Germany – Take 1: Hamburg

August 9th, 2016

 Two months premature to my original plan, my plane landed in Hamburg Flughafen. Even though leaving that much earlier to be with a man I had never actually met was an enormous risk, I was excited for what the future held. Also terrified, anxious to the point of nausea, and not to mention harboring more than a shred of annoyance at the smarmy American douche seated in front of me. He was the typical asshole caricature one would encounter on any flight: staying reclined the entire time, obnoxiously making out with his out-of-his-league girlfriend 6 inches from my face, and rude to the flight staff while making inappropriate comments about the “sexiness” of their Icelandic accents.

Gross.

I thought about actually using the barf bag tucked into the back of his seat, both to ease my nerves and to make the two of them feel just as repulsed as I was. The thought made me feel a little better. But I had spent too long primping and carefully applying my makeup in the minuscule airplane restroom to ruin it.

Besides, by the time I stepped off the plane neither the gross man nor his bimbo girlfriend mattered; I had my whole new life ahead of me. After living through a year of sadness, what awaited me on the other side of that gate represented a hope for happiness and love. Despite wearing three inch heels, I practically ran to collect my luggage as they clacked along on the shiny tile floor.

Is my hair okay? 

Maybe I should touch up my lip gloss.

No time, Laura. Just go!

I wrestled an airport-issue dolly from the rack and made my way over to the luggage carousel, which seemed to take an eternity to add my bags to the rotation. Twenty excruciating minutes later my bike, three suitcases and my carry-on bag were hurriedly piled onto my luggage cart. Smiling in excitement and shaking with nerves, I made my way over to the exit.

He’s on the other side of that door.

Just a few more steps.

My enthusiastic gait was interrupted by a friendly German officer asking to see my passport. He fired off the standard questions; Where was I from? Have I been to Germany before? Why was I there? Was I carrying more than 10,000EUR in cash? He stared at my passport in silence for a long minute, which made me a nervous. Immediately my paranoia took center stage in my brain.

Does he suspect that I’m trying to move here? Will they force me onto the next flight back like they do to people on those border patrol shows?

After 11 hours of traveling, my nerves were just too shot for me to be rational.

He handed my passport back to me and gave me a nod of approval.

“You’re making my job too boring!” He joked in his deep German accent, and I laughed with relief. A herd of tourists brushed past us just then, collectively singing a song in some other language. We exchanged glances and shrugged.

He then directed me to the other exit door leading to the receiving area so to bypass the slow-moving chorus. Suddenly, this overwhelming jolt of excitement quaked through my veins as I remembered that Matthew was waiting for me on the other side of that door. I couldn’t have pushed my mountain of luggage through that exit fast enough. Craning my neck in all directions looking for him, I scanned the faces of people awaiting the arriving passengers. Some of them were smiling and holding flowers and balloons while others stood there expressionless, displaying names scrawled on paper. I didn’t see him, though. I had never seen him in person, but after months of Skyping and exchanging photos I felt I could easily pick the real life version of him out of a crowd. But the more faces I saw, the more of them weren’t his.

 Where is he?

 Maybe I can’t see him because he’s shorter than he let on?

 What if he’s really short? Like, a midget?

 Is he really a midget?

 Stop it, Laura.

My thoughts then wandered to more realistic worries.

 Did he change his mind?

 Oh God. I hope he didn’t change his mind.
The rickety cart, piled high with my packed-up life, wobbled and groaned as I fought to navigate it. The worn wheels petulantly refused to be guided in the direction I needed them to go, at times just stopping in mid-roll as if in protest to the hefty amplitude of shit I chose to bring with me to this country. I know I had packed too much. The $150 overage charge from the airline had made me well aware of this fact. But after that, a long flight and months of waiting for this moment I wasn’t about to take any shit from a goddamn buggy. Wrestling and negotiating with each push, I somehow managed to steer this rolling episode of “Hoarders: Buried Alive” over to the other side of the gate. I continued my search and skimmed the gaggle of people waiting for their loved ones.

And there he was. Even though he had his back to me I recognized him immediately. His broad-shouldered, 6’4 frame towered over the crowd, watching the other door in search of me.

Definitely not a midget.

 And no, Laura, he didn’t change his mind.

I smiled and silently laughed at my ridiculousness.

After all this time, effort and baggage wrangling I wanted to bound over to him and throw my arms around his neck in elation. But instead, I had a playful thought. I wanted to see if he’d recognize me. If I just casually stood next to him not saying a word, how long would it take? His back still to me, I attempted to slowly creep forward, thinking I would somehow manage to sneak up on him while dragging this enormous screeching monstrosity along with me.

