Berliner Pretender

Stephanie followed her boyfriend to Berlin in the fall of ‘65. The conversation went a little like this:

Stephanie, I’m moving back to Berlin. Come with me?

Why are you going back all of a sudden?

My grandmother is sick.

I thought you hated her.

Ja, I do. Will you come?

Yes, I will.

Why did she do it? Stephanie had known Karl for four months and the way he said her name—Schtefani, Schtefani—made her toes curl. The timing was right. She had just graduated with a useless degree. She had just gone to her parents' house for Easter and it was ever so slightly worse than working as a thankless secretary for a paper plant in Minneapolis during the year. Why? It was complicated. Bob and Cathy loved her. Stephanie wanted them to be proud of her. But their expectations had been so, so low. She moved from Minneapolis to Berlin the next week. Karl had said they could wait a month, but Stephanie didn’t want to have any time to think. Her heartbeat was in her throat and in her ears and in her spine and it was telling her to Go, just go.

When they got to Berlin, they went straight to Karl’s grandmother’s house. It was an old walkup on an old street that was called somethingstraße and the building had a few new bricks that stuck out like obtrusive flowers on an otherwise pleasantly dirt-brown façade. Stephanie assumed that the bricks had had to be replaced because of the war, but she tended to assume that everything out of place in Europe was because of the war. The house was a five-minute walk past a clean-enough river and Karl told her that it was Far enough from The Wall. She didn’t ask what he meant by that. She pretended she knew. She was doing a lot of pretending. When people spoke to her in German, she pretended like she knew what they were saying. It occurred to her that she might not be fooling anyone—that they might be pretending that they believed her pretending and that that was easier for everyone. She deliberately never thought about that again. She was in over her head as it was, and the only thing between pleasure and panic was one thought too many.

The inside of Karl’s grandmother’s house smelled like meat and potpourri. Stephanie knew that Germans liked meat, but the smell of the cold, greasy unknown made her pores feel clogged. There was no air in the house and it all felt underwater except for Karl’s grandmother. Karl’s grandmother was sitting in a rigid wooden chair with disconcertingly similar posture that made Stephanie straighten her own back until she realized that her back muscles were sad and weak and woefully American. She said Damn you, America, in her head over and over in a way that made her long for it and its posture.

Karl’s grandmother had a little tray in front of her on a short table with a can of Coke and a glass teacup. When Karl’s grandmother saw Karl walk in, she didn’t smile. She poured a tiny sip of soda that was clearly flat into the glass teacup. Stephanie knew that Europeans drank sparkling water, so the juxtaposition—the unadulterated absurdity of this topsy-turvy—sent something like rage bubbling up the back of her neck. She almost laughed and tried not to think about the fact that the energy buzzing its way between her temples was just off the edge of manic. Then Karl’s grandmother began speaking in gravely, clipped German that made Stephanie’s shoulders sweat. Karl’s grandmother didn’t look sick or sound sick. Stephanie could not help the feeling of mounting dread building on account of the fact that the woman might live forever. Stephanie thought with no guilt at the moment and only a little later that she had come for nothing. She had prepared herself for a death. She had prepared herself to console Karl. Now she was in Germany with no purpose and she was hearing Karl’s grandmother repeat the word jüdischer over and over like some sort of Nazi nightmare and out of nowhere Stephanie swore the Coke started bubbling. Stephanie was furious with Karl. Karl brought me to a perfectly healthy grandmother! How could he!


In what could only be deemed a stroke of luck, Karl’s grandmother croaked a week later. It turned out that she must have been in quite a lot of pain on account of her condition, but Stephanie was terrified of the woman and could admit to herself and to the world that she had been wishing that the lady would just kick it already the whole time. In any case, Karl’s grandmother had definitely been a Nazi.

Karl got the house. His dad and uncle had died in the war and his mom had died of cancer and his aunt had been a Jew. Karl was like the new bricks. It struck Stephanie that Karl was very alone and he did not seem to care in the slightest. She wrote off his familial indifference in the same way she did other aspects of his Germanness. Karl was like sparkling water.

While pretending to be a Berliner, Stephanie started drinking a lot of sparkling water, and the more she drank it the more she knew deep in her heart that she would never understand the appeal. It went from an annoyance to something she despised with her soul. Her hatred was visceral. It coated her tongue like plastic, lingering. She realized she could no longer put sparkling water in the same category as Karl’s apathy towards the death of his family or their relationship would almost certainly end. She tried to talk to him about it and ignore her Minnesota preconceptions and the little voices of Minnesota Bob and Cathy who could be so stupidly naïve but were still lovable—but it was difficult. She had to say something. The conversation went a little like this:

They were your parents.

They were Nazis.

Wasn’t everyone?

Ja? Pretty much. Does that make it OK?

Stephanie realized that she didn’t understand Karl and that was mostly because she agreed with what he said most of the time on principal and in practice but still had a pinprick in the back of her mind that was telling her something she couldn’t understand at all. This pinprick made her deeply uncomfortable because pins were by definition needles and her mind was like a haystack. Where was it? Why was she even looking for it? Who needed a needle from a haystack when you could get one from the store? She began to resent the pinprick and then she began to resent Karl and things were going badly there for a few days. Just when it looked like it all might end over the hunk of cheese they were eating on the floor, Stephanie chalked it all up to cultural differences and that sounded mature enough to just go ahead and get over whatever was going on in her head.


