Disclaimer: Please take all stereotypes mentioned in this story with a grain of salt. Characters are not meant to be representative of their nations.
©2014 dear-llama. All Rights Reserved.
There is something about the inside of airports that make them seem identical in every country. Getting off the plane, walking down the long, narrow corridor oftentimes grey and devoid of any personality – the first five minutes following the landing is always shrouded in a haze of surrealism, as if you can't quite believe you are in a different place from whence you came, simply because the environment doesn't look all that much different.
To the keen observing eye, however, there will always be some tiny differences, patiently waiting to be spotted.
"Look, Papa!" I heard one of my fellow passengers, a very young girl holding onto the hand of an older man, exclaim, "Papa, the words on the posters… They are strange."
I grinned to myself. I was fluent in English, but I could understand how she felt – the fact that all the posters on the wall were suddenly in another language than the one I was used to made everything seem quite exotic.
"Yes, sweetheart," her father explained to her in a patient voice, "They're in English. We're in Scotland now. They speak English here."
"Schottland," the girl repeated in a sing-song voice, testing out the name on her tongue.
Her father laughed. "Do you know what it's called in English?"
The girl made a humming noise, popping her thumb into her mouth as she thought hard. Then she stuck out her bottom lip. "I don't know." She glanced balefully up at her father, as if it was his fault for asking a too-difficult question.
"Scotland," her father told her, in English this time.
"Skoht-lahnd," the girl repeated, stretching her mouth wide to pronounce the word.
As I walked past them, pulling my suitcase along behind me, I wondered what their story was.
If it was one thing I had learnt through my experiences, it was that everyone had a story. Some were just more obvious than others.
At customs, I joined the queue for the European Union passport holders. Some people in the next line glanced curiously at me, but lost interest after seeing the burgundy-red cover of the passport in my hand.
When it was my turn, the customs officer peered at me. "You're from Germany?" he asked, obviously trying to make conversation. He already knew where I was from. It was both emblazoned on the cover and on the inside of the little book that identified me to the rest of the world.
"Yeah," I said, smiling wryly at him.
He looked at my entry card. "You study here?"
"I'm doing an exchange programme," I told him, "for six months."
"An exchange programme? What do you study back home?" He seemed to be genuinely interested, even as he busied with stamping the necessary documents.
"Lovely," he said, sliding my passport back towards me. He smiled, "Enjoy your stay here in Edinburgh."
I grinned back. I loved the way the locals pronounced the name, 'Edinburgh'. That low burr in the last syllable was so distinctively Scottish. "Thank you. I'm sure I will."
As I walked towards the baggage claim area, I couldn't help but feel my heart rate start to speed up. This was it. This was the start to a new chapter of my life.
There is something about the inside of every airport that makes everywhere look the same. But it's not.
It's not the same.
And even if you miss the details, miss the posters on the wall, the street signs by the roads, the scenery outside the window on the bus trip from the airport straight into the city... it all becomes terrifyingly real the moment the bus rolls to a stop and the doors whoosh open – and you step through them into a whole new world.
For me, this new world consisted of rows and rows of Victorian-styled townhouses.
The sky was still blue, but it was a different shade of blue.
My legs felt a little shaky as I walked down the street. I pulled my luggage along behind me, feeling both suitcases bounce on the uneven pavement, hearing the noisy sounds of plastic wheels scraping against concrete.
And that was the moment it all sank in.
This was real. I was here.
I was in Edinburgh.
Before my arrival, I had expected the first few days of my life in Edinburgh to be filled with sightseeing and new adventures. Instead, I found myself friendless and slightly lost in a foreign land. It didn't help that I had to spend most of my time unpacking and visiting banks, telecom companies and grocery stores.
The problem wasn't with Edinburgh. It was a perfectly lovely place – quaint and almost town-like, after you're used to a city like Hamburg. The problem, as always, was purely me.
I didn't make friends easily. My constant self-conscious sense of disbelonging, added to my personal reticence, didn't mix well in a society that privileged those who could speak well. People laughed at the adage 'still waters run deep'. It was, an old classmate of mine had said, an excuse for people who were too stupid to think of something – anything – to say.
But it wasn't that simple, I thought. Just because someone was quiet didn't mean they didn't have a thought in their brain. Still, not being on one end of the extreme didn't automatically mean they belonged on the other. More often than not, people were just average. Being quiet didn't mean one was an airhead, but neither did it mean they had to be pondering philosophy.
At this particular moment, for example, I definitely wasn't thinking about anything sophisticated. I was wondering how much beer I would need to imbibe before I became comfortable enough to start mingling.
When I had seen the crude, handwritten flyer for a party shoved under my door one night, I had leapt at the chance. The party would be held in the pantry of the third-floor, which meant most of those going would be likely be living in the same block. It was the perfect way to get to know some people. All I had to do was walk in, introduce myself to some friendly-looking strangers, and I would be in.
Except, standing alone against the wall, feeling invisible to the rest of the crowd, I was starting to think that my plan had been a little too optimistic.
All around me, I saw people busy chatting, drinking, laughing. Everyone seemed to already know everyone else. There looked to be people of all nationalities here, but, amongst all of them, I still felt like the odd one out.
After this beer, I promised myself. Then I scowled, because I knew I was just putting it off.
I took another sip from my bottle and had to cough when a voice startled me out of my reverie.
"Hi. Do you speak English?"
"Yeah," I said, looking up at the two tall boys towering over me. I hadn't even seen them approach – so absorbed I was in my own thoughts. There was something about their features that struck me as particularly Scandinavian. One had blond hair; the other had brown. But both had baby blue eyes that made them look like brothers.
"You look bored," the one standing closer to me – the blond one – commented without preamble. I found my gaze drifting to his long fingers, where he was twisting the beer bottle in his hand absent-mindedly.
"Um," I said, a little caught off guard, "not really. I just... don't know anyone here yet."
"Ah," he nodded like he knew what I was talking about. "It's hard to walk up to someone and start a conversation, huh?"
I couldn't stop a chuckle from escaping. "You don't seem to have a problem with it."
He grinned back. "I'm Kjell," he said then, reaching out to shake my hand. He pronounced his name like the English word 'cello', except without the last syllable. "And this," he paused to jerk his thumb at his brown-haired friend, "is my friend David."
"Hi," I said, "I'm Emilie."
"Emilie," Kjell repeated, his blue eyes widening a little. Perhaps he had been expecting a more exotic name. "That's a pretty name."
I laughed. "Where are you guys from?"
"We're from Sweden," David told me, addressing me directly for the first time since Kjell had started speaking to me.
"Which part of Sweden?" I asked, intrigued.
"Uppsala. It's near Stockholm. Heard of it?"
"Sure," I said. Judging from David's double take, I had surprised him. "I have friends who've been there. I've only been to Stockholm, though."
"Really? We go to university in Stockholm," Kjell told me. "How did you find Stockholm?"
"Really cold!" I blurted out, and both he and David laughed. "I really liked it there, though. Didn't get to stay long, but I managed to visit the Vasa Museum, the Royal Palace, the old town... And some of those districts, with lots of cool, quirky shops?" I laughed. "I forget what it was called."
Kjell and David looked at each other. "Quirky shops?" Kjell asked.
"Maybe Södermalm," David suggested.
"Ah," Kjell said, dragging the word out as he mulled that over.
"You're both from Uppsala?" I asked now.
"Yeah, we've known each other since we were kids," Kjell said. "I left Uppsala go to Stockholm for university, but unfortunately this guy ended up there too."
David snorted rudely.
I watched their easy interaction with some amusement and more than a dose of envy. "And you're both on exchange together? Must be nice to have a friend here." I tipped my beer bottle slightly, letting my lips curl into a wry smile. "I was going to try my hand at meeting some new people after downing enough liquid courage."
Both of them laughed. They probably thought I was joking.
"Well," Kjell said, grinning, "now you know us."
He was about to ask something else when David whirled around in a quick movement, reaching out to clap someone on the shoulder as the latter walked past. "Hey," he greeted, turning away from us briefly, "how're you doing?"
The newcomer – a tall, lean blond who flicked a disinterested glance over me – shrugged. "Fine. What's up?"
Seeing both Kjell and I watching them, David turned to me and introduced his friend, "This is my next-door neighbour, Aksel."
"He's from Finland," Kjell said, then added jokingly, "he hates us, but as long as he doesn't steal our beer, we let him tag along sometimes."
The Finn cracked a smile, rolling his eyes at the good-natured ribbing. They had obviously gotten close enough to make little jokes like these without anyone getting offended. He turned to me after a while, his smile fading. Cold, ice-blue eyes stared at me piercingly for a long while before he said, "Hi." It was just one word, but I felt a sudden shaft of awareness tingle down my spine.
"Um, hi. I'm Emilie." I held out my hand and he took it after a pause. I almost snatched my hand away in the next moment. His touch on mine felt like that one time when, as a child, I had pressed an electric doorbell with my bare finger on a rainy day. He dropped my hand after a quick shake, like he had felt the same static charge and wanted to avoid prolonged exposure to me.
I discreetly wiped my hand on my jeans to try to get rid of that tingle.
The Finn had stepped away from me in the same moment he let go of my hand, and was now leaning against the wall behind Kjell, positioning himself outside the little triangle we were standing in. He made no effort to join in on the conversation. I wondered why he'd decided to stay, if he was so uninterested in our conversation.
I saw Kjell exchange a quick look with David, who shrugged in response.
"Where are you guys staying?" I asked, directing my question to no one in particular.
"On the third floor of this block," David said. "I'm in thirty-eight, Kjell's in thirty-five..." He glanced at the Finn, who didn't even seem to be listening to us, "and well, Aksel's in thirty-nine."
"Cool," I said, "I'm on the second floor, in twenty-four."
"Ah," said David, "no wonder we haven't seen you around."
I smiled. "I've only been here less than a week."
"We came over early," Kjell divulged, "right after Christmas."
"Wow. So you guys have already seen all the sights around here?"
"Well, not all," Kjell said. "But yeah, we've been to Edinburgh Castle, Arthur's Seat, the war museum... Places like that. We're going to Camera Obscura soon. You should come too, if you want."
"Oh, that'd be great," I said. "I've been wanting to do some sight-seeing, but you know," I grimaced, "I've been busy moving in, settling down and all that."
David laughed. "I know exactly what you mean."
The conversation wound down and we stood in a moment's silence before Kjell piped up again. "So, where are you from?" For a moment I thought he wasn't going to tack on the dreaded afterthought, but then he did, "China?"
"I'm from Germany," I said, "Hamburg, actually," and steeled myself for the reaction I always got.
True to form, they looked me over with a mild degree of shock. The only one who retained his original expression was the Finn – what was his name again, Axel? He wasn't even looking at me, but staring out at the rest of the crowd milling around the room.
"Oh," David said finally. "But you look Asian." He tilted his head and studied my features again, clarifying, "Sort of." I knew what he was seeing. Other than the brownish colour of my hair and my deep-set brown eyes, I had wholly Asian features.
"I'm half," I said, not wanting to get into the details. But people, when meeting me for the first time, always wanted details.
"You're half German, half Asian?" Kjell asked, looking intrigued. "Which part of Asia?"
"Singapore," I said, inwardly preparing myself to explain further if I had to. It was a sentiment I'm sure most people from small countries have had to face abroad.
"Ah," Kjell let out a satisfied sigh that he had placed it. "I've been there."
That got my interest. "Really?"
David was staring at him too. "You have?"
"Very hot and humid," Kjell elaborated, grinning. "But it's a nice place. It's so modern, and there are so many skyscrapers!"
I smiled at his description. Almost every European who had been there had said virtually the same thing. Personally, I had practically no memories of my life in Singapore. I had been too young, and it had been too long ago. Plus, I hadn't been back to Singapore in the past twelve years.
"And what was that called? The mascot? That half fish, half lion?"
"The Merlion?" I asked.
"Yeah," Kjell said. "Strange, mythical creature..." He trailed off, probably recalling his travelling experiences. "Very interesting."
I smiled again, not knowing what to say.
"So, did you grow up in Hamburg?" David wanted to know. "Or Singapore?"
I shrugged. "I was born in Hamburg, but I spent part of my childhood in Singapore before we moved back to Germany when I was, what, eight?"
"Where's home for you, then?"
I thought about that for a while. "Hamburg, probably?"
"Cool. I've been to Hamburg," he offered. "I had to wake up at 5 to make it to the Fish Market."
"Oh, the Hamburg Fish Market," Kjell jumped in with this rejoinder. "I've been there too! I've always wanted to ask one thing."
"What's that?" I asked obligingly.
"Why do you sell sausages at a place called the Fish Market?"
I laughed at that. Then I shrugged, jokingly falling back on an old stereotype, "It's Germany, what do you expect?"
"What's it like, being biracial?" David wanted to know.
I pursed my lips. How did one answer a question like this? "I can't speak for all Eurasians, but for me it's kind of a pain."
David let out a surprised laugh. "But you get the best of both worlds!"
Or I belonged in neither. I just smiled wryly in return.
"Do you feel more European or more Asian, or is it a combination of both?" Kjell pressed.
I shrugged, looking down in a moment of self-consciousness. I wished they would get off this topic. How did being of any heritage feel? I just was. "I don't know..."
"Well," David answered for me, jolting me back to attention. "She did grow up mostly in Europe..."
I laughed, more than a little uncomfortable. "Yeah," I joked, "I grew up on beer like the rest of Germany."
I accidentally glanced to my right and saw that Axel – or whatever his name was – was now looking at me. His face was still as expressionless as before, but his light blue eyes were fixed on me.
It didn't seem like a friendly gaze.
"Germans," Kjell rolled his eyes, and even though his tone was light, there was a hidden barb in his words. "You think you own the beer industry. We Swedes can hold our liquor too, you know."
"Oh, no," I heard David mutter from the side. "Here we go again."
I raised an eyebrow at Kjell. "So what you're saying is... you think you can out-drink me?"
"Oh yeah," he drawled. "Definitely."
I raised my beer bottle, "Why don't we have a nice, friendly competition, right here? Germany versus Sweden." My tone was challenging, but I was grinning at him.
Kjell laughed, reaching out to clink the neck of his beer bottle against mine. "Challenge accepted."
"Excuse me," the Finn muttered, pushing away from us.
"Not joining us?" David asked. "This is going to be interesting."
"Nah," Axel said, "you guys have fun." He threw his friends a brief nod but didn't acknowledge me before he turned and pushed through the crowd.
I felt my lips purse up of their own volition. "Your friend Axel... He doesn't seem to like me."
Kjell looked surprised. "What, Aksel? Nah. In fact, I think–" He cut himself off abruptly and exchanged a glance with David. The other Swede muttered something in a language I didn't understand – presumably Swedish – and Kjell smirked. Then he turned back to me and slung an arm around my shoulders. "Don't worry about that grouchy Finn," he said. "Let's go drink ourselves silly!"
"I'll help you judge the competition," David sighed, sounding resigned. I got the feeling that, out of the two of them, David was usually the one who had to keep an eye out for Kjell.
"How do I know you won't help Kjell cheat?" I challenged, even as I let them steer me towards the large table in the middle of the room, where all the alcohol was.
"I don't need to cheat to win!" Kjell declared before David could defend his integrity.
"Promises, promises," I mocked.
Kjell clambered onto the table, narrowly missing kicking over some bottles. Then he raised his hands up high and shouted, "Hey, everybody! Sweden and Germany are having a drinking contest right now, come watch if you want!"
"Oh, my God," I laughed, embarrassed. I had never been any good with crowds, and it looked like the entire room was starting to turn towards us.
David slammed down a couple more unopened beer bottles on the table. "Okay," he said, "we need some rules."
"Screw rules!" Kjell exclaimed. Some others who had gathered around echoed his sentiment.
David let out an exasperated sigh. "We need some rules," he repeated. "No mixing, just beer. The first person to throw up, or give up, loses."
I shrugged. "Fine by me."
Kjell grinned, holding his hand out, palm up, towards me in a 'ladies first' gesture. "Ready whenever you are."
"Still sure you wanna go against me?" I joked, even though all the attention was starting to make me a little queasy. "We don't have the highest beer consumption in Europe for nothing, you know."
"That's not right!" A guy stepped out from the crowd that had formed around us, raising his own beer bottle. "We have the highest beer consumption in Europe."
"Yeah?" I laughed. This was becoming a bigger to-do than I had expected. "Where are you from?"
"Czech Republic," he announced, coming around to stand at the head of the table. "Bet I can drink the both of you under."
"Oh, yeah?" This new threat to his male ego made Kjell sit up and take notice. He swept a hand the encompass the both of us, "Take a seat and prepare to get thrashed."
The Czech sat down at the table and smirked at us cockily. "Bring it on."
As I reached for the first bottle and bit off the cap to the crowd's cheer of approval, a flash of blond a short distance away caught my eye.
David's neighbour, the Finnish guy Aksel, was standing less than two metres away, watching me with disapproving eyes.
I looked away. Then I put the rim of the bottle to my lips and chugged.
I woke up with a pounding headache. Then I remembered that my last memory from the previous night was of vomiting into a toilet bowl and sat up in a panic.
I was in a stranger's bed.
But I was still dressed in my own clothes. That had to count for something, at least.
At this point, I had to put a hand to my head to stop the spinning. I had been too reckless last night. What had made me think it was a good idea to challenge two grown men to a drinking contest – and without a safety net in place?
Stupid, stupid, stupid. If anything had happened last night, I only had myself to blame.
Out of the blue, I felt a glass being pressed into my hand. I looked at the clear liquid in the glass, then twisted my neck sideways to look into the light blue eyes staring back at me. I shrank back against the walk instinctively, sloshing the water around in the glass and spilling some onto the coverlet draped over my lower body.
"It's water," the Finn from last night – David and Kjell's friend; Aksel, was it? – said drily, then handed me a white box. "For your headache," he added, when I continued to sit, making no effort to take his advice.
I stared at the box for a long moment. There were more vowels with umlauts among the printed words than I was used to. I blinked a couple of times to clear my sluggish mind, before croaking out, "It's in Finnish."
He leaned over me to point at the word 'Paracetemol' emblazoned on the front of the box. "This one is universal," he said.
"Is this..." I squinted a little to read the brand name, "...Panadol like Thomapyrin?"
His expression was blank. "What is Thomapyrin?"
"Ah, what the hell," I muttered. Still holding the glass of water in one hand, I tried to open the box with my other. After a futile moment, Aksel took the box from me and shook out two tablets, which he placed on my palm.
I swallowed them with the help of a gulp of water. Then I sagged against the wall, all my energy gone from the simple action. The cool surface felt soothing. I felt Aksel tugging on the glass in my hand and let go. I listened to the clatter of him placing the glass atop his desk before I asked baldly, "Did we sleep together last night?"
"No," he replied immediately, almost as if he had been expecting the question.
"I wouldn't blame you if we had," I said, even though a little part of me would have. But it had been my own decision to get so drunk out of my head, without thinking of the consequences. That made it partly my fault. "I just want to know the truth."
"No," he clipped out, his voice turning as cold as the climate his country was known for. "What kind of guy do you think I am?"
"How did I end up here?" I asked, instead of answering his question. It had probably rhetorical. I barely knew him – how was I to know what kind of person he was?
"You were drunk."
When he didn't elaborate, I prompted, "And...?"
He shrugged. He was back-facing me, probably still annoyed by my indirect accusation. "David asked for my help. He couldn't take care of both you and Kjell."
"Why would you help?" I asked, the drumming pain in my temples making me blunt. "You hated me on sight."
He didn't bother giving me an answer. Then again, I hadn't really been expecting one.
I scratched at my neck absently in the silence that followed. "Uh... Where did you sleep last night?"
"At my desk," he said, like it was no big deal.
"Sorry about that," I mumbled, but my attention had already moved elsewhere. I ran my hand over my neck, feeling the all-too-familiar bumps on my skin. Lowering my hand, I flipped it over to examine the underside of my forearm.
The small red bumps had already formed there, too.
I was so busy looking myself over that I didn't realise Aksel had come back to stand by the bed. Before I knew it, he was leaning over me.
I pushed him away. "Get out of my face," I mumbled, trying to hide my arms from his gaze. He moved back, but continued staring at me.
"You're allergic to alcohol," he said suddenly. He was looking at my neck.
"It's just a rash," I muttered, my hands coming up to cover my neck. Then I remembered the rashes were on my hands, too, and pulled the duvet up to cover more of myself.
Then I remembered, too late, that it was his duvet. I had practically ensconced myself in his bed.
He muttered a vulgar-sounding word in what I assumed was Finnish and stalked away from me. I heard him rummaging in his wardrobe for something. He returned with a tube in his hand, which he threw at me with no courtesy.
It fell onto the bedspread. I reached for it, noticing that the words on it were all as undecipherable as the previous box of medication he had given me. "What's this?"
"Cream for the rash," he responded shortly. He was standing about an arm's length away now, hands shoved into his pockets.
I held up the tube and stared at it. "What the hell are you running in here, a First-Aid camp?"
Ignoring my sarcasm, he questioned levelly, "Why did you drink so much, if you're allergic to alcohol?"
I felt my mouth twist. Not wanting to answer him, I leaned against the cool wall and let my eyes fall shut.
"You–" Aksel began to say, a tinge of exasperation finally leaking through his usual reserve, when the door slammed open.
I opened my eyes to see David standing in the doorway. "Good," he said, when he saw me, "you're alive."
"Quiet, please," I muttered, rubbing at my temples.
"Hangover?" David was grinning widely.
"As long as you're awake... You passed out cold in the toilet last night. Aksel had to drag you out. We thought you were dead."
I squinted at him. "Don't be crazy. I wouldn't have died from that measly beer."
David shook his head in mock-disapproval. "Still acting tough, are you?" Then he laughed. "But I'm glad you're fine. I was worried, leaving you with Aksel."
Aksel rolled his eyes in exasperation. "As if I would do anything."
David just gave him a pointed look.
Aksel glared back, as if something about David's unspoken insinuation had personally offended him.
"Don't worry," I murmured, closing my eyes again to cool, comforting darkness. "He hates me too much to do anything."
There was a pause, before I heard someone snort.
This time, when my eyelids fluttered open, it was to the sight of Aksel turning his back on David's smirk.
"How's Kjell?" I asked David.
He chuckled. "Sleeping like a baby now, after he spent half the night throwing up." He crinkled his nose, "Let me tell you, taking care of him last night was not fun."
I let out a strangled laugh, amused but too exhausted to really express it. "I guess Czech won, then."
"I don't know about that," David said, an amused lilt creeping into his voice. "He looked to be in pretty bad shape himself."
