She remembered the word on his lips, caressing the corners, then falling into her ears, light and fluffy.
“You have that…” he said, then paused for a moment before finishing, “…aura all over.”
She turned to face the ceiling—high with decorative stucco on it. His was a typical turn-of-the-century Berlin apartment—brown, bold, and textured—and recently renovated: wooden floors, wooden balcony, exposed brick walls, low seating, throw pillows—decorated with taste and plenty of nice details. She’d wanted to congratulate him on it, but they’d been too eager to undress each other, too drunk to be distracted. She didn’t want to interrupt.
“What does the word mean?” she asked him.
But he didn’t reply. Barely turning, he reached out to stroke her splayed arm, his gentle fingers warm on her. Her eyes traced the curve of his back outlined by the emerald light trickling in through the open windows.
After he left for work later that day and she set about her customary walk around town, the memory stayed with her, like the nip of mellow winter rain on her uncovered skin. The streets of Berlin gleamed, appearing scrubbed clean by a zealous maid. Her winter boots plodded on them as her heart floated along with her thoughts. She was to remember the feeling of reliving the memory more than the memory itself, several times over in the next few days, and mostly with regret.
She’d met him two years ago, in another part of the world, a part in which she’d lived all her life and he’d been visiting. They’d been together for two months. Two heady months. She’d showed him the city where she grew up—the lanes, the friends, the amusements, and peculiarities. He had helped her see it differently, with his eyes. In those days, they must have fallen in love, because they started to miss each other even when together.
When it was time for him to leave, she promised to visit him.
“Why don’t you come with me?” he asked.
“But I live here,” she said.
“For a holiday then,” he said. “Think about it.”
“It’s too soon for that,” she said, half-hoping, half-dreading.
She’d liked him then—really, really a lot. She’d been single long enough. And he could have been her ticket to an exciting new life in a faraway, foreign land. And then she could have finally stopped looking.
But though she loved to dream, more than she would’ve liked, she was also occasionally the practical sort. So, she decided to let him go and wait, moving on with life, as usual, writing to him, talking every now and then, fancying about one day being together. A year passed by quickly, and then another, but he never stopped asking her to come.
So, two years later, in December, she went to him. There was plenty of time to reminisce in the eight-hour-long flight, which seemed to glide past. After she landed, it was chaos. A flurry of trains, jostling with the crowds, shivering in the cold, euros exchanged: she didn’t quite remember what came after what. Everything she did, though, was accompanied by the weird numbness that came from the anticipation of something thus far unknown, but with the promise to be special.
She checked into a hostel and dressed quickly. She’d planned her appearance: a blue skater dress, a black velvet blazer jacket, black fishnet stockings, knee-high boots, red lipstick, gold pins in her hair. Her breath came in spurts as she dressed. Her mind raced. Had he changed? Did he fancy her still? What would he say when he saw her again, after all the time that had passed, and this time in his city?
You haven’t changed at all.
That’s what she wanted to tell him. He hadn’t. The picture of him in her head was tinted, sinewy, young, and sweet. She’d been afraid of having to start over, of being disappointed. But apart from a crease or two around his dark, careless eyes, and the faint growth around his lips, he was the same, as attractive as before. The mass of hair on his head; the wicked, upturned smile; the shy genuflection of his head, seemingly cultivated, nonetheless endearing.
She thought they should have a couple of drinks first, to loosen up after the time spent apart, so they met at a bar near his house. There was so much to tell, an expulsion of all that had happened to them in the months gone by, stuff they couldn’t have shared unless they were together. They got giddily drunk in the six hours together, growing closer and more buoyant as the night grew rambunctious. Then giggling through the streets, clumsily hanging on to each other, they made their way to his house. It was as if the alcohol had fused both their minds together; they instinctively knew what they had to do, where to go. And after that, it was an explosion of skin, hair, and tongue.
They stayed in bed and cuddled for a long time. He asked her to bring her bags to his apartment and stay with him, but she said she didn’t want to.
“Why?” he asked, surprised. “I thought that was the point.”
She paused to think. Why? She didn’t want to tell him that she didn’t trust herself, that she wanted it to stay as magical as it had been in her head all these months, and that she wanted to defer the inevitable.
But maybe it is going to be different this time, a voice spoke in her head.
“Because you’re never going to be home,” she told him.
“We’ll be together at nights and on weekends,” he said.
She nodded slowly. Okay.
“How long are you planning to stay in Berlin?” he asked her.
She shrugged. She didn’t know yet.
It was Christmas, but she wasn’t feeling it. They had spent the night together, talking until dawn, finally dozing off when they couldn’t keep their eyes open anymore. When they woke up a few hours later, he wanted her to sleep in some more, but she wanted to be out.
“It’s Christmas!” she said.
“Everything will be shut today,” he said, murmuring through the covers.
“But look how beautiful it is outside. I’ve hardly ever been about,” she complained.
“There’s plenty of time.”
