The gym was crowded, so crowded there was a line forming at the showers, so many white bodies so close to each other, so close to touching. There was something as sinister as sisterly about all those bodies lined up in the tiled room, bodies with the same attributes in different variations, two of these, two of these, one of these. The gym was already a sort of selector for the healthy and the able, and so the variations were minor, unremarkable until unclothed and paraded all around in one damp space. Darker nipple, lighter nipple. Puffy nipple, flat nipple. Nipples, all of them.
In the sauna, where Anja went to wait for the shower line to diminish, she was surrounded by bodies still, but bodies that were being still, elbows folded in against sweaty sides, breasts flattened unthreateningly upon reclining rib cages. She knew she was an alien. There they were, inhabiting their bodies, and here she was, rocking around inside hers. They knew what their bodies looked like, and they knew what their attitudes toward their bodies looked like – sanctioned variations on confidence and insecurity: this one likes her legs but worries about her lopsided shoulder; this one hunches because she’s too tall; this one defies anyone to call her thighs too big and so wears very tight pants; this one is warm and round and doesn’t self-criticise, but she does work her upper body extra hard on Tuesdays.
Anja didn’t know how to classify her body, she only knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t her fault. She was naturally thin, and that was supposed to be good. But she had gotten even thinner than usual in the last weeks, which was supposed to be not good. She had noticed a rash on one of her forearms, which was definitely not good. Disease was easy to pinpoint as objectively bad. But the fact that being thin was supposed to be good seemed irrelevant, since in past eras it would have been better to be plump. It was hard to rest on any single aspect for reassurance, knowing it to be simply an accident of being born in a century that aligned its aesthetic ideals with her genes. Could the goodness of a body transcend time? The question was null. Her body was never the same body. It never looked the same. It was swollen in one spot and limp in another. Parts of it seemed older than other parts. The whole thing would be old soon. It got used and it responded to the various uses, sighing to good treatment, prickling to bad. But then, it also sometimes responded well to very bad treatment.
The sauna women knew their bodies’ singular worth. They had been children, and they had been teenagers, and so they had experienced the paranoia that comes with physical change. Now they were adults, meaning they were fixed entities – unlike Anja, who was technically grown up but still waiting for a solid shape. They had achieved a sort of continuity that she had not. Many of them had probably given birth. Many of them had probably dieted to extremes. Maybe some of them had hurt themselves badly, or suffered through long illnesses. But now they all looked stable, as if they had achieved equilibrium, stasis.
In the reddish light cast by the hot stove in the sauna, all she could see in the other bodies was her own shape thrown into relief. Do my ankles look like hers, or like hers? She mentally pieced together her own shape from parts of theirs. Then she tried to see the parts of their bodies as beloved shapes for the circling hand or puckering mouth of the people who loved them. She saw them and she envisioned the way their lovers saw them. She saw them and she saw, reflexively, how she might be seen, as a recipient for a hand or a mouth, as Louis must have seen her – as too soft here and too gaunt here and too pallid around the corners here, but nonetheless the ideal arrangement of positive and negative spaces for his positive and negative spaces to fit around. He had never said she was perfect, but it was clear he thought her perfectly formed for him. His complementary match. Things she had never considered laudatory, like the smooth complexion of the skin of her back, the high arches of her feet, he noted and treated with reverence. He had called her arches aristocratic.
The line for the showers dwindled and she left the sauna, found her flip-flops, and chose a stall in the back where she could rinse without being confronted by other bodies. Maybe Germany just isn’t a nice place for communal showers, she thought, and shut the water off.
Fumbling around in the inconveniently shaped locker to find her underwear, she realised she was gripping her rented towel too tightly, and that she ought to exercise a more casual relationship to the towel and therefore to her nakedness. She ought to demonstrate that she was not afraid of all that dumb vigorousness around her, ladies with towels draped around their shoulders and trailing between their feet. One woman’s tampon string was hanging freely between her legs as she bent, back straight, to root through her bag. Anja drew the thin towel together and tied it in a knot around her chest. Its bottom edge skimmed the bottom edge of her bottom. This was as far as she would go today in claiming herself as a native creature in this place. This place, where they all went together, women and men, to put their bodies into machines, to move in time with music coming from other machines in their ears, to drink water that they had carried all the way here in little plastic bottles that had been manufactured and shipped from other countries inside machines. They were here to scrunch their muscle groups into painful knots and then to retreat to a dark and hot room where they could mingle their sweat, putting their naked bodies as close to one another as possible without quite touching: no, this place was not a natural place.
She’d been shown the machines and locker rooms when she signed up, but nobody had ever given her a tour and said: this is the little cubby where you will place your toiletries while you shower, but you will have to open your eyes filled with soap while you are reaching for them lest you graze knuckles with the woman using the shower next to you; this is the row of lockers that you should never choose, because opening one of these lockers will require kneeling under some other woman’s damp crotch; this is the mirror before which you will stand to dry your hair and stare at all the women lined up next to you, who are all standing there with elbows raised, using a wind-making device invented for the sole purpose of removing the water from their hairs – an activity that all of them likely spend ten to twenty minutes on every day, just waving a machine around to blow on the hairs to speed up the evaporation process – women who are all doing the same thing and watching you do it too, but who are somehow less curious about you than you are about them. This is the place you will learn not to stare.
ice ice bb 0º0º0º hats on today
A new ritual took shape. Louis wasn’t coming home any earlier, but each night Anja waited for him, and when he showed up she’d strap on her boots and they’d head out the door together right away.
