After The Eliza Battle, I went to Berlin to recuperate, to nurse my pride. I had been there many times at that point, since first visiting in 2005 when I was part of a group show, and it had become my place for retreat when L.A. started to feel monstrous, as it regularly did; I’d been part of several group shows over the years and then there was a major museum biennial thing in 2011; there were meetings with curators arranged for the months of December and January; and I was also supposed see a few gallerists who wanted to represent me, had been inviting me for months, more fervently after news of this last show; I had friends I could stay with, and sublets of people out of town, the Berlin way, a city of transience, expatriates, refugees, and nomads, but I rented a flat for myself, in a different part of town than most of the people I knew; and in the cab from the airport, I started to fall asleep, head nudging the window, I hadn’t slept on the flight, it was nearing 4 p.m. Berlin time, the sky was steely; and I was able to make out the brown buildings with their box balconies, the typography of the street signs, the black coats being dragged around by little moons of grim faces, the Muslim women in their head scarves and long dresses that dusted the ground as they walked, and I felt at home.
I hadn’t spoken to or seen Hanne in the month or so between the opening and when I left. Cal had, as expected, texted many times, beginning on the night of the opening, wondering where I’d gone, if he could come over later, and something the next morning, ‘you were so radiant last night, lover,’ then the texts started to end in question marks, a flurry of them for a few days, but by the time I’d made it to the airport, they’d stopped altogether, and I’d already started to forget the features of his face.
By the time I arrived at my flat in Mitte, the posh part of town, it was completely dark, and I found that the heater hadn’t been turned on. The rooms felt like a morgue. I switched on all the lamps, remembering the difference of German light switches from American ones, a rounded, phallic little knob instead of a flat geometric angle, but the weary light only made the place seem more like a tomb, filled with a cold that had been living there, undisturbed, for a long time, and wasn’t about to vacate for me. I called the landlord, no answer. Left a message as I flicked off the lamps, and gave up to being claimed by the rules of the place. I fell into bed with all my clothes on, my coat, gloves, scarf, and hat, and slept hard. I awoke a few times in the night, stiff and frozen, my eyes parching where the lids met. I stayed in bed, curled like a pill bug, until the light started to leak through.
I took a bath, holding the showerhead on its silver leash over my forehead and shoulders, getting warm only where the sprinkle of water hit. The bathroom was newly renovated, as was the rest of the flat, in the jail-cell chic of German design, with slate floors and walls the colour of wet cement. There was a fresh bar of soap, brown and angular, shaved off a block that smelled loamy and ripe, like wet wood, but the tinny smell of the tap water rinsed everything, and the cold killed all the steam. I went out for breakfast, to sit somewhere and get warm, maybe I’d go to my favourite indoor swimming pool later. My meetings didn’t start until the next day, or maybe tomorrow; I had a little time. The sky was the colour of the walls of my flat, and mild spasms coursed up and down my neck from its being chilled for so long. The Eliza Battle had sold out, and I had some money, more than usual, although I’ve always been bad with money, either having none until I have some again, or having a lot and then, just as quickly, none again, never a plan for how to stabilise the rise and fall of it, someone once told me that this trait was because I grew up not only poor but raised by addicts, trained to live as though each day is the culmination of all days, always seeking the rise, always living in the fall, so with my bit of Eliza Battle money, however much more it was than usual, I went to a swanky brunch place that served plates of sliced cheese with a cluster of grapes for 40 euro, which my friends, who all lived in Neukölln and Kreuzberg, despite having solid careers and plans for their money, would hate me for. Five years ago, I would have hated me too, but I had my justifications, my ego. Later, I would call my friend Yves, who lived in Neukölln, a Frenchman descended from Martinique-born grandparents, I’d known him for many years, since we were in the same show together in 2007, then again in that museum thing, he was the person I called my best friend, even sometimes my soulmate, but first I needed coffee, the cold had started to feel like loneliness, like I’d lost a long race that I’d been determined to win.
‘Is it you?’ Yves’s voice, cool and low, gave away his smile.
‘God,’ I said into the phone, ‘it already sounds like you’re not on the other side of the world.’
‘So,’ he breathed, ‘my wife, you have arrived. And how is it in your chichi headquarters?’
