The snow flattens under his feet as he crosses the empty road. He pulls up his shoulders against the cold and tries to clear his mind, tries to think about something else, tries to feel something else, but it’s impossible. The other country is insistent within him. It pushes against his ribs, pulses with his heart. The sensation of snow and ice and sharp cold air isn’t enough to overcome the memory of sun burning his skin. He looks up in an attempt to regain focus, shifting his attention to the houses to his side. Their tall windows shine bright as he steps onto the other sidewalk. A cat is huddling in a kitchen window on the ground floor. The window frame is open a small crack, and from it wafts the scent of a private world. He stops for a moment and looks at the animal. She’s here, right now, present, in this world. This is real life, here and now. Her fur is black with white patches on the belly and by the nose. Thick, warming fur. An icy gust comes in through the window and the cat blinks arrogantly, looks away with a disinterested air and jumps down to the floor.
What is a life? Nothing but a sort of magnetism, an instinct, an insistent pulling heaving debilitating feeling. All that fits within a fur coat. His eyes are shiny and clear, but a sense of something elusive rests at the very front of his belly, pushing against the taut skin. He doesn’t know what it is exactly, but he knows that something is passing him by, right in front of his eyes.
He keeps walking, scooping his shoulders to preserve the warmth. The air is so cold it holds no dust. At this time of year everything must die. Only the tree trunks remain, freezing. Though life returns, not all of us will be here to see it spring. Cars drive slowly, people walk faster, and the sky is full of clouds that hide the stars and eternity that stretches out behind them.
The snow: cold and creaky, white and thick, greyish by the edge of the road. Sidewalks lined with naked trees: tall pines and other unknown species. A bird is flying towards a hole on the other side of the tree. He can’t see it. Cold air billows from his mouth as he puts one foot in front of the other. Warmth finally starts spreading through his body again and he can relax his shoulders. He loosens his scarf. Around him, the world shrinks. Nothing gets through the snow. He can hear it crunching with every step he takes.
Like all roads, this one too comes to an end. Yellow houses with tall six-part windows and tin roofs are replaced by a highway, a parking lot and finally the entrance to his final destination, the supermarket. He has walked past the strollers and the bourgeois mothers and the unending yellow houses and trees – traversed the entire length of this sidewalk, out of a wish to keep to his schedule or out of habit or just to kill time. That’s what brought him here.
Patting through his pockets, he finds his wallet and carefully counts the money. It is extremely important to be certain, to have no hesitation or doubt whatsoever, that he has enough money to pay with: cash or plastic, it doesn’t matter. Above all, it is of utmost importance to be certain, because why would one ever – in fact, how could one ever – fail to anticipate such matters. Yes, certainty and confidence, guarantee and assurance, since he’s had to bear witness to this: the cashier’s turned-away blue eyes and the scent of her chewing gum (pink Bubble Yum), her impatient shuffle of I-have-better-things-to-do-than-this and his broken, ‘I think I must have forgotten.’ The timbre of high-pitched words that break and turn into a whisper. Words he can still hear where he’s standing today, doing an inventory of the contents of his wallet. He can hear the remorse in his own voice, recall the sensation of downcast eyes and flushed cheeks.
So when he joins the throngs of fathers, mothers and children, when he walks past the shelves that hold Via and Pågen bread and Cornflakes and Blå Band sauces, he is certain. There’s a jingle jangle from the coins in his pocket. A while later he walks out the door, looking straight ahead with his movements full of purpose. A plastic bag in his left hand and a briefcase in the other.
He knows from experience that the way home is always quicker, so once he’s back on the road he tries to walk as slowly as he can. There are still many hours left to kill, hours he knows will need to be broken into little pieces until there’s nothing left but scraps and fragments piled on the ground. This is another thing he knows with absolute certainty. There was a time when he, too, was a busy man, a man for whom time disappeared into memories, leaving no other trace. Today almost nothing remains from that period – the marginalia in his books, a few notepads, the soft lines around his eyes. But the sensation of it? No. It’s rare that he can recall the feeling. It’s strange, when he looks back on his life, to think that time was once so quick, while these days it creeps forward at a snail’s pace, minute by minute, second by second. Time can never go by quickly enough.
