By Julialicia Case
I am two, and the cornfields are enormous. An ocean of stalks surrounds our house in Iowa, green and hushed in the summer, brown and rattling in the fall. From our porch, the only thing visible that isn’t corn is a tiny house far in the distance at the crest of a small hill. This is where all the storybook characters live.
At night, I fall asleep imagining them. Big Bird sits in an armchair and watches the same episode of Dallas my parents watch in our living room. The Berenstain Bears make rice pudding while the poky little puppy splashes in the bathroom, and the Borrowers steal a sliver of soap. They are all there: Francis and Arthur and Corduroy, sharing popcorn, singing Simon and Garfunkel, adopting every single stray cat. Someday I will be there, too.
The fields are so big, the corn so tall. I will need to carry Fig Newtons and apple juice. I will bring my favorite blanket so I can sleep without nightmares among the leaves. Some days, while playing in the yard, I start out, racing across the grass toward that house on the horizon. My parents always catch me, turn me around, aim me back toward our flowerbeds. They laugh as if it is a joke, as if I’m not determined to risk everything.
One evening, a spring thunderstorm pelts the newly planted soil. Wind rocks the power lines, black clouds churning. I watch through the screen door as lightning throws up sparks along the horizon, the storybook house suddenly a star of flame. My father calls the fire department, but by the morning the house is only a gray smudge of ash.
Later my father will explain that the building was never a house, only a shed. Later, he will assure me that no one actually lived there. Later, I will learn that the storybook characters are more inaccessible than I ever believed, that I will travel for miles and still never find them. But now, I stand barefoot on the porch and listen to the hiss and sizzle of my mother frying okra in the kitchen. The flames gleam on the horizon as my sharpest dream burns fiercely to the ground.
By the time I am four we have lived in three different states, and my parents are determined to move to Germany. My mother is a librarian and the U.S. govern- ment needs librarians to work at military bases in West Germany. Librarians all across the country are being enticed by offers of relocation money and narratives of patriotic duty. The Cold War rages coldly, and it is important to demonstrate American presence internationally. It is important that the individuals tasked with demonstrating such presence have reading options and quiet rooms with atlases, microfilm readers, and magazine racks, have professionals to calculate overdue fines and help them navigate the card catalogue.
“No, no, no,” I chant while my mother takes an important phone call in the kitchen. I stomp around the linoleum, hoping that whoever is on the other end of the line will hear my voice and mistake it for my mother’s voice.
But the woman on the line does not mistake my voice for my mother’s voice. She does not care if we sell the yellow Datsun, or if we are compelled to make a pile of the “less-important” stuffed animals. She doesn’t care when the Vietnamese family arrives to take my tiger kitten, Snickers, or when the white cat, Rabbit, is moved to the house of another librarian, where he will live for another seventeen years. The woman on the phone doesn’t care that our black devil cat, Midnight, likes to hide in the bushes outside the church next door, likes to leap out and attack the churchgoers, biting and clawing, drawing blood. There’s only one thing to do with a cat like that, and it’s not to put him on the long slow boat with our dining room table. It’s not sliding him into the belly of the airplane, while we buckle our seatbelts and rub at the scabs on our calves, as if the itch won’t fade.
When we arrive at Cambrai Fritsch Kaserne in Darmstadt, we are housed temporarily in the barracks, in a small apartment identical to all the other apartments, in a blocky white building identical to the other white buildings except for the number on its side, which I am instructed to remember. I chant it under my breath while my father teaches me to tie my shoes. I sit on the bedspread that is not our bedspread and watch his fingers, terrified. The shoelaces are the first in a series of worrying adult tasks that I will gradually become accustomed to: following cake-mix instructions, making my own sandwich, reading the footnotes in an Ellen Raskin novel. I am pleased at how easy it is, but I am also aware that in learning this skill I am losing something—the view of the top of my father’s head, the feeling of his hand on the leather.
