In the end Julia agreed to three days in Denmark. She could spare three days and, while penciling out the trip on her map, she spilled coffee all over Ireland and took that as a sign that Denmark had a sense of humor. Also Wahl, her host, wanted to show off his haunts and his Danish (in an email, he wrote, I don’t sound like a brain trauma victim anymore sadly, this is progress), and Julia could be shown off to. She could do that. Especially since she’d invited herself over, in an email she immediately regretted sending—an email she wrote on one of those nights when almost for the hell of it, you convince yourself you don’t know anyone anymore.
It’s not that she didn’t like Wahl (she did), or that she thought he’d get on her nerves (he hadn’t in the past). The trouble was, he didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t spend. He read the informative placards in museums. He planned his meals in advance. They were a mismatch in every category that counted on the road.
But once the idea took hold, Julia was glad she committed to go. Booking flights and rooms wasn’t awkward in the least—Wahl made suggestions, Julia made deposits, all over the internet. She began to see the genius in touring Europe with Wahl. For starters, he was fluent in all the languages that went with tasty food. That was key. The last time Julia was in Spain, she dipped what she thought was a french fry into what looked like ketchup, noticing—too late—that the fries had tiny fins and eyes and the sauce was moving. This time she wanted to know what she was eating.
She’d met Wahl in college, shelving books, when their carts collided. They’d done a decent job keeping in touch over the years. They saw each other when he passed through southern California, or she through Iowa (which, so far, was never) but until now they’d never driven or flown specifically to see one another. Julia’s husband thought Wahl was creepy, but he was her ex-husband now, so that didn’t play in.
A grant had taken Wahl abroad for the year. His project or assignment or whatever was translating the writings of a dead Danish politician. Recently he’d gotten an attitude about it—if people wanted to read the man’s work, he felt, they could very well learn Danish and read it themselves. The politician would’ve agreed, he thought, were he alive and not a communist. Julia thought that was funny and wrote and asked if he had to give the money back. He said no, the grant was no-strings-attached and no one would check up on him.
They met in Copenhagen. On their first night, catching up, Wahl told Julia he didn’t think she could have a healthy relationship. She told him that was crap, that never having been in a relationship-relationship with her, he couldn’t possibly know. Maybe because they were so opposite, they could talk that way and no hurt feelings.
“Don’t ask for my opinion then criticize it,” Wahl said.
They were at a cafe beside a canal that had no smell. As always, Wahl took ages with the menu. Being hardcore vegan, he first had to decide what he could eat, then what he wanted to eat.
Julia said, “Don’t tell me I’m unhealthy and not let me respond. I’m too paranoid for that. Besides, until the divorce, my marriage was a success.”
Wahl tipped his menu and smiled. Julia meant what she’d said about her marriage, but Wahl was more fun to tease than convince, with his bionic brain and short fuse for stupidity, qualities he tried to temper by saying things like, I don’t judge. Julia had heard this more than once. Always she rolled her eyes and said, Everyone judges. You just don’t want to admit you’re a moral snob.
Wahl said now, “Maybe we should talk about this when you’re not jet-lagged and cranky. You need sleep.”
“It’s still crap,” she said.
He said, “Anyway I didn’t say you’re unhealthy, necessarily, I said your relationships were.”
“Your mom’s unhealthy,” she said.
She did need sleep, but didn’t go under until four in the morning. Then, an hour later, a drunk Brit busted into the room and tried to climb into her bunk. When she told him it was taken, he slurred, “Aw, ya cunt,” and threw up in the bottom bunk. The next night was worse. The Brit checked out, two snoring Spaniards checked in, and the lumpy Danish pillows after a day of museum-going left her spine feeling bruised and shifty. She felt like she had to stretch all the time, but stretching didn’t help. On the third day, her hands started trembling. She needed movies, rest, junk food, but it was their last day in the city and Wahl wanted to take her to a squatters’ community he’d been talking about.
The place was called Christiana. It was a fully functional city-within-the-city, completely walled in. There were restaurants and blacksmiths, a volunteer police squad on ten-speeds. No one paid taxes. No cameras allowed. Every few years the government threatened to shut them down, but Wahl called this so much political noise. He was surprised she’d never heard of the place. Which, maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t—he taught rhetoric at a hodunk college and couldn’t seem to break the habit of assigning reports.
