Achtung, Young Man!


WARNING: This article contains mature subject matter including accounts of political and sexual violence, and strong language.

* names have been changed to protect the innocent

Every man has a big head and a little head, and they argue all the time. I call mine John Cleese (big head) and Eric Idle (little head). Whenever they argue, I laugh at imagined Monty Python sketches in my head, usually at the most inappropriate times. I’ll come back to that later.

November of 1991 felt like winter in more ways than one. I remember retreating to the damp confines of my grubby student apartment, shaking the rain off my boots and turning on the gas heater to warm the blue from my hands. I angrily asked myself ‘what the fuck good are cold, wet gloves?’  I threw them on top of the heater to dry off, and turned on the radio. It started blabbing to itself in the background as I gathered random leftovers looking for something I could call dinner.

 …..agreed to a motion of no-confidence in the government. Meanwhile, Labor Party leader Mr. Spring said today that the Government was failing to show compassion as the influx of Romanian refugees continues unabated. Elsewhere today, British Prime Minister John Major defended his government’s decision to limit British involvement in the Gulf Crisis, stating that an invasion of Iraq would have once again put British troops in the role of ‘occupying force’ in the Middle East. He confirmed that Britain would continue to monitor the no-fly-zone across…..

I changed the channel. It might as well have been Greek. Let’s see what 2FM is playing. Yikes, some more of that grunge shit….       

….I gotta go, yeah I’m running outta change, there’s a lot of things, if I could I’d re-arrange

Hmmm. Sounds like Bono,” I thought, rubbing my hands together vigorously for added warmth, “but definitely not U2. Is he singing guest vocals on some grunge band record? I don’t like it. “

I turned it off and put the kettle on.I had studiously avoided listening to U2’s new record, The Fly. I wanted to hear the entire Achtung, Baby album as a single entity. Glad it doesn’t sound like that grunge shit I just heard.

I needed to head back to the lab to complete a program for a test tomorrow, so I had given my flat-mate a tenner to buy the album on cassette. Hope he gets here before I have to leave, the lazy bastard. Bread in the toaster. Ham out of the fridge. This tomato still looks good. Bit of spinach. Mayo. Dinner for one.

1991 in Europe was a great hangover. The collapse of communism now behind us, the hard work of preparing a continent for integration just beginning. A wave of refugees from the torn countries arriving on our safe, frigid shores daily. Ireland’s second language in 1991? Romanian. “Watch out”, the locals would say in the pubs, “it’ll be Bosnian soon.” Fucking prophets and their pint glasses. In just seven weeks, Ireland would join the newly created European Union, replacing the outdated and stagnant European Economic Community. Free-trade was the buzzword. With the common market plus eastward expansion of the EU, we’d soon be selling our eggs to Poland, and buying Finnish Vodka, we were told. In reality, we were all just looking forward to taking cheaper vacations in the sunny Mediterranean. Fuck Finnish vodka.

My flat-mate returned as I was reading Introduction to C++ programming, chapter 8: recursive loops. I hated C++. It gave you too much control. In software development terms, it’s like having a 500 horsepower motor, no speedometer and no brakes. You could do anything you liked, and for a semi-competent engineer like myself, that meant risk and responsibility. Give me the damn Ford Escort of DBASE III+  any day. I can’t fuck it up.

The door opened, in walked Cormac*. “Jesus it’s fuckin’ cold!” he said angrily. We weren’t exactly flat-mates – technically he lived upstairs. But we were in and out of each others places all the time, so no knocking was required – unless there was a sock on the door handle, which sadly didn’t happen too often. It happened all the time for the guy on the third floor. No need for a sock. The bugger cracked his bed off the wall loud enough to wake a deaf guy from a coma.

Here ya go,” Cormac said. He threw a cassette tape on the table, but it wasn’t U2. The artwork just wasn’t them. It was too – colorful. And too dark at the same time. It screamed negative. “Achtung, Baby!”  he said.

