Thursday, October 8, 2015

Le baiser

The walk back to Haus-Schultz was a quiet one. The streets were now empty save for a few rushing Berliners and, curiously, three or four men and one woman congregated behind a parked car half hidden in the dusk shadow of leaf-budding trees. The group gave Gauthier and the Bannführer muted looks as the two passed them. And when they had passed, Gauthier was sure one of the men spat. Edelweiss came instantly to mine. Whether true or not; it did not matter.

No signs of more such gangs in the Platz, so Gauthier soon lost himself in the Bannführer’s schlick, schlicks and contemplation of the day’s event and, in particular, the strange quietness of this metropolis; a stillness that could never occur in Paris at any given hour of the night – until the Germans came on their horses and installed the evening curfews…and re-routed with little notice the flow of pedestrians, liberty, happenstance.
Sad, this city. David told him that Berlin was, in the ‘20s, an “opened city”, much like Paris. His Jewish friend was a brilliant photographer and draftsman. Yet History, Gauthier always knew, was David’s true calling. Discussion on Berlin was ignited the very same evening Gauthier and David learned details of the Petain-Hitler armistice agreement that, David claimed, effectively put “targets on the backs of Jews”.  The assertion was all too impossible for Gauthier to believe. That sort of stupidity would not take in Paris. David said nothing more that night on the issue, but Gauthier knew it concerned his friend – and him – once evidence grew of more restrictions on Jews. He threw down the newspaper in the middle of the table one evening at the cafe, complaining of the latest restrictions. Jews could not join the army, he mumbled, but raised his voice, “Nor can I hold important industry positions within the region?” 

Even so, Gauthier insisted, with weak backing from Horatio, “So, tell my military friend; when were you ever going to join the army?” No response. “Hello? You must be aware, too, that you are a student of art and not some industry-bound auto assembler!” 

What did it matter in the real world, Horatio seemed to ask everyone at the table except David. "How we worry ourselves like women."
 And, like a fool, Gauthier believed his own words, until in September, the Statut des Juifs effectively made his friend a second class citizen of France. “Besides, David; what property do you own that you can no longer sell?” He forced himself to ask, as if he could keep David fooled by reality.
 “Kindly, my dear. Shut up.” Was David’s sigh. 

The Bannführer abruptly looked back at Gauthier; perhaps to reassure himself that Gauthier walked like a German. As always, Gauthier ignored the Bannführer’s patrolling eyes, easily returned to his thoughts on David and the cold concrete that is Berlin and how, Gauthier asked himself: How could such a solid city as Berlin ever have been anything fluid as was Paris? Where the love between men, David had insisted, was seen as “an unspoken normality” more so than our Paris? 

“Yes, Gauthier; it is true. Very true. It is all due to the gas that leaks from the city’s swamps.”

Ha! David was adamant and shamelessly precise in that strange assessment. Berlin was known for its “…sensuous gases – and everyone knows that historical fact but you, my dear.”

A gas? Honestly, it seemed far-fetched. Clubs were everywhere, David had claimed, for Inverts, TaTas, and Sapphics alike. How silly. How silly of his friend to think such things.

 Gauthier tripped on his own feet and nearly fell. The Bannführer looked over his shoulder, paused and certainly scowled, but moved on. Gauthier, again, ignored the Bannführer’s abysmal expression. And apparently we Berliners never lose our step. Only Frenchmen do that

Gauthier looked back at the bank building he had passed earlier. Something caught his eye. He could still see the love words to Tresa in the dusk. The clever ruffian must have painted over his message in lumogen, the luminescent paint the Berliners used to light the walkways and roads at night in place of lamps. Oddly, there was a vagrant lighting up a cigarette under the scrawl. How did he get it? Cigar shops were notoriously and perpetually ‘sold out’. Many among the older HJ complained about it. And here there was a vagrant, burning up to nothingness such a precious commodity.

