It was Christmas eve, 1932. In a quiet town on the outskirts of Berlin, a small family was preparing for dinner. Lukas Heschel, having returned home from the university for the holiday, stood alone in his childhood bedroom. He stared blankly out of the small window onto the snow dusted streets. The town was too quiet, Lukas decided. Why had he never noticed that growing up? There was no sound of people or automobiles. The town was simply dead. He had been gone for four years. He always visited for holidays and breaks, of course, but this cold house wasn't home anymore.
Lukas looked around his old room with lingering sentimentality. There weren't a lot of pleasant memories in this house, but this room was where he had slept and kept out of trouble, and that was worth something. Out of the corner of his eye, Lukas spotted a date penciled in to the window frame. He rubbed over the graphite with his thumb, smearing the day his father had returned from the war.
He straightened the lapel of his dinner jacket, grimaced briefly in the mirror, and started downstairs. It would not do to be late to dinner.
His mother and aging father were already seated at the dining room table. He smiled briefly at them as he took his seat.
"Lukas, how nice of you to join us."
"Good evening, father," Lukas replied politely. He glanced up as the maid shuffled in to set the roast on the table. The young woman hovered awkwardly at the table's edge before rushing out of the room.
"How are your studies going, son?" Arnold Heschel asked banally.
"Very well, father. I'm almost top in my class." Lukas informed.
"Good. Wouldn't you agree, though, that a boy of your talents should be at the very top?" Lukas did not respond. The moments dragged on, the only sound being the cutting and scraping of cutlery on china.
"What are your precise areas of interest, Lukas? There are so many different fields of medicine after all."
"Genetics and hereditary disease, father." Lukas replied truthfully. Surgery held no appeal for him—he had yet to cut into flesh with a hand that wasn't racked with tremors. "We begin applying for internships in the spring."
"Very good. Will you be trying to stay in the city then?"
"Yes, father." They lapsed into silence once more. For a holiday meal, it lacked a sense of cheer and heartwarming. All the pieces were there, all the elements of celebration that wealth could provide. However, they were more of a cruel parody than anything else. Frau Heschel sat in her usual stony silence, blending in to the background. Lukas matched his mother in appearance, classic Aryan features and just a little too thin. His father was heavyset and ruddy, a politician past his prime, and a man quickly driven into a temper.
"Elections are occurring soon, Lukas? Are you registered with any particular party?" Herr Heschel continued with a passive-aggressive tone.
"Father, please, stop pressing…"
"All I am saying is consider the National Socialists' German Students League. It may lead to opportunity in your future," Arnold Heschel wheedled.
"I am not interested in joining any party. Politics holds no interest for me."
"As you have said. But now you have your future career to think of. You want to begin making connections early, Lukas. The Nazi party is on the rise, son, you can be sure of that." The scraping of plates cut through the silence once more. Then, with little warning--
"Will you ever stop dictating my life?" Lukas muttered bitterly. Then a sense of dread seemed to course over him, beginning with his scalp all the way down to his toes. He knew better than to speak that way.
"What?" Arnold Heschel asked, his voice dangerously quiet. Lukas forced himself to meet his gaze.
"I'm not a child. Please, stop treating me like one. Every decision I have ever made is part of your perfect little plan for how I live my life."
"And how much harm has that done you? Your mother and I have sacrificed so you can be successful, and in these hard times I would hope you are aware enough to realize what a gift that is."
"Sacrificed what, exactly? I am 22 years old, I don't need you coddling me."
"And yet you are still living off my pocketbook! The day you stop leeching off of me is the day I will stop interfering." The statement hung in the air.
"Is that a promise?" He said quietly.
"What did you just say?"
"I said, Is that a promise, father? I cover my own tuition, room, board, books, and meals. I never ask you for another cent, and then I can live my own life without your guidance?" His father appraised him briefly, judging how serious he truly was.
"Fine. I bet you won't last three months before you come crawling back."
Lukas tried not to breathe a sigh of relief. He had an opportunity now. He wasn't so naive as to think being poor for a few months would grant him insights into his identity or other poetic notions. But it would grant him the freedom to make his own decisions, and that was worth something.
Peter Merrill was unaccustomed to funerals. The whole concept of an open casket was rather disturbing, he thought, but no one asked him. He sat quietly on the threadbare sofa, trying to drown out the din that filled the small room of the farmhouse.
"What are you going to do now?" His sister asked quietly, walking up to him from a group of sympathizers. "We have to sell the farm, Peter. There will be no getting around it."
"I don't care, Joan." He backtracked when he saw the hurt look that crossed over his older sister's face. "I'm no farmer. Neither are you. It was all Uncle. I live in the city now. I don't think this place is home anymore."
