CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Tentacle Mind Report
We are here, our tentacles coiled in the pond of Martina’s soul, the one untouched by the storm. We see everything. We saw everything. We float here in the cold until her lantern fish mind returns and chases us deeper into the dark. In slow, thudding heartbeats, we pass judgment.
Martina has been psychotic for some time. She lies on her side in the hospital bed, the soft terry cloth nightgown falling open to reveal her freckled leg. She breathes against her fingertips. Her mother and stepfather lean over her to see whether or not she is awake. They smell soap, fattening chicken salad, and days of sweaty afternoon naps. The parents, tired and frumpy after the long drive from Dresden, build up the courage to touch their daughter.
Martina opens her eyes. Her eyelids are so swollen it looks as if her eyeballs creep from underneath pink pillows. She doesn’t bother to pick the hair from her sticky brow. Her mother unpacks a red tote bag with a smiling sunflower in front, a gift from her students. She retrieves red apples, bundles of bananas, and books.
“You know I can’t read,” Martina slurs.
“Nonsense,” her mother says. She hugs her daughter, leaning over the pile of presents.
A day later, they sit in the hospital garden and drink fennel tea from white cups. Martina wears glasses, sweatpants, and a knitted jacket. Her outgrown blonde bob is flattened on one side. Sores bloom between her nose and mouth.
“So, have your friends been visiting?” Martina’s mother asks.
Martina shakes her head. “Not yet. Eva might come.”
“Eva,” her mother says. “That’s good.” She doesn’t believe Eva is going to visit. She is convinced that Eva, whom she has never met, is partially responsible for this—her daughter’s sickness, the fact that they drove for hours to sit here and drink tea, the doctors’ busy steps and indifferent sneers, the glaring sun. Eva and Martina’s other spoiled West German friends are responsible for this.
We understand that she thinks that way. To her it is a simple case of comparing the daughter who packed her suitcase and drove off to Heidelberg with the deft enthusiasm of a mountain climber to the daughter who now sits before her. Eva, Tim, Heidelberg with its tan doctors and marble hallways, even the sunlight are part of the alchemist process that changed one into the other.
We, on the other hand, don’t assign guilt to a person. We see small actions, unsaid words, a mocking twitch of lips, and a sigh of disgust. These featherweight moments are the units of Martina’s destruction.
The next day, Eva visits.
She arrives in the early afternoon. She has gained weight since she and Martina first met, and wears a pastel green dress that flatters her light tan. But Martina remembers the Eva of two years ago, who wore velvet pants, a dark blue halter top and a matching belt. She walked with long strides, tall and bony, her white shoulders rolling, and her collarbones sharp as blades.
Tim and Eva referred to themselves as brilliant. Martina’s memories of this brilliance are a kaleidoscopic cake: a layer of nasal Oscar Wilde quotes, Gauloises Blondes lit with a flourish and passed on to Tim, fingertips brushing his lips. A layer of lean thighs and buttocks, white knuckles, nocturnal bloodshot eyes. A layer of perfect grades and droopy-lidded, shrugging acknowledgment of same.
Martina wishes to cut a piece of this cake. We understand.
Eva walks toward Martina when the nurse at the reception desk stops her and asks to search her purse.
“Why?” Eva asks. Her voice is her weakness. Nasal, yes, but still colored by the vulgar dialect of Mannheim. Her obese family goes on vacation to a campsite in Croatia, and the bathrooms in their house have custom-made extra large bathtubs.
We hope she will reveal this to Martina soon. It will come as a surprise, as the presence of ugliness and ridiculousness in other people’s lives often does. Martina still thinks she is alone at the bottom of the pit. We hope Eva will muster the courage to tap her on the shoulder and say, “I know this place.” It could happen soon.
The nurse inspects Eva’s purse and retrieves a pair of tweezers and a can of coke. “No sharp items on this ward,” she says, waving her past.
And Martina and Eva face each other.
The seminar room was filled with first-year psychology students, most of them young and still dressing the way they did at school three months ago. Others were older and after careers as accountants, chefs, or homemakers, were ready to learn about the mind. Unfortunately, they would have to learn research methods first. “Basic Concepts of Statistics” was a required class, and the room was so full that people had to sit on the floors and windowsills or lean against the walls.
