Minus One

On the morning after first snow, my mother and I drove for two hours into hilly German countryside to visit a family who have a summer house next to our property in Newfoundland, and whose vacation the year prior was ruined beforehand by the near-sudden death of the mother, Matilde, from lung cancer.

My mother took it hard. She considered flying over the Atlantic to attend the funeral, but couldn’t afford it. She settled for lighting a virtual candle.

The closer we got, the deeper the snow. We followed serpentine roads along the flanks of mountains, curving over valleys full of whitened beech and outposts where hunters waited for boar. Ponies and goats grazed on forty-degree slopes. Every twenty minutes we would pass through a wedding-cake town with antique village houses in tidily ascending ranks.

The family’s house was a three-story triangle with an intricate system of patios spiraling around it from base to peak, framing windows that faced those of distant houses on the other side of a valley whose misty floor had been squared off and quantized into farmland.

At the door we were greeted by Matilde’s husband and eldest son, both underweight, unshaven, and bespectacled. They smiled with pale warmth.

After we exchanged hugs and exclamations they took us on a tour of their house, which had been the town hall and school until the second World War and still had many ornately carved wardrobes and cabinets, gold-inlayed fortresses of black wood that made the sticklike modern chairs and tables and the plasma TV look temporary and unserious.

The second floor was cozier, mostly given over to bookshelves stocked with quantum physics and literary fiction. It had belonged to the couple. Matilde’s husband, Lars, switched rooms after she died. The door to their conjugal room was shut, but the opposite door was open on his new room, which had only a mattress on a wooden floor beneath a clean rectangle of painfully blue sky.

Lars led us to the bathrooms: one room with a hexagonal jacuzzi tub under a matching skylight and the other with a toilet that sported various nozzles and a remote control that he pressed for us with an air of self-mockery.

I interrupted my mother’s cheery patter to ask him who owned all the books.

“She did.”

Bent over the remote control, which was now tinnily issuing Beethoven, Lars had answered my question without looking up.

At sixty-seven, he still looked like a student — the quantum physics books at least were his — but bleakly detached and unimpressed. Sometimes when others were speaking he would snort curtly, as if what they were saying was maddening, but then he would say something colorless.

The third floor belonged to his middle-aged son, Horst, an underfed wraith who looked much like his father but more sickly, with purple lips that twitched and pulsed while he hovered at the edges of our group, piping up only to correct his father. Horst had returned home after completing his PhD in Engineering and never left again or, to our knowledge, had a girlfriend. His triangular space under the roof’s peak was cluttered with gadgets, hand-assembled model planes, and empty beer cans from all over the world, and had as centerpiece a knee-high statuette of a generously-chested Nordic maiden riding a harnessed lizard.

I asked him about his life, but every question was met by a monoxide-poisoned smile and answers that seemed almost deliberately banal, as if I’d done something naïve and he was slyly mocking me. I asked him how he passed his time; Horst answered, “Living.”
Over his computer table was a line of photos of his mother. The leftmost picture had her as a beribboned sepia baby; in the middle one she was young and stylishly trench-coated in a crowd of protesters, her fist raised, yelling; the rightmost photo showed her in crowish late-middle-age sitting on their patio, wearing sunglasses that disclosed her eyelashes and smoking, her cigarette hand obscuring a wry smile. On the table beside her was a whiskey tumbler atop a paperback with a curling cover that bore her name.

She had weakened quickly. After a Friday afternoon nap she found she couldn’t walk anymore, was hospitalized, intubated and catheterized, sedated, and gone by Sunday.

After the tour, we squeezed into their car and drove to a graveyard on a steep mountainside. It had snowed all afternoon, and upon turning onto the final side-road we plowed into a snow-bank. Our wheels spun in place.

I got out and watched, standing next to Horst. His hands were stuffed into his hoodie’s pockets, his purple lips and weak eyelids quivering with cold. Lars backed carefully down the hill, easing onto the main road, revved his engine, and then rocketed up through the drift, spraying snow, and around the corner, crunching to a stop in front of an old belfry.

