Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Cloudberries

 

We barely touched and Ingrid called me Mr. in a way I was not yet used to at 24, keeping her eyes open to deliver tacit questions that made my body curl into itself in the effort to resist screaming. My mouth fumbled over Spanish phrases that up until these moments near her in my classroom had never sounded so exotic. “Let me hear you say it again.” I knelt by her desk, close enough to feel the breath that came from delivering a language—native to neither of us nor the African nation of our mutual residency—I was supposed to be teaching her.

Ingrid was the 17-year-old daughter of the Swedish ambassador, who was also the school board president and showed up periodically in our international school classrooms, towering her superiority. The mother was astute and tall with yellow hair twisted up such that a bit of her face twisted along with it. After hours spent muddling over what sort of comments to write on her daughter’s final report card, I had settled for, “Ingrid is bright and inquisitive, the sort of student who consistently inspires teachers.”

It was also true that in Ingrid’s face, under her skin, in the pure, smooth swoop of her freckled arms, the girl harbored intelligence and sexuality that maligned a sense of honor I had begrudgingly developed toward my girlfriend, my girlfriend in Africa, Emily. Visions of the suburban American homes and gas grills I guessed correctly to be my destiny had affixed to my perception of Emily and loomed in unwelcome apparitions while I roamed dirty African streets. While I walked in the diesel-clogged, dusty, urban rhythm of the third world, moving along with bent old ladies, half-dressed children and begging, crippled men, I reflected with longing on conditions at home, my friends and their tee times, and dates. Though I had chosen of my freewill the sojourn in teaching and adventure where I met her, I grew to consider Emily complicit in the unspoken, domesticating motives of grown women everywhere. 

I define all of this now with the wide, accommodating view of retrospect. Then, I was only obliquely aware of how Emily represented potential death for the kind of rogue, pleasing, cavalier life I had been building on. Her basic appealing qualities threatened my view of what it meant to still be young and, without the disarray caused by commitment, own the world. I have since seen the mindset—a paradigm dominated by the fear of youth’s end and such a milestone arriving more or less like Armageddon—mirrored in many young men; my younger self does not appear to be an anomaly. And, in my relationship with Emily, remorse did not prevent me from recognizing that fidelity—despite feelings of admiration, ardor, passion, or abiding closeness—was, for me at that time, impossible.

What Emily in truth desired, or believed, what her heart intended when it considered me, I can’t honestly say then or now. However, while I resisted notions of a long-term alliance, Emily elated me with a natural feeling of camaraderie, open-mindedness, and vigorous consideration of almost every physical and emotional detail of our young lives away from home, on a distant continent, absent a social order either of us understood. We both required comfort—there was plenty of sex—and as a form of revelatory, one-upmanship entertainment, we fueled each other with secrets.

Once, on Emily’s hard, teacher-housing bed, she explained to me how, just after she had learned to drive, she told her parents she was going out with friends but instead went by herself to a lakeshore near her house. She brought a notebook with intent to write poems at the beach. This was believable; it was easy for me to picture her with a flashlight, her pretty neck bent over, writing contemplative bits of overly romantic, teenage verse.

“But,” Emily explained, “I parked and fell asleep behind the wheel and woke to the noise of drunk people fumbling against a car parked next to mine.” Emily flopped over me on the bed and pretended her fist took complete effort to lift and guide toward the target of my ribs. She slurred convincingly, repeating, “You came too soon. You fucker. You came too soon.” This gave her a fit of laughter, and I wrestled her, sliding my hands, as it was a pleasure to do, around her butt before lifting her off.

“It was mostly because of that time at the lake that I stayed a virgin for a long time,” Emily said when we were lying side by side again.

“I was scared to start the engine to get away. So I sat there with my empty notebook. One time the woman turned around with a glowing breast out of her dress swinging like something caught in the wind. I was petrified that they would find me out.”

