Thomas Nesbitt is a divorced writer in the midst of a rueful middle age. Living a very private life in Maine, in touch only with his daughter and still trying to recover from the end of a long marriage, his solitude is disrupted one wintry morning by the arrival of a box that is postmarked Berlin. The name on the box—Dussmann—unsettles him completely, for it belongs to the woman with whom he had an intense love affair twenty-six years ago in Berlin at a time when the city was cleaved in two and personal and political allegiances were frequently haunted by the deep shadows of the Cold War.
Refusing initially to confront what he might find in that box, Thomas nevertheless is forced to grapple with a past he has never discussed with any living person and in the process relive those months in Berlin when he discovered, for the first and only time in his life, the full, extraordinary force of true love. But Petra Dussmann, the woman to whom he lost his heart, was not just a refugee from a police state, but also someone who lived with an ongoing sorrow that gradually rewrote both their destinies.
A love story of great epic sweep and immense emotional power, The Moment explores why and how we fall in love—and the way we project on to others that which our hearts so desperately seek.
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IWAS SERVED WITH divorce papers this morning. I’ve had better starts to the day. And though I knew they were coming, the actual moment when they landed in my hand still threw me. Because their arrival announced: this is the beginning of the end.
I live in a small cottage. It’s located on a back road near the town of Edgecomb, Maine. The cottage is simple: two bedrooms, a study, an open-plan living/kitchen area, whitewashed walls, stained floorboards. I bought it a year ago when I came into some money. My father had just died. Though broke by the time that his heart exploded, he still had an insurance policy in place from his days as a corporate man. The policy paid out $300,000. As I was the sole child and the sole survivor—my mother having left this life years earlier—I was also the sole beneficiary. My father and I weren’t close. We spoke weekly on the phone. I made an annual three-day visit to his retirement bungalow in Arizona. And I did send him each of my travel books as they were published. Beyond that, there was minimal contact—a long-ingrained awkwardness always curtailing any ease or familiarity between us. When I flew out alone to Phoenix to organize the funeral and close up his house, a local lawyer got in touch with me. He said that he’d drawn up Dad’s will, and did I know I was about to receive a nice little payoff from the Mutual of Omaha Insurance Corporation?
“But Dad was hard up for years,” I told the lawyer. “So why didn’t he cash in the policy and live on the proceeds?”
“Good question,” the lawyer said. “Especially as I advised him to do that myself. But the old guy was very stubborn, very proud.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “I tried sending him some money once, not that I had much to offer him. He returned my check.”
“The few times I saw your dad, he bragged to me about his son the well-known writer.”
“I’m hardly well known.”
“But you are published. And he was very proud of what you had accomplished.”
“That’s news to me,” I said, remembering how Dad had hardly said anything about my books.
“That generation of men—they often couldn’t articulate a damn thing they were feeling,” the lawyer said. “But he obviously wanted you to have some sort of legacy from him—so expect a payout of three hundred grand in the next couple of weeks.”
I flew back east the next day. Instead of returning home to the house in Cambridge that I shared with my wife, I found myself renting a car at Logan Airport and pointing it in the direction of places north. It was early evening when I left the airport. I guided the car onto Interstate 95 and drove. Three hours later, I was on Route 1 in Maine. I passed through the town of Wiscasset, then crossed the Sheepscot River and pulled into a motel. It was mid-January. The mercury was well below freezing. A recent snowfall had bleached everything white, and I was the only guest at the inn.
“What brings you up here at this time of year?” the clerk at the reception desk asked me.
“No idea,” I said.
I couldn’t sleep that night and drank most of the fifth of bourbon I had packed in my travel bag. At first light I got back into my rental car and started driving. I followed the road east, a narrow two-lane blacktop that snaked its way down a hill and around a curvy bend. Once that bend was negotiated, the payoff was spectacular. For there in front of me was a frozen expanse, shaded in aquamarine, a vast sheltered bay, fringed by iced woodlands, with a low-lying fog hovering above its glaciated surface. I braked, then got out of the car. A boreal wind was blowing. It chafed my face and nettled my eyes. But I forced myself to walk down to the water’s edge. A meager sun was attempting to light up the world. Its wattage was so low that the bay remained dappled in mist, making it seem both ethereal and haunted. Though the cold was brutal, I couldn’t take my gaze off this spectral landscape. Until another blast of wind made me turn away from it.
And at that precise moment I saw the cottage.
It was positioned on a small plot of land, elevated above the bay. Its design was very basic—a one-storey structure, sided in weatherbeaten white clapboard. Its little driveway was empty. There were no lights on inside. But there was a “For Sale” sign positioned out in front. I pulled out my notebook, writing down the name and number of the Wiscasset real estate agent who was handling it. I was going to approach it, but the cold finally forced me back to the car. I drove off in search of a diner that served breakfast. I discovered one on the outskirts of town. Then I found the agent’s office on the main street. Thirty minutes after I crossed his threshold, we were back at the cottage.
“Now I have to warn you that the place is a bit primitive,” the real estate agent said. “But it’s got great bones. And, of course, it’s right on the water. Better yet, it’s an estate sale. It’s been on the market for sixteen months, so the family will accept a reasonable offer.”
The agent was right. The cottage was the wrong side of rustic. But it had been winterized. And thanks to Dad, the $220,000 asking price was now affordable. I offered one eighty-five on the spot. By the end of the morning, the offer had been accepted. The next morning I had—courtesy of the real estate agent—met a local contractor who was willing to redo the cottage within my budget of $60,000. By the end of the same day I finally called home and had to answer a lot of questions from my wife, Jan, about why I had been out of contact for the last seventy-two hours.
“Because on the way back from my father’s funeral I bought a house.”
The silence that followed this statement was an extended one—and, I realize now, the moment when her patience with me finally cracked.
“Please tell me this is a joke,” she said.
But it wasn’t a joke. It was a declaration of sorts, and one with a considerable amount of subtext to it. Jan understood that. Just as I knew that, once I informed her of this impulse buy, the landscape between us would be irreparably damaged.
Yet I still went ahead and bought the place. Which, in turn, must mean that I really did want things to turn out this way.
But that moment of permanent schism didn’t happen for another eight months. A marriage—especially one of twenty years’ duration—rarely ends with a decisive bang. It’s more like all the phases you go through when confronting a terminal illness: anger, denial, pleading, more anger, denial . . . though we never seemed to reach the “acceptance” part of the “journey.” Instead, during an August weekend when we came up to the now-renovated cottage, Jan chose to tell me that, for her, the marriage was over. And she left town on the next bus.
Not with a bang, just with a . . .
I stayed on at the cottage for the rest of the summer, only returning once to our house in Cambridge—when she was away for the weekend—to pack up all my worldly goods (books and papers and the few clothes I owned). Then I headed back north.
Not with a bang, just with . . .
Months passed. I didn’t travel for a while. My daughter, Candace, visited me at the cottage one weekend per month. Every second Tuesday (her choice) I would drive the half hour from my house down to her college in Brunswick and take her out for dinner. When we got together we talked about her classes and friends and the book I was writing. But we rarely mentioned her mother, except for one night after Christmas when she asked me:
“You doing okay, Dad?”
“Not bad,” I said, knowing that I was sounding reticent.
“You should meet someone.”
“Easier said than done in backwoods Maine. Anyway I’ve a book to finish.”
“Mom always said that, for you, the books came first.”
“Do you agree with that?”
“Yes and no. You were away a lot. But when you were home, you were cool.”
“Am I still cool?”
“Way cool,” she said, giving my arm a squeeze. “But I wish you weren’t so alone.”
“The writer’s curse,” I said. “You have to be alone, you have to be obsessive, and those nearest to you frequently find that hard to bear. And who can blame them?”
“Mom once said that you never really loved her, that your heart was elsewhere.”
I looked at her carefully.
“There were many things before your mom,” I said. “Still, I did love her.”
“But not always.”
“It was a marriage—with all that that implies. And it did last twenty years.”
“Even if your heart was elsewhere?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“Only because you’re so evasive, Dad.”
“The past is very much the past.”
“And you really want to dodge that question, don’t you?”
I smiled at my far too precocious daughter and suggested we have another glass of wine.
“I have a German question,” she said.
“We were translating Luther the other day in class.”
“Is your professor a sadist?”
“No, just German. Anyway, while working our way through a collection of Luther’s aphorisms, I found something pertinent . . .”
“Pertinent to whom?”
“No particular person. But I’m not certain if I got the quote exactly right.”
“And you think I can help you?”
“You’re fluent, Dad. Du sprichst die Sprache.”
“Only after a couple of glasses of wine.”
“Modesty is tedious, Dad.”
“So, go on: tell me the quote from Luther.”
“Wie bald ‘nicht jetz’ ‘nie’ wird.”
I didn’t flinch. I just translated.
“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never.’”
“It’s a great quote,” Candace said.
“And, like all great quotes, it speaks a certain truth. What made you single it out?”
“Because I worry I’m a ‘not now’ sort of person.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I can’t live in the moment; I can’t let myself be happy with where I am.”
“Aren’t you being a little hard on yourself?”
“Hardly. Because I know that’s how you are, too.”
Wie bald ‘nicht jetz’ ‘nie’ wird.
“The moment . . . ,” I said, as if trying out the word for the first time. “It’s a very overrated place.”
“But it’s all we have, right? This night, this conversation, this moment. What else is there?”
“I knew you’d say that—because that’s your obsession. It’s in all your books. Why ‘the past,’ Dad?”
“It always informs the present.”
And because you can never really escape its grip, any more than you can come to terms with that which is terminal in life. Consider: my marriage may have started to disintegrate a decade ago, and the first sign of the endgame may have been that day last January when I bought the cottage in Maine. But I didn’t really accept the finality of it all until the morning after my dinner with Candace, when a knock came on my cottage door around eight fifteen.
Now the few neighbors I have do know that I am not a morning person. This makes me rare in this corner of Maine, where everyone seems to get up an hour or so before dawn and where nine a.m. is already considered the middle of the day.
But I never emerge into the world before noon. I’m a night man. I usually start writing after ten in the evening and generally work until three, at which point I nurse a nocturnal whiskey or two, watch an old film or read, and eventually climb into bed around five. I’ve been living this way since I started writing twenty-seven years ago—a fact my wife found somewhat charming at the beginning of our marriage and a source of great frustration thereafter. “Between the travel and the all-night work binges, I have no life with you” was a common lament —to which I could only reply, “Guilty as charged.” Now, with my fiftieth birthday well behind me, I’m stuck with my vampiric lifestyle, the few times I ever see the dawn being those occasional nights when I’m on a roll and write until first light.
But on this January morning a series of loud authoritarian knocks snapped me awake just as the tentative rays of a winter sun were cleaving the night sky. For a befuddled moment I thought I was in the middle of a mad Kafkaesque reverie—with the forces of some sinister state about to arrest me for unspecified thought crimes. But then I came to. Glancing at my bedside clock I saw that it was just after seven thirty a.m. The banging intensified. There really was someone pounding on the front door.
I got out of bed, grabbed a bathrobe, and wandered to the front door. When I opened it I saw a squat man in a parka and a knitted hat standing outside. One hand was behind his back. He looked cold and aggrieved.
“So you’re here after all,” he said, a fog of frozen breath accompanying his words.
“Yes . . .”
Suddenly the hand behind his back emerged. It was holding a large manila envelope. Like a Victorian schoolteacher using a ruler to discipline a child, he slammed the envelope right into the palm of my right hand.
“You’ve been served, Mr. Nesbitt,” he said. Then he turned and got into his car.
I stood in the doorway for several minutes, oblivious to the cold. I kept looking down at the large legal envelope, trying to come to terms with what had just transpired. When I felt my fingers going numb I finally went inside. Sitting down at the kitchen table I opened the envelope. Contained within was a petition for divorce from the State of Massachusetts. My name—Thomas Alden Nesbitt—was printed alongside that of my wife—Jan Rogers Stafford. She was named as the Petitioner. I was named as the Respondent. Before my eyes could take in anything else, I pushed the document away from me. I swallowed hard. I knew this was coming. But there a vast difference between the theoretical and the hard-faced typography of the actual. A divorce—no matter how expected—is still a terrible admission of failure. The sense of loss—especially after twenty years—is immense. And now . . .
This document. This definitive statement.
How can we let go that which we once held so essential?
On this January morning I had no reply to such a question. All I had was a petition telling me that my marriage was over, and the relentless disquieting question: could we—I—have found a way through this dark wood?
“Mom once said that you never really loved her, that your heart was elsewhere.”
It wasn’t as facile as that. But there’s no doubt that the historic so informs everything in our lives, and that it is so hard to break free of certain immutable things that continue to burden us.
But why look for answers when none will balm anything? I told myself, glancing across the table at the petition. Do what you always do when life gangs up on you. Run.
So while waiting for a pot of coffee to percolate I worked the phones. A call to my lawyer in Boston, who asked me to sign the petition and send it back to her. She also gave me a fast piece of advice: don’t panic. A call to a small hotel five hours north of here to find out if they had a room available for the next seven days. When they confirmed they had a vacancy, I told them to expect me around six that evening. Within an hour I had showered and shaved and packed a bag. I grabbed my laptop and a set of cross-country skis, then loaded everything into my Jeep. I called my daughter on her cell phone and left her a message that I would be away for the next seven days but would see her for dinner two weeks from Tuesday. I closed up my cottage. I checked my watch. Nine a.m. As I climbed into my vehicle snow had begun to fall. Within moments the conditions were near-blizzard. But I still forced my vehicle out onto the road and carefully navigated myself toward the intersection with Route 1. Looking in my rearview mirror, I saw that my cottage had vanished. A simple climatic shift and all that is concrete and crucial to us can disappear in an instant, whited out from view.
The snow remained heavy as I turned south and stopped at the post office in Wiscasset. Once the now-signed documents were dispatched, I drove on, heading due west. Visibility was now nonexistent, making any sort of speed impossible. I should have abandoned ship, finding a motel and holing up until the blizzard passed. But I was now locked into the same ornery frame of mind that would overtake me when I found myself unable to write: you will push your way through this . . .
It took almost six more hours to reach my destination. When I finally pulled into the parking lot of my hotel in Quebec City, I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing here.
I was so tired from all the events of the day that I fell into bed at ten. I managed to sleep until dawn. When I woke up, there was the usual moment of befuddlement, followed by the arrival of anguish. Another day, another struggle to keep the pain tolerable. After breakfast I changed into the appropriate clothing and drove north along the St. Lawrence River to a cross-country skiing center I’d once visited with Jan. The temperature—according to the gauge in my car—was minus ten. I parked and climbed outside, the chill lacerating and vindictive. I pulled my skis and poles out of the hatchback door and walked over to the trail head. I stepped into the skis, my boots slotting into the bindings with a decisive click. Immediately I pushed off into the dense forest through which the trail had been cleaved. The cold was now so severe that my fingers stiffened. It was impossible to close them around the poles. But I forced myself to gain speed. Cross-country skiing is an endurance test—especially in subzero temperatures. Only when you have gained enough forward propulsion to warm your body does the unbearable become acceptable. This process took around a half hour, each finger gradually thawing with the buildup of body heat. By the third mile I was actually warm and so focused on the push-glide-push-glide rhythm of the ski movement that I was oblivious to all around me.
Until the trail turned a hairpin bend and suddenly sent me charging down a vertiginous hill. This is what you get for choosing a black run. But my past training clicked into gear and I carefully raised my left ski out of the rutted track and positioned it on the groomed snow. Then I turned its tip inward toward the other ski. Normally this maneuver should reduce your speed and allow you to control the dips and dives of the track. But the trail was so frozen, so slick with the travails of previous occupants, that I simply couldn’t slow down. I tried dragging my poles. No use. That’s when I suddenly pulled my ski back into the track, lifted my poles, and let go. I was now on a ferocious downhill trajectory—all speed, no logic, no sense of what was up ahead. For a few brief moments there was the exhilaration of the free fall, the abandonment of prudence, the sense that nothing mattered but this plunge toward . . .
A tree. It was right there, its massive trunk beckoning me forward. Gravity was sending me into its epicenter. Nothing to stop me slamming into oblivion. For a nanosecond I was about to welcome it . . . until I saw my daughter’s face in front of me and found myself overwhelmed by one thought: she will have to live with this for the rest of her life. At which point some rational instinct kicked in and I threw myself away from sudden impact. As I crashed into the snow, I skidded for yards. The snow was no pillow, rather, a sheet of frozen tundra. My left side slammed into its concrete surface, then my head, the world went blurry, and . . .
I was aware of someone crouching down beside me, checking my vital signs, speaking fast French into a phone. Beyond that, all was hazy, vague. I wasn’t aware of much, bar the fact that I was in pain everywhere. I blacked out, waking again as I was hoisted onto a stretcher, loaded onto a sled, strapped down, and . . .
I was now being dragged along undulating terrain. I regained consciousness for long enough to crane my neck and see myself being pulled along by a snowmobile. Then my brain began to fog in again and . . .
I was in a bed. In a room. Stiff white sheets, cream walls, institutional ceiling tiles. I craned my neck and saw assorted tubes and wires emanating from my body. I began to gag. A nurse came hurrying toward me. She grabbed a pan and held it in front of me as I retched. When everything was expunged, I found myself sobbing. The nurse put an arm around me and said:
“Be happy . . . you’re alive.”
A doctor came around ten minutes later. He told me I’d had a lucky escape. A dislocated shoulder—which, while I was unconscious, they’d managed to “relocate.” Some spectacular bruising on my left thigh and ribcage. As to the state of my head . . . he’d run an MRI on my cranium and could find nothing wrong with it.
“You’d been knocked cold. A concussion. But you evidently have a very hard head, as there was no serious damage whatsoever.”
Would that my head was so hard.
I subsequently discovered that I was in a hospital in Quebec City. I would remain here for another two days as I underwent physiotherapy for my battered shoulder and was kept under observation for any “unforeseen neurological complications.” The physiotherapist—a Ghanaian woman with a rather wry take on everything—told me I should thank some divine force for my well-being.
“It is evident that you should be in a very bad place right now. But you came away with very little damage, so someone was watching over you.”
“And who might that ‘someone’ be?”
“Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s some extraworldly power. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s all down to you. There was a skier behind you . . . the man who called for help . . . who said that you were racing down the hill, as if you couldn’t care less what happened to you. Then, at the very last minute, you jumped away from the tree. You saved yourself. Which evidently means that you wanted to see another day. Congratulations: you are back with us.”
I felt no exhilaration, no pleasure in having survived. But as I sat in that narrow hospital bed, looking up at the pockmarked ceiling tiles, I did keep replaying that moment when I threw myself into the snow. Up until that split second, I was in thrall to the declivitous, as there was a part of me that welcomed such existential purity, an immediate cure to all that plagued me.
But then . . .
I saved myself, ending up with nothing more than some bruising, a sore shoulder, a sore head. Within forty-eight hours of being admitted to the hospital I was able to make it out to a taxi, return to the ski area, and collect my abandoned Jeep. Though I wasn’t in a sling, my shoulder hurt every time I had to turn the wheel sharply all the way down to Maine. But the journey back was otherwise uneventful.
“You may find yourself becoming depressed now,” the physiotherapist told me during our last session together. “It often happens in the wake of such things. And who can blame you? You chose to live.”
I reached Wiscasset just before dark—in time to collect my mail at the local post office. There was a yellow slip in my box, informing me an oversized parcel was being held behind the main counter. Jim, the postmaster, noticed me wincing when I picked up the package.
“You hurt yourself?” he asked.
“That I did.”
“Something like that.”
The package he handed over was, in fact, a box—and came from my New York publishers. I made a mistake of tucking it under my left arm and winced once more as my weakened shoulder told me not to do that again. As I signed the form acknowledging that I had collected it, Jim said:
“If you’re feeling poorly tomorrow and can’t get yourself to the supermarket, call me with a shopping list and I’ll take care of it all for you.”
There were many virtues about living in Maine—but the best of all was the way everyone respected each other’s privacy, yet were also there for you if needed.
“I think I’ll be able to push a cart around the vegetable aisle,” I said. “But thanks for the offer.”
“That your new book in the box?”
“If it is, someone else must have finished for me.”
“I hear ya . . .”
I walked to the car and drove on to my cottage, the January darkness augmenting my gloom. The physiotherapist was right: escaping death turns you more inward, more alive to the melancholic nature of being here. And a failed marriage is also a death—a living one, as the person you are no longer with is still sentient, still walking among us, very much existing without you.
“You were always ambivalent about me, us,” Jan said on several occasions toward the end. How could I explain that, with the exception of our wonderful daughter, I remain ambivalent about everything? If you’re not reconciled with yourself, how can you ever be reconciled with others?
The cottage was dark and drafty when I arrived. I carried the box in from my car and placed it on the kitchen table. I cranked up the thermostat. I built a wood fire in the potbellied stove that took up one corner of the living room. I poured myself a small Scotch. As I waited for all three forms of central heating to kick in, I shuffled through the handful of letters and magazines that I had retrieved from the mailbox. Then I turned my attention to the package. I used scissors to cut through the thick tape that had sealed it shut. Once the lid was pried open I peered inside. There was a letter from Zoe, my editor’s assistant, positioned on top of a large, thickly padded envelope. As I picked up the letter I saw the handwriting on this envelope—and the German postmark and stamps. In the left-hand corner of this package was the name of the sender: Dussmann. That stopped me short. Her name. And the address: Jablonski Strasse 48, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. Was this her address since . . . ?
Her . . .
Petra . . .
I picked up the letter from Zoe.
This showed up here for you c/o us a few days ago. I didn’t want to open it in case it was personal. If it’s anything questionable or weird, do let me know and we’ll deal with it.
Hope the new book goes well. We all can’t wait to read it.
My best . . .
“If it’s anything questionable or weird . . .”
No, it’s just the past. A past that I had tried to entomb long ago.
But here it was again, back to disturb an already troubled present.
“Wie bald ‘nicht jetz’ ‘nie’ wird.”
“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never.’”
Until a package arrives . . . and everything you have spent years attempting to dodge comes rushing back into the room.
When is the past not a spectral hall of shadows?
When we can live with it.
BERLIN. THE YEAR was 1984. I had just turned twenty-six. And, like the majority of people residing in that still-juvenile district of adulthood, I actually thought I understood so much about life and its attendant complexities.
Whereas now, more than fifteen years on from all that transpired, I see how unschooled and callow I was when it came to just about everything . . . most especially, the mysteries of the heart.
Back then I always resisted falling in love. Back then I always seemed to sidestep all emotional entanglements, all big-deal declarations from the heart. We all reenact our childhoods repeatedly during adult life—and every romance struck me as a potential trap, something that would ensnare me in the sort of marriage that drove my mother to death by cigarettes and left my father feeling as if his existence had been limited, circumscribed. “Never have kids,” he once told me. “They just cage you into something you never really wanted.” Granted, he’d had about three martinis in him when he said all this. But the very fact that he could openly tell his only son that he felt trapped in his life . . . bizarrely, it made me feel closer to the guy. He had confided in me, and that was huge. Because during the majority of my childhood he was a man who spent much of his life working out ways not to be at home. When he was there, he was so often enveloped in a cloud of silent rage and cigarette smoke that he always struck me—even when I was very young—as someone who was endlessly struggling with himself. He tried to play the typical dad but couldn’t pull it off, any more than I could play the average American boy. When it came to sports or the Boy Scouts or winning prizes for civics or joining the Marines—all of the all-American stuff that my dad embraced as a kid—I was a strikeout. I was always the last kid chosen for teams at school. I always had my head in a book. By the time I was well into adolescence, I was out roaming the city every weekend, hiding myself away in movie theaters and museums and concert halls. That was the thing about a Manhattan childhood: it was all there. I was the sort of kid who went to seasons of Fritz Lang films at the Bleecker Street Cinema, who bought student tickets for Boulez conducting Stravinsky and Schoenberg at the New York Philharmonic, who haunted bookshops and Off-Off-Broadway theaters that always seemed to be run by Romanian madmen. School was never an issue, because I had already begun to develop certain diligent habits when it came to work . . . perhaps because I had begun to figure out that work was the one source of equilibrium at my disposal, that by applying myself and getting on with the tasks at hand, I could keep all the dark stuff at bay. Dad approved.
“I never thought I’d tell my only kid that I like the fact he’s always studying, always reading. But the truth is, it’s kind of impressive, considering the C’s I got at your age. The only thing I worry about—all these movies and plays and concerts you go to . . . you’re always on your own. No girlfriends, no pals you hang out with . . .”
“There’s Stan,” I said, mentioning a math whiz in my class at school who was also something of a movie addict and, like me, thought nothing of seeing four films during a Saturday. He was hugely overweight and awkward. But we were both loners—and very much outside the team player ethic that was such an integral part of the prep school to which we had both been dispatched. We often look for friends who can make us realize that we are not the only person in the world who feels maladroit with others, or who doubts himself.
“Stan’s the fatty, right?” Dad asked. He’d met him once when I had him over after school.
“That’s right,” I said, “Stan’s kind of large.”
“Kind of large,” Dad said. “If he was my son, I’d send him to a boot camp to get all that blubber off him.”
“Stan’s a good guy,” I told my dad.
“Stan’s going to be dead by the time he’s forty.”
Actually my father got that one right. Stan and I stayed friends over the next thirty years. After a brilliant academic career at the University of Chicago, he ended up living in Berkeley, teaching wildly advanced calculus at the university there. We made a point of seeing each other whenever we found ourselves on either of our respective coasts. When I returned to the States in the summer of 1984 we must have phoned each other every two weeks. Stan never married, though there was always a string of girlfriends, most of whom didn’t seem to mind his ever-augmenting weight. He was the only person I ever confided to about all that went on in Berlin in 1984, and I always think about his comment to me after he heard the story: You’ll probably never get over it.
Jan was never particularly comfortable around Stan, as she knew that he considered her far too cool and distant for me.
“You’ve really constructed an interesting marriage there,” Stan said after the last weekend he spent with us in Cambridge. He was in town to address some conference at MIT. We had dinner after he read a paper on binary number theory. It was a breathtakingly obscurantist lecture. Stan being Stan, the talk also highlighted his pedantic quirks, a performance which, being his friend, I found endearing, but which Jan considered showboating. Over dinner at an Afghan restaurant (his choice) to which we repaired afterward, she dropped one or two hints that she wasn’t impressed by his displays of erudite exhibitionism. When Stan congratulated me on the publication of my most recent book—about venturing into the Canadian Arctic—Jan attempted a witticism:
“It’s possibly the first book written about the interrelationship between dogsleds and a writer’s deep-rooted solipsism.”
Stan said nothing in reply. But afterward, as Jan pleaded an early start in the morning in court, I walked my friend back to his hotel near Kendall Square. Halfway there, he noted:
“You’re a man who runs away all the time, despite the fact that what you want more than anything in life is to emotionally connect with someone. But like the rest of us, you’ve been counterintuitive. You’ve married someone who—as you’ve intimated over the years—has never really let you near her. Which, in turn, has made you travel more and fabricate the necessary distance to protect yourself from her coldness. Funny, isn’t it? She complains that you are away all the time—yet she has always done everything possible to keep you at one remove. And now you’re both locked into a pattern of behavior which only a divorce will break.”
He fell silent for a moment, letting that last comment sink in. Then, with just the slightest hint of irony in his voice, he asked:
“Of course, what do I know about such things, right?”
When his corroded arteries finally exploded a few weeks later—and I found myself crying uncontrollably in the wake of learning about his death—that final conversation en route to his Cambridge hotel continued to haunt me. Because even when others point out an essential verity about ourselves to ourselves we often reinterpret it in a way that makes it palatable. As in: “Jan may be distant and critical, but who else would put up with my absences and my need to live in my own head?” Whereas I now understand what my great and good friend was really telling me: that I deserved someone who loved me for what I was . . . and if that arrived in my life, I might just stand still for a change
Still the pattern of flight was established early on. Once I started getting involved with women, I could never really stick around. If anyone ever came too close to me, if I sensed interest or love, I would find an excuse to duck and dodge. I was expert at detaching myself from all entanglements. This became even more pronounced after I graduated from college and moved back to New York, determined to try to become a writer. What’s that old line of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s about childhood being the kingdom where nobody dies? I was a member of a generation that didn’t know economic deprivation and wasn’t shipped off to a war, so my early twenties were still a time when—outside of my mother’s death—my existence seemed detached from larger realities. I wasn’t thinking about the rapidity of passing time or the need to focus on life’s bigger pictures. Rather, I lived in the moment. As soon as I was handed my college diploma, I was on the next bus to New York and a job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. It was 1980 and my starting salary was $16,000 a year. I had little interest in the world of publishing—and I certainly never saw myself as an editor. But the job allowed me to rent a small studio on Sixth Street and Avenue C and live a loose, louche life. I showed up for work. I carved my way through huge stockpiles of unsolicited manuscripts. I went to five movies a week and used a still-valid student ID to get cheap seats for the Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet. I stayed up late most nights, trying to write short stories, often heading out of my tiny apartment to catch the last nocturnal set at a jazz club. And I found myself—much to my surprise—involved with a cellist named Ann Wentworth.
