Originally posted on The Billfold
He has an unsqueezing handshake, that’s the first thing I notice about him. He just puts his hand out, and I shake it like a juice.
“Erik,” he says, standing at the door in a bathrobe, a tanktop and untied combat boots. He’s thin, a series of parallel lines and divots up to a starburst of blond hair.
“Michael,” I say. He lets me into the foyer. I look around and realize his appearance isn’t an affectation, but genuine neglect.
The living room bows under the weight of all his belongings. A half-dozen shelves piled with sci-fi books, stacked in trilogies. Two printers, one in each corner, both shaded by a drift of wires. A balled up blanket under the window, hard angles hinting at something wrapped up and forgotten. Not to mention the souvenirs from Central Asia and the Middle East, making outlines in the dust.
We talk logistics. Sublet, one year. Fully furnished, go ahead and use the neighbors’ Internet connection. Please don’t sit in the rocking chair, it was his grandmother’s.
Everything in the kitchen is old, but the pans are scrubbed and the knives have been sharpened to a suicidal sheen. An espresso machine takes up roughly half the counter space. There are no glasses, only coffee cups.
I tell him this will be my longest period in one apartment. I’m in Copenhagen on a short-term contract that keeps getting extended, and I’ve been living in sublets for two years now. The place I’m living in now has no shower, just a literal water closet, so every morning I walk down the stairs and across the courtyard to a bank of showers in the basement. It costs one kroner for each minute of hot water. Most mornings I gamble, shoving three kroner in the machine and soaping like someone trying to shake a bee out of their clothes. Sometimes on Sundays I spend five.
“OK,” he says.
He seems to have already decided I’m a suitable subletter based on his conversation with Thomas, our mutual friend, and he speaks in whens, not ifs. He walks me through the apartment like a tour guide giving the last circuit of the day. The shelves rattle metallically as we walk.
He shows me a gas mask he got in Bosnia, a sweater from Chinese army surplus, flavored vodka from Ukraine. After a few minutes, he’s not lifting them up, just pointing to piles: “That’s where I keep my barbells.’
We’re back in the foyer. “So!” he says.
It’s too big, too far and too full of the bread crumbs of someone else’s exploration. But the rent is reasonable and I don’t have any other options.
“I’ll take it.”
I visit the apartment again to sign the paperwork. I marvel for the second time how a neighborhood with so many apartment buildings can have so few shops or cafes. I bike past a nursing home, then an institution for mentally retarded adults. Most of the cars on the street are minibuses.
It’s the day before he leaves, and some of the detritus has disappeared. The espresso machine is gone, and for a second I suspect he’s taking it with him. The small talk is more like nano-talk. All of my questions come back as logistics.
“So where are you being posted?”
“Afghanistan. So you must forward the mail to my sister in Give. She’ll send it to me.”
“How long have you been in the Army?”
“Since I was 18. I have equipment here, so I may come by every once in while to pick things up.”
When I ask what he’s doing in Afghanistan, he says “the same old thing,” like we’ve known each other for years.
I tell him I’m looking forward to living on my own. Since I moved to Copenhagen I’ve lived with a Norwegian woman who told me I could have friends over as long as they weren’t foreigners, then an old woman whose dog shit on my bed and whose boyfriend told me I should bulk up by eating a bowl of raw hamburger and egg yolks every morning.
He’s looking around the apartment as I speak. He picks up a vintage coffee grinder up from the floor.
“Have you seen this?” he says. “You must grind manually. The electric grinders, they make dust. You should squeeze the beans, not eradicate them.”
He stops by the apartment. He e-mailed to tell me that he would do this, but never specified a time. I hear a key in the lock at 7 pm on a Wednesday, and get up from the rocking chair and put it back in the corner. Now I’m standing in the middle of the living room with a book in my hand, like I’m rehearsing a monologue.
He’s training in Aarhus before he ships out in two weeks. There he is in the foyer, taking off his boots and squeezing his hair to get the rainwater out. He’s angry about an incident on the train on the way here. Children talking too loud or something. He only says the word “undisciplined’ once, but that’s the only thing I remember of this conversation later.
He’s picking up his uniform. I’m in the kitchen cleaning up the evidence of my first three days here. He takes a cell phone call, switches to Danish, and tells the story of the train again. He waves as he backs out the door, still talking.
