5B – Down to Earth

Dawn greets Anja on the rooftop. Pink and rose, it pries at her blue eyes from beneath heavy lids and tints her blonde hair spread out like a starfish. Lying on her back, palms open, her still damp jumpsuit slowly dries from the rising sun poking from behind Atlantic and Brooklyn cloud, glistening uptown spires, waking seagulls from East River posts. They wing, bank with the same warm zephyrs which rustle her cuffs and sleeves. A jet rising from Kennedy Airport draws a distant cello drone. A truck’s breaks cries from the street — daylight’s first siren. All would seem to conspire to wake and warn Anja, lying exposed like this on the roof.  Yet sleep so luxurious has not charmed her since Eric disappeared.  The successive discoveries: the open mike, the cops, Elizabeth, Slavko, of her whereabouts, of her odd ethos of heights, of her appearance, in short, of her presence now before the public and strangers alike, should make hiding her only goal.  Her radar, however, seems to have vanished. She has been dreaming instead of Eric, pretending that he drapes his arm over her waist, and cups her breast.  His breath, really the dawn breeze, tickles her tiny neck hairs, his warm chest swells in waves, and his strong, slow heart pulses against the small of her back.  Anja, who shuns romance as one might diphtheria, who snorted with disgust even as a child at poetry and flowers, and has since smelt death and the wheezes of johns, revels now in Eric’s ghost-silhouette. In his love, which she so cravenly denied herself the night of her projective vengeance.

A near cloudless day dawns on her and eventually Anja wakes against her will, wrapping her head in her arms, covering her eyes like any squatter against the inevitable nowhere-to-go exile of negative freedom.  She gets up slowly and ambles over to hang her feet over the ledge as one might bathe in a fountain of air, and desultorily brings the pole to her lap, across her knees, like a girl warrior.  The first pavement-crones are obeying the tug of their work chains, which seems no better now than her empty, Eric-less life.  There’s a buttoned-up Chinese woman in a black suit and white track shoes passing a graying old black man in a blue chemise. Two school kids follow, shoving each other sideways, while an Hasidic Jew avoids them with a sideways half-step, pulling a hair ringlet.  Three hospital technicians in white official shirts smoking thin cigarettes are chatting, passing a sunglassed hipster rolling along in his electric wheelchair.  A sidewalk cleanup van is squirting the curb, avoids a beat-up red station wagon, hugs the curb again, waits, lets a commuter bus swing into a bus stop, then squirts the hipster’s tires, he stops and looks around.

Then Anja spots the same red-head Gabi lookalike she ran after last week. Same head cocked to the left, flops her feet as if each step were an afterthought, small, compact.

Anja damns herself and blasts through the rooftop door, damns again the noise of her tread pounding the steel stairs. Again, she runs after this Gabi stand-in, around the corner, but this time Anja beats her to the entrance to the commercial building across 2nd Ave.  Anja sprints to her side, assuming she’ll merely alarm a stranger, and reveal that much more of her disintegrating memory and judgment.  She stops and swings right in front and confronts the frightened redhead square in the eye.  The girl shrinks back, hides her head, then parts her fingers, peeps, swears in German (“Mein Gott, nay!”), jumps up and down, bunches up her small, feminine fists, and bellows, “Anja!”

Anja’s been recognized too much of late for her need to recognize not to fool her. Yet, at first, for all her effort to chase down the Gabi lookalike, the real Gabi cannot fit on her emotional screen: “Gabi?”  She whispers, skeptical anything so right ever comes to pass.  Anja hugs her simply to check the smell, feel the frame, and listen to Gabi’s voice, “Just, look at you!”  Anja says, still checking in German.  Anja’s still appraising her but it’s Gabi’s dilemma to appraise a far more changed Anja. The gentle extrovert who loved skipping and dumb wisecracks, whose satiny adolescent skin and tender too-ideal introspections which made Gabi love Anja more than any boy, have an utterly radical look and harder atmosphere now. “I’ve been looking for you!” Anja cries. They both fight back tears, sorry as much for themselves as for their erased country, their lost years, for the Fall, for their mutual but very different ex-patriotism, for the shock of lonely adulthood, for their disappointment with freedom. Embracing, landscapes and childhood scenes race through their heads. Examining the change each other’s faces, kissing each other, running their fingers through their hair, making quite a scene for the dozen or so people who chance by.  Yet what care they, together, again, and in New York?

