Moving on - by agouderia (~BHM, ~~WG, Romance)

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Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
~BHM, ~~WG, Romance - a journalist moves on to a new life he finds in the US

Moving on
by agouderia

[Authors note:] This is the first story I have ever had the nerve to post ... and somehow its characters have "expanded" into more of a small novella. This is European part 1 - I would appreciate some feedback whether the US part 2 could be worthwhile. Thank you for your patience with the long text!

Part 1 – Yo-yo-ing

My name is Ulrich Rheinstein. Born 1972 in a small town in Northern Germany, I work as a journalist for one of my countries most prestigious magazine companies. And I am fat.

Is the latter really important? Absolutely. The way I look, my weight is just as much part of my biography as my name, profession and age. It defines how I am perceived in public, how my colleagues see me, my status among women and – unfortunately – also my sex life. And it makes no sense beating around the bush – that big round protuberance in the middle of my body is no great help.

For instance, I do not like stairs because I get out of breath so quickly and my prematurely aged knees start to ache. I try to avoid eating on the street because I feel like people are looking at me like they would at the addict crouching in the dirty alley ready to set his next shot of heroin. My self esteem decreases proportionally to my increasing BMI and I try to make myself as small as possible in public. Which does not work by the way, my belly doesn’t shrink one inch.

Every day I have to walk a quarter of a mile from the main building of my publishing house to our cafeteria – a quarter of a mile during which many people cross my way. And roughly 80 percent of all people first look at my belly and then at my face. It’s not their fault – after all it is my most prominent feature.

In lucid moments though, I know that there is an alternative – I’ve been there, I know what it is like to be considerably thinner, with only one chin and just the hint of a belly. For roughly twenty years, avidly playing football or soccer as you call it in the US, as well as a number of other ball games along with biking to school and university kept me from gaining weight.

That is how I compensated that I always a) really liked eating, b) really liked eating a lot and c) really liked eating a lot of the “wrong” foods.

I was in good shape, even though I grew up in a family were butter cream cakes, fried potatoes and beef roles with bacon filling were staples. At home, a balanced diet always consisted of homemade apple cake with whipped cream.

Until I reached my mid twenties, my metabolism was fine with this, I was a – by local standards – short 5‘9 and muscular 180 pounds with only the slightest hint of a belly.

Then – literally over night – my life changed: My then girlfriend, now wife got pregnant and I started working night shifts in the harbor to earn enough money for us. The combination of work, study plus parenting left no more time for sports – resulting in a massive weight gain.

It started during Sabine’s pregnancy – our bellies grew in synch. Sabine’s disappeared – mine stayed on and continued growing. It took me about a year to cross the magical 100kg/220 pounds mark and I did not even keep track of where it went from there.

One afternoon when my son was about five years old Sabine and I sat down over a plate of Danish pastries to look at pictures from our last vacation in Southern Italy. Browsing through them I saw a cute little boy playing in the sand, a lovely petite brunette in a stylish bikini and …. Moby Dick stranded on Sicily. No, wrong, that was not a whale. That must have been me. Or at least a guy who shared certain features with me…with the addition of an absurdly large belly, three chins and chipmunk cheeks. Silently I cursed, that couldn’t be me! The next picture showed me in a tent like T-shirt after climbing a steep hill up to a monastery, all sweaty and visibly out of breath.

Looking up at Sabine, I wanted to say something but could not utter a word – all she did was look at me with pity and understanding in her eyes. The Danish between us were never touched.

Instead I went into the bath room and pulled out the scale and stepped on it: 118 kilos/ 262 pounds – and went off to join Weight Watchers the same evening.

I learned to eat healthier, started running and playing soccer again – and half a year later weighed in at 85 kg/187 pounds. It felt good, I was content … and let nature take its course again. A year later I was back up to 245 pounds…… and dieted back down to 200 pounds, a lot of it muscle.

Then came the fateful day 3 years ago when I entered our bathroom to find Sabine clearly primping for a party.

“Hey – didn’t know you were going out?”

“Um … yeah,” she responded without turning her gaze from the mirror.

“And where are you going?”

“Did you forget – it’s Heike’s birthday today. “

Oops, she was right …. Every year we were invited to her elementary school best friend Heike’s birthday, always the same crowd of people, the same delicious Turkish deli food …

“Wait a second …. I’m not invited?”

“Of course you are. But I’m going alone this time. “

“But why?”

“Have you looked into the mirror lately? Let alone gotten on a scale? You’re letting yourself go again. I’m tired of these constant ups-and-downs. To be quite frank: I’m slightly embarrassed by your appearance when we’re out together in public.”

“ Embarrassed? You’re ashamed of me?”

She had finished applying lip stick and looked at me for the first time during this bizarre dialogue. “Yes, I’m ashamed. And even worse – I feel cheated.”

“Wait a second. I never even look …. “

“That is not what I mean!” she exclaimed while slapping my belly. “I feel cheated out of the strong but thin Ulrich I fell in love with. The Ulrich you used to be and could be again. Any idea where he is these days? I’d love to take him to the party.”

Ouch – that really hurt. Fair only in so far that she clearly did not keep her opinions her herself. She always favored the very traditional German direct approach – telling me that she found me attractive as long as my body stayed within certain limits. She was fine with powerfully built men, but drew the line with fat men. A few extra kilos were okay, but my current weight was way above that. From her point of view, my burgeoning weight showed a lack of respect for her, she suffered psychologically from my weight gain. How I could have forgotten this element in the framework of our relationship again?

As soon as the door closed behind Sabine, I got on the scale – 240 pounds, a number on the scale I had never wanted to get to again. In a split second, I realized how much in denial I had been over the past months: Trying to hide my belly by hunching my shoulders. Secretly eating bags of chips at night. Not noticing that I mindlessly consumed my colleague’s chocolate that he left on our meeting room table. Reducing exercise to a minimum. Not even being able to remember, when Sabine and I had had sex for the last time. The uncomfortable, sub-conscious feeling that people on the street first stared at my belly. And now worst of all – coming home to a seriously alienated spouse, who had all the good arguments about health and looks on her side. This time I swore I was going to change something for good.

Going public was my solution: I went to my editor with a proposal to write a male dieting blog about ‘Kilo Combat’, my experiences with trying to lose weight and the strongly female targeted weight loss industry.

My diet project was a success: Not only did I, in a painstaking up and down of 16 months, manage to lose the 20 kilos/45 lbs. down to 90 kg/198 lbs. but my weight loss blog was my biggest professional success. I wrote about everything I tried out and worked with to get rid of my belly: Weight Watchers, community college health food cooking classes, yoga fasting, personal nutritionist coaching, ayurveda hiking, psychotherapy, auto-suggestion, low fat, low carb, high protein diets, exercise regimes, etc. ….. holiday set backs with too much too good German Christmas bakery…..

Every week I got hundreds of responses to my blog, most of them supportive, some of them full of ‘Schadenfreude” over my set backs, good advice, absurd advice, useless advice, diet know-it-alls and a lot of understanding from the many brothers and sisters in the endless suffering of yo-yo dieting.

And then, my editor suggested turning the blog into a male diet self-help book, which was not only published, but rather well received and even made it onto the national bestseller list. It looked like I had made it: I was in decent shape again, I was a recognized respected author … my favorite colleague and one of my best friends, Birger, who runs a journalist & author blog platform, even published a column on how he tried not to be too envious of my success.

The only thing I was not really 100% sure of: How did Sabine view my success and its effects on our relationship? Sure, she was supportive enough – but she was neither enthusiastic nor overtly involved.
Shortly after reaching my magic 90 kg mark, we went on a wedding day mini break to lovely Lake Garda in northern Italy: We stayed in a elegant 19th century villa hotel directly on the lake, explored the scenery and sights, ate the delicious local fare – me staying clear of pasta and risotto, trying to stick to salad and grilled fish and chicken, only an occasional sip of the wonderful Bardolino wine grown in the region.

One morning before having breakfast on the sunny terrace overlooking the lake and the nearby southern part of the Alps, I gave myself a good hard in the mirror while shaving: The man I saw was slightly tanned, a bit of the hefty side … but in my eyes could no longer be called fat.

“Sabine? “ I called out, “what do you think – do I still look fat?”

Sabine came in from the terrace and joined me in front of the mirror. She looked at me and shrugged her shoulders: “No, you don’t look fat right now. You look strong, fit and well …. Okay, nice…. “

“See, I told you I could get back in shape,” hiding my disappointment over her lukewarm response. “I hope you would take me along to a party now.”

“Uli - that is not the point,” Sabine retorted with an annoyed wave of her hand. “You get enough gushing and acclaim for your current weight loss – you don’t need mine right now. It’s just …. we’ve been down this road before: You diet, lose weight, get in shape, make a 1000 vows that this time it’s for real …… and then … a few months later all I can do is watch your waistline expand again after you lay off the exercise and your eating habits get back out of control again…. You won’t receive my whole-hearted praise until your weight is still the same in a year’s time.”

Admittedly that left me at a loss for words. “I promise, this time it is different…. People will watch me; I have to stay fit to promote my book…. I’ve learned so much about a healthy lifestyle…” I responded in a rather lame self-defense.

“Oh sure,” Sabine said, turned and walked out to the terrace. “Let’s have breakfast, I’m hungry and need a coffee. And we have time until next year before really talking about your commitment to staying in shape.”

Slightly mollified, I joined her, pushing a gnawing self-doubt to the back of my mind, concentrating on cappuccino in the sunshine and my newly acquired self-confidence that this time was indeed going to be different.

Needless to say Sabine was right. My first appearances on TV and radio shows to promote my book went well. I was the convincing image of a man who had learned his lesson on how to lead a healthy life and was not thin, but in good shape. Things started to go back downhill – or uphill, whichever way you want to see it - when I went on the 2 month promotion tour through regional book stores: It meant having to go out of my way to exercise instead of browsing through book stores, museums and coffee shops and even worse… fighting off the culinary temptations of the various regions: Bavarian Knödel, in autumn with delicious wild mushroom sauces, red wine and home-made Spätzle noodles with cheese in the Swabian south-west, fine white Rhine wine with hearty meat dishes …. Let alone my weakness for sampling the variety of local beers or preparing evening presentations in well assorted pastry shops ….

The following holiday season finished off the job: One cold grey morning in early January Sabine caught me in the kitchen, leaning against the counter, munching down the final piece of her fantastic poppy seed Christmas bread with my coffee. She didn’t say anything, just looked straight at my middle. And there it was again, sticking out proud and round, already pushing down the waistband of my pants – my belly. Embarrassment flooded in me, I quickly stood straight and sucked in my stomach – to no avail, the big round curve would not go away. I swallowed hard and went into the bath room. Sure enough, there in the mirror, belly’s little friend, the slight double chin was back too. Bracing myself for the worst, I pulled out the scale: 100,2 kg/220 lbs. it blinked.

Naturally Sabine was not the only one who noticed. Just a few days later, my colleague Silke after a birthday “Kaffee & Kuchen” session in the office gave my then well-filled belly an affectionate pat and coo-ed: “Look who’s back! We almost missed the cuddly growing fellow!” I blushed furiously, but the others in the office just laughed good naturedly or shrugged their shoulders. The readers of my blog also noticed the difference in the most recent video installments and gave me some shit, but most of it was sympathetic and understanding, since many people could relate to the depressing reality of yo-yo dieting.

Birger, my tall, naturally reed thin, colleague and best friend, said a few weeks later when I was venting my frustration after a few too many beers and a lost soccer match. “Stop it, Uli, don’t be so hard on yourself. There are more important things in your life than your weight. As adults, we all have to face the fact that there just are some things we are never going to be good at, no matter how hard we try. Look at me; I have resigned to the fact that I am never going to pass the driver’s license test here in Germany. My brain-body coordination just doesn’t work in sync with their requirements. And by the way, that is about 1000 times more embarrassing for me as a German male than your handsome beer belly, which is the standard accessory of 65% of all German men according to recent statistics.”

“Yeah, but Sabine wants me to be one of the 35 % minority….” I tried to interject, but Birger was not done yet.

“Uli, you know I’m your friend. I’ve been around all these past 10 yo-yo years. Stop wasting your energy on dieting – that just is the one thing you are not good at, basta. Use your energy and creativity for something productive, for one of the many things you are great at. So now to the important stuff … What about this new project you mentioned, writing your first novel?”

Birger made that point – and I told him about the project of a novel that had formed in my head after the success of my diet book and which my publisher was strongly encouraging me to pursue. So far, I had only written fiction for fun, as an outlet for my imagination, but now I saw a chance of taking a serious go at it with a story which had developed around my 2 favorite subjects in life: women and soccer.

But all this positive reinforcement and the fact that I was psychically feeling fine could not make me overlook Sabine’s pointed glances and – so I increasingly felt – almost hostile silence. It had always taken her a while to start commenting on my weight, but from a certain point onward she would start to nag, clear the fridge and cupboards of none diet-conform foods, leave the scale out in the middle of the bedroom. This time, she did not say or do anything. Both being talkers, we still talked – about everyday and menial things. But we no longer spoke to each other, about ourselves, our relationship, my weight.

Lacking the strength and motivation to start a serious diet again, I alternated between a few days of crash dieting and binging, my weight fluctuating 2-3 kgs/4-6 lbs around the 100kg/220lbs mark. Knowing the argument was against me, I subconsciously steered clear of the discussion of my weight gain with Sabine, unsure whether this was a way of improving or worsening the situation. But I could not help feeling that we were constantly drifting further apart.

Our sex life seemed to vanish into oblivion … Sabine excelled in artfully avoiding my overtures at intimacy without being too blandly rejecting.

Then Sabine’s birthday was in sight – and I came up with a plan to revive our relationship and love life. In preparation, I took dieting more seriously and actually got down to 96 kg, fitting back into one of my better suits, just 7 kg/15 lbs above my wedding weight. To celebrate the evening, I organized for our son to stay over with a friend from school, booked a table in a great restaurant and even a small suite in one of the loveliest, freshly refurbished historic hotels in town, right on the waterfront.

Despite a terrible rain storm, the evening went well from my point of view. We had the small private alcove above the water to ourselves. Dinner was very tasty and service discreet. We were laughing and giggling together more than I remembered of late.

In retrospect, though, the champagne as an aperitif had not only loosened our tongues but also my inhibitions about eating heartily. Not until later did I realize that – somehow making up for having strongly restricted my appetite and intake beforehand – not only did we get two refills of the bread basket, but also that I finished the leftovers of Sabine’s main course as well as insisting on getting two desserts, of which I probably ate three-quarters.

When we got up to leave I became fully aware of how stuffed I was, stifling a belch, with all buttons straining over my taught belly and the waistband cutting into me very uncomfortably. Trying to cover up the evidence of my gluttony with my coat, I pulled Sabine into a tight embrace while we got into the taxi to go to the hotel, gently playing with her hair and kissing her neck during the ride.

Since I had picked up the key earlier, we could go to our suite directly, where I had made all the necessary reservations: Jacuzzi, candle-light, champagne, flowers and – swimming in a small play Gondola in the Jacuzzi – my birthday present: An extended spa and fashion weekend in Venetia over the May holidays.

Sabine did seem very pleased, she gave me a deep tender kiss and then turned to play with the Gondola and read all the details of the trip. From behind, I pulled her close, cupping her small breasts, nuzzling her neck and rubbing her firm buttocks against me, while slowly unbuttoning her blouse. By this time, I had a major erection and my too tight pants were killing me.

To avoid all embarrassments, I had made sure the lights were dim so Sabine would not get an all too clear view of my body … and while carefully undressing her and steering her back into the bedroom, I made sure to undress myself, so she wouldn’t notice how snug my clothes were. Yet I had underestimated how extremely tight my pants were – at least way too tight to open them with only one free hand. So I had to break the contact with Sabine, take both hands and struggle to unhook my straining waistband under my full belly. Naturally Sabine noticed, raised her eyebrows and sighed – not exactly erotic.

“Why don’t you open the bottle of champagne?” I murmured to distract her while frantically trying to pull down my pants.

“No thank you, I’ve had enough to drink for one evening,” Sabine denied and with a pointed glace added, “Are you sure you need anymore? Too much is normally not very helpful, you know.”

This unkind remark couldn’t faze me out, though; I was wild about melting into every part of her, so I sat on the bed, kicked off my pants and pulled her down hard on my lap, just so she could feel how badly I wanted her. I licked her nipples until they were hard, and then looked up into her face, kissing her deeply, longingly. Sabine pushed me back onto my back, raising herself to straddle me. In that moment it happened – my full belly, no longer painfully sucked in, pushed far out, revealing deep red marks were my pants had cut into my flesh and I had to belch heavily.

“God, Uli – can’t you even control your eating on my birthday!” Sabine exclaimed, getting off of me.

“Sorry,” I murmured thoroughly humiliated. “Come back to me, I’ll make it up to you,” trying to draw her back down to me.

