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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The 5th Tale (Object of Their Affection)

Douglas Messerli at 16, the year I lived in Norway

As I have made quite clear through the several volumes I have already published of these cultural memoirs, I was a very late bloomer, remaining an innocent young man long beyond most of my peers. And while that saved me, I believe, from many of the sexual predicaments of my friends—several students of my Marion High School class impregnated their girlfriends and married before graduation—it also created, at times, a great deal of frustration and confusion—for me, of course, but in hindsight, I realize, also for others.

One can imagine how that confusion might spread when in 1964 this young American sixteen-year-old suddenly showed up in a folkehøgskole (a folk high school) in Norway, where the students were not only a year or two older, but were sexually more advanced. I radiated the inner excitement of being in a new place I perceived as full of beauty and adventure. I was clearly in love with life! I didn’t realize, at the time, that I might also have emanated an aura of sexual startlement, a bit like a deer caught in a car’s headlights.

Some of the students lived in the nearby town of Sandefjord and returned home each evening. But most of the young men and women boarded at the school, visiting their families only on weekends. Today I joke that, at first, I was invited home by all the women. The pattern was repeated again and again. Each girl would respectfully introduce me to her parents before suggesting I join her on their bed. I never recognized these flirtations until after the fact, by which time she had long given up on me, phoning up her local boyfriend, while I remained alone at the dinner table with the parents, brothers, and sisters, in a kind of dazed bewilderment.

Soon, one by one, the boys begin inviting me home. Per-Johann, my roommate, took be to his hometown of Moss, a heavily industrial city, where the smell of chemicals pervaded the air. After a sort visit to his room, we spent hours standing by the nearby tobacconist talking to his friends—which bored me even more than the dinnertime chats with mothers and fathers. Per-Johann had some other place to go that night.

Anders took me north to Drammen, Johannes to Kristiansand. Egil, the rector’s son, took me on long hikes. I never imagined that any of these fellows might have had had any motive in inviting me other than the joy of my presence and conversation. What an egoist I was!

I was never invited home by Halvard, the bad boy of our school. Halvard was a dark-haired Norwegian, a stunningly handsome athlete who later demonstrated his skills as a speed skater, winning all the local competitions which we students attended.

Every chance I had, I tried to touch Halvard, tickling, shoving, pushing him here and there, and he, tickling, shoving and pushing me back. One day, during our weekly sauna bath, he lay practically naked in the center of the room, while the rest of us meekly sat upon the benches along the sides. Whenever I looked his way, I recognized that he was staring at me. My heart beat with excitement. He was challenging me, I knew, but to what? To come down in to the center of the room and lay beside him? Halvard was clearly a dangerous man.

I could never have imagined that I, in my impenetrable cocoon of innocence and stupidity was more dangerous yet. How could I conceive for a moment that he wanted what I offered—particularly since I never knew I had offered it?

One day while I was laying upon my bed with Per-Johann sitting at the nearby desk, the door to our room flung open. Halvard entered the room quickly, slamming the door behind him. He was nearly panting—from what, I wondered. Anger?

“I can’t take this anymore!” he shouted in Norwegian.

He walked over to my bed and lay down on top of me, while I froze into position below his body. Per-Johann began to laugh. What was happening?

I knew what was happening, without admitting it to myself. It was what I always hoped would happen. But what was I to do, particularly with Per-Johann cackling in the corner. He clearly knew what I refused to. I didn’t move, and eventually, Halvard stood up, shaking his head in distress, to leave the room.

“What was that all about?” I gasped, suddenly standing. Per-Johann just looked over and me and continued to laugh. “You see, we Norwegians like Americans,” he said.

Los Angeles, June 26, 2002

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