by WENDY WALLACE
We have names for everything, and they are usually in Denglish, the language we speak with each other. The bedrooms in the Wohngemeinschaften, the student housing apartments, open to balconies. Each bedroom has one—large enough for a few huddled smokers or some creative outdoor sex. These buildings look like concrete honeycombs. Some of us live in the Altstadt, the old part of the city, where the cobblestones and bedrooms smell sweet and damp like caves. And some of us live in Eppelheim, in a place called Alcatraz. We find this endlessly funny. Alcatraz is not very prison-like except for all of the exposed concrete and metal. The railings are painted blue and yellow and red.
We call ourselves the Adventure Hoodie Manschaft. Our mascot is the purple hoodie James used to wear too much. There are pictures of each of us wearing it from the night that we all tried to roll our own cigarettes and whupped two cases of Welde—the beer we use for pong—which left us feeling a boisterous sort of camaraderie. We are not exclusive, though. We are an amorphous blob that pulls in anyone who needs to belong to something. Sara is good at finding these sort of people and keeping them. Most of us are Americans, and Max and Derek argue about who is the most American. (James has been trying to be mistaken for European since he arrived—or maybe before. He bought a rack from Ikea to hold all his scarves.) But Andy is from England, and Sara is from Quebec, and Nick and Uli are German, and sometimes we hang out with some girls from Italy, and some from Northern Ireland, and we’re pretty sure Sasha is from Ukraine but it’s far too late to ask him. We are very proud of how Multi-Kulti we are. Sometimes, when we’re drinking together, Derek makes a rule that we can only speak in German. This should happen more often than it does.
We attend Universität Heidelberg as part of a one-year abroad program. We take courses in Kafka and Kleist and Rilke, in composition and linguistics. During our noon Pause, we meet for lunch at the Marstall Mensa in the middle of the Altstadt. The name Marstall refers to a time when the building used to actually hold horses for the castle, which we keep meaning to tour. We load up our plates with Schnitzel and pasta salad and yogurt and greens. We sit at the long wooden tables. Sometimes there are a lot of us and we can’t all fit at once, so we split up. There can be some resentment and grumbling about this, but Sara hovers between the two tables and makes a conversation bridge. Sometimes we go up to the bar and get a beer. Derek and Max always get half-liters of Pils, which only cost a euro each. A good deal, despite the clinging metallic undertaste.
On afternoons we don’t have class, we sit with our books under the Alte Brücke, the old footbridge that spans the Neckar River. The grass is sweet and springy, and the earth is sloped so we can lean back comfortably with our knees tucked up. Some of us take off our shirts, and sometimes bras too, nipples pointing up at the sun. Sara has fabulous nipples the color of maple syrup. We all think it’s funny how hard James tries not to look at them. We believe in FKK, the culture of the free body. Some of us get very bad sunburns and need to go to the Apotheke for aloe. We like the Apothekes. We go in and describe our symptoms at the counter, and they hand us something that works. It is best to look up words for what ails us before we go. Or, if it’s urgent, we will just point to a place and say, Hier schmerzt.
In mid-March, our lungs fill with fluid and we develop wheezing coughs that shake our bodies. Sara takes in the sickest of us because she understands none of us want to be alone like this and we huddle, sweating and phlegmy, on the cool tile of her living room. She gives us her extra pillows and endless cups of tea. There’s something about being around her, none of us quite understand, but it fills up our chests with something warm. We all tell her she should be a goddamn doctor but we know that’s not right, that she’s meant for international relations like she plans. She will do things. She’ll make real change, not the fake politician kind.
James, who seems to be immune to all illness, including homesickness, makes us hot soup for lunch and dinner. The stores do not have chicken noodle soup in cans, so he makes it from scratch with chicken breasts from the Metzgerei and vegetables from the Turkish market. He does not take off his scarf while he cooks and it dances in the breath of the steam. None of us have the heart to tell James the soup isn’t very good. The heat, at least, soothes on the way down. This is total lecker, we say. So good, James.