On the hill, a sloped grid of tombstones was interrupted only by the wooden cross on Matilde’s grave. The cross will be taken down once the earth has settled, my mother said, and burst into tears, turning away orange with embarrassment. I hugged her for a long time while Lars and Horst stood over the grave looking down, their faces like old leather wallets.

Before we left, my mom kneeled and affixed two round pins — one with the Newfoundland flag, the other with a pink heart on white — to a crocheted poem that leaned between a brass angel blowing a clarion and a stuffed puppy that had frozen solid, its plush mouth ajar in puppy ecstasy.

The Answer

Heinrich has crummy yellow eyes. His hair is gelled into short hedgehog spikes. He smokes six cigs in a four-hour shift. Starting off he’s uneasy. He watches nervously for the approach of the floor bosses. He worries out loud that the local bully will come over and call him a faggot. When he lags behind the conveyor belt, he hisses, “Impossible! Impossible!” and hurls boxes to the ground.

Later he mellows. Sipping on a single energy drink for hours, he shouts over the conveyor belt about nineties electronic music and the shittiness of work cliques. He praises my precise stacks and frets over his own. Looking at the ground he jokes with the fork-lift driver. When the driver leaves, Heinrich frowns and informs me that the driver always torments him.

After the shift he invites me to sit on a concrete ledge with him while he smokes. He offers me half a chocolate bar. He tells me a secret: he lives at home, with his mother. But he can’t leave her, because his father is dead and she depends on him. He wants to see the world. To have adventures, to meet more people like me. Instead he works here at the warehouse, ruining his body and giving up his life for minimum wage. But after work on Friday nights, he goes into the city to have a small adventure. Would I be interested in coming?

All the drive to his house Heinrich fidgets. Cursing at the rain speckling the windshield, he worries that our night will be ruined. He turns up the bass woofers till it hurts, then turns them way down. He complains that I forced him to meet my wife when we dropped by. It had been a terrible idea, he says, she clearly had not liked him. I protest. He says we should drop it, he doesn’t want to fight.

The rain has stopped, he announces, leaning over the wheel and looking up at the black sky. He turns up the bass again. He cackles and slaps me on the knee and tells me that we’re going to have a wicked time.

Now he wants me to guess how long it’s been since he hung out with someone.

“I don’t know, a year?”

He frowns. “Four months. You must really think I’m a loser, huh.”

From an easy chair his mother greets me without looking up from her crossword. She is an indistinct mass behind heavy black glasses. I meet his sister – a rosy cheerleader studying psychology – and then Heinrich leads me down to his basement room. It’s got off-white carpeting, wooden paneling, and a seventy-inch TV with turret speakers. The entire wall behind the TV is covered by a glossy digital print of the Brooklyn Bridge under red skies. Heinrich gestures at a boss black armchair.

“Sit there, sorry – the room’s only set up for one.”

He runs up the stairs. I hear him ask his mother to make me a sandwich.

“Why don’t you make it yourself?”

“Mom! Come on! Please?”

Bearing a cold-cut sandwich and two beers, he comes back in factory-faded jeans and a tight black T-shirt with a skull-and-feathers. His hair has been freshly hedgehogged. He hurls himself down ass-first on the edge of his bed and then springs back up and turns on his sound system and LEDs; prismatic colors rinse through the speaker cabinets. He beckons me over to watch his computer tower’s wicked black fan pulse and vanish into blue glow. On the seventy-inch screen his desktop’s background cycles through pictures “of places that don’t exist”: Martian bubble cities, last-boss citadels, red Edens. He turns on a video comparing gaming laptops. He apologizes for his mom as I scarf down the sandwich, then apologizes for the laptop video and turns on scientists talking about theories of time. He says he’d love to talk like them. He asks if there’s just like one big book he can read that will update him on everything that intellectuals know.

Heinrich offers to play me some music he made, then immediately rescinds the offer, shaking his head and muttering something I don’t catch.

