By Casey Grosso · 10 months ago
There are precisely 17 Americans, including myself, in this large outdated housing unit. In between sips of some mysterious pink liquid, (sweet but sadly virgin; served in plastic), I find myself eavesdropping on the curious conversations that bubble through the room. The murmured gradient of broken and native German counterbalances muffled barks and snarls, and I find myself calmly calculating the safest escape route when a warm, wet tongue makes contact with my poor, exposed hand.
Color me dumb-struck. “Wow! Hello there,” I choke out. “Wie geht’s Hundsch?” Hundsch. It’s a made up German word for ‘dog-human’’. The grown man who’s kneeling before me on all fours nuzzles my hand and tosses it onto his head. Ah, yes, he wants me to pet him. So, naturally, I begin stroking his thin hair. You and I both know I didn’t come this far to run away at the pinnacle moment of baffling discomfort. So, I continue running my fingers through the greasy hair of a stranger. He’s loosely clothed in sheets in a way that reminds me of old fashioned diapers, the kind you only see in cartoons and that are always held together with grossly disproportionate safety pins. His tongue, which I’m now eyeing suspiciously, lolls about as he happily pants, breathing in and out at an artificially quick pace.
My professor wanted us to experience performance art—a real Viennese staple. “It’ll be fabulous,” she promised, “It’ll be fun!” she assured.
A few moments later, thank god, a woman gestures for my Hundsch friend to follow her instead of harassing me. I jump up from my seat, having learned my lesson about sitting out in the open like that, and walk into the nearest room.
It looks staged. A bedroom, a kitchen, and a sitting area double over onto one another to create a single room. The couch may as well be upside down. I’m welcomed in by a short, fat woman with a kettle. She urges me to sit down and my German is just strong enough to understand that she’s trying to offer me a drink. My polite “nein, danke” hides for a little while longer the fact that I can hardly form three sentences without making a mistake and exposing myself as a struggling foreigner.
She nods and backs away, navigating the cramped space bottom first, relying on memory and collision to direct her back to the foyer. Once capable of the maneuver, she turns around and stubbornly pours me a glass of tea. Apparently the inability to leave your guests empty handed permeates American and Austrian culture alike. I obviously don’t have a choice, so I take the cup and thank her for her hospitality. Of course, all I actually say is “danke” but I’m hoping to fill in the blanks with smiles and nods and gracious slurps of the lukewarm, flavorless water.
My eyes wander to the bed. A young woman, barely old enough to be considered an adult, with pink ribbons in her hair and pink clothes to match, sits on the fluffy mass of frayed quilts and peach pillows and stained sheets. She’s not alone. (Of course she’s not alone.) On her left another girl about the same age is curled up in the fetal position, gnawing at her own wrists. She’s wearing pigtails, but no shirt.
In horror, I realize that the fat woman is headed right for me, bottom first, blindly seeking a spot on the ugly broken couch. At the last moment, right when I’m ready to duck and roll, the shirtless girl with the pigtails starts barking furiously. I freeze. The fat lady freezes. I try to breathe but I can’t exhale until finally, at last, she sighs and starts shuffling forward again.
Looking anxiously from side to side, the fat woman spots an innocent passerby and nearly tackles him in an excited rush. I recognize the familiar face of my shy, 26-year-old classmate. He looks terrified, but complies with her forceful shove on the back, stumbling into the room and claiming an open chair. He looks at me and waves without smiling. Before I can ask him whether or not he was trying to make a run for it (I guess that much was probably obvious anyways), the barking dog-girl springs down from the bed, onto the floor, and into a cabinet. She emerges with a hair brush between her teeth and drops it pointedly between the feet of my peer.
My classmate stares at the thing for three or four long seconds before the dog-girl nudges it a little bit closer to him, pleading with her eyes and panting excitedly. He slowly reaches down, and with two fingers raises the brush up to his lap where he (quite rudely, if you ask me) proceeds to wipe the saliva off the handle with his shirt. The girl launches herself backwards, forwards, then back again, in a clean three-point turn landing between his legs with her back to him, and her blonde pigtails draped over his knees.
