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by Cécile Barlier
It started in the Munich neighborhood where we lived in 1960, the year of the Abitur. We saw him running around the block. We were actively bored inside our houses or in our yards sitting things out, and he was running. Something about it made us wonder. For one thing, he ran around the block with his eyes closed. He didn’t close his eyes all the time—just now and then. And so we asked ourselves—Why would he close his eyes like that when he ran?
There was his body: the way he easily filled the street. It wasn’t just an idea we had. It was a fact. He wasn’t super tall, he was just medium-size. But he had this presence, this something unavoidable. He was robust. He was dark—very dark—but just the hair was dark; the skin was light. He had bushy eyebrows and a high forehead. Already then he had prematurely scarce hair.
We started to get used to him. The fact that he ran around the block with his eyes closed turned him into a staple, an institution. Our parents spoke to visitors about him in passing. If he was missing one day, if we didn’t see him running with his eyes closed, something else was missing. Not just him. It was sad.
He was handsome compared to most of us. Perhaps his lips were a bit too full, making his teeth somewhat small in proportion. But those full lips and small teeth gave him this baby-thug appeal. Women on the block waved at him to say hello. They wanted him to smile and divulge those small teeth. And something else about him was provocative: his eyebrows were never level; the right one was always higher than the left, even when he closed his eyes. This gave him a sly astonishment that was erotic in a way.
Over time, we learned other things about him. We learned that his father was in the Wehrmacht, that he had been captured on the Russian front in 1945, that he never returned. It was better that way: it closed that loop. It allowed him to not have a father and to be raised by his mother, his aunt, and his grandmother. It allowed him to be an only child and the only man in his house. Most of us were less lucky. Our fathers had been Nazis and yet they returned. Our fathers hadn’t had the decency to commit suicide.
His mother was not completely there. She forgot things all the time: like the milk boiling. When we started visiting him, there was a persistent smell of burnt milk. The range was soiled with milk, and the aunt and grandmother had stopped cleaning it every day. One of the neighbors called the house the Milky Way and the name stuck. His house became the Milky Way.
He detested institutions of any kind, and early in the school year, he started talking about it—to us. He stole a bench and a table from the beer garden and set them up on a vacant lot. He had us gather on the Vacant Land after school to talk. For someone who hated institutions as much, he was rather ritualistic. We liked that about him. There was a whole list of ritualistic things he was doing: checking himself in the side-view mirrors of cars parked on the block, starting every sentence with “Ah,” patting us on our shoulders, touching the faces of his girlfriends in the motherly mode of an animal. That in particular stayed with us: the way in which he spread his hands over the girls’ foreheads and their cheeks, moving their hair away from their eyes, repeatedly and openly, in plain sight, like he was their mother, like the girls could inhabit his hands if they wanted. These were moments cut loose from the present we were in, stray moments that would stick. We understood him. We breathed him in, and we drew from him and his ideas like others would draw from a cigarette. He was confusing in his talk, using obscure words and weird sentence structure, but we knew what he was saying. It was always clear, because there was nothing to understand.
So he hated school and dropped out of it right before the Abitur. He told us that Abitur in Latin meant “one who is going to go away.” He said that no one needed to take a test to go away, that a journey away was already made for him. On the day he said that, we thought he had meant it for us.
The next day we woke up and he was missing. We heard that he was gone to fetch cigarettes and had called his mother from a pay phone; that he had said not to worry, that he was just gone to fetch cigarettes, good-bye.
We took it badly.
The mother kept repeating the same thing to his aunt, his grandmother, to us, and to the police when they interrogated her. “He was gone to fetch cigarettes. Leave him alone. I should go too. I should go to fetch cigarettes.” Then the aunt carried her back to the laundry room. The only room in the house where the mother was at peace—washing laundry. We were certain she would finish her life like a recluse, enclosed in that laundry, which was better than the asylum.
