As we sped past the black smear of industrial cities along Autobahn Two, the former German Democratic Republic seemed little more than a string of concrete eyesores drenched in a leak nobody ever bothered to repair. Gargantuan Stalin-era housing projects, with a tangle of corroding power lines and antennae over and around everything, stretched over the horizons. Badly maintained roads shambled in four directions where the tiny, dilapidated cars of eastern Europe chugged along through the rain, coughing out streams of smoke.
On tour with my musical partner Ian after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I felt like my guts had been shredded all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. The night before we left my wife told me that if I left she would start divorce proceedings before my plane left the runway. Pride, rage, and a long-cherished desire to jumpstart my music career hardened my resolve, and as I climbed into a cab trying to ignore her threats, her face was implacable as granite. I regretted leaving as soon as the plane left the ground, and couldn’t focus because my mind was imprisoned at home. A thousand electrical shorts popped and burned inside my heart every moment.
As we drew closer to the Polish border, the countryside opened up and the cities fell behind us. Our rental car rattled along on a cobblestone section of highway that hadn’t been repaired since Hitler was in charge, rousing my simmering headache to a boil. We had entered the sweeping Oberlausitz region, a land where the intense clarity of light combined with the rust and scarlet October leaves to present beautiful visual music to our senses. I could see the tops of a few spires peeking over the horizon. Then a city rose sedately into view. Towers and turrets sprang from walls perched on a bluff while sheer cliffs dropped to the Spree River where it wound around the base of the town on its journey across eastern Saxony. I roused myself from my brooding. “It looks like a fairytale city.”
“Nobody back home has even heard of it, but I got the names of some people we’ll be dealing with there. Keep an eye out for the Irish Green Island. Should be right in the center of town.”
The Irish Green Island was indeed green, with the outside walls painted a bright olive green while the interior walls, ceiling, and carpet were a deep Kelly green. Brass railings and burnished walnut tables were arranged inside with geometric precision, while young women wearing black Guinness T-shirts rushed about, bringing trays of beer to the morning customers. We walked straight to the bar, which was festooned with a vast collection of whiskeys displayed in glass cases. A short, plump young woman with curly blond hair, startling blue eyes, and a toothy smile greeted us. “Ich heisse Anja,” she said as she reached over the bar and squeezed our hands.
Ian took some German in school and was thus our rather lame translator. After straining to understand Anja, he turned to me. “She wants to know what we want to eat and drink. It’s free for us, since we’re the band.”
“But we don’t play until tonight.”
Anja helped us out in English. “Oh yes, for you Soren, the owner, says all free. Breakfast, coffee, beer, what you like.”
“I was just wondering how people who supposedly have no money can afford to hang out here,” said Ian as Anja rushed off with our order. “For that matter, with these gigs of ours, where does all that money come from?”
“That’s a good question.” I said. “Makes you wonder, eh? From all I’ve been able to gather, there’s one obvious answer.”
“Stasi. Sure, these people look normal enough. Point is, they are. Half the people in East Germany were Stasi informers who got paid off before the Wall came down. And after, too. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway. And this town was the center of the Stasi empire.”
After breakfast we walked down the main street leading from the square to our hotel. The air was sharp and breezy as people strode along the cobbled streets–young people strolling in groups, older people carrying shopping bags, workers in blue overalls hurrying to wherever they were going with stubby cigarettes hanging from their lips. Pollution caked the facades of the buildings, and the soaring profile of towers gave Bautzen an air of abandoned elegance.
We checked in at the desk at our hotel, Weisses Ross, with a burly man who kept a squawking parakeet in a cage on the chair beside him, and wound through a labyrinth of gloomy hallways to our room. It had two beds covered with yellow bedspreads, a purple carpet so thin that shards of flooring showed through, and a table next to a smeary window overlooking the street. The walls were cracked and patchy, and the ceiling–framed by pipes coated with layers of aged paint–had one bare lightbulb screwed into the center. The corners gaped with even larger cracks, and the center of the ceiling bulged ominously. Ian tapped at the plaster. “I wonder if this place still has listening devices.”