Yet the chair next to Tim was empty. He placed his arm on the backrest, embracing someone invisible. The gesture kept people away.
Eva entered the room, late as always, angry with herself for oversleeping and necessitating a run to the train station. She studied psychology because she didn’t have the guts to apply at art school and be rejected.
Martina entered right behind her, late, too, because she took the wrong bus. Her reasons for studying psychology were as cowardly as Eva’s. With her grades, she could have studied medicine, but at the last moment she’d felt terrified by her ambition. She told herself she would help people, like her mother, the teacher. She studied in Heidelberg because students from East Germany were encouraged to study in the West.
Martina and Eva approached the empty chair, pretending not to notice each other. Martina saw a space where she might fit. Eva saw a man’s arm opening to her.
We should note that Tim was reserving the empty seat for his almost-girlfriend, a slim, suit-wearing law student. He studied psychology to help her out of her depression, even though he sometime suspected her of pretending to be depressed so she didn’t have to decide among her suitors.
Martina asked in her Saxonian accent, “Is this chair available?”
“Sure.” Tim moved his arm from the chair.
Eva asked, “Can I quickly squeeze through? I want to stand over there.” She pointed at a free slot of wall behind Tim.
“Sure,” Tim said. Eva climbed over the table in front of him and claimed her spot. Martina sat down and lined up her notepad and pens. They were too close together all through the lecture. Eva noticed Martina’s gold necklace, her downy neck, and her short fingernails. She noticed Tim’s small ears, tender against his coarse locks. Tim and Martina noticed Eva’s scent of a fresh shower, the smoking compartment of the Mannheim-Heidelberg train, and perfume.
The trio should never have met. They didn’t have good reasons to be in this room. And the trio might have dissolved after the incident. We can’t be sure.
We do know that, at the end, the professor suggested to the students to form study groups of three or four. Martina, Tim, and Eva moved closer together, two of them terrified of having to keep searching and failing to catch the flame.
We should invest time into evoking Eva’s perceptions during the first weeks. She hoped for her friendship with Tim to grow into love. She imagined his broad hands warming hers, his thumbs finding her belly button, his fingers stroking her hips.
And he didn’t mind her sharing his bed and stretching next to him in her tight knit dress and her boots. He talked to her about his parents, who loved each other but lived in different cities due to their careers, his dreams of becoming a painter or photographer, his suspicion that he was bi, and his almost-girlfriend. He crossed his arms behind his head so his elbow brushed hers, and stared at the fluorescent tentacles the law student had asked him to pin on his ceiling. Eva stared at the curled up tentacle tips and the suction cups teasing her like moist lips. One day, they whispered, he will leave her for you.
We see all of this, and we emphathize with Eva and even Tim, but in the end Martina is the one who sits on a hospital bed all day with her legs dangling over the grey linoleum floor. The walls sweat. She sweats. Fat food oozes through her intestines. She feels it push forward and out. She needs to be supervised by an intern at all times and everywhere, because she tried to cut her wrists with the paper scissors from the behavioral therapy room and then walked up to the nurse exposing her wounds as if to say, “See here, I found a beautiful butterfly.”
To us, who creep through time intertwined with each other and sustained by thought, Eva’s desire doesn’t measure up to the terror of slipping away. Where would we fall?
Martina’s first sign of weakness—or our first glimpse through the crack at the light of her mind—happened shortly after her meeting with Tim and Eva. And it did happen after a sequence of the small gestures we talked about. Had her mother been there, she might have told her not to meet these people again. But her mother was in Dresden, bragging about Martina’s new life in the West. And she would have been wrong to point at Tim and Eva, because she would have ignored the assault wrought by the city of Heidelberg, which had bombarded Martina with deadly pellets of beauty and softened the wall between the light and us.
Martina lived in an attic apartment that was little more than a triangular shelter from the wind. The room held a mattress, a suitcase, and a portable stove with two hot plates. She shared a bathroom and a larger kitchen with the Polish girls staying on the same floor. She could see the sky through a window in the roof, but the window didn’t close properly so she had to sleep in a sleeping bag. A cosmetic mirror stood propped on top of her suitcase, next to a heap of makeup, pencils, and brushes, most of them the same as her mother’s. She didn’t feel at home with makeup; applying it reminded her of preparing for a costume party. But looking at Eva and others, she yearned for that extra line around her eyes, and for blush on pallid days.
