The train eases into action, carrying us east toward Stockholm. Oslo’s Barcode presents a final view of the fjord before we hit the Romerike tunnel. It was my only remaining chance to see this city, and I sat in a bar drinking the dwindling hours away. We could have walked along the harbor. I could have shown Kåre the old fortress, the city hall. Perhaps we could have been lucky and heard the bells in the clock tower play ‘Highway to Hell’ or something equally silly. He would have liked that, and now it’s too late.
My sand is fleeting. I have to accept that I squandered what little I had left.
Then there’s that nagging voice in the back of my mind. The one that says, “It’s not as if you’re terminally ill. You have a choice. You don’t have to die today.” I relegate it to the recesses from whence it came. There are reasons it must be today. It has to be today if I’m to create a meaningful ending to an otherwise senseless affair.
What was it Micke wanted to do before he died? What didn’t he manage to do because he ran out of time? Did he lie in bed that morning and hold me, knowing it would be the last time? I remember we slept in. Mostly because he came to bed at 6 AM.
Come to think of it… he slept with his back to me. He didn’t hold me at all. He slept through most of his last day on earth.
Had I known what I do now, I wouldn’t have left him alone in bed when I awoke. I would have stayed and I would have held him to me, smelled him, kissed him. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so upset that he was so late to bed because he was high, that he kept me awake doing god knows what, banging around in the living room all night. I would have simply enjoyed that he was alive. I would have pressed my ear to his chest, listened to his heart beating, my head lifting in rhythm with the rise and fall of his lungs, appreciating that he was still breathing.
It was a day like many others. Which has caused me to wonder if he even planned to do what he did or if he did it on a whim. Not that it makes much difference. Either way, I’ll forever blame myself for not having the prescience to predict his actions that night and prevent his death.
I should have already learned my lesson, that there wouldn’t always be warning signs and alarm bells. Or perhaps it was that every second of every day there was a constant alarm sounding. You grow accustomed to it. Sure, it sets your mind on edge, but eventually it settles into the background. You do what you must, and you tolerate a certain level of threat.
About a year before he passed, Micke woke me in the middle of the night on his knees beside the bed. Clutching the duvet to remain upright and feebly shaking me with the last of his might, he struggled to remain conscious long enough to slur into my ear that he’d taken too many Valium and he was so, so sorry. He would later claim it was an accident, but nobody mistakenly downs a handful of pills. And they certainly don’t nonchalantly chase it down with a bottle of gin.
The point is this: it blindsided me then, too.
Unlike Micke, I’ve been waving red flags left and right. Let there to be no doubt my death was planned. I want the world to know I was fed up with existence, that I took my exit with an irrevocable act of rage and despair. So, as we travel steadily toward the Swedish border, I set about banging in the nails symbolically on social media, broadcasting that message loud and clear. In doing so, I seek to seal my fate.
Kåre’s arm rests beside mine on the armrest as he focuses on the few remaining pages of his book. He fidgets, tapping his fingers as he reads. Until there’s a ping. Then he rests the book face down on his lap, slides the phone out from where it slid under his thigh. As he scrolls through, a frown etches itself deeper and deeper into his brow.
“Oh, Axel,” he groans. “Did you have to post that?” The furious blinking begins.
“It’s no worse than what I said onstage.” The woman seated across the aisle seems a tad too interested in what’s happening on our side of it. Her bashful smile when our eyes meet confirms what I already suspected, and she hurriedly returns her attention to her magazine. Thankfully, I’m saved by the conductor announcing that the bistro is opening for business. “Let’s not talk about this here.” I stand and tuck my phone into the inner pocket of my jacket, signaling my imminent departure. “If you wanna join me, I’m gonna go grab another beer.”
“Fine.” Kåre slips his bookmark between the open pages and presses it shut, then uses the flat of his hand to brush his hair from his face. “I could use a coffee, anyway.”
Rather clumsily, I follow him two cars down, stumbling whenever the train rounds the slightest bend, apologizing to my fellow passengers as I proceed. I sense Kåre’s annoyance. He doesn’t realize how much better off he’ll be without the pigeon-toed, day-drunk dunce wobbling along in his wake.
I wonder if Micke thought like that. What did he wrongly assume I’d be better off without?
