by D.C. Miller
(FYI: Adult Content.)
Hannah Locker was miserable. It was almost nine, and she had gotten next to nothing done all day. She bit her nail. The lipstick tasted sour.
In theory she’d been working hard for hours, finishing the abstract for her paper for the symposium in Riga, but she’d kept reaching for her phone, flicking between Instagram, Twitter, and Tinder, and now the half-completed document was sitting on her computer screen untouched. Unloved. Her cursor blinked accusingly.
She was supposed to be writing about Benjamin, Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, their affair, and Marxist feminism, and Freud and cities and displacement. But she couldn’t retain focus. Her mind kept slipping into half-fragmented memories: a seminar in London one year earlier, another seminar on Jacques Lacan, the trip she took to Oakland after her first undergraduate degree, her mistake and going to the clinic, her date from a few days ago. . . .
Rob. Why him? They’d met on OK Cupid; he was a post-grad in humanities from the New School in New York City on a fellowship in Germany, who wrote a book about Agamben and emergencies. He’d started chatting with the line “Fuck Trump” which she’d taken as ironic, it really wasn’t so impressive, but she was bored. They’d met for dinner that same night at a Korean place in Kreuzberg, his suggestion, with a burner in the table where they cooked the meat in front of you, the hot fat sizzling.
It was half-full when they got there, with mostly other expats, speaking English, a lot of dates. They were probably the third best-looking couple.
“What are you thinking?” They were studying the menu.
“I don’t know, what’s good here?”
“I always get the octopus, the octopus is pretty good.”
“Okay, I’ll go with that,” she said.
“Do you want to share it? We could get a couple of things. Like kimchi, and–”
“Do you like soju? It’s like Korean sake.”
She recalled feeling impatient, really, she just wanted him to order, to take charge of the situation. She wasn’t even hungry. The waiter came and Rob ordered the food and Soju. It came quickly, and they talked about refugees.
“This racism,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. And Trump! He’s just a monster. Classic racist scapegoating. It’s because a lot of people are so stupid. White men especially.”
“White men are dangerous.”
Hannah murmured her assent. Her mind was elsewhere, and she couldn’t say exactly where.
“You want something else? Dessert?” By now they’d finished eating, the empty plates in front of them. The meal had been okay, she guessed, but overpriced.
“No, I’m fine. Maybe get a drink somewhere?”
He called the waiter over, and they split the bill, and went around the corner to a bar. They drank cocktails, and went back to his apartment in Neukölln to have sex.
“You can stay the night,” he’d said.
“No, I have to go.”
She could somehow tell he didn’t mean it, and she didn’t want to anyway. The sex had been okay, but she was already getting tired of his company. She put her clothes back on, feeling numb, but not exactly bad. But when she stepped outside into the cold night air, a deeper feeling hit her, that same sensation she was feeling now. Her gaze swam back to her paper, and her blinking cursor, but she didn’t want to face it. She reached for her phone again and opened Instagram, but the first image that she saw was the new girlfriend of a guy she met once, on a beach, in a bikini, and she felt a jolt of envy, and unfollowed him.
She clicked her phone off and returned her focus to her screen. She’d typed: “Benjamin was not a feminist.” It was a catchy statement, and she liked it, but she wasn’t certain where to take it, whether it was true or not, and even if it was, what it would imply. She heard the sound of someone sighing audibly, like an echo from another room, and for a moment felt confused, before she realized it was her.
She closed her eyes and breathed. What was she doing? She was trying to develop an account of the production of gender-based anxiety in capitalism, through a psychoanalytically-informed reading of the idea of displacement in Walter Benjamin, but she kept finding herself zoning-out. It wasn’t like she didn’t understand the problem – her entire PhD had been about it – but something else, a problematic aspect to the work, or in his writing, which she couldn’t shake, and wasn’t sure how to define.
The paper was still only half-written. And she still had to complete the abstract. The deadline was on Monday, that left the weekend; really she should just go home, but she found the place where she was living bleak: a featureless one bedroom in Wedding outfitted with Ikea furniture with tourist posters on the walls. She looked out the window. It was black.
