The first thing you have to know, Seth, is that we always leap toward participation. The opportunity comes so rarely in Berlin, to join in. Who am I to turn down an invitation? I mean, I want my children to be friendly. It’s the only American quality I still feel proud to pass on.
We went to Rehberge–you know the one. It’s that expansive park near my place with enough space for a tennis court, two playgrounds, two running tracks, enclosures for boars and mountain goats. It’s where we saw the Amy Winehouse film at the outdoor cinema. Anyway, we went there to look for fall leaves. I insisted the kids bring their backpacks to fill with leaves of red, gold, yellow, green and brown. I figured it would kill time now and kill time later as an art project. I rode the mom-mobile to the largest meadow in the park. It was what my dad would have called a Chamber of Commerce kind of day, with the sun hitting the long green meadow flanked by stately oaks. And even though it was busier than usual, I immediately saw the group of revelers. That’s the only way to describe them, Seth. They were dressed in a variety of costumes, like 50 of them altogether, twirling umbrellas! The women had long hippie skirts in red, overlaid with nets and jangly gold coins. They had hair that made me think of the word tresses, and their faces were done up in theatrical makeup. They were all so colorful, even the men. One man wore a brown polyester 70s suit with a pork pie hat. Another wore an all red Santa suit. Some carried musical instruments, like accordions and tambourines. They were obviously a group of some kind, but it was unclear how they fit together. Just a colorful group of adults, ranging in age from maybe 30 to 70. And they were singing and dancing.
As we stood watching them, I noticed this drone swooping overhead, controlled by a director of sorts. And it dawned on me that they were making a music video. They sang the same refrain over and over, each time following a loose choreography that brought them closer together for the final shot. The song was in German, of course, and it took me a few times hearing it before I began to piece out distinct words. It was something about wanting to sing again, dance again, hug again. It sounded amateur, like a song made specifically by the group.
By the time I started to pick up the words, Deedee was already running toward them, in party animal Deedee fashion. Well, Seth, she wanted to dance! The world’s so fucking dreary these days, I can’t bIame her. I think I called her back to me once, as a show of parenting, but one of the hippies welcomed her, so I let her dance. The director with the drone shook his head and then the hippie lady came over to me, all smiles, and said I would need to sign a release-form to allow her to be in the music video. Wanda had been persuaded by that point to join too, little Ms. Look at Me, heard “music video” and got ready for her close up.
I guess this should have been a red flag, but honestly, Seth, it didn’t seem that out of the ordinary to me. I grew up in LA, and it was quite normal to stumble onto a film or TV set, just walking around. I signed dozens of release forms. Shit, I was hoping to spot myself on TV. Anyway, I should have asked what it was all about. It’s a perfectly reasonable question. What are you filming? Why? I didn’t ask but the orange and yellow hippie did explain something in German. It was hard to understand, honestly. I thought she said it was something to do with mass nahen, which I think means tailoring and sewing? I didn’t dwell on it. I thought they were against sweatshops maybe. I mostly thought about how excited my daughters were to be dancing and singing in the park with a bunch of silly adults. I actually felt lucky, Seth. What luck to run into this group and have this ordinary day turn into something spectacular. I said to the hippie, sounds good. We exchanged emails.
They rehearsed a bit more and finally broke for the day and formed this little jam session near the oak trees. They invited us to join and we were like, fuck yeah. But this time they weren’t singing their German song about hugging and dancing, no-no. They were singing Pink Floyd’s, Another Brick in the Wall. But they had altered the lyrics and were singing, “We don’t need no vaccinations. We don’t need no mass control.”
Panic spread through me immediately, Seth. Panic and nausea and a wild sense of danger. I did a lightning round revision of the message from the hippie. It was clear now that what she said was “Maske nahmen” which means wear masks. It all made fucking sense now. They were anti-mask and anti-vacc and they were dancing and singing with my children. And you know these motherfuckers were probably thrilled to have a music video which featured kids, promoting their message that it’s all this big conspiracy and we should just go back to how it used to be. Eventually I recovered enough from this big reveal to call the kids away and hoist them into the bike. They were pissed. Mom fucking ruined it again. Made us leave the colorful fun people.