Karl’s friends moved into Karl’s grandmother’s house two days after the funeral. They threw her mattress on the ground and their slouching, arrogant bodies into her straight-backed chair. Stephanie thought this was weird, but Karl reassured her that it was totally normal in Berlin. She had no reason not to believe him so she merely shrugged. It was all very exciting, after all, if she didn’t think about it too much. It was like that party that never ended that people said Would be so great! She was living on the edge of society with these hard-ass kids and things were going to be so, so great. Every youth in Germany was turning their backs on their Nazi parents, apparently, and she had kind of done the same thing except her parents were only naively republican, not Nazis. She didn’t think overly much about distinctions or of Minnesota Bob and Cathy because she wanted to be a Berliner.

There were usually seven friends in the flat, but on some days there were either five or eleven. They all made Stephanie feel extraordinarily Minnesota even though she had cut her blond hair short badly with a pair of dull scissors and had begun to wear big men’s turtlenecks that had been shorn short to show off her stomach. The friends were so cool they made her squirm and think more about her posture. They slouched, but in a way that was so effortlessly deliberate it put knots in her jaw trying to mimic them. She liked Hans the best because he was the dumbest and his English was the worst and he was the only one that made not showering look truly disgusting instead of just ecologically sound.

Stephanie’s English was a problem. All of Karl’s friends spoke English because they went to university, but because they went to university they all hated America in an unironic way that an American who “hated America” like her couldn’t really pull off. The friends spoke English in front of her, but Stephanie got the sense that they only did it because they could and she couldn’t do it any other way and they wanted everyone to be aware of that without saying a word about it. Whenever they spoke directly to her, it was always about something she didn’t want to talk about. They would ask about Vietnam or if her family supported the war. She would invariably say no, but that wasn’t exactly true since her dad had a twisty leg and he somewhat understandably felt obligated to support the people that were fighting in his stead. Cathy, for her part, liked what Bob liked and if she didn’t she didn’t talk about it. Stephanie had tried to explain this good-hearted but ultimately socially detrimental Minnesota logic away with some college reasoning and had done nothing but make her mom leave the dinner table in tears.

The Germans knew Stephanie was lying about her Minnesota mom and dad. Stephanie knew that they knew. No one said anything. They would usually talk about Solidarity after that and she would say Yeah, Solidarity, and nod. She could tell they were laughing at her, but she nodded anyways and kept telling herself that this was so cool that she was living with all of her friends and her dirty German-god boyfriend in Berlin. When they got drunk enough, they would switch back to German and Stephanie would keep nodding and pretend that she knew what they were saying. Everyone knew that this was just pretending, but no one ever said anything except for Hans, once, because he was an idiot.


Stephanie had imagined that living in grandmother’s house would be like a brothel that had an equal number of consenting females and males (a feminist brothel? An orgy palace?), but it wasn’t like that at all. The only ones that were having sex were she and Karl, and she knew that because grandmother’s house wasn’t very large and she knew that everyone could hear her and Karl having sex but she couldn’t hear anyone else having sex. It would have been better if it was like a brothel, because she could’ve ridden that high of doing something novel and something that Minnesota Stephanie would have found appalling. Instead she found herself living amongst a group of sickeningly cool Berlin aesthetics who only drank black coffee and ate extremely nutritious bread that had seeds that got stuck in her teeth but somehow never theirs and they were so, so skinny and always showing their stomachs but never having sex. They pretended they couldn’t hear her and Karl having sex even though they usually did it on the mattress in the kitchen and sometimes friend three or seven would come in and grab a Coke out of the fridge and stand there for a minute while they poured their not-flat soda into a tiny glass, waiting for the fizz to go down. They would pretend not to stare and Stephanie would pretend not see them staring. She pretended she was cool with all of this because everyone else was pretty good at pretending that nothing had happened afterwards and that no one had seen anything whatsoever. Then one day Hans said something about her fake orgasm that everyone, especially Karl, was pretending to believe was real and ruined everything. The conversation went a little like this:

Ach, nicht gut, eh?

What are you talking about, Hans?


And fucking Hans was right. The sex was nicht gut and the meat smelling not-brothel was nicht gut and Stephanie knew that it was time to go. The pretending was over. She told Karl that she was leaving and he didn’t seem surprised. He told her to Wait a week so I can find you somewhere to stay? and she said No I think I’m going to go now, and he said OK. She couldn’t tell if everyone had started to believe that she was capable of making it in Berlin alone or if Karl genuinely didn’t care. She went with the former because she really needed a little bit of confidence at that point, especially since her German was passable but not great and she had very little money and she had just pretended that she was going to be fine and maybe that meant that she actually would be?

Stephanie left grandmother’s place and walked for a little while and ended up heading what must have been east because she turned a corner and there was The Wall right in front of her and a few men with guns and one German shepherd. The Wall itself was unimpressive here, just like something you might see in a garden except with barbed wire, a gardener tending atomic vegetables with his hund. It was like this until it wasn’t. She stared at the scene for a while until one (man, not dog) met her eyes and it felt as if he had reached down her piehole and stolen a lung. For some reason she had convinced herself that all guards had to be like the ones at Buckingham Palace, which she had read somewhere you could tickle with a feather with no consequence. She half walked half ran back west and bought an apple from a street vendor even though it was a stupid thing to spend money on. She tried to keep her gaze down because she knew the sun was sinking and she didn’t want to watch it. The danger high had crested a while back and the prospect of sleeping on the street was not sounding cool, not cool at all.

