A relentless current pulled Ian along like he was tubing down a river littered with almost-familiar flotsam. People surged around him in a circular exhibition hall, booths spaced out along curving walls on both sides of the course.
The people unnerved him.
Three young women darting off toward a booth just up ahead wore jackets that looked normal at first glance but struck his subconscious as subtly wrong. And that man swimming ponderously upstream — who had ever seen a suit quite that shade of chocolate?
Even the hair styles, subtly but uniformly different from what he expected, accented his alien-ness in this new world.
Ian didn’t know how on-edge he was. He felt happy and excited. His eyes glittered like polished jade as they darted first one way then another to soak up the sights of Grüne Woche — Green Week, West Berlin’s annual food and drink festival.
He was dizzy from the drink part. He, Mark, and Juliette had spent hours sampling beers and wines from all over Europe.
They’d started as soon as they arrived. A big-bellied German in a towering chef’s hat had all but clicked his heels bowing, presenting a tray of white asparagus and ham with glasses of snappy Pils that smelled of mountain meadows.
They stopped at any booth that caught their interest, which for Ian meant just about every one.
“Whoa!” he said, pulling on Mark’s arm and pointing. “Check that out!”
He’d spotted tri-color bunting festooning a simulated garden and a miniature Eiffel Tower. A young woman in a tailored black cocktail dress offered them seats and menus.
“Nous voulions prendre les champignons sauvages, s’il vous plaît,” said Ian, ordering a wild mushroom sampler.
Juliette laughed and stuck her tongue out at him. “Show off!”
“Hey, it’s about time I get to be useful,” he grumped. “Mark’s been the one doing all the talking since we got here.”
Ian’s older friend was an army brat. His German mother had bundled him off several weeks every summer to visit her family in Bremerhaven on the North Sea. She spoke German to him at home. Fluent in both the language and the culture, he alone among the three of them felt completely at ease in Berlin.
“You’re so lucky, man,” Ian said.
“Luck, huh?” Mark teased. “Then how come my Russian is better than yours, Bra? Wanna keep up with super linguist here, you better hit the books!”
Ian liked it when Mark called him Bra. His buddy’s So-Calese slang rang exotic in his Midwest ears. As he watched Mark eating his mushrooms and gulping champagne, he thought about how different they were. Mark didn’t talk much. When he spoke, it was usually because he had something important to say. Ian babbled away with stories all day long. Sometimes he had to remind himself to shut up.
They’d hit it off in training, studying and rooming together. He’d been thrilled when they were both assigned to Berlin, and happy that Mark — ahead of him by a few weeks — had been able to rent an apartment downtown for the two of them.
Juliette had settled for bachelor officers quarters, but she spent most of her off-duty time with Ian and Mark.
“Let’s get out of here,” she suggested, draining her plastic champagne flute. “I need some beer.”
As she stood, unfolding her willowy frame, Ian knew people were staring. She was exotic enough back in the States with her high African cheekbones, erect posture, and cropped hair. Here in Berlin she was a total novelty. Her Kenyan-immigrant parents had graced their daughter with fierce intelligence and wit, but also with features the Germans saw as regal.
Ian knew her prep-school accent and severe expression hid a playful sense of humor. Juliette surprised people, never matching the face she presented so carefully to the world.
She dragged the guys through the crowd. “Come on. I know it was over this way somewhere.” She stopped, blue-black head poking up above a sea of white faces. “Aha! There!”
They spent the next hour sampling creamy Irish stouts.
“Excuse me, Mr. Flight Commander, sir,” Juliette deadpanned at Ian. “I believe you’re setting a bad example for the troops.” She pointed at Mark. “Lt. Carpenter here is at least 3 beers ahead of you.”
“He’s also about 60 pounds heavier than me!”
“Ha! Try 70. At least.” Mark laughed, scooped up a sample cup from in front of Ian, eyed it carefully, then downed it with one quick snap of his head.
“Well, as Flight Commander,” Ian intoned, “I declare this booth officially finished.” He lifted his slight frame off the bar stool, wobbling a little as he rose to his full five and a half feet. His fine blond hair, pale Irish skin, and delicate nose contrasted strongly with Mark’s wiry black curls, pocked face and smashed nose. He could have been a heavyweight Italian boxer who’d seen one too many bouts in the ring.
“Lead on, sir,” Mark grinned out of his wide mouth.
Juliette rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t,” she growled. “It’ll go to his head.”
“Hey!” Ian slurred. “Not my fault the major knew a natural born leader when he saw one.”
Secretly, he worried. A flight commander slot had opened up just as he arrived. It should rightfully have gone to Mark as the senior staff lieutenant. But the boss had already spent time training him on Air Defense resource analysis, and he didn’t want to start over.
