On the way from Stockholm to Arvidsjaur, her plane touched down in Lycksele to drop off some of the passengers and pick up others. The flights cost five thousand kronor, as much as a ticket to New York. On top of that, she’d bought a pair of warm winter boots, a jacket and a blouse for another few thousand. Their first lovers’ weekend cost her dearly, but what did money matter when you were buying bliss?
She travelled on Friday morning. When she walked home from Central Station two and a half days later on Sunday night, one of her new boots was pushing so hard against her Achilles tendon she thought it might snap. The pain lasted for four days, whereupon she put the boots in a cupboard, never to be used again.
The Arvidsjaur airport consisted of a landing strip and a low corrugated metal building out in the middle of nowhere. The ecstatic lust that would finally be given an outlet after six months’ waiting made her knees weak, and it was on these shaky legs that she hailed the area’s only taxi, which transported her soundlessly through the primeval forest.
When she stepped inside the lobby of the Hotel Laponia, Olof was sitting there, waiting. To her surprise, he was all muffled up. For days and weeks she had pictured him receiving her in his room, unreserved and exuberant. They would slip between freshly ironed sheets, dive into each other’s bodies, sticky with love’s fluids, and have no desire to go back out all weekend.
But there he sat, clad in a jacket, scarf and gloves.
They went to the room with her bag and skis. Olof seemed rushed and hunted, saying that he wanted to go into the village and have a look around.
What were they supposed to be doing in the village? Hadn’t they been waiting months for this?
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Olof said, and proceeded to take a seat in an armchair.
Since they’d set a date for this tryst, his voice on the phone had had a civilized veneer stretched over wild arousal. And now: this play at nonchalance. It was comically transparent, so Ester sat in his lap and caressed his forehead, hair, cheeks, took off his jacket and boots, touched his chest and thighs.
Their lips met. They lay naked in bed. The act was hurried and hot.
Olof seemed to want to get it over with, and his gaze was absent. It seemed absurd to her that he’d want to appear ambivalent even though he’d asked her to fly to Lapland and had months to prepare himself, not to mention the three weeks since he’d invited her, during which he could’ve changed his mind. There was something unintelligent about this discrepancy, or perhaps it was a constitutional ambivalence and beyond his control. But these thoughts caused nothing to wane. If she was in love with a dimwit, then so be it. If she loved a constitutional hopelessness, then so be it. More than anything, Ester wanted to love Olof and to be received by him.
Before they went out to ‘look at the village’ they visited the hotel’s dining room where a small buffet had been laid out, ample but hardly delicious. Ester helped herself to a passionless mix of blood dumplings and vegetables au gratin. Her portion was large, for she sensed a vacuum had formed between them and she wanted to fill it with food. Or perhaps she had become aware of a vacuum that had been there all along but that she’d thought their corporeal meeting would oxygenate. She recalled with horror how losing touch with a former lover, the artist Hugo Rask, had coincided with them having had physical contact.
But things have to change eventually. No two people are the same. Nothing is predestined.
In the middle of the meal, with half of the blood dumpling stuck to the roof of Ester’s mouth, Olof gave her a look that flickered between mischief and fear.
‘I couldn’t believe how hot we were for each other up there.’
His perception of the world was becoming increasingly inexplicable to her. The only reason they were here in this place was because they were hot for each other. It was the only reason she had flown to upper Norrland to meet him. How could he, then, comment on their heat as if it were news to him? Was he still pretending they’d met up to go skiing and just happened to fall into bed together?
‘I mean, we couldn’t hold ourselves back!’ he added when he saw her confusion thickening with each utterance.
Why should they hold back when the whole point of the trip was to not have to?
Ester knew words and actions were never accidental and spent a minute wondering if she should indeed give more weight to this constant friction with reality that his words communicated, these two scripts he was shuttling between. Was he trying to tell her something that should already be clear to her?