Stephanie finished her apple and wandered into a café and bought a cappuccino and an espresso because anything other than Italian coffee was the height of un-German. She took the cups to a little table in the corner and put her backpack on the bench across from her like it was her friend and with this thought she even put one of the cups in front of it like a sad, freakshow tea party. She stared out the scummy window and tried not to think but then a painting on the wall of a hunting party with a dead rabbit hanging limply from the hand of a red-clad hunter caught her eye and the longer she stared at it the more she knew that the rabbit was her and she was the rabbit and her backpack was the trees, a silent observer. The notion was confirmed when she reached back to scratch her neck and she felt that her hair had knotted so badly that it was like a pancake dreadlock, encrusted with dirt like blood just like the fur of the dead animal. She took her espresso shot.

Then she heard the word Americano and she finally understood the expression The Heavens Opened Above Her—or was that to describe rain? In any case, Americano sounded and felt like heavenly light or a downpour which might as well be the same thing, anyways. She looked over to the counter and heard the words once, twice more: Americano, Americano. Why couldn’t Karl have given her pleasure like this? There were three Americans standing at the register, two guys and a girl. The girl was the coolest of them because she had on a sweater that was falling off one shoulder and a bad tattoo on the back of her neck, but none of them were that cool because they had all just ordered Americanos which was a goddamned blasphemy. Every German in the place was pretending not to side-eye them.

There were no tables left. Stephanie threw her backpack friend onto the ground and went up to the counter under the pretense of returning her espresso cup. Hey! Do you guys need a place to sit? she asked. Stephanie thought that they were surprised by her English and not by her smell and that’s all the thought she allowed herself to give to their too polite expressions. After glancing at each other they all nodded and smiled and went to go sit down, stepping over backpack friend like the piece of trash he was.

When Stephanie went back to the American table, she learned that these three Americans were all from Florida and all studied at Florida University. At the moment they were in Berlin studying abroad at Freie Universität (otherwise known as FU but pronounced F-oo). And what a coincidence that was, because Stephanie was an English tutor at FU. Where was she staying? Oh, she was between places at the moment because she had been living with her boyfriend who was this way-too-attractive German god who she just found out had been cheating on her for like, ever, with two of their roommates! Then the cool American girl grabbed Stephanie’s hand across the table said Ugh! Men! and the American guys were shiftily looking around like Karl would materialize out of the wood paneling, on the hunt for another innocent American.

Do you want to stay with us for a while? cool American asked. Stephanie was expecting this, somehow, and was gratified by it like she had told the future or maybe even shaped it like a diviner or a potter. She normally despised people from Florida because she associated it with little more than retirement or humidity, but these Floridians were neither geriatric nor sweaty. Stephanie shrugged deliberately. She pretended to hesitate and looked to the guys as if they would have a problem with her staying with them. She could see what was in their eyes—they wanted Berlin, they wanted all of it like smoke deep in the lungs. They wanted to understand and understanding hurt and she looked dangerous and Berlin enough to satisfy that sickness with less of the risk. She bit her lip and sipped her cappuccino and pretended to be a dangerous, dirty Berliner when she half-joked Sure, but we’re going to have to talk about your coffee orders.


She called Minnesota Bob and Cathy for the first time on Christmas. After talking about the Christmas Eve service led by Pastor Joe and the snow they were getting that winter, the conversation went a little like this.

Oh, your cousin Jenny just got engaged, sweetie!

Oh, did she? To that lawyer?

Yes, you should see the ring.

Karl and I split up.


Oh sweetie. Don’t you think that it’s time to come home? What, Bob? Oh yes, your father just reminded me that Mr. Kranzinski is always talking about how he needs help at the store. You know how fond Johnny Kranzinski is of you. He’s such a sweet boy.

No, Mom, I’m really adjusting to life here. Europe is amazing. I can’t even imagine coming back.

Stephanie had said those words to wound and she could hear the twisting of the knife even with the distance. She wasn’t sure why she had said them. Was that the cool new German kid in her? Then again, didn’t Cathy deserve it? Did parents have to really be Nazis—Nazi Nazis, that is—to get the shaft every once in a while? Americans called their parents Nazis sometimes and that didn’t come out of nowhere, right? How dare Cathy say that she should go back to Minnesota to marry the stock boy she had fucked in the parking lot of his dad’s convenience store because he was honest-to-God the only one who had showed any interest? Was that all she was worth? Wasn’t. Europe. Amazing? Why would anyone ever leave? Even the Americans were cooler here, and her Americans were from Florida, for god’s sake. It had taken her a long time to calm down after that.