I got within about 5 feet of him when he turned around. Our eyes met and he smiled wide, moving toward me with his long arms outstretched. He was just as adorably boyish in person, with his smiling dimples more pronounced and his eyes just a slightly greener shade of brown than his pictures had let on. He had a sort of humility about him that hadn’t translated across our Skype chats, which I found instantly endearing. He kissed me on the cheek and pulled me into his embrace, where we stayed for a long time. His hug was warm and genuine, the kind I could just sink into and never want to let go.

He helped me navigate the dolly over to the taxi stand, and as I took those first steps into my long-sought new life my heart soared. This new place, a blank canvas, was waiting. I could barely contain my curiosity as to what the future would bring.

The End and The Beginning

November 7, 2015

The end loomed in the air like an ominous storm cloud as I kept busy cooking dinner in the kitchen. I worked carefully, making sure to perfect what I was making in order to pacify him, possibly to change his mind about me and keep him from saying what I feared most. During dinner, we ate in silence at the dining room table as he played games on his iPad. The silence had become so normal, but tonight it made me anxious. Was he really talking to her? I felt a pang in my heart at this thought, thinking how disrespectful it would be to be eating the food I so carefully prepared for him while chatting with his…whatever the hell she was. Afterward, I cleared the table, washed the dishes and John took his place on the couch, slumping there with an exaggerated look of melancholy. This was his thing, the look he would always use to coax me into asking him what was wrong.

But I wasn’t biting. Rather than inquiring I avoided his eyes and continued to clean. The dishes now neatly stacked in the dishwasher, I moved on to laboriously scrub the stove, then the counters, followed by the cabinets and the floor. As I rigorously worked he came and stood in the doorway, watching me. Staring, really, silently waiting for my eyes to meet his in order to give him the courage to talk.  I looked up, flashed him a wide smile and got back to working, knowing that would keep him and what was circling in his head at bay and from reaching my ears for at least a few more minutes. We were living on borrowed time and I was fully aware of this. I knew what he wanted to say to me. And I knew all I was doing, aside from sterilizing the kitchen, was only delaying the inevitable. I just dreaded hearing those words. I wasn’t ready.

He returned to his spot on the couch, holding his head in his hands with such theatrics that it seemed like he was trying to mime what he had to say to me. I somehow managed to laugh to myself with this thought, yet at the same time desperately trying to think of some other way to occupy my attention, rendering it unavailable to him, making it as difficult as I could for him to drop that bomb he was holding.

But then I stopped. I had to. How long could I keep this up? How clean could the house possibly get before he’d finally manage to detonate it?

Surrendering in our silent battle for my undivided attention, I sank down next to him on the couch, where he clutched a throw pillow to his chest, staring ahead dolefully.

“Is everything okay?” I asked, knowing full well the answer to that question.

“No,” He replied.

“What’s wrong?” I continued, finally giving him the platform he had so struggled to win from me before.

“I’m not happy,” his voice quivered eventually. He looked pale, his eyes staring straight ahead, this time avoiding mine.  I knew this so it didn’t come as a surprise, but I still felt a rock forming in my stomach. It was that kind of feeling you get when you just start to make the descent from the highest point of a roller coaster.  It was really happening.  I was really losing him. The one last pillar holding up my life as I knew it, my person. He went on as his words severing our six years together grew more abstract to my ears, drowned out by my own devastation.

A few minutes later, numb with grief, I helped him clear off the spare bed. I left the room to gather my pillow and my quilt, but he stopped me.

“No,” he insisted. “This is your bed, I’ll sleep in the guest bedroom.”

I didn’t dispute this fact. The bed really was mine, though after being with him for so long I had forgotten this.   He and his stepfather had completely obliterated my then brand new bed while trying to get it up the stairs of our old house. After several failed attempts, a lot of swearing and power tools getting involved in this futile effort, John dutifully went out and bought a brand new one – which would become our bed.

Our bed…

I shrugged and nodded with a small amount of tepid relief. The spare bed was his own as a teenager, which he continued to use until we first moved in together. His old, lumpy double mattress was not nearly as comfortable as my newer, queen-sized pillow top. Despite my fresh wounds, I felt a small ping of satisfaction at the thought of him tossing and turning in this old 1970’s monstrosity as I enjoyed the comfort of an adult-sized mattress.

However, sleeping alone for the first time in six years I felt restless and lost.  What the hell just happened? That question looped in my mind, trying to wrap around this alien feeling. My life…I didn’t even know my life without him. Crumpled into a fetal position on my side of our – my – empty bed, my body shook with sobs and eventually grew limp as I drifted off to sleep.

