Shrouded in yards of barbed wire and chain-link fencing on both sides, the graffiti-covered wall was virtually hidden. I caught only a glimpse of it when I crossed its threshold, so afraid was I to glance above the heads of the guards, and I was through the checkpoint before I realized I had not made a clear imprint of it in my memory despite the fact that I had studied its facade on the news many times before. I was almost twenty-six and traveling with my friend Sarah, visiting the place her family had come from. At the last minute, Sarah had convinced me to spend the day in East Berlin even though that part of the city had not been included on our original itinerary.
Erik and Sheldon—two of Sarah’s friends—met us outside the secured area. Standing in a snow bank, their faces were flushed to an unnatural shade of pink. It was December, the cold and wind more bitter in that part of Europe than it was even back in northern Indiana where I had grown up wearing a hat and mittens well into April.
Erik hugged Sarah, playfully kissing her all over her face, which caused her to giggle and blush, unusual behavior for a person usually defined by coolness and affectation. In contrast, Sheldon’s embrace of Sarah was awkward, his kisses on either side of her face obligatory. Men didn’t normally hold Sarah at such distance.
Even I had to admit she was striking. Not in the usual Jewish way, not because of skin so pale that it seemed to disappear under your gaze. Rather she was luminous, a negative version of the typical California girl but equally radiant. Her dark hair caught the light in an unusual way—reflecting rather than absorbing it—causing gold glints to sparkle off of her thick, black curls. It was this sense of radiance, along with the pale auburn freckles crawling across her nose like stars, that forced people to revel in her beauty.
I am not so lucky. For every part of Sarah that shines, I have a part that is equally dull. My flat, dirt-colored hair hangs around my shoulders in uneven, nearly transparent strands. My empty gray eyes look at me every morning in the mirror and beg for more.
More beauty, more vitality.
Sarah took more in thick fistfuls—like the grass I used to tug out of the ground behind my parents’ farmhouse—and I wanted to be able to do that, to take and to have, as well as Sarah did.
In the three years I had known her, Sarah had taken whatever she could get: she had hijacked opportunities that were not hers, appropriated relationships that even she couldn’t argue she had a right to, and abducted people who belonged to others. I was no exception to this rule—she had stolen as much from me as she had from anyone.
But I wasn’t angry.
No, I admired Sarah. I wanted to learn how to grab at life like it was a possession, something to be held, which I suppose was why we were friends and why I was there, following Sarah’s lead and finding my way in her world. In the home of Sarah’s history, it was my hope that I would be able to take a little bit back from her.
Sarah stepped away from Sheldon and held her arms out in my direction, presenting me like a Thanksgiving turkey and jarring me from my thoughts. “Erik, Sheldon,” she announced, “this is Janie.” Erik lunged forward and pulled me into an embrace, showering me with almost as much warmth as he had just shown Sarah. Sheldon was more reluctant, putting his hands cautiously on my elbows and holding me at arm’s length as he kissed the air on either side of my face.
Immediately I knew the trip had been a mistake.
First of all, Sheldon was tall.
Back then I didn’t go out with tall men—too intimidating, I suppose. He was also thin, though not weak. Even in his bulky gray parka, I could tell—by his firm grip and intense posture—that he was strong and fit. All of that I could have ignored, but it was his chestnut-colored hair, hanging down to the bottom of his prominent jaw line like a woman’s, that made me hate him. Sheldon was good looking, probably too good-looking for me, and he had to have been as aware of that fact as I was.
Then there was Erik.
Much shorter than Sheldon, he wasn’t significantly taller than Sarah or me, and when he flung his arm around her shoulder as we strolled toward the city, his curly hair mingled with hers, making them look like they belonged together. Sarah hadn’t told me much about Erik. Just that he was absentminded: he never remembered to call or write after her visits. But that didn’t stop her from seeing him every year. Still, he clearly wasn’t the kind of guy she went out with back home. Sarah tended towards men who displayed their wealth like hood ornaments: showy and up front. Erik, a musician, wore his hair long and his jeans frayed, making me question who Sarah became there, on the other side of the world.
At the same time, I could sense from the way they touched each other—with warmth but without passion or possession—that Sarah and Erik’s affection for each other was more familial than romantic.
Sarah had met Erik while visiting her aunt the summer after college, engaging in a brief fling with him before admitting that neither one of them was looking for a relationship and predictably swearing to remain friends for the rest of their lives. Unlike most people, they had managed to keep that pact. She had told me all about their history, but until we were getting ready that morning, she hadn’t mentioned her plans for Sheldon and me.
“You should have told me,” I said to her reflection in the mirror rather than looking directly at her face.
“I wanted it to be a surprise, and besides, I didn’t know if it would work out.”
I had learned from experience not to trust Sarah’s surprises, but instead of calling her on past mistakes, I opted for something more vague: “I didn’t come here to meet anyone,” I said, finally turning in Sarah’s direction.
“Janie, Shel will love you! Besides, it’s the only way to really see things. You have to experience it through their eyes.” Sarah’s tone told me I shouldn’t try to argue with her, that we were doing things her way no matter what. So I didn’t put up a fight. Not yet anyway. Instead I looked back at the mirror and tried to imagine what two strangers would see when they looked at a face that seemed incredibly uninteresting, even to me.
