Recent Work By Stefan Kiesbye

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.


In-Style Music. She worked at the company that handled contracts and copyrights for everyone in the showbiz. She was undoing staples. All day. The old, stapled contracts had to be copied and scanned. She wasn’t copying or scanning them. After removing the staples she put them in piles. Someone else picked them up. Elena had not seen a copier or scanner.

“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.

In her last years my grandmother Ida Mattern, when visiting my parents in the small town in Lower Saxony, could be seen sitting neatly dressed on the brown plush sofa, her back to the tall windows. A crocheted kerchief in her hand, she read the yellow presses and did crossword puzzles. She had taken to Boris Becker and tennis, and if he was playing, she watched the match on TV. Once every day, my mother took her on a short walk around the candy factory where my father worked, or to the nearby woods.

Past eighty, Oma Ida was frail, yet when I sat down next to her on the sofa, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it ferociously. I have the nose of my grandmother, a big nose. Sweaty hands run in our family. When we were done watching Boris, we sat in silence, with damp hands and eyes.

On photographs, she wears a grim expression, even in moments of familial harmony. Her highest compliment on her daughter’s cooking – and my mom was able to show her love only through cooking and baking – was “the hunger drives it in.” This was meant as a joke, and it always failed. Since her fifties, Oma Ida hadn’t spoken to her sister who lived nearby in the city of Hanover. Why she refused was not entirely clear to any of us. Maybe it was because Bertha was the more flamboyant, more successful one. She had a grand apartment, her daughter was a well-known dancer, and unlike my grandmother, she still had a husband. Oma Ida forbade her daughters to contact Bertha and never relented.

In a sad twist, my aunt and mother replicated the elders’ relationship. In the summer of 1977, when I was eleven, we went on vacation to Denmark and forgot to call Nadi on her birthday. We had celebrated in advance, just before we left, but Nadi never forgave my mom, and we were not allowed to ever set foot in her house again.

Sweaty hands and depression run in the Mattern family, and Oma Ida, on Christmas Eve of 1972, went into the infamous Landeskrankenhaus Lüneburg, a mental institution, and spent two more extended periods there, never fully shaking off her demons. Oma Ida was seeing skulls, was the message we received over the phone, and hours later – it wasn’t even dark yet – we celebrated Christmas for my grandmother’s sake. I feared that this mysterious illness was contagious. When my uncle and aunt drove Oma Ida off to the psychiatric ward, I was convinced I would be next.

From the few photos she was able to save from her past, young Ida with a large face, large eyes and thin blond hair is awkwardly smiling at me. It’s the late thirties in East Prussia, and in some of them, she is riding a bike. No one in the family had a car, and you either walked or rode your bike to town.

What I remember best, though, and later stole from my parents, is her wedding picture. My grandfather Willi, whom I never met, is balding at twenty-four. There’s a sweetness in his face, around the shiny brown eyes, that makes him look gentle, a sweetness my mom inherited. What the picture doesn’t show is what my mother never got over. She had already been born, and this wedding only sealed the family shame.



My grandfather, a waiter, and his family, had not wanted marriage, and hoped that the baby, my mom, would die before birth. Yet there must have been love between Ida and Willi. What kind I can’t fathom. Two years after my mom, Nadi was born. A year later, in 1942, Willi, who had been drafted, was shot dead far away from his village in East Prussia. My family has always been vague on details. I learned early on in childhood that these questions were taboo. They caused my mom to break down and cry at the kitchen table where she had been cutting beans. They caused my grandmother to lower her head and fall silent, to stick out her chin and knead her crocheted kerchief in her hand.

There was a strength in Ida Mattern that still frightens my mother. Oma Ida is never mentioned lightly in my parents’ house, as if she could still overhear us. When toward the end of the war, in the winter of ’44, the Russian army advanced, she left the house with her two daughters to never return. Their bus was attacked by fighter planes, their train was bombed, but she kept on going until she arrived in the West. After ‘45, poor and never welcomed by her new neighbors, she earned her living as a seamstress, before she finally received a small widow’s pension.

In 1998 she died at eighty-three. Because I was traveling from New Mexico back to Buffalo, NY, I didn’t learn of her death until a week later. In my mind she remains unburied, though I have since visited her grave.

