There was a knock on the closet door.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Come in!” Anna-Lena called out hopefully, then fell apart when she saw it wasn’t Roger.
“Can I come in?” Julia asked gently.
“What for?” Anna-Lena said with her face turned away, since she considered crying a more private activity than going to the toilet.
“I’m tired of everyone out there. You seem to feel the same. So maybe we have something in common.”
Anna-Lena had to admit to herself that it had been a long time since she’d had anything in common with anyone apart from Roger, and that it sounded rather nice. So she nodded tentatively from her stool, half hidden by a rail full of old-fashioned men’s suits.
“Sorry I’m crying. I know I’m the one who’s in the wrong here.”
Julia looked around for somewhere to sit, and decided to pull out a stepladder from the back of the closet and sit on the lowest step of that. Then she said: “When I got pregnant, the 1rst thing my mom said to me was ‘Now you’ll have to learn to cry in the cupboard, Jules, because children get frightened if you cry in front of them.’”
Anna-Lena wiped her tears and stuck her head out from beneath the suits: “That was the fivst thing your mom said?”
“I was a difficult child, so her sense of humor is rather unusual,” Julia smiled.
Anna-Lena joined in with a weak smile. She nodded warmly toward Julia’s stomach.
“Are you doing okay? I mean, you and… the little one?”
“Oh, yes, thanks. I’m peeing thirty-1ve times a day, I hate socks, and I’m starting to think that terrorists who make bomb threats against public transport are all pregnant women who hate the way people smell on buses. Because people really do smell disgusting. Would you believe that an old guy sitting next to me the other day was eating salami? Salami! On the bus! But thanks, the little one and I are doing 1ne.”
“It’s terrible being held hostage when you’re pregnant, I mean,” Anna-Lena said gently.
“Oh, it’s probably just as bad for you. I’ve just got more to carry.” “Are you very scared of the bank robber?”
Julia shook her head slowly.
“No, I’m not, actually. I don’t even think that pistol’s real, if I’m being honest.”
“Nor me,” Anna-Lena nodded, even though she didn’t really have any idea. “The police will probably be here any minute, if we just stay calm,” Julia
“I hope so,” Anna-Lena nodded.
“The bank robber actually seems more scared than us.” “Yes, you’re probably right about that.”
“How are you doing?”
“I… I don’t really know. I’ve hurt Roger badly.”
“Oh, something tells me you’ve put up with far worse from him over the years, so I doubt you’re even yet.”
“You don’t know Roger. He’s more sensitive than people think. He’s just a bit wedded to his principles.”
“Sensitive and principled, you hear that a lot,” Julia nodded, thinking that it was a good description of all the old men who’ve started wars throughout human history.
“Once a young man with a black beard asked if he could have Roger’s parking space in a car park, and Roger waited twenty minutes before he moved the car. Out of principle!”
“Charming,” Julia said.
“You don’t know him,” Anna-Lena repeated with a blank look on her face. “With all due respect, Anna-Lena—if Roger was as sensitive as you say, he’d
be the one crying in the closet now.”
“He is sensitive… inside. I just can’t understand how… when he saw Lennart, he immediately assumed we were… having an aﬀaiv. How could he think something like that of me?”
Julia was trying to 1nd a comfortable way to sit on the stepladder, and caught a glimpse of her own reAection in the metal. It wasn’t Aattering.
“If Roger thought you were being unfaithful, then he’s the one with the problem, not you.”
Anna-Lena was pressing her hands hard against her thighs to stop her 1ngers shaking. She stopped blinking.
“You don’t know Roger.”
“I knew enough men like him.”
Anna-Lena’s chin moved slowly from side to side.
“He waited twenty minutes before he moved the car out of principle. Because on the news that morning there was a man, a politician, who said we ought to stop helping immigrants. That they just come here thinking they can get everything for free, and that a society can’t work like that. He swore a lot, and said they’re all the same, people like that. And Roger had voted for the party that man belonged to, you see. Roger has very 1rm ideas about the economy and fuel taxes and things like that, he doesn’t like it when Stockholmers turn up and decide how everyone outside Stockholm should live. And he can be very sensitive. Sometimes he expresses himself a bit harshly, I’ll admit that, but he has his principles. No one can say he hasn’t got principles. And that particular day, after he’d heard that politician say that, we were in a shopping mall, it was just before Christmas so the car park was completely full when we got back to the car. Long, long queues. And that young man with the black beard, he saw us walking back to our car and wound his window down and asked if we were leaving, and if he could have our space if we were.”
By now Julia was ready to get up and turn the walk-in closet into a walk-out closet.
“Do you know what, Anna-Lena? I don’t think I want to hear the rest of that story…”
Anna-Lena nodded understandingly, this certainly wasn’t the 1rst time someone had said that about her stories. But she was so used to thinking out loud now that she 1nished it anyway.
“There were so many cars there that it took the young man twenty minutes to get to the part of the garage where we were parked. Roger refused to move the car until he got there. He had two little children in the back of the car, I hadn’t noticed, but Roger had. When we drove away I told Roger I was proud of him, and he replied that it didn’t mean he’d changed his mind about the economy or fuel taxes or Stockholmers. But then he said that he realized that in that young man’s eyes, Roger must look just like that politician on television, they were the same age, had the same color hair, the same dialect, and everything. And Roger didn’t want the man with the beard to think that meant they were all exactly the same.”