He was indeed, but Ester couldn’t see that, during this tryst in which they’d gained carnal knowledge of each other, Olof Sten’s every statement was made so that he and an imagined audience would find it plausible that what had happened between him and Ester Nilsson was an accident in which he was barely involved. It eased the blame. People like this have never done anything, they’ve been done to. Olof Sten was one of these people. He also believed that reality was created through statements. He’d studied neither Wittgenstein’s language-games, Austin’s performative utterances nor Butler’s development of these, and it wasn’t necessary. It was enough that they’d studied him, so to speak, that the philosophers of language were hot on the heels of the human psyche’s patterns.
Ester had cleared her palate of the dumpling and pushed her plate away when she said:
‘You asked me to come here. Why should we have held back?’
‘We did make the decision together, didn’t we?’ he replied quickly with a hint of indignation.
After lunch they finally made their way to the village. They began with the old church. It was empty, beautiful in the way that old churches are. In it hung a painting by Hugo Simberg that Ester knew well. It had been a source of inspiration for Hugo Rask and he’d shown her reproductions and an essay he’d written on its composition and historical background. She said this to Olof in the church. He listened somewhat absently and seemed confused as to why she thought he’d want to know this.
They stayed in the church for only a few minutes and then Olof wanted to press on. He got it into his head that they should borrow the theatre’s car and go away somewhere, but after five kilometres he realized that the road was just going to keep winding endlessly through the subarctic Lappish wilds. They turned around and drove back the way they came. Ester couldn’t tell if Olof felt distant or plagued by a far too strong sense of being present. They parked the car and walked to a log cabin selling Lapland kitsch; Olof rummaged restlessly through the items—butter knives made of birch branded with curlicues, knitted sweaters in bright Sami colours, birch bark trinkets, ceremonial drums in miniature—and said he wanted to buy something, anything, to commemorate the day.
Commemorate the day? Was the day important to him? Was this why he was so out of sorts? Her devotion to him rose to its old heights.
Empty-handed, they went to a tall, vast market tent nearby. Homemade cinnamon buns and cheap jeans with wide seats, shaggy sweaters and warm slippers were on offer. Ester’s gaze landed on a display of simple cotton reels in every possible colour. They cost fifteen kronor, would last a lifetime and had a colour for every imaginable garment she would ever buy. She picked up one packet. Olof decided he had to have the same, but once at the register found he had no cash and asked Ester to cover the fifteen kronor.
Each holding their packet of cotton reels, they went on their way and the devotion that had flared extinguished itself just as quickly. Olof buying the cotton reels was an awful sign. He should have thought of the cotton reels as belonging to her, to be placed in a sewing kit that they soon would share. He was displaying no natural inclination to start a life with Ester. This pained her.
Or was it the other way around? Was he trying to keep how close he was to starting a life with Ester at bay, and because change was difficult for him, he had bought his own set of cotton reels to ward off the pain of the break-up? This would explain the twisting worry that seemed to have been tormenting him from the first moment in Arvidsjaur.
They were at the crossing on the main road, trying to decide whether or not to go back to the hotel, when out of the blue, Olof wrapped his arms around Ester and said:
‘How I’ve been longing for you.’
‘So, so much. Just to be able to push myself inside you. I’ve been rock-hard for three weeks.’
They went back to the hotel. This time it was exactly as Ester had pictured it, except the sheets were wrinkled, not freshly ironed. After their lusts were satisfied, Olof wanted to rest. He rolled over and Ester snuggled against him. He asked her to keep a little distance, to stay on her side of the bed.
‘I’m not used to having someone so close when I sleep.’
Outside the hotel windows, you couldn’t see where the shore ended and the forest lake began, everything was the same shade of white. White but dark. Ester read while Olof rested. She reached for the nape of his neck, but didn’t dare touch him, her hand hovered a centimetre from his skin, close enough to feel his heat.
