Copyright © 2017 Jerico Olivari
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the expressed written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. In other words, this is just a book of alternative facts.
Little Novelist Publishing
To my friend who convinced me to go to Europe. Skål, Proost, whatever they say in Italy, and Cheers.
To the Swedish writer, (hey, that’s the original title of the book), sorry I made up all these creepy details.
To the people I met in the four different countries we visited in Europe. I wish you guys would stop smoking cigarettes.
The guy who smoked cigarettes with you.
Imagine my real trip to Europe is a deck of cards handed to me from a new pack. All the cards are in order. Now, imagine I take those cards, Jokers and all, and I shuffle them. Then I break them in half. I take away one pile and I replace it with Uno cards. I reassemble the deck from the two piles. I shuffle this new deck twice. That is the story I write.
There are two opinions that may offend someone if you don’t know them well enough: politics and religion. I respect that. However, the protagonist in this novella does not.
Warning: The following will have opinions and beliefs unsuitable for someone without an open mind. You may get offended by words on a page. Please keep your hands inside the ride at all times. If it offends you, simply put it down or burn it at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. The content does not reflect the opinions of Little Novelist Publishing, even if it’s a one-man operation headed by the same person who wrote this novel.
taking a chance on chaos
Written by Jerico Antonio Olivari
Edited by No One
Cover by David M Rose & I
By George Resande.
The world was divided into two sentient groups, with the world being in the second group if it had to choose.
Humans were tired. The working class was tired. The construction workers were tired. The farmers were tired. The students were tired. Police were tired. Victims of police brutality were tired. Doctors and nurses were tired. Business owners and waiters were tired. The poor were tired. The rich were tired. Refugees were tired. The huddled masses yearning to be free were tired. Racists were tired. Preachers were tired. Women were tired. The persecuted were tired. The hungry were tired. The drug dealers, the hustlers, the bankers, the pharmacists, and the medics, teachers, and athletes were tired. Writers, singers, actors, musicians, and artists were tired. Politicians were tired. They who were taken advantage of by politicians were tired. They who woke up early to go to bed early were tired. They who went to bed late to wake up late were tired. They who were treated with inequality and they who were paid unfairly were tired. My father and mother were tired. My sister and my brother were tired. My girlfriend and boyfriend and lover and partner and secret were tired. Children were not tired all the time, but they did not know any better.
That was one part of the sentient world, and they were all tired.
Change was said to be on the horizon.
The other part of the sentient world, however, was not tired. The bees were not tired of pollinating. The rabbits were not tired of digging. The lions, the gazelles, the jaguars, and cougars were not tired of running. Eagles were not tired of flying. The fish, dolphins, and sharks were not tired of swimming. The bears were not tired of sleeping. The chipmunks and squirrels were not tired of skipping along the branches of trees. The manatees were not tired of the water. The caterpillars and tadpoles were not tired of metamorphosis. The frogs and the butterflies were not tired. Trees were not tired of their tallness, nor their neighbors. The crocodiles and plankton were not tired of their place in the food chain. The monkeys were not tired of swinging, and the wolves were not tired of howling at the moon. The mosquitoes were not tired, despite how many deadly deceases they spread.
That was their nature and order in their side of the sentient world.
A horizon bound to never change.
I was one of those tired people, feeling defeated and angry, small but still so significant in the matters of the universe. How, after years of progression, were we bound to repeat our biggest failures. Had we not learned that we were all the same skeleton, that love was love, that we should help the poor, and not be envious of the rich, but instead guide their influence for good.
The irony of what set our country on fire was not lost on me. Half the people that elected such an incapable person as our next president were the ones who claimed to live by a book of peace. Their invisible chain to the bible kept the masses from progressing because their interpretation of love thy neighbor was love thy neighbor if they had the same skin color as you. It meant blessed are the meek: for the shall inherit the Earth after we’re done destroying all its natural resources. Those without sin among you, cast the first stone from behind a computer screen so no one could see the hate in your eyes. Red states were blinded by hate. They were tired too; tired of living in fear so they needed more bullets and easier access to guns.
The night after attending my first protest I couldn’t sleep, though I was tired. All I saw was the sand beneath the shore of a retracting wave, and in that sand there was a word neatly inscribed: hypocrite.
Things had not gone according to plan. The blood had taken ten minutes to wash from my hands, and ten more in the shower to get it out of my neck and forehead.
It was supposed to be a peaceful protest. We were better than the other side, armed with knowledge, not guns. We had the power of our voices, not our fists, even if for every mouth there were two fists. Our chants had echoed off the walls of Manhattan, New York that warm December afternoon. Thousands marched next to me, in harmony for humanity. Goosebumps covered my skin. We were the tired ones I had written about, the tired ones taking one more step, howling one more cry from our bitter lungs. A lot of my new friends who’s names I did not know had made signs for the protest.
Not my president.
_My body my choice. _
Each word was an extension of our voice.
Violence was not the answer sought, but the question asked when we clashed with people who opposed our views. Most of those marching wore dark colors, jeans with black or blue shirts. Some covered their faces with bandannas and scarfs. Those who opposed wore all the same jeans and brands, but their faces were proud. Some wore that infamous red hat. When the conflict happened the colors clashed and no one was laughing. Both voices yelled in spite. Emotions overran us. The opposition wanted silence. No one likes a screaming victim, I thought. They were tired of our marching, they wanted us to “get over it” and accept the outcome.
Yet we knew those hypocrites had never accepted anything when it came to our last president; not his religion, not his ideals, not his place of birth. The fighting was mostly vocal at first, but it turned to shoving. I felt strange hands on me at all times. My friend who’s name I did not know fell on the floor, and an opposer came and kicked him then ran like a coward. When my friend looked up I saw blood crawling out of the side of his eye.
We were surrounded by cars and skyscrapers, proof of humanity’s constant evolution, yet the adrenaline plucked me from such a place and took me to a more primitive time, a time as violent as any history lesson. I ran and punched the first angry face I saw; he could have been someone who had held the door open for me in the past for all I knew, but now he was recoiling from my punch. What no one ever told you about punching someone was how much your knuckles hurt afterward, and how weak your legs feel in the heat of the moment. I swung my other hand, hoping to hit another face, but missed and hit someone’s arm. A fist hit me on the back of my head, but the adrenaline had already spread like armor. I felt nothing.
I kept swinging and kicking and holding my breath and losing everything I knew about myself while the fight continued. At one point it felt like we were losing. The next we were winning. Between everything was chaos. In small glimpses I felt a sick joy overwhelm me.
The opposer in front of me fell, pulling down a woman with him. He spit on her face and she yelped. I managed to lunge my tired body in their direction. In my head, for a split second, I thought I was going to gracefully pull her up and then I was going to knock him out, but what ended up happening was I pushed her so she crashed against the asphalt and I took her place on top of the man. I did not stop hurting this man. His blue eyes were full of fear, screaming help, begging for a pause, but I did not stop punching until his eyes closed, and then I moved my weak hands around his throat. I felt his Adam’s Apple on the edge of my palm, and pressed down. I felt him struggle for air. His eyes reopened, full of confusion. I kept pressing until rage blinded my sight, unsure if my eyes were open or not.
A pair of arms lifted me. I was so tired I was ready to surrender to a vengeful beating, but the arms pulling me belonged to my friends. They got me to my feet and escorted me away. No one around me knew my name. One gave me his red handkerchief so I could wipe the blood. It did not take. We got inside a van. The driver asked me where I lived. I trusted him with my answer. That had been six hours ago.
When I got home and realized I was alone I had closed the door behind me and pressed my back against it, sliding all the way down to the floor. There I cried, shocked, scared of my own skin. My eyes quivered, but I was not going to get away from myself, or what I had done. I let myself fall even further, allowing for the tears to be applied directly to the wooden floor. That had been five hours ago.
For a long while I wondered if I had actually done it; if I had actually murdered the man. In the shower I tried to cleanse my thoughts while water poured down on me. The hot water turned some of my skin red as I stood there, suspended in time, inside my head, wondering if I was a murderer.
In my own bed my muscles felt worn and beaten. My brain and whatever fabric made my soul was exhausted down to fumes. I was sad. That had been forever ago.
After a string of sleepless nights I wondered if I should meet with a psychologist. Therapy and pills had never been a big part of my life, except for two semesters of high school I had pimples. But who didn’t have problems in high school? I wish I had those types of problems now.
On one of those sleepless nights I saw the yellow sun replace the blue hue outside my window. I touched the cold glass and heard the busy street below. The person I had been had escaped my skin. The old me was wandering around there, in some unknown location. Fear and paranoia took over my life. I spent most of my free time looking out that window, wondering if I was going to see the man again, if the people involved were going to recognize me, if the police were searching for me, and so on.
While I weaved through the shadows of depression I wondered if I should get a gun. Often I would read people argue that there would be less violence if everyone owned a gun. Some believed teachers should carry guns in schools to stop shootings. It was all stupid nonsense, but in my darkest hour it made sense. Days drifted by as I went to work, went to volunteer, came home, had dinner, and never joined my roommates or their friend staying on our couch in the living room.
Then it was Christmas week. A time to hop on a train and go home to Long Island.
My cousin picked me up from the train station. He had a thing for matching his cargo shorts with a backwards hat. If he could afford better kicks, he would match those too. He had a thin blonde beard that was hardly visible on the count of his fair skin.
We locked eyes. “Hey! Socialist! Over here, Stalin!”
Funny thing was I had planned on speaking with my cousin, but my brain cells were probably better off if I remained silent. Just like millions across America, we had gotten into a family argument on Thanksgiving, a day reserved for unity. Admittedly I thought he was right, but at the time I didn’t want to hear how my own party had shunned and sabotaged my preferred presidential candidate. Either way, him and my uncle would have hated whoever was running against their beloved business man. To them liberals were “pussies” who wanted illegal terrorists to murder them and gays to fuck their children. My sister and I told them if that was the case then republicans were sexist inbred racists who believed Jesus was going to return and be happy with them shooting each other and preaching white supremacy.
The dinner was not without one of my favorite highlights. Of course, what was Thanksgiving without turkey, gravy, and politically-charged discussions. When the law of transgendered individuals using public restrooms was brought up everyone took their usual sides. Except for me. I convinced them I hated the idea of them using the women’s room. That gave me the attention of the table. “Yeah, just last week there was a transgendered person quoted regarding what they would do,” I said. “Should I read it for you?” The table agreed, so I pulled out my phone and cleared my throat. “I’ve gotta use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet,” I read. A few on the table caught on; my sister had a wide smile. “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you identify with a different sex they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do… anything,” I said, looking at my family and friends.
Only my aunt reacted right away. “Hah! See! That is awful. We need laws to prevent that sort of thing from happening.”
Despite being divorced and having a mutual dislike for each other, my uncle tried silencing her with his hand on her wrist. That was Thanksgiving.
My cousin pulled up the driveway. Forty minutes before doing so he had given up trying to get a reaction out of me and shifted his talk to the New York Knicks. He was my cousin, my blood, and the least I could do was talk about what players we wanted to trade. He told me he was not going to come in, but that he would see me Christmas morning.
It was tradition to go to Moyer’s Pub the night before Christmas. The bar was owned by our neighbor so I had been going since I was eighteen. It was the highlight of my life at one point, but I skipped it. My desire to celebrate or eat were gone. Like a Christmas gift I fell asleep early that night. The Christmas tree surrounded by gifts was in the corner of the living room. It was a real pine tree, of course, or my dad would not have had anyone come to the house. There were family members dressed in pajamas. I greeted everyone, remaining civil, and sat on my favorite sofa chair and watched the younger onces rejoice.
There were no gifts for me under the Christmas tree except for a single brown envelope. My mom told me to wait until the end before opening it. Inside the slip was a ticket to Stockholm, Sweden. I was confused.
“Since you want to get out so badly!” my uncle joked. Most of the family laughed. My sister smiled endearingly, and my mom chuckled. The booming laughter caused a flush of red to flash on my cheeks even though I wasn’t embarrassed.
“I did say that. Yes.”
“Well, now’s your chance!”
“They’re just teasing you, honey. Your friend Adam Steele said you guys spoke about possibly going to Europe in the summer and he wanted to surprise you. He called me and your dad and everything. We thought it was better to go during the off-season.”
“In three weeks? What about work? What about my volunteering?” My confused state started unraveling. “Is that why you asked for my passport number?”
“Guilty. Now go on, give him a call and thank him.”
“You can use my new rotary phone!” my sister yelled. “It’s very retro.”
I laughed. “You don’t just plug it in and it works, sis. You have to pay for it like a real phone.”
“Oh,” she sighed, staring at the phone and turning one of the dials. It made a pleasing noise. My cousin took out his phone and captured her disappointment. She chased him around the room asking him not to put it online.
I was not excited by the idea of going to Europe. It felt like a lot of work to go so far and spend every day walking around. I called Adam to hear his proposition, wondering if I could give the ticket to someone else. The first thing Adam told me was he hated being home for Christmas. He spent most of his days avoiding his “boring” friends who just wanted him to meet their “stupid” babies.
“Think about it, son,” he said with an eager voice. Nothing stopped the flow of information I got. He promised the trip of a lifetime. Stockholm, Sweden; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Milan, Italy; London, England. Hostels. Landscapes. Sights. Food. Bars. Clubs. Drinks. Drugs. Girls.
“But now? With everything going on?” I asked.
Brussels, Belgium. March. Airport. Subway. Thirty-two dead.
Orlando, Florida. June. Nightclub. Forty-nine dead.
“Yes, now!” Adam yelled. “New York is the biggest melting pot in the world, how different could it be over there?”
Nice, France. July. Streets. Bastille Day. Eighty-four dead.
Munich, Germany. July. Shopping Mall. Nine dead.
“Are you worried our things are going to get stolen at a hostel? Just buy a lock.”
“I’m worried about terrorism.”
“So is my dad,” Adam said. “But we’re still going.”
Less than two weeks later—
Istanbul, Turkey. New Year’s Day. Nightclub. Seventy injured. Thirty-nine dead.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida. January. Airport baggage claim. Five dead.
When the next conversation between Adam and I happened, I figured it was to officially cancel the trip. The phone call came while I was reading a book on my bed. It was a warm day for New York winter standards.
“Trip is over, my dad says it’s too dangerous,” he said. “He’s convinced we’re going to be killed or beaten by Muslims.”
The world was on fire. His dad had a right to fear Europe. Enough attacks from religious extremists had the world cautious. With the trip being about three weeks, it would be a long time to spend abroad. I walked to the rose-tinted window while I let Adam linger on the phone, lamenting what could have been. I saw the children across the street playing in their snowy front yard. It was a peaceful image, with the white picket fence and the red door and the American flag moving to the wind.
It was the middle of the night when a BANG! from a car door slamming shut woke me with a flash of energy. Instantly my instincts were on the defensive as I scouted the room for anything unusual. The book I was reading, When Summer Ends, was on the nightstand with a bookmark peaking from the center. My desk was a mess. My closet doors were closed. A couple posters of the band Brand New decorated my walls; they were from Levittown just an hour west. Everything was calm, including myself.
I walked to the window. A porch light turned on a couple houses down, revealing two shadows walking up, laughing and trying to silence each other’s loud voices. One of them took out the keys and the other tilted her neck so she could see her breath go up to the sky. As soon as the door opened a dog greeted them. It was so late and my brain was so tired it felt like nothing was real. It felt like I had escaped my body in my sleep like a lucid dream, or more beautiful like an astral projection. Instead of traveling throughout the universe or dimensions, my body was roaming through my own childhood bedroom in Long Island. I was once scared of leaving this bedroom to go to school down the street. I was scared again when I moved to New York City.
I owned an old radio my grandfather had given me. I used to listen to it because I found charm in the static-sounding quality, but when my cousin told me the dead could communicate through it I stopped. For old time’s sake I turned it on and turned the dial. It felt like every talk show discussed the elections recently, even at night. I found a sermon on one of the religious channels and took my hand off the knob. I listened to it more for the mood the orator conveyed than the words.
Our new president was going to be inaugurated in less than three weeks. For some of my friends and family members he was a savior, but I felt different. They called me dramatic, but I felt like the Romans had their time, as did the Egyptians, Mayans, Mongolians, Greeks, Incas, and most recently, the British Empire. Perhaps we were next.
The next morning I called Adam. “We have to go to Europe,” I said to him. “I’m worried about everything too, but if we live in fear then, I don’t know, we are just like the people I was marching against. Then the terrorists win. I want to get away from New York for a while.”
“Dude. Right? I am right there with you,” Adam shouted in excitement. “We’re twenty-six years old. We can do whatever we want. If it’s our time, it’s our time.”
The next phone call interrupted a television show I was watching. It was official. We were going to Europe. Inauguration Day was the twentieth of January. We were set to fly the day after, which happened to be the same day as a planned woman’s march worldwide.
At the airport gate my body felt like I had swallowed stones. Night had fallen in New York already. Millions upon millions of women had peacefully marched in different cities like D.C. and Los Angeles. It absolutely dwarfed the size of the crowd at Inauguration Day, although the new White House Spokesman told the media it “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” before ending the conference. How embarrassing. I fully expected an encore announcing Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia.
Adam took one last picture of us in our seats. We would not be able to leave the plane until it was in a completely different country. That thought scared me; excited me. It still blew my mind that one flight could put me in a completely different part of the world. The sun was going to go up, the sun was going to come down, and the wind was going to blow on my face just like at home, sure, but there was a certain foreign accent to the everyday happenings of the universe.
I turned to Adam, who was looking out the window with the glee of a child, and asked if he knew what chaos theory was. “The butterfly thing?” he responded.
“Yes, kind of, I guess, the butterfly thing,” I said.
Chaos theory was the idea that an unbelievably small action, or multiple non-related actions, could drastically alter weather. The mainstream adaptation of chaos theory was the idea that a small or uninteresting moment could lead to a sequence of moments that alter someone’s life. It was known as the butterfly effect because of a popular saying: a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world could cause a hurricane on the other. Every day life was filled with harmonic chaos.
