NEW YEAR’S DAY
I’ve never spent a New Year’s Eve like this before. Without going out. Just lying under the comforter without having the flu or a broken leg. Without alcohol, confetti bombs, music. Cod or salmon. Without champagne, kransekage at midnight.
I don’t think Henrik has either. He usually gets drunk on New Year’s Eve.
Generally he sleeps most of New Year’s Day. And when he wakes in the afternoon he watches ski jumping on television, eats chips, and drinks cola.
It isn’t going to be like that this year.
We just lie and look out the window. Lie close together under the double comforter on my bed and look out at the fireworks that send waves of colored lights into my bedroom.
We have sex. It’s over quickly. Henrik comes after a few minutes. He hasn’t used a condom. And I don’t get around to telling him that I had forgotten to buy pills.
If I did, he’d just worry. There’s no need for that. He’ll have enough to worry about.
Staying alive, for example.
When he’s left tomorrow morning, I’ll have to figure out what I’m going to do.
Henrik sits up in bed with his back to me and smokes a cigarette.
I lie there naked and look up at him, want to say something but don’t know what it would be.
Henrik doesn’t say anything either.
We’ve barely spoken to each other in the last twenty-four hours.
What is there to say?
Tomorrow morning he’s leaving. There’s no way back. I’ve tried to talk him out of it. But he’s determined to go. Again. And he knows I can’t understand why he does it.
And it’s getting to the point where it irritates him that I can’t just understand it. But I can’t, and I’ve told him this. Many times, until he started slamming doors. So there’s nothing to be done about it; he wants to go. And I can’t change that.
At one point, at around midnight, I say to Henrik “I love you.”
“Why do you say that?” he asks.
“Because I want to,” I say.
“Don’t do it,” he says.
I nod and regret that I broke the silence at all.
Tomorrow morning Henrik will go to war.
There is only silence.
It feels like I’ve already lost him. Or: That’s how it is. I’m in no doubt.
Either he’ll get shot or he’ll come back with scars that can’t be seen.
Like the time he was in Bosnia. Scars on his soul that will end up dividing us.
A night like this, with fireworks, booms from pipe bombs, shouts and laughter outside and under the comforter nakedness and intimacy, will be unthinkable because intimacy will suddenly feel like torture to him. If he survives and comes back to Denmark, he’ll lie sleepless every time there’s a thunderstorm. Or suddenly jump out of bed ready to fight. Even when we’re taking a walk around the Lakes, the chestnut trees have bloomed, and pairs of swans are gliding peacefully past with their young, he’ll live in a war zone.
Everything here will be too idyllic for him, too unreal, too Danish.
When we’ve lain down to sleep, I can’t fall asleep.
“Why do you want to go?” I whisper.
“Because I’m in the Danish armed forces,” he says.
“But do you believe the business about the chemical weapons?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer this; he rolls over so his back is to me.
“Men go to war,” he says and adds “Good night.”
This is one of the worst reasons I’ve heard in a long time, but I don’t tell Henrik how dumb I think it sounds. I don’t feel like starting an argument.
So I don’t say anything, not even good night.
Instead I reach for my earplugs on the night table, roll them between my fingers, and put them in. For a long time I lie and look at Henrik’s broad back, until I’m so tired I fall asleep.
New Year’s morning I don’t wake up until Henrik is standing next to the mattress in his uniform. He already has his boots on and his bag in his hand; I haven’t heard him getting ready at all.
“See you,” he says.
He bends over toward me, and I sit up so our lips can touch.
Henrik kisses me quickly. Then he goes out into the front hall and into the stairwell and closes the door.
The sound of his steps quickly fades; far away I hear the building door slam.
Everything has suddenly stopped. I lie on the bed and look at my silver-gray digital watch and can’t imagine how I’m going to get the time to pass. It hurts everywhere.
Eventually I get up and call in sick at the hospital.
