It was July. They sat on the raised platform of one of the sculptures and watched the sea. The sky was a crisp blue with a light scattering of clouds, the air so thin that Silja was sure she could see Sweden gleam under the sun some 14 kilometres away on the other side of the waterway. Akari thought this was ludicrous. “It’s your imagination, silly,” she said. “How can anybody see that far?”
Silja had promised Akari this visit to Louisiana, for a few years and when they found out about a special Yoko Ono exhibition, they both agreed that the time was right for a day out. But when they got there they were hungry, they wanted coffee, and then they were distracted by the sunshine that is rarely ever found that high up in the north. They settled beside the sculpture and caught up over the stories that they owed each other. Since graduating they had busied themselves with work and all the rest of that grown up stuff and didn’t get the chance to meet up as often as they used to.
Right in the middle of Akari’s account of how her sister had finally decided to move to the countryside and forget about the hustle and bustle of the big city, Silja noticed a guy checking them out and being very obvious about it. She pretended that she didn’t see him and for once her sunglasses came in useful. It didn’t take him long to come and sit on the same platform, leaving enough space in the middle that it wouldn’t look suspect, but close enough that he could talk to Silja and Akari. They kept on talking and he was quiet. Maybe Silja had misread him. Maybe he was just after the coign of vantage with its sea views.
Amid Silja’s analysis a seagull came and sat between her and the stranger. He grabbed his opportunity without hesitation.
“Oh boy, I never thought of Danish birds as being so intrusive.”
Their feathered friend departed but the conversation continued, briskly moving away from birds. He said a lot very quickly and asked as many questions. Silja soon learnt that he was from New York, he taught economics, and he was on a one-year sabbatical in Paris. Now that he had the chance, he wanted to visit as much of Europe as he could and that was just what he did most weekends – visited friends in various cities and proved to them that there were some Americans who did actually own a passport.
“But why do you sound so British?” Silja asked.
“Oh that. Just a small act of rebellion. Mostly because I wanted to piss my grandpa off. He was way too American, too chauvinistic. He needed a bit of reality check. If I thought I could do it convincingly, I’d pretend to come out as gay, just to annoy him more. But then he’d probably shoot me – or himself.”
In the middle of the friends’ laughing and the American’s non-stop talking, a couple sat just where the seagull had entertained them with its presence. He looked at the newcomers as if they were war criminals. Standing up, he walked away without saying a word, grabbed two chairs from one of the nearby tables and placed them very close to the girls’ legs; he sat right in front of Silja.
“It would be rude if I kept talking over their fat and flesh. By the way, I’m Eric.” And he shook Silja’s hand.
“Hello Eric. Silja… and this is my friend Akari.”
“Why did you bring two chairs?” said Akari as they shook hands.
“Oh, this is for my friend who I have tasked with sourcing caffeine. I’m staying with him in Frederiksberg.”
“You live on the wrong side, buddy,” said Akari with an exaggerated American accent. Her joke was intended more for Silja than for Eric; the old rivalry of neighbourhoods.
“I thought that was the best part of Copenhagen,” he said.
“It is technically not Copenhagen,” Silja said. “It is a different municipality. But it is much more pleasant than the rest of Copenhagen, new neighbour!”
“Brilliant, you live there too. Maybe you and I can do a deal. You show me the best bar in the area and I’ll buy you a drink.”
It was quick and it was forward. And it was certainly not what a Danish guy would do. Silja liked it.
“Deal,” she said. She could see Akari’s side look. She couldn’t see her eyes, but she knew that Akari had put on that cute round-eyes-in-motion face, pretending to be shocked, but at the same time admiring her.
Eric’s friend joined them with two cups of coffee. An offer of a lift back to the city was made and declined, since Eric and his friend had finished looking round Louisiana while Akari and Silja’s visit hadn’t even begun. But a plan was put in place for meeting later in the evening. Eric had already extracted Silja’s number and given her a business card.
Her apartment was small, but every item was selected tastefully, as if it were a designer furniture store. A round dining table stood by a dark grey felt sofa. Floor lamps were the only form of lighting, which made the room atmospheric but it was difficult to investigate the wall full of books.
“Do you really live here?” Eric asked. “This is too pretty, too clean: like a high-end showroom.”
“You’re in Scandinavia, remember?” She told him stories about each piece. One, about a side table that she had inherited from a great grandmother, Eric found particularly interesting. It had been made in 1910 in the suburbs of Copenhagen and worked like it was put together yesterday. Silja grabbed a bottle of Chardonnay from the fridge and sat by Eric on the sofa. He stroked her hair and let the smell of her tickle his nostrils. He couldn’t tell what it was, but her scent reminded him of a drizzly day in New York; a long walk, the reflections of lights on the wet pavement; a small girl being dragged by her mother, but being too focused on getting the right amount of candy floss in her mouth. He remembered jazz combined with the noise of the traffic.
“Her lover was killed in the war, the first World War. She found out that she was pregnant three days after an old officer had knocked on the door. He wore a handlebar of a moustache and delivered the bad news from the Front along with a shoe box that contained the young soldier’s belongings: a name tag, a picture of the girl he loved, a wallet, a can opener, and a few other bits and bobs. She’d cried her eyes out for a month and then decided to get on with it. She never married again and the son that was born, my grandfather, grew up in the suburbs without ever knowing his father.”
“How do you know all this?” Eric asked her.
“I found her diary in the bottom drawer,” she pointed at the chest and refilled his glass.
“Let’s pretend we are them.”
“Let’s pretend this is the last time they are together before the lover goes to war. Let’s pretend we have all the emotions that they felt that day: the uncertainty, the fear, the love. Let’s make love like this is our last chance.”
“You are mad,” Silja said, and then went silent. She touched his fingertips with hers and raised her hand, his hand floating with it as if they were magnetically attached. “But I will share in your madness tonight.” She put her wine glass down and straddled him. Her kiss, the warmth of her breath, and her scent again. Eric had never found anybody’s lips as delicate. He tried to imagine, to put himself in that lover’s place over a century ago. His imagination took over and he could even hear the shelling, the hum of bullets overhead. He had to tell his imagination he was not in the frontline just yet, that this was supposed to be the day before mobilisation. But it didn’t listen.
They didn’t bother shutting the blinds or turning the lights off. Silja ripped Eric’s clothes off with a passionate intensity that he had only rarely encountered before. He reciprocated, then lay on his back on the felt sofa and watched her beautiful body move over him like a wave, with Copenhagen still and silent beyond the window. The sound of the ocean overcame the battleground noises of death and departure. And he vanquished the dreadful feeling that this could be their last night together: that there might be no coming back.
Eric was naked by the window and watched the distant lights of the harbour. Life was running through his veins at high speed. Copenhagen was asleep. Silja lay on her stomach on the sofa. The great grandmother stood by him and stared at the darkness. Her lover gazed at her picture in the trench and the girl’s delicate smile, frozen in the frame of that black and white photograph, warmed his heart.