By Lynnette Widder
He is at a table beneath the fruit trees: the wind lifts, and pink petals sheet towards the crushed stone ground. Some come to rest on the steel-clipped white tablecloth, others cling to the lick at the nape of his neck.
As the petals fall, I stand on the terrace, and even nearsighted, I see him perfectly. With the round tip of a silver plate knife, he is chasing a bit of pink from his white wine.
By late summer he is a line drawing against the sun, at the edge of the rooftop we reach from my window. His shirt flaps on his long torso. He jumps the gap, parapet to parapet, then turns to watch while I jump after him.
To say, in retrospect, he loved me, might be true. To say I loved him would, then, have meant I’d given it too much thought.
“My life is a snake-line of just-body affairs,” he’d written on green quadrille paper. I saw his letter much later, by indirection: the top page, addressed to me, lay face up the night I slept in his room, in his absence. My life had been a snake-line, so I understood what he meant. I had already begun smoothing its meanders.
Damita gives good head, it said in Sharpie on the wall, and below that, in ballpoint, Yeah because she doesn’t have one. I added, How can you tell? and hoped she wouldn’t know it was me.
Damita and Paulie. Paulie was playing bass with the Irish band whose regular bassist OD’d when they got to New York but didn’t want to cancel the tour. Paulie and Damita were Rockabilly, a different crowd. Still, everyone knew everyone. Lisanne liked one of the Irish guys, so we all went after the set to a big apartment on West 58th. It belonged to the New York reporter for NME. That’s what Lisanne’s guy told us.
Somewhere between the club and 58th Street, Paulie and Damita took the Irish guy who sang lead to a bodega—the kind with spotted bananas, a rack of Twinkies, and the real stuff behind the counter. They bought something because the singer guy was lying face-up on the bare floor talking in what Lisanne said was Gaelic but her guy said was bollocks.
Paulie and Damita were in the kitchen boiling hot dogs. I went for a bun and Damita swatted it out of my hand.
“Buns are for dogs,” she said. When she said the word dog it had a “W” in it. Paulie thought that was hilarious.
Damita knew my thing. I sold drink tickets, she worked the bar. We shared tips, even the ones in folded tin foil. She’s the one who told me to take my shirt off, get up on the bar and dance. She was right. The money was better and the men with their fifty grabby hands were far away. So it was mean, the thing with the bun.
“Eat a dog, just eat it. You wanna be the only vegetarian junkie in New York?” Paulie was waving the fork he’d pulled from the steaming pot. Translucent oval flecks of red fat surfed the water. Damita mouthed her dog, in and out, like it was Paulie or something.
“No,” I said, “just vegetarian. She tell you junkie?” I cared about accuracy. Damita looked straight at me and then bit off half her dog. The thing about giving good head? I doubt it. Not that Paulie deserved better.
“Na Schatz” sounded true in his soft Southern a and aspirated z. He stood and lifted me off the gravel beneath the blooming trees, my reward for reaching him unseen, then laying my cold palms on the skin above his collar.
Between bitter winter and blooming trees, when I’d foolishly bicycled without gloves to the university where he worked and where I used a table he’d cleared for me, he warmed my small frozen hands in his attenuated fingers. Vogelknochen, fragile bones like a bird’s, he said on the third or fourth chilly morning. Bird bones, I knew, were strong by geometry, by material property, strong enough to glide on thermics. There is nothing fragile about birds, I told him. Then he held my hands tightly, too tightly, as if testing my bird-bones in his grip. When he released the pressure, he knelt and turned my hands supine to kiss each palm. I pulled away, uncertain of his sudden chivalry.
We spent many days in his closed room. It overlooked the wide street named for the day East Berliners stormed the Brandenburg Gate, for the day the Soviet tanks arrived to stop them. Each evening I smelled of the cigarettes he rolled, filter between his lips as he rubbed tobacco from a blue pouch into thin papers. I had known other, better highs, by then long past.
While I wrote, he sketched on white tracing paper from narrow rolls. Our room was in an unpeopled suite, once used for Krankenhausbau, which I liked to translate literally, as “sick-house building.” The suite was prominently located, adjacent to the main lobby of the architecture building, slated for a different use. He’d brokered the room, as is, before an upcoming demolition. Abbruchkonditionen: conditions of breaking away, literally translated.
