That Was The Winter
That was the winter Sam’s father died. The winter that Holger and I blew all of our savings and flew off to Germany for twenty-one days. It was an exercise in unifying the capitalistic ideals of my American upbringing with Holger’s romantic German progressivism.
The trip was a kind of homecoming for Holger – an opportunity to revel in the glory days of his post-grad friendships; for me, it was reconciling my childhood as the daughter of a conservative Jewish family, who had married the grandson of a prominent psychiatrist SS officer. An officer who had systematically participated in the experimentation on Holocaust victims behind Eastern-sided walls, during the War in Berlin; an officer who had fled to the countryside towards the end of the end with his Jewish wife, two small children and fake Catholic documentation to hide in plain sight.
This was coming to terms with Holger’s sudden departure of the Fatherland – his becoming an American and leaving his culture, shame and identity behind. This was my metamorphosis into becoming a true believer in the Liberalism and equality that my Democratic, ultra liberal parents preached to me as a child.
Six months after our first week together, he packed it all up, quit his job in Düsseldorf, cancelled the lease on our apartment, closed our bank accounts, boarded a plane and moved in with me in my house in Houston.
We married a week later. It was all so fast and romantic.
“It has to be done,” he said.
“Why so soon? My parents are going to totally freak out.” I replied.
“It’s for the visa.”
“Are you ready to get married?” he asked.
“No way. Are you?” I asked.
“No. But it has to be done, for the visa, for our future, if we’re to have one together.” he said.
“Okay, well, I guess we do it and never look back.” I said, completely in doubt.
When Sam’s father was diagnosed with cancer the previous May, he immediately packed his bags and flew out to Los Angeles. The idea was to spend the summer in his mother’s house, helping her to tend to his dying father. After the last of the chemo, the doctors sent his father home in the care of Sam, with the help of a part-time nurse to die in peace, in his own house.
Later that summer when he visited me in Houston, he was sadder yet happier. He had met a girl. A real girl, with curves, tall like him and with long, lovely, flowing, black hair. She was his and no one else’s and she was near perfect. My dad is dying but I am in love. I am selfish and play house with her and we go shopping together on the weekends for furniture for her new house. I search through flea markets and silently wonder what would my father think of this funny little contraption I bought for her.
That winter Sam’s father died alone in a coma in Sam’s father’s house when the nurse left the room to get more warm water while she was giving him a bath. Sam was out at the beach with his new girlfriend enjoying life, flirting, swimming, and charming her in his magical and mysterious ways. He says he will never forgive himself for not being present to witness his death.
I wish I could use my time more constructively on this trip – make some art – time passes so fast. There is still too much to do. We are here in Germany for a week so far – Berlin was beautiful, and it feels like a day and then like a month at the same time. I am anxious as I wait to visit Mark, Holger’s best friend who lives in Göttingen to prepare for our move back to Germany the following year. Our plan is to buy a farmhouse or rundown castle in the countryside and live together as a family. My plan is to attend the local Künstacademie and earn my MFA, and then hopefully teach. Holger’s plan is to rule the world of research and development at a think tank.
My thoughts frequently drift to Dave Egger’s book You Shall Know Our Velocity that I read on the plane. I think about the adventurous story of Will and Hand and their fast-paced travels through Africa, Tallelin, Morocco. They were so familiar to me, so much like Holger and Mark as friends, and the wild journeys the two of them have had over the last decade together in travel. While reading the book it was like being on vacation with them, like I was the silent passenger, always there but never with a voice – kind of like being in Germany and not being quite fluent yet.
Holger and I are staying with Mark and his four flat mates – Veronika, Michael, Simon and Markus – in a shitty walk up in the Old town area of Göttingen. Boutiques, restaurants, shops and bars occupy the first floors of the buildings in this district – the nearby streets are lined with grand, century old houses occupied by professors who teach at the university. Mark’s flat has very little redeeming qualities – its best feature is the pedestrian-only cobblestone streets that we step out into when we leave.
“Do you want a cup of coffee?” Veronika walks in, asks me, in German, which is improving for me day by day here.
“Nein, Danke.” No thank you, I reply, embarrassed, looking away because looking at her is difficult. She is an artist like myself but completely gorgeous, in a ridiculous kind of way.
I sit down at the table and Mark and Holger are more consumed in conversation about whether or not Einstein came up with Quantum Theory.
“Oh! I just read this great book called Art and Physics, which discusses correlations between the two,” I say, but they would not have any of my conversation starter.
Mark declares, “Yes, Einstein came up with it,” Holger, “No, Einstein did not come up with Quantum Theory.”
