Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Life During Wartime: Year-End in Berlin

New Year's Eve, or Sylvester in the local, comes but once a year, and as usual I really have no idea what I'm in for. Since I've come here, my most frequent observation has been of the traditions shared by Americans and Germans that differ not in scope but in tone. Buying groceries at a frosty open-aired hawk-market, getting a late Friday drink that eases lazily into Saturday morning—these things exist in America, but the essential character of the thing feels unmistakably, yet unvoiceably, foreign, as something I can nearly feel but can't hardly express. It's maddening that I've been here six months already and still can't put it quite into words, or never quite the right words.

Classes at the language school have been canceled more days than not this last week, as the year-end holidays approach, and my circadian rhythms have settled lazily into my new schedule of staying up for too much of the day to end and sleeping too far into the one to be begun. I excuse my own lateness for the few remaining lessons by telling myself that the shortened daylight hours must have a psychosomnological effect. This excuse is pretext in its entirety. But then the weather is cold, and a yule tree if we even had one would loom over no packages in shiny wrapping paper and cheerful ribbons, and the holiday spirit has seized me mostly in a fit of forgiving my own faults. I told the course instructor that I wouldn't be returning in January, using as an excuse possibility of work in Frankfurt, although I know by now that I'm not going to get it. I feel as though I'm being dishonest and even know enough by now that I could have begun, ich wünsche..., I wish I could come back next month, I wish I could be more certain about my plans at least, that I loved the class and never learned a language so quickly as I had here, but to pile on with sociable excuses and prayers would only compound the fraud. Ich wünsche für nichts.

Three months of these classes, and I still don't know whether that's the proper idiom. Like I said: Never quite in the right words.

The Roommate has plans to meet friends at a restaurant or club. I don't bother to pretend to be excited and ask lots of questions about it, and she doesn't bother to make up an excuse why she can't ask me along. She'd sent me an invitation to her Christmas party a few weeks earlier, which is I'm pretty sure her annual quota of Making An Effort. A few nights earlier I'd gotten told to drop by Marian's after midnight, once the fireworks have died down; the bartender was clear on coming by after midnight, and I got the impression that prior to that time the place was reserved for a private event. Everyone else whom I'd call a friend or even an acquaintance close enough for a party is out of town, many back in the States. Somehow this utter and entire lack of sociable options doesn't make me feel depressed or left out or even slightly constrained. I wonder if it's because I've always hated New Year's Eve, but there's really no way to tell.

It's been another sleep-late sort of day, and if my red wine hangover weren't enough to keep me indoors all day the wind outside is bitter enough to make up the difference. Fortunately, I have eggs and butter, rolls and mustard and cheese, and leftover stir fry and rice, so I don't need to go to the grocery before eating. Half a bottle of the dog that bit me is chilling on the balcony, too, so I don't need to leave even for that. I'm behind schedule all day, although since I don't really have anywhere to be or anything to do, I don't seem to notice it. Days like this it's easy to argue myself into rewatching Wire episodes and having a second microwaved cheese sandwich instead of going for a run and being prompt when stepping out to meet the night.

It's ten at night before I finally start running a shower, perhaps almost eleven when I've dressed in my first three layers. (Tshirt, collared shirt, turtleneck; the outer coat, scarf, and gloves would feel overdramatic before I actually leave the apartment. I've gotten a knit cap that comes down over my ears a bit, but from the cold I've taken to wearing the enormous DJ headphones, too, although I'm vaguely suspicious it's a bad idea when cycling through traffic.) The neck of the sweater gives off a comforting, unmistakable scent of winter, the subtle aroma that my mind tricks me into believing wool somehow gets when it's gotten wet from snowflakes instead of raindrops, faux-redolent with the imaginary whispers of cedar chips and coal smoke and pine needles; in my mind it smells the way the crunch of snow under boots sounds. I open the billfold before stuffing it into a pocket of thick-stitched black denim (ten euros), then look to the stashing place at the back of my sock drawer (nothing). I shall have to make it to the bank, it seems.

The Roommate's left long before I finally get around to it, so the apartment is impenetrably dark when I step out into the stairwell. If there's a moon, it's well hidden behind the clouds. Downstairs, the door to the back yard has blown shut, and I have to remove a glove to get my keys. I hoist myself onto the bike, which promptly slides under my weight and forces me into a halfways approximation of the splits. A week earlier a heavy snow had fallen on Berlin, the first of the year that managed more than a spare flurry, and for a weekend beneath freezing it seemed that there might be a white Christmas in the cards, but on Monday it warmed up again and the lovely drifts turned immediately to trickles of icy water and mounds of ugly slush. The snow fell even heavier the following weekend, though, and this time did not stop, nor did the temperature ever get back to zero. I looked at the weather report and thought I was looking at the wrong column of numbers, since the expected highs read minus four, minus seven, minus six. No, those were the highs; at night it fell to twelve or fifteen below many of the nights. And it kept snowing. By the fourth day it's piled up enough to cover every trace of green and gives the city a soft, pillowy feel everywhere except where regular foot or wheeled traffic has packed it down. When I turn onto the street, I'm nervous for the first time about traffic and manage to turn off my iPod without removing my heavy gloves.

I take the side streets, the smaller thoroughfares I expect to have fewer cars and pedestrians. It's a faulty strategy; there are no cars anywhere, or practically none, but Berliners have clustered on nearly every street in order to light off fireworks. For the first few blocks I imagine it's just a quirk of my own neighborhood, and not until the sixth huddle of pyromaniacs do I suspect that the entire city is like this tonight. There were fireworks perhaps most nights in the summertime, the final darkening of sundown in the west fought against by a defiant burst of fire on the eastern front, somewhere in Neukölln. At first I had probably thought them an officially sanctioned or organized display by the city itself, but by July it became apparent that they were mostly or all the work of wildcatters. Berlin is in this as in all social distractions a tolerant city. In America (I can't can't stop myself from making the comparison) such a display would require advance notice and a lengthy process of review, comment and appeal of an application to which no result was ever intended except to be bottled up bureaucratically until the elapse of the date of the requested permit. Here there wasn't even acknowledgment that it went on, no outward sign that a major municipal government might have some interest in making sure that its citizens are burned to death in a conflagration owing to negligent exuberance. Of course, Berlin's not been made of wood and paper for a century, so benign neglect is perfectly sensible. But so is New York City constructed of stone, concrete, and steel, yet anyone who's lived there knows the NYPD would drop you at Riker's even without a charge, simply because such a bare-faced offense necessarily strikes the orderly American mind as calling for--no: demanding an object lesson in the wages of stupidity.

That all, though, that nightly fireworks display over Neukölln, that was in the summertime. Then one saw fireworks explode only above the horizon of city buildings in the remote darkness. Now they're fired from all around. If not literally from every angle, they are erupting from street corners in so many directions that it makes as much as no difference. The first street past my grocery store—oh, charming neighborhood grocery store!—has become a free-fire zone, and immediately all my pleasant associations—fresh produce and warm dinner rolls being tallied by the women from the Kiez who never fail to respond "und auch Ihnen" to my mispronounced thanks—are rudely forced aside to make room for an imagined 'Nam flashback. I veer left to a smaller side street, hoping to find it comparatively emptier. Instead, I encounter a crowd of twenty-year-olds forming a battery of roman candles out of a snow bank. One of them drops a newly lit cannon—I'm convinced intentionally—and the first round whistles across the street and passes overhead, missing me by no more than a few yards. Grinning madly, he doesn't even wave or nod to signify that it was unintentional. I'm more unnerved than frightened, but I can't keep the image out of my head of a bottle rocket blazing in a perfect arc across the street and into my gaping mouth. I'm possessed by the sudden image of living out my days with tonsils scorched black and forever tasting of gunpowder, and I resolve to keep my mouth closed the rest of the way. This winds up being rather difficult when trying to pedal through five inches of slush, and I spend the rest of the trip breathing heavily through my nose to keep pumping my legs, carving narrow trails through street lanes covered with thick, wet, sticky snow.

I run out of narrow side streets and turn onto slightly broader thoroughfares, each lined on both sides with clusters of amateur arsonists. Groups of college students alternately handling roman candles and half-liter bottles of Tegernseer less-than-sternly face down Turkish families, the father instructing his pink-coated daughter how to aim a row of bottle rockets all at once while his wife barely tolerates his poor example. When I get to a neighborhood of taller buildings, say six stories or more of rough-hewn stone, with heavy imposing rooftops looming in the dim moonlight, the crowds have adopted a new game of aiming for an explosion over the tops of the buildings opposite. The fireworks do not explode above the buildings, but instead arc over and down behind them. I wonder what's behind those rooftops and how likely it is that none of them are made of wood or something else flammable.

Finally I reach Karl-Marxstrasse, the major road through Neukölln, and shit gets real. Crowds have assembled everywhere, and fire is leaping across the street in dozens of directions at any given time. Some arc their missiles over the opposing buildings, and some shoot theirs much lower. Still others seem to have no particular philosophy at all and simply point wherever it strikes them in the moment. The final hundred meters to the bank building is chaotic and senseless and bewildering and even though the air is cold enough that my glasses fog when I breathe out my nose the air itself is on fire.

I'm clumsy removing my scarf and gloves and retrieving my ATM card, and when I get out of the bank it's eleven fifty-eight. The street has grown so much more excited between five minutes before midnight and two minutes 'til that I expect some orgy of explosions when the clocks finally strike. But no clocks strike at all, or at least not here; instead the firefight merely continues. The crowd seems to have a sense of when midnight occurred and redouble their fireworks accordingly. I don't see anyone checking their cell phones or iPods, rather seemingly sensing the moment, perhaps from circadian rhythms or else from the unspoken wisdom of the herd. Either way, the night is crackling and bursting every other second; some of the larger groups have saved the best for last, or at least the biggest for last. I'm actually really impressed with some of them. Medium-rare terrified, too, of course, but impressed as well.

