Popcorn & Coke

 

It started with a play:

 

“It was a beautiful day.”

 

“A beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky,” Actor #2 adds as rain is pouring down his face, as he looks into the milky sun. Three actors sit in a cart, in front of a dirt hill, a pinball machine half-buried into the ground lighting up as thunder is heard in the distance. Actor #1 and Actor #2 tell the story of the day their friend—played by Actor #3—died in a car accident. “It was a beautiful day, blue skies, like everything was right in the world, a beautiful day, just like today,” says Actor #1, flashing a quick smile to the audience sitting across huddled beneath umbrellas or tucked into their ponchos. While rain gushes all over them.

 

The accordion player appears up the hill, like a Greek chorus bookending each act. As his transparent plastic poncho is caught by a gust of wind it creates two pockets of air behind him, like angel wings. The sun beats off of the wet plastic, creating a glow around the musician.

 

Actor #2 gets out of the cart and tells how she and the dead guy had a secret love affair, and that she is pregnant with his child. Actor #3, who had been shadowing her in silence, speaks for the first time: “You got pregnant, why didn’t you say?” he says towards her. But she doesn’t meet his eyeline, and continues to address the audience. “I was about to tell him the day he died.” Actor #3 says, “O yeah, I died.” And both Actor #1 and #2 continue to ignore Actor #3.

 

The musician appears on top of the hill again, and as he is playing his ditty, the audience starts to sing along. Creating a sense of camaraderie between the audience and the actors, as they are all stuck in this barren landscape in the middle of a storm together.

 

When the storm was a drizzle the production had asked the company if they still wanted to go on, and they said yes. It had been the last show and they were not going to cancel it. A week before one of the actors had broken his ankle and played the rest of the tour with a cast.

 

The thunder is growing closer as the third standing ovation dies down and a crew comes in to take apart the makeshift plywood stands. The actors are handed dry socks and change inside a sea container behind the hill. The spell is broken, and everyone goes their way as if nothing has happened. As if it didn’t mean a thing.

 

 

The Actors

 

“I have some antidepressants leftover from a prescription I had a while back…want to have them?”

 

“Don’t you need to take them for a couple of weeks before it even works? And doesn’t it cause nausea, diarrhea, and exuberates the depression at first?”

 

“Yup.”

 

“Hand them over.”

 

Zola grabs the pills out of Girsch’s hands and drowns them with the leftover liquid that had been in the drink bottle that she kept in her bag. Zola and Girsch sit in their local, watching people coming in from the wet spring night. They sit at their usual table, on top of a small platform where a fireplace used to be, back when this was someone’s home. Malte dumps a complimentary bowl of popcorn between them before taking their order. “Some dry white, please Malte.”

 

“The Chilean, not the Riesling,” Zola adds. Girsch looks at her with a questioning expression. As Malte makes his way back to the bar, she whispers, “Trust me, the Riesling will give you a headache.”

 

The bar, which doesn’t have a name or at least no clear branding that would indicate a name, is furnished with an eclectic mixture of secondhand furniture, like being in someone’s grandparents’ living room.

 

Zola goes to the bathroom. She stumbles over a bent piece of the floorboard and clings onto the doorpost. She takes out a little piece of paper, unfolds it carefully, and puts down a line on the plateau behind the toilet. Carefully cutting the thin white powder with her bank card. Snorting the substance using a cut-up fluorescent pink straw she has stowed away in the pocket of her shirtdress.

 

She had left her wallet on the table, and when she returns from the bathroom he is flipping through all her cards.

 

“What does the O stand for?” he asks.

 

“Ortega.”

 

“That’s not very rock ’n’ roll?!”

 

“I know, never said it was,” she says matter-of-factly and sits back down again.

 

“I thought your hippy parents would have given you a crazy middle name, like Ocean or Oracle.”

 

She laughs. “They were more conventional than you imagined them to be. Ortega is my maternal grandmother’s surname; she came from Madrid.”

 

“You don't look that Spanish,” he says.

 

“And what do Spanish people look like? Besides, my people came from all over the place.”

 

Girsch lays out the stack of cards on the sticky table, one neatly touching the other like a game of dominoes. He holds some up towards the light of the candle, to investigate the ID picture. Zola snatches them up and puts them back in order and into her wallet.

 

“Why…? I was just having fun,” Girsch says like a disappointed child whose toy got taken away.

 

“You can play later,” she says maternally. “You were going to tell me what you are working on next,” she continues.

 

“O, oh yeah,” he replies, remembering that he had been in the middle of telling her about his new project before she promptly left for the bathroom. “It is this improvisation piece together with Gorgeous Chris, you remember Gorgeous Chris, right?”

 

“The white German guy with dreads?”

 

“Yeah, him.” Girsch pauses for a moment to take a sip of his drink. “Well, we are doing this audience participation piece, up in the Ark.”

 

“The empty office building?” Zola interjects, utterly unimpressed.