Finally Mark leaves the breakfast table in search of his little encyclopedia-like book all students here at the University in Göttingen are given in their first year as students. It did not hold the answer. I suggested they look on the Internet but was quickly scolded on how the Internet is “fact less”.
I argue, “No it’s not,” but was ignored. I try again to talk about the correlation between Art and Physics, but the conversation had quickly turned into German again, and of course, I didn’t have enough time to react, and so I ate my breakfast and pretended to listen instead.
The ‘pretending to listen and understand’ had become secondhand to me by now. The first few jet-lagged days here caused it to accelerate.
It’s the jet lag.
I’m not responsible for my moods and emotionless facial expressions.
It’s because I am tired.
I think I’ll just sit here and drink another coffee and engage in a critique of Mark’s supermodel roommate’s poorly made paintings and chain-smoke some more cigarettes.
We spent New Years Eve Day napping and eating and cleaning up around the house. My hangover from the night before had dissolved and I am able to eat solid foods again. For New Years Eve we went to one of Mark’s friends houses. It was a lot like Mark’s flat, but larger and a bit shittier. The host is also named Holger and he and his girlfriend were kind enough to let ten of us come over, make sushi, leave empty beer bottles all over his house and later leave his bedroom smelling like an ashtray. Our host’s roommates were some kind of graduate artists and sculpture students at the university and had some of the sloppiest and most random art I have ever seen. It looked like it was birthed out of the back of a moving vehicle and made under the influence of multiple drugs.
“Can we smoke in here?” Mark asks his friend.
“Sure of course,” he replies.
“Are you sure it’s okay? But you don’t smoke.” I say.
“Yeah, it’s okay,” he says.
“Yeah, but we smoke a lot.” I say.
Our host’s flat is on the fourth floor, has three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and has one main, dank, dark red painted hallway. Cartoons and funny pictures of Holger on snowboards are taped up along the hallway. Bob Marley is on the front of his door, eye-level and in black and white. Che Guevara is posted on the slanted ceiling of his room. I remark on the Che Guevara poster, I get a short answer in German accent. Elke, Mark’s girlfriend says something about Che being a Mexican communist. I start to clarify who Che is for her, but my grasp of German isn’t strong enough, and she’s started to smoke marijuana. I remember she’s both a Feminist and an Anesthesiologist, moved here from East Germany, and I decide it better to keep my mouth shut.
Holger’s kitchen has no water outlet so they use the bathroom sink for kitchen, art, laundry and bathing. The refrigerator is at the top of the stairs, outside the flat, in the stairwell. Bicycle parts clutter the steps up to the flat. The dishwasher sits in the middle of the hallway, between bedroom doors. It is grey with painted-on hearts. Holger boasts he bought it on e-bay for one Euro.
“Wow, I say. That’s cheap. How much did you pay for shipping?” He ignores me.
We continue into his bedroom, the main entertaining area for the party. He’s opened up the attic roof windows so that we can walk out onto the roof, which is slanted, icy and dangerous looking. I make a mental note not to walk out there as the evening festivities get underway.
Six hours later we had a table full of left over sushi mixed with glitter and confetti, five cases of beer have been consumed and Mark is drinking Vodka straight out of the bottle while dancing around the room.
Elke has started to sift through CDs and is playing random German pop from the 80’s. An argument ensues about whether or not all pop originates from Kraftwerk. Elke gets so mad her little face turns red when no one agrees with her. I don’t have an opinion.
After another five or so hours have passed and we have listened to all of Holger’s CDs, multiple guests have gone home and it’s well past 3am. We are in the car, it is freezing outside, and the car beeps, it is minus one degrees Celsius. I am given the keys to drive home because I am still sober. Holger is the front seat next to me, and Mark in the back. Elke has decided to ride her bike home.
I unroll my window.
“Do you want a lift?” I ask Elke.
“No, I’m fine. I’m riding my bike.” She answers.
“Are you sure? Isn’t it too cold out here?” I ask.
“She’s tough, she can handle it.” Mark says, slurring, drunk and stoned.
Elke rolls her eyes at us in the car, and starts to peddle off in the snow and ice.
“Okay, whatever,” I say under my breath.
“Bye.” We all say in unison.
Elke gives us the finger as she makes her way down the darkened street, slowly biking away from us.
