THE LEAVE BOX
If you are afraid of something, there is a trick that can help you out. It works like this: Hold your breath on the school bus every morning, past your own apartment building and the buildings of your friends, past Karl-Marx-Allee. Hold it until you think you are going to die, then breathe in. Do this until it stops scaring you. Now you are ready for whatever comes next.
I practice the new trick on the walk to Bibi’s house. I make it all the way past the apartment blocks and the post office where I work after school, to the intersection where the streets melt away into grayish gravel and dirt, before I have to stop and suck in a burning lungful of air. It’s a good trick, I decide, almost as good as the one where you put your head underwater in the bathtub and pretend that nothing exists and you don’t have to go to school and if you go downstairs, you won’t find anyone crying in the kitchen. All of my escapes are easy like this. They can be executed with a pair of binoculars, or a good book, or a blanket over your head.
But no matter how brilliant or inventive they are, they only ever offer a few minutes, an hour of reprieve. The moment you raise your head from the water or inhale you remember where you are, and where you can’t go, and you are right back where you started.
Bibi’s house is a half-hour walk away from the apartments, and by the time I get there my sweater is soaked in sleet. Mr. Fechter takes it from me and hangs it over the fireplace without a word. I know he disapproves of me because of my mother. I’ve gotten better at not caring about these things. Old fart, Bibi says when he’s gone, waving her hand as if to dispel any lingering traces of him from the air. Her hair is up in a high ponytail, showing off the streak of red I gave her a month ago with the dye Elsi sent from Kreuzberg.
I glance around the room surreptitiously for Peter. Bibi rolls her eyes.
“He’s still at work. He’ll be back in an hour. Can you survive until then?”
The Fechters’ house is pushed right up against the Wall, or as close as you can get, anyway. If it had been a few feet over, the border would’ve cut them off and I might not have known them at all. These are the sorts of things that you can’t help but think about when you look down from Bibi’s window. You can see everything from here. Our side of the Wall, grey and blank and evil with barbed wire. Then the kilometer or so called Die Todesstreife, riddled below the surface with invisible mines, then the watchtower, and then the other side. And beyond all of that, West Berlin, just a smudge of color at the far reaches of our vision. At night when the floodlights turn on, the whole area lights up white and invisible, and it’s almost pretty, like some kind of river you’d cross to get to Heaven.
From this window Peter and Bibi watched the wall rising up from nothing. First just a red demarcation on the sidewalk, a warning sign, then a coil of wire twisting itself higher and higher, and finally the stones. Once I asked her why they didn’t just jump while they could, clear the wire and take off running, but the next second I realized that anyone could’ve asked me the same thing. Why didn’t we all just run, those of us who aren’t happy here? It’s hard to say. There was something about the building of it that felt unreal. We couldn’t believe that they would really divide our neighborhood in half, that the bakery across the street, our old elementary school—all of these things would become enemy territory. And then there was the matter of the Stasi guards who showed up days later with their grim faces and rifles straight by their sides. And so we sat like bystanders watching a crime, waiting for someone else to intervene.
In Bibi’s room, I reach an arm under her bed and grasp the Leave Box by the corners, pulling it out. Taking off the lid, I realize that it’s almost two-thirds full. The sight of it makes me itch in some unscratchable part of my insides.
The Leave Box is really an aluminum tin that used to house stale butter cookies. It became the Leave Box almost by accident. We used it to store the million leaflets handed out in school. One day Bibi came home from work with a particularly hideous beige bra she’d been forced to sew and added it to the box. Now, it contains an amalgamation of little daily injustices, homework assignments and letters from friends in the West which have been steamed open and clumsily resealed by Stasi officers.
When the box is full, there will be no more excuses. This is the deal that I have made with myself. At the rate things are going it won’t take long. Another year, maybe. In the greater scheme of things a year isn’t so bad. Almost anyone can wait a year for anything.