Months passed. His absence abolished certain smells on the block, like the smell of beer from the Augustiner brewery. The wind had turned with him. What if it wasn’t the wind? What if we had all been struck with a rare disease that only manifested through the erosion of senses? We consoled ourselves with dumb theories that sounded like his. But without him what was dumb was just dumb, it was no longer eloquent and wild. Somebody came up with the idea of transforming the table on the Vacant Land into a dinner table. And so for days each of us brought cold meats and sausages and cheeses in the middle of the night. It was fun. Then it was morbid.
A spell of dizziness seized us. Perhaps we were wrong. Perhaps, like our parents were saying, he was just a petty thug. As far as we could see, there was only our neighborhood and Munich and a future in banking or in public service. We should have forgotten him already. Unless his departure was a way of bringing us closer; like he must have felt something had to go, and he had left so that we’d miss him. We thought we could move past him. Move forward. Erase him. We were brutal with ourselves and equally brutal and cold with everyone else.
It took him three years to call us. We didn’t know that then, but he had been in Munich the whole time. It was odious to think he had been so close. During that time, we were all in Munich doing pretty much nothing—petty crimes when boredom was too much. Stealing drain covers, making street art that looked like jellyfish, crushing as many cookies as possible in one visit to the Rischart bakery. Perhaps this was a false start for him and for us. Or perhaps it was necessary.
In any case, we had a lot of time to think back on our lives. What had we done so far? What had we lived through that we could hold on to as a souvenir? Our lives had started, void and with no stakes. We had wished for nothing, failed in nothing because we had risked nothing. In this tedious land of our childhood, he seemed the only piece that saved the rest. When we’d sat with him on the bench in the Vacant Land, when we’d swallowed his sharp short sentences, we had felt alive until suffocation. So yes, when he called, we responded to his calling.
“Violence is the only way,” he said. And it had taken us three years to know he was right. The rest—all the rest—counted for nothing.
When we first saw him again at the Café Moehring, we could not get over him. His sideburns in particular killed us. Lambchops they were really: long and thick and dark and silky. Now he looked much better than his souvenir, as if his younger self had been recycled into features that had brewed and meshed together inside the shell of a powerful chrysalis. His ears were white and big, framed in the parentheses of his long dark hair in the neck and the lambchops in the front. His hair parted sideways and high on his forehead, like a velvet curtain thrown in last minute both to hide and to enhance. That day he was wearing a white shirt with a high collar open onto a dark T-shirt. He was accidentally spectacular, and we couldn’t believe we were having coffee with him. While drinking our coffee and thinking those things, we were trying to look relaxed; trying not to sputter or to spill. We wished we had already grown sideburns.
It turned out to be an afternoon entirely spent on the terrace of the Moehring, drinking one coffee on top of another. He told us a myriad of anecdotes, as if he had lived a concentrate of life in those three years. He didn’t seem in a hurry at all to tell us why he had us gathered there. Perhaps he lived on another plane, like a vehicle always in motion, and it was normal that the sound of his voice traveled in different directions from the beginning to the end of one sentence. He moved his arms a lot through each recounted moment. He laughed totally. That afternoon we’d follow him to the world’s end even if that only meant Munich or Berlin or somewhere in between.
There was one particular incident he didn’t recount that day, but we found out about it in a column at the end of the F.A.Z.—spring of 1963. Perhaps that was the click, the trigger, the one thing that made us decide to join him in the fight. We never asked him whether it had been him. On the one hand, we were sure; on the other, it was better to leave room for a doubt.
It occurred on an afternoon train from Munich to Berlin. Because it was a weekday train, cars were mostly filled with businessmen and civil servants, people who would be able to travel without too much harassment from the East German authorities as they crossed over. According to the article, all was quiet, overcast, and slow, the silence in the car only interrupted by the thump-thump from the metal wheels on the tracks. And there without warning, as the train crossed a flat fallow field near Leipzig, someone in the car started singing at the top of his lungs, “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s home from work we go.” It was absurd, offensive, and oddly genial. For three straight minutes, the man, described as a young one with dark sideburns, sang “heigh-ho” still sitting in his seat, moving his head from side to side. And then he stood and opened the window next to him and climbed through it. He stayed a moment on the other side looking in at the passengers. The wind from the motion was blowing hard on him, making his hair and jacket look like sails flapping madly during a storm. After which he let go and jumped, the passengers making hushed oohs and aahs as he did.
