EXCERPTS FROM “THE VELVETEEN GULAG” [a memoir]: CHAPTER 42:STOCKHOLM SYNDROME

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This is an autobiographical narrative about the ecstasies of escape.

There are probably very fine filaments, in all of us,  of vestigial hardwires reaching back to the pre-mammalian times during which escape was a life-and-death matter: that may be part of it. Not to mention the slavery in some of my genealogical background. The yearning for, and/or joy in, escape. It’s a thing and it’s separable from the generally pleasant sensation of “freedom”. The moment of escape is an extremely particular and intense sensation. And, sure, any armchair psychoanalyst would say that I deliberately (subconsciously) got myself entangled with difficult or unbearable women in order to justify escaping them, sooner or later (a practise not unlike the kindergartener’s craft of smearing one’s palm with Elmer’s in order to let it dry and enjoy peeling it off,  like lizard skin), and maybe there’s some truth in that, along with the high probability that a writer often finds her or his self getting into avoidable trouble in order to write about it.

Mostly, I think, it’s a simpler explanation:  beautiful women are a wee bit nuts. Feel free to cancel me. But it’s the Truth as I have experienced it.  Most beautiful women are a wee bit nuts in a way peculiar to beautiful women, who can be both drunk with (local) power and scarred by the disproportionate volume and intensity of the world’s attention. Beautiful women certainly got my disproportionate (but polite) volume and intensity of attention but I was also disproportionately successful when it came to enjoying their reciprocal attention. For I did not fear them. I approached without trepidation. I learned fearless foolishness at an early age. Only recently, in fact, I charged a ferociously barking, good-sized dog who was rather surprised that I charged him while he was attempting to be a menace;  he scampered over a five-foot high fence to escape me.  Imagine how relieved he was when he put that fence between us. But, back to Boys and Girls: I’m afraid it’s probably no longer true that all any guy would need, in order to initiate contact with a beautiful woman, is sheer nerve, or nerve and charm and talent. I seem to be getting news that those doors have been slammed and some kind of  (socially engineered) Ice Age is commencing for non-billionaire males. My compassion goes out to the Young in this catastrophically-mediated Existence. The timing of my birth, century-wise,  was sheer luck.

My Beloved Wife (my second and last) is beautiful and, yes, she was a wee bit nuts when we met. Love and frank communication and family life, for nearly twenty years, has cured both of us of all kinds of quirky problems. But before the cure of my second marriage there was the ordeal of the first.

First wife was about 50 kilowatts more than a wee bit nuts but the level of nuttiness did not unfold and flower, fully, until we left Berlin, where we’d been living together, for the two years before we left, for Southern California. We’d both known lots of people, in Berlin, and had other lovers, in parallel, in Berlin, and moving to a far-away place where I knew only one soul (college friend) and she knew exactly nobody, cast our differences, and our vertiginously un-matched levels of psychic stability, into strong relief. I had been attracted to her beauty (tall, thin, elegant, fine-featured, she modeled on the side) and her dry, edgy wit (she could out-sneer Marlene Dietrich) and her apparently refined interest in Kultcha (she was an opera fanatic with a collection of thousands of Opera and Classical CDs).

When we met (in a night club) she was living on Wilhelm Strasse in the coolest flat I’d ever seen: a large almost industrial concrete space with a thirty-five-foot ceiling and a back wall of so blankly titanic that she and her roommate often rented it out to a film society showing works by Fassbinder and Farocki. She’d blast her opera CDs in this titanic space and pad around naked, when her art school room mate wasn’t home, like a Wagnerian shepherdess.  But the Opera-loving was more of an artifact of her snobbery than any sensitivity to the aesthetics of composition or performance. So when we moved to Southern California, and I got a job as a house-painter and she got a job as a maitre d‘ in a high-end restaurant for mega-snobs (each of us earning the same amount of money, though my hours were much longer) and I’d come home, late in the day, a throbbing sack of  raw, turpentine-scented muscle… the fuse was lit.

first wfe
first wife (photographed in Berlin the year we met)

As a backdrop to all this, in that America, the cleverly evil Clinton Hydra was soon to be replaced by the evil and idiotic Dubya; as the millennial election approached, I loudly (in all caps) announced to everyone I knew that I’d leave the country if Dubya were elected. In any case I already had a plan of escape and had been squirrelling the money away for most of 1999. I was going to escape back to Europe (to where I had once escaped in 1990) but I didn’t want to return to the arms of any of my exes. I don’t remember if I used a dating site or met her on an online forum of some kind, but I had started corresponding with a beautiful Swede….

