(not necessarily to be read in order)
He remembered how there had been a subtle breeze in the air that day, one that doesn’t blow through your hair but just lifts it, as if hesitating. People had been chatting and smiling, and they seemed joyous at the first rays of sunlight this year. That day, when spring seemed so much closer than it had just a moment before, he took the decision. He knew it would change something about the way people would look at him, and the things people would think of him. He knew this would mean more than it might have in the moment he had decided. Yet now that he had taken this step, there was no way back. Just as, once the first rays of sunlight had made their way through the thick quilt of clouds that the winter’s mood had drawn over the city, there was not going to be another first ray of sunlight. A step is a step, and to take one back is not to undo what had happened. He was aware of that, as he was aware of the gravity with which this matter had come to take shape.
“I see where you’re coming from, but I just can’t wrap my head around it. I mean, I know why and all, and you explained it to me a couple times now, but … how? Why? To what end? For the sake of what?” Thomas seemed half nervous, half puzzled after he had explained the decision to him. But he wouldn’t answer, he wouldn’t be able to. There was a paralysis. He would let the questions be taken up by the room, yet not dissolve in it, like oil in water. Oil in water, there was something about that which he was not yet able to fully understand. So instead of an answer, he would give Thomas a look: Some mixture of a false and a real smile, as he had unlearned the difference over time.
“Now don’t give me this look. That’s even worse! What am I going to think? What am I going to say?” Thomas was so … bewildered, and even though his lips were tightly pressed onto one another, his eyes stared back at him like a dropping jaw. He gasped, as if about to say something, then stopped himself abruptly before making any sound at all. What was he going to think, what to say? How would he know. How would he even attempt to know. Every knowing had to begin with a question, and everything known would only raise yet another question. Why did nobody find this laughable, as he did? And, see, there it was: a question.
“You seem worn out. Did you get enough sleep these last days? I hope so, I mean, you know how important it is to sleep enough. It makes me wonder, every time I think about it: how some people just never sleep enough. They neglect themselves, and so often they don’t even realise. What’s that about? Some sort of self-destructive drive? A death wish? I don’t know. I guess I’m just trying to say that… that you should take care to get enough sleep.” Thomas frowned, and the already wrinkled skin on his forehead folded. Then he relaxed his face, tilted his head and turned to the sparse source of light the small window to his right provided. He lifted his gaze and, through the window, watched the people outside in the street. Suddenly, a melancholy expression started to expand over his face. His eyes turned shiny, as if he was either feeling feverish or about to, reluctantly, shed a cautious tear.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about this for a while over the past weeks. We should see each other more often, time is not infinite, you know.” There it was. The hurry of time, the rush of the happening.
He wanted to reply, but first only a broken voice came out of his mouth, probably because he hadn’t said much during the past couple of hours they had spent together. Then, after he had cleared his throat, making a few grumpy sounds, he said: “Thomas, I see what you mean. I mean, I believe I understand it, Thomas.” There was an awkward moment of silence after these words, and both men felt like something was missing. He could see it in Thomas’ eyes, he could see the confusion slowly turning into irritation.
So he added, “It is clear to me, really. You are looking for something that we have never been able to have, as if now, as time is about to find back the pace of its youth, there was an opportunity. And I am telling you, there is no opportunity. For really time doesn’t change its pace, we do. Time doesn’t do anything, if I may be frank with you, it doesn’t do anything. When we say things like, ‘the time has come’, then what we actually mean is that we have changed. When we say, ‘I am running out of time’, then what we actually mean is that we have been slower than expected.”
He paused, and finally a smile started to complement the light that the window threw onto Thomas’ face. The melancholy appeared to fade. He took a deep breath, then he said: “And, finally, when we say, ‘give me some time’, then what we actually mean is that we’d rather not occupy our minds with it right now. What it does to you when I claim to know what something actually means, I don’t know. I don’t even know what it means to know, nor what it means to mean. I don’t know anymore, Thomas. I don’t know. And that’s alright! It doesn’t feel worse, nor better, if you want to hear the truth. I can tell you.” And he could really tell, only Thomas had not figured out yet why that was. Thomas had been able to explain the layer of dust that had grown thicker in this room; also it was no mystery to him that it looked foggy outside, even though he knew that it was a bright day, simply for the dirt impeding sight through the window; Thomas also understood the reasons for the long-expired food in the fridge and the withered gladiola in the vase on the kitchen table; this was not so difficult to explain to himself. But why his friend — or should he, by now, say: acquaintance? — could tell so well, that he didn’t understand. Not just like that, at least.
“Thomas, you look confused”, he said. And of course Thomas looked confused. There was so much in the room, the passage of time, the decision he had taken, the space that time builds up. It made him think of how the perception of time’s passing seemed to be what brought that space between people into existence in the first place. Was that so? Would he feel closer again to Thomas, had there not been all these signifiers of time around him? Yet there they were again: questions. How dreadful, how pitiful.
