“Axel, come on. Wake up.”
A hand grasps the shoulder of the jean jacket I passed out in and gives it a good shake, a noble attempt at wrenching me up from the stuporous void. Just opening my eyes is a struggle. Even the mellow, silvery-gray light of late Scandinavian morning is an all-out assault. Ultimately, I lose the first round, the weight of an impending hangover tugging me back into the black, brackish depths of oblivion.
But then the shaking starts again. “Get up, we have to go!”
Ordinarily, it might concern me that an uninvited guest had somehow made their way into my fourth-floor apartment. But I recognize that voice, the unmistakable Malmö dialect that I used to find incomprehensible.
“Ugh. Go away!” I groan in protest. “Let me sleep...”
“The train leaves in an hour!”
Oh, god. The gig. I have a gig tonight.
I squint in pale light as Kåre Jansson props me up on the couch like a rag doll. Or more accurately, a crash test dummy. He’s so much smaller than me it shouldn’t even be possible, but he’s got the power of panic working for him. He manages, first, by shoving my feet to the floor, hoisting up my torso and posing me like a reasonable replica of a human being. My head slumps backward, ruining the illusion, and I blink at the ceiling.
I guess I am a bit of a wreck.
“How d’you even get in here?”
“You gave me your spare key ages ago. Don’t you remember?” He sweeps about the room, frantically stuffing the clean laundry I dumped onto the floor the night before into my partially packed duffle bag. Next he barrels toward the bathroom. I hear him rummaging through the drawers, the medicine cabinet.
“I barely remember last night. How am I gonna remember ‘ages ago’?”
Closing my eyes again, I rub my forehead with the flat of my hand to scrub away the fog. The foul taste in my mouth makes me grimace, a vile melange of vomit and stale vodka.
Kåre returns, zipping up my bag as he moves. He rounds the table, reaches over and grabs the guitar I propped haphazardly against the far end of the couch, tucking it into its soft-shell case. In his haste, he sends a cascade of empty beer cans fluttering from the coffee table to the floor.
“Jesus, this place is a pigsty.”
He’s right. It’s revolting. I’m mortified that he’s even here to witness the squalor I routinely wallow in. He hasn’t been here in nearly a year. I don’t take visitors. Not anymore.
“Why didn’t you call me?” I sigh. “I would have come down.”
“I tried. Your phone is dead.”
“Shit.” I pick it up from the cluttered table and attempt to turn it on, to no avail.
“We’ll charge it on the train. Let’s just get moving,” Kåre says. “We’ll have to flag down a cab. Where’s your passport?”
“It’s already in the bag.”
“Are you sure?”
“Check the front pocket,” I tell him. He pats it with his hand, satisfied when he hits upon its outline.
Every muscle in my body aches. I don’t have a headache, not yet anyway, but my eyelids weigh a ton. Still wearing the same wrinkled clothes from last night, I stumble toward the door in Kåre’s wake, duffle bag and guitar slung over one shoulder. I narrowly avoid tumbling right over as I tug on my dingy Doc Martens without bothering to tie them. Thankfully, I remember to grab my hat and sunglasses on the way out. They shall be my salvation.
To be honest, I think I’m still drunk.
I’m so tired of this whole scenario. It’s just so disappointing, frustrating. Exhausting, that’s what it is. I keep hoping it will turn around. Waiting for some glimmer that says this too shall pass. I swear, instead it just keeps getting worse and worse. Still, it's not like I can really blame him.
I always swore I’d never put myself in this kind of situation again. I promised my therapist I’d take care of myself, first and foremost. Put on your own mask before you help somebody with theirs, right? That kind of thing. But here I am. Again.
It’s actually heartbreaking. I feel helpless most of the time. Everything I’ve tried to do to dredge him up out of the mud has resulted in a whole lot of nothing. At last I realize… it’s not mud at all. It’s something far worse. It’s quicksand. And I'm not saving him at all; he’s slowly dragging me down with him.
I’m trying to learn to let go. But it’s so hard. I care too much.