I escaped to Sweden early in the year 2000, finding myself in an elevator at the connecting airport of Frankfurt, an elevator full of travelers, with CNN on a screen on the elevator wall, a screen showing Dubya’s inauguration. I turned to face the crowded elevator and said, loudly, “Sorry!” and everybody laughed. I had escaped my nutty first wife and America (again): I had escaped all manner of jaws. Bliss.

Stockholm Syndrome is defined as “a condition in which hostages develop a psychological bond with their captors during captivity”  but I think in a more interesting and more useful exploration of the term, the accepted definition is a mere corollary to what should be the main definition, in which, I feel, “One’s rescuers become one’s captors,” to put it as sleekly as possible. If you think about it a bit, it applies to much of Life.

I found the following  in a journal rom that year;  it starts by describing my escape not from the So Cal but from Sweden.

JULY 22, 2000

Crossing the Baltic in a train was a thrill. The train, an old Czech monster, was loaded into the belly of the ferry at the port in Malmo late in the evening. I watched the loading with my head stuck out of a window in the sleeper car’s corridor. Flags were snapping and rippling from various masts and flagpoles that towered and teetered around the port. Stadium lights glared. We rolled on groaning wheels into the ferry.

I stood in the corridor and watched the procedure like a kid on his first train trip. I hadn’t expected this at all. I expected a bridge or a tunnel. But this: a train in a ferry? I was too surprised to be afraid. I didn’t think once of all the ferry sinkings I’d read about, or seen on World News. I just stood there in the narrow corridor with my head out the window, feeling free and alive for the first time in weeks.

My compartment mate was out in the corridor with me. He was tall and thin, with the close-set eyes and beaky nose of a 40’s-era aristocrat; his mustache added to this impression; but there was something politely downtrodden, or washed-out, about him, that reeked of East German flat-bloc dweller. We communicated in a chunky goulash of English and German that suited the circumstances. We both used both languages. We never exchanged names, but made pleasant chit chat in a comradely fashion. He resembled the English actor Ralph Fiennes.

Our little sleeper compartment, equipped with dingy beds no longer than children, and with no efficient way for me to climb into my bunk without stepping on his, was a challenge that we faced together in good spirits. There was a tiny writing desk beside the curtained window that opened to reveal a sink (along with a stern warning in five non-English languages to avoid drinking the recycled water ).

We stuck our heads out of the corridor window and breathed the eggy air of the Baltic, and I whispered a goodbye to Sweden, and a goodbye as well to the affair that had ruined the city for me. I purged my mind of the only Swedish I’d bothered to learn (“Jag pratar inte Svenska,” I don’t speak Swedish) and we rolled into the belly of the ferry and were swallowed by it, and its metallic groans and echoes, and the bluish odor of diesel fuel, and I was glad.

It was a good crisp night. I had been sweltering from Stockholm until Malmo, stuck in a sun-baked wagon with sixty other passengers and no air conditioning. I was relieved to change at Malmo, despite the burden of having to heave my large trunk off one train, and across the station, and onto the next. I left behind a Dane I’d been flirting with; a tall, young, bespectacled librarian with a razor-sharp wheat-blonde bob and a pretty face that surprised me with the flattest profile I’d ever seen on a European. From the side she looked like a flaxen-haired Chinese giant. Quite beautiful.