“We’ll all swap jobs, eventually, Bra,” laughed Mark. “Don’t sweat it, be happy. Drink beer. My motto.”
Juliette high fived him, mock-muttering, “little brat,” loud enough for Ian to hear. “Let’s get you home and sobered up,” she said aloud. “Don’t you have a shift in the morning, Lt. Strack?”
Ian looked down at his watch. “What, are you serious? It’s not even 5 yet! And I’m only a little buzzed.”
“That’s not what you’ll be if we stay. Remember that time in San Angelo when you were just a little buzzed and thought it was a good idea to guzzle a whole bottle of vodka?”
“Damn! Don’t I ever get to live that down?” He tried to change the subject. “Mark? Tell her to stop calling me strack just because I like nice creases in my uniform!”
Mark snorted, winked at Juliette and threw an arm around one of Ian’s shoulders. She grabbed the other, and they playfully tugged him toward an exit. Then, just as they reached the doors that revolved out into brisk February air, Ian ducked down suddenly and slid out of their grasp.
Dancing backward into the dense crowd, he felt himself collide with someone. Letting slip a quick entschuldigung for excuse me, he continued to backpedal rapidly, calling out, “You guys go ahead! I’m just gonna grab some more food. It’s dinner time! I’ll be home soon, Mark. See you at work in the morning, Juliette.”
Mark shrugged while Juliette called out worried instructions after him. “Make sure you take the right U-Bahn line! Don’t end up in the East again!”
“OK, Mom!” Ian laughed as a pained expression crossed her face. Then he evaporated into the crowd.
Wisps of incomprehensible German floating around him accented his other-ness and upped his unease to conscious levels. He almost regretted ditching his friends, but he really was hungry. Juliette at 25 and Mark at 26 didn’t have appetites like Ian, who ate like the adolescent he still resembled. So, even though they’d sampled bits of food all day, his stomach was insisting it was time for a real meal.
He let the human river pull him along as he tried to peek over taller heads to spot a steak place he’d noticed earlier. Then his own head swiveled as a murmur of intelligible speech drifted past.
He honed in like a radio operator tuning in a weak signal.
Izvinite, pozhaluysta, u vas yest’ …
It took him a couple heartbeats to realize the voice he understood was speaking in Russian.
Excuse me, please. Do you have any juice?
He started worming his way through the crowd without even meaning to seek out the source of the speech. His body took over for him. He arrived at a sausage-vending booth in time to hear a gruff barrage of German words flung at a young man about his own age or possibly a little younger.
The guy’s face turned bright red, then he opened his mouth again and started speaking stilted French. “Excusez-moi, monsieur. Avez-vous du jus?”
Ian took in a round, classically slavic face framed by flaxen hair and set with prominent purple eyes. Frustration and concentration marred his good looks. The sweaty German across the counter wore a stubborn expression that matched his stolid starched apron.
“Verstehe nicht! Sie müssen deutsch sprechen!” The man’s iron voice proclaimed his monolingual facility with almost American pride.
“Entschuldigen Sie bitte, meinen guten Herr,” Ian interrupted in the simple German Mark had taught him. “My friend would like to know if you have any juice for sale?”
“Tisha!” he added in Russian to the flustered youth. “Chill. I’ll take care of this.”
The guy shot him a grateful look as Ian went on to interpret well enough to procure a bottle of apple juice for the Russian and some mineral water for himself.
“Spasibo bolshoe!” the kid exclaimed, tense face melting into the beginnings of a smile. “It’s so good to be able to talk to somebody. My father and I just got here. I mean just got to Germany, and I don’t speak the language at all.”
He extended his hand carefully and politely. “It is very nice to meet you. I am most pleased. They call me Dmitry.”
Ian tried not to laugh at the Old World formality, happy at least that he could understand the crisply enunciated Russian. “Likewise,” he replied, shaping his words carefully. “It’s a pleasure.”
He was excited to have a chance to speak Russian with a native, a chance he only rarely ever had. He’d never spoken the language with a real Russian his own age, and he could feel his enthusiasm tangle his tongue around complex consonant clusters.
“They call me Ian. I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance,” he stuttered, hoping he remembered the formal phrasing correctly.
“Ee-ya-ne?” the Russian youth asked, mouth twisting around unfamiliar sounds. “Yan?”
“Close enough,” Ian reassured him.
“Well, then, Yan. Thank you for helping me!” He raised his bottle of apple juice in salute. “But how do you speak my language? Is not very unusual in the West?”
As Ian answered, they set off down the concourse together, gawking at the sights, having agreed without words to stick together for a while. “Oh, I learned it in school. I don’t really know why. Had to pick a language. I just wanted to read Chekov and Pushkin, but somehow it ended up as my career. I’m in the American Air Force now and they just sent me here.”
