The Alaskastrasse

The great secret of the ages is that man has evolved, is born, lives, and dies for one end and one end only: to commit a sexual assault on another human or to submit to such an assault.

Walker Percy (Lancelot)

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I could hear the soft, rhythmic grinding of the concrete mixer coming up the street. When I closed my eyes and concentrated, it almost sounded like someone hoarsely whispering the same thing over and over again, like the lead-out groove at the end of an LP, or a litany. I wanted to turn off my computer–the high-frequency hum of the monitor muffled the ambient noise so that everything sounded like static from a television someone had forgotten to turn off. But if I didn’t leave the monitor on, I wouldn’t even hear the ding! that accompanied the arrival of each new email, so I had to let it hum. Ever since I’d been working at the matchmaking agency–I worked up advertising collateral and oversaw the company’s website–I sat in front of the computer for hours and hours every day, and every night I went home with a headache.

The latest email was from Rolf, even though his desk was in the next room. He’d written to congratulate me on my resignation, and would I have some time in the next couple of days to go out drinking somewhere? As an inducement he’d attached a photo of a naked woman bent over the front of a Mercedes with the entire hood ornament crammed into her mouth. Stupid, but harmless, at least compared with some of the pictures Rolf had sent me. I deleted the email after reading it, as usual–the thought of someone finding a picture like that in my inbox made me uncomfortable. I changed my password every other week, but I was convinced that other people were reading my email. That was one reason why I didn’t like emailing Conny. Another reason was that every time I tried to send her a message it seemed that everything in it that was intimate and personal somehow got garbled or disappeared–it was as though the mere fact of my firing off these words and letters as fragmented bits of binary code made all the import and sincerity seem feigned and confused, and I could never make myself hit send. Conny had taken me to task for never answering her emails, and when I tried to explain why it was, she took my explanation as a prevarication, an alibi, a dodge, a way of avoiding answering emails in which she told me she loved me. So I did it: one night in a state of high-spirited ardor I actually sent her a two-line email. When I didn’t hear back from her the next day, I called her. She must have seen my number on caller ID, because she was in a terrible mood when she picked up, as if I’d interrupted her while she was in the middle of a fight. She asked me why I was making fun of her feelings. Dejected, she’d deleted my email: the words I’d meant to be loving and tender she found petty and malicious. I tried to reassure her, but just having to argue that my intentions were good made my words dissolve into a sort of protest that even I could see sounded inauthentic. We agreed not to mention it again, and the incident was sanctioned, along with the unspoken option that it be subject to review someday.

Rolf next door emailed me all day long. He liked to text me too, and I would hear the beeping on my cell phone throughout the day until I turned it off, which I did the day I tendered my resignation, sticking it in my jacket pocket. It was a walk down the street that prompted my decision to turn the phone off: I kept noticing that everyone I passed was talking on their cell phone. Half a dozen people, all with phones stuck to their ears. And just then my own cell phone started ringing, and I was too embarrassed to pull it out of my pocket. I used it only for a couple of work-related calls, primarily to call customer service to find out how to turn it off. After a few days, a co-worker called me at home to find out why I wasn’t answering my phone. I lied and said I’d been out of the country for a while–I didn’t have the guts to tell her the truth.

My resignation was less comfortable. First our boss had tried to change my mind by offering me a raise, but when I declined she came to regard my imminent departure as a verdict on her work and an assault on the well-being of the company. Then she changed her tone and wanted to know–I’d screwed up and claimed “personal reasons” as the reason for my resignation–if I had a problem she could help me with, because, after all, as she said, we were like a family. I’d refused to yield, and thereafter her attitude toward me became hostile and aloof. I did my job as reliably as ever.

My inbox tingled again–Rolf had sent me another email, this one forwarded from a client complaining that her match didn’t meet her expectations. I remembered the woman. There hadn’t been enough male candidates, and the boss asked a friend to go on a date with the client, but the client didn’t want to keep seeing him, because the name of the potential match, she said, “sounded like a Jewish merchant.” I yelled over to Rolf through the doorway between our offices to let him know I’d gotten it, and used the calendar to figure out how many hours I still had to spend in the office.

At exactly five o’clock I turned the computer off and said goodbye to Rolf, who was staying a little bit longer, and left work. In the stairwell, I imagined, as I sometimes like to do, that I was carrying my head under my arm and going out for a walk with it, like in a horror film.  The rule was if I could keep my skull chest-high, I’d be saved. My other daydream was that I had turned into some sort of cartoon monster that sucked up everything and everyone around it, swallowing up everything, including itself, until there was nothing left.

But I couldn’t remember where I’d parked. I walked around the side streets in the neighborhood and tried to remember whether anything strange had happened that morning–had I smacked the car in front of me while I was parking? had I parked in a loading zone?–but my routine was so monotonous, day after day, that I couldn’t get my bearings. I finally found my car, amazed it hadn’t just disintegrated where it was. I got in and started it, but it didn’t turn over at first, because I’d forgotten to turn off the pre-ignition.

