“Let’s move!” I shout, grabbing Kåre by the hand. With sweat still dripping down my forehead into my good eye and threatening to blind me, I tug him through the crowd. We maneuver along the edge of the bar, making a beeline for the back.
The patrons have become all but a blur. The air is warm and heavy with humidity, a product of diffuse energy and perspiration; the floor slightly sticky with hours-old alcohol. A Hurula song rings out over the P.A.: “Det är okej om du glömmer mig, okej om du glömmer allt…” Somehow, we slip through the dense crowd undetected.
When we dash out into the entry, it becomes painfully obvious that all eyes are trained upon us. As we race up the steps, I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m still holding onto Kåre’s hand, although there’s no longer any threat of losing him to the crush of concertgoers. In fact, we could almost certainly stride through the hip hop club without having the faintest idea who we are. But I make it feel urgent, rather than let go.
Finally, we approach the illuminated golden outline of the backstage door. Once thrown open, we’re brutalized by the bright fluorescent light, having become accustomed to the low light of the venue. After my vision adjusts, I snatch the towel that I completely forgot to bring onstage and start wiping the sweat from my face, my hair.
“Great job handling everything that was thrown at you tonight.” I look over at Kåre, who’s busy wiping himself off with the same t-shirt he wore on the train. “That was sheer madness!”
“Yeah, about that…” He grabs a clean Depeche Mode t-shirt from his bag and turns away from me as he changes. I seize the opportunity to change as well, relieved to be spared from his gaze. “It was insane, Axel. You are insane to have done that. What are you going to do now? Work in a grocery store?” His voice is very stern until he turns to face me again. Then he can’t resist laughing, his brow folded into an incredulous frown. “Oh, Jesus, is that what you’re wearing? You - you actually bought that shirt.”
“What?” I shrug. “What’s wrong with it?”
“I Love Swedish Boys? That’s so cringe. Also, for the record, pink is not your color.” He shakes his head and steps over to the mini fridge to grab a beer. “I can’t believe they had that in your size; it’s clearly intended for naïve teenaged tourists!”
“You’re just jealous!” All the same, I can see he's relieved when cover the shirt with my jacket. “Get one for me too.”
“Axel, you’re already hammered.”
I snort. “I’m high on adrenaline at the moment, but hammered I am not.”
“You slurred through the entire last song.” He frowns, but cracks one open and hands it off nonetheless.
“Okay, fine, I might be a wee bit inebriated.” I place the cool glass bottle to my forehead to cool me down. “I gotta get down there and sign stuff before Lisa loses her shit.” I briefly slip into the bathroom to take a moment at the mirror and wipe away the remnants of makeup from under my eye. “Hey, why don’t you come with me?”
“Why?” he chuckles.
“Come and autograph some records.” I give a nod at the door.
“I only play on two of your albums,” he reminds me.
“That’s like, nearly half of my solo career. What’s your point?”
“Besides that, you’ve never asked me to do a signing with you before.”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything.” I approach him, take his hand again and begin slowly backing toward the exit. “Kåre, I’m asking you to come down and sit with me, okay?” He’s staring at me skeptically from the top of his eyes, but only just barely showing resistance. “You’ve been in the band for four years. Everyone loves you. I think the fans would want your autograph. Now let’s go.”
“Fine, I’ll come.” He gives in, and although he sounds annoyed, when I glance back at him, he’s sure having a hard time hiding his grin.
“It’s about time you got down here!” Lisa shouts over the music, tossing her long brown hair over one shoulder as she counts out a wad of cash, simultaneously handing off the card terminal to the next paying customer. “It’s been a fucking madhouse from the moment you left the stage! Tor had to help me through the first wave. Now he’s over by the bar getting fresh ice for his hand.”
“Well, it’s a going out of business sale. What do you expect?” I look around and locate an extra chair for Kåre to join me behind the merch table. “Everything must go!”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be sure to send you a retirement gift. Now sit down, shut up and sign shit.” She waves a black and a silver permanent marker in my direction without a second glance, all while suppressing a smile. “I hope you realize you made my job hellish tonight!” She’s not angry with me; this is her usual demeanor, and that’s why she’s the perfect merch girl. “Form a line, people, if you’re waiting to get signed! Form a line!”
I cast a sideways glance at Kåre, “You’re aware she used to be a dom, right?”
“Yeah, I’m not even remotely surprised,” he sniggers.
Then, eager to get this over and done, I ceremoniously rip the cap from the silver marker, hand the other off to Kåre and announce, “Okay, who’s first?”
In the continuous commotion that follows, I hardly have a spare second to say a thing to him, but now and then I steal a furtive glimpse at Kåre: the living paradox, an uncommonly modest musician. Every time anyone asks him to sign something, he appears legitimately amazed, smiling with equal measures of humility and unadulterated happiness. Even when it’s a bar napkin. It’s endearing.
There’s a steady stream of ‘thanks for everything’ and ‘please reconsider’ people right before a young man approaches me, dressed head to toe in black, precisely as I used to, donning my old haircut. He must barely be old enough to get past security. He’s clutching a hat identical to mine so hard it folds over in his fist and says something I can’t quite make out.
“You’re gonna have to speak up!” I shout over the PA. “I’m an idiot who didn’t discover earplugs were a thing until my late-twenties!”
