First published on June 15, 2018
Once spring arrives, numbers are often the only comfort: statisticians record the most suicides in late spring and early summer. Whereas in the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are displaced by a half-year, most of the suicides take place in December. It helps to read that. I find it soothing that I’m not even that crazy, averagely disturbed at worst. Other people kill themselves. That gives me some degree of normalcy.
Hildegard Knef sang I’d like to leave myself behind. In springtime I want to disappear, to leave myself. To be in a different place, with new people and a new face. And if I’m successful, I promise I won’t go looking for myself.
A list of the things I’d prefer to do without this spring:— going off my medication— accepting a residency— trying to find a publisher— undergoing hormone ovulation therapy
Instead of receiving the volume of short stories I’d ordered online, I am sent another book: Barn and Pasture: Do-It-Yourself. I want to keep the book, it smells old, of correspondence courses and craft stores, it lists what to do in an emergency or when everything falls apart. I leaf through the chapter called The Self-Reliant Woman, which promises to be »a guide through the chaos.«
Half of a Cipralex falls on the kitchen floor. I try to find it before the cat can. It finds everything that falls on the floor, that’s the only reason why it follows me into the kitchen—there’s nothing it wouldn’t eat. I once read that cats that drink alcohol never quite sober up. They’re missing an enzyme that humans only have thanks to a genetic mutation, and later on I google: drunk cats. And: cats on Cipralex. I watch videos for the rest of the morning. My boyfriend tells me he’d like to be a cat.
I left. I went towards a longing that isn’t worth explaining, because it’s the one—we all know, and smile—that returns every year, something with the seasons, a March homesickness for new people, for whom you too would be new, so that it would be well worth talking, to think about lots of things, to get excited even, homesickness for the first long, long talk with a woman I don’t know. To wander off into a night like that, ignoring all the boundaries! We wouldn’t dare jump over those that lie within us …
My therapist says: there’s no escaping yourself. We know, and smile. He, being familiar with Max Frisch and Rilke, knows what I mean when I say I’m afraid of my face melting away. I’m not sure if a new one is growing underneath, but as long as people can still look at me, I’ll still have sex. To wander out into a night without worrying about boundaries. He wants to talk to me about alcohol, about substance abuse and why there’s no point to just keep changing partners to avoid encountering oneself. We talk about homebound sex and homesick sex, which is actually yearning to have sex away from home. I claim it’s fantastic sex because all the action is in your head. Your body is hardly involved. I barely feel my body anymore, even if I’m feeling more alive than ever. My therapist calls it dissociation, but I think: it’s just practicing death in la petite mort, still better than suicide.
The hormone melatonin dominates during the darkest times of the year, while serotonin levels rise with increasing daylight. The warmer temperatures also make blood vessels in the skin expand, so blood pressure sinks slightly. Those affected by these changes are exhausted, perhaps also agitated, and might even suffer from vertigo and circulation problems. Springtime can set loose deep insecurity and generally induces a certain restlessness in all systems. It can play a role in triggering symptoms. This is the season when all possible forms of mental disturbance can easily slip to the surface.
It is soothing to read this. I tell myself that the man I’m seeing is merely a symptom. He comes every year in spring, he’s a book fair guy, and I’m comforted by the thought that my yearning for him is purely enzymatic. A disturbance in the system, a disproportion of neurotransmitters.
Restlessness haunts me at night. My boyfriend and I have split the covers, we’ve been sleeping separately since it’s grown warmer, each one of us on either side of the bed. The nights are exhausting because I sweat excessively, and even one layer is too much. I feel hot and I freeze, I wake up because I’m freezing, I’m drenched, and I’ve soaked the bed. Every night I lose almost a gallon of sweat, of Cipralex, and in the morning I can’t stand my own odor. Even the cat avoids me. I stay in bed until my boyfriend has left the apartment, then I run to the shower and feel like I’m suffocating.
