Katie’s were are wide and fearful. She was on the verge of tears. “Should we go? I think we should go.”
Your head felt like it was stuffed with sacks of water, your eyelids were heavy and thick. Too much alcohol. You groaned, rolled, tried to lift your head, but it was too much effort. Just sleep. Please.
A crash came from the bedroom, and wailing, and the sounds of strikes being delivered. High-pitched slapping noises, and struggling. “I hate you! I never want to see you again! It’s over!” Crash.
You rose from the couch like a puppet jerked by the strings. You joined Katie in the semi-lit corner, wavered, and began stuffing your things into your bag. What time was it? Five, six? Never could tell. In Norway, this time of year, the sun was deceiving.
At two o’clock that morning, you and your hosts were fully illuminated on the drunken stumble home. You’d been whining about a 20-year-old butch, Norwegian-born, half-Korean girl who’d locked eyes with you on her way to the facilities. You blushed uncomfortably, unsure how to respond. Not exactly your type, but then again… what’s a “type.” Anyone with teeth, you joke.
She joined your party of two straight couples—Norwegian girls with Mexican boyfriends—and a miniature lesbian couple of bleach-blonde pixies. Good times, and probably several hundred dollars of cheap alcohol disappearing down your throats.
What the hell. If this pint-sized leather-jacket-clad butch Andrea wanted to be the first lesbian ever to buy you a beer (which in Oslo costs about a million dollars), you wouldn’t resist. But then after an hour of polite conversation, much of it spent squirming in your seat awkwardly, you couldn’t shake her, even when your party changed locations. She followed you to the next bar, and that’s where you learned (at the door) that she wasn’t even 21 years old.
Oh dear god.
Half your age, plus seven. That’s the rule. And she wasn’t it. You did your best, tried what you could to intimate to her that it was time to go home. The other members of your party looked in your direction with humor and absolutely no pity. You joined them for a moment.
“She’s your responsibility, not ours,” Jorge said, arm serpentining around the waist of his lovely fiancee, Evelyn.
Katie refused to intercede. You looked beyond your tightly cluttered group, over a few heads, and watched as Andrea idled near the bar, hands stuffed anxiously into her pockets. You bit the bullet and approached her. Said a few words to her, gesturing to your group of age-appropriate consenting adults—with jobs—and at last, she bowed out.
“What did you say to her?” Jorge asked.
“I just needed the three of you to crowd around me for a few minutes, to let her see us together. Then I told her I was trying to arrange a foursome.”
This amused him. “You told her that?”
You shrugged. “No harm in trying.”
Fast forward to four o’clock in the morning, safely returned to the apartment. The four of you drank and yo-yo’d from the sitting room to the toilet, told stories, and played silly games on an iPad. The energy was light, flirty, and non-committal. Evelyn disappeared into the bedroom, and then the bathroom. You took little notice of her, but did realize later—as you were cleaning up—that she had become very quiet. Tired, perhaps.
You and Katie arranged your beds on the sofa, putting down sheets, trying to draw the curtains closed to block the savagely bright light from pouring into the room. You were so tired, it felt like an internal count-down sequence, in which security doors to you brain were locking shut, one-by-one, leaving no escape for any thought left behind.
Bam. Out. Not unconscious, as sleep is actually impossible for you when you drink; you can only lie still, in a semi-awake thin doze, in which peripheral noises are amplified, and almost-dreams are confused with reality. You could hear Evelyn and Jorge speaking in their bedroom. The sound of her voice was angry.
Then very angry. Katie slipped from her bed and crept across the room to listen. Too far away, you allowed the expressions on her face to tell you the meaning of the words couldn’t hear.
“I can’t hear very well,” she said. “I don’t think she’s talking about us… ‘Box.’ ‘Shoes.’ I think she found something.”
You closed your eyes again, wishing she would come back to the couch and sleep. It wasn’t her business.
But the fighting couldn’t go ignored. The minutes crept by in the disorienting pace of semi-awake. Katie came and went, unable to resist the temptation of eavesdropping. “I just hope it doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
Why would it?
The fight escalated. Evelyn was screaming. Jorge remained calm, from what you could tell. It was impossible to make out anything he said. But her words were clear, “You’re such a hypocrite! How can I trust you? I hate your guts! I never want to see you again. It’s over! I’m never going to marry you!”
Not twelve hours earlier, you, Katie, and Evelyn had taken a day-hike to Oslo’s famous ski-jump, and you’d talked at length about their relationship, as well as your own. She was so in love with him. Head over heels. Jorge, you must admit, was a rare fellow: well-traveled, talented, athletic, organized, thoughtful, and very hot. He had swept her away.