“Find you out?” I kicked at the covers. The bed was always rumpled. Maybe I turned my pillow looking for a cold spot for my neck. While she spoke, I scrutinized the profile of her high, fine forehead and, in my mind, saw the rest of her face, the blue eyes that confused Africans, her usually eager, curious expression, her pillowy lips.

“For being young, square, and virginal—someone who would try to write a poem. A girl out by herself.”

In return for her recollection that night, I owed Emily something fairly big. My story had to carry significance or impudence, and anything related to me and another girl was not off-limits but had the potential to spoil the evening’s charm. Strictly for its shock factor, I chose to expose my teenage audacity by admitting to Emily that my mother had written the essays I submitted for college admission.

“Eeew,” Emily squealed and squirmed. She pulled the sheet away from me and wrapped it around her leg while she considered this new snapshot. “Well, what did she write?” she finally asked.

In admitting that I never read the pieces, I revealed my nature as an adolescent completely uninterested in social and emotional complexities, but worse, my true lack of concern for my own future and well-being from any practical perspective. I was willing to stay ignorant, obviously, of the entire contents of my mother’s imagination as it related to me, in favor of cruising downtown in my best friend’s Buick Skylark, something I had told her plenty about.

“Maybe she persuaded them by saying the committee should give you special consideration because of your life as the disadvantaged, bastard son of a disabled trumpet salesman,” Emily said. 

I was grateful to Emily for her willingness to offer me easy outs without requiring me to justify my behavior. But her obvious reluctance to show disappointment in my character echoed hollow in our rapport and unnerved me some. “Well, I did get in,” I pointed out in reference to the fairly exclusive liberal arts institution where I had afterward, between all-night bridge games, eked out a degree in Latin American studies.

“But you could have known so much!” Emily punched me lightly.

“Anyway, my mother would never say a word like bastard, much less commit it to paper,” I said.

“But you signed the essays?” On the wall, Emily shadowed the universal double-hands-open gesture for what were you thinking?

“Without flinching.” I swaggered up my delivery, hoping to guide her in recognizing my bad-boy gall.

“Blue ink or black?”

This was the question I had no answer for and the kind of point that tended to disrupt the chemistry between us. In a few weeks I knew she would bring the story up again, having obsessed on it for the intervening time and afforded the color of my pen, in her mind, a mammoth and telling significance. In truth the actual signing had been swift as I had likely been in a hurry to leave my parents’ kitchen table and be gone golfing, getting stoned to Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, playing Ping-Pong in one of my friend’s open garages, or partying with kegs and girls underdressed for summer.

“It wasn’t like the Declaration of Independence or anything,” I said.

Emily giggled, if charitably. Outside, unvaccinated dogs barked at nothing while the moment tethered itself in memory. In years to come, such scenes would periodically trigger conjectures of what life might have been like spent with Emily. Maybe we could have lived in Utah and run with a tall, furry dog of our own on mountain trails. Maybe we could have lived in Seattle in a neighborhood with well-painted Victorians and an independently owned coffee shop down the block. We could have eaten crab on weekends.

In bed I found Emily’s hand, and not for the last time, identified a pleasant sting she sometimes caused me. Her comforts—stable, soft, and welcoming—were furnished with a spirit of inquiry and tenderness I was unable to return but fully able to enjoy. I bore the onus of her acceptance and appreciated the sculpted hill made by her shoulder when she rolled toward me and said, “I think you made that story up.”

I am still not clear as to whether Emily harbored real hopes for the two of us, or whether I, fraught with angst at the prospect of deserting glory days by allowing the possibility of marriage to creep occasionally along the edges of my imagination, created this threat in my head. Whatever the case, the pressure of Emily’s expectations took hostage of my opinion of her as the standard, appealing, broad-minded, American girl. I had no valid or sincere reason to push her away other than that she was emotionally accepting, sexually forthcoming, kind, thoughtful, and supportive. I remember feeling young and strong then, and exerting great effort toward resenting her unrepressed availability to me.

