Araben

He’d planned it so well. Nothing but a sort of magnetism, an instinct, an insistent pulling heaving debilitating feeling. He resumed, slowly moving the towel across her head. One step at a time, slowly bringing him home. Patting through his pockets, he finds his wallet and carefully counts the money. This is another thing he knows with absolute certainty. Above all, it is of utmost importance to be certain, because why would one ever – in fact, how could one ever – fail to anticipate such matters. It was too much. ‘You foreigners, I mean.’ His hand froze. It’s rare that he can recall the feeling. She always knew best. Though he couldn’t see their faces, he knew exactly what they looked like over there in the sandbox: their round cheeks, soft like peaches, rosy from the chill in the air. He can perfectly recall his last shift with her, and those eyes, the icy blue that made him decide to never return. Most of them he can’t remember at this point. ‘Is important, math,’ he nodded. Suddenly a new possibility struck him. The job, his part-time job. Once he had helped her shower and dry off, he moved on to drying her hair. This is extra job for me.’ His voice was shaking, but he tried as hard as he could to keep it steady. He could easily turn it into a full-time position if he wanted to. It was the time when he had no time at all, when he could barely manage to eat or cook or clean or shower. Before each visit, she would go to the bathroom. He’d saved all the papers in a box for that day. So he made up his mind. Recharge. It is extremely important to be certain, to have no hesitation or doubt whatsoever, that he has enough money to pay with: cash or plastic, it doesn’t matter. It was a good job. It would be over. ‘I mean to say,’ she continued, ‘maybe it’s something in your culture, that you take better care of your elders? They continued into the bedroom, where a stack of her clean clothes was folded over the back of a chair. How quickly they got used to the new country. As if it wasn’t enough – that scene she’d caused when she stormed into one of his lectures and threw all the documents he’d asked for through his lawyer across the room. Warmth finally starts spreading through his body again and he can relax his shoulders. He felt the tension in her shoulders when he grazed them with the comb. The idea hit him like a stream of cold water poured down his back. A while later he walks out the door, looking straight ahead with his movements full of purpose. They have each other, he thought, and he felt that cold clear rush down his back again. Between work, his other classes and the children, he hadn’t been able to dedicate much time to studying. He returned the keys to their hook, and went to give notice to Kerstin in her office. The hardest path must be the right path. He froze. Fights about inherited money, accusations in court that he’d hit her – lies they’d instructed her to tell so she would have her way. Manual labor, he thought, suddenly shivering in the wind. She wanted revenge. It would add up to much more than the study grant he currently got from the government. Today almost nothing remains from that period – the marginalia in his books, a few notepads, the soft lines around his eyes. He didn’t want to count, and anyway it didn’t matter. He knew it from the moment the thought came into his mind, even though doing it wasn’t going to be any harder than the act of lifting his feet off a high diving board and plunging into the water. He looked at his study notes. The eyes of the judge had said it all, even though he of course couldn’t be convicted without evidence.  