He apologizes for his room. He had lived down in an apartment owned by his mother, but the neighbors complained about him playing loud music on weekend nights, and finally a man kicked in his door and slammed him against a brick wall and choked him. Heinrich moved back into his mother’s house the next day, but she wouldn’t give him his old room… so: life in the basement. He shrugs and drains his beer.

Upstairs Heinrich digs up an empty 2L soda bottle and dumps in grenadine syrup, a flask of Jägermeister, and two cans of extra-strength energy drink. Then he goes to the bathroom, and his mother struggles up from her couch and takes my hand in her two wet ones.

“I just want to thank you for spending time with Heinrich tonight. I hope you can be a good influence…”

I try to smile.

At midnight we rush off late for the bus to the city. Heinrich scurries in front, talking over his shoulder about all the different ways he’s worried our night might go wrong. His fist is clenched around a bulging red plastic bag that swings against his jeans.

On the bus we sit together. Crossing his arms and then uncrossing them, he sinks in his seat, leaning forward to protect his hair. He complains that the chamomile tea he chugged hasn’t calmed him. Peering out the window at farmland, his eyelids heavy, he murmurs that he hopes everything will go okay.

We disembark in the old city square. A medieval fortress, a cobbled plaza lined with antique townhouses home to pubs, strips clubs, discos, casinos, brothels and fast food. We park ourselves on a grassy ledge in front of a particularly grimy disco and he rummages in his plastic bag and takes out the 2L bottle of Jägermeister and energy drink. He pours the mix into two red plastic cups and hands me one. Slurping happily he grins out at the crowd.

I pee behind a piss-smelling wurstwagon and when I come back Heinrich’s talking to a leonine blonde who smiles at him through fake lashes, and her shorter but otherwise identical friend who stands off to one side, inexplicably shaking her phone like it’s a mixed drink. Heinrich is complaining that people think he’s a weirdo for always coming alone. The lioness, glossy and self-assured, keeps interjecting, but Heinrich just speaks over her, apologizing abjectly, desperately, and then yammering on, telling stories with friendly outrage about all the times he’s been publicly shamed. Eventually she stops trying to reply, and she and her friend stub out their cigarettes and go back inside.

Rain dots the sidewalk.

Heinrich yells, “Tim! TIIIIIIIIIM!”

Tim looks like a melancholy brown bear that only uncomfortably walks on two legs. He plods over with his diminutive friend Devin and after a round of backslapping and introductions little Devin pipes up that they were just going to do some coke, and would we like to buy in?

Heinrich swings his red plastic bag like a windmill, then drops it, punches the air, and screams YEEEEHAAAAAAW!!

…without smiling.

We creep under some scaffolding and up over a low wall into a parking garage, where we sit cross-legged in an arc against a low wall, our sneakers almost touching. Heinrich and I dig up bills while Devin cuts four equal lines and then snorkels his up with aplomb. Tim follows suit, slugging his chest afterward and hallooing into the echoing garage. Heinrich rails his and then snuffles around with his 20€ proboscis after stray powder. I put a rolled-up five to my nose and snort, but only a few flecks vanish.

“Faster! Faster!” shouts Heinrich. He gets up on his knees and points at me imperiously. “Try the other nostril!”

“It’s just as blocked! Haven’t you ever noticed how nasal my voice is?”

I give him what’s left. He’s stunned. At first unwilling to believe. He weakly pushes it back at me. Then a look of awed happiness rises through his face.

“Wow man, you’re a real friend, aren’t you?”

The tiny dose of coke never confronts me. There’s a gentle buoyancy and a certain impatience to get my words out. Tim corners me. Heinrich has mentioned that I’m a writer. Tim, whose bulk blocks my view of the others, says things like, “If you examine it from through the lens of the late Marxism of the Frankfurt School …” He talks slowly, eyelids half-closed as his furry voice lumbers after a single gigantic thought that he never quite catches.

When he casually mentions that he “has been to known to go crazy on coke,” I chuckle and shut up for good.