She was a young woman who could best be described as willowy. Tall and willowy, with flowing blond hair and skin that was translucent (could skin be that perfect?). I remember when I first met her at a makeshift brunch at a friend’s apartment near Columbia University. Like my own downtown garret, the apartment was small. But it had four picture windows that bathed this one room in almost ethereal light. When I first saw Ann, she was dressed in a gossamer skirt that, in the honeyed glow of a summer morning, showed off her long legs. I remember immediately thinking that this was the New York bohemian girl of my dreams . . . and one who played the cello to boot.
Not only did she play the cello, she was gifted. A student at Juilliard, she was mentioned by even her fellow students as a musician to watch, serious talent with serious intelligence.
But what I remember most of all about Ann at the outset was her mixture of worldliness and innocence. She was wildly knowledgeable about books and music. As such, our conversation was always animated—with me being the intellectual show-off (well, that was my style back then) and Ann always sounding more thoughtful, more considered. I loved that about her. Just as I loved the way her smile was always couched in a certain wistfulness, a hint that, for all her outward optimism (as Ann herself told me, she preferred to see the glass half-full and life as an enterprise full of possibility), she also had a pensive side to her. She would cry easily in bad movies and during certain passages of music (the slow movements of the Brahms sonatas would always get her). She would cry after making love—which we did at every moment possible. And she cried terribly when, four months into our relationship, I put an end to things between us.
It wasn’t as if something had gone terribly wrong, or that we ever had the sort of disagreement that led to this permanent fracture. No, Ann’s only mistake was to let me know that she genuinely loved me. She had organized a long weekend for us in the family cabin way up in the Adirondacks. It was December 30. A foot of fresh snow had fallen overnight. A fire was burning in the grate, the cabin was fragranced with pine, and we’d just eaten a wonderful dinner and had finished a bottle of wine. We were on the sofa, our arms linked around each other. Looking deep into my eyes she told me:
“You know, my parents have been together since they were twenty . . . and that’s over a quarter of a century ago. As my mom told me a few years ago, the moment she saw my father she knew that he was it. Her destiny. That’s what I felt when I first saw you.”
I smiled tightly, trying to mask my unease. But I knew that I didn’t react well to this comment—as sweetly rendered and loving as it so evidently was. Ann saw this and put her arms around me, saying that she wasn’t trying to trap me, that, on the contrary, she was willing to wait if I wanted to buzz off to Paris and write for a year, or didn’t feel like getting married until we were both twenty-five.
“I don’t want you to feel under pressure,” she told me, all quiet and loving. “I just want you to know that, for me, you are the man of my life.”
The subject was never raised again. But when we returned to the city a few days later, I spent an entire night writing a proposal for a travel book about following the Nile from Cairo to Khartoum. I spent the next week punching out a sample chapter, based on a two-week trip I’d made to Egypt in the summer after leaving college. Thanks to my work in publishing, I knew several agents and interested one of them in the proposed book. She shopped it around to several editors—one of whom informed her that she rarely took a risk on a new and very young writer, but he would be able to part with a paltry $3,000 as an advance for the book. I accepted on the spot. I asked for a four-month leave of absence from work. My boss refused, so I quit. Then I broke the news to Ann. I think what disturbed her most wasn’t the realization that I was about to disappear to the far side of North Africa for several months, but the fact that I had been working toward this goal for the past eight weeks and never once intimated to her that I had been plotting my escape.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked quietly, the hurt so evident in her eyes.
I just shrugged and looked away. She reached out and took my hand.
“I mean, on one level I’m so happy for you, Thomas. Your first book, commissioned by a major publisher. It’s fantastic news. But I just don’t understand why you kept it all a secret.”
Again, I just shrugged, hating myself for playing the coward.
“Thomas, please, talk to me. I love you, and there is so much that is good between us.”
I let go of her hand.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. Ann was now looking at me, wide-eyed.
“Can’t do what?”
“But I am not asking you to marry me.”
“Even though it’s what you want.”
“Yes, it is what I want . . . but only because I think you are a wonderful man.”
“You don’t know me.”
She stared at me as if I had slapped her face.
“How can you say that, how . . . ?”
“Because it’s the truth. Because you’d be much better off with a nicer guy who wants the little life that you . . .”
As soon as the words little life were out of my mouth, I regretted them. Because I could see the effect they had on Ann. It was as if I had punched her.
“Little life? Is that what you think I want for us?”
Of course, I knew that Ann wasn’t a reproduction of my mother. Just as I knew that she would never press me into the sort of domestic hell that so enraged my father (even if he was the co-architect of that hell). No matter how many reassurances she would give me about not pressuring me into an early marriage, the thing was . . . she had told me she loved me. She had told me I was the man with whom she wanted to spend her life. I simply couldn’t cope with such knowledge, such responsibility. So I said:
“I’m not ready for the sort of commitment you want or need.”
Again she reached for my hand. This time I wouldn’t let her take it. Again the hurt and bewilderment in her eyes was vast.
“Thomas, please, don’t push me away like this. Do your three, four months in Egypt. I’ll wait for you. It won’t change anything between us. And when you come back we can—”
“I’m not coming back.”
Her eyes filled up. She began to cry.
“I don’t understand,” she said quietly. “We’re . . .”
She paused for a moment, and then said the word I knew she’d say, the word I’d dreaded all along:
“. . . happy.”
A long silence followed as she waited for a response from me. But none was forthcoming.
Some months later, I woke up in a cheap hotel room in Cairo, very much alone, the solitude and sense of dislocation enormous. I found myself replaying that final conversation with Ann, over and over again in my head, wondering why I had so pushed her away. Of course, I knew the answer to that question. I tried to tell myself that it was better this way. After all, I had made the less conformist, more daring decision. I was a man without all those damnable ties that bind. I could float my way through life, have adventures, flings, even run off to the ends of the earth if I felt like it. And I was just in my early twenties, so why tie myself up with someone who would keep me tethered to a life that would limit the proverbial horizon?
But the question that so gnawed at me that night in that Cairo hotel room was: But did you actually love Ann Wentworth?
And the answer was: had I been open to the idea, the love would have followed. But as I had an abject terror of what it meant to love and be loved . . . best to detonate the relationship and kill off all possibilities of a future together.
So after that painful nuit blanche in Cairo, I decided to put all such difficult sentiments out of my head. I threw myself into my Egyptian travels with a vehemence that surprised even me. Every day I sought out the new, the strange, the extreme. This being Egypt I could find all of the above. I spent time in the City of the Dead—a vast ghetto made up of families so impecunious, so unable to find dwellings in a city of sixteen million citizens hemmed in by the desert, that they had to rent tombs in Cairo’s vast necropolis. I took a train down to Assyut—a university town that was Egypt’s primary breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalists—and loitered with intent among members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. I hitched a ride with two felucca men, floating down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, sleeping on a mattress and a plain sheet every night on the deck of the boat, purifying Nile water to drink. When I reached Aswan I met a French anthropology student named Stephanie, who was heading south to Khartoum. So we traveled down the Nile to the Sudanese border, and then spent a mad week on a series of buses that never traveled more than 150 kilometers a day. They deposited us in nowhere villages with primitive hotels that cost, on average, two dollars a night. I remember making love with Stephanie on a series of straw mattresses, in mud-brick buildings that frequently adjoined an outhouse, in nighttime temperatures that were never lower than ninety degrees. When we reached Khartoum, I had economized so rigorously during the five months on the road that I insisted we splurge and check into the fanciest hotel in town: the Grand Holiday Villa, best known as one of those sunstruck spots where Churchill holed up against the English winter to paint those mediocre watercolors for which he was less than famous. The desk clerk looked at Stephanie and me with suspicion, as we hadn’t bathed for days and were both covered in a thin film of dust. But after some dickering I managed to bargain us into a large, airy room with a king-sized bed and a huge bathtub for $35 per day (one of the few things that I liked about the Sudan was its cheapness). Stephanie was a small, sinewy woman with excellent English and a worldview that could be best described as sardonic. She was pretty in a severe sort of way and very passionate whenever we made love. But there was also something clinical to her worldview; the physical heat between us turning into detached dispassion afterward.
“I sense this is all far too colonial and bourgeois for me,” she said as we shared the huge bathtub in the room, soaking our bedbug-ravaged bodies. “Eric would not approve.”
“The man I live with in Paris.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Not at all,” I said.
She reached over and stroked my head, smiling wryly.
“Try not to be so sad, Thomas.”
“Who said I’m sad?”
“You are always sad, Thomas. Just as you are also so amusing and engaging. It’s an intriguing combination: so bright, yet so vulnerable and alone. It’s been a fantastic quinze jours. I’ve loved traveling with you, being with you. When you get back to the States, you should look up the woman you left behind. You obviously miss her a great deal.”
“I never said anything to you about someone back in the States.”
She gave me a small kiss on the lips.
“You didn’t need to,” she said, then reached over and pulled me on top of her.
Stephanie caught a plane back to Paris the next day. The last I saw of her was when she boarded a taxi to Khartoum Airport. After a light final kiss on the lips, she wished me a good future and vanished off into her own. Life has many such encounters, an individual who comes into your existence courtesy of the music of chance, with whom you are intimate for a short moment or so, and who then drifts out of your ongoing narrative, never to appear again. You travel down this ever-changing line of human geography known as your life. People fall into your path. Some do you good. Some do you bad. Some become friends. Some become people you never want to see again. You fall in and out of love. You reach out for certain people and they reject you. Others reach for you and you flee. Often you are ignored, just as you ignore others. And in the midst of all these missed and made connections, you try to travel hopefully, always in search of that person who might just make you feel less alone in the world, always cognizant of the fact that, in searching for love, you are also opening yourself up to the possibility of loss. Sometimes these losses are tolerable and you can justify them with bromides like: “It was never meant to be.” Or: “Better that it ended quickly.” But sometimes you find yourself facing up to a regret that—no matter how hard you attempt to negotiate with it—simply will not leave you in peace.
I had no such lasting regrets about Stephanie. But when I headed to Khartoum Airport a few days later—and began a series of flights via Cairo and Rome that eventually deposited me in New York twenty-four hours later—the sense of emptiness hit me. I returned to my apartment—sublet in my absence for six months to an actor friend—to discover that this gentleman had the personal hygiene of a water rat. I spent the first week fumigating the place and solving a ferocious cockroach problem. Once the apartment was habitable again, I then killed another two weeks repainting it, resanding the floor, and retiling the entire bathroom. I knew the underlying purpose behind all this home renovation: it allowed me to dodge the obligation to kick-start the book into life, and it also stopped me from phoning up Ann Wentworth and gauging whether she wanted me back.
The truth was, I myself didn’t know what I wanted. I missed her, but I also knew that a single phone call to her would indicate a desire to accede to her wish. The temptation was a profound one, for so many obvious reasons. A lovely, talented, and (above all) truly nice woman who adored me—and only wanted the best for me, for us. No wonder I stared at the phone so many nights and willed myself to call her. But to do that, I told myself, would be a form of surrender.
Only now do I see the younger man convincing himself that further adventures were awaiting him in the big churning world, that stability and happiness were two synonyms for entrapment.
So the phone remained in its cradle and Ann’s number at her little apartment near Columbia was never dialed. Anyway I had a book to write. So once my apartment was freshly painted and general order restored to my tiny slice of Manhattan real estate, I began to work. I had around thirty-five hundred dollars in the bank and figured it would take six months to reshape my many notebooks into something resembling a cogent narrative. Back then, you didn’t have to be a corporate player to afford a Manhattan life. My studio set me back $380 a month in rent. You could still go to the movies for five dollars. You could get cheap seats at Carnegie Hall for eight bucks. You could eat breakfast at the local Ukrainian coffee shop on my corner for two-fifty. Knowing that the money I had in the bank would, at best, pay for four months of life, I found a job at the now-vanished Eighth Street Bookshop. Four dollars an hour, thirty hours a week. The pay covered food, utilities, even a couple of nights out every week.
I mention all this because the eight months it finally took me to write Sunstroke: An Egyptian Journey now strikes me as a time of great simplicity. I had no commitments, no debts, no ties that bind. When I typed the last line of my first book—on a January night while a blizzard was raging outside—I celebrated with a glass of wine and a cigarette, then fell into bed and slept for fourteen hours. There followed several weeks of excising all the repetitions, misfired ideas, hackneyed metaphors, and all other testaments to bad writing that always make their way into my first drafts. I delivered the manuscript by hand to my editor. Then I took off for two weeks to a college friend’s place in Key West: a cheap break in the American tropics, in which I sat in the sun, drank in bars, avoided all novels by Ernest Hemingway, and tried to keep my worry about the book at bay (a worry that has since plagued me every time I’ve submitted a manuscript, and based on a simple fear: my editor is going to hate it).
As it turned out, Judith Kaplan, my editor of the era, thought the book “most accomplished for a debut” and a “good read.” Its publication eight months later resulted in around six reviews nationwide. However, there was a crucial, positive “In Brief” notice in the New York Times. It got me several phone calls from assorted editors at good magazines. The book sold four thousand copies and was quickly remaindered. But the fact was: I had published a book. And Judith—deciding that I was worth encouraging (especially in the wake of the mention in the Times)—took me out for a good lunch at an expensive Italian restaurant a week after I had come back from Addis Ababa for National Geographic.
“Do you know what Tolstoy said about journalism?” she asked after finding out that I was flush with magazine commissions and had long since quit my bookshop job. “It’s a brothel. And like most brothels, once you become a client, you keep returning regularly.”
“I’m not looking upon magazine writing as anything but an excuse to travel the world at somebody else’s expense and get paid a dollar a word.”
“So if I was to inquire if you were thinking about a new book for us . . .”
“I would say: I already have an idea.”
“Well, that’s an excellent start. And what may this idea be?”
“It’s one word: Berlin.”
Over the next half hour I sketched out how I wanted to spend a year living in the city—and write a book that would be very much “a fiction that happened . . . twelve months in that western island floating within the Eastern bloc; the place where the two great isms of the twentieth century rubbed up against each other like tectonic plates; a town that prided itself on its anarchism, its demimonde credentials, its ongoing whiff of Weimar Republic decadence. Yet it was also a center of gravity for a certain kind of outsider who wanted to exist amidst the edgy, walled-in realities of a metropolis with a storied and hideous past, now rubbing shoulders daily with the monochromatic bleakness of Communism.”
For someone who has often been accused of being a little closed-off, I’ve always had a certain talent when it comes to pitching an idea, especially in the knowledge that it could get me on a plane somewhere. Having carefully thought through this spiel before heading out to lunch with Judith, I reeled it off with a fluency and a confidence that I hoped didn’t sound too rehearsed.
“Now don’t tell me all that came to you just now,” she said when I finished. “But it does sound like the makings of a damn good book . . . especially if you can do what you did with the Egypt book and make us interested in the people that you meet. That’s your greatest strength, Thomas: the fact you are fascinated by other people’s worlds, the way you really do get the idea that every life is its very own novel.”
She paused to take a sip of her wine.
“Now go home and write me a slam-dunk proposal that I can get past those stiffs in the sales and marketing department. And tell your agent to give me a call.”
The proposal was written and submitted within a week. I had a thumbs-up from my publisher three weeks later (oh, for the days when publishing was so straightforward, so willing to back a modest idea, so writer-centric). And my agent did well with the deal, garnering me a $9,000 advance—half of which was to be paid up front. Given that it was three times my first contract, I was elated. Especially as I was able to wave this new contract under the noses of several magazine editors and come away with three commissions from Harper’s, National Geographic, and The Atlantic Monthly, which added another $5,000 to my kitty. I started doing proper research about minor details like the cost of living and discovered that in a scruffy area like Wedding I could probably find a room in a shared apartment for around 150 deutsche marks a month—which, at the time, was around one hundred bucks. And thinking that it might give the book an interesting texture if I were to be somehow tangentially involved in the city’s Cold War complexities, I also sent my rÉsumÉ and a copy of my Egyptian tome to Radio Liberty in Washington. They were the US-government-funded broadcasting network that beamed in news and the American worldview to all countries behind the Iron Curtain. Along with my book, I attached a rÉsumÉ and a cover letter explaining that I was planning to spend a year in Berlin and might there be some sort of opening for a writer in their offices there.
I didn’t expect to hear back from them, filing the whole thing away under “long shot.” I also figured they were probably the sort of organization that only hired rabid anti-Communists who were also bilingual. But a letter did arrive from Washington one afternoon. It was from a gentleman named Huntley Cranley, the director of programming, who informed me that he found my book and my rÉsumÉ most interesting, and he was dispatching them on to Jerome Wellmann, the head of Radio Liberty in Berlin. Once there I should inform him that I was in town. After that, it was all down to the discretion of Mr. Wellmann whether he granted me an audience or not.
A week later—my apartment sublet again, my one suitcase packed, a heavy army greatcoat on my back—I folded this letter into a German-English dictionary, which I then threw into my shoulder bag. After turning off the lights and double locking the door, I took the bus out to Kennedy Airport on a grim January evening when sleet simply wouldn’t transform itself to snow. There, I checked in my bag, accepted a boarding pass, passed through the usual array of detectors and security, squeezed myself into my assigned seat, watched the skyline of Manhattan recede into nocturnal midwinter gloom, and quietly drank myself to sleep as the plane achieved cruising altitude and journeyed east.
When I awoke many hours later, my head was still thick and gloomy after far too many miniatures of Scotch. I peered out the window and saw nothing but the gray density of cloud.
That’s the thing about finding yourself in the clouds, I remember thinking at the time. You are in somewhere which looks like nowhere. You are flying through a blank page . . . and you have no idea what’s to be written on it.
Then the cloud turned to mist, the mist burned away, and down below there was . . .
Land. Fields. Buildings. The outline of a city on the curved edge of the horizon. And all refracted through the numbness of a night spent sleeping sitting up in a cramped seat. We had another ten minutes or so before touchdown. Reaching into my jacket pocket, I pulled out the bag of tobacco and rolling papers that had been my constant companion since my final year at college—and which had, without question, helped me negotiate all the nervy moments at my desk over the past year. Put simply, I had become a serious smoker during the course of writing my first book and needed at least fifteen cigarettes to carry myself through most days. And now—even though the “No Smoking” sign had been switched on—I was already pulling out my smoking paraphernalia and quickly fashioning a cigarette, which could be lit up as soon as I was inside the terminal building.
Land. Fields. Buildings. Specifically: the high-rise outline of Frankfurt, that most mercantile and aesthetically flat of German cities. I had studied German since my freshman year at college. It had always been a complex relationship: a love of the language’s density of form and structural rigor coupled with the desperate grind of the dative case and the longueurs that accompany trying to drill a language into your head, especially when you are living largely outside said language. I had toyed with the idea of spending an entire year studying in Germany—but instead chose to spend my junior year editing the college newspaper. How could I have thought that being editor in chief of a student newspaper was in some way more important than having a year playing the student prince at TÜbigen or Heidelberg and knocking around assorted European capitals? It was the last time I ever made a deliberately careerist decision, and it was one which taught me a lesson: whenever the choice was between doing something practical and self-advancing or the chance to disappear out of town, always go with the latter decision.
Now—as if to prove that point once more—I had again slammed the door on the life I was leading and jumped a plane heading eastward. After we touched down and dealt with the attendant frontier formalities in Frankfurt, I boarded another flight venturing even farther east. Less than an hour later, I peered out the window. There it was, directly below us.
As the plane dipped its wings and began to circle over the eastern front of Berlin, that long, snaking concrete edifice became more defined. Even from this high altitude, it was so formidable, so severe, so conclusive. Before the clouds broke and The Wall became a scenic reality, we had spent the previous thirty minutes bouncing through turbulence over German Democratic Republic airspace, brought about (as the American pilot explained) by having to fly at just 10,000 feet over this foreign country.
“They worry that if the commercial planes fly any higher,” the woman next to me said, “they’ll engage in surveillance. For the enemy. Who is everyone outside the Warsaw Pact and the ‘fraternal brotherhood’ of fellow socialist prison camps, like Cuba, Albania, North Korea . . .”
I looked at this woman. She was in her early fifties—dressed in a severe suit, slightly heavy in the face, puffing away on an HB cigarette (the pack displayed on the armrest between us), her eyes reflecting a tired intelligence; someone, I sensed immediately, who had seen a great many things she would have preferred not to have seen.
“And might you have had experience of such a prison?” I asked.
“What makes you think that?” she asked, taking a deep long drag off her cigarette.
“Just a hunch.”
She stubbed out her cigarette and reached for another, telling me:
“I know they will put on the no-smoking sign in two minutes, but I can never fly over this place and not light up. It’s almost Pavlovian.”
“So when did you get out?”
“Thirteen August, 1961. Hours before they sealed all the borders and began to build that ‘Antifascist Detection Device’ you see below you.”
“How did you know you had to leave?”
“You ask a lot of questions. And your German isn’t bad. You a journalist?”
“No, just someone who asks a lot of questions.”
She paused for a moment, giving me a quizzical look, wondering if she could trust me with whatever she was about to say, yet also very much wanting to impart her story to me.
“You want a real cigarette?” she asked, noticing that I was rolling yet another one on top of my Olivetti typewriter case.
“That would be nice.”
“Fancy typewriter,” she said.
“A going-away gift.”
On the night before my departure, I’d arranged to see Dad at his favorite “Jap joint,” as he called the Japanese restaurant he frequently patronized in the Forties off Lexington Avenue. While there he threw back three saka-tinis (a martini make with sake), then asked the waiter to get him something he’d left in the cloakroom. He ended up presenting me with a fountain pen and a fancy new red Olivetti typewriter, an emblematic piece of modern Italian design. I was both thrown by his generosity and impressed by his good taste. But when I told him this, he just laughed and said:
“Doris—the broad I’m banging right now—she picked it out. Said a published writer like you needs a swanky machine like this one. Know what I told her? ‘One day I gotta read my kid’s book.’”
Suddenly he flinched, knowing he’d just revealed something he would have preferred to not have revealed.
“Shit, did I say something stupid or what?” he asked.
“It’s fine, Dad.”
“It’s just the booze talking, Tommy.”
“Of course it is. And thanks for the cool gift.”
“You write well with it, got me?”
I nodded, keeping my hurt to myself, wishing myself anywhere but here.
“He must be a nice man,” the woman next to me said, eyeing the seriously stylish red plastic case in which the typewriter was housed.
I said nothing. I just smiled. She noted that.
“So he’s not a nice guy?” she asked.
“He’s a complex guy.”
“And he probably loves you very much . . . and doesn’t know how to express it. Hence the nice gift. If you’re not a journalist, then you must be some sort of writer.”
“So who told you to leave the GDR?” I asked, quickly changing the subject.
“No one did. I overheard talk.”
She lowered her head, lowered her voice.
“My father . . . he was a senior member of the Party in Leipzig. And he was part of a top-secret group that had been briefed by the hierarchy in Berlin. I was thirty at the time. Married, no children, wanting to leave my husband—a functionary in a government bureau in which I had a job. As my father was high up, my position was considered glamorous by GDR standards: a senior receptionist at one of the big international hotels in the city. I had Saturday lunch every week with my parents. We were close, especially as I was their only child. My father doted on me, even though, given his Party connections, I could never express what I silently thought: our country was becoming more and more of a place where you were either with the Party or shut out of anything the society could offer you. I wanted to travel. That was simply impossible, except to other gray fraternal socialist states. But I articulated none of this to my parents, as they were both true believers. Until I heard my father, on that Saturday, tell my mother that she should stay indoors Sunday and not answer the phone, as there was going to be a ‘big change’ happening overnight.
“I had heard rumors for weeks, months, that the government was going to finally seal the borders—which, in Berlin, still remained porous. Walter Ulbricht—he was the general secretary of the Party at the time—was always going on about the ‘leakage’ at the frontier; the traitors who turned their back on our ‘humane, utopian’ society for the ‘nightmarish filth of the capitalist West.’
“I was returning from the bathroom when my father told my mother about staying inside the next day, and only overheard it as I approached the sitting room where we were taking coffee. I froze when my father’s voice whispered to her about the ‘big change overnight.’ I felt as if I was in free fall. Because I knew what this meant. And I knew that I had only hours to act if I wanted to . . .
“I checked my watch. It was twelve minutes to three. I steadied myself. I went back into the sitting room. I finished drinking coffee with my parents, then excused myself, telling them I was going swimming with a girlfriend at the public baths. I kissed them both good-bye and resisted the desire to hold them close, especially my father, because I sensed I would not be seeing them again for a very long time.
“Then I rode my bicycle home. Happily, Stefan, my husband, was playing football that afternoon with the other functionaries from the housing department where he worked. So he was away from the sad little apartment we shared together. I always thought that one of life’s greater ironies. Stefan worked in the department in charge of allocating apartments in Leipzig, and he could only get us this depressing little place. But that was Stefan. He always thought very small. Anyway, I let myself into our place. Once inside I collected a few small items: a change of clothes, a small stash of actual west deutsche marks, my passport, and whatever eastmarks I could find. I was there no longer than ten minutes. Then I rode my bike to the Hauptbahnhof and boarded the three-forty-eight express to Berlin. Within two hours I was there. I had a friend in the city, a man named Florian with whom—I can talk about this now—I was romantically linked. Not love. Just occasional comfort. But available whenever he came to Leipzig or on the rare occasions when I was in Berlin. He was a journalist with the party newspaper, Neues Deutschland. But, like me, he was also, in private, someone who had grown more and more doubtful about the regime, about the future. He also told me, two weeks earlier when he was in Leipzig, that he had a friend in Berlin who knew of a place where you could cross over from Friedrichshain to Kreuzberg without detection . . . not that the frontier between the two cities had been sealed off as of yet.
“So as soon as I reached Berlin I called Florian. As luck would have it, he was in. He’d just been recently divorced, and had been spending the afternoon with his five-year-old daughter, Jutta. He’d just returned home after dropping her back to her mother’s when I called. His apartment was in Mitte. I walked over from Alexanderplatz to his place. When I arrived, I asked him to step out into the street, because I was worried his place might have been bugged. Then I told him what I knew, that a ‘big change’ was going to happen late tonight and I was certain this meant the border would be sealed. Like me, Florian went into immediate panic when he heard my news. The thing was, his editor must have been also informed by the Party hierarchy, as all staff leave had been canceled for the weekend and he had been told to report to work by eight a.m. Sunday morning—rather than midday, which was when everyone started work on the Monday morning edition.
“Florian never once said to me, ‘Are you sure about this?’ He believed me one hundred percent. And he started thinking out loud. ‘You know that my ex-wife is very high up in the Party. If I went back for Jutta now, she might get suspicious. But when they close the border tomorrow . . . Then again, what is better? That my daughter comes with me to the West or stays here with her mother?’
“This monologue went on for several minutes. Night had fallen. It was almost eight in the evening. Time was running out. I looked at my watch and told him that we had to go now. He nodded and told me to wait outside. It was a warm August night. I smoked two cigarettes and looked at the street. Gray buildings, all in a run-down state, all painted in the bleak, functional palette of Communism. I thought about my father and whether my departure would hurt his career. I thought about Florian and hoped that he would invent some excuse to pick up Jutta and bring her with us. But when he came outside, he looked ashen.
“‘I just called Maria’s apartment. They’ve gone out. If we wait until they get back . . . well, there’s no way she will hand Jutta over to me at eleven at night without wondering what is up. So . . . ’
“He hung his head—and I could hear him catch a sob in his throat. Then, wiping his eyes, he said:
“‘I have an extra bicycle here. We ride to Friedrichshain.’
“And we cycled the twenty minutes from Mitte to a place near a road that ran on both sides of the frontier. There were two Volkspolizisten standing guard on the GDR side—and a simple gate separating the East from the West. But we could see that the Volkspolizisten were checking papers very thoroughly and holding people up and not letting anyone through, even though it was still marginally legal to cross from one sector to another. So we slipped down a side street and up to a block of apartments that faced onto a street that ran parallel with the border. Florian’s friend had told him the key to the apartment was atop a fuse box in the hallway. I held my breath as Florian searched for it. When he found it and opened the door, we found ourselves in a place that had been abandoned: a few mattresses on the floor, a filthy toilet, and a cracked window. There was a rope ladder attached to the window frame. Florian peered outside. He said the coast was clear. He threw the ladder outside and told me that I had to go down it now.
