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A far-flung romance comes to the city

Someone on Bergen Street owns a flaming truck. I first noticed the vehicle a few weeks after I moved back to New York at the end of 2006.

A far-flung romance comes to the city

Photograph by Paul Whitlatch

Though oversized and hulking, that slightly menacing aspect of all trucks was tempered here by the painted purple flames that spread from the grill across the hood and doors, as if blown by some continuous wind. The truck stands out on a Brooklyn street lined with late-90s sedans and SUVs — but I hadn’t really given it a second thought. After five years in New York, I’d become conditioned to treating the city’s minor oddities with some nonchalance.

It was a surprise, then, a few months later on an overcast Sunday afternoon in spring to find myself on Bergen Street facing the flames with a digital camera pressed to my face. Standing next to the truck, my boyfriend Denis tried out a variety of poses: flexed biceps, turned down in a circular shape; a casual lean against the driver’s door; the shy smile. Medium height with a compact build, Denis looked like a member of the wrestling team at a Midwestern college. He was unabashedly enamored with the truck — which I regarded as an extreme and comical expression of vehicular manhood — and had demanded this photo shoot. I grit my teeth, smiled, and with one eye over my shoulder, obliged.

He was delighted with the results. “Danke, Süsser,” he said. Thanks, sweetie.

It was hard to argue with a man whose toothy grin betrayed his total lack of regard for what my Brooklyn neighbors thought of him.

In the fall of 2006, during my senior year at NYU, I left New York for Berlin, looking for some final kicks before the curtain fell on four years marked by alternating periods of intense devotion to work and partying. I signed up for a program offered by Duke University, bought a plane ticket, and flew to a city whose reputation today for inexpensive fun (“Poor but sexy!” as even the mayor says) and artistic magnetism seem to take on near-mythic proportions to the creative classes in New York, where financial exclusivity and expense have replaced artistic ingenuity and urban thrift.

Denis, however, was not one of Berlin’s wild young artists; on the contrary, he possessed a startling authenticity that eviscerated many of the deep-set social poses I’d grown accustomed to in New York. We had met on a popular German gay social networking site. At the time I was one of those people who had the stubborn notion that Internet dating is embarrassing. In Berlin, however, circumstances had made me reconsider. My closest friend in the program was a lesbian from Oberlin. I needed to meet gay friends to go out with. I also wanted to meet locals to practice my German, which is easier said than done in a country where to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a bar one must navigate a minefield of potential social gaffes. So I posted a profile on, and, as ever, I was too shy to make first contact. I waited.

Several weeks later Denis sent me a message. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but I recall its appealing directness — a quality that became an essential part of our relationship, and a quality when lost would set in motion the end of it. His online profile was neither overly manicured nor a jumbled collage; it lacked the desperate self-styling and layered irony of the Facebook generation. He also did not try to message me in English, which I liked. I soon learned the good reason for this.

We met at a landmark in Berlin located between our apartments: Rathaus Schöneberg, a stone edifice distinguished by a tall clock tower that looms over the sleepy middle-class West Berlin neighborhood of Schöneberg. The Rathaus, or city hall, was during the years of Berlin’s division the center of government for the city of West Berlin. After reunification, when the government moved back to Mitte, the city center, the Rathaus once again became just another municipal outpost.

We were to meet by the main steps. As I approached, I caught my first glimpse of Denis, dressed in a hoodie and jeans.

“Hallo, ich bin Paul,” I said.

It was some months later, as I paged through a book of historical photographs of Berlin, when I realized that our meeting point stood directly beneath the balcony where John F. Kennedy made his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963. Kennedy added this famous line — and forget the urban legend about the donut — just before the speech was to begin. It was a powerful expression of the need for unity among men and women in the free world, and a defiant repudiation of the coercive Soviet policies that had led to the recent construction of the Berlin Wall.

Now, 43 years after Kennedy’s speech, all but a few small sections of that wall have disappeared, and I was in Berlin meeting a boy who had spent the first eight years of his life as a citizen of the Soviet Union.

