The following is from Jensen Beach’s short story collection, Swallowed by the Cold. Beach is also the author of the collection For Out of the Heart Proceed. His work has appeared in A Public Space, the New Yorker, Ninth Letter, Tin House, and elsewhere. He teaches in the BFA program at Johnson State College and lives in Vermont with his family.
She was running up a gentle rise in the path toward him. Henrik worked with her husband, Peter, and had met her several times, so he recognized her immediately. When they’d passed each other, he slowed down and turned, sensing she’d done the same. It was unusual for him to stop his run to talk with someone he knew, even if he knew that person well, but the morning had been pleasant and he was in a good mood in spite of the approaching clouds, and she’d smiled at him in such a way that he thought he should stop to say hello. They each waved, Henrik walking back up the hill and Helle down it.
“You’re out running,” he said when he felt he was close enough for her to hear him.
“I am,” she said. “You too.”
“I didn’t know you ran,” he said. He rested one of his feet on a root near the edge of the path.
She laughed. There was a teasing lilt to her laugh and he felt at once close to her. “No,” she said. “How could you?” He breathed in the thick, musty smell of sweat and didn’t know if it was hers or his. “You know runners. I’m surprised you’ve never tried to compare kilometer pace with me.” He smiled at her to indicate he was teasing her back. “I’m not that kind of runner,” she said. “Not yet anyhow. I’ve only just started in the spring.”
“I haven’t been running long either,” he said. This was a lie. He’d been running seriously since his military service. At first he ran to maintain his weight, but it’d long been a compulsion, a part of his life he couldn’t imagine giving up. On average he broke thirty kilometers a week. It made him nervous to try to predict when and in what situations he might need to uphold a lie, and he found himself, without a sense that he could control this action, digging the toe of his running shoe into the dirt in front of him as if he were drawing a line he was daring himself to cross. “It’s something I picked up about a year ago,” he said.
Helle rocked from side to side, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. “Do you often run in the park?” she asked.
“Three times a week in good weather,” he said.
“You must live close to here,” she said. “I don’t think I know where you live.”
“Not far. In Vasastan.”
“I had two hours between meetings this afternoon so I decided to take advantage of the sun.” She indicated toward the sky with her hand. After a clear morning, clouds were al- ready moving in over the city again. It’d been a stormy sum- mer. “We live in Enskede,” she said. A breeze came rustling through the woods beside the path, carrying with it the first leaves of fall and, inexplicably, the smell of a public swimming pool—strongly chlorinated yet mildewed air—a smell that triggered arousal in Henrik. He’d always assumed this arousal had something to do with the summer he and Edvin Forsberg discovered it was possible to see inside the women’s locker room at the Blackeberg Swimming Hall from directly to the right of the water fountain opposite the locker room entrance. “We’ve been there for five years,” Helle said.
“Where’s that?” asked Henrik. He felt himself being pulled from the swimming hall back to the path.
“Enskede,” she said and again laughed at him. “Where Peter and I live.” She bent slightly forward and, raising her left foot behind her, away from him, began to stretch her quadriceps. She reached her right hand out toward him and rested it on his shoulder.
He steadied himself against her weight. Her hand didn’t move but still seemed to pull him to her. “I’d be happy to show you some good trails here in the park,” he said. He knew this would require effort on her part. She’d have to leave work or come to the city specifically to meet him. It thrilled him to test her in this way. “If you have the time,” he added.
She dropped her foot to the path and raised the other, this time placing her left hand on his shoulder. Her eyes were level with his lips. “I’d like that,” she said. He knew then he would be unable to keep himself away from her. She was an unknown shape in a dark room he couldn’t help but reach his hand out toward.
The affair went on for three weeks before Helle agreed to sleep with him. Several times he suggested taking a room at a hotel in the city but each time he did she refused, saying she wanted to wait. For what, he didn’t know. They ran together on Wednesdays. He had to slow his pace to keep from running away from her. They spoke openly and intimately on these runs and on occasion they met at the classic rock bar in the city, where it was nearly too loud to talk, but where they were certain no one either of them knew would ever come.
