Susanna Sternberg


Susanna usually oscillates between London, Berlin, occasionally New York and Oxford, is a music lover and female dandy in Baudelaire’s sense.

She writes fiction; it references the Coming of Age genre, and deals with issues of aesthetics; explores various concepts of beauty, and touches upon overlapping themes e.g. identity or popular culture and its history. Her current work in progress – a novel – is a coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old girl set in the vibrant underground club scene of Berlin in the 1990s.


View as PDF: Susanna Sternberg - Prelude


In my first night in the stranger’s room, I stared through the naked window into the black sky, with an infatuation so pervasive I mistook it for nausea; a shapeless creature, sitting in my throat, asphyxiating, stealing sleep. I had been given an old sofa cushion and an itchy blanket. I had covered the cushion in one of my t-shirts, and because of the blanket I slept fully dressed. On the next day, I stole a sealed white bed sheet from the Woolworth’s at Potsdamerstrasse. This was easy, as nobody suspected a girl with matted pink hair to steal bed sheets. The keys for the flat were attached to my necklace, hidden underneath my jumper. The metal grew warm like my skin, and warmer than Boris’s hands, ever.

When it became colder, he took me to the vintage sale at the Metropol-Theatre, where Africa Bambaata was DJ-ing on weekends, playing the same record over and over so I thought, but the crowd acted as if what the DJ did was as significant to them now as Kraftwerk or James Brown once had been to him. But during the week, endless racks of clothes covered the dance floor, dangling in the half-silence of their murmuring sounds. I chose a black Persian lamb coat, a true old lady’s coat. Other people I passed in the streets shouted, “You are wearing a dead animal’s skin.” But I kept wearing my Persian lamb cadaver, sheltering me from the cold, the handmade price tag still remaining attached to it: 20 Mark, paid by Boris.

Whenever Boris took me for a walk through the city, there was always a starting point and a destination. It was never about spending time together, or strolling around, or looking at something. He merely took me with him, for reasons he never explained, so I made up my own, giving each walk a purpose, a timeframe, during which the wider world ceased to exist, and nothing but a film set remained.

The ice-cold air was piercing, clean, his pace long; he never slept, and I hardly slept either and followed him, out of breath, at my minor distance. Everything around us transformed itself when I was with him, I saw every street for the first time no matter how many times we walked it, every route was brand new: graffiti, a torn poster taped over with a fresh one, shadows of faces resting within one another, within the structures of the brick walls, underneath cryptic symbols, ever changing images, constantly transmitting an infinite stream of messages, images I caught and released on my sketchpad once we returned to the flat. And every day new promises hid in the loot, which spilled over the pavement out of the warm and dusty junk shops while the living scent of its former possessors slowly froze.

The idea of Turkish food advertised via red letters neatly written on yellow light panels made it hard for me to breathe, hungry as I was, and my limbs became less stable when walking past. Only once we went into one of those Kebab shops; we sat on wobbly wooden stools while staring into neon lamps and scenarios of seas and minarets covered in plastic, printed on glittery paper, pouring from the walls like rain, listening to exotic chants.

I drank the strongest tea and had the best food of my life, and cleaned my plate fast, but I did not dare to ask for the leftovers on his, which had already been covered by his crumpled napkin. He threw the money for both of our meals on the glass counter, and reversing the movement he tossed down his complimentary Raki that had been placed in front of him. Then, caressing my head, he smiled, so fake anyone could have noticed, but the Turkish Kebab shop owner returned the smile from under his stiff white cap. My scalp felt as if it had been hit yet still, it burned with bliss.

Underneath the frozen steel of the train tracks, the screeches of the yellow tube carriages that ran over ground became my sound track. We seldom used public transport, but if we did, it was for free; the tickets were checked, but in such conspicuous uniformity that every cheat had his chance. We often had to go to several different flats to get cocaine or amphetamines for Boris, and there I could observe those, who constituted Berlin’s secret aristocracy – slim, androgynous creatures dressed in black, with messy hair and cold black eyes, grinding their yellowish and whitish powders on tables, or cassette cases, or picture frames that had been taken off the walls. They soon became restless, their voices raised to a crescendo and then all of them spoke simultaneously, jumping up, throwing chewing gum at one another, smoking forty cigarettes in two minutes and changing the music every three.