For example, when I was a child my friends and I were playing football and one of my friends threw it so high it landed in the neighbor’s backyard. I was the closest so I jumped the fence and immediately heard a loud pop. I looked down and there was a small wooden board attached to my foot. I took it out and realized I had landed on top of a nail, but the nail had gone between my toes and not through my foot. My heart sped after the fact, reacting to what could have been. I retrieved the ball and never told any of my friends. Because of my health I was able to play and because we were playing on the street my uncle saw me when he drove past. Because he saw me he stopped and asked if I wanted to drive the car down the block. It was the first time I drove a car. Because of that, I got to drive it every time I saw him, and I got my license before any of my friends.
“Now imagine this… someone in Sweden is minding their own business, completely unaware that two guys woke up half the world away, traveled four thousand miles, just to ask them for directions.”
“You have a tendency to romanticize things, you know that?” He said. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s just… funny.”
“But that’s not romantic at all,” I said. Then figured I would share an example of a romantic situation, like missing our train by a minute so we would have to get on the next one. “What if there was a pair of Swedish girls on the next train?”
Adam had stopped listening about halfway through, I could tell, but I kept going so I could live the fake day in my head.
The plane started moving.
Time moved quickly after that. I looked out the window and stared at my city. My heart mourned for the country, and the future soon-to-be created by choices yet made.
The air was a bittersweet cold that stung then hugged my lungs from inside, welcoming me to Sweden. Passing customs had been quick. We were there to vacation four days. No more was said. We got our bags and Adam, who had planned the trip with extensive detail, walked us down an escalator to catch the train. “It’s a really speedy train,” he said. The area was designed to look like a cave save for the platform and neo modern benches made to look like straw.
As irony would have it, först was the first Swedish word I translated using context clues. I had learned “tack” on the plane, which meant “thank you”, but all other phrases had been forgotten. The plane ride was seven hours and we had jumped six hours ahead because of the time difference. It was all too much math for my tired head.
The train took us into Stockholm. The words ‘GAME OVER’ were sprayed in graffiti all over the walls leading up to the train stop. We stepped out of the train and took the stairs up to the ground level. Thirty-two degree air greeted us.
“The hostel is this way,” Adam said, leading.
I dragged my suitcase over the sidewalk. He warned me that the tiny gravel between the bricks could break my wheels, but I was too focused on the world around me. The city felt like New York if I was living in a dream; not in the fantasy sense, but in the way dreams often switched the most subtle of details. There weren’t as many people. It didn’t smell bad. The buildings weren’t as tall but they were lit up, urging the fast-moving pedestrians to step inside. Adam made a stop at an ATM and retrieved 2,000 Swedish Krona.
We got to the hostel and were reintroduced to warmth. The overall theme seemed to a nod to the old days, with typewriters, an old box TV set, and a dial phone visible as soon as you got to the reception area. Even their tablet had been slipped inside an old Macintosh skin to give it the appearance of an old monitor.
After half an hour a man led us to our room. On the way there he urged us to take off our shoes and leave them in the designated area because of an old Swedish tradition. By the time we got to the door he had talked about meatballs and vikings, basically what any tourist would want to hear. He left us with a code to get inside our room and went back to the front desk. We stepped inside the room and were greeted by a girl of red hair who was getting ready by a mirror. My heart sped. I had never been in a hostel and I had never imagined the first person we would meet would be a young German girl sipping on beer. We all introduced ourselves and she left as soon as she was ready.
Adam and I went out for a walk. He led the way, of course, as we shared a can of beer we had gotten on the plane. Government regulations on alcohol were strict in Sweden. Nothing could be sold past five, and never on Sunday. They wanted to prevent alcoholism. As someone who lost a friend to a drunk driver, it didn’t seem like a halfway bad idea.
Before coming into the country we were told there would be no garbage or homeless people, and though the first was true, I did notice a man sleeping on the street and a man begging for money with a mug. Another thing we had been “warned” was that Sweden let one-hundred and fifty thousand immigrants from the Syrian civil war into the country, by far more than any nation in the European Union, counting Britain which had recently seceded.
Plenty of people were out despite the cold. We didn’t get into the first two bars because we weren’t “on the list”, but we got into the third place we tried. It was suggested we could leave our coats on the hangers by the entrance, but being from New York there was no way in hell I was going to leave my coat unattended. I kept it on despite my skin starting to sweat.
I think it was pretty well known that Swedish women were the most beautiful in the world. Touted for their blue eyes and blonde hair, half the girls at the bar looked like they could be models. The prophecy was true. The thing was, however, none of them wanted to talk to us. By our second beer Adam and I were stuck talking to two American girls who were flight attendants. They were noticeably loud and drunk, embodying almost any girl you’d meet from certain parts of Long Island. We both agreed to separate from them. One more beer at ten dollars, or eighty Krona later, and we were walking back home. It was a ghost town. Some little alleyways had a pair of cement lions on opposite sides, as if guarding passage. I took a picture of Adam riding one.
That night I couldn’t sleep, but for reasons different than in America. Excitement kept me awake with its delightful impatience. As soon as dawn rose I looked out the window at the park across the street. The trees were deprived of anything green, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Adam woke within two hours, and we went to eat a burger at a fast food spot. The rest of the day was spent walking around the city.
If you were a local, you would jaywalk. The noise alerting the pedestrians to cross was different, in a more rattling way. The cop sirens were different. The speeds for cars were all in kilometers. Advertisements were written in Swedish. As for the actual magic of the city, it was beautiful and filled with charisma. There were statues of former kings, and more of those cement lions, and bridges, and hotels, and boats, and seagulls flying overhead.
We walked to a part called Old Town, a city lost in time except for the souvenir shops reminding you of our modern world. Each road was made of a crimson brick, no gravels to be found, and was always tilting upward or downward, or winding in the path through the town. Some paths were too small for cars, and had a low curved ceiling. The hints of claustrophobia experienced were unique. Our reward down one was an open courtyard with a fountain in the middle. We went inside a convenient store and looked at all the drinks and candy with foreign brands. There were Kinder Surprise Eggs, which were illegal in the United States because of the toy in the middle of the hallow chocolate shell. The chocolate was delicious. I got a small toy car.
We walked by the palace. We were on the other side of the street by a small harbor. A wide river divided the city. I stood at the bottom of the small stone steps and I heard the voice of a child shriek—and all at once, I felt the terror and isolation of the cold and heard the eeriness of the birds chirping—only for the shriek to turn into laugher. I could not see the child from where I stood, but I assumed someone was playfully chasing him or her.
“We’ll come back to see the changing of the guards,” Adam said. He went on to list other things we had yet to see, including the Novel Prize museum dedicated to the award named after a Swedish chemist. “This way,” he guided me.
There was a massive church with a looming tower in the middle. Masses of people surrounded it, and their voices lowered the closer they got to the steps. Locals gave a nasty eye to any tourist that was caught staring or taking a photograph so Adam and I went on our way. Church was not high in our interest of Europe, even though religion had shaped and reshaped the continent’s landscape for decades. Like the crusades for example, which were a series of religious wars in the medieval period Catholics had waged in hopes of recovering the Holy Land from Islamic rule; thankfully nothing like that was still around several centuries after the first one in 1095…
Even though I was not hungry I ate at a local deli. I ordered in English, but finished with “tack” and they asked me if I wanted my food warm. Once out of the microwave, I sat with Adam and we shared a meal of rice, broccoli, and meatballs. I knew there was something odd with food back home as soon as I tasted the rice and realized it was better than anything I had tasted in America. How was that possible? Sweden was too cold to even grow rice. Wherever they imported it from, I wanted to go next. The broccoli was just as fresh, and the meatballs were as good as advertised. The meat had a different, juicier taste to it.
“What do you want to do now?”
“Nap,” I admitted.
He agreed with the idea. My body was operating and taking things in, but inside I was elsewhere. Inside I was in deep sleep, almost as if I had missed my flight and was bound to wake up in my tiny apartment near my roommates and the guy on the couch. Perhaps all those sleepless nights had caught up to me and manifested the trip.
The concept of waking up in New York disappeared when I woke up from my nap hours later and reality surrounded. Adam had already showered in the bathroom down the hall and was playing music while he got ready. The German girl was gone. There was a stranger going through his suitcase on the floor. In less than a minute he went from stranger to friend when he introduced himself as Sebastian Meadows from Los Angeles. I thought it was funny he included his last name. His girlfriend was cooking pasta in the common room. They were ecstatic, but freezing cold. I expected exactly that from a Californian.
They had been together for only a year, but he showed us the diamond ring he was hoping would be on her finger by the end of the trip. I asked where he was going to propose, expecting Sebastian to say Paris.
“England,” he answered instead. “Guildford, to be specific, just outside of London. There’s a Through the Looking Glass Alice statue from Alice in Wonderland. It’s kind of an inside joke.”
Adam and I tossed him a courtesy chuckle and congratulated him. “There’s an Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park too,” I said.
Mentioning New York made me realize that I didn’t miss home.
When I first met Helen it was not love at first sight. Nor was it at second or third sight, I would admit, and she would agree. Before I even knew her name that night, my eyes had fallen for a tall blonde girl with pale skin and blue eyes named Dominika. She was part of a bigger group of Swedish people that we were with because Adam knew one of them through a foreign exchange program in high school. They all knew English, but naturally chose to talk in Swedish. I didn’t think they were trying to be rude since they had all hugged me when we met. During the train ride to Södermalm I had stayed quiet. Only Adam and his friend Dean were having a conversation in a language I could understand.
As hard as it still was for me to believe, I fell in love with Helen that night. I just didn’t know it then. We arrived as a group. Dominika answered every question I asked, but never reciprocated my curiosity. Still, I was convinced she enjoyed our conversations. Helen, or the red head as I knew her in my head, was talking to a taller guy who played hockey named Toby. Apparently, according to Dominika, we were walking through a “younger” and more “fun” part of town, though I could not tell the difference. The buildings and parks and gray blanket of sky had followed us fifteen minutes south… or east, west, north, I didn’t know.
As it was with the little things when it came to chaos theory, Toby led us to a club with a line waiting to get inside. He talked to the bouncer, who was dressed in a thick jacket with a sigil on his sleeve like that of a cop. The bouncer allowed Toby, Helen, another guy, and Dominika inside. The bouncer then stepped forward and blocked the rest of our group. Through translation I found out we had to wait in line, but that we would be prioritized. I blew out a frustrated breath and a puff of steam covered my disappointed face.
“Do you want to wait?” Dean asked Adam.
Adam squinted his eyes as if he could see into the club. He gave me a look and shrugged. I returned the apathetic gesture. “No,” Adam answered.
Then we started walking. Adam and Dean returned to their scheduled programming, and I was left walking beside two girls and two guys deep in conversation with each other. Dominika had been but a shooting star, a pretty face with a dazzle of mystery.
All but a few turned, and whatever they saw, it halted their steps. Adam and Dean continued onward. I was practically alone so I turned with the majority and saw Helen jogging. Her red hair danced like a torch in the night.
Helen used the word “jag” which I knew meant “I” to start her explanation, but I did not understand anything else. All I got was that she was rejoining our group. It didn’t make a difference. By that point I wanted to sit somewhere warm and have a drink alone.
As it was Helen came into the restaurant last and ended up with the seat across from me. Her glasses were thin, but the lenses were large and seemed to cover half her face. Almost as quick as she sat down she got up and grabbed a beer then came back, so I decided to get one of my own. Despite my stomach hurting from adjusting to the food, I ordered the suggested IPA, a nice, dark beer named Zodiac. The label was beautiful, set like a clock but instead of numbers there were drawings of an alien’s head, planets, stars, and a weed plant; all green. The bartender handed me a portable card machine the size of a sandwich. I inserted my card, typed the amount I wanted to pay, though I was told to tip no more than a dollar, and waited for the machine to print my receipt.
“Tack,” I thanked the bartender.
To my disappointment he responded with, “you’re welcome” instead of the Swedish phrase, which I had trouble pronouncing but knew it sounded like “bar so good.”
I took a sip. The beer was delicious. It took me away from my anxious feelings. I knew that was dangerous sorcery, but I would never admit it.
Helen had been sucked into an ethical discussion with Dean of all people, who she might or might not have known well, I still wasn’t sure at that point. Because Adam was so close to Dean the conversation was in English. Helen was a vegan. Dean argued that our teeth and stomach and existence were made to eat meat. Fair. Helen, however, didn’t agree and could not support the treatment of slaughtered animals, or the idea that babies were raised to be slaughtered, spending their whole lives like slaves. “All that torture just for the overconsumption of animals,” she said. “Cows and chickens, not to mention the tons of leftovers wasted in the trash. But I’m not preaching, you can eat whatever you want, it’s your life,” Helen said. “There’s an Elk burger on the menu. I recommend it.”
Dean smiled. I recognized that smile. That was the smile of a guy who thought he was flirting with a girl. “Lions don’t apologize for eating their meal,” he said. He was almost teasing her, hoping to keep her attention as well as the tension.
“Luckily you’re not a lion,” Helen said. “You’re hardly a man.”
Then she turned away from him, missing the shocked grin on his face. He rambled something in Swedish, but her blue eyes were on me as I sat there thinking of something to say. One more minute of silence and she would have probably left to the other side of the table. Without much thought I rolled my sleeves as I wondered what to say since Helen had shifted her eyes to her drink as she picked up her glass and took a sip. Her feet pushed against the floor and the chair she was sitting on made a scratching noise against the wood as she prepared to stand.
She looked at me one more time. “Nice tattoo,” she said.
I looked at my forearm. The tail of my fish tattoo was barely peaking, but it was identifiable. She held up her right hand and I noticed a tattoo of three dots on the web between her thumb and index finger. The dots were placed to make the shape of a triangle, or a V-formation. “It’ s a luffarprickar,” she said kindly, and she closed the gap between her thumb and index finger, making the tattoo disappear from sight.
“What’s that?” I asked.
She took my hand as if she was shaking it. “In the old Swedish days, if you saw the dots when you shook someone’s hand it meant the person was a sailor, or a wandering nomad, and they might need a place to stay… or food,” she added with a cute shrug. “For others it meant allegiance to the King, Queen, and Crown Prince.”
“What’s your interpretation?”
“Life, walk, and eternity,” she answered. “It sounds better in Swedish. Livet, vandringen, och evigheten… vi vandrar vidare.”
“That’s a lot of words I don’t understand,” I said.
“You’ll get it someday,” she answered. “What’s your tattoo about?”
Admittedly after hearing so many words in a foreign tongue my brain shied into a corner. I didn’t think my tattoo was as cool as hers. A part of me wanted her to leave the restaurant, but as it was her chair made the scratch against the floor again, and she leaned her weight on her elbows. Her skinny head rested on her palms. I had her attention. I rolled my sleeve down, covering the tattoo. “It’s nothing.”
“Everything is nothing until it’s something,” Helen said.
It almost irked me that she was so quick-witted, as if she had practiced all these little lines in front of the mirror beforehand. I finally rolled my sleeve, allowing the tattoo of a fish to be visible on the inside of my forearm. She gazed at my skin, and I gazed at her face. Her expression didn’t look hopelessly romantic or happy, and it made me feel good to know I was going to getting an honest opinion.
“First I’d like to know the why of it all,” she said.
Another perfectly executed line, I thought.
“Because I’m a Pisces and there’s a certain mandatory feeling to being obsessed with fish,” I said. “My best friend in college really got me into astrology, not the horoscope stuff, that’s bullshit, but more so on personality traits, you know?”
Her glasses assisted her in looking focused.
“I think I have seen enough, in my life, to agree with a lot of astrology,” I explained. “For example, I do know Aries people get tunnel-vision and their way is the only way they will go. Like my uncle. And I know plenty, plenty of Pisces who are big dreamers and they tend to be the easiest people for me to get along with because of their passion and friendliness.”
“Boy oh boy,” she said, looking away while breathing in the air. “If you like meeting other Pisces, do I have news for you.”
Helen took my hands. I knew what she was going to say, and in that instant my heart burst with the possibility that, despite knowing her for only minutes, I was going to really like Helen.
“I… am not a Pisces.”
Helen laughed. She was still holding my hands on the table. “Look at your face! You thought I was going to tell you I was a Pisces.”
“Well, yeah, that would seem to be the natural order of our conversation.”
“Nah, I’m a Libra. October, what!”
“That’s not funny.”
“Pisces are really sensitive, aren’t they?”
“No,” I defended myself, then smiled. “I was all excited because of my tattoo. See?” I let go of her hand and pointed at the fish. “I want my wife to get a inverted fish on her forearm so when we hold hands it makes the Pisces sign.”
“That’s really corny,” Helen reacted. “Cute, but corny.”
Helen let go of my other hand and moved it to her forearm. She lifted the sleeve of her wool turquoise sweater to show skin. “Right there.”
“In theory,” I said. I wanted to tell her that a Pisces symbol drawn without the other fish was truly alone and had no Zodiac implication.
There was an ease in talking to Helen, one that I could blame on instant infatuation. She was upbeat and happy and always kept the conversation interesting. Because of that I never broke eye contact. I didn’t want to let anyone in, especially Dean who was making loud comments about his Elk burger. Helen ignored him too because she wasn’t a teenage girl perceptible to teasing.
All while I stared she spoke about her new job as a journalist covering stories around Sweden and the rest of Europe. She was also a feminist who had written many articles on equality. She was honorable; her words were fast and true, delicate and to the point. When we shifted back to tattoos she told me how she got the luffarprickar _]in the [_först place.
The day she got the tattoo she barely had a clue about the symbolism behind it. That was the humor in her smile, the source of what kept her giggling too much to talk. She had gotten it because a friend in high school had wanted it, and a break up had driven her friend to the tattoo parlor. Instead of taking her best friend or her cousin who loved tattoos, she took Helen. Helen was like a comfort pillow to the possibly terrifying experience. Her friend never got the tattoo, but Helen, on a whim and filled with adrenaline, took her place. It was high school and Helen’s first tattoo. She didn’t even have to pay for it.
I had gotten my tattoo on the last week of college. Then I moved to New York City. She was more interested about that. The city was tough. I told her how it felt like we lived in a bubble compared to the rest of the United States. A very brutal, mean bubble, but a liberal one at least that welcomed millions of people from all over the world. “So who really lived in the bubble?”
The rest of the country wanted to live in the times they thought of as standard. Maybe it was a time when men went out to work while women helmed the kitchen and raised the kids. Two kids, most likely, a boy and a girl. The boy played with cars and the girl played with dolls. I could never get into the mindset of those in the middle of the United States, so I could never know for sure. The only thing I knew was that most people who stayed in the same small town usually married their high school classmate, had kids, and bought new pants that fit. Maybe they even developed a patriotic view as “defenders” of their one-mall town and any outsider of a different color and race was a threat. Maybe.
