In Amsterdam I lived with a man who was always sad. His younger brother had died in a car crash when my lover was sixteen. Though it had been thirteen years since the accident, he carried the loss as if it were an heirloom. He had brought the loss from Copenhagen, where he was raised, to London, where we met. And now in Amsterdam, I felt it in our flat, its foggy chill. I watched him while he was sleeping and saw the sadness flutter behind his eyelids. Sometimes when he woke, he was on the brink of tears. His name was Örjan, and I began to think of the umlaut over the O as a mark of sorrow: It hovered like a shadow.
The first time I invited Örjan into my bed was right after he told me about his brother. I pulled the story out, unraveling him line by line, until he began to shudder and weep and I had to wrap my body around his. I liked his sadness, the way it made his silences seem full. When he tied on his running shoes and set out for a jog, I knew he had demons to outrun. When he stared, unblinking, into his coffee, I was sure he was thinking that if his brother were still alive, he would now be twenty-seven, the same age as me.
He said that his mother refused to discuss his brother; that she acted as if he had never existed at all. His mother had removed all pictures of his brother from the walls of their house and cropped him out of family shots. The accident was not her fault, according to official reports. She was driving—this was in January, when the roads were icy—but she was sideswiped by another car, which plowed into the passenger seat. His brother, Hendrik, had died instantly, but his mother emerged from the wreck with nothing but “minor abrasions.” I couldn’t fathom his mother’s pain and guilt. Surely she felt guilt, even if, by objective standards, the driver of the other car was to blame. And I couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been for Örjan to lose his only sibling. I told my sister this. Phoebe is three years younger than I am; this was the same age difference between Örjan and Hendrik. The brothers had been best friends. Phoebe and I spoke on the phone every day even then, when I was abroad. I talked to her while Örjan was at work; I didn’t want to flaunt the existence of my sibling. Phoebe and I didn’t talk about her hospitalization—it had been six years—but we talked a lot about the car accident that killed Hendrik.
“Have you met his mother?” she wanted to know.
I had not met his mother. She had never visited her son in England. And in the six months we’d lived together in Holland, she had never phoned our landline. Örjan talked to his parents on his mobile—I liked to hear him speak Danish, even though I didn’t understand—but never invited them to come see us.
“The poor woman,” Phoebe said. “It’s unbearably heartbreaking.”
I became obsessed with his mother, this woman broken by grief she wouldn’t name. Losing a child, I thought, was the worst possible fate. I wanted to comfort her; I wanted to help her confront her sorrow in the flesh. The abrasions were major, I was sure. “Will your mom visit us?” I asked.
“My mother speaks very little English,” he told me. “And she hates to travel.”
There was one picture of his mother among his things. (Örjan didn’t have many things. We had rented a furnished flat, and everything he moved into it could fit into one suitcase. I admired his minimalism. I had too much stuff: too many books, too many sweaters, too many coffee mugs.) The picture was like something out of a Scandinavian catalog: his mother in a field of wildflowers, backed by fjords. (She was Norwegian, not Danish, so the family took an annual trip to Norway.) She had a long, thick, honey-colored braid, and she was pregnant, “with Hendrik,” said Örjan, smiling wide. How could she know she would lose that baby when he was just thirteen?
Of his brother, he had no pictures. His mother had burned them all. Had she thrown them into the fireplace, late at night, after a crying jag?
“Did Hendrik look like you?” I asked.
“Yes, but with darker hair,” Örjan said.
Phoebe and I were often mistaken for twins. The older we got, the more we looked alike. In the year when she lived in my apartment, before I fled New York, the baristas at our local coffee shop couldn’t tell us apart. “Back for another?” they’d ask when I ordered my latte in the morning, and I knew that my sister had already been there that day. That was the year Phoebe was new to the city: She was out of college and taking classes, in design, at Parsons. I let her live with me for six months without paying rent. Now she was in architecture school at Columbia. Phoebe had spatial intelligence that I lacked.