She didn’t think so. In any case, they were having too many arguments.
So, an hour later, she walked out of his apartment into the street, leaving him sleeping. The winter morning was cold and clear, the sky a dull gray. It wasn’t going to be a white Christmas, despite her litanies. She noted absently the festivities stuck on windowpanes—snowflakes, wreaths, pinecones, cookies, paper Santas, reindeers, lace. Neat rows of colorful LED lights along the edges. She walked disdainfully past groups of boisterous teens, beer cans in their hands, cigarettes dangling from their lips. The smell of tobacco, though, was a welcome relief in the biting cold, along with the other scents—fresh-baked cake, warm mulled wine—wafting through the invisible cracks of the windows and doors, mixed with happy laughter and snatches of Stille Nacht, which sounded so much better in Deutsche.
She stretched out one hand as if to pluck the mélange of moods from the cold winter air, then rubbed it into her skin as if drawing the warmth out of it. She shut her eyes to let the happiness soak in, to remember it for later. She was doing that a lot, she realized. Holding onto memories, to savor them later.
She walked aimlessly for fifteen minutes until she turned around a corner and came upon a remarkable sight. Rows and rows of resplendent conical roofs, tightly packed like orchids, a perky, bright star on top of each.
Weihnachtsmärkte. It was a Christmas market.
She stood a few feet away from the luminous entryway—covered with tiny bulbs, flanked by two Christmas trees. Thoughts sparred in her head: If I go in now, I’m going to be late… He’d be hurt and worried… I’d told him I was going to be back in an hour… It’s going to upset his plans…
She stepped inside.
It was crowded: children, parents, grandparents, couples, and other tourists like her. Every two feet, like a medieval village of gnomes, were small booths built out of wood and decorated with stars, fir branches, and fairy lights. Some sold food, some winter wear, some chocolates, some Berliner Pfannkuchen and Stollen. A colorful carousel turned in one corner, carrying children with ruddy cheeks and runny noses, snug in their cars and motorbikes, shrieking and waving to their parents. A choir sang in the distance.
Her phone buzzed. Him. She waited for it to stop, then switched off the phone.
Walking to the counter closest to her, she bought a plate of bratwurst and a cup of glühwein. Her body felt snug and warm inside her new sable coat.
A hum sprung to her lips.
The S-Bahn rumbled into the station. Unbeknown to herself, she tensed, as did the bodies around her, waiting to hurl themselves in through the train’s doors as soon they opened. She’d found it confusing at first, the vast network of stations and trains, like trying to solve a crossword puzzle with no pen. But now she had memorized them. This was the S75, which was going to take her to Alexanderplatz—the heart of Berlin, the house of the Fernsehturm or the TV Tower—a towering beacon, a guide for those new to the city. Berliners called it simply the Alex, as did he.
He asked her to stay, but she didn’t want to. She recalled with some guilt the desolation on his face at the halfhearted embrace she granted him before walking quickly away. She should’ve explained it to him; she knew she would have to, sooner or later. She should’ve told him, how two years ago, their short-lived affair and the thoughts of what could have been had grown like prickles all over her body until she knew she had to let it out somehow. That’s why she’d come to Berlin. Not to carry on what she thought was a great love story, but to yank out a tug at the back of her brain. She hadn’t known it then, but she knew it now.
And so, now what?
She walked towards the TV tower, through the now emptying streets, with only the teasing promise of rain and strings of red, yellow, and twinkling white lights for company. Christmas wasn’t over yet. She hoped it never would be. At least not as long as she was here.
She was walking with purpose. She had to be somewhere. She’d seen the shop on one of her visits to Alexanderplatz and remembered reading it was going to be open through Christmas. She’d remembered it because that was an odd occurrence in December’s Berlin.
Now she walked into the store, its only customer. Told him what she needed.
“Where do you want it?” he asked.
Behind him, she glanced at the rolling chair, the tray, the needles, the soldering gun, the ink bottles. It had never been her thing, but things change.
She’d thought of it last night, when it came crashing down on her that he was right. In his arms, after a long, lovely night, she was feeling discontent. She was always discontent.
She blamed the city. She imagined Berlin to be like her, wearing its chequered past like a throbbing muscle, camouflaged with dark overcoats and strong beer, newly sunken in its discoveries of graffiti and hip-hop, glamour, and grit, yet knowing full well it can never totally be happy. Berlin was a city of old people like young and young people like old. She’d often felt one among the brooding, mysterious, purposefully aimless inhabitants who flitted past her like shadows. Like the city, she enjoyed the discontentment that came with forever looking, never feeling complete, and not even aspiring for it. Because, it was a delicious feeling, that.
She turned her left arm up and pointed at her wrist.
“And what do you want on it?” the tattooist asked.
Something that would never leave her. Something she was going to have to learn to live with.
Sehnsucht. A yearning; a wistful longing; the wishing for something indescribable.
Earlier published in P.S. I Love you