When everything started to accelerate and my hair was blown backwards by the turbulence and pace of these instants, even I became visible sometimes. Then one of the beautiful women who looked as if Otto Dix had recreated models from a fashion shoot for Vogue, would make me sweet, milky coffee or toss me a cigarette – which I never smoked, but stuck behind my ear where I kept it for Boris. I used to sit on the obligatory wooden floors or on the grey carpets, which were scorched from drug residues and ashes. My pale hands that had suddenly stopped looking like mine flipped through the endless – always neatly ordered – piles of records. If I had been to the place before, I sometimes – after asking politely for permission, very faint at first, and louder until somebody finally noticed – put a record on. Once one of Boris’ friends commented on my choices, whispering, “this girl surprises me every time.” I carried these words with me like pure compressed carbon, embedded in my sternum.

Often these visits lasted for days and my legs and knees died while the same record was played for the 40th time, even flipping it was against the law now. The conversations had become circular, absurd, only interrupted by an occasional complaint, incessant sniffling, squinting, a hiss, the tearing of a cigarette packet, or the firestorms of matches and the clicking lighters. And those fairy-tale-like beings would become part of yet another, additional dimension, as if I was now separated from them by an otherness that could no longer solely be measured in beauty or in years, by a threshold that I could not cross in any possible world, at least not without being its casualty. Then I would jump up, clutching the keys underneath my jumper, and Boris hardly noticed, or he only nodded in my direction when I was already by the door. I would run downstairs, rushing anxiously past the tall Gründerzeit-houses, realizing again that this was an empty street, it was 3 o’ clock in the morning and I was thirteen.

But the rehearsals of Boris’ band were the most precious instants. Mesmerized, I sat next to the junk pile of scrap metal and electronic instruments and listened how the world changed. There were infinite variations, precognitive motoric rhythms which would retrieve me again years later, Stockhausen operas played on the ruins of steel factories, sounds never heard before and completely unheard-of. Later the chroniclers and war correspondents would state that at this time a significant new avant-garde had arisen. At this time I already knew Schoenberg and Cage, and with what I witnessed here now, only constituted a logical consequence and continuation of my musical education. At this time I still believed that every month or minute could bear new developments in music, and that this has always been, and would always remain this way, which undoubtedly proved what perfect sense life made. I listened to the screwed sounds from synthesizers labelled as “Korg” or “Roland” and the screamed and hissed voices with the same care and attention that had used to learn to apply to Bach triplets or which had caused me to cry on account of Debussy’s parallel harmonies.

When the city in its entirety was locked in the parenthesis of winter, our breath fell down frozen solid as soon as we exhaled. The city dissolved into icedust, it was too cold even for snow, too rigid, too grey. Boris was on speed almost always, though trying it never occurred to me; drugs seemed a thing as distant as having children or paying rent, but most of the time I stayed awake with him, as long as I could, in fear of missing out on something, a movement, a sound, a significant word. But also without the amphetamines my face became tinier at a speed that I could watch it change and underneath my eyes violet shadows appeared that matched my hair colour and looked like the grand make-up of the other fleeting inhabitants of the flat. They said I could pass as boy or a girl, as a child or a teenager.

The feeling of hunger started to become oddly comforting, because it shaped my body so nicely after my paragons of everything, but at the same time I enjoyed the ease of that feeling given by hot, black, sugary coffee. My hands were always pale and blue. His were white as wax. He was tall and upright, crowned with spiky hair, smooth yet static, shading his forehead and the nape of his neck. His large frantic eyes became calm and motionless while he spoke. His lashes were long and blond and the only feature that was transitory or soft about his face. These eyelashes alone kept his beauty from sliding into the absurd; they made him appear human or capable of fault.