I flopped back onto the pillow, uncaring that I was for all purposes lying in Aksel's bed. I would wash the sheets for him later, no matter how big a pain that might be. For now, I just needed a little more shut-eye.
"Let's go," I heard Aksel say to David whilst I was in that fuzzy place between wakefulness and sleep.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay?" David asked in a strange tone my mind couldn't place, before there was the sound of a slight scuffle and the click of the door closing quietly.
And then blessed, blessed silence.
When I next opened my eyes, the room was dark and empty. A quick glance out the window told me the sun had already set. Considering it was winter, though, that little fact didn't mean much. It could've been any time ranging from four in the afternoon to the middle of the night.
I fumbled for my phone. The screen, when it lit up, temporarily blinded me. After a moment's squinting, I made out the numbers seventeen and thirty-eight.
Five-thirty-eight in the afternoon. I had slept the entire day away.
I sat up, groaning a little when my bones resisted. I pushed back the unfamiliar duvet, shivering as the air hit my skin. It was colder than I was used to. I swung my legs off the warm bed, cursing under my breath at the iciness of the floor against my feet, and raced across the room to turn up the heat. It was off – typical Finn, my brain groused. So it hadn't been a dream after all. I was in Aksel's room. Speaking of whom – where was he?
I stood shivering beside the heater, casting my eyes around the room. While the lack of decorations in his room seemed to reflect his reserved nature, he was still messier than I'd expected him to be. There were books and papers strewn across his desk, and his suitcase was still propped up half-opened in the corner of the room. Then my gaze fell on his unmade bed.
I had taken over his bed for the entire day; the least I could do was to help him make the bed before leaving.
When that was done and he still hadn't returned, I turned the heater back off and tiptoed out the room. Since he'd taken his keys with him, I simply closed the door behind me and hoped no one would go barging in and rob him blind before he returned. He would have a real reason to dislike me then.
I was halfway down the hall when a shout made me turn.
"Hey! It's my drinking buddy!"
Kjell was standing two rooms down. From the keys in his hand, it looked like he had just been about to lock up. Instead of doing that, he left his door slightly ajar and came towards me.
"Hey," I greeted, unable to suppress a smile at how rumpled he looked. He looked like hell.
He stopped more than an arm's length away from me, smiling back sheepishly. "I know, I stink," he said. "I just woke up. Last night was crazy, huh?"
"Yeah," I agreed, adding, "I don't remember a thing. So who won?"
He blinked in surprise. It appeared that the question hadn't occurred to him until right then. "Shit," he said finally, "I have no idea."
I grinned. "I guess we're going to have to try that competition again, then."
He let out a loud laugh. "My God, you are crazy."
I laughed too, even as I brushed my hair forward so that it would cover the redness on my neck.
"Hey," he said, like it had just occurred to him, "do you have any dinner plans? David and I are going out to grab a bite later, wanna come with?"
"Oh," I was a little startled by the invitation. "Sure, I'll come."
"Room twenty-four, right?"
Surprised that he had remembered my room number, I nodded.
"We'll come get you," he promised.
"Okay," I said. "See you then."
"Yeah, later." With a short wave, he turned to head in the direction of the bathrooms, probably to wash last night's stink away in the shower.
As I watched him lumber off, I couldn't stop a grin from spreading across my face. It had taken some beer and some rashes, but I had just made my first friends in Edinburgh.
The coming Monday – the twelfth of January – was another test in itself. It was the official start of the semester. I had a couple of classes that Monday – a Chemistry lecture, followed by lab, in the morning and early afternoon, as well as a one-time 'cultural exchange' class in the evening that had been organised by the school for exchange students.
My morning class was a two-hour block of lectures. I went in, sat near the back and doodled on my notes. The professor seemed perfectly nice but was prone to speaking too quickly. It took me half an hour to begin to get used to his accent and speech pattern, but even by the end of the two hours, I was still only jotting down every two out of seven words. I left the lecture hall with a burgeoning headache and a slight sense of dread. Lab was better, since the instructions were clearly labelled – my English-reading skills were much more superior than my listening – and chemical symbols were thankfully universal.
Afterward, I spent the rest of the day wandering around the city, exploring the quaint streets and alleys without even the aid of a map. Getting lost – it was one of the beauties of travelling on my own, I had found. There was something liberating about strolling along the streets with no concrete destination in mind.
I made it back to the university just in time for the cultural exchange class at six. The sun had long set and a cold wind was whipping at my cheeks, so I was relieved to finally step into the brightly-lit and warm building where my classroom was located.
All the international students had been randomly divided into different classes by the school administration, so I had no idea if Kjell or David – the only people I knew in Edinburgh – were in the same class I was. I wandered down the mostly still-empty corridors to find classroom 2.1B. It was towards the end of the hallway, the second-furthest classroom from the stairs.
The desks in the classroom were arranged to form a wide, upside-down 'U' shape. The first thing I saw after walking through the door was Aksel, sitting alone in an empty row furthest away from the whiteboard at the front of the room. His legs were stretched out in front of him, but they were so long that the table covered only half of their length. The only other people in the classroom were a group of Asians in the row lining the right side of the classroom.
As if feeling my eyes on him, he looked up and saw me. There was a split second when I thought he was going to ignore me outright, but then he said, "Hi."
"Hi." I hesitated, but ended up gesturing to the seat next to him. "Is this seat free?"
"Yeah." He turned away as I pulled out the chair and sat down. He was resting his cheek on his palm and staring out the windows on the other side of the classroom.
"Um," I said, feeling oddly uncomfortable when he turned back to look at me. "Thanks for, you know, Friday night."
"It's fine." Then he turned back to the windows again.
"Sorry I just... left like that," I tried, even though I was annoyed at having to speak to the back of his head. "I didn't know where you were, and... Oh, I'll wash your sheets for you if you want."
"No need," was his only response. He hadn't turned his gaze from the windows.
Great. I was stuck beside Mr. Unfriendly for the next three hours.
I turned towards the door on my right, watching the other people file in. Hopefully, there would be someone else to talk to.
The next person to walk in was a European girl with her dark hair cropped short and a silver bar in her nose. After a casual sweep of the classroom, she headed for the row Aksel and I were in.
"Hey," she said, dragging out the word like she couldn't be bothered to reel it in. She nodded at the empty seat beside Aksel, who gestured with a hand, palm-up, to indicate that the seat was free.
She sat down and kicked back in her seat, observing him with a relaxed air. "I'm Marie," she said. "From Belgium."
"Aksel," he replied. "Finland."
"Finland," she repeated. "I've been there. Nice place. Way too much snow for me, though."
He was turned away from me towards her, so I couldn't see his facial expression. But when he spoke, his voice had the lifted tone of someone who was smiling, "When were you there?"
"February. I went to–" here she said a Finnish city name that I didn't recognise.
"Oh," Aksel said, "that's more far north than I've ever been. I've heard there are two months in a year where they don't get any sunlight at all."
"Sightseeing in the dark wasn't exactly something I enjoyed," Marie said drily.
I was leaning on my table, idly listening to Aksel and Marie hit it off like Aksel and I had never quite managed, when a shadow fell over me. I looked up into the questioning brown eyes of the boy who'd come to stand beside me.
"Hi," he said, his hand already on the back of the chair. "Anyone sitting here?"
There was something about the way he formed the English words that sounded oddly familiar.
"Hallo," I said, instinctively reverting to the German pronunciation of the word. Then I cleared my throat, "No, the seat's free."
I saw him start at my accent. He was frowning a little now, even as he pulled the chair out to sit down in it. "Thanks. Where are you from?"
"Germany," I said, with the awkward smile that usually accompanied my declaration.
"I am Karl," he said in German, out of the blue. After hearing everyone speak mostly in English for the past few weeks, the sudden switch in language now made my eyes widen. "I come from Cologne. And you?"
A wide grin was spreading over my face. He had an answering one on his. There was just something about meeting a fellow countryman overseas that made you feel a sense of camaraderie right away.
"I'm Emilie, from Hamburg," I said, following Karl's lead and replying in our native tongue. "I love Cologne. You guys get such great conventions."
He laughed. "So says the girl from Germany's number-one musical metropolis."
"Gamescom," I said simply.
Karl shook his head at me in mock disappointment. "Games over musicals?"
I laughed. "Oh, please. Like the culture scene in Cologne isn't amazing too."
"It is, isn't it?" he smirked, then shook his head again and grinned at me. "Hamburg is beautiful. We took a boat tour at the harbour and the scenery was amazing. You're lucky, to live near so much water."
"What are you talking about?" I retorted. "The Rhine flows right through Cologne."
The class had started to fill up while I had been caught up in conversation with Karl. Finally, when everyone had arrived, the instructor at the front of the class cleared her throat and clapped her hands together. "All right, that should be everyone. My name is Anne, and I'm going to be leading this intercultural class today... But first, welcome to Edinburgh!"
It was only when I turned to face the front that I realised Aksel was watching me. I jerked my head to the left on instinct and met his eyes for a moment. His expression gave nothing away, but I could've sworn there was something like annoyance lurking in his gaze.
Pursing my lips, I tore my gaze away and focused on what Anne was saying.
"So, what's an intercultural class? Like the name suggests, we're going to learn a bit about each other's cultures, and of course also learn a little something about Scotland. In this class, we have sixteen of you from ten different countries altogether. First, let's get started with some self-introduction."
I let out a harsh breath and stared down at my hands, pressing against each other atop the table. If there was one thing I hated, it was introducing myself. I always had to endure the same startled once-overs, the same prodding questions.
"First, let's split you guys to up into groups, all right? Europe, Asia, the Americas..." Anne headed for the students seated the closest to the front. "Where are you from?"
"Taiwan," said the slender, pale-skinned girl at the very front of the class.
"Japan," said the girl sitting next to her.
Anne cast a glance around the class and zoomed in on a pair on the opposite side, "And you?"
"We're from Turkey," the girl said. The guy beside her nodded his agreement.
Anne's face lit up. "Why don't you two join the girls over there, for the Asian group?"
There was a moment of awkwardness as the East Asians exchanged glances with the Turks.
"Well, Eurasia, I guess, and Asia," Anne corrected herself in the ensuing silence. "You guys okay together?"
"Sure," the Turkish guy replied.
Even before Anne turned around to appraise me, I knew what was going to happen.
"Oh," she started to say, turning to look at the Asian group, the members of which were shaking hands and exchanging friendly greetings.
I was just opening my mouth when I felt a hand close over my left shoulder. "She's with us," Aksel said.
"Yeah, she's from Germany," Karl added from the other side of me.
"Oh!" Anne exclaimed now, glancing down at a list in her hand. She turned back to me with raised eyebrows, "Emilie Hoffmann?"
"That's me," I said, with a wry smile. Watching the surprise flash across people's faces when they matched my name to my face never got old.
Anne, for her part, got over her surprise quickly enough. "Great," she said, gesturing to the four of us, "This is the group for Europe, yeah?"
"Yeah," the Belgian girl – Marie – sitting on the other side of Aksel lazily affirmed.
When Anne moved on to group up those from the Americas and then from Oceania, Aksel seemed to realise his hand was still on my shoulder and snatched it back.
"You're from Germany?" Marie leaned forward and looked past Aksel at me. She scanned my features unabashedly, "Are you mixed, or something?"
"Thought so," she replied. "You look really Asian. The other Eurasians I've met all look more... well, European."
I shrugged, feeling an awkward smile half-form on my lips. "Yeah... I'm an outlier, probably."
Marie looked at me like she couldn't quite figure out what I was saying.
"All right," Anne was standing in front of the teacher's desk again, back to addressing the class as a whole. "Now, I want you all to write down some things that come to mind when you think about the countries your classmates are from. We'll do a little exercise to see how true or false stereotypes are. You all okay with that?"
There were murmurs of agreement from the class. Then someone from the Oceania group – Australian, it seemed, judging by the accent – asked, "Which countries?"
Anne, referring to her name list, read aloud while everyone scrambled to write them down. Everyone except my group members, who sat unmoving in their seats.
"Does anyone have paper?" Marie asked.
"I do," I offered, reaching into my bag and pulling out a writing pad and a pen. Stifling a sigh, I jotted down the rest of the country names that Anne was saying. Japan, New Zealand, the USA, Australia. I had missed a couple in front.
"Oh, and write down your own countries by the side, please," Anne called out as an afterthought. "Fifteen minutes, then we'll do the presentations."
"You fine with doing the writing?" Marie's question at me was superfluous, considering that I was already doing it.
I wrote the word 'Europe' in capital letters across the top of the sheet and underlined it. Then, remembering what Anne had just said, I wrote down the names of the three countries we were from at the top right corner.
There was a beat, before Aksel leaned over with his own pen and crossed out one of the n's in 'Finnland'.
"I keep misspelling Finland," I admitted with an embarrassed laugh.
He looked at me unsmilingly. "No problem," he said, "in German it's spelt with two n's."
That gave me a jolt. It was my turn to stare at him, "You know German?"
"A bit," he said, but he didn't elaborate.
I had never met such a close-mouthed guy in my life. I gave a slight roll of my eyes and turned away, "Right!"
"You learnt it in Finland?" Karl wanted to know.
"Yeah," Aksel said shortly.
"Have you been to Germany?"
I had to give Karl props for trying to strike up a conversation in the face of Aksel's reluctance to talk.
"Yeah," Aksel said again. "I was in Stuttgart a while back."
"Stuttgart?" Karl sounded surprised. "Why would you go to Stuttgart? Even I haven't been there."
"That's where the Mercedes cars come from, no?" Marie asked.
"They have a big rotating Mercedes logo on top of the main train station in Stuttgart," Aksel said. I was noticing, increasingly, that he didn't seem to want to speak to either Karl or me, but was more than fine with responding to Marie. If only there had been more Europeans in the class – I would be able to gauge if Aksel hated us specifically or if he was just more partial to Marie.
"That sounds... strange," Marie said.
"I think it's a source of pride for them," I said. "They have a Mercedes-Benz museum and all."
"It's kinda a boring place, though," Karl said, "too industrial for me."
Aksel shrugged. "I liked it there."
I tapped my pen against the writing pad. "Okay," I said, steering the focus back to the task at hand, "what other countries are there?"
"Mexico, Turkey," Aksel reeled off.
"Taiwan," Karl offered.
I wrote those down, before shoving the writing pad further from me so that Marie, on the other side of Aksel, could see. "Okay... So... Any thoughts about..." I looked at the first country on the list, "Japan?"
"Polite," Karl said. "Really polite."
"Technologically advanced," Marie said. "And they have all these weird inventions..."
Aksel shrugged. "Sushi."
Biting back a smile, I put their contributions on paper, while adding some of my own.
At the end of the fifteen minutes, Anne clapped her hands to get everyone's attention. "Everyone done?" Upon receiving confirmation of the fact, she nodded and turned to the Asia group. "Let's start with America. What do you guys have?"
The Turkish girl seemed to be the appointed spokesperson for the group. "Hollywood," she said.
"We have that too," said someone from the Oceania group.
"Same," Karl said, on our behalf.
The Asia group had a few more points, some of which the Americans laughed at and denied, some which they shrugged and conceded.
Anne turned to us next, "What else do you have for America?"
I shoved the piece of paper at Aksel instinctively.
He eyed me consideringly, while the rest of the class stared at us. Then, taking his own sweet time, he slid the sheet over to Marie. Rolling her eyes, Marie glanced at it.
"Americans are dumb," she announced. She looked over at the Americans, shrugging, "Sorry, but that's the stereotype."
"And you have those TV shows," Karl added, "where someone goes around interviewing people off the streets, asking really simple questions, and everyone gets it wrong."
Judging from the unanimous stifling of smiles across the room, everyone else knew exactly what Karl was talking about.
"Americans aren't dumb," one of the American guys spoke up. He was lounging back in his seat, arms crossed over his chest. "Those shows that you're talking about – they're doing it for the ratings, so they only show the wrong answers. It's not credible to judge everyone based on that. I don't think Americans are particularly dumb compared to people from other countries. There are stupid people and smart people everywhere. On average most Americans are rather smart, we have plenty of people with college education."
Marie shrugged. "That's all we have, that hasn't been said already," she told Anne.
The rest of the presentations passed in much the same fashion, with Anne naming a country and then each group offering their list of stereotypes and impressions, while the natives of said country either agreed with or refuted their opinions.
When it was Germany's turn, I leaned my chin against my palm and chuckled a little at the Asians' impression of us. They spoke of technology, efficiency, beer – all of which neither Karl nor I had much to say about.
"Not every German likes beer," Aksel said suddenly, the first thing he'd said since the presentations had started, aside from acknowledging the strong Finnish connection to heavy metal music. Even when the Americans had commented that Finns were rich, and Marie had vocally agreed, he had only smiled and shrugged.
"What blasphemy," I murmured, and the whole class laughed. I looked at Aksel and saw that he had fixed a wintery look at me. My mouth twisting, I broke eye contact.
"Sausage," the Mexican guy said. "Schnitzel..."
Then came the negative stereotypes – stern, rigid, humourless. Karl and I exchanged glances and shrugged. These were long-standing stereotypes, nothing we hadn't heard before.
"I guess we can seem stern sometimes," Karl said, "and we respect people's privacy, so we're not going to butt in. But if you ask for help, most people would be glad to help you if they can."
"And," I added, "Germans have a sense of humour, just like anyone else."
"German humour, though," someone else said. That got a laugh out of everyone.
"Anything else?" Anne asked the Americans.
There was a pause, and then one of the American guys said, almost challengingly, "Hitler."
A silence settled over the classroom. Well. I couldn't say I hadn't been expecting that.
Anne broke the silence first. "Well–" she began, but Karl spoke over her.
"Hitler wasn't German, you know," he said. I snuck a peek at his face and saw that his expression was set. He caught my look and gave a little shrug as if to say, Amis.
"He was Austrian," Marie drawled. "But Germany gave him power."
"He deceived the German public," Karl shot back. "Morale was low and people were poor and desperate after the humiliation of the first World War... He made promises that salvaged their pride. He manipulated the public."
"Are you saying Germany's role in WWII is justified?" The same guy who had brought up the topic challenged. "Are you pro-Nazi, or something?"
Karl looked annoyed. "I didn't try to justify anything. I'm only saying that the circumstances at that time helped Hitler rise to power. I don't condone what happened at all, and I'm definitely not a Nazi, or neo-Nazi, or anything like that."
"And accusing Germans of being Nazis or whatever just because we're from Germany," I said, almost immediately regretting speaking up when all heads swivelled towards me. My neck froze up from the sheer amount of attention I was receiving, but I pressed on, "that's really ridiculous. Especially for the younger generation – we hadn't even been born when WWII happened. Of course the past should be remembered so we learn from the mistakes, but I don't think it makes sense to accuse all Germans of being Nazis, or to say that all Germans need to feel responsible for what happened."
"But you're not really responsible, are you?" The Taiwanese girl spoke up, presumably with good intentions. "You're not a real German."
I tightened my grip on the edge of the table. It was nothing I hadn't heard before – nothing I hadn't thought before.
"She's a real German," Karl said drily.
I stared down at the table, cupping the bottom half of my face as if my hand was a shield. Nobody said anything else after Karl's assertion.
Anne cleared her throat. "Well, let's move on," she remarked cheerily, turning to the Oceania group, "What else do you guys have for Germany?"
"Soccer," one of the Australians offered, moving onto a much pleasanter topic.
"Oh," the Japanese girl exclaimed, "a lot of guys in Japan watch the Bundesliga."
Beside me, I saw Karl start and stare at her in amazement.
"Cool," he said, the previous topic of discussion apparently forgotten. "Which teams do they usually support?"
I smiled, but still couldn't bring myself to look up, to rejoin the discussion about a country that was mine but not mine.
You're not a real German.
That thought kept me from speaking up again during the rest of the class discussion.
That night, something kept me from returning to my room right away. Despite the cold, I was sitting on a bench right outside my dorm building, nursing a bottle of cheap vodka and staring up into the sky. It was a clear night, and the stars sparkled overhead like tiny winking eyes. Apart from the occasional student returning to the dorms, I was mostly alone.
Wanting to be left alone, I rarely looked directly at the passers-by even when I heard the scraping noises of their footsteps against the pavement. That was, until I heard the slow crunch of footsteps on the gravel path... Footsteps that stopped for a long beat before starting up again, before petering out once more.
I looked up, and immediately regretted it.
It was Aksel.
The bench I was on was placed in such a position that anyone coming directly from the university would have to walk past it – and me – in order to enter the building. Judging from the stiffening of his shoulders, I knew that he had seen and recognised me. When he lowered his head and trudged on without a word of greeting, I thought he would walk past without acknowledging me. But then, after a few more steps, he stopped and half-turned from just behind the bench. "You're not cold?"
"I'm freezing my ass off," I replied, then took a swig from my bottle. The alcohol made me feel slightly warmer.
"Then why are you out here?"
There was a moment of silence, before he said, "It's not that cold."
I snorted, cringing when I felt the cold air hit my lungs too quickly. It was like being frozen from the inside out. "You would say that. Your room is a bloody freezer."
"Sorry," he said, with the air of someone who had just come to a sudden realisation. "I forgot to turn on the heater yesterday."
"It's fine," I said, and lied, "It wasn't that cold."
Another silence, and then, "Why are you drinking again? You're allergic."
I fixed a glare on him. "Are you my dad, or what?"
He glared back, as if the idea of being related to me was an insult in itself.
I went back to my supermarket vodka.
"You don't have to try so hard," he said, his words abrupt in the silence.
I didn't yet know what he was referring to, but I took offence immediately. "What?"
"To be European," he said.
"I am European," I shot back, annoyed.
"You're Asian, too."
"I know who I am, thank you very much."
"I'm just saying," he said calmly, like my cutting tone meant nothing to him at all, "you try so hard to fit in, you end up acting like a stereotype. You don't have to deny your Asian identity just to fit in."
"I liked you better when you were refusing to speak to me," I said ungraciously.
"I'm not criticising you," he said. A frown was beginning to crease his forehead. "I just think you're too self-conscious. None of us here thinks you don't belong with us just because you're half Asian."
"You can't deny that I don't really belong, though," I said, tilting my head to look up into the night sky. The stars winked again, mockingly now. "Sometimes I just... I have to act crazier, louder – you know, to get people to even notice me. Whereas you... All you need to do is stand there and people automatically include you into their group. Because you just – I don't know – belong."
He said slowly, "I don't think this has anything to do with heritage."
