He said: “See you in Berlin.”
I said: “See you . . . Bye.”
I was leaving Britain. A large part of me felt is was “for good.” Though that strange phrase in English, “for good,” struck me in one way as optimistic, since it was for something better. But it was also pessimistic; “for good” seemed to suggest a sacrifice.
For better or for worse, I had just said goodbye to S. This happened just as we reached the entrance of King’s Cross tube station. We said we would see if this time the separation would indeed make sense or be for “the good.” We would live in different countries, and know something of solitude for a while, and maybe the dense fog that seemed to have settled about us would lift. But actually my will had formed itself into an arrow, and I wanted to shoot myself out of London and everything else forever. My arrow would come to ground in Berlin.
It was the beginning of 2012. I was traveling light. The only book I had with me was Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. I was going to Berlin but traveling with a book about saying farewell to the place I was going to inhabit. Isherwood’s Berlin was pre-war. My yet-to-be Berlin was post-wall. So perhaps there was no conflict after all. War and time had separated his city from mine almost entirely. But actually, I wasn’t keen to reflect on history. It was the opening sentences of the book, that had persuaded me to take it: I am a camera. Not feeling, only recording.
If feeling was just a fog, then seeing was what I wanted. Recording everything, being a camera, felt like an act of cleansing myself. So, I would go to Berlin as a camera, and surrender to seeing. The events of life would just imprint themselves on my mind like images on a digital tape.
I flew an hour and a half and arrived at Schonefeld, a sad, slightly shabby airport, and got through immigration without incident. I then made my way, through the cold and across what was once some meadow for cows, to the train station nearby. I got the S-Bahn to Ostkreuz, then got off, waited for the S9 that took me to right across the city. I had memorized the Berlin U&S Bahn map during my previous visits to Berlin, and I recorded everything as I went. Already the sense of lifting fog was there. How simple it was. One decision, then the first few steps. Not completely without fear, but feeling the possibility of new fearless life.
“Your apartment is in Storkwinkel, at the end of the Ku’damm—Kurfustendamm,” said the DAAD artist residency secretary who was managing my stay. I was beginning a year-long fellowship in Berlin. She gave me a string of keys, including a tiny one for my mailbox. She then opened a detailed city map, and showed me the small street at the end of Ku’Damm. I nodded, but said nothing. It had not been my ideal. The residency was on the edge of the city, in the further west of West Berlin. I had wanted to be in Kreuzberg or anywhere central. But there it was. I folded the map and put it in my pocket.
Later that afternoon I made my way to the residence, after walking up the length of Kurfurstendamm, the great showcase Boulevard of former West Berlin, the supposed envy of the East. As I went on foot, the glitz of the shops slowly diminished and was completely gone by the time I reached a bridge overlooking Halensee S-bahn with a curry wurst stand on it. Inside was a blue-bloodshot eyed man waiting to dish out trays of red-sauced wurst with plastic forks, along with large bottles of dark beer. His thin but long hair added strands to the mix on the plastic plates. Perhaps, I thought, I was witnessing my daily meal.
I finally arrived at Storkwinkel, the street with my flat. It was, as I expected, a non-descript lane, lined by five-story Berlin facades. As everywhere in Berlin, a sense of history made itself felt with an electric tingling at the back of my neck. But I did not pursue the feeling. I was a new woman here, a new person in a new country. And I was recording everything around me. My eyes were a camera.
There were no elevators. I climbed five flights of steps to the top floor, where my name had already been placed in neat printing on the wooden, over-painted door. Inside was a rambling former attic, now a flat, overlooking Berlin’s grey ring road and the S-Bahn stop of Halensee. I saw no sign of the “sea” in the distance—the supposed lake. But the apartment had a generous layout. It was furnished in modest modern style: white tables, wooden chairs, a basic kitchen set. It was nothing like Isherwood’s lodging in 1920s. I remembered his description of first time seeing his rented room: unnecessarily solid, abnormally heavy, dangerously sharp.