Years later I looked one afternoon across the lawn toward my wife, the mother of my son, a partner whose fidelity, until that moment, I had believed in and reciprocated absolutely through the 17 years of our marriage. I realized she had grown thinner and vibrant. I waved to her, and she smiled at me with teeth she had had bleached on my suggestion and dime. Across the generous, quarter-acre of our mutual, mowed turf, a blush presented on her cheeks. She was nothing like Emily. But the single, casual, questioning turn of her head reminded me of my younger self and sent me back over oceans and continents to consider the ambiguities involved in traveling on the passport of a lover.

 

When our teaching contracts were finished, Emily and I went south. We crossed below the equator and into autumn, taking in a few last safaris, letting the legendary African moon rise on our respective metaphorical horizons. Emily scribbled names of birds in the margins of her journal. We leaned our heads out the dusty Land Rover window and burned our skin deliberately while gawking at giraffes. Our thighs rubbed together on the seat, and everything familiar, alive, and undiscussed between us rode shotgun through expansive miles of golden savannah grass.

To complete the journey and ease our way home, we flew from Johannesburg back toward spring in Helsinki, to meet good friends who had been working on road construction in Africa and whose boys had been our students. Near enough the Arctic Circle, the sun lit our interactions for all but a few hours every night, and so Emily and I slept and woke for a week according to the whims of our bodies—traveling, sleeping in tents or the houses of friends of our friends, fishing at 3:00 a.m. for grayling, having a sauna at noon and another before dinner, nibbling on rye bread and boiled eggs, drinking black coffee and vodka in a segued reentry to the developed world.

Realize we had been traveling together since we met two full years before. It had been a surprise, relief, and romantic thrill for Emily and me to discover each other at new-teacher orientation at the beginning of our contracts. We had quickly and naturally melded together in our foreign circumstances and spent every break from school moving about African nations and beyond, enough that our passports held the same shape from where they had ridden together in a small, wallet-type fanny pack we took turns wearing under our belts.

When we were not traveling, the school acted as an idealized microcosm of the larger, inhabited world. With obvious poignancy, outside the city, the sort of complex and lasting civil war that has become tragic cliché in Africa raged just out of our direct experience. Inside school walls, students who were mostly children of UN and embassy workers possessed among themselves every kind of social and political upbringing, every kind of costume. Arab children had lunch with Jewish kids who played checkers at recess with Japanese and Scandinavians. We spoke English in class, but even the kindergarten students spoke with peers in one language, teachers in another, and parents in a third. With the experiences of the globe’s multiple cultures as our modus vivendi for those two years, I think it did not strike me as contrived or reprehensible at the time, now that we had left sub-Saharan Africa, to be ditching my Western-American girlfriend in Finland in order to visit my Swedish Spanish student.

Of course, even at 24, I had a fairly realistic sense of what I might be doing to Emily’s heart. But even if I had been honorable in never talking about the continuation of our relationship once we returned to the US, I was aware of her gracious, conscious decision not to ruin things between us while we were together by requesting promises. It is possible that she held hope for the two of us as a couple, although we lived in distant, distinct cities in the States and were not beholden to social mores held by anyone other than ourselves. For my part, I planned on kissing her good-bye once we arrived at JFK, then phoning infrequently until she understood clearly my lack of intention.

Still, with respect to Emily, the fresh-faced, unpretentious girl I remember, I ought not to have done what I did. In the long-take, wide-angle rearview, what the fuck was I thinking, really? Probably I was giddy at the prospect of fulfilling the social, wild-oats expectations of my stateside peer group—by capitalizing on the opportunity to bed another beautiful girl. I had no discretion and less shame.

