I went to have my hearing tested. This became necessary because a man had walloped me across the face: a man I loved. Needless to say, no man has ever hit me before and I’m damned if any man will again.
Needless to say, I no longer love him.
It was my fault as well. Not the blow, which remains inexcusable. The overheated situation in which it came. He had told me, all of a sudden over our omelettes at my place one summer morning, he thought he was falling in love with someone else. I refused to discuss it, threw him out within ten minutes, wouldn’t take his calls. So he went out on the fuck.
The girl he’d found was married already yet carried condoms in her wallet. She was the kind of girl who rings a guy she likes very early in the morning to say, Hey. I just noticed I’m actually right in your street. I bought an extra coffee by mistake. What you haven’t had breakfast yet? Shall I drop round?
Within three weeks it had run its course and she had dwindled to an obligation he still felt he should commit: he wanted to ferry her to drug therapy to make sure she would go; he felt if he cut her off, she might hurt herself. All that dreary jazz. He and I began to talk, gingerly. I was outraged and so hurt. One day we met on the riverbank and each brought a beer. We talked searchingly. Then he made a remark about her which I won’t repeat. It stung me to the bone: about her beauty. I threw my empty bottle at his feet and stalked away. He threw his empty bottle at me.
Oh, we were unadmirable. Toiling in our longterm pain and both of us tipped by this turn in events into our oldest, most dysfunctional patterns. Fear of abandonment. Fear of violence. We argued that night, having followed each other down the street to his house, shouting like sailors, and then I stormed out and went tramping down the street with my hands stuffed in my pockets, muttering with rage. I fell in with a beautiful, soulful gay guy who was walking ahead of me. He said, Are you ok. I said, I’m not. Something horrible has happened and I feel furious and hurt. We started talking as we walked on and he went into a late-night shop and bought a two-euro bottle of vodka and we sat in the doorway of a Lebanese restaurant on the main road after they had closed and smoked a joint, my first ganja in five years, and drank our vodka. We went to an infamous dance club and talked and danced. Then I went back round my betrayer’s house, stoked up on alcohol and rage. I let someone let me in at the street door and jogged up the stairs and terrified him by pounding on his inner, apartment door. He opened it and I barged in. Where is she? I know she’s here.
He was saying, She’s not here, Cathoel, I told you. I’m not seeing her anymore. But I wouldn’t listen, I couldn’t hear. I stalked about his tiny one room apartment spewing out my rage and pain. He was saying, You have to go, you can’t just come shoving your way into my private space. We can talk tomorrow. But I wouldn’t go. I wanted to make him as angry as I was. And I succeeded. He took my by the hair and tried to drag me towards the door. “You have to go!” This was more or less what I had wanted: vindication, proof, a release of the intoxicating vigour we all know, the most dangerous drug, that which fuels every mass shooting: righteous indignation. Oh, how dare he touch me. Oh, how he was a man.
We began to wrestle. I imagine we woke the neighbours. I couldn’t stop from goading him but when he got goaded I screamed, almost triumphantly, Let go of me, let go, you brute.
I remember in the delirium and loss of every control of this powerful night the tiny mouthfeel of the satisfying word ‘brute’ fat and meaty in my mouth.
I said something about his bed, the bed he built for us and had now illegitimately shared. He pushed me onto it. I wouldn’t fall and he pushed me so hard I later found cuts along the sweet inside of the backs of my knees, that private, tender cave whose name I have so long loved to wonder about. Why is there no word in English for the inside of the elbow, the back of the knee? Do other cultures have a better way to love themselves than we do? The cuts took weeks to heal and then I had angry, flame-red welts for months. I flung my hands up in terror. He had gone into the stratosphere at last, this bullied child whose father whistled for him as though he had been a dog, this long-legged stranger chased through the village schoolyard for his sensitivity and height by his entire class all at once. “They hunted me,” he had told me, on one of the few occasions we talked about it. Now he drew his arm back and walloped. He hit me across the face. He hit me! Across the face! The signature that I am me. He hit me so hard a bruise rose up days later and stained me purplish green for several weeks. I wore it with an angry kind of prideful shame. I felt marked: a woman, after all. I was incensed. I got up and grabbed the most precious thing he had: his laptop computer, on which everything he’d made was stashed. I hurled it out the window and it came crashing into the parking lot below. He left me then. Ran outside and began peering over the edge. I locked him out. I was cold with terror. I thought he might kill me. I had that thought. I locked the balcony door behind him and this gave me the time to gather my things and get out of there. The man who had hit me was wringing his hands, he was crying, for his fucking computer, my ears ringing and my head on fire, I left him there and ran away and ran home with my cotton trousers torn across the front as though I had been raped, I saw people looking at me in the dark and then looking away, I was saying to myself, I will never forgive you for hitting me, I can’t believe you hit me, I’ll never forgive that you made me an object of desperate pity to all these strangers, I will never forgive.
When I was gone the man whose computer I had destroyed had to climb down the scaffolding on the building and knock at a neighbour’s window, and the neighbour let him in, and he had to get a locksmith before he could gain access again to his own apartment, and I suppose he was carrying the smashed computer under his arm, but at the time, I didn’t care. Not that I didn’t care: I felt vindicated, I was glad.
This was two years ago. We slowly tried to recover, we built on our inimical love, we tried to comfort each other: but it could not work out. That and the baby we had lost and some other griefs had stained us to the marrow so that like a series of transparent microscope slides you could have sliced our love thinly and seen the mark of these traumatic events in every cell.
Now I had noticed my hearing was fuzzy. I wasn’t sure if this was just the flu. The Berlin flu this autumn that doesn’t go away. It lingers. I noticed because I was dating. I met men in bars and struggled to hear what they were saying. I was always leaning in, forming my hand into a trumpet like some old warhorse chaperone in a turban and lace in a country house in England before the Great War.
The ear, nose, and throat specialist was Russian. He spoke careful German. I confessed my foul story. “Es tut mir sehr leid für Sie,” he said, courteously: I am very sorry this happened to you. I said, I’m not sure whether the blow might have damaged – my hearing (it was hard to get the words out, hard to let this thought form in my mind) – or whether it might just be age. You know?
My Russian doctor widened his eyes. Sitting in his white lab coat he said, “But you are young! You are a beautiful young woman!” He drew his stool between my knees and separated them with his own. He leaned in on the pretence of examining me and said, “Sie schwitzen!”
“Yes,” I said, shrinking back but already questioning myself. This must surely be normal? His assistant behind us gave no sign of dismay when he put himself between my knees. “I rode here on my bike,” I said, helplessly explanatory, almost apologetic: “It’s warm, once you get moving.”
The Russian doctor took a clean handkerchief from his pocket. He padded it tenderly up and down my neck, behind the ear. Then he returned it to his hidden, inner pocket, carrying my DNA, and leaning in to prod his old-fashioned steel devices into my left ear and then my right, one device after another, while I sat there with my knees parted for him unable to say a word.
There’s nothing wrong with your hearing, he told me, later in the hallway. I was sitting under a Turkish carpet on a loom which spelled out his name, with the prefix, ‘Dr’, in wool. His assistant had put me in headphones and tested which tones I could hear, and – as they grew louder – how soon. He showed me his chart. “This is normal hearing. And this is you. I think you just have some inflammation from your cold. Actually your hearing is very good.”
Thank you, I said. I could not wait to get away. The trees outside the surgery window were shifting in a silent wind. The doctor twinkled at me. “A pleasure,” he promised. “And if you need to come back again, for any reason at all – dann zahlen Sie gar nix. Then, you pay nothing whatsoever.” And so I had to thank him again.