“In a weird way I understand them,” I told Helen. “There’s a certain annoyance in changing the status quo, even if it’s something as silly as letting women vote or drinking from the same water fountains as black people.”
“You mean women should get paid as much as men? Why? They already get to vote,” Helen said, returning my sarcasm. “God forbid!”
“Yes. See, you get it. God does forbid people who aren’t like his only son, you know, from that one time he sent his beautiful super white son with blue eyes to the Middle East. Then if I’m paraphrasing the bible correctly… he said to worship false idols and to keep the safety on your gun and to give all your money to millionaire pastors. Something like that.”
“And to oppress women and prevent gays from getting married and decapitate people. Something like that,” she repeated.
“In all seriousness I think everyone is just tired of one another,” I said.
“You know what I think?”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Helen said.
The second she left I didn’t have anyone to talk to again. Without having anyone to talk to I finished my drink quickly, then stood to get another one. I got the same beer and paid for it again, this time leaving a bigger tip.
“Tack,” I thanked him again.
“Varsågod,” the bartender said.
I quietly celebrated with a boastful smile while my cheeks blushed. I scanned the room to see if anyone else had heard. Sadly, I saw someone that erased my smile. His voice had been in the background the entire time, but I had not heard it. Toby, the hockey player, had rejoined us with his friend and Dominika, the picture-perfect Swedish blonde.
I stared at Dominika wide-eyed, but not because she was beautiful, or because of earlier feelings. No. I stared while she talked because I realized that she was nothing, and that Helen could be the north star, permanent, there, always, and I was possibly in love with Helen.
I was tired of not knowing what to do with my life, of my parents requests, of the wars I saw through videos in my tiny room; of the politics I read, of the young people, of the old people, and the people my age alike. I was tired of not being able to sleep, of counting calories, and getting older. I was tired of the four seasons. I just wanted to run to Helen and stay there, if only just to talk.
She came out of the bathroom and I stared at her, wondering what she would do. Toby saw her too, and moved closer. Helen and him exchanged a hug and some words. She kept walking, which was good. She took a glance at the table, and then turned to the bar. She caught me staring, which was not so good, but then she walked toward me.
“Let me buy you a beer,” I said.
“You don’t have to,” she said.
An eager Swedish guy, tall and blonde, kind of shoved me out of the way, but not really, it was more of a forceful tap on the chest so he could get to the bar. Helen laughed and told me it was normal, sort of, though still rude. “It’s probably because you speak English,” she teased. At first I was upset, but then I realized he had sent us slowly drifting to the other side of the bar, away from the crowd.
There she helped me peel the label off my beer bottle so I could keep it as a memory. While her nails dug under and peeled, I appreciated our moment alone. No one could interrupt my heart sinking into her eyes. I found all the brightness in the world in them.
“While you’re here,” she said, peeling the label, “don’t talk to anyone with a flower pin with blue petals and a yellow center. That’s our far-right fascist party and they hate foreigners. They were a part of the white supremacy movement in the late eighties.”
“So even your political parties are polite enough to have a flower as their symbol. We just stick to burning crosses.”
“Don’t be fooled by shiny objects. There’s shit everywhere in the world,” she said.
The beer helped relax my nerves. It was the invisible friend that moved my arm and put my hand on her shoulder whenever we laughed. Usually that happened when one of us said something playfully insulting. When I paid her a compliment I did the opposite and avoided eye contact.
“So where does the rest of the trip take you?” Helen asked.
“Amsterdam, Milan, and London,” I answered.
“Okay, I see,” she said, calculating her next words. “Ride a bike in Amsterdam, go window shopping in Milan, and don’t mention Brexit in London.”
“I will. I will. And I won’t.”
When it was time for Helen to leave I felt sad. But only for a moment. I was actually happy; happier than I had been in days, weeks, or years. I had stared into the eyes of serenity. I had given my soul a place to run free, if only for an hour. Before Helen left she extended her hand forward as if to shake my hand. I noticed she wanted to reference her three-dot tattoo, but instead I grabbed it and flipped it over so I could look at her palm. I mimicked a palm reader and traced the lines on her hand.
“We’ll see each other again,” I said.
It had been a long time since I felt a sense of love.
But after all, we lived to die and died to hope to repeat.
For a short moment in my life Helen was just a girl who had gone out with us as part of a group. Without chaos that was all she was supposed to be, a kind face in a night of many. The immediate aftermath of meeting her was a change I never thought possible. I no longer desired the bank account that would put me inside a white picket fence in a suburban wasteland, slave to mortgage and routine. I actually didn’t know what I desired anymore, but it wasn’t that.
What I did want was to see Helen again, at least for one date, while she was single. In my visions love was a tall grass, and we were lost in it, having back and forth discussions over dinner. If she only knew… she would have thought I was crazy.
Although I left for Netherlands the day after I met Helen, not an hour went by that she didn’t paint my mind with both a present and a future. It did not spoil the trip, but enhanced. Distance was the cousin of love.
The flight arrived to Amsterdam at night. The train took us into the city. It felt darker, colder though the temperature said otherwise. The paths were made of crimson bricks. Immediately the city felt more populated. Whereas I had fallen asleep on the train ride to the airport in Sweden, I kept a heavy New York eye for any suspicious behavior while walking through Amsterdam. The plaza near our hostel was filled with tourists.
From our hostel the new adventure began. We went out to grab a bite to eat but ended up at a bar drinking beer noticeably cheaper than in Stockholm. Despite both countries being part of the European Union, the Swedish used their own currency and Holland used the Euro. Adam noticed a fish bowl of weed next to him on the bar counter. We got high and wandered around the city, ending up at a small stand that sold fries in a cone-shaped paper holder. I started picking at the fries with my hand, but the guy handed me a small wooden fork to use.
We walked until we got tired, which was no easy feat, and went to the bar inside the hostel. Music was playing. While I waited for a beer I ended up talking to a Dutch guy who taught me “thank you” was “Danku” which should have been easy, but apparently I kept mispronouncing it since he kept correcting me. A song came on and he told me how he used to record radio songs using a tape deck. That naturally progressed to something I could relate, making C.D.’s for people. “Track one is the most important,” I said. He offered me a cigarette and even though I could count the amount of times I’ve smoked in one hand, I took it and went outside. There he tried to teach me more Dutch words, but unlike Swedish, it seemed like a harsh language so I gave up trying to learn it.
When we walked inside Adam was talking to two girls from Finland about a popular television drama known as The O.C., which had not been on the air in years. Still, they remembered all the plot points and characters we did. “I love Mariska,” one of them said, sounding a tad Russian.
The other Finnish girl started meddling with Adam’s passport. He told her we had just came from Sweden. They didn’t seem that excited. “We have to learn Swedish in school, it’s like a second language,” was the only thing remotely positive she said about the country.
“How much did you have to pay for a visa?”
Adam looked confused. “We just got off the plane and told them we were staying four days and they let us in,” he explained.
The two girls looked at each other and exchanged some words in a foreign tongue. They were surprised in a playfully angry way. “We have to pay like ninety Euro to get a visa to vacation in the United States, is not fair,” one of them said.
“But we always get it, we always get the visa,” the other said.
Adam and I looked at each other and shrugged. The beer inside the hostel was cheap so we split buying the next round. Halfway through the drink the blonde Finnish girl offered me a cigarette and I found myself outside again, this time trying to learn a few words in Finnish. I gave up on that too, and told her I wanted to move to Sweden. She did not seem excited.
The next day provided one of the saddest experiences of my life: The Anne Frank House. The line was long. An employee handed us a pamphlet that included a layout of the house as well as quotes and a little bit of history while we waited. Just imagining living during the war while I looked around at the canals and buildings… that was unfathomable. For nine Euro we went inside. They asked us not to take pictures.
Anne Frank was your average teenage girl, except she knew what she wanted to do with her life and that was writing. She was given a diary for her birthday and started each entrance with “Dear Kitty” until it was full. Then she wrote in a notebook until that was full. Most of it was autobiographical, but sometimes she let her mind wander onto what was waiting for her in the world outside, mainly after the war. For years Anne Frank and her family hid in the back part of a house accessible only through a bookshelf.
The terror the Nazis casted on the Jewish people lasted for years, and cost over six million lives, including that of Anne Frank’s and her mother and sister. They, along with a few others, were discovered. No one knew who betrayed them. Just prior to this, the Netherlands government had announced that the war was being fought and that it would be over soon, and that people should keep all records of what was happening. Anne Frank decided to rewrite her journal based on the hopes that one day she would be a published author. She died at the age of sixteen in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. A month later the Allies won the war. There was a picture of her dad, who survived, leaning against the pillar in the attic. He tried everything possible to save his family, but when the war was over and the streets were filled with celebration, he had lost his wife and two daughters.
How many more innocent lives with hopes and dreams were lost in the years of Nazi extremists? What lives would they have led if they lived in the United States, a place where the first amendment protected their rights to practice any religion?
Less than five days later the president of the United States made an executive order restricting entry to Muslims from different seven nations. Thousands of people protested in major airports such as our own John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens or L.A.X. in Los Angeles.
Back in our hostel I lamented over a tragic part of our history, now seen from a new perspective, until the sad lullaby put me to sleep. I woke up and checked my phone, as was the norm. Like it had been with a guy with bad teeth talking about nuts and a timid-looking man with a funny name asking a political question, Facebook was alive with their newest microwave celebrity. This time it was a middle school dropout roughly the same age as Anne Frank, who had gone on a television show and yelled in Ebonics, which was so endearing, apparently, that it created a “cash” phrase.
My heart was heavy. We were judged by what we made popular, so I wondered how the people in the United States would choose to support a disrespectful tantrum-throwing bully and her within a month of each other.
Either way, we were far from those problems. We decided to go out. We arrived at the club just before 11 P.M., and the bouncer told us we were early. Adam and I thought he was joking since we always went out at that time in New York, but when we got inside we noticed we were literally the first ones there. We made friends with Jimmy the bartender who asked us who we voted for before letting us purchase a shot and a beer. For half an hour Jimmy kept us company with bar tricks and jokes. Then a flood of people arrived. The music was loud and changed every forty seconds. The disc jockey spoke after each new song and as if that wasn’t enough noise, the bartenders had bells over their head they would sometimes bang in rhythm to the music.
Three hours into the night the place got more crowded than I thought possible. There was no control whatsoever to the amount of bodies around me. We were all rubbing against each other in a fire hazard’s dream. I locked eyes with a blonde girl in a bright red shirt who looked like she was hating it too and walked past her. Adam was asking some Dutch girl what language the song was in, a pickup line that followed with him asking the girl to translate a portion of the song. I turned around and fought my way back to the girl in the red shirt. “Hi,” I said.
“Hello,” she said, her accent thick.
“You’re very pretty.”
“I really hate this place,” I said.
“What’s your name?”
I told her my name and unsurprisingly at that point, she offered me a cigarette. I was drunk enough so I accepted and followed her outside. My coat was in the backroom, but I figured it would not be that cold if we stood next to the building. I was wrong. She stood looking casual while I shivered, trying to look relaxed as I smoked. “So what part of U.S.A. are you from?”
Her eyes lit up with joy. “Then what are you doing here?”
“Visiting,” I said.
“Tell me, what do your people think of the elections?”
“A lot of people in cultured areas hated the results,” I answered. “Middle United States. They’re ignorant. They don’t mind his behavior. Anyone that goes against him he insults. They love it. He has zero class. Can you imagine what the same people that voted for this guy would say if our last president was calling people losers on Twitter?”
Our political discussion was more of a political agreement. The repercussion for a bad reputation could last for centuries. It was the German girl, not me, who was quick to point out how much she hated being called a Nazi as soon as people found out she from Germany. This girl owned a bike and didn’t eat meat because she loved the environment, and when she handed me a second cigarette I asked if I could go inside and get my coat. We walked back in together, the unlit cigarette dangling between my hand. I turned in my ticket and got my coat.
Outside again we sat down at nearby steps and used my coat like a blanket over our legs. We chain-smoked and she told me she was upset Britain had left the European Union. The stock market across Europe plummeted as a result, but her biggest point was that after centuries of fighting, it really felt like they were a family; minor disagreements, shared accomplishments. “We have to stick together,” she urged.
The other concern: more countries might follow in their wake, including the Netherlands. They had an election in a month and the extreme right was gaining support.
She wanted to talk about me, but I said I was more interested hearing about her childhood. She was from a small town in Germany. “Everyone grows up to be firefighters,” she said, “all my family and my dad are firefighters and they hate anyone outside Germany. Except in Berlin, because they hate them too.” I couldn’t imagine how much disapproval she got living in the Netherlands. It was a country as free as advertised. Here in Amsterdam drugs and prostitution were legal, and like the rest of Europe, you only had to be eighteen to drink.
I realized she could have grown up down the street from me and aside from her broken English, I would not have noticed a difference.
Hours later Adam came out zipping his jacket. He took out his phone. I told her I’d be right back and surprised him. “I thought you left with that girl,” he said.
“No, she’s right there,” I said, pointing. She smiled and waved and I came back to say goodbye while introducing Adam. Because I had been told people in Holland greeted each other with at least three kisses on the cheek, I gave her one.
She was taken aback. “I’m still not used to the whole kissing thing,” she said, causing me to blush in embarrassment.
On the walk back Adam laughed about the whole situation. “There were a lot of people in there tonight, man, that spot is crazy. I seriously thought you went home with that girl.”
“No, I actually… well, I did call her pretty to start the conversation. Can you imagine doing that to a girl in Manhattan? They’ll tell you to fuck off so quick.”
“I’m actually thinking about going back to Sweden for Helen,” I said.
“Yeah you guys hit it off, are you thinking about going back in the summer or something? Because if you are, I want to go with you.”
“No, not the summer,” I answered. I looked at the row of bicycles by the canal. There must have been a hundred of them compared to the dozen cars. “When this trip is over I want to go back there.”
Adam thought I was crazy. He wanted to talk me out of it but a tall, lean Dutch guy about our age was walking alongside us with a cigarette in hand. He gave us a look and then continued looking at the floor, mad about something. “I just had a rough night,” he said, in the thickest accent I had heard. “How was your night?”
“Fun,” Adam answered for both of us.
“My mates told me to meet at a club, and eh, I got there, and the, em, queue was so long but I stand there and then they tell me they go somewhere else,” he said.
“That sucks,” I said. I thought about how they learned British English, and that was why he had said mates and queue instead of friends and line. “I hate it when people make, um,” I stopped. I wanted to say make brash decisions but I thought he would not understand me. “Decisions without thinking about other people involved and how it might affect them,” I said.
He nodded, pondered my words. The guy pulled out a cigarette and offered me one, and my voice went to decline it but my hand grabbed it and put it up to my mouth. “Danku,” I said, and he responded with Dutch words.
When it was time to part the guy invited us to have a beer to make up for his shit night, but we told him we were tired. He said that he normally hated tourists, but that we were nice, and wished us a good rest of the trip.
The next morning we walked by the Red Light District and tried not to stare too long at the half-naked women behind the glass doors. Reverting to our teenage years, we giggled and talked about how hot they were. Before leaving I got another batch of fries and added hot sauce as the topping, but it tasted spicier than I would have liked so I gave half to Adam. We walked over canals and learned to constantly look back for people on bikes. My ears were happy every time we passed by a crowd and I heard more than two languages being spoken. I paid extra attention in case I heard Swedish.
We smoked at a bar again and admired the sun going down while I wondered what it would be like if the colorful narrow buildings alongside the canals, which were noticeably leaning forward, fell into the water. Then I wondered what it would be like for such a beautiful place to be under attack. It made me sad and gave me a little bit of anxiety.
That night we went to the same club and I promised Adam I would stay inside. We drank and danced and Jimmy the faithful bartender helped us break the ice with two University girls by giving them shots for free and saying it was from us. We danced with them and got separated then reunited. They left at four in the morning so they wouldn’t miss the train. At dawn we found ourselves walking through Amsterdam again. I officially fell in love with the city.
The next night we went to the same club yet again. Jimmy the hero bartender helped us meet a group of girls in a bachelorette party. However they left early because one of them posted a video of the blindfolded fiance sucking a bottle shaped like a dick on Facebook, causing her fiance to throw a fit. Just before they left Adam got one of their phone numbers. I got a recommendation to eat stroopwafel.
The morning came again and Adam was too hungover so I took a walk by myself. Everywhere I went there were bikes, bikes, and people on bikes. A Dutch girl zipped by and we exchanged a smile. I made it to the “I Amsterdam” sign and took a picture of it without daring to flip the camera on myself. I kept walking and watched a group of people play with a Frisbee as if I was in Central Park again. On the walk back I stopped and got a stroopwafel, which was a waffle with syrup inside.
Back home people had been sharing the cover of a German magazine called Der Spiegel online because it depicted a cartoon of our president holding the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty in one hand, and a machete in the other. Certain people claimed Germany had no room to talk. At least they were putting their past behind them instead of in front, I thought. I bought the magazine for six Euros.
A couple miles later I was at the plaza near the hostel again. This time a large Romanian crowd had gathered in a circle, singing what I assumed was the national anthem. I knew they were from Romania because of the blue, yellow, and red flags waving over their heads. Those without flags carried signs. I got close enough to see they had made a large peace sign on the ground about thirty feet wide using C.D.’s and colorful stones.
When I took out of my phone for a picture I accidentally hit the girl next to me who was praying. She opened her eyes and looked at me as if she was ready to answer a question. Quickly, I improvised. “What is this for?”
“We are mad about corruption in Romania government,” she whispered. The heavily-freckled girl with bangs looked onward. “There have been protests in Romania every day since middle of January.”
“People are protesting all over the world,” I said under my breath.
She nodded. “Then even if you don’t know Romanian, you will pray?”
Something bigger than my own beliefs was in front of me. Something that could only be explained through an act of faith. The people were tired. They wanted their voices to be unified and heard. The girl closed her hazel-green eyes and bowed her head. I closed my own eyes, bowed, and found myself praying for these peaceful people. Then I prayed that one day greed would seep out of governments worldwide.
