|Apr/May 2018 Fiction|
Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter
I might as well tell you I had a meeting with the dean and the dean's assistant on Friday. I'm not suggesting any of you went above my head to those authorities set on high—no, I doubt you would have—but something must have percolated up to these rarified environs in any case, which provoked the dean to accuse me of "veering off course." At this point in the meeting—at the point when the dean said, "veering off course"—the dean's assistant slid a stack of archived syllabi across the table and told me it might be "beneficial" to have a look. The dean said I needed to "build structure." The dean's assistant added, in a quiet but unsettling manner, it was a condition of the contract that I supply you with a syllabus at the beginning of the semester, and I'd failed to do this. In addition, she added as the dean ran his index finger along the side of this head (as, I've observed, is his authoritarian habit), I am required to provide a copy of the syllabus to the dean. To the dean! By all means!
Yes, good, I trust now the copies have made their way around the room. A couple of things should be said before we get on to the topic of the day. First, you are welcome to ignore everything on the syllabus. I put it together last night with no other goal than to mollify the dean and the dean's assistant. I simply grafted the readings and assignments from a certain Professor Rosinky, who taught here in the mid-late 1990s. Rosinky, as far as I can tell, was not an uninteresting man, but since I'm not Rosinky, we don't need to play by Rosinky's rules. You can ignore the Rosinky syllabus, his reading list, his assignments, and all the rest.
What should we put in its place? I gave it some thought last night while I was lying in bed unable to sleep after spending the evening with my ill father. After a while, I had the idea to apply some of my experience to this class—why else would I have been hired, apart from the PEN translation award? My experience... and what is my greatest experience? Repetition! You know by now that I spent 17 years translating Jan Horak's Blue, Red, Gray. This necessitated reading the book innumerable times—so many times and in so many ways, it is impossible to trace the history of this "reading." Can we even use the same word—reading—to describe 17 years of laser-like focus on a single text? And one would think that after 17 years, there would be nothing left to discover, nothing to be added to one's understanding of a thing. Common sense would tell us that 17 years of constant focus is enough to exhaust even the richest work, the most complex and multifaceted of texts. Repetition: the word shifts us over the realm of psychology. We enter into the domain of compulsion, the domain of obsession—and repetition does border on compulsion, and it is a cousin of obsession. Repetition, compulsion, obsession: I can't think of a better definition of literature.
I'd like to talk today about an artist I met during my second year living in Berlin, a young woman whom I'll call Jackie K. For all of you who've read my preface to Horak's book—a slim volume called First, the Raven—you'll know that toward the end of it I discuss a number of relationships I had in Prague during those 17 years, in addition to, of course, the earlier one (if we can call it a "relationship") with Ida Fields. That I left Jackie K. out of Raven is nothing surprising—it was one tangent too many, a detour into territory I wasn't ready to revisit.
Forgive me for a second if I tread over some familiar ground, but I have to back up and talk for a minute about Ida. And I will have to mention my childhood friend Gabe Slatky, and then, as promised, to Jackie. And then, more specifically (this is a literature course, after all), to one of the most compelling stories I've ever read, a story by Jackie that appeared in late 1996 in the literary journal Loose Stitch, not a terrible journal by any means, one of those expat projects that ran for four or five years, maybe a little longer. It doesn't really matter.
Imagine: It's late 1996. This isn't a course about my life, I know that, and I'm not intending to deliver an autobiography from the lectern here. But we need some framing. I met Jackie after about a year and a half in Berlin. I'd come to Berlin as a sort of refugee, fleeing what had started as a high school jealousy of my best friend Gabe's relationship with Ida Fields but had turned into an endemic illness, an unshakable love of Ida that had persisted from my third year of high school through college and beyond—six years. Six years of faking just about everything one shouldn't fake: friendship, intimacy, happiness, love. Had the whole thing been one six-year-long delusion, I might have managed it. Maybe some pills would have helped me through, though the variety of other substances (alcohol foremost among them) did nothing to dull it. However much I wanted—needed—this love to be a self-deception, part of me knew it wasn't, that Ida on some level also had fallen in love with me. On some level: that's the key. I don't mean to say there was a single point during these six years when Ida didn't love Gabe. She loved him the whole time, and it was clear she loved him way more than she loved me. But still, how can we get rid of even the smallest bit of it, such an indestructible, stubborn substance? It was lodged in her. It took her three months in Berlin to dissolve it, and then she was gone back to Gabe. I, on the other hand, had a much bigger chunk, and only a tip of the iceberg sloughed off during those frozen winter months.
