My Old College Friend
My old college friend believes he may have a grown child living in Sweden. His evidence: a cryptic Facebook message he received a decade ago from a close friend of the alleged child’s mother. “You need to get in touch with [your Swedish ex-girlfriend],” the message said. “Really. It’s important.”
My old college friend didn’t reply. He closed his Facebook account.
They were foreign exchange students in Italy. They were young, beautiful. They met in an enchanting hilltop city, where the winding stone staircases, the vibrant Piazza, the stunning Umbrian vistas insisted the visitor not be alone; they were made for lovers, they demanded companionship.
At the time, my old college friend had a girlfriend back at college, a girl who was close in our circle, but whom we’ve both now lost track of. He broke up with her for the Swedish girl. At the time he explained to me how the city overcame him, how when you meet someone in a place like that you have no choice. He gave his college girlfriend some other explanation. She cried in my room. After, I would see her in the library, or somewhere in town. She gave me a passing smile. The person crying had been someone else.
Five years ago my old college friend married. He and his wife live in a renovated house in the western part of the city. They have two small children. He works as an interpreter for the state. The job taxes him. He used to do work at hospitals, interpreting between patients and their doctors. Now he works exclusively in the courts. He sees the worst, he says. Just the worst. He has gained some weight since college.
Because I live in another state, I visit him and his family for the first time since the wedding. It is then that my old college friend tells me about the Swedish girlfriend, tells me about the Facebook message and his suspicion.
Over drinks, my old college friend recalls with great specificity two incidents in the course of their three-week relationship that might have led to the conception of a child. He and the Swedish girlfriend had taken a trip to Capri, to the Grotta Azzurra—the Blue Grotto. “One of the world’s most romantic places,” he assures me. “In the top ten, anyway.” It was there that he and the Swedish girlfriend first had sex. He tells me now that the condom broke, and he remembers how concerned he was at the time. A second, similar condom break, he surmises, must have occurred in Florence a couple weeks later.
We had been laughing, enjoying a night out in the city he lives in, when he brings up this story. I tell him he can’t be serious. Surely the Swedish girlfriend would have contacted him. But he is serious. He has always been a serious person. The very fact that she never contacted him is what is so convincing. He leans over and asks me to consider this: he feels certain the child in question exists because the Swedish ex-girlfriend has absolutely no Internet presence. No Facebook, no Twitter. No trace of her comes up in Google search results. Why not? Who our age doesn’t exist online? The only conceivable reason is that she is hiding a now-grown child and doesn’t want to be discovered. “The child in question,” he calls it, and orders another drink.
I travel to a conference. On the flight I ask myself why I go to these things. I hate conferences; I am bad at socializing. At the hotel I sit at the bar, at last finding a couple faces I vaguely recognize. One of them introduces me to a woman wearing a blonde bob and a red dress. The dress and hair suit her perfectly and she surely must know this.
At the opening reception, the woman in the red dress confides in me what happened to P—.
“You know P—?” the woman in the red dress asks me.
“Yes,” I lie. “Actually, I’ve not yet read her, but—”
It turns out that P—, a foreign author of a brilliant debut novel, absorbed the limelight of her book’s success. She won awards, even the nation’s highest honor. She was featured in magazines. Landed a modeling job with some clothing line. It went on and on. Once the excitement died down, the woman in the red dress tells me, P— retreated to a remote mountain village with her wealthy astrophysicist husband, where she worked on her second book. The work was not easy, the woman in the red dress assures me. Imagine. The pressures of writing a novel that would equal or surpass her first were soon overwhelming. P— obsessed, retreated even from her husband, suffered a nervous breakdown, took an extra year to write, and when the novel came out it received devastating reviews.
“Just devastating,” the woman in the red dress repeats, adding, “A good friend of mine did the translation.”
I consider whether an affair with the woman in the red dress might be possible. I mentally play out a situation where I invite her to my hotel room.
