I finished high school in Munich. When I was twenty I moved to Berlin to study ethnology. I shared an apartment in Schoneberg with two other students. A guy named Randall and a girl named Sofia. I hardly spent any time studying. I didn't really give a damn about anything. I hung out in the city. I went to cafes and clubs. I met people who were doing the same thing. Most of them had come to Berlin from somewhere else. In fact, they all had. And they all wanted to be discovered. Of course, they knew that they had to go out looking too. And they did that to some extent. But they wanted above all to be discovered.
It's Friday night, 10:26, January 4. I'm standing on platform 18 of the central station in Munich. My green duffel bag is lying next to me on the ground. It's bitter cold. The wind is shaving my cheeks. Solitary pigeons are fluttering around; one of them lands on the tracks. The station concourse is brightly lit. There aren't many people around. An elderly woman in a black coat is standing a few yards away from me. She's wearing a white hat with earflaps. She's walking back and forth, her left arm crossed over her chest, her right hand holding a cell phone, whose buttons she's pressing with her thumb. More solitary figures. The train is already six minutes late. It's the train that'll take me back to Berlin after my short visit home. Berlin, where everything is bright and beautiful. At least that's what you used to hear. From everyone. From all the guys who were raving about Berlin: man, you gotta go there. It's a great town. It's like, you know, everything's moving! There's action there. The air isn't air--it's filled with gold dust. You know, like, you inhale gold dust. And the girls! They're incredible! Whether they've been there all along or just arrived, you can tell they've been breathing in tons of gold dust.
But none of that was really true. I mean, the girls I came across in Berlin, most of them were really great, but they weren't breathing gold dust. The air they sucked in through their beautiful noses was nostalgia. And not just the girls.
I stare at the announcement board: 10:29. The train will be here any minute. I think of the three days I've just spent in Munich, think about my mother. She's a doctor. Each night when I sleep at my parents' house, she puts a little white bowl of sliced kiwis on my nightstand. She used to do that before too. Now it gets on my nerves. But in Berlin I still think about it. When I'm at a club and see all the people who have come to the city like me and are dancing like crazy. All of them with this expectant look in their eyes, which can even be detected in the dim lights of the club. Maybe only really detectable in the dark. Like shimmering cats' eyes. And then I wonder if they have somebody somewhere who, regardless of what happens, will keep on putting sliced kiwis on their nightstand.
The loudspeaker announces the train and it pulls in, the wheels grinding. As I get on, I suddenly feel sick, like I'm going to fall backward onto the platform. But I don't. I'm carrying my bag over my shoulder. I squeeze my way though the corridor. Past two girls who only grudgingly make way. One of them is chewing gum. Where's the sleeper? My compartment is number 39. It's a long walk. I also have to go through the dining car. It's quite full. Blue cigarette smoke hangs over the tables. Voices and laughter. Beneath my feet I feel that the train has started up again. At last, number 39.
A white card key is sticking in the door. I unlock it. The second bed is still empty. Mine is the bottom one. Not much space here. On a shelf are two bananas, two apples. There are also two upturned drinking glasses and two little bottles of water. In front of the window: drawn gray curtains with small violet dots. The door to the washroom is narrow. A shower cubicle, a toilet, a small washbowl. Pretty much all the colors in the compartment are gray and violet. It somehow smells of plastic, not of fresh air. Not of air that nine hours later, when we arrive in Berlin, will transform itself into gold dust. I hang my brown coat on a hook, sit down on my bed. Not quite sure if I should undress, or wait till the other guy gets here. I can hear the sounds from the compartment next door quite clearly. A woman's voice says: "I've had enough; I can't go on."
Last time I traveled in a sleeper, there was some old guy in the upper bunk who kept calling down to me that I should come up for a fuck. Back then I wasn't into it. And I'm still not. That's why I'm wondering who'll be coming in this time. There's a knock. I open the door. My sleeper companion turns out to be a young guy, about my age. He's small and delicate-looking, has short brown hair, and a black backpack, which he immediately puts down next to my bag. From his movements, the way he keeps shifting his weight from one foot to the other and darting his head back and forth, I think right away: a bird.
"What's up?" he says.
"Hi there," I say. We smile at each other.
"Want to hit the dining car?"
"Yeah, let's go for it."
I'm not actually hungry, but I think it'll do me good to chat a bit before going to sleep.
A small table frees up in the dining car. What will we drink? He orders an apple juice, I order a beer. It's black outside. You can't see anything of the landscape, except for a few lights. Our faces are mirrored in the windows. The drinks arrive. A small, homey lamp is burning on the table. He also orders fried eggs and spinach.
"I could eat a cow!" he says. "By the way, my name's Henry."
The train takes a curve, the waitress balances her tray past us. Is it the monotonous clack-clack of the wheels creating this peculiar mood? An anonymous familiarity, like two strangers on a hike who meet by a river. They sit down together. They don't know each other. Their only link is the river.
"I'm heading for Berlin," Henry says. "I have no other choice."
His fried eggs arrive. I've never seen anyone scarf down two eggs and spinach faster. He wipes his mouth with his napkin and looks at me. "You've got a brown spot in your eye. In the white part. What's that?"
"My mom noticed it too and brought it up. No idea what that's all about. I've just had it three days."
He sits there for a while as if he were asleep with his eyes open. Just as I am about to ask him when he ate last, he begins talking: "I had two friends. They were my only friends. We stuck together. When I was hanging out with them I wasn't afraid of anything. Their names were Jens and Christine. They were both older than me. Jens was twenty-three and Christine was twenty-eight. I'm eighteen. Now we won't be together anymore. Ever."
