1B – Sweat and Perfume

Clear, cooler after last night’s storm rinsed the air, the day has a silvery tint as Berlin did when Anja first drove with her parents from Dresden.  Her tower is dry inside.  After she fell asleep in his sublet last night, Eric must have scaled the ladder and shut her hatch.  How nice!  Now she drapes her blanket and clothes from the rope, props her lid, and lets the sunlight dry her things while she reads.  Her library consists of Manfred by Byron, ripped from an anthology, Thus Spake Zarathustra by Nietzsche, and, as she needs her wit now to unfold in English, a short story, Typhoon, by Joseph Conrad.  Anja is fascinated by the scene when the hapless coolies are flung back-and-forth inside the ship’s hold during a typhoon!  But reading does Anja little good.  She recalls other towers she scaled before finding her own.  How different they all are!  Some, squat against the horizon, resemble little tubs.  Others reach, like lonely, black cones through the night sky, like shadow cutaways, to unknown planets, to outer space!  Sometimes two towers huddle as twins, charcoal or beige slats against a rust red horizon, double witnesses to gulls flitting across the sky.  She also climbed big tanks beside smaller ones, like mother and child, both solid and stout, towering over the estranged dwarfs on the human pavement.  But how lucky she was to find this one dry!  Her first live-in tower.

Gradually she fantasizes and rehearses what she might say to Eric tonight.  Anja is far brighter when she plans what to say.  Like the captain in Conrad’s sea story, screaming into the first mate’s ear during the typhoon (what’s the difference between typhoon and hurricane? Anja asks) if Anja cannot hear herself speak now, how could Eric listen, when facing each other alone, tonight?

Neglecting the lucrative morning rush by sleeping late and showering in Eric’s apartment Anja will not panhandle this morning on Wall Street.  Nor will she try to recover her usual spot on the steps outside the Stock Exchange at eight a.m.  She recalls last night’s storm and suppresses a shiver, lifts Eric’s telephone and whimsically dials her old number in Dresden.  How she wishes she could call Gabi, chat about this new boyfriend, show him off.  Once they gossiped, disclosing adolescent love-secrets, musing endlessly over the flaws and foibles of their boys.  Their mutual confessions provided a deep council, whereby smells, kisses or snippets of conversation gave way to psychological insights, reveries, fits of wild laughter. They bet each other who could reach Paris or New York first.  Anja would lift her father’s globe, roll it over, and admire destinations beyond the old Soviet borders: the Greek Cyclades, Turkey, then tilt it to Ireland, Holland, then Mexico, Columbia, Hawaii, conspiring as future debutante-traitors on enemy territory.  They took a solemn oath to join each other after they escaped and they cut themselves to draw blood, pledging to rejoin in Paris or New York.  How can blood sisters lose each other if not by death?  Why pour gold into sand?  No!  Anja will not dwell on Gabi.  Put the phone down.  Read.  Anja, read!  Let that guy worry and buy supper.  Let him sweat.  If he shows too early or late, you cannot trust him: drop his keys to the alley.  If he shows up with cops, let them rattle down the roof drain!

Anja should pack!  She should slide her keys beneath his door and dissolve down a hazy street.  This is why she kept her possessions down and lived lean.  And mean.  She could leave at a moment’s notice and shake a city’s dust from her boots.  Her life is light, stoical.  She could dissolve like a shadow at noon off a rooftop.  Was not her name like Keats’ epitaph, writ in water, her fate to flit like a breeze blown leaf, a feather over a wave?  And she distrusts the weight of love.  She will not feel its gravity, not let it capsize nor drown her.  Nor would Anja walk again the plank of hope.  God, where is Gabi now?  The afternoon sun could offer gilded light, not paranoia, not vertigo, not make her feel like this! No, she will trust no one now.  No council for Anja, no Gabi to gab, nobody and nichts, but this guy, what’s his name?  Eric.  Could it be an alias?

She is beginning to smell.  She will take another shower in his place during the hours she let him to shop.  She will insist he buy her French perfume and trash her small collection of tear-and-sniffs from Bazaar and Cosmopolitan.  Aroused, she will have him smear her wrists or armpits, make him sprinkle it on her little canary before he kneels. No, Anja must read.  Read about the typhoon in this book.  She is reading about last night.  Will the sun never set?  Will the silvery smog never purify, melt to pure light?  No, play this day out, eat, shower, then split! They are both imprisoned in a temporal cage which will swing open with night, and come morning, he, she and it, and all will be gone.  Free at last!