The light and white furniture suited my new mood. It was strangely pleasant. I thought I could live in this flat. No, not “flat”; in Germany they called it wohnung. And I would live here alone, without S. Even though he said “See you in Berlin.” Perhaps he just said those words without thinking, the way people say “goodbye.” No promise or intention lay behind them. I opened the window to let the fresh air in. I was feeling deflated, a little blown by the wind, sensitive to the foreign smells, but I felt I had a foot in something like a home.
I had been to Berlin before and knew people; I met a few filmmakers here in the past and had kept loosely in touch. Before I left Britain, I contacted my friend Martin and informed him I was coming. I thought Martin would show me around, especially with his cinematic eyes. He was the cinematographer of the film Good Bye Lenin!, and I had seen the film way before I had met him. But as I reflect now, I had seen another film shot by him, decades ago in China, before I came to Europe. It was one of my favorite films of all time: Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, and Martin was one of the camera operators on that film. It was made in 1987.
I was only a 14-year-old school girl in my Chinese province when Martin was filming in a helicopter above the Brandenburg Gate and the Tower of Victory. I had no idea what was Germany then—apart from two names mentioned in our textbooks: Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. When Martin made that film, the Berlin Wall still existed. It was still the zone of death in Berlin, a place for corpses to lie in dirty snow. Martin had witnessed the fall of the Wall, with his camera eyes, and with his own blue eyes. Now those war time photo archives were placed everywhere in Berlin streets. They were even lining the capitalistic Kufersterdamm, even in front of MacDonald and Gucci shops. What would Martin say about this? Bringing out my mobile, I rang him. Instantly, it came out his slightly accented English: “Wellkommen! But sorry Xiaolu, I am shooting a film in Frankfurt at the moment!” What a pity. I would have to wait to see him for a few weeks, or even months. I sent him regards and hung off the phone. Putting on my shoes, I picked up my unfamiliar keys.
I descended slowly, touching the old wooden railing. I made my way to the nearest supermarket Kaiser’s. I felt a hunger, and I wanted to fill my stomach with meat. Now that I was alone, not living with S—a vegetarian—I could eat anything he would not eat.
Over the next few days I made contact with some of Martin’s friends. They were filmmakers who lived in Kreuzberg. We met near the canal by the Ankerclause. Oberg was tall and lanky, with no hair and a constant flow of fidgeting and witticisms—like an elongated Woody Allen without glasses. He had made a semi-erotic sci fi film in Japan, and was working on a new script. He told me of his plans in a slightly nasal voice, but with great animation. “Germany is boring! I want to move to Spain, to become an irresponsible foreigner!” Then he kissed the current girlfriend beside him passionately.
“I am going to introduce you to some great people.” Oberg continued: “Tonight there is a barbecue in Kreuzberg 66. Clemenz is the chef. He loves to cook sardines on hot plates, with Brazilian music. You can meet Barbara there too, one of Germany’s great actresses. She is a policewoman in that hot TV series—Tatort. You probably don’t know this program. People love crime in this country.” Then he looked at me with pity: “Poor you, live all the way over there in that dead West, what is it called, Storkwinkel? A strange name for a street. Is it where you enter the other world?”
“Perhaps these feelings were transmitted from Isherwood’s world to mine—a foreign life without orientation.”
More people arrived astride heavy, German bikes, built like tanks. They wore the post-punk uniforms one sees around Berlin—dark green rain-proof jackets. They were smiling broadly. I was affected by their generous mood and easygoingness—there was good chi in the atmosphere. As always, I wanted to conquer people with my “outgoing” personality—draw them in so that my foreign friendships might spark and bring me some warmth. So I began to talk, randomly, about London, about Beijing, about films and books I saw and read in the last few months.