"Easy for you to say – people never question your right to be here." My jaw was set in offended mutiny. "You don't ever have to deal with questions like, 'where are you from, China?' in your own country. As if every Asian is Chinese. Or people telling you, 'oh, you speak German so well! How long have you been learning it?' You don't have to deal with the surprise every time – every single time – people match your name to your face. We were both born in Europe, live in Europe, but that doesn't matter because I don't look like I belong."
He was quiet for the longest time, and I thought I had finally given him something to think about, when he said, "I think these people don't mean any harm. They just jump to conclusions."
I couldn't refute him, because he was right. But it was the little things like these that wore you down everyday. "Just because they don't mean any harm doesn't mean they don't do any harm."
"You can't control other people's reaction towards you, but you can control your reaction to them."
"Now you sound like a some motivational quote."
Aksel wasn't looking at me when he spoke again. "I think you have very low self-esteem."
"That is one sentence no girl, whatever her heritage, ever wants to hear." I should've been offended, but I wasn't. He was right. There were times when I wished I had been born somebody else – somebody who could be considered 'fully European', or 'fully Asian'. Being Eurasian was like being stuck in between two worlds that had both rejected you.
"I'm telling you, it doesn't matter as much as you think it does. This sense of belonging – other people don't decide it. You do. You belong where you want to belong." His voice had risen a notch. He was getting frustrated.
As was I. "And I'm telling you, you don't get it. And you never will, unless you walk around in my skin for a day, because this is something you will never experience."
"I'm not belittling your experiences. But you don't have to keep over-compensating," he said, his volume falling again. He said the next sentence very quietly. "I think it's cool that you're half Asian."
I scoffed. "Are you sure you're not just exoticising the East?"
"Exoticise what?" he demanded, "You don't behave like an Asian at all."
"And now aren't you just reverting to stereotypes? How is an Asian supposed to behave?"
"Well then, how is a European supposed to behave?" he shot back. "Being European is something you are, it doesn't depend on the way you act. You're just as guilty of the generalisation you accuse other people of."
I opened my mouth to retort, then closed it. "I hate you so much," I muttered, childishly, after a while. Surprisingly, though, I felt better. I had never discussed this issue with anyone before.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'm a hypocrite too."
But he just gave his head a short shake.
"What, you're going to hold out on me after I spilled all my deepest, darkest insecurities to you?" I asked, only half-joking. It wasn't that I truly wanted to know. A part of me was still in disbelief that he had roused himself from his usual disdainful silence to hold a conversation with me that had lasted this long.
He sighed. "I told myself not to... And yet..." It seemed more like he was muttering his thoughts out loud, rather than divulging them to me.
"Not to what?"
He turned to look me in the eye for the first time now. "Not to talk to you."
I blinked. Then I looked away to hide the sharp flash of hurt his words had brought with them. "Oh."
He turned on his heel, the sole of his shoe scraping sharply against the gravel. "Be careful out here," he said, his tone ice-cool. It was like our conversation had never happened.
I wrapped my arms around my knees and frowned into the distance. He was right. He was a hypocrite. Preaching all that rubbish about how nobody thought me different from the rest of them when he personally couldn't stand me.
He had taken more than a few steps away before he looked back at me. "This has nothing to do with your heritage, or whether or not I think you 'belong'," he said.
"Okay," I challenged, "so you just don't like me as a person?"
He paused infinitesimally. "Yeah."
I listened to the creak of the door as he let himself into the building, leaving me out alone in the cold, in more ways than one.
Being an exchange student, away from all that is familiar back home – not to mention being away from your usual social circle – can get pretty lonely. As a result, exchange students tend to find ways to congregate most of the time.
And that meant plenty of gatherings, where people could mingle – in other words, parties. Lots of parties.
That was how I found myself in yet another crowd of exchange students on the Friday night two weeks after the beer-drinking competition with Kjell and the guy from Czech Republic – I had run into him again at the dorms one day and learnt that his name was Ondřej. He had laughed at my dismal pronunciation of the letter 'ř' and told me that, for me, he would tolerate being called André. In response, I pointed out that it was unlikely any non-native would be able to pronounce it correctly either, which meant he would have to put up with it from other people as well. He had laughed again and told me not to second-guess a guy when he was trying to flirt. When I had asked him about the outcome of the competition neither Kjell nor I could remember, he had admitted that his memory of it was blurry as well, and then added that he had probably been the winner.
It had been a very entertaining conversation. He had been a very entertaining guy. It was a pity he didn't seem to be at this party, because I could've used an acquaintance. Kjell and David were likely present – we hung out together often and they had told me a few nights ago that they would be coming – but there was no way of finding them in this crowd.
Instead, I decided to find myself a bottle of beer. Maybe, this time, I would be the one to strike up a conversation with someone.
At the refreshments table thoughtfully set up by the International Students Committee, the student group in charge of organising such events, I met a girl. She was Asian, with dyed brown hair coming down to her shoulders, and she came to me holding an unopened bottle of beer.
"Hi," she greeted me cheerfully, as if we had known each other for ages, "do you know how I can get this thing open without an opener?"
"Um, sure," I said, reaching out for the bottle. She handed it over and I bit the cap off before returning it to her.
"Thanks," she said, grinning at me. "I don't know how people do that. It scares me a little."
I smiled. "Practice, I guess." I tossed the cap into one of the bins beside the table, then held out my hand, "I'm Emilie, nice to meet you."
"I'm Louisa," she said, shaking my hand firmly but quickly. "It's nice to meet you too. Where are you from?"
You are not a real German. "Germany," I said, after clearing my throat to dislodge the lump that had formed there. "You?"
"Germany! That's cool. I'm from Singapore," she said, smiling, looking at me with the same expectant look that I supposed I had every time I mentioned the city-state my mother had come from. She was waiting for me to profess quizzically that I didn't know where it was.
"My mother was born in Singapore!" I divulged, then coughed, embarrassed by my own enthusiasm. When I spoke again, it was in a calmer tone of voice. "I used to live there, long ago."
"Wow," she said, looking me over with wide eyes. "You're mixed race? But you look so... European!"
I laughed. I hadn't heard that one in a while. "Really? Europeans only ever talk about how Asian I look."
"Well, I guess people tend to focus more on differences," she remarked sagely, "and since you're a little bit of both, it makes sense you'd seem more Asian to Europeans and more European to Asians."
"I've never seen it that way," I mused. "But that makes sense. It's easier to spot differences than similarities, I think."
She laughed, "Yeah, like those spot-the-differences pictures, you know. They don't make spot-the-similarities pictures, do they?"
That made me laugh.
Our conversation was interrupted by a shout from a little distance away.
"Lou," a short girl was tiptoeing to peer at Louisa over the crowd of people blocking her, waving an arm impatiently, "what are you doing? Hurry up."
The corners of Louisa's lips turned down. "Sorry," she said apologetically to me. She rolled her eyes, "I gotta go, my friends are up to something. But it was nice meeting you!"
"Yeah, it's been great talking to you," I said, giving a lame wave. "See you around."
She grinned. "See ya."
I watched her push through the crowd to get to her friend, who grabbed her hand and started pulling her in a different direction. How nice to have a group you knew you irrevocably belonged to, a group that would come searching when you'd been away too long.
Shaking my head at my own thoughts, I took a swig of my drink. Then I grimaced, because I really, really disliked the taste of beer.
"This beer is good, isn't it?" A light, female voice spoke up from behind me. I turned and came face-to-face – or as close to her face as I could get with someone who was a head taller than me – with one of the prettiest girls I had ever seen. Blond hair, pixie-like features, a fair complexion topped with rosy cheeks, and deepset brown eyes that deviated enough from the typical blond-haired, blue-eyed ideal to be intriguing. To top it off, she was tall and slender, with the kind of body that would garner a second or third look from every heterosexual male in the vicinity.
Heck, even I was in danger of developing a girl crush on her.
"Um," I said, "yeah, I guess."
"Tatiana, Finland," she said, as an introduction.
Finland, I thought. Of course.
"Emilie, Germany." I shook the hand that she offered me.
She smiled. "This makes things a lot easier, doesn't it? No need for all the 'where are you from's."
"You're right," I admitted. It had also saved me from the prerequisite query of whether I was from China. For some reason, everyone with asiatic features in Europe was assumed to be from China.
Tatiana glanced over my head, briefly looking at something I couldn't see, before returning her gaze to mine. "So, you're from Germany?"
Inwardly, I groaned. "Yeah. My father's German, mother's from Singapore; I was born in Hamburg, raised partly in Singapore, mostly in Hamburg. Any other questions?"
She smiled. "I like your style."
I smiled back, sheepish. "Sorry. I've been answering this question way too much, lately."
She eyed me shrewdly. "You probably get that question back home, too, right?"
"Yeah." I shrugged, screwing up my face to show my displeasure.
"It's the unicorn effect," she said.
"The unicorn effect." She gestured with her hands while explaining. "There aren't a lot of Eurasians around here, so you're... special. Like a magical unicorn. People get curious and want to find out more."
"I guess. I get stared at on the streets a lot, no matter where I go. I should be used to it, but I don't like being stared at."
"It'd probably be worse in Finland," she admitted with a laugh. "People probably don't mean anything by it, though."
"I know they don't," I sighed. "But it's still rude to stare so blatantly."
Her eyes had slid away from mine to focus on something in the distance again.
"Do you know this guy called Aksel?" she asked suddenly.
That had come out of nowhere. I answered slowly, "Yes?"
She looked thoughtful. "Yeah? He keeps looking over here. He's been doing it for a while."
I swivelled my head around. "Where–" I started to ask, but the question died on my tongue when I caught sight of that familiar head of blond hair. Contrary to what Tatiana had just said, he didn't appear to be looking in our direction at all. He was leaning against the wall near the windows, staring moodily at the beer in his hand. He was, however, not alone. He was standing right smack in the middle of a group of people, one of whom spoke to him as I watched. He made a reply without looking up.
I turned back to Tatiana. She was watching me, like I had been watching Aksel, with an odd expression on her face.
"He's not looking now," I stated lamely.
"Hm." She was looking over my head again. I was coming to realise that she had been looking at Aksel all along.
"Where do you know him from?" I asked, even though Aksel was the last thing I wanted to talk about.
She shrugged, her slender shoulders moving gracefully. "I don't remember. A party like this, I think. He's the only other Finn I've met here so far."
"Oh." I racked my mind for something to say to that. "You must have a lot to talk about, then, being from the same country and all."
She surprised me by laughing. "No, he didn't want to talk to me at all."
"Oh." I shuffled my feet awkwardly, "he was the same with me too." Then I remembered that night outside the dorms, after the intercultural class. He had spoken to me then, hadn't he?
Tatiana was appraising me with a frank eye. "Really? That doesn't make sense."
"What doesn't make sense?"
"It doesn't make sense that he didn't talk to you," she clarified, "because I think he likes you."
I couldn't have been more confused if she had said it in Finnish. "Pardon?"
She laughed at my bemusement. "I said he likes you. I've only been talking to you for ten minutes, and he's already looked over more than five times."
"He's probably looking at you," I said, waving her words away. "Besides, weren't you just talking about the unicorn effect?"
She made a noise of disagreement. "This is different."
"Trust me," she said confidently, "I'm a Finn, I know how Finnish boys look when they're interested."
"He looks interested?" Absently, I wondered how Finnish boys looked when they were interested.
"Then he's definitely looking at you," I deadpanned.
She smirked. "Let's do a test then."
"I'll go over to the other side of the room, and we'll see who he looks at."
"That's ridiculous," I said.
"Game, or no?"
"Fine," I said, just so she would realise how wrong she was. "You go – I'll just stand here and look awkward."
Chuckling, she walked away.
I folded my arms and was beginning to feel rather self-conscious, standing alone in the middle of a crowded room, when Karl popped up.
"Hey!" he greeted. He had a beer in one hand and was looking rather flushed. "How's it going with you?"
"Good, thanks. And you?"
He gestured to his beer, "Enjoying life. Scotland is great!"
I chuckled at his enthusiasm.
Karl's attention had been drawn to something on the other side of the room. "That's that Finnish guy from the intercultural class, right?" he asked, then shrugged without waiting for an answer. "He's not very friendly, is he?"
I looked up and saw that, from halfway across the room, Aksel was looking – glaring, really – directly at me.
Thanks to Tatiana having pointed it out, I had started to become more conscious of Aksel's persistent gaze whenever we were both in the same place. It was true – he did seem to be in the habit of staring at me. The thing was, I didn't quite buy into Tatiana's take on Aksel's supposed feelings for me. It didn't matter what she had said about knowing how Finnish boys looked when they were interested. Narrowed eyes, a slight frown – dislike was a universal emotion, and I felt it in every glance Aksel threw me.
Unfortunately, being friends with Kjell and David meant running into Aksel quite a bit. Whenever that happened, I strove to ignore his presence as much as possible. It wasn't difficult to do, considering his reserved nature. Even when I had to face him while hanging out with Kjell and David, he would be so silent most of the time that it was easy to pretend he wasn't even there.
Or it would be, if only I didn't keep feeling his eyes fixed on me.
I found myself in yet another of these situations at dinner one night. I had agreed to meet up with Kjell and David for dinner at a bar-and-restaurant in the Grassmarket, and hadn't realised, until I had met up with them after class, that Aksel would also be there. Judging from the flicker of surprise on his face when I'd appeared, the guys probably hadn't notified him about my presence either.
"We're going to Camera Obscura tomorrow," Kjell was saying now. He and David were sitting on the side opposite, forcing Aksel and I to sit together. There was a huge space in between us, as I stuck as close to the wall as possible while Aksel was sitting with half a leg sticking out of the booth. "You wanna come?"
My eyes widened. I had heard only good things about Edinburgh's Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. "I'd love to!" I exclaimed.
"Awesome," Kjell said.
Feeling Aksel's stare boring into me, I turned to look directly at him and said, a little sarcastically, "That is, if you don't mind."
His expression didn't change. "Why would I care?" he deadpanned.
Kjell and David raised their eyebrows at each other like there was an inside joke there.
"Who else is going?" I asked, turning back to Kjell.
"The three of us," Kjell gestured to David, Aksel, and himself. I had thought as much, but I still felt my heart sink at the confirmation that Aksel would be there too. Kjell was still speaking, "And another guy from class, Alex."
In other words, the veritable sausage fest. I pursed my lips. "Is it okay if I bring a friend?" Tatiana and I had exchanged contacts at the end of the party that night, and she had in one of our frequent meet ups expressed interest in visiting Edinburgh's Camera Obscure.
"Of course," Kjell said, brightening at the thought. "Bring some girls!"
David laughed, then said something in quick, staccato Swedish.
Kjell burst out laughing and nudged David with his elbow. "Sorry," he said to me, "what he just said is too rude to translate. He's a rude guy, ignore him."
"I am not," David protested.
I smiled at their horseplay, then turned to the menu. "What are you guys getting?"
"Have you heard of Haggis, Neeps and Tattis?" Kjell asked. "It's a traditional dish in Scotland."
"Yeah, I'm definitely trying it today," David said. "How can you come to Scotland and not try their traditional food, right?"
"Me too," I said. "I've wanted to try it since I got here."
Everyone looked at Aksel.
"Okay," he said, shrugging.
"All right, so four Haggis," Kjell said, raising a hand to wave the waiter over. "We'll have four Haggis."
The waiter nodded, not even bothering to write down a note on his pad. He probably got that order a lot, especially from tourists. "Would you like any drinks with that?"
All three of them ordered various variations of beer. Then it was my turn.
"Um," I looked up from the menu, "could I have a bottle of Apple Cider, please?"
"No, no, no," Kjell interrupted, startling both the waiter and me. "Why are you so polite? You're the customer! You don't ask if you can have something, you say you want it. Be more confident!"
I snuck a glance at the waiter and saw that he was trying, rather unsuccessfully, to stifle his smile.
"Come on," Kjell said, spreading his hands, "try it!"
My neck was growing hot. "Ehm," I coughed and looked apologetically at the waiter still hovering at our table, "A bottle of Apple Cider... please."
The waiter gave mock bow and said, "As you wish, miss." He was grinning at me. I smiled back, weakly.
"You'll have to work on it," Kjell told me after the waiter had departed with our orders. "Don't worry – we'll keep reminding you." He winked at me.
I laughed. "Does it even matter?"
Kjell spread his hands wide, "Of course! When you're paying for something, you're the king. And kings don't ask for permission when they want something."
"It's called 'ordering' for a reason," David chimed in.
I shook my head, chuckling.
"Let her order how she wants," Aksel said.
I feigned shock. "Oh, he speaks."
He frowned at me, like he couldn't understand where this surge of hostility had come from. I wasn't quite sure either. All I knew was: if he hated me, I wanted to hate him back. "I'm helping you out."
"Well, maybe I don't need your help."
"Oh," Kjell commented, smirking at the two of us. "Our Emilie has claws."
I mock-hissed at him.
Aksel had lapsed back into silence, his face turned away from me.
I resolutely pushed away the little prick of guilt. He had been nothing but unfriendly since the day we had met. Why did I have to be nice to someone who only glared and said rude things to me? I didn't owe him anything.
The Haggis turned out to be delicious – an opinion that Kjell supported and David vehemently disagreed with – and the rest of the dinner went by in a flurry. Kjell's antics were entertaining as usual, overshadowing even the dark cloud that seemed to hang over Aksel's head. Still, by the time we were done eating, I was more than ready to call it a night.
Aksel's mere presence exhausted me.
Kjell and David tried to cajole me into joining them at a gathering with some other exchange students, but I was adamant about returning to my room. Maybe next time, I'd assured them. They walked part of the way with me before I took my leave.
"You won't get lost or anything, will you?" David asked.
I chuckled at that. "I'll be fine. You guys have fun."
"Good night!" With a wave of his hand, Kjell turned and lumbered off, with David following shortly after.
I felt a hand on the crook of my arm as I turned to leave as well. I turned around to see Aksel, his face half-hidden in the dim glow of the streetlights.
"Hey," he said, "do you have a problem with me?"
"I don't know," I said, tossing my head. Some loose strands of hair flew into my face, forcing me to tuck them behind my ear irritably before continuing, "Do you?"
"What's your problem with me? Why do you keep glaring at me?"
He dropped his arm, lowering his head even further so that I couldn't see his expression at all. "I do?"
"You hate me, don't you? So why do you care if I hate you back?"
He studied my defiant face for a minute. "You hate me because I hate you? Isn't that a bit juvenile?"
"So I'm juvenile," I shrugged. But I noticed he didn't deny his dislike for me. He opened his mouth to say something else, but I'd had enough of this conversation. Not even bothering with an excuse, I turned away and headed down the street.
He let me go without another word.
When I met up with the group the next day, with Tatiana at my side, I noticed two things at once.
First, that Aksel was resolutely looking at anywhere but me.
And second – Kjell was staring at Tatiana as if the sun rose and set with her.
I introduced Tatiana to the others, and in return had the new guy, Alex, introduced to me. He was a tall, dark-haired Greek, and he shook my hand wordlessly when we were introduced.
The minute I was alone, Kjell materialised beside me. "Emi," he whispered, his arm slung around my shoulders, "you never told me you had a goddess for a friend."
I laughed at the love-struck look on his face. "She's single, as far as I know."
"Ah," Kjell breathed. With his piece of information in mind, he straightened and walked away. Not a moment later, I saw him with Tatiana, both deep in conversation.
"Kjell is after your friend," David commented from behind me.
I laughed. "That's obvious. Did you see his face when we got here?"
The journey to Camera Obscura should have been uneventful. Kjell and Tatiana were lagging behind, seemingly caught up in each other. David and Alex, for their part, were engaged in a discussion about the state of the economy. That left Aksel and I walking in front. Aksel was being his usual quiet self. He seemed to have taken my words the previous night to heart, and was walking a slight distance away from me.
Pretty soon, we came to a pedestrian crossing. According to Kjell, who had surfaced from his Tatiana-induced fog long enough to announce this, all we had to do was cross the road and head down the left to reach the attraction.
And that was when I made the mistake.
I looked to the left to check for traffic, saw that there was none, and stepped out into the road. All of a sudden there was a loud blast of honking that almost startled me out of my skin. While I was swinging my head in the other direction, looking for the source of the noise, an arm wrapped itself around my mid-section and hauled me back onto the pavement.
A car shot past, barely missing me by an inch.
I'd instinctively clutched onto the arm that was around me. My back was pressed against someone's chest, and I had to crane my neck to look up at Aksel's tight jaw and narrowed eyes. He didn't look pleased at all.
"Thanks," I whispered, too shaken to say anything else, or even to let go of my grip on his forearm.
He didn't say anything, but he didn't let go either.
We stood there, still locked in an almost-hug, until the others caught up and swarmed around us.
"Are you all right?" Tatiana asked, her eyes wide with concern. Kjell started to smirk when his gaze fell on Aksel's arm around my waist.
"I'm fine," I said, swallowing hard. My heart was still pounding from the adrenaline rush. "It's stupid – I forgot they drive on the left here."
"He was supposed to slow down anyway," Aksel said, sounding disgruntled. "It's a pedestrian crossing."
For the first time since that near brush with death, I wondered if it wasn't me he was angry at, after all. Maybe he didn't hate me as much as I had thought.
Just as that thought flashed through my mind, he realised he was still holding me and all but shoved me away, taking a few steps backwards for a good measure. I stumbled a little from his sudden movement, reaching out to stabilise myself against the railing.
Nope. Still an asshole.
"Good thing Aksel was there, huh?" Kjell said, one corner of his lips curling upwards.
"Uh, yeah." I cleared my throat when everyone continued to stand around me, unmoving. "I'm fine. Let's go."
My little scare had caused a slight rearrangement in the group's walking formation. Tatiana had broken away from Kjell and was now beside me. The others were clustered behind us, and I could hear their voices rising and falling as they discussed what they had heard about Edinburgh's famous Camera Obscura.
I couldn't hear Aksel's voice, nor see him out of the peripheral of my vision, which almost made me turn to see where he was. I stopped myself just in time.
As it turned out, I hadn't needed to worry about it. In the next moment, I felt something brush against me as Aksel appeared to my left. I moved away from him instinctively, pushing Tatiana towards the inner side of the path as I did so. If Aksel noticed, he didn't give any indication of it.
Tatiana hooked an arm around mine as we walked on. When we were a further distance away from the rest, she leaned in towards me and whispered, "Told you, he likes you."
I wasn't following her train of thought. "Who?"
"Aksel," she said, her tone tinged with just a bit of exasperation.
"Do you Finns have your likes and dislikes mixed up?" I asked drily. "Because I don't see it."
"Didn't you see the way he went to walk on your left, so he'd be in between you and the road?"
I blinked. Was that what he had been doing? "It was just coincidence," I said.
