an excerpt from a novella on Vienna


I was on my way from Serbia to Berlin when I got kicked off the train in Vienna. Just before that, I was writing Liam a letter telling him to expect me in the Kreuzberg for my 24th birthday. I heard he got a tattoo of Ganesh that covered his whole back so I asked a few polite questions about it, but mostly because I was planning to move in on him for a while.

We crossed a frozen river. Thin trees, stark and black as brambles lined the waterside. In Graz, several Americans got on. One of them asked me what time it was. I pretended I didn’t understand. Sometimes I act like I’m deaf or put on an Italian accent. The train started moving again and the Americans went to the back of the car. A girl with thick brown braids pulled out a bottle of red wine and began a round of toasts. I put the letter away. I actually didn’t want to see Liam or go to Berlin. I just wanted a break. I was tired of coughing up black snot from coal smoke and introducing myself to people.

I’d been traveling without a ticket since Belgrade, ducking into bathrooms and switching seats. I lay down across the seat to rest. The Americans behind me were talking about someone they knew who had gone to Nepal and gotten robbed on acid. I’d almost dozed off when a passport agent entered car. Row-by-row, he moved toward me examining documents and making brittle comments. Halfway up the car, he paused and spoke briefly with a middle-aged woman about a snowstorm in Vienna. Yes, it was unusual. Yes, it had affected the train schedules.

I grabbed my things and headed for the Americans.

“Excuse me,” I said, “Do you mind watching my stuff? I think I’m going to be sick,” I dropped my backpack at their feet and turned to go but the agent was in front of me.

“Passport and ticket, please.”

“I’m going to be sick.”

Covering my mouth with my hand I stepped in closer, swaying but he didn’t move. We were face to face and I could feel his breath on my cheeks. His eyelids were red and irritated. There was a sty between his lashes and his cheeks sagged like he had recently lost weight.

“Passport and ticket.”

I dug in my coat, pulling scraps of paper out of my pockets and throwing them on the ground at the agent’s feet when some drunken Germans came through the car and pushed him out of the way. While they were sorting it out, I slipped into the bathroom. I hoped the agent would forget about me but he didn’t. When the train stopped in Vienna, I was escorted down the metal steps and left behind. Sometimes I feel more like myself in moments of disgrace than in any others. The train pulled away and I stared after it like I could set it on fire with my eyes. It sang out of sight leaving me stranded on the snowy platform, a black moth, broke, and a liar.

I slept in Westbahnhof not far from the big clock. I stayed near the departure and arrival board so it would look like I was going somewhere. It was New Year’s Eve and for the first half of the night the station was loud with packs of Italians walking through and women in heels ticking and slipping on the marble. After 3am it began to quiet down.

My mother gets choked up about European train stations. She has a poster of the one in Antwerp over the kitchen table. On holidays she likes to point at it and shout that there’s no soul in anything anymore. But she also likes to get drunk and blast The Wall. It’s pretty disingenuous, though. I’m not saying I get Roger Waters better than she does just that her lips move but she can’t hear what she’s saying. I call on Christmas. We pretend I teach English. I send her postcards of castles.

My first year away from America, I made up a new astrology because I was falling through net after net and needed a better language to describe it. It was New Year’s Day then too. I was on a beach in Eos and I’d just spent the entire afternoon chasing down German toddler twins while their stoned mother slept. Every time I got close, they ran in separate directions. The sea was on one side and the road on the other. It occurred to me, that that whole year had been filled with those kinds of choices. So I marked it down: Year of the German Toddler Twins. The following January I was in Belgrade watching a woman with a headscarf and no teeth drag sacks of coal back and forth across the yard. Looking at her and thinking back over the year, I saw that some fuels are best left behind. Year of the Hunched Coal Digger. And last year, in Sofia, wandering alone through a market with the stalls locked and the ground littered with fireworks, I knew it for a sign of something ending. That’s when my cough started.

Outside Westbahnhof the snow was blue in the morning light. I stood by the glass doors of the station hall and looked out. Flurries blew off the ground in gusts, filled the air then fell gently down again. Construction equipment was buried in drifts. There were no people, no taxis, and no busses. I thought about my first train ride through Serbia when we stopped without a town in sight and soldiers got off and walked out into nowhere. I could be a dot on a ridge, too, for all I meant to others. I spent the last of my money on a ham sandwich with sweet mayonnaise and washed in the bathroom and went out.