I wait on Karl-Marxstrasse perhaps twenty minutes after midnight before heading north again. The party shows no sign of slowing as I leave it. People see me peddling almost impotently as my tires slip in the snow, and they point and laugh, or else shout something I can't make out, or else shoot fireworks at me. Each time a missile cruises past my head I find I can't even tell if it was intentional or not. Neither answer would surprise me, I conclude, before catching myself and realizing that neither answer makes even the slightest bit of sense, or at least wouldn't in any context but this. Traffic has reappeared and it becomes slightly perilous to navigate in the narrower streets. I'm wearing my huge deejay headphones to serve as ear warmers, and before I make it out of Neukölln I have a minor catastrophe as the headphones slip down over my eyes; I try to return them to their place but start to lose control of the bicycle instead. Eventually I manage to get them back around my neck and suffer earlobes that quickly freeze red. With my ears finally uncovered, the city becomes a swirling river of sound; the cracks of exploding fireworks continue but now feel imminent, intense, almost sharp. There's something that could be singing off in the distance, or it could be shouting, or it could be the whistle of festive ballistics.

I approach Kotbusser Brücke certain the night can't get any more surreal. And perhaps it doesn't, not exactly, but I still have no idea what I'm in for. Along the Spree, more fireworks going off from both sides. The river is partly frozen, but not enough to stand on (as it will be in another week). The cannoneers on both sides ricochet their rockets along the frozen surface; skipping stones as painted by fire. When I get to the bridge, an enormous crowd has massed, clogging the sidewalks and eventually annexing one of the traffic lanes as well. Right as I arrive, a burning globe escapes into the air, going straight up. At first I can't make sense of what I'm seeing; a large paper lamp, or perhaps it's a kite of a wintry sort, has been released into the air, a fire burning on the inside heating the air enough to loft it farther and farther upwards, sending it listing breezily over the city skyline until I lose track of it, and it merely twinkles somewhere forever away, the most recent addition to a sky full of stars. Minutes later another kite swoops slowly over the river; this one is shaped like a goose and is even more beautiful than the last. I wonder whether this one is self-propelled somehow, like the paper lamp, or else merely gliding, when it flaps its wings and I realize that it's one of the real geese who live in the Spree. The crowd mostly abates their fireworks as the bird passes, terrified and uncomprehending, giving proper perspective to my own out-of-place nervousness.

A gaggle of Russians seem to have reserved Kirk Royale on the corner. From where I'm standing, I can't see much of their faces, but every glimpse suggests that they're all unbearably gorgeous. An earlobe like that couldn't possibly belong to an ordinary-looking woman. Such a minor arc of a chin in profile of course is attached to a face like a diamond. But she never turns and the fruits of my imagination is all I have. Over my shoulder I hear someone approaching, and as I turn to see a trim, muscular man in a well-tailored suit, I make out a few words in Russian. <<Mui khotim,>> he says into his phone, and as he passed farther I can't make out any more of what he's saying. It seems appropriate, his syntax amputated into barely articulated, intransitive desire. "We want." They want. Still talking on his cell phone, he crosses the street without looking for oncoming traffic and puts his other hand onto the small of a back of one of the gorgeous blondes. She smiles at him, and after they watch a little while later they return to the bar shivering. <<Ya khochu,>> I think. I want.

Kreuzberg used to be a working class neighborhood, or at least that's my understanding, but it became hip since the Wall came down and now is predominated by young people of means. It's also largely Turkish, as is Neukölln, and the Turkish Germans seem to regard the fireworks as a family event. This is not like Fourth of July in America, however, or not like any of them that I remember, with stern-faced patriarchs keeping a nervous eye on the preadolescents fumbling with sparklers. In the U.S., every family event retained its common, domestic theme, no matter what the event actually concerned. Among the Turkish families, however, the domesticity gets subsumed under a manic urge to blow shit up---an urge desperately shared by the members of the older generations who really ought to know better. The rest of the city addresses the holiday in typical, orderly German fashion; in Schöneberg, for instance, the law imposes no restrictions and the only limit one one's celebration is adult supervision. Here adult supervision is furiously egging the whole spectacle on. It's not the first time I've become sentimental about my neighborhood, but I have to say it out loud: I really, really love it here.

Both sides of Kotbusser Brücke have run out of fireworks and are becoming antsier. A snowball starts between those assembled on the two sides of the bridge. Taxis roll and slide slowly past and are spattered with snowballs. I don't know if they hit the car windows because they missed their targets, or because they hit them. Beyond the geese seem to have settled down as the fireworks have quieted, now swimming in the few unfrozen portions of the Spree. (The next week while running I will see one that seems to have lingered too long and became frozen-in.)

A Späti is open and I grab two more bottles of beer; on the way back down the block I see my friend the bartender. He gives me a hug and tells me to come inside, which I do. I spend the rest of the evening among friends, comfortably tipsy as befits New Year's Eve, and even get to chat with a pretty blonde friend of the bartender. (My embarrassingly bad German seems to pique her curiosity, like I'm a restoration project. It isn't until much later that this strikes me as an essentially German attitude to have.)

I don't really have a way of winding this up, so forgive me if I ramble. I've just read the Harry Potter books and have been thinking about children's fiction, fantasy stories like The Black Cauldron and The Hobbit and the like. I've never been entirely comfortable with that kind of children's book, as it's always seemed impossibly cruel to me in some way. You know a kid exposed to Hogwarts or Middle Earth or Prydain is going to compare his own stultifying reality to the fantastical alternative in his new best-friend-in-multiple-volumes. Real life isn't just going to be a letdown after that; it's going to be a minor-league existential crisis, and one at the age of nine or ten. When I was a teenager I thought this way, and then I grew up and I learned that becoming an adult means this impossible cruelty happens no matter what you read, that the beliefs of childhood are more or less all lovely dreams that, for your own good, are necessary to be punctured by the continued education of early adulthood. I can still remember what it is to believe in magic (this is of course a theme I've been thinking of recently), but such recollections come dressed in mournful tones, with the precedent knowledge that such belief is all childish delusion.

And yet tonight I saw a papier-mache flyer sent over the River Spree turn into a real living goose before my eyes, on a night when the skies above all the streets of the city sparkled with the light of one hundred-thousand shooting stars. All of this is perfectly predictable to my new neighbors, and also those people who live up north and shut in early and frankly consider this night something to be endured. And twice or more I had to remind myself to keep my mouth from falling open in wonderment. I had stopped gawking at open air markets and parties held in unattended city parks by the end of summer, but Berlin kept finding it in herself to amaze me in tiny new ways. Tonight was the newest, and by far least tiny of such ways. It was perhaps an exceptionally well-timed reminder, as funds draw low and job opportunities disappear and I wonder if this was all such a good idea after all, that what I've discovered to be the real reason for my coming here was one I didn't discover until after I'd come.

(Approximate route.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


On Sunday a friend suggested a day at the museum, prompting the recollection that the Bauhaus exhibit[link] had come highly recommended, spurring me to look it up online, all of which was precedent to my discovery that Sunday was, in fact, the last day the exhibit would be viewable. I already missed Bar 25, which closed in between IMs and whiny demurrals to the effect of "let's go next week," and I'd come close to repeating the error with this one, too. (I don't think I'm really getting the hang of this thing, whaddya call it, "being a grownup.") We arranged to meet at the front stairs (I'd never been there before but she assured me there's only one set of stairs, so there'd be no possibility of us waiting on the other at different locations) or, failing that, in the bookshop.

The conspiracy of a dozen little emergency meant I ran late, really to the point of inexcusably late. When I got there, there was indeed only one entrance visible, but I was hard pressed to call a staircase, instead (as you'd expect for what is, after all, the Bauhaus museum) a long winding ramp that seemed to approximate a mobius strip as much as a staircase. She was, natch, nowhere to be seen, so I entered and looked for the bookshop, hoping as I descended and got an impression of how vast the place actually was (and therefore how hard it'd be to find her if she'd already bought her ticket) that she had put up with my inexcusable tardiness and waited in the bookshop.

(She hadn't waited in the bookshop.)

Hoping against hope I checked the entrance again, then the bookshop again, then decided to take my chances that I'd find her on the inside. I asked the woman selling tickets if she'd perhaps seen a woman fitting the description of my friend.  

She looks at me like I'm putting her on.  No, she assured me; she hadn't seen anyone come in today.  I tried to get my surprise across in rudimentary German---I had been told this was such a great exhibition.  But then, I realized, looking around at the large, empty white walls that formed the entrance hall, perhaps this was one of those things that was quite cool for architecture buffs but dreary for everyone else.  I myself found the initial glimpses rather uninspiring; for a museum, there just was a bizarre lack of anything to look at.  I realized this might have played into the philosophy of functionality rather than ostentation that was really all I knew about the intellectual motives behind the architecture movement, but it just seemed a disappointingly restrained spectacle.  

After minutes of pursed-lipped confusion, the ticket-seller's face lit up with realization.  "Your friend; did she say she wanted to see the Bauhaus exhibit?"

As if there were a stupider question, I said to myself.  Yes, I told her, trying not to let on my irritation. That's why I came here. I asked, since I wasn't sure but had heard, whether it was really the last day the exhibit was open.

"This is the Bauhaus archives," she told me, speaking very slowly so I understood. "The special exhibit is in the Gropius building."  I stared blankly until she showed me on a map; I had come to the entirely wrong building, about 5 kilometers away by bicycle.  The special exhibit was in a much larger museum; the building I'd come to was the Bauhaus Archiv, more analogous to a library than a museum.  And today it was more analogous to an empty library, since nearly all of the interesting pieces had been removed in order to be displayed at the Gropius exhibition.  