"Will you stay in touch? After all of this is over?" Joan gestured around at the guests and relatives crowded round the room.
"Would you like me to lie?" He asked the half sister fifteen years his senior, an old maid of no particular intelligence. "Then yes." He wasn't purposely trying to insult her. He just couldn't bring himself to pretend they had any relationship worth maintaining.
"Uncle Merrill left you his old cello, didn't he?" Peter glanced up at Joan and smiled.
"It's a beautiful instrument. The one I learned to play on, too. It needs a bit of repair, but I am glad to have it."
"It's nice that you shared in Uncle Merrill's musicality. God knows mother and I are hopeless when it comes to that."
"You'll take care of her?" Peter muttered guiltily.
"Just as I always have. You aren't a very good son, you know."
"Little brother, how much have you had to drink?"
"Enough to take the edge off." Peter admitted.
It was unnerving to know his Uncle's embalmed body lay stone still a few meters across the room, while the living talked casually about what a wonderful man he had been. The radio in the corner piped in music. Peter ignored his half-sister as she continued to murmur on about what the future would hold. He was just so tired of being around people who knew him.
December 31st, 1932. It was Adele Preiss' twentieth birthday, and she was lucky to be alive. She sat up on her cot in the dreary hospital ward, and tried not to think of the future. Her entire body ached, but her left hip was the most excruciating of all.
She had been on the sidewalk, for heaven's sake. Not running across the street, not carelessly crossing traffic. Just walking on the sidewalk when the driver of the Mercedes swerved across her path, knocked her down, and crushed her left side.
She was lucky to be alive. That was what the doctors told her after the surgery. They told her that with time, she would probably walk again.
Adele wanted to scream. Walking wasn't good enough. Not for her. She was a dancer, had always been a dancer. And knowing that she wouldn't be able to, ever again, was killing her. The last ten years of her life and the future she had always planned for was thrown away on a frosty December evening, because of someone else's mistake.
The orderlies shuffled around the ward in the dim light, changing sheets and bedpans, closing and opening curtains, talking to each other in muted voices. Adele was crippled now, she thought bitterly. An invalid for the rest of her life. What would her mother thing of her little prodigy now? A burden to her parents until she could find a decent husband. No one would hire her, a woman with a disability, especially not in hard times like this.
Adele ceased her indulgence in self-pity as best she could. After all, she was lucky to be alive.
The city of Berlin was struggling. The entire western world was darkened by the storm of the depression, but Germany was limping along after the defeat in the Great War. Because of the restrictive and punitive Versailles Treaty, the entire country was cascaded into debt to pay war reparations. The currency was next to worthless, better to burn the bills for warmth than try to spend them. The great depression darkened the outlook for the future, jobs were hard to come by, and the burden of poverty weighed down the populace.
However, in 1933, it was clear that change was coming. The failure of the Weimar republic left so many looking for a solution, a scapegoat, or a leader. Support was steadily building for a certain political party. The National Socialist German Worker's Party spoke of the racial purity of the German people and the inherent inferiority of other races, especially the Jews. The party promised prosperity, education, and a change from the failures of past leaders. In the course of a few short months the NDSAP would rise to power and reform the university in Berlin. They would take it upon themselves to censor, fire Jewish professors, and empty the library of thousands of books to be burned at the very same University where Lukas Heschel was studying.
Lukas wanted to avoid a future of politicking and ingratiating himself with his father's friends and acquaintances. To him, the political landscape was unimportant, uninteresting, and unfriendly. Anything he did read or note on the matter was steeped in propaganda, which he was more than willing to accept as fact. What was so terrible about that?
Lukas Heschel glanced down at the advertisement in the periodical, glanced at the handwritten "Apartment for Rent" sign in the window of the weathered building, and knocked at the door. He could hear raised voices and the click of a lock being undone. A severe elderly woman opened the door, glaring at the unfortunate individual who dared interrupt.
"What do you want?" she spat. Taken off guard, Lukas stood frozen in the threshold.
"Next week, I promise you, Frau Hertzberg, I will have the rent for you, plus interest. I'm in the middle of closing the sale on my property, I swear to you." Lukas caught sight of a disheveled young man on the narrow staircase in the entry, struggling to manage a very large and cumbersome instrument case.
"It's too late, I already have the vacancy sign up, Herr Merrill," the landlady insisted. "You are simply out of luck." She turned sharply back to the doorway. "You. Speak," she ordered.
"My name is Lukas Heschel…I'm here about the room that was advertised," he said, extremely uncomfortable with the situation he had walked in to.