A week earlier, a car bomb had exploded in the parking lot, and men in green overalls are patching the asphalt outside, negotiating the scorch marks. We’ve moved enough times that I am accustomed to the mysteries of arrival. In some places I stay at home with my father. In some places I attend Montessori school in a barn. Sometimes we live in a compound surrounded by walls and coils of razor wire, a place you must have an ID to enter. Sometimes people you have never met want to blow you up because you are American.
I have never considered myself American before, have never reflected on the particulars of patriotism, but I learn to claim my nationality quickly. “Ich bin Amerikanerin,” I say in shops and restaurants, when strangers address me with harsh, fast sentences. The Amerikaner is my favorite pastry, a soft spongy cake covered in fondant frosting, and for a long time I think its name is a label. This is the food for the Americans. I am horrified by my mother who gets her dark hair cut in the German style, buys coats and scarves from C&A, orders the marzipan Mandelhoernchen and licks her fingers, smacks her lips.
After a few months, we move off the base and live in a tiny apartment above a convenience store in a small town called Greisheim. I’ve learned to read early, and I’m baffled by the military kindergarten, its regimented desks and bulletin boards filled with simple words, the fluoride we are supposed to swish in our mouths without swallowing. My parents decide to send me to a German kinder- garten a few blocks from our apartment. In contrast to the American school, the kindergarten is all playgrounds and sandboxes. We are allowed to climb pine trees and use real, sharp scissors. On hot days, they fill up a swimming pool that is deliciously deep. We take walks through the cemeteries, wander the fields where the teachers say nothing if we grab the wires of the electric cattle fences, the jolt thick and throbbing in the joints of our shoulders.
In German school, I am ridiculous, always confused and always wrong. I can’t somersault over the bar, not even when they tell me to imagine my stom- ach is like an egg. I don’t know to make my own lantern for the Martinstag parade or to leave my boots outside on Nikolaustag. I am always too loud, too silly, my hair too messy, my shoes on when they should be off. I am always outside when I am supposed to be inside, am moved to another class because I insist on following my friend Karina everywhere, and I don’t understand that she is in a different grade.
My father comes with me on my first day of kindergarten, sits in a tiny chair and watches me play with the other children. A boy points to himself and says, “baby,” and I am sure that is his name. It’s a fine name, I tell myself, and I am careful not to laugh. My father sees things differently. The boy wants to play house. He’s pretending to be the baby. I am adamant. This is German. The word “baby” cannot mean baby. I call Florian “baby” for weeks. Still he invites me to his birthday party. I don’t know to wear a costume. This is who I am now: a girl in a pink dachshund shirt, surrounded by Germans dressed as cowboys and Indians.
Little by little, I learn German. The nouns and verbs are easy, like memoriz- ing a code. The abstract words are more complicated, but I develop a system, one I still use today. I keep a list in my mind of words I don’t understand, phrases I hear again and again. When someone says one of the words on my list, I imagine I am that person. I pretend I am doing whatever she is doing, imagine her feelings, imagine her thoughts. What words and ideas would spill from my mouth?
In kindergarten, I am working on the word endlich. It sounds like the word Ente, which means “Duck,” but it is a description, a kind of emotion. “Things are Duck-like,” people seem to say, and I am fascinated. What is this feeling? What does it have to do with ducks? Could things be “Horse-like”? Could I feel “Butterfly-like”? I’m in the sandbox with my Turkish friend Nazmir. She’s lived in Germany longer and her German is better, but I am catching up. We’re trying to make cakes out of sand, filling up the molds, flipping them over. We want them to be perfect, but the sand is dry and crumbling, and it cracks and col- lapses on the bench. Together we dig deep into the sandbox, searching for the darker, wetter sand. We fill the molds and fail, start again. Then Nazmir flips and her cake is perfect, condensed on the edge of the sandbox, ridged with the whorls and lines of the plastic. “Endlich,” Nazmir says, and I feel her joy and relief. I recognize the way she leans back, proud and satisfied. It is not the word Ente; it is the word Ende. “Finally,” she says, beaming like a star.