Mark gives directions from the backseat. Holger’s mom’s car is just like our VW in Houston, but hers is diesel. We discuss the benefits of diesel over gasoline. The roads here are the same but smaller. The gas stations are owned by the same big companies but the gas here is more expensive because of the government imposed taxes – a tax to dissuade people from driving everywhere, and to help pay for things like road maintenance, lessen pollution, environmental impact of travel – I get the entire story from Holger. Liters versus Gallons. It’s a toss we decide. We make our way through the student-filled streets and arrive home in good time. Mark has a secret parking place for our car. It’s a university parking area, reserved for faculty, dressed with a chain link closing it off between two poles. Mark jumps out of the car and lifts one of the poles out of the ground. We have a free parking place and we are so clever.
“We can park here?” I ask.
“Sure we can.” Holger answers.
“No one will care? I thought you Germans never broke the rules.” I ask, worried.
“The worst they can do is tow us, but that is unlikely.” He says, official-like.
We make our way through broken glass, sprinkled throughout the pedestrian area streets on the way back to Mark’s flat. Half-broken bottles are scattered everywhere and anyone from age 16 and up is totally wasted. We give directions to two boys on scooters. I trip on a big broken bottle. It looks a little like Mardi gras in New Orleans, without the beads and gratuitous nudity. We pass by Turkish fast food restaurants with wet windows full of people, eating with their hands. We pass a group of well-dressed teens taking group shots and slurring into the video camera.
“Oh my god, what jackasses.” Mark says.
“What are they saying?” I ask.
“Nothing. Just talking shit, and doing a very bad job of it.” Holger says.
“Well, what are they saying in French?” I ask.
“They aren’t saying anything, that’s the point.” Mark answers.
I think it must be odd to understand so many different languages at once.
We rumble up five flights of stairs. I crawl in into bed falling asleep to Holger and Mark in the kitchen arguing in German about politics and philosophy. I tune them out; I don’t understand what they are saying. We don’t wake until 2pm the next day and my sushi stomachache is gone.
It is so cold here in the kitchen, even as high up as we are on the fifth floor. It’s a long walk up Mark’s staircase; filled with Dentist offices, white walls and wooden steps. They don’t have elevators in his building. Everything is manual, even the cars. At the grocery store you have to bring your own bags, or pay 10 cents for cheap plastic ones. Cigarettes cost three Euros. We consume them all day over conversation and coffee in the kitchen. Elke smoked four in thirty minutes. I light one then put it out after three drags. My lungs are frozen shut from the cold air coming in from the open kitchen window. I go to the bathroom and throw up.
They’re all talking in German again, my ears close, my brain shuts off, and so I just stare into my teacup…
Markus, Mark’s roommate wanders into the kitchen. He is naïve and he speaks to me in English because he says he likes to practice. He will live with us in our farmhouse when Holger and I move back to Germany next year. We discuss the differences between Germany and the U.S. – he quizzes me on American culture and politics – he is a political science major and is studying for his PhD in International Studies. Elke returns from the store after buying more cigarettes and beer and joins us at the table half way through our conversation.
“Why is there so much racism in America? I mean, why do white people still hate black people?” he asks.
“Um…History… fear, I guess. It’s really complicated.” I answer.
“But why?” he asks.
“Well, its super fucked up. I mean, it’s basically intolerance. And, well, there is also a lot of reverse racism. It’s just, like, history. It’s like the same fucking reason the Jews hate the Nazis. History. Injustice. Slaughter. Prejudice. Cruelty. Inhumanity. Outright bigotry. Poverty. I mean, have you ever even been to the South? It’s pretty insane if you ever study American history to look at what has happened in subtle ways – culturally.” I say, reaching for another cigarette while popping open my first beer. I silently wonder if he knows my personal history.
“History Ja?” he asks.
“It seems really stupid to me. I thought everyone was progressive and America was so modern now. Like all cool and shit. That’s what it looks like on television.” He says looking down.
I shake my head. “No, its all lies.” I say.
“That’s sad.” He says.
“I know.” I agree.
“Where were you when 9/11 happened?” He asks.
“I was in bed asleep that morning. I had overslept on accident – I had been up the night before, working late, working on a project for work. My boyfriend at the time, Sam, a nice Jewish boy my parents were like, totally in love with, called me and woke me up. He said, ‘Heather, turn the TV on.’ And I did. He came over right away and we spent the day in my bed watching the news and just like, being totally fucking freaked out.” I explained.
“I was in school. My professor was interrupted during the lecture. They made an announcement and some of us students were allowed to leave the building. People on the streets were totally panicking. I didn’t leave my flat for like a day or two.” He shares.
What I did not share with Markus and Elke is that 9/11 was the day that Sam and I broke up, nor that Rosh Hashanah was the following week, the day after my twenty-sixth birthday and that I had to tell my entire family over dinner that the wedding was called off.