They shared an unhappiness that they’d only met now, after they were each married and not while they were in school and still single. In fact, they’d overlapped at Uppsala for two years. The student organization Henrik chaired had frequently hosted banquets and lectures on campus, and Helle attended many of these. There was a chance they may have met at one. It seemed almost cruel, she told him once, that they had not. When she asked him if he would have loved her had they known each other then, Henrik always answered that he would have even though he believed more in circumstance than in fate. Had they known each other under the right circumstances at Uppsala, yes, he would have loved her, but that he would have loved her then because he loved her now was, he knew, a fallacy.
In early September, Peter was selected to attend a meeting in Copenhagen and Henrik was not. Ordinarily, this would have distressed him, as it might seem to indicate his standing at work was in question, but then Helle called to ask if he was planning on attending the meeting.
“I haven’t been asked to go,” he told her.
“Good,” she said. “Tell Lisa you have been and come to my house at seven. You’ll stay the night.”
He’d expected more from the house. A long crack beneath a second-floor window zigzagged down to a gray mass of dusty concrete where a piece of stucco, roughly the shape of Africa, had fallen from the wall. The flowerbed that lined the front walk needed weeding, and in the far top corner of the garage door, he saw a patch of mold-softened wood that had been sloppily painted over. He checked his watch. At precisely seven o’clock, he opened the front gate and made his way up the walk. The oak in the center of the lawn had dropped many of its leaves and he listened to his shoes grinding the dried leaves into the stones. He looked up at the tree, relieved that it was not his to clean up after. Part of the monthly fees at his apartment building covered what little yard work needed to be done there. He hadn’t mowed a lawn or raked leaves since he was a child at his parents’ house in Eskilstuna. Even at his summerhouse in Elmsta, he paid two local boys, twins, a thousand kronor a month to do the yard work.
At the door, he couldn’t decide whether to ring the bell or knock. He settled on both, which he did in quick succession. Helle was smiling at him when she opened the door. She had on a black dress. Her hair was down. He shifted the flowers and wine he’d brought to his left hand, and kissed her hello.
Inside the house was warm, decorated simply. The walls of the living room were white and the rug in the center of the dark hardwood floor was white. He thought the floor might be walnut. He knew very little about design but the house re- minded him of something he might see on television. He felt at home. They moved farther into the house. Helle had already set the table. Various cocktail glasses and bottles had been arranged on a small table near the door between the kitchen and the dining room. She walked past the table on her way to the kitchen. With the flowers, she pointed. “Help yourself to something to drink.”
Henrik poured himself a splash of scotch over a single ice cube. He sipped the scotch, taking care to pace himself, and listened to Helle bring a vase down from a cupboard and run the water. He couldn’t see her but knew by the sound what she was doing. “Can I make something for you?” he said into the kitchen.
“Just wine for me, thanks,” she said. “I’ve already opened a bottle in here.” She came back into the dining room with her wine glass in one hand and the flower vase in the other. She placed the vase at the center of the dining table, adjusted its position once, stepped back from the table, paused, and stepped forward again, moving the vase slightly to the left. “They’re beautiful,” she said.
Henrik thought so too, though he couldn’t tell what difference moving the vase had made. He took another sip of his drink. “Yes,” he said.
The salmon she’d prepared was very good, and the wine she’d chosen matched the fish well. The asparagus was crisp. The potatoes reminded him of the early summer. With every bite, Henrik felt assured of his presence. He was happy to be with Helle, happy to act, however temporarily, as though they weren’t hiding their relationship. Until now, it hadn’t occurred to him that he’d felt any anxiety about the nature of their affair. He spent a good deal of his energy, of course, concealing it from his wife and from Peter, but he’d always known that if it became too difficult to keep up the lie he’d simply stop, which meant, now that he thought of it, he’d been unafraid to lose Helle. He hadn’t at all taken her seriously. But now, in her house, he began to imagine that this could be his life. It very well could be his life. He and Lisa didn’t have children. There was nothing to stop him from leaving her. She was young and attractive and had a good job. She’d find someone else. There was a man at Lisa’s work, Tomas or Patrik or David, whom he knew she found attractive. Perhaps she’d already met someone of her own. This sort of thing happened all the time. People grew tired of one another.
