(This is the first chapter from Copenhagen Clouds which was my year-long senior writing project in college. It's a YA novel about a college student who studies abroad in Denmark, falls for her host sister's boyfriend and struggles to find her independence.)
Today was finally here. In less than sixteen hours, I would be in Denmark. Instead of travelling to Indiana University for the second semester of my sophomore year, I would be spending it studying abroad. I had stuffed my suitcase with so many clothes that it did not stand a fighting chance of ever being less than 50 pounds. My parents repeatedly assured me that they would help check it in at the airport and that I wouldn’t have to re-check it in Chicago. The bag would follow me there through airport magic. My dad tried to help me pack some things into my carryon backpack. Taking his time, he folded a couple of long sleeve shirts into flat squares. He put two pairs of tennis shoes on top. He was not an expert Tetris packer like I was. As soon as he walked away, I threw out what he had packed. I tightly rolled my shirts and shoved them inside my shoes. There would be no wasted space in this bag, so help me God.
My dad returned from the bathroom and dragged my obese suitcase downstairs. I did a final check to make sure I had everything. On my desk, I consulted a post-it of my last-minute checklist. “Cell phone, charger, passport, backpack, wallet, camera, suitcase, gift for host family and important document folder.” Check! I looked around my room, trying to engrave the scene into my memory.
My queen-sized bed was neatly made with my bird stuffed animals resting on the pillows. In the corner, my wooden desk was scattered with old textbooks and various Copenhagen guidebooks that I had decided not to take with me. Even my white carpet was littered with boots that did not make the final packing cut. The canary yellow wallpaper that I’d thought was a good idea in middle school now gave the room a slightly eerie vibe. In high school, my dad had let me add a border so now the walls were topped with scenes of assorted songbirds sitting in trees. I looked in the mirror that hung over my door and threw my dirty blonde hair into a high ponytail. I unbuttoned my grey cardigan (which had little yellow finches on it) because it clung too tightly to my arms and chest. My grandmother gave the cardigan to me for Christmas but bought me a small instead of a medium. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings and not wear it ever. Maybe I’d lose weight in Denmark from all of the adventures I’d go on and then the cardigan would fit better. Hurling my heavy backpack onto my shoulders, I flicked off the lights and shut the door. I let out a small sigh and whispered, “See you in four months” to my room.
I trotted down the carpeted steep stairs. Our Christmas tree was still set up in the den. My dad was downstairs in the kitchen with my bag. His face was flushed and beads of sweat trailed down the side of his face. My mom was there too with the bathroom scale, helping him check the bag’s weight.
“Sweetie, why are you taking bricks with you to Denmark?” my dad joked as he placed the bag onto the scale. The block red lights of the scale blinked 49.5 lbs.
“I have to stay warm somehow. Bricks are good insulation,” I told him. My dad raised an eyebrow. “Seriously. I need all my sweaters.”
“Are you sure there is nothing in here that you can live without?” My mom asked.
“Yes, I am sure, mom.” I rolled my eyes, “I need all of it. It’s not that much.” My mom crouched down on the floor, zipped open the mammoth suitcase and pulled out two blue sweaters.
She may have thought they were identical, but one was from Gap and cobalt blue, while the other was from Banana Republic and cerulean blue. Completely different, right?
“Come on, Amber. You only need one,” she held both of them up to me, “Pick one.”
“No, I need them. They’re different enough that it’s fine. Put them back, please”
“Come on, Sue. Let her keep them. It’s not like her bag is over the weight limit,” my dad chimed in. “It’s fine.”
“No, there is no reason for her to bring two of the same sweater. She needs to pack less.”
“Honey, we need to go,” my dad pointed to the clock on the oven.
“You always do that. You make excuses for her. She needs to learn.”
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it. Come on.” I said. My dad reached for both sweaters but my mom threw the cerulean sweater. She stuffed the other one back in the suitcase. The sweater landed on top of Sunny, our family’s old yellow and white beagle, who was sleeping on the couch. His tags jingled as he woke up. He looked around confused, with a blue sleeve covering his eyes. My mom zipped up the suitcase and pulled out the handle.
