“You’re not seriously wearing that to bed, are you?”
Jonathan stood at the foot of his and Sarah’s shared bed, wearing nothing but a Burberry cashmere scarf.
“I told you, I'm getting a cold,” Jonathan said slipping into bed besides Sarah.
He kissed Sarah delicately, first on the forehead and then on her cheek.
“Don’t strangle yourself.”
She blew out the candle on the bedside table and felt Jonathan move towards her. She smiled and turned to give him a kiss goodnight.
Jonathan was the kind of guy who respected tradition and believed in superstition. He wasn’t Catholic, but maintained his childhood tradition of eating fish on Fridays. He insisted on wearing a tie and hat when traveling, and though he called himself a feminist before it became popular for men to do so, Jonathan secretly reveled in the fact that he was the principal breadwinner and Sarah the primary home keeper.
He and Sarah met at an art exhibition three years ago. The exhibiting artist was a 20-something New York hotshot who made his first million with massive paintings made via performative actions at gas stations across America. AJ Meyer’s “interventions” consisted of hitchhiking with truck drivers, carrying only rolls of canvas. When it was time to re-fuel, AJ invited the truck drivers to help him splatter the unfurled canvases with petrol, which would then lie to dry on top of whatever cargo was being carried. He claimed the subtle imprints from the physical cargo drew attention to the detriment American consumerism caused the environment, while asserting a value hierarchy arbitrarily created by the invisible ‘market.’
Sarah, an art critic for the Berlin-based culture magazine Dystopia, thought AJ’s work was bullshit. But because the magazine’s main financier was the anonymous telephone bidder who paid 2.6 million euro for one AJ’s first auctioned pieces, Sarah was obligated to comment favorably.
“I can’t get passed the strength and emotive quality of AJ’s bodily gestures,” she said with feigned interest to AJ’s Berlin gallerist Heidi Haas of Heine Haas Galerie.
They were standing in front of a three by four meter canvas splattered with a mess of shiny black petrol, interrupted by frayed tears, and stained by a smudged boot print.
“These pieces should be read through the art historical lens of abstract expressionism, don’t you think? They very clearly follow the tradition of Jackson Pollock. I’m surprised you don’t mentioned it in the catalog.”
“Perhaps we should commission you for the next one,” Heidi said coldly. “Oh, excuse me, Sarah. I see the Sheikh. He wants to purchase the whole lot, you know. Let my assistant know if you need anything else for the article, okay? Ciao.”
Sarah remained in front of the artwork, sipping her cheap white wine and searching in the splatters and frays for something meaningful.
“You must be a part of this world,” a tall, slender man with broad shoulders said to Sarah. She hadn’t noticed him approach her.
“Black turtle neck. Black skirt. Black tights. Black shoes. All you art people wear black. I don’t get it.”
Sarah looked at the stranger. He was handsome in that all-American way that you don’t see among the sexy tousled man-buns and I-don’t-give-a-fuck neck tattoos of Berlin men. He had an old-world Cary Grant sort of look about him. And he was wearing a suit. Sarah hadn’t seen a man in a suit since she moved from New York seven years ago.
“And what are you doing here? Did you get lost on your way to Frankfurt?”
“Oh no, I’m not a banker if that’s what you mean. I just think a man should wear a suit to these sorts of things.”
When Sarah didn’t respond, he added, “As a matter of principle.”
“Do you want to get a drink? I can’t look at this shit anymore.”
On their way out of the gallery, Sarah gave double kisses to artists, gallerists, collectors and fellow critics. All were dressed in black.
“Hi,” she said once they were outside. “Sarah Dennburg.”
Sarah stuck out her hand to shake Jonathan’s. He noticed her ruby red nails matched her lipstick and decided they looked nice against the dark contrast of black.
“Nice to meet you, Sarah Dennburg. I’m Jonathan. Jonathan Rosenfelt.”
Over drinks – a whiskey for her and a Gin and Tonic for him – Jonathan asked with genuine interest Sarah’s opinion of the exhibition. She scoffed at him and retorted the question. She was tired of talking about AJ and didn’t expect the American to answer. Jonathan, a computer software developer who worked at the start-up located above the Augusstraße art gallery, paused thoughtfully. Sarah watched as he looked directly at her with blank eyes, not up as most people do when thinking. He took a long sip of his Gin and Tonic, straightened in his barstool and then commented slowly and pensively on the tradition of the American road and the life of the anonymous truck driver.
When Jonathan saw Dystopia at his neighborhood bookshop a month later, he was struck with a memory of the pale, bony shoulders of the magazine’s journalist, and bought a copy. Under the byline “Sarah Dennburg,” was the headline: “Anonymous Hand of Truck Drivers as Metaphor for Empty American Consumerism.” Jonathan decided to contact the journalist and ask her on a date.
Over Bordeaux and Camembert at the quaint wine bar on Pohlstraße, Jonathan explained he came to Berlin for Bowie and Sarah admitted she moved for Newton. They were both American ex-pats: he fresh after two months, she a veteran of seven years. Six months into dating, Jonathan lost his flat in a fit of German bureaucracy and moved into Sarah’s Altbau in the posh area of Berlin known as “pregnancy hill.”