Stockholm C mid-morning is abuzz, commuters darting this way and that with energetic purpose. The ambient hum of countless, incomprehensible conversations and unintelligible announcements echo against the vaulted glass ceiling and morphs into an oppressive, disorienting din. At least it’s an overcast day and the natural light coming through is merciful.
I shuffle along behind Kåre in a daze, down the escalator and into the COOP where, upon transitioning from the subtle daylight of the upper level, I’m battered by the abusive, bright, supermarket glare. Stopping in my tracks, I wince, pull down the brim of my Stetson hat, and slip on my sunglasses. Once I’ve recovered from the sensory onslaught, I make a beeline for the booze aisle and browse for something to make this excursion bearable as Kåre peruses the produce section.
Upon returning, I sneak a six-pack of Carlsberg into our basket. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of thing that sticks out like a sore thumb against his more sensible selections. As soon as he notices, he glares at me and shakes his head, but doesn’t remove it. So I toss in an apple for good measure to appease the poor guy.
“See? I can be healthy!” I flash him a wide, plastic grin.
“You need a lot more than that to get healthy.” He rolls his eyes. “Is this hummus wrap thing okay for lunch?”
“Sure, whatever,” I shrug, wandering off again, returning to the tabloid cover by the checkout that previously caught my eye. Squinting at the left top corner, I snatch it up for closer examination. “Axel’s breakdown: I can’t take it anymore” it shrieks in bold yellow print. Above that, an altogether atrocious picture of me, albeit an honest depiction of the greasy, bloated bastard I’ve become. Just your stereotypical disgraced celebrity, my hair and hands shielding my face from the prying press. The entire mess is accompanied by the caption: “Friends are fearful for him. Is he next?”
“It’s looking pretty likely,” I snort, shoving it back into the rack. I’d love to know just which fearful friends of mine are talking to the tabloids, so I can summarily boot them to the curb.
“Stop looking at that shit,” Kåre says, tugging me toward the automat to scan in our items. The gig bag containing his bass threatens to slide off of his shoulder. “And stop talking like that. You never cared about tabloids before, so why start now?” He gives a tiny hop to set the bag’s strap back into place without missing a beat.
I shift my guitar bag on my shoulder and produce my wallet from my back pocket. “I don’t care now,” I insist, shoving my bankcard into the terminal. There’s not much of anything I do care about.
It’s just that my life has become a slow-mo car crash and people have a penchant for rubbernecking. It’s human nature. I’m used to it.
My meager attempt at keeping up appearances is wearing thin. Once we exit the store and take the escalator up, I collapse onto the first available bench I see.
“Is he next?” I cast a glance at Kåre, make a hard clicking sound with my tongue, and roll my eyes. “That’s some award-winning journalism right there!”
“Yeah, okay. You wait here and keep dwelling on that. I’ll go get us some coffee while there’s no line,” he says, collecting our gear into a neat pile. He sneaks another peek over at the Starbucks before checking the clock on his phone. “Somehow we’re still okay for time. Which–is a miracle. So... just wait here, okay?” He catches my gaze as he strides away and his eyes go wide as if to emphasize the message: “Don’t. Move.”
I nod, but I’m only just barely paying attention, fixated on thoughts that spiral like mucky swill down the drain. Am I next? Will I follow in the fantastic footsteps of Micke Berg? Stumble unwittingly into his watery grave? Anything is possible, Aftonbladet! You’ll get your story. Just keep circling like the vultures you are.
I notice two girls standing over by the SJ ticket automat. They stare at me, bashfully smiling as they lean in towards each other, surely to share a laugh at my expense. I slump forward, pull my long, oily, blonde hair over my face like a curtain, and shove my hat down to keep it there. With any luck, they’ll disappear by the time Kåre gets back. I stare at my phone just to have a natural reason to divert my eyes, trying to make it look as though it’s not dead. Instead of scrolling, I trace over the long crack in the screen with my thumb.
In no time, Kåre’s waving a Starbucks cup in my face and gathering up our things. He hands off my guitar and duffle bag again.
“Milk and sugar?”
“Milk and sugar,” he nods.
I notice how the name scrawled on the side of his cup reads “Cora” and chuckle. I shouldn’t laugh. They’d probably have scribbled “Asshole” on my own. To my dismay, the girls are still there, grinning and giggling as we make our way to the platform.
