Desire Will Set You Free 2

When Yony Leyser wrapped his first film, the documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, Leyser indulged TNB with a round of 21 Questions. Now, Leyser’s back with his second film, Desire Will Set You Free, a feature film he describes as “venturing into docufiction.” Starring Leyser, Amber Benson, Peaches, Nina Hagen, and other faces familiar to the Berlin underground, Desire Will Set You Free tells the story of the relationship between an “American writer of Israeli/Palestinian descent and a Russian aspiring artist working as a hustler, offering access to the city’s vibrant queer and underground scenes while examining the differences between expatriate and refugee life.” Leyser has completed shooting on the film and is now looking to Kickstarter to fund the rest as he’d successfully done with A Man Within. Leyser has blogged in-depth about the making of Desire Will Set You Free at Indiewire along the way, and as the Kickstarter nears its end I asked Leyser just a few questions about Desire Will Set You Free, a project based on his own experiences in Berlin.

Jeffrey Lewis is the author of Meritocracy: A Love Story (2005), Theme Song for an Old Show (2007), The Conference of the Birds (2007), and Adam the King (2008). He has won a string of awards, including the Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Literary Fiction for his novels, and two Emmy Awards and the Writer’s Guild Award for his work as a writer and producer on the critically acclaimed television series, Hill Street Blues.

I went to Berlin on vacation a year ago. Because it was my first time in Europe I did all the typical touristy things, including indulging in the city’s numerous museums. I occasionally went high brow (i.e. giving devil horns at the Altar of Pergamon), but much of my time was spent at places that offered maximum thrills and minimum thought.

At some point I wound up at a sex museum. I was greeted first thing by a wall of plaster genitals, both male and female. While I was led to believe they all belonged to humans, I’m not entirely convinced. Surely no man could fit a ten inch member the width of a soda can into a normal pair of pants. But there it was pointing at me in the hall, along with several other startling configurations.

Berlin is unabashedly sexual. Ads for couples’ sex clubs were all over, porn played free on the hotel television, prostitution is legal and generally not frowned upon. The sex museum was no exception. I was embarrassed for half a second, until it occurred to me that I should probably abandon my puritan mores at the plaster dongs if I wanted to enjoy myself. From there I took it all in shamelessly, snapping pictures with abandon, laughing at slide shows, inspecting ancient sex toys.

My boyfriend and I came to a display that asked visitors to find the respective g-spots on mannequins representing either sex. The idea was you prodded the sweet spot on the mannequin’s body, then the thing would let loose with some prerecorded howls of pleasure. My boyfriend had the female mannequin wailing in seconds flat. I wandered over to her male counterpart.

“Male g-spot?” I asked myself aloud, before remembering where it was, or at least where it was rumored to have been.

This is not something I have a lot of experience with. Most American men don’t appreciate a finger in the bum. I remember a girl confiding in me that, after reading some ill-advised sex tips in a woman’s magazine, she tried this on her boyfriend. He commanded her to remove the offending digit and asked her to leave, even though it was in the middle of the night and they lived together.

While the female mannequin appeared multi orgasmic at the hands of my boyfriend, I could not find the male mannequin’s g-spot. It was just a smooth piece of plastic and the ins and outs of anything’s asshole, including my own, remain thankfully mysterious. But I finally found it. Boy, did I find it. The female mannequin was subdued in comparison, this thing went off like a land mine.

“OH YEAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” it echoed across the quiet floor, causing everyone in ear shot to whirl around and find me knuckle deep in a mannequin’s asshole. For a moment they all just stared and my previous lax attitude vanished. I could see it now; dumb American girl gives mannequin ball shattering orgasm, gets kicked out of Europe. Or so I thought until everyone in the place started cheering, including my boyfriend.

A group of British guys came over to congratulate me on my apparent sexual prowess, giving me high fives and patting me on the back as they did. One dude jokingly held his hand up to his ear and whispered, “Call me.” I was the hit of the sex museum, which is saying a lot for a place featuring a 3 foot golden dong.