The trio went to Martina’s place only once. It happened soon after they had formed their statistics study group, and before they had become familiar enough with each other to be friends.
They walked through Heidelberg in the early dark of November, Martina leading. She wore her mother’s knitted cap with the green stripes. Tim and Eva wore black coats.
Heidelberg bewildered Martina. She couldn’t see why lunch had to consist of grilled strips of chicken breast on radicchio salad with capers and orange dressing; or why there had to be a special shop exclusively for Christmas paraphernalia, open year round with a red locomotive circling a pile of presents in a fake frosted window. Other shops offered silk scarves, “Student’s Kiss” pralines, fashion, art, incense, bikes, board games… Every second building was a historic landmark, forever unalterable and dramatically lit at night; the city was populated with stern statues illuminated from below and tourist plaques touting the city’s history. And there were the real neighborhoods with filling stations and supermarkets and pharmacies, but even here she felt oppressed by a sense of luxury. Heidelberg was so pretty, and it had largely escaped bombing in the Second World War. Its beauty had the smugness of invulnerability.
Martina’s apartment was in one of the few ugly houses. They climbed four flights of stairs and walked down the hallway, which smelled of heated-up canned meat. Martina let them in, realizing how small her place was. Eva and Tim were too tall to stand up, so they crouched, looking for a place to sit with the exaggerated craning of the necks appropriate for surveying a vast plain. There was only a rectangle of carpet.
And as she saw her friends’ diligent but consternated attempts to deal with the smallness of her life, Martina’s perception did its first hiccup and became sharper, but also strange, as if someone had secretly injected her with LSD. During this moment, Eva and Tim changed into tall reptilian creatures, hairless, lidless, and cold. They shifted forward, nostrils sniffing. They grew bigger, twisting around each other, until there was no more room in the apartment. Pulsing flesh enwrapped Martina, pleasant at first, then painful. Martina’s mind hiccupped again and Tim and Eva changed back. Tim and Eva looked at each other and, as one, sat on the mattress.
“Are you hungry?” Martina asked in a shaky voice. She still felt scales rubbing her cheeks, and part of her had lost its grip and was falling, crumbling off as she spoke.
“One hungers,” Eva said.
Tim laughed in appreciation. “One thirsts.” He took off his coat, still sitting down. “And one coats too much.”
Eva took off her coat, too, and they leaned back on their elbows on a blanket of black wool and grey lining, lazy, waiting for entertainment.
Martina opened her suitcase, where she kept many snack-sized bags of crispy chocolate bits. The stash was meant to last all semester, but Martina brought two handfuls to the bed, squatted down, and offered them to her guests.
Tim picked up one of the golden brown bags. He turned it around and read, “Yummy Crunchy Chocolate Bitsies.”
“Cool, are these from the East?” Eva asked.
“From my parents,” Martina said. “My father knows someone who works at the factory. They’re outtakes. The packaging is wrong.” She lifted a bag, which clung together in an odd shape.
Tim tore open the bag, picked out a single chocolate bit, and popped it in his mouth.
Martina observed his lips as he chewed. She knew that West Germans joked about the bizarre inferiority of East German food and only sampled it so they could tell their friends how pathetic it was. Seven years after the reunification, there was a market for genuine GDR articles. Ossi-jewelry, -pickles, -dinnerware, -pop music, and -sweets were apparently both amusing and historically significant.
Eva reached for the bag and had some chocolate bits, and Tim had another one, too.
“This is fun,” they said.
Martina was relieved. On the one hand, we find this pathetic, on the other hand understandable, considering that her guests were reptiles in disguise and had to be placated.
Martina offered them Club menthol cigarettes, another East German gem. Tim lit three at once and passed one each to Martina and Eva. Oscar Wilde had passed cigarettes like this to his companions, so Eva termed this gesture of sharing cigarettes “to oscàr.”
Tim and Eva liked to do the statistics assignments the night before they were due. Martina had never spent an entire night without sleep. The first morning at Tim’s place was magical, with the fog lifting outside, and the sunlight creeping through the naked branches. Tim opened the window and let the heat and stink of the night escape. Martina’s eye sockets itched. She was hungry and sick at once, and her face felt like a rubber mask. She stood close to the window and let her cheeks soak up the air.