She had been in Berlin for three months now on a fellowship at the European Institute of Critical Research. She remember when she got it, she’d been thrilled, like when she got her PhD. That feeling had definitely now worn off. She’d moved from London in September, out of a shared flat in Hackney Wick. Now it was December, Christmas was a week away, and once again she would be spending it alone.
She returned her focus to her laptop. Now it was a few minutes past nine. She switched windows to her browser and read the Guardian, before flicking back to Twitter. All her London friends were tweeting about an interview with Owen Jones. She’d read it later. She reached for her phone again, and opened Tinder, swiping on a few profiles half-heartedly, before switching to OK Cupid. She hadn’t looked at it for a couple days. She’d received ten new visits in the meantime, and six messages. Four just said “Hi.”
She felt depressed. But why? She was an early-career scholar, and by any metric everything was going well: a post-doc in the early stage of her career, the second youngest member of the editorial board of Social Philosophy, a writer for the Guardian and Novara on feminism and social justice, and she was miserable. But why? Yes, she still was single, but she didn’t want to be in a conventional relationship, she liked her independence and her priority was her career. She pushed the issue from her mind. It wasn’t something that she had the energy to think about, and anyway what could she do? She shook her head to shake it off, to concentrate on Benjamin. But it was as if someone, or something, was looking back, from a corner of the room, looking at her looking, watching.
In three months she’d learned Berlin was even worse then London when it came to dating. In London it was easy to meet someone once but impossible to met them twice. In Berlin, men would meet you two or three times, but they never wanted a relationship, only an arrangement, which would continue for a while, and then end. She’d had two of those already, first with a literal comedian, then with a chef. She even didn’t want a deep relationship, but the fact that one eluded her upset her.
But why? She had a great career, some friends, and she was respected by the younger generation. But she also realized that she couldn’t help feeling some negativity there too. It was always the same. They searched her out; she was thought of as successful; at first she’d be flattered, basking in the positive attention; they’d become her friends, they’d start to see each other socially, go to bars and clubs, talk about politics and books. But then she’d notice where the attention in the room went. Because of their youth. She would be invisible, and they would be oblivious. She’d feel humiliated, take her distance from them. And then a new one would appear.
She hated the routine of it. She hated that she cared. She hated men. And she hated herself too, she guessed, and most of all, but well, what else was new, and anyway who cared?
She turned back to her computer but she had finally had enough. She closed the screen, slid the machine into her bag and left her office, locking it behind her.
She heard her footsteps echoing as she walked down the long corridor. She hadn’t eaten anything all day, only coffee, and her sense of hunger had congealed into a dreary nausea. She thought that she should probably eat something but the idea of going to a restaurant by herself depressed her. She could always message someone, it was Friday after all, but she couldn’t think of anyone that she wanted to hang out with. And nobody had called or messaged or her, not even Rob. She could always message him, of course, but she didn’t want to come across as desperate.
She was descending now to Torstrasse, and the Rosenthaler Platz U8, without a clear sense of direction, or idea of what she wanted. Part of her just wanted to be home in bed, with a book, it didn’t even matter which book. But another part felt like that was the last thing in the world she wanted.
She felt her phone buzz in her pocket and reached for it instinctively. Megan.
Hey Hannah, don’t know if you’re still in town, but we’re having a party tonight. Come along!
Now she was standing by the station, it had started raining gently. Now she had an option, and she wasn’t sure she wanted it. She should go home. Did she really even like Megan. She supposed she did, by default, or she should – they believed the same things, basically, they were part of the same London scene, but they weren’t exactly friends – they’d first met at the Mayday Rooms six months earlier, where another girl was reading poetry about the Grenfell Tower, and now they both were in Berlin.
She watched as her own fingers typed out a reply.
Sure, where is it.
And waited. It was a warm night for December in Berlin, Mitte was peaceful, but still Hannah felt removed, like there was something missing. For a fraction of a second she remembered a man named Mike, and immediately she pushed the memory deep into her mind. It was already two years ago. There was nothing there to think about.
