytically. At least he didn’t accuse her of racism. Her ponytail was draped over the headboard like a whip.
“Just wait until you’ve been here for six months,” said Stefan, oracularly.
When her phone got stolen she used it as an excuse to break all contact with family.
Because eventually, her mother, who had warned her against coming to Berlin during the second Gulf War, would ask her if she’d met anyone yet, the truthful answer to which her mother would not be thrilled to hear. You went to Germany to have sex with colored people? This makes sense? She could imagine her mother’s voice with spine-tingling clarity. Her mother’s voice and eyebrows. The near-hysterical attempt to sound unflustered about it; to sound worldly, knowing. It’s none of my business, it’s your life, live and let live, who cares in this day and age? I have my own problems to worry about. But you know your grandmother…
Who had her mother expected that she had come to Germany to sleep with? Aryans?
The answer to this question was not expressible in a verbal language; it was a sly tingle somewhere; an evil tingle in somebody else’s jezebel loins. She’d seen it more than once and in almost all of her friends. All these college-educated Jews flocking to Berlin to see how many Germans they might trick into liking them.
“That’s not what it is,” said her hapless friend Barry.
They were drifting along between two couch-sized slabs of concrete on the unofficially-named Jewish Memorial, working, at tellingly different rates, on bubblegum-blue scoops of ice cream set precariously in stale dark cones. Cones so stale they were chewy.
“What is it, then?”
“The safest thrill going? Bungee jumping is way too risky. But, hey, you can walk down a street where your nana lived as a little girl when they were rounding the Yids up. A paltry seventy years between you and certain death.”
“I don’t buy it.”
“Nobody’s asking you to.”
Barry was leaning against one of the higher memorial slabs which were fixed in a grid-like maze of such slabs, or stelae, the individual heights of which varied according to the artist’s algorithmic metaphor. The official title of the piece was Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas… Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A bit on-the-nose. She’d innocently unpacked a small picnic of cold fishsticks on a red napkin on one of these stelae the opening day of the memorial and a guard (or just some officious-looking citizen-snooper in a gray jacket and a walkie-talkie), with a widow’s peak, had swooped out of nowhere, to admonish her in retarded English and gestures. Without a word, she’d got her passport out and showed him her credentials, like an FBI agent. The scold then fucked off, without a word (a click of the heels would have been nice), in turn. She could see how power went to some people’s heads. As for these concrete slabs: how could you take them seriously?
“When I was a kid,” said Barry, with his wannabe-blue tongue, “I wanted to be a Himalayan Explorer. Which, like, that’s standard, all kids want to be some iconically preposterous thing like Himalayan Explorer or bush doctor or trapeze artist or spy, right? But here’s the thing: some people really become those things. So what’s the difference between the kids who actually grow up to become those things and the ones who don’t? Imperturbability? Monomaniacality? Kismet? Connections? What?”
Barry was the first expat she’d met in Berlin and he now radiated classical signals, on the visible spectrum, that he was hurt by the fact that she’d skipped right over him to sleep with Stefan instead, among them being: a dark view of the world he pretended that he’d always had plus a tendency toward exaggerated commentary regarding the allure of female passersby plus a tendency to shower her with left-handed compliments about whatever she felt wasn’t particularly attractive about her at any given time, specifically her not-long hair and her not-small nose. She’d chopped off her bleached locks at the limits of their four-inch roots before leaving for Europe.
Barry’s captivity in her hapless male gulag of neutered acquaintances was the never-healing, unspoken wound of their acquaintanceship and it was exacerbated (re-gouged daily) by the fact that everyone else skipped Barry, too. She’d been in the city now long enough to speak rudimentary German and socialize with other recent arrivals who each, also, derived a few watts of psychic energy per month from Barry’s dull agony over the fact that they were neither sleeping with Barry nor toying with the idea of it. Even the chubby ones.
The way he was eating that cone, for example.