"Well, there shouldn't be a problem here!" The man with the instrument case exclaimed with genuine excitement. He approached Lukas and introduced himself confidently. "I'm Peter Merrill. What would you say to us being flat mates? With a little bit of tidying up, the space should be large enough for two. We can split the rent and so on. Agree?"
Too surprised to refuse, Lukas Heschel found himself murmuring his assent, glancing at Frau Hertzberg to gauge her reaction.
"It makes no difference to me, so long as the rent is paid." She waved her hand dismissively and disappeared behind a curtained doorway in the entry, muttering insults as she walked away.
"This is a bit embarrassing," Peter said cordially, gesturing at the disarray inside of the upstairs apartment. "My name is Peter Merrill." He held out his hand to shake, but the young man walked past as if he didn't see it.
"Where is the second bedroom then?"
"Just through there. I've been using it for storage, so it'll take a bit of work to get it livable again." Peter explained as the man opened the door to the right of the entryway. "Lukas, is it? You're a student then?"
"Yes," Lukas replied shortly.
"I haven't had a formal education in years," Peter said good naturedly. "I'm just a musician, you see. Maybe you could teach me a thing or two?" he joked.
"I don't think so." Lukas stated flatly. Peter frowned, and then left the doorway to put the kettle on the little stove in the corner kitchenette.
"Where did you say you were from again?" Peter called, trying one more time to start a conversation.
"I'm sorry. Just because we are roommates doesn't mean we have to talk to each other." The student's reply lacked hostility. Peter rationalized the statement as a mere plea for silence, not animosity on the part of his new flat mate.
"Suit yourself," he muttered, and went to flip through the newspaper as he waited for the water to boil.
A cello case and its owner entered into the small corner bar. The bar was dimly lit, with the smell of stale tobacco smoke permanently in the air. A handful of weary men sat around, nursing their drinks and talking in muted voices. The bartender, a man with copper hair and a constant smile, looked up at the soft slam of the door.
"Peter! It's good to see you again," the bartender greeted his friend with enthusiasm.
"Hello Sean," Peter replied. "Let me just set this down in the back room, then you can tell me what you've been up to since I've been gone." Peter moved through the beaded curtain and set his instrument case down beside the stacked storage crates. He then joined his friend at the bar counter, and reached for the glass Sean had just finished pouring for him.
"Any luck selling that farm yet?"
"No. Any offers Joan and I get are worth next to dirt. I'm beginning to think it might be better to wait until things turn around." Peter confided.
"But that will be years in all likelihood."
"You think I don't know that? I was this close to being evicted by that old hag landlady."
"What did you say to get her off your back?"
"I'm living with a flat mate now."
"You have to be kidding? In that shithole apartment?" Sean wondered.
"It's the truth. Anyone with a choice wouldn't be anywhere near that rental of yours. So what's he like then, this flat mate?"
"He's a university student. Quiet, clean, and fairly good looking." Sean raised an eyebrow, and Peter grinned in return. "He's a reclusive asshole with a superiority complex. I can't stand being in the space with him. It makes my hair stand on end."
"That's rough. What can I say? I wish I could pay you more for your excellent entertainment here, but the cards just aren't stacked that way."
"This is the only place I can still count on for regular work. For that, I can't thank you enough. Would it have been better, do you think, if I'd have learned to take care of my uncle's farm?"
"No. Farmers are just as bad off as everyone these days, Peter. And you belong here in the city. You said yourself you can't stand being that isolated."
The door opened as a small crowd shuffled in and settled into the space.
"I'd better start playing, I suppose. Thanks for the drink, by the way."
The wicked winter weather beat down upon the city. The month of January passed by steadily, with the two young men adapting to live with each other. Peter Merrill, a highly opinionated musician without a steady income, filled his days with notebooks of staffed paper, scribbling out tunes, plucking notes from the large stringed instrument that hardly ever left his side. Newspapers littered the cramped living room, many circled and hashed with red pen, angry notes scribbled in the margins. It seemed he only left the space in the early evenings, going across the city to different bars and cabarets, some reputable, others not so much. He would arrive back at the apartment in the early hours of the morning, always, without fail, disturbing Lukas Heschel from his sleep.
Lukas was humorless and driven, often waking hours before sunrise to study his textbooks before rushing away to his classes at the Fredrick-Wilhelm University. He was in his fourth year of study, well on his way to becoming a doctor. He would arrive back at the apartment in the late evening, after his roommate had left. The only hint that he shared his living quarters at all was the disarray of the sitting room and the opening and slamming of the door and the clatter of someone tripping over the coffee table in the early hours of the morning. When their paths did cross, Lukas made a point in not engaging in more than the briefest exchanges of words.
