and whispered through my whole body:
‘Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!
Inside you vault open behind vault endlessly. You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.’
Blind with tears
I was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. Tanaka, and Signora Sabatini
and inside them all vault opened behind vault endlessly.
–Romanesque Arches, Tomas Tranströmer
It’s 7:39, am. I have been writing for 19 hours straight, stopping only to make more coffee and eat bananas. To use a euphemism, I was sick in the sink. I have lost all sense of boundaries. I’m finished listening to people tell me what I should and should not write.
If I write things a certain way it’s a lie of sorts. If I write it like I am writing it now I am legally crazy. Because sanity (and all art is sanitized now) is precisely this tea cup dance: Keeping things in their right place. Not saying anything, really.
We work so hard at being not quite real. Idealized versions of ourselves.
But secretly we wait for a liberator:
That liberator is your muse, your “art” which is a really tame word for what it actually is. It’s precisely not art.
I have had a fierce argument with Ferdinando. “I want to write what I know and feel,” I say. He wants me to imagine and invent.
“Describe your desk,” he said.
“My desk? Very big, wood, color of…root beer. Probably Danish.”
“Now describe it to me as a desk from a baroque castle in Italy 300 years ago.”
“Don’t say probably Danish. Just say Danish.”
“What if I am wrong? These are my clay feet. I am a fact collector, a reality servant.”
I go door to door, always have, so many houses left–the house is a person, the house is a shell, an identity, an adult, somewhere in the middle of life. I seem to be the person who burglarizes these houses. I want their truths. I want them to tell me what is is really like to be human, what it feels like.
If I was promiscuous, it was in this way–emotional promiscuity. Unlocking everybody one by one, or trying to. Trying to glean something from them. And then I leave.
Often they just unfurl their innermost experiences and feelings with no prompting from me, except that I have the look of somebody who has nowhere in particular to go. I have room for them, for their stories.
Interest and empathy of a kind. So they start talking and confessing.
The most unforgettable were those two Swedes.
I was seated alone in a train compartment on a train going from Berlin to Stockholm, following the reunification of Germany in 1990.
Two fair-haired men in middle age sat down across from me as we pulled out of the Berlin train station, and began discussing an urgent matter, in Swedish, which they assumed I did not understand. We were in Berlin, after all.
“What are you going to do?” said one of them.
“I don’t know.”
“Decide, bastard. Train’s leaving. You don’t have the guts and you know it.”
“I do. I am getting off.”
“So get off!”
“Give me a minute.”
“You’re full of shit.”
After a few minutes, I cleared my throat and somehow let them know I spoke Swedish so they would not feel exposed against their will.I asked if I could close the window.
They looked at me, surprised.
“You don’t look Swedish,” one of them said.”You have brown eyes.”
“I am half American.”
“Where are you going?”
“To see my mother, in Sweden.”
“Is she Swedish?”
“You sound Swedish. No accent.”
“I know. We moved there when I was eleven.”
After a brief silence, one of them said:
“Well, I’m Lars and he’s Gunnar.”
We shook hands.
“Pleasure. I’m Celia.”
“You want to guess what we do for a living?”
“Sure. You’re nuclear scientists.”
“I give up.”
“We are police.”
“Really? No kidding. Do you carry guns?”
“In Sweden, no. There’s no reason to. Nothing much happens, most of the time.”
“So what brought you to Berlin? The festivities?”
“Yes. We came to Berlin for the reunification, to have some fun. And then this guy…” he pointed his thumb at his friend, “.. goes and gets involved with a redhead. And now he says he is in love and wants to jump off this train and abandon his life in Sweden, wife, house, kids, the whole nine yards.”
“I am in love,” Gunnar said forcefully. “And so is she. For the first time in I don’t know how many years, I was happy. I was happy with her. I didn’t want to get on this train but he talked me into it. I want to stay with her, in Berlin.”
“Oh bullshit. You’re going back to your family in Sweden. Your house and your lawnmower. You’ll never leave that house. Never. Your yellow house. You’ll get over this.” Turning to me, he said, I’ve known this guy all my life. Trust me.”
I leaned back and said, “Let me think.”
