Just having finished the back and biceps workout, I walk into the men’s locker room at Holmes Place on Hermannplatz. When I hear female voices gasping loudly, I leap towards the back and go through the door that leads to the pool and sauna areas. In the hallway in front of the pool, there are two women in swimsuits spread across the floor. A staff member has positioned himself over one of the women with a respirator and what looks like a first aid kit.
People quickly gather. A good-looking man wearing only a towel asks me to help him carry one of the women through the men’s locker room to the front of the building. I surmise from the conversation around me that an ambulance has been called.
The woman squeaks incoherently, but she does not make it difficult for the two of us to transport her. We exit the men’s locker room and slowly lower her to a sitting position on the small flight of steps leading down to the gym floor. The man thanks me and walks back in.
I am not sure of what to do, but I decide to stay put. The woman is definitely not O.K.
Another woman with a bleached blond punk haircut—I am quite sure she is not a staff member—approaches us with a large glass of water. She urges the gasping woman to drink.
The woman’s shoulders are clammy against my hands. At first, she shakes her head, no, no, but bleached hair insists.
A head that still looked like Aunt Lily’s twisted right to left to right again, grinding into the stained pink pillowcase. I saw yellowed teeth, a smile, a grimace, a skull shaking free from under the skin. Was it still Aunt Lily, I wanted to ask. I was too young, they told me. I knew I shouldn’t ask anything. She was a woman drowning, but she was a woman already drowned.
The woman at Holmes Place begins to drink the water, in between small gasps. Water spills down on her front, but it doesn’t really matter: she’s in her bathing suit, still wet from the pool.
Paramedics approach. I get up to go back into the locker room.
The Holmes Place manager thanks everyone.
I am almost through the locker room entrance, when he stops me and tells me I have to leave the gym as quickly as possible: There is concern about contamination.
I just want to take a shower.
I glance through the glass entranceway. The entire parking lot downstairs below is lined with ambulances and police cars. I count 13 vehicles with flashing lights.
Destination is a trap.
In the summer of 2008, the last time I was here, I was keen to take pictures of Berlin’s historical monuments.
On afternoons that I wasn’t lying in the Tiergarten, naked, peeking furtively at the other breathing naked male bodies, I wandered about the city, often without a destination in mind, hoping to encounter the men who couldn’t return my gaze, who wouldn’t object to being photographed.
I can’t just be a camera, always recording, passive, never thinking, click, click, click. Desire gets in the way, the blind spot in the mirror, precisely what leads to the crash. But who wants to live in a world without accidents?
Desire and chance.
I want at least a grimy speck of my desire to wash over and stain these images.
Near Humboldt University, I stumbled upon something else entirely. I wrote a detailed blog entry:
“Here is my translation of the inscription. Right side: ‘On May 10, 1933, in the middle of this square, Nazi students burned the works of hundreds of writers, journalists, philosophers, and scientists.’ Left side, an 1820 quote from the Jewish-German poet Heinrich Heine: ‘This was only a prelude: There where they burn books, in the end, they will also burn people.’ Micha Ullman’s profoundly understated monument is seen through an inconspicuous plexiglas square, flat to the ground, in the middle of Opernplatz. A person must look down. Beneath the smudged glass, one sees only empty bookcases.
“Later, I visited The German Historical Museum, nearby the book burning monument and the main building of the university. The first floor of the museum was organized in a large semi-circle that took spectators through German history, from the beginning of the Weimar Republic to the current day.
“A third of the way through, in the middle of the Nazi period, the exhibits began to overwhelm me. I don’t know precisely why, but something broke inside the moment my eyes fell on two Hitler Youth posters, displaying happy blond children at play. I could feel my face begin to clench. I had to stop, go outside, and smoke a cigarette, before I could brave the museum again.
“One of the works in the museum’s Nazi period concerns a naked, dying soldier lying in another soldier’s arms. The dying soldier’s body speaks eloquently of suffering, but neither of the faces betrays the slightest hint of human emotion. It saddens me that such an image would serve as war propaganda. Doubtless these are Arian soldiers, the homoerotic implications of their pose reinforcing the theme of racial purity. No softening touch of Saint Sebastian’s halo here.”
For most of the 1990s, I bleached my hair platinum blond. I thought it was transgressive, especially when the dark brown roots poked through. I first felt misgivings about this fashion choice, however, at the grand reunion of the Jewish side of my family in 1996. Was I, on some unconscious level, trying to make myself more Nordic? Tricking myself into whiteness?
Aunt Tammy had been married to my Uncle Steve for twenty years. Not even their experiment with the Hasidic lifestyle made her feel any less a piece of white trash, any less out of place in his world.
Taking a nervous sip from her whiskey tumbler, she said, “You see, Merrill, I’m the black sheep of the family.”