We got off the train together and made our idle chatter, which shaded quickly into flirtatious adieus, when I was suddenly seized by an uncool panic because we were a hundred meters from the train and it dawned on me that I’d left my ticket on it. I stuck her there guarding my trunk while I dashed back through the crowd along the platform towards wagon number 2, seat number 17, which killed that fledgling romance.

I was huffing and puffing when I made it back to her and we finally shook hands (tersely?) goodbye; I think she may even have been pissed. It’s hard to tell with Northern Europeans. Romance, anyway, in most instances, is as reliable as a glass staircase. I have her number, if I ever get curious.

But then I felt fine, as I made my connection and rolled out of Malmo while hefting my trunk onto an overhead rack with help from Ralph Fiennes. I was now on a Czech-made renovated German-owned Mitropa train, able to speak the language of the conductor and my compartment mate. I was much more comfortable. I had stopped sweating and stinking of it. I felt more in control of my destiny and the night was crisp and clear and lit like a casino. We rolled into the ferry and could see only the industrial paint job of the belly of the ship, and the rivets in its seams, and stenciled specs and warnings.

I withdrew my head to avoid having it thunked by a girder we inched by and I ducked back into the sleeping compartment to have a look at a brochure that had been placed on the little desk by the window. It was a menu, and I briefly considered spending Dm 7.90 on Sechs Nürnberger Rostbratwürstchen (mit Antioxidationsmittel und Geschmackverstärker) but thought better of it. I got out my notebook and re-wrote the following entry, from scribbled notes:

JUNE 26

The air outside this cafe, which is a handful of stair steps down from street level (it’s like taking tea in a womb), is gray-green with the imminent force of a steaming summer deluge. The thunder is ready to bang like city-sized trash lids and cars are rushing by in the twinkling air, people darting for doorways.

I had been walking briskly along Kungsholmstrand, meaning to have a long walk today. Little boats were bobbing and knocking together like hollow skulls in the greenish water. I was thinking how lovely it all was. Those quaint old red-brick buildings, with black roofs and piping, lining the opposite bank and the relatively sweet air and the innocently dour Swedes crunching along the gravel bank in a trickle towards me. But I saw the blackness coming up out of the east like a magician’s cape and I knew rain would come exploding from under it and scurried back up towards a main thoroughfare and found this café.

A girl is singing along to the radio music coming over the café speakers. With her frail, shaky, touchingly unconfident voice. The song is in English, and she’s glancing intermittently at me, having pegged me as American, and I have to smile.

******* (end of journal entry)

No mention, in that journal entry, of the terrible time with the extremely beautiful neurotic I had been staying with in Stockholm.

She kept all the windows closed, despite the hot summer, claiming asthma. I’d go into another room in her little flat to get something out of my suitcase and when I’d return she’d ask, no joke intended, “Did you miss me?” and act hurt if I laughed or said no. Every morning, her mother called to make sure she wasn’t late for her job at the family business and every morning she’d crawl back in bed until her mother called again, and again, it was a three-hour process and the supposedly-humorous melody on her goddamn phone was a very loud version of the William Tell Overture. I was hot and nervous suffering from a lack of sleep and worried because she very cleverly “borrowed” most of my money on the day I came to Stockholm to visit her. I was her prisoner for six weeks.

I was so scared of getting her pregnant that I secretly masturbated in the bathtub, sometimes twice a day, so I wouldn’t be tempted: I claimed I was too hot to fuck. But she was good-natured and highly intelligent and beautiful and nearly crippled with neurosis. What an amazing face she had and thick brown hair. What a hypochondriac. I suppose her mother fucked her up. She claimed that the orgasm she had when I went down on her the first night was her first.

Interesting sociological observation:  all national cultures are different in commonly-understood and obvious ways but you have to travel, and enter these places physically, to discover idiosyncratic differences that you will remember long after leaving. For example, my first week in London, in 1990, I was walking past a restaurant, feeling peckish, when I saw a sign advertizing “Two Egg Rolls 99p!” Ordered said “egg rolls” with salivating anticipation and rather than getting the deep-fried wrappers stuffed with savory vegetables and chicken or pork bits… I was handed a plate with two eggs and a roll. In Sweden I found something out of a Bond film when my temporary girlfriend asked me to take the freshly-done and sopping laundry into the “dryer”.  I assumed the odd-sounding sentence was a translation matter. Downstairs I dutifully went. Found myself in a long room strung with a dozen room-length close lines. The walls were mounted with large heating elements.

