The following is a short story from The Common's Fall issue. Kathleen Heil is a writer/translator and choreographer/performer whose poetry, prose, and translations appear in The New Yorker, Fence, Two Lines, The Threepenny Review, and other journals. Originally from New Orleans, she lives and works in Berlin. More at KathleenHeil.net.
At an artists’ collective near the Polish border about an hour from Berlin, I’d been taking a break from translating texts into English, a task I once enjoyed but was beginning to resent, as I was beginning to feel invisible—or was it burnt out?—in any case, I was glad to get away for a few days: it was my first vacation since I-don’t-know-when, and I’d begun to feel my soul was spent. Over lunch on my last day there, a woman from Seoul who went by the nickname Hae—a transliteration of the word “sun” in Korean, she said—asked what the word in German was for “soul.” Actually, the woman sitting next to her asked, but the woman sitting next to Hae came from Spain and was shy about her English, so when she directed the question at me I heard the word as “sol”—we’d spent the week speaking both Spanish and English—and said, in reply, “Sonne.” Then the woman from Spain said, No, I mean “soul”—we were speaking in English, and I come from the Southern U.S.—and I said, “Geist,” and the woman from Seoul said, Isn’t the word in German “Seele,” and I said yes, then wondered why I said “Geist” and not “Seele,” what it was that compelled me to translate the word, as it were, “wrong.” “Geist” meaning the ghost of the mind or the spirit, a word I associated with the horror film Poltergeist, a film I had never seen, released the year I was born, but I didn’t need to see for it to form part of my cultural context, seeing it was more or less beside the point once it had done its work of projection—or was it insertion?—into the late-twentieth-century-slash-early-twenty-first-century North American pop-cultural mashup, which was my context but not theirs, and we wondered over the etymology of the word “Seele,” which I presumed came from the Middle German, as did the English-language word, unlike the word in Romance languages—“anima” in Italian, “alma” in Spanish and Portuguese (and so on)—with its origins in the Latin “anima,” from which we have, among other words in English, the negatively connoted “animus” and “animosity”—and though these words, in their etymology, point primarily back to “life” and “breath,” they also indicate—in accordance with an ancillary connotation in the Latin dating back to a seventeenth-century usage in the English—the contemporary sense of the word as an “active hostile feeling,” although in the centuries preceding (that is, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), stemming from the Latin “animosus” (“bold,” “spirited”), the word implied not hostility but rather vigor or bravery. Curiously, the distance between the words “animus” and “anima” in Latin—with the former indicating the life of the mind and the latter conveying an immaterial constitutive substantiation of feeling—parallels the Venn-diagram overlap of the German words “Geist” and “Seele.”
On my return, as the train chugged its way through the tranquil fields back to Berlin, I began thinking about my mother in the U.S., who was very sick, and I tried to tease that diagram apart, to separate what I knew about her stage 3 colon cancer from how I knew her as a person, as though, in giving name to it all, it could somehow be fixed. She had been sick for over a year, though she hadn’t deigned to tell me. We’d lost touch after I’d eventually gotten tired of always being the one to call, whether on my birthday or at Christmas or just because, and after a decade or so of this I finally worked up the courage to tell her that I would love it if she made the effort to also ring from time to time, that it upset me that she never reached out. She never did, though from time to time she would post photos of the two of us on social media, in the hopes that I would like them. I never did.
I only found out about her cancer months into her diagnosis, when a distant cousin messaged me through the photo-sharing app we both belonged to in order to ask me how I was taking the news of her treatment. When I called my mother, distraught, she told me she was fine and that she loved me very much; she wished me a blessed day and told me to “stay strong” before she hung up.
Just before leaving Berlin for the artists’ collective, I’d emailed Andrea, a man who had ghosted me earlier in the year. At a staff meeting at the film production studio where I did German-to-English translation, the head of the studio mentioned a recent screening of a director’s work whose name I’d first heard back when I was dating Andrea. Andrea had told me the director was one of his favorites, he made the kind of arthouse films that only people who made arthouse films had heard of—he was an important (if obscure) director. Andrea also made arthouse films, and on our first date we’d bonded over the comedy of artistic self-regard (our own included, naturally). I met Andrea through a dating website I reluctantly subscribed to at the urging of a friend who knew that I disliked the dating app commonly known as the “hookup” app, which I had used on two different occasions for a period of eight to twelve weeks, giving up each time in a fit of frustration and deleting the app and its ancillary trove of data: the “heyyyyy you” messages and octopus emojis, the endless sea of men driving boats or doing handstands on mountaintops. My friend had urged me to instead try the website owned by the same company that owned the hookup app, because he claimed that the dating website would be less dispiriting, as one could answer questions filtering out matches not suited to the spirit of one’s intentions. But in fact I found this worse: it felt vaguely humiliating to present oneself at the mercy of an algorithm that publicly announced (should you answer) whether or not you wanted to have kids, whether you found masturbating with a partner exciting, or whether you thought a lot about carbohydrates. I tried to answer only the questions that revealed nothing, a self-defeating prospect. The majority of the questions Andrea had answered were related to intimacy and sex, in such a way that led me to suppose he had what one might call “difficulties in that department.” I understand that to make such a blatant appraisal might seem hostile or cruel—or, would one say, evil?—but in truth I felt only tenderness for Andrea, tenderness because I knew what it was to find sex and intimacy complicated and difficult; I mean, who didn’t?
