Picture Postcards From Train Stations
One ought to be rich
and check the truth behind those postcards
As to the truth behind the following stories, or memories, don’t bet your life on it. The past is a tricky thing, and the catch is that nobody remembers what really happened. We add colors, movie moments. It’s something like Photoshop.
Let’s say that I’m holding a photo album. This gives me authenticity as the storyteller, and besides, a photo album is much more poetic than scrolling through pictures on your computer or smartphone. The past becomes tangible. Photographs are subject to the laws of physics, See, this is also how I confirm my theory about our skewed recollections of everything that happens.
The first photo was taken at the Münster train station. Stephan, my teacher, and I are sitting on a bench and waiting for the train to come. He’s rolling a cigarette, and I’m reading Rilke or Fauser, I can’t remember anymore. The picture was taken by Rafi.
Jean, or whatever the Frenchman’s name was, was tuning his guitar. Stephan was already in his position at the electric drums, a joint in his mouth and a grin on his face. The Rastaman in charge of the bongos was just grinning like an idiot. Rafi the Afghan (I guess that was his nickname) was rummaging through a bunch of papers. Poetry. His. It was kinda okay. He was, it seemed, going to sing. And where was I in this picture? In the corner of the room, a bass guitar in my hands, slung low, just like The Clash’s Paul Simonon, or that dude from Interpol.
At first glance, the room seemed to belong to a student, and not a thirtysomething Afghan guy. The lights were turned down low, books were scattered around, and the room was brimming with various records and CDs, cigarette butts and makeshift ashtrays, and dodgy company. Rafi had chosen the path of poetry, living on the expense of the state and his brother. It suited him just fine. I played the first couple of notes.
Nicht so laut, not so loud, said Stephan, the joint still between his lips. Die Nachbaren sind Spiesser. He said that the neighbors were square and that they would call the cops. I laugh and start playing “Guns of Brixton.” Everybody bursts out laughing, except Jean, or whatever his name was.
Good bass line, he said. Is it yours?
No, no. I answer in English. It’s by a band called The Clash.
Never heard of them.
Never heard of them? Man, they’re the best band of all time.
I only know classical music and some flamenco.
It’s all rock ‘n’ roll, Stephan said. He picked up a beat, cheerful, fast. I started playing along to it. It sounded like ska. Jean, or whatever his name was, got it pretty soon, and the Rasta gently played along. I don’t know whether it was because we were high, or because music can take you to higher spheres, into the Empyrean, that final, immovable heaven, but several hours passed since we’d started playing. I felt like it had been ten minutes. Everyone had fallen asleep except Stephan, Rafi, and myself.
Something came over us and we decided, wonderfully high as we were, to take a ride around town in Stephan’s car. Sunlight was faster than usual that morning. We sat in the car, put on shades, played some Oasis, and swerved down the streets. I rolled a joint, highly inexpertly, and handed it to Raf
This is the life, he said.
What is? Driving around and getting high? Doesn’t seem like much, really.
No, not that, but the three of us. Not giving a damn about anything else.
I’m not sure that’s so great either. Apathy kills, they say.
You’re just a pessimist.
I shrugged and fell silent. All three of us did. We were out of pot.
Let’s go get some more, Stephan suggested.
Good idea. Call your dealer.
No, let’s go to Holland.
In this state? I asked. Man, there’s no way they’d let us cross the border like this.
We’ll take the train.
And so we found ourselves at the Munster Bahnhof, still high as kites. We bought tickets to the nearest Dutch town. It was Enschede.
I read somewhere that we remember in our dreams, I tell Stephan. The landscape on the other side of the glass is blurry, dissolved. Rafi is asleep, awkwardly folded over himself in his seat.
I don’t know. Anyway, does it matter? We’re obviously sorely lacking something. How would you explain progress if it weren’t so?
The only thing I can tell you about Enschede is that the grey sky there started an inch above the rooftops and that the local soccer club sucks. I can’t remember anything else about it. We bought some weed, took a walk, grabbed a bite to eat in a fast food joint, and went back. When I think back on it, that wasn’t the smartest decision. Stephan could have gotten away with being caught with the weed. Rafi and I would have been fucked. An Afghan and a guy from the Balkans would mean just one thing to a Western mind: bloodshed. And so the attendant in the train eyed us suspiciously, and the seconds ground to a halt.
