Here, It’s Quiet

The lion with his mouth wide open on the doorway of 112 is as full of himself as he is every morning. Arrogance chiseled in the sandstone, even with the lolling tongue. He senses that I’m not from here–Rei’gschmeckt, he’d say; he wrinkles his nose, even though for three months now there’s been no Berlin air lingering in my clothes, the chalky dust of Frankfurter Allee was walked off long ago, the gasoline-and-linden smell of Besarinplatz long gone. I look back over my shoulder. My way to work, a quiet residential street in the city center, lies in the radiant light of a freshly washed Monday morning, nobody in sight. Determined, all of a sudden, I stuff my half-eaten apple–Cox Orange, from Bodensee–into the lion’s mouth. A piece breaks off and falls on the clean-swept sidewalk. Trottwar, they say here. The lion is silent. At the very least he could growl, shake that eternally wavy mane of his, roar Swabian vulgarities: “Louse-ridden toad! Gimp limbs! Old sow’s ass! Scum sucker! Wretch!” This list of indigenous insults was laid out for me by Marcel, my new colleague, on just my second day. “So you can give as good as you get, if the natives get fresh with you.” Marcel is an economic refugee like myself, not, though, from the crisis-rattled capital, but rather from Saarland. His homesickness has long since fled. He eats sour tripe and Gaisburger Marsch with enthusiasm, says Grüß Gott, Ade, and even Tschaule at every opportunity, and proclaims constantly that the Swabian metropolis boasts the highest quality of life in the country.

Since I’ve been here, it’s only ever rained at night. Each day brings an optimistic blue backdrop for this long row of unbombed townhouses. Turn of the century, content and cumbersome. Their bay windows stick out like paunches, column-lined balconies between them, all crowned with half-timbered spires, their facades done up like debutantes. There’s St. Urban standing in a jungle of vines and waving with wine grapes in his hand; over there, chubby infants chase a pig through rows of roses; and further on a spider weaves its stone web in a roof gable.

I screw up my eyes–my sunglasses are still lying on the kitchen table at home. Even to think these two words is a feat: at home. At home this smug lion would have had his nose spray-painted red and his curly forelock blackened, and the pot-bellied mermaids, pouring yellow streams of sandstone over their tails on the facade of 134, would have pink nipples and “dumb fucks good” tattoos. Graffiti on all accessible surfaces. “Torch Bush,” “Break Nazi Noses!” “Jana is the ass of the revolution.” You could find it on the houses painted Western-well-being pastel just the same as on the unrenovated, which wear their heating-stove grey and their bullet holes from May ’45 as proudly as an old jailbird does his battle scars. “The place you think you know–that’s not Berlin!” Tobias said. Of course, he moved there before the wall fell, unlike me, coddled softie, who from the very beginning could travel from the zoo to Friedrichstraße, untouched by forced transfers, abandoned stations or Ketwurst. But still the trams squealed through Friedrichshain and Prenzlauerberg, the Schrippen rolls were as soft as wet cardboard, and on Alexanderplatz I listened for each dit, ikke, and janz jenau, as enraptured as a young anthropologist encountering a native vocabulary for the first time. Now I stand on a southern street, kick the apple core into the gutter, and step quickly inside at the shining silver plate on 148: “Brainstormers – Media Solutions.”

A minimum temperature of seventy-seven degrees prevails in the stairwell. The agency rents out four floors, doors stay open on all the landings, and energy radiates outward from thirty computers, ten espresso machines, and countless ornate heating stoves dating back to the time of the founders. On the twelfth step I meet Fadile, our “Marketing Lady.” Today she wears a dress of baby blue raw silk, matching high-heeled shoes, and pink glass earrings shaped like little fish. Her sunglasses are bombastic. She raises an eyebrow, plucked thread-thin, over the horn-rimmed frames. “What have you done to Marcel? He’s in a super lousy mood. Not that this changes the fact that the Pizza Flyer has to be presented this afternoon.”

I push my chest out, D-cup breasts packed in striped cotton, a Darwinistic impulse I have whenever this starveling and I meet. “We were at the opera. Nozze.” She sucks warm stairwell air in through thin nostrils and clatters past down the stairs. With Nozze you can brush anyone aside. One does not say The Marriage of Figaro, nor yet La Nozze di Figaro. Throw Nozze out there and the sitcom fan pulls his prick between his legs, even if, like Fadile, he doesn’t have one.