But Sabine had already shifted away and sat on the edge of the bed, shaking her head. “Ulrich, this is not going to work – you know full well that your overstuffed belly turns me off completely! If you clearly planned a romantic evening like this, don’t you at least have the good sense to limit yourself to a normal portion? Just thinking of the amount you ate at the restaurant makes me sick!”

By this time Sabine had gotten up and was pulling her clothes back on.

“But it was a special birthday dinner….” I tried to protest. “Please give me another chance; I know how to make you feel good….”

“Sorry Ulrich, I’m too exhausted for this. I think it’s better for both of us if I sleep in my own bed. Thank you for the lovely present, that is a great idea and I’m really looking forward to going. Good night!”

After the door closed behind Sabine, I fell back on the bed – and it took me a few minutes to realize that all there was was the deep, dull pain of rejection. My classic male reaction of dealing with it was to watch soccer on the sports channel while drinking as much as I could handle – the whole bottle of birthday champagne, all the liquor plus all snacks in the mini-bar – before more or less passing out sometime in the middle of the night.


Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
Part 2 – Breaking up

Waking up alone, with a terrible hang over in the stylish hotel room the next morning, I felt completely empty except for a hollow ache in the pit of my stomach. Facing Sabine, the colleagues in the office, my regular everyday life seemed impossible. Since I had an assignment in Cologne a day later, I drove home, took a long shower, packed a small bag, left Sabine a note and got on the next train heading to the Rhineland.

The next two days of interviewing and on sight research passed in a blur, fortunately I had well prepared my questionnaire and taped as much and took as many pictures as I could to be able to at least reconstruct what I had found out since it did not sink into my befuddled brain.

On the train back, the feeling of cold dread in my insides rose with every kilometer closer to home. I was simply clueless as to what to do. Apologize – for what exactly? Diet ? – As known, no immediate or long-term success, charred by lack of credibility. Go to marriage counseling? – That might be worth looking into. Find out whether Sabine was having an affair? No, I did not want to know the answer to that one.

When I got home, the apartment was quiet and Sabine was sitting on the couch, waiting for me. “Welcome back, Uli. Hope you had a good trip,” she said rather formally. “I think I owe you an apology. I ruined the birthday surprise you had planned for me … that wasn’t fair. I’m sincerely sorry; I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Instinctively I moved over to her, wanting to take her into my arms, accept her apology in a reconciling embrace and kiss. But I stopped short when she remained seated with a composed and abrasive expression on her face.

“Ok, thanks for the apology. I should maybe have asked you beforehand what you would have liked to do for your birthday, not all surprises hit the mark,” I tried to make amends, sitting down on a easy chair across from her, sensing there was more to come.

Sabine took a deep breath and continued: “Ulrich, I hate to say this, but right now I feel we are at a dead end. You don’t seem to care what is important for me anymore …. And I vice-versa can no longer relate to what makes you tick. I’m worn out by these constant up-and-downs with your weight and commitment to our relationship. We maybe should just take a break; get a new perspective on life and on us with a little time-off away from each other.”

Just then my stomach let out a hungry growl – fair enough since I had been too upset to eat all day, which was saying a lot for me. “See what I mean,” Sabine shook her head. “Your belly always gets the better over your mind.”

“Sabine - that is not true, I just forgot to eat today, I was hoping to have dinner with you,” noticing how pathetic and unrealistic this sounded. “You’re not being fair if you constantly mix up my commitment to our relationship with my weight. There is nothing on this planet I am more devoted to than you and André. I’m just not good at keeping my weight in check, but I try over and over again, you can’t seriously say I’m not trying. I’m less than 100 kg right now, it’s not that bad. I’ll go back to my nutritionist tomorrow, get a new diet chart if you want me too,” cringing at the desperation in my voice.

“Ulrich, it’s no use, we’ve been through this once too often. I don’t trust you any more as far as it comes to staying in shape …. And in my opinion, that makes our entire relationship go out of shape. Please, I need a break from you and your yo-yo dieting!”

I was completely stricken, not knowing what to say – except that no matter what I said, she wouldn’t believe me because indeed I had broken the promise to keep my weight in check at least once too often. Since she didn’t say anything more, I broke the silence after maybe endless five minutes: “So what exactly do you suggest we do right now?”

Sabine looked up: “I think we both need some space. The suggestion I have is unfair to you, I know, but in contrast to me, you have an easy alternative here in the region. Could you move out, maybe into your parent’s guest apartment, and leave this one to me and André for the time being?”

“Are you having an affair?” I did have to get rid of this question now.

“No, of course not! It’s more about my own private space just for me, without you or any other man in it.”

“For how long do you want me to move out? How much time do you need to find out whether we can still make it together? Do you think marriage counseling might help, you know, for both of us?” My life suddenly turned into one big question mark.

“So you would be willing to move out temporarily? Thank you so much, Uli …. That is what I have always loved about you, that we can really talk about everything!” Sabine exclaimed, showing a small smile. “I don’t know how long this would be, shall we say half a year and then see how things are?”

Somehow, I was unable to offer any resistance. “Whatever, 6 months. When do you want me to move out … right away?”

“No please, that is not necessary. How about next weekend? And by the way, I’ll think about the idea with marriage counseling, you might have a point there.”

But I couldn’t stand it any longer, the idea of staying with Sabine in the same apartment was unbearable, close to her and yet all alone … I needed human warmth right now, food, drink, a warm bed…

I immediately called my parents and asked whether I could still come out for dinner and stay the night, leaving an upset Sabine behind.

“Uli, you don’t have to run out like this. Stay here, we can take it slowly, it’s fine if you stay on until the end of the month….”

All I did though was grab my small suitcase and leave, shaking my head, unable to formulate what was going on inside of me…

My mother instinctively had realized that something was terribly wrong, because when I got to my parent’s house, she had already made a huge portion of one of my favorite dishes – meat balls with mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes – and my father opened a bottle of our best red wine. They didn’t ask questions, just produced all the warmth and comfort I needed, their cat Maxi curling up in my lap and purring. It was not until I was under the hot shower with a very full belly that the tears came.

Over an abundant breakfast next morning – I had slept surprisingly well; the red wine and the warm cat in my bed saw to that – I confessed to my mother what had happened, and that I was completely at a loss of what to do now.

Naturally – that is how mothers must react – she was very sympathetic: “I’m so sorry Uli. You and Sabine have been through really difficult times, it seems so absurd for you to break up over such trivia when everything is going so well in your professional and personal lives. Is Sabine having an affair?”

“She says no.”

“Well maybe it is true, you’ve been together for a long time and it does make some sense that she needs a little time and space of her own. Your father and I went through such a phase too after your sister started university. But naming your weight gain as the reason is ridiculous. You know I’ve never been a big fan of Sabine, she is too stand-offish for my liking – but she has been a good wife and mother together with you. I had never imagined her to be so shallow and appearance-fixated.”

“I fear it is all my fault – but is being fat such a crime? Getting my marriage back on track means another diet, and sticking to it …. I don’t know whether that really is the solution or whether I can handle it right now.”

“Darling, don’t berate yourself, you’re not that heavy by normal standards. Sabine has more of a tolerance problem than you have a weight problem. First of all, you can of course stay here in the downstairs guest apartment as long as you like – your father and I are happy to have you with us. And you can commute to your office from here rather easily – it’s only a direct 40 minute ride with the regional train. Now let me know if there is anything else I can do for you. What would you like for dinner?”

So I took the regional train to the office in semi-stupor and got through the work I had to do, not looking left and right. The following days were no better; somehow I survived them on automatic mode, feeling only up to getting the immediate requirements done. Strangely enough for me, I couldn’t even eat – my stomach was locked by a solid cold, heavy block of concrete, managing only a bare minimum of the favorite dishes my mother put in front of me every evening.

To make things worse, Birger as my best friend/colleague was out of town this week on assignment, so I had no one I wanted to talk to around. When Sabine contacted me via e-mail asking how I was and want my next plans were, I wrote back that I would move my things out of our apartment next Sunday. Parallel I SMS-ed Birger asking him to help me move things out. He was not only a big help on organizing a VW bus and a lot of empty boxes, but provided the open ear and unspoken understanding I needed.

Somewhere down the line, over beers in a break during the move, he did throw in his five cents. “Look Uli, take this as a chance to re-position yourself in your relationship with Sabine. Unless she is completely nuts, which she is not, in my opinion, because she is a nice girl, she will see what you are worth – maybe even better from a certain distance. But you have to change your attitude towards yourself. You can’t expect Sabine to accept your weight if you don’t accept it yourself. And if you don’t do that, Sabine will always have an unfair upper hand in your relationship. Jeez … I’ll never forget how she actually postponed your wedding twice because you were too heavy for her groom standards! You should have stopped giving into such shit a long time ago!”

“Easy for you to say, you are under- not overweight,” I retorted bitterly, not willing to pursue the topic, picking up another box instead.

The physical activity of moving my things out of our apartment, of hauling boxes and assembling book shelves, sorting through papers served to shake me out of my stupor. I wrote Sabine that I agreed to a temporary separation until the end of the year, when we could reassess our marriage and that André and I would arrange our contact on our own. Then André and I had the necessary father-and-son talk, which was more of a monologue on my behalf.

Back at work, I wrote three new proposals and got two overdue assignments finished. Finally I went to the 100th anniversary of my childhood soccer club and got as horribly drunk as I ever had in my life.

Unfortunately, all of these activities unleashed my appetite again – from my short crisis of semi-fasting I went seamlessly to excessive comfort eating. Four meals a day with a lot of “Kaffee& Kuchen” – sampling all of the new offers in the local bakeries and pastry shops around - in die afternoon turned into standard, plus a lot of snacking while writing away at my desk. The only exercise I got were short walks up on the dike where I spent most time just sitting in the grass, staring at the ships on the river and writing notes.

Naturally, my belly expanded again so fast I could almost watch it growing – bigger, rounder, sticking out further every day. When shaving every morning, I could watch the double chin swell out more and more, while my face grew rounder and rounder, my clothes tighter and tighter. But while my intellectual brain told me about 3 times a day that I should diet, because it was good for me, healthy, socially acceptable and the only way to get Sabine back, my belly brain cried out for more food almost constantly. And my belly brain ruled stronger than ever in this situation - I only felt like my normal self, not like an empty cask, when my belly was warm and full, only then did I have the feeling that I literally had enough fuel to go on.

The day I had only two pairs of pants left I could fasten under my belly and no dress shirts without straining buttons, I gave in and assessed the damage on the scale. It blinked 106kg/233 lbs, up 11kg/24 lbs in only 6 weeks from the relatively low 95kg/209 lbs pre-birthday dieting and crisis fasting had produced. Disastrously, this was the day I was to meet up with Sabine and André for a show event at André’s school. During lunch break, I bought a new dress shirt and jacket, hoping to hide the worst.

Sabine of course was not fooled. “Looks like somebody is taking his diet commitment really seriously,” she greeted me, her voice heavy with irony.

All sorts of responses bubbled up inside me, like it was her fault I was in such a state, that she was being unfair, that I would make it by the end of the year …. But out came only a vague, “Whatever, things could be worse.” on which Sabine gave me a strange look, before the presentations started and we had to be quiet.

Small comfort was that friends, even Sabine’s and my joint friends, were all extremely supportive and nobody really sided with her. I noticed how far this went when I had a toothache and went to see our family dentist Christiane, a childhood neighborhood playmate of Sabine’s. I was slightly apprehensive in going to see her, but Christiane greeted me with a warm hug and as soon as I was settled in the chair with my mouth wide open and could no longer respond, she launched into a lengthy tirade.

“What exactly is ailing Sabine? She breaks up with you just because you weigh 100 kg? Heike, Annette and I have tried to talk some sense into her, but she just keeps stating it shows your lack of commitment to your relationship. In my opinion, this just shows that you two have never had any real relationship problems because she wouldn’t recognize one if she ever saw it!

“Look at me, my first husband was a handsome, entertaining and well-off lawyer – and a bi-sexual cheat who had 2 boyfriends and 5 mistresses during the span of our 3 year marriage. Husband number two – by the way, did I already tell you that I finally got the divorce 3 weeks ago? – was the laziest guy on the face of the earth. Too lazy to do any bread-winning for us, or to help with the household chores or at least to entertain me…. in the end, he was too lazy to even talk to me!

“Now you have always worked your ass off to ensure a decent family income, you’re professionally successful, you’re faithful, you’re a good and committed father …. And because of your work at the magazine, you can even talk girl talk. Now open up a little wider….. What else does Sabine want? Do a few more pounds literally ….. Careful now, this might hurt …. Outweigh all of that? I’m positive she’ll really regret her behavior. There … that’s it. Now you can sit up and rinse.”

Despite my now numb face, I managed a weak smile and hugged Christiane good-bye. “Thank you so much for your treatment. It really helped – in every respect.”

“Anytime. Let me know if you need anything, be it dental or whatever,” Christiane responded warmly. “And take good care of yourself.”

Still, I was fighting mounting frustration and depression. Living with your parents again after over fifteen years of having your own adult household is not exactly a confidence booster. Fighting every morning to get into too tight clothes, popping buttons and ruining zippers does not rank high of the feel good scale. Seeing that you can only manage routine work and no longer come up with any creative ideas is asking for an inferiority complex. But not knowing whether you still have your own family makes you feel completely lost, it takes away all sense of meaning and purpose in your life. Sabine kept strictly to herself, limiting contact to necessary technicalities, giving me no clue as to how her disposition towards our marriage was developing – and looking back, I did not pursue contact either for sheer fear of getting a definite “no – it’s over,” from her.

After a particularly icy encounter with Sabine over our tax returns I even vented my frustration on my mother, who had prepared her prized Goulash with home-made dumplings as a consolation for me, yelling at her that she was doing everything to make me even fatter, no wonder nobody wanted anything to do with me anymore, slamming the door and sitting out on the dike in the rain for hours.

Full of remorse, I apologized the next evening, bringing home a huge flower bouquet and a set of the best French luxury cosmetics my colleagues in the beauty department had in stock.

My mother surprised me in turn with a small portion of fish and salad and a new menu print out from my dietician. “Look Uli, I understand you’re incredibly hurt and frustrated – and you’re not really mad at me. I am willing to support you in every possible way - so I called your dietician up today and asked for one of your plans. If that’s what you want, I’ll be happy to cook diet cuisine for you. If you want traditional family soul food – that’s fine with me, too. But you have to make up your mind what you want to do ….. And do your own part to some consequence. Otherwise nobody can help you.”

When a soccer friend of mine got a one year contract in Berlin and offered me use of his apartment in the meantime, I grasped the opportunity to move back out from my parents. The apartment was a gorgeous loft style studio in a downtown harbor location, partly overlooking the water. Furnished in cool, upscale designer fashion – not my own personal taste, admittedly, but very nice - and only a 10 minute bike ride from my office. Despite my good relationship with my parents and their trying hard to keep out of my life, I needed this step to feel half-way grown-up and self-sufficient again – able to overcome my problems. So suddenly I lived alone for the first time in my life – no parents, no family of my own. Just me ….

Out of the blue, my mother asked me whether I could spare sometime over the May holidays season to go down south to Lake Constance to help out my elder sister Astrid whose husband was ill. Astrid and I had never been very close, being six years apart, she was always the archetypical big, bossy sister … made even worse by the fact that she is exactly my height, making her tall as a women while I am a short man. Distance had added to this, since she has been living at the other end of the country for over ten years, working at a Swiss bank in Zurich with a home across the border on the German side of lovely Lake Constance. My mother had told me that her husband Peter had been severely ill with some sort of virus infection, but I admittedly had not kept up with the details recently.

On getting off the boat in Constance, Astrid uncharacteristically flew into my arms and clung to me wordlessly, finally saying. “Oh Uli, I’m so glad you could come. I was so sorry to hear of your break-up with Sabine. How is André doing?” Even more surprising, she did not comment on my round middle, since in the past she had often pitched in to Sabine’s teasing - and the last time I had been down here was when I was promoting my diet book, and I had been noticeably thinner then.

The reason for her subdued manner dawned on me when we arrived at their house and her husband Peter greeted me. Peter was tall, about 15cm/6” taller than me and had always been on the chubby side; not as heavy as I was in comparison to our heights, but plump and with a promising belly. Now he was so thin, he looked transparent and seemed very frail. As Astrid explained, he had contracted some sort of virus which had lead to a major myocarditis, had been in intensive care for some weeks and now was recuperating only very slowly – their underlying fear was, that permanent damage had been done to his heart making him need a transplant.

These details shocked me and all I could do was helplessly ask, “Is there anything I can do?”

