It was an awkward situation. I was standing there, in front of my best friend’s door, with a cardboard box and an old suitcase in my arms, feeling foolish. I could hear her drying her hair inside. Taking a deep breath, I pressed the bell.
“Coming!” Marlene shouted, switching off the hairdryer.
When she opened the door, the dark hallway of the flat building was flooded with sunshine. It was the beginning of a hot summer day, the humidity in the air promising rain later in the afternoon. Marlene’s damp red curls looked on fire in the bright morning light.
She hovered in the doorframe, staring at the box and the suitcase, twisting one of her curls between a forefinger and a thumb.
“Hi,” I volunteered.
“Hi, come in.” She disentangled her fingers from her hair and swept her hand aside in a gesture of welcome. The flimsy bathrobe she was wearing came undone as she did so, and I glimpsed a perfect, small breast before she tied the garment tighter around her waist.
“This is weird,” she said, following me into the flat.
I pressed my lips together and agreed. “You can say that again.”
We were facing each other, not really knowing how to proceed. Nothing had prepared us for this odd situation.
“I don’t know.” She paused. “I don’t know whether all the clothes will fit into this suitcase.” She rushed through the second part of the statement. “The box might also be too small for all the other stuff,” she added with a shy smile.
“That’s alright, maybe you’ll have a bag or something for me?” I looked her straight in the eye, without returning the smile. I didn’t know what was really expected of me. Was I supposed to be distant? Angry? Sympathetic? I had no clue. Deep inside, I simply wanted to be neutral, but that didn’t feel right either. But how was I to pick sides?
“Right!” She gracefully turned on her bare heel. “Let me show you the stuff first.”
She led me to her bedroom. As always, the place was in a state of chaos. I never saw her make her bed, or pick up all the magazines and books from the floor. She was the fastest and least discriminating reader I knew; the likes of Dan Brown and Virginia Woolf were strewn all around us. We shared the passion of reading, but I was more careful with my choices, and I liked to be organised. Pedantic, is how Marlene described it. I preferred to think of myself as fastidious.
“That’s all I could find.” She pointed at a pile of clothes on the bed next to one of the crumpled pillows. “Some pieces were still in the laundry basket, so he might want to check.”
She reached for the box I was carrying. “Let me try to get the other stuff in here for you.”
While I was packing the suitcase, she put some DVDs, CDs, computer games and comic books from another pile on the floor into the box.
“I’ll get a plastic bag for the sneakers and the roller blades,” she said and left the room.
With difficulty I zipped up the bulging suitcase and looked at the box. I recognised the top CD cover: Lady Gaga. Kester once played the record for us. I tried to keep up with the latest in music, but some developments were beyond me.
Marlene returned, packed the remaining items, and handed me the bag.
“This won’t change anything between us, will it?” She was facing the window and the lucid sunlight illuminated her features again. I knew her well enough to recognise what was coming. I wasn’t good with tears, especially not hers.
“Of course not,” I reassured her, put the bag aside, and pulled her into a loose embrace. Her hair smelled like summer rain on hot concrete.
Marlene and I had been friends for what seemed like an eternity. I did not remember a time without her. We discovered each other in the kindergarten sandpit where during a play period outside in late autumn Marlene had drawn something with a stick in the wet sand. It was her name in neat round letters. I was so thrilled to see somebody else being able to write that I wrote my name next to hers; the friendship was sealed with our signatures.
Marlene was the sister I never had. She felt the same about me. Yet, while she remained an only child, I did get a sibling in sixth grade. I wasn’t too excited at first. With Marlene around, I never felt lonely. But when Kester was born, she said that it would be cool to have a brother. “We can share him too,” she suggested, and I immediately liked the idea. But the dozen years between us and my baby brother made it almost impossible for us to become truly close. He was nothing more than a cute toy to us. Before he could pronounce his first words, we’d defined and redefined the idiom of our friendship so that we could communicate almost telepathically. A phrase between us would evoke days or weeks of conversations on every possible topic; often a glance would be enough to say what it took others entire essays to express. And we never seemed to run out of things to discuss.
By the time Kester started first grade, Marlene and I were at high school, surviving all the ups and downs of adolescence. We hardly ever gave him a thought. He was just my little brother, almost a stranger, however much loved. I cared for him, in a quiet, undemanding way which I supposed was natural under our circumstances, but I couldn’t really say that I knew him. Marlene was at the centre of my world. In the emotional chaos of youth, we were beacons of stability for each other. Not even boys could come between us, although, later at university a young geologist came close. We fell for Jeff at roughly the same time, but Marlene graciously stepped aside; for her, he would have been just another fling, while she knew that I was more serious about him. Anyway, she could have had any man she wanted; I’d never been exactly the popular type. After graduation, Jeff and I tied the knot, and Marlene, of course, was the maid of honour. For once, walking down the aisle, I felt that I had made the lucky catch.