‘The heater’s broken, apparently, says the landlord. I’ve been sitting at a café all day just to keep warm. Can I come to yours tonight?’
‘Of course – should we have a party?’
‘You know where it is. Come whenever. I’m working, of course.’
‘I’m just going to swim at the pool first.’
‘Ha, yes, of course. Have fun, mermaid.’
When he opened the door, his large hands enveloped my head. ‘Your hair!’ he said, kissing my face. ‘You look like a little boy!’ He stepped back, leaning his thin, ropy frame on the door, grinning, his body was graceful and his hair had grown; it curled around his ears, sticking out in dense coils of blackish brown that I noticed was the same colour of the soap in my bathroom. There was a lot of grey in it now. I hadn’t seen him in two years. ‘It’s so good to see you,’ he said, curving his frame to the door like a ballerina on her bar, ‘even if mermaids can’t have hair like this.’
The lambent light in his apartment bronzed his mahogany skin, his loose burgundy clothes, and I could smell his cedar cologne merging with the odour of food. His apartment was warm and lit by candles, the heater hissing reliably, like a big hibernating animal, and I could hear Nina Simone’s regal sadness being voiced in a room somewhere. I wanted to cry from the swelling gladness in my throat. Returning. He started to talk, taking my coat, moving into the kitchen, bringing out the wine. I’d always loved his voice. It was deep and low, like a cello, and he spoke British English through his French accent, which made him sound elegant and always a little disdainful. He folded his long frame into a chair, stopped talking, and lit a cigarette, letting his onyx-coloured eyes rest on me for a while. We could go for long periods of easy silence and gentle looking, and I nestled into my chair, smoking too, and returned his gaze.
I put out my cigarette. ‘I had an extraordinary experience at the pool today, I have to tell you,’ I said. ‘In the showers, there was a woman, very large, doughy. Lumpy and pale, one of these German ladies – ’
‘ – salty pillars of the earth,’ he said, making his shoulders big and clenching his neck.
‘Yes. Like the colour of chicken broth. She had that grey-blonde hair, that un-colour, you know? And she kept her back to us the whole time. She never showed her front, even as she went out, she pulled her towel around her, waddled out of the stall, like a big baby. On her back, on the left side near her shoulder blade, was a scar – but, like, an intense scar, Yves. I’ve never seen anything like it, I couldn’t stop staring at it. It was like a whole chunk of her had been scooped out. It was the size’ – I looked around for a piece of fruit, then held up my fist – ‘like this big!’
‘The size of the fist is how big the heart is, you know,’ Yves said, making his own fist. I saw his fingernails were painted blood red, as dark as the wrinkles of his knuckles.
‘Yes,’ I nodded. ‘It was like her heart had been scooped out of her, but from the back. Like they had gone in from behind, when she wasn’t looking – or she’d asked them to do it that way, because she couldn’t handle it from the front. There was another woman in the showers who was staring at it too. I caught her, and she looked away. I had a thought – ’ I paused, feeling a crease in my memory, ‘ – I don’t know. I don’t know. I, I wanted to lick it.’
‘Lick her scar?’
‘Yeah. I know, I know. It was so smooth and shiny, but it was also, just, so – I don’t know – empty.’
‘Didn’t you just have your birthday?’ Yves got up, went to the stove, stirred something in a pot.
‘And so you’re almost forty?’
‘Ten more days.’
‘Are we having a party?’
He placed a bowl in front of me, and one for himself. They were the size of dinner plates, dirty colours of earthy blues, and I recognised the rough handmade grit of them. ‘Did Alain make these?’ I said.
‘Yes. The only good thing I got from him, probably.’ We brought spoons to our lips. The broth had oily clusters of gold drifting on the surface.
‘Yves, this is delicious,’ I said. I wanted to cry again.
‘Yes, I’d like to have a party. But I was thinking – my place is so small, and I have work everywhere for the show in February.’ He trailed off, refilling my wine.
‘You want to have it at mine?’
‘You always know what I’m thinking.’
We clinked glasses, and finished our dinner with sporadic speaking. The music from the other room reached its end. He waved me away when I tried to do the dishes, pushing me into the living room, where we sat, finishing the wine, on the sofa he’d reupholstered with the grey wool Swiss Army blankets of one of his heroes, Joseph Beuys.