We use others to dominate our loneliness, Anja muses, but we fail.  Serenaded by ambulances and fire engines, she props her mattress, determined not to flail at the devils of her doubts or dreams, cracks her hatch and begins to seek distractions to kill time.  She meditates for an hour on just how a stranger, stalking or staring at one, can be sensed.  Especially from behind.  When Anja experiences this sensation, she often swings around, and inevitably, a spy has fixed her in his sights.  How is it possible?  She now tries to retrieve the face of her New York assailant, to reel in a visual tag by which to identify him, to prepare herself if she ever spots him.  But she’s fishing in the air!  A dark wave rolls over his face.  He masked, put on a voice, as if pretending in some vicious game, that phony writer who placed an ad in the free Paris magazine for English conversation — Richard Couteau.   Couteau means “knife” in French and, sure enough, he owned and used one.  Suddenly she sees his face etched in the brick of a building and shudders.  No, she’s hallucinating!  Achtung, Anja!  Two cities separate us, Normandy, Britain, Ireland — six thousand miles of ocean — but he spoke with an American accent.  Coincidence, chance are phony.  Just like astrology.  “Dick Knife” wrote on astrology!  No.  Anja fears creating a composite of evil from all her enemy’s faces, and knows this spells madness.

Instead, Anja starts working her rope.  She sets herself against the opposite side of the tank’s floor, makes a half-swing, pulls her legs over her head and does so until her shoulders ache.  A half hour of this leaves her exhausted.  She half naps for an hour dreaming about a strange underground room.  She rises, truly weary.  She scans “Manfred” by Byron and whispers, mysteriously: “by a power deeper than all yet urged … a tyrant spell …  a birthplace in a star condemned”.  Thumbs Nietzsche for: “One must still have chaos in oneself to able to give birth to a dancing star.”  Mmmm.  But this is a prison game!  She ends this by deliberately facing the buildings, the stars of her uptown horizon.  She imagines each building is a phantom body and that each breathes a soul.  She used to construct imaginary faces from car headlights and grills when a child.  Now, she moves up to imagine the stone hulks before her as obelisks or pyramids, and that, like her watertower, they are really built-up selves encased in concrete.  What are skyscrapers but monuments to  human vanity?  The older ones are columns decked with friezes, only you can walk inside them; later came rocket ships and missiles, Art Deco anticipations of the day when we would colonize the solar system. The universe.  Only the newest structures, the glass boxes with curtain walls are impossible to humanize, or to decipher.  There stand my sentinels of exile, Anja shivers, the mirrored ghosts of old friends who howl like banshees from hope-sealed tombs.  She will etch their epitaphs on her retinas, and map the sky instead!  Ouch.

Just before sunset, as rose-tinted smog smolders with blue, just before slinking below Soho and beyond that, the dwarflands of Jersey, Eric creeps cautiously up the stairs and appears as a dusky shadow on her roof.  Anja has re-entered his sublet, danced through a second shower, nipped a cup of cognac, nicked skin lotion then band-aids from the medicine cabinet, returned to her perch for a final tidy up, then rested flat against the doorway housing, reading the sky like a painter, dabbing, touching it up with her pinkie.  Eric drops the brown paper bag stuffed with wine, brie and salad on the stairwell and Anja, delighted, uncorks the wine with a pocket knife screw and sniffs its bouquet.  Must have cost him fifteen bucks! Anja stuffs the cork back, silences him with a forefinger to her lips, and guides him along the cement stairwell enclosure.  Eric must slink.  More slender than the shadow of a string!  At this moment — when it’s so easy to be seen from the streets — sensing his inept, imitation stealth, Anja stiffens with regret.  Anja could entertain a whole gang up here before midnight, dragging this oaf along.

“I’ve done everything you asked.”  Eric whispers.

“Never talk”

“Just nervous.”

“Shhh!  Crawl forward.  Crawl on your hands and knees and wait for me at tower base.”

She makes the ledge-slink, scanning for pavement-dwarfs, liars and spies, fearing it may be her last, surveys the sidewalk, and finds her eyes tracing the windows of a hospital near a park just north.  Behind those shuttered squares a quiet and anonymous purgatory of tubes, bed pans, foot-tapping nurses, wheezing lungs, bad TV and wilted flowers, drags on.  Well, if this shy hunk has H.I.V. or Ebola she’ll end up there, eventually.  Or on the street.  She can feel the flames of death tickle her feet.  If not and she’s lucky, she’ll end up there three, four decades further on.  Is this destiny?  The sun streaks purple and violet spokes through the polluted air.  Eric lies flat on his stomach, awaiting orders.  Is the boy so bad?  If he is pinned to the roof crushing a hard-on, is that not life?  Can one blame youth or energy?  Anja’s still young, not bedridden, not dying, not yet a white dwarf, but a supernova, inside.  Anja is the sun.  If I do say myself, she smiles.