 

“Yeah, Gorgeous Chris is doing his tribal thing on a big drum and the actors are doing some improvisation in the middle of the audience. It is supposed to be that no one can tell who is part of it and who isn’t, as a collective creation of a moment. Enticing people to come out of their shell and create this beautiful beatific space where they can be and feel, expose themselves without any judgment.”

 

“And then ignore each other once they leave the room to go home or party somewhere else,” Zola adds.

 

“Don’t be like that, it is really special,” Girsch says, a bit hurt by her comment.

 

“I’m sorry, I’ve just been to one too many bad performance pieces lately, but I’m sure yours will be great,” Zola says diplomatically.

 

The door of the bar opens up and a cool breeze makes its way in, causing the candles to flicker, blowing out a couple that had been in the vicinity of the door. Ana Khan enters the bar with the confidence of a seasoned stage performer ready for her closing number. Her oversized woolen coat and large scarves disguise her tiny frame. She walks without any hesitation up to the podium where Zola and Girsch are sitting.

 

“Darlings…” she says in a deep Marlene Dietrich voice she will sometimes put on for dramatic effect and pretends to give Zola and Girsch two kisses on the cheek somewhere midair, without crouching down to touch their skin.

 

“O, Ana, you old so-and-so, how have you been?” Zola says, her entire demeanor changing from one moment to the next. She suddenly seems to be on.

 

“Busy, as always,” Ana says, waving her hand in the air to illustrate that she doesn’t want to talk about it, but does welcome the sympathy and admiration for being such a busy, important, and overworked person.

 

She sits down, unbuttons her coat from the bottom up, and dismantles herself. Unwrapping the large scarf around her neck and shoulders she exposing a second scarf underneath. As her coat droops over the back of her chair, one could see large rips across the lining of the coat. She undoes the knot in her second scarf and one could finally see her flesh. Her neck is filled with bruises, like nameless islands in an ocean without major points of orientation.

 

“What are we doing? Sekt? Mezcal? Jäger?” Ana asks as she grabs a handful of popcorn from the cork bowl. “If we are desperate we could even go for a Mexikaner. Every place claims to have a good one, but it never is.”

 

“We started slow with some wine,” Girsch says.

 

“How very,” Ana answers, she raises her arm, turns, snaps her fingers, and mouths something to Malte. He looks annoyed at the first snap, but his expression changes to a little smile, and he nods.

 

He comes from behind the bar and asks two people to get up from their table gesturing to a hatch beneath their feet. He moves the table in one fell swoop, opens the hatch, and goes down below for a bit. When he comes back up, he holds a bottle covered in dust, returns the table to its original location, and goes back behind his bar. In the meantime people have gathered in front of the bar, waiting for their opportunity to order.

 

The bartender takes out three shot glasses, puts them on a tray, together with the mystery bottle, and brings them over to the table. “Thanks,” Ana says to the guy as he puts the glasses in front of them and starts to pour until the clear liquid starts to overflow.

 

Ana crouches down and slurps a little of the liqueur until it is safe to lift the glass without losing its contents. She nips some more, before putting it down and digs inside her coat pockets for something. And eventually takes out a pack of cigarettes.

 

“Why is it that all singers are smokers?” Zola asks.

 

“I don’t know, are they?” Ana exhales a cloud of smoke, waving her matchstick around to put out the flame. “Anywho—what is the goss? Anything worth noting?” Ana asks, already bored by her company.

 

“Ah, G was just telling about his new event, together with Gorgeous Chris.”

 

Girsch gives Zola the evil eye, and she suddenly realizes her mistake in mentioning this name and the history between the two characters. “Ah, cultural-appropriation-but-gorgeous-Chris, how is he these days?” Ana asks with a resentful undertone. “Is he still seducing new arrivals with his limp D?”

 

“He’s fine,” says Girsch, trying not to go into details. “But Zola was talking before about this mysterious hookup.” Girsch tries to defuse the situation and with it pushes his friend under the proverbial bus.

 

“Ah really?! How very…!” Ana responds with a sense of jolly.

 

“Shut it, G,” Zola hisses at her friend.

 

“Oh, come on, this is a safe space, tell,” Ana says, egging Zola on, to which Zola responds, “Well, there isn’t much to tell really. You know the sort. Had a hookup, he ignored me, then got a booty call, and he was like, ‘I don’t want any commitment,’” making quotations marks with her hands while saying it, “and I wasn’t even asking for commitment, just wanted regular sex. I hate it when men freak out and think you are looking for a relationship when you slept together a couple of times. And all you want is getting something on the regular. So yeah, he is playing hot and cold, calling me a bitch one minute, flirting the next, sending me messages, then nothing for weeks, and then inviting me to things, and spending an entire weekend in bed.”

 

“Ah, yeah, one of those,” Ana responds. “Anyway let us not be a cliché and talk about useless men, and gossip, there are more interesting things to talk about.”