And what if I’m wrong?
“Pick a table and sit down,” Kåre directs me once we arrive at the correct car. “It’s on me.” Then, as I slide into the first available booth, he adds: “Delete that post while I’m waiting?”
I glance up at the ceiling before my eyes fall on him once more. “There had to be a public statement. I’ve been silent for 24 hours.”
“Hey.” He leans over the table, and in a hushed voice says, “You’ve spent your entire career trying to convince fans who were suffering to hold on. I was one of them, and I don’t believe this is the message you want to broadcast to the world.” As he backs toward the queue, he repeats, “Delete it, Axel. With any luck, it will disappear before somebody grabs a screenshot.”
“Okay.” I sigh and extract my phone. “I’ll delete it.”
Given that the café has only just opened, the line is hopelessly long. From the corner of my eye, I watch Kåre standing there, head down, one fist jammed into the pocket of his jeans while the other clutches his phone, scrolling. He looks as if he read my obituary, not some stupid Facebook post. I wonder what his younger self would have thought about reading it. And I wonder why he was among those who needed my message. Was he honestly one of those who line up in droves after a show to inform me that I made a difference? A life or death kind of difference?
I may as well delete all of it. Sure, it’s a brash move. My pulse races as I carry out the act, because, should I determine that some part of me wants to live, I’ve fully fucked over my future self. But there’s something about watching my online existence vanish that feels liberating, although I may come to regret it later.
Later? There is no later, no future self.
Sooner than expected, Kåre returns and hands me the beer I requested. I take a good gulp to prevent it sloshing all over at the next turn and continue tapping my way to a digital demise. Before he secures the lid of his cup, the train jitters, spilling coffee over the edge and onto his jeans.
“Damn it.” He wipes at his pants with a napkin dampened with his own saliva.
“Why bother? They’re black,” I remind him, glancing up only momentarily.
“Force of habit.” He shrugs and sets the cover in place, carefully tamping it down at the edges.
“You always wear black!” I snort.
“Force of habit.”
Once I’ve finished off the online version of myself, I lay my phone facedown. “I honestly don’t see what was so upsetting about that post.”
“Reading it made me sick to my stomach.” He allows his own phone to fall to the table with a slap and stares at it past the point at which it locks and goes dark. “Whether or not you believe so, it reads like a suicide note. It’s cause for concern,” he adds pointedly, to emphasize the gravity of the situation.
“You have the benefit of context.” I give a dismissive wave and take another sip of my beer. “But… I did as you requested. I deleted it.”
“Good.” He lowers his head slightly and massages his temples as a beleaguered sigh escapes his lips. “Because the context was baked in. I’ve already received messages from people asking me if I know where you are. They want to ensure you’re safe.”
“Really?” I make a face. “I mean, I thought it was fairly open-ended. In case I change my mind. If not, I figure the headlines will fill in the gaps.”
“Wait. Back up. What did you say?” Kåre lifts his gaze and blinks, as if emerging from a trance. “You said ‘in case you change your mind’. How can I convince you to change your mind?”
“Pfft!” I nearly spray my beer at him. “Good luck.”
“I’m serious, Axel.” He leans forward slightly, eager to sway me, a hostage negotiator in an unparalleled situation where the hostage and hostage taker are one and the same person. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when I most wanted to end my life — what I actually wanted, what I needed, was to change it. To make it liveable. So, how do we make your life liveable?”
“I dunno.” I stare at him listlessly. “Can you do voodoo?”
“You know. Raise the dead?”
“Oh, come on!” he grunts and rolls his eyes.
“Because apart from voodoo, I’m not sure what else you could do… do.” I smirk.
“Ha. Ha.” He produces two slow claps, which is two more than I deserve. “Would you be serious for five minutes?” He drops the deadpan and his tone softens. “What can we do? What would be worth staying for?”
“Music. My career.” I rotate my glass on the tabletop, if only to have something else to focus on. “That’s why I’ve destroyed it.
“Well. You’ve certainly made a mess, but you haven’t destroyed it.” He sips his coffee. “We can get you out of that. We’ll just… plead temporary insanity?”