He does remember that other time, when he was as busy as a person can be. When he was a person with plans. Someone who thought the result was what counted. He made schedules to get everything done on time; he crossed off checklists; he lined up his course books, one after another on the shelf, signs of the small steps he had already completed.
That first fall, in the very beginning, was the hardest. It was the time when he had no time at all, when he could barely manage to eat or cook or clean or shower. Instead, he had his studies and his part-time job at the home-care service for the elderly on weekends and evenings and every weekday he could spare. That fall was the time when all he could afford for lunch was three rolls of bread and a small carton of milk from the grocery store in the subway station. The others, the young ones, would stare at him and his cheap food, noting how he had the same thing every day. But he never returned their looks. What do they know, he thought as he watched them head off to buy their wraps and hamburgers. What do they know about struggling, about having a goal? About having a plan? He who makes the biggest sacrifice and lives the hardest life will get the largest reward in the end – that’s what he thought. He thought the outcome was what counted.
The part-time job paid the bills, but it was more than that. It was a good job. The hours were flexible, which meant he was able to work less during exams. It was meaningful and important too, and it exposed him to a side of Sweden that was different from the one they taught at the Swedish for Immigrants classes, or the one shown on television. His job introduced him to the forgotten ones, people who were lonely just like him. There were so many of them, the old ones, the old ladies. They were mostly women, wrinkled and fragile. Most of them he can’t remember at this point.
Except for Gerda on Anders Reimers Väg. He can still picture her moving in her wheelchair between the kitchen and living room in the three-bedroom apartment she occupied by herself. Back and forth she rolled. Her life was strictly regimented, just as his is now. Perhaps that’s what happens to people who have too much time on their hands, he thought. The only thing you have to hold on to are your schedules and plans. You can’t be spontaneous when nothing happens anymore.
A schedule to follow. Something that anchors time so it doesn’t float away, something that stops it from going fuzzy and loose with no beginning or end. Apartment cleaning on Mondays, groceries on Tuesdays, shower on Thursdays, and a walk Fridays. Gerda would get up at 7.00, roll to the bathroom in her wheelchair at 7.15, have breakfast at 7.30. Always the same food: bread with liver pate and half a serving of oatmeal. This would be followed by lunch at 11.00: a different pre-made meal for each weekday was the only variation she allowed for. Coffee and shortbread cookies at 3 p.m., and buttermilk with cereal at 6 p.m. Before each visit, she would go to the bathroom. In between, she would gaze out at Lake Mälaren from her kitchen window or, in the summer, from her glassed-in balcony.
Her sharp, ice-blue eyes – he’ll never forget them, especially the way they peered at him that last afternoon. After the incident, he swapped schedules with Ililnca, a 50-year-old Romanian woman who, like him, had a degree in civil engineering, and always tried to get as many weekends and evenings as possible. Gerda: her name was Gerda Bengtsson. He can perfectly recall his last shift with her, and those eyes, the icy blue that made him decide to never return.
He turned the lock and stepped inside.
‘Hi there!’ He took his shoes off in the hall. There was a basket of blue shoe covers by the door, but he knew Gerda disliked it when he wore them. Which made sense to him. She was a human being just like him, and they could both pretend for a moment that he was just there to pay her a visit, like an old friend. He took a few steps into the kitchen, where he knew she had been sitting all morning, looking out onto the lake. An unwashed porridge bowl and the pot she’d made it in sat in the sink. On the table was a plate strewn with a few breadcrumbs. He would wash up while she went to the bedroom and put lotion on her face. And there she was, sitting in her wheelchair with a red blanket over her knees.