It was before this, before those months in early 1997. I was twenty-one. Jackie was twenty. She was an art school dropout. She lived in a large apartment with five other people, what the Germans call a Wohngemeinschaft or WG. There were two guys, university students in their late 20s, and two other women—an Italian named Gia and Mindy, another American a few years older. One of the guys, Christoph, had invited Florian and me to a party at the WG that extended over three floors of the building and the building's roof. It was on the roof, uncomfortably close to the edge, where I first saw Jackie. Can you imagine, the first words I said to her were, "Don't jump"? And she said, "I need to find someone who'll care first." "Maybe that's me," I offered. "Fuck off," she said and smiled. I smiled—but it was too dark for her to see my smile. I could see her fine because she was looking back into the light of a full moon. She had blonde, curly hair, a thin face with a wide, thick nose. She wore a tight top with a short mini-skirt, looked kind of trashy, a little Goth—not my usual type. Nor was I hers in my formless jeans, blue hoody, and gray running shoes. I think what attracted me to Jackie was how she didn't seem to like me very much but actually liked me a lot—the opposite of Ida who seemed in love with me but actually wasn't. That's too easy—but you get it. A little smile at the edge of the roof, a slight curl of the lips almost despite her will: that's it, that's Jackie. Excuse the impropriety of the following, but this detail is quite important: Jackie made love with that same look, that look right before a smile. Not a frown, no, but indifference and not the slightest hint of pleasure, even at the climactic moment. But then, suddenly, the unwilled smile, an expression I came to need almost physically to anchor my wellbeing, my total being, and it was an expression I would spend whole days and nights searching for. One time I asked Jackie to marry me. Of course, she rejected the proposal brutally, bringing up Ida directly. Yes, she knew about Ida. She knew about everything. Once she asked me if she was as beautiful as Ida. "More beautiful," I said. "Wilder," she said, "wild and maybe more erotic—but don't say as beautiful. I've never seen her, and I know it's a lie. Not with my master here," and she touched her massive nose. For some reason, she referred to her nose as her "master." It had come through time to haunt her, she said, from 19th century L'vov to New York via her maternal grandmother, somehow skipping her parents' generation.
We had a few bottles of beer on the roof until I got drunk and started to fear I might fall off the edge. We went down to the party, but it was too loud, too horrible. Florian had already taken off. Jackie and I went to a nearby bar to wait out the party. By three in the morning, things had fizzled out, and I ended up crashing at her place, sharing a bed with her and Gia without laying a finger on either of them. The following morning, I was surprised to see Jackie coming back from a morning jog as I pulled myself up and tried to brace my body against a devastating hangover.
Days later we went to her show: a few small sculptures and one large installation of broken and chiseled blocks of concrete. It looked like an abandoned military bunker from the First World War, something like that. It was a cold, disquieting space. On the ceiling, also concrete, were chiseled or inscribed lines like large fingernail scratches. In one corner, there was a small metal cube, on top of which sat a carved block of wood.
Let's get into it, Jackie's story. You'll find it a nice reversal—her voice for my voice—or an unsettling series of reversals. Maybe we should add reversal to the list: repetition, compulsion, obsession, reversal... take those to the dean!
Dress Shop Window
By Jackie K., Loose Stitch, December, 1996
The first thing I did each morning, and by morning I mean Berlin morning, or around 11:30 AM, was to carefully wash the store's large front window. The store, a boutique dress shop owned by the German fashion designer Alfred Diener, was located on Auguststrasse in Berlin's center or Mitte. I'd seen a girl wearing a dress designed by Alfred at an art-world party some months back, a few weeks after I'd arrived in Berlin. It was a white, trashy thing with black streaks across it, one slashing diagonally from hip to breast and the other intersecting it over the stomach, not quite at a horizontal. When I first saw it, I kind of hated it, but as the party went on and I got drunker, it started to grow on me.
I'd studied painting in college, in art school, but I'd quit after three years and moved from New York to Berlin for no real reason other than that some guy at a dive bar in the East Village told me it was a cool place to be—and dirt cheap. He promised I could live for a year on what it costs to make ends meet for a month in Manhattan. That sounded pretty good. I never liked Manhattan much anyway. I'd grown up in Vermont and had come to NYC because I couldn't pass up the free tuition offered at the Cooper Union. In that respect, it didn't matter that I'd dropped out, even though my parents threatened to disown me.