Our favorite food is Döner. Turkish immigrants created it in Berlin, and it’s a bit like a gyro, but better. Immigrants here are called Gastarbeiter, which means guest workers. They are mostly Turkish, and Andy and James tell us the situation isn’t terribly good. The young men from Turkey speak German with a loud gravado, yelling “Hey, yo, Alter!” to each other. Mostly Turkish people go to Yufkas for Döner, so we do too. The workers know us there, the smiling men in their stiff white aprons and their vocabulary shaped by food service. We are the Amerikaner who like our Döner extra scharf, which means they put a lot of the red spice on top of the shaved lamb for us. Max and Derek try to see who can stand the most, their cheeks wet with tears and sweat beading at their temples. They are always doing things like this together, what Andy calls dick-flexing, but at the end they clap each other on the back and laugh.
Derek and Max skip class together a lot and go for long hikes in the hills, but the rest of us drag ourselves to lectures with our backpacks tight with books. Mostly the backpacks end up on the floors of bars, copies of The Metamorphosishalf-forgotten on the table, pages curling against splashes of Hefeweizen. Sara is the only one of us who really studies, but she’s never holier-than-thou about it. Occasionally, she convinces us to join her at the library to get some reading done, but the silence inside feels old, the air heavy with the sighs of generations of scholars. Also, we can’t bring in our bags because they’re afraid we’ll steal books or smuggle something in. No eating, no drinking, no talking, no using the study rooms without a reservation. We can’t bring Max and Derek there anymore after that one time they smuggled flasks in, tucked into their underwear.
The library has flyers about speaking partners, and some of us got one. We meet with them, and we trade off speaking English and German so we can all learn from each other. The Germans shame us with advanced grammar and vocabulary in their second language. When we speak German, sometimes it feels as if we are talking circles around what we are trying to say. People at home ask us if we’re fluent yet, but we’re not sure what that means. We can order Brötchen without the man behind the counter switching into English to accommodate us. If someone asks how our day’s been, we can explain that we missed the bus, and class was boring, but the cashier at the Mensa forgot to charge us for the pudding, which was especially lecker today. Whether or not this means fluency, we can’t say. We have good German days and bad German days. Sometimes the words tumble from our mouths, perfectly formed and plump with meaning. And sometimes we choke on them, drag them out mutilated and ugly. Drinking usually helps, to a point. It helps with a lot of things. We do a lot of drinking. Max is the biggest drinker among us. When he is truly and properly zerstört, he turns into Monster Max, who shouts and pisses on buildings and throws things. He has broken glasses at each of our apartments but doesn’t remember doing it, so we can’t blame him too much. Derek is the only one who can control Monster Max, though he usually doesn’t because he thinks it’s all very funny.
Derek is the only one of us (besides the Germans) who speaks perfect German. People do not believe him when he tells them he’s from America. Alabama, in fact. Derek grew up on a farm, and wears plaid flannel. He usually has a wad of tobacco stuck between his bottom teeth and his lip, and carries around an empty Fanta bottle that he spits a yellowish liquid into. And yet, when he opens his mouth, Germans still believe he is one of them. He can also do impressions of each of us; if we closed our eyes, we wouldn’t know it was Derek talking. His impression of James’ annoyed voice is in high demand, which makes James use this very voice. The Game, that book about pick-up artists, is Derek’s bible. He has sex with a lot of very pretty women, even though he has a broad nose and thick lips and a receding hairline, on top of the plaid shirts and the spitting, so we figure there is some dark magic in that book. Max keeps asking to borrow it, but Derek won’t let him. You’re not ready, man, he’s always saying to Max.
Derek once raw-dogged a girl in James’ bathroom during a party. We could hear everything, but didn’t know what to do so we stood around with our drinks and tried to talk. This was a German-only night, so we shouted a lot of nonsense at each other and poured more drinks. We could all see how impressed Max was. As far as we know, he may have never even dated a girl. No way he could get any of us, though he tried when we first arrived.
