Cologne is where cologne comes from. Did you know that?
This story begins there, despite its title.
I had flown to Cologne from New York, in order to meet with my German gallerist—Birgit whose last name I can’t pronounce (and is also the name of her gallery)—about a show. Because my trip overlapped with the Cologne art fair, I hung out in that city for a few days, looking at art, alone and with others, drinking beer, alone and with others, and watching artists drunk and sober behave badly.
Each morning I ate muesli in a hotel breakfast hall that had previously been the chapel of a monastery, whose colored stained glass filtered the rays of sunlight streaming into the room and made me feel vaguely blessed, and also like I was a tropical fish in an overly warm tank, the light coming through the colored glass heavy, like water, as I moved from the buffet to one of the long wooden tables where monks had once eaten.
One evening I went to a talk organized by the curators of the art fair, to be given by the German artist Michael Krebber. He’s real, exists outside this story, et cetera. Go ahead and look him up. Michael Krebber had been an assistant to the revered and now long-dead artist-prankster Martin Kippenberger, a connection that explains approximately 73 percent of Krebber’s mystique.
Krebber’s lecture event was some kind of joke, but the audience seemed to listen openly and with reverence, even. If something Krebber said got a chuckle from an audience member bold enough to break the silence, he shot that person a murderous look.
Krebber presented bad iPhone photos of his paintings, projected on a large screen, photos that were taken in poor light, cropped randomly, with the paintings at angles so you could barely see them.
He would flip to an image of a wall with an out-of-focus painting on it and say, “This painting that I made last year is as good as anything by Mondrian.”
And, “This one I made in a closet of my studio, while leaving my studio completely empty. All the paintings in that show were made in the same tiny broom closet. In the dark. And some were made with both hands, left and right, although I am right-handed.”
After Krebber’s talk came the awkward moment when people were supposed to raise their hands, and at first no one did, but finally one audience member attempted a question. His question
was preceded by his summary understanding of contemporary painting’s valuation of lassitude, casualness, loafing, pranksterism, and failure.
“What I’m wondering,” the audience member asked, “is who gets to not have to try? Because clearly not everyone can fail and be hailed a success.”
This question sounds tricky, on account of the negatives that must be canceled to arrive at the meaning, which wasn’t not hostile, to use the questioner’s style of self-canceling negatives.
You might be confused, but such a question is easy to grasp in a certain world, a world where artists like Michael Krebber show bad paintings and say they are good, a performance that in itself makes the paintings “good” and definitely clever.
And yet the man’s question suggested that not everyone gets to pretend not to care and not to try; in other words, that only some people get to produce bad paintings and give a bad lecture and be majorly celebrated by the art world.
I felt neutral about the question. It wasn’t a fair question, but the art world is not a fair place, neither just nor about justice. I was amused that it was a distinctly feminist question, even if the question asker was a man. Although I later heard that the man who asked it had cribbed the question from the woman sitting next to him, who had whispered it rhetorically during the lecture.
Back to Krebber and who gets to not have to try: I don’t care that much. I can’t be constantly offended, even if I’m female. Maybe the men should be constantly offended on our behalves, as part of their reparation. I don’t have time for it. I want to learn things and make art and look at art. Toke my little puffs of joy, which I locate regularly here and there. I don’t toke on outrage. It’s a bad high.
We all waited, as Krebber absorbed the question; his face turned the angry shade of uncooked liver. He looked primed to punch somebody.
“I could ask you to define ‘try’,” he said to the questioner, “but I’m profoundly uninterested in whatever it is you’d say. I try. I more than try.
I make paintings as good as Mondrian’s. But you weren’t listening, as your question just demonstrated.”
He’d pronounced it demonstrated, accent second syllable, as if there were a monster in the word.
The art students in the audience stared up at him, impressed, or maybe horrified, and either way, taking notes. He could have been joking but if you laughed he might leap on you and throw blows. He might have been carrying a gun. There was no way to tell: whether he was armed, and whether he was joking.
It’s my personal opinion that a German artist trying to pull off the impassive sarcasm of, say, Andy Warhol—by which I mean, a German artist trying to pull off the kind of performance that goes so deep there isn’t anything else, even as the act itself is a put-on—it just doesn’t work for a Kraut. You have to be American. People constantly criticize us, but really they want to be us, and they can’t be us, and maybe that’s the source of their rage.
