Traveling by train, time is fluid, but viscous and deformed, like Dalí’s clocks. It’s both unhurried but languishing, neither here nor there. An invitation to do sweet nothing, to be so alone with yourself that you nearly forget you’re with others. A metal cocoon in motion, all of us waiting to emerge.
What’s that painting called again? The one with the clocks. Persistence of Memory? Something like that.
I remember the last time our bands toured together, Nauru and Attax. We were lucky enough to have a day off in Paris, and Micke insisted upon going to L’´espace Dalí in Montmartre. He was an absurdist. Of course, he adored Dalí. After the visit, we had a magnificent overview of the city. I remember standing there, Micke’s hand in mine, how he looked out over the skyline. Then he turned and smiled at me, a broad, glee-filled grin, his eyes glimmering with genuine joy. A smile that told me he wasn’t only happy to be there, it was being there with me that mattered. I couldn’t fully enjoy myself because of the utter cliché of it all; I always said I’d never be that kind of tourist. Still, I recall not wanting it to end. Time flowed much faster in those days. Less melting clock and more camera shutter.
I wish I had allowed myself to revel in the experience, the way Micke always did. So often I held back. I wasted time painfully preoccupied with appearances. Time I’ll never get back.
My eyes are closed, but I can feel Kåre’s foot against mine. Resting there casually. A reminder that we are together alone. It occurs to me it’s the most human touch I’ve had in a while. I move my foot a little closer when I shift in my seat to rest my head against the window. So that our calves touch as well.
I focus on his warmth through my jeans. For a moment I think about how sad that is. To be so lonesome that an innocent brush means everything. I try to drift off into sleep, but my aching head allows no such luxury. Still, I fake it so that he won’t think I’m intentionally pressing my limbs against his. As I am.
I can also feel the two small airline sized bottles of Jack Daniels I carry in the hidden inner pocket of my jean jacket. How they rest against my rib cage as I twist toward the cold glass. I figure a little hair of the dog would fix things up in a hurry. But I don’t want to fix things. I prefer to be miserable; I deserve it. The throbbing pain, the nausea. The panic that blooms in my chest, in a heart that races, hopping over beats with abandon. An anxiety that radiates outward, unfurling tiny tendrils of barbed shoots deep into my lungs, bronchi to bronchioles.
I earned it. This suffering, the discomfort. It’s mine. I did this to myself. On purpose. So I’ll at least wait a bit before I give in. Draw it out. Just until I reach my wits’ end and can no longer bear it.
I imagine Kåre’s face across from me, head bent over his worn paperback copy of Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer (ironically enough). I try to visualize how he purses his thin lips and furrows his brow when he’s concentrating. How he shoves his longer ebony locks behind one ear, but they fall forward again almost immediately. Yet all I see is darkness. Of course, I could open my eyes and look at the guy. He’s right there. It’s just... well, that’s always been the problem, hasn’t it? He’s right there.
In the end, all I manage to pluck out from the nothingness are two pale blue eyes staring back into mine, pinched into furious slits, soured with suspicion and outright rage. The anxiety grows like a noxious weed, threatening to exceed the allotted space in my chest. Overcome with shame and guilt and on the verge of hyperventilation, I am finally forced to open my eyes.
The sun emerges from behind a cloud, and I squint in the unforgiving glow. Forced to cave, I extract one of the tiny glass bottles from my inner pocket, unscrew the cap and pour it back. It burns all the way down and momentarily provokes nausea. It’s a passing discomfort.
I feel eyes on me. Grandma shakes her head and glances away at her knitting bag as if she knows me, like I disappointed her and she has any right to judge.
Here’s the thing about fame:
Everyone thinks they want it. Until they have it. Everything comes at a cost. Even in Scandinavia, where we mostly leave celebrities alone, where you best not think you're anything special regardless of how accomplished you are, fame is still a niggling background noise that never quits. It carries with it the suspicion that the friends you have may not actually be your friends, paranoia that perhaps every one of them is only in it for the clout. They may be no better than spies, turning to the press to tattle on you the moment you turn your back. Your guard is forever up, even among allies. It's no way to live.
