She was the only person I knew here. Is the only person I know, still, technically. I have no hobbies, I don’t do sports and I work in a different town, so meeting people didn’t come naturally when I moved. Thank god I live in the age of the internet so when I decided I was ready for my new life to start, I changed the settings of my meet up app to all genders and started scrolling through ‘people within a 5-mile radius’. Her profile said:
someone who is a bit cocky though seemingly without reason, who makes Facebook posts about equality, reads up on the war in Syria + lets people know about it, is funny in a childish way, never cleans his house, treats his mother to fancy things because she is a *special woman*, educates me on things I know more about, is extremely jovial to mask his insecurities because he was bullied as a kid, sleeps with as many girls as he can for the same reason and brags about it when he’s drunk (83 & counting), emphasizes his interest in science because he didn’t finish high school and plays the misunderstood genius role whenever he can, has a preference for sex with virgins, is disappointed I am not one, wakes me up by having unsafe sex with me even though I repeatedly said no the night before because he refused to wear a condom, jokes about unwanted babies afterwards, takes off my glasses in the bar when I meet him for the first time ‘for fun’ which I later realize is because he is assessing my looks and he has learned glasses make you ugly, has severe anxiety problems, does not reciprocate sex acts when he comes first but expects me to do so, snores, tells me I’m imagining things
There was a knife emoji at the end. I immediately liked her. In every photo she had a different hair color, mint green, bleached white, dark brown on top ending in magenta. She told me her actual name was Charlotte, but she preferred Carrie. She said it meant ‘free woman’ and she saw that as something to aspire to, someday. I told her I wasn’t gay or anything, just new in town, looking for cool people. She said she was far from cool, the opposite of cool, but we both didn’t know what that would be.
The first time we saw each other in real life was at a noise concert. I had walked from the metro through the grey snow for about fifteen minutes, originally on my way to a movie theater on the east side of town when I made a change of plans. I really didn’t feel like Mulholland Drive and the old-timey décor of the theater made me nauseous anyway. We were chatting on Messenger, she had told me she was going to this show – she just casually mentioned it and maybe she didn’t want me there, but I decided to take the risk and looked up the address on the event page. It was another ten minutes away in a deserted part of the city, but the street lights were bright so I went. When I walked into the dark hallway with the narrow staircase that led up to the room where the concert was taking place, my eyes had to adjust, like when you’ve spent all day on a terrace on a sunny day and you walk into a café to use the bathroom. At first I didn’t recognize her. She looked smaller than in the photos, less fierce. When I introduced myself she didn’t ask why I came but took it as a given. We listened to the noise. Her hair was white. After the concert we walked to the metro and decided to have a drink at the only bar we knew that was still open after three, Donny’s I think it was called, or Danny’s. I’ll check later. In front of the bar was a guy in a military uniform smoking a cigarette, beer in hand. On the door it said we should respect the neighbors and no beverages outside.
“I can’t even bring my drink,” the guy said, oblivious to the fact he was blocking the door. “We’re at a bar, for Christ’s sake, and I can’t bring my drink outside!” He didn’t wait for us to reply. “I can’t wear my uniform anymore, can’t drink my beer outside, can’t smoke a cigarette inside! It’s fucked up. The whole system. Right?”
“You’re right pal,” she had said. “Enjoy your drink. We won’t tell.”
“My kind of girl.”
When we tried to walk past him he took us approaching him as a sign of interest and started to lecture us about the government’s decision not to let them wear their military attire anymore. “We have to dress like civilians!” He had said civilians like a sixteen-year-old, as if everyone who was not in the military was justgross. “Well no ma’am. Not this guy.” He made a speech about being proud of his profession, that there was no shame in defending one’s country, that that kind of spreading of fear was just ridiculous, it’s what they want, but “we won’t let them get us!”. I thought about all those times men had taken up my time this way: them demanding attention by talking to me, me being polite and listening, trying to be as neutral as possible to keep the situation manageable. We nodded, said yeah, we understand. He told us that the week before, he was attacked by an ISIS warrior. “Right here in the old town.”
“An ISIS warrior?”
“A real one?” She chuckled when I said this, he didn’t notice.