Night turned into morning with only patches of sleep to be had. But despite such a restless night a rush of adrenaline acted as my alarm clock as I woke up before the sun, bounding out of that bed as if it were on fire.

Fuck this room. Fuck this bed. Fuck that asshole probably sleeping like a baby in the next room. Throughout my body I felt this primal urge to run, to escape.  I just couldn’t be in that house another minute. As fast as I could I threw on my clothes and pushed my feet into my shoes. I bolted out the door and down the sidewalk of our quaint, red brick street past the well-kept houses of our neighbors. I felt almost possessed as my legs pushed my body, attempting to sprint away from the emotional demons that awaited me back home.

Can I still call it ‘home’?

I crossed Lake Ave. into the park, my Mizunos pounding the asphalt path. Past the pool, through the park, down the solstace stairs and to the lake I ran as my heart and mind processed the melting pot of conflicting emotions – unrelenting sadness, fear, even relief. When I finally reached the end of the trail, where Lake Erie hurls itself into the rocks, I stopped in my tracks and gazed across the water. I felt my heart furiously pump the blood through my veins from this explosion of activity

The skyline of downtown Cleveland was nestled in the distance, on the other side of the U shape that makes up the city’s west side waterfront. John and I had spent countless times in this very spot, walking Happy, taking photos, just enjoying the day. But one thing we always talked about doing yet never had was watching the sunrise.

I sat down on one of the benches, letting the sweat bead down my face as I watched the sun slowly emerge from the water, gradually illuminating the city.

What am I going to do?

Hell In A Handbasket

September 2016

I’m actually not sure which made me feel more like a dumbass; the original reason behind the picnic basket or walking around the center of a large, trendy metropolis like Hamburg with it – this heavy, cumbersome wicker box slung across my body. The leather strap dug into my shoulder through my shirt as I awkwardly tread down the sidewalk of Jungfernsteig, trying to find the real life manifestation of where Google had marked the post office with a big red pinpoint. This search was proving to be frustrating and unfruitful, as the GPS on my phone kept insisting that the Apple Store was the post office when it was so clearly evident that it was not. Yet no matter how many times I retyped the address or maneuvered my phone through the air to make sure I was walking in the right direction, the GPS adamantly insisted that this was the place. Shaking my head, I ducked inside the pristine glass doors into the delicate simplicity that is the Apple Store with this large, clumsy basket in tow. Ignoring the inquisitive looks I detected in my peripheral vision, I politely asked the first smiling “Genius” if they could tell me where I could find the post office.

“Oh! If you go down into the U-Bahn station they have a small kiosk!” he cheerfully replied, lying through his teeth as I found out later. The closest thing to a post office I could find in the U-Bahn station was a gift shop selling postcards and “HAMBURG” swag.

Fuck.

Exasperated, I considered just leaving the damn thing on a bench somewhere just to have it out of my life and (even better) off of my body. But then I thought better of it– the last thing I need to add to this pile of shit I’m in is to end up on the eleven o’clock news as the “Hamburg Picnic Basket Terrorist”. Despite my amusement at the thought of the bomb squad robot being used to remove this harmless, ever-so-1950’s picnic basket, I was just feeling low and defeated. I grabbed the leather strap, switched shoulders and trudged down the sidewalk to make my way back to the Haptbahnhof. I’m never getting rid of this stupid thing, I thought as tears threatened to form. I fought them back, knowing that just walking around looking as miserable as I probably did while carrying this idiotically cheerful object probably made me look like a total lunatic as is. If I started crying, I might get the Polizei following me. I had a train to catch, and the best thing for me was to take my picnic basket and get the hell out of there until I could figure out another way to get rid of it.

The thing is, it really was a cute basket. It came with plates, champagne flutes and steel cutlery and was fitted with a triangle-shaped top and very picnic-y blue plaid lining. I even thought about keeping it, but I needed it gone.

I rode the stuffy, crowded train toward home with the stupid thing on my lap. I wanted to just park it on the seat next to me, but then I would have been subjected to stern German glares and emphatic “Entschuldigung!”s for taking up an extra seat like another thoughtless American. I got out at Buchholz rather than home to Lauenbrück, deciding that I would have better luck finding a post office there.

Well, I was almost right. I did find a post office. It was a cute red brick storefront among other cute red brick storefronts with a friendly yellow sign that said “Deutsch Post”…right next to a much less friendly sign saying “Geschlossen” (CLOSED). The leather strap weighing painfully on my shoulder, I stood there and stared for a good minute, silently talking myself out of just setting the fucking thing on fire right there.