Mostly, we drink at each other’s apartments. This saves money. We are all very sparsam this way. We each bring what we want to drink, picked up from the Kaufland on the way over. Sometimes it’s bottles of cheap wine or vodka to mix with Fanta. Our German friends have taught us some drinking games, but Asshole is still our favorite. If you lose a hand, you become the Arschloch (renamed to be more Deutsch), and must wear a hat we confiscated from James, one of those large furry ones we think Russian people probably don’t wear anymore (we keep meaning to ask Sasha). James protested, because he actually thinks it looks good on him, but we assured him that removing it from his possession was a favor to humanity. It is very hot under that hat, and makes our hair sweaty and mussed. This element of the game is very humiliating, and we have discussed abolishing it, but the hat keeps coming out. Andy calls this GroupThink. He is our English anarchist friend. Very Multi-Kulti of us.
We also like drinking Welde when we play Arschloch because under the cap it says either “Ja,” “Nein,” or “?” We ask the Welde questions. Will James ever get laid? Will there be a short line at the club? Will we find happiness and satisfaction in our lives? Welde never lies, we say.
There is always a line at the club. We go before ten, because entry is free and we never pay for anything unless we have to. Our English friends, whom Andy invites dancing with us, complain about the line. Germans don’t know how to queue, they say. The line is one big clump of bodies that shuffles forward. If it is cold, we become penguins, bellies in for warmth. When we achieve the wet haze beyond the doors, we push through to the bar to shoot tequila, which James buys for us. We let him, because we know his parents put extra money in his account each month. Then we form a dance circle, like everyone else. Germans, we’ve noticed, dance at each other instead of on each other. They move their feet a lot, and we try to do the same. Derek is the best at it. The music is mostly American pop. We usually try to claim a spot on top of the speakers, large boxes cased in wood we can feel creak underfoot, from which we can see everyone dancing in the glowy half-light. The artificial fog fills the spaces between bodies, turning every head into an island. We all get very sweaty, and point at each other while we dance to indicate intimacy of understanding. Sometimes two of us will leave together to let out some of the desperate energy on each other’s bodies. We are a very incestuous group, but it is impossible to hold onto jealousies or hard feelings for long. We cling to each other. This is not our home.
Derek and Sara are having sex these days. This doesn’t really surprise any of us, what with Derek’s black magic book and perfect German and good dancing, and Sara being Sara and also the prettiest one with her long legs and shiny hair and nice nipples. Also because, we realize, they’ve been orbiting each other for a while, and we’ve been orbiting them all along. They are the unspoken center of us. And now the center has become more concentrated. This makes Max drink more, and we think it’s because he realizes, now, that he is not part of the center with them.
This is when Max puts together the trip, He gets train tickets and books hostels, surprising us all. He can be very organized and efficient when he’s sober.
An hour outside of Heidelberg, the train fills with thick black smoke that smells like a tire-burnout. It seems to be pouring from underneath the train, and after a minute Derek gets up to ask someone what’s going on. We wrap James’ extra scarves over our noses and mouths and Sara’s eyes are red and wide and Max puts a hand on Sara’s leg. Sara pulls her leg away. We wonder if we should give Max shit about this when Derek comes back, but we figure Derek won’t really mind, since he’s always saying you can never really have anyone, only borrow them for a while. Though maybe Sara is different.
When he leans back into the compartment, Derek tells us the brakes are stuck on, and we have to continue to the next stop, but that we’ll all be fine. He opens us each a beer and we sip them through the cloth over our mouths. We are all comforted by how calm Derek is.
