Excerpt from Elastic by Johanne Bille, tr. Sherilyn Hellberg
There was something different about her.
That’s how it all started. A dried bit of sleep was caught on one of her short, greyish eyelashes, and the little, bright speck moved up and down when she blinked. Eventually, it dropped from her eyelash and landed on her flushed cheek. It was freezing outside. Soon, March. I felt the urge to softly brush the little speck away with my finger, but I resisted. Alice, meet Mathilde — your new colleague, my boss said. She offered her hand in an assured way, her fingers cold and bony, but maybe they were just numb from outside. She quickly undid the big buttons of her winter coat and threw it over the chair closest to her, sitting down next to it. She rubbed her hands together a little desperately, and I wanted to wrap my hands around them, to squeeze them and transfer my warmth to her.
I remember the first time I met Mathilde. In that sense, she’s different from everyone else I’ve ever been in love with, but I can’t remember the next few times I saw her, so she’s also different in that way. It must have been at the office. We sat across from each other, our desks mirrored. We could catch each other’s eyes by looking up from our computer screens and leaning a bit to the side. I’d come home tired every day, but in a good way. I would hoover and wash the floors, drinking a glass of wine in the kitchen while the floors dried. It took a long time. It rained every day and nothing in the flat ever seemed to dry completely. Everything was tinged with moisture.
The wet laundry hanging in the bedroom and living room only increased the level of humidity. I couldn’t stop cleaning. It felt necessary after the six seasons of How I Met Your Mother I had watched in January. All this housework was more than a diversion. Cleaning had become meditative for me in a way that practical tasks had never been before: slowly dusting shelves with a wet rag and picturing the little speck of dried goo on her eyelash, methodically hoovering the floors and imagining big, round buttons pried out of their holes by stiff fingers and chewed nails.
At ten o’clock, I fell asleep in clean sheets and slept a dreamless sleep. I woke up around seven, got out of bed and pulled a dress down from the clothes rack. Found a cardigan in the drawer. I think all of February went by like that. Maybe something inside me knew that I wouldn’t want to spend my time leaning a few months from now? Like a bear going into hibernation, I isolated myself in my little hole. I was preparing for the coming of summer, its ravenous consumption of nourishment. I was lying in wait, but I wasn’t even waiting — not really. Bears probably don’t wait for summer and its abundance of food, and they don’t sleep because they want to. They wake up because their instinct, their biological clock, tells them it’s time.
I woke up in March.
It wasn’t abrupt like you see in the movies. When the camera zooms in on the face of the person waking, and BOOM! their eyes open. I awoke slowly, disoriented. It took days for me to understand what was happening. It bothers me now, that I let my feelings for Mathilde sneak up on me like that. We were sitting at the bar, or rather, Mathilde had taken a seat at the bar that first night, and when I arrived, I thought she wasn’t there. I stood in the doorway looking for her among all the other talking, drinking, smoking people, and my stomach clenched. And then a delicate, pale hand waved. There she was, smiling from one of the high bar stools, but not like we were colleagues, more like we knew each other’s deepest secrets. We talked a bit about work, about our plans for the weekend. But it wasn’t the usual small talk, at least not the kind I was used to. I raised my beer bottle to my lips, but Mathilde stopped me: In this bar, we use glasses. Even though I prefer to drink from the bottle too, she said as her hand brushed my thigh.
Was it a date?
There was a little space between us as we drank our first beer. A woman sat down next to me and hung a boxy bag over her chair. It kept bumping into my knee, but it didn’t bother me. I just pushed my chair closer to Mathilde’s. The woman with the bag bought a round and winked at me. Why should it matter whether you’re born with a dick or a cunt? Mathilde said. She lit another cigarette and talked about emancipation and stigma. Her voice was strong in a way I hadn’t heard before. Suddenly, I felt light and airy. Her words were like hundreds of helium balloons tied to my feet, my knees, my shoulders, my ears. My plaited hair.
I don’t regret anything I’ve done, Mathilde said, because I’m happy to be where I am now. A droplet of beer clung to her upper lip as the words came out. I could feel with my entire body that I was younger than her. That I still had my youth, that hers was disappearing, ebbing away.
I slept with her.
Mathilde nodded towards the bartender. It was only a few times, just because, you know. And I made a noise that indicated that I knew.
Back home, I’m restless and you’re skyping me from Hanoi and saying that you can’t sleep, that you miss me, that six months is too long to be apart I feel a bubbling feeling and say I love you too. It’s dark in your room and I can only see the outline of your face when you hold up the phone close to your eyes, which makes you squint a little. Something has changed. I was so jealous of you and your adventures when you were sending me pictures of palm trees and penthouses and gin & tonics. Now it’s the other way around. I send you pictures of Copenhagen bursting in the spring, and you send me long messages about how much you’re looking forward to coming home and going on adventures together in our city, the same Copenhagen that you, a few months ago, couldn’t stand. That feeling is apparently gone. Or you’re starting to realise that your dissatisfaction with everything besides me might have more to do with yourself than where you are.
You don’t want to hang up. My thumb hovers over the red button on the screen as you, for a second time, ask what I’m doing tomorrow. I’m so tired, I say, and you smile and give the camera a kiss. Your lips fil1 the screen. Finally you hang up and my hands are free. My fingers press against my clitoris in the way that usually works, but the pictures in my head appear in flashes, and my klit and my wrist start hurting, but my fingers keep going.