I left my new friends and walked on to some other exhibit, still laughing about what happened. On the way I could hear the orgasmic moans of the male mannequin, now quaking at the behest of the British tourists. While many other awesome things happened in Germany, this remains my favorite. How many girls can brag that the made an inanimate object come on their summer vacation?

Money: it’s not the Mark anymore, obviously, but the Euro. It comes with a slew of coins, of which I have countless every evening, because I’m not used to coins anymore. Having lived in the States for fifteen years, I’m also not used to the different-color-and-size bills, which my memory doesn’t accept as German. The other Germans do however, and once called the Euro the Teuro (the Expensivo). They don’t use that nickname anymore. Starbucks Latte starts at $4.50.

Toilets: Few of the truly Teutonic bowls remain, but I happen to have rented one with my apartment. New bowls don’t swirl water the American way but push it, dump it. But they do look pretty much the same. Old bowls however have a step, a throne, on which things rest until the flush. “Good for taking samples,” a friend remarked.

Sports: If you don’t like soccer, you’re out of luck. There’s a bit of tennis in the news, a bit of Formula One (see above; hey, a German is the reigning champion), and the rest is soccer. Oh, there is also handball (soccer with the hands). Every other sport in any other country is dutifully ignored to talk some more about the dismissal of the Bayern Munich coach and the re-hiring of one of his predecessors. I’d rather watch Clippers games.

Cars: I thought I loved Audis. After five weeks in Germany I’m looking forward to seeing Crown Vics. Imagine a school full of Little Princes.

Speech: There’s a strange wordy meekness in colloquial, and now even written, German. What in English would be a hearty “Let’s do it,” becomes a “Ja, das könnten wir schon auch noch mal machen.” It expresses weariness and the not-so-secret conviction that things will not be possible. It’s the same pattern used for complaints about life and work.

Recently, while scouring the sports pages for reading material (I’m not a soccer fan), I came across this sentence, describing the problems Ferrari is having with its Formula One team, its small steps of progress, and the fans’ impatience: “Für einen so vorsichtigen Aufwärtstrend wie Ferrari ihn mit dem Brasilianer Felipe Massa auf Platz fünf und dem Spanier Fernando Alonso auf Rang sechs in Malaysia andeuteten, findet das in größeren Kategorien tickende Temperament Italiens tatsächlich keine wirkliche Nuance.”

Translated, the sentence means, “Ferrari fans were not impressed.”

Heating: It’s hot and dry in German houses, hotels, galleries, and apartments. In the 80s and 90s, old apartments still had large, tiled coal ovens to heat the rooms. They kept rents affordable and every surface dusty-red. If you came home in irregular intervals, you found your home icy-cold and it took two hours for the oven to heat up again. Windows were crappy too, and my flowers always had fresh air, even after I had sealed the frames and cracks for the winter.

Nowadays, central heat rules even the German capital, and only the staircases remain as dark and damp as ever, emanating the dank smell of Protestant churches. Inside it’s hot and dry. In bathrooms, the heaters are ladder-shaped, great for drying towels, socks, etc. The windows are new and airtight. When I wake up in the small apartment in the geriatric district of Steglitz I feel as though I’m having a nosebleed. My tongue can only be removed from wherever it’s stuck with force. I hang wet laundry everywhere. It dries in mere hours.

Complaints: Not even Germans like Germany. Many of the people I talked to have plans on leaving, dreams of leaving (I heard those same comments in Buffalo, NY. Most of the ones who left ended up in North Carolina).

Germans love to complain about life and their country. It seems in bad taste not to take life hard. I fit right in. It’s as though complaining is a way of showing that you’re in on the joke, even though and because you have no idea what that joke might be. However, they do seem certain that there is one. If you don’t complain you’re either an arrogant asshole, or you are just showing how superficial and gullible you are. Saying you’re enjoying yourself is as bad as admitting that you have three nipples or a second belly button.