I'm sure I looked very much like a man so mortified that courtesy demands a false show of reassurance, but it was evidently beyond her to disguise her amazement at my stupidity. I'm not blaming her, mind; it would have taken superhuman restraint, or at least natural acting talent on the level of a young Brando. Fortunately, the friend I was overdue to meet was evidently a special ed teacher in a former life, as she was able to say, in deliberately paced speech, that "You. Should. Not. Be. Embarrassed. That. Was. A. Mistake. Anyone. Could. Make."  Yes, I told myself, anyone could have made this mistake.  Except anyone who had bothered to find out where the exhibition was being held---a group that included perhaps a thousand people crowding into the museum on the exhibition's last day, in contrast to the utter desolation at the Archiv.  

Yeah. Not feeling too bright about this whole thing.   The exhibit was really, really fantastic, as expected, but I've really an inadequate background to summarize it.  One more of those things I'd somehow gone through life unbelievably ignorant of.  

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Rich List

I don't do politics here, but this is an interesting living-abroad crossover courtesy of Matt Yglesias.  I've gone from the 107,565th richest person in the world to 729,114,447th, and all I had to do was quit being a New York lawyer.

Wait... wow.  I'm suspicious of that first number, definitely.  

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Down and Out in DC and Berlin

I've never read that Orwell book, actually, but the title's been imitated so many times before that I may as well rip it off—er, show it homage yet one more time.

So an account of how I wound up here may deserve to be told, at overlong last, because although Miss XYZ may think it's a cliché, I find my own story endlessly fascinating. No, wait, unbearably depressing, I mean.

Berlin's the second world capital I chose to make home. I left New York a year before my arrival here. Well, a little bit less, between that great city and this one, I was bound to a one-year lease in a cut-rate backwater of a shithole named Washington, DC. The reason I moved there was to follow a woman. I quit my job in New York, found an apartment, looked for work in DC to no avail, and resigned myself to the situation. I got furniture and an upright vacuum and a ton of new kitchen appliances, learned some new recipes and started writing the novel, volunteered for last five weeks of the Obama campaign and applied for a job in the administration (along with 300,000 of my new best friends). But such are the things one does for love, I suppose. Anyway, love (for which such things one does) lasted a shorter time than the lease. And although I didn't have a job in the administration, I did get great tickets to Inauguration, and my newly far-too-spacious apartment was a convenient spot for campaign friends to crash, and we spent the extended weekend in the house parties of A-list political bloggers, reunions from Kerry '04 staffers, and of course the various inaugural balls. Somewhere along this line, I mentioned to one of the perhaps thousand people I met or was reintroduced to that I'd been thinking of moving abroad. Not for any particular reason, only that I hadn't done it when I was younger, I couldn't find a job here and had some money saved up, and I wasn't tied to New York anymore and once the lease ran out in May wouldn't be tied to here, either. [ed.n.: I almost said "tied hither," just there. Just in case any of you feels the urge to lodge complaints about the style and/or length of these posts, you know... could be worse. – x.p.m]

"Berlin," said the first, a woman with whom I'd actually gone to college, who responded without a moment's hesitation or indeed even letting me finish my sentence. "Go to Berlin. It's cheap, and you can make art." I don't believe I'd told her about the barely-started novel, but somehow it seemed more like she could sense something about me than that she'd had a lucky guess. I asked others, especially those who had lived in Europe, and the agreement was eerily unanimous; if I had loved New York, particularly the LES, I would love Berlin as much or more. And that was that, it seemed.

Berlin has a seemingly active Craigslist page, and as my German had faded quite a bit since high school to the point where job postings in the vernacular were positively impenetrable, I started looking for jobs there. Immediately I came away nervous, even distressed. Each of the offerings was directed to any local handyman willing to move furniture in his own van, or else for gigs writing and testing video game software. The video game postings were particularly curious, but I came to understand (or at least suppose; I never was able to confirm this) that Berlin's young-persons reputation had come alongside a burgeoning industry in young-persons' technology. I'd given up on video games shortly after the second or third Mario Bros. Edition and hadn't played so much as a single game of World of Warcraft, Myst, Halo, Portal, or any of the approximately twenty groundbreaking-slash-revolutionary-slash-inaugurating-a-new-era-of-gaming products that had been released between now and when I'd hung up my NES paddles. Either Craigslist presented an unrepresentative selection of jobs (not an unreasonable conclusion, given the likely user base), or I was going to be in trouble finding work.

My sister had lived here before, in another German city when she took a year away from college. She came, found an apartment, learned the language, got a job, all without trying or at least without seeming to. I'd asked her for advice on how to line up a gig before I got here, explaining my troubles with the Craigslist page, and she blew off the question. Not rudely, mind, but with the air that everyone adopts when asked questions about the secrets of special experience that can't be explained but only learned. (Pregnant women get the same tone. And Vietnam veterans, I suppose. Probably this should have been my first clue.) "Just go," she said. "You'll meet people, and they'll clue you into jobs. If you're American, you find work." Relieved, I decided to follow her advice. I got a particularly cheap ticket, limited my Craigslist searches to posters looking for roommates, and learned to stop worrying and love the potentially disastrous uncertainty of it all.

Much of the rest I've already told you. I felt absolutely no urge to find work when I arrived; summertime's too lovely in Berlin to feel much angst about anything. I had been astonished to find how cheap everything was here, and work would have gotten in the way of Freiluftfeiern and long afternoons biking through Trip't-over Park. I had enough money saved up not to worry for some time, so for some time, I didn't worry.

After summer came to its (temporarily abated) end, I started looking for work. I had met a lot of ex-pats through The Roommate, but they all worked for American companies doing internet-based work, and their companies didn't seem to have a lot of openings for more of the same. Miss XYZ and The Roommate's other friends had all assured me, though, that even though they couldn't recommend me specific places, that finding work in Berlin was nothing to get worked up over. "If you're American," they all said, echoing my sister's earlier advice, "there's work." In the meantime, I'd need to meet more Germans in order to find local offerings, so I determined that my first obstacle was the lack of German suitable to meeting a lot of Berliners, to say nothing of what I'd need to get by in a Berlin workplace.

The Roommate had recommended the language school where she'd studied, which would also support a student visa. You already know die Sprachschule from some of my earlier posts. They offer sections in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings; I signed up for the afternoon session, hoping soon to make a switch to the evening session once I found a daytime job. It's odd; I hadn't earned a paycheck for more than a year at this point, and while I enjoyed the time off, I was starting to miss the feeling of leaving the office after a productive day, the sort of vaguely tired warmth that settles into a man's shoulders when he locks a door behind him having finished something that was challenging but is now done, and which mattered. Without getting into it, the corporate law job yielded few such moments, but I wasn't totally unfamiliar with the feeling.

As I've said, a summer in Berlin makes it impossible to worry; work will come, friends are everywhere, and anyway it's 8:30 and the sun hasn't fallen yet. Fall, especially as it turns to winter, brings different feelings. The air was brisk, even chilly some days, and grew positively inhospitable on the particularly cold nights, which happened to be increasing in frequency. Sundown no longer came at nine, and then not even at eight, and it was hard not to observe the shortening days as some sort of comment on the narrowing window of sunshine on my darkening prospects.

Language courses had been fruitful. The classes were small-ish, at least, and I got plenty of opportunities to respond in spoken German that was getting rather capable; if I was clearly a foreigner who hadn't mastered all the complexities of the grammar and still had a limited vocabulary, I at least came off as someone capable of carrying on a conversation. Reading-wise, I'd been improving at least to the point where I could get through German language job-search sites with the aid of a dictionary (it's not necessarily as easy as it sounds). I had been checking job sites more frequently, once a day at least and often more, trying to find different googleable combinations of arbeit, American, rechtsanwalt, academic editing, schriftsteller, u.s.w.

The Roommate actually brought it up, asking one day how long I was planning on staying. She'd asked me before, when we met for the first time, because she didn't want to have to post the apartment again after only a few months. I understood her reasons immediately, but it still put me on the edge of self-doubt. The second time she brought it up, I had found a lead. I'd put my name in with a European recruiter who had just sent me a short email; an American company needed lawyers in Frankfurt to perform corporate due diligence on an acquisition target, which happened to be the only marketable skill I'd acquired in four years at the firm and also proved to be remarkably remunerative. Doing the math in my head, even after I paid for a two month sublet and my own meals, the six weeks of the gig would pay for six months of continued unemployment; by that time, I would have finished the German course and perhaps another hundred pages of the novel and in any event would have had six more months of chances to find an office job somewhere in Berlin. Plus, it would be summertime again; you all know my feelings on that subject. There was no guarantee I would get it, of course, but how many American lawyers could there be in Germany looking to relocate for six weeks in the dead of winter? One thing that did bother me was that the recruiter hadn't specified the level of German I needed, but since he asked in English and the target was an international concern, I supposed it was almost certain that it would involve enough English-language documents to support my hire, at least.

Miss XYZ was excited for me, too. I had gotten the feeling she'd started to think of me as a fix-up project, her bewildered and clueless countryman, arrived in the city she'd called home for years and which she knew like the back of one's hand. As funds drew ever-lower, I'd taken to spending more evenings sharing a couple bottles of wine at her place, a two-bedroom apartment that she shared with a Spanish twenty-something, who programmed computer games, and was far more impressively located and decorated than the one I shared with The Roommate. "Pat," she had sighed more than once, in the same tone as my sister had brushed off my question nearly a year earlier, "it's easy to find a job in Berlin." Odd, I found it, that having spent six months here, I still hadn't made it inside the club of expatriate Americans, that I still invited and deserved the kid-glove treatment of a novice.

But now I had the job opening to look forward to. It meant not renewing my class at the Sprachschule, since the job would start in January, and the current term ran out in December. "Ich hab vielleicht eine Arbeit gefunden," I explained to my teacher on the last day of the term, whose disappointed look I couldn't tell was in response to my poor speech or else because she genuinely wanted to see me back. It wasn't the whole truth, but I didn't want to say the rest; either I wouldn't be back because I would be working in Frankfurt, or I wouldn't be back because I couldn't afford to stay. Classes these days still ended before the sun had sunk beneath the horizon, but only just, and it was properly night by the time I made it home on my bicycle.

