I sit on the deck at the back of my house, watching the sea without thinking all that much. Without thinking anything at all, to be more precise. My laptop is here, helping me to pretend that I’m actually working. It’s been two years since I’ve been almost beaten to death. Since then I’ve retreated from the world. The divorce is long through, the guy is still in prison. I had completely abandoned my old surroundings afterwards. Only my friends Andi and Basti were in contact with me. They told me that they had blocked numerous of Anna’s attempts to contact me. They are good guys, real friends, but even their visits have dwindled away. I haven’t seen Basti for one and a half years. Andi is more persistent, he tries to contact me every few months. But come to think about it, he hasn’t contacted me for almost half a year now. I can’t blame them - even I don’t like the cold, humorless and unfeeling shell I’ve become.
I’ve been different, completely different. I still remember the night it all begun. To be more precise - the night it all ended. I’ve been a happy young man up to that day, not the body just continuing to live out of habit.
My phone was ringing and the caller ID announced Andi. Well, I could hardly ignore my best friend, could I? But I already knew what he wanted: mindless, immature fun. He knew my wife Anna was working at her big research project again. Which could be done only at night, annoyingly. And he surely wanted to hit the bars with me, which was his field of main competence. And he wanted to include Basti, probably. The terrible trio would be complete again. I felt a little neglected by my beautiful wife anyway recently, so I took the call, fully knowing where this would be heading. When we were together, we were just carefree kids, looking for fun everywhere. Causing trouble everywhere. We were not the IT consultant, the engineer and the accountant then. We were a bunch of little, immature school-boys, having careless fun.
“Hey, man,” I greeted him.
“What’s up, Ralf? Fancy a little fun today?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Let me surprise you, man. But I promise it will be awesome.”
“Sure, I know what you mean. It will be expensive, embarrassing and will include unreasonable amounts of alcohol. Anna’s working again, anyway. So hey, why not?”
That’s how it started.
After the “event” I’ve managed to get a grip on myself again by purchasing a lonely house by the sea. I had to get out of Aachen, I couldn’t bear other people around me. I couldn’t bear my old surroundings. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern seemed just the right place for me. Lots of nice and most important - largely unpopulated - landscape, affordable houses by the sea. Like mine. It helped me more than the preceding year of psychotherapy. Here I can live mostly disconnected from the world. Either as a hermit or as a lunatic, depending on your point of view. I personally tend towards the latter.
Having acquired quite a buzz, we stumbled out of the karaoke bar we’ve been terrorizing. The barkeep had strongly advised us to leave the premises. Immediately. Which seemed a little narrow-minded to us, keeping in mind that we had noticeably contributed to his income by depleting his stocks of alcoholic beverages. And we had greatly contributed to the general exuberant mood in his establishment. Nonetheless, he didn’t seem overly thankful. Maybe the minor damage to the interior had something to do with that.
“Okay, men. Here comes the main event. Time to raid the Antoniusstrasse!”
“Oh, come on Andi. That’s the red light district. That’s disgusting, according to Anna. She’d be mad if I go there.” I was still just sober enough to at least put up some fake resistance.
“Oh, come on, you don’t have to fuck anyone. Just have a drink and some fun. Look around how it’s like there. You surely can’t be THAT pussy-whipped, can you?”
Well, that hurt and there was only one possible answer to that challenge. “Okay, let’s go.” And I had to admit that I’d always been curious. That’s the one street you didn’t visit in Aachen. But of course, I’d heard a lot of rumors. Everybody seemed to know something about it. Apart from me, of course. Well, time to find out.
Aachen is a quite small city and we could walk over there easily, sobering up a little meanwhile. I decided that I better not tell them that I’d never been there. I’d be the wimp of the century.
As we tried to walk through the street in question in a halfway dignified way, I felt quite uncomfortable. I felt like a foreign object there, like something that didn’t belong there. I felt insecure and my buddies didn’t seem to be comfortable either, although they unsuccessfully tried not to show it. The street was populated by vicious looking guys who were obviously working here in some way or other. They were looking like they were mean no-bullshit types and I didn’t even want to get close to one of them. Some other guys were rushing through, trying to be invisible, obviously being customers. A few others were seemingly see-men, like we were.