Her phone buzzed again.
Linienstrasse 24. Ryzak. Friend of friend!
She put the address into her Maps app. It was close.
Now she had to stop and think. She wasn’t in a mood to party, but she also wasn’t in the mood to be alone. Really, she wasn’t in a mood to do anything at all, alone or not, but also knew that what she would do if she went home alone would be to spend hours on the internet, on Twitter, in bed with the lights off, and the warm screen glowing like an amulet, and wake-up zombified on Saturday afternoon.
It still was early, and she figured that she could always get a bite to eat, there was a good Ramen place nearby, but she wasn’t really hungry. What she should do, though, is get some wine, it would make a gracious gesture, given that she didn’t know the host. But she was also feeling selfish, like she didn’t feel like being gracious.
She hugged her coat around her, more from instinct than the cold, and started walking towards the address Megan gave her. Before she knew it she was outside; she pressed the bell, and it buzzed back, unlocking the front door. She pushed it open. Entering the building, she could already hear the sound of electronic music high above her. She began to climb the stairs, six flights, before she finally reached the penthouse. The door was slightly ajar, and she knocked, which pushed it opened it further.
“Hello,” she called, and it seemed to her her voice was small and weak.
She pushed the door again, and suddenly someone was there, the host, or the man who she assumed must be the host, mid-fifties, energetic, bulbous.
“Hi,” he said. “Warren Ryzak,” he said, introducing himself, stretching out his hand. His handshake somehow was effeminate. “Can I help you?” He seemed friendly.
“I’m a friend of Megan,” Anna said.
“Megan?” The man frowned for a moment as if he was searching through his memory. “Oh right! Megan. Well, great, welcome, welcome. Come in. Come in.”
He ushered her inside, and she entered past him into a short corridor opening into a big, light, airy space, decked with wooden floorboards and lined with windows. About twenty people were in conversation, arranged across sofas, or standing near a rectangular white table filled with drink bottles and snack bowls. The music was generic, not too loud. She searched for Megan, and she spotted her, without reciprocation, standing by a bookcase talking to a guy.
“So who are you again?”
Hannah wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I mean your name?”
They shook heads again.
“Great to meet you, so, help yourself to a drink, or we have some nibbles,” the host said, gesturing to the table. “And you can put your coat in the bedroom or you can hang it here.”
“Thanks,” Hannah said. “I’ll just hang it here.”
She removed her coat – beneath it was a sweater, and she realized she looked square. She went over to the table to pour herself a glass of wine. Now Megan noticed she’d arrived, and came to greet her.
“Oh, Hannah, wow you so made it!”
She looked pretty. The man who she’d been talking now appeared as well. He was handsome, in a more or less generic way, with an undercut and a beard. He looked well-dressed.
“How are you?” said Hannah.
“Good good really good.”
“Did you meet Warren?” Megan asked.
“Yes, he let me in.”
“Nice place, isn’t it?”
“I guess so.”
“Must be expensive,” Megan said.
“Great location,” said the man. “Right opposite the Kunstwerke.”
“Oh, Seth.” Megan said. He seemed to perk up at the sound of his voice. “This is my friend Hannah. Hannah, this is Seth.”
“Hi,” she said.
“Pleased to meet you.”
He had a transatlantic accent.
“Seth’s an artist.”
“What kind of art do you make?”
“Mainly post-conceptual. And video.”
“He works a lot with migrants.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a. . . .” Hannah hesitated. What was she? “I’m a researcher.”
The word sounded strange in her mouth, even though it was true.
“She’s an early career scholar,” said Megan breezily.
“What do you research?”
“Feminism, Marxism, that kind of thing.”
“That’s how we know each other,” Megan said. “Hannah’s a radical feminist.”
She said it so earnestly that Hannah found herself blushing.
“You know, Walter Benjamin, people like that.”
“I love Walter Benjamin,” said Seth.
“Yeah, he’s amazing,” said Megan.
For a moment nobody said anything.
Hannah broke the silence.
“How many people here are artists?”