“I was terrified. I hate heights—and we were three floors up. The ladder was so feeble, so dangerous, that as soon as I put my weight on it I knew it wouldn’t hold me . . . and I only weighed fifty kilos at the time. I told Florian that I couldn’t do it . . . that I was just too scared. He literally grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and forced me out the window.
“The descent only took perhaps thirty seconds—because once I had grabbed hold of the ladder it was clear that I only had a few moments before the rope gave away. When I was about ten meters above the ground, the whole thing collapsed. I was suddenly falling—and, believe me, a ten-meter fall is a long one. I landed on my left foot and completely broke my ankle. The pain was indescribable. From up above, Florian began to hiss:
“‘Run. Run now!’
“‘You have to come with me,’ I hissed back.
“‘I need to find another rope. You cross now—I’ll meet you in a few hours at the Kaiser Wilhelm GedÄchtnis-Kirche on the Ku’damm.’
“‘I can’t move,’ I yelled back. ‘My ankle.’
“‘You have no choice. You go now.’
“‘Florian . . . jump!’
“And he disappeared. My ankle was killing me. I could put no weight on it. But somehow I managed to drag myself the thirty meters across the barren area that was no-man’s-land and into the West. As there was still no Wall—still no trip wires or armed guards that would shoot to kill—there were also no Western soldiers awaiting me as I staggered into Kreuzberg. Just a Turkish man who was walking home and found me collapsed on the street, sobbing in pain. He crouched down beside me and handed me a cigarette. Then he told me that he would be back as soon as possible with help. It must have been a good hour before I heard the roar of an ambulance, by which time I was drifting in and out of consciousness. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in some hospital ward. There was a doctor there, telling me I hadn’t just broken my ankle, but also tore my Achilles’ tendon, and I had been knocked out with anesthetics for over eight hours. Beside him was a policeman who welcomed me to the Bundesrepublik. He also told me that I was a most lucky young lady, as the GDR had sealed the borders just after midnight.
“‘Did a man named Florian Fallada make it over?’ I asked the policeman. He just shrugged and said: “‘I don’t have any knowledge of who crossed over last night. What I do know is that it is absolutely impossible to leave the GDR now. It has become a hermetically sealed state.’”
Our plane banked suddenly, its nose headed toward the ground. Then, suddenly, the cloud cover lifted and I could see that we were moments from touching down . . . the last ten minutes of this flight blurred from my memory by the narrative force of this woman’s story.
“So what happened next?” I asked as the plane’s engines entered reverse thrust mode and our forward progress began to slow.
“What happened? I was in hospital for a week. During that time several Bundesrepublik functionaries visited me and, with great ease, facilitated my passage into their country. I asked several of them if they had any news of Florian Fallada. One of them actually wrote his name down and promised me that when she returned to see me again in several days’ time she would have some news for me.
“When she did come back, she had with her my Bundesrepublik identity card and the following information: no one by the name of Florian Fallada was registered as having crossed the frontier before it was sealed on thirteen August 1961.”
“And do you know what happened to Florian?” I asked, sounding a little too eager, like a reader who—having been plunged deep into a story—wanted to skip a hundred or so pages to find out what happened next.
“I had no word of him for over ten years,” the woman said. “Myself, I found a job in Frankfurt in the hotel business—and within ten years was married and divorced. I also became the sales director of Intercontinental Hotels in Germany. During the Leipzig Trade Fair in 1972, I returned to my former country on business. And although he wasn’t there the only newspaper available at my hotel was the Communist Party rag, Neues Deutschland. On the masthead, whom did I discover was the new editor in chief? Florian Fallada.”
The plane had come to a halt. Snow was falling outside. Steps were being pushed toward the forward door of the aircraft.
“And you never tried to contact him? Never tried to find out what happened to him when he didn’t cross over with you?”
She looked at me as if I was the most naÏve man in the world.
“Had I contacted Florian I would have destroyed his career. And as I did rather love him . . .”
“But surely you wanted to know why he didn’t make it over?”
Again she regarded me with a sort of amused skepticism.
“Florian didn’t make it over because the ladder broke. Perhaps he didn’t have enough time to find another rope to get him down into no-man’s-land. Perhaps he couldn’t bear to leave his daughter behind. Perhaps he simply decided that he had a duty to remain in the place he called home, despite all the limitations that decision imposed. Who knows? But that secret—the secret that he was minutes away from escaping—stayed with only one other person: me.
“But now you know that secret, too. And perhaps you are wondering why this stranger—this middle-aged woman who is smoking and talking far too much—decided to tell you, Mr. Young American Writer, this very private story? Because I read today in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Florian Fallada, the editor in chief of Neues Deutschland, dropped dead two days ago of a heart attack at his office in East Berlin. And now, I say good-bye to you.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“My name is my business. But I’ve given you a good story, ja? You’ll find many stories here. The conundrum for you will be discerning which tales are true, and which are built on sand.”
A telltale bing was played over the loudspeaker system. Everyone began to stand up and ready themselves for the world beyond here. I hoisted my typewriter while putting my army greatcoat back on me.
“Let me guess,” the woman said. “Your father acts as if he doesn’t approve of you, but brags behind your back about His Son, the Writer.”
“My father lives his own life,” I said.
“And you will never get him to appreciate yours. So don’t bother. You’re young. Everything is still a tabula rasa. Lose yourself in other people’s stories and gain perspective on your own.”
With that, she nodded good-bye to me, heading off back into her own life. But once we were inside the terminal building—and waiting by the luggage carousel for our bags—she caught sight of me again and said:
“Willkommen in Berlin.”
LIFE AS I know it has just changed.
I wrote that line later that night in my notebook, nursing a beer on my kitchen table, my pen flying across the page. When I woke late the next morning and reread it my initial reaction was: Oh please. It was a glance between you, nothing more.
As I kept telling myself this while waiting for my coffee to percolate, another competing voice between my ears was asking: . . . then why are you still rerunning that first meeting, frame-by-frame, inside your head? Why can’t you wipe her face clear of your mind’s eye?
After Petra left the office, Wellmann was all business—making me immediately think that either he hadn’t seen all that had just passed between us, or he chose to not comment about it, or it was all in my head, and I was guilty of an overactive romantic imagination. Picking up the phone, he summoned Pawel Andrejewski to meet us. As we waited for him, Wellmann informed me that, prior to my arrival, he’d had to put me through another security clearance.
“I’m not obliged to inform you of this, but I prefer to be as transparent as possible about such matters. I’m certain you know that no one works for us, even on a freelance basis, unless they have been cleared by the powers-that-be at our local branch of ‘the brethren.’ If you ever happen to meet around here anyone who identifies himself as connected with the United States Information Agency, do know that you are also dealing with spooks. Why am I telling you this? Because why should you work for us and not know this?”
There was a knock on the door. Frau Orff put her head in to inform us that Herr Andrejewski was awaiting us outside. Wellmann informed her that she could send him in.
Pawel Andrejewski appeared in the doorway. He was a fantastically tall, thin man with dense black hair and tinted rectangular glasses, dressed in black jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. He had a lit cigarette in one hand—and I could see him immediately sizing me up with a certain ironic detachment.
“I am needed, Herr Direktor?” he asked, giving a certain acerbic weight to the expression, Herr Direktor (unlike Petra, who used the title respectfully).
“Meet Thomas Nesbitt. I will pass on to you his book about Egypt. It’s actually rather good. He’s here in Berlin writing another book . . . about what exactly, Thomas?”
“About Berlin, I suppose.”
“You mean, you are not certain what the book will be about?” Pawel asked me.
“I’m never certain about such things until I’ve done time somewhere.”
“‘Done time,’” Pawel repeated back to me. “It sounds like a jail sentence.”
“Is that your way of looking at Berlin?”
“I am just repeating what you said.”
“And I am thinking that you are misreading what I’m saying.”
“You have written how many books?”
“So you are still a neophyte.”
“One published book hardly makes you a proper author.”
“Do you always play the agent provocateur on meeting someone for the first time?”
“Absolutely,” he said with a smile.
“Well, as I am assigning you to produce Thomas’s first essay for us,” Herr Wellmann cut in, “I expect you to be professional and collegial. And I now want you to take Thomas around the operation, Pawel, and show him the proverbial ropes.”
“Whatever you demand, Herr Direktor.”
“One of these days you will lose your acerbity, Pawel, and the world will be a better place for it. I’ve told Thomas that he is to write us an essay about his first day in East Berlin.”
“Shall we call it ‘I Meet the Communists’?” Pawel asked.
“That’s a brilliant title,” I said. “You’re a most imaginative guy.”
“And I can see that this is a marriage made in heaven,” Wellmann said.
“No, in Wedding,” Pawel added.
“Now, both of you, get the hell out of here and leave me in peace. Thomas, welcome aboard. Don’t let Pawel capsize you.”
“As if I would do such a thing,” Pawel said. “Okay, neophyte. I now show you the ropes.”
As we left the office, Frau Orff stopped me, clipboard in hand.
“Your contract, Herr Nesbitt.”
I was going to ask her how she knew what I had agreed with Herr Wellmann while in his office. But Pawel posed that question for me:
“Have you been listening in again to Herr Direktor’s conversations, Frau Stasi?”
To her credit Frau Orff responded to this comment with a shrug and a sneer.
“You are the ultimate oxymoron: a Polish comedian.”
“And you are a humorless woman.”
I took the clipboard from Frau Orff, glanced at the sections about the fee, the delivery date, and the fact that Radio Free Europe would have first broadcast rights for this “on-air essay,” then signed it.
“You are a very trusting fellow, signing anything this woman hands you.”
“I regret, Herr Nesbitt, that you have been assigned to this ‘gentleman,’ who is anything but a ‘gentleman.’”
“You still cannot get over me, can you?” Pawel asked, his tone bone-dry. Frau Orff shook her head and seemed to be suppressing a laugh.
“Let us be definitive about this, Herr Andrejewski. I have never slept with you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Good day, Herr Nesbitt,” she said, relieving me of the clipboard.
As soon as we were out the door, Pawel turned to me and said:
“Even if the Stasi were interrogating her, she would deny having slept with me.”
“That makes it sound like an experience she wants to forget at all costs.”
“She has a husband who’s a serious fascist; that’s why she can’t say a word about it.”
“Describe ‘a serious fascist,’” I said.
“A Christian Democrat who is a senior executive for Krups, and who bears a striking resemblance to Wotan.”
“You’ve evidently had the opportunity to check him out.”
“He came to our Christmas party last year. I was very tempted to approach him and tell him that his wife is a rather robust fuck. But executives like him . . . they always have hit men working for them.”
This repartee, I came to discover, was classic Pawel. He always spoke in a low, rational voice. Even when he was furious at the world, which he frequently was, he had a surface calm that was preternaturally spooky. As I later came to discover—like so many of the other denizens of Radio Liberty—he was also obsessed with the idea that there were others conspiring against him and that he was a possible target for assassination.
“Now, this is a woman you need to avoid at all costs,” he whispered to me as he steered me into the main open-plan work area adjoining the studio. With a rapid movement of the head he pointed to a rather large and puffy woman in her forties with shock black hair, wildly rouged lips, and a gold ring on every finger. She was dressed in something that resembled a caftan and had a cigarette attached to a plastic gold filter. She looked like she belonged in some souq. Seeing us approach, she favored Pawel with a deep and profound sneer.
“Hello, lover boy,” she said to him as we approached, her German heavily accented.
“Soraya, always a pleasure.”
“You are, per usual, a dreadful liar.”
“Say hello to one of our new contributors, Herr Nesbitt.”
“Is he a friend of yours?”
“Does that matter?”
“If he is, I will have nothing to do with him.”
“I’ve known Pawel all of two minutes,” I said.
“If I were you, I would avoid his acquaintance from this moment on.”
“That will be a little difficult, as Herr Direktor has assigned me to be his producer.”
“My condolences,” she said to me.
As we moved off, I turned to Pawel and said:
“Another of your big fans. Don’t tell me you slept with her as well.”
“Now that would be a taste crime. Though it will not surprise you to discover that she is Turkish, her husband is a Bulgarian midget who used to be secret police.”
“He runs a business leasing portable toilets to building sites. I am certain it is all a front.”
Pawel gave me an all-encompassing shrug, indicating a wide range of conspiratorial possibilities.
“Soraya is the Middle Eastern monitor around here. Speaks Arabic into German and Turkish, and was allegedly sleeping with an Ethiopian diplomat last year . . .”
I found myself laughing, as I began to sense a theme-and-variation developing in Pawel’s repartee. Everyone around here ended up at this station not simply because they were in the market for a broadcasting job. Rather they were here because they were questionable characters with past or present histories that were, at best, shady.
“How is Robert today?” Pawel asked, approaching a rotund, jovial man with a huge Johannes Brahms-style beard and a formidable beer belly. He was dressed in a style that the Germans refer to as lÄnder—i.e., the sort of green tweed jacket with leather collar and heavy green tweed pants that made him appear to be a cross between a Westphalian pig farmer and a Bavarian leprechaun.
“Robert is good,” he said, stuffing tobacco into his pipe with the sort of vehemence that I imagined a chicken sexer applied to his chosen craft. “And my Polish friend, he is good?”
“Your Polish friend, he is sehr gut,” Pawel said, faultlessly mimicking Robert’s accent. Robert himself seemed to take no notice of this or, if he was cognizant of it, he seemed to be willing to ruefully ignore it. “And your Polish friend has a new colleague to whom he would like to introduce you.”
After exchanging names, I watched as Robert MÜtter pulled out a single match from the brown leather vest he wore beneath his jacket, struck it against the corner of his jacket, and ignited his bowl of tobacco, puffing away happily as he asked:
“A real American?”
“One hundred percent,” I said.
“We only have one of those around here—Herr Direktor—unless you count our ‘friends’ from USIA.”
“They are not our friends,” Pawel said. “They are our secret masters.”
“Are you certain our young friend isn’t one of them?” Robert asked, all smiles.
“He writes books,” Pawel said.
“So did Bukharin.”
“Until he was purged by Stalin.”
“And all because he opposed agricultural collectivism,” Pawel said. “They shot everybody back then for speaking up against anything collective, even collective in-grown toenails, of which there were more than a few cases, especially in the Urals.”
“Do you oppose agricultural collectivism, young man?” Robert asked me.
“Not if I am going to get shot for it,” I said.
“A smart chap,” he said, using the German for this anglicism—ein Bursche. “Welcome to our little club.”
As soon as we were out of earshot, Pawel said:
“Don’t let his Village Idiot fool you. He is the editor of all German news for our service—which means that, outside of Herr Direktor, he is the final frontier when it comes to deciding how and what we transmit in terms of ‘Bundesrepublik’ and ‘Deutsche Demokratische Republik’ news to our avid listeners in that prison across the street from us. With a job like that—and the fact that he’s a Franz-Joseph Schmidt-style Catholic from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the spiritual home of repressive GemÜtlichkeit—it’s clear he is also in the employ of the Bundesnachrichtendienst . . . not that a new arrival like yourself would know of such organizations.”
“The West German Secret Police?”
“Most impressive. Let me guess—you are here in Berlin to gather material for that most specious form of postwar literary entertainment, the spy novel.”
“I’m not a novelist, and I do think that your fellow Pole, Mr. Conrad, would object to your wholesale dismissal of espionage fiction, as he wrote The Secret Agent in . . .”
“1907. And I now also acknowledge a certain autodidacticism on your part.”
We approached the next desk. Sitting there was a young woman with spiked hair and a face that had been covered in white pancake makeup. She was listening to a reel-to-reel tape recorder on a pair of oversized headphones, the connecting band of which seemed to float atop the highly gelled peaks of her hair. She was smoking a cigarette and had three open bottles of Coca-Cola on her desk. Pawel addressed her in Polish. At first she glanced at him with a smirk, but then deliberately closed her eyes and began singing along, in jagged English, to whatever she was listening to on tape. It took a moment for me to decipher the lyrics: “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” by Joe Jackson. Again Pawel tried to address her. Again her smirk broadened as she closed her eyes even tighter, choosing to ignore him further. Now he tapped her on the shoulder. With great deliberateness she removed the headphones and made a big deal about letting her finger slowly descend onto the button that stopped the tape reels from turning. There followed a rapid-fire exchange in Polish between them, the young woman regarding Pawel with the amused look one possibly gives to a reprobate. Then Pawel nodded toward me and broke into German:
“And now you must meet my compatriot, Malgorzata.”
“That’s Margaret in your language,” she said in very good English.
“But we speak German here,” Pawel said, auf Deutsch. “And how did you know that Herr Nesbitt was an Anglophone?”
“He looks so American. The okay kind of American.”
“You hear that, Thomas? Thirty seconds after meeting you, my Zlota Baba is flirting with you.”
Malgorzata immediately said something back to Pawel in Polish—a slight edge creeping into her voice.
“Did I miss something here?” I asked.
“He called me his Zlota Baba,” Malgorzata said.
“What’s a Zlota Baba?” I asked.
“His ‘golden woman.’”
“It is a term of endearment,” Pawel said in German.
“No, it is a term of annoyance. But I am now going to do the intelligent thing and ignore you and ask your nice American friend . . .”
“We’re not friends,” I said, interrupting her.
“Then I like you more and more. I do rock and roll around here. I get to program all the degenerate music we send over The Wall. And what do you do around here?”
“I’m certain you scribble interestingly. Hope to see you again.”
Then the headphones covered her ears. Swiveling around in her chair, she showed Pawel her back.
“You really have a way with women,” I said as we moved on from Malgorzata’s desk.
“Actually I do, as she was another of my conquests.”
“Let me ask you something. Who haven’t you slept with around here?”
“Her,” he said, nodding toward the woman now crossing the office floor and heading into one of the studios. Petra. I doubt she heard Pawel—but at the precise moment that he said “her,” she glanced over in our direction. Seeing me she seemed a little taken aback. Then another smile seemed to cross her lips before she quickly inhibited it and simply acknowledged me with a nod. Again, a curious electrical charge ran through me at the sight of her. Even though our moment of eye contact only lasted seconds, I found I couldn’t take my gaze away from her as she turned away and headed into one of the studios, a sheaf of papers in her left hand. This time I noticed the slenderness of her legs, the graceful movement of her hips, the way she tossed her hair as she moved forward. Then, just as she reached the studio door, she turned around quickly and glanced my way again, giving me yet another nod. It was a look that meant nothing and everything. Nothing insofar at it was just a look. Everything insofar that she turned back and made a point of regarding me again. I found myself beaming at her. Her response was to lower her head and turn directly into the recording studio. Immediately I wondered if I had made the wrong move by giving her such a large smile—perhaps showing my hand far too soon, or stepping over some invisible boundary, the limits of which I had yet to discern. Whatever the reason she had ducked and turned at that particular moment, it threw me. And I knew immediately that it was going to continue to gnaw at me in the days ahead. Knock it off, knock it off now, the rational part of my brain told myself. This is an invention, a fantasy you are playing out on a romantic theme—and with someone with whom you have exchanged less than a dozen words. You are weaving a fiction from nothing more than a look across a room.
Pawel, meanwhile, didn’t seem aware of this momentary glance between Petra and myself. Instead he just kept talking. But what he was saying interested me.
“She is untouchable,” he said, motioning toward the studio where Petra was now conferring with a man seated behind a microphone.
“I see,” I said, my eyes glued to the soundproof glass on the other side of the room. Petra seemed to be laughing with this not unattractive thirty-something man, touching his shoulder as he apparently said something amusing. That’s her boyfriend, my bullshit meter hissed. So much for your romantic reverie.
Pawel kept talking:
“Not only that, nobody knows a thing about her, except that she’s from the East and got expelled from the GDR for some political bad behavior—which, in this place, counts as very good behavior. I heard a rumor once that she had a man on the other side who was also ‘political’ and is still locked up over there. But outside of Herr Direktor and our benevolent spooks in USIA nobody has the actual goods on Petra Dussmann.”
“Is she seeing anybody?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible.
“No idea. But if you are thinking about asking her out, don’t waste your time. She is the most closed off person here. Always punctual, always professional, always thoughtful and intelligent when asked to comment on her translation work. Beyond that, nothing. Never socializes with any of us. A few months ago, at the Christmas party, she stayed for an hour, chatted with a few people, then left. I gather she lives in Kreuzberg.”
Now this was news, but I decided not to share with Pawel my pleasure in discovering that she resided in the same neighborhood as me. Instead I kept my eyes fixed on the recording studio. She finished conferring with the man behind the microphone, then headed to the door, shooting him an ironic wave good-bye as she left. Surely if they were involved she would kiss him or—even if she was working very hard at keeping her private life out of public view—shoot him a look that was meaningful.
Oh God, how pathetic. Trying to gauge meaningful glances from a distance of around thirty feet. And wildly interpreting banter between colleagues as having some other overriding meaning. What on earth has sent you down this distracted cul-de-sac?
The door to the studio opened. Out came Petra, head down, not looking anywhere toward me, turning left and leaving the office area entirely. All I could feel was a jumble of thoughts, most of which centered around a sense of longing that had never entered my consciousness before. Though I kept telling myself this was all the stuff of silly instant infatuation, I refused to accept such a facile explanation. Something else was at work here. Something formidable and unfamiliar. I was in a new landscape, a terrain wholly different from anything I had ever experienced or traversed before . . . and it was still only minutes after seeing her.
And why the hell didn’t she look my way as she left the studio?
“Of course, I asked her out once,” Pawel continued on. “Not even a glimmer of interest. Everyone—even Big Soraya—engages in a bit of flirtation, even if it never intended to be anything more than that. Not our Ossie—our East German. She is a remote fortress. Back in Poland we always used to joke that the only thing worse than a Soviet practicing Communism was a German practicing Communism.”
“But if she was ejected from the GDR, she evidently wasn’t practicing Communism the way a German would.”
“Perhaps—but she was still indoctrinated in the system. So it is there, within her.”
“Not that ‘within her’ if she ended up a dissident.”
“The thing about most dissidents is that they start out as true believers, then become so profoundly disillusioned that they go down the opposite path. It’s a bit like excommunicated priests. They always end up the biggest heretics, fucking as many women as possible.”
“Is that what happened to you?” I asked.
“Ah, you have that typical American view that everyone who fled a Warsaw Pact country is Ivan Desinovitch. Or that we are so oppressed that we simply dream of fleeing westward.”
“But for far more ordinary reasons. I was accepted at film school in Hamburg and received permission from my government to attend.”
“With no strings attached?”
“Of course there were bloody strings. There are always bloody strings. But that is not a conversation I am interested in having just now. Perhaps later, when we know each other a little better. But for the moment I want to know about your idea for the essay.”
By this point we had reached Pawel’s desk. It had a large Solidarity poster covering one corner of his divide, with photographs of himself in dark glasses and a leather jacket, standing next to an older man, fifty-something, also in a black leather jacket and square dark glasses.
“Know who that is?” he asked me.
“A fellow compatriot?”
“You have your intelligent moments. Ever heard of Andrzej Wajda?”
“Your greatest living film director.”
“You do know a thing or two. And Wajda was something of a father figure to me, and even pulled the strings necessary to get me the scholarship to the Filmschule in Hamburg. The directing program and all. The full ticket.”
“So how did you end up here?”
“You mean, why am I making programs for American propagandists instead of making my own films?”
“That’s more of a harsh assessment than I would have made.”
“But, perhaps, it’s what I think every day. Making films takes work, my friend. Work and big money and an ability to cajole and schmooze and promote and play all those games that I find anathema to me. I am lazy. And it suits me to be lazy. Which is why I am here at Radio Liberty, churning out programs so people in Leipzig and Dresden and the other Frankfurt—the eastern one on the Oder—can feel they are connected to the bright, shiny little world we allegedly have over here, and our bright, shiny sad little lives. I’ve now said enough, as you’ve sidetracked me away from the subject of our conversation: your essay. As I have been assigned to be your producer, I need to know the parameters within which you plan to work.”
He locked both hands behind his head and rocked back in his chair, signaling that he was all ears. I cleared my throat, took a deep breath, and essentially repeated the same pitch that I had given to Jerome Wellmann. Pawel sat impassively as I spoke, his face a mask of indifference. When I finally stopped speaking, he shrugged his shoulders, ran his fingers through his thick hair, and finally said:
“So you cross ‘the great divide’ and find that the food is bad, the clothes are synthetic, the buildings gray. Plus Ça change, as they say in the spiritual home of the bourgeois left. The thing is, my young American friend, what have you to say about East Berlin that hasn’t been said before? What are you going to tell your listeners in the People’s Paradise, which somehow makes them think: for once here is an AuslÄnder who doesn’t throw clichÉs at us. Nothing you’ve told me so far sounds like it has its basis in original thought or observation—and, as such, it doesn’t interest me. Come back in, let us say, four days with something original and perhaps I will consider putting it on air. However, come back with something as banal as you have outlined . . .”
The effect of his words was akin to a full frontal slap across the face. Whatever about Herr Direktor’s enthusiasm for my ideas, Pawel Andrejewski was going to act the role of traffic cop, standing in the way of any forward progress I made here. More tellingly he was informing me that he had the power in this newfangled relationship between us. I wanted to say something back to him, along the lines of: “Herr Direktor thought the idea was just fine.” But I knew what the reply would be: “Herr Direktor isn’t producing this slot. I am—and I think your ideas are trite.” At moments like these—when I was coming up against a formidable opponent—I often thought back to my dad, who had this habit of telling people to go fuck themselves whenever they did something to cross him. The result was a career that was all false stops and starts with no purchase, no lasting success. As such, at a moment like this one—when I could have easily informed Pawel that I was a published author, that his boss had already given me the green light, and that I was certain that this whole business was a head-trip game on his part to see if he could throw me—I knew that the best tactic was to say nothing except:
“So what length do you want and when do you need it by?”
“Ten double-spaced pages due in four days, no later,” he said. Turning away from me and picking up a pile of papers, he let it be known the conversation had ended. So I stood up, saying:
“See you in four days then.”
Pawel gave me the smallest of nods. I walked off, scanning the office floor in the hope of catching sight of Petra. But she was nowhere within range. Zipping up my coat I headed out to the reception area, handing in the badge they gave me, and picking up my passport from the security officer. Then I hit the street. I was home in Kreuzberg within an hour. Back in my apartment I opened my notebook and went to work. Petra kept looming everywhere in my thoughts. I kept trying to reason with myself, insisting that I be realistic about such matters. Listen to what Pawel told you about her. She’s closed off, an ice queen—and intensely private. Why on earth would she be in any way interested in you? And even if she did smile at you, that was either her being polite or simply being embarrassed by your evident display of interest. You’ve blown it, my friend. She is just one of many women upon whom you have laid eyes and felt that strange rush of emotional adrenaline, as you have wondered: might she be the one?
But I lie here. I’d never before had that strange, overpowering sense of certainty that came with the first sight of Petra. Though I tried to tell myself otherwise, a louder voice was overcoming the sardonic one that was counseling caution. And this voice was telling me: Everything you think and feel right now is true. She is it.
But how could I know that without even knowing who or what she was? How could I think such a definitive thought without any proof other than sheer instinct? What did it say about my inherent aptitude for such things that I hadn’t a clue whatsoever about whether she’d even deign to have a cup of coffee with me, let alone play Tristan and Isolde in Kreuzberg?
Having finished writing up my contorted thoughts about all this, I closed my notebook with a decisive snap, recapped my fountain pen, and pushed them both away—with the knowledge that when I came to read these pages tomorrow I would cringe loudly at the naked naÏvetÉ of my longings.
I stood up and reached into the fridge and pulled out another bottle of Paulaner—my beer of choice at the moment, and at seventy-five pfennigs a bottle, very much within my budget. I rolled up three cigarettes to have at the ready. Then I walked over to a shelf on which I stored writing supplies and brought down my red Olivetti typewriter. I checked my watch. It was 12:33 a.m. The sooner I got this damn essay delivered to goddamn Pawel the sooner I might have a chance of contacting Petra again. Though part of me wanted to call her tomorrow morning and ask if she’d like to go out one night, I sensed that Pawel’s assessment of her wasn’t far off the truth—that, indeed, if I showed interest too soon the door might be abruptly slammed in my face. I had to attempt to play this coolly—and to prepare myself for the likelihood that this little reverie of mine was just that: a reverie with no future beyond the inside of my head.
Anyway there was an essay to write, which, if accepted, could possibly open a regular source of income while in Berlin. The less I had to spend on my advance now the less outside work I would need to take on when finally writing the book.