Berlin: it’s hard to embrace a city that was 70 percent destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller, uglier scale after World War II. What remains of pre-war Berlin is quite beautiful, yet it feels impossible to fully embrace it. You might find a particular building beyond the park fascinating, even beguiling, until you find out it housed the Nazi court that sent political dissidents to their death. The feeling is close to finding out your beloved grandfather was a war criminal. Here, your whole family turns out to have been war criminals. They’re your family. You love them, especially in the spring, which is always fragile and seduces young couples in parks and by the canals. You love them. They are war criminals. You love them?

Language: It’s difficult for me to speak German, it won’t fit into my mouth correctly. People comment on my accent. Then there are sudden bursts of language, old channels opening and releasing idioms, sayings, and TV jingles I haven’t heard or used in fifteen years. These come with discomfort, as though I’ve sworn or eaten a bag of candy.

I love to think that I love Berlin, but there comes a moment when what your eyes find again is not what you remembered. And when I put the old images on top of the new they won’t fit anymore. It’s a delicious moment, full of hidden longings. I’m trying to see how my lover has grown. But maybe the gap between old and new has widened too much, my mind refuses to fall in love again. Maybe I’m in love with my memories of fragile and seductive springs. Maybe that’s what Berlin has become for me — a place without a present.

I do have coffee a lot in Berlin now, since I’m in Germany for several weeks and have chosen the old and new capital as my base camp.

I lived here for eleven years, fifteen years back. That might explain why I can’t see to get a grip on the city. There are places I don’t recognize anymore, renovated, restored, re-done, over-developed. Those are the easiest, since they are merely new. But there are also tons of places that haven’t changed one bit. Not at all. Or, to be more precise, the places haven’t changed, and according to the circular laws of fashion, the outfits of the people who inhabit these places (take, for example Kottbusser Tor, a major hub in the still somewhat cool district of Kreuzberg, which looks as ratty and lost and crowded as ever) have reverted to 80s Berlin chic – black, short jackets, black boots, asymmetrical and bleached or dyed hair. Nothing looks new or clean. It’s enough to creep me out. I have aged, whereas Berlin has remained the same. None of my life has happened. It can’t have. I’m Pamela Ewing’s dream of Bobby.

Germany produces what are arguably the best cars in the world. Germany also makes some of the best kitchen appliances money can buy. You’d expect flying Minis or VW Polos by now, and they might come soon, but free wifi is another matter. Forget free wifi, internet connections are dreadful in general.

In the free world coffee shops are there to provide wifi and barely drinkable java. Not here. And even if you get wifi, it’s bound to break down at regular intervals, about every 15 minutes or so. I’m drinking a lot of Starbucks for that reason, because they are “experimenting” with free wifi. It’s slow. It’s freaking excruciatingly slow. Do you remember dial-up?

Germany also brought you the tear-free onion-hacker. Try to buy one, though. Half the businesses don’t accept credit cards. Instead they use EC-cards, Euro-Cheque cards. Kinda like debit cards but the money is always guaranteed, even in case of over-drafting. But of course that EC business excludes foreigners, American or otherwise. And I can’t shake the feeling Berliners like it that way.

Why? Well, when I arrived I tried to buy a Handy (the, umh, German term for a cell phone). Turns out, pre-paid phones need to be registered to an owner, and in order to become such an owner, you need to have a Personalausweis, the German ID card. I pulled my passport, it’s truly German, but that wouldn’t do. ID card or bust. With pride, the young sales clerk said, that this system ensured that terrorists could not make anonymous, unregistered calls, the way they can in America. He was beaming. I was not. But our faces were both red. My friend bailed me out. I do have a handy now, and if I should use it for stalking people (the clerk was also happy to prevent that), or try terrorizing Germany, my friend will get busted. I tried to pay with credit card.

