I ONLY HAVE A MOUTH WITH YOUR WHOLE HAND INSIDE
I only had a mouth with your whole hand inside. So if you wanted to kiss me, you would have to use at least four fingers. You did. I couldn’t believe it. And more than unbelievable, it felt disappointing. And by disappointing I mean filled with the aftertaste of cheap soap, desire and fear in equal measure. It felt so good. I only had a mouth with your hand in my hand.
Over the course of the 1920s and into the early 30s, a number of magazines were published in Berlin with names that were often shifting variations on friendship, women, and love. They shifted due to censorship. Die Freundin, Garçonne, Frauenliebe but Liebende Frauen These titles are sometimes credited as the world’s first lesbian journals. In 1932, mere weeks before his death, their business-savvy publisher, Friedrich Radszuweit, described respectable homosexual and prominent Nazi Ernst Röhm as a capable leader. Martin Butzkow, the evil twink1 Radszuweit had met while he was street brawling with communists and adopted soon after, inherited the firm.
Alongside earnest discussions of the nature of same-sex love and transvestism, the magazines include event notes, personal ads and literary sketches of romances, sometimes extending into serialization. They read as almost unbearably sentimental to me but I can’t stop: The lovers caress the cold, smooth mouth of a revolver, not in order to rob a bank, but in order to end their own lives in revenge. Tearful goodbyes at the train station and a twee insistence on something more-than-sexual in their desire, which can only mean that there must have been a lot of fucking. Many of these love stories are propped onto the epistolary. The writers constantly seem in danger of sliding into a fantasy of the second person which would just be thinly veiling the first person plural, like me now writing you. Like us. Let’s see.
When you finally pushed me against the wall of the institute and put your whole hand in my mouth, it had just started snowing. Oh, you! Your genuine curiosity about whether all fingers, still resembling a pianist’s despite all the carpentry, would fit. You also pressed your leg between mine. I got hard. The kiss would not change my life forever. Something else happened, not entirely sublated into bourgeois interiority, launching sideways into the moment. It was 1927 in Berlin and the six month season of darkness had begun only a couple of weeks ago. The snow reliably turned into sleet. From inside the dark Tiergarten villa, we could hear respectable, gay applause marking the end of the lecture we had fled early. Soon, people we had fought or slept with, though mostly both, would come out to go out for those drinks that had been the reason for coming here in the first place. Where would we go?
This was an actual question. My roommate had her Marx reading group over and they demanded no sex noises were made. You lived too far away in Wedding. These practicalities, e.g. around bedrooms in walking distance, amounted to something almost existential: a brutal jelly, blocking the way home, to the bars. Where would we go? Making a detour along the Spree, we gossipped about recent trends in criticism, fashion, in homosexual magazines. This was us: Two transvestites putting their hands in each other’s mouths. Stopping to talk about books we had at best read the first thirty pages of (enough). Two like-minded friends walking to the train station. We lived with the uncertainty whether that was the right word – or station – or if there could be one that would make us stick together under these circumstances. (Circumstances of colonial capitalist modernity. Circumstances of ) We lived here now. For years—but I still couldn’t quite believe it? It was 1927 and the opposite of obviousness, hovering above us, was still stealing our time. This, I knew, was the reality of our fantasy: frustrating and steamy, like our breathing into the dreadful winter night. The snow working through the leather of our – impeccably neat! – boots wasn’t apocalyptic at all. Nobody died that night.
Slender, supple limbs wove one into the other, as the trees of a virgin forest inextricably interpenetrate2. Exposed to your hands, the winds of the Old West and the looming economic collapse, my face felt real. As if replenished by a thin layer of the most recent biology even though I was so skeptical about it. Although I was wearing my slightly pretentious overall – like the girls at Bauhaus – and my warmest coat – just barely oversized to underline my feminine posture), every patch of skin you touched turned into a gland. At the time, I assumed this was physiologically impossible and yet, it wasn’t a metaphor either. They were swollen for days, working.