We made our way through an abandoned park along the Spree, a ghost town of wet gravel and dead weeds, before the four of us settled on lunch. At a café near the river, I sat next to Sheldon and could feel his arm brush up against mine every time he lifted his drink. By then I was certain he was ignoring me, so consistent was he about not meeting my eye or glancing in my direction. Instead he talked to everyone at once, only making direct contact with Erik and, on occasion, Sarah. My anxiety increased, and to cope, I kept to myself. But it wasn’t long before Erik put me in the middle of the conversation.
“Janie, you like this?” he began, waving his hand theatrically at the café. I had noticed Erik enunciated his words carefully, articulating each syllable and rephrasing certain words mid-sentence. He also replaced his J’s with a Y, pronouncing my name Yanie instead of Janie. And, unlike other Berliners we’d met earlier in the week, he never let himself slip into German with Sheldon or Sarah.
“You like the service?” Erik asked, and Sheldon lifted his head and grinned in a way that said, I know where you’re going with this. “Shel and I like it here. We think, too, the best way to understand a girl is to watch how she treats the service.” Erik paused, allowing me time to consider the idea, but I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Does she look the girl in the eye? Does she use her name? Does she say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’? What character is she?”
“You mean what kind of character does she have?” Sarah asked.
“But what if the service is lousy?” I asked.
“That is the question. She should treat bad service like it is good.”
I had stopped eating to give Erik my full attention. He seemed to be singling me out, and I wanted to appear interested. I knew I should reply with something equally thoughtful, but all I could think about was whether or not I had been nice to our waitress earlier in the meal. I couldn’t remember my own behavior, but the memory of Sarah snapping at the woman for bringing her a dirty glass ran in my head on a loop.
“How smart,” I said. My words came out before I could think of something more engaging to say.
“Schnauze,” Sheldon said simply, again without looking at me. And then he went on: “Insurance. It is insurance against girls beneath us.”
Sheldon took a casual bite of his sauerbraten, as if he wasn’t interested in how we might respond. I was taken aback by his arrogance, and I couldn’t help but wonder what Sarah had been thinking when deciding to set us up.
Although Sheldon was oblivious, Erik registered my disgust.
He said, “No, Janie”—my name again becoming Yanie in his mouth, a revision that thrilled me—“this is not bad, only protection. Insurance from getting hurt. Everyone must do it.”
“Not me,” Sarah said. “I have no idea how to protect myself. I always get the bad boys.”
“But you like it that way,” I said to Sarah suddenly.
“See how they treat the service,” Sheldon said to Sarah. His words came out firmly, as if he were giving her instruction.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” Sarah said. “I never let them get away with it, do I, Janie?” Sarah looked at me, and I knew she was thinking of all the men she had held onto just long enough to enact her revenge.
“No, you never let anyone get away with anything,” I said without thinking.
Sarah glared at me, letting me know that my voice had betrayed more disapproval than intended.
Then, as if it were some kind of reproach, she asked, “So how did Janie do, Erik? Did she pass your test?” I was sure that Sarah’s question was a punishment, so when Erik took a deep breath, as if working up the nerve to respond, I winced. But Sheldon spoke before anyone else could.
“She has passed,” Sheldon said simply, and then he added: “Flying colors, ja?”
He allowed himself a small grin, as if he was impressed with his use of the language. I was irritated by how much he seemed to like himself, but more importantly, I couldn’t fathom that the same person who only moments before had seemed so disinterested had given me such an unadulterated compliment. His approval was something I could not have predicted.
Erik and Sheldon took us on a tour of Weißensee after lunch. The sky had changed from gray to muddy green, making the city appear jaundiced. Though the sun was not visible, a brilliant copper light outlined the dark clouds. All of my nervousness had been washed away by the words Sheldon had spoken back in the restaurant: flying colors. Perhaps his comment had been simple honesty or maybe he was picking up on the tension between Sarah and me and trying to exacerbate it. Or—and this was what I wanted to believe—he had seen something in me, something most people don’t.
No matter the reason, I found myself momentarily freed from my insecurities. It wasn’t that I thought Sheldon was interested in me. Unlike Sarah, I had no expectations for the trip. It was just that I could stop worrying about whether he was counting the minutes until he could get away from me.
“The weather is best now,” Sheldon explained as we glided over the top of a small hill where four connected lakes lay before us like an expanse of spilled ink.
“Before winter,” he said. “Before the cold gets bad. Now, it is warm enough for the world to look like that.”
I laughed at the idea that Sheldon thought the weather was warm, but he didn’t seem to notice, instead pointing his chin to the sky: “The warm and cold meet.”
Rather than follow his gaze, I studied his profile. In the queer brightness of the afternoon, his face was stunning, almost statuesque.
Sheldon turned to me and said, “You are staring.”
“What?” I asked.
“You are staring!”
“I guess I was. It’s something about this light.”
Sheldon turned back to the burning clouds. I looked around for Sarah and Erik and saw that they had fallen a block behind.
“What’s it like here the rest of the year?”
“There is no joy.”
He glanced at me and then let out an uncomfortable laugh.
“Maybe I live here too long. Some say summer is beautiful. It is not easy for me to call it ‘beautiful.’ But it is to some. I do not like it when people visit and say their home is not so beautiful. I do not like that they do not appreciate where they are from. But I do the same thing.”
“At least you’re aware of it.”
“And you? Do you like your home?”