“Truly? Air Force? But… is why I too am here, Yan.” The boy’s eyes shone with excitement as he explained. “My father is pilot. I am studying for my exams so I can go to the military academy in Russia next fall. I will be pilot also!”
He directed an envious look at Ian. “Is my biggest dream, to fly. So, what kind of plane do you fly, my friend? Fighter? Bomber? Transport?”
“Haha! I wish, man. I’m no pilot.” He pointed to his eyes. “Contact lenses. And besides,” he added modestly, “All the advanced math would probably have kicked my ass.”
“Yes,” the Russian agreed. “The math is very, very hard. Too hard for some of the guys in my school. But my father helps me every night at the kitchen table. He shows me how to do the problems.
“If I get bored,” he added, “my dad tells me how it feels to be all alone in the sky, riding a tail of fire. Then I do my sines and cosines again!”
Ian smiled at his friend’s enthusiasm, but the smile fought its way through rising nervous tension. He was afraid he’d gotten in over his head. He commanded a shift of 30 men and women who intercepted Soviet pilot radio communication. Dmitry was probably the son of one of those very pilots.
“So,” he asked, voice squeaking a little. “What does your dad fly?”
“He is fighter pilot. He is command pilot just qualified on new Sukhoi-27. Only the best!”
Ian’s stomach contracted. Oh shit!
Aloud, he said, “Hey, uh … Dmitry, I have something I should probably tell you.”
Ian blocked out the muted roar of the convention hall. He knew he should say goodbye and walk away, but something stopped him. Something he didn’t quite understand. He couldn’t walk away. He wasn’t going to. He understand that much.
“My job is military intelligence. You know what that is?”
Dmitry nodded gravely.
“I can’t tell you exactly what I do, OK?” But, listen to me. Don’t tell me anything else about your dad. Maybe if we don’t talk about the Air Force, we can stay friends.”
Dmitry’s eyes narrowed. His question came out tense and strained. “You are spy, Yan?”
“No! Nothing like that. Seriously. We’re not secret agents or anything. I work in an office and mostly do boring things like memorize Orders of Battle. But your dad and I are on opposite sides. We need to be careful.”
Ian paused as Dmitry froze and pinned him down with a long gaze. His dark blue eyes locked on him, so thoughtful that Ian could almost see his brain working.
After what seemed an interminable time, Dmitry finally spoke. “Is OK, is not your fault.”
“You can’t help being a capitalist,” he said quietly and very seriously.
Ian thought Dmitry began to sound relieved as he rushed through an explanation of what he must have been thinking about. “We learned so much in Pioneers, and now in Komsomol. I read everything. Marx and Lenin just to start. But you never have that chance. So who can blame you? You are good guy, Yan. I can see you are good guy. Not your fault!”
Ian was starting to relax a bit, and he chuckled as he replied. “Hey, man. I feel the same way.”
Responding to the perplexed look that greeted his reply, Ian explained. “Lots of my friends think communism is evil. That’s what they teach us in school. But I don’t. I think you guys just don’t understand us. I don’t blame you either. It’s not your fault.”
Ian’s tension melted into relief as the young Russian bent over with laughter.
“Haha! Oh, that’s very good, Comrade American Industrialist. You don’t blame ME? Funny, but good!”
“OK, then,” Dima said, choking off a chuckle. “We agree? No talking about the Air Force. And we are friends! You and me.”
Ian’s heart began to race. Once again he knew he needed to say goodbye and leave. Once again, he knew he would not.
“But, please,” said the young Russian, throwing an arm over Ian’s shoulder. “Please call me Dima.” He started pulling the American along. “If we are going to be friends, you must call me Dima.”
As they swam through the crowd, arm in arm, Ian reminded himself that customs differ. Surely Dima’s body pressed so tightly against his own meant something entirely different to the Russian boy than it would mean to an American.
He wondered if Dima felt the shivers running up and down his body.
This is Chapter 2 of a serialized novel, a genre-bending Cold War geopolitical thriller cum gay coming-of-age romance. You can expect a chapter every couple of days.
Expect to meet mighty warriors, evil commissars, bumbling KGB officers, bar-tending Greek philosophers, at least one haughty standard poodle, and a princess — not the fairy tale kind, the hard kind who lives off the labor of people struggling beneath her.
The action is set in Berlin, Russia, Greece, and Tunisia. The settings and the characters are pulled directly from my own life, but the story is entirely fictional.
I never fled Berlin with the son of a Soviet Air Force general hiding from the KGB. Or if I did, I’ll never admit it.
One Lonely Russian, One American, One Phone Number
Moon over Berlin, Sun over Santorini: B1C3
Miss the first chapters?
One American Youth, One Soviet General
Moon over Berlin, Sun over Santorini: Fateful encounter
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.