Around lunchtime one day in late April, a flower shop in Karlstad received an unusual request. An order for a single gerbera daisy was phoned in by someone who asked for a name other than their own to be signed on the accompanying card. The flower was to be delivered at six p.m. to the Scala Theater on Västra Torggatan 1. The instructions were thorough and detailed, and they conveyed the fear that there’d be a hitch, that the task would not be carried out to perfection. It all seemed to be of the utmost importance to the caller.
At ten to six, the florist walked through the cold spring night to the Scala with a wrapped gerbera and a card that read:
Remember me? How could we possibly forget . . .
Meet me on the main square here in Karlstad at 10 p.m. I’ll be wearing an oxeye daisy in my buttonhole. Ilse.
The flower was left at the ticket window, and the florist explained who was to receive it and that it should be handed over during the curtain call. She too gave thorough and detailed instructions to ensure nothing could go wrong. Then she went home to her husband, and over dinner they speculated about the sort of relationship that might include a game like this.
“She must love him very much,” the florist said with a dreamy tone, perhaps unfamiliar to her husband, for it rattled and piqued him as he sat in his place at the table, the one he’d always had.
“A woman like that doesn’t love,” he said. “Do you think he’s already spoken for?”
“You don’t get up to that sort of nonsense for a husband.”
“Perhaps one should.”
“If women went after available men, then they wouldn’t have to prance about coming up with these tricks. Anyway, I suppose actors are known for having this effect on women.”
The florist put down her knife and fork and said:
“She was so anxious. You know, she called several times to ask if we’d got the card right, and reminded us not to sign it with her real name, but with ‘Ilse.’ She spelled it three times, and at five thirty she called to ensure I was on my way. She was self-conscious but firm – quite a handful – all the while saying how sorry she was for making extra work for us. It was touching, somehow. But it makes you wonder.”
Ester Nilsson had arrived at that point in her life when each birthday leaves its mark. It had happened, she determined, when she had turned thirty-seven. In the past five years, she’d published four more slim but densely written volumes, two of anti-lyrical poetry and two philosophical examinations. As for love, she had been in full and continuous operation and hadn’t taken on board any lessons she considered inhibiting; to be precise, she thought that such lessons must always be weighed against the risk of tedium and tristesse, of a passive life ruled by the fear of rejection and failure.
You could also say that she hadn’t yielded to cynicism. She suffered from a certain naive open-mindedness: each situation, each person was new and had to be judged independently and on their own merits, they had to be given the chance to defy the dictates of nature and do the right thing.
In the past few months at home in Stockholm, she’d written her first play, which was to be performed the coming autumn at the country theater in Västerås. The play would send her life in a new direction, but of this she knew nothing yet. The production was called Threesome and was a melancholy reflection on the agonies of love. Ester Nilsson had striven for psychological realism, and that’s exactly what she thought she’d achieved, but the critics would call it absurdist.
It was during the first read-through in August that she met Olof Sten, one of the actors in the play. Ester hadn’t heard of him and neither did she recognize him, but after the first daylong meeting she experienced a familiar fluttering inside that she had no intention of quelling. It had something to do with how his gaze lingered in hers – pure, vulnerable and naked – and with his deep melodic voice, what it did and did not say, and how nothing bromidic ever spilled from his lips; rather, he displayed a sober restraint that Ester greatly appreciated. The rest came down to a sense of recognition, chemistry, encountering and corresponding, all of which would be pointless to question or ponder. There are neither words nor syntax for falling in love, however many attempts have been made to parade it through the alphabet.
Olof Sten wore a thick oxblood-colored shirt too hot for the season, but in it he looked cool. The first question Ester asked him was how he spelled his name.
“With an f and one e,” he said, giving her a second glance, as if he understood.
Threesome was about a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who meets another woman but can’t bring himself to leave his wife. The play was not prophetic. Nothing is prophetic. What may look like a prediction is really just a heightened awareness of what has previously come to pass. What has happened will happen again sooner or later, somewhere, sometime. And it’s likely that it will happen again to the same person because people have their patterns.
When the ensemble broke for the afternoon and scattered in their various directions, Ester sought out Olof Sten in order to ask him an irrelevant question that had taken her some minutes to think up. She thought his behavior toward her made it clear he didn’t belong to anyone in particular. On the train home from Västerås that evening, longing ravaged her cells, nerves and veins. Walking up Fleminggatan from Central Station, she was deep in thoughts of embraces and courses of action.
