First Thought, Best Thought
By Berit Ellingsen
In zen there is a saying: “First thought, best thought.” The first thought or reaction we have to anything or anyone is the best, because it is the most spontaneous and therefore also the most honest one, despite our intentions, education, upbringing, and all the other social conditioning we carry. However, in most situations we can’t act on our first thought, particularly if it’s a negative reaction, and we can definitely not express it. But sometimes, the first thought really is the best, even if it’s not a nice one.
Many years ago I was an overworked science graduate student in a city that was surrounded by seven mountains and had rain that could last up to ninety days, with an outbreak of the Giardia parasite as an added bonus. (I was also once offered to buy ice cream in a blizzard there, but that’s another story.)
A third cousin from my mother’s side, a relative I hadn’t spent much time with before, or knew very well, moved to the city for work. We met a few times over tea in one of the many cafes. One rainy winter day she phoned and said that her boyfriend and his friends were coming to town and asked if I wanted to go out with them. I said yes and the following Saturday night we met in the city center.
My cousin, her boyfriend and his two friends were from small towns further up the coast in Western Norway, the same region as my mother grew up in. Decades earlier, my parents had made the Norwegian class journey, from growing up in small farming and fishing communities where everyone knew everyone so well they hardly knocked on the door before entering, to moving to one of Norway’s largest cities (a small town compared to other countries) for white collar jobs and suburban middle-class life. Such a journey is only significant in a country where a great majority of the population was farmers or fishermen only four generations ago. (I remember my incredulity when a German friend told me that her family had been teachers and academics for more than eight generations.) It also reflects the journey taken by the entire country since the Second World War, and more so, since the discovery of oil and gas on the continental shelf in the early 1970s, which turned Norway into one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
As a result of our parents’ class journey, my sister and I never had to do the same. We grew up suburban middle-class, and with Norway’s nearly free education system and government-subsidized student loans, there were few obstacles, apart from the purely personal or education-wise, for going to university in a larger city.
When I met my cousin, her boyfriend and his friends, it was clear they had not made the same class journey, and perhaps had no interest in doing so. They reminded me of my mother’s stories from her childhood when visiting the city further south along the coast was a big event and how they all stayed at the same small family-run hotel because it was close to where the boat back to the deep fjords and the inland glaciers departed and served the same traditional sweet made from caramelized they had at home.
“Where do you want to go?” My cousin said, looking at us all.
“Definitely not to a snotty student place,” one of the boyfriend’s companions said, so that was that.
Someone suggested a bar in one of the best hotels in the city.
“Is that ok with you?” my cousin asked me.
“Sure,” I said. I had never been there before, but how different could it be from the student places? And the bar was, after all, in one of the oldest and most respected hotels.
But my assumptions, as assumptions often do, turned out to be wrong. The small and fully lit space was crowded with people who were dancing, drinking, stumbling into each other, and yelling over the dowdy soft rock music. The female patrons looked about two decades older than my cousin and me, and clearly in the throes of their second and more desperate adolescence. The men were even older, and in the minority, eyeing the women from the safety of the bar and buying them pastel-colored drinks.
We pushed our way to a side room with sofas and tables, it was less crowded and quieter than the main space, and sat down in a corner. My cousin and her boyfriend started chatting and nuzzling, while the boyfriend’s friends asked me a few courteous questions. They were clearly as disinterested in me as I was in them and the conversation faded quickly. I leaned back in the sofa and began watching people instead.
The next table was occupied by an old man with a dark-haired woman in leopard print and gold lame in one arm and a blonde woman in purple nylon and black spandex in his other arm. The women clinked their drinks together and laughed a little too loudly.
“Oh God, old-man-with-a-hooker-on-each-arm-alert,” I thought to myself.
In retrospect the man was probably in his early sixties, but in my head at the time, he was closer to seventy-five. The women were maybe in their early thirties, but to me they looked ten years older. I squirmed closer to my cousin’s boyfriend’s friends and deeply regretted that I was sitting at the end of the table.
Suddenly, the old guy met my eyes and looked me up and down. I became painfully aware that I was the only Asian there, the only person not blandly white and Norwegian, and that I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. This was not an uncommon situation, and I had gotten so used to it that I rarely noticed it, but in addition, I was among, if not the youngest, female in the room.
“No no no, don’t talk to me, don’t even look at me, I do not want to be hit on by a seventy-five year old man with paid company!” I yelled inside me and tried to sink into the upholstery. But such internal dialogue is distracting and dangerous. When I looked up again, the old guy had left the blonde and the brunette and plopped down next to me with a cheerful:
“Hello there, pretty lady!”
“Noooooooo!” someone yelled at the top of their lungs. It took a full second before I realized that was me. In my hurry to judge and become invisible, I had forgotten to think up what I would do if I were approached, or come up with a witty and cool answer that would reject in a clear, but not too nasty manner. That train was long gone.
A few people at the nearest tables laughed, but most didn’t notice over the loud music and the dim lighting.
I looked at the man, for a moment fearing his reaction. People had gotten beer bottles in their faces for much less, female or not. But he just gave me a sour glance and said in a thick, local, working-class accent:
“All right, then,” and moved back to the two women. I sighed of relief. Not long after my cousin mercifully suggested we go somewhere else, and we left the bar.
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Metazen, decomP, Unstuck and other literary journals. Her novel, The Empty City (http://emptycitynovel.com), is a story about silence. Berit’s short
story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was published by firthFORTH Books in November 2012. That year one of her stories was also nominated for the Pushcart Prize and another for the British Science Fiction Award. Find out more at http://beritellingsen.com.