I was 25 years old. Free as a bird.
I’d been traveling alone through eastern Europe, wanting to witness the shards of communism before they swept it all away. Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria; The year before I’d been to Berlin when the wall came down, and in Prague when the demonstrations broke out there days later. I came to Berlin for the reunification to experience something I did not manage to experience: A vicarious thrill of what I thought was two separated bodies, West Germany and GDR, who would rush into one another’s arms–the former so incredibly happy that the latter was free at last, and confetti in the streets. Instead, it was mostly drunk glassy eyed people staggering around who seemed like they did not know or care what was happening. An East German friend invited me to the punk-populated neighborhood of Kreutzberg, where young kids with purple hair actually protested, touchingly, for the preservation of their country, GDR. They had these banners declaring that they would refuse to become West Germany. Their position was: So, it’s a shitty, grim, totalitarian, deranged spy state but at least it’s our shitty, grim, totalitarian spy state. We were born here. They seemed really stranded at the thought that in a matter of hours, their “country” if you can call it that, would cease to exist, and along with it, their identity, so distinct from the West German. I sat with them for as long as I could stand it but it was so depressing I finally fled, to the center of the action, where people were drinking beer and shouting.
And amongst them, I imagined Gunnar and his lady, whose name must have been something like Bettina. I could see her: A real party gal, known as “krogare” in Sweden–a middle aged divorcee with ruddy cheeks and a throaty voice, a smoker, heart of gold, repeatedly broken, yearning, wanting, warm–a good drinker and a merry woman after a few drinks. Heavy eye makeup, hair tousled and copper colored, her jeans and boots like that of a much younger woman. And she wants to dance. So she takes this Swedish policeman for a real swirl, showing him a tenderness that he hasn’t experienced in years, as if she loves him and thinks he is perfect. The night is long. They drink and dance and laugh. She is all loose inside, happy like a girl. Her ex husband probably beat her up, gave her black eyes, told her she was fat. And now she met her prince. And it wasn’t too late, for happiness, was it? Was it too late, because they were pushing fifty?
“Stay with me. Don’t leave tomorrow,” she would have said, hanging on his neck, slurring her words. “I will make you happy.”
And Gunnar would have spent the last 26 years in a suburban house with two indifferent teenagers and a wife who never showed any affection, and just did crossword puzzles all the time, and fried sausage for dinner and hated him.
The idea of two emotionally raw Swedish cops inveigling me into their mid-life crises struck me then, as now, as sublime and comical. I tried to picture something similar taking place with two New York City cops, and it got even funnier. Not that I laugh at the gravity of the matter, but the situation was spectacular. It seems to me that I have a flight of angels that put me in the right place at the right time, again and again. Many of these characters, like these two cops, have stayed with me for decades, waiting to be described.
“It’s because you have “plats,” Martin said to me recently. “Plats” means “room” in Swedish. Most people don’t have room for the problems of others.”
“Yes, I feel like a bus, often. It’s interesting but I exhaust myself. Thing is though, everybody has a story. The only boring people are the ones who don’t know their story. The ones who never say how they feel about anything. They just say rational things. This is like flower buds that won’t open.”
“Gunnar? I’ve thought about it,” I said. “I think you should get off the train. Go for it. Next stop.”
“He’s a coward. He won’t get off this train,” Lars mumbled.”
“Stop saying that. Let him decide.”
“I know him. I know he will go back to his yellow house and his bird-feeder and his wife. To hell with him. Sit down Gunnar.”
Gunnar had stood up, and put his jacket on. “I’m getting off.”
“He’s getting off,” I said to Lars. And only then did I realize that would leave me and Lars for the rest of the overnight trip to Sweden.
“You’re 25. You’re totally free,” Lars said to me, somewhat darkly. “You know nothing about life. Family. Plikt. (obligations.) Those brown eyes of yours, you could seduce anybody. Do whatever you want.”
“No, that’s not true. I just mostly travel on long train rides to the worst countries I can find and eat dinner by myself and listen to people’s stories. I’m a passenger. I don’t get involved with people that way. Except sometimes. I’m a journalist. Investigative.”
