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A man will be satisfied with good by the fruit of his words, And the deeds of a man’s hands will return to him.
PROVERBS 12:14, NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE
We were a perfectly ordinary family. We had interesting, well-paid jobs and an extensive circle of friends. We kept active in our free time thanks to our interest in sports and culture. On Fridays we ate takeout in front of Idol and dozed off on the sofa before the voting was over. On Saturdays we ate lunch downtown or at a shopping center. We watched handball or went to the movies; we enjoyed a bottle of wine with good friends. We fell asleep each night cuddled close together. Sundays were spent in the forest or at a museum, having long talks on the phone with our parents, or curled up on the sofa with a novel. We often rounded off Sunday evenings sitting up in bed with papers, binders, and computers strewn everywhere, preparing for the upcoming workweek. On Monday nights, my wife went to yoga and on Thursdays I played basketball. We had a mortgage, which we dutifully made payments on; we sorted our trash and used our blinkers and kept to the speed limit and always returned library books on time.
This year we took vacation late: early July to mid-August. After several lovely summers in Italy, we had spent the last few years scheduling our international trips in the wintertime so we could spend summers relaxing at home and going on shorter excursions along the coast to visit friends and relatives. This time we also rented a cottage on the island of Orust.
Stella spent just about her whole summer working at H&M. She was saving up for a long trip to Asia this winter. I still hope she manages to go.
You could say that Ulrika and I rediscovered each other this summer. It sounds like such a cliché, almost too cheesy; no one believes it’s possible to fall in love with your wife all over again after twenty years. As if the years raising a child were merely an aside in our love story. As if this is what we’ve been waiting for. But that’s how it feels, anyway.
Kids are a full-time job. When they’re babies you’re waiting for them to become independent, and you spend all your time worrying that they’ll choke on something or fall on their face. Then comes preschool and you worry because they’re out of your sight, because they might fall off a swing set or fail their next checkup. Then they start school and you worry that they won’t fit in, won’t make any friends, and everything is homework and riding lessons, handball and pajama parties. They start high school and there are even more friends, parties and conflicts, talks with tutors, all the chauffeuring around. You worry about drugs and drinking, that they’ll end up in bad company, and the teenage years go by like a soap opera at 190 kilometers per hour. Then suddenly you’re standing there with an adult child and you think you’ll finally get to stop worrying.
This summer, at least, we managed several long runs without worrying about Stella. Family life had never seemed so harmonious. Then everything changed.
* * *
One Friday in August, Stella turned eighteen—I had booked a table at our favorite restaurant. Italy and Italian cuisine have always been close to our hearts, and there’s a little place in the Väster neighborhood that serves divine pasta and pizza. I was looking forward to a quiet, cozy evening with my family.
“Una tavola per tre,” I said to a waitress with deer eyes and a pierced nose. “Adam Sandell. I have a reservation for eight o’clock.”
She looked around anxiously.
“One second,” she said, walking off through the busy restaurant.
Ulrika and Stella turned to me as the waitress fussed at her colleagues, gesturing and making faces.
It turned out that whoever had accepted my reservation had accidentally written it down for Thursday.
“We thought you were coming yesterday,” the waitress said, scratching the back of her neck with her pen. “But we’ll figure it out. Give us five minutes.”
Another party had to get up while the staff dragged an extra table into the dining room. Ulrika, Stella, and I stood in the middle of the crowded restaurant, trying to pretend we didn’t notice the annoyed glances shooting our way from every direction. I almost wanted to speak up, point out that it wasn’t our fault—it was the restaurant’s mistake.
When our table was finally ready, I hurried to hide my face behind my menu.
“Apologies, apologies,” said a man with a gray beard, presumably the owner. “We’ll make it up to you, of course. Dessert is on the house.”
“It’s no problem,” I assured him. “We’re all only human.”
The waitress scribbled our drink order on her pad.
“A glass of red wine?” Stella said.
She looked at me for permission. I turned to Ulrika.
“It’s a special day,” my wife said.
