4B – Mnemonic Window

Anja and Danny stumble back to Danny’s apartment.  Danny pleads with Anja to stay with him so that he can look after her.  Anja refuses.  She needs solitude now and the only bond they share is the gloom of Eric’s disappearance.  Anja then has to watch the odd ritual of Danny, from frustration, dousing his duck doll with lighter fluid and burning it in his kitchen sink.  A day ago she would have laughed at the pathetic act of a guy burning his namesake stuffed doll in effigy.  Not now.  She watches blankly, endures, indeed shares his self-loathing, skulks, collects Eric’s keys from the kitchen table where he last laid them with thirty bucks and change, and drifts for the door.  They can no longer speak together after last night.  Danny stutters through an offer to drop by twice daily to Eric’s apartment; Anja waves him away with dead eyes.  He begs her not to hurt herself as she slowly, eerily, closes the door to crawl back to the now grim apartment building, takes five minutes to pry the outside door open, another five to climb the seven flights to Eric’s room, stops at the door and finally enters the studio as she would a tomb.   She begins staring out the window to where the dead rat once lay on the pavement, her mind transparent, will-less, itself kind of a glass pane through which images pass which she cannot identify nor record.  Years ago in Dresden Anja lost her home and now there is no Anja home.  There is no Anja.  Gradually, her senses shut down.  Unable to sustain self-consciousness, at first a milky blankness, then clouds pass through her head, stars whir in a bowl-shaped sky, skyscrapers fall into silvery dust.  Then shadows creep from behind a widening hole, specters feed on newspaper, scores of bloody mouths laugh soundlessly, dolphins are hacked to pieces with machetes, electrified gates close incessantly, faceless children stagger on playgrounds, a brain steams on lake ice festering with bronze maggots, snow falls over an oil refinery, a chalk Statue of Liberty holds up then drops an off-gas flare, police break with machine guns into a mosque, a ship sinks into mercuric waves, jackhammers drill into the stomach of a marble statue, a man runs down the street with his head revolving like a siren, face alternating each round, and, without the will to move, her lips dry, and her eyelids scrape as she blinks, occasionally, in slow motion.  If one saw her one might mistake her for a mime or mannequin, but she still can instinctually use the bathroom.  Every two hours she unfolds her raw legs, walks glacially or crawls on her knees, hypnotically drinks from the faucet, returns to her place by the window and resumes her trance.

Anja never before destroyed another life.  She imagines her treatment of other children cruel yet she was once bright, active, with a normal life in Dresden, had an early flair for languages, especially French and English, once sang from sheet music, played fair in games, though often obsessed on rules.  Rules had to be fair, perfect, no one could cheat, be left out and no one could lie their way to victory.  Early idealism later undid Anja.  Undoes her now.  She loved pranks and took excessive pride in skipping high, often clowning it up, laughing with her critics as they laughed at her, in mid air.  Later she made a name for herself in local track, adoring the objectivity of the stopwatch.  There were no balls or team politics, just the circle and all of history to compare oneself by time and event.  When she became fascinated with pole vaulting before women were allowed, she quit in a huff and practiced on her own, challenging anyone to compete with her.  No one did.  And though dimly aware of her father’s position, it remained an obscure adult concern and a source of marital gloom.  Anja was the rare extrovert who listened to others despite her talking or laughing jags and she felt vaguely sorry for but warm toward her mother, whom Anja often caught crying by herself in the kitchen.  Anja resembled only faintly the picture she has of herself now, only cityscapes and accusations retain any fidelity.  Her childhood memories, recast by oppressive shame, sank.  If she could see now old picture albums, she would barely recognize herself or her friends’ faces.  When Anja discovered her father’s lies, via the newspapers, the neighbors’ lives he ruined, the innocents he jailed, her purism felled her. Though many Dresdeners shrugged off their bewilderment, ready to join or be absorbed into a rich West that they did not, at first, understand, Anja, gnawed by guilt and parricidal obsession, snapped.  Millions made the transition; not Anja. It was always the father, liar or spy, now the enemy or mole, who betrays humanity, who stalks, spies on and smears others.  The evil other betrayed; not Anja.  Despite her manic revenge fantasies, Anja only hurt herself.  Now, sending Eric down a subway tunnel, luring him to her projective shadow, she joins her enemies.  Anja too is evil, or so she dimly reflects, as her senses shut down.