It took me fifteen minutes to find a parking place by my apartment, and I was so angry I was steaming. I was out of my mind with rage, like one of those movies where a normally upright citizen suddenly loses it and runs amok. I growled and pounded the steering wheel; I cursed my life, and there was something liberating in just letting go like that. Had Conny been with me at that moment I would have put all the hatred I felt over my inability to control myself into words which I then would have been directed at her. I just wanted to let all that wild, blind rage wash over me. It was like being seduced, it was like being flattered–it was like a woman whispering in my ear. It was so comfortable, so easy just to feel at one with my wrath, I sensed it at my side like a large and powerful friend. But I wondered why I still felt so under siege, and I couldn’t figure it out–the answer was elusive, it was like being buried, it was like being at the bottom of the scrum in a game of soccer or basketball, where a pass was unthinkable and I was just going to have put up with the pressure to keep possession of the ball. And while I was getting more and more anxious, driving around the block like a man possessed, I looked at the image more closely and wondered what the ball might be a metaphor for. My hatred? Myself? My identity?  My sovereignty? The possibility that that ball might simply be put in play again did occur to me, but I found myself alone, and I wasn’t certain whether I was supposed to surrender the ball to my opponents or if it was legitimate to simply abandon the game and by doing so really define it as a game and not as anything serious.  I asked myself almost voicelessly if I was being a spoilsport, but at that point I noticed that I had wandered so far into my mental picture that I was succumbing to fatigue, and I began to attack my opponent, the ball in my hand–forcing a foul, in other words.

Finally I saw caught sight of a woman who seemed to be in the process of getting into her car and without my even making the questioning gesture at her, she nodded and smiled at me so that I was forced to smile back at her against my will, and I was conscious of how tense I must have looked.

I’m done with all that chickenshit, was what was going through my mind, and I thought of the chicken I had bought in the supermarket a couple of days before. Inside the animal, wrapped in cellophane, was a little plastic bag with the innards. I had to laugh, but the laugh didn’t have any force to it, and it tapered off into a melancholy shudder, and I recalled the balloon I’d seen on the street a couple of minutes before, while waiting at a red light. It was lying on the sidewalk, buffeted by the wind a bit, and it was dragging another punctured balloon by its string. It almost hurt to look at it. It reminded me of pictures of soldiers carrying their wounded or a cat with a rock tied to its tail. The memory frightened me, as did the realization that it was just a memory, something without substance, there one minute and gone the next.

I parked and made a mental note where, so that I wouldn’t have to go looking for my car in the morning, and headed home. Once I got to my apartment, I called Conny to pick a place to eat.  We agreed to meet at eight o’clock, halfway between us, so that neither would be too put out.

While we were talking I realized I didn’t have to take everything so seriously, treating vague understandings as fixed agreements, but every time we made a date to meet at a certain time and place I had an irrepressible sense that all it was all absurd–as though I knew deep down that in some ways it would have been better had our date taken place purely by chance. The reliance on the foreseen, coupled with my fear of any deliberate repetition or advance planning, was devastating. Everything in the restaurant went as per usual. We turned down the first table we were offered–it was too close to the bathroom. I asked the waiter not to light our candle when he held out his lighter, and we smoked a cigarette while looking at the menu. We both ordered the same thing, steak, and I felt the way I did when I was a kid, wanting to show that I knew how to behave correctly.

Conny kept her left hand under the table the whole time. Like a Muslim, I thought. I was watching her cut her steak, and I had the fanciful notion she was cutting her meat so painstakingly because she didn’t want to hurt it. This made me feel like I was overdoing it when I thrust the knife through mine. A glass fell and shattered at another table, and I found myself longing for the day when no one would turn around when something like that happened in a restaurant. The whole time I felt uneasy about leaving fingerprints on my glass, as though leaving evidence at a future crime scene. I played around with the idea of letting it fall to the floor.

When Conny told me to look at something through the window outside the restaurant I could only look up for a moment, because my eye was drawn to the dust in the windowsill, all the lint and schmutz and little hairs in the crack, and I couldn’t concentrate on whatever was going on out in the street–a truck had lost its load or something. When Conny asked me a question, I glanced up as if I had been caught in the act of doing something furtive. As a form of atonement I told her about one of my dreams, but rather than telling her the truth, that I’d been driving around with another woman, I pretended it had been her. I felt like a child when I lied to her, fudging the truth. She told me about one of her dreams, and for the rest of the meal she did most of the talking. She kept closing her eyes as she spoke–it was obvious they were hurting her. It occurred to me that she was trying to distance herself from my feigned sympathy or conceal something. The discipline of the cover-up, I thought.

