A man in his early forties, a hospital stay, a moment’s pause and an encounter at a barbecue. In "It's Me" Kristina Schilke brilliantly captures a precarious state between emergency and normality, uneasiness and life-as-usual – brilliantly, but by no means unusually so for this author who was born in Chelyabinsk in Russia in 1986 and came to Germany when she was eight. Each of the thirteen stories in Kristina Schilke’s début collection Elefanten treffen (2016, ‘Meeting Elephants’) testifies to the linguistic intensity and at the same time to the light touch of this author who graduated from the German Institute for Literature in Leipzig in 2011. Schilke shows herself to be a fearless and precise observer of internal and external pain points.
The Sankt Johannesweide Psychiatric Outpatient Clinic encompasses spacious grounds. Patients have access to this Lower Bavarian gem among mental institutions from seven in the morning until six in the evening, five days a week. For the past three weeks, the clinic has been my life. Three weeks. That’s not long enough for any antidepressant to take effect, not long enough for anyone to feel fundamentally better. I often hear this, and I agree in principle. I remain patient and merely establish that the antidepressants have so far showed no effect on my psyche, but have very much affected my erectile function.
I take extended walks around the clinic’s grounds every day. Not out of reasons of self-discipline or the will to recover, but because I don’t know what else to do after six o’clock. I spend hours strolling over the hills, along the trees and past the pond with the frogs. I don’t go home until it’s dark. But as the summer inexorably proceeds, that moment is delayed more and more with every passing day. At home, I sleep like a murder victim, followed by minimal morning ablutions after getting up. I don’t touch a bite to eat or even drink coffee before I return to the clinic.
I sleep through the weekends, unfortunately not continuously but with interruptions, my sleep restless and dreamless. On awakening, I’m as exhausted as when I went to sleep. In my waking hours I turn on the TV. At some point I remember to eat. To do so, I go to the kebab shop next door, the only one in Waldesreuth, run by a Turk. As soon as I enter the shop he begins preparing my food in silence; I always have the same thing, a salad mix and a glass of black tea. There’s a TV suspended in one corner of the shop, tuned to a news channel. I watch the news without interest because I’m only waiting. I’m waiting for Monday, seven AM.
In the pond, the tadpoles are slowly growing. The strongest and fattest of them can only survive by becoming cannibals. I know about the pond’s population of tadpoles and frogs because I discovered the conglomerate during my walks. The doctors had casually mentioned there was plenty to discover in the grounds.
Even after a month, I can’t remember my weekly schedule at the clinic, which is why it’s pinned above my bed, noted down on a piece of squared paper. On Mondays, for instance, the first activity is making breakfast in the group, after that the group meeting, after that movement therapy and so on. I can’t remember my weekly schedule because I’m suffering from depression-related memory loss. According to the doctors, that’s supposed to abate with the medication, the sessions and the other activities at the clinic.
To distract myself from the question of whether I’m going mad, I concentrate on natural phenomena while I walk the clinic grounds: a dried-up earthworm, mating beetles suspended from one another, wind, sun, poplar fluff trapped in the grass. Do my observations appear ridiculous to me? Perhaps. I would never have made them if I’d stayed in good health, but the doctors gave me the task of being mindful, of making myself aware of my surroundings. So I had no other option.
Recently, I’ve had to spend a lot of time discussing my picture from art therapy. I made a clumsy painting of a galloping horse with a man falling from it, but instead of the hard ground he’s falling onto a flower-strewn meadow. I had to talk about it as if I knew what the picture was supposed to mean or why I painted it.
In the meantime, the nights have grown so short that I only frequent my flat for four or five hours’ sleep. I keep forgetting to change the sweat-soaked sheets. When I open the window, a conspiracy of mosquitos gathers around my bed. Then they bite me. My body is dotted with the evidence of their secret meetings.
The croaking at the pond is getting louder. The surviving tadpoles have become adult frogs and are seeking mating partners. The cycle of their lives is predetermined; they always know exactly what to do.
So time is clearly passing. Yet I don’t feel this allegedly passing time. I never know what I did the previous week. At some point, months and years will have passed.