*
 
The snow is creaking and the sky, still grey, is about to fade to black. The children were hers now, but clearly that wasn’t enough. He had to make the decision now, before he was struck by hesitation or regret, before he could find excuses. He doesn’t know what it is exactly, but he knows that something is passing him by, right in front of his eyes. Caretaker as the end and not as the means to get somewhere else. In this, she was successful. It was beautiful. He let a section of the towel fall over her face so she couldn’t see him. What do they know, he thought as he watched them head off to buy their wraps and hamburgers. On top of it all, of course, were the things she did just to mess with him. Forward is the only way he sees. Postpone the great reward only slightly. They’ll get it, he thought. He’d stayed up until two in the morning cleaning the apartment and changing the sheets in the bunk bed. It might have a fireplace or a balcony with double doors and asymmetrical dimensions. People get an education so they can earn enough to buy a house that’s a hundred years old with a courtyard, a black tin roof, perhaps a maid’s chamber. The other country is insistent within him. There was a basket of blue shoe covers by the door, but he knew Gerda disliked it when he wore them. Breathe for a few seconds. What, then, would happen to all he’d sacrificed on his way here? He who makes the biggest sacrifice and lives the hardest life will get the largest reward in the end – that’s what he thought. He shivered. He reached for the underpants, which were on top of the stack, and began pulling them over her right foot. Wind took hold of his body. No. Come up with a plan B, an emergency plan. ‘In my country, I’m civil engineer. Photograph © Carles Tomás Martí He considered what it would mean to be a caretaker. He could disappear. ‘I’m student, actually. There were toys on the beds in the kids’ room. What do they know about struggling, about having a goal? What would it mean for the creased forehead of his mother, the downcast eyes of his father? Someone who thought the result was what counted. The window frame is open a small crack, and from it wafts the scent of a private world. ‘Today is day for shower,’ he said after a while. He carefully moved the towel over her tender head. She didn’t ask any questions, just seemed slightly bewildered before she agreed to his request. She was sitting in her wheelchair, swaddled in a large blanket. He used the short, slow movements she had taught him, beginning with the tangles at the end and working upwards. He’d never thought of Swedish as a beautiful language until he heard them speak it. There was a time when he, too, was a busy man, a man for whom time disappeared into memories, leaving no other trace. Though life returns, not all of us will be here to see it spring. The streetlight is slowly growing brighter. He continues to creak along, looking at the houses, these pretty houses that sell for millions of kronor. She wanted to ruin everything that meant something to him. He does remember that other time, when he was as busy as a person can be. Gerda would get up at 7.00, roll to the bathroom in her wheelchair at 7.15, have breakfast at 7.30. So he could be the father they needed. No, he couldn’t take it anymore. He pulls up his shoulders against the cold and tries to clear his mind, tries to think about something else, tries to feel something else, but it’s impossible. ‘Yes, it’s Thursday today.’
He was the only male warden she allowed to help her shower, something she had specifically informed them of at the office. His eyes are shiny and clear, but a sense of something elusive rests at the very front of his belly, pushing against the taut skin. That’s what brought him here. She held up the empty case for him to see. He would wash up while she went to the bedroom and put lotion on her face. He gazed down at his papers, at the open thermodynamics book. His job introduced him to the forgotten ones, people who were lonely just like him. That dark fall evening – walking down the street now, he remembers every detail. He wouldn’t drink too much. Underneath the thin silver hair, her scalp was exposed. He’d painted the children’s room a pale green from Clas Ohlson. He’d already stocked the fridge and gone out to buy two small gifts on his lunch break: a pink pencil case and a red fire truck. Outside, the leaves had just fallen. That weekend, he took the subway to Gullmarsplan, where he hopped on the bus to the neighborhood where he had once lived. He let his head hang. Instead, he had his studies and his part-time job at the home-care service for the elderly on weekends and evenings and every weekday he could spare. This is real life, here and now. This would be followed by lunch at 11.00: a different pre-made meal for each weekday was the only variation she allowed for. But in the same way, there would be no going back once it was done. Fallen leaves made a red-brown soupy mess under his feet as he walked the final stretch to the house on Sandfjärdsgatan. Red leaves covered the ground. He keeps walking, scooping his shoulders to preserve the warmth. A bird is flying towards a hole on the other side of the tree. He knows from experience that the way home is always quicker, so once he’s back on the road he tries to walk as slowly as he can. It’s strange, when he looks back on his life, to think that time was once so quick, while these days it creeps forward at a snail’s pace, minute by minute, second by second. A new country, a new language, and a new chance. So when he joins the throngs of fathers, mothers and children, when he walks past the shelves that hold Via and Pågen bread and Cornflakes and Blå Band sauces, he is certain. ‘So what are you going to become at this old age?’