On our last night there we went to an actual bar, not a club, and enjoyed the music. A bartender ignoring us nearly ruined the night more so than the rain did, but we had to leave before ten anyway. Adam had a date, and I made plans with myself to walk around the city. I got back to the hostel at a reasonable hour. Adam didn’t come home that night, which meant he was either having the time of his life, or had been murdered. As I ate breakfast the next morning I saw him walk in with a smile on his face.
He laughed. “You know I don’t try to speak the language like you do, fool.”
I laughed harder. “I said ‘God dammit thank you’ in Dutch. I was worried, you know. I was going to file a missing persons report after breakfast. Mmm… actually after I showered. And pooped. Probably combed my hair too in case reporters wanted an interview.”
“Right, right. Gotta prioritize.” Adam sat down across from me and wiggled his eyebrows. “Are you excited for Italy?”
“Sì, bella, here we go,” I said, trying my hardest to sound like a virtual plumber.
Never go to Milan. Actually, go to Milan, but only for a day. Our flight landed in the morning. We took a train into the city we planned to spend four days in, mostly excited about the food. The walks to the hostel became my least favorite part of the trip. Everyone could just tell you were a tourist, and if it was crowded it was awkward to get by people. The wheels naturally made noise rolling against the sidewalk like another built-in way to call for attention.
I would call the city beautiful if we went there first, but it just didn’t compare to Stockholm and Amsterdam. It didn’t make that any less historic or attractive of a city, but the walls were decorated full of graffiti. The graffiti just didn’t stop. It spanned twelve to fifteen feet everywhere on the buildings except the large windows that displayed the planet’s latest fashions. Once we got to the hostel it was also the first one that included workers who did not speak English. All was well though because the receptionist was the friendliest guy in the country with an unlimited supply of winks. “The room is not ready yet. You guys want a complimentary drink?”
“Just take a seat while we get it perfect,” he said, then winked.
The dining area was popular. I noticed a Talking Heads album on the wall and excused myself so I could take a picture. My favorite song, “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)”, was a track off Speaking in Tongues. Adam had finished a third of his beer by the time I came back.
“You’re in a hurry to get drunk,” I commented.
“I don’t want this feeling to ever stop,” he said.
It was the closest he was going come to sounding romantic. I was sure he missed the Dutch girl, but not as much as I missed Helen. While we waited for our room to be ready we sipped on beers and I decided to reopen the conversation.
“Adam, I really think I’m going to see Helen.”
He scoffed. “Are you just going to show up and be like, ‘hey it’s me the guy you met one night. I love you, this is romantic, let me move in tomorrow.’”
“That is word-for-word option two, actually. No. I’m thinking more like telling her that our flight leaves out of Stockholm and I will try to see her while I’m there.”
“Look,” he said, finally serious about the situation. “I loved the time I spent with Luisa, but we all know it’s part of the journey, man. No one expects us to keep in touch, or to fulfill some night that ended in flirting.”
I was drinking the entire time he talked, and his words made me keep drinking until the glass was empty. The friendly receptionist came by with two hostel keys and gave us a smile with a wink. “Our room’s ready,” I said.
Our room was rather large, but only because it fit six beds. I got the top bunk as part of an agreement that I would take it the rest of the way. There was a tiny basket next to the plug, which made me wonder why the other two hostels didn’t have the same exact set up. It was so convenient, especially since Milan had been designated as the “recharge” bridge of our trip. After a nap we decided to walk to a pizza place named Cucina di Mamma that had been recommended by the hostel.
After a fifteen minute walk we found out they opened from noon to three, and then again from seven until ten, something I wished the hostel would have let us know. Regardless, we were in Italy and the energy propelled us to our next destination, the Milan Cathedral, better known as the Duomo di Milano.
My eyes never fully processed what they saw the moment I spotted the peak of the spires. The Duomo di Milano was one of the most beautiful buildings I had seen in my entire life. There was a vast plaza in front of it with a single statue of a man on a horse. All my silly frustrations with the city left and never came back. The closer I got, the better I admired the architecture of the white and pink marble exterior. The church was extremely symmetrical. On both sides of a tall green door were two smaller, but still rather large doors of the same color. Five windows were above them, with the middle one placed the highest. Behind the pillars there was the triangle facade of the roof, with gaps between the points that aligned the top of the design.
“See there, at those gaps?” Adam asked, pointing. “If you look closely you can see the heads of people walking to the roof.”
“No way,” I whispered.
“That’s going to be us tomorrow,” he said. “Also, that building next to it is a mall and I want to check it out, if you don’t mind?”
“When in Rome,” I said. “Hey! We’re in Italy! That’s geographically funnier.”
The interior of the mall looked like a palace, home to Gucci, Prada, Chanel, Armani, Louis Vuitton, and all their cousins I didn’t care for, but Adam was window shopping as if we weren’t staying at a six-bed hostel.
That night we decided to eat the free meal provided by the hostel instead of going back out to Cucina di Mamma. We sat in a corner and ate. My eyes couldn’t help but to stare at those that spoke English, fluent or otherwise. Adam noticed that there was a white board filled with suggestions and events. “Says Atomic is a really popular bar about fifteen minutes from here. You down?”
“Weren’t we watching the Super Bowl here?”
“Yeah,” he said, clearly uncertain. “But wouldn’t they suggest that bar because a lot of tourists go? We could watch it with people.”
“You know what,” I started, then changed my mood to a happier one. “The game starts half hour after midnight, it’ll probably be better to be at a bar.”
Adam covered the Uber that took us to the street. To my surprise, even more walls were covered in graffiti. The overall atmosphere felt like a town for ghosts, which I reasoned by saying it was Sunday over and over. The Uber driver didn’t even know where the bar was so he dropped us off at an intersection and we walked. The logo for Atomic was just overhead. It had a nucleus with electrons around the name. Only problem was the place was not open.
“What the fuck. It’s closed. This garage door is down,” Adam said, trying to comprehend the obvious. “Hold on, there must be some other place around here.”
There was no other place open so we walked to a dark public park. I kept my eye open as Adam peed against the exterior wall of the public bathroom, then we walked down the main street with all the bright lights until we were bored and called an Uber. We watched the game on our cell phones, but I went to bed when the Atlanta Falcons had a twenty-five point lead. Unbelievably, they did not win the game. It was such a N.Y. Jets thing to do, I thought.
The next morning we decided to walk up the Milan Cathedral. Something I had forgotten about was the guards armed with automatic assault rifles walking around. They all had to keep a hand on the gun, or so it seemed. It made me nervous to stare at them, but I couldn’t help thinking what it would be like if one of them just opened fire at the massive line we were in, so I kept a watchful eye. For twelve Euro we got tickets to walk up to the roof. It was fifteen to take the lift, which seemed backwards to me. We walked around the side of the Cathedral, talked to two armed guards, and got a full body scan before being allowed inside.
There really should have really been a warning for claustrophobic people. Not that I suffered from a fear of confined places myself, but the first set of stairs to get up to the roof were basically a free trial for claustrophobia. The place was square. We were clearly in a pillar. Every five steps we would have to turn right, take five steps, then make another right, then take five steps, and so on, but there was a problem. There were no windows and everything looked the same. Everything was stone. The slanted ceiling from the five steps waiting overhead was so low all I had to do was reach up to touch it. My elbow was still bent when I made contact. I was six feet tall, which I learned was a meter eighty-three in the metric system. “This is getting really creepy,” I called out to Adam.
I turned around and saw that he was on his phone, laughing and recording the whole thing. I started to imagine what would happen if I randomly woke up there in the middle of the night. Quicker than I would like to admit I lost track of how long we had climbed. “There are no windows,” I repeated. It was kind of cold. “Just more and more stairs on a loop.”
Then we reached the top and I took a fresh breath of air. We were on the lower level of the roof. It was a gift to see the surrounding city, including glimpses of tall buildings and snowy mountain tops in the distance. Each sculpture and statue on the church had so much detail and all the writing was in proper Latin. We took pictures before taking the steps to the real roof, and when we got there I felt a sudden love for Milan I never thought possible.
Blue sky above us, we looked in every direction as we walked down the main spine of the roof. Overhead was one final tower with a golden statue known as the Madonnina statue of the Virgin Mary shinning against the sun. I took a hundred pictures and shared a thought with Adam. “I wish we came up here with some snacks and beers,” I said.
“Um, we’re on top of a church.”
On the way back to the hostel we stopped at Cucina di Mamma right when they opened for dinner and we were greeted with a free sample of a Panini, but no matter how sweetly the cheese melted between the warm bread, we were determined to eat pizza. The tiny restaurant got crowded so fast we immediately forgave the hostel for their blunder on Atomic the night before, and ordered two pies to share. While we waited the bartender gave us free shots of a liquorice-flavored drink and asked us where we were from, all with a very friendly attitude.
We got one garlic and one tomato basil pizza. There was barely any cheese. Both were equally delicious. “One more shot,” the waiter announced, but that turned into three more free shots even though we were done with our meal.
I took note that the United States was such a capitalistic dream where most restaurants gave you the check before you even finished your meal. In Sweden, Netherlands, and now Italy the check was not brought to us even when we were done. We paid using the portable credit card machine. Then they gave us yet another free shot, this time for the road, this time of a strong melon flavor made in house.
“I’m going to go to the upstairs kitchen for a dessert,” I told Adam once we got back into the hostel. He jokingly judged me and wondered how I still had room in my stomach. “I don’t know, man, I just want to eat everything. Ciao, bella.”
“So Italian of you.”
“Grazie. Tack. Danku.”
Our kind receptionist had told us all the leftovers were put in an upstairs kitchen. Then he had told us about the desserts with a wink, naturally, before walking us to the patio. My insides shrunk as soon as I walked into the kitchen. It was small and the table took up half the room, and on that table were four people speaking what I initially thought was German. The fifth member of the group, a blonde girl wearing a leather jacket, was trying to get a bottle open using a knife. I walked by her to get to the pantry and she turned to me and handed me the knife along with a kind “you” as she gestured at the bottle. Her friends giggled.
Already uncomfortable and now put on the spot, I threw all my effort into opening the beer. When I got it open I cleared the sweat from my forehead and gave it to the girl who was now sitting at the table, cheering like the rest of her friends. I grabbed a random snack without hesitating and turned to leave when one of them made a loud sort of wailing noise. The others laughed. I almost didn’t turn around. A brunette with green eyes was holding a bottle opener.
“You just found the bottle opener?”
“Yes,” she said enthusiastically. “Yes. Eva is so stupid.”
The Eva girl, the dirty blonde in the leather jacket with dimples when she smiled, laughed and said something I couldn’t understand to her friend. Then she addressed me. “Thank you for helping and where are you from?”
I nodded my head and decided to sit with them. I learned all their names. Eva, Pollie, and Roldando were the first three; partially because who named their child Roldando? They were students from Belgium who were speaking Dutch. Pollie was the most outspoken and Emma laughed the loudest. Roldando wore glasses and was teased for partying hard because he stayed awake until dawn for the first time ever on New Year’s a couple weeks ago. There was a short, muscular blonde guy who smiled at everything but kept to himself, and next to him was a pale girl with freckles who had spent most of the time cleaning the table. His name was Steve and her name was Maria.
“I’m here with my friend, he’s also from New York. He is sleeping probably, but if you guys are going out he will want to come too.”
“Yes,” Pollie spoke. Everything seemed to always start with a confirmation. “We are waiting to eat dinner downstairs then we will come back up here to drink and go to Navigli district.
“Proost,” I said, which was pronounced as if it only had one “O” and the small group lifted their bottles and glasses and repeated it back to me. Up until that moment I had completely forgotten the drunk hour I spent yelling that on the dance floor in Amsterdam.
That night we never made it to the Navigli district. When Adam and I went up to meet them they were playing a card game we didn’t know. They wanted to teach it to us, but we said we would watch. Out of courtesy they switched the game to something we knew. King’s Cup, or Kings, as they called it, involved having cards around a bottle and each card drawn represented a rule or a mini-game. We all got drunk except for Maria.
The furthest we went away from the hostel was to the liquor store to buy more bottles of wine. I was going to buy beer, but the hostel had a bar and the pints were cheap, at least to Adam and I who had endured New York prices for far too long. Eva and Roldando broke off to smoke a cigarette, leaving the group gossiping. I found out two important things. The first was that Eva’s last name translated to beans, and more importantly, people called her Eva Beans. The second was that Roldando “fancied” Eva Beans and that’s why he was trying to tickle her knees, but she did not feel the same.
We woke up with a hangover and decided to do nothing the entire day which was easy because there was nothing to do in Milan. Besides, we had done the drink-late-wake-up-late routine enough times in Amsterdam to easily talk ourselves out of sightseeing. Our only plan during the daylight was to get gelato and debate if we should get pizza from the same place or pizza from a new place. Boredom took over my brain like an infestation and when our other hostel roommates left for the day, I tucked in my smelly shirt then pulled up my sweatpants to my chest and danced around the room. Adam laughed like an idiot while I sang stupid anecdotes about the trip; the more forceful I danced the more I secretly wanted a roommate, maybe Marsha from Thailand, to come in and catch me. I was in such a mood that I would have probably pulled her onto the dance floor just to get a reaction.
“You know what I call this outfit, you swine?”
“What?” Adam asked, playing along.
His laughter ceased. “Okay. That’s enough.”
In the bathroom I threw away my socks because there was no going back after what they smelled like, and showered while laughing. We were in the thick of Europe, still alive, still enjoying ourselves, and I could hear Adam talking to his dad about how he would feel more in danger if he was home. “We’ve been chased with sticks everywhere we go,” he cracked.
That night we played a new game using sticker name tags we found. Each participant wrote a celebrity, political figure, or fictional character and gave it to the person on the right. Then we took the sticker and put it on our forehead, asking only “yes” or “no” questions. Pollie won for guessing the name on her forehead was Britney Spears. The final three took so long we decided to go out instead, and two, Roldando and Maria, or Gandhi and Hitler as the game named them, were dared to leave their stickers on their forehead. Once Maria found out she was Hitler she ripped the tag off and apologized to everyone. “Gandhi” told her to stop being “a whiny princess bitch.” I was unsure if the Dutch translation was any more graceful.
We walked in a drunken blur, and for every beautiful sight I took in, my drunk mind forgot it by the time I saw the next one. There were plazas and buildings and small pizza shops and of course, more and more graffiti. We walked over canals and I recalled our week in Amsterdam and told everyone they should visit as if I was an expert on traveling. Maria told me she enjoyed taking her of children because it kept her cool in the heat of drama. “Like in the Baby-Sitters Club,” I said, and she agreed, although I was pretty sure she didn’t know what I meant.
Eva Beans, as I was comfortable calling her by then, and Roldando were smoking again, and in a twist of fate I found myself asking for a cigarette. Eva gave me one and I tried to give her a Euro or two, but she declined my offer and said, “I will be going to smoke less now thanks to you.” Then when I offered her a U.S. dollar as a joke. She took it with a smile on her face. “I will keep this, but only if you sign it.”
Beans was unintentionally charming like that.
We walked into the first open bar we saw and ordered drinks. Pollie took out the cards but the bartender quickly came over and told us, in somewhat of a harsh tone, that there was a law in Italy that prevented bars without a license to gamble. We told her we weren’t gambling, and she reworded her sentence to say a deck of cards would encourage gambling, and that was what the law was trying to prevent. “I’m so sorry,” she finished, going back to her tame tone.
Adam and I bought the first round and the eighteen and nineteen year-olds finished their drink before us. I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette with Eva and Pollie joined us. We talked about the U.S. and I found myself saying that I hated it. “Now Muslim people can’t even travel into the country. It’s so embarrassing,” I shared.
They said they wanted to visit New York one day, so I took out my wallet and reached for a another dollar bill I had. I wrote my phone number on it and gave it to Pollie. “If you go to New York you give me a call and I show you around,” I said. I noticed I was speaking in broken English to make it easier for them to understand. Eva extended her palm like she wanted a dollar. “Eva Beans already has one,” I said.
Pollie spoke in a funny dry tone while shaking her head. “That is typical Beans.”
“Yes. Um. You write your number to us. Are you one of those old people that do not use Facebook?” Eva asked genuinely.
“Old? I’m twenty-six!”
“Almost ten years older than me and Pollie,” she answered.
Adam came out and informed us that everyone was using the bathroom before going to the next club. The bartender had given him a recommendation on a napkin he held up. ROCKET was written in large capital letters. We walked in the cold and noticed Navigli was kind of a ghost town except for a few sketchy people hanging by the bridges. Adam kept an eye on his phone and when we reached the destination we saw what looked like a warehouse, but not a single thing said Rocket on it. There were two tall girls, both speaking perfect English, walking away from the location. Adam got their attention. Hearing English in a foreign town made you trust someone like you knew them all your life.
“The place we were at told us to come here,” one of them said.
“What the hell… is there some big joke that I’m missing out on? Like, does everyone have a thing for sending people to places that are closed in Italy?” Adam asked.
We gave up and walked back to our hostel. Somehow Eva and I ended up talking the entire walk. Although she lacked my sense of humor, our conversations were interesting. I felt like I was giving her advice every time I heard her vent about her family, boys, or schoolwork. Eva loved her friends more than I had ever loved anyone. She said Pollie was the strongest girl she knew. I tried my best not to sound like I was old, but in the eyes of perspective, I really was the old one.
As soon as we got back to the hostel Eva said she was hungry. Most of the group was leaning against the bar waiting to be served. Some words were exchanged, and from body language it seemed like Eva was trying to sneak away as quick as possible. I noticed Roldando kept looking back as I backpedaled with Eva. Adam didn’t even need to make eye contact with me to understand that I decided to go back out into town. Roldando and I made awkward eye contact and all I could think about was how I truly was the oldest one and I had been in his shoes and I knew personally how it felt when a girl was just not into you.
Eva and I sneaked into the night in search of food. She taught me “I want food” in Dutch and I raved about the fried chicken in New York because it was her favorite. Ten minutes later we found ourselves in the plaza in front of the Milan Cathedral. It was three in the morning, and we were the only ones there. The Cathedral was lit by giant lights attached to neighboring buildings. The moment was written to be romantic, but we were not the intended readers.
Still… we looked at each other in awe. And still to this day, I can’t remember who leaned in first. Part of me knew it was me, but the last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was her hazel eyes disappearing behind her eye lids. She kissed me, or I kissed her, or maybe the kiss was deprived of possession because we clicked at the same time. I kissed her because I was old and wanted to spend the rest of my life with a Swedish girl, and she kissed me because she was young and beautiful and was bored of Milan too.