We arrive just as the train pulls into the station. It’s one of the older black models, which I’m absolutely thrilled about until I’m abruptly reminded that they send out a piercing screech as they come to a stop. I only have one free hand to cover one lucky ear, but there’s no shutting out such a shrill shriek, anyway.
At least in the crush to board the train, I can be anonymous again. The hoard is far too concerned with finding the correct car and fighting for luggage space to giggle and point at the washed-up rockstar. Although that phenomenon is becoming less and less of a problem, considering I hardly resemble myself these days. I doubt even Micke Berg would recognize me now.
The downside to the crowd is the difficulty I have keeping track of little Kåre’s leather jacket and his meticulously flat-ironed, onyx mop of hair. The sea of people swallows him up. I have to latch onto the strap of his bag like a leash to avoid losing him, and he drags me along behind him. It’s hard to say who’s walking who.
“I wish you’d fly like everybody else,” he complains, maneuvering through the throng of bodies. His pet peeve is the stereotypical Swedish behemoth like me that neglects to look down and inadvertently collides with him. Crowds vex him; he dodges bodies left and right, unafraid of giving a good elbow jab when warranted.
“This gig isn’t paying enough to fly to Oslo. I mean, at least our tickets are first class. Would you rather fly fucking Ryanair?”
“We could have driven the van,” he reminds me. “If you’d bothered to take it in for repairs.”
“I could have tossed wads of cash out the window the entire way, too. It costs a fortune to fix a broken axle on that thing!”
And sadly, it’s not the only axle around here that’s broken, I think to myself, knowing full well he’s thinking it too. I know by the sideways glance, the way the right corner of his mouth always crumples up when he’s suppressing a snide observation.
“You may as well admit you’ll do anything to ride on a train for six hours,” he remarks instead. And yeah, that’s spot on. I love trains. We don’t have much of a railway in the States. I never get over the novelty; it never ceases to feel like a luxury. As Kåre hoists himself up onto the first step, he adds: “Last minute train tickets cost a fortune; you can’t tell me this was the economical option.”
“Okay, okay, you got me. You know I hate flying.” I swing my guitar around my side to protect it from the impatient would-be passengers pressing like lunatics to board. My head is throbbing with each jolt and I’m fast losing patience. “Besides, I heard SJ first class has wine. They don’t even bother breaking out the beverage cart on a one-hour commuter flight.”
“Yeah, well, if we flew, we could have slept in. And no offense, but it looks like you could have used it. So… I hope the wine is worth it.”
We join the slow-moving queue for our seats, and as we at last enter the car, Kåre takes a quick glance down at the tickets, peers up at the seat numbers, and points toward the middle of the car, where two clustered seats face each other.
I stow my guitar over the seat beside Kåre’s bass, shove my duffle bag between my feet, grab the seat across from him and plug in my phone.
“Do you realize Norwegians come here to Sweden, of all places, to buy ‘cheap alcohol’? If we were smart, we would have stocked up at Systembolaget on our way out of town.”
“Start with your coffee, please,” Kåre says flatly. He places a couple of granola bars on the table between us and waves his hand over them. “Maybe a little breakfast? Sober up before you get drunk again?”
“Sober up! Me?” I lean back in my seat, sip at the sewer sludge that Starbucks passes off as coffee, and watch the last few stragglers board the train as the conductors look on impatiently. “That’s so cute.” I haven’t had a dry day in two years.
“Can you not?” Kåre snaps, shaking his head in exasperation. “Just… stop, okay?”
“What?” I wrinkle my nose at him, startled by his sudden tone of amplified irritation. “God, you’re in a mood this morning.”
“It’s not cute. Far from it.” He glances around, as if he’s fearful that someone might overhear him scolding me. Then he hisses, “Nobody enjoys watching you disintegrate, Axel.”
“Tell that to Aftonbladet.” Made the first fuckin’ page, in fact.
