Steffan looks up at me, a cone of light following his gaze. He is wearing a miner’s headlamp and I can’t shield my eyes in time. I have already drunk too much and the Ketamine is starting to kick in. The music thudding from behind the closed door of the narrow bathroom seems that much further, dripping through the concrete walls of the 1960s East Berlin Platte where the party is. I rub my eyes, the cone of light still fixed on me. Is it gone? Yes, the cone has moved. I am relieved as Steffan’s earnest, slanted face looks up at me as if emerging from the black depths of an ocean, his face ghostly and shimmering in the light. I want to lean forward, to break the surface of the blackness around him, but I can’t. Steffan is saying something. I shouldn’t have taken that much. He repeats himself, and this time I can make out his words. “Vladi . . . hey Vladi, I need more dishtowels, these aren’t enough.” I stare at him for a second, confused, I really shouldn’t have done that last line, before I remember where I am, sitting in a stranger’s bathtub at three in the morning. It’s a Thursday, it was a Thursday. Steffan has put his light back on and I watch as the cone travels up the tiles to rest between the legs of a girl. Her hair is bleached, and she got her left nipple pierced in Budapest three years ago. She works in music. I know all this because she has been talking non-stop ever since we locked ourselves in, ignoring the pounding of the people outside, begging us to let them in, her voice leaping in and out of my frame of consciousness. Steffan leans forward slightly and frowns, the cone of light landing on the half of the crown he has just tattooed above her legs.
It had started quite innocently, as it always did. I had just gotten home from work at a café run by a tight-fisted German from Frankfurt called Paul, I still don’t know if he hates me, I´m not sure. Sometimes I am very sure he does and he can be mean, and cruel. I want to write and have published some stories here and there, nothing major. I might quit and write copy for a new business in Mitte. Steffan hates this idea and rolls his eyes whenever I tell him about it. “You´ll be selling your soul to the capitalists!” I told him I would also be able to get a better WG with Anmeldung that didn’t require you to step over a toilet bowl in order to use the shower. The Startup is run by a very ambitious woman from England who smiled a lot at our interview. I liked that. She also told me what she expected of me, work-ethic-wise; I hadn’t liked that. It was Steffan who texted me saying he knew a guy who knew a girl that was having a party at her flat. I hadn’t wanted to go, more in the mood for a club, maybe just a few hours under frantic lights and I could go home, sweaty and exhausted and happy. Steffan hadn’t relented. He said that the music would be good and the people ludicrous, so I said yes.
We had gotten Korean fried chicken at Eberswalder and then hung around under the green awning of a Späti drinking beers. Steffan’s long black boots were spread out in front of him, his shaved, tattooed head bearing an uncanny resemblance to a pit bull. He had just finished rolling a flimsy cigarette picked from inside the pouch slung around his tattered olive-green jacket when I caught a flash of gold in his mouth. He grinned, giving me the unrequested cigarette and I could see the flash again, longer this time. “Canine.” I shook my head, “sick man.” Steffan cackled. He lit my cigarette, the brave little flame sputtering in the wake of passing traffic. “Tight man.” “I know right. Took me a while to fix it up with the guy, but I love it.” His tongue flicked around the unfamiliar surface in his mouth before taking a swig of beer and rolling his own. We sat around the table for another hour or so before my guy called and I remembered I still owed Steffan from last week, and that meant I couldn’t buy as much, which pissed me off and I hoped the party would be worth it. I still had rent to pay and I was usually pretty good with managing my savings, not like Steffan. Then again, he didn’t have to be.
The tram took a long time, and I felt the distance between each station stretch, as if to punish me for wanting to venture out tonight, I still had work tomorrow. I told myself I could make it, didn’t have to be in by 10, I could make it. Steffan had been amped up before we left and he couldn’t sit still, hands drumming on his lap, tongue in and out of his mouth. I could make out flecks of spittle running down his chin as he talked feverishly about the party, about how it would be insane, about how it would be worth it. I only hoped it would be enough to justify spending money on drugs and driving out here into the fucking deepest: JWD Lichtenberg on a weekday. The trains would stop running soon, beads of sweat pooling on the insides of my shirt and brow. Berlin was hot in the summer, the subway becoming one long show of horrors that never seemed to end. Summer was also the time of parties, and kissing, and fucking, and taking too many drugs. Where you stayed up till the morning, and you laughed, and you felt awful, but it was a good feeling. It was the best feeling, and it made you feel alive, as alive as Steffan was now in the putrid tram car with no reason to be, other than sitting right here right now on our way to a new high. The apartment was on the third floor, a few stray people standing around outside, smoking and talking in low voices. An empty Mate bottle rolled around the cement before it was picked up and placed next to a trashcan. Steffan said hi to one of them, a snake creeping up his neck from the collar of his white linen shirt, he looked like a vampire. The man turned out to be Russian, like me. From St. Petersburg, not like me. I asked if Steffan had worked on his neck. The man laughed. Steffan tugged at the man’s collar to reveal the rest of its coiled body winding down his shoulder. It came alive then. Black, and menacing, and dangerous. I could see its muscles clench around his neck, scales shimmering in the light. I didn’t want to touch it. Steffan told me he had done some stuff on his arms. Steffan didn’t like doing arms, which made the man, whose name was Nikolai, that much more interesting. He gave me a wide grin and we exchanged a few words in Russian, his face lighting up at hearing the familiar sound, his voice low and melancholy standing outside a Platte in East Berlin, another summer, another time.
