What Sweden Is Like

Black Fox Literary Magazine, partially based in Orlando, Florida, just came out with its 13th issue. This short story is an excerpt from issue 13 as part of our Florida Lit Mag Series. After reading, we encourage you to learn more about this excellent literary journal.


Everybody in Sweden is hushed but you are loud. Swedes don’t look at the people they cross in the street, while you search for eyes. Hardly anybody approaches strangers, and you’re a stranger from Italy who longs for company. Some of them loosen up on the weekends, in bars where beer and vodka flow, while you’re a forthcoming rambler who wears his heart on his sleeve and talks with his hands in the air.

They were hooked on NYPD Blue and the Jerry Springer Show in English, with subtitles, and you watched Pippo Baudo host Fantastico and Inspector Cattani fight the Mafia. Swedish women are pallid and hushed, and have foggy eyes. You have brown eyes, olive skin, and stocky legs.

You’ll turn forty next month. Your hair is long and wild like Marc Bolan’s on the cover of T-Rex, and your attire is Spartan: jean jacket over a black T-shirt, military trousers, baggy, rolled up to your knees.

You were born in Ostuni, a fishing village on the heel of Italy, perched over the Adriatic Sea, lucent in the sun. Ostuni: a labyrinth of streets and alleyways and stone steps between white walls. A church that was once a Roman temple stands in the town center. Ostuni, a white citadel, you think now that you’re in a different kind of white fortress. A barbican, a great wall of flesh that never reddens. Never breaks a sweat either, or lets out a sound.

When you turned twenty, you ditched Ostuni, the small-town-mentality, your mother, too much of the wrong love, and her miserly whining about your father—He abandoned me, he abandoned you. And this is the reason there never was any money for your piano or Karate lessons, and nothing in your life is likely.

In Rome you moved into a warehouse squat outside Cinecittà. You slept with every girl who lived in that brick edifice, listened to CCCP, and tattooed the phases of the moon on your forearm. Your hair grew wild. You took acting classes and performed with a theater collective.

But Rome became too tight, so you took your show to Zurich, Paris, and Amsterdam. You busked the streets, played guitar, perfected a pantomime act. Wherever you found a friendly face or a pretty girl, you dropped your hat. You made ends meet with salutary jobs; serving espresso, pouring beer, stuffing paninis with mozzarella, fresh parsley, and pomodorini. Ciao, va bene! A dopo, Bella! you said to every woman.

You had no idea what Sweden was like. This was the farthest you’d come from home, the most foreign you’d been. The far-stretching views, boundless blue skies, and pure air mesmerized you. You set out to discover the country. Like a great explorer you wandered through unspoiled countryside. Only peace. You don’t speak a word of Swedish but your smile and garrulousness intrigues the rare souls you encountered—farmers living in red houses at the end of the world. You’re drawn north, away from Italy. You close your eyes and breathe. Sweden. What wide-open country is this? No sign of men’s labor, construction, or waste. No churches or castles on hills. No ruins of more prosperous times. Only virgin territory.

Lappland. Vast forests extending, then snow and melting ice, and then nothing but tundra, hillocks, a gray-green expanse as far as you can see. A lone bird of prey circles far above, in the blue. The calm infinity finds a place inside you. You have no doubt. Sweden’s the place for you; it will be the ballast to your mercurial heart, the vessel that collects your emotions.

Stockholm. You work part-time in a café. The Italian at the espresso machine. A Cliché, but you percolate one damn good coffee. The café owner, an Iranian, pays little but lets you stay in a small bedroom in his house.

So many pretty women! You don’t understand how Swedish men can keep their cool. Sometimes you run after girls with flowers you pluck from vases on window ledges. They smile at you, take the flower, and walk away. They’re intrigued by your Italian voice and how you look them in the eyes to let them know how much life there is in you. Swedish men have nothing on you, not your boldness and geniality. You are drawn into a frantic love life. No love, but short stints with women happy to sleep with you and see you gone by morning.

Until you lay eyes on Eva.

Eva, as in Adam and Eve. Pale face, inscrutable eyes, ashen lips. And that melancholy crease in her forehead. Eva’s twenty-five. Fifteen years younger than you. Perhaps younger. It’s possible she lied about her age. What do you care? She’s beautiful.

You are so young, you murmur to her as you take her in your arms and smell her. She’s all you ever wanted: composed and graceful, fair and freckled-nosed. And the delicious curvature of her neck! And her long white hands!