She just laughed. "Trust me. He likes you."
"Okay," I said, dragging the word out. "Whatever you say."
She jabbed an elbow into my ribs. "You're both fighting it. That's fine. You'll see that I'm right."
Then the conversation turned to other things as we arrived at our destination. Throughout the tour, Tatiana stuck close to me. For some reason, Aksel was almost always within earshot, so we spoke about everything other than him.
Only at the souvenir shop at the end of the tour did I realise that Tatiana was no longer beside me. In fact, I could see none of the others, bar Aksel, who was hovering nearby, looking at the sticks of rock candy they were selling.
Shrugging, I moved through the shop, glancing around for souvenirs that caught my eye. Soon enough, I came to a stop in front of the keychain rack. I stared at the souvenir keychains for a long moment, trying to convert the price in my mind.
"Six euros," Aksel spoke up suddenly from behind.
I whirled around. "Uh?"
"Six euros," he repeated. "Five pounds is six euros."
"Oh," I said, snagging one of the keychains in the shape of Scotland off the rack. It was really expensive, but I wanted one as a souvenir. "It's stupid to keep converting, I know," I said, a little embarrassed that he'd had to catch me being so calculative. "Maybe it's the Asian in me," I tried to joke.
He shrugged. "I do it too."
"How much is it in... uh, your currency?"
He gave me an odd look. "Six euros."
"Oh," I could feel my face heating up. I felt very, very stupid. "Sorry, I forgot... The other Nordic countries have their own currencies."
"Yeah," he shrugged again, sounding like he could care less about the topic, "Finland is the only one that also uses the euro."
I made a face. "I should have known that. I keep doing these stupid things today." I laughed, a little embarrassed.
He shrugged. A normal person would've rushed in to say, no, you're just having an off-day – but not Aksel.
I gestured to the keychain I had taken, "I'll just... uh, go pay for this."
Disconcertingly, I found that he had followed me to the cashier. After paying for the keychain, I turned to him, albeit a little unwillingly. "Where are the others?"
"No idea." He didn't look too concerned.
"How can four people just vanish like that?"
He shrugged again.
I was quickly getting fed up with his lack of concern. "All right, I'm calling Tatiana." I didn't wait for his response, whipping out my phone to do just that. When the call went to voicemail, I ended the call without leaving a message.
"She didn't pick up," I told Aksel. An ominous feeling was starting to dawn on me. This couldn't be her idea of a childish prank?
"Yeah," Aksel said slowly. He was staring at me in a way that suggested I was missing something.
"Okay," I said, shoving my hands into the pockets of my jeans. "So... What happens now?"
He shrugged again. "I'm hungry. You?"
And that was how I found myself sitting in a cosy little cafe alone with Aksel that afternoon.
We ate in silence, neither of us speaking a word or even acknowledging the presence of the other for a good part of the hour.
I finished my sandwich long after he had, looking up to see his gaze flit away quickly, like he had been watching me while I hadn't been paying attention. I dabbed at my lips with a serviette, suddenly self-conscious.
"You done?" Aksel asked brusquely.
I gestured to my half-full mug of coffee. "Not really... You can leave first if you want to, though."
He remained unmoving in his chair.
"It's kinda strange, isn't it?" I asked, feeling awkward in the silence now that I knew he was waiting for me. "The rest of them vanishing like that."
"More like trying to play matchmaker," he muttered.
My eyes widened. He looked up at me, a grimace crossing his face when he realised I'd heard. He had probably been speaking more to himself than to me.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'm not interested." He was focusing very hard on his empty plate as he said this.
"Okay." I tried to say this breezily, like his casual rejection hadn't bothered me even a little.
There was a bit of a silence before I said, laughing awkwardly, "Bet you wish it was Tatiana here instead of me, huh?"
His gaze shifted to land on my face briefly, before he looked away again. "It would've been better, probably," he muttered.
"So... You're interested in her?" I asked, schooling my voice to sound casual. A little of what I was feeling must have leaked out, because Aksel glanced sharply at me.
He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "She's pretty. For a fling... I wouldn't mind."
I willed the rising sourness in my stomach away. He was little more than a stranger to me. Why should I care whether he found Tatiana attractive, or that he was open to having a fling with her?
But why – why did I feel like crying?
"Okay," I said, forcing my voice into a chipper tone. I tried to laugh, "You should probably know, though, that Kjell is after her too."
Aksel was still speaking. "She's safe."
I was looking down at my plate now. "Huh?"
"She's safe. Being with her would be safe because I know it'd be only a physical thing. There are no emotions involved."
"How do you know for sure? You might fall in love with her after a while."
"You never know," I said, even though I wanted to bite my tongue afterwards. What was I trying to do – push Aksel to admit that falling for Tatiana was a real possibility?
"It will never happen," the certainty in his voice was slightly reassuring, even if I would never admit it. "Not with her."
"Why not?" I pressed. "She's gorgeous. And she's nice."
His jaw was set. "So?"
I rolled my eyes. Guys. Even perfection was never enough for them.
"You sound like a total jerk," I said.
He didn't say anything back.
"So, a fuck buddy is all you're looking for? None of that romantic, gushy, mushy love stuff?"
"We're only here for half a year," he said. He had turned his face away from me. "It's impractical to fall in love. At the end of six months, I want to leave without a broken heart."
"Love isn't something that can be manipulated to suit your convenience, you know."
From my angle, I could only see his side profile. His gaze was narrowed, trained on a spot that only he could see. "I know." He said this very, very quietly.
There was a story here. "You've been in love?" And I wondered why my heart was clenching at the thought of a faceless, nameless girl – in my mind she was a tall, slender blonde not unlike Tatiana – who had ensnared his heart so tightly, enough to put this expression of pain and longing on his face.
His eyes slid over to meet mine. There was a flat darkness in his gaze. "Could be," he said finally. "But I'll never find out."
Then he stood up, not even bothering to look back to see if I was following, and headed for the exit.
Unbelievably, I was beginning to form some kind of rapport with Aksel.
It was strange. In terms of friendship, I felt closer to Kjell and the others – we were always hanging out, always joking with each other. But Aksel...
Aksel, I realised, was the only person privy to my innermost thoughts. We never spoke much, but when we did, it was about all the things I had no desire to divulge to the others. Maybe it was because he was a little more than a stranger to me. It was easier to talk about these things, because I didn't much care what he thought of me.
This feeling didn't seem to be mutual, however. He remained tight-lipped all the way from the cafe to our dorms. Our little heart-to-heart was, obviously, over.
That night, when Tatiana barrelled into my room with a smirk, I realised that Aksel had been right. They had been trying to play Cupid by leaving the two of us alone.
"So?" Tatiana asked, grinning widely. "How was it?"
I rolled my eyes. "What are you, twelve? Who plays a prank like that anymore?"
"You two needed more time alone," she defended herself.
"Stop playing Cupid," I said drily. "It's never going to happen." Because he's more attracted to you than to me.
She'd been disappointed, but hadn't pushed.
And that had been that.
Or so I'd thought.
The next time I ran into Aksel, it was at yet another dorm party. There was one every Friday night, and I had found myself alone again that particular weekend. Kjell and David were hanging out with a bunch of guys from their faculty, and Tatiana was down with the flu. I had teased her for that, pointing out that Finland had to be much colder than Edinburgh, but she had only swatted me away and told me to leave her in peace. Since I didn't feel like staying in that night, I decided to head to the party alone. If there was no one I knew there, I could leave anytime.
The room was crowded when I walked in, but I couldn't have missed Aksel even if I had tried. He was leaning against the wall right next to the door, nursing a beer like the party already bored him.
I walked by him, hesitated, then decided it would be rude if I didn't say anything. "Hey," I said, nodding at him in the way guys sometimes did at each other.
He raised his eyebrows, but replied, "Hey."
Satisfied I had done my part as a polite dormmate, I moved away and headed for the table where the beer was.
"Hello," a male voice fairly purred in my ear.
I about jumped out of my skin. I whirled around and saw a really cute guy standing close behind me, smiling. His teeth glinted like white pearls. I blinked, more than a little dazzled.
"I'm Jake," he said, offering his hand. "What's your name?"
"Emilie," I said, shaking his hand. He continued holding onto it, even after the handshake was long over.
"Pretty name for a pretty girl," he said. He had dark brown eyes at sparkled at me.
I felt a flush climb up my neck. Nobody had said that to me before. It had always been - 'where are you from?', or 'you're biracial?' It was refreshing that he hadn't even asked where I was from.
"Um," I stuttered. "Thanks."
"What do you think of this party? Kinda boring, eh?"
"I guess. I just got here."
"Then you need a bottle of beer," he said, heading for the table. He still hadn't let go of my hand, and I found myself following as if in a trance. He took a bottle, got rid of the cap with a well-practised twist, and offered it to me. I accepted it with a murmur of thanks.
He took another beer for himself, still smiling at me. "So, hey - what do you say we get out of here?"
I stared. Did he mean what it sounded like he meant? I had never gotten an invitation like this before.
"Well, it's fine if you don't want to," he backtracked, when I was silent for too long.
"I..." I stammered, "I don't know. Maybe later? I just got here..."
He smiled at me. "If you change your mind, you know where to find me."
My heart pounding and in a daze, I wandered away without paying much attention to where I was going. In the end, I found myself back where I had started – right beside Aksel by the door.
"We just keep running into each other, don't we?" I sighed.
He shrugged. "Some people would say it was fate."
I laughed, sure he wasn't serious. Since I'd met him, he had made his disinterest in me all too evident. "Yeah, right."
I sipped at my beer, my mind still fuzzy from what had just happened. To take my mind off it, I turned to Aksel. "Why are you standing by the door, like you're ready to leave any second?"
"Maybe I am," he said.
"Why bother coming, then?"
"For the beer." The expression on his face told me he was telling the truth.
I shook my head. "Why not just grab a bottle or two, then sneak off back to your room?"
"That's rude," he said.
I laughed at the sheer irony of it.
We stood there, leaning against the wall in what could be called companionable silence, before I spoke again.
"You know, some guy propositioned me just now."
Aksel's gaze sharpened, and he stood up straighter. "What?"
Something about his tone rubbed me the wrong way. "What, you think I'm lying?"
"More like I hope you are," he muttered, almost under his breath.
"Just because you don't like me," I said defensively, "doesn't mean someone else won't. He said my name is a pretty name for a pretty girl." It was embarrassing, repeating his words out loud.
Aksel's lip curled in disgust. "Who the hell is this Casanova and where did he download his pick-up lines from?"
I glared back. What was that supposed to mean? Couldn't some other guy find me attractive? Just because he had no interest in me...
"Just because you don't find me pretty..."
His eyes narrowed. "That's not the issue here."
My chin lifted a notch. "You know what? Maybe I will sleep with him after all."
I hadn't really planned on doing that, but now that the idea had taken root in my mind, I found that it had some merit. Why not? I was on exchange, in a foreign country with foreign boys, and everyone deserved at least one fling. Looking at people pairing off subtly in front of me, I knew most of the other international students thought the same. Even Aksel had said he would sleep with Tatiana, if given the chance. I was lonely, this was a party, and nobody had said such nice things to me before – why not? I'd never done anything crazy, anything exciting. Wasn't it time to break out of my shell?
Aksel's expression changed so quickly that I would've found it amusing, if I hadn't been so caught up in my own thoughts.
I vaguely heard Aksel's question of disbelief, but I paid him no mind. I was searching through the crowd for that guy, Jake. He was close to where I had left him, still nursing his beer. As if feeling my gaze on him, he looked up. Our eyes met. After a long moment's eye contact, he smiled at me.
I smiled back, feeling my cheeks heat. He had laid it on a bit too thick, yes, but he was cute. Maybe, if he came over, I would say yes this time.
That was before Aksel stepped in front of me, cutting off the blossoming connection.
"Hey," I complained, "what are you doing?"
I tried to push past him, but he wouldn't budge. I tiptoed to try and look over his shoulder, but he was too tall. Huffing, I turned on my heel and prepared to wriggle through the crowd to approach Jake myself.
But I couldn't shake Aksel. He followed silently behind me, like a surly bodyguard. Jake took one look at him and turned his back.
Feeling thwarted, I stomped back to the door. When Aksel followed, I shoved him outside into the empty hallway and turned on him in a temper.
"What the hell are you doing? Why are you cockblocking me?" I demanded.
Hands shoved deep into his pockets, he simply stood there and stared down at me.
"What is this 'cockblocking'?" He sounded just as annoyed as I was. "It sounds vulgar as hell."
"You sound vulgar as hell," I muttered. "Look, I don't know what's wrong with you all of a sudden, but lay off! You're worse than a chastity belt!"
"Good," he said, his mouth drawn into a thin line.
"What do you mean, 'good'?" I pitched my voice higher on the last word to mock his use of it. "Not good! I want to go to Jake, and I can't do that if you keep standing around like that!"
Aksel looked annoyed. "Why the fuck would you want to sleep with some sleazy guy with insincere, pretty words?"
"I don't know, maybe because I'm sick of people like you who don't have anything nice to say to me!" I snapped.
"You're drunk," he said. "I'll walk you back to your room."
"Don't be stupid," I scoffed. "It's right upstairs. Besides, I've only had one beer."
"You shouldn't be drinking if you're allergic to alcohol," he said.
I rolled my eyes. "Yes, Papa."
He glared at me. The sight of his creased brow, narrowed eyes and flared nostrils told me he was at the end of his rope with me.
"You're not the boss of me," I said, tossing my hair. "I'm on exchange and I want to find a hot, foreign boy to sleep with. Now, as they say in Britain – sod off."
A hand around my wrist stopped me in my tracks. "You're going to lose your virginity to the first random guy who tells you stuff you want to hear?" Aksel asked bluntly. "He doesn't know you. He doesn't care about you. He's not going to do it right."
I snatched my hand back. "Who says I'm a virgin?"
He stared at me. I saw very real confusion cross his face. "You're not?"
"That's none of your business," I snapped.
"But you look–"
"What, innocent, demure?" I rolled my eyes again. I had heard it all before. My friends, back in Hamburg, had even gotten into the habit of pretending to cover my ears whenever they talked about sex.
"Twelve," he said. "You look twelve."
I glared at him. "And any guy attracted to me would have to be a paedophile, is that it?"
That stopped him short. He shoved his hands back into his pockets, scowling like I had insulted him personally. "No."
"If you're worried about protecting my chastity," I mocked, "don't bother. I'm twenty, not twelve. I know what I'm doing."
"You know," he said, in an over-casual tone of voice, "I read somewhere that they did a survey once, and Germans came out as the least likely in Europe to engage in one-night stands."
"Don't you know?" I asked, my voice mocking, "I'm not a real German."
"Shut up," he said harshly, suddenly, "don't keep repeating some throwaway remark a stranger made as if it's some kind of gospel truth."
I screwed up my face but didn't say anything. After a long beat, I felt all the annoyance drain out of me. I didn't know what his motive was, but he was, in his own way, just trying to look out for me. I admitted, "I've never had a one-night stand." I didn't add that the only guy I'd ever slept with was my ex-boyfriend back in high school. I didn't know why I was suddenly so adamant about having a one-night stand tonight. Maybe I just wanted to do something crazy. Something not me.
Being me was boring.
"Me neither." His reply was so swift I had to wonder if he had already guessed what I had been about to say.
"Really?" I strove to match the casual tone he had just used a minute ago, "I read somewhere that Finns are the most promiscuous in the Western world. One-night stands are practically a way of life in Finland. People sleep together without ever finding out other person's surname."
He blinked, his lips thinning briefly. "Maybe we shouldn't believe everything we read."
"Are you saying it's not true?"
"I'm saying it's not true for me. I am one person; I can't speak for the whole of Finland."
"I've heard about the attitudes towards casual sex in Finland, though," I said. "Is it true? That you sleep together even before dating?"
"I don't do that, but... Yeah. Some people do. Sex is a natural human need. There's no need to make things complicated."
"So it's the norm? Even for girls?"
He looked surprised I had even thought to ask that. "Of course. What men can do, women can do too. It makes no sense for women to be judged for something when the men are not."
I chuckled. I'd heard something of the progress of gender equality in the Nordic countries, especially in Finland. It was quite refreshing to see a guy treat the usual double-standard like a foreign concept. Then what he'd just said hit me. "Wait. Isn't this hypocritical? It's okay for Finnish girls to have casual sex, but when I try to do it, you no longer support gender equality?"
He glared at me. "This has nothing to do with gender equality."
"You said you'd sleep with Tatiana if you could," I reminded him, even though just saying the words left a bitter taste in my mouth, "but you've just spent the whole night blocking all my attempts to find a hot, foreign boy to sleep with. What's that about?"
He opened his mouth to answer, then changed his mind and shut it again.
"Cat got your tongue?" I asked slyly.
A hard glint came into his eye right then. "Then, what about me?"
I was thrown by the sudden change in topic. "What?"
"What about me? Or am I not foreign enough for you?"
It was on the tip of my tongue to snap that he wasn't hot enough, but that would've been a lie. I looked up slowly, finding myself trapped in those smouldering, ice-blue eyes.
"Are you drunk?" I asked, feeling my heart start to thud erratically. "What's wrong with you tonight?"
For the first time, I saw him lose hold on the icy control he had draped around him like a cloak from the moment we had met. As that cloak fluttered to the ground, he leaned into my face, letting me see the full force of his desire through his dilated eyes, and growled out, "What's wrong is that I want you!"
I felt my lips part of their own volition as I stared at him.
He swung away angrily, scowling like he had said too much. He had gotten halfway down the hall before I snapped out of my daze.
It wasn't an easy feat, trying to catch up with him. He had long legs – that, added to his quick walking pace, ensured that he was always more than two or three metres ahead of me.
I finally caught up with him at the door to his room. He was just stepping inside when I tackled him from behind and sent the both of us sprawling. Winded, we both lay unmoving in the middle of his room for a while, before I realised I was all but lying on him and scrambled to get off.
"Fuck," he muttered, turning over so that he was lying on his back but making no move to get up.
"You can't..." I had to stop to catch my breath before continuing. "You can't say something like that and then run off."
"I wasn't running."
I bit my lip, unsure of how to broach the topic. "You said..."
"So, any guy will do? Any Tom, Dick or Harry who tells you he wants you? And you call Finns promiscuous?"
I shrank back a little at his harsh tone. "Not any guy," I said in a small voice.
Just a guy that I had been attracted to from the moment he laid his cold blue eyes on me, but had never seemed interested before tonight. I'd tried hating him because it had seemed like he hated me, but that hadn't worked out so well.
"Weren't you ready to jump into bed with this Casanova who told you you were pretty? And then now you're ready to be with me?"
I leaned my head back to scowl at the ceiling. "You're a hypocrite. You're the one who said sex is a natural human need, but now you're judging me for it?"
He didn't say anything.
We sat in silence for a stretched-out moment – a moment in which I felt my annoyance ebb away. A hot tingle was rising to fill its place.
"Since I'm here and you already think I'm promiscuous anyway," I said, my voice wobbling a little, "why don't we have sex?"
I could've sworn he stopped breathing for a moment. "What kind of proposition is that?"
"A convenient one." But my heart was thumping hard in my chest. "You're Finnish, aren't you? Why make sex complicated?"
Experimentally, I reached out and ran my hands over his chest. I had always thought of him as tall and kind of thin, so feeling the lean muscles of his chest came as quite a shock.
His resistance only lasted the breath of one second.
His kiss was fury and fireworks all rolled into one. My heart leapt at this proof that the attraction hadn't been one-sided. He really did want me. He brushed his tongue over my lips, asking a silent question. I opened my mouth in unspoken permission.
After I had all but melted against him, he raised his head to look into my eyes. "Don't believe all the stereotypes you hear," he murmured. "I don't do this with just anyone."
"Yeah." His eyes glittered. "And I don't think you're promiscuous. Just too eager to believe sleazy, silver-tongued guys."
Then he kissed me again, cutting off any reply I might have made. This time, we didn't part for breath until my back was flat on the bed and he was propped up on his elbows above me.
"We're going to regret this tomorrow," he muttered, lifting his head briefly to look into my face. His fingers fluttered over my temple, lightly pushing back my hair.
"Why? Everyone gets to have at least one one-night stand when they go on exchange." I pulled his head down again. He went willingly, fusing his lips to mine in another hot, open-mouthed kiss. Then his lips left mine to trail down my neck, my collarbone...
I whispered, "Condom?"
He stretched out, reaching over me to yank open the drawer in the end table. After rustling around for a moment, he held up a small square packet.
Remembering that day, so long ago, when I'd drunk myself into a stupor and woken up in his room, I couldn't help but laugh. "You really have everything in here."
"Last chance to change your mind," he said, almost warningly.
I took the packet from him, put it in between my teeth, and tore it open in one swift move. "It's already too late."
It wasn't something I was particularly proud of, slipping out of Aksel's room at five in the morning. Not that I'd had any prior experience in the area, but wasn't this the way one-night stands usually went? Get going before the guy woke up and kicked you out himself.
I wasn't waiting around to witness his regret first thing in the morning when he opened his eyes and saw me in his bed. Besides, it was a single bed. It was large for me, but he was a full-grown European male. I had forgotten how we had fallen asleep, but I had woken up on my side, with my back against his chest. He had been squashed up against the wall, one arm thrown over me. It had taken a lot of patient navigating to slip out without waking him.
Then I had scurried down the hall and back into my own room.
The following week or two were spent avoiding him to the best of my abilities, which, I was proud to say, was quite well. Still, I always knew the other shoe had to drop.
My luck ran out on Tuesday night, when I shuffled into the kitchen to cook myself dinner. My last class had only ended at seven thirty, and I was starving by the time I got back. Avoiding Aksel was the last thing on my mind at that point.
So, naturally, I ran straight into him.
He was in the kitchen when I walked in, stirring something in a pot on the stove. He looked up at the sound of the door opening and we both froze when our eyes met.
He recovered first. "Hi," he said.
I cleared my throat. "Hi." Jerking into action from where I had been rooted to the spot, I moved over to the shared refrigerator and busied myself with taking out the ingredients I needed.
"I have spaghetti," Aksel said, his voice sounding oddly strained. "You want some?"
I jumped at the sound of him speaking. "Uh," I said without turning around, "it's fine, thanks. I've got my own food."
Trying my best to ignore his presence, I headed for the electric stove and flicked the switch on. As I cooked, I couldn't stop my gaze from drifting back towards him. His sauce had boiled and he was now standing at the counter, his back towards me. I watched the shifting of the muscles in his back beneath his white shirt as he emptied the pot of sauce into a large container.