‘Hello,’ she greeted him. He sat down for a moment, asked how she’d been, if she was hungry, if she had already taken her medication. She held up the empty case for him to see. She offered him some coffee like she always did, and he accepted even though he’d already had some. He wouldn’t drink too much. Her eyes were alert as they fixed on him, and she pushed the cookie jar in his direction. He took one. He asked about her family. She told him her daughter had called the day before to talk about her oldest granddaughter, who was failing math.
‘Is important, math,’ he nodded. ‘Perhaps most important subject in school.’
‘Oh yes, definitely,’ she said.
They both looked out the window. It was cloudy, and the water shivered in the wind.
‘Today is day for shower,’ he said after a while. She nodded.
‘Yes, it’s Thursday today.’
He was the only male warden she allowed to help her shower, something she had specifically informed them of at the office. ‘Of course there are so many people coming and going here anyway,’ she had said, ‘But there has got to be some order.’ When Kerstin told him this in front of all the others he had felt a sense of pride, but then he’d looked away and mumbled something before hurrying off to the key cabinet.
Once he had helped her shower and dry off, he moved on to drying her hair. She was sitting in her wheelchair, swaddled in a large blanket. He carefully moved the towel over her tender head. Thin hairs stuck together in little wet clumps.
‘I must say,’ she began, her head still under the towel, ‘you are very good at this job.’ She removed a strand of hair that had stuck to her cheek. ‘You foreigners, I mean.’ His hand froze. They were silent for a few moments before she continued: ‘Somehow, you are just better at this kind of work than the Swedes, I would say.’ She paused, waiting for him to respond, but he stayed silent. He resumed, slowly moving the towel across her head. ‘I mean to say,’ she continued, ‘maybe it’s something in your culture, that you take better care of your elders? Might that be the case?’ She tried to catch his gaze, but failed. He let a section of the towel fall over her face so she couldn’t see him. Then he moved around to the back of the wheelchair, lifted the towel again and dried the back of her head. She was sitting perfectly still with her hands folded in her lap, letting him work through his task. Once he was done with this part, he brought out the comb and slowly began untangling her hair. His hands were trembling. He used the short, slow movements she had taught him, beginning with the tangles at the end and working upwards. Underneath the thin silver hair, her scalp was exposed. There was silence between them. He felt the tension in her shoulders when he grazed them with the comb. He draped the towel across her shoulders and pushed the wheelchair over the threshold and into the hall, where he spoke again.
‘I’m student, actually. This is extra job for me.’ His voice was shaking, but he tried as hard as he could to keep it steady. ‘In my country, I’m civil engineer. I was director for factory. I have 275 people work for me, you know.’
There was silence again as they crossed the threshold into the living room, rounded the couch, passed the table. The only sound was the creaking of the wheelchair. They continued into the bedroom, where a stack of her clean clothes was folded over the back of a chair. He turned the wheelchair around so she faced him, and for the first time since the beginning of the conversation, he looked into her eyes. He reached for the underpants, which were on top of the stack, and began pulling them over her right foot.
‘A student?’ she said after a few more seconds had passed. Her blue eyes met his as he took hold of her leg to pull the garment over the other foot. ‘So what are you going to become at this old age?’
He told them he didn’t want to see her anymore. He returned the keys to their hook, and went to give notice to Kerstin in her office. She didn’t ask any questions, just seemed slightly bewildered before she agreed to his request.
That was the fall when time was so short. He was stuck in a never-ending loop of work, school, shopping, cleaning. And then there were the kids. He didn’t know how to make it all work. On top of it all, of course, were the things she did just to mess with him. He couldn’t deal with it. It was too much. So he made up his mind. He made the capital D Decision. Well, yet another Decision, but this one was especially difficult. He knew it from the moment the thought came into his mind, even though doing it wasn’t going to be any harder than the act of lifting his feet off a high diving board and plunging into the water. But in the same way, there would be no going back once it was done. It would be over. Irreversible.
