In October 1997 my world collapsed. It wasn't that the world itself collapsed. Out there, people continued to live their lives. Out there, the world turned at exactly the same speed around itself, around the sun. People loved, hated, lived as much as they had done before and would do in the future that has now passed, is the past, and nobody should live there, so they say.
In October 1997 I got a call. And I collapsed. Together with that carefully constructed house of cards that we all build around ourselves, calling it life. Life is never more than that, a carefully constructed house of cards that – from the outside at least – looks sturdy enough, looks well-planned, well-made enough to weather any storm.
It takes so little to have it collapse it around you.
Sometimes it only takes a voice on the other end of a phone line, human emotion deconstructed into bits and bytes, travelling up from one part of the globe to space, reflected on a satellite's dish, packages of information that then get reassembled, hollow and distant as you press the receiver against your ear. And feel it all slip away. Your entire world. As that voice blows it all down, your house of cards, your dreams and hopes.
"I don't love you."
We have all been there, and now we live in a world where you can get dumped through Facebook, through Twitter, through a text message, in 140 characters or less, showing how bad of a character the person doing that truly has. How little respect can be shown as you break somebody else's heart. How cowardly we have all become.
I was at my parents' home in Germany when my world collapsed. It had shown cracks and fractures for months, but as anybody knows, you don't see them. Don't want to. She had left me, months ago. For a job offer in Washington, DC. begging me to marry her. To come with her. And me, not being able to. Such was the price to pay for a Fulbright scholarship. Two years in solitary, or so it felt. Unable to live or work in the United States. A price that I had been willing to pay. Before. When I had signed the necessary papers. Before I had met her. Before I had dreams and hopes that involved another.
I had wanted to marry her. But in the right fashion, not out of necessity and not to start a fight with the INS that I had no money for to win. I had wanted to marry her, but not to be beholden to her father's money and influence.
A man who had taken me aside in the backyard of a small cottage house in Edinburgh to tell me that "you are only standing in her way", before putting on a smile for her and promising that he would do anything in his power to make her happy (even if it involved helping me, oh, how gracious that was)
While I was sitting on a bench outside and stared at the sky, his words cutting through me like a sharp knife. He's dead now, and people say you should forgive the dead. I cannot forgive him that moment. I never will. I never told her. She loved her family. I never told her, because she loved her family.
He's dead now. And I will never forgive him.
We had been struggling in Edinburgh. We had been through a couple of weeks of a rough patch, running out of money and hunting for jobs. I had found one, eventually. Not one I had loved, no, but I thought it would be a start. Enough of a start to build on it. For her and me.
She wasn't happy. She was never happy in these days. She drank. She had drunk a lot during out times at the University in the US as well. But not as much as here. I could not make her happy. I wasn't enough. Whatever I did, it wasn't enough. I tried. And was happy for any moment, any second that she might smile. And I tried. And I failed. She had such hunger for fame, for glory, for the recognition by others that it seemed at times there was a black hole inside her, sucking in every bit of strength I had.
You are only standing in her way.
It felt like that. It felt like guilt. Hadn't she given up enough? Moving to Scotland with me? Because we needed neutral ground, and with me not being able to work in the USA and her not being able to work in Germany, a new life would have to be created in a place we both loved.
And so I told her to go, that she would not, could not kill her career for me, that I would love her, that we could make it work, for those few months, maybe there would be a way around the INS, maybe we could find something while she was in Washington, DC.
I was only standing in her way.
I stayed. Stayed behind. At her dead grandmother's house. And slowly fell apart after she had gone. I went to work. I went to a house that wasn't mine and that certainly would never be a home. I went out. I went. I went. I was gone. Gone in that black hole.
I had immediately bought a ticket to Washington for November, to come and see her. It was what kept me going. To hop from one visit to another, to support her at least that way, to give her the chance to make it, make something out of herself, even if it meant that I was hurting.
As I fell apart, bit by bit, day by day, and her voice, once I thought to have been so warm and comforting, would become distant and hollow. And through al of that, I still had to prepare for the defense of my thesis back at my German university.
While having a full-time job. No life. No love.
I managed to set everything up from Scotland. For October. All it would take, a few days at my parents. And then, off to Washington, DC.
The call came in the evening. Before the day I had to defend my thesis. Something that I had told her. Something that she knew. Something she didn't give a shit about.
And the world slipped away.
"I don't love you."
I collapsed. I would never collapse again. Not like this. But there I was. On the floor of my parents' hallway. A phone in my hand. And that distant, hollow voice telling me that my world was over.
