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from the June 2015 issue

From “The Memory of a Secret”

What do we know about our parents? They’re never anything but parents. They do what parents do, listen but never speak. Help you up but they themselves stay down. One day you’ll start to wonder who they are. Those people who’ve always just been there. You realize that you don’t know what they’re thinking about in their beds at night. You don’t know what they dream about. Your memories don’t provide any answers, they can’t reveal their true selves. You’ve never wondered. There was never any reason to wonder, until now.

 

Fragment, 1992

I remember a nightmare, perhaps one of my first. I’m in the pale pink nave of a church, close to the front near the altar. Four strange men with shaved heads are leaning over me. One of them is holding a mirror. There’s something about the atmosphere. Something that isn’t right. You have to look at yourself in the mirror, one of the men says. When I turn my face away, they hold my arms and legs down while one of them grips my chin. At the very moment that I’m supposed to meet my own gaze, the large church doors swing open. The men flee and my dad approaches me. You’re not allowed to look into this one, he says, raising the mirror high. Then he hurls it to the stone floor and shards of Dad’s image fly across the room.

 

Blind Alley, 2011

We take the E4 south, me and my husband. We drive along Lake Vättern with the light of the sunset on our faces, and veer off onto the country roads of Småland. Arriving at the red house by the meadows and the lake brings a kind of calm. This place has always welcomed me with a peace that I’ve not found elsewhere. But this time it feels different. The tractors plough through the fields. Black earth covers the cut wheat, which only a month ago was tall and swaying elegantly. It’s autumn now.

The house has its own blind alley that can be used for parking, but three years ago Dad got it into his head that he wanted to transplant his raspberry bushes and lay a gravel driveway. It took several weeks; Dad was so invested in that driveway that it became comical. I did think it was charming, that Dad’s stereotypically male characteristics were charming. There must have been something about them that I liked, because the thought of him losing them scares me to death.

I see Dad in the kitchen window. He doesn’t see us. Dad is cooking, moving in that jumpy way that suggests that he’s stressed. We walk into the red hallway. It smells like it usually does. It has just been cleaned. Jackets hang neatly in the hall. On the ground floor, you don’t notice. The threat is upstairs. We eat dinner and I stay at the table for a long time, stretching it out as long as I can. My husband carries the bags up and eventually I, too, will have to make my way through the house. My childhood home, once the safest place in the world, has become a minefield. I’m not safe anywhere. Anywhere and at any time they might make themselves visible  . . . traces of the new Dad.

 

We’re going to sleep in the attic room. The artifacts of my teen years are still there. My desktop computer on which I wrote poems. Books and diaries. I quickly brush my teeth in the nineteenth-century-inspired bathroom that Dad renovated and that Mom adorned with a chandelier and mint-green wooden cabinets. I try not to look at the medicine cabinets. There’s one on either side of the mirror. Mom’s on the left and Dad’s on the right. The doors are made of transparent glass, I can’t not see. Mom’s cabinet, filled with hair-care products, make-up, and face creams. In Dad’s cabinet, it’s as it should be, barren and dusty. A cologne, an unused hand cream. I sleep pretty well that night.

On Saturday morning, it starts again. The shower room. Mom has just washed clothes and hung them up to dry. Compulsively, my gaze searches the racks. Dad’s old T-shirts and jeans are hanging there, as always. Nothing seems to have changed, maybe everything is still as it should be. But Mom cleared away everything belonging to the new Dad before we came. For the sake of the kids, they’re not ready yet.

Later in the afternoon, I’m going to wrap Dad’s present, he’s turning fifty-eight. I go into Dad’s office. I’m not afraid anymore. Pulling out the drawers in his desk, looking for tape. I don’t find tape. I find a bottle of purple nail polish. It’s in the bottom drawer, among Dad’s work documents and bibles. I shut the drawer so quickly that I smash my finger, but I don’t feel anything. I stand bewildered in Dad’s room, hear his voice coming from one of the adjacent rooms. Once again, the floor becomes an undulating minefield. I don’t dare move, it might blow . . . Dad’s wardrobe door is ajar.

When I was a child Dad used to read the Narnia books aloud to me. Dad liked that story so much. When it came out in the cinema, he booked tickets for the whole family even though we were grown-up and had forgotten what it was about. Now I hear Lucy calling to Edmund . . . Narnia! It’s all in the wardrobe, like I told you! Dad has his own Narnia behind the closet doors. A whole other world that none of us know about, none but Dad himself.