I go to the doctor and ask for new medication. There’s nothing I wouldn’t swallow but we stick with Cipralex because it’s not teratogenic. The doctor suggests that we increase the dosage even though he considers me stable. I’m supposed to come back in six weeks, which is the 8th of May, it’s always the 8th of May when I have to go in for an urgent consultation, and slowly but surely, I no longer believe in coincidences. I believe in statistics: that the 8th of May is merely an average, a predictable date without symbolism that the average lunatic succumbs to.
My therapist thinks that my blockage is also a result of writer’s block. People who write don’t have to feel their bodies, according to him even writing is dissociative, and I claim that I’ve been writing again for quite some time: working on a kind of love story, but one that will never be published. It’s all about bad sex with an ugly man who I write as ugly and bad, to make it somewhat easier that he’s only a fiction. I write in the first person, but as Virginia Woolf said, even ›I‹ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being, and when I lose control then it only happens because I want it to.
My therapist says I should pay attention to my needs, not just cling to routines. But then I’m sitting at my desk again, watching cat videos, and checking my inbox. The man, who I tell myself is just an idea, doesn’t write. Every three minutes I click refresh, and ultimately, I call B. and tell her about him. I list the things that I find repulsive. These are the things that I think about when I miss him: how he moves his hips and rubs his pelvis against me almost as soon as he’s standing next to me. The yellow gunk in the corners of his eyes in the morning, the sounds he makes in the bathroom, his mint-green boxers. How he looks at me, spreads my legs, and inspects me, as if I were at a routine check-up. How his unshaven chin scrapes against me, how pleased he is with himself, how I despise him for all of that and still worry that he doesn’t want me. He’s an asshole, B. says, and I think: it doesn’t matter. When she hangs up, I google his name plus asshole and am surprised how many hits I get.
What else do you enjoy? My therapist asks. I am supposed to survey my friends and the first person I meet is N. We’re drinking together, and I ask her how she spends the springtime. N. says none of it matters—a little bit like a second puberty, not the worst state to be in. We ponder what we’d still be able to do if we were teenagers again: going out and drinking, smoking pot and sleeping, listening to music, watching movies—maybe eating food, says N., who’s become a vegan. We make plans for next week. We want to do something grown-up, there’s Yoga in the Park on Wednesday.
I give porn a try. My therapist says it’s about increasing desire, even if he surely means something else. Usually I can tell after a couple scenes whether I’ll keep watching until the cumshot. I turn off the sound, fast-forward to the changes of positions, and watch how he spreads her legs, kneeling in between, and starts to play with her. Her genitals are leathery, small-lipped, and plastic colored. Not at all red, not at all aroused, only the piercing glistens.
The telephone rings and it’s my mother. They’ve bought a new dryer. The previous one lasted twenty-two years. She thinks the new one might well outlive them. I do the math and maybe she’s right: they could die before a dryer. I’m furious: why don’t you buy something cheap? I don’t want to inherit the dryer.
When I was fifteen my mother took me along to her gynecologist. She was hardly older than I am today. I was supposed to get the pill, and on the way to the clinic she told me that she was slowly starting to get gray pubic hairs. It’d been a shock for her: to realize that even body hair had to turn gray. I stick my fingers in my ears, I didn’t want to hear it, and my mother gushed about her gynecologist, who had given her a tip: do what the younger girls do and simply shave them off.
The neighbor holds the door open for me. He’s not being polite, he just wants to follow me up the stairs. He’ll go back down again in five minutes. Behind my door, I can still hear him. The gagging sound he makes. He’s a disgusting old man who hacks up phlegm every time he’s on our landing.
In the Lexicon of Film Terminology under »cumshot«: because the volume of sperm normally produced by a man usually does not provide the desired amount, this is frequently supplemented by artificial ejaculate (made of protein) so that on the one hand, the ejaculation is, on the dramatic level, additionally exaggeratedly fetishized as the ultimate moment of release in the sexual act (which is quite correct in terms of sexual physiology), but the viewer, on the other hand, is forced to face his own deficiency in light of the sheer amount of ‘sperm’ produced outside the body.
I’m getting gray pubic hair too. They look moldy and I feel cheated by my body. I tell myself it’s just melanin, but it still feels wrong: the thought of having a child after all and the first thing the child sees is the gray pubic hair of its moldy mother.
