A watercolor image of the train tracks leading into Oslo with a modern white bridge across the foreground and the Barcode highrise buildings to the left.

Chapter Four: Strata of the Past

October 18, 2014

Oslo, Norway

Life goes on. I used to live in this city. To some degree, I grew up here. Someday, it will be unrecognizable to the city I knew. Unfinished, modern skyscrapers erupt from the shoreline’s shifting silt and block the view of the Oslo fjord now. The train tracks split the city: old and beautiful European apartment buildings on one side; new, minimalist bridges stretching toward a stark, as-yet-to-be-realized future. A future dominated for the time being by construction cranes and sterile, skeletal frames, promising progress. There is progression, whether or not you remain a part of it. Time doesn’t stop for lack of anyone.

I can’t remember a time when the demarcation of past and future was more discernible. The line delineating past from present, however, is more intangible. Now is built upon the strata of experience, the ethereal remnants of what used to be. They trail every step I take, become tiny black pools left in the wake of my careless, sullied shoes.

As we disembark at Oslo S, the ghost of a 19-year-old version of me looks on, hair dyed cherry red and clad in a hoodie that’s covered in painstakingly positioned patches and studs, a gig bag that contains a long-since stolen Stratocaster at his feet. He's getting in a last smoke before boarding the train to Stockholm for the first time, to study music production. It will be the most monumental train ride of his life. Except he can’t know that yet. He’s just terrified and trying not to show it to his mother, who hovers around checking the rest of his bags, asking if he remembered to pack his toothbrush this morning, worrying over whether he’ll be arriving too late to secure his room at the hostel.

I think we all have something we’d love to tell our younger selves. I used to think I’d cheer him with tales of all the amazing experiences around the corner. Tell him it really is like that Smiths song, “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby...

Now, I only want to warn him. Give him a good shake and tell him not to be a coward. A strong relationship can withstand a little honesty. So, be a man. Put your goddamn foot down or you’ll be kicking yourself with it for the rest of your life.

A pen and ink drawing of a young Axel smoking on the bench as an older, current-day Axel looks on from behind. He is wearing his signature hat, a jean jacket, fingerless gloves and carries a guitar gig bag.

There’s a nip in the air, like it could either snow or rain. Or both. It is Oslo, after all. Present day Kåre and I stand there amongst our small pile of bags on a platform the pigeons have painted like a Pollock, staring at our phones, checking messages, sending updates to the promoter. The remaining passengers file out around us at the train’s last station. Soon it will depart again, heading back to Stockholm.

That 19-year-old version of me rushes to board as soon as he’s finished his cigarette, but his mother insists on a long, last hug that makes his skin itch. He’s anxious that he might somehow miss the train, even though its departure is still ten minutes away. He really can’t wait to get the fuck out of Oslo. He should have hugged her a little longer. He had the time.

Eventually, the train pulls away from the station and it feels silly to remain standing here. I’m suddenly acutely aware of the fact that I’m underdressed in my jean jacket and fingerless knit gloves. I signal for Kåre to follow me toward the light and warmth of the station.

Now that we’re here, I’m all business, propelled by renewed purpose and determined to make the most of my last hurrah. Tonight, I won’t go out like a supernova. Who are we kidding? My ego’s not that big. I won’t even resemble a meteorite. No. I’ll go out like space junk, streaking across the sky ever more brightly as it journeys toward its inevitable end. Something once useful, now nothing but trash burning up in the atmosphere. Although it’s only garbage, from a distance it looks like something to romanticize, maybe even wish upon.

Kåre and I debrief each other as we walk. “Those bastards did beat us to the venue!” he reports as we near the mouth of the platform and make our way toward the escalators. “In fact, they’ve already loaded in!”

“I know, Tor messaged me too,” I nod.

“The venue just posted on Instagram. Did you see that?” he asks.

“No. I had an exchange with the promoter, though.” I’m preoccupied, pausing momentarily at the escalators and struggling to re-adjust my duffle bag so that it stops blocking my stride. “I guess he was freaking out because the backline was late to arrive, but it’s there now. Thankfully...”

Kåre stops and waits for me. “Yeah and apparently there’re already fans lined up outside waiting for us to arrive for soundcheck.”