Tim tells me a story: once he was drinking screwdrivers with some university friends and one of them, playing around, pushed him. He fell backward, onto his open book-bag, and smashed the vodka bottle and some beer – all the booze he had till he got paid. Everyone laughed. His back was cut by broken glass and blood ran down onto his new white capris. And he was too broke to buy more booze. But no one had any sympathy, in fact they mocked him and said it was his fault for getting so wasted… so Tim went to a construction site and fetched an iron rod and threatened to beat their heads in. The guy who’d pushed him – an expert on Derrida – wrestled away the iron rod and smashed up Tim while everybody stood around and watched. The next day, home from the hospital, Tim tried to commit suicide for the third time.

I ask Tim what he thinks about Heinrich.

“Heinrich? He’s a nice guy, but he … he needs … I had a friend, he used to sell speed, right … and one day, Heinrich comes up to him in the grocery store, and wants to buy some speed … this guy doesn’t have any … I mean he’s in his jammies, on a chips-and-cola run … but Heinrich doesn’t believe him, he thinks the dude is fucking with him, and he breaks a beer bottle – full, from the shelf – and shoves it in the guy’s face, and screams at him to hand over the speed…”

I glance over. Devin is bent and solemn with ear cupped, listening to Heinrich jabber. They’re both smoking hard.

At three, Tim suddenly announces that he and Devin have to leave.

Heinrich claps him on the shoulder.

“Hey man come on, we’re all have such a good time,what’s another hour or two?”

Tim removes Heinrich’s hand, laughing.

“Sorry dude, gotta work in a few. You know what it’s like.”

He turns to go, but Heinrich snatches at his arm and pretending that its a joke he gets down on his knees and clasps his hands and prays to the sky that Tim and Devin will stay around and have some more fun. Tim scowls.

“Dude!”

He’s already walking away.

Heinrich leads us around the beer-bottled square, looking into every face we pass. “The two of us aren’t enough to make a party,” he says, and then stops short and puts his hands on my shoulders and looks in my eyes and pleads that I don’t take him wrong. He says he needs to make it clear that he’s grateful to me for coming out tonight and spending all this time with him. He says that I have proven myself to be a real friend, even though it is after all best to be careful about calling someone a friend. For example, he says, can he really be sure that I won’t tell everyone at work that he lives in his mom’s basement? What if I go in on Monday and tell everyone how he spends his time and they all laugh at him together? What if they find out how pathetic and doomed his whole existence is? What if by trying to make a friend for once he has made his shit life at the warehouse and in his shit fucking basement finally and for real impossible to bear? After all, how can he go on living breaking his body stacking boxes for not enough money to live on? Not enough money to respect himself, or even have some fun sometimes – he’s spent next to nothing and he’s already broke! If it weren’t for how much it would hurt his mother, he would have killed himself a long time ago, he’s known ever since his father killed himself that the old guy was smarter than he was, his father knew that no one wins. No one! Not you or me, friendo!

Sometimes Heinrich interrupts himself, craziness crawls into his face, and he yelps and laughs maniacally. The few around glance over warily. Holding high his red cup, he calls out to them: “Hey, can do you me a favour? Could you guess how much of a fucking loser I am? HahaHA! I live in my mother’s basement!”

A muscled luxury dude assesses Heinrich’s narrow shoulders and fragile chest, his hair spikes and faded jeans, and says, “Oh come on kid, how old’re you? Nineteen?”

Heinrich’s skipping toward him, cackling. “Thirty-two, motherfucker!”

“Oh shit,” mutters costly dude, sidling away, “I guess you are a loser …”

“I hate my life!” Heinrich screams into the increasing distance between them. “I hate my fucking life!” He turns back to me and sees my face and suddenly looks chagrined, desperate: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry … you know what’s happening, don’t you? I told you, right?”

“I have a hunch…”

“A hunch! A hunch! H is for Hunch!”