“As real as they get. I got the scars to prove it.” Before we knew it he had unbuttoned his shirt and showed us a big wound on his chest. While he looked down at the wound and back to us to check if we were looking closely enough, he said they keep this kind of stuff out of the newspaper, under the radar. “No one knows, officially.” It was a big gash with crusts of dried blood and there was no bandage on it, which I thought was very strange, but I felt I couldn’t say anything about it. “I was standing at a bar, and out of nowhere this jihadi comes at me with a knife. Out of nowhere! Just ‘cause I was wearing my uniform.” I was afraid to ask how exactly he knew this guy was a jihadi or an ISIS warrior so I just went with it, said that’s terrible, truly awful. When he finally took a step away from the door she added she was very sorry for him as well, really, “hope you recover soon!”, and we went inside.
At our table Carrie told me her brother was in the army too. I asked where he had been sent to, she responded she wasn’t sure, she hadn’t seen him in four years. I didn’t ask. The rest of the night we talked about unimportant stuff, observations we made about the other guests, how we were the only women at the bar, what we thought about the concert, nothing particularly personal. It wasn’t really necessary: I felt our encounter with the soldier had accelerated our getting-to-know-each-other. He had spoken to us as if we were together. Not in a romantic way maybe, but just, together. As friends or at least as people who had known each other longer than an hour and a half. That’s what it felt like, too. It was the chuckle that convinced me we knew what the other one was thinking. The next day we had dinner at her place, a tiny studio apartment in Hochelaga, where she’d lit a lot of candles because the heating didn’t work properly. We watched a movie (she called it a film) and I missed the last metro. She said she was afraid to sleep alone, that’s why she didn’t warn me about it being past midnight, I said it was fine, I wasn’t feeling like walking in the snow anyway. I watched her as she took off her sweater. I fell asleep in my clothes.
We saw each other almost every day that winter.
She told me about her dad, who she would only see on her Facebook timeline in the section ‘People You Might Know’, next to the profile of a girl she was in elementary school with and hadn’t seen in seventeen years, and about her mom who now lived somewhere in the US and whose boyfriends would range from creepy uncle-type to utterly psychotic. We’d go to shows together, sometimes the movies, she hated the movie theater as well, talked to me about its phony nostalgia being just another sign of gentrification ruining everything and then grew sad because she realized we were causing it. She wrote a two-chord punk song and sang it to me before bed:
we are part / of everything we hate, baby / we are smart / but we can’t change our fate, baby / it’s too late, baby / it’s too late, baby.
The day our friendship ended started out as an ordinary one. We went to get breakfast at a place that used a Mr. Coffee to make simple filter coffee, protesting fancy espresso machines and overpriced lattes. We couldn’t decide whether this was the appropriate way to object.
“Would you at least consider it?” She was talking about the invite she got the day before from a Facebook friend, asking her to drop by that evening, to hang out. She wanted me to tag along, I had immediately said no.
“But I don’t want to go alone.”
“You want to hang out with the three of us? Me, you, and some weird guy who you’ve met once?”
“Yes.” She smiled. “Okay, maybe he’s terrible, but why not see for ourselves?”
“You make me feel like we’re in high school.”
“Do you have anything better to do?”
And so we went, that night. He lived in his father’s apartment, who was an art dealer. It was situated in a newly built apartment building on the edge of town, a neighborhood I had never been before. After a tour of his apartment he asked us if we wanted to go swimming. I thought he was joking, but we went to the pool in the basement, or below ground level, as he called it. The pool was long, not too wide, and at the far end were these big fake rocks against the wall, up to the ceiling, through which water would probably run if someone turned on the faucet. It was quite dark, there were only lights in the pool itself and in the corner there was a booth with glass around it.
“It’s where the masseuse works,” he said, and I wondered about privacy, though I should have wondered about many other things. The guy was called Fredric, such a typical name for a guy like that and I know: now I’m telling you this I also realize, I should have known this was a bad idea. But I didn’t. Not yet.
Fredric was the kind of guy who tries to impress you with his knowledge of Guattari and whoever, very unsurprising, I thought, but Carrie actually managed to have some kind of conversation with him about it while sitting on the edge of the pool, so his effort wasn’t a total waste. He was the only one with a bathing suit – had he really planned this? – so he went swimming as we watched. I don’t really know why we stayed, it wasn’t that interesting, probably because we had nothing else to do. When we sat down in the pool chairs, I asked her what she thought of Fredric. She said she felt sorry for him. He was still swimming, counting his laps out loud.