I showed up in Alfred's shop one day to see about a job. He was totally different from what I'd expected. He looked kind of like a young academic, an English professor or something like that, something other than a fashion artist of the avant-garde. He had neatly cut blonde hair, gold wire-rimmed glasses, and wore a pair of the most conservative and ugly pants I could imagine. Good thing he didn't design men's clothes. He didn't seem to understand the male body the way he understood the female. He understood the way the female body worked, that was obvious. It was obvious already from the dress I'd seen at the party. I told him I was looking for a job, that I'd made my own clothes for years and could help him cut, sew, anything really.
When I'd finished my rambling presentation, Alfred reflected for a moment and then said, "You have a perfect form for A.D." He called his label A.D., his initials, of course, but also the AD of Anno Domini, the year of the lord and also the English version AD—or "after death," the clothing of the zombie.
"Thank you, I guess."
"No need to guess. I'd like to offer you a position."
"That's super, thank you. I can start right now."
"Wait," he said, "let me explain. I'm proposing to hire you as a live mannequin. I'd like for you to stand in the shop window wearing my designs." I wasn't sure if he was joking or insane—I happen to be attracted to the insane, or more accurately the insane happen to be attracted to me. I accepted the offer, though not without a fair bit of worry. It wasn't that I feared Alfred—more like a vague, strange worry, a murky type of anxiety.
"Can you stand still?"
"That doesn't seem too difficult."
"But for how long can you remain still in one pose?"
"I've got no idea. I've never tested it."
"Let's see. Put this on." He handed me a yellow dress with a high collar and motioned for me to go use the dressing room curtained off in the back of the shop.
Alfred was standing by the window when I came back. He seemed to be staring out into the empty street.
"There's not a lot of foot traffic here—that's part of the problem," he said in his British-accented English. "Let's start with a classic pose, hands on hips, legs spread apart even with the shoulders, one foot ahead of the other, a little twist in the torso. That's right, that's it. Exactly. You're a natural. We'll have to think about your hair, make-up, and accessories in the future. But that's not necessary now. This is a trial run."
"Yes, sir," I said, "and what expression should I have on my face?"
"The one that fits the dress, of course, nothing else would do."
"That's right, each dress has a corresponding expression, just as it has a corresponding ideal pose."
I positioned myself in the window, posed, expressed, and froze in place. It was about ten minutes before the first person walked by the shop window. It was a haggard looking drunk who didn't even look in my direction. I might as well be made of plastic! A father and his young daughter (maybe seven or eight) walked by next. The girl stopped and pressed her face against the glass. She said something in German I couldn't understand. The father shook his head and said, "Nein," and then some other things. I tried not to blink—I didn't blink. I couldn't help but imagine the little girl in her red hat and green scarf was trying to puzzle out whether or not I were alive, if I were real. For some reason, I desperately wanted her to believe I wasn't, that I was made of plastic. In the end, I couldn't hold out. I blinked. I twitched. I moved my front foot slightly forward. She pulled back quickly and howled in fright, which seemed to agitate her father. He pulled on her arm, and they were gone.
That night, I told Gia, my roommate, about the job. She said it sounded perverse, maybe "one of the most perverse things" she'd ever heard. I said I doubted that standing in the front window of a dress shop was that much different than walking down a street in Rome with all those eyes on you. Gia laughed. "It's not the looking that creeps me out," she said, "it's the stillness."
The next day, or a couple of days later (the exact timing isn't important), Alfred said, "Jackie, do you know why the best dressmakers used to want real girls to model the dresses in their shops?"
"Not really. I've never thought about it."
"It's quite simple. The dressmaker wants two primary things. First, he wants to be able to show the customer how the dress looks from all angles, and with a live model, the customer can be still while the mannequin moves around her. This creates a sense of importance, of power in the customer, who starts to feel a certain acquisitive force building between her and the object of desire—the dress of course, but also, in some way, the girl in it—a lust to consume dress and body, the perfect body. You have to keep in mind that this was before modern advertising. An aura had to be created in situ. Second, naturally, and more importantly, the live mannequin showed how the dress looked on a body in motion, how it became a body in motion. We perfect a pose, an ideal pose, but this is just a promise of movement, after all, a pause in motion. The perfect pose has to dissolve into movement and then coalesce again out of movement. It's flow, rupture, fixation, rupture, flow, rupture, fixation and so on. In this sense, the display—you—is also a kind of cabaret, one that implies a burlesque element. Let's try it out. A customer comes in. You're wearing this dress. Now pose!" he said and I did as I was told. "Now activate. Show the left side. When I move my finger like this you show the left. Good. That's it. And when I move my finger the other way, you show the right. And then when I twirl it like this, you show the back, which is, of course, the key maneuver—the display of the rear. One clap, you bring it back to the original pose. That's it. Nothing more. It's the formalism that keeps it from breaking down into sleaze. Front—Left—Right—Back—Return. Try again. Left, good, and now to the right, excellent, and then the twirl and the hold of the rear pose, very nice, and clap—return. A little too mechanical, which is not bad, but a little looser. Try again—left—good—right, excellent, twirl, no, too voluptuous, hide it, use it, channel it—good, there you go, now back to me."