Really? This is the new U2 record? I was surprised, but I didn’t have time to react. There was a knock on the door. I answered, and a gypsy-looking girl with dark eyes and broken English stood before me, hair waving in the wind. Hers was a rugged face of brutal cold beauty, the kind borne of tales too horrible to tell. She asked in a thick Eastern European accent if Cormac was here. Sure, he’s here, come on in out of the cold, love. She introduced herself as Reveka*. She had a darkness about her. Not about her skin which was pale nor about her hair which was dirty blonde and long, but about her person. She eyed me with a foreigners mistrust and empty eyes, the broken look of a broken soul.

I offered the two of them tea, as I studied the compromised art of the Achtung, Baby album. The outline of a topless woman (mannequin maybe?) on the cover, Bono looking a little evil. A bull, horns and all. Edge’s crotch in black sequined jeans. And on the inside – I did a double take. Adams……..”Holy Fuck….is that what I think it is?

Cormac and Reveka were talking about rent – she was going to sub-let a room in his apartment. The advantages of being gay – women are not afraid to bunk platonically in your digs if they know you’re not secretly trying to get them into that other bed in the apartment. If I want to split rent, I’ll have to get a guy who will leave his underwear on the floor. Fuck that.

Is what what you think it is?” Cormac snorted. I showed him Adams offending photo. “Oh yeah, it’s a dick,” he said, deadpan, handing me back the offending cover art. Adams dick. “I never knew he was a leftie”, I chuckled, hiding the fact that my world view was shattered.

I’d gotten used to thinking of U2 in a certain way. Arrogant and narcissistic, perhaps, but also righteous, good …..  NOT SEXY! Not that Adam’s dick was sexy­, of course. But, naked?

Nothing makes sense, nothing seems to fit, I know you’d hit out if you only knew who to hit

I stuck on my headphones and wrapped myself in arctic-wear to brave the Irish winter. Wooly sweater. Anorak. Scarf. Newly-dried gloves. Gas heat – off. Keys, wallet and, of course, Introduction to C++ programming. Incredible read. I lunged out into a gale-force wind. Fuuuckkkk!!! It was about a 20 minute walk from my apartment to the college campus, and another five minutes to the lab. I limped slightly on my right leg, carrying a knock from a rugby game the previous weekend. What kind of idiot studies computer science and thinks he can play rugby? The kind that can’t be trusted with either a Garryowen or a C++ assignment, I thought. I reached into my pocket and pressed play.

I’m ready, ready for the laughing gas, I’m ready, ready for what’s next

I wasn’t ready. Not ready to take it to the streets, not ready to duck, to dive, to say I’m glad to be alive. Not ready. I wasn’t ready for most of U2’s work, of course. I was used to their 80’s albums growing on me over time. But this was a bridge too far. Dark, sexy, funky. Everything U2 was not. I played Mysterious Ways, One and until the end of the world with no idea that this entire thing was a huge joke and I, like all U2 fans of the 80’s, was the target. I immediately liked One. The rest were growers. It would be a while before it dawned on me that the “she” in Mysterious ways was not a woman.

I kept the headphones on as I completed my first C++ assignment, polluting my head with ridiculous voices.

Over the next few weeks, of course, my opinion of Achtung, Baby changed dramatically. After the initial disappointment that my favorite band were human – men with willies for Christ’s sake – I started to appreciate it. Trading his halo for red horns turned out to be the best thing Bono ever did.

Reveka hung around my apartment more and more after she moved in upstairs. We listened to music together. She was busy learning English and busy learning Irish customs at the same time. She was in the vanguard of the Romanian influx into Ireland in the 1990’s. In 1991, it was only political refugees, those with ties to the deposed Ceaușescu regime and those who had reason to fear its transition to democracy. As the 1990’s progressed, this trickle would turn into a torrent.

Only one concerned me, the cute gypsy girl sitting on my bed smiling as I tried to teach her English. Fuck you is only an insult in the right context. ‘Yer a right wan’ is a compliment when spoken to a woman, an insult if spoken to a man, and doesn’t exactly help a Romanian immigrant learn English. We touched on all kinds of topics – the infatuation was mutual – from the 1990 world cup (a dodgy topic between an Irish and a Romanian person – look it up) to capitalism to my already-set-in-stone emigration to the USA. We eventually stopped ignoring the elephant in the room, and I asked her how she ended up in Ireland. I thought I was prepared for the answer. I wasn’t. Her parents were both killed during a crackdown on pro-democracy protests by the Ceaușescu regime in Romania two years earlier. They were killed by their own Molotov cocktail, as their co-protestor was shot while preparing it and it exploded in their car, burning them to death inside. Fuck!