I lived under similar conditions, as is, a lease too brief to qualify for liberal squatters’ rights but cheap enough to give me and my three roommates a huge, crumbling, coal-heated Gründerzeit apartment on a side arm of the canal. Gründer meant “founders,” zeit “era.” The odd German term for Turn-of-the-Century preoccupied me. What “founding” was meant? Urban expansion, certainly. Specific forms of architecture built on speculation. Germany, it seemed to me, had reason to forget its foundings and refoundings, Reich upon Reich.
Robert always had pink silicon tubing tied around his ankle. We joked that it was his warning label. Caution: Poison. He meant it as hero worship. He roadied for Johnny Thunders, when Johnny could get a gig. He figured that if he wanted to be like Johnny, he had to shoot like Johnny. He invented the tourniquet as an accessory even before he had the habit to need it.
“Dora and Robert were gettin’ it on when I came into the living room this morning,” Dan told me, “and they didn’t stop gettin’.”
Dan was a stewardess for American Airlines. He and I lived with two real, girl stewardesses, Janine and Sandra. When the girls were in New York, they slept at their future husbands’ uptown. They only showed up when they were pissed off. These girls were serious. Dan always tried to work them for rebound sex. Guy was a freak. What guy likes to serve drinks to businessmen on planes?
“Drop dead,” I said, “and tell me something new. Or true.”
I was eating Janine’s frozen creamed spinach, from the last time she ditched her future husband. They made up fast, so she never got around to the spinach. Stewardesses have to watch their weight, at least the girls, eat lots of frozen vegetables. Dan ate burgers at the coffee shop and drank beer in front of the TV. You go figure.
“Can you give me Dora’s number?” Dan added, “Girl is fine.”
I opened my mouth to show him the spinach on my tongue. “Maybe,” I said, “but only if you go with me to Alphabet City and do your jive turkey routine there. No one says get it on. No one says fine. Dora thinks you’re nobody. Lay off my friends.”
I was still in high school and he was a so-called adult, but he raised his handsand backed out of the kitchen. I heard him turn on the TV.
I let Robert sleep over if he wanted, even after the time I tried to have sex with him. It was terrible. Junk is no good for your dick. Then he stole all my laundry quarters.
The villa through which I had passed; its garden with the crushed stone ground and blooming trees; the street on which the villa stood with others like it: these were all Gründerzeit. But the trees planted when the villas were new would have been firewood even before the Soviets entered the city.
The street was one of two named for the city’s dynastic electors. The other, wide and lined with five-story buildings, replacements for those destroyed by bombings, was more than a street: a boulevard, a Damm, which in German also denotes the dunes that protect North Sea beachfronts. German, my new language, remained translucent, a palimpsest of roots and stems and equivalencies to roots and stems embedded, Germanic or Latinate or Saxon, in English, the language in which I will always only be native.
On the ground floor of the villa was a café, staffed by Viennese in smoking suits. Newspapers, clamped between polished wooden shafts with brass hooks, hung from racks or lay, thumbed and coiled, on red velveteen banquettes. We drank mélanges there on Saturday afternoons throughout the winter, after visiting Turkish fruit mongers at the weekly market; or on Sundays, after a long walk in the royal park and before a movie. The villa was a perfect Neoclassical cube, tripartite: sockel, piano nobile, attic. Its transformation into a café felt inevitable, as if its life as a private home had been only a prelude.
I had a year to study spaces described by the Feuilletonisten: Brentano, Kracauer, Roth, Benjamin. Hotel lobbies, Spartakiads, streetscapes, movie theaters, department stores. Cafés. I sat in the East German archive in Jebenstrasse. I annotated Reklam paperbacks. I drew diagrams. I wrote. I loved the café in the villa although I knew from what I read that it was neither real nor genuine but instead, a fiction of the 1970s. Not much ever came of my work.
I spent my grant on books and rent and coffee at the café in the villa; on our dinners in the garden; on bicycle repairs; on a trip to Prague where my wallet was stolen as I waited to buy bubble gum in a cartoon label; on a trip to Ios, where I arrived too early to meet my friends and left before they came. When my small monthly stipend failed me, I called my father and then stood in line at American Express to cash the hundred dollars he’d agreed to.
It was years before I returned to his city. He failed to set a time or date in his invitation, so I arrived at an address I found in the phone book. We sat, briefly, as we talked about his small life and mine. His tiny terrace was strung with purple clematis. I watched him roll cigarettes. We said nothing about love.