Drink, Grovel, Fuck: Berlin
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It’s near midnight on Wednesday, our last night in Berlin. I’m walking with Ricky and Floyd into a bombed-out looking industrial canyon. We are only one link on a chain of young revelers stretching across the Oberbaum Bridge, feeding into clubs on either end. Floyd guides us down a scaffolding into a gravel lot, past an elaborate graffiti mural, to the secluded entrance of Suicide Circus, where a Floyd-approved DJ is spinning later.
The doorman takes one look at us and shakes his head.
Ricky takes out a 20-euro note and the doorman shakes his head again, chuckling a little. As we climb back up to the bridge an argument breaks out about why we’d been rejected; a two-man majority opinion emerges that we were sabotaged by the copy of Finnegan’s Wake sticking out of my jacket pocket. They won’t let anyone in who doesn’t look he is going to get fully into the scene — and although that is my expressed intention, I am not passing. Tension mounts. This is our last chance to bend Berlin into a meaningful shape after a week of formless drifting, and my last chance to hit an inflection point for my entire two months in Europe.
Floyd knows of only one acceptable fallback, the WaterGate, situated on the bank of the Spree. We wait in line as the club prepares to open, and although I jam my book down the back of my pants gangster-style, I nurse a cowardly wish that we’ll be turned away again and thus reach the anticlimactic end of our journey. As we watch the girl-heavy group in front of us get unceremoniously bounced, our odds appear to dim.
I arrived in Berlin the night before my compatriots, well and truly sick of travel, sick of choice, sick of drinking, and most of all sick of myself.
At the same time, the end of the trip loomed like a sickening draft induction back into the real world. As such I looked forward to folding my agency into a group dynamic, abdicating all independent volition. The three of us, old college friends and Brooklyn roommates, had made a drunken pact in the summer before I left, written out on a page from a Jewish prayer book, that in Berlin we would reach outside of ourselves: Ricky, on vacation from an intensive position as legal counsel to an education advocacy group, would do hard drugs with Floyd at a club; Floyd, an applicant to mathematics PhD programs, would try to get laid; and I would not be myself (grousing, unsportive, stranger-allergic).
Our first night out, we decided to hit the dance scene; Floyd, being a techno aficionado, followed the DJ leagues in Berlin, so Ricky and I deferred to his expertise. Ricky bribed our way past a long line into the appointed club, doled out Adderall, and established a spot on the floor. I normally despise dancing, but true to my pledge, I let Floyd instruct me on how to roll with house music, how to signal and approach potential dance partners. So prepared, Floyd and I bobbed along next to each other for two hours as Ricky sharked around the dance floor after women. I took regular breaks to pound drinks at the bar and eventually sat down next to a woman from New Zealand, to whom I blathered about being a travel writer and New Zealand popular culture and whatever else, not caring about the outcome. I ended up making out with her as she washed out of the club at 4:00 a.m., having failed to find any better candidates. I felt nothing particular about it. But Ricky ended the night furious and humiliated after buying a dozen women drinks and tossing out Adderall like parade candy and failing to so much as kiss anyone. Floyd was disappointed at the quality of dancing, the rote playlists, and the fact that no one was doing club drugs. We woke up at 2:00 p.m. the next day, hungover and physically depleted and did almost nothing on our only Saturday in Berlin. This hangdog acquiescence to our nearly 30 years of age cast a shadow on the remaining days of the trip.
After the first big push we fell into lethargy. Ricky and Floyd couldn’t seem to shake their jet lag and slept routinely past 2:00 p.m. Given that night fell shortly after 5:00, we inhabited a twilight-and-darkness version of Berlin, where most tourist attractions were closed and little else of interest availed itself. The week took on the air of a Sunday afternoon, where each hour contains the promise of last-chance freedom, strangled by the looming obligation of the morning. Floyd and I acquired five grams of pot from a nearby open-air drug market in a public park, and hours of vacation drained into Floyd and I smoking, me drinking gin and Coke Light, and all of us staring into laptop screens, phones, and tablets.
A sense of waste and loss haunted the apartment, but I couldn’t summon enough energy to care, preferring to stay numb to both the present and the oncoming future. When we did make obligatory jaunts out into the neighborhood or to specific restaurants, the city felt like a network of sparsely lit alleys, with deep-sea pockets of night inhabited by low-voices and lighter flames.
