Sucked into cyberspace
I’m on the train. The tunnel opens. To my right a brown field of reed grass, with a path mowed through. There are tire tracks carved into the wet earth. They curve ahead but with no visible destination, like a thought. Someone had to examine the durability of the swamp, perhaps. A hunter’s vehicle.
And yes, there are geese swimming, brown, like the reed. It would be a photograph of moody beauty, in sepia. It is autumn.
This is the swampland of New Jersey. Iron bridges further off, across a tongue of salty waters. Brown tears of iron grime running down their sides.
There is a township we slide through. Yellow and orange-leaved trees. A red bush like a kiss interrupts the geography of the streets. The trees have dropped their frocks in those neighborhoods I will never walk.
My phone alerts. I entered the world of Binggg a couple of days ago, four evenings ago to be exact. Now I am not sure of anything.
There are the other Bingggs, informing chatter, part of the machine of the day, the marketplace of information attached to a face. A situated place. I know what to answer. Now they became of lower importance, even negligible, of only slightly more than average importance, attached only to my friends.
Not that new Binggg! It is in a class unto itself, not organizable into a category. It carries each and every possibility of the exceptional. It could be the never-imagined sadness of a life lived parallel to yours. A hidden dessous beneath the propriety of dress. Laughter with a freedom not experienced. Or that large love, like a heat wave, like a climate you never knew, coming at you through Binggg!
I am experiencing a cool spasm, being tapped on the shoulder or looked directly in the eye by a near-stranger, by a faraway thought in this very second, receiving that person’s attention. Binggg!
Nothing is as legitimate as the desire to be connected. The object of this desire does not really exist. The shared moment of reality was an hour of tea where we sat across from one another. Strangers, and yet we felt we should meet after a year of Instagram attention.
And there is this fantastic connection from another lifetime that we agreed made us have tea. New York is anonymous and very personal all the same.
His name is Victor. Though far away enough from one another, we are ‘intimaticized’. Now we feel a license to confess. Our immediate exchange of thought, as if still sitting at tea.
But what we conceived as an event is past. We have tricked ourselves into cyberintimacy. Nothing texted matters, really, yet neither of us wants it to stop, this thin, high-pitched sliver of a sound, this Binggg! attached to Victor, the man I knew for an hour.
This fall is beautiful. The mornings carry a chill like a fur. The leaves are surprising. Trees changing their frocks hourly. There is no recipe. Every year autumn astonishes, stupefies us as if we hadn’t seen it coming.
Binggg! Confession of love. It can be taken any way, like the leaves’ turning palette. There is now only that one Binggg! that is of any significance.
This indolent orange train ride to the south, a rush through towns of a sharp photograph in blue, cars, trees, streets like arrows, everything in flux. Only Binggg! seems to be something solid, with a future, even. The short-term intensity of illusion.
I think back on a glass of prosecco at the Carlyle bar with Melanie.
I just made a 20K deal, she says, out of breath.
Chin chin, we say, and laugh. Melanie is French. We speak French- and German-tinted English. We are easily distinguishable from the others.
Melanie was born in Tangier.
Ah, a tree just slid by, undecided between orange and bright red. Melanie tells me a story. I ask about her somewhat exotic physique, where it originated. That wistful smile that is hers alone, hands like a cat’s paw.
Well, she needed to travel to see her grandfather for the last time in Tunisia. The room is numb. From a sunset far beyond, through a window orange glints of light, Grandfather’s skin pale as sand.
He opens his eyes a bare minimum, to take her in.
What are you crying about? Do you have the audacity to believe that you are any different from me? Hmm? You are me. I’m not going anywhere. I’m in every single cell of your body. Aahhh. I am happy to let my old body rest, so I can only keep on exploring the world through your eyes. Aahhh. And I couldn’t be feeling more blessed, as I am closing my eyes on a fulfilled life, looking at you, who remind me of the woman I love, who I’ll finally see again when my eyes close for the last time.
He seems not to be in the room. He travels far. I am in Tunisia. The city is made silent when we step outside. The moon is thin as an eyelash.
Melanie’s voice: …she had her heart on the right side. her mother was the first woman to divorce in Tunisia.