Her new group was living in some brand new and entirely sterile smelling student apartment buildings called the Schlachtensee. It turned out that one of the Florida guys was extremely wealthy, which Stephanie really should’ve been able to pick up in the first place because he had that hair that just said Hey, I’m rich and my dad has a yacht. Yacht boy and his dad were paying for the apartment for all of his friends, which both added to and relieved Stephanie’s anxieties about the entire situation. In the first few weeks she and Meredith (a.k.a. cool American) slept in the same bed, yacht boy Fred took the other bedroom, and poor boy Adam took the couch. This was done with the common but unspoken knowledge that either she or Meredith would be getting with Adam, who was much better looking and also sucked a lot less than a guy whose dad had a yacht, and the other one of them would have to keep Fred happy. Over those first few days Stephanie felt herself freaking out about this like it was prostitution or something and then realized that the only reason she was getting worked up at all was because she was with a bunch of Americans and she had just felt the pinprick of Minnesota over the phone. She was forgetting how to be a Berliner. She told herself in the mirror one night as Karl that this was totally normal and the more she-as-Karl said it the more she got on board.


Instead of getting a job at FU as a tutor, Stephanie ended up finding a guy outside of the Max Planck Institute sitting on the edge of a fountain who was talking with a man in a suit who she came to assume was his father. They were both switching between English and German but the guy’s English wasn’t great. From what she could tell he was being yelled at about failing an English exam. Stephanie felt like Karl’s grandmother was finally dead all over again. Yeah, Fred and Fred’s dad were paying for the apartment, but they weren’t paying for her imported European coffee, and if she didn’t have that was she even German? She waited around and just like she expected the father flew off in a bout of rage and the guy was just sitting on that fountain looking forlorn. Stephanie approached him and asked in what she thought was pretty good German if he needed an English tutor. He asked her in German if she had been listening to his conversation and she said Ja and after a pause he asked What qualifications do you have? She replied in English that she was from Michigan and his eyes widened. Every German knew where Michigan was which was something she attributed to the fact that it was easy to pick out on a map. In any case, Michigan worked its magic and the guy said in Gerlish Sure ich bin Günter and wann you want to meet? and then they set up three appointments a week at ten.

They read a lot of newspapers together, German for her and English for him even though he was the only one paying. Günter was as smart as most Germans were cool which was a terrifying thought, but Günter was also adorably shy. Even his blunt English had a soft tone that didn’t necessarily make Stephanie’s toes curl, but when he talked about the end of the Wirtschaftswunder and Kiesinger and the CDU-as-evil like she knew what he was talking about that did get her going a little bit. He would point out words in the paper with a long finger that reminded her of Beethoven. She was starting to understand what he was saying, the German and otherwise. She was starting to feel it.

Günter was very serious but not like friends one through sometimes eleven because he still had that idealism that was a little bit like Minnesota. When Günter passed his English exam towards the end of the school year, they still met two times a week instead of three and a little later for beer instead of coffee. One night she dropped a thinly veiled hint that she was looking for a new place because her Florida friends were going back to their own FU and Fred and his dad weren’t going to keep the apartment just for her, even if Meredith asked him to. Günter said I am living with some friends off and on and what is one more? which she had expected him to say. At first Stephanie hadn’t really pegged Günter for the group-living type because his dad wasn’t a Nazi in the German sense, but then she figured that maybe his dad was a Nazi in the American sense because he seemed to always be yelling about something whenever they were on the phone. This made it likely that Günter had done the totally normal thing and moved into some abandoned-because-of-the-war flat with a bunch of other Germans with Nazi parents. Stephanie said OK to Günter and was excited about something new because she could speak German now and there was no way it would be anything like the last time.


It wasn’t like the last time, and Stephanie, who was now going by Stefanie, knew exactly why. For one, there were two Americans in the house and their German wasn’t very good, which made her instantly cooler than them which meant she wasn’t the plant-level of the food chain but more like an herbivore. That little bit of power made her think less about her posture or the way she tore bread from the loaf. Secondly, Günter’s place was much larger than grandmother’s and it had a balcony and lots of other windows that alleviated the German smells that were prevalent in most Berlin private spaces. Even the smoke-soaked furniture seemed to benefit from a little breeze now and again. Also, more rooms meant more privacy, and even though this place also wasn’t like a brothel, it was made less obvious by the fact that everyone had at least a semblance of privacy so that, if she wanted, Stefanie could pretend like she was living her life on the edge.

It was also the case that some rather exciting things started going on in Berlin, which made the by-nature sulky Berlin crowd get out of their own heads a little bit and face what was going on around them instead of talk about solidarity with Africa for hours until they passed out drunk with the Africans no better for their self-righteous words. And now Stefanie knew what was going on. She didn’t even have to pretend when she said that the CDU was evil and that the Nazis (German plural) at FU were professors and vice versa, she really meant it.