This was the time when computers were new and slightly suspicious. Their statistics professor had insisted on printed-out or typewritten homework, causing drama among the many students who still wrote papers in longhand. Tim owned a desktop computer and a printer, presents from his parents.
Martina observed her friends and tried to understand.
They ate spaghetti at three a.m.
Tim and Eva skimmed the books—Research Methods for Social Sciences, Statistics, Linear Statistics, and The Logic of Hypothesis Testing—and seemed to find them funny. They threw possible answers and solutions at each other, always lying on the bed, feet up on the wall or on the windowsill or over the pillow. One of them would volunteer to type, and another would summarize the answer in a pompous, mocking style brimming with deliberately false Latin plurals and fake references to textbooks that didn’t exist. Much snickering ensued, and Tim brewed coffee.
Martina’s stomach ached and gurgled from the spaghetti, but she drank her cup of coffee, even though it made her sicker. She wanted to sleep and hoped for signs of exhaustion: did the bags under Tim’s eyes darken, did Eva slur? Yes to both, but they went on, faces gleaming, Eva’s pimples peeking though her foundation. It didn’t matter. Mind over matter. A priori, de profundis, Oscar, oscàr, only three more hours to go. Ha.
Tim and Eva worked on one document, and once this was done, they made a new copy of it and made changes so it looked like original work. They had to do this because the professor insisted on receiving original work from each student, even though they were studying in groups. They oscàred more cigarettes. Martina sat on the only armchair, churning inside, feeling like a geyser about to erupt. She was part of this, but she couldn’t follow. Tim and Eva’s conversation didn’t make sense to her. So she listened closely to them and wrote everything down in stenography, which her mother had taught her so she could take more extensive lecture notes. And when it was her turn to alter the document into “her” submission, she inserted all of her notes. Some of them said the same thing, others hardly made sense, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave anything out. She opened Eva and Tim’s documents and copied everything she didn’t already have into hers.
It was as if the extra insulation of more words would cover up the gaping failure she knew was hidden underneath. It took her hours to complete her assignments. She tried to hurry, but there was always more to add. Martina became scared. She had been a good student. She had skipped a class. She’d won awards. Now she copied gibberish, and it worked (they scored the highest grades in the class), and she didn’t understand why.
Tim and Eva started to dress in a similar style, both wearing black coats and silk shirts. Trying to keep up, Martina ran out of money. Uncountable cups of coffee all over town, slabs of pizza, fresh lilies, French breakfast at the Café Rossi, movies, clubs, and now new clothes burned away her monthly stipend. She ladled out more chocolate bits, which she brought from her weekend visits home, and more cigarettes, and hoped it would count as a contribution.
Tim and Eva were done with the last assignment. The semester was almost over. They lay down on Tim’s bed, next to each other as always, she on her belly, he on his back. They didn’t touch. Eva looked like a snake curled against a rock. One of the plastic tentacles came loose from the ceiling and fell on Eva’s face. She left it there, reaching for the tip with her tongue. Tim laughed.
Martina turned to the computer screen. The text waited to be manipulated by her. The letters swelled and shrunk in sync with the thuds in her head, which could have been her heartbeat, except her heartbeat was a thin red thread jerking at the rim of her perception. Her hands felt like claws. She could only use her middle fingers to type. Using the other fingers nauseated her. So she pecked words into the existing text.
Her mother’s voice called out to her in the tone she used when she wanted to be heard over the noise of schoolchildren: not loud so much as chiseled, every syllable unmistakable.
“Go to bed,” her mother said.
“I have to finish this,” Martina said. Her standard answer. Getting work done in time was a priority at home.
“Nonsense,” her mother said.
Martina pecked. Each peck was accompanied by a pneumatic hiss and one syllable: Non-sense, non-sense, non-sense. It wasn’t her mother’s voice anymore but a message from the machine telling her to stop. So she did. The silence stunned her.
“You done yet?” Eva asked. Martina turned on the swivel chair. Her friends were tired and white faced, flat on the bed with only their heads raised. The tentacle stuck to the side of Eva’s face.
