Romy and I decided on impulse to make the four hour drive to Prague. The next thing we decided to do was load up on bottled water and chocolate for the trip but we also needed gas. I told Romy there’s an Aral station just up the street from where I’m staying at Kurt’s flat and she said I knew that, I was born here, you’re so funny, we’ll pick up your things at Kurt’s and drive to the Aral and then to Prague.
I met Romy through Kurt, who first hated her and then seemed to like her very much. I barely knew Romy but I liked her very much too. She’d been raised in East Germany. She was more natural than the West Germans I knew at the time.
Romy told me that I’d love Prague. The idea to go appeared to Romy at her place when we were in her living room with records. I hadn’t heard or seen a naked record in ten years. Romy had a great collection: Smokey Robinson, Charlie Christian, Roxy Music, The Slits. Kurt and I had stopped by and when Kurt had had to leave, for an appointment with his producers in Mitte, I stayed. I’d been acquainted with Romy for a week. I wondered if Kurt would mind.
After Kurt left, Romy was in her kitchen fixing me tea. She told me to put some music on.
I was very happy listening to those old records. I took the liberty of moving a chair to a square of sunlight. I sat in Romy’s room, the cracked leather chairs and vintage green and black Babelsberg movie posters, enjoying the restrained efficiency of Berlin’s sunshine and I wallowed in the indolent richness of the lost music. I began to forget to be too old to remember what it had been 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 said that I should close my eyes. I closed my eyes and I heard Angie by the Rolling Stones. When I opened my eyes Romy was gesturing that I must come to dance with her. Her hair veiled the expressive side of her face and hid the eye but her ears were red. We slow-danced to Angie. Romy laughed against my chest for no reason. Romy said this is like Prague.
That night, as we drove to the gas station, I asked Romy what she’d meant by saying that. I reminded her that when we were slow dancing, her quiet laughter against my chest, she’d said this is like Prague. What had she meant by it? Romy asked me if I was sure that she’d said that. She kissed the tip of her finger and touched my knee with it and told me to tell her something I shouldn’t.
What’s the worst thing I had done?
I told her about the time I had lived with a hairdresser who loved all Hollywood movies. Every Hollywood movie that came out, with great fanfare, that year, we saw. When she joked, my hairdresser girlfriend joked with jokes we had seen in these Hollywood movies. I began to like her most when she was half-asleep. When she was half-asleep was the only time I could bring myself to make love with her. I would begin the process under the sheets but withhold my orgasm until long after my Hollywood-loving girlfriend was wholly unconscious. I would check that my Hollywood-loving girlfriend was wholly unconscious, get dressed, sneak out the flat, creep down the back stairs and literally run five blocks up the alley to a woman I had known in college. We would make love for an hour but I would again withhold my orgasm, get dressed, run back home five blocks down the alley to gently rouse my Hollywood-loving girlfriend just enough to finish making love with her, finally ejaculating in her vagina. I told Romy those were the biggest orgasms I had ever had. I said I think these orgasms almost killed me. Romy drove in silence for a few minutes and said,
So give me your Hollywood-loving ex’s address. I will write her a long pen pal letter with good grammar confessing these juicy details. I will also tell her in the PS that we’re having a baby.
I laughed and said How?
Romy said I will show you later.
When we got to the Aral station it was chaos: every pump was occupied and long bending lines of honking cars had formed an octopus. The cars were very aggressive and twice some rude new car jumped ahead of us in line because we failed to move quickly enough to fill a space between ourselves and the pump. We were two cars from the pump when Romy looked over her shoulder and backed us out of the station. The car behind us did likewise. We hadn’t backed more than ten meters when we heard what at first seemed to be screams from a car of e-giddy teenagers but really it was a Turkish family howling in outrage and terror. Romy jumped out of her 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 behind us. The run-over girl’s family, two men and two women and another little girl, lost it. They had been screaming for the driver to stop as he rolled obliviously over the child’s legs. It was too dark and the little girl had been too short for the driver to see.