I took a deep breath and forced my eyes back onto my dinner preparations. I hated that he looked as calm and indifferent as ever. Sex, to him, really was nothing complicated.
I was so caught up in my own whirlwind of thoughts that I didn't realise I had reached for the side of the pan instead of the insulated handle until a burst of pain exploded in my right hand.
"Scheiße!" I instinctively reverted to the German curse as I jumped back, clutching my burnt hand in the other. Wordlessly, Aksel turned on the faucet and stepped back from the sink. I stuck my hand under the running water and watched as he went around the counter to head for the stove.
"You don't know how to do anything," he said.
"Don't be rude," I muttered. I had been cooking for myself for two years; of course I knew how to do it. It was his fault. His hulking presence in this tiny kitchen was making me jittery.
He grabbed my spatula and poked at the mixture in the pan. "Scrambled eggs?"
The silence settled over us as I watched from beside the sink as he took over my cooking. I looked at the muscles in his arm move as he scraped at the pan to scramble the eggs, at the way his head was bent and his brow was creased as he concentrated on the pan...
Suddenly, it wasn't just my hand that felt hot; my entire body felt like it was burning from the inside.
He finally turned off the stove and walked back over to me. "Done," he said, reaching out to grasp the hand I had burnt. A burn that I could no longer feel. "Is your..." Then he looked at me for the first time since he had taken over at the stove and his voice trailed off.
I didn't know what he was seeing in my face, but I saw his gaze drop to hover across my lips. I felt my tongue snake out, involuntarily, to wet my lips.
He took a step closer.
Then, all at once, we were pressed against each other, kissing as if our lives depended on it.
We barely managed to make it out of the kitchen into his room.
Only after it was over and we were lying entangled in each other, trying to catch our breaths, did the interrupted dinner preparations occur to me. I shoved Aksel away in one swift move. "Crap! Dinner!"
Even though I was the first one out of bed, Aksel was already dressed and out the door by the time I'd thrown on my clothes. I rushed into the kitchen to see him filling a container with pasta, before taking two bowls out of the cupboard overhead.
I was still scraping my egg into a bowl when he came over and silently handed me a bowl of pasta. "I don't need–" I tried to say, but he took my bowl of egg and emptied it on top of the pasta.
"There," he said.
I stared at the hybrid dish. "That's gross."
He shrugged, moving out of the door. Then he hesitated and looked back at me, "You coming?"
I stared at him blankly. Going where?
Five minutes later, I found myself sitting on Aksel's bed in his room, bowl of pasta in hand. He was slouched back in his chair by his desk, digging into his own. I watched him for a while, wondering why he had invited me to eat with him if he wasn't even going to look at me.
Was he really a jerk, or just socially awkward? Or maybe things were just done differently in Finland. I honestly couldn't tell.
Deciding that this wasn't going to be the day I figured out the mystery that was Aksel, I lifted my fork and bit into my pasta. It was a little soggy, but that probably couldn't have been helped. "So," I said, between bites, "I guess this is going to be happening again."
I heard him exhale a little louder and longer than was necessary. "I guess so," he said, sounding pained.
"I know you can't stand being attracted to me," I said, glaring into my spaghetti, "but this goes both ways, okay? I don't really want to be sleeping with a guy who hates me so much, either."
"I don't hate you." His response was sullen, directly contradicting his words.
"It doesn't matter," I said, even though it did, a little bit. "We're not friends – you don't have to like me."
"I don't hate you," he repeated edgily. "I wouldn't sleep with you if I hated you."
"Um, fine," I said.
We fell back into silence, the occasional clink of cutlery the only noise in the room.
"You're a good cook," I said. Then I wondered why I was trying to strike up conversation.
"Yeah, well," was all he said.
I scowled. This guy wasn't even trying!
"Do you usually cook a lot at once?" I pressed on, remembering that he had put a lot of what he'd cooked into containers.
He shrugged. "Yeah, I usually cook a week's worth in advance."
I scrunched up my nose. "Don't you get sick of eating the same thing everyday for a week?"
"Sometimes, yeah. But it's convenient."
"You're lazy," I said.
He looked unrepentant. "I am."
"You're kind of rude, too."
"You're in my room, on my bed, eating my food while insulting me," he said without missing a beat, "and you're calling me rude?"
I felt my cheeks grow hot, but I didn't apologise. "Well, maybe I'm rude too, but that doesn't mean you're not."
He sat back in his chair. "Okay."
"See?" I asked, gesturing with my fork, "this is what I mean."
"Don't get any of it on my bed," he said.
I stuck the fork back into the bowl. "Why did you invite me in if you're not going to talk to me?"
"I am talking to you," he said, in a tone that suggested I was just a wee bit thick.
I sighed. "Never mind."
I'd thought that would be the end of that, but he spoke after a while. "You're dangerous."
"You're dangerous," he repeated. He had lowered his head, and I couldn't see his expression.
I laughed, the sound vibrating in the otherwise quiet air. "What are you talking about?" When he didn't reply, I added, a little offended, "I don't sleep around. I'm clean."
"I didn't mean that."
"I'm not going to get all clingy either. I know what casual means."
"It's not always about you. Did you think about that?"
It was my turn to fall silent.
"When people stare at you, or ignore you, you assume it's because they think you don't belong. That you're not European enough, or not Asian enough. What the hell is that? Nobody goes around thinking about your heritage all the time. You're too hung up on yourself."
"Who isn't?" I found that my hand had clenched into a fist, and tried to relax it. "People only ever see things from their own perspectives. When something happens, I only see it from my own perspective. I can only interpret events from my perspective. It's the best I can do, to make sense of things. Everyone does that, subconsciously. If they didn't, there wouldn't be so many misunderstandings in the world."
"You said it," he said flatly. "It causes misunderstandings."
"So explain!" I exclaimed, throwing my hands up in exasperation. Almost too late, I remembered I still had a bowl in one hand and lowered it. "I'm not a mind reader."
"I don't want to."
A sound much like a cross between laughter and a sigh of exasperation escaped my mouth. "You are such a jerk."
"Then why are you still here?" he asked mildly.
I huffed, but without much heat behind it. Maybe I was getting used to his rudeness. "Why are you like this?" Without waiting for an answer – and if I knew Aksel, none was forthcoming anyway – I surged to my feet and headed for the door.
He caught the door just as I went to slam it. If I had been expecting an apology, I would've been disappointed.
"Good night," I heard him say, before the door clicked shut. I was left alone, standing at his door, shaking my head in bewilderment.
Before I left for class at 9 A.M. the next morning, I took a detour up to the third storey and rapped on Aksel's door.
"What's your surname?" I demanded without preamble, when the door swung open and he stood in its frame, squinting blearily at me.
"Hä?" he asked, looking in all the world like a grouchy bear roused from his winter hibernation. It was obvious I had woken him before he'd needed to be awake. His hair was standing up all over the place and he didn't even have a shirt on.
"Aren't you cold?" I asked, distracted for a moment. It was freezing in the hallway. Then again, it wasn't like his room was any warmer.
He said something, something that sounded to my unpractised ear like 'mitah sanoit'.
"I don't speak Finnish," I said drily, then rolled my eyes. "Oh, never mind. Just tell me your surname and I'll let you go back to sleep."
It had occurred to me the night before that I had already slept with him twice, but didn't even know his family name. So much for Finnish stereotypes, I'd scoffed at myself. I wasn't Finnish and I was conforming to the damned stereotype.
He said something else, in what still sounded to be Finnish. Something long. The only thing I caught was that it seemed to have started with a T.
"Do you only speak Finnish in the mornings, or what?" I asked.
He snorted, and a corner of his mouth cranked upward. "It's my surname," he said in English. "Aksel Toivonen."
"Oh." I cleared my throat, embarrassed. "Okay. Mine is–"
"Hoffmann," he finished. "I know."
"Oh." The wind thoroughly taken out of my sails, I pursed my lips at him.
"No reason," I hedged, turning away. "Go back to sleep. Bye."
He came out to the hallway after me. "Is this about your stupid stereotypes again?"
"Rude," I said, turning around to glare at him. Then I realised he was wearing neither a shirt nor socks. I was wearing my winter coat. "What the hell? Do you prance about naked in the ice or something back in Finland?"
He shrugged. "Pretty much."
I shot him an aghast look, before seeing the twitch of his lips. "Very funny," I muttered. He seemed to be in a mischievous mood this morning – as mischievous as he could get, I supposed. That expression on another person would've probably equated hysteria.
"So?" he asked, looking like he was waiting for an answer.
"Is this about your stupid stereotypes?"
"It was just a thought," I mumbled.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a lock turning and a door swung open before I could duck down the stairs. A girl walked out of her room, stopping in surprise when she saw us in the hallway.
"Hey," she said to Aksel, including me in her smile.
"Hey," he replied, smiling back at her. It was a faint quirk of the lips, but it was more than anything I had ever gotten out of him.
Her eyes swept over him and her smile grew bigger. "What are you doing out here dressed like that?"
He shrugged. "It's an old Finnish tradition. Keeps away the evil spirits." He glanced sideways at me, "Seems it didn't work today, though."
I stared at him in disbelief. He was making a joke. At my expense. He was joking with her! Who was she?
She laughed and reached out to slap him lightly on the arm. "Manners," she reminded him, rolling her eyes. "Look, I've got to run, but catch up with you soon?"
"Yeah," he said. "See you."
"Morning," she greeted me as she passed in her way down the stairs.
I started. "Morning," I mumbled, but she was already gone.
Aksel eyed me for a moment, then shook his head and headed for his room. Effectively dismissing me.
"Who is she?" I asked, striving for a casual tone. I'd almost succeeded, too, until my mouth disconnected with my brain and added, "Have you slept with her, too?"
He turned around and shot me a withering glare. Without answering, he stepped into his room and slammed the door behind him.
I bit my lip. Well – hell. That hadn't been the best thing to ask. But how was I to know? He was nicer to every other girl than he was to me.
"That's what makes you special," Tatiana told me, later in the day. She had come over to hang out in my room, and we were both seated on my bed. She had discovered some glittery nail polish I'd packed and was busy at work on her nails. I, on the other hand, was leaning against the wall with my laptop perched on my thighs.
I snorted at her analysis of Aksel's actions towards me. "Nonsense."
"Trust me," Tatiana advised, "it makes perfect sense." She sat back, examining her newly-coated fingernails with a satisfied air. "Besides, I was right, wasn't I? About him liking you."
I rolled my eyes. "He doesn't like me. It's just sex. Sex is a natural human need." That was what he'd said, that first night we'd slept together.
Tatiana paused. "Well – yeah. But it's not just sex with you two. There's... something else."
"Whatever," I muttered, not believing her for a moment. I wasn't as cavalier about sex as Aksel apparently was, but even I knew that 'something else' had no place in a one-night stand.
Well, two one-night stands.
He was angry with me.
I didn't know how I could tell, but it was somehow obvious. If I had thought he had been almost-hostile in those days before we'd slept together, he was positively glacial now.
Tatiana and I spent the whole of Sunday night hanging out in the kitchen of our block with Kjell, David, and some other exchange students – including Aksel. He didn't even glance in my direction, however. The closest he got was when he came over briefly to talk to Kjell and David, but even then he kept his full attention on them and left as soon as Kjell tried to draw me into the conversation. I hadn't realised how much Aksel had gone out of his way to hang around me until he no longer did.
And that realisation made me angry.
What was his problem? The guy was moody as hell. I'd put up with all his hostile glares and rude comments; he could cut me some slack over a thoughtless, throwaway question.
Tatiana was eyeing me knowingly. "Something happen between you two?"
I made a moue but said nothing.
"You two have been dancing around each other like two bad-tempered reindeer all day."
I held back a grin. Bad-tempered reindeer? This was so... Finnish.
"I think even Kjell has noticed," she continued.
I snorted. Kjell was so wrapped up in Tatiana, I doubted he would notice if the sky fell down on him.
Tatiana laughed, correctly interpreting my snort. "Okay, maybe not Kjell," she relented. "David, though."
"Yeah, well," I said, "There's nothing going on. Nothing that I'm going to do anything about, anyway."
Tatiana raised an eyebrow, but let it be. "I'm getting us more beer," she announced instead. "You want another?"
"Um..." It was on the tip of my tongue to reject her offer when I saw Aksel turn from two feet away and glower at me. He was part of a conversation with a few other people that I didn't recognise, but he had apparently been eavesdropping on us. Raising my head defiantly, I declared, in a voice that probably carried right down all the way to England, "In fact, yeah. I feel in the mood for another bottle or four." Several people turned around to stare at me, and I reached up to rub at the back of my neck uncomfortably.
Tatiana looked at me like I'd grown two heads. "Okay," she said slowly, "I'll get you another." She slipped out of her seat to head for the fridge.
Her seat didn't remain empty for long. A shadow fell over me and there was the light screech of chair legs against the floor, and then I looked up to see Aksel sitting down beside me. He saw me looking and held my gaze, his expression curiously blank.
"I thought you were ignoring me?" I asked snarkily.
Kjell laughed before Aksel could reply. He was leaning against the wall beside the table, since the rest of the seats were being occupied by another group deeply immersed in their own conversation. He shrugged unapologetically when we both turned to glare at him. "It's funny," he said, still grinning. "Emi is usually so easygoing and even a little bit shy, but when it comes to Aksel, the claws come out."
David muttered something in Swedish that made Kjell chortle and Aksel turn an icy glare on him.
"Wait, you understand what he said?" I asked Aksel, momentarily forgetting that I was angry with him too. "You know Swedish?"
Aksel shrugged. "Had to learn it in school."
"How many languages do you know, then?"
"Four?" He shrugged again. "And a bit of French." I counted them off in my head – Finnish, English, German, and now Swedish. Plus 'a bit of' French. If he was as good at the other languages as he was at English, he would practically be a walking translator.
"I've heard that Finns are very good at foreign languages, way above the European average," I mused.
"More stereotypes?" he asked.
"This is a good one, isn't it?"
I happened to glance over at Kjell at that point and saw that David had joined him in watching us with rapt attention. Kjell spoke up now, "The two of you..."
Tatiana returned at right this moment, cutting off Kjell's statement when she slid a glass bottle towards me. She eyed Aksel briefly, as if internally debating if she wanted to force him out of her seat, then shrugged and went over to Kjell. He turned to her, sliding an arm over her waist. I frowned at her, and she gave me a sunny smile.
"Thanks," I told her, half-sarcastically, before reaching for the beer – only to encounter air as it was swiped from right under my nose. My head snapped to the side. Not looking at me, Aksel popped off the cap using the edge of the table as a lever, before calmly taking a long swig.
"That was mine!" I was aghast.
Aksel paid me no mind, lowering the bottle back onto the table. But he left his fingers curled protectively over around it. He levelled a challenging look at me, as if to say, what are you going to do now?
Tightening my lips, I made to get out of my seat so I could get myself a new bottle, but Aksel's hand closed over my wrist. "Don't," he said in my ear.
"I've been drinking way before you ever came along," I snapped. "I don't need you hovering, trying to protect me or something."
He sat, looking at me with glittering ice-blue eyes, and I took the chance to try to steal my beer back. Distracted, he had loosened his grip on the bottle. I raised it triumphantly when it was in my hand. "Don't try to come between a German and their beer," I joked.
"So you're a 'real German' now?" was his reply.
I rolled my eyes. Hadn't he been the one who'd berated me when I'd repeated that quote? Now he was the one doing it when it suited him. When I lifted the bottle to my lips regardless, he added, "I just drank from that."
I raised my eyebrows. We'd already done far more than swap saliva. What did he think I was – a five-year-old scared of cooties? Defiantly, I put the rim to my lips and drank.
His lips curled upward, just the slightest bit. Mesmerised by that barely-there smile, I found myself absently lowering the bottle in my hand.
We stared at each other, frozen in the moment.
"Whoa," Kjell's voice broke through my reverie. "Okay. What's going on between you two?"
His innocuous question snapped Aksel into action. "It's late," he said, not looking at any of us, least of all me, "I'm going." Without another word, he pushed his chair back and rose.
We all watched him shoulder his way through the other groups of people clustered around the kitchen. I turned back to Kjell and saw that he and David were exchanging a look – something they had always done with regard to Aksel and me. I now understood why. "Sorry," I said. "Seems like he hates it when people link me to him in any way."
"Why are you apologising for him?" David asked slyly. "Are you two together?"
I coughed, pulling the beer bottle away from my lips. Tears came into my eyes as I tried to expel the liquid that had gone down the wrong pipe. "No!"
Tatiana was smirking at me, the fiend.
I shot them a dirty look. "Since all of you have nothing better to do than gang up on me," I announced, pushing to my feet, "I'm off to bed." I eyed the still-full bottle of beer sitting atop the table, then decided to leave it. I hadn't really wanted it, anyway.
Kjell raised an eyebrow. "Aksel's bed?"
I exhaled loudly and rolled my eyes. Then I turned my back on them.
"She's even starting to act like him," I heard Tatiana say, from behind. Traitor.
Shaking my head at their laughter, I made for the kitchen door. I was about to slip out when Tatiana appeared beside me.
"Aw, don't go," she said, eyes sparkling mischievously. "We were just having some fun."
I laughed. "I know. But it really is kinda late, and I have an early class tomorrow. I'll see you guys soon, okay?"
She looked me over, her gaze turning serious. "I know we were joking about it, but... are you? Going to him?"
I hit her lightly on the shoulder. "Don't be silly! I'm going back to my own room. I mean it."
Barely a minute later, I was standing in front of Aksel's door, knocking.
When there was no reply from within, I impulsively tried the door knob. It turned easily, swinging open. I hesitated, aware that I was invading his privacy, then brazened it out and stepped in.
Aksel looked up from where he was sitting, propped up against the wall, on his bed. His feet, still covered in his Converses, hung over the edge of the bed. "What are you doing here?" But he didn't look surprised. Neither did he make any move to chase me out.
"I don't know," I said honestly, looking around his room. It hadn't changed much since the last time I'd been in here, which admittedly hadn't been too long ago. "Your room is on the way from the kitchen to the stairs. I passed by, and…" I exhaled, deciding to cut to the chase, "Why did you run off like that?"
He pushed himself off the bed and stood. "I didn't run off."
"Are you still angry with me?"
He paused, but didn't pretend to evade the question. "No."
"What were you angry about?" I asked then, even though I had the feeling I knew.
I eyed him. "I don't understand you at all," I muttered. "You blow hot one minute, cold the next… You give me a headache."
"So do you," he replied, in that mild, indifferent way that drove me crazy.
So I said the one thing guaranteed to press his buttons. "Yeah? Why are you always so rude? Are you trying to drive me away? Maybe you expecting someone else... Some other girl?"
As expected, he turned to face me, glaring. "I told you," he grated out, "I don't do this with just anyone."
He really had a thing about being accused of sleeping with other girls, I mused. The Finnish promiscuity stereotype had really bothered him.
"Forget your damned stereotypes for a minute."
"I wasn't thinking about anything like that," I lied.
He just stared disbelievingly at me.
"Oh, come on!" I burst out. "You're nice to everyone but me. You can't blame me for being unsure..."
He only blinked, but I could tell he was taken aback. "I'm not nice to you?"
"You're not," I confirmed, even though, seeing his surprise at my statement, I was beginning to secondguess my previous interpretations of his actions.
He had taken care of me when I'd been drunk out of my mind, tried to counsel me when I'd sat brooding into a bottle of vodka after the intercultural class, saved me from an oncoming car, tried to protect my virtue – and miserably failed – and had in general attempted to look out for me, albeit in the most incomprehensible manner.
Maybe in his own way, he had been nice. That didn't offset the rudeness of the way he spoke to me, however. Maybe that was why I found him so confusing. His actions and words didn't match.
"I don't understand you," I muttered again, less heatedly this time. I frowned at him. "Is this the cultural gap they're always talking about?"
"Not everything boils down to a difference in culture."
"It usually plays a big part," I countered.
He shook his head. "You're never going to let this culture thing go, are you?" And I knew he wasn't talking about cultural differences anymore.
"Unless I become a whole instead of two halves... Probably never," I admitted.
"That made no sense," he said. "Two halves make a whole."
I wrapped my arms around myself and scowled at the floor. "You know what I mean."
There was silence, before he took a deep breath and said, somewhat gruffly, "Come here."
My head snapped up. He stood unmoving, waiting, ice-blue eyes focused on me. Drawn by his gaze, I walked, as if in a trance, over to him and straight into his arms.
As his arms slowly closed around me, for a brief moment, I understood him. Physical touch was universal, at least. No mistranslations or misunderstandings – just plain, straightforward human touch.
It felt good to be held by him. But since when did Aksel hand out comfort like this?
Just as that thought crossed my mind, he abruptly let go of me and turned his back. "You should go," he said brusquely, repeating his words from before.
I cocked my head, observing him – trying now to see beneath the cover of unfriendliness. He didn't turn around – probably wasn't going to until I left. Shaking my head with a sigh, I walked towards the door.
"You're the most confusing guy I've ever met," I said in parting, as I let myself out.
It would take some time to understand his brand of nice.
The following Monday, I visited my first Asian food place in Edinburgh. I had run into Louisa again the previous week, and we had gotten to talking. She had told me about an Asian place she had heard about, and, when I had expressed interest, suggested we check it out together. We'd managed to exchange contact details, before we had been interrupted by another of her friends. She had a lot of friends.
She was with yet another friend when I met up with her on Monday. "Hi," she chirped, then gestured to her friend. "My friend wanted to come along, hope you don't mind."
"The more the merrier," I said, turning to shake the other girl's hand. "Hi. I'm Emilie."
"Shanti," she replied. "I've heard loads about you. Louisa wouldn't shut up about the cool Eurasian she met."
Louisa hit Shanti on the shoulder. "Oh, my gosh," she muttered. "Thanks for telling her that."
I laughed. "I'm flattered."
Louisa kept up a steady stream of chatter on the way to the restaurant. She was outgoing, straightforward, with a more than perfunctory knowledge of American pop culture – characteristics that didn't fit the typical western stereotype of girls from Asia.
In that aspect, I was probably more of an Asian stereotype than she was. Quiet, demure-looking... I remembered how Aksel had taken it on himself to protect my chastity and almost snorted.
"You're from Germany, aren't you?" Shanti asked me, when we were all seated in the store. "What's life like there?"
"Um..." I didn't know how to reply to that. "It's fine, I guess. A little boring, sometimes."
Louisa's eyes widened. "No way!" she exclaimed. "Germany is so cool. Trust me, you don't know boring until you've lived in Singapore."
It was my turn to be taken aback. "I have lived in Singapore," I said. "Well, I was really young, so I don't remember much about it. But I know it's an amazing place – really modern, really clean..."