Their relationship was as young as your own. The choices they’d made as a couple, no less serious. And they were going to be married in just two months. Two weddings. One for each of their families. Talking about them, how in love they were, how cooperative they were, how excited they were for the possibilities of life… gave you the warm-and-fuzzies.
You and Katie, since departing from your first set of Couchsurfing hosts—a Norwegian guy, K-J, and his black-American wife, Tavonna—in order to check out Evelyn and Jorge, had fallen into a funk. More like a deep depression, for the weather was atrocious. Norway, even in the summer, never failed to disappoint with rain, clouds, cold, and unexpected darkness. You stared out the window, feeling dread.
Were you daft? Had you forgotten how oppressive rain could be? Were you really considering moving to one of the rainiest cities in the U.S.? It had been ten years since you’d lived there. You’d forgotten it all. And so you realized that going back to San Francisco might be the best call.
“If it isn’t broken, why fix it?” you said to Katie. Her face flushed with happiness and excitement, for fewer people love SF more than Katie. She had a habit of gushing about her old home to her hosts in an infectious manner. There was no reason you couldn’t go back.
You told Jorge and Evelyn that you’d just made some serious relationship decisions, right there in their little kitchen. They were neither surprised, nor intrigued. Decisions happen, on a daily basis.
But you must admit your shock to hear Evelyn screaming that their wedding was over. Bam. Just like that. Were it not so bogged down in alcohol, your heart would have split open at the sound of shattered dreams.
“Fuck. Our running shoes are still on their balcony,” Katie said. The balcony attached to their bedroom. “What should we do?”
Maybe they would calm down. Maybe in an hour, it might be safe to knock on their door and say something like, “Hey, guys. We think maybe we should go now and give you some privacy. Can you just grab our shoes for us over there?”
So you and Katie returned to the couch to wait—and nap—and hope.
It took all of fifteen minutes before Katie’s guts churned with fear. Crash! Slam! Screaming. Female on male violence, you believe. “We should go.”
“Okay,” you said, in total agreement. Shoes be damned. Evelyn and Jorge had much bigger problems than you did. You left the apartment at 7 o’clock, feeling sick from lack of sleep, confusion, and booze.
“Where the hell are we going to go?” Katie said. “You want to hitchhike out?”
“I’m going straight to K-J and Tavonna’s apartment. I know it’s early, but I’m hoping they will hear us ringing. We will just tell them the truth. I’m sure they will understand.”
“Hi, K-J, it’s Katie and Maria… we’re sorry to bother you so early, but we’re in sort of a… situation. Do you mind if we come up?
It was a miracle that K-J was even awake to buzz you into his complex. Relief washed through you as you floated across the gravelly courtyard, dreaming of their little horizontal couch. Sleep. Dear god, sleep. It was all you could think about.
K-J disappeared into the bathroom before you could explain yourselves. Tavonna eventually emerged from the bedroom. It was clear that they had been awake for some time.
Katie explained your situation. You went straight to the couch, curled up into a little ball, and wished for sleep.
“Oh… I guess K-J didn’t tell you… that we’re leaving,” Tavonna said, cautiously, robotically.
“When?” Katie asked.
“Like… right now. We have to go down south for a boat party. Yeah… so we have to go.”
You were already sitting up, dutifully, and groping for your things. “Oh, of course. That’s okay. We can go.”
You learned that they were driving in a car, and finagled yourselves into the back seat. “Anywhere near the edge of the city would be great. Just to get us a head start.” Really, it was all you needed. You and Katie tacitly agreed that once out of the city, you would find the first patch of trees and put up your tent for some much-needed sleep.
Tavonna and K-J were very sweet to assist you. They were a funny couple—each individual being the type that’s a little too intelligent for their own good. Tavonna, especially, was an enigma. She had attended not one, but two universities—practically at the same time—and was valedictorian at both of them, in the subjects of mathematics and physics.
“So you’re basically like… the smartest person I’ve ever met,” you’d joked.
Perhaps. She was direct and calculating. She’d enlisted in the Air Force, with the intention of “using her brain” for a living. But then she met K-J online. And things blossomed from there. She opted for a third marriage and moved to Norway, where she had a high-paying, esoteric, difficult-to-fill position at an energy company. Or something like that.
“I’m a self-proclaimed sociopath,” she’d said to you. “I don’t really care about things that other people care about. I don’t have a lot of feelings. Better that I wasn’t in the military, with a job that involves directly killing people. I’d probably like it too much.”
Ha… ha… you’d thought, weakly.
“I’m also the most black-on-black racist person you’ll ever meet,” she’d continued. “Like, for real. When I see black people, I cross the street. I am not one of them.”