As January rolled into February, political discord began to put the pair at odds. It was late February when Lukas opened the door to find Peter sitting on the divan, clutching the day's newspaper in his hand, a picture of bitter frustration. The previous evening, February the 27, an arsonist attacked the Reichstag building in Berlin.
"Have you heard the news?" Peter asked.
"About the fire in the parliament building? Terrible isn't it, that those communists would do such a thing," Lukas responded methodically, more concerned about getting some sleep that night than repeating a conversation he had had many times over that day.
"More important, have you heard what our new Chancellor is doing about the Reichstag fire?" Peter prodded, his outrage etched on his face.
"Listen to this—The Reichstag fire decree… 'Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom, freedom of opinion, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, and warrants for house searches…' It goes on!"
"Maybe that will accomplish something in repressing this communist terrorist movement."
"What? Why are you not outraged at this affront to our civil liberties?!"
"They are just trying to keep us safe. It seems reasonable enough to me. It's proactive, and I'll be keeping that in mind when it comes to the parliamentary elections next week."
"This is just capitalizing on a random event and advocating fear. You can't really be so shallow minded as to fall for it!"
"You know what Merrill? I don't care. I truly and honestly don't. This does not affect me personally. What I want is to get some rest, if you would be so kind." Lukas turned to his bedroom door.
"You are sad and shallow. I am embarrassed to know you." Lukas paused at the door as Peter Merrill's words hit him. He turned to say something in retort, but thought better of it and shut himself in his small bedroom.
Lukas sat on his bed that night, unable to let go. He hated living in this untidy apartment with a stranger; he hated having to struggle to make ends meet. It was all a stupid bet, a matter of pride. Lukas hated to admit that he was wrong; he hated to admit that he may need his father's help after all. Lukas also hated to admit that he admired the man who had just called him shallow and an embarrassment. He admired Peter Merrill's tenacity, and was jealous at how much living he seemed to do.
The next day, the two roommates were once again home during the evening. Peter had a few friends over, playing cards in the disheveled living room. Lukas disliked the bawdy noise echoing through the paper thin walls, but wanted no more conflict than what had already transpired. He listened to the clattering of glasses and the numbing chatter of voices from behind his bedroom door, feeling more alone than ever.
"Goodbye Ernst, goodbye Sean."
"So long, Peter…" The friends were courteously ushered out by Peter, their boisterous footsteps echoing down the stairwell all the way out to the street. Peter then moved to take the shining cello from its case and rubbed a block of rosin along the hairs of the long bow. He sat with the instrument placed between his legs, he closed his eyes and began to play.
Lukas stood in the doorway, listening to the notes of the cello fill the tiny apartment. Peter held his instrument close, brushing it with long sweeps of the bow. Lukas was envious of how happy his roommate looked in that moment—a carefree smile, a bright gleam in his eyes. When he finished, Lukas softly interrupted.
"What was that? I mean, I don't recognize the tune."
"It's just mine. I composed it."
"Oh. It's…you're… what, I mean to say is it sounds beautiful." Lukas turned to go, still embarrassed from the heated argument of the day before.
"Wait," Peter asked, "I was wondering…" he trailed off. Lukas hesitated before reentering the dingy sitting room.
"Nothing. It's simply—we've been sharing living space since the start of the term. I still don't know anything about you."
"What is there to know?"
"Just tell me anything. Something that makes you seem at least a little personable."
"I'm 22 years old, I live in Berlin, and I'm studying medicine—"
"Why am I studying medicine?" Peter nodded. "To become a doctor, of course."
"Because it pays well?"
"If I say yes, does that prove I'm shallow?"
"Is the answer yes?"
"I'm studying to become a doctor because it is a respectable career. It has prestige. And I don't need to politick like my father." Lukas added.
"Oh." It was clear to Peter that he had struck a sensitive subject. Silence stretched on for several minutes. Peter was reaching for his bow again when another question crossed his mind.
"If you could be anything, without having to worry about money or prestige, what would it be?"
"Don't ask me that. Please, I'm happy how things are," Lukas lied.
And so it went on. With more and more of Peter Merrill's venues shutting down, the more evenings he found himself at home with his studious roommate. Some days they barely noticed each other, other days the two were at odds, angry, tired and frustrated at having to deal with the other. Lukas and Peter had not really spoken to each other face to face since that evening in February. The bitterness over politics lingered in the space, always just beneath the surface. Peter, at least, had a friend to vent his frustration over a few drinks.
