Nils had been up for only ten minutes, but was already getting dressed. He had promised Marianne, his elderly neighbour that he would help her install her kitchen from IKEA.
10.11 AM, Dec 30th Temp -1 deg C, his cell phone screen told him. He hurriedly made himself a smörgås, an open sandwich. Wolfing it down, he simultaneously checked his phone. A pop-up said “4 notifications”. The top one was from Google photos which said, “One year ago, this day”. A set of four pictures played on the screen one after the other. Himself – tall skinny and shy-looking, skating, a selfie with Asta and Martin, and one more selfie in a coffee shop of the three of them. When the fourth photo came up, he put his finger on the screen to pause.
It was a picture of a tissue paper from espresso house, with the word „Resolutions‟ written on top. It said:
“Say something that is hard to say ….to someone”-Nils
“Start yoga. Take a break from work and travel to a warmer place” – Asta
“Nothing doing”- Martin.
Nils quickly opened his to-do list on the phone and wrote “Say hard thing :)”
Nils remembered the day clearly, same day today, December 30th, last year.
The year had been relatively warm. It snowed, then rained and turned all roads to sludge. Nils and Martin sludged through the muddy wet ice, carrying their ice skates over their shoulders, to Kungsträdgården. They skated at the rink set up in the King‟s garden, as it was called, slipping over way too many times for supposedly being experts in ice skating.
“AAAh…it’s the rain”, Nils groaned as he lifted himself up from a particularly strong fall on his back. They sipped glögg from one of the stalls around, warmed their hands in the little fires set up around the circular rink. An ice-mover was smoothing out the ice mowing through the rink, announcing in the loudspeaker to people to get out of the way. The air was cold and damp, and the light began to fade. It was 2PM, and they decided to drink some more glögg – the spiced wine they got in plastic cups at the stalls next to the rink.
In the darkening light, Nils spotted someone running towards them. He smiled automatically; he knew her silhouette from miles away.
“Asta!”he said, as an inescapable blush reddened his face.
Asta smiled fully, without any restraint, when she looked at Nils. He thought she looked radiant even in the dark winter day. And this made him look at the ground rather than her face. He was thankful it was darker now; she couldn’t see how much he was blushing.
“How red you are in the face, Nils!” she said, slightly punching his arm. She had noticed. “It’s probably the cold!” he shrugged quickly.
He had met Asta four years ago, at his ‘sommarjobb’. He had taken a summer job at a supermarket, like many students in Stockholm, and she worked in the same supermarket. As they got talking, they found that his friend was her cousin, Martin. Not long after, they were celebrating mid-summers, Christmases and New years together.
The three of them stood awkwardly, in the cold, as the Kungsträdgården‟s lights shimmered above them, for a few long seconds. Asta suggested they get coffee. A strong wave of warmth washed over them as they entered the crowded, yellow-lit espresso-house on Hamngatan. Over the little cling-clangs of spoons and buzz of voices, they ordered their coffees and cinnamon buns and found a table.
Asta took off her over-sized brown leather coat and hung it over her chair. “Nice coat you have there, borrowed from the Yeti?” Martin joked. Asta smiled but said nothing.
Nils was elated when she took her seat next to him slightly brushing his arms with hers as she sat. For the next hour, Nils didn‟t remember what they spoke about for his full concentration went into distributing his gaze to Martin, then to the display of buns, a little to the window and then some to Asta, so that she wouldn‟t think he was staring at her all the time.
“So, what is yours?”Asta turned to Nils.
“Oh….nothing….”Nils had no idea what her question was or what they had been talking about. He remembered vaguely Asta saying a few minutes ago, how wonderful her workplace was, and how nice a her colleague was to her. After that, he’d lost track.
“You’re like me Nils, why do we have to make resolutions on new year‟s day? Why not any day?” Martin shook his head.
Oh….resolutions! That‟s what we are talking about, thought Nils. His mind now, was full of one thing and one thing only. Asta. At that moment, he resolved to tell her. Only, when, and how?
“I‟ve resolved”, Nils cleared his throat and looked at Asta, “to tell something that is very hard to say … to someone, this new year”.
Asta looked amused, and Martin snorted, but they let him be with his cryptic resolution. Asta said how she wanted to travel to someplace this year, possibly with someone.
Travel didn’t sound so bad to Nils.But he had a much tougher resolution ahead. He just had to gather up courage to ask her out. And then she would realize how they were meant for each other. This thought was very appealing, and he wanted to stay in that happy bubble for a little longer, before he took the risk.
So, they spent some more time in the warm cafe, where they wrote their resolutions in a tissue, photographed, hashtagged and instagrammed it,as the snow fell softly down outside the window, on the street.
Nils smiled again reading his to-do list again. “Hard thing to say”, he muttered under his breath as he left his house. Nils had tried, but every time, something stopped him. On the new year’s day party, when he wanted to tell her, she had invited a couple of her colleagues from office – a big, burly man named Gunnar and a woman named Ebba. ‟Who stuck to her like leeches‟, he thought. They didn’t leave her alone for a moment.
Then his courage dipped again in the next few weeks and he rehearsed and contemplated for some weeks. The snow melted, the water gurgled, the sun obliged to stay a bit longer. The land came to life again, and Nils thought he could tell her now, in Spring.