This information made you awkward in a totally unanticipated way. You are white. You were not sure how you were supposed to react to information like that. Should you have maintained the politically correct social facade? Or joked along and hated with her? You’d decided to ask her a bunch of questions about what she thought the crux of “black issues” was.
“Psychology,” she’d said. “One giant head fuck. We’ve been taught to think so little of ourselves and we’ve been trained for generations to use the side door. Even after the end of slavery, we had to use the side door. Now that we don’t have to, we don’t know any better; we find or make a side door. We do only what we know how to do. Think about it. In slavery days, masters were breeding the strongest slaves with the slaves having the greatest endurance. Now look what we got: super negroes! And sports is all we know.”
Something like that. Yes, Tavonna was a character, and you couldn’t blame her big giant intellectual brain from blocking more “social” neural impulses. You didn’t mind in the least that she stood “about face” when she addressed you, eyes unblinking, tone robotic. Though you and Katie were a wreck, and emotional, and generally freaked out, Tavonna and K-J simply did what you asked—executed a plan—and helped you, but did not ask at all about your feelings, or intimate and kind of pity or empathy.
But they dropped you exactly where you needed to be, which was 40km out of their way, and wished you luck. You and Katie bee-lined it to the first patch of trees you could see and sought a flat space to put up your tent.
Then the mosquitoes came. By the dozens. Big, fat, menacing mosquitoes. Aggressive. Persistent. They flew in clouds. They chased you.
Jesus fuck, not your face!
Katie threw a fit, flapped her arms and legs wildly, and tried to cover her exposed skin.You stuffed your pants into your socks, pulled your woof buff up around your face, and moved hurriedly to unpack your tent.
“Forget the rain fly. Quick! Get in!” you said, ushering Katie through the tent door. You zipped it up behind her, danced around like a kid off the special bus, and then chucked your stuff in after her. More dancing. Then you dove.
Katie whined. Her cheeks and forehead were marked by large white itchy patches from those over-sized blood-suckers. Through the tent mesh, you could see them landing and collecting—waiting for you to come out again.
This is why you carry a tent.
You didn’t bother to investigate your own bites. You pulled out your sleeping bag and crashed to the sound of loud trucks and motorcycles zooming past a mere 10 meters from your tent. Sleep….
At a little past 1 o’clock, you awoke, burning from heat. The sun was high in the sky, slowly cooking you to death. Time to go. You and Katie frowned at ate the only quick food available to you—some stale slices of bread dipped in olive oil. Then you did you little dance with the mosquitoes, packed up, and got out.
Ten minutes later, you were climbing into a very messy, old Toyota van driven by a very large, older Norwegian guy with beautiful blue eyes, and hands perfectly capable of snapping your neck at will. But he was a gentle soul, on his way up to his mountain house for the weekend in a picturesque little town called Rjuka, home to a very famous hydro-electric plant that served as a keystone strategic piece for the Germans in WWII.
You driver, John, had pulled the van over many times on the drive up to show you local touristy and historical attractions. “Here! Take picture.”
He was a single guy. Perhaps lonely. But not weird about it. You suppose he didn’t have much else to do but entertain a couple tired American girls he found on the highway.
“You want to sleep in a bed tonight?”
Yes! your head screamed. You didn’t want to seem overly eager.
“We go to the shop. We get some food. I pay. We have dinner at my house. Something nice. And if you want to sleep, you can sleep. If no, you have tent.”
He was very cautious about making you feel uncomfortable, fully aware that he was a big scary guy with two younger girls. “You are not scared?” he asked.
You shrugged. “I used to be. When I first started traveling. I was always scared. Now, not really. It’s pretty easy to figure out who has bad intentions. But sometimes, it takes longer to see things. We’re not scared. Don’t worry.”
So you went with him. Stayed in his home, ate stew and ice cream, and passed out on his couch before moving to the attic. Katie hung a blanket over the window to block the midnight sun, and you slept 12 hours.
The next morning, you were given your pick out of an entire box full of brand-new Smartwool socks. And food. And coffee. And sugary spreads in three flavors. You were given a tour of the region, taken to the local museum, and basically taken care of.
John also called something to your attention, “There was almost a murder yesterday in Oslo. A boy and a girl were fighting all day. The man finally went to sleep. The woman stabbed him with a broken bottle.”
Of course, it sounded like a coincidence, but you made John find the news story again on his phone. “The man is about 30 years old. The girl, mid-twenties.” It sounded like Jorge and Evelyn. You looked at the picture on the phone, depicting only the back of a woman’s head as she was hauled away by the police. Looked a lot like Evelyn.
“Oh my god,” you said. “What if that’s them?”
Coincidence, you think. But you might never get your shoes back.