We go to an expensive Italian restaurant across from the strip club and drink a bottle of wine to kill some time, and it soon becomes apparent that the waiter is attracted to my husband, who may be getting on in years, but is hot-blooded. The waiter is getting on in years, too, he has had his photograph taken with Sophia Loren and Helmut Kohl in this very restaurant, which gets my husband out of his seat. Would you look at that, it’s nine o’clock, and we head across the street. We pay admission. I start by asking at the bar if it is okay for me to be here even though I am a woman. I do that to initiate contact and get on their good side. No problem, we are the only guests here. The girl behind the bar is from Romania, sturdy with short hair. My husband thinks I am good at making contact with people and at relaxing. People have to be careful not to praise me too much, I get terribly stimulated and can easily overstep the mark, then there is no stopping me. There are so many prostitutes here I don’t know what to do; we are the only guests and we have no intention of buying sex, I tell that to the girl at the bar several times. That’s quite alright, we can just have a drink, you get three free drinks with admission, so I choose the strongest one and knock it back in a hurry. On stage, the show begins, with a mixed-race girl doing all the expected stuff and maneuvering up and down and around a go-go pole until she is naked. It reminds me of the circus and of extreme fatigue, routines, because I hate to say it: of a tired circus animal. The moment she walks off the stage, she goes all shy, bowing her head and clutching her clothes against her stomach.
In the meantime at the bar: a woman has sat down next to me, she is also Romanian (from this point I refer to her as my darling), I ask her if she knows Herta Müller, she asks me to name titles, I mention Even Back Then the Fox Was the Hunter, which is quite a mouthful in German, especially with my German; her German is not great either, she is taking lessons and claims to speak 85 percent grammatical German. I am not sure how to respond, “modal verbs, you know,” she says. Those I know. But it dawns on me that I have completely forgotten that articles and nouns are declined, meaning nothing I have said has made any sense. Apparently I have been speaking 0 percent grammatical German so I switch to English. I am sitting with my back to my husband, he is very interested in our conversation, and once in a while I turn around to fill him in. He nods and poses supplementary questions. I ask my darling if she sends money home to her parents, because you always read about that, but no, they have never helped her, so she does not help them. “Does that sound a little harsh?” my darling asks. I think so. My darling thinks so too. Whenever my husband gets drawn into the conversation, she treats him with the utmost respect, giving him all the time he wants. It makes me jealous, I want her full attention.
“Do you want to buy him?” I ask. “Three hundred euros.”
She looks at him to see if he finds it amusing, he does.
“Oh, that’s expensive, very expensive,” she says.
“He may be a bit old, but he’s good,” I say. “He fucks like a stallion.”
“Oh, a superboy,” she says.
“There are boys and then there are boys,” I say.
“Prince Charles,” she calls him, and he likes that.
My husband leans back in his barstool and laughs, my darling laughs, I laugh. I realize I am taking up her time, so I ask her if she wants some money for speaking to me.
“Oh, Camilla,” she says. “Money, money, money.”
I hold out a note in front of her and see that she does not think much of fifty euros, but the note disappears down her top. She is dark-skinned and could be a Roma. My husband is getting bored now, he gets up and strolls over to a group of girls sitting round a table, including the Romanian barmaid who is studying mathematics, he fancies a little chat with her. He wants to know about Romanian living standards, differences and similarities in the time before and after Ceaușescu. It makes me a little insecure seeing my husband speak to other women, “oh mein Schatz,” my darling says, “just let him be, that’s just the way it is sometimes, everyone needs that.”
“Mmm.” I ask her if she has a boyfriend. She does, but she does not seem particularly enthusiastic. I ask her if it is difficult being in a relationship when you work as a prostitute. She takes a deep breath and says something about Orgasmus, she is about to make a speech about various types of Orgasmus, or the lack of Orgasmus, when some customers arrive, three little Chinamen, and now she has to run. I feel lost. She weaves around them. I get up and join my husband and the women at the round table.
“This is going to be expensive,” I tell him, “you are conducting an expensive conversation.”
“No,” he says, “this is the staff table. And I’m speaking to the girl who works behind the bar.”
“Trust me,” I say, “it’s going to be expensive. It’s like sitting in four taxis at once.”
“Rubbish,” he says, “we’re talking about Romania.”
“Rubbish,” say the girls.