The movement of Sarah’s hand caught my eye, and I watched her accept the first drops of rain into her open palm. Sarah and I had met in Washington, D.C. three years before, only a year after I had moved there. The District was one of the most awe-inspiring places I had ever been. Nothing I had seen up to that point was as dramatic as the drive along the Virginia side of the Potomac at night. From across the river, each of the spotlit monuments appeared along with its twin reflecting off the water’s gentle waves. But the longer I lived there, the more I longed for a simpler kind of majesty—like the sun setting over endless fields of corn.
“I do,” I said. “I never did before. When I was a kid, I hated the unrelenting monotony of the Midwestern landscape. I thought if I had to pass through one more cornfield, I would just die. But now . . . now I . . .”
“Hard to say?”
“Yes, hard to say.”
Sheldon reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lit one for me before taking one for himself. After taking a long inhale, he said, “Sarah never said you are smart.”
“I’ll have to remember to thank her.”
Apparently, Sarah had told Sheldon and Erik about me, but I had trouble imagining what words she would have chosen. “Unfortunately, she didn’t tell me much about you—just how you met,” I told Sheldon. “She didn’t even mention we’d be seeing you.”
“Sarah keeps secrets. We can too.”
I laughed then, but I was happy that Sheldon understood Sarah’s flaws as well as I did.
When the rain finally arrived, it didn’t start slowly but rather came fully. We were still taking in the landscape the moment it hit, and even though we raced to the pub, our clothes were soaked through by the time we arrived.
Once we had shaken ourselves dry and were seated at a square table in the back of the bar, we drank our beers in silence, concentrating on getting warm rather than talking. But after the second round arrived, Sheldon spoke abruptly. “How did you become friends?” he asked us.
“Who? Me and Janie?” Sarah said but went on before he could answer. “Jane lives with my friend Karin. Erik, you’ve met Karin.”
Erik nodded at his beer. I knew Karin had traveled to Germany with Sarah before, but until that moment I hadn’t known she had met Erik.
Sarah continued: “Well, a few years ago, a bunch of us went skiing together—me, Karin, Jane, and some others. It was one of those perfect trips, wasn’t it, Janie? The weather was amazing, and everything went right. Or at least almost everything.”
Sarah put her arm around my shoulder and leaned in close to me, as if she intended to tell me a secret. But instead, Sarah announced her crime to the whole table: “I stole Karin’s date!” Sarah giggled shamefully, but I knew she didn’t feel bad, that she never would, no matter how much she had hurt Karin. Sarah noticed my expression and added, “Oh, Janie, don’t start.” She shifted back to her own chair without removing her arm from my back. “He was all wrong for her.”
“Only because you thought—for three whole nights—he was right for you.”
“Sarah!” Erik exclaimed. “You are a bitch.” But then he laughed, as if the way Sarah treated people were entertaining. Still, there was an edge in his voice, as if he too had been the recipient of Sarah’s cruelty.
“You know you don’t mean it,” Sarah said to Erik playfully. In truth, she didn’t mind people saying such things about her. She courted her bad reputation.
Rather than come to Sarah’s defense, I went along with the joke. “That’s what makes Sarah, Sarah,” I said. “Anyway, she was right. Karin didn’t need to worry about how he treated the help when he slept with one of her friends, did she?” Everyone laughed but me. I didn’t bother to add that this was the same lesson I had learned from Sarah. It was six months after the ski trip when Sarah made her move on Clint, a lobbyist I had started to see a few weeks before. At first, I hated Sarah for what she’d done. I had decided to cut her out of my life, no matter how long she’d been friends with Karin. But when she treated me to an expensive dinner and proposed her theory—that she’d saved me from months of heartache—I reluctantly acquiesced, still eager to continue living in Sarah’s light, to belong.
Erik raised his glass. “To sleeping with our friends’ lovers,” he said.
“I’ll drink to that.” Sarah raised her glass to the center of the table to meet Erik’s. Sheldon shrugged and lifted his mug.
After I drank, I said, “I’ve got another.” Sheldon looked up from his beer. I could see he was curious about what I would say. “To friends who set you up halfway around the world and don’t even tell you about it.” I knew I was being more bold than usual, but I felt liberated, and the beer only compounded that feeling.
“Ja, good, good,” Sheldon said, and he commanded us to drink, again picking up his mug, but this time shoving it directly into Sarah’s, causing the beer to spill over the side of her glass and onto the table. Rather than be offended, Sarah laughed and followed his orders.
Erik wiped his hand across his mouth and began to speak. “Ja, ja,” he said before pausing, as if practicing words in his head. “To friends . . . to friends who come around the world to fuck.”
Erik’s bluntness surprised me, but as we clinked our glasses, I looked at Sarah and noticed it didn’t seem to faze her. “At least you’re honest,” I said, and Sarah giggled.
For a moment the revelry stopped, so we could catch our breath. Then Sarah pushed her chair back and stood up. She cleared her throat and said, “AND . . . to those who long for such friends to arrive but never remember to write after they’re gone.” We toasted again, and then Sarah leaned across the table, pulled on Erik’s shirt with her free hand until he got up, and kissed him.
Sheldon and I watched until their lips parted. After Erik fell back in his seat, he turned to me and said, “I love Sarah.”
“Who doesn’t?” I asked.