When Andy Warhol learned that the Reverend Jim Jones had coerced all those people to participate in a mass suicide—this was back in the era of mass weddings and mass suicides—Warhol said, “Well, I mean Kool-Aid was always a hippy thing.” That was his response. A famous German critic interviewed Warhol a few years after that, and the critic acted like he was interviewing a regular and reasonable and straightforward person. This German critic kept badgering Warhol with these studious and dull questions, like, “When you made this body of work, were you already aware of so-and-so’s use of seriality?” And Warhol kept responding, “Um, no.” Or, “Um, I don’t know.” Finally the German critic, thinking he’s got Warhol cornered into admitting that he’s making work in a deliberate lineage with other artists, says, “But what about Francis Picabia?” And Warhol replies, “I don’t even know who that person is.” And you realize that you’re witnessing a competition between a clown and a shaman, and the clown is winning. (And the shaman is a sham, because he can’t counter camp.
Taking a time out from what happened to me in Cologne and in Leipzig, I want to let you in on a secret: I personally know the author of this story you’re reading. Because she thinks of herself as an art-world type, a hanger-on.
Who would do that voluntarily? I mean, it’s not like someone held a gun to my head and said, Be an artist. I chose it, but I still can’t imagine having anything to do with the art world if you don’t have to. Also, people who don’t make stuff, who instead try to catalogue, periodize, and understand art, they never understand the first thing. Art is about taste, a sense of humor, and most writers lack both.
I met this author through some friends. I read one of her books. It seemed okay but it’s not clear to me how much she knows given how little she knows about me.
You don’t know everything when you write the story. You make it up as you go along. Authors, just like painters, don’t have full information.
When Manet painted the barmaid, for instance, at the Folies Bergère, he made an image of a woman based on a model who was in real life a barmaid at the Folies Bergère. But the painting that resulted is not a portrait of a real and named person, it’s a painting of a model who was meant to evoke a general type, the women who worked at the Folies Bergère, and even more broadly, the women like that who worked at places like that. In other words, part-time whores.
The barmaid is a seller of drinks, commodities, and also herself apparently for sale. This is speculation, based on the presence of a bowl of oranges next to her wrist. But she’s not a real whore, and can’t be, because she doesn’t exist: she’s a painting. The beer in the painting, though, is somewhat real, in the sense that it has a known interior content that can be presumed the same in the painting as out of it. Bass beer, with its love-red triangle. I like Bass beer but it gives me a headache.
The woman Manet painted was based on a model named Suzon. But, and sorry to confuse you, the woman in the painting is not that model. She’s an image, and Manet, who painted her, doesn’t know anything more about her life, her interior, than we do, when we stand before her in a museum and try to have an experience (she’s in a museum in London, but you can have a sort of experience with a reproduction of her in a book).
If you asked Manet what the woman in his painting is thinking, what she is feeling, as she leans over the bar, exposing a reflection of her verso half in the tilted mirror hanging behind her, Manet, if he was honest, would shrug. He had no specialized insight. He would be speculating, no less and no more than I would, as I stand before that painting in a museum, as I have done. And Rachel Kushner probably understands less about me than you will, after you read this.
After Krebber’s talk I met up with a New York artist I know and the two of us went for a very long walk around the city. We engaged in a camp-free and very serious conversation, while others were at the bar gathering around Michael Krebber and pretending he was a very funny man with amazing ideas, or that he wasn’t, but that he was interesting either way, for his put-ons and aggression.
It was April and, as the expression goes, unseasonably warm. I was wearing a fluttery black dress with dime-store canvas slippers and the combination made me feel youthfully feminine, though I am forty-five. I was on the eve of my monthly flow and my breasts had swelled up and weren’t entirely contained by the bodice of my dress. I tried to pretend I was the type of woman who displays her breasts regularly, that I was a breasts-on-display type, but I’m not.
This artist I took a walk with is ten years younger than I am. We are both married to other people. There is no sexual tension between us, but sometimes other tensions can hold the center between two people, and those tensions live under an umbrella called friendship.
This artist and I, in a sense, what we have in common is me. He wants to know everything about me. I am not the only one for whom he creates this intensity of interest, and yet it doesn’t matter that there are others. When he is with me, he gives the impression he is focused on me, as if the most secret features of my psyche were of profound importance to him and even objectively important. “He wants to know everything,” another female friend said, summarizing his position toward other people.
