Berlin Elegy

By Stefan Kiesbye

Essay

During the summer of ’89, I took my lover on walks along the Wall. I failed to tell her I had another girlfriend and she kept quiet about her affairs. Susie’s hair was dyed black, and her skin was so pale it almost looked green. Both of us were Grufties, Goths, black swans, sad to the bone, dwelling in a deep and peaceful melancholy mixed with profound half-truths and shiny morsels of philosophy. We were grouchy children of the Cold War, knowing that if Russians and Americans decided to go to war against each other, they would do so in Middle Europe. We were self-indulgent, sorry for the times we were living in, pitying ourselves and taking for granted that the world would soon come to a violent death. Sex we gave freely, as if handing out tissues to mourning friends.

I had met Susie three months before. Getting off the subway train at Leopoldplatz after a day of working as a movie extra, I saw a girl in front of a poster for a pedigree show. She stood slightly stooped, her head raised to inspect the two dogs. Her knees were slightly bent and knocked together. I stopped at the photo booth to check on the blood in my hair and on my forehead. The blood lent me a dramatic air, I decided, as if I had just barely survived a car-crash. It had been my last day as an extra for a TV mini-series about the Third Reich. In the past two weeks I had been a boss of industry supporting the development of the radio, a soldier in the German Navy, and today I had played a servant being killed in a bombing.

“Which dog do you like best?” the girl asked me. I answered that I didn’t like the dog with the bow on its head, but she disagreed.

“I think it’s a beautiful red; it’s a rather beautiful bow.” She nodded her head slowly and smiled as children do when they let you in on a secret. She had a high forehead and her black hair looked like a fantastic crown, a dark version of the Statue of Liberty. She smiled as though embarrassed when I asked her where she lived, and pointed vaguely in the direction of my own apartment. She bared her gums ever so slightly in a smile that ended abruptly.

As it turned out, we lived only a block away from each other. Walking along the cemetery on Turiner Straße, I pointed to my building, which stood overlooking the park-like yard. Bullet holes from the war, which nobody had cared to repair, were still showing in the facade.

“I have a grave here,” she said, a smile touching her face. “I’m taking care of it. It was in really bad shape, and I thought, ‘This grave needs some care.’ Maybe you’ve seen me before.”

Her apartment, to which I followed her without invitation, was cold despite its being a warm evening. Susie took pink champagne from the fridge, crunching bread crumbs and cereal with every step. A dried pancake with a face drawn on it hung above the stove. Greasy spots had soaked the white paint.

Three walls of her bedroom were covered with flowered wallpaper, orange and yellow blossoms. The fourth wall, a bed at its foot, had been left bare except for an enormous eye, taking up the whole space, painted in black and white. A large tear hung in its corner.

Clothing lay humped on the small black desk, on every chair, on the bed and all over the floor. Worn pantyhose, sweaters, and a dirty-white bra. Half-empty bags of gummi bears and potato chips were scattered on and around the mattress.

Sitting down on her bed, I pulled her closer, but she wriggled free of my embrace and laughed. Something in that laugh made me push her onto her back. Susie kept laughing till her head landed on the mattress, then her face froze with anticipation. I put my tongue in her mouth, but she bit me and started laughing again. I pressed her face to one side and bit her neck. Suddenly her arms were around me, and she gave little moans.

Pressing her down with one hand, I pulled off her long skirt with the other. Then I grabbed her pantyhose and slip and pulled them down too.

Stop,” she said, sitting up and panting. When I did, she unbuttoned my shirt, undid my pants, watching me curiously. “You have a good body,” was her judgement, “but your stomach could be flatter.” Then she took off her black sweater and shirt and pulled me close, further inspecting me. “You have nice hair; it’s soft. Like a little duckling’s fuzz,” she whispered. Her body was lazily curved, her skin colorless, showing blue veins. She seemed as naked as someone’s laughter in church.

