We didn’t tell anybody we were going. We were going to pick up Bob from Denmark. We knew he was waiting. And we knew Peter wanted to get rid of him.
We hadn’t been spontaneous for at least a year. Before we left I had wondered what the point was, the world divided up into islands made of two. I didn’t want to belong to anyone. You didn’t want to belong to anyone. We yearned for spontaneity, and wondered if we were polyamorous. We mentioned it once to one another to test the water with our toes, then pulled them back. Too deep, too cold.
Bob was twenty five years old, which was already a little too old for what we had in mind.
He will take us far, I said, and you said, hopefully, in a grimly hopeful voice. You needed him more than I did.
We took our bikes. We cycled with the wind and against the wind. Denmark was beautiful. We remembered from last time. It was a Sunday. Every hour you would have to eat, and I ate with you. Walnuts from home in a ziplock bag. Dried figs.
Dates and figs, you said confidently, are basically the same thing. We ate a soft ice rolled in chocolate sprinkles as we waited for a tiny ferry to pick us up in Stubbekøbing. The coffee machine took ten minutes to make watery coffee, my fourth of the day. Last time we had been here it had been cold, February, and no ferry had been running. We waited with our faces in the mid-afternoon sun, like sunflowers.
When the ferry came it smelled of varnish, of old wood in the sun. The air settled saltily on our faces, dried with our sweat. I licked it off your neck. A tall weathered man, a German in lycra, leaned back against the railing of the ferry next to us.
You know, he told us, this ferry runs along a rope under water. So that if there is a storm it stays on course. Once over the Green Strait and off the ferry, the German stayed doggedly behind you, and you doggedly behind me. I could hear the whirring of your bike when you let it roll down a hill. I could hear you breathing. My legs burned. I cycled fast until we lost him.
The next time we stopped for more walnuts and chocolate I said, relationships are two people asking each other what they want to eat, until one of them dies. We both laughed until we cried.
We cycled on past fields of brilliant yellow rape. We couldn’t stop smelling. It was a fascinating, unpleasant smell, like old, sweet saliva on a pillow. We smelled it again in the night, driving back, and before the cloud of sleep and silence lifted from my head I thought it was you.
Møn is an island in Denmark with white cliffs, pebbly beaches and burial mounds. Peter’s garden had deer which ate the roses, and a persistent cuckoo. You and Peter talked about intervals and music theory. I drank my fifth coffee and leant my head back against the white-washed wall of Peter’s house. The cuckoo sang.
Bob stood in the courtyard. You were excited, and I stroked your face with a finger, a warning. I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. He was twenty five years old. Black. Robust. I held your hand as we looked at him and in that moment I could not imagine ever wanting anyone else. You squeezed my fingers. Your stubble grew patchily, your ears were burned, and my hair was plastered to my forehead. We didn’t care. I hadn’t felt a single pang of Sunday sadness.
We loaded Bob with our few belongings, and, feeling free and like nomads, we waved goodbye to Peter. I could see him standing with his arms hanging limply at his sides in the wing mirror. I wasn’t sure if it was us he was missing, or Bob. You told me again and again how great a guy Peter is, as if trying to persuade yourself of the fact.
The way he explained how to use the coffee machine, you said as you drove, and you shook your head incredulously, no one else could possibly explain how to use a coffee machine with so much humour. I wondered why we do not talk about our fathers the way you talk about Peter.
Bob’s steering wheel shudders at 80kph. At 85kph it stops. We drove at 85kph through the rapidly darkening evening over a dam and a suspension bridge to Gedser. We rolled the windows down. When you talked I couldn’t hear, so you gave up and put your hand on my knee. I felt a wrench in my chest when I thought of spending over sixty summer nights without you.
Oh, you said loudly over the sound of a hundred tires screaming over tarmac. We were somewhere near Rostock, on the A19 juddering through Mecklenburg Vorpommen towards Berlin. We’d slept on the crossing from Gedser, ignoring the clamminess of our clothes sticking to suncream and sweat. Oh, that doesn’t smell great. Hot metal and smoke. We rolled up the windows. Someone’s in trouble, you said. I checked the petrol gauge from the corner of my eye. The needle was almost in the red. I imagined Bob juddering to a halt on the motorway. I clenched my teeth together, pressed my feet into the floor and willed a petrol station into being.
There is always a scenario worse than the worst case scenario. We did not run out of petrol on the motorway.
Fleetwood Mac sung tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies. A red light on Bob’s dashboard started flashing. A high-pitched peeping filled the small space, and we realized that the smell of hot metal was not the smell of someone else in trouble. The needle of the engine thermometer gauge swung up to 120 degrees celsius, and kept going. You swerved into the lay-by, and we rolled several meters down it onto a truck stop. Two giant shapes in the dark marked the spot of sleeping drivers. Bob shuddered, ground to a jerky halt. Cars emerged from the darkness behind us and accelerated past relentlessly.
