The German Photographer
The first time they met it was, oddly enough, at an Austrian restaurant. Ben had to wonder: with all the culinary delights of New York, why would a visiting German, a man of reputed taste, choose an Austrian restaurant? Austrian wines, sure. Who didn’t like a nice Grüner Veltliner? But Austrian food? All those sausages and gummy little dumplings…it gave Ben gas just thinking about. He wanted to go to Florent (it was still around then), where it would be noisy and fun and—this was crucial—affordable. But apparently the suggestion had been vetoed by Viktor, who, just off the plane from Berlin, wanted schnitzel.
Viktor and Ben were on opposite ends of the table. Between them were Ben’s girlfriend (Emily) and Viktor’s fiancée (Jane). Over pre-dinner drinks, the women caught up—they hadn’t seen each other since Jane had moved to Germany. Older, impassive, jet-lagged, Viktor listened and watched. Your eyes kept going to him, to his froggy gaze, his flying-upwards-hair. A paunch was visible beneath his black silk turtleneck. An imposing physical presence made more imposing by his manner. But he was not unfriendly: before ordering the wine, he solicited opinions. Ben suggested the house cabernet. Viktor ordered a one-hundred-and forty dollar Burgenland.
Later, Emily would ask Ben why he hadn’t said much at dinner. Was he intimidated? Not so much, Ben would say, after a moment’s thought. Instead he had been quiet for two reasons: (a) because his portion of the check eradicated his food budget for the week; and (b) because, when he wasn’t obsessing about the check, he was studying Viktor. Ben had never met anyone like him. He knew successful people, but this was success. Viktor was an artist, he was rich, and lots of people—serious and otherwise—were greatly interested in his work. In him.
A word about Viktor’s fiancée: Jane was a close friend of Emily’s, and in one of those coincidences that become less surprising the older one gets, Ben knew her from college. He found her sweet and attractive in a motherly way, with her soft voice and big tits. Perhaps this motherly quality was what Viktor had responded to, aside from her comparative youth. Apparently Viktor had met her six months or so before the Austrian dinner, when Jane had just sold a young adult novel. (It seemed to Ben that everyone in New York had a young adult novel, including his dry cleaner.) One night, this guy invited Jane to an opening at the International Center for Photography. When she got there she was nervous—this was outside of her usual range of experience. Stylish people were speaking various languages. Wandering away from her date (the poor schmuck) she checked out the art. The photographs were of families, shot in the middle distance. There was an aesthetic impeccability about the pictures, despite, or due to, the stiffness of the subjects. They were so stiff, in fact, so un-posed, that there was no way to understand these people beyond their external signifiers, their age or hairstyles or jewelry. Jane wondered if that was the point, if we were supposed to consider these people as sociological types, and then maybe to individualize them via externals? Someone touched her elbow—the German Artist, an older man with dark eyes. “I know this may seem, ah, crazy,” he said, the “z” sibilant. “But you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
Six months later, Ben was assessing Viktor, while pretending to enjoy the schinkenfleckerl.
That night Viktor and Ben did have two exchanges. The first was prompted when Jane asked Ben if he’d been to some exhibit, and Ben said that he’d been too busy with his design studio. Jane turned to Viktor. “In college Ben used to paint these lovely big canvases with Jewish themes, like Chagall.”
Viktor said, declaratively, “You are Jewish.”
Ben nodded. It seemed important to be casual about it. Despite this punishing restaurant, Ben sort of hoped that they might be friends. He could use an important friend right now. He might have failed to convey casualness, though, because Viktor seemed embarrassed: he looked away and changed the subject. It couldn’t be easy to be a German of a certain age, with all that historical weight behind you.
The second exchange came when Emily asked Jane what kind of music they wanted at their wedding.
“It should be all Kraftwerk,” Ben said.
“But that is electronic music,” Viktor said. “My fiancée prefers Motown.”
“Honey,” Jane said. “He’s kidding.”
“Ah,” said Viktor.
Ben got some laughs when he repeated that to Emily’s friends. He wanted them to like him too, so he ignored the guilt he usually felt when he mocked people.