Drogenturisten, he waved us off. That was the only thing that could be said about us. Just three guys, blasted out of their skulls.
The shattered glass lit our way, and every shard of it was a Razor Moon on this frozen night. Soon we heard the basses, shaking our bodies in waves, drowning out our conversation, straining our vocal cords. The brick walls were covered with posters and stickers and the entire alley reeked of piss. A bouncer stood in front of the entrance to the club, but he was way too thin and short. Definitely too thin to toss Rudiger out, and definitely too short to toss me out. We decided to finish our cigarettes before we entered. I inspected the bouncer, and almost felt sorry for him. I say almost because a couple of days earlier one of his colleagues roughed me up when I’d tried to sneak a beer into the club. The poor bastard was standing outside, and it was probably the coldest night in the past couple of months. The door opened, a young girl stepped out to talk on her cellphone, and we could hear “Crying Lightning” by the Arctic Monkeys playing inside.
Immer die selbe, scheiße Musik, Rudiger grumbled.
I shrugged. Still beats the Beatles.
A pimply-faced teenager with effeminate bangs and sickly eyes approached us. He tried to bum a cigarette.
Verpiss dich, Rudiger tells him without so much as a glance. I give the kid a cigarette anyway.
Of course, and when you run out of them, you’ll just ask me for some. He flicked his cigarette to the ground as the kid walked away. Let’s go inside. My balls have crept up into my body from this cold.
Shouldn’t we wait for Luis?
He waves me off. That asshole is always late, no point in waiting for him.
Every twitch of those mesmerized bodies made the air heavier and heavier, the music still unbearable, smoke licking our eyes wide open, wickedly venomous amphetamine stares stabbing through the air, and there was no point in drinking the beer because it got warm so quickly. So Rudiger switched to lemon vodka, and I stuck to whiskey with a drop of water. The girls weren’t winking at me that night. All the better, because that would have led to a conversation, which meant running my throat ragged trying to yell louder than Dave Grohl’s overproduced voice—or stepping outside and exposing myself to the frost, the Razor Moon, and the uncaring night. I lifted my eyes from the bottom of my glass and realized I’d lost Rudiger. Among the crowd, I spotted a high brow and a thick beard. I concluded it had to be Luis. I didn’t wave; it wouldn’t have made a difference in that crowd. I went to get another drink.
The bartender was busy giving free drinks to a bronzed German broad whose tits were in imminent danger of spilling all over the bar.
Junge! I shouted. The bartender motioned me to wait. I cursed under my breath and shouted again. He rolled his eyes and came up to me. I ordered a whiskey, this time a double, so I wouldn’t have to jostle my way through the crowd again, I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see Luis smiling at me. He started telling me something.
What? I yelled. I can’t hear a word you’re saying.
Look at Rudi, he pointed. Rudiger was boring three girls in the corner of the club.
I wink at Luis and start walking to the corner, trying not to spill my whiskey. I’m going to try to cockblock Rudi. The girls are tall, wearing high heels, their red toenails poking out. How the hell are they not cold? I approach Rudi from behind and start singing in his ear.
A message to you, Rudy.
I sling my arm around his shoulder and take a sip. I ignore the girls. Rudi, you do realize you can’t have all three of them?
He can’t have any of us, one of them says. Bangs, short brown hair, an obviously artificial color. A tight dress without shoulder straps.
Why not? I ask.
They’ve got boyfriends, Rudiger says.
Luis comes over, taps me on the shoulder. I drink my whiskey and motion for Luis to wait. You know, Rudi, that can’t be the only reason why they want nothing to do with you. If you think that these girls can only defend themselves from idiots like you by having a boyfriend—or pretending to have one—then you’re a bit of a chauvinist.
How come you’re so socially aware all of a sudden?
I just think that the fact that these girls are not in the company of their boyfriends doesn’t automatically mean they want your company. Or anyone else’s, for that matter. Komm, lass uns gehen. I pull Rudi away, turn around and I’m suddenly facing three burly guys who are obviously on the warpath. I realize Luis has vanished.