I stood in the window all day without a single customer coming in. The next day, three or four came in, but Alfred didn't consider them serious buyers and didn't have me show the clothes. I remained the whole time in the window in my pose, staring out, still. I found the work terribly hard. Most passersby barely looked up at me. Children played the game real/fake. Women seemed to be trying to peel the dress right off of my body with their gaze—obliterating me, the mannequin, without harming the garment at all. And men, yes, plenty of men peeled the dress off for completely different reasons. If this wasn't hard enough, to all those eyes beyond the glass I have to add that one pair of eyes in the back of the shop behind me, those of Alfred, which whether fixed on me or not, seemed to possess me, own me, humiliate me.
Why didn't I just quit? I really don't know. One day Gia came and watched me through the window for a few minutes. She smiled, laughed, and cheered me up. She brought her friend Antonio, and he blew me kisses. It felt good to be humanized again. For a moment, I forgot about Alfred, about those eyes behind me, and lost myself in the gaping chasm of Antonio's large mouth, in the lusciousness of Gia's lips, in the golden sun.
That visit shifted things for me and made me realize that the key was to surmount the transparent boundary and to allow the person on the other side to exist with me, to allow myself, metaphorically, to step from the stage of the shop window into the street, into real life. All of a sudden, Alfred seemed to vanish or to turn his attention back to his designing and forget about me. At the same time, more customers started to come into the shop, as if my new attitude had begun to lure them in, pulling them through the transparent boundary into my world. They were, for the most part, serious buyers, some even worthy of my performance—front, left, right, back, front. One month, my second or third, Alfred sold so many dresses that he ran out of two of his patterns and had to take half a dozen orders. At the end of that month, he took me out and we shared a bottle of champagne. I was sure he'd try to sleep with me, but he didn't, didn't even touch me. In fact, apart from the arrangement of the dresses, he never touched me. I wondered that night if he saw me as real or fake, as flesh and blood Jackie or as animatronic Jackie, a hollow Jackie, a Jackie who was made of plastic or wax and just happened to be the perfect shape for his designs, his dresses, pants, blouses, skirts, coats, and so on.
Outside of work, I wasn't doing much. I would have drinks with Gia or Mindy or the guys a couple of times a week. Art—hardly, but I didn't give shit. I was happy enough to take a break after three years at Cooper, or not happy about it, but resigned. One night, though, in late summer after about half a year on the job, I did make a quick sketch of a scene, a view from outside the shop on Auguststrasse through the window with me standing on the staging platform and Alfred in the background working on a dress, the same type of dress I was wearing. I made my nose even more out of proportion than it is, a massive protuberance. It was Pinocchio and Geppetto. Thread spilled out of Alfred's sewing machine in the sketch and flowed across the shop. It climbed up my body and bound my ankles and wrists like chains. The next day in the shop I thought about how it would feel to be tied up like that with sewing thread, thread not only on the ankles and wrists but around my legs, waist, even around my neck. I almost laughed, and right when a group of high school boys happened to be walking by. For some reason, this almost-laugh must have caught their attention and they spent the next few minutes making any number of lewd gestures (pelvic thrusts, anal invitations) against the glass, until they finally ran away squealing with delight.
It was one of the most disgusting days of the year, a bitterly cold, overcast and wet mid-November debacle of a day. It was the kind of day that would have depressed me even if I had been riding a manic high, which I wasn't, not even close. I was feeling blue. I'd had a recurring dream for months that I was totally encased in glass; the space was cramped and air tight so that even my screams and cries for help went unheard. In the dream, I'd be wearing Alfred's clothes, usually one of his fancier dresses, the type of evening dress the Russian women wanted to see "in action." I was trapped inside the glass—my very own bell jar—the only thing a young woman (especially a young art student) really desires: to be the object of attention, the object of fascination. Except, in the dream (and in reality!) I wasn't fascinating. I was alone. I was unwatched. I was forgotten.