 

“How are you? And are you working on something that will change the world?” Zola asks. Ana laughs, and Girsch goes up to the bar to get another drink for himself.

 

“I don’t know about changing the world, but I have been reading this book on fermentation. And it makes me think of the difference between fermentation and decay.”

 

“Aren’t they the same?”

 

“In a way, yes, but with fermentation, you encourage good bacteria and manage to preserve things and create wonderful things like this very drink I am holding in my hand now. With the other, it just rots away into non-being.”

 

Ana Khan leaves after one drink and without paying for it.

 

 

Urinals and Bread

 

A book of chemistry explains:

 

The process of fermentation comes down to the convergence of one mole of sucrose, the dimer of glucose and fructose molecules, into four moles of ethanol and four moles of carbon dioxide producing two moles of adenosine triphosphate in the process. To make alcohol, no matter if it is based on natural sugars out of fruits as in the case of wine, or sugarcane as in the case of rum, or grain starches as is the case in beer, whiskey, or vodka, one needs a vessel that allows for carbon dioxide to escape without outside air coming in.

 

Nights get so dark that the stark contrasting neon lights coming from the Bakerylet cause folks to flock toward it, like a bunch of mosquitoes. The concrete building seems to be located on an abandoned urban plain, however, this is simply a lighting issue, they will assure you. The Bakerylet is shaped like a nine, the top bit being the bakery with a glass window used to hand over drinks and baked goods to the public. The bottom half of the nine is a public toilet, with octagonal rubber matting covering the floor, that will constantly overflow with urine. The small wooden shutters that protect the privacy of the urinating public are utterly ineffective as their design leaves many gaps. But the visitors don’t mind as their intoxication leaves them a little exhibitionistic at best. As their bladders are emptied of the fermented substances they have just ingested, others are quickly huddling behind the big glass windows of the twenty-four-hour bakery. Like vampires, their eyes are tiny and they try to shield themselves from the embarrassing neon lighting by barring their heads in each other’s chests.

 

“Three tteoks and a side of kimchi!” is the hot ticket on this night, they all go coo-coo for the Korean rice cakes and the staff behind the counter is running like headless chickens. People are sitting outside on the pop-up picnic benches, many falling when others get up and they are stuck on one end putting the entire thing out of balance as they are galvanizing a piece of pastry.

 

People have to sit on the curb. A couple is making out, overexposing their tongues more than necessary. A man next to them is copping his dislocated shoulder. Two teens are dissecting a piece of roadkill.

 

 

The Morning

 

As they get out of the dark club, they need to squint for a second to adjust to the daybreak that has suddenly arrived. Girsch goes into a späti that also sells baked goods and comes out with two börek and two durstlöscher, and they go sit down on the concrete side of the canal to eat the pastry and drink the sugary juice box. Zola fingers a hard black crusty scrape on her knee. Her legs are bare and you can see the old crusty wound. She draws circles around it like she is tracing the intricate mountain range on a model landscape. The city’s night-and-day folk are crossing paths as each either stumbles home or towards an afterparty, or reluctantly makes their way to work. One will be clutching a beer, and another a caffeinated beverage, and the one cupping the alcohol could very likely be in a suit and on their way to a meeting. Zola mindlessly scrolls through her feed with the last percent of battery she has left, until she stops at a picture of her ex, with the wife and new baby.

 

“Come, let’s get a move on,” Gisch yells, pulling Zola up. They make their way down the street, and over a pedestrian bridge that has a chain-link fence on one side. An unknown creature had pushed ping pong balls into the holes of the fence creating a mosaic of sorts. As they reach the bottom of the bridge, they can see a trumpet player standing on the corner waiting for something.

 

“Hi Kill! how are you?” Girsch yells to the trumpeter.

 

“I’m fine, how are you?” came a high-pitched voice. Spree, also known as Killing Spree, then Kill, yells back, “How was your night? Do tell.”

 

“Well…it was one of those nights where everyone in the club seemed to blend into one being, and everyone took care of one another and just oozed love and kindness.” Zola’s face beams with joy as she remembers the feeling.

 

“I think sometimes things come together, and they just are brilliant, and you can’t really produce or demand it,” Kill says.

 

“Exactly,” Zola says. She bids her friends goodbye and walks down the cobblestoned street to her apartment.

 

Soon this feeling, this experience, and this night will be a memory of a memory, and Zola won’t recognize a fellow clubber when she runs into them at the supermarket. She will barely remember the joy she had experienced. And will move on.

In this piece, a moment of awe and the trivial come together. Actors aren’t just people who perform in plays. They are also people who perform life and can switch between performance and their daily business--creating a moment of reverie one moment and having dinner, hanging with friends, and talking about minutiae the next. The awe-striking experience itself loses its power after the fact, devolving into a story that diminishes in power every time you tell it. Which begs the question: does all this really mean anything beyond the moment? What do the stories we tell say about us?

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