He rolls his eyes for the umpteenth time this morning and turns his gaze to the window. Outside, a conductor blows her whistle to signal that the train is clear for departure, and boards. The train slowly awakens and launches itself onward, triggering a momentary flurry of excitement in my chest. Then, as it rounds the bend into the tunnel, it gives out yet another insufferable metallic squeal and I wince.
The tension between Kåre and myself dampens the sentimental sense of adventure I typically experience at the beginning of a journey by train. He sips his coffee in stony silence, his handsome features pinched into an ugly, measured glare, but I suspect he’s watching me from the corner of his eye. We haven’t even left Stockholm, and already he’s had it with me. It’s a line I seem to cross more quickly with each passing day. It makes my heart twinge.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I’ll shut up now.”
He nods, his eyelashes fluttering, as if attempting to subdue yet another eye roll. He says nothing in response.
Soon the waterfront, the three iconic golden crowns suspended over city hall glide by my window, gorgeous even on the greyest of days. Stockholm; my home. A far cry from the hideous, homogenized street plans of my suburban Minnesota childhood. Twice the size of Oslo, where I spent my teens. Perched upon open water and bustling with life. A proper city. A paradox, scattered across a series of islands and yet curiously cohesive.
Stockholm is the first place I ever loved and the first ever to embrace me.
I pluck up my phone and film the point at which she slips away, like the moment when you can no longer spot a forlorn lover waving from the platform. The tagging on the rust-brown bridge passes by like morse code, in rhythmic punctuation, as we pick up speed. Soon, concrete warehouses are all that’s left to see, the graffiti-scarred, ugly outskirts of an otherwise beautiful city.
With my nomadic upbringing, I’ll never be a national of anywhere. But my heart, it lives in Stockholm. And in Stockholm, it shall die.
It’s only a matter of moments into our journey when the nausea swells, catching me off guard. I try to swim against it, turning away from the window to negate the monotonous motion of trees zooming by, but to no avail. My leftover drunk is fading, giving way to the inevitable torment of the hangover forever chasing my tail.
“Bathroom. I need the bathroom,” I breathe at Kåre, pointing at the front of the cabin before barreling toward it. The lurching of a train in motion doesn’t help. Beads of sweat burst from the creases in my forehead, meandering downward and stinging my eyes. Please don’t let there be anyone in the…
There’s a line. Of course there’s a line.
I throw back my head and press my back against the wall, eyes closed, sucking in shallow breaths until I at last hear the lock release and the door slide open. “Excuse me, but… motion sickness.” That’s a stretch. I spring past the poor woman waiting ahead of me and make it through the door just in the nick of time. I barely get it closed all the way before I commence retching forcefully into the bare metal basin. Gross. I cling to the handicap rail with one hand and prevent my favorite hat from taking a bath with the other. No third appendage, nobody else to come to the rescue and hold my hair.
Once the wave of heaving and gagging subsides, I splash water on my face over the sink. There’s an enormous mirror in this first-class bathroom, so it’s impossible to divert my gaze. I see myself. A grotesque face, dripping with water and sweat; framed by hair that now hangs in messy, wet tendrils. The left side of my mug split by a jagged ravine of deep, pink, gruesome scars that span from ear to eye to cheekbone; the left eye blind, dull, slightly out of sync with its counterpart. Enough to be noticeable. Both eyes are bloodshot, spiritless, circled in what’s left of last night’s smudged eyeliner.
My face is an affront to the senses. I hide it as a service to humanity.
I used to be better. I mean, I was never hot per se, but I was kind of decent looking. As long as I wore the right clothes to distract the eye from my face. As long as I kept the hideous half of it covered. I’m eternally grateful that an asymmetric, face-obscuring, emo kind of hairstyle was very in at the start of my career. Nobody even noticed if perfectly posed or if I took my promo shots in precisely the right lighting. I even insisted upon approving all live shots. I crafted, curated, and controlled all public perceptions. All while assuring myself it was the music that mattered, that my songs were my finest facade.
Listen to me, going on like I’m the fucking phantom of the opera. It’s pathetic. I know.