When are you too old to have children? asks Yahoo. In our virtual consulting room we ask the questions that you may not have dared to ask aloud. Do you have any intimate questions we should submit to our experts?
Dear Yahoo, please ask for me: when are you too old to feel too young for a child?
My therapist doesn’t think I’m manic. He considers the concept of disinhibition exaggerated. I’d like to be manic or disinhibited. He says: you’re pathologizing yourself! You act immature just so you can feel immature. And he claims I don’t even want a child. Not now and not later. I pull up my t-shirt so he can see the scar that runs through my navel, I pull down my waistband and show him the cut above my pubis: I do grown-up shit. I am not pathologizing myself.
In the hospital, a physician examines my pubic hair. She gives me a disposable razor and I shave the hair in the shower. Afterwards I’m naked, like new, aside from a couple bleeding nicks. I hold the shower head between my legs, at least that, but the nurse is already pounding on the door so she can administer the enema. The water runs into my anus. I’m lying on the bed, pointing my butt towards her. I’m like a prepubescent girl, but after the operation it’s confirmed: I’m a real woman with a functioning reproductive system.
In order to reach this conclusion they pump CO2 into my abdominal cavity. They penetrate my abdominal wall with an endoscope, cut through my navel and make a second cut over the pelvis, and insert a cutting instrument in the hole between my legs that was already there, which afterwards aches like a wound. They don’t find anything they could cut away. I give birth to blood that smells of iodine, my pants are a diaper and my chest feels like a truck ran over it. Laparoscopy is a gentler and lower-stress surgical procedure. Over the next few days I try to expel the gas. The pain recedes, and these results indicate I’m completely healthy. The result of the operation: the operation wasn’t necessary. I try to be at least a little happy about it. Hurray for reproductive medicine!
We accomplish grown-up things: we have ourselves examined, receive information about treatment procedures, my boyfriend jacks off into a cup. He’s able to do it on a purely sexual-physiological level. There is an option to undergo sperm preparation and stimulate me in advance, but what sounds like porn only refers to daily injections. They place contracts in front of us that we take home to sign, and then we don’t call back. Instead we travel far away. We get vaccines, and I check the box that says I can’t be pregnant. We fly to Asia, skip the winter, and we’re only back in time for the book fair.
I call him: he should come. It’s the 8th of May. He even asks why we don’t see each other more often. I ask him if he doesn’t want to see me, but he flies to London, which I hadn’t known about until just now, and even so he sounds almost outraged that I actually thought it might work out.
It’s the spring and our neighbor hangs himself in the cellar. One number in the suicide statistics that suddenly isn’t just a number anymore. According to the rotating schedule on display in the building’s vestibule, it would have been my turn to clean the cellar in May, the Ice Saints have passed, and this is followed by the first summer that the woman next door didn’t plant flower boxes on the balcony. I feel guilty, we ask ourselves who found him, my boyfriend and I give our condolences, and in the papers you can read that the EU plans to destroy the boats smuggling refugees off the coast of Libya. At least the refugee crisis is solved now! My therapist says: try to not become cynical.
Ian Curtis died on May 18th, Flaubert on the 8th. It’s almost June and then I start to bleed again. I insert little sponges in my birth canal, sponges that supposedly can’t even be felt during sex, if you put them in the right way. But my boyfriend still feels them anyway, pushes up against them. What the hell? He asks. Are you menstruating behind my back now? The company that markets these things is called Joy Division—a joy shared is half the sorrow, and afterward I lock myself in the bathroom and try to get the sponge back out. There is no string and I sit on the pot and push, she’s lost control again, she’s lost control, Ian Curtis hanged himself in his kitchen and I’m trying to give birth to a sponge. Love will tear us apart, and finally I’m able to grab hold of something, a torrent of blood floods out of me: an amorphous clump that used to be pink and heart-shaped.