“It’s remarkable!”  Gabi breathes, speaking in German, dusting herself off.

“Who made it first?”  Anja laughs.

“I did!” Gabi brags.

“When?”  Anja puts her hands on her hips, in her old I-dare-you pose.

“Two years and one month and a half ago.”

“Well, damn, you did beat me!  By a year and three months and five days!”

“What?  You were always lousy at math, Anja.”

“It’s beautiful to see you, my little acorn.”

“My what?  Oh, that old joke.”

“Are you on your way to work?  I hope we can speak to each other now.”

“Yes we can, actually.  My boss is out of town and I always work alone anyway.”

“Where is it?”

“Right in here, through this door. C’mon with me!”

O.K.!”

They pass through the glass door which just days ago had separated the two old friends, passed the bored security guard doing crosswords on a stack of tabloids, press the eighth floor button and walk into the elevator. Gabi shushes Anja with her fingers to her lips, both giggling, hugging each other.  When they walk out, Gabi finds a key and they enter an unmarked steel door to an office with nothing but beige phones in it. No other employees, just a series of phones, one desk, and a computer attached to the phones by wires to tabulate the money and credit card accounts.  There are a few books on the floor, and while Gabi closes the door and checks the mail, Anja scans the titles, all of them on the same subject: several De Sade, Celine, but the rest were S&M schlock paperbacks, even a biography of Don Rickles, the acerbic American comedian. Anja decides not to pry right away but she know there’s something odd about Gabi’s job.  Gabi knows Anja, still, and replies:

“I’ll tell you what I do here soon enough Anja.  Here,” Gabi sits right down on the floor, “Sit before me like old times.”  Anja does so, smiling. Gabi and Anja sit cross-legged facing each other, ready to gesticulate with elbows bent so they can stare in each other’s eyes and question each other, ready to get up and walk around then return to the same position.

“Well?”

“I guess you want to know what happened when I got out?”

“I received a few postcards then … nothing.”

“I’m terribly sorry Anja!  You never left my thoughts, though.  Let me explain.  You know my story, I think, until Amsterdam, when I met the conga player. That lasted a week!  He was a filthy sponge, a junkie who played and spoke beautifully.  It wasn’t the first time I fell for looks over brains or honesty.  I left him and Holland for France to be a housekeeper, was fired within a week because I couldn’t really speak French, was never paid, lived in an American bookstore for a month, for nothing, but learned  that it was merely a pickup place.  I got terribly sick on a soup the store owner fed me and was hospitalized with food poisoning.  When I made it to Paris all I felt, though, was guilt toward you.  I kept on thinking about you, who wanted to get out more than I did — and that we bet who would get to Paris and New York first.  I did, of course.  But I felt terrible about it.  After the stretch of three days in the hospital, that is, after three weeks of not writing you, I let it stretch further to four, five weeks, months — a year, two, five!”

Gabi starts to cry but Anja won’t have it.  Anja, somehow, knew that Gabi had neither forgotten her nor, now, could forgive herself for not writing.

“Gabi! Please!”

“Oh Anja, forgive me!”

“I do Gabi, if you promise me … “

“What?”

“Promise me you will never stop writing me or knowing me again.”

“I promise!  I promise!”