My self-deprecating banter seems to calm his nerves. He leans in this time and in a substantially louder voice, says: “I said you were a huge role model for me growing up.” Which was when? Last week? He hands me a promo poster that was clearly liberated from a wall somewhere within the venue. As I scrawl my name across it, he continues talking. “I was the only gay kid in a tiny little town. Seeing what a great life you had gave me hope that even the ostracized queer kids can turn out okay.”
My brow crumples at the blatant paradox, and I release a derisive snort. “Were you in a coma for the last two years? Because they weren’t exactly It Gets Better Project material!” The moment the words pass through my lips and I hear myself, my jaw drops open in disgust. I wince, and whisper, “Oh my god.” I lift my gaze from signing in time to witness his smile slowly slip away.
When did I become such an insufferable prick?
He recoils a bit, clenches his teeth and gazes down at the freshly-signed artifact I just slid across the table at him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go all fanboy on you. It sucks... what happened.” He touches the poster gingerly with one finger. “I’m sorry.”
It’s possible he’s been waiting half of his entire life to tell me that. And what do I do? I go and blatantly dismiss every word of his heartfelt revelation. It’s hardly his fault the timing was way off.
“No, no no no no, come here, you.” In an attempt to salvage the situation, I stand and reach over the table to offer him the closest approximation of a hug that I can, given the obstacle. “I’m the one who’s sorry. That was uncalled for. I didn’t intend it the way it came out.” I assure him. “And we all go fanboy from time to time. I was once a lot like you.” Yeah, he’s damn well near a clone, but I’ll try to avoid punting my foot directly into my mouth all over again.
I also remember being that kid with the liberated poster, too poor to buy any merch, but longing for a memento to take home with me all the same. “Hey, you know, this merch is obsolete after tonight. Do you like any of the shirts?”
“Eh, I don’t have any money.” His shoulders lift almost to his ears and he does the embarrassed grimace again.
“It’s on me.”
“Really?” he squeaks. I nod. He points up at the array of shirts taped to the wall behind me. “The black one!” Of course. I should have known. “I wear a medium.”
I rummage around in some boxes until I find one and he hops slightly, hat clasped to his chest once I return with it. He’s beaming now and I feel a little less like a monster. He showers me with thanks before bounding away toward his friends, who are lingering off to the side.
“Hey! You forgot your poster!” I call after him, waving it in the air to get his attention.
Poor kid. I can’t help but imagine his shock come Monday when they drag his “happy” gay role model’s lifeless body out of Stockholm’s harbor. What kind of role model does that make me? What kind of hope does that inspire? But before I can linger on that thought, he returns, snatches up the forgotten poster, whips out his phone and asks if we can snap a selfie.
After a while, the line thins out and Lisa begins to pack up the little merch that remains. “You made bank tonight,” she remarks, locking up the cash box and shoving the key deep into her pocket. “You should quit more often!”
“What do I look like? Robert Smith?”
“Keep drinking like that and you will!” She wiggles her finger at me, rounding it off with a smirk. “I’m gonna help Tor tear down and load out. His hand was hurting pretty badly. I’m sure he’s eager to leave.”
“Let us help,” I offer, looking over at Kåre for approval only after I’ve already volunteered his labor.
“Nah, I know you’re dying to get on with your retirement party. I’ll get Ola to help,” she says. “Go have fun. Enjoy your final night as a rockstar.” She tucks the final remaining box of merch under her arm, balancing it on her hip, and plucks the cash box from the table with her free hand. As she leaves, she looks back over her shoulder at us, smiles, and shoots us a sly wink. “Make sure you guys regret it in the morning.”
I give her my solemn salute. “Not a problem. I regret every morning!”
She shakes her head as she walks away.
Freed from my post, I turn my attention to Kåre. “Come on, you heard the lady! Let me buy you a beer. You’re not nearly drunk enough!” I leap to my feet and immediately latch onto the back of his chair to steady myself, because I stood up far too enthusiastically. “I want to drink and I want to dance!”
“Axel, I already have a beer, and so do you.” He holds up his half-empty bottle and gives it a shake, then nods at my own on the table beside his.
“Oh. Yeah, I do,” I snicker, snatching it up. “Well, okay shots. We’re doing shots, then we’re gonna dance!” The adrenaline has worn off, and I’m clearly feeling all the free liquor that’s been thrust in my direction all night. “Come on, Kåre, now’s your last chance to dance with me. Let’s do it!”
“Excuse me, what?” He frowns and slowly shakes his head, but joins me all the same.
“Two kamikazes!” I holler at the bartender, motioning for Kåre to come to claim his drink. And with a clink of our shot glasses, that round is history.
“What did you mean by that?” Kåre persists, setting his shot glass on the bar. “My last chance to dance with you?”
“Ooh, shit, it’s Interpol!” I exclaim, dashing off in the toward the dance floor. “Let’s go!” We love Interpol. I took Kåre to see Interpol shortly before Micke died and Micke threw a motherfucking fit, but I don’t want to think about that right now.
The world’s gone hazy. The lights shift color and change direction as dictated by the music, transforming the remaining stragglers into scattered shadows in motion. Furtively, I observe how that light transverses Kåre’s fine features, softening and adorning them in a cobalt blue glow. He dances with his eyes trained primarily on the floor, occasionally casting out a florid movement to match the soft reticence of the song’s intro. When the beat abruptly kicks in, he tosses his head left and right to the rhythm. When his eyes do briefly match mine, a mellow smile unfurls.
His sweetness enchants me. A yearning fraught with friction stirs below my breastbone. It casts off sparks like an empty lighter, threatening to enkindle something more. I long to reach out, to touch him. Throughout the song’s first verse, I dare myself to do it, always hesitating when I think I’ve worked up the nerve.