That incident taught us that we could fight a different kind of fight. We could sing in the face of the establishment, jump out the window of a moving train, and put up the resistance that our parents hadn’t twenty years earlier. That incident gave us the space we had forgotten we had: the space within.
And so we were convinced before he even tried to convince us. Before he laid out the plans on the café table.
It was a coup. We couldn’t think of another word as he flattened the oversize map on the tiny round table. Perhaps the way he hit the table with four fingers flat was suggestive of a coup—bang! Every time he did that, we felt tightness in our throat and behind our ears. We tried drinking more coffee to maintain our composure, but the noise we made as we swallowed distracted us. It made us focus on all the wrong things: on his fingers knocking the Formica, on his hair floating here or there as he spoke.
He himself was so inhabited by his project that he didn’t let appear whether or not he noticed our commotion. We loved him so much that way. We could behave however we wanted or didn’t want. He would not judge us because it didn’t matter at all. All that mattered was inside him and about to erupt into our world. To watch him talk us into his plan at the Moehring was not unlike looking into the sun’s eyes. We wanted to watch for as long as possible so that when we’d stop watching, we’d be sure to retain his light beneath our eyelids.
He had picked a department store. He did not lower his voice when he explained that what interested him in setting fire to the department store was not the destruction of goods. The café must have been full when he said that, but no one outside of us noticed. We were sure of that. He had a gift for choosing an audience and sticking with it, thereby excluding anyone outside the clan. What was important was the act itself: breaking a law that protected all the wrong things. Breaking such a law, he said, was like breaking the will of a beautiful girl.
He said that in passing, lighting a cigarette midsentence, but we immediately felt it wasn’t a figure of speech. We were certain it was a confession. Then he had exhaled the smoke sideways, with deliberate slowness, as if the smoke was the last thing ever to come out of him. After which he asked us what we thought.
What did we think?
That was never an easy question for us. We didn’t know what we thought until way after the question was asked. It took us forever to put the mass of what was going on inside us into scattered discrete pieces of knowledge that could fit into words. What we thought in the moment was most of the time enormous and shapeless. Unlike him, we hadn’t been struck by the lightning of eloquence. That answer would take a lot of time. We would sit with his question. We would let it sink to the bottom of our consciousness. Much later, something would float back up and one of us would be lucky enough to catch it and liberate it in the form of a fresh-formed sentence.
“What do you think?” he repeated toward the end of his second cigarette.
Without putting it in so many words at the time, we knew he had met someone, a girl most likely, beautiful evidently. And we could not get past that. Something had wriggled under his skin, like an extra set of veins. He had led us all down the garden path that afternoon, and somehow we had missed it. Something foreign had taken over. Something dangerous.
We were careful. We said nothing too obvious. We asked questions. There were questions about the equipment, the way in which we would get access to the department store at night. We asked whether all of us needed to get in or if some of us would have to stay outside in a running car so that we could keep a close watch and get away fast enough. We asked about the timeline, the physical preparation. We asked how many fires would have to be lit to ensure maximum destruction. We asked about the guards, the alarm system. We asked about the aftermath, the place we’d have to hide when it was all done. When we felt we had exhausted all the innocuous questions, we asked if someone else was part of the plan.
And there he drew once again on his cigarette. After which he exhaled a small white cloud just in front of his mouth and quickly swallowed it again with a short breath while puffing his cheeks slightly—the cloud went right back in. We were pretty sure we could never do that.
“So you’re in?” he asked without asking.
He made us go through a special preparation. It started with changing our names and changing our ages. In 1967, tampering with an ID card and a passport was a trivial affair. Records from the registrar’s office could be misplaced or stolen. We picked random names. Ages couldn’t be as random; they needed to be within a ten-year range for believability. It was incredibly easy to skip ten years or go back three or four. They were to stay with us—those skipped or rewound years—we’d end up actually older or younger, whatever we had picked that year. From then on, there’d always be a cozy margin of tolerance in our lives. We would not just be us; we would also be someone else. That was good. That was awesomely good.