Not used to it, she thought. Doesn’t sound like a particularly sensual relationship.
At the edge of town lay a modest ski hut. They drove there the next day. They waxed their skis and strapped them on.
They skied the first hundred metres together, Ester behind Olof. This didn’t sit well with her, she was at once uncomfortable and irritated. In her youth, Ester Nilsson had competed in orienteering and in the wintertime she’d kept in shape with cross-country skiing, though she had never really liked it, it was too monotonous. Even twenty years on, her skiing technique was unassailable. That made it easy for her to reach speeds she simply couldn’t maintain.
She deliberated: ‘Going skiing together’ could mean you were out in the forest at the same time; it didn’t have to mean you were doing it side by side. And if she was going to spend time doing something as unnecessary as skiing when they’d finally coupled she might as well get in a work-out. Besides, Olof wouldn’t want her on his tail scrutinizing his technique, she thought.
So she chose a different track and skied away from Olof. Really going for it.
After just a few kilometres, her lungs were about to burst. She’d been on a steep incline, and at the crown of the hill she stopped and slumped on her poles, exhausted, heart racing.
The scene embedded itself in her senses and everywhere else memories are stored: the taste of blood that comes with exertion, the dry creaking snow, the tall pines, the shards of cold in her lungs, the forest’s mighty silence, the scentless freeze, the desolate trail, the pointlessness of the endeavour.
What was she doing here—worn out on this five-kilometre trail in Arvidsjaur that resembled any other five-kilometre trail she’d ever been on—when she could have been gliding forth in peace and quiet with the person she would do anything to be near? What was going on with her?
After forty-five minutes and two dutiful laps, she was back at the waxing hut. There was Olof, putting on a dry undershirt. They didn’t say much. He didn’t comment on Ester having zipped off, but she sensed suppressed resentment. They got into the car and drove to the hotel.
Ester showered first. When she came out of the bathroom, Olof’s phone rang.
‘It’s Ebba,’ he said tensely. ‘What should I do?’
‘I suppose you should answer it.’
‘But I can’t talk to her while you’re in the room.’
He let it ring and went out into the corridor. One minute later, hardly more, he returned, relaxed and happy. After a moment of hotel-silence Ester asked what Olof had in store for them. The day before, he’d casually introduced her to his young colleagues in the ensemble when they ran into them in the hallway. The colleagues were aware of Ebba’s existence, they must be wondering, Ester said. How did he see things unfolding? Olof stiffened.
‘What do you mean, “unfolding”?’
‘Aren’t you afraid they’ll talk?’
‘But they won’t tell her.’
No, of course not, Ester thought. They wouldn’t talk to her. But they’d talk to others and then the talk would be on its way and in the end, if Ebba was lucky, it would reach her.
But this isn’t what she had wanted to talk about. She wanted to know when he was going to tell Ebba that he’d met someone else.
Olof sat in the armchair and looked at the ceiling.
‘Maybe she’s got something going on, too,’ he said with a fullness in his voice that could have been mistaken for reflection.
‘But what do I care,’ he added.
For a person who was in the middle of a break-up and at the start of a new relationship, this was precisely the wrong thing to say.
It was for dinner, this Saturday dinner in Arvidsjaur, that Ester had bought the new jacket and blouse. White with floral embroidery, far too summery for February but so beautiful she couldn’t resist. Olof noticed that the blouse was new and touched a flower on her sleeve. He said that it was odd to see her in florals but that the blouse was lovely and he liked the way Ester dressed. The dinner took place in the hotel’s dining room where they’d eaten lunch the day before. The room was decorated in light pine with rippling fabrics and lacked character.
The dinner became a test.
During the early part, Olof sat there answering his wife’s texts while waiting for their food and then between bites. He smiled as he read them and the smile lingered as he typed his replies. Sometimes he laughed.
