So my doctor said it is true: You can get AIDS just from snorting cocaine. I decided to visit my doctor’s after I was unable to donate my vital juices at the Port Authority Blood Drive in the fall of 2000.
I left without getting the needle after reading a form given to all potential donors that said anyone who’d sniffed coke in the past year shouldn’t give. I figured the Red Cross made that recommendation because people who do blow probably engage in other dangerous behaviors that put them at risk for contracting the HIV virus; I thought it must be almost impossible to get it just from doing coke.
Still, I figured I’d visit my physician and ask about it; it’d been a long time since I’d gotten a physical so I could kill two birds with one stone. She told me there’s evidence the virus can be carried by the "snorting implement" – like a straw or a rolled-up dollar – and since cocaine causes abrasions in the mucous membrane of the nose, it is possible to pass on the disease if both the carrier and the receiver bleed. Sounded pretty legit. Shit.
"Are you interested in getting tested?" the doctor asked.
What the fuck would I do if I had it?
"Definitely," I said.
"Here’s the consent form," she said, pulling it out of a file slot above the examining room sink. "I’ll give you a few minutes and some privacy to put your clothes back on and read it over."
As she closed the door, a dizzying panic crashed over me like a tidal wave: What if I have AIDS?
What if I have AIDS?
What if I have AIDS?
What if I’m gonna die?
What if I’m gonna die?
Gonna die, gonna die, gonna die.
A very quiet little voice in my head said: You’re being ridiculous! Get it together. You’ll be fine. You don’t have it. But it was no match for the wild chorus still screaming: Gonna die! Gonna die! Gonna die!
A knock on the door sent the screamers inside my skull scurrying for cover. "Just a minute," I said, as I rushed to pull my pants and shirt on. "Okay, come in."
"Everything okay?" my doctor asked. She was smiling, but also looking at me carefully, examining my face.
"Sure," I said. "Why?"
"I just heard you moaning," she said. I hadn’t realized I’d been making any noise.
"Sorry. I was just thinking about what it must be like to be told you have AIDS. It was freaking me out a little." She nodded. "You sure you want to get tested?" I nodded. It was a Friday afternoon and she told me she’d have the results for me on Monday. Shit.
I’d also been tested at the beginning of the summer before taking off for a three-month writing fellowship in Berlin. Then I got the results back immediately: No time for fret or panic or basic nausea. And I was clean. My days of "risk-taking" behavior had pretty much ended after that. No more drugs, no more heavy drinking and especially no more picking up guys at bars. I’d had too many black-outs, too many mornings waking up in apartments of too many guys I’d met in the early morning hours whose names I couldn’t remember. I was pretty sure I’d never had sex with those guys – blow-jobs were as far as I would go; anything else seemed too intimate; this being the strange logic of a girl who grew up Catholic. Pretty sure I’d never done anything else with those strangers, I couldn’t be positive because there were too many gaps of memory. Not too many lapses since my early summer test.
But a few. Most of them were probably nothing to worry about, but there was one that had me worried, my last night in Berlin.
Kat, a friend since high-school, arrived at my flat in the Friedrichshain neighborhood in east Berlin in the early afternoon of my penultimate day there. A little more than 24 hours later, she and I would embark on a two-week tour of a few European cities. Before closing time, we saw as many sights as we could in the city once divided by Communism – the Wall, Victory Column in Tiergarten, the Reichstaag and my favorite art museum in the old train station.
That evening, we were both exhausted but eager to make the most of the nighttime. In an effort to be more healthy and wise, I’d abstained completely from drinking all summer. So by then I was sick to death of my new goody-two-shoes teetotaling ways. A little alcohol wasn’t going to hurt me. And Kat likes to have fun. So, after showering, we decided to skip dinner out and start boozing right away. We left my apartment building and spun around the corner to a place called Astro-Bar, which seemed to be the destination for all the 0well-dressed Berlin hipsters looking for a little trouble. DJs were spinning American funk – "Spooky" by Dusty Springfield was on when we walked in. Oh, yeah.
The décor was mod; circular red leather couches and round red leather seats with white stands. The place was lined with mirrors, dense with smoke, packed with people. Kat and I carved out some space for ourselves in a corner couch and ordered a couple of beers – served in huge cylindrical glasses, so tasty they went down fast. We ordered another round and started meeting people. Just short conversations at first: My German is barely functional, especially after alcohol, and the Berliners who chatted with us weren’t too good with English or else they just weren’t interested. But then a guy named Roberto and his friend Hannah came over and sat down in recently vacated space next to Kat.