He told them he didn’t want to see her anymore. There was silence between them. No. He turned the wheelchair around so she faced him, and for the first time since the beginning of the conversation, he looked into her eyes. To everything he’d left behind by the rounded peaks of the Alborz Mountains? His voice, high-pitched, screaming, still rang through the room. Thick, warming fur. The curls on their heads danced in the breeze. Her sharp, ice-blue eyes – he’ll never forget them, especially the way they peered at him that last afternoon. Always the same food: bread with liver pate and half a serving of oatmeal. She offered him some coffee like she always did, and he accepted even though he’d already had some. He was starting to feel cold again. Her eyes were alert as they fixed on him, and she pushed the cookie jar in his direction. He takes one step at a time, looking nowhere but ahead. And it worked. His plans, or rather his rearranged plans, all his ideas about how to make things right again, to make the world return to its proper order, to make life return to normal so they could get out of this surreal, impossible nightmare and never, ever look back. He envied them, and at the same time it filled him with joy. After the incident, he swapped schedules with Ililnca, a 50-year-old Romanian woman who, like him, had a degree in civil engineering, and always tried to get as many weekends and evenings as possible. Words he can still hear where he’s standing today, doing an inventory of the contents of his wallet. He’d believe anything that came from her mouth. He thought the outcome was what counted. Apartment cleaning on Mondays, groceries on Tuesdays, shower on Thursdays, and a walk Fridays. But the sensation of it? No. Just a small adjustment, a short intermission before real life resumes again. An unwashed porridge bowl and the pot she’d made it in sat in the sink. I have 275 people work for me, you know.’
There was silence again as they crossed the threshold into the living room, rounded the couch, passed the table. The doors can be kept open in the summer to welcome the sound of the children playing in the courtyard. He’d often sat at that bench, watching them. The trees stand naked, their branches exposed and weighed down by snow. Financially, it would be enough. There’s a jingle jangle from the coins in his pocket. He asked about her family. Leaving them was the only possibility. The only thing you have to hold on to are your schedules and plans. It gets dark early this time of year. Little brother, wide-eyed, was looking intently at her.  
The above is an excerpt from Pooneh Rohi’s novel ‘Araben’. That was her new strategy – as if it wasn’t bad enough that she had taught Yasaman to call him by his first name. He’d bought her flowers and arranged them in a vase in the living room. Once he was done with this part, he brought out the comb and slowly began untangling her hair. A cat is huddling in a kitchen window on the ground floor. Thin hairs stuck together in little wet clumps. He’d prolong the hard times just a bit. Yes, certainty and confidence, guarantee and assurance, since he’s had to bear witness to this: the cashier’s turned-away blue eyes and the scent of her chewing gum (pink Bubble Yum), her impatient shuffle of I-have-better-things-to-do-than-this and his broken, ‘I think I must have forgotten.’ The timbre of high-pitched words that break and turn into a whisper. He had to make a decision, and stick to it. His new chance at a regular life – was it the third or fourth attempt now? Moving one foot, then the other. The telephone was still in his hand. He still knew the apartment like the back of his hand. The documents that’d give them all the facts they needed, saved and stored for the final reckoning. The bus came to a halt and he got off. He draped the towel across her shoulders and pushed the wheelchair over the threshold and into the hall, where he spoke again. He took one. But he never returned their looks. He’d said he should be glad he’d been granted visitation rights. He loosens his scarf. He’d reached his limit. He rested his head in his hands. He can hear the remorse in his own voice, recall the sensation of downcast eyes and flushed cheeks. He can’t see it. He had to be strong. His hands were trembling. In a few years, when they’re a bit older. Time can never go by quickly enough. Only the tree trunks remain, freezing. Wind rustled the leaves underneath his feet. Irreversible. Low shrubbery covered most of his body. A plastic bag in his left hand and a briefcase in the other. He couldn’t deal with it. They were silent for a few moments before she continued: ‘Somehow, you are just better at this kind of work than the Swedes, I would say.’ She paused, waiting for him to respond, but he stayed silent. Her blue eyes met his as he took hold of her leg to pull the garment over the other foot. Cars drive slowly, people walk faster, and the sky is full of clouds that hide the stars and eternity that stretches out behind them.  