“I am confused, David. I am utterly confused. You confuse me. This confuses me. We confuse me! Take a look outside, if you can just throw one glance onto those streets that seem as though they were clothed in mist, which they aren’t, it’s just your window that is so unacceptably covered in dirt, watch them walk, watch them pass by, the passers-by. Things happen, they happen — but do they really happen? Things change, flowers bloom, trees grow, and the people! People laugh one day, and the next day they cry, and you sit and sit and sit and sit. You sit, and you keep sitting there, confusing me with everything you say! I swear I tried to still like this. But time has made me into a different man. I swear I tried.”
This began with a dream. Everything was blurry, or was it milky? He didn’t know how to distinguish one from the other. Everything was so … whole. Everything was everything, without every, and without thing. The balance felt so balanced that the word balance became meaningless; and so on. Every word dissolved in front of his eyes, every … word … dissolved. ______________, _____________ — ____________ _____ , ________________ ! _____________. From everything came nothing, and from nothing came everything. In this realm, there was her hair. And the smell of her hair. Maybe there was only the smell, not the hair itself. There were her eyes. And the brief look she would take at him sometimes, as if it was a rare luxury that their eyes would meet. Maybe there was only the look, not the eyes themselves. He could see what he could not possibly see: those parts of her that had no physical form; her smile, the sadness, the laughter, the surprise. And the decay, the change. The smell of her hair, gone. Sophie. Sophie. Sophie.
“Yes? Were you talking to me?” She looked at him intently, with this piercing gaze that would sometimes wake him up even from the deepest of sleeps.
“I was about to say something, but it went out under my fingers, like sand.” “Don’t you think time is like sand? I mean, isn’t the hourglass the most postmodern invention ever?” He had not thought about it in that way before. But then again, Sophie was making so much sense. “The hourglass preconceived postmodernism in a way postmodernity will never be able to; it is so much, and yet so simply so. The sand slipping through the narrow opening, letting only a select few of grains pass over from past to future, the intersection being the present; and what makes it so dynamic is the movement, the constant flux between past, present, and future. And how circular! Once all of the sand had made it to the bottom, you would just turn the whole thing upside down and start all over. How arbitrary! How contingent! How easily manipulated, but still impenetrable in its workings.”
“Sophie, you’re absolutely right. About the hourglass. I would have loved to have said this myself.” In spite of a smile there was fatigue in his voice, fatigue in his face, fatigue in his hands.
— “And then, only just consider the violent contrast between the analogue and the digital clock. The former does a fine job: It reliably returns to the old companions, a best friend to the clock-face that stays where it is, that patiently waits for the hand to revisit each number. The hand travels, but it doesn’t leave. Time flows, but it doesn’t go. Now take the latter: Digit after digit after digit appearing on the screen. Where do they come from? Where do they go? Is 20:15 always the same 20:15? Is the one that appears the day after a returnee or a newcomer? There is only succession, progression, never the reassurance of the circle.”
More words he wished he would have spoken himself. The beauty of it all. So young this world, so old this life. So many had lived it before. This began with a dream. And it ended there.
The day had not come yet. He was not ready to take the decision that would become such a decisive turning point in his life. A closure had to be carefully prepared with an opening. He felt it in the tips of his fingers, intuition prickling under his skin, everything telling him to do it soon, everything telling him not to hesitate much longer. Everything also telling him, however, that the opening up would make the closure so much harder. Only time would tell.
It was a crisp morning, and the rising sun slowly bathed the even horizon in an ever more golden light, attenuated by the mist that hung just above the ground. He was taking a walk along the creek, the creek mysteriously hiding under the same layer of mist that looked, along with the water’s subtle reflection underneath, almost like an enchanted mirror of some sorts. This mirror spoke to him, it whispered, and the light wind carried the whisper through the gently swaying beeches. He stared at those trees as if in order to obtain an answer of some sorts: What was it the creek was whispering at him? Why was he so convinced it was him whom the whisper was directed at, even though it would sweep right past him? What did it all mean? And there it was, as clear as only unclarity, as certain as only uncertainty could be: Whispers, not words. Mist, not dew. Sway, not standstill. Questions, not answers. And at the end of the path there was a white bridge that looked as if floating above the mist, risen from it, reaching into the sunlight that broke through the leaves of the trees leaning over the bank. Touching the golden rays, this white bridge struggled to do the splits between one piece of ground and another. He couldn’t help but wonder. Help me lose control, Thomas. Help me. Let me. Permit me. At the other end of the bridge, there was his silhouette, standing, waiting? Waiting perhaps, but how would he know. Thomas, how would I know? How would he know.
