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from the September 2019 issue

Suburbia

In this extract from Linn Strømsborg’s novel, a woman just out of graduate school moves back in with her parents and resumes her adolescence.

Høybråtenveien 23 K

It starts again, this feeling in the pit of my stomach, as soon as I’m alone in my old room at home: the feeling that time is standing still, that I’m the same as when I was eleven and fifteen and twenty-four. I lie on my bed, then get up and walk around a bit. I look out of the window and draw the curtains so I can’t see the windows on the other side—all the lights from kitchens, bedrooms, kids’ rooms. I open the closet and toss my bag in, shut it again. I can hear Mom and Dad talking in the living room. The sounds are so familiar, my room so small that I feel like I’m being filled up with nothingness. With that feeling you get when you think that everyone is out there experiencing things except for you, that everyone else has started living their lives for real, is going to the parties you only see in movies, kissing the boys you don’t even dare say hi to in the schoolyard. They go to bed with a smile on their face, while you lie awake and write in your diary about everything that isn’t happening. From when you start school and start seeing other people, from when you’re trading stickers with Nina in her room and dreaming of one day being just as cool and pretty as her, with just as many stickers—you long to be an adult, to be bigger, older, prettier, and cooler, you long to decide things for yourself, you long for a kind of new start, or maybe just a kickstart. You long for the life you know from late-night TV, and you believe that’s how it should be. In just six years, four years, two years it’ll all start, but then when you get there, when you’re standing there like an ordinary fifteen-year-old and you don’t look like the posters on your wall, you think you’ve failed and that you’re the only person in the world who hasn’t managed it, and you want the world to end, and you want the world to start again.

Where are the parties you saw on TV, where is Johnny telling your parents that nobody puts you in a corner, where’s the guy asking you to prom, where are the proms actually, those things in the gym here are just stupid, and you still spend your nights lying alone in your room and writing in your diary about everything that isn’t happening, and then you go to high school, and when the ball finally starts to roll, when the boy says hi to you, when you no longer cringe at the sight of your own face in the mirror, when the nights are beer cans and graduation parties, when you’ve forgotten why you longed for all of this, when you’re sitting in your own apartment, completely alone, watching your friends moving abroad, getting boyfriends, getting engaged, graduating and starting jobs, when you get up each day and go to the same place, whether it’s to a job or a spot in the library, when you realize that things are starting to be as they should, that things are starting to fall into place, then maybe you long for the bench you liked to sit on when you still didn’t know the person you are today, when everything that hurt was the worst thing that had happened to you, when everything that was good was the most beautiful thing in the world, when your feelings filled you up, and at least your heart was still warm.

Right by Haugen School

I swipe through my contacts and realize I don’t have Jo’s number. When did it disappear though? I don’t remember having deleted it. Maybe I lost it when I switched phones. I swipe on. So many names. Think if I could call them all at once. Think if everyone I know, everyone whose number I have for some reason—minus Jo—all said at the very same time: Hi, Eva.

I get up and pace the floor, sit down on the bed, then get back up again. Before I can dwell on it any further, I put on my jacket and go out into the hall, start lacing up my shoes, and shout to Mom and Dad that I’m going on a walk. It’s just like before, as though I never even moved out: I don’t wait for a response before grabbing the keys from the entry table, putting on my headphones, and disappearing out the door.

The cold hits me as soon as I open the door downstairs, but I pull my hood over my head, put my hands in my pockets, and just start walking. I walk toward the bench, toward the school, toward the schoolyard that’s empty over Christmas break, along all the apartment blocks with light glowing from the windows. Mist hovers in front of me and I slowly start to warm up as I speed along. It takes me four and a half minutes to walk to our bench, the place we used to sit, every recess, every evening. When I turn the corner of the block I can see it a few yards ahead of me. It’s covered with snow; I guess no one has sat here in a while. I approach it and kick off a bit of the snow, which is hard after it’s already thawed and frozen again a few times, even though it’s only December.

I brush off the backrest and crouch on the seat, put my hands back in my pockets, and look out over the schoolyard, over Furuset, over Haugen with the gravel pitch, the trees, the streetlights and the apartment blocks on Maria Dehli’s Way. It’s lonely sitting here now, without Jo. I never sat here by myself growing up. It was always the two of us, sometimes more. The bench was ours from first to tenth grade, almost every day for nine years.

It takes seven minutes and twenty seconds to walk from the bench to where Jo lived throughout our childhood. I always measured distances in songs. I measured everything in songs. From my house to the bench was “Hate This Place” by the Goo Goo Dolls, from the bench to Jo’s was “När det blåser på månen” by Kent and the first half of “Slide,” from Jo’s to my house was the rest of “Slide” and almost all of “747”—not the radio version, but the original. The long one. The one that lasts for seven minutes and forty-seven seconds.

I guess I walked faster than I used to since I’m already ringing Jo’s doorbell as “Slide” is starting. I haven’t heard this song in as many years as the last time I stood here. I clear my throat as the door opens. Jo’s mom is standing there.

“Hi,” I say, and she smiles.

“Hi, Eva! Are you looking for Joseph?” she asks. I nod and ask if he still lives here.

“No, but he doesn’t live too far away.” She gives me directions and since I more or less know where I am, I thank her and turn to go.

“Aren’t you cold, honey?” She looks at me and my jacket. I shrug, but she opens the door wide and tells me to come inside.