He spots someone sliding through a parkette. He calls out, “Hassan! Hassaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaan! HAAASAAAAN!” and the silhouette stops and turns into a bony ash-locked man in a filthy beige trenchcoat, who waits silently for Heinrich, his face withdrawn behind white curls.

As we approach, Heinrich explains, “He’s a good guy, he always says ‘Thank you’ …”

Hassan, who looks like the fossilized skeleton of a Renaissance angel, falls into step with us. He doesn’t say hello. Heinrich wants to know what he’s been doing. Hassan shrugs. Heinrich tells him that he met me at work and that I’m from Canada and that I’m moving to Berlin soon and probably won’t be back. He says that I’m probably trustworthy. Unlike Tim. Tim has always had in it for him. Once upon a time he trusted Tim and it ended in bad, bad trouble.

Hassan never gives a sign that he’s listening. His dagger-eagle profile is always half turned away.

Heinrich’s nose has turned red. He rubs it and sniffles.

The sky is now less than black.

When Hassan wafts off to pee, I lean over to Heinrich and say, “Be careful. He doesn’t like you.”

Heinrich looks over sharply: “Hey man, Hassan is a good guy! He’s here every week, unlike you …”

Hassan drifts back over, and Heinrich pointedly strikes up a monologue in his direction.

It blooms into a chilly grey morning. Heinrich moves us to a glass booth in the middle of streetcar tracks crisscrossing cobbles under a golden clock. In a dull-red electric wheelchair sits an old man with stubbed arms and legs like those of a supermarket turkey. Heinrich greets him by name and offers him a cigarette and then wedges the cigarette between the old man’s pursed lips and lights it. Hassan leans back against the smudged glass wall and stares at the ceiling, his jawline an arrowhead. His fingers delicate as wires intertwine in steady rhythmic loops. Heinrich smokes and stares with narrowed eyes at me for a long time, and finally says, as if only now coming to the conclusion: “You have to remember: we’re not friends. You’re a good co-worker, that’s all. A real friend would come and hang out every week, not just once. But you have no money, you live too far, and one of these days you’re just going to vanish off to Berlin.”

I said that we had different ideas about friendship. It was true that I wouldn’t be around for long, but while I was here, I intended to listen to him and have patience with him, even if sometimes he was mean. For me that’s—

“Waitwaitwait: I’ve been mean to you?”

“Everybody’s mean sometimes.”

Eying me as if I’m insane: “Why didn’t you tell me sooner!?”

“Because it wasn’t important?”

Suddenly he looks skeptical, and then crafty.

“When, exactly, was I mean to you?”

“Oh man, I can’t remember.”

“You being honest?”

“Heinrich!”

“You can’t even give me a single example, and you want me to believe you? I can’t trust you, motherfucker … you laugh at me when I’m not around.”

“Why do you think that?”

“You’re going to tell everyone that I’m stupid.”

“I have never once laughed at you. Have you laughed at me?”

“You’re the one who laughs…”

But what has happened around us? In our glass booth amid the streetcar tracks, the ring-shaped bench has become home to the strangest crew. The limbless old man is arguing with a fish-faced woman with protrusive buckteeth. She’s squeezing the arm of a thick boy talking to himself in a gentle Pooh-bear voice. Next to him sits, fuming, a spherical man with a red choleric face with so many pores that he resembles a deseeded strawberry. Hassan stares yogi-like skyward and alone in some other place. Tears roll down his arrow jaw, dangle briefly from his ears, spatter his trenchcoat’s lapels. Heinrich’s on his feet and offering cigarettes to everyone, greeting them by name, slapping them on the shoulder. He repeats to each person that he’s had a terrible, frightening night around people he can’t trust. He gives four cigarettes to a kid he seems to fear, a dirty boy with clean circles around his eyes, looking like some kind of inverted raccoon, with a holey green garbage sack between his ragged feet. A skinny Japanese man in a bob-cut black wig thanks Heinrich effusively and then begs a second cigarette for his friend, a drag queen with jowls sagging down over enormous pearls who is just now jiggling across the cobbles.