“That is true!” Sheldon added with enthusiasm. “To all who have loved Sarah. And to those who will. Good luck to them.”
“How appropriate,” I said. I tipped my glass back and let the beer run down my throat until it was finished.
“Another?” Sheldon asked.
“Sure,” I said.
While Erik and Sheldon went to the bar, I looked for a bathroom in order to avoid being alone with Sarah. Unlike American bars, the pub was brightly lit, making the customers look ashen and pale when I passed them on my way back. I wasn’t used to seeing people’s faces so clearly while I drank, and the effect was a bit sobering.
Back at the table, Sheldon pushed a shot glass in my direction.
“Molle mit Korn,” he offered. “Beer and spirits, a tradition.”
I obliged Sheldon’s request. As I drank, I noticed that our group seemed more subdued than when we had split up a few minutes before. No one was talking, and I wasn’t sure if I was expected to keep the silence intact. Finally, I managed to say, “So now that you know about us, what about the two of you? How did you meet?”
Erik grunted but didn’t look up from his beer. Sheldon glanced at him, and when it was clear Erik wasn’t going to respond, Sheldon said, “We live in the same building. In the Alexanderplatz.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“For how long?” Erik said with a laugh, finally looking up from his glass. “Forever.” His eye caught mine for just a second, and his face was so full of longing that it sent a flutter of emotion down my spine.
“It is where we were born,” Sheldon explained. Erik dropped his gaze to his glass again, chuckled to himself. Sheldon leaned forward and put one elbow on the table, as if he were about to tell me something important. “We play together when we were little. We go to school together. Seems we spend all of our lives together.”
“We do not work together.” Erik raised his eyes once more. “Sheldon,” he said, “is with the GDR.” He hesitated. Then, before taking another sip of his drink, he added, “Shel is a traitor.” Even though his words were harsh, Erik’s tone didn’t seem combative, as if he weren’t insulting Sheldon as much as stating a fact.
“And so?” Sheldon asked. “I still live in the same building as you.” Erik didn’t respond, and Sheldon looked at me before he continued. “My parents . . .” he said, “they are deaf,” pointing to his ear like it was an explanation though I didn’t really understand what he was trying to say. I wondered what his parents’ condition could have to do with his job, but my courage had dried up the last time I spoke, and I kept my question to myself.
“It is time to go.” Erik stood up abruptly and reached over to help me out of my chair. I didn’t hesitate to get to my feet.
Erik muttered something about going closer to home, and before I knew what was happening, we were boarding a bus marked “Greifswalder Straße.”
Sarah took an empty seat, and I sat next to her. After we were settled, I looked directly at her for the first time since Karin’s name had come up in the bar. “Where did your parents live?” I said, afraid to ask the question that was really on my mind. I knew Sarah’s parents had fled to the United States just after she was born, but other than that, I knew nothing of their history.
“I don’t know,” Sarah replied without hesitation.
“You don’t know?” I asked, skeptical.
Sarah looked out the window before she said, “They don’t talk about it.” Her voice was casual, nonchalant.
“And you don’t ask?”
Rather than answer, Sarah shot me an annoyed look. I was well aware she had no desire to be interrogated. Every once in a while Sarah grew quiet, rare moments when she appeared almost disgusted—with herself or with someone else I could never be sure—and when she finally came out of her head, it was usually with more reticence and humility.
So rather than continue my line of questioning, I let Sarah slip off into her own world. And when I turned to check with Sheldon and Erik, they were slumped down in their seats, their eyes closed, two schoolboys on their way home from a long day of classes. I gazed out the window, enjoying the rhythmic hum of the engine and the scenery of a place that had previously been unknown to me.
After we got off the bus, the four of us walked through Volkspark Friedrichshain without discussing what was next. I knew from my travel books that it was Berlin’s oldest park, but no one offered any commentary, and it didn’t seem like the time to act like a tourist. Instead, I studied the monuments and the elaborate fountain we came across so I would not forget them as quickly as I had the wall that morning. And when we passed a small graveyard, I was surprised to see that it looked almost identical to one near my grandparents’ farm: dingy gray headstones sprouted abruptly from the dying grass and scattered leaves.
We must have walked twenty minutes before Sheldon broke the silence. “Something to eat?” he asked.
Even though it still felt early, the sun was starting to set. I wasn’t hungry and waited to see what Sarah would say, but she didn’t speak or stop moving, as if focused on some unspoken destination.
“Sarah?” I said. She came to an abrupt stop then and turned to look at me. “Sarah, did you hear him?”
Sarah looked confused, but then she answered the question. “Yeah, sure, let’s eat.”
“We will find a café,” Sheldon said and turned away from Erik, taking Sarah by the arm and leading her in another direction. As I followed them, a familiar feeling was building inside of me. Not hate exactly. Envy is what I suppose you would call it. But envy seemed like too benevolent a word. What I felt for Sarah was much stronger than envy. I thought of Karin, back in D.C. for the holidays, and wondered if she ever dreamed of getting back at Sarah. But Karin and I weren’t really the types to avenge ourselves. We would bitch for hours about Sarah, but never once did we tell her how angry we were or do anything about it.
Following Sarah and Sheldon down the deserted path made me think the same thing all over again: Sarah will never get it. As long as I had known this—it had been over a year since the incident with Clint and maybe even longer since I had really understood this about her—I had never considered not being friends with Sarah, or saying, Enough is enough, I’m done with you. I knew this had something to do with why I had come to Germany, and I had some vague sense that I had made the trip out of spite. Might as well get something out of her, I figured.