I took the bright red cover off my Olivetti and popped up the V-shaped stays that held paper upright, then rolled a clean sheet into the typewriter, and sat up in my chair, positioning the machine directly in front of me. I lit a cigarette, drawing the smoke down deep into my lungs, and wondering how the hell to begin. In the version I delineated in Jerome Wellmann’s office, I was going to start with my experience of passing through Checkpoint Charlie—and the way the world suddenly shifted from Technicolor into a particularly grainy monochrome. But Pawel’s critical blitzkrieg put the kibosh on that. Sitting here now, wrestling with that most daunting of tasks—the first sentence—I ran through Pawel’s comments again. With great reluctance I found myself now agreeing with him. Why inform the East Germans what they always knew? Why trundle out the usual clichÉs about the grayness of life under Marx-Engels? Why spew forth the usual spy novel bromides about The Wall and the East German surveillance state? The trick here, so Pawel was telling me, was to somehow find a way to state the obvious without stating the obvious, to take an approach that sidestepped the standard-issue platitudes . . . even though I never damn well intended to be banal or platitudinous. But one of the tricks of working with an editor or a producer is to gauge early on what they don’t want to read from you, or what gets up their nose and vexes them. With Pawel it was a Westerner going on about Eastern European glumness, so I would only mention all that in passing, and in as obtuse a way as possible. Instead of relating my encounter with the rather attractive bookshop assistant on Unter den Linden or the glum Angolan in that godawful cafÉ near Alexanderplatz, I would write about . . .
Suddenly my fingers began to pound out a first sentence.
Why does snow silence the world? Why does snow purify everything and transport us out of the existential despair that characterizes so much of adult life and back to that realm of childhood: that magical kingdom where, as Edna St. Vincent Millay noted, nobody dies . . . and where nobody builds walls.
I paused for a moment, wondering if Pawel would let me get away with the existential despair comment, then also thinking that, at this stage of the game, I really shouldn’t be fretting about the occasional phrase that might upset the man who now stood between me and an ongoing relationship with Radio Liberty. When in doubt, when worried about how others will view your work, there is only one solution—get it down on paper and fret about it afterward.
So I finished my cigarette and ignited another. As I exhaled another deep intake of smoke, I started to type, bearing down on the keys. For the next three hours I simply wrote, rarely looking up from the page, except to roll the next piece of paper into the machine, and reach occasionally for a swig from the nearby bottle of beer.
Then the last word was typed, and I pulled the paper out of the roller with a decisive yank, and tossed the final page onto the pile in front of me, and lit up a cigarette, feeling giddy and wired. I checked my watch. It was close to three in the morning. Collating the eight pages that I had written I put the cover back on my typewriter, then stored the essay underneath it as I placed it back on the shelf. I grabbed my jacket and headed downstairs. As I turned to head to the front door the voice of Fitzsimons-Ross stopped me.
“Productive bugger, aren’t you?”
“Evening,” I said.
“Middle of the fucking night is more like it. And you have been driving me spare with the rattle of your typewriter keys.”
“Now you know what it’s like when you blare Archie Shepp. Anyway, why weren’t you wearing your headphones?”
“Because I can’t listen to music if I can’t paint. And tonight I definitively couldn’t paint.”
“Any reason why?”
“Because I fucking couldn’t, that’s why. I mean, do you get asked twenty fucking questions when you have writer’s block?”
“I don’t get writer’s block.”
“Of course you don’t. Because you’re an Über-mensch American who can do no bloody wrong, who has not a shred of doubt in his entire being, who believes entirely in everything to do with himself, who . . .”
“Why don’t you shut the fuck up and come out and have a drink with me?” I said, my voice a sedate contrast to Fitzsimons-Ross’s rant. This gave him pause for thought for a moment.
“I’m being a cunt, aren’t I?” he said.
“Something like that.”
It was almost four when we rolled out onto the street. A dry night—no snow, the sky as clear as any Berlin sky could be. The mercury was well below zero—but I was still feeling so heady, so bound up in the sheer exhilaration of having written for nearly three hours without a single need to alter my attention from the page, that I was still oblivious to such climatic extremities as minus ten degrees Celsius. Instead, I quoted Brecht, as set to music by his fellow Berliner, Kurt Weill:
“Oh show me the way to the next whiskey bar . . .”
A laugh from Fitzsimons-Ross—who, to my great surprise and pleasure, sang the next line:
“Oh, don’t ask why, oh don’t ask why. For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar I tell you we must die. I tell you, I tell you, I tell you we must die . . .”
I came in here.
“Oh, Moon of Alabama, we must now say good-bye, we’ve lost our dear old mama, and must have whiskey, oh, you know why.”
Fitzsimons-Ross suddenly waved his hands like a referee, signaling the end of play.
“That’s it,” he said. “The Moon of Alabama.”
“By which you mean?”
“The bar to which I am dragging you.”
“There’s a bar here called the Moon of Alabama?”
“Of course there fucking is. We’re in Berlin.”
The bar in question was located a cab ride away. We found one prowling the streets within thirty seconds of deciding to head to this dive—near Tempelhof Airport.
“Tempelhof: Albert Speer’s last will and testament,” I said, when Fitzsimons-Ross mentioned, as a geographic marker, the Moon of Alabama’s proximity to the great extant architectural objet d’art from Hitler’s master urban planner. I’d already done a brief day trip to Tempelhof—because every damn book on Berlin waxed lyrical on its amazing Third-Reich-Goes-Art-DÉco aesthetic, and the fact that it remained such a remarkable design artifact from an era that everyone on both sides of the German divide would rather forget.
“Ah, but all the Nazis had a faggot sensibility,” Fitzsimons-Ross said. “It was the most closeted political movement in history, which is why they grouped shirt lifters alongside Jews and Gypsies as enemies of the state. Because from Hitler on down they couldn’t accept their inherent campness. I am so fucking surprised that Hugh Trevor-Roper and all those other Oxbridgey Nazi specialists failed to make more of the fact that all the horror of World War Two emanated from the fact that Hitler and his cronies were a bunch of bum bandits. Look at the warped documentary masterpieces of his resident dyke film auteur, Leni Riefenstahl. Triumph of the Will and Olympia are two of the greatest pieces of homoeroticism ever consecrated on celluloid.”
Fitzsimons-Ross delivered this monologue at the top of his voice—and in a haranguing style that made him sound like he’d been mainlining Dexedrine (which, knowing Fitzsimons-Ross, wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility). I must admit that I found myself highly amused by his rant, and was simply thankful that it was being delivered in English and not auf Deutsch, as the cabbie was one of those late-twenties Berlin toughies who probably wouldn’t take kindly to the thesis which my fellow passenger was expostulating.
“Well, stop sitting there with that fucking smug Big Buddha grin of yours,” Fitzsimons-Ross said to me, “and tell me I’m full of shit or something.”
“I actually think you should go on the lecture circuit with this idea of yours. And start here in the Bundesrepublik, where you will undoubtedly win so many people over with your historical interpretation.”
“Go on, mock me.”
“But how can I mock someone so amusing, Alaistair?”
That was the first time I had ever called him by his first name. He acknowledged this with a raised eyebrow.
We pulled up in front of a doorway on a deserted street. Over the doorway, painted in Day-Glo paint, were the words, Der Mond ÜberAlabama—the calligraphy fashioned so it looked like graffiti. The street was shabby. No shops, no residential buildings, no cars . . . just a few warehouse-style buildings, the moonlit night bathing them in a spectral glow. But what hit me immediately as we emerged from the taxi back into the frigid Berlin night was the wail of sound that came from within. A cacophony that was beyond loud, beyond extreme.
“I meant to tell you,” Fitzsimons-Ross said. “This place is just a little out there.”
We plunged inside. The sound was instantly deafening. We were in a corridor painted black, lit by purple tubes, with a biker guy—shaved head, bulging biceps, serious tattoos—acting as bouncer on the door and relieving us both of ten deutsche marks. I was almost surprised that he didn’t pat us down for weapons. But as I came to quickly discover, Der Mond Über Alabama wasn’t a biker joint, or a gay bar, or a heavy-metal outpost, or anything easily catagorizable. Rather it was an amalgam of all of the above—but also deliberately, wildly, absurdly excessive. We were in a room around the size of a basketball court, with a ceiling that was no more than ten feet high. It was painted jet black, the only illumination being more of the same long fluorescent purple tubes. There was a bar stretched along one wall. There was a narrow stage on the far side, on which were five black musicians—a trumpeter, a saxophonist, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer—ranging in age from mid-twenties (the saxophonist) to early seventies (the pianist)—and all of them producing the sort of clamor and wild sonorities that one associates with free jazz. At least half the crowd—and the place was so dense with people that movement was tricky—were pushed up near the stage and seemed to be very much in a near-catatonic state brought on by the five musicians and their unbridled sonic howls. Everyone else was engaged in whatever form of escapism or indulgence or hedonism they had decided to practice—or for that matter, bump into—tonight. The bar seemed to only serve vodka and beer, and there were some very seriously drunk people crushed up against its confines. A low-level, sweet aromatic cloud of grass and hashish hung over everything, intermingled with an even far more dense fog of cigarette smoke. Just about everyone I saw had a cigarette to hand—that is, except the people who were shooting up in one corner of the warehouse, and the others who were disappearing, always two together, behind a black curtain. I looked around for Fitzsimons-Ross, thinking he’d make a beeline for his fellow junkies. But I saw him up against the bar, cigarette and vodka in one hand, deep in conversation with a rather short but very muscular skinhead. He saw me catch sight of him but didn’t acknowledge me, instead returning to his conversation with the gentleman who also had an Iron Cross dangling from one ear lobe.
I turned away, trying to survey all that was around me. The music was assaulting my eardrums, the smoke making my eyes tear. The part of me that despises crowds wanted to turn and flee. The place had all the telltale makings of one of those public catastrophes where somebody sets fire to a curtain and panic ensues, with the result that several hundred people trample each other to death. But that was the ultra prudent, always look both ways before crossing the road side of me. The other part—the guy who loved being in the middle of extremity—looked around and marveled. What splendid decadence. What mad, collective hedonism, especially as everything here was out in the open. The junkies were shooting up openly. The coke aficionados, both the freebasers and the snorters, were congregated in an adjoining corner of the room. The heavy boozers were up against the bar, blotto. Joints and hash pipes and bongs were being passed freely. When a pipe came my way, I took two hits off it and immediately felt as if my head had been cleaved. Or as if I had walked into the hallucinogenic equivalent of an empty elevator shaft.
“You like that shit?”
The voice belonged to a diminutive woman in her early twenties. She had insanely long hair—it stretched to the middle of her back and was elaborately braided. Her face was made up in an equally elaborate way—the left side in a Kabuki-like white, the right in Goth black. Her lips were tinted purple, or perhaps that was the effect of the fluorescent tubes and the two hits of the herbal trouble that I had just inhaled and that was now making me feel outside, this madly congested place, and which also had the effect of turning the music even more violent.
“It’s . . . interesting.”
“Have another hit.”
She passed me the pipe again. I drew down another small cloud of smoke. But this time I coughed it straight out again, the narcotic effect now robbing me of peripheral vision and turning all sound into an emphatic drone.
“What’s in the pipe?” I asked.
“Skunk. Let’s go.”
She took me by the hand.
“In the back.”
I allowed myself to be led by the hand through the crowd, all ambient noise now reduced to a surreal monotone. After spending several minutes negotiating our way through the crowd we reached the black curtain. My companion pulled me through. There—on a series of mattresses—were assorted couples, all naked (or, at least, from the waist down), in varying stages of what a Victorian pornographer might have described as sexual congress. Perhaps it was the effect of the skunk. Perhaps it was the extremity of this scene. Perhaps it was the fact that there’s a part of me which, even when under the influence of a mind-contorting substance, still backs away from the lunatic fringes of excess. Perhaps I am simply someone who doesn’t like having sex with a stranger in public—and amidst twenty-four other naked heaving couples (not that I was making an exact count). And perhaps there was also something just a little off-putting about this tiny young woman with the weirdly two-toned face. Was she a member of some would-be coven of Wiccans? Another thing crossed my now thoroughly addled brain. Petra. What was I doing, about to fall onto a grubby, much stained, much overused mattress, with this rather strange person, if my heart was elsewhere?
“Scheisse,” my companion said. “No free mattress.”
I blurrily scanned the immediate vicinity. She was right. No room at the inn.
“Another time,” she said, and drifted out of this area.
Well, that makes things easier, I told myself. Followed by another thought: I really need to get the hell out of here.
I don’t remember much that followed this decision to leave, except that, as I turned away from all those naked, heaving bodies, I heard one woman say in a distinctly American accent: “They won’t believe this back in Des Moines.”
But when I scanned the room, trying to put a face to this voice, all I could see was a darkened, expansive congealment of the naked human form. No discerning features, no individual characteristics. Just a copulative phantasmagoria. It was something of which I wanted no further part. Maybe that was the skunk talking as well, as I was beginning to feel actively paranoid. So I found myself pushing my way through the crowd, making it down that long, endless black corridor and literally falling out onto the street, whereupon I was certain that secret policemen . . . agents of the Stasi, who had somehow already read my thoughts about East Berlin . . . these agents were going to bundle me into the trunk of a car and speed across Checkpoint Charlie and hold me for months, eventually using me as a bargaining chip to get one of their own operatives out of CIA detention. Then, when I was finally exchanged, the agency would wonder if I had been brainwashed and turned into a Stasi stooge operative . . . and, oh fuck, that skunk was too damn potent, and the car lights so damn bright out here, even though I don’t see a fucking light in sight, and . . .
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a cab. I threw myself inside, managed to mumble my address—the driver, a Turk, getting just a little peeved when he asked me to repeat it three times—and then curling up in the backseat and beginning to sob like a fool. All the sorrows of my little life pouring out of me, all triggered by that insane substance I had inhaled into my lungs, and which had sent me over the edge of the emotional cliff, hurtling toward . . .
Finally, my front fucking door. I threw money at the driver, I staggered inside, upstairs, stripping off everything when I reached my bed, falling atop of it, shivering like the naked moron that I was, somehow negotiating myself up again and between the sheets, clicking off the bedside light, then holding to the pillow for dear life, as I was suddenly being taken on the roller coaster ride from hell. I felt the bed, the room, spinning out of control, sending me down a black slope toward a huge tree, the airborne pillow (don’t ask) just about dodging this fatal dead end, and sending me flying, then hurling me straight down toward the ground, and vomit rising in my gorge, and me on my feet and careening toward the bathroom, just reaching the doorway as, out of nowhere, I begin to projectile vomit everywhere, and the regurgitation going on interminably and spewing in all conceivable directions, and me staggering out of there and into the kitchen, and turning on the tap in the sink, and putting my face under its frigid stream of water, and cursing myself, and feeling so utterly toxic and beyond redemption, and staggering back to the bedroom, and falling face-first onto the bed, and then . . .
Morning. Or, at least, there was light coming through the window next to the bed. I opened an eye. A bad mistake, as the very act of attempting to reemerge on Planet Earth was accompanied by a migraine of classic proportions. I touched my lips with my tongue and tasted the vile flavor of dried vomit. I tried to move but felt that enervating chill and fever that come with sweating profusely throughout the night, as the sheets were sodden and also stank of nausea. Standing up took some work—my equilibrium virtually nonexistent. Each step forward was an experience in disorientation. When I reached the bathroom, I nearly began to retch again, as I saw the remnants of my handiwork from the night before. Splattered vomit everywhere.
There are moments in life where you just simply want to curl up into a ball on the floor, press the palms of your hands against your eyes, and will away the after-effects of your stupidity. But Dad’s Marine Corps legacy—the way he always insisted that I make my bed at home with perfect hospital corners and keep my shoes well shined, and clean up any mess I made—forced me to stagger into the kitchen, put my head under the sink’s tap (didn’t I also do this last night?), and allow all that arctic Berlin water to snap me into reasonable consciousness. Then I withdrew from the tall kitchen cabinet the mop, a bucket, several rags, rubber gloves, and a bottle of the German equivalent of Mr. Clean that I had bought when first moving in here. Over the next hour I mopped up the mess I made, disinfecting the entire bathroom, making certain that no visual or olfactory traces of my stupidity remained. It was slow, grubby work, during which I told myself: now you know why they call it dope. The events of the night before began to reassemble in my head. You’re lucky to have just gotten away with projectile vomiting and the mother of all hangovers. Once the bathroom was spick-and-span and smelling of lemon disinfectant, the bed stripped and remade with clean linens, my body placed under a very cold shower, my teeth brushed repeatedly, two cups of coffee ingested (and held down) . . . after all this imposition of order upon personal chaos, I proceeded to spend the next hour getting all the gory details of last night down on paper. Only halfway through this exercise—in which I was thoroughly merciless—did I remind myself that I still hadn’t bothered to check the time. Glancing at my watch, I saw it was two thirty in the afternoon. Jesus Christ, much of the day lost. I immediately began to map out what I would do to make up for it. Finish the diary entry. Head out to the local laundry with the soiled sheets. A very late lunch at the CafÉ Istanbul. Then back here to start editing the essay—though I also told myself that, given the current state of my brain, it was best to simply read through the piece and consecrate tomorrow to whipping it into presentable shape.
Discipline, discipline. The only antidote to life’s helter-skelter tendencies. But the more I pushed forward in my notebook with my account of that crazed, lost night, the more I also knew that I was so damn pleased to have bumped into such mad decadence. Just as I also couldn’t help but wonder what everyone who had assembled there were ultimately looking for. On a certain level it was simply a fix, a fuck, communal inebriation, and a general flaunting of society’s standard operating mores. Der Mond Über Alabama was all about collective subversion—and embracing the sort of sybaritic things that would land you in jail outside of its confines. I was pretty damn certain that the majority of my fellow attendees were as bourgeois in their backgrounds as I was. As such, I couldn’t now help but wonder if we were attracted to a place like Der Mond Über Alabama for precisely the same reason everyone there had also chosen West Berlin as a place of temporary or permanent residence. Here you didn’t need to be meeting the right people at the right parties. Here you didn’t have to push yourself onto the world. Here you could sleep with whomever you wanted and not have people talking about it. Here you were ignored, as everyone was ignored in Berlin. We were separate and isolated, and I sensed that you only stayed here if that suited your temperament.
I finished my diary entry on this thought. As I recapped my fountain pen I noted that my general physical condition had upgraded itself from catastrophic to merely terrible. I gathered up the bag of soiled sheets and clothes I was going to drop off at the laundry. I put on my coat and opened the door to head downstairs. But as I began to descend I heard two noises that threw me: the ca-chink, ca-chink, ca-chink of a needle stuck in a record groove, and the more profoundly disconcerting sounds of someone moaning in pain. But the moan was so low, so guttural, it was almost as if they were gagging on something. Like their own blood.
Which is exactly what was happening—as Alaistair was lying in a broken heap on the floor, blood cascading from his mouth, his breathing irregular, contorted. His studio had been subjected to a cataclysm. Paint had been splattered everywhere, brushes snapped in two, his worktable turned upside down, a window smashed, and . . . this was too devastatingly awful . . . the three big canvases he had been working on shredded with what must have been a knife.
“Alaistair, Alaistair,” I hissed as I made my way toward the debris toward him. But the pool of blood was engulfing him, making it difficult to get even close to him. I was instantly charging down the stairs, racing out into the street, into the corner shop, screaming at the startled man behind the counter.
“Polizei! Polizei! Sie mÜssen sofort die Polizei rufen!”
The man did as ordered, and when he informed me that the dispatcher at the emergency services said that an ambulance would be there in three minutes I ran in helter-skelter fashion back up the stairs, ascertained that Alaistair was still breathing, then dashed into his bedroom, opened the drawer on the bedside table where I knew he kept his heroin gear, ran into the kitchen, found a plastic bag, rushed back to the bedroom, dumped everything—his needles and hypodermics and tourniquets, a burnt spoon and three little packets of white powder—into the bag. Then I threw it all out the back window. At that very moment there was a pounding on the door. The paramedics and the cops had just arrived.
What happened next was wildly choreographed confusion: the paramedics diving in to stabilize Alaistair and stanch the flow of bleeding, the cops immediately deciding that, as I had phoned in the crime, I must be the perpetrator. They shouted innumerable questions at me, demanding to see my papers, demanding to know what my relationship with this man was. When I explained that I had been asleep upstairs, they demanded to know how I could have slept through such an assault. Ever smoked skunk? Instead I tried to explain that I was a rather heavy sleeper. And no, I had absolutely no problems, no issues with Fitzsimons-Ross, no past history of violence, no entanglements with the law, no . . .
“For God’s sakes,” I finally yelled at the cops. “He’s my friend. I found him here ten minutes ago and ran screaming into the shop downstairs. Ask the guy behind the fucking counter.”
“You watch your mouth,” one of the cops shouted back at me.
“Then stop fucking accusing me.”
“You want to be arrested?”
The officer grabbed me by the shirt and began to shake me.
The other cop—the older of the two—put a restraining hand on his colleague’s arm and said in a manner that made it clear it was an order, “You go downstairs now, corroborate his story with the guy in the shop. I’ll stay with our ‘friend’ here. What’s your roommate’s name?”
“Fitzsimons-Ross. Alaistair Fitzsimons-Ross.”
“You hear that?” the officer asked his colleague. “You find out if the guy in the shop knows Fitzsimons-Ross.”
As soon as the other cop had headed off at speed, the officer asked me manifold questions about Fitzsimons-Ross: his nationality, his profession, his lifestyle. I painted a fairly benign portrait, saying that he was a well-known painter, quiet, low-key, and that our friendship was not one where we knew intimate details of each other’s lives.
“But surely the fact that you were living here . . .”
I explained that we kept different hours, had very separate lives.
As this interrogation was going on, another two officers were scrounging around the apartment, pulling open drawers, pulling books down from shelves, heading upstairs to my lair to undoubtedly search everywhere. Thank Christ I had managed to get all evidence of his addiction off the premises—and was quietly holding my breath, wondering if Alaistair had stashed away some other drug paraphernalia (or, worse yet, the junk itself) elsewhere.
In the middle of all this, one of the paramedics shouted over to the cop that “The patient is stabilized” and they were going to move him.
“Will he make it?” I asked.
“He lost a lot of blood, but we have managed to stop the hemorrhage. If you hadn’t have found him when you did, he’d have died ten minutes later.”
I looked at the cop after the paramedic said this. He merely shrugged and continued pounding me with questions: “What do you do? Are you working here illegally? Where can I see proof that you write books?” Meanwhile, the paramedics lifted Alaistair onto a gurney, a transfusion bag suspended above him, a tube connected to his ravaged veins. They pushed him toward the front door, the wheels streaking the floor with blood as they headed off.
“One last thing,” the paramedic told the cops. “Check this out.”
Lifting the sheet that was covering Alaistair, he pointed to the track marks that were running up and down the nook of his arm.
“A junkie,” the paramedic said.
“Did you know this?” the cop asked me, his tone now indicating that he was incensed.
“Not at all.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s the truth.”
The cop shouted at his colleague to search the place even more thoroughly, as they were now on the hunt for Class A drugs. Then he turned to me and said:
“Show me your arms.”
I did as ordered. He inspected them carefully, clearly disappointed that they were so clean.
“I still don’t believe you didn’t know he was . . .”
But the officer was interrupted by the arrival of his colleague, together with the man from the corner shop. The accompanying cop pointed to me and asked him:
“Is this the man who ran in to your shop, yelling at you to call for the police?”
The guy knew me, as I made a point of stopping in there at least once a day to buy something. He was Turkish, in his mid-fifties, always downcast, but now wide-eyed as he surveyed the smashed-up studio and the blood that was everywhere.
“Yes, this is the man,” he said, nodding toward me. “He’s a regular customer.”
“And was this the man you saw returning with Herr Fitzsimons-Ross last night?”
“No, not him.”
“Are you sure?”
“I know the other man, because he is a regular customer, too. But this man wasn’t with him. In fact, I’ve never seen them together.”
“So who was the other man with Herr Fitzsimons-Ross?”
“That is his name?” the shop owner asked.
“You say he was a regular customer and you don’t know his name?”
“I don’t know the names of most of my customers.”
“Describe the other man with Fitzsimons-Ross.”
“Short, shaved head, with a tattoo on one cheek.”
“What kind of a tattoo?”
“Some sort of bird, I think. It was dark.”
“Was this the first time you saw this man with Fitzsimons-Ross?”
“I think so. The times I did run into him early in the morning he was usually with some man.”
Now the officer was looking at me.
“So Fitzsimons-Ross often picked up men and brought them back late at night?” he asked.
“As I told you before, though we were friendly, I had little in the way of contact with him.”
The officer shook his head, displeased with my response, while tapping my American passport against his thumb.
“Get a full statement from the shopkeeper,” he told his colleague. “And meanwhile, Herr Nesbitt, we will see what the search of the premises uncovers.”
A very nervous hour passed, while the two policemen assigned to the task pulled the place apart. Meanwhile, the officer took a full deposition from me. One of the officers came down with the one and only copy of my Egyptian book that I had brought with me—and showed the investigating officer my author photograph on the inside jacket flap. The officer also read my biographical sketch on the same flap and even opened the book to the first chapter and scanned the opening page.
“So you are who you say you are,” he finally said. “And you are evidently an observant man, given what you do for a living. That is, if you make a living at it. Yet you still try to tell me that you hadn’t a clue that Herr Fitzsimons-Ross was an addict who had the habit of picking up stray men and bringing them back here.”
“As you can see, sir, I live in a self-contained unit upstairs. I come and go at different hours from Herr Fitzsimons-Ross—and we barely see each other. But honestly, sir, I can’t say that I know much about the man beyond the fact that he is a very fine artist with whom I have shared a beer perhaps twice since I moved in some weeks ago.”
The officer wrote this all down, his skepticism still so apparent. When his colleagues finally finished their controlled ransacking—and informed their superior that the place was clean—I could see the officer’s disappointment was acute.
Again he tapped my passport against his thumb, pondering his next move. Finally he said:
“If Herr Fitzsimons-Ross survives, we will be naturally taking a deposition from him. If all this checks out, then you will be ruled out of our investigation, and the passport will be returned to you.”
“But as the shopkeeper has clearly stated I wasn’t with Fitzsimons-Ross.”
“Do you have any need for the passport immediately? Are you planning to travel in the coming days?”
“Not in the next week or so, no.”
“Well, hopefully, we will have this matter cleared up by then.”
He then reached into the pocket of his jacket and took out a hefty notebook. Opening it he wrote out an official receipt for my passport, informing me it would be kept at the Polizeiwache in Kreuzberg. And if he needed to phone me?
I explained that there was no phone here at the apartment, but that messages could be left at the CafÉ Istanbul.
“Ah yes, artists do not need phones,” the officer said dryly. “We know where to find you when we need you, Herr Nesbitt.”
“Can you tell me to which hospital Herr Fitzsimons-Ross has been taken?”
“Not until we have interviewed him. Good day, sir.”
And he left, followed by his colleagues.
In the immediate aftermath of his departure, I found my head reeling. As my brain played cartwheels—a reaction to all the adrenaline that had been charging through my system from the moment I found Fitzsimons-Ross on the studio floor—another thought quickly took over: where was the essay I wrote for Radio Liberty . . . and why the hell hadn’t I made a Xerox copy of it at the local corner shop (and, by the way, God bless its owner for clearing my name)? The reason my fear about the essay so instantly flooded my thoughts was simple: if it had been torn up, confiscated, or destroyed during this search, it would have taken me another day or so to rewrite it. Or, worst yet, the police might approach Radio Liberty, informing them that this would-be contributor was under suspicion of a violent incident with his gay junkie roommate. Once word got around the studio, I doubted if Petra would even bother to say more than two words to me—“No, thanks”—when I finally got up the courage to ask her out.
So moments after the cops were gone, I found myself charging up the stairs to my apartment and moving immediately to the shelf on which I kept my typewriter. It had been moved to the worktable, the cover taken off it, several keys depressed—as the cops were evidently verifying the fact that I hadn’t secreted a small packet of some psychotropic substance inside its frame. My essay had been placed underneath the typewriter on the shelf—and though my first view of the empty shelf was just a little heart stopping, a quick glance at the floor showed that all eight pages had been randomly strewn about the place. I gathered them all up, reordering them according to page number and stacking them neatly on my worktable. Then I double-checked that all my assorted notebooks were still there. Again they had ended up on the floorboards—and several of them had been opened and rifled through. But these were not the thought police, interested in my perceptions of Berlin life. They just wanted to find drugs.
