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“Start from the beginning,” she insisted and if I were allowed to smoke, I would have lit a cigarette. I was never good at telling stories and this one always felt like it belonged to someone else; I had been young and stupid. I had been idealistic. I was twenty. Maybe I could start from the first slide of art history class—a black diorite pillar. Hammurabi’s code: two hundred and eighty-two laws and sliding punishments for eighteenth-century-bc justice, some seemingly logical, an eye for an eye, a surgeon’s hand for a botched surgery, a builder’s life for a collapsed building, some more bizarre—the guilt of the adulterer judged by whether or not they sank when thrown in water—all etched out onto a seven-foot column. But there was nothing for me on the cold black stone. No law had been engraved to deliver due process for what happened to me last year. I had no idea whose hand to chop off.
“Okay. Well, what about her first words? What did she say when you got here?”
I sat silent, arms tightly folded, unable to understand Frau Klein’s persistent interest in the beginning.
The Spa was only for women, all of whom were present for different disorders, and some diseases, most unknown to me. But everyone knew why I was there. I was famous, and the angular whispers of the nurses and patients followed me through the concrete building. However, I found comfort in their efforts to mask these remarks, knowing all too well that outside the Spa there was no reason to whisper. By the time Berlin’s summer was blazing, we—Hailey Mader and myself, Zoe Beech—were all anyone could talk about.
Sprawling and old, the Spa was situated in a converted primary school somewhere in northern Brandenburg. Its hallways still smelled chalky like the inside of a brick, and most of the bedrooms, once classrooms, were shared by two or three girls. But I was alone, living in what I assumed had once been a very generous broom closet, with my own square window, blue-painted chair with matching desk, and a porcelain sink adorned with a halo of dark-brownish mold. I liked to imagine that the ring of mold was a well-run city of tiny spores, filled with good, nonviolent mold citizens, maybe even with mold artists and mold curators doing coke at tiny mold clubs.
I spent most of my time in this sort of useless daydream, elbows pressed into the soft wood of the desk, staring out at the unbearably still farmland and then, lightning, an interruption to my doldrums: a body writhing in a lake of blood, flashes strobing, sound blaring, like a Rihanna music video, or a trailer for a horror film. And just as fast as it crested, I’d snap back to the barren field or mildewy sink or the constellation of moles on Frau Klein’s neck.
Frau Klein loved the word par-a-noi-a, letting each syllable slip like a ping-pong ball out of her wet mouth. She was in her early forties but dressed for her sixties, with roadkill-brown hair and potato-sack skirts. We had at this point spent many hours together and I was certain she was living vicariously through me, filling the void of her own existence with my answers and traumas, extracting information she would eventually sell to the tabloids, or her own tell-all.
“Zoe, how did sex make you feel?”
“Did you ever fantasize about Hailey?”
Her voice sounded scripted as if she were recording an audiocassette from a language class.
“What drugs did you do?”
“What pushed you to do them?”
I watched in disinterested horror, as the saliva began to surface at the edges of her thin lips, thirsty for my reply.
“I did what was around.”
She nodded. More questions. Whenever I mentioned the name Beatrice her eyes flickered and she would take her stubby blue pen and quietly draw a shape in her notebook. Frau Klein entertained my theories but she always returned to the same head tilt: “And what makes you so sure Beatrice was watching you?”
“She read my emails.”
“And how can you know that?”
“I told you already—”
“But is it possible you imagined it?”
Frau Klein made another shape in her notebook then checked the clock. The stainless-steel lamp on her desk cast an orange circle on her overmoisturized cheek, her skin hanging loose like the Mask of Agamemnon or a glob of half-baked cookie dough.
“And whose story do you believe you are in right now?”
“Yours,” I said, motioning toward her notepad.
Frau Klein made a suggestive nod. “And let’s go back to the beginning again. What were her first words to you when you arrived?”