The things that struck us the most in the training were not necessarily the scariest. Also, we didn’t always know right away which things would stay with us for the long haul. Sometimes things would acquire meaningfulness only as a souvenir, even if they had meant nothing much in the moment. Other times, things that seemed significant in the now vanished like the clouds from his cigarettes.
In the first month he made us sleep outside for one week: in the city or in the countryside nearby. There’d be that small defined perimeter, under a couple of benches by the Spree, under a black locust in Suedgelaende. It was almost summer. We’d wake up with the sun in our eyes. We’d smoke nonstop and blow the smoke through our nostrils and lift our eyebrows slightly as if we were surprised or cynical. At the time, it seemed pretty insignificant to us: not having a roof or walls around us to sleep. We were a bunch of schmucks that way.
One of his favorite practices was kissing an unknown person on the street and striking up a conversation as if that person were an old friend. How quickly could we become someone else? Someone who was persuasive and substantial enough to actually know that stranger. He was amazing at that. People were convinced they knew him. They talked back to him. They never doubted. Just like those strangers, we knew that if he hadn’t existed, no one could have told us why we existed.
Twice, he made us all stay forty-eight hours in a room in complete darkness. Weird things would happen in the dark. Things that we would never have to talk about. After forty-eight hours, we were all super hungry. We would rush to the first café down the block for something to eat. He would take half-steps to slow us down.
Then he’d do things that he didn’t ask us to do, like bury himself under the water, or the sand or whatever was available; cut the tip of one of his toes; tell us the worst things that went through his mind as he cut through that toe. And we…we still didn’t know what we thought, but we knew that was pretty significant.
By then, we had all grown sideburns and hair down our neck. We all wore dark T-shirts under light shirts. We all more or less looked like a replica of him. As a result, we were asking fewer questions.
And so rather quickly, he decided we were ready.
We imagined the first coup would be like a crazy firework, like an extraordinary bash that would alter us forever. It had been so beautiful to watch the department store across the street from the room he had rented as an observation post. The best way to describe how we felt in those last few hours before the attack would be to say that we were feeling like pointing dogs. It wasn’t a bad feeling. Not bad at all. It was tense, which was something we always looked for. We were there, standing by the open window, intense, motionless, our noses thrust forward into the street wind. The street smelled like nothing that day—nothing that we could recognize. But, much like we imagined pointing dogs would be feeling, we felt both good and bad trepidation: on the one hand we were suspended on the edge of a space that contained the prey, waiting for the net to be thrown, and on the other hand we feared we may be waiting miserably, always, and nothing would ever happen.
He spoke to us softly; put his arms around our shoulders. He offered all his cigarettes. We smoked, mollified, laughed a bit. He sat in reverse on a wooden chair, with his hands clasped around the chairback. For a few seconds, we all stared at his hands. They were long, with a fine grain of skin slashed with blue veins, strangely unassuming fingers and oval nails. We realized how our own hands were so different, how we could never transform them to be like his. But what we knew now about ourselves, what we had always known, was our own capacity for abandon: easy, engrossing, rich, and colorful. For sure, we were in better hands in his than in our own.
Everything in that first operation was absurdly easy. Penetrating the building through an old skylight in the roof was child’s play. Incapacitating the alarm and the guards was nothing at all. Finding our way through the stories in the dark felt like something we had always done. Setting a fire in a storage room was over in a few seconds. Setting a secondary fire in the appliance section started effortlessly. Washing machines were curiously combustible. Then we just had to leave. Go-go-go.
Driving away in the van was the truly amazing moment of it all, not only because the engine was rigged but because he was driving. Sure it was a win. Sure we had the satisfaction of a win all over our faces. Windows were down. Stars were up. It was all good.
“I want you to meet someone,” he said.
We were pretty sure we didn’t want to meet anyone.
“I think you’ll all like her.”
We were absolutely certain that we wouldn’t.
“She’ll help us with next steps.”
There was no help needed, none at all.
“You don’t say anything?”
We felt we had the right to remain silent.