That night, after I returned to the edge of West Berlin, I had a bowl of rice with two white sausages on the side (a choice I deliberately made to educate myself about German culture), and a black beer. The sausage was interesting, if not as interesting as the locals claimed. But the beer was genuinely flavorful. Leaving the dirty dishes in the sink, I lay in the bed in my train-rustling wohnung and continued reading Good Bye to Berlin. Isherwood seemed to be drifting aimlessly in Berlin, and the city felt alien but exotic to an Englishman like him. And that woman, the divinely decadent Sally Bowles! She was a real person too, but she and Isherwood and all the other characters are dead now. Strangely, Berlin in between two World Wars felt like the London I had lived in during the last several years. I somehow knew well of those disillusioned artists, those cheap lodging places, amateur language teachers, and dodgy night clubs. All this brought me back to the Britain I had lived. I thought about S, but only briefly.
I finished reading the book next morning. Then I walked around my blocks, enveloped by a sense of dislocation. No one was out. All the windows shut. The wind was blowing, and it felt cold and dull. I thought, perhaps these feelings were transmitted from Isherwood’s world to mine—a foreign life without orientation, a gloomy daily atmosphere leading towards a forthcoming war. Under the rainy clouds, I walked up to the bridge by Halensee and felt I could see our own war like a distant storm already beginning to thunder on the horizon.
One afternoon I took the train to Wannsee, and wandered around the shore. I thought about Wings of Desire again. I missed Martin. When I first came to Berlin some years ago, Martin was the person who introduced me to the lakes around Berlin. We had stood by the quietly lapping Wannsee, contemplating the famous wartime spy bridge in the distance—the Glienicke Bridge. It used to be the border separating East Germany and West Berlin. A strange border, I thought. It looked so innocent above the quite waterway. We then took a long walk through the dark forested area along equally dark water. The lake’s surface seemed troubled, I remember, and the path appeared broken and awkwardly placed. Some logs lay drowned at the lake’s edge, pail and inert. He then took me up to an abandoned radio tower that stood above the forest like an alien presence. During the DDR period this tower was used for surveillance. Now it looked bleak and desolate. Martin looked at the tower, and said something like: “I prefer the South, the heat and sunlight, like in Portugal or Spain. I always feel cold in this country.” Martin’s eyes were clear blue, beneath the scant, straw-colored hair. I found the eyes unsettling. As if their blue depth knew something that even he was unaware of.
That was two years ago. I wondered if Martin still had this desolation in him, as I stared into the blue green water. When the sky turned dark and the air felt cold, I left the lake and took the train back home.
The next morning, as I woke up, I received two emails from S. He asked me how I was doing in the new city, and when should he come over? “The weather is very bad in London, it will be good to get out,” he added. Outside my window, the sky was blue, but I didn’t tell him that. I missed his company, but this separation was a trial for us. And he should know that I wanted to be alone here, even though my body didn’t want to be alone. So I answered his email with a few vague lines.
A week later, to my surprise, S arrived in Berlin. He was pleasant, energetic, and interested in everything around him. He even liked the shabby and unattractive little Storkwinkel in front of my building block. We went out for dinners, walking all the way to Kantstrasse where the Chinese restaurants are located. We would eat dumplings and walk all the way back to the end of Kurfurstendamm. Sometimes the walk would take an hour, if we got lost on the side streets. I always thought that on one of these long walks I would suggest a real separation. A hard and final one. A separation without us ever seeing each other again. But I never managed to fully express my desire.
The truth was that I couldn’t make up my mind. Why? Because I felt lonely again in this foreign city with a language even foreigner than my second language, English? Or, because I was not ready to fall in love with other men? I wondered. With many doubts and thoughts in my head and in my heart, we continued to stroll along Ku’damm under those wartime maple trees.
Finally Martin appeared. He returned from his film production in south Germany. We met in a café in Kantstrasse, on the street where he lived. He looked very tired. He said he would have to go soon, because his wife was waiting for him to see a play. We talked briefly about our future projects, and his fondness of the time he spent when he was making Good Bye Lenin!. When we finished coffee, I mentioned that I was separating from S. Or rather—I tried to explain—I had to make a decision if I should remain in the relationship or come out. I thought Berlin might be a good place for me to make this decision.