Just then Sarah let go of Sheldon’s arm and reached up to tousle his hair. He stopped walking and turned to face her. His smile seemed to convey appreciation, as if she had blessed him. It was a look of contentment, a look that said, I know I’m loved.
I was suddenly aware of Erik’s presence next to me, and I wondered if he too was watching them, watching Sarah do her thing with Sheldon. But when I glanced at him, his face betrayed nothing.
Sheldon looked back at us and yelled: “Come along!” he said, waving his arm for us to follow, and we hurried towards them, obedient as pets.
We ate dinner near the high-rise where Sheldon and Erik lived. The tiny tavern was named after a sausage dish called Himmel und Erde or, as Erik explained, “Heaven and Earth.” Sheldon warned us away from ordering the sausage because it was served on a bland bed of pureed apples and potatoes. I ordered the Westphalia ham because it was the only thing on the menu I recognized. Sarah and Sheldon had currywurst, and Erik chose the Hassenpfeffer. Sarah and I cringed when Erik bit into a big hunk of rabbit meat, and he teased us by pushing his fork in our faces.
“The poor rabbit,” Sarah said.
“Poor rabbit?” Sheldon balked. “The rabbit had a good life. He knows nothing of the world.”
“He’s blissfully ignorant?” I asked.
“Ja,” Sheldon said.
Erik pointed his fork at Sarah. “Sarah, mein Liebling,” he said, “why do you not eat?”
Sarah had been pushing meat around on her plate, but she had eaten very little. “I’m really not hungry.”
“Warum das?” Sheldon asked, and I involuntarily flinched at the intimate sound of him talking to Sarah in German.
“Is it the Hassenpfeffer?” Erik asked her.
“It’s not that.”
I felt one of Sarah’s moods coming on. Erik put his arm around her and pulled her close to him, kissing the top of her head.
“Then what?” Sheldon asked.
“It’s silly,” Sarah said, and Erik brushed his hand over her hair.
“Bitte,” Sheldon insisted. The shortness of his delivery told me he was growing impatient.
Sarah lifted her face, and I couldn’t tell if she was angry with Sheldon for pushing or glad that he wanted to know. “It’s just hard to be here,” she finally admitted. “Hard to leave. I wish we were staying longer.”
“You have always known that,” Sheldon said. “Why have regret now?”
“I just do.”
Sheldon wiped his mouth with his napkin and then said, “I saw a film about a person like you, a doctor. All the time, the doctor acts without shame, but when others become hurt, he feels guilty.”
I thought Sarah would be offended, but instead her eyes lit up. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being?” she asked.
“You know it?” Sheldon asked.
“Janie and I saw it last week,” Sarah said. “I can’t believe how right he got it.”
“Who?” Sheldon asked.
“The director, whoever made that movie.”
“How is that?”
“The sex,” Sarah said. “The way a woman feels during sex. He got it exactly right.” She stopped, and no one else spoke. “And that one scene—the one where she sleeps with the guy at the bar, you know, to get back at her husband? That was awful.” Sarah ran her finger around the rim of her wine glass and went on. “That’s exactly what it’s like too. When a woman is with someone she doesn’t want to be with. That’s how it feels.”
“It was her choice,” Sheldon said.
“But she didn’t really have a choice,” Sarah asked, “Did she?”
No one responded, and I thought about what Sarah’s motivations might be. She seemed genuinely upset, but I had seen that side of her before. The part of Sarah that made people feel like they had to reach out to her, to help her pick up the pieces. And I wanted no part of it anymore.
“But it is not real,” Sheldon said. “They are just people Kundera made in his head.”
“Shel, you are cold,” Erik said, scolding his friend.
“And that woman, her suffering was not greater than others, was it?” Sheldon asked, ignoring Erik. He seemed to be turning away from Sarah and her charms somehow, as if he wasn’t the same person who had only moments before been under her spell. Sarah had a way of wooing people with her attention and then driving them away with her self-centeredness.
“Maybe not,” I said, curious about what Sheldon was trying to say. “But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.”
“No?” Sheldon asked. “But evil, over and over, becomes easier to endure, no?”
“You mean you become desensitized?”
“That is what I am saying.”
“Sure, but that’s the point,” I said. “You’ve got to force yourself to care. Every time you see a plane crash or an ambulance come down the street, you’ve got to remember that there are people inside. It could be your aunt being rushed to the hospital or your friend flying overseas.” I stopped and looked at Sarah, pretending to be sympathetic before I went on. “And that could’ve been Sarah in that movie sleeping with the guy at the bar. I mean, how many times have you been to a bar with Sarah when she didn’t go home with someone?”
“Jesus, Janie!” Sarah said.
“What’s wrong, Sarah?”
“I was talking about something that mattered. Something important. I was affected by that movie.”
“But, Sarah,” I said, “when other people feel things, you don’t care. Why should it be any different for you?”
“You’re being so insensitive, Janie. Think about what I’ve been through.” I knew Sarah wanted to make it seem like she’d been through something traumatic, but in truth, she hadn’t experienced anything unusual. Like everyone else, she had, at times, put herself in a position she later regretted. Her suffering was not unique.