I spent the next two hours slowly putting my rooms back together again. All my clothes had been dumped out of the chest of drawers or pulled off their hangers in the wardrobe. Every kitchen utensil and item of cutlery and all the cleaning supplies under the sink had been haphazardly tossed around. Even my espresso maker and my kettle had been opened and inspected. At least they hadn’t done that cheesy Greek restaurant stunt of smashing up all the plates, as these had been stacked on the floor by the sink. Still it took time to rearrange everything, and tackle the medicine chest in the bathroom, given the fact that they squeezed out the entire contents of my toothpaste tube and smashed open a very ordinary bottle of body powder and dumped its contents on the floor, and emptied the entire can of shaving cream, and upended the shampoo, and everything else in which I might have hidden some sort of contraband.
And to think I had just cleaned the bathroom of all that vomit.
Still, nothing important was missing or damaged (they even left the batteries to my radio/cassette player near the machine itself). And I certainly hadn’t suffered the same fate as poor Alaistair. Coming downstairs, I saw that the walls were splattered everywhere with blood and paint, the worktable and chairs also covered with this amalgamation of gore and synthetic color. I walked into the bedroom. The attack had evidently started here, as the sheets were also stained crimson and the cops had just added to the chaos by dumping his clothes everywhere. I started surveying all that needed to be done here when I was taken aback by the sound of a key in the front door lock. Hurrying back into the front room—and grabbing a chair as possible protection—I found myself face-to-face with Mehmet. He was taking in the catastrophe and also eyeing me—and the fact that I had a chair in one hand—with alarm.
“Sorry, sorry,” I said, dropping the chair. “Something terrible has happened.”
“In the hospital. There was an attempted robbery last night. And he was stabbed repeatedly. I was upstairs asleep when it happened—and had drunk so much last night that I slept through it all.”
“Is he alive?”
“Just about. When I found him . . . well, put it this way, if I hadn’t found him he would have died within a half hour. Or, at least, that’s what the ambulance team told me.”
“And the man who did this? Did they catch him?”
“No. But I gather he climbed in through an open window while Alaistair was asleep. There was a struggle. And . . .”
Mehmet began to shake his head very slowly. Turning away from me, he said in a voice barely above a whisper:
“There is no need to lie to me. I know it wasn’t a thief who broke in here and did this. I know how Alaistair lives.”
I looked squarely at Mehmet and saw in his face the same look that a constantly betrayed wife often has, especially if she has decided to accept the fact that her husband is someone who has repeatedly strayed and will continue to do so for as long as they are together. Anyway, who was I to speculate what the nature of their relationship actually was, or whether there were any bonds beyond the three afternoons they spent together every week? What was clear was that Mehmet was so profoundly shaken by the sight of such destruction, and by the fact that I couldn’t tell him more about his lover’s condition.
“Why didn’t they tell you the name of the hospital?” he demanded.
“Because the medic rushed him off and the cops spent all their time getting a deposition from me.”
“How will you know where to find him?”
“I’ll start phoning around. Once I’ve found out, we can go see him together.”
“No, that is impossible for me,” he said.
“I understand,” I said.
“No, you don’t understand. Nobody understands. If it was to be made public—our ‘friendship’—my life would be over. I would be finished. A dead man.”
We fell silent. Mehmet reached into his jacket and fished out his packet of cigarettes. Flipping one into his mouth, he tossed me the packet. I took a cigarette and tossed the pack back to him, hunting around my pockets for my Zippo and lighting up. After a few deep drags, I said:
“One thing we could do for Alaistair . . . we could repaint the studio and deal with the blood on the floor and the furniture.”
This idea immediately caught Mehmet’s attention.
“You know, this is my part-time job. I run the family dry cleaning business, but I have a sideline in home decoration. Of course, I can’t bring any of my crew around here to help.”
“I’m handy with a paintbrush,” I said.
“Can you get up early tomorrow?”
“After the night I had last night, I think I’ll fall into bed around nine tonight.”
“Okay, I’m here at eight tomorrow morning with everything we need.”
“I’ll be up and ready.”
“There’s no need to thank me,” I said.
“Yes, there is. Because I know I can trust you. Because you have his best interests at heart. And because he told me he liked you—and Alaistair likes very few people.”
Before he left, Mehmet inspected the bedroom and informed me he’d order a new mattress in the next few days. He also gathered up all of Alaistair’s blood-splattered clothes and dumped them into a large plastic bag, saying he’d get his laundry to handle it all. Then he headed off into the night.
I was suddenly hit with a wave of tiredness—not surprising, considering the manic events of the past twelve hours. I checked my watch. It was now seven p.m. Though I hadn’t eaten all day I felt no hunger, no need for food, drink, or anything else except sleep. I got myself upstairs, took a long very hot shower, and then fell into bed, setting my alarm for four that morning.
I slept a sleep so deep, so sound, that when I awoke with my alarm clock well before dawn, there were a few delightfully befuddled moments when all I could think was: my God, I feel positively born-again. Then the events of the previous day came flooding in, and I found myself haunted by the idea that Alaistair might not have survived the night. What had happened to him had been so monstrous, so unfair—and, truth be told, I did think of him now as my friend. I so wanted to ring the cops and demand to know the state of his condition—whether he’d pulled through and, if so, when I could see him. But as it was in the middle of the night—and phoning the police right now might just make them regard me as a crank, or someone with an obsessively guilty streak (that is, if I could find a working phone on a chilly street corner, as all the public phones in Kreuzberg were inevitably out of order or recently vandalized, and the CafÉ Istanbul didn’t open until six)—there was only one solution: go to work. So I made coffee and ate some cheese on pumpernickel bread, and then, sharpened pencil in hand, went to work on my essay—attacking its descriptive excesses and its badly drawn observations, smoothing over its passages of stylistic roughness, and honing its readability. By the time I worked my way through it again it was just after six a.m. Making myself a fresh pot of coffee I set up my typewriter, rolled a clean sheet of paper into it, lit my first cigarette of the morning, and began to hammer away. It took just under two hours to retype the revised eight-page essay—which included the time needed to dab Wite-Out on the paper and wait for it to dry whenever I made a typo. I had just finished when I heard a key in the door. Mehmet had arrived.
“Can you please help me in with a few things from my van?”
The few things included four gallons of white emulsion, paint trays, rollers and brushes, a larger sander for the floor and a small handheld one for furniture, a dozen industrial-strength garbage sacks, and two ladders.
“Good God, how did you manage to round all this up since yesterday afternoon?” I asked.
“I have a cousin who owns a paint shop near here.”
As I made us coffee, Mehmet told me that he felt it best if we started with the walls. But first there was the matter of cleaning up the debris from his studio. I excused myself for a moment to change into the shabbiest T-shirt and jeans that I owned, then returned to find that Mehmet was already stuffing all the snapped brushes and upended paint cans from Alaistair’s worktable into one of the sacks. I joined in—and we had much of the rubble cleared up in a half hour. When it came to the ripped canvases, Mehmet wanted to throw them out, insisting that Alaistair wouldn’t want them around—that it would be too much for him to bear. But I finally convinced him to leave them stacked in one corner until I spoke to Alaistair about them.
“Let him decide whether he wants them here or not,” I said.
Mehmet thought that idea over, eventually giving his consent.
“No news?” he asked quietly.
I shook my head.
He fell silent again and began to open a gallon of paint, pouring it into two trays. For the next three hours little in the way of dialogue passed between us. I asked him once if we could listen to some music while we worked. He said, “No problem,” and I worked my way through his four-record set of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier as we managed to get two of the four walls painted.
At ten, I took a ten-minute break, running out to the CafÉ Istanbul to call Pawel at Radio Liberty. He answered on the fifth ring.
“To what do I owe this honor?” he asked dryly after hearing my voice.
“I have your essay.”
“My, my, you are the eager beaver.”
That’s because I cannot get Petra Dussmann out of my head.
“You told me you wanted it quickly.”
“Can you bring it over this afternoon?”
And he hung up.
Then I asked to borrow a phone book and called all of the six hospitals located within the confines of West Berlin. Every time I spoke with someone at the reception desk I was told that they could not confirm if they had admitted someone named Alaistair Fitzsimons-Ross. And I was told that I would have to present myself in person with my papers in order to be told whether or not they had a patient by that name with them. “This is how the system works,” I was told repeatedly when I complained that I simply wanted a yes or no that he was in their hospital. “We cannot change the system.”
I returned to the apartment and told Mehmet about my hospital ring-around and how it yielded no results, no information about Alaistair. He just shrugged and we continued painting until noon—when Mehmet announced he now had to get to work but would return here tomorrow at eight for another redecorating session.
“We should have everything done within three, four days,” he said.
“If I hear anything from the police before tomorrow . . . ?”
“It will have to wait until I arrive in the morning. No one can know anything about my presence here. No one.”
“You have my word on that.”
After Mehmet left, I went back upstairs and showered, changing into blue jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. Then I reread the essay one more time, thinking to myself: He’ll probably hate it, and that will be the end of things. And word will get back to Petra that the essay was no good, and why would she want to go out with a would-be contributor whose work was rejected?
A few hours later, however, as I emerged from the Wedding U-Bahn station and began to cross the street, there walking toward me was Petra. She was dressed in a beat-up black leather jacket, zipped up against the cold, a short black corduroy skirt, black tights. A rare sighting of a midwinter sun caught the auburn wave of her hair and made her look luminous. She didn’t initially see me. Instead she was walking along with her head bowed and a look on her face that hinted at some terrible distress within, a deep preoccupation that was causing her considerable grief. I wanted to shout her name. Instinctually I knew this to be a bad idea, given whatever she might be grappling with at this very moment. But as we both approached the entrance to Radio Liberty, she caught sight of me and immediately favored me with a shy, hesitant smile.
“Ah, it’s you,” she said. “And what brings you back here?”
“Delivering my essay to Pawel.”
“You work fast.”
“A deadline always focuses the mind.”
“Nice seeing you again,” she said, walking ahead of me.
“Listen, I’ve got a pair of tickets for the Philharmonie tomorrow night. It’s all Dvorak, conducted by Kubelik, who being Czech, knows his Dvorak . . .”
“Sorry, I’m busy,” she said, walking on. “But thank you.”
And turning a corner she was gone.
The sense of letdown, of utter disappointment, was vast. There it was. She was telling me in a clear, transparent manner: I’m not interested. Or: There’s somebody else in my life. Or, quite simply: No thanks. As much as I tried to rationalize this comment—maybe she is genuinely busy tomorrow, maybe she was rushing off to a meeting just now, which is why she was so abrupt with you—I couldn’t get around the fact that I had just been given the kiss-off. Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with in life is when another person punctures a fantasy that you have been building up in your head. What makes this even more painful is when said person is the subject of said reverie, and you now have to face up to the death of a dream. And you simultaneously wonder why you had such absurd romantic thoughts in the first place.
Because we all want to love and be loved. And, more tellingly, because we are all so in love with the idea of being in love.
“You look morose.”
I glanced up as Pawel walked into the reception area, smiling. As I came to know him, I realized that the few times Pawel ever smiled was when he saw other people’s discomfort.
“Momentary weltschmerz,” I said.
“In my experience it’s never momentary. Follow me.”
I did just that, walking with him toward his office cubicle, keeping my head lowered in case I caught sight of Petra again. When we reached his lair, he motioned for me to sit in his spare chair.
“The copy?” he asked,
I handed it over. Much to my bemusement he immediately started reading it. Now this was a first. Though I kept trying to avoid staring at him, I did find myself repeatedly glancing over in his direction, attempting to gauge his reaction. But his was a true poker face. It revealed nothing. Until, after ten long minutes, he tossed the pages onto his desk and said:
“Okay. You can write. In fact, you can write well. But I have a few suggestions . . .”
It took him exactly three minutes to outline the changes he wanted me to make. Most of them had to do with my observations about East German society—which he felt were a little too “broad-stroked” and needed to be more subtle. And he also wanted me to cut down on “the sub-le CarrÉ stuff” upon my departure via Checkpoint Charlie.
“I’ve heard that all far too often,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s fine. Can you get these changes to me by tomorrow morning?”
“If you could hand them in to the security guard before nine a.m. . . . then I’ll be in touch when we need you for the recording. And I’ll also get the translation started.”
“No problem. You’ll have it by then.”
Actually he had it by seven that next morning. Having done the rewrite upon arriving home—and having again fallen into bed early—I was up and on the U-Bahn by six thirty. After delivering the copy to the security guard at the front entrance, I hopped the underground train back to Kreuzberg and was atop a ladder by eight, covering bloodstains with white primer. As before Mehmet worked opposite me and refused all attempts at conversation. So, bar two breaks for coffee and cigarettes and a general chat about the redecoration progress, little talk passed between us. He was, as before, gone by noon. After a shower and a change of clothes, I was at the CafÉ Istanbul by twelve thirty.
“I have a message for you,” Omar said when I entered his premises. “A call about twenty minutes ago from a Fraulein Dussmann.”
“Are you serious?” I heard myself saying.
“Of course I’m serious. I took the message. She wants you to call her back.”
While handing me the phone, he also gave me the scratch pad on which was written her name and number.
The phone answered immediately. It was her. She’d given me her direct line.
“So they did give you my message,” she said after answering. “Pawel told me this was the only way of contacting you.”
“One of these days I really must get a phone.”
“But then you will be contactable. And you will lose the romance of a Turkish cafÉ answering service.”
Her tone surprised me. It was light and wry. Again I found myself thinking: she is wonderful.
“Pawel also gave me your essay to translate. I have a few questions. Do you have a couple of minutes now?”
“Have a cup of coffee with me.”
“But my questions aren’t that many.”
“Have a coffee with me, Petra.”
A long silence followed. It’s just a cup of coffee, I felt like telling her. But it was hardly just that. The length of this pause now indicated to me that she knew what I knew, that this was momentous. Or, at least, I kept trying to convince myself she understood this, too.
I let the silence linger, not daring to rush the moment, waiting for her response. A good thirty seconds must have passed before she finally spoke.
“All right,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Let’s meet for coffee.”
LIPSTICK.THAT’S THE first thing she handed me when she welcomed me. She introduced herself as Frau Ludwig—and said she would be looking after me during my stay here. And then Frau Jochum and Herr Ullmann—who had collected me from the hand-over point—wished me a good night’s sleep and said they would see me tomorrow afternoon.
I had no idea where I was. I had been turned over to Frau Jochum and Herr Ullmann in the middle of some bridge—what I learned later was the Glienicken BrÜcke, which spans the River Havel between Potsdam and Berlin, and which I found out later from Herr Ullmann is known as the Bridge of Spies, because that’s where they often trade agents who’ve been imprisoned by “the other side.” Frau Jochum introduced herself as a representative of the West German intelligence service. Ullmann—thin, tall, dressed in a severe suit, wire-rimmed glasses, very American looking—introduced himself in good German. He said he was from “the American mission here in West Berlin” . . . but I knew that, if he was in this car with an agent from the Bundesnachrichtendienst, he was definitely CIA. What surprised me was how he told me that he was so pleased to meet me, as he had been following my case for several weeks now. He also said that I was the sort of person they were working to get out. I emphasized the fact that I wasn’t a dissident, a politico. They said they knew all that—and that they had much to talk about with me, but would wait until I had a good night’s sleep.
Though I was still trying to appear bewildered—as I had been instructed to appear—so much about all this was genuinely bewildering. The glare of the headlights turned on me on the bridge. Was that to ensure that the agents on the GDR side could not see the faces of their Western counterparts awaiting me? The fact that Frau Jochum was so well dressed. The leather interior of the most luxurious car I had ever entered (of course, it was a Mercedes). The low murmur of its engine as we drove off. The way Frau Jochum and Herr Ullmann spoke in low, comforting voices, designed to put me at my ease. But when I asked them about Jurgen I could see them exchanging glances, looking ill at ease, trying to communicate to each other with their eyes. That’s when I knew. When I pressed them to tell me what had happened to my husband. they said they’d rather talk to me after I’d had a good night’s sleep. He’s dead, I told myself. And those bastards over there—in the prison where they kept me—told me nothing about this. Nothing.
I pressed Frau Jochum again. This time she told me that Jurgen had hanged himself in his cell. It was strange, my reaction. Yes, I was shocked. But because she had first hesitated before telling me, I was already prepared for such extreme news. While it still had a certain kick-in-the-stomach impact on me, it didn’t cleave me the way the death of a spouse should. Perhaps because, though he was officially my husband, he was a man with whom I shared an apartment and little more. But I sensed Frau Jochum and Herr Ullmann knew this from my file. Just as they would also know that it was his insane behavior that landed me in prison some weeks ago . . . or, at least, I thought it was weeks ago. They kept me so disorientated I could never work out how long I had been locked up. Whenever I asked Colonel Stenhammer—the Stasi man who interrogated me daily—if my husband had been saying mad things about me, he would always tell me not to ask questions, and then demand to know if I had something to hide.
“If you come clean with us, the path back to Johannes will be an easier one.”
But as I had nothing to confess . . .
Weeks this went on. All the while they were keeping the light on in my cell twenty-four hours a day, letting me out only for a half hour of exercise in a concrete block topped with barbed wire, and for the five hours of interrogations that took up the mornings. In other words, they were rapidly grinding me down. All I could think about, day and night, was the fact that they had now taken Johannes from me and were telling me—as I was now classified as a traitor to the State—that they would never let my polluted influence infect “this child of our People’s Republic.”
You will never see him again unless you cooperate with them, I told myself so many times. And the knowledge that Jurgen—his self-importance, his childishness, his lack of responsibility when it came to his wife and, most especially, his child—created this catastrophe that had seen Johannes taken away from me . . . well, when Frau Jochum told me of his death, all I could think (after the initial jolt that accompanied the news) was: at least you now do not have to live with the pain and consequences of your aberrant behavior.
The windows of the Mercedes were tinted, which meant that all the neon of the city—neon like I had never seen before—appeared refracted through a darkened prism.
Eventually we drove into a compound. Gates. Men in uniforms. Bright lights. Security everywhere. We pulled up in front of what seemed to be a small house within these grounds. A woman was standing outside. This was Frau Ludwig. Forties. Quiet. Professional. Kind in a professionally competent way.
“You must be Petra,” she said as Frau Jochum handed me over, saying good-bye after informing me that we would continue our conversation tomorrow afternoon. I was suddenly feeling an exhaustion and a fear that almost matched the exhaustion and fear that I felt all those weeks locked up in that prison, being told I had to cooperate with the Stasi or I would be left dangling in this limbo for years, with no hope whatsoever of my son being returned to me.
In the end, I did everything they asked of me. Including signing those fucking papers, allowing them to place Johannes with another family.
But it was all entered into as “a deal.” A deal that would involve me doing some work for them.
“Greatly serious, important work,” Colonel Stenhammer told me.
“Work that will be of such benefit to our Democratic Republic that I can see no reason why you shouldn’t be honored to do it.”
And then he presented his proposition to me. A proposition that, as he put it, “offers you the possibility of hope.”
How could I say no, knowing that if I did, all hope would be quashed?
So I said yes—and so quickly that Stenhammer insisted I be returned to my cell for forty-eight hours to truly ponder whether I was up to the task. Forty-eight hours in that cell without any contact. With the knowledge that my one and only chance was by doing exactly what he demanded?
That’s when I broke down completely in front of him, begging him not to lock me up again, promising him my full and utter cooperation, my complete fealty. I even used that word, “fealty”—which in German is Lehenstreue. Stenhammer smiled when he heard it.
“A very medieval word, Frau Dussmann,” he said. “Yet one with strong semantical connotations. Knights swore Lehenstreue to the realm. And although the feudalism of the medieval system runs so contrary to the democratic tenets of our Republic, I do acknowledge and appreciate—as one who has sworn to defend the Republic from its capitalist enemies—the metaphoric resonance of Lehenstreue as regards your response to our proposition. Just as I can also see that, having finally accepted your duty to the state that has given you so much, you wish to get to work as soon as possible, knowing that the faster things progress, the closer you will be to . . .”
He didn’t finish this sentence, because he knew it was more effective to let this “payoff’ dangle. It was the bait—and I had no choice but to swallow it.
Perhaps that was what was so unnerving about these first hours in the West. The civility of Frau Jochum and Herr Ullmann. Their evident decency. The way they were so solicitous toward me. And all the while, me feeling like a bad provincial actor forced to play the role of Faust at the Deutsches Theater in West Berlin—and wondering endlessly if they were accepting my performance.
Frau Ludwig also could not have been more hospitable—and, in her own controlled way, truly compassionate. The apartment into which I had been ushered was so plush, so beautifully furnished, so redolent of security and safety, that I was nothing less than overwhelmed by the way they were trying to cushion me. Then, after telling me she was going to run me a bath, she said that she had a small gift for me—and placed in my hand a very elegant chrome lipstick. My eyes immediately welled up. For I remembered instantly something I had read once in a book about the Second World War by an English academic, a book that had been briefly considered by the state publishing house where I worked as a translator. It was only considered, I learned later, because the man had impeccable socialist credentials. But it was tossed into that pile of books that had been rejected and were to be incinerated, for that is what we did with foreign books from outside the fraternal socialist nations which we knew we wouldn’t publish and which we didn’t want to fall into the wrong hands. I saw this book at the top of one of those bins. It looked interesting and—from a GDR perspective—revisionist. So I took a risk and snuck it into my shoulder bag and brought it home, hiding it in a hole in a kitchen cupboard in my room. This was just a month before I moved in with Jurgen. Late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I would take the book out and learn that everything we had been taught about Nazis coming from the west of Germany was a fantasy. They came from all corners of Das Vaterland. Although we knew certain things about the concentration camps, the details were never spelled out in all their horror. This historian did so graphically, but with great technical control. He didn’t try to embellish the monstrosity perpetrated there. He simply let the facts speak. Just as he also made the parallel with the much less documented horrors of the Stalinist gulags which, of course, we only knew about in a sort of hearsay way.
It’s strange, isn’t it, how, amidst all the accounts of children being forcibly separated from their parents, and the hideous medical experiments (women having liquid concrete shoved up their uteruses) and the gassings, and the harvesting of teeth for their gold fillings, a small detail suddenly illuminates everything. And it was the mention, made by this Oxford historian, that when the British troops liberated the concentration camp at Belsen, they handed lipsticks to all the surviving women inmates. Those women broke down at this small gesture—a materially tiny but psychologically huge bit of luxury that acknowledged the femininity of women who were, at best, lice-ridden, emaciated.
So when Frau Ludwig handed me that lipstick, I was so overcome that I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom. Once I had the door closed I began to weep. I cried because I couldn’t bear being separated from Johannes, because the ache I felt without him was limitless. But I also cried at the simple humanity of the gesture that Frau Ludwig just made to me—and all that it implied.
But the weeping was also bound up in the fact that I would now have to betray everyone I encountered in this new world. To realize that in the face of such a simple act of kindness . . .
I can’t live with myself.
I have to live with myself. It is the only way back.
I can lie to others. I cannot lie to myself. Jurgen lied to himself constantly. He told himself he was the great playwright. The great radical thinker. The great subversive. What he was—what he saw in those sad moments when I could see him catch furtive glances at himself in the mirror—was a man who had squandered his early success. Instead of taking steps to recapture the brilliant spark that illuminated that one extraordinary play of his, he gave in to all those voices that told him he was a genius and that simultaneously whispered to him that he would never fulfill the promise he briefly showed.
But who am I—a woman of no creative talent whatsoever, a minor little translator who hasn’t ever even been given the privilege of applying her craft to a major novel—to disparage a man who did write one significant play that, until he landed himself in trouble with the authorities, was performed everywhere in our strange little country.
So yes, I see myself with a certain hard clarity. Just as I know that this is but a half truth, that a very large part of the human condition involves having to modulate truth in order to make living with yourself possible.
So I try to justify my actions to myself all the time. Just as the other more brutal side of me grabs me by the scruff of the neck, shoves me in front of a mirror, and says: stop the self-deception, the pretense, the fraud. Look at yourself—and don’t be magnanimous.
That voice—it’s my mother’s. She always had the hard words for me. Praise, she once told me, is an overrated tendency. It creates narcissism and self-absorption. Whereas self-criticism, fault-finding, keeps you grounded, bona fide, principled.
I could have added one last word here: joyless.
Am I joyless? I think back to all the joy I had with Johannes—how he made every day worthwhile, and his presence in my life so counterbalanced everything else. It’s what I once said to Colonel Stenhammer: Johannes is my entire reason for living. To which he dryly replied: “Then you will, I am certain, do everything in your power to convince the state that you merit his return to your care and custody.”
Of course, I said I would do whatever was asked of me.
I can lie to others. I cannot lie to myself.
And so I must admit a chronological truth here. I am writing this four weeks after that first night I was handed over to Frau Jochum and Herr Ullmann. Before tonight I never put pen to paper and attempted to assemble my thoughts about all that had happened to me, all that I had to hide. A day or so after I was brought to the West, Frau Ludwig had asked me if I wanted “writing materials.” Perhaps she understood—given everything I’d been through—the need to write things down, to set out my version of events on the page and, in the process, try to sort out my feelings about everything . . . even vent my anger, my agony at having lost my son, and the fury I felt at Stenhammer never telling me, before my departure, about Jurgen’s suicide . . . if it really was a suicide. But he knew that to inform me of that before I left would have been destabilizing—and, perhaps, I might not have accepted the Faustian bargain he proposed. He also knew that, once handed over, I would ask his Western counterparts—or they would have to tell me—about my husband’s fate. This would undoubtedly devastate me—even if my feelings toward Jurgen were, at best, mixed ones. Stenhammer was counting on this devastation to make me feel even more isolated even more fearful of the fact that, if I didn’t now cooperate . . .
So . . . the truth. Or, at least, my version thereof.
I am writing this in a room they found for me in Kreuzberg. Before now I scribbled banal things in another notebook I left closed on my little desk here in my room. I had inserted three hairs in the pages of this closed notebook—and every day, when I went out for a few hours, I always returned, prepared to discover that Frau Jochum’s and Herr Ullmann’s people had been snooping around my room and reading what I had written.
But the notebook remained closed and untouched.
Once convinced that my room wasn’t being swept on a regular basis, I then did a little inspection of the basement in my building—and found a disused ventilator shaft in a particularly dark corner of this cavern. Reaching up into the shaft I discovered there was a small shelf just above its point of entry, one that could comfortably house a few journals.
That same day I went out and bought a second similar notebook to the one I had been leaving on my desk as a decoy. That night I began to write the journal I am scribbling in just now, trying to get down on paper everything that had happened to me since I was brought to the West. Every few days since that first night, I retrieve the journal from its hiding place and commit to paper all that I can never tell anyone.
I am vigilant about the fact that this journal never leaves this building, that when I finish writing in it, I always bring it straight down to its hiding place in the cellar, and do so after midnight when there is nobody around. And I keep on writing that rather prosaic decoy journal, jotting down thoughts about my work, my impressions of West Berlin, my loneliness and (yes) how much I miss my son. Once I start work, I plan to make a point of bringing it out with me and also continue to leave it on my desk at home.
And the hairs I continue to hide in its pages remain unmoved.
And when it comes to my “actual” journal, the one in which this sentence is being written right now, the journal I keep stashed in the basement . . .
Despite so carefully hiding it away—and never allowing it to remain in my room for longer than the period in which I am writing in it—I know I am still taking an immense risk in chronicling the lie I am forced to live. But writing it down means it is not just existing inside my head, that there is a place in which I can disclose what is happening to me, the deceit and fraudulence that now underscore everything about my life here. If I didn’t have the refuge of this journal, I would go under. I don’t seek absolution, but I do need confession.
I only write in this journal every few days. I always do it late in the evening—retrieving it from the basement after ascertaining that no one is in the hallway, secreting it under my shirt or sweater as I head back to my room, then returning it to its ventilator shaft hiding place as soon as I have finished my entry. I never go near it during daylight hours, no matter how much I want to get something down in it.
Kreuzberg. It is such a sad place. But I insisted on living here because, during one of our many daily “conversations,” Frau Jochum revealed, after I demanded the information, that Johannes had been placed with a Stasi family who lived in Friedrichshain. That’s when I also demanded a map of West Berlin and saw that the district closest to Friedrichshain was Kreuzberg—The Wall cleaving the two areas like a surgeon who had the shakes when making an incision, leaving a scar that looks like a demented crescent moon.
“I want to live here,” I said, pointing to Kreuzberg.
“Is that, psychologically speaking, a good idea?” Frau Jochum asked me. “After all, you will be in proximity to where Johannes lives.”
“That’s the idea,” I said. “I want to be close to my son.”
“Personally, I do not think this wise.”
“Personally, I think it essential for me,” I said.
I could see Frau Jochum pondering all this, then saying:
“All right, in time, when you are ready to go out into the world . . . yes, we will help you find an apartment in Kreuzberg.”