Martina realized they wanted her to finish. She was too slow. So she turned around and continued pecking. Eva and Tim started talking again, something about the subtle homoeroticism of something. Could they be talking about the statistics professor and his research assistant? Martina took deep breaths to drown them out, but it didn’t help; the words lodged themselves between the ones she wanted to peck into the document.
The estimator of the population mean μ is the nonsense mean of the sampling tender glances distribution of nonsense μ. Repeated platonic empirical nonsense samples decrease the variance of the puckering lips and nonsense make me go moan on the table sampling that’s crude distribution, because the standard deviation s as in Allen Ginsberg decreases as N increases. Nonsense.
Tim gave a sharp, howling laugh. It startled Martina. She kicked her knee forward and hit the computer’s reset button. Everything disappeared. This was the time before autosave.
Martina and Tim writhed in slow motion, disentangling from a daze. They almost giggled, but their faces remained white and rigid.
“Did you do a save?” Tim asked.
“What?” Martina said. Her throat burned. Her friends got up and walked toward her, stretching. She remembered Eva and Tim changing into reptiles and wondered whether they would do it again.
“Ha ha,” Tim said. “You just destroyed your work.” His face cracked. A vein appeared on his brow as he continued laughing.
Eva rubbed her eyes and yawned. “It’s about time we leave anyway. It’s almost five. Let’s have breakfast and hand in our stuff at eight.”
“What will I do now?” Martina asked.
Tim and Eva staggered through the room, bumping into furniture. Eva put on her boots and tried to tie the laces.
“I still have to finish my assignment,” Martina said. Her stomach clenched. She hated her friends and their stupid habit of working at night, and the stupid machine that lost a text simply because she’d hit a button. She hated Heidelberg and psychology.
She should have said: I can’t do this anymore. I will leave.
And they should have said: Yes, leave. We bear you no ill will. Sometimes, coincidence strikes up harmful friendships, such is life. Go save yourself. You’re tired, your skin is breaking out, you’re having this rim of tears around your eyes, and we don’t dare talk to you because you might cry. And at the same time, you’re so solid and literal and slow, and you copy us, and it bores us. Go.
Instead, everyone was too tired to be honest. Tim let her stay at his place and type up her notes again.
If we judged them based on this moment, we would have to judge them equally.
During the second semester, Martina got used to Heidelberg. She moved into a student apartment in Dossenheim with five other people. Her room had two bunk beds, one of them obstructing the window, but she felt encased, suspended.
Eva and Martina still met with Tim, even though they weren’t a study group anymore. At first, they arrived at the same time, but as the semester continued, Martina would arrive at Tim’s and find Eva already there, dressed up in a tight dress, legs crossed. Recent words not meant for anyone else weighed down the air, and Martina was afraid to stand between them.
Some days Eva smiled, while Tim scratched his head and searched his shelves for a CD. Sometimes, she winced as if sustaining a cut in a hidden place. She thinned out like a reed whipped around by a storm. She became so thin her stomach looked hollow.
Tim drove home most weekends, then on Thursdays, then from Thursday to Monday. One day, he walked down the corridor of the university library and the pointlessness of studying psychology, of all things, struck him. He wanted to bang his head against something, so he jumped up and hit the sign saying “Art.” He dyed all his clothes blue and often laughed the way he had laughed when Martina had hit the reset button.
Toward the end of the second semester, he calmed down. He bought a camera. One afternoon, he visited Martina and asked if he could photograph her. He wanted to apply to art schools and needed a portfolio.
Martina and he sat down on the student house patio. The sun was out, and they had a couple of beers. Martina had never been alone with Tim before, and felt guilty thinking of Eva, but at the same time tipsy and seductive.
“You’re more photogenic than a bowl of fresh fruit,” Tim said.
On the photos, Martina’s skin looked creamy. She raised a glass of bubbly gold at the camera and grinned like a child planning some mischief.
Tim moved away after the second semester of psychology, and Eva went to Madrid on an Erasmus scholarship.
We think this illustrates their good instincts. Some entanglements can best be solved by leaving them alone. Even poisonous vines shrivel without sun and water.
We want to live, too. We are not all bad. We will retreat without a fight once sanity acknowledges us. Meanwhile, we have much to give.
The cracks grew. We could see outside. She could sense us.