“That’s O.K., Tammy. I’m the blond sheep.”
For several years, when I spoke with my dad on the telephone, the tone of his voice told me not only that he had resigned himself I would die of AIDS, but that for all practical purposes, I was dead already. He had pretty much worked his way through the mourning process by then, except insofar as it permitted him to indulge in self-pity.
“It’s very sad that this had to happen,” he concluded.
I never wanted to see him again. He reminded me of the social workers and nurses at the clinic who disapproved of my pursuit of a graduate degree, who kept trying to coerce me “to resign to the inevitable.”
Positive for seven years in 1996, still quite alive, my perseverance apparently did not surprise him. “I’ll pay for the plane ticket,” he said, “and you won’t have to worry about the hotel or anything. It’s important that you get to know your Jewish family.”
I agreed to go, if only because I imagined I could cause trouble.
They spoke Russian, I found out, not Yiddish as I’d always assumed. When I was growing up, Grandma, my father’s mother, told me that not one member of our family who remained in Russia survived. A single woman, though, I discovered, did: Nonya, a silver-haired great-aunt, many times removed. Grandma had suffered her dishabilitating stroke, so she could not attend the reunion, nor even understand that it was taking place.
Grandpa began life as a tough farm boy in Tennessee Appalachia, who protected his handicapped brother with his fists, in my father’s sentimental tale. Now, I saw him, in his 70s, sheepishly greeting distant members of her family in his plaid shorts and polo shirt, looking like a little lost child.
Nonya’s English entangled a thick Russian accent with a Texas drawl. She had survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The Nazis had separated her from her father, her little sisters, and her brother. She had watched her mother die.
Her immaculately suited son, a balding man many years my senior, left for the United States before the war broke out, to became wealthy in the import business. After the war, he brought her to his home in Texas. The reunion mattered deeply to him. He bought our table round after round of drinks. It was never clear to me exactly what he imported.
I had always believed that my Jewish heritage explained the dark color of my skin, but looking around in Chattanooga, I was surprised to find myself, in spite of of the blond hair, the darkest person in the entire gathering.
Mostly Nonya looked fragile and tired. Her drooping face would light up, though, when one of the reunion’s packs of youngsters ran across her path.
“Look at the children,” she would say.
When I came out to him in college, my dad told me the one thing he regretted was that he would not have grandchildren. I was torn between, on the one side, screaming that gays and lesbians can have children; and on the other, carefully explaining that my not wanting to have children had nothing to do with being gay.
Men around me were dying from complications of the HIV virus. I had seen it, in the hospital, in the bars, among friends and acquaintances. It felt something like the Holocaust, something like a genocide, something like drowning, but different, intangible, unreal.
I refused to luxuriate in images of my own death. Childless, the children offered no hope. My hope was to imagine the impossible, to insist that things as they are were unacceptable, that everything has to change.
Several months after the reunion, back in Seattle, I showed the big group picture to my friend Lisa.
“You and this woman are the only people at the reunion who look unhappy and out of place,” she said.
She pointed to Nonya.
He told me his name was Scott. I was surprised to find he was a student at New College. I was certain I would have remembered seeing him.
We talked about rap music, the censorship of 2 Live Crew, growing up gay.
“I know, Me So Horny is a wretched song, but it makes me happy to hear it every place I go. It’s like, screw you, Republican prudes!”
He glanced down at the concrete, then looked directly into my eyes: “I have something really important to tell you.”
“Before we can do anything, you have to know that I have AIDS.”
I had been mentally preparing for this moment a long time. It was a matter of principle: I could never, ever turn a guy down because he was positive. Safer sex was safer sex. The only right thing to assume was that everyone was positive.
“I’m really sorry to hear it, but I’m still interested in you.”
He smiled, but his eyes looked sad.
I felt the blood rush to my groin.
We arranged for him to visit my dorm room the next day.
Scott, it turned out, was the boy I’d heard about a year before, the New College student who had gotten sick all of a sudden and had to withdraw from classes. I had just transferred to New College from Reed College. The first student I dated, Danny, told me about Scott, with the understanding that all he said was privileged information. Among gay boys at the college, I found a quiet undertone of panic.
When Scott came to visit my dorm room, Joe spotted him in the hallway and intercepted us. Suddenly, everything about me was cast as feminine: my voice, my walk, the little Picasso reproduction on my wall that I pilfered out of an art book. There was Joe in his standard white t-shirt and blue jeans, pimping his working-class boyishness. In a few minutes, it was obvious that Scott had decided on Joe.
Joe, though, had no idea that Scott had AIDS. When he found out, he freaked out and refused to have sex. I did not let Joe or Scott know that I felt vindicated, and I felt bad about feeling vindicated.
It was little comfort that Scott had made a mistake. A few months later, we received word that he had died.