“Just having another guy around might help Peter. You can bike with him on the tandem we bought, so he can get some fresh air and not overexert himself,” Astrid explained. “I’m working partly from home, but it is way too much right now. Plus, you can play or do sporty things with the girls. Now I have to cook – Peter needs special meals, low fat, careful balance of protein …I eat them, would that be okay for you, too, or shall I make you something else?”

“No …. Don’t bother,” I responded, pinching my belly overhang, “health food might actually do me some good too.”

“Thank you so much for coming – not having to face this situation alone is helpful in itself. Mom and Dad and Peter’s parents have taken turns so far, but they are even more driven by fear in handling the situation than I am. Now go and get to know your nieces a little better while I fix dinner,” Astrid said, shoving me out of the kitchen.

Astrid and Peter’s two little girls were Annika, a serious 6-year old and Amelie, a darling 4-year old, both of whom I was not very familiar with. This quickly changed over the next few days, because Annika was the inquisitive type and I enjoyed endless Q&A sessions with her – while Amelie was about as lovable as any little girl can be: sweet, considerate and playful.

One evening, I was sitting on the sofa in the girl’s room, reading them a bedtime story, Annika next to me, turning the pages and Amelie snuggled up in my lap; Astrid meanwhile packing their laundry away. It was a book about a bear that goes to live in the big city.

Half way through, Amelie rubbed my belly, saying. “You’ve got a big soft belly like the bear. My daddy had one too before he went to the hospital – now he doesn’t have a belly anymore, they took it away. And I must not sit on his lap because he is sick.”

Astrid audibly choked and ran out of the room.

A lump rose in my throat and I had to swallow hard before I could continue, hugging Annika and Amelie as close as possible. “Your daddy will get better soon, Amelie. He will be big and strong like the bear again. Don’t worry.”

After ending the story I quietly put the two little girls to bed and then went downstairs to look for Astrid as soon as they had fallen asleep. I found her outside, sitting with her back against a tree, tightly curled into a ball and sobbing uncontrollably. Without a word, I sat down next to her and wrapped my arm around her, holding her tight and stroking her hair.

After a while Astrid calmed down a bit and blurted out, “Do you know that I actually used to make fun of Peter’s bear belly? That I put him on a diet every once in a while? How could I? I would give anything in the world for him to be big and strong again now! Oh God, what are the girls and I going to do if he doesn’t recover? Or if he even dies?”

She broke into fresh sobs and all I did was start rubbing her back, thinking of what I might say. “Astrid, I’m sure Peter will make it. He was a strong guy, he’ll pull through. He has you and the girls to help and motivate him. If you want, I can contact my colleagues from our online medical-edition, they might have some ideas on new or special therapies to look into.”

“Would you do that?”

“Sure – there are so many different and new remedies around, getting several opinions on possible therapies is more important than ever. And I’d be more than glad to do something useful.”

Astrid sat up and blew her nose. “Uli, I’m really sorry I ever teased you about your belly. I didn’t want to be mean or hurt you. Please stay the way you are – don’t let Sabine’s constant nagging get to you. Live a healthy, heavy life … and stop the yo-yo dieting, that is much worse for your health than this belly of yours,” she said, shaking it gently. “Promise me, okay? I don’t need a sick brother on top of a sick husband!”

“I’ll do my best to stay healthy, I promise.”

The semi-sick room atmosphere in Astrid’s house had an oddly healing effect on me. The routine of going to doctor’s appointments and mildly exercising with Peter, playing with Annika and Amelie in the afternoons helped clear my mind - and on the quiet evenings when Astrid was catching up on her work and Peter and the girls were already asleep, I had the calm and inspiration to seriously continue working on my novel, revising three chapters and getting two new ones written.

On my last day in Constance, Peter made me take him rowing on the lake, something Astrid had explicitly prohibited as way too strenuous and dangerous being out alone on the water. Peter had been on several rowing teams during school and was incredibly keen on trying it out again, so he had badgered me relentlessly to do him this favor. “Come on Uli, we guys have to stick together! Astrid means well, but I hate being treated like an invalid. I feel so much stronger now, please, do this for me.”

In the end I gave in and we rented a boat at the small marina. I did the strenuous first part, rowing out of the harbor, over the river and onto the lake, and then I handed the oars to Peter. Very slowly, very carefully, he started rowing, deliberately dipping the oars into the water. After maybe two minutes, he doubled over, exceedingly pale, fighting for breath.

Panicking, I asked, “Peter, are you okay? Do you need any of your medication? What can I do, shall I call the water police?”

Gasping for breath, Peter needed some time before he answered, “No, I’m fine, this is the normal process of trying to build up some stamina. I need more strength, I want to fight. I’m not going to let some f***ing virus take me away from my 3 A-girls! Now let me catch my breath, and then I’ll give it one more try before you can row us back again. By the way, your rowing technique is abysmal – that is another reason for me to live – I have to teach you how to row properly!”

Even though it was not exactly cheering, my visit to Astrid clearly achieved one thing: It was chastening and helped me put my own problems into perspective. Seeing Astrid and Peter’s fight for life, Sabine’s and my bickering over 20kgs and break up did seem very trivial. I needed to take on some new angle to make Sabine see that much worse could have happened to us.


Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
Part 3 - Departing

Soon after I was back from Lake Constance, on one of the first sunny days up here in the north, I was combining an extensive lunch with proof-reading on our office cafeteria’s terrace overlooking the waterfront, when my colleague Silke sat down next to me with a sheaf of papers in her hand.

“How are you doing, Ulrich?” she asked, looking at me intently. Silke is not only our co-editor in chief, but also runs the psychology, women’s rights and self-help section of our magazine, being a trained psychologist.

“Sunshine helps in proof-reading,” I shrugged.

“That’s not what I mean. How is your life and work coming along?” Seeing I wanted to protest, not feeling like discussing such intimate, touchy issues with her, Silke cut me short with a wave of her hand. “Look, I understand if you don’t want to talk about personal issues with me. Maybe you can nevertheless try and see me not as a colleague, but also as a professional psychologist as well as a friend.”

“Okay, Dr. Silke, what would you like to talk about with me?”

“It’s not easy living alone all of a sudden in your accustomed surroundings, is it?” Silke asked, immediately hitting the sore point.

Sighing heavily, I nodded.

“You’ve been here all your life, always with a family around you. And now you are wondering why you have to face your life all alone – while your environment stays the same, even though everything has changed for you, right?” She looked at my mute reaction and went on. “From my experience, the real reason for your break-up with Sabine cannot be about your weight, that is, by any measure, way too insignificant a factor for giving up on a relationship. Sabine is just using your weight as convenient pre-text of distancing herself from your marriage ….”

“…. And what in your professional psychological opinion would be the real reason?” I interrupted her, not quite sure whether I was angry about her interference in my personal affairs or curious to hear what she had to say.

“You two have been together since both of you started university – right after school, if I’m correct … and you started a family not much later,” seeing me nod, she continued. “That is an awful long time for two people who are still rather young. Both of you missed out on many things that normally go with the twenty-something part of growing up. Moving farther away from home, studying abroad, going through and experimenting with various relationships… or just maybe taking some time off to try yourself out in a different field. You started to carry the weight of responsibility for a family on your shoulders pretty early, with the combined stress of work and study …. So maybe it was just natural that your body weight increased parallel to your responsibilities, giving you the physical stature to carry the added burden.”

I was surprised at her insight, and just nodded ‘hmm’ to keep her going.

“My guess would be that Sabine has suddenly woken up to the reality that she is no longer twenty, that she has missed out on some things she should have done when she was twenty, and the only thing or person still around from when she was twenty is you ….. And the most obvious thing is that there is 60 pounds more of you than when you were twenty.” Silke continued.

“50”, I interjected.

“Excuse me?” Silke shook her head.

“50 more pounds right now than when I was twenty.”

“Ok – 50 – but that is what I mean: Of all the things that might not turn out in later life as you had dreamed them up when you were twenty, 50 more pounds are the most minor deviation from a dream life anybody can realistically imagine. But in your and Sabine’s case they’re there – and for Sabine the grab-able excuse for what didn’t turn out right in her life. Try taking on Sabine’s perspective: out of the 35 years of her life, she has spent 19 years in one school – first as a student, now as a teacher. And she would have to quit her status as a tenured civil servant if she ever wanted to do something really different in her life. So the easiest way of really changing something in her life is taking a break from you and your marriage!”

“Hmmm … you might have a point,” I admitted. “But I’ve spent my life together with her and don’t really think I’ve missed out on anything important …”

“Not everybody responds to a situation or development in the same way,” Silke reasoned. “Besides, your job has always been a fabulous surrogate for the fun, adventurous, crazy things you do during your post-adolescent growing up phase. Remember all the assignments abroad you have taken on: Hiking through the Alps almost a whole summer, spending 4 weeks in China with the national women’s soccer team for world championship prep camp, working as a dietician for your blog, going on tour with various rock stars to cover those stories …. You have always been able to do escapades from the job-life-rut and even get paid for them!”

I had to laugh while a slightly guilty blush crept over my face – Silke was right that I had always been really good at getting the fun parts out of our job.

“But before we go on… I need another coffee,” Silke said and got up, while I pondered over what she had said. Silke was right that Sabine felt she had missed out on many things in life and this was what triggered her unhappiness with our relationship.

Then Silke came back with 2 coffees and 2 large pieces of strawberry cream cake.

“Silke, no thank you … try to keep my diet in mind ….” I tried to fend off the piece of cake.

“You’ll need something sweet to sustain you for what I am about to tell you…” Silke said, pushing coffee and cake in front of me. “What you need in my opinion right now is a new outlook on life from a totally different perspective.”

Knowing she was heading somewhere, I just slightly nodded and let her move on.

“This pack of papers here – these are the application forms for a one year journalist exchange program to Chicago our publishing house is staging as of September. I actually went ahead and talked to our editor about you – and he agreed that he is willing to recommend you to the selection committee if you apply.”

I was dumbfounded. “Why did you do this for me?”

“Because I think right now you need it most of all of us colleagues. In addition, you are the only one of the more senior colleagues who is personally independent right now…”

Seeing me swallow hard and probably looking as hurt as I felt in this moment, Silke gently put her hands on my arm and paused shortly. “I’m sorry if that came out all wrong. Please try and see this time in your life as a window of opportunity for getting a completely new experience. That does not mean you have to leave the life you have here behind for good. Right now, you just have the chance to take some time off from your commitments , even André is old enough to get along without you on a daily basis for a while. He’ll probably even think it is cool if he can visit his dad in the US during school vacation…”

This made me nod and even smile slightly; Silke sure hit the mark there.

“Plus – there also is a professional reason for suggesting you,” Silke pushed the issue home. “You have by far the most experience in the cross over between print and online …. And that seems to be one of the qualifications they are looking for. Also – if my files are right – you initially have a degree as an English teacher, right?”

“Yeah, that’s true – even though I haven’t used my English professionally in many years.” I acknowledged. “But that certainly is something I can work on.”

“Now that is the right approach,” Silke smiled, getting up to go. “I’ll leave the applications forms here … you probably have enough food for thought right now.”

Silke did leave me with more than enough to think about – underlying issues in Sabine's and my breakup, where I was heading professionally, my relationship with my son, exciting prospects of a year in the US, what work I would have to put into the application.

In the following days, I spent most time by myself, half working on the application, and for the first time, in my adult life, not discussing a major decision with anyone. Subconsciously, I seem to have made the definite decision to apply while Silke was still explaining the project to me. She clearly was right – it was better to use this time-out from my marriage to get a new personal and professional perspective, rather than wallow in self-pity and depression and stay stuck where I was.

The only person who I felt was entitled to an explanation and whose approval I honestly needed was my son André. I was not willing to apply without his okay. André had just turned fifteen, was – despite the difficult age – a rather uncomplicated boy who was moving through puberty with a relative minimum of fuss. All in all he was a lucky mix of Sabine and my own best traits. André had inherited my father-in-law’s tall, lean physique, along with my flexible, good-natured approach to life and easy way with words. While Sabine had successfully raised him in dislike of my beloved soccer – ruling that out for father-son-activities – he shared my keen interest in music and cinema and was good at winter and water sports.

In our inner family bickering, he had always sided – at least since he was aware of the issue – with Sabine in nagging me about my weight, lately even having started to call me, standing 10 cm taller than me at only 15, his “short little father-globe”, but without being too mean about it.

Regarding the break-up, André had remained strictly neutral, never once commenting on the new situation in our family, shrugging off any attempts I made to speak to him about it. Naturally, he had stayed in his room, in our apartment with Sabine, but we saw each other regularly. He had come out to see me at his grandparents often and so far seem unchanged or not overtly troubled by the course of events. His grades in school stayed decent, he still had the same circle of pretty normal friends and I heard no complaints from Sabine regarding his behavior.

On the Saturday after my talk with Silke, I invited him to take a trip out to a resort town on the Baltic Sea, where we could rent a small sailing boat for the day, giving him the chance to practice for his sail permit, and for me to speak to him about my plans.

We were lucky that it was a partly sunny and very windy day. Soon we were gliding out of the harbor on a swift little catamaran. Even though I had rehearsed the conversation in my head a thousand times, I procrastinated in actually telling André about my plans and we were already heading back in the afternoon before I mustered the courage to hit the issue.

During a short lull in the wind, I finally told him directly that I had been offered to apply for a one year exchange program in Chicago and that I would like to go.

André reacted exactly like Silke had predicted. “That’s really cool! Can I come and visit you during school vacation?”

When I asked him whether he was aware that we would not be able to see each other on a daily basis anymore, he snorted slightly. “I always credited you with having noticed that I am no longer a baby. I’m 15 now, I have my own life. And anyway, we can communicate via e-mail and Skype. You should go, that sounds great. A new town and a new job will do you good, Paps.”

Not sure whether I should be angry about his precocious and condescending manner, I had to smile and said, “Thank you. Your approval means a lot to me. I’ll apply and let you know how things go. And if I get into the exchange program, consider yourself invited.”

When we got back late that evening and I dropped him off in front of our apartment, I said one more thing to him without being able to look him in the eye. “Son, do me a favor. Please don’t tell your Mami or anybody else, like your grandparents, about my plans for the exchange program! Can it remain a secret between you and me until I know whether I have a serious chance?”

André gave me a little knock on the head and said. “Sure Paps, good night and good luck, as they say in that movie you have on DVD!”

“André, have you been going through my DVD collection?!” I yelled, mixing anger with amusement and a little bit of pride in his early interest in good, grown up movies.

The application process itself was easy. My work was well documented, it had elements of a catharsis having to write an essay on my motivation to seek a new professional challenge abroad and my editor-in-chief had already cast his vote in my favor without me even asking. In the evenings, I brushed up my English and the actual interview process in Berlin was a series of very interesting panel discussions that all went pretty well from my point of view.

And I was not mistaken. Two weeks after the interview, it was again Silke who came to my desk with a large cream colored envelope. “Congratulations. You’ve made it! You’re our exchange program participant – and you have to be in Chicago on September 1st!”

After a small office celebration with my astonished colleagues came the really hard part, telling Sabine. We had been more or less incommunicado for weeks now, if you count out a few e-mails and SMS regarding practical arrangements, and I was apprehensive about our first real talk and not sure what to expect.

Sabine had always been very supportive of my career, never complaining about odd assignments that took me away from home for weeks, especially since I took care to make up for the time by taking on more household and parenting chores when I was back. She most certainly was going to feel slightly betrayed because I had asked André beforehand and not her.

Then of course there was the fact that I still or again was almost 20 pounds. I didn’t even dare get on the scale out of fear of feeling even less adequate than I already did. Heavier than I was on her birthday-all-gone wrong.

At least, after I had foolishly thrown away all my old XL-clothes on publishing my diet book, I had heeded Astrid’s advice and with her assistance had bought a nice, new fitting wardrobe of XL clothes which looked presentable and not outgrown.

In fact it was fortunate that the stylish sports coat Astrid had selected did an excellent job in camouflaging my belly, which stuck out as round and proud and pretty full as ever when I met Sabine and André for dinner at our favorite Italian pizza place. My poor choice of remedy for a very bad case of nerves had been snacking all afternoon, so the last thing I actually needed when I got to the restaurant was a full dinner.

On getting there, I greeted André with a manly clap on the shoulder and a careful, sideways hug and kiss on the cheek for Sabine, so not to be too intimate and also to avoid her noticing my full belly. But just touching her almost proved too much for me. Her smell and the soft feel of her skin and hair made my knees go weak and caused me physical pain like a blow on the chest, leaving me short of breath. All I wanted to do is wrap my big body around her petite one, hold her as tight as possible and bury my face in her neck. To mask my discomfort and have an excuse for turning away, I faked a cough before I sat down.

On placing our order, for me a small house salad and a small ham and artichoke pizza, my second favorite und on the healthy side, I asked for a small bottle of Prosecco to go with it.

“What exactly are we celebrating with the Prosecco?” Sabine naturally asked.