Gauthier took off his hat and ran his angry hand through his hair before replacing the itchy hat. He looked for the small space where he saw the discarded bedpan earlier; but he could not remember which of the many crevices it was thrown in. Fools to think their city is worthy to rule all cities. Above any of the great cities in the English Empire? Above any city in America…Above Chicago or New York? And did not Berlin’s finest citizens – its most gifted artists and scientists and engineers and industrialists – didn’t they long ago leave Berlin to become Americans? Volksdeutsche. Gauthier’s neck ached for the many times he turned his head to cast his eyes into the dark crevices, looking for that bedpan. They are now Americans. Even Hitler had said as much. Germany above all else? But, what is left of Germany to make such claims now?

Gauthier’s stomach dropped. Perhaps, he thought; perhaps that is the reason why Berlin became this concrete fortress. Before the blackouts, what made Berlin go dark? Is it because all of its greatness had left for America? Is this why the economy was so dire in the first place? And what remained were lesser actors, acting in place of those who had long ago left? The sapphist, Marlene Dietrich; she left Berlin for a reason. What remained, Gauthier surmised, were ghosts and false facades to a greatness undeserving: wet, limp flower petals and rusty bedpans and old men possessing keys to nothing of worth. What remained was paucity unmatched by –

“You did well.” Bannführer Steinach remarked as they entered the alley. “But you must do better next time.”

“Oh?” Gauthier yawned; he was so tired from the day’s events, yet found the strength to stomp on a grate in the patchy alley road for reasons unknown to him except, perhaps, to hear its sound, or to prove that the city grate was susceptible to failure. “Comment dois-je boire mon muckefuck, la prochaine fois?”

Bannführer Steinach slowed his step and looked back at Gauthier. Gauthier kept his speed and passed him. The Bannführer quickened his step and overtook Gauthier, buttoning his coat collar as he passed, hid his chin and mouth under it, and through the alley to the other side.
They walked up the steps to Haus-Schultz where a young door attendant let them into the small, yet elegant, gilded-mirror and freshly flowered lobby. It was the most stylish and most Parisian-like of any building that Gauthier had yet seen in Berlin. Faint and bland in color, however. Even the hanging art – though masterfully detailed and precise – were colorless drafts of government buildings and cathedrals that hung squarely inside thick, silvery frames set perfectly apart on the lobby walls: source unknown, for Gauthier could not find any evidence of signage. Though the silver pictures and gilded mirrors did not compliment it, the ornately carved service desk was in elegant rose bush motif; the dark wood’s uneven red and brown staining reflected its age. It was lovely because of its imperfection. Gauthier recalled when he first entered the lobby with the Bannführer, how he trailed his fingers across the edge of the desk as the Bannführer and the service clerk discussed Gauthier’s boarding arrangements…as a guest of Officer Kuefer. Or was it Bauer? Gauthier admired the deep, waxed grooves, until he felt a cold hand grab his elbow and tug his arm away. It was strange that the Bannführer, nor anyone else, was near him. Imagined or not, he had been warned and scolded and so thoroughly watched by Bannführer Steinach in the week up to their arrival, that Gauthier would not have been surprised if he had pulled his own hand away by condition alone.

Perhaps the old, ornate Haus-Schultz supported David’s fable. Perhaps Berlin was once a long ago rich and open society; a time when art was appreciated and their artists respected. Even so, Gauthier surmised, such a Golden Age had long passed. Berlin was now a city of faded draughts, faceless mirrors, timeworn wood, iron girders, glass towers, watchtowers, Flak guns, Nazis, childless parks, and arm-tugging ghosts from another time.
Bannführer Steinach and Gauthier took to the steps to reach the third floor. Their room was the fourth door at the end of the hallway. By the time they made it to the landing, Gauthier was half-asleep and longing for his bed. Gauthier yawned again, noisily, as he waited for the Bannführer to unlock the door. As soon as they entered the room, Gauthier was about to ask the Bannführer if he could be the first to take a bath – thankful, he had bought a full cake of Unity soap in the morning – when suddenly Gauthier was pulled into the room and pushed up against the wall with such force that he lost his breath! 

Gauthier did not struggle; he only protected his face with his arms as his head hit the edge of the frame to his newest composite he hung there only the day before.

“You little shit!”  The Bannführer shouted. "Little mouthy shit!" 

Gauthier anticipated a blow, held his breath and tightened his arms around his head, yet worried as much for the painting and the damage he might have caused it. 

“You spoke of your mother!”

