Aphorisms of an alienated amateur in America

A diary about the other side of moving abroad

Pierre stepped closer to the figure in the darkness. It was about the same height as him and stood on the other side of the bridge railing, its hands and feet the only remaining points of connection to the bridge on which they both stood. Pierre took a step closer to the figure. A car drove past on the otherwise little frequented roadway and the cone of light emanating from the vehicle illuminated the figure standing in front of Pierre for a brief moment. Pierre's look fell on the other person's hand. A somewhat faded scar running across the back of his hand caught his eye. The figure turned around and looked straight at Pierre. It was a man he had never seen before. Pierre's breath caught in his throat. Why was he here? “What are you up to?” Pierre wanted to know. But the man didn't answer. “How long have you been standing there?” The man in front of him remained silent and stared into the darkness again. The wind cut strongly across the bridge, accelerated by the strait, and brought with it an icy chill. Pierre's hands slowly became numb, and he began to shiver. But the man in front of him didn't move an inch. Pierre wondered what he should do now. He didn't want to share his moment. Suddenly, the man in front of him turned around again and made an effort to climb back over the bridges railing onto Pierre's side. The other had already leaned up and swung one leg over the railing when Pierre stepped in front of him. The man paused in his movement and stared at Pierre in confusion. Pierre stood in front of him motionless, like a statue on guard at the entrance to a shrine. Both remained in this position for a moment. Panic slowly rose in the man's eyes. He looked at Pierre in fear. Pierre's arms suddenly shot out and pushed the man against his chest with tremendous force. Pierre's arms performed this movement before he even realized what he was doing. He heard the hands clutching the railing being wrenched away from the steel pipe, saw the man losing his balance and slowly tipping backwards with his upper body. Then the feet loosened their grip on the ground and the body fell as if in slow motion until the darkness swallowed it up. After four agonizingly long seconds, Pierre heard the impact. Pierre's heart was racing. He remained in the same position for a few more moments, staring into the dark abyss. Then he abruptly turned around, pulled his hat down over his face and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

It was like a redemption for me to understand that I could leave. I was able to grant my wish to escape this rotting cocoon myself. I could free myself from the cocoon by letting it go. When I understood this, I felt relieved. For the first time I was able to make my own decisions again, I felt empowered. With this realization, relaxation set in. With every shallow breath, I could now feel some energy draining from my body. With every breath I took, I was moving a little further away from this world. I breathed in and thought of my childhood. How I had played with my toy cars. I was particularly fond of fire trucks. I breathed out and thought of my school days, which were turbulent. I thought of long-forgotten schoolmates, of a fight in the school yard. I breathed in and saw a woman in front of me who I had never approached. It were those little moments that always brought back a 'what if? I exhaled and the face disappeared. I breathed in and felt the breeze of life. I breathed out and felt how the escaping air took my vital energy away with it. I breathed in and thought of my wife. She smiled warmly at me. In her loving glance, I recognized that she was allowing me to leave. Hidden in her eyes were all our secrets, everything we had been through and all our love that had been somewhat weathered over the years. But the deep bond between us was one of the last things I took away from her eyes. I breathed out and no longer felt the ballast of my body. I was just a light soul ready to soar. I breathed in and felt the light and warmth heartily welcoming me. I exhaled and let go of my body, the cocoon that had held me in this world. Like when I boarded the plane and held my wife's hand, my fingers taut and only touching her hand with my fingertips, until the last second. And then I was gone.

