June 26, 2024

CC BY-NC-SA @ Museum für Sepulkralkultur
The Story-TellerFiction by Hanna Johansson, translated by Kira Josefsson

One day after we began living together I discovered that he knew how to draw. Later on he told me it was something he hadn’t done in years. But now he’d picked up a pen and made a sketch in one of his notepads. 

It wasn’t premeditated, he told me. 

He drew what was before him, the room he was in—our room, our living room. The window, the globe lamp with the wide shade, the book stacks and the rubber fig in its pot on the floor. I’d brought it here, the fig, it came from my home, my life—my previous life—and back then it was small enough to stand in the window. Now it was big, taller than him, almost as tall as I, though it appeared to grow only vertically. The branches and the leaves were sparse, but I thought it looked good like that, and the growth pattern made it a good marker of time. Out of all our plants this was the only one I worried about. I didn’t want it to die, and yet I never watered it. By some kind of unspoken agreement watering our plants had become his task, just as it had become mine to bring in the mail. 

He drew all of this, the scene before him, with a regular ballpoint pen. 

And then he left the notepad out, and I saw his drawing, and I saw that he really knew how to draw. Was this a talent he’d always had? Yes, he said. Yes. I used to be good at it. It was my thing, I was good at drawing. 

Yes: he was good at drawing, he really was good. A steady hand. It was something I hadn’t known about him, that he had a talent for drawing. It’s the kind of thing you don’t know about someone who comes into your life when you’re both adults, he said, and I said yeah, that’s true, you’re so right about that. 

A few days later I happened to glimpse him in front of the bathroom mirror. He was cutting his hair. 

Looking through the cracked door I could see his neck—where the hair was long—and his reflection; him as he saw himself. His mouth was open and his lower lip slack, and now and then he’d lick his fingers and adjust something, fix his bangs, brush them with his hand, a hand that was slightly smaller than mine but rougher and drier and with longer fingers. 

While I observed him through the cracked door I realized that these were motions he’d made many times before, motions that were quotidian for him. Focused, decisive, competent. Spontaneous. I knew that he cut his hair in front of the mirror on a regular basis, but I’d never seen him do it before, not like this. It had never stopped me in my tracks before. There I stood, paralyzed, observing his face in the mirror: the cheekbones, the mouth, the eyes that moved and the hands that worked. 

He didn’t know I was watching him. Or maybe he knew but didn’t care that I was there. 

Neither of these events were remarkable in isolation, but because they took place so close to each other their combined effect on me was an intoxicating vertigo. I know him so well, I thought. I think I know him so well. I thought I did. 

But when I saw him in the mirror, a few days after discovering that he was good at drawing, it was obvious to me that there were rooms only he could access—rooms that were his alone, and where I would never be allowed; rooms I would never enter. It was suddenly clear that he, or some version of him, would always remain a stranger to me. 

A few years earlier I had read a suspense novel, a book by Patricia Highsmith: The Story-Teller. The story is about an author who, in an effort to put himself in a murderer’s mind as part of a story he’s working on, imagines having killed his own wife. He stages scenarios that a murderer might find himself in. He walks into the forest and buries a rolled-up rug where he imagines having concealed his wife’s body, in order to feel what it’s like.  

He knows that he’s not actually killed his wife. He knows that he’s not killed anyone. But his behavior makes him suspect to the people around him, and when his wife disappears he becomes a person of interest in the investigation. By fantasizing about having murdered his wife he sets off a chain of events that ultimately does lead to her death, and in the end the author really does commit a murder. 

His fantasy, in other words, has real-life consequences. 

Since reading The Story-Teller I’ve often had the sense of similarly having “staged” our romance. It’s a feeling of having tricked fate, having manipulated reality, a sense that my life was a dream. And of course it was, my life was actually a dream: the dream of a future with him, just like I had pictured it back then, before we moved in together. It was a dream that had dominated my whole existence for some time—for several years I had fantasized about him, several years before we moved in together. Several years before we built a life together: that’s when my obsession began, when my suffering started. 

I was still sometimes surprised by how well my present reality conformed to that fantasy; I was astounded by what had happened to me. Astounded that I was loved by him. That I had made him love me. That we were happy together. Just like in my dream. By fantasizing about a life with him I had made that life come true. 