“Really? In Norway?” I resume, stepping carefully onto the moving stairs. He shows me the image as we ascend, and I squint at it in disbelief. People just don’t do that here. “You’re right, they must all be expats!” Norwegians have a tendency to show up ten minutes to showtime. “Shit, did we remember to post anything about the show?”

“I took care of it,” he half-sings, with a smug smile.

“The official account?”

“The official account.”

I release an exaggerated puff of air and shoot him an expression of gratitude. “You’re a lifesaver.”

Kåre shrugs, switching from smug to meek as we reach the top and pass through the sliding doors into the brightly lit station. “It’s sold out; it’s not like it’s crucial to promote it.”

“Oh. It’s sold out?” I respond. “I mean, of course it’s sold out. If I couldn’t even sell that many tickets...” I break into a sure stride as we cross the moderately busy main hall, still getting my bearings and planning out our next course of action. “Anyway, look, we’re booked at the Plaza; we’ve got maybe an hour, hour and a half before the promoter swings by to get us. What we need to do now is head to the other end of the station... just follow me, it’s close by.” I toss a glance over at him, to make sure he’s paying attention. He nods to demonstrate that he is. “I would love to at least get in a shower, maybe a quick shave before the promoter picks us up. What was his name again?”

“Ola,” Kåre says. “I think his name was Ola.”

“For some reason I put him in my contacts as ‘Oslo Idiot’.” I can’t recall why.

Speaking of my phone, it’s vibrating, but when I look at it, it’s only Tor and I send it to voicemail, thinking I’ll call him back in a minute from the hotel, in a quieter environment. In my distraction, I move so swiftly that I hardly notice Kåre, with his shorter stride, falling farther and farther behind. That is until I hear him calling out my name from a short distance away.

“Axel! Wait up!”

The sense of urgency in his voice stops me in my tracks. My vision goes dark and for a split second, I’m gone, dunked under by a cruel hand, only to instantly break the surface again. Breath, blink, come back. Shake it off. Turn around. Like nothing happened.

Now that I’m standing still, Kåre slows his step to a more relaxed pace. He’s on the phone. His brow is furrowed with concern and he bobs his head solemnly, as if the other party can see him.

“Oh, that sucks!” I hear him exclaim, followed by a hard cringe. Once he’s caught up, he interrupts whomever’s on the other end, “Hold on, hold on, here’s Axel.” He hands me his phone. “Talk to Tor.”

An image of Axel's phone. A large crack extends across the screen. It reads 17:40, the alerts inform of two missed calls from Tor Haraldsson, one message from Tor Haraldsson which reads: Eat dust, fuckers! We are here! (in Swedish) And one more SMS from Oslo Idiot that reads "Backline is finally here" in Norwegian.

The moment I press Kåre’s phone to my ear, I get an earful. “Dude, I tried to call you. Take your damn phone off silent mode for once!”

“So, you made it before us. Congratulations. I saw your message.”

“Yeah, that’s old news. I sent that ages ago. The newsflash is that we’ve recently arrived at the urgent care,” he informs me.

What?” I cover my left ear so I can hear him better against the station and its general racket, turning away from the main hall, as if it will help. You’re kidding. What the hell happened?”

“Well, we had finished loading in and were about to move the car. That’s when Lisa here slammed my hand in the trunk,” he says curtly, but with just enough of the usual ironic lilt in his voice to reveal that he’s not actually angry with her.

Lisa’s voice suddenly dominates the line, and it’s clear she’s leaned in to defend herself: “Axel, you have no idea how sorry I am!”

“It’s okay, Lisa. I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean to do it.” I ditch my bags beside the barrier overlooking the lower levels and pace aimlessly alongside it. “Are you gonna be okay, Tor?”

“Well, two of my fingers are turning a lovely shade of purple, so um... I’m gonna go with ‘no’.”

“Ah, fuck,” I whisper, before I remember my manners. “Listen, don’t worry about the show. Just - take care of yourself. And check in with us when you get the chance.”

“Don’t worry, Axel, I’m still gonna sell your merch!” Lisa pledges, as the call drops.

I halt my frenetic back and forth and pass Kåre’s phone back to him without so much as a glance in his direction. Resting my folded arms across the railing, I watch the late afternoon commuters below making their way toward the subway in silence.