The next day she posted her latest poetry collection to his home address in Stockholm with an inscription she had worked on for a good while to make sure it seemed insouciant and casual. Not one week later, when Olof had been home over the weekend, a handwritten thank-you note arrived. It said that he would read it with great interest. Ester wrote back and asked if they couldn’t go for a coffee sometime during a break in the rehearsal schedule. Another weekend and a few weekdays went by, after which he called from Västerås to say that he’d read her book and liked it. As for the coffee, he said nothing. Nothing Ester heard, anyway. Only much later did she realize that he’d accepted her invitation, but in a manner so cryptic and covert it had passed her by: a while into their conversation he’d mentioned walking past a lovely cafe on Skånegatan at the weekend, one he’d never seen before and that looked cozy. Had she ever been there?
When she didn’t immediately reply, he added that he wasn’t wild about coffee or about sitting in cafes, but of course one could make an exception when a new spot opened up in the area. Perhaps.
It was too early in their entanglement for Ester to know that this was Olof ’s way of saying he’d very much like to go for a coffee with her. It was subtle, and that was the point. Ester would eventually get used to Olof Sten’s negative affirmations and would become their most experienced exegete.
When Ester thought her invitation to coffee had not been accepted, she retreated with an unpleasant feeling of having misread the signals, downcast that no ecstatic encounter was to materialize from their obvious chemistry.
Her silence caused Olof to ring her a week later, asking if they could meet up to discuss the interpretation of his role in the play, the one she’d written. He said he had a dentist’s appointment in Stockholm on Wednesday. They met at Pelikan over creamy macaroni and Falun sausage, and there a conversation began.
Olof and Ester were like two cogs. Cogs don’t merge or intertwine. They don’t lose their sense of where one begins and the other ends; they presuppose each other, propel each other forward, are in perfect calibration. That’s how it seemed to Ester. On its own, a cog is but a toothed unmoving artifact without function or direction. Which is fine, but it takes two to create movement and to realize a cog’s intrinsic potential and purpose. Unfortunately this is also true with three cogs; mechanically speaking, three can be downright excellent.
Olof Sten, as it turned out, had been married for a decade or so. The wife’s name was Ebba Silfversköld and she was the daughter of the late painter Gustaf Silfversköld, a prominent figure in the country’s cultural history, albeit from sepia-tinged times. She was a doctor whose weekly commute meant she traveled between the general hospital in Borlänge and the home they shared in Stockholm’s Södermalm. As such, they had a sort of long-distance relationship but cohabited at the weekend and in the summer. Both had children from previous marriages who no longer lived at home.
This came as a severe blow to Ester. Olof had neither hidden nor highlighted his marriage, they simply hadn’t touched on the subject, but Ester thought that, really, he could have mentioned the wife and not have exclusively used the first person singular when discussing his life. And yet as soon as the disappointment abated, she began to realize that this conduct, combined with the exceptional connection she and Olof had so quickly established, must suggest that the marriage was in decline. It made no sense otherwise.
Friends always told Ester that men don’t leave their wives, but things had to change for her at some point. No two people were identical. If she kept trying, one fine day the course of events would align with her view of how the world should be.
A month after their first rendezvous, Ester, quaking on every level with yearning, called Olof one Friday night when she knew he was home alone. They spoke for a while. About halfway through their conversation, she mentioned that Olof was always on her mind. His reply was immediate, and it filled Ester Nilsson with a sensation not unlike laughing gas and which launched her skyward even as she lay on the bed in her dwelling on Sankt Göransgatan.
“The feeling’s mutual,” he said and added something about the wife being on call and not returning until the following day, whereupon the line fell silent. Then he asked: “So what do we do now?”
Thoughts lose their density at high altitudes, so Ester didn’t notice that she’d been asked this question before, verbatim, by another man with the same intention. The consequences on that occasion had been regrettable.
What do we do? she thought. I’ll waste away with longing and you’ll start planning your divorce, that’s what we’ll do.
“Let’s get a drink next time you’re home,” she said. “Yes, let’s.”
“I’ve been thinking about what you said last time.” “What did I say?”
“That you were a ‘nomadic soul’ and wished to remain one always. And that ‘actors are people who don’t have an identity,’ who ‘lack a core.’ I want to hear more about that. I think it’s good for the Self to be nimble, if that’s what you mean, and to not believe you are and forever will be one and indivisible. It keeps you from becoming too rigid, because there’s no holy ego to preserve.”
She would get to see and hear more of this subject and would even come to revise her views on it. His ability to make precise observations made Ester happy but that’s not what had drawn her in, for infatuation is primitive, not sophisticated. You love those who give free rein to the parts of you with which you are comfortable and feel at home, whether or not those parts are rotten or healthy, scuffed or polished to a shine. “I don’t think anyone’s ever wanted to hear more of what I have to say,” Olof said.
And so Ester lay on her bed, emanating until long after midnight. His marriage was disintegrating; there was no doubt about that. All she had to do was wait.