One purpose of the walk up the mountain was to not be in the house, where the question of sex would inevitably arise. The house was too hot, something smelled rank in the bathroom, and neither of them wanted to rub sweaty bodies together in the bedroom, but they didn’t want to acknowledge the estrangement. Laura had told Anja that her cousin had ‘gone through some really weird sexual phases’ after his dad died – apparently that was a common aspect of the grief process – but nothing really weird had happened to Louis’s libido that couldn’t be chalked up to the house and their schedule. He still seemed physically affectionate and capable.
Another purpose of the walk was for Louis to circle around his feelings in long rants, sometimes getting closer, sometimes further away. After her miniature crying jag at the restaurant, she had resolved not to worry about any of his behaviour anymore and resigned herself to simply wait. It would all break eventually. She couldn’t blame him for how he was acting. He wasn’t himself.
Lately Louis had taken to venting about the superficiality of their social world, his job, their lives in general. The consultants, the false friends, the bottom-feeders, the assistants, the interns, the long lines to get into the clubs. Everyone except Anja, though he never exactly said she was exempt.
‘The only real difference between the people working in the creative industry and the people working at the airline counter is that the creatives are rude,’ he said. ‘Everyone we know assumes they’re intellectually and morally superior to normal people, but our friends are just as normal, just as conservative and boring as anyone else. The main difference is that they’re rude all the time. And they pan that rudeness off as authenticity.’
They were holding gloved hands and taking long strides up through the frozen mud. Anja was silent, letting him carry on. He was more vehement than usual.
‘And the ones at Basquiatt are the worst – they really think they have the moral high ground. Most of my interns would be better off working at EasyJet than pretending they care about the world. At least then they’d be honest about their complicity – might as well be fielding lost luggage instead of antiretroviral injection shipments – it’s all the same skill set, nothing more glamorous than knowing how to use a computer. And if they just admitted they were in customer service they wouldn’t be so goddamn rude!’
‘The people working at EasyJet don’t exactly have the best manners either –’
‘Normal people might be boring, but at least they aren’t trying to subvert societal norms by being outright shits to each other. They’re not proving their superiority by ‘subverting’ the rules of conduct.’
‘Um. Who thinks they’re subverting the rules of conduct?’
‘Everyone! They think they’re being subversive, but they’re just fucking rude. We need new friends – the whole economy has made our scene corrupt, like a sick tower crumbling from within, like an ethical Ponzi scheme –’
She cut him off again. ‘Did something happen today at work?
‘No, no. It’s just the general rudeness of everyone. They need to learn to empathise. Nobody thinks about anybody else’s feelings. Nobody knows how to treat me anymore. After all this happened’ – by ‘all this’ she supposed he was referring to the sudden death of his only parent – ‘after all this, I finally found out who’s a good person, not just an opportunist. People who seemed like idiots to me before turn out to be really nice. They don’t care how meaningless politeness is, they’re just polite. And it helps.’
‘You’re upset because you want people to be nicer to you, even though you think niceties are meaningless?’
‘They might be meaningless in content, but they mean everything in form. It’s just the form, the act of saying them.’
Louis was judgmental – oh, was he judgmental – but he had a way of bending his judgment to suit his needs. And in general, his judgment had always been much more lighthearted than this, more like a bonding mechanism with the person he was talking to than true shit-talking. It never prevented him from befriending the object of his earlier criticism. Until now she’d understood this as generosity, not hypocrisy.
But at that moment Anja could feel him verging on the kind of vehemence that prevents you from going back on what you said. If he trashed everyone to this extent, it would take a lot of justifying to reverse course.
‘Babe,’ she said, ‘you’ve been acting so normal that no one would know you needed any… special treatment right now. Usually you hate chitchat. People probably think you’d be embarrassed if they offered you their condolences, or whatever it is that these supposedly polite people are telling you.’
‘No, I wouldn’t hate it. Why can’t anyone understand the difference between politeness and banality?’
She stopped walking. They were almost at the peak, and the wind was picking up. ‘All right. What is the difference, in your opinion, between politeness and banality? Because in my opinion, the only difference is your opinion. It really sounds like you’re theorising around the fact that your feelings are hurt. Someone must have upset you.’
There was simply no rubric for processing grief in their social world. Life and death: there was no space for these at the club, the studio, anywhere.
‘I’m not talking about any one person,’ he said.
‘Is it me?’
‘Is it me? Have I not offered my condolences enough?’
‘It’s not you –’
‘Because I would have really liked to offer some condolences. But you wouldn’t even give me the address of your house in Indiana so I could send flowers for the funeral…’
‘I told you, we didn’t need any more flowers.’