That night, as we walked, he asked about my younger sister. “Is she your only sibling? What is her relationship like with her husband? Were the two of you competitive as children? Is she jealous of your success?”
This kind of inquiry is irresistible. Because I feel so heard. And at the same time, this friend is asking questions about whether I feel heard. (Not until now! I don’t say. Not until this very moment have I ever been heard!) So he creates and then widens what becomes a sudden but perhaps age-old need to be listened to, in asking whether I feel listened to. Suddenly he is the only one in the world who is listening to me, and the questions he asks all lead to the same place: the rudimentary traumas that make me who I am.
He led me, in this way, to tell him about the worst things that ever happened to me, in childhood, the particular scenarios by which I was robbed of my innocence.
“Did you tell your parents, at the time, what had occurred?” he asked. “Did you tell them later? So, they still don’t know, even now? But that is a lot of weight for you to bear alone. No one has corroborated your story. All by yourself, you’re carrying the knowledge that what happened to you has occurred. You are the sole repository. That must be lonely for you, and stressful.”
I was sure he was right. I had never told my parents what happened to me. I had told a Lacanian analyst. In fact I had told this same Lacanian analyst scores of times, maybe hundreds, what had happened to me.
In proper analytical form, or is it style, the analyst responded one of two ways: by what they call “scansion,” which means repeating a word or phrase I had just uttered, or by ending the session, at which point I would sit up on the rhubarb-red velvet fainting couch, and pretend I had just had a restful nap, write him his check, not look him in the eye, or I would glance at him quickly and deliberately to prove to him I was not afraid to meet his gaze, that I was not avoiding anything, that I didn’t have an erotic transference—never that, anything but!—and I’d leave.
Why had I made no progress? Why, after thousands of payments by personal check, and it wasn’t just the money, but the time, and the effort, the boredom, the toil of talking, why was I still, until this moment with my friend, carrying this burden of my childhood traumas alone?
As my artist friend and I walked, the analyst, as if he were right there with us, an invisible presence on the dark streets of Cologne at night, began to seem useless and feckless. His validity leaked away.
An analyst isn’t a person, exactly, or isn’t supposed to be. What happened that night was that the analyst became merely a person, and not a force of projection by which I could traverse my fantasy, which is to say, be cured.
The reason I had begun seeing the analyst was a dream that I have had repeatedly for most of my adult life. I told my friend, that night in Cologne, about this recurring dream, technically a nightmare. We were in front of the Cologne Cathedral, the only church in the city apparently not bombed to rubble and nails in the war, the miracle of which is clearly God’s message to the German people that they are, if nothing else, Catholic—I mean, at least the Catholics are Catholic, and the rest are not—this night walking past the cathedral became an occasion to tell my friend of this recurring dream, in which, each time I have it, I am about to be annihilated by a stranger.
The dream had a range of variability but the setup was always the same:
I was in a house or some other structure that I could not secure, and my efforts to make the house or warehouse—sometimes it was a car— safe and secure failed, and then someone came, always a man, to harm me.
Sometimes I saw his face before I woke up in terror—I always woke up before he was going to do whatever it was he would do—and his look, as he pushed open a door I could not lock, or stepped through a window I didn’t see was open, or opened a car door I could not secure, his look was a kind of stunning indifference: he was not angry, but his expression communicated that this was the end for me, that he was going to destroy me.
This dream is my . . . lizard brain? Seems sophisticated for a lizard, but not for a girl or woman. When at resting state, asleep, I’m busy being annihilated.
Does everyone have this dream? It doesn’t matter because I was in the company, as I spoke of the dream, of a friend who was treating my dream as a unique rebus we could turn over and inspect together in order to understand me.
I wonder what the Mayor of Leipzig is doing right now. Terrorizing other people in other cities. Or walking in a park with a wife and children.
Or eating soup alone.
There are types of cruelty that are not at all personal.
The next day I went to a museum that a German man in the breakfast room, the former chapel, recommended. I had never heard of this museum and wondered why Birgit hadn’t mentioned it, which made me doubt whether it was worth visiting, but I like to trust people, which is part of what this story is about, and so I went to the museum that the man in the breakfast room recommended.
When I got there, the stern woman at the desk told me my Artforum press pass would not admit me, even though it’s supposed to grant admission to any museum in the world.