I spend half of my life in my mother’s library, learning its shadowy hollows the way I know the corners of our house. I have a shelf in the nonfiction stacks where I fold myself among the books, a dark niche where I store my favorite volumes—the books with bright photos of coral reefs, safari animals, swirling galaxies. I read in the caves beneath the study carrels, inspecting the laces of the soldiers’ combat boots, trying to interpret the creased leather the way Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys would decipher a clue. I read almost every book in the children’s room, learn to locate the new titles by the subtle shifting of the spines on the shelves. The lives of these characters are nothing like my life. They ride bright yellow school buses and deliver newspapers. They go to county fairs and square dances, work as baggers at grocery stores. Everyone speaks English, and no one is teased because her last name resembles the German word for cheese. There are no soldiers in their lives, no walls dividing countries, no bomb threats, no ruins of incinerators and shower rooms.
They are never surprised when their German first-grade teacher slips suddenly into English during parent-teacher conferences as if it’s all been a game that everyone is playing. “Do you have questions?” she wants to know. After a mo- ment, I ask about the problem I’ve been studying, the difference between bor- rowing and carrying, a question I’ve been working on in my mind for weeks. I ask the question in German, because I don’t know the English words, and she answers in English, in barely a phrase. I feel like I’ve discovered a secret pas- sageway. I also feel guilty, as though I have cheated.
According to the books I read, the lucky children discover doorways to magi- cal worlds, secret stairways, hidden gardens. They slip from the sad world and into the real one, the place where they are most themselves, where they discover new and amazing powers. They make friends with magical beings who recognize them for who they truly are. They are never confused, never out of place. I spend so much of my life hunting for passageways and secret doors. In restaurants and museums, I pretend to go to the bathroom, and then I wander basements and hallways, opening closets and rummaging through drawers. I nose my way into a million broom closets, touch stacks of towels and racks of housecoats. I peek into bedrooms and kitchens and attics. I am small enough that when I am caught, people offer me cookies or pastries, pieces of candy in fruit-colored wrappers. These foods might be magical, and I eat them immediately.
In books, these children are always orphans, and I prepare to lose my par- ents and younger sister. When they are late picking me up, I ready myself to wander into the country. I wait by the curb, wondering if this is the moment the adventure begins. I am always exploring and running, alone or with friends, by bicycle or on foot. I disappear into the forest behind our house, slip through blackberry bushes and stinging nettles. I wander the cornfields, pressing myself to go further, carrying thermoses and pretzels, walking until I have blisters, until I am brown with sand and dust. At school, I tell stories about my alien family that is coming to get me, the smugglers in the yellow house, the invisible dragon who follows me everywhere, the ghosts swirling constantly around us.
I am proud of these stories, of my friends’ gullibility, but a part of me believes these fictions as much as they do. If I believe fiercely enough they will come true. I develop a habit of slipping away when my parents aren’t watching, preparing to leave them behind. We go on a tour of East Berlin, drive first in our van across the long expanse of East Germany, racing to reach each checkpoint by the designated time, waiting in the car while the soldiers inspect our vehicle for contraband and stare at us over their rifles while our passports disappear into the little booth.
“I’ve never felt so much hatred,” my mother will tell me later. On our tour of East Berlin, though, after our bus full of Americans has passed through Checkpoint Charlie, after we’ve taken photos of the wall from both sides—the graffitied West, the white expanse of the East—I take off in a run across a park. Because maybe East Berlin is the secret world. Perhaps this is my destiny, beyond the wall, where the buildings still crumble, where the streets are empty and thick with ghosts. Is this where I have always belonged, the place that has been waiting for me to discover it?
Immediately, there is a lot of shouting. My mother grabs me, her fingers sharp and white on my arm. “Don’t do that,” she hisses. “You don’t do that here.” We sit on a bench among the other Americans and eat the ice cream they have given us. Across the park, the East German children gather their things and go home.