Germans love soccer and the newspapers’ sports pages are devoted to soccer alone. Well, okay, there’s ice-hockey (yes, they call it that), handball (another sport without an American future), and tennis (but only if a German player defeated a much better foreign player. The devotion to soccer extends to the fitness club I joined here on a very expensively temporary basis, but where they do serve a mean coffee. The urinals sport small goals (yes, down there), with tiny soccer balls dangling from the goal post. You aim, and, if it’s strong enough, “Goaaaal.” If you drink a lot of coffee, as I do these days, you score a lot.

People like me don’t go to Europe. White trash takes a late model vehicle to all vacation destinations. If you can’t drive there you can forget it, because dad only works summers, unable to acquire a skill set that he can utilize all year round.

It’s hot here in Seattle. A scorcher. So my friend Lester decided to have a pool party. Does he have a pool? Of course not. He has a hose. With a special nozzle. Everyone was assigned a job. Potato salad, tongs, thongs, booze. I was asked to bring the music. Normally, I hate this request. Not because I don’t like picking tunes. I do. It’s just that, no matter what, someone is always pissed. You play Steely Dan? Too obvious, too boring. You don’t play Steely Dan? You’re an elitist ass. The night before, Lester called me up.

“Yeah, I don’t think so, man.”

“What? Why not?”

“I dunno. It’s too divisive. Everyone gets pissed when I don’t bring my Indigo Girls remixes.”

He laughed. I’ve been collecting vinyl since I was 15. It’s one of the reasons my friends tolerate me.

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.


Look!

By Colleen McGrath

Humor

That people don’t look at each other here may account for the otherwise inexplicable disinterest in personal appearance in Berlin. That or city-wide depression. Nobody’s looking so who cares? Granted, in New York people look way too much. Gone are the days (and by days I mean the 80’s), when a woman can walk up Madison Avenue in sneakers and slide on pumps at her desk, oh no. You ride the subway and walk the whole distance in those puppies, no matter how far or you’re excommunicated from the club. Did you know you had to walk fifty blocks in stilettos to be considered a true New York Woman? You do. Do you see men coming to work in shorts and a t-shirt carrying a suit bag and changing in the men’s room before the big meeting? No, you don’t. That their shoes are generally not torture chambers doesn’t enter into the matter; you come dressed for your day. People are looking. From the minute you leave your house to the moment you get home, people are looking.

Not in Berlin. I have never been looked at so little in my life. Okay look, it’s not like I’m some raving beauty draped in men and chased by paparazzi, God no. But there is a lid for every pot and New Yorkers aren’t shy about letting you know when they like your pot.

Fashion is at the root of it all, of that I’m certain. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, I have no idea but it’s involved somehow. Never before have I been in a city where the dress code rarely requires more than a nice pair of jeans and often much less. Grunge is the mode du jour, I’m assuming because it goes nicely with graffiti of which there is a plethora. Not that grunge can’t be done well, it can. It’s just that come on, aren’t there moments in your life when you long to take out most of your earrings and put on a tie?

People have either created the non-looking or responded to it, I’m not sure which, by wearing comfortable shoes. Shoes make or break an outfit, as I’m sure you know, and most often Birkenstocks are a breaker. If you start with a Birk what more can you do but put on some khaki pants and a cotton top? Maybe a skirt but you’re really pushing the boundaries there and it can really only be done if there is tie-dye involved somehow. Once in an outfit like that how much more make-up can you slap on than maybe a sheer gloss? That I own some knock off Birks may tell you a little about how far I have fallen.

At first I was relieved. Living in a huge city among people without filters made me long for a quieter, less appearance-minded place. One where I could leave the house with out make-up and not feel naked. One where clients didn’t comment on my weight gain or loss on a daily basis. Now though, if I “put on my face” as my grandmother used to say, it’s remarked on by colleagues all day long as an anomaly.

“Wow, you’re wearing make-up today. Are you going somewhere after work?”, as if there’s no other reason on the planet to use mascara.

“Um no, just thought I’d try not to look like a refugee, haha!”