The “apartment” was this room. Frau Ludwig brought me out apartment hunting the next week. She said she just wanted to help me find my way around the city, but my feeling is they felt they had to chaperone me, to make certain I was stable, capable of being out on my own. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were thinking about keeping me under surveillance for the first weeks that I was an independent entity.
That’s the reason I didn’t accept Frau Ludwig’s offer of a notebook in which to record my thoughts in the weeks that they were interviewing me. I worried that they might read the notebook when I was away from the apartment. After all, they were the intelligence services—and as I was warned many times before being handed over, they would be both warm and welcoming, while privately wondering if I was “kosher.”
“The fact that your story is so horrible,” Stenhammer told me. “The fact that you can tell them about your wrongful imprisonment, and the way we took your child away from you . . .”
“But you did wrongfully imprison me,” I said. “And you did take my child away from me.”
“Then why did you sign an agreement here yesterday, offering up your child for voluntary adoption?”
I wanted to scream and shout and say: “Because you forced me to, telling me that if I didn’t agree to have Johannes adopted, you would start a criminal proceeding against me as an unfit mother and would make certain the judge at the trial ensured that I was barred permanently from contact with him.”
“At least this way,” he argued, “once you have proven your worthiness to the Republic again—once you have redeemed yourself—the return of Johannes to your custody will be a relatively straightforward business. All going well, he will be back with you within eighteen months. But this will all be based on your effectiveness for us after you are traded. Do understand: you will have to lie to people who will show you kindness, who will treat you as a heroine who was indecently abused by a ‘totalitarian regime,’ which is how they regard our highly egalitarian society where no child wants for hunger, where there is universal health care for all, where a superb standard of education exists, where artists are valued and subsidized, where merit, not money, advances all . . .”
As he spouted these propagandistic banalities, all I could think was: Everything you described—the lack of poverty, the free hospitals, the excellent free schools—can be found in every Scandinavian country. But, unlike our little Republic, they allow their citizens the right to travel freely and they don’t imprison people for daring to voice an opinion against the state. Nor do they take away children from a citizen whose only crime is that her erstwhile husband has gone crazy in public.
But I said nothing, except: “I will do what you ask. And I will trust you when you say that if I fulfill my role, you will return my son to me.”
A large part of me knew this outcome was highly unlikely, that with Johannes having been placed with a couple who I guessed were Stasi and childless, they would be loath to part with him. I also knew that I couldn’t trust Stenhammer—that he was an arch manipulator who knew he held all the cards. That was the hardest part of the equation—the recognition that it was all a game of power for him, and one predicated on the fact that he also held out hope. A favorable resolution if I cooperated. What else did I have but this hope?
I’m not going to write too much about the three weeks of daily “interviews” that I had with Frau Jochum and Herr Ullmann, except to say that theirs was a very polite and civilized form of interrogation. Again there was a Faustian bargain here—a nice cushioned landing in the West, in which I was put up in a luxurious apartment, bought real Levi’s and nice clothes and makeup, given a place to live and a possible job (the interview is in two days’ time), and given enough money to tide me over until I started earning. What they wanted in exchange was information. They quizzed me about everything—from Stenhammer’s interrogation techniques to how many Marlboros he smoked a day. Their interest in detail was extraordinary. They wanted to know the color of the walls in the prison in which I was kept, the type of linoleum on the floors, the height in meters of the cage in which I was allowed to exercise, the sort of recording equipment they used when questioning me, even: Was there a specific brand of coffee that Stenhammer brewed for himself?
Information, they say, is knowledge. But after three weeks of such excruciating attention to detail I wanted to scream: information is ennui. But I couldn’t. I needed these people on my side. Though tedious and pedantic, they were also both so decent, so courteous, so careful never to be officious.
But they also saw me as a conduit of information. I was their entree to a closed world—someone who had been dropped into its vortex, and could now give them a firsthand account of everything I had seen and experienced.
How I wanted to break down in front of Frau Jochum and confess everything. How I wanted to make a clean breast and throw myself at her mercy. But I feared that, perhaps, they would immediately label me “damaged goods” and throw me back—at which point my destiny would be prison. Stenhammer threatened me with this, were I to be returned by “the enemy.” And the end of any hope of Johannes being returned to me. And he did promise me . . .
There are moments when I just feel like dying. Literally walking out of this room and heading to the U-Bahn station and throwing myself in front of the first oncoming train. I rationalize this decision by simply telling myself it will be the end of all pain, that it is the only way to silence the agony. For that is what I feel, hour after hour. The agony of being forced into living this double life. The agony of knowing that I am now completely alone in the world. Most of all, the wrenching agony of losing my son—and having him dangled in front of me as the prize I will receive if I give them what they want.
But what stops me from making that journey off the U-Bahn platform is Johannes. I tell myself that as long as there is even the slightest possibility of him being returned to me, I must somehow keep myself afloat.
I cannot give up hope. Because it’s all I have. Because he is all I have. There is nothing else in my life but my son. Nothing.
This room. I didn’t want to move here. I wanted to stay in the plush, cosseting world of that intelligence compound, where somebody made the bed every day and picked up the towels and did my laundry and cooked wonderful food (the vegetables alone were incredible—I had never had any access to such fresh foodstuffs), and kept a basket of fruit topped up for me every day. Apples, peaches, bananas, strawberries—all exotica back across The Wall, but so evidently abundant here. I kept wondering if, being in a special compound, I was also being granted privileged access to special delicacies, like the senior party apparatchiks back home who, rumor always had it, were allowed into special shops where hard-to-get items—like fresh fruits and Marlboro cigarettes—were accessible. What an extraordinary system. “The dictatorship of the proletariat,” as Lenin put it, in which an elite—the people who administered the dictatorship in the name of social egalitarianism—insisted that everyone accept material deprivation and profound restriction on personal liberties, while they themselves acted like a feudal ruling class and granted themselves privileges denied to all those they kept enslaved and imprisoned. No wonder poor Jurgen went mad. He actually thought his creative brilliance would be a bulwark against the system’s implacability. Those people hated artists—even the ones who paid lip service to the Republic. Because they knew that a streak of subversion always clouded their hearts. Anyway, who trusts a writer? Not only do they “sponge off life and those close to them” (a Jurgen quote), but they so often articulate the things we’re all thinking but don’t want to be made public.
This train of thought started with a comment about fruit, and how I was certain that the sweet, ripe, wildly red strawberries I was eating every morning were only being provided to me because I was a special status “guest” with information to impart. But then, one afternoon, Frau Ludwig suggested we take a walk in the area near the compound. I discovered we were a little out of town, near Spandau Prison. But the area was residential and green, with fine houses and well-maintained apartment blocks. Frau Ludwig said the area was largely working class—but the shops were still stocked with the most extraordinary range of things to buy. Just rereading that sentence I know how naÏve, how Communist provincial, I sound. But the truth is, my eyes went wide at the sight of huge clumps of broccoli, the tomatoes the size of a clenched fist, the twenty types of chocolate on sale just by the cash register. All this choice, all this plenty, and accessible even in a small corner shop. I wanted to be thrilled by all the options that now awaited me. But all I could think was: I may have crossed over, but I am in no way free. Because they have me beholden to them if I want to see Johannes again.
But, God, the apartment in that compound, it was so lavish, so comforting. And so outside of the world—which is what I loved most about it. I was still safe here. Once beyond its secure walls, I would be back in a world I knew would close in on me shortly thereafter. Because the call would one day come from their “contact” in West Berlin. And then . . .
So I really did talk up my fear of the world beyond theirs. But it wasn’t playacting. It was an absolute terror of what lay in store for me. Frau Ludwig and Frau Jochum together did their best to reassure me that what I was feeling was profoundly normal, given the number of political prisoners they had welcomed here and shepherded toward integration in Western society. Frau Jochum said:
“I’ve often seen people who, like you, have been released from the most psychologically damaging detention—and then simply cannot cope with the sense of choice, the sheer liberty, that life over here provides. You must learn that you can have a conversation with somebody and make a sardonic comment about Chancellor Kohl—and you will not lose your career on account of it.”
Unless you happen to work for Chancellor Kohl’s party.
“You are just going to have to be patient with yourself,” Frau Ludwig told me. “It’s a steep learning curve, I know. But, in time . . .”
I was able to stay in the compound for more than four weeks. As tedious as I found the interviews, I cooperated fully. Because I knew that as long as I was proving useful to them, they would let me stay. Around the end of the third week Herr Ullmann informed me that, as I had been a translator back east, he had found an opening for me at Radio Liberty.
“It will allow you to keep in contact with the land of your birth by doing something positive for your compatriots. And it will also allow you to meet an entire group of fellow refugees in West Berlin.”
Is that supposed to please me? To be tossed in with the other lost souls from the Eastern Bloc, all harboring sadness and resentment and all the psychic scars that come with the territory. The thing is—and I explained this to Stenhammer so many damn times—I never wanted to be a dissident. I didn’t have extensive grievances against the state. I didn’t long for a life in the West. I never once took part in a political activity that compromised my loyalty to the German Democratic Republic. Yes, I wanted a nicer apartment. Yes, I would have liked the opportunity to go to Paris in my lifetime. But I accepted the limitations, and I loved the community we made for ourselves in Prenzlauer Berg. When Johannes arrived, it didn’t matter that his father virtually ignored him. It didn’t matter that he was going off the rails. All that mattered was this new life, this child whom, if I had been in any way religious, I would have called a gift from God. Because his presence in my life changed it utterly. I had never felt such unconditional love before toward anyone. Whatever about the drabness of our material lives. Whatever about the tedium of my job. Whatever about Jurgen’s increasing withdrawal from our lives—to the point where we stopped sharing a bed and I didn’t really care if he went off whoring for days at a time—I had my son there. He was the center of my existence, my future, our future. He made everything else that was dismal and joyless in my life seem less significant. He gave me an Existenzberechtigung—a reason to be. A reason to live.
And without it I have nothing. I am nothing.
I moved in here last week. Five days ago to be exact. Frau Ludwig went apartment hunting with me. Or, rather, she told me she’d found a nice Einzimmerwohnung—a bedsitting room, or what is called in French a chambre de bonne—in the area I had requested. She’d even gone ahead and put a deposit down on it, and was getting the landlord to repaint it and retile the shower. When we visited it, I was impressed by the fact that it smelled new. White walls. Brown painted floorboards. A plain single bed with a wooden headboard. A desk in matching dark wood with a bentwood chair. A small kitchen table with two chairs. A galley kitchen with a new fridge, a cooker, a hot plate. A tiny shower in a far corner of this fifteen-meter room. One window, with a simple but new white blind, that looked out on a rather grubby alley—but at least was away from the main road, down which traffic rumbled day and night. After the sumptuousness of the compound, this was a return to reality. Still this reality was still more comfortable and well equipped and airy (despite its small size) than anywhere I had ever lived before. What’s more, two days before I moved in here, Frau Ludwig took me shopping. They’d already supplied me with several pairs of Levi’s and T-shirts and underwear, a double-breasted dark blue military overcoat, even a leather jacket. Now she brought me to this extraordinary department store on the Ku’damm called KaDeWe which we had, of course, heard about back in the GDR—but which surpassed my expectations. I had never seen a place so opulent, so crammed with goods. And the choice, the choice, was overwhelming. We went to buy plain white sheets. But Frau Ludwig stated that I would probably not want to have to iron them all the time, so she suggested we buy two pairs of a style called “easy care.” She also told me about a duvet that was “good for all seasons.” And she insisted on buying me a small set of pots and pans that, she said, you never had to clean too thoroughly as they all had something called “a nonstick surface.”
We also bought a set of white crockery, a box of cutlery, a wooden chopping board and a few kitchen knives, a coffee press, and (because it was the one appliance I had always craved) a toaster. She even brought me to the hi-fi department to buy me a radio and a little record player with two speakers. I felt like a child being spoiled by a rich aunt—and both loved it and felt profound guilt, as I knew I would be called upon to betray such generosity and had done so already. Because I’d not had the courage to come clean with them about . . .
Enough. You know why you have to follow their command. You know it’s the only possible way back to Johannes. Stop the soul searching. The sooner you give them what they want the sooner this waking nightmare will be over.
I left the room today for the first time in three days. After moving in here on Monday I went to the local store—it’s a small supermarket—and bought enough food to last me several days. They’d opened a bank account for me in the local Sparkasse—two thousand marks. So much money. Enough to cushion me until I receive my first month’s salary from the job that I don’t want to start. Herr Ullmann told me that the director of Radio Liberty, Herr Wellmann, would be expecting a call from me this week. But I decided that “this week” could also mean Friday. Once I arrived here on Monday—and found everything that Frau Ludwig had bought for me at KaDeWe already delivered here and piled on the bed and kitchen table—I just ventured out the one time to shop. I bought the food and carted it home. Then I spent the balance of the first day and night organizing the apartment. Once it was set up, I made one last trip outside, as I had seen a used record and book shop on a side street near mine. I bought a record by Wolf Biermann. Chauseestrasse 131. Jurgen had a copy of this album. It was a prized possession, as it had been banned and Biermann stripped of his citizenship while on a tour of the West in 1976. The great irony of this action by the state was that Biermann himself had been born in the West and emigrated to the GDR because he was a socialist idealist. And then, when he became far too critical of his adopted land, they threw him out. Like the son rejected by the father whose love he always craved.
I also bought Sgt. Pepper, letting out a little excited yelp when I saw it in one of the bins, as this too was so hard to find at home. Judit had a copy, and we listened to it together on several occasions, drinking vodka, smoking, trying to imagine what London must be like, wondering out loud if we would ever see the world beyond the sealed borders within which we lived.
Back in my room I played the Biermann and the Beatles over and over again. I found myself crying several times. Biermann’s sarcastic, sardonic lyrics bringing me back to Prenzlauer Berg and twenty friends crammed into a tiny apartment. A few candles burning. Bad Romanian wine and cheap vodka. Biermann on the record player. Everybody talking, talking. A real sense of animation, of engagement. Me still feeling out of my depth around so many proper writers and artists. Me going into the alcove every fifteen minutes to make certain Johannes wasn’t crying amidst all the music and talk and laughter. Judit joining me there once, looking down at my sleeping son and starting to sob that she knew it was now too late to have children, and how I was the only real friend she could count on in the world.
When Frau Jochum revealed that it was Judit who had been reporting on me to the Stasi for months, maybe years . . . no, I didn’t feel hatred. Just desperate shock, then the most crippling sort of sadness. Whom could you trust? Who wasn’t in their pocket? Who wouldn’t betray their closest friend to maintain some sort of dÉtente with those bastards?
But she told me repeatedly that she valued our friendship more than anything. “We are sisters—and we will always look after each other.” And I believed her and told her everything. Now it turns out she was meeting her Stasi man and telling him everything I told her. It was all taken down and used against me—even though I can’t remember a truly subversive comment I made in front of her. But Stenhammer was able to quote to me things that I had allegedly said—but they were all passing sarcasms about life in our little Republic, and all very Berlin in their sardonicism. The sorts of things we all said all the time during those long, alcohol-driven evenings in somebody’s apartment up off Kollwitzplatz. When I heard them quoted back to me during my daily interrogations, I realized that somebody among our group had been the Stasi’s eyes and ears into our little bohemian circle. But Stenhammer was clever. He never quoted me anything I said that was so specific, so intimate, as to make me realize it was Judit who had been their mole. So when Frau Jochum told me, I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. And still don’t. Even finally writing it down doesn’t lessen the blow, doesn’t make me feel any less alone. Which I am. That’s why I haven’t been able to go outside. Seeing people on the street just emphasizes my feeling of total sequestration. I have no family. I have no friends. I am living a lie in the hope of undoing a monstrous wrong. And this room—it’s clean and well heated and nicer than anywhere I’ve ever lived, albeit tiny. Much of the time I envisage a crib next to my bed and my son sleeping in it. I worry that the people he has been placed with will not give him the love that he needs, that they will be formal and distant with him. He loves to be cuddled. And I could never stop holding him, touching him.
And now . . .
Now I keep hoping that writing about it will allow me to understand it. To accept it. But it just heightens the nightmare. Every morning I wake up from a restive night and there are about ten, fifteen seconds when I am not aware of things, of all that constitutes my life. The world does not look bad at all. But then the daily realization hits—they have taken away my son—and I understand that this is a sorrow without frontiers. A sorrow that will never be excised.
I finally got up the courage and went out today. A snowy day. Snow—the great temporary purifier. The world goes silent and is baptized white. Even Kreuzberg—ugly Kreuzberg—takes on an aura of wonder under snow. Even the sad-eyed Turks I see everywhere—their dislocation and homesickness so etched on their faces—seem less forlorn in the face of all this cascading Schnee.
I went to a phone booth on the corner of my street and dialed the number for Radio Liberty that Herr Ullmann had given me. When the switchboard answered I asked to be put through to Herr Wellmann’s office. A very officious woman came on the line. Introduced herself as Frau Orff and said she was Herr Wellmann’s secretary. When I told her my name she said:
“We were expecting to hear from you sooner.”
“I was told to call you this week.”
“So you leave it to three p.m. on a Friday afternoon? Not very professional, if I may say so.”
“I am still finding my feet here,” I said, sounding so lame.
“Eleven a.m. Monday,” she said. “Unless your schedule is so busy that you cannot find the time to meet with your prospective employer.”
“Eleven a.m. Monday is fine.”
“Be prompt, Frau Dussmann. In fact, be early.”
I bought food again after the phone call and went home. The thought struck me: I still haven’t heard from him. The man they said would contact me. Their man. I have a momentary reverie. He will never contact me. Maybe he’s been picked up by the police, or they have decided not to use me . . . and I am free.
But if they don’t “use” me, I never see my son again.
I am such a coward. Another two days locked up inside. And a sleepless night Sunday out of fear about the interview. The insomnia was murderous.
I must have smoked twenty cigarettes before the sun squinted awake. And the reason I could not surrender to sleep? Worry about not getting the job—and displeasing my masters who would then simply tell me I hadn’t kept my end of the bargain. So now they weren’t keeping theirs.
But if I did get this job, I was certain their man would come calling. Cause and effect. They would be highly pleased, no doubt, that I was working in what was essentially the propaganda department of the enemy.
After I showered I took a long look in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw: Big deep rings under my eyes. My skin ashen. Lines already forming in my forehead. I’ve aged ten years in the past few dreadful months. I look worn down, world-weary. No man will ever come near me again. Because I exude too much sadness. A woman carrying far too much troubled baggage behind her.
I applied copious amounts of makeup to my face in an attempt to mask the sleeplessness, the damage. I drank five cups of coffee and smoked a commensurate number of cigarette. Then I put on my boots and my new leather jacket, conscious of the softness and quality of the leather, and took the U-Bahn up to Wedding.
Radio Liberty. A bland industrial building with serious security. I had to hand over my newly minted papers to the uniformed functionary at the gates, then wait until clearance was given. Once I was ushered inside, Frau Orff—severe, contemptuous—was there to meet me at reception.
“So you deign to come and see us,” she said.
“I was having some difficulties.”
“You people always do,” she said.
I said nothing, though I felt a certain rage inside. You people. Yes, I am an Ossie—an East German. Yes, we are a thwarted race. Yes, our country is a repressive tragedy. So, by all means, be contemptuous of me if it makes you feel better about your own little life. Because all our lives are, in the great cosmic scheme of things, so minute, so ephemeral. Who will know any of this one hundred years from now? The fact that my child has been taken from me; the fact that a secretary at a radio station that broadcasts Western programming to Eastern Europe was rude to an insignificant translator; the fact that I am shrieking inside all the time with grief; the fact that our personal dramas mean nothing beyond this moment when we are sentient and playing out our minor destinies.
But when you are engulfed in loss, how can you detach yourself from the transience of everything? How can I take a theoretically long view of things when every waking moment without Johannes is agony? And how was I to explain all this to the bumptious, overbearing Frau Orff—who, like any little functionary, had her own tiny bit of power and was determined to wield it? I simply made one comment: “I thank you for your understanding,” knowing that this would unsettle her, as she was being anything but understanding. As expected, she gave me a pinched smile and said she would see if “Herr Direktor” was free to see me.
She kept me waiting a good half hour before I was ushered into Herr Wellmann’s office. A rather bookish, unattractive man. Intellectual turned administrator. But decent and reasonable. He must have sensed how nervous I was and tried to put me at ease immediately. Told me he’d been briefed about my “personal circumstances” and “it must be a difficult thing to bear.” Again I felt a desperate stab of guilt and wanted to scream, “Stop being so damn nice. You don’t know who and what you’re dealing with.”
Then he opened a file, in which my curriculum vitae—which Frau Ludwig had helped me write one afternoon—was present, along with other substantial papers on me. He asked me many questions about my work at the state translation company and seemed genuinely interested in what kind of English-language books made it into print “over there.” At one point he switched into English and seemed pleased when I was able to converse with him for more than fifteen minutes in his own language. Then he handed me a page-long document—an English commentary someone had written on an antiques dealer in Berlin who specialized in Prussian memorabilia—and asked me to translate it out loud, on the spot. I did as requested, even though my voice was very shaky at first. But I managed to bring my nerves under control and got through this oral exam without stumbling over words.
“Impressive,” Herr Wellmann said. “And I like the fact that the German you used was conversational, not at all too formal.”
“Thank you, Herr Direktor.”
He then handed me another document—two pages long, something to do with a speech President Reagan just gave about Iran—and told me to go outside to Frau Orff and she would direct me to a typewriter. “Consider this translation a rush job,” he said. “So get it back to me as fast as you can.”
As soon as I emerged from his office, Frau Orff immediately pointed me toward a desk with an electric typewriter. IBM. A round ball on which were all the letters. I had never used such a sophisticated piece of technology before—and was a bit daunted at first. But I knew I had another test to pass and wrote quickly, translating the entire two pages in just less than half an hour. Then I reread my work, made some corrections with a pencil, and retyped it all in around ten minutes. After pulling it out of the machine, I headed back toward the door to Herr Wellmann’s office. Immediately Frau Orff ordered me to halt.
“You never enter Herr Direktor’s office without first letting me call him.”
“Sorry” I said quietly.
Frau Orff picked up her phone, hit a button, and spoke briefly to Herr Direktor. Then she turned to me and nodded that I had her permission to enter.
“That was fast,” Herr Wellmann said. He accepted the two pages I handed over to him, studied them, and complimented me on both “the fluidity of the translation” and the cleanness of the copy. When I explained that I had retyped my first draft, so he could read it without corrections, he smiled and said:
“Well, I suppose I have no choice but to hire you.”
Then he informed me that I would be on a weekly salary of five hundred deutsche marks—more money than I could have ever dreamed of. With tax taken at source and with the standard social insurance deductions, I would receive around three hundred and seventy-five deutsche marks in my hand every week.
“Is that acceptable?” he asked.
“Very,” I said.
I spent much of the morning filling out paperwork and being sent to a room to be photographed for an identification card. I was also interviewed by a man named StÜder who, I am certain, was their security chief, as he asked me many leading questions about my contacts with other East Germans here in the West. “I know nobody” was my honest reply. He informed me, with stern clarity, that there were strict regulations about all documents remaining on the premises and no work allowed to be taken home.
“Nothing we do here could be classified as high security. But the fact that we do broadcast specifically to the GDR . . . put it this way, their people would love to know in advance the content of our programs for all the obvious reasons. So you may occasionally have your bag searched by our security men when you leave the premises. We need you to sign a security agreement, stating that you will not discuss any of your work here with anyone outside of the organization, and that you will never bring documents out of the building or do anything to compromise our work here. Any objections to signing such a document?”
“None at all,” I said, hoping he didn’t catch the anxiety I was feeling.
I signed the document. I waited while my identification card was laminated. I was shown a cubicle in the main work area. I was introduced to several colleagues, including a Polish guy named Pawel who is one of the producers here. Not bad looking, but an aggressive flirt. He made a point of staring at my breasts and legs and giving me a sardonic smile while asking me if I had a boyfriend.
“I had a husband, but he’s dead,” I said, my tone letting him know that I wasn’t going to play the coquette. But my comment only seemed to encourage him further as he said:
“What a foolish man, dying like that.”
I wanted to lash out and slap his face. From the smile on his lips, I could see that this was exactly the sort of response he wanted from me. I immediately characterized him as a provocateur with a cruel streak and realized that this was unlikely to be the last such encounter with him.
Fortunately, I was called back into Herr Wellmann’s office. Herr Direktor had an urgent translation needed of a talk someone would be giving on a writer I had never heard of before: Sinclair Lewis. It was a long document—twelve double-spaced pages—and Herr Direktor wondered if I could have it finished in two hours, as the other resident translator scheduled to do it was off with one of her usual migraines today, and the actor coming in to read it had been booked for three p.m. And as it was now just one . . .
Of course, I said yes. Work gave me something to do. Work helped block out all the wild contradictory emotions crowding my head. Work kept me focused.
As I walked back to my cubicle, Pawel passed me by. I kept my head down.
“Don’t think you can ignore me,” he said. “I won’t allow it.”
Work. I have just finished my first seven days of work. As one of the other translators, Magdalena Koenig, has been suffering migraines repeatedly, the large bulk of translation work has landed on my desk. Half the writers for the station—they’re all freelance—are Anglophones. So the work load is constant and, as befits a broadcast organization, always pressing. Everyone here is under pressure. The staff should be twice as big—as Pawel keeps telling me—but the funding isn’t what it used to be, even given Reagan’s virulent anti-Communism.
“Reagan and his cronies speak about the Evil Empire,” Pawel noted one day when he dropped by my cubicle to bother me, “but they also believe in no government, no public broadcasting, paying for nothing in the fight against the Red Devils except ballistic weapons. No need to talk to the head. Just train a nuclear warhead at the Soviets’ collective testicles.”
Pawel. Intellectually clever, and he knows it. Otherwise, at best, a nuisance. Every day he attempts to engage me in conversation. But it is the sort of conversation in which the sexual is omnipresent. He keeps ogling me while trying to force details out of me about my life. I refuse to tell him anything. Just as I don’t enter into much in the way of conversation with anyone else on the staff. I went out to eat the other day with a contributor named Monica Pippig. An American writer in her late forties living here, who writes and presents a program twice a month about books. I’d been translating all her stuff. We met one morning to discuss some problems I had with an essay she’d written on Philip K. Dick—and how many of the science fiction terminologies she used were difficult to translate into German. We worked for two hours, then she suggested lunch at a nearby cafÉ. I heard all about her childhood in Manhattan, and the parents who didn’t love her, and the two terrible men she married—one of whom turned out to be gay. And how she came to Berlin after her last serious relationship broke up. And the fact that she can’t now seem to meet available men. And how, at her age, no one will ever employ her again, so she’s stuck at Radio Liberty, and “it isn’t exactly the BBC World Service.” And never allow yourself to be invited out for a drink with Pawel “because I did that and woke up next to him the following morning, and he told me that he wasn’t in the habit of sleeping with women so much older than him, but he decided to take pity on me.”
I certainly learned a great deal during that lunch with Monica—and, happily, she asked so little about me that I was never forced to be evasive. But I also decided afterward that if she proposed lunch or a drink again, I’d find an excuse to say no. That’s my rule with everyone here. I will be a diligent and helpful colleague. I will always be pleasant and courteous and on time and completely professional. Beyond that I will not let anyone near me. Nor will I talk about my life, the circumstances that brought me to West Berlin, the horrendous shadow that stalks me night and day. Just as I will also not be drawn into any friendships or after-work social activities because that could also leave me vulnerable to the interests of others.
I want no one to be interested in me.
There is a playground near my building. I only discovered it the other day when I took a different route home. It was a bright, unseasonably pleasant midwinter’s day—and the playground was packed with mothers my own age and their children. The moment I happened upon it I turned and started running, tears cascading down my face, a scream in my throat. When I got home I couldn’t stop crying for more than half an hour.
It just never goes away. Try as I do to negotiate with it, it refuses to leave me in peace. And I can’t mourn it like a death because my son is so very much alive. And just ten minutes’ walk from my front door. If only that wall wasn’t in the way.
I work. I come home. I cook something. I drink a few beers. I smoke cigarettes. I play records. I read. I sleep badly. I go to work. The pattern repeats itself. Day in, day out. I found a used bookstore near the Heinrich Heine Strasse U-Bahn station that has a very good English-language section. I’ve made a point of trying to read the American writers whose works have been under discussion in the broadcast essays I’ve translated for the station. Sinclair Lewis. Theodore Dreiser. John dos Passos. James Jones. J. D. Salinger. John Updike. Kurt Vonnegut. Writers I never knew existed. Because there is that bimonthly program, written and presented by Monica, which is all about American literature, I have treated it like a university course and an escape hatch. The very nice Herr Bauer who runs this vast used bookshop near me has been able to find me just about every novel or short story collection I’ve requested and all in the original English.