“Say goodbye to Sunny, Amber,” she said, not looking at me. I went over to the couch, taking the sweater off of poor Sunny. I looked over my shoulder and as my mom’s back was turned, stuffed the sweater into my backpack. Sunny looked at me with his big brown eyes. It looked as if one eyebrow was raised in confusion. I sat down next to him and embraced him around his chubby neck. Since I was an only child, Sunny often played the role of my little brother. He had a magic ability to know when I was about to cry and would without fail trot up to my room to console me. He was always there, in my bed, if I needed to talk without someone else talking back.
Like me, he was getting older. We had adopted him from the humane society and estimated that he was now close to twelve years old. His muzzle was beginning to turn grey. He struggled to climb stairs. He wasn’t the same crazy playful puppy he used to be. But then again, I was no longer the hyper child who constantly wanted to play with him either. We had both matured.
I hugged him hard, breathing in his salty soft fur. I kissed his forehead and gave him a final pet and scratch behind the ears. Several of his white dog hairs clung to my cardigan. I didn’t bother wiping them off. Again, Sunny looked at me, confused. I hated not being able to tell him that I wouldn’t be back for a while, but I would definitely eventually be back.
“Okay, your monster suitcase is in the car,” my dad called. “Amber, we need to go.” I turned away from Sunny, fighting back the tears I felt forming in my eyes. I looked around at the kitchen I had grown up in one last time, sucked in all the air I could until there was none left and departed. With my backpack, I headed out the door.
My dad accelerated onto the highway despite the frosty January roads. To him, the highway was the same thing as the Indy 500 racetrack. I tried to relax during the car ride but I felt nauseous and my mind kept racing. What had I forgotten? How could I forget that? Did I have my passport? What if my host family hated me? What if I can’t find my flight? Why didn’t I learn Danish?
The leather in the backseat of the car felt cold underneath my jeans. My dad had the radio turned up obnoxiously loud. The local oldies radio station was still playing stupid Christmas music. I tugged on my seatbelt, trying to loosen its tight grip over my chest. We were on I-270, driving past the familiar fast food restaurants, factories and outlets. I rummaged through my backpack to triple check I had my passport. It was sealed in a plastic baggie on which my mom had Sharpied: “Amber’s Passport.” I pulled out one of my paperback Denmark guidebooks, both Christmas presents from my aunt.
Curled up on the couch, hiding under a blanket, I devoured both books last week. My favorite section had been the “Culture” one. Now, I flipped to that chapter where it started off: “Danes are often seen as being very direct and at times even rude, because they say what they think instead of disguising their views in polite euphemisms.” I was intrigued. So, would my host family tell me if I had a huge pimple on my forehead? If they didn’t like me, would they say it to my face? Oh, man. I wasn’t ready for that. I’m not a confrontational person at all. I can’t even watch confrontations. When my parents fought, I just hid upstairs in my room with Sunny. Plus, I hated hearing criticism, even it was masked under the term “constructive criticism.” I skimmed down the “Culture” page to find a more comforting sentence. “The Danes are very open to dating. Danish women can sometimes play ‘hard to get’ whereas the men are ‘eager to please.’ They are very informal and liberal with their dating ways.” I pictured myself bar-hopping every weekend, making out with guys and returning to America with a gorgeous Danish boyfriend to Skype with and write love letters back and forth. Now that I could handle.
I flipped a few pages ahead within the chapter. “Hey mom?” She nodded and looked up from her Stephen King novel.
“My Denmark book says, ‘Denmark is a small, quiet country, located far away from the international centers of tension.’ Does that make you feel any better?”
“A little bit. I’m still going to worry about you every day.”
“Even if it’s a safe country, don’t join any protests in the streets if you see them. That’s how kids get shot,” my dad chimed in. My mom opened up her book again and looked down. He continued, “Just last month, the news said an American college boy was shot in Egypt during a protest. Damn shame.”
“Dad, I’m not going to Egypt.”
“Doesn’t matter. Always be safe, Amber. Use your head,” he grunted. I thanked him for the heads up and told him I’d be sure to buy him a little pyramid figurine from Denmark. He didn’t get the joke.
I alternated reading my Denmark book and texting my friends from Indiana University a final goodbye for the two and a half hour drive. We reached the airport a full three hours before my plane departed, thanks to my dad’s lead foot.
