Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow from the Paragraph Line Books. Learn more about him at www.joeyhirsch.com.
My two friends had already been kicked off the ICE (Intercontinental Express) after the little porter had come by and found them without tickets. I had somehow escaped the wrath of the train agent, and now I was headed to Frankfurt alone, to the red light district and its whorehouses. I took a gulp from my premixed Jack & Coke and watched the little German towns as they breezed past. Transoms and mercury vapor lamps flashed in the night, graffiti-scarred railway platforms and slumbering Hessen villages.
This was to be our last Saturday together in Germany before deploying for a year-long tour of duty to Camp Victory, Iraq. Some of the soldiers had wives or girlfriends, and children. They would be spending these last solemn hours together with their families, the atmosphere in the cloistered living rooms heavy with the weight of their impending departure, and the knowledge that they might not come back. Assuming they did make it safely through the year, they could potentially return absent an eye, a leg, a testicle, or conceivably even a mind.
I thankfully had no such worries. I had arrived late to my unit in Germany. I had spent the last few months struggling to adjust to life in the Army, to mastering my Squad Automatic Weapon, to memorizing how to safely cauterize a wound and give a saline IV, or how to tie a tourniquet around a lacerated vein. When the weekends finally came and we were released from duty, I typically wandered around the cobblestone streets, unable to speak the language and usually too drunk to even make an attempt. Thus, there was no chance to meet real women, let alone get involved in some sort of lengthy courtship, only to have the same truncated by a tearful goodbye as I left her on the runway at Ramstein Airbase and walked into the mouth of a C-17 Hercules, flying off to Iraq…
I finished my drink and struggled against my thoughts. There was a steamy hiss and then a mechanical clang as the doors of the train opened. I stepped out into the Hauptbahnhof, a massive secular cathedral built in honor of Deutschland’s true religion, punctuality.
I ignored the Turks selling hash, sidestepped a verminous claque of cooing pigeons. An African couple pushed a stroller and walked mutely past me. Love…the word came unbidden. It was a sham. I had quickly learned that no marriage truly survived the Army. I had one friend whose wife worked at the bank branch on-base. She was in charge of their joint account, and while he had been on an 18-month deployment to Afghanistan, she had burnt through roughly $20,000 of his money on Amazon.com and Ebay. Love…Another buddy was so paranoid about his wife sleeping with other men that he had come home one evening, and due to some miscommunication had electrocuted his cable guy with a stun gun, shocking the poor bastard with several-thousand volts because he thought the man was screwing his wife.
As for the rest of my friends, they were not loyal enough to even be paranoid. They called themselves “geographical bachelors,” and they had long ago resigned themselves to the fact that their wives might cheat on them, and so they usually felt obligated to cheat first. Naturally, the ring came off of the finger every weekend.
I walked down Goethe Strasse, toward the neon tenderloin already glutted with tourists, drug dealers, and perverts. Clearly paying a whore for sex was more pragmatic than gambling on something as shifty and deceptive as love. I had never been with a prostitute before, but I was curious. Money for sex: so simple, and ancient.
Steam leaked from the wet sewers nestled among the cobblestones. The fetid air wafted up toward the glass fronts of the Shisha shops, and mixed with the smell of heavily-spiced Turkish schwarma meat. There were several houses of ill-repute on either side of the street. I walked up to the nearest one, an old Hussar-style building with mansard folds on the roof. Cars honked in the middle of the street, protesting the standstill traffic. And then, as I stepped inside, all became quiet.
The smell of pine-scented floor treatment filled my lungs. The light was a low-wattage maroon, making all of the shapes dark as my eyes struggled to adjust. Men poured past me on the narrow staircase as I struggled upward. The smell of cigarettes, body odor, and talcum powder comingled and formed the unmistakable musk of sex. I came to the first floor, where several doors on either end of the room were open and women stood, waiting. Muffled groans came from behind the closed doors.
Directly in front of me sat a woman in a latex corset with a mesh body-stocking underneath. Her hair was dyed black and her skin was pale. She held a riding crop in her hand which terminated in a cat-o-nine tails. Next to her was a sandwich board which listed the various services she offered: Lights discipline-Heavy discipline-Spanking. I had already gotten my fill of corporal punishment in the Army. I kept it moving, and men continued to walk around me. They stared at the women, who continued about their daily chores with studied indifference, as if they were a school of goldfish that had grown used to being watched while they swam in their tank.
Near the end of the hall, I saw a woman who piqued my interest. Her features were cold, distinctly eastern European. Her eyes were a wolfish, gelid blue and her expression was sullen. Something about her reminded me of an old girlfriend, from a past life before the Army had gotten hold of me and filled my head with thoughts of war.
“Wie viele?” I asked.
“Funfzig Euro,” she said.
I pulled out the bill and handed it to her. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was supposed to haggle, but I had no intention of doing so. It was certainly worth fifty Euro to bury my face in that hair, pant into the nautilus of her ear until I came, remembering for a drunken, sweaty hour that I was once a teenager and that I had been in love.
We walked into the room and she closed the door. The lights were already dim and I could see the balcony across the street, where a naked prostitute smoked a cigarette and stared down into the slum below us. There was a sound to my left, a light splashing. I turned to look and saw that the uncanny doppelgänger of my high-school girlfriend was already naked, and with one leg perched on the edge of the porcelain, she had begun to urinate into the sink.
I watched her until she finished, remarking to myself that Germany and America were two remarkably different nations. She finished up and went over to the bed, which could more properly have been called a mattress. She lay down, splayed in a glorious pose fit for a charcoal study. I began undressing, becoming increasingly self-conscious as I took off each undergarment, realizing that she held the advantage because she was already naked and scrutinizing me. It felt like I was stripping for her edification, and we both repressed a momentary smile.
I kicked off the rest of my clothes and headed over to the bed. She deftly worked a condom over my penis and we began. She was responsive, and warm, but I knew it would be some kind of sick betrayal to attempt to make genuine love to her. I pumped away, rubbing my nose into her hair and trying to recall that girl in high-school, chasing that sensation I knew I would never feel again, the one I had no right to anymore. She was as tight as a pharmaceutical bottle and I had to suppress a laugh, thinking that many a woman who would brand her with a scarlet letter had probably seen more action, and with less to show for it.
I came in short order and rolled off of her. She handed me a washcloth and I rubbed myself down. Voices from the hallway came to us now, a muttered babble of Turkish interspersed with German. She handed me a cigarette and lit it for me. I took a drag. Gauloises, Blonde. I had discovered them back in Darmstadt. In Germany there were still cigarette vending machines all over the place.
She smoked her own cigarette and tapped the mattress. “Good bed,” she said.
I wondered what her story was. Had she been impressed into this life, kidnapped by a Bulgarian Mafioso who sold girls to some sadistic pimp? I tried not to think of it, whatever kind of transaction it was that I had been complicit in, and what percentage of my soul it may have cost me to lay there with her on the mattress for five minutes. No matter how bad it was, I mused, it still wasn’t as horrific as marriage.
I suddenly stood up and went over to my pants. I dug into the pockets and came up with a ten Euro note. I gave it to her. Her eyes widened momentarily, and then she kissed me on the cheek. “Danke Schon.”
“Bitte schon.” I said.
Then I dressed and got out of there. A week later I was already in Iraq.