After dinner she opened the bottle of red wine he’d brought. They moved from the dining room to the couch. More than once, Henrik looked to the table, its empty plates and flickering candles, and tried to imagine what he might be thinking five, ten years in the future when looking at a similar scene. Would he feel the same happiness? Would he remember this day? It was September tenth. Helle reminded him of the date when she brought up Anna Lindh. It was the day before the five-year anniversary of Lindh’s assassination and Helle was curious, she said, to see how the media would address the issue. Anna Lindh was the foreign minister in 2003, widely expected to be next prime minister when Göran Persson’s second term expired. She was stabbed to death in the NK department store while out shopping with a friend.
The music stopped playing and Helle got up from the couch to put it back on. She stood at the computer, her back to him. “Same music fine with you?
“Of course,” he said. “Anything at all.” He was feeling a little drunk, but pleasantly so.
“In the last five years,” Helle said, returning to the couch, “there’s been a change, don’t you think? We’re less safe.” She paused here and retrieved her wine glass from the coffee table. “Or maybe it’s only that we know now just how unsafe we are,” she said.
She stretched her leg out toward him and rested her foot in his lap. Henrik massaged her foot with his free hand. He took a sip of his wine. After he swallowed, he said, “Well, I feel safe.” He didn’t mean to disagree with her, but the idea that he could feel anything other than happy at that moment seemed strange.
“That’s not the point,” she said. He felt the weight of her foot on his leg. Her heel pressed into his thigh. Even his shortcomings—his affair with Helle especially—had seemed to him part of the man he was supposed to be, and he’d found comfort in this. It was who he was and that felt safe. He did his best to ignore the rising anxious feeling in his chest. “The point is that the possibility exists now. Obviously, it always has. Anna Lindh was killed after all. But what I mean is, we understand now, all of us do, that such things happen. We live terrified of them every day. Even if you won’t admit it.”
“I can see what you mean,” he said.
“It’s a symbol,” she said. “Our 9/11.”
The day of the assassination, Henrik had been at work downtown. He’d worked for Nordea Bank then and was at the branch office next door to NK. The stabbing occurred in the late afternoon. The department store had been closed immediately and a large crowd of shoppers and office workers gathered in front. He could see them from his window. The news of Lindh’s stabbing was everywhere that afternoon. Colleagues of his refreshed news websites repeatedly, eagerly shouting out any developments. Just before five, he’d left the office. He re- membered being annoyed that a crowd had gathered near the scene of the murder, where very little actual information might be found, delaying his walk to the metro. He felt himself returning to that irritation. “9/11?” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Helle straightened and pulled her foot back from his lap. She smiled at him. It wasn’t an unfriendly smile but it was forced. He noticed for the first time that her teeth were crooked.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said.
“No, you’re right,” she said. “It’s a silly comparison. Some- thing I heard on the radio this afternoon on the way home from work.” She placed her wine glass on the table.
He started to say something about the tsunami in Thai- land and all the Swedish tourists who’d died there but stopped when his phone rang. He was grateful for the interruption. A colleague’s name flashed across the screen. “It’s Lisa,” he told Helle. “I’m going to answer. She’d think it was strange if I didn’t.” They both rose from the couch, Helle heading to- ward the kitchen and Henrik to the hall. The phone continued to ring. He ended the call and held the silent phone to his ear. “This is Henrik,” he said as if he were answering. Helle, holding a plate in each hand, turned and smiled at him be- fore disappearing into the kitchen. “Yes, it’s fine,” he said to the phone. He concentrated on pausing long enough to give the impression that he was listening to Lisa speak. “Every- thing is going well. Just having dinner with Peter and some others.” He knew Helle would be unable to hear him over the music. Still, he continued speaking. “My flight is at noon to- morrow. I should be home by four.” Helle passed into view again. She leaned over the table and blew out the candles. He watched her leave the room with more dishes. “Yes,” Henrik said, “I love you too.”