“Now, here, dry your tears and listen to my story.” Anja pours out the last years without exaggeration, and without letting Gabi inject a word.  Anja fears that if she stops she too might break down and evoke Gabi’s pity, which she certainly does not intend to exploit.  Gabi rustles in her seat having to suppress herself, listening to Anja’s rage against her father and his notoriety, follows sadly Anja’s winter’s tale of dirty snow, squatting in a shed in Greiswald, her life as prostitute in Prague for a year, how she hitched to Paris and lived with an old guy way past thirty, how she finally had him pay for her flight to New York, barely mentioning that a guy threatened her with a knife before she left.  Gabi feels even worse when she learns how Anja was attacked in the subway tunnels, then with utter amazement to why Anja made her home in a watertower.  Gabi makes her repeat why she loved it but still cannot understand why.  Anja then relates how she met Eric, how he pulled her from suicide, with gratification as to how she was able to make love again with him, her debacle singing at the open mike, her chasing the mole and Eric’s disappearance.  Gabi begins to shake her head and has to stop herself when she explains the cops at Danny’s place, Elizabeth’s appearance, floating in the fixed watertower, Slavko’s threats and her last night, sleeping on the roof.

“Oh Anja, I’m even more sorry now I didn’t write you.  We could have helped each other. You could have helped me.  I could have helped you.”

Anja blanches, but keeps her composure, “Gabi, what do you do for a living?”

“I just talk on the phone.”

‘A German accented telephone operator?”

“No.”  Gabi glances at her slyly, “And no, not phone sex either.”

“Well, what a solicitor?”

“No, not that either.  It sounds strange, but I insult people. Men mostly. Rich men.  Often foreign men.  It started, they say, in Japan.”

“But Gabi, why do men pay to be insulted?”

“Their whole lives are an insult to others. They put themselves on the receiving end so they can go on being bastards at work and at home.  They’re even-ing up the score.  It’s the same reason why S & M exists, really.”

“They are so low!”

“They feel like it when I’m done with them!. Believe me. And they love my German accent!  You know, ‘Nazi bitch’.  ‘Orders from above.’ All that.”

“Why do you sell out to such shit? We’re not Nazis! It keeps the stereotype rolling.”

“They know that.  It’s just an imagined thing. Anja, listen, the world — what we use to call the West — is built on stereotypes.  It was same under the old system, too.”

“But we stayed tight.  We saw after our friendships. After each other. We talked for hours.  Brought each other flowers, gifts, cooked meals, held parties, read books.”

“Yeah, it was nice and secure, but that’s all we had. It’s over!  But look here, weren’t you insulting the world by staying above it?”

“It didn’t hurt anyone else! It’s my business. I didn’t talk to anyone.”

I do. Way too much. But they deserve being put down and they pay dearly for it.”

“And what about the people they shit on everyday — their employees, their wives, their children?”

“They’re supported by these bastards.  They accept the money, spend it, and pretend they’re in love just like I pretend to loathe them.”

“I would loathe them!”

“That’s your problem.  I don’t hate any one.  I crack up after I put down the phone.  You really do hate and you used to really love.  Me, I think, being short, perhaps, I just roll with the punches, or, rather, I duck. You were difficult to get along with, making everyone ‘rise to your level’ whatever that was or is — I’m easy going.  I love life.  Sure, this is strange, but so was our past, so is what happened to the Soviet Union, so is life itself.”

“Gabi, you were never good at philosophy.”

“Oh, I know you were good at it!  You let me know every day!”  They both laugh.

“But that bastard father of mine!  That fucking armchair dictator!  He’s just like the guys you talk to.  They can all go to hell!  Mr. Gigs can go to hell.   Elizabeth can go to hell! Slavko can go to hell  … “

Could you please not get upset! Christ!”  Gabi jumps up, flattening her dress, upset, “Come down to earth!” She demands with her old voice of adult authority.

Anja watches Gabi struggle with anger and sadness in her eyes.  Gabi stopped writing her and left her alone with her father’s scandal and suddenly, as Gabi intuited, Anja feels Gabi too can go to hell.  Then she thinks of her tower, then Eric, and gazes again to the face she has craved to look at, it seems, for centuries.  She doesn’t want to lose Gabi again.

“Please don’t be mad Anja!  My dearest girl!”  Gabi kneels closer kissing her hair away from her eyes.

