If S — my high school’s most prolific bully — ever reads this, I’ll have to content myself with a life in hiding. Luckily he isn’t a man of letters, and though he tries to phone me every once in a while he isn’t particularly interested in what I have to say. He is more interested in how I can stand living the way I do: drudging along, trying to write. S considers every man that doesn’t at least attempt to live like Genghis Khan a pitiable incrementalist that should consider himself lucky that he lives at a time in which faggotry isn’t punishable by death. But once in a while he finds a use for us ineffectuals. That’s the context in which we first became acquainted.
It was mid-August, 2001, my first day at the new school — my first lunch break, to be precise. I was meandering across the schoolyard, pretending to receive calls and texts on my mobile, when I saw him pointing at me from the smoker’s corner, surrounded by his apparatchiks. Who’s that little asshole? he yelped, breaking out in siren laughter. He judged me from thirty yards. I knew better than to respond. I’d heard much about S from my friends at the school.
An imposing presence, by all accounts: 15 years old (if his documents were to be trusted), 200 pounds, countless priors — a school bully well on his way to becoming a federal issue. And he looked the part. Sitting across from me in chemistry class that afternoon, playing snake on his Nokia 8510, eating and sleeping, he seemed at once impulsive and world-weary. His face was a registry of punishments. I found it hard to believe that we were the same age. I had hardly hit puberty — S looked like a veteran of several Balkan wars. At the time I viewed this maturity as an expression of his lifestyle.
His father had recently come to taxable income, chiefly through the undeclared transport of industrial amounts of wood from Tajikistan, and moved his family from the autonomous housing projects of Wedding into a neo-classical mansion in leafy Zehlendorf — a house commissioned and long inhabited by Alfred von Tirpitz, Grand Admiral of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Imperial Navy. They customized it to their liking. Its graying exterior received a new Ivory coat, its antique shutters were splashed in Azure, the crescent moon of Turkey hung from a mast affixed below the balcony. Their elderly neighbors, members of Berlin’s small and overwhelmingly vulgar upper class, welcomed the new household in keeping with local customs: sidewalk evasions, hurried disregard, anonymous complaints to state authorities regarding noise and potential building violations. S’s family, usually referenced as Family G. in investigative news pieces about their exploits, were in the process of cleaning up their corporation. Their son was a more difficult matter.
The first conversation I had with him came two weeks or so after my enrollment and concerned Angela, a vivacious girl who lived nearby our school. S had decided that she would make a good fit for him, and tapped me to speed up the pursuit — a pragmatic choice, given that I had just started going out with her. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
His car pulled up nearby the Döner kebab stand, around the corner from our school, just as I reached the front of its waiting line.
Sauce? Salad? the proprietor asked me.
One with garlic & spicy sauce, as many tomatoes as possible. No onions.
No onions? Lucky girl.
S arrived next to me and ordered in Turkish. The man shrugged and went to work, producing a Döner with no salad at all, a heap of lamb slivers in a pouch of flatbread. S paid for us both and walked me to his car.
You are Joshua, right? he said, in between mouthfuls. You are from Charlottenburg, aren’t you? Once we’d agreed on the basic aspects of my biography, he got to Angela.
He started by praising my audacity. Me, going for such a girl — he could appreciate that. He regretted that fate had pitted us against each other. The most troubling thing about this monologue was that he seemed completely sincere.
But why Angela? Simple, he said. She’s a good girl. I like good girls. He said he meant the kind of girls that do their homework, don’t smoke weed, don’t wear Buffalo shoes; the kind that don’t let Arabs gangbang them. There aren’t many of these in Germany, he observed. But there are some: German girls with very boring parents — you know, who wear thin-rimmed glasses and no make-up; some Turkish girls, but that’s dangerous; also, Jews.
The problem with this foible was that most good girls were afraid of S. (He didn’t much appreciate the girls he did get. Girls from Poland who hate their parents. I like that kind of thing once in a while, but I can’t take them anywhere!) But Angela had spoken to him — the day before, when he sat nearby her on the bus. At the end of the ride, he suggested coffee. She had turned him down, but in a manner he deemed encouraging. He’d concluded that I was the small thing keeping them apart. It was only honorable to tell me this, he said, adding that he wanted me to stay away from Angela from now on.
He couldn’t expect me to do that.
I can. Watch me.
But why would I?
Because you’re afraid, he said. Aren’t you?
