Another Chicago Magazine

The German

Photo: Markus Spiske

When my career faltered and as I faced uncertainty, I would find a new boyfriend. He was the first of many, and using a man to replace the gaping unknown had not yet become a pattern. In this case, instead of auditioning for musicals, I took up with a German architecture student whose sun sign happened to be in Virgo. The German commented, “There is a right way and a wrong way. If you are lazy, you will fail.” He believed in an un-nuanced class system that one could spot on sight based on the tone of someone’s voice, clothing, neighborhood, and schooling. Which explains why he only had one pair of Armani jeans. As a restaurant manager and architecture student at the New School, one pair was all he could afford. One frickin’ pair of $120 jeans. Crisp and washed every three days, the luminous pair hung delicately on a thin-wired hanger, folded into a perfect half next to a series of white pressed collared waiter shirts and two pair of black waiter pants. He shared an ant-sized one bedroom with his lawyer-bound brother on Park Avenue that at the time cost $1500, which similar to his jeans, was considered expensive in the 90’s. They slept on ten-inch wide air mattresses next to one another in a narrow room. They must have slumbered on their backs in the contracted bedroom, but I dared not ask. It was the opposite of sexy.

I met Otto on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where he was manager at Mendy’s Bar and Grill, possibly the only Jewish sports bar ever to stay in business, a paradox for obvious reasons. I was the token female employee at Mendy’s, most likely to serve as sugar on top, the only female foolish enough to work there amongst a macho staff and kitchen several yards from the dining room. Add that obstacle to jumbo heavy plates, bowls and cups and a family style menu, I often found myself bending into a grand plié (ballet style) and slowly tipping over before reaching my destination while a curious group of modern Orthodox customers pondered my potential fall and if I was fit to waitress. No, I was not. The other waiters, an Indian, a Mexican, and of course, the German, (we were a contemptuous Benetton commercial…remember those sweaters?) would run to save the food tray and me from collapse. The poor scrawny Jewish girl, with hair helplessly maneuvered into a scrunchy lacking arm strength. They kept me on because I was cute enough, bubbly, and mostly pleasant with a tickle of sass. Perhaps my slightly snarky veneer, smothered in Midwestern friendliness, made up for my lack of waitressing skills.

When the black hat Lubavitchers came from Brooklyn, they always asked for me. A sports bar seemed to be their only exposure to life outside the shtetl, which involved women with wigs and possibly sex through a hole in a sheet, although despite my Jewish roots, I’m not fully versed in all the traditions, especially going up the tallest Orthodox ladder of things. While getting plastered on strawberry daiquiris, they would finger their payos while whispering lewd comments to each other. (I guessed the comments were lewd but really, they could have been biblical puns for all I knew).  Bobby, the headwaiter, lamented about returning to India where there was space for farms and “undisgusting people.” He would smile at me and say, “It’s your table. They asked for you again. Go now, they’re getting impatient.” I believe it thrilled him to watch the drooping corners of my mouth. He would gesture to his mustache, caress the skin above his upper lip, and raise his eyebrows, a less-than-subtle suggestion that I should wax. I feigned confusion every time he reproduced the sly mouth gesture with his fingers, a mannish effort to reject my womanhood. Following Bobby’s coercion, I groaned and meandered to the group of twelve men in black and basked in their girlish giggles until closing. At Mendy’s, all tips were pooled, so it wasn’t really worth waiting on those woozy school boys, but there was nothing else to do but stand by my raily German boyfriend hovering over a ladle of hot matzo ball soup in the restaurant kitchen.

“Otto, you should eat,” I would coax him. “You’re too thin.”

“I’m eating; I’m eating,” he replied sucking up the hot soup in the midst of summer.

It was free and the salt gave the otherwise bland liquid a bit of flavor.

I was also getting too thin. An already small-boned girl of twenty-three, lifting heavy trays and running around a large restaurant was trimming me down. And Otto, as manager and full-time student, couldn’t find enough time to eat let alone tend to a disheveled girlfriend. After a night of soup sipping and scarfing down small bites of corned beef between customers, I didn’t have much else to do but wait for the German to return to the Upper West Side living room I called home, with my semi-private two-hundred feet dwelling space in a living room separated by a flimsy Chinese divider. I was living with Jordana, an unemployed Modern Orthodox woman of forty-two who sometimes forgot to pay her electricity bills and had saved some money from working on Wall Street in the eighties. Something bad had happened to her, and she recounted evil gender dynamics and an instance of some Wall Street creeper putting a drug in her drink, although I didn’t delve further. Jordana believed I was a psychic, and I played into these delusions until her eyes widened and she would put up her hands and beg me to stop.