Some hookers were standing around, looking either bored and non involved or trying to get the attention of potential customers in a rather pushy and obscene way. Nobody bothered to notice us, everybody seemed to know that we were just looking around. Some women were displayed like merchandise in colorfully illuminated windows. I was surprised that women were willing to be shown off in such a demeaning way. All females present were dressed in absurd clothes. Most didn’t even seem overly sexy, just cheap. Many looked tired and worn down. Some were surprisingly unattractive, old or overweight. Others were quite pretty but didn’t seem attractive to me nonetheless. I was almost pitying them.
“Ralf?” I heard Andi in the back of my mind.
I stared rather boorishly and unbelieving at a massively overweight, older hooker. For the life of it I couldn’t imagine who might want to spend time with this one and even pay for it. I would have paid money to stay away from her. But there had to be some kind of target audience, otherwise she wouldn’t be there.
On my left was one of those display windows. Three almost naked women were on display, looking mostly disgusting. Their lingerie looked like it was decades old. Their make-up was so thick that I was afraid it would fall from their faces in big flakes any time. I just hoped it wouldn’t happen as long as I was still watching them. What has been seen can not be unseen. It’s weird what kind of stuff you think when you’re mentally overwhelmed.
I finally realized then that Andi was trying to get my attention.
“Yeah?” My reply was still a little absent-minded. I had spotted a hooker that was actually quite attractive. I fought with myself if it was okay to stare at her. I didn’t want to be impolite, but on the other hand being stared at was exactly what she was being there for. Well, among other things, obviously.
“Ralf, don’t turn around. But go to that woman about five meters on our right and check her out.”
“Why?” I had followed his advice and had not moved or looked in that direction.
“Just do it.”
So I just slowly went towards the woman on our right, trying to appear relaxed. I finally turned around and looked directly into Anna’s heavily made up face. She also recognized me at that moment and looked a little surprised, but was far from being shocked. But she had clearly recognized me, so I could safely assume that this was not some kind of doppelganger. I vaguely realized that she was dressed in - well - almost nothing. She looked obscene. Her beautiful breasts were almost fully on display. Her skirt was ridiculously short, the bottom of her bottom was surely on display. She wore some worn looking fishnet stockings and very high heeled sandals.
“Ralf,” she just stated.
She looked cheap. Soiled. Disgusting. She had lied to me. Cheated on me. I felt the anger rising. I placed my hands on her shoulders, like trying to wake her up. I needed some answers.
“Why Anna! WHY?”
“Don’t touch me, Ralf.”
“WHY COULD YOU DO THIS? WEREN’T YOU HAPPY WITH ME? AM I NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU?”
“Don’t shout at me.” She seemed a little strange, almost absent-minded. And way too calm, regarding the situation. In contrast to me, I was too shocked to think clearly.
“BROCK!” What does that mean, I asked myself. What kind of word is that? She pointed at me.
I noticed a big shadow behind me.
I woke up in the typical overwhelming green-ness of the Aachen university hospital. As I tried to look around, everything felt sore. I saw nurses. I saw Andi, sitting in a chair, deeply asleep.
My memory of what I presumed was the night before stopped when this huge shadow fell upon me, for which I was thankful. I couldn’t remember the actual beating or Anna’s reaction. Maybe I had already been unconscious by then. But you don’t lose consciousness because of a shadow falling upon you. So I assumed I had lost this memory later as a result of the beating. Anyway, I surely didn’t miss these memories.
I tried to check my bodily functions. I could feel my legs and feet. I could feel both hands. All major body parts seemed to be still attached and functional. I didn’t feel much pain, which led be to believe that I was drugged. How did I feel mentally? Strangely, I didn’t feel that much in that area either. No pain, no feeling of loss, not even sadness. I merely registered the new situation without any emotions.
My brain seemed to be as numb as my body. This was quite a change. I had always been a very open, vulnerable and emotional guy. And I was certain that I had loved Anna more than anything. The woman I had loved so much had betrayed me, had turned out to be a prostitute and had obviously ordered her pimp to beat me up. This was the worst thing that cold possibly happen to me. Shouldn’t I feel more about it? Be somehow interested? Have some kind of strong opinion about it at least? The rules of life somehow pointed in that direction. If you get betrayed as badly as that, you should show some kind of emotional reaction. What was wrong with me? Where were all my feelings, anyway? Was maybe the part of my brain responsible for emotions physically damaged? Well, nothing I could do about that, could I?
“Andi,” I tried to say. But only a nondescript croak escaped my throat. It was enough to wake him up, though.
“Ralf, don’t speak. Everything’s okay, no long-term damage. One lost tooth, this will have to be replaced. The spleen rupture, broken ribs, broken fingers and broken jaw will heal just fine. Only your knee will take a while longer. Don’t worry. Everything will be okay. You will be here for at least one more week. Mainly because of the severe concussion.”