The blessing of lucky love was that I could now cast my mind back to that earlier time. The time of suffering, of fixation. I could allow myself to think of that time. I allowed myself to remember. 

Back then I thought I would never be able to tell him about my feelings. Never, unless they turned out to be mutual, or if they were to fade; two scenarios that appeared equally implausible back then. 

In that period, when seeing and talking to him was a luxury, I often thought of him as “you.” It was how I addressed him in my mind. I no longer do that—today I don’t need the substitute intimacy of that pronoun; now I can address him directly, now I can put out a hand and caress his face, knowing he won’t shrink away. Today that gesture is like touching myself. 

In that period my deepest desire was to be able to speak frankly with him. To have the permission to do so. I fantasized about it a lot, thinking, compulsively and anxiously, about what I would’ve told him if I could have. Something like: 

I can’t stop thinking about you. I think about you all the time. I like your mouth, I like the corners of your mouth, your teeth. Every time we see each other I wonder when I’ll get to see you again. I feel dejected every time we say goodbye. I don’t always know what to say in your company. Being around you makes me insecure. I want to be with you all the time. Sometimes I can’t bear it, being near you. I go over our conversations when we’re not together, I think about the things I’ve told you and wonder if there’s anything I’ve said that might make you like you less, or if you think I’m strange, if you don’t want to see me again, if you find me annoying. Are you happy to see me? Do you think I’m weird? Creepy? Do you sometimes get tired of me? Do you ever think about me? Am I too unrelenting? Do I bother you? Do I talk too much, or too little? I’d like to get to know you. I’m often shy around you. I’m too timid to ask the questions I want to ask, but I want to know everything about you. I want you to tell me everything. I want us to be able to confide in each other. Do I mean anything to you? You mean a lot to me. I think I’m in love with you. Are you in love with me? 

I saw him first. 

You, I saw you first. 

You arrived at the party the same time I did, on the same subway train. We introduced ourselves at the apartment building door when we realized we were going to the same place. We rode the elevator in silence and waited together after I rang the doorbell, and then, when nobody opened, we went in together. Because of that, for the rest of the night people seemed to think we knew each other better than we did. They acted as if we belonged together, as if we’d showed up to the party together and now just gotten there at the same time, by chance. 

I knew that we had actually met before then, though I no longer remember when or how, only that when I saw you on the subway, before you’d seen me, I recognized you from somewhere. And in any case, because the hello outside the party is your first recollection of meeting, that’s the time that counts in the official story. I’ve never told you that I already knew who you were. 

Almost as soon as we entered the apartment you turned to me and asked if I wanted a smoke. The question was posed with a determination that both flattered and confused me. Then, standing on the balcony, you told me a whole host of things about you, speaking very fast and without having been asked, something that would probably have annoyed me if you weren’t so attractive. You didn’t have your own lighter, you borrowed mine. 

You’d dropped out of music school, you were a bassoonist, or you used to be. You told me several facts about the instrument: that it required diligent care, that it was manufactured using wood from a particular Bosnian forest—but you couldn’t stand the classical music world; too rummy, you said, and so racist, sexist, and then you repeated something your teacher once said—a sexist comment—and I thought that you’d never have repeated that comment if I were a woman, a realization which made me ill at ease, but there was also something intimate about it. I felt pleased, and the force of that feeling was surprising. I hadn’t expected to feel that way.  

Something about the way you described that world—a world I wasn’t necessarily interested in, one I had never cared about conquering, though I’d always viewed it as a space one would precisely have to “conquer”— it was attractive to me. The fact that you were able to criticize it, that you’d been able to leave that world, that you didn’t relate to it with the polite submissiveness I had toward it; your manner of talking about that world made it seem accessible, your descriptions so casual as to seem almost coquettish, paired with a contagious hunger. You radiated confidence.   

When you took out a second cigarette even before I’d finished my first you asked to borrow my lighter again. And just like before I passed it to you instead of lighting your cigarette for you. I wondered why you chose to smoke a second cigarette. Did you want to prolong this moment with me? Or were you just a heavy smoker? But, you said as you returned the lighter, I love opera, and if I’m honest I have to admit (and this, the idea that there were things you “had to admit” to me, filled me again with that pleasant feeling of intimacy) that I really love Wagner, I love Tristan and Isolde, I love how intense, how grandiose it is. To die for love. 

I have no idea what sorts of things I told you that night. I can’t imagine I made much of an impression. 

