Juliette and the Captain: Racism Writ Small

Moon over Berlin, Sun over Santorini: B1C6

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Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash: This woman bears an uncanny resemblance to the person I based Juliette on.

As Ian and Dima pine for one another, neither quite openly aware of it, let’s peek in on one of Ian’s close friends. The last time we saw her, she was at Green Week, urging Ian not to get lost on the subway and end up in East Berlin again.

Juliette glanced at her watch.

Five o’clock. No, 1700, she corrected herself, trying to get acclimated to military and European time. She took a sip of her white wine and fought to keep her lip from curling. It hadn’t been very good cold, but now …

She’d been waiting for Ian over half an hour. Mark was working out. She’d refused to go to the gym with him after work. The stench of rancid male sweat that hung in the wet air only reminded her of the leers that bored into her back every time she turned it.

She looked over at the door for the tenth time and noticed that the officers club was filling up, now that people on base were finishing their shifts. Some 30 small tables dotted an airy room, lit through enormous vaulted windows that that overlooked the empty flight line.

High ceilings and elaborate moldings testified to Tempelhof Central Airport’s origins as a monument to the Thousand Year Reich. An elderly German polishing the brass and oak of a long bar testified to decades of German-American amity.

His accent rang precise and elegant. “May I refill your glass, my dear?Something a little more special this time? I have a very nice Spätlese from the Rheingau. Already open!”

“No, thanks, Kurt,” Juliette answered, waving her hand over the top of her glass. “I haven’t eaten yet. Just killing time waiting for my friends.” She adjusted her navy blue skirt — twisted awkwardly around the bar stool. She berated herself for forgetting a change of clothes. She’d have to go to Mark’s in uniform unless they wanted to wait for her to run all the way home for jeans and a comfy tee shirt.

A resonate voice interrupted her thoughts. Loudly. “Lieutenant Mburu! What a pleasant surprise.” She turned to find a portly, pink-scalped man in his early thirties gripping a heavy cocktail tumbler.

She raised a finely arched eyebrow at him, tilting her head back slightly.

“Don’t you remember me from in-processing?” he drawled in a voice redolent of Georgia or Alabama, or someplace equally humid. “Captain Daniels,” he said, extending a plump, sweaty hand. “Please call me Bob.”

She allowed him to squeeze her long, slim fingers, trying not to grimace. “Oh, certainly, Bob. Of course. Don’t you run the squadron orderly room?” She tried not to let any amusement show as he puffed out his chest.

“I’m the Wing personnel officer, actually, Lieutenant. I do have an office off the orderly room, yes.” His eyes wandered up and down her cotton blouse. “Um, do you have a first name? I mean … of course you do. May I call you …”

“Fascinating,” she lied as he slid onto the stool next to hers. “Juliette, by the way. Please call me Juliette.”

“So, how are you enjoying Berlin, … Juliette?”

She opened her mouth to reply, but he charged on. “I’m known around here as a great tour guide. Ask anybody. I’d be happy to show you all the sights this weekend.”

Juliette worked hard to keep a believable smile on her face. She’d seen slower operators at college bars back home.

She didn’t need to worry about answering, though.

“Bartender!” shouted Daniels. “Freshen me up, old boy. And pour another of whatever the little lady’s having.”

“The good Spätlese, isn’t it, Miss?” asked Kurt dryly as he adjusted the crisp white linen folded neatly over his left forearm. As he clicked his heels, she saw his left eye narrow in half a wink.

“That would be just fine,” she murmured, then turned. “Thank you, Captain. I mean Bob.”

“The pleasure is all mine, my dear. Now. What do you say? A date? A little private tour of all the hot spots?”

She groaned inwardly. Gently turning down her personnel officer had not been on the evening wish list. She kept her voice neutral. “Um, Bob. That sounds …”

“Juliette!” piped a welcome voice behind her. “Sorry I took so long. I ran to the gym to change after I finished that thing I had to do.”

“Sweetie!” she replied, catching sight of Ian and his rumpled blond hair, tee, faded jeans, and sneakers. As he jumped onto the stool on the other side of Juliette from Daniels and signaled for the bartender, she sensed her would-be pickup artist start to bristle.

“Excuse me, young man,” he said, puffing out his chest again. “This is the officers club. You need to be a commissioned officer to be here.” He lowered his voice and continued archly. “Or be accompanied by a parent. If they’re a member.”

Juliette and Kurt pounced at the same time. Just as the old Prussian bowed courteously in Ian’s direction, asking “Will it be the usual then, sir?” Juliette turned, grinning broadly.

“Captain Daniels, may I present Lieutenant Collins? Ian, this is Bob. Bob, Ian was with my group for in-processing. That must have slipped your mind.” With that, she wrapped an arm around Ian’s shoulder, possessively. She worked hard to keep laughter from bubbling up as Daniels spluttered.

Kurt set a glass of white wine in front of Ian as the captain stammered out an apology and made an excuse to head to a table on the far side of the room.

“What the hell was that all about?” Ian asked, casually removing Juliette’s arm and sniffing suspiciously at his glass. “Mmmm, it’s good,” he said around a sip. “Hey, Kurt. I didn’t know I had a regular.”