Finally, as the song launches into the chorus, I throw my arms across his shoulders and hug his thin frame to my stocky one. His eyes widen in surprise, but his smile spreads into a full-fledged, contagious grin and we pogo, beer bottles held aloft triumphantly.
I’m elated. Vital. Alive. Just as the hypnotist snaps his fingers and consciousness returns, so a distant memory snaps into the foreground and comes into sharp focus. I recall what it is to be filled to the brim with life, to lose myself in a spontaneous flurry of exhilaration. However, the memory carries with it the bittersweet realization that this once-common feeling, this elation, is now fleeting, unsustainable. I can only tap into it sporadically, and then only when drunk. And drinking and drinking to experience one drop of euphoria is like continuously attempting to draw water from a well that’s long run dry.
I continue to cling to Kåre, finish my beer, and allow the bottle to slip to the floor and roll aside. He follows suit and we hop in a circle, grinning madly until the final refrain.
The vocals repeat in a round, caught up in a swirling whirlpool of guitar chaos as our Interpol song fades out: “I keep falling, maybe half the time. Maybe half the time… it’s all the rage back home…
Kåre’s eyes are closed once more, his head tilted to the side in an expression of pure bliss as he sways to the outro, hands folded over his chest in reverie. When I pull him closer, he opens his eyes, smiling so sweetly, as if he’s just awoken from the most beautiful dream.
I lean forward to plant a kiss on his cheek, but I bungle it up and the whole thing only culminates in us bashing our heads together. I clutch at my forehead and stumble backward a step. Our eyes meet and we both burst out laughing.
The unmistakable opening drumbeat to Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ begins hammering away as our dance screeches to an awkward end. This should be the point where we really kick it up a notch. The song dictates it. Instead, it all falls flat.
Kåre winces and rubs his temple with the palm of his hand as he shudders with laughter.
“I’m sorry, my depth perception is terrible in this light.” I latch onto his shoulder again with one hand and cover my face with the other in embarrassment.
Axel, you idiot!
“What on earth were you trying to do?” He’s still rubbing his head, blinking, evading my gaze.
My cheeks are growing steadily warmer. “I was gonna shout something in your ear,” I lie to him, trying my best to brush it off. “It’s not like I go around head-butting my friends for fun!”
“Sure seems like you do!” At least he seems to be buying the act.
I return to the bar for the next round. Something long-submerged has risen to the surface, rocks be damned, and now I’m desperate to drink it back down into oblivion, where it belongs.
“Another!” I bellow at the bartender.
“Another what?” He gives me the look that tells me I’m about to be cut off.
“Kamikaze! Two more kamikazes!”
Kåre, forever hot on my trail, sighs in visible exasperation.
“This is our night! You and me, Kåre.” I wrap my arm around him and give him a squeeze, hoping to inject the will into him. “Tonight we go down in a blaze of glory!”
“Do this for me,” I release him and try another approach to convince him, gathering both of his hands up in mine and begging of him, “Please. Just for tonight. I need you to; I need this. Let me have fun with you again. Like the old days.”
His expression has gone flat, lashes fluttering, signifying his irritation. However, once I drop his hands, he throws the last one back, stormy eyes firmly fixed on mine.
Moments later, we return to the dance floor. Snapping action shots with strangers’ cell phones, signing things indecipherably while hopping in my worn out Docs until the soles of my feet hurt. Until the lights go up in the club and the music fades down to a respectable level.
As soon as it happens, the magic dissipates. Every one of us who made it beyond last call is sweaty, sloppy drunk, makeup sliding down their faces. Like cockroaches, they scurry off to the sidelines.
I’m quite in touch with the fact that I myself am no treat. But with the lights up, my depth perception improves, and at last I’m able to kiss Kåre properly. I lean down and kiss him directly on the lips. Just a peck. Nothing sexy. But it leaves nothing ambiguous either.
“Wow uh…” For a second he looks everywhere in the room except for at me, as if he’s desperately searching for an escape route. He expels a puff of air through his thin pink lips and then bites them briefly before continuing to stammer. “…that’s uh… that’s - uh, very flattering, but um…” He points over at the stage. “… I’m going to…”
What the hell do I do? That came out of nowhere. Of course I would run away. There was zero indication he had those kinds of feelings for me. Also, the things that have been said of me in the past are unfair (yes, I do occasionally torture myself by reading the fan forums). Let this be clear: I had a very compartmentalized notion of Axel from the start. The Axel that I fanboy-ed over as a younger version of myself? I had put that version of him on a shelf in the very back of my mind, along with all the other fanciful beliefs I had long outgrown. Right next to the unicorns and fairies of the non-queer variety. Had I not done that, I wouldn't have been able to do my job, let alone become friends with the guy. So, a kiss? This was akin to tearing all of my old fantasies out of the recesses of my closet and scattering them across the dancefloor entirely out of the blue. This startled me so completely that my flight response kicked in immediately.
“Yeah, yeah. Good idea. I’ll be there shortly.”
What a disaster. Being shot down this spectacularly — well, it wasn’t quite what I envisioned when I said we’d go down in a blaze of glory. Although it should have been what I expected. I mean, whatever made me think that a mess like me could hook up with a young, hot homo like him? He, a man who exudes beauty, when all I emit is abject bitterness. That was nothing more than a debased attempt to take advantage of my increasingly tenuous position.