Artforum gave me the pass after I did one of those “Top Ten” lists for them, where you name a bunch of stuff you think is cool so that other people will know you’re cool—whether you’re actually cool or not, you can make yourself seem cool by the stuff you choose for your Top Ten— and then the editors rewrite the thing to make us illiterate artists sound like we are academic art historians, which isn’t very cool, but no one acknowledges how uncool it is because to do that they’d have to admit that the little twats who edit the magazine rewrote their Top Ten entirely, and everyone pretends that didn’t happen to them, even though it so obviously did because all the artists chosen for the Top Ten feature sound exactly the same, like heavy metal singers through a vocoder, but in this case, it’s the Artforum vocoder and it adds French words. It’s a silly ritual, the Top Ten (one of my own, number three, was The Dumpster Behind My Apartment Building, whose description was supercharged with words I had to look up in a dictionary when they sent my list back to me, rewritten).
I paid the full entrance fee at the museum and went up a steep concrete stairwell whose dim lighting created a sense of magisterial gloom.
At the top of the stairs was a statue of a woman holding a baby, the woman was obviously Mary and the baby Jesus, and she was offering him, not her breast as you might expect, but a juicy red grape from a bunch she cradled in her alabaster hand. His little mouth was open to accept the fruit she held to his lips. The statue was painted in bright colors, which accentuated the fecundity of Mary’s offering to the baby, and at first it seemed symbolic of seasonal change: birth, renewal, the grape harvest, cycles of life on earth, and so forth.
But as I looked I began to have a creeping feeling that Mary’s offering was about something not wonderful and instead terrible. That it was about death. The grape’s juice was the blood of Christ, I all at once understood, and the statue, if celebrating anything, was hooraying the eventual crucifixion, suffering, and profound sacrifice of the man this baby would become. He would go from zero to thirty-three and the time in between would be eclipsed: his destiny was to die, as his mommy told him, by putting that plump and beautiful grape to his sweet little mouth. Have a grape. Take in the news of your impending death by drinking your own transubstantiated blood.
Who won’t die, you’re retorting, silently, as you read this, but it’s different if you’re Christ. We are not born to die. We are born to live. That’s a big difference.
At this museum in Cologne they had old religious tracts and good contemporary art and it was all very hushed and heavy and German. The building had been constructed on the site of a Romanesque church destroyed in the war, with catwalks suspended over the damp and moldering cavern of the old bombed structure. The curtains in the building were made of dark-brown leather that hung in thick and heavy towering panels, the leather both elegant and atrocity-suggestive. The ceilings were composed of poured artillery shell, according to the English-language brochure.
The place had been engineered to produce a crushing, melancholic effect, and by the time I was leaving, tears wetted my cheeks. I was sad but also, I’ll admit it, I was vainly proud that I was having this experience, because it proved I was capable of a deep feeling, which, when it’s happening, is superior to most other states. Crying alone in a museum without having a personal crisis is top notch and it didn’t matter that I was alone: true vanity needs no witness.
Who gets to not have to cry?
As I bought a postcard of the Madonna in Ruins, the museum’s patron saint, I said to the woman who had snubbed my Artforum card, “This is an amazing place,” my throat constricting with feeling.
She handed me the paper sleeve with my postcard inside it, and said in a bureaucratic tone, “Yes, of course.”
C*nt, I thought at her. But I also felt glad, instead of angry, to be scolded. It was part of the experience I was having of Germany and Germans.
That reminds me of an email Rachel Kushner apparently got while she was working on this story, which was originally meant to appear in the Financial Times newspaper, but didn’t pass its censors. The FT editors wrote her to remind her gently that this commission was for a holiday story, which, they said, didn’t have to be exactly Christmas themed, but should be uplifting, or at least not too dark, and should not include any four-letter words. If, in a playful mood, she might have chosen to go ahead and write the story but literally remove all the four-letter words and not just the dirty ones, she instead got mad and threatened to write a story called “A Christmas Carol,” which would be about a woman named Carol, a plus-size escort who smokes bath salts.
RK told them no four-f*cking letter words? F*ck that.
Some people need to grow up. I don’t even need to say their names here, the ones who need to grow up, because it’s obvious who they are.
When she got that note, in the fall of 2018, it was the same week Donald Trump said the CIA was having an overly emotional response to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. R. Kushner, who says she’s not related to Jared, apparently found that hilarious, that the CIA was being overly emotional.