My attention is with the Binggg! It takes over the reality. Not the sidewalk, the window displays. Snippets of love, pushing their way into my self, with an aching, beautiful possibility.
The grandfather was 107. We are talking while we walk. Our coats billowing. Someone coughs. A gingko tree dropped his frock on the sidewalk, a dog.
I am like a traveler anywhere in Europe, the large, desolate town squares, the early silence of an evening in a small town. I feel Melanie’s arm in mine. I am creating a stranger in my own fashion. I am in and out of the life I live, to welcome a hero.
Binggg! Did I mention that there is a man in Victor’s life?
A quick glance at the phone. I stumble out of Tunisia.
Later, close to home, I walk a couple of blocks. A woman beggar is readying herself for the night on a grill above the heat of the subway. I give her five dollars. She looks at the paper, hands it back to me.
Thanks, I have everything, she says.
The conductor shouts out the name of the town I have come home to. I gather my things, my suitcase. The phone slides into a pocket where it lives on its own, numbed by the folds of a wide coat. A secret, really.
Outside the train station, a motionless rain makes the leaves on the pavement sleek, like ice.
Ludwig picks me up. It is as ordinary as any other return. He uses an ancient phrase. There is very little exchange at first. There is nothing extraordinary. Actions repeated a hundred times. Flats of streetlight circle the car. The sky is the witness.
We are driving along a stretch of kudzu, strangling the trees into total obedience. Now it is limp, crumpled, gray old skin.
I'm hanging in the balance of the reality of men - Bob Dylan
Will I see you again, my mother would say to that gigantic tree next to the pool, where you look out into the Blue Ridge Mountains, their blue profile, tinted in autumn indigo, defining your view in the west. A ribbon of ionized air.
Perpetual farewells: Servus, as we say in Bavaria.
Of course, we humans live an illusion. It’s not us, it’s the others who fall ill, or have an accident, or die. It is unfathomable, and of course we would lack every incentive to act did we not live in the bubble of tomorrowland.
And then there is an exhilarating joy in being aware of time, precious god of existence. To love with all one’s soul, writes V. Nabokov, and it feels right to me. I do love. I have nothing and no one I loathe.
All I need is to stay a bit to the side. But I have no capacity to be otherwise. I love every day, even if others find it dreadful. I cannot sympathize with them. I don’t hang on the fickle weathervane of moods. Of course, I do not have to labor in 95 degrees of moist heat.
Last year I fell in love. I was not interested in the man, not at all. He felt like a trivial souvenir. But then he convinced me, or rather, the situation persuaded me.
There was a sad, metallic poetry about him. He both approached and fled the moment. He was perturbed by the personal problem of aging, despite being only half my age; and yet we looked fine together; the age difference did not bother anyone, certainly not me. I found it rather intriguing.
Of course, I couldn’t help seeing a son in him. And then my curiosity led me through this imprisoned addict’s labyrinth, for months of discovery fueled by real love. And yet I was not really in it, I was an onlooker, a guest, a visitor, still in my own galaxy.
I just let what happened happen, because there was nothing to gain or lose. And yes, the kaleidoscope of emotion traversed a spectrum of sensations I had not felt in some time.
Love is like rain, there is nothing you can do to stop it. And we have that inert need to belong, if only briefly. We are solitary heroes of our days. But the feeling we attribute to love makes us belong. Of course that is easier with the dog you belong to, or vice-versa.
Game of Texts:
Sabine: Tomorrow I see Peter at 7pm. We are meeting to plan a fashion shoot. How should I act? I am quite calm, but something is boiling and I want your suggestions, my dear. You always know what to do. Love, S
Beatrix: Be gorgeous and light and sweet as if nothing ever happened: only react to / don’t give out anything - “So nice to see you” - But remain a sphinx.
S: Thank you so much. That’s what I needed! You are the woman every woman should be! Love you, thank you.
Yes, I now know better what to do, what advice to give. But did I know that when I was young, much younger? No, I didn’t. I made enemies and friends like a magician with his wand, but one single movement could destroy the skillfully built towers of my relationships. I once drove my little VW cabriolet across a lover’s foot when he had deceived me the same way Sabine’s fellow had done.