“I see three gypsy women here to protect you. But one is mischievous,” I would say.

“Did she finish my kosher wine last week?” Jordana asked. “I swear the bottle was almost full before Shabbas and then it was like a greedy Elijah stopped in on the wrong holiday.”

“I believe one of the gypsy witches drank your Manischewitz,” I answered in a low, sultry voice. “It was not Elijah.”

There were times Jordana and I placed scarves on our heads, blasted Shlomo Carlbach chants, and danced around the living room conjuring spirits.

I sang, “I feel the witches. They’re here now.” And more often than not, it was the only weekly exercise she experienced.

“I’m shvitzing,” she’d call.

“I feel their presence is trying to unblock the bad energy in this apartment. Sweat it out,” I said.  I’m not sure why I wanted to make her sweat so much. Maybe my altruistic side sensed she needed a workout.

Jordana used Prozac, her parent’s checkbook, and the kosher sushi restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue to get through her days. And I used Jordana as my audience without a real career and pretended to be an actor without auditioning. “I’m an actor,” I would tell people and it seemed to suffice. No one asked questions. Everyone in New York was allowed to be called an artist even if they weren’t doing anything about it, and it was okay as long as you were under thirty. When I wasn’t dancing around the white-carpeted living room, if Otto had been working a shift and I didn’t work that evening, he would come over and fuck me with his crooked penis,[1] and I would grit my teeth and bear it.

“Did you like it?” he would ask.

I’d shrug.

Otto’s well-structured face grew on me. It was something to look at, and he seemed to care for me. About eight months into our relationship, he developed a nasty habit of photographing our outings and titled the album “The Big Apple Experience” and proceeded to send evidence of his well-cultured life to his parents living in an obscure town neighboring Munich near the large city where his people had killed my people. Once I subtly touched on the subject:

“Do you come from Nazis?” I asked.

“Some,” he said.

That was enough for me; he would never leave the fascist category in my mind. Later I learned that he had converted to Judaism and his grandmother had Jewish blood and hid the shameful fact during the Holocaust. But when he was going down on me, I’d stare at my pubic hairs creating an almost perfect line with his upper lip and imagine he was Hitler. Even a close shave or wax could not erase his genocidal past. Perhaps even more than the imagined mustache was the matter-of-fact fervor in how he fucked me that conjured up the Gestapo.

I would lie there, staring up at him in confusion. He was technically the second man who had entered me. Something felt off.

“I don’t think we’re really doing it,” he responded.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Having sex is in and out, you know,” he said gesticulating with his hand. “And you’re not moving.”

Even after I tried moving, it was more of an up and down undertaking, not in and out, maybe to avoid the question mark inversion rupturing my ovaries. Or maybe I was doing it wrong. It’s a strong possibility that I was going the wrong way with my body movements. Easy things always come hard. Sex seemed unnatural and required quite a bit of concentration and force, I thought.

Otto’s connection to his camera was deepening and protesting didn’t help. Making faces and ruining pictures only disappointed. One day during a trip to the Met, he began searching frantically through his man purse.

“Shoot!”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t believe it. This is just great, just great, ach, damn, just great.”

“Stop repeating yourself and tell me what’s wrong.”

“I forgot it.”

“What?”

“The camera,” he said.

“It’s no big deal. You can’t take pictures inside the museum anyway,” I said.

“You don’t understand. It’s very important to my parents. I think they’re letting people take some pictures of a few of the statues, and this would have been the perfect opportunity. I read it in a New York Times article.”

“You can’t be serious. This again? It’s becoming a regular fixation.”

“They want to know what I’m doing. Make sure I’m being cultured and staying on the right track.”

“You can call or e-mail them if you’re so worried,” I said.

“No, they like to experience New York with me. They don’t travel, and this gives them a sense of what I’m doing. They don’t get out. We have to go back and get it.”

