At the age of nineteen, I went to Stockholm to attend the Ballet Academy. It was around that time when people had started doubting whether or not Sture Bergwall had really committed the murders he had been accused of. The TV reporters followed him from crime scene to crime scene. He went around in a daze, bug-eyed behind thick lenses and looking like a dying giant insect that had lost all sense of orientation and its ability to fly. Bergwall was discussed during school breaks, in the dance studios with legs propped up on the bar or on the floor during stretches. When the pianist sat down to play, we grew quiet. I remember standing for a long time in front of the mirror in the mornings without doing much. It was a long, cold winter. I was restless and bored. In the streets of Stockholm, the air was crisp and clear, the air in the dance studios smelled intimate and dispassionate, of sweat and rubber. I thought of brothels and hospitals; that was the winter I came to understand I would not be a dancer after all.
In the afternoons, I read French literature. The books were very thin. I didn’t care much about what was written; I liked the melody of the sentences, it calmed me. In the evenings, I went to the top of Skinnarviksberget, I was wearing mittens and a knit hat pulled down over my ears. It was freezing cold and the streets were empty. I stood at the top of the hill and gazed down across the city without feeling homesick.
She appeared one afternoon. We had started practicing for the annual Christmas performance and did not stop until the darkness pressed in hard against the windows of the dance studio. The darkness made me think about unchartered deep waters; I usually walked home quickly while trying to hold my breath.
She stood in the doorway to the dance studio with her arms crossed, looking at us. Her face was empty of expression. Her unbound hair hung down over her shoulders onto a suede sheepskin jacket. When the music stopped, she took a step into the room. Our teacher turned to face her and extended her arms.
E-riiiika. It sounded like a revelation. She walked over to the girl, placed a hand on each of her shoulders, and turned to present her to us like a luxury clothing item.
Erika did not smile. There was something dismissive about her appearance, an innate disregard, I could immediately sense she was the kind of person to fall silent in an argument, who would watch her opponent build themselves up and flatten out again without uttering a single word. She had nothing to defend. She took off her jacket and hung it over a chair. She laced up her winter dance shoes. She didn’t seem to care that we all stood there, watching her quietly. She straightened up again, took a hairband from her wrist, and pulled her reddish hair back into a bun. Then she walked with long steps over to the corner of the room and began to warm up, keeping her eyes fixed on her reflection in the mirror.
I won’t describe the way she danced. Let’s just say it was obvious why our instructor had asked her to come show us how it was done. But I have to say something about her face. I have never seen anyone dance with a face like that. It was something that could not be learned, it belonged to her being, it was nothing simpler or more complicated than that. It made me feel sad, but also hopeful. Perhaps it meant there might be something about me that was indescribable and therefore irreplaceable. Something I myself didn’t even recognize and which could never be taken away from me.
I saw her a few days later. It was morning and I was on my way to school. A heavy wind blew through the streets and I looked down as I walked across the cobblestones. Something made me look up, and then there she was, behind the window of a passing bus. Once again, I was filled with the sense that she wasn’t quite human. She was staring straight ahead, not seeming to register the other bus passengers or the city rolling by outside the window. She merely was. Like a doll, or an old photograph pasted into a collage.
What happened next, I will never quite understand: I turned around and went home. I locked myself into my apartment and climbed into bed. Images flamed up and burned to bits before my eyes, and from the ashes, new images bloomed. There was her face, her hands on the table, her hair falling across her forehead. I must have stayed in bed like that for several hours watching these images, without knowing what to do with them or what they meant, but listen: on the street where I grew up, there was an abandoned house, and once Bea and I climbed in through an open window and tiptoed carefully through the rooms, and there is a likeness here, between Erika and that house, both places apparently abandoned, the atmosphere of having been left, as when the soul has just left a room, left a garden, left a body, it’s only then that you notice it. You can ask yourself what are you supposed to do now. The overgrown beds, the faceless mirror above the bureau, the eyes void of thought, void of emotion. Maybe it’s something macabre within us, a need to fill these dead things with our own spirit. No. The garden and the body and the rooms. It wasn’t myself I was looking for there, and it was also not myself I found. It was something else. I didn’t believe in God, and yet I could sense there was a wall in the world and when I shut my eyes and put my cheek up against it, I could hear muffled sounds from the other side.
Advent came, it would be Christmas soon. The day before our performance, I pulled a tendon in my thigh. I couldn’t dance. I sat in the front row eating oranges and scarcely noticed when a family sat down in the empty seats beside me. A woman’s voice snapped out orders to her son who was running through the rows. I looked up disinterestedly. My body went cold when I saw it was Erika. Her cheeks were red with exasperation and she dug around in her purse and pulled out a little stuffed animal with which she coaxed her son back to her. He couldn’t have been older than two. Next to Erika, closest to me, sat a moderately attractive man with his arm on the back of her chair. After she calmed down her son and pulled him onto her lap, Erika turned to the man and quickly stroked his cheek. Just then, she saw me and smiled.
Aren’t you going to dance? she asked.
A moment ago, the thought of Erika’s gaze, her voice, would have made me feel wild with ecstasy. Now I felt cheated.
I pulled a muscle, I replied.
She nodded slowly, and then smiled again before turning her attention back to her son.
The performance began. I knew it was beautifully choreographed and that the dancers were talented, and yet—
I only saw skeletons. I saw twitches in tendons and muscles, toe tips that fell heavily against the floor, bruises on elbows and knees, the work that lay behind all of the beauty, the grit beneath all of the magic. Here was the body-work, the beauty-work, the love-work, I felt dizzy.
That night I slept fitfully.
I dreamed I was walking and walking toward a tall mountain against the horizon. The mountain was covered by a layer of clouds, but when the clouds broke up, the mountain was gone, and the only thing that remained was myself and the other people on the road.
I had never felt so lonely.
And then it was spring.
Sture Bergwall was acquitted and I went home to my flat and packed my things. I locked the door. I left Stockholm in the belief that I would return in the fall, but I did not.
“Fra den andre siden,” from Jeg har ennå ikke sett verden. © Roskva Koritzinsky. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Becky Crook. All rights reserved.