Sweaty hands, depression, and a belief in the supernatural run in her family. Oma Ida maintained that there was more “between Heaven and Earth” than you could know all her life, and she had her reasons. My mother too, though trying at times to be religious, was drawn to her pagan side. In her teens, a wise woman read her palm and predicted she would marry and have two kids. “And she was right,” Mom would say importantly, having my sister and me for proof.

There must have been love between Ida and Willi. She never married again—never, as far as I know, even considered another suitor. In 1942, the death of her husband was too much to bear for my grandmother. She was twenty-eight, neglected her children, who often had to stay with relatives. Her house was tiny, built by an uncle and his men, and at night she sat outside on the stoop and cried. A week after the burial, she called out for him, called his name. She blamed her husband for his death, blamed him for abandoning her and the daughters. “Willi,” she cried. “Come back.”

And he came. My grandmother described the apparition as a whitish, milky light, not unlike a fluttering shawl coming toward her. She said she was frightened, and at the same time felt consoled. She couldn’t bring out a word until the light was almost upon her. Then she stammered an apology. “I’m sorry, Willi,” she said. “I won’t cry anymore. Go back. I’ll be okay. I won’t cry. Go back to sleep, dear.”

She had a strength that frightened us. She never let on how much she missed her husband, her sister, or the peace between her daughters. She never talked about her hospital stays. Only once in a while she said she was too tired to go on. “Let me die,” she said, and we would look at her in silence until she fell silent too. In most pictures, she wears a grim expression.

When my sister and I were still young, our dad would sometimes take us on a long walk through the woods that started right behind our house in a small industrial suburb in Northern Germany and seemed to stretch forever, even though forever ended at the road to Frankenbostel, a village that was important only to its farmers. I can’t recall how long these walks really lasted, but they seemed dominated by silence and small whispers, so as not to disturb the animals and the overall atmosphere of making our way through brush and over small, secret meadows, where small prints on the ground told stories we were unable to read. We knew they were stories, we’d read all the Wild West novels by Karl May, and were familiar with noble and not so noble Indians reading the ground in front of them, but we could only guess. Still, we didn’t realize how little we knew, and felt just like our heroes Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, the Chief of the Apaches.

I was two years younger than my sister, and sometimes given to imitating bird calls, mostly owls, whether or not that was appropriate. My sister was a calm girl, matching my dad’s solemnity on these occasions. I however did not fit in. I wasn’t able to keep their peace – I was bubbly, impulsive, and irrevocably they would start to shush me and cast angry looks at me.

As a young man my dad had wanted to emigrate to Australia or Canada. He never got farther then looking at pictures of endless forests and the wide open desert, yet he treated every forest as though it could lead him to the Bering Strait, if only he would walk long enough.

On better days we found that small ditches running through the woods – who had dug them and when? – had filled with water, which was running clear and shallow. “A stream,” I’d crow and imagine that I could some day catch fish. I wanted to live by a river, be able to go on canoe trips, but the closest river was three miles away and too shallow in the summer to allow for canoe trips.

Sometimes we’d find a freshly dug foxhole, and my dad would cautiously approach us, waving us slowly closer, with a face that expressed awe, interest, and importance. And on other days we found colorful bird feathers and collected them in our pockets.

These were the early 70s and people often got rid of their trash by dumping it in the forests. We saw our share of house trash, savaged by raccoons and other rodents. My dad always tried to find a letter with an address, in order to call the police about it, but he never did. Those trash heaps we found close to the road to Frankenbostel. Whenever we got there, our expedition reached a point of crisis. It was a letdown to reach ‘civilization’ again and there were only two things to do: turn back and march home, a disappointing prospect; or cross the road and enter the area of the small landfill.

The landfill, though surrounded by trees, bordered on farmland. It was an open space, the seclusion of the woods was gone, and yet it had its own special joys. When it was first dug, the pit seemed like a canyon in a rugged and remote mountainous region (Zeven was as flat as you can imagine it. The highest elevation was about 90 feet). You could enter it and watch the heavy machinery like some relics from a long lost civilization, you could climb the large heaps of yellow and reddish sand outside the pit and imagine to be near the beach, on a dune. I was a cowboy, trapped by vicious Comanches, I was an archeologist digging for skeletons, I was reaching the ocean to become a whaler.