“I can’t go on!”  Anja shakes with bitterness. “You know, I just found a boyfriend.  Eric.  My first real boyfriend since well, Manfred.  Sweet guy!  My god!  He’s got these little bumps on his shoulders.  Please don’t leave me too, Gabi, Oh!”

“It’s alright.  Tell me about Eric.”

“He’s gone!  I told you.  I may have killed him! I spotted the mole whom I thought forced himself on me and Eric ran after him — never to return.”

“Yes!  A mole? I didn’t get that.”

“It’s all my fault.  Yes, one of those creeping people in the subways.”

“Why should they be creepy?  They’re homeless just like you!”

“That’s exactly what Eric said.”

“Look, Anja, the reason why I reacted strangely just now and said ‘Come down to earth’ is that I didn’t tell you the whole story. I went back to Dresden, not three months ago.”

“Has it changed?”

“Yes, it has.  But — this is hard to say.  I visited your mom.  She’s remarried, by the way …

“To whom?”

“To a man who moved from West Germany, he has three kids, two pretty little girls, actually, and a baby boy.”

“My mother!  Remarried. What does he do?” Anja suddenly sobers up.

“He runs a real estate business.  He’s buying property.  He’s, well, a landlord.”

“What?”

“Yes, and he said, if I ever saw you to tell you to come home and he’ll give you an apartment.”

“Never.  I’m never going back to Dresden.  A landlord!”

“Yes.  You’re mother is happy with him, Anja.  I have her address.  I’ll give it you.”

“I don’t know.”

“Think about it.”

“A landlord? It’s like being Stasi.”

“A landlord?”

“How is her health?”

“Fine.  But Anja, I have to tell you something far more intense than that.  Are you ready?”

“Shoot.”

“Anja, don’t say that.”

“Why not?”

“Your father …  He, a, passed away.”

“Dead? How?”

“Do you want some water?”

“No!  Tell me!”

“He shot himself.”

“What?  How?”

“With a gun.”

“That’s obvious!  Which gun?”

“How do I know?”

“Was it …  it must have been!“  Anja turns around and begins to pace  “How could he have bought another in Germany?  Unless he got involved in the underworld.  It must have been the one he had at home, the black service revolver!”

“Anja!  Is that all you care about?”

Anja looks at Gabi for a moment without seeing her.  A rush of conflicting emotions invades her head: guilt, elation, nausea, irony, incredulity, relief. A vivid image of her armchair dictator blowing out his brains was her one, recurrent father-fantasy.  And it came true. Almost as if she willed it.  But then, it makes perfect sense that he did it. Though there are thousands of bastards who made a smooth transition to unification.  Does it mean that she knew he would do it? Then a counter-emotion, a flood of much older memories return. She respected him her whole childhood!  Even an animal feels remorse over a parent dying, only a psychotic human could resist its weight, and impact, right through the hateful memory.  For the first time since the scandal, Anja feels him in her veins, sees him lift her up as a girl and carry her on his shoulders.  Yet she doesn’t want to feel him.  Then she experiences an immense lightness, a lifting of him from her, which she is loathe to let wholly go.  It’s her hatred, which made her who she is now. If she loses her hatred, if it flies from from her, who will she be?  Plenty of people hate the dead.  Yet it’s absurd.  The dead can’t feel it. If his ghost is intent on leaving her body. will she still be Anja, without him?  Her father must be a living enemy, guilty for wrecking people’s lives, for wrecking Anja’s life, or just, what? A ghost?

Gabi watches Anja, and since they were close, she still feels she knows how to read Anja’s expression.  Yet Anja’s face appears like a hieroglyph, its few mood lines, especially around the mouth, eyes and brow, seem like labyrinths into which anyone could get lost.  Anja is now a Sphinx, an enigma, many people, many Anjas sit across from the simply constructed psyché which the world calls Gabi, and Gabi fears her own fascination, afraid to be drawn into a vortex, this drain on Anja’s being.

“When?”

“Last year.”

“The date!”

“I don’t know, Anja.  You scare me.”

“Get me closer.”