For a moment there is silence.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" he asks. He doesn't wait for an answer. He pulls a cigarette from his pack of Marlboros and hands me one too. He lights both. A few lit houses wipe past our windows. Then there's blackness again.
"I don't understand," Henry continues. "I don't understand how it all happened. That's why I have to talk about it with someone. If I talk about it with someone, it'll all come back again and I'll figure it out. Remembering things is so fucking important. Because you have to remember things before you can deal with them. I just have to go over it again and--" He breaks off. "You know what I mean?" he asks after a while.
"Yeah, sure do," I answer, and cautiously add, "It's not all that hard to understand."
"There's nothing to understand," he retorts sharply. Suddenly a fire rages in his eyes. "I mean, I have no idea how she's doing. And I don't know if I'm ever going to see her again. After all that stuff."
The train stops in a brightly lit station. A traveler comes into the dining car, sits down at a table, and orders a cup of coffee. The waitress says, "We're no longer serving." The traveler is angry. She couldn't care less. She comes to our table and says, "I'm closing up now."
I hadn't noticed that the dining car had emptied out.
"No, one check," Henry says, and puts his wallet on the table.
"Seventeen euros, or thirty-four marks."
He hasn't touched his apple juice. We go back to our compartment. We lie down in our bunks. The lights are out. But I've opened the window curtains. Blackness flies past, like an enormous cloud of dark insects. The moving train provides the musical accompaniment. "I hate the darkness," Henry says. "This might sound weird, but for me darkness always sheds light on terrible things." He hesitates for a moment. Then he starts talking.
"I don't know how it is with you, but my biggest problem is girls. I always wanted to be with a girl, but I couldn't get it together. Those school dances were the worst. I'd watch them all dancing. But not with me. Their straps would slip down over their shoulders, and the stupid guys dancing with them would pull them back up with a cheesy grin. I would have done anything to be the guy to pull a girl's strap back up over her shoulder. But it never happened. And the girls all looked so good. Like they were glowing. And they smelled as if just before coming to the party they'd been lying in some magical perfumed meadow in another world, another universe. I was always standing there, so far away from it all. Even though I was so close. The people on the dance floor were inside an invisible bubble. And I was outside. That's a little weird, if you think about it. I could have walked up to one of the girls, you know, to touch her shoulder. But I wouldn't really be touching her shoulder. Just the bubble, right? I also couldn't really dance. At those parties there was only one thing I was good at. The one thing I was always good at: taking a shit. I always got the shits. I'd run to the toilet and shit my brains out. I'd hunch forward, sweating so my clothes stuck to my skin, and I'd have to struggle to yank down my shorts. And with everything that came pouring out, I couldn't shit out my sadness. What's more, I'd be pissed off at the girls. I'd see them there, dancing, giggling like idiots, while those assholes had their arms wrapped around them, squeezing their breasts. I'd be thinking: girls aren't the wonderful creatures I imagined them to be, delicate and sensitive and soft and vulnerable, who always have to be looked after and all that. Girls are jerks. They know exactly what they're doing to you."
I hear the bunk creak above me. And then his voice again: "Christine was the first, the first one I really fell in love with. I'm actually related to her, in a roundabout way. So I've known her from childhood. She lived in Belgium. I'd sometimes see her at family get-togethers, or over the holidays. I remember she always had an attitude with me, and she would lie in the sun with her chin up as if she was balancing something on it. And she'd never play soccer with me in the yard. Unlike her little brother, who I liked a lot more. Until one day she moved in with my grandmother in Munich. She must have been about twenty-six then. And sick. I was living in Munich too, with my mom. Grandmother is my mother's mother. I'd often visit my grandmother. She lived in the suburbs. We went for walks together. She'd tell me stories of days long gone that were now high up in the sky, hidden and invisible among twinkling stars. Days that had to be brought back through her stories. My grandmother was good at that. At bringing back stories from somewhere. When Christine moved in with her, I visited her even more often. Sometimes I slept there. I didn't know what was wrong with Christine. She was very pale, hardly spoke, and had an absent look on her face. As I found out later, that was part of her disease. She didn't have that giggle I couldn't stand in other girls, she always just sat in a chair, her feet bare. Her feet were tiny. I'd watch them. They didn't look like feet you could walk around on. The skin on her soles was completely soft. Like it was everywhere on her body. Christine's body was immaculate. Long thin legs, thin arms, small breasts, her nipples stood out under her T-shirt. She never wore a bra. Wait, I forgot to say that her skin had a golden glow. And her long hair was brown. She slept in a blue bed in the remodeled attic. I slept on the couch in the living room whenever I didn't head back home in the evening. One night--can you imagine?--I went up the stairs and sat on the top step for five hours. Just to be near her--can you imagine?"
Henry clears his throat. Suddenly he goes off in a completely different direction: "So, we're heading to Berlin. Great! Tell me about the city. What's the deal in Berlin?"
"I don't know anything about Berlin. Can you fill me in?"
"Just to change the subject. Come on, please, tell me."
I think. I hadn't reckoned that I'd suddenly have to say something. And I'm really not in the mood. I notice how hard it is for the words to come out. "Just to change the subject," I repeat. "Berlin. That city eats you up. That's what occurs to me off the cuff. Literally bites off parts of your body. I mean it. When you walk the streets--like, wherever you go--you see people lying there left and right, the city having bitten off one of their legs. Or a hand. At some point they're totally devoured. And even if some of them haven't been devoured yet, at least every one of them has been slobbered over. The place is full of people slobbered over by Berlin.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Bird Is a Raven by Benjamin Lebert. Copyright © 2006 by Benjamin Lebert. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.