Anyway, on this most disgusting of days, on a day after a night of dreaming of the bell jar, a certain guy appeared at the window on Auguststrasse for the first time. He saw me from across the street, crossed and then stood there with a blank, serious expression. He wore a pair of blue jeans, a blue hooded sweatshirt, and a pair of gray running sneakers. Even with the horrid cold, he apparently saw no need to take a jacket or a hat, marking him definitively as an American abroad. His hair was a rumbled mess and looked even messier with his unkempt, shaggy, ridiculous sideburns that fell to below the ear. He was slender, a runner's build, though maybe I just thought about running because of the sneakers, which looked pretty worn out, like a retired pair. His nose wasn't massive like mine, but prominent and accentuated by the narrow cheekbones. Brownish hair, blue-green eyes—and how many hours would I spend looking into those eyes through the glass. Wordless, silent—I wish I could come up with another word that goes beyond speech or speechlessness, beyond lack or absence, maybe beyond communication entirely and into the realm of current or force—a torrent maybe, a torrent of nothingness.
He crossed the street and stood in front of the shop window. He was about a foot or two away from me. As always, I held my pose, maintained my expression, and braced myself for whatever lewd or violent or sudden action might happen. I waited for the staring to end. After five minutes, I considered that maybe this guy was a bit dull, a bit stupid, and that he was playing that kid's game of real/fake. I decided to blink and to move my head from side to side to disrupt the illusion. It worked. He closed his eyes, shook his head a little bit, and then turned and walked away. I was relieved he turned out not to be the type who would pound his fist on the glass, like others had done and caused me fits of terror and heartache. It's amazing what emotions, what outbursts, simple silence and stillness can evoke.
The next day, around the same time in the afternoon, he was back, back in front of the shop window. I was wearing one of Alfred's trashier dresses, which ended in the middle of the thigh and had a couple of revealing gaps along the left side and the stomach. It was pink and black—Alfred's signature "dirty" black, a gritty black that reminded me of asphalt or tire tracks. The neckline was slanted, creating an inverse slant to the side-slash on the left. The dress fit tight around the waist and even tighter on the hips and over the buttocks. I wore an '80s wig with curled bangs and a ton of makeup, including clashing purple eyeliner smeared on thick. Was it disgust in his face? The elegant night-queen of the day before turned into this trash-princess, this cheap barroom whore? Or did he want that, had the cocktail queen been too much for him, too much for this sneaker-wearing American? I vowed to myself that unlike the day before I wouldn't break my pose or expression. I would stare at him as he stared at me—blankly, but with (as I saw it) an undefined hostility. At that moment I hated him, hated him for making me feel exactly how he wanted me to feel, however it was he wanted me to feel. No, I wouldn't succumb to it, to him. I composed myself, steadied myself. Hold the pose, I thought, hold the expression.
The next day I came into the shop and saw that Alfred had set out for me the most exhibitionist, perverse outfit he could have chosen. Perverse, yes, fetishistic, a sort of slutty schoolgirl, slutty European schoolgirl. "Wear it with pigtails and this purse," he said and handed me a red lacquered handbag. I shuttered. My first thought was to get the hell out of there, that I didn't want that unnamed guy seeing me like this. "No makeup today," Alfred said, "the look is raw beauty, raw femininity, the perfection of youth." No. No. No.
There I stood with slightly pursed lips and wide teenage eyes as he crossed the street and came to the window. Five, ten, fifteen minutes he consumed me with his blue-green eyes. I don't want to say "devour," because devour implies desire, it implies appetite, and I could sense no desire and no appetite from him. For at least twenty minutes, he stared at me. I say "consume" because it was as if he were trying to decide whether to buy me or leave me in the store window. This was an evaluation of merchandise. I was for sale, I, not the clothing, and not even the body—and I don't think his eyes once ran down to my breasts or stomach or thighs or legs. They stayed with me, with my eyes. With me? In me? Twenty-five, thirty minutes—it felt like he had taken his hand and rammed it down my throat in order to pull out whatever it was inside me that he wanted—my words, my gut, my spirit. And then he vanished.
When he appeared the next day, I thought I'd lose it. The night before I'd gone out with Gia and gotten smashed. I spent the first hour with Gia venting about the guy, this sick fucker who wouldn't leave me alone. "Maybe me and Antonio should beat the shit out of him," she suggested. Then we cracked up, because Antonio was just about the most nonviolent and least intimidating person anyone could imagine. Besides, I said to Gia, he (the guy) hadn't done anything wrong. I'd put myself in the window, I took the job, I put on the dresses, I styled my hair or arranged the wig, I applied makeup—I had made myself into an object. And he just stood there, perceiving me, both denying me and making "me" possible.