“Anna,” I unsuccessfully tried to get out.
“She has a restraining order and is not allowed to see or contact you. Her pimp has been arrested. We have told the police everything. The two policemen on duty who actually stopped the beating saw most of it anyway. Without them we were unable to stop this bastard, he hardly noticed us at all. They will question you too, of course. But I assume you won’t be able to contribute much.”
I just nodded.
“Anna fled from the scene, but won’t be charged anyway, I think. She calls me all the time. She wants to contact you and apologize.”
I shook my head. No sense in talking to her if there’s no emotion left for her. Not even sadness or disappointment. I couldn’t feel much emotion for anything, to be more precise. I didn’t even feel grateful for the help of my friend. I felt like an empty, cold shell. Like some important part of my humanity had been amputated. No sense in having much contact with others in such a state. No sense in prolonging things with Anna or trying to understand what happened. I didn’t care anyway.
“Yeah, I guessed that much. No problem. I will block her from you. Anything else?”
I removed my wedding ring and pointed at it. No sense in staying married without love and without trust. I wasn’t afraid of her but it wouldn’t be wise to sleep with her around. Now that I had seen what she was capable of and how she felt about me.
“Okay, I’ll contact a divorce attorney?”
I nodded again.
“No problem. Ralf, I’m really terribly sorry about all of this.”
I nodded and felt very tired suddenly. Sleep really was an enticing option right now. I didn’t really give a shit about anything anyway. I assumed that more decisions were waiting to be made. Later.
It had turned out that Anna was never a biologist. She had never researched the nightly life cycle of some insects. Her research was solely focused on the males of the human species.
And it turned out that my medical treatment worked just fine, whereas the psychological mostly failed. I’m still damaged goods. I’m still slightly limping, although that will probably go away, given enough time. The main damage is that I’m still devoid of any emotion. The still valid retraining order doesn’t really matter, I’m not afraid of her or her pimp. I wish I was, any emotion would be welcome. It helps that I’m an IT consultant and can work from everywhere. I don’t have to leave my retreat, except to buy groceries. But as eating is not very high on my agenda, this only happens occasionally.
From time to time I’ve asked myself where Anna might be right now and what she might be doing. Usually I come up with rather sordid answers and pictures in my mind. Not that these bother me in any way.
So I currently sit here, watching the waves. Being busy again to come to grips with the world. Which is what I mainly spend my time with.
I faintly hear some kind of exhaust noise in the distance. It sounds a little like Anna’s old exhaust. I had wanted to fix it, but never got around to do it. It had a distinctive put-put sound, I remember it clearly now. The car I’m hearing in the distance makes the same sound which might or might not be a coincidence. I don’t care that much.
So as I sit here, staring at the sea, I’m not overly surprised to sense someone stepping onto my deck and sitting down in the easy chair at my side. I don’t need to look around. I know who it is. She doesn’t say a single word. And I have no intention to speak, either. Or to even look at her. It’s not a conscious decision, I just can’t be bothered.
After about ten minutes of complete silence, she just says “Ralf, I’m terribly sorry.” Her first words towards me for two years. She stands up and leaves my deck. Shortly afterwards, I hear that weird exhaust sound again. I haven’t said a single word, I haven’t even looked at her. It just wasn’t necessary, I don’t know what to do with her short speech anyway and can’t bring myself to think about it.
So after she’s left, I continue to watch the sea. I decide that I won’t be very productive today and start to prepare dinner. Doing specific tasks, that’s what Dr. Peterson had recommended. That’s what I do and that’s what helps keeping me focused. Like it usually does.
On the following day the weather is still good enough to sit on the deck. A storm has been announced, but right now I see only a few dark clouds. Today I’m actually working and I’m quite productive too. I manage to solve a difficult encryption problem for a well-paid job, just before I hear the distinctive put-put exhaust sound again. Why is she still driving this old clunker? Shouldn’t a beautiful prostitute be wealthier? I don’t know. And I decide that I’m not really interested in her financial situation.
This time I look at her as she steps onto the deck. I see Anna. Vaguely the person I remember. Not the dolled-up prostitute but not exactly the old Anna either. She wears no make-up at all. Her hair is still long, but not very well kept. She looks a little older. No, not really older. More mature, it seems. It’s not a question of physical aging, it’s a different expression. Her clothes are a little shabby. It’s certainly not the appearance you’d expect from a successful prostitute.