The city was different from the rest of the distant country it belonged to, not only because it was insular and divided, but also because it was a place where within the actual world a second one could exist without restraint, like a hermeneutic circle or a dark convent, amenable to a different law, secret without having to be hidden.

There, money seemed no real currency. We wore things we found and altered and shared and exchanged, I drank what was put in front of me, and the little I ate was easy to take along everywhere. I never planned anything, I absorbed the sounds, painted and strolled, and sometimes I still met up with the other younger kids I had briefly got to know on my first week on the streets, after I ran away. But I hardly dared to hope that I could ever become anything, or even anyone beyond what I had managed to be here. I was thankful to be chosen and picked-up and subsequently tolerated in Boris’ ever-fluctuating flat share. Yet I knew I could have never met the standards of the chimeras around me and I refused to accept any values outside their system.

At some point Boris came to a sort of “fame” as I called it at the time, which meant his world started to infiltrate the world of real artists, named as such, established and illuminated by media. A director had cast his friend Nathan – for whom I always remained invisible – for a minor role in a movie. Nathan had several sentences and Boris somehow became an extra, playing a distorted bass in the background. The scene was shot far more often than the average takes, because Nathan repeatedly made a mistake called “overacting”, and when Boris told me about it the wide grin that accompanied his descriptions made him look like a meatless reptile.

Before the premiere was mentioned I had not known anything about the shooting, and Boris just said, “you did not even exist back then.” But once I knew, I became obsessed with the film, I wanted to know every little detail, I felt an undertow, like a missed chance; something was moving suddenly, and I, who used to be so shy and quiet, kept questioning. I could not stop talking about it, regardless if I blushed and stuttered and feared, even when I noticed how much it annoyed Boris and how little he seemed to care. When the film premiered it was early February and I had been on the run from my family’s realms for nine weeks and living with Boris for seven.

At this evening the chill of change added an additional layer to my frozen skin, when Boris announced that he had decided to take me with them. One of his friends, a make-up artist called Vesna, one of the occasional heralds of the actual world, had to paint my face for two hours. The final result was shockingly ordinary and not much better than what I normally did, as I had expected her to change the mirror reflection into a model like miracle, but no such thing looked back at me.

Only my skin was flawless, hyper real. Boris said, “This is not acceptable.” And I took my fine brush and spat into the almost empty container of my black watercolour, stirred and spat until the consistency was right and painted my eyes huge and black. I backcombed my pink and white hair until it looked like a cartoon version of Marilyn Monroe’s famous Hollywood hairstyle. Underneath my cheekbones I drew dark pink shadows and Vesna reluctantly followed the husky stage directions and glued fake eyelashes to my lids. I wore skinny black trousers, a cropped black top I had made from a pair of thick tights and heavy crêpe-soled black suede shoes, in which my feet resembled those of Minnie Mouse.

“Now that’s ok,” said Boris.

“I am not sure,” replied Vesna, “she is still but a child.“

“So what,” said I, and I covered my hair and my whole painted face in hairspray while I squinched my eyes shut. The hairspray smelt of my grandmother and images of her at her grand piano detonated in front of me, and I clenched my teeth, it was out of question to water down or even ruin the make up now. When we were in the taxi, Boris leaned over to me and whispered “Happy Birthday.” My birthday was in April, but I did not reply anything.

Boris’s presents were always Janus-faced, there was a lesson hidden in every one, or a task or a pain. Even the coat had caused trouble because it was made of ideologically not quite impeccable fur.

There were no red carpets at the screenings of these movies labelled as art house, but the flashlights blinded me like a failed attempt of a medieval torture method; the afterimages covered the real like magic veils. I was so excited that I hardly realized anything, Boris forgot about me twice, and I was found and picked up by his entourage, but in the huge red cinema hall I was seated next to him. The auditorium morphed into a pool lined with rubies in which we all swam, and long before the lights went down I had already happily drowned in red. We sat in the middle and I tried to stretch my neck to get a glimpse of those at the front.