And I attributed to the intimacy I shared with Emily the idea that she would not, so near our parting, hold this transgression against me. I even hoped that she would, in the spirit of cross-cultural exchange, choose not to take my action personally and instead recognize the situation, as I did, as my single chance in life to sleep with a Swedish girl who was also my bright, gorgeous, perfect-A student, as well the daughter of an ambassador. After all, it was my golden opportunity at a James Bond plot, and I suppose I was impressed enough by my own prowess to believe that Emily would be spellbound by the natural talent I brought to my role. Never mind the primitive buses and ferries I had to ride, barely scraping the fare from my limited, saved earnings to accomplish that bit of cinematic intrigue.

My thoughts were turned already across the channel toward Ingrid and her creamy skin. And Emily acted as if she took me at my word that I wanted to take advantage of this singular, brief circumstance to explore one more landscape. That morning I left my girlfriend at the house of our friends, sleeping. Too many years have passed for me to guess if I, with subconscious intent to modify my forthcoming behaviors, put my hand around her passport instead of my own.

This was long before the concept of terrorism had exploded into its current schema for Americans and accounted for immigration stations acting more or less like the Welcome Wagon. Clearly no one at the Swedish border intended to rummage through my bag. The size of my shampoo bottle had no relationship to explosive capability, and my worn tennis shoes posed no kind of threat. Living in an African war zone with revolution coming to a head during our residency, so that we were evacuated while rebels took over the capital and transformed themselves into a government over the length of a summer, Emily and I had grown accustomed to a level of violence, adapted to sociopolitical duress, and evolved a confidence and ease in traveling in uncomfortable circumstances. And, in the early ’90s, the world still loved Americans, or I, at least, believed that it did and that my looks would carry me, for I was young, with a head full of generally good intent and copious, wavy hair. I was youthful enough to be classified as pretty, but I could not pass for female. So I was forced to explain to the Swedish immigration officer how I had, by mistake, taken my girlfriend’s document from our mutual pack, and that she was likely this very moment discovering that she was still in Finland with mine, and he waived me through.

To be fair, the boy-man I was and Emily were beginning to be alike anyway. Not in our passport photos, of course, which were taken before we met, but in the sense that we had spent enough time together that we were beginning to make use of the same expressions, mimic each other’s gestures, part our hair on the same side, and accurately predict each other’s actions, until we were as much like twins as lovers. Although I’ll allow that the curve of Emily’s dark ponytail sometimes put my pulse up an increment when she shook it in an emphatic way that was utterly separate from me.

I was convinced by my own charismatic dexterity that when I returned to Finland, Emily would not know what I had done or would not detect the sweet, Swedish breath lingering, mixed with my own. Using evidence garnered from the vivid images provided by a guidebook and brochures scattered about a dirty table on the return ferry, I prepared to elucidate for her everything I had learned about Sweden.

In truth I had seen mostly the inside of a Stockholm apartment. Ingrid, whose father died before she turned school age, had been sent home to live with a brother five years her senior. When I came in and set my duffel on the floor, he sat on a wooden chair, leaning back eating fruit and running his fingers through a swag of straw-colored hair that looked as if it had been painted by Van Gogh. “So you know Ingrid from school?” He laughed outright, looking back and forth between Ingrid and me.

“Pretty well,” I said, forgetting in the enchantment of the girl’s proximity that I was talking with her relative.

“You children have fun.” He spoke to me courteously in my language and lingo, and I remember that he actually said “children.” He did not return in the two days I spent there.

Ingrid’s mother had remained across the ocean, protecting African children, forming policy, making decisions regarding food aid and road projects, and otherwise saving the starving and needy. At the time if, tangled in Ingrid’s little bed, I considered her, it was with the comprehension of her dominance and authority that made the idea of banging her daughter all the more alluring.

 

Though a teacher then and not uncontemplative, I had not had reason to develop compassion toward the concept of parenting, or protecting a child, or keeping offspring from sleeping with predators. I had no knowledge on the basic, broad topic of letting youngsters pass from the world of adolescence to enter whole spheres of experience in which you the parent are not only absent but also, alternately, completely ignorant and uncomfortably over-informed. Which is to say, I hadn’t yet taken into account the sort of scene that ended with me, knees buckled in my San Diego driveway when my 14-year old son said he’d like me to monetarily support his kayak lessons. This after he pointed out that his mother had made a good decision in leaving me.