At the climactic scene of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gretta tells her husband, Gabriel, the story of Michael Furey, the young man who died for her love.
“I implored of him to go home at once and told him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live. I can see his eyes as well! He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree.”
One day, Joe told me we could no longer be friends. I had no conscious intention of killing myself. “The Dead” reaffirms the truism that has been in place since the Troubadours, borrowed from the Christian crucifixion, that self-sacrifice is the ultimate proof of love. Furey’s example chastises and belittles Gabriel, who knows he cannot match it.
“Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree.”
Unlike Michael Furey, I did not stand outside the beloved’s window, making myself deathly sick, singing in the snow.
Of course, no snow was falling in south Florida.
What I did lacked the poetic resonance. In six weeks, I let forty—maybe fifty—men fuck me, with and without protection. Mostly without. I was a total bottom then. I did not make demands. I was trying to prove that I was desirable. Gin and fucking were the only things I could think of that could help put Joe out of mind.
Only the gin and the fucking didn’t really work.
I woke up one Tuesday morning in April in my dorm room in Sarasota, Florida, to find the bed sheets sopping wet with sweat. It didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t hot. I felt fine. I touched my forehead: no fever. The air conditioning was blasting. I took the sheets off the bed and draped them over the standing lamp so they would dry. I would wash them later.
I felt so much better since Joe and I had made up.
When I got back from breakfast, I sat at my desk and started reading for my French symbolism group study, which met at 1:00 p.m. As usual, the door to my dorm room was open; and the window was open, too. The air conditioning would rush through the room, but not freeze me, taking all the cigarette smoke out the window.
I forgot that I had placed the sheets over the lamp, until Joe came into my room and asked, “What is that smell?”
I was displaying all the classic signs of HIV infection, which had arrived right on the classic time-schedule. I must have known, but I was not ready to know what I knew.
I was a 22-year-old college student.
In 1989, HIV infection was “almost invariably fatal.”
Miguel shivers when I touch his narrow back, jerks away, toward the far edge of the bed. I am awake. I left Miguel months before I left Illinois. I am in Berlin.
The room is shot through and through with bluish light. I pull the blankets down a bit and turn to the left to see the alarm clock. Nearly blind without contacts or glasses, I edge up very close. It’s 11:43 in the morning. I did not remember to set the alarm last night. Yesterday, I had made “buy more coffee” a mantra that I voiced silently to myself all afternoon, but it didn’t work. I feel a slight sinking feeling in my stomach, as I realize I have nothing to make espresso with.
There’s also a dull pain. I don’t remember how many gin and tonics I swallowed last night at Roses. The crowd was not friendly. I would not have stayed so long, but the lesbian bartender engaged me in conversation. She complained that I didn’t act like an American. She did not like how I held my drink, or how I smoked my cigarettes. Everything about me was off, to her amused eye.
I need espresso.
I get up, put on my contact lenses, dress, throw on a baseball cap, and leave. Surely I can find a cup of espresso somewhere in the neighborhood.
It’s rather cold. My eyes are tearing up, and I am not focusing well. Then I begin to suspect I’m going in circles.
Eventually, something like a café appears on a far corner.
It is a small shop, featuring delicate, colorful, fruit-filled pastries under glass. There is also a variety of bread for sale. I have no desire to eat anything—especially not anything sweet.
The woman behind the counter seems to move with an exceptional slowness, though I’ve long known better than to expect the speed of American service. I am impatient, but I’m trying not to show it.
She places the cup carefully on the counter. She looks directly at me, but she does not smile. “Four Euros,” she says flatly.
I glance again at the sign above her. It should cost three Euros. Yet instead of disputing the charge with her, I slap four Euro coins on the counter and turn to leave.
I am just a foreigner.
Though the sun is not out, the washed-out light, now brightened from blue to white, hurts my eyes. I forgot my sunglasses.
I try to remember the way back.
The lid does not fit the cup. There is no way to close it properly. I walk back to the apartment with deliberate slowness, but a good third of the espresso spills out on me and on the sidewalk.
When I was ten years old, while Grandma was preparing dinner, she explained why she converted to Christianity. It was years after her marriage to Grandpa. One day, struck still in the middle of tidying the living room, she had a vision of Jesus descending in purple robes. He smiled lovingly and beckoned her to come. He was so beautiful that it made her cry.
I thought, it was probably an hallucination. Embarrassing.
She began to arrange radish slices on a tray.
It was important that I learn about my Jewish heritage and the horrible things that Hitler did. He murdered people who looked like us. All of our family in Europe perished.
She could forgive everything else, but she wasn’t sure that she would make it to heaven, because she didn’t have it in her heart to forgive Hitler.
Jürgen points toward the large bottle of expensive, silicon-based lubricant on the table by my bed. “May I take some of this? Mine is almost empty.”
