19th July 2021
Part Nine. Berlin.
Johanna brushed her short blonde hair and checked her watch. She hated being late, and she hated waiting. Richard, her date, waited nervously outside the cinema. Chain smoking. Throwing away cigarettes half smoked. Lighting up fresh ones. Walking up and down, battling the cold, battling his anxiety. Johanna arrived sheltered by a scarf. She removed it and smiled at her date. She took his arm and they went inside.
A movie followed by drinks in a bar. Predictable. Safe. Richard was a safe and predictable man. Johanna had chosen the film, after she took him to a light and lively bar. This spacious corner Kneipe was popular with students, bench seats and large tables where they could count out their small coins hoping it amounted to the price of a beer. Music played, old-time waltzes. People sang, laughed, shouted. Sometimes Johanna had to move closer to Richard to be heard. The chilling night walk to the station, a shared journey as far as Alexanderplatz. Richard insisted on waiting with her for her connection. She found that sweet. She kissed his cheek goodbye, held his hand before she got onto the train. Smiled and waved as the train pulled away.
Johanna thought about how pleasant the evening had been. She would certainly see Richard again. If he called. After that, she thought no more, not wanting to expect anything. She didn’t want one more disappointment, one more man who seemed so different, so ideal, only to have all her illusions painfully shattered, be left permanently damaged. It had happened too often. The chances of finding someone who would love, respect and look after her were zero. So Johanna believed.
‘A cry for help’. Johanna hated that expression. A meaningless banality uttered by those who could never conceive pain. Real physical pain. Real emotional pain. A rationalisation, a way of tying up with one neat thread, the thousands of multiplying loose ends. The psychologically scarring, unanswerable questions. Johanna tried to kill herself. She wasn’t crying for help. She was crying for death. The cry was from her own demons imploring her. The agony she was in would never end, the crying, the calling was never going to end.
While her family asked the ‘why ?’ question, Johanna had one of her own; why was she alive ? Worse than ‘the cry for help’ was the, ‘It wasn’t meant to be,’ dictum, as if someone was watching over her. She spat on that fallacy. If anyone was watching, it was with a sadistic grin, not a protecting hand. Failure. She was alive and would have to account to her inconsolable parents and clueless doctors if she were to regain the freedom she needed. The freedom to try again. The freedom to succeed.
A list of easily acceptable motives; boyfriend trouble, pressure of work, lack of fulfilment in her life. Easily remedied. As quickly as she had been admitted, she was discharged, returned to her parent’s suburban house. Searching for university courses. Her parents were sure she’d meet a nice man at college, and all would be well. Johanna’s placid smile always dropped when the subject of men came up. She believed that had she confessed the real reason behind her suicide attempt, she would have sickened and repulsed the doctors, who would thereafter treat her as filth, too contemptible and contaminating for their sanitised wards, sanitised words, sanitised world.
Teenage dramas common to many pretty girls. Suddenly being very popular with boys, who wanted one thing from her. She had once been cornered by three teenage boys who had succeeded in removing and keeping her panties as ‘proof’ of their conquest. She was just grateful that they hadn’t gone any further. Her first serious boyfriend had been sleeping around with her other friends. When discovered, claimed it was a test to see if he really loved her. A confused inexperienced teenager, Johanna knew this was no test of love. The boyfriends that followed were faceless. They pressured her for sex, then dropped her after their few minutes of glory.
Word had gotten around that she was anyone’s for the asking. Time to leave school, look for work. The adult world. Shops were always hiring pretty young girls. Her parents knew she had more independence than academic ability. They felt proud, chose to feel proud, of their daughter making her own life. They arranged for her to stay in a shared house in Wilmersdorf that belonged to an old family friend, Herr Schulz. He appeared very friendly to Johanna, very attentive, offering to drive her wherever she needed to go. She found his slits of eyes and joined eyebrows charming, as if he were a creature from a fairy tale. But it wasn’t long before that tale took a very adult twist.