After driving two more blocks, he seemed to hesitate. We knew that because he started looking into the rearview mirror and opened his mouth slightly as if he was going to say one more thing. And then he respected a stop sign, which was crazy because he never had any respect for stop signs. We were wondering what made him pause like that, what more he had to say, what more he wasn’t saying. We were half-hoping he was going to ditch his idea of having us meet someone. Since we didn’t want to meet anyone.
Because we didn’t want to meet anyone.
By the time we had mulled over this two or three times, we arrived at the garage where we kept all the supplies, and he parked. He opened the door lock and pulled on the rope to lift the door up. We expected what was coming. Or perhaps we hoped it was not coming, which was the exact same thing. She was sitting on one of our boxes like a plastic figurine in a snow globe. She had the face of someone who was going to jinx us.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said.
We mumbled something back.
“Gudrun,” he said, and it hurt us that she had a name.
Were we expected to introduce ourselves?
He put his hand on her shoulder, next to her hair. He kissed her.
That killed us.
We kept waiting for more, but nothing else. She sat back on her box. He squatted on another one. We ended up sitting on the boxes too. Boxes that contained explosives and ammunition. At that point, we decided we had nothing to lose.
He pulled a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket. We had never seen him wear sunglasses before. Those were round like the ones blind people wear. That was something we would not forget. Not because of how classy he was with them. But because exactly when he put them on, we heard the sirens, followed by the chaos of the voice on the loudspeaker asking us to surrender. We had already surrendered, we thought. We were super calm.
Soon we would find out it wasn’t her, even if we wished it were. It wasn’t. It wasn’t any of us. They got us, that was it, that was “next step.”
We spent our first year in the jug for arson and endangering human life. We thought it was funny the way they put it: endangering human life. We felt that this particular choice of words made us belong to another category: a not-exactly-human category. That was promising. A lot of people came to visit. Intellectuals. People we didn’t know. Mostly they came to see him, but we also gave some interviews. We were popular—not exactly human, but popular. That was good. Food was gross. We lost a lot of weight. On the plus side, the jug was male only, so she was out of sight.
After eight months, we were temporarily paroled under an amnesty for political prisoners. We thought it was a joke. It wasn’t a joke, he said as we came out onto the street in the middle of June. “Do you think we’re a joke?” he asked, turning around to face us while walking backward, his round sunglasses back on his nose. He had hit us in a blind spot again; we couldn’t see or think clearly. All we saw was how his face caught the summer light, how he was always overexposed to us.
By then she was out of the picture in our minds. The truth is that we had momentarily lulled ourselves into thinking we had him to ourselves. And quickly we found out that her nonappearance was a short-lived illusion, a stupid mirage.
Adjure: such a random word she had used that day. We couldn’t believe she had used it in an actual sentence. In the first person no less. If anything, adjure was a verb to be used in third person only, as in, “The system adjured its constituents to get lost or else.” But no, she had used it in its active form with us as the direct object.
“I adjure you…” she had said.
You meaning us.
We got so fixated on the word that we didn’t quite get the rest of the sentence. We missed “what” it was she was adjuring us to do. “What” immediately became irrelevant, obsolete. We looked up to him as she said that and we tried to read him, to get a sense of where he was with this. But there was no clue. Now it had been said. We thought of that, we thought of him, of us. It was a declaration of war. It took very little time: three seconds. It took one verb. She had unleashed something in us, something with inaccessible meaning and limitless breadth. We now hated her with all of our strength. We knew that from then on whenever she’d be there, in front of us, or turning her back to us, or in profile, we would think of her murder committed by us, created by us. Her face, her body would always be the promise of the colossal happiness of her corpse on the floor, killed by us.
It was good in a sense. Good that the random usage of a verb catalyzed all that hatred. It made us more whole, filled in a crack. It created a calling, a sense of direction, a road map on the map of life. Perhaps he was aware of it; perhaps he had planned for it all along—although the constant wearing of his sunglasses made it difficult to tell. We could not be sure. We could not be sure of a lot of things. We would never be sure of a lot of things; of that we were pretty sure.