I didn’t have any matches anyway.

I could get some.

No, Laura.

It was going to be at least another forty minutes until the next train home arrived, and all I could think to do was slump down on a bench at the platform with the nuisance basket at my feet and wait. Twenty minutes later more people began to congregate on the platform, some waiting for my train, others on the opposite side going back to Hamburg. An elderly woman came over and sat next to me. I managed to offer her a polite smile but then turned my gaze back to the tracks as I was losing the battle to stop myself from crying.

Christ, Laura, pull yourself together.

But that thought only weakened my defense and I felt a wet drop glide down my face, which I quickly wiped away and turned my head the opposite direction of the woman. When I finally felt more stabilized, I turned back. This sweet lady was now looking at me with a sympathetic expression on her face, holding her hand out to offer me a small package of tissues.

 This unfortunately opened the floodgates as my restrained tears became uncontrollable sobs. So much for pulling myself together. However, I was grateful for her kindness after such an awful day. I gently took them from her hand, smiled and thanked her appreciatively.

Jesus. Now I must look completely insane to this poor woman – sitting here bawling with a picnic basket at my feet.

Stop it. STOP.

I somehow managed to calm down as I was growing more weary by the minute, my energy drained by the day’s events. More than anything, I was just so mad at myself for even being in this situation. Praying to whatever deity happened to be listening for a sinkhole to swallow me right there, I slumped in defeat and waited for the next train home.

New Year’s Day

January 18, 2016

I’m declaring today my New Year’s Day.

 On January 18th, 2016 I finally moved out. With the “Mission Impossible” theme looping through my head the entire time, I both planned and executed this move like a ninja. I had made all the arrangements with Two Men and A Truck while sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store, so to not risk John overhearing the conversation,. In no time, I had set the date to do a confidential move. This is something they do in cases of domestic violence, stalking, or for people like me who just want to get on with their lives.

At 6am  I woke up and immediately had the shakes. I realized that, on top of being nervous as hell I also hadn’t really eaten the day before. Anxious that any oddity would arouse even a shred of suspicion from John, I had left the things I wanted from the common areas unpacked and untouched, careful not to express interest in them. As he had already been stashing the things he wanted to keep without so much as a discussion, I decided that feigned indifference to what I wanted would be my best weapon. After all, he was the one who was forcing me out so he could be with some boring, blonde bimbo from the office. He already took away my home, half my friends and 6 good years of my life. I’d say I was entitled to help myself to anything of “ours” that I damn well pleased.

But first, I was hungry.

For old times sake I got dressed and drove around the corner for one last quick breakfast at The Place To Be. It’s a cheap diner and one of my old favorites, and their French toast and scrambled eggs were just the thing to fuel the long day I had ahead of me. I ordered and just sat there for a bit, looking around. The diner is quintessential Americana, with its vintage bar stools and bottomless coffee – your typical no-frills classic breakfast place. The waitress spoke with a thick Greek accent and never let my coffee get below a half a cup – which is something that used to annoy me but now I really do appreciate.

 I’m going to miss this place.

By 7:00am  I was back home and ready to execute my well-laid plan. I hurried upstairs, closed the door to my bedroom and moved quickly but with caution, perhaps overly aware of every sound I made. I gingerly unplugged my iMac from the surge strip, wrapped it in my bedclothes and used the pillows from my bed as packing material. Anxious that even the slightest deviation from the norm would mean John had switched gears and decided to work from home, I carefully listened for anything out of the ordinary. The creaking of the old wooden stairs under his feet, the swish of the shower curtain and the steady hiss of water shooting out of the shower head  were all signals that his familiar routine had commenced. So far, so good.

I was almost done packing up my bedroom when I suddenly heard the side door slam shut, alerting me that he had left for work. I scrambled downstairs to get a look out the back window as the garage door whirred open. With mixed emotions, I watched John’s car back out of the garage and roll down the street for the last time.

Adrenaline immediately took over. I got to work unearthing things that he had buried on “his” side of the basement. He had stuffed the more desirable objects in the back of the pile, clearly thinking that burying the things he knew I may want would somehow keep me from getting them. Oh no, now nothing was going to stop me from taking whatever the hell I wanted, and certainly not some feeble pile of old monitors and shitty kitchen chairs from the 70’s.

I dug out my deceased father’s TV stand (for some reason among said buried things) and the mini fridge from the attic bar we had built in the old house. I gave them a quick cleaning, shoved some of the Tupperware into the fridge and moved on to the upstairs, where I promptly removed the curtains from all the windows. Every move felt calculated, like I was going down a checklist. My emotions completely shut down and the logical, “get shit done” side of my brain had kicked into full gear.