Love is clockworks and cold steel, fingers too numb to feel, squeeze the handle, blow out the candle, love is blindness

It got worse. Her brother disappeared. Worried the regime remnants would come for her, she left. An Irish charity set her up with a visa to enter Ireland, and she applied for political asylum. She was learning the language so she could get a job. She was not a Migrant. She was a Refugee. Funny, she didn’t look like a refugee. She smelled like lavender. Refugees don’t smell like lavender!

My student allowance was sufficient to pay my rent, books and food, but if I wanted to live a little I needed to supplement it with real work. C++ programmer by day, shopping mall sweeper-upper by night. Six nights per week, two hours per night, I’d mop floors, clean up seeing-eye dogshit, discover in the wastepaper basket at the women’s restroom – and written in lipstick on it’s mirror – some things I’d rather not have known. Some opinions I’d rather were left unsaid. Like ‘Romainis Amach!’ It was Gaelic, written in Lipstick. Lipstick is a bitch to clean. In English, there was no cleaning it up, because it meant Romanians out! It hit me like a ton of bricks. In the women’s bathroom of my respectable middle-class shopping mall. In Gaelic, because whomever wrote it was too chicken-shit to let Romanians actually understand what it said. A secret code for the rest of Ireland to see. We’re racist fuckwits, but it’ll be our little secret.

I took Reveka to the local pub that night, and we hung around my college friends. I was silent on the walk there, wondering who felt so passionately that a girl whose parents were murdered by a regime whose demise we all cheered should be so unwelcome on our shores?  Had someone said something to her? Was she aware that some Irish people didn’t want her here? Aren’t we so enlightened by our own history of being on the other end of racism that we are above this kind of shit? I remembered how an Irish audience cheered two years earlier as Bono said, on stage at the Point Depot during Pride: “We sing this for all the ones, the brave ones who gave up their lives in Romania – all In the name of love.” That was December 31st 1989, as U2 had the honor of hosting the first live east-west radio hookup of the post-communist era. Had we already forgotten that Ireland was supposed to be on the other side of this shit?
At the pub, I didn’t want to admit that I was drawn to Reveka, so I pretended I was not jealous when my friends called her a right wan. Wan was street-slang for woman – but it carried connotations of – well, doable. Yer’ granny isn’t a wan. Yer wife might be a wan. Yer girlfriend is a wan. I’m sure Irish slang has changed in the 23 years I’ve lived away from it, but such was the language of the Irish pub in the 1990’s.

I paid for her dinner. I paid for her drinks. No complaints, mind you. I’d do that for any girl I was with. Except I wasn’t actually with her – and I tell you who-paid-for-what only to illuminate what happened next. She laughed at my jokes, even though I wasn’t sure she understood them. She didn’t leave my side the entire evening, almost like she thought me a bodyguard. A rugby player fighting her corner. She smiled at me, slyly. I was getting all the right vibes.

We walked home in the rain, along darkly lit streets. We shared my over-sized umbrella. I handed her a fisherman’s friend – a lozenge that warms the head on the coldest of winters nights. We crossed the cobble-stoned old-town, under church steeples that silently echoed Ireland’s own racial divide – Protestant Church of Ireland on the left, Catholic on the right – when her heel got stuck. We giggled as I bent over to help her wrestle the heel out from between two cobbled stones that had rested there since redcoats patrolled these streets. As I stood up, I felt the gallant knight. She glistened a classic damsel in distress, her heel stuck in the ground a perfect metaphor for her stuck life. Our eyes met. We had a moment. I leaned in. It felt right.

But as I made my move, her eyes suddenly darted down and away from me, all the warmth gone. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! What was I thinking?

She immediately apologized. I’m sorry. You took me by surprise. I’m really sorry. And then she said words crueler than any I’ve heard before or since. I’m sorry. You deserve it. You paid for me tonight.