“Hey, great– I know, you got that exchange job in Chicago, Paps! When can I come visit?” André exclaimed.

Sabine was obviously totally caught by surprised, looked very upset and half got up as if to leave.

“Please Sabine, let me explain!” I said, putting my hand on hers, which she shook off.

“Indeed, you do seem to owe me an explanation. Since our teenage son seems to be in on an important career move of yours while I am completely clueless!” Sabine glared at me.

“I’m really sorry. I should have spoken to your before I applied. But somehow I couldn’t find the nerve, or say I was too much of a coward … And we haven’t been talking with each other that much anyway…” I tried to explain.

“That is so typical for you! You are so greedy and thoughtless; you take anything you want in sight without thinking of others, whether it’s food, fun, job opportunities.” Sabine retorted.

“That’s neither true nor fair! You know full well that I have done more family work than any of your girl-friends husbands!” I shot back.

“But now you want to leave all your obligations behind for a full year. How do you think I can manage all on my own with my job, home and André? And by the way, I have new job perspectives I am looking into, too. You’re not the only one you is creative in the family. I don’t want to be your typical no stuck- in-the-rut schoolteacher-housewife.” Sabine continued.

Thankfully our food arrived in that moment and we ate in silence for a few minutes. I admittedly couldn’t help wolfing down almost all my pizza at once to calm down a little, despite Sabine’s disapproving looks. André was clearly uncomfortable, more playing around with his food than eating it and I felt guilty for having brought him in this situation. Maybe Sabine and I should have talked this out on our own first.

“Look Sabine, I sincerely apologize. I should have told you about my plans and the application beforehand,” I started as soon as I had gotten a grip of myself again. “We have always been pretty good at working out a way to balance our professional interests and private lives so that both of us get our fair share. Can’t we try and find a solution for this one, too, please? You suggested we take a break from our marriage and try to see where we stand – and new professional opportunities can be an obvious part of that. Tell me about your plans regarding further job developments; I honestly want to know more.”

Sabine opened her mouth, remained quiet for a moment longer, closed her eyes and then spoke calmly. “Okay, you’re right. We have always been able to work things out. You know the city and national government have this new program for a better integration of young migrants into higher education? I want to become one of the coordinators for this program, specializing on integrating children with a Moroccan background, since our school has the French language track. To do that, I would have to attend a 2 week training course during and half-following autumn and Christmas break as well as next spring during Easter break plus 2 weeks added on go to Morocco to visit the 3 partner schools there. … So how can this work out together with your ambitions to go to Chicago? I had counted on you taking care of André during my absences.”

“Wow that sounds like an incredibly interesting project!” I was impressed. “Have you contacted Yvonne in my office, an article or feature about that project would be just down her line? And it would be great publicity on top.”

Sabine had to laugh a little. “That’s how you always get your way – by coming up with some useful catch from your job. But thanks for the good idea, I’ll get in touch with Yvonne – a little promotion could help a lot and the city schools administration would be thrilled.”

On this lighter note, I pressed ahead. “As you surely know, you have my whole-hearted support for those career plans of yours. But I don’t think this means I have to renounce my exchange program. André and I, and maybe also my parents, we can all do our part so that both of us can move on to those projects that are important for us, right André?”

André, who by this time was literally studying the underside of his still full plate, looked relieved to have a positive say. “Sure, I’m not a baby anymore and don’t need one of you 24/7. When you go to Morocco, I can stay with Chris or one of the other guys, too.”

“It won’t be that difficult,” I continued. “I’m still around all through André’s summer vacation, he can stay with me and you can start your extra course work. It’s already set that he will spend the autumn break in Malaga finishing off his junior sailing permit with his friends. I’ll definitely be back for Christmas break … and regarding Easter, André can come visit me for the two weeks vacation and my parents can move into town for the rest of the time to look after him and our apartment.”

“Do you mean to tell me that your parents are already in on this?”

“No, of course not! André really was the only person I talked to about it before applying. And you just told me about your new project and Morocco….”

“Do we have to drag your parents in on our problems? We’ve done a good job over the years without them.”

“I know you hate the idea of my mom messing around in your household, but she and my dad would certainly not mind at all spending two weeks in town and keeping André company. And it’s not like we’re constantly counting on them to baby-sit.”

André jumped in. “Please Mami, say yes! I promise I won’t bother you! And dad and you can both have some fun in Chicago and Morocco.”

“Alright, I’ll think about it.” Sabine gave in. “Now Uli, tell me more about this exchange program.”

I started to explain, but at this point, I felt absolutely drained and had a strong craving for something sweet. After some mental infighting, I could no longer resist and ordered the fabulous house specialty, an orange-caramel Tiramisu. Major mistake.

Sabine eyed me skeptically over the edge of her Prosecco glass. “Are you sure it is a good idea for you to spend a year in the home country of Big Mac’s and super-sizing, especially if you actually intend to stick to your promise to get back in shape to give our relationship a second chance?”

“Sabine, can’t you just cut it out for once? I know I’m fat! I know you think I am way too fat! I’m more than aware that you disapprove of everything about me that can be measured in grams and centimeters! So what! Where’s the scoop? Have you ever thought about the fact that I might be getting bored or fed up being together with someone who has turned out to be so mentally mono-dimensional as you seem to be? For heaven’s sake … there are more and more interesting and important issues to talk about on this planet than my weight! “

André and Sabine stared at me, shocked and puzzled; Sabine biting her lip and not saying anything. This was the first time I had ever lashed out at Sabine when she had criticized my weight or eating. My normal response had always been meek and submissive. In our endless debates over my weight, I had immediately given in, seen reason and promised improvement. All of this linked to my uncomfortable feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation and complete inadequacy. Now a new feeling surfaced: anger. Anger – with myself, for getting fat again? Anger with Sabine, for pointing it out?

Too confused to come up with another reaction, I lifted my Prosecco glass saying. “Cheers – to new projects in life!”

In the end, Sabine and I did come up with an arrangement that would work for both of us – though sticking to the purely practical aspects and leaving all questions regarding the status and future of our marriage completely in limbo.

The weeks before my departure were very busy – I worked on as many assignments as possible, spent time with André, also accompanying him to his sailing course on the Baltic. Astrid came up North with her girls for the summer and stayed at our parents while Peter started a new IV- treatment for his heart condition at our specialized university hospital, which looked rather promising.

André surprised us all by staging a small farewell barbecue for me in my parents’ large orchard, not only with the family but also inviting my friends and colleagues and showing off his newly acquired skills in grilling fish. Sabine was not able to come, because she has a prep session for her integration project, but he had gotten my mother to make her famous potato salad, Astrid her Swiss cheese dumplings and several colleagues from the cooking section to bring their samples.

The biggest surprise came when André brought out the desert: Poppy seed cheese-cake and ice cream tarte with mixed red berries – my two absolute favorites, clearly out of Sabine’s baking repertoire.

“Mami insisted on making these for you, since she can’t be here herself,” André explained.

I blinked hard while digesting this. It had been a long time since Sabine had baked any of my favorite sweets for me. Before finishing off as much of the two cakes as I could without completely disgracing myself.

A few days later, I headed to the airport to fly to New York JFK via Paris CDG with André and Sabine. All of us were very quiet. While I was checking in, Sabine parked the car and we met up again at the security check. Surprisingly Sabine – normally as cool and contained as can be - was dissolved in tears by now, wordlessly sobbing, while André was still manfully trying to hide his tears in his oversized sweatshirt sleeves. I had a massive lump in my throat and couldn’t say or do anything, I just stood there, staring at my feet and swallowing hard.

When the boarding sign flashed up, I wrapped André in a bear hug saying softly: “Auf Wiedersehen my boy, see you soon. Take good care of yourself and your Mami. Call me anytime you need me.”

Turning to Sabine, she threw her arms around my neck and clung tightly to me, mumbling, “Maybe you shouldn’t go … we’re going to miss you.”

My response was a farewell kiss – but what I had planned at length to be gentle, tender, longing yet in essence chaste unwillingly turned into a deep, hungry, probably not PG French kiss, a clear testimonial to how much I had been missing her. “I miss you already, I’ll come back, I need you, I’ll try everything so you can love me again – I love you and André so much.”

Then I tore away – in that instant horribly regretting that I was getting on a plane to travel 7000 km away from her across the ocean. Blinded by tears, uncomfortably sexually aroused, I stumbled towards the gate, completely incapable of looking back once.

Continued in post #14


King Of The Robo-Sluts
Nov 3, 2008
A next part would be incredibly worthwhile. This is a very well-written piece and I thank you for posting it. It was a great read!


Active Member
Apr 28, 2007
ohhhhja, please, write part 2 (+ as many as you need to finish this story :))!
still sobbing from the end of part 1 *sniffsniff*, lookin out for MORE!


Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
Thank you so much for the kind words and interest! It's a huge motivation to continue and finish the story. I've sketched out a few more ideas & options ... I promise I'll post them as soon as they turn into a meaningful next part!


Well-Known Member
Apr 3, 2009
Wow! this is fabulous! Uli's autobiographical voice is incredibly authentic. I can't wait for more! Pretty please?


Dimensions' loiterer
Staff member
Global Moderator
Library Mod
Sep 29, 2005
The great white north, eh?

Very good writing, very strong characters, and very believable problems. All around top notch......I look forward very strongly to the rest of the story!


Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
Thank you again every body for the kind words :blush:
.... it was really inspiring to continue working on what slowly seems to be turning into a mini-saga.

In the following two posts you'll find the next 2 chapters.


Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
Part 4 – Arriving

Going to a new office on the first day of a new job is like entering a new country. You have different written laws and unwritten codes, established institutions and marginalized groups. Coming to Chicago for me though was like entering a new universe – there were several new planets to explore. It was the first time I truly was away from home to live somewhere else for more than a few weeks, setting up a real, daily life in foreign surroundings.

On the flight over it had taken me the entire leg to Paris, the endless walk through the giant, hideous concrete tubes of CDG to the international terminal, and a number of servings of Air France’s complimentary champagne aperitif to halfway get my bearings back. It helped that a mischievous flight attendant, on hearing my stomach growl while looking at the menu options, handed me both fish and meat with a wink – and later also brought a second helping of cheese & baguette.

Emotionally I was totally torn. Sabine’s parting words had come as a surprise, had raised my hopes high regarding a reconciliation and got me seriously wondering, whether I was doing the right thing to leave – and the thought of not seeing André now for months was tough. On the other hand, I loved traveling and the idea of getting a new professional experience was liberating after months of feeling so uncomfortable in what was left of my regular life. Also, there was a small doubt in the back of my mind, whether patching our relationship back up was going to work by simply returning to the established patterns. I made the firm resolve to make the most of my year in the US and at the same time stay in close touch with things back in Germany, so when I came back, I could literally restart my old life.

On leaving, I had gotten on the scale which read 103kg/226 lbs – meaning my goal was clear: Convince Sabine of my serious commitment by losing 15 kg/33lbs over the course of the year.

After spending 3 days in New York City, where I had been several times before, I had decided to rent a car, drive through upstate New York and then follow the great lakes to Chicago to try and get the feel of the world I was going to live in for the next year. Chicago itself instantly felt like home. The water, the wind, the international outlook of the city, even the “L” train were a lot like their transatlantic twins I had known all my life. Yet at the same time they were all exciting, new, unknown und asking to be explored.

The exchange scheme had set me up with most necessities: A short list of apartments to chose from, a desk and 2 colleagues as supervisors who would help me rotate through various departments of the publishing house during the year, a language mentor to work on improving my professional English, as well as the obligation to chair a small course on the German media system at the University of Chicago’s German department – something I had never done before and what looked like an interesting challenge. Also I was supposed to write a regular blog for my own magazine focusing on the comparison of different aspects of transatlantic life.

Working in a foreign language all day is exhausting. Everything takes twice as long as expected … but the thrill of so many new things kept me going, leaving me only sleep deprived. Other aspects of office life were different too – the pace of work, the higher amount of time spent in meetings, the longer but more relaxed working hours. One thing that struck me in particular was that diversity was not just a catch phrase but living reality – while my own professional environment back home was extremely homogenous in every respect. In my news office in Germany, I mainly worked with my peer group. The vast majority of my colleagues were +/- 8-10 years of age to me. All of them ethnic Germans. Almost all had a background in humanities or social science. Even 90% were in the rather narrow range of a BMI of 20-35, leaving me at the upper end. Here my colleagues had totally different religious, ethnic, regional and professional backgrounds; the age span went from 19 to almost 70. And the BMI range went from 15 to maybe 60. It was fascinating just to talk to people in the office about their personal history, I got so many leads on different aspects of life in the US that I soon had more material to cover than I could deal with.

Given my weakness, food was another whole new world to explore: I never thought that celery sticks with crunchy peanut butter could turn into my favorite snack of all times. Or that in contrast I was not a big fan of donuts, while I would kill for good brownies or the wonderful big soft and gooey but also crisp American cookies, oatmeal-raisin and gingerbread being my favorites. Also irresistible were the sweet breakfast options like blueberry pancakes and waffles with maple syrup as well as the excellent steaks I found in a number of places. The beer situation with a few smaller micro-breweries some colleagues introduced me to was much better than anticipated, and I went on a serious burger testing tour through the city to find the best for my personal tastes – even though people kept telling me Chicago was mainly known for its wide selection of hot dogs, they somehow did not match my pre-established and well-trained sausage tastes.

My culinary explorations naturally stood at odds with my self-proclaimed dieting commitment. I quickly got caught up again in the loop of binging and then fasting to try and keep things half-way in balance. And I tested a different measure I had never resorted to before. And of which I knew very well in my more focused moments that it was not a good idea. Diet pills and medications. Coming from a country with a highly regulated pharmaceutical market, the wide array of different medications and medical devices you can buy over the counter in a US drugstore fascinated me, and lead me to buy and experimentally take a large array of different medications all promising instant weight loss, appetite control, buff body and the like. These cocktails sometimes left me feeling slightly sick, which did limit my intake – and were an ideal placebo to let me think that even if I was not dieting, I was at least keeping my weight in check.

Apart from the fact that settling into my new life was too exciting and stressful to seriously commit to a diet plan, I was slowly but surely getting out of touch with the underlying motive for dieting and losing weight – to save my marriage with Sabine.

Directly on arriving, I started writing my blog for our German audience, and I came up with 3 versions of it: the official one for the public, the teen version for André, and one seeing my experiences through Sabine’s eyes, with admittedly a strongly romantic slant to it at the beginning. André responded regularly and enthusiastically, asking for more details or different stories. Responses from Sabine were spare, far in between, short, non-informative and even a bit dull.

When I wrote her asking whether she liked it or if she would prefer something else, she responded. “I think it is very sweet of you to put so much work into this for me, but you know I cannot match your skills in writing up your world. Also, I do not have that much news from here that might interest you. Please don’t bother if you cannot spare the time.” In turn making me lose my motivation to keep up the same frequency.

Talking on the phone at length was difficult during the week because of the 7 hour time difference, since I couldn’t talk that much from the office, so I established regular conference calls with André on the weekend. But since Sabine and I had not been really talking for months, I did not feel it was good to start again with the added burden of long-distance, time difference phone calls.

Given the exchange scheme and my class on the German media system, I naturally got in touch with the numerous institutions and aspects of the German community in Chicago and the Midwest. Initially it had been Birger who had given me the contact info of Anja, who he knew from university - or as it turned out, was one out of the legion of his ex-girlfriends – and who now was married to an American lawyer named Tyler who worked for the German-American chamber of commerce here.

Tyler and I immediately clicked. He has studied in Berlin where he had come to love soccer, ‘Thüringer Klöße’ dumplings and Anja, all of which he had brought back with him to Chicago.

One activity Tyler had set up were regular soccer matches between Chicago natives, like from his office, and some of the many internationals also working there or in partner companies. He immediately enlisted me to participate in these self-organized soccer competitions and all the other sports watching activities this crowd of people shared in. This gave me the additional alibi of getting some exercise, and was also a nice circle of regular guys to talk to non work related.

Among my new colleagues and friends, I tried to keep my marital situation as far under wraps as possible. It was not unusual even for married exchange program participants to come over on their own, so when I was asked, I always said my wife and son were working/going to school back in Germany and I was going back to see them for Christmas, otherwise evading the issue. Anja and Tyler were aware of the situation, since Birger had filled Anja in with the explicit order to “take good care” of me, including the un-subtle hint that finding new romance for me would be a good idea; the two of them though were too tactful to address the subject after they noticed I was not willing to talk about it.

After a Saturday soccer match the whole group decided to meet up for pizza and beers – and after a number of beers Will, a new colleague of Tyler’s, asked me, “So, when are your wife and son coming over, Uli?”

“Um … I’m going back for Christmas to Germany…”

“You mean to tell me they are not going to visit you at all here in Chicago? See how you live? Get to know the great Midwest?” Will insisted.