All of that happened the day in November that the Federal Constitutional Court demanded that we return to custody. We read it in the paper. But he must have known it was coming, since he was already two steps ahead. He made us go underground. Literally. We were hiding in cellars most of the time on our way out of the country. That, we should say, we really liked. We had never realized so many people had cellars underneath their houses or their apartment buildings. There was a whole country underneath the country. We enjoyed the darkness, the damp smells, the random collection of things that people kept there: hunting trophies with missing eyes; murals painted by illegible signatures; stacks of love letters written during the war; giant Monopoly boards carved with nails on concrete floors; rusty old knives hidden in cracks of low ceilings; jars full of corn dating back to the forties; cash, a lot of low-denomination notes rolled or folded or assembled with kitchen string; medieval wells; hundreds of chess pieces; calls for help on ruled paper; snails; snooker tables; snakes.
This world under the world made cohabitation with her easier. The absence of daylight made us see her less, hear her less; it made us not pay as much attention. We were able to focus better. Also, he was very happy with us, with our resourcefulness to find a new place every day, to find good food, old wines, cigarettes. It was High Life on Low Ground—he said. His happiness bled on us like green moss on slanted tree trunks. We knew we had it good, because it showed on him. He looked glow-y, reposed. He stank like us but his stench was sophisticated and addictive, like something we’d smell from the tip of our fingers to pass the time. We didn’t want that to end, but eventually we crossed the border, and after that some French journalist hosted us in his house near the Alps.
Frankly, unlike her, we didn’t care for a label. We didn’t need to know that what we were doing was called guerilla warfare. It didn’t matter that some guy with a thick and wide mustache would brand whatever it was that we were doing, analyze it like it was this thing to be analyzed. It was meant well, and that French journalist had an immense well of well-meaning in him. But well-meaning didn’t sit right with us, never did, and we grew unsettled. The air on our skin triggered an immune response. France was not good for us.
It was at that time that we realized we could have a certain influence on him. It wasn’t just her. It didn’t come as an epiphany either. It wasn’t like, “Oh…he may actually listen to us…” It came in small spurts that, taken in isolation, looked insignificant. We would stay outside after dinner, and he would come and sit with us and say nothing. We’d say nothing either. For a long while. And the nocturnal and bucolic absence of noise was making the silence louder.
It was a game, a kind of mental arm wrestling, and we had gotten pretty good at it. We’d stay put and give nothing. Nothing. We’d make ourselves awake, alert, detached, opaque, out of range. That posture, we had studied it at length on him before it had become natural on us. We had learned how to gradually enclose ourselves, how to lock our faces like in a freeze-frame shot. Many evenings would be spent like that. The silence growing as the blackness gradually pressed around him and us.
“I have something to say to you,” he ended up saying one night.
We stayed silent long enough to intrigue him with our lack of curiosity.
We had a presentiment.
“I am not sure we should stay here any longer,” he said.
We knew at that point that we couldn’t stay anywhere for very long, but we didn’t say anything.
“What do you think?” he asked.
We made various noises that saved us from having to formulate a clear response.
“You’re right,” he said by way of a conclusion, “we’ll leave tomorrow.”
Italy was next. Then Jordan. And then back to Germany.
For two years, we robbed banks to raise money for the bomb attacks, and she trailed with us. We were eclectic in the bombings. A lot of places seemed worth bombing: military facilities, police stations, newspapers. We were not particular about what to bomb. Whether that diversity derived from a certain form of generosity or a lack of focus, we couldn’t tell for sure. We didn’t give a damn. What mattered is that we were getting better. Now we were there. Officially. We were on the news. What we did was reported. “We are wanted,” he said. “Conclusively,” he added. The downside was that she was still around, and we could do nothing about that. It was the time when the picture of Che Guevara was produced in thousands of copies, and she bought one for him. He didn’t object. Her presence and influence was lowering everything. She paid a designer to make a logo…. Waiting was no longer an option… We needed to save what was salvageable.
