Copenhagen is cold, not exactly the place to go in February if you are itching for a tan or longing for an escape to the seaside. However, if you are frantic to get away and it is too late to secure a plane ticket to somewhere warmer, it is far better than staying in a place you despise. No one goes to Denmark in the dead of winter. The hostels are deserted, the trains contain only locals and half of the cool historical sites and tourist attractions are closed.
Americans, especially, do not flock to Scandinavia in the winter. The trees are bald, the ponds are frozen and the cold icy wind slices through your skin despite layers of clothing. Your fingers tingle ten minutes after stepping outside, your feet fall numb soon afterwards and the tips of your ears glow red with the fresh breath of frost, despite your warm fuzzy hat. In the early morning, or at night, if luck is with you, a hint of snow might permeate the air, mingling with the scent of wooden fires wafting out of a multitude chimneys meticulously spaced along residential streets. No foreigners, it appears, desire Copenhagen in February, no one, except for Dora and Theo.
Dora desperately wanted to go. It was always Dora who initiated either out of boredom or desperation. Theo simply complied out of obligation. For Dora, teaching in New York City was exhausting, especially when it was exasperating, which lately seemed to be every day. Ever since the conclusion of the Christmas holiday, she had been fantasizing about winter break. In just a few short months, the students have successfully sucked her dry of all emotion; her colleagues had drained every ounce of her patience, while the administrators had depleted the last drop of her enthusiasm. The destination itself was of little consequence. It was simply imperative that she go somewhere, anywhere that wasn’t home, that wasn’t familiar, and that bore no resemblance to the world in which she had begun to drown.
In searching for a partner, a companion, Dora asked her sister, a couple of friends and, in extreme desperation, and some random people she happened to stumble across on the subway, if they would care to accompany her on an eight day adventure. Invariably, they all said no, leaving the question to painfully decompose at her feet each time she asked. With checklist full of no, she reluctantly turned her attention to Theo, the only one who ever said yes. Always, she turned to him as a last resort, when the stark reality of possibly having to venture out on her own confronted her as a demon on a dark night. Always, he shrugged his shoulders, promised her he’d think about it and arrogantly sauntered away until the time arose to make reservations. She’d call from the travel agent, press him for an answer, and within five minutes he’d offer his consent as well as his credit card number. Had it not been for Dora, had it not been for her high energy, forceful and aggressive personality, he’d have been content to slip into the timeless realm of monotony, a morbid state of inactivity. But Dora obnoxiously forbade it. She kept him alive, breathing excitement into his thoughts and life into his words. Without Dora, Theo was nothing but a complacent spirit.
Boarding a plane together was never a completely conscious choice for either of them; it was more of a consequence of experience and personality. Dora never gave up hope that someone else would take an interest in her and the things she enjoyed. She refused to accept being completely invisible. Frequently at school, prostrating herself in the halls, she practically begged the other teachers to notice her. They never did. Continuously, she faded into the floor, her skin the gnarled gray of the tiles, her hair the knotty brown of the ratty carpets. Only Theo chose not to ignore her, though there were times – plenty of them – when he wished he could.
The thermometer read negative one degree Celsius when they landed in Copenhagen. To save money, they – or rather Dora, the eternal cheapskate – decided that waiting for a bus would be preferable to hailing a taxi. After all, things in Demark were expensive, and she could only stretch her measly teacher salary so far. As usual, after she passed a decree, Theo grunted. The grunt did not indicate that he agreed, nor did it hint that he objected. It simply expressed his frustration over never seriously being consulted. Wearing a black sweater, a red down jacket and a matching woolen hat, Dora did not feel cold. Theo, however, had forgotten his navy blue hoodie on the plane and stood shivering at the bus stop. He seldom wore hats, relying instead on hoods to keep his head warm. Without it, Dora knew all too well that his tolerance for the cold would last no longer than a few minutes. Glancing furtively at her companion, his gloved hands holding his ears as if they might fall off, Dora prayed that the bus would arrive soon. A bus schedule hung by the stop, but how often during their travels had they been tripped up and disappointed by inaccurate timetables. High on Dora’s list of annoyances regarding Theo was the perpetual scowl he wore, the way his face practically folded into a complaint when he grew impatient. If she read the schedule, shared her findings with Theo and the bus proved to be three seconds late the scowl would darken, the lines on his face forming trenches deep enough to hide in. She took a chance anyway and learned that the bus was due to depart in ten minutes.
Two minutes ahead of schedule, the bus pulled up to the stop, coughing slightly as it slipped between two narrow cement islands. Relief, like a sweet cup of hot cocoa after an afternoon of frolicking in the snow, filled Dora, prompting a smile so spread across her face.
“Just like home,” Dora muttered sarcastically, already feeling happier, more light-hearted, than she ever felt back home in New York.
“Being on time and leaving on time are not synonymous,” Theo snidely remarked, blowing into his cupped hands and then pressing them against his ears.