After dinner I lit a cigarette, but it stuck to my lower lip, and when I pried it loose, my lip started bleeding. Then Conny had me tell her about my work day and what had happened at the office.  I tried to describe everything vividly, but it seemed like every word I used was a euphemism, and even when I was talking about Rolf, whom Conny had already met, I had the feeling that hiding behind my words and sentences were other, more terrible words and sentences. When we got up to go, I was suddenly uncertain whether I was supposed to say “Check!” or simply ask for the bill: the restaurant seemed to allow for neither of these possibilities.

Already standing, taking one last look at our table, I saw I hadn’t completely put my cigarette out in the ashtray, it was still smoldering. For some reason unclear to me I limped out the door of the restaurant as if my leg were stiff.

It was dusk out; looking down at the gutter of the Kastanienallee I got heartburn–I felt like I was going to drop dead. I felt a rush of love for Conny and the way the trees along the Allee looked in the summer, beneath them the slow and stately procession of cars, but this burst of feeling was tempered by a sense of despair, all of which made me feel that I really should be by myself. I was afraid I was turning into something inhuman with my strange obsession with letting everything that was squeezed inside me just kind of pour out. I asked Conny whether she minded if I just left her, rather than going home with her, or to a bar, and while she did seem somewhat disappointed, she said, if you want, with a resolve that made me hate myself for my fickleness. And quicker than I anticipated, she kissed me on the cheek and disappeared around the corner. There I stood, and all at once the trees and the cars and the twilit sky were no longer my secret allies and confidants, but just a busy, bustling testimony to my isolation and perfidy.  All the same, when I tore myself loose from this indescribable melancholy and got going, I felt nothing but relief. I turned off the main street the restaurant was on, and went down a side street; I wandered through the neighborhood where I loved to walk–in some places it was so desolate I could pretend I was in another country.

When I saw a parking ticket on a car windshield I toyed with the idea of taking it and paying the fine for the owner, as if to make some sort of restitution. I felt the obligation to do something of immediate worth, but then, as I turned the idea around in my head, it was like omitting the period when reading a sentence aloud, so that the intonation makes it sound like run-on: my willingness to make amends had long since passed the plausible, and since the pressure on my bladder had finally become unbearable, I felt justified in stepping into a doorway and urinating.  I cut myself off in mid-stream: I heard the noise of an approaching car which in my imagination was a police car. I studiedly and slowly buttoned up my pants, so that if it actually was the police I would have to come clean. It was pleasant to imagine my potential helplessness before the police, and I found my detailed internal narrative of the legal proceedings to come moving. No one challenged me, and I hailed a cab, but the driver already had a fare; he just hadn’t turned off his sign. He didn’t stop. Hindsight told me that the driver wasn’t going to stop. Out of spite I held my hand up again as a second cab approached. Just once I wanted to be able to blame someone else, to insult them, or at least have them think I was desperate, even when that wasn’t the case at all.

There was a guy standing a couple of yards away, and I knew without even looking over at him that he was going to start talking to me. He was very drunk. His forehead shone with sweat and he was trying not to stagger, and he asked me about a nearby hotel. Oddly enough, I had just been thinking about this hotel, a pay-by-the-hour hotel. I told the drunk he could get there if he just went down the street, but he just repeated the question, as if disappointed by my quick response, and added that it was kind of a rundown hotel. I told him again that it was just up ahead, and pointed in the right direction: That’s where you need to go. He thanked me and motioned to a young woman who was obviously waiting for him on the other side of the street.  As I moved on I felt a tremor of fear–what if he’d interpreted my last sentence as opinion, that I thought he was a bum, a good match for a fleabag hotel? At any moment I expected to hear a voice calling after me, something like: Stop, wait a second…just what did you mean by that?  And even though it didn’t happen, my conscience was guilty, and I still felt like I had gotten away with something.

As I was going across the bridge, I deliberately avoided walking near the railing; I didn’t want anyone to think I was about to jump into the dark river. A bus drove across the bridge and made the asphalt vibrate. I was so close to the curb that the bus almost clipped me. When the headlights hit me I felt like I’d been anointed.

A little bit further I passed a Chinese restaurant that I recognized as once having been a wine bar, and just beyond I saw a supermarket that used to be a movie theater. It was as though everything shabby and dilapidated was being replaced by the gleaming and chromed–all of it retreating from public view, or just looking like it was being consciously squeezed out. And the weird thing was that a part of me was really looking forward to this apocalypse. It was as if I might only know true contentment after it all disappeared. As if my contentment was predicated solely on memory.

When I got home I turned on the television; I found it soothing to just channel-surf and not have to decide anything. The first thing I saw was an ad for a cell phone. A woman was mouthing I don’t love you anymore in the manner of an old silent film, but the man with her didn’t understand and cupped a hand to his ear for her to speak up. She said it again, but he still didn’t understand. Then the tagline: What you can’t say, text. I wondered whether the people who did the ad realized how terrible the implied message was, but I figured they hadn’t noticed.