They’re right of course. What for? If nobody looks, then why bother? But I sometimes don’t recognize myself anymore so maybe that’s why. Where I was maybe too focused on such things before, it’s becoming the reverse and I’m starting to miss the part of my morning that included choosing clothes and watching Charmed reruns for make-up tips.

Something in the middle is ideal, I think. I long to be accepted as I come, who doesn’t? I come with many flaws and you don’t need a microscope to find them. In a city that lives under one, it’s a rarity to meet a New Yorker who doesn’t see them. On the other hand, to not care so much that you become wallpaper can’t be the answer either. So how to go forward? Do people start looking or do we start giving them a reason to? It’s a question for the experts. Gloria Steinem! Candace Bushnell! Help! In the meantime, I’m going to dig out my heels and see how far I can still get in three inches and red lipstick.

“The best models are those you’ve slept with,” was a line from one of her teachers that Ulli liked to repeat. ‘Happy New Year’ is what she called the picture, and you could buy it as a postcard in souvenir shops and book stores around West Berlin. This was 1988, when the city was still surrounded by Communism. The Wall was still intact. So were my dreams of becoming an actor. I was 22.

Ulli was the worst of friends, and we loved her. She forgot about my best friend Ollie, my ex-girlfriend Maike and me for months at a time, until she once again needed unpaid models for a photo shoot. Ulli smelled of Nivea lotion, her whole car smelled of it, as though she had rubbed it into the seats. She was a wet dream, tall, with long, shiny hair and pouty lips and padding in all the right places. But when she opened her mouth, her Rhineland drawl cracked the image. She was given to whines and complaints, and all of us listened. It was better to listen. The one time I contradicted her complaints, she took off on me. In front of the out-of-the-way movie theater where she had driven us.

Ulli’s assignments always involved nudity, and just to please her and be near her, I readily exposed all my flings and girlfriends to the needs of her camera. She smeared us with black paint and feathered us. She poured Blue Curacao over our heads. I faked sex or had sex in front of Ulli’s lens.

Ollie had once slept with her and said she was a screamer. He had also slept with Maike, when she hadn’t been my ex-girlfriend yet, and she was pregnant now, from him, from me, or from her new lawyer boyfriend. All viable possibilities. But she wanted me to accompany her to the abortion clinic.  Ulli knew all this, but there was an important deadline coming up, and she invited Ollie, pregnant Maike and me to pose together in the nude, and we did without a complaint.

One cold October afternoon, two weeks before the abortion, I abandoned two friends who had come to visit me in West Berlin, because Ulli called. She needed to take pictures and make some money. She needed me to come over, because her teacher and boyfriend had dumped her. I left my friends in a hurry and went over to Ulli’s apartment.

I knew what her call meant and I knew I might not have been the first one she called. I was hardly in the door when she grabbed me. Her face was wet, her nose running. Stroking her hair, I could feel the scar from the time her father had thrown her onto the bed, her head hitting the wall. Everyone knew this story about her dad in Düsseldorf, this one and many others.

“Why did he leave me?”

“I don’t know,” I said into her hair.

“He said I was immature,” she sobbed.

“No you’re not.”

She pulled me down onto the floor, took off my studded belt, wrestled the tight black pants off me. I had forgotten to bring condoms and worried. Ulli was promiscuous, AIDS was a possibility. And yet I didn’t protest when she sat down over me, stuffing me inside her the way you would stuff a croissant into your mouth after a long night out. Her eyes were red, her face puffy, but she was beautiful, and I wished to burn the image of naked Ulli into my brain. There was so much reality – it kept hitting my face, I could hardly see. And then she started screaming, and my ex-girlfriend Maike had been silent, always silent, and Ulli screamed as she was riding me. She screamed violently as though my body were a bag of knives.

I didn’t want to come too soon and had once read a story of a guy who was thinking of sledding in arctic forests to cool himself off. I imagined that sled, the cold, the frozen tracks in the deep snow, and that picture of the guy on his sled in the Nordic wilderness turned me on. So instead I thought of AIDS some more. Ulli screamed and I thought of going to get an AIDS test, which was free in a clinic half a mile away, and I imagined the grave face of the doctor who would give me the bad news. And it did cool me off, only not in the way I had hoped for.