Nathan sat almost first row, raven haired and immaculate like a vampiric dandy fin-de-siecle, accompanied by a woman who was so beautiful that my perception distorted this beauty into an abstract; I stared at those two as if they were deserts, or valleys covered in dew, or splashes of sun within the foam of the spraying sea, and I was neither envious nor full of adoration.

The film eroded my throat. Dried my lips. Compressed my lungs. And I felt like crying almost for its entire duration, although I was not sad at all. And all I saw was Boris, on whom I had waited for most of the movie, how he sat in background, gaunt and dark-clad, with his snake like body and his carved face and played bass, for twenty seconds. The applause and the curtain calls appeared to be infinite and that was how it was supposed to be. When the auditorium was illuminated, I prayed for the director to turn around and notice me, although I was fully aware of the ridiculousness of that wish, and I did not know why I wished for it, but I still prayed. On stage stood a woman of conventional attractiveness who received three bouquets of flowers, soon surrounded by men, who had been a lot more impressive as their characters on screen.

Subsequently a reception took place, where we were said to be served sparkling wine, but it turned out to be real champagne, I was sure, because I hated the taste of champagne, already familiar to me from my family’s parties, but I loved sweet sparkling wine. Boris ignored me again, but that was familiar, too, so I started to walk around by myself and I finally noticed that something had changed.

Aside from the haze of the movie’s aftertaste and the dizziness of my one gulp of champagne – Vesna had taken the glass out of my hands as soon as she spotted me with it – there was something else. New. Unfelt or unnoticed. When I passed groups I saw that some heads turned, or eyes followed, only faintly, but still noticeable. It was different from the usual stares on streets and public transport because of my candy hair or destroyed clothes. There was no mockery in it, and no contempt. And I ran for the bathroom, to find a distinct flaw, was afraid to discover that my trousers were torn in inappropriate spots or dirty or my shoes falling apart.

But in the mirror that stretched from ground to ceiling of the black tiled cellar space, surrounded by spraying and combing and painting women, again there was only me. I thought I looked well and pleasantly long limbed and this was all. But I walked upstairs taller than I had descended and when I re-entered the foyer where the party took place I resisted the gaze, if only for a second, and warmth started to spread from inside me and all over me, like the crimson electronic bass sounds or the strong hot tea after days of cold.

Everything clumsy fell off, I moved as if I followed a choreography, which I knew so well, that the steps were made automatically and I only had to perfect their execution, as if I now moved on the same level as the crowd around me. Only Boris and the director remained exceptions. The director was as radiant as a doomed man who had just been told by his attending physician that his results had been mixed up, it had been a wrong diagnosis, and he was actually in perfect health. His face was illuminated; I had never seen anything as remarkable as this radiance before.

Later when I gazed – still drunk on beauty and adventure and more stolen gulps of champagne – into the most wonderful of all cities, I knew that this was bliss and this was happiness, and even Boris who sat next to me was not as distant, something had also changed in the space between us. It was early morning and we were driving to one of the infamous clubs I had merely heard of, off the Kurfürstendamm, hidden behind two large shop windows that only displayed arrays of yucca palm trees of all sizes in front of a filthy curtain. When I fled to the clubs toilets without looking around, as soon as our group has passed the bouncer, I was suddenly jumped at and embraced by Ally, one of the other street punks kids I had had an intense week of friendship with, and whom I had not seen since I had stayed with Boris.

“Look at you!” she shouted, moving around me in an absurd frenzy. I looked at her, because despite the partially shaved head and the heavy make-up she appeared clean and healthy, and different, too. We went upstairs, holding each other’s hands, and while we were conquering the club like an overcrowded playground she kept shouting, “Look! They are looking at you…and you…don’t even notice!” And she seemed happy and proud as if the change belonged to her or was something that she had partially created. And I squinted and was choked up by being touched and she wrapped her thin spidery arms around me and I kissed her half shaved scalp.