The small flat was filled to bursting with an assortment of sweaty, heaving people that all danced wildly to the sound pumping out from the speakers set up in the living room. There was no trace of any furniture, so they danced, skin to skin. Many had taken off their shirts, the girls down to their bras or, not wearing any in the red glow of the lava lamps dotted around the room. I took a line of Keta then. “Hello . . . helloooo.” Someone was poking my nose, hard. I opened my eyes to a girl, the girl with the bleached hair sticking her finger on my nose. I grunted, looked around, the party still there, still here, muted. She was saying something, I nodded. “Who are you?” I tried to mumble my name, but my lips were cracked and dry. She pouted, finally dragging me away from the edge into the crowd. “You need some water!” she yelled into my ear. We danced, circling one another through the mass of people, pockets of air here and there until we reached the end. The kitchen was narrow and filled with a few—Steffan would call them—“characters.” He loved characters. It was Steffan whom I found sitting next on one of the rickety white plastic chairs talking with a large man wearing yellow eye shadow. Steffan held a bottle of beer in one hand, his arm swinging back and forth like a pendulum, the bottle almost touching the tiles. He caught my eye. “Vladi! There you are, I was getting so worried.” Before I could resist, he pulled me into a hug and we swung like that for a few seconds, Steffan wrapping me into a mix of leather and beer and the metallic taste of cocaine. The girl held out a glass of water which I dank greedily, handing the rest of it to Steffan, I could tell he needed it. She introduced herself as Maike, one of the owners of the flat and our host. It was then when I realized she had tattoos. We stayed in that kitchen for a while. She was studying philosophy, I told her to go into law, we had an argument about that for a while, then she asked Steffan what he did.
She had wanted to get tattooed. “Right here, right now” she said, and she told us where. Steffan had only shrugged, “kink, lets do it.” He had been tattooing for three years now, working out of a small shop in Kreuzberg. He was good, unsure what he wanted to do, but good. I had one of his really shitty party tattoos on one of my calves. I looked down at my blue Adidas tracksuit, wondering which one it was. It must be one of them. The fabric seemed to fade in and out of focus. I tried to bend down, to lift up one of the legs but the kitchen started to blur again and I gave up. Steffan had sprung up from the confines of the chair, I could tell he had done a lot tonight. With him it was always a glow that seemed to spread out from his body, touching everyone around him. He was beautiful in that way, in his passion. Maike gave me an almost nonchalant look and said, “you come too.” I was in no state to deny her anything, so I trotted after them, Steffan hastily pulling some things out of his bag and stuffing others back in.
The bathtub was cold against my head. I had hunkered down inside it hoping to escape the spinning of the room. Steffan was sprawled on the floor, organizing his things on a green towel while she sat in front of him. “Okay, I’m ready.” I looked at her. Still sitting there. It was then when she pointed to her stomach and started to undress. I watch her lay down on her back, slipping her underwear past her ankles to lie there, on the floor, her socks had little pink “hello kitties” on them, and Steffan began. She winced when he started, and I could see her thighs shudder in the cone of light. It was then that she looked up at me, her eyes wide and glowing. She tried to say something to me, but the words were meshed together. She is a student. Stopped going to Uni. Started again. She has a rich dad in Australia whom she seldom sees, things that kept pouring out of her, things to which I could only nod my head and close my eyes.