Despite his name, Roberto was a born and bred Berliner; his parents decided to call him that after a trip to Italy. He was wearing all black: a button-up short-sleeve shirt, pants and shoes with a multiple-inch platform sole. The rest of him was yellow, in different shades: the greenish bleach job on his hair; brownish tobacco-stained teeth; and the fluorescent lenses in the sunglasses he was wearing. Hannah was blond, fair and pink in the cheeks, a healthy-looking girl in jeans and a powder-blue sweater. They explained to us that they weren’t dating but went out together to help each other meet people.
Kat and Roberto were sitting next to each other and hitting it off so Hannah and I, sitting on either end of our gang of four, tried polite conversation for a while. She was telling me about her ex and pointing about some guy at the bar she had a crush on – blah blah, blah.
I thought: This is not what I want for my last night in a foreign city. I didn’t leave America for this, the kind of talk I could find at a bar named something like "McSullivan’s" on Bleecker Street in Manhattan if I was looking for it. But I wasn’t. So the next time she caught her breath, I pulled back, ending our dialogue, and leaned against the red banquette again. It was best for both of us.
We all ordered more beers. Another drink was all I needed to entertain myself for a while. I was happy being a voyeur with a buzz. I watched Hannah, after a brief consultation with Roberto, approach her man at the bar. He turned away after they spoke for a moment or two, but some other guy, spotting his opportunity, rushed in to introduce himself and save Hannah. After a few minutes, Man #2 bought her a drink and threw an arm around her shoulder. Success.
I turned my gaze to a very drunk girl on my right who looked and dressed like the 70's painter Bridget Reilly. She attempted to put her drink down on the circular white table in front of her while leaning back to kiss her boyfriend. She missed her target by a mile, letting go of the glass too early and dropping it on the floor instead, with slapstick timing so perfect she might have been trained by the Three Stooges. She and her lover locked tongues sloppily. They were so excited to slurp every inch of each others’ mouths that neither of them noticed her first faux pas, or her second: She kicked her foot out into the table – either in a show of arousal or a drunken spasm –knocking all the drinks on it to the floor.
A flurry of protest exploded like an atomic mushroom as the patrons around them demanded they buy new drinks. Young Bridget, who, like her lover, looked like she might still be in her teens, stood up, outraged. She threw her shoulders back and stuck out her pretty face, twisted with drunken righteousness. In a dress patterned with black and white stripes that emanated from a point near her belly-button, she began shaking her head in denial and holding her hands up in protest. The crowd around her angrily jabbed fingers at her, the table, the wet floor littered with glass, the boyfriend – who was looking only at the cigarette he was trying to light. He was unperturbed, probably because he had been holding on to his own drink during the make-out session. After lighting his smoke, he removed it from his mouth to sip from his cocktail. Bridget sat down next to him, scowling.
The four or five people whose drinks she tossed looked at each other, shrugged, and all headed over to the bar in a pack to buy their own drinks. Shocking. It was the kind of thing that would never happen in America: No group of people who had been wronged would let justice go undone like that. They would fight for their rights. I turned to ask Kat if we should get more beers and noticed she and Roberto were pressed together more tightly than two New York subway riders on the east side during rush hour. Their lips were stuck together so desperately it seemed they were sucking oxygen from each other in a last-ditch effort to stay alive. I snickered at the deliciousness of the spectacle – ah, it was nice to be anonymous in a foreign city – and tottered off to the bar for another drink.
Two young tall guys had taken advantage of some space that cleared around Bridget and her boyfriend after the drink debacle. One was especially skinny, with long thin hair the color of a dark ale that fell flat to his waist, pale skin, rosy cheeks and features so delicate they were almost feminine. He was wearing a white linen shirt, unbuttoned to just beneath his sternum exposing his chest, so flat and underdeveloped it seemed pubescent. His friend had short dark hair that had probably been combed earlier in the week and was not quite as bony. His lean muscles were obvious in the olive T-shirt he was wearing over a pair of khakis. Mischievous eyebrows jumped around his face, darting into peaks and valleys like a line graph illustrating a very rocky market whenever he made a joke or found something to laugh at, just about every other minute, it seemed. Long-hair was much more serious; he sat forward, legs spread and bowed, and frequently flung a praying-mantis arm up to make a point by flicking out a wrist before letting it fall back into the space between his legs. Dark-hair reclined against the cherry couch with his right hand flung over the top behind his friend. His left hand was free to gesture, complementing his friend’s moves. Comedy and tragedy. My heart surged with affection for them. They seemed like boys who’d recently been told it was time to be men and weren’t quite sure how they were supposed to play that role.
