I’m glad they took a chance on me in the Husky Outdoor Shop. Admittedly, the boss still always puts me right at the back with the accessories, where the sun only reaches in the evenings. Few customers stray this far, and that’s also why I work down here – because of that, and because of the fire door, which can be completely locked down from the checkout area. It’s actually designed for accidents. But I know my colleagues wouldn’t hesitate to flip the switch if I had an attack. I haven’t had an attack in two-and-a-half years. It must be down to the work, and the fact that I no longer have to make much of an effort in other areas of my life. If I get to three years, I can move up to the outdoor jackets. In the meantime, I dust down camping stoves, push sterilisation tablets to the front of shelves and make sure not to look at the clock too often. My favourite products are the cups that you can fold completely flat. It’s usually men who buy them, some of whom are quite persistent. They tell me about their latest day trip, then they bring the conversation round to going for a hike together, or at least for a coffee. I point out that my work schedule is too hectic right now and cast around for some shelf to rearrange. I’m not allowed to go out with men; I’m not actually allowed to talk to them for any length of time. I still don’t know why I have these attacks, but they started with a man.
I was twenty-five, had finished my studies and had taken up a post with the public utility company. My boyfriend at the time would sometimes pick me up from work. We talked about our first child. We wanted to move in together at last. Things had never been so good, but by the time we found a flat, I felt myself getting restless. I lay awake at night, I made mistakes in my spreadsheets, and when I looked in the mirror, something alien looked out through my eyes. I didn’t yet know that it was a white fox. Just before we were supposed to sign the rental agreement, it happened. My boyfriend was washing the dishes, and we were in the middle of planning our new kitchen. Suddenly, my body stiffened, and when I came to, I looked at my boyfriend’s face. He was as white as the fridge behind him. I saw this white face, I saw the shards on the floor, and the next morning my muscles ached as if I had climbed a two-thousander.
“So that’s the famous astronaut food.” My brother picks up a bar. “And it counts as a whole meal?”
We both know he’s not interested in astronaut food. My brother has never set foot in a walking boot, and I would never stay in one of the hotels he always books. Even as children, we were never interested in one another’s toys.
He’s hungry, but we can’t find a restaurant we both like. Finally, we decide on a pizzeria.
“Do you really want to stay in this rucksack shop?” he asks. “Is that what you studied for?”
“It’s fun, and I do like hiking.”
“And that doctor? Are you still going to him?”
He always asks that, and by that he means the therapist I was going to for treatment. After the doctors hadn’t found anything, my boyfriend managed to get me a couple of appointments with him. I didn’t even go to the last few. It irritated me how unwaveringly the therapist proceeded on the assumption that the present is connected with the past.
“No idea why our parents haven’t told you,” my brother says without looking up from the pizza menu. “Mum had something similar. It sometimes happened multiple times a day. I can even remember it happening. It was only when you arrived that it started happening less often, and finally, it stopped completely.”
He always starts with that too, and every time I act like I’m grateful for his forthrightness. Unfortunately, I doubt it’s the same for me. It’s true the attacks started happening less often after the breakup and then finally disappeared altogether. But the white fox still lives in me, I know that for a fact.
My former boyfriend was the one who discovered that it’s a white fox. He got so obsessed with my attacks that he neglected his thesis. I had long since lost my job. My colleagues were afraid of the power the fox could unleash, and after my probation period they had to let me go.
“We need to get to know your fox,” my boyfriend said back then. “We need to know everything about it.”
“Most of them are red foxes. Many of them are friendly. They go away if you ask them to. Or you need to fulfil their desires. They might desire money or trinkets, for example.”
“But there are other ones too?”
“The other ones,” said my boyfriend, “have white fur and desires that cannot be fulfilled.”
My boyfriend observed exactly what happened when I disappeared. He even wanted to film me, but I forbade him. I knew it was difficult for him to watch while I writhed and shrieked on the floor. It scared him to death, he said so himself. It was only later that I realised we didn’t necessarily break up because of my attacks, but for another reason: unlike me, my boyfriend was afraid of death, not life.
“It’s a white fox,” he said after a while. “You can’t fulfil its desires. Maybe when you find out what it wants, things will change.”
But I didn’t want to get to know my fox or find out what it wanted. I could guess from the aches in my muscles how much havoc I had caused, and I trained myself to keep checking the time. My attacks never lasted longer than fifteen minutes. Knowing that was enough for me, and my boyfriend and I came to blows over it. One evening, he held his phone out unceremoniously in front of my face and pressed PLAY. I closed my eyes just in time, and what I heard myself shriek in an unnaturally deep voice, I immediately forgot again. I broke up with my boyfriend that night. For a few months, I only left my flat to go to the supermarket. Then, when my bank account was empty, I started working at the Husky.
I come down with laryngitis and can’t talk for nearly two weeks. When I return, everyone at the Husky is saying I’ve had a relapse. Stefan defends me against the rumours. He even raises his voice to Marie. When Stefan is shift supervisor, I get to spend some of my time by the rucksacks. He spins this as if there’s no other option, like when he gets Marie to clear up the stockroom. Someone always needs to be standing by the rucksacks. Not all of them are secured because the tags leave holes in the Super Polytex, and it’s where the customers ask the most questions. I give advice to a man my age who wants to go on a week-long trip to the Alps. He is only vaguely interested in my explanations about wearability and heat build-up. He’s more concerned about the colour. He chooses a green one. When I’m demonstrating how to tighten the waist strap, I get too close to him. I quickly pass the rucksack to Stefan and disappear into the accessories section. I run my index finger along the sharp, serrated edges of a camping stove. I don’t want to lose this job. It’s not much fun, but at least it serves to pass the time.
