So now we’ve begun packing. I’ve carried empty cardboard boxes home from the supermarket. Erik would rather throw everything into black trash bags. To me that’s being sloppy. There is no way to organize things in a trash bag; everything inside becomes a complete jumble when you move it around. Though of course Erik is right that it goes much quicker his way.We have two days to empty the house. On Saturday my brother-in-law will show up with a truck to drive us across the country. I hope he doesn’t bring Birgit with him, and I’ve said this to Erik. Honestly, there’s enough baggage to begin with. And I don’t want to have to entertain her on the day we leave.I picture us walking through the house, closing each door, one by one. Or standing by the window that looks out onto the lawn, whispering goodbye. That requires concentration and trust, and while standing there we might hold hands. My brother-in-law doesn’t disturb us as we step up into the truck and sit down, or as he pulls away. We will sit and watch the house disappear and first begin speaking an hour later, when we will talk about something completely different from the fact that we’re moving.
In my image of Saturday there is absolutely no way that Birgit fits in. She’s engaged to my brother-in-law, has been for two years, she never goes out without her lucky charm animal and has no social instincts whatsoever. We spent a weekend with her and my brother-in-law once, in a rented summer house, and she came barging into the bathroom while I was washing. She didn’t apologize, she simply continued talking about the clinic and the patients and the other employees, and the birthday presents they’d given each other.
You know what, Birgit, I’d love to hear more about your work, I just need to finish washing first, I said.
Birgit also wants to know everything about my life. But she talks so much that I end up not wanting to tell her anything whatsoever about myself. Maybe I’m also afraid that what I say will remind her of another story I just have to hear, which doubtless will take at least a half hour to tell, counting all the details. That’s why I seldom say anything, I just let her talk. So naturally she talks incessantly about the patients and the others who work at the clinic. It’s incredibly boring, also because the clinic is located in another town.
At the summer house even Erik had his fill of all her stories: a colleague was getting a divorce, one of the patients had a totally exceptional bite. Would you shut up about all this tooth business, we’re sitting here eating, he said to Birgit on Saturday evening, and she didn’t even get mad. If only she had. All she said was: Oh yeah, I always talk too much. Then she started asking us about our relationship.
Birgit wanted to know if we trusted each other one hundred percent. I believe that’s how she put it. I remember wanting to say something to shut her up, something that would point the spotlight back on her and my brother-in-law, but I knew that that would be too aggressive of me. As though I actually didn’t trust Erik, at least at that moment. So I said something like, if you didn’t trust each other, you couldn’t live together. I caressed Erik’s head, he leaned back a bit from the table.
I shouldn’t have gone along with this. What business was it of hers if Erik and I trusted each other, and besides, Erik kept his mouth shut.
I also answered her when she asked how often Erik and I slept together. Like everyone else, I said. Then Birgit said that maybe we went around imagining all sorts of things about other people, and that it wasn’t at all sure that we were right. What did I really know about everyone else?
I didn’t answer that one. Mostly because there was no time to answer before Erik spoke up. Everyone else must not do it very often then, he said. I didn’t think that was one bit funny, and besides, it wasn’t true that Erik and I seldom slept together. But for some reason I couldn’t say that, it would have been far too awkward to confront Erik, especially in their company, and besides, we didn’t owe Birgit or my brother-in-law any report on our sex life. Should I have sat there and said, well, on the average we sleep with each other about three times a week, what about you. And then Birgit could have launched into a long monologue about how that was funny, because that was about the same as them, if you didn’t count that they did it several times in a row this way and that way and so on and so forth. Should we have held that conversation at the dinner table with wood burning in the fireplace and red wine in the wineglasses?
Over my dead body. We might as well have undressed and done it in front of each other in the middle of the living room floor. Which none of us wished to do, at least not Erik and I.
Birgit and my brother-in-law did it that night, quite loudly and at a very unfavorable time.
I had lain awake for quite a while, irritated about the whole situation, and a bit angry with Erik because he’d let that lie about our sex life hang in the air all evening. Now we were lying there in that awful sleigh bed, Erik snoring lightly, me unable to fall asleep. I went through every possible phase, from anger to apathy to the edge of hysteria, and perhaps it had been a long time since I’d experienced so much rapid change of emotion, because it ended with me being so stirred up that I actually felt like making love to Erik.
I pushed him a bit, kissed his ear. When he woke up and rolled over, they began making noise in the next bedroom, unmistakable and a bit too loud to sound natural, but sufficient to make it impossible for Erik and me to do it. Again, it would have been way too awkward.
And that’s how it is every time Birgit is around.