But on the other side was always my immense ability to care and love. Now I am free to bid my radical side adieu.
There is such a broad landscape to survey, to observe closely through one’s own prism, to split into as many enchanting colors as one pleases.
Outside, the afternoon is holding its breath. It has not decided what to become. Up above, in the crowns of the trees, a teasing wind is dancing the leaves, holding the skirt of a poplar, then rustling the linden crown, then over to the tassels of a cedar. No rush.
Far away, a car zooms through a canopy of woods. The noise intrudes and makes me feel safe, as if I were in a citadel. I can invite you, too, if you so wish.
The melancholy chirping in the grass rises to a chorus thick with a myriad of shrieks. One could almost lie down upon it, fall into a most devout dream. It is an illusion, like all singsong.
A magpie has made a sloppy nest in a small potted tree. It is down too close to the steps, the cat will get hold of it. Ah, nature, that master of the law.
And then, without any astonishment, the sounds cease to exist. It’s as if a stroke has hit the park. This is the fermenting moment. Some growling from below, a place of no home. An iridescence flickers across a billow of clouds. Dark, tinted, they merge with the mountain blue.
A strong wind rips through. The sound of running feet on wood, to the terrace, to take down the awning. Some hollering, more running feet, down to the pool, to fold the umbrellas, lie them flat so they will not turn into sails.
The treetops are besotted with dance. They beam and bow. Will they hold up? Will they twist? Will they break?
A few warning drops, heavy as lead, and it cuts loose above, with the anger of a dark gray galaxy. It rips downward, as if regretting the previous idyllic day with a vengeance one could not have foreseen.
Witnessing the unexpected drama of a robust reality makes a ghost of the afternoon. What we know is but a reflection in our brain. This is how it will always be. None of it is foreseeable. The farewell is in every gesture.
Say it to your beloved; to your skin, that witness of decades; to the dog, to the milk in the pitcher, to the day. Nothing will ever change.
And yes, Dylan Thomas...
Do not go gently into that good night;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Philosophy of a metal frog
I know her from other train rides, this conductor. She is the Prime Minister of the Business Class Department. She has her parliamentary seat right on the left as you enter. To rest a little and to oversee her charges.
Yes, an astoundingly beautiful black woman in uniform, her hat pulled low over her curly hair, her features 40+. I am stunned by the sense of style she radiates despite the unified uniform. It has the rhythm of jazz: precise and unique. It is very much her own tall, long-legged being.
On second thought: on her, the uniform gradually feels like it was designed by the House of Dior. Slim but multitudinous bangles encircle both her wrists. Small bing-bang noises give away her approach as she passes by, tipping into the train’s rough concert spectacle.
We greet one another with a smile.
I have seen you three times now, she says as she passes her scanner over my phone to confirm my ticket.
Yeah, I remember you, but you’ve changed.
I think you got it, the way you look. Nobody looks like you, she says to me. I laugh.
She continues: When I saw you the first time, I was thinking: I have to do something with my hair. With my skin, I need platinum white.
She takes off her cap and there it is, what I already suspected, peeking through. Platinum white, cropped, dyed hair.
That’s what I did. You inspired me.
Oh, it suits you perfectly.
Mmmm! Give me five!
Tickets, please, she sings as she strolls off with the mien of a queen.
I am in New York. Ruben, Valentina’s and Brantley’s friend, is in a play in a small theater on W. 45th Street.
When I arrive, Ruben is outside looking up and down the street. He sees me immediately, and waves me up a narrow ladder of stairs to the first floor.
Ruben is very tall, a former basketball star, broad-shouldered. I cannot precisely place that exotic face. Wait, he’s Puerto Rican. A ready, wide smile, dark eyes framed by dark, thick brows, a nice straight nose, lots of black hair. He is roughly handsome, yet one senses a mysterious vein of a dark philosophy.
He is a touch nervous, he says. The play, he says.
I sit down in a small room with a bar, a juice in front of me, waiting for Valentina and Brantley, and Alex, Ruben’s girlfriend.
On the opposite wall, a lively crowd of dark-skinned men and women is bursting with interaction. Laughter, snatches of Spanish conversation, tumultuous potpourri of greeting, kissing, hugging.