And god, I hope no fans noticed. What would they think? What would they say…
A sudden, hard knocking on the window front disrupts my spiraling thoughts and I flinch. The sound builds to an enraged hammering that slowly drowns out everything else. Like a riptide, it takes me by the ankles, tugging me under. I’m gripped by a sense of unyielding dread that melds with a deep, acidic shame, corroding my veins as they course through my body. It’s Micke. Uninvited, he glowers at me through the glass, his eyes furious, flashing blades. Banging on the glass.
Bang bang bang bang!
Here in my tumultuous fish bowl, his face is contorted by its curvature. By the looks of it, he may just shatter it and be done with me this time. I’m holding my breath. I can’t hold it for much longer…
Then, there’s a tap on my shoulder and I emerge, chest heaving, gasping for air. The only thing actually gripping me is my own hand clutching at the collar of my shirt. The beating on the window is merely someone innocently trying to get their friend’s attention from the outside.
The shoulder tap happens again. I take another deep breath and turn. Even when I cease moving, the room keeps on spinning for a second and Oh, hey, it’s Maia with the set list and the scarred arms. What a relief.
“Are… you okay?” Her voice washes over me, momentarily distorted. She looks genuinely concerned. I imagine I must look like I’m having a heart attack to anyone on the outside.
“I - I’m fine, I just…” I blink a few times as I try to re-acclimate to reality. “Were you going to ask me to scribble on your setlist?”
Her mouth forms a meek smile. “If that’s not too much to ask.” When she holds it out to me, it’s quite apparent that her hands are quivering.
“Of course it’s not.” I withdraw the marker I stashed in my pocket and lead her over to a bar table near the wall. “I’m amazed you didn’t come around sooner. I spent all that time signing.”
“It took me this long to gather up the courage,” she reveals. “I know it’s silly…”
“No, I get it.” I glance up at her, offering as much of a smile as I can manage to muster up. “It’s not silly at all.”
She fidgets with her hair and inhales sharply several times while she watches me sign, as if on the verge of speaking. When she at last begins her confessional, her voice shakes ever so slightly: “Um, it probably sounds stupid, but… your music saved my life. ‘Now Is Not the Right Time’ saved me. That’s why it’s my favorite song.” She draws in a protracted breath.
“It doesn’t sound stupid,” I say, somewhat distracted by the flapping gill sensation in the center of my chest. Like a fish out of water that’s only just given up floundering. “I’m glad to hear that my music helped someone.”
I think I might actually be dying.
It would be such a dream come true to simply walk off stage and drop dead, no further effort required. But I sure as hell don’t want to do it in front of her. That would certainly set a poor example.
“You were right about the pain fading, that things get better,” she continues. “This was the best night of my life. It made me so glad to be alive.”
I don’t know what I should say. I no longer believe those words. Time passes and my pain is no less excruciating than the day it happened. If anything, it gets worse and worse. But that’s clearly not the thing to say. And if I say anything else, tomorrow will only prove me a hypocrite. Assuming I get that far.
I return the setlist to her and hope she won’t notice that I’m wobbling like a top at the tail end of a good spin. She reads what I wrote and beams: To Maia, who survived.
“Thank you,” she gushes, backing toward the door after a signal from the security guard that it’s time to go. “Thank you so much!”
“Yeah, it’s my pleasure,” I call after her, but my voice is so weak, I doubt she even caught it.
I feel the sweat breaking out across my brow. The floor is buckling beneath my feet, only to rebound, causing me to falter. My eyes search for Kåre, hoping he’ll help me, but the stage suddenly seems infinitely far away. As if I’m peering through the wrong side of a monocular. I lay my head down on the formica tabletop, grasping at its edge like flotsam, clinging for dear life.
I think I’m gonna pass out.
“Axel. Hey. Hey!”
“Is he okay?”
“Yeah, I think he’s fine. Can somebody get him some water?”
Classic Axel Lundén. The man is legendary for passing out, somehow regaining consciousness minutes later, emphatically claiming to be sober and then going for another drink. People laugh about it, call him superhuman. Personally, I find it terrifying.Your body is trying to tell you something. It's self-preservation, if you think about it. If you're incapacitated, you can't continue drinking yourself to death. How can I laugh? I just look at that and I my brain is screaming, "You're going to die! I'm going to lose you!" But there's literally no stopping him. All I can do is just follow around at his heels make sure he's okay.
I come to seconds later on my knees on the grubby, wet floor. My old buddy, the bartender, rushes over and waves a glass of water in my face. Kåre is stooped down beside me, clutching me by the arm. The club is quiet but for the sounds of the staff washing up dishes or sweeping the remnants of another night from the gray, concrete floor.
“Come on. We need to get you back to the hotel,” Kåre says in a tone reminiscent of a parent gently attempting to coax their child into bed.
“I had a minor panic attack. I didn’t literally drink myself under the table!” Accepting the water, I take a cautious sip, shake free from Kåre’s grasp and clamber to my feet. “I’m fine now. I’m not even that drunk; I’m fine,” I insist, taking measured strides as I approach the stage to demonstrate exactly how sober I am. I take great care to walk in a straight line. At least I assume that was straight. Straight is not a thing I do well in any context. Damn it, Axel, concentrate! Fuck it, I’m fooling nobody. “Just let me pack up my gear and I’ll settle up with Ola. Where’s Ola?” I scan the empty venue.
“Ola went upstairs to grab our stuff,” Kåre informs me, close at my heel. He’s already packed up his bass and moves to help me where I’m fumbling about collecting my pedals from the floor and thoroughly disproving my sobriety claims. “He’s giving us a ride as soon as we’re done.”