That was all it was. One kiss. On the walk back we saw a man in a black coat and beanie standing guard in front of a hotel. He greeted us in Italian and we realized he did not speak English. Instead of leaving Eva explained that she was looking for food and that we would bring him some if we found any open places. All that had to be done in charades. I participated in acting out the scenes and we all had a good laugh. On our last block to the hostel we shared a single cigarette. I confessed to her two things. First, that the city’s graffiti deprived it of all its beauty but that the Cathedral saved it. Second, that the kiss had been as unexpected as anything I could ever remember, and it made me happy.
Inside the warmth of the hostel I bought her a drink before heading to the upstairs kitchen. Our friends were there, laughing with plates stained from pasta sauce in front of them. Maria was washing her plate in the sink. Pollie was wearing a name tag on her forehead again, this time with Mark Zuckerberg’s name. No one seemed interested in playing with her, but it did not stop her from asking “yes” or “no” questions.
“I’m going to go to sleep,” I told Eva Beans.
She seemed disappointed and Adam looked surprised.
I think it took him a second but he understood. I was not bluffing about my love for Sweden and the Swedish writer. Eva walked me to the stairs and I kissed her one more time. I promised her that if she ever wanted to go to the United States I would do everything in my power to make sure she had a good time. She told me we would keep in touch.
I told her we should because I was bound to live in Sweden one day soon.
By the time we reached England I was exhausted. We were exhausted. I wanted to sleep in my own bed again, shower within sight of my room, and wear fresh clothes. He felt the same. It didn’t help that the first impression of the hostel was the worst we had experienced. Our receptionist zipped us right by the common room and took us up the stairs. He opened our room with a key card and took in a whiff of the thick musty smell. “Oh. You guys might want to open that window. Okay then, bathrooms are down the hall. Thank you, enjoy.”
Then he was gone. No wink, no friendly walk through the kitchen and computer room we later discovered. We tried to open the window for ten minutes before we gave up and our noses got used to the smell. There was no light switch, and it wasn’t until we changed that we realized you had to put the key card in a slot for it to work. Whatever. The mediocrity of the room propelled us to go outside and explore London. We had reached Soho by taking a train and then the tube, and had no intentions of going back underground unless it was necessary. That was too much like home.
The streets felt small, and of course it was amusing to see people driving on the wrong side of the road. Britain countered natural habits by writing things such as “look left” and “look right” on the asphalt, but even then I almost got hit by a car. Just like in the other cities we visited, the locals jaywalked across the street and we followed so we wouldn’t look like a pair of tourists. I had one major goal in mind and that was to eat fish n’ chips as much as humanly possible, even if it “hurt my stomach whenever I ate it in New York.”
“You don’t think it will hurt here?”
I looked up at the gray sky. Hints of snow were falling and melting into water as soon as they hit my coat or my hair. My breath’s fog was the thickest I had seen since Sweden. “While we’re here… who cares,” I said.
I didn’t think I could finish it, but I stuffed fry after fry coated in mayonnaise and ketchup down my throat, simultaneously taking bites of my beer-battered deep fried fish. My stomach hurt with pleasant pain similar to that of running a marathon. It did not stop me from walking around the city for a couple hours while we popped in and out of different stores, once again never buying anything.
Although it felt insensitive to share, I told Adam I was glad to hear so much English being spoken around me. While I recalled how magical Amsterdam felt with all the different tongues, it could get a little frustrating not knowing what the people next to you were saying. He agreed, and then said he wanted to go to Harrods. Well, I hadn’t told Adam but I was hungry again and I thought it was a food place so I got excited. Then he started talking about how unique and expensive the mall was. We walked up to the building and I commented how it looked like a taller version of the palace in Sweden.
There were two police officers outside the door, but no sort of security to get inside the building. Once in there I let fear win. Harrods was a shopping mall with seven different levels. There was no common area to walk from store to store like in the United States malls, instead one room seamlessly linked to another, displaying one item at a time. There were a lot of women in Hijab attire. My mind was at its best when it wandered, but sometimes it took a turn into those dark places. This was a prime place for a terrorist attack. There were no visible exits or windows or places to hide. It was like walking through someone’s mansion without the hallways. Hijacking the building would be possible with about forty men, I assumed. I tried to run away from such a dark thought, but the paranoia gripped me like a hungry snake. It whispered things in my ear and suddenly I wanted to leave.
“I think I’m going to get a bear for my mom,” Adam said.
I agreed that it was a good gift. The tiny stuffed animal was about fifteen British pounds. For every five pounds we lost a dollar in our unfavorable exchange rate, although I had read that ten years ago it took two dollars to make one pound. I stayed with Adam in the long line until we were assisted by a woman in Hijab. She was all smiles.
“Where are you guys from?” she asked once she heard Adam talk. Hers was the pleasant British we were hearing all day.
“New York,” Adam answered.
“Ah, New York,” she repeated. “I was going to visit Los Angeles next week… but you know, can’t now,” she said, laughing. Her smile lingered as she hit buttons on the register.
My heart broke, slowly. “I am so sorry,” I said.
“Yeah, we are so sorry, we do not agree with what’s going on,” Adam added.
“It’s chaos right now.”
“Hey, it’s okay, I waited quite a while to go I can wait another four years,” she said, smiling.
We apologized a couple more times and walked away looking at each other, trying to adapt her sense of humor but there was nothing funny for us. Our trip was almost over and we would have to go back to hearing about politics every day instead of reading them. At least with reading people’s opinions those opinions could be avoided. We ended up in what felt like the middle of the second floor where there were places to eat. Everything looked so good, but the prices erased my appetite.
That night we went out for a couple beers. Because we were in the theater district, the streets were crowded with well-dressed Brits. We reached a pub. A bouncer out front took one look at Adam’s passport and said, “go on” without bothering to open it.
Being discriminated against for having ties to the United States was nothing new, but we were a little shocked it happened so bluntly, especially in Britain. When we passed customs it took forty minutes because everyone in front of us was having trouble. One young man of light-brown skin was escorted somewhere by two agents. A lady in Hijab speaking broken English told the agent she was not sure how long she was staying. Her impatient kids were sitting, staring up at her, unaware of what was happening. When it was our turn… the guy made a joke about our jobs and then told us to have a good week.
“Go on then,” the bouncer repeated.
“Wait. We can go in?”
We chuckled and talked about it once we were inside and our coats were on the chair. Having a U.S. passport was like a stamp on the hand, with all the bad and good that came from it. After a couple beers we wandered downstairs to a small club that was part of the bar. Exhausted and unwilling to make new friends at the moment, Adam and I danced with each other until we were hungry. On the way home we stopped to grab take-away which was how they said to-go. The differences didn’t end there. Take-away food was actually priced cheaper than dining inside the restaurant. I gushed about how great that would be in New York.
Adam kept pouring a clear condiment on top of the bread, urging me to do the same. I asked what it was and the lady said vinegar as if we were stupid. “Oh, I thought it was water,” I joked. A guy next to me, flamboyantly dressed with a haircut from the 80’s, mocked a loud laugh but didn’t look in our direction. Still, he was clearly angry with us.
We laughed. We laughed so hard I spit a bit of bread on my cardboard box. The guy kept eating, and with a hand on Adam’s shoulder I said, “that only made me miss the Swedish guy who made the fart noise with his mouth.”
Adam laughed even harder. “That was my favorite noise of the entire trip.”
Truth was the cousin of exhaustion. I knew the guy wasn’t going to say anything further. All of our discriminatory encounters had been the same. We would get bad looks and verbal teases, but I had heard it all and worse. I had a conversation in my head telling the guy what it was like to live in the United States and start shit with someone. First of all, you better like your chances with the person you’re starting shit with because they will either yell at you or be happy to punch you in the face. New York of all places was infamous for people sharing their mind, whether you wanted to hear it or not.
Second, considering the chances that the guy had been picked on when he was younger, it was a little ironic that he would try to make someone uncomfortable or instigate something. That caused a sad laughter, and with it, I put the idea of giving him a piece of my mind to rest. People often responded to criticism with arrogance, and as soon as the us versus them mentality took over humanity was lost. I understood why people hated my country, but everyone on our trip with a negative opinion had one thing in common: they didn’t know me. They didn’t know Adam. They didn’t even know our names.
We got back to the hostel to find out we had roommates. That was the absolute worst. We had to be quiet and go down the hallway to brush our teeth then come back under the guidance of our cell phone light. The next morning I woke up before Adam. The two roommates were gone. Their things were neatly hidden under the bottom bed. Our things were still sprawled out how we had left them before we went to the bar. I was too tired to care.
Our Oyster card had been purchased at the airport with over twenty pounds worth of credit. We said we would take the red double decker bus around, but ended up walking instead. We made it to the changing of the guards where I kept my ear open for Swedish or Dutch and heard a lot of Spanish. It seemed like no matter where we went one group from a specific part of the world was okay with shoving and squeezing between people. We walked and saw Big Ben, the House of Parliament, crossed a bridge, saw a plaza with food trucks, past the Tate Modern museum, and crossed the Millennium Bridge. Once we got into that part of town I swore I was going to eat some Indian food. The first restaurant we passed claimed they had the best fish n’ chips in London, so in we went. I ordered fish n’ chips for the second time in as many days.
We looked up at the television and saw clips from the United States; more news with images of older men and women in expensive suits. This time the news was only devastating for children. The Senate confirmed an inexperienced billionaire the title of United States Secretary of Education. Our new Secretary of Education had no previous government or bureaucracy experience, no experience working in a school environment, had never attended public school or state University, and had never put her own children in public school. She did cite that schools in Wyoming probably had guns already to protect themselves from grizzly bears. And, of course, she was known for donating millions to politicians to lobby for vouchers that gave money to conservative religious schools.
The segment ended with a rather peaceful quote by her. “If the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
We finished eating, paid, and took our wallets out again for their take-away offer on mulled wine. We got back to the hostel just in time to miss seeing our roommates. I cleaned my things and Adam followed my example. One more shower later and I was in bed, recharging so we could go out at night. Just like in Sweden, Adam knew someone who had recently moved to Europe for work. He made plans to meet with him at an area called “shortage” but spelled Shoreditch.
Instead of using our Oyster cards Adam got an Uber and took it twenty minutes west… or east, north, or south, I didn’t know. Before we got there his friend, Michael, told us the bar he was hoping to get into was full. He looked like an 80’s Wall Street poster with slicked back hair and a clean face that showed off his sharp jaw, but he was in London because of medicine and health care. Adam had shaved as well, leaving me as the only one with a beard. “They gave me a recommendation for another bar,” he said.
“I just want to get back to the warmth,” I said.
“You’ve lived in colder,” Adam argued.
“Doesn’t mean I gotta hate it any less.”
The recommended place drew confusion out of us. We walked in and asked for the bar, and after being instructed to go down some wide stairs we noticed how highbrow the people and decorations were inside the venue. “Okay,” Michael whispered to get our attention. “I think these people are seeing a play or something.”
Trying not to stand out or seem rude, I removed my beanie and adjusted my hair as best as possible. We got to the bar only to be greeted by a short man with a thick accent named Oliver. Oliver turned us away. We all sighed and told him we had been sent here, and I thought about telling him I knew what was up. There must have been some unspoken inside joke in Europe to send tourists on a wild chase to get a drink. As soon as we started walking away we heard his British accent through the crowd.
“Hey mates, come here. So just one drink, yeah?”
“Very well then. I’ll go inside, see if I can get you three spots at the bar.”
Candles and flowers decorated every table. The bar counter was made of marble. I tried not to stare too much unless it was at the bartender, but then some girl popped up next to us and took our order. “A table is ready too, if you guys would prefer that?”
We looked at Oliver. He was busy in the doorway so we took the table. The drinks were expensive but they were good so we ordered a second round, my hands glued to the menu as she took our order. I was unsure if I wanted rum or whiskey in my drink. I let Adam choose for me and they went into a conversation about whether or not Shakespeare was a single person or several under the same alias. It felt like no one could accomplish great things without conspiracy theories. Somehow that progressed into a conversation about differences between Europe and the United States.
The first thing Adam added to the conversation was how doors were heavy. There I was thinking about all the people we had met and their habits, and Adam raved about how difficult it was to open a door, but only sometimes. I mentioned that the people were easier to talk to in Europe, but was aware it could have been because of my accent. “Maybe we are only seeing the best of people, and the nice parts of the city.”
“You’re also meeting other people that are traveling,” Michael added.
“That’s true,” Adam said. “Everyone has been so chill.”
Michael looked around, uncomfortable. “By the way you guys, just don’t mention Brexit. It’s kinda like asking people who they voted for in the States.”
“Or like asking if people prefer Pepsi or Coke,” I said. Michael and Adam were surprised by my tone, and if that was the case they weren’t prepared for my next words. “Everything is going to shit anyways. Everyone’s tired. You know why we have the president that we have? Because people want their country first. You know why England left the Union? One quick search will show you Britain sent fifty million pounds to the Union every single day. You know where they want to spend that money?”
“The N.H.S.,” Michael answered. He turned to Adam. “National Health Service. Among other things they want to spend in-country.”
“Every thing’s fucked,” I said, letting my neck dangle as I swept my eyes through the room. Everyone was dressed so nicely. Most drank glasses of wine while sharing a sensible chuckle. The world was fine in this room. “Might as well enjoy the cataclysm.”
Adam leaned in and slapped my leg, snapping me back into position. “Hey, I don’t know what’s in your drink but are you okay?”
“I know this is going to sound like bullshit, but I’ve never been better.” I smiled. My mindset made it back to the course of the night. “So who wants to do some shots?”
The place was so nice they didn’t have shots so we thanked Oliver and he bowed and waved us off with a recommendation. The next place we went to had two older guys arguing outside so it was bound to be interesting. Michael paid for our cover since he felt responsible and I bought the first round. The beer had been surprisingly underwhelming in London, but the mixology drinks and cocktails was a science they had perfected to the moon, even if it took about eight minutes per drink. I ordered something called a Cherry Jerry.
As I should have predicted there was a club downstairs, and even more inevitable, Adam and his friend wanted to go see it. The music was loud, but at least the bartenders didn’t have bells over their heads. We all decided on easier drinks. Adam paid for the first round of vodka-sodas. Unlike other places in Europe, it was harder to get the attention of the local crowd. Adam got lucky when he danced with a girl for under a minute before offering to buy her a drink. On his walk back I saw him happily maneuver through the crowd, only for an elbow to bump his hand at the last stop, spilling the drink on the floor. The girl Adam was originally dancing with split to the bathroom with her friends.
“I am so sorry,” the girl who hit his hand said.
She spoke our dialect of English.
“It’s okay… I think that girl was using me for a drink anyway,” Adam answered.
Michael and I moved in closer, but not close enough to look creepy. She was tall and thin, with dimples, green eyes, and dark hair. “Then let me get you one,” she said. “Where are you guys from?”
“New York. Long Island,” Adam specified.
“I love Long Island, we just did a small gig there. My name’s Marissa. These are my friends. What were you drinking?”
We got to know her friends through loud yells. It turned out most of them were members of Marissa’s band, Bottled Blondes. Before she got the drinks she emphasized that they had not made it big by any stretch of the imagination. They were just visiting their British friend Hannah, a blonde girl who had short hair and sleepy blue eyes. It was their second time in London. “But first time feeling like we could actually spend money,” Marissa said.
Adam and Hannah talked by writing messages through their cell phones and holding up the screen. It was a technique we had done since Amsterdam, but to each other. Marissa surprised us by getting drinks for everyone. “I love traveling,” she stated, pointing at a tattoo of a cat eating French fries on her forearms. “I try to get a tattoo everywhere I go, but I get depressed whenever I go home. That one I got in Belgium. But Spain. Oh my God. Spain. If I could live anywhere in the world it would be Barcelona.”
“Yes,” Armando agreed. “I am part-Spanish, but I have trouble understanding them in certain part of Spain. Still, I love it.”
“Barcelona? Why not here?” Hannah teased.
“Let me guess,” Adam added. “The Sagrada Família[_ _]Cathedral is still under construction.”
“You say that like you’ve been there!” I teased.
“Wait, you’ve never been?”
“No,” Adam admitted.
I thought he was going to get teased, but instead the Marissa and Armando raved about the restaurants and the people and the architecture. Adam loved all of that, as did I though I was thinking about how hard it would be to learn Swedish, Dutch, and Spanish. While they talked I mentally recited all the Swedish words I knew.
The group split. Half of us stayed to dance with each other, and the other half went to have a cigarette upstairs. I declined the cigarette, finally, but Adam and Hannah were getting along so it was his turn to ruin his lungs. After they came back Hannah suggested we all go back to her place for more drinks and good music. We all agreed except for Michael, who had been on his phone while the plan was being worked out.
“I’m going to meet this girl at a club,” he said. It was late and I admired that this part of the world also had such a thing as a booty call. He thanked us for the fun night though in reality we should have been thanking him for treating us so well.
Adam and I embarked on a proper adventure. We all walked to a convenient store so Hannah and Armando could get more tobacco. They preferred rolling their own cigarettes because it was cheaper and in their words, “healthier.” While we leaned against the wall two different people offered us cocaine. A third came by and pulled out a Coke can after we declined. “Most people say they shouldn’t do blow, but I always tell people to try it at least once,” Marissa said. Her and Hannah exchanged giggles. “Is that bad?”
“No, we agree,” Adam spoke for us.
“Well then, we’re in for a good night,” Hannah said.
We lit the cigarettes and passed them around. The other people with us kept to themselves. I wondered if it was jet lag but they said no and that they had been in London a week already, but they were still hungover from last night. Hannah told us what bus we needed to get into and Adam and I finally used our Oyster card. Hannah instructed us all to get on the second floor of the bus and then guided Adam to the two empty seats at the very front. I sat next to Armando as he looked out the window.
“Can I tell you something, even if you don’t know me at all and don’t know the context of what I am going to tell you,” I said to him.
“Sure, yes,” he answered.
I noticed Marissa leaned in to hear it too. I turned my neck and gave her a smile, approving her contribution to the conversation. She bit her lips.
“I bought a ticket to go back to Stockholm from here. I haven’t told Adam yet, but I’ve been telling him throughout the trip that I want to go back,” I said.