Paris is so expensive we mostly eat cheese and baguettes from the grocery store, and Nutella crepes from the street vendors. Sara does all the talking and ordering for us, though sometimes she has to repeat herself. I think they’re hassling me for my Quebeccois, she tells us. We like her accent, the angular way she speaks French. Max managed to wrangle us a room on the cheap that we don’t have to share with anyone else, and we give Derek and Sara some alone time so they can do the nasty things they describe to us later. Max is very sullen about the whole situation, and does a bad job hiding it. He at least has the decency not to talk about what a slut Sara is in front of her. The rest of us are less fortunate. James tells Max to shut up, that it’s beautiful the two of them are making love. Oh god, we say to James. Don’t say making love. We are still trying to break him of this by making loud sexual moans whenever he uses this phrase, which makes him uncomfortable. A punishment that fits the crime, we say.
After Paris, Amsterdam. We order weed from menus with pictures and descriptions of effects, and learn how to count and say please and thank you in Dutch. Sara rolls us beautiful tight joints, and Max, who studied the maps beforehand, guides us through the tangled streets and bridges. The red-lit alleys with women in the windows in their glowing white underwear fascinate us. Derek waves and winks at the girls. Sara says she wants to interview them, to write down their stories. Max won’t even look at them. We are all very high. We eat all of the pot muffins, even though the man at the counter warned us not to in perfect English. He also told us that the Dutch are tall because only the ones whose heads would stick out of the water when it floods survive. We sleep in an enormous room with strangers, and Sara and Derek are not the only ones having poorly hidden sex. There is no use even pretending to sleep. Andy reads Sartre aloud to us. In the morning, the shower floods so we all go out dirty, our mouths tasting of ash. The smell of latex and fluids roll off of Sara and Derek, which we give them a hard time about, making a show of distancing ourselves from them and waving our hands in front of our noses. Sara finds an architectural tour for us, and we shuffle around in the rain, smoking wet joints. The guide shows us the hooks on top of the buildings—people raise furniture into the buildings on ropes because the staircases are too narrow. To support the weight they built the houses at a slight inward angle, which explains why Sara says she feels they’re all about to eat her. Or maybe it’s because Max pulls Derek aside, between buildings, and has a conversation we could all hear about Sara being trouble. We can’t hear what Derek says back, but when he comes out he puts an arm around her and we figure all is well.
At the German border, a cluster of officers fills the train with their dark blue jackets. Ausweis, they call, and we dig out our passports. When they see we are American, they grab our bags and sift through them, exposing days of dirty underwear and bags of bread and cheese we took from the hostel’s breakfast bar. They search Max’s duffel, but not his backpack, where he’d tucked an ounce of White Widow. Sie haben nichts, dass illegal ist? Nein, Sara says, confident as when she answers questions about Kafka.
We are still pretty high. We all laugh about it after the men leave the compartment, though we are all shaking a little. We are not sure what would have happened to us if they had discovered that we were smuggling drugs into the country, and we never discuss it. Heidelberg feels like home when we arrive, and James throws a party and we all get very drunk. Max turns into Monster Max and Derek has to take him outside so he won’t break anymore of James’ glassware. Through the window, we watch them in the Hof between buildings, Max aiming blows at Derek, Derek dodging them and locking Max’s hands behind his back, Max howling something indistinct.
In the reliable warmth of late April, we make day trips with our passes, getting off at whatever city sounds good to us. We go to Neustadt for a wine festival. They serve wine by the liter, and we stand and drink in the sun and become sloppy. There is live music so we dance, and when we become faint from wine and heat and dancing we eat pizzas with crusts so thin we can snap them with our tongues. On the train ride back we are stumbly and happy, intentionally falling into each other when the car lurches. Max keeps bumping into Sara, who gives him friendly pushes away until she becomes annoyed and says, Seriously, Max. Stop. He doesn’t, leaning against her and grinning until Derek pulls him off. Max looks like he’s about to yell, but Derek hands him a bottle of beer and he relaxes. Derek leads us into singing, “Wahnsinn, warum schickst du mich in die Hölle?” All of the Germans in the bars seem to know the words to this song, so we make sure to as well. Some other people in the train sing along with us. A Multi-Kulti victory. Our faces are red with wine and the bent light of the setting sun.