“Now.”  Anja whispers, nodding to Eric to scale the tower, then follows, forcing his torso flush to the tank to hide his silhouette from the street.  He hesitates when circling at the top and Anja is careful not to spook him, for it’s a delicate, fully exposed revolution.  Trembling, he flinches and stumbles down the ladder to the belly of her tank.  Anja slides down the rope behind his back as he falls on his knees to her mound of blankets, at the center.

Safely in the cedar hollow, Eric rights himself as Anja straightens her mattress for a mutual place to sit, arranges her notebooks, props her pillows with a blanket and lights two candles with paper maché covers muting the flame with her favorite lavender hue.  Eric rubs his knees, basking in an intimate and miniature world both delicately kept and meticulously closed.  Lights may leak through the pollution.  The city may sparkle in the ice of a windswept night — but with her hatch sealed, her clothes folded, safe among her few orderly possessions, a modest warmth prevails.  It’s somewhere, Eric reflects, between a strange, cedar cottage, and a barrel.  While he sits and crosses his legs, Anja fluffs a pillow, wearing her dried jumpsuit.  Though he never before envisioned Anja naked he realizes now his unconscious must have been working overtime: a blurred portrait of a dancer’s body with svelte thighs, light hair, flowing arms — like her unexpected kiss — and volcanic erotic energy — screens through his mind’s eye, an uncanny contrast to last night’s madwoman.  Smelling the cedar, he recalls an adolescent fantasy he enjoyed before experiencing sex.  Falling asleep, alone, he would picture walking nightly through an imaginary birch forest to lay beside his instructress in the secrets of love, his woman on the raft.  With long, dark wavy hair, she kept a vigil for him on a wooden houseboat — it could have been made of cedar — floating, rocking near the shore of a Midwestern river.  Nightly, she would enfold him in her arms, while he often listened to a lonely train blast through a ravine near his small town, and the woman on the raft would offer him warmth and solace, for the duration of his sleep.

Anja, back turned to Eric, but sensing his every twitch, his every relaxing or tensing muscle, receives his fantasy now and instinctively arches her back and shivers.  Eric glances to Anja: lustrous sandy hair sprayed out like a starfish, eyes bemused with irony, and caution, her lips frowning faintly with childish impertinence, and her thin legs, round calves, runner’s thighs, look both tough and feminine.  Then he glances at his own baggy black jeans and feels lazy.  Why didn’t he keep up his daily sit-ups?  Friends sometimes volunteer that Eric is handsome, yet he always averts his gaze after a short spell at the mirror and wants to trash pictures of himself, though he dutifully keeps a box in his parent’s house.  Anja notes that his expression shifts from reverie to self-consciousness and knows he’s examining himself, her space and certainly her body.  For a moment, Anja wants to  yank his hair back and make him kneel, but controls herself.  If she grows testy or belligerent, the ensuing fight will wreck her world.  Shoving him out now will surely cost her, his entry into her watertower already made it dangerous, and, well, he does smells sweet.  His faint morning splash of aftershave reeks of convention, a daddy’s brand, but his body breathes a fresh scent of its own and that’s important in a man sharing her tank.  And he’s finely featured: warm brown eyes, full jaw, relatively fit, (though fat’s rising on his abdomen!) and, he knows her story, where she lives.  Wait.  Why is this stranger here?  In my space!  You trust him, Anja?  Why take the risk?  Her father’s guilt drains like octopus ink into the pool of her formerly clear conscience while thrusting a familiar wad of outrage into her craw.  As long as he behaves!  “Shush! Anja!”  She blurts out. Eric squints, knees aching, “What did you say?”  “Just talking to myself”  “Oh.”  Does she engage in this often?   Eric asks himself, trying to remember how often he did.  Only an occasional “shit” or “You goddamned son-of-a-bitch!” echoes in his sublet.  It’s when you answer back …  As he tires of this reflection a new wave of apprehension crashes in — he has no condom.  Insidious thoughts fester.  Anja could represent every crazy sex act ever spawned in his sexmares, transforming from a homeless waif to a whore scrounging in a tank — an evil nest, an invite to suicide.  Anja instantly feels the atmosphere tense, and sighs.  Eric is not hard to read: why his brow wrinkles with worry, why the awkward shifting of legs. She reaches into her edited box of letters, extracts a condom, flings it, and it lands on his forearm.  He lets it flop to the tank floor, not moving.  “Consider it safe.” she mutters, in a hollow voice, the barrel fairly echoing like a chapel.

