Chad Smith is a 39-year-old writer originally from Queens, New York, now living in Hamburg, Germany. Chad started his career as a journalist but has recently begun writing more fiction. His hobbies include basketball and chess.
I followed a complete stranger in the city today. She looked like a very successful whore.
I first noticed her standing next to me at the corner of an intersection. We were both waiting for the light to change to cross the street. She was wearing a fur vest with pink pleather pants and was towing one of those trendy metal suitcases behind her. A Louis Vuitton bag was looped around her suitcase’s retractable handle, and she had another bag, a St. Laurent, hanging from the crook of her arm.
At first, I didn’t think that that fur vest of hers was real, but when I realized that it was, I thought to myself, “What the fuck is this? Is she aware of the weather? Hell, is she aware of what city she’s in?”
I made a point to get a look at her face. I saw it only partially. It was a face you might see in an old propaganda poster: feminine but somehow masculine, too. She looked like she could’ve been a model, but she was too ugly to be a model, also too short, which made me think that she was a successful whore.
The light at the intersection was taking longer than normal to change, and though I didn’t mind, guess who did. That’s right, fur-vest girl. I know because she jaywalked. Yup, right there in front of me and a bunch of other pedestrians who were also waiting to cross, she rolled that fancy suitcase of hers first to a narrow concrete island that separated both lanes of traffic, and then to the opposing sidewalk, making it there safely but illegally.
When the light changed, I followed her.
She was walking toward an area in Hamburg that’s known to be seedy. St. Georg, it’s called. It’s a district right by the Hamburg Central Station and its main center of activity is an avenue named Steindamm.
Steindamm is notorious for its off-site betting centers, sex shops, drug dealers, pawnshops and storefront casinos called Spielhallen. It’s also known as a place where one can find a prostitute. But the cheap, cheap prostitutes—the ones not on the books.
See, in Germany, prostitution is legal and is regulated by the government. That means that hookers and the brothels many of them work out of have to pay taxes. Most of the brothels in Hamburg are on the Reeperbahn, a famous street by the port. The Reeperbahn is bursting with clubs and discos and is generally thought of as the place to go for a wild night out, so it makes sense that most of the city’s brothels are near it. The hookers that work out of the brothels on the Reeperbahn may not be Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman but they are at least on the books and accounted for.
The hookers hooking on Steindamm, however, are of a different breed. They sell themselves illegally and bring their johns up into the seedy pay-by-the-hour hotels that are a fixture on the avenue and are favored by drug addicts and other vagrants.
Fur-vest girl was heading toward Steindamm.
The day itself was overcast and drizzle was in the air. The drizzle was incredibly fine but considering the temperature was enough to make you cognizant of any part of your body still exposed to the elements. I was wearing my bomber jacket and I zipped it up all the way to my neck: this could be a while.
After fur-vest girl crossed another street and began walking across a big triangular patch of sidewalk, I slowed my pace. At the far end of the patch, the broad end, there was a building between two streets. The street to the right led to the bus station, the street to the left was Steindamm. Fur-vest girl chose the street to the left.
I knew I needed to improve my chances of not being detected at this point—after all, there weren’t that many people around—so I began acting as if I were a tourist. Instead of just walking down Steindamm, I began taking it in.
Honestly, it didn’t look that bad. The buildings on either side of the street, all walk-ups, were old but looked like they had probably been landmarked. Sure, there were the sex shops, but their storefronts weren’t yet lit up, giving the shops themselves the appearance of being closed. Outside the Spielhallen, men were standing around, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. That was fine. Having to walk through the cancerous clouds of smoke that these men produced with their cigarettes, that annoyed me.
Fur-vest girl, meanwhile, had zero clue that I was following her. She was just rolling that suitcase along behind her, its wheels making a deep rumbling sound on the pavement the entire time. The funny thing was, though she looked silly—that vest of hers was so puffy it made her look like a Pomeranian that had just come from the groomers—she was good at walking. Her paces were sure and even and she never overly yielded to the men she’d walk past. When a homeless guy who was sitting against a building gestured at her for a handout, she didn’t even turn to look at him. Instead, she continued to look dead ahead, as if a camera at the end of a catwalk were about to take her picture. It was incredible.
In front of one of the pay-by-the-hour hotels, she finally came to a stop. I stopped, too, stealthily ducking into the covered entranceway of a shopping arcade. Standing just inside the darkened entranceway, I observed her. She had one hand on the handle of her suitcase and she was looking at her phone. Above her was the sign for the hotel. “Hotel Blaue Engel,” it read. I had to laugh. The hotel had obviously been named after that Weimar-era movie about a stuffy professor who becomes obsessed with a cabaret dancer, a siren who leads him to his doom. “Der Blau Engel,” I thought. “How funny is that?”
