HELENS of TROY: a Short Story/ an Attack on Nationalist Sports and Athletes/ a Confession

helens of troy

Berlin’s normally rainy early summer has produced a drought, blowing a gritty breeze that powders the sweat before it beads. It vexes the eye with particles sluiced in camel-colored veils trailing from building sites where the progress is slow on a Mediterranean level. I sat down to a plate of very good falafel and watched a sirocco rise up like a Jinn from a dumpster under a scaffold up the street and it swept over me before I could leg it indoors. Minus the eye-irritants the breeze is quite pleasant in the evening.

It’s a very light late-suppertime and the EM, or europäischer Meisterschaft, has crammed the tables of the outdoor cafes with men and their girlfriends watching sidewalked widescreen televisions. The televisions make a spectacle of the spectacle of uniformed stags at play on green fields against the vast curtain of the local twilight, which is the color of a vintage picture tube in a dark room a millisecond after the picture tube’s been shut off. The fields on the widescreens are greener than anything in the neighborhood. Or the city. Except other screens.

The widescreens have given public space the unusual feeling of a public space. Strangers on benches at long tables are groaning and cheering together while flirting in open harmlessness with each others’ Helens of Troy, leering in jest. The females are dressed to compete with the athletes and seemed to have forgotten the fact that they’re the traditional spoils of symbolic Byzantine war. The better looking girlfriends belong to the more brutal of the fans and will be obliged to fuck when they go home after the game, whatever the game’s results. A friend once claimed you can tell the civilized nations from the barbaric ones by their respective responses to winning or losing an important soccer match: the civilized fans loot and riot after a loss and the barbaric ones do so after winning. A similar dichotomy will determine the tone of post-match fucking. Which of the trophy girlfriends dread a win, and which a loss?

Tinny echoes of fascist rallies pour out into the night as though channeled by spiritualist mediums wherever I walk. I’ve never before made a conscious association between spiritualist mediums and modern media, bridging the gap between the 1930s and the 21st century. We can use our televisions to visit the dead; the dead in their aquarium. I’m looking for an outdoor café that doesn’t feature a widescreen television. I’m not hungry enough to forgo the elitist pleasure of this prejudice.

The EM explains the German flags everywhere, little ones sticking from cars and big ones sticking from windows, although Germany isn’t in the game this evening. I see Turkish flags, too, because Turkey is in the game. The flags are national erections. Orientals, Aryans and Africans all compete. America’s team ineptitude is an insulting testament to the game’s unimportance; i.e., cavort in your short pants while we determine the fate of the planet. No one voices this observation.

A few years ago, a German businessman stabbed his wife for pulling the plug on his widescreen the moment before a tournament-winning goal and received a light sentence. There was the wag who cast soccer balls in concrete and skillfully painted the products and placed them around town during the tournament fever of that same year, breaking many feet. The sexual itch of a soccer ball just begging to be kicked.

I think of Samuel Beckett, at the end of his life, watching televised soccer as a kind of bitter confession of the hopelessness of higher intelligence: to know and know of so many things, with no power to change them. To have so many memories, with no power to return to the past.

Practitioners of soccer, like those of sex, can achieve an impressive mastery which is nowhere else applicable.


It’s not difficult to draw comparisons between a soccer match and the traditional literary narrative, or to find echoes of my disdain for the one in my boredom with the other. Victory in a soccer match has its equivalent in the moral outcome of a traditional literary narrative, for example. The soccer ball is either roughly analogous to the reader’s consciousness or the mutable gestalt of the protagonist’s dreams and sensibilities, buffeted by the plot. Or the ball is even, perhaps, the author’s soul.

Why only one ball? Why only two teams? Why the boring rigidity of the diagrammed field, the player costumes, the segregated spectators and simplistic goal positions? Why aren’t players allowed to defect from one team to another mid-play, or import useful non-standard paraphernalia onto the field, or defecate/urinate/ejaculate on the pitch in an expression of extreme displeasure or animal exuberance or for purely tactical reasons? Why no trench-digging, pyre-building, or half-time stonings?  Why no choreographed funerals?

Spare a thought for fiction that evokes the hexagonal soccer pitch, a goal placed at every of the six sides, with three teams and three balls and six referees on horseback, three of the horses being mares in deep heat and the others stallions and the game frequently interrupted by violently elemental couplings ripping up the pitch.