Andrea and I never had sex; in fact we never engaged in any physical intimacy greater than curbside embraces that had a 1940s cinematic quality to them, both passionate and demure. The timing was inopportune, however, as we’d met for a handful of dates in Berlin right before I was due to spend a month in the U.S. assisting my mother as she underwent another round of radiation therapy, and I had already decided that, while home, I would take a break from the flurry of virtual communication, as I needed to attend to her and disconnect.
I knew that the connection we’d established, though intense, was also fragile. That was the whole point of online dating: as another friend advised me, it was best to keep a “rotation” going, like so many spinning plates kept aloft so that, if one dropped and broke, you could easily turn to any of the others still whirring around in your orbit.
On the dating website, Andrea went by the name Andrew, an attempt perhaps to keep whatever virtual activity he engaged in compartmentalized as he carried it over into the “real” world—or maybe he used the name “Andrew” because, in Berlin, the language of communication used on these platforms was mainly English, and “Andrea” in Anglophone and German contexts was typically a female name, though in Italian it was male (with the stress on the second syllable rather than the first); he said he had lived and worked in London for over a decade, where he claimed the people who knew him called him Andrew, but that seemed suspect to me, so once I learned he was from Lombardy (from a place with the lovely name of Cinisello Balsamo, just north of Milan), I always called him Andrea, and he didn’t object.
For our first date, three weeks before I was to fly home to be with my mother, Andrea and I met for lunch not far from the U-Bahn station in my neighborhood, and such was our thrill at the swift chemistry of our connection—of both mind and body—we said goodbye at the U-Bahn exit with a kiss. It was sweet and intense, and the subsequent times we met I was always struck by the way he looked at me, how he always sought to hold my hand.
But Andrea was also very neurotic and hard to make plans with, and it was unclear to me if this was owing to lack of interest (the appeal of the other spinning plates) or a consequence of his genuine interest in me filtered through his anxieties around intimacy (a plate I myself had given a pride of place, years back, hanging it in one of those kitschy, golden wall-hanger thingies in my heart-brain). Regardless, it manifested in such a way that we were both very tentative around each other: there was something rather beautiful and threatening about our connection, beautiful because expansive, threatening because tenuous.
As a means of trying to anchor my sense of who Andrea was to the realm of the real, and in a wish to make our connection more concrete, on our second date I asked him his last name, knowing that I would do what I presumed everyone who met people through online dating did—later, I would look for him online. It felt crass that our artistic work could become just another form of capital, there to help us to get laid or find a partner, but I was genuinely curious about Andrea’s work and wanted to have a fuller sense of who he was as a person and an artist. So I watched several of his films, abstract compositions of the kind suited for challenging exhibitions in vanguard museums. The work was like what I had seen of Andrea: deeply intelligent, with an antennae-like sensitivity both acute and acutely wounded, and self-absorbed in a way that read not as arrogant but as innocent. The last time we met, he asked me how long I thought it took for a connection to be established between two persons—Quanto ci vuole per stabilire la chimica tra due persone?—and then answered, before I could, that he thought in our case it had been mere seconds. When he said this, he was holding my hand; we would sit across from each other, and if I drew my hand away, instinctively, he would reach for it again; he had a way of touching me that made me feel safe, protected.
That same evening, after a bottle of wine over dinner and a nightcap at a bar following, he confessed to me that his mother had been a very severe person: “rigidissima,” he told me. Buzzing from the wine, I confessed to him that I was coming off a difficult period that hadn’t quite ended and was still recovering from the sense of exhaustion I felt as a result; I made reference to a legal dispute I’d been entangled in, in which a gallerist lied to me about a sale and then held on to some of my paintings past our consignment agreement in retaliation for my attempt to recover the correct share of the payment, which had very real consequences for my career; thankfully, it was all in the past, but the whole thing was awful and felt personal and was personal and as such had left me feeling alienated from my own work. I didn’t tell him anything about my own mom, whom I was about to see for the first time in years, because I didn’t know how to. She was a person who performed tremendous warmth, though I had always experienced her in actuality as cold, and never knew what to make of the disconnect between the two.