Ester was so dismayed she couldn’t put words to it, for if she did it wouldn’t have been feasible to share a room with Olof that night. Not even a death in the family could have made her touch her phone during dinner with him. But her situation was different to Olof’s. She wasn’t married. She convinced herself that he was texting to keep his wife happy and unwitting, so that she wouldn’t grow suspicious about a change in his behaviour and ruin their weekend now that it had finally come to pass. Olof was answering Ebba’s texts now so that later he would be left in peace with the woman he loved and wanted to be with.
There was another interpretation of which she was vaguely aware and rejected in full: that it was especially important now – after such large concessions had been made – to show his mistress that it wasn’t to her he belonged, but to his wife, so Ester wouldn’t get it into her head that she had any power here even if he’d displayed weakness by needing her physically.
She ate her food in silence. She ate and ate. When Olof finally noted how deep her dejection had become, he set aside his phone and didn’t touch it again. He followed her gaze out of the window. The shift was instantaneous. Now it was just the two of them. Together, they took in the winter night from the dining room of the Hotel Laponia. They shared a view, shared a dinner, the wife was gone and he was compensating her generously.
‘It doesn’t get better than this,’ he said. ‘The most beautiful winter outside, toasty inside, a tasty dinner and in bed, a woman you love . . . making love to.’
Ester was sure that there was a pause between ‘love’ and ‘making love to’. He said he loved her. There was a pause there, she hadn’t misheard, ‘in bed, a woman you love’. Olof definitely paused after ‘love’ before he realized that it was a dangerous sentence to utter, one which he might need to account for. Making love was objective fact. As for love, only he could know. His words alone were the proof. And so he added a pause and ‘making love to’.
She offered a faint smile.
Olof was wrong about one thing, she thought. The dinner was not tasty. It was anything but: industrial, ready-made and then shipped through the interior of Norrland. In order to fill the growing void, she consumed more than the flavour warranted and her hunger demanded. There was cheesecake for dessert, this too from a package and a conveyor belt. She ate the entire piece, sensing the touch of mass-production over everything here, even over her and Olof, the two of them, far from home during their tryst, slick with the sleaze of sneaking around.
Olof paid the bill, which ended up being quite expensive. He said that because Ester had travelled all the way to Arvidsjaur to be with him it was only fair he paid for the food.
They went back to the room. Ester felt over-stuffed and alienated but that disappeared the second they were in each other’s arms, which they were and continued to be late into the night. The next morning, too, was devoted to erotic enjoyments. As Olof lay atop Ester looking into her eyes, where he couldn’t elude the lack of reservation, he whispered to her:
‘This will never work. I’m too boring. You’ll tire of me.’
An hour later, he drove her to the airport.
Soon he would move on to another town in Norrland. Ester asked which one and promptly forgot. She usually remembered such things—places, dates, times—but this she forgot because it wasn’t what she was wondering. There were other answers she was after.
Olof’s hand was on her thigh for the entire journey, except when he changed gear. The forest around them was as still and white as when she’d arrived two days ago and the ploughed snowbanks even higher. The trees were wearing hats and overcoats.
Olof parked the car and accompanied her to the departure hall.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he said and held her, rocking from side to side.
‘Do you think we’ll see each other again?’
‘There’s a risk we might.’
His body. It was her downfall. She didn’t want to be without it even though his frustrating ambivalence was constantly in play, even as they said goodbye.
‘We’ll see each other in Stockholm,’ he clarified.
And she flew home. Then she walked from Central Station to Kungsholmen, the boot digging into her Achilles tendon. In Stockholm, all the snow had melted. It was dark outside and dark inside. She felt the desolation and latent despair, started making calls; no one but Fatima answered, though she’d left calling her till last. She was the most principled and least accommodating. A few years before Fatima had had a drawn-out relationship with a married man in which she’d been tossed between euphoria and misery. Now she was married and had two small children who were allowed to endlessly insist on her attention when she was on the phone, something Ester endured with equanimity, aware as she was that she took up too much of people’s valuable time and energy. Fatima told Ester that once people got physical, expectations could develop. From this point forward, Ester had rights. Ester knew her other girlfriends would have given more tactical advice, but just then she thought there was really something to this notion of rights.