I run a hand over the light stubble creeping in over my jawline, smooth out my wrinkled retro shirt with the loud 80s print. Side view to check the advancing middle age spread. At least I haven’t gone and gotten old and fat. Not yet, anyway. I still look enough like a rocker. Nothing’s worse than an old, fat rocker. A little puffy. Should cut down on the beer. Stick to hard liquor. Maybe stop stuffing my face with late-night street kitchen slop when the realization hits that I haven’t eaten all day.
At this rate, it’s only a matter of time.
“You are so much more than your scars,” Micke used to tell to me. He tried to drill that deep into my brain, in his unending effort to make me see myself as he saw me, through his shockingly blue eyes. Eyes that shone with perpetual mischief, and yet were also somehow kind, warm, earnest. “Nobody’s even looking at your scars!” That was his claim. “You wanna know why? It’s because there’s this, like... beauty that radiates out of you. It’s in every grin, every good-hearted thing you do - all anyone can see is what a gorgeous person you are. And you know what? It breaks my heart that you can’t see it yourself.”
I can hear him in my head, even now. But his voice grows quieter with each passing day. Today it’s a mere whisper. Tomorrow, softer still. One day, I won’t hear it at all. The thought is more than I can bear.
“That person you’re describing,” I whisper back as I wipe my face with a paper towel and shove it into the trash. “He’s dead.” I tug in a deep breath. “That person died with you.”
When I return to my seat, there’s a bottle of water waiting atop the table between Kåre and myself and a blanket resting on my seat. I twist the bottle open and guzzle it, before popping a mint in my mouth to obscure the taste of stomach acid.
“Kåre, I don’t deserve you.”
He sips his coffee, diverts his eyes.
“If it weren’t for you, I would have missed this gig, that’s for damn sure,” I add in a quiet voice. “Hell, if it weren’t for you… well, I can’t even imagine the mess I’d be in.” He nods, glancing skyward. “You must be so tired of being my nanny.”
He clears his throat. “It wasn’t exactly what I envisioned when I auditioned to be your bassist.” His eyes meet mine and I try to mold my face into an expression that will sufficiently convey my sincerest gratitude. “You’re lucky you’re a goddamn genius,” he mutters.
“Pfft.” I take a gulp of coffee and make a face. It tastes absolutely shit paired with the mint. “I’m a has-been.”
“What are you talking about? Seriously?” His thin lips spread into an incredulous smile as he releases a soft burst of laughter and folds his arms across his chest. At least he’s looking at me again. “You were on national television last week.”
“Yeah, a morning show on a weekday, Kåre. Nobody watched that,” I scoff. “Just, like...pensioners. People who couldn’t care less about my music.”
It’s only then that I notice the couple seated directly across the aisle are probably pensioners. The husband tosses a fleeting glance in my direction and rustles his paper. But his wife, his dear sweet wife, with her perfectly curled hair and her tacky floral sweater, dares to look up from her knitting long enough to weigh in. “My daughter took me to see you at Allsång på Skansen this summer. I thought you were very good. My granddaughter loved it.”
The world seems to trip over itself for a moment. I’m touched. And embarrassed. Mostly embarrassed.
“Well, thank you. You hear that, Kåre? This... I assume you’re a pensioner?” She nods in confirmation. “She thinks I was very good on Allsång på Skansen.” I force a smile that twists into a sneer against my better will. These days, everything that pours out of my mouth somehow becomes a cascade of sarcasm I have to work harder and harder to control. “Thank you,” I repeat, meeting her eyes for a painful moment. At least that sounded genuine.
“Everyone was singing along,” she insists with a gentle smile before returning to whatever she’s knitting. She didn’t have to be kind, didn’t have to flatter me. No, she could have written me off as the jerk I am. Instead, she attempted to make me feel like less of a loser. I must look pitiful.
Anyway, I destroy the sentiment straight away by sending off the following text to Kåre:
A subtle smile spreads across his lips as he reads it and shakes his head. Then, he fires the following back at me::
To that, I quickly tap out my next missive, smirking as I hit send:
He glances down at his phone and, tiring of texting, he switches to English, perhaps hoping the old lady won’t find it worth the extra effort to follow along: “No, it’s not.” He rolls his eyes. Again. “I think you’re confusing Allsång på Skansen with its Norwegian counterpart.”
