“Or else I’d try to force myself to fall in love; in fact, I did it twice. And I suffered, gentlemen, I assure you I did. Deep down in your heart you don’t believe in your suffering, there is a stirring of mockery, and yet you suffer—in the most genuine, honest-to-goodness way.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The girl with the long red hair and the amber woolen dress looked up just in time. She was riding up the escalator from the underground train platform as I was riding down, and she looked directly at me and maybe smiled a little. It was only two or three seconds, but that is enough to flood the mind with ornate frenzies of love and laughter and all the bright candid idealism. At least there’s a recognition of it, and you know that she knows, and that she feels the same. Because the primary animal sense is always at work, our peripheral vision is always scanning for a fragment of beauty, pleading for a bit of decency. For all our purposeless brutish humping, all our desperate gaping orgasms, all our drunken theater, all our regret and tremendous heartbreak, we keep panting through the hallways, seeking one more moment of validation.
The girl and I passed each other and never saw each other again. She, into the brisk gold autumn in Stockholm, into the buoyant avenues, the routine loveliness that pretty women know so well. So many Holly Golightly’s, so pristine in their warm laissez-faire. I, into the fuss of the underground railways, the clamoring bodies pushing like rodents into their various compartments and holes.
Train platforms have no season, no variety or color or gaiety . . . there is only the constant stink of suffering, only the gross antipathy of machinery and neglect. It is all so stupid, the frantic banality of finding your right seat and shuffling passed all the men and women crowding the narrow hallways inside the train cars. An especially fat one was coming my way—he turned and pressed up against the wall, allowing still only a few inches for me to pass. I turned to my side, side-stepping passed him, my penis rubbing across his huge ass, the whole flaccid arrangement barely successful.
It was six in the evening, and this first train ride was headed eighteen hours north, so we packed ourselves like a thousand swollen sausages in our cars and cabins and beds, six people to a cabin, everyone’s shoes and socks airing out in their cramped chambers, everyone breathing heavily against the night, the moon no longer full but it looked like it could have been. I sold a number of surfboards in Stockholm, and had a best friend on a faint island in Norway who I hadn’t seen in two years.
I was the last one to reach my cabin, with two remaining vacancies. The other three men were merely boys, dark-skinned teenagers, or at most, in their early twenties.
“Yo! Man!” one of the boys lying on the top bunk called out, “you join us, there is room.” Subways are typically pageants of cynicism, everyone glaring down at their glowing rectangles, but these kids were warm and welcoming for some reason.
They were all from Afghanistan—all friends from home, traveling together as one. There were two sets of three bunk beds, the middle of each pulled down to turn the bottom beds into couches. The kid on the top bunk slid down immediately and I sat down next to him. He had a thin mustache, probably the only facial hair he could grow, and knew by far the most English of the three of them.
“Where you guys headed?” I asked.
“Finland. We are going to freeze ourselves, I already know this. The more north we go, the smaller my dick gets. This is not good for me,” he laughed, slapping me on the leg. The other boys laughed, but didn’t say anything. “Yeah, they understand some,” Saed continued, “He is the funniest,” pointing to the youngest looking one. “I wish you two could talk. It’s because of his jokes that we ever made it this far. Went through Iran, Turkey, Macedonia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and maybe others, and now we have to go straight to the cold. As far away as we can get.”
“Looks like most this train is Syrian though. The cap just blew off down there.”
“The Syrians follow us though. This one big thing, and all Syrians are accepted. We from Afghanistan and it took us so long to leave. The Syrians, all over, on this train, they are everywhere. And they smell so bad, worse than my mother.”
“How do you know English so well?” I asked.
“I know seven languages. English is not my best though. I know English from American movies, I love movies, I watch them for eight years now. I just teach myself, I know nothing before. Let me ask you, why everyone in America always say ‘fuck,’” he smiled, “this is a good word, but everyone says it all the time.”
The other boys laughed, talking and joking to each other and Saed in Dari. Saed ate another chocolate, his ultra-thin mustache almost laughing, his hair styled with the precision of childlike vanity, trimmed short on the sides, then his long hair on top was flipped upwards and back, held perfect in the slickness of modernity that you knew you mustn’t touch it. “It’s your most descriptive word,” he continued. “If you are happy, sad, angry, ‘fuck’ is what you can say for everything. ‘I fucking love you.’ ‘What the fuck.’ ‘Get the fuck outa my house.’ What a great fucking language you have, American. Ha! ha! ha! ha!”
