By Julia Butschkow
Translated from Danish by Peter Woltemade
I keep losing the guy’s name in the loud music, in the cascades of colored light, in the smell of the dancing sweaty bodies on the dance floor.
He has a red cap on backwards, with the bill pointing down toward his neck; the hair under it is very short and light-colored, platinum blond—it looks bleached.
His cheekbones are high, his cheeks sunken; it’s difficult for me to decide whether I find him attractive or repulsive. That changes constantly.
One moment he is handsome. The next he is ugly.
Around his neck gleams a heavy silver chain that seems too solid for his skinny body.
He buys expensive drinks for me, keeps saying my name.
Hands me full glasses, which I empty.
In between I thank him for the drinks and ask whether he would mind repeating his name.
The music is loud and hard. Electro house.
The guy laughs at my question but repeats his name.
Which I don’t quite get.
Nevertheless, I nod.
Andrea is dancing with a large man. Broad-shouldered and black. She looks small, fragile, next to the tall, muscular man.
She looks like she did when we were in school. Both on the inside and on the outside. I suppose this is true of me as well, actually. Andrea had a permanent; my hair was completely smooth. Of the girls in the class, she was the best in Danish, while I was the best in physics.
Now she is studying literature, and I am studying chemistry.
Our hairstyles have not changed very much since back then.
Every time I visit Andrea, I tell her that I cannot understand how she can stand to keep living in Jutland. She, on the other hand, cannot understand why I want to stay on Zealand. Nevertheless, we are just as close as we were in school. We take turns visiting each other in all the breaks between the semesters.
Andrea discovers that I am watching her; she laughs and waves to me from out on the dance floor. The black man she is dancing with turns his head and looks toward us; he smiles; his teeth are blue, almost luminescent, in the artificial light.
The guy with the red cap looks at me; he stares, tries to hold my gaze. He seldom blinks. When I look at him, it is his eyes that interest me most. His pupils are dilated; they extend nearly to the edges of his irises. It takes an effort to see that his eyes are not black but blue. It’s hard to tell whether his gaze frightens me or turns me on.
He stands up and moves his chair so it is next to mine. I can’t quite decide whether I think he’s sitting too close to me. I am generally having a little difficulty focusing. Perhaps it’s just the heat, the stuffy air in the club. There seems to be no feeling in my fingers and feet; the rest of my body seems almost weightless; I feel dizzy. The guy is still staring at me; he must be a few years younger than I am; perhaps he is under twenty; his skin is completely smooth; it looks thin, porous, it’s so light; it must be the combination of thinness and almost translucent lightness that makes me think of silk paper. He speaks a blend of Jutland dialect and slang without taking his eyes off me.
“It sure is trippy,” he says.
“What is trippy?” I ask.
“Or, like, spooky,” he says.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“That Thursday night,” he says.
I have never seen the guy before this evening, but I nod as though I understand what he means; perhaps he has talked about it earlier this evening, and if so I have no doubt not listened properly, so I continue to nod thoughtfully as I lift my glass and drink what is left in it.
While I drink, I consider asking him to explain what he means; there is nothing else to do anyway—I don’t feel like dancing, and the other guys in the club look boring.
The guy next to me seems appropriately strange; his odd demeanor fits my mood well this evening. He is unusual and stands out from the crowd on the dance floor.
That is what I need today, although it is certainly not going to end with sex.
The dance floor is starting to look blurry, but with every glass I empty it becomes more and more clear to me that I don’t feel like having sex with him. Nor is there anyone else in the club I feel like walking up to, dancing with, kissing—neither guys nor girls. I set my glass on the table and consider leaving. Thanking him for the drinks. Concluding the conversation. Standing up and getting Andrea’s keys. Getting my coat from the coat check. Taking a taxi to Andrea’s apartment.
But then the guy says something. Unexpectedly, suddenly:
“I mean, there was, like, blood everywhere.”
Some time passes, a few moments, before I ask:
He lifts his bottle and drinks what is left in it, sets the empty bottle on the table.
Wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He says that he has not slept in over twenty hours because the thought of falling asleep seems frightening after what he has experienced in the last few days.
He leans forward toward me and talks in a low, whispering voice.
As if he were afraid. But his body language does not seem uneasy when I look at him but rather threatening. He holds my gaze.
Friday night he had awakened suddenly after having slept for twenty-four hours without interruption. He had apparently fallen asleep with all of his clothes on. When he woke, his clothes were clammy with sweat, and when he stood up he could see that there was blood both on his trousers and on his T-shirt.
A little later, when he was in the bathroom pissing, he noticed that there were also spots of dried blood on the sink. He wondered where the blood had come from.
Flushed the toilet and tore a piece of paper off the roll to wipe the blood off the sink. When he looked in the mirror, he discovered that one of his eyebrows was split. But only a little, and the blood around the injury had long since dried—all the blood on his clothes could not have come from his eyebrow alone. But he could remember nothing.
When he had washed his hands and removed the spots from the sink, he took off all of his clothes, put them in the washing machine and started it, and took a shower. While he was in the shower, he thought he could hear someone sneaking around in the living room. He turned the water off and went in there naked to check, but no one was there, and the apartment’s entrance door was locked. He got back under the shower and turned the water back on, stood there taking deep breaths, noticed that his heart was beating much faster than normal—he thought it was pounding insanely fast.
While he was drying off, he felt pain shooting through his right arm. His muscles were taut and felt as hard as wood or stone; his fingers were quivering.
When he had put clean clothes on, he made coffee, turned on the radio. Felt restless. In need of a smoke, even though he had quit smoking years before.
Felt an uneasiness in his body—it felt electric.
He put a DVD on, Die Hard with a Vengeance, with the radio on in the background, but he could not concentrate on the film. He had a headache. He paused the DVD and got up from the sofa.