The clinic recently announced a barbecue. There’ll be non-alcoholic punch, and everyone has to bring a contribution to the food; that’s the point of it, after all, dealing with stress in everyday life. There’s a list on the wall in my therapy group where you’re supposed to put down your name and what you’ll be bringing. I’m just going to get a huge portion of salad from the kebab shop. Some patients are more worried about the barbecue than I am: What shall I bring? How will I manage to make the dish I’ve chosen? Where will I find the strength to take the pressure? I just lie down to sleep – the mosquitos circle above the bed, and I know tomorrow’s the big day – but I don’t think of anything.
I’m woken at dawn by the sound of the wind-up set of teeth I often used to show children at my surgery. It has been gone from my flat for a long time, which means I’m dealing with a phantom sound. The day of the barbecue, a Friday, passes like any other day at the clinic. It’s only after lunch that you can tell something’s different. Patients are scattered across the grounds in groups. By the pond are two men who made friends in the movement therapy group I also go to. They’ve got slightly dressed up for the barbecue. I’m wearing my yellow polo shirt, which I often used to put on for work. The two men have their eyes fixed on the pond and are discussing something. I can well imagine it’s the frogs they’re talking about. How much easier everything would be if you’d been born one of them. There’s one kind of frog, for example, the North American wood frog, which possesses an inconceivable skill: They freeze during the winter. All their vital functions are wound down, and they produce an internal anti-freeze agent that protects their organs. In the spring, they thaw from the inside out, and their hearts slowly begin to beat again. They have the fortune of being able to survive the tough winter without having to experience it. The two men laugh, and I turn around and go on strolling.
There’s a great deal of activity at the clinic building. Tables are being put up and laid with the food people brought along, including my salad from the kebab shop. Many of the patients have dressed up and now look like happy party guests. Soaked fruit floats in the non-alcoholic punch the staff promised, served in a glass bowl with two glass ladles. I recognize grapes, morello cherries, pineapple, all out of tins, and every time someone dunks one of the ladles in the bowl to serve a glass the fruit gets swirled up.
As I pour myself a little punch, I try my hardest not to spill a drop. I drink one careful sip after another. Unlike the men by the frog pond, I haven’t made friends with anyone here. Most of the time I barely notice the others. They’re nothing but shapes in the mist. I do say hello to some of them as I walk across the foyer and the terrace, people who attend the same sessions I do or play table tennis while I watch.
Serious, hurried placing of meat on the barbecue soon signals that the buffet is open. I don’t feel hungry but I eat to have something to do. That’s when a boy approaches me. He’s about fifteen, wearing a black T-shirt with a white triangle on it.
‘Excuse me sir, aren’t you the dentist?’
‘I’m only forty-two.’
‘That means you don’t need to call me sir.’
‘Are you a real dentist?’
‘I studied dental medicine for eleven semesters. Then I spent thirteen years practicing. Is that good enough?’
‘I’ve got this problem.’
‘Why don’t you go to your own dentist?’
As if it were an answer, the boy draws me aside and opens his mouth. The upper right number eleven cuspid has a long, by no means small piece missing.
‘How did that happen?’
‘I was out. Dancing. I like to party hard.’
The boy keeps running his tongue over the jagged edge, asking with a lisp whether it can be fixed. When I ask why anyone should fix it, he says because it looks ugly and he doesn’t want to be reminded of the damaged tooth any more. I give him a brief run-down of the possible approaches in his case: Firstly, polishing the edges of the break smooth and sealing them. Secondly, placing a kind of partial crown over the damaged tooth, which is more complicated than the first method. Although it’s unlikely, I ask the boy whether he kept the broken-off piece of tooth. The boy says no, to which I have nothing to say in reply. We look at each other, slightly embarrassed. Just before I expect the boy to leave, he extends his hand to me and tells me his name, Kristan. I say mine, Jost Uhlich.
Then we stay standing side by side. We hold the delicate punch glasses as though they were things of value, but perhaps it only seems that way to us because beautiful things are rare in the clinic.
‘Do you want a proper drink?’ Kristan asks.
‘I can’t with my antidepressants.’
‘But do you want one?’
