I didn’t twig straight way, only in the hall. While I was getting my head around it, committing the sign to memory, I asked “Why’re we going there anyway?”, although I had my suspicions.
My mother stood still in the semi-darkness of the corridor, turned around abruptly to face me, as if she had been waiting for this question and already had the answer ready-prepared, and placed both hands on my cheeks, a gesture and habit that to this day I haven’t been able to get her to break. Did it bother me even then, though I didn’t dare squirm out of her grasp? Just like for years I let her spit on a tissue to wipe the remains of ice cream or chocolate from the corners of my mouth, and later, far worse, how I used to let her fix my much too bushy eyebrows with her fingertips, which she would also moisten with spit, trying to make the offending eyebrows look neat and tidy, stopping me, as she put it, from looking quite so much like Tolstoy? At any rate, she placed her hands on my cheeks and said: “It’s just a man, he’s just going to have a little chat with you. It’s nothing bad, it won’t hurt”, and I thought to myself, I’m not daft, I can tell the difference between a psychologist and a dentist, and asked, “But what am I supposed to talk to him about?”
“Whatever you fancy.”
“But I don’t fancy it at all!”
“Come now. First things first, let’s just go in there. Just get to know him for starters.”
“But I don’t want to!” My mother had turned back to the lift and pressed the button. I got panicky and took a couple of steps backwards. My voice probably also sounded more forceful and too loud. When I get nervous, I get loud. It’s still the case today. The last time it happened was at Dr. Steinmann’s and I know that for a fact because Flox gave me a warning just like my mother did back then: “Psst. The whole building’ll hear you! We’re going to go up there now and you’ll just say to hello to the man. Chin up, it’s nothing it’s nothing to worry about.”
Why do people always say that, “Chin up”? Whether you’re dealing with a child who’s fallen over and burst into tears, fears about your own critically ill child or the fact that you’ve been dragged without any warning to a psychologist, it’s always the same: “Chin up.”
In the lift, where I had reluctantly followed her – even today I’m still surprised that I didn’t turn around and simply leave – I probed again: “But what am I supposed to talk to him about?”
“Whatever you like. You can talk to him about school or about your friends, whatever you fancy. Or about those scraps of paper you’re always writing on and locking away in your desk.” She didn’t look me in eye. She was staring at the door of lift, holding on tight to her handbag.
“Yes, your lists.”
“Have you seriously dragged me here because of the lists?”
Now she turned back towards me, placed her hands again on my face, and parroted the sentences that she had probably prepared in the nights leading up to today, perhaps even written down and read out loud until she found the words best suited to inform me, her twelve-year daughter, that I was mad:
“I’ve noticed that you’re always writing on those scraps of paper. Every single evening. And you lock them up and read them again and again and keep adding to them and you’ve always got that key with you – even at night. It’s just something I’ve noticed. And when you’re working on them and Frank or I come into your room and say something to you, you don’t even respond. It’s like you’re in another world. And there’s an illness, you know – it’s called neurosis and it might be an explanation for those scraps of paper of yours. And this man here, he can help you. All you have to do is talk to him.” So much for her carefully composed justification.
In the man’s waiting room there was a poster of Madonna hung on the wall, one of the Pet Shop Boys and one from Dirty Dancing. The trust that these posters probably should have awakened in me remained dormant. Stephan Spitzing had a handlebar moustache and spoke extremely slowly. His gaze constantly veered a little too far to right – past me, as if he had a lazy eye. My mother had to wait in the waiting room and flick through either Bravo or Donald Duck comics, the only reading material available. Having to wait outside had not been to her liking, but the chartered psychologist and child / adolescent psychotherapist had been quite insistent that we were not here to talk about her, and shut the door behind us. The one thing I liked about him.
He began cautiously enough, asking me about school, about my friends, my favourite subjects and my favourite music. All that was missing was my favourite colour. He also asked about my mother and about Frank too. I chose to mention that Frank wasn’t my real father, that he had adopted me. Not because it was something I needed to talk about, but because I thought that the fact might interest him as a psychotherapist. I wasn’t far wrong. Did I call Frank “Dad”, why not? Did I miss “Dad”, why not? Did I wish for siblings, why not? Each one of my answers was followed by a “Why?” or a “Why not?” I got bored after half an hour. I stared at the poster of Madonna. I couldn’t imagine that Stephan Spitzing, he of the handlebar moustache, the slightly eccentric, sideways gaze, the gaunt frame (was it possible for adults to get anorexia? I’d just read a book on it), listened to Madonna or had seen Dirty Dancing at the pictures. Or even just smiled every now and again.
“Your mum told me that you like to write things down”, he said, looking over my right shoulder. I kept my mouth shut. I felt vastly superior to him already.
“What is it that you write down?”
“This and that. I make lists.” I was prepared to talk about it, I wasn’t embarrassed, didn’t think myself mad. I was proud of my lists, I’d been working on some of them for years. Whole years.
“What kind of lists are they?”
“Oh, all sorts. Well, for example, I’ve got a list of beautiful people. I’ve got a list of books that made me cry, one of books that made me laugh, a list of books that I shouldn’t have read, one of books that I want to read again. One of books that still need to be written, one of books that I’d like to write. I also have a list of possible allergies, one of tomato dishes because I hate tomatoes, one of dishes that contain onions because Frank can’t stomach onions. I have a list of great names for dogs, one of embarrassing nicknames, a list of teachers who would have done better if they’d become something else, one of ideas about what kind jobs the teachers should have gone for instead, a list of terms that I need to look up one of these days because I’m not sure what they mean, a list of the times that I’ve got up at every morning since 23 December last year, a list of swear words that the boys in my class use, one of my marks in all subjects. A list of things that I never want to get as a present, one of stars that I’d like to meet, one of stars that I’d like to be, one of sentences that my mother repeats, one of Christina’s marks, that’s my best friend, one of all the times that Christina’s phoned since the beginning of the school year, one of the cakes that my grandmother bakes, she likes trying out new recipes. Should I go on?”
I never had to go back to the psychologist.
Originally published in German under the title ‘Die Listensammlerin’ by Lena Gorelik. © Copyright, 2016 by Rowohlt.Berlin Verlag GmbH.
Lena Gorelik was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Germany with her family in 1992. Her debut novel, ‘My White Nights’ (2004), met with widespread acclaim and her second, ‘Wedding in Jerusalem’ (2007), was nominated for the German Book Prize. For her 2013 novel, ‘The Collector of Lists’, Gorelik received the annual book prize of the Stiftung Ravensburger Verlag.
Frances Jackson is a writer, translator and literary scholar from the UK. She currently lives in Munich, where she is working on a PhD in Czech poetry. She is a former editor of Europe & Me and still writes regularly for the magazine.
Copyright (C) by Rowohlt.Berlin Verlag GmbH