I told him that I was not afraid, though he shouldn’t take that to mean that I didn’t respect him.
Excellent, he said, grinning. He suggested we continue our conversation elsewhere. One doesn’t just sit in a car, staring at the street. I told him that I had to go home.
That’s fine, he said. You’re from Charlottenburg. I’m heading in that direction.
As he started the engine, I remembered that he was the same age as me and couldn’t possibly have a driver’s license. Contrary to my expectations he drove superbly, albeit not to Charlottenburg.
We pulled over nearby the dreary Pankstrasse, in Wedding. Come, he said, and we climbed out.
My parents are expecting me, I said. I’ll take the train home. It’s no problem, really.
He said that he just wanted to show me his place, have a mocha. He made the reasonable argument that he was actually saving me time by driving me.
But I thought you lived in Zehlendorf.
We still have a flat here.
We shuffled through a passageway into a good square mile of courtyard — a metropolis of parking lots, garbage collection sites and playgrounds, encircled by ashy tenements.
He turned to me and I noticed that he looked a bit nauseous: You aren’t really planning on seeing Angela any longer, are you? I told him that I liked her a lot, and apologized. He nodded and we trotted on; he tended to a phone call. We arrived at a bright-red door, where we were received by a wiry middle-aged gentleman, in a crisply ironed jogging suit, wearing a nervous, exhausted look between his wooly hat and beard. S introduced us: Joshua, this is Neighbor. Neighbor, this is Joshua. Neighbor glanced down at me, squinted as if I didn’t quite fit his existing categories. Joshua is making me very sad, Neighbor. S paused and smiled fondly at his friend, who felt compelled to respond and shook his head at me in condemnation.
Would you kill this boy me for me, Neighbor?
The man stared at S to see if he was joking, turned back to me, shrugged and nodded matter-of-factly. I thought of dashing off but then considered that such a move might make them do something thoughtless. S asked for my phone, and though I don’t remember handing it to him, he managed to take down her number and remove it from my phone. Meanwhile Neighbor ran inside to collect our mochas.
Over the following week, S conducted an intensive recruitment campaign, wooing Angela by call and text message, though she ceased to respond after his initial offer. I saw him stage a final attempt in person, by the school bus stop. She kept her eyes on the street, smoking, and eventually got fed up and turned to him, with a look of strict contempt, and said: I told you. Could you please leave me alone? He looked around at us, his face sweaty, and with a sudden jolt drew something from his pocket and threw it at her head, causing her to duck, shriek, and fall onto the pavement, howling, holding her face, as he stomped away. It turned out to be a handful of small bills and coins.
Thankfully, none of this spoiled my relationship with S. He hounded me until he dropped out of our school, a few months before graduation.
Eleven years later, S once again found use for me. He started messaging me on Facebook every few hours and sending me chats whenever my icon popped up. Apparently. he’d been deported to Turkey. Always disappear when I send you a chat, you cheap jew.
Somehow he got his hands on my phone number. The moment I heard the heavy breathing, I knew it was him. I expected abuse, but instead heard a plea for assistance.
S wailed about the bad luck that had shadowed him since he’d dropped out of school — the cases, the jails, the extradition process. He swore that though he’d been violent, at times, he’d never sold drugs. I interjected that I’d witnessed him throwing pillowcases of stuff around his flat. He snickered fondly: I never liked them. I never took them myself.
He started to mumble as he reached the tragic crux of his story. The woman that had stuck with him through his five-year sentence, who he’d married upon release, had now left him and moved to New York City, where I lived. He could not travel because of his crimes and needed my help getting her back. We were friends, after all.
We are not.
He considered this and responded confidently: you are wrong.
I reminded him that:
- who’s that little asshole! were the first words he’d ever said to me.
- he’d called me Jew more often than Joshua.
- Angela refused to talk to me after his intervention.
- he’d asked his friend to kill me.
- he’d beaten up several friends of mine, often kicked me as a greeting.
He responded that:
- he called everybody asshole; that, in his vernacular, it was a term of endearment.
- he admired our keen business sense and always had.
- where he was from it was customary to stand up for one’s woman.
- I was gullible for believing that.
- he’d never beaten me up.
All this was true; but stopping short of hospitalizing me wasn’t my sole criterion for friendship. I remembered him primarily as a bully.