Spurred by the charge to make demands, if only as an excuse to speak to Olof and tell him that she already missed him, she called him that very night. He was watching TV with the volume on high, was dull-voiced, and didn’t lower the sound.
‘Am I interrupting?’ she asked.
‘I’m watching the news.’
She fell silent, waiting for insight to strike him.
‘Do you want to keep watching the news?’
‘I can watch while we talk. Was it nice to get home?’
‘No, of course not. It was awful.’
‘Really? Aha. Yeah.’
He sounded self-conscious yet distant, or as one does when one wishes to keep a certain someone and her menacing intimacies at bay.
‘Are you in another hotel room now?’
‘Yes. It’s nice. Good TV.’
‘I can hear that.’
A few times in conjunction with the production in Västerås the previous autumn, Ester had seen Olof and his wife interact. Each time she’d noticed his wife’s sarcasm. Everyone who knew the couple could testify to the noxious verbal discharges Ebba Silfversköld directed at her husband, and at others. Ester had taken this as a sign of her spiritual hollowness and how bad they had it. Malice and sarcasm couldn’t co-exist with a loving disposition; they were the antechambers of dead relationships, they were contempt shirking from the light, cowardice piggybacking on aggression.
Or they were the final defence of the disappointed and hurt against unjust indifference. Now, during this stifling conversation, Ester understood Olof’s wife’s sarcasm. She sensed in herself a corrosive contagion, heard it hissing in her words.
‘I’m going to bed soon,’ Olof said.
‘Will you sleep well?’
‘Like a rock.’
Olof didn’t enquire, said nothing, kept watching the news.
‘Have you eaten dinner?’ Ester asked.
‘The whole gang went to a pizzeria.’
When she didn’t ask a question, the conversation came to a halt.
‘What kind of pizza did you have?’
‘Yeah. One of those rolls with oozing cheese.’
‘With flakes of oregano on top?’
‘I didn’t notice. Maybe.
‘Was it good?’
‘Did you have a nice time?’
‘Yes. They’re a nice bunch to travel with.’
‘Did any of them ask about us? About you and me.’
‘So no one commented on my visit?’
‘I can’t say that they did.’
‘Why would we talk about it?’
‘It’s nobody else’s business.’
‘Well it certainly is somebody else’s business, but perhaps not your touring theatre company’s, no.’
Olof’s irritation rose, stood at attention.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ said Ester.
‘Of course you can take it like that.’
‘Something unpleasant is coming.’
Ester refrained from saying anything until she regained her self-control.
‘Maybe you want to turn the volume down?’
She readied herself. She knew she shouldn’t say what she was going to say but thought it had to be said, and remembered her rights.
‘I’ve been the mistress before. I have no intention of being one again.’
And after a pause, to avoid any misunderstanding:
‘I want to be with you in a real way.’
The TV could no longer be heard, but Olof’s breathing was louder.
‘You have to choose,’ said Ester.
The words echoed and clattered. She knew she wasn’t ready to back them up by desisting, which rendered them worthless.
Olof’s rage arrived quickly as rage does.
‘So I’m supposed to end things with Ebba right away or what?! Tonight? Or when the fuck do you mean? You want me to call her right now? Huh?’
He made the thought sound absurd. For Ester, it was absurd that the thought was absurd. She said that Olof had had six months to think about it.
‘What do you mean, six months? Think about what?’
She felt ice cold, and when she was cold, he was hot.
Regretting the outburst, Olof wished her a good night. She would not have one, but the sentiment itself was enough to keep her hooked.
–Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel
From Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson. Used with permission of Other Press. Translation copyright © 2018 by Saskia Vogel.