Fuuuucccckkkkk! It was several seconds before I digested those daggers. What the FUCK? Deserve? A kiss is a fucking payment for services rendered? Not a mutual expression of – ah, what the FUCK????? I was pissed. Better get the fucking line items on the fucking invoice right, wouldn’t want the bill to be wrong! Dinner? Drinks? Yeah that’ll be one kiss on the lips, please. FUCK! Good job I didn’t take you to a fancy restaurant or pay your rent, you might owe me a bl-….FUCK!

There was no repairing that feeling. A few minutes ago, I could sleep on stones. Now, we walked together in whispers and moans. I tossed in bed that night, and awoke in a cold sweat at first light, wide a-fucking-wake. At breakfast, she came into my room, wearing a low-cut top. On any other woman, perhaps unremarkable, but Reveka never wore a lot-cut top. It was a low-cut message. One thing you learn with Eastern European women is that a somber facial expression is not a sign of unhappiness. It’s a cultural thing. I had learned to recognize several shades of seriousness in her face, from ‘Seriously, I’m happy’ to ‘seriously, we need to talk.

I had never seen her face look this serious. She held my hand, our first real physical contact. She explained that things had happened to her, that she couldn’t talk about those things, but she was reacting to another man, not to me. I should point out that, though I was never sexually abused myself, I had previously been exposed to such situations and had to grow up early in this department. Let’s just say Sleep like a baby tonight hit close to home for me. So I thought, even at the young age of 19, I could be a good listening ear. I asked all the right questions, said all the right things. You can talk to me, who did these things to you, think of me as a safe place to share, tell me how I can help.  Useless. She couldn’t talk. Her silence talked for her. The single tear falling down her cheek talked in plain English. If I wanted this girl, I was not only up against a cultural barrier, I was fighting a ghost.

There is a silence that comes to a house where no-one can sleep, I guess it’s the price of love, I know it’s not cheap

I tried to explain that I had genuine feelings for her but dammit, it’s not based on expecting to get some because I fucking pay for shit! Love and lust should never be quid pro quo. Of course, nuance like get some was lost on her. We broke the tension a couple of times as we tried to argue in broken English and sign language, with hilarious results. In any event the gist was, she liked me, I shouldn’t stop trying, we should just wait until the time is right. Are we good? We are good. We caught each others eyes with tense smiles.

Cormac opened the door without knocking. Jesus H Christ, I mumbled, he can really pick his moments. He immediately knew he was interrupting something, but we acted like he wasn’t. The moment was lost.

As Bono was donning his Mirrorball man costume and making his first prank call to the white house, I was making a tough decision. My parents had set summer of 1993 as their target date for emigrating to Florida. I was two semesters from finishing my Computer Science degree, and that Christmas, deciding whether to emigrate to England – by myself – or emigrate to America with my family, was more important than my short term affection for a refugee. It was thirty miles from my college to my parents house in Wicklow, south of Dublin in the Irish countryside, but was a million miles removed. The progressive college-town atmosphere replaced with conservative farm country. Ireland’s heartland. The liquor-soaked nights replaced with nights of quiet reflection.  The gritty student apartment replaced with a country house, four car garage and a football field in the front lawn. Ample room, physically and mentally, for reflection set to the backdrop of rolling hills and a majestic lake.

With this distance, it was clear to me that a relationship with a Romanian immigrant made no sense. I took my dad’s fishing boat out on the lake and lay there swilling Harp lager and looking up at the gray sky. Surely I was thinking with the heart rather than the head. Later on, I took a cycle over the Wicklow Gap, trying to beat my previous best time for the 12 mile ride to Glendalough. And what about her? Was I going to teach her English, teach her Irish culture, and then say “Ok, now we’re off to America to learn the whole fucking thing over again?” Of course not. I sat on a rock and watched the sunset sideways across the damp heather mountains. I was thinking with the little head, wasn’t I?

I went back to school in January 1992 with a newfound attitude. The darker world U2 inhabited in the 1990’s was a new reality for me. I knew this relationship couldn’t go anywhere. Fresh from a couple of weeks apart, we laughed and talked and even studied together. She showed up at work and cleaned the women’s bathroom. She showed up at the lab and brought me tea.

But there was no escaping the truth. That she was alone in this world – and a fucked up world it is too – made it impossible to do the one thing I knew I needed to do. End it.