Later that afternoon, refreshed by sleep and hot showers, we returned to the square to set up the sound system. No wind disturbed the air, which was laced with that signature East German stink of sulphur. As we approached the Irish Green Island we could hear music and shouting explode from the windows. Inside, the blast of heat, cigarette smoke, and noise shoved me backwards. Ian laughed. “Not even four o’clock and the place is packed!”
A seething mass of grinning, laughing people had jammed themselves around the bar. Anja, washing glasses behind the far end of the bar, looked up and waved to us with her toothy smile. Another young woman, with short dark hair and a trim athletic figure, worked the beer taps.
I watched her movements with fascination. As she poured beer after beer from the variety of taps–putting aside some to settle, topping off others, slipping paper doilies around the stems, then lifting several full glasses at a time and placing them swiftly onto waiting trays–she kept up a running debate with the people clustered around the bar and had them laughing at her apparently droll comments. With sly, humorous eyes and a half-smile, she handled her customers with ease. Her skin was smooth as cream, and a sprig of hair fell over one eye when she leaned over to get a glass from under the bar.
At last she handed out the various beers and ales and hurried over to us with the half-smile still nudging her lips. I noticed a spray of freckles over her nose and cheekbones.
“Zwei Guinness, bitte,” said Ian, holding up his thumb and forefinger. “We’re the band for tonight.”
Ruth offered her hand and shook mine warmly. Her dark eyes abandoned their mocking expression and she pushed back the errant sprig of hair from her face as her smile softened. I felt severely aware of my thinning hair. As she returned to her taps, she turned and smiled again before getting back to work.
Ian lit a cigarette. “She likes you. This may be your chance to start a new life.”
“I’m a middle-aged Yank, and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m married.”
“In any case,” he said, blowing out a stream of smoke and raising his eyebrows, “there was so much chemistry between you that I nearly had to jump out of the way.”
“She was being polite.”
“Ah, see? Methinks you protest overmuch. Even now you can’t take your eyes off her, can you?”
I turned to him, embarrassed because he was right. “Don’t try to get me into any more trouble.”
Ruth appeared with two large mugs of Guinness, which she placed on coasters before us. After we thanked her, she blinked at us, then watched as I took my first sip. “Schmeckt gut? Is good?”
“Ja, ja,” I answered, stumbling over the simple German word.
She blinked at me twice with a smile, then ran back to her station.
Ian let out a low hum. “She does seem to be looking after her new American friend, doesn’t she? She gave you the special double blink. Somebody told me it’s a thing they do here in eastern Germany. It’s like saying ‘I like you, let’s be friends,’ something like that. But she gave you an extra one. She wants you, man.”
“I don’t know why you’re set on wrecking my life.” I had to admit to myself that I felt agitated by her attention. It wasn’t merely flattering; she was attractive and I found the subtle flirtation exciting. “You’re just trying to wind me up. When should we talk to this Soren guy, anyway? We still don’t know what time we play.”
We squirmed through the crowd toward the stage, which was set into one corner of a densely packed room separate from the bar area, and set up our speakers and plugged everything in. About twenty young people partied around us. Several cavorted drunkenly around a table, two couples lay half prone on a bench conducting oral examinations of one another’s tonsils, a few others shouted to friends, and all seemed intent on emptying as many bottles of champagne as humanly possible.
One young woman with blond hair down to her waist stood up and revealed that beneath her, a man in his late thirties slouched in his outfit with a drunken grin. He had coarse dark hair, thick eyebrows, and was slender but powerfully built. His pale eyes surveyed the room. When his eye caught mine he jumped up with a shout, holding a champagne bottle aloft with one hand. With the other, he pinched the woman who had just rolled off his knee, then curled an arm around her waist and kissed her on the mouth before staggering over to us. He dropped an arm around Ian. “Hello Americans, my friends! I am Soren! You are the band! Eat, eat! Drink, drink!” He clutched my arm and looked into my face with pleading eyes. The hot scent of perspiration and wine radiated from his body. “You too! Eat, eat! Drink, drink!”