"It's a fine country," Louisa said drolly, and Shanti laughed. I must have looked questioning, because Louisa explained, "It's kind of a joke for us, because you get fined for every little thing there."
"Oh." I hadn't known that. My memories of my early childhood were fuzzy at best.
"We went to Germany last week," Shanti offered. She tossed her head of dark hair, "Berlin. It's a pretty cool place. But..."
She made a face. "No offence, but Germans are kind of... stern, aren't they? And when they talked to the both of us, they kept asking if I was from India and Louisa from China. It got annoying after a while."
"They don't–" I began, then bit my tongue. I had almost found myself saying the one thing that had irked me so much whenever it came from the lips of others. They don't mean anything by it. "I mean... It's an assumption people make based on appearances, I guess. I get the China question a lot, too."
"Yeah," Louisa sighed. "I mean, I thought the people were quite friendly–" she shrugged at Shanti here– "but they were always so surprised to hear that we're both from the same country."
"I tried to explain about race in Singapore, but people didn't seem to get it," Shanti groused.
"Um..." I found myself so eager to explain that I got a little tongue-tied. For some reason, it mattered greatly to me that the people from my second home didn't retain a bad impression of my first home. "We don't really have any concept of race. It's too reminiscent of – well, what happened in World War II. We usually refer to everyone by their nationalities. Even foreigners are called..." I paused to try to translate it, "fellow residents with foreign roots."
"Oh," said Shanti, frowning. "I see." Then she cracked a smile, "Residents with foreign roots? How PC."
"In fact," I added, "my dad, along with other Germans he met in Singapore, only learnt that he was supposed to be 'Caucasian' when he went over. He said it gave him quite the shock the first time. He was always just 'German' back home."
Louisa laughed. "Really? That's interesting. Isn't it kinda ironic how multiracial countries like Singapore tend to do more of the whole 'labelling people by race' thing?"
Shanti's lips twisted. "I know, right?" She turned to me, "There's this whole debate going on right now about whether we should remove the 'race' category on our ICs. There're lots of biracial people who're particularly against this form of categorisation – their ICs can only reflect one race – their father's."
"Wow." I'd had no idea that had been an issue in Singapore. "That's..." Then it hit me – if I'd been a Singapore citizen, I would have an identity card labelling me as being of 'Caucasian' race. Hadn't that been what I'd always wanted – to be seen as a 'whole' instead of two 'halves'?
But then, I realised, some printed words on a card wouldn't change who I was – or wasn't – on the inside.
If Aksel had been here, I found myself thinking, he would be looking at me with that infuriating, knowing look. It was a good thing he hadn't been in the vicinity during this conversation – then I caught myself. What was I doing, thinking about Aksel now? It could only have been that he was, thus far, the sole person privy to my internal struggle regarding my heritage.
I'd paused for too long but they were still waiting for me to finish my sentence. "That's kind of sad," I finished, "to have a part of yourself denied on an official document."
"I suppose it depends on how you look at it," Louisa said. "There are also plenty of biracial people who have said it doesn't matter at all to them."
The waiter came over right then, saving me the trouble of having to respond. He smiled at all of us, but his gaze was mostly drawn to Louisa. As he served our food, he asked, "Where are you girls from?"
"Not China," said Louisa, then she laughed. She gestured towards Shanti and herself, "We're from Singapore."
"Ah, Singapore," he replied. "I'm from Indonesia, originally."
"Oh, cool," Louisa said. "We're like neighbours, then."
He laughed. "That we are."
Some small talk ensued, in which I was a peripheral participant at most. They spoke of attractions in Edinburgh, as well as exchanged some opinions on news from Southeast Asia.
"Okay, I have go to back to work," he said finally. "It was nice meeting you. Have fun in Edinburgh." With a brilliant smile at Louisa and Shanti, and a vague one aimed at me, he turned and headed back to work.
I blinked after him. Way to make a girl feel totally excluded. "That was..." Kind of rude.
"The waiter was so friendly," Louisa enthused.
"He didn't say a single word to you, did he?" Shanti observed to me.
"He probably thought you were from here," Louisa giggled.
That was a new one. I was sceptical, but smiled weakly.
There was a bit of a silence next, as we all dug in.
"You know," Shanti said, over her plate of duck noodles, "This is pretty good."
"I don't like it," Louisa said. "It's too oily."
I frowned. "Is it less oily in Singapore?"
"Oh, no," Louisa said. "Local food in Singapore can get really oily, too. It's just that we've never eaten this style of Asian food."
"Yeah," Shanti agreed. "It's supposed to be an Asian place, but the dishes on the menu all look so exotic!"
"Oh," I tried to hide my surprise. "This has always been what Asian food meant to me, though."
The glance the two girls shared made me feel, all of a sudden, like an outsider.
"Trust me," said Louisa with a little laugh. "Food in Asia is nothing like this. I've only ever eaten this type of Asian food in Western countries."
"And fortune cookies," added Shanti. "You always see them being touted as an Asian tradition in American movies, but… I've never seen them in my life."
I tried to think back to the time of my early childhood, when I had been living in Singapore, but the memories were too fuzzy. I could only remember it being hot – really hot. I remembered eating an ice-cream cone while crossing the road, once, and the ice-cream had melted before I had gotten to the other side.
"Oh," I repeated, with an embarrassed laugh. "Guess I fail as an Asian, then."
Shanti wrinkled her nose. "Well, but... You're not... really Asian." She said this apologetically, but the words were like a bolt to my heart. Then she seemed to hear her own words and floundered, "I mean..."
I tried to smile around the growing weight in my chest.
"It's cool that you aren't fully Asian," Louisa jumped in hastily. "I mean," she waved an enthusiastic hand around, "your heritage is way more interesting. Anyway, you live in Europe!" She laughed, "You know more about European stuff than any of us do. That's way cooler."
But that also meant in the eyes of real Asians, the ones who had grown up in and lived in Asia all their lives, I was a fraud when it came to knowledge about Asian culture.
Best of both worlds? I thought bitterly, not for the first time. I was a part of neither.
For the rest of dinner, we stayed away from the heavier conversation topics and stuck mostly to small talk. I couldn't remember a thing I said – only that I'd smiled a lot to hide the festering lump in my throat. It wasn't their fault – if not for my own insecurities, lunch with them could've been really interesting. They'd had a lot of opinions on the food, and had discussed the differences between Asian food in the West and Asian food in Asia. It had been enlightening, but all it had highlighted to me, at that moment, was that I barely knew anything about the other side of my heritage.
At the end of dinner, after bidding them farewell, and promising to meet up again another time, I headed straight for the dorms. I met Aksel halfway up the stairs, just as he was coming down. I muttered a greeting and forged on upstairs. It came as a surprise when I heard his footsteps slow and then regain speed as he changed direction and came after me.
I barrelled on into my room, ignoring him. He followed right behind.
Inside my room, he caught me by the elbows and whirled me around. "Hey," he said. "What's wrong?"
Why was he here? Did he want sex? I jerked myself away. "No," I said. Horrifyingly, my voice wobbled a little. "I'm not in the mood."
He let me go. I kept my head down, hoping he would leave if I didn't say anything else.
Behind me, I heard the door close and latch. The silence in the room suggested that Aksel had left. I slid to my knees and leaned my head against the wall.
How long I stayed there, hunched up in the corner, I didn't know. Eventually, I heaved a sigh and sat back on my haunches.
"Feel better now?" a voice asked quietly from behind me.
I started, swivelling my head around. Aksel was seated on the floor beside my bed, his legs stretched straight out as he leaned back against the side of the bed frame. He was looking at me.
Suddenly self-conscious, I resisted the urge to head over to the sink to check my appearance. I probably looked a fright. "Why are you here? I thought you left."
That familiar action of his, oddly enough, calmed me. I scrambled around to sit with my back against the wall, mimicking his position against the bed frame. Then I leaned my head back against the wall. We sat in complete silence for a while that way.
"Why are you being so nice?" I asked finally.
"So now I'm nice?"
I couldn't help it. My lips twitched upwards and I let out a chuckle.
"What happened?" he asked quietly.
I sat still, thinking. Eventually, I murmured, "Nothing I didn't already know."
He was silent. Probably knew what was coming. Was probably sick of the same old topic coming up all the time. But it was my life.
"I'm not European enough for the Europeans... Not Asian enough for the Asians." I closed my eyes and let my head fall back again with a sigh. "What am I?"
Eyes still shut tight, I heard no reply, just footsteps. Then I felt strong hands haul me up and opened my eyes to see Aksel's face very close to mine. "You're you," he said, ice-blue eyes sure and steady on my face. "You're enough." He looked as if he really meant it.
Feeling the tears spring up from beneath my eyelids, I couldn't help myself. I leaned forward and kissed him.
Coldly indifferent one moment, fiercely caring the next. This boy confused the hell out of me. But for some reason, he, too, was enough.
After the third time we found ourselves in bed together, we stopped kidding ourselves. This was no longer a one-night stand.
Even so, our fling had its own sell-by date. Neither of us talked about it, but we both knew it would be over once the six months in Edinburgh were up.
Not that it mattered – it was just sex, wasn't it?
But the damnedest thing was – we were also starting to become friends. Real friends, not the type that reluctantly admitted to being friends just because we were sleeping together.
Over time, our little clique had solidified. Even though I had made other new friends, and also gotten closer to Louisa and her other friends, I now spent most of my time with Tatiana, Kjell, David... and of course Aksel. We hung out, went for parties, went sight-seeing together... We were approaching the stage where we were practically inseparable as a group.
When spring came and the weather started getting warmer – warm according to Edinburgh's standards – Tatiana decided she wanted to climb Arthur's Seat. What she hadn't specified was what she had meant by 'climbing'.
"No, no, no, no," I said, looking up at the steep cliff and taking a couple steps back. "No way."
"Oh, come on," Tatiana urged. "All we need to do is climb up from the side, and we'll be at the top in no time."
Kjell was eyeing the side of the cliff with a glint in his eye. "Oh, yeah. This will be fun."
"I'm not doing it." The mere idea of it scared me spitless. I was still backing away, so much as that I was almost out of earshot. Besides, the more logical part of me thought, my accident insurance didn't cover this type of thing. "I'll just go up the trail and meet you guys up there."
"But the trail will take hours!" Tatiana protested.
"I'll walk fast," I promised.
David was frowning. "Are you sure? Or maybe we could all take the trail."
"No, it's fine," I interjected. "I don't want to spoil your fun. I just want to see the view on the way up. Seriously, I'll meet you guys at the top." And before anyone could say anything else, I turned and headed for the start of the dirt trail that wound around the circumference of the volcano to slowly approach its peak.
Looking up from the bottom, I gulped. Even the trail looked awfully steep and narrow at some parts. If I lost my footing... Taking a deep breath, I put one foot in front of the other and started uphill. On the way up, I stuck close to the inside, running my hand over the jutting surface of rocks as I walked, as if it would help me find purchase should I fall.
That worked to calm my nerves for a little while. At least, until I saw an elderly couple coming down the trail from the opposite direction. They were chatting gaily, seeming to be in no fear whatsoever of the fact that they were just a few inches away from the edge of a cliff.
They separated as they neared, walking one behind the other so that we would all be able to pass each other on the narrow road. Since they were heading straight towards me, I took my hand off the rocky facade to let them pass. They smiled at me as they moved past me, but I was too jittery to respond. Without the safety crutch of my hand against the rocky surface, I found my lungs turning to stone. I struggled to breathe, even as I involuntarily looked down.
Even though I couldn't have been more than two or three metres up, it still looked like a long way down... I stood near the edge, frozen with fear, unable to move, yet equally unable to look away.
Then I felt a large, rough hand close over my wrist. Almost jumping out of my skin, I looked down at the long fingers curled around my wrist, and up again at the face of its owner. Familiar ice-blue eyes looked back down at me. Aksel tugged me towards him, manoeuvring the both of us so that I was back on the inside and he was standing between me and the drop.
"Okay?" he asked.
"You... Why aren't you with the others?" I blurted, when I found my tongue. But I couldn't deny that his appearance had made my heart still in relief.
He shrugged. "The trail seemed more interesting."
"Okay," I said. I didn't care about his reasoning; I was just glad he was here. His solid presence beside me gave me the courage to start moving again.
He didn't try to engage me in conversation, just walked on silently next to me. We went up, up, up this way. I focused on putting one foot before the other, telling myself that the first checkpoint – a plateau of sorts – was just in sight.
I was in so much of a hurry to get to it that I forgot to watch my footing for a moment. My foot slipped on some loose gravel and my heart popped into my mouth. I didn't lose my balance, but my hands were turning cold at the thought of what could have happened if I had. I stood still on the narrow path, my heart pounding in my ears, my breaths coming in short pants. I no longer wanted to move. I didn't even want to go back down the hill, because even the way back down looked absolutely terrifying.
I felt warm hands cup my shoulders from behind. Without looking, I knew it was Aksel. "Breathe," he said in a hushed voice.
I tried to level my breathing, aware that it was coming in short pants. He was stroking my back, and I found the repetitive motion soothing. When I was no longer in danger of hyperventilating, I felt Aksel let go of me and move slightly ahead. Thinking he was going to head on and leave me to follow, my heart spasmed. But he stopped a few steps ahead and turned back.
Wordlessly, he held out his hand to me.
I slipped my hand into his.
His grip was firm and warm on mine, and after a while, my hand stopped trembling. Taking a deep breath, I tightened my clutch around his fingers and started moving again.
He spoke, after we had taken a couple steps together. "Why didn't you tell anyone you were afraid of heights?"
I didn't bother denying it. It had to be obvious. "What good would that have done?" I was focusing on the ground, watching my every step.
"They would've come up with you."
"Tatiana and Kjell wanted to climb up the side," I said. "I didn't want to spoil it for them."
"Then you shouldn't have come up."
"Everyone's coming up."
"And you don't want to be left behind?"
I bit my lip.
"You try too hard to fit in," he said, but he sounded resigned, like he knew nothing he said was going to change my mind.
"Doesn't everyone want to fit in?" I asked shortly. Except for him, maybe. But he fit in even without trying.
Aksel didn't respond to my rhetorical question. "Don't focus so much on your feet," he said instead.
I didn't look up. "What if I fall?"
"You don't know that for sure."
His hand tightened around mine. "I won't let you."
That was complete hot air – like he was going to be able to stop me if I rolled down the slope – but his words did make me feel a little safer.
"Look," he said, pulling at my hand so that I looked up at him. His own gaze was fixed on the scenery over the side of the cliff. "There's no point in coming up if you don't look at the view."
Swallowing hard, I looked. The buildings down below looked like miniature models; the people mere specks of dust. There was a bell tower in the distance, sunlight glinting off the bell. He was right – it was beautiful.
When the familiar tightness in my chest that came with being too high above the ground spread out to seize my lungs, I looked away. I felt Aksel squeeze my hand, as if to give me strength. Then we continued walking.
I had no idea how long it took for us to get to the top. It might've been an hour – maybe more, maybe less. I was starting to get used to the ascent. If I used Aksel's hand as an anchor and tried not to look over the edge, the usual crippling fear was manageable. But when we came to the last stretch of the trail, I felt my mouth go dry. The trail was too narrow, too steep. And it petered off halfway. To get to the peak, we would have to climb the rest of the way.
I backed away, but only succeeded in backing right into Aksel. I jerked around to face him. "I can't," I said. "I'll go back down... tell the others I got lost–"
He leaned down and grasped me by the shoulders. "You've gotten so far. Just a bit more."
"I–" I looked back at the tiny strip of a trail that led almost vertically upwards.
"Use your hands if you have to. You won't fall. I'll be behind you." His hands settled around my waist briefly. Then he gave me a shove. "Go."
"Why does it matter to you if I do this?" I whispered. But I took a few hesitant steps towards the trail.
"If you give up here," he said, "all that effort you put in just now would've been for nothing."
Biting my lip, I considered my options. He was right. If I gave up now, I would've walked up that damned trail for nothing. Stepping into the thin strip of dirt path, I started upwards.
Halfway to the top, I found that I could no longer remain upright. My knees were shaking so badly, it would take a miracle for them to hold me up. Besides, all that lay before me were rocks. I hesitated, then reached up and closed my hand over a piece jutting out from the uneven surface.
Then I started climbing.
I got tired soon enough. I wasn't used to climbing up vertical surfaces – it was something I actively avoided, in fact – and the fact that I was about two hundred and fifty-one metres above ground-level was constantly pressing against the back of my mind. Not to mention, it didn't seem like I would ever reach the top.
After scrambling for yet another foothold, I stopped to catch my breath. But once I'd stopped, I found, I didn't want to go on again. I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling my hands tremble.
"I'm right behind you," I heard Aksel murmur.
Drawing strength from his presence, I pulled myself up and found myself on the peak of the volcano. My heart was thudding sickeningly, and my legs, when I straightened slowly up to my full height, were shaking. But the adrenaline pumping through my veins felt like nothing I had ever experienced. I had made it!
I turned around to smirk triumphantly at Aksel, who had come up behind me – and promptly forgot all about doing so when I saw the sparkle in his eyes. He was grinning right back at me.
My heart stuttered, and self-preservation made me jerk my eyes away. I took a few deep breaths before glancing back at him. By then, he had schooled his features back into his usual inscrutable mask.
"Finally!" I heard Tatiana's voice a second before she flew towards me. "You two took forever. We've been waiting for ages!" Then she frowned at me. "Are you all right? You look really pale."
I laughed nervously. "I'm fine. The trail was just longer than I thought."
"You should have climbed up with us," Tatiana said. She grabbed hold of my hand and pulled me along, towards the edge. My heart leapt into my mouth. "Look!" she exclaimed, gesturing outwards, "isn't the view from here amazing?"
The trees down below were the size of my fingernail. My head swam. My heart was hammering so hard in my ribcage, I was almost certain all of them could hear it. Acting on instinct, I tore my hand out of Tatiana's and took a few steps back.
And Aksel was suddenly there, standing behind me. I felt a warm pressure exert itself at the small of my back.
The light touch of his hand calmed me a little. "Yeah," I said, when I had managed to find my tongue. "It's beautiful up here."
Tatiana gave me an odd look.
"Come on, sit down," David said, patting the uneven surface next to him. "I'm sure you two need a break before we go back down."
"Are we climbing back down later?" Kjell asked.
I felt my throat freeze up. Of course. What went up had to come down. I had been so caught up in the triumph of getting to the peak, I had forgotten to worry about the journey back down.
"No." Aksel spoke up. He wasn't looking at me. "We should take the trail."
Kjell frowned at him. "Why? It's so much of a detour."
"I'm afraid of heights," Aksel said, without any change of expression.
Kjell let out a burst of laughter. "What? You?"
But Tatiana was suddenly looking at me, a new light dawning in her eyes. And I knew that she knew.
She spoke now. "Yeah, let's take the trail. I want to look at the scenery on the way down."
Kjell grumbled, but relented.
We stayed on the peak for a while, long enough to see the sky turn orange to signal impending sunset. Then we had all scrambled to head down before it turned too dark.
The way down the hill took a shorter time than it had, coming up. For the entirety of the descent, Tatiana had taken it upon herself to anchor herself to my side. She had her arm looped loosely through mine as we walked over the rocky path. Kjell, always impatient, was far in front. He turned back occasionally to check that we were still in sight, but seemed mostly content to forge on ahead alone. David was somewhere in between the gap separating Kjell from Tatiana and me. He was strolling casually along, hands in pockets, whistling short snatches of tunes every so often. Aksel was at the very rear, behind me and Tatiana, so I couldn't see him. I did, however, hear the crunch of his footsteps, a sound that inexplicably soothed me.
"He knows, doesn't he?" Tatiana whispered to me.
"Aksel." Tatiana leaned in to peer at me. I tried to ignore her, concentrating instead on my steps. "When he said he's afraid of heights… He was covering for you, wasn't he?"
I didn't answer, but she hadn't needed an answer. She had already figured it out for herself.
I waited, with bated breath, for her to comment on what she'd seen back at the peak – how Aksel had stepped up to subtly calm me after I had torn away from her. But other than throwing another quick glance at me, she didn't say anything. I relaxed, sure that she wasn't going to bring it up.
But she was only biding her time.
That night, sitting in my room, she commented, out of the blue, "You've gotten really close to Aksel."
I had been lying on my stomach on my bed, tapping away at my laptop. At her words, I jerked and accidentally hit the return key, sending out an unfinished message. Muttering a curse under my breath, I set to work composing the second part of the message.
"Are you ignoring me?" Tatiana asked. I looked up and saw that she was smirking at me.
"No," I scowled. "I just thought that statement was so ridiculous it didn't warrant a response."
She made a tutting noise with her tongue. "Oh, please. You're getting closer to Aksel, and it scares the crap out of you."
"We're sort of friends," I said. I was having trouble concentrating on the message I was supposed to be typing to Tessa, one of my best friends back home. "You can be friends with your fling."
Tatiana shook her head. "I have never seen two people more reluctant to admit they're falling in love," she said. It sounded like a throwaway remark, but she was watching me with hawk eyes.
"You can't fall in love in just six months," I denied. "Besides, we're just..." I bit my lip. The term 'friends with benefits' was suddenly leaving a rotten taste in my mouth – sort of like how the carton of milk had tasted back when I had left it out for three days during the hottest days of summer.
"I think you have to figure out what you want before the end of the term," Tatiana said softly. "Finland's not that far from Germany–"
I cut her off. "We don't have that kind of relationship. This is a fling... It ends when we go home."
Tatiana sat staring at me for a long moment. Then she sighed. "If that's what you want."
"How do you say hello in Finnish?"
Aksel glanced over at me curiously. "Why?" He was seated at his desk, typing up an essay on his laptop that was due the next day. I, for the most part, was lounging on his bed, half-buried under his duvet to hide from the freezing cold of his room. Even now, I pulled the covers up to cover the sides of my head.
I shrugged, even though he probably couldn't see the rest of me hidden under the covers. I was starting to do that a lot, I realised. Must have picked it up from him. "Just curious." Then I joked, "I'm sleeping with a Finnish boy; why not learn some Finnish while I'm at it?"
The corner of his mouth turned up, but he replied to my initial question. "Hei or moi... We have a lot other variations for an informal hello."
I was too busy laughing. "Oh, my God! Hello in Finnish is moi?"
He was looking at me warily now. "One of them, yeah."
"In Hamburg we say moin moin," I said, in between breaths. I looked at the beginnings of an answering smile start on his face and lapsed back into helpless laughter. "Well, we say moin too, but that's just for mornings."
"Moi moi is goodbye in Finnish," Aksel told me.