I sat in front of the television until midnight. I stuck with one channel that seemed to run nothing but soft-core erotica around the clock; the only commercial breaks were for phone sex hot lines. In the last show I saw, the moderator was drunk or high or something. She kept twitching and blowing her lines. I couldn’t blame her. Her job was to ask viewers questions: one could call up and win some money or the stockings the moderator was wearing. One of the questions was: If you’re really into sex, does it mean you’re (a) repressed, (b) horny, or (c) abstinent? The moderator devoted an hour to the question, repeating it while she waited for a winner, all the while taking off her clothing, piece by piece. Sometimes her speech was so garbled it sounded like she was speaking in tongues. In the background of the studio, decorated in bordello-red velvet, a half-naked couple on a rotating pedestal simulated coitus. At the end of the show a female caller won the money. It sounded fixed. The other channels all had shows just like it. Not wanting to fall asleep with such baleful images in my head, I watched music videos for a while, and finally went to bed around 1:30.

Even my last day at work passed as uneventfully as every day before it.  I just cleared out my desk for my successor, whom I had gotten to know a little bit the preceding week, and deleted all the private documents on my computer. My boss shook my hand goodbye, a semi-sour, semi-forgiving look on her face, and told me if I ever reconsidered, I might want to take up my work at the agency again. I thanked her, smiling politely. Only as I was leaving did I wave goodbye to a couple of the secretaries and office assistants. Rolf I’d see again, but out of a spirit of thoroughness I stopped by to say goodbye to him anyway. He pumped my hand ironically, nodding over at a particularly vile image on his computer, and asked me with a wink if I’d reconsider one last time. Please, I said, and he said, do you know what I think, why most women are so disturbed, sexually at least? I think it’s because they can’t see their cunts like we can see our cocks. They need a mirror for it. Think about it: if you went through your entire life only able to see your cock with a mirror, you’d be nuts too. Run that through your head a bit.

I was used to this sort of thing from Rolf, and I laughed, as was my habit, and told him I was going to have to think his theory over a bit.  My right hand on my ear, miming “call me,” I left the office.

Walking down the stairs to the street I knew I would never set foot in the building again, and this certainty put a spring in my step as I left. I was in such a good mood that I bought myself some ice cream, which I’d never done before. That it was a beautiful day went without saying.

A little while later, my good mood had vanished. I took myself to task for asking myself, while my mood was still good, how much longer it could last, the soothsayer in me unable to foresee anything further ahead than the length of a walk or a trip in the car. I was angry with myself for being so superstitious, but then I found myself in solidarity with my thoughts again. I was constantly entangling myself in superstitions. I might wonder, for example, whether my decision to go choose a given route to a destination might exert an influence on how things would work out. I would find myself frozen on street corners, wavering over which way to go.

So here I was on my last day of work, a marvelous new feeling inside me, decisive and forthright. Whenever I got to a point where two or more possibilities presented themselves, and I was obligated to make a decision, I chose, if I had the freedom to choose, the option that irritated me the most. I usually chose whatever my first impulse had been to refuse. I was working against myself and my own desires. It was not so much that I chose only whatever repulsed me, but whatever I could not imagine myself choosing. Sometimes it was something that repulsed me.  But not as a rule.

I spent the rest of the day at home alone. I called no one, not even Conny, and whenever the phone rang I didn’t pick up, I just let the answering machine get it and listened to who it was. I went to sleep early and while I was lying in bed, I knew that I was going to wake up at 6:30 the next morning without the alarm clock, just as I had for the last year, and that was what happened. I quickly took a shower and got dressed–I wanted to get to the travel agency in time to get some reasonably priced tickets to a resort for Conny and me, even thought I didn’t know where I wanted to go.

On the street once more I had the feeling that everything around me was artificial and engineered on my behalf. It all looked like it had been put together for inspection. But the more I looked around the more insubstantial it all seemed: the graffiti on the sidewalk, the dispirited neglect of the street signs, the waddling gait of the pigeons, the dapper advertising columns, and I struggled against the urge to find any reassurance in all of it. Everything I saw had a “look at me” quality to it, and I found it difficult to take refuge in being that kind of spectator.

Nowadays, I thought, everything seemed so reliable. Even changing timestamp settings on a video recorder was easy. Where was my refuge from this surliness and this bossiness, and how was I going to protect myself against pride and the death-instinct?

It was all turning out so smoothly I had the suspicion everything was going to go wrong, but all the same I was curious as to how it was going to play out. All my choices were characterized by a clumsy indecisiveness: when I tried to cross the street, I narrowly avoided getting run down by a bicyclist who hurled imprecations against me–I couldn’t decide quickly enough whether to cross before or after him. I went to the newsstand where I usually bought the paper and tried to push the door open on the hinged side, and when I left I did the same thing again. I went to a pub to read the paper and have a quick breakfast, but the only place free was at the one of the stools at the bar, and I didn’t know how comfortable I was going to be sitting there. I smoked and inadvertently dropped my ashes in a bowl of peanuts and when the waiter said hello I said greeted him solicitously, as if he were my supervisor, someone I was supposed to be afraid of.  When he handed me an ashtray I briefly wondered whether I should have lit another cigarette to remind him of his duties. Back on the street I walked by an actor I recognized from television, and for a moment I was so startled, or surprised, that I almost said hello to him, even though I had never really liked him. I was in the supermarket buying some chewing gum and while I was standing by the register I flinched when the cashier at the next register called 1938. I decided to wait until the beginning of the next week to take care of the plane tickets–it was too easy to picture the situation at the travel agency. In my imagination I was so inept and awkward that I saw myself picking an unwanted destination out of sheer embarrassment.