Just then I felt a tapping on my shoulder. When I turned around, a man was standing there in the shadows. He was holding a reusable grocery bag stuffed with what looked like his effects, and he wanted to know if I had a light. When I told him I didn’t, he responded by asking me for a cigarette. I thought that that was a really strange question, but in this part of town, expected. I told him that I couldn’t help him there, either, and after he walked off—I watched him go, too, because, honestly, I didn’t trust him—I turned back around to see what fur-vest girl was doing, but she wasn’t doing anything because she was, well, gone. Just—poof—completely vanished. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, jeez, you take your eyes off of some people for just a second and they vanish. But I’m not stupid. I knew there was no other place she could have gone than into Der Blaue Engel.
Obviously, I wasn’t going to just let her go like that, so I walked up to the hotel entrance to see what I could learn. The front door, unfortunately, was locked but there was a sidelight next to it. I cupped my hands around my face to block out the glare and I looked through the sidelight. The only thing I could see in the vestibule was a small set of stairs leading to a landing. Further back there were two big wooden doors that had been propped open, allowing me to get a look at a winding flight of stairs that led to what I guessed were the hotel’s upper floors. Honestly, the place looked deserted.
I removed my hands from my face and took a few steps back. I looked up. The building itself looked like all the other old walk-ups I had already passed. It had rows of windows with paneled shutters and a cornice that was more functional than decorative. A stone lion’s head protruding from the outer masonry was the one thing that really caught my eye. It was totally useless ornamentation, but it looked cool.
I walked back up to the front door and tried it again. It was still locked. There was still no one in the vestibule, either, so I turned my attention to a metal-plated intercom that was fixed to a wall next to the sidelight. Surprisingly, the device had many buttons on it. I mean, there was one button that was bigger than the others: that one was for the hotel. However, next to each of the other buttons was a small rectangular window, a name holder. What struck me was that most of the names that I saw hadn’t been printed on cards; instead, they had merely been handwritten on torn strips of paper.
I pushed the button for the hotel and was buzzed in. Immediately, a man popped out of an office that was at the top of that small set of stairs in the vestibule. He popped out of there so quickly it felt almost comical, like a shtick I remembered having seen in a movie.
“Hi, how can I help you?” the man said, looking down at me. I guessed that he was the clerk.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m looking for someone.”
“What?” he said, putting his hand to his ear. Without saying anything more, he went back into his office and turned the volume down on a radio that was playing in there.
“I’m looking for someone,” I repeated, shouting up the stairs.
After a few moments, the clerk walked out of the office. He still hadn’t heard me.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “what was that?”
“I’m looking for someone.”
“Oh, you’re looking for someone, you said. I’m sorry, then. I can’t give out any information unless it’s been authorized.”
I just nodded and took my new friend’s measure. He was a swarthy guy, and I couldn’t tell his country of origin, but his German was perfect. He was wearing corduroys and a woolen sweater and had a gold stud in his ear.
He continued: “Unless you’re looking to take out a room upstairs or a person comes down to get you, I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”
“No, no,” I said. “I know the person: November.”
The lie spilled out of my mouth so easily I surprised even myself. I remembered having seen the name next to a button on the intercom and thinking, “November? What kind of name is that?” Nevertheless, I was going all in.
“If you’re looking for November,” the clerk said testily, “why did you ring for the hotel?”
He had me there. My first thought was to say that on the intercom the button for the hotel was bigger, which it was, but I thought that that sounded like bullshit. After all, he might have seen me through the security camera above the intercom, reading all the names next to the buttons. (I had seen that camera, too, thank you very much.)
I was about to thank the clerk and tell him I’d come back later but not when he said, “Wait, Herr Hoffmann?”
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, pointing to myself. "Did November tell you I was coming?”
Again, a boldfaced lie, but, hey, no turning back now.
“You’re supposed to drop off her insulin, right?”
“Exactly,” I said.
I had my backpack with me, and I acted like I would take it off and display its contents if asked. The clerk told me to wait and went back into his office for a moment.
I couldn’t believe how easy this was turning out to be. Insulin? Really? Well, if the shoe fits, wear it, I thought. I wasn’t sure what the clerk was doing up there, but I figured it better to do what he said, so I waited.