Stefanie and her new roommates, sometimes six and sometimes eight when she counted the Americans, were talking one day about German-sense Nazi professors still teaching and telling students what to do and what to think and discussing what it meant in the present and future and what they could do about it. Then Günter piped up and said that he had heard about some students getting together calling themselves the SDS who were organizing protests against the professors and against the past-now-present more generally. Stefanie said That sounds awesome. You guys should join. Everyone said Ja and told Stefanie that she should join too, even though she wasn’t a student. So Stefanie said Ja and joined the SDS by finding a guy with a clipboard. Things were pretty quiet over the summer and Stefanie and her roommates went hiking in the Black Forest and practiced English and three of the six roommates started playing music with a couple of Argentinians who lived with a couple of Germans in the flat below Günter’s. But when it was time to go back to school, Günter returned home after the first day angry and heaving and panting like he was trapped. This mood was unlike him. Stefanie asked Are you okay? And Gunter’s anger made him revert to Gerlish, because he said No, ich bin nocht OK. Then he explained that the German governmental coalition had put a term limit on German university studies so students like the students in the growing-more-powerful SDS would focus on being students instead of protesting professors, among other things. Günter wasn’t going to have it. Neither was anyone else. The SDS said We’re going to have a sit-in, and so more students than Stefanie had ever seen along with Stefanie herself planted themselves all around FU’s campus. She and her flat mates sat in front of the Max Planck Institute where she’d found Günter during a time that felt now like a long time ago. There was some singing and some shouting and sitting and the police were out and everyone felt on the edge of violence but no violence ended up erupting. It felt somewhat like being cross-legged in kindergarten but scarier.

They sat all day long and Stefanie imagined the feeling, whatever the feeling was, melding them into one large, flat body that had melted grotesquely but gloriously onto the ground and Stefanie thought that she finally might understand what Solidarity might mean. Then she thought that sitting for so long had given her too much time to think.


Günter dropped out of school in the very early spring of ’67 and his father stopped talking to him. No more conversations on the phone. Günter didn’t seem to care just like Karl hadn’t, and when Stefanie asked he said that he wasn’t pretending. Lines had been drawn and were being traced over every day: you were either with the students and the Vietnamese and the Africans and the Iranians or you were with the government and you might as well be a Nazi. Whether a German or an American-sense Nazi depended on specific context, of course, but the force of the word was strong enough that the distinctions were beginning to matter less and less. That’s what Stefanie thought about when she didn’t call Minnesota Bob and Cathy for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, which they had been saving up for in a substantial plastic jug which sat on the linoleum floor in the kitchen next to the stove for years. The plan had been to take a family vacation to Hawaii. They always liked it when Stephanie was there for their anniversary dinners even though she insisted that it was beyond weird to be involved in what she assumed would be a sexual occasion or at least should be but definitely wasn’t for Cathy and Bob. You’re one of the best parts of our life and our marriage, of course you should be there! they would say. Stefanie wondered if they had gone to Hawaii anyways and realized that she couldn’t think about it too much without a knot scrunching up uncomfortably somewhere in her body. She pretended that she had to save her money and international calls were too expensive and that was that.

She went with Günter to a SDS meeting the night or day or however time worked between Germany and America on her parent’s wedding anniversary, May 2, and that at least was distraction enough. The meetings were held in a church that had been repaired since the war, but not well. Little brick flowers were everywhere and though the entirety of Berlin smelled like smoke because people tended to inhale cigarettes as meals, the smokiness was different here, darker, and it was perfect for getting people angry. Stefanie was thinking about how people might have accused witches in a forum like this in a church like this. She shivered. But then Dieter, who was the leader of the northern branch of the Berlin SDS, yelled something and was shaking a newspaper with a furious red fist and face and got Stefanie’s full attention. She squinted at the whooshing paper and saw the script and the picture of the Shah and then put on her German listening ears with a sinking in her stomach because Dieter’s face was verging on the edge of purple and now Günter was raising his fist, too. This was unlike him. Dieter was yelling something along the lines of We must not allow this evil into our country! Our corrupt government invites evil into our gates—a man who would torture and kill his own people! And then he said Solidarität and Stefanie started shouting and joined the Germans like she had joined the Americano Americans. They walked out of the church and onto the straße and the street lamps were whirring and Stefanie’s calves were burning and she was bouncing on the balls of her feet because she wanted to go and do something, anything. Günter felt the same way, and the conversation went a little bit like this, but imagine it in German:

I want to do something.

Me too.

I want to dance or run or something.

Let’s go dance.

So they went to a little bar called Das Erdhörnchen that had a band that played on Thursdays and then they had a few strong drinks of a mixed variety and started dancing together at first but then separated because dancing alone was better for getting the energy out and flailing around which was totally normal in Berlin except it looked exceptionally stylish and sexy. Stephanie was a dancer that would often inspire sympathy, but who could dance to American music anyways? Stefanie was reckless and strange like German posture and by the time she opened her eyes to what could have been flashing lights but might have just been flickering ones she could sense that no one was looking at her at all, which meant that they weren’t looking at her like she didn’t belong. Then someone tapped her on the shoulder and when she didn’t turn around he put a sweaty hand on her skin that stuck like a piece of bologna. Stefanie whipped around, furious, because that was not a German thing to do. Oh, you have got to be kidding me, Stephanie said out loud and in English because she was looking into the stupid face of Hans who was smiling a stupid smile like he for once in his life knew something. He asked if he could buy her a drink so they could catch up and he said it all in English that was much improved. Stefanie said OK. She told herself that just because she was seeing Hans didn’t mean that she was American again even though this particular situation could not help but feel American.