Kåre approaches on my good side and leans against the rail, mirroring my movements. He looks downward, following my gaze. “We’ve played without a drummer plenty of times,” he reminds me after a moment.

I close my eyes and sigh. “Too many times.” It took so long for me to... no, I still can’t say it. He always and ever will be irreplaceable.

“We’ll manage, Axel.” I feel Kåre’s hand on my shoulder. “You’re not gonna cancel?”

“Of course not.” My forehead knots up at the mere thought. I look over at him, then down again. “I just wanted tonight to be special.”

He chuckles and drops his hand from my shoulder. “Do you ever stop for a minute and hear the sense you don’t make?” A bewildered frown has overtaken his face. “First you complain about the venue, now you want it to be ‘special’?”

I bite my lip, rubbing its cracked surface with the flat of my tongue. Like I’m trying to stop the words from tumbling out. My mind is screaming them: This is our last show, tell him this is our last show! But when our eyes meet again, I can’t find it in me to say it out loud. He’ll find out soon enough.

After a moment of attempting to calm my inner storm, I manage to force a satiric smile, shrugging in amused resignation. Shaking my head softly, I offer that old, American adage: “It is what it is.” Somehow, just saying it helps.

“It is what it is,” he nods, his lips curving upward ever so slightly.

I give a subtle gesture toward the exit to signal my readiness to move on.

“You know what?” Somehow emboldened by the unfortunate turn of events, I throw my arm across Kåre’s gig bag, take hold of the opposite shoulder, and give it a squeeze. Then I flash him what hope is a somewhat more convincing smile. Because I figure... tonight is my last chance to show him he mattered to me. To leave him with a fond memory when I’m gone. So, I’ll put up a phony, optimistic front. For his sake.

The sudden shift in gears catches him off guard, and he nearly drops his phone, but responds with soft, surprised laughter. “What?”

“Tonight we say fuck it.” I give him one more embrace, tugging him into my side right before we reach the revolving doors. Innocent, a simple gesture of camaraderie. “No matter what happens... we are going to slay tonight.

“Slay? Since when do you talk like that?” he snickers, raising his eyebrows at me and tucking in his chin. “You almost sound gay.” He draws out the last vowel and wrinkles his nose in mock disgust.

I narrow my eyes. “Bitch, please!” Then I’m forced to release him so we can pass single-file through the roundabout, into the night again. I give him a tiny shove in the right direction. “Who the fuck are you to tell this old queen what gay sounds like?” Besides, I picked it up from him. His fascination with the film Paris is Burning.

As I follow close behind, I keep my eye on the Bauhaus patch on the back of his gig bag. There’s a distinct, bittersweet feeling of lack that follows letting go. A reprise of what I felt on the train, but more raw, intensified. For a moment, I yearn to do it again, to reach out and grab him once more when we exit, to hold him to me and continue on like that. But the sensation dissipates as the crisp autumn air greets us on the other side.

I shove my hands into the pockets of my jacket and focus on the concrete underfoot as we cross the bridge toward the hotel. When I steal a covert glimpse at Kåre, his head is cocked to the side, a residual grin on his face. Kåre is always just–well, he’s one of those guys who’s painfully good-looking. But when he smiles, and I mean really smiles, like he is right now — Kåre is absolutely beautiful. I would love to allow my gaze to settle upon him for a little while longer.

Ashamed, I quickly glance away.

The hotel, it’s very alright. I mean, it’s a hotel room. They all look the same. Two double beds, a nightstand, a desk, a T.V. atop the dresser and a bathroom. A minibar. Rows upon rows of identical rooms, stacked to the heavens, each representing very different stories, other lives simultaneously unfolding. However, my own story, unraveling in this very room, leaves me feeling cheated. This was not the narrative I envisioned; I never thought it would turn out this way. There should have been a happy ending. Yet, I’ve arrived at my final chapter only to find that I’ve completely lost the plot.