Once I’ve said yes, everything goes rather quickly. Kristan adds cheap vodka to our punch from a small bottle stored between his blue-and-white checked boxer shorts and his trousers. I take my first sip and I melt.
‘God, how I’ve missed it.’
Kristan smiles, no doubt thinking me too old to drink and party, and he’s right.
‘Before this, I used to mix cocktails. I was pretty good at it too.’
‘Was it your hobby?’
‘Yes, just a hobby.’
We look around. The barbecue’s in constant use, someone’s operating the stereo, which has been playing jazz variations for hours, and people are bolting down their food. Does anyone know we’re drinking? Has anyone had the same idea?
‘My old girlfriend gave me a cocktail set for my birthday,’ I say. ‘It had everything in it for the home barkeeper. Two Boston shakers, a sieve, a lemon press, ice pick and so on.’
‘How did you know the recipes?’
‘I had several books at home.’
‘What was your favourite cocktail?’
No one has asked me that since my time in the clinic; no, it’s been even longer. I spend quite some time inspecting the reddish punch in my glass, tasting its exaggerated sweetness at length. Then I answer.
‘A Hemingway daiquiri.’
Kristan gives a nod of respect as he retrieves the bottle again.
‘I like his attitude,’ he says.
‘And I like his cocktail. White rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice, both freshly squeezed, and maraschino liqueur. All the ingredients are good on their own, but together they add up to something much more special.’
Kristan goes on nodding, topping up my glass.
‘Did you often mix yourself one?’
‘Every so often, after long hard days.’
‘First you drilled people’s teeth and then you mixed cocktails.’
‘What did you use to do?’
Kristan takes several hasty swallows.
‘I was average at all my subjects at school, but I was one of the best at football.’
‘I’ve never got into football.’
‘Well, you work up a sweat. You run till you fall over, chase something that’s unimportant in the real world. It’s a matter of life and death. So to speak.’
‘And when are you going to play again?’
‘I injured myself pretty badly last time.’ Kristan takes a pause to empty his glass. ‘And it wasn’t the other guys’ fault.’
As he’s speaking something happens: I have an idea. And I realize I didn’t even remember what it felt like to have an idea.
Not much later, we sneak across the foyer and up the back staircase to the first floor. We’re heading for the storage room where the work from art therapy is kept. Kristan asks whether I’m sure my picture is in there, and I am sure because I turned down the offer to take it home with me. And so it’s still here with the other melancholy artworks.
Having spent several minutes jiggling the door handle to no effect, we realize we need another idea to get in. An excited Kristan gets out his bank card.
‘Bet I can do it.’
He inserts the card vertically between the door and the frame, directly above the lock. I stand aside and watch him.
‘The less you care about breaking the card, the more likely it is you’ll get the door open.’
Kristan illustrates this statement by bending the card strongly to the left towards the handle. When the door opens soon afterwards, we gaze into the narrow room. The walls are lined with aluminium shelves, and every one holds cardboard boxes with dates marked on them. They all contain canvases and sketches stuck to cardboard. I quickly find my picture. I take it out and show it to Kristan.
‘Is that it?’
‘I told you I don’t know why I have to keep talking about it.’
‘What kind of animal’s that supposed to be? A dinosaur?’
‘No, it’s a horse.’
‘You mean a horse disguised as a dinosaur?’
That makes me laugh, and Kristan too; we laugh far too loudly. The clinic, the barbecue, the sick patients’ pictures, our horrible punch, not having a life any more – it’s all funny.
I’m finally feeling the alcohol. I can only just recognize Kristan swaying, looking at my picture, saying:
‘We’re going to feel like shit tomorrow. Hangovers are worse on the tablets.’
‘How much of both do you have to take to never wake up again?’
‘Don’t know, you’ll have to find out for yourself.’
We look more closely at my picture, and Kristan lays a hand on my shoulder.
‘It really doesn’t look like a horse.’
I find it hard to put words together into a sentence, but I manage in the end.
‘Maybe, but the flowers are good. And that’s all I wanted.’
*This story is taken from: “Elefanten treffen” by Kristina Schilke © Piper Verlag GmbH, München/Berlin 2016.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.