I hate how it feels in the beginning. It’s never any different. It always feels like begging. I set up in the entrance of an U-Bahn called Karlsplatz. Getting on my knees, I unrolled my canvas case of colored chalk. I sketch famous intellectuals like Freud, Marx, and Kafka.

Sometimes, I draw pictures of cities. Istanbul is a grid of moving bridges. Hong Kong is Casino China with strafe lighting and cell phone towers. Japan is an irradiated garden. I was paid once to translate one of the drawings. It’s kind of like jokes, though, explanation only makes them worse.

About midday a bunch of teenagers with Black Flag patches on their jackets started making fun of me. Which is the kind of thing that happens a lot.

“Where are you from?”


“It’s all fucking fascists in America. What’s your name?”


“Do you have a cigarette?”


“Why are you here? I show you to a Biergarten and get you a Mozartkugel. Where are you from? Which City? Oklahoma? Are you a cowboy?”

“Los Angeles.”

“Los Angeles. Like Darby Crash. Kennst du, Darby Crash?”


“Hey, California! What you listen to? Beach Boys? Are you a surfer girl?”

The first picture I drew of Vienna had the teenager’s bodies tangled in the gilded leaves of the golden ball I’d seen on my way in. I don’t think anyone would have been able to tell what it was, though. It looked like a chestnut because I couldn’t get the gold and the blood to come across right with the big chalk.

I made 20 Euros drawing Mozart on the ground and slept for a few hours on the subway. I would have made less but one person gave me 10 Euros because it was a holiday and I looked pathetic. At the Stadtpark station the next day a young couple bought me lunch. The man was from Vienna. The woman was from some place in the Czech Republic. They invited me to a party in the 2nd district. It was mostly students from the University talking politics and listening to freak folk. I fell asleep in a chair. When I woke up someone was having sex in the next room and I couldn’t find my shoes. Everything was like that. No continuity at all. The holidays stretched on forever. Epiphany, Three King’s Day, Feast of the Ascendant Lion Princess Who Rides Across the Plain of Stars—I couldn’t figure it out. Shops opened one day and closed the next. I was losing track of time. I slept for 3 hours; I woke for 3 hours. The stores were open; the stores were shut. The U-Bahn was running; the U-Bahn was not. I still couldn’t get enough rest to matter and my cough was getting worse. I walked by long walls of ads with clear-skinned women wearing lime clothing and men with skis drinking juice. Everything was brown and square and the snow turned into something fine, dense and black like beach sand from an oil spill.

At the end of my first week I found a café on the canal that opened at 3am and started going there when the U-Bahn closed. It was full of drunken club hoppers, belligerent older men, and Slovenians with gray faces and leather jackets. I sat in the corner drinking coffee with whipped cream and drawing my cities. One night the letter to Liam fell out. I had forgotten all about it, shoving it in my notebook when I saw the passport agent. I unfolded the letter and read it again.

Liam and I had met in Istanbul. We were together for over a month but only had sex twice, the night we met and once when he was super drunk. He was meditating pretty seriously at the time and had started hanging out with this Sri Lankan who convinced him that having orgasms would deplete his vital essence. As a result Liam made a commitment to avoid orgasms so he could conserve his Pranic energy. He told me this up front but I didn’t pay any attention. Mostly because we were having sex and he came. Afterwards, though, he got upset. I tried to be supportive. I suggested we could have sex and I could come, and he could do whatever. He said he didn’t think he could fool around with me and not have an orgasm, which I chose to take as a compliment. There was a lot of drama on my end about it because I really liked him. Later, I found out he’d been having sex with other girls from the youth hostel the whole time. Everyone knew but me. I felt so stupid because I had been talking about what was going on. It was one of the other girls who finally told me. She just couldn’t listen to me any longer.

Looking over my letter to Liam, I suddenly remembered that he had a cousin in Vienna and that she had a boyfriend who went to the Academy of Fine Arts. I decided to look for them. Not to be creepy, just to let Liam know I was still out there, kind of like a game of spiritual tag. That’s how these things work. When someone does something sketchy to someone else, then hears that person’s name, they have to think about what they did. I know I do.


  1. I had put off reading Zazen online because I didn’t really want to be planted in front of the computer that much, but now I realize that it’s a benefit to read your work online because I need the quick access to wikipedia while I’m reading 🙂 Loved this excerpt, and am loving Zazen so far

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