“Either you’ve fallen in love with an American or you’re planning to move there,” he told me one day.
“I should be so lucky,” I said.
Those books kept me sane during my first weeks in Kreuzberg. Occasionally, I would go out at night and see a movie or sit alone in a bar where some jazz group was playing, nursing a vodka and fending off any man who tried to have a conversation with me. But largely, outside of work, I sat at home and listened to music and read, all the while wondering when he would be in contact, when everything would begin to change.
That happened my fourth week at Radio Liberty. I was heading out of the office and into the U-Bahn station when a fat man in a green parka with a fur hood bumped into me. As he did, he thrust a card into my hand and then moved on. I pocketed the card immediately, waiting until I was home to read it:
Meet me tomorrow at six p.m., Hotel Claussmann. Room 12. Londoner Strasse.
I stared at the card for a very long time, knowing what would happen if I didn’t show up.
I had no choice. I had to meet that man in that hotel room. And I had to do whatever he asked of me.
Londoner Strasse was a shabby street in an outlying area near Tegel Airport. Dreary apartment blocks. Scruffy streets in which trash had gone uncollected for some days. Some fast food cafÉs. Graffiti. Bad lighting. A sense of neglect. Sleet falling. And a man asleep at the reception desk of the Hotel Claussmann. He had a heavily pockmarked face. As he snored, an emphysemic wheeze was discernible. The hotel lobby was painted a garish maroon and had a carpet that was heavily stained and dirty. This was a cheap hotel. Very cheap.
I sidestepped the desk clerk and went up a flight of stairs to discover a narrow corridor, lit by fluorescent tubes. Room 12 was at the end of the hall. I knocked on it lightly, hoping against hope there would be no answer. But a thick voice said:
“It’s Dussmann,” I said.
The door opened, and there he was. The fat man who bumped into me at the U-Bahn station yesterday. He was short, around five foot six, with a significant potbelly and a half-shaven face with a decidedly oily patina. He was in some indeterminate corner of middle age—his graying hair and brown teeth possibly making him appear more the wrong side of fifty. He had a cigarette in his mouth when I walked in. He was stripped down to a dirty white T-shirt that stretched over his distended stomach and a pair of yellowed Y-fronts.
“Shut the door,” he ordered.
“If I’m getting you at a bad time . . . ,” I said.
“Shut the fucking door,” he ordered, his voice level but very threatening.
I shut the door. The room was small and as shabby as the rest of the hotel. A sagging double bed, a naked lightbulb suspended from the ceiling, floral wallpaper peeling off the walls, a stench of mildew and cigarette smoke and male sweat.
“Anyone follow you here?” he asked.
“I didn’t notice.”
“In the future you notice.”
“Take off your clothes.”
“Take off your clothes.”
Instantly I thought: flee. He gauged this immediately, as he said:
“You leave now, you can forget ever seeing your cute little son again. I will make an anonymous call to those Bundesnachrichtendienst spooks who debriefed you and tell them you’re a double agent. And if you don’t think I’m serious . . .”
He reached over to the scarred metal table by the bed and picked up an envelope, tossing its contents out onto the bed. I gasped when I saw a half dozen snapshots of Johannes. All recent. All of him being held up and clutched by a couple. Both fair haired and young and smiling. The man in the formal uniform of a Stasi officer. I immediately dived for the photographs, but the man grabbed my arm and wrenched it behind my back with such force that I let out a scream which he silenced by pulling me toward him and slapping his free hand across my mouth.
“You never do anything without my permission. Never. You understand?”
Now he yanked my arm up so high it felt like he was about to dislocate it. I nodded agreement many times. He let me go, simultaneously throwing me down on the bed on top of the photographs. I jumped up immediately, not wanting to crease them.
“Now take off your clothes,” he said.
I hesitated, still wanting to flee.
Awkwardly I took off my jacket, my sweater, my skirt, my tights, my underwear. I covered my breasts with my arms, shielding them.
“On the bed,” he ordered.
I reached down to first tidy up the photographs.
“Did I give you permission to do that?”
I began to sob.
“You stop that crying now,” he hissed.
I worked hard at stifling my sobs.
“May I please pick up the photographs, sir?”
“You’re learning. Yes, you may.”
I scooped up the snapshots, looking for a moment at one of Johannes alone, clutching a teddy bear.
“Did I give you permission to look at the photographs?” he yelled.
“Sorry, sorry,” I said, scooping the rest up and dropping them on the side table.
“Now on the bed.”
The mattress sagged as I lay down on it, creaking loudly. I curled up into a fetal position, wanting so much at that moment to simply die.
“On your back,” he yelled.
I did as ordered.
He approached me, pulling my legs apart with his two hands. Then he yanked down his Y-fronts and licked his hand, touching the head of his erect penis with it. I shut my eyes tightly as he barged into me. I was dry and so desperately tense that it felt as if he was ripping directly into me. I lay there, inert, as he thrust in and out. Happily—and that’s the wrong adverb to use here, but the only one that comes to mind—he never tried to kiss me. And he was fast. A minute or so of his thrusts and then he came in me with a groan that sounded more like an expectoration. He turned flaccid within moments. He stood up almost immidiately, pulled up his Y-fronts, and ordered me to get dressed, then said:
“We are going to meet twice a week—and I am going to fuck you both times. If you don’t want to do that, just tell me now—and I will get word to East Berlin that you want the adoption of Johannes to be permanent.”
“I don’t want that.”
“Then you will do exactly what I request. If you behave like a good operative, our masters back home will get a decent report from me about you—and that should help your case. Of course, if you don’t follow orders . . .”
And orders involve fucking you.
“I’ll follow orders,” I said, thinking: I have no cards to play here.
“Then put your clothes back on.”
As I got dressed, the man reached for his packet of Camels and lit one up. As an afterthought he tossed the packet onto the bed, saying:
“You on the pill?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“You get knocked up, you deal with it.”
“My period’s due tomorrow.”
“Then you go on the pill this week. Understood?”
Once I was fully dressed again, he opened a wardrobe and pulled out a cheap-looking suitcase. He squatted down and flipped it open. He pulled out a small zipped bag.
“This is for you,” he said, handing it to me. “Go ahead, open it.”
Again I did as ordered. Inside the bag was a tiny camera—so small it could easily fit in the palm of my right hand.
“This is the tool of your trade. Also in the bag you will find twenty-four miniature rolls of film, each with sixteen exposures. Your task is simple. You photograph both the original copy and the translation you make of everything handed to you. You find a way of secreting this camera on your person—and you bring the film back here to me twice a week. You also work out a way of getting up here without being followed.”
“What makes you think I’m being followed?”
“You’re a new arrival. They always keep a close eye on recent political ÉmigrÉs. Why do you think I waited a month before contacting you? I was simply making sure they had reached a moment where they were becoming less vigilant about tracking you everywhere. But we still can’t be too cautious. So you must find a route that will lose them.”
“Who’s to say they didn’t follow me up here tonight?”
“Because we have our sources and you are now considered, by them, to be clean. Even so, we will never meet just here. And the way I contact you will be very simple. There is a bar near you in Kreuzberg called Der SchlÜssel. A dive—and patronized by a young, druggy clientele. It is atrocious at night, but just about tolerable during the day. You will make it your local. I want you to stop in there at least five times a week for a beer, a coffee. You will always go to the bathroom while there. In the one and only stall in the ladies’, you will notice a loose floor tile just to the right of the toilet. I will always leave a note under this tile, stating the time and place of our next rendezvous. It will always be two days in advance. You must memorize the details, then flush the card away. You must always make our appointments promptly. You must always bring the film with you. And I will always expect new film from you twice a week.”
He then gave me a fast lesson in how to load the film, how to photograph the documents, and how to hide the camera within my clothes.
“Best in the crotch of your jeans when you are coming to work. There’s no metal detector at Radio Liberty, but the security people there do make random searches of bags and desks. So you should only bring the camera two, three times a week and photograph your work at that time. The station is usually working on everything but the news a week or so in advance, so it is critical that we have your film promptly. Do remember: failure to make our appointments, failure to have photographed all the translations you have worked on, will be reported back. You do not want that, do you?”
“You really are learning. Maybe you will convert to being a true believer—which, trust me, is the fastest way back to your son.”
“Whatever it takes, sir,” I said. “Whatever it takes.”
“I’m Haechen, by the way. Helmut Haechen. It’s not my real name, but it’s what I adopted years ago. Who needs a past, ja? You check the toilet at Der SchlÜssel in two days—and there will be instructions where we meet next. Now get out of here.”
As soon as I was out on the street, I doubled over and began to retch. I must have vomited for a good five minutes, sinking down to my knees on the slushy pavement, sobbing and spewing at the same time, feeling beyond violated. A man—elderly, frail, but with deeply alert eyes—came by and asked if I needed his help. His decency only made me cry louder. Instead of talking in the sort of well-meaning clichÉs—It’s not the end of the world now, is it?—he did something so incredibly humane, so profoundly powerful. He just put one of his hands on my shoulder and kept it there until I was able to bring myself under control. When I made it to my feet, he touched my face with his gloved hand. His eyes brimming with concern and (I sensed) the understanding of someone who had known life’s more extreme horrors, he uttered one simple word:
I got home. I stripped off everything I was wearing. I took a shower so hot it almost scalded me. I wrapped myself in a bathrobe. I stared at myself long and hard in the mirror, trying to see if the woman looking back at me—with her red, exhausted eyes, her expression of deep shock and fear etched everywhere on her face—could provide me with some sort of way out of a nightmare that I knew would just deepen with time.
Call Frau Jochum, call Herr Ullmann. Beg for mercy . . . and never see Johannes again.
And if you do everything Haechen asks you . . . if you spread your legs for him twice a week . . .
They will have to reunite me with Johannes. They will owe me that. They will have to play fair.
The worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
But when you have no other options—when any decision you make will lead to grief—what other choice do you have but to hold on to the lie that might miraculously transform itself into the denouement you spend your days pleading for?
I’ve never had a religious impulse in my life. But tonight, passing by a Catholic church on the way home, I had the urgent desire to go inside and find a priest and lay bare my soul to him and ask for some sort of divine guidance.
Can prayers be answered, Father? I would ask him afterward. No doubt he’d tell me that miracles do happen, that the hand of the Almighty Father works in mysterious ways.
But I also know that this Kreuzberg priest—well schooled like the rest of the populace here in the realpolitik of walls and sentries and armed snipers and secret police—would privately think: She’s up against the Stasi. And when you are up against the Stasi . . . well, even the Almighty doesn’t stand a chance.
I went to Der SchlÜssel last night. A dump. I ordered a vodka and a beer. I drank them both down. I studied the other clientele. The usual Kreuzberg mÉlange of bikers and punks and junkies. I regarded them all furtively for more than half an hour, making certain that none of them was eyeing me with interest, that I hadn’t been tailed. I have been obsessed with this fear for days now, always checking if I am being followed. Just as, this afternoon, at Radio Liberty I took the English-language draft of an essay I was translating into the bathroom with me. Sitting on the closed toilet, with the manuscript piled up on my lap, I photographed each of the seven pages of this piece. It detailed an evening spent drinking with a couple of American soldiers who regularly drove to the west side of The Wall on night patrol. I was amazed that Herr Wellmann allowed this piece, as it pointed out the fact that their job was a nonevent, as nobody from the GDR ever made it over The Wall. It also was thoroughly sardonic about the marathon sessions they had in local bars after getting off duty. As I was beginning to discover Radio Liberty liked to show off its ability to send up aspects of Americanness or even let a writer openly criticize the president. Herr Wellmann felt this showed the power of free speech over here in the West, and that was the best propaganda going.
I was photographing the text of this “propaganda” inside one of the two toilet stalls in the ladies’, desperately worried that someone might enter the other stall and perhaps hear the rustle of paper, the low click of the shutter release on the camera. Of course, I made a point, the day before I photographed documents for the first time, of spending some time alone in the bathroom during lunch hour—when most everyone else was off the premises—seeing if I could find any hidden cameras there. None seemed to be visible. I also made a point of noting if anyone’s bag was searched going in and out of the bathroom. From what I had discerned in my weeks there so far, outside of the occasional spot check from the security guards on the way out of the building, there wasn’t hypervigilance at work here. Given that, on this first day with the tiny camera, I made certain I wore a pair of boots that I bought the day before specifically because they were a half-size too large and had enough space in the right toe to hide the camera. Haechen’s idea of hiding it in the crotch of my jeans struck me as both stupid and dangerous, as there would be a telltale bulge there whenever I snuck it into work. I could live with the camera rattling around my boot for the entire day. I also never saw anyone being asked to take off their footwear.
Bringing the documents into the toilet was easy. I walked in with a file under my arm, figuring if anyone asked me why I was carrying them in with me, I’d just explain that I was editing while using the bathroom.
But no one questioned me. I was able to photograph all seven pages of the text in the space of five minutes, then store the camera back in the right toe of my boot, flush the toilet, step out, wash my hands, and head back to my desk, thankful that there wasn’t a sound detector on the premises that could register the insane pounding of my heart as I sat down in my cubicle, all fear and paranoia, yet also a guilty little-girl pleasure in having gotten away with something bad.
As soon as the workday had ended, I was out the door, holding my breath in case security was about to conduct the first-ever shoe inspection I’d seen at the station. Then I made my way by U-Bahn to Kreuzberg and the CafÉ SchlÜssel. I drank my vodka and my beer. I ascertained that none of the scruffy crew there looked like obvious spooks—then again, maybe they had recruited junkies, getting them to follow me around in exchange for drug money. I went into the bathroom. It stank of blocked drains and disinfectant. The toilet itself was disgusting. But I did find the loose floor tile immediately. Beneath it there was a card. I read it quickly. Hotel Liebermann, Oldenburg Alle 33, Wednesday 7 p.m. I made certain I repeated the address silently to myself several times, then tore it up, dumped it in the toilet, flushed it away, and fled into the now-snowy streets.
That night—and all the next day—was one of dread. Haechen—that foul, ugly little man. Repulsive beyond belief. I could smell his toxic breath, the acridity of his sweat, and I could still feel the little erect stump of a penis that he shoved into me as if it were a mechanical tool. Again I told myself that this was beyond all limits of toleration, that I should get word to Stenhammer that his agent was demanding sexual services from me. Would it be best to run before he began to demand more from me? Say he insisted on three rendezvous per week? Or even four?
But I still showed up for my appointment as ordered. And yes, it was another grubby hotel in another backstreet. And yes, he was stripped down again to a similar soiled T-shirt and Y-fronts. And yes, he ordered me to strip. And yes, he mounted me. And yes, it again only took him a few terrible minutes to spurt into me. Then he withdrew and barked some obscenities at me when he saw that his penis was covered in menstrual blood. I dashed into the bathroom to insert a tampon and drench a hand towel in water. I came back out and handed it to him.
He grunted acknowledgment, disappearing into the toilet with it, peeing loudly with the door open.
“You bring the film?” he shouted from within.
When he came out, I handed over the two minute rolls.
“What are the documents about?”
I gave him a rundown of the piece. He seemed genuinely enthused that it involved the American military guarding The Wall and the fact that they liked to get smashed after an all-night tour of duty.
“Good work,” he said. “But I will reserve judgment—and will not let them know if it is good work until I see the quality of the photographs.”
“Can I have some more film, please? I only have two rolls and if there are more documents to be photographed . . .”
He then quizzed me most intensely about how and where I photographed the documents. Did anyone at the station see me, were any suspicions raised, was I aware of anyone hanging around my street or following me anywhere? He seemed pleased with my responses. And said:
“You deserve a small reward.”
Reaching into an envelope on the bedside table, he extracted one small photograph of Johannes. Sitting on the floor, playing with a few wooden blocks. He looked a month or two older now, and was wearing that same charming half smile that always made my heart sing whenever it filled his face. I always sense he inherited that from me—as my friends told me that I was someone who never fully smiled. Curious that my son already shared that same tendency, as if he too was tentative about trusting the world. Of course, that’s reading far too much into a baby’s smile. But I still wondered if being taken away from his mother—and suddenly finding himself in the arms of strangers—wasn’t somehow disturbing to him, that even if he was far too young to be cognizant of this big upheaval in his life, he still nevertheless knew.
I felt a sob strangle my throat as I gazed at the photograph. But I quelled it, as I didn’t want to allow this bastard the pleasure of watching me cry. Still, from the corner of my eye I could see him studying me, a slightly smug smile on his face—as if he knew that, as long as the possibility of reuniting with Johannes was there, he could virtually do what he wanted to me.
“May I please keep this photograph?” I asked him.
“Not allowed,” he said. “Say somebody saw it . . .”
“No one will see it. I would only keep it at home.”
“But you might feel compelled to carry it with you at all times.”
“I’m more disciplined than that.”
“I’m not convinced. And they know you were deported to the West without any photograph of your son on your person—because, trust me, they made a strict inventory of everything you arrived with. Should one of your coworkers see this photograph by accident, they might tell somebody who might tell somebody, and word would get back to them and questions would be asked about how she obtained these photographs, and with whom from over there she was making contact and . . .”
“I would never let that happen. No one ever comes to my room. So, please, just let me have that one photograph of my son. You can trust me.”
“You haven’t proved yourself worthy of trust yet.”
With that he snatched the photograph out of my hand.
“You can see these photographs every time we meet,” he said. “It will be your reward for fulfilling your duties as specified. Now go.”
I went to a public clinic in Kreuzberg yesterday and met with a woman doctor and said I wanted to go on the pill. She asked me a variety of straightforward questions, including: “Are you planning to have children?” To which I flatly said “No.” She just shrugged and told me I might just change my mind someday.
Ten minutes later I was outside with a prescription. I went to a chemist and got it filled. The chemist warned me that full protection would not be “in place” until a full week after I started taking the pill.
“So suggest to your boyfriend that he uses condoms in the meantime.”
I asked for a tube of spermicide.
The next day—before having to report to my meeting with Haechen—I stopped in a bathroom in Zoo Station and took the tube of spermicide out of my bag and lowered my jeans and my knickers and inserted the tube and emptied a good third of it into me. He didn’t notice the slightly chemical aroma of the spermicide when he was fucking me ten minutes later. I used the spermicide again before the next three visits while waiting for the pill’s efficacy to take. The idea of getting pregnant by this man is a nightmare beyond nightmares.
Weeks now since I wrote here. Life is, on the surface, straightforward, unchanging. I do my job. I translate what is demanded. I always meet the deadline. I am always punctual at work. I keep to myself. Twice a week I arrive with the camera in my boots. As winter is fading away, I have bought a lighter pair, also a half-size too big, to secrete the camera on those days when I need to photograph the documents. My system of bringing them into the toilet stall with me has been varied, as I also found a storage room downstairs in which stationery supplies are kept. Nobody ever goes in there at lunchtime. The light is better than the toilets (Haecher told me that he has had occasional complaints from his people that the quality of the photos could be improved). If I leave the door open while getting the photography done, no one can happen upon me, as the storage room is at the end of a long basement corridor. There is a metal door from the staircase leading into this corridor—it’s the only point of entrance—and even if you try to open it quietly, it still makes a very discernible noise. The floors are concrete—so even when walking in sneakers, your footsteps can be heard. I scoured the storage room everywhere to see if there were any hidden closed-circuit cameras—or an eye in the sky. Nothing found. So it has become the perfect spot during lunch hour to get my work for Haechen done.
We continue to meet twice a week in variations on the same dingy hotel room. The order of business is always the same. I arrive. I strip. He fucks me for the three minutes it takes him to ejaculate. We smoke cigarettes. I hand him the film. I leave.
I haven’t become inured to the degradation of it all. I still find him bestial and gross. But I have also accepted these twice-weekly events as a duty to be fulfilled. He never speaks about anything to do with himself. I know nothing about his own life—whether there’s a wife, a girlfriend, an ex, children, where he was born, where he was raised, whether his parents were kind to him or left him feeling permanently alone, whether he has a flat here in the city or moves clandestinely from dive hotel to dive hotel. He, in turn, asks no questions about me. However, he recently did make a point to question me at length about life at Radio Liberty—wanting to know as much as I could report about my colleagues.
Pawel particularly interests him, especially as he continues to plague me, often criticizing my translations on pedantic grounds, always making a point of looking down my shirt, endlessly asking me out for a drink, dinner, alternating flirtatious banter with invective, constantly unnerving me.
“I want to report him to Herr Wellmann,” I told Haechen one evening.
“Put up with him,” he said. “The more unpleasant he is, the better.”
“Why is that?”
“Because colleagues at work will see how detestable he is being to you—and how stoic you are being by withstanding it. It plays to your advantage.”
And does anybody see how stoic I am being by spreading my legs for you twice a week?
Time. It just drags along. I live such a circumscribed existence. The translation work is semi-interesting, frequently routine. A few of our writers have flair. A few are in love with their own cleverness. The vast majority are simply dead on the page. But Monica told me that Wellmann is a man who prefers the factual and the dull to the flamboyant and the talented. He is a real functionary, albeit one who will have his avuncular moments, asking me how I’m getting along, hoping that “you’re finding your way in this new world and that the past is starting to be a bit more manageable” (his first and only hint that he knew all about my personal situation), along with his reassurance, “Of course, I mention this only to you and have never and will never discuss this with anyone else.”
Granted, Pawel was relentless when it came to trying to get some personal information out of me, once challenging me in front of four other staffers at a lunch in a local pizzeria to explain what “angelic deed” I did to get myself evicted from the GDR, calling me a “tight-lipped Solzhenitsyn who probably wrote mediocre human rights poetry about the bourgeois dominion of her cunt.” That’s when I threw my beer in his face. His response was to just laugh.
Monica tried to get him fired after this—telling me she confronted Wellmann about him, stating that she was appalled that he would allow such a sexist, nasty little shit to remain on staff when he abused a woman colleague in such a vile, derogatory way.
“Wellmann said that he fully sympathized,” Monica told me, “and he would personally carpet Pawel, and insist that he write me a proper letter of apology and promise to never pull that sort of thing again. But he also told me, categorically, that Pawel couldn’t be fired. ‘My hands are tied here’—his exact words.”
With a knowing smile on her lips, Monica added:
“We all know what that means.”
So he too is an operative. One of theirs. And, as such, untouchable.
When I reported this all to Haechen several days later, he couldn’t have been more excited (and this from a man who, despite the vindictive veneer, never showed enthusiasm for anything), wanting to know every detail of the reported conversation between Monica and Wellmann. And when Pawel’s very formal—and, it must be said, contrite—letter arrived two days later, I made a photocopy and gave it to Haechen.
Yes, I was always trying to curry favor with him, to show him I was on board and wanting to please him and his masters. I even began to show the slightest bit of reciprocal movement when he fucked me—in the hope that he would, in turn, show a little kindness toward me.
But as the weeks turned into months, as he occasionally granted me five minutes’ custody with another snapshot of Johannes, I began to realize what I realized from the outset but kept trying to convince myself otherwise: the fact that he would, and could, string this along forever. On the one occasion when I dared to inquire when this all might end and I would be reunited with my son, he simply regarded his fingernails and said:
“That is not my decision. You should know better than to try my patience with such shit. You betrayed your homeland—and now you are trying to prove your worthiness to return there and, perhaps, regain responsibility for your son. Given the level of your betrayal the very fact that you are being offered this opportunity to redeem yourself speaks volumes about our humane system. But do not think for a moment that after a few mere months, you are going to be absolved and get handed the keys to the castle. Not a chance.”
After this dressing-down I went into a tailspin for days, suicide looming very large in my thoughts. It wasn’t as if Haechen had told me something I hadn’t already known from the outset. The truth was . . . there was no possibility of a reversal of fortune, no hope, no possible redemption or way out of this labyrinth of lies into which I had led myself.
One morning, after the third night in a row when I couldn’t sleep, my thoughts started turning to suicide again, only this time there was a calm logic to my deliberations. Pills versus slashing my wrists in the shower? Or maybe I should try to scale The Wall and get shot trying to repatriate myself back to the GDR (no, that would give those bastards some sort of propaganda victory: She was so unhappy in the West, so despondent after having been stripped of her GDR citizenship, that she was willing to go to desperate lengths to return to the fatherland she had betrayed).
Was I serious about taking my own life? Absolutely. A cocktail of despair, despondency, crushing insomnia, and the acceptance that all was lost, without possibility, dead.
Which, I had decided, is what I wanted to be.
On the day in question, I first made a side trip to Kochstrasse and made inquiries about the viewing roof open to the public on the thirty-eighth storey of the building that housed Axel Springer’s publishing empire. The woman at the information desk on the ground floor joked with me that if I had fear of heights, I shouldn’t go up there, “as the guard rails are low and the view down very vertiginous.” The only thing that stopped me from buying a ticket to the observatory tower, and taking the elevator straight to the top and flinging myself off before I had the chance to change my mind, was the desire to write a long explanatory letter to Johannes, which I would somehow find a way for it to be given to him when he was older. It was a letter in which I told him . . .
Looking at my watch and realizing, in my good German way, that I was going to be late for work, I hurried off to the U-Bahn, pondering a question all the way to Wedding: could I find somebody who would, upon receipt of this sealed envelope after my death, be trusted to carry out the instructions I left him or her to find a way of delivering this letter to Johannes when he turned eighteen?
More specifically, would Monica—the only quasi-friend I had here—do that for me?
I only arrived five minutes late and had a note marked Urgent on my desk from Herr Wellmann. It was the translation of a piece explaining Reagan’s Star Wars program, which Wellmann said he needed by eleven. I grabbed a coffee from the communal pot. I lit a cigarette. I rolled a piece of paper into my typewriter. I went to work, finishing off this dry, concrete apologia for such an absurd weapons system just before the deadline. Then I proofed it and entered Herr Wellmann’s outer office.
“Oh good, you have it done,” Frau Orff said, seeing the copy in my hand. “I’ll send you right in.”
After phoning him, she pointed to the door. I knocked on it and walked in. In the moment I walked in I saw, sitting in the chair in front of Wellmann’s desk, a man in his mid-twenties. He stood up as I entered. I liked that. He was tall, with a big mop of brown hair and a very square jaw. Thin, lanky, interesting. A bookish man, but someone who, I sensed immediately, knew a bit about the world. Handsome, too. Very handsome . . . but not too aware of that. But what got me immediately about him were his eyes. They were sharp, observant eyes—yet also ones that radiated a certain forlornness. The eyes of someone worldly yet alone. The eyes of somebody looking for love and having yet to find it.
Then he saw me. And I saw the way he saw me. And, I sensed, he saw the way I saw him. In that instant . . . . it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, but it seemed so much longer owing to the way we held each other’s gaze . . . in that instant, I fell victim to something that can only be described as febrile. Something I had never been hit with before. Something that I found perplexing and wondrous and wholly disconcerting at the same time.
Herr Wellmann introduced us.
Thomas Nesbitt. His name is Thomas Nesbitt.
And I have just fallen in love with him.
THE NOTEBOOK ENDED there. As I shut it and pushed it away from me, I glanced up and noticed darkness had fallen outside. In the few hours it took me to read through it all, I had been oblivious to the world outside of Petra’s words.
I snapped my eyes shut and thought back to that scene in my apartment one day after she wrote this. When I confronted her with her “treason” against me. When she begged me to listen. When I refused to listen. When I was so enraged I couldn’t hear what she was telling me. Please let me explain.
But instead, I only heard my own hurt pride, my own sense of outrage. Instead, in that crucial instant, I slammed the door.
I reached for the bottle of Scotch near my elbow, poured myself another shot, threw it back, and stepped outside onto the deck that fronted my kitchen. As always, the Maine night was so black, so impermeable. The mercury was well below freezing, a light snow was falling, but I was indifferent to it all. For I was thinking back as well to that moment in that bar in Wedding and that CIA spook, Bubriski, explaining to me the theory of radar and telling me:
“Radar works when a magnetic field—almost like a field of attraction—is set up between two objects. One object then sends out a signal to another object in the distance. And when that signal hits the other object, what is transmitted back is not the object itself. Rather it’s the image of that object.”
Then he revealed all about Petra. And he used the radar metaphor to rub in the fact that I had fallen in love with the “image” that I had projected onto her and, in the process, had failed to see what she really was.
Since then, whenever I found myself wondering whether I had made a desperately wrong call, when my guilt for shopping her to Bubriski and his fellow spooks sometimes loomed up out of nowhere, I tried to console myself with the thought: but she was projecting an image of herself that didn’t tally with the truth.
Privately I always knew I was trying to validate the angry, impulsive decision I had made, a decision that, as I now learned, had destroyed everything.