“To the time?  Let me remember.  Please, don’t press me.  You mother said, at New Years.  Yes, New Year’s eve year before last.  Are you satisfied?”

“Don’t ask me that!”  Anja says with a sudden flash of anger.

“I’m sorry!”

The expression of fear in Gabi’s eyes cools out Anja’s anger, and she works to bring herself, just as Gabi insisted, down to earth.  Down to where her hated Stasi stand-in for a father now rests. The only ghosts, the only skeletons, are now in Anja’s mind, in her mental closet.  She’s responsible for his continuance.

“Who carried his casket?”

“I don’t know.  Some old party officials I suppose.  Your mother didn’t attend.  That’s what she told me.”

“Good for her.”  Anja then considers what it must have meant for her mother.  It must be a strange thing for someone with whom you slept for a decade or more to die, even if you hate or hated him. And Anja’s gentle, long-suffering mom is probably still quite sensitive. Then Anja thinks of Eric.  It’s enough if you slept with him one night!

“Gabi!”

“Yes, Anja.”

“If Eric … is dead.  I want you to do two things.  Never mind what I say later.  Remember what I say now.”

“O.K.”

“Can I trust you on this?  I mean it!”

“Yes, Anja.  Go ahead.”

“Two things.  Contact my mother and tell her I love her and I’m fine.  Don’t tell her anything but that I am fine.  Next, have me committed.”

“What?  Anja!  You!  I, I don’t have the authority.”

“Promise!”

“Why?”

“Because I will want to commit suicide.  If my father has committed suicide, I cannot copy him.  And if Eric dies, I am responsible.  I will naturally desire suicide which, believe me, I know takes on its own power! There’s a real sordid attraction to it, as much I suppose as a drug. Don’t let me do it.  And don’t let me run loose on the streets.”

“Anja, this is scary!”

Now, you get down to earth, Gabi!”

“O.K. then Anja!  Again, I don’t think I will have the authority!”

“Assume the authority.  Tell them I’m dangerous.  Think of what I just told you.  There must be eighty people in this city who now think I’m crazy.  Link them if you have to.  Pull my supposed craziness out of these dumb people into a good story and convince the cops and then the psychiatrists that I’m fit for their white rooms and oblivion pills.”

“O.K. I agree.  But, now you do me a favor.  Let me help you without objecting, meanwhile.”

“Why should you?”

“I owe you.”

“No you don’t!”

“I’ll decide that, Anja!”

“Look, you could fit into a suitcase and I couldn’t.  That’s the difference.  Should I be angry at you because I am taller than you?”

“Precisely.  That’s why you should let me help!”

“Well, you got me there.  I should take back what I said about you in terms of philosophy.”

“No philosophy, here.  My feet on the ground.  My courage beside yours.  That’s my philosophy.  Nothing high and mighty about it.  Just Gabi the Short here, speaking as you do, just little Gabi your friend standing up for you.  And no strings attached.”

“You’ll renege”

“I will not!  I had the courage to crawl into a suitcase and risk discovery at the border.  I have the guts — and love for you — to squeeze into this suitcase and accompany you across the border — of what?”  Gabi smiles at Anja.

“Of the horizon!”  Anja, though there is no glass in her hand, belatedly tips an imaginary drink to Gabi.

Yes, to where the sky meets the earth,” Gabi stands up, finds a bottle of red wine and glasses hidden beneath her couch facing the phones, rises and puts a glass into Anja’s hand then pours for them both.

” … to the horizon.”

Yes … to the earth!”

“To our time onearth!”

“These people in the West, they lie voluntarily.  At least the lie was imposed from above under Communism.”

“Anja, get over it.  You sound like an old woman.  You’re the same age as I.”

“No, you’re right.  I’m older. Always was.  Even when we played hopscotch on the playground.  Only you had a body which could fit in a suitcase.”

“Still mad at me for that?  You would have done in the same if you were small.”

“I don’t regret not being small.  I regret being born.”

“No you don’t Anja.”

“I hate being pathetic.  Look at this shit!”

“Come. Come.”