We’re in Café Opera in the center of Bergen, waiting for my new girlfriend Siri to show up so my old friend Marius can finally meet her before he leaves town again. It’s Sunday at two, the time of the week when people with children take over the cafés and there are squeals and screaming, along with loud music. I’m at a small table by the biggest window facing the street while Marius gets our drinks, and I’m excited, slightly buzzed from caffeine and my hangover from last night.
I’ve been talking eagerly to them both about each other, trying to engineer this meeting for weeks, an attempt to tie the different pieces of my life together. They are two people who care about me—it should be enjoyable for me. I look out the window to see if Siri is coming, and then glance directly at my phone to see if she’s texted.
Marius and I have known each other for almost ten years—since we were fifteen—but I haven’t seen much of him lately, something I would have probably grieved more if I’d spent less time with Siri these last months. Marius and I became friends after we’d both given up figure skating at sixteen and started listening to indie rock and watching a lot of movies instead. My absence from the ice rink was barely noted, but as the star of the whole club when he abruptly quit, Marius didn’t hear the end of it from his family for years. We used to know how the other felt without speaking when we came out of a movie. At least I would know how he felt. All these years I’ve often felt like he’s about to slip out of my grasp and go off with someone worldlier than me, but we’ve remained friends. I have a suspicion he liked the shy ponytailed girl I used to be in high school better than my current, happier self—or even the teary-eyed girl I was the last two years when I was constantly in trouble with my ex-girlfriend.
Starting work for a medical company a few months ago, Marius is now navigating adult territory I reserve the right to avoid for a few more years. He travels around the area presumably using his charms to hand out logo pens and give speeches on drugs. His mode of transportation is a very round company car that I can’t help thinking of as a little undignified. He dropped out of medical school two years ago and went to business school for a brief time. Then, while I wasn’t looking, he suddenly became a workingman.
Marius is arrogant and opinionated and never shy about letting people know how he feels about them. But at his best he’s glorious: charming, funnier than anyone else, sharp, able to mercilessly get to the core of things in a few words in a way no one else can. He makes people laugh and want to impress him. Even though I’m no longer fifteen, he has that same effect on me. He is the one I want to show all my successes to, which is part of the reason for this meeting. I sometimes suspect he lacks a little sliver of worry that gives him any stake in attuning himself to other people. I have way too much of that quality and between us it kind of works. If his looks or charms run out, he might have a problem.
He comes back with our drinks and I notice he looks tired as he’s trying to avoid rattling the cups and saucers on the table. He goes back to the counter for a spoon and sugar, and then sits back down.
“I can’t wait for you to meet Siri. I think you’ll like her,” I say. “She’s very no nonsense, like you.”
“Yeah? Think she’s my kind of girl?” His smile is almost a smirk. Lucky for him, he has his looks from his Ghanaian mother. His skin always stands out in Bergen, and even though he’s not very tall by Norwegian standards he can pull off outfits that the palefaces around here couldn’t dream of. He has a strong face with broad eyebrows and dark eyes and he has always been popular.
“Is she yours? Your kind of girl?”
“Possibly. Seems that way.” I say, smiling like an idiot.
Things are still in the first flush with Siri. I haven’t had time to think much about anyone else. I feel I’m owed this because I’ve just come gasping and exhausted out of a bad year and a half in which I got dumped, on top of my parents divorcing and taking turns going crazy. I’ve lost all patience for sad, droopy people to a point where they make my skin itch. I want to eat up all the sweetness I can find while it’s in front of me.
Things have been picking up, particularly since I started yoga last fall. I’ve been slowly reclaiming my body. I hadn’t done anything with it in years and it didn’t even feel like it belonged to me. Taking it through an Ashtanga yoga program was like trying to wrestle clothes onto a stiff mannequin in a tiny window space with people looking on. My summer job is mindless and I’m taking advantage of my free time to practice yoga four times a week. I’m proud of my perfectly toned stomach and have been constantly talking to people about how yoga has solved all my problems. I don’t even care how it sounds.
I met Siri online in the spring. Miraculously, there she was: a remaining attractive lesbian roughly within my age group that none of my friends had slept with. We met in person after only a week of heavy-handedly flirtatious messages. The whole thing was so easy: I liked her the second I met her. She was beautiful; half a head taller than me, with short, white blond hair that was smooth on her forehead. Her terseness had me talking nonstop. Her sleepy eyes seemed amused and possibly a little sarcastic. We got drunk on red wine in a bar that was all shiny surfaces and quiet conversations, where she stood out like a sore thumb with her leather jacket and the chains on her jeans that clanked against the barstool whenever she shifted. People looking at us when I made her laugh didn’t bother me at all.