­*
 
That was the fall when time was so short. That’s what he thought at the time. Coffee and shortbread cookies at 3 p.m., and buttermilk with cereal at 6 p.m. Might that be the case?’ She tried to catch his gaze, but failed. He made the capital D Decision. A new chapter, a new beginning, a new life. Quiet light fell from the lamp onto the pages he was trying to read. He needed to make a decision. ‘A student?’ she said after a few more seconds had passed. An icy gust comes in through the window and the cat blinks arrogantly, looks away with a disinterested air and jumps down to the floor. One day, when they’re old enough, they’ll get it. When he was a person with plans. Sure, they’d been forced to pay a stiff price, but they would be rewarded for it. New sheets. That last, hopeful night, he hadn’t slept a wink before his alarm finally sounded and it was time to go to the airport. That first fall, in the very beginning, was the hardest. She was a human being just like him, and they could both pretend for a moment that he was just there to pay her a visit, like an old friend. And he knew that what had just happened was part of a new scheme of hers. No wavering, no changing his mind again and again. Then he moved around to the back of the wheelchair, lifted the towel again and dried the back of her head. Nobody could see him from here, but he had a perfect view. A schedule to follow. ‘Perhaps most important subject in school.’
‘Oh yes, definitely,’ she said. The exam was tomorrow at 9.00. How effortlessly the language flowed from their lips. Afterwards, even his own lawyer had a cooler demeanor than before. ‘Hi there!’ He took his shoes off in the hall. And then there were the kids. She got her way. She’s here, right now, present, in this world. I was director for factory. He gazed down at his shoes, standing in the flowerbed. He could probably even get overtime. In between, she would gaze out at Lake Mälaren from her kitchen window or, in the summer, from her glassed-in balcony. The playground where they always played was in front of two high-rises, right next to the closed kindergarten that would be razed in the spring. He would write his exam in the morning and pick them up from kindergarten in the afternoon. About having a plan? They were going to go to the pool. ‘Of course there are so many people coming and going here anyway,’ she had said, ‘But there has got to be some order.’ When Kerstin told him this in front of all the others he had felt a sense of pride, but then he’d looked away and mumbled something before hurrying off to the key cabinet. ‘Hello,’ she greeted him. Even if he left their life right then, they’d always have each other. One foot in front of the other. Just until they’re old enough to appreciate the complexity of the situation. As he walks, he keeps his head down, watching the crunch, crunch, crunch of his feet on white snow. They’d give it to him if he asked. Her fur is black with white patches on the belly and by the nose. He can hear it crunching with every step he takes. It would be his third attempt to pass. Got custody of the kids. He’d have his weekends off, evenings off, more time and more money. At this time of year everything must die. Like all roads, this one too comes to an end. You can’t be spontaneous when nothing happens anymore. He didn’t know how to make it all work. No more exams, no more late nights at the library, never again the heavy burden of difficult words in thick books. Her life was strictly regimented, just as his is now. He looks up in an attempt to regain focus, shifting his attention to the houses to his side. Which made sense to him. All that fits within a fur coat. It was all he had, those two short days every other week. Nothing gets through the snow. He made schedules to get everything done on time; he crossed off checklists; he lined up his course books, one after another on the shelf, signs of the small steps he had already completed. He can still picture her moving in her wheelchair between the kitchen and living room in the three-bedroom apartment she occupied by herself. The snow: cold and creaky, white and thick, greyish by the edge of the road. Cold air billows from his mouth as he puts one foot in front of the other. It pushes against his ribs, pulses with his heart. The part-time job paid the bills, but it was more than that. If the day isn’t merciful and it doesn’t seem like your legs will go easily over the ledge of the bed, you can always choose to turn around and fall back asleep. He knew she did it to exact revenge, to wreak havoc in his life and ruin what was not already ruined. So they’d be able to look at him the way all children should be able to look at their parents. Around him, the world