Holidays had meant an early end to classes for the month. The recruiter had put me off a few times already; the client wasn't sure about the start date and hadn't committed to the size of the team, so he was being dangled somewhat, but he gave me the phone number of his associate, with a Washington, DC, area code, whom I was to call the following week to see if new information was available. Before I called, I wrote a short list of points to discuss; I knew it wasn't likely she had any confirmation on when the job would be staffed, but I wanted to know if she expected that to become known soon. Also, I still hadn't found out whether German fluency would be required; I'd gotten better, a lot, in my short time of regular study, but no one would call me an expert, by any means.

I caught her when it seemed she had her hands well full with a pair of stay-at-home children, and the conversation was distracted for the first ten minutes. (This was my dime, and long-distance, but I kept my frustration to myself.) She directed the conversation most of the time, leaving me few chances to ask my questions, but out of deference to someone whose opinion of me was directly related to my economic situation, I followed along patiently. When it finally came up, the question of language skills was out of her question. I told her I wasn't fluent yet, but that I'd been studying and getting swiftly better, and I could probably get along in most office situations, but that I was concerned about reading documents in technical legal language.

"So, what you're saying is..." she said, unsure of the words that wouldn't sound too insulting but still elicit the necessary information.

"I'm not fluent," I repeated. "If I have to be fluent to do this job..." I wanted to leave off, as she had, but decided it would be cowardly. "In that case," I said, "I can't."

"Well," she said, pausing for breath, "do you mind if we speak German, so I can tell for myself?"

What followed was … well, humiliating might be the word. For three months, five days a week, I'd been able to follow along in spoken conversation with classmates and instructor, to the point where I'd thought of myself as among the top two or three students in the class, and here I was, incapable of speaking. She hardly conducted a thorough interrogation, going on for whole paragraphs auf Deutsch, explaining the job and her expectations of my language abilities, demanding nothing more from me than the occasional "Ja" to continue, and only occasionally pausing to ask me questions. When she did, I found myself unable to answer in German, horrified that although I'd understood everything she had said, I mysteriously was without any ability to respond in kind. I tried to remember whatever mental state I'd taken up in my German class and found nothing but trace ancient memories of terrifying childhood dreams of wanting to flee some unseen danger yet being frozen in place, as if trying to swim through amber.

"I'm sorry," I finally stammered. "I don't think our connection is that good, and I'm having a hard time understanding you." I cursed myself; I know the words to say that. Es tut mir leid, ich glaube dass unsere Verbindung vielleicht ein bisschen schwach ist. Konnen Sie sich langsamer wiederholen?

"The connection isn't so..." she sighed. "Also, ich glaub', dass du sollst noch etwas dein Deutsch verbessern—"

"Ja ja, ich auch," I said. It was the last word I remember saying; she went on in German, explaining that I should keep studying German, and perhaps the job would involve enough English-language documents that they could carve out that part of the job for me. I don't remember the last thing she said, or what I did, only that when I hung up the phone my head was buzzing and I couldn't think straight. What it meant for whether I could afford to stay, I didn't know and couldn't work out; I couldn't even think of how much money I had left in my bank account, and doing the math was for the moment something well beyond me. I set out for a short walk and midway through decided to make it a long one; on the way back I stopped at the grocery store for a handful of fresh rolls and some vegetables and cheese, plus a new pot of mustard. For reasons beyond explaining, even to myself, times like this I just want a sandwich.

When I got home, Miss XYZ had sent me an email asking if I wanted to come over that night. She suggested I bring a bottle of wine to share with her and the self-styled Oracle, a friend of hers I'd known precisely as long as I'd known XYZ herself (they arrived together at Volkerball, which is where we had met). The Oracle had run into problems at work and just had been let go. She'd been looking for work, but even with her comparatively broad network, she had found no success in her own job search. "It's just impossible to find work in Berlin," XYZ said when The Oracle was away in another room, putting down her wine glass in order to retrieve a smoldering cigarette from an ashtray as we sat in her imposing apartment's living room. "No one can find a job, these days." I said nothing, only nodded, and reached across the table to pour myself another glass. I don't remember how that night ended. Not well, I don't think.

Monday, September 13, 2010

It appears I wasn't nearly as original as I thought I was

Well, I didn't really ever think I was being original, but still.

Have no fear that this is an update in lieu of a real post; I have a larger post coming up hopefully in the next 24 hours.  The last one was the massive obstruction to all that comes after, so if I'm at all diligent, you should expect a new post once a week, maybe even more, while I catch up to present events.  Thanks for your patience, folks.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The end of summer

I've been promising this one for a while. Even in middle of this overdue spring-clean, this particular post has been sitting on the shelf for too long. I've tried to tell it in other places, to varying degrees of success; if I get it right this time, you'll understand my reluctance to tell it until now.

I was back in the States for three weeks in late summer, visiting friends and family in three states, going to a wedding, and playing guide on a friend's first trip to Burning Man. I came back newly shaved, in long shorts and sandals and wearing a fading sunburn, to a particularly bitter Berlin night; between August and September the seasons had lost no time in turning. When I got home I changed to jeans and a light sweater and dug a heavy jacket out from a storage box to hang on a hook by the door.

So I was excited to get one last weekend of summer when I accepted the invitation of, oh for lack of a better let's call them Gin & Tonic, a married couple and friends of mine from years back, formerly lawyers as well, who made their leisurely and elegant departure for Barcelona about the time I fled, ragged-edged, to Berlin. I'd been at their wedding, which took place upon a particularly lovely coast in Brazil during a February when New York (so I read barefoot on my work-issued Blackberry) was being paralyzed by ice storms, and they've always been good for a timely escape to the beach.

Airfare within the E.U. is astoundingly cheap, due to new competition from discount upstarts like Easy Jet and Ryan Air, and refreshingly easy, so long as one stays within the Shengen countries that have reciprocal recognition of each other's visa procedures. We landed at Barcelona International at perhaps eleven, and by eleven-ten I was off the plane, across the tarmac, and looking pitiously from baggage claim at the travelers from America and a dozen other countries still huddled behind great glass walls and waiting for the clerk at passport control.

I think I've mentioned this before, but it continues to astound me how much better the Europeans are at the ordinary daily actions that make up living. I ran out of my German toothpaste in America and had to spend the next week brushing with one of the major brands—of course it was flavored like mint candy; of course it was extra-whitening. You can't buy toothpaste that tastes like toothpaste, or makes no claim to give you a gleamingly, blindingly white smile. (I know, because I have sensitive teeth that are made more sensitive by whitening toothpaste; the ingredient that makes it whitening is an abrasive, often silica, and the mechanism by which is works is to strip off a thin layer of enamel.) You can't buy hand soap that isn't anti-bacterial and doesn't thereby contribute to the growth of antibiotic-resistent bacteria strains. You can't buy a human sized portion of food or get anywhere without a car or buy a bottle of beer and sit down outside to watch the sun set. The magnificently lubricated process from seat 32D to the full-faith-and-credit of the airport concourse struck me, of course, but I'd become rather adroit at simply filing such observations in the single file labeled "things we keep doing wrong for no reason."

I had waited at the airport for the other couch surfer's plane to land, scheduled to be perhaps a half hour after mine. We have a fair bit of history, I and—let's call him Diz for the moment. Now there are, as it turns out, two terminals in Barcelona's airport, so I spent a long time wondering where the heck his plane was, anyway, while he grew increasingly frustrated with why I was not where I repeatedly had told him I would be. Well, I say "increasingly frustrated," but there's a limit to how sharp an edge one's temper can take when it's seventy-seven Fahrenheit and breezy in Barcelona. When I finally caught up to Diz, he looked immaculate, in pressed shirt and sunglasses, and betrayed little if any irritation at the situation, despite having been directed to wait for me for almost an hour in a smoke-free zone.

As I mentioned, we have a fair bit of history, Diz and I. I mostly know him through the Gin half of G&T, who introduced us years back. We spent a couple of weeks splitting hotel rooms when we went to G&T's wedding in Brazil, and spent a fair bit of time comparing our respective lamentations about the rest of our traveling party. It turns out Diz shares my mellow sourness, which probably explained how well we got along together more than anything except, of course, the fact that we were the only two smokers on the trip. I've given up the cigarettes since then, but not the generally pissy disposition, and I was looking forward to seeing Diz probably as much as I was to seeing Gin & Tonic. Not half as much as I was looking forward to the beach and the last hot gust of summer, but still.

On the first night we headed to the football stadium. Gin had got four tickets to Barca-Madrid, which at the time of purchase was supposed to be a crucial match for both clubs, but which quickly turned into a laugher in the home team's benefit. Messi single-handedly dribbled through walls of defenders to punch in one of the later goals, and even to my untutored eye, it was obvious why Gin called him the game's best active player; it was a marvel to watch. Sloppy defense predominated on both sides of the field, and the home team won 5-3.

The trip out of the stadium involves a long trek that winds, multi-tiered, until it deposits the swimming crowd out onto the street and a wait for a taxi. We head home first, where Gin hands us the spare key and gives an introductory lecture on procedures for the weekend. Diz and I step outside and I'm sure look absolutely bewildered as our eyes race up and down through the brief visible stretches of the neighborhood's narrow streets scanning for any sign or symbol of a bar.

G&T have a much nicer place than is my place in Berlin. Which is to say, it makes me realize at once what a shithole I've managed my way into, tidily ordered and swept and mopped once a week though it may be. The airy room, not so much hemmed as canopied by the high, arching ceilings, don't shout out loud the proper luxury they've managed to achieve but rather mention it off-hand, casually misstepping with the sort of clumsiness that only sophistication can manage as to remind the visitor of his left-handed rubeishness. It seems to say, "Oh, but surely your place is just as nice, right? In its own way, I mean." The balcony framed by a pair of enormous French doors forms the vortex of a perfectly formed home that feels easily taken for granted in the Old World and naturally would command a year of Ivy League tuition to rent in the New one. And they're paying more for it than I am for mine, significantly, but I can't spend minutes there without getting the feeling that they know something about how to do this expat thing better than I do, that they have realized something that's still escaped me. The feeling lasts a moment, until I realize that of course they know how to do this thing better than I do. It's not just Tonic's international background or that Gin lived in Europe for years before I met him in New York. It's just another drumbeat of a slow, steady song reminding me that I haven't got a clue what I'm doing here.