Stefan catches me in front of the mirror on my break.
“Are you OK?” he asks. “Do you have plans later?”
“Yes, I’m quite busy, sorry.”
When I get home, I call my brother. He’s back from Gran Canaria where it was sunny, he says, and the hotel pool was big enough this time, but the water in it was too warm. Together, we make fun of Stefan’s attempts at flirting. But as we’re laughing, I realise that I ought to accept his invitation. I need to at least try.
After we hang up, I look in the mirror again. Not for the first time, I think that the other one is the real me. I think that all this – my flat, this phone call, the Husky – all of that must be the attack, an attack that never ends, and my real life is on the other side, where my limbs twitch and I shriek or howl or master four languages, or whatever it is I do over there.
I take Marie with me as a precaution when Stefan and I go out, and Stefan brings a friend with him, too. We walk from the Husky towards the Südstadt. Yet again, Stefan wants to know where I worked before I started at the Husky. Yet again, he wants to know why I no longer work for the public utility company and, as always, he reckons it’s because I don’t talk enough. Finally, we find a restaurant we all like. It’s going to happen again today, something inside me thinks. That’s a shame. I would almost have made it to three years.
“That’s enough questions now,” I say.
“She’s right,” says Stefan’s friend. His name is Manuel. I like his soft voice. “What does all that have to do with anything?”
When the food comes, Stefan really does stop asking questions. Manuel has ordered the Brotzeit, a snacky meal of pretzels, ham, creamy potatoes and the like. I like that. He lets Stefan convince him to do a mini show for us. Manuel is a comedian. I find it hard to believe. His spoon trick makes even the next table join in the laughter. Actually, he says, he prefers to work with little stories, in a tiny bar not far from here.
“Tell him something funny,” says Stefan. “He’ll put it in his routine.”
I have stopped talking completely now, so Marie goes into overdrive. She tells the story of how, when she was at school, she was always embarrassed by her healthy sandwiches and jealous of the soft chocolate rolls her friends had. And now she gives her daughter the same wholemeal sandwiches, she says, and asks us why people don’t learn even the simplest things. She goes ahead and orders another cocktail. She and Stefan joke around with the waiter. From the corner of my eye, I see Manuel wrap his spoon in a napkin and slip it into my coat pocket.
Luckily, I get home before it happens. My body starts to stiffen in the hallway, and when I come to, I’m lying in the kitchen. I last checked the time downstairs in front of the house, and seven minutes have passed since then. I can taste blood in my mouth. Manuel’s spoon is between my teeth. In the hallway, I find the napkin with a telephone number on it.
I should probably be happy that Manuel is taking a chance on me. I don’t call him. After three weeks, he comes into the Husky. Shortly afterwards, they let me go. After the fire door has to be locked down for the third time because of me, even Stefan can’t do anything to help.
“Do you think,” asks Marie, “that the customers want to hear a grown woman rolling around shrieking, as she . . .”
“Stop! I don’t want to know.”
“See? Neither do we.”
Manuel and I go hiking. We sit by the river. We eat pizza. He only asks me a few questions and, although I am interested, I don’t ask him how he became a comedian of all things and what he used to do before that. A few weeks pass before we sleep together, then I start disappearing even more frequently. Manuel says that my attacks don’t scare him at all. They don’t even bother him. He’s scared of other things, he says, of long escalators in shops or the outdoor jackets in the Husky that apparently you can wear to go hiking on glaciers.
Manuel soon starts talking about a child. The fact my mother recovered after her second pregnancy doesn’t make a difference to him. Manuel seems to really want to have a child with me. That should actually make me have my doubts. But the fact he doesn’t know how to interact with my brother works in his favour. He won’t admit it, but I can tell that he has to make just as much effort around him as I do.
Following a few good reviews, Manuel moves his act to a bigger bar. He wants to know if he can use my attacks.
“On stage?” I ask.
“Are they funny then?”
“I’m not actually trying to be funny. I don’t know why people always laugh.”
I have never seen any of his shows before. I have never asked for a ticket and Manuel has never given me one. This time, I find one in my coat pocket, so I guess it’s important to him. Most people there leave their jackets in the cloakroom. I prefer to keep my coat on. The show is almost sold out. It has received more good reviews. Although my ticket is for the second row, I sit further back, on the end. By some kind of fluke, no one else claims the seat.
I don’t know why I always thought Manuel dressed as a clown on stage, or at least wore a polka-dot tie. It alarms me how vulnerable he seems in his white t-shirt, which he was wearing at the kitchen table only a moment ago. The audience laughs even before Manuel can say anything, and no sooner has it quietened down than he starts talking in his soft voice. He tells the story of a woman who desires nothing more than a real heart, one that does not tick so frightfully cold and slow in her chest, and he tells of a sad man she meets one day. I grip the armrests tight and look at the time every thirty seconds. I’m hot in my coat, but perhaps I’ll sit here a few minutes longer.
From Katharina Bendixen, Mein Weißer Fuchs, Poetenladen, 2019.