With Tim and Eva gone, the bookends keeping Martina’s life together disappeared. She slept in, dug her heels into the mattress, and moaned with the pleasure of not having to negotiate Eva and Tim’s stares or the late nights or the tugging expectations. And while she did this, life accumulated as a distant wave. The yellowing leaves, the blue-and-white pedal boats on the river and their mossy smell, the marinated olives served at the French bistro in Neuenheim, the kettle-corn smell of the cinemas, and the high-pitched hiss of the streetcars coasting on intersecting rails on the Bismarckplatz; the spicy tea rimmed with brown sugar at the café Art, the bikes’ bells jingling as the cyclists drove up the uneven streets, and the fireworks during the castle illumination (the castle itself bloodred like a horror toy): the entire city became a wave of sensation that rose higher and higher until it crashed into Martina’s mind and dissolved it into swirls of sand and shells and flesh and washed us free.
At first she didn’t understand what was wrong. Life had grown fat and loud. Everyone she met filled her with raw longing. Her roommates brought a string of friends and lovers to the apartment. Martina fell for the perfect silver sphere dancing on the tongue of a Turkish girl and got a tongue piercing of her own, sucking down the taste of metal as she tried to fall asleep. She bought printed dresses, let her hair grow long and braided it, and gave herself away to so many kisses, hands, and thrusts. She gorged on details: textures of hair, taste of spittle, and an accent. She copied and took notes the same way she’d done with Eva and Tim, only faster, more. Like an invisible woman, she needed to roll herself in paint to remain human.
Martina sat in the library to study. She opened the book on test theory. She needed to prepare for the intermediate exams. It was a quiet day, unlike the others before. The wave of life had surged back leaving a surface like a glass marble. Nothing was left except the crack of the book when she opened the pages, and the white flat tree pulp.
She started to read, and couldn’t. She knew the symbols on the page were letters, but she couldn’t recognize them. She opened another book and found the same thing. The marble surface tilted and she started sliding down.
She tried to stay calm down by muttering a syncopated syllable under her breath, something like now-now-now, asking to remain sane only until the next now, and the next. She picked up a pen and printed her name across the book’s first page. Her hand remembered the shape of the letters, but she didn’t recognize them.
Her palms turned cold. She sweated, felt sick. Through the window, she searched for something, anything to read. She didn’t see anything. She slid faster, hot now—except for her hands—as hot as her breath and her cheeks as she ran downstairs, outside, looking for the street signs. She couldn’t read them. Now she laughed.
And we laughed. Free at last. We took a long heaving breath, and the air and light tasted like fire. Our tentacles strained upwards, waved, clapped, claimed her mind, and fell crashing down again. We are not strong enough to ravage, not strong enough to destroy. We are gentle and full of longing for life, real life. We can only claim a moment at a time. But we linger. We float in the dark.
Martina drove home to Dresden. She tore out the piercing as she was driving, digging into her tongue until she swallowed gobs of blood. Her mother turned white when she saw her.
“See,” Martina lisped. “I got rid of it.”
They drove to the emergency room. The doctor assured them that tongue tissue heals fast. In the early morning they were back home. Martina’s tongue puckered despite the painkillers when her mother finally embraced her.
Martina remembered the synthetic knit fabric of her mother’s blue pullover, the sensible lemon smell, and the soft rolls spilling from the bra underneath. She remembered the sunflower wallpaper, the thin walls, and the soft noises from the neighbors. She cried. She wanted to touch her mother, submerge herself into the broad back, the long earlobes carrying fake sapphire earrings, the fuzz over her lips, the large, harmless breasts.
Her mother prepared goulash. She carved the meat, ground the pepper, and hurried from cabinet to cabinet. Martina followed her, unable to bear more than a step between her and her mother. And she talked.
“And I forgot to hand in my forms for the stipend and now I’m out of cash but the car needs inspection and I can’t work because that costs me my stipend and I have to prepare for the exam except I can’t read I tried everything I borrowed summaries I took out the books from the library I made copies I covered the pages so I could read one line at a time I tried to read to myself I asked Alex to read to me and he says I’m crazy and Mel is in Greece and the deadline to sign up for the exam is in a month and I have to pass because otherwise I’ll lose my stipend…”
Her mother turned around and put her hands on Martina’s shoulders.
“You can’t read?” she asked.
Martina nodded. Her glasses were dirty.