“I don’t want a ride, we’re gonna walk,” I announce. “You didn’t touch the semi-acoustic?”
“No. No, I didn’t,” Kåre sighs. “You are not walking to the hotel.”
“I need to show you something,” I tell him, trying my best to sound earnest. “You’ll love it, Kåre. I know you’re gonna love it and we won’t have this chance again.” I look at him crouched beside me, hurriedly coiling up my guitar cable around his shoulder. “Please?”
“If you end up not being able to walk, you know damn well I can’t carry your ass,” he reminds me. “And I’m not exactly sober myself, thank you very much.” As if to prove it, he hiccups and quickly covers his mouth, eyes wide and gleaming with amusement. His own laughter nearly knocks him off balance.
“I’ll manage to get there, I swear. That was just me freaking out and hyperventilating.” I crawl over to the Gibson and tuck it carefully into the gig bag and as I do, I’m jolted by the abrupt recollection: “Hey—this morning! You packed this guitar for me this morning.”
Kåre briefly grimaces and issues a light groan, then focuses his eyes on the faded, fake Persian rug beneath us. “I’m sorry, Axel, I forgot.” Hiccup. “We were in a hurry. You didn’t even notice.”
“I didn’t want anyone else’s fingerprints…” My heart sinks, plunging like an elevator in free fall. I’m hyperventilating again. “It doesn’t matter that I didn’t notice!”
“I know. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” Hiccup. “We had to make the train.” His voice slowly fades to a whisper with each word. “I was in panic mode.” Eventually his hiccup eclipses his own voice.
It’s impossible not to read the remorse on his face, so heavy it borders on despondence. I suck in a deep breath to stabilize myself and assure him, “No, it’s okay.” And suddenly, a flash of insight: “You were wearing gloves! Weren’t you wearing gloves?”
He releases a deep sigh of relief. “I was wearing my leather gloves!” he nods. And then he hiccups and snort-laughs into the back of his hand.
“It’s fine. Forget it.” I zip up the bag so hastily I nearly fall over with the momentum and break into inane laughter myself. “No harm done!”
“Hey, here’s your stuff from upstairs. I think I got all of it,” Ola’s voice comes from behind us.
I slide around to face him. “Did you pack the vodka?”
“It wasn’t there anymore,” he shrugs. “Maybe your other band members took off with it?”
Kåre breaks into yet another fit of hiccup-giggle. “Lisa!”
“Well, she’s fired!” I exclaim, only to remember that I already put her out of work hours ago. “As if it fucking matters!”
“I packed the last bottle of wine, though,” Ola says. “Wait here and I’ll pull my car up.”
“That’s okay,” Kåre tells him, tucking my cable into the front pocket of my gig bag and zipping it up with a little pat. Hiccup. “We’re gonna walk.”
“You’re not upset with me, are you?” Kåre asks as we walk through the dimly lit, abandoned complex, slowly winding our way toward the Aker River. We can follow the river all the way down. At least we’re not liable to get lost.
“No, why would I be?”
“You tried to kiss me, Axel,” he says. He’s pretending to be deeply interested in the contents of the cutlery storefront as we pass by. “Or have you already…” Hiccup. “…forgotten?”
“Here,” I unzip my duffle bag and fish out the wine bottle, which Ola conveniently placed on top. “You better drink something to get rid of that hiccup if we’re gonna have a serious conversation, because you sound ridiculous!”
“I’m pretty sure wine will only make it worse.” Hiccup. “Quit changing the subject.”
“What is there to discuss? You made perfectly clear that kissing is not on the agenda. I respect that and I’ll ensure it never happens again.” I wave for him to stop walking as I break the seal on the bottle, uncapping the top. Thank god it was shitty wine. No corkscrew required. “Here,” I offer it to him. “Drink and then hold it in your mouth and hold your breath for as long as you can.”
“Does that even work?” He wrinkles his brow at me, his upper lip dipping in visible doubt.
“Trust me, I’m a pro.” I wink at him. “Go on.”
So he does it. And he immediately hiccups again the second he swallows and stops holding his breath.
“Oh well, now you’re gonna have to do it again.” I shake my head and shrug.
“You are actively trying to get me plastered!” he protests.
“You’re just so cute when you’re drunk!” I give another dismissive shrug.
A closed-mouth smile gives away that he’s suppressing his laughter. “Shut up.” He takes another gulp and holds it. And tries to keep holding it. Then he nearly chokes on it, spraying me with a fine mist of wine. “Stop looking at me like that!” He wipes at his mouth with the back of his wrist.
I fold my arms across my chest. “Like what? I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m just looking at you.”
“You never look at me,” he says. “You always look away immediately like I–scalded your eyes… or something.”
Oh. So he has noticed.
“Here, give me that.” I snap the bottle away and take a swig. “I feel a hiccup coming on.” I pass it back to him and he takes one as well. It seems his hiccups are gone, anyway. See? It worked.
We cross the street heading toward Blå and that’s when he spots the gigantic black and white crocodile mural that graces the side of the building. It’s new since I was last in town. It wasn’t even what I was hoping to show him.
“Wow!” Kåre exclaims, stopping in his tracks.
“But wait, there’s more!” I announce, waving him onward, leading him to the junk-jewel chandelier, at the mouth of the art-adorned walkway between Blå and the Strykejernet Art School. “By the way, don’t take any pictures. I’ve been told the locals hate that shit.” Not that there are many witnesses around this late after closing time.