Enormous though it is, every place gets cramped when its occupancy is doubled by even nominally welcome houseguests. Diz is to sleep in the guest room; I sleep on the couch. I offered to take the couch as an act of cheap charity to Diz, but also out of great indifference, as I tend not to mind sleeping on couches, and might even say I enjoy them as well as a guest-bed. Still, it likely comes to the greater discomfort of our hosts, who as a matter of habit and routine rise earlier than I do, even slumbering as I am on a couch in a brilliantly sunny room with a single sheet and pillow. Each morning I wake, blurry eyed and embarrassed, to find that breakfast has begun, that all the other occupants have risen at the customary hour for grownups, that only what appears to be a teenager or college student remains asleep on the extralong sofa in the living room. There is only one bathroom, and it connects directly to G&T's bedroom, so showers are accomplished in shifts, a great curtain shifting either to separate the master bedroom from the bath when its our turn, or else the two rooms from the rest of the apartment when it's theirs. Those nights we don't head out to a restaurant, dinners are prepared by T. The kitchen is perhaps the only part of the apartment that feels a bit cramped when more people than she is in it. I wonder if this is not an oversight but merely an expression of the traditional division of household labor that's evidently ingrained itself even into the architecture here.

Days are predictably spent absorbing ultraviolet rays. G&T live a few blocks behind the back of the Gaudi museum, the front of which looks out directly onto the ocean, but the trip to the beach somehow involves travel that is both lengthy and complicated. Their neighborhood is made of tall buildings built unbelievably close and divided by incomprehensibly tortuous streets. Automobile traffic presents no issue, as impossible in the streets, narrower at places than even one of those new microsized Smartcars. Not a single straight street is to be found in the entire district, each instead veering left and then right and occasionally horseshoeing around. The streets are irregularly marked by signs affixed directly on the sides of buildings approximately ten feet up, and it takes me til the end of the second day before I master the order of turns to complete even the relatively short trip to their building when unaccompanied. The buildings are high enough to block out the midday sun and, except for the occasional plaza or unusually wide intersection of three streets at cross-angles, feel like they're not merely towering over one but bending overhead, as if bending over the street below but arrested just as the instant of collapse. Nevertheless, the tight passages are somehow comforting rather than claustrophobic, almost as though the endless surfaces of brick and steel felt to the weary mind like soft blankets in the warm, sea-salty air. If I were a psychotherapist, or had one, I might linger over the possible association with the womb. As things are, I smear more sunscreen on my neck and ears and ask how far we have yet to go.

Once we finally have wound our way out of the dark labyrinth, we have to cross the space in front of the museum before searching for a possible crossing to the zippy oceanside boulevard. The museum's enormous round plaza feels like a grand yet unraised archway, flushing us out from what now seems near-nighttime into glorious sun. From there, we proceed down a long boardwalk before finally reaching the beach itself. The boardwalk's an impressive bit of construction in its own right; a great sculpture that reminds me of Calder but which is almost certainly something inspired instead by Miro stands roughly at the meridian of the Gaudi, and we pass on the left side toward the beach. Off in the near distance to the right is a row of immediately new, almost insistent construction projects, capped at its near end by an enormous sail-shaped hotel, a precise-enough replica of the more famous building in Dubai. The walk toward the beach ambles artfully around the last block of storefronts and apartments, pushing back the last fringe of the city so gently that one doesn't realize he's been swept, arm across shoulder, past a metaphorical velvet rope and escorted out of all memory of urban civilization. To repeat myself somewhat, were I a psychotherapist I might perhaps wonder at the metaphor of being birthed from tight, stony encapsulation into the blinding wilderness of white sand and blue skies. But the way it actually happened was I immediately felt like I was getting a sunburn and reached for the rubber tube of Neutrogena.

Ahh, the beach, the beach. The beach ran forever in at least one direction, the other appearing closed off by the new windsail building. Clothing is optional here, both tops and bottoms, for either gender, and I'm reminded again this is never really the attraction you hope for. A dozen or more topless women are in sight more or less at every moment, but it seems I've matured since being thirteen in this particular way, if (as is likely) in no ways besides: being thirty, it takes more than a woman being topless to excite me. Not much more, I'll grant; being topless and more attractive than the average Congressman, for instance, or being topless and not simultaneously attached at the hip to a svelte, blond Dutch boyfriend, would probably do it. Yet the application of even these forgiving filters quickly reduces the population of half-naked women to a null set. I note, silently and with some irony, that if the thirteen-year-old who eventually would grow to be me had been less obsessed with the possibility of someday seeing a topless woman he might never have bothered to learn the meaning of "null set." Or more obsessed, maybe, is what I'm trying to---I don't know, and while I'm at the beach I can't be bothered to think that hard about such things.

Mere existence on the beach is almost narcotic; although I can recognize perhaps seven distinct languages being spoken, everyone falls into a wordless, spontaneous order, guided by nothing except possibly some hidden code in the rhythm of the waves. Despite the blinding sunlight and (comparative) absence of needles, the scene would remind one of an opium den; Coleridge could have finished "Kublai Khan" uninterrupted, here. Without even being instructed, I adopt the local accustom of assuming every red mammoth to be a German on holiday. The crowd is international and universally adopts a posture of lethargic enthusiasm. A tall, lanky man whom G eventually recognizes from one of his language classes stomps down the beach wearing a broad grin and what looks like a thin carpet rolled up roughly.

The man nears and what seemed like a carpet turns out to be a construction paper recreation of a marijuana cigarette, far, far larger than life size. He's approaching group after group of sunbathers to hand them a sheet of paper that leads "Big Spliff" and describes the screenplay the tall man has authored and the production of which he is trying to finance by soliciting wary beachgoers. The plot is absurd, transparently born of the Big Spliff Guy's love affair with what he conceives to be his own deep, abiding intelligence and preternatural wisdom. The protagonist is a tall man toting a large spliff, a latter-day messiah who bestrides the beach as a colossal waste of time, bothering people who just came to sit in the sun. Well, you write what you know, I suppose. The style is self-indulgent and frankly amateurish, although clearly the product of someone who fancies himself a writer of the first rate. The flyer promises knotty philosophical problems and delivers about what you'd expect from a guy toting a big spliff, deliberate musings on whether what I think of as the color blue really looks the same as the color blue to you, man. One cannot fault the author's energy and enthusiasm for his subject matter. The picture scrawled of Barcelona looks like an awful lot of fun, even as it doesn't look an awful lot like the Barcelona I've seen so far. "Condoms and samosas offer testimony to the fact that the last night was not uneventful." I object to the gratuitous litotes, although one might well wonder that I don't cheer for it. The samosas line confuses me, so I ask G&T about it.

"Oh," says G, "vendors sell them at night. It's just like street food, for after a night of drinking." Every town's got its own specialty, I think; pizza in New York, felafels in Berlin, hot dogs somewhere else, probably.

"Oh," I say, as my mind fails to turn. After a beat I realize it hasn't resolved my confusion at all. "Wait—but then why would the samosas be near the condom wrappers? First, why are the condom wrappers on the ground at all; are people having sex on the beach? Not that I'm thinking of coming back later just to watch, mind."

"Of course not."

"But even if they are, what the hell is supposed to be the association? Are people supposed to be fucking on the sand, and immediately rolling off to grab a snack? 'Baby you were wonderful. And can I interest you in a samosa?'" G&T laugh, and Diz pulls another drag from his cigarette, although none of us move from our

Nights Diz and I head out to get impossibly lost in the city. Miss XYZ knows from the city and has directed me to try out a bar named for a particularly famous alcoholic-in-recovery. It's the sort of sourly dark joke for which we share an appreciation. That's perhaps one of the reasons she still keeps me as a friend; god knows it's a mystery to me, sometimes. I forget to look up its directions, though, so we don't make it to the Dryout Tavern until perhaps the third night. The first night, after the football match, Diz and I opt to stick close to home. This is out of an abundance of caution rather than a dose of laziness, as neither of us has any confidence of our ability to find our way back from anyplace not with direct line-of-sight to the front door. Directly across the street is a place just closing up; next door is a place that should have by now, to judge from the sparse clientele. We both pretend we're just grateful for the nightcap and try not to look too obviously forlorn at the absence of any women. The next night we head out farther, and the next farther still. The second night, G takes us to an absinthe bar, which underwhelms on every metric except the strength of the booze; it's overlit and almost looks like an American country bar, rather than the bohemian den of iniquity one would expect the Green Fairy to inhabit.

We don't realize it at the time but Barcelona's at the height of its real estate and tourism bubbles, and within the Euro Zone prices are comparably quite high. Bars charge more for beer than in Berlin by a fair margin, and more than I remember them costing in New York, even. Each night we eventually give up and head back to streets and the beach, where sidewalk vendors sell fifty-cent cans of Estella for a euro, which is still a pretty good deal. The dealers can't possibly make enough to afford Barcelona at those rates, I wonder, so it's an "aha" moment the first time (not the last) when I hand over a five for the beer and accept my change along with a whispered invitation to purchase one of their other fine wares, for obvious reasons not one they are advertising to the general public. I thank you for your kindness, Senor, but I have no need for hashish at the moment, I say in perfect Catalan. (Or else I just shake my head no.)