The guest lecture at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft that night had been so boring. The same embarrassing impulse to find sexual progress in nature and then in the intermediary lappets between one’s legs. Too esoteric a communist to believe in these mucous membranes, I don’t know why I thought it would be different this time. Or if I was just looking for a reason to be in a hall with people I clashed with in a way that established our problems as problems in the world. Even though other times, nothing indicated we lived in the same one. On the other hand, you were there, too, standing at the back smoking after awkwardly sneaking in late. You were wearing a brown suit, tapered with so much sex appeal it was almost dubious, a sharply striped tie, your signature fuzz. I knew you from the ball at The Magic Flute that, among other activities, had included a windbag eating contest. I’m not making this up. We were living the wake of twee events. When the lecturer mentioned supposedly heterosexual transvestites in accepting marriages for the third time, we locked eyes. We rolled our eyes. As one of the tallest girls in the room, walking up to you rendered me visible to the sighs of the sisters. “Do you want to get out of here”, you offered under your breath. It was still early. Oh, how I needed to.
We passed by a cop who was smoking a cigarette under a gas lamp. Just scenic! The gas lamp, shining across our strip of pavement, cast an ambiguous light on this ground. The short flights of steps, the pillared porticoes, the friezes and architraves of the Tiergarten villas – for the first time, we took them at their word3. It was 1927 and the Berlin police was still undermined by Nazis. It was 1927. I hadn’t eaten all day.
Did your hand – or any similar intimate encounter – lift the violet veil that I had been living with since I was a boy who didn’t yet know she wanted to be a girl who wanted to be a boy? Of course not. The violet veil was a trope I had picked up from one of the romance writers in one of the books that had made me move to Berlin. It was an image so off it sometimes was exactly what I needed to describe my relations in a way that made them flare up. Olga had draped another veil over the lamp so that the room was suffused with a faint, violet twilight4. The veil could be concrete: covering a light on a night stand on a lonely night when the others could only be reinventing sexual ease in at the Damenklub Violetta. Other times it was more abstract: the only way to describe whatever twist of social relations kept the world at bay, untouchable. As part of an outfit, the violet veil was a fun little wink.
The situation wasn’t, however, entirely anonymous either. Heaven, it was just a hand! In my mouth! Just a kiss. And then another one, etc. Just lukewarm enough to make a mark where one particular neighbourhood – Tiergarten – overlapped with this night – a Thursday in December. Your hand attached the street to another street and, in a different way, to another day, a couple of months later. In the same movement, a certain area of Schöneberg became impassable. In the middle of this shift, I noticed my skin breaking out like a floral allegory. My nose hurt. My cheek felt thinner than before. You hadn’t even slapped me yet.
Thus, when you put your hand in my mouth, you also put your hand where history in the city was grinding against the metabolism that was supposedly mine. Even weak connections were precious because not only throughout this time of year, the coherency of this environment could be so misleading: One would walk down a specific street, turn a corner, and from one moment to the next, the route threatened to vanish. The afternoon lost its contours, the twee classicism of Schinkel architecture threatened to break your legs. You could easily mistake this for a light effect of lazy expressionism, for the distortion of the right history trapped in the wrong metropolitan area. The scandalous fact, however, wasn’t that middle-class hats were flying away in a trice, but that they did not. The twilight hanging over our heads like fate wasn’t green, it shimmered grey in grey: normal. Alienation had become too big a word for how one would not remember where one’s friends lived, or if it was at all humanly possible to meet them in one of the relevant bars in Schöneberg. Did they own both mouth- and earpiece of a telephone? Sometimes one would remember: yes, many of them did—and call them. Let’s get a drink? Every connection made felt increasingly unlikely, retrieved from the spectral objectivity that was everyday life for most people.