Kåre pauses beneath the chandelier, gazing up into its center like he’s waiting to be beamed up to the mother ship. He sets his bags on the ground and slowly rotates, still fixated on its myriad baubles, which throw off glints of green light, further emphasizing its alien presence.
“Come here,” he says. “Put down your bags and come over here.”
“Um, okay,” I chuckle nervously, deposit my bags beside his and step under the chandelier with him. All while maintaining a respectful distance. He continues gawking at the chandelier overhead, but his hands in their leather gloves seek me out. He tugs me close. I glance upward myself, attempting to fathom what could be so fascinating up there. I mean, it is beautiful, but—
“Don’t look up, look down,” he directs me. “Look at me. For once.”
I try, but shadows engulf his face. “I can hardly see you.”
“Kiss me again,” he says. “Assuming you still want to.”
My heart rattles against its ribbed cage. “Oh.” I expel an extended, audible breath. “You must be really drunk.”
“See, I knew you didn’t actually want to.” He drops his shoulders sharply and looks down at his feet. “You were just drunk… and I just happened to be there.”
Before he can say anything more, I cup his chin in my hand, forcing him to gaze up at me. I carefully tuck his hair behind his ear, and when I do; I realize that I’m trembling. But I also feel the slightest hint of a smile lifting my lips. Using my hand on his cheek as a guide, I gently caress his face, mapping out its contours with the tips of my fingers so I don’t overshoot and knock him senseless again. Then, tossing my hair back and cradling his head in both hands, I kiss him.
I kiss him for real this time, deeply, with a passion I didn’t even realize still resided within me. He reciprocates, his tongue teasing mine, all the time pulling me downward, drawing me closer to him by the collar of my jean jacket. Until we’re pressed together, kissing for an eternity, as if the floodgates have burst, and that something long pent up inside of me, perhaps the both of us, roars forth in an uncontrolled deluge of repressed desire.
This.This is what I wanted to do on my last night alive.
He’s tugging me toward him so intensely that I nearly lose my balance, careening forward and catching myself in the nick of time. He goes stumbling a few steps backward as well, and necessity rips us apart. I grab him by the arm, narrowly preventing him from sailing into the iron staircase behind him.
“Wow,” he gasps. Then he giggles like a delighted school girl and covers his mouth, as if he’s embarrassed by it.
“God, you have no idea how badly I’ve longed to do that.” I catch my forehead in one hand and reach out for the bottle Kåre retrieved from the ground with the other.
“Fuck,” he sighs. “That was nice.”
“Nice?” I gather my bags and begin to amble in the direction of the bridge where it waits, lit up in bright white light. “That was way more than nice.”
“Okay, it was fucking amazing.” I can hear the mile-wide smile in his voice, even though he’s standing in the shadows.
Being drunk with all of my carefully contained teenage desires ripped out into the open, kissing Axel felt like soaring up to the heavens. Try as I might to remain grounded, knowing damn well it's a terrible idea, that I should get involved with him in that way, while he's... well... in that way. Alcohol makes it more difficult to resist the impulse. An incredibly chaotic evening was suddenly made magical by some cheap baubles hanging from string, a bit of opportune lighting and far too much alcohol clouding my common sense.
Actually, that's not doing justice to the moment. In retrospect, it was beautiful. I wanted to kiss him. And I'm glad I did. That kiss had the power to change things and I could never regret it.
“Come on.” I gesture for him to follow. “You still haven’t seen what I actually wanted to show you.”
He follows me to the midpoint of the bridge, and we pause. I lean against the railing and point down.
“That… that is what you couldn’t wait for me to see?” he howls. “A fucking penis swan?” I watch him lean forward for a closer look. “Seriously, Axel, you made me freeze in the cold over a swan that’s shaped like a penis.”
My shoulders are shaking with silent laughter. “No, honey, it’s a penis that’s shaped like a swan.”
“Whatever it is, I’m impressed by your utter lack of subtlety.”
“No.” He grins, leaning in and resting his head against my shoulder. “Honestly, I expect no less from you.”
“It’s cold, we should…”
“Yeah… hey, what happened to your hat?”
“Ah, shit, not again.” I groan.
As we continue crossing the bridge, I get that uncanny sense that someone’s watching. That we’re being pursued, even in the impossibly peaceful stillness of Oslo after hours. I cast a glance behind me at the graffiti-covered obelisk on the other side, half expecting someone to be there, propped up against it, seething with his arms folded across the front of his studded jacket. His furious eyes would smolder red in the darkness like the last live embers lingering in a fire pit, a pool of water collecting on the asphalt under his feet. But there’s no one there. And I don’t know whether I should grieve or heave a sigh of relief.
“I’m sorry if it was me that gave you a panic attack earlier,” Kåre says as we continue on down river.
“Oh, it wasn’t your fault,” I say, pulling my hood over my head and rubbing my hands together to regain sensation in my fingers. It was the perfect storm of him, Micke, and the girl, Maia. But I’ll only tell him about the last one. “It was that girl.”
“What about her?” he asks. “What did she say to you?”
“You know, the usual. My lyrics saved her life. Stopped her from committing suicide.”
“Like you said, you hear that all the time. I don’t get why that one got to you.”
