Stumble

It was three days before the end of the month and we still hadn’t found a new apartment. We were seeing places every day, but in Berlin the rental market is brutal, as many as fifty people show up to each viewing, and they all seemed to be higher-earning, more responsible and lovable than us.

On top of the daily viewings, I worked night shifts all week. Each evening I biked across the city to a hostel where I served beer, cut cucumber plates, swept the floors, scoured flecks of shit from toilets, cracked a hundred eggs, and prepared a buffet table for eighty haughty schoolboys from Dubai. Afterwards I would rush home for a few hours of sleep, wake up at noon half-dead, bike to viewings, bike back home to search for apartments, and then finally bike to work exhausted, on my sixth coffee of the day, feeling like an alien slowly shriveling up in an uninhabitable atmosphere.

It caught up to me on the final workday. I had to be there early, and I was running on about three hours of sleep I’d caught a day ago, and I’d just come from a viewing where I’d pushed the Stefan-and-O product hard, but the potential roommates were college-age ultra-German model citizens and I knew they wouldn’t call me back. I was too tired to bike, so I rode the subway, where I fell asleep and missed my stop and then on the way back nodded off again and almost missed my stop again and had to spring up at the last moment and charge through the closing doors.

I jammed my hands into my overcoat pockets and leapt up the yellow subway stairs three at a go, until abruptly I felt my foot catch and I tipped forward hard. My hands jerked but were stuck in my pockets. All the force I’d put into the attempted three-stair leap now accelerated my fall, and the long edge of a riser impacted me between two ribs. My skull bounced off the lino. I lay there for a second face-down, too stunned to move. My chest hurt so much that it felt like my consciousness had been sucked down into my torso. Passers-by were making distressed sounds. I lurched to my feet and tried to keep going up the stairs, but the world whirled and tilted around me, and I stumbled out into night air that seemed to be made of heavy burning black sand. I fell against a car. Two men had followed me and were trying to help. I tried to convince them I was fine. I kept saying I had to go to work. It felt like there was hot fluid dripping out of my ears, but when I put my hands there, I felt only cold flesh. The cars around me were bonging like they’d all just been struck. One of the men eventually went away. The other, younger, with carefully combed gleaming hair, leaned down over me. “Hey, I live nearby… I have drinks at my place … I could massage you …”

The night seem to last three or four years, but at least I worked alone. Every inflation of my lungs hurt. I could move only very slowly, shuffling like an old man. I refilled the fridges four or five beers at a time, working continuously throughout the whole night. Somewhere in the middle I began to get sick. Nausea, chills, stomach pain. Pain-ants crawled over my eyes. My nose was running, but I couldn’t sniff it in because of the rib pain. At one point I ended up sitting on the toilet, shivering, snot running down onto my shirt, wanting to puke, frosty pain radiating in from my right shoulder and shooting cold rays down into my guts.

Five in the morning. We had our final apartment viewing at nine.

My replacement was fifteen minutes late, so with only forty-five minutes to spare I staggered down a wide boulevard. I walked with my hands spread over my ribs. My eyes were crusted red and subtended by black arcs. My hair was disorderly and thin with grease. But on the broad, open street, with the long sunlight of early morning coming at me almost level with my eyes, I was able to feel alone. Invisible. Everyone coming toward me was haloed in such golden light that their features disappeared.

O was waiting for me a block from the place, sitting on the curb with her headphones on, still wearing the clothes she’d been dancing in.

The renter loved us and especially O. He said he had to see two more people, but he felt like we were right for the place, and if we just came by tonight with the money he’d rent to us. We left feeling hopeful and happy for the first time in weeks.

Neither of us had money for the subway, so we walked home in near silence. It took nearly an hour. Every inch of my flesh was chaffed and burning. A migraine sifted like salt through my brain’s wrinkles.

At home we collapsed.

I woke up to an email from the renter informing us that he had decided to rent to someone else, an Azerbaijani who “really needed it,” and that he felt he had “made the right decision.”

Beneath that email was another rejection letter, leaving us with only one viable place, a way overpriced and broken-down and illegal flat that we would have to share with another tenant, a hostile alcoholic. But we would have to race across town to the owner’s office and convince him to take us.
I didn’t feel like I had the strength. I had barely slept. I was queasy. I still couldn’t breathe deeply or sit up without agony, and I felt like all the higher parts of my brain had dried up and I’d regressed into a swamp amoeba filmed in its own fluids, suffering terribly at the end of days.

But we peeled ourselves out of bed and rode the subway to the potential landlord’s office. He was a doctor. He was late coming, so we had time to take in that the waiting room was cluttered and untidy, but homey, with glossy plants everywhere and children’s toys lying abandoned next to falling-over stacks of novels. Three receptionists fluttered around, all strikingly beautiful — one brassy girl with a fountain of ringlets and lots of clacking bracelets; one tall and thin but curved like a spoon, with an elaborate hair bun and devilishly curling eyebrows; and one with a hijab around a severe white face with ice-blue eyes and lips like regal sofas, huge plush affairs that she pushed out petulantly.

The doctor and potential landlord, Dogan, arrived plastered with sweat. Ten minutes later he ushered us into his rambling messy office, and by then he looked as cool as if he had never sweated at all. The hijab-wearing ice lady was ranting to him about a woman who wouldn’t pay her bill; he folded his glasses and held them against his argyled paunch and smiled at her, nodding and nodding, and finally smilingly told her that he felt the woman would pay them, if only they were patient.

After she left he apologized and asked us what we were doing in Berlin. I gave him a rundown of our lives as writers and our peripatetic city-switching. He nodded to everything I said, smiling quietly, and at the end gently told us that there was a solution to all of our problems, to all of this frantic searching that had characterized our lives. In 1975, he told us, a woman working as a psychology professor in America had begun to receive visions and then dictation from a spiritual source. The source turned out to be Jesus, and the creation of his new Bible had changed forever the karmic flow of modernity. It was called A Course in Miracles. Dogan leaned back in his big raggedy black office-chair and folded his hands over his belly and smiled the small maddening smile of a yogi who has mastered all the subtle flavorings of koan-soup. Behind him was a picture of him and his wife — he in a polo shirt, his face heavy, his chin sagging down into his neck; she a refined redhead twenty years younger, holding delicately in her slender fingers a glass of white wine. Dogan smiled at us without his glasses on, his gaze warm despite the fact that his eyes were barely visible under drooping skin. He said that the troubles we’re seeing in the world are the death throes of a horrible beast that is dying. That now the world will begin to knit itself together, because the spiritual rift had been healed. He said that we shouldn’t be afraid. That within our lifetimes everyone will have the great answers, and we will ascend to the next world in a blaze of delirious joy.

But hey, we got the apartment.