Kåre tosses his bag down on the bed nearest the door, unzips it and immediately begins rummaging around until he finds his little Bluetooth speaker. I toss myself onto the other to decompress while Kåre laments a failure to get his devices to pair. A short while later, I slip away, shower, change into fresh clothes and shave to the soundtrack of Bronski Beat blasting in the next room, my eyes trained on the sink. Dirty blonde flecks of hair fall into the basin and swirl around in the swill. I only wipe my face and glance in the mirror once I’m done, albeit only briefly, to ensure I’ve done a decent job. Then I rinse off my razor and slide it back into my grooming bag.

When I peer down into the basin at all those little flecks, now stuck to the sides as the water recedes, I flash back to the day after Micke died. I’m stuck, staring into my bathroom sink, struggling to decide if I can even bear to run water into it. Incapable of proceeding, I broke down crying. I used to get so annoyed with Micke for not wiping his shaving remnants away, for constantly making a mess in the sink. But that day, I just couldn’t bring myself to wash those fragments of him away. They were just one of so many messes he left behind that, in his absence, became all I had left of him.

Soon all that’s left of me will be the mess I leave behind. But nobody will be there to agonize over any of it. Nobody else will have to decide when to wash away whatever trace of me remains.

When I emerge again, Kåre is absently dancing around to the final refrain of “Small Town Girl” as he gets ready. He sways to the beat as he tucks in just the front of his white on black polka dot dress shirt and rolls up the sleeves a little so that his array of leather bracelets and faded butterfly tattoo are visible. Raising his arms to fasten his sterling silver corvid skull necklace, he adjusts his collar so that it falls just right. He looks more rockstar than I do these days. It’s borderline embarrassing.

A new song fades in, a few jangly chords on an acoustic guitar, strangely out of place for an Erasure song. “I try to discover — a little something to make me sweeter,” Andy Bell sings. Kåre catches me watching him as he tosses his hair out of the way and slides a dangling peacock feather earring into one ear. A hint of a smile graces his lips. My irises flee reflexively. I remember the towel in my hand and use it to dry my face, blocking my gaze.

“Oh, baby refrain...” Andy Bell croons. Kåre sings along, and rather badly. I know he can actually sing. He’s only trying to lighten the mood. When I look up again, he’s waving his arms about, flamboyantly flourishing toward the picture window, a dance more goth than gay, which I think is more or less what he’s going for considering the playlist. “...from breaking my heart...

I roll my eyes and toss my towel aside, digging in my bag for a comb and pretending that I can’t see him from the edge of my vision. Or rather, that I’m not discretely glancing up at him whenever it seems prudent to do so.

“I’m so in love with you; I’ll be forever blue...”

Kåre, never one to give up, attempts to vogue and fails in the most charming way. He makes clear he’s aware that I’m looking, even when I’m trying so hard to make it seem otherwise. So I shake my head, pretending to be unimpressed, all the while stifling a smirk.

He rounds the bed, beckoning for me to join him, to dance. Like we used to. Back when I was fun.

“Nah, I’m too sober,” I wave him off.

Honestly, I wish I could dance with him. But frankly, I feel like I’m fumbling around in one of those old-fashioned diving suits, freshly returned to terra firma and struggling to reacquaint my limbs with life on land. Like sandbags it weighs upon me; I’m unable to move my body properly in time to the beat. I’m forever gazing at the world through a glass bubble.

What on earth has happened to me? I used to dance all the time.

A pen and ink drawing of a person in an old fashioned diving suit reaching out to touch Kåre, who looks confused.

That you give me no, that you give me no...” Andy Bell keeps on going as Kåre at last lunges at me, grabbing me by the shoulders.

“Come on, for fuck’s sake!” he shouts over the music.

“...that you give me no, that you give me no soooul...”

He forces me to sway back and forth until I finally, laughingly, give in and the song lifts in intensity, building up toward the chorus. Kåre, his voice is really not suited for the high note at its conclusion; he knows this. The bubble breaks; I laugh against my will. And just when I allow myself a moment of free movement, my phone lights up where it’s lying on the end of the bed. It’s the promoter.

I pull away while motioning for Kåre to turn down the volume. He scurries off to grab his phone and mute the music before I answer my own.

“Yeah, you’re here? Okay, we’ll be right down. Just give us a few minutes. We’re almost ready.”

The promoter, Ola, has himself arrived to pick us up and drive us what turns out to be less than 10 minutes to the venue. It would have taken approximately 15 to get there on foot. But that’s Oslo.

