In the beginning, all is well. First she shaves her legs, carefully, using Dad’s shaving cream. The bathtub ends up dotted with tiny bits of hair and her legs become satiny smooth. She applies a mask for oily, shiny skin and a hair treatment for split ends. The mirror fogs over and her bangs curl in the fresh air from the window she opens.
Then she paints her toenails and fingernails in a thin layer of pale pink. Mom’s dress and necklace are hanging from a padded hanger, moving slowly with the warm draft. The stereo plays just loud enough and her perfume is brand-new. She sings softly without knowing the words, stands nude before the mirror and puts on her makeup: first powder, then eye shadow, mascara, and just a hint of blush. She and Carmen are the only ones at home. Mom and Dad are away for the weekend and she has all the time she needs.
All is well. Nothing bad could happen. There’s no way anything can go wrong.
But then there’s something she forgot to pick up at the store. She has to hurry, pulls the dress over her head and feels the nail polish sticking to the fabric. She runs to the store with Carmen in tow, skips the waste bags, yanking at the leash. The dog could spend hours sniffing. There is no time for that.
On the way home, Carmen stops short and refuses to budge. She plants her legs and pulls back and Katrin has to tug on the leash so hard that Carmen’s collar rides up and gets stuck on her ears. Katrin has to drag the dog the last little way, through the gate and up the stairs.
By the time they’re back in the house, Katrin is too hot. The stains will be visible on the dress once the sweat dries, salty deposits eating into the fabric, and she stinks. When she’s nervous the sweating won’t stop. Her body betrays her. She smells like yeast and sulfur, musty and dead.
But it’ll be fine, she says. She repeats it several times. Whispering it into the mirror. Everything, everything, everything will work out for the very very best.
If only she hurries to wash herself properly. She gets back into the shower. Soaping her underarms, dabbing her sticky nails with acetone on a cotton ball. She pulls a washcloth between her thighs, where it already itches even though it’s only been two days since she removed the hair there.
He doesn’t like her pubic hair; her slimy fluids make it stick together and stiffen into curls. He hates it when that happens.
She washes again, and once more. Rubbing until she’s covered with thick, white lather. But acid rises in her stomach and her mouth tastes sour. She clears her throat and brings up a bitter yellow glob. When she licks the back of her hand, she gets a whiff of bile and reflux. She’s so incredibly disgusting. She reeks. She can smell it herself.
Her gums start to bleed after the third brushing. She gargles as long as she can without choking.
She inhales. Tries to breathe slowly. Deeply. One breath at a time. She dries off. Raises her arms. The deodorant needs time to dry; it has to dry all the way before she gets dressed. Then she runs naked up the stairs and borrows another dress from Mom, a white one that’s a tiny bit tight across her chest. She balls up the other one and shoves it to the bottom of the hamper. She doesn’t bother with perfume; it’s too strong. Whorish, maybe, it was really cheap after all.
Breathe slowly. Shoulders down. The recipes are laid out in the kitchen. She’s going to make salad for a starter, battered cod for the main course, and the sticky chocolate cake is already done. It took her almost an entire day to make up her mind; she spent ages lying on her bed, paging through Mom’s glossy All About Food. There were too many options, and all the photos of salmon tartare, marbled steak, puréed soups, creamy sauces, and glistening vegetables gave her a headache. But in the end she managed to plan a whole menu, and it will all work out well. It really should. Right?
Everything is prepared, almost done, and the table is set. They’re not going to sit out in the garden; he doesn’t like to eat outside. Outdoor eating is so typically Swedish, as in grilled pork chops and home permanents, boxed wine and clogs. Not Swedish the good way, like everything that is right and proper and the only way to do things. They’ll sit in the dining room instead, across from one another. With the napkins on the plates; it looks so overdone when you fold them and tuck them in the glasses.
Then he arrives too early. Crashing through the door, his steps a little off-center, he doesn’t take off his shoes. Carmen barks and whines, cowering and putting her ears back. There are stains on his shirt; his eyes are red and he’s already eaten. He doesn’t want salad anyway. It’s nothing but rabbit food, obviously she should have thought of that. What was she thinking? She should have casually asked him if he felt like pizza, not this housewife crap. Cookbooks, breadcrumbs, measuring cups, cringey. An ironed tablecloth, candles, and linen napkins — seriously, ridiculous.
Her cheeks get hot and she turns off the oven. He walks up the stairs and down again. Leans toward a painting, backs up, walks off, pulls the curtains. He turns off the stereo, doesn’t choose something new. The room is silent. She can hear him breathing.
Katrin follows him around. But not too close. Maybe he wants something in particular; maybe he’ll say something soon. She never should have turned on the stereo. Of course he doesn’t like that music. Dad’s music. Radio racket — she should have turned it off herself. How could he like it here?
“Carmen,” she snaps. “Down!” But the dog is already flat on her stomach. She turns around again. He isn’t looking at her. “Wouldn’t you like to take a seat?” she asks. Like an old woman, she thinks, she’s acting like a goddamn old lady. He can walk around as much as he likes, it’s not her problem, is it?
But he sits down after all. On one of the kitchen chairs — and he pulls her over and draws her panties aside. He calls her baby and presses her close, sticking two fingers inside, stroking her lightly with his thumb. He pulls his fingers out again and looks her right in the eyes.
“I’ll never get tired of you,” he says. And then he kisses her.
That’s like saying “I love you,” she thinks. I’ll never get tired of you. It’s like he loves me for real, just not with those exact words. Of course he likes me. Of course everything will be fine.
He asks her to go into the master bedroom — not her room. He tells her to undress while he watches. She’s happy to. Her nausea dies down. When he watches her. That gaze — it’s sunshine on closed eyelids, an evening skinny-dip in a countryside lake. They could eat afterward. He might want the fish, after all? A little later. Or dessert. He must like chocolate, right? Of course he does, right?