I laugh lightly, continuing to avoid his gaze by focusing on the hurricane cloud formations the beer makes as it swirls in its revolving plastic cylinder. I’ve dug myself into such a deep hole that there’s nothing to do but lie down and wait for the people I’ve pissed off to kick the dirt in.
“Please. Let me help you.” Kåre reaches out and places his hand over mine. His touch is foreign, as if I’m miles removed, experiencing it only through some haptic interface. He squeezes my hand and I wish he’d stop as much as I wish I could flip my hand over and hold his, to feel the soft flesh of his palm against mine. His eyes shine with hope, while his expression is a paradoxical grimace of trepidation. The intensity causes my eyes to dart elsewhere almost immediately. Outside, the landscape is blanketed in a deep blue haze, speared by a line of black pine pikes, only marginally darker than the sky.
“I don’t want help.”
He snaps his hand away as if I scalded him. “I’m not buying that. I believe you want help,” he insists, leaning back against the booth and folding his arms across his chest. “Last night, it sounded to me as if you were begging for help. You asked me who’s gonna save you and I promised I would do anything. I meant that.”
I bite at my bottom lip, already raw, holding my breath and unable to conjure up a comeback. He’s right. But I feel different today, as the chandelier and the kiss recede into memory. I’m actively distancing myself from it, banishing the thought whenever it emerges. If I remain solely to discover what becomes of the affair I so selfishly started, I’m certain to ruin him. The memory is more of a catalyst for leaving than an impetus to stay.
Having presented me with a failed opportunity to respond, Kåre continues. “Okay, here. What about this?” He folds his hands together as though he’s about to lead us in prayer. “You said that you hate coming home to an empty apartment. Stay with me. Just for a while. Maybe a hard reset is what you need to face it. I mean, personally, I don’t understand why you don’t sell the place if it’s so painful for you.”
“Are you kidding? It’s my home.” I wince at the mere mention of it. “Why would I do that? Then everything I had with Micke will be gone.” Reflexively, I raise a hand to cover my mouth. It cannot prevent the words from washing out, revealing what a sentimental fool I am. “I can’t let go of the life I had with him. I haven’t washed his clothes, let alone clean out his closet. I keep checking to see if anything at all still carries his scent. But as months and years pass, less of them do, so I become more and more desperate to cling to any little thing that still bears his mark.”
Kåre nods, listening as he plucks contemplatively at his lip, as if on the verge of delivering some sort of thoughtful response, but I keep right on rambling, even as my voice is cracking. “I kept a fucking carton of orange juice he drank from for six months until it stank so badly I couldn’t bear to open the fridge.” Resting my forehead on my palm, I focus on the speckled tabletop. “No hard restart is gonna fix this. Pull the plug.”
Kåre takes up my free hand once more. He turns it over and hooks his fingertips around mine. “Move into my guest room for a while. You won’t have to be lonely. I work from home, so you’ll have company whenever you need it, which–I reckon is around the clock?”
I wrinkle my brow at him. “Around the clock?” That seems excessive. “Am I allowed to keep my shoelaces when I check into this so-called ‘guest room’ of yours?”
“Yeah, you joke about it, but I contemplated dragging you directly to the emergency room this morning.”
“Oh, hell no!” Now it’s my turn to withdraw my hand in a hurry. But despite my protestations, his admission stokes a strange stirring below my breastbone. A bizarre amalgam of emotions: fear of an impending threat, shame that I’ve come to a point where someone deems me sick enough to be committed and… relief? Yeah, perhaps that’s it. Relief that somebody sees me, takes me seriously. That someone thinks I’m worth saving, even when I do not.
“I know you.” Kåre ignores my outburst. “My gut told me you needed time. And other options. Besides, you promised you wouldn’t harm yourself in my presence, so… like hell if I’m letting you out of my sight. Essentially, you have two options: you either sleep at my place or I sleep at yours.” His tone is awfully commanding for one with so little power to wield. “And then maybe we can talk about getting you into treatment.” He slurs through the last line, concealing it under a cough, as if he hopes to sneak it in under the radar.
I issue another burst of light laughter, concealing my discomfort with a sarcastic sneer. “You mean rehab? Can you imagine?”
“No,” he says dryly, pursing his lips together. “But I would love to.”