Diz occasionally drops out of the bar we're visiting in order to grab a cigarette. I have quit; he has not. Possibly that was one of the things that made us so tight, in the old days, was that I could always count on Diz if I needed a smoke buddy, and I never of course said no, myself. At G&T's wedding, the two of us bought short piles of cigarette packs and lighters, since we knew between the two of us we'd eventually get through them. In Brazil the packages are required to include a photograph of some horrifying illness or other that you get from smoking in addition to the textual warning, which was amusing to those of use who couldn't read Portuguese. The tracheotomy was blatant, and the dissected human heart, oozing plaque, even more so, but some of the others were ciphers, causing a table full of drunk Americans to scratch their heads as they lit up. One picture showed a dustbin of dead rodents and insects, which was never satisfactorily resolved but which we eventually decided probably meant that the same chemicals as are in pesticides are in cigarettes. Another showed a cigarette that was let smolder until the entire length was but ash and drooped over almost like a candy cane; I'm still rather proud that I was the one to figure that this was a warning that cigarettes cause impotence. One of our more health-conscious traveling companions, exasperated one night, asked us how the hell we could look at the picture of someone's lungs being removed and want to smoke. Either Diz or I responded candidly, "I don't know. It's like I see the picture, and I realize that the cigarettes are bad for you, and I wonder if I'm going to have my lung taken out, and I get stressed, and when I get stressed... I kind of need a cigarette." Some of the others may have laughed, but we weren't joking.

Eventually I quit by using a pill that blocks all the receptors in your brain, so that smoking a cigarette cannot reinforce the chemical side of the addiction. It also means that the cigarette no longer has any effect on the smoker, doesn't relieve the craving for nicotine. Normally, the relationship between a smoker and his cigarette is a really intimate thing; the addiction creates a void in the smoker's psyche that the cigarette is able to fill precisely, and uniquely—there's never anything else like it. That's the reason we weren't joking when we said the anti-tobacco ads made us need a cigarette, because any stress a smoker feels is never really relieved as perfectly, as neatly, as by a cigarette. In the same way, nothing else serves as a self-congratulation so well as a cigarette, nothing else captures the subtle poignance of a high moment. Smoking understands a smoker like no lover or friend he'll ever have, knows exactly what he needs and wants at any of a thousand moments. Probably nothing else humankind has ever touched has ever fit so perfectly into a 4pm escape from the office and also into the ten minutes right after sex. And like he'll do for no lover or friend, the smoker forgives smoking's faults, even becoming blind to them. Nonsmokers complain about the smell, which makes no sense to him, because the smoke doesn't smell like burning weeds; in the mouth of a smoker, a cigarette develops this sort of tinny savor, sour and pleasant all at once. It's the simplest, most complete relationship there can be: A smoker feels cravings, has a cigarette, no longer feels cravings. On the pill, however, you feel cravings, you smoke the cigarette, and the cravings are still there. Actually, it's a bit weirder, because cigarettes no longer taste good; they smell to the smoker like they do to a non-smoker. But the cycle of addiction is broken, so after a few weeks the physical addiction is gone, which isn't much comfort, because you realize that what you thought was a physical addiction was really, profoundly psychological, and there's no pill you can take for that. Eighteen months of breathing clean, I can state with certainty that I'm under no chemical temptation to light up. But still I sometimes remember how damn cool it felt to light a cigarette, and sometimes miss the gesture of it. The feeling of it—the high, the mellowing, the relief—that's all gone, but its pale reflection remains, like the echo in one's memory of a song all but forgotten. The image of myself as a smoker, nickel-plated lighter and matching cigarette case, dressed sharply and thinner than I am, drawing coolly, even contemptuously on the filter tip... I do sometimes miss that romantic vision. Sometimes.

I certainly don't miss being addicted, or the physical limitations imposed by smoking, which I'm only now beginning to realize, in full. I've been off the things for eighteen months, now, and for the first time since I was twenty-three I can run farther, faster, than I could a year ago; for the first time as an adult I feel better, healthier, than I used to. In Berlin I run eight miles along the Kanal and my time on the mile sometimes dips below eight minutes (I know, but it's a big deal for me). While in Barcelona, I run along the beach at sundown, following a four-mile stretch of boardwalk and matching the tempo of my trance-and-progressive iPod playlist, and when I reach the end of the beach I don't feel half-done yet, but I'm reluctant to run on the streets and turn back. All I could say about it is nothing new to people who run, and entirely inexpressible to those who don't, but the runner's high is a cliché for a reason. Sixty minutes on the track makes you feel brand new. Your body feels realer than it ever has, like you've only just learned how to make yourself move; skin hot under a layer of sweat feels tight, elastic, and it stretches over muscles that squeeze like there's nothing you can't lift or jump over. Your heart feels strong enough to power a car engine and your lungs feel like they could stretch to the size of a room, and even if you've got a bum knee, it hurts in a way that somehow makes pain feel like pleasure. You're delirious and clear-headed and feel like you could do anything; I don't have any real experience with drugs but I can't imagine anything, anything, feels this good. Even a shower and dinner and three hours of drinking and trying (once again) to find women and failing (once again), I feel serene.

On our way back that night, I realize I utterly have neglected to count the floor of G&T's apartment. I think I shall certainly recognize the door, but after the first few floors I realize I'm completely at sea. Their building has a central stair way that's gorgeous but not exactly confidence-inspiring, winding upwards in a steady if uneven spiral and bounded by a thick bannister constructed of heavy, dark wood. Nevertheless, the wood gives off a feel of being from perhaps a century before the last one, and each floor is just enough dissimilar from the one just below it that an upwards-bound traveler is bound to get suspicions about the professional rigor of the architect. (The guy who designed the balcony and the bay windows, of course, you can't help but have absolute faith in.) Fortunately, Diz is there to point the correct doorway out to me, as well as to puzzle out which key on the heavy keyring is the one that opens the chamber door.

After a few days our cultural inertia starts to feel inappropriate, given the present location, and Diz and I spend an afternoon at the museums. G&T are busy with other things, but they're able to show us how the trains work; the museums are at the top of a hill serviced only by a trolley line that seems otherwise completely unconnected to Barcelona's transit grid, and I'm pretty sure I would have gotten entirely lost if they hadn't held my hand through it. We see the standing exhibit at the Picasso museum and another at the one devoted to Miro, whose early works look suspiciously derivative of Picasso's. Then again, an awful lot of painters in the early 20th century seem to be consciously or otherwise imitating Picasso, or so it seems I remember having heard sometime. If true, that would I suppose explain Picasso's reputation as the century's greatest artist, if nearly all his contemporaries found his approach so compelling as to see no other way to keep working but in imitation of him, like every ambitious author trying to match James Joyce. But then I'm not entirely sure that I'm remembering this the correct way. Indeed, I'm not even confident in saying Picasso is the greatest artist of the century, and it feels like that's the sort of thing everyone should be able to state with a fair bit of confidence. I shake my head, regretful at not having obtained a better education in the humanities, and walk through the rest of the rooms pretending to have a meaningful appreciation for the works on display.

Near the museums is the hilltop complex Barcelona built for the Olympics in 1992. It's truly monumental, enormous and white and gleaming, and empty except for a dozen other tourists, a handful of locals working food stands, and an extended family of languorous but technically wild dogs.  Diz and I walk through the arena for the track events, then down a grand collonade that concludes with an enormous modern sculpture we're no better placed to appreciate for all of our recent civilization, and instead look out over the city that we don't really recognize.  

On the trolley back downhill we hear English in an American accent floating up from a pair of blondes standing in front of the next care. The look in Diz's eyes gives away exactly what he's thinking, as I'm sure does the mirror-image of it in mine. We invent a pretext to swap our car for theirs and start a conversation. (Actually, now that I think about it, there may actually have been vomit in the first car we boarded. Which isn't to say it was the best way to introduce ourselves, all the same.) They seem nice and quite attractive, but something odd hangs about them that I can't place until they say (of course!) they're from Los Angeles. My snap judgment is that the shorter of the two probably has the better body but wears too much makeup. It's a relief when Diz says he prefers her, as I think I like the taller one. Call them Polly and Anna, the shorter and taller respectively—actually, I can't remember their names now, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if those really were their names; the encounter had that kind of artificial feeling. We talk on the short trolley ride and then part; Polly hands Diz her card and we leave with the undefined plan to meet for a late drink over the next couple days.

Diz and I amble our way back to G&T's, have a late lunch. When we speak, we each take turns avoiding the subject while utterly failing to convince the other that we're anything but single-minded on the question of what, precisely, it will take to sleep with the two Americans. When it comes up that evening, I say we should call them immediately to make plans to meet that night sometime after dinner, since we're only there for a few more days. G insists we should wait another day. Diz seems unsure, persuadable either way. This goes back a long way with G and me; in law school we had late-night strategy sessions on particular bedding techniques when we were supposed to be reviewing Property. (To this day, I cannot articulate the difference between interests appurtenant to a property and those incidental to said property, but can declaim at length why a single woman is more likely to go home with you the week before the start of summer of winter holiday, or before spring break, too, so long as the next week isn't taking her to Paris or a beach somewhere.)   

Polly's card has a cellphone number and also her email; the domain of the address is her-full-name-dot-com. While G is out running errands and I'm distracted with something or other, T and Diz discover that she's an actress with a decent-sized list of credits, and uncover this exceedingly unsafe-for-work clip. (I don't care where you work, do not click on this until you're safely at home on a browser that doesn't record your search history.) T and Diz shout to me across the room until I come to watch; the three of us are all fairly drop-jawed and stunned into silence. I didn't remember Polly looking like she does in the clip, exactly—she wore nearly as much makeup, but it wasn't done so professionally, and her hair was straighter and pulled into a ponytail. But after the second or third viewing, the liquid-crystallized image and my shifting memories start to coincide: it is her; it must be her. T makes G watch, too, once he returns, and he roars with laughter and claps his hands. It seems he finds it entirely hilarious, what Diz and I have gotten ourselves into. I try to suppress the pangs of resentment at Diz, that between the two of us and the two Los Angelinas, he's been allocated the softcore princess.