Reddening, I briefly explained that I was not only here on the exchange program, but also more or less on a hiatus from my marriage.

“All the better, then you can use the opportunity here in Chicago to get back into the dating scene,” Will pursued the uncomfortable issue. “Does anybody here know any nice Midwestern girl as a date for Uli?”

“Date?” I was horrified, as several of the other guy started throwing names into the discussion. “I don’t date, I’ve never dated …we don’t date at all in Germany!”

“Don’t date? But you’re married?” Will could not believe it.

Tyler by now had thrown back his head in laughter: “Believe him, Will … Germans really don’t date! Some people say that is one reason for the way to low birthrate!”

“Well… how do you get together with a girl then? How did you meet Anja?” Will wanted to know.

“I certainly did not date her as we would see that.” Tyler grinned. “Actually, I tried to date her room-mate, but somehow she didn’t get it. So I resorted – German style – to setting up a study group to spend time with her and get to know her better, hoping to move on from there. In that process I met Anja often, we had great talks in the kitchen … yeah, and we clicked and kissed only after way too much “Gluehwein” – hot spiced red wine – at the Christmas market one evening … and have been together ever since, kicking out the room-mate at the end of the semester and me moving in instead.”

“So we should set up a Chicago study group for Uli here?” Will was doubtful. “Or can we teach him to date?”

I shook my head. “No way … I’m way too old, out of practice and … And too heavy to date.”

“Oh come on, I know a number of girls who don’t go for a perfect six pack,” Will could not let the subject rest. “I’ll see what I can come up with.”

But whenever the issue came up again, I blocked it off … and thankfully Tyler, who noticed how much I disliked it, helped me fend it off. I had not given up hope yet of getting my marriage back on track … And right now I was way too busy enjoying my new life … and I honestly wanted to have that all to myself at this given point in time.


Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
Part 5 – Stumbling

The worst things in life mostly start out in a completely harmless fashion – like the one week which ranks high on the list of the darkest ones I can remember. It started out like a normal Saturday in late fall. A rich, hot pancake breakfast with my language mentor, some shopping for the necessary staples in life, and then in the afternoon one of our now regular soccer matches “natives” versus “foreigners” Tyler had gotten me involved in. I still enjoyed playing a lot, it was the kind of exercise that had enough fun and thrill in it for me to keep me going – even though I got out of breath pretty quickly, could not go after the ball as fast as I sometimes would have liked, and I maybe could again if I would finally manage to take my diet commitment more seriously. But experience and tactical knowledge of the game were in my favor and it was something I genuinely looked forward to.

There had been a light drizzle in the morning and the playing field was wet. Although I had bought some soccer boots to be on the safe side, the footing was pretty slippery. In the second half I was already pretty tired, it happened. I managed to take the ball off of one of my opponents and tried to head off into the direction of the opposite goal box, waving my team mate Pierre – BNP Paribas – to come along on the other side. Tyler’s colleague, Will ran up to me and tried to take away the ball from me, accidentally in the attempt hitting my foot pretty hard. I don’t really remember what happened, I fell, somehow twisted my knee but crashed on it with my full weight, and suddenly lay in the grass in excruciating pain.

My memories as to what exactly happened then are dim. Tyler took charge, getting me to the hospital, arranging everything with a good orthopedic surgeon and his team who had operated on a sports injury of his some time ago, and making sure I got everything I needed. Thankfully I had full insurance coverage through my exchange program so there were no worries there. But the diagnosis was pretty bad: a ruptured meniscus, two torn ligaments and a crack in the patella, all had to be operated on.

As many patients can probably relate too, the worst day is not the one you get operated on. It’s mostly one of the days following the operation. For me it was the second day, traumatic Thursday after the operation. I woke up in pain and somehow could not get up, I felt too weak to support myself on crutches. The doctor looked worried and then said, that the wound had to be drained again, which was very painful, and I needed to receive extra antibiotics, which in turn made me feel queasy.

To cheer myself up and have somebody to talk to, I decided to call André via Skype, who was in Malaga at his sailing course to ask him how his day had been. Initially this did have the desired effect. It was soothing to be able to speak my native language, hear André tell me about his adventures, ask him about his impressions of Malaga and surrounding Andalusia as well as get some sympathy for my plight. Suddenly I heard voices in the background and André said. “What? Oh no, not now!”

“What’s wrong, André?” I asked.

“I’m sorry Paps, I’m running late. I forgot I promised Mami I’d go….oh forget it, I have to go. Can we talk again tomorrow?”

I was irritated. “Promise Mami to go somewhere … but Sabine is not there with you, is she?”

Before hearing an authoritative male voice in the background say in German. “André hurry up! You have only 5 minutes to get ready – your mother is waiting!”

“André , what is going on? Who is there?”

I heard André sigh heavily on the other end: “Please Paps, I have to go now… tomorrow ..”

“André, no, answer my question. I need to know what is going on!” I insisted.

“I’m so sorry,” André said in a very small voice. “That was Jens. He and Mami came down here for the second half of my course on vacation. He’s a colleague of hers … And I guess I didn’t want to tell you … But I guess you have to call him her boyfriend.”

It was as if the pain in my knee had spread, moved on as a hollow churning into my stomach, an icy biting ring around my chest and a splitting headache that made it impossible for me to think. All I could do was curl up on my side as well as I could with a fixated knee and let the pain wash over me.

Only a single hurtful thought zoomed through my mind in an endless loop.

Sabine has a boyfriend … It’s over, she is gone. You have lost her for good. You are all alone.

I don’t remember how long I had lain there. I remember dimly having refused food and telling various nurses to leave me alone

It was dark when suddenly a teasing voice in German said. “Didn’t somebody promise me to stay healthy? And now I have to visit you 7.500 km away from home in a hospital bed!”

Turning around, I saw high-heeled boots, a stylish business suit and looked up into Astrid’s smiling face. In a true little-brother reaction broke into tears.

Astrid’s face fell in alarm, she quickly settled on the bed and pulled my head into her lap, cradling me, stroking my head and murmuring. “Uli, it’s going to be okay, it’s okay!”

After quite a while she asked softly. “Uli, is it really that bad? Do you need some more painkillers?”

“Sabine, she has a boyfriend named Jens…” was all I could blurt out, before burying my face in her jacket again.

“Oh dear…” Astrid sighed. “Painkillers aren’t the right solution for that…” Just continued cradling me gently without saying anything.

An unknown quantity of time later, I somehow managed to straighten myself up again and mumble. “Sorry … that was a terrible reaction to a wonderful surprise! What are you doing here?”

Astrid looked at me in worry, handed me some fresh tissues and said: “I’ve been on a business trip to my bank’s New York branch since Sunday evening. Mom sent me a SMS about your accident. I had been half planning to come out here and surprise you for a day or two anyway, if I could fit it in. But now …I knew I needed to come and look after you a little. I’ve worked everything out … I came right after the end of the meeting and can stay here until Monday night. On Tuesday I’m filling in at a meeting in New York for a colleague who thus doesn’t have to come over before I fly back in the evening.”

“Astrid, that is the best idea you ever had.” True gratitude overcoming me, causing another small sob.

“It’s okay, Uli, I’m happy I can do something for you. You were a great help last spring. I’m sorry you seem to need me as badly now as I needed you then.”

“How are Peter and the girls doing?” I asked, trying to get a grip on myself.

“Peter is so much better,” Astrid smiled. “I would say he has made an 85-90% recovery so far … and he’s going for one more round of IV-treatments in 3 weeks. That should do the job, thank God. Annika and Amelie send Uncle Uli a big kiss and tell him to get better soon,” firmly planting a kiss on my cheek. “My in-laws are over to look after everything … because you need me much more right now. What can I do for you?”

“Nothing, Astrid, it’s everything that you are here,” I answered, but as always in an inappropriate moment, my stomach let out a growl.

“So, you’re hungry, shall I get you something to eat?”

“No thank you, Astrid, just stay here and sit next to me,” feeling like I could never again swallow a bite in my life.

Rummaging in her luggage, Astrid said. “You know what; I brought that Swiss sweet herbal tea you like so much with me. I’ll fix us a pot. Maybe later you can give me your apartment keys because I would like to stay over at your place instead of a hotel room. And I am going to go get you a sleeping pill, you need rest”

Despite getting that pill induced sleep, I felt like the no longer existing Red Army had run over me the next morning. Things were not improved by the fact that I was run through a series of tests and examinations that included getting on a scale in front of an emaciated blonde 40-something physician named Kelley … and the reading showed 240 US pounds, meaning 109 kgs … so I was up 6 kgs from when I had left home, despite my swearing to diet and all the odd measures and medications I had erratically taken in the past 2 months.

“See - that’s why you lost Sabine, but now it doesn’t matter anymore, you can get as fat as you want, ha-ha,” a cruel inner monologue started chanting in my tired mind, sharpening the dull pain that cut into every part of my body. Even though I had not eaten in 24 hours, the look of the breakfast tray made me sick and I almost threw the weak coffee against the wall. I slumped back on the bed, punishing myself with as many unpleasant thoughts as possible when Astrid breezed into the room with a big box.

Seeing my still full breakfast tray, she grinned wickedly, held up the box saying. “Guten morgen! Europäisches Frühstück!” pulling out some of my hearty breakfast favorites. Black bread with Parma ham and French camembert with fresh melon and grapes to go with it, Swiss Muesli with grated apple and a huge thermos of Italian Lavazza coffee.

In this moment, Kelley came in, took a look at Astrid’s spread, nodded and asked. “What’s in the pot?”

“Homemade potato soup, with fresh vegetables and ham,” Astrid responded.

“Good,” Kelley nodded, pricked me for some more blood and went back out.

“Astrid, you shouldn’t have … how did you know?”

“I’ve known you all your life. And in a crisis like this, you either stuff yourself silly or start fasting … and neither is good for you. With the choice of hospital food, it was going to be fasting,” Astrid said. “Some good, wholesome food you like was the least I could do to try and cheer you up. But now eat – I have the soup for lunch. I’ll see if I can find a place to heat it.”

After the morning visit of my orthopedic surgeon, I was in for a session in the afternoon I dreaded in normal times, now it seemed like a high-speed ride to my personal hell: An interview with the physician and physiotherapist in charge of the therapy program for my recovery … In other words endless lecturing about my weight and enforcing a diet, now more necessary than ever for rehabbing my knee. To make things worse, my physician Kelley, a 40-ish, very blonde, strict looking, size 0 candidate came across as the physical embodiment of diet hell. Knowing I could never stand it on my own, I insisted Astrid stay for the interview. She sat next to the bed and reassuringly held my hand.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Rheinstein … I’m sorry, I’m not sure how to pronounce your first name …” Kelley said upon entering, followed by a short dark haired colleague.

“Uli is fine,” I half-whispered.

“So Uli, we now have the results from you tests and examinations. To get the full picture and to make the correct assessments for your therapy, I would like to ask you a little bit about your medical history. Now I have this questionnaire…” she said and started asking me a whole series of questions, until the fateful one. “As you probably know yourself, you are rather heavy. Have you ever tried dieting?”

This was the one question I was completely incapable of answering in that moment. Not only because it is never easy to talk about personal failures – but in this situation it was like having to paraphrase my ruined marriage history. I stared at my hands folded over my belly and couldn’t utter a word.

“Mr. Rheinstein … Sorry Uli, the last question,” Kelley mercilessly continued.

I gave Astrid a pleading look – and she answered for me, as briefly, precisely and considerately of my ego as possible.

“I see,” Kelley took some notes. “Now have you ever tried what is colloquially referred to as diet pills?”

Astrid looked at me helplessly; she couldn’t answer that one, so she nudged me: “Uli..?” I just nodded, not looking up.

“Have you most recently been taking diet pills, like in the past 2-3 months?” Again I nodded.

“Can you tell me what exactly you have been taking? Appetite suppressants, diuretics, so-called metabolism boosters…?”

This time I shrugged; I was only vaguely aware of the different kinds of pills I had bought at random in various drug stores and thrown in as a futile attempt to keep from gaining more weight here in the US.

“Are those pills in some of the packages I saw in your kitchen and bathroom?” Astrid quietly asked and I nodded. “I’ll write down the brand names and give you the list,” she said turning to Kelley, saving me again.

“Okay, now I get the picture … This matches the results we have so far,” Kelley said. “Now … which are going to be our next moves to get you back into good health? Uli …?,” Kelley said more kindly, “Uli … could you maybe look up at me while we discuss this?” I did manage to raise my head and look in her face, which clearly showed compassion.

“I guess you expect me now to lecture you about sticking to a strict diet to significantly reduce your weight in line with rehabbing your knee, correct?” I nodded glumly before Kelley continued: “Well while your weight suggests that your calorie consumption has been too high, all other parameters show that you clearly have not been getting the nutrients you need. Your calcium level is way too low, same goes for the iron. In contrast your potassium level is too high – which might be explained if you took pills that contained diuretics. And there are several more results which could be better. Given your medical history – I have rarely seen male patients with such a track record in so-called yo-yo dieting. I would advise against going on a classic weight loss regime again at this point. Instead I would like to stabilize your overall health first. Make sure you get all the nutrients you need, even though we will start out giving you some extra medication, vitamins and dietary supplements to get good quick results. Then to balance your higher weight, you will have to do more muscle building in your legs, probably stay on crutches a little longer and use a protective brace for your knee for maybe 2 months.”

“No diet?” were the first unbelieving words I could utter, thinking I had misunderstood something.

“Well, no calorie controlled diet in the classic sense of the word,” Kelley smiled slightly. “I want you to pay very good attention to what you are eating, that you eat three good healthy meals a day, try not to snack in between, eat as little processed food as possible and make sure you get an excellent balance of nutrients. I will give you a list of options of which combinations of food and meals would be good for you - but I am not suggesting you count calories. I would ask you – if possible – to completely abstain from drinking alcohol for the next month. Our goal is to stabilize your overall health and make sure you have the strength you need to rehab your knee. I think that is enough pressure already – especially since you are here all on your own, away from home and your regular environment. Stella will talk more in detail to you about your physiotherapy program next week. Would that be okay for you?”

Again I could only nod, still to dazed to respond and having an hard time fully grasping what I had just been told. The pain in my knee and of what I considered my broken heart were not going to be supplemented by the all too familiar mixture of hunger and guilt pangs - diet hell had been called off, at least for the time being.

Despite Astrid’s reassuring company, I was unable to speak about what really was ailing me … Sabine’s new love life, carving our break up in stone, most probably ending my marriage. Astrid made me talk: about my knee, her family, my experiences in Chicago… but silence and just her physical presence would have been fine with me.

On Saturday evening, on leaving, Astrid placed my netbook in front of me. “Write it down, Uli, if you can’t talk about it – it will help. Get it out of your system; right now it’s poisoning you. You need all the healing power you can get for your knee. Good night, see you tomorrow, sleep well.”

Astrid was right – after I had spent almost half the night first incoherently, then more and more structured, pouring all the frustration, defeat, agony and betrayal I felt inside about Sabine’s ending our marriage into my computer keyboard, I slept more soundly since I had after the accident.

As a Sunday surprise, Astrid had made her tangy French apple-cidre and crème fraiche tarte, asking as she came in. “How are you this morning?”

“Much better, always heed your big sister’s advice. You were right, writing down everything that was churning through my brain helped a lot. Maybe I can even talk about it now … Maybe I should, I’m not going to have anyone better than you here in a long time …”

“Thanks for that compliment…” Astrid grimaced.

“You know how I mean it … I couldn’t be more grateful to you for coming here just when I really needed you most. But could you have imagined a year ago that we would actually be seriously speaking to each other over such intimate matters?” I wanted to know.

“No, definitely not … we’ve come a long way in our relationship as siblings in the past year,” Astrid smilingly acknowledged.

“Can you do me a favor though? Take me outside a little and let me try and walk around on crutches a bit? This everything in a wheelchair inside here is driving me nuts!”

“Well … the approach to patient mobility in the US is very different from that in germanophone Europe … Unfortunately for understandable liability reasons,” Astrid nodded.

We spent a long time outside since it was a beautiful late Indian summer day and I tried walking with crutches in intervals, but it left me pretty winded and exhausted after a week in bed. And I did use the opportunity to talk to Astrid about the end of my marriage and why it had come about. Because while I seriously tried to hate Sabine for her – what I considered to be – betrayal, I couldn’t quench the uneasy thoughts that it had been mainly my fault.

When I hinted this to Astrid, she vigorously shook her head and mine a little too. “Uli, get that thought out of your head right this minute! Self-abasement leads nowhere! If all European wives would break up with all European husbands who gain weight during marriage and watch too much soccer on TV, then only about 5% of all EU marriages would survive! You’re a totally average guy as far as that goes … and on the other hand, you have quite of number of personal assets as far as your commitment, honesty and understanding – thank God for that huge women’s desk in your news office – of the female side of life goes that Sabine is going to regret losing.”

