Look Away

1.

You were eight years old when your mother cut in line for the bananas. It was a long line, reaching all the way back to the doors of the village general store, and the other shoppers glared at her. But she stood tall in her gray coat and flowery headscarf, squeezed your tiny hand, and glared right back. Mutters of inappropriate and who does she think she is hissed at the edges of your hearing. She marched with you to the front of the line, met the storeowner's eyes head-on, and tossed a folded paper on the counter.

"I can't make exceptions for everyone who asks, you know," the old man blustered, tugging his apron. "The delivery only came in this morning, they're already running short – "

"I have a note from the doctor," your mother interrupted. "It's celiac disease. My daughter's body can't digest gluten, you understand? If she doesn't get enough nutrients elsewhere, she might become anaemic. Don't you see how thin and pale she is?"

Your cheeks burned with mortification at being talked about like this, especially when the cashier's gray eyebrows climbed up halfway to his hairline. But when he frowned at the doctor's note, muttered to himself, and finally handed over a bouquet of fresh bananas in a brown paper bag, you felt like you could breathe again.

You didn't even like bananas, especially old and mushy ones. You must have been the only child in the entire German Democratic Republic who had more of them than she wanted. But the upside of it all, you told yourself, was that you could always trade them in school for something better. Like peppermint sticks, or caramels, or even chocolate from the West.

2.

"Free German Youth" meetings were boring. You couuldn't think of any other kids who actually enjoyed them. You always wore your blue necktie as unobtrusively as possible, with the ends tucked down your shirt. You wouldn't have joined at all except that everyone else did, and your teacher hinted that this show of civic pride would significantly improve your chances of getting into university later on.

The songs were the worst. You love music, always have, joined the school choir and took recorder lessons every week, but one day, as you heard the words coming out of your own mouth, you suddenly felt as if every note set your teeth on edge. Battles and flags and the Class Enemy, but whom were you supposed to fight and why?

The Americans? You'd never even seen one. The West Germans? The only ones you knew were your aunt and uncle, who sent oranges and marzipan every Christmas and secondhand clothes whenever you needed them, including the green leather pants that you wore until they became shiny at the bottom and your mother made you throw them out. These people cared for you; they came to visit every summer, and would have taken you away with them if they could.

They were not the enemy. Your voice cracked mid-note.

But everyone else went on singing, barely above a mutter, the group leader wailing at the top of his voice as if to make up for his charges' indifference. Nobody noticed.

Nobody cared.

3.

The year you turned fifteen, your class went on a trip to the USSR. You don't remember much of it; the foreignness of it all overwhelmed you, from the initial airplane ride to the nerve-wracking experience of applying your schoolgirl Russian to buy pierogi from a toothless street vendor. You saw the Kremlin, of course, Lenin's tomb, everything you were supposed to. But there's one thing you were never supposed to see, and you never forgot it.

You took a tour of the most gorgeous, breathtaking church you had ever set eyes on, a vast, echoing cathedral that smelled of incense and glimmered with gold in the light of a thousand candles. You floated down the stairs in a state of ecstasy – and nearly tripped over a bundle of rags that turned out to be a woman.

A homeless woman, begging for spare rubles in the heart of the world's greatest communist nation.

All your life, you had been taught that this sort of thing only happened in the West. If they lied about that, what else did they lie to you about?

"Don't look," your chaperone told you, grabbing your arm. "Come away."

You tossed a handful of coins into the woman's hat before you left, turning your face away so the chaperone wouldn't see you crying.

4.

The professor of mathematics in your first year at Rostock University was a genius. His sweaters were holey, his gray hair and beard were never combed, and at the end of every lecture, he darted outside to soothe his trembling hands with a cigarette. But when he tapped his pointer on the blackboard and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know if you can understand the beauty of this equation," to your own astonishment, you actually did.

What you couldn't understand was why, in the complex academic hierarchy of that place, this man ranked barely higher than the janitor who scrubbed the blackboard after he left. With a mind like his, he should have had assistants, his own office, even guest-lecturing posts in foreign countries. Anything but moldering away in obscurity as he was.

"It's obvious, isn't it?" said your boyfriend, his eyes performing that familiar flick to left and right, as you sat together in the smoky café nicknamed 'the other lecture hall'. No one was close enough to overhear you through the general chatter, so he continued: "He must have had a run-in with State Security when he was younger."

Oh. Of course.

As you drank your coffee and breathed in clouds of secondhand smoke, you could not bring yourself to feel any contempt for the professor, traitor or not.

5.

1989 was a year of uncertainty, a year of protestors chanting We are one people! and carrying candles down the streets. Hungary opening its borders was the first leak in the dam; the trickle of refugees into the West became a flood, and communist leaders were powerless to stop it. Gorbachov declared glasnost. Honecker stepped down from his position as head of the East German government. Nobody knew what the future held in store.

For you, though, it was a happy year; you earned good money as a teaching assistant, your boyfriend found a job at a shipping company, and you had a quiet courthouse wedding with a bouquet of red carnations because, true to form, no other flowers were available at the shop. You like to think that the carnations were a good omen, though, because they lasted all day without needing water. When you came back from your honeymoon in Karlovy Vary, there they were in a vase on your living room table, still in bloom.

You knew something had to happen, but what did happen was beyond your wildest hopes.

One night, you and your husband came home from your mother-in-law's birthday party buzzing with cake and champagne. You made love and fell asleep in each other's arms, and when the ringing telephone woke you up at six a.m. the next morning, neither of you were particularly pleased. Until you heard your sister's voice, breathless and excited, and tuned in to what she was trying to say.

"Turn on the TV," she said. "Now."

Historic events have a way of happening at night, so that when people wake up in the morning, their lives are irrevocably changed. The Berlin Wall was built overnight, in a top-secret military operation so well-organized, so meticulous, it could only have been planned by Germans. How fitting, then, that it was nighttime when the Germans tore it down.

On the news, you saw them climbing over the Wall like a tidal wave, a tsunami of tears and smiles and laughter. Corks popping, black-red-golden flags, the roar of two anthems, painted signs in rainbow colors; soldiers throwing down their guns; family, friends and total strangers meeting halfway in no-man's-land to throw their arms around each other, the backlit marble of the Brandenburg Gate shining like gold above it all.

Your husband's dark, stern face was lit up like you'd never seen it before, not even the first time you kissed. He picked you up right off the floor and whirled you around.

"Do you realize what this means?" he said.

You did.

"It means we're getting out of here!"

For once, you didn't even care if State Security had bugged the apartment or not. You found it very unlikely, anyway, since neither of you had ever given them a reason to be suspicious. But it didn't matter, nothing mattered, because in just a few months, you would both be free.