Ironically, that’s the moment I finish my beer, so I do it with dramatic flair. “I could stop if I wanted. But I guess I seem like any other drunk to you.”
He shakes his head. “You seem like someone in pain. Somebody who’s self-medicating to get by.”
“Nah, that’s not me.” I chuckle. “Self-medicating is what Micke did because he didn’t believe in the psychiatry he clearly needed. But that’s not what this is. I drink the same way some people cut themselves. It makes me feel better. Not the drinking itself, but the act of harming myself.” I tap my calloused fingertips on the edge of the table, watching as so much nothing glides by the window. “You don’t understand. This is not medicine, it’s poison.”
“What don’t I understand?” Kåre plucks up his phone, fingers flying over the screen, rapidly flipping through apps and then through an endless array of photos. “You think I’m so naïve, don’t you? What do you know about my past, Axel?”
The answer is very little. Kåre never talks about his past, other than the vaguest terms. “You never tell me anything.” I hardly know Kåre at all.
“You never asked.” After a minute of scrolling, he at last lands upon a picture. “Nobody outside of my family has seen this.” He holds his screen aloft. “I definitely never wanted to show you, but here we are.”
For a moment, I can only gape in stunned silence. A chill runs down my spine. “Is that… that’s you?” He nods. “How old were you?”
It’s an image of a boy, whose taught skin is drawn across emaciated bone and sinew, a skeletal child drowning in his black Joy Division t-shirt. He looks simultaneously much younger and much older than thirteen. But the worst part about it is his haunted expression and those listless eyes that dwarf the rest of his wasted features.
“You look so sad.” My voice comes out in a whimper. Finally, I divert my gaze to regain my bearings.
“I was cold. And miserable.” He closes the app and banishes the image. “For me, it wasn’t what I put inside my body. It was what I refused to put inside of me. I hurt myself, tormented myself, every day. It took years before I could be convinced I deserved better than that.”
I find myself clutching at my chest; my heart aches for the boy in that horrifying image. For an irrational moment, I long to reach out and tug Kåre close, to protect him as though he were still the kid in that photo.
“It hurts my soul to see that, Kåre. How could you think you deserve that?” I gnaw at my quivering lip, hoping he won’t notice how seeing him so close to death nearly drives me to tears.
“It hurts my soul to watch you do what you’re doing. How could you think you deserve the hell you’re living in?” He plants his palm in the center of his breast, mirroring me. “I didn’t intend to make this about me. I only wanted you to realize I understand how it is when hurting yourself is the only thing that makes you feel you have control. But after a while, it controls you, doesn’t it?”
I nod and glance away again.
“We’re not that different, Axel. We’re just in different places. I keep that picture to remind myself so I never return to that dark place.” Then he mutters, “That was probably what stunted my growth, you know. So… remember that the next time you have the urge to mock my stature.”
My eyes widen. “Oh man, I’m sorry.” What else do I say? “I never intended to mock you. I was only goofing around. You’re perfect as you are.”
“Thanks. I guess.” The right corner of his mouth twitches, forming a lopsided half-smile as he tears open a bag of nuts he bought, pouring out a few into his palm. “I’d really appreciate if you’d stop doing that, though.” He holds the bag out to me, but I decline the offer.
“I promise to never mention it again.”
“Anyway,” Kåre attempts to steer the ship back on course. “Nobody deserves the shit we’ve put ourselves through. Least of all you. You were a good husband. None of this was your fault.”
“You think I was a good husband? Micke didn’t think so.”
“How could you say that?” Kåre leans forward once more, eyebrows arched in disbelief. “He loved you. He thought you were the best anyone could ask for.”
“No.” I shake my head vehemently, closing my eyes because I cannot close my ears. “Don’t you see? He did it in front of us on purpose. He wanted us to witness that. To punish me.”
“What are you talking about? That’s completely untrue.”
The tide sweeps me up and deposits me in my living room, crouched beneath the coffee table, like I’m sheltering in place. Which is an apt analogy because there’s glass everywhere and a hole in the wall that Micke made with his fist. He was truly a cyclone.
I blink, forcing my return to the real world and realize that I’m covering my head, my fingers interlaced, interwoven through my hair. “I can’t stay with you, Kåre. I can’t. And you can’t stay with me.”