By third grade, I am back in the military school for Americans. Classroom placement is determined by our parents’ ranks, and librarians have no rank, so I am at the bottom, surrounded by kids who squirm and whisper potent swear words, use paperclips to etch drawings into the desks. In the midst of them, I am exuberant at all the things I suddenly understand. Even if my spelling is terrible, my grammar spurious, my sentences littered with strange capitalizations and odd commas, when the teacher explains “subject” and “predicate,” I understand immediately. I raise my hand like a wild thing, race ahead in my textbooks, write book reports that go on for pages. I want to read aloud, want to share my work, want to go to the blackboard and demonstrate. In later years, I will not get off so easily, but for now the others only smirk and suck their teeth. In any case, I distract the teacher, provide a smokescreen for all their fidgeting and note-passing. Students disappear and arrive almost monthly. One week, Kiyana Thompson comes to my birthday party and we tie our legs together for the egg race. The next week, I never see her again.
The teachers decide that it is best for me to go read every day with the fifth graders, who work in a network of annex classrooms down the street, near the high school. I am given permission to leave class for hours in the interest of reading. Sometimes I arrive at the fifth-grade annex and find the classroom empty. Sometimes I stay with the fifth graders for whole afternoons, helping them prepare their haunted house or filling in for an absent student in the play they are rehearsing. I spend a lot of time wandering around the school on my own, trying each closed door, visiting all the different bathrooms. I eavesdrop on the janitors who are German and dislike us. I have the sense that everyone is watching me, and also that no one is watching me.
Some days I leave school early and wander through the barracks of Lincoln Village. I walk up the hill that leads to the main part of the base. I am too young to have an ID, but often the guards just wave the children past. Secretly, I think that the terrorists should forget the cars and send their bombs in the backpacks of nine-year-old girls. Sometimes when I’m crossing the wall, passing through the gate, I imagine the hard metal of a bomb wired to my skin, imagine a quiet ticking whisper. I shiver as the guards nod to let me pass. In these moments, I wonder if I am actually a bomb, if I’ve always been a bomb my whole life. As I step onto the cobblestones by the flag circle, I tremble a little, struggle to keep from plugging my ears and closing my eyes, preparing for the explosion.
My American friends disappear abruptly, sometimes without warning, but I spend almost every weekend with my German friend, Karina, nestling into her featherbed, falling asleep as her finches shift and murmur in their cages. Already her teachers and parents are watching to decide whether she will be put on the college track, attending Gymnasium in fifth grade, or will go to a Realschule in preparation for a trade. Some afternoons we work on homework together, tucked into her red bedroom as we eat black licorice and fizzy candy that tastes like cola. Her homework is always harder than mine, her mother poised to de- scend, merciless with her red pen. We compare our curriculum, confused when I move to fractions in third grade and she does not. I try to explain reducing on her chalkboard, imagining some future lesson where she will surprise the teacher with her excellence, the way she’s taught me to line up the decimals, to count the spaces in sloping loops. I go with her family to visit her grandmother’s garden cottage, practice my impression of Karina’s grandfather’s Berliner accent to amuse them.
I am seduced by the radio, by the fictions of the songs about America, by the freedom and promise of the stories they tell. I imagine I will return there, will immediately find people who read the same books I do, who will not, like Karina, laugh at the jokes on the television show, Tatort, full minutes before I can even understand them. They will not assume that I am headed for Realschule, that I will become a hairdresser or chef. They will not eat strange foods like kohlrabi and quark, will not, like Karina’s mother, tell me I need to be more serious, more hardworking, that the things happening now will determine the course of my life.
After my family moves back to the States, Karina and I write weekly and monthly letters, send packages filled with strange candies, mix cassettes deco- rated in hearts and stickers. For years, we save our birthday and babysitting money, fly alone on long, stuffy airplanes, arrive with stories of weird people and crowded airports, slip into lands at once strange and familiar. One summer, I hike with Karina’s family across the border into Austria, stop in farmhouses sour with the scent of buttermilk. One summer, she drives with my family from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma. We share a bed in my grandmother’s guest room, spit watermelon seeds and set off firecrackers on the Fourth of July. I under- stand what she means when she says America is “too green,” and I hold a firefly in the cup of my hands so she can see one up close, her eye pressed to the hollow between my thumbs. For years we write and call, our conversations complicated mixtures of languages and references. But when I’m twenty-two, and I really need her, I write Karina letter after letter, search online, but she’s gone, and I never find her.