I was spinning out Seth. I worried about their dad finding out my mistake. He would surely use it against me when he needed to. I mean, plenty of proof of that from past court hearings. I worried the kids would tell him about their amazing encounter, that he would find out that way, so I went into PR mode. I was like, these people want Corona to be over so we don’t have to wear masks anymore. But right now we need to wear masks to stay safe. And soon, you will be able to get the vaccine so it stops spreading. Wanda was immediately on my bullshit. She was like, “that’s not what the lady said.” And the pain Seth, the pain of having to gaslight my smart child was heartbreaking. I was like, “everyone just wants this to be over so we can dance and hug again. I don’t know what she said, but we have to stay safe and safe means masks, at least for now.” I can’t remember if I tried to change the subject or if we just fell silent after that.
We had actual plans to visit with a family in the neighborhood at their apartment so we were heading there. I thought about canceling because of the incident and possible exposure but I was more nervous about altering our plans. How would I explain that to the girls? So we went.
They lived in one of those beautiful, too small, pre-war apartments that no one leaves, even when they have kids, because the rent is sick and will never be that good again. So it’s like three gorgeous rooms that always feel cramped anyway, but now I fill them with my bad vibe, duplicitous COVID energy. I felt like I had something rotten inside that I was spreading and I wanted to get it out but was so scared of the backlash. At one point, the conversation veered toward my friend’s cousin, a wayward relative, who was struggling to make it as an actress and seemed to be intelligent but stumbling through life. I was so wild with the need for confession that I said I identified with this cousin, that I felt I had no common sense despite being intelligent. I told her I don’t look before I leap, which was more of an admission burp, rather than the meatloaf sized dump I wanted to make.
Wanda was wandering in and out of the main room, bored. Deedee was fighting with the twins and soon we packed it in. When we made it home, Seth, it was honestly a relief to launch into domestic tasks. I made the girls fishsticks and french fries. I hung laundry. I got them into their pajamas and we sat on the couch and watched cartoons. Before bed, I admitted the day had been weird. The girls both agreed they never wanted to go to my friend’s house again. I promised we never would. They said nothing about the park.
Once they were asleep, I googled how to forgive yourself, Seth, which was as straightforward and unhelpful as you’d expect. When sleep wouldn’t come, I felt the depression begin to wash over me and I knew I was in for a doozy. I would not do anything productive the next day. That was clear.
The next day, I took the girls to school, and when I came home, I was almost horny for an intense period of self punishment. I was thinking about how much I would overeat and how I would do no exercise whatsoever. I knew I was not leaving the house or showering. Just settling in with my mistress, TV, for the next two to three days. Weather forecast calls for couch farts. I remember laying there filled with such intense self loathing that I had to be absolutely silent and withdrawn to keep from unleashing anything worse than the litany, you know? You’re stupid. You’re too stupid to take care of your children. You’re too stupid to make any good decisions. You’re useless. You’re incapable of taking care of yourself. You’re a failure as an adult, as a mother, as a person. You don’t deserve anything good because you make a mess out of everything.
On the second day, god bless me, I tried to build a website, Seth! Just a little one for my writing. And, of course, in my state of agitation, I moved too fast and bought the wrong domain name, which sent me back into a state of deeper self loathing and depression.This bitch is too stupid to build a website. At some point I tried to make a stew with what was laying around and ended up using a chana masala mix that went rancid and couldn’t be masked no matter how many other ingredients I threw in. In the end, I dumped it all down the toilet. Too stupid to make a fucking stew. I went back to the couch where it was impossible for anything to happen to me or for me to happen to anything. I avoided any meaningful contact for the better part of two days and then felt that I had to check in with J, who usually stays with me Thursday through Sunday. I called him and he asked me how I was, and the way he asked, so filled with empathy, Seth, made me cry immediately. “I’m not good.” It was the first thing I’d said in two days.
On the third day, I forced myself out of the house. I went back to the park in my leave me alone clothes, with some podcast in my ears. I was in that freshly bleached depression skin, where you’re just trying not to do anything truly heinous to yourself. And the crazy thing is, I can’t remember what happened next. Like depression amnesia, some other cycle just took over and the week continued.
I did get an email a week or so later from the director. He was like, so fun to meet your family. And it was, Seth! It was fun for a fucking minute, at least. I was so dreading this email and when I finally saw it, it was just so human. And I thought about how we’re all just trying to find some way through it with these podcasts and videos and community projects. I just told him, you know, respectfully, I was confused. I made a mistake. I told him that my family does believe in vaccines and can’t be a part of their message. Of course, no one wrote back.
Sabrina Small is a Berlin-based writer and antique seller. Her work has been featured in Hobart, Expat Press, and Gastronomica. Find her at smallsabrina.com