Features » Literature


Rainer Merkel's novel "Light Years Away" - an excerpt


Along the long carpeted corridor, a waitress approaches.

She's carrying an empty tray, on the lookout for glasses and bottles deserted by the old women. It is two thirty in the morning. The slot machines are abandoned. The old women have all gone now. Judith averts her eyes. She looks at the display on the slot machine she was playing before. 'Have you got another dollar?' she asks. I reach into my pocket with a feeling of relief. There's no point in really gambling a large sum of money. Perhaps I think that with the night ahead of us in mind. The hours remaining to us once we've gone up to our room. 'It's much better this way,' I whisper, murmuring to myself. Now, as I'm waiting for the A-train to finally take me to the airport and looking back at that moment, it's just a very brief moment, a blink of an eye. 'Do you want to?' I ask. I see us, in my memory, going back to our room. The huge, glamorous bed from which we have torn the bedcovers. I see our room, a neon hyper-realistic painting. A painting of a cold, disembodied kiss. It's more of an accident that we use the pay-per-view channel. 'Why not?' says Judith when I ask her if she wants to watch it. And she reaches for the pillow that's fallen to the floor. Our spirits are revived. We prop ourselves up, our hands resting on the bed, and stare at the TV.

The sheets are stretched so tightly that the bed lies under us like a rock. The closet housing the TV is closed, but it's easy enough to open. As I take a closer look at the lock mechanism, I notice you can't insert a key into it at all, the brass-coloured lock is just glued onto the wood veneer for decoration. And perhaps that's the whole secret that reveals the actual strength of our love. Some days we don't love each other, we just wait for the old feelings to come back. Perhaps it's a question of dosage, a question of dealing responsibly with feelings, which can't be controlled as such. I can imagine Gabriela watching a film like this, with the same impartiality with which she looks at everything else to do with sexuality. Once she even went to an erotic fair with her boyfriend and told me how 'funny' and 'interesting' she found the women, especially. 'The women?' I ask her. 'You thought they were funny?' 'Yeah,' she says, 'they were having fun together. They were all laughing the whole time.' She'd notice that the actresses in the film I watch with Judith in Primm are strikingly short. Gabriela would be guaranteed to say: 'Why are they all so short?' Or she'd say: 'They've all been to the tanning salon. All together.' Gabriela goes to the tanning salon herself, regularly. The uniformly browned skin of the actresses in the porno I watch with Judith makes the woman look like desert women to me, inhabitants of the desert who have somehow ended up in the film, the sun's rays distributed uniformly over their short, supple bodies. Some of them are wearing rings and bracelets or heavy gold chains twisted around each other several times over. Gabriela wouldn't let that go uncommented either. She'd say: 'And they've got nothing else on. Funny, huh?' Judith, in contrast, says nothing. She just watches. She doesn't make a single comment. Does she watch the film as a favour to me? I say: 'I don't even know if I feel like it.' And then I say: 'I'm not in the mood.' Gabriela looks at the women at the erotic fair. She finds it amazing how well they keep in shape and look after themselves. She finds some of them attractive as well. She says: 'But it's a trade fair. That's what these things are like.' 'That you find them attractive?' I ask. 'No, that they have fun, and the people who look at them have fun too. It's great, isn't it.' And I can't help thinking that Gabriela's huge inexhaustible innocence will keep touching and enchanting me until the end of my days. 'Do you really want to watch this?' I ask Judith, remote control in hand, incapable of leaving the pay-per-view channel. We don't even have a cover. We're both lying naked on the outsized beige bed, at the mercy of the arousal that is supposed to take hold of us.