The opera house is pretty, with its dome of oxidized copper, the old chestnut trees and the swans keeping watch over the pond. Marcel took me my first week. It was an evening of ballet, Viennese songs from a recording and melancholy contortions. I sobbed behind a column in the foyer while Marcel stood in line for drinks. He also showed me the Staatsgallerie, pressed me through the revolving door and over the poison-green speckled floors, then up the ramp and onward, past den Großen Stehenden and Bueys’s Golden Hare, which sparkled, untouched, in its vitrine. In a darkened room stands Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballet. Marcel waved his arms enthusiastically. “In towns back East you ride for hours in a filthy subway car to see something like this. Here you can just walk.” Now I come every once in awhile, always alone, after lunch, with bits of food between my back molars, only staying for ten minutes. Aside from the security guard there’s no one here. I set myself directly before the figures and wait, my back to the darkness of the room. Here is the Turk, with turban and striped stomach, like a little Michelin man made of colored, molded plastic. Here, the lady, a dancing cloud of silver mesh around her head and hips. And here is the abstract, the cubistic head divided in red and white, a gleaming golden club in its left hand. The darkness swallows all sound and every deadly ray of sunlight that would bleach the Turk’s stomach and the abstract’s red head. Earlier the dancers stood in the daylight that breaks through the glass roof. To me it’s better like that. The artful lighting produces shadows and movement, the wire woman turns, the Turk’s hat bobs. They set their feet in measured steps, their heads nod, they pose, jerkily and slowly. I watch them. If I’m lucky, my head gets as empty as the morning sky over those pompous palaces, and just as quiet. The jabbering of Berlin stops, there’s no more Tobias putting his hand under my chin and saying, “Who knows why it is I’m so excited about you,” no Line 23, with its ragged seats, squealing to its destination at Warschauer Straße, no cats in heat singing in the courtyard. Berlin-Friedrichshain sinks beneath the mute dancers’ soundless steps, like Venice in aqua alta, and for a moment I can close my eyes.

I grab myself an o.j. from the kitchen. Marcel sits in his corner by the window, dark blue Burlington argyle stretched across his narrow chest. He doesn’t look up. I check my email and see the subject line “Re: Nozze.” “Profound sorrow. La Spectre de la Rose is already spoken for. Called it all a ‘nice slip-up’ and fled in the gray of morning. Always the same. Not in a pizza mood.” I hack out a few lines of condolence, then start up Photoshop. I color backgrounds tomato-red and pistachio-green, insert olives and salami slices and let creamy mozzarella drip from crisply browned crust.

La Spectre de la Rose was a starring role for Nijinsky, the dancer, who could leap higher than anyone who has ever danced. Died a feeble geezer in a Swiss madhouse, shaky steps in his last film, an old man stumbling about in the silence of black-and-white, smiling and staring at his feet. “After his death it was determined that his ankles were built like a bird’s.” The boy looked up towards Marcel, his full upper lip like a soft pink mollusk clinging to the edge of the glass of sparkling wine we had bought him at intermission. Just turned eighteen, ahead of him were his diploma and a final year at the regional ballet academy. His thin neck grew up tall from a large, stiff collar with orange stripes; his back was candle-straight, his legs muscular. “Pretty tasty,” I said to Marcel in agreement, as we went back inside to our box. I took his hand, leaned against his warm shoulder, breathed in his aftershave: bitter cinnamon. The young dancer sat just opposite us, doubtless in company seating, and as the light slowly dimmed and Susanna stepped on stage with the horny count in tow, he rolled his eyes. Fadile and Jenny do that as well, often, and giggling as they do so. “Typical fag hag. Maybe it works sometimes, if Marcel’s had a few.” “I don’t think so, not with those tits. He’d notice them in a coma.”

The countess Almaviva’s soprano swung, deathly tragic, upwards to the golden festoons, then halted in sobs. Susanne stepped in consolingly, and together they wove their intrigue. I nestled up against Marcel, and bitter cinnamon washed over me. It lingers also between crumpled sheets in my bedroom in Berlin. Afternoon sunlight rolls out like a bright and indifferent carpet over the dusty floorboards, over the faded anarchist star and the crookedly grinning Mao; Tobias’s long hair falls over his shoulders and tickles my chest. I pull him towards me; he groans, then drives his fist into the pillow. “I’m not leaving Berlin, not just for the cash. And definitely not to go down there with the Spaetzl-slurping yuppies.” The finale roared up to the end, everybody’s happy. The lights went up. The boy waved to Marcel.