I stabilized. I felt woozy again. I closed my eyes for a long time and tried to block him out, tried to outlast him, make him vanish—poof, gone. But when I looked out again there he was beyond the glass. There he was—still looking into my eyes, still trying to ram his hand down my throat to grasp hold of my spirit, my being, pulling, pulling, gone.
Mindy and I sat at a bar, the second night in a row I'd been out drinking. I was feeling wasted. It's almost over, I told her, the week's almost done and then the guy will be gone. "He's probably a tourist," Mindy said, "staying at one of those cheap hotels near the shop." "I hope so," I told her.
There he was, walking across the street. Same jeans, same sweatshirt, same shoes, same hair, sideburns, eyes. Could it be, I thought, that his resolute sameness somehow drew him to my ever-changing appearance? Beauty queen, club trash, slutty teen, elegant secretary, lady at tea, '50s housewife, corporate girl. Could it be I was merging all his fantasies, registering his shifting desires? But there was no desire. No. He was focused on that which was unchanging, that which was essential. Eyes, mouth, skin—body, but not body in the sense of pleasure, body as, as, as, and then it hit me: body as human being. It couldn't be. This was the biggest delusion of all. He must have spent a full hour at the window on the day after my night out with Mindy. I stood there without moving as waves of fear, self-loathing, and desperation crashed over me.
One hour seemed to be his limit—at least for a while. Each day for the next week, he was there for an hour.
"What the fuck?" Gia said and issued one of her wonderfully full, dark laughs. "Really, what the fuck is this guy's problem? I'll come down there. I'll confront him. The fucking pervert. I'll shame him."
"I can handle it," I said, "I'll deal with it."
"Aren't you kind of scared of him? Maybe he's a homicidal stalker."
"Aren't we all on some level?"
"What the hell are you talking about, Jackie? The guy could be a rapist. Call the police."
Each day became one hour, an hour of radical torment, an hour-long contest of survival. Blue-green, narrow cheeks, skin fading into a winter's paleness, stubble, clean-shaven. Blemishes appeared and disappeared. A pimple on the nose, the next day worried until it bled and dried. Hair greasy, hair washed. A gray hair appeared in the shock of sideburn. The jeans became looser and looser—was he losing weight? Eyes turned red and swollen. Drugs? Insomnia? Destitution? Malnourishment? Helpless, weak, pathetic, this was not the portrait of a rapist or murderer—he was a child who needed to be taken in from the cold. No! None of it—just stories, narration swirling like November wind.
Early December. The first snow of the year covered the city, a light dusting that quickly degenerated from an angelic white powder into a filthy brown sludge. I took a pen and wrote my phone number on the palm of my hand. When he got to the window that afternoon, I made sure to hold it up to him for at least ten minutes, more than enough for him to commit it to memory. I expected him to call that night. Who could resist an invitation like that? But he didn't call that night, or the next, or the one after that, and instead kept crossing the street and standing in front of me behind the window day after day with the same expression on his face, whether on a precious day of sun or in wind, rain, sleet, snow, or Berlin's dense winter fog. He stood there, more a statue than I was, more lifeless than the live mannequin he gazed at through the glass.
The next week I took a black marker and wrote on my palm: Assel 22:00 Tonight. After he had been standing there for about twenty minutes, I slowly loosened my fist, uncurled my fingers, and pressed my palm against the window directly in front of his face. I left it there for about ten seconds—long, heart-thumping seconds. Then I retracted it, made the fist again and resumed my pose. He didn't react, stood there another twenty or thirty minutes and then left.
That night I got to the Assel a little early—descending down to the basement bar at around 9:45 PM. I took a shot of bourbon at the bar, ordered a beer, and took it over to a table in the corner by the bathrooms, where a stream of Oranienburgerstrasse prostitutes moved in and out in dominatrix attire. I wondered whether my window seducer, my window torturer, longed for such a long-legged Teuton or rather preferred a more deer-like prey. Maybe, I thought, I should have presented myself as such a doe, an innocent, scared, trembling girl new to the city. We could have played hunter and hunted or barbarian and virgin. I'd told Gia and Mindy about the date with the window guy and both thought it creepy: "as moth to the flame," Mindy said. But I couldn't figure out whether I was moth or flame, flame or moth, or at once one and the other.