Not to lose momentum and to show her what a great lover I was – after all, this was Ulli, wet dream Ulli, gorgeous, glamorous Ulli – I turned her around and thrust as hard as I could. I knew Ollie had never gotten over her, and I was already looking forward to telling him that yes, she was a screamer. It was a revelation, she seemed to really and ferociously enjoy herself. “I can’t anymore,” she finally said into the carpet.

The best, though, was the aftermath, the slightly awkward time we took to acknowledge what we had just done, with half-smiles and kisses. The resting on the carpet, her Rhineland drawl announcing that we needed to take those pictures. “The best models are those you’ve slept with,” Ulli said almost tenderly, and I grinned.

She told me not to get dressed and handed me two sparklers, which I was supposed to twirl around my butt. In front of a black background I lit them and twirled and burned myself and twirled some more. Then she gave me two sticks of Bengal sparklers, and their green flames shot up, thick smoke quickly filling the room. And I twirled again and Ulli’s shutter kept clicking and clacking away until the Bengal sparklers exploded, and the burning tips shot into the blue carpet and set it on fire.

Ulli dropped the camera and shrieked. I stood naked in all that smoke, staring at the smoldering carpet, and the still burning sticks in my hands. “Do something, do something,” Ulli shrieked and ran out of the room. I stomped with my heels on the carpet fire, then ran over to the window, opened it, and threw the lights down into the street. I stood naked by the window, two curious faces peeking out at me from a an apartment across the street, smoke escaping into the cold fall air. And for a strange moment – a moment in which Maike’s pregnancy, her cheating with Ollie, AIDS, Ulli’s teacher, my stinging feet, the smell of burned synthetics, Ulli’s screams from the kitchen, and my own future were whirling around me — I was happy.

Admiralstrasse, Kreuzberg, Berlin… What’s conjured up by these words? Lou Reed… Nico… naked people with strapped-on plastic dildos dancing in underground nightclubs in the name of Brecht and Art? Yes, all these things. Oh, and something else. In this capital city of Germany they have now also evolved a hamburger known as the Suck-u-burger. Unintentional but weird…

I seem to be carrying on the family tradition of tool-wielding women, albeit reluctantly.  My mother has long been gifted every Christmas with an addition to her tool set and although I am all for self-sufficiency and stepping outside traditional roles, the call of the tool belt never quite reached me.  It is, however, being forced upon me these days as drippy faucets and non-functional washing machines pervade my world and I have now come to know the inside of the Bauhaus the way I used to know Sephora.

My sister is one of The Order.  She practically came out of the womb with a penknife in her hand ready to jump into home improvement at a moment’s notice.  She is one of those people with spatial relation skills.  You know the type; organized closets, a place for everything, and everything in its place.  She knows what all the gadgets in her toolbox are called and more, how to use them.  I don’t think she relies on her superintendent for much of anything since it’s just oh, so much easier to do it herself.  I, on the other hand, know intimate family details about my New York super.  He was a staple in my life. I can’t tell you how much I miss him.

Since moving to Germany, I have learned that a super here isn’t really the apartment renter’s best friend.  You don’t tip them and they don’t fix minor problems.  Okay, if the ceiling falls in they’ll come but anything up to that you’re on your own.  In addition, a common clause in a lease states that the renter is responsible for some kind of home improvement after three years of inhabitance.  This makes no sense to me at all.  I pay you money to live in the place that you own.  You pocket it and pay a maintenance dude to sweep the hallway once a week.  And after three years, I am supposed remodel the kitchen?  Are you high?  If I wanted to that, I would have bought a house; hence the convenience of renting.  How did that get missed over here?