As though eating the cone was the actual point of buying a cone when, in fact, cone-eating, in the presence of a friend, is merely contingent on the main event of the friend’s presence. What kind of adult went out with the sole purpose of buying an ice cream cone, alone, in mind? Or ate one like that in front of her? She had to fight a perverse impulse to give Barry hers to finish. Instead she stowed it discreetly and largely uneaten at the base of the nearest of the stelae, where it leaked a puddle of blue like alien blood, wondering if that particular slab was meant to symbolize a specific Jew. Why stelae? Why not parking meters? Or teeth? A field of teeth, one had to tiptoe around, instead.
She thought, Barry is the Jew who reminds other Jews that all that business about Jews being smarter is nonsense. Barry is the Jewish conscience: we may fool the Goys but Barry won’t let us fool ourselves. Barry with his mild belly and curly red hair and the bizarre affectation of a crude leather personalized biker’s wallet on a chain, protruding from his back pocket. She’d winced when he’d fished the fat wallet out of his back pocket to pay for the cones.
“What are you thinking right now?” asked Barry, as he popped the Narnian spire of the cone’s very tip in his mouth.
In truth, she hadn’t come to Berlin to sleep with anyone.
Her secret of secrets was that she’d come to Berlin to write.
She often longed with dull agony to have been born in an era in which proclaiming that one had come to Berlin, or to any city, to write, didn’t sound so ridiculous that anyone hearing such a thing would be obliged to stifle a knowing guffaw.
She showed Barry a few short stories the first week he knew her, the two having met at a reading at an English Language Book Shop, near Checkpoint Charlie, on May Day, knowing that Barry’s critique would be softened, at the very least, by the fact that he hadn’t yet figured out that she’d rather sleep with anybody in the city but him and, moreover, his critique would very probably tend to be so hyperbolically laudatory as to keep her going, in the bubble of her vacillating sense of a vocation, for weeks. Unless he was the type who flirted by being dismissive or brutally critical but she knew he wasn’t.
To hedge her bets she made a wisecrack about how she’d stopped taking the pill after reading an article about declining motility, in European sperm samples, before handing Barry the very short stories, typed on her father’s firm’s stationery, right out of her purse. Barry read them, lips mobile, in the loud bar to which they’d retreated after the reading, hands on his brow. Thence to the smoke-thick club Barry would witness Stefan pick her up from. Barry would soon be wondering, with a spiritual groan of self-loathing: why didn’t I tell her the stories were brilliant?
It was all related. Barry said,
“It’s obvious you have talent. But it’s also obvious that you need to have a few life experiences before you have anything interesting to say. And I don’t mean getting pregnant.”
She thought fuck you with ants before his second sentence was complete.
With a flash of pleasure she imagined pithing him.
But she also thought: goddammit.
When she got pregnant with Stefan, Barry was the first to know.
It was late autumn and what appeared to be confluent hordes of school kids separated, in age, by two or three grades and dressed in cute little, mournfully-dark scarves and caps and jackets were running and squealing and hiding between the stelae of the Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas while Barry tracked their collectively unregulated joy rather than face her. He imagined each little face as a crispy autumn leaf. He sneered, in the direction of the kids, as if they were confirmation of a bitter prediction he’d made, and said,
“You flew all the way to Europe just to get yourself knocked up by a guy you wouldn’t have looked twice at in The States?”
What really stung was that Barry, by now unfucked by dozens of fresh arrivals to the city, in overlapping waves, had obviously clung to her, her, as his last chance and only hope of seeing action before he was recalled ignominiously to Akron . That’s how low he had placed her on the totem all along and now it was revealed. Barry had thought: if she doesn’t, who will?
She was furious.
“How do you know who I would have looked twice at in the States? Maybe I eyeballed mulattoes day in day out, for all you know? Do you even know what city I was born in? What my middle name is, even? What’s my favorite color? Who’s my favorite Beatle? Who are you? Do you think I’m stupid enough to think that’s your real name? I’ve never even seen your flat! Are you homeless?”
That night she went over the various movements of the argument (as it had ebbed and cooled and reheated and flowed and cooled and finally exploded in a shouting match of insults neither party could ever hope to rescind; toxic, in other words, with unvarnished truth), with what felt like cinematic recall, while strangling Stefan. Which meant, consequently, that it took her much longer than usual to climax. When Stefan stopped licking or moving she was beyond noticing, lost in the depths of recalling Barry’s facial expression, of excretory ecstasy, in calling her a shit.