We’d be in bed at ten or whatever watching ER in English, the midnight sun blaring through the curtains and when she’d nod off I’d very discreetly switch channels to the amazing hardcore-ish Swedish porn. I wonder, in retrospect, if hardcore-ish Swedish porn on network television not every terribly late at night wasn’t some kind of psycho-social experiment of the CIA. My predicament was quite erotic in a modern way: I’d spend the day resisting a beautiful Swedish girl’s entreaties to fuck (I was certain she planned on getting pregnant), would go to bed with her at ten pm, watching normal TV,  and as soon as this sexually willing woman would finally doze off, I’d subtly tap the clicker to change the channel and masturbate to pizza-deliveryman-porn in Swedish. I could easily have been that pizza-delivery-man and she could easily have been all three of his clients.

Once I found myself wandering Stockholm alone (the first two weeks she wouldn’t give me a key, fearing I’d run off with another girl if I were free to roam) and I happened, through a clearing, into a little outdoor jazz concert with amphitheater seating. There were perhaps three hundred members of the audience, most were fair-haired and not a single person there (not even among the musicians) was brown, as I am. I traced my trajectory to that eerie (HG Wells-like) point: I’d escaped the Chicago Ghetto in 1973 to live with my father in a middle class white neighborhood in Vegas. I’d escaped Vegas (and father) to attend a venerable college prep school in Philly. I’d escaped Philly for college in the Upper Midwest. I’d escaped college for Bohemian Life in Minneapolis in 1980. I’d escaped Minneapolis in 1990 for London. I’d escaped London for Berlin. I’d escaped Berlin for Southern California. I’d escaped Southern California for Stockholm in the year 2000…

… I was standing on that hillside staring down into a blindingly white audience of undemonstrative Scandinavians, none of whom had ever known me or anyone else I had ever known. A panic ripped through me. I made my way back to… let’s call her Liv... Liv’s flat. I sat myself upon the plaid couch in Liv’s stuffy little living room and that was the moment she happened to come out of her bathroom naked, drying her long brown hair, and she bent over me for a kiss, the dryer howling its hot air to the side, and it was a long kiss, I suppose I needed the connection after the panic attack at the Swedish jazz concert. It was a long kiss and I had a bad erection that was trying to tear its way out of my pants. Liv pulled out of the kiss smiling, then chuckling softly, happily, as her hair tickled my nose and I suppose she’d detected quite some change in my attitude re: fucking. I looked up at her happy face in the nimbus of thick brown shiny hair and her admirably big-nippled tits and I just happened to look down at that moment. Down at the naked hardwood floor in front of the sofa. Straight down to the spot on the floor that was directly below the spot between Liv’s legs and there I saw a puddle of moisture about the size of a tea cup’s saucer, a puddle that had been dripping from between Liv’s legs as we kissed, I swear to you this is true, I can still see it if I close my eyes,  a puddle like pristine aspic. I thought if I emit semen anywhere in this woman’s vicinity, in the next few days, she will  get pregnant with triplets. I cannot recall how I got away with not fucking Liv at that point but I did and it was awkward between us for that reason and so it shall remain forever, dear Liz. Whoops!

I was so glad to be on that train on that ferry on that Baltic, escaping!

Ralph suggested we look for the toilets on an upper deck of the ship since the toilets on a train of this type are unusable if the train isn’t in motion over open track. We waited for the orange-vested brakemen to secure the train, and for the ship to slide into the Baltic, and then we stepped out into the floodlit container along a narrow walk beside the train. Everything was painted beige or red or black, and the ferry throbbed bone-jitteringly as the engines strained against the waves. There was nothing of the wobbly ride I had come to expect from using the little ferries that connect one neighborhood to another in Stockholm.