I now often think back about the glasses in the bar thing she wrote, I don’t know why, I don’t even wear glasses. But it’s not just beauty-related, I think it has something to do with glasses as this cliché marker of intelligence. She was constantly undermined. We once made letter garlands to put up on her wall. Mine said I AM HERE, which I wanted to be a reassuring message to her, but came across a bit creepy. Hers said ONLY DATE MEN WHO HATE MEN, “as a reminder”, she said, and she and I thought it was hilarious. She hung it above her bed. Fredric obviously was a guy who loved men – he loved the banter, the jokes, the toughness, he loved being watched by women, of protecting women, of seeing them either as beneath him or as mythical creatures, he loved being with the boys, he loved being called a man, he loved seeing his father being a successful businessman, he loved the apartment, he loved showing it to people and especially women, he loved feeling powerful. It was sad, I agreed with her.
But he didn’t deserve it.
I don’t know for how long we were there, stretched out in the pool chairs, eyes closed as if we were sunbathing. We weren’t really talking, I think, though it wasn’t silent either, I’m not sure anymore. Fredric swam and swam, his counting became like the ticking of the clock in your parents’ living room, only noticeable if you paid attention. We became aware of his presence again when the counting stopped. On the other side of the pool, he had gotten out and now was trying to see if he could climb the artificial rock formation, the fake waterfall, obviously a purely decorative component an interior designer decided to put there. Not something to be climbed. Carrie looked at him from our side of the pool, smiling. She raised her voice.
“What are you doing, Freddie?”
Fredric said something we couldn’t hear because he was far away and his face was turned to the wall, his back to us. Carrie stood up from her pool chair and walked towards him. I sat up. Fredric had found a way to climb a bit higher, holding on to the edges of the synthetic rocks. It was quite high.
“Carrie?” I stood up from my chair, not sure whether I was supposed to go towards them, because I had a feeling that a doubling of the spectators might only encourage him. Carrie looked at me, shook her head and made a hand gesture that I interpreted as ‘don’t worry, it’s fine, he’s just being dumb’, so stayed where I was. I heard her say something about rock climbing, her fear of heights. He was holding on with one hand, stretched his other arm out in a ta-dah kind of gesture. Look at me, his whole being said. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d literally said that. I came a little closer. He was touching the relief of the plastic rocks while telling a story about diving off a cliff in the north of Italy, because of course he had been to Europe. Carrie said something that sounded like “ah yeah, Italy, it’s beautiful”, but I knew she had never been abroad. He talked about a photo his friend took of him while he dove straight into the Adriatic Sea, “a great pic”, while climbing even higher, until he could reach the ceiling.
“I think I care too much,” she had said a few weeks before, I recall our conversation exactly. Her remark came out of nowhere. We were at Parc La Fontaine, walking past the water. We’d known each other for more than three months by then. “That’s probably it. The opposite of cool. If you’re cool, you don’t care. It’s like, ‘whatever, I’m fine, I don’t care.’ I never have that. I always care.”
I watched Carrie watching Fredric. She was strangely excited to see this boy doing stupid stuff. He seemed to feel encouraged, looked to be preparing for something. He adjusted his swimming trousers with his one free hand, holding on to the rocks with the other. He put his hand through his hair. Carrie clapped her hands. He looked at her, at the water, at the ceiling, trying to determine how high he was. Now I think: I could have gone to them. I would have told him it definitely wasn’t deep enough. I could have told her to just stop it.
He would have climbed down, he would have gotten dressed, he would have asked us if we wanted a night cap or something, a word he definitely would have used, but I would have taken her by the hand, I would have taken her home, we would have laughed about it. Then, after, – now – we would sit together and talk about that time, with that guy, what’s his name again, counting his laps, offering us night caps. I could have even yelled from my side of the pool. I could have said “Fredric, what are you doing dude?” I could have asked Carrie the same thing.
She probably thought he wasn’t going to do it anyway. She really didn’t think someone would do such a dumb thing. She must have known it wasn’t possible. I knew it wasn’t possible, and I’d been the farthest from the pool the entire time.
Instead, I walked towards the heavy exit door that lead to the small hallway with the elevator and the stairwell, taking my things with me. My coat, my bag, my keys. The last thing I saw was her getting her phone out of her jeans pocket to take a photo of him. “So if I do it, you –”, I heard him say. I hurried out, stepped into the carpeted hall and forcefully shut the large door behind me, the heavy thud of an alliance ending, making sure it would be the only sound I could hear.
Fien Veldman (Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, 1990) writes short stories and poetry. She holds a Master’s Degree in Literature from the University of Amsterdam and went to graduate school at McGill University in Montreal. Her short stories have been published in The Correspondent, EXPOSED and DeFusie. Her work is marked by a fascination with social ranks and hierarchies, emancipatory narratives, feminist perspectives and a sense of humor. She lives and works in Amsterdam.