You remember the dark grainy night when your lover went into the rain and never came back. You sat on the old chair that belonged to your dead father and waited and waited and the rain stopped and the sun shone through the window again but they never came back. Maybe a hyena ate them, you rationalized in order to move on with your life because why wouldn’t they come back? Why wouldn’t anyone come back to you?
Or maybe they came back late that night carrying small beads of raindrops on their shoulders but then over time your love for them grew old and weary, punctuated by spats and rubbish old lover’s feuds. And the love shrunk inside your heart like an old leather bag and finally it just became a dead mass in you that started eating your flesh away with its dead acid and one day you gathered courage to walk out in the dark grainy night in the rain and got eaten by a hyena. Which was better than dying from old spoiled love.
Maybe you have never loved because you are afraid. Afraid of sharing your love with someone who might forget it on a public bench. Afraid of showing anyone the real you, someone who was abandoned at childhood and kicked from one nasty aunty to the other like a ball made from old polythene. Afraid of finding out that you are actually loveable, that you are deserving, that there are worse things in the world than chewing with your mouth open. So you always run away from love like one would a hyena in the dark.
Maybe you are in love now and you are wearing red because you are a cheesy lover and love oozes from you, fresh and bright, like blood from a cow’s neck. And you can’ believe that she’s with you, the kind of girl who loves berries and Rosé and having her feet sucked. And so you pray for your enduring love and that she isn’t eaten by a hyena.
Maybe today, Valentine’s Day you are in cold bloody Germany, riding your thin bicycle with cold handlebars, your skin so dry you can wedge a coin in it and your heart cracked open by a large ugly gorge of loneliness.
That’s how Gloria, our resident writer, is spending her Valentine’s Day. But that can’t be worse than going to fetch something from your car in the basement and being eaten by a hyena.
But what do I know about loneliness and dry skin? I will let Gloriah tell you about it herself.
Oh and Happy Valentine’s Day, if you are that kind of person.
By Gloriah Amondi
“Supposing you were here longer — this is hypothetical, of course, I live here, and you are leaving Berlin in two days—two days? Yeah, well, maybe not exactly dating, but like if I were to ask that we see each other—nothing formal like marriage, ha-ha.”
Here, he pauses to sip his tea nervously. The green mint leaves float, clogging in his cup.
“Just a casual sort of thing for, like, the time you will be around in Germany—we don’t even have to be exclusive, you know; if you want to see other people that’s okay with me–but if I were to ask, what would you say?”
“Well, Victor, I—”
“We just met; I know. I know. I Understand. But I’m just curious…”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Maybe the question is a bit intense, I understand. But hypothetically, just out of curiosity, would you?”
“I’m leaving for Aurich—”
“On Monday, yes. And you’ll be away the whole time? You should travel around while you are here. What if I invite you to Berlin? I would host—if you want. I know you have friends around. But only if you were comfortable staying over at my place. I have a couch; you could sleep there—maybe you can stay around for a weekend? I mean that’s up to you. We would hang out, maybe go to a club, or just stay in the house. I have a photo book I would like to show you. They are by my favourite photographer—you like art, yes? —he lives in Berlin, the photographer, but he is also a bouncer in a club—the one I told you about that hosts a 72-hour party into New Year’s every year. The people in the photos look very serious (here, because of the translation, he uses the German word ‘streng’ which means strict instead of ‘ernst’).”
I lean back on my seat. It is a red, old, leather-ish couch stuck to the wall, whose one arm (the left side is open) has blackened from years of use. There are clean patches on the darkening walls, where pictures (you can tell from the square shapes) once hung. On each of the tables, red candles are burning, on top of mountains of candle wax.
Directly above me, there are writings scribbled using permanent markers:
Alec was here.
Felix und Tanja (love emoji)
Julien (and a signature below it)
Lukas, Franzi, Jazz, Victor, Sven, Fabian (in distinctive handwriting)
A naughty, amateur drawing of what should be a penis with balls, with a small signature next to it.
We are in a bar, along Friedrishshain Strasse called ‘Fargo’ – like the series.
To get there (from Schonefeld where I’m crashing at a friend’s), I had to take an S-bahn then change to a U8 metro and got lost a good 13 minutes before I finally located the correct exit. So, I ended up 27 minutes late, only to find him- Victor – waiting outside in the winter cold. The bar has TV screens showing football matches between teams I can’t tell (the screens are far from where I am sitting) and the gentle music playing is overwhelmed by the smoking and conversations in the room. There is also an empty pool table, and a table football where a red-head girl and her friend are shrieking noisily as they play. The blue and orange lighting gives it a mixed vibe of the sort of place you can go with your male buddies for an evening of beer but also somewhere you can take a girl you are trying to impress (or in this case, not-so-subtly trying to proposition).
Victor is sitting across the table.
