I stood outside the falafel joint in Ålidhem centrum soaking up vitamin D through my parka while I waited for my take-out kebab roll. Don came out of the karate club across the alley and lit a cigarette. Late forties or early fifties, greying hair but still a full head, the barrel-chested build of a man who used to be athletic.
I don’t much like other Americans but the sunshine made me amiable. I nodded at him across the pavement.
He took it as an invitation and sauntered over. “I know you,” he said.
“Yeah, SFI,” I said.
SFI–Svenska för invandrare–is the state sponsored language school for immigrants. Among ourselves, we call it Swedish for Invaders. Most of the students, the invandrare, are here for the university. There are a handful of souvenir Thai wives with Swedish husbands. There are a lot of Iraqis.
Don took a long drag off his cigarette. The smoke wafted past me and I almost asked for one but it had been six months and I had promised and Johanna would be pissed. I could feel the scratchy paper between my index and ring fingers. I stuck my hands in my pockets.
“You still going?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “All the talking in Swedish. If I knew Swedish I wouldn’t need the class.”
It’s tough in the beginning and you can get by okay with just English on the outside–most Swedes speak it better than we do. Don was one of the Americans that stopped showing up after a couple weeks. The same Americans that back home used to bitch about the DMV printing forms in Spanish. I didn’t want to get into it and I was sorry the conversation had started.
When I didn’t say anything, he continued: “So what brings you here?”
He didn’t mean a kebab roll. He meant here, Sweden. That’s what we talk about with each other: what defines our existence. School. Family. Asylum. Work. Love.
“Swedish wife,” I said. “You?”
I glanced at the take-out window in case my order was up. He carried on like he hadn’t heard me. “That’s nice, how you meet?”
“Afghanistan,” I said.
He looked at me, really looked at me, maybe for the first time. I’m a big guy, six two, two hundred pounds. He was trying to appraise me through my thick down insulation, tell if I was muscle or fat.
“Military,” he said.
There was a glint in his eye, the kind that says, “I’m gonna sell you something.” I just didn’t know what.
“You work out?”
“Run around the lake three, four times a week.”
“You fight at all?”
“Not these days,” I said.
The take-out window opened. “Good talking to you, man,” I said. “See you around.”
“Yeah.” He said it like a man who was thinking.