I liked you, I saw myself in you, and I was a little annoyed with you, too. It was clear to me that these contradictory feelings were the early signs of a crush. It wouldn’t be the first time I fell for someone before even getting to know them, and I also knew that most of the time a crush like this would be over just as fast as it had begun. 

On my way home that night I listened to the prelude from Tristan and Isolde, and thought, with great resolve, that it was because I was curious about the music, not you. It was a beautiful piece.  

During that time, during my time of suffering, I was consumed by the idea that someone might figure out what was going on with me. A friend came over one night, we were drinking wine, and at some point he went over to my computer to put on some music. Later, after he left, I panicked: what if he saw my search history—I’d been listening to Frank Ocean—and realized that I had an unrequited crush. Because the smallest gesture from you occasioned intense analysis by me I now believed that everyone would analyze my actions in the same paranoid way. 

I was torn between a desire to reveal my feelings and a desire to hide them. From you, but others, too. I so badly wanted to talk about it but couldn’t figure out how. To solve this impasse I invented a code known by me only: by introducing a subject that made me think of you—these were themes that probably didn’t have the same association to the person I was talking to, whether because they didn’t know you or because they didn’t spend as much time thinking about you as I did—I was able talk about you, unbeknownst to the other person. Here I was, professing an abiding interest in, among other things: opera; woodwinds; the Pisces Zodiac sign; having many siblings and, specifically, being the oldest of four; university towns and what it was like to grow up in one. In one conversation I floated the idea that it might be like growing up in a tourist spot, i.e. a place lots of people passed through, laying claim to it and creating memories around it, but one they were always ready to leave—a place with a specific purpose, one that was shaped more for those who left than those who stayed—and henceforth I thought of you whenever someone mentioned having been a tourist somewhere. 

I committed banal details about you to memory, whether or not I wanted to. You didn’t like white pepper, so from now on I thought of you whenever I ate something containing white pepper. 

I didn’t know how to approach you, the thought of it scared me. So to linger, in this superstitious way, in the things I knew about you—the few things I knew about you—was my way of spending time with you without having to make myself vulnerable.  

If we ran into each other somewhere I’d always stay for as long as I could, hoping to have a reason to talk to you, and then I was disappointed to discover that you’d already left. Sometimes I would overcompensate instead. In an attempt to conceal my interest in you I exaggerated my distance, avoided you if we were at the same party, barely said hi, didn’t look you in the eye. 

I wanted to get to know you, but when we saw each other I lacked the courage to ask real questions or tell you much about myself, since every interaction was marked by danger: I might do something, say something, that would lead you to understand my true feelings. Our relationship remained superficial. We were friendly acquaintances. I suffered horribly from knowing that you thought it was “nice” to see me. 

I wanted there to be a way to know how you felt about me. 

I wanted to please you. 

I felt guilty. 

Amidst this uncertainty I was filled with a confidence that bordered on madness. I was waiting for you. I held an oddly strong conviction that our meeting was “fated,” or maybe I believed that we already knew each other before the time we met, and that the time we spent together was just a matter of filling in the contours that had been in place forever, maybe even since before we were born. These were the kinds of things my infatuation led me to believe. 

But soon I realized that you were seeing someone, and that it was pretty serious, which meant that every sign I’d ever taken to mean you were interested in me had been a misinterpretation on my part. 

To ensure you wouldn’t suspect my true feelings I now switched tactics and became almost too explicit about my affection for you. 

My logic here was that I didn’t behave—or so I thought—like a person in love. 

A person in love would never had sought you out so often. A person in love would never have put his arm around you with such ease when we said hello. A person in love would never have shown such interest in your date. A jealous person would never behave like this. 

During this period, thanks to my enthusiastic interest in you—now expressed openly for the first time—we became very good friends.  

The first time you came to my house there was a book on the table, a book I’d recently bought but not yet started to read, and when you saw it you exclaimed: I love that you’re reading that, it’s one of my favorites. 

This told me that you didn’t remember having mentioned that exact book to me a few months earlier, and that you didn’t realize this was why I’d bought it, that this was why I wanted to read it. You noticed it at my house and thought you saw proof that we had something in common, when what you actually saw was a sign of my obsession. 