I come home from work the next day and he’s sitting in the rocking chair with a takeaway coffee cup.
“Are you picking something up?” I ask.
“It’s impossible to get good coffee in Denmark,” he says, swirling the cup. “All these amazing machines, and it is a 16-year-old who is using them.”
“I know, I’m sorry I came by unannounced,” he says. “I’m leaving in a week, and I just wanted to relax one night before I go.”
“It’s OK,” I say, putting my gloves back on.
As I leave, I ask him whether he’ll be able to find good coffee in Afghanistan. But he’s got his laptop out, and all I get is a grunt.
He’s there when I get home at three in the morning, sentried by two pizza boxes and an ice cream tub. Where’s he getting this food? I’ve been shopping near work and taking groceries home on my bike.
He e-mailed to ask if he could crash at the apartment tonight, since he’s flying out of Copenhagen early tomorrow morning. The apartment is too big for me anyway, and I told him he could stay in the spare room. I can see a duffel bag in there, huge and unzipped like an autopsy. The only thing I see poking out are trinkets he’s taken from the shelves. I wonder if he’s taking any clothes.
It’s November outside, but inside the heat is turned up to an August swelter. This is the first time I’ve seen him in a tank top, and the delta of veins on his arms make him look like an engineering schematic. For all the weightlifting equipment in the apartment, I’m surprised at how wiry he is. The rocking chair could fit another two of him.
He’s watching a movie on his laptop. I can see he’s irritated that he has to pause it while I perform my “how are things?” due diligence.
“Great. Lots of training,” he says with his finger poised to click play. His face asks permission.
“Well, I’m beat. Hope you have a good tour,” I say as the sound comes back on.
I thought Danish people, as a rule, spent a few days with their families for Christmas. Yet there’s a text from him at 11 in the morning on Boxing Day: “I’ll be over in 15 minutes.”
He doesn’t have any visible purpose this time. He comes in, baggageless and still jacketed, and goes straight for the rocking chair. He doesn’t sigh out loud, but his body sort of does. He’s lost weight, if that’s even possible, and I wonder if he’s one of those Danish people who won’t eat anything abroad if he can’t find the food he’s used to. Once he settles, he bobs his head and looks around.
“You haven’t done anything with the place,” he says, looking at the bare walls. “You’re not that kind of guy, huh?”
This is the closest thing he’s ever expressed to an interest in my tastes or personality.
“Yeah, me neither,” he goes on. “I like to keep it simple.”
Recalling the two months I have spent systematically banishing his possessions into drawers, under tables and on top of cupboards, I audibly snort.
“How’s your Danish coming along?” he asks.
I tell him I’m taking classes, but it’s difficult to stay motivated with a full-time job.
“Well,” he says, shrugging with his eyebrows. “Either you want to learn it or you don’t.”
I’ve been hoping that he won’t make a habit of staging these little drop-ins, and he doesn’t. The e-mails, however, are as regular as the rain all winter. Was there a letter from an old colleague that I forgot to forward? Is the heater working alright? Have the window cleaners called to schedule?
The medical problems make their first appearance in an e-mail in February.
“My stomach is acting up again,” he says. “There’s not much food here that agrees with me, so I’ve lost some weight.”
I remember how he kept his coat on the whole time he was here last time, and try to imagine him even skinnier. I stretch his cheekbones out, push his eyes in, thin the hair exclaiming from his head.
Other than the hair, my mental sketch turns out to be pretty accurate.
He’s back in Denmark now, he tells me from the doorway. He has lost a considerable amount of weight, or a considerable-looking amount anyway. His neck sticks out of his coat collar like a tree growing in a crater, his head gingerly balanced on top. Maybe I recoil when I see him; he apologizes for how he looks.
He’s on his way to Give to stay with his family, and he’s picking up some photographs on the way. His Afghanistan posting has been cancelled.
“Stomach problems,” he says, as if that makes his malady any more specific. He’s angry at the Army bureaucracy, and he answers my questions about his departure from his post with “this bullshit’ or “bunch of idiots,” nothing that yields any real information.
My lease has five months left. I’ve lost three kilos from the long bike commute each morning. I’ve found a grocery store, and a kebab place that serves Turkish coffee and opens early on Saturdays. I haven’t added any of my character to the walls, but I’ve removed some of his.
