Berlin, Germany, December, 2012.
I have memorised the grouting between tiles in this bathroom stall. If I close my eyes, their grid-like formation beams fluorescent against the blackness of my sealed lids. They flash in time with my syncopated heartbeat. I’m sitting on the toilet seat in a bar in Kreuzberg. Elbows rested on knees, head propped in open hands; I am Rodin’s Thinker with an anxiety disorder. I am suffocating under a stratus cloud. I am trying to remember how to breathe.
There’s rumbling in the soles of my shoes that leaves shivers in my toes. The fixtures rattle with the music, muffled by a graffiti-strewn door. I read the message I’d left there last week in black marker: “Warum bist du nicht mit deinem Freund?”*
I am all over this town. My messy Sharpie inside-jokes are painted on public walls, my clammy palms have gripped staircase banisters, my vomit has clung to sink basins, my breath has fogged up u-bahn train windows. It’s my last weekend. My pockets are empty but my throat is lathered with sips from friends’ drinks. There’s a plane ticket marked as ‘important’ in my inbox, there’s a date highlighted red on my calendar. I am finding it hard to breathe.
Grabbing my phone from its position atop the toilet roll dispenser, I find the song. The only song that can turn the shaky breaths smooth, that sucks the trembling out of my fingertips. It has a hypnotic bass that allows me to count my inhale-exhale patterns. Each synth note is matched to one beat in my brain, adding up to the nine seconds before I can let out the whoosh of air in my chipmunk cheeks. I wait for the voice – vibrating depth, sad but hopeful. I feed his baritone into my mind like a mantra. Don’t hurry, give it time, things are the way they have to be.
I rub my left thigh, still sore from the tattoo hiding under winter wool layers. It’s two words, a small actualisation of intangible largess. It will require explanations to strangers who glance down, and I will always lie and say; “It’s nothing, just a song title.” They don’t need to know what it really is: a reminder for when I forget how to breathe. A bumpy trail of poorly healed ink on flesh; a direct line to the lyrical ticker tape stored in my cerebral cortex.
The song is five minutes twenty-three seconds long: a deadline to stabilising my relationship with oxygen. The walls are still throbbing. Past the spongy distortion in my ears, there are the high-pitched voices of friends. Drunk and vivacious, seeking my calm itinerary-focused brain to play Pied Piper to the next bar. I hold the phone closer, angle the miniscule speaker to fit against my ear canal. When you wake up, when you wake up, you will find me.
When the final chord strikes, I’m forced to move though my skin is prickling numb. I’m thinking of the heart and how it pumps. And how tired mine must be, from the way I exercise it so sporadically, forcing it to jump and skip without warning, squeezing its ventricles unexpectedly, halting the journey of blood cells with apprehensive road blocks and panic detours.
The bar is cramped, the air is sweat-clogged. We leave for the snow outside, a cold slap on the cheeks. I can see my breath now. It is departing my chapped lips, it is thanking me in hushed steamy whispers. The moment that you want is coming if you give it time.
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