“No I––”

“––I told you Germans keep records; we are record keepers! If the Officers so choose, they will make the connection to your mother, Dummkopf!”

“But you gave them information, Orlin. More than me! I held my tongue well.”

“Not well enough! And you left the Officers with the impression that you are an outsider; that you are better than Germans––”

“––I did no such––“

“—that you can take us or leave us, at will. But you cannot! They will banish you for what you are and what you practice. You are not an artist. You are Engineer!”

“But I am an artist!” Gauthier shouted, finding the strength to push the Bannführer off him. “I don’t want to be an engineer!”

“Shut your mouth! You will be an engineer if you want to survive in this world. There are thousands of your people in labor camps this very moment. You must stand beyond them, be seen as German and not French. And I heard you speak that goddamn language in the alley –”

“—Because I am French! And I want to return to France…”

“-- Bite your tongue, you stupid ass! You will not survive in France.”

“Then I will go to Monaco, like David planned. You can’t stop me.”

“The Vichy authorities will find you, and they will find him, too.”

“It is the Free Zone, you stupid!”

“Dummkopf! Nothing is so free from our eyes and our reach. As if that was all you will have to worry over. Anyone attached to your mother will be a suspect.”

“Do not mention my mother.”
“Shut the hell up! We have been through this! Your safety is with me, and with the HJ, and with Trade school. Your mother is a spy––”

“––No she is not!” Gauthier pushed the Bannführer with greater force, sending the Bannführer stumbling against the desk. The Bannfuher lunged for Gauthier, pinning him against the wall.

“Then why is your mother charged with treason, you stupid little boy?”

Someone then pounded on the wall in muffled, yet rapid thumps from the adjoining apartment. Both Gauthier and Bannführer Steinach searched the wall with their eyes, held their breaths.

 The Bannführer grabbed Gauthier’s elbows and squeezed. “Keep your goddamn voice down.”

  “You son of a bitch!” Gauthier hissed through clench teeth. “She is no spy! You said she is imprisoned for having English currency on her possession – buying from the black market – which is absolutely false.”

“And letters and Jewish possessions. No matter. I saved you, regardless of what your mother did. Even if your mother was not a spy, they will put you in Obligatory Work Service or a work camp or conscript you into the army. It is only a matter of time. We are giving you a chance to survive through the HJ program––”

“––We? If you are referring to your Officer friends, then saving me is as much to do with how I look than how superior my engineering skills.”

“Go to hell. You wish you were such, Pixie Dust!”

“It is obvious! Stupid ass! I know it all too well!”

The Bannführer slammed Gauthier’s elbows into the wall. “I said keep your goddamn mouth –”

“–What else but to fill your quota? Your Aryan, superior quota? The color of my hair, my eyes, my father’s German ancestry, my…” Gauthier struggled to get free from Bannführer Steinach. “My Aryan…to fill your…Hitlerjugend quota!”

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! The neighbor hit the wall again, but with something much harder.
“Stop screaming, or I’ll…so help me, Gauthier…”

“Let go–”


“Let go of me…stupid…ass!”

“Listen to me, you little shit. Listen! You are here because of your Engineering…your potential…you dumm––“

“––Then it is true! Admit it, damn you.” Gauthier gave up his struggle. “Admit it.” 

The Bannführer took advantage and readjusted his weight and grip. 

“You saw nothing else of worth in me…but a number in your roster.” Gauthier then resumed his push against the Bannführer, “Just another face…” though his energy expiring rapidly. “Another pledge…to your…Officer friends!”

Gauthier gave up again, reassessed what he could do to get away. He was so tired. So quickly, he was so tired… Bannführer Steinach only took the moment to pull Gauthier’s arms up high over Gauthier’s head, knocking Gauthier’s painting to the floor. With his remaining strength, Gauthier wriggled his right arm out and lunged, belatedly, for the fallen painting, but the effort was a joke; Bannführer Steinach simply reaffirmed his grip and held Gauthier’s arms even higher. Painfully higher! Gauthier looked for Bannführer Steinach’s eyes – to gauge what would happen next – but the Bannführer’s face was all but shadows in the paltry streetlight. He thought about kicking the Bannführer in the groin – he had never kicked anyone there before…or anywhere else, for that matter – but the Bannführer was pressing his knees over Gauthier’s and effectively locking the two in place.
“Let me go, Orlin!” He fretted, and felt a sudden exodus of his métier along with a flood of perspiration springing from his forehead. “I don’t care what you do to me...” He tried to straighten his back against the wall to keep his head up, but the Bannführer somehow had command over each vertebrae. “I don’t care if – with or without you – but I am returning to Nancy.”