Julia stopped inside the entrance and asked what ew meant. Wahl laughed—not snottily, he wasn’t like that—and pointed at the letters on the arch. “That’s a U. It says E-U.”
“And what’s eu supposed to mean?”
Before he could answer, two hip-high Dalmatians trotted out of a warehouse onto the stone path ahead of them. One was grey, one white. They both had huge pink swinging balls, and when they trotted off after a man playing a homemade flute, Wahl joked that the dogs had given him a complex, and he didn’t know when he could stand naked in front of anyone again. He quickly held up a finger and said, “Careful—” meaning no wisecracks about his virginity. That was an example of Wahl getting her not to do something she wasn’t going to do anyway.
Julia told him people in the states were giving their dogs implants.
Wahl said, “After testicular cancer?”
“Cosmetic reasons,” she said.
Wahl stopped walking. “Do we know this?”
Julia told him a dog with implants came into the doggie daycare whose books she kept. She loved delivering appalling news from home, Wahl was so in love with all things Danish. He drooled over the care Danish women took with their appearance. He went on about the ingenuity of Danish design. He’d spent half a month’s grant money on a bookbag made out of recycled airplane tires, and a similar sum on Danish glasses that looked like furniture for the face. He told her about winter nights walking home, how in the houses people gathered by candlelight while he headed for his empty little room on the hill. He said he’d never felt lonelier, but then turned around and said he’d never been happier, like the two went together.
Christiana reminded Julia of Berkeley before people started to smell on purpose. Wahl said there were no drugs allowed in Christiana and Julia laughed outright. She told him where people were sleeping (and not napping) on the grass, there were drugs. Wahl said there was no way to tell sleeping from napping, and Julia pointed at a woman under a tree who looked like she’d been thrown from a moving car. “That,” she said, “is not a nap.”
They wandered into an open-air market that looked like a giant garage sale. There were crafts and tie-die for sale, a table full of bike horns, shoestrings, mints. The vendors were all over Julia, in her museum-store jewelry and couture jeans. They complimented her eyes, her soul. A middle-eastern-looking guy called her a queen. He had fiery eyes and features as forgettable and precise as the corners and edges on a box. He was the highest man she’d ever seen. His (also extremely high) associates sat on turned-around poker chairs and gave Julia sultry looks while the front man asked if she was a model, and was she American, and had she seen his new shipment of sweaters from Nepal?
She tried one on, a grey cardigan with orangutan sleeves and hot pink and orange flowerlettes around the cuffs. It looked used, with one shoulder pointy from the hanger, but she liked it. They wanted two hundred American and were too stoned to haggle. Julia was already over budget on the trip, and struggling to live on her own income—in a pinch, she used her ex’s American Express, which he never mentioned, so she figured he was paying for something she didn’t know about, a deal that suited her fine.
Wahl said the sweater looked high-quality but worn. He seemed impressed it was made in Nepal, and though it was just as likely made on the Starship Enterprise, Julia let that go. She let it go because as men and shopping went, Wahl was a good sport. Possibly, he was curious how women shopped. “It’s kind of shapeless,” he said after a longer look. “Doesn’t flatter your figure.”
She smiled at the old-fashioned word, figure, and tried to determine whether he meant her figure needed flattering, or deserved it. She’d known Wahl so long she couldn’t tell if he was good looking or plain. He had the height and bones, but there was an undeveloped quality about him. He was one of those guys who can’t grow a real beard and so shaves every day to hide the places where no hair grows. She could only ever picture him doctor’s-office-nude. The veganism figured in too. He burped like an opera singer holding a note, as if to brag that his weren’t regular burps but special vegan ones. He wouldn’t so much as kiss a woman in leather shoes, which provoked unconscious mischief on Julia’s part—more than once when they met up, she looked down and realized she was wearing nearly every leather thing she owned. She used to lecture him, tell him his principles were getting in the way of life—life meaning sex—and some night he should shelve the hunt for his vegan queen and get some satisfaction. He said one-night-stands didn’t make him happy, and that stuck with her, that remark. That he cared for himself, provided for himself that way.
She was still wearing the sweater and rifling through the others when the salesman told Wahl, “You should buy this for your wife. She is a queen and should own riches.”
“Yes, dear,” Julia said, “Riches.”