Hans bought her a gin and tonic and himself a beer and started talking to her about Karl and the old flat he was still living at and that he had enrolled at FU and he said it all in English like she would be impressed. Stephanie—Stefanie—answered back in German and told him about her tutoring and her new flat and pointed out Günter in the crowd who was not, admittedly, a Karl-like-god but he was definitely okay. Then she started in about the CDU and Vietnam and even said Solidarität, once, just for good measure, but she had the itching burning sense that Hans was seeing right through her. But what was he seeing? Didn’t he see her dance? Didn’t he hear that she had sat at FU with the others and had made it in Berlin by herself? She was in the SDS, which had German and Student and Association right in the name but in German. Did that mean nothing? Didn’t. He. Hear. Her. German? She was growing more and more frantic and drinking faster and her posture was similar to Karl’s grandmother’s and she knew she had to get out of there. She gave Hans a kiss on both cheeks which was totally normal in Berlin, but before she could go grab Günter Hans’ bologna hand was on her shoulder again and she could smell meat and potpourri. The conversation that ensued concluded exactly like this:

Oh, fuck you, Hans.


The Shah of Iran was coming on June 2, and as the SDS was readying and rallying and preparing Stefanie couldn’t help but think about that time she had helped make a parade float for the homecoming football game her sophomore year in high school. She’d only gotten roped into it because her best friend Erin was dating this guy who was running for Homecoming Court. He was that funny guy who everyone sort of liked but not in a one-on-one kind of way. She had known that he probably wasn’t going to be King, and it turned out that he wouldn’t be, but she’d felt sort of cool to be included in something that had felt so important at the time. In any case, Stephanie had been given the task of plastering newspapers to the frame of a giant wildcat head, which meant that she was handling a lot of newspapers and sometimes she would even read them because it was such a boring job. What she hadn’t realized until she got there was that the reason all the cool people worked on the homecoming float was because everyone would take a lot of breaks to either smoke or go make out somewhere, which were things that the cool people did. Stephanie hadn’t had cigarettes or a boyfriend, only newspapers, which made her just as lame as if she hadn’t worked on the homecoming float at all. The one time she did take a break another girl named Jackie came up to Stephanie and said that Stephanie hadn’t made very much progress on the wildcat head and then asked her You do know that homecoming is in a week, right? to which Stephanie had replied Yes, Jackie, I know. Then Jackie had wrinkled her nose and told Stephanie to Stop being so sensitive and to Get back to work, so Stephanie did, but she spent about an hour finding the words Jackie Madison, Is, an, Example, of, Childhood, and Obesity, and plastered them in that order onto the forehead of the wildcat like a petty kidnapper’s ransom note. Jackie hadn’t even been fat. It had just felt good at the time.

Dieter was Jackie Madison and Stefanie was surrounded by newspapers. The German students and not students who were part of the SDS weren’t paper macheting, but they were putting up posters and handing out flyers and talking about a big event at the beginning of the next week, so it felt much more Minnesota than Stefanie had imagined it would. Her thoughts were spiraling. The pinprick had become a scalpel and no one was looking for that in a haystack. Ever since Hans and his bologna hands she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was pretending after all. Günter had even asked her a few days ago if she was all right, and that had almost ruined everything. She had almost called Minnesota Bob and Cathy. She had almost left. She imagined strangling Hans. She thanked the Shah for making his appearance when he was and for giving her something to do, something to be a part of, until she realized that was not a good thing to be wishing at all and in fact it was extremely selfish of her. She stopped thinking about it. A few days went by. She handed out flyers to reluctant hands and blank stares. She felt the nervous, near violent energy on the streets and in the quivering, enraged body of the SDS. It was crawling over the words sprawled across newspapers and creeping in over the radios. The Shah’s arrival became the Greenwich time of Berlin. Everyone had a sense that there would be a before and an after, the rest was just waiting and waiting and feeling and trying not to think overly much.


Everyone in Günter’s flat stayed up all night on June 1 like it was Christmas and the Shah was a bloody Santa. They were right on the eve of the horizon of expectation and the sunrise would be atomic. In the morning they ate seedy bread and all the cold meats that were in the fridge and Tomas found a half a bottle of vodka under the couch which they all passed around until it was gone. With the flat emptied of food Stefanie had the feeling that they wouldn’t be coming back, but she tried not to think about it. They poured out onto the street under a sky that looked like it might let loose later, but none of them could be sure about anything. The youths were out, milling about without direction looking manic but dazed. The police were there as well, strutting cockily up the middle of streets, sticks already grasped in hand ready to swing. Stefanie and friends stopped into the café on the corner and all got espressos and said Prost!, which they hadn’t even done for the vodka, but now they were all feeling truly nervous and like the occasion warranted a toast. Then they started walking and Stefanie looked at the street signs and breathed in and out through her nose and remarked on the fact that Berlin was probably the only city in the world in which you could see the sky from anywhere and wondered if that was because the war had knocked all the tall buildings down. She wasn’t sure.