And when you get to the point where even the old couple across the aisle knows who you are, you’re not necessarily at your pinnacle. But you are well-known enough that nobody will ever give you any semblance of privacy again. Your every move, every utterance to your bass player on a train, comes under scrutiny. Everyone’s listening in for any juicy tidbit they can go home and prattle off to their granddaughter.
I shouldn’t care about somebody’s grandmother’s opinion of me; still, I do. But I care more about Kåre and what he thinks. His eyes glance up at me and instantly narrow. The warmth of his foot against mine becomes a tiny kick.
“Isn’t it a bit early?” he utters under his breath.
I shrug. He quickly returns his gaze to the printed page. To avoid looking at me. I see how his cheeks flush ever so slightly. Then I avert my gaze as well, watching as the trees sail by the window in even rhythm, except when punctured by an expansive lake. The motion gets to me after a time and I turn in my seat some more, fold my arms across the windowsill and rest my forehead on them.
Sure, I could have done that in the bathroom, away from the public gaze. But I do this kind of thing on purpose. Not as a cry for help. But to destroy everything, most of all the glowing reputation I’ve built up over the years. It’s more of a silent shriek.
“You’re embarrassed,” I remark. “Of me. For me.”
“Yes. You clearly are.”
“Stop projecting.” I hear him place his open book in his lap.
“I don’t blame you.”
Suddenly his hand is there, brushing my hair back from my blind side. I jerk my head away before he can see my scar-marred face, so that my hair falls in front of it again like a shield.
“What do you think you're doing?” I snap, sitting up abruptly. “Why would you even do that?” I slide back in my seat and cross my arms over my chest. I feel my forehead knot up in anger.
“I — I don’t know.” Visibly flustered, he releases a sigh. He runs his hand through his hair, looking away and up at the ceiling, like he’s searching for the right words. “I wasn’t… I wasn’t thinking at all, I just wanted…” He pauses mid sentence to draw in a breath. “…to console you?” He bites his lip. “It’s not like I don’t know what you look like. I had a promo poster of the cover of Wherever You Go, There You Are hanging on my wall before I even knew you.”
I reach down and pluck up my hat, which has fallen between the wall and my seat, and place it on my head. It casts shadow across my face, serving as yet another barrier.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice a whisper. He bows his head, dropping his gaze. “I shouldn’t have. I should–I should really know better.”
I nod in acknowledgment, staring at the bag under his seat, to have something else to focus on.
For a second the silence is unbearable. So I’m content to let Kåre break it. “Can I ask you something? About that record?”
I can feel my muscles tighten in response and I rub at my temples with the tips of my fingers. But, because it’s him, and because I laid down ground rules long ago that I’m now regretting, I respond: “What do I always say, Kåre?”
“Stop asking if you can ask.” I can hear a faint smile in his voice.
It still takes a minute before he dares to continue. “Why did you suddenly stop covering your face for that one album cover?” His tone is soft, but that doesn’t lessen the blow. “I never got that. It was like full-on light and everything. I’ve known you for four years and I’ve rarely seen your entire face for more than a split second.”
At last I look up at him. We stare at each other until I can’t stand it anymore. Until it hurts. “One moment.” I bend down to rummage around in the grocery bag on the floor between us for a beer. “Sorry, but that question warrants another drink.” Once I liberate a can, I crack it open with a flourish.
“Axel!” he hisses in concert with the can. The annoyance returns in a flash that flickers across his grey irises and I’m just here, fanning the flames.
I take a drink. “Do you want an answer or not?”
“Actually, yeah.” Now he folds his arms across his chest and cocks his head to the side, thin black eyebrows lifted slightly. “But not at the expense of your liver.”
“But that's a yeah?”
“Honestly, this is a burning question I’ve had for, like, an eternity. I just didn’t dare ask,” he admits. “Sometimes I think you forget I used to be a fan.”
Actually, I'll never forget it. That he was once a fan. It never stops being awkward. But I’m pretty sure that’s the main reason he’s still around. Fans are remarkably persistent and, from experience, mine are exceptionally tolerant.