Soon, water collected at the bottom of the pit, and strangely, it seems that when the first trash was deposited there, the water levels rose. The water turned a strange, intensive blue-green, opaque and reminiscent of laundry detergent and shampoo. Refrigerators sometimes broke the surface, little white, rusty islands, and we would throw small stones at them. In the winter we skated over the frozen surface here, trash covering the sides of the pit, a barbecue trapped in the middle of the ice.

On one of the walks we found trash of a different kind. It was an overcast fall day, winter announcing itself with a certain chill in the air. We were dressed in dark colors, in our outdoors clothes, which looked nothing like the fancy lifestyle clothing that is so popular nowadays. Back then, at least in my memory, nobody wore trekking gear and bright-colored trail shoes. Hikers had hiking boots, and that was that. Our outdoors clothes were our old clothes, not good enough to be worn to school or church, but fitting okay to be still worn.

Only oaks still had their browned leaves on their branches, and we fought our way through some scratchy underbrush and dying pines, when we came, in the middle of our forest, onto a small clearing. A bit of moss was left of the ground. Yes, there was trash, but these were not household items, but clothes. Mostly women’s clothing. And magazines, which my dad opened with the tip of his shoe to reveal gigantic, large-nippled breasts, and men with sideburns, long hair, no clothes and long penises.

My sister knew she wasn’t supposed to look and didn’t, and I gawked until my father closed the pages again. The ground was soggy from recent rain, and so were the colorful magazines. Soggy too was a book which lay among the pants and bras on the ground, it’s title Süßes Flittchen, Sweet Hussy.

It was very quiet among the trees and I was awed by our find, and my dad paced about, lifting a jacket here, panties there. There were so many clothes – how many people had gathered here, and in what state had they left? Even shoes, high-heeled yellow sandals lay on the ground. What had happened to the feet wearing them?

We breathed in the cold air, stood, giddy with our find. My dad must have been thirty-five, and he examined what I didn’t dare touch, and then we left. The woods though changed that day, and the lonely adventures of trappers and Indians began to fade. My forests became populated with people who parked their cars by a landfill, and dragged their friends into the trees, to clearings where no one else could hear the rustling of clothes being discarded.

The two teenagers are making out on the sofa to my left, not two feet away. They kiss, then speak to each other in Spanish. Fabiola, my 3rd grade student, sits at the table with me, to my right, hunched over a word search for ‘winter.’ She’s never seen snow, a blizzard, or sleet. I tell her about snow storms in Buffalo, and the ‘Zero Visibility’ ice-cream. Her friend, she answers, who moved to L.A. from Colorado, has seen hail the size of Chicken McNuggets. Which are Fabiola’s favorite food.

In Spanish, the boy asks, “Does he speak Spanish?”

“No,” I say, “but I’m not stupid.”

I don’t know if he is Fabiola’s brother, I haven’t been introduced to any of the family members who walk through the room in which I tutor, the first one you enter when you walk through the front door. There’s a back entrance, and it’s only me who comes in front. I’ve seen Fabiola’s mother in the driveway, but she never leaves the back of the apartment, doesn’t come out to greet me or even take a look at me. I haven’t shaken her hand. I’m dealing only with Fabiola’s stepfather, who keeps toy cars on the shelves in the living room. They are models of souped-up Hondas and Toyotas and they come in all sizes. The biggest is operated with a remote control and has big ‘Toyo Tires’ decals on the sides.

The boy grins now, the girl looks scared. This might be the living room or the dining room. There’s not much dining or living in it, this is the first time Fabiola and I are not alone. I’m 42 and have had three accidents in three months, and I don’t have collision, so I’ve tied the passenger door shut with some rope. I drink cheap red wine, eight dollars a 1.5 liter bottle at California Market, no vintage. My wife’s and my teeth are turning blue.

Fabiola asks if she can go to the restroom. She takes her time while the teenagers giggle again and kiss. The boy is squat and wears a white hat backwards, the girl is short and has the face of a china doll. The boy puts his hand in one pocket and extracts a condom in a red wrapper. He holds it out to the girl but she won’t touch it.

Fabiola comes back and resumes her work on gloves, mittens and snow. It’s January. Outside it’s 80 degrees, and soon the boy and girl leave, and Fabiola is moving on to word clusters with animal names. In front of our table is a small altar for La Flaca, Santa Muerte. The Skinny One smiles, her bones clad in a red robe. A candle burns behind her, a matchbox-sized Ford Mustang stands at her feet.