I went to the bathroom and looked at my tipsy face in the mirror; my sheepish grin that showed my bluish teeth and the smoky eyes I had spent a long time perfecting at home with a tiny amount of glittering white eye shadow in each corner. I could hardly believe that these things made up my life at that moment—dates with sexy women on warm evenings. That it was all right there in public, our motivations so easy to spot. It fascinated me that other people had bodies under their clothes all the time.
I went back to her room that night. She only had a stereo and a mattress on the floor and the walls were bare except for a few snapshots of a golden retriever and a fat baby I later learned was her nephew. I was leaning close to the one of the dog, drunkenly and nervously trying to think of something to say when she grabbed me, put her muscular arms around me and backed me up against the wall. Then she kissed me.
“Laura, what are you going to do?” Marius is saying.
I pull away from my thoughts and find that I’m smiling. “What do you mean?”
“This fall, are you going back to the university or what?”
“I haven’t decided yet. They might need more people at the store after the summer.”
“You’re not going to get your degree? Haven’t you been gallivanting around for years already?” he asks.
“I will,” I say. “I just feel like having a little more time to myself and doing what I want. Do some writing. I can actually live off what I’m making now. I feel like I don’t have to rush into things. I can always go back there.”
I don’t want to talk about this with him. He’s acting like he’s my father—what my father used to be pre-divorce. I’m really not in the mood for it—he’s taking out his crankiness on me. Objectively, perhaps my life isn’t so impressive, but I feel great.
Siri and I have spent most of the summer in bed or partying. It’s about secret power, about shared glances and sniggers with her and my friends, the exchange of scandalous stories of what we get up to when we’re wasted. We go out dancing to the three gay bars in town, the power of Siri’s and my alliance joining different cliques of queers briefly together to form a larger, more friendly entourage than I’ve ever had.
I’ve been neglecting my parents and forgetting to return phone calls. Everything difficult, complicated and painful can wait. It feels as if I’ve been drunk the whole time. Even being hungover is pleasurable; we lie around on her bed and watch episode after illegally downloaded episode of The L-word on her computer. Siri finds it hilarious and is delighted with how dirty it is, but I’m at times moved to tears, which I hide, of course.
It’s new, this feeling that lesbian is finally something I can do confidently—and well. The word used to make me cringe; I could barely say it. Now I say it as often as I want and enjoy its effect on people, even though it doesn’t cover me perfectly. It feels unlikely that I’ll go back to dating boys, but I don’t want to rule anything out—three years ago I had a boyfriend, and would never have expected that I’d find myself here. Although I suppose women have always been more visible to me than to most girls, it didn’t really dawn on me that I could do something about that until I was twenty-one, when I suddenly fell for an English girl—an old friend of my boyfriend at the time. I’ll give anyone who asks the speech about kindly not using restrictive and artificial labels on me. But for once in my life I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks of me. I could never explain the freedom when I suddenly just stopped trying to be appealing to men and tried on some of the things I used to be ashamed of; tasted the sexiness of things that are seen as masculine, weird, stupid-looking and ugly, like JD Samson’s mustache or Peaches’ rude lyrics and hairiness. It’s not really about choosing between men or women. Abandoning dignified girliness, not just to sleep with females but also to dance without shame and smile without trying to look different than you do, without hiding anything. Allow something to unfurl slowly and grow from inside instead of trying to snip, shape and curb myself from the outside.
It seems so easy, so obvious. Stop trying to be normal. It was like a landslide slowly coming loose, and once one thing went, the rest started to slide, whole flakes of the landscape came undone and crashed down with a loud, glorious roar until now I’m riding my bike everywhere without makeup on, singing along with my headphones and feeling strong and happy, like hot stuff. I find the fact that I can make someone like Siri squirm delicious. Wherever I go lately, I see women and think boldly that I could make them come like a ton of bricks if only they would let me practice my skills on them.
Siri has freckled shoulders and tender skin that burns easily when we go swimming. I can’t let my guard down with her. She swims up to me under the surface and drags me under. She pushes me into the water and then dives in to rescue me, laughing the whole time. When she is turned on, red spots appear on her neck, and her cheeks flush a deep red, her narrow eyes take on a heavy look. Our bodies, so close in size, fit together amazingly well. I pursue sex the same way I do yoga; breath, focus and pushing the boundaries a little. She has strong, clever fingers, and I can’t stop feeling flattered that she’s interested enough to do all those things to me. Even sitting across from Marius, I’m having vivid flashbacks of the things we did the last time I saw her. I have bruises blooming in several places. My body feels like it has finally been put to appropriate use.