The hotel was weird. The walls of the vestibule looked as though they were made of marble, but they weren’t—it was just an effect. Plexiglas had been set over marble-patterned wallpaper, and I guess the combination of the two, the Plexiglas and the wallpaper, gave the effect of a marble wall. A chandelier with plastic candle tubes hung above me, suspended by a chain from the ceiling, and the odor of cigarette smoke was in the air.
Funny thing was, outside the building now, right where I had been standing just moments before, a woman had her back to the sidelight. The woman—she was “big-boned,” shall we say—looked German but was probably from Eastern Europe and she had her hair pulled back in a bun, which was pressed up against the glass. She had a black windbreaker and a plaid skirt on and she looked pretty normal, but she was wearing a fanny pack and that said it all, because in Hamburg, a fanny pack is a sign of a working girl. (I think they keep their money and condoms in it.) As she scanned the street, I could see a little of her profile, and though I thought she might turn and look at me—heck, I thought that she had maybe come to stand there for me—she didn’t. She just stood there and waited.
I looked up the stairs again to the office that the clerk had disappeared into. I heard the sounds of drawers opening and closing, so he must’ve been looking for something. I wondered about him, who he was and who made his clothing choices for him. It couldn’t be healthy to be constantly inhaling this cigarette smoke. Well, at least the building was pretty nice, I thought. It was weird but it had to have been from the turn of the 20th century. The banister belonging to the stair set looked like it was original. It was made of wood and rolled up at the lower end like a scroll. I touched the scroll, running my fingers along the smooth, carved wood.
“OK, here you are...” I heard the clerk say. He was at the top of the stairs again and he was looking at a piece of paper that he had in his hand.
“You have to leave the insulin with her neighbor, June. The message says that June should be home now. If not, come down and notify me.”
“All right, thanks,” I said.
I thought it’d be OK to walk up the stairs at this point, so I did and I carefully took the piece of paper. The clerk nodded and gave me an authentic smile, as if he were appreciative of the type of “work” I “did.” He pointed me to the winding stairs that were just beyond the propped open wooden doors and said that the apartment that I was looking for was on the third floor. I thanked him again. He was waiting for me to start on my journey up, but when I told him that I thought I’d be all right, he went back into his office.
I started up the stairs. As I rounded them, they creaked. They were wooden and old, but I wasn’t worried about them structurally; after all, this was Germany. The clerk had been nice, but I had no intention of doing what he had asked, of going to November’s or June’s or friggin March or May’s room. I just wanted to find my fur-vested hooker.
When I got to the first floor, it became fully clear what this place was: I heard moaning coming from an apartment. I knew it was moaning because a few moments after I thought I heard it, I put my ear to the door belonging to the apartment from which I thought I’d heard it coming from to confirm it and did.
On my way to the second floor, I realized I wasn’t alone in the staircase. At the railing guarding the second-floor landing a man was standing looking down at me. As soon as I made eye contact with him, though, he began on his way down the stairs. He was creepy. The type of smile he gave me—I couldn’t tell if it was because he thought I was cute or what—made me think that maybe he and I had met before, though we obviously hadn’t. I wondered if he had just seen me put my ear to the door. Simply thinking that he had made me feel embarrassed, so after he passed me, I turned and said, “Excuse me, do you know where I can find November?”
For a moment, I was looking at the man’s back. But finally he turned around.
“November?” he said. “What does she look like?”
I just threw something out there.
“Well, she has this crazy fur vest and this sort of square-jawed face.”
The man thought for a second and then looked up at me, smiling. “That’s not November,” he said. “That’s Leonie.”
“Ah, OK, right,” I said. “Which floor?”
“It’s at the top, guy...the fourth.”
I thanked the man and continued up the stairs. He watched me the whole time and that made me feel totally weird. Still, I kept going.
The third floor seemed to be under renovation because there was a high-velocity blower fan whirring in front of one of the apartments. Every landing marked a new floor, and on each floor were three apartments: one to the left, one facing you once you arrived at the top of the landing, and one to the right, just before the flight of stairs to the next floor began. When I got to the top floor, I put my ear against the first apartment door, the one to the left. I heard nothing. Behind the second door, I heard what sounded like two people talking. I figured that this particular apartment wasn’t Leonie’s because she had just gone upstairs a few minutes prior, and no one had entered the building behind her except me. I had just put my ear to the third door when the door all the way to the left, the first one I had listened against, opened and, boom, there she was: Leonie. She had a small bag of trash in her hand and, after giving me a once-over, placed it down next to her doormat, to throw out later.