“What you have been through?” Sheldon asked in an accusatory tone. He leaned back in his chair before he continued. “Do you not understand, Sarah? You cannot sit here and cry to us.” Sheldon motioned to Erik and to himself.
Sarah stared at Sheldon, clearly shocked by his attack, and I wondered if she thought he might apologize. When that didn’t happen, she got up and started for the door. Before she got there, she turned to face the table and said, “Janie?” without looking up, as if commanding me to her side. I knew I was supposed to go with her, but I wasn’t sure I could will myself to get up and leave. I told myself to act, but nothing came.
Erik pushed his chair back from the table. “I will go,” he said, saving me from having to chase Sarah. But before he left, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I will take care of her, and you will meet me later. At the news shop on the street—one o’clock.”
Sheldon didn’t ask what Erik had said. But after they were out the door, he added, “It is just as well. I have no ability to take her bullshit, you know?”
Outside of the restaurant, Sheldon grabbed my hand and pulled me into an empty alley. The touch of his skin, still warm from the restaurant, surprised me.
“You should have gloves,” he said, but he didn’t let go of my hand so that I could fish them out of my pocket. “I want to show you a place. But you must promise not to tell.”
“Not even Erik?” I asked.
“No, not even Erik,” he said. “It is a secret place.” He winked, but then he explained himself: “Maybe I do not want Erik to know everything about me. I want to keep some things for just me, for us.”
“I understand,” I said, even though I was wondering exactly what he meant when he said, for us.
“This way,” he said and pulled me down the alley toward a busy street. Sheldon held his hand up in the air, and eventually, an old, beat-up Mercedes pulled over. He leaned into the driver’s window and spoke in a low voice. It was only the second time I had heard him use German, and
I found myself taken in by the unique sound of his voice. Then he held the back door open, and I climbed in. The car was a diesel: it sounded like it needed a good throat clearing, and the engine shook so much that the seat vibrated underneath us.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To see the best Germany. To see the world.”
When we got out of the car about twenty minutes later, I began to feel frightened for the first time that day. We were in a completely isolated part of the city, and after the car drove away, I couldn’t imagine how we’d ever get back to Sarah and Erik.
Sheldon lifted his head toward the hill in front of us. I hadn’t noticed it until then. “It is a good walk, okay?” he asked as he started towards an embankment with a steep groove. At the top of the slope, I could sense a stark light, but I couldn’t make out where it was coming from.
“Come along,” Sheldon yelled back at me. “You are here only a short time.”
I caught up to Sheldon, and we walked in silence for the time it took us to climb the height of the small hill. At the top there were three wooden crosses planted in the middle of a grass circle, which sat on a cluster of concrete steps. The glow I had seen from the base below was a spotlight pointed toward the center cross. I walked around the circle and examined the crosses, careful not to get too close. It reminded me of the image I had created in my head of Mount Calvary.
“Calvary?” Sheldon asked. “Is that what you are thinking?”
“How did you know?”
“The Christians always frighten here—like they are seeing a ghost. It is certainly familiar.”
“So what is it?”
“I cannot tell you.” I turned away from the crosses and looked back to Sheldon, waiting for an explanation. He was standing at the edge of the precipice, smoking a cigarette and looking down the hill. “No one knows.”
“No one knows what this place is. Some say it is for the first three Jews lost in the war.” I inspected Sheldon’s face, looking for some sign of emotion, but I didn’t know him well enough to read him. Then he shook his head. “But people would remember.” Sheldon held his cigarette out over the cliff, let go of it, and watched it drop. He walked towards me as he went on. “Others think it is from the Crusades.”
“Would it still be here?” I asked.
“It is doubtful. There are others—the most studied—who say they are the religions of Germany: the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims.”
I looked back at the crosses and considered this idea.
“And you have not yet seen the best part. Come along.” Sheldon walked up the steps to the base of the middle cross.
“Are you crazy?”
“No, I am not. This is the part that is best. Come.” He held his hand out to me as if we were a couple, as if he reached for my hand all the time. I looked over my shoulder and cautiously walked up the white steps to the place where he stood. “Now, turn,” he said, putting his hands on my shoulders and leading my body in the rotation.
When I spun around, I saw that—just twelve steps up from where I had stood before—the whole city of Berlin, East and West, was before me, the houses and buildings washing into each other like a river, wave after wave of neighborhoods and parks spread out into a massive sea of gray concrete and dwindling lights.
“Look,” Sheldon said, pointing. “There is the Nikolai-Kirche, the oldest church in Berlin. And there,” he said, pointing in a different direction to a spot much father away, “the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche has been built again.” He paused while I followed his finger. “What they say is that you can see all of the churches. That here we come together.”
“It’s perfect,” I said.
“Ja,” Sheldon said, “himmel und erde.”
I turned to look at him as I translated the words in my head.
“A joke,” he said before I could decipher his intent. “But it is like two worlds together, endless, though impossible.”
Sheldon stared in the distance, not explaining himself further. Then suddenly he moved down the steps in the direction of the path, as if he didn’t want to see what lay before us anymore. But just as suddenly he turned back and walked towards me, not stopping until he was within arm’s length. Glancing at the ground, he began to kick the toe of his boot against the concrete steps.