I stayed on the floor for a long time. Then I told my parents I had to go. Somewhere. Out. Somewhere else. I couldn't bear being there anymore. Where the voice lingered.
"What are you going to do?" asked my mother, who had never seen me like this. I can still hear her worry in her voice.
"I don't know," I said. "I just know I have to go. I don't know."
"She isn't worth it," said my mother. "Nobody is worth this. Don't do anything stupid. Not for her. Not for anybody. You worked too hard for this."
I didn't answer. I packed my things. I went out. I went to a friend. And for the rest of the night, I cried my eyes out on her apartment's floor. Until the early morning. When I was so tired that no more tears would come. When I was only four more hours away from my thesis defense. When everything inside me felt empty.
Then I stopped the bleeding inside me. I had to. I amputated the feelings. It's like that on a battlefield. I had to. I focused. I had to. In four hours, it would be decided if all the work I had put into my studies would come to a decent ending. I had already defended my written thesis to the US professors and my German thesis supervisor, but to obtain the German MA, you would have to do another round of verbal testing on an entirely different subject matter than your written thesis.
And so I calmed myself. And drove to my university. I prepared myself. For that day. For these 30 minutes you would have to step into the ring with two other professors. Who were not my choice panel. With one of them being...not impressed with me ever since that first day, years earlier, when he had looked at my resume, noticed that I had worked for the biggest German tabloid and had told me that these are not actually real journalists.
I still felt empty when I waited for my turn.
Outside the office where they had six of us called in, all for their final defense.
I was the last one. And when they called me in, I sat down and looked at them, fake smile and polite demeanour. And then they said this:
"We have not failed anybody today. But that's okay, Thomas. You'll be the first one."
I stared. Waited for the laughter. This had to be a joke, right? Couldn't be anything but a joke. There was no laughter. There were thin smiles. I stared. And couldn't believe it. They weren't kidding. This was no joke. They would fail me. And that before I had even said the first thing. This couldn't be happening to me. Not again. Not today.
"It's good, then," I finally said, "that I am wearing a wire."
And then the thin smiles evaporated. The arrogance left them.
I wasn't smiling. Like them, I was not making a joke. I had prepared for this, of course, and not just the thesis defense. I had a voice-activated tape recorder in my suitcase. The microphone had a wireless connection to it. It was in my jacket. Purchased especially for the potential of this moment.
And then I leaned forward. Across the desk. I felt no longer empty.
I felt fury rising up in me.
"Do you know what day today is?" I asked the professor who had told me that people like me, coming from a tabloid, would never be proper journalists. Maybe he had never thought about how tabloid journalism sometimes works. I did know. "Today is the day when it must suck to be you. Today is the day when you fucked with the wrong guy. Today is the day when you told one of your better students, one who actually was the first in the entire history of this fucking department to get a Fulbright scholarship... that you would fail him before he has even opened his mouth. And worse than that, you have him catching you on tape. Today is the day when I can crash your career by just walking out of here, down the hallway into the Dean's office and press play."
"I was only joking," he stuttered.
"I'm not," I said.
"What do you want?" asked the second professor.
An economist. No balls, all full of bullshit.
"I want to have a civilised conversation," I said. "About the subject matter I chose for this little dog and pony show. It's called The Economics of Journalism in the Internet Age."
"Well, I am not too familiar with that subject matter," said the economics professor.
"That's okay," I said, "I figured I would have to do most of the talking."
I talked for 20 minutes. They nodded a lot. Had not the first clue what it was that I was talking about. Sent me out of the office to wait for my grade. Another three minutes later, one of them called me back in.
"Are you okay with a B?" he asked.
"I'm okay with whatever," I said. "As long as I never have to see either one of you ever again in my life."
I walked out of the office. Out of the building. Onto the parking lot.
And whatever had held me together all that time just left me.
I slid down to the ground, with the back to the side of my car. My legs couldn't carry me any longer. And I tried to teach myself to breathe again. It felt like my lungs had collapsed on me, each intake of air was shallow and barely reached down into my chest. As my stomach cramped together and I leaned forward, holding it, holding myself together. While students pased me by, the steady flow of hopes and carelessness that would be absorbed by the buildings I had left behind.
And the emptiness returned.
It was a beautiful late October day. It was early afternoon, and the last signs of the early morning's frosted ground and air had dispersed to give way to a deep blue sky and a powerless sun that bathed the parking lot in deep yellow. Barely warming the trees for a few more weeks, even as their leaves had already turned brown and yellow and red, as they had dropped them to the ground, a summer's promise left behind and preparing for the harsh winter to come.
And with that winter, the emptiness.
It would stay there for a long, long time.