Still being very young and inexperienced, Johanna had difficulty managing her money. Buying clothes without making sure she had covered her rent. The first time, Herr Schultz smiled, patted her knee and told her not to worry. The next time he playfully spanked her, but she wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Knowing that she would not be able to pay on time, Herr Schultz took Johanna to her room and screamed at her. He told her how much money she was costing him, how many bills he had, how she was destroying his business, endless abuse that paralysed her with fear. He then calmly, in a professional way, offered her a choice of services that she could perform to pay her debts.
Frustrated at her lack of response, he grabbed her hand, used it to open his fly and showed her what to do. Grotesque sounds and expressions as his pleasure increased. The smell. She was sick when it was over. Repeatedly washing, scrubbing her hand. That was just the start. Johanna was still on the lowest wages. Herr Schultz began improving the house, all of which added expense to the rent. When he threatened her with sending her home and telling her parents that she had been bringing too many boys back, she went along with his next demand. She stripped, got into bed, and after preparing him for the condom, allowed him to do what he wanted. Emotionally, she felt nothing, barely blinked, didn’t move. She refused to cry out in pain, to shed tears, to show any life. As soon as he was satisfied, she left the bed, locking herself in the bathroom until he was gone. This was the way it was going to be. And it was. Until she met Marcus.
Marcus was a driver at work. She only saw him two or three times a week, but he was so different to anyone else she had known. He was confident, strong, a real Alpha-male, always centre of attention. He noticed her and told her, rather than asked her, that he would take her out. She felt that someone so powerful could protect her. Johanna was determined to keep him interested, allowed him to sleep with her that first night. Her nightmare with Herr Schultz had at least taught her what men want. Marcus got the benefit of her unsentimental education. He was used to taking what he wanted, and wasn’t prepared for her, a wild sex-fiend in a demure body. Johanna began bringing him home when she knew the landlord would be there, and it worked. He collected the rent and left her in peace.
For a time, she was something close to happy, though she never was able to predict what mood Marcus would be in. He’d either be very rough with her, foregoing any sort of foreplay, and leaving her bruised and sore, or would be completely docile and indifferent to her body. Nothing surprised her about men. Her own moods altered from gregariousness to complete detachment, from contentment, to deepest depression. Why should men be any different ? Hindsight. In hindsight it was obvious. Erratic behaviour, nervousness, sweating. Johanna’s mental state was controlled by unpredictable internal forces. Marcus’ was dependent on external. She hadn’t even realised that her boyfriend was on drugs. Another reason to detest herself soon followed.
One Saturday morning, she was woken by Marcus who barged into her room, demanding money. She had just woken up and pointed to her bag, naively thinking that it was to pay a taxi. Marcus threw the bag down in disgust when he saw how little she had. He began rambling, muttering incoherent words to himself, walking up and down the room. He looked over at her, in bed, stopped his disturbing movements. He told her to wait. Two men came into the room. One took a look at her and seemed pleased, the other looked around, opening drawers, picking up her possessions. She looked at Marcus, who moved over to her and told her it was all right, before he grabbed her arms and pinned her down.
The first man pulled down his trousers, threw back the bedclothes and had her panties off before she could even think. He was finished very quickly. All the time, Marcus, with one hand over her mouth, the other holding her down, was telling her that everything was going to be OK. The second man’s turn. He made sure she saw him, made her see the hatred in his eyes. He preferred to bite and slap her, made sure he caused her as much pain as possible, her muffled cries only encouraging him. He stopped and demanded that she finish him off with her mouth, to the approving applause of his friend. Marcus assisted, grabbing her long hair and forcing her onto him. The man screamed out, grabbed her chin and made her look at him. He demanded, ‘Swallow, bitch !’ As an encore he slapped her face and spat on her.
She fell back on the bed. Lifeless, not physically there as if she were above the room, looking down on the shell of a body that she knew was her own, yet alien to her. She could hear distorted voices, the men talking. Something was exchanged. Marcus laughed. Why weren’t they leaving ? Marcus was offering them a drink ? After some time, minutes or hours, probably only seconds, they left. The second man gave Marcus a friendly slap on the face, telling him he was a lucky man, before acting out his recent conquest. They all laughed. All except Johanna. Marcus immediately began preparing himself, jumping on the bed next to the immobile Johanna. He relaxed, lay back, and was in his own world.