Before her gaze, a dog sniffs then sleeps near a tire on a car which parks, then moves the next morning.  The Arab smoke shop pulls down, then up, the aluminum security grating. The same guard who marks midnight with his cane, does so, twice.  The corner dealer stuffs a small package in his pocket slips downtown then slinks up again.  Cars whish by.  It rains gently.  An afternoon grows hot, a morning begins cool, store lights strobe the slow motion of her mind, so does the light and dark of day and night.   She waits, watching, it seems, for an eternity, a tower, until its granite grows veins and its foundation sprouts feet, its pinnacle, at first crowned by a cross, then a swastika, then a hammer and sickle — finally melt into a head.  It says something.  Its eyes glare like a lighthouse, then it steps forward, now metamorphosing into the man with a revolving neck, graduating from passive dream to riveting hallucination.  The revolving of the head slows. Features of a face surface.  At first two faces appear on each side of the head but as the image slows yet further, one face turns her way, for several rounds, then another face appears.  Gradually, the one man with two faces gives way to two men who stand uncannily staring at Anja in absolute stillness.  One is the American who threatened her with a knife in Paris, the other the mole who Eric chased into the subway tunnel.  Worse, the man in Paris appears as he did on the banks of the Seine, then as her rapist in the subway tunnel.  As the man who Eric chased into the tunnel fades, the other face, now in glaring white then crimson light speaks, soundlessly, with lascivious mouth, eyes two knife blades of light, the face closing in until there is no body, nor neck, only the face, the only face, and then, as if lightning strikes, the sound of his voice flashes like thunder, and he murmurs as if on a slowed-down tape.  Anja repeats it, mimics it aloud in the room, through her cracked lips, as if following dictation: “WE ARE THE SAME.”

Anja starts, rubs her eyes and finds every fiber in her body, from heel to crown, tingling.  She moves like the tin man she admires in the Wizard of Oz, partially oiled after rusting solid in the rain.  She rises and experiences her often cultivated travel sensation, the delicious where am I? She hobbles like a grandma to the faucet, gulps greedily, lets the cold water soak her head and hair, discovers she’s filthy, smells to herself like an outhouse, strips off her clothes and takes a shower, finds she’s freezing to death, heats it up until she’s red as a lobster, dries and stumbles out into the kitchen. Slowly, absently, like a sleepwalker, she heats old coffee, fries some left-over sausage, slices up brie, cracks three eggs into a pan, nibbles on stale olives and ham while her breakfast fries, scoops it all on a plate, swigs some red wine, reels, then ravenously attacks the food like a starving child.  It’s dusk, her favorite time next to dawn, and for a moment she looks around and still cannot remember where she is, turns on the TV, which she could never tolerate, delights quizzically in the colors and sound of a Gas X commercial, then sees the evening news come on and cannot understand a word the man says.

She turns off, then back on, the TV set, leaving half of her meal untouched and cannot remember her name. “Wie heisse ich?” she asks herself.  She staggers to the bathroom and stares in the mirror.  The face looks familiar — it’s her face.  She opens the window and scans the street.  She’s seen it before. A distant deja vu sends a shallow shiver down her spine as she follows a mother steering her child in a baby carriage past a motorcycle, then around a wino on the street.  “Es muss Amerika sein,” she says, “Must be America!” comes to her in English. “New York.”  She says, with a German accent, “New York fuck’n City.”  She cheers, feels sassy and giggles foolishly, “Dosvadanya.” “Auf Wiedersehen.”  “Good-bye … Dresden.”  In English. Then the image of scanning the same street but from higher up occurs to her like a faded daguerreotype.  “Watertower,” she says in English.  “I’m Anja.”  “Anja!”  she repeats, tears of relief streaming down her face.

She observes a photograph with a heavy-set woman in trendy clothes flanked by strangers, and again plunges into despair.  She hasn’t the slightest who the woman or strangers are.  In a pique of frustration and fear that her mind may be frozen, she rifles the closet and rips out a series of dresses, all black, many with floral trim, which look gigantic to her.  “These aren’t my clothes!”  She lifts a dress from the pile on the floor, tries it on and it hangs on her like a tent.  She upends a leather bag and finds a pair of pants, spills the bag’s contents onto the bed, inspects several pair of men’s boxer shorts, hurries to the kitchen and opens all the cabinets and discovers only dishes, stumbles to the bathroom, empties its cabinet into the sink, then finds a plastic razor and men’s after-shave on a damp cloth.  What is his name?  She knows a man.   She knows him. Doesn’t she?

She opens the closet by the bed and yanks out an inflated mattress with a beach ball which rolls across the floor.  She then assaults the sole dresser, begins at the bottom and moves up, flinging everything out until she runs across one drawer with men’s clothing, a soft porn magazine, and discovers a letter addressed to “Eric”.