When the door opened, Theo hoisted his rucksack up onto his back and followed Dora up the steps. He watched her pay for the both of them – somehow she always seized control of their money – and then he sat down beside her, two seats back from the driver. Tilting his wrist so as to better see his watch, he tapped his foot impatiently. The moment it read two o’clock, he growled, “See, it’s la-” But before he could even get the words out, the bus began to back up.
The bus took approximately an hour to carve its way through the city. Dora had politely asked the driver – who spoke English as perfectly as if he had been raised in London – to please alert them when they reached the hostel – their home for the next seven nights. Breaking softly at a light, the driver cocked his head towards the microphone, awkwardly positioned near the steering wheel and announced, “The next one is yours.”
Feeling completely mortified when at least two dozen pairs of eyes turned towards them, Theo hid his face in his hands and slowly shook his head. Dora observing his reaction chuckled. Sometimes it seemed to her that she did little else in his presence. Constantly, he exasperated her by how embarrassment easily bled into his cheeks. Anti-social to the core, or rather fearing social interaction with people he did not know, Theo avoided contact with strangers. Always, he left Dora to deal with all things requiring a conversation.
The bus eased to a stop. Theo bolted out of his seat and raced down the steps. Dora thanked the driver then chased Theo onto the pavement.
“He didn’t have to turn us into such a spectacle.” Theo complained and stormed off. Walking in a random direction, his head bent into the wind, his hands covering his ears, he looked like a petulant child.
“Why must you do this all the time?” Why don’t I learn my lesson and leave you home? Dora silently reprimanded herself, but she knew better than to chase after him. After only covering half a block, Theo, realising that he didn’t have a bloody clue as to where he was or where he needed to be, doubled back. Never, not once in all the years that Dora had known him had he ever consulted a map. Navigation, like everything else, became her responsibility.
“How far away is the hostel?” Theo demanded. Pulling up next to Dora, who rotated the map in her hands in an attempt to get her bearings, Theo’s lips twitched in disgust. He despised walking and keeping up with Dora, who loved it and practically sprinted everywhere she went, was a task he did not warmly embrace.
“I’m not sure,” Dora shrugged, turning towards the direction she believed they needed to go. Taking a step she could already – less than two hours after they landed – feel the muscles at the base of her neck growing taut and tense. If only I had more friends. If only I knew someone else who had even the slightest interest in traveling. Those words echoed in her head, a mantra she could not escape. How great would it be if she knew someone other than Theo but alas he was all she had, and someone, she had long ago convinced herself, was better than no one. Vexation, she reasoned, had to be better than loneliness.
Even by Theo’s standards, it did not take long to reach the hostel. Located in a pleasant setting, the hostel enveloped Dora with a sensation of welcome and peace. A pond stood no more than forty meters from the entrance, the sound of ducks quacking their hellos filled the air, and trees, bald branches swaying with the wind, stood scattered across the grass. Swans sailed overhead and people appeared absent from the scene. With promises of frostbite and hypothermia, the cold kept them away.
Not wanting to waste any time, Dora dropped her things off in her room beside her bed, grabbed her guide book and raced back out the door before Theo could offer up an objection. If left alone, he rather contentedly would have sat in the common area of the hostel, sipping a beer and smoking a cigarette. Dora, however, needed to be outside. It did not matter what the temperature was, she had proven herself adaptable to both hot and cold. Only in the open air, with the wind on her face and the sky above did she feel like something other than a corpse. A constant charge ran through her body, a current of energy she could never quite tame. In twenty-five years, she had never learned how to sit quietly. Theo, her antithesis, wondered how she maintained constant motion without the slightest crack of fatigue. Alone, he lived a life of leisure, but with her he managed, somehow, to feed off her excess energy, the remnants, crumbs she could do without. Begrudgingly, he always trudged along. When he fell behind, Dora cursed his lethargy. She despised his idleness, his lack of ambition. And when he begged to rest, she silently fumed, thinking about how much more ground she could cover alone.
As they walked along the pond, the playful fowl diverted Dora’s attention from Theo’s sullenness. He might have opted to stay behind this one time, but he didn’t want to tempt Dora into chastising him later. With eyes heavy from jet lag, he followed at her heels, his head bent as if in prayer and his hands clasped loosely behind his back. The ducks played contentedly, poking each other in the rear with their beaks, chasing their friends or foes in circles that progressively grew tighter. Stopping occasionally, they dipped their heads beneath the icy waters searching for food. Tipping their bodies forward, their tails raised high in salute to the heavens, they bobbed freely – half submerged – in sync with the water’s inconsistent rhythm. After several long seconds, the oxygen in their lungs about to explode, they pulled their heads back above the surface. Tiny droplets of water beaded along their necks. Lifting their wings, not enough to fly, only enough to permit the air to kiss each individual feather, they shook themselves dry.
Watching their feathery butts twitch ever so slightly, Dora smiled at the simplicity of a duck’s life. Pausing briefly at the water’s edge, she reached into her bag for the sandwich she had neglected to eat on the plane. Ripping of a chunk of bread, she tossed it into the water and watched as a half a dozen ducks converged on the spoils. Fighting like children they grabbed as much as they could. Throwing a second morsel, Dora glanced at the horizon. It was still early, but the sun was low in the sky. Soon it would be dusk.