G declares that we should make no definite plans but place a casual call late in the evening. I suggest an earlier call instead, to inquire at least about where they expect to be, and G declares it idiotic, saying that it would look overeager, even desperate. T jumps right into the conversation, to joke with her husband at my naivete. I keep it to myself, but I think there's no harm in making plans a night earlier but that with the clock running out on our trip there's more than a little to be lost by foregoing a night, even if we don't wind up reaching the conclusion that is, erm, ultimately desired. No harm, I think, in putting in an evening of introductory banter and scouting of relative levels of interest, before making an attempt toward the final event the night after.

"Look," G tells me, "what are you going to do? Give these girls a call and say, hey, it was great meeting you two hours ago, whaddya say we meet up again two hours from now?" He laughs at his own suggestion, and T chimes in enthusiastically. "Naw," he goes on, shaking his head demonstratively, "you gotta give it at least a day." I try to explain myself, but they're each having none of it. T takes G's side in the argument, and although I love them both as dearly as my own family, I feel a seconds-long twinge of cruelty toward them as they cackle at my ineptitude.

Diz still looks unsure but at first accepts the appearance of consensus as evidence of G's proposal being the shrewder one. Later he wants to revisit the issue; I'm frustrated with the process and snap a bit. "Look," I say, "either you make a decision, or I do. I don't particularly care, but I don't want to be on the special committee for the resolution of whether and when to call these broads." (I don't actually use the word "broads," but later, in exasperated reflection, it seems the mot juste.) Somehow the solution is reached to call later that night but to suggest a meeting the next evening. Diz places the late call, and they're out already. He can hear male voices in the background, laughing and speaking in English. G grins and says we should have expected it, that a chick like that walking through a town like this of course she's going to gather male attention like thistles onto wool socks. (G doesn't actually use this metaphor. But it strikes me as a better choice than the one he actually used and I've since forgotten; who doesn't like wool socks?)

Instead, the four of us head out for drinks, although only Diz and I stay out more than an hour or so. G&T take us to a place they know, a cafe dimly lit and furnished in dark, heavy wood. It's the sort of place that immediately makes me think of Europe even though I've probably seen them more often in SoHo or on the LES. After G&T head back home to get ready for tomorrow's early start (we've made plans to visit the local wine country), the unhappy couple order a last round of drinks before looking for another bar. The spot we ultimately wind up is covered in white plastic and lit in neon, so that the room acquires a foggy green feel. Diz is mellow, or at least seems it, and my mood lightens considerably after we run into a trio of German girls. They're from the west and I'm pretty sure they're speaking in a dialect, but it's pretty embarrassing how bad my German is. After all, I've been living there for the whole summer by now. I speak a few words, and when Diz asks if they understood anything I said, they shake their heads. I recite the lyrics of a song I just heard at Bootie Berlin, and they look at me at first like I recently wandered out of the woods for the first time since before the era of commercial air traffic. They know the song, it turns out, but its vintage makes it about as appropriate a card to keep in one's vest pocket as the lyrics to "Black Hole Sun." Or "I Kissed a Girl" (the first one. The good one.).

The bar announces last call, but the night still feels young, so Diz and I accompany our new companions to the boardwalk. On the way, I grab a six-pack of Estrella from one of the vendors and politely decline another invitation to purchase some of the guy's undisplayed wares. The five of us sit at the edge of the wood and watch the ocean, and talk for what must be at least an hour, perhaps more. I'm the only one drinking, Diz the only one smoking, but the three women seem to enjoy the company in spite of the two gentlemen providing it. I can't figure out which of two of them Diz is more interested in, so I take the safe bet and start talking more to the third, which reveals itself as a disaster when we get a quiet moment alone and I make a delicate proposition in hushed tones. She is, alas, flattered but spoken for; "I'm freshly in love" are, I think I remember later, her exact words. (T will find this formulation hilarious, for what it's worth. At this late remove I have to say I agree, although at the time my sour mood kept me from chuckling along.) The fumbled call and the late hour dictate that nothing's to come of the evening, and we don't even bother to ask for phone numbers or emails. Diz and I head home a little after they leave us into a night lightening already in the east to shades of dark purple-rose, and I think about toting the last untouched two cans of the sixpack back to G&T's fridge before tossing them in a trashcan.

A little more than two hours later G&T roust me from the couch. The next half hour I spend cursing the very existence of wine country; I'd curse my own mother if it was she who was keeping me from getting a few more hours of sleep in a proper bed, or at least on a reasonably soft couch. They've rented a car and the drive is nice, but I'm too tired to put up a suitable face of touristic astonishment. G asks from the front seat if I'm still sullen from not having called the Los Angelinas earlier. I should hold my tongue or laugh it off, but lack of sleep impairs my already poor conversational judgment, and I respond testily that being on vacation means there's no rule about waiting two days to call. T tells me again I would have looked ridiculous, and I think she means it in good humor, and I try my best to laugh at myself for her benefit. The Spanish countryside is pretty; all or nearly all the wine cellars are closed; the only place open for lunch has only salad and rice. Even this far inland, the Spanish summer has lingered pleasantly into summer, and the warm back seat and slow hillside curves rock me to sleep on the ride home.

I get the feeling I am not the only one holding back conversation as we take the subway home from the car rental. By the time we get home I am brimming with energy, not nerves or nervousness or anger or agitation, just a feeling allover that my limbs are charged with potential, muscles twitching and blood overflowing with carbohydrates. I tell Diz I'm going for a quick run while G&T are taking their turns in the shower. I do intend it to be short, notwithstanding my mood, but when I finally break through the carnival crowds and hit the straightaways, I feel my legs and lungs working in tandem like I can't remember them. I run until the boardwalk ends and further and still don't feel tired, and when I check the time on my iPod, I realize I'm going to be an hour or more in total, and also that I'm making great time. I practically fly back. After I've run seven miles I run into a football or rugby team fresh into their evening lap; even this deep into my run I match their pace, which isn't bad (although I concede that an amateur track team would have left me in the dust).

Confused by the placement of the carnival rides, I take a wrong turn and wind up running an extra mile or so down another pier; when I get home it's been ninety minutes. Since I checked my midpoint time, I've been worried that Diz would be miffed. Understandably so, given my short temper about delaying things with the American women even this late. But when I come through the door, he looks relaxed, sitting comfortably in a chair and reading a magazine. Grinning wildly from adrenaline, I can't keep a properly demure face when I apologize for having taken longer than I'd let on, but he waves me off; dinner isn't even quite ready yet, and he's already made plans with the American girls to meet in a little more than an hour. I map my run online and find that I went more than ten and a half miles in ninety minutes, for better than eight-and-a-half-minute miles. This information promptly goes into a status message update, with immodest punctuation.

Dinner is pleasant, and any lingering sour feelings toward G&T have been thoroughly extinguished. Afterward, Diz and I head out. Polly had suggested a place that's only a short walk from our place; Diz has a smoke and I grab a loose beer on the walk over. The place is done up like a German beer garden, with sculpted wood and fake greenery suggesting indoor tree growth; high tables and stools are carved from solid trunks or their plasti-wood approximate. By the time we get there, I'm entirely relaxed, like the entire trip has been exactly what I had wanted.

When we see Polly and Anna, the two of them are surrounded by Spanish and American men, and it's not hard to tell why. Both look stunning, really, hair and makeup and all the rest of things I really don't understand at all quite obviously having been labored over for some time. (Well, I assume labored over for some time; like I said, I don't understand these things at all. Maybe it's possible to make ninety seconds' preparations look like ninety minutes', if you know how.) They smile and throw their arms up when they see us; the men encircling them don't immediately scatter but look pretty pissed at our arrival. One of them keeps up an attempt at making conversation, although pointedly not with either Diz or me, but the rest of them sip their drinks and look conspicuously over their shoulders for other nocturnal opportunities. Diz has a grin that matches my mood as we settle down around the newly-cleared table.

Despite the plan of the evening that Diz is to take Polly's dance card and I Anna's, the two women keep orienting the conversation at cross-purposes thereto. When we get a moment alone I suggest to Diz that it seems Anna's more interested in him and perhaps we ought to switch, expecting at the very least a sarcastic reply, since my entirely disinterested recommendation does have the upshot of my being paired with the girl an entirely indecent movie clip. But if he feels any resentment he doesn't let on. I'm never sure if he was being sincere or just covering up to get along; I'm not sure which possibility would make me like Diz more, but either way, he's always been a great guy like that.

We pair off, and Polly and I speak at length. After swapping backgrounds and comparing LA to New York, she steers the conversation to fairies. I think I do a good job covering my surprise when she reminds me (I had forgotten) of the obvious connection with a bar named "Fairy Bar". They're everywhere, fairies are, singly on the menus and bar coasters, painted in clusters on the walls. Diz and I even had passed a mannequin fairy on the way in, next to which the two women will pose for multiple photographs later, as Diz and I are trying not to look like we're hurrying them out. I look again around the bar, and in the folds of what I'd taken to be fake trees, I gradually pick out the long, yawning faces of sculpted dryads. (Yeah. The place is called The Fairy Bar, and it took me this long to figure it out.)

There's no good way to say what comes next, no way that reflects well on her or on me. She, um, believes in fairies. I stumble carelessly into the conversation, mentioning a personal favorite coffee table book with pictures on each pair of pages of a fairy drawn so as to suggest it was smashed between them. I also mention having been to Iceland and that many adults there actually believe in elves and won't move large stones in case it's possibly and elf's home. "Oh, well that's the difference between elves and fairies," she says. "Elves will bother people if they feel like their territory is getting squeezed, but fairies will be nice to you as long as you're respectful." She tells me of the ritual she'll perform before pushing her lawnmower around her front yard, in order to give the creatures fair warning of the barbarous shearing she's about to conduct, and she frowns when I mention an old coffee table book of drawings purporting to be the remains of fairies that were smashed between the pages. I'm pretty daft, but it doesn't take too long before I learn to shut up and nod appreciatively at my good fortune of having met such a fascinating conversationalist.