 

I can’t recall my thoughts as I held Ingrid, the accommodating scholar with wide-set eyes, still-narrow hips, and a classic upturned nose. I know we tumbled immediately and repeatedly into the bed, into the shower, onto the floor, and after made our way to the efficient little Swedish fridge Ingrid’s brother, like some kind of ironic devil, had left well-stocked with beers.

As far as I know, Ingrid agreed that our time together there was a culmination of feelings past and not to be construed as a commencement of any kind. I embraced her tenderly and remember running my lips over the hollows of her neck before I departed the dock, and we amicably never contacted each other again.

En route back to Finland and the waiting Emily, after I reflected on the enjoyable events of the previous few days, my mind lurched backward to a year between high school and college when I worked on a cruise ship.

The job, humiliating as it is to reveal, was awarded to me by a friend’s father as indirect payment for helping his son maintain a position on the varsity golf team by schmoozing the coach, moving golf balls, and deflating scores when no one was looking. The employment arrangement entailed my performing waitering tasks on the ship. In port I would be able to play courses in Bermuda or the Bahamas as long as I sustained discretion about mixing with guests on board.

In the dining room one night an old man stood, cleared his throat, and told the boys around him to listen. The family group, New York Italians, kept yelling across the four tables they occupied, waving their arms and ordering champagne. The old man wore a fine pinstriped suit and a plain, navy tie. He struggled at pushing his rounded shoulders back.

I stood a few yards to one side of him, holding my water pitcher at chest level. I strived to look invisible as we were reminded by senior waitstaff at every meal to do. The glittering of sequins and the bob of bowties stilled while Grandpa waited. “Boys, if you ever love a woman like I love this woman …” He began with a bellow and did not finish his thought but gestured broadly, parting his hands like a priest. He looked around the dining room, aware of the depth of his audience. “I want to sing you all a song,” he said and pulled his wife from sitting up to his side and said something in her ear. She moved to stand behind him with her hands on his waist, the two of them heavy with age and their skin shining under the chandeliers.

“When your old wedding ring was new,” the man sang out. Then his wife whispered a line to him and he nodded before he sang, “And the dreams that we dreamed came true.”

(I confess here that I can be certain of the words not because this song was familiar to me then, but because many years later, I became curious enough to go to the trouble of looking them up.)

The man waited for the words his wife gave him, each time singing the verdict out into the contrived, cruising night until the song was finished and all the women crying.

Later I walked the deck with a tray of petit fours, listening to the dark ocean pass under me, avoiding the kitchen. The old woman accepted a cake. It was violating ship code to open conversation with a passenger, but the deck was unlit and no other staff lurked about. “Your husband can really sing,” I seemed compelled to say.

The woman leaned on the rail and looked across the Atlantic. “I always have to remind him of the words.” Her dress, mostly silver and made to flatter the body of an older woman by hiding it, blew around in the breeze. “It’s never equal,” she said. “Someone always loves the other person more.”

I offered to take her napkin, but the old woman grabbed my free hand in hers. I stared into the moonlit and wrinkled path of her cleavage and struggled against vertigo. “It’s not bad to be either person when it lasts,” she said.

 

Off the boat back in Finland, the immigration officer looked at Emily’s photo and inquired whom I had been to visit in Sweden. “A friend.” I affected a purposefully casual air, concentrating on not looking away.

“A good friend?” the agent leaned out as if he meant to smell me.

“Yes. A good friend I met in school.” This was a kind of truth, but the agent forced me to explain again about Emily’s passport. I stood for several minutes while he smirked, taking his time flipping the little blue pages while I talked, seeing the places Emily had been. “You are not like her,” he observed. He turned the little book and showed her picture to me. He pointed to Emily’s pretty face.