Peter entered the bar early in the evening, before the crowds arrived. The chairs were still stacked on the tables and Sean Douglas, the best-known bartender in a five mile radius, was cleaning out glass tumblers with a threadbare rag.
"Evening Merrill," the ginger-haired bartender greeted his musician friend. "You can go ahead and set that thing down over there," he gestured to the dimly lit corner.
"Good, that's great," Peter muttered, non-committing. He set down the troublesome cello case and began to take down the bar chairs.
"How was your week?" Douglas asked in an attempt to make light small talk. "The weather has been hell…"
"I'm not in the mood, Douglas."
"Something got you down? Someone?"
"You remember my roommate? He was there a few weeks ago when you came over."
"No, I really don't."
"Well he was there. Anyway, this guy is spending so much money on an education, but he doesn't know how to think. It wouldn't be so tragic if he didn't vote."
"You're so concerned with the shit you can't control. Learn to just take things in stride," Sean advised.
"And you're one to talk."
"Did I say I was flawless?" They laughed off the exchange as patrons trickled into the cozy pub. Peter peeled away to the makeshift stage to play the stringed instrument that was his livelihood and his life.
Later, after the crowd had thinned, after a few drinks had warmed his gullet and loosened his tongue, Peter and Sean continued their conversation.
"He is horrible. Outrageous. The shit that spews from his mouth. 'My father said this, I've been told to think this…He is the embodiment of what is wrong with this country, Sean, everything that is wrong…"
"You realize what you must do, don't you?"
"Look where you are. You have a drink in your hand, surrounded by familiar faces, smoking a cigarette and enjoying life. You don't have to be concerned with some uptight med student with an attachment to Nazi ideals."
"I live with him, Sean."
"Oh, yeah,' Sean recalled, grinning as was his habit. Although with Adolf Hitler now a dictator in all but name, there was very little for men like them to smile about.
The early spring of March turned to April, April turned to May. The Nazis were preparing to stage a massive book burning in the Opernplatz square. Books from the university's library, books from the sexual research institute, books by Albert Einstein to Karl Marx to Helen Keller. Student groups played a hand in the organization of this event, scheduled to take place the evening of the 10th. On the eve of the book burning, Peter fought with Lukas once more.
"Are you going? Tomorrow, I mean."
"Of course," Lukas replied. "Aren't you?"
"I haven't decided." Lukas gave Peter a questioning look. "What would make me want to see thousands of books go up in flame? The destruction of knowledge and culture?"
"My father says they are all degenerate books that spread lies and dangerous thoughts."
"And you believe that? You honestly believe that controversy should be hushed up or destroyed in order to prevent anyone questioning this Third Reich?
"That is a very unpatriotic thing to say."
"Patriotic? Do you think I give a damn about patriotism to the fatherland? One third of the professors at your school have been fired since that man became chancellor. Haven't you seen the pattern? Political opponents, Jews, those who were different. It's sickening."
"I don't see how you are upset by this. It isn't as if it affects you." Peter gritted his teeth in exasperation. His roommate was so narrow, a molded copy of everything he'd been told to think. Peter began to wonder if Lukas had ever formed an opinion himself.
"You are wrong. This affects us all. Everyone who calls Germany home. Yeah, I'll go to the square tomorrow. If only to bear witness to the start of all to come," Peter announced with a prophetic aura…
"The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path...The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you..." The man called Joseph Goebbels spoke to the hundreds of assembled students, elaborating on a world of German superiority, where books that questioned, books that dissented did not exist.
Lukas Heschel stood amongst his peers, his face lit ominously by the bonfire. He had participated in the Student Association's campaign, supported the universities becoming centers of German nationalism…so why is it he felt uncomfortable looking upon this scene? 20,000 books being destroyed in the square. It was a good thing, wasn't it? Maybe, at the very least, a necessary evil.
He couldn't help but scan the crowd for Peter, couldn't help but expect to see his accusatory glare at the spectacle. Sighing, he looked back over the uniforms and the flames to where the speakers stood.
Meanwhile, in an alleyway far across the turbulent square, Peter was watching ash fall from the sky. To him, this was under no circumstances a cause for celebration. This propaganda was poison, and he was wary of where this new government was headed. He wandered aimlessly along cobblestoned streets, listening to the roar of the crowd, knowing that in major university towns across the country similar demonstrations were taking place. May 10, 1933. Peter would remember this date.
Lukas gazed down at the filled out application somberly. It represented his concession to his father, an admission that he was incapable of success on his own. It was this, not the conformity to someone else's ideology, that filled him with shame. Becoming a Nazi meant complying with his father's wishes. Lukas sighed heavily as he sealed the envelope.