I am looking out the window, scanning the street, when a hand grasps my shoulder decisively, turning my body toward it.
You are Beatrix! I know you from the photographs, from the farm. Look, Sophia! she calls to the opposite corner. It’s her! I’m Ruben’s mom, Christina.
Oh, so wonderful to meet you! I say. Yes, yes, Ruben visited me with our friends. I’m so excited to see him in a play.
Oh, me too. Me and my husband, we go every day. We are so proud of him. He nails it better every day, in spite of his partner. In the play that guy gives him all sorts of grief. Imagine: the other day he pushed him onto the floor. He wasn’t supposed to. And Ruben had to rescue the scene. You would never have noticed, but we knew because we had seen it before. He behaved like a gentleman. Totally saved the scene.
You are so right. Ruben looks like a tough guy, but really he is a gentleman. I felt that right away about him.
Beatrix...she puts her hand on my shoulder. Her face is almost illuminated with the truth she is about to spill in front of me like a gift. She must be in her early sixties, warm and striking. You can see this is a woman who turned a hard life into a conquest.
As her husband strides up behind her, her hand taps my shoulder: You have no idea how Ruben grew up in the Bronx. To become that much of a gentleman...you have no idea, his upbringing was the roughest you can imagine. The Bronx is no playground. Believe me, I’m his mother. I ought to know. Boy, did we have rough times. But Ruben made it. Look at him now, onstage for me to see every night of the week!
The metal frog sitting on the stone ledge by the lily pond feels impelled to express one thing: his astonishment at the relentless misunderstandings that plague the human race.
Thoughts on a beautiful summer day
Necessity is the mother of invention. I see them before me, Aunt Gitta and Aunt Esther, in the immediate postwar years. Sisters with quite different temperaments. They both laughed lightly and were messengers of novelties that they unloaded at our house like presents.
Aunt Esther had one of her many Schnauzers at her hip, and jammed her middle finger between his paws to compel his obedience. Maxi was a biter, and one first had to calm our own dogs, and the others -- Aunt Gitta too did not arrive without dogs.
And then, finally, once they had all found their places and sniffed one another: Maxi, be good! Sit! -- carefully setting him free.
Normally an American officer appeared with Esther and Gitta, having chauffeured them. Since the end of the war a department of the American military had been headquartered in one wing of their medieval water castle, because of the nearby radio station.
Our big living room filled up with grandparents evacuated from the city, friends and strangers whom a fateful roll of the dice had sent our way and given a haven with us.
Marlboros were passed around. Olga rolled in the tea cart with cakes and coffee, and an orchestra of laughter, fragments of American English, in the background, sometimes a few piano keys, hovering in the cigarette smoke.
I’m going to let in a little air, called out my mother, the only nonsmoker.
The moment the aunts made their appearance, their lips as red as roses straight from the garden, was like a sweet first kiss. The lipstick was called Fire and Ice. It was the invasion of Style and Elegance, Lifestyle, Tolerance and Joie de vivre, allowing me to grasp something I could never quite fit into place before. Despite all privations, despite the empty, bombed-out stores that stared at us as we passed on the streetcars. The law of fellowship, the collective spirit of rebuilding. Isolation as fruitless. The past cannot become the future until it is buried. A shared responsibility.
I ran upstairs, aflame with the spirit of this new aesthetic frontier. Plucking a necktie from my father’s rack, I wound it twice about my waist.
In the society of cigarette steam, whiskey, Bavarian sauerkraut with sausages from our farm, produced by the village butcher and the culinary taste of my mother, English, French and Russian mixed in with German and Bavarian treats.
In the background, the radio droned:
“Ich nenne alle Frauen Baby,
und das ist mir so angenehm”,
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine”
One did little dance steps and hummed along to be part of it all.
Aunt Gitta wears an American officer’s jacket over her wool skirt, bound together at the waist with a leather belt. On her shoulder, a corsage of fresh flowers. On her head, a Tirol hat at a rakish angle, with rooster feathers in its band, atop her rust-brown hair, which two combs suspend above her ear.
Naturally Aunt Gitta had a thing with the officer -- he really was so nice and so magnanimous. Esther was already married to a boring baron, and raised Schnauzers.