She sits on the floor with the letter, staring at his name as a series of conscious memories flood into her mind.  The only memory which interests her is Eric’s disappearance.  She runs to the TV set, switches channels, then to the radio, cranking the volume to hear some mention of the date, fearing that, without distraction and noise, she will lose consciousness, still horrified as she vividly relives Eric’s disappearance.  Anja knows something has been wrong with her and in a desperate attempt not to let go she stands up and fastens on one thought: “He saved my life.  I will not take it back from him.  He was right.  I am wrong.”  She makes herself repeat this, “He was right. I am wrong,” the apartment in utter chaos, makes herself shout it until amidst the blare of the TV and radio, clothes strewn on the kitchen and living room floors, she smells perfume, swings around, and spots a woman standing just inside the open apartment door.

Anja stares at the woman as the woman stares back.  The woman at the door resembles the one posing in the bookshelf photographs.  The woman drops her bag, gapes her mouth, her eyes fix, and as she is still too terrorized to speak, she silently braces for violence.  Anja mutters, “No,” but it’s lost in the cacophony.  The woman rushes into the room, leaps on the bed, stuffs her hand beneath it, rips opens a shoebox and produces a gun.  She then rights herself on the bed, rises and deliberately aims the barrel at Anja’s chest, eases to the left, very carefully turns off the TV, reaches, now sweating profusely, and shuts off the radio.

“I am not what … it looks like,” Anja sputters out.

“What do you think this looks like?” The woman, standing erect, drops her eyes to the gun, frightened but gaining a kind of manic composure.  She re-aims at Anja’s chest like moving the snout of a Doberman.  She’s behaving theatrically, by habit it seems, but in the throws of fear and trembling.  She waits, in dead silence, then whispers, “Who are you?”

“Anja”

“Don’t you move.  I can kill you, no problem.  And, Anja’s a thief?”

“Eric’s girlfriend.”

“Sure.  That’s easy.  You have a letter with his name on it in your hand. Don’t move.  Now, you lie to me and you die.”

“I lost my memory just now.”

“Oh, lost your memory!  That’s not fucking good.  Not good.  Where’s Eric?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s not an answer!”

It occurs to Anja that this could be the end.  Anja has no idea where Eric is, does not have the time to tell this woman the whole story, the truth, and doesn’t really want to, for Eric’s sake.  If he happens to kill the mole, and, given that the apartment is a mess, drawers and shelves rifled, she might as well lie and say she’s a thief and be willing to be arrested, or shot.  Clearly she would further degrade everyone’s life if she provokes this woman to shoot her, though it seems a perfect time to go — far cleaner than jumping off a roof.  The woman may not know it but she could very well be offering Anja a favor.

“I am ready to die,” Anja glares at her, light-headed with a rush of immense relief.

“You’re what? You threatening me? You fucking threatening me? ‘Cause I’ll do it.  You will die.”

“No, you threaten me. You have a gun.  But if this is my time, it’s better than suffering further.  I have made my peace.  Fire away.  Go ahead. Why not die from the hand of the woman who sublets Eric this apartment?”

“This is absurd!  You’re guessing and can see from the fucking “c/o” on the envelope that it’s not his place.  You’re not fooling me.”

“I love Eric.”

“Sure you do.  Don’t move!”

“I will not.  No need.”

The woman looks around quickly and sees the food on the table. “You’re even eating here!  My, you are a needy little thief, aren’t you?”

“I never steal a thing in my life.”

“Your English sounds funky too!”

“I get funky when threatened by a gun.”

“Like it happened to you before.” The woman lets slip, but rethinks it after saying it.

Anja realizes that she must lie.  It’s imperative.  This is going nowhere, she thinks: Anja the liar.  I’m already like them. Like her, really.  No better, no higher, no stranger now to compromise.  Anja then, for the first time in her life, fakes crying.  She knows how to act, for singing is really acting with one’s voice, as dancing is acting with one’s body.  She will sing and dance.  She will lower herself so this woman will not feel frightened enough to kill her.  Anja has been tumbling down stream since Dresden, anyway.  Who is she kidding that she’s on top?  She’s in the sewer, the tunnel, with Eric, beneath both of their feet.  At first her crying is not terribly convincing and the woman scoffs.

“Cut the crap!  I’m moving to the phone.”