He looked up as Peter entered the apartment, then moved to fold away his papers.
"What is that? Peter asked, peering over Lukas' shoulder.
"Nothing. An application."
"You're not..? God, has everything I've said to you fallen on deaf ears?
"I'm just following my father's recommendation."
"Do you always do everything your father tells you to?" Peter needled. Lukas looked over his shoulder at Peter and seemed to deflate. He walked to the sofa and sank down into it.
"Then you're a coward."
"I know." It wasn't the first time Lukas had been branded a coward. The title rang true, seemed to cling to his bones. He was afraid to disobey, afraid to fail, afraid to acknowledge himself. Perpetual fear.
"I wonder sometimes if you're a person at all—or just a parrot. Even now, all you do is agree with what I say." Peter sat down on the couch, anger dissipating into dejection. Lukas pulled away from his presence. He looked at Peter—argumentative, restless, confident. He felt his blood pounding in his ears as he made a split second decision.
A kiss. Momentary and tight lipped. Blink and one might have missed it.
Confusion flashed across Peter's face. Lukas' expression filled with panic. He knew the disgust his roommate must be feeling equaled the disgust he felt towards himself. Lukas could not get off the sofa—get out of that cramped apartment fast enough. His hands shook as he fumbled with the lock, all this time he could feel Peter staring at him. What had he been thinking?
He ran out the door, down the stairs, and onto the lamp lit street. He could hear Peter's footsteps behind him, Peter calling out—
"Wait!" A hand reached out and pulled Lukas around. "Please wait."
"Let me go. I'm sorry, alright? I shouldn't have, I don't, I…"
"You kissed me," Peter stated, slowly releasing his grip on Lukas' forearm.
"I'm sorry," Lukas apologized.
"You don't need to apologize. I'm just astounded, and wondering why?"
"I'm not…if that's what you're asking. It's sick, a disease, I can't possibly, I can't."
"Lukas, I'm a homosexual too. I'm not going to judge you or—"
"You?" Lukas wondered.
"It isn't something I make widely known, but yes," he admitted. Lukas' breathing was rapid, his skin hot from embarrassment, and his mind reeled as he was forced to consider his flat mate in a new light.
"Lukas? Are you?"
"No," he spat angrily. "I don't know," he corrected himself, a hint of fear creeping into his voice.
"Please, calm down and come inside," Peter urged gently.
Once they were both inside again in the apartment, Peter turned to face Lukas and asked him once more.
"Are you?" Lukas' thoughts flashed through his memories of all the nights spent dwelling on that very question, always too afraid to answer. Lukas was tired of being afraid.
Peter stepped closer to him, and slowly, as if to gauge his reaction, kissed him softly on his lips.
After that night, the tension between Peter and Lukas did not dissipate in the slightest. Both were absolutely unsure of what they now meant to each other—or even if they should mean something at all. They were so inherently different. Peter was familiar with intimacy…to him there was no more thought to it than breathing. Lukas, however, was unaccustomed to any touch that wasn't strictly medical in purpose. Lukas didn't know how to articulate his misgivings or even interpret his own feelings, and this contributed to the distress he felt at first after sleeping with Peter.
"Are you okay?" Peter whispered in the quiet haze of the first morning afterward.
"What am I supposed to say?"
"Just give me your honesty. I need to know what's bothering you."
"I shouldn't have allowed that to happen. I feel sick and dirty. I can't stand the thought of people looking at me and knowing I've done something so…" Lukas said flatly. Every word was like a wound to Peter, as he realized that through his unwitting selfishness he had pushed Lukas too far.
"Look, I'm sorry I ever…"
"But don't you see? I hate what we did. But I don't hate that it was with you. I want this to work—us to work. But please, don't ask me to do that again, at least not yet. One day, maybe…not yet," Lukas sighed. Peter wanted to reach out and comfort him, but he knew the gesture would not be well received. Instead he slipped on a shirt and opened the shades, letting in the diluted morning light.
"Do you have somewhere to be? Classes?"
"Not until the afternoon…"
"Do you want to…God, I don't know…spend time together?"
"No. I'm sorry, but I'd really rather not complicate this further."
"Then what are we to each other?" Peter asked softly.
"I really can't say."
A few nights later, Peter was helping Sean Douglas close up his bar. Something in his mood must have given Peter away, because it wasn't long before Sean asked,
"Peter, what is going on?"
"Nothing," Peter lied, a ghost of a smile growing on his lips, "nothing at all."
"What did you do?" Sean stopped stacking the chairs and turned to face his musician friend. Peter laughed.