“So, things are going well with you guys?” Marius says.
“Yeah.” I actually blush a little.
“Ingeborg knows Siri’s ex from school.”
“Really?” I say.
“Apparently they were pretty serious.”
My ears are ringing slightly and the café is noisy. Marius and I were at the same party last night, but didn’t talk much there since we were meeting today. I indulged in the triumph of telling the friends I hadn’t seen since before summer about Siri. It was such a relief to have some good news to tell and to get drunk and laugh at my friends trying to out-crude each other.
It’s drizzling outside now; the café feels moist and there is too little space between the tables. The ends of my pant legs are beginning to soak through my sneakers. Suddenly a wave of fatigue and embarrassment about last night catches up with me. Did I really brag to someone about how frequently and spectacularly I’m getting laid? Did Marius hear me? The embarrassment transforms directly into annoyance that Siri hasn’t shown up yet. Marius’s espresso is already drained. He is tearing up the sugar paper wrapping into little pieces. The milky coffee smell in the café is a little sickening.
Then I see her coming around the corner, more slowly than I would have liked. Still the sight of her jolts me pleasantly. Her sleepy eyes looking nowhere in particular, she is wearing the current uniform of stylish, young lesbians in our town: jeans worn low, fancy sneakers, a hoodie under a leather jacket. She looks almost exactly the way I would have wanted her to. She is one of those cool girls I wouldn’t have expected to ever have a chance with.
I keep swinging between tired awkwardness at having forced this meeting of two reluctant strangers—but there’s some excitement, too. A part of me wants to ditch Marius and just go home and fuck her. I could finally rest my buzzing head in her soft, blue sheets scented with us. She comes through the door, nods to me and makes her way over. She smiles at me, but her face doesn’t reveal much. That’s just her. She kisses me and I feel her tongue just enough to know that she wants me to feel it. She goes to get coffee after shaking Marius’s hand. I look at him eagerly, trying not to smile too much, but I can’t help being pleased that this good-looking creature is here with me. I want Marius to say she’s cute or something, but he doesn’t. But I guess cute isn’t what she is, not to most people. In some ways you could say she looks odd. She has that thing androgynous people often have, sometimes they are shockingly gorgeous, and sometimes they look plain weird.
I glance over at her by the bar, her back and her ass in her baggy pants. She is holding her hips stiffly, shifting her weight onto one foot, that boyish thing I’ve never been able to pull off. She has a touch of coquette about her, even if she’s acting all butch. I haven’t known her long enough to know when it’s posturing and when it’s real God given confidence. Marius looks at me, a skeptical gaze with a smile, of disbelief? I realize he doesn’t find her attractive in the least.
I know how Siri sees him. He is looking kind of thin. He is wearing all black, suit pants that look expensive. When we met he used to spend two hours at the ice rink four nights a week. Nowadays he has that slumped, pasty look of someone who only feels his body’s existence when hungover. Probably not what Siri, who works out every other day and openly judges by surface will be impressed by. She doesn’t find men that interesting unless they’re her dad or her colleagues.
She comes back balancing her coffee cup and sits down. There is no conversation for a minute when we are smiling and shuffling so she can sit on the chair I have saved for her. She puts her hand on my thigh under the small table, all of our knees touching briefly. Again, this feeling of embarrassed happiness, but I’m hyperaware of Marius awkwardly looking out the window as she touches me.
“So, remind me how you know each other,” she says.
“Oh, it’s been a long time… we met in high school,” I say with a smile at Marius. It would piss him off if I mentioned figure skating.
“What about you two?” he asks. She looks at me half-smiling, and I explain how we met online, with the little show of embarrassment I feel obliged to add. And a little seed of annoyance—he knows that story, why make me tell it again?
I still don’t know if Siri is joking sometimes, and it makes me all nerves. All her friends are beautiful, tough girls like her. A stylist could have assembled them. One has short dreadlocks; another has a tattoo of an anchor on her bicep. Gorgeous full lips, graceful necks, white teeth, strong laughs. The thought that I could have gone with any of them instead of Siri if we’d met under other conditions has flashed through my mind on multiple occasions. There was a basketball game during which I displayed such lousy skills that they stopped laughing at me and started trying to encourage me. “Almost had it that time!” Like I was a child or mentally disabled. It was excruciating.
I get up to get more tea and another espresso for Marius, because she didn’t ask if we wanted anything before buying her own coffee.