“Hey, it’s really great to have you here,” Ola says, throwing a glance back at me in the rear-view mirror. “I was a huge Nauru fan back in the day. I saw you play Uffa on your first tour before I moved to Oslo. When you were supporting Attax. And then Rockefeller in, what was it, 2004?”

“2005, I believe.”

Oh yeah, 2005 it was! Man, I gotta tell you, A Murder of Crows was a fucking classic album.”

“Thanks.” It’s also over ten years old and I have to wonder if he’s kept up with anything I’ve done since then. But I hardly expect everyone to follow me from post-punk to indie rock to whatever you wanna call the half-rock, half visesong thing I’m doing presently.

“I really wish you guys would do a reunion!”

I release a tiny snort. “Yeah, not gonna happen.” Even without considering my current trajectory, that would only ever happen over my dead body.

There’s an awkward silence before he ups the awkward one hundred fold. “You know, we just had Attax in town about a week ago. At our bigger venue upstairs.” And now I remember exactly why I gave him the moniker I did in my contact list. The man is oblivious.

“Oh?” I say, feigning nonchalance. “Are they still together?”

They could have had the decency to inform me they replaced Micke with a new drummer. To soften the blow. Although… maybe they did. Jon Ammon, their vocalist, tried to call me about, what, six months ago? I didn’t pick up the phone, and I didn’t check the message he left either. Come to think of it, I haven’t spoken to any of Micke’s former bandmates since the funeral. As long as the royalty checks land in our account, I have nothing civil to say to them. As far as I’m concerned, they’re responsible for Micke’s ruin.

We take a sharp right and pass Blå. We played there the last time we were in town. Long before Micke died, before Kåre’s tenure, in fact. The support band invited us up to the punk squat Hausmania afterwards, and we got so wasted that we came very close to missing our flight home the next day. They took one of my favorite photos of us in its graffiti-filled hallways, collapsed over each other in laughter on the stairs. We used it for the liner notes for Wherever You Go. Taking that photo is one of the few things I remember definitively from that night. That and how happy we were.

There are traces of Micke absolutely everywhere I go; we went everywhere together. Every town is haunted by him. Just once I would like to go somewhere without a past, with no history.

A polaroid image of a younger Axel and Micke sitting on the stairs and laughing. Micke's arm is around Axel and he leans in close with a gigantic grin.

Ola pulls up to the club, stops the car and we climb out. He points at the shivering kids, sitting huddled together on the patio outside the venue, hours before doors. “Look at them, isn’t it crazy? All this just to sneak a peek at you on the way to soundcheck!” He leads us down the steps toward the entrance, shaking his head in disbelief as we make our way down. “I tried telling them it’s not the best time. I figured you’d want to load in and check as quickly as possible so you have time to eat.” Then he adds, “Your drummer just got back. I hear he’s already inside setting up his kit.” He says it like an afterthought.

“Wait, what?” I stop in my tracks. “He’s here? Right now?”

“Yeah, he didn’t call you?” Ola shrugs. “I guess he made a mad dash straight back as soon as he learned nothing was broken.”

Kåre and I exchange a look of stunned disbelief between the two of us.

“The fuck?” Kåre murmurs.

“That’s some serious dedication,” I mutter.

“I know, right?” Ola produces his keys from his pocket as we near the doors. “You best hold on to that guy!”

The line of fans rises momentarily, as if saluting the royal procession. I called myself a queen earlier, so perhaps it’s befitting. A few flashes go off and I manage only a quick salute before we’re rushed inside. And lo-and-behold, there’s Tor, already onstage assembling his drum kit with a bandage, nearly obliterating most of the mobility in his left hand.

“You crazy bastard!” I exclaim, dashing up onto the tiny, low stage and leaning over the floor tom to greet him with a careful hug. “You don’t honestly think you’ll be able to play like that, do you?

“Well, I’m gonna try!” He offers a sheepish grin. “With no guarantee that I’ll make it through an entire set. Thankfully, you didn’t give me much to play on the new songs, so…” He scratches his ruddy beard with his good hand. “By the way, Lisa is over there preparing the merch table.” He nods toward the far end of the room.