She said no one ever cared that Barack Obama sold the Saudis a whole lot of weaponry, but now that the Mad Prince had ordered this very public and vulgar assassination, an act that required a bone saw, liquefaction, and Shostakovich—everyone was in a moral crisis. And America’s own king of vulgarity was saying something, for once, nuanced, which is that foreign policy is realpolitik and always has been. It’s not about feelings.
But I don’t care about any of that. I don’t even read the newspaper. I look at ads in Artforum, and I scroll fashion websites. But according to R. Kushner, unrelated to Jared so she claims, people’s outrage about Trump and Trump talking about the CIA being too emotional was all just so hyperbolic and perverse that it called for “A Christmas Carol,” which would be a celebrational glimpse of lonely and depressed Carol putting holiday cocaine into her bottom, which is a more popular delivery method than generally understood by those who don’t partake.
But Carol, it turned out, was a minor aside in this story, and instead you’ve got me. My name, by the way, is
From Cologne, Birgit and I took a night train to Leipzig, to meet with a curator about a museum show there.
You might google the Mayor of Leipzig. I haven’t. That information, the person who inhabits that role, presently, will give you no insight into what you’re going to learn about him from me.
This man I haven’t told you about yet, the Mayor of Leipzig, he might not be the actual mayor. He could be the mayor. I don’t know if he is. It would be a pretty incredible coincidence if he was the mayor, but not impossible.
Coincidences happen or there wouldn’t be a word for them.
His name came to me with the force of a dream that clings after waking. He is the Mayor of Leipzig, which is the city where I encountered him. He didn’t encounter me. Or rather, he did encounter me, but only as one small and anonymous part of his large and faceless audience. My presence was necessary to his experience, although I could have been someone else; what mattered was an audience of people, and not that the audience be comprised of particular people.
I had never been to Leipzig, and so this man I’m calling the mayor came to represent that city, and thus took on mayoral qualities. Or instead, he replaced mayoral qualities with other ones, which, when I think about it, no one would call mayoral, and would instead call offensive.
To go from Cologne to Leipzig we had to change trains in Hanover, the effect of which was to cut the night in two, and a night cut in two is a lost night’s sleep.
Even before changing trains I could not sleep, which I blame on Birgit. Every twenty minutes or so she got up and went to the lavatory at the end of our second-class train compartment. The car was nonsmoking, as all train cars are now, and so instead of smoking at her seat Birgit smoked in the lavatory, and because the lavatory circulated the same air as the train, every twenty minutes the entire compartment filled up with cigarette smoke.
Birgit said this is what everyone did now. Smoked in the bathroom on German trains. “Good luck if you simply need to piss.”
That’s how Birgit talks. She dresses in black, but not in a posh way. Previously, as a young woman, she lived in anarchist squats. Now she sells art to rich people. Her talent for it is that she knows how to abuse a collector: insult them, talk down to them, make them feel dumb, blow smoke in their faces. People about to part with large sums of money like it rough. They like to be abused.
We arrived in Leipzig at dawn, to a station full of German police carrying semiautomatic weapons, and winos “sleeping it off,” and sad junkies inspecting cigarette butts. We passed the police and the junkies and the slumbering winos and wheeled our suitcases across the street to a hotel for 1970s-era GDR functionaries. Birgit asked one of the clerks, in her stiff hotel clerk’s jacket with huge, cruel shoulder pads, her thick industrial pantyhose, East German dead stock for state hospitality workers, if we could check in early.
The clerk in her state-issue communal hosiery said no. We left our suitcases and went to meet the museum people for lunch.
The restaurant where we ate was downstairs, a glorified basement that allowed patrons to smoke. Birgit had surely selected the place for this reason, and it turned out that the three curators and the two museum assistants all smoked as well.
They held lit cigarettes and talked about how great the restaurant was for allowing them to smoke. I didn’t think it was so great, but I was outnumbered, and they had already begun ridiculing Americans for being neurotic and health obsessed, which effectively preempted my ability to say anything lest I confirm their fantasy.
The head curator of the Leipzig museum had just been abroad and said everyone in America was obsessed with drinking water.