In her company the words pour out of you. She’s turned you into a poet. You tell her everything, you talk about Italy. She listens and nods. You pause to ask her what she thinks. Everything you say makes sense, she says. She listens to you for hours. She chuckles at your jokes.

You’re the entertainer, the voice in the relationship, the man who sets things right. You tell her about Brussels and working in a workshop where you shaped malleable tin-plate into lampshades. Espresso making isn’t interesting, so you don’t talk about that. You want to get back to acting, your calling in life. Acting, theater, pantomime. Eva nods but says nothing, so you tell her about the Venice Carnival and a Scaramouche mask you once fashioned out of papier maché.

I have never met anyone like you, she says.

Yeah, you are different. Swedish men are cold and reserved. They don’t have your bravado. They don’t know how to talk to a woman like Eva.

Bocca (mouth), culo (ass), guardami negli occhi (look into my eyes). She repeats the words until she pronounces them correctly. She loves Italian. You’re useful around her flat. You show her how to crush garlic cloves, instead of cutting them open, and how to make bread and prepare Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. Eva can’t cook worth shit. But the way she sets up the breakfast table, slices dark bread and Jarlsberg, garnishes the sliced bread and cheese with cucumber and red bell pepper, this makes up for her culinary ineptitude.

When you fuck her she moans. Even when you thud into her, rippling the layer of fat on her glutes. When she comes, she shudders and goes quiet. Then she lies besides you with her head on your chest and talks about going on holiday to Italy, anywhere far from Sweden.

In the morning, as she leaps out of bed you reach for her long calf, but she’s already on her way to the bathroom. She returns dressed in a pair of trousers she wears high above her waist. The trousers make her look longer and more slender than she really is. Her gaze wanders past you, past posters of art exhibits, past a collage made out of postcards with bizarre architecture.

Her lip curls down. Her gray eyes cloud. Your blood is calmed. You need this. You used to be an errant traveler. Used to be a gypsy. Eva grounds you.

It will snow in winter and the streets will glaze with frost, the green parks and the trees turn white and black, and fat, white rabbits will burrow through the white blanket to find nutrition.

You read Fernando Pessoa and Eva works at the computer. On the weekends she goes shopping with girlfriends you haven’t met. They avoid the fancy department stores in Sergels Torg. Eva prefers the boutiques in Södermalm, a neighborhood that feels less Swedish and is home to Ethiopian and Middle-Eastern immigrants and young Swedes who moved home after living in London.

Eva is in medical school. What a good thing, you think, to care for people. When she takes a phone call, she often goes to the next room and shuts the door. She’s very private. Never once has she suggested you meet her parents, although she dines with them every week. It doesn’t matter: you’ve moved in with her and sleep in her bed.

You kiss her on the bus. Stop, she whispers. We are not alone. You grab her ass and stare back at the grannies across from you until they look away.

You don’t back down. Sometimes this gets you into a scuffle. Like the afternoon you wore Mickey Mouse shoes, a red nose, and a top hat. You drew thick, red lips around your mouth, and off you went down the pedestrian street. People stopped to watch your pantomime. Some dropped coins in a basket. Two idiots heckled you. They called you a clown. Sure, you were dressed like one. But the way they said it and how the big guy stabbed a finger at your chest? You stood your ground, told them they were the clowns.

Some of the older customers who come to the café don’t want to speak English. This is Sweden, they whisper. You whistle a song and pretend not to be irritated. You know you’ll never learn Swedish. And even if you did, you’d make sure to only speak English or Italian.

Eva shampoos your hair when you shower together. She makes a face when you push your chin into her neck and tickle her with your stubble. You bite her collarbone. She freezes. Enough, she says. So you kiss her.

Sometimes you run out of things to say. Your heart shrinks and you feel a little Swedish. And when you go quiet, everything is quiet, and Eva the quietest. She’s always quiet, but now that you’re quiet, she’s so so quiet.

One day in June, you’re invited to Rome to work on a play. The director is your old acting teacher, the one who taught you everything. You need the money and a little ego-boost.

Three weeks in Rome.

Night after night, you perform in front of a packed theatre. At the curtain call, applause erupts and the roars go, Bravi! Bravi!  It fills you with pride, gives you new purpose. After the performances you drink wine in a square with your fellow actors and converse about life and art.

A Saturday morning. Porta Portese, the open-air market. A jungle of makeshift stalls. Everybody’s looking for a bargain, negotiating, sweating, shouting. A feisty old woman rides past you on a bike. She thumps her bell with persistence and cuts through the crowd. The stallholders shout out their deals. There’s a melody to the chants and competing calls. A hand grabs your shoulder. This man with a low, friendly voice, wants you to try his melon. You take a wedge of fruit from the plate he holds up and bite into it. Sweet, rich, juicy. Senti che buono? The man says, and resumes calling passers-by. The deluge of life and noise is disorienting. For a moment you have to sit down on the pavement.