They obviously weren’t lying when they said they had boyfriends, I tell Rudi. Hey guys, I say to them. We didn’t mean anything by it, we didn’t know they were with you.
Fuck ’em, Rudi says. Let’s find some other sluts.
I closed my eyes. Why did he have to say that? Rudi suffered from an inferiority complex because, up until he was around seventeen, he had been a zit-faced little midget. Now he was the quintessential Ubermensch. He was also mildly chauvinistic. He never read any female authors, he faked being in love and was generally always looking to stir trouble. I opened my eyes. I heard snippets of phrases like “let’s take this outside.” Suddenly, one of the three burly guys pulls a knife on us, Rudi smashes a bottle against his head and he goes limp, falling on the floor; the crowd starts parting away from us instead of preventing further bloodshed, and I freeze up, strategically, and a blinding pain stings me under my left eye, making me stumble. I feel someone’s soft hands grabbing hold of me as the girls scream at us to stop; I lift my gaze and see Rudi pressing one of the guys against the wall and beating on him relentlessly; some people intervene and pull the guy who blitzed me away from me. I blink a couple of times to chase away the spots buzzing before my eyes, and see that the bouncers have Rudiger pinned to the floor and are kicking the shit out of him. I realize that one of the girls, the one with the bangs, caught me and broke my fall. I run towards Rudiger, but one of the bouncers stops me.
Where do you think you’re going?
Don’t beat him. We’ll leave.
Fuck off, kid.
I tried to get past him, but he grabbed me by the collar and pushed me away. I stumbled and fell face-first on the floor, looking at three pairs of high heels. The same girl helped me up again. I realized I was still holding a glass in my hand. A broken glass. Blood was streaming down my palm. The girl with the bangs took me by my other hand and led me to the toilet. Rudiger got thrown out of the club. Or at least they stopped beating on him. She sat me down on a toilet seat in the ladies’ room.
I need to get out, I tell her.
I need to patch you together first. You can’t bleed out on me.
It’s just a flesh wound.
You’ve watched too much Monty Python.
Wow, now you’ve risen in my opinion.
Are you sure it’s not just because of the high heels?
How are your toes not freezing?
We came here by cab.
She cleans my wound with a Kleenex. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. I’m slightly disoriented and I observe her. She lifts her eyes from my wounds and smiles. What are you so confused about?
I’m not sure if it’s because of the concussion or because of the booze, but you look really pretty.
What a charmer, she says, taking a Band-Aid from her purse. I never did understand women’s purses. She applies a Band-Aid to my palm. Now you have a new line on your hand.
What does it mean?
I don’t know, I’m no expert at reading the stars.
The Moon is as sharp as a razor.
I’ve cut myself on the Moon.
Don’t push your luck.
If one of those apes is your boyfriend, you’re pushing your luck.
They were drunk, and your friend provoked them.
Rudiger’s not my friend.
What is he then?
I’m staying at his place so I don’t freeze to death in my dorm. They still haven’t fixed the heating.
That’s a pretty name. You’re not from around here.
Where are you from?
Croatia. What’s your name?
That’s a pretty name. Ich danke dir, Emmalein. Can I kiss you anyway?
That’s okay too. I’ll go get Rudiger. I take a lot of toilet paper, Rudi will need it.
Bye. Be careful not to trip in those heels.
I go out. The amphetamine stares are no longer venomous; they’ve become mocking and curious. The left side of my face still hurts. Bound to leave a bruise. I walk out and see Rudi, sitting down and leaning against the wall across the street. He’s smoking, and blood is dripping from his lips and cheeks. His temple and his lower lip are busted open. I crouch next to him and hand him some toilet paper.
Clean yourself up.
You’re an idiot. Did you have to provoke them?
They can fuck off as well. Where’s that Spanish faggot?
He vanished before all hell broke loose. Smart guy. I get up and reach out my hand to Rudi.
Come on, stop your fooling around.
I hate that song. He takes my hand and I pull him up. Where are we headed? He asks me.
Away from the Razor Moon, into the morning gray.