The first few months were dreamy, as all honeymoon stages tend to be. Jonathan would come home in time for dinner and Sarah would greet him at the door wearing nothing but a cooking apron and stilettos. She talked about art, he offered his less nuanced opinions, and they attended Vernissages together—she in black, he in a suit. For their one-year anniversary of having lived together, Jonathan bought an original AJ Meyer. The start-up Jonathan worked at had gone public and he thought the artwork was the perfect way to spend his first big payout. Sarah thought the un-mounted canvas with more distressed rips and tears than oily smatterings of petrol was an astute choice and likely a good investment. Besides, she thought it did in fact look pretty decent in their high-ceiling living room.
Jonathan continued to dote on Sarah. He bought her art books and gold jewelry, imported her favorite American peanut butter and took her on surprise weekend jaunts to Zürich and Vienna. She loved Jonathan, but after three years was bored by his obsession with her. She encouraged him to go out with his work friends and to tell her about his passions for technology. Her attempts were largely in vain. Jonathan told Sarah time and time again, he preferred to be with “his sweet” than to waste hours and calories at some bar talking about girls and beer. He said he’d rather learn about her thoughts and interests than talk about his own—her brain was more interesting, more clever than his, he said. Sarah tried to combat this by flaunting her independence. She went out to cocktail bars, slinking home at 4 in the morning. When she’d meet Jonathan in the kitchen—the smell of crackling bacon and fresh coffee having woken her—Sarah would make vague comments about “a guy she met” or “some man.” She tried to make him jealous, to get a rise out of him, anything but that persistent trusting cheer.
Sarah was the kind of girl who needed conflict. Before Jonathan, she had a string of volatile relationships. She thrived on the yelling, the violence. Sometimes she would be the aggressor, sometime he. She screamed at Ryan, her first serious boyfriend, with such force she was prone to loosing her voice; Steve in the East Village beat her bum with a wooden spatula whenever her cooking was dissatisfactory (this usually meant too many greens and too little meat); Harvey in Brooklyn liked to wax her; and Sven in Berlin often awoke to find himself bound and gagged. She had thought at first that Jonathan was good for her, that it was time the violence come to a close. She could finally be stable, grow up.
Instead, she started to despise Jonathan. She’d yell at him for senseless mistakes, make ugly comments about his body; belittle his work. But nothing could break Jonathan’s pleasantness and his relentless admiration of “his sweet.”
“You really shouldn’t eat that. I can see your belly rolls.”
Sarah stabbed at her spinach salad while Jonathan took a long bite of his burger.
“Mmmmm. Do you want a bite darling?”
The exchange had become all too typical, all too monotonous. Sarah was tired of it but she couldn’t bring herself to end the relationship. What kind of person would she be if she dumped someone for being too nice? So she found another solution.
Over breakfast one morning, Jonathan drank two full glasses of orange juice, mentioning he felt an impeding cold and needed the influx of Vitamin C. He gave her an air kiss goodbye—benevolently not wanting to infect her with his germs.
When Jonathan was gone, Sarah left for the grocery store, making a stop at the hardware store along the way. She hummed old show tunes as she perused aisles of cleaning supplies. She picked up a bottle of rubbing alcohol and then one of bleach with such delight an onlooker may have thought she was picking out new shoes.
Sarah went to the butcher and asked for a whole chicken. She bought loads of carrots, celery, and onion. She splurged on fresh egg noodles and decided to buy a celebratory bottle of champagne for herself.
Back home, Sarah got to work. She strapped an apron over her black turtleneck, washed her hands with vanilla scented soap and put on a Claudine Longet record. She threw the chicken into her biggest pot, along with the carrots, celery, and onions. She poured chilly water over the meat and vegetables, imagining what it would be like to drown.
All alone am I, Ever since your goodbye
Sarah danced and sang, waving her wooden spoon while twirling.
But I don’t hear a sound, Just the lonely beating of my heart
She dipped herself in a dramatic sweep and moved to her second project. Sarah carried a plastic bowl, along with the rubbing alcohol and bleach, to her favorite reading corner—a built-out window seat looking over a quiet Kinderspielplatz. She returned to the kitchen, fetching a dusk mask, a pair of yellow gloves, and a barbeque brush. She slipped the mask over her face, the gloves on her hands. She pulled back the string on the mask and the rubber of the gloves, letting them snap and sting. Working slowly and methodically, Sarah poured first alcohol, then bleach and mixed the homemade brew together.
Gotta get my candy free, Sugar me by day, Sugar me my baby, baby sugar me
Sarah set the bowl in the window seat where the toxic vapors would blow outside. She skipped down the hall to her and Jonathan’s shared bedroom. She opened a bottom drawer where he kept his wool socks, cashmere pajamas, and single winter scarf. She took out the scarf, fingering the material. She imagined the supreme softness to be that of the clouds in heaven—if she believed in heaven. She wasn’t so sure.