Frank lived in Franconia, but Philipp lived in Frankfurt. Philipp was the youngest of three brothers, all of whom looked utterly alike. Moritz, the middle brother, unleashed exquisite physical torment on Philipp, giving him Indian burns and punching him in the appendix because, as the middle child, his esteem depended on being able to do it. Daniel, the oldest, practiced casual violence on Moritz, locking him in a stranglehold for spitting on his pretzel or some other minor offense. Like a good opportunist, Philipp seized whatever opening he could find; he poked, prodded, vexed whatever brother was most vulnerable at the time. Being quiet and unassuming, I managed to stay out of this cycle of retaliation. God knows it had blasted the color from the boy’s mother’s hair when she was 40.
Philipp was a lot less conservative than Frank. If Frank liked riding his bike through the forest and dreaming of simulation, Philipp liked jumping his bike off of ramps. His pluck was nurtured by the near-constant competition he faced from his brothers. When I visited Philipp in Frankfurt, he had just finished building a soapbox racer. It was very Rube Goldberg, with rough-hewn corners and an unpainted body, but Philipp was more interested in speed than craftsmanship. I remember Moritz teasing Philipp about the racer’s design: “Why didn’t you go to the wood-shop instead of shitting out the wood yourself?” Philipp didn’t bite. He knew why Moritz was teasing him. Responding would have been admitting defeat.
Philipp had already driven the racer, with undetermined results, but he wanted me to test it out, too: an act of kindness, an offering among friends. I got into the racer. In retrospect, I’m not horribly surprised that a seatbelt and helmet weren’t part of the contract. Moritz and Philipp, allied perhaps for the first time in months, were going to push me off. They hung on to racer’s backboard in a crouched position. Without warning, they dug their heels in and pushed the racer forward until the gentle slope of the hill offered to move me. After 20 meters, I turned right, anticipating an immediate left turn. The second turn came too abruptly; I wasn’t able to turn the racer as sharply as I needed to stay on the course. The racer slid onto rougher ground. I tried to slam the steering wheel to the left in order to compensate, hoping the car might get back onto the dirt track. But the momentum of the racer and the position of my wheels were completely out of line. The racer’s right side fell to the ground in protest. Pretty soon, I was hurtling through the air like a salmon out of water, poised to give my life to some greater pursuit.
I don’t remember the fall. I recall the dull shock of novelty, of being in a position my body wasn’t used to, in a place I shouldn’t have been. Then, before my mind could think of the reason, a stinging sensation attacked my legs, arms, and neck. It felt sharp and chemical. I rolled my body away from the innocent-looking underbrush, scared that the chemicals might keep nipping me in censure for my daring. Nettles. I don’t remember screaming or grunting. If I cried, I’ve since coaxed it from my memory.
Philipp’s mom, Katrin, took care of my body, which had sprouted hundreds of little red bumps, and which was beginning to look like a leper’s shell. She set a warm oatmeal bath and ordered me in. When Katrin came back in after an hour, she became the first person other than my parents or my doctor to see me naked. I recovered after a day, the proud parent of a couple unspectacular bruises. Without fanfare, Katrin told us to dissemble the racer, a slight grin on her face. As Philipp and I broke the racer apart, Moritz chuckled.