Anja bends down and fetches the condom, “Here, I am sorry,” and gently pulls him the last few inches forward.  Her accented voice sounds tremulous, bright, now mellow like a coronet, now like a cello, or a dove.  Here’s a girl in her early twenties speaking, sparkling, troubled, often biting, very far from home.  Eric then whispers, “woman on the raft” only to be surprised by a forefinger lightly caressing his chest then a kiss in his ear.  She is not a homeless squatter but a lonely girl with lavender-scented, sandy hair.  She slips out the bottle of red Bordeaux, tilts, swigs then passes it on.  “If we cannot share a bottle how can we kiss?”  Anja smiles.  Eric drinks while Anja spreads the dinner out before them and after a long spell of dining in candlelight, Anja suggests, “There is nothing like sharing, is there?”

“No, you chose well.  It’s very European.”

“Have you been there?”

“To Europe?  Yes, all over,”  Eric brags, nibbling an olive and gingerly dropping its pit into the bag.  “I prefer Italy and France.  Paris.  When I had the money, I spent each summer in Paris and winter in New York.  I hate summer in New York.  The city’s pace doesn’t fit the heat and shit nearly boils in the subways.”  He realizes this is gauche, lowing his head, like a shamed boy.

“So German cities, like Berlin, are not as nice?”

“Not since the Wall … “  Now this is a faux pas from which Eric immediately rallies. “It’s not the unification but the West German reaction which first put me off.  I visited there several times before and after, all the construction in the city made it seem like it’d be better to revisit a few years from now.  Then, I just let it go.”

“Ever see Dresden?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“Once before the Wall fell and once just after.  I played music the second time in a Weinkellar surrounded by torches.  Nice atmosphere.  Great wine.”

“What?,” Anja recalls, “I know it! I snuck in there with my friend Gabi and guys bought me drinks.  I’m from Dresden!”

“Really?”

“Yes.  In fact, I heard an American played there.  I had other plans that night and never made it.”

“It could have been me.”

“I heard he was drunk, just so-so.”

“I was just so-so.”  Eric laughs.

“We could have passed each other in the street.”

“I would certainly stare at you.” Anja blinks, raising her eyebrows, charming him.  She pulls him close, and guides his hand to her thigh, to feel its smooth resilience and encourage a massage.  She feels herself drifting above her depression, but her shoulders to her heels are still covered by her jumpsuit.  Yet, this is an odd American, who would visit Berlin, and Dresden.  He’s walked the same streets I walked as a girl  Sat in the same bar!  Played music there.  It really wasn’t such a great place.  He begins to tell her the story about his woman on the raft and she listens serenely.  It seems to match her situation perfectly.  She would like to own a raft or houseboat (though a lighthouse might be better) to welcome Eric.  As she ponders his woman on the raft, his childhood in the Midwest, he seems to have the fault and virtue of Americans who confess everything to strangers, finding instant intimacy in unburdening themselves of supposed crimes or guilt in the guise of being honest.  Eventually, as he makes a point about people she would never meet, she knows she can trust him, the evidence of his case being so detailed in self-incrimination and so naive in its aim at expiation that she ends up caring deeply about this guy, who has everything without knowing it.  They kiss and she tastes his unassertive exploration of her lips.  His tongue is none too anxious, his hands are gentle.  She unzips herself down her front to let him explore her waist and feels his skin cooled on the surface by the night, his biceps full, round, as are his thighs, not bristling with muscles, which signals vanity for her, as she loathes weight-lifters, yet he is plenty strong enough to lift her.  Anja will climb him like a tree!  And so she does climb on top of him and his arms fold around her like a tree, though his beard bristles chafe.  Anja’s sweat, to Eric, also smells sweeter than perfume, as they close their eyes and breathe each other’s scent and feel each other’s pulses.  Anja muses that from his shoulders she could scan a whole forest.  She eases him away, peels down her jumpsuit, lets it fall, smiling, fully naked in the candle’s wavering shadow.  She’s more beautiful than he guessed — her eyelashes  decorate far softer eyes, moist yet frank and her breasts are full and tender.  And she’s neither nervous nor shamed, as she wants him to trace the slope of her stomach with a long kiss.