The day before moving day I begin to feel overwhelmed by it all. Erik is making great headway with his black trash bags, it’s not going nearly as fast with my boxes. Despite my difficulties I maintain that no matter what, it pays to pack systematically. The day of arrival at a new house will always go much smoother. So in a way it can be said that I’m already doing some of the work I would otherwise be doing on Sunday, when we’re moved in.
For every hour that passes something new gets added to my list of what has to be done before we’re moved out. The list lies on the dining room table beside Erik, the newspaper right in front of him. He’s reading aloud, I listen now and then. They’re about to build a new mall in town. In the past I’d have been pleased about something like this, today I couldn’t care less. We don’t know anyone here besides my brother-in-law and Birgit, we’ll probably never come back. Of course Erik will keep in contact with his brother, and he should, too. The relationship between two siblings is valuable. It’s just that I have the feeling that we’re about to say a final goodbye to this town.
Friday afternoon we plan a farewell party, sort of, just for the two of us. We’ll eat shrimp and drink white wine out of the glasses I haven’t packed yet.
Erik is going to bicycle downtown and shop. I suggest that he buy some food for the trip tomorrow. He says that we can just as well stop at a roadside grill, and besides, he doesn’t know how many to buy food for. If Birgit comes along don’t count on me to keep her company, I say, and then Erik says that I’m a scheming bitch and that Birgit has goddamn never been anything other than friendly to me, and when my brother-in-law is good enough to haul me and my cardboard boxes clear across the country, well then I can just damn well show some consideration. And then he bikes away, tromping on the pedals.
I sit in the living room and open three boxes to find the Yellow Pages and look up a mover I can hire who can move the furniture and boxes and Erik and me and in the meantime keep his mouth shut, so I can sit in peace in a stupid truck and ride away from here.
Then I remember that I threw the Yellow Pages away last week. So I give that idea up. And of course I will accept my brother-in-law’s help, when he has gone to the trouble of borrowing a truck from his job and has written off an entire day to help us. Erik would never go along with anything else, and if Birgit comes with us, I’ll just have to be prepared for that.
Anyway she can’t ask to borrow anything from me, now that we’re all packed up. Even though it wouldn’t actually be different from any other time she and my brother-in-law have come over. Every time, the day before, I’ve put my favorite clothes in the back of my closet or locked up a new book. I’ve done so casually and spontaneously.
Despite this, she has always found something she just has to take home with her. And every time I’ve said yes, of course, and every time she’s left with something or other I didn’t want her to leave with.
In April she borrowed my pearl necklace. She borrowed it for precisely three days because she was going to a wedding, because it would fit perfectly the neckline of the blue dress she’d had sewn, which I could borrow anytime, I could just let her know.
For three days it didn’t matter what I wore, the pearls were missing the entire time. And I talked about Birgit and the pearls far too much and far too maliciously, but only because Erik is so tolerant. I could never have said these things to anyone else.
I would get up in the morning, shower, and get dressed. Then I would say to Erik that my dress practically looked amputated without the pearls. When he suggested that I put on a different dress, I would say that nothing else looked right. Then he’d ask why I hadn’t said no to Birgit. The next time I will, I’d answer.
At night, before falling asleep, I would imagine all sorts of things. I told Erik that Birgit might get drunk at the wedding and start dancing all over the place and hook the pearls on something and break the string. Or she might forget them in the bathroom, or ruin the clasp. She might even fool someone into thinking the necklace was her own. So what, Erik said; so you don’t even get it, I said. That necklace belonged to my great-grandmother, my entire past is contained in that necklace.
Finally I made my mind up about two things: if Birgit ruined the necklace, she would have to pay me an amount equal to what the precisely identical necklace costs today. And it would be the last time she would ever borrow anything from me.
The next day my brother-in-law came by with the necklace and a big bouquet of blue flowers. Birgit had written a gracious card, thanking me, and if ever she could return the favor.
I laid the necklace in my drawer and put two of my favorite books in a sack, which I sent back with my brother-in-law to give to Birgit. I thought you weren’t going to loan anything out to her again, Erik said, after my brother-in-law had left. I wasn’t going to, I said, but it will do her good to read those two books.
Of course she didn’t understand the meaning of the books, not at all. And she recapped the entire plot of both books, in detail, even though I’d read them both and had even written a paper on one of them in college.
She also told me things about my brother-in-law that I didn’t want to know. That once he had run over someone, and that it had been very difficult for him. But that otherwise he was always in such a good mood that sometimes she had to pretend to be angry, just to balance things out. He would come home from work singing, and yell at her to take her clothes off. Because he was so happy to be off work and to be able to do whatever he wanted, which he was going to do. And usually she took her clothes off, except when she acted sulky. Then he ripped them off her.