In front of the supermarket I let my glance linger on a girl squatting on the sidewalk fumbling around in her pocket, or more precisely I lingered at her underwear visible above her jeans. I had a sudden urge to give her a kick and yell, What did you think you’re doing hanging around here?

The whole morning was nothing but encounters with women who repulsed me. They all had faces like pinup girls, bovine and stupid.

I walked past a boutique pumping muffled techno music. I caught myself starting to march in step with the beat. There were dried urine stains on the sidewalk. Even though I was wearing shoes it disgusted me to walk across them. A man walking toward me sneezed twice, loudly; I held my breath until he was far enough away. It seemed like I was always holding my breath, mostly in places where there were lots of people packed in together, in the U-Bahn or in lines.

Then I had to stop: my shoelace had come untied. I braced my foot against the building facade.  I was tying my shoe when I heard a male voice saying Grüss Gott. I froze in place, straightened up a bit, and looked into the room. It was very small, only a little wider than the window. In the middle there was a narrow table, and facing me and the street there was an elderly man sitting in a chair. All he was wearing was underpants, a t-shirt, and socks. He said Grüss Gott again, more distinctly, but I couldn’t see anyone else in the room he might be talking to, and the only door was shut. He went on saying Grüss Gott again and again, changing the intonation each time, first ingratiating, then threatening, drawing out the consonants. I wondered whether I should do the same thing, but I didn’t want to put him on the spot, so I ducked down again and left, very conscious of the sound the soles of my shoes made scraping against the sidewalk as I left. I took a couple of steps and then thought I heard someone saying my name, but when I looked around there was no one there. The only person I saw was a bum just in front of me, and he was taking to himself. When I passed him I heard him saying Don’t breathe a word, don’t breathe a word, over and over. Everyone on the street looked downcast, as if in mourning for some national hero who had died without my knowing. Even the cops walked by with their heads down, seemingly lost in thought.

There was a sign for a women’s group glued to the wall of a building, and I read the slogan out of the corner of my eye: Women = free + wild. Someone had taken a magic marker and changed the equation: Women = fair + game. I had to smile, but my furtive look annoyed me. I longed for the cop’s appraising stare.

Back in my apartment I tried to turn on the light in the darkened foyer and pressed the switch, but my finger stuck to it and I ended up unwittingly turning it off again. I didn’t try again.

On the answering machine was a message from Rolf. While I was listening to him suggest that we try to get together again that night, I had an urge to tape his message and play it back on his answering machine, over and over again. Instead I sat in the kitchen and asked myself if I really wanted to stay in touch with Rolf. I wasn’t sure.

I’d been to his place. He lived in a pre-war apartment. We sat in the living room and drank beer.  After the third bottle, Rolf went into the other room and came back proudly carrying a pistol. I didn’t know what to say when he pressed it into my hand. I just shifted it from one hand to the other, as if it were too hot to hold on to for too long.

I’ve got some more, said Rolf.

Really?

We should go out shooting sometime, he suggested, and the way he said the last couple of words made it sound like he was saying we should go down shooting sometime.

Why not, I said, and handed him the pistol.

You wouldn’t believe how many people have guns, he said, after tucking it away in the other room and returning with two more bottles of beer. My mood was such that his stories both disgusted and fascinated me. Until then I hadn’t known that he sometimes went out at night, packing heat.

Around midnight, just as I was trying to leave, using the excuse that I had to get up early, he showed me some of his porno collection. Everything was sorted by kink. He was especially proud of a photo of a dog mounting a midget. I promised him that I would make a closer inspection of his collection another time, and left.

It was things like this that made me think about not seeing him anymore. All the same I decided to go out with him that night. The idea of sitting around the apartment alone was less palatable, and I had a certain vested interest in Rolf’s company and his mores–I could be myself around Rolf. I called him, but the line was busy, so I hung up and tried again–my superstition was that I had called him just as he was hanging up from another call. The line was still busy. Ten minutes later I tried again. Rolf picked up on the first ring. He sounded happy that I wanted to go out. He had boxing practice until nine, and we arranged to meet at a bar in the neighborhood near the boxing club at nine-thirty. When I hung up the phone I was tempted to call him back to cancel, but I couldn’t think of a decent excuse.