“Guten Tag, Dumpster!” Hailey called, waving a frantic freckled arm across the Hauptbahnhof with an ocher hiking-pack strapped to her athletic frame. She looked ready to move camp every night, which terrified me. While buying our train tickets she perkily explained that Hostel Star was in the East side of the city, a bed cost twenty-two euros a night and each room held eight people with four bunks. I didn’t really understand the intricacies of East or West, but I knew it meant something specific here. The grog of the Dramamine I’d taken somewhere over the Atlantic was wearing off and I felt helpless for relying on all of her arrangements, following, a mute dog, as she babbled, pointing things out on the train: the art museum on our left, Alexanderplatz, the TV Tower.
I rolled my hand-me-down suitcase on the cobblestone sidewalk while Hailey bounded ahead until she abruptly stopped under a neon star winking from a crumbling concrete facade. I followed her in and the smell of mildew and lemon floor cleaner wafted over us.
“I liked the name Hostel Star,” she said with a hint of embarrassment while looking around the fading lobby. Finally clutching our new keys, we entered our room on the third floor, where we found three guys our age, spread across the furniture, duffel bags and rolling papers littering the dark-blue linoleum. They greeted us with rotund Australian accents.
“We are only here until we find something more permanent,” Hailey whispered after the initial pleasantries, unbuckling her Gore-Tex straps and taking a sip from her Smart Water bottle. The three Australians went on to tell us their names, which all sounded like Aaron, Oron or Erin. We reluctantly introduced ourselves. I was relieved when she yawned. Human, after all. We lay down on our bunks and I fell into a syrupy sleep. When I woke from my jet-lagged nap the sky had already turned black, and the reflection of the neon star bounced into our room like a hiccuping sunset. The Aarons asked us if we wanted to go to the club with them. Hailey and I exchanged fuck no glances. They shrugged and began snorting speed off the lip of the top bunk. In one last attempt to persuade us to join them, the tall one bellowed, “Every night you miss in Berlin is a night you miss in Berlin.” We burst into laughter after the door thudded shut.
This became our mantra for when things were either absolutely miserable or absolutely amazing. Every night you miss in Berlin is a night you miss in Berlin. I watched from the top bunk as Hailey scrawled the lines in her orange diary. She was always scribbling, pausing from our conversations to pull out the soft-covered book, her red ponytail a bobbing paintbrush as she wrote.
“All of the great artists kept a diary,” she’d said to me on our second afternoon, croissant flakes fluttering from her cupid’s-bow lips, “I’m taking it really seriously while I’m here.” I nodded, not sure what I was going to take seriously in Berlin. I wasn’t even sure why I was there. I peered at Hailey over my chai latte, she was so muscular in her certitude, confident of what she wanted from the next months and probably years. I began mentally drafting an email to Jesse, my boyfriend, telling him I would come home early—that Berlin had been a huge mistake, and I had no idea what I was doing.
I had met Hailey in art history class at school in New York, she was from Rhode Island and somehow also Kentucky and Nebraska and Colorado, her dad owned a chain of successful supermarkets inexplicably called Biggles. She was a magazine-cover redhead, always running her fingers through her hair as if there were cameras filming. In class, her freckled limbs were constantly springing into the air to answer questions. Why was Cimabue significant? BECAUSE HE WAS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT TRANSITIONAL FIGURE BETWEEN MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE PAINTING. She was usually right and had a schizophrenic way of switching accents, mutating herself to fit situations; a Southern drawl for asking to borrow a pen, or an “r”-less East coast to dish answers.
Hailey had invariably shown up to 9 a.m. class in bright lipstick, either wearing Victoria’s Secret PINK sweatpants or tight lowrider jeans—nothing in between. Even occasionally donning a Von Dutch hat, arguably retro for 2008, and an absolute anomaly in art school, where the average collegiate uniform consisted of paint-stained Carhartts, oversize concert tees and Doc Martens. Like me, she hadn’t grown up on the teat of the avant-garde. She believed pop culture was paramount. She idolized Andy Warhol, and didn’t hesitate walking into the cinephile mecca Kim’s Video on St. Marks and requesting Notting Hill from the clerk, who openly eye-rolled.
The only time I had been to Kim’s, I’d buckled to the pressure of the employee favorites and rented a Czech New Wave film, which I’d paid double for after trying, but failing, to watch four nights in a row.
