“No writer can reproduce the actual texture of living life.” — E. L. Doctorow
TO COME DOWN TO EARTH
was the phrase that came to me when I landed in L.A. and the passengers on the airplane clapped to thank the pilot for flying it across the ocean, approaching the New World from the sea, circling for a long time above the lights of the giant metropolis, then gently touching down. I still remember how I decided to use that sentence later, when I would write about the landing and the sojourn on a foreign coast that lay ahead. Later: Now. That so many years would pass in dogged attempts to reach the sentences which were to follow, to reach them in the right way, was something I could not foresee. I decided to fix everything in my memory for later, every detail. How my blue passport caused a stir with the wiry red-blond officer who was rigorously and carefully checking the papers of every arriving visitor; he flipped through its pages for a long time, studied every single visa, then picked up the invitation letter from the CENTER, under whose auspices I would be spending the following months, a letter certified and authenticated many times over; finally he looked straight at me with his ice-blue eyes: Germany? —Yes. East Germany. —I would have found it hard to give him any further details, because of the language barrier too, but he decided to ask a colleague for advice over the phone. The whole scene seemed familiar—how well I knew the feeling of tense excitement and the sense of relief too when he finally, having no doubt received a satisfactory answer to his question, stamped the visa and slid my passport back across the counter with a hand covered in freckles. Are you sure that country exists? —Yes, I am, I said curtly, even though the correct answer would have been No and I had to wonder, during my long wait for the luggage, whether it was really worth it to travel to the United States with the still-valid passport of a no-longer-extant country just to confuse a young redheaded immigration official. That was one of the acts of defiance I was still capable of then, acts which, it occurs to me now, become fewer and fewer with age. And there the word stands on the page, mentioned in passing, as is only fitting: the word whose shadow flickered across me for the first time then, more than a decade and a half ago, and has meantime grown so thick and dark that I have to worry about its becoming impenetrable before I can fulfill the duties of my profession. Before I have described, that is, how I hauled my bags down off the baggage carousel, loaded them onto an oversize luggage cart, and headed for the EXIT in the middle of a confusing crowd of people. How, having barely set foot in the terminal, something happened that according to all the earnest pleas and warnings from experienced travelers I should never have let happen: a giant black man came up to me, Want a car, ma’am?, and I, inexperienced creature of reflexes that I was, nodded yes, instead of resolutely refusing the way I had been told to. Already the man had snatched the cart and set off with it—I would never see it again, or so my alarm system told me. I followed after him as quickly as I could and there he was, in fact, standing outside on the curb of the access road where taxis were rolling up, bumper to bumper, their headlights dimmed. He pocketed the dollar he was entitled to and handed me over to a colleague, also black, who had gotten himself a job waving down taxis. He too discharged his duties, stopped the next taxi, helped me load my bags into the trunk, likewise received his dollar, and turned me over to the skinny little driver, an agile Puerto Rican whose English I couldn’t understand but who obligingly listened to mine and, after studying the letterhead with my future address on it, seemed to know where he was supposed to take me. Only then, when the taxi started driving, I remember, did I feel the mild night air, the breath of the south, which I recognized from an entirely different coast where it had come over me for the first time like a thick warm towel—at the air- port in Varna. The Black Sea, its velvety darkness, the sweet heavy scent of its gardens.
I can still, today, feel myself in that taxi, with chains of lights racing by on either side and sometimes streaming into handwriting— world-famous brand names, billboards in garish colors for supermarkets, for bars and restaurants, outshining the night sky. Words like “orderly” would be out of place here, on this coastal road, perhaps on this whole continent. Very softly, and quickly repressed again, the question came to mind: What had actually made me come here?—just loud enough for me to recognize it the next time it announced itself, already more urgent than before. In any case, the scaly trunks of the palm trees glided by as though they were reason enough. The smell of gas and exhaust. A long drive.
Santa Monica, ma’am? —Yes. —Second Street, ma’am? —Right. —Ms. Victoria? —Yes. —Here we are.
For the first time, the illuminated metal sign affixed to the iron fence: MS. VICTORIA HOTEL, OLD WORLD CHARM. Everything quiet. All the windows dark. It was a little before midnight. The driver helped me with my luggage. A front lawn, a path of stone slabs, the smell of un- known flowers that apparently gave off a scent at night, the weak light of a gently swaying lamp over the front door, a doorbell which had, stuck behind it, a piece of paper with my name on it. Welcome, I read. The door was open, I should go right in, the key to my apartment was on the table in the hall, second floor, room number seventeen, the manager of the MS. VICTORIA wishes you a wonderful night.
Was I dreaming? But unlike in a dream I didn’t lose my way, I found the key, took the right stairs, the key fit in the right lock, the light switch was where it was supposed to be, in the blink of an eye I can see it all before me: Two floor lamps lighting a large room with a cluster of armchairs opposite a long dining table surrounded with chairs. I paid the taxi driver, to his apparent satisfaction, with the unfamiliar money that I had luckily exchanged in Berlin before my departure, thanked him in an appropriate way, and received, as was proper, the answer: You’re welcome, ma’am.
I examined my apartment: Aside from this large living room there was an adjoining kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms. What a waste. A family of four could live here comfortably, I thought on that first night, then later got used to the luxury. A welcome note from someone named Alice lay on the table—she must be the employee of the CENTER who had signed the invitation letter, and it was probably she who had also thoughtfully left me bread, butter, and a few drinks in the kitchen. I tried a little of everything and it tasted foreign.
I worked out that back where I had come from it was already morning, so I could call without waking anyone up. After a few failed attempts with several overseas operators trying to help me, I managed to get the telephone in the tiny cabinet next to the front door to work, I dialed the right numbers and I heard, behind the white noise of the ocean, the familiar voice. That was the first of the hundred phone calls to Berlin in the next nine months. I said I had made it to the other side of the globe. I did not say what I was asking myself: What was the point? I did say I was very tired, and it’s true, I really was, a strange, foreign tiredness. I looked for a nightgown in one of the suitcases, washed my hands and face, lay down in the bed, which was too wide and too soft, and didn’t fall asleep for a long time. I woke up early, out of a morning dream, and heard a voice say: Time does what it can. It passes.
Those were the first sentences I wrote down in the large lined notebook that I had taken the precaution to bring with me and had placed on the narrow end of the long dining table and that quickly filled up with my notes, which I can now refer back to. In the meantime, time has passed, the way my dream laconically informed me it always does—which was, and is, one of the most mysterious processes I know and one that I understand less and less the older I get. The fact that rays of thought, looking back into the past and looking ahead into the future, can penetrate through the layers of time strikes me as a miracle, and the telling of stories partakes of this miracle, because otherwise, without the benevolent gift of storytelling, we would not have survived and we could not survive.
Words and phrases in italics are in English in Wolf’s original.
Copyright © 2010 by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin. Translation copyright © 2013 by Damion Searls. To be published in February by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.