Our German friends tell us about the celebration of Walpurgisnacht, the night that welcomes in May. It used to be a pagan holiday, Nick and Uli say, a celebration of the arrival of spring. We load our backpacks with Welde and wine, and, once darkness settles, climb one of the mountains that shelters the city. It is a long climb, the path switchbacking for miles. In the blue-grey light, we stumble over rocks and roots and each other’s feet. A steady stream of young Heidelbergers climb with us, laughing and smoking and lugging coolers over the rough ground. It takes us over an hour to reach the top, and even before we enter the walls of the amphitheater, we hear the steady roar of thousands and see the effusive smoky glow of a bonfire against the sky. We enter a green bowl, scooped from the earth and tiered with stone and grass. A massive stage of rock with sweeping stone stairs stands at the base, and before it is the fire, throwing heat and flames fifteen feet into the air. A group of drummers has gathered at a safe distance from the pulsing heat, naked from the waist up, and a few people dance, twirling lit branches in their hands.
We find a place along the steps, close enough to feel an occasional lick of heat, since the night air has taken on a raw wet chill. We sit shoulder to shoulder, murmuring excitedly and opening our first beers. We find ourselves drumming our hands against our knees, stomping our feet against the stone. The air is buzzing, feverish, electric. We lay into our drinks, and create a line of empty bottles at our feet like a little glass fortress. A girl weaves her way over to us and drops a pile of multicolored glowsticks in our laps. You are beautiful people, she says in English. We fasten them around our necks and wrists and ankles. Max pulls a bottle of Melonenschnapps from his bag, and presents it to Sara. Your favorite, he says. A peace offering, it seems. We are all relieved, and Derek puts an arm around Max’s shoulder and another around Sara’s .
Sara takes the gift, her face already pink from the bottle of wine she polished off herself, and drains a quarter of the contents in one go. We all know that Melonenschnapps is Sara’s drink kryptonite. We all have one. But we never presume to tell anyone else when they should slow down. We are all adults, after all, and always make sure our own make it home. Sara whoops and we whoop back. We are wild. The drums are in us now, beating under our skin, and we begin to dance, kicking at our bottle fortress, and taking arms, whirling around with them. Sometimes each other’s arms, sometimes strangers’, the darkness blurring the border between our group and the vast yawn of the crowd. Chaos! Andy screams, the German pronunciation that sounds like KAH-ohz. We shout it too, and the chant ripples through masses of mouths in the darkness, rising and falling. KAH-ohz, KAH-ohz, KAH-ohz.
Occasionally a few of us slip away to piss the alcohol out, holding tight to each other with vision stained dark from staring into the fire. We stand or hunker in a clump of bushes at the edge of a cliff that overlooks the city. It shines reddish below us, castle and river and squat rows of buildings. Heidelberg is beautiful, and we are beautiful. We return, covered in leaves and sometimes a trickle of piss. In the warm press of bodies, we begin to take off our shirts and wrap them around our foreheads. It is then that we notice that Sara and Max are not with us, have not been with us for a while. The last time we saw them is briefly debated. Half an hour ago, maybe, by Derek’s reckoning. We all text them variations on Come Back and open our last round of bottles. We realize we should have been more prudent, should have saved enough to see in the dawn. James is quiet, subdued, and we tell him to buck up. Our words have become slippery in our mouths, and we laugh at our attempts to speak our Denglish. At the bottom of our last beers our fevers break, and we are suddenly cold and sweaty, and slump down onto each other. James says, I’m going to go look for them. Who, we ask, and he reminds us. No, we say. They probably got sleepy and went home. Sara was really drunk, James says. She and Max are back on good terms now, though, we tell him. He’ll take care of her, is strong enough to carry her if he has to, Derek says. I’ll check on her in a while. We pull James down, tell him to stop being such a James.