I nod yes, slowly. I find this distasteful.
I take another sip of wine.
Jürgen opens his smaller bottle of Eros. He studies the transfer intently.
When we chatted over GayRomeo a few hours ago, he suggested that he might want a three-way. Now that he’s here, he’s become obsessed. He’s taken over my laptop and contacted several of his buddies online—turkbb2, alempo, etc.—but it’s the middle of a Wednesday afternoon. No one is available.
I could stop him now, behave a bit forcefully, push him down on the bed, slide my hand down the back of his pants, like I did the first time we met.
Only, I don’t want to.
He types frantically.
Eventually, he notices that something’s not right. Getting up from the desk, he puts his hands around my face and kisses me.
His cell phone rings. The conversation is difficult for me to follow, as he’s speaking in fast German and I can’t hear the caller at all. Yet it seems something bad has happened: Jürgen’s entire body becomes tense. He begins to shake.
When he shuts the phone, I ask, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s a dear friend of mine. He’s in the hospital—not doing very well. Oh.”
He starts to cry.
“He was fine just a week ago. I think I’m going to have to go.”
“Maybe we can do this some other time?”
He wipes his eyes and quickly scoops up his little bottle, as he turns to leave.
Although I am just Jewish enough to qualify for Nazi extermination, I never felt really connected to my Jewish heritage. I was not raised that way.
“Beaten to Death. Hushed Up.” In 2008, in search of a smoke shop on Nollensdorfplatz, I stumbled onto the pink granite triangle on the concrete wall of the U-Bahn station. I had seen pictures of it online previously, but had no idea exactly where to find it.
The discovery felt like an epiphany. Wasn’t the reason I was here, ultimately, to preserve, somehow, in my limited, peculiar way, the memory of a queer past that the Nazis tried to wipe out? Or was I here to meet interesting men, to have adventures?
Then I thought, were these two pursuits really so separate? Why must work be different than play? I wanted to know that every time I photographed a statue of a male nude and posted it on my blog, I was not merely indulging myself. I was documenting something. Desire is historical, not the same thing to all people at all times, but something with a definite trajectory that, for the most part, has not yet been written, or has been written over. The pink granite triangle, referencing the badge of shame that the Nazis forced homosexual men to wear in the concentration camps, memorializes and dignifies their loss, shows that it matters. It is a political act. I want to extend this gesture, to make again material what has been obliterated.
And I want to rewrite some small part of the history of desire so that it articulates me—so that it articulates what I have experienced.
I am afraid there will be translation errors, mistakes, Freudian slips.
Peter and Michael cast knowing smiles as I open the apartment door. Hans’ eyes dart this way and that, as though he’s lost his way. He sees my roommates, but does not smile back at them.
I don’t want him to panic. I grasp his hand and say, “This way.”
His face seems so sad. I stare into his dark green eyes until he turns them away.
When I close the door, he glances up like a startled animal.
I point toward a bottle of red wine on the coffee table. “Would you like me to open it?”
“I don’t want to get drunk. I had . . . I had too much to drink last night.”
“We don’t have to drink it.”
“I’ve been getting drunk far too often.” He gives me a guilty look.
“But I’d like one glass,” he says.
He gulps several glasses in quick succession.
I open a second bottle.
“I’m a mess.”
“You’re very cute,” I say.
“No, I’m not.”
I wipe my cum off his stomach. We lie on the narrow bed, staring at the ceiling, our naked bodies touching.
“I think a lot about killing myself,” he says.
“That’s not good.”
“I just got my diagnosis three months ago. I probably became HIV+ on purpose.”
“I probably did, too. But HIV is no longer a death sentence, you know, like it was when I caught it 21 years ago.”
“I know. But it was self-destructive behavior.”
“HIV taught me that I needed to start taking care of myself.”
“You have self-confidence. I don’t.”
“You have to begin to start believing in yourself.”
I reach to stroke his hairless stomach with my fingers, but he knocks my hand away.
“What would you like to do now?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“No. I should go home.”
He doesn’t move.
After several quiet minutes, he suddenly stands up. Avoiding my eyes, he says, “I should take your phone number. Then I should call you, in a few days. We might go out to dinner. We might start seeing each other regularly.”
“But that’s not going to happen.”
When I was four years old, I spied a brown and shiny snail’s shell. It was slightly opalescent, and I wanted to keep it for myself. I pulled the wet animal out, set it carefully on the cement front porch, and went inside with my prize. When I returned a few hours later, I was surprised by the little body, visibly fried. I shuddered. I had killed it.
Berlin has smashed my shell, and it hurts. But unlike the snail, I have become all the more alive.
If the nakedness makes me uncomfortable, there are so many shells to try out, some opalescence that might catch the eye, a spiral into the new world.