I can barely even make out her shadow in the glaring stage light, but give a wave in her general vicinity as Ola pops by to hand me a beer from backstage. “Hey, lady!”

Hey, Axel,” Lisa casually calls back. Just the sound of her dusky voice echoing across the empty venue in our usual exchange is a reassurance that everything will somehow fall into place.

My spirits lifted, I turn my attention back to Tor and set to work hauling his cymbal bags and stands from the side of the stage. “Here, let me at least take care of your cymbals for you.”

“For the record, you’re the first vocalist I’ve played with who has ever offered to set up my kit.”

“You’re the first drummer to allow it!” I admit with a laugh. “I watched Micke do this for years. But he never let me touch his gear!”

“Trust me, you wouldn’t be touching mine either if it wasn’t for this!” He gives his bandaged hand a wave and gives me a playful wink.

After I’m done with the cymbals, I take to setting up my synth, which is what takes the most time, then I locate my Les Paul and the small pedal bag Tor grabbed from our rehearsal space. As a guitarist, I keep it fairly minimal. I’m surprisingly low maintenance. On the tech front, anyway. Sound check will not take long, assuming the sound guy has his shit together. And he seems to.

“Hey,” Kåre taps me on the shoulder once he’s set up his own gear, as I’m finishing up stomping on pedals to make sure all is in working order. “I can check the guitar and keyboard when they’re ready to begin, if you want to go and say hello.” He knows me too well.

“Just don’t touch the semi-acoustic.”

He frowns. “I know, I know. I’ll only line check the Les Paul. Like always. Now—go if you’re going!” I’m off the stage in a flash. “But don’t be long!” he calls after me.

Outside, the line has only grown, and it’s still at least two hours to doors. Those nearest the entry spot me approaching and call out to the others. In a chain reaction, they all scramble to their feet again, chattering away with excitement. They had to have known I’d eventually humor them. I usually do, after all. I set my empty beer bottle on the ledge by the entrance and draw in a deep breath before stepping outside to face them.

I emerge and make a show of surveying the crowd, proclaiming, “You all do realize it’s Norway, right? Nobody queues up here for shows.” I greet the assemblage of fans nearest the door with a small wave. “And it’s what we in the business call an intimate venue. You’re all gonna be fine.”

“Haven’t you heard, Axel?” A girl at the front of the line with flame-red hair smiles and clutches her worn Nauru bag to her chest excitedly, no doubt proud of her dedication to claiming a spot stage side. With the size of this place, she’ll be sitting on my lap. “The show is sold out!”

“I should hope so. After all, there’s only room for like, a hundred people in there.” I lift my eyebrows at her.

“No, it sold out in less than twenty minutes!” The boy she’s with tells me as he nervously wraps the string of his hoodie around his finger and tugs at it. “It really pissed off fans in the online community that you didn’t book a bigger venue.”

“Well, I assume we tried…” Actually, I have no idea if we tried. Lately I’ve been leaving just about everything to my manager. I only assume that he does his job. But clearly somebody dropped the ball here.

The group has now flocked around me in horseshoe formation, edging increasingly closer. So I raise my voice to address them again: “I came out here to thank you all for coming and standing in line in the cold to watch us walk into a dive bar. I mean, if it weren’t for you lot, I wouldn’t have much of a career right now, so… yeah. Thank you for sticking by me.”

A random voice calls out from the crowd, quickly disrupting any semblance of sentimentality that lingers. “Axel, will you sign my arm so I can get it tattooed?”

I search to find the source, but all I can see is a Sharpie waving above the mob. “Um… I suppose so. Although I’m not sure I want to be responsible for your poor life choices.” I step into the crowd to accept the Sharpie from her disembodied, outstretched hand, and take hold to steady her forearm as I scribble my name on it. “Tell me now,” I consult the folks nearest me. “Is this a normal thing to do these days?”

“Sure!” someone behind me exclaims with only a hint of sarcasm. “Wish I had thought of it!”

Once I’m through signing human flesh, a voice to my right pleads, “Can you sign my CD? I flew all the way from Bodø to see you.”

“Yeah, you just revealed to these people that you’re crazy, honey!” I flash a smile at her. She giggles in response to the gentle ribbing and thrusts the plastic case in my direction. It’s a copy of Wherever You Go. My smile fades reflexively as I accept it from her.