One moment. Why hadn’t I let her tell me what she was so desperate to tell me? Why had I allowed my hubris, my arrogance, to deny her the chance to explain everything?
What page after page of the notebook told me was . . .
“Love. Real love. Something—I have to admit within the safe confines of this journal—that I had never known.”
Those were her words. One of so many declarations of love. For me. The man of my life, as she wrote so many times. When I read her thoughts about my vulnerabilities, my defenses, the way she so understood how all the childhood sadness still shadowed me. Had anyone ever really “got” me the way Petra did?
Standing out on that deck, staring out at the tenebrous void beyond, all I could now think was: you lost the one person in the world who ever truly loved you. And you lost her because you killed it. Killed it through self-righteousness. A need to be aggrieved. To punish without considering the circumstances.
In page after page of the notebooks she also informed me of what she so wanted to let me know back then—that her role as a Stasi operative was one that had been imposed upon her, a form of maniacal blackmail that she only accepted because she knew it was the one and only way she might ever be reunited with her son. And I wouldn’t let her explain that to me.
Or explain the horror of her indentured relationship with Haechen, and how she had finally resorted to murder because . . .
Because it was the only way she thought she could be free to be with me. And because she was carrying our child.
What happened to our child? Was it a boy, a girl? And he or she was now . . . ? My God, twenty-five years old.
Immediately I reentered the kitchen, grabbing the cover letter from Johannes that accompanied the notebooks. On it was an email address. I moved quickly to my office, turned on my computer, and sent him an email that read:
I am coming to Berlin the day after tomorrow. Can we meet up?
And I signed my name.
Then I switched over to a last-minute travel site and scored a cheap fare from Boston to Berlin via Munich. The flight would leave Boston tomorrow night at eight-thirty. On the same site, I found a hotel in a district called Mitte.
Mitte. The former East. Once forbidden territory. Now . . .
“. . . when that signal hits the other object what is transmitted back is not the object itself. It’s the image of that object.”
I was convinced by that postulation—because, in my outrage at having been cheated on, cuckolded, betrayed, I was thinking only of the image.
But now I realized the “image” was anything but that. The love was not an illusion. It was profoundly real.
Now my sense of shame was only surpassed by the thought: pride is the most destructive force in the world. It blinds us to anything but our hubristic need to be right, to defend our own fragile sense of self. In doing so, it stops us from seeing other interpretations of the narrative we’re living. Pride makes you take a position from which you cannot be budged. Pride makes you refuse to even consider the reason someone is begging you to hear them out. Pride insists that you toss away the one person you’ve met in the course of five decades who offered you the chance of real happiness. Pride murders the love of your life.
I sat down at the table and stared again at Petra’s obituary notice—the photograph so cruelly delineating the devastation of the past decades. A devastation that started with Johannes being taken away from her, and continued throughout that horrifying year of servicing Haechen, and then culminated in my wholesale betrayal of her.
I delivered her into the hands of the security services when she was pregnant with our child.
Who was now where?
And how did Petra manage to be reunited with Johannes?
I was going to Berlin to find our child.
I tried to sleep, but failed. So, as first light broke, I stopped staring at the badly flecked paint on the bedroom ceiling. I got up. I packed a small bag. I checked my email. There was a reply from Johannes:
CafÉ Sibylle. Karl-Marx-Allee 72. Friedrichshain. 18h00 tomorrow. You need to take the U-Bahn to Strausberger Platz, then walk ten minutes. Don’t worry about finding me. I will recognize you.
Land. Fields. Buildings. The outline of a city on the curved edge of the horizon. And all refracted through the numbness of a night spent sleeping sitting up in a cramped seat.
Those words came back to me as the flight from Munich banked and headed toward the city below. Only this time Berlin’s defining aerial landmark—the structure that cleaved the city in two—appeared to have been simply expunged from its cartography. Up here you could imagine some divine hand wielding an eraser and simply rubbing away that barrier—once so stark, so ruthless, so all-defining. And now? Now down below was just a metropolitan sprawl.
Then we were on the ground in Tegel. When I piled myself into a taxi and gave him my hotel address in Mitte, the driver didn’t make any noises about having to go east. Berlin was a construction site. New buildings everywhere. A game of architectural one-upmanship as ultramodern designs competed with each other for audacity and Über-style. Suddenly I was looking at the recently opened Hauptbahnhof—a huge glass and steel box, multileveled, in and out of which trains shunted with metronomic regularity. Then, looming up ahead was the television tower of Alexanderplatz. We were now no more than a kilometer from it. Somewhere within the last few minutes we had crossed the frontier that no longer existed. The remnants of The Wall were nowhere to be seen. All was free flow, unmarked. It was as if that thing had never existed.
Alexanderplatz. As Stalinist and brutal as ever—with a few changes. A big sprawling fitness center on the second floor of the tower. A big shopping complex constructed nearby. There were some of the old GDR apartment blocks—like the one that Petra initially lived in when she arrived in Berlin—but all renovated, modernized. An attempt to make palatable the aesthetically grim. As the taxi swung down a street toward my hotel, I could see that a big pedestrian precinct had been opened, lined with the same brand names and food outlets that you find in any metropolitan concentration of people worldwide these days. In my mind’s eye I could flash back to that cold winter’s morning in 1984 when I first crossed over to “the other side,” when Alexanderplatz was as bleak and as forbidding as a Siberian steppe, when I felt as if I was staring at an emergency edition of life: hard, unvarnished, lacking all notions of beauty or comfort.
And now you could shop here.
Shopping: the great barometric gauge of our times.
My hotel was very designer. Wildly stylized, as if someone was trying to create a brothel in minimalist style. Intriguingly, it looked right out on the concrete precincts of Alexanderplatz, as if you were being given an aerie over reinvented Soviet-era realities from the vantage point of a glossy magazine. I took a shower. I checked my watch. I had several hours to kill. I wandered the immediate area. Mitte had become something akin to SoHo in New York. Interesting galleries. Interesting cafÉs. Interesting loft spaces. Designer boutiques. Hip tourists. Backstreet cinemas and theaters. Renovated apartment blocks. Discernment and money.
I walked around, bemused. The lack of sleep had something to do with this. So too did the fact that I was still in shock after all that I had absorbed in the last two days, a renewed grief that now made me feel, in every sense of the word, so small.
But the befuddlement was also due to the radical change to the Berlin cityscape, and the sense that, systematically, understandably, the eastern part of the city was expunging all that it could of its past. Even the area of Friedrichshain—with its dense collection of socialist realist tower blocks—was remodeling these grim-looking boxes, using bright primary colors and redesigned finishes to take the harsh, functionalist edge off them.
Coming out of the Strausberger Platz U-Bahn station, I couldn’t help but now think that it was in one of these blocks that Johannes lived with the Stasi family to whom he was handed, one year old, as a gift. Just as I remembered that Petra insisted on living only a few streets—but another universe—away in Kreuzberg, because it was as geopolitically close as she could be to the son who had been taken away from her.
The CafÉ Sibylle was something of an anomaly. It was located on the ground floor of a vast building constructed in that proletarian palatial style favored by Muscovite architects in the 1930s. Inside the dÉcor was retro East Bloc circa 1955—as if the current owners were trying to preserve a glimpse of GDR cafÉ life as it once existed at the height of the Cold War. The travel writer in me is always taking mental notes—and I immediately spotted a small corner of the cafÉ given over to Communist-era souvenirs. There was a quartet of elderly women with severe faces sitting around a Formica table, talking to each other in conspiratorial whispers. There were a couple of menacing-looking skinheads who exchanged civil greetings with one of the old ladies, and a very plump woman with a huge bouffant hairdo seated on a stool behind the cash register, looking as if she had been positioned there for the past thirty years. And sitting in a corner was a rather introverted guy wearing a Manga T-shirt and an electric-blue hooded sweatshirt, his hair gelled into spikes, his skin retaining scars from adolescent acne, his eyes hinting at ongoing preoccupation. He was currently engrossed in some Japanese graphic novel. Something within its visuals or its text amused him, as his lips formed a half smile that hinted at a certain ambiguous and suspicious take on everything.
So this was Johannes.
He glanced up from his book, saw me watching him, and knew immediately who I was as he nodded gravely at me. I came over and extended my hand. He took it reluctantly and favored me with the most feeble of grips before pulling away.
“I’m Thomas,” I said.
“How did you know?”
“I’ve seen your photograph in your books.”
“You’ve read my books?”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“I never flatter myself into thinking that anyone reads my books, because so few people do. May I sit down?”
He nodded, motioning toward the vacant seat opposite him. I noticed the empty beer glass in front of him.
“May I buy you another?”
A shrug. Then: “Okay.”
“I appreciate you agreeing to see me at such short notice,” I said.
“I’m not exactly running between meetings,” he said.
“You a student?”
“Hardly. Never went to university.”
“Was that your own decision?”
“Yeah, inasmuch as if you don’t study and don’t really care about passing exams, you generally end up not getting into a university. But did you actually come all this way from wherever you live to hear about my failure as a student?”
He said all this in an unchanging monotone. I also noticed that he never once made eye contact with me, that his vision was always focused elsewhere.
“I wanted to meet you,” I said.
“Why is that?”
“I think you know why.”
Again, the comment was made without edge or anger.
“Yes, my guilt has something to do with me being here.”
“I read the journals. You should be guilty.”
“You should also know that she always talked about you.”
“You sound surprised.”
“It’s just . . . well, it was more than a quarter of a century ago when—”
“You turned her over to the CIA?”
I fell silent, staring down at the table, thinking, I deserve this. All of this and more.
“I won’t try to defend what I did. It was wrong. And even though I didn’t know the actual story itself before I read the journals—”
“Mother killed a guy. That struck me as kind of cool. Especially as he was a bad guy. A Stasi prick liked the man who had custody of me for five years.”
“It was just five years you were with him?”
“Just five years? It felt like a lifetime. But why should this story interest you?”
“Why do you think?”
“So . . . the journals. They really got to you?”
“Are you surprised?”
“I don’t know you.”
“You know certain things about me.”
“I know what my mother told me about you. I know what she wrote in the journals. I know what you did. I know what that cost her.”
“What did it cost her?”
“That’s another conversation.”
“How did she get you back?”
“You are very direct. Are all Americans so direct?”
“This one is. How did she get you back?”
I also wanted to ask: and do you have a brother or a sister somewhere? But Johannes’s distracted manner made me hesitate. Especially as his response to my last question was:
“Weren’t you going to order me a beer?”
I raised my hand. A waitress came by. Johannes asked for a Hefeweizen. I said she should make that two. When she left, he stared ahead for a very long time, never once turning toward me. Finally, he said:
“I didn’t want to do this.”
“Send you the journals. But Mother insisted. One of the last things she asked me. And she made me promise I’d do it.”
“What did she die of?”
“Was it fast?”
He shook his head, then added:
“But she did continue smoking right up to the end, so you’ve got to admire the courage of her convictions.”
“So it was lung cancer, throat cancer?”
“It was cancer caused by the radiation she was subjected to while in prison. Or, at least, that was what the doctors thought—as around one hundred other prisoners who were kept at HohenschÖnhausen around the same time as Mother also died of different kinds of blood cancer. Mother said that when she was first arrested, they photographed her in a special room—and after the session she had these red burns everywhere. Radiation. Hidden from view. The fuckers thought they could impregnate their prisoners with radiation, then keep tabs on them afterward with homing devises. It’s like something from a bad mad scientist movie. Everyone who got that treatment at HohenschÖnhausen is either dead or on their way. Mother was one of the last.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“More than I can say.”
“I ran into my other ‘parents’ a few days ago on the street. They’re in their sixties now. Still together. Still looking as stiff as they always did. Hadn’t seen them in twenty-five years. Not since Mother got me back. I saw them walking toward me. I sort of smiled. They walked right on by, didn’t recognize me at all.”
“Did that surprise you?”
“It pleased me. Because when I was with them I never knew I had this real mother who was locked up somewhere.”
“Your mother was locked up after—”
“After you did what you did? That’s right. Locked up, then sent off to Karl Marx Stadt as a form of internal exile. That city—it was our Siberia. But you interrupted me. Five years with those people who called themselves my parents. They were very strict. I had to call my alleged father ‘sir.’ My ‘mother’ was also an officer in the Stasi and not comfortable with the whole idea of affection. Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself I remember from that time. The truth is, I remember so very little, except that my ‘parents’ were always distant with me, always so formal. But . . . from the start, I thought they were my real parents. So I also thought: this is how parents behave. Then, one day, some men in suits came to the door of our apartment not far from here in Friedrichshain. They were accompanied by two policemen. One of the men spoke with my ‘father.’ Then he spoke with me. Said he wanted to bring me somewhere to meet a woman who really wanted to get to know me. It was all just a little confusing. My ‘parents’ stood there, saying nothing, while one of the suits hissed at them and another handed them a bunch of papers.
“What they were doing was telling these people—my ‘parents’—that they knew they had gotten this child . . . me . . . through illegal means. Just as they also knew that, in their ‘professional work,’ they were guilty of many crimes against humanity.”
He paused, that half smile crossing his lips again.
“Do I talk too much?” he asked.
“Not at all.”
“You’re lying. I know I talk too much. My teachers all told me that. My friends all tell me that, not that I have many friends. Dietrich tells me that all the time.”
“Who’s Dietrich?” I asked.
“A bookshop a few streets away from here. I work there. Have been for seven years. We specialize in comics, graphic novels. Especially Japanese stuff. Manga.”
“We got off the subject of you going back to your mother.”
“You really want to hear it all, don’t you?”
“My alleged parents—when they understood what the suits were telling them, and which I didn’t understand myself at the time—well, my ‘mother’ began to sob. My ‘father’ . . his name is not important . . . stood there all tight-lipped. The man in the suit who had talked to me—he was actually very kind—asked me:
“‘Would you like to meet your real mother, Johannes?’
“‘But this is my mother,’ I said, pointing to the woman who always played that role. At which point she began to cry. Loudly. Her husband hushing her. Telling her to behave.
“‘No, the Klauses looked after you while your real mother was unwell. But she is very much better now and she wants to meet you.’
“‘But . . . these are my parents.’
“Even my ‘father’—who I learned later helped pioneer psychological torture methods against dissidents—sobbed when he heard me say that.
“‘I’ll tell you what,’ the suit told me. ‘Let’s go meet your real mother and see how you feel after you’ve met her.’
“They drove me to this place—it was like a school, and there was this room with all these games and toys to play with. I remember coming in with the suit and being met by this woman who was very kind. She got me some juice and asked me what I liked to play with the most. I told her I liked puzzles. She found me a puzzle. I think it was a puzzle of the Brandenburg Gate—big pieces, suitable for a kid. And I sat in a corner, working on this puzzle for a long time. When I looked up, I saw this woman still watching me. She had short hair. I can’t say if I remember she was as thin as she always was after that. But I looked up and she smiled at me. I smiled at her. I don’t remember much else that happened after that, though when Mother was dying a few weeks ago and I asked her all about that first time she’d seen me after all those years, she told me that she had to work so hard not to cry. Because she was terrified of frightening me. But she did come over and help me make the puzzle. And she then told me things about when I was first born, and how my father wrote stories, and how she herself used to sing me to sleep, and . . .
“The thing is, I remember none of this. But Mother recounted it all just three weeks ago like it was yesterday. She said that the more we talked that first day, the more I seemed to trust her. There was a point, after around an hour, when I got tired and laid my head against her shoulder. She said that even the suits in the room—all of whom were members of the Bundesnachrichtendienst—began to sob.
“They put us up in this halfway house for a few nights to make certain I was adjusting. But I just accepted that this was my real mother, maybe because she was so kind and affectionate to me. Then, after around a week, they allowed Mother to bring me home.”
“And home was . . . ?”
“Prenzlauer Berg. The same apartment in which she lived with my father. After his death and her expulsion, they gave it to some people. But once The Wall came down and Mother didn’t have to stay in exile in Karl Marx Stadt any longer, she became quite the attack dog. Or, at least, that’s what I heard from her friends after the funeral. Within a week of the GDR collapsing, Mother had found some very tough lawyers in West Berlin who got me back to her. And the Klauses didn’t dare put up a fight. The lawyers also got the apartment back. When she started getting sick around five years ago, they were able to get her a settlement from the state, given that she was made sick by all that radiation in prison. Not a bad amount of money. I think it was one hundred thousand euros. Mother bought the apartment for us, for me. She said she needed to leave me some sort of heritage. What was left over . . . she had free health care from the state and a small pension. But she had no work, so it all went over the five years she was sick. But even so, she also insisted, twice a year, to take me somewhere interesting. London. Paris. Istanbul. A week in Sicily. A week in Marrakesh. We traveled cheaply. But we still saw places. She told me that her dream when she was young—and couldn’t travel beyond the GDR—was to move freely around the world. ‘Like my Thomas.’ That’s a direct quote. ‘Like my Thomas.’”
I hung my head and said nothing.
“But again I’m talking too much, ja? That’s what Dietrich always says. ‘You talk too much, Johannes. You start and you can’t stop. You say whatever comes into your head. You have a problem not shutting up.’”
“I don’t have any problem with it.”
“That’s because you’re feeling guilty. When Mother asked me to send you the journals, I said, ‘Why? Because all these years later you want the man to feel guilty?’ And she said: ‘No, because I want him to know how wrong I got things.’”
“Your mother didn’t get anything wrong. I did.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“You traveled all this way just to meet me?”
“How can I put this? You were so much a part of our life together back then. Your mother couldn’t bear the fact that they had taken you away from her. Everything, absolutely everything in her life, was about getting you back.”
“I know. I’ve read the journals.”
“And what did you think when you read them?”
“What did I think? I thought: ‘Mom, you were crazy expending all that energy on me. I mean, I’m a guy who works in a bookshop. I read Manga all the time. I don’t have a lot of friends. I don’t have a girlfriend. And some shrink told me and Mother that I have this manic disorder where I talk all the time, say whatever comes into my head.’”
“Your mother loved you more than anything.”
“Yeah, and that was her problem. Along with loving you.”
Again, I said nothing.
“That hurt, right?” he asked.
I just shrugged.
“Tell me the truth,” he said. “Did that hurt?”
“Yes,” I said. “It hurt.”
“Good,” he said, his voice still that incessant monotone. “Come on. I’ll show you where she lived.”
There was a taxi driving by as we stepped out into Karl-Marx-Allee. Johannes told me it was stupid to waste money on somebody driving us. But my head was swimming, the jet lag intermingling with Johannes’s unnerving delivery, his uncensored directness, his profound strangeness which also allowed him to sidestep decorum or standard-issue politesse and instead articulate everything that was in his brain at the moment you were speaking with him. What I found most unsettling about all this was the way he was also able to cut to the heart of the matter and express the truth as he saw it. A truth that—though totally subjective—had more than the weight of veracity to it.
I talked Johannes into letting me treat us to a cab. En route, he told me that he was hoping to open his very own cartoon and graphic novel bookshop very soon. He had the premises picked out—on Prenzlauer Allee between Marienburgerstrasse and Christburger Strasse. The east side of the street, a five-minute walk from his own apartment on Jablonski Strasse.
“Prenzlauer Berg is all young bourgeois bohemian families. A great audience for cartoons and graphic novels. Now if I can convince a bank to front me some money.”
“How much do you make in the current bookshop?”
“Around two hundred and fifty euros a week before tax. Maybe one eighty to take home. But thanks to Mother, I’ve got no rent. And I don’t spend a lot on myself. I actually manage to save fifty of that a week. I’ve got maybe four thousand put aside now. If the bank could front me fifteen . . .”
“What would you envisage?”
“Nothing less than the most comprehensive and coolest graphic novel bookstore in the capital. I’ve got close to fifty meters in the premises I want. The landlord’s willing to rent it to me for less than one thousand per month, which isn’t cheap. But I’ve been doing my math. If I make this place the go-to bookshop of its kind in Berlin, I should be able to turn over three thousand a week easily.”
“And you’d be your own boss.”
“Exactly. That would be such a change. No answering to some petty little guy who really knows shit about Manga and is only in it because graphic novels sell. But he has no love of what he’s selling. That’s what Mother said about your books. They all have love in them.”
“She really said that?”
“Love of writing, love of traveling, love of running away.”
“That I’ve done a great deal of.”
“She said that, too.”
Jablonski Strasse was a street of venerable apartment buildings, all daubed with the ubiquitous graffiti that seemed to be an essential component of the new Berlin cityscape. Though many of the apartment blocks had undergone architectural plastic surgery, there were still several that remained unapologetically rooted in the GDR era. Johannes’s building was one of these. A faded brown pebble-dash exterior. Grubby windows, some of which had wood hammered over their smashed frames. A front doorway that was almost hanging off the hinges. A hallway that smelled of unfinished concrete and mold.
“We’re all being asked to pay three thousand each to have the entire faÇade and hallways renovated,” he said. “But no one who lives here has three grand to spend.”
His apartment was at the top of the house. I approached it, preparing myself for the worst. A toxic shambles. Dishes piled high in the sink. Toilets not cleaned in months. Dirty clothes everywhere. Spoiled food in the fridge.
Certainly, the stairwell up to this fourth-floor apartment boded badly, as it was poorly lit, half-painted, a single bare lightbulb providing the most nominal of illumination.
But as for the apartment itself, Johannes must have also decided that order was a solution against the world’s disorder. It was no more than five hundred square feet, half of which was given over to a living room with basic furnishings—a simple modern black sofa and armchair that Johannes told me he found (much to his mother’s delight) discarded outside a furniture showroom. Both objects had broken springs and bad padding, but Johannes knew a guy from school who worked in a furniture factory and renovated them both for one hundred euros. He mentioned this sum with particular pride, just as he explained the fifty or so Manga drawings that blanketed the walls. None of them were framed. “I don’t have that sort of money,” he explained. But they were all affixed to the walls of the apartment with the exact same sort of adhesive that gave the effect of four corners of a frame around each drawing. What was even more fascinating was that the drawings were lined up in immaculate rows, the distance between the cartoons perfectly measured so that none appeared farther apart than the others.
I took this all in, along with the simple kitchen, the piles upon piles of graphic novels on the apartment’s many shelves, all completely alphabetized. Johannes showed me his bedroom—a simple single bed, its hospital corners tight as a drum. He showed me his extensive CD collection of strange Scandinavian heavy metal bands. Then he opened a door and said:
“Here’s where Mother worked and slept.”
What I saw, as the door swung inward, blindsided me. The room was no bigger than a cell. Petra too slept in a simple single bed that took up one wall. There was an equally simple white veneered desk which took up part of the other wall, on which sat a dated computer. But then I looked up at the shelves above her work area. There—covering two long ledges, each perhaps six feet long—was copy after copy of all fourteen books that I had written. The original English versions—and their subsequent paperback incarnations—took up the top shelf. All the German and French and Italian and Greek and Polish and Swedish and Finnish translations were piled high on the shelves below.
Nearby there were also four big box files, on the spines of which had been written T.N.: Journalismus. Opening one of these for me Johannes showed me article after article I had written over the last twenty years for publications as wide ranging as National Geographic, The New York Review of Books,The Times Literary Supplement.
How had she managed to track all these down? And why, why, did she bother?
As soon as my brain posed that inane question, I found myself reaching for Petra’s desk chair, pulling it toward me, and collapsing into it just as I started to cry, my sorrow now without limits.
All these years . . . all that time when I so wondered about her, when I told myself it was all in the grim past, don’t revisit it, don’t open the Pandora’s box . . .
All that time, when I still privately longed for her, when I mourned what we had, what I had squandered and lost, and all the terrible things I knew must have been inflicted upon her in the wake of denouncing her . . .
All that time . . . she was still there. With me. Following my work, my career, collecting my books in as many languages as she could find, tracking down all my journalistic scribblings, making certain she was abreast of what I was always doing, what was preoccupying me professionally, what I was thinking and writing about the world and life as it was happening to me.
Seeing all those painstakingly sourced books and articles—all perfectly ordered, all a testament to the very minor oeuvre that I will leave behind when death finally comes calling for me—one simple but overpowering thought grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go:
She loved me. And I just couldn’t see it.
Johannes sat on the edge of the bed as I cried, watching me with almost clinical detachment. When I finally stopped, he said:
“I used to hate you. Every time Mother managed to spend money she didn’t have on one of your books, every time a package would arrive from New York or London or Lisbon with your new magnum opus—and she had to collect all your fucking translations as well—she would sit where you’re sitting right now. And she would do just what you’ve done. She would cry.”
He stood up and reached for something on a shelf above me. An envelope. Thick. Manila. He tossed it in front of me. My name was on it. In her writing.
“Mother said if you ever did make it over to Berlin—and only if you really did physically show up here—I was to give you this.
“But you can read it elsewhere. Because I don’t really want to be around you right now.”
He stood up. I picked up the envelope and followed him as he headed to the front door. He opened it. I stepped over its threshold, the envelope now tucked under my arm.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so . . . sorry.”
Johannes stared into the empty distance. And said:
“Aren’t we all.”
© 2011 Douglas Kennedy
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Moment includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Thomas Nesbitt is a recently divorced, middle-aged writer who lives a sequestered life in the hills of Maine. His solitude is disrupted by the arrival of a box postmarked from Berlin. The return address on the box—Dussmann—is the name of the woman with whom he had an intense love affair in Berlin during a time when the city was divided and haunted by the shadows of the Cold War. Initially refusing to confront what he might find in that box, Thomas nevertheless finds himself forced to grapple with his past, and in the process, relive those months in Berlin when two people found love and vowed to escape the tragic landscape of Berlin.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Thomas Nesbitt tells his daughter “the moment…it’s a very over-rated place.” Do you agree with this statement? How does Thomas’s notion of the moment change over the course of the book?
2. Nesbitt concludes that “everyone has a part of themselves they prefer not to reveal.” What part of himself does he choose not to reveal? If Thomas had opened himself up to Jan, do you think their relationship would have been different? How do you think the story would have changed if Petra revealed a certain side of herself to Thomas?
3. Upon his arrival in Berlin, Thomas attends a concert and states, “You only begin to grasp the importance of an event—and its larger implications vis-à-vis your life—long after it has entered into that realm marked ‘memory.’” Discuss this quotation in terms of Thomas’s reflections on his time with Petra. Did Thomas realize what he had only after Petra was gone?
4. How does the time and setting of Thomas and Petra’s love story add to the intensity of their relationship? Do you think the story would have been as powerful if it did not take place at the foot of the Berlin Wall?
5. Betrayal is a key element in The Moment. How are the main characters betrayed by each other? By those around them? When does Thomas realize whom he can actually trust?
6. What is superbia? Where and when does it occur in the book and to whom?
7. What were your initial reactions to how quickly Thomas and Petra’s relationship was progressed? Do you think it was doomed to fail from the start? If Bubriski had never gotten involved, would they still be together?
8. Thomas has been living with the unresolved secret of Petra’s story for almost twenty years. Why did he never tell anyone about her? How does his secret conflict with Alaistair’s notion that Thomas needs “to seek resolutions, tidy endings, in situations that are anything but tidy”? When Thomas finally learns about Petra’s fate does he obtain the “tidy ending” he usually desires? Why or why not?
9. What does snow symbolize in The Moment? Discuss the various scenes where snow is present including at the scene of Thomas’s accident, his crossing back into West Berlin and his final ride back to his cabin.
10. Were you surprised that Thomas had to continually convince himself that his love with Petra was real? Do you agree with his notion “if you write, everything is material. And part of me felt that, by getting it all down…that, yes I had met the love of my life”?
11. Walter Bubriski informs Thomas that Petra is an agent of the Stasi. How does Bubriski’s news shred the psychological wall Thomas had built regarding his love for Petra? Do you think Bubriski knew Petra’s true back story?
12. Explain what Thomas means when he calls his love for Jan “qualified.” Why did Jan opt to stay with Thomas even though she knew he loved someone else?
13. The Moment is three stories told from three different perspectives: Thomas’s in the present day, Thomas’s in the past, and Petra’s. Why do you think the author chose to construct the novel in such a way? What elements do the varying perspectives add to the storyline?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Bring some German culture into your next book club meeting. Visit http://www.ielanguages.com/German1.html to learn some basic German phrases and find some traditional German recipes, like kneufla or sauerbraten at http://germanfood.about.com/.
2. Petra had always wanted to visit Paris and finally makes the trip with Robert. Is there any place you wanted to visit and finally did? Share a favorite travel story with your group and bring photos!
3. The Berlin Wall is a major part of the backdrop in The Moment. Do you remember when the Berlin Wall came down? Discuss you memories of this significant event in history. For more information on the Berlin Wall, including its construction, life behind the wall, escape attempts, and its eventual fall, visit www.newseum.org/berlinwall.