He is drinking pfefferminzetee. Normally, he would be on beer like me, he explains, but he decided about two months ago to quit alcohol. For some inexplicable reason, that makes me feel a little guilty. The Kraft beer I am having is his recommendation, and I try to actively avoid his eye every time I take a swig. It feels like the right thing to do. He is wearing a black, sleeveless hoodie that has frangible skeleton hands around his chest and equally black, slim trousers. Both our jackets are lying next to me. His nails are painted black and white (his favourite colours- he explains) and on his left ear, dangles a big black loop. He is a beautiful man, in a fancy gothic and morbid way- the way you would find an old cemetery pleasant.
The door is clear, and I turn away from Victor’s waiting eyes to look at the city and to watch the staff of a Maanesten store across the street do a half-hour Yoga session before they close for the day. Outside, there are ordinary things happening:
A bored dog barking from a balcony.
A young couple walking down the street holding hands- the girl with a streak of purple on her hair, the young boy in a yellow, puffed jacket.
An old woman strolling with a big, black, furry German Shepherd.
The small dog at the balcony barking ferociously at the German Shepherd, who, refusing to be drawn into petty arguments, continued walking unbothered, the old woman’s face glowing with pride at her ‘Solomonic’ canine.
I had expected Berlin to be intimidating. I have been to cities like Beijing where buildings are so tall you can’t see the end of them, the street lights are harsh and unforgiving to a foreigner’s eye, the language cruel to a non-native’s ear, and things happen so fast they stop before they even start. Then I have been to gentler cities like Rome where the warm scent of the sea wafts through the streets in summer, and life flows softly like a thick, melting, chocolate gelato, and everywhere you go, the sweet smell of coffee welcomes you. Rome is also where I got my heart broken for the first time after a fling (he was an Argentinian who looked like a Greek demi-god and smelled like a garden of flowers in spring; I should have known better, but I was young and 19). I thought Rome was magnificent, but then again as I have mentioned, I was foolishly in love and sometimes I suspect love blurs my perceptions- or else makes me giddy with fanciful notions.
Although the architecture is grandiose and show-offy, I found Berlin timid in a sweet, teenage-like manner- like a fierce 19-year-old purposely down playing his own ferociousness to lure a shy girl. It is a city of great, and admittedly, agreeable contrast; it is difficult to box Berlin into a singular, particular description. However, even as a foreigner, you can tell that this very ordinary Berlin pulsates at its core with parallels and unpredictability. That the Berlin that shows itself to you and the Berlin you would find hidden in the trash cans along alleys are different.
That it has many faces, all of which are true.
Victor follows my gaze.
“Cold, yes?” He asks.
I nod. It’s not what I was thinking about, but I am glad for the change of topic.
“How cold does it get in Kenia? It must be very warm, no? Sorry, I don’t know much about Africa.”
“I don’t know. 12, 13 maybe. Degrees, I mean.”
“Very different from here, yes? It’s very cold in Germany,” he says apologetically.
Germans, unlike the Chinese, are very apologetic about their weather – and being a German himself, Victor has not been spared of this sometimes-not-so-cute quality. Where the Chinese walk proud with their faces pale from the stinging cold, they are shy (about other things) but unbothered by a cold foreigner or their ungodly temperatures (and oh, isn’t Chinese winter the worst of them all!) Germans apologize to any foreign ear that cares to listen about their winters- especially if they are black.
“Give me your hands,” Victor says abruptly.
I put out my hands, unsure of myself. He takes them in his.
There is a long minute of awkward silence where nobody says anything, and he closes his eyes, as if listening to my hands. Eventually, he drops my sweaty hands and I instinctively wipe them on my pants.
“Can I kiss you?” His eyes enlarge from anticipation as he says this.
Now, whenever I feel exposed or thrown into some sort of confusion- even the mildest form- I will prattle. Which is exactly what occurs when Victor gently tries to pull me to him across the table.
“Victor—well, I—I was going to ask, sorry I forgot, what’s the wildest thing you’ve ever eaten? For me it’s a scorpion! —Beijing, of course—ha ha—but the German winter is not so bad—have you ever traveled to any country in Africa? You should come to Nairobi, one day. I will show you around.”
It’s a pathetic attempt, I know. But I can’t think of what to say.
Victor drops my hand, limply, deflated.
“You know I—”
“I have an early morning tomorrow,” he says, matter-of-fact, avoiding my eyes.
“Victor I’m so—”
“No, it is okay. I understand. Well, thank you for your time, Gloriah (he says Gloriah in a perfunctory tone. The way a secretary can call a Gloriah from a long queue during an interview, or how an unimportant Gloriah can be called out in a list of, say, unimportant people who have gone to collect their Yellow Fever certificates from a Kanjo clinic officer at that old gray-brick clinic at City Hall).
“Let me know when you get home,” he adds swiftly, rising to go pay the bill. I want to stand and leave with him, but I can’t find the energy. I stay very still on my side of the seat.
“Zusammen,” I hear him reply to the waitress who asks if the bill is separate or not.
Long after he is gone, I sit and stare blankly at the empty seat.
Everywhere around me, life continues, oblivious to the chaos.
By the time Monday comes and I leave for Aurich, I have not heard from Victor.
In fact, I do not hear from Victor at all after that night.
Aurich is a small and cozy town in the North (Niedersachsen), about seven hours from Berlin.