"Alright. I need a bit of guidance," Peter admitted and the two sat down around a small table. "Do you remember the roommate I'm always complaining about?"
"No…the one who is, and I quote, 'the embodiment of what is wrong with this country?'"
"One and the same. And a sweet kisser too."
"Peter…not again," Sean advised. He had seen his friend go down thid path of infatuation one too many times.
"It's different this time. He's… different."
"What is it you see in him now, after months of your vitriolic remarks?"
"Despite what I may have convinced you to think, this boy is more than shallow and spoilt," Peter defended.
"I probably shouldn't tell you this…"
"But you should have seen the way he acted the other night. He's so afraid of being different. He's going to destroy himself if someone doesn't show him a better way of living his life."
"That doesn't mean you have to get involved."
"He kissed me, Sean. I was berating him for joining the NSDAP, and he kissed me. Who does that?"
"Promise me one thing, Peter. Don't fall in love with a Nazi.
"There is something different about this boy. Here is someone, for once in my life, that maybe I could help," Peter contemplated. He finished packing up his cello case and left his best friend's bar.
Summer was approaching fast, and with it came the heavy burden of exams. Lukas threw himself at his studies as a distraction. The diagrams of human anatomy on the page seemed to be enhanced by the soft playing of the cello in the background. He would hum quietly under his breath as he memorized the inner workings of the human body, the machine with all its little gears and systems.
Lukas was on better terms with his father since he joined the party. He was no longer broke, but something prevented him from moving out. He wanted to stay, wanted to accidently pass by Peter when his roommate didn't have his shirt quite on yet, his soft brown hair disheveled. Lukas wanted to kiss him again, to see if it was still what he had built it up to be in his head.
Slowly but surely, Lukas began to see how much he needed to be close to this individual so different from himself. He wanted to build a connection, and was ready to open up just a little.
Lukas and Peter sat together, both nursing mugs of steaming tea, for once at ease with the other's company. The greatest hurdles had been crossed, at least those that were immediate and foreseeable. Lukas looked at the young man sitting across from him, relieved to admit that he thought him beautiful. Peter's dark hair framed his face, just haphazardly enough to maintain a debonair look. The tweed flat cap he constantly wore was discarded in the corner, but his scarf remained loose around his shoulders.
"What are you looking at?" Peter asked innocently. Lukas could not help but blush.
"Nothing," he smiled.
"Lukas, may I ask you something? I know it's not my place…" Lukas frowned, then nodded. "Earlier, before you signed up for the students' league…then before when I asked why you were studying medicine…you don't get along with him, do you? Your father?" Lukas looked pained. This wasn't where he wanted his thoughts to go on such a calm evening. But he felt he owed this explanation to Peter.
"You could say we never had an ideal relationship." Lukas ran his hands across his face and took a shuddering breath. "I'm not saying I was raised any worse than anyone else, but there has always been…I'm afraid of him. God, I'm twenty two years old and afraid of my own father."
"Did you ever tell him?" Peter asked, and Lukas knew to what he was referring.
"How could I? My father is…traditional. Politically opinionated and more than a little self-righteous. You have no idea how many times I just listened to him rant about people like you. It would destroy him to know his only son was one too."
"You aren't poor," Peter surmised.
"Then why are you living here?"
"A bet with my father. It's over now, and I suppose I lost, but now there are other reasons to stay." Eager to turn the subject of conversation away from himself, he asked"And you, Peter? What is your family like?"
"I grew up far away from the city. I never knew my father, but my Uncle raised me like a son. My mother, sister, and I lived with him on his farm. It was a beautiful place, with acres and acres of orchards. And a wonderful place to spend a childhood. My uncle played the cello for us in the evenings, and in the summer and fall I helped the farmhands with their work." He laughed dryly. "When I was fifteen, I fell in love with one of them, a boy five years older than myself. He didn't corrupt me or anything…I didn't know what I was doing but I knew what I wanted. From then on, there wasn't really a question in my mind that I was...you know," Peter confided.
"Whatever happened to him? The farmhand?"
"I wouldn't know. He was only there for the summer season…When my uncle passed away, I moved here permanently. I inherited this cello, and have been playing ever since," Peter explained. Lukas felt incredibly envious at what he imagined to be a picturesque life.
"I wish…" he began, "I don't know what I wish." Their tea had grown cold, the hour grown late.
"Peter?" Lukas said quietly.
"I'm sorry for how I reacted the other day. You only meant well; I wasn't ready and I didn't say. I think that I am now, though," Lukas tried to explain his thoughts. "I haven't ever wanted to be with someone the way I do with you, Peter. God only knows what that is supposed to mean. What I'm trying to say is…I want to try again." With those words, a new chapter began in both their lives. Lukas and Peter exchanged no more words that night. They were too preoccupied falling in love.