In this period, which lasted for a number of months, I was exhilarated by my own propulsion whenever I slept with someone, feeling as if I’d cured my lovesickness. And inevitably every time I slept with someone an unwelcome, inescapable thought appeared, one that was even more exhilarating: now I had something to tell you next time we saw each other. 

We saw each other quite often, but I always had the sense that you didn’t count me as one of your close friends. 

I loved the way you laughed. I loved your mind. 

Sometimes you’d complain about the person you were dating, and I was always quick to add some nuance to the conversation: couldn’t it be that–; if you saw it from his angle–. And this was something a person in love would never—right?—have done. 

The two of you broke up. I don’t know why. You didn’t tell me about it, I heard it through the grapevine, and since I didn’t want to appear too interested I didn’t ask. I got the impression that it was the other person who left you. 

Once again spending time with you had become associated with danger. Once again I was shy, obsessed, tongue-tied. 

A couple of months went by and you invited me to meet your friends, out of the blue. It was nothing special, it didn’t mean anything, you were all going out for dinner together. Nothing special. But it was the first time you invited me to meet your friends. 

The afternoon before the dinner an old friend texted to ask if I wanted to get together, and since I was back to being anxious about seeing you and since I was anxious about meeting your friends for the first time, I invited my friend to join us at dinner. I texted to let you know I was bringing a friend, said I hoped you didn’t mind, but you didn’t see my message and you still hadn’t seen it when we showed up at the restaurant. I could tell, immediately, that you weren’t happy about it. 

You looked at me. You looked at my friend. The two of you introduced yourselves. 

You had no interest in getting to know someone new, no desire in “conversing” with a stranger, and not even I felt like hanging out with the friend I’d brought, but there I was, stuck with him. You had welcomed me into your world, your community, and I had abused your generosity by bringing a chaperone, by being too scared to see you and your friends alone. I was miserable. 

What would have happened, I asked myself again and again afterward, if I’d come alone? Would we have gone home together at the end of the night? Would we have found ourselves alone at some point, would we have had that frank conversation? Would everything have happened in a different order if I’d showed up solo that night? Would our lucky love have arrived earlier than it did? Or not at all? 

I spent the whole night feeling torn between the responsibility I nevertheless felt for my friend—to make sure he had a nice time, that he wasn’t uncomfortable—and my own strong desire to gain the approval of you and your friends. I was nervous that you and they didn’t like my friend, nervous that your impression of him would rub off on me and contaminate your impression of me, even as I was anxious that my friend might sense my discontent and feel hurt by it. 

The morning after you messaged me, confirming my suspicions: I didn’t see your text, you wrote. Calling is better.  

We drifted apart. We reverted to acquaintances. I was alone, again, in my sense that we had something.  

Something. What thing? Something in common? No, not exactly, it wasn’t that we had something in common in the sense I normally understood that expression: shared experiences, background, interests. It wasn’t that. But ever since we met, my conviction that you and I were made of the same cloth had only grown stronger. That we shared something. That we’d been inside each other even before we met.  

I still had moments of faith, moments of fully trusting my fantasies. In those moments my imagination seemed as real as a memory. In my fantasy you loved me. In my fantasy we were able to speak to each other. I fantasized about sleeping next to you, I fantasized that at some point it would be easy to be around you, that it would feel natural. But those moments were becoming sparser, and my faith grew frailer.  

I was miserable. 

I shaved my head, I lost weight. I wanted you to notice, to see how slim I’d gotten. I thought of my new slimness as punishment for us both. For you, because you didn’t love me, and for me, because I loved you. Because I was an idiot, because I couldn’t stop thinking about you, because I couldn’t stop dreaming about you. But my weight loss wasn’t visible, only I could tell. Nobody commented on the weight loss, just my shaved head, which made my ears look too big.  

I saw a friend, a mutual friend of ours, and I nearly told him. Not everything, though I nearly told him that I often felt unsure how you felt about me, that I liked you, that I liked you a lot, even, and that I kept changing my read on your feelings—whether you liked me, too, whether you liked spending time with me, whether you’d like to see more of me, whether you believed we could be more than friends, whether you believed we could make each other happy—but in the end I couldn’t say any of it. 

I did, in the end, confide in this friend, a few weeks later. All I said was: Something seems to happen to me every time he enters a room, and maybe it’s always going to be like that. 

I said it offhandedly, as if it was something I’d long since gotten over, something I’d noted in passing, with ease, almost as if it was funny, a simple observation. On the way home my whole body was shaking, and I regretted having said anything at all. 

