It may seem ironic to describe such widespread decrepitude as ‘fertile,’
but in artistic terms, it is apt.
— Claire Messud, “An American in Berlin”
Marcus swings from room to room, finally landing in the kitchen. He’s in a smoky hurry with things to attend to, including a three-meter-tall plaster tooth that sits on a pallet near the river. His job, his only job, is to make the giant tooth float in the murky water. The event will be filmed. He nods a goodbye, dimples deepening before he ducks under the doorjamb and into dark.
Not an eyelash is batted.
I sit back on my cheap deck chair which is so unreasonably indoors, continuing to cradle my putanesca or whatever it was intending to be into my mouth. Mira reaches for a box of matches, lights a cigarette. The apartment is a fifth-floor unit of an outlandishly large building that I once found in a book of modernist architecture. Its design affords few comatose crackheads beneath the courtyard eaves, which ranks a small triumph in Berlin.
The radio dial is on the poetry station. German poetry.
Three years ago, you briefly lived in Berlin, as did a boy. It was spring, a persistent rising from the dead. And everything was bright and righteously ripe, though whether owed to the euphoria of company or cobbled promenade you were never quite sure. There was mania throughout, nonetheless. This state was delirious or wishful; fleeting regardless.
Sure, either fleeting or infinite. The timescale is arbitrary.
The destination is one you wouldn’t have otherwise wished yourself, the frozen home of roving block parties, pram-propelling house-husbands, ethnic novelty foods, squatter artist colonies, illustriously reclusive haute couturettes, youthfully hip trigenarians, cafés populated with stylistically mismatched furniture, grunting mono-lingual expats, hermetic academics of the sociological variety, graffitied back-alley minimal clubs, and a truly exhaustive sweepings of the youthful dregs of Europe. In the distant boar-infested swamps of northern Germany, the city quietly smolders.
Two years after, you move to Berlin again, more deliberately. You arrive in early fall, when the fog sifts through the loose frames of windows and doors and strange childhood portraits. Awakening adrift in someone else’s floral stench, the boy of before lays dead in the dream.
This is not how you wanted to alight.
Your roommate calls her best friend “apricot.” In winter, the produce is wilting, elusive, sometimes toxic. When passing shop windows you double-take, believing you’ve borne witness to full fruit baskets, tossed salads, and fresh lemonade in a glass case. They await cruelly just beyond view, in the wings, in the gables of more fortunate neighbors. For you, there are cold sausages, stale bread.
You arrived with nothing.
There’s a telling, smelling transience. There is no hot water where you stay, nor warmth or furniture or daylight. At some point, you start keeping an address where you no longer reside. There is constant questioning of where one belongs, as if the drawers into which one shoves old receipts and underwear is a topic of characteristic importance. A homeless person lives nowhere, you say, not me.
At high noon you squint with stomach and chin resting in the grass, the city best refracted through a prism of delirious youth. The ecstatic indolence knows no quell, considered virtuous.
This city has an brooding, free aesthetic. Feeding on sacrificial offerings of wasted youths, it renders age of little consequence. Childhood is on perpetual extension. At first, this seems joyful and light. What you find, after frequenting house parties in apartments beset with troublingly akimbo spiral staircases atop hip neighborhoods, is that childhood is dangerous in perpetuity. Tolerances go up over time, particularly for imbibing and dropping acid. The loss of innocence lends no reclaiming.
The loss of innocence lends no reclaiming.
The Germans have a ritual of arrival. The rejoining of the spirit, its person with a displaced body.
There is the bliss of falling asleep in the sun, on the dock in the river Spree. Screaming children tripping over your legs as you swig warming beer mixed with grapefruit juice, a concoction everyone spurns on the first try and snatch-grabs on the second. This is your dock, your planks, your heavenly glowing unit above. The rest of the world blends away whilst you sun your frighteningly pallor skin.
You take a job. You travel there, every day, sitting silently on the fluorescing train. You learn to avoid people’s eyes, to give wide berth to suspicious men on the platform. With time, all men are suspicious.
Your groceries consist of ginger, cigarettes, and club mate. Each is a cure for another, a perpetual carousel.
On long weekends lacking destination you spread out the cracked map from before the Wall fell, where Germany remains cleaved in two pastel pieces. Dust lights the parquet and you deliberate why one might go to Riga or Wroclaw. But you don’t go.
Your roommate was born in the East just before the Wall fell. She doesn’t understand her parents. They lived in fear, she says, and there’s no way to bring that back out of a person. They may even fear her.
This humming fear, it clings to the sides of buildings. There flicker the flames of social distortion, homage paintings to hallucinations of man, the pictorial self-references that test our understandings of ourselves. This was once called art, more derogatorily graffiti. Vacant wails of decay are sieged with yet more disturbing imagery. There are such places, like the derelict mental hospital in the deepest of night, where the silence is audible.
How can you be held responsible for the blazing fever of man, temperature taken by spray-painted cries across scowling concrete apartment blocks?
Throughout all this you’ve forgotten, slowly, that they sidle behind your slippery imprints in the snow, between the shelves of canned carrots and beets in the over-lit supermarket aisles and amongst the peeling billboards in the subway. Just after you’ve banished them all, overwritten their shimmeringly subtle existence, memories rise to face you at your most wayward moments.
Of tiny bedroom furniture, accessed by ladder amongst a Grimm’s Fairytale decor of a bar with according unsettlingly tiny proportions.
Of riding the train in circles, prepared with beer and sparse woolen layers, transferring lines aimlessly.
Of the river cast in shale, being careless in crossing arising bridges, irretrievably lost in darkness.
Bygone prospects, an inconjurable mirage.
Berlin is cheap pilsner and wilted vegetables from Spain. Berlin is soulless 800-unit Soviet era apartment buildings, stroller promenades, entrenched graffiti, unmarked front-house clubs, and a bare concrete aesthetic. Berlin could be Neverland. Or it could be everything, everyone, that is left behind.
Berlin could be Neverland. Or it could be everything, everyone, that is left behind.
You don’t remember ever performing the ritualistic arrival. You wonder whether you ever arrived. Yet before, you believed you’d never left.
A year later, you leave with nothing.
In the kitchen, the windows are open to thin the tobacco haze. And not for long, it’s below zero in December. The oven is propped such that its remaining heat rises to singe the formica, seeps across a sink full of broken-tip knives, wafts through gaunt herbs dripping from a nearby shelf.
Mira forks a piece of pasta from the serving bowl. And someone lights a cigarette.