“Why? Give me a reason,” he says, brushing his hands against each other to rid them of salt. That’s when his phone pings and an alert flashes across his screen. He picks it up, unlocks it and squints at the message. “It’s your manager. He tells me your Facebook page is down.”
“Yeah, I deleted the whole thing.” I release my grip on my roots, but keep my head down.
“What? You what?” When I look up, a storm is brewing in Kåre’s gray eyes. They’ve suddenly gone several shades darker than they should be. “Did you unpublish it or did you delete it? Because there’s a difference. You can’t get a deleted page back.”
“I deleted all of it. All my accounts, any trace of me that could vanish with the click of a button.”
He rests his forehead on his fingertips again and looks past me, at the floor, at nothing in particular. “Your management is going to be so angry,” he whispers. As he speaks, his shoulders collapse. “It took ages for you to build that following.” He unlocks his phone and starts searching across platforms to confirm it. As he does, a tear rolls down his cheek, followed by another as he gives up, but continues to stare downward. The tears fall onto the screen like the first drops of rain sliding down a windowpane.
“Why are you crying? It’s only social media.” Witnessing him cry stuns me as acutely as that picture. “Please don’t cry.”
He locates the napkin he used to wipe the coffee from his jeans and uses it to dry the tears that are now flowing down his face in succession. “It just hit me… how I’m gonna feel if you’re not there. Like you’re gone, and you took all the memories with you, too.”
“You don’t need some hokey music videos or Instagram posts to remember me, Kåre. You have actual memories. I can’t take those away.” Unsurprisingly, that does nothing to console him and it makes my heart ache. “Listen, whatever happens… remember that I love you and I never meant to hurt you.”
“It doesn’t matter that you didn’t mean to hurt me, Axel.” He tilts his head to the right, then left, as he takes a last hard swipe under each of his eyes and then clutches it in his balled fist. Then, after a moment of staring at the table in silence, he narrows his eyes, honing his focus on me through the soft mist of tears that remains. “You love me? Do you mean that? What you just said?”
I squeeze my eyes shut, but I can still feel the force of his gaze. “Yes.” And in my mind, ghost Micke, who’s been hovering over us this whole time, waiting for this very moment, stomps his feet, his fists clenched in knots of rage, screaming: I fucking knew it!
“It wasn’t like that.” I whisper the words so softly it’s unlikely anyone other than the apparition can hear.
“Look at me,” Kåre demands. When I refuse, he slaps the table. I startle and can’t resist looking up and then apologetically at all the other passengers whose attention he has unwittingly drawn. “Look at me!” I look at Kåre, though my impulse is to flee. “If that’s true, if you care about me at all, then please. Don’t do this. And… if you’re thinking I’ll be better off without you… hear this: I will never get over it. I’ll never stop hurting. And you know damn well how that feels, so I’ll never be able to forgive you, either. Because you knowingly inflicted that kind of pain on me.”
Here’s the thing about breaking books and movies into sections, chapters and scenes that I’ve always found strange. Say the prior section ends on an important turning point. And then there’s nothing. You go to the following section or a new scene. That’s not how life works.
More realistically, there’s a jump cut and the characters momentarily stare at each other in stunned silence. The devoted, but long-suffering sidekick asks the protagonist what last night meant to him if he was only going to throw it all away. Then the protagonist, who’s honestly a bit of a dick, moves on to biting his nails since his lips are thoroughly butchered and silently stares out the window just long enough to elevate the tension tenfold. Imagine a Swedish art film kind of silence that would give Ingmar Bergman a run for his money.
“I’ll be returning to my seat,” I, the apathetic prick of a protagonist, announce in a weak voice. The sidekick, Kåre, softly shakes his head, but follows. I’m guessing he was expecting a promise to stay. That 24-hours, 7 days a week of nonstop anguish would be worth sparing him from the same fate. But he doesn’t love me the way I loved Micke. I know that. He’ll be fine after a while.
Once seated, I slide my duffle bag out from underneath, unzip it, and extract two small bottles of flavored vodka. “Vanilla or orange?”
“Well, this is new!” Kåre exclaims, serving me a heaping helping of sarcasm and side eye. “You packed the minibar. You seriously packed the minibar?”