“I am living with my aunt now, and I am back at school,” she stammered, presto, “it is a really good school and I am going to do my Abitur!” while I was wondering what the clubs bouncer must have been taking, because she was not much older than me and had arrived without an art house movie avantgarde and her face being made-up before for three hours. We danced in the dark back of the white rooms to familiar electronic sounds and to a nut-bush-city-limits that appeared suddenly, out of time and context, and no movement needed any conscious control to become flawless. Older men, in white shirts and trousers with braces, sporting tiny black moustaches like contract killers from 1940s film noir detective stories, handed us more sparkling wine and we drank it still moving inside the rhythm and the bass, and everyone around us was monarchy.

They wore amazing geometric costumes and hair of all colours and dark gigantic eyes and pointy shoes and they looked like Caligari’s crows or stripped ballerinas with bleached cropped locks and I fell in love with every single one of them. The music kept dictating our movements, and Ally bought me a rose from a late flower seller that I gave to one of the bartenders to be put in a vase with the other flowers, where I forgot it later.

Maybe Boris had been right after all and this was a birthday, but I did not want to know which one or whose. Boris and Nathan were sitting at a table on the gallery on the upper floor of the club, with glazed-over eyes, and sometimes I waved at Boris, but he just gave a careless nod, if he saw me at all, because Nathan and he had put their heads together as if to conspire. Ally turned to get me another sparkling wine and I watched as she was counting five and ten pfennig coins on the bar counter, I tried to keep her from it, “Please, don’t, Boris can…,” but she insisted on buying me the drink.

Although it was February it was already light outside when we drove home by taxi. Everything shimmered like in a heat distorted mirage; the empty Tauentzien, the Kadewe Department store, the Nollendorfplatz and its Metropol theatre, with its old clothes and a dance floor I suddenly felt grown out of, the tracks, dressed in their black studded steel, the orange trains already plummeting through the grey. Boris appeared to be calm, his hands were folded in his lap, his profile sharp like a paper cut in front of the passing streets, matted by the silver February morning. I could not sit still, I was wide awake, my knees still moving to the rhythms inside of me, I had no longer any recollection of the cold and I smiled in such a way that I could feel its muscular strain. I talked nonstop.

“… and Ally, did you see Ally? She is so pretty, she is living with her aunt now, and she is going to school again she will do her Abitur and maybe I will do that as well …”

And suddenly his fingers were in my face, he grabbed my chin and turned it towards him, but not hard, rather as if he weren’t touching it at all, and brought the cold back to me.

“The way things are, you will not even get simple secondary school qualifications,” he said, as if time cracked or film tore or a DJ made a mistake and played an inappropriate, meaningless and banal track within the most amazing stream of music and destroyed thereby the whole set.

“It is time,” said Boris.

And I begged for explanations, encouraged by the alcohol and the new night, still intoxicated by a drug, not associated with any substances although to me the most dangerous, but Boris did not speak a single word, not at this morning, not at this day. And I suddenly loathed him, solely because he had pushed me on the most beautiful morning of my most beautiful night by a curse, by a word as simple as secondary school qualifications, witchlike, at the eleventh hour, back into the ashes. And I still wore both of my shoes.

“For the first time, Boris, for the first time, I was…”

I could not phrase what, but I kept shouting into his silence. I no longer wanted the itchy blanket with the stolen sheets, I no longer wanted that room, and it was light grey and white outside and I could not sleep and I screamed, begging for him talk to me again, until he finally slapped me in the face.

On the following morning I was thrown back into the well-known silence that would not produce any objection or treachery. And wrapped in a bunch of cruel but plausible lies, recited by an alien Boris in the role of the caring adult who had found me only two days ago, I was picked up by the police and a youth welfare officer whose failed perm I remember to this day.