“All right then,” I say. “Just call me paranoid.”
I join the small group that consists of:
1. The mixed-race girl, 24, a skeptic.
2. A pale woman who introduces herself as an alcoholic.
3. A woman with black hair and a small face, she has just had a facelift.
4. The barmaid.
“Mein Schatz,” my darling says when she sees me (the Chinese men are getting ready to leave) and plants herself on the chair behind me and wraps her arms around me, “Camilla and the horse,” she says to the others, pointing at my husband and me. Then she wags a finger in front of her nose and corrects herself: “Prince Charles,” she says and points at my husband.
I duly compliment the mixed-race girl’s performance and ask her: “Do you want to buy him? He may be a bit old, but he’s good.”
Before she gets a chance to answer, the alcoholic leans across the table and introduces herself as an alcoholic again. I tell her that she is very clever and incredibly good looking and I encourage her to stop drinking and be happy with herself. I show her how I give myself a pat on the back every day, unfortunately I can’t remember what that technique is called, but it works (because for every day that passes, I am more and more content with myself ), I got it from an article in Reader’s Digest. I force a promise out of her, that she will not have a drink first thing the following morning, I start to see myself as a kind of barefoot doctor, moving from bar to bar, I order champagne for the table to celebrate the alcoholic’s decision, and my darling kisses me, her tongue is very pointy, mine is very dry, this is going to be expensive, and I tell her that married life with my husband is like one looong German porn film, he is a superboy, he is falling apart, I have also completely fallen apart, my darling’s one breast slips out, and her skirt is twisted halfway around, she is about to fall apart, but she strokes me and caresses me, she wants to go home now, so I give her a slap, not very hard.
“She hit me,” my darling says in shock.
“Blame it on love,” the woman with the small face says, “I prefer gentlemen, but once in a while I like a woman.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I say, it’s morning, and I ask her how much it will cost to get her to stay for just one more hour, please-please-please, but she lives wayyy out in the suburbs. I picture my darling, alone on the U-bahn, alone on the S-bahn. I want to buy more champagne for her, for everyone.
We have to go now, the bar is closing, it’s seven o’clock, I have a husband who fucks like a stallion, I cry, “oooooh,” they jeer at the sight of my tears: “It’s true love,” I give the alcoholic one final admonition, she has to manage without her trainer now, because Camilla and the horse are leaving, “no no no: Prince Charles,” my horse is my cane this blistering morning; suddenly it is the last summer ever.
I wish I was Žižek. Žižek can get everything to make sense, if I had been Žižek now, right now, I would be lying in a Punic bordello having a fucking match with Houellebecq, the whores would not be trafficked, just glo-ba-lized—can you hear it being sung by Gregorian monks, or maybe a eunuch: glo-ba-lized pro-sti-tutes.
Ohhh, the human, the oh-so Žižekian need to make sense of things where none exists. What is it that I cannot make sense of? My memory? My love life? We will have to take a closer look at that.
I miss my Romanian darling. I never discovered her name. My husband says: if you want to see her again, you’ll have to hurry back, they are flighty people. By which he means she might be working at another bar already, in another city: or that so many people have slipped through her fingers that she will have forgotten me, or soon will.
“Flighty people”—the expression surprised me. Like he was in possession of an experience I was unaware of—and was only now revealing a small piece of it.
At first I could not remember her either. I mean: I could not picture her. And I could not really remember what had happened.
The very first thing, when I woke up later that morning after only a couple of hours of sleep (we left the bar at seven and stepped outside to face a morning light as sharp as needles, with me crying over my lost love, over parting as such, over the brevity of life) with a horrific hangover, maybe even drunk, the very first thing I found in my handbag was the address and telephone number I had extorted from her. She had handed it to me with a shrug (maybe it was fake), and I quickly tore the note into tiny pieces and flushed it down the toilet so I would not be tempted to contact her. A memory arrives on the platform of the cerebral cortex, bleak as a freight train. One loss carries another with it. Loss opens up loss opens up tear ducts. Even as a child I feared the worst. I was secretly in love with a boy in my class and wrote him love letters that he was never meant to see, never ever, my love was hopeless, I wrote the letters (well, they were not exactly Shakespeare, were they?) because I felt closer to him when I wrote, when I communicated, when I placed his name in a heart next to mine. Fearing these letters might somehow fall into his hands, or anybody else’s for that matter, I tore them into a thousand pieces as soon as I had written them and flushed them down the toilet. Almost as soon as I had done that, my nightmare began. I imagined him walking into his bathroom many kilometers away, and lying in the toilet water was: my torn up letter, which he would immediately fish out, dry, piece together. Then he would throw his head back and laugh, and I would change schools. A fatal flaw in the sewer system was to blame for this frightful event, his pipe and my pipe were connected! The next time I burned my love letter. The wind caught a couple of singed flakes and carried them out the window. I began to daydream instead and was thus let off having to destroy evidence. The memory is now departing from platform cerebral cortex, do not cross the tracks. And hold onto your portmanteau.