I don’t know what will happen once it’s full, exactly, only that I won’t keep doing what I do now. I won’t keep going to school and then to work at the office, even if the not doing is dangerous. Otherwise there is the risk of accepting this life for what it is, deciding that you cannot change it. Once you’ve done that, you’re gone, and then you can only turn out like my mother or Bibi’s father.
When I hear Peter’s footsteps on the staircase I push the box back under Bibi’s bed. It’s not the sort of thing he’d understand. He’d think it was a silly little-girl thing to have.
Peter is six feet tall and always smells like the sawdust that clings to his work clothes. He has a scar on his right earlobe from where his father once ripped out a silver hoop. He is old enough that when the wall went up it separated him from lifelong friends and his girlfriend, Stasia. She comes around once a month, whenever she can get her hands on a day visa. She has blonde dreadlocks and wears ripped t-shirts that show her stomach with Nina Hagen splashed across the front. Her letters come through the post office every other day. I try very hard not to hate her.
Peter says that once he’s escaped to the West he’ll come back for me and Bibi. I don’t know if he means it. The one thing that I will never tell him is that I barely lost anyone when the wall went up. Just a father who wasn’t around much anyway, and Elsi, who’d been out of the house since I was ten and was more like a ghost than a sister. I don’t tell him that what I miss most of all is walking through West Berlin itself: the colors, the neon glare of shop-signs at night, and the kids with bright-dyed hair.
Instead I invent lost lovers, friends who write me every day. I’m careful never to slip up in my lies, because I, like a million other girls, am a Peter Fechter scholar. There is at least one in every neighborhood. We are an invisible secret society constantly in competition with one another. Certainly some of them are prettier than me, more daring, more interesting. But I am the one he talks to after school. Even if I am nothing more than a cute kid to him, a little sister like Bibi. It doesn’t matter, because he is here, and he is smiling at me.
“Hi, Nina,” He says, leaning into the doorframe. Bibi makes a shooing gesture, but she doesn’t really want him to go. Everyone is in love with him in a way. He is one of those people. He can even charm the hard old Communist women who work at the grocery into giving him an extra loaf of bread for free. I hope he’ll come in and talk with us for a while, but he says has to get to a meeting of some organization with an abbreviated name, and is gone as fast as he appeared.
At school we’re slogging through Engels’ Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England. We have to wear gray skirts over white blouses and keep our hair pulled out of our faces at all times. Third period Bibi gets caught drawing a devil horns on a picture of Stalin in her textbook and is sent to the principal.
On days like this, a boy named Artur from History class sometimes walks me home. We talk about school (boring) and the weather (bleak), steering carefully clear of touchier subjects that could ruin the delicate relationship we’ve built up. He tells me that he’s thinking of joining the FDJ. Wouldn’t you like me to be a soldier? He teases. I pretend to flirt back. I like him in the same way that I make myself like my face in the mirror in the morning; Because it can be learned, because it makes life a little bit easier. We walk and walk and I focus on the blue cuffs of his school blazer or the red spots on his cheeks and pretend not to notice the grey on all sides of us.
At my front door we have a well-established routine: He always shivers dramatically and asks if he can come in and I say yes, even though inside is barely warmer than out. Mom is knitting by the fireplace and doesn’t even notice us coming in. We go upstairs and get under the electric blanket to keep warm. This time as he takes my blouse off I try to imagine him with a mint-fresh Stasi haircut, one blue eye staring down the barrel of a rifle. This is what I imagine the whole time, and it makes things slightly more interesting. When he reaches for my skirt I stop his hand. Not that it matters, really. Sometimes I think about letting him do it just because it would at least mark off that day in my mind as not so much like the others. But if I’m only going to get one chance for this difference, I want to hold onto it a little longer.
“I might leave,” I say afterward, just to see how he will react.
“No you won’t.” I search his voice for a hint of jealousy, of alarm, but there is none. And why would there be? He could easily find another girl to be replace me, someone more willing, some cherubic sympathizer sweetheart who doesn’t mind if her days all feel the same and won’t hold his hands back.