“The museum is closing in an hour. There’s no time. And what’s all this about them not getting out? I thought you said they’re so cultured.”

“They don’t have a lot of money. They lost it in the war.”

“Ok, that’s scary,” I said.

“We are of blue blood descent,” he added.  “We have the Cohan family crest which comes with certain expectations.”

“You mean like from the bible? The original priests?” I asked

“It’s complicated. The point is, they expect me to read the news, for example, unlike some people.”

“The news is depressing,” I said. “Your bloody lectures are boring,” I said.

My mother was a regular news fanatic and ecstatically tore out clippings and mailed them to me; her zest for information was evidenced by the paper’s jagged edges. She was too excited by a controversy to take the time to use a scissors – favored current events coincided with her greatest outrage. She’d circle the juiciest bits in a thick red pen that she used to correct eighth grade papers at the local Jewish day school. I don’t believe I have ever read more than one quarter of a single clipping of hers, but that doesn’t stop her crusade to get me informed.

“It wouldn’t kill you to know what’s going on in the world,” said Otto.

“Maybe it would,” I said.

“Tomorrow when we go to Central Park, I’m going to take double the amount of pictures to make up for today and make an enormous online family album.”

“Just don’t Photoshop my head with Brittany Spears’ body, ok?”

“What do you mean?”

Otto didn’t joke, and he didn’t get it when others told them. No sarcasm allowed and even the British fancy of irony was lost on him.

The German had many talks with me about my lack of direction. His parents claimed I wasn’t made of the right stock. Those broke blue bloods had a lot of ideas about living and with whom their youngest son should associate. Despite my upper crusty upbringing and history of attending solidly snobbish academic institutions, I was clearly floating in their eyes. My red blood was winding me to the skies of spacy land. Cheers to the Germans; they were right. And the Hemlich’s did not float; they worked.  He would not remain with an aimless waif forever. He worked too hard. And the responsibility of sending money home to Germany coupled with the prospect of providing for me, a girl with at least half a brain who refused to use it, was too much for his good sense.

“You can’t be a waitress forever,” he said while we waited for a shift to begin. It was 3:45, and we sat in the back of Mendy’s dimly lit dining room while the waiters threw breadsticks at one another. Most likely the Mashgiach was in the kitchen teasing the busboys by holding freshly cut tongue and flapping it in their faces.

“Why can’t I be a waitress forever?”  I asked switching off from scrutinizing a half-polished nail to playing with a piece of dry skin on the side of my nose.

“Because you hate it. And this place is a joke.”

“So,” I said.

“You have a degree from a good school.”

“Whatever, it’s a BFA in theatre. Big fuckin’ asswipes.”

“You know I hate it when you curse. It’s so unladylike.”

“Then find a lady,” I said flatly.

“You can do a lot with that degree.”

“Let me remind you, it’s a musical theatre concentration. I can tap dance.”

“What are you interested in?”

“Theatre, I guess.”

“But you never audition.”

“That’s not true,” I said.

“When was the last time?” he asked, knowing the answer.

His soft brown eyes rested intently on my face, a habit that either meant he cared or he had too much intensity for one life and had to spill it over on someone else. I began pulling at wild pieces of my dyed yellow wisps and stood up.

“I hate these conversations. They’re so boring,” I said.

“Just answer the question,” said Otto pulling at my arm, forcing me back into a chair.

“Jesus, stop manhandling me.”

“I’m sorry if you don’t feel comfortable talking about it.”

“I’m fine talking about it. I think I auditioned…well…I dunno, a few months ago, remember, oh yeah, right, that Summer Stock thing?”

“Your face was still painted as a mime from a birthday party job, and you didn’t bother to wash it off.”

“It was performance art. And I felt awkward because an ex-boyfriend was there from college. I was distracted. But it wasn’t so bad,” I added.

“You told me it was terrible because you faced the piano player instead of the committee and auditioned from your side profile.”

“Yeah, it was crappy. I was embarrassed by the face paint.”

“Why didn’t you wash it off?”

“Not sure. There was a lot of competition there. It’s awkward.”

“That was months ago,” said Otto.

“If you don’t change the subject, I’m going home,” I said.

“You have to do something with your life.”