Emily was part of a close-knit group of men and women in their thirties. Most of them were easy to be around. Still, Ben felt some ambivalence towards them, because they were all achievers, more or less. They worked for respected magazines or made documentaries or wrote books; Emily herself designed furniture. What’s worse, most of them projected a kind of world-ease that made it all seem so uncomplicated. Sure, they had their pretensions and insecurities. (When Jane was drinking, she liked to lecture you on the Young Adult Novel As Literature.) Nevertheless, they were making their way. And Ben wasn’t. In fact, he had just endured a string of bitter disappointments. Two of his clients had gone out of business, leaving him with thousands in bad debt. Then his only employee had quit, taking two more clients with her. And when you feel frightened and on the verge of disappointment, it’s hard to be around bright people with interesting jobs. He was trying to muddle through—to work hard, to live modestly and beat the bushes for work. And yet he kept spending more than he could afford, for example at Austrian restaurants.
At least things were good with Emily. Mostly good. Almost always good, really, save for one problem: she couldn’t sleep at his apartment. She literally could not sleep, and to see her in the morning, puffy-eyed, stumbling towards the coffee-maker, broke his heart. Was it the mattress, the spare apartment, the industrial neighborhood? She couldn’t tell him—or wouldn’t. Thus three or four evenings a week, after a long day of fighting for clients, he’d fight traffic from Queens, fight for a parking space in Brooklyn. (His car, a fifteen-year old Honda, was his one extravagance). In the morning, he’d do the same in reverse. The obvious solution would have been to move in with her, but he wasn’t ready for that.
Ben had modest goals. He wanted to make money and do interesting work. He wanted to end the inter-borough scramble without surrendering his autonomy. So maybe that was why Viktor had made such a big impression: because he made money and did interesting work, and because other people bent to his will. Ben acknowledged that he himself had bent to Viktor’s will before ever setting eyes on the man: Viktor had wanted to go to the Wien Haus, or whatever the fuck it was called, and that was that.
In all fairness, Viktor could be gracious. A week after their exploration of the culinary delights of the Österreich, the two couples saw a Korean horror movie and then shared a brick-oven pizza. The women discussed the upcoming wedding (Viktor and Jane had decided to have it in New York), while the men talked cigars—both, as it turned out, were occasional smokers. Then Viktor picked up the check. Out on the street, just before hailing a cab, Viktor mentioned that he had a show coming up at his gallery. He put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and said, “I hope I will see you at the party.”
Before they met, Ben associated Viktor’s name with architectural photography, bleak cityscapes in lustrous gelatin silver. That stuff was over twenty years old now, the portraiture from a decade ago. His new pictures were these giant, pellucid photographs of museum-goers, looking or not looking at art. As soon as Ben entered the gallery, he drifted away from Emily and stood before a picture of plaid-skirted girls at the Prado. The girls stood between two paintings, one the Velazquez portrait of the little blonde in the big skirt, the other also a Velazquez, with the girls and the dog and the dwarf. Ben was struck by the force of the composition, by the intensity of color, by what the artist might be saying about the intimacy and spectacle of art.
After a minute or so Ben had the prickly feeling that someone was watching him—Viktor was looking at Ben looking at his picture of people looking and not looking at art. Embarrassed, Ben turned back to the work, but he could no longer enjoy it without self-consciousness. He bummed a cigarette from one of Emily’s friends and took the elevator to the street. It was a chilly night; the pavement was wet and glistening. Even after the meditative pause of a cigarette, Ben was still not quite sure what he was feeling.
Viktor and Jane were married in a chapel near Madison Park. Before the ceremony, there was an affectionate speech by a handsome woman wearing an alarming array of primary colors. Then some guy spoke in German. Finally the minister spoke before marrying the bridge and groom. There was no denying that it was a lovely ceremony (nor denying its effect on Emily, who pressed against Ben and stroked his hand). And yet Ben missed the brevity of a Jewish wedding, where you said a few prayers, stepped on a glass, and then stuffed your face.
The reception was held at some extremely fancy venue that Ben had never heard of. Many of the guests could be described in similar terms. Meanwhile, Ben was experiencing a kind of distracting, and mildly disturbing, ambivalence. On the one hand, he had a few drinks in him, and the food was very good (simple and fresh, without the least hint of Teutonic sauces), and Emily looked slim and attractive in her black dress and heels, and he was enjoying her friends. On the other hand, he wasn’t enjoying her friends all that much—tonight there was something a little strained and smug about their conviviality. There was also an irrational but persistent idea that he shouldn’t be here—that he would be better off at home, working on the website for the jewelry designer, or the estimate for the sportswear manufacturer, or reading a book.
After the cake had been served, he was approached by an older man, clearly a German, with his fussy little glasses and high, small lapels.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Are you Benjamin? Viktor wants you.”
As Ben made his way across the room, he realized that the guy who had taken him from his cake was Gerhard Fucking Richter, and he wondered what was more astonishing: that Gerhard Richter had addressed him by name, or that the groom was the sort of man who could send Gerhard Richter on an errand.
