Berlin Hangover, by Philip Lewis (excerpt from Berlin Asylum)
Once inside the flat, Carl thought he could relax, kick off his shoes and put some music on, maybe try writing again. But every time he heard feet coming up the stairs towards their floor he felt complete apprehension. And the apprehension was almost always warranted.
The first firestorm hit at 3 in the morning, after an evening of staring at a blank Microsoft Word page. He felt too much trepidation to write. The money situation was so tight that finally Carl swallowed his pride and called his aging mother back in Westchester, Maryland. The Thompson’s never really lacked for money, anyway; and since they never really gave a shit about him—or so Carl imagined—he felt little guilt in bilking them out of a bit of cash. Like, say, a thousand dollars. Or, make it two thousand. After all, Carl needed to get a new apartment, didn’t he?
“Your Uncle Clarence just died four weeks ago, and it cost a fortune burying him,” Carl’s mother told him, matter-of-factly. “I can’t understand why on earth you are in Germany. What’s in Germany?”
“I’m in Berlin, mom,” Carl said. “It isn’t the same…it’s not what you think.”
“They don’t even like black people,” she added.
“But they don’t bother me,” Carl insisted, knowing it wasn’t entirely true. “There are a lot of black Americans living here, mom.”
“Well,” she then added, “neither do I.”
“Black people,” she continued. “I don’t blame them. Look at what happened to our neighborhood. Already we have gang signs on the fences—and this is a good neighborhood, Carl. Good people live here, and yet the woman down the street, Mrs. Kennedy, was assaulted by some of these same black people your father was so damned crazy about.”
“So what am I, then? Chinese?”
“When are you going to finish school like you said you would, Carl? You said you were going to get a PhD.”
“That was over twenty years ago, mom. I’m not interested.”
“Well, you need it, because we don’t have two thousand dollars to give you, Carl. We don’t have one thousand. Maybe 500. And don’t you suck your teeth at me over the phone, Carl, for I brought you into this world and I want you to show me some respect!”
“I’m pissed off.”
“You should be, Carl—at yourself.”
And it was then that it suddenly hit—the slamming doors. Something loudly crashed to the ground and something else, something glass, smashed up against a wall; it might have been a liquor bottle. Carl didn’t hear any voices, but he heard the movement of feet on the floor-slats outside his room, roaming from place to place, room to room in the flat. Carl didn’t dare budge. It was Paula, he thought, on her worst drunken, coke fueled rampage ever…
“What is all that noise in the background?”
“Gotta go,” he whispered, while his mother cursed aloud and her voice took on a weepy, guilt-inducing cast. “You would have made a good lawyer, a good doctor,” she cried. “All you wanted was to mess around with those stupid German girls—they don’t even think you’re human!! And all this writing you’re doing—what’s that all about? It hasn’t made you any money, so why do it? Why on earth do you think you can write when you know you’re not all that good? That’s why you’ve never published another book!!”
Carl hung up his handy phone. He abruptly turned it off. No, he won’t ask her for any more money. He will go back into “modeling” for moldy German women first. He quietly took off his clothes and hurriedly slipped into bed, but not before jamming a chair underneath the doorknob. The firestorm, as it turned out, was Ted, crying, cursing Paula, cursing Oslem, cursing Berlin, cursing life, cursing himself, cursing God. It went on for about an hour. Up above Carl began to hear the other tenants muttering angrily in German about the situation beneath them. One sounded like a gravelly voiced old white man. Carl knew some of the words by then and deduced the man was xenophobic, perhaps even racist. The gravelly voiced old white man got louder and then snarled “schwartze” in a disgusted tone of voice. Carl then heard things hitting the ceiling from outside. “YOU FUCKING KRAUT FAGGOT!!” Ted shrieked, at the very top of his lungs. “I’LL BURN THIS MOTHERFUCKING FLAT DOWN, YOU KRAUT CRACKER SONOFABITCH!!”