What can you tell your old friends about Sweden? What do you have to show for your time there? You give them the best thing you’ve got: a photo of Eva. She is beautiful, they say. Now they understand what keeps you in Sweden. You let slip that she might be the one. But when your brother, Stefano, wants to know if you’ve learned Swedish, you suddenly feel unsure of what you are doing.

Stockholm again. You traveled two long days to get here. You missed a bus, a train, an airplane. You shelled out an extra one hundred Euro for a next-day ticket and spent the night on the floor of Fiumicino Airport. You couldn’t sleep. Everything seemed to conspire against your return. You had the feeling this wasn’t the right time to come back to Sweden. But you were on such a high. The jam-packed theater! Your fellow actors’ praise! The endless applause! You couldn’t wait to see Eva, tell her everything, share your joy. Show her your true self. Tell her about the thrill of living.

It’s ten at night when you arrive at her apartment. You knock. The door is unlatched. Eva. A thin smile and not a word. Her hair is moist, as though she just came out of the shower. Her eyes are red at the corners. She doesn’t seem happy to see you. You follow her to the kitchen. She goes to the sink and turns on the tap. You drop your duffle bag to the floor. Long knives are tacked on the horizontal magnet that runs along the counter top. Shakers with dried herbs and ground spices crowd the narrow wood shelf. You never noticed them before. She keeps her back to you. You think about grabbing your bag and getting out of there. But where would you go?

Her shoulder bends and her magnificent neck, the neck you’ve kissed many times, is revealed. She turns reluctantly. Her lower lip droops. She looks stupid. The kettle shakes and there’s a bubbling sound and a click. She turns and prepares tea. You go to her, take one of the cups, and sit at the table. She remains by the counter and studies her cup. Says nothing. Doesn’t even look at you. Is this the woman you lived with?

You pull out a chair for her, but she keeps away.

You wonder what changed. Maybe she’s talked about you to her mother or father. A foreigner? Working in a café? Are you crazy? She’s so distant. She’s different. You don’t know where to start. The look on her face crushes you. Again, you’re just an insignificant mime.

A clown.

How you wish she’d reach out to you, offer a word, cough out a sound. Speak to me, you say. Almost implore her. If only she’d speak. If only she asked an innocent question, like, How was it?

Speak to me, Eva.

Instead, it’s the miserly sipping from her cup.

Say something! You raise your voice. I’m always the one speaking. Her eyes are vacant. Your heart slows down and your body, organ by organ, like the compartments of a sinking ship, fills with cold water.

You want to provoke a reaction. Force her to say something.

You read Dante to her, described your mother’s house, told her of your childhood dream of playing the piano. Taught her how to make a fist and punch. How to cook. You were her friend and lover.

Your turn, you say.

Eva fiddles with a small music player. Of the thousands tunes she could play, she selects one you recognize right away.

I will survive, the chorus goes.

Such a fierce look in her eyes.

You crash a fist against the table. The cup jolts, tumbles, and shatters on the floor. You bang your fist again.

Sit down, you say.

She doesn’t flinch. Your face is hot. Eva stands in the corner, as far from you as possible, defenseless like a deer caught in the headlights.

Speak to me. Your turn now, you say. I’m not saying another word. I am tired of speaking.

She starts to sob, Please leave.

You get out of the chair and pace circles around the table. Your life is unraveling. What will become of you? Of you and this country? And Eva?

Eva doesn’t move. Eva has nothing to say.

A pause. As you feel your muscles and fists tighten again, you draw in a long, slow breath.

Call the police, you say.  This is the only way I’ll leave the apartment.

She doesn’t move a finger.

You grab the phone and hold it to her. You want me to leave? you say, Then call the police. The phone shakes in your hand. She stares at you then snatches the phone from your hand.

She puts the phone down.  She doesn’t even sneer at you.   She goes to the bathroom, then to the bedroom and shuts the door behind her.  You stand in the kitchen.  There’s nothing for you to do.  There’s nothing you can do.  You feel like a prisoner.  So you take your bag and walk out of the apartment.

The sky is gray-blue, a luminous Swedish night like a dawn of an Italian summer day. And you recall the morning you went out fishing with your father and you learned how to hold the oars and row. Then you went out into the blue sea, a long way, until you could no longer see the shore.