“Ha! ha! I guess it is,” I said. “We have over a million words in the English language, but we prefer such beauties as ‘fuck’ ‘stuff’ ‘man’ and a few other solid details of the world. How has the road been? Fucked in it’s own way, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, of course it’s fucked up. They shoot at us. They chase us ’til we hide all night. But we not pussies, American? We are the fastest in the country. Everyone knows Afghanistan only for being at war. My whole life they shoot at me. They hate us because we are going to be beautiful. Because I’m the most handsome, because he’s faster than all us, and because he is sleeping with all their women, that is why they shoot at us.”
“Ha! ha! let’s race then at the next stop.”
“Race me across eight countries. Race me through all that war.” He threw his arm around my shoulder, and smiled big and bright. “How many Syrians on this train are still virgins, you think? I know he is,” pointing to the quiet overweight kid. “He went to the hookers every night in Istanbul that I never saw him,” pointing to the youngest one. “But the Syrians, I bet they’re all virgins.” he said to me. “I lost mine a month ago, in Istanbul when he took me to see a hooker, and ever since I been a lion.”
We joked a while longer about women and war and men, in that order for another hour or so as the others drifted off to sleep. I pulled up the middle bunk and crawled into bed, and read from Dostoyevsky before falling asleep. Raskolnikov murdered the old pawn-broker and then Lizaveta, her half-sister, with an axe, a meticulously orchestrated murder, then barely escaped the police. The whole thing he almost couldn’t believe, then to be haunted only by his own mind. Because man is a marvelous sufferer—he chooses his suffering as an escape from Reason and Beauty and all the adroit restlessness in man. This breed of sabotage itself is a mockery, an able-bodied nightmare. Because suffering is meant merely to provoke the mania of love and color in between.
I started to drift away, when Saed poked his head up from below. “Let’s walk around the train together and try to pick up girls,” he whispered, not wanting to wake the others.
“Nah Saed,” I said with my eyes closed. “I’m too tired for women. They’re all sleeping anyways.”
In the morning, we came to my stop, somewhere in the sweeping desolation of northern Sweden, where I would switch to a train that was headed over to Norway. I walked out of the cabin, and turned to see if anyone had their eyes open. Saed was rolled up in a huge blanket, the other two also sleeping soundly, headed somewhere in Finland, somewhere in the naked homeless autumn, the tremendous expanse of birch trees and their golden hymns of leaves and a thin frost covering all the mosses. The sun pushed up over the horizon and through the trees, gently warming the faces of the millions of modest sleeping things. A morning bird flew across and landed on the bench on the train platform, pushing out his little breast, then hopping down to eat a crumb. There were only two train cars. I boarded and sat down at a small table, across from another dark-skinned man, this time not a boy.
“No. They don’t let you walk, because you can make the police know the place . . . the men have guns, so they make you get on the boat from Turkey, from Baharam to Greece.” We were drinking coffees, talking about the highly-publicized smuggling of refugees passing through Turkey, of which Ahmid, a Syrian refugee himself, was forced through just a couple weeks earlier. “We stay together as a group, the boat has sixty-five people, children and families, way too much people for this boat. We tell the men, they can keep the money but we don’t want on the boat. They tell us, ‘if you don’t want to get on boat, we kill all you, all the group.’ So we don’t have choice.”
“And you don’t have a choice because you now you know the place, and could maybe tell the police?” I repeated what he just said, wanting him to continue.
“Yes, this is exactly so.” He stopped there.
I just wanted to lightly probe this hell. “I’ve heard this again and again, almost exactly. The other day I heard of a smuggler bringing forty people onto a boat much too small for them all, and about a hundred meter out he jumps off the boat, and tells them to keep the motor on and head in the same direction, but he knows it’s not gonna make it the whole way . . . he tells them to handle it themselves, and he swims back. Have you been through Hungary?” I finally asked.
“Mmm, yes, yes I have. But the way is not so easy. It is up and down, up and down. From Matanini, we go to Athenia. Matanini is not a nice place, there is fighting everywhere, so you have to go with a big group, so no one attacks you. There is safety in a group.”
“And your family, where are they?”
“My father is in Australia, not my mother, she stay in Syria, she must stay months, then she go to meet my father. But in Syria, this is not good. Very difficult.”