They joined the parade of people heading down Bismarkstraße and Stefanie felt Günter grab her hand, which gave her a horrible sensation right in the middle of her forehead that something was completely and utterly wrong. Germans didn’t hold hands unless it was serious. Was he doing it because she was American? Did he think that she needed this? Someone who’d had more than half a bottle of vodka left in their flat that morning stumbled into the back of her heels, but Günter was there to keep her from falling. She tried to wriggle away once she regained her balance, but he was holding on tighter. She focused on anything else and watched as people joined the procession from every side like sediments falling into a river. There was a chant up ahead that she couldn’t quite make out yet. Nazi parades used to happen on this street and they would chant. That didn’t mean anything but it didn’t mean nothing, right? Stefanie looked around and was thankful for the people crashing into each other and not saying Excuse me or even Entschuldigung, for that matter. This crowd had the feeling but none of the organization of a Nazi march and was more like pinball than the goosestep. Besides, disregarding the Shah, they were in fact making their way to a showing of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Deutsches Oper, and apart from the fact that Pamina lived solely for a man’s love, it wasn’t a very Nazi-ish production on the whole. The whole experience was starting to feel kind of horrifically comic in a way that Stefanie only felt when she had that reoccurring nightmare with the animated dinosaur in the graduation cap. The crowd was a body and the body had a fever. It was whimsical and heady, but off-kilter enough that it was making her a little bit sick.


When they started moving, Stefanie had pretended they were like a river. When they got closer to the Oper, she realized they were more like a two-way road. Running in the opposite direction of the youths there were people who supported the Shah, or at least hated all of these cool, boisterous, skinny young Germans who were turning their backs on everything that was [their] Germany. Stefanie now considered herself one of these young Germans and had surrounded herself with the young Germans and drank the sparkling water and ate the seedy bread. The voices in the newspapers that said that they, the young Germans, were the fascist left had seemed far away and misrepresentative and simply wrong, so the people behind the voices had seemed like they were far away too. But here they were, voices given bodies and big ones at that. They were easy to spot. They were older. They were coming at the crowd and swimming against the current like salmon or heading the wrong way down a two-way street or whatever. There were less of them, but there was definitely a Them and They were clearly trying to start something.

It was no longer possible to hold hands, but Stefanie’s heart was in her ears and she kept a close eye on Günter. She wondered if Karl was somewhere out there. He would have gotten a later start, that was just his way. He would be somewhere down the street, packing in the early risers closer and closer to the ugly cement Oper building that might as well have been a warehouse. Karl would rise to the pushes and the punches that the salmon people looked like they wanted to dole out, definitely. She hadn’t been sure about Günter, but now she was pretty certain he would do the same. Günter was a chanter and he was, after all, a young, cool, angry German even if he didn’t look all that cool. Stefanie began walking in place because there was nowhere else to move. Only one of the flat mates had stayed with them, and all around her sweaty, humming bodies of strangers were brushing against her bare skin. No one was talking to each other, everyone was staring straight ahead at something that wasn’t there yet but might as well have been. Minnesota Stephanie and her Floridians probably would have found this exciting. Stefanie thought for a moment that she might be a Berliner now because she was not excited at all. She was scared and trapped but was glad she was there anyways because history was being made and that had some sort of immeasurable value that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, or so she told herself.


Stefanie didn’t know exactly what was happening, but she heard shouts that weren’t chants and then the crowd started rocking back and forth, first smoothly, then rippling like boiling water. Eyes grew wider and everyone started asking no one in particular what was going on. Suddenly they were all moving because the police were swarming and it was everyone for themselves except for her, apparently, because somehow Günter had found her hand. It was impossible to run like that, though, so she made him let go by yelling at him to Let go! The situation was evidently so dire that he didn’t even look offended. Someone elbowing through the crowd caught her in the nose. She felt the heat blossom immediately and it was so pointed that she couldn’t even tell that she was bleeding until she raised the Günter-hand to her top lip and found wetness. They kept moving. All she could really see was the sky, because backs of bodies were like walls of short buildings. She pushed and pushed and then figures were beginning to give way and the only thing that kept her from falling into the newly open air was willpower and a voice in her head that was screaming, angrily, in English, Do not fall, you idiot. They found their way down a side street and the polizei were still everywhere in blue, weaving in and out and waving sticks and yelling in German that Stefanie suddenly couldn’t understand a single word of. Go, just go. And then there was a shot.


Stefanie assumed that someone had been shot—that it hadn’t just been A Shot. The crowd had stopped and there was silence and then everything moved in a way that felt like the world was being shot out of something like a canon or a gun. Stefanie and Günter were on a side street and since there was no room in front of them they were forced to turn around. That was probably better anyways since the shot had come from ahead, but going any way but forward was like a step off a cliff. But soon going backwards turned into forwards and they were running alongside others who were running and it was a race and they were in a marathon like the half of one Stefanie had done in college to benefit cancer research. When they were far enough away and almost to the Tiergarten and people were scattering amongst the fresh young trees like nymphs, Stefanie and Günter slowed down and stopped. Stefanie admitted that she had to go to the bathroom, which felt ridiculous, considering the circumstances, but it had to be done. Günter nodded seriously. His glasses were gone. Stefanie ran to a tree that had been planted before the war and that was wide enough to shield her body, which she knew was something very American of her to even care about at a time like this. She slid down her pants halfway and leaned against the tree and was watching people run by and then stared at a bulletin board a little ways away where, half-covered by an announcement for a folk concert, John F. Kennedy’s head and three of the four words of Ich bin ein Berliner! peeked out. This made Stefanie furious. She pulled up her pants and stalked over to John and ripped away the concert poster to glare at the eroding head and look at the words that were crashing through her mind like symbols or drums. Who do you think you are, Kennedy? You’re less of a Berliner than I am! Then she remembered that Kennedy was dead just like Karl’s grandmother.