Erik would go crazy if I told anything like this about us. Which I don’t, either. I’ve only done so once, simply because I was so unhappy.
There was a period when Erik was very quiet. He would sit at the table and look at his hands, look and look, while I was climbing walls. Because it was incredibly difficult to relax when he said nothing, and I could see it all from outside myself sometimes, him sitting at the table with his silence, and me, a noisy machine running back and forth in the room, unable to shut off until he stood up and touched me. Which never happened. He just sat, and finally I had to go to bed and fall asleep, and sometimes in the morning I could see that he’d been sitting all night. The lamps were still warm, the ashtray filled with ashes.
This I told to Birgit. It was a Sunday, the four of us were walking in the forest. Erik and my brother-in-law walked a good distance behind us, and Birgit asked me what was wrong. So I told her. I also said that I was afraid that he was tired of me, and that he might leave me.
Birgit said that Erik wasn’t nearly brave enough to leave. He was totally unable to make it without me, the strong one. There were lots of stunts he might pull, but he wasn’t man enough to leave me.
I was so close to smacking her. But I didn’t, and I neglected to tell her to not say anything to my brother-in-law, too. Which she did. And of course he passed it on. And three days later, Erik in fact almost left me. In some strange way, just a little bit, it pleased me.
Friday evening I’m far from being finished packing. Erik has lots of time, he’s preparing the shrimp out in the kitchen, I sit in the living room and look at the empty boxes and everything that has to go in them.
Often I get up to check the lawn, too, and each time there’s actually something out there that we’ve forgotten: a glove, a ball, a small tool. I stand there, reflecting over how nothing resembles itself. Inside the house, all of our furniture has been taken apart and stacked on top of each other. In the garage there are nineteen black trash bags, all labelled as to contents. It could be grass, or wilted leaves, but it’s the bulk of our home. And if you weighed it today, it would weigh the same as a month ago. It just doesn’t look like itself, is all. But it will, of course, when we unpack.
A while later Birgit calls and asks if she should bring lunch tomorrow.
I say just a minute, and I go out into the kitchen to Erik. I tell him that it’s Birgit, and she’s asking if she should bring lunch along. Erik says that it’s fine with him if she wants to. I say that I don’t want to see that bitch tomorrow, that I won’t eat her food or even look at her ugly face. Then tell her that, Erik says.
I go back into the living room and pick up the receiver.
That would be nice, I say, and hang up.
I say to Erik that I’m so very, very happy to be moving all the way across the country, far away from basket lunches and summer houses and borrowed odds and ends, pearl necklaces and old books and brand new shoes and Birgit’s laughing face, that fucking clinic and the same ridiculous patients with their overbites or whatever is wrong with them.
I say all this while I’m throwing things into the boxes, vases and books and candleholders, without packing newspaper around any of it and without paying any attention to it, as far as I’m concerned it can all get broken, I couldn’t care less.
In that case, Erik says, you should call Birgit up and tell her to stay away. That’s exactly what I’m thinking about doing, I say.
It’s my brother-in-law who answers the phone. I don’t ask him anything, I just say that I need to talk to Birgit. I say that it’s important.
Birgit sounds sleepy. Hello, she says.
I need to tell you this, I’d rather you wouldn’t come along tomorrow.
Oh, she says.
It’s because I’m in a strange mood, and I can’t handle talking to anyone, it’s not just you, it’s just the way I’m feeling.
Yeah, she says.
So I think it’s best that you come and visit us when we’ve gotten all moved in, when we’re settled, I say.
Yeah, she says.
Then we both hang up.
For some reason I don’t feel any better afterward, not at all, in fact. I sit, unable to eat the shrimp. Erik eats and says that now I’ve finished packing, I can relax. But I can’t.
I tell Erik that it really was nice of Birgit to offer to make lunch. Right, Erik says. I say that I might have been too harsh on her. But I had to be harsh. But I was probably too harsh.
Erik tells me to shut up or else talk about something else. So that’s what I do.
I wake up long before the alarm clock rings. I get up without waking Erik and make coffee. I drink it in the living room while I stuff newspaper around the vases I was lucky enough not to have broken yesterday. I close the last box and carry it out to the front of the house, the sun is shining, the mailman drives by. I empty the garage, carry all the black sacks out to the driveway. By the time Erik wakes up I’ve taken care of most of it.
Two hours later and my brother-in-law is driving us across the country. He doesn’t let on about anything, maybe Birgit hasn’t told him. He drives nice and easy and without talking, taps his hand against the wheel. Erik sits and reads a magazine. The radio is on, so in a way it’s not quiet in here, and yet. I ask Erik to turn the radio up.