My bunk mate led the way and shouldered through a heavy door that was stenciled with hieroglyphics referring to gift shops and casinos and toilets, and I followed him up three or four flights of painted metal stair steps, and we let ourselves in to an upper deck that was full of people in casual clothing, strolling back and forth on dull red carpeting. We mingled with these people; the other passengers on the ferry. Peculiar that I felt like a trespasser from steerage, since I’d crept up from the belly of the ship, when in fact I’d paid more for the ride then most of the passengers who’d boarded the ferry right there at the port. They were merely crossing the Baltic, whereas I had already covered a third of Sweden, and my journey was due to continue for hours after the ferry docked in Rostock. I was headed for Berlin, and had the rest of the night to go before the train was scheduled to ease into the Zoological Gardens, or Zoo Station, at around seven in the morning.

We found the toilet and separated with politely embarrassed smiles and vented our bladders. Outside the toilet again, we shook hands (a post-penis-handling shake, mind you) and I let him return to our sleeping compartment alone. He wanted to sleep through the crossing, but sleep was the last thing on my mind. I trusted him enough to let him alone for hours in that room with my backpack and trunk and most of my money, and I resolved to investigate the ship. It was unlikely I’d be crossing the Baltic again in the foreseeable future, so I wanted to make the most of my little adventure. It was funny that I should be coming from a state in America that was larger than most of the countries that my fellow passengers hailed from, and yet this ferry ride was my idea of a wild experience, while for them it was little more than an inconvenience of dreadful banality.

There were banks and banks of slot machines arranged along the promenade of deck seven, welded there cleverly to siphon off their coins and heal their trans-Baltic boredom with simulations of Vegas.

In fact I sat there for a bit, in a row of chairs facing the slots, and watched some Polish auto worker in a pale gray track suit go from machine to machine, dumping in coins and winning jackpots. If he was a shill for the management I was the only audience to the spectacle, and I remained untempted to gamble, so the show was wasted on me. I just watched him pull the levers, set off the jingles of the jackpots, and slide on over to the next machine, with nothing more than raised eyebrows on his part to register the windfalls. It was either a miraculous night for him, or the jackpots are paid in pennies. I suppose I should have gotten a closer look.

Never having been on an Ocean Ferry before, I must admit I was uncertain about how to behave on one. I’d walk right up to the smudged glass doors that opened out onto the wind-washed deck but I’d content myself with merely peering through them at the blackness that seemed to rise up in an infinitely gentle curve above the ferry. Then I’d pace the concourse, and cross a median, to the other side of the ship, and peer again, as tantalized by the outside as an insect in a jar. I was troubled by the paranoid fantasy that opening a set of these large double doors would set off an alarm, but then some sloppily dressed Russians with a moon-faced child in a slick red raincoat pushed through these very doors, squeezing by me, sauntering in from the prow of the ship, and set off no (audible) alarm.

It was fantastic out there. I was in California-style shorts but bundled in a rubberized rain jacket, which features a hood, and it was perfect in the chilly weather of the Baltic. I had sweltered in the train from Stockholm wearing this jacket, and felt like a fool to have even brought it, but now I was vindicated. I was cozy and self-contained.

I had with me a British magazine about style and music and movies and I found a deck chair beside a pair of teen age girls and settled in under the flood lights, and I set about reading, or pretending to, running my fingers over the pictures but being too distracted to pay attention to the text. We were the only ones out there, the teen-aged girls and I. They were singing perfectly foreign pop songs in touchingly high and imperfect voices, and I couldn’t have been more delighted.

One was blonde and sweetly unremarkable and the other had her hair pinned-up and cheaply dyed a beet-red color that had been some kind of proletariat fashion statement in this part of Europe for fifteen years and I relished the naïve energy that they blessed the prow of the ferry with. A thread-thin line of lights was dimly feverish on the German side of the water, looking like a hairline crack in the black bowl of the sky. The stars above us, unfortunately, were as invisible as anything at the bottom of the Baltic. But that didn’t keep me from being exhilarated.

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