I inherited my dad’s greed. It’s there in my breasts and my belly and my cunt. In the gap between my front teeth which has gotten smaller with age but is still big enough to fit a string of spaghetti through. My greed is impossible to get rid of. It laughs mockingly at me in the mirror. You can try your best to be virtuous, it says, but I’m stuck inside you. Like the genetic mutation that causes breast and cervical cancer. Angelina Jolie has it. She had a mastectomy and hysterectomy. They call it risk-reducing surgery. I can’t prevent the consequences though. My greed is just there, destroying everything.
My greed and boredom are intertwined, strung together inside my body. As a teenager, I learned that addiction was the only thing that could relieve my greed and boredom, and alcohol was sitting right there. Being drunk for the first time was wonderful. My world was turned upside down, I was in free fall. When I was sixteen years old, I got so drunk I peed my pants outside the front door of my childhood home. The complete loss of control was fantastic. Listening to my own urine splashing on the pavement, completely alone with that sound and the warm feeling between my legs, spreading across my buttocks. After that night, there was no going back. I waited in line to get into nightclubs with my fake ID and lied with hungry eyes about my age, my star sign, my home address. Anything was possible. No one noticed I was spiralling. Or they didn’t care. Was my obsession with alcohol a conscious choice?
My obsession with Mathilde wasn’t.
Most women I know provoke a sense of powerlessness in me, combined with a mild discomfort. Sometimes, especially at night, I enjoy the company of certain women, select women, women I’ve decided to keep in my life because I like the way they empty a beer. Or the way they puff on their cigarette and casually stub it out with a lazy, indifferent movement of their hand. The cigarette smoulders in the ashtray as though they’ve neglected to properly finish its life. It just lies there glowing with smudged lipstick on the orange filter. Usually I smother it. Calmly, I fish the butt up out of the ashtray and crush it until the smoke disappears. I notice a little smudge of red from the lipstick on the tip of my finger. It feels intimate. Like being alone in the house of someone you don’t really know. I wait until she gets distracted by something: a change in the music or someone coming through the door. Once, one of them caught me in the act. She abruptly stopped talking and asked: Why did you do that? I couldn’t give her an answer. I couldn’t explain my behaviour, why the smoke bothered me.
I have a hard time with women, which is another reason why my feelings for Mathilde catch me by surprise. Suddenly she’s taken over my life. I turn off my phone in the evening to keep myself from constantly checking whether she’s written or responded or is online, but I turn it back on minutes later. It starts with the evenings, but soon she takes my nights too. One night, she sends me a message at three in the morning, and I wake up and respond. She sends me a message at the same time the next night, and I wake up and respond again. The following night, I wake up at three in the morning on my own, staring expectantly at my phone until a little red heart pops up. An emoji blowing a kiss. Goodnight.
I have an especially hard time with women who call themselves my girlfriends. I had my first encounter with female friendship in primary school. That was when the discomfort started. I remember rollerblading with Laura. We would go rollerblading every day in the car park the summer before year six. There was an asphalt ramp at one end and it wasn’t meant for rollerblades, but it was perfect. We flew down the ramp with our plaits flapping in the air, and with cramped thighs we fought our way back up again. It was worth it. The rush of letting ourselves glide down the ramp with the wind in our hair was worth the pain. The feeling of flying. We spent that summer tottering up and riding down, entire afternoons. We also talked a lot, but I can’t remember any of our conversations. They were probably just the kind of conversations kids have about asphalt and knee pads. How they crumpled our jeans around the knees, leaving our skin wrinkled and red. Our parents insisted that we wear knee pads. It felt like a fair price to pay in exchange for all those happy days in the car park. When school started again, Nikoline invited Laura over to her house, and then they bought the same green top from Nargaard Paa Straget. They were sitting next to each other like two green street lights when I walked into the classroom with my rollerblades tied to my rucksack. Laura didn’t have to say anything. The matching tops said it all.
Year seven was all about friendship necklaces. A silver heart broken in half. You were supposed to wear it around your neck under your top. A half heart against warm kid’s skin. It meant that you belonged to someone, that you had a best friend. The half heart on the chain was proofi Who has the other half, we would ask each other, who’s your best friend? I didn’t have a friendship necklace because no one gave me their other half, and I didn’t have half a heart to give to anyone because my parents thought it was ridiculous to spend so much money on what was clearly just a trend. But it wasn’t just a trend. Those friendship necklaces were life or death, they determined your survival. I couldn’t convince my parents, but I also couldn’t let on that I cared. Nikoline and Laura bought theirs at the jewellery shop next to school. I remember Nikoline dramatically ripping the chain off her neck and throwing it at Laura. You’re the worst friend in the world, she screamed. Laura walked home from school in tears with her half silver heart burning against her breastbone. I thought we were finished with girl problems after those friendship necklaces. But apparently my problems withgirlfriends were only just beginning.
Friendship between women is, for the most part, invisible, and is only revealed in furtive glances and demonstrated leniency in regards to who paid for the last coffee and who will pay for the next Friendship between women is like scaffolding. Everyone knows scaffolding is temporary but necessary if you want to restore the façade of a house. But no one keeps scaffolding up indefinitely, no matter how solid it seems. All scaffolding gets taken down, and female friendships get taken down too. Some hold out for a while and make it through a few windy Sundays, hurricane-strength gusts. Others are taken down as quickly as they were put up.
Is Mathilde my girlfriend if I’m in love with her?