On his way to the kitchen, he stopped and picked up the single remaining plate from the table. This he set on the counter beside Helle, who had begun washing the dishes. Their forks and knives were laid in a neat line on a white dishtowel next to the sink. He kissed her neck. Simple domestic gestures with Helle had always been exciting to him, more forbidden somehow than sex. “Can I help?” He reached for the towel she had over her shoulder.
“Don’t,” she said, placing a washed plate, facedown, to the right of the silverware. “I’m nearly done. We’ll leave what’s left for the morning.”
He watched her rinse a few more dishes and place them on the counter as well. She slowly patted her hands dry and took a last sip of her wine before emptying the glass and set- ting it in the sink. Henrik placed his glass there too. He kissed her again and she smiled at him coolly.
She led him to the bedroom. She lit a candle on her bedside table. “Turn off the light,” she said. He did and in the candlelight watched her shadowed figure undress in front of him. He would have liked to see her body more clearly, but felt nervous to ask for this.
They made love, and apart from a single incident in which he pushed his elbow into her ribs and worried that he’d hurt her, he enjoyed himself and was again happy.
When they were done he lay in the warm sheets, the pillow uncomfortably tucked under his neck. The air in the room was cool. Her bed smelled unfamiliar. He’d almost fallen asleep when all at once the pain in his neck became overwhelming. He lifted his head and reached to adjust the pillow. The pain he felt and the actions he took to relieve it reminded him of the look she’d given him when he’d pressed his elbow into her ribs. They’d been on their sides and Helle turned over so that her back was to him; he moved to reposition himself on top of her, but as he did so, his arm became pinned beneath his body and hers and he slipped, putting his weight on his other elbow, which pressed into her side. She’d winced and turned to look at him.
Now he couldn’t recall the pleasure of the evening. He couldn’t enjoy how satisfied and enjoyably tired he felt. In- stead, all he thought of was the look of pain on her face. He turned toward her and lifted himself up on his elbow. “I hope I didn’t hurt you,” he said.
He heard her shift to her side. She reached out to him and put her hand on his chest. “Not at all,” she said. “I didn’t feel anything at all.” He knew she was talking about his elbow, but the idea that she might be talking about their lovemaking formed a tickle of panic in his throat and he coughed. He lay back down and didn’t resist when she rested her cheek on his chest and kissed him just below his collarbone.
He slept fitfully. At 6:45 the next morning, the radio turned on to a morning political talk show. The topic of the program was the anniversary of Anna Lindh’s assassination.
The panelists shared Helle’s opinion from the night before that something unidentifiable but important had changed in the past five years. Every terrible accident meant some- thing now. Every tragedy was a sign of another to come. It was a new country. And in it, no one was safe. The panelists discussed party leadership in the Social Democrats. In Anna Lindh’s absence, a clear leader had still not emerged. One of the panelists attributed the conservative victory in the last election to this fact. He felt Helle begin to stir beside him. Maybe she had it right. There was something waiting for him. He didn’t know what it was or when it would happen, but it was there. His thigh itched and he reached his hand beneath the duvet to scratch it. He ran his fingernail over a rough patch of skin where a drop of semen had dried to a flaky tear.
She stretched her arm out toward him and touched his shoulder. “Good morning,” she said. He imagined himself getting out of bed and dressing, leaving the house with a simple apology. As he thought this, it was as though he’d already done it, and he was pleased with himself for making such a decision
“Anniversary,” from SWALLOWED BY THE COLD. Used with permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org. Copyright © 2016 by Jensen Beach.