“At this party.”
Megan and Seth looked at each other.
“Not everyone. There are also some curators, critics. . . .”
“Warren’s an artist,” said Seth. “So you know, that’s his circle.”
“Whenever I meet an artist, I always want to ask them for their license,” Hannah said.
“What do you mean?” asked Seth.
“Well, because there are so many in Berlin.”
She’d been trying to be funny.
“I don’t know if that’s true,” said Seth.
He turned to Megan. “Do you think that’s true?”
“I don’t know,” said Megan girlishly. Hannah felt a jolt of hatred for her.
“Artists are the antennas of the race,” said Seth.
“I’ve heard that before, who said that?” said Megan.
“Ezra Pound,” said Hannah.
Seth nodded. “Very good.”
Hannah blushed despite herself. Meanwhile another party goer was approaching the small spot they’d carved out by the table. He looked a little bit like Seth.
“Pretty dodgy quote actually,” said Megan.
“Why?” said Seth.
“What, you don’t think so?” She seemed hesitant.
“You know – to talk about race.”
“The human race?” Hannah said.
“Well, okay, but anyway don’t think you think it’s pretty classist?”
“Is it? What do you think?”
“Me?” said Hannah.
She’s been enjoying watching, but now that the spotlight was on her she felt unsure.
“Yeah, why not.”
“I don’t know if the race has antennas.”
“That’s what I was going to say!” said Megan.
Seth ignored her. Megan seemed to snort in irritation. Hannah was mortified to realize she was giggling. The other man drifted away again. Seth now turned to face her.
“So what is it again you work on?”
“Mainly twentieth century literature, criticism, theory,” she said vaguely.
“Which authors specifically?”
“Oh yeah. . . .”
“I’m going for a cigarette,” Megan said.
“I’ll join you,” said Seth.
“You want one?” Megan asked.
“I quit,” said Hannah.
“But you can join us if you like,” said Megan.
“I’ll stay here, thanks.”
“Okay, see you in a bit.”
She watched them leave, sliding the door open to the balcony, leaving her alone by the table. She looked across the room. She thought she spotted someone that she knew from London in the corner, talking to two other people, but she wasn’t altogether certain, and they didn’t seem to recognize her back.
She found herself examining the snacks. She refilled her glass of wine, sloshing it into her plastic cup. When she turned around again, another man was there. He was tall and well-built, balding.
“Hi,” she said chirpily.
“I’m just going for a refill,” he said, as if to excuse himself. “Be warned: the wine’s not great, though.”
“Thanks for telling me,” said Hannah. She’d meant to sound funny, but it came across a little sour.
“I’m Michael. But people call me Mike.”
He had an Eastern European accent.
“I overheard a little of your conversation. You’re an academic?”
“Yeah,” said Hannah.
“Me too – I’m a biologist.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. What’s your field?”
“Insects,” the guy said. “Yours?”
“Marxism and feminism.”
She sensed a kind of disappointment in his voice, which felt stranger because she realized she shared it.
“I sense your disapproval,” she said.
“Well to be honest, that stuff isn’t really an area of interest of mine.”
He said it casually, but brutally. She was so surprised that she was speechless – for a second she could feel her mouth was literally hanging open before she registered the thought and closed it.
“Have a nice night – and good luck.”
He nodded, and left her, motionless, unsettled, unsure of herself, or what to say. Right at that moment Seth and Megan returned.
“Good cigarette?” Hannah said, recovering her composure.
“It was pretty good,” said Seth.
She looked around for Mike, but now she couldn’t see him.
“Actually, we were thinking about getting out of here,” said Megan.
“Oh yeah? Where to”
“My place,” Seth said.
“He’s got some coke.”
“Can I come?” Hannah said. She felt embarrassed asking. “I’d like some cocaine.”
“Well. . . .” Megan started.
“Sure,” said Seth.
Megan seemed to frown.
“Well, okay, drink up.”
She drained her glass.
“So on y va.”