Anja then kisses a wonderful bump on his shoulders, eases back his shirt, examines two brownish nipples, rather large for a man, then obliges him, with an upturned chin to shed his clothes too.  He feels, like few young men she has touched, a thoroughbred, his power in abeyance has a fresh but civil animality to it. Curious, she reaches down and caresses him, circumcised, like all nice American guys, blood pulsing down and expanding with inside capillary action.  Then, perhaps for feeling the blood rush within him, she imagines water refilling her tank and both of them facing each other, eye to eye, soon to be dead from drowning, with her still dutifully holding him.  She shrinks away instinctively.  How terribly lonely!  Everyone is lonely, separated.  Like this lonely, flesh thing in her palm.  She circles his kneecap twitching beneath her finger as he stands, looking down and she can feel his eyes on her back, rises, feels surrounded by spies, reaches for the wine and spills some nervously on her stomach.  Not now, Anja. don’t faint.  Not beneath his eyes!  Perhaps he can close them and circle my nipples with his tongue?  She rises and eases his hands between her legs, to unmask her, to gently smooth away her flesh petals, then rises and flattens his eyelids with her tongue and tastes his cheek, salty from sweat, then stretches her arms to gain balance.  She’s standing on the carpet she has lain over the drain at the bottom of her tank and senses her slow radar activate her self-consciousness. Is this the lie-of-the-look or am I a pathological invalid?  Can anyone dispel my shame?  She rummages in her clothes and extracts a white scarf.  She wraps his brow from nose to hairline, denying his eyes their power, fashioning, then tying a neat blind-fold with a bow.

Eric complies, then laughs with mock mysteriousness, “Covered by the whitest cloth the world goes dark — up close.”

“Such is the nature of light, my dear.”

“What do I look like, bereft of light?”

“Like a blindfolded Washington Monument.” Anja smiles, “Only horizontal.”

“Do I have a last request?”

“You are not facing a firing squad.”

“Not even a cigarette?”

“Call me ..  Rapunzel.”

“Then let down your hair!”

“Here eat!”  Anja takes her hair and rustles it around his face, itching his nose.

“No, I must be justice!  Where’s my scales?”

“Justice is a woman.”

“Then this is a firing squad!  What’s my crime?”

“Uh, visual pyromania.”

“Should I send you up in flames?”

“And burn my tower down?”

They both know their repartee serves too as a blindfold, yet Anja would have it no other way.  She finds a strawberry with which to tease Eric and dances it around his mouth, before placing it on his tongue, “Taste my spirit.“  Anja then pours wine down his throat until he chokes and laughs, “Drink of my blood!”  She makes him kneel and pray and he kisses the breast she presses to his lips, “Eat of my flesh!”  They go silent and Anja, aroused and ashamed by being unable to wait, begins to touch herself, stops, then remembers that the moon, if she stood in the right place, would be stationed above her hatch from her tower’s base.  She climbs her rope and opens the hatch, damning the danger, climbs down, makes him nudge a few feet forward, pours him another sip of wine and brings his head forward to her thighs.  Watching the moon, with no human eyes to judge her, she dreams, drifting across vast ashen lunar deserts and dusty craters, feels a slight breeze waft in, stands tiptoe, strokes Eric’s hair, tenses, then finally closes her eyes watching the faint after-image of the moon fade beneath her eyelids.

Alternative Lines:

tremulous, bright, now mellow like a coronet, now a cello, now a mourning dove, her accent thickens then thins out, the odd grammatical influence of German skews her syntax then lets go.  Here’s a girl in her late teens speaking, now charming, troubled, now biting, now mature. She explains her pathology of heights, her highwire nihilism, moves through her past, gingerly, leaving out her father’s crimes. Eric, divided by his exterior nakedness slowly crossing his legs, covering himself.  She hears the story about the woman on the raft, and laughs, listens to his childhood in Detroit, how it grated on his nerves without knowing why, living in a cultural wasteland. He had both the fault and virtue of Americans who confess everything to strangers, finding instant intimacy in unburdening themselves of supposed crimes or guilt in the guise of being honest. Eventually, as he made a point about people she would never meet, she knew she could trust him, the “evidence” of his case being so detailed in self-incrimination and so naive in its aim at expiation that she ended up caring about this guy, who had everything without knowing it. She sent him back downstairs after her secret orgasm and knew he wouldn’t give her away, safe with his homespun religious attachment to his “word”. Anja sleeps deeply after sending him downstairs, “home”, bundling herself up like his “woman on the raft”.