Pour me some more. I pass her my glass. Trembling, awkward hands. The words get snagged on my teeth. Marcela pours me a tequila, spilling some. Real Mexican tequila. Hits you right to your bones. She brought it from her home. I forgot the name of the town. She told me I was weak. I’ve gotten drunk from just three glasses of the stuff. I ask her for some Sprite to water this shit down.
No can do. Drink beer if you want something milder. Marcela isn’t the most normal of creatures. Fake red hair, short, with the body of a dancer and the teeth of a hare. Eyes the color of dark coffee. Tanned. Nice skin. She smells like some flower with an exotic name that Lorca or some similar poet must have extolled in the context of death and the night. Her parents sent her to study in Europe. She lived in Berlin at first. Her parents realized that the apple of their eye was spending too much time partying, so they sent her to a smaller town, so she could finally finish her studies. She always complained about that. She drank and smoked a lot. She laughed loud, talked loud, and was loud in bed.
Drink up, she orders. I do. It burns. My stomach’s in turmoil. I close my eyes. I can feel the ceiling lamp. It looks like the Moon. It’s the only light in the room. The moonlight is hot and it burns away on my skin. I’m sitting on a mattress, leaning against the wall. I get up, walk to the toilet. I vomit into it.
You’re such a stud, my shadow teases me.
Stop, you know that I can’t handle tequila.
Why drink if you can’t hold your liquor?
Just shut up, please. I get up. I squeeze toothpaste into my mouth. I rinse it. I go back to her room.
Who were you talking to over there? She laughs at me.
To my shadow.
Who are you, Peter Pan?
She leans in towards me and pushes me onto the mattress. I lie down. She sits on me. You’re tired, she says. I’m horny, I tell her. She laughs. The moonlight is burning on her back. It is hot. She takes off her shirt. Small breasts. Compact. They fit right in my hand. They should be advertised on TV. We kiss. She squeals; she moans. No music, no fucking jazz, could ever sound better than the sounds of a girl’s pleasure. It’s the closest to the sound a newborn baby makes, it is so primal. Why, then, do the French call orgasm a little death? The French are a morbid nation, and yet they claim to know everything about love.
Why do you dye your hair? I’m still in bed. My hands are behind my head. I inspect the cracks in the ceiling.
It’s easier to change the color of your hair than something important. It is easier to change your surroundings, skip town. It’s important that the stage setting isn’t always the same.
For me, the important thing was to go to a place where people speak a different language.
Where they have different habits. A different rhythm.
But you still know the language. You understand what they’re saying. Beneath every sky, people talk about the same things.
So why are you looking for things in different cities?
It’s hard to stand in place. It’s easier to give in to the illusion that the promised land is somewhere outside. That exactly the thing we need is waiting for us somewhere else.
When everything is already within us?
Everything is within us.
That’s great. That means I don’t have to get out of this bed.
Nope. Destiny, that’s supposed to mean being in the right place at the right time, and knowing all the correct answers, and having the shoes to match, as well. Who could bear that level of Hollywood bullshit?
I’m off to college.
I’m not. I’ll stay in bed.
You said it yourself. Everything is within us. I guess I’ll find whatever I’m missing right here.
If you find out what it is, let me know.
She gets dressed. I watch her shower in the morning sunshine. She puts on her clothes. I smell the scent of freshly made coffee. She kisses me. She smells of coffee, morning hygiene, and some exotic flower.
The display windows are glittering, the sky twitches like a TV set with a dodgy signal, poked by the spires of churches and cathedrals. The scent of cinnamon and Coca-Cola commercials, the town has turned into a Christmas county fair. I was seven or eight when I last felt the Christmas cheer, when my grandmother came to visit, by train, from this very town. She had brought along some presents for her grandchildren. Santa had nothing on Grandma. That asshole never gave me anything in person. The snowflakes drift down and melt on my coat and my hair. I watch them vanish in Marcela’s hair. We walk together. We don’t hold hands. That’s what lovebirds do. We were best with what we had.
So, you’re off to Me-ji-co tomorrow?
And you’re off to Yugoslavia?
Something like that.
You won’t buy me a present for Christmas?
I don’t believe in Christmas.
Neither do I, but I believe in presents.