She obviously wasn’t wearing her fur vest anymore. She was a little more casual now. She was in the same pleather pants but up top was wearing a thin warm-up hoodie that was unzipped and allowed part of a white tank top that she had on underneath to show. Her hair was pinned back in the front, kind of pomp-like, and that made her look uglier than she had on the street.
“Leonie,” I said.
She looked at me blankly, almost as if I had asked her a strange question.
“Yeah,” she said. “We said 16:30, right?”
“Oh. No, I’m—”
I stopped. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to say, actually.
“Wait a second,” she said, “how did you get in here?”
She didn’t wait for an answer.
“You have to come back later.”
I stood expressionless.
“You are the guy who called me on the phone just before, right?”
Boom: another chance.
“Yeah, yeah, on the phone...we talked.”
She seemed placated for the moment and to be searching her mind to see whether she and I had ever met before. I looked past her into her room and just saw the foot of a bed peeking out from behind a wall. The ceiling, though, seemed exceptionally high, and it didn’t look like that bad of a place.
Leonie shook her head. “I’m sorry; I don’t begin before 16:30.”
For a minute, I just looked at her. Her eyes were green, but a segment of one eye was brown and I thought that that was really cool.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out cash—I’m talking 50s.
“Uh, OK...” she said, looking down at the money. She had taken a step back after I had pulled the bills out, but she was looking at what I had to offer. When she took out her phone and checked the time, I felt encouraged.
“Yeah, OK, sure,” she said.
I put the money away for the time being and was given the signal that I could enter the apartment. She was adamant that I enter first, ahead of her. I thought that that was weird but then figured that she was probably following some kind of protocol.
The apartment was kind of shocking. It was, first of all, just big enough for a bed. Yeah, there was a makeup table opposite the bed and a few chairs by the window, but the apartment basically looked like a small European hotel room whose centerpiece was...yup, a bed. The walls were all painted red except for one, which might as well have been painted red because it was painted magenta, and the drapes on either side of the window were held in place by frilly golden tiebacks that looked more like they belonged in Versailles. In the modicum of space between the bed and one of the walls was a room-service trolley upon which small towels had been carefully folded and stacked, and next to the trolley, on the floor, a giant bowl of condoms.
What really got me, though, were the mirrors: they were everywhere. It was like a friggin' funhouse in there. There was a mirror over the headboard (with a handprint on it), a mirror on the ceiling and of course the makeup table’s big oval mirror. The bathroom door was swung open and there was a mirror hung on it, and while this particular mirror didn’t face the bed, it was angled in a way that allowed you to see in the mirror of the makeup table what was going on in the bed.
As something of a saving grace, I saw a book. It was on a footstool near the makeup table. I was able to read the cover, The Dark Tower by Stephen King.
“So it’s 75 euro for 15 minutes,” Leonie said.
She was standing just inside the apartment leaning against the wall with her hands tucked behind the small of her back. I noticed that she had something like a diamond stud where Marilyn Monroe had had her birthmark. She couldn’t have been older than 25.
“Or,” she said, “if you want half an hour, that’s fine, too.”
“How about,” I said, “I give you 150 euros for 15 minutes.”
She gave me a skeptical look.
“I’m not a fetishist, sorry,” she said, bringing her hands away from her back. “What exactly are you looking to do?”
“No...I’ll give you 150 euros for 15 minutes just to”—I have to admit, I hesitated here—“just to talk.”
She smiled. It was a nice smile and her eyes smiled along.
“Just to talk?” she said. “Oh no, you’re not one of those guys, are you?”
I didn’t know what she meant.
“Yeah,” she said, “those guys who think they are going to come in here and ‘learn’ about me and enlighten me and save me from the evil ways of the street. I’ve seen it before. But, honestly, they don’t usually offer 150 euro.”
She went to the door, which up until that point had been ajar, and shut it completely. I took that as a good sign.
“No. That’s not me,” I said. “I just want to talk. 150 euros, 15 minutes, agreed?” Here I used the German word Einverstanden even though we were talking in English. Einverstanden sort of means, “Have we reached an understanding?” I took out the bills and held them in my hand. I was sitting at the foot of the bed. She walked over to me and said she agreed. She then took the money and went into the bathroom. When she came out, she sat down in a chair by the window. She looked at me seriously.
“What would you like to know?” she said.