So we provoked the manhunt. It wasn’t something we did knowingly, but in retrospect we could see how there was a force driving us in that direction. We would lose things on site; things that would not get entirely destroyed by the bombs: like a shovel full of fingerprints, like a set of stolen car keys, like the copy of a map. We also targeted differently: we picked a U.S. Army command site in Heidelberg. We picked a nice car for that car bombing. It seemed natural to destroy that particular target with something beautiful. Beautiful was necessary. We didn’t think much of it. That was how it needed to be. He agreed. Obviously, Beautiful would also lead to the place it was sold, stolen, stationed.
And what? We must have known what we were doing? Did we ask ourselves that very question: what it was that we were doing? Of course not. What we knew later, we obviously didn’t know then. We doggedly refused to work as an informant to ourselves.
We operated on instinct. And after two years of the bombings, something sparky was ready to blast in the deeper recesses of our minds. It had grown into this condition, this invisible rash under our sideburns. And it didn’t help that we scratched ourselves more than usual. We felt the change circling and coming, as sure as old bones can predict the first drops of a rain. Also, we felt we could make rain if needed.
It happened as we got out of the garage. He certainly had a predilection for garages. That day she was gone and didn’t bother telling where—not that we particularly wanted to know. The night before, we had all slept there—him, us, the cache, and the van. In fact, we had not really slept, we had mostly watched him sleep. Perhaps he was sleeping or perhaps he was just closing his eyes like us. It didn’t matter. Around 6 a.m. he made us all hop into the lilac-colored van, and he drove us out of the garage. And there right by the entrance, he stopped.
At first, we didn’t know why and we were about to ask. Then we saw them on the roofs and in the corners of the buildings across the street. There was this second of relief; this pause. What we expected most finally materialized, and nothing else could come about. In the second after that, he fired a shot and yelled at us to jump out of the van. We all dashed back into the garage.
Later we’d watch the same scene on TV, filmed from the outside, but first we were on the invisible side of the show. Inside the garage, it was small and we made it even smaller. We let panic jump between us like a circus of fleas, but besides the fleas there was a sense of something else. A sense born in the knowledge we had of where we had been together and where we would be, and where we’d never be. He was with us on this. Of that we were sure. We saw it in the way he ran his hand through his hair and tucked it behind his ear; in the way he scratched his nose and stretched his back starting with the shoulders. We could barely hear what was going on outside. We sat on the ground, we sweated, we’d blow air on ourselves to cool down; every now and then we’d lift an eyebrow to watch him from below. After about an hour and a half, he stood up and asked, “You good?”
We thought it was nice of him to ask. We smiled at him, we sighed through our noses.
“Yeah, you good,” he said.
Our eyes were wet.
“We’ll get out of here.”
We took turns peeing in a box that had contained ammo and was lined with plastic and had a lid.
Yes. Those three hours were the best. We hadn’t had a moment like this with him in forever. Because she had always been around to spoil things. And now we were here with just him, surrounded by police, unable and unwilling to go anywhere. And it was the last time that we’d be free together, enclosed in the garage. And we understood it was the last time. So we made it sound funny, rolling it over in our heads like a treat—the last time. And it made us love the walls of the garage. It made us love walls in general, as long as they wrapped around him and us. And as we were exhausting all this love of walls and collective freedom, they started pumping tear gas into the garage.
At 9 a.m. we couldn’t see each other anymore, and we all wore our T-shirts tied to our faces. We were headed for the doorway. He was first, loading his pistol. Someone fired a shot. He made a sharp muffled sound, which could have been a whoosh, or faint thunder or a whale song or distant birds. Then we saw him fall on his knees, and we carried him back inside into the cloud of gas.
Moments later they stormed the garage with their masks on, got us out, and lined us up on the sidewalk. They made us strip down to our underwear to make sure we were not carrying any more weapons. The TV station was still filming. We side-looked at him leaning against a lamppost with his bloody leg. He didn’t seem to be hurting. He was side-looking at us too. But it was a different kind of look, something we hadn’t seen on him before. Despite the distance between us, we saw our reflection in his eyes as if he were wearing his round sunglasses. What we saw was a bit small, a bit foolish, and half naked. We let our shoulders sag in a reflex. We realized how good he looked in his underwear under the summer morning light. And we knew that we looked out of place—a cutout shot from his life. It was June and a new dawn for Germany. We saw him clasp his hands behind his neck and swell out his chest for the camera. We randomly thought of Jesus and useless apostles. Someone invisible started clapping in one of the buildings.
