ROMEO & SEAHORSE - one chapter in English
I'm often asked if any of my books are translated. So far, unfortunately not. Unless you're already a big name, getting translated is usually harder than being published in the first place. But for those who keep asking, I took it upon myself to translate a single chapter from Romeo & Seahorse.
To give it a bit of context, the novel mixes frantic accounts of chemsex escapades with a coming-of-age story and contemplations about how the so called 'great love stories' have fucked up our idea of love, because basically, Romeo & Juliet just makes more sense as a chemsex metaphor, right?
However, it's also a chapter that works quite well as a stand-alone essay, and it was published as such in Danish on pov.international when the book came out last year.
As a small added bonus, I also put together a Spotify playlist with all the songs referenced in the book.
I remember his skin
being covered in spots
by Nikolaj Tange Lange
When someone I know offers me a cigarette, I usually just tell them no thanks, but when they ask if I quit, I tell them it's been more than fourteen years, and usually this is longer than I've even known them.
My standard narrative is that I quit smoking because I was in hospital for two weeks with pneumonia. It was my first Berlin autumn, but it dragged on through an entire winter where the capacity of my right lung was still not back to normal, it hurt when I tried to take a deep breath, as if my lung was pressing against an open wound at the bottom of my chest, and my doctor told me he couldn't promise I would ever fully recover, and when people hear this, they never question why I haven't touched a cigarette since.
It's rare that anyone asks why I was in hospital for two weeks because of pneumonia, but when they do, I usually just shrug and tell them it was an exceptionally bad case of pneumonia, because this is how I remember it myself: the coughing that escalated in a single day from zero to a hundred, my chest that coiled up tighter and tighter as if someone had put chains around it, my flatmate who kept asking if it wasn't about time we went to the E.R., but I'd be fine I told him, until around midnight when even the slightest movement cut through my chest as if someone had put barbed wire around it, and I nodded through another cough attack that, yes, maybe it's time he order that taxi.
When I don't explain how my pneumonia could escalate this fast and how it could last this long, it's because I remember it primarily as something that went on between myself and my lungs; all the tests and diagnoses that were done were all about getting me my lungs back, and when the scrubs asked if they could do an HIV test, I just nodded through my coughing; of course they could do that, they could do whatever necessary to find out what was wrong and get me my lungs back, and when they told me the morning after that the HIV test had come back positive and they would transfer me to a special department at Auguste Viktoria hospital, what I felt was mostly just relief since the more they knew, the more they would be able to do to help me.
When I don't explain how my pneumonia could escalate this fast and how it could last this long, it's because it just doesn't work to tell a story of how you quit smoking and explain that pneumonia struck exactly in those weeks after I contracted HIV when it's perfectly normal that the immune system takes a dive, at least not without my story suddenly going from being the story of how I quit smoking, to being the story of how I contracted HIV.
I gratefully accepted the single room I was offered (probably so I wouldn't cough barbed wire down other people's lungs), and then they poked a needle into my hand and fixed it there with tape so they could fill me with antibiotics, and even though I didn't immediately get my lungs back like before, the coughing did wear off, and I felt relief that someone had a plan for my body, and all I had to do was to just sit there and get better without anyone expecting more from me.
Lisa Germano sang from my laptop about black and blue bruises, and I looked up and saw this guy who stood and gawked out in the corridor as if he just stalled there. He held himself up by his IV stand, both hands around it in a knot, his hospital-cloaked body trailing after it in a feeble arch (from his gaze hanging like the blackest cloud on the horizon and down to his feet that just stood there, lost in a pair of woollen slippers with no idea where to take it from there).
I remember his skin being covered in spots, though they could easily have been added to my memory for the image to better fit the story of our shared condition, but either way, he definitely looked like someone at the end of his rope, and it seemed somehow wrong to me that he would stand there like this, since I knew several people, my flatmate included, who were postive, and even though I would sometimes still behave as if we were talking about death when talking about it, I also knew that this was no longer the case, that you no longer withered and disappeared (not in Europe at least, not like back in the eighties), and even though this one out in the corridor probably wasn't older than me, it still felt like looking into the eyes of a ghost, like staring into decades of collective suffering, as if he had been put there to remind me of the history of the virus I would now have to carry on for the both of us, and at the same time it was clear to me that the darkness in his gaze was as vacant as the sky, that everything I saw in there, only existed in my own mind, and even though I would with no hesitation have shared his suffering between us if I could, I also knew that this would never be possible, that to me, it would never amount to anything more than a tiny splinter of a shared history.
The scrubs wanted to know if had anyone I could talk to, and I didn't know what to tell them, since even though I knew several others who were positive, it wasn't immediately clear what we had to talk to each other about.
Later on I said to my doctor (tentative, hopeful) that by now, having HIV probably wasn't much more of a risk than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and he told me there was no doubt about that, that more likely it was the other way around, that a pack of cigarettes a day was quite certainly a much bigger risk than having HIV, and I wondered how long they'd known this to be the case, since it hadn't been that long since I'd read articles about men who were fucking like rabbits without ever using condoms and also knew it was probably just a question of time before they were infected (and maybe even looked forward to no longer worrying about when they were infected), and in the articles this was described as the most insane behaviour anyone could ever imagine, as something no normal person would ever be able to comprehend, and I got angry that they would write like this at a time when it was probably already known that the health risk wasn't bigger than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, because even though smoking a pack of cigarettes a day is also stupid, no one would ever write like that about smokers, and I got angry because I thought maybe this is why so many of us have had trouble balancing risks and desires, because our desires were ruled out in advance, labelled insane, something no normal person would ever be able to comprehend.
Many people asked me back then if I knew where I got it from, and I always told them I didn't know since this was the easiest explanation; with no idea how I got it, there was nothing to regret, no one to blame, but even though it was the easiest explanation because it best described how I felt at the time, it wasn't actually true since the scrubs had also drawn blood for a Western blot test, and it confirmed what the sudden dive of my immune system had already suggested, that I had been infected within the last few weeks, and in that time, there'd only been one guy who fucked me without a condom.
He'd found me at a party far into the morning when my mucous membranes were already so frayed from speed and filterless cigarettes, they were just waiting for any excuse to bleed. His mohawk was soft like plush, his skin moist and ready to smear all over my own, and I followed him home to his flat in Kreuzberg where he cracked open two beers which we took a sip from each and left on the coffee table, continued into his bedroom where the day was slowly dawning outside, nothing it made sense to call 'bright', just a raw concrete grey autumn day which it felt completely surreal to be this vibrantly awake and alive in, this brave and defenceless in, this dispersed in, under the weight of a foreign body and disappear into a torn fitted sheet in (into washed out blue terry cloth), and I gasped like I was trying to disappear completely, and he held me down like this, forced his cock inside me, and even though he didn't immediately stop when I told him to stop and put on a condom, I didn't give it much thought either, not until I was told at the hospital that I'd been infected within the last few weeks, and though it felt like I should be angry about what happened, this seemed completely alien to me because even though I'd not let it happen on purpose, there'd been so many times before when it could just as well have happened, and it could just as well have happened because I hesitated too long before saying stop, as because he didn't stop immediately when I told him to, and I also met him several times after that and no longer told him to stop when he started fucking me without a condom, and once I felt how liberating it was to let myself be fucked with no reservation, to lean fully into it, it just seemed absurd to think I should regret anything.
|Kreuzberg 2009, by Christian Vagt|