***

Susie had attended a high school for the super-talented, for those students who in normal institutions perform poorly because they grow bored with the pace of their classes. After receiving her diploma, her Abitur, she enrolled at the Free University of Berlin, in German and Philosophy. But there, her struggles started all over again. Reading Adorno or Kant over the course of weeks bored her into drowsiness; writing papers which were not challenging enough and which she could draft in minutes, led her to never finishing them. She never handed in a single one, then dropped out.

I had dropped out for other reasons. I wanted to become an actor, yet didn’t want to do away with my Robert Smith hairdo and make-up. I was undisciplined and worked in obscure off-off-mainstream projects where young and not-so-young men and women worked without pay or success.

Susie seemed to make her own time, was never distracted and always gave me the feeling I was her only lover, even when I knew I wasn’t. On run-down heels, she staggered along the Wall, pausing to slip a hand down my pants, or show me that she wasn’t wearing a bra. Time followed her awkward steps, never running off or out.

To us, the Wall was like an odd, but good friend. We had been born twenty years after the war and unlike older generations or people with relatives in the East, we had never had any trouble with the existence of the two Germanys.

The German Question, as everyone called it, was no question for us. What kind of question was it anyway? In my eyes, Germany had not deserved any better. Time had slowed down after the war, leaving the country, its culture and arts, in shambles. It should have stopped once and for all in Germany, but time, just because she wasn’t trained to do anything else, went on, aimlessly and off pace, like a disappointed runner who knows that she has already lost.

What had happened to Berlin after ‘45, we appreciated deeply. West Berlin was a country of its own. The presence of the Allies’ armed forces, the division of the city into sectors, assured me that the Germans were kept at bay. “The Germans” were those who did not live within the confines of the Wall, those who were responsible for the Holocaust and two World Wars. West Berliners felt that the war had been forced upon them and that the Nazis had conquered and raped the Weimar metropolis. Now they stood surrounded by the Evil Empire, and were therefore absolved from all guilt. Their city was the last holdout of the free world, the last enclave of the brave and undefeated in the heartland of communism.

A strip several yards wide in front of the Wall — on the western side — was still Eastern territory. This was mostly ignored by Westerners, but to Susie and me it made our walks all the more exciting; it added the flavor of danger. We would ride the subway to a point close to the border — often to Gesundbrunnen in the north — and then walk, sometimes for hours, until we’d be close to another subway or Stadtbahn station.

At certain intervals, there were tiny doors in the Wall, which East German soldiers could open from their side to patrol in front of the Wall, and Susie assured me that, in fact, they did this frequently at night.

I was shocked to hear this, I didn’t want to imagine that my island had porous walls. The sense of peace I had felt during the walks with Susie vanished. Like a King being told that the Barbarians are threatening the borders, I had to see for myself how bad the situation was. So one night we decided to walk to the Reichstag and take a close look at the Wall.

During the day, people played soccer on the huge lawn in front of the Reichstag, called the Place of the Republic, and Turkish families held their barbecues there in summer. Busloads of tourists came every day to have a look at the museum inside the Reichstag and at the Wall. The city had even erected wooden scaffolds to give tourists a better view of the Wall and what lay behind it. At night, however, what was left of the crowd were empty film-wrappers and overflowing trash cans. The area was dead, with only an occasional police car patrolling.

Susie wore a black skirt, fishnet-stockings and black pointed shoes with several straps and shiny buckles, which gave off a jangling sound. She looked like a queen, dark and regal. We walked halfway around the Reichstag and closer to the Spree river, so we could see the Wall running directly behind the building. A Death Strip stretched between the Wall, as could be seen from the West, and a smaller, less imposing inner wall, which stood entirely on Eastern territory.

We climbed the stairs of one of the scaffolds facing a concrete watchtower

inside the Death Strip and waited. To the right, through the trees, we could make out the gleam of lights where the Brandenburg Gate stood, and we could also see the torchlights of the nearby Soviet Honor Monument. Even though the monument was placed in West Berlin, two Soviet soldiers paraded in front of it, day and night. In front of us, jeeps were patrolling the Death Strip, going back and forth between the numerous towers along the Wall. Yet none ever stopped near us.