Gunnar had snuck off to the end of the car. “I’ll go keep him company,” I said to Lars.
“He’s coming back. I’m telling you. Do what you like. I’m sitting here, staying put.”
I found Gunnar in the next car, sitting in an aisle seat. There was an announcement that the train would be arriving at its next stop in a few minutes.
“You getting off?” I asked.
“OK. Good luck.”
I suddenly got concerned that Gunnar and Bettina would not recapture their bubbly bliss, the day after. But maybe they would. Maybe it was true love. People will always go out of their way to say you’re imagining a love that is not real. What they are really saying is that it was not real for them, or did not last, and so it is vital that nobody else gets a chance either, that all lovers be stopped at the border and sent back.
“Get going,” I said. “I’ll deal with Lars.”
“Thank you,” he said. “You’re a good woman. And Lasse, he only wants to protect me. He’s my best friend.”
“I got that,” I said. “But never listen to anybody else except your inner voice.”
“I don’t know. I’m always that person voting for the dreamy option that might be delusional. I don’t know about reality, much.”
“I can’t bear the thought of going home, and I can’t bear the thought of not going home. This woman gave me happiness.”
“So go get her.”
He nodded, and looked out the window. I sensed he needed to be left alone.
I hugged him goodbye and wished him luck.
I went back and told Lars.
“OK. He’s done it.”
“Did you see him get off the train?”
“He’s in the cafe car, I’m sure of it. I know this guy all my life. I know him like I know myself. He’ll be back.”
“Alright, whatever. I am taking a nap now. I’m exhausted.”
I placed a sweater over my head and tried to sleep.
I heard the train compartment door open. Lars bellowed through the car: “I knew you’d be back, bastard!” He slapped his thigh and they both started laughing.
“Bloody bastard. Did you think I was going to tell your wife you stayed in Berlin with a redhead? No thank you. Who knows, maybe she’d be thrilled to be rid of you. But you can’t exist without your house and your comforts, Svensson. I know that about you. We’re all the same. Stone cold trapped like zoo animals. Happy? That’s not something we discuss. Well, we can be happy right now. We’re not in Sweden yet. You know what? They’re opening the casino soon. We’re almost on the ferry.” Then he turned to me and said: “Delightful lady, will you join us for dinner and gambling? We would be delighted to have your company. Dinner is on us. Gambling too.”
“Gambling? I love gambling. And dinner sounds great too. Thank you. How generous of you.”
I remember we had a real blast, playing slots, roulette, eating and drinking, on the ferry-boat. Eventually, we got to Sweden, and my stop was coming up, so I collected myself.
Lars wanted to see me to the platform. It was snowing.
“Don’t go,” he said.
“I love you.”
“Yes, you. Come with me to Vasterås.”
I had about 3 minutes. How could I do this justice in three minutes?
“The truth is, I have to see my mother. I have to see my mother. She is waiting for me. My mother is more important to me than anybody in the world. I am not going to abandon her now. Tell her I’ve run off with a policeman I met on the train.”
“Please come with me.”
He wasn’t even wearing his coat.
“You’ll freeze to death, go on back in.”
Gunnar was leaning out the window, shouting at me to get back on the train, to come with them.
“This is the craziest damn train ride of my life. Listen, I can’t come with you. I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
“May I contact you, in the States?”
I gave him my card–I worked at a magazine at the time, as an editor. He hugged me tight and kissed me on the corner of my mouth, briefly. Then he got back onto the train.
When I told my mother, we laughed half the night, as she set her hair in rollers, and we drank beer.
When I got back to New York, there was a fax from Lars waiting for me, at SPIN Magazine.
“Fortjusande Kvinna,” it said. “I can’t forget you. Can I call you?”
I thought about it for a while. I had no feelings for him, in that way. But I was moved by the way he treated me as though I was really a lady, with powers to enchant and delight. I felt indebted to him.
I placed the fax in my drawer. For weeks and months, I kept meaning to write him a letter. But I never did. if I found the letter today, 21 years later, I would write to him. I’d ask how it all worked out with Gunnar and the yellow house, and if he remembered me. I would apologize for taking so long to write.