Then a ponytailed wraith floats in and everyone rises and rushes toward him babbling.

Heinrich and Hassan crouched behind a crumbled fortress wall, bent over folded-up paper with tan powder in it. Heinrich complains that it’s chunky. He worries he’s been cheated. I sit facing the street and warn them whenever somebody comes by – not that either cares. Hassan is bent almost double, his grey curls concealing his doings, but Heinrich is half-turned toward the street, and keeps getting distracted by the words tumbling out of his mouth. It seems to take hours for him to get ready, and then, his face hanging over the paper, furled bill plugged into his nostril, he rolls up a urinous eye and says, very quietly, “You want some?”

I shake my head.

He swoops down and snorts the short brown line. Then he straightens up, dusts himself off, claps his hands and rubs them together, smiling with great satisfaction. “You were wrong.” He turns to Hassan’s tousled crown. “He said you didn’t like me. But he was wrong, wasn’t he?”

“Mm.”

Heinrich turns back to me. “Hassan did something amazing just now. I offered him some H. And he said – can you fuckin believe it – he said I should keep it! – he said that he had his own! Do you know how hard it is for a fucking homeless heroin addict to say that?”

Hassan, sitting cross-legged, hands on knees, is leaning way back, almost reclining, his pretty white locks over his closed eyes, swaying.

I remind Heinrich that my train home leaves in an hour. He says he’ll walk me to the station. But every time we start to leave, he pats my arm fondly and says hold on hold on and goes back over and whispers to Hassan, touching his shoulder, leaning in, smiling like he’s been washed clean of sin.

Once we’re on the way, Heinrich stops every few steps to illustrate a point or to look me in the face to make sure I’m listening.

“Hassan is a good guy. You know what he did back there? But you’re a good guy too. Really. It’s rare: I feel like I can tell you anything and you won’t judge me or laugh at me. Do you know how rare that is? How fucking extra-ordinary that is? I don’t tell anyone that I live with my mother! and you can’t tell anyone, because it would destroy me – but somehow I know you won’t. I trust you. You got a hug for me? Hhhmmmfffff. Thanks buddy … god I was so nervous we would fight. I thought you would come and see how pathetic I was and it would be awkward and terrible at work on Monday and you would laugh at me with the others and that would be the final straw for me, the last time I ever reached out to anyone … That’s why the chamomile didn’t calm me down … the chamomile always works, but I was just worried, I wanted so bad for us to get along. But now, oh my god, it’s hard to believe – it worked out! Here we are in the sunshine! And we didn’t even come close to fighting. You know … I sit before work in my car in the parking lot. And when I see you come in… You come in on your bike and go around the corner. And I see you and I smile – just like this – I get a big old stupid grin on my face. Because you won’t laugh at me, not like the others … when Horst comes by and makes fun of me they always laugh at his jokes. They’re scared of him. But when he came by you just looked at him like he was an idiot, and for once – the only time ever – he didn’t get to me. And it’s because you were there, my friend. It all seemed so simple. I could just choose not to feel bad. Horst didn’t matter at all. And if he called me a faggot, so what? I’m not some homophobe. I made a friend at a disco once and he needed a place to sleep and when we got home I said he could sleep on the couch but he wanted to come on the mattress, so I said okay, and he got up there, and then he wanted to go down on me, and I was drunk, and I thought, okay, sure, any port in a storm, haha, whatever – but I couldn’t get it up! His awful little mouth moving around down coldly down there. Then he wanted me to go down on him, and I thought about it, I considered it, and it made me want to puke. So I said no – and he got so mad! I moved to the couch, but then I couldn’t stand the thought of being in there with him, so I went upstairs to my old room and slept there, and when I woke up my laptop was gone … and my new camera … no, I’m really not gay at all, but if I were into men, it would be men like you…”