Denis speaks four languages: Russian, German, Danish, and Dutch. He might be the only Russian national in the world with a mastery of these — and only these — tongues. Raised by his mom, Denis was born in Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial center 250 miles east of Moscow. According to Wikipedia, it is the fourth largest city in Russia; according to Denis, it is the third largest, and our disagreement about its ranking became a running joke in our 13-month relationship. A hyper-active child, Denis calmed down well enough to become the first person from his high school to ever attend a college outside Russia. At the time I met him, he had already been living in Berlin for more than four years — studying for a master’s degree in Dutch and linguistics. In his spare time, Denis worked out with a club gymnastics team for gay men at a community center. Far from the wealthy absurdities of the new Russian elite, Dennis told me that his stipend as a scholarship student was greater than his mother’s annual salary as a secretary in Nizhny Novgorod.

We had met on a popular German gay social networking site. At the time I was one of those people who had the stubborn notion that Internet dating is embarrassing. In Berlin, however, circumstances had made me reconsider.

When we met for drinks, it quickly became apparent that all conversation would be in German. Denis confessed to me — in his fluent, lightly accented, and crisply enunciated German — that he prefers listening over speaking, especially about himself. My German could then be described as serviceable, at best, and I babbled on before this strange, hyperbolically attractive Russian like a nervous job applicant. Lacking the ability to discern many of the subtle conversational cues of a first language, I had little idea what he thought of me. After a couple hours of small talk, he invited me back to his apartment for a nightcap.

Denis lived a monk-like existence in his small studio apartment. At the time I met him, it was barely furnished, just a futon and a chest of drawers in the large room, with its red-painted floor and slightly unrectangular shape. On that first night in Berlin, I was too shy to stay over, and, as I prepared to leave, Denis insisted on taking me home on his bicycle. It was not a bike made for two people, and I sat on the metal wheel covering, my arms clinging to Denis’s skinny but muscular frame. We rode silently through the quiet and damp pre-dawn streets of Schöneberg. As we passed the large park next to the Rathaus, a family of rabbits scurried through a flowerbed.

“There is a phrase in English,” I yelled for no good reason through the wind, “to fuck like a bunny-rabbit.”

“Fuck lack a bonny!” Denis screamed back, and for the first time I heard his slack-jawed, uninhibited laugh.

When I think about the story of language in New York, I can only begin to fathom the density of hidden personal histories — hundreds of years of various love-hungry immigrants joined together by the kind of primordial attraction that can bridge the murky space between lust and life-long companionship. Thousands of family trees that have produced us, the ancestors, and our quizzically American penchant for designating our geographic ancestry in terms of fractions.

I thought about this last April, as I road the Long Island Rail Road out to Jamaica station to switch for the Air Train to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where Denis was arriving on an early evening flight — his first trip to the United States. Here I was, living in the city of Ellis Island, Chinatown, and Omertà, now in the dawn of a new century, where the world was flat and gay men were marrying in Massachusetts, and I had my own little story of translingual romance.

On the train back to Brooklyn, Denis told me about his experience at passport control. I had written him an email with a mini-phrasebook of English expressions that could be helpful at Immigration:

What do you do in Germany? I am a student.

Why are you visiting the United States? I was invited by my American friend.

But the Immigration officer had asked him: “Who are you visiting in New York?”

“Paul,” Denis responded.

“Which Paul?” the man asked.

“Paul in Brooklyn,” Denis said. The man had laughed and waved him through to baggage claim.

As the train rattled down the Flatbush line, we lapsed into silence. Denis looked out the window. Dusk was settling over the derelict buildings in East New York.

“My neighborhood is ganz, ganz anders!” I felt compelled to say. Very, very different.

“Our relationship existed in this weird third-lingual space,” I would explain to my New York friends, gesturing with my hands in the air. After I returned from Berlin, my friends had a lot of questions about “the Russian boyfriend.”

“We understand each other really well,” I would say. “Without a common first language, we just don’t have as many verbal games to play. It’s better; it’s more direct.”