You wouldn’t have put this in such grandiose terms. My good one. I was 19, and you told me you were 23 when a false promise of casual belonging had sufficiently lured both of us into coming first to Berlin, then to the night at the institute, then here, where you put your hand in my mouth. Smack! This promise had – obviously! – been broken not just by the city, but by heartache and the housing crisis. By bad food and the bleak colour palette of the Golden 20s as reflected in the window. The banter of unspeakable history grazed the soft spot where, e.g. the world of windbag eating contests didn’t seem to ever imply how everything had to change. You – the more competent historian of revolutionary twitching – told me in a whisper who Freikorps had shot and where, just a couple of years before. Where Rosa’s body had then been thrown into the canal that didn’t rush.
Even wherever people made something grating enough that it passed as a scene, the belonging was kaputt. I tried to romanticize this brokenness in order to nudge it in the direction of people like you. I tried to map it, time it, condense it into a motor, a mediocre poem, a commitment to sandwiches. Where should we go? You and I strolling weren’t invisible enough to pass as flâneurs. Too suspicious to be alone. Even when we were walking at an heterosexual pace, we were also running. When I say that when you put your hand in my mouth, it was one of the ways I could stay with the city, that doesn’t mean it was straightforward. What I sometimes mistook for “our” way of life, with its bowls of champagne and defeatedness, wasn’t all affection. Not to find one's way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one's way in a city, as one loses one's way in a forest, requires some schooling5. Oh boy, were we being so schooled! By each other. What we did was disgusting enough. It included traces of wurst sandwiches, infectious disease, alienation. Suicide. More wurst sandwiches. Suicide. It was not not about money.
Imagine: actually living somewhere here – in the middle of something that was constantly flickering. There would also be rent strikes (even if not until years later). Imagine: Pain and solidarity, and the difference between them would unlock secret passages through … neither history nor the city map, the other thing.
The next morning, as I had expected, my mouth had almost already disappeared again. Your hand was gone as well. When you accompanied me to the train station, you presented your missing hand and the following problem to me: “I dream of having a life. That when I have some money to buy a second suit, a more precise political drive, and the right selection of sentiments, I will have a life. I have done enough psychoanalysis to know it’s a dream and enough reading to know that the dream of having a life has barely been invented. For people like us – as if it existed – it might forever be brand new, a hot commodity. That’s what’s so uncanny about the gay life we don’t even have: Sometimes I can’t distinguish being with people from being isolated. Or endocrinology from stuckness.”
I went to work. It was 1927 and I was a postal worker at the time. I didn’t yet know that my half-hearted attempts at becoming a union worker wouldn’t be successful. I didn’t know the following years would make it look like this failure didn’t matter at all. At my desk, when the others weren’t looking, I began writing you even though I know I would see you again just a couple of days later. I never sent you what I wrote maybe because it wasn’t a letter and it wasn’t addressed to you.
I only have a hand with my hand in your hand. I miss you. When you put your hand in my mouth it makes me miss you even though you’re inside of me. And yet, I still don’t miss you enough. Your index finger is literally grabbing my front teeth. Your index finger makes me want to vomit. I’ve never told you this but “I miss you” is a sentence that’s stuck in my head. It’s not romantic but slightly factual. Hardly a minute goes by – I’ve taken the time – where my stupid little inner voice doesn’t burst into “I miss you” where I’m not even sure exactly who it is I’m missing. You is still propped onto our shared history in Tiergarten and in love, but sometimes it slides into people you don’t know, I don’t even know, friends of friends of friends, ex-lovers. We found love in a hopeless place. In a way, it was middling. The resulting disappointment is one of the conditions under which we’ll establish our friendship as a way of witnessing how everything has to change. With an index finger rubbing my teeth grinding and my teeth grinding wallpaper, then wall, what then? Whatever building is next, telling us apart. From your knuckles onward, the jaw in my tension pushes back. I only have a left hand with your hand in my mouth.
Maxi Wallenhorst is a writer based in Berlin. Recent pieces on trans style and bad analogies have appeared in e-flux and Texte zur Kunst. “I ONLY...” is part of a work-in-progress.