Everything went silent on the street. Even the birds kept quiet. Even the wind was out of breath.
In five years, a lot happened. The trial, the stuff that went on outside of Stammheim, the new generation that we inspired all the way from the hole. Mostly we had been eating what looked like fecal matter or been on a hunger strike. Mostly we couldn’t be in direct contact with him. The only way we talked was shouting through the air vents or when we passed by his cell on the way to and from the yard. Life in prison was doing a fine job on its own. Day after day, we lost touch with him in incremental ways. And in the end, we had forgotten how it had started.
We didn’t want to lose him. We were trying to hold on to him. We were trying to be warm and sociable, as much as we could do when rushed along the hallways. We weren’t complaining. We were together even in partitioned cubicles. Anyway, one day he started not seeing us. We’d pass by and he wouldn’t even look up.
Perhaps he got angry because he found out how much we hated her. Perhaps she said to him something when she had a chance, “Can’t you see that all they want is me?” or something. Her conversations had always oscillated between the metafantasy and the hyperrealistic. All we knew was that he started ignoring us and not seeing us. We became transparent, odorless, silent, and amorphous. And it made us feel truly locked up for the first time ever. We felt as if we were living behind a thick glass shell filling up with water and we were constantly drowning.
In truth, we were worse off than dead, and that’s when the idea of death started to float through the air vents. We didn’t exactly talk about it between us, but we all felt something shadowy fall across the threshold of our cells even when the neon lights were off. It was a tentative idea at first, like an idea that was afraid to come in without being asked. It annoyed us: all the tentativeness; like a weak flying ant would annoy us if it had crossed into Stammheim and flown through the bars of our cells. If such a flying ant had flown in, we would have plucked its wings and watched it crawl wingless on our mattresses. But on the other hand, and now that it had flown in, we couldn’t get it out of our heads. We all needed to die. We would die, he would die—in reverse order.
We procured the guns, which was no small feat. We had help from the outside. At that point, we realized that there were people that cared for us beyond Stammheim. They loved us. Perhaps they didn’t really love us, but rather they loved the concept of us. They cared for the notion of us in our underwear under the June German sky. They cared for the sexy notion of half-naked bombers. Something like that. In any case, they were not our friends. We never had any friends besides him. By October the guns had been placed in the renovated sections of the prison, and we knew how to retrieve them.
We had bartered to gain a night stroll in the yard.
We meant to make his killing the ultimate act of love. We meant to kill ourselves immediately thereafter. As we walked toward his cell, it felt like we were descending a staircase.
He was awake when we got in. He was sitting on his mat, wearing a denim shirt slightly open.
“So?” he said.
So… we thought, and we were wondering what we were supposed to say.
“Hello, at least, you’re supposed to say,” he said with a short smile, looking at our guns.
And since we didn’t say anything, he decided to try to outrun us. And we shot three times and hit him on all three. After that, everything got liquefied and blurry on us, and we couldn’t carry on with the plan of killing ourselves because somehow we no longer had the weapons or the will or anything anymore.
What was hard was to renounce the possibility of what could have been. We would not have wanted to renounce the killing. Though it was tempting. Not killing him would have been admitting to a future. It would have been tricking ourselves into sniffing the false smell of hope. If we had not killed him and slept under our pillows that night, history would have been over. If we had killed ourselves, and photographs of our dead bodies had circulated in the press, history would have been over. But we killed him. And with him we killed the idea of him. We killed the vision of his sideburns, of his dark shirts, of his oval fingernails pressed on the back of a chair. We killed the image of him running in our neighborhood with his eyes closed. We killed the heat of his hands on our shoulders. We killed the roughness of his voice in the mornings. We killed it all.
When they let us out of Stammheim, we thought of living all in the same house, but we ended up living in the same neighborhood and only shared a parking garage. We had initials only on our doorbells. But it didn’t matter. Sooner or later someone would show up and ask. Of that we were sure.