Ceciliengärten. Easy to miss if you don’t know how to get in. A garden walled-off by a fortress of old townhouses; tiled roofs glowing gold in the late afternoon sun; a stretch of lawn between two rows of chestnut trees; and a sizeable water fountain at the center. Happy families, everywhere you look. And, thanks to the few cherry blossoms, it currently snows pink in here.
A bit much, isn’t it? More postcard than writing material.
Treasure this mental picture, for it is how summer would look if only it had given up smoking ten years ago.
Nearly all park benches — which come in sets of two, ugly garbage bins in the middle — are taken, and so is most of the lawn, but I am determined. I came here to enjoy a cigar and, more importantly, figure out what’s wrong with me today. Cigars calm me down. They help me think.
There. Two guys, bikes tossed to the ground, beers in hand. The bench next to them is unoccupied, and they seem the most sociable of the lot.
“Is it okay if I smoke here?” I ask.
“Sure. Enjoy, man.”
Summer hangs in the air. It won’t hang there for long. The two-day summer of 2021, that’s what they’ll call it. In Berlin, it snowed less than a week ago.
My hands tremble as I light the cigar, my brain oozing smoke like the folded tobacco leaf. I am irate, agitated, restless, and worse of all, I’ve no idea why. This smoke in the park is my last-ditch effort to make some sense out of this day. Turn it around if I can.
There must be something, mustn’t there, sitting in my emotional backlog. A subconscious thought that I’m not processing, a mental loop I’m stuck in, an emotion I’ve gone on ignoring for too long finally catching up with me. But what is it?
The two guys are gone. I didn’t notice them leave. On the bench next to mine sits a grumpy-looking German. Here’s a man with a permanent scowl, lips curled downward, chin sinking deep into his impressive jowl. He must’ve gotten beefy late in his life because his arms and legs are standard issue limbs, completely unlike the pregnant beer muscle in the front. He’s watching German television on his phone, mumbling and snorting along the canned voices coming from the tiny phone speaker. He’s working on the first of four beers he brought with him.
I’m halfway through Martin Amis’s autobiographical Inside Story. There’s nothing like reading about other people’s thorny lives to help you sort out your own. And yes, I feel sympathy for this struggling Martin, but honestly, at this moment, his confessions serve as a mere backdrop to my search for meaning, his words a grist to the mill of my inner life.
Every time I look up from my Kindle, the man’s eyeballs shift, and he stares at me from under the many folds of his forehead.
Is it about the smoke? I try to be mindful of the wind direction and time my puffs accordingly, but I was here first. It’s not like I lit up a cigar right under his living room window.
Anyway, there are things I want to write about but can’t. Not here. If I were to open up about my secrets, I would at least like to be paid for it like a proper prostitute, like Martin Amis. And there are other subjects — cancer, because what else I can write about but simply don’t want to. There comes the point where even cancer gets boring.
Could it be, I wonder, that my current distress is again the sound of floorboards creaking under the weight of the elephant in the room?
My fingertips tingle. I tried clenching and unclenching my hands, god knows how many times. Didn’t help. Why can’t I enjoy a summer day like a normal person?
It’s been going so well these last few months. We’re no longer alone in Berlin. We made new friends. During the pandemic. Outdoors. At a distance. In winter weather. With masks on. Not your usual set of circumstances for fostering human bonding.
Other than goddamn cancer, life is great. I exercise regularly, eat healthily, have an engaging job, write every day, and have energy in spades. Everything’s going great except the one thing that matters the most.
My wife still needs a bone marrow transplant. And while the interruption in her treatment felt like a blessing at first, a welcome rest from the constant prickle of the needle and chemo tiring her out faster than she could recover, the meaning of the interruption is that her treatment so far has essentially failed.
Without the constant torrent of shit to deal with, life felt amazing. For a while, I found it easy to ignore the creaking floorboards. But now… What? The three-month-long dopamine high has subsided. The elephant hasn’t moved an inch. Gotten heavier, if anything.
The man opens his second bottle — one of those cheap German pilsners with a forgettable name written in gold longhand across a black label.
How is it possible that I went from having a fantastic day yesterday to being utterly drained today?
Did I mention yesterday? We went for a hike with a friend and ended up spending most of the afternoon at the lakeside. The water was cold as fuck. I went in, probably to show off. And then, when I was dry, warm, packed, and ready to leave, I went in again because our friend realized she must’ve lost her sunglasses somewhere by the shingle. Amazingly enough, I found them. In the lake, hovering over shells and pebbles, suspended mid-flight in the gently sloshing water.