Wahl played along. “We’ll see, my darling.”
Of course the salesman knew they weren’t married. Even their friends, the few who’d met them both, didn’t understand what they had in common, what they did together, when that was the great thing. Julia’s ex said you weren’t a real businessman until you had an employee whose job was a mystery to you, and similarly, Julia felt everyone needed a friend who made no sense. She thought of how frustrating—then in later years, funny—it was to shop with her ex. For all the money he bothered to make, he hated things, buying and repairing and keeping track of things. Even the way he said things. He’d shell out any amount to get Julia out of a store, and then they’d laugh the whole way home while she flapped outrageous receipts in front of his driving eyes. All the time, the gap between their visits and calls widened, and as it did, she started to think they’d split just to try something new—see where one ended and the other began. And what if Wahl was right, if her recklessness would ruin every decent thing she fumblingly took hold of.
She hung the sweater on the rack and said they should eat. By eat she meant drink, which she didn’t normally do overseas—the built-in confusions of travel were enough—but she’d thought about her ex the wrong way and now she needed to reboot. And anyway, it was different inside Christiana, a foreign place within a foreign place run by stoned people: it was like steering a runaway car into a bumper-car-rink.
The beer made her feel better even though drinking with Wahl—who wouldn’t even drink near-beer to comfort drinking friends—was more stressful than relaxing. Wahl used to drink. He’d quit because he didn’t like himself when he drank, and because there was no reason to do it. Julia told him there was no reason to do anything, and ordered more beer to go with her curry. The sauce featured chick peas, which Julia said looked and tasted like garbanzo beans. Wahl said chick peas were garbanzo beans, they were both legumes. Julia thought legume was French for cockroach, and asked if Denmark had cockroaches, which threw Wahl into a story about a Danish friend he’d met in America, with whom he’d had some of the best conversations of his life. But when Wahl moved here and they switched to speaking Danish, the guy only talked about women and soccer. Julia suggested Wahl had remembered their earlier conversations wrong. He said he’d considered that, but didn’t think so. And then he said something awful. He said these were the first real conversations he’d had since Christmas—his conversations with Julia. She’d forgotten how Wahl could break your heart, and with so little inkling, he broke it again while it was breaking.
Julia said, “Hey. What if we check out of the hostel and into a hotel. Just for tonight—one night in every city.”
“I didn’t budget for that,” Wahl said.
“I’ll pay,” she said. “We can sleep in.”
“You’re not rich anymore, remember?”
“I’m a little rich,” she said.
“You know I can’t let you do that.”
“The beds at the place are like sleeping on a big strip of bacon.”
Wahl said, “I wouldn’t know about the bacon, but I wouldn’t get your hopes high about a better bed, even at a hotel.”
“It’ll be fun. We can throw our clothes and stuff everywhere.”
Wahl stared into his curry. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“We can get twin beds,” she said. “This isn’t a seduction.” But the minute she said it, seduction was on the table—the word, at the very least—so when Wahl said he had to pass, that he needed every cent for London (which was true but not, she thought, the truth), it was just another version of those self-righteous vegan burps—Wahl, choking on his own lifestyle, letting Julia choke on it too. He was such easy company, and outwardly so tame when he didn’t approve, she forgot how much he didn’t approve of, that she only guessed at or heard about later. He was one of those people who, once you said something, wouldn’t let you stop saying it. You said it forever, like people in comic strips. He knew this about himself, he knew that only by going to a hotel and letting nothing happen between them could she wipe the word seduction from her lips.
The rest of dinner was rushed and off-key. They took uninspired turns naming things that were the same everywhere. Julia said bees. Wahl said dirty dishes, and bussed their table while Julia finished her last beer. She thought about getting a hotel room by herself to prove her point, show it was the room she wanted, but that would create new anxieties, like that Wahl’s arrangements weren’t good enough for her. In the morning, things would seem much better or much worse. You never knew, when you were drinking, what you’d exaggerated, discounted, missed altogether.
On their way out of the compound, Julia stopped and tried the cardigan on again. The salesman was even higher than before now. A cigar-sized blunt bobbed on his lower lip and he was so high he looked drunk. The booths were closing and he wanted to make a sale.
“You are refreshed,” he said.
Julia said, “I am. But the riches, still no riches.”