While back in the U.S., I thought of Andrea on more than one occasion, and, in accessing the place of lightness I felt when thinking about him, even found myself one afternoon working on a pen-and-ink drawing that depicted the U-Bahn exit where we said goodbye on our first date, a sketch that folded in content from one of his video compositions, the rigorous array of patterns and lines; I was melding his work into my own, into the open question that had established itself between us, the one I hoped would be awaiting me when I returned.
When I got back to Berlin, I waited several days for him to write me, and when he didn’t, I sent a casual text asking how things were going. He wrote back that he was good, if busy with work, and I wrote back with a semi-rhetorical question to which he didn’t respond. Knowing I had nothing to lose because all was lost, the next day I decided to share with him the drawing I made while home; I took a picture of it with my phone and sent it despite knowing that the gesture was not in concert with the cool shift in our communication (though Andrea had always been cool in his messages and warm in real life)—still, I wanted for him to read it as a gesture not of obligation but of openness, an invitation to reestablish the immaterial constitutive substantiation of feeling latent between us.
He didn’t respond to my invitation, and then, three days later—out of desperation or irritation, or both—I decided to write a final time, a message tuned to a bland and friendly pitch just to say that, if something had changed and he no longer wanted to meet, he could say as much and I would understand. Before I had left, he had said he looked forward to seeing me when I returned. It was possible for things to change, of course—I didn’t think he was beholden to me when we had only been on a handful of dates, but I did hope he would, at the very least, respond. He didn’t.
I was hurt by him ghosting me after the intensity of the connection we’d established, which seemed to come as much from what he felt for me as from whatever I might’ve been projecting onto him. So, when the head of the film production studio mentioned the director Andrea loved, I thought of Andrea and then thought—why not?—why not drop a short email saying I disliked the way he ended things? Months had passed, but it was precisely for this reason such a message felt low-stakes and safe to send.
I emailed Andrea via his website and said I didn’t expect him to respond, I just needed him to know that I was hurt by his behavior, that it was callow of him to treat me with such disregard. I was glad I sent the message: it felt like a gesture of self-respect, inserting my feelings with a virtual message into the realm of the real, because I wanted nothing from him and wished him no ill—though the next day I regretted not stating this explicitly in my message, and worried that my calling his behavior “callow” might sound too accusatory, as though I were condemning him and not the act of ghosting me—though I hoped, given our communication (which had always been tactful to the point of delicacy), that he would know there was no animosity to my words. I told myself to let it go and then did. I forgot about it until, having returned from the artists’ collective where I’d been on vacation and more or less offline, I found myself scrolling through the photo-sharing app we both belonged to, which would suggest potential people for you to follow, including those skulking in the furthest reaches of your phone. That was when I went to Andrea’s profile (which I didn’t follow but was public) and saw that he had posted a picture of the sign indicating the U-Bahn exit where we had first kissed—the one rendered allusively in the drawing I had shared, the same sketch that appropriated his work (and him, I guess, or at least the spirit of my feelings and ideas about him). The image was hashtagged with the words “evil exit” and had accumulated twenty-six “likes” since being posted, two days after I’d sent him my little note. Given the auspicious nature of the timing, it now seemed clear that he had, in fact, responded to my email (albeit indirectly), by calling the place of our (obviously failed) potentiality “evil”—as though it held a “böse Geist,” an evil spirit to be expelled.
I was shocked and hurt and then realized that maybe Andrea felt shame about the fact that I knew something of him (however meager) that situated him both in the constructed realm of the hundred-some-odd questions he had answered through an online dating platform and also beyond it, in his professional and public life as an artist. Was he afraid of me somehow, of my ability to mediate my understanding of him through his work and mine, or was he just embarrassed that I had seen something of him beyond that which he wished to keep aloft and spinning? I felt sad that my message had hurt him so much that he had chosen to append the hysterical word “evil” to our encounter; it spun whatever had passed between us away from a place of true sensitivity to some plastic place of absurdity, though maybe he felt the same way about my drawing.
There was a weird parallel to this, one I tangentially acknowledged in my short email to Andrea, by saying that I hated it when people messaged me through my website, which wasn’t completely true—what I meant was that I hated it when people I didn’t want to hear from messaged me through my website, which hadn’t happened often, just two or three times in the past few years: one message from a former professor I stopped speaking to in October 2017, another from the gallerist with whom I was entangled in the legal dispute, and a third, as is relevant to the current story, from a guy named Ronny I went on several dates with and then stopped seeing, around the time I met Andrea.