As we approach the next station, the train slows and a small number of passengers stand to retrieve their bags and pull on their coats. The sun has withdrawn again and small-town Sweden lazily drifts by, sprawled against a dull, ashen sky. The leaves, those that haven’t already fallen, are no less striking in their red and gold than they always are. But from my perspective, once vibrant hues are now nondescript; a dreary, gray jumble. Like a jar of water someone used to wash out watercolor paint from a brush. Autumn was once my favorite season. Now I dread this time of year.
“Okay. I’ll tell you.” I take a deep breath before I begin. “I made a bet with Micke and I lost,” I reveal between swigs. “He wanted me to stop smoking, so I bet I could or I’d have to cut my hair and show my entire face to the public. If I quit, he’d have to appear on the cover nude. Which is… a fair trade-off. Without my hair, I’m as good as nude. But let me tell you, the world really missed out on the Micke cover.” My lips lift at the corners a little and although I try to suppress it, I can’t help but chuckle. “It would have just barely been easier on the eyes!”
Kåre laughs along with me, squinting slightly as if he’s struggling to even imagine it. “Wait. You’ve never smoked as long as I’ve known you.”
“It took a few tries,” I confess. “I had dramatically underestimated the challenge. In fact, I started again after Micke…”
“Did you?” He looks surprised. “I was with you all the time, I never saw you…”
“No, after that. After you stopped coming around as much. It only lasted a couple of weeks. I… well anyway, it had lost its appeal; I couldn’t tolerate the smell.” I couldn’t stand how it worked its way into everything, my clothes, my hair. Smoking blunted my sense of smell before, so I hardly noticed back then. When I started up again I could finally see, or rather, smell, why Micke was disgusted by it.
Following a moment of silence, Kåre asks, “What was that like, anyway? The album cover thing, I mean.” He twists a strand of hair between his fingers like he often does when he’s nervous. “I know quite well how it was for you when Micke… you know.” He also knows it’s far better to skirt that subject. Better to gently nudge me back on track before the whole discussion derails. I’m more than happy to oblige.
“Oh god, that album was everywhere! It was a nightmare. Micke thought it’d be liberating, but I couldn’t even go into a record store, let alone do signings of the damn thing like the label wanted. I still shudder whenever I walk into a Bengans!” I snort. “He believed that if I would just let people see me, I’d no longer be afraid of what they think. He said… what was it? Something like ‘The fear you have that people will be repulsed by you is… worse than anybody’s reaction could ever be.’ But it only put the focus on that fear. It even amplified it.
“Previously, there had been a sort of unspoken rule that people just… shouldn’t ask. But, with it all out in the open, it was suddenly fair game.” I realize that my pulse is racing. I take another drink, then another deep breath. “It was torture. And Micke regretted it as much as I did. Maybe more. It only made it worse, talking about it to the media, rehashing it over and over in every goddamn interview.”
“Hmm,” Kåre nods, pausing pensively before he responds. “I think — well, if you’re anything like me… it’s really easy to feel like your every flaw is under a magnifying glass. But – it’s a distortion, caused by a deformed lens.” For a moment, I’m stunned that he thinks he even has flaws. If he has them, I haven’t noticed. Which I guess is precisely the point he’s trying to make.
“Yeah, but… you can hardly compare my scars to…”
“What I mean is that you blow it out of proportion,” he interjects. “So a dog bit you when you were little. I don’t think you’re ugly. I never have. Actually, I thought you were, well… I had a total teenage crush on you back in the Nauru days!”
“Thanks,” I say softly, laughing gently. My cheeks are warm. I know he’s only being nice. And again, he was a fan. Fandom isn’t blind, it’s near-sighted. Sometimes I wonder what he really thinks now, at close proximity.
I notice he’s blushing, too. “I always thought it was fascinating,” he says. “That you hid your face. And sad.”