I wasn’t exactly sure, to be honest with you, so I sort of laughed. “Um...” I said, looking around the room, hoping that maybe an object I’d see would inspire me to ask the right question, but everything seemed wrong.
“You want to pay me to talk,” she said, “but you can’t even think of a question? Do you want me to ask you a question?”
She didn’t say this meanly per se, but the question still came off strange and sort of pissed me off. I just thought of the first thing that came into my mind, then.
“No, I can think of a question. Why did you jaywalk?”
She looked at me blankly.
“Sorry, right. What I meant was, why did you cross the street illegally? Why did you do that back by the train station?”
“What are you talking about?” she said.
“Back at the train station, while everyone was waiting for the light, you jaywalked. Why?”
She shook her head. “How do you know that I did that? Did I even do that?”
“Just please answer,” I said.
“Uh, OK. I didn’t feel like waiting for the light.”
She bit her fingernail and then looked at it, then looked up at me.
“What?” she said.
I hadn’t said anything.
She continued: “I didn’t feel like waiting for the light, it’s that easy. Plus, I told one of the other girls here that I would give her dog his medicine for the afternoon.”
I laughed. “Really?”
“Yeah, one of my neighbors here keeps her dog with her, and the dog—it’s a little dog—needs to have his medicine in his food by three. I was already late, so I didn’t want to wait for the light.”
“Ah,” I said.
She looked at me in a way that said, “Yeah, not too crazy, huh?” and continued to bite, and look at, the nail she had been working on.
“What is this place?” I asked.
The point between her eyebrows creased and she shook her head slightly. I guessed she hadn’t understood me perfectly.
“This building, you mean?”
“Yeah, this building," I said, looking all around the room. The ceiling was very high but the paint up there was cracked and the molding crowning the walls had lost much of its original form.
“Well, you probably saw that downstairs is a hotel, so it’s a few things...” she said, finally getting going. “It’s a normal hotel where you can stay overnight, but it’s also a hotel where you can rent the rooms by the hour. It costs something like 45 euro for the hour. But there are also apartments here. For the girls that have steady clients, they can rent the rooms on a weekly basis. If you rent the room, you can also live in it if you want. But most girls don’t. They just rent the room and have another place.”
“Do you have another place?”
“In another part of the city.”
All I knew about this part of Hamburg was that it was very commercial, the place to go if you were looking for a mechanics garage or an aftermarket-parts shop.
“Do you live alone in Wandsbek?”
“No, with other girls.”
“Where are you from?”
We were quiet for a moment. I was nodding my head, showing my understanding. Outside a car honked and someone yelled something. I looked at myself in the oval mirror of the makeup table and thought that I looked like I was in some kind of movie or something, or that my head, my physical head, was the centerpiece in a cameo brooch. It was funny.
I looked back at Leonie.
“How did it be that you started working like this?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. I felt as though I had created a comfortable atmosphere for her, and of course that was going to be a question I was going to ask.
“I gotcha. So why a fur vest?”
Her eyes shot over to me. “You saw my fur?”
Whoops. That didn’t strike the right note, either.
"Are you a stalker or something?" she said.
“I just saw you outside. I’m not a stalker. Why do you have a fur vest?”
I asked more firmly this second time; I had to.
“Why do I have a fur vest, huh?”
She got up and walked over to a closet by the door.
“This?” She displayed the vest.
“Have you ever been to Latvia?”
I shook my head.
“Do you know where Latvia is?”
“Yeah: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia,” I said, proudly remembering the names of the Baltic States like they had taught us.
“That’s good. But do you have any idea how cold it gets in Latvia?
“What, you worry about the animals?” She feigned a sympathetic look, her forehead breaking into plains of wrinkles.
“Yeah," I said. "But it also looks a little crazy, the fur.”
“I like it.”
“But animals die for it,” I said.
“Yeah, but in our culture, we wear that.”
“OK, but this isn’t Latvia.”
“Yeah, but it’s cold here.”
“Not that cold.”
“OK,” I said like someone who had just called checkmate on his opponent, “it was raining today and you were walking around in the rain with a fur vest.”
“It was raining, you’re right,” she said. “But you can wear fur in the rain.”
“What? No way.”
“Oh yeah,” she said, kind of laughing. “You just have to make sure to let the fur coat or vest dry properly. “Think about it, animals get rained on, right?”
I had never thought about it that way and had to laugh. She laughed at me laughing, and she shook her head and looked at the floor, which I took as a good sign. As she readjusted her vest on the closet hanger, I leaned back on the bed a little to cross my legs. I leaned back just a little.