It must have been Primm. Primm, with the participation of eight women acting out an office sex scene. The women are in a fictitious office fitted out with several desks and a set of seats, and strangely enough an elevator door, which doesn't open during the section we watch, but plays a large role in my memory later. Two or three women form various groups, the camera moving around them. There is no overture, no foreplay, not the slightest introduction. The desert inhabitants play with each other, and we watch. I have particular difficulties with their shaved genitals. It's not that I'd never seen anything like it, but I find it tasteless towards Judith. When it comes down to it, I don't look even at them, I spend the whole time looking over at Judith and watching how she reacts to the film. I act as if the sight of Judith were of course much more arousing than the women on the hotel TV screen in the dark-stained, chunky closet. They are power athletes. Their scraped-out armpits flash in the artificial light. The desert has made their bodies smooth and supple. Their tongues are nimble, quick-witted animals emerging from under the ground. Their labia folded hands that have worked their way into their laps. They have lost their arms. Their fingers pull their mouths apart, their hands work on strange bodies. At one point I see a scene that Judith lets go uncommented, one woman licking with her little fleshy tongue at another's cold, dry labia at such breakneck speed that you might think her tongue had gone insane, had become independent, and it were no longer possible to stay in its mouth, between its lips. 'Hmm,' I say and laugh. I don't dare say anything. I'm afraid I might endanger the latently erotic mood, which makes me feel rather uneasy though at the same time. I'm suddenly wide awake. Does the sight of the naked women arouse me, even though I'm not even looking at them? I can't say the sight of Judith arouses me at this moment. The desert inhabitants stick their hands, fingers and tongues into each other's mouths. When it comes down to it, they're trying out all their orifices and all their extremities in the various combinations with one another. That's high-end office work. In one scene a gaunt, suntanned, peroxide-blonde desert woman runs her doubly ringed toes across the clitoris of another woman lying on a couch, who holds her legs apart so wide with two hands that they hover like a huge bridgehead to nowhere above a third long-haired woman approaching her genitals. Judith doesn't seem particularly interested in this work of art, which I dare to comment with 'hmm' or 'gosh'. She emits no sign of interest or arousal, although I believe I do remember her squinting slightly in the light of these bright, neon-shining images. But when is the transition? When is the moment when Judith touches me or I touch her?

'You can't change anything with words any more,' I once say to Lambert. 'But perhaps we should talk about what's happening to you right this moment. What it's all about and what's going on on the emotional level.' One of us must have pulled up the covers at some point, they aren't on the floor any more later on and the curtains are closed as well. But I don't know which of us that must have been. Judith never closes the curtains. She prefers to sleep with the window open. Lambert is always telling me the same stories in different variations, like a professional liar who grasps onto a few true details and props them up around his tissue of lies. One of the stories revolves around his father standing by his car in the car park of the local tennis club and searching between the plastic bags in the trunk of his car for a pack of marzipan as a gift for his former personal assistant from the regional parliament. She waited by the car, tennis racquet under her arm, although he'd arranged to play tennis with his son. Lambert has told this story several times now. He tells me how he had to turn away in horror and disgust and leave the car park and even miss his tennis class, as he couldn't bear the sight of his father. It's always about these plastic bags, which symbolise the decline, and the trunk where his father's whole life took place since he could no longer use the parliamentary chauffeur service. It's not the personal assistant with whom his father had an affair, or the marzipan he wanted to give her. It's the plastic bags, the chaos of hall-full, empty and used bags he had stuffed into the trunk. The modifications and shifts reveal how Lambert tries to get a hold on his relationship with his father. His father doesn't even know what his son's major is. Sometimes he introduces him as a law student, and then other times he says: 'He's going to be a doctor, but let's hope I'm dead by then.' Lambert finds his father's failure humiliating, but he won't admit to that by any means. 'You're the one who's lying to me,' he shouts. 'You're the one who's deceiving me. You act like you're always there for me. And now you're not interested any more. You don't give a fuck.' It's all empty rhetoric, but you can feel the suffering, the desperation behind it. In the end I suggest he goes outside in the courtyard for a breath of fresh air. It's a compromise. There are several exits from the courtyard, and I explain how he can get outside fastest through the tangle of corridors and staircases. Do we watch the film to the end? Doesn't Judith get up at some point and leave the room? Feeling her way with slow, careful steps to the bathroom, where she closes the door behind her? I lie in bed and watch the rest of the film on my own; I can't turn it off, just as I can't turn away. 'Go ahead, let it all out,' I say to Lambert. 'Have a good shout. You can do what you like here. Everything's allowed hereā€¦ It just won't change the fact that I'm leaving this room in five minutes, and then your appointment will be over.'

