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from the June 2016 issue

Small-town Novella

is it obvious when b’s gaze lingers on people in the schoolyard? there goes leif, being watched. how does it look to someone else? crazy? cheesy? b has known leif since twelfth grade, meaning they were separated from the others and sent to this school where they have a hundred and twenty classmates. then it’s down to pure chance whether old friendships slacken, stay firm, or fall apart at the seams. a high price to pay for a couple of “free” subject choices, limited anyway by a lack of teachers and rooms. and by high school teachers’ pay rates, and by the elbows used at teachers’ conferences to fight for the best classes. what’s this actually about? says b, making himself unpopular at the high school conference for german: is it about image, age, beauty? what are the criteria for assigning class subjects to teachers? what about students’ choices when the worst teacher gives the most classes, and these classes have to be filled? leif is in one of these botched classes, and b watches him, trying to get close by making jokes during break and eventually sitting next to him in the semicircle during the double art period twice a week. b spends his time at school assessing people, obsessing over leif, going with him to the kiosk, watching how he takes b’s coke, puts it to his lips, and passes it to his girlfriend. b remains apart, listening patiently to boring talk about chemistry or wines or—the ultimate!—motorcycles. when a class is canceled unexpectedly, b sees leif standing with some guys at the kiosk and they have their first conversation, though b suddenly feels watched, insecure, like the others are with girls. he hangs around and joins in the talk about the twelfth-grade trip among other things—either to berlin or a skiing hut or the french border. all one hundred and twenty students in twelfth grade B have made a choice, and when b finds out that like leif, he’s going to berlin, he says: awesome. b will tell leif about his dread of cliques: of yours, he’ll say. on the trip they’ll all stick together and jerk me around. i’ll run to the girls for cover. and he won’t take the advice that leif gives him when they’re alone: hit them back when they least expect it! b doesn’t want to go there. are you a pussy, asks leif, or what? maybe, says b, but more to the point, i don’t want to be strong, or athletic, I don’t feel like hitting anyone. they’ve regularly beaten up b and the only self-defense he’s ever dished out is a slap across the face. b saw it in a film and was proud of it, but the guy on the receiving end said: just like a girl. don’t take it to heart, leif consoles him, all manly, perhaps even a trace of understanding and tenderness in his voice. or so it seems to b, and he says: i can run off when it happens in the schoolyard, but in berlin, with all of us in a group? leif has to explain to his clique, who aren’t very perceptive but have eyes at least, why he says hello to b: i say hello to other guys i don’t hang out with. liane plays messenger between b and this clique. she tells him the latest gossip and their remarks. he finds them crude, he doesn’t have a sense of belonging like back at home. so it’s impossible for b to break in and fit in with this group. he’ll have to do this if he’s going to change them. to overcome prejudices against long coats for a start, ones that don’t look anything like parkas or wax jackets. liane sorts all this out for him and her reports keep him upbeat. she delivers notes pushed across tables or casual remarks in the schoolyard with long-lasting effects. and b laughs cheekily and unexpectedly at things said offhand, like: you looking for a punch in the face? he wants to shatter leif’s manly facade; he thinks by ribbing him a few times, he’ll crack his hard, jockish veneer. why does b stick to leif? is it the challenge of it? a secret longing to be like him? or like the other guys? and what about the other way round? leif wants to study something that pays well: any dumb job is fun if you can rake it in! these are the kinds of comments b hears on the class trip, as he tries to stomach normality. usually he runs away from it, like in sport, using tricks and excuses from doctor friends, because he can’t bear the way sweaty boys act together: jostling each other during team games and always picking on the smallest guy: it’s the highest form of attention. and group showering turns into torture, because towels draped around youthful loins are just curtains for the play: who’s got the biggest, and who hides his pride the fiercest? the one with the biggest mouth is allowed to grab others between the legs: ouch, just playing! of course, and so fucking manly. this is the way imperial armies and torturers must have done it: together yet apart, touching allowed only with reference to lack of women. i would throw up if it was my turn to be picked on. in the locker rooms, wild combat rages more openly than elsewhere. this is where men are trained to beat up faggots and rape women. this is where the systematic destruction of happiness takes place. these guys’ fathers serve a double portion of unhappiness: these guys have to be manly so that the status quo doesn’t change and at the same time, they have to pretend to be happy, fixated on the next fuck or jerk-off, no option of escape. when b backs off, they’re pissed, they don’t understand, they say he’s the other way. b knits in the passenger car of the train, chitchats to leyla and the others about knitting patterns, v-necks, and color combinations, says no to leif’s beer, doesn’t want to be drunk on the first day in the big city. needs it, but not with these people, thank you very much! cognac in his coffee gives him a rush, helps him say to the world, stick your worries where the sun don’t shine! or: venceremos! b looks out of the train window and takes the brigitte magazine that someone hands him. and then running away feels less perfect: instead he resists by fitting in, gets drunk after all with two-thirds of twelfth grade B. he sits with them in a crazy, comic city. “culture” is a fucking joke, they are just on one long drinking binge—but after the nightly group blackout, the following scene takes place: leif remembers, catches up with b after breakfast, takes him up to his room, says: you were drunk yesterday. b guesses what’s coming and says: weren’t you? he’s excited, hears: yeah, you said something about being in love. ah, b laughs, a beautiful subject, don’t you think? with me. excuse me? with me. you said i was wonderful and beautiful and you were. with me. and b: i was drunk, i’d been reading that day, thinking, senses all mixed up. are you gay? yes.

