What made her want to open that 36-year-old bottle of Dom Pérignon? She gazed at the tobacco-brown label and the words Moët et Chandon as you loosened the oxidized wire and pulled out the disintegrating cork; she remembered the mahogany liquor cabinet it once stood in, the life it belonged to. I wonder if she was planning to release a genie. Shrill and acidic, but with a deep note of nectar that tasted strange and precious: you drank it, but she declined. She anticipated the hangover in store for you today, prescribed sugar and Angostura. It worked for her husbands, surely it would work for you, and it did.
I sit in the psychiatrist’s office, open the laptop, and brace myself for a long wait. The room is full of people bundled into their coats and slumped in their seats with their eyes downcast, whereas I am damp with sweat and can’t peel my coat off quickly enough. Some of us feel cold when we go crazy, and some of us perspire: the body reacts differently to stress, to medication. My shirt is wet; I have a fresh one in my backpack, but there’s still the trip to the studio in the overheated U-Bahn as my own porous state absorbs meaningless newspaper headlines and advertising slogans and all the unkind, impatient, desperate thoughts of passersby.
Can you implant an on-off switch, I want to ask her, at least a volume-control knob, but I refrain because she wouldn’t understand my humor; she will interpret it as a symptom. For the time being we are operating with the diagnosis “clinical depression.” I do not want to hear the words manic or paranoid or any of these things. None of them comes close to accurately assessing the human condition; they pretend they don’t know this, but they do. In other words I can read minds, Frau Doktor, but of course one mustn’t say things like that to people with the legal power to commit you. And I’ve just met a man who can see into the future.
I’m doing fine. I know who I am, and it no longer feels like I’m weathering an invisible storm. I understand full well how I got myself into this mess, but the question is how to avert the danger next time, how to steer clear of whatever it was that flipped a switch and played havoc with my circuitry. Awful, these electronic metaphors for the brain. But where is that interface between the emotions and the nervous system, and what are the first signs: a tingling of the left earlobe? A twitch in the eyelid, accompanied by a foreboding sense of impending catastrophe and a steadily increasing sensitivity to color, sound, motion, smell—danger lurking everywhere, ready to pounce on the weak and unsuspecting. For just as then a great fearful astonishment had seized me, so now I was gripped by terror at everything that, as if in some unspeakable confusion, is called life.
What was your mother thinking when she decided to open the champagne she’d been saving for so many years? Is it possible to be happy with someone, with you? Your assurances will have to be extra-strength, your declarations incessant enough to penetrate a resistance I have no control over. A patient enters the waiting room and murmurs Guten Tag; everyone mumbles Guten Tag in return. Another leaves and murmurs Auf Wiedersehen, and everyone mumbles Auf Wiedersehen in return in imperfect unison. It’s mind-boggling how quickly people will relinquish their independence and self-reliance. I will say Tschüss next time; after all, I’m not a robot with no more recourse to language than to repeat what I hear.
Doctors are rational people, they tell you that the secret of life is to enjoy everything in measure, but there are situations that require excess. Love is a situation that requires excess. She smiles and nods, she knows this, I can see that she knows this; it’s her luck that she’s the one with the license to practice because this lends her version of reality more authority. Frau Doktor’s vision is to settle for a stable life, to find someone sensible and reliable, to accept that passion is a fleeting emotion destined to consume itself. To my mind, that means to accept, even strive for, mediocrity. No, I can’t do that, not if I want to keep that part of me alive, but I remain quiet for now. Do you think we can go down another 75 milligrams? I sit across from her in our strange little doctor-patient piece. How effortlessly power is established: it’s all a matter of roles. She decides to remain at 225 mg. for now. It’s winter in Berlin, winter is always a bad time for melancholics—better to wait until March or April to reduce the dosage.
Love never really repeats itself; it’s different every time. But I was kerplunked by something I never saw coming, and I am no longer normal. Now, each step I take is like testing a minefield, each advance carries with it a creeping dread, a feeling that I’ve been here before. The time, months after it was over, after the worst winter of my life and an agony of emails that said nothing, asked nothing, when I entered passport control at Kennedy Airport and reactivated my American cell phone to find eleven undeleted text messages from V., sent to me the previous fall as I was struggling through check-in, through security, leaving the country, leaving him.
The last of the messages: It won’t be long.