I am ten when my family returns to America. I’ve spent years studying and practicing, memorizing the commercials and television shows on the VHS tapes our relatives mailed us from the States, and I imagine a glorious homecoming. I am unprepared, though, for the mysteries of America, for the strangeness of shopping malls and mozzarella sticks, for the constant skating parties and bowling alleys, for the television with its overwhelming choice of channels, for the religious identities that people throw around like code words: Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist. What religion am I? Am I an Eagles fan or a Steelers fan? Are my parents pulling for Penn State or Pitt? Which New Kid on the Block do I find most attractive? What kind of car do I most want to drive?
I spend hours watching television, memorizing the program guide in the newspaper each week. I beg for a Nintendo and play until my thumbs are red and raw. When my friend April tells me that her favorite show is Full House, I flip through the channels, and spend a gleeful series of weeks watching Our House. I come to school excited and chatty. Isn’t Deidre Hall the best mother? What does April think about Wilford Brimley’s oatmeal commercials? Wouldn’t we love to be firefighters like Molly? April blinks and changes the subject. I am the queen of dead-end stories, the master of exuberant references that refer, in the end, to gar nichts.
If America is not what I’d imagined it would be, I am, ultimately, my own biggest disappointment. Who am I in this world of bangles and fluorescent T-shirts? Am I a crimped-hair girl? A girl with her bangs a high, hairsprayed wedge on her forehead? Each day I pretend to be a different classmate, slip into an attitude, a personality, the way I once slipped into the characters in library books. I have almost given up on finding Narnia or learning magic, on becom- ing an orphan with a marvelous adventure, but I can still be Allison Bricker, can talk and talk, cracking my gum, hammering my g’s and r’s like a machine gun, offering brief, sharp assessments of the others in class. I can be Satanya Emerick, poised, discerning, writing my name in loopy pink letters, twirling my glitter pen with fingernails I’ve painted silver and purple.
“Are you okay?” my parents ask in the car, but I do not answer them. I am Rae Winters, who never, ever speaks. Her sad blue eyes bulge like a fish’s. Her silver-blonde hair hovers like a halo. I have a cat shirt like hers, a decal shirt I ordered from a kiosk in the mall, but like Rae Winters it does not make me happy. She lives at the end of a dead-end road, in a neighborhood called Cave Hill, where flimsy trailers huddle in a ravine, thick with vines and branches that scrape the windows of our school bus. There’s a cave in Cave Hill, but no one knows how to find it.
I can’t talk about football like April Spahr, can’t recite bible verses like Sara Heckman, can’t do the MC Hammer dance like Jennifer Hancock. On the days I am Allison Bricker, I can only chatter for a small space, an hour or so, before I lapse into a dazed, aching Rae.
There’ve been wars in America, but they are wars full of cannons and rifles, full of kings and taxes and amputation and gangrene. They are difficult wars, ghostly wars, but they are not the wars I know. My friends’ grandfathers don’t limp with injuries we’re not supposed to mention, don’t offer veiled warnings when we complain about eating with the spoon flecked with rust from being buried with the silver. The hidden rooms in America are older, sites of historical field trips. No one I know mentions them casually during games of hide and seek. There are no conversations about hiding people, about specific rooms and walls and closets. We don’t practice living as quietly as possible. Even the trains are different, tinged with dreams of hippies and hobos. No one huddles in the last car during a crowded rush hour, watching the snow collect on the dark branches in the fairy-tale forest, smelling the odors of fatigue, wondering if these tracks are the same tracks as we tilt and sway, stumbling, off-balance, caught always by the press of one another, the sturdy hands of strangers.