That’s ungrateful, he said. He reminded me that he’d bullied everyone, to a certain extent, that roughness was part of his public persona, but that he’d always been very nice to me outside of school, away from our classmates. I responded that I’d found him particularly annoying in those instances.
He mentioned the clubs he’d taken me and my friends to, the stand-out suits he’d lent us. I had forgotten about these establishments. I had repressed Metropolis, that blue smoky room where cake-faced eastern European girls tore at each other over their flashy boyfriends. I remembered Superlights, that pseudo-1960s-USA-diner-bar with the small dance floor in the back and the coke den upstairs, a place that gave the awful impression that it wouldn’t require much reshuffling to convert into a functioning brothel. Sometimes we were joined by his friends, dudes with wide stances, fake tans and short hair gelled into pyramid constellations. They hung on his every word and bore the brunt of his invective.
What was school like after I left?
He had gone into hiding after stabbing his way out of a brawl and injuring a high-ranking member of a large Allevite family. I had rejoiced at the time, something I was ashamed about now.
He reminded me of our last meeting. It too had slipped my mind — a summer night in Schöneberg, between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I had walked into a subterranean slot machine hall, the kind of seedy, smoky, neon establishment that hasn’t been remodeled or aired out since the early 1980s, with my old friend Ilan, another of his victims. He was sitting by a slot machine, with a woman next to him, solemnly chucking in coins while she smoked and stoically observed the results. I tapped him on the back. He didn’t recognize me at first, but then let off a small squeal and gave me the customary three pecks on the cheek. This was a very different S, sluggish and devoid of the frantic energy that had so long been his signature. “I’m going away. For a long, long time,” he said to me and I could tell he was afraid. He told me that he’d killed a guy.
To prevent an uncomfortable silence, he called over his female companion from the slot machine. “This is my wife, Serda,” he said, looking at her with grandfatherly pride. She acknowledged their nuptuals with a sober nod and shook my hand as if it was the ultimate inconvenience.
I tried to rouse his spirits by framing prison as an opportunity to get his life in order. He shook his head at me with a painful smile, “I am never going to change.” In that moment, I felt ashamed for despising him.
After hushing Ilan away, he told me about his conviction, reconstructing the turn of events that lead to him speeding his car into a crowd of men. I had no choice, he said. You have no idea what sons of whores these guys are! Apparently, they had ambushed him in an attempt to abscond with his merchandise.
I would later find out that the trial had been a farce (the two parties had already settled in a private court overseen by local elders). No witnesses appeared. The prosecutor complained about the victim’s family. The evidence he presented was purely biological. He could only speculate why two Turkish residents of Berlin had encountered eight Lebanese residents of Berlin at 4 a.m. in an obscure town near the Polish border. Going by the public record, it was a random occurrence.
S chucked another coin into the slot machine.
What did you get?
Manslaughter: 8 years.
I promised him not to tell my friends and — for fear of being found out — I never did. I wasn’t the only one he’d told: the news made the rounds. Eventually I forgot where I’d heard it first.
S coughed into the phone. He took a long sip of something, coughed a couple more times, and cleared his throat: You forgot about that, didn’t you? You smoked too much weed back then. I bet you still do. You’ve changed since you moved to America. I spoke to Ahmed, Ilan and them on the phone. Mesut even came to visit me here in Antalya. You never call them either.
He lit a cigarette. You and I were friends, alright. You said that the last time we spoke, before I went into prison. You said: goodbye, my friend.
That was the kind of thing I said to everyone back then; such was my pretension after one year of college. But that wasn’t his fault. I’d treated him like a fool. I said that I’d been wrong about him.
You thought I was dumb, didn’t you? He huffed into the phone. How dumb were you to think that?
I agreed; I chuckled. He was right. I’d been childish.
But that’s how you are, he spat. I have seen enough of you to know that. You all think you’re the smartest, but let me tell you something: Some of you are clever, it’s true. More than anyone maybe! But those of you who aren’t, are really fucking dumb. And you my friend are fucking dumb. You couldn’t do anything for yourself back then!
He steadied his breath for a moment and then laughed instructively.
I have to get back to work, I said.
He apologized, a first between us, and asked me whether I could, perhaps, please, deliver flowers to his wife next week while she visited a certain theatre in Manhattan. I suspected that he was trying to get around a restraining order, so I found him a delivery service. He thanked me and observed with some measure of contentment that I was still completely without honor.