‘I can tell,’ he said, on our fifth or sixth cigarette, ‘that you’ve had a heartbreak.’
‘God,’ I groaned. ‘Let’s not talk about it.’
‘But you made work about it, I presume. I hope.’
‘But it didn’t help. The opposite, actually.’
‘That’s the risk, always.’
‘No, not like that. It’s just – ’ I saw then, like a phantom had risen in front of my eyes, that the dilution I’d hoped Berlin would give me from Hanne had not yet happened, and even worse, was working more like an attrition ‘ – I’m worried it’s only the beginning for me, but I’m the last one to the party.’
‘Ah,’ Yves started to chuckle. ‘You’ve fallen for a slut. I see.’
‘You know I hate that word.’
‘Yes, but it’s different for me.’
‘Why, because you’re a man?’
‘Of course, my love – that’s always the reason, isn’t it?’
We both laughed at this, but mine was limp. Yves went on to tell me about his new love, a young Adonis, white, twinky, named something like Timmy or Timo, a dancer, perfect shoulders, hung, but I had floated away, my mind flipping through images, Hanne in ropes, Hanne standing over me, Hanne and Cal’s tongues in each other’s holes, and then the woman at the pool, her heart being dug out, I imagined with a long spoon, like the kind that Berlin cafés give you with your latte, then I thought, or maybe she had been shot, and they’d had to tunnel into her to get at the bullet, I gulped the last of my wine, saw the woman on her soft, big stomach in bed at night, nightgown undone, the hole in her back stinging, the bandage sticking to it, and then, when it had healed into the shiny, concave pit, how a nose, a tongue, a gentle fist, would’ve fit there perfectly, when Yves touched my knee, and said: ‘You’re tired, you should sleep.’
I agreed with him, and let him lead me into his bedroom.
‘Aren’t you coming?’ I said, as he turned to shut the door behind him.
‘It’s Berlin, remember. We’re nocturnal, you barbaric American.’ A soundless laugh jumped in both our shoulders. ‘I’ll try not to bump you when I crash in here at dawn.’
‘Bump me all you want,’ I said. ‘Love you.’
He shut the door, and we were alone. I spread out on the bed, like a snow angel. The room turned slowly, and I felt like I might vomit, so I turned on my side, and hung my head halfway off the bed. The next thing I knew, I heard the click of the bedside lamp being turned off, and saw Yves’s sinewy, dark chest and wiry arms folding back the covers in the dawn light. He burrowed into the bed, and I heard him sigh. The trace of stale cigarette smoke was all that was left of his cologne. In the colourless light, I saw that the skin on his face had sunk into the cheeks. He looked much older, grey in his stubble too. I thought of when we’d first met. I had been 24, 23, or so, it was the opening for the group show, one of the first I’d ever been in, and the first I’d been in ‘internationally,’ I’d made it into something important enough that I needed to fly to Berlin and conduct my inclusion in person, although now, of course, I sent work all over the globe to be in group shows and paid them little attention, marked them on a calendar, collected the cheques, Yves had looked dashing in that room, on that first night, wearing a purple suit and hot-pink sneakers, the only black man in the room, and he’d said so, noticing me, the only yellow person, as we snuck out early to drink in a Turkish-owned bar, ‘they only wanted me because I’m black,’ he’d said, ‘and gay, too, ha, two birds with one rock, is that how you say?,’ and later that night, both too drunk, falling on each other, he wept, his face disfigured with sobs, for many reasons, none of which he explained out loud, finally bowing his head to apologise, ‘I don’t even know you,’ he’d said, ‘though I feel strangely like I do,’ he was the age I am now, thirty-three. Like Jesus.
Soon he was snoring lightly, a lowing rumble in his dipped chest and throat. I pulled the curtains closed and the room was shadowed a sooty violet, like a bruise. I felt a tingle in my vagina. Went to pee and felt a burning. Held his shaving mirror between my legs and saw that I was swollen and bright red. Must have been the pool, or the plane ride. Or the drinking. I don’t know. My shoulders drooped. So much for fucking her out of my mind. I hobbled to the kitchen, underwear around my knees, found yogurt in the refrigerator, and scooped with my fingers, pushing it into myself as far as I could go.