While Jeff and I strived for marital comfort, Marlene never settled down. Some guys stayed around long enough for me to remember their names, others were mere hellos in passing. Twice, she tried to move in with somebody, but she never cancelled her lease, her own flat always remaining on standby.
Our lives changed, moved on. Given how we had met, it was not surprising that we both made careers with words – she as head copywriter of an advertising company, I as newspaper editor – and our friendship only deepened.
I wished I’d been able to say the same about my marriage to Jeff, but recently it had begun to feel as shallow as a street puddle. For a long time I simply wouldn’t allow myself to dwell on it too much, inventing persuasive excuses for all the things that had been going wrong between us. He’d stayed on at university, rapidly advancing in the hierarchy of his department. When he spoke about his work, I sometimes had the feeling that he knew significantly more about the soil samples in the little jars in his study than about me. It occurred to me that he also found them potentially more interesting.
Then, a few months ago, the news of Marlene’s latest conquest entirely pushed all my personal worries to the back of my mind.
We were talking in her kitchen when she casually announced that she was seeing Kester.
“My brother?” I gaped in utter disbelief.
“Ye-e-es,” she hesitated. I think she realised only then that her news might have actually been tough to digest for me, and braced herself for my reaction.
“My baby brother?” My voice broke.
“Yes!” She regained her composure. “He installed the new network at our offices. Didn’t I tell you?” I knew that he did these kinds of jobs while he was still finishing his engineering degree, but nobody had mentioned this particular assignment to me before.
She didn’t wait for my answer; I was speechless anyway.
“Well, we got talking, had a drink when he finished the job, and he asked me out to dinner. You know, one thing led to another.”
“Yes, Kester!” she said impatiently, but the sting went out of her voice when she continued in a low, hurt voice. “Now I know why he said not to tell you. I thought you would be pleased.”
“Pleased?” I realised that unintentionally I was turning my head from side to side.
“It’s alright, really. No need to worry. We’re both adults.” She often rose on her toes to emphasise a point she was making, but this time the swaying movement of her body reminded me of a little girl trying to explain her guilt away to an enraged parent. “There is this, how shall I say, vibe between us.” She landed back on her soles.
“But he is my baby brother, twelve years younger than me. And you!”
"I know. But we are both cool about it." She spread her hands in innocence. I knew the gesture well. "Do you mind?" she asked, but I clearly detected defiance in her tone of voice.
“Sorry.” I was beginning to get a grip on myself, “I’m just surprised, that’s all.”
“Kester thought you might think it strange.”
“It is strange to think of you and” – I really couldn’t put it any other way – “my baby brother.”
“He is not a baby anymore.”
“Still.” I folded my arms across my chest, at a loss for words again. And then she delivered the punch line.
“Don’t overreact again, but I invited him to move in with me.”
That was almost half a year ago. At first hesitant about the relationship, I gradually discovered that it did bring a welcome dimension to my life: a closeness to my brother. I’d never been interested in his love life before. He’d introduced us once to a girl in high school, but she vanished after a few months and he kept quiet about his other relationships. Marlene seemed so completely out of his league. Or rather, he out of hers. Yet, to my surprise, and many other people’s, he and Marlene seemed to work together. At least that’s how it looked during those initial months. He moved in with her, and to my unexpected delight Jeff and I saw quite a lot of them.
It was as if I was getting to know my brother for the first time. Marlene and I really started sharing him. In different ways, of course, but as he became a vital part of her life as a lover (something I chose not to ponder on too often), he became a vital part of mine as a brother. There were moments when I still had my doubts about them, but very soon I began to keep my reservations to myself. Secretly, I also began to hope they would stay together for my own sake. In those few months, I truly became friends with Kester. There was this funny, wise kid – a decent young man – I really began to feel related to. It started making sense why Marlene might have fallen for him.
And then there was Henrik, Kester’s best friend, who owned the IT company he occasionally worked for. In his late thirties, with assertive eyes and wavy hair that was obviously cut short for some semblance of control, Henrik was attractive in an almost sloppy, or rather careless, kind of way. When Kester introduced us, I’d asked him about his name. He explained that his mother had an Ibsen phase during her pregnancy with him. I remember finding this story endearing. Soon after, when he started hanging out with Marlene and Kester, and thus with Jeff and me, my – what shall I call it? – fascination? – began.