A few years back my father gifted me and my sister with lady’s tool kits.  They came in pink, plastic cases and have pink hand grips.  This, from the enlightened man that gave his wife a chainsaw for their anniversary.  Regardless, the pink tool kit sits in my New York apartment closet gathering dust, which, until now, was exactly where I thought it belonged.  Sadly, however, I find myself of late with a wrench in my right hand and some sort of plumbing in my left.  I am now able to name all the tools in that box and bemoaning the fact that they aren’t here.  Only a few short months ago I couldn’t have told you what a washer was.  Now I can tell you what aisle they’re in and how many sizes are available.  I miss high heels and eyeliner but in this new city, I need a socket wrench more often. I find that extremely disturbing.

Annoyingly, the other most prominent trait of the McGrath women is to make lemonade out of lemons.  We can be awfully perky at times.  In this instance I’ve followed in my mother’s footsteps one more time and decided to call this a “learning experience.”  That sounds nice, doesn’t it?  But I always like to dress for the occasion, so I find myself pushing back the urge to don overalls and head to the salon for a mullet make-over.  I need my pink tools to keep my sense of femininity about this, damn it!  Dad was right about that.  Does Manolo Blahnik do steel-toed work boots?  God, I hope so.

I just used my boyfriend’s shaving cream to shave my legs and now they smell like a man.  On the one hand, I’m still shaving my legs, which I consider a coup in the war against the loss of my beauty regime.  On the other hand, my legs smell like a man’s face.  Sometimes that’s okay, but it’s better when you’re lying in bed with oxytocin rushing through your veins and the sheets rumpled beneath you rather than fresh from the shower.

I used to have my own shaving cream, fancy bath oils to make me smell pretty, creams to make my skin glow, creams to slow the aging process, top of the line make up to cover the aging process, expensive hair products and monthly mani-pedi excursions.  Truth be told, none of it was for anyone other than myself or maybe, as fellow TBN’r Kimberly Wetherell suggests in her short documentary, for other women.  Regardless, I loved it.

Thanks to the bankrupting war on Iraq, Bernie Madoff, those parasites at AIG and a global recession, I am cutting back with the rest of the world.  I’m grateful to have a job, a roof over my head, food on the table and Maybelline in my bathroom cupboard.  “Maybe she’s born with it?”  Maybe she’s broke!

Berlin seems to house an above-average percentage of folk who look like life has been pretty damn hard.  Perhaps it’s the horrible weather, perhaps it’s the harsh, mineral-filled water, perhaps it’s the marathon chain smoking or the beer. I’m often surprised to find out the 50-year-old woman next to me is actually 35.  It’s not helped by the trend toward androgynous fashion, either.  Of course we have our beautiful people in Berlin, but it’s not as important or prevalent in the culture as it is in places like New York, Miami and L.A.

The truth is, life probably is pretty damn hard.  Berlin has always been a poor city.  It’s where you come to live cheap, protest and create weird art.  Everyone here seems to be starting over and barely making it.  La Boheme is alive and well all around this city and, while there is some fantastic art in all its forms produced here, even moderately famous people are squatting or trying to squeak by on unemployment and an occasional commission.

What to do?  On the one hand, it’s an absolute release to escape the daily pressures and expectations of image that was part of my life in New York City.  On the other hand, there were parts of that I truly enjoyed.  Come on, I’m an opera singer.  I’m genetically coded to play dress up.  It’s nice not to feel like the fat girl in a sea of anorexic waifs, but at the same time, being a “girl” in some ways is something I really enjoy.  There has to be some middle ground.

For now I’m doing what I can not to lose myself entirely in the tightening of the purse strings.  I’m learning how to use TRUblend and remembering how to paint my own toes.  I guess if my legs smell like my boyfriend’s face, I’ll count that as a win over not having a razor to shave them with at all.  The creams will have to go.  I will try to embrace the grey when it comes and remember to love the creases around my eyes.  I have enough to get by–more than some–and I guess it won’t kill me to finally look my age.  Oh God.