Marcel lives on Bosperwaldstraße. You have to climb a hundred and five stairs to stand panting at his door. Stäffele, they call them here. The boy looks around, wonders dumbstruck at the retro lamps, the bright red loveseat of butter-soft leather, the Warhol prints in steel frames. He smiles and pirouettes. Naturally he doesn’t suspect that Marcel’s bank statement shows a fat deficit, just like mine. We fling it all away. Marcel, because he’s finally living, as he always says, and I, so there’s nothing leftover for a ticket to Berlin Ostbahnhof.

I watched the two of them, while the soundtrack to Greenaway’s “Drowning by Numbers” poured out of the speakers. The young dancer smoked, accompanying this clearly unaccustomed behavior with sweeping gestures, probably taken from ads for Gauloises. Liberté Toujours. He caught Marcel’s eye, let the smoke flow out. At some point he had on only his straw hat, a nostalgic model with a striped silk band. First he looked down proudly at his elegantly curved prick, then at his image in an Art Deco mirror: “I just find myself gorgeous, that’s all.” I looked over to Marcel, who climbed out of his corduroy pants and slowly slung both arms around the boy’s hips; thick with hair, they lay like a fur sash over the white skin. Looking over the small shoulders, we grinned at one another. Grinned like two old, grizzled cats, between whose paws the little mouse makes his last leap. We are past-thirty, we drive leased sport cars, and tomorrow we will finish the Pizza Flyer together. The young, arrogant face disappeared from view, there was only Marcel, who let his head fall back, eyes closed in pleasure. I thought of Tobias and pushed his image before Marcel, pushed myself onto the others, leaned back into the red leather. Later, the CD had played through; you could hear the tired rushing of the HiFi on standby, and our breathing. I took my coat and crept outside.

Quattro Stagioni, Funghi e Parma, Gorgonzola e Riccola shine from the projector. Marcel presents our work snappily and convincingly–it’s clear he’s switched onto autopilot. I click on graphics at his indication and let lines of text flash up. Fadile nods, the little fish swing in rhythm.

After the presentation I set myself up on the kitchen balcony with my idiotic canary-yellow cellphone. Dial 030 and the well-known rest. It takes a long time for Tobias to pick up. “When are you coming?” He exhales, I hear his lighter flick, see the blue saucer full of butts, Marlboros pedantically smoked down to the end and snubbed out. The afternoon sun is sure to be beating down on the kitchen, lighting up the flecks of tomato sauce on the stove, the giant basil plant on the scratched-up wooden table. The bright bulbs of its flowers sway over the green, an errant bumblebee struggles in, rubs the aroma from the broad leaves. Tobias’s lighter is made of plastic, it reads: “Prator, Berlin. Restaurant with Garden. Since 1878.” The Kastanienallee, whitish dust on painted toenails. Brugmansia grow over the crumbling balconies, a rainbow flag twitches in the wind, someone plays saxophone. Tobias orders potato pancakes. Our hands are sweaty, still we don’t let go of one another. I repeat my question. Tobias sighs. “There’s an ICE tomorrow, 5:10 p.m., from Ostbahnhof.” I know that now he gets up, the receiver on his stubbly back, goes to the window and looks out at the courtyard, past the spectrum of colored containers for compost, glass, and plastic, along the bright yellow wall of the rear building, on upward to the roof line, where a blackbird sits, a silhouette carved out of the bright sky. It sings very loudly. I wedge the cellphone between my neck and right ear, search in my bag for cigarettes and matches. Tobias breathes and smokes. The blackbird sings in Berlin. Here, it’s quiet, everyone’s gone out to eat. I strike a match, hold it to the cigarette, inhale once, twice. Listen. At some point, Tobias hangs up.


Anna Katharina Hahn

Anna Katharina Hahn was born in 1970. She attended university in Hamburg and lived for a time in Berlin. Currently, she lives in Stuttgart in southern Germany. She has written two novels, Am Schwarzen Berg (2012) and Kürzere Tage (2009), and two story collections, Kavaliersdelikt (2004) and Sommerloch (2000). In 2012, she was awarded the Wolfgang-Koeppen-Literaturpreis and nominated for the Wilhelm-Raabe-Literatur Preis and the Preis der Leipziger Buchmesse.

Marshall Yarbrough

Marshall Yarbrough studied English and German at the University of Georgia and Otto-Friedrich University in Bamberg, Germany. His critical writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, Cinespect, and The American Book Review. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

"Hier ist es still" from the collection Kavaliersdelikt. Copyright (c) Suhrkamp, 2004. English translation copyright (c) Marshall Yarbrough, 2012.