“Allsang på Grensen? Yeah, no, that’s just one rung down on the sad descent to Danskebåt!”
He has to laugh at that one. “Whatever. It’s exposure.” I give off a little snort, to which he responds with continued insistence: “You’re not a has-been. What you are is delusional.”
“I’m thirty-five years old, Kåre. I used to play arenas all over Europe with Nauru when you were still a teenager....”
“I know, Axel.”
“Of course you do. And you should also know that tonight I’m playing a tiny club in Oslo with roughly the same capacity as my living room. So, you can’t convince me that my solo career isn’t a flop.” A sudden, violent surge of frustration courses through my veins. I know that I’m about to be reckless; I have a habit of wielding words as weapons. Of course, my intention is never to wound Kåre, but myself. And I’m going in for the kill: “This will be my last album.”
This will be my last album because I will be dead by tomorrow at midnight.
That’s it. This is it. I don’t have to keep going through this day after day. I give myself permission to give up. And with that comes an unexpected, profound sense of relief. A relief that instantly quells my rage.
Sure, I consider it often enough, almost daily, and in vivid detail. I’ve made a pastime of imagining the blood running out of my wrists, of calculating how many pills I’d have to down before drifting off into my own demise. I’ve perpetually played out potential scenarios, casually trying them on like I’m doing nothing more than considering whether I’ll buy a new pair of jeans. Today is only different because I’m ready to commit to a purchase.
When I return to Stockholm on Sunday, I’ll get wasted and walk along the waterfront until I simply fall in and sink like a stone. If that’s good enough for my husband, it’s good enough for me. My life already ended that night, exactly two years ago tomorrow. It’s time to seal the deal.
By the time I snap out of my suicidal strategizing, Kåre is still going on and on about how excellent my solo albums are, that they may not produce much chart material, but they reach light years beyond my previous work with Nauru in terms of artistic merit. And not only that, but the new album is my finest. My magnum opus, even.
Then he suddenly stops and wrinkles his brow. “If you were so concerned with maintaining a high profile, why on earth did you write lyrics in Swedish for that first solo album? Of course that was going to turn off the English-speakers. And beyond that, you signed to a tiny indie label, when you know very well you could have done better.”
“Are you kidding?" I laugh. “Considering how things ended with Nauru, there weren’t many labels willing to take a chance on me.” Onni Nilsson made certain of that. “But, in a way, you’re right,” I concede. “I got tired of wasting my entire life on a tour bus. And tired of being that ‘American guy who sings in a Swedish band’ and ‘Isn’t it cute that he tries to speak Swedish’, even though I’ve been speaking it for as long as I’ve been able to talk. So yeah, I had something to prove, okay?”
“And you did. You and your critically acclaimed lyrics.” Then, just because he can’t resist, with a faint grin he adds, “Your Swedish is kind of endearing though. What’s that called when someone blends Swedish and Norwegian…”
“Svorska. It’s called Svorska.”
“...and then somehow occasionally sounds flat… like Finland Swedish.”
“Lundénska.” I drop my shoulders and stare at him. “It’s called Lundénska. I’ll have you know it’s a very rare dialect.” Soon to be extinct, in fact. “You’ll remember that I only had my father as a reference for my first 12 years on this planet. And for being a linguist, he’s not much of a talker.”
Kåre chuckles, but his smile is soft, and he gives me a gentle kick to let me know he doesn’t intend to mock me. “You don’t have to get defensive. It’s not your fault you didn’t grow up here. Besides, nobody thinks of you as ‘that American guy’ anymore.”
“Well, then I pretty much succeeded, didn’t I?”
“Pretty much,” he nods. “But then… you don’t get to complain about losing an international following.” His smile has become a smug smirk. He gives me an opportunity to respond, however, I’m not about to. “Anyway, you wanted to be Swedish and so–Oslo is just not your market. You’ll be playing for a mob of grateful Swedish expats tonight, and you know that. That’s how it is. But… things will pick up again. You’re on the radio all the time. Nobody has forgotten you.”
“Big fish, small pond.” I finish my coffee and tuck the empty cup into the trash. “I’m finished. I’m at peace with that.”