The idea hit him like a stream of cold water poured down his back. Crystalline, the thought arrived as the fog cleared up outside his window on the eve of the exam he had to retake. That dark fall evening – walking down the street now, he remembers every detail. How he was sitting at his desk with his notebooks open, old course books lining the shelf above his head. Quiet light fell from the lamp onto the pages he was trying to read. The memory is more alive to him than the snow, the trees and the pavement beneath his feet. Outside, the leaves had just fallen.
The telephone was still in his hand. The room, which had just been filled with the sound of his shouting voice, now echoed with silence. He let his head hang. He couldn’t take it anymore. This was the second time she had cancelled the kids’ visit. He’d already stocked the fridge and gone out to buy two small gifts on his lunch break: a pink pencil case and a red fire truck. He’d stayed up until two in the morning cleaning the apartment and changing the sheets in the bunk bed. They were going to go to the pool. He’d planned it so well. He would write his exam in the morning and pick them up from kindergarten in the afternoon. It was all he had, those two short days every other week. And he knew that what had just happened was part of a new scheme of hers. He knew she did it to exact revenge, to wreak havoc in his life and ruin what was not already ruined. That was her new strategy – as if it wasn’t bad enough that she had taught Yasaman to call him by his first name. As if it wasn’t enough – that scene she’d caused when she stormed into one of his lectures and threw all the documents he’d asked for through his lawyer across the room. Fights about inherited money, accusations in court that he’d hit her – lies they’d instructed her to tell so she would have her way. And it worked. She got her way. Got custody of the kids. The eyes of the judge had said it all, even though he of course couldn’t be convicted without evidence. Afterwards, even his own lawyer had a cooler demeanor than before. He’d said he should be glad he’d been granted visitation rights.
He gazed down at his papers, at the open thermodynamics book. The children were hers now, but clearly that wasn’t enough. She wanted revenge. She wanted to ruin everything that meant something to him. In this, she was successful. The exam was tomorrow at 9.00. It would be his third attempt to pass. Between work, his other classes and the children, he hadn’t been able to dedicate much time to studying. His head felt heavy. No, he couldn’t take it anymore. His plans, or rather his rearranged plans, all his ideas about how to make things right again, to make the world return to its proper order, to make life return to normal so they could get out of this surreal, impossible nightmare and never, ever look back. His new chance at a regular life – was it the third or fourth attempt now? He didn’t want to count, and anyway it didn’t matter. He looked at his study notes. His voice, high-pitched, screaming, still rang through the room. He rested his head in his hands. He’d reached his limit.
That weekend, he took the subway to Gullmarsplan, where he hopped on the bus to the neighborhood where he had once lived. He still knew the apartment like the back of his hand. He was the one who’d purchased the furniture and chosen the decor, he’d bought everything for the bathroom and the kitchen, eagerly waiting for them to join him in the new country. He’d painted the children’s room a pale green from Clas Ohlson. That last, hopeful night, he hadn’t slept a wink before his alarm finally sounded and it was time to go to the airport. He’d bought her flowers and arranged them in a vase in the living room. There were toys on the beds in the kids’ room. New sheets. A new chapter, a new beginning, a new life. That’s what he thought at the time. A new country, a new language, and a new chance. Sure, they’d been forced to pay a stiff price, but they would be rewarded for it. The hardest path must be the right path. He was sure that the tighter his chest felt, the larger the reward would be.
The bus came to a halt and he got off. Fallen leaves made a red-brown soupy mess under his feet as he walked the final stretch to the house on Sandfjärdsgatan. The playground where they always played was in front of two high-rises, right next to the closed kindergarten that would be razed in the spring.
He stopped at the second high-rise. Low shrubbery covered most of his body. Nobody could see him from here, but he had a perfect view. And just as he’d guessed, there they were, playing in the sandbox. He’d often sat at that bench, watching them. How quickly they got used to the new country. How happy they looked. How effortlessly the language flowed from their lips. It was beautiful. He’d never thought of Swedish as a beautiful language until he heard them speak it. He envied them, and at the same time it filled him with joy. A step in the right direction, he thought.