I arrived at exactly 9:30 to find Rolf already sitting at the bar. He looked a little banged up, but I figured he probably always looked that way after boxing. He didn’t see me coming and when I clapped him on the shoulder he whirled around in alarm and for a moment looked really angry until he saw it was me. Then he laughed and clapped me on the shoulder too. He ordered two beers and two schnapps and told me about a client with the agency who had complained about him to our boss. I listened to the whole story–it took two beers and a second schnapps, Rolf laughing the whole time–and he asked me abruptly why I’d quit. I said: Forget it. It’s not important.

Well, tell me. Why’d you quit? He wanted to know.

Nothing, I just wanted to, I was sick of it. I sidestepped the question, because I really didn’t want to talk about with him.

That can’t be the only reason, he pressed. Don’t tell me that. So, why did you really quit?

Because I’m in kind of a crappy state, I said to him. I really haven’t been doing that well lately.

For how long? He stuck to it.

For a long time, I admitted: When I’m at home and I want to pour myself a drink, I stand there and can’t get a glass because I can’t pick a color. When I leave the house I can’t decide whether to take my jacket or leave it at home. When I’m by the stereo, I can’t pick a CD. When I’m on the phone with Conny and she asks me whether I love her it takes me such a long time to answer that she has to ask if I’m still there. Something in my life has to change.

Rolf narrowed his eyes to tiny slits, as though he were forcing himself to stare into the sun. I wasn’t sure if he believed me or not. The whole time I was talking he kept tapping the table with his index finger, not in time with the song that was playing but as if making a supreme effort to hear me out until the end of my story, so that he could sum it up with a joke.

The last couple of months, I said, turning my glass, I just had the feeling that I wasn’t really there anymore. When I was sitting in the agency talking to clients I could hardly wait for them to leave so I wouldn’t have to be in the stupid position of having to pitch to them and reassure them when all the choices seemed wrong. All I wanted to do was just forget about it.

And now it’s going better? Rolf asked.

Out of habit or laziness I said: Excuse me? like I hadn’t understood his question. He repeated it, and I answered, I don’t know. We’re going to go on a vacation together, me and Conny.

Good idea, he said, and I noticed that he really didn’t want to listen to me but that was okay with me too, because I felt a little foolish. We ordered another drink and Rolf added two doubles (Schnapps, a symbol for something like, the bad times are over, and now we’ll drink and forget the past). So we got hammered, and Rolf started in on a longish story about this woman he’d met. The tale reached its climax when she asked him to tie her up and smack her around a little.

They all want a little smack, he smirked. And why not? I gave her what she wanted.

Don’t you ever find yourself totally disgusting, in a funny kind of way? Don’t you ever just look at yourself and start laughing?

Well yeah, it’s true, said Rolf, that the most women who are the happiest–they’re happiest when you act like a caricature of a man with them: sort of brutal, lecherous, demanding, and so on.  But so what? Why do they want?

I didn’t answer.

You should go to whorehouses more often. Lean to value the lack of commitment. Maybe one in ten will really be worth it, someone who likes to fuck or at least can fake it convincingly, so that you can’t think about anything else, someone who’s going to wear you out. You just don’t want to overdo it, you have to take a break every so often, months or years, because it’s really easy to get hooked on it. Then there’s the thrill of it, that hot moment of excitement when you walk into the place–you get hooked on the whole thing, just walking in, the whole atmosphere, of it, the seediness. But on the other hand you really have to go all out with it, otherwise you’ll never get it out of your system, and you need to save up your strength and your lust. And your money. You just have to give it a shot until it doesn’t do it for you anymore, because you need that faint aftertaste to build up your strength, to get yourself together again. And nothing compares to the feeling of getting up early in the morning, fucked dry and exhausted from the high, leaving the whorehouse and going back out onto the street. The whores walk you to the front door, they kiss you goodbye, and the best is in the winter when there’s fresh snow on the ground and the streets and sidewalks are deserted. You go home feeling a bliss that you don’t usually get in life.  Sometimes you take one home with you, but mostly you’re alone.

I was sitting there listening to Rolf when I had a sudden feeling of wanting to just get up and walk out. While he was talking he had a sort of manic preacher’s look on his face. When he was finished, he gave me a satisfied nod of assent, drank his beer, and looked overall like someone who just nodded in satisfaction as though he’d said something incontestable, and then he said nothing, drank some beer, and looked like someone who’d given it everything he had.

I didn’t feel comfortable with Rolf telling about his sex life. I was afraid he was going to demand the same from me as a quid pro quo. But the next thing he said was: How do you like that cunt?

Behind the bar? I asked, and it was painful–the words came out right at the pause between two songs.

Rolf didn’t wait for my answer. At a nearby table two men were making out like teenagers. Rolf nodded his head over at them.

I kind of doubt that gays are doing themselves any favors being “out,” Rolf said without taking his eyes of the couple. They’ve reduced their entire existence to their sexuality. Most gays only talk about their sexuality, the way office girls in the movies are always going about their nails.  Their erotic existence is everything to them. They’re kidding themselves. The more they dress up all colorful and outrageous for their parades, the more they delude themselves. It’s basically a pathetic act of self-destruction. Wearing the innermost outside is for people who want to be loved or hated. Their coming out is an act of resignation. Their wanting to be accepted is just wanting to fit in. They’re giving up their outsider status because they’re just bourgeois, that’s all.

