Keep It Up, Kid: A Two-Part Dalliance

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Sometime during the summer that I was 23 years old, my Eurail pass landed me in Copenhagen, where I stayed for a week. One of those fortuitous scenarios unfolded in my chosen hostel, amid days that lasted until Midnight and people that looked like magazine spreads, in which everyone staying there hit it off immediately. Seven or eight of us strangers coalesced into a band apart, roaming to bars together and celebrating the summer solstice together and cooking dinners together. It was a needed infusion of camaraderie for a girl who’d been traveling alone for a long stretch.

I learned about Burning Man that week for the first time, from a father-son duo that not only traveled to Copenhagen together, but later that summer would travel to the middle of the Nevada desert for a week laced with freaks and drugs together.

An entire bar full of drinkers sang American Girl to me, which seemed like the apex of personal experience, a shining moment born of adventure, even though everyone in that city speaks an English more perfect than my own and many planeloads of Americans travel there every year. It was not exotic, but it was dizzyingly cosmopolitan. I’d never been so happy in my life.

One night, as we partied on the hostel’s lawn in honor of the longest day of the year, a handsome guy in the group, also American, surprised me by whispering in my ear that he couldn’t, he had a girlfriend back home, at which point I stepped back, first confused over what I’d done to elicit such a statement (couldn’t what, exactly?), then offended by his assumption that I was flirting with him. Later, upon more sober reflection, it dawned on me that I maybe had been, flirting with him. Still today, I can be bad at determining the difference between flirting and small talk. Back then, I was hopeless.

On my last day, I sat down for breakfast at a picnic table outside with Tyler, a 28-year-old Californian who’d just quit his job. He had recently read Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which had changed his life, he said, causing him to leave his position as a consultant in San Francisco and travel Europe studying and learning to write, like the character in that novel. He handed me a page of something he’d written, proclaiming it to be in the style of Hemingway, as if writing were a variation on karaoke.

But he was the kind of person I was easily impressed by back then, worldly and anti-corporate and into literature. Also, having just graduated from college in a small Big Ten town, 28-year-olds were a novelty. Remnants of his corporate life lingered in the khaki pants he wore, along with a plaid button-down shirt that somehow veered more toward preppy than hipster, although I don’t remember the details of how.

I told him his writing was good, and he asked if I wanted to walk down to some place or other with him, and I did. Whether we had planned to go there or not, we ended up in Christiana, that autonomous state in central Copenhagen where pot was legal. We smoked in a bar full of exactly the characters you’d expect in such a place, and then went outside and lay in the grass, where the clouds popped against the blue sky and the local children played soccer nearby.

We must have stayed in Christiana all afternoon, because the next thing that happened was that dinnertime arrived. I was taking a night train to somewhere, and Tyler bought me dinner to send me off. We ate on the Nyhavn, the famous canal framed by colorful Scandanavian buildings. It was a lovely day. Had I been staying longer, something of a more romantic nature probably would have unfolded, but as it was, we ate, we drank, we chatted, and I left.

Of all the people I met both in Copenhagen and during those entire several months traveling Europe that summer, Tyler was the only one I ever saw again. All those email addresses exchanged, never to be used. Shortly after I moved to New York a year-and-a-half later, though, I got an email from Tyler, telling me he’d be in town and did I want to grab dinner. At the time, I was heartbroken by a guy who’d left me for an Ivy League law school, which had catapulted me into full-fledged rebellion against all that I thought his act represented–the establishment, the pursuit of wealth, materialism. But even in that state, the Tyler that had evolved over the time since I’d last seen him registered as an extreme beyond my comfort zone.

We met for dinner somewhere in the East Village, and Tyler, whose hairline had not been receding, now had a shiny shaved head, large earrings, and possibly some makeup. He wore head-to-toe black. His wardrobe choices had transformed from proto-yuppie into quasi-punk. It was a radical change, both in the speed with which it happened and the stage in life–he was now 30.

If I remember right, he worked odd jobs when he needed to, but as he didn’t need much, he didn’t need to all that often. I can’t recall what he was doing in New York. I, too, was working odd jobs, thinking my writing career would kick off roughly five times faster than it actually did. And he partied a lot. Which, me too.

But the spark from Copenhagen was no longer there.

Keep it up, kid, he said to me about my writing, the kid representing some loss of intimacy between us; the kid containing a whiff of condescension.

He told me about going to clubs now, and about his new ability to see someone across the room, to meet his eye, and to know that they were of the same perspective, how they’d nod at each other and just know. I had the distinct sense that Tyler was not going to offer me that nod, and also that he had chosen a new kind of naiveté for himself in believing that his newly claimed social identity would ultimately be any less frivolous than the last.

But his confidence overpowered my skepticism. It was as though he’d earned more points than me because he’d taken it farther, it in this case being the rejection of conventionality. And because I had fallen behind, I wasn’t altogether welcome in his alternate universe. We fell out of touch after that night.

Still, I wonder from time to time where Tyler is now, what he’s dressing like, what he’s doing, whether his personal pendulum ever swung back to a place less forcefully alternative. I wonder if he’s still rereading The Razor’s Edge. I wonder if he ever went back to Europe. Wherever he is, he’s in his forties now, and I doubt his old Hotmail address still works. I know mine doesn’t.

by Sarah Stodola

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Sarah is the founder and editor of Flung, the author of Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, and a widely published travel and culture writer. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.