“All right,” her mother said. “Everyone has problems preparing for exams. There are all kinds of tricks. Remember what you did at school? You went to the library each morning before breakfast.”
Martina’s mind lurched at the memory. She had been eighteen. There had been fatigue, clear-cut and honest fatigue. Her table in the library had been smooth and golden brown. She had opened the book, and leaned on her elbows and digested the words one by one. She had been tired but solid. Afterwards, she’d walked home, the knowledge a firm parcel in her mind. She yearned for this time, the morning smell and the smell of library books, old and new at the same time.
“What happened?” her mother asked.
“I got a new computer,” Martina said. “It’s broken. I need money, but I can’t work…”
“No,” her mother said. “What happened? With you?”
“I want to come home,” Martina blubbered. “I want to be your daughter again.”
When it was almost morning, Martina’s mother and her stepfather went to bed. Martina sat down in front of the bedroom door, trying not to disturb them, but she couldn’t stand to be alone out there in the hallway, so she opened the bedroom door and snuck in. She wanted to sit at the foot of the bed, but Martina’s mother noticed. She got up, took her daughter’s arm, and dragged her out of the room. She wore a cotton nightgown with narrow straps that slid off her shoulders. Her stepfather pulled the sheet up to his chest before turning on his side, facing away.
“I can’t read,” Martina said, her voice a tired monotone. “I can’t do anything, my tongue hurts, I’m too fat…”
“You can’t be in our bedroom all night. You can’t be in here.”
Martina froze. She still hadn’t cleaned her glasses. She reached for her mother’s naked arm. “You feel good,” she said.
Her mother squirmed away, almost crying now. “Get out. You need to go to sleep.”
Martina stroked her mother’s arm, cupped her breast with an expression of wonder. Her mother slapped her hand away. She pushed her out of the room by her right shoulder. “Stay out.” She shut the bedroom door.
Martina leaned against the door. Inside, she heard stifled sobs. Steps approached the door. The doorknob shook. The lock clicked. Martina sucked her thumb and bit down on her fingernail. Her tongue puckered against her palate. She went into the kitchen, picked up her car keys from the key bowl and left. Her suitcase was still in the trunk.
No, she wasn’t a coward. She wasn’t irrational. She stood in the dark, her car key in the door, and waited. Mist that wasn’t quite rain settled on her skin and calmed down the hot pain in her tongue. She took a deep breath. As she stood in the night, she looked at the rows of dark houses on the side of the street, and the single dim light in her parents’ bedroom. She thought of herself in the car as a comet that would burn a trail back to Heidelberg, and she hoped there would be something left of her when she arrived.
What we admire her for, even if it means we have to return to the dark, is that she thought of Eva and Tim. Not with the mixture of envy and craving and incomprehension she was used to, but with detachment. She saw them as fellow comets, eaten by their own fire elsewhere. And when she thought of Eva, she saw another lonely woman, one she could turn to for help now that her mother couldn’t give it.
Back in Heidelberg, Martina heard that Eva had returned from Madrid and moved into a carriage house in the garden of a villa in Handschuhsheim. The villa belonged to a commune of eighty-year-old therapists who liked to have students around.
The carriage house looked like an exhibit, freshly painted in red and beige. A dirt path went from the main gate to the staircase that led up to the door. Next to the staircase was the door to the bathroom. A heart was carved into the wood.
Martina sat down on the stairs, embracing her shins. Earlier in the day, she had tried to drink warm oil so she could vomit out some of her weight. It hadn’t helped. Nothing helped anymore. That was why she had come here.
Eva pushed open the main gate. She had to struggle against the iron bars. The gate fell shut behind her as she walked up the path. She looked fuller. Her hips jiggled underneath her crinkled short dress. She carried a stack of books. Martina figured she must be almost done with her intermediate exams.
When she saw Martina, she stopped.
“Hello there,” Eva said from afar. They hadn’t spoken in a while. Life had hurled them down different roads.
“Hi,” Martina said in her young voice. “Can I come in?”
The single room wasn’t as large as it looked from the outside, but the open windows let in the sunlight and green from the garden. The tips of ivy peeked inside the windows, too, as if branches cradled the room.
“Do you want some tea?” Eva asked, putting the books down on the coffee table.