Everyone in Germany talks constantly of illness.  It is a country of hypochondriacs and a country of contradictions.  The same person afraid of a drafty house will sit outside in winter, wrapped in a blanket and drink beer.  Fresh air is good for you, you see.   The person who rides his bike for exercise will do so while smoking a cigarette.  Explain that one.  And while a healthy lifestyle includes ample exercise, vegetables and bio-grown food, that exercise is tempered with plenty of smoking and drinking and veggies that are more often than not deep-fried and/or covered in cheese.  The aversion to actual medicine seems to come from a real distrust of the unnatural.  Herbs rule the day and are always the first line of attack.  No wonder everyone’s sick all the time!

Dear Wine Guys,

While I can honestly say I have few regrets about leaving New York City, in all sincerity the loss of you is one of them.  German wine sellers don’t understand me.  This is a culture centered around thin, white wines, perhaps dictated by the Berlin demographic.  But as you well know, I am a red-blooded, robust American woman, complex and full-bodied with hints of sweetness largely overshadowed by my dry sense of humor.  You seemed to sense all of that immediately and I felt a kinship with you that has never been equaled the world around.  Oh Wine Guys, don’t at least one of you have a desire to learn German?

I so fondly remember the bygone days when I strolled in after work and with but a look, one of you accurately assessed my mood and began collecting bottles you knew without a doubt I would enjoy.  So rarely were you mistaken and each visit promised something fresh and exciting or simply comforting when I returned home, ever a reminder of your careful attention to detail and knowledge of my innermost self.

It has been a trail of tears for me here in Berlin traversing from one store to the next, ever hoping for the connection I felt with you.  I have tried every wine dealer in my district, daily venturing farther and farther afield, ever hoping for that certain something.  Time and again I am disappointed.  Each night I return home with wine described to my liking on the label and yet lacking in flavor, body and levels.  I am a coloratura soprano, after all; I need as many notes in my wine as my music.  Thus far, it is not to be.

Tonight was the worst of all.  The storefront showed promise.  Inside a wine tasting was in progress.  The clientele seemed by all outward appearances to be educated, cultured, and true wine lovers.  The wine selection was displayed beautifully and the patroness, ah, the patroness, she was like a beacon in a storm.  We spoke of colors; she used words like Kraftig and Trocken, music to my ears.  I felt a spark, something I haven’t felt in months, not since you.  I was certain she could be what I had been searching for, the connection, the understanding, the chemistry.  I followed her through the shop in a haze, nodding and smiling as she expounded on the large, round flavor contained in this bottle, yes only a little more than I wanted to pay but it would be well worth the expense.  I admit, I may have been too easily swayed. Can you blame me, after such a drought?

I rushed home, bottle in hand and a smile playing at my mouth.  This was certainly the beginning of a beautiful relationship.  The corkscrew, the perfect wine glass, the pop as the cork came free, 10 minutes to breath although I was finding it difficult, the pour, the swish and finally the sniff.  I knew immediately something was wrong.  Where was the assault on my nose?  Where was the flowery beginning, the tobacco, the raisin, the smoke, the oak?  I swished again only hoping I had not been aggressive enough.  Another sniff and the following sip with the bouquet, if you can call it that, still in my nose.  I rolled it over the tongue front to back and nearly spit it back out, it tasting bitter with my disappointment rather than what it was, simple and boring, far too thin to be interesting and singing John Cage instead of the Rachmaninoff I needed.  And with that, the earlier ember that burned only moments before, died.

And so dearest Wine Guys, it is with a heavy heart and a bland palate that I sit down to write you this futile letter.  I feel a fool hanging on to what cannot be and wish so fervently that I might be writing in victory rather than defeat.  It is always most difficult to be the one left holding a candle as others move forward and ever farther away.  I wish you no ill, certainly.  Our parting was void of malice, after all.  And I hope desperately you will welcome me back into your loving embrace when next I am home.  I can only hope that by that time I have found again what I lost not so very long ago and can appear in your doorway head held high, carrying a bottle you don’t recognize.  A gift from a thin, bland, white woman you no longer recognize.  Ah well, at least I’ll be thin!

All my love,
C