With work on the article over, Ester and Hugo carried on seeing each other at least one evening a week. They had dinner at the restaurant, their conversation was inexhaustible, and afterward he almost always invited her up to the studio, where they went on talking, but never to his flat, which was in the same building but on the other side of the courtyard. She wondered why nothing was happening. They seemed to be marking time, though the direction was clear enough. She despaired at the thought that it might amount to no more than this and asked him in a text message: “Can’t you say something about how you feel?” He replied with an aphorism, sufficiently cryptic not to put him under any obligation. “A human is a joy to another human.” She thought dismally: “A human is a wolf to another human.”
She wondered whether it had been utter madness for her, neither reflecting nor agonizing and propelled purely by emotions, to leave a well-functioning relationship in order to step out into this void. The fact was that she shunned ennui, always had done. She would rather endure torment than tedium, would rather be alone than in a group of people making small talk. Not because she disliked the small-talkers, but because they absorbed too much energy. Small talk drained her. Perhaps, she debated with herself, she had engineered falling in love with Hugo because she had imperceptibly grown bored and needed this anxiety intermingled with hope and a bliss that was absolute, in order to feel alive.
But now the very air she breathed seemed alarmingly desolate.
There was something holding him back. Perhaps there were unknown obstacles. It struck her that the phenomenon of no just cause or impediment to marriage must have arisen to dispel precisely such qualms. She had thought of it as a meaningless concept from an irrational age. But presumably it was to avoid exactly this sort of situation that the question had existed. The strict rules then governing life together were in actual fact far more rational, in the sense of being properly planned and thought out, than this idiocy of caprice and sentiment into which she had thrown herself and to which all modern-day people were consigned. No rules, no traditions, no crutches to lean on, nothing.
She could not comprehend how she would live through it if this were to end in any way other than their becoming lovers, mutually agreeing that they belonged together.
Every other weekend, Hugo went away. He said he was going to Borås, where his frail mother lived, but there was something about these trips to Borås that did not quite add up. There was an unusual vacuum around them, the way unusual vacuums usually surround lies. The baffling thing was that there was no reason to doubt that the trips were genuine, in the same way that there was no reason he should name a place where he was not going. But there was still something not quite right.
On one of the evenings when they met over food and wine and then went back to his studio, she saw a train ticket sticking out of the inside pocket of his jacket, which was hanging on the back of a chair. When he went to the toilet she got up and walked round the room, looked at the art works on the walls and gave the ticket a slight tweak, so light that it hardly counted as an act.
The ticket was from the previous weekend. Stockholm–Malmö return, it said. Not a hint of Borås.
Once she had recovered she told herself that it was good news. The fact that he was keeping quiet about his long-distance relationship, for that must be what he had in Malmö, indicated that it was winding down and there was a good chance he would make a change.
A few days before Christmas Eve, Ester texted Hugo to ask if she could drop by with a Christmas present. He replied that he was taking the night train to Malmö-Copenhagen that night but she was welcome to pop in for a while before he left for the station. Something had now prompted him to give the correct geographical location, albeit with an attempt to make it more diffuse by the addition of Copenhagen, or to make it sound more interesting and metropolitan.
Ester thought this new honesty must spring from a feeling of greater closeness. If you were close, you did not want to lie. Lying demands a certain amount of dehumanization, at least at that moment. Lying is a carapace. Not to lie when the temptation exists is to render oneself naked.
There were banks of snow in the center of Stockholm and icicles hung from the roofs. Happily anticipating their short encounter but uneasy about the weeks of Christmas ahead and the uncertain future, she picked her way along the slippery sidewalks with her Christmas present.
He offered her some red wine although it was barely five. The conversation flowed easily. Their words were welding sparks and attended by weightless laughs. She felt at home, comfortable and content. It was with him she wanted to be, anywhere in the world as long as it was with him.
His suitcase was packed and ready. She gave him her present, carefully chosen and purchased at the secondhand bookshop.
“Is it good?” he asked when he had opened the parcel to reveal the novel Maj: A Love Story by Jan Myrdal.
“Outstanding,” said Ester.
“Myrdal’s important,” he said. “An important thinker.”
“I perhaps wouldn’t recommend him as a thinker,” said Ester. “But his language is extraordinarily effective and he’s clear-sighted on questions of the human heart without ever getting syrupy or soft. How can one portray a human being from the inside in language or imagery without the transmission process introducing a false note? That’s the question. Metaphorizing feelings can only lead away from those feelings. With Myrdal, one feels what they experience as if one were experiencing it oneself.”