Örjan owned no books, which alarmed me. In those days, I was always reading the Russians, and though he knew nothing of Chekhov or Gogol or Tolstoy, I decided that Örjan’s grief gave him depth. As a kid, I’d always loved stories about orphans: children deposited on distant relatives who didn’t want them; children traveling great distances, without adults, to find a home. I didn’t mind stories about dead parents, but dead siblings devastated me. The fact that Beth died in Little Women, for example, was too much for me to bear. In our flat, while I tried to write short stories, I wrapped myself in blankets against the damp and wondered if I’d have more to write about if I’d lost my sibling in a tragic accident. I didn’t tell Phoebe this; I knew she’d find it monstrous.
Sometimes Örjan proposed that we join his colleagues for dinner; he was eager for them to get to know me. I sensed that my existence—a partner, implying stability, and an American at that—was good for his career. The ad agency where he worked was American; most of his colleagues were from the States. At one such dinner, a copywriter at the agency said to me, “I hear you published a story in the New Yorker!”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “No,” I said. “I haven’t published anything.” I was a novice. I hadn’t sent my work to any magazines. I was three years away from thirty and had no idea if I had what it took to be a writer.
The man kneaded his forehead as if massaging out a thought. “I must have misunderstood,” he said.
Did all of Örjan’s colleagues at the agency think I was a successful writer, when in fact I was a neophyte, filling notebooks with fragments? “Why did you tell your colleagues that I’ve been published?” I asked.
“I didn’t,” Örjan said.
But I didn’t want to go out with the people from his office after that. Being with them made me feel like an imposter. I preferred to eat at home. I taught myself to make simple things: frittatas with spinach and ricotta; roast chicken and potatoes. I didn’t like to cook, but I hadn’t yet found a job, so I wasn’t contributing to our rent. Örjan made more money than he could spend, he said. He didn’t mind supporting me. But I felt indebted; I didn’t like being dependent on anyone. In our office in London, he would bring me my pages from the printer down the hall. “I’m going out for a sandwich. Do you want something?” he’d offer at lunchtime. We had been peers until I quit my job in England and followed him to Amsterdam. So I tried to play domestic goddess to make up for my failure to make money. I made our bed in the mornings; I did the laundry; I mopped the floor. I bought fresh flowers at the markets—always in monochromatic bunches—and arranged them in a jar.
At night, alone with Örjan, I grew impatient with his talk of advertising. I didn’t care about the agency’s campaign for mobile phones. So I would ask about his brother: Did he remember their last conversation? What was he doing when he found out about the accident? He indulged me. He was listening to music in his room—Guns N’ Roses, he said, “we liked that music in Denmark, too”—when his father knocked on his door. His father was crying and Örjan had never seen his father cry. So he knew, immediately, that something terrible had happened. “My boy, my boy,” his father said, and threw himself on Örjan and sobbed. For a long time, they lay like that, father and son, the father’s burly frame atop Örjan’s lanky one. His father’s beard scratched Örjan’s chin. (For days afterward the skin was chapped and raw and for years afterward, when he thought about his brother, Örjan felt a tingling on his chin.) And it was only when his mother came in—she is a little woman, he told me, just over five feet tall—that the information was disclosed. That was the phrase he used: “The information was disclosed.” English was his second language and sometimes he sounded like an instruction manual. He dispatched even seemingly emotional sentences with cool. It was, I thought, a trait of the Nordic people. They were chilly, remote. In bed, though, Örjan was generous and warm: He couldn’t discuss literature with me, but he could make me come.
His was the first uncircumcised penis I’d seen. The first time we went to bed, I pulled back the sheet and studied it, evidence of his foreignness. In America, I told him, most boys of my generation were cut. I liked to touch his un-American penis, to take its foreskinned shaft in my mouth. Örjan had a tender way of tucking strands of hair behind my ear that made me feel cherished. And I liked to hear him whisper sweet nothings—or maybe they were Danish somethings I didn’t comprehend.
Once, when he was in the shower, his phone rang. I could see that it was his mother calling, so I answered. “Hello,” I said.
“Hallo?” she said.
“This is Helen,” I said. “Your son is in the shower.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” she said. “Perhaps I call at a bad time.”
Like most Scandinavians, her English was good. “We hear so much about you, Helen,” she said. “You must come to us in Copenhagen.”