I was wondering if I had lost him when he lifted his head and looked at me directly. “My hands,” he said. “They are very cold.” He moved closer to me and slid his bare hands into the pockets of my coat. I could no longer see the cloud of his breath as he exhaled.
I hadn’t expected anything so intimate, but when it happened, I wasn’t surprised either. “This morning I didn’t think you liked me,” I said.
“This morning you were only the friend of Sarah. Now I understand: you see Sarah as I see Sarah.”
“So you like me because I dislike Sarah?”
“I like you because you think your own way.”
I knew he was wrong—I had been Sarah’s shadow for so long it was hard to be sure who I was or what I did think. But at the same time, I understood that he saw something in me I had only recently come to recognize: I didn’t want to do what other people expected of me any longer.
Sheldon went on. “What I do not like about Sarah is that she wants only the American thing.” Sheldon looked over his shoulder. “Sarah is so American she probably has a Christmas tree.” He laughed and turned his face back to mine. His hands were still in my pockets.
“I am right?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“So you understand?”
“Christmas isn’t all bad.”
“Hanukkah is not bad either, but you do not celebrate,
I thought of the menorah I had made Karin the first year we lived together, the one I knew was, at that moment, sitting on our dining room table back in D.C. “No, not officially.”
“So you see,” Sheldon said with a shrug. “But what do you think of this?” He tilted his head towards the world behind him. “Are you pleased to see this?”
“Yes, I am very pleased,” I said.
“And I am pleased,” he said, looking directly into my eyes, his attention almost too heavy for me to hold. I considered glancing away, but before I could, he leaned in to kiss me, and I let him do it. And even though I knew the light made us easy to see, it didn’t feel like anyone was looking.
At the door to Sheldon’s apartment, he looked back at me and said, “My parents are deaf. And they sleep early.”
“I wanted to ask,” I began, hesitating for a moment before finally being forthright, “what does your job have to do with them?”
Sheldon stopped in the middle of the hallway and turned to face me. “It is simple,” he said. “Better doctors, better medicine, better—” Sheldon tapped his ear rather than finish his sentence.
Sheldon’s room was, strangely, very American. It reminded me of a college dorm. There was a sofa next to the bed and music posters on the walls. I sat on the sofa wondering what I was doing there.
When Sheldon walked across the room and sat next to me, I felt my body stiffen. “You are uncomfortable?” he asked.
“No, it’s just . . .” I didn’t know how to explain.
“Do not feel guilty. You are not the woman in the movie.”
“I’m not sure I have a choice. It’s just part of who I am.”
“Why feel bad? You are smart. You know there is not a right time and a wrong time to have sex.”
It was jarring to hear Sheldon be so frank about what was going to happen. There was no subtlety in his approach, none of the artificiality I had come to associate with such moments. “I bet you say that to all the girls,” I said.
He laughed and said, “It would be clever.” He stood up and walked over to the other side of the bed. A green plastic record player, the kind children usually have, sat on the bedside table, and he kneeled down to flip through some records on the floor. “The Jews think sex before marriage is good,” he said a moment later.
“Are you being serious?”
“Ja.” Sheldon stopped talking and put an album on top of the turntable. After gently lowering the needle, the sound of David Bowie filled the room. It was the first non-German voice I had heard all day besides Sarah’s. Once the music started, Sheldon walked back around the bed and stood in front of me. “Rabbis marry. Sex as bad is a Christian idea.”
“Maybe you’re just telling me this, so I’ll sleep with you.”
“But you have already decided to do so?”
I laughed and looked at the ceiling. He was right.
“I want you to have no guilt,” he said as he sat down next to me on the sofa again, and for the first time that day, I was able to look directly in his eyes without looking away or getting nervous. “You want it. Why feel bad?”
“I’ll see what I can do about it,” I said as I reached up to touch his face.
Next to Sheldon’s bed was an old alarm clock with the numbers that go around on a dial like an odometer. I was supposed to meet Erik in fifteen minutes.
“Sheldon, I’ve got to go,” I said even though I knew he was falling asleep.
“I’ve got to go.” I got up from the bed and started looking for my clothes on the floor.
“To meet Erik. He said to meet him at one.”
“Bullshit,” he said, “you are not serious.”
“No, you cannot.” I looked at him and tried to understand why he thought he could tell me what to do. “Bitte—” he began, as if rethinking his approach. “Bitte,” he pleaded. “Do not go to Erik.”
“Erik only wants to sleep with you.” By this point, I had put my jeans and sweater on and was trying to find my boots.
“What are you talking about?”
“He wants you because I have you. He cannot let me have anything just for me.”
“Well, why should you?” I asked. “Besides, you’re the one who said sex was healthy.” After I was finished getting ready, I went to the side of the bed and sat next to Sheldon. “I’m not going to sleep with him.”
“Stay.” Sheldon played with my hair as he spoke. “Bitte,” he said, and then, “Please. Please, do not go.”
“I’m worried about Sarah,” I said, even though I knew that wasn’t the only reason I was going.
“Ja, go. Sleep with him. But tell him you were with me.”
Though Sheldon’s words were childish, even shocking, I understood them. “I have to go,” I said.
“I will not see you again.”
I looked at him, waiting for an explanation.
“You leave in the morning, and I must work.”
“Why don’t you visit us? We’ll be here all week.”