shrinks. Gerda: her name was Gerda Bengtsson. Sidewalks lined with naked trees: tall pines and other unknown species. They were mostly women, wrinkled and fragile. Just a few years. He was stuck in a never-ending loop of work, school, shopping, cleaning. That fall was the time when all he could afford for lunch was three rolls of bread and a small carton of milk from the grocery store in the subway station. On the table was a plate strewn with a few breadcrumbs. It was for them, he thought. He couldn’t take it anymore. He sat down for a moment, asked how she’d been, if she was hungry, if she had already taken her medication. They both looked out the window. This was the second time she had cancelled the kids’ visit. The sensation of snow and ice and sharp cold air isn’t enough to overcome the memory of sun burning his skin. How he was sitting at his desk with his notebooks open, old course books lining the shelf above his head. The air is so cold it holds no dust. The hours were flexible, which meant he was able to work less during exams. To previous new beginnings, and more recent ones? There were so many of them, the old ones, the old ladies. He stopped at the second high-rise. It was cloudy, and the water shivered in the wind. He stops for a moment and looks at the animal. Yellow houses with tall six-part windows and tin roofs are replaced by a highway, a parking lot and finally the entrance to his final destination, the supermarket. Something that anchors time so it doesn’t float away, something that stops it from going fuzzy and loose with no beginning or end. And just as he’d guessed, there they were, playing in the sandbox. Except for Gerda on Anders Reimers Väg. Back and forth she rolled. Perhaps that’s what happens to people who have too much time on their hands, he thought. His head felt heavy. He took a few steps into the kitchen, where he knew she had been sitting all morning, looking out onto the lake. Wind rustled the shrubbery. A step in the right direction, he thought. How happy they looked. The only sound was the creaking of the wheelchair. What is a life? There are still many hours left to kill, hours he knows will need to be broken into little pieces until there’s nothing left but scraps and fragments piled on the ground. Big sister was talking about something, as usual. Crystalline, the thought arrived as the fog cleared up outside his window on the eve of the exam he had to retake. When Yasaman would be old enough to understand.  
*
 
He turned the lock and stepped inside. Translated from the Swedish by Kira Josefsson 
The snow flattens under his feet as he crosses the empty road. She told him her daughter had called the day before to talk about her oldest granddaughter, who was failing math. They were wearing their rain jackets – hers in red, and his in green, colors they had chosen for themselves a couple of months ago in the store. Moving forward. He was sure that the tighter his chest felt, the larger the reward would be. And there she was, sitting in her wheelchair with a red blanket over her knees. Their backs were turned to him and their heads, covered in black curls, were bent over something in the sand that he couldn’t see from where he was standing. She was sitting perfectly still with her hands folded in her lap, letting him work through his task. He had to come up with a plan, make a decision, and stick to it. It was meaningful and important too, and it exposed him to a side of Sweden that was different from the one they taught at the Swedish for Immigrants classes, or the one shown on television. He was the one who’d purchased the furniture and chosen the decor, he’d bought everything for the bathroom and the kitchen, eagerly waiting for them to join him in the new country. He has walked past the strollers and the bourgeois mothers and the unending yellow houses and trees – traversed the entire length of this sidewalk, out of a wish to keep to his schedule or out of habit or just to kill time. The others, the young ones, would stare at him and his cheap food, noting how he had the same thing every day. It arrived as though it had flown through the sky between the high-rises and over the park and just landed with him. Their tall windows shine bright as he steps onto the other sidewalk. Well, yet another Decision, but this one was especially difficult. The room, which had just been filled with the sound of his shouting voice, now echoed with silence. Until he’s back on his feet again. ‘I must say,’ she began, her head still under the towel, ‘you are very good at this job.’ She removed a strand of hair that had stuck to her cheek. He shook it off. The memory is more alive to him than the snow, the trees and the pavement beneath his feet. She nodded.