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. When the driver finally managed to leave the car, the Turkish man punched the driver and the driver was too paralyzed with guilt to retaliate. The other Turkish man was kicking dents in the passenger side of the car while the women wailed. The little girl remained where the car had left her, not dead but perhaps in shock. A Krankenwagen happened to be nearby when the screaming began and its beautiful blue lights flashed in their silence as the Krankenwagen attempted to negotiate a path across the crowded sidewalk toward the gas station. Driving away from the scene, Romy and I stared into the rearview and Romy said what a night.
Not one half of a mile from the Aral station, up Oranienstrasse, a Turkish family crossed the street in front of us, father first. The rearmost child in black pants and dark jacket fell on his belly as they crossed. Romy slammed on her breaks. We couldn’t stop laughing. I said I don’t think we should risk trying to go to Prague considering how things are going and I wiped tears from my eyes and Romy wiped tears from her eyes and said well, where shall we go?
Romy told me a story.
A friend of hers was driving through the mountains in Prague with his wife and five kids when the car made a bad move and flipped like a toy, bottom over top, down a steep hill into a gully of solid ice. Some of the kids were badly injured. The mother bellowed, at the top of her lungs, save me first.
I’d been introduced to Romy just a week before, a few days after returning to Berlin. Romy was a colleague of my 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 puzzle-piece-shaped thoughts that struck me. I thought of the women I knew back in the Southern California to where I had mistakenly fled from Berlin. They were always either working or shopping. They were living the so-called dream.
I spent a good part of that first meeting with Romy trying to decipher Kurt’s feelings towards her. I knew that Kurt had broken up with his Italian girlfriend who was a very successful and extremely untalented artist. Was he looking at Romy that way? Did Kurt have certain plans? I didn’t want to step on his toes. I reasoned that Kurt was first in line but when we all three went to a bar I was as witty and entertaining as I could possibly be, despite my ethics. I guess I only half-cared that Kurt was first in line. Romy was funny in response. I watched Kurt carefully. The ghost of The Wall was eleven years old.
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 her lips. She said 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 and Romy said no, it’s okay, now they have sex with their Televisions.
Kurt said Bojovat za novy zivot.
He toasted us and translated the Czech: 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 arched wall of sidewalk-level windows and packed at the facing bar across a narrow aisle, noticed us. I didn’t register their interest until Romy commented and nodded here and there at the evidence. Some did offer bemusement but quite a few were openly judgmental and I saw red. I thought: this is supposed to be a world capitol. The men were rotten-green with sexual envy, slit-eyed above bottomless wells of penny-colored beer. Their Otto Dix women aging defiantly before us.
Romy became lascivious to taunt the people. She draped herself across me and I fed her Maraschino cherries as she rested her scarlet boots in Kurt’s lap. I paid the bill and we left and I was seething. Kurt and Romy marched arm in arm on the cobbled walk ahead of me, laughing so loud and late as if they owned rifles, two drunkenly-conquering Soviet soldiers, the sky cloudless and dusty black, an old road glittered with tire-crushed glass and Romy’s laughter bounced off of it. I began to laugh, too. What had I been so mad at? Why did I care? Those people were all already dead now; mannequins in a hushed museum. I looped an arm through Romy’s and she was between us.
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, I listened to her records, we slow-danced to Angie and later saw the Turkish girl who was run over at the gas station. We had planned to drive to Prague. We drove around Berlin.
Where do you want to go? What do you want to see?
Romy wanted to show me things. We found another gas station and the full tank of petrol Romy purchased made us feel free. Romy said,
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 my mother 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 my mother was reading it.
That was very funny, it was like a movie or a professional joke but I just smiled as I listened because I was so sleepy. I was half-asleep. Then I was wholly unconscious.
When I opened my eyes, Romy was steering with her left hand and she patted my cheek with her right. She said, Wake up, sleepy head. You snored the whole trip.
Sun rose in melon-colored puddles over cinematic mountains. Romy slowed down to meet the drowsy Czech guards at the border.