He touched Wahl’s elbow. “You should accompany your wife into the toilet? There is a mirror for her to see herself in.”
Julia said she’d be fine on her own, but Wahl insisted it wasn’t safe. She couldn’t tell if he did this to make amends for the hotel, or to make her feel worse about it, or to act like it hadn’t happened. Inside, they plugged their noses and made lukewarm jokes about the smell, the graffiti, the worthlessness of the mirror. It was even less comfortable when they talked than when they were silent. She didn’t remember any tension between them in the states, ever, though off and on, Julia thought Wahl had a thing for her—nothing excessive, but what a virgin his age would have for any woman he regularly got close enough to smell. Now though, Julia thought she was wrong about that, and either he’d never cared for her romantically, or had cared very much. He would never let on either way, which annoyed her. She could imagine herself some night baiting him on—just to find out. This would wind up a selfish experiment on her part, nothing more.
Someone moaned in the third stall. Wahl pointed at a syringe on the floor and they looked at each other emptily and for too long. When they came out of the shack, she told the salesman her husband was too cheap to buy the sweater. The salesman looked at Wahl, then told Julia to come back alone.
That night they had the room to themselves. Julia waited to hear Wahl fall asleep across the room, but his breathing didn’t change, and when he coughed or sneezed she could tell he was awake. All night she’d looked forward to time alone with her thoughts, but instead the room hummed with wakefulness and the knowledge of wakefulness. She shifted as little as possible, knowing for that reason tomorrow would be her sorest day yet. She thought in the wee hours, in the dark, you didn’t know anyone at all, which made her wonder how well she knew Wahl period. She knew him from thousands of miles away, and would know him again when she left, but now was another matter.
In the morning, they pretended to have slept and took a train through the country to the little harbor town where Wahl had boarded for the year. He would move back to the states a few weeks after Julia left. His sabbatical was over and he needed his job more than he wanted to stay—or so he said. Anyone could see that wasn’t true; he’d sling that stupid airplane-tire-bag over his shoulder with nothing more than baby carrots inside.
In the boutique market where they stopped on the way to Wahl’s dorm, he didn’t help her off with her backpack. An artsy woman in a sun hat did. She asked if Julia was going to India, teasing her about the size of her pack—which after the Copenhagen shops was a head taller than Julia. The pack belonged to Julia’s landlord, who repelled down her building on weekends, and who gave her a 20-page manual on caring for the backpack. She liked the separate compartment for shoes, and disliked the many pointless straps that lashed out when she boarded a train or bus or turned in a thick crowd. The joke about India made Julia wonder if Wahl had walked ahead of her so as to distance himself from her gear, her American excess. Twice Wahl stopped to chat up acquaintances—like that was something he did. Julia figured he’d picked up the habit to better learn the language, which mattered more to him than the actual conversations, and that seemed like a backward operation to her.
Julia bought chocolate bars and nuts, yogurt that turned out to be sour cream. She bought pears. Wahl bought apricots. She didn’t see him buy pears, though he certainly could have. She wasn’t exactly keeping tabs.
They walked ten blocks up a cobblestone grade, stopping at a bakery where Wahl bought a loaf of grains and what looked like soil. Locals rode by with handle-bar baskets full of fruit and bread, not riding seriously but gliding and taking in the sun like extras in a musical. She adjusted and readjusted the straps on her pack; she had to stop and set her groceries down to do it, and Wahl didn’t help then either. But they were hungry and grumpy, and she’d ignored his advice to pack one pair of jeans, one pair of shoes, etc., so she guessed that left him off the hook.
After the hike they climbed six flights to Wahl’s room. Once you stepped inside, the room ended. Only one person could unload at a time, and Wahl had to duck to get around. She asked why he didn’t transfer to a room he could stand in, but he just shrugged and said he liked the light, which was thicker and starker than in the city. It was like talking through fallout, so that Julia caught herself talking louder.
In the corner of the room was Wahl’s big indulgence of the year after the glasses and bag: a geometrical Danish chair upholstered in bright blue tweed, a blue that stuck out like an isolated wet spot on one sock. It looked like something from a school for gifted kids
“I’m almost too tired to eat,” Julia said. “I shouldn’t have sat down.”