Yesterday was perfect. First picnic of the season in great company and away from the city. Superb weather, not to mention this liberating smell that only holidays have. I know it was just one day, but to me, this felt like going on vacation.
Why am I so upset, then? Is it possible for positive emotions to tire you out? Can freedom exhaust you after a year of captivity?
Back in Cecilien, all looks normal. Small children jumping up and down in the fountain, a dog running circles around them, parents chatting away with their friends. A taste of things to come after the pandemic.
Leaves a sour aftertaste, though. Not the kids and the dog. I mean the rest. No masks, no distance.
At the time of writing, only about 11% of the population has been fully vaccinated in Germany.
If there is one thing I learned about middle-class Germans, especially of the Grosse Familie variety, it is that they think the pandemic is something that happens to immigrants and poor people only. I saw German parents hurry their children away from Turkish or Syrian families (mask-wearing and responsible) so that they (white, blue-eyed, blonde-haired) don’t catch the plague. Visit any playground, and you’ll see Germans hanging around in their droves, twenty families packed in space meant for ten. Kids playing in the sandbox, parents huddled together, enjoying their coffee, wine, and conversation. As reckless as they are privileged.
The man tries to be discreet, but from the corner of my eye, I can see him examining me over his phone. Why is he staring? Is it because of my clothes? My checkered jacket lies folded in half next to me, grey hat resting on top of it. Or is it something else? Can he sense my unease?
He grabs another beer. This time, a green can, I can’t make out the brand. It opens with a tchk.
My wife and I, we’ll both be getting our jabs two days from now. BioNTech, no less, the German Mercedes of all covid vaccines. I think I should get more comfortable around people. Stop seeing them as plague-bearing cretins and more like fellow humans.
Can this really be it? The end of the line? The way they were going about vaccination in Europe, I braced myself for a pandemic that would linger till the end of the year. This end in sight feels both welcome and too sudden.
To be honest, I’ve come to enjoy this prison. Settled into a new routine. Found ways to kill time. Grew fond of people I didn’t know a year ago.
In some way, we grew close because we didn’t have much of a choice. We built a social bubble of people mindful of the risk to my wife. Strangers going to extreme lengths to ensure her safety, showing more kindness and understanding than I had the right to ask for.
I have built a new life here. Independently of the life I had before. “I had no choice,” I keep telling myself as if any of this was a betrayal of a sort. Hard to say. Maybe it was. But all of my loved ones were far away. A simple yet brutal fact, and no amount of well-wishing and goodwill could make up for it.
What is to become of friendships made under captivity?
The walls of our confinement are crumbling. The war is drawing to a close. At some point in the near future, someone will be the last person to have died of covid. And then what?
Another long stare from the man, this one lingering and unfocused. His experience of time is clearly different from mine. What is he after? Conversation? A fight? Human connection?
What if this, the reality show, the four beers, the solitude of the park bench, what if this is his way of escaping the emotions slowly catching up with him? For all I know, he may be as distressed as I am and for similar reasons.
The world is about to open up again. Will I, I wonder, recognize my friends once this is over? And, to name my real fear, will they recognize me?
The last time we saw each other was last year. Only briefly, before my wife’s diagnosis. After that, it became impossible to meet.
Would you call that falling apart? Doesn’t feel like it. The affection is still there. We did nothing to hurt one another. Quite the opposite, we did our best to stay in touch and show each other support through these shitty times. I miss my friends the same way I miss my family. And yet, the pandemic has driven a wedge between us. An artificial one, sure, but does that make it any less real?
Once they closed the borders, once lockdowns started, once the diagnosis came in, whatever life I had was put in suspended animation. It stayed that way for a year. Now, it’s about to wake up to the post-pandemic world. I worry it may not survive. Not the way it used to be, anyway.
The fountain switches off, and a wave of complete silence washes over Cecilien. I look towards the park, now empty and dark. It’s gotten colder — the end of the two-day summer.
The man slurps the last foamy drops from the upturned can. He smacks his lips and lets out a wet, reverberating belch, the kind of which this neighborhood probably hasn’t heard in over a decade. I know that this belch isn’t thematically on point, but life writes stories stranger than fiction.
As to me, I feel lightheaded, but this is a different kind of dizzy. More to do with the cigar I smoked than my inner turmoil.
I lift my hands, palms down, and study my fingers. They no longer tremble.