Anna-Lena wiped her nose with the sleeve of one of the suit jackets, and wished it had been Roger’s.
It’s worth pointing out that Julia was trying to stand up while this anecdote was being related, a maneuver that took a fair amount of time, so it took just as long for her to slump back into a seated position again. Only then did she open her mouth, and at 1rst the only sound that emerged was a breathless cough, before she burst out laughing.
“That’s simultaneously the sweetest and most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in a very long time, Anna-Lena.”
The tip of the other woman’s nose moved up and down in embarrassment. “We argue a lot about politics, Roger and I, we have very diPerent opinions,
but you can always… I think you can understand someone without necessarily agreeing with them, if you see what I mean? And I know people sometimes think Roger’s a bit of an idiot, but he isn’t always an idiot in the way people assume.”
Julia admitted: “Ro and I also vote for diPerent parties.”
She thought of adding that Ro was a deluded hippie when it came to politics, and that you don’t always discover that sort of thing until a couple of months into a relationship, but decided against it. Because it was actually perfectly possible to love each other despite that.
Anna-Lena wiped her whole face on the jacket sleeve.
“I should never have gone behind Roger’s back! He was very good at his job, he should have been one of the bosses, but he never got the chance. And now he gets so upset when he doesn’t… win. I want him to feel like a winner. So I called that ‘No Boundaries Lennart,’ and to start with I told myself it would only be the one time… but it gets easier every time you do it. You tell yourself that… well, of course, you’re young, so it’s hard to believe, but… the lie gets easier each time. I told myself I was doing it for Roger’s sake, but of course it was for my own sake. I’ve decorated so many apartments to make them look just like a home is supposed to look, so that someone can come to the viewing and think ‘Oh, this is where I want to live!’ I just wish that I could be that person one day. Settling somewhere again. Roger and I haven’t lived anywhere properly for such a long time. We’ve just been… passing through.”
“How long have you been together?” “Since I was nineteen.”
Julia thought about the question for a long time before 1nally asking: “How do you do it?”
Anna-Lena replied without thinking at all: “You love each other until you can’t live without each other. And even if you stop loving each other for a little while, you can’t… you can’t live without each other.”
Julia says nothing for several minutes. Her own mom lived on her own, but Ro’s parents had been married for forty years. No matter how much Julia loved Ro, that thought occasionally horri1ed her. Forty years. How can you love someone that long? Gesturing vaguely toward the walls of the closet, she smiled to Anna-Lena: “My wife drives me crazy. She wants to make wine and store cheese in here.”
Anna-Lena poked her tear-streaked face out between two pairs of suit pants made of the same fabric, and replied as if she were revealing an embarrassing
secret: “Sometimes Roger drives me crazy, too. He uses our hairdryer to… well, you can guess… he sticks it under his towel. That’s not how you’re supposed to use a hairdryer… not there. That makes me want to scream!”
“Urgh! Ro does exactly the same thing. It’s so disgusting it makes me feel sick.”
Anna-Lena bit her lip.
“I have to admit that I’d never thought of that. That you might have problems like that. I always assumed it would be easier if you lived with a… woman.”
Julia burst out laughing.
“You don’t fall in love with a gender, Anna-Lena. You fall in love with an idiot.”
Anna-Lena started laughing as well, much louder than she usually did. Then they looked at each other. Anna-Lena was twice Julia’s age, but they had a lot in common just then. Both married to idiots who didn’t know the diPerence between diPerent types of hair. Anna-Lena looked at Julia’s stomach and smiled.
“When’s it due?”
“Any time now! Do you hear that, you little alien?” Julia replied, half to Anna-Lena and half to her little alien.
Anna-Lena didn’t seem to understand the reference, but she closed her eyes and said: “We have a son and a daughter. They’re your age. But they don’t want kids of their own. Roger’s taken it badly. You might not think it if you meet him like this, if you don’t really know him, but he’d be a good grandfather if he got the chance.”
“There’s still plenty of time for that, isn’t there?” Julia wondered, mostly because if those children were the same age as her, she didn’t want to be old enough to be an old mom.
Anna-Lena shook her head sadly.
“No, they’ve made up their minds. And of course that’s their choice, that’s… that’s how it is these days. My daughter says the world is already overpopulated, and she’s worried about climate change. I don’t know why ordinary anxieties aren’t enough. Does anyone really need something new to worry about?”
“Is that why she doesn’t want kids?”
“Yes, that’s what she says. Unless I’ve misunderstood. I probably have. But maybe it would be good for the environment if there weren’t quite so many people, I don’t know. I just wish Roger could feel important again.”
Julia didn’t seem to follow the logic. “Grandchildren would make him feel important?” Anna-Lena smiled weakly.
“Have you ever held a three-year-old by the hand on the way home from preschool?”
“You’re never more important than you are then.”
They sit there with nothing more to say, shivering slightly in the draft. Neither of them thinks to wonder where it’s coming from.