“It’s a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I love them; they mean well. And usually it’s a privilege, but when you can’t even bear the weight of your own crushing depression, and then everyone else is constantly dumping, burdening you with their shit night after night… complete strangers claiming you saved them when you know damn well you’re no savior. In fact, you’re about to let them down…” My voice trails off. I stop where the river bends and fall a few steps behind. “I just want to know who’s going to save me, Kåre. Who saves me?”
He halts in his tracks. The air in his lungs, unleashed, lifts in a visible cloud, and after a moment of brutal silence, he turns. “What do you mean? You’re not -you’re not seriously thinking about…”
I balk for a moment at the thought of relinquishing a secret I’ve been harboring in silence. Letting him in on it represents a plea, an invitation to intervene, an intentional sabotage of my plans. And being aware of all this, I still say: “Yeah.” I sniff, nodding my head. The muscles in my neck and shoulders stiffen. I raise a hand to my mouth, as if to stop me mid-confession. “I am.”
The fear, the shame of it, comes abruptly to a boil and bubbles over. My failure to contain that ugly stew leaves me quaking like an unwatched pot; every muscle convulses so hard that I’m forced to drop my bags and sit down on the park bench behind me. I lean over and, resting my shoulders on my knees and lacing my fingers into my hairline, cradle my head in my hands. Every attempt to quell the shaking fails. So this is what it feels like to break down utterly and completely. I’ve finally lost it.
I feel like I’ve been screaming it out continuously for two years: Help, I’m dying over here! I’m also drowning! But not a soul has heard me. And when you scream for that long, you eventually lose your voice. Then every scream is silent. You lose hope that anyone will ever hear you, let alone help you.
“Last dance,” Kåre suddenly remembers. “You said it was our last chance to dance. I fucking knew it! I fucking sensed something was wrong!” Then he realizes that I’ve collapsed into a quivering mess and sits down beside me. “Please.” He says it so softly I can barely hear him.
A pained, almost imperceptible snort escapes before I can suppress it. “Please what?”
“That’s very convincing,” I mutter.
“Jesus, you’re shivering.” He rises again and crouches down before me, rubbing my arms as if the friction might have any chance of warming me up.
My voice comes out in a whimper: “I’m not cold.” Actually I am, but that’s not why I’m shaking.
I have my gaze focused on the black water, how it picks up the light over our heads and sparkles like silver metallic confetti strewn across its ripples. I try to imagine how cold the water must be. How cold the water must be this time of year. It must be bitterly cold.
I close my eyes.
“Hey,” Kåre says. He stops rubbing me and instead holds on with an unusually firm, reassuring grip. A grip so secure that the shaking subsides. “Hey, Axel, look at me for a minute. I need to make sure you’re listening.”
“You do understand it’s possible to listen with your eyes closed?” But I open them anyway. I try to hold his gaze, but I’m compelled to look away.
“Do you know who’s going to save you?”
I stare down at the speckled concrete footpath and say nothing. I don’t have an answer. I think I’m beyond saving.
“You remember all of those faces, all of those beautiful people tonight, singing your songs on the tops of their lungs? That was love. They love you. They’re going to save you. All those people who were there tonight.”
I shake my head, pinching my eyes closed again. “I quit. There’s no going back.”
“No, no, listen. Look at me. Look me in the eye.” I stop shaking my head back and forth. I take a deep breath and look at him. Flecks of golden light dance in his gray eyes. “It’s not only them, it’s us. It’s me and all the other people who love you. We would do anything to save you if you would only let us.” His sure hold tightens, and he gives me a light shake. “I am not letting you go.”
I’ve missed something. Must have time traveled.
The short period covering the distance between the next bend in the river and the Vaterland Bridge is blacked out, as if some unseen hand has redacted what I hope was only a very negligible portion of my life. With the sweep of a permanent marker, it’s gone forever. When I first return to my body, Kåre and I are lying on the cold, damp grass of the steeply sloping embankment, our bags splayed out around us. What are we doing here? How did we get here?
The dark blue, starless sky seems to rotate overhead. Or perhaps it’s the rotation of the earth itself. Gravity has gone into overdrive and the heavy hand of my latest drunk dunks me down into the ground. Surely creating a siamese-twin shaped imprint, assuming that Kåre is slowly sinking along with me. Our breath floats up to the heavens, the only sign of us as we gradually disappear.
To fetter myself to something, I focus on the warmth of Kåre’s body entangled in my own, his head resting on my shoulder. My cold, wet jeans. I’m unsure of who posed us in this position, and I ask, “Is this okay with you?”
“Of course,” he whispers.
“What if there was more?”
Fueled by sheer will, I propel myself up and hover briefly over him. Once I get there, however, I can’t decide how to proceed. I haven’t done anything with anyone in ages. Instead of making any kind of move, I tumble onto my back once more.
It’s fucking Kåre. I just can’t.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I feel like… I mean, it’s weird, right? You used to have posters of me on your wall, pictures of me when I was your age now and you were just a kid. Now I’m a gross, old man.”
“You’re not that old,” he snorts dismissively. “You’re thirty-four.”
“Well, I’m not the me you wanted. I’m only taking advantage… It’s an unequal power… uh, what’s the word? Dynamic. Yeah, dynamic,” I mutter.
What I am is a pig past its prime that somehow escaped its final hour in the slaughterhouse.
“Don’t act as if I have no free will.” He sits up and stares out over the river. “I’m twenty-four. I’m not the kid with the poster, you’re not the guy on the poster, and I’m well aware of that.”