I understood: I felt like a girl ordered to be a woman, and I wasn’t happy about it. I realized they reminded me of two of my best friends from college. Sitting on a bar stool, I pulled my camera out of my hand-bag and started snapping pictures of them after I’d taken a few good mouthfuls of the beer the bartender had just plunked down in front of me. During the three months I’d spent in Berlin, I’d only taken about half a roll of pictures. I was not a cooperative tourist. Why take pictures if you can buy a postcard instead? But then I never bought postcards either; those weren’t really the memories I wanted to capture. It’s fine to see the sights, but what I am most interested in finding and remembering when I travel are people.
Never before and never after that night have I been possessed to take photographs of strangers. But something about being an outsider in a foreign city, about not being a native speaker, about not being able to communicate, about being goofy with beer for the first time in a long while, and considering the only person I knew in that bar was lost in a drunken approximation of passion – . something about all of these things combined to allow me to forget myself temporarily and start snapping without thinking that anyone, even my subjects, would notice.
I took five or six shots before a big crowd of people near my boys left. A smaller crowd moved in and sat down. Somehow, a space just big enough for me opened up right next to the boys. I slipped into it and kept clicking, not incessantly, just one every few minutes or so. Long-hair turned to me and started to say something in German. Still feeling invisible, I kept taking pictures, wondering whom he was addressing. He’s looking at me, I thought, but I don’t speak German. I put a hand on my chest and raised my eyebrows to ask: You talking to me?
"Ich nicht spreche Deutsche," I told him. "Sprechen sie English?"
"Of course I can speak English," he said in a German accent that sounded particularly stern. "It’s only you Americans who speak only your own language." He had a point: Travelers from other countries, especially European ones, seemed always able to handle at least two tongues.
“I asked, ‘Do we amuse you?’” he said.»
I shook my head. No.
"Why do you photograph us then?" he said. His friend, whose eyebrows seemed to be bouncing off an invisible trampoline above his lids, was smiling. But Long-hair was not. "I just like the way you talk to each other," I said. "I like your gestures" – I motioned with my hands to illustrate – "your movements. You remind me of some friends from home. You seem like you have known each other for a long time. That’s all. I like your friendship."
He relaxed a little and turned back to his friend. They kept talking, ignoring me. I finished my beer and figured they’d forgotten me again. So I resumed shooting. After two or three clicks, though, Long-hair had had enough. He leaned forward and addressed me. "Please do not continue," he said.
"Is it bothering you?" I asked.
"Of course it bothers us."
"You are a photographer?" Dark-hair said.
"No, no," I said. "Just a writer, actually."
"You are visiting Berlin?" he asked.
I explained I’d been living there for a few months and told them as well that it was my last night in town. "My friend is here to visit," I said and pointed to Kat, still sucking face with Roberto. "Tomorrow we leave to go to Venice and Paris after that."
"Your friend is having fun, no?" Dark-hair asked.
I shrugged. "Yeah, why shouldn’t she?" I said. "Hey, I’m Maura."
We all shook hands. Long-hair was named Lars McLean. His father was Irish, he said, hence the surname, but his parents divorced when he was young and, as such, he’d grown up in Berlin. Dark-hair was Paul.
Kat came over to me and said she wanted to leave with Roberto. "Do you mind if we go back to your apartment?" she asked. He lived far away, in a western neighborhood or bizkirk called Charlottenberg."
"You sure you want to leave with him?" I asked. "Is that smart?"
She nodded. Roberto did seem sweet. And I was too drunk to think much more about it. I gave her my key and they left. Me and the young dudes ordered more beers. They told me how they’d known each other since they were kids when they rode bikes around the streets together. Now they worked together in the same law office. They hated their jobs just like I hated mine at home in New York, and told me about their dream to establish an artists’ colony in the south German countryside. I stood up to go to the bathroom. What was wrong with my legs? I could lift my knees but couldn’t seem to move my feet. I remembered I hadn’t had dinner and realized I was drunk, my belly as tight as a drum, full of beer.