But Wahl was at the door with his lunch. He said if she needed a minute, the kitchen was at the end of the hall. She went with him because she didn’t like to picture him eating alone. It was bad enough, the systematic and joyless way he ate, drinking coffee only at appointed times of day, and even how he made and measured it out, like he was administering a drug.
While he boiled water and ground beans, Julia taste-tested three chocolate bars with bites of a pear in between. With its weird angles and corners, the kitchen felt like the inside of rhomboid. Wahl said rhomboids were two-dimensional. Julia passed on that and finished telling a story about her boss, who kept a blog called Tijuana Prostitutes and the Man Who Loves Them. Wahl loved perverse stories about other people, and her boss was tops for that. He was also good for looking at, but she left that out. Wahl just wanted the story anyway.
After he got the coffee in the press, Wahl sat down across from her and took a loud snapping bite of a carrot. He was a good listener, even over the sound of crunching carrots, and he rarely interrupted, so Julia stumbled when he cut her off mid-sentence and asked, “Is that my pear?”
She looked at the pear, with her bite marks in it.
He said, “Is that the pear I brought in here?”
She looked at him and smiled, but he didn’t smile back. “I don’t know who brought it in,” she said slowly, “but we can share.”
He eased onto the backmost legs of the chair and twisted off more carrot with his teeth. She went on with her story. He listened, he watched her through lenses so clean the frames looked empty. Just when she got to the meat of the story, he plunked down again and said, “Go get my pear.”
His face and voice were flat, with no expression to steer the tone. Julia asked if he was serious. He said, “Ya ya,” which was how he said yes now.
She realized the sound she’d taken for the ocean was actually a freeway. She picked up the knife. “I’ve only had a couple bites. I’ll carve out that part. It’s barely any.”
He said, “I want my pear. Not five-eights of that pear.”
She searched his face, but there was no give anywhere. “But this is your pear.”
He said, “No. My pear is a whole pear. That’s not my pear.”
She held the knife towards him. “So you’re saying even if I carve this out, you won’t eat it. That’s what you’re saying?”
He said, “I’m saying I want my pear. Go get my pear.”
Out of nowhere, she was going to cry. It hit instantly, surprising her, and she knew she had to leave the room. The last thing she wanted was to cry in front of Wahl. For one thing, she didn’t know what it meant, and it was none of his business. “How about this. You find some humane way to phrase your command—yes, Wahl, command—and I’ll go get your pear.”
“Dear,” he said, “will you go and get my pear please?” The dear sent her spinning back to Christiana, to the salesman who kept calling them husband and wife. Their dears and yes darlings didn’t seem like a joke all of a sudden, but like Wahl had been making fun of her.
She held her hand out for the room key, and when he dropped it in her palm, it felt like a key, which made everything worse and real. Then she was out in the hall, and the door clicked behind her, and she felt fine. So fine, she couldn’t have cried if she wanted. That meant she wanted Wahl to see her crying, which was entirely different from crying.
She went and stretched out on Wahl’s bed, which was as bad as the others, narrow and a nuisance. She had to think this out. Soon Wahl would come looking—if not for her, for his pear. They had three weeks of travel ahead and her biggest (survivable) phobia was traveling in a foreign country alone. She’d rather spend three weeks in a hole. The only smart thing to do was dog-ear the incident and feel bad about it later. For now, she’d call it a social hiccup and move on. All she had to do was knowingly believe this lie. She’d believed many much weaker ones. Once, to keep from sleeping with her neighbor, she imagined a miniaturized version of him playing the trombone on her mantel. That almost worked, but it didn’t help now. Rounded up Wahl was Wahl, rounded down Wahl was Wahl.
The door to the room swung open. She’d been gone too long.
“I’m lying down,” she said, taking care to say lying and not laying.
“I see that.” He didn’t step into or out of the room, didn’t commit either way. “Anything wrong?”
She told him no, tired was all. This came out funny, gurgly, like she was about to cry, and sounding like she was going to cry made her want to cry again, and the two together made her want to cry even more.
He asked if she was coming back. She said in a minute. He loomed, deciding what to make of her, then he said OK and left. She hated the stoicism of men in fights, men signing paperwork, men cutting her pay so they could afford more prostitutes. After she and her husband split, she had nightmares where she would tell him she never wanted to see him again, and he’d say things like: OK, but do you want to see a movie first? To get over the nightmares, she threw herself into a series of romantic blunders so poor, so primal (one guy was technically homeless, but worked, hosed-down, and slept at the doggie daycare) that her boss said she should start a game show called Why Would You Do That? That made her laugh and laugh and changed her perspective on the benefits and uses of personal failure.