Thomas, shortly thereafter
“Thomas, do you think there is a sign that says, this way to illumination?” He wondered, he really did. Wonder, wonder, wonder. Such a beautiful sensation, as beautiful, he might say, as that moment by the creek he had sat down, let himself sink into the grass, the blades of grass tickling in the back of his ears, him just breathing in and out, being here and being there, up and down, to and fro, now and then.
“I think there is, I do. The funny thing with signs, though, is that we read them as if they came from some place of absolute certainty, but someone puts them. The sign-putter is one of us. The sign-putter might be wrong. So, I think there is a sign pointing toward illumination, but what if the sign-putter wasn’t illuminated in the first place? Did the putter just have the arrow point towards the sun? Is the sign, therefore, only pointing the right way at the same time of the day the putter had put it? Only, say, at eleven-fifteen? What does that tell us about illumination?”
“Thomas, are you suggesting that we always point at something, but that pointing at something isn’t the point?”
The last day of work
Chattering, whispering people stood by the coffee maker in the hallway. Some of the most recent gossip, a brew thicker and stronger than the steaming coffee in their mugs, was dissipated here to seep through the thin walls of the office. Its stains lasted longer than those of the ever-praised pick-me-up that first provided warmth, then made them way too awake, just to finally end up betraying their alertness with distraction. These colleagues of his were living life as a mode of procrastination, gossip and coffee being but symptoms of their daily routines, recurrences, relays. The piling stacks of instant soup and ground coffee were daily sacrifices on the altar of production, with the relaxation seminar, the underhand pot dealers, and the leave of absence for the one or the other burned-out roadkill securing internal consistency to the experiment.
“Did you already fill in your schedule for next month?” Peter looked at him, no, stared at him intently with the expectation of a clear, precise answer glowing and growing in his eyes. “Did you?” The coffee did what it was there for, most apparently.
He nodded, then he took another sip. “Yes.”
“And, uhm, how’s everything? Are you also just dying under this week’s heap of work?”
“I guess so.”
“I know, man, it’s insane. Literally! I mean, where is this headed? Aren’t we all busy enough already? I just spoke to Phil the other day, but he won’t make the necessary changes. It’s always the same excuses: hands tied, orders from above, that sort of thing.”
“What is Phil supposed to do about it?”
“You know, something. At least like, I don’t know, give us some more breathing space.”
Breathing space. How right Peter was, without knowing. Or did he know? Did they all know? What would that mean, to know about breathing space? Hadn’t they all been contently breathing the recycled, radiator-dried, vacuum-cleaned air, once a day opening a window, then quickly closing it upon swift complaint over the cold? What would it mean to know? He didn’t know. Yet, all of a sudden, an impulse went through his body and slowly but steadily spread out over his skin, producing an almost electric layer of vibrating drive over him. This glowing membrane stayed with him when he decided to put down the coffee mug. It still did not disappear when he took those fifteen, sixteen steps to his office cell, when he switched off the computer, and when, without collecting his things, he grabbed his coat. It was still there when he had a last look at the busy bees all around him, when he dedicated an impatient last glance to this microcosm of truth-seeking, and when he, finally, walked out the door, waited for the lift, went out to leave the building, stood in the streets and thought to himself: What a wonderful world.
“When I step into the supermarket, David, do you know what crosses my mind in the first instant?” She smiled at him, waiting for him to ask what, so that she could then say it.
So he asked: “No, I don’t know; what crosses your mind in the first instant?”
“I can’t help but think that starvation is bliss.” “How can you say something like that?”
“Well, quite easily: The supermarket shouts it at you! Don’t you see it that way, David? Only just think about how the shelves are almost collapsing under the sheer weight of choice. And this is not only the number of products, it is also the number of variations that come with each single product. Even oatmeal, David! Oatmeal! There is six different types of oatmeal now! They go by thickness and firmness of the oat leaf, can you imagine? They do those things now. And then I can’t help but think that starvation is bliss, that the only choice I really have is to either take it all and eat only so that I have more to vomit, or that I leave it altogether. What would you do?” Another one of those fervent speeches. Another day of guilt and shame. Another moment in which he had to think about how strange it was that he loved her. That he cherished every single moment he had the privilege of spending with her. Was that despite or because of her fervour? Perhaps both.
He replied: “I don’t know what I would do, Sophie. I would probably just take a shopping list with me, so I wouldn’t have to choose there but make my choice at home already.” She had to laugh at his remark, displaying her small, white teeth. He could smell her joy, it smelled different from normal. Beauty, so much beauty. The song of the birds, the sun peeking through the lavishly green leaves above them, the sound of children playing in the distance, their laughter, their wonder.
