Authors: Camilla Grebe,Åsa Träff
Tags: #FICTION / General
Only a few drinking songs and crayfish later it happens—the conversation shifts inexorably to more sensitive topics. In reference to a book review in the newspaper, a discussion ensues about rape and its causes. Birgitta is the one who drives the debate.
“No one at this table could possibly claim that rape is a sexual act. After all, isn’t it just an issue of patriarchal power?”
She looks around challengingly and licks her plump lips. Her salt-and-pepper hair sits perfectly coiffed on her head, a short pageboy with bangs. She looks like the prototype for a successful feminist. As always, her academic interest seems to be the only subject that really engages her. Otherwise, Birgitta has a tendency to position herself outside human society. She is an observer, who seems to register and analyze other people but seldom reveals her own views. Although I admire her, she also scares me a little, and on occasion I even feel nervous in her company.
“What I’m saying is that, in some respects, rape may be said to constitute our understanding of gender and gender hierarchy in society.”
Birgitta, still waiting for a reaction, looks around and her gaze comes to rest on me. Is she seeking my support? She sighs and looks disappointed.
Like a schoolteacher who discovers her pupils haven’t done their homework.
“What I mean is that sexual assaults on women rely on the same structures whereby men have higher salaries than women—gender hierarchy.”
Marianne draws on her cigarette and looks meditatively out over the bay with furrowed brow. She looks like she’s trying to think of something to say. Christer glances down at his plate and then reaches for another crayfish.
“What do you think, Christer?” Aina asks. She turns toward him and in her usual physical manner places a hand on his arm and leans forward. Good Lord, I think, sometimes she goes too far. Christer’s gaze meets Aina’s for a moment before he turns back to his crayfish.
“I guess I don’t really have an opinion,” he says calmly, without letting his eyes linger over Aina’s proffered breasts.
I wonder if he understands how sensitive the issue is, if he can accurately determine its weight and grasp the consequences should he give a wrong answer.
“I think you’re onto something,” Sven interjects, nodding meditatively as he grabs his glass and leans over to refill it.
Sven is going to get drunk this evening.
“So,” Robert begins, “I’m not buying what you’re saying about gender hierarchy. I think rape is about horniness combined with bad impulse control. Besides, human beings have a natural instinct for survival, which is responsible for the urge to spread one’s genes as wide as possible. Maybe that’s just inherited. Evolutionary theories are pretty damn interesting. Otherwise I think all men are… hmmm… animals.”
Laughter erupts around the table. Robert’s consciously provocative comment has broken the tension. Christer laughs loudly, and Sven snorts and his beer goes down the wrong way. Aina giggles, almost doubling over uncontrollably onto Robert’s lap. The only one who doesn’t look amused is Birgitta, who smiles stiffly, her lips pressed hard together.
“Yes, that’s also an opinion,” she says slightly sarcastically, well aware that she has been outplayed.
By a guy twenty years younger.
I notice the look she gives Sven, distant and reproachful. Her eyes rest on him and I sense that she will have trouble forgiving him for having laughed at her, contributing consciously or not to her losing face in front of everybody. And I think that Sven knows what’s up, because he suddenly goes quiet and staggers off toward the edge of the woods, his glass still in hand.
Why does it have to be so hard? All these conflicts, people who wear on each other like stones on a beach until nothing is left. It chafes and aches.
As darkness sets in, the intoxication also increases. Aina is sitting on Robert’s lap at the end of the table. I notice her hand caressing his thigh and that he is touching her breasts under her sweater. Their kisses are deep and I catch myself looking away.
Christer and Marianne don’t seem to be bothered by Aina and Robert. Instead they are trying to outdo each other with bawdy drinking songs. I feel slightly embarrassed for Marianne when she starts singing loudly that she’s never seen anything naked, all the while smoking what must be her thirtieth cigarette of the night. Birgitta sits silently, the corners of her mouth demonstratively turned down, her fists clenched.
At this point Sven comes back through the pine trees carrying a guitar and I realize that the high point of the evening is near: Sven will play and sing. Something he never can refrain from in a state of intoxication. His repertoire consists of a number of old Mikael Wiehe and Hoola Bandoola Band songs mixed with early Ulf Lundell. I am sure I am going to throw up, for real, unlike Robert’s mimicry, if I have to endure “you are the fiiinest I knooooow” in a phony Skåne dialect one more time. So I excuse myself and take my wineglass and a flashlight and start walking down toward the bay on legs that are not completely steady.
The raucous voices grow quiet and the sounds of the night emerge: waves crashing against the rocks, mixed with the humming of a distant motorboat. Behind me I hear determined footsteps, and when I turn around I see a silhouette approaching down the pier.
It is Christer.
“Did you also have enough?” He looks at me questioningly and smiles a little.
I angle the beam of the flashlight down toward the ground, covered in pine needles. The roots cast long shadows across the path. A moth flies aimlessly back and forth through the beam of light.
“Hmm, sometimes I get a little embarrassed when grown people start acting like teenagers. But actually,” I continue after a brief hesitation, “actually they’re just having a good time. I’m afraid I’m the one who’s a hopeless bore.”
Christer laughs. “Then that makes two of us. That bit with the guitar and the red wine has never really been my thing, you know, but maybe it’s typical for psychologists,” he continues in a mocking tone.
“Well,” I answer, “I guess that depends on the psychologist. If you did your training before 1982, lived in a commune, and were part of the green movement, then maybe…”
“But, Siri, aren’t you part of the green movement yourself?”
I don’t understand what he means. “The green movement?”
“Well, you live out here all by yourself. Isn’t it because you want to get closer to nature or something?”