"Oh, this is amazing," I breathed, tickled pink. I rolled over onto my back, taking the entire duvet with me.
"You look like a silk worm," I heard Aksel say. I twisted my head around to look at him and saw that he had stood up and gone over to crank up the heater.
"You didn't need to do that," I mumbled, but I was secretly glad. His room was practically a freezer.
He just shrugged and sat back down at his desk.
"Are you done with your work?" I asked.
I let him work in silence, closing my eyes and nuzzling into the sheets. They smelt of him – a clean, masculine smell that reminded of me pure, white snow. And freedom.
I drifted off to sleep amid the lullaby of his steady typing.
I woke up to the feel of warm fingers against my face. Aksel was sitting on the edge of the bed, brushing my hair out of my eyes. "Hey," he said, when he saw that I was awake.
"Moi," I said to him, but the effect was somewhat spoilt by the fact that my voice came out in a sleepy croak.
His lips twitched. "Moin moin," he replied.
He shook his head at me.
When my laughter petered out, I rolled over and kicked the covers off. The room had become stifling. "Eh," I wrinkled my nose. "Why's it so hot?" I put out a hand to touch Aksel's skin. He was unnaturally warm. "Aren't you spontaneously combusting by now?"
"I thought you were cold," he said.
I hopped out of bed and meandered over to the heater to turn it down. Next, I headed over to the window and shoved it fully open. A blast of cold air rushed in. "Holy shit... Um, well, I was cold, but now it's too hot." But now, after that blast of cold air from outside, it was starting to feel a little too cold again. I slammed the window shut, then rotated the handle so that the tip was pointing up, and pulled again. The window tipped inwards, opening to a small gap at the top. Much better.
"Anyway, why didn't you turn the heater off? I thought you Finns were the type to roll around naked in snow?"
He shrugged. "We have saunas too. I can handle a little heat."
Oh, yeah. I'd heard of the famous Finnish saunas. I tried not to think of Aksel in one of those, in the midst of naked girls... But I was curious, too. "What's the custom like, exactly? Do you..." I grimaced, "Do you typically go to mixed saunas?"
"Yeah," he said, looking surprised that I even had to ask. Saunas were such a big part of Finnish culture, I supposed, that it might have come as a shock to have to explain it to others. "It's normal especially for people our age. You stop going with your family and start going with your friends."
I tried to imagine sitting around in a hot room of close to a hundred degrees Celsius with my friends or family. Even with my closest group of friends, I couldn't quite envision it. "Isn't it... awkward?"
"Why would it be?" he asked, his brow furrowing. "It's a good way to hang out."
I bit my lip. "Do you... hang out with a lot of girls this way?"
"My family has a summer house with a private sauna," he said. "My friends and I go there every summer... And yeah, there are girls in our group–" And all of a sudden, he realised what I had been trying to not ask – and failing.
"Never mind," I said hastily, waving my arms around vaguely. "That sounds fun."
"A sauna is a sauna, Emilie," he said mildly. "Nothing sexual goes on in there."
Yeah, but... Didn't that mean he had seen all his closest female friends naked? And Finnish girls were so pretty...
Then I shook my head at myself. What did it matter? By the time he went back to that summer house of his this summer, we would never be seeing each other again. He could look at all the naked Finnish girls he wanted then.
I cleared my throat, dropping the subject. "Yeah, well... It kinda feels like a sauna in here now."
"I thought you were half-Singaporean," he commented. "Isn't Singapore in the tropics? That makes you half-tropical, no?"
I shot him a look. "What's half-tropical? Half of me loves hot and humid weather?"
Realising how ridiculous it sounded, his lips turned up in a smile. "I would've thought you'd love hot weather," was all he said.
"Nah. Even the summers in southern Germany can get too hot for me."
He nodded. "Me too."
I had forgotten he'd been to Stuttgart. Speaking of which... "What were you doing in Stuttgart?"
"My father was on a business trip. I went with him."
I opened my mouth to ask another question, and then promptly forgot about it when I saw what he was doing. He had reached for the hem of his shirt and was tugging it over his head. Looking at his body, another thought hit me like a sledgehammer. If he had seen his female friends naked... That meant they had seen him, too. I felt my face scrunch up. Nudity wasn't a big deal in his culture, but... I didn't like the idea of anyone seeing him in the buff.
He was saying something. "Are you hungry? Do you want to–"
As he broke off to bend down and grope around for another shirt, I watched the lean muscles in his back move. Something dark and needy surged through my veins, and I found myself sidling forward to hug him from behind. He started, craning his neck to try to look at me, "Emilie?"
I started kissing his neck. When I reached his ear, I whispered, "Moi, Aksel."
He turned around and pressed me to the bed. Then he leaned down and kissed me, hard.
I gave back all I had, wrapping my arms around his neck and pressing closer to him. My heart was filled to the brim with want as I felt his hands slide up my shirt. He broke away to look at me, even though he didn't remove his hands. His soft touch was driving me crazy. "I was going to ask if you wanted dinner," he whispered.
"Dinner comes later," I whispered back. "Dessert first."
His lips quirked. "Okay." Then he leaned back down.
Afterwards, we lay together in his single bed, still pressed up against each other because of the lack of space. Our legs were entangled and I was sprawled half on top of him, but he didn't seem to mind.
"Dinner?" he asked. "The rest must be wondering where we are."
"Okay," I said, but neither of us made a move to get up.
He was absently running his fingers through the strands of my hair, touching, stroking. It felt good. If I had been a cat, I would have started purring out of sheer contentment.
I lifted my head and, impulsively, placed a kiss on his chest, over where I could feel his heart beating. His other hand came up to curl around the nape of my neck, cradling me against him. I laid my head over his chest and closed my eyes.
But not for long.
Time flits past, too quickly, when you're having the time of your life. Before I could wrap my mind around how much things had changed since I had first set foot in Edinburgh, all too soon, July rolled around. And it was almost time to leave. The semester had long ended, but some students had stayed on longer, unwilling to leave. I was one of them. But even I knew I couldn't stay forever.
Tatiana had already returned home to Finland. Kjell and David had left Edinburgh to tour the rest of Scotland. They had invited me and Aksel to join them, but I'd already postponed my return flight to Hamburg too many times. Aksel hadn't bought his ticket home yet, so I had thought he would go, but he'd, for some reason, opted to stay in Edinburgh. For that, I was secretly grateful. I would have a little bit more time with him.
More and more, I found myself having to remind myself that it was just a fling. And flings always had to end.
"It'd be great to live here, wouldn't it?" I mused, somewhat longingly. As my departure date neared, we often found ourselves lying in bed together in companionable silence, bodies entwined, neither of us speaking much. Tonight was one of those nights.
Aksel was quiet for a while. "Yeah," he finally said. His head was turned away from me. "I'd love to move here for good, but…"
I didn't say anything. I understood that lingering 'but' all too well.
"There are a lot of things I complain about," he went on, "but Finland... is my home."
I felt like he was talking about something other than a simple sense of belonging.
"Germany is my home," I said, just as quietly. No matter that I sometimes felt I didn't belong – it was still home. As much as I loved Edinburgh, I didn't know if I could leave Germany – leave all that I had known forever. I thought about not seeing my friends and family as frequently anymore, not walking down the same streets I had grown up on, not taking it for granted that I knew which train, which bus, to take to a certain place off the top of my head – or that the road signs were in a language I already instinctively understood... and it caused a spasm in the region of my chest.
When it came to leaving your home, there was always that soft whisper pulling you back: 'but'.
After a pause, he said, "I have plans, for after graduation. Move to Helsinki, get a job in investment banking..."
"So do I," I murmured. I had an internship lined up for next summer, one at a well-known engineering firm in Hamburg. If I did well, there was a chance of landing a job with them right out of uni.
"So you know what I mean," he said, avoiding looking at me.
"Yeah," I whispered, even though my heart was throbbing with a sickly pain.
"Cross-cultural – cross-national – relationships take a lot of work," he murmured then. I knew, then, that this was what he had been building up to all along. To be honest, this had been what I'd been thinking about during all those pensive silences, too.
"I know," I said, thinking of my own parents. My mother had left her home and faced the daunting difficulty of assimilating into a foreign country to be with my father. And I suddenly realised how grossly unfair that had been. What had my father given up to be with her?
I inhaled deeply. "Everything has to end, doesn't it?" My voice was small.
He looked me in the eye and I saw that he wasn't half as unaffected as he seemed. I saw that he, too, was wavering. But he didn't voice the whirl of thoughts being reflected in his face.
"It hasn't ended yet," he said instead.
He leaned down to kiss me, his eyes glittering with the words he had left unspoken. Or maybe that, too, was just an illusion I wanted to see.
The next few days passed in such a blur; I had no time to dwell on the heartbreak leaving would inadvertently deal me. There was plenty to do before my flight back home – phone contracts to cancel, bank accounts to close... I had never known erasing all traces of one's residency in a country could be so hard yet so simple. By the time I walked out of the bank with three hundred pounds – all the money I had withdrawn to close the account – on Wednesday, the day before my flight, I had officially cut all the ties between myself and Edinburgh. After I left the next day, it would be like I had never even been here.
When I got back to the dorms, my feet automatically brought me to the third storey, to Aksel's door. It seemed, recently, I was there even more often that I went back to my own room.
He sat up when I entered the room. "You're back," he said, holding out a hand. I headed across the floor to climb into his arms. He had been waiting for me.
I settled into his lap, leaning back against his chest. He felt comfortable, like a chair you had gotten used to and couldn't quite bear to leave behind. I felt the rise and fall of his chest against my back as he breathed. He leaned his head forward and I felt his hot breath ghost my ear. He stayed there, silent, for a minute, before his chest rumbled as he spoke.
"What time is your flight tomorrow?"
"Ten-thirty," I whispered. It was the loudest I could speak right then, without betraying the threat of tears. "In the morning."
"Ten-thirty," he repeated. His chin had dropped to rest on my shoulder, and he sounded almost as depressed as I felt right then.
I sucked both of my lips into my mouth and bit down hard, to stop myself from breaking down into floods of tears.
Without a word, Aksel gently turned me around, so that we were face-to-face. He paused, looking down at me with pensive eyes, before he wrapped his arms around me once more. I hugged him back hard, leaning my head against his chest and listening to the steady thump-thump-thump of his heart.
I felt him press a shaky kiss to the top of my head, and that was when the tears finally leaked out.
I stayed in his arms for a long time that night.
The next morning, Aksel came down to my room with me. I had already packed in advance the day before, so my suitcases were already sitting near the door, ready to go.
I didn't feel half as ready.
But it was time to go.
Steeling myself, I went to lug my luggage out of the room.
At the door, Aksel took one of my suitcases from me. I let him lead the way to the office, not wanting him to see the tears that were already dotting my eyelids.
Returning the keys barely took five minutes. Once out on the street, I turned to look at Aksel. My heart felt like it was being dipped in acid.
"I guess this is it," I croaked.
"Not yet," he said quietly. "I'm going to the airport with you."
I blinked. Besides, the airport was a half-hour journey from Edinburgh itself. He would have to take the bus there, and then back again. "But... You'll have to pay for a return bus ticket..." The airport was a half-hour journey from Edinburgh itself. Besides, since he wasn't leaving, he would have to take the bus there, and then back again.
I didn't argue further. There was a part of me that, I could admit, wanted Aksel with me for as long a time as I had left in Edinburgh.
The walk down to Waverly Bridge was heavy with tension. We didn't speak, not even when we had boarded the bus that would take us to the airport. I sat stiffly in my seat, fists in my lap, staring unseeingly out the window.
When the bus was filled, the engine roared to life and we started moving.
After a while, I felt Aksel's arm snake around my shoulders and pull me towards him. I shifted just enough to lay my head on his shoulder. My right hand moved on its own accord to wrap around his waist.
Still, neither of us said a word. The words of farewell could come later. For now, this last moment of reprieve was almost... enjoyable.
At the airport, I went to check in while Aksel hovered near the counter, watching. When that was done, he took my hand wordlessly, and we walked, hand-in-hand, through the departure hall. As the glass doors leading into the security check area came into view, he slowed then stopped, his footsteps trailing off on the smooth floor. I came to a halt next to him. We stood there for a moment, hands still joined, staring into the room beyond. Then Aksel dropped my hand.
It was time.
I turned to face him. I opened my mouth, but my mind was a complete blank. Now that it was time to say goodbye, I found myself tongue-tied. Where to even begin?
"I guess this is it," he said quietly. He cast his eyes down briefly, before his gaze flickered back up to meet mine. "Time to go."
"Yeah," I whispered. My eyes felt so full that I wondered if he could see my heart reflected in them.
There was another beat of silence, in which we both struggled to find the words. I looked at his wan, drawn expression and knew I had an answering one on mine.
"Take care," he said finally.
"You too." My heart throbbed. Was this it? Was this what the past six months had boiled down too? A stilted goodbye at the end of it all?
Without warning, or much prior thought, I threw myself into his arms. He caught me, stumbling a little from the momentum of being hit in the chest by something human-sized. His arms locked around me, pulling me up against his chest as he balanced the both of us. We stayed locked in a fierce embrace for a long moment.
Then he leaned back, so that he could look into my face.
"Maybe..." From his expression, I knew what he was going to say before he said it.
I shook my head, taking a step back – pulling away before he could make me rip up my plane ticket to ride off into the sunset with him. This wasn't Disney. This was real life, where people had to go home.
"Don't say it." My voice was pitched high and reed-thin. "Not now." At the moment of farewell, people could say all sorts of things they didn't mean.
He seemed to read my mind. "I'm not just saying it because I'm caught up in the moment," he said quietly, but I shook my head.
"Don't," I whispered. He was being caught up in the moment. Hadn't we already had that conversation? He'd said Finland was his home. He'd said he had plans after graduation, plans that had been made long before the knowledge of my existence. And, like him, I had my home. I had my plans. Plans that didn't include him...
Flings didn't have any place in reality... Did they?
"This isn't real," I said, looking into his light, light eyes. Eyes I had been drawn to from the start, even though I didn't know why. There were beer goggles – had anyone said anything about exchange goggles?
A spark of anger had crept into his eyes. "Does this feel real?" he asked, and then he bent down and pressed his lips, hard, onto mine.
I couldn't help it; I kissed him back.
"Doesn't this feel real enough?" he asked, when we separated. His hands remained around my waist, his thumb rubbing circles over my hip.
"People have holiday flings," I said, still trying to catch my breath, "as an escape from real life. It feels real now, but..."
It was just a fling; just about sex – wasn't it? Maybe saying goodbye to a fling always felt this way. But a memory nagged at the corner of my mind – it hadn't been this way with Kjell and Tatiana. She'd been the first of our group to leave, and, when we'd seen her off, she had simply given Kjell a light kiss, patted him on the chest, and gone on her way. She had cried more about parting from me.
I shook my head to clear that thought. Finland was geographically closer to Sweden. Maybe that was why she hadn't seemed to broken up about leaving Kjell.
"I read an article yesterday," I whispered.
He didn't say anything, just waited for me to go on.
"'How To Say Goodbye To Your Summer Fling'. It said you shouldn't say goodbye before you have to, but when you do, you have to be firm. No wavering. When it's time to go, it ends."
A faint smile stretched his lips, but he was looking at me like he didn't know whether to laugh or to throttle me. "You read the most ridiculous things."
"But it makes sense, doesn't it?" I murmured. "Be firm. Why drag out something that can never be?"
He was silent. I took that to mean agreement.
I reached up and cupped the sides of his face. He had just shaved this morning, but not very effectively. I could still feel the beginnings of a hint of stubble pressing into my palms. I stroked his face lightly. "Bye," I whispered, my heart in my throat, my throat thick with tears. "Goodbye." Mach's gut.
He bent down and leaned his forehead against mine, whispering something in Finnish. Saying goodbye in his own language.
I pulled back to give him a watery smile. "Moi moi," I whispered, the phrase bringing me back to that night in his bed, when we had laughed and talked and kissed. Judging from the look of startled remembrance, followed by muted nostalgia, that flitted over his face, he remembered it too.
"Moi moi," he whispered back, leaning in to kiss me, the way he had that night. Our tongues tangled briefly before I yielded, feeling something fill up in the region of my chest as his tongue gently stroked mine. A lover's goodbye.
I pressed myself harder against him, feeling a shudder go through him as an answering fire burned in me. His lips on mine moved like he was branding me, marking me as his, forever.
Would this ever go away? I wondered in despair. And what would I do if it didn't?
I tore myself away from him, feeling the cool air rush between us almost instantly. "I've got to go," I said. And never in my life had I ever wanted to do anything less.
"Postpone your flight," he said, sounding, for the first time since I'd met him, desperate. His fingers were gripping mine bruisingly, as if he wanted nothing more than to hold me back from leaving. "To tomorrow... Or, next week... Next month. Stay till October."
"I can't." I tried to tug my hand away, but he was holding on too tightly. "Aksel," I choked out, barely able to see for the tears swimming in my vision. I tried my hardest to blink them back. I wanted to see – needed to see – his face. I needed to see, so that I could remember every contour of it. "Aksel... I need to go."
His fingers tightened, then fell away from my hands, one by one. His ice-blue eyes hardened, like he was steeling himself for a blow. He took a deep breath. "Go," he murmured, and stepped away.
I slowly bent to pick up my hand luggage, feeling like I had aged several decades within the hour.
"Bye," I whispered. Then I forced myself to turn and walk away.
I got as far as the glass door. This wretched, drawn-out farewell was almost done. All I had to do was move forward and step through the doors that would take me through to customs.
My mistake was in turning back to look at him one last time. Or, no – perhaps my biggest mistake had been getting involved with him to begin with, even knowing there was a deadline. Even knowing things had to stay casual. He had once said I was dangerous. He had been wrong. He was the dangerous one. He had drawn me in, like a moth to a lamp.
But moths burnt to death when they touched the flame.
He was still standing where I'd left him, alone in the crowd, eyes closed, head lowered. His hands were fisted by his sides, as if he was physically restraining himself from an emotional outburst.
My heart cracked open.
Dropping the suitcase, I turned on my heel and ran back towards him. The sudden rush of footsteps must have alerted him that something was coming his way, because he looked up, fixing reddened blue eyes on me. Behind me, I heard my suitcase fell with a clatter onto the hard, polished floor. I paid it no mind. In the next moment, I was wrapped up in Aksel's arms, my own arms wound around his neck like a clinging vine, kissing him with everything inside me.
"Aksel..." I looked up at him and saw that he was regarding me with those knowing, bright blue eyes. I opened my mouth, ready to throw all previously thought-out logic into the wind. Why did it have to end? Some flings turned into happily-ever-afters, didn't they?
He touched a finger to my lips. "Be firm."
I laughed through my tears.
I stood in his embrace for one last time, trying to draw strength from his warmth. Then I slowly let go and stepped back, my heart throbbing with every movement.
This was it.
The look of finality in his eyes told me he knew it, too.
"Goodbye," he said, so low it was almost inaudible.
"Goodbye," I whispered back. With one last, lingering look, I turned and walked stiffly back over to the suitcase I had abandoned in such a hurry just a few minutes before.
At the glass doors, I hesitated again. But this time, I forced myself to step forward, to put one foot in front of the other until I was past the boundary line where no one without a ticket could get in.
This time, I didn't look back.
Arriving home was somewhat anticlimactic.
I smiled half-heartedly at the stewardesses lined up by the exit as I ducked out of the aircraft. Once outside, the warm rays of the sun hit me in the face. A light breeze ruffled my hair, as if to say, welcome home.
According to the pilot's announcement when we had landed, it was a good warm twenty-two degrees Celsius. A nice, sunny summer day in Hamburg. I normally loved the sun. I ought to have been happy.
I suddenly missed the cool, windy, fifteen-degree summer in Edinburgh.
Inside the airport, I felt my heart leap briefly as I spotted the prerequisite 'Welcome Home' sign as I passed through customs, before the dull, heavy feeling returned to weigh on my chest. As I walked on, I spent more time than usual staring at all the signs overhead. Everything was so... German. So different from what I'd gotten used to seeing during the past six months. Suddenly, it felt like I was looking at my hometown from a tourist's point of view.
When I finally exited into the arrival hall, my gaze landed almost immediately on two familiar faces. I stilled in shock. I'd known they were aware of my return date, but I hadn't expected them to be here. Tessa and Gabi caught sight of me in the same moment and rushed over, wide smiles on their face.
"Welcome home!" Tessa said, as they both took turns to throw their arms around me.
"I'm so glad to see you guys." Ridiculously, I felt like crying. "I can't believe you came."
Tessa made a rude noise. "Pfft, of course we came!"
"Tessa wanted to buy you one of those really embarrassing 'welcome back' balloons," Gabi informed me. "I talked her out of it."
Tessa pouted. "Spoil sport," she muttered.
Seeing them still up to their familiar antics, I cracked a smile. I had missed them.
"What was Edinburgh like?" Gabi asked, as we made our way towards the exit. "Did you have so much fun that you forgot about us?"
"Sorry," I said shamefacedly. I hadn't gotten around to replying some of their messages. "I meant to reply, but..." I'd gotten caught up in another life. A fantasy life.
"That's fine," Gabi, always so understanding, smiled. "Now you can tell us everything in person."
"It's like you fell off the face of the Earth halfway through," Tessa grumbled. "So, what happened? Did you meet anyone interesting?"
I opened my mouth to reply – and choked on my words. I couldn't talk about Edinburgh, not without talking about Aksel. And I couldn't talk about Aksel. Not now – not yet, not while the loss was so fresh.
An image filtered into my mind - an image of his expression, at that last moment. His cheekbones standing out starkly in his pale face, blue eyes red. A second away from tears. Goodbye, he had whispered.
"I..." I left a piece of my heart behind.
Looking up, I saw the horrified looks on my friends' faces. Tessa rummaged in her bag and handed me a tissue. Lifting a shaking hand to my face, I realised my cheeks were wet.
Gabi leaned over and grasped my hand tightly. "You don't have to tell us anything. But if you need someone to talk to... We're here."
I squeezed back, mustering up a smile through my tears. "I know."
A week passed, and then two. I went through the motions of daily life. My friends, for their part, did their best to cajole me out of the slightly depressive state I had sunk into. They came over almost every day, badgered me into going places, and all in all forced me to move on with life.
The more weeks that passed, the more Edinburgh was starting to feel like a dream. A beautiful, out-of-reach dream that still broke my heart to think about.
I knew my friends wondered. But they didn't push. They were being so amazing that I felt a vague guilt in not only keeping this from them, but also for entertaining the thought of leaving them. Of choosing Aksel over them. Because that was what it all boiled down to in a transnational relationship, wasn't it? That one boy you couldn't forget – in exchange for your home, your friends, your family. In exchange for everything.