“Boring, boring, boring!” I began pacing in Mendy’s dining hall. There were no customers. Otto followed. I touched the velvet tablecloth, flopped into a booth, and threw my head down on a menu imagining I was staging a John Hugh’s movie.

“What about your writing?” he asked, touching the back of my head.

“What about it? I write for fun. Maybe one day it will be something more. I don’t know. It’s not your problem; don’t worry about it. Please, you’re not my father, all right?”

✶✶✶✶

I remember the day I ran out of money, which marked the end of my first New York experience. It was a typical day. I had slept until noon, grabbed some eggs at the corner deli, and tossed down some coffee as I waited patiently for my part-time waitress job at 4 p.m. while looking over a stack of monologues and sheet music in large disheveled piles on the living room floor.

“Your account is almost depleted,” said a Schwab account representative.

I had been draining the account dollars for a solid four years since graduation by working part-time jobs, taking various theatrical training courses, and sharing living rooms with single, middle-aged women on the Upper West Side by way of Village Voice advertisements.

“Oh!”

“This is a courtesy call.”

“Thanks. Would you mind telling me how much is left?” I asked.

“Well—let me see….hmmm—I’m sorry miss. It looks like the account is in your father’s name, and I don’t have permission to give you that information.”

Was there a hint of confusion in his voice?

“How do I find out?” I asked.

“You can get the information from Dr.” –

“My dad.”

“Right, your father –- can call in (had he cleared his throat?) to get the balance and tell you. Or he could write a letter with his signature authorizing you as a co-owner of the account. He receives monthly statements.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize. Well, never mind.”

I froze. What was it I had imagined my father was doing with the account? I had never given it conscious thought. Not knowing was easiest. I had been buying a lot of carrot cake.

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” he asked.

I wondered why, after a conversation was clearly finished, service people must ask if there was something else they can do for you. Were you actually supposed to think about it? Was it a moral imperative to provide additional questions? Really, I wanted more money, but I couldn’t say that. I wanted to act in a play without auditioning but that wasn’t possible. I wanted this Schwab crony to call my father and scream, “Sir, this was not a good idea, giving your daughter an unknown lump sum and then offering her no access to the account. Clearly she doesn’t know what the bleeping bleep she’s doing.”  Or maybe Mr. Schwab himself could personally ask my father, “Why did you allow her to major in acting, unfit to do anything in the real world, especially audition? The girl is afraid to audition, so she can’t work!”  But no, instead he felt compelled to ask the empty, meaningless question: Is there anything else I can help you with? It is decidedly so that the Pavlovian regurgitation of obsessive questioning trumps the customer who desperately desires to hang up.  To this day, I loathe this last scripted question.

For the next several weeks an acid buildup in my throat correlated with the dissipation of the last hundred dollars in my account. I had trouble swallowing food and keeping it down. The German was helpless and encouraged me to visit Upper East Side doctors who proceeded to pump me full of antibiotics. Minus twelve pounds, I was disappearing; my teeth began protruding.

“Just eat this banana,” Otto said, sitting on one of my two twin beds that we pushed together in Jordana’s living room.

“I can’t. I feel sick. No appetite,” I frowned. “And I can’t live on $200 a week. It’s just not working in New York for me. I’m not fit for anything,” I said.

“You could work as a secretary,” he offered.

“Otto, do you know me? I’m afraid of copy machines.”

“That’s true, not very organized. So what will you do?”

We both knew I would bow my head in defeat, pack up my belongings, and run home to daddy.

I peered around the Upper West Side living room that I had inhabited for less than six months. A long ornate wooden table that I would approach for Shabbas dinner or any kind of formal party confronted me. Jordana’s wine glasses from Jerusalem in the shapes of tears I had only held briefly; I wasn’t a drinker. I hadn’t read the Jewish books proudly displayed: “Exodus,” “Herzog,” and Maimonides. She was a conservadox, and I attended services at B’nai Jeshrun, the so-called Conservative synagogue kicked out of the movement for sponsoring an AIDS walk. It was in a church, and she mocked me for attending. I wasn’t auditioning, I wasn’t a real Jew, so what was I doing there?

“He knows the best doctors. I’m just not getting better here,” I said.

“Let me come with you,” pressed Otto.

“No, you have to finish architecture school. And I need to figure things out,” I said.