Bottles began smashing all around the flat, in every room that Ted found them. Carl blew air out of his teeth, and tried to get to sleep. He couldn’t. He merely lay in bed, his brain poised somewhere between a deep rest and light slumber, giving off semi-dreams that had one foot in the chaotic, glass-strewn reality outside. He watched the dawn slowly creep up through the windows, and heard the cracker keep on complaining until a female finally coaxed him to shut the fuck up and sleep. And then, around eight-thirty, another female angrily cursing on her way up the stairs and jingling keys in her hands. Her feet paused by the door. A key was clumsily clattering around the front door’s lock, one, two, three, four times, and then a fist angrily thumped on the front door. Yes, he thought, with weary disgust, the woman of the house has come home….
Carl heard her in the kitchen, panting like she was out of breath. She was rummaging through all the mess that Ted left behind, cursing and fuming in Portuguese. Of course, Teddy wasn’t there. He hadn’t been there for hours….She turned on the hallway’s lights and strode noisily down the parquet floor.
This sudden turn of events was frightening him. It was probably his worst two weeks yet in Berlin. He had already been in this flat for a week and a half without Paula knowing he was there. The bitch loved to fart around, Carl thought, so ducking her wasn’t difficult; he learned to time his movements so they would never coincide with hers. There was a reason for this: they were now enemies. Carl couldn’t explain why. But, you know Paula Krauss…
The last time he spoke to Ted—two days ago—he’d just sat there on the couch with Carl, playing his records and getting drunker and drunker as they discussed literary politics. Ted condescendingly tried to show Carl how one went about writing a “Great American Novel.” He being an established, successful author—at least in America—he felt he could rub salt in Carl’s wounds. But, Carl thought, if the huge stacks of notes and scattered sheets of typed paper everywhere were any standard to go by, he would leave the “Great American Novel” alone, thank you.
Every bit of furniture had been overturned; books had been randomly pulled off the shelf; broken bits of glass were strewn all over the floor. Jesus, she said aloud….his drinking has gone way out of control; he’s even taking to destroying our flat, the fucking preto. Paula cursed, and then began looking around for the push-broom to clean up the garbage. When she found it she discovered it, too, was broken.Porra… She set the broken pieces gingerly in the wastebasket and then trudged out of the bathroom. She strode past Carl’s room. Fortunately, he had his door closed.
How was my life in Berlin? he pondered, vertigo from last week’s foolishness gripping his skull. Well, not bad; I’m feeling fine right now. Okay, Carl: stop bullshitting. He thought about the flat. In the third room, where Ted used as his study, an entire wall was lined with bookshelves; the shelves were cluttered with books. They were piled so high that one needed a ladder to get to the top. Carl once idled up to one shelf he could reach, and saw one of the books: a biography of Richard Wright. Only, of course, because he’d been staring at the binding ever since he’d entered the room, which was cluttered with boxes full of things—perhaps notes, he thought; Ted had been working on this monstrosity for fifteen years. The monstrosity could not be found at Ted’s desk, but a finely framed portrait of Ralph Ellison hung just above it: a balding, elegantly attired, middle-aged black man of coffee-colored hue and clipped mustache….who, shockingly enough, reminded Carl very much of Ted. Not that Ted looked like Ralph Ellison: he wasn’t going bald in front. But it was the way the man carried himself. Yeah, Carl thought, birds of a fucking feather.
Paula’s room had shit-loads of boxes in it. However, Paula was not like Ted. She (eventually) sold or threw away things that she didn’t need. At one time, he thought, her crap piled up to the ceiling. It was mostly clothes and books, but Paula always needed money. Even after lunching off Ted’s money like a barracuda, she still had the nerve to ask him if she could borrow a few dozen euros to get her through the week. There was no doubt in Carl’s mind that all this money was being blown on other men—he knew his own experience, waded through enough of her trash to know when something didn’t smell right. She had a fat red book she often left sitting on the chest of drawers when Ted was out for the day. It was her diary, and Carl had peeped into it more than once when Paula herself was out. However, he had learned nothing about Paula from the book because the whole thing was written either in Portuguese…or, oddly enough, in German—a language she claimed to despise.