Henrik always seemed reserved, but he had a way of being in charge of any situation he was in without ever being the centre of attention. There was something uncanny about him that I couldn’t put my finger on, and that I found too intriguing for my own good. Marlene knew me well, recognised all the signs before I dared to verbalise them for myself, and tried to talk me out of it. But I couldn’t get him out of my head. And Henrik didn’t make anything easier. Almost every time we all came together, a different, usually stunning, woman accompanied him. Even though I knew I had no right to, I felt jealous of his dates, and it did not help that he did not seem to take any of them seriously. Kester once mentioned something about Henrik being cut up about somebody from his past and refusing to commit ever since.
I felt like a fool around him, especially when I caught him watching me with a detached gaze that said nothing. The moment I looked in his direction, he would smile, and return to the conversation in progress as if he’d never left it in the first place. I tried to catch him out, to establish some kind of recognisable connection, to hang on to something, but there was nothing there. When I found myself searching our attic for my old copy of Ibsen’s plays, I knew the madness had to stop. I told myself over and over that I was married; not entirely happy, but nevertheless married. Ignoring the nagging notion that what I was experiencing was a symptom of something more than a simple attraction became nearly impossible.
I threw myself into work, accepting ridiculous deadlines and pushing myself harder than ever before. For a while I thought I had things more or less under control, that with time these feelings would go away; I just had to wait.
And then two days ago, out of the blue, Kester stopped by at my office. I offered him a seat and coffee, but he declined both, pacing the room and running a hand through his hair. After a minute, he stopped and came straight to the point, announcing that it was all over between Marlene and him. He did not explain anything and a little pulsating muscle in his jaw told me not to pry just then. He wanted me to pick up his stuff from her flat.
Spontaneously, I proposed he ask Henrik instead, but Kester sneered, anger flashing across his eyes.
“Maybe,” I continued, misreading the expression, “Henrik and I could go together?” The moment I spoke the words, I knew that it was a feeble excuse to see him.
“No.” Kester did not notice me blushing, “You can forget about Henrik.” There was a strange bitterness in his voice which bothered me, but I was too preoccupied with hiding my treacherous face to stop to consider it. Had I been so obvious? “Please go alone, and as soon as possible,” Kester insisted.
I didn’t want to disappoint him. Before leaving he gave me a long hug. I still felt his arms around me while I watched him through the glass wall of my office as he disappeared into the lift on our floor. Seeing the sliding door close behind his stooped figure, I felt another door close inside me. I sensed I was about to lose something precious. Involuntarily, I shuddered and started scanning my desk for the aircon remote.
Now, standing in Marlene’s bedroom, holding her in my arms, I felt the sensation of loss intensify again. For the first time in my life, I was also afraid to face her. I still didn’t know who was to blame for the break-up, if anybody at all; I preferred not to know the details. It seemed final, that was obvious. Nothing else mattered.
“He didn’t know who Alanis Morissette was!” She exclaimed in exasperation, pulling out of my embrace.
“Kester! He didn’t know who she was.”
“You were right, the age gap was too wide. There, now you know.”
I must have still looked confused.
“I’d felt it soon after he moved in, but it didn’t bother me at first. The relevance of those twelve years started to dawn on me only after a while as little incidents began to accumulate. You know, his still going off to classes, doing homework, playing all those silly computer games, watching Cartoon Network, and other things, stupid little things. Alanis Morissette was just the last drop.”
“Her time was in the early ’90s. It’s not as if she’d been really around lately,” I pointed out in a feeble attempt to defend my brother.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” She threw both her hands in the air. “But she’s released another album. I bought it and wanted to share it with Kester and he just drew this blank face. He’d never heard of her, he said. And funnily enough, it was the last straw. But I didn’t know how to tell him, and ...”
I interrupted her, not concentrating anymore on what she was saying. “Any good?” I blurted out, too dumbfounded to think logically.
“No, not really.” She turned from me. “Anyway, that’s not the point!”
“I know, I know. I warned you both from the very start. I hate saying I told you so, but I did!”
“This is absurd. You don’t know what it’s about.”
“I ... He ... It wasn’t planned.” She let the words hang between us. “You can’t control who you fall for or not ... and ...”
I urged her to go on by raising my eyebrows.
“Well, like you said, Kester is too young for me. Or I’m too old for him. I need to be with someone closer to my age. Maybe settle down.”
