What's Going on Out There

November 2018


In my bed-bound state, the flu and its origins become a low budget whodunnit, replete with wonky, sepia-washed flashbacks. Who did I brush up against that one time I took the U-bahn? Was it the unbridled excitement of seeing Chris in her unbuttoned red silk shirt doing powerful sexy French dancing at the Christine and the Queens gig? Or was it the little white lie I told, the time I claimed I was ill precisely one day before I became ill? Was it the open window, blowing smoke rings from it into a Hinterhof on Skalitzerstrasse as a man opposite brushed his teeth and danced, was it the bad wine, the nervous sweating up three flights of stairs, the mad dash across Berlin to hand in a late semester essay?

The clocks change the day after I finish having the flu. Apparently we’re all a bit jet-lagged, and if we’re not, we should be. We would be if we went to bed like clockwork. The sky swallows Schöneberg up charcoal grey while my back is quite literally turned at work. It’s dark long before I cycle home now.

What’s going on out there? asks E when I get back. She has the flu now, too. Die Decke fällt mir auf dem Kopf; the ceiling is falling on our heads; we’re Wick VapoRubbed out and floundering under tissue snow drifts, backs aching from lying.

What’s going on is a fine drizzle is falling. The man cycling in front of me down Urbanstrasse swerves around the spaces where the tree roots lie dormant under the bike lane, weaving away onto the pavement and then back again. Nine times out of ten, there’s nothing there. It makes me nervous, in the dark.

What’s going on is it’s Halloween, and every child I have seen traipsing with paper bags full of potential through Graefekiez is either a pirate or Dracula. The mothers are the most into it. Back at home, there’s not a single cough drop left. We turn the lights off. Last year, the kids smeared toothpaste on my door knob. The year before that, it was ketchup.

The homeless man who often sits in the bus shelter round the corner is sitting in the bus shelter round the corner. As usual, he holds a book several centimetres away from the tip of his nose and reads under the dim glow of the street lamp. I think about stopping to ask what he’s reading. It has at least 600 hundred pages; most of his books do. His prescription is probably wrong and his gloves are fingerless. I don’t stop; I will wait until it’s really cold and then supply him with tea in thermos cans. Where does he sleep? I want to ask. Where does he get his books from? Does he have any recommendations? What’s his name?

Fatigued by prolonged exposure to the outside world after a lengthy chicken broth-fuelled convalescence, I make it to the Freie Universität for the first time since the new semester started. I’m done with seminars and have only my thesis to write. I feel as anonymous walking through the Rost und Silberlaube campus as I do at the supermarket or the gym, and miss the group of people I met in my first semester two years ago with such force that I almost turn back. But then I remind myself that I’m here for a reason, pull myself together and meet my supervisor before picking up more books from the library than fit in my rucksack. On the way home, delighting in a chapter on Absent and Wicked (Step-)Mothers, I celebrate having come to my senses and sparing myself six months of intensive Shakespeare immersion. Winter hibernation needs more postmodern fairy tale novels, more of Helen Oyeyemi curled up with me against the hot tiles of my coal oven, Angela Carter making the occasional appearance.

The U-bahn again, Ersatzverkehr again. A man sneezes and I take cover behind the hardback I’m holding. What’s going on out there is mass malaise, grey people dragging themselves feverishly across the city, queues snaking from the Apotheke door and out into the rain. They’ve run out of free tissues, they tell me at the counter. Stay at home if you can, they say. It’s a risky time to be out and about.