Fascinating, he says. Everyone thinks my story, my lifetime of pain and shame, is so goddamn fascinating. Intriguing, even. Because those so-called journalists only feed that fascination, each one in pursuit of the saddest sensationalist scoop. All because suffering sells. Although who could blame them for trying to pay the bills? I never used to mind that much. Until those scavengers descended on Micke’s corpse, and next, on me in my hour of mourning. How they picked away at us for months upon months -
I suddenly realise I’ve been holding my breath through everything he said. And through everything I was thinking. By the time I remember to breathe, there’s a torrent on my tongue and I talk through gritted teeth, trying and failing to keep my anger at bay. Instead, it all spills out in a tsunami of self-loathing: “I didn’t just get ‘bit by a dog’, Kåre. I got mauled. Do you understand how many reconstructive surgeries and revisions I went through just to look like this? And how long I put up with kids calling me a monster in the meantime?”
I continue, denying him any opportunity to interrupt and stem the tide. “I discovered at an early age that the world has no compassion for the wounded. And no matter how much better plastic surgeons have gotten at dealing with… well, this… I’m always going to see that kid in the mirror. That hideous, rejected child still lives right here.” I tap the side of my head with one finger. “And he always will.”
In the aftermath, I immediately regret sweeping him up in my toxic deluge of self-deprecation. I wish I never opened my mouth.
“Hey, hey.” Kåre leans forward, reaches out with one hand to touch my own where it rests on the table between us and snap me back from past to present. Instead, I reflexively snap my hand away. Doesn’t seem to faze him, though. “Look at me,” he demands. I only look at him long enough to look away again. “If it was that awful, they did one hell of a job. Because you are not hideous. You’re a good-looking guy.”
He’s lying. He’s most certainly lying to me, and though he’s trying his best to be kind, I cannot control the impulse to keep lashing out. And oh god, I just want it to stop. I don’t want to hurt him, yet that visceral resentment continues coursing through my veins. “I hate the way I look. I fucking hate it. Every time I get up on stage is a challenge if I don't hide. Especially now. Especially now.” It’s not only the tsunami coming in that does the damage, it’s also when all that water drags the mess of debris it’s amassed back out to sea.
“Why? Why is it different now?”
“Because I can’t muster up the confidence anymore. Micke gave me that confidence. He gave it to me and he took it away with him. I haven’t got the goddamn energy to dress up like a pretty boy rockstar and distract you people anymore. Look.” I give a wave over my body. “I’m a wreck. A fucking wreck.” Leaning back again, I take one long last gulp from my can. I want to crush it, slam it down on the table, but instead take a series of deep breaths and turn my attention out the window again. The trees, the endless forest zips past. Punctuated from time to time by an expansive lake and on and on.
“That… that was selfish of me. I’m sorry I asked,” Kåre says. He’s since recoiled and is now sitting back as well, his arms wrapped tightly around his torso as if attempting to give himself a hug.
“I’m sorry. That I answered.” These days I’m always apologizing to him for something. It must sound so hollow at this point. “I tell you that you can ask me anything and I do that as soon as you do,” I sigh. Then I whisper, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. I guess I deserve that,” he nods, looking down into his folded arms.
“No, no, you don’t.” I shake my head. “I realize I’m no fun to deal with. And still - you’ve stood by me through the very worst. You’ve put up with me at my very worst. I honestly have no idea why you do.” Steadily running out of steam, I drop my head and stare at the smooth wooden surface of the table. “Why don’t you just leave like everybody else?”
If anyone will be relieved when I’m gone, it should be Kåre. I’ve been little more than a burden as of late.
Kåre finally stops hugging himself and leans in again across the table, so that his face is close to mine. “I miss you.” His voice is flat, but strangely full of conviction. He frowns and purses his lips together briefly before he continues, like he’s weighing whether or not he wants to say it at all. “I remember you. How the light poured out of you. It still does, when we’re onstage.” I notice how his lips begin to curl at the edges and I can’t tell if it’s a pained or wistful attempt at a smile. “In fact, when we’re up there, it’s the only time I ever get to see you anymore. And I can’t wait to see you. I know the light you bring is still in there, no matter how hard you try to snuff it out. That’s what gives me hope.” Then he smiles, closed-lipped, but genuine. “Tonight, you’ll shine like a supernova.”And Kåre, his eyes shine with nostalgia.
“Yeah,” I say so quietly I’m not even sure he can hear my reply. “I hope you’re right.”