She looks at me a little coyly as she stops a few feet from the second chair. I briefly look at the chair and she gladly accepts the unspoken offer. I return my gaze to the clouds that form increasingly dark and huge mountains. We remain silent for quite a while. It’s a nice, peaceful moment. One cloud catches my eye. It’s a little separated from the others. And it looks suspiciously like a sheep.
“That’s a dog,” she suddenly says.
“Yeah, might as well be a sheep.”
“The tail is too short for a dog.”
“Might be docked.”
She’s right. It might as well be a dog with a docked tail. But the wind decides to dissolve the structure anyway.
“It’s gone,” I just state the obvious.
“It might return.” I look at her, surprised by the ambiguous statement.
“Unlikely.” I return my attention to the clouds.
“Yes. But not impossible.”
This is beyond ambiguity. And I don’t intend to go that way. Not now. If ever. So we just continue to sit there in silence. After a while the first rain drops begin to fall. Only a few, but they are quite heavy. Immediately, this specific smell is reaching my nose. This special it-begins-to-rain-in-the-summer smell. It smells delicious. The few, fat drops hammer on the roof. They leave small craters in the sand. We are still quite shielded under the canopy. It gets noticeably darker, cooler and windier now. The sea gets quite rough and changes to a dark green color. With a little help from the gusty wind, several raindrops manage to reach us under the canopy. It causes neither Anna nor me to move or even say a single word. In its own way this is a perfect moment. We are just there. We just live. Nothing needs to be said or done.
Finally Anna stands up. I look at her. I even look directly into her eyes. The eyes of a woman I thought I once knew. Overall, she looks incredibly sad. I wish I still had these kind of emotions.
“Thank you for this moment, Ralf.”
She doesn’t expect a reply and I don’t feel the need to give her one. She just turns around and leaves the deck. She calmly walks through the now quite heavy rain towards her car. She’s soaking wet before she even disappears from my sight. I feel nothing while I watch her. I just watch her hair and clothes getting wetter. It doesn’t cause any arousal or concern in me. Nothing. Should I be worried that I’ve turned into such an unfeeling man? Maybe I should, but I really can’t be bothered. Then I continue to watch the clouds. This one looks like a wizard with a pointed hat. I can even imagine some kind of pipe. Weird.
The next day brings more rain and storm and I decide to work in my small office. I like rainy days. No moral pressure to go outside. I can stay inside without remembering my mother’s nagging requests to go outside as soon as it was raining at slightly less than Noah’s Flood strength. And I’m quite productive today. After I’ve finished my day’s work I go to my living room, looking for my tablet. I want to check the weather report. What? Eight Beaufort wind for today? Hard to believe. Sure, there’s still heavy rain. But there don’t seem to be more than maybe five or six ... what? While I compare the weather report with the actual conditions, I see Anna sitting on my deck, in her “usual” chair. Well, at least this is the chair she’s used twice before. Which makes it somehow her’s. It seems that there is at least enough wind to conceal her exhaust noise. So maybe it really is eight Beaufort instead of six? She’s sitting in the storm, being completely soaked through. She’s obviously not expecting anything from me. I think she hasn’t even noticed my presence behind the window. She just seems to look at the sea.
I open my patio door without thinking about it. She calmly looks up at me.
“Yes.” My voice has been as plain and neutral as her’s. I begin to question both of our mental states. I’m fully aware of mine, but maybe she’s a little deranged too. This whole situation is quite bizarre. Do I care? No. Of course not.
She enters my living room, leaving a wet trail behind her. It doesn’t matter. Do I want to ask her what she’s been doing out there? No, it’s self-evident. She’s looking for some kind of contact. Maybe to make herself feel better. Probably to apologize. But she has already done that. It should be enough. Do I care that she’s breaking the restraining order? No, she’s no threat, she looks even weaker and sadder than I do.
I watch her leaving the room and hear her walking through my house and rummaging through some drawers. I don’t really care. I close the door as a sharp wind drives rain through the opening. It really might be eight Beaufort, the sea certainly looks like it.
Finally she returns, wearing some of my sweats. Again, I can’t bring myself to form an opinion about this. She recognizes my indifferent reaction and obviously feels encouraged enough to go to the kitchen and make some coffee. This requires some more rummaging through my stuff. Doesn’t matter. She’s always been tidy and careful, she won’t damage anything. I’m busy looking at the sea again. It’s really rough by now. And the sky is uniformly dark, no interesting shapes to be seen. The dog hasn’t returned, I think.