We left Soren to his friends, where he leapt onto a chair with a frothing bottle of champagne, howled, then guzzled from the bottle. Most of the champagne spurted onto his cheeks while his friends roared with laughter.
“If this is what it’s like in the afternoon,” Ian said, shaking his head, “you’ve got to wonder what it’ll be like tonight.”
Ruth appeared, wincing as she dodged the flailing limbs of her patrons, and presented us with two more beers. She squeezed my arm, and then ducked back into the crowd with her empty tray.
Ian leaned over my shoulder with a grin. “She’s got the hots for you, and when these East German girls get the hots for you, you’d better play ball.”
Many in the crowd began to dance to the taped music, including Soren, who grabbed another of his girlfriends, this one a shapely dark-haired girl in a shimmering white miniskirt. They danced together gingerly at first, then, as the music grew louder and more rhythmic, their movements became exaggerated. Soren thrust his hips aggressively in time to the music. Soon everyone was watching Soren and his friend, but the two were oblivious to everything around them. Soren closed his lips around hers and they remained that way, dancing and thrusting in a strange, lewd ballet.
Ian chuckled and glanced at his watch. “We’d better go to the hotel and get some dinner. Looks like it’ll be a long night.”
Soren lurched through the mass of people to the bar, returning triumphantly with another armload of orange-labeled Veuve Clicquot. As the music gained momentum, Soren leapt and clapped his hands. Moments later, in a moment of exuberant inebriation, he unzipped his fly and reached into the resulting gap to express his enthusiasm. His friends leapt up to coax him into pulling his zipper back up.
“That Soren is quite a specimen. He must have been some bigwig with the Stasi who got paid off big time after the Wall fell. Ruth isn’t too happy with his antics.”
I looked over to where Ian gestured and saw Ruth glaring at Soren. Soren spotted her too, and turned away.
Ruth wouldn’t leave my thoughts for the rest of the day, and when we returned that evening for the gig, I saw her through the tangle of people. A thrill rippled through my body. She stood at the end of the bar and her eyes glowed like full harvest moons reaching out to envelope me in their light. Her skin was flushed and pink, and her chest heaved slightly when I caught her eye. A deep green silk blouse floated over her slender body, and a very short black skirt hugged her hips. Golden earrings flashed just above her shoulders, and her hair was radiant and full. She lowered her face and smiled at me. Conversation around us fell to a murmur. People between us parted for her. I was aware that they were watching, but I couldn’t pull my eyes away from hers.
She moved close and smiled up into my face. Her emerald green eyes seemed enormous and surrounded me with warmth. A hint of oriental blossoms suffused the air as her body heat released the fragrance.
“Hello.” Her face was expectant. Those nearby nudged each other. Ian hadn’t been the only one to notice our mutual attraction, and gossip would fly through the town like a virus.
“Hello, Ruth. You look nice tonight. Really nice.”
Her smile grew wider as she placed one hand on my arm. “I’ve been looking for you. Tonight, you play music, yes? I want to hear you. I’m not working this time.” I could feel her breath on my throat.
Soren grabbed me from behind. “Come, play your music for the people!”
I pried my eyes from Ruth’s with a mix of regret and relief and staggered through the crowd, my mind as disordered as my steps.
Ian handed me a beer from the stage. “Focus on one thing at a time and you’ll get your grip. Just think about the song–First Snow. Key of D. Starts in waltz time, goes to four-four, then switches to A minor.”
He started the first song, squeezing the pipes until they sang through the sound system. I stroked the pick over my first chord and flowed into the feeling of the music. It was so easy and instant that I laughed in spite of myself. The music became a time machine, and I recalled the feelings that first inspired the song. I plunged into the heart of the piece while the years dropped away like dried mud.