“My biggest mistake sure was leaving in August, it might not have happened if I had stayed home… And if it’s not how fat I am or how much I care for soccer… what is it then?”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with you leaving – the two of you were already separated for 6 months when you came over. And from how I understood the time-line from Mom. Sabine must have met this guy during her summer vacation course, while you were still there. If she was nicer to you before your departure that probably was more compensating her feelings of guilt for getting involved with someone else than wanting you back,” Astrid answered.

I buried my face in my hands and Astrid quietly rubbed the back of my neck before continuing. “If you want my opinion more in general - well, I basically agree with your colleague Silke’s analysis. It’s neither of yours fault – it’s one of these break ups that just happen because of the circumstances in life – and either one or both parties don’t have the nerve, tolerance, love, patience or whatever to stick it out. You and Sabine became a couple very early in life, so either you develop parallel to each other or you develop on paths that over time move further apart. Both of you don’t have any other serious relationship experience … So to feel you have missed something in life is not laudable, but it’s understandable … it’s only human. Vice-versa I would have understood if you had suddenly thought you had missed out on something and started cheating on Sabine. Many men with your history do that.”

“Would you really have thought that is okay for me to have an affair? “ I asked incredulously.

“I didn’t say I thought it would be okay or that I would have approved … but I would have understood it as one of the paths in life that suddenly open up and you can get drawn into, desirable or not… Things like that just happen. Look in comparison at Peter and me – we both had almost 15 years more of experience with different partners, living alone, going different places … and when we settled down together, we knew much more for sure that we had found the best possible option for us in life and what we could risk losing. Sabine in my opinion is completely clueless about the last point; in that respect she has the horizon of an 18-year old.” Astrid tried to explain.

“But what am I going to do now?”

Astrid lifted her eyebrows in mock irony. “Uli, this is what big sisters are there for – to tell you exactly what to do and in which order. Number one priority – you must work on getting back in good health, your knee and everything else. Number two – you and Sabine are still André’s parents, that gives both of you the enormous responsibility of staying on civilized terms in order not to harm him and make him feel safe he still has two loving parents. Number three – make the best of this year here in the US, get new insights, new perspectives and then move on, personally and professionally. You’re still young enough. Actually, if this had to happen, this is the best timing – distance is a huge help in putting things into perspective. And by the time you get back home, and might have to deal with the technical aspects of a separation, the worst will be over.”

Rationally I could follow her reasoning, but emotionally it did not catch on. “But what about living alone, being single, not having a partner in life?”

Astrid sighed. “That is indeed going to be the tough part for you … because you moved directly from our family to your own family. You’ll learn self-sufficiency and not having to meet other one’s needs actually can feel incredibly good too. That’s for instance why Peter and I both go on vacation once a year on our own or add on a day or two to business trips, if possible– so we don’t start resenting being a couple most of the time.”

“But what if I never find another women in my life? At my age, with the burden of a failed marriage and this big fat belly? Which women would want me?”

“Uli – this is self-pity talking right now … and not making much sense!”

“But Sabine…”

Astrid let out a small groan. “What I am going to say now, Uli, is probably going to hurt the most – but I have to say it. Stop seeing yourself through Sabine’s eyes. It doesn’t matter anymore what Sabine thinks.”

On Monday morning, her last day, a stony faced Astrid stormed into my hospital room. “Ulrich - is it true what Mom told me on the phone – that you have not spoken to André since that phone call in which he unwillingly told you about Sabine’s affair? And that he has not been able to reach you?”

I gulped and guiltily plucked at my blanket, aware now that I had turned off my phone and even deactivated the Skype.

“You idiot!” Astrid almost yelled at me. “You know full well that you have all my sympathy for your current plight! But to make the poor boy suffer for it – that’s unbelievably selfish and totally irresponsible! André is suffering from your break up too, in case you haven’t noticed, he’s losing the parents as he has known them so far! Do you know that he thinks you blame him for Sabine’s affair – you know hitting the messenger and meaning the message – and that you are through with him too? I can’t believe it! Why do you have to regress into spoiled little-brother mode in the most inappropriate moments?”

“Astrid … stop it! Oh God … You’re more than right … I completely erased from my mind how this must feel for him … That was unbelievably selfish and irresponsible … oh shit … how am I ever going to make that up to André?” I felt truly ashamed of myself.

“The least you must do is call him up this minute and try to convey to him how sorry you are … and that you love him more than anything else in the world, no matter what,” Astrid retorted, still angry, thrusting my headset into my hands. “Sabine is no better than you, by the way! It would have been her job to tell you the truth, not wait until poor André accidentally spills the beans. I don’t know how both of you managed to raise such a great kid – you sure didn’t deserve it!”

She discreetly left the room while I called André and had a long heart-wrenching phone conversation with him, leaving me full of true remorse since I felt keenly how badly I had – though unwillingly – hurt him and shaken his confidence.

As long as I could remember, the easiest thing for me to imagine had been seeing Astrid go out the door and leave me alone – this time it seemed like the worst that could happen. She hugged me good-bye but wouldn’t let me get all tearful again, but gave me a last shake up. “You know what you have to do now? This time stick to your promise and get back into good health! Be a good boy and do exactly what Kelley and Stella tell you to do – I am convinced they are taking the right approach…”

“Who is Stella?” I was confused.

“Your physiotherapist – you’ll start tomorrow! I talked to her, she takes a very holistic approach and seems great, I wish I had somebody like her for Peter,” Astrid explained. “And also take care of your inner healing … that is just as important. But above all – don’t forget André. We’ll probably see each other around Christmas, yes? Now I have to be going, otherwise I’ll miss the plane – gute Besserung!”

After the door closed behind her, I felt as lonely as possible, but her scolding me regarding my behavior towards André – and the humbling phone call with him - at least had brought me back to the reality that I had to look beyond my broken knee and heart if I did not want even more damage to occur in my life.


Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
Only as the petite dark haired women came in and introduced herself as Stella did I recognize her as the one who had accompanied Kelley at my fateful therapy interview – so she must be my physiotherapist. Taking a first real look at her, I was struck at how extremely pretty she was. Standing maybe around 158 cm/5’2, she had thick, almost black curls, expressive, somehow Mediterranean features with large dark eyes, clear cut nose and jaw, full red lips and a beautiful smile. She was slim, but in the lovely feminine curvy style à la Salma Hayek, dressed stylishly but not too revealingly in a rather short t-shirt dress, leggings and ballerina slippers.

“How are you doing today Uli?” she asked. “I would like to discuss the program for rehabbing your knee with you,” she led me through a series of charts, graphs and timetables. “Now before we start with any exercises, I would like to check to mobility of your knee as well as you muscle status. If anything hurts, please let me know immediately.”

As she leaned over me to take a closer look at my knee, I noticed that she had rather long, graceful fingers for her otherwise short stature … And then, as those fingers touched me for the first time, just above the knee, I felt a jolt of highest voltage electricity shoot down my spine, through my stomach and into my groin – its physical effects almost immediately and unfortunately all too visibly showing in my rather tight sweat pants and half-reclining position. Stella must have noticed too, she fleetingly bit her lip but stayed coolly professional – I was mortified beyond belief. I could not remember this ever having happened to me before. Mentally and physically more uncomfortable by the second, I tried to half turn away to hide the damage, shifting my body … Only to be answered by searing pain instantly shooting through my knee, causing me to cry out and my eyes to water.

“I’m so sorry, did that hurt so badly?” Stella asked.

“No – my fault,” was all I could stammer.

“Now maybe you had better lie back down, relax and then we’ll take this a little slower, “ Stella said while lowering the upper half of the bed and carefully half covering me with a blanket before resuming her examination.

Had it ever happened that a patient died of shame in a hospital bed? I asked myself after Stella had left. What must she think of me – this fat, inarticulate foreign dude, whose only response was almost coming off at her touch? After this humiliating experience – how was I supposed to work together with her rehabbing my knee – should I maybe ask for a replacement instead? Why had I reacted to her touch in such an extreme manner, something I last remembered happening maybe in early puberty? Sure, she was very pretty, but that had been a strictly medically examining touch, something I had been subject to 25 times a day of late. Was I so sexually starved by now, half a year after breaking up from Sabine that the touch of any attractive women was going to lead to such an instant physical reaction? No matter what some self-help books say, I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that straight men and women can just be friends, without sex getting in between. I had many close female friends – but still, staying physically faithful to Sabine had always seemed easy and natural.

My instant choice of remedy was to mail order, special delivery, a new set of excessively baggy XXXXL gym clothes so I could stay presentable in front of Stella … and then I worked on rehearsing some possible pieces of conversation in my mind so that I could somehow try and correct her first impression and come across as an educated adult.

When Stella came in for our next session, I decided a general apology might be a good start. “I’m so sorry Stella; I was terribly unfocussed last time. I think I am in better shape today and could we maybe start all over with the therapy? I promise I’ll concentrate and try harder this time.”

“Sure,” Stella smiled, “it’s always difficult the first few times after heavy surgery. Now I’ll show you some of my sheets once more of what I have planned for your therapy and then we can start again.”

As she showed me her therapy plan, I noticed it read “Stella Maria Komotis” at the top. “So your Stella is originally Greek?” I asked.

“Yup … Greek all the way, on both sides of the family,” Stella responded and rolled her eyes. “And before you ask, yes – it is just like in the Chicago Greek community of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, my family even has a Greek restaurant!”

I had to laugh and asked, “But it is not by chance called ‘Dancing Zorbas’?

Stella laughed too and shook her head. “No it’s named ‘Naxos’ after the island my father’s family originally comes from.”

“Oh yes, it’s a beautiful island, I’ve been there once,” bracing myself for her touch and as a means of potential damage control continued talking. “It is much greener than the other Cycladic islands and I found more diverse as far as the historical monuments go. And I loved the beaches, silvery sand, turquoise water, very peaceful – but for some reason they are not as well known or acclaimed as those on some other islands.”

Stella now beamed at me. “I could not agree more! My grandparents went back there on retiring – I love to visit them but can’t get away as often I would like. Unfortunately, it’s a really long trip.”

This was going much better than I had expected so I decided to move further in this line to keep things light and hopefully maintain my self-control. “So if your family’s restaurant is named after the Greek island – is your Stella named after Melina Mercouri’s iconic film heroine?”

Stella burst out laughing, shaking her head. “Now that is a question nobody has ever asked me … And I would certainly have expected it more coming from one of my elderly uncles’ friends with a slight leer than in a matter of fact fashion from a German patient! No, I’m named after my great-aunt, not my grandmother as would have been more common – my father didn’t want to have something like the 35th plain Maria in the family.”

“Too bad – Melina Mercouri’s ‘Stella’ would have been a bit more glamorous. After all, it was the role which started her movie fame and in which she portrays the archetypical Greek woman.”

“Archetypical Greek woman?” Stella was indignant. “Stella is portrayed as a prostitute!”

“Ouch!” yelping as Stella’s grip got a little too hard, “Stella is not a prostitute. She is an independent minded woman who likes doing things her own way. Maybe this was considered morally questionable when the movie was shot in the 1950’s; but in my opinion the role of Stella is a blue-print for a modern women who fights to overcome patriarchal society – even though letting herself be killed to maintain her freedom is a little drastic from our today’s perspective.”

“Okay, we can agree on that,” Stella smiled again. “Actually that’s what I like about the character of Stella, that she values her freedom so highly she is willing to do anything for it – I can relate to that, despite not wanting to get killed,” she grinned. “Now tell me, how come you know so much about these rather exotic issues?”

“I work in the society & culture department of my publishing house and cover a wide range of issues. Our company has branches in many European countries and since we are a small continent there is quite a lot of exchange and we do a fair share of not only German, but also European stories. And I was lucky enough to be able to spend four weeks for the 2004 Olympics in Athens to cover cultural issues and events the city and government had staged as an add-on program to the sports event.”

“That sounds absolutely great! What exactly did you do?”

“All sorts of things – a bit of city development, some movies, of course museums & exhibitions, but the best actually was when the rather well known Greek author Petros Markaris took us on a personal tour through his favorite Greek music clubs in Athens as a feature story,” I answered.

“Ooooh… I’m really jealous – I would have loved to come along!” Stella exclaimed. “I adore Inspector Haritos – those books have been my main way of keeping up my Greek reading in the past years.”

At the end of our session, I sank back exhausted and incredibly relieved – that had been easier and gone better than in my wildest dreams. I had not only been able to control my physical reactions but also to redeem myself halfway in Stella’s eyes as somebody who was capable of expressing a meaningful thought or two.

She smiled warmly as she left, saying. “That was the most unusual and entertaining patient conversation I have had in a long time. Take care, do those exercises I showed you before going to sleep this evening and then again in the morning. See you tomorrow.”

Continued in post #19


Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
.... as befitting the season, one covering the holidays.....


Library Girl
Staff member
Library Mod
Jun 21, 2008
Part 6 – Limping on

Oddly enough during the whole time I had been in hospital after the accident, I had not thought one single time about going back to Germany, so I was completely baffled when our program coordinator asked me about it, shortly after my discharge. Right now I did not even have a home there to go back to – and I saw no reason in trying to recuperate at my parents, with the additional agony of maybe having to face Sabine with her new love life in person. Astrid must have seen this the same way, because she never mentioned it and had – as I was to find out – made arrangements for me to be taken care of in Chicago.

The day before my discharge, Stella talked to me about my post-hospital rehab. “For the next 4 weeks, we will do 3 sessions a week in my practice. Then 3 more weeks of 2 sessions a week before you can continue with a plan for another 3 months at a regular gym. Is that okay?” seeing my nod, Stella went on. “Since you do not have any family here, dealing with everyday life on your own in your apartment with work, shopping, etc. is not really possible. Your sister and I talked this over while she was here – and she totally agreed to my suggestion.”

“Which suggestion?” wondering what Astrid had forgot to tell me.

“You need help. Somebody who will help take care of the apartment, shopping, help with exercising and personal care,” Stella explained. “As you might not know, I also have an MS in nursing and teach a few classes at the local nursing college. I would like to suggest you hire one of my nursing students to help you as a kind of personal assistant. If I remember correctly, Astrid mentioned your insurance would probably cover the costs since they normally pay for full clinical rehab. So my question today is what would you prefer – boy or girl?”

“Why –boy or girl?” not being really able to follow what she was saying.

“Would you prefer a male or female nursing assistant? Astrid thought a guy would be better for you and I actually have someone in mind that would be perfect and available… Is that okay for you?” Stella tried to get her message across.

“Sure – if you think it is a good idea. And thank you for setting this up,”

So Dimitri entered my life. He was at least 1,92m/6’4’’, maybe 150kg/330 lbs. an incredibly open, self-confident, friendly and competent hulk, who turned out to be school friend of one of Stella’s younger brothers. And who was a true life-saver in the difficult first weeks of coping alone, with my injured knee, heaving my heavy body around on one leg and crutches.

Looking back, everyone was incredibly friendly and truly helpful. Despite the fact that my program contained the option of taking full sick leave, I decided against it. Staying cooped up in my apartment all day with limited social interaction was not going to make anything heal any faster, on the contrary. I went to the office as much as possible to do desk work, unfortunately no more onsite research. My colleagues, Dimitri and a regular cab driver I enlisted for myself helped me get around pretty well, also assisting in things like shopping or the odd outing or so to help boost my moral. I truly came to appreciate how much easier it is in the US to live with a disability with things like scooters in supermarkets, barrier free access etc. – many aspects virtually unknown in Europe, simply making me feel included. This extended to other aspects of life where colleagues and new friends went out of their way to include me in all sorts of activities, leading for instance to no less than 5 Thanksgiving dinner invitations, of which I attended 2 – and for the first time in my life got really sick from over-eating.

Apart from that, I honestly tried to follow the plan and recommendations Kelley had come up with regarding my nutrition. To have something else to do but work and rehab, I even went to a few cooking classes – something I basically knew how to do, especially kiddy food for André when he had been younger, but I had never been really good at out of lack of necessity since the women in my life had always been excellent cooks and bakers. Now I decided that if I was going to eat as well as possible, in portion sizes that agreed with me, I would at least see to it that the food was really good. Despite not drinking, staying away from sweets as far as possible, just having three healthy square meals with limited mobility of course made me expand even further. In the past, it had mainly been Sabine’s critical scrutiny that had kept me aware of the ups-and-downs of my weight. Myself, I physically was hardly aware of the changes until it was mostly too late. Or my clothes did not fit me at all anymore.

The latter was the case when I popped the button on the last pair of pants I could still fasten one evening when Dimitri – whose appetite was more than a match for mine, so he was nobody in whose company I had to restrain myself – stayed on for dinner. Being this really tall, heavy guy with an incredible physical presence, he was very easy-going and confident about his size, always very well, even stylishly dressed – all in all I admired and secretly envied his attitude.