“Why is no other country in the Middle East opening their borders?” I felt guilty for asking so many vapidly political questions, so many dead-ends and redundancies. There would never be enough time on this train to get beyond any of this, to share a smoke and a drink, and laugh about something plain.
“They don’t want anyone from Syria. They have no good relationship—Sunni and Shia relationship. Saudi and Qatar are terrorist countries. They want you killed and go far away, and want your oil, they will kill everyone of us if they could. So we go through all the countries. We have to sell everything before. Your car, your house, leave everything, all into cash. So you have to cross the sea, or they kill you. But when the boat sinks, we lose everything we have.”
I stood up to buy chocolate and another coffee, and asked Ahmid if he wanted anything. He shook his head, saying he just ate before getting on the train. Three people in front of me in line . . . even the Scandinavians are getting fat, their huge asses waiting for some cookies. I sat back down and asked him if he’d ever been married.
“Not married, no. Have you?”
“No. You been in love though.” This was obvious . . . no one phrases it “not married, no” without nudging the edge a little, without confessing to a bit of benevolent insanity. But more importantly, he looked amused and sad at the same time—the permanent look of those who have been in love and heartbroken. I suppose it’s more of a jovial skepticism, a tit of melancholy that makes us crave the suffering of heartbreak.
“Yes, in love. True love, you know this. We were together three years but her family doesn’t like me because I am Sunni, and so we are no longer together. We were ready to marry. She has no problem with me being Sunni, and my family has no problem with her being Shia, but her family has problem. So she married another man.”
“Son of a bitch.”
“But when she is married, she does not love this man as much, so she wrote me before and wants to see me, but I know this is a bad idea so I block her from all. This is the most difficult thing to do. I love this woman very much. I turn into a little boy with this woman. But this is no good to thing, because she is not mine, so I make myself not love her. She lives just four or five streets beside me, with her husband is very rich.” He laughed to himself, in a sad beautiful way. “So you want to marry in the future?” he asked me.
“Ah, maybe maybe not. I don’t know. I never want to be heartbroken again, so maybe not.”
“I know what you feel. I know this exactly.”
“You?” I asked
“We will see. If I meet the right woman, then of course. But we will see. It is difficult to love someone too much.”
“Yes of course. And this is the most difficult thing, to not love anyone too much. I liked my woman too much. No, I showed her that I liked her too much. When you show anyone too much affection, they draw away, instinctually, it is the law of the land, I don’t know exactly why, but this is always how it is. The trick is to not show too much. This is crude and in a way dishonest, but if she loves you too much, you do not love her as much. The trick is to present yourself as more complicated and interesting than loving one woman, than loving just her. Because we know ourselves the most. And if a woman loves me more than all else, but I know that I am merely a simple man of hunger and loneliness, then I do not think much of her for liking me. The same is true of her. A rockstar is desirable only on the stage. A dancer is perfect only while performing. All other times they are all too human, too regular for the great facade of beauty. We want to deny normalcy, but that is all there is.”
“Ha! ha! Yes. Exactly. Relationship is a bond, and that is it. You cannot let her see how much you love her. If she knows she will leave you. The girl loves the difficult man, because he is always searching his inside, what he feels and so on. She likes a complicated man. An easy man is a man she can easily leave. Yes, my friend loves this girl so much. He tell her one day how much he loves her, and next day she leave him.” He looked only at his hands and at me when he spoke. When he finished, he looked out to the pretentious haunted autumn, to the fat birch trees growing in their packs. Every now and then we traveled past an enormous lake with one or two cabins at its edge, someone’s quiet home, like a strange love affair with loneliness. The images of such places are universally romantic, clichéd postcard material, but the reality of their romance is so phenomenally rare, so completely desolate that no one dare try them. Romance itself is a storm behind the painting. It is a brutal peasantry of doubts, tears, and private infidelities.
“It happened twice on separate occasions,” I said, “in which I told her too much. I ate a bunch of MDMA and told her I would have married her. We are all so stupid. We show too much. So I can never show this, and maybe it means that I will never feel this. Maybe one causes the other, it’s hard to know which is which.”
He looked at me as if questioning me. “All women, if you tell her you want to marry her, she gets scared. Why this is? Because if you tell Arab woman you want marry her, she will not let you go, you can never get away. You must die for her to let you go.” He paused a moment. “You have gift from the woman?”
“No gift. Gifts, yes, but nothing like that to keep with you.”