“Do you want to have a farewell lunch?” My dad turned around and asked. I nodded. “Okay, how about Chi Chi’s?” He pointed to a brown building with a neon green sign and a picture of an oversize margarita. It had an enclosed patio area where colorful mini flags were strewn across the ceiling. Only five other cars occupied the parking lot. My dad pulled into a spot upfront and the three of us went inside.
“How many today?” A curvy Latino girl wearing a black T-shirt said. My dad held up three fingers to her. She waited for us to say something. He just kept his hand up. It took the girl a minute but then we followed her back to a booth. My mom rolled her eyes. She sat on the opposite side of my dad.
“It wouldn’t have been that hard just to tell her ‘three.’”
“It was fine. She understood it, right?” My mom ignored him and picked up the menu.
“What are you going to get, Amber?” my dad said.
“Something small probably, I’m not that hungry.”
“Do you want to share something?” my mom said.
“No, you can each get your own things. We’re not poor,” my dad said.
“I realize that, but maybe Amber and I would be happier just sharing nachos.”
“Nonsense, just each get your own nachos.” My mom didn’t respond. She turned the menu over to look at the drinks.
The waiter appeared at our table. He was a tan adolescent with high cheekbones and jet black hair. His eyes were a faint greenish glitter, like a forest.
“Hola, amigos. Welcome to Chi Chi’s. I’m Juan and I’ll be taking care of you guys. What can I start you guys off with?”
“I’d like a margarita and we’d like to share an order of nachos, please,” my mom said. My dad rattled off his order to Juan then shook his head in disgust at my mom. Juan scribbled into his pad, took our menus and left.
“Are you ready for this, sweetheart?” my dad turned his attention to me. When he faced me, all I could notice was his unusually sharp pointy nose. My grandmother had the same nose. It was the type of nose that could probably cut through glass. Thankfully I mostly had my mom’s small nose.
“Yeah, I think I’m ready. But I’m still really nervous. What if my host family doesn’t like me?” I played with the paper Corona coaster, spinning it on the table. I needed to have something in my hands.
“It’s natural to feel nervous. And of course they will like you. Why wouldn’t they? You’re a very nice girl.” Even though I had reminded her of my age countless times, my mom still talked to me like I was a little kid. Sometimes it was comforting, but other times it was annoying. In this moment of my anxiety, it was comforting.
“Thanks, Mom, I’m going to miss you a lot.” I fought the tears that were forming.
“If things get bad, remember you can always come home,” my dad said.
“Dad! No, if things get bad, I’m going to tough it out.” I slammed the coaster back down on the table and opted to just sit on my hands.
“Okay, that’s fine you can do that too if you want.”
The waiter brought us our drinks. Even though it was only 1 pm, my mom gulped down her margarita. I took a sip of my sweet tea. Ewwww! It tasted like regular unsweetened tea. I added three Sweet n Low packets, stirring them with my knife. It wasn’t worth complaining to the waiter about. He seemed nice and everybody makes mistakes.
My mom changed the subject of the conversation. She flipped her short light brown hair to the side and fiddled with her wedding ring. Her silver Mickey Mouse earrings reminded me of the annual trips to Walt Disney World we took together. When I was 12, we power-walked through Epcot, holding hands, and she joked that we were superheroes called “Super Mom” and “Super Daughter.” My dad never came with us on those trips so that meant it was a whole week of no fighting.
“Did you like last night’s episode of ‘The Office’?” my mom said.
“Yeah, it was another good one. Jim cracks me up every time,” I said. My mom gazed up at the ceiling for a moment and I imagined her picturing Jim shirtless. She had confided in me a while ago that she thought he was good looking.
“I’m telling you, they based that show off my work,” my dad said, “I bet Jim was inspired by me.”
“I don’t think so. You guys look nothing alike,” my mom told him in a monotone.
“We both have brown hair.”
“And that’s where the similarities stop.”
Juan brought our nachos and my dad’s sizzling fajitas. Our orange nachos came in a big red bowl and were loaded with jalapeños, cheese, chicken, onions, beans, and tomatoes. It appeared impossible to pick up a chip without my hand being covered in something. I usually liked nachos but these ones tasted dry and stale. Even adding more salt to the nachos didn’t help. The irony that my last meal in America for four months was at a crappy Mexican restaurant sank in. I crunched the chips in my mouth worried about what my first meal in Denmark would be like.