All right, I might get you something, but only if you bring more tequila from Mexico. I don’t know how I’ll live through next semester without it.
Oh, look, mulled wine.
We got some mulled wine, leaned against a wall, heating our hands on the cups in silence, cautiously sipping our drinks.
Will you tell your girlfriend?
Tell her what?
What is there to tell?
You’re right. I won’t tell either.
You have a boyfriend?
No, I just won’t tell anyone. You’ll probably brag to your friends that you had sex with a Mexican girl.
Let’s go to my place.
The next morning I woke up before she did. No hangover. A blessing of tequila. It has something to do with chemistry. Hard liquor doesn’t leave a hangover. I made some coffee and sat at the table. I wouldn’t wait for her to wake up. I scribbled on a Post-It. I left her a nice little note.
To Marcela for Christmas. It was a good time. All the best,
P.S. You’re out of coffee, sorry.
The photo was taken on some rocks over an endless, shimmering sea. Kristian, Sven, and I are standing there, wrapped in towers, our hair wet, peering into the camera. A girl took the photo. A German girl of Portuguese descent whose name I’ve forgotten.
For a couple of moments, I felt nothing. A couple of moments of pure oblivion. As if I was only just going to be born. I opened my eyes. Through the ocean green I see the sun and other slumbering bodies around me. And suddenly the full force of the Northern Sea pulls me back into life. It was like a fast-forward video, from my birth all the way to this moment. This moment, when the cold pierced me like icy bullets, when there was no sound, while others around me were also just waking up, newborn and thrust violently into life. It was the farthest point from the sun.
I break the surface, swallowing air. I watch as the other bodies emerge around me. I climb up the rocks. I somehow manage to cut my hand. The sunlight heats us up there, it almost pierces our bodies. I glance at the sailboats bobbing lazily, tied to the pier. We will move on shortly. As soon as we dry up. I picture us looting and pillaging villages, like Vikings. We probably will, too. Head straight to the first bar, down a couple of beers, snatch some Norwegian wenches, see what happens. It was the perfect plan.
Some City by the Sea
In the photo, Andrea and I are laying out the table for lunch. A plastic table, plastic chairs, her head tilted up in front of the camera when it clicked, me hunched over, placing a plate on the table. Sven took the photo.
Sven and I are on the roof of Andrea’s house. We don’t count the stars, no way. We leave that to the lovebirds. We count our failures; there’s many more of those, it seems. We talk about politics-music-movies, Zen, Hawking, and black holes. He lights up a joint. That’s a ritual of ours. We wait for Andrea and her girlfriends to go to sleep, then we head to the roof and light up. They didn’t like it. It’ll make you dull, they’d tell us. We didn’t know how else to spend our time. A small town. No clubs. A couple of shops, a beach, fat German tourists and two grinning guys. More blessed than the Buddha.
I love her skin.
Especially when it tastes of salt.
Cool. Her friends are stuck up.
No, you just don’t have any style.
You trying to say I dress badly?
Style’s got nothing to do with that. Style pertains to a higher tier.
I don’t think that the word tier can be used in this context.
You just don’t know the right answers.
Tell me, then. What are they?
I can’t. That would be worse than cheating on a test.
You cheated on every single test in high school, you jerk.
Yeah, but it was okay. I have style.
You’ve been smoking again, Andrea says as she washes the dishes.
Fucking pot will make you dull.
That way of thinking will make you dull. In fact, it already has.
Everything needs to be by the book. For fuck’s sake, you go to bed at eleven.
Well, somebody needs to go to the store in the morning, and you slackers sleep until one in the afternoon.
I shrugged. Whatever.
Well, what do you want to hear?
I just don’t want to fight.
Then stop inspecting me for defects and we might get somewhere.
Why can’t we be like other couples?
What, fat and boring? No thanks. Besides, Shakespeare himself said that the course of true love never did go smooth.
Then our love is the truest. She kisses me.
After the kiss, I keep my eyes closed for a long, long time. Yeah, okay, if only I could be sure that it’s love, and not apathy.
I watch these postcards and random photos. They don’t manage to elicit nostalgia. Fuck it. I need moments, not hours, years, and distorted memories.