Open Mic Night at the Blue Note Pub.
Katja signed her name on the performer’s list and hoped she’d be called to play. If the manager liked her he might let her book a whole night. It happened sometimes. Not only could she make a hundred euros, but her name would also be on the posters.
Money and fame. She needed both.
The bar wasn’t huge. It had a low, wood-beamed ceiling with wooden floors and long tables that were already occupied, making the space feel even smaller. She shuffled past the other musicians and music lovers, holding her guitar case close to her chest. Her eyes darted around the room, searching for a place to sit.
A guy with brown hair shaved short watched her. She’d seen him before, though they’d never spoken, just the kindred nod that happened between musicians as they acknowledged each other’s guitar. He had a peacock tattoo that stretched across his strumming arm, which was draped over a thin girl with spiky blond hair. The guy waved Katja over, shoving down on the bench to make room. Katja pushed loose strands of hair behind her ear and took the offered seat. She flashed him a bright, sincere smile. “Thanks.”
“It’s cool. You’re playing tonight?” he asked loudly to cut through the din of conversation and the music pumping in through the speakers hanging from the corners of the room.
“I hope so. You?”
The guy shrugged. “Maybe. Rock’s more my thing, but acoustic’s cool, too. I’m Sebastian. This is my girlfriend, Yvonne.”
Yvonne forced a smile but didn’t make eye contact. Sebastian introduced the rest of the table, but their names disappeared into the clatter of the room.
As each musician was called, Katja’s stomach spun tighter. The artists were good and she applauded appreciatively with the rest of the crowd after each performer.
The waiter brought drinks to their table and asked Katja if she’d like to order. She’d love to, but she shook her head no. She couldn’t even spare ten cents.
“It’s on me,” Sebastian said, surprising her. “Bring her a beer.”
Yvonne glared at him. Sebastian laughed and squeezed her shoulders.
“Baby, it’s okay. The chick’s gotta be thirsty, and she’s singing tonight.”
Katja mouthed thank you. She was thirsty. She wanted to impress Herr Leduc, the manager, and it would be much harder to do that with a dry throat. He’d been very friendly when she first introduced herself a few weeks ago, welcoming her to his pub with exuberant German laced with a thick French accent.
Finally, Katja’s name was called. She made her way through the crowd, careful not to bang into anyone with her guitar. The lights were bright on the stage, momentarily blinding her. She strapped her guitar over her shoulder and scanned the crowd.
She gulped, thinking belatedly that maybe it wasn’t a great idea to be doing her newest song.
Her eyes landed on Sebastian and he lifted his beer to her before taking a long drink.
“Hello, everyone,” she said while tuning the bottom string of her guitar. “I’m Katja Stoltz and this is a new song.”
She plucked the notes with a happy, mid-paced beat. The music didn’t match the words. She’d written it that way on purpose, to get the listeners’ attention. She opened her mouth and her smooth, folk voice sang out.
Close your eyes
Try not to speak
Forget the hours of your struggling
Try to fix the trouble
And pieces of your broken mind
The streets that you are traveling on
They lead you far away from home
And you don’t know where you’re going to
And your dreams
They all turned
A somber blue
This burden on your shoulders
Is too heavy for you to carry
And the well
That you’re drinking from
Is a well from a dying generation
Think back to when you were a child
And your heart was free and you were alive
And the wind And the rain
Washed all your fears away
She ended the song with a final strum and the applause rang through the house. She couldn’t stop the sappy smile that spread across her face. She left the stage and was accosted by a group sitting at a nearby table.
“That was awesome.”
“Love your voice!”
“Do you have CDs?”
She thanked them and produced a short stack of CDs. She sold four. This was great! She bounced happily on the tips of her toes. Now she could pay her rent and buy a new set of strings.
She felt a poke on the shoulder and turned around to see Sebastian grinning down at her.
“You rocked it, Katja. You have crazy songwriting skills.”
She couldn’t help but giggle. This was why she loved writing and performing. There was no high like it.
“Do you wanna hang out sometime, maybe write together?”
Katja couldn’t keep the surprise from bubbling over. “That would be great.” She’d love to try writing with another songwriter. Then she caught Yvonne glaring at them from where she’d remained seated at their table. “But, I don’t think she’s….”
Sebastian glanced over his shoulder and waved at his girlfriend. “Don’t worry about her. She knows she’s the only one for me.”
How nice for Yvonne to have someone so dedicated to her. Sebastian obviously loved her and Katja hoped she appreciated it. She would love to know what it felt like to have someone love her fully without conditions.And she would. She was certain. Someday.
The hot water tank in Irma and Martina’s flat was the size of a backpack.