I ask Heinrich whether he really threatened Tim’s speed-dealing buddy. Heinrich seems confused. He has me relate the whole story. Then he cocks his head sixty degrees and narrows his bloodcurdled eyes. “Tim made that up! Tim … Tim … Tim’s antisocial. We were drinking together once and he just whipped his cock out and pissed right in front of everybody, in front of girls! And then he was mad at us for getting mad … But his friend, Devin, Devin’s all right. Devin just sitting there with his hand to his ear and listening, really listening, instead of just pretending … that’s rare. You don’t find that much … Of course you listen too, I see it, but there’s one thing I just don’t understand about you: why are you here? What do you want from me? Did you really think we were going to have a good time? Didn’t you see this coming all along? … But no no shh you are here, and you have been nice to me all night…”

He stops us for so many hugs and fist bumps that I miss my train. We wait on a mezzanine over the tracks. He squawks, the squawk echoes. He calls out: “Echo!” Looks dirty us. I take us down to the platform, which runs from beneath a glass overhang out into drizzly grey. Sober commuters in rainwear stand around on their phones. Heinrich sets down his eternal red plastic bag and puts his hands in his jacket and gazes out into dripping wetness. After a long time, his first silence in hours, he says, “This was a bad idea. You shouldn’t have come.”

“Heinrich …”

“Because it’s just once. You should come every week, and we could do this every time, and you would be my friend. But it’s already over. And every week I’ll want you here and you won’t be. And it’ll hurt.”

“I thought—“

“You thought it would help me.”

“…”

“You were wrong. And what makes it worse? When you’re in Berlin, I’m going to miss you a lot more than you’re going to miss me. You have the city, your wife, your writing. I don’t have anybody. The first day at work after you’re gone is going to be so depressing. I’m going to sit in my car and you’re not going to come by on your bike and I’m going to cry. And I hate that that day is going to come.”

“I’m sorry.”

The train booms and rattles in, doors hiss and commuters rumble past. Heinrich grabs my shoulder.

“If you were in my place, what would you do? Would you move to Berlin? Or would you get a better job? Go back to school? Would you find a wife? Just don’t say quit heroin. Say anything else.”

I step onto the train and turn to face him.

The Author Chooses His Own Adventure

After yet another deep and wide night of strumming my intestines for no one, I don my denim armor and venture out into the city to find myself, seeking some reality in other people, in the dying summer as darkly yellow as a middle-aged banana. This early the streets are half soft, breathing like someone asleep. I hadn’t seen my old pal the sun in many a moon; his mothery light strokes me like dove wings and renders every tenement, every tired leaf and obese cloud, carbuncular poster and broken-nosed traffic cone, as distinct as a familiar face. I witness each existence eagerly, hungrily, unless someone is passing me, in which case I drop my eyes and quicken my step.

Soon the mural-sided tenements curve out like hands opening around the raised train station, whose window-walls are illustrated with silver graffiti. I perch on its lowest stair, pull out my notebook, and write this sentence. A few stairs higher a seriously sunburnt homeless man pets a grubby teddy bear. On the corner a few yellow-eyed dealers joke with a bedraggled fruit vendor who sells mealy watermelons and collapsed grapes. Against the back of a bus shelter squats a bike-helmeted kindergartener staring up sadly at cluttered golden balconies identical in construction but unique in decay. Unseen overhead a train sighs in and slices open its own sides, and soon ex-passengers climb down from the sky and spread out past me into the seedy plaza. Everybody strikes me as a specially made treat offered up for my personal delectation, their looks and ways both novel and familiar, unique and generic, and a standout few inspire in me a violent and obscurely painful wish to know them. I don’t dare approach anyone, however, can only gaze at profiles and backs of heads, and despite my delight am in fact no closer to other people than I was a year or a decade ago, even if their physical presences do feel ever more stirring and urgently significant. Somehow the reality of other people draws closer even as I grow further away inside.

