Say, "No," to the award? Of course. He had to. But how could he say "No," when everything he'd worked on for so long was going to be recognized? Hans folded the letter and put it back in its envelope, then took it out again, read it, folded it and put it back. Who was this Dr. Hans Jacob Friedlander anyway? And who were these people, from what international society, who wanted to honor him, honor him for his work, honor him for his work, in Hamburg, in Hamburg at their next conference?

"You have to go, Hans. You know that. It's been more than sixty years. This Germany isn't the same Germany. And this Hamburg isn't the same Hamburg."

"I know that, Alan. But I've never gone back, never wanted to go back."

"Maybe there will be some kind of healing."

When Alan, his partner of twenty-two years, said that, Hans crumpled the letter of invitation into a ball and hurled it across the table. "Fuck healing!" he shouted. But lopsided, the paper ball never reached Alan. It fell into the pot of soup in the middle of the table. The two of them burst out laughing.

"Only if you'll go with me."

"Only. You think I'd miss this? I paid for your Ph.D. and you owe me big time for every one of your books. I've been a book widow. Half that award is mine."

Bundled in scarves, gloves, coats, they walked down a wide street, side by side. Hans couldn't get over it. Swarms of Turkish men streamed past, arm in arm, and then a cluster of students, clutching their books, most of them white, German, but three of them African, laughing and jabbering away in fluent German, a language he hadn't spoken since he and his family arrived in the United States in 1941.

Watching Hans watch them, Alan turned to him and said, "See, this isn't the Germany you left, is it?"

"No, not them. And everyone is so friendly, so nice. Nicer than in New York. But whenever someone goes by who's German and older than I am, I wonder if they were a Nazi, or married to one. And if it's someone our age I wonder if their parents were. And if they're younger, their grandparents, or their great-grand parents." Said with white puffs of breath before his face. "And yet, it feels right being back here. Like I'm some hardly old plant, some weed they couldn't kill off."

The streets were crowded, but they felt familiar to Hans. Not familiar to him because he remembered them from his childhood, but familiar because they were very like New York. People were wearing the same clothing that they saw the day before on Fifth Avenue. In store windows, and some of the stores were the same stores, he and Alan saw the same items for sale that they saw in Soho, Chelsea, their Upper West Side neighborhood.

"Do you recognize anything?"

"No."

"The guide book says this entire section of the city was bombed and destroyed. It was all rebuilt after the war."

"I was eight when we left. There's so little that I remember. And even if it wasn't all new, I'm not sure that I'd recognize anything."

Store fronts. Cafés. A music shop, the CD's in the window all familiar, American. A Chinese restaurant, and then a Thai one.

"This isn't the Hamburg I knew."

"Where was your house, Hans?"

"It was destroyed. After the war, a German friend of my sister Ilsa found us through the Red Cross and wrote us a letter. We were still living with my Uncle Otto. Ilsa read the letter out loud to all of us, sitting in the living room after dinner. I don't remember her friend's name, but she let us know that our entire neighborhood had been leveled. She went on to say how terrible things were, how poor they had all become. And then she asked Ilsa if we could send them some money."

"What did Ilsa do?"

Hans grinned. "It was the first time I'd ever heard her curse, in English or German. 'That Nazi bitch,' she hissed, ripping the letter into tiny little pieces."

"Did she write her back?"

"Never."

They kept walking, two older man in dark heavy winter coats, one a fashion photographer, the other a noted psychiatrist. But on that brisk December day in Hamburg, they were any two men, one slightly older than the other, stooped, stopping to look in store windows, look up at the bright clear sky, at the crowds they passed through. They walked for twenty minutes, and stopped again, for lunch, in a flashy Vietnamese place, as foreign from the Hamburg of Hans's boyhood as they could find. Then, rested and well fed, they bundled up and went out walking again. The conference began the following morning and they had all day to explore the city.

They turned a corner, just like every other corner they'd passed. Cars, trucks, people. Hans froze. At the far end of the street was a church. Brick. Its pointed steeple was oddly shaped. Hans clutched Alan's arm. His face had gone pale. "I remember that. That was the church Greta our maid used to go to. When my parents were out of town she would sometimes take Ilsa and Werner and me with her, as long as we promised not to tell them. And around the corner, not very far from here, was the train station."

Alan pulled out the guidebook from his inside jacket pocket, pulled off one glove, and unfolded the map again.

"Train station? Is this it, bahnhof?"

Hans nodded, his lower lip quivering.

"It's up ahead, and to the right? Do you want to go?" He nodded and the two of them, slowly, side by side, arms linked, walked up the block and turned right at the corner.

"This plaza. It's different. And those banners. But that, and that," Hans said, pointing, "are exactly the same." They walked toward the front of the station. Food vendors, most of them Turkish, were selling pretzels and shish kebab on wooden skewers. The ground was littered with napkins and small greasy paper plates.

"We left from here. That very last day. But it was spring then. They put us in a sealed train, with all the windows painted over. Only Jews. We weren't allowed to open the windows, and when we made stops, none of us were allowed to get out. We rode all the way through France, then Spain. It was only when we got to Lisbon that--" Hans stammered. The rest of his words caught in his throat.

A large white bus with high tinted windows pulled up behind them and a stream of Japanese tourists flooded out, all of them with cameras hanging around their necks. And the vendors were yelling. And the tourists' cameras were clicking. And Alan was flipping through pages in the tour guide. And the sun was shining in a cloudless sky, warm but unable to cut through the icy cold. And a smiling couple, young girl and boy, rang the bells on their tandem bicycle as they snaked their way through the crowd. And the multi-colored banners, pink, yellow, chartreuse, aqua, that hung from the train station, fluttered in the wind. But all that Alan saw were the banners of 1941 flapping, black and white and red, with giant swastikas.




ANDREW RAMER's first book was a collection of short short stories, little pictures, which is out of print. He is the author of Two Flutes Playing, Angel Answers, and co-author of The Spiritual Dimensions of Healing Addictions, and Ask Your Angels. His work appears in: Best Gay Erotica 1998/ 2001, Kosher Meat, Afterwards: Real Sex from Gay Men's Diaries, Found Tribe: Jewish Coming Out Stories, and Quickies 3. Online, in the first issue of riverbabble, at Doorknobs and BodyPaint and Tattoo Highways. Interviewed: in Mark Thompson's, Gay Soul. Andrew Ramer lives in the Imaginal Republic of San Francisco.
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