When Wahl returned, she took aim at his chair. This wasn’t planned, not at all. “It looks comfortable, but it’s really not.”
“OK,” he said, drawing out the syllables, looking at the chair.
“It doesn’t groove with your back.”
“You mean with your back.”
“I mean the human back. The spine or whatever. I’ll take a Danish bed over a Danish chair any day.”
He started lacing up his running shoes. She said she was going to nap while he ran. He said that was fine and went into the bathroom and peed so loud she thought it’d blast through the wall. She felt good about insulting his chair and wanted to do it some more, which told her she wasn’t going to be able to act like she wasn’t upset.
He flushed the mini Danish-toilet-flush, then stepped back into the room and set the timer on his watch. She saw that he didn’t understand what was happening or what to do. They were already in it and he didn’t even know that—or he didn’t want her to think he knew—which was so rookie that before she could stop herself she said, “You’re embarrassed of my Americanness.”
He paused. He said, “I have no idea where you’re getting that.”
“OK,” she said.
He stood there breathing. Finally he said, “If you mean in the kitchen, I was kidding. I thought you knew that, it was so absurd.”
She chewed on that. It was tricky to accuse someone of not kidding when they said they were kidding, all the more so with Wahl, who as far as she knew had never lied to her. All the same, she didn’t believe him, and belief was belief. She said she didn’t see how he could’ve thought it was a joke when it’d gone on so long and with her clearly not in on it.
He looked at his chair. “I don’t know what to say. You seem really upset.” He picked a tennis ball out of his in-box.
She said, “You always had walls, which is fine, but now it’s like an electric fence. I say something and it’s like dzzzzzzt—”
“Now we’re all over the place,” he said.
“We’re not even close to all over the place.”
For a while, they went around on whether or not they were all over the place, and how they’d gotten there. Julia said that’s how these things went. Wahl asked if she could start using I statements and she asked what he was talking about. He said, “For instance, you could say, ‘When you said those things in the kitchen, I felt like you were bossing me around.’”
“I could say that,” she said, “but I said what I meant.”
He tossed and caught the tennis ball. He said he was sorry but he couldn’t process all this right now. He would try and think of some useful I statements while he ran. Someone was frying onions down the hall and Julia put a few things together and realized Wahl been in therapy, and for a long time. Often she’d talked to him about her own adventures in the chair—mostly capering for prescription meds—and Wahl had never returned her confidence, which felt unfair and unfriendly.
He didn’t run long, a few miles only, enough to clear his head. He came back with pink cheeks and I statements. He sat and wrote them down on a little pocket pad while Julia watched from the bed. She felt desperate in a scarier way than during fights with lovers. She thought it had to do with their being friends, and so not essential to one another, which made what they said less provisional.
Wahl delivered his I statements as though they were in a parent-teacher conference, but one where the parent gets to lie in the teacher’s bed and hate him. Wahl said, “I can’t help feeling like your counselor in these discussions.”
“Please let me finish,” he said. He checked his notes. She had an idea if she got up and looked, all she’d see on the pad was a drawing of her with a mustache and horns. Why not? That was only slightly less nuts than the wording in her divorce paperwork. “Booking all the reservations,” he said, “showing you around, things like that, it’s been stressful. Then all of this suddenly escalates into this—”
There were little charcoal smudges on his pillow from her mascara. She told him she resented his thinking he could say whatever he wanted as long as he couched it in his stupid I-format, and he said calling the I statements stupid wasn’t useful. She said she was trying to be truthful, not useful. (She was sorry that rhymed.) They talked his I statements over, then talked again about whether or not they were all over the place. This all dragged on so long Wahl started rubbing his temples, making gestures of exhaustion. She saw he didn’t understand they’d run out of material but not out of feelings, which was when lazy or greedy fighters started trying things on, theatrics. Because only Julia understood this, only Julia was poised to reign the thing in. (An example of not reigning things in would be the time she threw her husband’s tennis shoes off their balcony into the boulevard below.) All she had to do was stop talking—swallow the next line, the line she had ready to go and that, by her estimate, would be the best thing she’d said all day. She pictured herself saying it, then she pictured herself not saying it. She wondered when and how she’d become a person who could even do this calculation, and whether, as with shopping, you could only gauge want versus desire versus need versus temporary need by your willingness to let a thing go.