I told her that I wanted her to visit us in Amsterdam. She said her son had told her the apartment wasn’t big enough for guests. “But there’s plenty of room,” I said. “You can have our bedroom. We’ll sleep on the sofa bed.”
“This is wonderful,” she said, and she sounded full of wonder.
“Your mother called,” I told Örjan when he was out of the bathroom. He was like a duckling when he was wet: his fine blond hair sticking up in all directions. “Why did you say she doesn’t speak English?”
“You spoke to her?” He was incredulous.
“I picked up because I thought it might be urgent. I invited her to stay with us.”
He lassoed his towel around me and pulled me close. “She drives me crazy, but she will love you.”
“Why does she drive him crazy?” Phoebe asked.
“Apparently, she’s suffocating,” I said. “She covers him with anxious maternal love. She only has one son left, so she puts everything she has onto Örjan. He says he feels like he can’t breathe when she’s around. He feels trapped. That’s why he doesn’t want to live in Denmark.”
“Seems like every mother is either overbearing or not bearing enough,” Phoebe said.
Our own mother had given us too much breathing room. There were too many nights when Phoebe and I had no idea where in the world she was. She was gone for weeks at a time, so far away in Africa that she couldn’t be reached by phone. Her return dates were marked on the calendar in the kitchen: mom home I would write on the square that corresponded with her official itinerary. And then, at breakfast, Phoebe and I would look at that calendar and do the math in our heads. Forty more days. Thirty-three more days. Seventeen more days. We couldn’t help but sympathize with Örjan’s mother, even if she clung too tight.
And so it happened: The invitation had been extended, and Örjan’s mother arrived just one month later. We met her at Schiphol. “You are like Liv Ullmann,” she told me, “when she was young.” I liked this comparison, not only because Liv Ullmann is beautiful, but because the comment made me feel Scandinavian. Örjan’s mother treated me not as a foreigner, but as a familiar.
In the taxi on the way back to our flat, Örjan didn’t speak. We never took taxis; we were always on our bikes. He was in the passenger seat—a seat he regarded as deadly—while I sat with his mother in back. I pointed out the sights to her: There, I said, is the Vondelpark. There’s the Rijksmuseum. I volunteered to take her to see the Rembrandts. She had been to Amsterdam once, she said, years before, but she was excited to be back. She would rent a bicycle, she said. Perhaps while Örjan was at work, I would ride around the city with her? Örjan seemed to sulk. His mother was taller than I had expected her to be. She was not the fragile little person he had described, but a strong and vital woman.
“She’s so cheerful,” I told Phoebe, while Örjan and his mother were out taking a walk.
“Brave,” Phoebe said. “She’s learned to hide her grief.”
But she didn’t hide her grief that night, when Örjan took his mother and me out for Italian food. While we ate, she stroked her son’s arm incessantly. In her left hand, she held her fork and speared her penne, while her right hand moved along Örjan’s bare forearm. He had rolled up his shirtsleeves, the way he always did at the end of a day, and his mother’s fingers were stacked with rings, all of them gold. He tolerated her touch, and didn’t shake her off, though I saw irritation in his eyes.
“I have to admit, it was pretty cloying,” I told Phoebe. “I can see why he doesn’t want her around.”
Every time his mother said something in Danish, Örjan reminded her that I was there. “Speak English,” he said, “so Helen can understand.”
His mother made a point of shifting her attention to me. Her eyes roved my face, as if not sure where to land. “And your family?” she asked. “They are well?”
I nodded. I always used my silverware the European way, without putting down my knife and shifting my fork to my right hand, the way most Americans did. But in that moment, with my cutlery suspended in my hands, I felt self-conscious, like I was trying too hard to be continental.
The next day, while Örjan was at work, his mother and I rode all over town. I adored my bicycle; it was hunter green, and I loved to fill its basket with tulips and carry them home. Bikes were stolen all the time in Amsterdam, but I had managed to keep mine safe for six months, and this filled me with hope. It made me think that I was on the right track in life. I didn’t have a job and I wasn’t sure I was any good at writing, but I hadn’t yet lost my bike. I had gotten in the habit of taking long rides, out of the city and into neighboring towns. Each ride took me farther from our apartment, and out in the flat, open country, I felt like I could keep going forever. The landscape was just like the old Dutch paintings I loved. Sometimes I rode all the way to the beach, and when I stared at the sea, I thought of Peter the Great learning to make boats from the Dutch. On my bicycle, under those low skies, I was imbued with dignity and grace.