We miss the sunrise. We wake when the sun has climbed a full two fists into the sky, bathing the knots of bodies and detritus of celebration in a thick orange glow. We stretch the stiffness out of our dewy limbs and gather our empty bottles into our bags, our fingers clumsy. We’re still a bit drunk, we realize, which is fortunate because we may be able to beat our hangovers down the mountain. Derek finds Sara’s phone. Lucky thing, he says. He tells us he’ll give it to her when he stops by her place, that he’ll let us all know how she’s doing.
The news of what happened trickles through us then, a few of us at a time, heads close together as we nurse ourselves out of our headaches and nausea. Sara woke up naked in Max’s bed, her clothes ripped. Her underwear tangled around one of her ankles. She pulled herself away from Max, still snoring, and staggered home alone. She can’t pull together any memory of what happened. And then we hear about the texts Max sent Derek, the words he said changing as we pass the story from person to person, but the feeling consistent. I told you she was a slut. She was all over me last night. You gotta break up with that bitch. And we remember something Max said, one of the nights he turned into Monster Max, something about knowing he could get her to fuck him if he tried. At the time we didn’t take it seriously, the drunken yowls of Monster Max. It wasn’t supposed to mean anything.
It is Sunday, and James is hosting dinner. We all go. Sara comes, and she is smiling but there is something thin about her smiles, something watered down. Max comes too, and we all greet him as usual, and we talk about how drunk we all were the night before. He is loud, grinning, telling us a joke he learned from his roommate in German. Why do women have such small feet? So they can stand closer to the stove. Some of us laugh, but it sounds brittle. James is at the stove, mashing and mashing the potatoes so that the muscles in his arms stand out stringy. Derek opens a beer and sucks at it. It seems like he doesn’t know what to do with his body. He keeps leaning against things, and then springing up as if they’re hot. He doesn’t look at Max or Sara—doesn’t seem to be able to. Andy tells us about a mining accident, about the people who suffocated under the earth, but he can’t remember which country it happened in. Lighten the fuck up, Sara says. We all look at her, and knowledge passes among us. She knows we know, and waits to see what we will do. We do not know what to do. Or maybe we don’t want to do. Then James says, Done. Eat it, if you want. We eat, all hovering in different places around the kitchen, and talking about the next trip we’ll all take together. Sara suggests we go to Salzburg. The hills are alive there, she says. You know, like The Sound of Music?
We will go. While we’re there, Sara will say little to Derek, and then she will fuck Max again, and she and Max will tell us about it as if it were good, and we will pretend not to notice that the watered-down look has become permanent. When we get back, she will stop going to class as much and stay out late instead of doing the reading. We will be at a loss, because she is usually the one who gives us summaries on the walk across the bridge so we can answer questions. We will all do extra little kindnesses for her, like telling her she looks good in her new lipstick. James will start hugging her a lot, often at inconvenient times when she’s holding wine, and she’ll slop a little on his new button-up. Derek will make a point to hold doors for her, but will keep a respectful distance, his body always a bit hunched. Andy will stop coming to dinners and drinking nights. Afterwards, we’ll see him sometimes at the Mensa, and he’ll give us a distant sort of wave, and then sit with a group of people we know and don’t like.
And then our year will be over, and we will pack up our small rooms and close and lock the windows and jump up and down on our suitcases until they fit everything we bought. On our last night, we will drink our way through our last cases of Welde, and we will talk about what an asshole Andy is for not coming to say goodbye to us. Max will get too drunk again and smash a bottle against the floor, and Derek will punch him, breaking one of his fingers at the joint against Max’s cheekbone and this is what we will remember: Derek’s hand purple and swollen and Max holding ice to his face and James sweeping up shards of glass and Sara laughing in a way that doesn’t sound quite like laughing.
We will try to forget. But years later, our kids in bed down the hall and our mouths pressed against the naked breasts of the people we married, our bodies stale from the offices we spend too long in, we will say, I wonder what happened to those people.
Wendy Wallace lives, for the moment, in Indiana. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction from Purdue University, where she works as fiction editor of the Sycamore Review. Her Patronus is a golden retriever.