Katja squirmed under the cooling water as she rinsed the last of the shampoo from her hair. The stall was barely big enough to turn around in, and she’d learned to watch her elbows, not to accidentally knock into the tap and either scald herself or douse her bare body with ice water. Every shower was a race to finish before the hot water disappeared.
It occurred to her that this was why her roommates both kept their hair short. Maybe she should take the scissors to hers, too. She winced at the thought. Her long, golden locks were her trademark. She’d just have to struggle through the hair-washing trauma.
The clothes she’d washed in the sink the day before still hadn’t dried, so she was forced to wear her red gypsy skirt and grey blouse for the second day in a row.
She cleaned up her things and headed to the kitchen for a coffee. Now that she had a little extra cash, she could buy the next bag of beans, and she wouldn’t have to feel guilty about drinking her roommates’ coffee.
Katja yawned. She scanned the flat as she waited for the coffee to brew. Irma and Martina had thrown a party the night before. Empty beer bottles and full ashtrays littered the room. The smell of smoke lingered in the air, and if it weren’t so cold outside, Katja would’ve opened a window. At least they couldn’t blame her for the messy state of affairs this time.
Their guests hadn’t left until the early morning hours, long after Katja had returned from her gig. Times like that she really wished she had her own place. As it was she had to wait for space to open up on the sofa, and eventually she nodded off even though some strange guy stubbornly refused to leave his spot at the other end.
It was noon before anyone started waking up. Katja had a horrible kink in her neck and a growing headache. Outside the church bells rang, which didn’t really help.
Irma sauntered into the room. Her short, black hair stood up in all directions, and dark puffy circles marred the skin under her eyes. She poured a cup of coffee and sipped it like it would save her life. She drank half of it before noticing Katja sitting there.
“Oh, hey. I heard you rocked the house last night.” She slid into a chair opposite Katja.
“Yeah, it was fun,” Katja said. She’d replayed her performance and the small crowd’s response in her head a million times. The thrill of having her talent recognized still energized her. “Herr Leduc offered me a night of my own.”
Irma arched a dark eyebrow. “Really?”
It annoyed her that Irma didn’t even try to hide her surprise, like she didn’t think Kaja had it in her.
Irma harrumphed and took another sip.
“I have the rent,” Katja announced. She moved confidently to the living room, rested on the sofa and heaved her duffle bag onto her lap. She dug through her things, lifting rumpled shirts and dirty jeans, scraping her nails along the bottom, fingers searching. Her heart sped up. Where was her wallet? She knew she’d put it in here last night when she got home. Icy apprehension filled her chest. She dumped the contents of her bag on the sofa.
No wallet. No, no no!
“It’s gone,” she muttered. A prickly dread washed over her and her joints felt weak. “Someone stole my wallet.”
“Are you sure?”
Katja frantically sorted through everything again. “Yes, it’s gone.”
“That sucks,” Irma said. “But you got that gig coming up at the Blue Note, right?”
“That’s not until next month.” Katja’s eyes grew glassy and she swallowed the lump in her throat. She felt so violated. So disempowered. Now she couldn’t pay her portion of the rent. “What am I going to do?”
Irma cocked a brow. “There are other ways to make good money in one night.”
Katja frowned. “How?”Irma tilted her head. “You are very naïve, aren’t you? I’m not one to give out easy compliments, but you do have great legs. Get rid of that granny dress and show them off.”
Katja stood in one of the cutaways on the old bridge over the River Elbe that joined the Altstadt with the Neustadt, the old city with the new.
She shivered despite her winter jacket and the scarf wrapped around her neck and strummed her guitar with fingerless gloves. The limestone dome of the Frauenkirche —the Church of our Lady—peaked out over the city’s ancient, baroque skyline. Like all the buildings in the historic center, it had been completely demolished during the Second World War. The entire city was rebuilt to look much like it had before it was destroyed. In essence, the old town was now the new one, and the new town the old one.
It was majestic and awe-inspiring to look upon.
Katja’s guitar case lay open at her feet. She’d thrown in the few cents she’d found under the sofa cushions, hoping to lure other donations.
The cold wind kept people hunched over and moving at a fast pace across the bridge, most with chins tucked down and hands shoved into deep pockets. No one took the time to stop and listen, much less drop money in her case.
No! That would mean admitting failure. It would prove that Horst was right about her. She was nothing but a thankless leach.
He was no better. A low-class scumbag. Why should she care what he thought?
Besides, it wasn’t like her mother had thrown her out. She probably wouldn’t even notice if Katja quietly moved back in. She could go back to university, get a diploma or a degree, something that would land her a real job.