The truth was Denis and I had barely discussed the state of our affair in the weeks leading up to my departure. Then, one night a few days before my flight, I found myself opening up as we lay on his futon-bed. I talked about how I never expected to find someone in Berlin that I would fall for in this way — especially someone with whom I could only speak in a second language, someone whose childhood in a huge Soviet apartment complex in the middle of Russia, could not have been further from mine in the white-picket fence suburbs of Cincinnati. I must have talked for an hour. Denis, his head on my chest, said nothing, which I had chalked up to his normal emotional distance (“he’s cold and Russian,” I told those friends back in New York).

When my lengthy speech ended, he lifted his head and looked into my eyes, and I saw that he was crying.

Denis is a man of intense and unpredictable passions: herring, certain Erasure songs, the phases of the moon. When he wants something, he’s usually quick to action.

Denis is also a man of insatiable hunger. One night after a party in Williamsburg, we were walking to a nearby bar with some friends. Though he’d eaten a big dinner several hours earlier, Denis announced that he needed a snack. Before I could respond, he made a beeline for the door of a hole-in-the-wall Chinese place, one of those ratty restaurants with unattractive photographs of the food plastered on the wall above the counter. I never ate in places like this.

I walked in after him, and offered that there might be a more a more palatable option down the road.

“It’s just food,” he said.

As we walked all over the city that week, I found it difficult to discuss my ambivalence about so much of what contemporary New York is. How could I explain to Denis how people in New York dream of owning million-dollar one bedroom apartments? How could I explain to him the zeal with which New York diners pursue restaurant reservations only so to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars for a meal? How do you explain to him — to anyone — that America can consider itself the world’s superpower and still we gleefully allow our subway systems and train lines to fall into disrepair, we often don’t give the neediest among us health insurance, and, instead of taking our paltry two weeks of vacation every year, many of us would rather work so as not to look unambitious.

“We understand each other really well,” I would say. “Without a common first language, we just don’t have as many verbal games to play. It’s better; it’s more direct.”

As we walked around Park Slope, I tried to translate for him my feelings about gentrification, statements I could transform into winning sound-bytes at a dinner party discussion. But in this second language that we shared I struggled to explain that while rising rents and an influx of white people is unfortunate for traditional populations, a frequent changeover of neighborhood demographics has been a staple of life in New York since it was founded. I tried to explain the irony in the fact that while so many New Yorkers long to live in nineteenth century brownstones, the city has always and continues to forfeit its historical claims to the whims of its inflated real estate market. I wanted to, but I didn’t, try to explain to him how I longed for a beautiful apartment in an old building where I knew the neighbors, but instead I found myself in an ugly stucco high-rise on a street where most of the interaction between blacks and whites are requests for money. Many of the issues I’ve become obsessed with in New York seemed ridiculous when I tried to talk about them with Denis. I realized just how many things I take for granted in this city, or, worse, write off as unimportant because they don’t impact the tidy life that I’ve organized for myself.

“What is this church?” he would ask, pointing to a spire in the distance.

“I don’t know,” I would say.

In one of my favorite movies, Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” set shortly before the Wall was built in the early 1960s, a fast-talking Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin with his job on the line must transform a young East Berlin communist into a dashing Western capitalist. The executive, played by James Cagney, is hosting his boss’s ditzy daughter as she treks through Europe, and the girl causes a scandal when she manages to fall in love with the young comrade. As the young man is outfitted with an array of fancy clothes and accessories to look presentable to the girl’s parents, who are due for imminent arrival from Atlanta, he is baffled at the need for such luxuries.

I thought of the film when I first took Denis to my supermarket, and he wondered aloud at the need for four brands of mayonnaise.

“Look, they all have different prices,” I said.

The perspective Dennis brought to New York manifested itself in ways that betrayed his cultural background and political and economic worldview. It was the personal side that Denis rarely wanted to discuss.

When I took Denis to Brighton Beach, he was astounded.

“Everything’s in Russian!” he exclaimed, walking into a music and video store. He paused. “But these aren’t real Russians.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“They’re Jewish.”

On his final night in New York, Denis and I went out to dinner in Chinatown. We dined at a restaurant just off Canal Street known for its popularity among both Chinese and non-Chinese. The restaurant was so full that we were sat at a large table with three other people, a woman who talked loudly about her community organizing work in Brooklyn and her two companions.