At some point, Johanna began moving. She knew she had to wash herself and painfully made her way to he bathroom. Only then did the first realisation crack the shock and soft tears flowed faster, as she tore at her hair, vomited in the sink and began throwing herself against the walls, a terror-stricken animal in a tiny cage. She saw the razor blade.
Johanna woke up in hospital, wrists restrained, tubes in her arm, the contemptuous eyes of a male nurse watching over her. His eyebrows reminded her of Herr Schultz and she tried crying out, but no sound came. She never knew how she got there. The police wanted to know about her boyfriend. One of them said that she should have just died. A total waste of their time looking after silly girls who make a big performance if their boyfriend forget to bring them flowers. Stupid bitches.
Johanna was kept on suicide watch. Couldn’t be left alone, couldn’t lock the bathroom, couldn’t take a bath without being observed. She would have to give a reason before she could leave. What could the doctors do, anyway ? Nothing could be undone. Ever. The only help she got was from Günther, a fellow patient and another failed suicide. It was obvious to her that he was gay, so was the only man she felt safe with. Her own father had led her to Herr Schultz and, in turn, to Marcus.
Günther explained how the system worked. The sessions with the psychiatrists, the group talks. The correct responses. Nobody really cared, anyway. The first time Johanna had heard someone else express her sentiments. She bonded with him. The only professional interest seemed to come from a young medical student who saw patterns in her behaviour that seemed to indicate a certain condition. He asked to be allowed to study her, but case studies on opposite-sex subjects were discouraged. No qualified doctor had time to listen to over-enthusiastic amateur speculations regurgitated from recently-read textbooks.
Johanna followed the advice. Back to the suburbs, with Günther’s phone number. Only the thought of seeing him again kept her from repeating the attempt, that and her mother’s pathetic act of finding reasons to come into her room to check up on her. Night and day. Externally, Johanna tried to alter as much as she could. Her hair, always long, was now cut into a boyish bob. She was obsessed with washing, showering several a day, in a room that now had no lock. No control over when the memories would come back. She became a different person, unrecognisable. She would scream abuse. She fell in hysterical crying fits. Once she grabbed the largest kitchen knife and spat demonically, stabbing an imaginary Marcus, over and over.
Johanna had to see two or three psychiatrists, neither of which inspired Johanna to open up. Her history of abuse was too painful and sickening for anyone else to hear. She would deal with it her own way. Her look already altered. She cut off all contact with everyone who knew her. Her parents encouraged her to go back to school, get some professional qualifications. There were several business courses that could be of practical use. And she choose denial. She tried to block out everything that had happened to her, to project it onto an imaginary friend. She wanted to believe it worked. Denial hadn’t a chance.
By the autumn of 1995 she had started on her course and was doing well. Living at home and travelling into Berlin. She became an avid reader, losing herself in long books. By studying. By spending so much time studying, she hoped to block out the past. But it always attacked her, especially when she was alone. She was generally alone. To protect herself from herself, she started accepting offers to go out. Invitations were constant. She gave nothing of herself, no encouragement. She always made sure that she never dated anyone more than twice. Avoid the implied sex after the third date. She only really felt comfortable with Günther, who was now living in Friedrichshain, not exactly the epicentre of gay Berlin. He was quite taken by a certain squat bar he had discovered, and his vivid description made Johanna curious to see it.
She felt quite relaxed there, and was amazed at the lack of sexual tension. She could just relax and drink with her friend, no one came up and tried to join them, or start trying to pick her up. One night she looked over and saw a tall young man who seemed both at home and totally out of place. She could sense something about him. When he looked over she smiled at him. It was no surprise that he looked away, not in arrogance, but out of nervousness. Johanna decided that she would like to meet him. Something about him told her that he was different.