I throw a cautious glance across the aisle, recalling our eavesdropper from earlier. But she’s asleep. The other rows near us are only sparsely populated.
“You’ll thank me when you hear what I have to say.”
Kåre releases an airy laugh. “That’s reassuring.” He slides back into his seat. “Vanilla. Give me vanilla.”
He hasn't a clue how generous I’m being. I had intended to down every bottle in the bag upon disembarking, so I’d be drunk enough to drown. Sharing any of it has the potential to spoil the plan.
I put up the armrest and turn in my seat so I’m facing him to the extent that I’m able, and I take his hand. “What happened between us was the best thing to happen to me in ages. I meant what I said about how I’ve wanted to do that. I was unable.”
“You’ll tell me when I should drink this, right?” He squints at me and gives his bottle a tiny shake.
I nod. The way he returns to sitting, his gaze fixed upon our hands where they lie laced together. I sense he’s bracing himself. Waiting to be broken. It makes my heart ache. I’m tired of hurting him. I want to stop hurting him.
“For the past two years, I’ve experienced little of anything that isn’t pain. But when you were around, I felt — okay sometimes. At first, when you came over to check on me, I couldn’t take it. But I didn’t dare ask you not to come. I needed you to come. And then, when you stopped showing up, it seemed as though my entire world had finally collapsed.” I press my lips together. I shouldn’t be telling him this.
“I didn’t think you needed me any longer,” he says. “You were writing music, you were super productive...”
“...I was doing the Adderall Micke left behind,” I confess, mirroring his sing-song tone.
As he hastily withdraws his hand, he pulls a face as if I punched him in the gut. “You did what? Are you insane?”
“I was unable to function and I can’t just not work. Anyway, I never once took as much as him; I only took the dose the doctor actually prescribed.” Besides, what idiot leaves perfectly good drugs lying around? “But that’s when I truly understood Micke. Why he used. Why he needed to. Once I had that epiphany, I stopped. Okay? But fuck if it wasn’t hard. That shit leaves you in its wake like a steamroller. And then you miss being able to do things. You realize how easy it would be to overcome it if you were only willing to pop that pill. That got me through one record and that’s it. I’ll never do it again, I swear.” I look him directly in the eyes and repeat: “I promise you.”
Although Micke used say that too. It started innocently. A harmless party drug. Then, using to make it through a depressed period. I could understand that. Then using to get through the grind that is touring, come home, and keep your head clean until the next round. I could accept that. Micke maintained that cycle for years: wash, rinse, repeat. But if you’re not careful, it can slip into a relentless spiral of repeat, repeat, repeat. The band had a breakthrough; then the tours came back to back, and he couldn’t stay clean anymore when he finally returned. At that point, he was using constantly and progressively more of it.
Micke had it all figured out. He wasn’t supposed to end up an addict.
Then Kåre breaks through my rumination with another revelation: “Actually, I uh ― I mostly stopped coming over because you...” He sucks in a pained gasp through gritted teeth like pulling a punch. “... you kinda told me to.”
“I said that?” With my exclamation, my mouth remains open, and I slump forward, blinking momentarily in disbelief. “How drunk would I have to be to say that? Why on earth did you listen?”
He leans away from me and folds his arms over his chest. “How should I know when I should listen to you and when I shouldn’t? You’re always drunk.” He stares down at his feet as he kicks at the footrest. “It’s impossible to predict what you’re gonna remember in the morning and what you’re gonna forget.” Alright, that’s valid. “I was aware you were drunk, so I forgave you, but I only dropped by if you called me after that.”
“And I quit calling you because I assumed you didn’t want to hear from me. Nobody was interested in seeing me anymore.” I’m such an idiot. “Listen, I’m sorry.” I breathe out slowly through pursed lips to recenter myself before continuing. “Your efforts were not lost on me. You kept me alive when living seemed unthinkable. You were my life support. It sounds cheesy as hell, but when I kissed you, I woke up. I felt alive. But before, I couldn’t respond to anything you did for me. I need to tell you why that is, so—you might wanna drink that vodka,” I instruct him. “And please forgive me, because I’m about to tarnish the fuck out of Micke’s memory.”