“They are constantly guzzling water. People walking down the street carrying huge bottles of water, the size you put on the table for a family, not a single person. And in restaurants people kept asking me,” she said, holding her cigarette vertically like a burning Nazi torch, “if I want water. I tell them, Do you see I just ordered a beer? Or I say to the waiter, But I’m already having a vodka here! I’ve got a coffee, thank you. We have one drink here in Germany. One at a time, I mean. But these American people you eat with in New York, they’ve each got about five different beverages in front of them. It’s completely crazy.”
Ha ha ha.
They all laughed and I laughed with them, even as I knew that I, too, like those people in New York they made fun of, am obsessed with my water consumption, and I worried, as I laughed, that these German curators were dehydrated. But I pretended I was on their side in this, and I told them about a friend of mine, who had recently said to me, in a grave and confiding voice, “I live in fear that I will be trapped somewhere, on the subway, or in a taxi in midtown traffic, without my water bottle.” I quoted the line, in my friend’s grave tone, and the table erupted in laughter. I had sold my friend down the river. I didn’t name her, and it didn’t matter, but I was sure that what I’d done was wrong, based on the satisfied effect it produced on these Germans, who sucked and pulled their burning cigarettes shorter and shorter, the ashed tips piling longer and longer, the air in this basement restaurant displaced by a suffocating chalk-white haze.
After lunch we went to the exhibition space where I would have my show and that part gets technical so I’ll spare you. Upon finishing our meeting about this show they suggested a walking tour of some of the main sights in Leipzig.
Our first stop was a church with a pale pink and mint green wedding cake ceiling. The church was apparently the center of anticommunist protests in 1989, and its facade now commemorated that. I asked the curators if any East Germans felt conflicted about the loss of their old society. “Yes, of course,” they both said. “There were jobs and a safety net. Now so many people have nothing. The old people eat cat food. They die in the winter when they can’t pay the oil bill.”
But at least they had this beautiful church.
I was tired that night and told Birgit I wanted to order dinner to my room.
I can’t remember what I ordered because dinner was eclipsed by what happened after. I’m sure I just chose whatever nonmeat item they had on the room service menu, and after I ate whatever that was I looked at clothes online, items I would never buy.
What I do is look at things until they go out of style, and then I look at other things—it’s a way of owning this stuff by sight, until, by sight, I am tired of owning it. I was scrolling jumpsuits when a text popped up on my screen with a clean ding, from Birgit. She’s not in my contacts but it was a +49 number so I knew it was her.
go out on your balcony
I slid open the glass balcony door. Birgit was on her adjacent balcony, smoking.
This hotel was built in a 270-degree semicircle, so that from our balconies we could see most of the other rooms. It was past midnight, and most of the rooms were dark, and those that were not dark had their nighttime opaque blinds drawn,
as I’d had mine drawn until I got Birgit’s text a moment earlier. Only one room, on the ground floor of the hotel, and almost exactly across from our balconies, had all its lights blazing, and its curtains pulled completely open, so that it was like a showroom in which you could see everything, and most especially, the naked man lying on his back on the bed, working furiously with his right hand.
“Oh my god,” I said.
“Ja. He’s been at it for a while. This is my fourth cigarette.”
I didn’t really want to watch. Birgit thought it was a wonderful thing, just hilarious. There was another hotel guest, a straitlaced-looking guy on the balcony on her other side, to whom she had been chatting.
“Now I know why you business people like this hotel,” she said to him, between deep drags on her cigarette. “You don’t have to get pay-per-view, since the adult channel is free from up here.”
“Ha ha ha.”
The masturbating man turned onto his side, away from us, for what seemed like his grand finale.
I said goodnight to Birgit and her neighbor and went back into my room.
I tried to recoup my chill-out method of buying things by looking at them, exhausting the impulse to own them. When I grew sleepy, I brushed my teeth and went to bed.
I didn’t have my nightmare that night, at least that I can recall. And I wonder what it can mean to have a nightmare, if you have no memory of it. What effect can the dream produce in you, if it fails to make contact with your conscious mind?
I recall no dream, but I woke up with a start, in that hotel in Leipzig.
There was someone in the room with me.
I could not see anything. I’d taken special care to block out all the light and cover both the clock and the red dot from the television with hotel towels, and it was so dark in the room that my vision could identify no shape, nothing.
All I knew was that I wasn’t alone. Whatever was in the room wasn’t a flesh-and-blood person. It was a malevolence, like an air, and it was strongly there. I turned on the light to shoo it out.