As I stand here in my life
I see my past cut as by a knife away from me
Now a memory
It’s true that with every day
I think more about yesterday and not today
Or even tomorrow
As we ended I was stunned by the applause. We lashed into our second song, and this time Ian and I sang together. It was a song of defiance and I threw myself into it completely, belting out the words and moving my body to the beat.
Visions from the mind of greed
Choke the land and crush the seed
Who are the ones who sign us over to them?
An exuberant froth of joy rose within me. During my solo in the middle of the song, notes soared from my fingers without any effort on my part. When the solo ended, the crowd erupted into cheers. I could hardly believe what was happening.
When we stopped to take a break, a group of young people in a booth near the stage waved us over. We crammed ourselves into their booth while they chattered at us in German, hoping eventually we’d catch on. Ruth appeared, her face aglow. “You were fantastisch,” she gushed. “I can hardly believe. I think–thought, yes–you good before, but now I hear and, oh, it is very, very good!”
The people at our booth squeezed together and Ruth slid in beside me, half-sitting on my lap. The room throbbed with noise and body heat, cigarette smoke drifted into my face, and I couldn’t understand a word of the conversation. In spite of that our hosts smiled and nodded at me, as frustrated as I that we couldn’t communicate directly.
Ruth spoke with them then turned to me. “They would like to buy some, oh, I don’t know what you call it. Little bottles.”
“Little bottles? Of what?”
“It’s like a game. You see.”
Another waitress brought us a tray covered with tiny bottles of amber liquid. Ruth handed them around our table, and at her signal, we all beat the tops of the bottles on the tabletop.
“I’ve seen this before,” said Ian. “It’s a drinking game they play here. We’re in for it now.”
Ruth gave a shout and we all stopped. “Fertig, los . . .”
Everyone unscrewed their caps, then waited. Ruth said “Ja,” and we all put the top of the bottle between our teeth. At last, she raised her hand, and we threw back our heads and drained the sweet liquor. When we were done, Ruth arranged the empty bottles in the middle of the table.
“Good?” she asked with a sideways smile.
Ian poked my side. “I hope you think it’s good, because by the end of the night we’ll have these bottles stacked halfway up to the ceiling. Not much of a game, but they take their partying seriously.”
Ruth and the others fell into a discussion. I was happy enough to listen to the unfamiliar tongue, sip at my Guinness, and contemplate Ruth’s closeness. The sides of our thighs pressed together under the table and our shoulders touched. Neither of us moved to make more room for ourselves. I had always thought of German as a guttural language, but it had a mesmerizing lilt when spoken by a beautiful young woman. Her voice was as clear as a softly tapped bell.
Another round of little bottles arrived, and another, and we repeated the ritual.
Ruth slid lower on the bench and rested her head on my shoulder. Emboldened by drink, I stretched my arm over the back of the bench behind her and she snuggled closer. The warmth of her body calmed and excited me simultaneously. However, roiling beneath that erotic prickle was a sick feeling of guilt. Instead of letting Ruth know that I was married, I was lying to her by omission. It was wrong, and unfair to her, but I told myself that I was far from home and hadn’t yet crossed a line of no return.
As the night wore on alcohol tightened its grip. Ruth was deep in conversation with her friends while a smirking Ian argued with a young man glaring from behind a full beard and tweed suit. Ian winked at me. “This guy’s a nutcase. Wants to bring back Marxism. Thinks this pub is decadent. Of course he’s here anyway, drinking and hanging out.”
One of the other waitresses whispered to Ruth and she turned to me with a sharp intake of breath. “Anja had to leave so I must work. I’m sorry.” She blinked twice, squeezed my arm, and got up to hurry to the bar.