Then Anja breaks through.  She has plenty to cry about, indeed a river, an ocean, seems to lap, erode the banks of her pride.  Like an actress who dwells on her worst life experience to evoke tears on screen or stage, Anja pictures Eric and soon all the pain dammed up by her autistic episode bursts forth.  Sinking to her knees, sorrow, like the Colorado or Amazon, washes away her vertical advantage, hauteur and balance.  Anja Bridge collapses and all of Anja’s masks and silhouettes are so much loose sand or confetti flung to the wind or surf.  Her face utterly loses its adult persona.  She’s not even twenty now, but twelve, eight, two.  As she raises her arms at the elbow to try to stop, she cries: “He left me.” repeats it like a mantra, till the woman holding a gun knows it is no trick.  Used to sharing crocodile tears with her art friends while watching old movies, drinking sherry and munching chips, she knows the difference between voluntary sentiment and authentic suffering.   Just as she begins to feel jealous of Anja’s sorrow, Anja begins to sober up on her own and readies herself for further interrogation.  Anja just might have trashed the apartment in frustration if Eric left her, but why did he give her the key?  Is she living here?  They agreed he’d live alone.  And, glancing to Anja’s feet: did Eric actually read Penthouse?

“Tell me something about Eric I should know.”

“He is a student of architecture at Princeton.”

“You could have learnt that messing around here in my apartment.”

“He has a friend named Danny with a nose that turns down, like so, and a mouth that turns up, like so, they nickname him Danny Duck, mucky fuck. You know, alliteration.”

“I don’t know of any Danny.”

“Eric used to fantasize as a kid about a woman on a raft.  He would pretend to go see her in woods and visit and sleep with her on a raft.”

“Yeah?”

“He has bumps on his shoulders.”

“Keep going.”

“Brown nipples, kind of big, for a man.”

“I’ve never seen his nipples.”

“He’s hung like a horse!”

“Really?  He doesn’t look the type.  Wait!  Goddamn it, you’re putting me on!”

“No, I’m not.  But I ought to know, I fucked him!”

“This is rude!  When did this happen?”

“Yesterday afternoon!  I know, for instance, that there’s a used condom in the trash pail over there beneath a newspaper — yesterday’s New York Times, Eric only reads the Times international and editorial pages, throws away the business and sports sections which should be separated in the pail — and that besides the other stuff in there, there’s an orange ‘Pleasure Awaits’ condom, uh, with a full load in it!”

“Oh, my god!”

“Do you want me to fetch it for you?”

“No!  You stay back!  Really!”

“I’ll drop it right in your lap.”  Anja smiles.  The woman smiles then stops herself.  Anja has her now.  She just made a joke with a stranger holding a gun on her, without Eric here, and whose apartment she just trashed.

“Don’t count your chickens yet!”

“What? Look, I am serious.  Not about the lap.  Here I am, my boyfriend just left me, you are holding a gun on me.  I am in trouble!”

The woman agrees, keeps the gun at half mast then steps on the pedal for the trash pail and, lo and behold, resting beneath an article concerning the Chinese occupation of Tibet in yesterday’s New York Times, lies an orange condom.  On the side, left open, lay the business, sports and metro section, untouched.

“The metro section’s not here.  Did Eric leave that out to read later?”

“No, he couldn’t have.  He threw that away too.”

“You have a good memory!”

“I’m working on it.”

“O.K.  I believe your story.”

“Thank you!”

“You’re simply a mess.”

“I know.”

“It’s hard when a lover leaves you, I know.”

“I’m drowning.”

“Well, if this,” the woman gestures at the apartment, “is evidence, I guess I might believe that too.”  The woman glances around at the chaos Anja left in her apartment then to the Penthouse, and Anja notices her wince.  She came back unexpectedly because she has a crush on Eric, Anja intuits.  Well, she won’t get him!  “Give me something of your own of real value.  I’ll leave with my gun in its box, of course, and in an hour this place will be cleaned up, and you’ll be out of here.  Understand?   I will inspect what you’re taking out.   Give me the keys first.  Good.  Now, hand me something of yours of real value.  You have an accent.  You’re not American.   Do you have a passport?”

“Yes, over here.” Anja fumbles through her blanket still tied up by rope, pulls the contents out, three books, a few candles, hesitates, then hands the woman her passport, which she opens and reads. Anja’s back in East Germany.

“Anja?  Born in Dresden.”

“Yes.”

“Eric said he’s never been in Dresden.”

The lease-holder is still testing, interrogating Anja and sorely trying her patience.  Perhaps property is theft?  The old anger chokes Anja, her color returns with blood pulsing back into her legs and arms, feeling warmer, strangely hungry, she glances over to her unfinished breakfast, but manages to control herself.  “No, Eric visited Dresden.  He played music when I lived there but we never met.”