“I’m thinking about it. Peter Fechter says he’d take me with him.”
“You’re not.” He untangles his shirt from the blanket, irritably. “He likes to talk, but he won’t do anything. No one does. What do you even know about what’s between us and them?”
I can’t answer this. He’s trapped me. What do I know? Nothing except what’s been told to me, and what I can see from the window. Some days it looks like I could just run across it. Others it’s a distance so vast and untraversable that it might as well be an entire ocean. So I just hold the door open and wait for him to leave.
Tonight’s dinner is potatoes and roast beef. Mom asks me how my day was. I tell her about class, but her eyes are half-glazed and I know she’s not really listening. I could probably talk her about Artur or smoking pot and she would just nod and smile in the same fixed way. The way some women devote their whole lives to their husbands or raising their children, she is married to her memory. She’s always thinking of my father and Elsi, of the old house with its central heating and kitchen, and her friends who can only visit her every few months. She carries her grief perpetually and gracefully, like how the African women in my old West Berlin textbooks carried baskets on their heads, and there is no room in her thoughts for me. If her dinnertime silence were a tangible thing, I decide, I’d bottle it up and put it in the Leave Box.
The next morning Bibi isn’t in school, but she comes by later to say to ask if I want to go for a walk. It takes me a full ten seconds to realize that her hair has been shorn an inch away from the scalp.
“What the fuck happened to you?”
She fingers the new buzz cut ruefully.
“My dad saw the dye. He said if I wanted to look like a punk I might as well go all the way.” Her shoulders hunch for a moment, and I imagine her dropping handfuls of her long hair into the Leave Box. But the next second she’s shaking herself off and laughing.
“Let’s walk. C’mon, Peter’s waiting for you.”
I follow her, cursing my oversized school sweater. I know that Bibi’s version of a walk usually involves smoking so much pot that you feel like you’re unhinging from your body. As escapes go, it’s one of my favorites.
We walk along the wall, the three of us. Occasionally we pass a solitary guard or two, but they don’t seem to notice us. It doesn’t even look so bad, from this side. It looks like you could just climb over it. If Peter swung me up onto his shoulders, I probably could. But what would happen to me then?
“Lift me up,” Bibi says.
“Lift me up!” She pounds on his shoulders impatiently.
“I want to walk on it.”
“Are you crazy? There’s wire everywhere.”
“Lift! Me! Up!”
He heaves her up onto his shoulders.
“Sorry princess, this is the best I can do.”
We walk like that for a while, me and the Bibi/Peter tower. Finally she kicks her legs to indicate that she wants to be let down. When she’s back on the ground she grins and says,
“Do Annika too.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Yes you do. Come on, it’s fun! You can see the whole thing.”
Peter’s already got me around the waist, and I can’t back down now even though my heart has dropped down somewhere below my knees. He lifts me up, up, and then my legs are locked around his neck and Bibi’s right, I can see right over the wall.
On one side of me is a sea of white light. On the other is Bibi, laughing and shaking her head. I’m not as scared as I thought I’d be. Surely, from somewhere in the light-haze we are being watched. But who would shoot at a girl in her school uniform?
After a while Bibi turns to go back. Peter puts me down, but by some silent agreement we keep walking. He’s not laughing anymore. He keeps looking off at some distant point beyond the wall. Then he says,
“Oh. To where?”
“Away. Her father got some job in Paris.” He scuffs his toe against the wall.
“Yeah. We should probably go back.”
We walk on in silence. I look up at the wall, an ugly grey cement thing. Anything I could say seems dumb, ineffectual. I lift the joint to my lips and pull until he takes it gently from my hand.
At the door he gives me his jacket for the walk home, and for a minute I think he might kiss me. Then I think of how stupid this is and I have to say goodbye fast and walk home before he can register my embarrassment.