In the bathroom cabinet he found a jar of painkillers which he took into the kitchen. He wondered why his backpack was on the kitchen counter.
When he opened it, he found a quarter of a pizza packed in aluminum foil.
He took a can of beer out of the refrigerator and swallowed a couple of the pills.
He ate the pizza standing at the kitchen counter.
Afterward he was still restless. He went into the living room and sat down on the sofa, turned off the film and zapped through the channels.
On TV 2 News there was a report from a farm on the periphery of Aalborg, within walking distance of his apartment. Pictures of dead animals in a field, a maltreated heifer and a maimed wild boar, were shown.
When he saw the pictures of the animals and the field and the farm building with its three wings, which apparently constituted an organic farming operation, he suddenly remembered where he had been Thursday night before he had fallen asleep.
He had visited his little sister. They had eaten pizza, smoked hashish and taken amphetamines, and watched three David Lynch films: Blue Velvet and Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. When he had been standing in the hall with his outerwear and shoes and backpack on, his sister had insisted that he take what was left of the pizza home.
“I would just throw it away anyway,” she had said.
“Then I’ll fucking take it home,” he had said.
“You’ve always loved cold pizza,” she had said.
She had disappeared into the kitchen and come back with the quarter pizza packed in aluminum foil.
“Turn around,” she had said.
He had turned around, and she had opened his backpack and put the pizza in it.
Because his bicycle had had a flat tire he had walked home. He had walked through the meadow, past the farm. The last thing he could remember was the smell of the free-ranging animals. The smell, and the feeling that someone or something was lurking in wait for him in the dark.
He switched the television off and felt queasy at the thought that he did not know what had happened.
He got up from the sofa and felt a terrific dizziness pulling his body down toward the floor.
He staggered into the bathroom and threw up several times.
Among all the empty bottles on the table lies the red cap.
The guy sits next to me nearly petrified, staring at it.
His bleached hair lies flat against his skull; it looks as though it is wet at the edges.
“Maybe you’ve had a concussion,” I say.
“That sure would be a drag,” he says.
“Maybe you should go to the hospital,” I say.
He nods, shakes his head, and keeps repeating that he would give his right arm to find out what happened.
Later, when the sun is coming up, we walk down Jomfru Ane Gade, or The Street, as they say over here. We walk along the water, Andrea and I. My skin is cold under my dress; I must have sweated a lot during the night even though I didn’t dance. The muscles all the way up along my spine are taut. The back of my head hurts at the edge of the skull, where the neck muscles are attached.
Andrea’s dress is made of synthetic material; she must have sweated too when she was dancing with the black guy. Or perhaps afterward in particular, when both of them disappeared into the ladies’ restroom.
The sweet smell of her calms me. She has used the same perfume for many years: Acqua di Gio. The smell of it causes me to settle down.
“Who was that guy?” she asks.
“Just some guy,” I say.
“What was his name?” she asks.
I say that I can’t remember.
While we are walking over the bridge to Nørre Sundby, I keep seeing the guy’s dilated pupils, like black holes mixing with the sight of the gray city and the yellow morning sky over the water.
“You shouldn’t be afraid,” says Andrea.
“Well, I’m not,” I say.
“You only get the hiccups when you’re afraid.”
“It’s just because we’ve been drinking.”
“Your face is completely white,” she says.
I take my hair clip out and shake my head. Andrea examines me. Then I put the clip back in my hair and say that I can’t get the guy out of my head.
Not because I was interested in him, not like that, but everything he told me keeps going through my head.
“Particularly the part about the animals,” I say.
“Had they been tortured to death?” she asks.
“That’s what they had said on TV 2 News,” I say.
“Who does something like that?” she asks.
“The police are looking for perpetrators,” I say.
“No doubt he’s just told you a bunch of lies,” she says.
“Maybe the perpetrators attacked him,” I say.
“Or maybe he killed the animals,” she says.
My jacket is much too thin; my shoulders are shaking.
Andrea stops midway across the bridge and lays her hands on my shoulders; I realize that my teeth are chattering. She maintains eye contact so long that I finally look down. She puts her arms around me and hugs me against her chest, like a child.
Suddenly my body is so heavy that I feel an urge to lie down on the asphalt and cry myself empty of all the disturbing pictures the guy has filled my head with all night. Andrea strokes my hair with one hand, and I let my face sink into her long blonde curls, which smell of smoke and shampoo and hairspray.
“Don’t think about him any more,” she says.
“Maybe he’s following us now,” I say.
She takes hold of my head with both hands, lays her forehead against mine.
We stand like that, close to each other.
It occurs to me while we are standing there that I did not notice any wound or scar over the guy’s eyebrow. Perhaps this is because I was so occupied with his eyes, or perhaps there was really nothing there.
Andrea looks me in the eyes and smiles.
Then she takes my hand and pulls me on across the bridge while the sun rises over the roofs of the houses up ahead, birds hover over the rooftops, and people come out from the buildings and populate the streets.
“Your stomach is rumbling,” she says.
“I’m actually insanely hungry,” I say.
“We’ll just find a bakery,” she says.
Julia Butschkow is the author of a number of published works of fiction, including three novels; a volume of poems; a play; and a volume of short stories, Der er ingen bjerge i Danmark, in which “Jomfru Ane Gade” appears. She has received the Danish Arts Foundation’s three-year working grant (2005) and the Rosinante & Co honor grant (2007).
Peter Sean Woltemade is an American-born literary and commercial translator based in Copenhagen. He is a former Fulbright Graduate Fellow (Berlin) and holds a Ph.D. in medieval German literature from the University of California at Berkeley. His work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail and The Missing Slate. His current projects include translation of short fiction by Thomas Boberg.
Published by agreement with Gyldendal Group Agency.