He finally shoots a look of desperation in my direction. Although I’ve been staring, I suddenly find the photo album on the coffee table exceedingly interesting. Out the corner of my eye I see him start to brush her hair.
Before long, the fat woman is explaining that our Hundsch friend needs to “go”. I assume they have a plan to walk out of the room and retreat to some sort of backstage safe space so that the actress without a shirt can break character and relieve herself in a civil manner. I can tell my friend believes this to be true as well, for his brows slowly raise into a look of childlike hopefulness. We find out the hard way that in this topsy-turvy world, no such thing as “breaking character” actually exists.
The fat woman leaves. When she returns she’s carrying a silver bedpan.
That childlike look disappears at once from my companion’s face. He sees where this is going. I don’t understand what’s happening until the sharp sound of urine splatting against metal rings aggressively through the room. When she’s finished, our shirtless dog-girl bounds out of the room to make new friends. We sit there in shock for a few moments while the fat woman nonchalantly scoops up the bedpan and takes it into the washroom. When she returns empty handed, we rise to bid our farewell.
She misunderstands our gesture. With a big smile on her face, she ushers us back out into the great room where visitors are now filling into a loose circle of chairs.
Our shirtless Hundsch friend has quickly become the center of attention, with her adorable hairdo and heartwarming smile. While she’s friendly towards all of the new faces around her, she’s developed a particular fondness towards my friend and I, who laugh and return her openness with pats on the head and kind words. Thankfully, dog-speak requires a level of German appropriate for us anyways, so we talk freely and without effort.
The fat woman catches our attention and gives us a wink. She calls over our Hundsch friend and makes a circular gesture in the air. The dog-girl rolls over. Our eyes brighten and our mouths fall into a natural expression of amusement and approval. The dog-girl looks at us, eyes bulging and lower lip tucked into her mouth. We applaud and she returns a self assured grin.
As more and more folks gather and fill the empty chairs around us, we quietly become a spectacle. Noticing we have an audience, the fat woman urges my friend to perform the trick with our Hundsch. Looking uncomfortable, but puffing his chest with a breath of confidence, he takes a step back and catches our dog-girl’s attention. With a serious look on his face, he makes the circular gesture with his right hand.
Our Hundsch holds her head perfectly still, surveying the crowd with her eyes alone.
All at once, she breaks. Tears, real tears, begin pouring out of her eyes as she collapses onto the floor, wailing in dog-speak German that makes perfect sense to my attuned ears. “I’m naked! I don’t have any fur and everyone is staring at me!” she cries over and over again.
Something about the performance feels real, as if this girl was using her character as a way to express her true human insecurities. Without hesitation, my friend and I immediately comfort her. Sitting on our knees and holding her hair, we assure her that she’s a good girl, and that she doesn’t have to do the trick if she doesn’t want to. The image of her crinkled chin quivering while alligator tears cascade over her lips sears itself into my memory. Something inside me bubbles up, and I lean over, nuzzling my face into her hair and hugging her the way you might hug a hurt child or a familiar pet. Her tears slow, and then stop.
When we all stand up again, she leans into my legs, showing gratitude for my companionship. She mirrors the same action for my friend and we exchange confused looks of happiness.
A few hours later, long after all 17 of us Americans had regrouped, departed, and shared our horror stories of the Hundsch experience, which had included frying brains, tongues in ears, and Taser guns, I found myself wandering the streets of Vienna by myself. It was then that it occurred to me, that without the whole show; the dog behavior, the foreignness, the acting prowess, all of it, I never would have thrown myself to the aid of a complete stranger. Oddity and audaciousness became art. And I began to weep.
Edited by Jack Russillo
All photos courtesy of The Library of Congress. Contributed by C.M. Bell. (Public Domain.)