Yeah, he thought, Berlin was a trip. You like it, but just the same, you wished you were never here. Or perhaps you didn’t like it that much; perhaps you even hated it, but you were glad you were here. Or perhaps it just sucks, period. Perhaps it’s all just a dream when things are going good, and in reality, you’re just getting your ass kicked in these cute, cobbled streets. Carl knew he had neither money, nor resources, nor a proper residence permit. His painful adolescence clung to him like some sort of disgusting afterbirth. He found that the coldness and rudeness of the people and climate emotionally constipated him. Nobody really connected with him on a truly profound, meaningful level—most particularly members of the opposite sex.
Paula, of course, no longer counted. She contented herself with being used and abused by other assholes—like Ted, for instance. Well, Ted wasn’t really that bad, at least as a person—he was just slightly two-faced. Without Ted, I might be living in the street…Carl took a deep breath, tried to collect himself with the thought that he simply hadn’t found his proper niche. But after six years, he had to wonder if that niche even existed….or, worse, if he even had the emotional and spiritual resources to create it.
“Teddy?” Paula shouted, angrily, outside his door, cutting into his bitter thoughts, “You in there?”
He didn’t want to get up, but he acted against his own wishes and removed himself from the womblike warmth of the queen-size bed. It was late, anyway: 11:45. Time to get up and face the nation….
Upon opening the door, Carl was confronted with a face half-swollen and furrowed long before its time, dissipated perhaps by too little sunlight and way, way too much drinking, drugs and other frivolities. Her hair was completely disheveled, sticking every which way in unruly curls, some getting in the way of her eyes. Once they had been her most attractive feature, but today, this morning, they were just the opposite. “Yes?” Carl said, reluctantly, watching the look of utter incredulity on her face.
“You sonofabitch!” she shrieked, at the top of her voice. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Carlos, cut the bullshit and just please tell me, what the fuck are you doing here?”
“I live here,” I blurted out.
“Oh no you don’t,” she snapped, like a stuck-up black bitch.
“I do,” Carl simply replied, not willing to go into some fucking Merrie Melodies routine with her. “Ted invited me to stay here for a little while.”
After hearing this, Paula exploded. She pushed him on his chest, then flung her right fist near his temple and sent him flying up against the doorframe, and then got a hold of the scruff of his neck and kept wildly punching his head. Her punches were hard—Paula was not a small woman—but Carl managed to push her off; she fell backward onto the parquet floor in the hallway, on her ass. “GET OUT!” she shrieked, maniacally, hair all in her eyes and lips, “GET OUTTA MY FUCKING HOUSE! GET OUT! I’LL CALL THE FUCKING POLICE! I’LL CALL THE MOTHERFUCKING POLICE YOU MOTHERFUCKING BASTARD!!”
“Nope,” Carl stammered, getting off the floor, his head throbbing where Paula had repeatedly punched it. “Why don’t you go back to Brazil, since you’re so much happier there?”
In absolute fury she tore herself away from Carl and ran into the kitchen, growling like some tortured, demented animal. He heard her pulling shit out of the kitchen cabinets and it was falling to the floor. He felt scared because he knew she was looking for a weapon. She must have found one, because she stopped pulling shit out and started panting wildly and mumbling to herself. It sounded like she was dialing somebody over the phone. Whomever she was dialing, however, was not answering. She cursed in Portuguese, then slammed the phone down on the table, pulled out a chair, sat down, and then began to cry.
Concerning Carl’s presence at the flat: it was Ted’s idea. He felt bad after ridiculing him that night in the Junction Bar, so he made up for it by casually offering him living space in one of his five rooms. The room allotted Carl had a cheap Ikeadoppelbett that Ted had abandoned when he bought a new futon frame for the even larger set of mattresses he’d purchased a few months before. Ted had wanted to bring in some extra spending change by allowing untermietern, but Paula wasn’t having it. In fact she often used the extra rooms to store old shit she didn’t really need—piles and piles and piles of old clothes, books, notes, etc, that she had accumulated in the ten years she’d been living in Germany.
“Teddy,” Paula then sighed, then shook her head and sighed again, then looked up at Carl. Her face was now drained of hostility—drained of everything, actually. It was quite cold. “It’s a shame, really. I cannot figure you out. This is a new low for you.”