He laughs again and I feel something heavy gathering in my chest. I can’t bear to explain my reasons.
“I lived here with my husband.” My curt answer signals that I don’t want to expand on the subject.
“Oh,” Christer says, looking thoughtful. “But you’re not divorced, are you?”
“Widow,” I say bluntly. “And I don’t want to talk about it,” I add, to be on the safe side.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to pry, I didn’t know.”
Christer looks genuinely apologetic, and I make a gesture with my hand to show that I understand and that everything is all right.
“But this is a nice house you have,” he continues. “Truly charming, even if you do need to repaint it and maybe replace the bargeboards, too.”
I understand that he’s trying to change the subject, and I am happy to help him.
“Yes, I know, but even just choosing the right type of paint feels like a drag—you know, acrylic or oil-based.”
I know exactly what kind of paint I need, but I’d much rather continue talking about something other than Stefan and the reason that I live alone in this inaccessible, wild, and beautiful place.
“Well, now, that depends on whether you’re part of the green movement or not,” says Christer, smiling tentatively.
I smile back and we start to discuss the pros and cons of different kinds of paint and the best time to paint houses. Christer surprises me by offering to help with the painting.
“I know how hard it is to get something done when you’re all alone,” he says, looking sad for a moment, and I am reminded that we all have a history that we carry with us and that determines our behavior and our lives.
I’m not the only one who has experienced loss and pain.
• • •
Suddenly the stillness is broken by agitated voices and cries coming from my house. We rush back up the narrow forest path. Sven and Aina are standing by the table, looking at each other angrily. By the door, Ziggy stands in a defensive position, his back arched, a low hissing sound coming from his throat.
“But Sven,” Aina yells angrily, “you can’t kick the cat, damn it! He just wanted to sit on your lap. He’s an animal, understand, he hasn’t come up with some kind of diabolical plan to frighten you. All you have to do, if he’s bothering you, is put him down.”
I can see in the light from the door that Aina is swaying.
“I just don’t want it to come here,” Sven says sullenly. “I… can’t stand cats.”
“You need to grow up already!”
Aina’s face is red with anger and intoxication.
I carry Ziggy into the house. At the same time Robert has managed to grab hold of the guitar, without Sven noticing.
“Time to change genre,” he says, grinning with glazed eyes.
“This one’s dedicated to the cat-devil.”
A second later he starts playing the intro to “Ziggy Stardust.”
• • •
I stand in the kitchen scraping crayfish shells from the big platter into a garbage bag. The sink is full of dirty dishes. Outside, the party continues. Robert has succeeded in getting the others to join in, and now Marianne and Christer are dancing close, under the colored paper lanterns. The sky has turned coal black, adequately brightened by a large yellow August moon. It is a beautiful, melancholy reminder of summer’s inexorable farewell and that darkness and cold will soon envelop us.
Suddenly I feel someone embracing me from behind, placing a hand over my right breast, a wet tongue leaving snail tracks on my neck.
“Siri, you are so damn pretty.”
I push him away forcefully and turn around.
Sven is standing in front of me. He looks very drunk but is doing his best to conceal it. I don’t know if I should feel violated and make a scene or just let the whole thing pass. At the same time, I am filled with disgust thinking of the unwanted intimacy he has just subjected me to. The conversation earlier about rape and the gender hierarchy further increases my unease. After a couple of beers, Sven, who is so damn politically correct in front of Birgitta, proceeds to confirm her, and possibly also Robert’s, theories.
I back away and growl quietly at him. “What the hell, Sven.”
My voice is faint but I know it comes across as determined.
“I like you. I like working with you, but a prerequisite for our collaboration is that you stop groping me. I’m not interested. Do you get it?”
I’m not so calm anymore, and I can hear how shrill my voice has become. Sven’s face turns very red and he looks extremely ashamed. He
stands in the middle of the kitchen, swaying back and forth like a buoy in a storm.
“Damn. I’m sorry, Siri. I’m really…”
He falls silent, searching for words, shakes his head, and looks like he’s trying to collect himself. Or maybe he’s just trying to regain his balance.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what got into me. I’m just drunk… Damn it. Can you accept my apology? I truly mean it. Damn. Stupid alcohol…”
Sven looks like he’s about to embark on a long conversation about his relationship to all manner of drugs, something I’m really not in the mood for.
“It’s okay, Sven.”
I place a hand on his arm to underscore that I mean what I say.
“We can talk more about this on Monday, or we can just forget about it. It’s okay.” I squeeze his arm a little and he looks grateful. As he turns around and walks unsteadily through the kitchen door, I see her.
Birgitta is standing in the hall, watching me. Her thick lips are pinched together, her face is tense, her arms crossed over her heavy breasts. She gives me a knowing look, filled with a mixture of contempt and sympathy.
I am ashamed
How much did she see? What does she think of me?
She comes closer and stands in the doorway. She looks at me again but says nothing.
“Well, so…” I say sheepishly, feeling my face burning.
I am ashamed because her husband was groping me?
Birgitta just looks at me. She says nothing but slowly raises her index finger toward me as if to reprimand a disobedient child, or point me out—a guilty person. Then she turns and goes out into the garden without a word.
Stefan loved diving. It had been his passion for more than a decade. When he wasn’t out diving, he was planning his next diving trip with his equally obsessed friends. Great Barrier Reef, the Red Sea, South China Sea, the Gulf of Mexico. Stefan had been all over the world, but there were always new countries to visit, new seas to discover.
The first few years, I never went diving with him. He knew how afraid I was of the dark and he fully accepted that I wanted to avoid any situation that might lead me beyond the reach of light. Then he slowly started to broach the subject. “Maybe you can do a test dive, at thirty feet it’s still light.”