Fortunately the paired-off thing doesn't last too much longer, and we join the conversation between Diz and Anna. Diz and I are pretty obviously (from each other's perspective, if not necessarily so blatant to the girls) trying to look like we're doing the inquisitive, respectful first-date thing without letting on that we've seen clips of Polly topless. She and I seem like we have at least something in common, having both escaped tiny interior-Western towns for the big city; we seem to have the same indifferent sense of alienation from the people we grew up with, or at least those who stayed there. Despite the fairy thing I think I have a moment of intellectual connection when I bring up Neil Labute; she's a fan, and I tell her I saw "Fat Pig" in New York with Jeremy Piven. She perks up at the mention of Piven's name but doesn't let on that she's been on "Entourage," and I don't mention it.

Eventually the everywhere-present fairies lose their luster, so we head back to Notable Alcoholic Bar, where our companions are a big hit. The place is positively jammed, with only one bartender. Our friends are evidently a big hit with the owner, though, as their glasses are the first refilled throughout our stay. I, however, am ignored when I stand near them, and I start slipping away to place my orders from elsewhere in the bar. Between that and Diz's occasional cigarette breaks, we get separated several times from the Angelinas, who anyways have been wrapped up by the owner/manager in conversation and champagne cocktails. The place is crawling with beautiful women, though, which may not quite tempt us to terminate our evening with the two of them but nevertheless alleviates any separation anxiety that might otherwise have begun to boil up. We drift away, order drinks, talk to people elsewhere in the bar, float back, catch up with our companions, then drift away again. Rinse, repeat; we're already in a lather.

The last time we return to the bar, they look animated. At first I think they're excited or happy, but once we hack through enough of the crowd that we can hear them, it sounds like they're on the edge of a fight. Or at least Polly seems on the edge; Anna seems almost amused. We're careful not to ask too much, but we get the impression that they're arguing over whether a local woman whom they'd met in the toilets had been genuinely friendly towards them (as was Polly's contention) or was sarcastically making fun of them (Anna's).

"I'm telling you, sometimes I just get connections with people, and I got this really powerful feeling with her. Although we don't speak the same language, I could just tell by her eyes that she was a really kind person."

Anna is unimpressed. "But I understand Spanish, and she was calling you 'a dumb bitch.'" She pauses, then revises and extends her remarks. "I'll grant that you do have a gift for forming connections. It's just this one I don't think you made it, quite."

Diz and I exchange millisecond glances and do a heroic job keeping straight faces. The two of them go back and forth like this for several minutes until reaching some incomprehensible compromise that allows Polly to save face. The spat has left them off-put, however, and we soon leave.

They invite us to come back to their apartment. Anna suggests we smoke either marijuana or hash, whichever they have, once we get there. Diz politely accepts; I tell her I'll pass. She asks if I'm sure. Pretending to crack under the pressure of interrogation, I do as best I can to make it sound sheepish and interesting when I say I've actually never tried it. (I realize it's not the best entres, but given the source material of my life I do what I can.)

The girls' apartment is reasonably tidy and relatively plain. It's laid out like a modified railroad, with a narrow entry hallway running past the small kitchen and a cramped bathroom and a pair of bedrooms at the far end, past a living room framed on one side by a couch and on the other by a squarish mass that I eventually realize to be a raised guest bed. It feels like an American apartment, almost, one of those places inhabited by college students in their year of off-campus living and the first couple of years after graduation before they finally manage a grownup-sized income. I wonder at feeling so much at ease, given that we've arrived nearly to the crucial moment, until I realize that for the first time I am in an apartment not significantly nicer than as my own, that for once I feel I can play at the level of the room.

Anna brings out her stash, and Diz sits beside her on the enormous mattress and starts rolling a joint. I'm at first expectant when Polly says she doesn't want any, thinking it might make a common front out of the two of us, but quickly I change my mind and decide I'd be better off if she shared it. Anna asks me if I do, and I tell her again that I've never tried it. She shrugs it and takes the first hit before passing it to Diz. She asks Polly again if she's sure.

"I will if he does," Polly says, meaning me. I've really never tried it, though offered many times, but it seems I've never felt so tempted. "Well," I manage to stammer out, trying to cover my indecision, but I decide not to. Anna shrugs both her shoulders and eyebrows in unison, and they continue to pass the joint back and forth. The conversation, meanwhile, between Polly and me has drifted a bit. With the air clouded with the smoke from the joint, as well as of our conspicuous refusal to share it, I'm having a hard time steering matters in any direction at all, let alone in the specific direction I'm hoping things progress. Minutes pass awkwardly, and I start to wonder what the heck I'm doing, and how I ever got to this age if this is all I'm capable of. And then I start to wonder about a great many other things.   

Anna and Diz, sitting shoulder to shoulder, both have soft smiles on their faces as they stare vaguely into the middle of the room. Anna's dress is pulled up perhaps an inch, and Diz is gently massaging the exposed length of her lower leg. Feeling more than thinking that the moment is right, I slide my arm around Polly's shoulders.

"Stop it," she says. "I... I don't like to be touched." I pull my hand back, completely unsure of what to say or do. She sits beside me, and we are both still and silent. Across the room, Diz and Anna are still looking in our direction, but neither of them gives any sign of having heard what's just been said.

Polly finally gets up to use the restroom. Again sensing more than thinking, I take the moment to leave, too; while I'm fumbling around the kitchen under pretense of looking for a glass to fill with water, I decide it must have been the thing to do to give Diz an opening to make a move on Anna. Perhaps if left alone, the two of them can manage to introduce a more amorous tone to the late evening. Yes, I conclude; that was why I left, in the hope that Diz and Anna can set a positive example for the rest of the class. Certainly it's a more dignified picture than that of me fumbling through a cupboard of dishes in the hopes that a more compelling strategy eventually strikes me or Polly creeps up behind to wrap her arms around my neck, either of which would seem at this point equally a miracle. When the toilet flushes before I have heard a bedroom door latch closed, I decide the jig is up and return to the living room a pace behind Polly.

She sits, then I do, then she shifts a half-foot in the other direction. "Sorry," she says, unconvincingly. "I really just don't like to be touched." If I still believed the excuse a moment ago, the halfways reemphasis seals it as pretext. Later I'll rationalize, reconceptualize my mental state as a product of rejection and bewilderment, as an emotional expression of my diminished self-worth or else misdirected frustration and resentment, but in the instant I feel nothing. No: I feel like nothing. I feel like half a man, minus one-half a man. The joint is long-since finished, and Anna soon stands up and announces that she's going to bed. The other three of us don't even need to say as much, as everyone else's plans have been pretty solidly established by the circumstances.

"Do you think if I'd shared the joint, she would have?" I ask Diz as we're halfway down the street from Polly and Anna's.

"No," he says. He pauses only enough to finish the drag from his cigarette, and he knows immediately what I'm really asking. "I think they just weren't in the mood because... I don't know; they just weren't in the mood."

"Do you—?" I start, then stop, then begin again. "I'm not saying I know everything about women, but I know, well, I know at least enough to know what I've done wrong most of the time, or have a good idea of it. And I have no idea what the hell just happened back there."

Diz draws from his cigarette again but doesn't say anything for a moment. "I don't know either," he offers finally.

"I feel like shit," I say.

We walk in silence for a bit. The streets are empty and the city feels deserted; we walk on, matching its silence. Before we reach reach the block where we're supposed to turn left, I speak again.

"Gimme a smoke." I don't know if I expect him to argue with me or smirk triumphantly at the collapse of my willpower, but I'm relieved when he does neither. He just pulls a pack of Marlboros from his pocket and gives me a cigarette, and then his lighter. The first drag I only take into my cheeks, like I'm afraid of coughing after so much time away from them, but the second time I put the filter between my lips, I pull from the very bottom of my torso and fill my lungs with smoke. It's nothing like I remember, at first, but gradually I recall the dim memory of the first few cigarettes I ever had. My brain at once starts racing, chasing down the first memory of my throat feeling scraped from the heat of inhalation, the sensation of ammonia on fresh, pink lung tissue as distinct as if alveoli were taste buds. It hurts, it honest to god hurts, yet I deny the reflex of coughing, force myself to suffer in it. After another drag, I'm high, my head spinning, but the cigarette has no other consequence. No stress is relieved, unless by the gradual, plodding disappearance of memories behind us as we walk; no poignance or significance appears as if by magic in the clouds Diz and I are blowing beneath lowered heads.

When we get back and climb up the winding staircase in the dark, I step out onto the balcony. A man stands in the plaza below, swaying either from alcohol or from being still awake at five in the morning, and speaking to a woman. They're both dressed fashionably, at least as well as I can tell through the dark and the distance. They speak a while, in tones too low to be heard from the fifth floor or whichever one it is we're on. Diz goes to sleep but before he leaves, I ask for another cigarette. I lean over the balcony to smoke it and watch the man and the woman below. I can't help myself; I obsess over the question whether he will succeed where I so distinctly, undeniably failed, but after another moment they part, marking the end of the evening with only a lengthy embrace. As I snap the glittering butt-end over the balcony onto the empty street below, I reflect that I hadn't managed even that much.

I fly late afternoon the next day. Diz and I relate the story in installments, over breakfast and then during one last trip to the beach. T asks me which was worse, the night before or the German telling me she was "freshly in love," and I look at her like she's crazy. I tell her it might be the worst I've ever felt, and realize at once that I've no idea the words. My feeling is trapped in the inadequacy of my language; on any other day this might be a pretty big let-down for an aspiring writer but feels insignificant today.

"But why?" T asks, the genuineness of her feeling obvious on her face. I have absolutely nothing to say and just shrug.

I have leave them on the beach in order to pack in time to make my way to the airport. I don't think there's any way, really, to say goodbye properly when the people you're addressing are lying on beach towels; somehow the message never really seems to get through. I walk back, shower, and sign a card to leave beneath a gift bottle of wine on G&T's dinner table. I can't bear to put on my jeans, and so when I get to Schoeneberg after nightfall and step out into the Berlin night in autumn, I'm wearing shorts, shivering all the way to the U-Bahn station.