It was cold outside. The biting cold cut into Pierre's face and for the first few minutes he could only breathe flatly. Pierre knew his destination. He wanted to get to the monstrous bridge that defied all odds in the darkness. The monstrosity and strength of this construction, the resistance to all forces of nature, the ugly sobriety due to its functionality. The bridge silently but firmly ordered him to come to it. A firm but calm command that Pierre could not disobey. Pierre wanted to go there. He wanted to reach this bridge so badly, to be welcomed by it so badly, that he ran. His body couldn't keep up with his urge for movement and speed. Pierre ran carelessly through streets and across traffic lights. He didn't care. After a car had to brake hard to avoid hitting him, the driver leaned out of the window and shouted that he was dirt and he hoped someone would hit him next time. Only there wouldn't be a next time, Pierre thought. As he ran, many memories of his life came back to him. Mostly bad ones, but also a few good ones. He was particularly fond of his childhood. He remembered how his mother brought him a toy car, which looked different to the ones on the local roads, after one of her countless business trips. Then he thought about how often she wasn't there. He thought of all the humiliations he had suffered. But he smiled now. Those memories no longer hurt because he had found meaning in them. Everything had led him here. To the solution to his problems. The bridge pillars appeared in Pierre's field of sight as he turned around a corner. The tips of the pillars were shrouded in a low-hanging cloud, but the tower lights flashing at regular intervals gave a hint of the gigantic height of the pillars. A life was to end here. Pierre wanted to get to the middle of the bridge. As soon as he took the first step onto the bridge, he was overtaken by a strange calm. He walked across the concrete floor like over a red carpet. Self-confident, mighty as if his steps had meaning and majestically, he celebrated every step. The last walk. He had everything under control. The time, the place, the method. It was his work, his signature, his private moment. He enjoyed his own attention. Then he noticed a silhouette.

The shattering of my last hope of rescue pulled the rug out from under my feet. I was going to die. Inevitably. It was only a matter of time. Although my mind was completely clear, my body was failing. My cocoon was rotting. I was trapped in a collapsing tower with no hope of escape. Without being able to call for help. The realization that I would soon have to die was nothing new in itself. Everyone had to die at some point. Just I had to die a little sooner. Was the time difference really that significant? Regardless of whether I lived another 50 years or just a few minutes longer, the same thing awaits us all in the end. We have to face our own death. It's always the others who die. I thought about that now. But facing your own death is something else. It's more personal, it's more tangible, it's different from the death of the others. Every possibility of being disappears in front of your eyes. There is nothing in front of you. The insignificance of every single action gains meaning without the background of the overall context. The gentle word, the nice gesture and the friendly smile defy the yawning emptiness of the future and take on a new meaning, not embedded in holistic structures, but standing on their own. Everything becomes more personal. I thought about a few decisive moments in my life. Would I have made the same decisions again, if I had known how it would end? My fears and worries of the past seemed marginal and childish in the face of the definite end. With the final variables of life set, the possibilities erased and the clear path towards the end, the fears that normally gave hope to oneself were taken away. No hope, no fears. What was inside of me? Peace? I was less afraid of death than I had always thought. Now that it was so close, I was almost intrigued. Now that the path was outlined, all other options were blocked and hopes had withered, there was only life towards the end. Placing death in one's own historicity removed its abstractness. The personalization of the end of others, the intentionality towards one's own life, made it merely the end of my own story. The end that had never fitted into any plans now forced itself upon me and wanted its place in my personal history. Like a good schoolgirl who waited patiently until she was noticed, but at some point impatiently climbed onto her father's lap and demanded the attention she deserved from him because of her importance in his life. I was ready for that. I wanted to hug it. I wanted to meet it with open arms and welcome it. I wanted to die.

While the world was slowly embraced by the darkness and the strong embrace smothered the last rays of sunlight, Pierre sat motionless in his armchair. He thought of the humiliations in his life, sparks of hope, of special and especially terrible people. The abandonment of his house roared in his ears. Even here he felt out of place. He couldn't find a place to retreat where he felt safe. Neither inside himself nor outside. His thoughts circled. They revolved around the why. Why did everything happen like this? Why was he alone? Why was he here? This last thought occupied his mind more and more often. It was difficult for him that the hope of an improvement of his situation was so far ahead. Would he be able to hold out until then? Over the last few nights, he often felt faint. He was close to giving up. He noticed how his will and resilience faded with the last rays of the day and how he fell into a lethargy in which nothing was of any value to him. Whether he lived on or not seemed arbitrary to him. He couldn't gather any positive arguments to keep on going. And for whom? Claire? It was pointless. The only thing that gave him a reason to rejoice was to imagine how people would come to his funeral in hypocrisy. How they cried in shock and said he had been such a good guy. They would have never thought he would do this. And the prospect of passing on his “why” question to posterity also delighted him. Pierre made a decision. Tonight it had to be done. It had to end as soon as possible. Relieved to have finally made up his mind, he swung out of the armchair with renewed energy. He no longer needed to save this energy, he could use it all up and waste it. But where should he do it? At home? Or outside? Then he remembered. The bridge. The hostile, cold maw that swallowed everything that came too close to it had long fascinated and attracted but also deterred him. Now it seemed to him like a cold welcome. Pierre applied the remains of a scented water, watered the flowers, scribbled a note on a piece of paper lying around, grabbed his jacket and slipped out of the front door into the freezing cold of the night.

