Just like starting over
By Itane Vero
I recognized him by his eyes. Those deep, penetrating eyes. He never looked at you. He observed you, analyzed you. As if you were an object of study. Like he was able to expose your heart, that he had the capacities to investigate what was on your mind.
The rest has completely changed. His shiny black hair is sparsely gray. Where he previously had the build of a young warrior, he now trudges through the restaurant like an old defeated general. His hands are shaking, his legs are wobbly. Deep wrinkles run across his narrow face. Like he constantly has to be on guard.
Still, I go to him. He looks up at me. He does not seem to recognize me. I ask if he minds if I sit opposite him. He thinks for a moment and then gestures for me to take a seat. It is still early in the afternoon. A sunny day in February. We are sitting in a lunchroom next to the station. My train does not leave for another half hour. So, I take the opportunity to have something to drink and eat.
“You don't recognize me anymore?” I try to ask my question as casually as possible. As if we are cousins and have not seen each other in years. He pretends not to hear my question. He dips his ham cheese sandwich in a cup with ketchup. He must make quite an effort to complete the action without tampering.
When I was still a student, Professor Karl Werners was a celebrity. Barely thirty years old, he was already the rising star within the scientific community. In the mid-1980s he was the forerunner in biotechnology. He developed sophisticated techniques to modify, cut, paste, and change DNA in single-celled organisms.
Until a fellow professor found out that Karl was cheating. He transformed not only molecular structures but also his own results, his analyses, his report, his presentations, his books. Where previously his name was spoken with honor and respect, people now ignored him. He had become a pariah. An outcast.
“Wherever I am, wherever I go. To European countries, to the United States, to Africa. I always encounter them. My former students. And that is why I always meet him. Myself."
Chewing is going difficult. Could he have a toothache? I am ashamed. What makes me want to contact him? Is out of pity? Is it genuine interest? Is it really that I want to know how he is doing? Or is it merely sensation, is it more excitement? So that I can have a intriguing story to tell to my family and friends?
“That's why I returned to this university city in the end. All those years that I thought I had to hide. All the time that I have been creeping through the mud. All those taunts, all those insults, the mocking, the laughing. All in all, it does not go away.”
He manages to eat half the sandwich. There are large drops of ketchup on the tabletop in front of him. Breadcrumbs are nesting around the corners of his mouth. He looks at me. Calm, determined.
“People feel comfortable with me. I am evil incarnate. I am the villain. And so – as a result - the others are the ones who are good, who do the right thing. Compared to me, everyone is a saint.”
With trembling hands, he manages to wipe his lips with a napkin.
“They must be present in every real-life story. A Cruella de Vile, a Judas, a Witch, a Devil. Fate has determined that I am this person. No one has to find the wicked anymore. I am the traitor; you are the savior. I am the crook; you can be the good citizen.”
He does not sound cynical, neither bitter. He finishes his glass of milk and checks his cell phone to know what time it is.
“Do you know what the advantage is of my position as a pariah, as a reprobate? I do not have to pretend to be better than I am. I don't have to maintain a status; I don't have to play nice. I failed. Like many other fellow human beings. However, they have to make every effort in the world to prove that this is not the case. They are the ones who are cramped, stiff, bitter, disappointed.”
A little later I see him sitting on the heated terrace. Beer, book, earplugs. He waves. He seems content, reconciled with life.