I was teaching English at a little school in Saudi Arabia at the time, but had come to Berlin for a week in February to get my visa straightened out. It happened my second day there. I walked into a warm, dim-lit kneipe in Moabit, took a seat at the bar next to the gaming machine and ordered a beer.
“You Russian?” asks the guy sitting next to me. He’s about 50, lean and bald with mad eyes.
“No,” I say.
“Because you look Russian,” he goes on. “Where you from?”
“That near Kentucky?”
“No,” I say.
My beer arrives. I pay. I can feel my neighbor’s eyes roving up and down my jacket and the side of my neck. He bursts out laughing, looks away. I take a sip of my beer. When I look at him again, his face is drawn. I notice the lead-colored bags under his eyes. He’s dead serious.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“I’m Manfred,” he says, and starts speaking German.
“Mein Deutsch ist schlecht,“ I say. “I don’t speak German.”
More laughter, more German.
“I said my German’s no good.”
He looks down into his beer for a moment, groping the handle. He looks back at me, tears now standing in his eyes.
“I have this guilt!” he shouts.
“I DIDN’T DO IT!”
“What do you mean?”
“I said I didn’t do it! NO WAR! No war!”
His forefinger plunges into my shoulder.
“You’re an asshole,” he says, and jabs me a few more times. “You know that?”
“Not really, no.”
“WHO ARE YOU!? he bawls.
“I already told you.”
“WHAT’S YOUR NAME!?”
“Bullshit. You American?”
He laughs hysterically, and then there’s a long pause. I can hear the pool balls knocking in the back of the kneipe, and the gaming machine is making noises.
“You know what?” he says. I feel his eyes again roving all over me.
“I think you’re a great guy.”
“Thanks Manfred,” I say, and take a sip of my beer.
“HOW’D YOU KNOW MY NAME?”
“You told me. Remember?”
We look at each other. He screws up his eyes, starts speaking Russian.
“It’s my destiny,” he says.
“What is?” I ask.
“You ever been there?”
“Of course,” he says. “My father’s from there. My mother’s French.”
“Do you speak French too?”
He starts speaking what sounds like perfect French.
How many languages do you speak?”
“Try me,” he says.
(He speaks Chinese, or what sounds like it to my ears).
I lived in Beijing for a year,” he says, and picks up my lighter from the bar. He starts flicking it and the metal piece flies off, lands on the carpeting. He hands me a box of matches. I open it up, take a wooden match out, light it. We both gaze at the flame in awe, like I was Prometheus introducing fire for the first time to the human race.
Then we make eye contact, the flame hovering between our eyes.
“What’s your naaaame?” he says.
“My name,” I say, “is Fomich.” I move the flame far to the right. He follows it with those mad eyes. He’s absolutely riveted. I bring it back slowly, all the way past my eyes and to the far left, and then to the middle again. It sits dancing between us.
I blow it out, drain my beer, set the glass on the bar and the burnt matchstick in the ashtray.
“Foma Fomich,” I say. “That’s my name. And I come from Stepanchikovo. In Russia.”
And with that, I exit the kneipe and go out in the Berlin night.