I did tell them other random things I had either read or heard about recently: health insurance costs more for smokers than for non-smokers. I promised them I don’t smoke so much normally. Markus too. He only smokes because he has just ran out of marijuana and is waiting for his dealer to come back to town. I tell them CNN just reported marketing specialists have figured out that single gay men are a new market force; they have no children typically, make large sums of money and therefore should be marketed more aggressively. Markus and Elke are appalled.
“Yes,” I tell them, and “No, they are not allowed to marry, it’s only allowed in a few states.”
They are open-mouthed, shocked.
Nothing surprises me anymore.
We drove to a bear park in the forest the other day. It was snowing and we feared the bears would not be out and about, that they would be hibernating. An older couple had them living on their family farm, but the government declared their facilities inept, and so they were taken away, and the government built the bears a natural wilderness park in the middle of a little town. We saw six bears and six wolves. One wolf was very old, near death, slow moving, tired. A young Bear ran in circles, huffing, snorting and rumbling about. A few minutes later the park ranger arrived with fresh fruit and bread. She tossed the food over the gates and the bears came out of hiding, down the sloping hills, out from behind the trees. Bear and wolf alike ate in complete silence. It was beautiful.
It was so cold I paced. I tried jumping up and down, I walked in place, trying to keep warm, it had begun to snow again. Elke visited the toilet three times. I wondered if she had a small bladder to match her small figure.
“Does she have a small bladder?” I ask Holger.
“How would I know?” he says.
“I don’t know, just asking, you’ve known her for like… ever.” I replied.
“She gets warm in the toilets – they’re heated.” explains Mark.
Later that night we made plans to go out to an Indian restaurant for dinner. Mark wanted to stay in and eat the leftover sushi from New Years but Elke and I overruled him. He sulked out of the room and made a crack about American stomachs not being able to handle three-day-old sushi. Veronika and Markus came back from the coffee house they’d been at for the last two hours. They had a friend with them. I didn’t know her name and I didn’t bother to ask. They ask to join us for dinner.
At the Indian restaurant we have an entire corner to ourselves. The ceilings are decorated in elaborate designs. It’s gorgeous. Better than the movies. Our food comes out in grand tins kept warm by candles. Everything is beautiful. I ate so fast my stomach hurt, we paid four Euros for three diet cokes.
“You drink too much too fast.” Holger says.
“I’m thirsty and the food is super spicy.” I reply.
“Drink water instead.”
“The water costs just as much.” I argue.
Holger picks up the drink menu, “Then order a beer, its cheaper.”
After dinner we planned to visit as many bars as possible. The first was the best; it had the best music and the best atmosphere. We found a small room in the back of the bar. The room was wallpapered in red velvet striped paper, lined with a circular couch, a black and white framed poster of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston hung from the wall. Its title bore: “May 29, 1965. Muhammad Ali versus Sonny Liston. First Minute, First Round.” The bartender showed up, I order vodka7, Elke beer, Holger beer, Veronika beer, Mark and Markus ordered Becks Gold.
Laughing that one of us would order Beck’s Gold, the bartender tells us the story of how Becks Gold was created. It is understood that Becks bought a failing brewery in East Germany and decided to manufacture their beer as Becks Gold. It was a national hit. Markus said he heard that Becks Gold and Becks Green are in fact the same beer. To disprove this theory, we tie Elke’s scarf around our eyes and take turns taste testing the green versus gold Becks. They taste the same. We decide they are the same.
The bar is playing music from Quentin Tarrantino films. We all take turns guessing which song matches which film. I win because I know the films best because I have seen them all multiple times. It is unfair and so I stop playing.
It’s a short flight down the steps into the dark, thumping bar titled “Bar.” We sit in the corner of the basement on another set of sofas. The room is full of university students; a DJ booth sits in the middle of the room, the top half shows two turntables, and the bottom half a fish tank. I order another drink; we sit through two more rounds, bad service and shitty techno. I point out the still fish in the fish tank. I ask Mark and Holger whether or not the vibrations that the music creates affect the fish. Holger says if we stay any longer he’ll not want to leave to Germany and go home to Houston. I agree.
“It’s easier here.” He whines.
“I know.” I reply, agreeing.
Markus starts to tell me stupid things he’s done recently. We trade stories. Everyone at the table shares stories about when they were stoned, high on LSD or drove home drunk. Veronika tells a story about driving her rental car into the ocean in Holland after drinking four bottles of champagne.
“This one time I bought marijuana off a drug dealer who lived twenty minutes away. The guy rolled a joint and a few of us smoked it. Then I drove really slow home with my drugs in my shoe.” Markus says, grinning.
