Otto lived alone in one of the tenements that had sprung up shortly after the war, on the outskirts of the city. I would never have visited if he hadn’t phoned me in a panic one day. Would I come and look after his cat for a few days? His father was very ill, probably dying; he had to leave immediately. The strain in his voice was almost untenable. I would come at once—he would wait for me.
It was a slow, heavy Sunday, sometime in mid-August—but I barely noticed the heat. I was worried about Otto, and the worry was mixed with a faint tingle of excitement. When I was a small girl, my parents had despaired at my curiosity—mine was the banal, forever unquenched curiosity of children. Still, they had crushed it: at thirty, I rarely dared to venture a question. Perhaps it was because of my apparent discretion that Otto had called me, though we were not close friends by any means. Both of us were mature students. We had met often over the past two years. We had sipped cups of coffee in cheap canteens—East Berlin was full of them—swapped ragged paperbacks with quick, secretive smiles, and warmed up in the cramped, stove-heated bars of Mitte in the dead of winter.
The similarities between us—our modest backgrounds, our passion for literature—brought us together. They made us feel comfortable in each other’s presence, free to speak or to remain silent. We felt faintly attached to one another, yet the bond was weightless—and largely conferred by circumstances. Both of us were writing doctorates—not knowing how or where to stop—trying our best to make it last for as long as possible. Writing had become an excuse: it indefinitely postponed our entry into the “real world.” We were hiding away without knowing it. When we spoke, a natural restraint made us avoid personal topics. Our lack of intimacy rarely bothered me. At the time I clung to my handful of battered secrets—the last remnants of my adolescence—with incomprehensible fervor. It wasn’t long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and many of our generation thought of “private life” as the most inviolable right of all. Yet we didn’t realize how fragile our newly acquired private lives were, for doubt and fear seeped into everything we thought and did. We were raised in that way, knowing that others were forever watching. Nothing would pass unnoticed, nothing would be forgiven.
Long before there existed any public discussion of asexuality, we had achieved the dubious feat of becoming neutral, of withdrawing from our own bodies and our own desires, of giving up on physical life. While many of our peers were seeking out pleasure, discovering clubbing and ecstasy, we believed we wanted nothing, least of all oblivion and bliss. We were trapped without knowing it, and the ignorance of our entrapment made us selfish and slightly callous. We confusedly felt that escape was not liberation, yet we were not prepared for either. I believe we were quite content—absurdly content, indeed—in the small world we had fashioned for ourselves. There was never the suggestion, however fleeting, that our solitudes may ever be bridged. Rather, we inhabited a common, mournfully joyous solitude. Still, Otto intrigued me. Although I would never have admitted it at the time, there was something attractive about his diminutive body—about his youthful yet already ravaged features, his unsteady eyes. It felt good to walk or stand by his side—we were about the same size, and his shy, furtive movements reminded me of my own. He had very blue, watery eyes that looked at the world with the soft, unseeing gaze of a sailor.
I wanted to see his place. I almost saw it in my head, sometimes—the worn floorboards, the severe furniture, the library books precariously piled on the floor. I needed these images to confirm Otto’s existence, and—more selfishly—I needed them as a concrete confirmation or reflection of my own life. Otto had always seemed to me so transparent. At a party (we attended those every now and then, to convince ourselves we didn’t enjoy them) he would effortlessly disappear into the surroundings so that, the day after, it would be difficult to establish for certain whether he had been there. We met because we both felt misplaced and inadequate. We were the first of our families to be granted university degrees. We didn’t belong to a “class” (and didn’t believe in class) but rather floated between groups in an unattached, indifferent way. We didn’t belong anywhere. In a former life, I had been a postmistress. Otto had worked in factories and cleaned industrial cold rooms. In a rare moment of confidence, he told me how terrified he was of being trapped in one of those gigantic fridges—until the day it finally happened. He wasn’t trapped long enough to lose consciousness, but the experience scarred him for life: he spent enough time inside the room to realize how near death was, all the time.
Years later he would sit all day long at a small oak desk, a painfully stern, faded young man typing away on an Erika typewriter (“Mod. 105, made in GDR”). He wrote about Melville and the impenetrably placid heart of Bartleby. He wanted to understand what it meant to be outside, what difference was, what kind of difference it made. Apart from his preoccupation with the unfinished thesis, he was mostly idle. Long walks through the city were the only exercise he would take. It didn’t matter where he went: he walked with his blue eyes fastened to the ground, only stopping every now and then to jot down a few ideas in the worn notebook he carried everywhere or, more prosaically, to buy a sausage roll and a cup of black coffee from one of the street kiosks. Lacking physical awareness, Otto unconsciously martyrized his body. He fed himself haphazardly, when he remembered to, with a feeling that approached resentment (for food costs money, and he preferred to spend his meager funds on second-hand books). I never saw him simply eat his food: rather, he would devour it with an air of anguish, wildly tearing at it. Like myself, he had grown up listening to stories of lack and wartime starvation, and believed that every meal may be the last.
I walked to Otto’s place thinking how little I knew about him. When I rang the intercom the sudden proximity of his voice surprised me. He opened the door, barely saying hello, and took me to the kitchen to show me where the tins of cat food were. After some coaxing, the thin, somnolent animal was produced. She looked at me with wide, indifferent eyes, and summarily disappeared. Otto poured two glasses of tepid water from a jug and led me to the dark living room, gesturing toward a black, ominous armchair. I sat down, the leather sticking to my bare arms and legs. The flat was curiously similar to what I had imagined—there were books and papers everywhere on the floor. For the first time I felt intimidated in Otto’s company. We kept silent for a long time. It was not easy to ask him questions, having lost the impulse so long ago. I had become cold, separate, machinic—my horizons had shriveled so much that I was unable to speak about anything but books, films, and literary theories. This I did with passion, and a certain gravity—but it wasn’t enough.
That afternoon Otto told me about his father’s illness—about the sudden deterioration of his state, and the inevitable end. He left me the keys to his apartment: for days I visited, dutifully feeding the cat as his father was dying.
In the years that followed, I returned to Otto’s flat many times. We became friends. We slowly entered the world side by side—growing into the difficult, precarious reality of our relationship. We learned how to trust each other, how to liberate ourselves from the humiliations, the dead weight of childhood, the heaviness of history. I am not sure how it happened, but—sometime in the mid-1990s—Otto and I miraculously began to live for real, without guilt.
Elodie A. Roy is a French-born writer living in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Her short stories and poems were published in the French literary magazine La Femelle du Requin, the international poetry magazine RAUM (Glasgow), the Scottish literary magazine The Drouth, and in the fiction pages of Riffs: Experimental Writing on Popular Music (UK). As a researcher, Elodie has authored an academic monograph for Routledge and numerous publications for academic books and journals.