Martin didn’t react. Instead, he seemed to be troubled by a problem. His stomach ached. He said he could not eat much at all. He complained that his stomach would torture him as soon as he returned to the film set, even though he was taking painkillers everyday. “I probably need to quit my film career; I am finished.” He smiled sadly. “The film world is for young people anyway,” he sighed, but remained dignified, like a proper German. I looked at Martin across the table. He had clearly lost some weight, but I didn’t think something lethal was going on in his body. Nor did he. When we hugged for goodbye in the street, I didn’t realize this would be the last time I ever see him again.
When the residency finished, I didn’t stay in Berlin. S took me back to London, or rather I decided to return to London with him. I had made the spontaneous decision that I would make a home with S. Or perhaps the decision just made itself, and I followed in the dark. A phone call was made to Martin before we flew back to the UK. Immediately, he announced the bad news: he had been diagnosed with Stage II stomach cancer. “But don’t worry, I just told my wife that I am going to get an operation—taking out my stomach.” My mind was silent. A cold wave of incomprehension dulled my senses. Nevertheless, S and I made our way to Schonefeld Airport. We took our plane. In the sky, I looked down at the Berlin I was once entangled with. The wings of desire fly us to places we somehow can never fully inhabit.
Three months later, when S and I went to see our local General Practitioner in London, we found that I was pregnant. A sudden feeling of terror snatched me, mixed with excitement. In front of the clinic, we talked about making a real home together. “But it will be in London, not in Berlin, right?” S said, humorously. I nodded. But since he mentioned Berlin, I thought I should ring Martin to find out his situation. I called straightway, but no one answered. I called again. No answer. I felt uneasy. I searched numbers in my contact list, and dialed our mutual Berlin friend Oberg.
“Oh, you don’t know then. Martin died a week ago,” Oberg answered flatly in his nasal voice.
“Died?” I repeated the term a few times like an automaton, breathing stiffly into the phone.
“Yes, they took his stomach out. But still . . . too late.”
My eyes fixed on a heavily pregnant woman entering the clinic. She was staggering, hands supporting her belly. I was amazed by her life—unfolding, clumsy, but alive. Unlike Martin. Then I noticed someone take my left arm. It was S. He dragged me away.
Upon returning home, I called Germany again. I called Martin’s wife. While I was waiting for the phone to be picked up, I pictured Martin’s 19th century building right in the middle of Kantstrasse, a street not as pretty as other streets in Charlottenberg. I remember Martin once telling me that his fantasy was to live in a seaside southern town, somewhere like Marseille or Barcelona. Too sad that he didn’t make it, just like many of us. Martin’s wife, a sometime actress and school teacher, finally answered.
After brief condolences, I could not bring myself to say anything sensible. Instead, I said to her: “So sorry . . . do you want to visit us in London? It might be good to say goodbye to Berlin just for a little while, for a change.”
“Goodbye to Berlin?” She repeated on the phone, with a weary voice. She paused for a second, then answered: “No. I don’t think so. I will stay here.” Then her last words: “I hope to see you in Berlin.”
“Yes, I hope so. Please take care of yourself.” I hung up the phone, looking back at S who was putting chopped orange and apple into a blender. He pressed the button. A deafening noise immediately filled the flat. I waited until the noise ceased.
“You know what? I regret that in all those months in Berlin, we didn’t visit even once Nollendorfstrasse.”
“Nollendorfstrasse?” S turned, passing me a glass of juice.
“Yes, the street where Isherwood lived in Goodbye to Berlin.”
A month later, S and I came out from a clinic in a street right next to Nollendorfstrasse in Berlin. The German gynecologist had printed out a picture of the fetus from the scan result, and he told us the baby’s sex. As we passed Nollendorfplatz U-bahn station, I stopped, leaning on the railing and took a careful look at the small photo of my future child. It was black and white, blurry, with shadows of tiny heart and stomach like chestnuts incased in their pods. I stared at it for a long time.
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.