Noticing what had happened Dimitri shook his head saying, “Uli – I think you can take it coming from me. You need some new clothes – all the ones you have are seriously outgrown. There’s nothing wrong with that, you just have to replace them with some nice new ones that fit.”

“I know, you’re more than right,” I sighed. “All the winter clothes I have are from the end of my last diet period – so they were all bought minimum 25 lbs. ago. But I’m not good at clothes shopping at all – and here in the US I am completely clueless as far as sizes and so on go. And now me being on crutches – what would you suggest? Mail order some fat guy clothes?”

“No way,” Dimitri grinned, “we don’t want you hobbling around in some ill-fitting tents, do we? If it’s okay with you, I would ask my girlfriend Agnieszka to come along and fit you out. She’s my dress coach; she’s the expert on big boy clothes.”

“Agnieszka – is she Polish?”

“Polish-American-Polish. On her mothers side they have lived here in the Chicago Polish community for generations – her father came here during martial law in Poland in the early 80’ies.”

Then the meaning of Dimitri’s suggestion really sunk in – and horrified me. Remembering several humiliating clothes shopping outings with Sabine, just the idea of having an unknown woman taking such a close inventory of my fat body to cloth it was enough to make me shudder. “No thank you Dimitri, that’s a very generous offer, but I’ll manage on my own.”

“Don’t worry, it’s no problem, she’ll love it!”

“No really, I’m already enough of a burden on your time, forget about it!”

Dimitri simply chose to ignore my position and picked me up from the office the next Friday accompanied by a tall, model slim, slightly pale Slavic blonde who belied her cool looks by having an infectious laugh and what seemed to be a bubbly personality.

Agnieszka extended a hand laughing, looked me up and down in my really disgracefully tight, and mismatched – being the only ones that half-way fit -clothes and said, “Oh yes, this is going to be fun! We’ll make all of you look really good! Don’t worry, you’ll feel great afterwards!”

Since Dimitri was also my ride home, all I could do was meekly follow them, not being able to come up with any halfway plausible excuse. Admittedly, Agnieszka and Dimitri together did a great job and managed to make me feel a lot more comfortable afterwards, now again having clothes that fit me and looked decent.

We went to only 2 shops, Agnieszka expertly putting together some outfits and Dimitri helping me try on only the necessary items. What fascinated me most though was the interaction between big Dimitri and slim Agnieszka. She clearly was totally wild about him and his body, constantly hanging on to his love-handles, squeezing his soft flesh as far as acceptable in public and also choosing a few items for him obviously intended to high-light his size.

To me in contrast she was very professional and sweetly considerate, leaving all the measuring and touching to Dimitri, immediately sensing that my ego was in need of clothes that did a good job camouflaging my size and selecting them accordingly. At the same time, she overflowed me with discreet praise and positive hints that made me relax and accept her judgment, before I invited the two of them out for a thank-you dinner at a Polish Pieroggi place Agnieszka suggested.

During one of my next therapy sessions, I could not resist the temptation to ask Stella. “I don’t mean to be impolite, but did you set me up with Dimitri on purpose? Because you thought his physique might make it easier for me to deal with my weight and the rehab?”

“That absolutely was not the main point,” Stella blushed slightly and tossed her curls. “It’s true, I thought he might find it easier to relate to your needs than a tiny girlie. But I mainly chose him because I can trust him with such a personal matter. I’ve known Dimitri and his family since he was 10 – so I can absolutely rely on him. What’s more, he is one of the best students we have. Are you trying to complain about him?”

“No, not at all, on the contrary,” I hastily replied. “Dimitri has been a phenomenal help and has indeed made me feel much better in every respect. He even got his girlfriend to help me solve some winter clothing issues.”

“Agnieszka?” Stella asked. “Yeah… she is a real sweetheart, I’m glad he found her – his previous girlfriend was more in the constantly-berate-your-guy–camp. I hope it lasts – stupidly both parents are non-supportive, since hers are devoutly Catholic and his pretty Orthodox … How out-dated a reason is that?”

Not only my daily life was on crutches during this period, but also my emotional state of mind. Sabine’s new love life still felt like her betrayal of me and our marriage. It hurt any time I thought about it. But the pain caused by our break up had changed in the course of the year: It started out as the dull pain of rejection – and over months had been the hollow longing ache of missing her to be now replaced by the sharp, cutting sting of betrayal, which in a much faster span of time than I had expected somehow cut loose the emotional bond I had still felt to Sabine. After a few weeks, my dominant feeling was that it would be the best thing if I never heard from her or saw her again in this life.

My emotional crutch of choice, finding an outlet for my messed up feelings was developing a serious crush on Stella. She was very pretty and sweet, did a great job in helping me with my rehab and was - because of her own background of having lived in Europe for 2 years - someone I found very easy to talk to. To make the most of our therapy sessions, I prepared them meticulously, not only being over-conscientious about doing the exercises she pre-scribed but also thinking about things to talk about she might find interesting or entertaining.

After the initial disaster of her first touch it gave me a kind of perverse pleasure on the physical level to always have to try and control or hide my responses to her treatment, often leaving me beyond exhausted after the sessions. As a bizarre compensation for my attempts at self-control during therapy, I resorted to writing short blue-movie scripts with Stella as a heroine as my personal form of bed-time story, carefully saving them on a USB-stick I hid with my passport.

If Stella ever noticed what was going on inside me, she did not show it. She was friendly, attentive, and never too personal.

Dimitri though somehow seemed to have noticed what was going on, for he said one evening, as I was completely exhausted after trying over and over again to do an exercise Stella had prescribed without success. “Look Uli, Stella really is a great girl. If you are so crazy about her, why don’t you just ask her out and see how she responds?”

Mortified, I sputtered something about being too old, a patient, unattractive, whatever.

But Dimitri just grinned. “Aw… come on, where are your guts? That’s all nonsense, give it a try … Stella is 31, she’s not that much younger than you are. And from what I know, she is completely open as far as body types go – she’s had an average guy, an anorexic guy and a big guy.”

But for me it remained unthinkable that I should try to make a personal move on her.

So it came as a surprise when she asked me right after Thanksgiving. “Do you have any plans for Sunday night? Because it’s St. Andrews Day, the patron saint of my family’s village on Naxos and we are celebrating with a lot of people, friends and family. Would you like to join us, since you have never been over?”

“Um … sure, thank you for the invitation; what do I have to do?” I stuttered, not quite sure if my imagination might be playing tricks on me.

“Nothing, just come by and bring a decent appetite with you. I’ll ask Dimitri to pick you up to make things easier.”

“The appetite clearly will be no problem,” I grinned ruefully making her laugh, saying, “We’re absolutely prepared for that.”

Waking up on the morning of December 1st with a splitting headache and one of my top 3 hangovers, all I could remember was that I had completely screwed up my first evening with Stella, and that I was not really sure how I had gotten home. My belly was still distended, meaning I had not only drunk way too much – the first drinks at all since my accident, no wonder it had gone to my head so quickly - but had also made a complete pig of myself with all the wonderful little appetizers that had been served: small cheese-and-spinach pitas, tomato and zucchini puffs, lamb and chicken Slovakia, grilled vegetables with garlic yoghurt, and at least 4 pieces of galaktoboureko, milk pudding pie, for dessert I was darkly aware of.

What I had no memory of was talking to Stella at all – she had introduced me right away to all her extended family, where the first thing I was asked by some of the guys was whether Olympiakos or Panaithinakos was the better team … and I was not quite sure where the debate went from there, except also watching some match reruns and analyzing them.

Cursing myself for ruining such a great opportunity to really get to know her better, I sent her a winter flower bouquet with a long thank you-&-apology note, trying to explain my awful behavior as soon as I was able to raise my head from the pillow and write a meaningful sentence in English.

In our next therapy session, I again tried to apologize in person and even thought of compensating for my boorish behavior by maybe inviting her to dinner, but Stella immediately waved it off. “Uli, thank you for the lovely flowers - that was absolutely not necessary. I’m glad you had a good time talking European soccer all evening. “

“But it was awful of me…” I tried to interject, but Stella just laughed.

“Uli, I have three brothers, a father and seven uncles alone here in Chicago - I’m totally used to that kind of behavior. Actually, all the men in my family liked you and enjoyed your expertise, so just forget it. Now – I’ve a new series of exercises planned to start working on the mobility range of your knee…”

With the approaching holiday season, I had to face the fact that I had a return ticket to Germany for December 22nd to spend the Christmas holidays there, something I was starting to dread. Christmas in my no longer existing home seemed nightmarish in comparison to the warm cheery Christmas and Hannukah parties I was experiencing.

Somehow Astrid had telepathically sensed that this might be my problem for she had suggested on the phone, that I re-route my flight to Zurich and come directly down to her and Peter with André joining me there, where we could all celebrate Christmas together; giving André the opportunity to go skiing in Switzerland during his vacation.

Relieved that André also agreed to this arrangement, I finished off a short series on comparisons of different holiday traditions and set to work on summoning up the courage to ask Stella out on for a thank-you dinner before I left for Europe.

On the morning of my last check-up in the hospital with Kelley and Stella, out of the blue, Sabine called me. I had spoken to her only once since I had found out about her and Jens – when she had finally had the nerve to phone some 3 weeks after my accident, and had cut that as short as possible. As she had tried to explain, I had just said and then hung up on her.

“Your love life is no longer any of my business. We are both free to do as we please personally and professionally. I would just have appreciated it if you had told me yourself and not used André. You owe him an apology – not me. We can take care of everything else next year when I come back.”

“Uli, how are you doing? I hope your knee is better,” Sabine started out this time.

“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” was all I responded, “what’s up, I don’t have much time, my day is just starting here.”

“Uli – I would like to ask you a favor, concerning Christmas,” Sabine said, sounding a little uneasy. “You know, Christmas is a family holiday … and Jens and I are sort of getting to be a family now. We want to go spend the Christmas days with his parents and take André along. Would that be okay for you? You would see him between Christmas and New Year before he goes of skiing with Jens and the school team.”

I was thunderstruck. “You mean to tell me, I’m supposed to see my son for only 4 days between Christmas and New Year’s after I haven’t seen him for almost 4 months?”

Sabine snorted slightly. “Well it was your choice to go away from home so you couldn’t see him regularly …”

“Well, who kicked me out of my home and family, making it the best alternative to go move across an ocean?” I lashed back.

“Ulrich … be reasonable, it’s only the three days of Christmas, and André really loves going skiing with his friends from school. It’s really important to me now, a first Christmas with a new family…”

“I don’t give a f*** what you consider to be your family these days! You’re not talking me into agreeing to this one! André is my son … and he is old enough to decide for himself how he wants to spend Christmas! I’ll talk to him and see what he wants to do!” hanging up on her and not answering the phone again.

Shocked, hurt and fuming, I immediately called André on his mobile.

He sighed and said, “Yeah … Mami has been on my back for sometime badgering me to join her at Jens’ parents, even threatening to take away my passport so I can’t go to see you in Switzerland. I really liked the idea of coming down to see you at Aunt Astrid’s and go skiing there …. But I would also like to go skiing with my friends from school – even though that now seems to be linked to me spending Christmas not with you but with Jens’ parents. I really hate that idea!”

On an impulse, I said, “Look André, I want to see you more than anything else. But I can understand that going skiing with your friends is also important to you. So now we have three options for Christmas: First – we stick to our plans of seeing each other at Astrid’s – which will probably get you in trouble with your mother.

“Second – we follow your mother’s suggestion - you spend Christmas with them and go skiing with school. But in this case, to be honest – no pressure, I would admittedly stay here and re-schedule my flight to maybe your winter vacation so we can see a little more of each other. I’m still on crutches, traveling is not that easy to make it worthwhile for just a few days.

“Now option number three is new - You can come over and spend Christmas with me here in Chicago – and maybe we can even, if my knee improves a bit and you help me out, go down to Florida for a few days of sun and sea. Why don’t you think about these three options and let me know what you want to do …. I will accept any decision you make. Now I have to be on my way to the hospital…”

“Paps – are you serious? You would let me come over to Chicago now?”

“Sure André, I’d love to have you here. But think about it, if that is what you really want. I’m not in 100% shape yet, so you might have to make a few allowances. Send me an e-mail or SMS after you have thought it through.”

Still upset, I took a cab to the hospital to the next low point of the day, starting the check up by me having to get on the scale, which read 250 lbs./114kg, up 10 lbs. in the last 7 weeks of watching what I eat but clearly not how much healthy food I eat. I clenched my teeth to stifle a groan.

Kelley and Stella seemed undisturbed, but went through a whole series more of test results and examinations, praising various improvements and ending in a series of recommendations.

“Uli, your overall health has improved over the past weeks. Some things are not quite as they should be, but are on their way. I would suggest you continue with the plan as we have set it up, including taking the extra calcium for your bones. Stella has set up a schedule for how to move along to get the full stability for your knee back. In case that one figure now inspires you to go on a diet, I would still advise against it right now. You need to continue eating healthily and get the special exercise you need for your knee. Should you really want to go on a weight loss regime, wait another three months … and then please only do it under strict medical supervision. You can come see me anytime you need to. Now have happy holidays!”

Taking a deep breath, I nodded and did not look at either one. In this situation, it was completely unthinkable for me to invite Stella for that thank-you dinner – I was way too unraveled in every respect.

On getting to my computer, I had an enthusiastic e-mail from André, saying he was delighted to come for Christmas including a whole list of last-minute discount flight options to Chicago. Since it was already late evening in Europe, I e-mailed him back that I was more than happy to have him here and I would settle everything with his mother.

Not feeling quite up to the job of writing Sabine a well-intentioned and constructive e-mail yet, convincing her to consent to André coming over – I started out by composing an invitation e-mail to Stella why I would like to invite her to a thank-you dinner, and why this was not a date. Then I felt detached enough to write to Sabine, asking for her agreement to let André come over for Christmas:

This is our first Christmas apart – it’s different in every respect. So I would like to really do something totally different with André and have him come over. I think this complete change might actually make it easier for all of us.

After re-reading my mail twice, I sent it. The next morning, I had two e-mails. One from Sabine, surprisingly agreeing to André coming over, understanding my reasoning.

And one from Stella, accepting my invitation. I was shocked by the latter – I had never invited her, not daring to e-mail my draft … or wait, no - I had accidentally sent it out together with to one to Sabine. Now I was getting my wish … but did not really know how to handle it. How could I get through a whole evening with Stella without continuously embarrassing myself?

After I had managed to find a German restaurant which was not too Bavarian and had a half-way authentic menu, Stella and I met up there the night before André was going to arrive. I had put on my new suit and she was lovely in a very low cut dark purple dress which showed off her shapely cleavage and a slightly eccentric looking necklace.

“Thank you very much for inviting me, Uli – that’s very kind of you to want to thank me for just doing my work. I don’t know much about German cuisine except Sauerkraut so I’m happy to learn,” Stella said and then teased, “I was surprised though to get an intricate written invitation from someone whom I had just seen hours earlier and who could have easily invited me in person by simply asking.”

Blushing I managed to answer. “I’m better at writing what I really mean than at speaking about it – it’s my job. And I’m sorry; I wasn’t feeling my best that day of the check up.”

“You have no reason not to feel good, your knee has healed much better than was to be expected … and you can be proud of all the work you have put into your rehab.”

Before I knew it, I let it slip out, “Yeah … but my weight has gone up again…”

“Your weight is one out of many parameters for your health,” Stella was considerate enough to say. “You shouldn’t agonize so much about it.”

Shaking my head, all I could say was, “At least I was tremendously relieved that you and Kelley have been so discreet and understanding about it. I especially would never have expected Kelley to be so tolerant…”

Stella looked amused. “Appearances are almost always misleading!”

“Sorry – what? Why?”

“Kelley is extremely thin herself, right? So you automatically thought she is a diet fanatic,” Stella elaborated. “But people have very different back stories, things that actually drive them and frame how they see the world. I’ll tell you a bit about Kelley’s case to make you understand. Kelley has lost her younger sister to anorexia – and her son is more or less battling it himself. It seems to run in the family. This has made her extremely sensitive in dealing with all weight and diet issues, and just about the last thing she would do is pressure anyone into a strict diet, especially not in a case like yours when you already have a medical history with regards to it.”

“Oh – of course I didn’t know that. I’m sorry to hear that,” I was struck, but then we had to order – suggesting Rouladen for Stella and getting roast chicken with mixed salads for myself.

“So Uli, what’s your back story, what drives you?” Stella asked next.

“Um, I don’t know … you already seem to know everything about me – you know my medical records, you seem to have exchanged more confidences with Astrid than I care to know about ….Big sisters rarely convey an un-biased image of their little brothers…” I answered sarcastically, not wanting to talk any more about myself.