“I have. This necklace from her. I give her as well, but it is gold. This is silver. You need to throw away that photograph of her, it only makes it more difficult. Give me your phone, I’ll do it for you.”
We sat there a while together, in silence, staring out the window at the endless scenery of go by, and he started laughing to himself, at first trying to hide his laughter under his hand, then just laughing uncontrollably. “I remember you say to me before when a girl asks you if you love her, and she is laying on your bed almost naked, you say yes, of course you do. But you don’t really love her at all, you only say this to get her clothes off. You only want to see her naked. Ha! ha! That is the truest thing ever hear.”
We carried on a while, in our laughters and our silences, agreeing on the vice of love. Because love is never the complete freedom that they say it is. There is always a squeamish suffering, always a brutish strain of slavery within its body. Either it burns off in a gorgeous mania, into smoke and ash, or it fades out into gross antipathy. One is beautiful in its suffering, and all the more terrible.
It was still four hours by car until the islands. I bundled into the corner of a bus stop, thinking I’d wait here ’til morning, and rolled a cigarette that went crooked on me, and smoked half of it hoping the night would pass in one great swoop, that it would be halfway through by the end of this smoke. But I was cold and dizzy from eating only chocolate and coffee all day. I heard footsteps draw nearer—this is the worst sound in these places because you know you’re going to frighten whoever it is. It was a young woman with long magnetic legs in tight black jeans . . . she walked by and saw me hunched over on the ground waving at her, and she began walking faster. I let her think what she wanted, and when she was far enough away, I got up and began walking through the flickering night, out of the town to the other side, the houses trembling like speckled flames, slowly fading away behind all that night. A band of northern lights cut into the sky like a mad green poem, a sudden rage of violins, my little stub of cigarette burning nicely in the breeze. I would have loved to sleep here, in a nice patch of dry grass, in a sleeping bag with my shirt off, feeling the cool air creep in. But I had no such sleeping bag, and it was far too cold to sleep anywhere outside.
It took me at least an hour to hitch my first ride. A woman with a child in a carseat took me to the next town thirty miles away, through the sometimes-single-lane road winding in and out along the coastline. The second ride was fairly quick—the man drove me the rest of the way, blasting through the straightaways and five-mile-long tunnels that go under the ocean, talking about his times in prison. He dropped me at my old home, a lonely antique fishing village in the Lofoten Islands, where I met Paavo, my long time best friend from Finland who works as a fisherman in these parts, and reads more Chekov than anyone I know. I hadn’t seen him in two years, and it was only a little passed midnight, so we got drunk together and talked about our conquests, and Russian writers, and places we could climb in the mountains in the following days. I went to bed with an overweight girl with long shining red hair and an almost beautiful face, and we fucked on a narrow cot, its creaking springs straining under all that gravity, her overweight pussy swelling in the cramped room.
The morning was bright and clear, but my head was swollen. The little space heater was on all night, the thick airless room so stifled in the heat. I flicked it off, pushed open the window, and the cool morning flooded into the room, waking the skin like bathing in a cold spring. I left immediately, dressing in the living room, packing a fishing pole and lures and an extra jacket, and making a sandwich mostly of bread, and a thermos of coffee, and went bicycling out of town, up a path around the lakes. Occasionally there is a red house seen between the trees, and once or twice even the chimney is smoking in its usual warm loneliness.
The walking path began at the far end of the second lake, where I hid the bicycle behind some trees, and began hiking up the steep mountains, through the thick packs of birch trees, where the massive show of color and autumn haunts the sky in hunger, where the mushrooms and the lichens and the wild berries grow in their indulgent theatre, like highbrow wilderness, smug with its beauty and morning dew. There was another lake behind the first range of peaks a few hundred meters high. I would fish and camp here on my way back down, but the early afternoon had time to meander, so I continued up along the steepening ridge, eventually into the thickening snowpack, another few hundred meters high, the view always reaching further beyond the fjords, slipping on the icy faces of rocks, my fingers losing most of their feeling. Nine-hundred meters high, but the last peak was too steep. There was absolutely no way.
It didn’t really matter. None of it did . . . this was high enough. In every direction there was ocean or fjord or mountain. A raven the size of a hawk flew directly over me, I could hear his wings lifting in the wind . . . he screamed at me as he flew by, calling out once more but never looking back at me, finally disappearing in the distance behind a ridge of snow and rock.