The decorations from the dining room he had thought he had hidden were carefully packed up as well. I continued this frenzy, snagging the cool Halloween tombstones, strobe lights and fog machine, my pillow he had commandeered for his bed, all the champagne flutes and wine glasses and anything else I could find until I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted.

Well, I left him one wine glass. I’m not a total bitch.

I will add with a bit of smugness that I bagged all the liquor.

With every minute that ticked away, my gnawing fear that John would return due to forgetting his coffee or a canceled meeting faded. At about 8:30am, I got a rather clandestine phone call from an “Eric”. It turned out that Eric (his real name) was with Two Men and a Truck and wanted to know if the coast was clear, something they do for all the confidential moves. I informed him that that the “coast” was indeed clear, resisting the urge to add something like, “Team One, engage!”

At promptly 9:07am, they pulled into the driveway. Eric and his moving partner Ivan greeted me and had me give them a tour of every room in the house, making sure they knew what to load up and what to leave behind. And in a remarkably swift and organized fashion they got right to work, refusing my help to carry things. At one point I lamented out loud about how much I was going to miss the five burner gas stove in the kitchen – to which they offered to uninstall it and load it onto the truck. I considered it for a minute, after all it’s not like John ever used it. The cooking was always left to me, and when left to his own devices he just ate whatever microwaveable crap he picked up at the corner store. Hell, he probably wouldn’t even notice if I took it. But then I remembered the size of the storage unit I had rented and graciously declined their generous offer.

By 10:45am they were done, having loaded about 80% of an entire three bedroom house into their truck. Most of the furniture had been mine before I met John, and I wasn’t about to leave any of the nice stuff behind for he and his new bimbo to enjoy. Peering inside of the moving truck, I shook my head in disbelief. After having packed what seemed like an eternity of my possessions, it all took up maybe an eighth of the cargo area.

By noon, everything had been driven and loaded up at their respective locations. Despite the arctic January temperatures Eric and Ivan had remained super friendly and professional. Of course, I thanked them and tipped generously.

Soon I was pulling into the driveway of Larry’s house – my final destination and home until April. I unloaded my car, poured myself a glass of wine, stepped into my slippers and sat down to chill for the first time in far too long.

It was finally over.

The next morning I woke up from the best night’s sleep I had in a long time. I shuffled out of the bedroom and down the stairs without any dread as to who I would see. I wandered into the kitchen and made myself coffee and breakfast without feeling unwelcome or an annoyance to a man who once told me that I was his soul mate. I spent the day unpacking, hanging extra curtains and Skyping with my wonderful new friend Matthias in Hamburg, whom I had met through my longtime friend Patty after I had made my announcement about my plans to move to Germany. Patty introduced me to Matthias stating that she wanted to be sure that I knew at least one good person in Germany. This turned out to be a fabulous idea on her part, as he and I had a lot in common and would at times talk the night away. Tonight our conversation went on for over four hours, during which I gave him a tour of the visual candy that is Larry’s house.

Larry’s house, like the one I had shared with John and many others in Cleveland, was built in the early 1900’s. The original woodwork had been restored and meticulously kept up, and everywhere I turned there was something unique, colorful and interesting to see. Artwork, trinkets from his many travels to Asia, and memorabilia of famous musicians from his days as a concert promoter seasoned his house. I could have lived there for a whole year and still not have seen everything. But it was the overall positive energy of this place that made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, noting the stark contrast to the unfriendly, hostile environment from where I had just escaped, and for the first time in too long I was finally enjoying some peace.

After I got off the call with Matthias, I decided to enjoy the tranquility some more and take advantage of Larry’s jacuzzi bathtub. I lit candles and put on the calming music of Poe and Garbage. Then I turned off the lights and sank my body into the hot bubbles, letting the jets pulse all over me. Backlit by the candles, I watched the steam rise off of my toes poking out from the foamy bubbles at the other end of the tub. It was great to not have to do anything, just relax. Between packing and moving and carrying things up stairs and unpacking and go go go..this was the first time in what seemed like ages that I had actually stopped in my tracks and did something relaxing just for me. Not because I had to, not because if I didn’t do it I’d feel guilty or like I’m wasting time….simply just for me and my own sanity. And really, I needed it.

My mind wandered, and the gravity of everything I had lost suddenly became like someone had set an anvil down on my chest. Tears stung my eyes as I heaved into a sob. Normally I’d make myself stop, but this was different.This time I just let myself go, alone in the dim candlelight with the foam and jet streams of the bath wrapped around me like a comforting hug.

Will I ever be happy again?