“I know,” I said.

At the home of our Finnish friends, Emily had spent the days with the grandmother of a student who had been in her elementary class. The two women had come in from the woods where they had been harvesting something called cloudberries that were thimble-shaped and pale yellow or white. I opened the door on them in a small kitchen sitting in opposing rocking chairs. Emily laughed, adjusting her expression in rhythm to a story the old woman relayed in Finnish, a language Emily didn’t know.

Emily stood and came to me, the smell of wet leaves and earth on her skin and clothes as she kissed me on the mouth and buried her fingers in my hair. By that time my senses were set to edge by preceding stimulation and compounded by lack of sleep. I was still rocking from the ferry. The old woman grinned at us. Thick calves stuck like boughs out the bottom of her long, dark skirt. I pulled Emily’s passport from my back pocket to show her the Swedish stamp. “Black ink,” she said. I turned the pages to show her the photo, to show her it was her passport that I had taken. She looked then more winsome than she ever had. “I can say I’ve experienced a bit of Sweden, then,” she said.

“Happy,” the woman said to me. Her smile showed some teeth dark and others missing. Although we were already very close, she put her hands on my shoulders and pushed me toward Emily. “Happy. Happy,” she said again. It was perhaps the only word of English she knew. My face burned, and the berries sat on the counter, bowls of them rising like small, telltale breasts everywhere.

Emily led me outside to the yard where a large, screened tent protected an abandoned picnic table. Our hosts were absent, likely sleeping. Down a hill in a shack with a wooden bed and an old mattress Emily had unrolled our sleeping bags.

I was wild with want and stricken by waves of sentimentality, anxious to disprove my infidelity. Her heart-shaped face still glowed tan from Africa, and as much as I can remember anything about a body I loved long ago, I remember that her shoulders were wider than the thin man I was. Emily, who was almost my height, settled her chin against the back of my neck in a way so ordinary, for a terrifying moment I thought I would give myself away by crying. I embraced her and her shoulders went around my body. I pressed against her. Whatever words Emily said, I didn’t hear them through her chest.

 

Twenty-odd years later, I recognized without doubt that my wife was having an affair, not only by her resemblance to the sun, but also by her earnest condescension to me, and her genuine, if unenthusiastic, agreeability to whatever I wanted. We were moving then, trying to find a house to better reflect my increased, consultant means. My wife favored a house with a tended garden. For me she pointed out an evening primrose in a backyard bed. It was a beautiful, short-lived flower, she’d told me, that burst forth at dusk, hoping to be fertilized by an ugly moth.

My wife graciously helped me move things in. Then she left me, citing therapy-induced rationales beyond my grasp. She refused me details of the new man, but I woke one night in our house and knew with great certainty that the guy had been our son’s fifth grade teacher a number of years before. I could envision him sitting behind a Formica-topped table made in a horseshoe shape, pulling our son’s papers from a folder, complimenting and pointing like a geek.

I have never regretted the time I spent with Emily; neither have I ever ached for her. But often now for comfort I picture myself as I was, unwise and wrapped into the house of Emily’s shoulders, when I think of my wife living with a simpler man.

“Well duh,” she said when I phoned, hot to say that I knew the other man’s name. This was something I had never heard her say before, and the expression loitered like the sore, smoldering underbelly of a fog that intends to cling to a cliff all day. “He’s a gentle-minded man,” she said. Then, after a beat she added, “Don’t waste your time worrying about me.”

(first published in Stickman Review)

 

 

Kate Krautkramer’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Creative Nonfiction, National Geographic, The New York Times, The North American Review, Zone 3, Mississippi Review, South Dakota Review, and Washington Square as well as in the anthologies The Beacon Best, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Best of the West 2010. She has also been featured on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and Day to Day. Kate lives with her husband and children in rural Northwest Colorado, where she teaches writing at South Routt Elementary School.