Authors: Camilla Grebe,Åsa Träff
Tags: #FICTION / General
Dinner for one.
It’s never elaborate or nutritious: spaghetti with canned tomato sauce, frozen pancakes, Frödinge brand quiche, grilled chicken from the ICA supermarket in Gustavsberg. I don’t even own a cookbook. I drink wine with dinner, carefully clean up after my meal, and then go outside and walk the short stretch between the rosebushes to the bathroom in the shed; I don’t want to risk needing to go outside after the onset of darkness. I call for Ziggy. Sometimes that works. Certain nights he wants to go his own way instead of warming my bed. When I’ve returned to the house, I go through all the rooms and turn on the lights. All the lights: ceiling lamps, bed lamp, desk lamp, even the stove light in the kitchen. I check that the big flashlight is strategically located next to my nightstand. Power outages are not unusual where I live. Then I look out into the darkness through the big windows, which at this time of evening are like empty, black holes.
I fall asleep, deeply and dreamlessly, with the help of a little more wine.
• • •
One of my earliest memories from childhood is when my sister locked me in the closet in her room because I had smeared Nutella in the hair of her Cindy doll. I hadn’t planned to transform the doll’s flowing locks into a poop-brown cake of oily, rancid Nutella. The idea was to make
Cindy better looking. My mom and my sisters all used face masks and hair packs when they wanted to look really good.
I clearly remember how I begged and pleaded for her to let me out as she roughly and mercilessly shoved me deeper into her closet. “You brat! I’ll kill you if you touch my Cindy again!”
It was dark and stuffy in the closet, the heavy air felt like it was pressing against my face and my thin limbs, forcing me farther and farther back against my will. I remember a faint odor of wool and dust and something else, like rubber.
Haltingly, I made my way in the darkness with my hands stretched out in front of me. Clothes that had been stored away for the summer brushed against my cheeks and the steel edges of a pair of old skis struck me on the shoulder.
My heart was beating faster and faster, and a strange pressure was growing in my chest. My first feeling was surprise rather than fear; it was as if my body became afraid before my intellect understood what was happening, as if I could clearly feel and register all the physiological expressions of fear before I actually
I was afraid. I heard the hangers screeching against the rod above and instinctively starting waving my arms. Down jackets, cardigans, and old ski clothes tumbled down with dull thuds around me on the floor, and to my own surprise I heard a peculiar shrill sound emerge from my throat. It sounded just like the pigs we had seen when my class went on a field trip to the farm in Flen.
“Aaauuaa,” I screamed.
I then fainted, among the woolen mittens, tracksuits, and neat bundles of
My Life’s Story
Date: August 21
to tell you something!”
Sara is eagerly picking at a scab on her forearm with a long, green fingernail. Picks, scrapes, lifts up the scab until pus comes out.
“Of course,” I say encouragingly, studying Sara more closely for the first time since our conversation began. She seems exhilarated and energetic. Manic. Drumming the lighter faster and faster against her pack of cigarettes, she opens her eyes wide. She evidently is having a hard time sitting still. My cynical brain immediately thinks uppers, but I know that’s wrong. Sara is clean.
“I met a guy!”
I look discreetly down at my notebook so that my eyes will not reveal what I’m thinking, but Sara sees through me.
what you’re thinking, but this time it’s different! And I know that now you’re thinking that I say that
time, but this time it’s true.
He’s much older. He has a
job, he’s supersmart. Makes an
lot of money. But that’s not what matters,” she adds, as if to downplay the fact that the man she has met possesses all the right conventional attributes.
She lowers her voice and whispers dramatically. “He
me and understands me like no one else has. Don’t be offended, but I can talk with him about the kinds of things I can’t say to anyone else, not even to
. He listens to me for hours. Listens to my
, you know.”
Sara smiles, lights a cigarette, and slowly shakes her head, making her golden curls dance over her shoulders.
“He wants me to move in with him.”
She says this slowly and in a contemplative tone, but there is also something triumphant in her voice.
I gather my papers together and try not to stare at her flushed cheeks and defiant expression.
“I’m happy for your sake, Sara. Truly. How long have you known this… man?”
Sara looks down at the carpet, resting her upper body against her knees and rocking slowly back and forth.
“Oh, a few weeks. But we’ve been seeing each other
. He gave me this bag,” she adds, and as if to prove the legitimacy of the relationship, she holds up an oversized, monogram-patterned Gucci bag.
“He takes me out for dinner.”
I say nothing.
Sara shrugs and looks questioningly at me, waiting for validation.
“Sara, you’re a grown-up and hardly need my approval before you start a relationship,” I say, but my tone of voice reveals how worried I really am.
It doesn’t seem right. A middle-aged, successful man courts a young girl with bright green nail polish, a charming borderline personality, and arms and legs zebra-striped with scars from razor blades and knives. I realize to my own surprise that I’m afraid he will exploit Sara.