Then I again lie on the bed for a long time and stare straight ahead. Think about Henrik. See him in my mind’s eye. His big muscular body, his short hair. His uniform. I see him from the back, walking with his machine pistol in his hand. I see him shot. Lying in an alley bleeding to death.
I imagine the bag his body will lie in when they ship it home. His funeral.
The segment on his death on the evening news.
Once in a while Henrik calls me. My fingers shake as I hold the phone. Every time he calls, I bite my lips to keep from crying. But I don’t succeed. Henrik can hear it in my voice. When he does, he says, “I have to go.”
The nights are worst. It’s impossible for me to sleep. Unless I get drunk or take the sedatives my doctor prescribed the last time Henrik was deployed.
One night I wake drenched in sweat. Normally I can never remember what I’ve dreamt. But this time I can. The nightmare’s icy terror stays with me. I see it all too clearly. The same scene, over and over again. Just as it was when Henrik came home from Bosnia. It seems strange to me that I could have forgotten it.
Every time it started with a minor argument when Henrik came home from the barracks. He complained about the smallest things in the apartment. A dust ball in a corner. A little hair on the bathroom drain grate I’d forgotten to remove after I’d taken a shower. An unwashed cup somewhere.
First he screamed into my face as I imagined his superiors had screamed at him.
That was how it started. With him getting angry and me asking him to calm down a little. That just enraged him even more. He kept shouting, started slamming doors until he was completely sick with rage.
That was how it escalated. He started shouting louder and calling me things.
Called me a whore. Called me a cow.
When I couldn’t stand listening to him anymore, I put my earplugs in.
Sooner or later Henrik flipped out completely. His face turned blood red, his eyes got large and bloodshot. The veins in his neck turned almost bluish. His hands clenched and opened, and he took hold of me and pushed me against the wall. Threw me along the floor. And when I started to crawl away or tried to get up, the blows fell. His white knuckles. His bared teeth.
The fear. My pulse. The blood racing wildly through my body.
And then: the paralysis. My body hard and cold. Ice and stone.
Afterward Henrik’s voice trembled. His eyes got shiny. The skin under them swollen and red. His fingers sought my body all the time.
At that point I dared to push his hands away.
His fingers touched my hair, stroked my forehead. He kept repeating my name.
Despite Henrik’s attacks I managed to get through the days without cracking up, freezing up. Also when he was at the barracks and I was home alone.
Every time we were apart it was gone. Suppressed.
All I remembered was caresses and kisses.
When Henrik slept at the barracks and I woke up alone in bed I longed for him. Felt weak and almost sick without him. Longed to hear his voice, feel his hands on me, smell him. Had to force myself to get up and take a shower in the mornings, had no appetite, just drank a cup of coffee and smoked a cigarette before I rode my bicycle to the hospital.
In one of the restrooms I changed into my scrubs, greeted the other nurses. Lied if someone noticed something, a mark, a gash, split skin that I’d forgotten to camouflage. I said Henrik had convinced me to start martial arts training in my free time, that that was why I looked like that. Without giving it a lot of thought I managed to convince both the others and myself that this was in fact how it was.
At the same time I often fantasized about the family life I hoped I’d one day have with Henrik. Imagined the house we’d live in: the large rooms, the modern kitchen, the cozily decorated children’s rooms.
It’s three o’clock in the morning when I wake up; it’s dark outside. I’m not tired at all, so I get up and bathe. Stand in the shower for a long time, until the bathroom is white with steam. The fear is gone, I notice. It is its absence that causes me to notice that it’s been there. For years. Like a state I’ve gotten used to, lived in.
For the first time in a very long time I feel completely calm.
After my shower I dry off, blow-dry my hair, go back to bed. Fall asleep and wake early, feel unusually fresh. I put on workout clothes, get my running shoes out, go down to the street, and run along a couple of the Lakes. Peblinge Dossering. Sortedam.
After a few days I become practically hyperactive. Pick things up around the apartment. Collect Henrik’s clothes and wash and dry them. Fold them. Vacuum. Clean.
This isn’t like me; I’ve always been a bit disorganized at home.