Ronny emailed me through my website because he’d left his scarf at my apartment. It was the week I was making arrangements to see my mother, and I’d totally forgotten about it. Ronny was from the former East, from Saxony, though young when the Wall came down, four or five years old. Nevertheless, he had the inferiority complex that many people who grew up in the DDR seemed to possess—one not entirely unfounded, as many Germans from the former West did, in fact, condescend in a categorical way to East Germans, dismissing them as ignorant in a way similar to how people from my home country sometimes dismissed people from the South.
Ronny was very enthusiastic about me from the start, and so, after dating a string of noncommittal men who weren’t “looking for anything in particular,” I thought, Well, here’s someone who seems forthright in his intentions. He seemed like a nice guy, but, one evening when I bristled at him asking me about my style of cohabitation, revealed himself to be one of those “nice” guys who is repressing a great deal of hostility. We had made plans to go away for the weekend, but I realized it was all too premature, and after the strange dynamic of that date, I knew I didn’t want to see him again.
So I called and told him that I had to back out of the trip, as I didn’t feel comfortable going away for the weekend, given the circumstances: the reality of my mother’s illness and all the rest left me simply not up for it. The morning of our cancelled trip, I felt nervous and was tempted to block him on my phone; I intuited that he might send a message lashing out—there was something cruel in his personality that had revealed itself when he was needling me on our last date, a quality from which I wished to protect myself, as I didn’t want to be subjected to someone’s hostile, controlling tendencies; and yet, I also didn’t want to ghost him or be callous, and knew my own stress level of late had left me especially anxious as a result. That day—it was International Women’s Day, a public holiday in Berlin for the first time that year—he did, in fact, send me a hostile message over text, lecturing me in German and ending the rant by calling my behavior “egotistisch.” I was having lunch with a friend when I got Ronny’s message and subsequently burst into tears; it was, you could say, a hysterical reaction. I wrote him back saying that I found his message hostile and inappropriate and was going to disengage, and signed off by wishing him—my animus apparent—a Happy International Women’s Day; I then blocked him, hoping that was the last of it. But, as mentioned, I forgot I had this cheap scarf of his, and a few days later got a message sent through my website saying I needed to meet with him to give it back. A friend kindly offered to return the scarf on my behalf; the next week, he did, and I never heard from Ronny again.
After discovering Andrea’s coded message calling my U-Bahn stop an “evil exit,” I wondered whether my message sparked in him a similarly distressing reaction. I hoped not—I hadn’t wanted to upset or much less hurt him—I just wanted to call him out on ghosting me.
I sometimes wonder whether I had, in the end, merely constructed the tenuous attachment between Andrea and me in my head. But I didn’t want to believe that; I wanted to believe that we had managed to show something genuine of ourselves, as I’ll never forget Andrea’s gentleness, which—for all the shortcomings of whatever short thing it was that passed between us—was felt, and heartfelt, and I worked to remember it still, for he had touched some tender place where I could tolerate more fully what it meant to be a fumbling, feeling, failing human being—where I felt we both could, really. I remember his mischievous smile as he’d take my hand in a candlelit restaurant; he’d reach across the table and stroke my wrist with his thumb, and I’d feel steeled for the cold by his warm hand on my palm. I tried to bring that feeling to mind when I was at my mother’s bedside during her treatment, when she’d grab my arm as I was leaving and tell me what an ungrateful daughter I was. Selfish, a spoiled brat. I was leaving her to die, alone.
Six months after I’d flown to the U.S. to be with my mother for her final round of chemo, the cancer in her body metastasized and she died. I haven’t seen Andrea since that night he told me about his own mom, though from time to time I look for him online, quietly, not making myself seen. What or whom he now looks for online, I do not know. My father took care of the arrangements for the funeral, which I didn’t attend. I told him I couldn’t manage the journey, and he didn’t object.
Mom, I want to say, I’d like to think that I was there with you in spirit. Mom, I want to tell her, I’m sorry, I tried. And I can hear the specter of her voice in my head saying: Did you? And then, in a fainter voice, which I trust less: You were loved.
Even if, in my mind, I knew my feeling that I’d failed her was irrational, that distant look of angry disappointment on her face the low evening that I left her in the hospital was hard to shake. I thought about the way Andrea looked at me the night he called his mother “rigidissima.” The way the word seemed to unfurl thinly within him, mistranslated in his body like a tapeworm, which he might have hosted because it was a way of accessing her animus—and maybe that was all he had left of her, really.
Issue 24 of The Common is available now. Story copyright © 2022 by Kathleen Heil.