He didn’t stay to help me pack because he said it would be too sad. Since I didn’t own any furniture, it was easy to ship my clothes home and relocate to my parent’s house, the same red brick box I had grown up in. We planned a long distance relationship, but I wasn’t planning anything except to further envelope myself in a growing tidal wave of fear. A fear of an unknown future with an assured feeling of dependency.

By the time I had packed my things to return to Chicago and get healthy, I developed tremors in my hands and feet–-or they were possibly asleep –- from worrying about my “condition.” These spastic motions invaded my body anytime, unannounced, unplanned. The German grieved that I was leaving and vowed to be true – even with my spasms. During my reconnaissance, he visited me after fleeing the bad doctor city and broached the topic of marriage.

“Did I ever tell you the story about my ring? I found it snorkeling,” he hedged.

He was confronting me in my new space in my parents’ attic, a sort of punishment during the purgatory of my life. He pulled out a ring from his Armani jean pocket that glistened like a creamy blue moonstone. It was cold up there and smelled of mold.  A wasp nest (bugs, not Protestants) snuggled itself by the skylight and resonated a distinct buzzing song in the background of my dreams. A squirrel was rumored to be trapped between the walls; something was definitely rotting.

“Those fucking squirrels. I’ll get every god-damned last one,” my father would say.[2]  I knew my family wouldn’t take to the German and that the German wouldn’t take to us. He was polite, loyal, and just a little crazy – but in a totally different way than they were. He would be impressed by the house in what he would decide was an upper class bourgeoisie neighborhood and my father’s light blue Lexus with the leather interior would entice him. It would be their manners that would confound him. They would wonder what I was doing with a stiff and somewhat stunted fellow but would happily entertain the thought of making me someone else’s problem. I had screwed up my life this far, so one more smashing of a sandcastle would hardly be relevant.

But I could not approve of ring talk. It sounded ugly and unromantic in a German accent and somehow, frightening. I had no job but I did possess a case of the hiccups that had lasted a week. The Zoloft the family psychiatrist put me on was causing zombie-like behavior with bouts of diarrhea although my worrying persisted. No money or job = anxiety. Marriage was not an option. I couldn’t imagine the German lifestyle consisting of delicate chinaware, severely organized dresser drawers, appointments instead of dates, and robust, highly productive children.

“No, you did not mention a ring story,” I said to Otto. “I don’t think it’s the right time to discuss this sort of thing.”

His retelling of his ring finding excursion is hardly memorable but something about coming upon a glassy substance during some deep sea-diving trip with his lawyer bound brother and saving it for “the one.” The German was very, very nice. Not bad looking. Tall, thin, stately. He had an attractive, boney face. And he was kind. His head was skinny like a plate. He paid extra special attention to my life when I wasn’t. I had nothing, no hopes for the future and my only access to resources was an ability to find good doctors. And with that, he left Chicago, returned to New York deflated, defeated, and rid of me. Of course, there were some messy phone conversations and a later return to NYC because reality isn’t ever as clean as the written word. One case of oral sex that wasn’t terrible when I was thinking of getting back together, but for all intents and purposes, it was over. Let’s push forward.

I bailed on acting, using the guise of not knowing how to sell myself as a character flaw to avoid auditioning for three years after graduation. I justified my typecasting problem by deciding that I could not possibly be an ingénue because everyone knows ingénues are the leading lady love interest. I had convinced myself that I was unable to authentically sing love songs because I had never been in love, maybe couldn’t love or be loved, and that my forte was comic timing, not swooning. I also concluded I could not be the girl next door because I looked too much like an ingénue, and my voice wasn’t husky enough. I wondered if the acting world needs me now. It takes a lot of hubris to make that statement, but there are times, even now, when I’m on stage for a rare music gig, and suddenly my body fits in its shell. I’m not fighting to be anyone in particular; there’s no type to fill, and I’m recognized. I recognize myself, and I’m simply moving through time as space, effortlessly.

✶✶✶✶

[1] The penis shape was more of an inversion, like a question mark, not simply crooked. The issue is, the Otto character would have made a damned good husband. My newly de-virginized vagina did not easily take to this “question mark” shape without rigor on both parts.

[2] Father’s squirrel obsession/squirrel abuse with a city trap and BB gun may serve as a violent metaphor for my feelings of being trapped and potentially rabid.