You might be right about that, I said, secretly hoping his analysis didn’t veer off toward the tritely self-evident, which I’d heard so often before.

Happily, Rolf stayed on-topic: I try to stick it to women who have a healthy attitude about sex, who like to fuck, who don’t dump a bunch of crap on me. I’ve had enough of women who ask about your star sign and your rising sign, who read tarot cards and are into Buddhism, who listen to Navajo Indian singing while they do yoga, who read books about Reiki and play their Cat Stevens CDs while they’re doing it.

You put that stuff on when you’re trying to get in someone’s pants, I said.

But Rolf continued as though he hadn’t heard me: Women who make their femininity into some kind of divine mystery, but they’re terrible in bed. Dumb chicks who go to classes to hug trees with other dumb chicks, and even with all the classes and the other women and all of it, when you’re in bed with them you get the feeling they’ve never held a man. They can go out and eat that sushi shit everyday, but they can’t even put a decent goulash on the stove. They’re always going on about their freedom, but once they hit their mid-thirties all they want is to get pregnant as soon as they can.

I was starting to despise myself for not arguing with him, for egging him on by remaining silent.  But I was fascinated by his lack of restraint. I felt like I was eavesdropping on an intimate telephone conversation.

You know, Rolf said after a pause, you should never put women on a pedestal. The truth is, they’re even more sex-obsessed than men. The way to attract a woman is to tell her what she wants to hear, but the way to conquer her is to get her off. You awaken the desire and then you quench it.

You’re full of shit, I said. You sound like a cult leader.

Yeah, I’ll bet I’d make a great cult leader, Rolf replied.

For a while he seemed to be thinking it over, and then he launched back into it again: I think Muslims have the right idea. What has the women’s movement accomplished anyway? They’re more unhappy than ever. What do women need freedom for? It’s unnatural. And the women who insist upon it, these career women, these awful manager-types–they’re not women, they’re really men in a woman’s body, and they’re all lesbians.

I was already feeling uncomfortable: Rolf was talking loudly and some of the people in the bar were starting to look over at us. I wanted to change the subject–I knew that Rolf’s Suadela would make him even coarser, but Rolf kept going: They’re just victims of their hormones.  Goddamn, I wouldn’t want to be a woman.

I’ll be right back, I interrupted; I went to the bathroom. I washed my hands for a long time and tried to think up a strategy to extricate myself. For a while I’d been unsure why I might want to put some distance between us. Now I remembered.

I was walking back to the bar when I noticed how down and out Rolf looked, despite his designer suit and his perfectly coiffed hair. He made me think of someone who thinks he’s wasted his life, who drinks too much, who acts like it’s all for nothing, but who still shows up where he’s supposed to anyway. He’s never going to kick it over the way he keeps threatening, I thought: he’s just going to get grayer and more beaten-down and more comical and extreme.  He’d be good in the role of the former socialist who turns to the right wing hoping his vote will go to the party that expresses all the rage he feels for everyone he thinks responsible for all his misfortune.

“Was hat dich bloss so ruiniert?” I sang the lyrics to him when I sat back down.

Fuck it, Rolf said, the better to ask: What do you think of that cunt behind the bar?

That doesn’t make any sense, it wouldn’t make any sense if I said it to you, I said with a sigh. He was slowly getting on my nerves.

Why? he asked.

Because I’m a fake, I said to him, just to get on his nerves. I’m a fake whenever I order a beer, whenever I light a cigarette, whenever I say I love you, whenever I’m alone. It’s all fake–my job, my resignation–even the stuff I haven’t even done yet is fake. It’s why I’m full of shit when you ask me how I like that cunt. It’s as simple as that. You’re always full of shit? Rolf wanted to know; he looked at me uncertainly.

No, only when I want to be right, I answered.

But I shut up when it occurred to me that all the stuff he’d ranted about, whether in jest or not, could also be used against me; nevertheless, the thought of being able to just shoot my mouth off was gratifying in and of itself. I pictured Rolf in a conspiratorial huddle, whispering about me: really, he’s just full of shit, and it made me happy to feel so comfortable being taken seriously in the role of the guy who’s full of shit.

I stole a glance at the watch on Rolf’s wrist and considered what excuse I might make in order to go. I knew I wasn’t going to call him or get together with him anymore. I felt certain that this was the last night, that we weren’t going to see each other anymore. I figured he knew it too, but he seemed to think that the decision was his alone to make.

I got up to leave. I was surprised he didn’t try to talk me into staying by buying me another drink like he usually did; he just nodded and took his wallet out of his jacket pocket. He paid the tab and gave the woman at the bar too big a tip. I thanked him, got up, and headed toward the door. He followed me out. Out on the street we walked on for a bit. I wondered why he wasn’t saying anything, and then he asked, in a voice I recognized, for it was the voice of a future enemy, just what I saw in Conny. She’s not my type, he added.