But going back would mean she gave up on her dreams, that she’d be trapped in a lower middle-class life in Berlin. Horst would definitely mock her—and worse. Bile burned up the back of her throat at the thought of him touching her again. No, she couldn’t go back.
She was talented and she knew it. It was just a matter of time. She couldn’t give up.
Katja closed her eyes and started another song. She heard the clank of coins falling into her case. She looked up to see the old woman who’d dropped the money and thanked her with a quick nod.
By mid-afternoon her fingers were frozen stiff and she had to go to the bathroom. A glance at the coinage told her that she hadn’t made near enough to cover the rent. She sighed heavily and packed up. The ten-minute walk back to her flat felt much, much longer.
♥ ♥ ♥
Katja stared at the two tiers of fabric she’d ripped off her gypsy skirt lying on the floor like blood that had seeped from her own body. She breathed into her hands, forcing her lungs to expand and deflate at a proper rate, willing her heart to slow.
She didn’t want to do this, but she didn’t have a choice. It was too cold to sleep outside and even if she survived one night, there was always the next and the next. Spring weather was late coming to Saxony this year.
It wasn’t like she didn’t know what to expect. She had her first boyfriend at sixteen. Niklas Reinhardt. She’d crushed on him for a whole year prior to the outdoor party where he finally noticed her. They hooked up that night, and he’d clung to her for the next two years. He’d told her that everyone was doing it and it was expected that a girlfriend give it up for her guy. He was drunk the first time they did it, and it had hurt, but it wasn’t completely awful.
She didn’t know why she stayed with him as long as she did. He was good looking in a geeky, teenage-boy way, but she never loved him. He worked well as a buffer to keep all the other hormonal boys away, though. Dealing with one was enough trouble.
Irma lent her a pair of black high-heel shoes and offered advice. “You’ll be freezing but you can’t act like it. If you have to wear that jacket, at least leave it open. Mess your hair up and wear this.” She handed Katja a tube of bright red lipstick. Katja applied it with a trembling hand, feeling flustered as her roommate watched her put it on.
Once outside, Katja wasn’t sure where to go.
She thought staying in Neustadt was her best bet. During the day, the town was family friendly, with mothers and fathers pushing baby carriages and holding small hands. Alongside the families, the elderly strolled slowly, and the punks walked their dogs and carried boom boxes. Every wall was either tagged or papered with posters announcing the latest band or event. The bohemian, grunge atmosphere of Neustadt called to artists and inspired unique shopping venues that attracted tourists from all over the world.
At night, it was a perpetual party place. Music blared from the clubs and bars. People roamed freely with open drinks, seemingly unaffected by the cold. There was laughing and shouting and stumbling over the cobblestones. The graffiti artists came out along with the pot smokers. It was a fun, happy place, where young and old partied together.
You could sell drugs, and you could sell sex.
Katja stood on a corner, propped a hand on her hip and presented a long leg covered with sheer, black hosiery. What was left of her red gypsy skirt ended snugly, high on her thigh. She resisted giving into full-on shivering, and pasted a big, phony smile on her face.
She could do this.
No, she couldn’t. It was irresponsible and it was dangerous.
Her confidence faltered and she bit down on her lip ring to keep from bursting into an ugly cry.
Oh, God, what was she doing?
If she went back to Berlin…
Maybe she would call. It was a throwaway phone, the only kind she could afford and she was down to her last three minutes. If she called, it would be the last time. She was too cold to think it through and pressed the number on quick dial. She held the phone to her ear with frozen fingers and almost hung up, but a young voice answered after the third ring.
“Hi, Sibylle. It’s Katja.”
“Where are you?” Katja caught the tremble in her sister’s voice. “When are you coming home?”
“I don’t know. Is everything all right?”
When her sister didn’t answer, Katja grew nervous. Her minutes were running out. “Is Mama there, Sibylle?”
Katjia heard static and assumed her sister was fetching her mother. Hurry. But then she heard the one voice that made her blood curdle.
“Get your tight rear-end back here, brat!”
Katja disconnected the call and let out a low groan. A quick check on her time allotment showed eighteen seconds left. Not even worth keeping. She chucked the phone into the nearest trash bin.
Fine. This was her reality. She would deal with it. Whatever happened to her tonight could be no worse than if she went back and faced her step-father. And he wouldn’t bother paying.
She took short, quick breaths to regain her composure, and then unzipped her jacket with stiff, red fingers. She forced another smile and turned to face the driver of a silver car that had slowed to a stop at the curb.
She tilted her hips and presented her legs, raking her long hair with frozen fingers.
The window rolled down and a man in a shirt and tie peered out.“It’s cold. Get in.”
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