“And where are you from,” she asked, “England?”
“No,” I said. I was still thinking about how funny it was that it never occurred to me that animals get rained on.
“I would like to ask the questions if that’s OK.”
“That’s OK,” she said, and it seemed like she really meant it. I had thought she was going to be hurt.
“Would you like some tea?” she asked.
“Oh. OK,” I said.
This was really turning out to be enjoyable. She went to the side of the bed near the window. Looking at her tank top, I was able to see the outline of her breasts. From underneath the bed she brought out an electric kettle.
“But speaking of England,” I said, “where did you learn English?”
“School,” she said. “And by watching films. I mean, have you ever heard of our famous Latvian cinema?”
I shook my head.
“Right. There isn’t any,” she said and used her foot to shove some items back under the bed. “All the films and series we watch are in English.”
I guess I walked into that one.
She continued: “You can learn a lot of the language from watching things. Once you get passed a certain point, it gets easy. You just have to reach that point.”
“Ah,” I said. It gave me something to think about.
When she was in the bathroom filling up the electric kettle, another thought occurred to me. I asked her right away.
“How do you know that it’s safe?”
“What?” she said. She couldn’t hear me over the running water.
“The men,” I shouted. “How do you know that it’s safe?”
Walking out of the bathroom, she said, “Well, we can see you.”
I didn’t quite understand.
“There’s a video camera downstairs,” she said, “and if you ring the bell, we can see you. There’s also the clerk downstairs and he works as another line of defense. Actually, how did you get in here?”
“I lied,” I said.
She was weighing the statement; I could see it.
“Just to see...what? What goes on here?”
“Sure. Just to see what goes on here.”
She shook her head incredulously. Neither of us said anything for a few moments, but the pause didn’t feel like a bad one.
“I have herbal tea or black,” she said finally.
“I’ll take the herbal tea, thanks.”
She took two tea bags from a Ziploc she had also taken out from under the bed. After removing the tea bags from their covers, she put them into glasses.
“OK,” I said, returning to the subject of safety. “So you can see the men. But they could be crazy.”
“That’s true,” she said, pouring the water. “But usually if a man looks nice, he’s nice. But it’s not always that way.”
For some reason, here I didn’t ask her a further question. She handed me a glass that was filled with piping hot water, and I immediately put the burning-hot thing on the floor. I figured the glass didn’t need a coaster because the floor was made of old wooden boards and a little spilled tea wouldn’t be a problem.
“So what do you do for fun?” I asked.
“Not much. We basically all just work all day. I like to do fitness. There’s a fitness studio around here.”
“Do you go running at the Alster?” I asked.
“I go running, yeah.”
“No, but do you go running at the Alster?”
“No.” She put her cup on the windowsill. “What’s that?”
“The Alster? The big lake? You don’t know it?”
“I think I’ve heard of it,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. It would be like someone in Manhattan never having heard of Central Park. In the summer, the Alster is filled with people eating ice cream, having picnics or just lying out. The lake is four miles in circumference and has a soft gravel path around it. It’s a runner’s dream.
“You sure you don’t know it?” I continued. “It’s just east of here?...a big lake?...people run around it?...”
“No, sorry. I think I’ve heard of it.”
She was biting her fingernail again and had turned her attention to the window.
“No big deal,” I said. “It’s just a lake.”
Leonie was still looking out the window. I reached over to the book that was on the footstool and put two fingers on the cover.
“How about this book? You like Stephen King?”
“I love Stephen King,” she said, turning to me. Her face had literally lit up.
“The Dark Tower, huh?” I picked up the book and felt its weight in my hand.
“Yeah, I love The Dark Tower series. Did you ever read it?”
“No. This book is big, though.” The book had to be at least 700 pages.
“Yeah, but I read Stephen King books in a few days.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah, all I need is a few days to read the entire book. I love Stephen King. But my favorite book of his, probably not what you think, is Duma Key.
I couldn’t believe she had mentioned this book. I had read it over the course of about two weeks a few Christmases back after having found it in a box outside on the street among other books someone was giving away. Duma Key was a much lesser known Stephen King book. I was surprised.
“Why Duma Key?” I asked. “I liked it, too. But why is it your favorite?”
“I don’t know,” she said, leaning forward in her chair, “just something about the way the landscape is described, the warm tropical landscape of Florida.”
“Well, Florida actually isn’t that tropical, it’s more—”
“Yeah, something about the palm trees and all that, and having all that freedom and an island all to yourself but there still being something wrong and scary.”