“It was Ted’s idea,” he said. Paula looked up at him. “Wha—you mean—bah, liar. Fucking goddamned liar. You can’t handle rejection—“
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Why on earth would you want to come into our flat and destroy our things? Do you really hate me that much? Can you—caralho, meu deus, I don’t believe what is happening today, I don’t!” She slammed her fists down on the table. “Fucking black asshole!”
“Somebody came in here drunk last night when I was trying to sleep,” Carl said, matter-of-factly. “Maybe it was you. Or one of your lovers. Or maybe it was Ted?”
Paula grabbed a stray object at random and tossed it angrily in Carl’s direction. She removed herself from the table; Carl removed himself from the kitchen and then strode back towards his room, but Paula angrily leapt on Carl’s back and pushed him to the ground. It felt like she was trying to smash his face into the parquet floor. Trying to get the mouth, he thought—the motherfucking whore, the goddamned spic. Carl pushed her off and got his hands around her neck, trying to strangle her. Paula retaliated with a head-bunt that didn’t quite come through—it hit his chest. Carl managed to hurl her to the ground again. “I will fucking shoot you!” Paula continued to shriek, through hysterical tears… “You black asshole! YOU FAGGOT! I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU! The both of you hate me, you want to push me out onto the street! You are SICK, Carlos. I came into your life when you were at your fucking wit’s end! You would be nothing without me! And Teddy is the same! You think I am a slut, but I’m not….I’m…Porra, Carlos, I was in love with you… You just don’t understand nothing…”
Paula wasn’t listening to Carl; she was sobbing childishly and back on the phone trying to dial up Ted. At which point, the door to one of the unused rooms way down the hallway opened up and feet could be heard clomping slowly down towards the kitchen. The person entered the kitchen. He had on a soiled bathrobe and his normally well-kempt hair was sticking off his skull in little naps. It was one of America’s most acclaimed black writers, groaning and shaking his head, striding over towards the fridge, opening it up, and in full view of them drinking from the orange juice carton. He then set the carton back in the fridge, closed it, and said, “Paula, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Paula kept sobbing hysterically, and threw what she had in her hands—a meat cleaver—on the table. “You ain’t gonna chop nobody’s head off up here. An’ you better stop screaming like that, it’s Sunday. You’re gonna get us thrown out of here if you don’t stop that shit.”
“Teddy,” Paula began, fury building up inside her once more, “what the fuck is going on here??”
“What’s wrong now?”
“I come in here this morning and the flat was fucking torn to pieces and glass was everywhere…”
Try as he could, Ted could remember nothing of what transpired less than eight hours ago. “Who did it, then?”
“He did! Fucking Mister Lomax!”
“Oh, you mean Carl?”
“Yes, motherfucker, I mean CARL LOMAX!”
“He’s a guest in this house, baby,” Teddy purred, with a carton of low-fat milk in his hands, setting it on the table, and kissing her on top of her disheveled head. Paula wheeled around and attempted to slap him in the face, but Ted jerked back, and then restrained her. Paula began crying again. “Paula, I think you need some rest. Carl is a pussy-cat. It was either one of us. Maybe it was you. All that carousing and bullshit is going to ruin your health, sugar. You even came home with a black eye and your face all swollen a couple weeks ago…I’m worried about you, you know that, right?”
Paula breathed in; it sounded like she was about to sob again. Carl tried as hard as he could to suppress his sudden surging emotions, told them to hold on, keep still—this is just another one of her goddamned games. Ted disappeared again, back into his study, where he began to move things around. “Oh, well,” he now heard her shout, “What else can I expect from this fucking city, fucking BERLIN! The rudest, ugliest, most obnoxious place in the world! And you dumb black assholes think this place is paradise!”
“I beg your goddamned pardon,” Ted snapped, ducking his head through the doorway of his study.
“Fuck you,” Paula snapped in return.
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” Ted spat. “You been watching too many of those stupid-ass Brazilian soap operas—they got your head all mushy. There’s nothing about this goddamn city that is paradise to me. Nothing. Especially not this flat, with that racist motherfucker living above me.”
“Ted, fuck you! It’s true!”