“She had everything, lost it,” the woman in the red dress continues. Two months later P— was invited to attend the award ceremony for another writer, R—. Much like P— had been, R— was now a rising star, basking in the country’s highest literary accolades. R— was called to the podium to accept the award. She’d just begun to speak when suddenly P— sprang up from her seat, rushed the podium, pushed R— aside, and began reading from her own second novel. “She’d brought a copy with her,” the woman in the red dress explains. The audience was horrified: for R—, for P—, and of course for themselves. But no one intervened. “No one,” the woman in the red dress repeats. “They just let her go on reading.” When she’d finished a full twenty-minutes later, P— stepped off the stage and again took her seat and said, “You may continue.”
“And that was it?” I ask.
“R—’s agent escorted R— out in tears,” the woman in the red dress says. “Everyone was silent.”
“Incredible,” I say.
I see her slipping out of her red dress. This is the moment when I should ask her to join me in my hotel room. I finish my drink and I’m about to say something when she waves over another friend, a man in a trim suit. She asks him to join us, and then asks me to remind her of my name. I’ve forgotten hers, but pretend that I remember.
In my hotel room I check my phone. My old college friend’s ex-girlfriend—the one he left for the Swedish girl in Italy—has sent me a “friend” request. She sends no message, just the request. After all these years. I friend her.
That same night, by coincidence, my old college friend calls. He is traveling; he is also staying in a hotel, in another distant city, and so we are talking on our phones in distant hotel rooms. While we talk, I look out the window to the hotel’s half-empty parking lot.
My old college friend tells me he had returned to his hotel from dinner and watched TV, where there was a story about that American college student accused of killing her roommate in the same hilltop city in Italy where my old college friend and the Swedish girl had met and fallen in love. Same city. He knew the building. The accused girl and the victim were about the same age my old college friend had been when he’d love there. My old college friend called his wife. Then he called me.
My old college friend believes his possible Swedish child, “the child in question,” who by his count would now be nineteen, will show up at his door at any moment—tomorrow, next week. But the chances are more likely, he thinks, that an appearance will not happen for at least another year. The child in question will then be twenty, which is a better age for searching for your long-lost father.
These are ridiculous speculations, I tell him. My mind is only half on what he is saying. I wonder if I were to wander through the hotel if I might find the woman in the red dress. I also want to get off the phone so that I can search the Internet for P— and for the American college student accused of murder.
“You say ridiculous,” my old college friend says. “I wish.”
While in Capri, my old college friend recalls, after swimming in the Blue Grotto, he and the Swedish girl—whose name he dares no longer pronounce, fearing its incantatory powers—also visited the Gardens of Augustus, where they were so charged by one another’s presence, so smitten, that my friend nearly fainted when the Swedish girl’s forearm brushed his.
Later, they laughed when the waiter at a restaurant relentlessly hit on the Swedish girl, adamant in his belief that my old college friend and the Swedish girl were related. “But no, you are joking with me now,” the waiter had said. “You are really brother and sister.”
That was it. The comment that they might have been brother and sister. It sounds strange, my old college friend now muses, but had there been no waiter, or had there been another who simply waited on them without saying anything, they might have gone to their separate rooms that evening and not—my old college friend and the Swedish girl—straight into hers.
Everything would be different, he says. And then the final coincidence: he mentions the name of his college ex-girlfriend, a name he has not mentioned in years, and who not an hour before sent me a “friend” request. “Maybe we would be together,” he says.
For the last few years, though my old college friend has worked as an interpreter in the state’s clogged court systems, he often has downtime at the office where he practices blues guitar. He needs his downtime, he says, he needs his blue guitar, because of the egregious cases he must interpret for the court, the hideous crimes, the continuous reckoning with the deplorable things people do to one another. It is taking its toll on him, on his family, his marriage. Once he returned home after a particularly horrendous case. The defendant had killed his father and sawed his head off. They showed an enlarged photo of the severed head to the courtroom. That evening, after interpreting the details of the crime, after rendering the disturbing coroner’s report in another language—during which a member of the jury vomited and had to be escorted from the courtroom (almost causing a mistrial)—my old college friend returned home and got into a fight with his wife. This was the first time she kicked him out.