That night I can’t fall asleep. I keep thinking of Peter and Stasia, and Mom and Dad. All of these separations. I think about Elsi and try to cry, but all I can manage are a few hot angry tears. It’s strange to be here and not miss her much. Like a cut you can see but that doesn’t hurt you. I pull my bedcovers over my head and tent myself in until my breath warms the little space and I can pretend I am somewhere far away, and free.
It’s Peter, not Bibi, who comes to get me the next night. We repeat the walk, just the two of us this time. He tells me that he got another letter from Stasia today. The last one.
I smoke until the right sympathy words drop easily from my lips. It seems to me that we’ve been walking in an endless straight line, but suddenly we’re back in front of the house. It’s late. Maybe it’s the hash, but I feel completely out of my body, like I’m watching someone else walk up the stairs and into the house. The girl that looks like me is huddled into a corner of the couch while Peter holds a match to the stove. After an indeterminate amount of time he brings her a cup of tea. She’s asking where Bibi is and not getting an answer because now Peter is kissing her. He is lifting her shirt, then his hands are at her skirt, and she doesn’t stop him. I can see everything that’s happening, but it doesn’t feel like me. His body is rangier than I expected somehow, all skin and bone. I am touching his arms, but I am not. I’m feeling his breath against my face and then I am floating up near the ceiling. The feeling scares me so much I start crying, and Peter stops what he’s doing and holds me and says shh-shh until I’ve stopped. He asks if I am okay and my voice comes from somewhere far away to say yes. And so we proceed.
Afterward he squeezes my shoulder and says,
“I need to tell you something.”
“Yeah?” I am returning to myself, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. My whole body feels raw and sticky, like I’ve been burned.
He tells me that he’s in touch with a friend who owns an old carpentry on Zimmerstrasse. Windows like ours, he says, but further from the watchtower. A better chance of getting across without being spotted. Will I come with him?
“Will you, Annika? Next week?”
I don’t know what to say. I’ve played some version of this over and over in my head for months, but now that it’s happening all I can think is that I don’t want to be naked anymore. I pull my clothes back on quickly and stand up. Peter doesn’t follow. He’s just watching me with this kind of look that makes me think that I should run back to him, back into his arms. But really I don’t know anything about anything. I mutter a goodbye against the closing door.
When I get home Mom is sitting at the kitchen table twisting her hands into worry knots. When she sees me, she jumps up.
“Where have you been?!”
She looks like she’ll yell, so I add, “I was at Peter’s. I guess I didn’t check the time. I’m so-”
Then suddenly she’s squeezing me to her chest, pressing air out of my lungs, and won’t let me go until I promise not to scare her like that ever again.
I don’t see Peter for a week. Even though I don’t know what I’d say to him if I did, it still makes me sad that he doesn’t come by. It is slow, a week of days all the same, a week in which I sort through a million letters and slog home through melting sleet and dutifully do homework.
I don’t find out about it until two days later. It’s in the newspaper on Sunday, squeezed into a column at the very bottom, only a few sentences long. Attempted border breach. One escapee, H.K., is free. The other, P.F., apprehended and shot at the death strip.
Soon, I will learn the other details. The window they jumped from, the barbed wire that they clawed through, ignoring the shredded skin on their hands. How he made it halfway up the other side before they shot him. How he lay there bleeding for an hour, while soldiers from both sides watched but did not help him. Soon I will be angry. I’ll cry and shout and my stomach will ache as if I’ve been shot myself. Soon, crowds will form across the border to wave fists and shout uselessly in the direction of East. Much later I will walk to the offices on Brechtstrasse and ask to see my own file. It will be so thin it’s almost nonexistent. I was never someone to watch, never a threat.
For now I fold the paper into little pieces. I put on Peter’s jacket and go over to Bibi’s house. She answers the door, silent. We go up to her room, and she produces the Leave Box from underneath her bed. Her hair is there, heaped in a big blonde pile, along with a thin envelope addressed to her in Peter’s handwriting. I don’t ask what’s inside.
The jacket, folded down as small as it can go, fills up the remaining space in the box. We stare into it for a long time, waiting for whatever comes next.