I went to the ladies room. After peeing, I made myself throw up a little. Vomiting helps empty your stomach of fluid, but not to make you feel less drunk. I went back to my seat and announced I was feeling sleepy. Sleepy is my favorite euphemism for drunk. "But I don’t want to go to bed yet," I said. "I kind of want to stay up till dawn and see the sun rise on my last night in Berlin." I started thinking about all I had to do the next day: finish packing and cleaning my room; send a bunch of boxes home to the states; have lunch with my Berlin roommates and two reporters we’d befriended, one from the AP and one from NPR – all of this and more before Kat and I boarded our train to Venice at 6 p.m.
I bummed a cigarette from Dark-hair. I’d quit smoking but I was drunk and a smoke always helped me focus a little. "Maybe I should see if they serve coffee here," I said. "I wish I had something to help wake me up."
"Why do you keep saying this?" Lars said. "About waking up?"
I stared at him stupidly. "Because I am tired," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"You talk like we can help you," he said. "But we don’t know what you talk about." What the hell was he trying to say? It sounded like he was speaking in code. Maybe it was just his awkward English. Then it occurred to me what they might have. I didn’t want to be too aggressive or gauche about it, especially because I wasn’t sure we were thinking the same thing.
"I would take anything to help me wake up," I said. "Anything."
"Maybe we have something," Lars said.
"Something for my nose?" I said. He smiled. I smiled. It was all so dorky and yet I could barely contain my excitement.
"Yes," he said. "Do you like this?"
"I love it," I said.
"We will all go to the bathroom next," he said.
So we stood up and casually followed Lars through the crowded smoky bar until we got to the bathroom corridor. There were three single lavatory rooms, which was good; we could have complete privacy in one without any pressure to finish fast. Our drug den was standard issue for a john in a bar: dimly lit, with a black plastic seat over a white bowl, a cracked porcelain sink with water-drip stains and exposed pipes at the base. White tiling covered the floor and the bottom half of all four walls, and a small white tiled ledge cut the room into top and bottom at chest level. Lars walked toward the toilet.
"Here we will do it," he said as he pulled a big Ziploc bag of white powder out of his pocket – big enough to have gotten him numerous consecutive life sentences in America if he was ever caught with it – and popped it on the ledge. I gasped with pleasure and clapped my hands together twice before pressing them to my mouth. Cocaine was the drug that really did it for me – not marijuana, not any of the hallucinogens, not uppers or downers, over the counter or otherwise. I love coke and usually I liked to do it until it was all gone, or whoever was giving it to me ran out of generosity. What they say is true: Cocaine makes you feel omnipotent and even sometimes omniscient, like you’re tougher and stronger and cooler and more intense and more deranged than everyone else. You know that adrenaline rush after you’ve pushed yourself a little harder one day during a run that somehow makes you feel exhilarated instead of exhausted? Like you could keep running forever? That’s the feeling of a cocaine high. Or, I imagine, it would be like a good first fuck with a person you’ve been lusting after for a while. You feel sexy and super. You’d think knowing it was the drug that made you feel that way would ameliorate the confidence effect – that recognizing that the reason you feel so strangely in control of your environment has nothing to do with you, nothing to do with, say, your talents or abilities or attractiveness but instead has everything to do with snorting some fine white schwag in a bag. But somehow that knowledge doesn’t take anything away from the experience.
To make the powder finer, Lars chopped the white pile he’d poured onto the ledge with a razor blade he had with him. I stood to his left and Paul, with one square-toed brown leather shoe on the toilet seat, stood on his right. When he was satisfied with its consistency, Lars separated the coke into four lines. He handed me a tightly rolled 10-Deutsche mark and extended his hand toward the piles. I started with the line closest to me and moved the money straw along till it disappeared into my nose. Then I handed the mark to Paul, who took his line so that two were left. Paul gave the money back to me.
"None for you?" I said to Lars.
"I have too much already tonight," he said.
I snorted another.
"But I can never have too much," Paul said. The last line disappeared into his nose and he straightened up, grinning. I noticed a thin finger of poppy-colored blood trickling out of his left nostril, cutting his upper lip in half. He brushed it away with his hand, still grinning. I wondered how long he’d been bleeding. We went back out to the bar, finished our beers.
Another thing about coke is it makes your tolerance for alcohol skyrocket. We got another round and took another quick trip to the bathroom after we finished. Lars cut and abstained again.