An hour passed, then two. I had two more beers and another shot of whiskey before giving up and heading out. Beyond the bar, beyond the hookers, the area was desolate and shadowy. I turned a corner and sensed that someone was around me, watching me. I couldn't tell if the person was ahead or behind me—all I felt were eyes on me, eyes all over me. "Is that you?" I said, "Is that my reflection in the window?" Nobody. Nothing. I quickened my pace and heard footsteps on the cobblestones. I broke out into a sprint, reached the stairs to the subway, and caught the train for home.
I was exhausted at work the next day, mercifully a Friday. Alfred wasn't happy because he said my eyes were "droopy" and my posture was bad. You can't be a live mannequin if you're drinking whiskey in the evenings, he told me, at most take a couple glasses of champagne. Drinking nothing would be better, he said. Nothing—that was the operative word—nothing. No thing. Void. I scrubbed "Assel 20:00 Tonight" off my palm and wrote in all capital letters: NOTHING. Then, without much thought, I took the marker with the other hand and wrote with my left (non-writing) hand on my right palm, I AM. I was in the small studio bathroom and held my palms up to the mirror: NOTHING I AM, then I crossed my arms: I AM NOTHING. NOTHING I AM. I AM NOTHING.
I stood in the window in the yellow dress I'd worn on my first day being Alfred's live mannequin. At least it was a busy morning. Three women came in—serious buyers—and Alfred had me go through all the motions. For two of the three I showed four dresses each, front, left, right, back, front. Both women bought everything I showed and the third woman bought the yellow one and then ordered a second dress to be cut in a custom size. "Maybe the haggard look has something to it," Alfred joked, "the next bottle of whiskey is on me."
Since he'd just made $7,000 in a single day while paying me next to nothing, I said, "How about a raise?"
"I'll give you a bonus—two months extra pay right now." He reached into his pocket and handed me the bills. That afternoon, flush with money, I joyously pressed my palms against the glass. I AM NOTHING. NOTHING I AM.
That night, I met my friend Josh, a Cooper grad living in Berlin and showing work at the Spreeufer Gallery. When I told him about the situation at Alfred's window, he recalled a story he'd once heard in an art history class (whether it was true or not he didn't know) about a man, an ordinary gardener, who was arrested in the late 19th century in Paris for trying to have sexual intercourse with the statue Venus of Milo. The diagnosis at the time, he told me, was that the man had an abnormally intense libido combined with a lack of courage, which prevented him from attaining "normal" sexual satisfaction.
A man sitting on the other side of me decided to enter our conversation. "That guy you describe outside the shop window has a bad case of agalmatophilia," he said.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Josh said.
"Paraphilia, man," the bearded stranger said, "deviant sexual obsessions. You've apparently hooked a guy who wants to have sex with dolls or mannequins—that's classic agalmatophilia. It's related to necrophilia. In a sense, then, his is a death wish, a death drive."
I stood up and said to Josh, "Let's get out of here," and we paid our bill and spilled out into an endless Kreuzberg night.
On Monday, I stared at him and wondered whether he could tell from the look in my eyes that I had diagnosed him. I had my palms prepared again—on the right hand DOLL and on the left DEAD. DOLL DEAD. DEAD DOLL. I crossed and uncrossed them, pressing them each time against the glass. Alfred's sewing machine whirled in the background. Blink, blink, nothing but that horrifying fixed stare.
Weeks passed with our communication existing on two parallel sets of rails. One was the rail of the gaze as it moved back and forth through the pane of glass. The other was going only in one direction, broadcast by my word-palms pressing against the screen for him to read.
There was something holding me back, preventing me from confronting him outside on the street. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what it was. One morning before work I drew an eye on each palm—sort of all-seeing eyes. I held them to the glass in the afternoon. This got no reaction from him. The day after, I drew closed eyes and held them to the glass. The next day, I presented him with a sun and a moon, and then the next day with the words DREAM and REAL—DREAM REAL. REAL DREAM. Cross. Uncross. On the next day, I painted both palms completely black. It was a signal of the end, that I'd had enough, and I really did, I really couldn't take it anymore. But he kept coming back, even after those black palms, even after day after day of empty palms. He fixed his eyes on me. I gazed through the glass at him.
In the middle of what felt like the darkest week of the year—at some point in mid-February—a note appeared taped to the dress shop window. It was hand-written on a single sheet and taped across the entire back with clear packing tape. It was stuck precisely where his head would have been.