After the session, I stay sitting for a long time in my green office, looking out the window. During the entire time I’ve been her therapist, Sara has been with one guy after another. Most often they have been her age, usually with problems that resemble hers. Rootless, beat-up young guys with scars from syringes and God knows what else. And other, much worse scars, carved into their very souls. Every time, Sara has been just as enthusiastic, just as infatuated as she is now, and every time it ended the same way: in bottomless, dark despair.
I wish I could prevent this from happening again.
I met Stefan at a party in a barn outside Eslöv in Skåne seven years ago. It was a lovely but cold midsummer evening. I remember that he had warm hands and that he generously lent me his jacket as we walked through the fields of canola. He fascinated me, which I decided afterward was due, at least in part, to the fact that we were so different. Stefan was tall and blond—I’m small and slender with short black hair and a boyish body. He was constantly happy, never gloomy, had lots of friends, and was always on his way to something. I think I was hoping that a little of his joie de vivre would rub off on me. And it did.
It feels so strange that Stefan isn’t here anymore. But I really believe I have accepted his death. The complete paralysis and the panicky sense of being all alone went away long ago, making room for a gentle, melancholy sorrow and an almost physical emptiness: My body still remembers how soft his skin felt, my hands miss the feeling of touching his thick blond hair, my tongue longs for the salt of the skin on his neck.
So I’m a widow. How can you be a widow when you’re only thirty-four? I always tell anyone who doesn’t know me that I’m single. I don’t want to end up in conversations about the diving accident, or how they know exactly how it feels because the same thing happened to them a hundred years ago, or how it would be good for me to get out more, or something else that would only make me angry anyway.
I never need to explain it to my friends, who already know everything. They let me be and don’t try to fill the silence with meaningless blather. They let me sit in my cottage and sip wine instead of forcing me out to some bar.
For my patients, I am Siri the therapist, and no one ever asks about my private life, which in itself is a relief.
To them, I am a professional spiritual adviser without a past.
I’m comfortable with that.
When Stefan and I met, he was doing his residency at the hospital in Kristianstad and I worked in Stockholm. The back-and-forth between the two cities was really trying. When Stefan was in Stockholm, he stayed with me in my little studio apartment on Luntmakargatan. Then a routine took shape that we would follow for the next year: work and friends during the week, isolation in my apartment on the weekends. We spent that time wrapped up in each other, fused by our longing in my narrow, uncomfortable bed.
All my friends thought Stefan was good for me. He made me blossom and dampened my dark, brooding traits. He had an uncomplicated relationship to the big questions in life and often answered my despondency with statements along the lines of, “If you only got out more you wouldn’t feel like this” or “Stop thinking about that and help me with this plank instead.” He had a way of resolutely but carefully guiding my thoughts away from dark abysses, and I never missed my difficult side. I was never really happy with the way I intellectualized emotions and problems, and so I received his frank, simple manner with joy.
Then Stefan started his specialist training at the Stockholm South General Hospital. No one was surprised when he chose orthopedics. That was so very Stefan. If something was broken, he wanted to fix it, not just study it or talk about why it didn’t work.
When Jenny Andersson, one of my patients, committed suicide, Stefan was a big support. I lost myself in doubt and self-examination, questioning both my choice of profession and my capacity for empathy. Stefan made me realize that it was not my responsibility. In his resolute, analytical way, he explained that if someone
wanted to take her own life, then neither I nor anyone else could prevent it. I still remember our conversation that evening, as Stefan tucked me in on the couch under the patchwork quilt his grandmother had sewn out of old handkerchiefs in the 1960s.
I told Stefan that I thought I ought to have
that it was about to happen.
“Why is that?” he asked, shrugging.
“If anyone should have known, it was me.”
“Do you think, in retrospect, that there were signs?”
I hesitated for a moment and tried to recall my last encounters with Jenny. She had appeared both happier and a little calmer than usual. Perhaps she had already decided? Was that a sign of relief—that the understanding of the choice she had made, and its consequences, was like a weight that had been taken off her chest? Peace?
“No, not really. Not at all,” I corrected myself, shaking my head. “There were no signs. I mean, of course there were signs: Jenny suffered from anxiety, she was depressed, but she denied that she was thinking about taking her own life. I asked her, asked the standard questions about thoughts of death, thoughts of taking her own life, plans… Jenny just laughed. She said that suicide was for the weak. The losers. I didn’t ask if she saw herself as a loser.”
“Would you blame her family or friends because they didn’t see what was about to happen?”
“No, absolutely not.”
“Then why do you blame yourself?”
to see that kind of thing.”
“Siri, dear Siri.” Stefan took my hands in his, as he always did when he wanted my full attention. “You and I both know that even a trained psychologist can’t read minds, can’t see into someone’s future, prevent her from making mistakes, or even interpret her intentions with any great certainty. There are no blood tests you can prescribe, you can’t send your patients to the lab and get results the next day. You asked the questions, you got answers. You couldn’t do more than that.”
Actually, I knew deep down that Stefan was right, but that hopeless, suffocating, chafing feeling of guilt would still not release its grip on me. I could not say with certainty that I had
contributed to Jenny’s death.