Room Magazine

Berlin, 1976



The night before that snowless Berlin street with its iron staircases and insistent park grasses forbidden to boots, my spine jarred from a night across the GDR wasteland, I’d been this close, as close as this page, to Lenny. I can call him that now. Right after he sang of sisters and mercy, he mused to those proud Berliners, who’d clapped upright and starched and who believed, perhaps, that they loved him as I did, how strange a thing it was to perform for his persecutor­s. Later, at the Wintergart­en, the pianist, his breath ridiculous with garlic, spilled Lenny’s guts for him, shot by shot—seven brandies for breakfast—the scratch of them still in his throat when he sang that night, so certain was he that his star had fallen. In 1976 he didn’t know how his own architectu­re would shift or how the arrows of fortune would pierce and stitch him, just as I didn’t know how the night would end or how morning would follow, cold and dark, thinking as I did then, only about sex, really good sex, with Cohen. Last Christmas my son gave me four CDs —all Leonard Cohen, all of them I owned. “I know you like the guy,” he said. My son doesn’t know about Berlin or the morning after, how in the smoky pre-dawn I crossed the bridge, my stained white skirt, cheap shoes clomping on the stones. There’s no brandy in this faux Italian café on the bleak Toronto waterfront, no mercy, no Hallelujah, just cold black coffee and this poem. No one in that audience understood his pain. I walked right into that green room lit fluorescen­t, bright and cold. We weren’t lovers like that. He put his cup to my lips—a drink so bitter I chose scotch. Once, when we were “home” I called him. Cohen. Cohen, you rubbed both my hands in yours. Remember? Remember? The Wintergart­en was bright as crystal, and I was your “friend from Canada.” Your hands moist and soft, “I’m so sorry,” you said. “I can’t tonight. But call me. No, really, call me when we’re home.” From under the scuffed café floor ghosts seep across that bridge, steel water beneath, and I am on the far side where forbidden frost spikes the grass, and iron stairs descend from every house. A child cried and a truck’s steel door clanked and suddenly having or not having sex with Lenny puckered into some skin pocket. Stones bit my knees as I went down.

They are not departed or gone. I was bleeding. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to admit. Blood on my white skirt. I’m steering away from the blood, its trail on the pianist’s sheets, steering back into this grey Toronto café with its harsh music blotting out the small noises of chewing and swallowing. But late in the night as I crossed the GDR wasteland I was woken by long guns, hard faces under scraped skulls, and no bitte with the Reisepass, burrs in my belly as if I were Jüdin or Polieren or something worse. On the other side of the wall, blood had leached between the stones, no evidence of bones gone to ash. I thought I was safe from the war. But even Leonard could not help, not even if he had traced each of my young ribs with his tongue.

I tried to wash out the blood.

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