“That’ll be a first.” The words sounded condescending; not what I’d intended.
“Maybe I want to be like you. Stop this fooling around. Settle down. Like you!” she challenged.
“You don’t know what you’re saying. Marriage is ...” In that moment I was overwhelmed by all the silences and lack of enthusiasm which had been creeping into my relationship with Jeff, dominating everything between us, and all of a sudden I did not know where to begin explaining. Not to her, not to myself. All the disillusionments and turmoil came crushing down on me. I had to admit that whenever my thoughts wandered in the direction of grasping the situation, I found myself stumbling over the picture of a woman facing her husband in a gas mask. It had stuck with me after Kester had told us a joke about a neglected wife who, failing to impress her spouse with sexy lingerie one evening, confronted him wearing a gas mask the following day: “Honey, have you shaved your eyebrows?” was the only response she got. We were having drinks after work and had all burst out laughing at the time, but when I noticed Jeff’s eyes flooding with amusement, the laughter caught in my throat and I took a quick sip of my cocktail. When I looked over the edge of my sugar-rimmed glass, I saw Henrik watching me, his expression once again impenetrable. The others didn’t register anything, and more jokes followed, but I couldn’t enjoy myself anymore. Later that evening, on our way home, Jeff referred to the joke and laughed again. “How about some sexy lingerie, darling?” he teased.
Sitting next to him in my invisible gas mask, I began to choke. I told him to stop the car and threw up on the pavement.
“Too many martinis,” Jeff commented.
Another wave of bile coming up my throat was the only way I could respond.
Unable to go beyond the crude scene of the joke in my head ever since, it struck me suddenly that I hadn’t communicated any of my disappointments and anxieties to Marlene.
Now, confronted with it all, I tried again, “Marriage is ...” But something announced itself at the bottom of my spine, cold and merciless, and I couldn’t go on. “This is not about me,” was all I managed.
“You’re right, it’s not!” She sounded defiant again, but she was on the verge of tears. “Well, it is kind of,” she continued. “It’s complicated.”
It was in this moment that I realised that I was missing something vital in this whole set-up. That there was a silence between us as well. She was withholding as much as I was, lacking the words or the guts to explain what was really at stake.
I was about to confront her about it when the doorbell rang.
Marlene glanced at her wristwatch. I think she hissed “Shit!” under her breath, but the response was too quick for me to catch the word. She looked at me in desperation, then in the direction of the door, as if willing whoever was on the other side to disappear.
The doorbell sounded again.
“I’m coming,” Marlene whispered, still looking at me.
Snapping out of her tense stasis, she ran out of the bedroom and to the front door. I followed, mystified. Before I saw him, I recognised the voice: “What took you so long?” I could sense the gentle banter in his tone even before I saw the smile accompanying it.
Henrik entered the flat, opened his arms to Marlene and froze as he saw me and the confusion on my face.
“I thought you said she would be gone by now,” he said accusingly to Marlene, his arms dropping to his sides.
And then it all fell into place.
“Alanis Morissette, my foot,” I murmured.
“What?” Henrik asked.
“Nothing.” I refused to make eye contact and drew my chin even deeper towards my chest.
Marlene was in the kitchen. Her offer to “talk about it” over coffee hung in the air like a bad smell. As if any of this could be fixed with words. Henrik and I sat on opposite ends of her big sofa, not knowing where to look or what to say. My head was buzzing with the realisation of what I’d just witnessed, but I couldn’t think beyond the image of Henrik’s arms reaching out to Marlene. Did she say something about settling down? “Mr and Mrs Commitment? I thought mockingly and tried to straighten out my posture, but the mountains of pillows enfolding me only made me sink deeper into my corner. I also couldn’t see clearly; direct sunlight blinded me unless I looked in Henrik’s direction or straight into the wall next to me. The air in the room felt like glue. I pushed myself upward, trying to regain some kind of control over what was happening to me. Standing up, I took a deep breath and turned to confront Henrik.
“I ...” I began unconvincingly. “You!” My finger shot out in front of me. “Kester is your friend, dammit!”
“Now!” Anger ignited in his eyes and he also got up from the sofa. I couldn’t remember him ever losing his cool. We stood opposite each other, staring. Then his expression changed to something else, yielding but still calculating, and he focused his gaze entirely on my eyes. I felt cornered. “Who are you to accuse anybody?” he asked.
At a stroke, the room darkened, the sunlight extinguished by clouds.