 

because of course b is gay. he goes out onto the schoolyard with the girls and looks around, says hello, stops, and is gay. ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome to the show: a homosexual is always suspicious. johanna müller here, reporting on prejudices against a minority, prejudices we all have and how we deal with them. this is what we will be looking at on today’s program—original recordings made like this: five homosexual men listened to interviews with two heterosexual men and then responded to some statements. b has a large circle of friends. via a men’s group, he ends up in a local radio station with an impressive bathroom, so big you can dance in it. let’s see, shall i use the ladies’ or the men’s room! he announces, eliciting laughter. he flirts with the senior editor who writes a literary column for stern and who—quote—listens to them with warmhearted sympathy, as he assures them after the recording. they are sitting in the radio station canteen and b is bored by the others’ whispers: did you see? look at him! isn’t that? because he doesn’t know any of them. he met martha on the way here and in a bold mood, he told her: so we’re doing a show, five gays in a studio. and why you? isn’t it obvious? ah, ok. and she’ll sit in front of the radio like everyone else in school and afterward everyone will know. and if one of them says: i don’t do anything to show i’m gay, and i don’t hide it either, that’s too easy. perhaps my pink triangle, the symbol for gays in concentration camps, is just a funny way of overrating my own isolation. defamation comes in many forms: helplessness, embarrassment, laughter, or the way they treat you. how normal is b? they encourage him to wear makeup. is that red champagne, the funky new color? he asks lenkel during an exam, pointing to her fingernails. she laughs, says no, replies: if you like it, why don’t you wear it? it would definitely suit you! b is amazed, laughs, says: hell no, then lenkel says: why not? doesn’t bother me, anything goes these days! yeah, if only, says b and carries on writing. buy it, suits you, says laura, when they go shopping in the city center. this? it’s for girls. bullshit, says laura, like who cares. and b gets bolder. he pins a rhinestone brooch on his jacket, wears a black plastic hairband of leyla’s that goes with his watch. look! a boy wearing a ring! yells b’s cousin who is sitting on his lap on the tram. so what? says b reluctantly. want one too? and the girl jumps down, crowing as she runs to mommy: mommy, mommy, he’s wearing a ring! yeah? she laughs awkwardly, apologetically, looks at him and quickly away again. mothers, do the following test if you want to know whether a gay man has just passed you by: does your victim swing his hips as he walks? is he dressed in the latest trends? does he have a frustrated expression? your average faggot looks like a jilted woman. he’s been kicked around since hair first started sprouting on his legs. it’s not just the mass media making sure of this but parents, too, and psychiatrists. and when stern writes that not all homosexuals practice anal sex, it’s an attempt to save an honor that doesn’t exist. when the bourgeois save the honor of those who have rejected bourgeois morality, it can only be bourgeois—absurd, in other words. a gay man’s honor is similar to that of the middle classes: he smiles all the time and is dissatisfied when his hat slips: is that honor? b is still wondering when the fella walks past: if b grabbed his arm and said: come with me, i want it!, then perhaps he’d get a slap. surprise isn’t strong enough to undo upbringing and b thinks about this for too long, missing his chance each time. when b sees the fella standing in front of a shop window, he goes to stand next to him, looking at him in the reflection. the fella notices, but the smile doesn’t work: they part. sometimes b practices smiling in the mirror because it so often doesn’t work. now, if he isn’t gay then i don’t know who is! thinks b when he spots a boy sitting across from him on the train. blond, fashionable—those stylish glasses! thin hands. the guy’s rummaging through his wallet, tidying up photos, looks at his driver’s license photo, takes out his flowery notebook, strikes a pose in the corner, the back of his hand on his cheek, something flashes on his left ring finger! well, probably just for appearance. he is, no doubt about it! no makeup, true, and no earring, which b sometimes longs for, but the little neck chain! his crossed legs! the way b does too, because he is, too. it takes ages for the guy to notice that b is staring at him. he’s older than b first thought, and prettier. now he’s looking back. soon their relationship will be over. b’s arrived at his stop; will the guy get out too? b gets up, puts on a few things, always glancing in his direction, but the guy makes no sign of standing up and when b reaches the exit, he gives up hope. of what anyway? then the guy comes out after all and follows b a little way until the guy’s girlfriend picks him up and greets him with a little peck on the cheek. and as he walks off, b watches: the heteros are getting more effeminate too, these days. 

From Kleinstadtnovelle. © 2002 Konkret Literatur Verlag, Hamburg und Thomas Keck, Berlin. Translation © 2016 by Lucy Renner Jones. All rights reserved.

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