She got tired of thinking and said, “I think I don’t want to be the only person you’ve talked to since Christmas anymore.”
Wahl said, “What does that mean?”
And she said, “It means I think I should leave.” She didn’t know which leave she meant—leave go for a walk, or leave part ways—but Wahl took it to mean part ways.
He put his face in his hands. He walked around the room and said it was horrible, really horrible. “I guess I underestimated the stress of traveling with another person.” The way he looked right then—apologetic and shocked, with hairs in his part sticking up from his run—told her that he had taken her and all of it more seriously than she’d known.
He said, “If you have to go, I understand. But I want you to know I love having you here.”
She believed him.
Then she was sitting on another awful Danish bed in a Danish Motel 6 in a Danish commuter town. Under her window, busses stopped every ten minutes, squeaking to a stop, then groaning and thundering off again. She had a ten a.m. flight to London the next day. At least they spoke English there, and in Ireland, and she’d pass on France and the rest. When she’d checked into the hotel, she went straight to the loaner computer and dropped three grand booking three- and four-star hotels in case she was too scared to sight-see alone. She resolved not to go home early, even if it meant holing up for weeks, drinking and watching TV she could’ve seen at home.
Wahl had said if he changed his mind about things, he’d meet her at the airport in the morning. He wouldn’t come, though he didn’t know it yet.
It was four in the afternoon when she climbed into bed, and she stayed there until the last rush of traffic, the partiers calling it a night, then the pocket of silence before the early-bird traffic started again, then she spread the blankets on the floor and waited for her wake-up call.
In the morning she took a train to Copenhagen. The counter guy at their old hostel pretended to fall over when he took her backpack. She laughed to be nice, and because she looked hungover. She took her claim check and walked through the park, over the bridge, into and through the seedy part of town, to Christiana.
Two young guys came out of the warehouse where the dalmations lived. They had sweaty faces and the bashed-in look of heavy users. Their eyes were like eggs with the yolk emptied out, and they looked capable of having eaten the dalmations because they didn’t feel like going to the store. She wondered how you ever found your way back from a place like that.
The vendor was at his booth again, this time without his sidekicks. He looked tired and older. He gave her a shy smile, like he’d never seen her before, but when she tried the sweater on again he asked where her friend was.
“My husband, you mean?” Julia said.
He smiled and lowered his head. He looked embarrassed to be sober, which made her feel betrayed.
“That’s all over,” she said, “We’re getting divorced again.” She hung the sweater up. It didn’t look as beat-up today, though she liked it less. This was the third or forth time she’d given him to believe she might buy it, and she felt bad about that and looked for something else to buy. On a beat-up banquet table were incense burners, whittled ashtrays and pipes, a giant wooden hand giving the bird with an exaggerated middle finger. Also a basket full of anklets. Some said CHRISTIANA; some had the secret logo—three dots in a row. She bought a few of them for friends since they were cheap but went with a story. She didn’t know if tipping or over-paying him would insult him, so she paid the regular price.
While he made change, he said, “One thousand krones for the sweater.”
She said, “I don’t have room to carry it.”
“You can have it shipped.”
“No thanks,” she said.
“I have others not so thick.”
He pressured her for awhile. That was disappointing and ugly, though she didn’t know what she’d expected, coming back. She bought falafel and sat in the grass and tied one of the anklets on. The strings were unraveling so she could see the black plastic band underneath. It wouldn’t last a week, but it felt festive, and made her ankle look bony and young. She thought how strange it was to know you’d never return to a place while you were there, and she wished she could talk to Wahl about that. She couldn’t see herself calling or writing him. It seemed like enough to keep each other company silently and from afar, to be alive at the same time. If things had felt less final, he could hold this against her, but as it stood, he would have to forgive her, if he hadn’t already. She crossed her legs in front of her and looked at the anklet. Salesmen, she thought. Salesmen were the same everywhere.
April Wilder has had her fiction appear in McSweeney’s, The Sun, Southwest Review and PRISM International. She’s currently working on a novel, I Think About You All The Time, Starting Tomorrow. She lives in Salt Lake City.