Now, I kept turning around while I was riding, to make sure Örjan’s mother—would she be my mother-in-law, I wondered?—was behind me. Her hair—nearly white with age—streamed behind her while she pedaled; she was flushed and full of joy. She was also surprisingly fit for a woman approaching seventy. We spun through the Jordaan, the neighborhood where we lived; then down Prinsengracht, one of the grand canals. We went to the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum. We rode through the Vondelpark, past the speed skaters on roller blades. And finally, we stopped for a very late lunch at a café. We ordered pea soup and appeltaart. I liked to eat like a local.
It was Friday: The next day Örjan would not go to work, so this was our only day alone. I wanted to broach the subject of her late son—if she’d talk about Hendrik, I thought it would help my boyfriend heal—but I eased into it by asking what Örjan was like as a child. What did I expect to hear? Cherubic anecdotes? Stories about adorable mispronunciations and beloved family pets?
“He was a difficult boy,” she said. “As a child, he told a lot of lies. My husband and I could not understand it. ‘You must tell the truth,’ we told him. But always he was telling stories.”
This surprised me. I did not think of Örjan as creative. He was reliable and solid, a hard worker and a decent man. He was an account manager, a man who made exacting spreadsheets. I had bemoaned his lack of imagination. I often wished he were more unpredictable. “What kind of stories?”
“For two years, he told everyone he met that his father was dead. My poor husband, killed by his son!”
“A childish prank?” I suggested.
“Another year,” she said, “he told everyone at the school that he had a baby sister. His teacher said to me, ‘and how is your baby?’ and I could not understand what she meant. The baby—this imaginary baby—was called Hanne. And the teacher heard so many details that she was certain it was absolutely true.”
“A lot of children have imaginary friends,” I said. “It’s not so unusual. My mother told me that I had an imaginary friend named Jack. I don’t remember him, but when I was in preschool…”
“Ah, preschool, sure,” she said. “But my son invented this baby when he was ten! Perhaps he was unhappy as one child. My husband and I tried for a long time to have a baby. I had, how do you call them in English? Mis-carrying?”
“Miscarriages,” I said.
“Ya. Such pain. I was almost forty when he was born. I could not have any more children after that. I was lucky to have the one.” She rubbed her belly, as if she were still pregnant, and I thought of the photograph of her, the one in front of the fjords. Did that mean she was pregnant with Örjan in that picture?
“You never had another son?” I said.
“Is that what he told you?” She made a clucking sound, as if scolding a dog.
I felt, on a cellular level, that I knew Örjan. The first time he came to my flat in London, he fixed my leaky faucet. “You’re handy,” I said, enthralled. I didn’t know any men who could build or repair. My father’s hands had never been used for any real work. My father worried his cuticles, so that they cracked and bled, but otherwise his fingers showed no sign of wear. (My mother was the one who put together our backyard swing set in Washington. My father just paced the lawn.) But Örjan’s hands were capable and strong. His legs, too, were muscled and ready for exertion. I watched him play a pickup game of soccer—of course, they called it football—on Hampstead Heath. I liked the way he took possession of the ball, and knew then that I would let him take possession of me, too.
I had slept beside him for 403 nights. I had washed his underwear—is there anything more intimate than washing another person’s underwear?—and folded it into squares. But we shared no context: We hadn’t gone to the same school, we didn’t have mutual friends. There was something pure, I thought, about getting acquainted without the crutches of class signifiers. The names of academic institutions and neighborhoods where I’d lived meant nothing to him. We had no shorthand; we made no presumptions based on accents or brands. It was a relief to be free of past associations, to be met as an innocent.
