The following is a work of fiction.
After walking so many times around the quaint college campus, farms and parks, I feel that Lund is an empty city. Most Friday nights are spent drinking watered-down beer on the balcony during the summer I study in Sweden. My drinking buddy is the husky, dashing, blue-eyed Mike Gardner, a rower at the University of California at Berkeley. There was also Elisa, who has fuschia hair, dresses like Rihanna and studies chemical psychology at Riverside. All of us Americans live in Norra Skoletorp, the dorm beside the train tracks on the southside of town.
One night, Mike and I are on the balcony when Elisa’s friend who resembles Alicia Keys whispers in my ear that Elisa is waiting for me in her room. I nod as she leaves. Mike looks at me uneasily. His wavy hair is disheveled.
“What the hell are you waiting for?” he asks.
I have no idea. Mike tosses his cigarette over the edge. I chug my beer, and go to Elisa’s room. I never tell anyone this. I want to be with Mike.
The door to her room is unlocked. I open it. Slants of moonlight are on her back. She’s naked on her bed. Two minutes later, I still have my red flannel on, and we’re talking about how love turns us back into animals. I shed my jeans and my shirt. Eight times she says I’m amazing. She cries and moves like a glacier under heat. Afterward, she’s sleeping on me, and I’m staring at the stucco on the ceiling and wishing I were rubbing the stubble on Mike’s face.
Every school day, Mike sits next to me, under the impression that we’re just friends. Every night, we drink and talk about the randy adventures of John McCain, terrible Swedish cuisine, cities we want to see. Every night I want to tell him. I could just mention it like its nothing and see where he takes it. Remember in Helsinki he said that he hit on his professor but never specified whether that professor was a man or a woman. He’s a rower. Are rowers gay? It’s a high-contact sport. A lot of them are. What if I were so attractive that it wouldn’t matter whether he considered himself straight or gay? Is that even possible?
Answers finally arrive after we all go to Malmö for a music festival, which was over by the time we alight the train. We fight our way through the crowds of drenched Swedes on the platform and outside the station. Mike, who becomes instant friends with everyone, meets a hockey player who leads us to a bar and buys us shots. This hockey player introduces us to his friend, a mechanic, who looks like he’s one or two years older than us. He’s lanky with spiky blond hair, blue eyes and glasses. He tells us about when he studied abroad in Thailand. After a few rounds, he mentions that he lives two blocks away, which is convenient because if we don’t leave to catch the train now we have to wait until 5 A.M. So we all go to the mechanic’s. We pile onto the couches his living room, and he plays a movie on his wall of flat screen tvs. We chug cider while muted in the background an Olympic soccer resorts to eating each other, having crash-landed in the Everglades. Soon almost everyone has passed out. Mike rubs my chest. As he does, he asks with a smirk, “Are we doing this?”
Just then, I realize that two random Swedish girls are staring at us, their faces as blank as the walls. I realize that this mechanic’s house is really nice, like drug-dealer nice. Butterfly knives cover the coffee table, and he says that we can have as many as we would like. Mike falls asleep on my shoulder. The mechanic sits next to me on the arm of the couch. He says we can take my American friend, Sophie—passed out on the rug—to his bed, then “take” her from either side. I pretend not to catch what he’s saying. As he repeats himself, I pretend to fall asleep. As I fall asleep, he says that I should lie in his bed and explains his plan again. We act this out for what seems like hours. The Swedish girls get up and dash for the train. It’s 5 A.M.
After Malmö, it is back to cloudy days of wandering around the Lund and its park-like cemetery. That summer, I was stuck in a lull. It had been six years since my drunken brother, Daniel, left for Arizona without saying a word. I still feel like a nobody without him. I go about my day depressed like I was the one who died. I hoped that by traveling to a beautiful Scandinavian country for a summer I would get over my grief. Now what in the world is making me so afraid of doing anything? Is Mike really interested or was it just that he was drunk? One night on the balcony, we say cheers for the people we love. I want to bring up the night in Malmö, so I drink another watered-down År Brö for confidence. Then I drink four more.
Next week, we fly to Stockholm. We can’t figure out how to catch a bus from the airport because our Swedish is so bad. Carla, a girl from class, “asks” me to carry her luggage as she pokes me with a brochure. I had made reservations to stay with six girls all like Carla two miles away from downtown in a one-room cabin on an island. On the cab ride there, when she slaps me on the back of my head, only then do I realize my mistake. The summer night sky in Sweden never turns completely dark but radiant blue with black along the edges. The lush city with its white lights and blue edges spans across a series of islands.
After the cab Mike and two guys from class decide to wander around all night instead of staying at a hostel, so we say our goodbyes. None of us has a phone, so it’s uncertain whether Mike and I will meet up before we get back to Lund. Later, the girls list the things they hate about guys and dating as they ready for bed. Meanwhile, I am trying very hard to read a novel about a mob boss who builds a nuclear fallout shelter in Mumbai. Sacred Games. That night, there were many moments of me wishing I were in it.