Aunt Gitta I recall with an head scarf made into a turban, and a woolen sweater over pea-green army trousers. She wrote the first pulp romances, which sold like hotcakes, though we were forbidden ever to mention them.
She is back living in Munich. At some point unbelievable laughter bursts out, people are pounding the table with enjoyment. Aunt Gitta’s tenant has been exposed as a pickpocket. The police forced their way into his room, where he had heaped up small stolen treasures: watches, rings, wallets, silk handkerchiefs, coats, bicycles, irons -- anything anyone might need.
In handcuffs, he bowed goodbye to Aunt Gitta: It was a distinct honor to live in your apartment, Countess. Unfortunately my business enterprise has gone off the rails.
He had not stolen anything from Aunt Gitta.
Thus today’s story from the treasure trove of that time in my life.
Two sides of the human coin
Their independent churches have always been a refuge, though between the bricks of faith the mortar contained old fears as well as the preternatural powers of togetherness. Having one’s own church conveys the deep claim and belief that God protects, that freedom is guaranteed as long as one remains his houseguest.
I have experienced the extraordinary welcome of a black church. As a German stranger I was startled by the unanimous, extreme heartiness of the greeting. At the same time I sensed an unspoken spiderweb of historical dangers, a slight overcompensation, as if walking on eggshells to avoid ripping open old wounds. Almost a conspiracy of souls. As if the evils of the past could intrude once again if one did not carefully wrap the gift of sacred time.
The situation has the insecurity of a flickering flame, which is dispelled by a declaration of brotherhood, of sameness, a hunger for a peace at the hour of worship. It connects all concerned through a yearning for acceptance. Hallelujah.
When we came to live in New York in the seventies, leaving behind our secure, predictable life in Munich, we were so excited. Everything had the stamp of novelty. We dove straight into the river of the New, à la Studio 54, where we left my mother -- in her black, bejeweled cocktail dress, her gaze veiled by a little black hat upon which perched a tiny bird -- in the tender care of the coke-sniffers. She thought them the most divine group of people she had ever met.
See? Innocence is often delicious, and makes you experience pleasure without prejudice.
Our apartment was renovated by Peter Morino, fresh from Cornell. We were his second client, Andy Warhol having taken his architectural virginity. Of course we met Andy.
With our first apartment came Thelma, a black Southern personality. Without her we would in many instances have been totally helpless. The first thing she asked me: Which color uniform would you like me to wear?
She showed me three: pink, green, and blue.
But Thelma, you look great in your own clothes. As far as I am concerned you don’t need a uniform.
Yes, ma’am, I need one.
I was new to Black history and had only noticed that there were no black people on the streets of the Upper East Side, except perhaps the delivery boys or a nanny here or there. I learned only later that she truly needed the uniform, at least in our neck of the woods, to identify her as belonging, as being part of our lives and not just a stray citizen in her own right, her own dubious role. Discrimination of the instincts.
And so it went, all the way down the social ladder. Thelma in her turn did not trust the black delivery boy.
You stay and wait.
She would shut the door in his face when she went to fetch his money.
On Sunday mornings, Thelma would transform herself into a black fairy-tale queen.
Thelma, show yourself, I would call. We want to admire your regalia.
In the doorway would materialize a grand stranger, someone we truly did not know, transformed into a creature free of sorrows, luxurious and elegant. Only her posture betrayed her. She did not believe in her own magic. The violet dress, the wonderful plumed hat: a disguise that moved her so far from herself, so close to us.
Downstairs her son is waiting out front in a white Cadillac, and there, in the moment, she surrenders herself to the plastic paradise of the car, the flowered shawl spread over the frilled mountain of her breast, her purse waiting perched on her lap, sailing northward into Harlem. On the familiar course to Sunday service, she would exhale and transform herself back into Thelma.
Where does it come from, this uniquely Black feel for elegance? It is like jazz. Only around us is she insecure, as if remembering slavery; in her church, where she sings and dances herself into an ecstasy, she shows herself to her divine Father, clad in the garments of success, liberated from everyday banality, glorious, rich, in style.
It’s the philosophy of a better life: I show myself to Thee, O Lord.