Sigrid loved the American boy and he loved pot. She had left Sweden in May to be with him, and now the Atlanta summer crawled by like a wounded animal. His parents had gone to Europe on extended vacation, but before leaving his mother had taken her out to breakfast, just the two of them, and asked her directly, "What are your intentions with my Eli?"
"He is my best friend," she had replied, to which his mother, skeptical, had smiled blandly and sipped her coffee.
The young couple's job was to mind his parents' house and walk the big yellow dog that lay panting on the screen porch and only barked at black men. Eli smoked openly at first, but Sigrid criticized him for smoking too much and he became secretive. He took the dog for long walks in the woods. His showers behind the locked bathroom door seemed endless. Sigrid knew he was stoned because his eyes hid behind a frosted sheen of glass, and he was distant even when he nuzzled her neck and whispered that he loved her. This new, blunted intimacy left her unsettled, because she could still sense his true self, the one she remembered from last summer in Sweden, buried as if beneath a pile of mildewed blankets.
Eli wanted her to get stoned. He made her try pipes and joints and three different kinds of bongs. It only gave her a headache, and she grew to hate it like she had hated her father's drinking – the milky-eyed, sub-aquatic distance, the ever-present secrecy, the selfish other-life of the addict's hidden love.
But when he was not stoned his face opened up, his eyes cleared, and everything she had fallen in love with last summer was there again. He was a sprightly fish of a boy and she loved his high-pitched laugh. She taught him Swedish words, which he mangled endearingly. They would chase each other through the house, shrieking, and the big dog would bark and herd them down. When she caught him she would wrap her fingers around his throat and say in a zombie's voice, "Maaaaariage!" and this would fill him with hilarious panic.
Meanwhile, Sigrid's father was slowly dying in Sweden and she refused to go home to him. Not her mother's pleading nor the odd-hour phone calls from her parents' friends could convince her to return to her father at his death bed. Even Eli in his lucid moments was baffled that she stayed. She tried to explain to him that her father had been drunk for so long that he already seemed dead, that his choice to die now, just as she was escaping him, was ultimate proof of his selfishness. Nights she lay awake and felt like she was chewing on this old American house but couldn't swallow. She drifted to sleep and ate tuna fish candy and pulled slippery pink worms from her vagina. She saw her father, tall and slender as a pine tree, stepping through the forest with a hunting rifle. He disappeared into the shadows and she realized she was wearing his black rubber hunting boots, so big on her feet that she stumbled when she tried to walk.
"The camping trip is coming up," Eli announced one afternoon in July.
"Me and the guys," he said. "The guy-trip. We've been planning it forever."
"Guy-trip?" said Sigrid.
"The one I told you about in my letter."
"The one where I told you I was thinking of going camping this summer."
"You said we might go camping."
"But then you said you hated camping, so I ... ." He trailed off and turned to look out the window. "Look, I promised I would go. You can come, but you'd be the only girl. It's supposed to be a guy-trip."
"So you say that I can't come."
"I'm saying it might be weird. It would be weird, you being the only girl there."
"So I am not invited?"
"You're invited, it's just that–"
"And I will take care of your parents' house alone?"
"Just for a couple of days. Sam is here."
"With the dog?"
"We've been planning this forever."
"But you forgot to tell me?"
"Look, Sam needs a walk," he said. "We'll talk about it when I get back." Eli went to his bedroom to rummage through a drawer before leaving. Sigrid listened to the gate open and close outside, and then she was alone in the house.
Occasionally, all on their own, the wooden floors would creak. Eli's father had told Sigrid it was called slippage – an old house sinking into its foundations. Later, Eli had told her it was a homeless woman who slept in the basement, sneaking in at night and making a bed for herself in the old boxes. She had half-believed him, just as she had half-believed him when he had written that in America the kitchen faucets poured Coca-Cola.
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