“Not possible, Janie.” My name—Yanie—sounded so lovely in his mouth I did wish I had the courage to stay. As he gently stroked the side of my face, I was about to ask why he could not visit, to argue that I didn’t know if I’d ever come back to Germany again and that whatever he had to do, he should get out of it. But then I remembered: it wasn’t that he didn’t want to visit, it was that he wasn’t allowed to leave.
“Oh, God, Shel,” I said. “I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“You can do that—forget,” he said, letting his hand drop to the bed and making me feel as if I had already left.
Erik was waiting at the door of the apartment building for me. He embraced me when I walked out, as if he hadn’t just seen me a few hours before.
“Where’s Sarah?” I asked as soon as he let go of me.
“She is asleep in the apartment. She is fine.”
“I am hungry,” he said. “Do you want to eat breakfast?”
“It’s one in the morning.”
“I feel as if I have not eaten all day. Come along.”
“I don’t know.”
“What else can you do?” Erik asked.
I tried to picture myself going back to Sheldon’s apartment, but I knew it was too late. I had already left him behind.
“We will eat and then you can wake Sarah. There is no reason to sleep. You will only be here one day in your whole life.”
“You never know,” I said.
“I do know. You will not come back. Why would you?” He put his arm around my shoulder and led me away, and for some reason, I didn’t resist.
Erik ordered an omelet with toast, and I just asked for coffee. I noticed that he cut his eggs with a knife and fork, even though he could have gotten by with only the one utensil. He ate for a while before he said anything. He seemed to be considering his words. It was a noticeable change from his gregarious demeanor earlier in the day.
“I love Sarah,” Erik said finally. “She is beautiful, and she never forgets me. You know she always writes, she always visits?”
“I know,” I said as I played with the ceramic salt and pepper shakers.
“Short visits,” Erik said, “but I enjoy it every year. I do. Because we do what we like. No rules, no . . . what is it called? Expectations?”
“Well, it is not possible to have none, but is not the same as with girls here. If I date a girl here, I am always thinking, is this good? Do I like her? Does she like me?”
“How does she treat the help?”
“Ja! And Sarah, I do not have to worry about it because there is no tomorrow. We are only happy together. That is all.”
“So this year was a failure?”
“Sarah is not happy. Things did not go as we planned. I wanted Shel to have you like I have Sarah—one day every year, one day to forget.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that our setup had been as much for Sheldon as it had been for me.
Erik continued. “But I did not plan it right. You will not come back. You and Sarah might not even be friends. And Shel. He could never enjoy just one day. He is different than us. He is rigid.”
“He seems pretty free to me,” I said.
“Ja, well, it is an act.” Suddenly Erik set down his knife and his fork. He looked at me and said, “You did not sleep with him?” And then: “I hope you did not sleep with him.”
“Because you are good. You are alive, you are free and open. Shel thinks there must be an answer to all questions. He thinks too hard.” Erik paused for a moment and seemed to be waiting for my response. “He is my friend, but you do not want that.”
“I don’t have to want it if, as you say, I am never coming back.”
“Maybe, but still.” Erik flipped his fork over in has hand. “I am jealous you slept with him.”
I was shocked to hear Erik admit this. “What about Sarah?” I asked.
“Sarah is my friend. She is my family.” Erik hesitated. He leaned across the table and added softly, “She is asleep.” He laughed at this, and I couldn’t help but laugh too. The situation was completely absurd and yet exactly as Sheldon had predicted. I had just slept with Erik’s best friend, and yet he was coming on to me. So why was I intrigued?
“So that makes it okay?” I asked.
“Do you care? Is this not what you want?”
“I’m not sure.” I was just as surprised to hear Erik articulate some understanding of my situation with Sarah as I had been to hear him say he was jealous of Sheldon.
“You should have seen your face this morning!” he said.
“What did I look like?”
“You looked frightened. Amazed. You had never seen anything like that verdammt wall.”
When I thought about that morning, my memory of the wall was eclipsed by the image of Erik and Sheldon standing on the other side, waiting for us to cross over. Everything was a blur of barbed wire and graffiti. “I don’t even remember it,” I said. “Isn’t that awful?”
“I am not surprised. You have changed.”
I thought of the events of the past day, Sheldon back in his room—the posters on the wall, the children’s record player, a life he was not meant to live.
“Do you think it will ever come down?” I asked, hoping Erik would know what I meant.
“Does it matter, Janie? We can never go back.”
Though I knew Erik was right, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d someday want to go back to the way things had once been, the way I had once been. Before I could answer that question, Erik took my hand and tugged gently.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We’ll make certain.”
“Of what?” I asked even though I already knew.
“Sarah,” he said without explaining further.
And when he stood up from the table, I stood too, following him willingly out the door.
About the author: Molly McCaffrey has published two books for adults—How to Survive Graduate School & Other Disasters (stories) and You Belong to Us (memoir)—with Main Street Rag, a small literary press that won Best Small Press from Mid-American Review in 2016. Though MSR stands firm in its refusal to sell on Amazon, You Belong to Us sold out its print run in record time. Most recently, McCaffrey's work has appeared in Psychology Today, The Independent, USA Today, Medium, The Haven, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Bowling Green Daily News. Last year, her satirical piece on arming school teachers in The Independent was shared over 10,000 times. She received her Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati, has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize, and served on the SCBWI Midsouth conference committee. McCaffrey currently lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with her husband, bestselling suspense author David Bell.