Susie had brought along a bottle of Valpolicella, and we drank and watched the watchtower, and, when nothing happened, she crawled over to me, sat down in my lap and asked, “Do you think they’ll come if we do it?”

They didn’t. But during the second night we went to the Reichstag, three soldiers in a jeep took off from the watchtower driving toward the Wall. When they came close to reaching it, they disappeared from our view. After several minutes we saw the Wall open in a place where I hadn’t been able to see the door. Two soldiers, their weapons tightly gripped, came through the low opening. For a moment Susie and I stood frozen, expecting the soldiers to shout at us. But they walked a few yards to the left to inspect something we couldn’t see, while a third soldier guarded the hole in the Wall. This man lifted his eyes and he must have seen us, but didn’t show any reaction. After only a few minutes, his two comrades returned, and one soldier after the other passed through the door and disappeared. The door was shut; the Wall was seamless again.

My favorite graffiti was one near Bernauer Strasse. It read “Fighting for Germany’s reunion is like fucking for virginity.” This walled-in city was my place and nobody would be able to take it away from me. Any other thought was ridiculous.


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STEFAN KIESBYE is the author of Next Door Lived A Girl. His second novel was recently published by Tropen/Klett-Cotta Verlag in Germany; the American edition, titled Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone will be released by Viking/Penguin in 2012. Stefan lives in Los Angeles with his wife Sanaz and their dogs Dunkin and Nozomi.

27 responses to “Berlin Elegy”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Stefan,
    This was just too beautiful.
    These two phrases are absolute stand outs for me:
    “Sex we gave freely, as if handing out tissues to mourning friends.”
    “She seemed as naked as someone’s laughter in church.”
    So, so tender. So lush in their simplicity.
    I forget how the world was when the wall existed. Thank you for reminding me.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      🙂

      All that Berlin coverage really made me nostalgic for the 80s in Europe. It’s strange, because it wasn’t really a happy time, and yet, maybe it was youth, and maybe it was the (false) knowledge of certain imminent death, that slowed things down and made them sparkle.

  2. Lenore says:

    like a little duckling’s fuzz is the cutest thing ever. i want hair like that. or a little duckling. maybe a little duckling.

  3. John says:

    I was particularly enthralled with your description of time– the variable nature it has. This was quite amazing. I felt like, while I was reading it, that I was living vicariously through your experiences, in a weird way.
    Thank you so much for a glimpse into a world I’ve never experienced. This is quite a bit of a different view than the news stories one reads from twenty years ago.
    Wonderful.

  4. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Thank you for your comment, John. Weird is good 🙂 I still can’t get over the fact that what I remember is entirely gone. The new Berlin, from what everybody is telling me, seems to be the new hub of the art world and so on and so forth, and I’m sure it’s a great place to be, but it’s not what I know, and so I feel somewhat displaced.

  5. Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

    Stephan,

    That she took care of a neglected grave was enough to make me love Susie.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Somehow, it seems, that life was a lot slower in those days, that there was always an hour or half a day to be spent on ‘unproductive’ things. Again, maybe that’s just an age thing, but there always seemed to be time for a coffee together, to spend an afternoon in bed, or to tend to a grave.

  6. New Orleans Lady says:

    What an amazing story. Your retelling of memories made me feel as if I was there. Really beautiful.

  7. Sirje says:

    I really enjoyed this, and found this particularly fascinating & true of Berlin:

    “Time had slowed down after the war, leaving the country, its culture and arts, in shambles. It should have stopped once and for all in Germany, but time, just because she wasn’t trained to do anything else, went on, aimlessly and off pace, like a disappointed runner who knows that she has already lost.”

    I moved here from NYC one winter just a few years ago, and it took me a while to adjust to the oddness of Berlin, some kind of weird syncopation I couldn’t get used to but which was normal for everyone else, and which tourists and other new transplants visitors were generally ga-ga about. Since I love to anthropomorphize cities, I felt strongly that the people, all people, of Berlin were acting out a generations-old guilt, a permanently impossible transition which they thought gave them some sort of genuine street cred, but that the city itself didn’t really care. Things started to change when Berlin hosted the first world cup, and, as the German population started work out the whole pride in nationalism thing, the city also started to quietly and not terribly disappointedly accept it’s yuppy destiny.