It’s going to be great, really great, like in a movie. She’s sure of it. She knows what she’ll do. Afterward. She’ll borrow Mom’s silk robe, tie it loosely, and feed him with one hand. “Taste this,” she’ll whisper. “Here you go.”
She arches her back and her breasts lift and his eyes go foggy; he almost groans. He’s sitting with his legs spread wide, drinking from the bottle he brought. He has undone his pants and he touches her roughly, one hand on her sex, using the neck of the bottle to stroke her nipples. They pucker. “You whore,” he says softly. And then he strikes her. “You’re always horny,” he whispers. Then he pushes into her. With a single thrust, like a kick of his boot. She whimpers.
She tries to close her eyes. She tries to swallow. She tries to stay quiet and calm. She lies down and he leans over her. She bites her lip. As long as she doesn’t say anything, turns her face away, it will be over soon. But it’s as if her body can’t obey. The tears come of their own accord. When she tries to get away, he pinches her nipples harder; when she whimpers, he pumps faster. When he uses the bottle instead she hears herself scream.
Time passes. Or does it stand still? Her head is bleeding. Then she opens her eyes. He has gone to get Carmen and is holding her by the scruff. The whites of Carmen’s eyes are showing. How the fuck is he supposed to be able to come? How is he supposed to have a nice time while that fucking dog is skittering around on the parquet, staring at him? That overgrown rat. What kind of pet is that? What use could they have for this stupid thing?
Usually she never says no. But now. “Not the dog,” she says, “please, not Carmen.”
Carmen likes to sleep in bed with her, under the covers, at her waist. When Mom isn’t looking Katrin lets Carmen drink milk from her breakfast glass. She knows sit and stay and paw, and lots more, but only does it if Katrin asks her to. Carmen is her dog. Just hers.
“No?” he laughs.
“Please,” she begs again. “Please. What did you do to Carmen?”
“None of your business,” he says, smiling. He holds the dog tighter, by the neck now. He slams Carmen’s head against the foot of the bed. He’s shouting. “You do not say a word to me. Just shut up. Is that so hard? To keep your mouth shut?”
He sucks at Katrin’s nipples, drawing them out, pressing them back. He turns her over. Spreads her thighs; she squeezes her eyes closed again. It will never end. Won’t it ever end?
“I’m sorry, Carmen,” she whispers. Softly, into the pillow. “I’m sorry.”
It’s a neighbor who makes the emergency call. And it’s not for Katrin’s sake but because of the dog. Something must have happened to the dog. It sounds like it’s gone insane.
The call is labeled low-priority. That’s the term they use when the dispatcher has no intention of sending help; it’s all perfectly routine. They cannot send out an emergency vehicle because someone next door forgot to take the dog out. There are more important alarms.
There’s always someone dying in a big city. Those in better shape spend their time fighting. And they drink too much and swim very badly, often simultaneously. Neglected toddlers shove their sticky fists into canisters of lye and are found with burns around their mouths. Buildings are set on fire and banks are robbed of people’s poorly invested savings. Families returning from the countryside crash head-on with oncoming trucks because they desperately want to make it home in time to watch a show. Disturbed teens cut their wrists in the hopes of feeling like a rock star, or at least feeling something. Lost souls call in to report homemade explosives they intend to place under the desk of their former boss. Someone has trouble breathing. Someone else is waving a knife.
Dangerous things happen all the time; serious events that demand acute intervention. Around the clock, all year long, no time off for vacations or holidays. But if your neighbor’s dog is barking — you don’t call the emergency line, you go next door to speak to the dog’s owner.
The neighbor calls again. And again. When the fourth call comes in, there happens to be a patrol car nearby. They send it over.
By the time the two officers arrive, Carmen is hoarse. At first, they can barely hear her. As they approach the door she begins to howl. The door is closed, but not locked. As one of them opens it, the colleague puts a hand on his secured service weapon. Their bulletproof vests are back in the car. One of them has to shove the dog aside with his boot so they can enter the hall. The animal reels and her hind legs buckle but she gets up again, unsteadily, snapping at the air.
The dog’s eyes are bulging and she wobbles and staggers; her matted sides heave like the gills of a freshly caught fish. The air is stifling with the smell from the excrement that has run from her rectum, it’s still trickling out uncontrolled under her stiff, raised tail. She cowers, whines, and runs off, slipping in circles across the parquet.
The officers stand just inside the door for a moment. The dog’s terror fills the narrow hall, creeping in under their clothes, trickling down their backs. The fear has barbs that hook into the officers’ skin. They hesitate, calling out a few times without expecting any response. Their radios crackle and click.
One of the officers heads for the kitchen. The other walks in the opposite direction. A well-worn sofa is arranged before a silent TV. The dining room table has been set for two. Upstairs, three doors are wide open. The younger of the two officers stops in front of the first. It doesn’t look like a young girl’s room. He clears his throat and calls for his colleague. But his throat closes up, burning with bile. His voice hardly carries. He has to call out again.
I don’t want to, he has time to think. He can hear the dog again, downstairs.
The white dress is laid neatly on a nearby chair, clean and whole. The quilt is on the floor and the curtains are drawn. His colleague comes up the stairs to stand beside him. He breathes heavily through his nose, his hand shakes, he has trouble unbuttoning the little case on his belt. At last it opens and he works the radio free and calls for help.
They go downstairs to wait. Soon the house will be teeming with officers, technicians, investigators. The dog has to go. They don’t want to touch her. When they aim their boots near her, she lets herself out. She sits on the steps, shaking, her nose in the air, her jaws slightly parted.Then she barks, one last time, into the early summer night.