When I moved in with him in Amsterdam, I discovered that he sat down on the toilet to pee. He said that his mother had insisted that he and his brother do so to keep the toilet seat clean. I found this habit emasculating and wished he’d stand to piss like a man. The feminist in me hated myself for expecting him to conform to such narrow ideas of masculinity, but I couldn’t help it. Seeing Örjan sit on the toilet, with his penis dangling, made him seem childish and weak. When I cleaned the bathroom, I longed to find urine stains on the toilet bowl. I would have done extra scrubbing if I knew it meant he was pissing upright. Now I wondered if his mother had really made him sit down to pee. I kept thinking about what she’d told me, that he always lied as a boy.
“Maybe she said that because she knows that her son tells people about Hendrik,” Phoebe said. “Maybe she was anticipating your questions.”
This was possible. After all, denial can be a means of survival. There were things I didn’t want to think about: the vicious words I’d said to Phoebe a few hours before she swallowed all those pills; Phoebe, in the emergency room, having her stomach pumped.
That night, Örjan and I folded out the couch. If I’d known it was one of the last nights I’d sleep beside him, I might not have pushed away his hand when it slid up my shirt.
In the morning, as Örjan’s mother made break fast—she insisted that we let her cook for us—she seemed without mystery or guile. Örjan was perusing the newspaper. I subscribed, like so many American expats, to the International Herald Tribune. He liked to read it; it was part of his effort to fit in with “the Yanks” at his office. I’d had no reason to doubt anything Örjan told me, but now I began to wonder. If his sadness didn’t exist, then what did I love? I didn’t love the man who peed sitting down. I didn’t love the man who never read books.
I didn’t know which was true: my lover’s noble sadness or his mother’s stubborn cheer. How could I confront them? I wished his father were with us, to provide a tiebreaking point of view. My wife is deluded, he might say. Or, My son is a pathological liar. Was there severe mental illness in the family? Would our future children, if we had children, inherit some kind of personality disorder? We are all crazy, I imagined Örjan’s father telling me while he scratched his beard. But there was no referee in the room. If Örjan were lying, it meant that the man who entered me every night—we still fucked with a regularity unusual for cohabitating couples—was totally alien. It’s not that I didn’t know him, I thought; it’s that our bodies knew each other better than our minds.
There in our flat, I turned the music down. I had put on Johnny Cash. “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” although it was Saturday. I felt like I was in an Agatha Christie mystery, assembling the suspects in the drawing room. I said, “It’s time to talk about Hendrik.”
I thought the expression on their faces would tell me which one of them was honest, which story I could live with. Örjan’s mother was holding a spatula and barely looked up from the pan, where her pancake batter pooled and bubbled. The word “Hendrik” caused no reaction; it was as if the name meant nothing. Perhaps Hendrik was no different from Hanne, the imagined baby sister. Perhaps there was a fleet of conjured siblings, all with names that began with H.
“Just because you talk about your sister all the time doesn’t mean I should have to talk about my brother,” Örjan said.
“I don’t talk about Phoebe all the time,” I said.
“You do,” he said. “ ‘My sister’ this, ‘my sister’ that. Even in your sleep.”
“In my sleep?” It’s true that I’d been known to talk in my sleep.
“When I first met you, you said your sister was so important to you that you couldn’t imagine dating an only child.”
Had Örjan created a brother to please me? He was good, I realized, at telling people what they wanted to hear. It was why he was so successful at managing clients. And of course I wanted to hear a tragedy; I hadn’t yet figured out how to narrate my own.
“Tell her the truth,” Örjan’s mother said to her son. She was piling pancakes—the Scandinavian kind, closer to crepes than American pancakes—on a plate. She would serve them with jam.
“Örjan,” I said. “Are you an only child?”
“I am now,” Örjan said. And then he got up, disappeared into the bedroom, and slammed the door.
I couldn’t wait to call my sister.
Dutch people ask where in Amsterdam I used to live, but when I tell them the name of the canal, they look confused and say, “Where?” and I wonder if I’ve dreamed up the place. Egelantiersgracht, I say again, more slowly. Even when I lived there, I could never pronounce the name properly; my American tongue twisted it beyond local recognition. How could I stay in a place whose very name was impossible for me to say? I had to leave my beautiful green bicycle behind.