“Just so you know,” she said, turning to us. “I can understand German.” We hadn’t said anything about her and her friends.

Later that night Denis and I met my roommate, Maureen, at a bar in Carroll Gardens, where Denis and I got into an animated argument about the relative merits of operas written in German versus Italian.

“He’s so fucking stubborn!” I exclaimed in English, turning to Maureen.

“What? I am not stubb-born.” Denis demanded in English, and we all laughed.

“I guess you can’t talk about him in front of his face in English anymore,” Maureen said.

Denis was always correcting my German. He was a stickler for grammar.

“Der Bank,” I said in front of my Citibank branch.

Die Bank,” he said, stretching out the first syllable for several seconds. “Du machst immer diesen Fehler.” You always make this mistake.

Denis’s penchant for exact language and abrupt action often did not extend to the realm of our relationship. After the April visit, we called each other several times a week, but we didn’t talk explicitly about our feelings. Then, one day in August, I checked my email and saw a new message from Denis. In a four-page single spaced Microsoft Word attachment, he bared his feelings totally for the first time. He’d been afraid to tell me that he loved me, he wrote; he’d felt this way from the very beginning of our relationship. Because of me he’d begun seeing a psychiatrist in Berlin to sort out his emotional disengagement. He wrote that he wanted to change for me.

We decided to make our long-distance relationship official. Having obtained a multi-entry visa, Denis planned a new trip for September. He came — his English slowly improving — and I took him to Washington, D.C., to meet more of my friends and family there. He absurdly claimed to prefer D.C. to New York.

“It’s more peaceful,” he said.

“It’s like a city-sized tomb,” I said.

My own trip back to Berlin was planned for Thanksgiving. After the September visit, the rhetoric of our relationship increased further, and I was riding a wave of bliss; I could hardly wait to for the day of my flight to come. But when I arrived in Berlin things were not as I expected. Almost as soon as I arrived at Denis’s apartment, I felt a return of his emotional distance. After the first, painful day where he avoided serious conversation and even physical contact, I confronted him.

“Was ist los?” I demanded. What is wrong with you?

“I don’t know,” he said, and said nothing more.

I never had trouble understanding Denis’s e-mails and calls on my cell phone. My German vocabulary has expanded exponentially in the course of our relationship, but suddenly the language difference moved to the forefront of my mind. I was not equipped for the complicated and delicate emotional excavation necessary to get to the bottom of my Russian boyfriend’s silence. The week went by, and we both tried our best, but something was irrevocably broken, and neither of us wanted to say it bluntly.

After I returned to New York, two weeks went by and he didn’t contact me, even though he had a plane ticket to come to New York in a weeks for New Year’s. I wrote him an angry email, and demanded to know what was going on. “Du musst mir sagen, wenn du jemand anders kennengelernt hast.” You must tell me if you’ve met someone else, I wrote. It was the only explanation I could think of.

Twenty-four hours later, he wrote me back.

“I wish I could offer you a satisfying explanation,” he wrote. “I know my behavior has been bad, and I’m sorry for that. I see the problem — the distance — between us, but I was scared and instead of confronting the problem, I tried to flee from it.

“I have felt blocked from my feelings lately. I know that I have loved you deeply, but right now I can’t sense my feelings.

“I would still like to come to New York for New Year’s. Perhaps there I can rediscover them.”

Later that week I told Denis that I could not allow him to come to New York.

“Ich brauche eine Liebe, die ich vertrauen kann,” I said. I need a love I can trust.

I came home to Ohio for a week to celebrate Christmas, and, during a dinner one night that week, I told my parents and brother that the relationship had ended.

No one really knew what to say. It was a difficult story to translate.

When I take the F train, my walk home leads me down Bergen Street, and, more often than not, I see the truck. After Denis’s trip last April, seeing it parked there always made me smile. Now, when I pass by, I still smile, but it is different — a bittersweet recollection of a personal artifact, like a teenage tattoo I’m stuck with in adulthood, that reminds me of the ways in which Denis led me to reconsider even my own city. It’s this city, conversely, whose distinct logic helped turn me into the person who could even consider a relationship with a guy like Denis.

A smile flickers on my lips for a moment and then it is gone.