For a while I keep thinking the elevator door is going to open and some man will come to the women's aid. But that doesn't happen. The women run their tongues across each other's flawless, tanned bodies like washcloths. Their tongues are doubtlessly the heroes of the film. I keep looking over, but I don't hold out for long. Do we touch each other? Does anything happen? Even though I'll otherwise stop at nothing in my memory, it refuses to obey in this case. We are naked or near-naked. But we can never be as naked as the women taking dictation, filing correspondence and carrying out talking on the tongue telephone in all their nudity in the film. Their faces are concentrated. They are utterly serious about it all. Occasionally, their faces look warped to me, bearing the expressions of athletes giving their all even in a training session. You might say they are furious at their lust. Even though that lust is only put on. Is there a moment when Judith reacts? A moment when I do anything? Is there a moment of aggression? Is she irritated? Over-aroused? If she really does get up and go into the bathroom, that's a sign that she doesn't approve. But she says nothing. She puts up with everything. Even when I close my eyes, imagine myself back in that situation, the tightly smoothed beige sheet, the large box-like bed, the women with skin the shade of the desert and the red-brown, slightly shiny fragments of tongue, I can't for the life of me remember the transition. It's impossible that we watch a porno and don't do anything, or at least don't communicate to one another that 'all this' has thoroughly 'ruined' any eroticism. I remember at one point I do ask Judith if I shouldn't turn it off, to which she replies that she finds it 'interesting'. She says 'interesting'. Why doesn't she say: I can't stand it, I find it disgusting. It's not the same tone of voice in which Gabriela says 'interesting'. When it comes down to it, the difference between Judith and Gabriela is all in the way they say 'interesting', as if Judith's 'interesting' were a different word to Gabriela's 'interesting'. On that weekend when I try to paint my old student apartment in Munich and get sick, it's Gabriela I think of, of all people, not Judith. I'm only there for one weekend to paint the apartment and show a potential new tenant around the next day. Other than in the bathroom, where I drag myself every twenty minutes to vomit, there is no light in the apartment where I lived for ten years. Vomiting for the fourth or fifth time, I ask myself how I'm supposed to paint the apartment when there's no light. And then I really do think of Gabriela, even though I feel so awful. And of us having sex. I remember forcing myself to think of Judith as well, but not managing for the life of me. I vomit and think of Gabriela, in the ice-cold bathroom in the Glockenbachviertel, in my old student apartment that I want to enter for the last time that weekend and finally give it up. I think of her and the two of us sitting together in her car in the underground garage. 'Interesting,' she'd say, or she'd say: 'You've got such a dirty mind!' and then she'd laugh and wait for me to pay her the next compliment and think up the next obscenity.

I lay the remote control on the bed so that Judith can switch off the film if she wants to. It's a shadowy, imprecise memory. I think I can remember it's Judith. It's Judith who starts off, moving closer to me. And then I remember again her standing in the door to the bathroom, a towel wound into a turban. She has washed her hair. She is standing on the threshold to the bathroom, her wet hair under the towel, looking at me. Under the ground, several feet under the surface of New York with my plane ready to take off before my very eyes, it occurs to me again. Does she turn away? Does she want nothing more to do with what happens? The A-train is much slower than the L-train. And it seems to wait longer at all the stations. A bizarrely contorted desert inhabitant is standing in front of the elevator door, as if it might open up behind her, but it doesn't open. In Nevada, just over the border from California, where organised gambling is banned. 'Hmm,' I say. The elevator door leads directly into the apartment in the Glockenbackviertel. A dark, unlit apartment that I haven't set foot in since and for which I still haven't found a new tenant. The desert inhabitants lick each others' fingers once they've examined one another. I remember one scene where one of them has her finger licked by one woman after burying it in the genitals of another, as if she were looking for a solution there. A solution to a problem? But what problem? What happens in Primm? Does anything happen in Primm? The women in the porno have so much sex, they can't even manage to work off their lust. Their lust piles up in front of them like a mountain of work at the office. They can't stop going down on each other. They even go down on themselves, at least one desert woman watching two others licks herself. She goes down on herself, as far as that's anatomically possible. The mountain of lust piles up in front of us. The hotel goes up another ten floors. I think of the Glockenbachviertel and our guest apartment. Two vacant apartments that have changed my relationship with Judith, for different reasons. The camera zooms even closer. One desert inhabitant opens her mouth wide. As if she wanted to scream. The building above us, black, shot up into the night in a fraction of a second. An inflated American idyll. I watch the rest of the film alone. At some point, once Judith is asleep, I manage to release the bedcover, which she has wrapped around herself, from beneath her body so that I can cover myself over too. I listen to her smooth, calm breathing. My numbness suddenly becomes so overwhelming that I throw the remote control on the floor and leave the film to run on, with the feeling that I may well be spending a fortune. It runs all night long, and I don't look at it a single time.


Translation: Katy Derbyshire
S. Fischer Verlag
About this book - let's talk european