We are staying on the twenty-fifth floor of a hotel on Alexanderplatz, with a view of the restaurant in the TV tower. I could draw the curtains and make the small hotel room even darker, even closer, or I could offer an unobstructed view of my wretchedness. Not that I think anyone could see into our hotel room from the restaurant in the TV tower, they would need binoculars to do that. Not that I thought anyone would even consider doing that. No, the TV tower itself was so observant, a massive observer with red flashing eyes, right outside the window.
The WC and shower were in a green, marbled glass space within the hotel room, a shower cubicle with a toilet. For a long time, I threw up in fits and starts within this tiny cage, where there was barely room to kneel down and which did nothing to block the noise from the surrounding room (I hoped Charles was fast asleep). Who could vomit noiselessly? It was practically pouring down. Like the expression: Life flows out of you. As though life was a small brook. I coughed up in convulsive jerks, kneeling in the most humiliating position with my arms flung around the white bowl, clasping it (oh, how I would have preferred to be kneeling amongst sheep by a brook and drinking amongst sheep).
In that respect, I have always imagined dying in a bathroom, a clean death, practically antiseptic, slumped against white enamel, a sampler of the coffin’s white calm, but I hope that the bathroom I die in will be bigger than this cubicle in the hotel room on Alexanderplatz, a little more spacious, a little more Todesraum, bitte. When I was finished vomiting, I went to bed, closed my eyes and tried to remember. Next to me, Prince Charles was snoring.
The first thing Charles did when he woke up was squeeze my hand. A gentle squeeze that meant: we belong together, the two of us; even though our eyes may have been turned by other people last night. Or it could also mean: I didn’t hear you vomiting. Very reassuring, very affectionate. I squeezed back. Then he leapt to his feet and started to rummage through his pockets, pulling out all the receipts from last night’s festivities. The Visa had been swiped many, many times. The bar did not accept Visa, they wanted cool hard cash, but the barmaid had offered to have Charles driven to the nearest cash machine in the bar’s six-door white Cadillac with tinted windows, one of those ones that looks like an oversized hearse, (if I could choose my death, I would be run over by a hearse, death is my best friend // my raddled follower to the bitter end, tra-la-la, it sounds like one of my friend Alma’s halting, drawling rhymes, the mortician would gather me up from the street and place my bruised body on top of the coffin, skip the hospital and the chapel, get right to the point, straight to the grave) but more precisely, at least in this instance, it serves as a bordello on wheels. Charles had declined. He was more than happy to walk. And so he had—more than a few times—back and forth between the cash machine and the bar, the evidence of all his walking was presented, a pile of crumpled-up receipts.
“Ouch,” he said, “that was one expensive night.”
“Let’s check how much cash we have in our pockets,” I said optimistically.
There wasn’t much.
“We spent nine grand last night.”
“Nine thousand euros?”
“What’s that in euros?”
“What’s that in yen?”
He looked at me. And I knew we were thinking the same thing. He had insisted it would be free, free and easy, to have a conversation with the girls at the staff table about Romanian living standards et cetera, et cetera, and I had known it was going to be expensive, that it would mean we ended up paying for all their drinks over the course of our conversation. I said nothing. Thereby doubling my enjoyment: not only was I right but now I could act magnanimously by saying nothing. I smiled. And pocketed my point. Then we started to discuss the possibility of deducting the amount. Charles is a food critic. But even though we had sat in the bar dipping nachos in guacamole (from a jar) it could hardly be deemed a restaurant. I started to feel nauseous again and said: “Dear sweet Charles, would you mind stepping outside for a while?”
“In the corridor?”
I nodded: “Yes, quickly though.”