Viktor was over by the bar, kingly and joyful, surrounded by friends.
“Ah,” he said. “A present for you.”
He pressed something into Ben’s palm. A cigar.
“Thanks,” Ben said, touched. Because it seemed warranted that he say more, he added, “You look happy.”
“I have done the most wonderful thing in my life.”
He slapped Ben on the shoulder and turned back to his friends.
After the reception, Emily’s friends took the out-of-town guests to Williamsburg—the Germans were grimly determined to party in Brooklyn. In a booth crammed with wedding guests, Ben fell into a debate with a German printmaker about the merits of George Grosz (Ben was pro, the printmaker con). When Emily fell asleep with her head on his shoulder, he figured it was time to go. He was tired as well—he felt as if he’d been drunk and sobered up twice. But in the cab he realized that now he was agitated, excited. The cigar was in his breast pocket. He kept puzzling over what Viktor had said, about doing the best thing in his life. Ben wished he could go to his own apartment and smoke and think, but of course Emily would be pissed if he went home.
He helped her to bed and then went to the kitchen for a hydrating cup of herbal tea. Instead he poured a scotch and trimmed the cigar with kitchen scissors. To mitigate the smell he sat by the living room window. (Emily would complain anyway, but he’d deal with that when it happened.) As he relaxed into the mixed fumes of scotch and cigar, he considered how good it felt to be thought of, to be remembered by Viktor. Partially because he was famous and gifted, but mostly (and this was important) because he had self-respect. Viktor did what he wanted and he wasn’t a dick about it, which magnified the effect of his kindness, like when he handed you a Cohiba, which, come to think of it, was likely Cuban.
So where did that self-respect come from? It couldn’t have arisen with success. You don’t become an artist in the first place without knowing that you’re capable of interesting work. Years ago, Ben had stopped painting when he had grasped that he was not capable of interesting work. He did not regret the decision, because he knew he was a good designer; he had a feel for color and type. Still, it pained him that he achieved so little in his thirty-odd years. He assumed that no one, not even Emily, had noticed the depth of his unhappiness. He functioned in the world, drove between boroughs, paid his quarterly taxes. From a certain perspective you could say that he was doing all right. Meanwhile he felt that failure was his destiny, and neither his own modest talent nor his ability to work like an animal would allow him to escape it.
But maybe (thought Benjamin, straightening in his chair), just maybe, it was not a question of achievement. It was about how to rid yourself of this terrible feeling.
The sun was coming up, awakening the sky over the brownstones and tenements of Brooklyn. Ben was heartily fucking sick of Brooklyn. He reached for the bottle and poured himself another finger of scotch and envisioned Emily some weeks hence, when Viktor and Jane returned from their honeymoon. They meet, let’s say, at Wien Haus again, where the dim lighting afforded some privacy. Her face puffy from crying, Emily is explaining the breakup.
“He just did it,” she says. “I woke up the day after your wedding and he did it. He hadn’t even changed out of his suit.”
“Oh honey,” Jane says. “Did he give you a reason?”
“He kept saying that he needed to spend some time alone. That was the stupidest thing about it. There was no real like explanation, he just kept saying, ‘I need to be alone.’”
“And then what happened?”
“He left. And my whole apartment smelled like his stupid cigar.”
Viktor has his face in the menu, hiding his pained expression. He is unaccustomed to such displays of female emotion. He finds it very American, the way these women cry anywhere.
Jane reaches for her friend’s hand. “I didn’t think he could be such an asshole,” she says. She turns to her husband, willing him to say something encouraging. And Viktor, already attuned to his wife, lowers the menu and says—what?
“I am very sorry for you, Emily.”
Or: “Yes, he is an asshole.”
Or: “He did not deserve that cigar.”
Or perhaps he just thinks, Isn’t it a pity about this nice girl, but she will be better off without him. Certainly I am glad that I won’t have to see him again; there was something about him that made me uncomfortable.
Gordon Haber writes fiction, criticism and journalism. His nonfiction on the nexus of religion and culture appears in The Forward, The Tablet, Religion & Politics and Religion Dispatches. His fiction has appeared in The Rumpus and The Normal School and as three best-selling Kindle Singles. His debut collection, Uggs for Gazza (and other stories), was published in 2017. His awards include a Fulbright Fellowship to Poland and two Queens Arts Fund grants. In addition to writing, Gordon founded the micropublishing company, Dutch Kills Press. He does not live in Brooklyn.
Image: Flickr / Isangmugngkape