In one of the buses I took, there were these old women, about five of them- they had those small, twinkling, coloured bulbs (covered in red, tiny Santa hats) clipped to their ashy hair- giggling naughtily, like school girls, while I just stood beside them, exhausted, desperately praying that none of the small centres we stopped at was Aurich (well, as it turned out, the last small center was actually Aurich).
It has no distinctive reputation (historically or geographically) other than the small administrative role bestowed on it- the capital town of the district of Aurich- which they have taken seriously. It’s also largely red-bricked and everything is around the corner:
My apartment is next to the Combi XL supermarket, which is next to a gas station and a car-hire office, that is next to a pizzeria, a small café, which is not too far from a dance-school, and the cemetery. If you cross the road, you get to the main bus station then to the town square and then out of the town square.
Like I said … around the corner.
They believe they are a beach town, except the nearest sea (the North Sea) is two hours away, and nobody corrects them. But it has some beautiful trails and I get to ride a bike freely anywhere.
I am clocking my third month here.
It is winter, and the temperatures are ungodly. Although it mostly rains up here (more than it snows) the wind from the sea is a stinging nightmare. Whenever I go out, I wear a thick jacket layered over a thinner jacket, a scarf, thermal pants (inside my denim pants), mitten, gloves, two pairs of socks and fur boots. The result of all this wrapping is that I look stiff and dumb, which is nothing compared to the agony whenever I have to use the bathroom.
As vengeance, I leave the house every morning and ride my bicycle in the winter cold to traumatize the highschoolers that I teach with unscheduled lessons on history and general genocides – the Big Five, you know: The Holocaust (Nazis killing Jews), the Holodomor (Russians killing Ukrainians), ‘Cambodia’ (the Khmer Rouge regime killing its smarter civilians, and why were the Akamba, gentlest of Kenyans, once called ‘Wa-Cambodia’?), the Armenian Genocide (Turks killing Armenians) and the Rwanda Genocide of 1994 (which you all, or at least should, know about).
I’m supposed to be teaching literature and languages.
Because nothing ever really happens here, I head back home in the afternoon.
Here, I am a lot of things. A foreigner. A Teaching Assistant. A colleague. A black girl (on a bike). A semi-alcoholic (at least to the sweet lady who mans the wine section of the supermarket, and who diligently keeps suggesting other brands despite me always ending up with the Donfelder because it’s cheap. But she doesn’t need to know that.)
Behind the door, in the confines of my room, I am something else- lonely.
If there’s something nobody prepares you for when you move abroad, it’s the impending cloud of sadness that hovers around you like a halo in those first weeks or months (that, and how- in China- you don’t flush away your soiled toilet paper. You throw it in an open bin next to the toilet). To be fair, this list should also include a few other things: the red light districts of Amsterdam; the much vaunted German efficiency; the beauty that is Nyhavn at dusk; the price of red meat in Germany; gluhwein, which is basically wine that’s heated and drunk hot…I digress.
There’s emptiness. A hollowness that gnaws at the soul. The aching of the heart. The yearning for familiarity. The wanting to hold and to be held. The heart wanting to speak and to be spoken to in its language. The constant fatigue even when you’ve been doing nothing, because the spirit is hollow and empty from eating itself. The oblivion of the rest of the world, or rather, its audacity to continue spinning as if your own world is not crushing.
On top of that, because of the ungodly winter temperatures, I have a terrible cold that has been going on for forever and my skin, having not had to deal in a long time with anything other than a tropical climate, is eternally pale and dry. I am also a bit homesick.
I am haunted by a recurring dream where I am waiting in a house for this person (with whom we had a bit of a turbulently passionate history) to come back from an errand. Different every time – shopping, an event, night-out, visit – but they never quite get back. I wait some more and as time goes the anxiety in me grows. In that darn dream, I know they are running these ‘errands’ with somebody else, and that they are not coming back. All the same, I still sit there and wait in that empty house.
Whenever I wake from these dreams, I find that I am drenched in sweat, and I’m unable to go back to sleep.
There are little joys though:
We had the sun out twice this week.
I get to use a washing machine to do laundry – get this- for Free! (Small problem though, I have to carry my clothes across town to get to the washing machine, because it’s in the school).
I have a roof window. During the day, I watch the rain drops or sometimes snowflakes softly hit and cover the glass, but at night, I have the moon or a star, but often, just my own reflection.
Sometimes, I sit naked to read, and drink wine while looking at myself.
And I finally managed to wash off the last of the wax that had frozen on my hair. I don’t know why I thought me, who has never touched my own hair other than occasionally to get it out of the way (I am not taking questions) would somehow get to Europe and miraculously be able to retouch my dreadlocks myself.
I thought about Victor’s offer and finally texted him today, Friday (turns out a girl might not mind company on St. Valentine’s after all).
Hey Victor, said the text, Still have that picture book of yours? (Blushing face emoji; blushing face with-one-hand-over-the-mouth emoji)
To which he replied:
“Hello Gloriah, no, I have borrowed my friend my picture book for now- have a nice evening!”
(No love emoji)