“Legally, I’m a machine,” my old college friend says. “If the interpreter shows emotion, disgust, it could throw the trial.”
We are in a city a couple hours from his, where I happen to also be. He looks tired. He has dark rings under his eyes. He was once extremely handsome.
“Words go in here,” he points to his ear. “They come out translated here.” He points to his mouth.
He takes a drink.
“Have you ever seen a severed head?” he asks. I admit I have not, at least not outside of movies. “One of the jury members threw up,” my old college friend says, apparently forgetting he’d mentioned it already. “I couldn’t sleep for days.”
My old college friend is probably getting divorced. His wife has left him. He loves his children, he says, but he and his wife have changed. For now, he says, it is a separation. Perhaps they will work things out. His wife and children have moved in with her parents. There was the last argument: He told his wife he didn’t want his children alone with her father. In his work as an interpreter he’d seen so much sexual abuse.
“Babies,” he says. “Little babies. You have no idea.”
He is silent a moment on the phone.
I should come out and visit, my old college friend suggests. I agree. Maybe I will. But it is difficult to leave right now. The future of my own marriage is far from certain. We’d been going through a rough patch some time ago, had somehow recovered. Now my wife wants to have children. I do, too. But we have been unable to. We are seeing specialists about it. I tell my friend we are trying to get pregnant.
“Don’t,” he says. “Molesters,” he says. “It’s anyone. People don’t know. They don’t realize that it’s anyone.”
The Swedish child—my old college friend’s child—arrives at my old college friend’s house.
My old college friend is tired. It has been a long day at work. The house always feels empty since his wife left with the kids. He doesn’t bother to cook for himself.
The child in question has eschewed all means of communication and has simply arrived on the doorstep, where his father has been waiting for him.
The child is no longer a child, but an adult, conceived in a tiny Capri hotel room some twenty-one years before. The child is on an international exchange but, having grown up assiduously learning English (as many Swedes do), has only a slightly discernable accent.
“Hello,” the child says.
“Hello,” says my old college friend.
“I am a student at the local university.”
“My friends and I are part of an organization working to petition the city’s residents to contact their council members about clearing the city’s walks during heavy snow events.”
“Yes,” my old college friend says.
“Snowplows push the snow onto sidewalks, where it refreezes,” the child says. “Often the walks are left unshoveled for days, even weeks when the weather remains cold. Many students, faculty, and staff walk or bicycle to class from the city, and this makes access to the university not only difficult, but also dangerous. We hope, with the community’s support, to gather enough signatures to tell the city council to enact a policy that will keep the walkways clear. Will you sign?”
The child offers the clipboard to his father, who signs.
“Thank you,” the child says.
“Of course,” my old college friend says. “Anything.”
The young man nods, steps away. My old college friend watches the student as he wanders off to other houses to find other signatories, to speak to them about his cause, and then my old college friend closes the door, doubting that a name signed on a sheet of paper will do anything at all.
Just the other day, jogging in the park, a woman called my name. She was pushing a stroller, one with wheels made for running. It was my old college friend’s ex-girlfriend, though why should I think of her that way? She’d been a good friend before she and my old college friend had dated, before he left her for the Swedish girl, before she’d cried in my room, begged me to help her understand why our old college friend had broken up.
It took us a moment to get over the coincidence of seeing one another in the park that day, the timing of it.
We caught up, though I knew about her superficially from the things she posted online. She and her husband moved to this city two years ago, but I knew that. She introduced me to her baby daughter, whose photos I’d seen. She was no longer young, but age hadn’t changed her. We made some small talk, this and that, until finally she brought up what I knew she’d wanted to ask from the start: How was our old college friend?
Flowering tulip beds lined the jogging path ahead of us. The sun was nearly in the trees. Other joggers and dog-walkers passed. Moms and dads with similar strollers. I told her about our old college friend, a successful court interpreter.
“Though I believe he recently divorced,” I said.
She smiled, somewhat sadly, before her daughter cried, compelling us both to run on.
About the Author: Joel Morris's stories have appeared in Pembroke Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, Copper Nickel, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Colorado.