June, 1933. The party was going to be a casual affair, a chance to negotiate business partnerships and social connections while drinking champagne. Adele's mother frantically prepared for the role of hostess while her father straightened out his freshly pressed uniform. She sat in her wheelchair, trying not to be in anyone's way.
This is going to be hell, she thought.
Adele tried to sit up as straight as she could all evening. It bothered her to always have to look up into the faces of those around her, to navigate through the crowded rooms surrounded by commotion and offers of assistance. Her father stayed by her side for most of the evening, introducing her to all sorts of colleagues and friends. She was grateful for the help, but it was stifling and belittling all the same.
"Just shut up and look smart," Lukas advised, straightening Peter's lapel. "Follow me around—pretend you are used to running in this circle."
The two entered the upscale town home…and Peter witnessed Lukas transform. He warmly greeted the host, moved from clumps of people to clumps of people, schmoozing with party members and society wives. Gone was the shy, overworked, and fragile student. Lukas knew how to work the crowd for compliments and connections.
"May I introduce you to my good friend Peter Merrill? Peter, did you know so-and-so is a musician as well…" Stiff, formal conversations and cocktails. Was this what it took to bring Lukas out of his shell? Was this his natural habitat? Peter hovered close, slightly bemused.
"…accepted to a medical internship? Your father must be so proud."
"Proud? Oh, yes," Lukas flashed an empty smile, "he is extremely proud."
Later, when Peter was busying himself at the buffet table, an old acquaintance of his parents' approached him.
"May I introduce you to my daughter, Adele Preiss? Adele, sweetheart, this is Lukas Heschel. I am good friends with the boy's father. A wonderful family, and a finer medical student couldn't be found. In fact, I believe we used to be neighbors, weren't we?"
"You're absolutely correct, Herr Preiss. It would be a pleasure to become reacquainted, Fraulein Preiss," Lukas said with no intention of fulfilling his statement. The middle-aged man sauntered off, leaving Adele and Lukas in the awkward situation of carrying on a conversation.
"So you want to be a doctor?" The young woman asked with somber politeness.
"Do you enjoy healing people?" She asked with a smile, but a slight edge crept into her tone.
"I suppose so…" Lukas made a point not to comment on her handicap, but she must have seen the question in his expression.
"An automobile accident," she explained politely.
"Oh." Lukas began looking for an escape from the uncomfortable exchange. Peter caught his eye and approached. "Miss, I'm afraid the time has come for my friend and I to depart, I do hope to meet you again in more timely circumstances…" Lukas and Peter hurried off, out of the stuffy party.
Later that night, after the hired town car dropped them off in a reputable residential area, the two walked together in good spirits.
"Is that seriously considered a party where you come from?"
"Yes, I know," Lukas rolled his eyes, laughing.
"Standing around talking to people you have next to nothing in common with? I have to show you what a good time really is," Peter enthused.
"What, you mean now?"
"No time like the present! This place I know—it's open all night long—the very best in the city, I swear to you. I play there all the time. It caters to our kind, so there'll be no pretending we're just friends." The excitement in his voice was catching, and Lukas looked forward to experiencing a world he had never been a part of.
"I'll have to introduce you properly to my friend Douglass! Come on!"
They crossed the streets to the downtown area, laughing and joking and half sprinting. Was it the alcohol, the thrill of early summer, or the sheer joy of being in each other's company? Unfortunately, fate was about to rip their carefree evening into pieces. They approached the corner where Sean Douglas' bar should have been lit and crowded.
The two came to an abrupt stop. Peter stared at the boarded up windows and the notice flyer flapping on the entrance door. Just like the one before that, and the one before that, the new government was closing down the gay bars and haunts around the city. He let out a yell, kicked a pile of crates over, and turned on Lukas.
"Those uptight party members you were just kissing up to? This is their doing. I hope you know that. I hope you feel good about yourself. I have almost nowhere I can play now. I have no idea what happened to Sean or to…"
"How do you know? It could have just run out of business," Lukas asked, unknowingly callous. Peter looked at his friend, his eyes rimmed with tears.
"Damn it! You can't really actually believe that. You were wearing that hideous swastika today. Do you have any idea what that symbol means for people like us? Do you even care?" Peter collapsed against the building side, completely overwhelmed with raw emotion.
"What am I supposed to do?" Peter asked the empty night. Lukas moved to sit beside his friend on the dirty sidewalk.
"We will carry on. It's all anyone can ever do."