Small Acts of Love and Devotion

Since I moved to Berlin, the only other people I seem to meet are other Australians.

This is the opening line of a short story that I’d been writing when I first met Rita nine months ago. The person who wrote this was a colder, more sceptical version of myself; though he was certainly more productive. It’s spring now, I’m at my desk in the apartment in Schöneberg, looking at the horse-chestnut tree in the courtyard, and I’m in love and I have nothing to write about.

The piece was called ‘Small Acts of Love and Devotion’. It revolved around an unpleasant story told to me by a girl that I’ll call Kate, who I’d spent a night with the previous summer. She described the incident as one of the worst things that had ever happened to her, or at least that’s what I seem to have written down.

This afternoon I read ‘Small Acts’ out loud to Rita while she showered, shouting to make myself heard over the water. Though reading my work out loud would normally make my skin crawl, with Rita I’m trying to reveal myself completely, to let her see me as clearly as possible. Plus she gives fantastic notes.

After matching on Tinder, Kate had invited me to her AirBnb in Kreuzberg. She was flying back to Melbourne later that evening, so it was to be a single-sitting affair. She was still packing when I arrived at the fifth-floor studio on Böckhstraße. I drank a beer on the balcony while Kate divided her toiletries into Ziploc bags. There was a vicious pink sunset and weed fumes drifting up from the Landwehr Canal. I’d never felt more myself than on nights like those, in rooms that I’d never set foot in again, with people whose names and faces would soon fade from my memory. Kate and I got a little drunk; we kissed and removed our clothes. She lay on the bed and her expression said something along the lines of: I’m completely at your disposal.

Improvising, I grabbed an eye mask from the bedside table and she put it on. She tensed up as soon as I placed my hand on her thigh, she gasped and tore the mask off, said: stop. Stop.

An unseasonable storm this morning. We woke to warm rain blowing in through the kitchen window, a pot plant overturned on the parquet. As I mopped up the mess, I thought about what Rita said yesterday, after I’d read her the draft of ‘Small Acts’.

Why is this a short story, and not a script? She’d asked. It’s essentially just descriptions of rooms and sex, then an unbroken monologue, and then it just kind of ends. What does the story say about her, about him? What does the narrator see that a camera couldn’t?

And reading over the draft at my desk, I can see what Rita meant. Though ‘Small Acts’ was essentially autobiographical, it revealed nothing about what I’d thought or felt while listening to Kate talk. When writing it, I’d been trying for a kind of surgical lyricism: lengthening shadows, phosphorescent bodies on sheets. But it was gutless somehow. It was like I was a secondary character in my own life story.

At the time – which must be three or four years ago now – Kate had been dating a cancer researcher called Nick, who cared about little more than sex and football and friends. He was radiant with contentment, Kate told me. Sometimes I couldn’t even look at him. He was the happiest person I’d ever met, because he never thought about anything.

One night in the middle of winter, they’d driven down to his parents’ holiday house in Lorne. They’d had a huge fight not long after arriving, because Nick had refused to turn off the football during dinner (it was the finals). Plates were smashed, things were said that couldn’t be taken back. To Kate it had seemed like the end of the relationship, an extinction level event. The next evening she was waiting for the bus back to Melbourne, when Nick pulled up beside the tourist information centre, in his parents’ Subaru. He told Kate that he was sorry, not just for last night, but for everything. He said he wanted to make it up to her.

I didn’t register it at the time, but so much of what Kate had said about Nick could have easily applied to me, or at least an earlier version of me. Back in Melbourne I had dated a psychologist called Michelle for nearly four years. Our infrequent arguments had been along much the same lines as Kate and Nick’s. Michelle thought that she felt too much, while I didn’t feel enough. Do you ever think about me when I’m not here, she’d ask. Tell me what you feel when you say that you love me. And of course I’d inevitably get tongue-tied, I’d squirm and wriggle around. It was excruciating.

When Nick pulled up at the bus stop, was he trying to display his emotional complexity, his ability to think outside himself? I wonder whether he was trying to give himself over, if that’s what I’m doing now. This next part is in Kate’s voice, or at least the version that I created nine months ago.

I got into the car because of his face. I’d never seen him look so wounded, so lost. As soon as I sat down Nick passed me an eye mask, the same kind as the one you just used on me. He said he had a surprise for me.