“Just for a bit, Eva. Get warm. I’ll make you a cup of tea,” she prattles as she heads toward the kitchen. I untie my shoelaces and take off my shoes. It smells like it always has here: food and something sweet. Something I don’t know, but that has always been here, in Jo and his mom’s house.

“Have you eaten?” Jo’s mom looks at me sternly. I shake my head and she sighs loudly and chatters to herself. It’s just like when I was fourteen and would come here after school. She opens the fridge and takes out some leftovers. It looks like benachin, a Gambian stew that we’d eaten together many times before.

“Sit down and we’ll get you tea and some proper food.”

She looks content, and I smile and sit down by the kitchen table as she fusses with the stove.

“It’s been a while since I saw you,” she says as she serves the food. I start eating right away and nod as I chew. It’s spicy. I’d forgotten how spicy she made her food.

“Do you want some water, honey?” She laughs at how quickly I nod and puts a glass of water in front of me. I can see in her eyes she’s enjoying herself.

I take a drink and keep eating. I get used to the spiciness quite quickly and it’s better now. I loved benachin when I was little. Jo never really liked it. He preferred meatballs. We used to joke that I was really the one from Gambia and he was the Norwegian.

“It’s good to see you eating, sweetie. You’re thin as a rail.” Jo’s mom stands and starts to tidy up. I drink another glass of water and thank her for the food. She waves me off and tells me to say hi to Jo.

“Tell him to visit his mom and that he promised to mount my new bookshelf!”

She gives me a hug and I go back out into the cold.

 

It takes a few moments before the lock turns and Jo opens the door. I can hear Lil Wayne in the background, probably from the living room, and it smells like food.

“Do you already have visitors?” He hasn’t said anything yet because he’s chewing. Jo likes to chew. He swallows and says no.

“Now you do!” I say and walk into his hallway. I kick off my shoes and hang up my jacket. Jo heads into the living room and I follow after him. There’s a pizza on his stove that looks homemade. It smells good. His living room is messy—clothes and DVD covers are lying all over the sofa and floor. In the kitchen, next to the oven and the pizza, I can see that there’s a ton of dirty dishes, empty soda cans, and a milk carton. There are more empty cans on the floor. I remember how his room looked when we were young, and that it wasn’t all that different from this, just that now the mess is on a larger scale. No mom to tidy up the kitchen and living room here.

“Are you hungry?” Jo asks. I look at him and tell him I just visited his mom.

“Ah, so you’re not hungry anymore, then,” he laughs and sits on the sofa, still eating the piece of pizza he had in his hand when I arrived. I glance around his apartment, walk over to the CD rack, and look at the albums. There isn’t much new here, but I’m guessing he downloads most of his music now. Lil Wayne fades out and I hear the start of a Timbaland song.

“I like this one,” I say, turning toward Jo. He nods and keeps eating, then gets up and goes to the kitchen to grab another piece. It smells so good that I wish I were hungry.

Next to the CD rack there’s a shelf full of DVDs. I glance over them and pull out The Notebook. It’s in my hand when Jo comes back from the kitchen.

“So is this your favorite movie, or . . . ?”

Jo sets his place on the table and finishes chewing before he answers.

It takes a while.

“Eva, you don’t mess around with The Notebook, OK? That movie there taught me what love is.” He walks over to me quickly and takes the DVD as I laugh. He puts the movie back before sitting down on the sofa and asking me if I’ve thought about coming to the party the day after tomorrow. I shrug and ask if there will be a lot of people there.

“Yeah, probably, but you know those big parties, New Year’s Eve and all that, they never end up how you think they will.” He takes yet another bite of pizza.

I nod and pick at the cuticle on my thumb.

“I could call you or something once I know what’s happening at home,” I say and look up from my hands. “I think my mom and dad will at the very least want me to eat with them since I wasn’t home for Christmas.”

“You weren’t at home for Christmas?” Jo is talking with food in his mouth and I laugh since he never does that. He always waits to talk till he’s done chewing, no matter how long that takes. Sometimes he even takes an extra bite to buy himself some time or just to irritate me.

“No,” I say and tell him about my Christmas, and it strikes me as I’m telling him that I haven’t spoken about this with anyone else.

“Wow,” Jo says, and I don’t really know what he means by that.

“Yup,” I say.

“But, uh, wasn’t that like, kind of sad?”

“Not really,” I say. “It was kind of sad not to be with my mom and dad I guess, but it was nice to be alone, too. They’re there, after all. Or, here.” I correct myself at the last second, and Jo keeps nodding.

“Yeah,” he says. He gets up to go to the kitchen, and asks if I want anything to drink. I say yes, and he comes back into the living room with a beer for each of us. Tuborg. Christmas ale. He finds the remote control and turns the TV on and the music off. Home Alone 2 is on and we sit there without talking.

Later, before I leave, I remember that I don’t have his number and he puts it in my phone for me. Then I stand in the snow again, on his steps.

“By the way,” I say, turning toward him. “The reason I came, really, was to ask if you wanted to go to the bench this week?”

He nods.

"Cool. I’ll buy the beer. All you have to do is come.”

“Deal,” he says. “You need a proper winter coat, Eva.” He hugs me, and I feel his hand stroke my back through the thin jacket. Then I hop down the stairs—all three steps in one fantastic hop—and continue across the snow. I manage “Sundance Kid” two and a half times before I get home.

 

From Furuset. © 2012 by Flamme Forlag. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Olivia Lasky. All rights reserved.

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