Not so much not your type that you didn’t try to fuck her in my apartment while I was sleeping, I said, my heart pounding with hatred, and I held up my hand to hail an approaching cab. For a second he seemed surprised I even knew about it, but as the taxi, luckily, was stopping, he said in a that sounded like Schadenfreude mixed with sympathy: And that broke your little heart, didn’t it? I told him to go fuck himself and climbed in the cab. Rolf banged on the window as we drove off and shot me the finger, and that was the last I heard or saw of him.

I decided to go to a bar I knew stayed open all night. I sat in the corner and recalled how Rolf and Conny had met. The three of us had gone to see Rolf’s friend’s band. Our conversation was stiff, and I was glad when the music started and the din restricted the three of us to yelling sentence fragments in each other’s ears. After the show we went to a bar; Rolf and Conny argued over different bands, and I was happy to just listen, like a child sitting between two grown-ups, satisfied with saying nothing, free to observe my surroundings. With Rolf and me the conversation was always about women, but when there was a woman actually present, he talked about music. He was proud of his ability to rattle off catalogs of songs and all their cover versions, including the year they were released. He spent entire weekends at his computer downloading music, burning CDs, archiving everything. He claimed that was why his last girlfriend had broken up with him, and with all the zealous defiance of someone who associates his freedom with a particular activity and defends it against all odds, he hadn’t altered his habit one iota.

Although he wouldn’t admit it, Rolf was disappointed that his friend, the guitarist, found some pretext, as Rolf saw it, not to join us after the show. Around midnight I suggested that we go back to my apartment and drink some wine. The evening ended with my falling drunk into bed, while Conny and Rolf stuck around a bit longer. The next morning Conny told me that Rolf had grabbed her breast and tried to kiss her. I was a little shocked, but I chalked it up to the alcohol. Neither one of us had ever said anything about it.

Conny was already repulsed out by Rolf. She hated how whenever someone used the word “come” in a sentence he always pretended that they were using it in the sexual sense. We agreed that we wouldn’t go out with him anymore, and I admitted I didn’t have any great interest in seeing him anymore either.

I didn’t feel like being in the bar anymore, so I paid and started for home. I thought about Rolf and about the rancorous end of our acquaintance, but eventually I found I didn’t much care, and rather than worry about him, I noticed that it was almost morning. Beneath the lightening sky, among the pre-dawn commuters, I felt like I was floating. I heard a blackbird singing and I remembered what Rolf had once told me when we heard a blackbird through the office window one evening. When I called his attention to the birdsong, he said that it was just a male blackbird trying to attract a female so they could mate. Birds only sing, he said, when they want to fuck. I could have hit him.

I stopped in front of a porno theater. I took a long look at the life-sized picture of a woman in front of the theater. Where her vagina should have been was a tiny CCTV monitor, so that I could see myself, a miniature Tom Thumb. The rest of the display window was covered with posters for porno films, almost touching in their design, which seemed to spell out: Don’t kid yourself!

All at once I felt like going in, but despite the red neon “Non-Stop” sign above the entrance, the place was closed. I considered the sometimes curative function of pornography in my life, but simultaneously it called up everything in me that was repellent and hateful, the source of a particular type of pain, and I asked myself if I was really going to be able to live out my time on earth with this kind of internal conflict.

I walked up to the window of the theater and peered into the darkened foyer. It was an older theater, from the fifties, one that had lost its business and became a porno theater, an irrevocable step. The emptiness of the foyer was oppressive. I wished that I could sit in the deserted theater, in front of the blank screen, silent except for the muffled song of the blackbird outside, with the smell of dusty plush velvet and the greasy coats of old men.

Bios

Xaver Bayer

In Austria, Xaver Bayer is frequently classed with his coevals Daniel Kehlmann and Thomas Glavinic (both of whom have found critical and popular success both within and without the German-speaking world). Unlike Kehlmann’s engagement with history (e.g., Die Vermessung der Welt) and Glavinic’s existential science fiction/mysteries (e.g., Die Arbeit der Nacht), Bayer works a territory that fuses the yuppie picaresque of the so-called Popliteraten (e.g., Christian Kracht, Benjamin Stuckrad-Barre) with the hard-boiled wit and grit of Jörg Fauser, and infuses all of this with that peculiarly Austrian strain of spleen most associated with Thomas Bernhard, and that peculiarly Austrian fin-de-siècle melancholy most associated with Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Adam Siegel

As a literary translator, Adam Siegel has worked most frequently from the German, Russian, and Czech. His most recent publication is a long interview between Thomas Bernhard and Andre Mueller in the Fall 2010 issue of Conjunctions.

Die Alaskastrasse. Copyright (c) Jung und Jung (Salzburg) und Wien Alle Rechte vorbehalten, 2003. English translation copyright (c) Adam Siegel, 2011.