Marissa shut her eyes and nodded her head. It was a bit dramatic, but she was in a band after all, as she took in the news and released audible “yes, good, yes,” in a whisper. “That’s what life is about. Listen. You are doing the best thing you will ever do.”
“I agree with her,” Armando said, lacking the theatrics.
“I haven’t told him.” I looked and saw that they were on their phones showing pictures of things. Hannah had a cute, lip-only smile on her face. Adam looked at her as if she was the only girl on the bus. “I wonder how he’s going to react to making the trip alone.”
“You shouldn’t worry so much,” Marissa said. “You gotta do what makes you happy. He’s going to take the flight regardless if you’re on board.”
In an effort to forget the sentimental thoughts I dropped the subject. We walked through a neighborhood in the cold and went into Hannah’s narrow house. All our coats went on hangers and some of us made our way to the third floor of the house while the others raided the kitchen for food. Hannah’s room was small and decorated with lights. One big window showed a glimpse of the neighborhood, it was a portrait without noise or movement. She took out a bag of cocaine and started cutting a line on a mirror. Marissa came in with glasses of wine. Armando helped. We made a toast to not having children and traveling more often, and Adam and I did our new chant. “Skål. Proost. Whatever they say in Italy. Cheers!”
Everyone laughed, then Hannah stood from her knees and offered Adam the first go at the mirror. He pulled out his wallet, but I placed my hand over it and took out my own wallet. I was down to one last U.S. dollar, and I used it to roll it for Adam. “I want you to have that dollar when we’re done,” I told Hannah. “So you can remember us.”
He got down on his knee and sniffed a line, nodding in approval. We all took turns and I went last. The lines she had cut were thick, but the stuff was juicy and good. Hannah put on an Indie band from the United States, which I thought was strange since England had all the best music. “And all the best writers and all the best actors too.”
“That’s funny because we think the same about you guys,” she answered.
Nothing past that night compared unless it was in the same company. We had stayed awake until dawn came up, talking and relating and laughing, emptying bottle of wine after bottle of wine into our happy stomachs. Marissa played some songs on her acoustic guitar, but refused to do any of her original works. I fell asleep on the floor and woke up there with a pillow behind my head. Then Marissa, Armando, and I watched Hannah teach Adam how to make a “propah” English breakfast. The others joined when it came time to eat, coincidentally. Because the table couldn’t fit all of us, we ate on the carpet. Instead of going home we stuck as a group and joined their plans to take the train and visit new parts of the city. I ate fish n’ chips, again, and let my phone die without feeling any remorse for it. That night we went out and did it all again, this time as if we had known each other for a decade.
The next morning Hannah walked us to the bus stop as if we were two kids. She watched us get on the double decker and waved goodbye. We immediately went upstairs and sat on the front, kings of the world.
Then time brought forth the inevitable: our last night in London, and thus, what Adam thought was our last night in Europe. He offered to pay for my meal so long as I didn’t eat fish n’ chips again. “I’m just kidding, get whatever you want,” he said when the waitress came. I ordered a Shepard’s pie, and he got the fish n’ chips and a pair of beers. “I was going to pay for it regardless as a thank you for coming with me. It’s been fun, right?”
Fun? I used three words to answer the three-word description: “Yes.” Then I searched deeper. I needed an analogy to fully convey my feelings. “You know how it’s likely anything we do with our lives will not be remembered in fifty years?”
Adam’s face reacted in three different ways as he blinked, nodded, and puffed his lips at the same time. “Wait. What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, realistically, the average generation can only remember a handful of people from each decade, right? We remember like ten books. Maybe a dozen songs, double as much for movies… not a lot compared to the billions and billions of people alive.”
There was an overall upbeat atmosphere around the restaurant. A boy and a girl were close to us, talking about the menu, and it was evident they were on a first date. Beyond them a family posed for a picture. The brother made an angry face when his sister pulled on his ear and the mom said “stop it” as I’m sure she had all their childhood. Then there was Adam, across from me, with a baffled face.
“I’m not following.”
“Look, I know I’m not going to grow up to do something world-changing. My friends and family will remember me, and that’s great, but chances are we’re not making it into any history books. Okay? That’s just me being real with you. This trip to Europe… this is my history book. I’m never going to forget anything that happened. In fifty years I will be old as fuck, but at least I will remember this trip made me realize how little I knew about the world.”
“Okay… so it’s a good thing?”
“Damn right it’s a good thing. See, Adam, we’re not divided by our borders. That’s the nonsense they teach us. We’re separated by generations. The older people… they just don’t get it. The younger people… we just don’t get them. Everyone I met on this trip could have grown up down the street from me.”
“That’s still a good thing,” Adam said, trying to follow.
“Yes. I don’t want it to end,” I said. “I bought my ticket to Stockholm for tomorrow. I will go with you to the airport, but I can’t get on the flight to New York.”
“Holy. Shit.” His face was animated again. “You’re going to see Helen?”
“I told her our return flights leave out of Stockholm. It’s inevitable.”
The waitress came back and apologized for any delay. She set the pair of beers in front of us and told us our food would be ready soon. Adam grabbed his glass and held it over the middle of the table. With brown eyes full of delight he said our chant. “Skål. Proost. Whatever they say in Italy. Cheers.”
I was about to repeat him, but settled on one. “Skål.”
Like going back to sleep and reinserting yourself into a dream, I was back in Arlanda Airport, back in the area designed like a cave save for the platform and the straw benches, back in the train that sped southbound into the heart of Stockholm. Only I was without Adam. I was alone, truly living in a dream. What I lost in his companionship I gained in a sense of familiarity. There were tourists in the train, wide-eyed and eager, with their bags clenched on their lap. A woman came to check on my ticket and I was able to greet her, ask her how she was, and thank her in Swedish. When I heard the tourists speak English I smiled. I walked back into the hostel and the receptionist recognized me and he didn’t have to tell me to take off my shoes, or that the meatballs were on sale on Wednesdays, or that the authentic Viking tour started an hour past noon.
Finally, again, there was Helen.
Love worked best in chaotic environments and having a deadline, a countdown of sorts, was not an ideal date to most, but I thrived. Even if our meeting was set to end as soon as the sun went down because she had work early in the morning, I was happy.
While I cooked pasta in the hostel I was practicing what I would say when I first saw Helen. I knew I wanted it to be in Swedish and I knew I wanted to see her smile. Humor was usually delivered one of two ways. There was split-second wit, and there was preparation like that of a comedian.
Cooking the pasta was the only eventful thing I did that night. I ate it at the table while I watched people get to know each other in the common room. Strangers always wanted to know where the other person came from, then quickly followed that question by asking about their name. That was a good place to start.
“Vad heeter du?”
“Jag heeter Helen,” Helen said.
I didn’t really think my joke would backfire except I realized it wasn’t as much of a joke as soon as I said it. Really, it was me knowing how to ask her name and Helen responding. She was wearing a red coat with large black buttons. The color of her coat tamed the hue of her hair by being a stark portrayal of red. She wore her glasses again.
Her jaw was thin when she smiled and said some things in Swedish. I acted as if I had understood everything she said, pondered her words, then dismissed it with a head nod. “Nej,” I said.
“So you don’t want to take me out on a nice date. Got it, thank you,” Helen said.
“Bar so good,” I said. She shot me a funny look. “What? Oh. That’s what ‘you’re welcome’ sounds like in Swedish to me!”
Helen and I had met by a train station. As soon as we started walking I shared my eyes between the city and her face, and to my surprise she was looking at her own city with the same intense awe that I was. The first time we stopped looking up at the architecture or a statue was when a group of kids walked by us. All of them were wearing orange beanies and an orange safety vest. Most were holding hands. They were singing a song in Swedish, which admittedly brought me a lot of joy. Although I thought of Helen as pure, there was nothing that could compare to the innocence and purity of a happy child. Helen waved and one of them waved back, happy to make a new friend. She explained to me that in Sweden you were paid to go to school. The government encouraged education. When you graduated you wore a sailor hat and were paraded around the city. I had to ask how much she paid in taxes. The answer: between thirty-three and forty-nine percent.
Education was important and only an uneducated person would argue against that statement. There was a common problem in the United States. High school diplomas weren’t as respected anymore and Universities left millions of young adults with thousands and thousands of dollars in debt; myself included. Because banks understood imagine was so important, credit cards allowed for trends: an expensive phone that needed updating every year, an expensive laptop losing more ports every model, and a nice car on a decent lease. Our government kept our taxes low enough to be able to afford these things, yet millions were without health care. Luckily we were blessed with honorable people who enjoyed being teachers, police officers, and fire fighters for a little over minimum wage.
It was all about “mine, mine, mine” and no one else. Though I felt like I was betraying the country I called home, my mind knew not to trap myself into one mentality. There was a world out there, with different cultures and customs, and one was not better than the other, but then again, that all depended on the preference of the person. I was grateful to have been born in a place where my thoughts were protected by the first amendment ever written for our young country. “Right? That’s why people say land of the free,” I said.
“I think the United States is having an identity crisis,” Helen said. “They know they’re ahead of the world in a lot of things, and a lot has gone in their favor. They’re a teenager in a classroom of older people after being told how special they are all their life. A problem comes along and the student starts thinking of the last time they were great. They ignore all the old people and focus on their own past. Except their past is gold on one side and tainted with shit on the other,” Helen said.
“And their dad happens to be the principle,” I added.
“The dad happens to be the teacher,” she emphasized. “So all that pent up emotion from our teenage student translates into desperation. People get brash when they’re desperate. People elect a businessman because business pushed the U.S. economy to be the greatest in the world.”
“It’s all bullshit anyway,” I said. I launched into a rant. My physiological evaluation, which I had no training to give, was: as generations shifted through the vacuum of time, and children became teenagers and teenagers turned into adults, there was bound to be conflict. “I know, nothing groundbreaking,” I said. But most old people considered Elvis a king even though when they were young their parents told them to stop worshiping the devil who thrusts his hips on television. And in that same regard, all the people who changed from their Sunday’s best into football jerseys and got wasted in front of the T.V. would be viewed as crazy liberals by their ancestors. “Think about it. Those same ancestors thought slavery was the backbone of their economy. Like you said, the United States strong armed themselves into being the best country in the world while trying to clean up the mess they made at the same time. It’s no one’s fault. You can’t act surprised. Have you ever seen a world map over the years? Borders and super powers change. All the time.”
“It’s an easy thing to blame it on, but people are ignorant,” Helen answered my rant. “If you see the world as only black or white I think anger is the closest emotion to grasp. They feel validated when they hear immigrants are ruining their lives because they are hearing it from the most powerful man in their country. He doesn’t stop them from thinking it. And why would he? It’s the perfect propaganda machine,” Helen said.
“Well, people do love mixing their propaganda machines. Some Christians will actually tell you Jesus Christ sent him to be our president,” I said.
“Now when you say ‘Christians’ you mean the ones who think God is a white, gun-toting, feminist-hater who only require certain people to follow every word of the bible… while they only need to follow a few when it’s convenient Christian, or…?”
“I mean the real Christians who understand Jesus was a Middle-Eastern man with dark skin who preached tolerance and loved everyone… and would probably be banned from traveling to the United States today.”
“Hmm… what city would He blow up?”
“Oh. Easy. San Fransisco.”
Helen laughed. “We’re going to hell.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said, lifting up my sleeve to show my forearm. “I have a ‘Only God can judge me’ tattoo so I can do whatever the fuck I want.”
“Where? I don’t see it?”
That was probably the first moment I could have kissed Helen. Not that I would want a sacrilegious moment to subsequently lead to a romantic one; my grandmother would not be proud. In my head I had played out this day so many times and it always ended in the same conclusion: if everything was to go well, and if we met a moment of silence at the same time, a moment where our feelings roamed and not our words, I would kiss her. I did want to say something like “jag mar bra” in the silence before the kiss, but even if “bra” meant good in Swedish, it sounded like I was talking about her underwear.
“No, you know, my grandma is one of those good Christians. So is my mom,” I told Helen. “My mom loves everyone. All her life she’s been the same. My problem is I think it’s impossible for there to be a God who would let so many people have miserable lives. Then it turns out the miserable ones are the ones who believe in Him most.”
“Yes,” Helen said. She put a hand inside her red coat and tugged, pulling out a gold necklace. On the end of the necklace was a cross. “I haven’t gone to church in years. But you know what? This is a symbol. I agree. There are a lot of Christians who lead amazing selfless lives. Just like there are a lot of Muslims, Hindu, and Jews who do the same. They know that even though their life could be better, they are grateful for life because God gave it to them.”
We stopped in front of the palace and stared at it. “So King Carl is the king of Sweden,” Helen explained. “When you see the flag on top of the palace it means the king is in Stockholm. As you can see, there is no flag. The flag is blue and yellow, by the way.”
“They stole the colors from Ikea, right?”
“Yeah, you’re very smart. Do you want to see one of the oldest buildings in the country, or do you want to see where the Stockholm Syndrome robbery happened?” Helen offered.
“Obviously the robbery,” I said.
Helen’s voice always made me want to dance. As we walked she told me about her job in journalism. She paraphrased some of the articles and important factors dictating the course of Sweden. She was happy to be part of history in that sense. While she made jokes about “fake news” I tried not to let our jokes and tangents escape the stories about her writing. She was everything I wanted to be, peaceful yet strong and all with the power of a pen. “Have you ever thought about being a reporter?” I asked.
She looked at me, gratified. “It would be a dream come true. Without seeing any of my work, do you think I could do it.”
“You know what? Someone from L.A. would tell you, like, absolutely one hundred percent you will make it, but I will be East coast honest. You have the personality and knowledge for it and you are very witty. I know it’s hard, but I like your chances,” I told her.
“I reported something from the United States once, you know? I was in the Fort Lauderdale airport during the shooting a month ago.”
Fort Lauderdale, Florida. January. Airport baggage claim. Five dead.
Helen showed me a screen shot from the Swedish news segment. An anchor was on one side of the screen and Helen was on the other with headphones and a solemn face. The banner at the bottom read: Just nu: Skjutning på flygplats I Florida. I tried my best to guess. “Just now, shooting at flights in Florida?”
“Shooting at airport.”
“That makes more sense.”
On the way we saw many buildings ripe of European history. Occasionally we would come across a statue and Helen would study it and make up the history of the person. It wasn’t until the third statue that I actually realized she was making things up, however.
“I can’t believe those people existed and now hundreds of years later we’re still seeing their faces and remembering,” Helen said, enthusiasm dripping on her tongue. “I wish my life was that interesting.”
“You still have time,” I said, unsure if she was being serious or not. Come to think of it, I never knew. She was so witty and her humor so dry that the best I could do was laugh or desperately think of an equally witty response. We worked well together that way, I thought.
“Do you know what chaos theory is?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. Maybe.”
“It’s also known as the butterfly effect,” I said.
“Sounds familiar.” Helen breathed in through her nose as hard she could then out her mouth so she could see her own breath. “Explain it to me.”
“Well, like you said about the statues. You really don’t know the impact you can have in the world. The reason train rails are the length that they are—and the reason the first shuttle rockets were a certain width are tracked back to the Romans. One Roman creates a chariot and makes it the length of two horses apart. Right? So from there we base the roads all over Europe. Then the colonies are based off the same measurement. The North wins the civil war. From there on we base that length on all railroad tracks.”
“And the rocket?”
“It needed to fit on a train. Chaos theory.”
Helen stopped. A silence sprouted between us. We stared at each other peacefully. I thought it was the silence I wanted to kiss her in, but then she smiled and glanced over at a building. It was cream with a clock in the center.
“The Norrmalmstorg bank robbery happened in nineteen seventy-three,” Helen explained. “It was the first criminal event in Sweden to be covered by live television. The robbers held hostages in there for six days. When they surrendered none of the hostages testified against the culprits. They actually sympathized with them so much that they claimed the police scared them more than the robbers.”
“I think I’m developing Stockholm Syndrome with you, Helen.”
She winked. “You would get along with all my ex-husbands,” she joked. “Did you get to try Snus last time you were here?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe.”
“Do you know what it is?”
“Sounds familiar.” I breathed in through my nose and passed the cold air through my warm lungs and tossed it out in the air. Helen was quick to realize what I was referencing and slapped me on the shoulder.
“Explain it to me,” we both said at the same time, her more playfully.
“Okay, but actually explain to me what snooze is,” I said, pronouncing the word as it sounded in English.
Helen decided to keep the mystery intact. Whatever Snus was, it was banned by the rest of the European Union but Sweden held it as such a tradition they refused to ban it, and thus it was still legal in the country. We went inside a store and she grabbed a round container. Snus was tobacco, but instead of chewing it, one would insert a small white bag the size of gum but with the texture of a tea bag on the inside of their lip. Then they would let it sit there.
“That’s King Carl’s son, Carl,” Helen informed me. I was actually staring at a post card of food, but the ones surrounding it had the royal family. She grabbed the one of Prince Carl Philip with a red-haired woman holding a baby. “And that’s his wife, Princess Sofia. That little bundle of joy is named Alexander.”
I stared at the post card. It was like looking at a royal mirror. The prince had dark hair, enough of it that he combed it back and behind his ears. He had a beard and a firm face. I didn’t look as strong, but the resemblance was there. Princess Sofia had a thin face with a strong jaw, just like Helen. She had red hair, just like Helen. We both stared at the picture then at each other and without saying a word she put the post card back on the rack. We never talked about it.
“So how about that Snus?”
Helen bought it and gave me a piece. As soon as I put it in my mouth I knew I hated it, but I left it in there while we walked. It was minty and sort of burned. There was practically no effect coming from the Snus, aside from minor nausea and a desperate need to sit down.
“Want to go ice skating for a bit? I haven’t done that in years!”
“Oh, ice skating sounds fucking fantastic,” I said. I didn’t know where the extra enthusiasm had come from, but I was eager to spit the thing. Only I was going to do it when she did. I assumed she would before partaking in ice skating.
Well, unfortunately I was wrong. We rented ice skates and joined the tornado of people, mostly kids, circling around a statue in the middle of the rink. We were in a place that translated to King’s Garden so the statue was that of a past king. There were public restrooms and narrow food spots with windows for walls on the outskirt of the park. Music played from the speakers. Europeans were fond of the 80’s and 90’s music, but I already knew that.