Smirking, Stella said, “Objection – you know I’m a big sister too! Astrid seemed very concerned about your well-being and to get you back in good health - that was my impression. And your medical records give me a whole lot of data, but that in itself does not tell the real story. So what is the real story?”

“Moving around, getting to know new people and things, trying to find out more about what’s going on somewhere … probably general curiosity is an important factor for me,” I started unsurely. “But at the same time, I’ve always needed a stable home base, this is the first time I’ve ever really been away from home all on my own for a longer period of time. Up to now, I’ve always had my family and friends like layers of stability around me…the layers around me seems to be a general issue,” looking down at the rings of fat around my middle, feeling uncomfortably exposed with where this discussion was heading.

“With your profession as a journalist, that totally makes sense. And having met your sister and her caring attitude, I can see where you are coming from,” Stella said warmly. “I can also relate to family being really important … even though it can also be suffocating,” she added on a darker note.


Library Girl
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Jun 21, 2008
At that point in time, our food arrived and we tasted it, discussing the recipes a little before I had the nerve after 2 glasses of wine to reciprocate her question.

“So Stella, you now know my back story. What’s yours, what drives you?”

Fleetingly grimacing, Stella shrugged. “Well, as I said, my family is also very important for me. But Greek families are very clingy; everybody is always in everybody else’s lives. So ensuring my own independence, making sure I do what I want to do and what I am good at doing has also always been a driving force… Hey,” she suddenly interrupted herself, “my eyes are up here, no more naughty looks down there!” catching me eyeing her cleavage.

Swallowing, I improvised, “Well I was just studying your necklace, it has the most unusual design.” Which was true, it looked like 3 separate pieces of somehow smashed jewelry, pretty expensive looking diamonds, strung together by small chains in an uneven pattern. “It looks more like three broken rings than a necklace.”

Now Stella blushed a deep dark red, even visible in the dim light.

It was at least 2 minutes before she looked up at me again and said, “That’s a question I normally would not answer – especially not to someone who is my patient. But since you are the first male who has ever noticed, I think it’s only fair if I tell you the story. Those are my three engagement rings of my broken engagements respectively my one divorce.”

“Please … excuse me for asking, I didn’t want to pry,” I felt for her, imagining myself having to explain such matters to her.

“No, it’s okay – I also know a lot more about you than I should about a patient, so it’s only fair if I answer,” Stella assured me. “Being the only girl in a successfully integrated but Greek family always put a lot of pressure on me to conform to expectations – helping at home and in the restaurant, taking care of my little brothers, being good at school, having nice, eligible boyfriends. While I was still at college – I have a BA in history and elementary education, something I never was really interested in, but being a teacher was considered good for girl – I got engaged and soon married to my then boyfriend. He was also Greek, son of a friend of family friends – the perfect match in everybody’s eyes, except that we were not well matched at all.

“After college, we went to live in Athens for two years, he working in some family business they wanted to expand to the US – me finding out, away from my closer family, what I really wanted. One was finding the profession that suited me – it’s as cheesy as it can get. I attended a summer ancient medicine course at the original Asclepius sanctuary in Epidauros … and there had a brilliant French physiotherapist for that part that got me totally hooked on the subject and said I really had talent…”

Here I had to laugh. “Indeed that would make a fabulous storyboard for a romantic medical comedy…”

“Don’t you dare write about that,” Stella pinched me in mock threat. “But anyway, I also found out I couldn’t stand staying married to a man who saw life only in numbers on a balance sheet. So I came back home, got a divorce and studied physiotherapy joined with a MS program in nursing, because I felt a broader medical outlook probably was a good idea. That was the best decision of my life – my work, my practice, also teaching things I believe in, that is what I am really happy with…”

“And what you are sensationally good at – I can’t tell you how glad I am Tyler recommended you as my physiotherapist…” I had to fit in.

“Thank you Uli, really. Needless to say, my family was not pleased at all. They were even less pleased when I started dating a doctor I met in the course of the program who was Irish American, not good, fifteen year older than me, bad. A Mormon, even worse and wanted me to move to Utah with him – unthinkable.
Somehow he himself must have sensed that I was together with him mainly out of protest and that this was not going to work, so he broke off the engagement on the day I was last fitted for my wedding dress … another horrible bad comedy moment in my life – don’t laugh. But he insisted I keep the ring.”

“Some more wine?” I interjected and Stella nodded.

“Yeah, I can sure use that in the moment. Well, now to ring number three – that’s the engagement that never actually happened, because I said ‘no’ when he popped the question. We dated for 2 years, he is a totally nice normal guy, half Greek, worked here as a tax accountant, we had a fine dating relationship – but I felt something was missing. I never felt like he was really interested in what I thought or felt or me as the person I am – it was always more that I was the perfect girl to date and marry for all the obvious reasons and social expectations. Also, I was awfully afraid of making the same mistake for a third time. So I just said no, when he asked me to marry him.”

Since she didn’t continue, my curiosity got the better of me. “And what about the ring? Sorry … wrong question…” seeing tears well up in her eyes and making me instinctively cover her hands on the table with mine.

“No you’re absolutely right, the story is not finished without that detail,” Stella swallowed hard. “He knew I had this necklace, because I had had it made with the 2 first engagement rings. So one day, I hadn’t even noticed it was gone, I got the necklace back with the smashed third ring fitted in it and a note which read: I can’t give the ring to anybody else, it was meant for you. Keep it to always to remind you that you are not able to commit to a normal, long-term relationship – unless you learn that, you’ll never be a real and whole woman.

“That’s unbelievably cruel – and definitely not true,” I was shocked, seeing her really crying now. “I’m so sorry, I asked … I never meant to bring on all these awful memories…” unconsciously taking her hands in mine and rubbing one softly on my cheek.

After a minute or so, she sniffed and withdrew her hands, got out a tissue and dabbed her eyes and nose. “No, it’s okay. You deserved to know since you read the sign. And I know your back story of one long-term happy relationship and marriage gone bust over trivia…. so we see eye to eye there. And since then, I have been keeping away from all overtures at relationships – because I honestly don’t see anything I feel able to commit too.”

Trying to get out of the awkward situation, I said, “I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of situation in which I unfortunately always need something sweet for dessert..” and seeing her nod, I ordered the Christmas specialties platter.

As we left the restaurant, Stella said, “Thank you for a lovely evening, Uli and for being such an observing listener. Have a very merry Christmas and a much happier and healthier New Year,” and raised herself a bit to give me the slightest of kisses on the lips, leaving me totally dazed.

The next day, I picked up André from the airport – fortunately I was able to drive an automatic again by now, and Tyler had even gotten me a nice Audi as a longer term rental over André’s vacation, quipping, “Being married to one of your people and constantly having to work with those crazy German engineers has unfortunately gotten me too convinced that your car manufacturing is superior to ours. Since our CoC has this agreement, why not make use of it to drive a good car from the Vaterland while you’re on the go with André?”

On arrival, André hugged me long and tight in silence, almost making me fall over as he let go. He seemed to have grown a bit taller and maybe even thinner in the past months and had a more serious air about him. My mother and Astrid had sent tons of my favorite Christmas bakery and chocolate with him while my colleagues had touchingly made him take along what looked like a life-time supply of all sorts of homeopathic knee medications and ointments for me.

I spent the days before Christmas showing him around Chicago as well as I could by car, sometimes letting him do some walking parts on his own and instructing him what to look out for. It took us some time to get used to each other again - the long absence and the difficult times in between had raised an invisible barrier between us. All in all, André treated me like a raw egg – something which is very delicate and must not be upset in any way, helping me way too much with everyday tasks and never once mentioning anything from back home that directly concerned me.

First I found this touching, but then more disturbing because it vice-versa inhibited me in my responses to him, so I told him, “André, I honestly appreciate how you are trying to help me. You’re doing a great job – but I'm not an invalid. All I have is a normal sports injury, which is more than half healed by now after 2 months. Statistically, I’m not on my way to the grave. Just treat me like you always have.”

André was flustered and almost whispered, “I’m sorry I did anything wrong, what do you want me to do?”

Touched by his unease, I said, “Anything, get mad at me, tell me what I’m doing wrong … even yell at me… act like you always did - that would help.”

André relaxed slightly and mumbled, “We’ll get there again, don’t worry.”

We spent Christmas Eve and Day at Tyler and Anja’s for their true transatlantic Christmas as they called it, mixing all the elements of American and German Christmas celebrations. Nevertheless, André and I looked at each other in surprise as we saw the most plain and traditional of all German Christmas Eve dishes – potato salad with Wieners – being served.

Anja noticed our look and accusingly said to Tyler. “See, I told you they would think it is ridiculously outdated to have that for Christmas Eve dinner! I spent all my teenage years fighting at home to get rid of that silly, tasteless tradition – and when I was 17 I was finally allowed to make the first coq-au-vin as an alternative. Now I’m married to this Midwesterner, live in Chicago, and I have to fight the German culinary battles of the 1970’s all over again. Christ, I would have preferred a nice juicy American hamburger with coleslaw!”

“So would I,” André said quietly, sending all of us bursting into laughter.

“I don’t see what’s wrong with Würstchen&Kartoffelsalat,” Tyler argued. “It’s good to stick to traditions, even far away from your home, Anja. I love it when your grandmother makes all those old-fashioned dishes – and you won’t even let me have goose for Christmas.”

“Goose, no way, “Anja shook her head, “We’re having a nice, healthy American turkey from that small organic farm in Brown County. And you get your beloved Klöße as well as Rotkohl and Brussels sprouts, that’s enough!”

Laughing I added, “You two are having the classic ex-pat conflict, even though you are not a real German ex-pat yourself Tyler. Most ex-pats stick to customs and traditions of their country of origin long after the home society has moved past them – as an element of their identity. Personally, I’m more than fine with a good American turkey, as long as there is enough of it.”

Anja giggled, patting my belly. “Don’t worry; it’s a 24-pounder.”

After Christmas, André and I did indeed set out to Florida. A colleague at the office had in-laws who rented out a small apartment at Fort Myers Beach and I had decided to drive there after André had pleaded, “Paps, can we go by car to Florida – you know sort of like in a road movie? I know it’s hard for you to drive with your knee, but you seem to be doing okay with the Audi, and we can take longer breaks. I really want to get to know the country.”

Since this matched my own wishes and interests, we did drive slowly through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia stopping pretty often to rest my knee or to look at things that interested us, like staying 2 days in Atlanta. Down in Fort Myers Beach we did have the luck to have almost summery weather, a more than welcome change after the icy Chicago cold. My lighter clothes were uncomfortably tight, but that was a small sacrifice to make.

On our first day there, André immediately found a place to rent wind-surfing boards and went off to try it out while I watched from the board walk. After weeks of not being able to move properly, I was very keen on swimming in the sea – the only problem was getting in and out on crutches in the sand, but I would figure that out.

So when André wanted to go wind-surfing again the next day, I let him out telling him that he would find me further down on the beach.

“What do you want to do in the sand on crutches?” André asked disapprovingly.

“I’m going for a swim, that’s all. I’ll manage, don’t worry – go wind-surfing,” I answered defensively.

André frowned. “You’re going to put too much pressure on your knee in the sand without crutches, even for a short ways. I’ll come with you and help you in and out of the deeper water were you can swim.”

“No – go wind-surfing. See you later,” I turned the ignition.

André got back in the car and said, “You’re not going into any water without my help. You’re crazy; you’re going to ruin your rehab! Now drive.”

Taking a deep breath, I said without looking at him, “André, I know you are embarrassed by having such a fat father. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable being seen on the beach with my big belly hanging out in swimming shorts. It’s okay – I understand, I don’t feel too good about it myself. All I really want to do is go swimming.”

André looked at me candidly and said in a low voice, “No, Paps, you don’t understand. You’re my father, that’s what matters. I want you to be fine – and swimming is good for you. I’m helping you into the water – basta.”

Giving in, I let him help me in and out of the water, cringing at how my belly wobbled as I heaved my way through the sand. But I indeed would never have made it on my own and swimming itself was a wonderful, energizing experience.

“Thank you so much André – that was great, that was the best Christmas present you could have given me. You were right; I would never have made it without you. I’m sorry I’m such a whale here on the beach,” putting my t-shirt back on.

“Forget it Paps, it’s not important – I’m glad I could help,” André responded. “By the way, whales are a protected species – we’re supposed to take good care of them. Now I’m going wind-surfing, see you later.”

As André came back from his wind-surfing hour, he brought 2 ice-creams cones with him, one normal one with 2 scoops for himself, and a large one with 3 scoops for me.

“André – how do you think I will ever be able to keep this belly in check if you bring me double portions of ice cream?” I was half annoyed, half touched by his so obviously trying to be considerate and accepting.

Sitting down next to me, André mumbled without looking at me, “Inka-Sophie says we all have our body types and we have to live with them. There is not much we can do to change– so it is not fair to criticize people because of them…”

Baffled, I asked, “Inka-Sophie – sounds like a smart girl. Who is she? Your girlfriend?”

“No, she’s not my girlfriend,” André blushed deeply and looked under himself, playing with the sand. “She’s just a friend from school. She has really helped me a lot the past weeks and months – her parents got divorced a few years ago, so she knows all about it.”

“Oh André, I can’t tell you how sorry I am that this is all so difficult for you,” I sighed, guilt washing over me. “Is there anything I can say or do to make things easier for you?”

“No, it’s good I could come here, I really like this non-Christmassy Christmas,” André said, but somehow he seemed to need to unburden himself, so he went on. “I got to know Inka-Sophie at the beginning of the school year; she’s new at our school. And she had problems keeping up in German and Biology, so our class tutor asked me to help her out. She’s nice; it was easy working with her. After our fall vacation, when I went to Malaga … and told you about Mami & Jens while you were in hospital…”

“Oh god, André, don’t remind me of the biggest mistake of my life,” I groaned. “Can you ever forgive me for not speaking to you directly again… I more than know it was not your fault.”

“Forget it, it’s over, it was Mami’s fault, not yours or mine,” André interrupted me. “But I did feel terrible that first day in school after vacation when you hadn’t called back for 4 days,”

I cringed inwardly.

“I felt I couldn’t stand it in school. We had some sort of fight during recess, and … well … I somehow freaked out and locked myself into the boys rest room, the inner door and didn’t come out, no matter what the other teachers, Mami, Jens or whoever said. I just sat there and covered my ears. After a while all was quiet – and then I heard Inka-Sophie say that she was the only one left. She stood there waiting for me and told me her story, of her parent’s divorce through the door … she had guessed that was the problem from what she already knew…Then I opened the door and we talked a long while. She made me understand that I wasn’t the only one hurt – she told me that you must be extremely badly hurt too, lying in a hospital bed with a broken knee, so far away, to find out Mami had someone else…yeah…just because you’re an adult didn’t mean you can’t feel just as awful as I do. If it hadn’t been for Isa, I probably would never have talked to you on that Monday afternoon you finally called – maybe not again until today. But I’m glad I listened to her, she was right…”

Swallowing hard, I mumbled, “Thank you so much André for talking to me again and for understanding me. I don’t know what to say… I think I would like to get to know Inka-Sophie - can I write her a thank-you note?”

André shuddered. “Hell no, you’re not writing anything for friends of mine!”

Smiling I said, “André, I promise I’ll try harder to be a good father for you – listen to you, help you where I can, try not to embarrass you…”

André shifted sand between his hands before saying very quietly, “You’re okay, stay the way you are. I’m sorry I used to make fun of your belly, that was not fair…that’s just the way you are. Mami hasn’t been fair either…and getting to know Jens, well - a thin father figure is the last thing I need in life…”

So Sabine had indeed traded fat me in for Mr. Thin – that was a clear message. Well, at least I knew now that my marriage was definitely over.

The New Year and its first days were wonderful with sun, sea, swimming and André’s company, so I had to struggle to keep my emotions in check when I dropped André off at Miami airport for him to fly back home to Germany, promising that he would come back for Easter vacation. To make the most of my trip, I had decided to drive back via Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi via St. Louis to Chicago to get a better impression of the South.

On some road in Alabama, on January 6th, my phone rang – it was Stella.

“Happy New Year Uli! How are you doing? Did you get my invitation for our Epiphany party? I somehow did not get a response to my e-mail.”

“Happy New Year, Stella!” I responded, trying to remember whether I had gotten an e-mail, but could not think of one, even though I had checked regularly, also to keep Sabine updated on André’s whereabouts. “I’m sorry, the e-mail must have gone lost, and I didn’t get one. When is the party?”

“Today, Epiphany is January 6th!”

“Oh dear…” for a fleeting instant racking my brain whether there was any realistic option of getting back to Chicago by tonight – but there wasn’t since I had to bring the car back. “I’m so sorry, I’m somewhere in Alabama, I can’t make it back today…Maybe there is another day…”

“Okay, no problem,” Stella answered. “Have a safe trip!”

Continued in post #27