When Flaubert’s debut novel appeared he was a mature man of 36. The critic Sainte-Beuve wrote that Emma Bovary had failed to learn that the necessary condition to make life possible is the ability to tolerate ennui, the shapeless frustration resulting from the absence of a pleasant life better suited to our own tastes. Flaubert explained: Madame Bovary, c’est moi! I am 36 years old, the same age as Flaubert, twice grown up according to the numbers, an immature woman who has her tubes flushed out, Madame Bovary, c’est moi, aussi!
Unrest as punishment and stigma. K. says: if you don’t have a child now then you’ll have to come to terms with yourself later. I read up on satyriasis, nymphomania, erotomania, hypersexuality, caused by idleness, masturbation, and a sedentary lifestyle. There are psychological types who frequently change sexual partners due to fear of commitment while those addicted to relationships strive for affection and attention through sexuality. The latter fears oneself, which leads to searching for new sexual partners in order to forgo responsibility for the ego.
My therapist says: you won’t be able to escape yourself, even if you are penetrated by another. Hypersexuality correlates with a hypomanic state. I’d so much like to be manic.
Well I woke up tonight and said II’m gonna make somebody love meI’m gonna make somebody love meAnd now I know, now I know, now I knowI know that it’s youYou’re lucky, lucky, you're so lucky
My skin starts to itch, a red pattern blossoms on my throat. We have increased the dosage and I sleep nearly ten hours a day. I write a little, then I cook something, and then after the meal I have to take a nap. I call my dermatologist, who can give me an appointment in eight weeks. My throat itches and in a magazine I read: everything that is repressed comes back, either as an outburst on your skin or as a physical or verbal outburst.
My mother sends me every article she can find on the topic of regretting motherhood. She says »think hard about it!« and emphasizes that she doesn’t regret having me. She emphasizes it every time, although I never ask her about it. You’re pathologizing me! I accuse her. But she believes in fate and in my health. And the clearest sign: that my womb is smarter than I am.
We’re invited to coffee and cake in celebration of a birthday, the only couple without kids. There is vegan cake, we sit down on baby blankets on the grass, when we’re back home my boyfriend says that they seemed a little unkempt. It took a while until I understood that he wasn’t referring to the children.
The camera probe and the insertion of the ultrasound wand, piercing my fallopian tubes, the daily injections, the anesthesia, the needles in my arm. My boyfriend says we wouldn’t have to pay for it if we got married. Instead we go to a notary and establish that we want to be notified if something happens to one of us. We promise each other to pull the plug if one of us is beyond saving, he would receive my pension, and one day I’ll inherit his trumpet. Am I allowed to sell it? I ask, and he nods.
They’re playing R.E.M. at the supermarket. A guy with a man bun is stocking the shelves. He whistles along. Good morning, he says, when he sees me. I grin back at him. It’s been shorts weather for a couple days. My legs are white and a little flabby, I’m the most beautiful woman in the supermarket, the bun on his head bobs, the sylphs descended from the heavens and all was alive with song, and pulses like crazy: shiny happy people laughing.
My therapist thinks I’m headed in the right direction. Just five more sessions, he says, and I’m surprised how little time we have left. At home I tell my boyfriend about it: just five more sessions. He nods and tries not to laugh when he says: so you’ll be cured then.
Reprinted by permission of S. Fischer Verlag (c) S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main. All rights reserved.
ISABELLE LEHNwas born in Bonn, Germany in 1979 and lives in Leipzig. She has a doctorate in Rhetoric and worked as a teacher and a researcher at the Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig. For her debut novel, Binde zwei Vögel zusammen (2016), she was nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.
BRADLEY SCHMIDTtranslates contemporary German prose and poetry by authors including Ulrike Almut Sandig, Bernhard Schlink, Anna Kim, and Philipp Winkler. His latest translation, Hooligan, was published in April 2018 by Arcade Publishing (New York). He is an Associate Editor at No Man’s Land and also serves on the jury of the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. He is currently translating the diaries of Peter Sloterdijk for Semiotext(e). He grew up in rural Kansas, but is now based in Leipzig, where he teaches writing and translation classes at Leipzig University. www.bradley-schmidt.com