At last Ian and I stumbled out of the booth while the crowd encouraged us with loud cheers. Ian sang with eyes closed, his face a blazing red. I slammed into the chords and he responded with solos that nearly careened out of control. From that song we went directly into a Celtic boogie and the place was jumping. I alternated between pounding away at the guitar and barking out harmonies and was having a ball. When I looked over the crowd at Ruth, her face was radiant.
After our night was finished, I felt exhausted and exhilarated. I was doing what I loved most in the world, doing it in Europe, and the appreciation from people I had never met before gave me a high more heady than any drug could offer. For a few moments I forgot that my marriage was hemorrhaging and allowed myself to wallow in that feeling. Warm and loose after so many beers, I followed Ruth to say goodnight. What really directed my steps was a desire to say something more, though I didn’t have any idea what that might be. I allowed myself to be drawn to her when I knew I shouldn’t. She was taking orders from a tableful of large men in dirty overalls, and turned to me. “You come tomorrow, for Fruhstuck, for breakfast?”
I hadn’t thought about tomorrow. “We have to go to our next gigs. Do you work tomorrow, too?”
She groaned. “Ja. Immer. Always. So you will come back soon to Bautzen?”
“In about a week and a half.”
“I look forward to seeing you again.” Her eyes softened.
I felt a jolt of uncertainty. “I look forward to seeing you. I really do.”
She blinked three times, shrugged, then gave me a huge smile as she rushed back to the bar.
We traveled the length and breadth of what was once the ultra-secretive German Democratic Republic, from the dry, red brick towns of the Mecklenburg plain, north to the free-spirited and windy Baltic ports, down through the soot-encrusted cities of Sachsen Anhalt, and into the dark forests of Thuringia, where tales of witches and goblins still whispered through remote valleys and half-timbered villages. The corpse of communism sprawled across the landscape in various forms; abandoned factories still stinking of chemical pollution, neglected roads, depressing hamlets so run down that they seemed about to crumble and return to dust. But even as the approach of winter stripped the world of color, the people we met dispersed any gloomy impressions. I couldn’t understand how, during the Cold War, many in America could speak so glibly of “bombing them back to the stone age.”
When at last we drove back to Bautzen for our last gig, Ian kidded me about Ruth. “Hey, if you want to, you know, get together with Ruth, I won’t tell your wife. That’ll be our secret. It’s pretty obvious, you know, the chemistry between you two. Go for it, man. We can get gigs over here for years. We can just live here if we want to. I’m up for it if you are.”
I felt vaguely insulted. What made it worse were my emotions as we approached those towers on the bluffs of the Spree River. My adrenalin was crackling. It had been a long time since I felt that intense excitement of new romance, and I felt that way again. I told myself that I was merely flattered that a beautiful young woman found me attractive, but I found her attractive, too. But another part of me yearned for a new beginning with a beautiful young woman like Ruth. I could live in Germany and work at the pub. All the ugliness I left at home would stay there. I could have a new life, a new love. Maybe we’d have kids. Mentally, I was constructing a future for myself in a world that was grappling with a future that nobody expected.
We drove to the hotel and checked into our old room. As the time for our gig grew closer I became more nervous. I knew Ruth would be there. One way or another the matter would be resolved. By the time we walked into the pub, I was hyperventilating.
Sure enough, she was behind the bar, and her face was transformed. She could have powered the whole town with the light that glowed around her. Her hair glistened, and she wore eyeliner and a dash of pink lipstick. The other bartenders, the waitresses, and even the patrons clustered around the taps, turned and stared at me. I felt a falling sensation in the bottom of my stomach. In that moment, I realized that somehow, in some way, I had actually fallen in love with her.
I walked to the bar carrying my guitar case, and she waited with a smile. “Hello, and welcome home! It is so good to see you.”
At that moment, the door flew open with a rush of chilly air. Several English guest workers in orange overalls tumbled in, laughing and cursing together, and pressed themselves to the bar. “Here, love, keep the pints coming and we’ll keep paying. We’re getting pissed as rats tonight.”