“Good.”  The woman realizes that Eric is truly Anja’s boyfriend and enjoys a wave of pity which flushes her cheeks, then discovers her envy, and still desires to needle Anja. Sensing this, Anja braces for further interrogation, “I’ve never liked Germany or Germans.”  she says, inspecting Anja’s face like a passport official, bumping into the TV set. “Was it, uh, difficult?”

“No, it was just like growing up in, I don’t know, Boston.”

“Well, I don’t know about that!” The woman raises her eyebrows,  outdoing Anja in socio-geographic knowledge.  Anja must allow herself to seem stupid, to lower herself, to placate the apartment owner. “I’m Elizabeth, Lizzie Kaltherz.”  The woman says, with a smile.  Anja bites her lip, and bides her time.  Unexpectedly, Elizabeth reaches her hand out as a favor and Anja thinks how like the two worlds between renters and rentees, the rich and poor, how like Elizabeth, or Lizzie’s hand, was West Germany’s greeting to the loser East.  No, Anja, control yourself.  This is just a woman without real self-respect who must humiliate others just to reach equilibrium.  Wait, this is what Eric chastised Anja for doing!  Eric was right!  But is Anja really now equal to this? Anja takes her hand and can only murmur: “I guess you know who I am.”

“Maybe I do.”  Elizabeth winks.

As Anja bows and says nothing, Elizabeth goes on speaking, milking Anja’s dependence on her superiority as lease-owner, while Anja politely withdraws.  Be careful Anja, she reminds herself, be careful for Eric.  If you don’t survive and he does, you’ve certainly ruined his life.  It’s necessary to survive even this – the mildly expressed but elemental need to exploit every encounter to lift one’s sagging self-esteem.  It’s endemic, Anja thinks, as she begins to dutifully tidy up.  Slowly this too nauseates Elizabeth, to feel herself a third wheel in her own apartment.  This reminds her, vaguely, that Anja has loved Eric and he may have loved her back, even as a one-night stand, and now she very much wants this girl to leave.  Anja, bowed, is stacking Eric’s clothes with infinite care back into his one designated drawer, then into the brown paper bag he uses for the rest.

“I’ve been living near Fire Island for the summer,” Elizabeth yawns, regaining her superiority.

“I hear it’s lovely.”  Anja goes on working like a maid.

“This girl is putting me on!”  Elizabeth thinks, then Anja stands up.  She’s still in her bathrobe and she’s beautiful.  “It’s gorgeous out there. I’m with several of my downtown friends: a novelist, a painter, a screenwriter.   We all hate New York in the summertime.  We always get out.”

“You must be lucky,” Anja lies, far lovelier and smarter than her tormentor,  “But I have a strange request.”

“Don’t press me!”  Indeed, Anja is pressing Elizabeth simply by being alive.  She’s also taller than Elizabeth, by four inches, yet probably twenty pounds lighter.  Elizabeth is still holding her gun.  They both suddenly look down at it: heavy, deadly, crude, and a wave of homely anguish passes across Elizabeth’s face.

“Could I buy from you your air mattress?”

“What?”  Elizabeth puts her gun down in its special cardboard shoe box.

“You don’t need it at the beach or else you would have brought it.”

Elizabeth reflects on this, nonplused.  It’s certainly true. Anne and Maria and Steven called up and told her that they had bought plastic dolphins, expensive ones, to show off, even fit with imitation spouts, and that Elizabeth needn’t bring her boring old one.  It just wasn’t posh.  Then she notices that the mattress has been inflated, which is bizarre.  Maybe Eric obliged her, after they fornicated, to sleep on the floor?  Perhaps Anja, what? Why does she wish to buy it?

Anja presents her Eric’s thirty dollars and change, “This is all I have.  I need to sleep on someone’s floor.  I must have some cushion.”

Elizabeth cannot decide whether to accept the money, again surveys Anja with envy, then pockets the money, declining the change,  “One hour!”

“One hour.”

After Elizabeth stuffs Anja’s passport in the box, she turns the door key and walks slowly downstairs, occasionally pausing to listen. Anja stuffs everything in its drawer or cabinet within minutes, vacuums, cleans and tidies in ten, fits back on her jumpsuit, finishes her breakfast cold, deflates the mattress, re-ropes it inside her blanket, and thinks hard about her next move.  When Elizabeth returns scowling, she says, “Never return to this room.”