She threw her hands up. ‘It wasn’t about you needing them. Politeness isn’t about need. It’s about form. That’s what you just said.’ Of course, in a way it had been about need – her need to feel like she was doing something. She shook her head. ‘I think the problem isn’t lack of condolences,’ she said, ‘it’s that no amount of condolences is going to help.’
She turned and pushed up the path without waiting for a response, weaving up through the trees, all the way to the small viewing platform topping the might have tried to sneak up. Anja had caught sight of the drones only a few times, but she was sure they were there, hermetically sealing their total aloneness on the Berg. She and Louis might as well have been living under a giant glass dome.
Louis sat next to her on the bench. They both looked out and down at the view. The TV tower blinked to the left of her field of vision. In front of her, blue-white streetlights lit the western half of the city, while yellow-white lights lit the right half, a remnant from when the city had been divided and the lamps were electric on one side and gas on the other. Radiating out from the Berg, now, was a dimmer greenish stretch of lights, where the old lamps had begun to be replaced with solar-powered ones. A taste test for the city, a sample of the sustainable colour all of Berlin would soon be. With the green lights, the formerly double-sided urban space was transformed into a new ratio with a third variable, a new possibility expanding from its core, the old bisection being eaten away by the green future descending from the mountain. The city extended out as far as Anja could see, ring upon ring of new growth.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Louis quietly. ‘I’m discombobulated. I’ve been having bad dreams.’
‘I know. I hear you making noises in your sleep.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he repeated.
She looked away from the expanse and toward him, long focus to short focus – zoom, swing, tilt, shift. She felt suddenly, horrifically guilty for losing her temper. Berating him wasn’t part of the plan.
‘I’d ask what your bad dreams are about, but I don’t know how dreams fit into your current rubric of politeness and banality.’ That still sounded meaner than she wanted it to, but she couldn’t imagine how to dial down the emotional valence of the situation.
He looked back out to the city. ‘I’ve been dreaming about my mom,’ he said. ‘I have this dream where she’s in the house with me.’ He paused, squinted into the distance as if he were trying to make out a particular landmark. ‘I dream that I’m sleeping in our bed, and then she wakes me up by touching me on the forehead.’ He reached a hand up and lightly patted his own head, the gesture itself impossibly childish. Anja put her arm around him. ‘She wakes me up and when I open my eyes I see that she’s all torn up.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She’s all bloody. Her legs have bones sticking out of them.’ Anja breathed in sharply. ‘Then I notice that the whole room is bombed out. We’re in a giant crater.’
‘What’s a crater?’ A word escaped her, for once.
‘A huge hole – like we’re in a war zone.’
‘Then I look down and I see that my legs are gone too, and I feel better.’
‘Why would you feel better?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe because we match.’
‘What else happens?’
‘I just lie there. Sometimes she stays until I wake up. Sometimes she goes.’
‘Shit, I’m really sorry.’
He patted her arm. ‘It’s okay. It’s not that bad.’
‘I mean, it sounds extremely bad.’ The whole point of this dream was badness. It was the real reason he didn’t want to be in the house at night. The house had become the scene of a crime.
‘No, you don’t get it. She’s there with me in the dream. But then I wake up and she’s not in the room anymore.’ He touched his forehead again, once. ‘That’s the bad part.’
Anja pictured the two of them waking up in the morning. She, scrolling on her phone, reading the news, waiting for him to wake up. Louis, shifting on his pillow, groggy, rolling back and forth, opening his eyes to see her beside him. She now saw what he saw when he woke up. He didn’t see her at all: he saw someone who wasn’t Pat.
‘I get it’ was all she could say.
‘Can I ask you something, and you promise not to get mad?’
‘Of course,’ she said, knowing that she had zero choice, no matter what followed. Unexpected pain bloomed in her gut and then tightened as she repressed it. She hadn’t eaten anything for dinner.
‘Would you hate me if I stayed at the studio for a few nights? There’s the pullout couch, and I could use a solid sleep. I think it might be the humidity and the temperature in the house causing me to have the dreams, actually. And I have this big project going on. It would be great to just wake up and get going.’
There was no arguing. He was going to leave her alone in the crater.
‘Of course. Anything you need.’
‘You should come by and see me there, though. I want to show you the project.’ He was always dropping hints about this new thing he was working on without fleshing out any details.
But then, there were so many details that were missing at this point. So many things she should be able to ask him but couldn’t. The ghost of Pat. The late nights at the studio. That email from Howard in his inbox. She was afraid he would refuse to explain if she asked – but she was afraid of the explanation.
‘Of course I’ll come visit,’ she said.
Going back home after this seemed unbearable, but they did. They got in bed. Anja was big spoon. Despite all, Louis fell asleep instantly, and Anja lay there around him, imitating his shape, and waited for him to enter dream state. She waited with her eyes wide open in the darkness, staring at the tiny red light of the ceiling camera blinking like a slow, regular heartbeat. She waited for Pat to show up.