On a Michael Jackson track I took off my scarf and I let her grab one end. She looked confused but excited. I skated as fast as I could. Luckily, winters at Rockefeller Park had taught me how to gain speed without falling or running into people. I had a quick thought about stopping and tugging the scarf so hard that Helen would come crashing into me. It would be the perfect kiss. I tugged so hard that the scarf slipped from her hand and she flew toward the wall, using her hands to minimize the impact as her body slammed into it.
I skated to her and leaned against the short wall, looking out at the park. We were catching our breath, but I had to tell her something. “Helen, you know I think you’re amazing.” Her smile warmed the ice below our feet. We locked eyes. “But I hate the Snus and I can’t keep it in my mouth any longer.”
“You’ll never be a real Swede,” she teased, her eyes going for a roll behind her glasses. “No, it’s okay. It was a lot more popular when I was in high school.”
“Oh, as any tobacco product naturally would,” I said.
She turned the Snus capsule and twisted it. There was a gap inside for people to spit out their little pack. I was disgusted, but then I remembered the entirety of Stockholm was cleaner than any given block of New York City so I put my tobacco gem next to hers.
After a couple more circles around the statue of King Charles XIII, we were instructed off the ice while someone drove the Zamboni to clean it. Helen asked if I wanted to skate some more or if I wanted to try the next Swedish product. “This time it’s tobacco-free,” she promised. “Only bad part is if we buy it at the park it will be alcohol-free too.”
“You have my full attention,” I said.
We walked to small stand where a kind elderly man made us glögg, which was a Swedish mulled wine drink that came with a little cracker. The version we got used berry juices instead of wine, but it was fine. It warmed my entire body. There were little sliced almonds I was wary of eating at first until Helen made fun of me for acting so confused. I drank as slow as possible to take in the moment. We admired the peaceful atmosphere of people walking by as well as the faint music from the ice skating rink when it went back in service. There was a lot of tranquility in the city, and a lot of tranquility between us.
I daydreamed about what it would be like to actually date Helen. None of my thoughts were sexual, surprisingly. I just wanted to cook dinner with her, push our banter, and sharpen our wit like a blacksmith did his weapons. She was so quick with jokes. I wondered if she was just a happy person or if something miserable in her childhood had made her appreciate the cruel joke of life. I finished my glögg. I felt truly happy.
“It would have been fun to grab a drink with you.”
“Ja, tack,” I responded. “Maybe we’ll do that before I go to the fly-plate.”
“Flygplats,” she said, pronouncing the first three letters like flea.
I looked down at my empty cup and repeated her words. I didn’t even want to think about saying goodbye to her in an hour, let alone the train ride that would put me in a seat back to the United States.
“Helen. We could get a drink now… if you wanted.”
“Okay I didn’t want to sound like an alcoholic, but let’s go.”
We walked back to Old Town and walked past a group of tourists taking pictures of a fountain at the center of a plaza between two beautiful buildings. We zoomed by the souvenir shops where she told me to never get a viking helmet unless I wanted to look like an asshole. After a while of walking the brick path we found a bar. The door was elevated by three steps. Helen got to it first and pushed instead of pulled, causing her body to jerk while she laughed and pushed her glasses back on her nose with a finger. There was a forty Krona cover to get in because of a live band. It was odd that they would have a live band so early in the night, but apparently it was one of three and they all wanted a lot of time on stage.
The place had wooden floors and a thousand decorations on the wall, and with almost no tables it really felt like I was in a dive bar. I told Helen to grab the only table available by the stage while I got us a drink. There was only one bartender, but I had already learned my lesson in patience when it came to Sweden. Be it in a coffee shop or bakery, the person helping you often went and made your order, leaving the register unattended. It was an extremely odd thing to experience when the go-fast-or-die mentality of New York was in my blood. So much so that it made me miss the big city. By now a nearby stranger would have told me that the bartender needed to hurry the fuck up before they got sober. I actually missed the damn place.
When the bartender did come to me he leaned in an ear and I said, “two vodka Red Bulls,” and he looked at me and shook his head.
“We don’t serve anything with energy drinks here,” he said.
“Okay then I’ll have… the…” I started talking, but the bartender turned and left. He got someone else’s order, then another person, then he had a little bit of down time which he used to glance over to see if I was still standing there. He looked at me then raised his eye brows and looked at a new customer who needed a drink. That was when I realized he was ignoring me. Again, it was very European and polite by an asshole’s standard, but my heart was racing. Helen was sitting alone and I was getting ignored by a dude dressed as if The Cure was still touring and he wanted to enter a lookalike contest.
Five minutes later I walked back, defeated. I wish that her beauty and presence could have made me forget the drinks, but love was more nervous than that. The early stages of affection made me desperately want for everything to go perfect. The caterpillars in my stomach turned into butterflies. She tossed a look my way and knew what to ask. “What’s wrong?”
“I think he’s ignoring me because I’m from the United States.”
She shook her head. “All that Swedish you’ve been practicing and you haven’t learned anything at öl,” she said, smiling. “Get it? Because öl means beer?”
I smiled. Behind us an elder man and woman had gone on stage and started fidgeting with two instruments, an acoustic guitar and a piano. My snicker evolved into a laugh and she flashed her teeth. She pushed back her chair so she could stand, but I grabbed her hands. I didn’t need a drink. Helen was my beer and shot of whiskey all at once. My eyes burned, exhausted from taking her in with the perfect light and perfect little tune that started in the background. She rested her body and returned the grip on my hands. There was a song that played for us and a song that played for the room, and though they came from the same source at the same time, it was not the same song.
In other words—
It was too romantic not to be romantic.
That lady slammed on the keys with so much heart, and if she was pumping blood then the guy strumming the electric guitar was every muscle abiding to life. We as the spectators were welcomed to lose ourselves and become dancers. Helen and I gave up our table so two people could sit while we danced. I put my hand on her hip as she swayed and held onto my other hand and spun and smiled and moved her legs. I didn’t understand one word they sang, but the music cleared my stomach of all the butterflies and set them free. Out the window went my nerves and worries and concerns. I was inside Helen’s eyes, embraced by her hands as they held up an exhausted man who had finally met bliss.
It was not a moment. It was the moment; the one moment I had been waiting the entire day and perhaps all my life. That moment of happiness lasted for about five seconds as our faces approached each other for the inevitable crash. It was the best moment of my trip quickly followed by the worst moment of my life. I had wanted Helen, but a look into her eyes revealed something in me like an allegorical mirror. I found all the darkness in the world in them. I was not pure. I was imperfect. I was a hypocrite and a monster. The guilt came out with a full army.
“I did something bad.”
“Before I came to Sweden,” I said. “The first time.”
“What did you do?” Helen asked.
Sadness gripped me. Fear ripped me. To think, I had put it all away and left it across the Atlantic Ocean all those days ago. I looked around to gauge how low I had to whisper so no one could. “I think… I killed someone.”
Helen made a face I had yet seen. Her thin eye brows caved in, her eyes turned to ash, and her mouth tasted something sour. “You… think,” she emphasized the word, “think you killed someone? Like a person? When?”
“Can we go outside?”
The dancing had already stopped. We had been slowly spinning in circles, but that stopped too. I walked past everyone and gave the bartender one last look. He was busy pouring a drink. I wanted to apologize for the angry thoughts I had against him, but better than an apology: he was probably going to be happy I was gone. We squeezed between the people coming in and thanked the employees who had greeted us.
“Why do you think you killed someone?” Helen wasted no time asking.
“I got into a fight during one of the protests in December.” A kiss was a kiss, but a confession was more intimate. “There was an altercation. People yelling, fighting… Helen, I’m telling you this because I like you.”
She shook her head. “There’s a difference between thinking you killed someone and killing someone. How did you do it? Did you shoot him? Stab him?”
“Strangled,” I said, my voice cracking from the pressure of sadness. “I don’t ‘think’ I killed him. I know I killed him. Because in that moment I wanted to kill him.” My eyes watered my cheeks like a gardener to his plants. “When my hands wrapped around his neck I had this overwhelming feeling. I didn’t want to stop until he couldn’t breathe. But I am not sure what actually happened.”
“You don’t know for sure if he’s dead?” Helen made that face I was familiar with now and tried to show empathy, but her legs were taking her away from me. She wrapped her arms around herself and used a hand to cover her mouth. I walked close enough to see her eyes were red.
“I’m sorry Helen,” I whispered. “I’ve never done anything like that in my life. I needed you to get rid of my guilt. I don’t deserve you. But I promise, I have never physically harmed anyone else in my life.”
“Do you know for sure if he died?”
“No,” I answered. “I was pulled away. He could still be alive.”
She took another step back. I was not going to be upset if she kept walking until she disappeared into the night and I never saw her again. She took more steps away before she took one forward. Then another. Then she wrapped her arms around me and we hugged. At the same time my knees gave up and my weight fell on her without wanting to, but she supported me; us.
“I’m here if you need to talk,” she said. “I am not a therapist, but I will listen.”
“I know. Thank you,” I said.
In my happiest moment I had seen the man’s face, a struggling purple, borderline lifeless yet so full of anger and hate. The face the man saw had been the same: full of anger and hate.
“Something inside me came out that day then went back into hiding,” I said.
“Okay. It’s okay.”
The sweat on my forehead turned into an extra layer of cold when a wind crept on us. She held me tighter and I regained the strength in my legs.
“I mean, it’s not really that okay,” she reiterated, somehow finding humor in the moment. “What do you want to do? Do you want to talk about it?”
“Yes and no,” I answered honestly. “I don’t have much to say. Just know that it weighed heavy on my head and that I am sorry. You know, I talk a lot about religion being problematic but… I prayed… a lot. For me and for him.”
Helen started walking, but made sure her arm was hooked onto mine. We walked side by side toward a train stop. I felt distraught the night was going to end the way it did, but Helen asked me something just when the station was visible. “Do you want to sleep on my couch? I imagine it must be hard to go back to the hostel alone after what you told me.”
“I would like that a lot,” I said. “Yes. Please. I don’t want to be alone.”
“Great, you’ll meet my roommate.”
Half an hour later I was walking in a different part of town. It was different yet the same the way our mood had shifted away from romantics, but remained tender. I entered her building and admired the dozens of doors we passed. Behind each door was a life.
Helen’s roommate was not Swedish, but she was fluent in the language. She greeted me and I kept the conversation going until I didn’t understand and revealed my tongue was limited. Her name was Noel and she had thick, curly hair and a nose ring. Her skin was bronze even in the middle of the winter months. “Noel moved here from Los Angeles half a year ago.”
“Yup. Had to do it,” she said. There was a genuine tone to her voice. It helped that her eyes squinted whenever she talked, giving you a cognizance that she really cared about having a conversation. “Something in me always loved this country and I visited and I was like, you know what? I gotta move. It’s the perfect time in my life. Here I am.”
“There she is,” Helen echoed from the kitchen.
“Do you like it here?”
“Oh absolutely, everyone’s so great,” Noel answered. “I heard you were traveling around Europe with a friend. How was that?”
It had only been three weeks, but it felt like a year had passed. My eyes had never stopped hurting from lack of sleep and my mouth had never stopped smiling from the experiences. “Honestly, it was the best trip of my life.”
“That’s a good place to start.”
Helen reappeared only to leave us again. I thought it might have been an invitation to follow her into her room, but she came out with a pillow and blanket then put them on the couch. “We’re going to have a third roommate tonight,” Helen said.
“Right on,” Noel cheered.
The girls convinced me to watch a 1973 movie called Theater of Blood starring Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, pitching it as one of the first comedy-horrors ever made. After sounding unsure I professed that the opening theme was one of the best pieces of music I had ever heard; it was calming and tragically haunting at the same time. Helen made snacks and Noel, a wine connoisseur, talked me into drinking a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with them.
As quick as the day had started it was over and I was in the dark, alone. I had helped Helen fold the bed out from the couch before she invited me to brush my teeth in the bathroom. “Stick out your finger,” she had instructed, and poured a bit of toothpaste on it.
Helen brushed her teeth and I took a second to admire her from the mirror. Then I laughed, and stuck my finger in my mouth. We exchanged a couple glances and I leaned down and spit down the sink. “Do you ever take those glasses off?” I asked.
“You don’t want to see what happens,” she answered.
Helen slowly took off her glasses and the moment her lenses came down she crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. I caught a hint of mint. She raised her glasses again and relaxed her face. She blinked twice and produced a smile.
“I think I liked you better the other way,” I joked. Silence came between us. We heard footsteps above from the neighbors and then a loud bang as if someone had dropped a bowling ball. “Thank you for everything.”
“Bar so good,” she said.
“That you can’t speak Swedish? Yes.”
I walked away and went to bed. There I replayed that moment over and over again in the dark. I lost track of time, but I knew not a lot had passed. My mind was fried but my heart refused to stop beating so fast. Then I heard a door open and close.
Helen knelt next to me. Without exchanging a word we kissed. Her lips were soft. Before I could register any other feeling she stood and walked away. “Wake me up like that before you go to work,” I said. “Pretty please.”
Helen smiled. “Jag vill ha mer tid med dig också,” she said, knowing damn well I didn’t understand a thing.
It still blew my mind how two people could reach the same destination by taking different journeys. If only I could get my hands on time and see all the steps that led to our encounter. Okay, the universe was estimated to have been created fourteen billion years ago. My father was born fifty-five years ago. My mother was born… well, she made us stop counting her age after thirty-five. My sister was born twenty-one years ago. I was born twenty-six years ago, and Helen was born twenty-five years ago.
I got on a plane to Stockholm three weeks ago. I went to a bar with my friend Adam eighteen days ago. I asked Helen what her name was in my best Swedish and she answered in front of a train station three days ago. On the two days that followed our paths turned into one secluded road. Then time’s cruel arrangement turned that present into the past.
An hour ago I was on the ground looking up at buildings and the snowy mountains in the distance. Twenty minutes ago I was looking down at the city the way a kid would a sand castle on the beach before losing interest. The most depressing place for me to be in the world was right there in the sky, on my way home.
I spent the first half of the seven-hour flight replaying my last two days with Helen. Sometimes I would only think of the highlights and other times I would go backwards from the end, but most of the time I relived each moment chronologically. I remembered the minute the morning broke through the window and how for a second I was confused about my surroundings. I pretended to be asleep when Noel went to work. Helen stepped out of her room in a white shirt and nothing else. In my sleepy state her long legs looked like a pair of waterfalls. “I forgot you were here,” she said, holding her shirt down like a short dress. I put my hands over my eyes but she continued walking to the kitchen.
I stood against a wall in silence. She pressed a button on her coffee pot and turned to me. Her wild red hair was in a bun, and her face looked refreshed from dunking it in cold water. “Do you know how to say ‘good morning’ yet?”
My feet moved me to her the way a song moved toward the chorus, progressing faster as I got closer and closer to her lips. I remember wanting to kiss her for longer than a second but my nose crashed against her glasses and a burst of laughter separated our faces. We kissed until the coffee was ready. I drank mine black with two spoons of brown sugar and Helen poured some Solhavre oat milk in her cup. She made oatmeal and toasted wheat bread with marmalade for both of us.
Halfway through the meal she stopped and put her elbow on the table. She rested her head on her hand and just stared at me. “I called in sick to work.”
“For me?” It was a stupid question, but I was surprised.
“Cough, cough,” she said without exerting extra effort from her lungs. “I am actually very ill, how dare you question the validity of what I’m telling you?”
I wanted to tell her that I had received a voice mail from my boss checking in on me. Oh, he had also fired me, but with a very polite tone. Any other day that would have anchored me to panic, but Helen was a remedy for all things bad.
We finished our breakfast and I helped her clean the dishes. Then we had sex. To this moment I can’t really comprehend how naturally it just happened. The math side of my brain could recall the steps, sure; that was not what perplexed me. I guess it was the silence prior to it all, the absence of speech required to coordinate our movements. It was as if we were two players in a theater rehearsing without an audience, but in reality it was all new. When she took off her shirt I smiled at the sight of her yellow bra and took off my shirt. Our bodies touched with prophetic gifts of their own.
I was starved for food I had never tried.
Her body was pale except for a freckle here and a mole there. When I kissed her and rubbed my thumb on her cheek I admired three more freckles I found, and I wondered how many new ones I would find, and if the time would come when I would know them all. The three freckles by her cheek barely formed a line, as if an artist had finished his painting and gave the wet brush one last flick to signal his grand finale.
Turbulence unplugged the projector in my brain. The fasten seatbelt sign came on with an electronic ding! To calm down I reached into my backpack, brushed past the receipts and souvenirs that made it so full, and grabbed my headphones. Music relaxed me. A film composer by the name of Michael J. Lewis had done the theme for Theater of Blood, and though I knew being reminded of Helen would hurt, I was already thinking about her so I played the song.
I thought about the world I left behind until the screen ahead showed our plane had finished crossing Iceland. I was closer to New York than to Stockholm. Every second I was closer to chaos. I was going to be back in the crowded streets. To think that I had felt like leaving Long Island was an escape. To think that I had loved the smell of New York City because it reminded me of the grit and grind, and the grit and grind reminded me of money. Deep down I still had love for walking Central Park and bar hopping in Manhattan and driving to Staten Island and Brooklyn, Queens, and my hometown of Mattituck too, maybe, but… I missed Europe before the plane could even land in John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“Great. It was great.”
Out of all the things I could have said about the trip that was the answer to my roommate’s question. Then I excused myself for being jet lagged and went to my room. The friend we had on the couch was on my bed. First he said he thought I was coming back the next day, then he apologized. He had not gone under the covers. As soon as I laid under my blanket and my body recognized the familiarity of my bed, I wanted to cry tears of joy. Out of all the things I missed my bed and my bathroom were on top of the list.
Before going on my trip I had become acquainted with sleepless nights. I grabbed my extra pillow and held it as if it was Helen, hoping that my tired brain would take the fake pill and let me go to sleep with sweet dreams.
That night I did not sleep enough to dream. I woke up around three in the morning with a burst of energy, realizing quickly that it was well into the morning in Sweden. Laying awake only made me angry so I put on headphones and tried to go back to sleep. Nothing. I did push ups and sit ups and stretched for the first time in weeks. My body reacted accordingly and ached within minutes. Nothing. I looked through pictures of the trip and felt this absurd, inconceivable feeling that they had been taken over a year ago. It was not the first time I felt like the trip had happened further in the past, or felt longer than it actually was. When I got to the pictures with Helen my eyes turned red, but I did not cry. However, I finally fell asleep.
