It’s one in the morning when Kerstin finally finishes packing. She knows she’ll be too nervous to sleep, but even a rest is worth having. Now she’s lying in the dark, her eyes for the last time taking in the ghostly outlines of the sparse interior. She has grown to like this place, although it is an acquired taste, especially for an art student. There is no category the one-bedroom apartment’s interior style – if one could call it that – fits. There are no wall-covering bookshelves crammed with black and white Reclam paperbacks, the mark of the Berlin intellectual. Rather it’s a careless assembly of the most vital pieces of furniture and appliances a human would need to survive, thrown together by someone clearly too busy with serious work to notice or care. Come to think of it, the place had always felt like a temporary den inhabited by someone on the run.
True, there are pieces Martin is really attached to. Like the turn-of-the-century oak piano chair on which he had sat as a boy learning to play the baby grand at his parents’ home. A large dry-point etching of an enormous sinister-looking bird flying low over a bare, seemingly post-apocalyptic earth. On closer inspection the bird’s wings are made entirely of sine curves and algebraic equations, an evil monster created by a megalomaniacal or simply blinkered scientist. The etching had been a present from a (possibly concerned) amateur artist family friend at Martin’s graduation. Although Kerstin admires the craft and detail of the artwork, the overall impression is gloomy enough to give her nightmares. And it seems an awfully big format to convey a message quite as simplistic and obvious as this.
Kerstin never thought she could fall in love with someone for their beautiful mind, but then she had never met anyone like Martin before. He has quite a few quirks, but they are overlooked by everyone who knows him, so in awe are they of his at once sharply analytical and creative brain. She never ceases to be surprised by his questioning things she had taken for granted and repeated as read. He never says anything clichéd or tired, and he had taught her to look at the world from viewpoints she hadn’t even known existed before.
Martin quietly detests laziness of thought. He has no time for anyone who passes off unreflected half-knowledge as fact, but his manners are far too good for him to be openly scathing about them. His friends or rather followers, most of whom he met at university, clearly see him in a different category from themselves, because they have lifted him onto a pedestal where, it appears to Kerstin, he feels rather uncomfortable and a little lonely at times. He doesn’t think of himself as exceptional, which gives him an aura of innocence slightly at odds with his otherwise so sharp perception.
So when Kerstin and Martin were first introduced by friends three years ago, she didn’t immediately see what the fuss was about. There he was, this wiry guy with large alert grey eyes, short, spiky brown hair and evidently a lot of fidgety nervous energy. A starker contrast to Kerstin’s previous boyfriend, a hunky blonde architecture student-turned-painter with an excellent backhand in tennis, a huge ego and a roving eye, was hard to imagine. So the science geek didn’t impress her as much as the friends had expected, and she soon said her polite goodbyes to go back to her freezing student den and heartbroken sulking. A few months later though Kerstin and Martin met again by chance, in a late performance of some very worthy sub-titled movie, apparently unmissable. The film was as hyped as it was forgettable, but they hit it off that night.
In retrospect, those following weekends they spent going out to dinner or to the theatre, those long Sunday brunches and seemingly endless days wiled away in galleries and on long walks along the river Spree felt transient. Even though it was not until almost two years later that Martin told her about his plans to leave the country.
It had been the night of his twenty-eighth birthday. Late November was an especially bad time in East Berlin: the greyness, never in short supply, seemed to permeate everything, settling like a suffocating carpet on the city. The four guests had left just before midnight, and Martin was in a pensive mood. He had taken up one of his contortionist positions in the chair by the window, twisting his lanky limbs into a pose reminiscent of an Egon Schiele painting.
“Kerstin”, he said, ruffling his hair, “I won’t be staying here.”
“What do you mean?”, she asked, confused. “Are you going to move?”
“I suppose you could call it that, but a little further than you think.”
A sudden chill ran down Kerstin’s back. “You haven’t filed an application, have you?”
Martin gave a dry laugh. “That would be pretty pointless. They’d never let me go.”
“So what are you … you’re not really thinking of …” Kerstin couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence. This was one of his more cynical jokes, surely.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but it won’t be the official way”, said Martin. “Doesn’t have to be here, though it’s tempting. Five minutes to Checkpoint Charlie, and how hard can it be?”
“You’re not serious, are you?”
“Has it never crossed your mind?”
“Not really. I’m not suicidal”, she said. “But why now?”
Martin sighed. “Promise me not to say a word to anyone about this, you are the only person I trust. There are about 300 people working in cardiolipin research in the world. All except a handful are in the West. I should be over there working with them in their labs, in San Diego, in New York, in Munich, now, while I can still compete with them. Otherwise by the time I’m 35 I will be out of the race. I don’t want to end up as one of these disaffected people who could have been great.”
“God, I had no idea. That’s … of course I understand. Aren’t I lucky I don’t have problems like that.”
“Besides, I don’t mind allotment gardeners, but they shouldn’t be in charge of anything bigger than their plots, and here they are running the country. Do you want to have your life ruined by a bunch of garden gnome collectors?”
Despite herself, Kerstin let out a laugh. The picture was apt: A country-sized allotment, surrounded by a concrete wall and barbed wire, and guarded by alsatians.With nothing but red carnations growing inside. Now she knew why she had always hated those flowers.
“No, but I’m really not desperate enough to want to risk ending up dead, or worse in one of their prisons. And even if we did make it” – she halted, taking in the very words that had just passed her lips for the first time in her life. Where had they come from? – “what would I do over there? I don’t even have my degree yet. And where is ‘over there’, anyway?” She shook her head as if trying to banish the idea. “No. I don’t even want to think about it. I’m not you. I’m scared.”