One more beer each, one more trip to the bathroom. I realized my own nose was bleeding a little, which seemed very strange considering it was the first time I’d snorted anything in a long time. I figured Lars’ stuff must be especially rough. I felt fucked up. My head felt like the thumb of a cartoon character who just hit himself with a hammer.
"We will leave now," Lars said.
"Do you want to hang out still, or are you ready to quit?" I said.
Lars and Paul spoke briefly in German. "We will hang out," he said. The three of us left and walked out into the dark Berlin night. After a few blocks, we stopped. Paul turned to me and said "Good luck in America. Good-bye."
"Wait, what? You’re leaving?" I said. He nodded. I hadn’t been expecting that. We hugged. He shook hands with Lars, exchanged a few German words with him and disappeared into the shadows of the night.
"What are we going to do?" I asked Lars.
"We will go to my flat," he said. We headed farther east to Schoenfeld, his neighborhood. We crossed a rickety bridge made of cris-crossed steel that ran over the train tracks. It shook so violently and stridently that even sober in the daylight, my brain would hum with vertigo as I walked over it. The coke had worn off and my head whirred in panic, thoughts shuffling and clucking like hens after a fox invades their house; feathers were flying. That night, I was glad Lars was leading the way so I could take my time following him.
Somewhere in all the panic, I found a steely piece of strength that led me to enough calm that I could place a hand on either side of the fence and move forward. Soon after we left the bridge behind, we came to a decrepit square building complex that seemed once to have been made of cement but seemed now to be made of moss and rainbow-colored graffiti. The grass hadn’t been cut for a long time; some windows were broken and others were unevenly boarded with wood.
"You would say this is a squat," Lars said. I nodded and wondered what I was in for. We followed a narrow path of well-trodden dead grass back to a courtyard in the center of the four buildings that made up the complex. Lars moved to a heavy metal door that seemed to appear in one wall like magic out of the darkness. Then he pulled open a drainage grate on the ground to his right and out of it pulled a huge key – it could have been one to the city, it was so big – that opened the door. We walked down a long, bare cement hallway and came to another door that was shut with a padlock. Lars undid that as well and suddenly we were in a big, beautiful apartment. We walked past a cheerful kitchen, painted avocado green, to the living room: white walls, hard wood floors so shiny you could almost see your face in them, black leather couch and chairs with a dark wood frame, bookshelves packed tight with volumes. The framed prints on his wall were Rodin and pre-Cubism Picasso sketchings.
Lars disappeared into a third room, the bedroom. Music drifted on: early Leonard Cohen. Then he reappeared and sat in one of the two chairs, which were arranged around a wooden table with a top made from blue mirror. He motioned for me to sit opposite him.
From a drawer in the table, he pulled out a black laquered box. "What does that mean?" I asked, pointing to the red Chinese symbol in the center of it. "Death," he said as he removed the cover, revealing four compartments, each filled with white powder. I must have looked shocked, because then he laughed.
"No, no. I don’t know what it means," he said.
He turned the lid of the box over; on the reverse side was another mirror. With a tiny silver spoon, he put some powder on it, separated it into two lines and handed me a small straw also from the box . "Wait," I said. "Are you having some?"
"Yes, of course," he said. "I must have some. You are a special guest."
"Thanks. How do you have so much?" I said.
"I sell this," he said.
More coke, some wine, nudity followed. We didn’t do anything unsafe: I just jerked him off and he ate me out. Then he pulled out a condom. "I don’t want to have sex," I said.
"What else have we been doing except having sex?" he said. His point, I think, was that we’d been so intimate already that refusing the final act of sex was primarily symbolic and only served to prevent us from more pleasure. I shrugged. I’m a writer; symbolism is important to me.
I crawled out of his huge white bed and grabbed my camera out of my bag. Crouching on my knees and elbows, I took aim at Lars, naked except for his hair, staring at me from all the white pillows and linens. "No!" he shouted and put up a hand. "No pictures now. No."
I shrugged, put the camera away and started getting dressed. It was almost nine and I had a million things to do before I left Berlin that afternoon. That was the end of that; I hopped a train to Venice with Kat about six hours later, at 4 p.m. I didn’t think about the night again till that terrible weekend while I waited to hear my test results. From the time I left the doctor’s office until I got her call on Monday morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, running the details over and over in my head and asking myself, Why the hell did I do it? I hoped I hadn’t cut my life short for one more night of indiscretion.
The doctor told me I was virus-free.