Shit, you said, face tight. The cooling fluid ran in rivulets from under the car, blacker than the black of the tarmac in the night. The engine smoked and smoked and I was sure I saw the flickering of small flames. The screw top of the cooling fluid tank smoldered. It was too hot to touch, even with underpants wrapped around your hand. We waited in the dark at the side of the road.
You said, let’s do this again sometime.
Sure, I said. 2019? Will we be together still?
You thought a second. Let’s do this again sometime, even if we’re not together. My heart pulled in my chest.
A stocky pediatrician in a Fiat used the portaloo and then came over to peer into the engine using his phone as a torch. This one’s not going anywhere, he told us, laughing. Ring the ADAC, get them to tow you back to Rostock. He waved cheerily as he drove off.
We waited for three hours. I lay on my back on the tarmac and read a who-dunnit. The truckers woke up and ate at a picnic bench, listening to ska on the radio.
When he came, the man from the ADAC was small, lithe and ginger. He wore orange overalls. He hadn’t slept for seventy-two hours, he said, once he had winched Bob onto the back of his truck. We exchanged looks.
I’m the perfect candidate for a heart attack, he told us. It’s the stress. We sat next to him in the front, and he pointed out a stretch of motorway where he had spent forty-five consecutive hours pulling cars apart. Biggest accident I’ve seen. Freak sandstorm. Eighty cars, three lorries. And on Good Friday, too.
There is always a scenario worse than the worst case scenario.
Right here he had pulled apart two entangled lorries. In between them he’d found a car, concertinaed and barely recognizable as a car. Blue. The only break he’d had was waiting for the parts of the dead family to be removed. Legs. Elbows. Hands. A chest. He’d ordered pizza and drank coffee and then he was on again. Adrenaline.
Statistically we won’t last. A declaration of realism, an ode to pragmatism, whispered at 3am under white and blue striped Ikea sheets.
Never mind. We’ll still have fun, afterwards.
There is always a scenario worse than the worst case scenario.
The man from the ADAC rubbed a hand over his tired face. He looked ferrety and wild, a little sly. No offence, he nodded at me, most women can’t handle a working man. My wife is leaving me for a man twenty years older with more money and more time. Who knows what lies they’re feeding my boys. Daddy’s boys, they are. Not sure for how much longer.
We wanted him to stop talking. It was suddenly unbearably hot, and he must have felt it too. He opened the window a slit, and the air particular to motorways at night time flooded the cabin.
She’s dragging me through court. I want to die, he said. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to kill myself. I just don’t want to be here anymore, doing this.
He was driving fast, faster than we had driven Bob to Gedser. The lights of the motorway flashed by so quickly that they became indistinct, an endless snake of light, a spark in a photograph taken whilst moving. The truck overtook everything we saw. A dull thud came from behind us, but there was nothing to see. We worried about the bikes hanging from the stand Peter said belonged to Bob. (It would be cruel, he’d said, to let you take Bob but not the stand. As if the car had feelings. The stand had no name.) The wing mirrors showed us leaving everything behind, as if everyone was moving backwards but us.
We sat like stones next to one another, like one stone, joined at the legs.
Will you marry me? You leaned into me so your lips grazed the shell of my ear. When we hug my ear suctions to your cheek, as if it doesn’t want to let you go. It means little; my ear suctions to the cheek of every person I am in love with. A life of adventure, you whispered when I didn’t say anything. Mountains. Cycling to Denmark for a day. Broken cars. Sex in the beds of others. Suicidal towing.
We had reached the outskirts of Rostock. This was no time or place to talk. I forced my heavy eyelids to stay open. The ADAC headquarters glowed orange, the gates open and manned twenty-four hours. Three men in orange overalls identical to our man’s sat at a plastic table on plastic garden chairs drinking coffee in the dark. They nodded conspiratorially at our man, who told us Bob had blown his head gasket. One thousand euros to replace. Or we could sign the papers directly to have him scrapped. You signed the papers. A woman sat at a desk with a telephone, which she picked up to call our motel.
A three minute walk, she said. Motel Hasenheide.
I shuddered. The name of my street. We cleared traces of our existence from the seats of Bob. I found a walnut on the floor, and put it in my pocket.
Motel Hasenheide looked like Bates Motel, and smelt of stale cigarette smoke. The large Argentinian boy behind the Reception desk sported a light sheen of sweat on his forehead and upper lip, and smiled so fervently he struck us as suspicious. He pointed us in the direction of our room. We didn’t look at one another as we walked.
I slipped my hand inside yours and squeezed. No thank you, I said. You squeezed back. In the room we undressed silently and you showered. I was half-asleep when you got into bed and put your face near mine.
Hitchcock achieved the sound of the sound of the shower killing by repeatedly stabbing a water melon with a breadknife, you whispered. We went to sleep laughing.