With two hands she took a sip from her tea. She was looking at something invisible above me.
For a few moments, we didn’t say anything. Then, I said, “There’s one thing I remember about that book, one thing I really loved...”
And it was true. Stephen King kept coming back to this one thing in Duma Key, almost like a refrain.
“Do you remember,” I said, “the sound that the waves made—”
“Yes, absolutely, under the house.”
“Exactly,” I said. “The way that the waves sounded when they crashed on the shore and—”
“—and ran over the shells under the house. I loved that, too.”
“Yeah, I remember loving that part. The description of the waves running over the shells is always so different—sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary, sometimes crazy.”
“That’s the one part I really remember,” I said.
“It was really good.”
We both took a sip of our tea. I put mine down on the floor and she put hers on the windowsill. She was staring out the window again.
“It was a friend, by the way,” she said.
“What’s that?” I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“It was through a friend that I got into this.”
I saw that her expression had changed. She now looked, I guess you could say, somber.
“A friend?” I asked. “How?”
“No,” she said, trying to wave it off. But I wasn’t letting her off the hook this time.
“I’m not really concerned about the logistics of how you got into this,” I said, “but more, like, why?”
I was surprised. Two seconds ago she seemed to not want to tell me anything; now it was “easy”?
“I mean,” she started, readjusting herself in her seat, “I never thought I would get into prostitution, but can I ask you a question?”
She had my attention.
“Do you have money? Do you have a family?”
It was clear I wasn’t going to answer those questions.
“It’s different,” she said, “when things get bad and you don’t have people you can lean on.”
“Sure,” I said. “But become a whore?”
She laughed. “Well, that’s not the nicest word to use.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“OK, OK,” she said, suddenly filled with a resolve that she had found somewhere. “My story is like this...” She readjusted herself in her chair and then looked at me. “So can I tell it to you?” she said.
“Yes,” I said; “of course.” (I guess she wanted to see if she had my full attention.)
“OK. OK, so I’m adopted,” she said and immediately paused to see how I had taken the info. To be honest, I wanted to roll my eyes, but I just nodded my head.
“I was four when I was adopted, and the woman who adopted me, Jacky, was amazing, or, let’s say, was amazing at the time. She gave me everything I wanted. There were rules, and she did punish me if I disobeyed her, but she was amazing...amazing laughs we had. We even laughed once when I stole her car. But, really, one of the things that made her so great was that she always gave me whatever I wanted. And, if you think about it, what does that mean? It means money.
“If I ever wanted something—money; if I was ever in trouble—money. But what I didn’t realize over the years was that the money, well, it came with...wait, I learned this, I think you call it in your language, ‘strings.’”
“The money came with strings,” I said.
“Right, the money came with strings. It wasn’t just, “Here’s money,” it was, Here’s money, and you better not forget that I gave it to you and that without me...well...you’d be nothing. Oh, and don’t ever leave me.
“Anyway, as I got older, I started to realize that every time my mom and I would get into a fight, she would throw it in my face about how she supported me my whole life and how, without her, I would be nothing. And then what would happen? She would eventually feel bad and send me a letter where I was living. Not saying sorry, but just talking to me normal again. Just sweeping the problems away. And it would work.”
I was nodding.
“But one day I had enough. We were in a fight about something related to—yes, of course, money—and she said that I was ‘a piece of shit.’ I’ll never forget those words, just three simple words. She said, ‘You know, you’re a real piece of shit.’ And it wasn’t the first time she had called me things like that, but there was something about the way that she said it this time that really got me. I said, ‘OK, if I’m a piece of shit, then why do you spend time with me? Why do you call me your daughter?’ She didn’t have an answer and she didn’t take the comment back...so I left her.”
“What do you mean you ‘left’ her?'”
“I stopped talking to her—that’s what I mean. And that was it.”
“Wow,” I said. I went to take a sip of my tea, but the cup was empty.
“Yeah, but no contact means no money, right?” Leonie said, smiling at me like we were the only two people who could understand the logic. “I mean,” she continued, “it’s not like I called her mom for the money. I did love her. And she did try to get me back by saying ‘I’m sorry’ in a letter. But a fucking letter? What am I supposed to do with a letter? But anyway, I had no money, right?” She smiled again. This wasn’t a nice smile. She was basically biting her lower lip. “I had no money. I also had debts.”
“But a prostitute?”
“Yeah, but I like to fuck. So I made my decision. Plus, to hell with everybody else. They can judge me. But I make money. I have fun. Do you want to know how much that fur vest actually cost?”