This is the last time I go into Dad’s office, with its view of the church. This is the last day in my childhood home. The last night with the calm, quiet street outside. The glimpse of a tranquil lake. Out the back, the forest in darkness, which disappeared during a storm named Gudrun. The hooks in the ceiling, from which there once hung a lamp that lit up our dinners. The room where Grandfather had his exercise bike long ago. The creaky floor and the stairs up to my attic. I know every nook of this house, and now it’s about to be left behind. Dad isn’t interested in building driveways or replacing roofing tiles anymore. Now Mom and Dad both want to live in a practical apartment. The real-estate agent came by this week. With the best location in the best part of the neighborhood and all the renovations that Dad has done, the house is the most expensive property in the community. They’ll be showing it in just a few weeks. We’re never coming back here.

As we turn on the street, Mom and Dad stand on the stairs, waving. Our cat, who has been with us for fourteen years, is sitting by the fence, cleaning her paws. She’ll be given to the next family who moves in. I see the Falun-red walls of the house disappear out of the corner of my eye, and I can already sense that the house is no longer mine. I no longer have permission to enter it. My childhood can no longer be found in my childhood home; I’m taking it with me now.

 

Raspberries, 2011

Dad comes in from the dark. A strong, floral perfume pierces my nose. It’s not my perfume, it’s Dad’s. We don’t hug. Dad looks at the floor, fumbles for a hanger for his coat. We don’t dare look at each other, not even if we pretend. From the corner of my eye, I note that Dad is wearing a black skirt. He takes a pair of black shoes with low heels from his handbag. He’s wearing a chin-length wig, in a medium blonde color, I think it’s called ash-blonde. His make-up is discreet. The foundation softens the rough lines in his face. Rouge, light eye shadow. Lips painted wine-red. Dad dresses like a sophisticate. He speaks with Åke’s voice, doesn’t change his pitch. He walks and moves as before. Still, it’s hard to look at Dad.

Ann-Christine. There is a name. The name of my new dad. A name that my Dad says he’s carried with him throughout his life. How can you carry a name with you that’s not even your own? I don’t have a name like that. Where did that name come from? It comes from the same place as Dad’s yearning to be a woman. A place that came from the void, the one we cannot reach. Now this nonperson, who is registered neither with the authorities nor in our lives, is sitting here next to me. We sit on either end of the sofa, silently watching the flashing television. Dad doesn’t know how he should sit, switching between crossing his legs one way and then the other. I don’t know where I’m supposed to look, my eyes wander.

If this had been a movie, maybe we would have laughed at the comedy of it or cried at the drama. If only this were just a film; my dad is in the process of disappearing. On sale. Clearance. Everything must go. My father will be eradicated. It’s a close-out of my dad. Ann-Christine never had papers. Now she has her own passport and has sent in her application for a change of name to the tax office. Åke Roxberg will no longer be found in the telephone books. Ann-Christine is a murderer. She washes her hands and removes all the clues. What is Ann-Christine going to do with Dad’s clothes? My dad’s clothes will be given away. Someone else’s dad will wear the yellow blazer that was once the snazziest thing my dad owned. And Dad’s blue jeans. Those she’ll throw into the incinerator, things like that disappear without a trace. No one will wonder where they went. They’re of no value to anyone.

I glance at Dad’s hands. My stomach burns. Long, deep scratches run over the back of Dad’s shaved hands and up his hairless forearms. It looks like Dad has hurt himself. They look painful. I don’t want to say it, don’t want to encourage Dad’s new life, but I must.

Hey, I say, you have to be careful when you shave.

At first, Dad seems confused, before he knows what I’m talking about, and then bursts out laughing.

Oh, this, he says, pushing up the sleeve of his blouse. No, this is from when I was trimming the raspberry bushes at the weekend  . . . Incredible, they really got me, I didn’t feel a thing.

While I’m at it, I summon the courage.

And, I say, you might want to get rid of that perfume, it’s a bit strong.

Sure, Dad says and smiles, I thought it might be . . . Thank you, Ester. Thank you for speaking your mind. 

From Min pappa Ann-Christine. © Ester Roxberg. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.

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