A long time ago, I learned of a small-town mayor in rural Maryland who was a flasher. This mayor had a habit, a need, of exposing himself to strangers.
He would go out onto the interstate in a trench coat, and when someone drove past, he opened the coat wide.
“There’s the mayor,” the understanding citizens would say, and keep driving. Not all of them were understanding. The mayor didn’t preside over the town without some rancor and controversy.
There were newspaper articles, which was how I found out about him (I said I don’t read the news, but I used to), some expressing amusement that this mayor managed to get reelected despite exposing himself to his constituency. Some town residents were angry and wanted a different mayor for Friendsville, which was the name of the town. I’m not lying, by the way: you can look this up.
The mayor’s name was Spencer Schlosnagle. Thomas Pynchon didn’t make that up, although it sounds like it, and neither did I. It’s real. I believe he is still the mayor, for his eighteenth consecutive term. It is a modestly paying job, so Schlos, if I may, works at a motel. I don’t know if he still flashes people. But when he did, we can assume he didn’t want to do it. I mean, he did want to, but as a compulsion, not a measured choice. It wasn’t in his best interest. But probably in the moments leading up to it, he was overcome by the need to stand on the roadway and open his coat.
I guess this is also how one might think of the Mayor of Leipzig in his brightly lit showroom, but he is more mysterious to me than the Mayor of Friendsville, and worse, because after I was forced, by Birgit, or by the mayor himself, to watch his lewd performance, evil slipped into my room.
The next morning, I woke up with the bedside light still on. It was early, 7:00 a.m. I packed and double-checked the room and shut the door behind me, wheeling my suitcase down the hall of this East German business hotel. I figured I’d have breakfast alone while Birgit slept.
We were booked on an 11:00 a.m. train back to Cologne, and from there I was getting on a plane to New York. I got into the elevator and watched the doors shut.
Moving the story forward for a moment, to after I returned home to the United States, what happened is I never called my analyst again. I didn’t feel like going to his office anymore.
And I didn’t want to inform him of this decision, because if I contacted him, I would reinsert myself in the loop. If I spoke to him, even merely on the phone, he would become, again, the analyst. The resolve I needed, in order to terminate my biweekly sessions, would be weakened by speaking to him, even if it was the last time we spoke. There is no last time with an analyst. To address the analyst at all is to already be in that relation. So I never called.
The elevator began to sink downward.
On one of the lower floors, the sixth, I believe, it came to a stop.
The doors rolled slowly open. No one got on. We, me and the elevator, stayed there.
I pressed the < > button for the doors to close. They didn’t.
The elevator dinged again, as if alerting whoever had summoned it that it was ready, and here. Still no one got on.
The doors finally began to close. When they were almost shut, they paused, as if someone had thrown an arm into the gap. The doors reopened all the way.
After a moment, they shut. The elevator commenced moving downward, and I was sure that someone was in the elevator with me.
The same person, or thing, that had been in my room the night before, was here now, in this elevator. It had gotten on at the sixth floor.
I punched the lobby button over and over, to hurry it. But an elevator cannot be hurried.
It went slowly, floor by floor, and after it stopped moving, on the ground floor, it paused for an excruciatingly long time before letting me out.
As I waited, I stared at the closed doors, which were actually mirrors. The whole elevator was made of mirrors, from which gazed thousands of fragmented me’s.
Finally the doors opened. I got out. Had breakfast. Met up with Birgit. Went past the armed military police and the winos in the train station to our track, and to Cologne, and after a final night in Cologne, I eventually arrived back in New York, but I can’t be sure that whatever was with me in my hotel room in Leipzig, and in the elevator moving from the sixth floor to the lobby, didn’t follow me all the way home.
I probably should speak to someone, like the analyst, about this malevolent presence I sense, a ghost, but I ghosted him.
Whatever this thing is that I encountered, it could be here this very moment, as I tell you this story. Which doesn’t comfort me at all. But fiction isn’t designed for that.
“The Mayor of Leipzig” by Rachel Kushner is available from Karma Books, New York.
As honorary co-chair of the Albertine Prize, Rachel Kushner will join French literary journalist François Busnel at 1PM EST for the announcement of the prize winner, followed by a discussion with Kushner, the winner and the book’s translator moderated by Lit Hub’s Executive Editor John Freeman. Register here.