“My recommendation, sir. The same as the lady’s having. A classic exemplar of a Rheingauer Riesling Spätlese. On the costly side, but you can always thank the good captain for his hospitality.”

Juliette took a sip from her own untouched glass as she watched the old barman’s faded blue eyes sparkle playfully — in contrast with his rigidly correct posture. The gold colored fluid surprised her with its viscosity and sour-apple bite. Sweet and floral, it was nothing like French whites or anything she’d ever tasted from California. But it was clearly something remarkable.

“Wow, thank you, Kurt. This is wonderful. Really.”

The barman smiled with his whole face as Ian broke in. “OK, so what did I miss. Who’s that sweaty guy and why’d he buy us wine?”

“Ugh,” Juliette shuddered. “Just some guy who thinks cheap pickup lines are all he needs with me. He never even asked me where I work or where I’m from. Remembered my name, though!”

“I’m surprised he had the guts,” Ian said, twirling his wine glass to catch sunlight from the windows.

“What do you mean?”

“Jesus, Juliette. You’re scary as fuck sometimes,’ he deadpanned. “That stare! Those eyes!”

“What! Why, you!” She laughed and punched his shoulder. “I’ll give you scary!”

“Ow! See what I mean?” he chuckled, ducking as she pretended to spar with him, jabbing with both her fists.

His chuckle grew into a full laugh. “OK, quit it! I’m gonna spill my drink.”

“I’d like to give him something to be scared about instead of you,” she seethed. “Did you catch that accent? He’s one of those haughty old southern aristocrats. Ten to one he graduated from VMI. Wanna bet he’s got a Rebel flag waving above the Big House back home?”

She caught a quizzical look from Ian, so she kept going.

“Can you just imagine? Bob bringing me home to meet his parents? They’d drop dead of shock as soon as they realized I wasn’t the new maid.”

She picked up her glass and spun it around. Watched amber legs trickle down the inner curves of the crystal globe. She took an angry drink. “I’m good enough for a quick fling or a one-night stand here, thousands of miles from home. But can you imagine him introducing me to his friends in Atlanta? Or Montgomery? Or wherever the hell he’s from?”

“Whoa! Told you you were scary!”

She glared at him. “I’m serious, Ian.”

He dropped his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he answered softy. “Really.”

She sighed. “Me too. It’s not your fault. It just gets to me.”

“Look on the bright side, though. I mean, isn’t it safer to assume the guy’s just a horn dog? I mean, this is a bar. You ARE gorgeous. Any guy would be a dope not to hit on you.”

“You’re sweet, Ian.” She kissed his cheek. “But you don’t get it. That’s OK, let’s just change the subject.”

“Look. Come on. You’re the one who graduated from Sarah Lawrence. You have the rich parents. A summer house. Political contacts. You’re smart, tall, beautiful, and all that, and you’re gonna let this guy get to you?”

“You don’t know what it’s like. My parents are Kenyan.” She held out an arm. “I’m black.”

“Gee, I hadn’t noticed.”

She snorted.

“What’s the matter? Really? Talk to me.”

“I don’t know if I can explain. But remember how you and Mark were talking at Green Week? Like how you feel all weird because this place doesn’t feel like home? That everything is subtly wrong or out of place?”

He nodded. “Sure. It’s getting better, though. A little at a time.”

“OK, good, but … In a way, that’s what my whole life is like. And it isn’t getting better. I don’t ever feel like I’m at home. I’m always just a little bit outside everything.”

“Huh?”

“Whenever I walk into a room, no matter what room it is or where it is, I don’t fit in. Not in Kenya, because I haven’t been there often enough to even recognize it. Not here. Not in a room full of white people who think I’m “exotic” or “special.” Not with American black people — my parents sent me to private schools and summer vacations in Switzerland. No Black culture there! And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m the only black American intel officer in Berlin. I’m the only black American intel officer anybody here has ever met.

“I’m always, always, always an outsider. No matter how much I try to pretend to myself that I’m not.” She looked down at the bar, tired from having to explain.

Ian’s fingers lifted her chin. His lips brushed her cheek. “Not to me. To me, you’re just Juliette.” She smiled, because that was all she could do. He obviously meant what he said, just as obviously as he didn’t understand what she’d told him.

She pulled him in for a quick hug and lifted her glass, wishing Mark would hurry so they could get out and go home — where it would just be the three of them.

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Flughafen Berlin-Tempelhof by Walt Jabsco

This is Chapter 6 of a serialized novel, a genre-bending Cold War geopolitical thriller cum gay coming-of-age romance. You can expect a chapter every couple of days.

The action is set in Berlin, Russia, Greece, and Tunisia. The settings and the characters are pulled directly from my own life, but the story is entirely fictional.

I never fled Berlin with the son of a Soviet Air Force general hiding from the KGB. Or did I?

James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com.

Written by

Writer. Runner. Marine. Airman. Former LGBTQ and HIV activist. Former ActUpNY and Queer Nation. Polyglot. Middle-aged, uppity faggot. jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com

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