On mid-summer day, when he was face to face with her, about to tell her, a bee decided to bite him on his lip and he had to be taken to the hospital, face all swollen up.
It took him sometime to get over the embarrassment.
In Autumn, or ‘höst’ as they call it Sweden, Asta quit her job and prepared to travel to Indonesia, fulfilling her resolution, albeit without a boyfriend. Nils knew he had to tell her now. What better place and time than at the Airport? To his dismay, he wasn’t the only person who was there to see her off. Her mother, Martin and Asta’s colleagues, the burly man, who looked like the Yeti, included, made sure there wasn’t a single moment to catch her alone. Even when he did find a couple of moments discreet enough to tell her he was tongue tied, or was, most inconveniently drowned out by the announcements for flights.
Nils was ashamed of his inability to ask someone out, in real life. It was easier with match.com and the rest of those apps and sites, but somehow, he hadn’t found anyone, at least not yet, who he liked as much as he did Asta. He had been a shy as a boy and had never grown out of it.
Asta returned in mid-December, just in time for the Lucia festival, and went to spend some time with her family. Martin retreated to his winter cabin and would emerge only in time for the new-year‟s eve party. Nils decided he would definitely tell her at the party. This will be the time, surely, however hard it is. “It was a resolution for the year and I have to fulfill i”‟, he thought. “Just ask her out. Oh, why does this have to be so hard?”
December 30, this year
He rang the door bell of a small house next to his apartment. Marianne opened the door, and hugged him. “Kära Nils”, she greeted him. He hugged her back, and handed her a box of plums from his own front yard. She was an elderly woman in her 90s, with a small build, greenish teeth, snow white hair and an endearing smile. She lived alone, did all the shopping alone and took care of herself – as was the common practice of old people in Sweden. Nils himself, in spite of having a typical Swedish name, had Bosnian heritage. His parents had been immigrants and his name was a strategic move to help him fit in better. His own grandparents lived in Bosnia with relatives, or at least were taken care of by them.
Marianne, though, was used to being alone. “The Government takes care of me,” she would say. Yes, that was true. In Sweden, local governments decided on the welfare of the elderly, housing and care for them being funded by the taxes. “Besides, I have little Bjorn”. Bjorn was a small Yorkshire Terrier, too small but hairy enough to warrant the name ‘Bjorn’ which meant „bear, now yelping at his mistress. Marianne picked him up, hugged him, and settled on her arm chair.
Two weeks ago, Nils had seen her in her front yard, with plenty of boxes delivered from IKEA. She was trying to get the huge boxes inside her house, her tiny figure staggering under the weight. Nils had gone over and offered to help her put the kitchen up.
She was horrified, at the same time pleasantly shocked that he would make such an offer. It seemed strange to her Swedish sensibilities. For Nils, however, who found his Nordic environment too lonely, even for an introvert, this was a way of making connection, making friends.
“It was my son’s idea. He wanted an easier kitchen for me to work with”, she said.
With reluctance, she‟d agreed to let him help and offered to pay him upfront, even though Nils, at first refused.
As he worked, she sat in the arm chair, talking to him about her life as a girl in Sweden, how the city looked before and how, during the war, she drank silver tea because of ration shortages.
“Silver tea?” he asked.
“You mix a little milk with water. That is silver tea. We couldn’t get tea and coffee, they were expensive.”
She had a cup of ‘silver tea’ every evening, even today.
Nils enjoyed listening to her while he worked. Her son would pay him, but Nils enjoyed this work, with this old lady and her dog Björn, who sometimes picked up his tools for him.
Today, only the work of fitting the last of the cabinet doors was left, and Nils would finish today.
“I am going to the supermarket, you need anything?” Marianne asked, putting on her coat. “Maybe some beer?”
She ambled out of the door, dragging her trolley behind her.
Nils rehearsed to himself, as he continued to work on the door, “Asta, would you mind going out with me?” No, but that didn’t convey his depth of feeling. Anything more intense would make him sound creepy? Well, no matter what, telling someone you like them must be one of the hardest things in the world to say to someone. I am going to say that before this year ends. He screwed in the last of the doors and took out his buzzing phone to check.
Nils’ heart jolted. A picture of Asta, with a white turtleneck sweater, and her big bear-man colleague, Gunnar; He was wearing the brown leather coat that Asta had taken off at the coffee house last year. The picture was accompanied by a lengthy, sweet, syrupy announcement about their engagement – and why they had gone so long without telling anyone.
Nils sank to the floor unable to think. Bjorn yelped incessantly in the next room which sounded a bit like a tiny person coughing severely. Nils was too heart-broken, too sunken in his own sorrow, to check on Bjorn.
His coughs started dying down a bit, and there was silence. It was that unusual silence that broke Nils’ trance. Sensing something, he went over to the dog.
Björn was now lying on the ground, his small body almost unconscious, with the box of plums lying next to him – Nils urgently tried all he could, googling about what to do when a dog chokes. He laid the dog on his back, tried to open his mouth to get the plum out. It was too late. Bjorn was utterly motionless, no dog-style Heimlich maneuver that Nils tried so desperately, helped. The dog had chocked on a plum and died.
He gently lifted him and placed his tiny body of the sofa. The door clicked and Marianne came in. “Marianne”, Nils opened his mouth.
What news he had for the frail old lady was one of the hardest things he ever had to say. So much for resolutions concerning hard things to say.