The next day I was a ghost. Unemployed and lost between awake and asleep, I cleaned my room and refused to treat it like anything except a self-appointed jail cell. The random memories sprouted left and right, and I indulged in all of them. Maybe it was better to know people for short amounts of time. Then they could not really know the real you. Maybe that’s why I loved my friends in Europe so much, because to them I wasn’t the kid from Mattituck who got to drive before all his friends. To them I wasn’t another spec in New York City. To them I was a good person. Together we had all been a room full of mirrors.
Unemployed and bored, I decided to go for a walk. The air carrying the English spoken around me was cold, but that did not bother me. What bothered me was that I was walking without a destination for the first time in weeks. That day, like most days, people were arguing all over the Internet. The president had recently told the judicial branch he would see them in court, and half the people mocked him while the other half defended him restlessly. It seemed like people were okay with his sensitive, egotistical rants on, of all places, Twitter because… I actually couldn’t comprehend it.
Somewhere in the middle there were actual good people caught in the crossfire. Helen became a journalist because she wanted people to know the truth. She said she would never want to shut out the opinions of others because that would be like a cult. If she didn’t know the view of the other side, then how could she understand if her own progressive views were right? If she didn’t travel the world and learn about different cultures then how could she know hers was the best? Because she was told it was? No. No one had the answer. It wasn’t about the flag. It was about the time, and what was accepted at the time. People died firmly believing there were dozens of Gods in ancient Greece. Now those people were wrong. People died “knowing” the Earth was the center of the universe, and that slavery was justified. Those people were wrong. What virtues did we have today that will be wrong? The times were changing. She wanted to be on that wave and make sure everyone knew it. Women were equal to men. Homosexuality was not a disease. Minorities deserved the same rights. Religions of peace should never support death. The world was never going to stop burning, but we had learned to contain the fire. Until the last bit of red turned to smoke we could not plant new seeds near the epicenters.
I missed Helen.
On a street I turned down I spotted a man talking to a hot dog vendor and my skeletons jolted as if they had been pulled back on a harness. The man had fading brown hair, a thick neck, and fat cheeks, but the rest of his body appeared thin under a jacket. He looked around with beady eyes. I was unsure, and the more I stared the more I had my doubts, but it looked like the man I had strangled during the protest. Even if it wasn’t him, I turned and went up another block. Something felt wrong. I was a puzzle piece taken out of the picture, twisted and turned, and not fitting quiet right. I was not this bad person.
Adam and I talked about Europe every day. Reminiscing became our subjects of conversation. He was the only one who could listen to me without sounding sick of the comparisons. “Let’s move there,” we joked. My brain had fallen in love with the idea of moving to Europe. With the landscape in front us getting worse every day it was not a bad idea. All I needed was a one-way ticket. I was still young, unattached to anything except for college debt. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t need to be here. Except, I didn’t have the money.
Unless—I sold my car. My car was still in my parent’s house in Mattituck. That would be enough money to buy a ticket and pay for a place to stay. The guy on our couch could take my room. I could sell him things that were already in there. If he was savvy he would tell me no to drive down the price, but he was a bit of an idiot.
That Saturday morning, no less than four days since returning from Europe I got on the train and went home. My sister picked me up at a station in Islip, about halfway through Long Island. She was in town to do laundry and eat free food. My parents were happy to have both of us. I told them a different story of the trip I had told my sister, sort of like an edited version of your favorite R-rated movie playing on basic cable. I enjoyed glancing at her for the reactions. Suspiciously, no one brought up politics.
Then my cousin and uncle came over for dinner. “You choose your friends, but not your family,” my dad said. “Your uncle has always loved you like his own son. And your cousin has known you your entire life, and he’s served in the military to protect your right to vote. So please, make amends with them.”
“My uncle didn’t choose me to be his nephew. If he can’t respect my thoughts, why should I respect his? At least I’m on the right side of history.”
The way we were seated encouraged us to talk loud. I guess my parents had feared that the closer we were in proximity, the more likely we were to push each other. Something I knew ironically was that they were scared my cousin’s military training had made him violent.
“New York City really toughened you up, huh?” my uncle teased. “You used to come out shooting with us and make gay jokes, but now you’re better than that, huh?”
“You think it’s bad that I changed once I left this little town? Look, I’m not the one running for president. I’m not lying to people and saying ‘all my friends think I’m the best at this, the best at that’ like a greasy salesman. And you know what’s really crazy,” I said, letting the words linger. Everyone gave me their attention. “The majority of people agree with me. He only won because of electoral votes from people who think the Grand Canyon is a fancy vacation.”
“Oh, they gift him an expensive trip once and now he’s a world traveler,” my uncle said.
“Why are you even bringing that up? She lost,” my cousin added. “It’s the way America has been voting and she lost, fair and square. Hell, if you like traveling so much, why don’t you take a military tour? It ain’t flowers and drinks and women out there. Hell, there are so many places deprived of rights it’ll make your head spin. That’s what we’re trying to keep out. And you wanna sit here and tell your mom and pop you want to move to Sweden? You know what’s happenin’ in over Sweden? You must have missed the rally in Florida yester—”
“Oh my God. You idiot. Do you hear the fake propaganda he’s feeding you. There was nothing going on last night in Sweden. You now how I know? Because of the Swedish girl. She sent me this headline from the same time frame: confused randy elk mounts wooden elk in Swede’s garden. Wow. What a tragedy.”
The adults were letting us go at it. The air was thicker by the second. In a strange way it felt very therapeutic. My cousin breathed in and out and chose his next words carefully. “Look. There is an infestation and it is our time to seal ourselves in and work on our own economy. You got America and Britain, last two super powers of the world, both doing the same thing. I joined the military because I love my country and I love my neighborhood. Some day, someone with a gun is going to save your life.”
I nodded, processing his words.
The only argument that did make sense to me was that military strength was important. There could be an island of the most advanced intellectuals with inventions beyond our imagination, perhaps on the verge of quantum leap, and a ship full of barbarians could come and kill them with just swords and arrows. Humans were practically designed to run away. While other animals had attack and defense attributes, whether it was a hard shell or poison, humans were nature’s perfect wimp. Even the strongest bodybuilders would lose against an uninterested gorilla. Without the creation of weapons, our best chance was to flee. We could move anywhere and settle near water so long as we knew how to create fire and raise agriculture. We were capable of living in any weather and climbing trees and mountains. We were everywhere and with a big appetite.
Was it ‘fifty billion dollars military increase’ important? No. We already had a great military. Was it worth cutting Planned Parenthood and risking unexpected pregnancy? No. Was it worth dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency by cutting their budget? No. Was it worth worsening our own air and water quality? Fuck no. How ironic would we be if they spent all that government money on a wall and military while everyone inside was poisoned.
As a courtesy I returned my words in the same polite tone. “And our country is great because of people like you who are willing to protect us. But I don’t want someone to pull the wool over your eyes because you’re better than that. Go ahead. Call me a fucking snowflake, but he’s unfit to lead the country. It’s embarrassing.”
“So you really want out?” my cousin asked.
“Yes, I think I do,” I answered. I wrinkled my lips and took a deep breath. “I want to sell my car and buy a one-way ticket there.”
My uncle’s laughter boomed over the house, second only to the hand he had slammed against the table. He chuckled while he rubbed his bald head.
“That’s the problem. You want more and more without putting in the work for it. You wanna sell the car your parents gave you for free? I’m sorry, that’s too rich. You want higher minimum wages for less work. You want free college. But you do realize the money has to come from somewhere, right?”
“Like maybe a better use of our tax money? I wonder how you would have felt if the previous first lady spent her time in a hotel in New York instead of in the White House.”
My dad had already put a hand on his uncle’s forearm, but it was too late. There was a familiar tick in my uncle’s eye. “He knows it’s his life and he can do whatever he wants,” my dad said. “If that’s what he wants to do, then so long as he’s not hurting anybody.”
“I know, I know, it’s just that… we provide such a good life for him here,” my uncle said, shaking his head. He reached into his bag of overused phrases and pulled out one of my favorites. “If you don’t like it, fine, you should leave. But the only reason you could even consider moving to Sweden is because you were born in American turf and have an American passport.”
Granted he was right about my advantages in the world, I laughed at the idea that I was the “sensitive one” when my own opinions seemed to turn his skin red. For a country that prided itself on freedom, a law-abiding citizen was not allowed to have their own opinions, apparently. ‘Well if you don’t like it you can get out’ was the common comeback to the slightest criticism.
If only they knew I criticized the system because I cared, because I wanted the United States to be respected for more than their dollar and endless source of entertainment. I was upset because a first world country like ours had the means to do what was right for the people. In Europe, most young people knew a second language. If only people here could accept a second language as a gift from school. Some cared, sure, but most waved it off with jokes like, “I’m not learning Mexican,” and “in America we speak English.” I was guilty of it too, but not like them. Not anymore. Just because we viewed ourselves with so much pride didn’t mean the rest of the world wasn’t laughing.
“Just great,” I reacted. “Now this feels like Christmas which felt like Thanksgiving. If you excuse me, I’ll be in my room blaming Obama for my bed being unmade.”
My parents and my sister tried to stop me in their own way. One with words. One with a look. One with a touch on my wrist. All three I ignored and walked up the stairs, hearing the wood crack below my feet. Normally voices from the dinner table would silence the squeaking.
I picked up the book on my night stand, When Summer Ends, and read a page without even really reading it; my brain had wandered to Sweden. I was making dinner with Helen, maybe talking about going north to see the Aurora Borealis.
My mom knocked then opened the door. She never waited for me to answer before coming in. I moved the bookmark and closed the book. “It’s okay, your father approved,” she said. In her hands was a piece of coral paper. “This is the car title. I agree with you, you know that honey. But you have to give the man a chance. Everything will be okay, I promise.”
I grabbed the paper and stared. It might as well have been my ticket with the flight information. “Thank you… for everything. I’m not ungrateful.”
My father appeared at the open doorway. My stomach geared up, expecting the rest of my family to be near him. When no one else walked in I assumed my sister was downstairs debating. “Your uncle is just worried about you, that’s all,” my dad said.
“I know, he thinks progressive thinkers are upsetting God.”
He smiled. “Nah, this is more than some agenda. This is family. He’s been worried about you guys since you could walk out of the house.”
I nodded. “Part of me knows he cares.”
“We all care. You know, you were almost born in South America. Your mother and I went on a trip there and fell in love with this little beach town. I just wanted to quit and get a hotel manager job or somethin’ and just live at the beach. No more winters.” He looked out the window, perhaps imagining the watery roads to be a wave he never surfed. “We didn’t do it. If you want to go try to live in a different part of the world. Well, just come home for Christmas and I’ll be happy.”
I hugged them, wishing my sister was there to share the moment. The truth was that I loved them, of course, and my uncle and my cousin. But I did not like the state of the country. As I had heard earlier, there was a solution for that. If I didn’t like it, I could get out.
So I did.
I made it a point to sit in the same seat I had the last time I was in the terminal. My backpack and computer case were on my lap. My leftover Swedish Krona shared a wallet with three hundred dollars in cash. My one-way ticket was in my coat pocket. And my heart was pounding, ready to leap out of my chest.
Everyone dressed well at airports. They kept to themselves and were either living at a leisurely pace or running for their life; there was no in between. I found that amusing. For all the troubles we ran away from or ran towards, our was the life of movers.
All my life people had warned me that I would grow “old” and “bitter” of the world. I guess a part of me knew that was true. Routine made the world a boring, bitter place. A single journey into the heart of the unknown made life exciting again.
If you never traveled then why would you care what was happening on the other side of the globe. If you never traveled then it was easier to say “nuke ‘em” and not give a fuck about innocent people, animals, and landscapes. If you never traveled then… you’d never explore your own mind and find yourself thinking, as I did when I saw a father and his nervous daughter praying in their seat, unintended thoughts like… maybe there was a God. Maybe that’s why I felt so comfortable with the people I met. Because despite speaking a different language, I felt the same emotions and experienced the same life as them. You could convince me there was a heaven if you took me around the world and showed me everyone was capable of love. You could convince me that my own flaws and temperaments reflected on someone I never met was because we were all God’s children. Maybe.
Maybe it was a mistake to run away.
If I stayed I could help those who would suffer most under the new administration. If I stayed I could help them. I could march again. I could inform the ignorant. When my parents used to make me go to church the priests would preach about loving each other, our community, and doing little things to make the world a better place. That was what a good Christian was supposed to do. They weren’t suppose to discriminate against people different than you. A good day meant you made someone else have a good day, not because you got away with something you weren’t supposed to. A good day meant you did things with respect, and in turn people respected you.
As more young people questioned social conformity, and trusted their own feelings about their own sexuality, and listened to their own existential thoughts about who, what, where was God, who would be left to tell them you felt the same? If every one of us left the country, who was going to spearhead the change we desired?
I was tired. I was in love. I was engraved with the mentality of looking out for number one. After all, I was not disrespecting anyone by leaving to be with Helen. After all, it was my life and I had a limited time to do what I wanted before the deep, dark, eternal sleep.
I looked at the exit that would lead me back where I came from, back to a divided community torn by the choices of a few. I looked at the gate that was going to put me on a plane and take me to my possible soulmate in a snowy dreamland. I looked at the exit to go back where I came from again, and then I looked at the terminal gate where passengers had eagerly formed a line. I looked at the exit one more time and then at the gate; I looked at the exit, and I looked at the gate. I looked at the exit. I looked at the gate.
I looked at the exit.
I looked at the gate.
I looked at the exit.
The bathrooms inside Moyer’s Pub had bumper stickers all over the wall. I was old enough to know that the color under it was a dark green. While I peed I stared at the same sticker, reading it over and over again. On the corner with black marker someone had written, ‘If you’re looking for a funny, attractive, fucked up person, please call…’ with a number under it. The handwriting was bubbly and playful. The area code was 631. Long Island. Maybe it was legit.
I came out of the bathroom to a roaring ovation. It wasn’t for me. Someone else from the neighborhood had walked in with a bright smile and a Christmas cake. They grabbed the cake from him so he could take off his coat and gloves. Once they settled we could hear the Christmas music playing from the speakers again, which invited a lot of drunks to sing along. I spotted my sister being hugged by her new boyfriend. I walked over and grabbed my drink from her, but told them to stay in their secluded corner while I looked for my friends. Adam was at the end of the bar showing a girl we went to high school with something on his phone. A part of me wanted it to be pictures of Europe. He had yet to go back, but told me he wanted to every month.
I saw my mother laughing so hard she was crying. In front of her my father and my uncle were arm wrestling. Neither of them could move the other. Both their faces were bright red. Obviously they both cared, but wanted to maintain the macho persona of beating the other effortlessly. I was so happy to see them. I knew that whoever lost that match would ask my cousin and I to arm wrestle. They should not take a chance on me, though. I would lose.
The front door opened again. Everyone caught a whiff of the cold air. Again, the people rejoiced and roared and held their drinks high. Over at the table my uncle and father were still stuck in a stalemate. As I walked over I was lucky enough to witness them both lose all their energy and lie their heads on the table. They laughed and hugged each other. When they saw me they both walked over and gave me a hug. My uncle and my father were sweaty, but I returned the tight hug anyway. My mom yelled that she wanted a picture. I volunteered my phone. As I pulled it out of my pocket my mom said she needed to get my sister to make it complete.
This was Christmas in Mattituck.
Because my phone was in my hand I felt it vibrate. I looked down and saw Helen was calling me. “One second!” I yelled into the phone as I maneuvered out of the bar. Despite the cold I walked out wearing only jeans, a collared shirt, and a scarf my grandmother had knitted me.
“God morgon. You’re up early,” I said.
“Meh,” she sighed. “Just be thankful you didn’t have to dress as the Christmas gnome.”
“Goodie,” she rejoiced.
Her voice beamed me across the Atlantic Ocean and placed me next to her, or so I wished. It at least warmed me for a second before the cold sent a shiver down my spine.
“I can’t wait for you to come home,” Helen said.
“Me too. Do we have plans for New Year’s yet?”
“Hmm knowing me, knowing you,” Helen pondered. “I was thinking we could go north, lose track of time, and see the Northern Lights.”
I sighed. “Ah, last time we did that those pesky lights wouldn’t come out.”
“Yeah, but I have a really good feeling about this one,” Helen said in an upbeat tone. “I’ve enlisted the help of Tony Pajamas.”
“I freaking knew it.” She evil-laughed at my reaction. “I freaking knew there would be a Tony Pajama reference in here. You can’t help yourself. But hey, I really want to do that when I come home. I miss you.”
“Eh, you’ve only been gone for two weeks. I haven’t started to miss you yet.”
“Funny. So can we go?” I asked.
“Vi vandrar vidare.”
“We walk on.”
“Yes. To the north, my love.”
For a second I heard the noise from the bar increase. I turned and saw a shadow had walked outside. When the figure walked under the light I recognized my cousin. He waved. “Hey! Ikea!” he yelled. “My dad and your dad want us to arm wrestle! Whatdaya say?”
“I say you’re going down, stupid!”
“Come on, Eileen!” he urged, and walked back inside the bar.
“That’s not even a… forget it.” I returned my attention to Helen. “I gotta go. I’ll call you back after I lose.”
“Am I your consolation prize?”
“Yes,” I answered, ecstatic as the day I started this story.
Two friends go on a trip to Europe during the new president's controversial first three weeks. George Resande. It's only the second time you'll find the protagonist's name because he's like anyone nowadays: angry, concerned, and upset about the shift in power. He's one of the millions across the country who protests so his voice will be heard, but it is not without conflict. Something happens. Something awful. That sad December night he finds himself in his tiny room in New York City, going over the events. He goes home to Long Island for Christmas, and just like the millions across the country, he's bound for political disagreement with his family. It's okay. There is quite literally a ticket out: a flight to Europe. The gift is the work of his friend Adam Steele and his parents. The flight is set to leave the day after Inauguration Day. But Europe? Now? In a time like this? Is it more dangerous to stay at home? Is it illogical to let terror win? What do people think of us? What do people think of the elections? Yet the other half of his thoughts form other questions... what does the food taste like? What do they drink? What are hostels like? What people will we meet? How different are the cities? How rich is the history? Then there's always the charm of chaos. They have a chance to alter the life of anyone they meet, and vice-versa.