He quickly put on some trousers and a shirt and opened the door to the corridor. As I squeezed into the cubicle, he said: “You do realize that the fruition of a party is suicide.”
The Balcony. Jean Genet.
“Yes,” I replied, “we should have chosen the monotony of the lily fields.”
“Genet,” he said and closed the door.
We have just read The Balcony. We read to each other before going to sleep. I read novels, poems, and plays to Charles. And Charles reads recipes to me. In the foreword of one of his cookbooks it states that there is nothing to prevent people living to the age of 140. We eat according to that book. By the time he is finished reading, we are starving. We head straight to the kitchen, and that’s why we’ve got a little, only a little, mind, rotund. But as long as we walk along the bulging highway of life together, where your love handles are mine, and my love handles are yours.
The only thing I have left of her is her lighter. Charles found it in his jacket pocket and gave it to me. It’s black. With palm trees. And a couple dancing in evening wear. A bungalow can be made out in the background. Slender and elegant, they dance through the boundless tropical night. He wearing a tuxedo, she wearing a white cocktail dress. He with a hand on her enticingly curved back, his hand placed right there, in the curvature. She with a hand on the broad shoulder of his tailored jacket. A waiter crosses the terrace of the bungalow carrying a tray. Bungalow, from Banglā, a single-story house for Europeans in India. It is another era. All, I presume, very colonial, (apparently the only thing missing is some pillars, it ought to have been a house with colonial era pillars) scorching hot, the sea in the near distance, and snakes in the grass. Occasionally a snake enters the bungalow. The servants scream, and the woman in the white dress screams loudest of all. Small, underdeveloped men in white coats, slender as crickets, come running in from the garden with sharp instruments and make short work of it. The driver leans against the large car, bored, he has lit one of his master’s cigars and has to smoke it discreetly, concealed in his hand, if that’s even possible with a cigar. The couple are in the honeymoon stage of their marriage. They can still contrive to dance on the terrace at night.
I keep the lighter. A keepsake. At one point I dragged her out onto the dance floor—I went first, in the depths of intoxication, throwing my arms in the air like a skating queen and shouting: “I’m an architect.” Even though I most definitely am not.
Charles and his companions at the staff table: the alcoholic, the mixed-race girl, the barmaid, and the black-haired woman who had recently undergone a facelift and whose small face resembled a tight raisin: they observed us, hooted. I was wearing an improbable amount of clothes. A half-length skirt, flat boots, and a thick black sweater. She was more appropriately, more lightly dressed. I probably looked like an aging, slightly chubby panther. Though not without a certain suppleness. But. By that point she was already yearning to go home. When we sat down the barmaid said, pointing at Charles: “He has children.”
“He got them in Hamburg,” the alcoholic said.
“Uh, do not go to Hamburg.”
“No, do not go to Hamburg.”
“I’ve never been to Hamburg,” Charles said and put his wallet back in his pocket. He had obviously shown them a picture of his two grown-up sons. Two enterprising men in their twenties. Business, this slightly woolly word. By the age of 16 his youngest son had already made his first million. A happy story. He’s not my son. But I also have expectations of him.
Charles leaned back in the chair and exploded with laughter as he looked at me and shook his head, we had ended up surrounded by surrealists. (I happened to think of Gulliver, what he had been subjected to, of how surprised he was. As a child I could not get enough of the illustration of giant Gulliver waking up surrounded by Lilliputians, finding himself tethered to the ground by countless thin strings, with an army of miniature people teeming all around and all over him, industrious as ants, all holding something useful, on their way to complete some useful errand.)
“He’s a stallion.”
“Uh, a superboy,” my darling said, then pulled up a chair behind mine and embraced me.
“Little devil,” she said.
Shortly after that was when she grabbed me by the head and kissed me. And I began to think that she was taken with me. Our acquaintance lasted from about nine o’clock, when we arrived at the bar and she sat down in a chair next to me, until seven o’clock, when we reluctantly (at least I was reluctant) vacated the premises. Over the course of those roughly ten hours, every time she left me, for example in favor of the short Chinese men, I felt I was missing something. As if to exist was to pull something out of thin air (which it possibly is). It was exactly like that when I met Charles. Empty, lonesome, hollow, wrong whenever he was not in my direct vicinity.
—Translated by Paul Russell Garrett