“But Marijuana is legal in Germany,” Elke points out.
Elke looks at Markus with a seriously pissed off expression. Markus and Elke start to argue about drugs and consciousness.
Markus says, “Drugs expand your mind.”
Elke replies, “No, drugs change it.”
Elke reminds us she is a doctor so she should know better, she’s an Anesthesiologist. They are talking really fast in German, so I stop listening. Elke starts to yell at Markus and Mark gets up to calm her down.
I look away, thinking about the fish in the vibrating tank.
The next morning we drive back to Holger’s mom’s house. It is snowing but the roads are clear. We make it to her house in less than 4 hours. Holger drives 190 km per hour. I calculate it’s roughly 120 miles per hour. His mom is waiting patiently for us in the living room. We unload the car, take off our snow-filled shoes, change into our Birkenstocks and drink tea with her. She’s made a torte for us.
We spend the next week like this, politely having conversation over breakfast, lunch and dinner. She makes us cookies and washes our dirty laundry. She realizes how much she’s missed Holger in the last two years since we have moved to Houston and announces one afternoon that she will visit us for a month next summer.
It is pitch black out and the snow crunches underfoot. We are packing the car and it is ten minutes to 6am. Holger drives the entire way to the airport and I try to sleep the entire car ride. We silently pass tiny villages still sleeping as the sun rises.
When I wake up we’re almost at the airport. Holger’s mom is reading the paper in the backseat – I count two golden arches. I tell Holger it should be outlawed – he agrees. We have made good driving time – there is little traffic, very few people at the terminal and so we decide not to park. Holger’s mom leaves us in the passenger zone and we say our teary goodbyes.
As we settle into our seats and I prepare myself for the long flight, I reconcile my sadness that our three weeks are over by reflecting on the trip, as certain details and observations float to the surface of my thoughts.
Holger and his mom and the distance that living apart has created are the first thoughts that come to mind. I think about Mark and Elke and I am reminded of Neo Rauch’s Die Fuge, (2007), and the way in which the painting’s countryside depicts the characters and their struggles with their own humanity. I cannot tell if they are struggling against one another or working in unison towards some ultimate utopian goal – much like Mark and Elke’s relationship.
Mark told me the story of Elke’s upbringing in the former DDR and her father disappearing when she was five years old. A neighbor reported later to Elke’s mother that he had seen her father arguing with an officer in the street one afternoon – he was never heard from again. Elke’s mother raised her three daughters alone while working in the local factory until they escaped to the West when the wall came down. This is why Elke’s heart is closed and she is driven to work hard, why she has no patience for Mark and his childish lifestyle and constant annoyance with Mark’s drug crazed adventures. What she does not fully realize is the similar narrative she shares with Mark. It is the basis of their mutual attraction, and the same story of surviving life in the East. It is the glue that binds them together.
Holger once explained that Mark’s family was some kind of Schwabish and he grew up outside a small village in the former East. He and his family lived in a rundown cabin, built in a forest that lined a river. His father built handmade boats in his spare time and did not work a proper job. His mother and brothers did not work either – and the family had a difficult time feeding themselves. When Mark and his brothers where old enough to attend school, Mark’s father sought employment at the local factory. Holger was not sure what kind of trouble his father got into at the factory, but Mark confessed that one night, his father smuggled Mark and his two brothers to West Germany, leaving his mother behind. It was three years later before his father could go back East and reunite her with the rest of the family.
I think about what a determined and strong woman Elke has become – a natural leader, completely independent and self-reliant; and how sensitive and casual Mark behaves, so easy-going, never having earned a true living, not caring about material things – not taking responsibility for his future, nor his eight year old son. How they both grew up under parallel circumstances, and yet have come to terms with their shared cultural past in such opposing ways. Elke hardens herself and is vigilant in her responsibilities. Mark is casual and fluid with warmth but refuses any form of commitment.
I reflect on Holger and myself as well, and what I have understood about our own pasts and hopes for our future. I imagine Dave Egger’s book, and our own velocity – and I question whether we will ever be able to disconnect ourselves from our own personal histories. I see Die Fuge and its dreamy and mysterious qualities, and wonder what vision we are chasing. Is it possible for the two of us to construct a new future for ourselves that is not burdened by the record of our past?
This is what I consider as we fall asleep as our plane takes off, the sunlight following behind us as we make our way home.
*This is a fictional, unedited, biased and completely ignorant short story- until my editor is back in town.
**All names are fictional, and any and all characters and coincidences to real-life people is only coincidence.