“Feelings are something one should be wary of portraying,” said Hugo. “I mean, it’s all about manipulating the recipient into feeling what you want them to feel. That isn’t achieved by showing the feelings in question, but by evoking them. Which calls for entirely different means.”
“I think the basic problem is that we interpret others’ actions in behaviorist terms, objectively and from the outside. We interpret our own in phenomenological terms, from within our own consciousness. That’s the human dilemma. And that’s why we all have such extensive understanding of our own actions and so little of others’.”
He refilled her glass and then his own, and said:
“Isn’t it more the opposite: people are terribly self-critical, too quick to understand others while condemning themselves?”
“You think so? It’s not something I’ve noticed, I must say.”
“Or at least, only as a flattering veneer, compensation for the aggression we feel toward other people. But in this book, Myrdal actually succeeds in being both phenomenological and behaviorist without letting us see how he does it.”
He gave her a benign look, with a cautious kind of smile. “You think that is its mystique?”
Ester felt embarrassed. She loved him so much that it hurt all over.
“How long will you be away?” she said.
“About two weeks.”
“That’s a long time.”
He remained silent, hesitated, was on the verge of saying something but stopped himself.
“Just at the moment I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. I simply don’t know. I might go up to Leksand for a bit, too.”
“Leksand. To your house?”
“I go there when I want to be on my own and think.”
He turned away and started fiddling with something in a cupboard, restless movements with no purpose. She thought he had just sent her a veiled enquiry, a covert question about whether it would be safe for him to make the break from his woman, the one he was possibly going to see in Malmö. Would Ester be there for him, if he did? Was he asking, with his “don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” whether he could trust her or whether she was toying with him? Was he in fact the one who felt vulnerable and not the other way round? It had not occurred to her until now.
She gave him a seasonal peck on the cheek and left, levitating through the streets among the crowds of Christmas shoppers.
She told her mother none of this. Her mother would have thought it unseemly. A little decorum was required, none of this throwing oneself from one thing to another. It was particularly important to leave “attached men” alone. Admittedly all the indications until very recently had been that Hugo was a free man. There had not been the slightest trace of a liaison except for that train ticket, the strange weekend trips and the vacuum surrounding them.
It was a quiet Christmas. She read The Rebel. It was so difficult that she read each sentence twice. Camus wrote it in protest against Sartre’s revolutionary totalitarianism, a protest that interested her. When a week had passed she could no longer restrain herself and sent a text: “Reading Camus. Revolution is incompatible with the functioning of the human brain. That is, with being human. We cannot deal with the inherent absolutism and abruptness of revolution. Everything a human does is gradual. All her insights, all her thoughts, everything that happens and is said is part of a process, layer upon layer of experience gained. Life itself is lived gradually, by definition, and consciousness is created that way, by evolution. We are drawn to love in order to feel that someone is seeing us.”
She immediately realized that the last sentence was superfluous and high-flown, and out of place. But it was too late; the message had been sent.
No reply was forthcoming, only a crushing anxiety. It intensified as day succeeded day and she heard nothing from him. Her shame at having exposed herself and received no response completely ruined what remained of the holiday period, eating further and further into her nerves. She could not concentrate, told herself to give up, never to care about him or anyone else again, because she could not go on like this. She did not want him! He would be banished from her life!
After the New Year, he was back in Stockholm. She received an e-mail the same day. “I’m back now. If we work well today, we can reward ourselves with dinner tonight.”
Two short sentences and all her anxiety evaporated. She worked willingly all through the day. Then she went to the gym, cycled, ran, showered and made herself look nice. On her way to see him she went into a hotel bar for a drink. She had never done anything like that before. Dressed in a casually elegant pair of trousers, blouse and jacket, she sat in an armchair and had a gin and tonic while she finished reading The Rebel. From the bar she sent a friend a text in which she described the situation and said she felt she was growing up. It was a foolish phrase and a foolish idea, she sensed, but it introduced some poetry into the experience. She thought as she sat there, sipping a drink in a hotel bar and reading a French classic, that these so-called follies existed because they most exactly mirrored a certain type of feeling.
His round face was glowing with delight as she entered his studio on the dot of six. He smelled nice, was freshly shaven, had damp, neatly combed hair and was wearing cleaner, smarter clothes than he normally did.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, beaming.
She was hungry.
“Let’s go then.”
And they went. That evening to the more up-market Sturehof.
From WILLFUL DISREGARD. Used with permission of Other Press. Copyright © 2016 by Lena Andersson. Translation copyright © 2016 by Sarah Death.