After a while she wordlessly hands me a cup of coffee. Speaking obviously is not high on her agenda, which suits me just fine. I don’t know what to say anyway.
“I’ve never meant to hurt you, Ralf.” I might have praised her silence to soon.
I just nod. It is new information, but it doesn’t seem to be too important. The sea is getting darker all the time. It really looks quite vicious now.
“I love you and always have.”
I nod again. More to confirm that I’ve understood than to express that I believe her. I have no opinion about that and don’t intend to acquire one. I’ve broken the habit of having an opinion about everything. On the contrary, I’m having trouble to find things that interest me enough to have anything vaguely resembling an opinion about. I realize that Anna is not on that list of things. Come to think about it, that list is quite empty anyway. Apart from the weather, it seems.
I think that there are better no fishermen out there any more. The sea really looks quite nasty now.
I turn away from the big window and start to light the wood in the fireplace. The house is getting too cold and that’s one thing that still matters to me. If I still saw Dr. Peterson, he’d be delighted. I watch the flames progressing through the tinder and starting to work on the bigger logs. I sense that Anna has joined me.
“I’ve been a drug addict.”
I haven’t known that. If I still cared about such things, I surely would be appalled about my ignorance. I’ve lived years with this woman, not noticing her addiction and her profession? It’s really convenient not to care about self-recrimination any more.
I decide to get something to eat and I go to the kitchen to fix some sandwiches. Anna has left the coffee dregs in the sink. An old habit. So she’s still the same person. It’s good to confirm at least that. But what kind of lunatic questions such things at all? She has followed me into the kitchen.
“I had to quit my biology studies because of it. I needed the money badly. I was totally hooked on these drugs.”
That’s new information for me. Not that it matters. I dispose of the remainders of the coffee and start to concentrate on my sandwich task. I know how she prefers to have hers and I’m mildly surprised to find that I’m preparing some for her at all.
“I was a quite high when you found me. Like I always was to bear the job, the shame, the fears and the guilt. I was shocked when I saw you and you scared me a little. I didn’t know how to react. How to get out of this awful situation. I was used to call my pimp whenever I was in trouble, so in my dazed state I called Brock, without thinking about it. And for some reason he totally went nuts. I still have no idea why. I was screaming like hell when he beat you to a pulp. Your friends tried to stop him too, but no one stops Brock when he’s in attack mode. I’m so sorry. You deserved none of this.”
I nod again. She’s getting quite talkative now and I don’t really appreciate it. All of this new information doesn’t really improve my life. The question why this has happened is clarified now, but I never really had the urgent need to know about it. But I’m not concerned enough to do something to stop her talking.
“How are you, Ralf?”
A direct question. I’m surprised about this. What does she want to know? Why does she want me to talk at all?
“I’m just some hollow shell.” It sums up best what I’m feeling about myself without getting lost in long explanations. I haven’t diverted my eyes from the sandwich production site.
“No. Not any more. And you’re not Anna any more.” It seems I’m turning into some kind of chatterbox. I haven’t talked that much for quite a while.
“I’ve never been the Anna you saw.”
I just nod. Not to express that I’ve understood, but that I agree. We continue to watch my hands building the sandwiches.
“Did you like the Anna that you thought you had?”
I just nod again. “Loved her.”
“I’ve never been her but I always wanted to be.”
I look into her eyes now. Green. With an interesting structure in the iris. I’ve always liked this detail. Long lashes. Very attractive brows. Beautiful eyes. I see this, but it causes no emotion in me, I just acknowledge the facts. I still look into her eyes and she continues to look into mine, unwavering. Looking sad.
“Ralf, you look like hell.”
I nod and finally look at the sandwiches again. I cut them in halves. For some reason it seems to be important to cut them exactly in the middle. The information how I look like is not new. I know that I’ve changed, I look as lifeless as I feel. I think I’m just waiting to get old and die. I merely continue to live out of habit and because I lack the energy to do something about it.
“Ralf, what I’ve done is terrible. And what Brock has done is even worse. But you have to get out of your self-pitying. I’m not worth destroying your life and Brock much less.”
She’s struck a nerve with that. I’ve often thought about the same thing.
“I’m not actively self-pitying. I just don’t care about many things. Or people. Like myself.”
“About me too?”
“I don’t know.”
I hand her several sandwich halves on a plate.
“Thanks. That’s how I like them.”
I just nod. I know this.