“I think that sounds nice,” Martina said.
Eva busied herself in the kitchenette. “So, are you doing your exams after all?”
Martina smiled. Everyone pretended that she functioned. She was like a spider, small and defenseless and so crushable, but she terrified people.
“No,” she said. “I can’t.”
Eva brought back two cups of tea. She and Martina sat down on the secondhand couch. The pillow sagged and they spilled some tea and giggled, like old times.
“I’m not feeling too well,” Martina said.
It took Eva a while to comprehend this. Martina expected her to dodge the remark, label it as a normal complaint, a thing that could be fixed, but she didn’t.
“How bad are you?” she asked.
“I didn’t sleep for weeks,” Martina said. “I stayed with people, but they all ask me to leave. And they’re right. It’s not correct to enter someone’s bedroom when they want to be alone.”
Eva put down her teacup, rubbing her neck. “Maybe you should get some help.”
Martina drank the tea Eva made. Peppermint tea, good for her stomach. She remembered the old Eva, a stick of skin and pimples, and how small she had looked next to Tim. She remembered their long statistics nights together. The taste of coffee and spaghetti still lingered in Martina’s throat, but Eva had changed. She now lived in a world of peppermint and ivy. She had disentangled herself from the plastic tentacles at the ceiling. Martina wanted to follow her, but she was afraid she’d be pushed out once more. And maybe she shouldn’t follow anyone, anyway.
She opened her purse and took out an orange sheet of paper. She had taken it off the pin board in the institute hallway. She thought she recognized the color: emergency contact information for students in need of psychiatric help.
“Could you call them for me, please?” she asked.
Eva picked up the sheet and looked at it for a long time. “You said you couldn’t read.”
“No, I can’t.” Martina held up the orange paper. She saw a neat string of symbols and a jolly drawing of a phone.
“Please help me,” Martina said. “You’re the only one I could think of.”
Eva and Martina sit opposite each other in the hospital lobby.
“Yesterday I tried to write,” Martina says. “They didn’t like it.”
“Why not?” Eva asks.
Martina stares past her.
“Why not?” Eva asks again.
Martina leans over. Her face lights up. “I made chits with your phone number and wanted to smuggle them into visitor’s handbags so they’d find them and call you.”
Eva nods, pretending this sounds like a reasonable plan. Inside, she cries, Nonsense.
“But I realized this wasn’t right,” Martina says, her face still bright. “So I tore them into shreds and mixed the shreds in my salad. A nurse saw it. No more writing.”
Eva nods again, then stops. “Wait. This was a stupid thing to do.”
Martina blinks. “What?”
“Who mixes paper shreds into their salad?”
Martina ponders this. A faint smile forms on her lips. “You’re right,” she says.
She dozes off. Eva takes a book from her purse and starts to read.
Martina wakes up again a little later and doesn’t say anything for a long while.
“You look beautiful,” she finally says. “I want to look beautiful, too.”
Eva’s impulse is to say, you will. But the truth is, she doesn’t know.
They don’t speak anymore. It’s an awkward, tough business, visiting Martina, but Eva promises she’ll stop by again.
“I would like that,” Martina says.
When Eva leaves, she passes a small woman who walks as if she’d prefer to run and who carries a red tote bag with a sunflower printed on it. They step to the same side of the hallway in an attempt to make space for each other and brush shoulders with muttered excuses. It will take only a small variation in timing for them to meet.
We hope they will be kind to each other, and kind to us.
We can’t be destroyed. We don’t destroy.
We are here, our tentacles coiled in the deepest pond of Martina’s soul, the one untouched by the storm. We see everything. We saw everything. We float here in the cold until her lantern fish mind returns and chases us deeper into the dark. We burn with the anger of Martina’s mother stifling her sobs in the pillow, cursing herself for pushing her daughter out of the door. We ache with Eva lying next to Tim under a canopy of plastic tentacles. We laugh with Tim photographing Martina on a golden afternoon. We hold Martina while she bangs against the doors, and we won’t let go until one of them opens. In slow, thudding heartbeats, we pass judgment.
Stefani Nellen’s work has appeared in Inkwell, Cosmos, Apex Digest, Best of the Web 2008, LabLit, FRiGG, Mad Hatters’ Review, and as a podcast at Bound Off.