So I nodded at the waitress.
“A glass of red for the birthday girl.”
After the meal, Ulrika handed Stella a card with a Josef Frank pattern.
I smiled mischievously.
We followed Stella out of the restaurant and around the corner. I had parked her present there that afternoon.
“But Dad, I told you … it’s too expensive!”
She brought her hands to her face, gaping.
It was a pink Vespa Piaggio. We’d looked at a similar one online a few weeks earlier and, sure, it was expensive, but in the end I had convinced Ulrika we ought to buy it.
Stella shook her head and sighed.
“Why won’t you ever listen to me, Dad?”
I held up one hand and smiled.
“A thank-you will do.”
I knew Stella wanted cash most of all, but it felt so boring to give money as a present. With the Vespa she could get downtown easily and quickly, to go to work or visit friends. In Italy, every teenager drives a Vespa.
Stella hugged us and thanked us several times over before we all headed back into the restaurant, but somehow I felt disappointed.
The waitress brought our comped tiramisu and we all agreed that we couldn’t eat another bite. And then we ate it all up anyway.
I had limoncello with my coffee.
“I have to head out now,” Stella said, squirming in her seat.
I looked at the time. Nine thirty.
Stella pressed her lips together as she continued to rock back and forth on her chair.
“A little while longer,” she said. “Like ten minutes.”
“It’s your birthday,” I said. “And the store doesn’t open until ten tomorrow, does it?”
“I’m not working tomorrow.”
She wasn’t working? She worked every Saturday. That’s how she’d gotten her foot in the door at H&M. A weekend job had turned into a summer job and more hours.
“I had a headache all afternoon,” she said evasively. “A migraine.”
“So you called in sick?”
Stella nodded. It wasn’t a problem at all, she told me. There was another girl who was happy to take shifts.
“That’s not how we raised you,” I said as Stella stood up and took her jacket from the back of her chair.
“Adam,” Ulrika said.
“But why such a hurry?”
“I have plans with Amina.”
I nodded and swallowed my displeasure. This was just the way eighteen-year-olds were, I supposed.
Stella gave Ulrika a long, heartfelt hug. I, however, only managed to rise halfway before she put her arms around me and our embrace was awkward and stiff.
“What about the Vespa?” I asked.
Stella looked at Ulrika.
“We’ll get it home,” my wife promised.
Once Stella was out the door, Ulrika slowly wiped her lips with her napkin and smiled at me.
“Eighteen years,” she said. “How does it go so fast?”
* * *
Ulrika and I were both totally beat when we got home that night. We sat in our respective corners of the sofa and read as Leonard Cohen crooned in the background.
“I still think she could show more appreciation,” I said. “Especially after the incident with the car.”
The incident with the car—it already had a name.
Ulrika made a sound of disinterest and didn’t even look up from her book. Outside, the wind had picked up enough to make the walls creak. Summer was heaving a sigh, taking a breath; August was almost over, but I didn’t care. Autumn has always appealed to me, that feeling of a fresh start, like the first phase of new love.
When I put down my novel a little while later, Ulrika was already asleep. I gently lifted her head and placed a pillow underneath. She moved restlessly and for a moment I considered waking her up, but instead I went back to my reading. It wasn’t long before the print grew blurry and my thoughts wandered. I drifted off with a great lump in my chest over the chasm that had opened between Stella and me, between the people we once were and the people we had become, between the images I had of us and reality as it looked now.
* * *
When I woke up, Stella was standing in the middle of the room. She was shifting back and forth as the gentle moonlight illuminated her head and shoulders.
Ulrika had awakened too and was rubbing her eyes. Soon the room was full of sobs and gasping breaths.
I sat up.
Stella shook her head as the tears ran huge and wet down her cheeks. Ulrika threw her arms around her and when my eyes adjusted to the darkness I realized that Stella was trembling.
“It’s nothing,” she said.
Then she left the room with her mother and I was left behind with an uneasy feeling of emptiness.
Copyright © 2019 by M. T. Edvardsson.