I realised straight away that he must have got the idea from this stupid BuzzFeed listicle called ‘Small Acts of Love and Devotion’ that I’d sent him a few months before. Blindfold your lover and surprise them with a picnic, that type of thing. When I put the mask on, I remember thinking, He get’s it. He’s listening.

Nick followed the road round the coast, in the direction of Apollo Bay. I thought he was taking me for a meal at the Wye River pub, or to one of the lookout points to watch the sunset, though it was already pretty well dark by that point. I don’t know how long we’d been driving when the radio reception started to go. Nick switched it off and I realised that I couldn’t hear the ocean anymore, just the tyres humming on the bitumen. I felt the car turn onto a gravel road, and drive slowly uphill.

By that point I still didn’t think that anything was wrong, but I thought of Nick’s face during the fight the night before, glaring at me like he wished that I didn’t exist. I wondered whether I’d told anyone that I was going away that weekend. I asked him to stop the car, and I took the mask off and it was just the headlights on the dirt road and the gums and black everywhere all around.

It was too dark to see Nick’s expression, but I could make out his teeth. He always had these straight, white teeth. Presidential teeth. And I could see his teeth in the dark, and it looked like he was smiling.

He finally pulled over onto the shoulder of the road and before he could say or do anything I opened the passenger door and bolted into the trees. He ran after me, but it was too dark to see anything, and once I’d put some distance between us I crouched behind a tree and held my breath. Nick called my name over and over. He sounded like he was in pain.

It was already cold by then, and I just walked and walked and I was crying and stumbling over everywhere. I had no idea where the road was anymore and I remember thinking that I wasn’t going to survive that night.

And then I came across the lights. Hundreds of blue pinpricks, dotted everywhere around me, in the trees and the ferns, a carpet of stars at my feet. I held my phone close to the lights and saw that they were glow-worms, hanging from the underside of the tree branches and the mossy logs. There were thousands of them. I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Though I didn’t think of it then, this is what Nick must have been trying to show me. Much later I remembered that he had told me about the glow-worms, back when we first got together.

I wandered into a clearing. There were a few picnic tables and a barbeque and a group of kids smoking a joint on a bench. One of them screamed when she me coming out of the trees. I was too hysterical to explain what had happened. I still didn’t really know what had happened. And one of them passed me the joint and that’s when Nick’s car pulled up.

I never got to find out what happened next. Kate and I were so engrossed in the story that we’d lost track of time. She was in danger of missing her flight, and she began flitting round the room, crawling under the bed, making sure that she hadn’t left anything. I ordered a cab in my fumbling German and went down to the street to wait for it. She unmatched me on Tinder the next day and we never spoke again. Of course I didn’t put that part in ‘Small Acts’.

For the past three days Rita has been at a conference in London and I’ve regressed to a state of abject bachelordom: desultory masturbation and frozen pizzas, compulsive checking of the footy scores back home. This is the longest time we’ve been apart, but missing her doesn’t explain why I’ve been feeling quite so moony and frustrated, why I’ve been stalking through the house, picking up books at random, and tossing them away a few moments later.

For some reason, I’ve often found myself recalling our first few weeks together: those delirious nights, drunk on malbec in fuggy pubs around Neukölln, when night after night strangers would come over to tell us how in love we looked.

This has never happened to me before, I’d assured her again and again, surfacing from another full-body kiss. This is unprecedented. And there had been tears in my eyes, I’m sure of it. I’d never felt so fresh and skinned and cut down the middle. I’d never felt so much of anything before.

But on other nights I’d find myself squeezing my eyes together, trying to wring some moisture out. I’d swallow snot to sound choked up. I’d sit there all night, trying to trick myself into becoming overwhelmed.

I’ve been blitzing the apartment all morning in preparation for Rita’s return: mopping, vacuuming, degrouting the bathroom. I’ve been telling myself that there’s something penitential about all this compulsive cleaning, that I’m somehow scrubbing away my previous self.

Rita will be landing soon, and I have ‘Small Acts’ open at the kitchen table. I’m light-headed from the bleach, scanning through one of the first drafts, looking for something that Kate had said, a certain line, which I’d never found a place for in the story. I come across it as the sun is setting, light leaching from the leaves of the horse-chestnut tree outside our window. Her words are different to how I remembered them, but I copy them across to the final word document, save and close it.

I couldn’t love Nick because I never knew what he was thinking, what he was feeling. I now think that love is about being able to read someone clearly. Love is being an open book.