They split in two directions , with Seth and Megan went into the bedroom to retrieve their coats, and Hannah heading towards the door. She looked for Mike again, and found him, engaged in a discussion with the host. She grabbed her coat, and left, waiting for Seth and Megan on the landing. They came out after what seemed like a long time.
When they got into a street it was colder then she’d remembered, or the temperature had dropped. A cab was waiting on the corner. Hannah checked her watch, and looked up at the penthouse before she got into the back with Megan, and Seth got into the front.
“Kreuzberg,” Seth said.
The driver glided from the curb. Hannah looked across at Megan. She was looking out the window. Seth was speaking broken German to the driver. The city through the window was the color of a broken screen. Seth and the driver were discussing sports, and laughing about something. She felt light-headed, but her mood was dark, unhappy, drunk and strange, but the alcohol took the edge off, so that it was almost like it was another person feeling it. She looked again at Megan; she could see her pouting in the darkness. She remembered Mike again, what he’d been like when she’d first met him, and what he’d been like later he wondered where he was now, and what his life was like now.
The car came to stop. Megan seemed to jolt to life.
“Do you want some money?” Hannah asked.
“Sure, if you’ve got some.”
Hannah reached into her coat and handed him five euros. Megan didn’t move. Hannah got out of the taxi, Megan followed, Seth paid the driver, and the taxi pulled away into the night.
They followed Seth into a building. Hannah felt like a puppy trailing after him, inside the building, and then up three flights of stairs. He unlocked the door of his apartment.
“Welcome,” he said as he showed them inside. “Do you mind taking your shoes off?”
The corridor was clean with pinewood floors.
They removed their shoes and hung their coats up, and followed Seth into the kitchen – a spacious room connecting to his living room through an open sliding door.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” He said. “I’ve got gin, whiskey. . . .”
“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” said Hannah.
“Oh, me too,” said Megan.
“Coming right up.”
Megan continued through into the sitting room, taking a seat on the sofa. Hannah remained in the kitchen. Seth withdraw some glasses, and a small wooden box from underneath the counter.
“Nice place,” she said.
“How much do you pay for it?”
“Oh, well I bought it.”
“Yeah, a couple years ago.”
He handed her a glass.
Seth took the other glasses and the box, and they went through to the living room.
“Here you go Megan.”
Seth opened the box and withdrew a sachet of white powder, and CD case.
“Is that the coke?” said Megan.
Seth tapped some powder out onto the case, took a card out of his wallet, and starting chopping out three lines. Then he withdraw Hannah’s note and rolled it into a straw.
“Who wants to go first?”
“Me,” said Megan. She put the note into her nose, and snorted up the line.
Hannah followed, and Seth went last.
They remained silent for a moment.
“We should put on some music,” said Seth, getting up from the sofa, and leaving the room. Hannah tried to swap a glance with Megan, but she didn’t look back.
Seth came back with his laptop.
“What should we listen to?”
“Do you like MGMT?”
“Who?” said Megan.
The first notes of “Kids” began to play tinnily from the laptop.
“I know this song,” said Hannah.
“What is this?” said Megan.
“How do you not like this, this is such a cool song!”
Everyone was coming up quickly now. Seth was dancing on the sofa, moving his head and his arms, and then he was getting up again, and pulling Megan with him, and they were dancing, and Hannah was getting up too, and then everything seemed to happen at once: Seth and Megan were kissing, and then she and Seth were kissing, then she and Megan were kissing, and then they were taking their clothes off, and suddenly Megan was topless, then Seth was naked, then she was and now Seth had his hand on her pussy, and she had his cock in her mouth, and she was licking out Megan, and they had moved to the bedroom, and they were writhing around, and Megan was sighing and gasping and now Hannah realized Seth and Megan were fucking and she was touching herself, but she also was on her way down now, and starting to feel cold, realizing the mood had shifted, that she didn’t need to be there, and she didn’t even want to be. They still were fucking as she left the bed, and put her clothes on, neither Seth or Megan noticing, as she left the room and put her shoes on in the corridor and exited the apartment into the cold December night.
D.C. Miller tweets at @dcxtv.