Red leaves covered the ground. They were wearing their rain jackets – hers in red, and his in green, colors they had chosen for themselves a couple of months ago in the store. Their backs were turned to him and their heads, covered in black curls, were bent over something in the sand that he couldn’t see from where he was standing. Big sister was talking about something, as usual. She always knew best. Little brother, wide-eyed, was looking intently at her. He’d believe anything that came from her mouth. They have each other, he thought, and he felt that cold clear rush down his back again. Even if he left their life right then, they’d always have each other. He could disappear. Breathe for a few seconds. Recharge. Just until they’re old enough to appreciate the complexity of the situation. Though he couldn’t see their faces, he knew exactly what they looked like over there in the sandbox: their round cheeks, soft like peaches, rosy from the chill in the air. He gazed down at his shoes, standing in the flowerbed. He needed to make a decision. Wind rustled the shrubbery. He was starting to feel cold again. He had to make a decision, and stick to it. Come up with a plan B, an emergency plan. No wavering, no changing his mind again and again. He had to come up with a plan, make a decision, and stick to it.
Suddenly a new possibility struck him. It arrived as though it had flown through the sky between the high-rises and over the park and just landed with him. He froze. The job, his part-time job. He could easily turn it into a full-time position if he wanted to. They’d give it to him if he asked. He could probably even get overtime. Financially, it would be enough. It would add up to much more than the study grant he currently got from the government. No more exams, no more late nights at the library, never again the heavy burden of difficult words in thick books. He’d have his weekends off, evenings off, more time and more money. He considered what it would mean to be a caretaker. Caretaker as the end and not as the means to get somewhere else.
Manual labor, he thought, suddenly shivering in the wind. What, then, would happen to all he’d sacrificed on his way here? To everything he’d left behind by the rounded peaks of the Alborz Mountains? To previous new beginnings, and more recent ones? What would it mean for the creased forehead of his mother, the downcast eyes of his father? He shivered. No. He shook it off. No.
Leaving them was the only possibility. He had to make the decision now, before he was struck by hesitation or regret, before he could find excuses. Wind took hold of his body. He had to be strong. It was for them, he thought. So he could be the father they needed. So they’d be able to look at him the way all children should be able to look at their parents. He’d prolong the hard times just a bit. Postpone the great reward only slightly. Just a few years. Until he’s back on his feet again. In a few years, when they’re a bit older. When Yasaman would be old enough to understand. Just a small adjustment, a short intermission before real life resumes again. They’ll get it, he thought. One day, when they’re old enough, they’ll get it. He’d saved all the papers in a box for that day. The documents that’d give them all the facts they needed, saved and stored for the final reckoning. Wind rustled the leaves underneath his feet. The curls on their heads danced in the breeze.
The snow is creaking and the sky, still grey, is about to fade to black. He takes one step at a time, looking nowhere but ahead. Moving one foot, then the other. The trees stand naked, their branches exposed and weighed down by snow. The streetlight is slowly growing brighter. It gets dark early this time of year. If the day isn’t merciful and it doesn’t seem like your legs will go easily over the ledge of the bed, you can always choose to turn around and fall back asleep. He continues to creak along, looking at the houses, these pretty houses that sell for millions of kronor. People get an education so they can earn enough to buy a house that’s a hundred years old with a courtyard, a black tin roof, perhaps a maid’s chamber. It might have a fireplace or a balcony with double doors and asymmetrical dimensions. The doors can be kept open in the summer to welcome the sound of the children playing in the courtyard. As he walks, he keeps his head down, watching the crunch, crunch, crunch of his feet on white snow. Moving forward. Forward is the only way he sees. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time, slowly bringing him home.
The above is an excerpt from Pooneh Rohi’s novel, Araben, a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant recipient.
Photograph © Carles Tomás Martí