But after this, a brand-new feeling appeared. A sober calm. It was as if I’d woken up from a dream. 

I realized that I had been behaving strangely. It was strange to dream about you. Yes. 

I’d stop. 

That summer you sent me a postcard. It was entirely unexpected. You were on vacation, on the French Atlantic coast. How nice, I thought, to send me a postcard. How thoughtful of you. It made me think that you really did want to be my friend, a thought that made me happy, but also sad. 

A few weeks later I was on vacation myself, in Kassel, and I sent you a postcard, too. I bought it at the museum for sepulchral culture, which is to say a museum for death rites. Now, in hindsight, it seems too obvious, but I didn’t mean anything by it. I had no secret intentions. I swear. 

When the author in The Story-Teller finally commits his crime—when he does the deed he’s merely fantasized about until then, only tried to imagine—it strikes him that he didn’t reflect on his feelings at all while he was in the midst of it. 

It’s how it was for me, too. 

What happened was that you took my hands in yours and said: Why are we so timid around each other? 

But the time we saw each other before that evening, before the evening when you took my hands, we had dinner together. 

You’d invited me. 

We were at your house, the place where you lived at the time, a collective home in an implausible building: a sixteenth-century wing of a grand house in the park. To get there you had to take the bus and then walk, and while I was walking on the gravel path, surrounded by the wet, dark late-summer greenery, I told myself that everything would be different this time. That thing that always began when I saw you wouldn’t begin this time. No: this time would be different. I would not think of you with superstition; I would think of you as a friend this time. 

It was a nice dinner. I thought, several times over the course of the night, that it was going well. I looked at you and didn’t feel anything in particular. I felt, or thought to myself, that I liked you. Not an intense feeling, not a violent yearning. No. I thought to myself: this is going well. 

I was the one to get up, I was the one to declare I should get going. I didn’t do it for any particular reason; it wasn’t very late at night, and I didn’t have the impression that you were getting tired of me. I just had the thought that it would be nice to sleep soon, and for the first time that desire trumped the desire to extend our goodbye for as long as I could. 

So I put my shoes on. I’ll admit that I did nurture a hope that you’d walk with me for a bit, that you’d walk me to the bus stop and wait with me. That you would want to extend the goodbye now that I didn’t. But I also understood that feeling to be the dying convulsions of my obsession. 

Because even as this obsession had caused me a lot of grief and much pain, it had also given my life meaning. Without knowing it, you had gifted me something great. You had made the world seem replete with meaning. Everything I had experienced over the last few years were things I had experienced in the light of my unrequited love for you. My stupid fixation had made the banal beauty of the world heartbreaking in a real way. You told me that you loved the idea of dying for love, and thanks to you I discovered the vastness of a life lived for love. My senses were wide open as I walked through the park, retracing my steps in the light rain, and when I sat down at the back of the warm bus I felt free. Free of you. I’d be able to keep seeing you, but it wouldn’t be the same anymore. I had lost my hope, but it wasn’t a hopeless feeling. It was, on the contrary, a feeling that the world was open to me and I was ready to take it on. I felt no shame, and I also felt a strange distance—to myself, my previous self—thinking: who was I? Who was that person who was so consumed by yearning? Was that really me? Yes, of course it was—it really was I, it was me, it was I. I felt full of wonder, almost infatuated with myself. Full of wonder at my ability to have all these feelings. Full of wonder at how powerful the feelings were. I leaned my head against the scratched bus window, but it wasn’t restful, my forehead kept bouncing against the glass, and when I sat back to look out through the window instead—or at least attempted to do so, since all I saw was my own blurry reflection—I allowed myself to feel, for a brief moment, unalloyed disappointment. I wish, I thought, that you’d have walked with me for a bit. But it is what it is. 

It is what it is.  

Hanna Johansson is a Swedish writer and critic who writes on such topics as art, literature, and queer issues. Antiquity, her debut novel, won the 2021 Katapultpriset and was shortlisted for the Borås Tidning Debutant Prize. It is published in English by Catapult (US) and Scribe (UK).  

Kira Josefsson is a writer, editor, and translator working between Swedish and English. Her translations have been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and the Bernard Shaw Prize. She lives in Queens, New York, and writes on US events and politics for the Swedish press.