Now I do the opposite of what I used to do. Suddenly I’m efficient. Make lists of things I want to get done. Things I actually do get done. For the first time in a long time I get everything done I’ve set out to do. I cross out the items on the lists in the order in which I get them done.
Every morning I wake early. Put on running clothes and run for an hour while it’s still dark. I’m not afraid at all, as I used to be; I’m full of strength and energy.
I go to work again. Happen to think of Henrik once in a while but hurry to think of something else. Things I want to remember to do or buy, laundry detergent, instant coffee, tea filters, paper towels, raisins, roses, tulips, hyacinths. All my vases must be filled with brightly colored flowers. I can’t stand having my vases empty and unused in my kitchen cupboards. My apartment has to be filled with color and fresh scents.
Some days Henrik calls. Everything is going as it should down there. No one has been killed. He misses me. Asks how I get the time to pass in Denmark. Because I don’t know what to say, I tell him what’s on television, or what I’m having for dinner.
In general I don’t know what to say.
Henrik takes my silence for crying, and our conversations are short.
This is fine with me.
One day I go through the entire apartment. Sort everything. Henrik’s things. My own.
I make piles and put Henrik’s things in moving boxes I’ve gotten from the basement. When everything’s packed, it’s evening. Too late to get the boxes picked up. Instead I lay white sheets over them, as might be done with a dead man’s possessions. The effect is both terrible and beautiful.
The next morning I call City Selfstorage.
Ask them to pick the things up right away.
It takes just a few hours. Then all traces of Henrik are gone.
When the phone rings I let it ring. I take a shower. Do the dishes. Vacuum.
Of course I cry once in a while. Particularly when I send Henrik the e-mail telling him he can pick up the moving boxes containing his things from the storage company in Østerbro when he has returned to Denmark. And that he’s not to contact me again.
After I’ve clicked Send, I sit in front of the screen and cry for a few minutes.
Then I go over to the sofa and punch the pillows while I scream.
Afterward I’m drenched in sweat and take a shower.
Later I lie on the floor naked, drinking rosé straight from the bottle, and feel both cynical and relieved. Because I’ve broken up with him while he’s deployed. Because I went to Steno on New Year’s Day and got the morning-after pill.
JULIA BUTSCHKOW is the author of seven books, the most recently published of which is Granit, a volume of short fiction (Samleren, 2018). Her earlier publications include three novels, a volume of poems, and two further volumes of short fiction, Der er ingen bjerge i Danmark (“There Are No Mountains in Denmark”), in which the original version of “New Year’s Day” appears, and Så simpelt (“So Simple”). She is the recipient of the Danish Arts Foundation’s three-year working grant (2005), the Rosinante and Co. honor grant (2007), and the Jan Sonnergaard Memorial Grant (2017).
Read more work by Julia Butschkow:
Novel excerpt in Exchanges Literary Journal
Short story in Storm Cellar
Short story in Columbia Journal
About the Translator:
PETER SEAN WOLTEMADE is the translator of fourteen published books, the most recently published of which are his translation from Danish of Ulla Lunn’s When Architecture Tells the Story of the Virgin Islands of the United States (Gads Forlag), a revised and updated version of Lunn’s 2016 book Stedet fortæller om Dansk Vestindien; and Ask No Mercy, his translation from Swedish of Martin Österdahl’s 2016 novel Be inte om nåd (AmazonCrossing). Among his forthcoming book translations are Ten Swedes Must Die, his translation of Martin Österdahl’s novel Tio svenskar måste dö; and his translation of Kurt Jacobsen’s The Story of GN.
Read more translations by Peter Sean Woltemade:
Translation from Danish of an excerpt from Thomas Boberg’s memoir Americas in The Brooklyn Rail
Translation from Danish of Adda Djørup’s short story “Helvedes gratier” (“Hell’s Graces”) in Border Crossing
Translation from German of an excerpt from Karl-Heinz Ott’s novel Ob wir wollen oder nicht (“Whether We Want to or Not”) in Newfound