For four weeks now, this terrible grief. It takes up residence in my throat, is heavy, slides into the sweet solar plexus where self-belief resides. Crushes back my breathing. Gives me the tired. It makes bed seem a dire, unavoidable residence, where I will spend my days: all of them. Though I enjoy so much in the world and spin always silks out of myself like a dim spideress, though I am happy and joyful, resolve to be joyful, and happy, the grief comes in big crashing waves and will not be turned aside, it comes over me from above or up from within, I can’t tell, turns me outside-in, a paper bag with only crumbs. It feels the grief displaces me, so I have to make way for its passage, a weight of a body in water. I hold it and I feel the weight. I am lonely with grieving and savage with it, and cannot turn it by.
It’s been a month now since breadsticks at dawn, I have counted over the perfidies in my mind. I’ve tried telling myself it would hurt worse if he had found someone in any way interesting to or compatible with him. Within days he had started to outgrow the one weaving acid threads around him, her ‘devotion’ as he called it and her sudden love that reeled him in. This rancid manipulator and her stale routines. I guess it would feel worse, and it would also feel better. He told me how they wound up having breakfast together, because she rang him from outside his house one day: Oh hey! I just happen to be in your street. What, no – did I wake you? Have you had breakfast? Her first thought on climbing out of their consummated bed was to message me: can I see you? I am worried about you. The remorseful emails which that day began, from him, the trickery and campaigning of his superficial mistress, brought little comfort, and their literal fuckery, an eight-day wonder, hurt me unbearably. His weakness. His actions. His inaction. The lies.
What man is proof against the machinations of a predatory woman. She had brought him it seemed to me only an assiduous, an arduous mimicry of human emotion. Are you ok? I am worried about you. Within a week he and I were talking again, missing each other, trying to reach us, even as he fucked her for good measure a couple times more. When we finally met up he seemed to be suffering that solitude that wrongful intimacy alone inflicts: the grief that is like mourning a suicide, as the suicide. I felt the lack of real connection, he said. I was just so sad she was not you.
The sex wasn’t planned or premeditated: it just happened. Sure, I said. Not planned by you. What married woman does not carry condoms in her wallet? His weak passivity was gut-weakeningly terrifying to me. In debunking our closeness, so natural, so hard-won, to somebody so shallow, so utterly self-serving, he had pulled the plug out of the sea and it was draining. What mother would not leave her three-year-old at home all night to go out on the fuck? “That you chose that,” I ranted, “over me – it’s so insulting. It’s not even an honest comparison.”
Meanwhile the everyday experience of foreignness, sharpened now: an aching displacement and fog. My visa, which cost us both some struggle, came through – kind of. Provisional and freeing. Immediately the terror and suspense ebbed away and I entered a teeming fugue of dismay: what am I doing here? I feel so sad. The chic little creameries on my street, in a neighbourhood where I am part of the rapid hated gentrification, the perplexing, frantically delicate flavours they manufacture and interminably sell: white chocolate and parmesan; matcha pistachio; ‘caramel fleur du sel.’ The American menus in New York last week which made me cry in booths in diners, over breakfast: actually cry. Home fried chicken – with waffles – and maple syrup – butter – and collard greens – why? I don’t understand, I whispered miserably to our host. I ate the American food, or a quarter of it, felt myself weighted and sinking to the bottom of a crowded bowl.
The fortnight before, in still-familiar Germany, a sudden brain freeze at the local bakery. It is just an ordinary shop on a high street, but they sell so many varieties of bread I could not, half-awake in mid-morning, decide. The mechanically helpful German lady repeated, mechanically, Was darf’s sein. From hazelnuts. Sesame. Poppyseed, rye. The half loaf or the whole biscuit, the whole wheat, the full corn. I stood back from the counter and tried to count them, to marshall some sense out of the world. Counting was hard and I had to do it twice. This was a half hour before the announcement over breakfast that my beloved was falling in love elsewhere, when everything began to dissolve. Eventually I counted up 71 different kinds. These did not include strudel, incompetent croissant, sweet rolls, buns, fruit tarts.
Summer is in full swing and all the seats are full, like a children’s game. I used at first to find it intimidating walking past those cafes, European, where all the chairs face out into the street. It is a theatre, I dislike treading the bored. Dispiritingly, every chair til June has a blanket folded over its back, so you can sit in the sunshine and enjoy the sun’s light on your skin when you’re too numb from the cold to feel your face. All that light without warmth, it’s confusing. Now disorientation reawakens my foreignness, if I had a hometown I would go there.
I watched a movie where the woman dithers between her husband and a new alluring man. They are young, but they’re bored; at least, she is. The movie was quiet and slow, dimly glowing, like a fish tank. The husband is boring because he is just being himself. I wuv you, he says, routinely at night on the couch, unaware he is being compared. He is dull, he’s unable to step up for them both: I’d have left, too. But the doubting wife is working in secret, in the dark. She’s pursuing something that cannot exist: how tantalising. She is unable to say to her man, we are stale, you are losing me, and I want you to pull me back. I don’t want you to lose me, I want you to love me. Another man is making his intentions plain. If you want me you will have to speak, you will have to act.
Call out for me, love, come claim me now. The double story of her wishful affair, his wistful half-knowing, made uncomfortable viewing. Somehow it was as if they were on a date that he’d been looking forward to; as if maybe he thought this girl might be the one for him; but that she was only speed dating.