After my meeting with the first gallerist, during which I was hungover and said little, we had some people over to mine. The heater had been fixed. As dinner parties do in Berlin, it started around 9 p.m., the food served after a couple of hours. Yves and I cooked together, both wearing long robes he’d brought out from his closet, his a faded charcoal linen, and mine magenta silk. We indulged in selfies, which he posted to Instagram with the caption, ‘My queen came home.’ I was so happy I didn’t check how many likes we got. He invited his Adonis, whose name was Theo, to come early to help with the cooking, and our mutual friends, all artists, living in Berlin, but of course from somewhere else, with steady careers, facing their mid- or late 30s by drinking more expensively, spending more money in general, making their plans for it, trying to feel comfortable in their power by performing a confidence of accepting it, as though it were the natural order, that they deserved it, however strange it felt, the performance seemed to make up for the hesitation, or at least moderate the anxiety, which meant that all the wine they brought was quite good, something we’d have sneered at in our 20s, but felt inwardly proud of as we fingered the stems of our glasses and drank bottles. There was Tamás, perhaps the most successful of us, Hungarian, who’d been making sculptures out of Styrofoam and marble, layered together in thin slices, modelled on the Ancient Greek Kouros statues of nude young warriors, but with the faces of current celebrities; he’d shown this work in the Whitney Biennial some years before, and had just leased a large warehouse studio, which he filled with bustling assistants and models for larger-scale commissions; he brought a woman named Celeste, originally from New York, who had brassy golden skin, and called herself a ‘mutt,’ ‘you know, post-racial,’ and everyone laughed, she had the smallest hands I’d ever seen; she said she made videos about colours and capitalism, I saw a phone go around showing an image splintered into many shades of beige; there was Agata, from Poland, who made her work in the empty, ruined buildings of former warzones, where she’d broadcast radio shows, or make and screen 16 mm films; she had tightly curled, dyed black hair, shaved over her ear, and swept to the side by a long clip of mother-of-pearl, and lipstick the colour of carbon; she’d once sat for me, an almost-muse, during a summer I’d spent in Berlin in 2010, when I was reeling from my longest relationship ending, but I was too fickle to commit my obsessions to anyone in those months; she came alone, wrapped in a camel hair coat and black leather gloves and looked like an oryx; there was a couple I’d met last time I’d been here, Jack and Clemens, American and Dutch, respectively, who made abstract De Kooning-esque paintings and abstract Martin-esque paintings, respectively, and who I had little respect for as artists, maybe because so many others did, popularity has always made me sceptical, but who I enjoyed as people; they were more Yves’s friends than mine; they brought with them a man, I assume, intended for me, whom I’d heard of, an artist who’d recently exploded in New York, and had come to Berlin for his first solo show here, last September, and had decided to stay for a while; he kept his black scarf on the entire evening, I could tell it was cashmere, and that this was why he kept it on; his new money; I thought his name was Jonah, and I called him that a few times, until Yves pulled me aside, and whispered, ‘his name is Dominic, what’s the matter with you?’; we both laughed into our palms; I was uninterested, my vagina full of yogurt and infection, my head thudding with unrepentant images of Hanne but soon they were draining away, pooling into the conversation, the swell of laughing, the toss of minor disagreements that gave way to long monologues of opinion; the conversation frothed at one point when Jack, the De-Kooning mooch, asked Yves what he thought about all these black artists getting shows all at once and didn’t it make Yves proud, ‘Like how you are proud when Pollock is given another retrospective?’ Yves said, and Jack started to exhale in puffs but Clemens cut in with, ‘Aren’t Americans cute!’ and we all contrived a laugh. Most of the questions directed at me had to do with L.A. gossip, the art scene’s new stars and recent washouts, the nepotism and incest; who had slept with whom and for what, whose Instagram had somehow just passed 20,000 followers, whose drug problem was getting out of control, who had given up the last, or first, bits of their integrity, how bad, really, was the piece, and how much did it sell for; which city had what; and what, of course, it didn’t have; would it ever get it?; probably not. At some point after dessert, Yves and Theo disappeared into the bedroom and Agata pulled out her tarot cards; everyone turned their attention towards her as she held up her ornamented hands to tell their futures and pasts; relieved, I went out on the balcony, wrapped in a blanket, to smoke.