It then dawned on Ted who had really wrecked the apartment…or, rather, why it had happened. It wasn’t Oslem, though she had been waffling about another date with him; they hadn’t even consummated their fragile relationship. (Would she see him as just a “friend,” the same way Mirabelle now did?) No: it was the impending German publication of Motherless Children…or, rather, what should have been its impending publication. “Jorg Pressler told me he called this flat earlier, when I wasn’t there,” he then said, calmly, yet anger rising in his voice as he began to piece it all together. “So, what?”
“Well, I can’t talk to the motherfucker, that’s what.”
“Pressler-Verlag rejected my goddamn book, when it was going to be published. Now the motherfucker wants the 50,000 euro advance returned to him. Now, you tell me that Germany is a fucking paradise for black men. Hell, I have to put up with your temper tantrums, and you know that ain’t paradise.”
“It’s true! You THINK it’s paradise, even though it’s bad. It’s the fucking white German women. You should see the black guys over here, especially the Americans—they are all crazy! Randy, Julian, Carlos, YOU, Lemuel, Andy, Russell—my God, he’s fucking out of it, a real asshole—I don’t get it. You have absolutely no reason in the world to complain about anything here, since you are practically WHITE here! WHITE!—“
“No, it isn’t—it’s the truth!”
“And don’t talk about Russell like that. He’s one of the best musicians on this planet, dead OR alive!”
“He’s a fucking sick freak,” Paula snapped. “Russell lives just a U-Bahn stop away from his son but he hasn’t seen him in thirteen years, Ted. Wow, what a guy. Aber das ist typisch, ja? Typisch, typisch!”
“Yes, my dear,” Ted chimed in. “You’re right. It is typisch. Now explain to me why you fucked up this flat the way you did. Or Carl’s flat. That’s why I don’t believe a goddamn word you say because I remember what you did to Carl’s flat. Broke up the goddamn walls and everything. I know you called up Jorg when he was drunk and said something stupid to him, because all this has the hallmarks of Paula Maria Krauss. Am I not right? And then explain why the fuck you keep on leaving me on my ass for weeks at a time. Remember all that shit? Or do I make you feel too uncomfortable while you are out there trying to fuck anything that’s black and moves?!”
“Oh, fila da puta, porra!” Paula suddenly spat, as she jerked herself away from her half-finished cup of tea, grabbed the half-empty cup and hurled its contents towards Ted’s back. “….Shit!...”
Carl walked through the corridor into the kitchen, which was even more of a mess than the bathroom. No comment: the place had been turned upside down, inside out. None of the dishes had been washed. It made Handjerystrasse, 72 seem like paradise. Paula was sitting at the kitchen table, painfully rubbing her unruly patches of hair; she had a cell-phone glued to her ear and apparently trying to talk to someone. Paula looked up at Carl with her almond, almost Asian eyes looking agitated. “You see what a wonderful place this is, don’t you?” she muttered. “Eh? Well, you want to stay here, fine. But you can’t stay that long. Only until you find another place…and I hope that is very soon.”
He looked at Paula’s face; the deepest disgust and revulsion was writ all over it. Disgust was present in everything she did: the sounds of her clothes rustling, the grunts, everything. Hey, tough shit. Even a writer-manqué needs his place in the sun. He returned to his room, slipped into his bathrobe, and stepped into his slippers. His head felt like it had been nailed to the floor. Inside the bathroom, Carl was surprised to find so many empty bottles lying everywhere. He casually counted twelve of them—one a bottle of Jim Beam lying in the trash can—huddled in the corners. Carl hadn’t done much drinking himself, so that wasn’t the thing that was bringing him down. It wasn’t an alcoholic hangover. No, he thought….this is a Berlinhangover. The city is so enchanting, so beguiling and intoxicating when you first see it. So many distractions, so many places to visit, so many dates to fulfill, so many people to see, readings to attend, galleries opening, women to get between the thighs of, and then, so unexpectedly, one morning….or even in the middle of the evening….and you are literally, unbelievably, beside yourself with disgust. Not easy to explain why—you just are. Disgusted with the environment, the people in it, with human beings in general, and, lastly, with yourself.