Ruth had to get back to work and I had to set up. For the rest of the evening my heart pounded and I lurked near the stage between sets drinking Guinness and smiling at her through the crowd. She kept up her usual banter at the bar, but when I caught her eye, her face was confused.
As we started breaking down our equipment, I knew I couldn’t leave without saying something to her. Maybe I’d just flat out tell her I was married. Or maybe I wouldn’t–I’d ask her out to dinner or for a walk. Maybe I’d ask if I could meet with her after she got off work. I wasn’t sure what I’d do, but after my instruments were packed I sat at the bar near her taps and lit a cigarette, wondering if I’d lost my mind.
She smiled at me while pouring a beer. “So your tour was good?”
“Yes, it was great. I learned a lot, too.”
By the way her eyebrows tightened I could see that she was thinking. “I’ve been feeling very good, too. Very good.”
I felt a sting. “I’m glad you’re feeling good, Ruth. I’ve been feeling a lot of things lately. Things I haven’t felt in a long time.”
“What are these things?”
“Oh, well, all kinds of things.”
I didn’t want to disrupt her rhythm while she was in her element—the place where she was in charge and at home. An idea of what I might say trickled into my mind and I inhaled the breath that would come out and change both our lives.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I see you are feeling upset or something. You must tell me what is wrong.”
“But I will tell you that I am very excited because I’m going to see my boyfriend tomorrow. He is in Cologne.”
The world slammed to a halt. “Your boyfriend? In Cologne?”
“Oh yes, I met him a few months ago, and I can hardly wait to see him.” Her eyes had become twin sparklers.
“So why are you not feeling well?”
I could not move or speak.
“What is wrong?”
I paused. “It’s just a cold. I got to get some rest because we’re leaving in a couple of days. Thanks for everything, Ruth. It’s been great to know you. Have fun in Cologne.”
“But wait, don’t you want to stay and maybe talk? I wish my boyfriend could meet you. He loves your kind of music. And you remind me a little of one of my uncles. He is like you, so nice, so talented.”
I took one of her hands while she looked at me with a puzzled expression. “Thanks a lot, Ruth. You’re a lovely girl.”
A light rain sprayed down from low black clouds as I walked alone below the town and stared up at the ancient towers of Bautzen for the last time. I was inundated by a yearning so deep and so inexpressively painful that it couldn’t be compared to anything I had ever felt in my life. It was more than regret about Ruth, or even sadness over leaving Bautzen. I didn’t know what it was or where it came from, but that feeling was so overwhelming that at last I had to sit down. Before I realized what was happening, tears gushed from my eyes and a sob welled up in my chest. People walking their dogs passed by and glanced at me. The rain began to pound harder, so I lit a cigarette and walked back into town trying to calm myself.
By the time we finally left Bautzen, Ruth was already in Cologne with her boyfriend. I left a message for my wife that I would be home in a few days. I had no idea whether she’d be happy to hear from me or had already started the paperwork for divorce proceedings. What I did know was that my life was never going to be the same as it had been a few weeks earlier.
As we rolled westward down Autobahn Two, I became distressingly aware that I had entered a phase of my life that I didn’t know how to navigate. To others, I wasn’t the same person I had always thought of as myself. The old ideas and familiar habits would no longer work and, like the people in former East Germany, I would have to re-think myself and my place in the world. My mortality was no longer a distant abstraction. The illusion of separation between past and future had evaporated. The Wall was gone.
C.B. Heinemann has been performing, recording and touring with Irish music groups for nearly twenty years. His Celtic rock band, Dogs Among the Bushes, was the first American Celtic group to tour in the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. A graduate of the University of Maryland, C.B. Heinemann has written three novels, and his short stories have appeared in Storyteller, One Million Stories, Whistling Fire, Danse Macabre, Fate, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cool Traveler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Car & Travel, and Big World Travel.