How reliable is memory? Is what is remembered really what happened? With the passing of time comes embellishment and omission. Is what we see or think we see a reliable record? A recent incident precipitated a wistful glance back.
My first thought was ‘I saw a ghost!’
I strained to get a better look.
It was he! I was almost certain.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t.
Blame it on optical wish fulfillment: conjuring up what I want to see based on vague semblances — sloping shoulders, wind-whipped locks of hair, the distinctive stride of his ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ swagger that drew me to him in the first place.
It just could be possible, I kept telling myself. It just could be him.
What if it wasn’t? No big deal! I have been mistaken before.
Still I had to be sure—sure that my aging eyes were playing tricks and it was not at all whom I thought it was.
Then again what if it was—what if Heiko was back in Berlin? The prospect made me giddy.
Naturally, the sighting was inopportune. Routine tasks needing attention occupied my thoughts. I was riding the recently reconnected Berlin subway. After nearly three decades of interruption, regular train service once again freely crisscrosses the reunited city.
Suddenly daylight flooded the car as the train burst from the gloomy tunnel ascending elevated tracks. Century-old tenements rushed past, many spruced-up with modish paint jobs and crowned with glistening glass and chrome cupolas—like grand dames of a certain age gussied up in stylish garments and trendy hairdos.
Casually glancing out the window at shoppers crowding the sidewalks below was when I saw him—or thought I saw him!—dashing into an ‘Adults Only’ video store! I pressed closer to the glass for a better view but he rushed up the single step, across the threshold and through frosted-glass doors in a blink, no doubt minimizing exposure to passersby.
Though the glimpse was fleeting, the resemblance was remarkable; so much so, I got off at the next stop and hurried back to the location by foot to investigate.
I had yet to patronize this particular purveyor of adult erotica, A sign posted at the entry announced Kinotag or Discount Movie Day. I gave the cashier Ten Euros and got back change—a few Euros saved if I were mistaken! Buzzed into the arcade’s shadowy backroom, I recognized the all too familiar layout: a maze of dimly lit passageways, private viewing cabinets, and pitch-black cul-de-sacs.
Raw techno beats—mercifully subdued—pulsed through overhead speakers. Determined to make connections, patrons of diverse ages and proclivities lurked about, sizing each other up. The place was popular enough—or at least on this particular afternoon—perhaps owing to the reduced cost of dalliance.
Making a brisk sweep through narrow intersecting corridors, I feared my phantom had settled into a booth and, as some cruisers are wont to do, would pass the next hours encamped and engorged, stimulated by hardcore video images while simultaneously hosting all comers through ‘glory’ holes strategically cut in common walls to adjoining stalls.
Patronizing such places was out of character for Heiko, when I gave it thought. He never seemed very interested in sex to begin with and was never promiscuous. Of course, we change over the years and so do appetites. Perhaps middle age found him more comfortable with his sexuality. From the hubbub of rutting steeds all around me, he was not alone.
Up and down cubicle rows I walked as if on patrol.
What if I was wrong? Once again doubt set in. What if it wasn’t my old pal but somebody else, somebody resembling him: a doppelganger? That would not be surprising either. Not the first time I hit a brick wall looking for Heiko. Fact is, I had pretty much given up on finding him, but here I was once again clinging to the slenderest of threads.
Anticipating a possible encounter with Heiko after so many years was daunting, exposing conflicting emotions I had not fully come to terms with. I had managed to get on quite nicely not knowing for sure where he was or what he was doing.
Yet, on this particularly cold clear wintry Berlin day, Heiko once again took center stage in my ongoing interior monologue. Yet, like anything you want too much and ultimately never fully attain, selective memory has its own seductive appeal…
In the mind’s eye, snapshots of cherished moments crystallize and become iconic: tableaux vivant minutely etched in memory. That’s how it is with Heiko.
Memory easily recaptures the moment he entered my consciousness: blithely striding into a crowded café off Alexanderplatz. Animated by lively discourse with two mates flanking him, yet clearly on the lookout for places to sit.
Perhaps it was his long flowing locks and flawless complexion, the long vintage military overcoat draped dramatically across the shoulders. In that first glimpse, he was luminous; natural and charismatic, oblivious to impressions he made, or so it seemed.
That was my maiden trip to socialist East Berlin, the first of many visits as it turned out. This was years before the infamous Berlin Wall would come down. I arrived in the occupied city days earlier in what world media had dubbed “The Divided City.” My first trip to Europe.
The Berlin Wall that oppressive Cold War fortification was solidly in place. Lives still being lost in attempts to breach. I found the city’s parallel histories fascinating. I was eager to get on the inside and embrace the romance that had drawn so many before me…
Excerpted from Goodbye Heiko, Goodbye Berlin.
OWEN LEVY is a Stonewall survivor and author of the seminal novel A Brother’s Touch, set in the early days of the gay rights struggle. An incidental witness to history twice, Levy landed in Berlin before German reunification as a trade journalist, translator, and techno party promoter. Currently he calls his native New York City home. OwenLevy.com