The next thing I know, Kåre is on top of me, his body entwined in mine again, one leg wedged between my legs, kissing my neck, running his hands over my grimy hair, which has now fallen to the side and fully exposed my face to him. Were I not cognizant of how dark it is, I would reflexively twist away. But immersed in shadows, I feel safer. Until he kisses my cheek, right below my scars. Then he moves on to the other.
He must either taste salt or he’s noticed the way I’m rattling. “What’s wrong?” he asks me, but I’m unable to speak initially. The tears will not relent, they spill continuously over my cheeks, dripping into my ears, further dampening my hair, my hood. Kåre traces the streams with his fingertips. “Please don’t cry.”
Ripping myself free, I twist into an impossibly tight fetal curl, fingers clawing at the soil as if I’m attempting to dig my own grave, shuddering, weeping in such desperation that my entire body seems to dissolve into the dirt. Only Micke Berg has ever kissed my face. He’s the only person I’ve ever permitted to do it. The only one I trust, the only one I want to be that intimate with.
“Talk to me, Axel. Did I do something wrong?”
“I wanna go home.” I wail. “Take me home!”
He runs his hand over my arm to comfort me. “We’ll be home tomorrow evening.” But he may as well be miles away. My words were not intended for him to begin with.
I want to go home, to the home I had, the home I lost, the one in Micke’s arms. Home was always wherever he was.
“I want to return home and I want him to be there. Please don’t let me go home and be alone!” My words are all running together in a slurry of self-pity and sloppy sobs. Fine way to end this evening, with an ugly cry.
“Oh, Axel,” he sighs. “Let's get you to bed.”
Then I just stop. My tears abruptly cease. I unfurl and rising up onto my side, find my feet again. I nearly fall forward into the water while retrieving my bags, but by some miracle, recover my footing in the nick of time. Snatching up the empty wine bottle where it lies beside us in the wet autumn leaves, I stumble toward the bridge, pitching the thing with all of my might. It shatters against the stone in a shower of sharp, dissonant notes.
For a major city, Oslo sure is dead quiet. Save for the occasional drunken revelers, like us; and the drug deals that go down in hushed tones between hooded figures in the darkness. But overall, it’s still out here. Which makes the sound of the broken glass and my breakdown all the more brutal on the senses.
“What the fuck, Axel!” Kåre exclaims, chasing after me. “Now there’s glass all over the place.”
“Yeah, well, apparently I love to break things,” I mumble, tossing my gig bag strap over my shoulder. It doesn’t seem to want to stay there, and I struggle violently to keep it in place. “I’m fucking great at it! I demolished my career tonight, I’ve obliterated my voice - you heard it! The suicide song sounded terrible; I couldn’t sing it — at all.”
“That was one song. The rest were perfect, I swear to you. They were perfect.” He stumbles after me in pursuit, nearly losing his own bags in the process. “Stop… wait!”
“I drank away my money, destroyed my body… and now I’ve even gone and fucked up our friendship. So, there’s nothing left to keep me here. Who fucking cares?” I rush toward the road at the top of the bridge and run into the street without bothering to see if I might be stepping into harm’s way. “There’s nothing left.”
“You haven’t fucked up our friendship.” He yanks me forcefully by the shoulder out of the center of the street. “There’s a cab coming! Stop!”
“It doesn’t matter. I want to die and I’m going to die, so I’m putting an end to this.” I shake him free and somehow, against all my best intentions, I make it to the other side unscathed and stagger into the park, the last stretch before our hotel. “Maybe I’ll just go to our room, drink up the minibar. With any luck, I won’t wake up.” I’m aware that I sound like a petulant, angsty teenager. In fact, I’m embarrassed for myself. At the same time, I’m powerless to stop.
“Axel, stop it!” Kåre shrieks, grabbing me again so forcefully that I spin backward in his direction and stumble. “Stop talking like that. You’re scaring me!”
There’s something about his voice that is so familiar. Something about his expression that I recognize.
The night Micke died.
He sounded exactly the same on the night Micke died. And that was the last time I saw that look in his eyes.
A look of terror.
A soft groan escapes from my lips and I stoop over with my hands on my thighs at first, dropping my bags to the ground. Then I sit down on my knees in the middle of the park and rest my head in my palms to catch the tears that wrack my folded-over frame.
All I ever wanted was to feel none of this. I’ve been drinking down the tempest night and day in desperation, to keep the levels at bay, to stop these emotions from cresting. Ironically, it’s the excess of alcohol that finally completely overwhelmed the already crumbling storm wall. Now they’re crashing down over me, over us, in a merciless maelstrom.
Kåre envelops me in his arms. He folds himself over me like a shield. “Please, you can’t mean those things. Tell me you don’t.” His voice is wavering, teetering on the edge of intelligibility. “Please, I’m begging you. I can’t bear to lose another person I love.” I come to realize from how he’s shaking that he’s crying as well. “Do you really want to break me, too?”
At this point, I'm panicking. What do I do? How do I protect him from himself? What if he tries to do something dangerous, more dangerous than running into the near-empty Oslo streets, and it's only me and my tiny frame to come between him and disaster? That, but also that we were in another country. I wasn't sure how to get him admitted somewhere; it was the middle of the night. Had we been in Stockholm, I would have known what to do. Or... it would have been easier to find out. It seemed wisest to just calm him down and allow him to sleep it off. So I did just that. Eventually, once he stopped crying, I got him to promise me he wouldn't do anything right then and there. That he would make it through the night. I question if it would be the right thing to do with anybody else, but that's the thing about Axel: He keeps his vows. I was shaken to my core, but I also knew I could trust his word.