Then, suddenly, the smell faded away as quickly as it had appeared. Sophie put on an air of importance. “David, I know this is probably an awkward moment to change the topic, but there is something else I need you to know.” She pulled out a folded piece of paper, a letter. She handed it to him, and as he unfolded it, something changed terribly. The unfolding of this little piece of paper, somehow, had the effect of folding everything else, warping all that had happened into one whole, one horrifying whole. The walks they had taken, the breakfasts they had shared, the small things they had said to each other, all not crumbling, not disappearing, but turning into part of the shock of the Now. Past and future became present, as if someone had closed the book, its pages now pressing onto one another, the book now refusing to be read in an orderly way. “David, look at me,” she said, and laid her hand upon his. “Look at me.” But he couldn’t look at her, he didn’t dare to because he feared that he would forget her smile if he would look back at her serious face. Beauty, so much beauty. The echo of the song of the birds, the shade of the sun peeking through the washed-out green leaves above them, the indistinguishable sound of children playing in the distance, their tragic laughter, their hopeless wonder.
The first day without work
The sound of the alarm clock didn’t wake him; the sun did. Not the having-to, but the wanting got him out of bed. There was a profound longing pulsating in him, when he stood under the shower, closing his eyes and imagining that he stood in a lush rain forest, the smell of earth and flowers filling the air around him, the sound of rare songbirds above him, the magic of the place deeply moving him. The water poured and poured over him, and he would just let that happen, he would just allow for it. It was alright. There was no judgement in it, no authority to whom to justify things, no committee that would evaluate his behaviour, no place where he had to render an account of life. All the living creatures of this wretched earth, as they say, yet he was just one of them, as much as everyone else. All the living creatures of this wonderful earth, yet humankind had somehow decided to find its very own condition wretched. He stepped out of the shower, and it felt as if he returned from the rain forest to a new life. He had found a light in the darkness of that mysterious jungle; he would now be able to give his inner dragon a hug, sit down with it to have a nice little conversation rather than having to fight and to quarrel again and again and again and again. And yet it wasn’t like he went from darkness to light, it was light that was part of that beautiful darkness, and darkness that was part of that beautiful light. There was no straight stream that had carried him from there to here, nor one that would now carry him from here to there; there was no stream. There was a two-way river perhaps, a movement back and forth at the same time, the left leg stepping to the fore, while the right one would take a step back. A walking split, a moving-on in a whirl, yet a whirl that would run clockwise as much as it ran anti-clockwise. He was about to pour milk over the cereal when he realised, for the first time perhaps, that he didn’t like cereal. Something told him that he should seek something else, that he should let go of the routine, that he should nevertheless go on, yet differently. It reminded him of how all of this didn’t feel like a break; it wasn’t a break. It was a living-on in past, present, and future alike. It was going to have been prolonged momentariness, static temporality, a settled preliminary. So he ate his cereal. When he turned the pages of the newspaper, he felt awkward about it. Its headlines read: “GERMAN APOLOGIES FOR GENOCIDE IN NAMIBIA” — “ARCHAEOLOGISTS RECONSTRUCT FACE OF MEDIEVAL MAN” — “WORLD HERITAGE SITE BOMBED”. He had to do something about it, he had to entangle again what presented itself as so altogether disentangled. So he got a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer and started to cut. He cut around the As and Fs, the Cs and Ms, until the alphabet spread all over the table, some letters sailing to the ground, but it didn’t matter, he let them fall, he let them be, he let them find their own ways. So the headlines read: “medieval Germans bombed world” — “genocide archaeologists face apologies” — “man of Namibia heritage”, and so forth. He let the letters be. They had been screaming, and they would scream no more. They would perhaps still like to scream, and they could, to themselves, but they wouldn’t have to assert their existence by means merely of screaming. He let them be. When he found himself in the park later that day, he came to realise that he wasn’t alone. He would take a decision, but he wasn’t going to be alone. His decision would bring change, and change was what he had sought, yet change wasn’t something he could just bring about, he couldn’t just make change happen, it didn’t grow on trees where he could just pick it up like fruit. He was going to connect to the place, he was going to find another point of entry to time and space. And there it was: the decision. He wouldn’t mind people responding in ways that he wouldn’t have accepted before. He wouldn’t be an open book anymore, not because he longed for secrecy with himself, not because he wanted to keep something from them — rather, to have the pages touch one another instead of them lying apart diagonally, having to be deciphered from left to right, from beginning to end, from exposition having to go through climax to then culminate in denouement. The pages would get in touch, just as he would get in touch with himself, and others, and time, and space. So he leaned back on that bench in the park, thinking about Thomas and Sophie, and all the others. There was beauty, there was so much beauty. The song of the birds, the sun peeking through the lavishly green leaves above him, the sound of children playing in the distance, their laughter, their wonder. This was the moment he decided not to answer questions anymore.