The kitchen is much emptier now, most of the characters have left and moved on to better things. The solid mass has become a few circles of low conversations and passing cigarettes. I try to find the dishtowels but my hand only bangs against empty metal, the cardboard gone and trampled on the floor. I stare at the cardboard for a while, it almost makes me burst into tears. One of the characters is watching me and starts to speak. I realize then that it is the Russian with the snake. I stop, not wanting to turn for fear of it coming alive again. It is his voice, a Russian voice that makes me turn, facing him. “You lost?” I shake my head, leaning against the linoleum countertop. “Dishtowels, I need.” The man laughs, “for your friend.” I nod. His hand makes a gesture I cannot decipher, something between a wave and a shrug. “Forget your dishtowels, have a drink with me, your good friend Paul.” I walk over to the little table and sit down, the chair squeaking under my weight. I look for a cup, my wrist dragging itself across the table, my lips suddenly pale. Paul ignores me and takes out a hip flask, unscrewing the cap and placing it in my hand with both of his own. His hands are warm. I can tell he spends a lot of his time working. I imagine a shed somewhere in the forest, something small and calm. The room smells of varnish and wax and sawdust, it is a good fantasy. The Vodka he gives me is warm and good, burning my throat. “I was a fisherman.” I look up, “I was a fisherman,” he says again, and this how his story begins.
It is a good story, containing all the things that make you want to listen, and I am listening as intently, as concentratedly as I ever have. “I grew up on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. I was born 1987. We lived, my mother, my sister, my brother in a block not unlike this one. Life was complex. We had McDonald’s . . .” the name spoken in hushed reverence for which I am too removed from the world to notice or appreciate. I take another swig from the flask. “My father lost his job; it was very bad. Paul says many things were “very bad,” they come up again and again in his story, always small, always bad. “My brother, Sergei, he went to Chechnya, 2003. Very bad. . . .” Paul takes the flask and drinks. I wonder where I left the cigarettes and pat my pockets in vain. Paul takes pity and lights one of his own, giving it to me and I feel quite suddenly, unmistakably sad. He sees this through the haze of the tiny kitchen that is being drained of its characters, and I can see it in his eyes as well. He leaves, patting my shoulder and I am left alone with the glowing stub of a cigarette. I am unsure what do with this, there is no ashtray, but the floor has stopped moving and I think I can make it to the open window. I stumble over and toss it out, watch as it sails down, and I can see the sun has risen.
I remember why I´m here, and I want to help, to prove to Steffan I know what I´m doing with myself, my life, to prove it to myself. I start with the cupboards, opening them one by one. I catch a sachet of rice as it falls leaving a shower of grains in its wake. I am desperate, the night is almost over—I don’t know why this matters, I only know that it does, that I have to find a roll of paper towels before it`s over, and there they are, hidden away under the sink. I even opened the cupboard once before, “Vladi, you stupid fuck.” I smile, ripping the soft tube out from under the wood, the plastic wrap giving way; I have made it. I open the bathroom door clutching the roll of paper towels in one hand wanting to scream, to cry, I am so proud of myself. The bathroom is empty, Maike nowhere to be found. Light falls in from the slit-like window above the toilet. The green towel is still there, spattered with blood. Steffan is asleep in the bathtub. I stand at the edge, watching him, still holding the kitchen towels. I can see the tattoos covering his hands where the leather gives way, swirls of black and grey upon his skin. I reach out to touch them and find myself looking down at Steffan, who has just woken up, his eyes bloodshot and swollen. “Where the fuck . . .” he holds a hand to an aching head. “Where the fuck, where were you?” My lips try to form the words, the sounds, but I find they cannot. I lift up the roll in response. Steffan wheezes, shakes his head. “Give me a hand will you,” and I hoist him up. He yawns, “what time is it?” I shrug. We leave together. The hallway is empty, and we step slowly down into the light that is now so bright I have to shield my eyes. The air is fresh, and I hear birds in the trees. It is a good morning. I have found my cigarettes again and we smoke one together with the morning shift. The Tram comes a while later.
Buildings pass by. An orange garbage truck comes to a stop at a crossing, a pink teddy bear tied to its hood. I lean my head against the glass as the train stops letting a few strays in and out. “Steffan?”
“Hmm?” Steffan is slumped next to me, his eyes closed, head against the plastic.
“You finish the tattoo?” Gold flashes in his mouth.
“No man, I fell asleep in the bathtub waiting. She left.”
“I really wanted to finish that tattoo you know?”
Luca Agostini was born in the year 2000 in Houston, Texas to German and Italian parents. He was brought up in Berlin, Germany where he still lives and writes when not studying political science after leaving the BBIS International school where he took part in numerous drama performances and school newspaper publications.