The day I finally cracked, Tessa and Gabi had come over as usual. Tessa was sprawled across my beanbag and Gabi was perched on the edge of my bed as they chatted lightly about the upcoming annual summer festivals in Hamburg.
Before Edinburgh, I would have joined in. But now I was quiet, absorbed in my own thoughts, just as I had been ever since my return. Not only was I no longer up to date on what was going on in Hamburg, my mind was also almost always drifting somewhere else. Tessa and Gabi knew this, and didn't try to force me into speaking.
It was their quiet understanding that eventually made me decide.
"I... I need to talk about it," I found myself saying abruptly.
Their conversation was dropped mid-sentence.
"Finally," Tessa muttered. That earned her a sharp glance from Gabi. Tessa spread her hands in a 'what?' gesture.
"You can tell us anything, Emi," Gabi said softly. "We're here for you."
I blinked back tears. I had the most amazing friends here. What would I do without them?
Speaking haltingly at first, I told them about how it had all started – being alone and friendless in Edinburgh, and then meeting Kjell, David, and of course Aksel, at that first party. I told them about how unfriendly Aksel had been at first, and how certain I had been that he had hated me. I told them about how I'd kept on finding myself in situations with him. How we'd slept together for the first time, and then the second, and then the third. How we'd gotten steadily closer as the days had gone by. By the time I reached the end, my thoughts were tripping out in a jumbled mess even as I was choking on every other word. Finally, I reeled to a stop, having recounted the last time I'd seen him – our last goodbye. The goodbye that still had the ability to tear my heart wide open. Then I sat clutching a handful of tissues, the only sounds coming from my throat muted sobs that I was trying to swallow back.
Tessa regarded me with serious eyes. "That's not a fling, Emi."
I laughed a little bit through my tears. "Now you sound like Tatiana." I felt a cloak of nostalgia wrap around me. "You would have liked her." We still kept in touch, but it wasn't the same. I missed the days when we would sit around in my room together, her trying out my variety of nail polish, me dithering away on my laptop.
"You could introduce us when we go to Finland to visit," Tessa said. "Or when she comes to visit."
I started. That thought had never occurred to me.
"Europe is connected, Emi," Tessa said drily. "It's not as if Finland is halfway across the world."
"The two different parts of your life don't have to stay separate," Gabi added. "Why should you have to give up on one just to have the other?"
"What two different parts?" I mumbled, frowning at my bedspread. There was a growing pile of tissues scattered all around me. "I don't have a life in Finland."
"You could," Gabi said simply.
"But..." But there were so many obstacles, so many unresolved issues. How could it be that simple?
Gabi smiled at me. "There's always a way, Emi."
"Mama," I spoke before I had fully made up my mind to ask the question that had been lurking in the depths of my thoughts since I had returned home for the summer.
"Wasn't it hard? Leaving your home to move here, just so you could be with Papa?"
Mama was silent for a moment. "It was hard, harder than I ever imagined it would be," she said finally.
"Now that you know how hard it was..." I but my lip and looked down. "If you had the chance, would you do it all over again?"
Her eyes softened as she looked at me and smiled. "Yes, of course. If I had a second chance, I would do it all again." She leant forward and gathered me into a tight hug. I closed my eyes and hugged her back fiercely. There was something about a mother's hug that made everything seem better all at once.
"But that's so unfair," I mumbled into her shoulder. "You had to leave your home – your family, your friends. You sacrificed so much for Papa... What did he ever do for you?"
She laughed, pulling away so she could look me in the face. "Oh, your Papa would be so sad to hear that you see him as a villain." She said this with a chuckle, and I knew Papa would probably be hearing about this tonight. Any relationship advisor who liked to talk about how married couples needed to be a team had probably never met my parents. They told each other everything, so much so that I felt excluded sometimes. But that didn't mean they didn't have their problems, I knew. Aksel hadn't needed to tell me how difficult cross-cultural relationships were. I knew better than anyone else just how hard they were.
Her little moment of self-amusement over, Mama placed her hands on my shoulders. She grew serious as she spoke again. "Listen, sweetheart, I wasn't the only one who had to make sacrifices. It wouldn't have worked if the sacrifice had only come from one side. In a relationship, you both have to make compromises." She glanced away from me now, her eyes misty with memories. "My family disapproved of us. My parents, especially, gave your Papa such a hard time... But he fought for me. He proved himself to them. It took many years, but he did it."
This was news to me. "Grandma and Grandpa didn't like Papa?" I couldn't quite keep the shock out of my voice. "But whenever they come to visit, they treat him like their own son."
Mama smiled wryly. "It wasn't that way at first. Your grandparents are pretty open-minded people, but some stereotypes die hard."
I subsided, thinking about that. "I never knew."
"Transnational relationships are not easy," Mama had a faraway look in her eyes.
"But it was worth it?"
"Oh, sweetheart." Mama reached forward and enveloped me in a hug. "Of course it was worth it."
"I don't know how you did it, Mama," I mumbled, closing my eyes and wilting into her understanding embrace. "Leaving your home... Everything you knew..." I sniffled a little to clear my nose, which had suddenly clogged up. "My life is here," I whispered. "I have friends… family… Everything is here."
"Everything but this boy you love," my Mama said knowingly, looking at the tears that had started streaking down my face.
"How can you fall in love with someone in just half a year?" I asked sulkily.
"That's a question only you can answer," Mama said.
"I don't know," I wrapped my arms around myself. How did I feel about Aksel? He drove me crazy. He had been so rude and standoffish when we'd first met, I'd thought he hated me. But then I remembered the way he'd taken care of me when I'd gotten in over my head in that drinking competition, even though we had just met that very night; not to mention that time when he'd pulled me back from the oncoming traffic and positioned himself on the outside of the pavement like a shield. I remembered the first time we'd touched – the way his skin against mine had sent a tingle up my spine and shocked me into being more alive than I had ever felt. The first time we'd kissed – that explosive kiss that had been quietly building up since that very first day. The way he had looked into my eyes before we'd slept together for the first time and murmured, "I don't do this with just anyone."
And I remembered how we had slowly become friends, how he had held my hand, guided me up the volcano, and then pushed me to climb the peak when I would've given up. I remembered the nights when we would lie in bed together, talking about our dreams and hopes, about our lives back home. About who we really were, and not just what stereotypes about race and culture told us what to be.
But most of all, I remembered the sharp, paralysing pain lodged between my ribs when I'd had to turn my back and walk away from him for the last time.
Mama handed me a tissue silently. I took it automatically, only then realising that I was sobbing so hard I couldn't breathe.
"Shit," I muttered, blowing my nose loudly, "I'm in love with him."
Mama smiled softly. "If you weren't in love with him, you wouldn't be thinking about all this."
Typical Mama. She had known all along, but had made me figure it out for myself.
"Why are you so encouraging?" I groused. "I would have thought you'd tell me to forget about him, that a fling is just a fling."
"Love is love, sweetling," Mama said gently. "You should know I'm the last person who would tell you not to follow your heart where it takes you."
"Even if I end up moving to Finland somewhere down the road?"
"Of course I don't want you to move so far away," Mama said, pursing up her lips, a habit that often manifested itself in me as well. "And I'm not telling you to jump into things too quickly. But if this boy makes you happy..."
And he did. Just thinking about him about broke my heart, but I also found myself smiling.
"But... Long-distance relationships..." I looked down at my hands. "And even before that – transnational relationships? Everything about this will be so difficult."
"All relationships require effort," Mama said. "But you're right, transnational relationships require more work than usual. Especially when it's a long-distance as well. Whether the effort is worth it – is something you have to decide for yourself."
I was silent for a while. My heart was slowly falling back into place, after being dislodged for so many weeks. Would Aksel be worth all the heartbreak, tears, frustration, and longing that often came with a long-distance relationship? If, one day, I had to leave all that I knew to move to a foreign land to be with him – feel like even more of an outsider in a country I had no ties with – could I do it?
I already knew the answer, didn't I?
"But I don't want to live in Finland," I lamented. "They barely ever get any sun there. I like the sun." I giggled through my tears as a memory hit me, "Did you know up in the north of Finland, the sun doesn't rise above the horizon for, like, two months? That's just crazy."
"Is that where he lives?" Mama was looking at me closely as she asked this question.
"No," I said, remembering what he had said to that Belgian girl, Marie, so long ago. "He's never been there. He goes to uni in Oulu – that's near the middle of the country, I think. But he's planning to go to Helsinki after graduation. He studies Accounting, you know. He wants to work in investment banking there. I wonder what types of job openings there are for Chemistry degree holders in Helsinki…" I trailed off when I saw that Mama was smiling at me softly. "What?" I asked, a little defensively.
"I think you already know what you want to do," my mother said.
It was only when I tried to contact Aksel that I realised I didn't know how to do so. We'd shared secrets, opinions, dreams and aspirations, but we hadn't exchanged email addresses or added each other on Facebook. The only way I had of contacting him was via his number in Edinburgh, which was probably defunct by now.
How could you know so much, yet so little about someone at the same time?
Over the next few nights, I spent time on my computer, searching on Facebook, clicking through lists of suggested friends, hoping to come across Aksel Toivonen. I wasn't even sure if that was the correct way to spell his name – I could only hope that Finnish was a language that spelt its words phonetically. But he had either not registered under his full name, or was not on Facebook, or I had gotten the spelling completely wrong, because my search turned up nothing save the vague, dissatisfying feeling of acting like a cyber-stalker.
Maybe it was meant to be just a fling.
And then it happened.
Just as I was on the verge of throwing my hands up and leaving it up to fate, a pop-up appeared on my computer screen. Contact request, the headline read. My eyes shifted down a line to check the name of the requester. Aksel Toivonen.
My jaw fell open.
I hadn't found him, but he had found me.
I scrambled for the mouse, flipping it over in my haste. It took me two tries to accept the request. The moment I clicked the 'accept' button, my computer speakers trilled.
He was calling.
Panicking, I leapt up from my chair and started rummaging around for my mascara, eyeliner – anything. A glance in the mirror told me I looked pale. Boring. Hastily uncapping my mascara, I swiped at my eyelashes with the wand so that I wouldn't look so bland. After that, I hovered over my vanity, running a quick hand through my hair, pinching my cheeks to give them more colour.
Then, deathly afraid he was going to hang up if I took too long fussing over myself, I dove for my computer and jabbed at the 'accept call' button.
Aksel's face came up on the screen – so familiar, yet so unfamiliar – and right then my lungs seized up.
For a long while, we both just sat staring at each other – or as close to staring at each other as one could get when separated by a computer screen, two countries and a distance of two thousand kilometres.
"Hi," he said, at length.
"Hi," I whispered.
"I got your username," he offered, "from Kjell."
"Oh." Of course. The easiest, most straight-forward method, and it hadn't occurred to me.
"Do you..." He hesitated, "do you still talk to him?"
Had he called just to talk about Kjell? "Yeah. We Skype sometimes." I had fallen out of contact with David, but Tatiana and I were still close. I'd received a postcard of Finland from her just two days ago, and the existence of mobile messengers like WhatsApp meant we could still send each other frequent messages.
Silence. Aksel seemed to be struggling to find something to say, and I was so busy eating up the image of him with my eyes, I was no help. "You're really close to Kjell," he said finally.
I shrugged. "We're friends."
I leaned towards the camera and rolled my eyes to show what I thought of that question. "Come on," I huffed in exasperation. "I was sleeping with you the whole time in Edinburgh. Do you really think–?"
He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. "I know. I just... He's too friendly towards you."
I gaped at him. "What are you talking about? That's the way he is with everyone. Besides, he has something going on with Tatiana."
"Had." The correction reminded the both of us of our own situation. I had to look away for a moment.
"But Sweden is right next to Finland," I murmured. "How hard would it be to just drive across the border?"
Aksel smiled wryly. "Finland and Sweden are both big countries. Just because it's right next door doesn't mean it isn't still too far away."
"Is that a metaphor for something?"
"No, it's geography. You should know, you share borders with eight other countries."
"Nine," I muttered in a knee-jerk reaction. This conversation felt surreal. Here we were, speaking for the first time in weeks, and we were talking about geography. We hadn't even exchanged the customary 'how are you doing's.
He was momentarily distracted. "Which one did I forget?"
I shrugged."Luxembourg?" It was a small country, easily overlooked.
This time, he was the one looking away from the camera, making no move to offer a new line of conversation.
"I guess flings are just flings," I mused aloud, still thinking about Kjell and Tatiana. Kjell had seemed so love-struck when he'd first met her. Did that mean nothing at all? "Every fling has to end when it's time to go home."
"Some don't," Aksel said lowly.
Caught off guard, I blinked.
"Why..." My voice cracked and I had to clear my throat before trying again, "Why did you call?"
He stared into the eye of his webcam, "I miss you." He scowled, closed his eyes and turned away. "I miss you so goddamned much."
I lifted my hand towards the screen, for a minute forgetting that I wasn't talking to him – not really. All he was right now was an image on my computer monitor.
"I miss you too," I whispered. I wasn't sure if the microphone could pick up my voice, but even if it hadn't, the small smile that flickered at his mouth told me he'd read my lips.
There was another moment of silence, before he said, "So... How... How have you been?"
I shrugged. "As good as can be, I suppose. Wasting time before the new semester begins." I smiled wryly at him. I didn't tell him that I still lay awake at night, wishing I were back in Edinburgh, squished up against him in one of our single beds. "How are you?"
It was a casual question, one used as a greeting all over the world, but I found that I really wanted to know. I wanted to know how he was doing, how he was feeling, how his day had been. I wanted to know everything.
"The same," he said, staring intently at his monitor. "It feels good to be home, yet..."
"Yeah," I agreed, even though it hadn't been a question. But I had known exactly what he meant. "Are you... at your summer house with your friends?" I remembered what he'd told me about his summer activities, in what felt like a lifetime ago.
"Yeah," he said. His lips flattened in a self-deprecating smile. "But I'm not much of good company this year, I'm afraid."
"Not having fun in your mixed saunas?" I asked.
He let out a short laugh. "I told you," he said, "it's just a sauna. Nothing goes on in there. Really."
I felt a pout coming on, so I looked away. His friends didn't know how lucky they were. What I would give to be at this summer house with him...
"When did you leave... Edinburgh?" Even saying the name of the city set off a pang in the region of my heart.
"Four days after you."
We were both quiet then, thinking about those last few monents together.
"Aksel," I replied, my voice catching on his name.
He sighed. "Why do you live there?"
"Why do you live there?" I returned, feeling an ache spring up in my nose.
The look of helpless frustration that he leveled at me through the screen spoke more than words could.
I cupped my nose and mouth with both hands, blinking hard to stop the tears. Why did we have to be from such different places? How easy it would be to let yourself love someone who lived right down the street.
"From the beginning," he said, his voice so low that I strained to hear it. "From the beginning... I knew."
I bolted out of my chair, stumbling across to room for a tissue. I couldn't sit there and look at him any longer without bursting into tears. From this angle, I knew he couldn't see me. The webcam atop my monitor was pointing straight at the blank wall to the right of my vanity. But he kept on talking.
"I knew you were dangerous. You had the power to screw up all the plans I had for the future." He laughed, the sound more self-deprecating than humorous. "I tried to stay away. It didn't work. When we started sleeping together... We had a deadline. Once we left Edinburgh, it'd be over. Back to reality."
So that was why he had seemed so unfriendly at the beginning. It hadn't been because he had hated me. It had been because he had been far too interested.
I went back in front of the computer. He started a little when he saw me, as if he hadn't really expected me to have been listening.
"As it turns out, I was right," he said, looking at me through the screen. "You fucked up all my plans."
I didn't say anything. He had fucked up all of mine as well.
We stared at each other for a minute, then I asked slowly, "Do you wish none of it... us... had ever happened?"
"I can't wish that," he murmured, but his expression was pained.
"So," I began softly, my vocal cords clenching around the decisive words I had to ask, "where do we go from here?"
There was a long silence in which he seemed to be considering what to say.
"A girl asked me out for coffee today," he said, changing the topic quite abruptly.
"Oh." I didn't understand what he was saying at first, then it hit me. "Oh, wait, is coffee a euphemism or something?"
He cracked a reluctant smile at that, looking at his screen like I was an exotic animal he didn't quite understand. "Sometimes I forget..."
"So it is?" My tongue felt clammy in my mouth.
He had once told me that people over there were more casual about sex. Had he slept with this nameless girl already?
"It's kind of like a low-pressure date," he shrugged, unaware of the inner turmoil rushing through my head right then. "It's what people do over here, if you're interested in someone."
"Oh." I didn't know what to say. Was I supposed to encourage him to forget about me, to pursue this more geographically practical chance at romance?
Had he called just to say goodbye?
"I told her it was impossible... because there's this other girl... that I can't forget."
I blinked at him stupidly. The rest of my body stayed frozen to my seat.
"Even though she lives so far away, in Germany." He looked straight at the camera lens as he said this. It felt like he was looking right at me. "In Hamburg, actually."
My voice came out sounding paper-thin. "Are you saying..."
He leaned in closer towards his screen, as if that small action could close the distance between us. "When she asked me out... I realised I could never be interested in anyone else when I still feel this way about you." His Adam's apple bobbed before he said hoarsely, "Ich bin in dich verliebt."
I stared at him, joy battling dismay as my heart – and eyes – filled up. Those were the words that lit a fierce spark of joy in my heart, but this wasn't the way I'd wanted to hear them.
I wanted to kiss him, touch him – to feel the warmth of his skin against mine.
"I'm in love with you too," I whispered. Then I bit my lip, "Sorry, I don't know how to say it in Finnish."
I reached for him, only to encounter flat, hard glass. I pressed my fingers against the plastic frame of my monitor, hating that we were so far apart. "I wish you were here."
"Me too," he murmured. He glanced down for a moment, sighing, before he looked back at me. "I'll fly down to Hamburg during semester breaks."
"A round trip between Hamburg and Oulu costs three hundred and forty-five euros during the holidays," I recited.
That stopped him short. Then a smile spread slowly across his face, "You checked, too?"
"I've always wanted to visit Finland," I said, striving for casualness but failing miserably.
"I've never been to Hamburg," he countered.
We sat there, connected through our screens, smiling uncertainly but hopefully at each other.
"So," he said softly, "are we going to try?"
"I want to," I whispered back. "Do you?"
His eyes were serious as he answered. "I do."
"Your friends and family are there, mine are here... No matter what, it's not going to be easy." I still remembered that last conversation we'd had. Even if this worked out for now... What were we going to do in the future? The obstacles between us had not magically vanished since the day we'd said goodbye at the airport.
"Is this the German pessimism I've heard so much about?" he joked, before he grew serious. "No, it won't be easy... But we'll figure it out one step at a time."
"Yeah." I looked down briefly. "Maybe one day... after graduation..."
"We could go back to Edinburgh," he finished.
I stared at him. How had he known what I had been about to say? He had done this a lot in Edinburgh too, I realised. Read my mind before I'd even been aware of it.
That gave me hope.
"Did you know," I said, "the success rate for long-distance relationships is about sixty percent?"
He cast me an exasperated look, one that I had been the recipient of many times back in Edinburgh. "You have statistics for everything."
A giggle escaped me, before I felt my smile slowly fade. "I hope we're part of the sixty percent," I whispered, lifting my arm to stroke the image of his face on my screen.
I saw, on the other side, his arm lifting too. He must have placed his hand on his screen like I had, and I absently mused that, if we had been on either side of a connected piece of glass, we could be touching the same spot.
"We will be." His voice was steady; firm – confident. I felt emotion trill through me. Here was a boy, living two thousand kilometres away, who, despite all he had done to avoid me, to keep his heart locked up at first, was now willing to restructure his future so that I had a place in it. A boy from a different culture, a different country. A boy who, despite all our differences, I had fallen irrevocably for. A boy who had looked past who I seemed to be, straight into the core of who I was. A boy who had stuck up for me, even when I had been against myself. A boy who thought I was enough, just the way I was.
And I believed him.
A/N: "Write the one thing that you are most afraid to write." I have no idea where this quote is from, but I've been seeing it around a lot lately. And well, this is it. The one story I am most afraid to write, because it reveals too much about my inner self, I think. I'm a bit self-conscious about posting the story because of this, but, ah, what the heck.
Sorry. So many stereotypes in this story. I'm the last person to try to promote stereotypes, seeing as I tend to be on the receiving end of them quite frequently, so I would just like to reiterate that, in my experience, stereotypes are pretty much rubbish. I think it's impossible to have grown up without having some stereotypes drummed into our minds, but... people are all individuals, and individuals are all different. All the characters here are based on real people that I know, but none of them are meant to be representative of their nations. There are so many people in the world; it's kind of impossible to pop people neatly into boxes based on nationality or ethnicity or whatnot.
I started writing this during Eurovision in May, when I fell in love with Finland's song: 'Something Better' by Softengine. The song itself has not much to do with the story, but it's a nice song. Another song I listened to a lot while writing this was 'Hollywood Hills' by Sunrise Avenue. That one seems more fitting to the topic. Fun fact: both are Finnish bands. :) I had quite a lot more to say but I'm kind of drained from writing this now so I'll just leave things here like this.
Any Finns around? I solemnly apologise if I've gotten anything wrong. I've never been to Finland and Aksel himself is loosely based off the single Finnish guy I know... to whom I no longer speak. I spent a long, long time reading up about Finland and the Finnish culture while writing this... I have honestly learnt more about Finland and the language and culture in the past 5 months I spent writing this than I have previously in my entire life. (I also finally learnt how to differentiate between the English and German spellings; I've been mixing them up for the longest time.) But do correct me if I've gotten anything wrong.
I also apologise for my inept descriptions of Edinburgh. It is one of my favourite places in the world, but I must admit it's been a while since I've been there. So some portrayals may not be entirely accurate. Especially the part about Arthur's Seat - it didn't help that while climbing it I was basically crippled with fear and I didn't have my own personal Aksel around, so I didn't exactly make it to the summit. What did happen is that I ran up a huge phone bill by staying on the phone with my best friend from back home for the entire two-odd hours I took to climb the main part of the hill and get back down (I didn't have a UK number, so I was on roaming the whole time. Thank goodness for the Eurotariff, is all I can say). The view was amazing, though.
My one-shots seem to be getting longer and longer. So are my A/Ns... Whoops.
Please review if you managed to finish reading this story. What do you think?
Edit: Sequel up! It's called Somewhere Else... Check it out if you're interested in more of Aksel and Emilie! :)