The guy that had gotten shot was named Benno, and he was from Hannover. There was a picture of him on the front page of the Bild-Zeitung, and Stefanie couldn’t help but think that he looked entirely too normal to be the victim of a police shooting at a protest.

The newspapers were blaming the students. They were saying that the anti-Shah protesters had started the battles with the pro-Shah salmon and not the other way around, which seemed like it should matter because it wasn’t true, but Stefanie couldn’t articulate why. What happened had happened and Kennedy and Benno were dead. Dieter called a meeting on June 3 and the SDS was back on the streets. There was a feeling that everyone felt, but it was so much feeling that it ended up feeling like an intense and draining nothing, like static over the radio.

Running up and down Berlin and yelling and protesting anything and everything became a way of life, but not for Stefanie, at least not for long. On June 5 Cathy called and told Stefanie that she and Bob had seen what was happening on the news, and that they would pay for her flight home. Günter had his hand resting possessively on the low curved part of Stefanie’s back while she spoke to her mom, and that was just too much. Her nose was still throbbing and she asked herself if she had already made history and if she was still pretending and if it all mattered or not. She asked herself about the stakes she had in this—if she knew what she was yelling and chanting. She realized she didn’t. She realized that a lot of people didn’t. The people that did, the organizers and the organized, were calling for more battles. What was this becoming? Was this what she came here for? Had she found what she had been looking for? She realized she had no idea what that was to begin with and doubted that she ever really knew. Was that a bad thing or was just how life worked? Was she a Berliner? She moved back to Minnesota a week later.


Stephanie tried to get her job back at the paper plant, but they took one look at her and that was that. Even though she had gone to a salon to even out her hand-chopped hair, she couldn’t bring herself to give up a style of casual German severity. She was different than the Minnesotans, and she liked that.

But then she went to another plant, and another. She went to a grocery store and a hospital. She listed on her resume that she could speak German. Can you speak Spanish? they would ask. No. They would give an almost imperceptible shake of their heads as if to say that Stephanie had so much wasted potential. She ran out of money completely and tried to go to the University of Minnesota to get a German tutoring job, but the administration wouldn’t let her tutor because she didn’t have a degree in German and she didn’t have enough money to print out advertising posters to get students on her own. She couldn’t find a Günter. She told herself that everything was happening like this because she was a woman. She had to move back in with Cathy and Bob, and her mom would make her macaroni and cheese while she looked through the want ads in the newspapers that were filled with more about the weather than they were about events. She was getting Minnesota fat again, and her mom made her stop smoking cigarettes and she even bought Stephanie new clothes for church that didn’t show her stomach and didn’t have a whisper of sex anywhere on them. None of the clothes were black or even maroon. Whenever the news came on at night and anything about Germany would air, Cathy would huff in that way that mothers huff sometimes. And sometimes, when it got really bad, she would leave the room as if she just could not believe that her only daughter had been a part of such a thing. To spare his wife, Bob began to turn the volume down whenever German news came on, which had reduced Stephanie to tears more than once because she thought about Solidarity too often, but she never said anything and no one ever mentioned it. That life was over, and no one wanted to talk about it.

One day after the 6 o’clock news they were all sitting in the living room. Bob was in his chair and Cathy had taken her shoes off and was sitting on the couch and Stephanie was just about to get up and go for a walk because being in the house exactly like this every single night was making her want to choke on her own spit. Then the telephone in the kitchen rang, and Stephanie saw Cathy and Bob glance at each other. Stephanie nodded to herself because she knew exactly what was going to happen. She was surprised that it hadn’t happened already. Cathy asked Stephanie, honey, will you get that?, and though she thought about saying that she was just about to head out, she went to the phone anyways. She could just see Cathy’s face through the kitchen doorway, and her mom’s expression made her stomach turn in a circle. The insides of her elbows began to sweat. Stephanie put the phone to her ear and she could feel Johnny Krasinski’s breath hot on her neck. She found herself wondering if he still chewed tobacco. She had always hated that, but maybe if he had stopped it wouldn’t be that bad. The conversation went a little like this:


Hello. Is this Stephanie?


Steph, it is so good to hear your voice. When your mom told my dad that you had come back from Germany, I couldn’t wait to call.

Good to hear from you, John.

I knew you would come back.


I’m here.

Do you think we could go out sometime? I just got a new truck. I’d love to take you for a ride.


I’m here.



They made arrangements for Johnny Krasinski to pick her up the next evening at 5:30 in his new truck. Stephanie hung up the phone and padded calmly back into the living room where the tv was turned down and her mom’s feet were up and her dad was sipping on a blue can of light beer. Stephanie began to grind her teeth but no one was saying a word about any of it apart from Cathy’s expression, which looked the way having grandchildren might feel. Stephanie sat down. She stared straight ahead at the silent television. The images flashing across the screen were familiar but distant, someone else’s memory. She swallowed. This was the way it was supposed to be. She’d been pretending. She told herself again:

I had just been pretending. I’d just been pretending. That was all pretend. All of it.

About the Author

Charli Spier

Charli Spier is a writer and history PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, and is in the process of applying to MFA programs. Currently, Charli is a Graduate Student Instructor teaching US History.