“You should be the last to point fingers,” he said, turning his attention to my hand, frozen between us in its gesture of accusation. I dropped it, and my eyes followed. I found myself frowning while feeling my inside rise in a sandstorm, the gusts of conflicting emotions rubbing me rawer by the second. Henrik just stood there in front of me for what seemed like ages, the atmosphere heavy with resentment.
Before I could lift my eyes again to challenge his scrutiny, he swiftly crossed the space between us and kissed me. Straight and hard on the mouth while pressing both my arms against my body in a firm grasp.
“Almost ready!” Marlene shouted from the kitchen.
Henrik released me and stepped away. Now the room seemed even darker.
“You have no right to judge anybody. It’s not as if you are honest with yourself. If only you –” He reached out in my direction again, but I instinctively moved a step back. He withdrew his hand and looked away for a second, running his fingers through his hair in a gesture that reminded me of Kester. “You see,” he continued. “If only you wouldn’t lead people on. Some of us have feelings too.” He spoke in a soft but definite whisper.
“What the f ... ?” I began, fury crawling into my cheeks; I only ever swore when pushed against the wall. But Marlene entered the room with a tray and Henrik went to help her before I could finish my question.
They set the coffee mugs, the sugar bowl and a milk jug on the coffee table as if nothing had just happened. Marlene and I drank our coffee sweet but never white. Staring at the milk jug, I felt all the confusion I was feeling crystallising into scorn.
“How could you do this to Kester, both of you?” I hissed. They looked up in a synchronised gesture. I wanted to throw more accusations at them, to scream myself empty, but nothing more would come out. We stood still in silence until Marlene turned to Henrik and began saying something I refused to listen to anymore.
“Why don’t you get dressed!” I sneered at her. She was still wearing that flimsy little garment of hers. Her eyes widened and she pulled the bathrobe closer around her neck.
I couldn’t take it any longer. I stormed out of the room, bumping into the low table and knocking one of the mugs over. I ran to Marlene’s bedroom and grabbed my brother’s belongings. She followed me and I collided with her on my way out.
“Please, let’s talk about this. I didn’t mean to ... It’s not what it seems,” Marlene pleaded, but the teary tone of her voice had no effect on me.
“You’re damn right, it’s not; nothing is, but I’ve had enough of this charade. How could you betray me like this?”
“Betray you?” She said in a small, barely audible voice. “Please, don’t. This is hard enough as it is.”
I pushed past her, throwing a last glance at Henrik, who simply stood rooted in the middle of the room with a quizzical expression on his face as if he was trying to decide something. I wasn’t going to stay around to see what it was and left the flat.
The door slammed shut behind me. I almost fell on the steps, my vision obscured by Kester’s stuff and my scorching tears. I ran out of the building. By now, the sun was completely obliterated by a blanket of brooding clouds, the air heavy with impending change. People rushed passed me, thankfully oblivious to my leaking face.
Approaching my car, I beeped it open and threw the suitcase and the plastic bag into the boot, violently banging it shut. Only then did I realise that I’d forgotten the cardboard box with Kester’s CDs and DVDs in the flat, but I had no energy to go back. I got into the car and threw myself on the steering wheel, weeping uncontrollably. I wanted to get away, to drive straight home, but the urge to share this whole terrible mess with somebody only triggered another surge of tears. I rubbed my eyebrows back and forth. A strong gust of wind rocked the stationary car, confirming the coming storm. After a while, pea-sized raindrops began to splatter against the windscreen and I searched the cubby-hole for a paper tissue. I blew my nose and stared ahead until the rain was coming down in streams. I was glad for the water curtain, which allowed me to get it all out without witnesses.
Gradually, my breath returned to normal and I took a deep gulp of air to clear my drowsy head. Instead, I was overwhelmed by a wave of exhaustion. I looked up into the rear-view mirror and pushed my hair out of my face. My eyes looked puffy, but the irises were clear and strangely light, like amber, instead of the usual dark brown. I traced the outline of my eyebrows, flattening them into shape again. I looked at my pursed lips and licked them slowly with a thick and clumsy tongue. “What’s going on?” I asked my reflection and touched the soft glistening skin with my fingers, suddenly feeling all empty. Comprehension eluded me. With my fingertips resting on my mouth, I refocused my tired, pale eyes beyond the liquid pane ahead of me. Without paying the slightest attention to the elements, a drenched figure was standing on the pavement a few paces away from my car, holding the box with Kester’s stuff in it and watching me intently. Staring back, all I could think about was that I wanted to crawl into that box and be held. I realised that it was time to pack my own bags. I opened the door and stepped into the rain.