On Fridays, after art history study group, a pack of us often went to Asian Pub in the East Village, a dive bar with cheap cocktails and a relaxed ID policy. One night a few drinks in, Hailey caught me staring at her nose. It was too perfect, like a children’s ski slope. She leaned in, wafting strawberry daiquiri, and told me that in high school she’d been hit in the face with a lacrosse stick and persuaded her dad to let her get a nose job. She took a slurp of her pink drink, holding my eyes, clearly wanting the subject to linger.
“I tried out for, like—three Neutrogena ads, kept getting rejected and—I knew.”
“Oh,” I said, unsure of what to add.
“So I took care of it,” she said, making a batting motion toward her head, her words ringing with high-pitched adolescent pride.
“You’re saying you did it on purpose?” a guy next to us butted in.
“Yup,” Hailey clucked.
I excused myself to the bathroom, but the image had lodged itself into my brain; Hailey bracing herself as the aluminum shaft throttled toward her sweet teenage face. A few weeks into the semester, when I swung by her dorm to pick up a handout on Byzantine mosaics, I noticed her modeling pictures taped to the wall above her bed: young Hailey in a plaid miniskirt in a Delia’s catalog, drinking a Capri Sun on a soccer field, surrounded by other redheads and a miniature bull terrier for a Target campaign.
“See, the nose worked,” she said while digging through her desk; I nodded, both repulsed and intrigued at her pubescent drive.
By the end of sophomore year I desperately wanted to get out of New York. I felt crushed. The slump. The blues. Whatever it was, Carol Gaynor, the guidance counselor, a slender woman with flawless skin who was married to a famous dermatologist, was going to help plot my escape. Carol would let you curl up in her office as she’d chatter on about irrelevant amenities of far-off universities available for exchange years.
“There is an orangerie with a café near the school that makes really spectacular scones,” or another, “with the nicest sauna just about a mile up the road, and it splooshes right out onto the sea.”
I wanted to go to Helsinki, the one with the sauna.
“You know everything can be fixed by a good schwitz,” Carol hissed over her coffee mug. I had a Montessori-esque fantasy of hard wooden floors and fractured Finnish light streaming onto a circle of well-mannered art students fiddling with string. I believed Europeans were people of dignity and history and reason. The opposite of my school, which orbited around the sculpture boys, who built mammoth objects with two-by-fours in the woodshop and got drunk in class on whiskey decanted into Pepsi bottles.
Our school was extremely competitive. Critiques of artwork were a sanctioned system for attacking one another. All grievances could be played out in the second-floor classroom, or as most students called it, the pit. Friends were inspired to undercut each other with personal tidbits: Republican parents, unread seminal texts, porn predilections, leveraging weakness and sharing anecdotes that were wholly irrelevant to the work in question, all in the pursuit of power. What power exactly, I still wasn’t sure. Some of it lay in the hands of the professors, who could support a young artist’s move into the misty abyss of the gallery world. But the sculpture boys were untouchable, they screamed profanities at freshmen, misquoted Joseph Beuys, ripped each other’s work off and everyone still wanted to fuck them.
David Chris was the leader of the sculpture bros, he was the tallest with a big broad face, and looked like he’d just climbed out of a prehistoric cave in France, his hands still wet with paint from his latest renderings of buffaloes. My aunt Caroline always said in her two-pack-a-day Southern accent, “Never trust anyone with two first names.” And David Chris was no exception. He was the lead architect on a multigenerational mural of freshmen girls in jizzy Sharpie that wrapped the ceiling adjacent to the senior studios. Each figure had a nickname scrawled below, sometimes charting who they’d slept with or important facts; Muppy has herpes or Ken-doll has a tight pussy.
My nickname did not have a sexual origin. On Halloween, dressed as a zebra in an American Apparel jumpsuit, I had teetered down eight flights of tight Chinatown stairs, only to trip on the last, landing on a pile of very forgiving trash. David Chris, who was dressed as Paul Bunyan, but did every day anyway, was standing at the bottom with a big grin. And now, in half-dried red Sharpie, my nickname Dumpster is scrawled under a not completely unflattering sketch of me emerging from a trash can looking somewhere between a demented Botticelli Venus and a horny Oscar the Grouch. It wasn’t the worst. Hailey was called Holey because she’d let a guy named Moses finger her on the roof.