By Katharina Kracht
We’re all in a new situation, my shrink says. People are dying, more in other countries than here, but still. Loss of control induces fear, she explains. The brain responds—and mine has dealt with so much trauma. They call it hypervigilance, panic attacks, flashbacks. It’s to be expected, and even more so during a pandemic.
My shrink hopes understanding this will calm me down.
But this is not a new phenomenon.
The first time I saw him was years ago. I was running in the park and there he was, my old foster father, in his black duffle coat and his trademark red scarf, all six feet of him. Walking towards me, his eyes turned to slits in a curious smile.
Everything flashed back. How he took me in after my family had imploded. The widower stretching out a hand to the disadvantaged: such a generous man, a pillar of the community.
I turned around and raced to the other end of the park.
Over the years, I’ve encountered him a few times. A man’s red scarf moves with the breeze; I can’t swallow. No air will enter my lungs. I’m thrown out of time. He is here. He has come for me. He wants to gain control over me again. Touch me like he used to. Tell me I want it, too. Space and time are a circle turning wildly in front of my eyes.
To deal with the flashbacks and the panic, I count things around me. Everything blue first, then yellow, then green. I count my breaths.
I tell myself he died seven years ago. After I read the obituary, I sneaked into the cemetery on a winter’s day. It was almost dark when I found his headstone. I breathed freely for a moment.
Then I saw the earth was stirred up in places. I ran out before I could spit on his grave.
Maybe that was my mistake, because now, with the virus out, he is everywhere.
A few weeks ago, I saw him riding his bike near the stadium in his orange T-shirt and his jeans, his hair grown out. The same foggy evening, he walked on the sidewalk near my house. I don’t remember his clothes, but his hair was shorter and he looked younger, more like he did at the beginning of fifth grade when he first became my teacher.
He is not always his full height. His ethnicity and his gender change, too. The other day, I was buying börek at the Turkish deli. When he smiled at me, the vendor’s eyes were the same tight slits that always made Mr. K’s smile seem so warm.
I tossed the börek. I will not be duped into buying food he prepares for me. I know what he wants. I’ve been there.
I have to be careful now. I am very vigilant but for a reason: The virus is bringing my foster father back.
I see him in the pandemic’s pattern, and despite what the news anchors say, the curve is still rising. One day, there is one of him and the next day, two, then four, eight, sixteen.
I know he tries keeping his return a secret, to stay under my radar, what with the face masks and everything. But I will not be gulled into compliance like before.
The years I lived with him—many things are a blur—but at least I was in a house with food on the table. People didn’t shout, or hit each other, or me. There were no drugs, only the bottles of red in the cellar. The house was clean, shiny even. My bed had fresh sheets on it.
I tell myself to stop thinking of these times, to stop torturing myself, asking why I didn’t get away from him, why I stayed with him for over six years. I tried telling my English teacher. She asked me why I would make up stories, why I wanted to harm the man who had given me everything.
I was 17 when I left. I’m 40 now. I’m safe enough in my new life, but it is more dangerous than ever with this virus out because he is everywhere. He is driving the tram. He hides his face under a mask at the bus stop or waits in line at the pharmacy. I’m not fooled.
The virus is on the news every day. The politicians claim it’s under control now. The distancing rules are being loosened.
But I buy new locks because I see the pattern.
My options are decreasing. There is one grocery store at the other end of the city where I haven’t seen him yet. I have no car and ride back and forth on my bike all day to stock up on groceries. The situation grows more dangerous: When I go back the next day, he waves at me from the wine section. I leave my shopping cart and go.
At therapy, hypnosis usually calms me down, but when I close my eyes, my shrink’s voice is much lower and sounds older. We’re alone, in a closed space, and I pretend I don’t notice.
I’m very polite as I leave. I will not be going back.
In the street, there are many of him. His eyes are laughing slits above his masks. There is fog everywhere, and I try not to touch it.
I’m home now. The door is locked. I have food for weeks.
I’ve smashed all the mirrors. The second wave of virus is here, much like the man who wants to control me. What if I see my eyes close to slits as I smile?