“OK, but why Steindamm?” I said. “Why not the Reeperbahn? It’s better over there for girls like you.”
“Why here? ’Cause that’s my money. No one’s taking what I earned. Not my mom, not the government, nobody. I get what I earn and that’s it.” She looked at me like I was crazy.
“You know, recently,” she said, “I had one week where I just had two clients. It was terrible. Maybe it’s the winter months, I don’t know. But I’m not giving away any of what I earn from that—not to the government, not to you, not to my mom, nobody.”
Suddenly, there was a pounding at the door.
“What the fuck is that?” Leonie said, recoiling in her seat. “Are you kidding me? No one knocks on my door like that.”
There was someone shouting something in the hall, and it sounded bad.
“That person’s acting like an animal,” she said. “What time is it?”
I didn’t have a watch.
“Forget it,” she said. “Can you come with me to the door?” She looked nicer again. The shock had apparently cleared her anger.
“Sure,” I said and stood up. If this was her actual 4:30, wow, what an asshole.
The knocking continued even as Leonie was trying to get the door open. Unfortunately, when she did, I immediately recognized the person standing on the other side.
It was the clerk.
“What are you doing?” he said. He sounded super angry and after giving Leonie a quick up and down, made a point to look past me to see what was going on in the apartment. “Can you please tell me what exactly you’re doing?” He was wearing his wool sweater and sweat was visible on his forehead. There was a man behind him. The man was holding a white paper bag and seemed to be confused.
I replied, “What do you mean—”
“Please, just stop,” he said. “You’re not Herr Hoffmann. You know how I know?” He looked back at the man behind him. “Because he’s Herr Hoffman.” The real Herr Hoffman just looked at me with a sort of wide-eyed expression.
The clerk, meanwhile, no longer seemed effeminate. He was serious, and, suddenly, I realized that he was a tough dude who probably not only lived in St. Georg but also survived the AIDS crisis it suffered in the ’80s.
He continued, a shade less belligerently, “Are you not going to admit that you lied?” He crossed the threshold into the apartment and addressed Leonie. “Is everything OK?”
Leonine was standing and watching what was going on from near the makeup table.
“Yes,” she said, nodding, “I’m fine.” She then turned to me and asked: “What’s going on? You never even told me your name. What’s the problem? Why’s he so mad? What did you tell him?” She sort of laughed.
Unfortunately for me, the clerk wasn’t laughing.
“He knows why I’m mad,” he said. “He lied to get into the building...”
The clerk made a let’s-go gesture. “Come on, out,” he said. He grabbed me by the arm, but I gave him a look and he let go.
As I was leaving, Leonie asked, “What’s your name?” When I didn’t answer, she asked again.
“No, it’s OK,” I said, addressing her. “Thank you.”
“Well...” she said, giving me something of a pained look. I was standing just outside the apartment and she was standing just inside it. She hadn’t made a move to come out, though. I waited for her to finish her thought.
“No problem,” she said.
The guy with the white bag, the real Mr. Hoffman, was pressed up against the staircase wall, giving me a wide berth to pass. Though the clerk was behind me, I still managed to see that just before leaving the apartment, he gave a nod to Leonie (who returned the gesture). To me, he said, “Come on, let’s go; you have to go.” He was a little calmer now and I began walking down the stairs. Eventually, I heard Leonie’s door close.
Out on the street, it had really begun to come down. It was almost dark and in the orange glow of the streetlights I could see the rain falling. Before using my jacket as a makeshift umbrella, I took one last look up at the building. I could see Leonie’s window at the top, but she wasn’t at it. I thought I might stay a bit to see if she came to it, but what if she didn’t? I put my jacket over my head and began walking up the street.
The facades of the buildings were lit up by little floodlights now, and many of the shops that had looked closed before looked open. I guessed that the rain had only recently begun because people were still scrambling to get out of it.
As I approached the easternmost end of the avenue, not far from a jumble of streets that lead to various other sections of the city, I happened to see the guy who had asked me for a cigarette earlier. He was laid out under the awning of a shuttered shop, asleep. At first I was relieved: he obviously wasn’t going to ask me for anything. But then I got an idea. I don’t know why.
I went into the next convenience store that I saw and bought a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes—the really good brand. I then returned to where the guy was sleeping and super carefully put the cigarettes into that bag of his, the one stuffed with his effects. He had no idea. But eventually he’d see. And that thought alone, at least for now, is good enough for me.