The penis is a symbol and a tool. The penis is a symbol of tools. It is the effigy of man, and in the fullness of its dance, from latency to tumescence to discharge to quiescence, it recapitulates the poignancy of man’s determined arc. The spent penis alone in the vagina’s chamber is but man in his grave. The penis at daybreak is but crowless cock. You respect these old fashioned idioms. Penis jester troll god. Where others see the empire state building, or pencils, rockets, eels, swords, Buicks, spindles, wieners, thermos jugs, snakes, worms, derricks, trees, mushrooms, church spires, trombones, syringes, fingers, tongues, decanters, snails, submarines, cucumbers, neckties, female torsos, bell towers, pistols, barracudas, paramecia, daggers, telescopes, salamanders, walking sticks, chainsaws, carrots, thermometers, dolphins and blimps… the athlete sees penis. The athlete sees cock.

—The athlete at five years old: big soft mommy and funny-smell-lady are laughing (the athlete learns that he isn’t just a human with thoughts and feelings but an object with attributes).

—The athlete at seventeen years old: his asthmatic easy-lay is laughing (the athlete learns that his attributes aren’t constant).

—The athlete at eighty: Samuel Beckett.


I find an outdoor café with a decent menu and no widescreen television. There’s only one other customer, four tables distant, facing the dark end of this tree-lined sidestreet on Savignyplatz behind me. A woman.


“I may look German but I am so not,” says the woman, Californially, as the waiter hands her her second or third or fourth drink. She smiles while reaching for the quantum image of the wine. I don’t think she looks German at all; she is, in my book of prejudices, the second wife of a corporate American who’s been exiled to Old Europe. The egalitarian t-shirt and the woundingly-expensive Jackie O sunglasses mounted in the burnished crop of her dye-job like a tiara. “Not a football fan?”

“Hardly. Football’s sworn nemesis,” I joke, and we lift our respective glasses in a long-distance toast to a coincidentally-timed, ambient roar of jubilation that pours down the street and out of the windows of the genteel flats above us. I get up and move with stalking stealth to the table nearest her. A whiff of vulva to her perfume.

“Are you Gay?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Well, there’s Gay and then there’s Gay.”

“DNA Gay versus the Gay of convenience.”

“Boom. I basically found all this amazing porno on my ex-husband’s Mac one day and it hit me like a ton of bricks all the amazing stuff he’d been missing. I actually felt guilty for cheating the guy out of all that creative fun for so many years. You know? They do things I normally assumed was physically impossible and they consider it whitebread. Talk about out of the loop! We’re really good friends now,” she laughs, “but it kinda bugs me that his boyfriend is younger than mine. Younger and cuter. If you were Gay we’d end up being the best of friends. You’d call me up all giddy and breathless every time you thought you’d met Mister Right and six months later I’d be the shoulder you blubbered on when it all goes terribly wrong. I tried to get a personalized license plate called Fag Hag 27 but they wouldn’t let me. They say it’s a free country but what do I know. It’s free if you’re willing to pay for it, right? Except I was willing to pay for it and I still couldn’t have it.”

“Story of your life.” I toast her again. Again comes the coincidental jubilation.

“If this were a movie I’d come on to you rather drunkenly about now, wouldn’t I?” She toasts me back and bisects her grin with the sharp lip of her wineglass. She extracts her smile from the glass with careful regret and aims it at me. “But it isn’t so I won’t. Not that you care. I’m still not convinced that you’re not Gay, buddy. What brings you to the Fatherland, anyway? And do not say the weather,” she pouts.

An hour later I’m guiding her to her flat like a spotter alongside a very low tightrope. Twice she falls, floppily bosomy and loud. The second time she scratches her hand and an orange knuckle bleeds but she doesn’t care to notice. I surprise myself by fearing the blood. I lift her limp hand to her hair and wipe the red beads with it.

Patiently fingernailing the double-knot-collapsed-into-a-recalcitrant-single-knot in the shoelace of her second trainer, I realize I’ll never be able to get hard enough to fuck her, so I decide to talk instead, leaving the trainer where it is, dangling from the edge of her double bed. Her sunglasses are still, miraculously, in place on her blurring head. I extract, from the breast pocket of my blazer, a folded print-out of a story I’ve been working on for months. Before I can pretend to solicit feedback and read her an excerpt, she’s snoring, a fish-mouthed snore like a boy’s impression of half a stadium’s distant ecstasy at the tie-breaking goal. I steady myself on one knee on the mattress and ejaculate in three thick beams against her widescreen sunglasses.

Where are the coincidental jubilations when we need them most?

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR [letters are vetted for cogency and style]

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