“Let’s head downtown!” Dora announced, her lavender eyes glinting in the sun.
“Are you crazy?” Theo stuffed a hand into a pocket, extracting a cigarette. “I’m not walking four kilometers, not now.” For Dora, four kilometers was a warm up; for Theo it was a marathon.
“Oh, come on,” she chided. “It will take less than an hour.”
“No,” he struck a match, cradled from the wind and touched it to the cigarette dangling from his lips. Why they persisted to travel together was a mystery to everyone, including themselves. As Theo inhaled, he shook his head, reprimanding himself for having given in to her pleas once again. He should have stayed home in New York where he was relatively happy. A cultural hive, he didn’t need to leave in order to experience the world.
“I’ll buy you a beer when we get there,” Dora coaxed.
He liked his lips, feeling the cold bubbles wash over his tongue. He couldn’t deny that he was tempted. If only he didn’t have to walk. “No, thank you.” And spotting a bench he sat down.
“Okay,” Dora shrugged, continuing to walk. “Then I see you later.”
“No, wait,” Theo bolted off the bench, racing to get on his feet. “You can’t go alone. It isn’t safe.”
“It’s Copenhagen, how dangerous can it be?” Dora brushed off his concern, knowing the truth, knowing that Theo despised being alone. Like a child, he required constant instruction and hand holding. Without it, he would flounder.
Without responding, Theo fell into step, his booted heels clomping against the sidewalk. For nearly an hour they walked, neither of them caring to speak to the other. Were it not for the incessant sound of traffic which accompanied them, they would have been engulfed by silence. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the more distance they put between themselves and the hostel, the more people they encountered. Mothers and fathers were out with their children, either walking or biking in small groups; husbands and wives sat inside cafés eating a late lunch or early dinner, discussing the week’s events and where they wished to go from here; young couples, still fresh in the early bloom of new love, held hands and noticed nothing aside of each other. The busy streets were lined with bike paths into which Dora – who was completely unaccustomed to them – kept unconsciously creeping. Oblivious, Dora walked on until a shrill bell pierced the air. Like a strong hand, it knocked her conscious. Frazzled, she jumped, not always away from the oncoming cyclist, but sometimes directly into his path, causing him to swerve dangerously close to the cars.
“Pay attention,” Theo finally snapped, shoving her away from the edge of the sidewalk.
“Hey,” she brushed away his hand, “leave me alone.”
“Fine,” he grunted. “You might actually be more attractive with your guts splayed across the ground.”
“Must you be so gross?” Dora intentionally picked up her pace, not caring if he couldn’t keep up. It would serve him right anyway, all those cigarettes. How many times had she told him to quit? But to be fair, he didn’t smoke nearly as much at home.
Tantalizing smells wafted out of bakeries, tickling Dora’s nose and whetting her appetite until she thrust aside all her inhibitions regarding fatty food and bought a half a dozen pastries. When she offered one to Theo, he shook his head, “Do you have any idea how many calories are in one of those?” But when she bit into soft dough, cinnamon and sugar exploding pleasantly in her mouth, Theo stared at her as if he were a starving dog.
“Are you sure you don’t want one?” she asked again, her mouth full, her fingers sticky.
“I’m sure.” He settled for a cigarette instead.
Off H.C. Anderson Boulevard, they turned left onto Stroget, the touristy section of Copenhagen. Dora had wanted desperately to find the Little Mermaid, but dusk had begun to settle over the city, a scavenger hunt of tourist attractions would have to wait until the morning. Despite her earlier bravado, she did not want to find herself far removed from the better lit areas of the city once darkness fell. Theo just wanted an opportunity to sit down, so when Dora stood with her left hand pressed against the glass door of a pub and asked Theo if he wanted to go in, he readily agreed.
Dora pushed the door open and stepped inside. Theo followed. Immediately, a cloud of thick smoke choked Dora as she stepped over the threshold. She contemplated leaving, but to do so would instigate an argument with Theo. A little bit of smoke would be preferable to a flare up of his irritability. Sitting down at the bar, squinting in the dim light, Dora ordered a gin and tonic for herself and Carlsberg beer for Theo. English music played loudly in the background, drowning out the chatter of conversations surrounding them. In the back room, Theo caught a flash of light – a television screen – and rapidly excused himself. Dora, sipping deeply from her glass, turned on the barstool to scan the crowd. Her eyes settled on a sandy haired young man sitting restlessly at a table with three women. Tentatively, he approached the bar. As he drew close, Dora noticed that his eyes were the colour of a mid-summer storm.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he offered, sitting down next to Dora.
“I’d like that very much.” She downed the rest of the drink in her hand, delicately resting the empty glass on the bar.
“My name is Christian,” the young man held out his hand, ignoring the scowls from the women he sat with previously.
“And mine is Theodora. It’s nice to meet you.”
Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, taking trips, and reading with her young son.