When the Berlin Wall comes down, my sister and I brush away tears over bowls of Count Chocula, and I walk to school still beaming at the television im- ages of joyful sledgehammers, of long-anticipated embraces between separated family members.
When I meet April at the corner, she is grumpy from a fight with her brother, but I can’t wait.
“The wall!” I say. “The wall came down!”
“What wall?” She shifts her lunch bag from one hand to the other.
I have never explained this before, but I try to tell the story of the wall the way my mother once told me, tell about the movie we watched every year in school, how people sewed a hot air balloon, how they wedged themselves into strange containers—suitcases and radios and guitar cases—how there were angry soldiers and vicious dogs. Then I wait for April’s happiness. I wait for her to hug me.
“That sounds like something you made up,” she says.
I am angry that year, a small seething ten-year-old. I train myself to stare at people, to make my mouth hard. I don’t blink or look away. I want to be like them, but I also hate them. I want the chance to tell them everything, want them to listen, but also I don’t want to be different, don’t want to stand out. I scowl through my weekly sessions with the enrichment teacher and ignore her questions and all of her homework. One morning, I stand next to her in the principal’s office while she calls my father at work. “I just can’t reach her,” I hear her say. I don’t care. I don’t want her to reach me.
In choir, I sit on the risers and read my book as the others sing around me. The song stops, the piano cutting off mid-phrase, and when I look up, everyone is staring. The choir director gives me a frustrated scowl, but I glare and do not look away.
“Get out,” she says.
I have always wondered where kids go when they are kicked out of class.
Do they wait in the hallway? Direct themselves to the principal’s office? I walk back to my fifth-grade classroom where the others are working on their Native American dioramas. I help them assemble teepees with construction paper and drinking straws, and no one says anything about what I am doing and what I am supposed to be doing. No one has any thoughts about where I am or where I’m supposed to be.
I draw swastikas on my sneakers. I shake as the tip of my pen digs into the leather, certain the repercussions will be firm and immediate. If I were in Germany, I imagine I would be whisked away with the first pen stroke, would be thrown into reform school or possibly prison. Here in America, I am testing them. Who will notice and say something? With each day that passes, I feel my resolve shuddering, but I sit on my hands, bite down deep.
In the end, it is my mother who approaches me, arriving as she does for the most difficult conversations, armed with books.
“Tell me about the drawings on your sneakers,” she says. I am ashamed and embarrassed. And, worse, I’ve made a crucial mistake. I’ve drawn them backwards, messed up the angle. My mother’s found the symbol on a Native American saddle blanket, opens a book full of photographs and artifacts.
“It used to be a symbol of good fortune,” she says. “I know you’ve been learning about Native American cultures. Is this what you meant to draw?” She is so hopeful, and already I am coloring my shoes with a marker, curving the symbols into blocky purple hearts. “Yes,” I say, a quiet gasp. She knows it’s a lie, but she lets it pass.
By middle school, I have completely given up finding a magic doorway. If hid- den worlds are revealed to extraordinary people, then I am invisible in my ordinariness. By now, I have beaten Super Mario Brothers; I can sing all of the B-52s’ new album; I know the intricacies of the Tanner family and the Cosby family and the Simpson family, can talk about Steve Urkel and Balki’s Dance of Joy. The libraries are bigger here, and I have moved on to other stories, to the teen romances where the main characters are shy girls who know they have found love when a boy arrives to break them out of their shells. To be broken out of a shell, a girl must first have a shell, and it turns out that a shell is an easy thing to construct. I stop talking in my classes, make myself as small as possible. I answer test questions wrong on purpose, aiming for an academic sweet spot, a place where one is smart, but not smart enough to be called to the stage for the spelling bee or the distinguished honor roll. Teachers sometimes try to draw me out, but there are so many shy girls. If I sit quietly in the corner, if they don’t notice to shake my hand, I am only one lost thing among many.