“So. You’re a medical rep?” she says as I go. I’ve told her about him, somewhat dramatizing his career change. I cringe. The girl behind the counter has a long, smooth ponytail and looks familiar. She smiles at me enough to make me linger a second. When I get back to the table I can tell they already dislike each other. They both look up at me with a mix of relief that I’m back and blame for putting them in this situation, masked by polite half-smiles. Marius asks her about what she does. She briefly explains her job at the record company, and he asks some questions until they’ve exhausted the subject. Siri stirs and stirs her coffee. The metal on porcelain makes a scraping sound. It’s the only sound.
After only twenty minutes, I’ve pulled out everything I have to keep the conversation going and am desperate for it all not to be ruined just yet. I’m smiling too much and I’ve chattered about how much I appreciate that this café uses little tea pots and doesn’t serve tea in glasses like a lot of places, I’ve covered the weather and I’m still trying to fill the silence. My neck and shoulders are stiff with the effort I’m making. Siri and Marius are both shuffling their feet and looking at the table.
I remember a film by a director Marius likes that Siri and I saw a couple weeks ago, and start up on that figuring I can cover a few minutes. The film was a gay teenage love story. I go on and on about how I don’t agree with the rave reviews the film has gotten in the press, and it is turning into an endless monologue. Marius looks uncomfortable. I have a secret, itchy suspicion Marius is okay with me being queer, but only if I remain completely the same as before in every single way except behind closed bedroom doors. It is as if I’ve all of a sudden completely run out of any willingness to even acknowledge that there are people in the world who think like that.
I keep looking back and forth between these two people while I’m talking about how offensive it is that this crappy film is being passed off as gold. Marius’s face is polite; Siri’s closed, as always. I suddenly remember I talked about this to her after we left the movie theatre; the predictable, clichéd plot, how it could be seen as anti-gay. Why do they always have to beat each other up first? Is it natural for the boy to still be in love with that guy after he has beaten the shit out of him? Everything is forgiven, just like that, and we’re supposed to fawn over it? And Siri was totally uninterested. She isn’t big on any kind of politics. In general, she seems to just want people to get their shit together and not complain. I imagine her considering how much this thing with me is worth to her. It’s always hard to tell how much resonance I will find in her, for even the smallest thing. They are both looking at me a little puzzled.
I stop talking, breathless at the end of a sentence. “It was just, the way it was done,” I add, blushing, “was just so stupid.”
“Well, a lot of people love that film. It doesn’t all have to be about politics,” Marius says. Surprisingly tame for him, but he sounds a little annoyed.
“I kind of liked it,” Siri says.
“I thought it was sweet,” Siri goes on. “Overthinking it much?”
Marius laughs a short little bark before stopping. I suddenly feel sick of both of them. I’m exhausted and want to go home to my own place and do some neglected laundry.
“Well. Fine!” is all I can come up with. I sound pissed off.
I just let the silence linger for a while under their eyes.
“I have to get going,” I say.
I don’t look at them, but feel them look at me so make sure to keep my face looking fairly cheerful. They don’t object, and Siri pulls her leather jacket from the chair and they follow me outside.
“I’ll call you,” I say to the space between the two of them before getting on my bike. The drizzle feels good on my hot skin as I ride home. I’m humiliated and angry, but as I ride standing through the rain I find I’m also profoundly relieved to be on my own.
In the evening, when the rain is pounding the skylight above my mat in the yoga studio, which is quiet but alive with the Ujjayi breathing of twenty people, we are doing a sitting stretch that has me bending forward over my legs. I am using the breathing to ease deeper and deeper into the stretch and feeling it give a little. The stretch, the release in one place, the top of the back of my thighs, is made possible by the tautness in another, the front of my thighs. My belly button drawn in towards my spine, fortifying the trunk of my body, enables me to exert this level of control and release. I suddenly feel intensely that this is my body. My own personal body, in fact me. Even after I’ve neglected it for such a long time it is still there for me. A kind of sob is coming from somewhere inside. It’s a sudden surge of presence, like letting out a breath after not being aware you’ve been holding it for a long time, and the very act of doing it is creating more room for me to live in. I continue to push the stretch gently, not too much, because pain would ruin it immediately. Not too little, or nothing would happen. As long as I’m inside the breath and the gentle movement a little space is cleared, the landscape flattening so I can see the horizon for a minute.
Karen Havelin is a writer and translator from Bergen, Norway. She has a Bachelor’s degree in French, literature, and gender studies from the University of Bergen and University of Paris Sorbonne, and she completed her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in May 2013. Her translations, nonfiction and fiction have been published on Narrativenortheast.com, Wordswithoutborders.org, and Lunchticket.org. She currently lives in Oslo, Norway, where she is working on a novel.