Sleep sneaks up and almost nets me, but I am determined to go further. I want to write something that makes this all real. I want to be so present that I’m no longer afraid. I want to feel awe. I relocate to a park and climb the stairs of a deserted amphitheater. Up there, as I record these words in my front-row seat to the long sky, big brother sun shoulders in close, slaps me around, shrinks and magnifies me, and with trillions of needles inscribes on my skin many ultraviolet tattoos. Before long I hop down the hillside to a twice-shaded bench, where I watch with satisfaction as dancing lindens clasp hands over the bully sun and it spurts, spilling yolk, from between their leafy fingertips. In the other direction an inflatable white dome, big as a three-story house, pulsates like a jellyfish about to push off from the earth. I may be sweating and light-headed, with visibly stinking shoes, but my pen, which I am holding onto for dear life, has finally loosened its tongue and sweetly lays down for me throbbing lines of fat pigment. Three barking dogs run by and abruptly freeze into a stand-off. Piebald magpies strut like the louche members of a highly dressed gang. A pentacle-shirted girl with movie-blood-red lips, clumping after her shaggy black familiar, stops nearby and smiles palely in my direction, but my own head shouts anxiously at me and though I’d love nothing more than to smile back I just hunch deeper over this hermetic landscape of ink silhouettes, my neck slowly being wrung by its own strained muscles. Yet my shyness has led me to do the right thing, for my fantasies of meeting others should remain fantasies, lest they become my life. If I want any chance at all of making words live, if I want shimmery slithering sinister tonguetwisters that spread through cables and infest all responses, if I want to fall as Lucifer did, wrapped in words, into a new language of new possibilities, well then I’ll just have to stay away from lovely vampires: to create my own adventure I have to be alone with the page and the clock in my chest tick-talking. I cough deep.

On the tree-lined banks of my beloved canal, mother of these reflections, I observe with glee as swans periscope in reverse. One lifts its neck like a muscular arm with a white-and-orange-painted hand and turns toward me its tyrannical glass eye. An inverted beer bottle bobs past, dunking as if being chugged by the current. It begins to rain: water arpeggiates on water, but the water resists, the water seeks rest, the water is a hard surface that thrums when struck, and I am regaled with ripples upon ripples, the sky needling its mirror for me, every drop exploding and launching a smaller drop, the water pingponging itself. Amid this crystal physics, confronted with the water’s interlocking equations, I huddle cross-legged and mortal beneath a homey maple, and although I’m only a little damp I still feel like one big dank itch, a pulp-scalped and scaly swamp creature with raw sore eyes and subaquatic socks. I’ve been awake for as many hours as the years of my age, having spent all yesterday suffocating under the weight of another’s genius and then all night industriously drawing my own fire and extinguishing it; nevertheless it is only here and now, at the limits of my body, that I am finally beginning to reach someplace real, and it’s not the scene around me but its reflection in this mirror world of words. To either side of me vines trail lazy fingers in the water for the puppy waves to frolic around. A white feather writes upon ripples, a scrappy white butterfly scampers like a shred of plastic bag, and a white tourboat bearing a zoo of sitting tourists drags its own perpetually shattering image through wavering and stretching foliage. It’s as if every word were a step in the massive journey to myself, though perhaps a step in the wrong direction, for in this lifelong hunt for myself I’ve already crossed my own trail many times over, I’ve thirsted and shivered and used up my feet, I’ve mapped forests and coasted over oceans, exhausting all the clues, but I might still discover that the distance from me to myself was no further than this pen from the page, or my dangling feet from the singing water. See my reflection rippling on the paper: my crow’s feet branch like lightning. Thirty-one years ago I was packed into a capsule of self-consuming flesh and fired at that last black wall, and by now I know I’m merely dreaming meat floating so high I can see the future and the past, with my little thoughts flying about like tubby bees, but my eyes are made of sights, upon my foggy shirt the falcon of the intellect alights upon an alchemist’s finger, and from my prismatic ballpoint flows the world waving all its flags and banners, tails fanning out and colors burning, every key pressed and all stops pulled, and I may breathe for now, that much is permitted me, I breathe, and I breathe, listening to the passing seconds plunk on leaves, letting the clouds wash over me and the birds sing my name. These words plunge from the sky, letters spattering the page. I begin.

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.