“I’m not trying to move back in, don’t worry,” he says. “As soon as this is over, I’ll be back in Afghanistan. We might even renew the sublet for another year.”
The next time I come home to find him in the apartment, he’s lost even more weight. His eyes have pulled back, peering out from two cavities that reach from his forehead to his jaw. The apartment is so warm that for a second I think he lit a fire somehow.
He’s telling me something about the apartment, something I’ve forgotten to do, but I’m following the vein in his neck past his clavicle, across his shoulder and down his arm. I don’t know if he’s still talking when I say, “Are you … OK?”
He’s losing weight, he says, and no one can figure out why.
“I eat and I shit,” he says. “I never gave it any more thought than that.”
I imagine all the conversations he must have had with doctors in the month since I’ve seen him last.
“They think I’m anorexic,” he says later that night. “What am I, jogging after dinner every night?” He knows his body renders this a rhetorical question.
He’s sleeping here, apparently. He has an appointment at a clinic in Copenhagen tomorrow morning. He tells me this like I already know. I’ve invited friends over for dinner, but I tell them we’ll meet at a restaurant instead. I sleep at my boyfriend’s, and when I come home the next day, the only sign of him is the clanking radiator.
“It used to be the girls telling me ‘I can’t figure you out,’” he says. “Now it’s the doctors.”
He’s smiling from the middle of a pillow his gaunt face makes huge. Framed like this, grey skin against the black pillow, he looks like a panel from a comic strip.
I’m at the hospital to drop off his mail. He called yesterday to whisper a request. Was there a letter from the health service? Could I bring it to him? It was important. I could use his bike if I needed to.
I don’t know what to say to him. I was afraid he would look like a stick figure under his covers, but with his legs together and his hands interlocked, he’s more like a mummy. I try not to gawk, but my breathing catches when I see him try to turn over. Shaking his hand is out of the question, so I sort of caress him under the covers in greeting.
“They feed me with a tube, but I’m still losing weight. I show them I’m not anorexic, no?” he says with a thin smile. “They won’t let me drink coffee. No calories.”
I put the letter on the bedside table, under one of the empty milkshakes. His parents are coming soon, and he has to rest before they arrive.
“Thanks,” he says.
“I work nearby,” I lie. “It’s no problem to drop off your letters.”
“It’s good to have friends visit.’
Is that, I think as I reciprocate out loud, what we are?
Erik stands at the door, a tortoise in a ski jacket and wool cap, neck all strings in between.
“I gained three kilos last week,” he pants. “Hard to haul all that up the stairs, huh?” I say.
My duffel bags wait, packed, in the foyer. A taxi is waiting for me downstairs. For some reason I’ve put the keys in an envelope and written his name on it.
He leans in and looks through the door. I spent four hours last night cleaning, and the apartment gleams with effort. Behind me the books are 90 degrees in three different dimensions. The souvenirs stand at attention. I even sharpened the knives.
The e-mails continue after I move out. At first it’s all admin: the deposit, the forgotten socks, the oven needs to be cleaned. Then it’s information: He’s gaining weight, he’s got a new job, he’s thinking of expanding the bathroom.
“Why is it that all atheists claim they are humanists?” he writes in an e-mail to which an electricity bill is attached. “It just means they will be among those praying the loudest when the boat is going under.”
To the requests, I answer in bullet-pointed lists of yesses: I made the transfers, I took care of the bills, I’m sorry about the oven. As the admin diminishes, it takes me longer and longer to reply.
“Please come and have a cup of tea,” he writes in the last e-mail I ever receive from him, nearly a year after I’ve moved out. “I don’t get out too often, so knock on the door if you are nearby. If you are hungry, there is food—no gluten, but food anyway.”
I write that I will, and never do.
Here, in the foyer, none of this has happened yet. I lift my duffel bags and Erik and I trade places, him inside, me outside.
He offers to help me down to the taxi. I remember how his leg, sharp under three blankets, didn’t move when I touched it. I tell him over my shoulder it’s no problem, I’ve got it.
“See you around!” I call as I start down the stairs. Through the open door I can hear him take the coffee down from the shelf, and put the water on to boil.