The next day I set out for a day of roaming around alone. The trains underground can take you anywhere, but I like walking. It’s a mild, grey morning, and it rains lightly as I cross the bridge to the muddy shore of the main island. The water is so clean that you can swim in it. I circle the residential neighborhoods and plazas with cafes and rose-red civic buildings. At the malls several stores play the song, ‘Home,’
Let me come Home . . . Home is wherever I’m with you.
That afternoon, by a dried-up fountain, I come across Carla, angry that all the other girls left her. She’ll pay for half of my dinner if I promise to hang out with her. I take her by the hands, and tell her that I can’t. She’s angry, but in a minute she’s over it. I eat a kebab where there’s a view of an island with post-modern architecture an ancient trees. Trains rush by as I watch the sky turn cream orange with flecks of pink wondering if I’ll ever be able to live in Stockholm.
That night I find myself in an old neighborhood with medieval taverns and cobblestone roads. A street urchin plays Mexican ballads on a guitar. Families take photos of the Victorian cavalrymen. Waves of club-goers pass, dressed like they’re going to job interviews. Someone grabs my shoulder. It’s Sophie.
“Josh, we called you like 50 times,” Sophie says. Sitting in the Italian restaurant behind her are my classmates, laughing. After we have dinner, the girls leave to go clubbing. The guys go to the boardwalk, where someone explains how Mike got kicked out of the club yesterday. It’s late, but families are still out, retirees drink on boats, promoters rally for clubs. Hanging from the streetlights are banners for erotic Victorian paintings at the National Museum.
“Have you seen the documentary about the relatives of Osama bin Laden?” Mike asks.
“No,” I say as we brush by cyclists.
“All of them have so much power. Imagine being able to put a hit on anybody that you wanted. And there’s no one to tell you, ‘No’. . . . It’s crazy having that kind of influence.” He takes out a cigarette. “Have you heard about how the rich party in Paris?”
I say no again.
“Celebrities bring their kids and party for months, not just the parents but the kids, too. They end up doing drugs and getting hammered every night when they’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.”
“Dude, I had no idea,” I say.
“Living like that is unreal. I don’t know what I would do if I had that kind of money.”
“Mike, tell us about your MILF,” begs one of our friends later on the boardwalk.
“All of them have so much power. Imagine being able to put a hit on anybody that you wanted. And there’s no one to tell you, ‘No’. . . . It’s crazy having that kind of influence.”
Mike smiles dirtily. “She was hot. . .” After the story, we tell him that it was gross, but each of us is jealous and quiet. We walk around until the club-goers pour back into the streets. Mike says that I can crash with him because my place is across town. The sky is deep blue with no signs of changing.
At the hostel, Mike falls asleep against my shoulder as we watch a movie. The other guys have gone to bed, and the volume is low.
He’s so beautiful, I think as I am crossing the bridge back to my cabin across town. I would hate to lose him as a friend. And I would hate myself even more if my feelings bothered him. He could think that I am weird and tell everyone that I am weird, and for the rest of the summer, everybody will treat me differently.
The long, dark bridge on the way back looks over Stockholm. I come across terrified girls, a drunk dude wanting to fight, an elderly woman with a sun hat, crowds dressed for job interviews. On the last bridge to the cabin, I see ducks by the shore. It’s almost light out. As I get closer, I see that they’re taking turns diving. Each comes to the surface with algae on its bill. As I get closer, I see two foxes on the water’s edge. Suddenly, one lunges at a duck but they swim away. The farthest one won’t stop quacking and quacking and quacking. Back on the shore the foxes chase each other across the gravel, and out of sight. I still hear them sliding as I walk to my cabin sleepily in the morning light.
On our last night in Sweden, Mike tells me that he wants to hang out. After we party with everyone, we go to a burger joint on the other side of the train tracks. Sophie comes along. She orders and pays for our food. Her Swedish is flawless even though she’s blacked out. As we eat outside, a group of teenagers comes to sit with us even though they aren’t eating. A minute later, Mike explains to them why N’Sync sucks, Lund sucks, and that he’s a rower. I am just wondering what the hell these kids are doing here.
“That was annoying,” I say after they leave.
“They were cool,” Mike says. He takes out a cigarette. A long train passes by. Mike admits that he doesn’t know why, but he likes being around me.
I want to tell him the same. I’m about to. But blackout Sophie is leaning against the store window. Blackout Sophie who was treated like a foreigner by every Swede she liked. Blackout Sophie vomits all over the window.
“I hate her,” Mike says. He puts out his cigarette. We leave before anyone notices.
“I’m so sorrr-ryy,” Sophie groans as we walk her home. “I didn’t mean to. . . . You’re like a brother.” She has throw-up all over her breast like a gory zombie.
“I’ll make sure she wakes up alive,” I tell Mike in the stairway.
“Whatever,” he says. Then he goes to bed.
I walk her to her bathroom. I turn on the shower, and she drinks from it. After a while she sobers up.
Back in my own room, I wonder, packing up my clothes, when I will come across someone like him again while I study, travel and try to lose track of my own loneliness.