FORMER WEST BERLIN, 1992
The past few weeks, the days had blurred together. Aleksandr would wake at 7:30, leave the apartment in Charlottenberg at 8:35, work at Ivan’s warehouse, return to the apartment at 7 or 8 at night, eat Chinese take-out, watch television, and then go to bed. The next day, Aleks would repeat this process. And the next day. Those early mornings in the backseat of Ivan’s car, racing down Berlin’s boulevards, gave Aleks a brief glimpse of freedom. Commuters buttoned up in thick wool coats and wrapped in scarves stood at bus stops, waiting. For a second, Aleks locked eyes with a striking brunette in a blue coat, standing at a corner, waiting to cross Danckelmannstrasse. Children struggled under the weight of enormous backpacks on their way to school. Adults walked briskly down sidewalks. “Time is money,” Ivan would say as his foot pressed the gas, urging the car a single breath from the bumper in front of them.
Ivan had transferred Aleks to a new project in the warehouse, which meant he no longer sat in that windowless back room all day humming sonatas with his friend Dimitri, also a musician. Aleks now worked in a large open space, where men with ruddy complexions and calloused hands hunched over wide tables assembling devices that involved metal brackets and wires. He appreciated getting out of that stuffy back room and being in the middle of activity even if the other men resisted his attempts at conversation. Aleks wondered how they had made it from Russia to Berlin. He’d get a nod or a glance in response to a comment, but then a long silence would squelch the possibility of conversation.
Every morning, small cargo trucks from the East pulled up at the back door, their drivers glassy-eyed from days of traveling on cheap Communist concrete riddled with deep potholes and jagged cracks. Men with thick chests and muscled arms unloaded cardboard boxes from the truck’s cargo, stacking the brown boxes on dollies and wheeling them down the hall and into a storage room. The drivers, exhausted, would sit down to a plate of potatoes and minced meat dumplings, devouring everything in an instant, and then disappear into a large utility closet to sleep. One of his first days working in the front of the warehouse, Aleks had opened the wrong door in his search for a bathroom. The slit of light from the hallway illuminated a row of cots, where men slept cocooned in blankets.
Aleks’ new task involved placing a “Made in West Germany” label on the lower right-hand corner of a small plastic bag. He applied the gold sticker with its red border, the size of his tiniest fingernail, in the same spot on each bag. When Dimitri’s cousin Ivan walked through the room, the men at his table attended to their tasks with a renewed zeal and concentration. Everyone at the office spoke Russian, and everyone seemed afraid of Ivan. Yuri explained to Aleks one morning how they’d all recently arrived in Berlin with Ivan’s help to escape the crazy inflation, lack of jobs, and the mafia’s reign back in Russia. They all needed to work off the cost of their German paperwork, which Ivan had offered to take care of for them.
The square windowpanes next to Aleks’ chair looked out on rooftops and the sky over Berlin. Cumulus clouds, plump and buoyant, arranged themselves in layers against the sky just as they did in Moscow. About this time last year, he’d walked from the tram stop to the orchestra’s rehearsal hall and stopped to admire an endless blue sky and the perfect white clouds levitating over Moscow. He’d felt time’s push and all the forces outside his control in the days preceding winter’s arrival. Those clouds were the last of the mild weather, the last days of strolling with an unbuttoned coat, the last days of seeing the sun every morning. He didn’t miss Moscow’s deep freeze, but he missed the cramped warmth in the apartment he shared with his mother. He missed the familiarity of his uncle’s place, the sharp smell of his aunt’s borscht on the stove. Did his mother think something terrible had happened when he didn’t return on the train to Moscow? He hoped she wasn’t too worried. He hoped his postcard would soothe her fears.
Tatiana came around their workspace with her tray, first stopping at the table on the far side of the room to deliver lunch plates. She wore simple Soviet clothes in greys and browns. She had started serving Aleks last, so the two of them could talk for a few minutes without the other men growing impatient for their food.
Her brown eyes radiated warmth and the corners of her thin lips turned up slightly as she placed the tray down beside Aleks, setting a plate, a glass, and utensils in front of him. She tucked a napkin under his fork with care. The smell of warm food and the kindness in her smile made his days bearable. He wanted to rescue her from this place. Maybe the two of them could set out on their own in Berlin. Surely, they could find jobs and a place to live. It couldn’t be that difficult in the West with so many opportunities and so much wealth.
“And how was the preparation this morning?” Aleks asked.
“Today was better. Nina didn’t try to steal the butter.” She smiled shyly, covering her mouth with her hand. Her eyes met his briefly and then darted toward the floor.
From Tatiana’s stories, Aleks had learned there were five or six other girls like her working in the kitchen, preparing lunches and fetching coffees for Ivan and the other men. She wiped up a few crumbs off the table with a rag and with the other hand, slid a scrap of paper under his napkin. Her move shook him. He flinched with joy. Their eyes met for one electric second and then she turned to leave, waving over her shoulder and tucking the rag back into the white apron wrapped tight around her slim waist.
All the other men in the room were focused on the plates in front of them, so Aleks unfolded the piece of paper in his lap. In pencil, Tatiana had scribbled:
Audition for cello
17 October, 9:00
Potsdamer Strasse 58
Valerie Palmer was born in Washington, DC and now lives in Los Angeles. The Brightest Flame is her first novel.
Want to read more? A full excerpt of The Brightest Flame is published in EXCERPT Magazine - No 1