When I had just woken up, I happened to overhear a conversation between my wife and the head doctor of the intensive care unit. I slept a lot because it was very exhausting to keep my eyes open for even a few hours. Not to mention the psychological strain. As soon as the massive problems and doubts, the hopelessness and the panic hit me, after I spent the first few seconds of waking up in sleepy harmony, not knowing for a moment where I was and what had happened, the energy I had just accumulated in my sleep abruptly vanished. At first, I didn't realize what the two voices right behind my door were talking about. It was only when I heard my wife crying softly – they both thought I was still asleep, which is why they were talking in hushed tones – that my attention suddenly shifted to the conversation behind the thick door. I strained to understand what the conversation was about, as my wife's crying triggered a protective reflex in me and I wanted to ease her pain. But to do that, I needed to know what was causing her pain. After a few minutes and a few paragraphs, it became clear to me. It was about me and my state of health. The doctor had just revealed to her that my vital signs had deteriorated. They would of course do everything in their power to achieve the impossible or at least bring about the best possible outcome in this situation, but one should prepare the relatives for a last visit and slowly say goodbye.
My wife's suppressed sobs and cries cut through the bedroom door and reached my ears like a scream for help. She wanted to be held in my arms and mourn her probable impending loss. I would rather have comforted her than being isolated in my cocoon and being forced to deal with my own fate. Was this really going to be the end for me? Was there no hope? Although the doctor wrapped his words in absorbent cotton, his message was clear. The guidelines forbade him to take the hope away from the relatives. And yet the radicalism behind the absorbent cotton was remarkably clear: I had no chance of surviving.

As Pierre woke up from his daydream, he remained seated in the armchair apathetically. After a while, he took a deep breath and exhaled sharply. It was a resigned exhalation. He felt empty. Pierre thought about treating himself for a moment and allowing himself a brief moment of pleasure. But he couldn't think of anything he would have liked to do or have right now. Even if he had had every opportunity, every power and all the wealth on earth, he wouldn't have known what to do with himself. He was so empty within himself that he didn't have a single desire. The most obvious thing that could make a person feel positive again was food. Pierre thought of everything he had in the house, but felt no appetite. Not even a cool glass of orange juice, his favorite drink, could tempt him out of his chair. The leftover pieces of chocolate left him equally cold. The little pleasures of life did not fulfill their eponymous purpose. He thought of Claire. Her letter was still there in his bag, unopened, but whether he opened it or not didn't matter. He could already assume the content of the letter. And even if it had been another one, he wouldn't have cared. Pierre's look wandered around the room, but didn't stop anywhere. The walls were bathed in a golden hue and the evening sun was beginning its play of the colors. But the small and beautiful things in life no longer moved him. Pierre looked out of the window. He saw the shape of the sun's thick rays through the fine dust in his apartment, which reflected some of the golden light. Outside the window, an unpruned bush of autumn lilac was in late bloom. The bright pink color of the fruit seemed strangely out of place in the twilight and the otherwise barren garden. The thin branches of the bush swayed gently in the breeze rising from the strait. Pierre thought of a song that a fruit seller on the street had sung cheerfully as she was tidying up her goods. One line stuck in his mind in particular. “The lilac blooms as if I'd never even said it”. It wouldn't bloom for much longer. And then this bush would be as barren and empty as Pierre's inside.