“That’s my favorite album,” the girl gushes, impervious to my reaction. “When my mom died of cancer, it was the only thing that kept me going.”

I slide the sleeve out of its case. That poor, pained, naked face staring out into fear, avoiding eye contact, even with the camera. I don’t know if anyone ever actually notices the terror in those eyes. Even now, I feel my shoulders tense up in response; I forget to breathe. Yet this thing that I grew to loathe with such intensity, helped someone to just survive.

I flip through to the picture of Micke and me at Hausmania, sign it quickly and hand it back to her, sleeve turned upside down and facing the wrong way. I still can’t bring myself to sign the cover. The moment I had it back to her, she hugs me.

“I’m aware it doesn’t help, but… I’m sorry for your loss,” I say softly.

“I’m sorry for yours, too,” she nods, wiping at the tears in her eyes with the arm of her jacket as she releases me from her urgent grasp. Then her face folds into an attitude of concern. “I hope you’re okay.”

I’m not okay.

I have to look away. Move on to signing some kid’s pride flag. He’s saying something to me. I’m sure it’s something profound and deeply meaningful to him, but my vision blurs, their voices merging into a hum. Like when you’re underwater and you can hear the sounds above, but they’re warped, abstracted, remote. I’m signing things, taking photographs, going through the motions rote, but, for a moment, I don’t feel like any of this is real. When I finally snap myself out of it, I’m suddenly all too aware of them spilling in on me from all sides, swallowing me, soon to become a maelstrom.

I gather myself and start to retreat toward the door to the venue again. “I’m sorry I don’t have enough time to sign things and take pictures with all of you now,” I announce. “Unfortunately, I have to go inside and finish sound check. But I’ll see you all inside in a couple of hours, okay? I’ll be signing things again after the show, I promise.”

“I couldn't get a ticket!” I scan the crowd, only managing to locate the person the cry of protest belongs to when they give an exaggerated wave to orient me. “I only came because seeing you for a minute was better than not at all.”

“I’m too young to get in,” confesses the kid with the rainbow flag. “I don’t turn 18 until next month.”

“The ticket website kept crashing on me and by the time I got through, the tickets were gone,” someone else calls out in desperation.

I have an idea. “Okay. Who here does not have a ticket and showed up just to stalk me? Be honest!” Five or so hands go up in the air. “Alright, can everybody agree that it’s fair to let this little group of people, who will not enjoy tonight's show, into the building for sound check? That's two or three songs max, so you ticket holders still come out way ahead.” The chorus overwhelmingly approves. “Don’t you all go complaining on Twitter later!” I warn the others with a wag of my finger, before rounding up the sound check guests. “I need to go back in there, so you five, let’s go!”

An instagram post of Axel signing items, surrounded by a mob of fans waving their records and a rainbow flag in his direction. His hair is a bit messy and he wears a jean jacket with a hoodie underneath it. He is smiling. Beneath the account holder writes: Holy shit! Look who turned up to say hello! (in Norwegian) A friend responds: He was so incredibly sweet! (also in Norwegian)

They bound along happily beside me. “Thank you, Axel!” squeals one of them.

“Yes, thank you!” gushes another.

I sense the letdown among the others, even with their voiced approval. Everyone wants their minute with you. And if you give them a minute, they want an hour. Yet, I always feel guilty denying them that moment they all want so badly. I realize that a lot of my fans are misfits. Some of them, like me, were bullied their entire lives. Some are genuinely struggling. I can see it on them. And the fact that I see them, that I appreciate them… I know it means the world.

I recall all too well what that was like. Once I was that passionate fan, the outcast among outcasts. Once I too longed to be seen.

It used to feel like an exchange. I gained something from it, if nothing more than the sense that I was a good person; I was down to earth, unlike the rest of my former bandmates, with their enormous heads and inflated egos. I never lost my humanity. Even when I lost everything else.

So, I already offer them absolutely everything I can. It’s just that lately I have less and less to give. It’s all too easy to forget to keep something for myself, to let myself get rendered to rags. Everyone else makes off with the shreds and I’m left with only a thread to hang by.