Ricky grew restive and at one point talked Floyd into visiting one Berlin’s legal brothels. I bid them on and stayed home to get wide and work on a blog post, free of judgment, scoured of moral perspective. They returned disappointed, having put it together that prostitutes were an elaborate and expensive form of masturbation. I nodded sadly, joined on the other side of the divide, none of us better for it. Thus exhausted of activities as the week melted, I led us on an expedition to Berlin Zoo, to which we arrived a scant two hours before closing, and had to scuttle around at top speed to catch sight of every animal. While technically impressive, the zoo barely touched me; whatever mystical connection exists between external experience and internal meaning had shorted out.
Hookers, the girl in the club, and caged animals, all just sensations slipping off the surface of nerves.
And then we landed on our final night. Ricky and Floyd were determined to go hard. I had no choice but take up the “Drink, Grovel, Fuck” lance one more time, make an exhausted kamikaze charge at the end of a losing two-month campaign against myself.
It’s 2:00 a.m. We’ve been admitted into the WaterGate and a rind of people has slowly grown along the walls, gathering the necessary mass to propel a few dozen dancers forward. We are among them, bobbing at inward angles, darting peeks back and forth with nearby clusters of women. Most people in the club are younger, college students or otherwise free enough of the weekday world to go out deep-late on a Wednesday. We’re varying degrees of drunk and all three cranked on Adderall. The dance core grows denser and Ricky slides into the current. Floyd and I recreate the first club outing, jouncing next to each other, unable to attach to the gravity of women. A few dance close, rub shoulders, but neither Floyd nor myself can open ourselves the right way or muster the confidence for free, anonymous intimacy.
It’s 4:00 a.m. and time for drugs. In a back lounge by the bathrooms I start a conversation with a guy in Braveheart make-up on the pretense of an informal interview, and within a few minutes he offers to sell us ecstasy out of his kilt-pouch. We fish Ricky out of the scrum and take the chubby white pills together with Adderall chasers. Ricky salutes and fades off while Floyd and I wait by the bar for the pills to kick-in and for a song to come on that Floyd really feels. I see a young couple smiling at me — which I would ordinarily find threatening — and start a conversation, asking them about their take on the Berlin club scene. They get nervous as I start taking notes. I tell them that I’m a travel writer and that I just took MDMA for the first time. Spirals of alarm appear in their eyes, and I know that this is what a crazy person sees when he earnestly accosts strangers. I’m told in so many words to get away from them, and I sit down at the bar next to Floyd. The objective, mediated world decouples and it is way too heavy. It feels like the operating system of reality has crashed and I’m awash in the raw code of sensation, manually grappling with each beat of music and flash of light. I am losing it entirely. I open my mouth to throw out a verbal lifeline to Floyd and vomit onto my upturned hands and forearms. The ecstasy pulses in a nauseous loop of now; Floyd tells me it’s okay and that we can go home as I watch the watery puke drip through my fingers as Floyd tells me it’s okay as I watch the vomit drip or I could stop thinking, drink some water, and dance. My life and my youth and my sense of self drip onto the counter and — fuck it. I let go.
Four hours whirl into an endless deep-house beat, the music not filling the void so much as suspending it.
I am lost to myself in a kind of empty bliss.
In the elongated serotonin present most memories are denied reuptake, left in the wake of a rolling 30 seconds. Floyd and Ricky flit in and out, leaving traces of story where I have none, their spoken sentences entering my brain as vibrating coils. Floyd is pleased to recognize favorite tracks from Omar S. Day and Kresy, though he suspects the club is for tourists. He calls me a cigarette lighting ornament, which penetrates as cosmic truth. Ricky forms an intense bond with an attached geology graduate student and pursues a platonic romance, cresting with a chaste kiss as they watch the sunrise over the Spree. He claims this is the most meaningful experience with a woman he’s ever had without hooking up.
The club closes at 10:00 a.m. and the last two hours of dancing is done in the daylight bouncing off the river, burning off the drugs. During the final set a woman dancing nearby tugs on my orbit and we start plunging elbows toward each other. We steer in close and she runs a hand down my shoulder blade before hopping back. I see her smiling at the corners of her mouth as she hovers a gesture away. I am too tired and shy to do anything; I feel a bald surface of my soul exposed, unsuspected, unspoilt. I feel for a moment what it was to be a teenager hungry for the great undiscovered country behind a girl’s smile, but too full of unrefined doubt to make the journey, and in that tension the promise of someday becoming myself.