I was biking with irritated haste back to the WG after another trip to Mitte in search of free WiFi – I had thought my time in developing countries would have numbed me to the frustration of being Internet-less, but two months back in Europe and I was as if I’d never left. It was a disturbingly trivial reminder that the human capacity to adapt is both stunning and horrifying. This flaw was highlighted after a brief but unsettling encounter with a painfully stereotypical American tourist who preached to me about how behind Europe is with regard to Internet connectivity; I bit my lip as I remembered the hours spent in Lubowa cafes waiting for pictures to upload and hissing to myself each time the power went out, meaning I’d have to begin all over the next day or the day after that. The memory did nothing to mitigate my exasperation with my countrymen and my own situation.
I lost all motivation to return to the flat as the sun began to fade. I took a deep breath and swerved the bike sharply right, deciding a dusk detour would do me good – I know parts of Berlin too well, and that’s always when my adoration begins to wane. I needed to get lost. It was time to wander down an unfamiliar street and find a new area to be excited or intrigued or disgusted by.
I picked a good route. Prostitutes, Straßenstrich, done up and unmistakable in their gaudy, skimpy outfits were standing just off the curb in 100 foot intervals. I slowed down, and smiled as I passed a rail-thin blonde whose skyscraper heels only exaggerated her short height. She was looking down and clearly trying to avoid eye contact with the bikers and pedestrians on the busy street. But she must have felt my stare, because she glanced up and, before I could look away, saw my smile, and quickly, gently returned it.
I stopped at the next intersection and turned around, passing a few women and cross-dressed men to get back to her. She recognized me and didn’t start away. “Hallo…” I stammered, dazzled by her dramatic appearance. She was petite, in 5-inch heels but still shorter than my middling height, though her presence radiated like an unholy aura. All her effort only superficially hid or tarnished her natural beauty – but what an effort she had made.
Her eyes, a pale amber, glowed with mischief and challenge, and not an ounce of sadness; their dearth of innocence was highlighted vibrantly by expertly applied fake eyelashes. The foundation caked to her skin was so smooth it was as if she had put it on as a tease, that one might think about but never see her unblemished complexion. It was a face both younger and older than my own.
Her hair was tragic, a light brown peeking in at the roots that had been bleached to desert-dryness, and ironed straight. Even the persistent evening winds could not sway it. Her forehead slanted forward slightly, a sort of delicate mimic of her stern nose, which stomped more than sloped down her face in an ever-widening and slightly crooked fashion. Her lips were entrancing, neither puffy nor slim, but curling, receding, shining between each expression. Every move, every twitch, seemed carefully and subtly orchestrated.
“Hallo,” I said again, clearing my throat and introducing myself in German. My broken words seemed neither to amuse nor interest her. I attempted to tell her that I wanted to talk to her, and her only response was a blank and indifferent gaze. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” I queried hesitantly, and was rewarded with a smile, a flash of regal white teeth. “No. нет.”
Russian! If only more had sunk in during that month in Kazakhstan. I asked her where she was from. Ukraine. I believed her. Many of the women I had met were from the Ukraine. I asked her her name. She smiled pityingly, and shook her head slightly. Zara. Zara! She saw my surprise and confused delight and started speaking in English. It was better than my Russian. I tried to explain, a mix of Russian and English, that I study philosophy, that there is a philosopher named Nietzsche, and I was reading one of his books, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. She laughed, probably having understood not much apart from ‘philosopher… Zarathustra… бог…’
I hand-gestured along with my contorted English and broken Russian to try and ask her if I could talk to her over on the bench. She shook her head no, glanced out at the cars whizzing by, and said I could talk to her for five minutes, right here. She asked if I was Christian, if I was working with other Christians. Apparently they’ve reached out to her before. I couldn’t even feign surprise – I told her no, нет, нет. I had five minutes. Her bleached hair was almost violently bright as the disappearing sun’s last rays desperately shone from behind her.
I asked her if she had wanted to come to Berlin. She looked unsure, but said her life here is better. She would not go back, if she was given the opportunity. I asked her if she liked her work. She gave a shrug. She didn’t like it, but she didn’t speak the language. What else could she do? Her pimp gives her a place to live, she has free health checks as often as she wants. She said she was lucky to be beautiful. They take the ones that aren’t beautiful, she said, but they don’t get flats or clothes. They don’t stand on the street.
I told her I visited orphanages in Estonia, that the children there are taken care of, but the children across the border, from orphanages in Ukraine and Russia and Belarus, are kicked out when they are sixteen. Then there are pimps waiting especially for young girls with no practical skills or means to support themselves. She understood. Her eyes were dull and unsympathetic and she told me she knew women here like that. I asked her if they would talk to me but she looked away and didn’t answer.
My five minutes of comically-gestured and spoken communication were up. She glanced away, and laughed when she saw me biting my lip. It’s her job, she said. Maybe I’ll see her around. Disappointed, I turned away and again made an effort to get lost, though the thought worried me as darkness began to engulf to city. I succeeded, at least so far as to require turning back and retracing my route after a half hour. Zara was still there, or she was back. She was sitting on the bench I had pointed to previously, taking long drags on a cigarette and bouncing her heeled foot in an urgent staccato. She half-smiled at me and I went to sit next to her. She offered me a cigarette and I declined, halfheartedly.
She told me she couldn’t talk anymore, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. We sat in silence for a few minutes; her cigarette was finished and she stood up. I had a lot that I wanted to say but all the words died on my lips. I thought she would head back to the side of the street, but she looked down at me and gestured that I should leave. I stood up and smiled once more at her, and she smiled back, quickly and gently as she had first done. I looked back when I reached the same intersection where I had turned around before. I couldn’t see her, but the scene, from that distance, was obscured by the darkness. Whether she was there, hidden, or had left, I could not tell.
I don’t know much of anything about Zara. I know that she smiled back at me, and I felt closer to her than I did to the American I had met just hours before. I know that I smiled as I rode away from her, onto the main promenade through the Tiergarten and under the rows of empty yellow lights. I know I will never see her again. The sun was long gone and the air was wet from past and coming rains. I sped along the paths and forgot all the frustrations I’ve had with connecting to organizations in Germany. I forgot the queasiness of working with evangelical organizations in order to meet immigrants, refugees, and children at risk. I reached up to undo my hair, feeling perspiration gather at its edges.
I swung my head back as I thought of her smile. This is what this year is about:
‘The year of letting go, of understanding loss, grace, of the word ‘no’ and also being able to say ‘You are not kind.’ The year of humanity, humility, when the whole world couldn’t get out of bed… the year I broke open and dug out all the rot, with my own hands. The year I understood that I am my best when I reach out and ask, ‘Do you want to be my friend?”
Zara, whether she knew it or not, was my friend. She was a beginning.