Despite the fact that my body was withdrawing from my control, this didn't stop it from demanding and creating needs. The longer I lay in my cocoon, the more often certain cravings arose in me that could not be satisfied. Due to the limited field of vision, my look had just lingered on the oranges that were carefully stacked on the unremarkable table. The orange color glowed intensely in the twilight, which gave my sterile room a golden coating. I thought of how I used to eat oranges or drink their juice. With these thoughts, I felt my salivary glands start to work. The first contact of my mouth with the orange, when I wanted to take a hearty bite, allowed its fibrousness to define my perception for a brief moment. The outer skin was somewhat elastic and yet firm, so that the teeth did not pierce the fibrous layer directly, but merely deformed it for a moment before the layer gave way, burst open and squirted a sweet and sour liquid under high pressure into my oral cavity, causing every muscle in my face to contract. I wanted an orange juice. I craved an orange juice. My body and my mouth, my throat and my stomach, every fiber of my body screamed for a glass of the fruit that lay a few feet away from me in the glaring sun, yet so unreachably far away. I could see it, could have taken two or three steps and satisfied my need if my body hadn't completely refused my will and pinned me to the bed. The desire for the simplest things that were so inaccessibly close made my body scream, explode and convulse on the inside. But on the outside, I was completely calm. My body didn't move a millimeter. A stormy ocean raged inside of me, but on the outside I was a calm sea. The idea of being cut off from even the smallest pleasures in life and having insatiable desires tormented me. I wanted my eyes to tear up, but they remained dry. The source of my tears dried up, as did the spring that no longer fed the slowly drying lake of my hope.

Pierre threw his bag into the corner and dropped into an armchair. It was an old but comfortable armchair, an heirloom from his grandfather. It was already a little worn out, with clear signs of use on the seating surfaces, but the armchair was very comfortable. Over time, the soft leather had taken on the shape of the parts of his body that were touching its surface. He felt cocooned and comfortable, he felt at home as soon as he sank into this armchair. The slightly faded brown of the armchair had class. It reminded him of furniture from a gentleman's club. Pierre dedicated a special purpose to this armchair; it was his reading chair. Pierre reached for the book lying on the side table next to the armchair and opened it. It was Camus' L'Étranger. He found himself in it. Pierre too felt as if society was rolling over him, as if things were expected of him that he didn't understand. After a few pages, he put the book down on his lap and thought about an incident that had happened at his university the other day. He was in the toilet when two of his fellow students entered the washroom and started chatting. Pierre recognized the two voices. He became very quiet to avoid making any noise, as he didn't want them to know that he was lingering in their presence. Only a thin wooden panel separated the two parties so that the voices were clearly recognizable. It was about him: “Have you seen Pierre today?” “Yeah, why?” “He looked kind of goofy today, so disillusioned.” “Oh, he always is, just leave him alone.” “I kind of feel sorry for him. I tried to talk to him once, but I just don't know what to talk about.” “Yeah, he's a weirdo, I can't really connect with him either.” “Do you think we should ask him if he'd like to join us on one of our trips?” Pierre widened his eyes and hoped the idea would meet with approval. “Oh, leave him alone, I'm not entirely comfortable with him anyway.” “Yeah, maybe you're right...” The two voices left the bathroom and Pierre collapsed. He was isolated. He was the stranger.

One by one all of them came. In the first week that I was in the hospital, there was a crowd that I hadn't expected. It was almost like they were looking at a carpet. I was at the mercy of everyone's looks. I still couldn't move and lay mute and motionless in my cocoon. I could only move my eyes and perceive the people who came in. I felt shame. I was lying, sparsely washed and vegetating, in the very same position, which was only changed from time to time by the nursing staff. I felt like I had been bearded, a living corpse. The sight of me caused horror and discomfort. I was pitied. And I realized how uncomfortable I was to look at as a living corpse. The people looking at me were reminded of their own vulnerability. The thought that they themselves could be in my position frightened them. They came in because it was the right thing to do. They condoled with me with flowers and cards and tried to shower me with material so that they would no longer have to see me under the pile of gifts. They looked at me, but didn't see me. That would have been the best gift anyone could have given to me. To break through the isolation and the immense barrier between me and the world and to be able to see me. For many people, becoming aware of their own vulnerability and seeing their seemingly infinite future terminated was unbearable. They tried to cover up these feelings with customs and things “you just do”. And yet the participation in the game, which everyone seemed to be playing in order to dive back into the forgetting everyday world without guilt, was an absurd theater. The protagonists appeared on stage one after the other, spoke their rehearsed lines, behaved awkwardly and threw meaningless phrases around, only to leave in a panic. And I was the only spectator of this mediocre, at best, farce. To my astonishment, people I had almost forgotten appeared. Only absurd wealth or a tragedy can attract so many people back into your life who have already evaded your gravitational field. Old schoolmates, fellow students, weeping former lovers, distant relatives. Without exception, everyone, regardless of their status, submitted to the rules of stagecraft. And I, the non-paying spectator, could hardly wait for the final curtain to fall.