With my friends, I ask questions, try to make myself a mirror. My favorite New Kid is Danny. My favorite band is They Might Be Giants. I tightroll my jeans and wear the same sweatshirts as the others. When I’m asked which boy I like, I have an answer, but it is meaningless, based on the color of eyes and hair, and when someone tells him, I don’t care. In truth, I like Joey Cameron who is assigned the seat next to mine in our gigantic study hall, and who wears black vicious T-shirts covered with skulls and skeletons. I want to ask him about these bands, want to know what kinds of things they represent. Are they symbols of witchcraft? Emblems of anger? Do they indicate hatred? If I like “Winds of Change” by The Scorpions, should I also be a skeleton girl? What will it mean if I choose their piercings and eyeliner? But I am constructing a shell, so I do not ask him, not even when he bends his dark head toward my journal to ask what I’m writing, or when Mr. Sweger reads Robert Newton Peck’s novel Soup out loud and we roll our eyes as Soup flings apples and rides in carts. Who has ever lived a childhood like that? There are no books about loving quiet boys in skeleton T-shirts, and so I do not understand that I like Joey Cameron until years later, in the hall on a Thursday after sixth period, with Joey headed to masonry, me to computer science, when we slide past one another quickly, like the hazy memories of a dream.
I don’t need to explain how the stories misled me. We all know what happens to shy girls, the ridiculousness of that fantasy, how little interest the world has in breaking women out of their shells. What does a girl do with the songs her parents can’t sing with her, with the yearnings for foreign foods she can barely remember? What does she do with the language that lingers like a ghost, even when she’s returned, grown up, tried to bury her roots deep in the heartland cornfields? I think of my former military school classmates—tough and brazen. Is it possible that they, too, are still wandering? I imagine us all searching for that one moss-covered Tür, a magical Weg leading to a world that will finally answer the question, “Where are you from?”
In 1987, I am nine years old, and I am writing to a senator, “my” senator, a man in Oklahoma. I am telling him about my life in Germany, about the Strassenbahn, and our new Apple computer, about my Halloween costume—a German phone booth—how I plan to trick or treat at Frankenstein’s Castle. Across the country, beyond the slanted red roofs and the glowing rapeseed fields, beyond the soft lights in the lonely farmhouses, in West Berlin, David Bowie, The Eurythmics, and Genesis are playing the “Concert for Berlin” in front of the Reichstag. They’ve angled the speakers toward the Brandenburg Gate and East Berlin so that their music spirals out over concrete and razor wire, out over streets dark with curfew, where police are arresting hundreds of East Germans who are disobeying the rules, determined to listen. Even those in their homes are preparing and planning in darkness, sewing their hot air balloons until the thread rubs their fingers raw, constructing elaborate compartments in cars and motorcycles, considering the photographs of relatives they barely remember. Later, when the wall falls, they will embrace and try not to mind how their voices don’t quite match the voices of memory, how their bodies have shifted into unfamiliar shapes. Their Trabants and Wartburgs will founder in the wake of the West German cars on the Autobahn. Their clothes will not be the right clothes, nor their dialects. Their favorite brands will disappear from the grocery stores, will be replaced by Western versions they will pretend to prefer.
Now, David Bowie’s voice shoots over the wall like firework. Now, a girl writes a letter to an imagined America, to a senator who is dying and will never receive it. Now, footfalls are echoing over damp cobblestones as soldiers hurry, as the police searchlights sweep the streets, and people stand fast, determined to hear the chorus of “Heroes.”
Now, someone is posting a video of the abandoned Cambrai Fritsch Kaserne to YouTube, while, in the comments, others lament the weeds and crumbled stairs, list the dates they once lived there, the names of their teachers and friends, searching for connections and finding strangers. Now, a child is rifling the pages of library books for magical incantations, is searching the basement of a dying shopping mall for a portal. Now, thunder shakes the walls of a small home in Iowa, and, finally, on the horizon beyond the dark fields, the place where the storybook characters live burns brightly and fiercely to the ground.
Julialicia Case’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Crazyhorse, The Writer’s Chronicle, Willow Springs, Witness, Water~Stone Review, The Pinch, and other journals. She holds a Ph.D from the University of Cincinnati and teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.