We made late night phone calls in whispers, walks where we both cried and cried. Our meetings were painful and very often angry, very often tender. “My beautiful Cathoel,” he said, wrenching my heart. Trying to touch me as I ducked away. Yet hope springs infernal. The affair had dwindled into a recital of her trauma, some of it so lurid it seemed to me almost improbable, an edge of lunacy, a frightening unhingedness; he took her to drug therapy, said she was in meltdown. Even three days after we’d first parted he told her, this is all happening too fast; I need some time, I need some space. Please don’t call me for twenty-four hours. This she took as an instruction, as controlling people do. Immediately there followed an announcement to the husband, I’ve been fucking elsewhere. She called, sobbing. I’ve told him! and he is so angry! The manufactured and the precipitated dramas, the tiny ideas in giant font, the three a.m. text messages, the darling self-regard. The improbable and faintly perplexing flavours, parmesan cheese with white chocolate. And his decision, more important in my world, to preference this over our everything. So you compared us, I said, and you chose, if only for eight lousy days, her. But you worked in the dark. Had you shone a light on it, she would have shrivelled in comparison. Because she lacks honour, depth, truthfulness, interest, and evidently, humour. She only had what you projected onto her. In another mood I would write, you too lack truthfulness and depth. So I think maybe the two of you are ideally suited.
Dutifully he retailed her story of the nice guy husband who simply doesn’t understand her. When I started to laugh he looked less offended than surprised. He shared their emails with me. We began to talk anew. We had the opportunity, suddenly, to fly to New York, where he texted her: I’m thinking of you all the time. In a bar in the lofty blue brainspace dome of glorious Grand Central Station we got drunk when the American barman didn’t know how to serve pastis and brought us two brimming tumblers, four or five drinks apiece. Have you got a photo of her, I said. Yes, he said: are you sure? He went down to the bathrooms and I turned to the woman sitting beside us, who had been scrolling and scrolling on her phone for half an hour. I said, Can I ask you about something? Something personal. I need some girl advice.
Yes, she said. She put down her phone. She turned on me her large, grave eyes. As rapidly as I could, I told her: my partner – indicating the empty stool – cheated on me. He told me he was falling in love. I’ve just asked him to show me a photo. Because otherwise it’s been tormenting me. Now I’m not sure. What would you do?
Hmm, she said: that is hard. Of course you’d want to see, see what this is. See her face. But it might make you feel bad because she might be really… Yes, I said, and we both sort of smiled. She said, suddenly, I think – if it will put your mind at rest – then you should do it. But if you do it, then after that you have to really let it go. No reminding him, every time you have a fight. No throwing it in his face. You have to look her in the eye, and then forget it.
I think you’re right, I said. My mind was lightening. Thank you so much. I put my hand on her arm. That is really good advice. You are wise. I asked about her own situation. She had moved here from India, with her husband. Now her husband has died. She’s decided to stay on. “I want to make a life here, have children.” I said, I know you will have really beautiful children. We smiled at each other. Then my ex-partner came back, slid into the stood between us. He showed me the photo. She was so plain and so winsome that I gasped, without meaning to, “Seriously?”
Three years ago there were no ice cream shops in the street where I am now living. Now a fourth is being built, on the corner where the tiny meadow springs. Up and down the street graffiti blare. If you want to speak English, go to New York. Berlin hates you. I walk along among the summer bicycles, the tiny children pressed in folds of cloth, the strange stridency that some German women’s vowels have that carries in the open air. The American accents, belling and unwelcome on the street. It has taken me all afternoon to get dressed. In my favourite cafe the barista won’t meet my eye, he lets me stand by the counter and wait. I give him my order, the same order I give him every day. He spreads his hands and tells me, strangely, we’ve run out of honey, we’re not getting it again. Stupidly I think, But – I’ve only ever spoken German in here. I turn away without a word, my chest aching. Grief is an animal looking for its place in me. It displaces my salt ways of being in the world. Summer in Berlin is a time for rejoicing. Beer bottles stand empty on top of all the bins. People line the canals. A Russian woman with spiky lashes stops me, carrying a map: Excuse me please. Where are the shops? Some days I don’t leave the house til nightfall, and walk proudly, carrying my head on its stalk, defeating an agony of alienated shame. Under the trees I let men’s glances wander over me in the dusk. I wake in the night, which is when things seem hardest. I ask myself should I even be writing about it. For no matter how scrupulous, however fair-mindedly I try to write, I only have my own experience. I can only ever render some tiny sliver of the mosaic mechanism, a peephole, untruthful because partial. Life is complex and hard. The ache is acid, residual, lasting. In the mornings its breathing overcomes my breathing. It climbs down heavily to the chest, to the base of my ribs where I was torn from my Adam and I miss him, raw, sore, and hunting. There was only one man whose eyes I sought, on summer evenings: that will never now be true again for us. I get dressed again to go out at last. I feel the agony of love we neither of us had courage for, and have both betrayed, lost out there in the long blue evenings which alike are visitors to this iron country, a brief season uncharacteristic of the place which all too soon begins to gather in its deep chill, its oppressive dark. At weak moments feeling sad, and lost, tired, and bereft, I am asking myself, are you ok? I am worried about you.