One night, walking the same streets home from the same pub, she leaned in. Her lips told a complete story, one that had no echoes of past mistreatments. Her eyes confirmed it. Whatever it was, whomever he was, it – he – was not mentally present tonight. The kiss was that of two equals.

Of course, the damn big head raised his hand. As I mentioned earlier, I picture the big head and the little head as John Cleese and Eric Idle. Cleese shouts authoritatively in my ear  “Hello? Are you going to – eh – put a sock on the door when you get home? Cause if so, she’s going to be mighty PISSED when you tell her tomorrow that you’re heading off to America soon.” Eric Idle then mocked that John Cleese was “soooo self-righteous and this is a moment, not a continuum, and it’s best to let these things play themselves out.” As we reached the front door, she twirled in front of me, removed her scarf and undid the top button of her sweater. “Good point. I’ll bugger off and have a drink,” said John Cleese.

I hoped she couldn’t hear me snickering at the voices in my head as we fumbled excitedly into my apartment. I told you this Cleese/Idle thing made me laugh at the most inappropriate times.  Nevertheless, giggling aside, the moment was filled with romance, eroticism and candles. Clothing fell to the floor. Sweaters, jeans, boots and socks all hastily discarded, hands fumbling in inexperience with laces and straps and zippers.

Thread is ripping, the knot is slipping. Blindness.

There is a moment in every relationship where the playful, flirtatious girl gets suddenly serious and nervous, as a casual flirtation reaches the point where – well – the sock goes on the door. She reached that place when we lay down on my bed. Suddenly anxious, I wondered if her past was caught up in her head. “Would you rather  go upstairs to your place?” I figured home-field advantage might make her more comfortable. Eric Idle didn’t give a shit what bed we did it on. John Cleese had fucked off.

We can’t go upstairs”, she said, her eyes darting to the floor, “I moved out this morning. I couldn’t afford the rent.”  I paused, stunned. You moved out? Where? It’s fine, she assured me, the refugee crisis center is holding her stuff until she gets a new place. So you have nowhere to sleep tonight? Her eyes sunk. SHIT! She had planned on sleeping here tonight. John Cleese snorted authoritatively  “Told you so, told you fucking so! But did you listen?

Don’t misunderstand. I didn’t want to cut and run the next morning. It’s just that – well – is she into me or is she into having a fucking roof over her head? Eric Idle paused and whined “Sorry, I’ve got nothing. ”

There erupted a very bad-naked argument with clothes going back on, straps being re-done, zippers going up.

“So, that’s why you’re here?”
“I’d be here anyway”
“I’m not your fucking John”

SMACK! I’m not your whore!

Wow, her English was improving. So was her left hook. She got me right in the face.

I have a bad psychological reaction to being manipulated – especially by women. It’s a childhood thing and certainly not Reveka’s fault. But sex is a strong manipulator, so I was pissed! You need a fucking place to sleep so now you’re suddenly into me? Fuck you! Sleep at the fucking refugee crisis center. Here’s your shit. Fuck off!

Then she kissed me. Right on the sore spot. It took me completely by surprise and broke my rage. It’s hard to stay mad at lavender-scented body lotion smells. I’m sorry. No, I’m sorry. We’re both sorry. Of course you’re sleeping here tonight. 

Hang on a second, I said. I paused, and put Achtung, Baby into my cassette deck. After an awkward moment while I rewound the tape and found the right spot, the next few moments were the sweetest cruelty.

Arms entwined, slow dancing by candlelight, the air filled with tension, fear, lust and desperation. 

We crossed the line, who pushed who over, it doesn’t matter to you, it matters to me

There were no spoken words as we danced in silence.

We’re cut adrift but still floating. I’m only hanging on to watch you go down, my love

My hands grabbed her a little lower, a little tighter.

Desperation is a tender trap, it gets you every time

Sure is.

You put your lips to her lips to stop the lie.

No shit.

She wears my love like a sea-through dress, Her lips say one thing, her movements something else

Fuck yes.

And you don’t know if its fear or desire, danger the drug that takes you higher,
Head in heaven, fingers in the mire

Her fear, my desire, danger all around. Our eyes met with equal parts anger, desperation and lust. I grabbed her hair gently, she resisted. I grabbed forcefully and kissed her, first tenderly, then roughly. She needed the rough. She melted to my aggression, not to my tenderness.