His voice cracked and the word ‘Nancy’ issued more like an echo in his head: Nancy. Nancy. And it was true: at that moment, he did not care anymore for anything but for his mother. She was hopelessly alone in a cell, he could see in his mind, and he had no way of helping her. She is not a spy. He thought, or did he whisper? Gauthier sunk into the wall; he could not escape the Bannführer’s weight and strength. He could not escape his predicament at all. He wished he could surrender entirely – to just become the wall and fade away from this moment, from this world. “Don’t care…what you do.” He heard his own words as if spoken from another room. “Orlin… I don’t care.” He imagined his bones blending into the plaster…into the wall. Felt his eyes welled with tears; felt the tingle of their escape down his cheeks as he closed them tight, wishing for good. “Whatever happens, Orlin…just let it happen. Just…please just let…” His mother…among criminals. “You can choke me to death…and I won’t care…” He tasted the salt in the corner of his mouth. “...and I won’t stop you.”  Let it be the last thing he tastes. “Do whatever you–”

Gauthier then felt a pressure on his mouth; his breath cut short; his lungs stilled. His eyes – they refused to open, as if sealed shut like the latching of a window. Fear. He could not breathe. The Bannführer must be smothering him. No. He knew what it was. His eyes opened, without his wanting them to open. The Bannführer’s face, pressed wet and warm against Gauthier’s; the Bannführer’s lips were interlocked with his. The Austrian released his breath; it blasted between both his lips and Gauthier’s like a ruptured steam pipe; though his lips never moved. Instinctively, Gauthier breathed through his nose as the Bannführer pressed harder against his lips as if to cauterize a bleed.

Have minutes passed this way? How long was this strange, this wonderfully strange sensation? Bizarre to be done this way, this…a kiss? Yes. The kiss he expected would come, eventually, has come. More than the kind, cheek kisses, in Paris… Different, for certain. A particularly hard kiss, Gauthier assessed: an amateur’s kiss. Even in Paris, he wondered when. Those late hour considerations…discussions on simple things…in the back alley patio of the Le Cafe Blue…the walks in the Spanish Quarter…questions he tried to answer on art topics the Austrian knew so little about. When? During the early morning walks and those odd questions yet informative questions he had on Parisian culture…on men who preferred the company of other men… When would he kiss me? Moments together, in the City of Lights…fumbled, yes, yet inherently honest…even adorable. Kisses, yes; but on the cheek. Once, on the neck. He is still kissing me? But, what of the perfume? What of the woman he had days earlier? The woman he, so obvious to Gauthier, had held in his arms. What of her?

And then, Gauthier could make out a flash of desire lit in the large eyes of his confident, yet accommodating Bannführer. A mysterious man. How bizarre their relationship. How strange to become more of a permanent accessory to this man than an equal partner. And now this thing; this touching of lips; this hard, clumsy, inopportune thing that has finally arrived so inappropriately. So clumsy.

An admittance on the tongue. Want. A need. A kind of emancipation. Then a sudden fear…a free-falling…a fear of something letting go. Gauthier’s stomach dropped and his lungs purged. The Austrian finally released their lips, and the sudden fear of something leaving and never to return. Gauthier imagined, for his eyes were fixed on the Bannführer’s, steam. The heat borne between their chests, a furnace going cold? The Bannführer’s knees still clutched Gauthier’s thighs; the Bannführer’s crotch, a bed of stone. Thankfully, stone

Gauthier searched the Austrian's eyes once again. Were they torched with desire? Or searing like a flash of the whip? Did they part a reasoned attraction? Or govern and pilfer? It could very well be that... This man…a strange man with such eyes...eyes too large...and wide... Eyes too exotic, too beautiful...too wide apart for any human face. A man whose eyes...wish to be square. A man…whose eyes…observe…stare…


Desire, you fool.

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