    I don’t see the dangerous, gritty, artistic, inspiring city journalists love to sweep in and breathlessly document. It’s bullshit, propaganda. Berlin is the place people come to wander for a while. Some leave, some don’t. Artists tend to wander more than most, so there you go. (I’ve been trying to leave ever since I got here).

  8. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Can I ask what brought you to Berlin? Thanks so much for the comment, I find it interesting that you believe that the new artistic Berlin is just propaganda. Haven’t been there since 2002, so it’s nice to get some feedback on how things are. Strange too, that the old guilt still hangs there. Back then, it seeped — maybe not surprisingly — into every aspect of life, and while I enjoyed the melancholy, the background was not a happy one. Berliners somehow felt absolved from the German overall guilt, and yet, it was tangible everywhere.

    What part of the city to you live in? (Sorry, but I still think of East and West first, and only then of the individual districts).

    • Sirje says:

      I can safely declare that there is no melancholy left in Berlin. There is, however, still very much an east vs. west thing here, but from neighborhood to neighborhood, it’s mostly just a comparison of levels of dogshit (high in Kreuzberg) and mommies with strollers (overwhelming in Prenzleberg). Friedrichshain, the most “authentic” Berlin quarter, is actually filled with many excellent and expensive bistros and cafes. The west is residential, green, quiet. Shops are closing in the west, and moving to the east, nearer to the hipsters and multinational expats with large housing accounts.

      I arrived (to audition, I am an opera singer) a few years after you were last here, then. At first I was in Kreuzberg, near Schönleinstrasse, then near Bergmannstrasse. Stefan, my (Badisch, though he’s lived here for a decade) husband and I live in Charlottenburg now, just off the KuDamm, but we’ve been sort of half-assedly looking at places in Mitte for a while now. The western half of the city will slowly atrophy (and has already begun to do so, depending on your perspective) and settle as they shift Tegel traffic over to the new BBI airport in the east.

      • Stefan Kiesbye says:

        Wow, that is “funny,” the west atrophying. Charlottenburg, back in my days, was highly desirable, and usually unattainable. I lived in Wedding, which was never hip but cheap. The dog shit part cracked me up. While I was living there, they tried a law against it, imposing hefty fines on owners who didn’t clean up the poop, but the dog-owner lobby won in the end and the law was repealed.

        Thank you so much for your observations!

  9. Megan DiLullo says:

    Stefan,

    This is a beautiful story. I feel honored to have read it, not only is it a voyeuristic glance into your personal world, but a wider view of what it felt like to be part of Germany during that era.

    Such beautiful writing and storytelling.

  10. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    damn, you’re kind…

  11. Wonderful story, Stefan. Also, I loved that line: “She seemed as naked as someone’s laughter in church.”

    Say hell yeah, then amen.

  12. Joi says:

    Thank you for writing and posting this, Stefan. It really blew me away. I was in Berlin a month ago and was very taken by the city. I walked for hours on the wall path, just trying to imagine how it was. Your piece really enlightened me and was just the sort of real experience I wanted to read about in regards to this complex and compelling moment in history.

    Brilliant writing.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Those walks must have been amazing. Would really love to do same. Did you still see a difference in east and west?

  13. Erika Rae says:

    Stefan – this might be my favorite piece on TNB in a long while. Your imagery is just so great – so subtle and funny and yet so stark, too. I love the tissues line.

    When I was in high school, my parents took me far out into the German countryside where we stood at the wall. It was just a barbed wire fence at that point, but we had the privilege of having some rather large guns pointed at us from the watchtowers. I suppose we looked like a menacing family. Wow, what a feeling.

    And the thought of those doors. The Wall being porous. Wow.

  14. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Thank you, Erika. That must have been a scary moment at the Wall for you and your family. And many people died trying to cross the border.

  15. Marni Grossman says:

    The first paragraph was so perfect. So beautiful.

  16. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Thank you, Marni.

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