There's a small cabin in northern Maine. There's no point saying anything about northern Maine, just that it's pretty wild up there. The cabin has no plumbing, no electricity. It's just a single room with a wood burning oven for cooking and a Franklin stove for heat. There's a loft made on top of the rafters that can fit two people comfortably for sleeping, three crammed in. My friend Gabe built the cabin on a piece of land his father had brought before he fell into financial ruin. It was there, in this cabin, that Gabe wrote his first play, Rehearsal for a Eulogy, which was performed during the upcoming year and won the statewide one-act play competition. I imagine you don't care about any of this—though you might care that I first saw Ida Fields when she stepped on stage in the high school auditorium to perform her role in Gabe's play wearing a white silken robe and lit up by a luminous stage light. She stepped, in other words, from the pure imaginary into what we might call the real—and then, only then, she moved and spoke and acted. My first thought was that Gabe had conjured her from the mystical waters that flowed near the cabin and had thrust her on stage to radically alter, unsettle, and destroy my life. Did he possess his creation, or was he, rather, possessed by it for the next seven years until, suffering and insane, he brought her back to the wilderness, dug a hole in the ground near the cabin, and buried her? I needed to find out, to find out why Ida Fields vanished, to find out why I could never lay eyes on her again, to find out why I had to flee and find refuge in the most unlikely of places, Berlin, where my maternal grandmother had left in such haste—also fleeing—in the summer of 1933 when she was nineteen. It came as quite a shock, you'll understand, that this same being, this same Ida Fields, now stands in the window of a dress shop on Auguststrasse. Have you come back to haunt me? Now the whole thing has driven me past the vanishing point—I have a book of poems to translate, another vanishing, and I'm afraid I can only vanish once at a time. I can never look through that window again and gaze into your eyes. I can't stand seeing you stuck between fantasy and reality—precisely because I still can't exist fully in either place. But there is one place I can imagine the glass shattering between us. There is a "fairy tale" fountain in the Volkspark Friedrichshain. I will wait for you this evening by the reflecting pool.
I didn't go, of course—I'm not a total lunatic, despite the impulse to meet him, to be conquered by this strangest method of seduction. Some months later, my roommates threw a party together with two other apartments in our building. I wasn't in the mood for it after my day at the studio—and it would be, though I didn't know it at the time, my last day. Needless to say, those months after he left the note were the absolute worst. The grinding and maddening tension was replaced by a gnawing nothingness, a chasm of loneliness that seemed to cast me down into a abyss of lost selfhood.
There I was, drinking a bottle of beer on the edge of the roof, when he stepped off the ladder and emerged, grim reaper-like, with the hood of his blue hoody pulled up over his head. I'm not sure he recognized me, despite the light of the full moon washing over me.
That's where the story ends. It ends, as you see, at the beginning of our relationship. By the time the story appeared in Loose Stitch, Jackie and I had (bitterly) parted ways. It was actually Ida who discovered the story while leafing through a copy of the journal in a bookshop while waiting for me to finish up a translating session with the novelist Anton Grassfeld at a café nearby.
"A strange thing happened while I was waiting for you," Ida said when we met up. She told me she'd found a story called "Dress Shop Window" in a local English-language literary magazine in which her name, her exact name, appears together with the name Gabe. This was a dangerous moment for me—the first time Gabe had come up since her arrival in Berlin. I asked who wrote the story, and she told me it was a woman named Jackie K. "She seems to imply," Ida said, "that I don't exist, that I'm simply the projection of two imaginations, Gabe's and Gabe's friend, who happens to be described an awful lot like you. The story implies I materialized as a product of desire and vanished as a result of repression. Strangely, reading Jackie's story made me question for a moment whether or not I do exist, so much so that I started to run my fingers over my skin and through my hair to substantiate my being alive. She's wrong. Here I am. And yet she's also right, exactly right. I'm too much the product of two competing and warlike imaginations, too much a battleground."
Finally, and this is me speaking and not Ida, and I'm saying this right now, to you, and not back then to Ida, finally we get to the border of that darkest region of Raven, my book on Horak. It is in this blinding darkness that we can peer into the unknown of those days before the two vectors shot off in opposite directions, one carrying Ida back to Gabe, the other sweeping me to Prague for 17 years of work translating Horak's Blue, Red, Gray. And this raises a critical question: what was the propulsive force that shot those two arrows, which tore apart that convergence point with such violence it could never again hope to regather except through the most devious of inventions—that is, through a literary text perched on the border between truth and lie?