Your heart is racing you can’t keep up, the night is bleeding like a cut

Her fingernails scratched my back so hard that she drew blood. I bit her lip. Our eyes locked with lustful rage, blood lovers.

Between the horses of love and lust we are trampled underfoot

And then John fucking Cleese showed up. Just as forcefully, I pulled my lips from hers. Our faces cut away at the last moment when logic could overrule desire. For a moment I thought it was over, but then she jumped into my arms, kissed me forcefully then slapped me on the face for not being strong enough to reject her. 

You say in love, there are no rules. Sweetheart, you’re 

So. Fuckin.Cruel. I pushed her away. The song, and our mad dance of lust, desperation and aggression ended. Blood, sweat and tears mingled in a salty mix. With a loud thumping sound, the tape came to the end of side one. And we withdrew. The moment was lost. Her face backed away from me, a tear in one eye, anger in both, fear all around. As if by divine providence, the sole candle illuminating our bloody mating ritual blew its last, and the room was filled with darkness and the smell of burned wick. The night, and our time together, faded to black.

I slept on the couch. Shut the fuck up, Eric Idle. Shut the fuck up.


Time is a train, makes the future the past, leaves you standing in the station, your face pressed up against the glass

Four months later, my original cassette copy of Achtung, Baby was worn and muffled from overuse. I re-purchased it on CD as a reward for completing my college education. Reveka came to see me at the graduation ceremony on a windy but sunny afternoon on the campus lawn. I wasn’t expecting her to show up, I hadn’t seen her since that night. Well, more accurately I hadn’t seen her since the next morning, when she took her stuff and left without saying goodbye as I pretended to be still asleep. She had read about the graduation ceremony in the local paper and wanted to make sure I was all set to head off to America. We hugged like old friends. I was genuinely happy to see her. It appeared the feeling was mutual. Your hair has changed. Looks good. She lied that my new mustache suited me.

She introduced me to Donavon,* a rugged brute of a young man. After a brief pause, we realized we knew each other. The rugby. Last year. He was the prop forward who scored that great try against Kilkenny. I was the bastard who dropped the Garryowen later on in the match. How have you been? Oh, great, you? Great thanks. Congratulations. Thanks. Great.

Across the college, parents with tears in their eyes, proudly hugging their graduating children, the grungy young adults of the early nineties transformed from kids into college graduates, from ripped jeans to cap and gown.  Joy, tears, hope all around. Cormac graduated the same day as I did, and he shared a joke and a drink with Reveka as I chatted with Donavon.

After more rugby laughter – he didn’t refute my claims to be the worst player on the team – I asked him how he met Reveka. Oh, she rented the room across the hall from me. We got to know each other and now she lives with me. Had a rough life, poor girl.  I glanced a knowing nod. She sure did.

I smiled across the lawn at Reveka as she introduced herself to more of my classmates.Some whores do it for the money. Right or wrong, we call them whores. Some do it for the drugs. We call them crack whores. Some whores do it for a warm bed, a decent meal and a rugby player fighting their corner. Love and lust may play a role, but if they do it’s a low priority – a middle-class luxury beyond affordability. It’s a sex trade, and one I don’t feel comfortable with, but I can’t look at the bleakness in those eyes and call her the name I know is being whispered behind cocktail napkins by married middle-class middle-aged female pharisees in fancy hats. She is something else, something for which we do not have a word. Our relationship existed only in the twilight, in the shadows where boy meets man, in a place where we feel too uncomfortable to make words to describe things we hope we don’t really see.

Who’s she?” Debbie * asked me. My new girlfriend and I were not living together. Socks on doors – yes – living together – no. She already knew that I was heading to America – and that if the relationship progressed, she could choose to join me. It didn’t progress, but when it did end, both parties had choices, and I was comfortable with that. In any event, she pointed at Reveka and asked “Who is she?” I thought about saying “Oh, she and I were together once” but decided against it. No, that was not the truth. She’s a Romanian immigrant who lived upstairs from me for a couple of months, and she’s a friend. Debbie was satisfied with that answer, and so was I.


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