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ATLANTIC CROSSINGS

 

Once new leaves had emerged on the trees in spring, no other houses could be seen from the patio of our home on Long Island. From early spring until late fall, my family ate at the picnic table whenever the weather allowed, donning sweaters, hats, and mittens, and leaving the doors open from the kitchen and living room to fill the house with the musky scents of rain, woods, and earth. My parents had felled half a dozen oaks on the hillside toward the hollow when building the house to keep the patio in the sun and allow us to see between the treetops to the waters of Long Island Sound. Over the years, the forest grew taller and enclosed the patio in patchy shade. The water nearly disappeared from view. Until then, however, whether I sat on the patio or in the kitchen or living room, I looked out on a sea of supple crowns and the setting suns and storms that moved across the water beyond.

         

As more families continued to move out from New York City to the rapidly growing suburbs of central Long Island, my family returned from summers or years in Sweden to the sight of one patch of forest after another replaced by a new home or cul-de-sac with winding roads and lawns. By the time I entered sixth grade, my school included at least a handful of other children who spoke a foreign language at home. My new friend Ilse, a quiet girl with a serious demeanor, spoke German at home and had a mother who often corrected her manners in front of me. My sister’s classmate Kirsten was of Danish descent. Ilse’s mother and my own mother became good friends and my family soon started exchanging dinner invitations with both her and Kirsten’s families and getting together with the family of a German colleague of my father’s. Our close family friendships expanded beyond other Scandinavian speakers.   

         

Around the time the oaks on our hillside turned a glossy cowhide-brown in fall, my parents moved our small television from the living room into the study off the kitchen, which heated up quickly in winter. Half an hour or so after dinner my mother drew the curtains to the study, brought in an extra chair from the kitchen table, and went after a tray of coffee and dessert. My father turned on the television to watch the news, my mother leafed through the newspaper and then picked up her knitting, and Camilla and I did homework on the floor. The television, radio, and newspaper carried stories about murders, the mafia, and corrupt police officers in New York City and bribery and kickbacks among government officials and contractors on the island. On hearing or reading one of these stories, often either my father or mother would say, “I don’t understand how something like this can happen in a rich, modern country like America.” The other would concur, “It’s just scandalous.”

         

My father had a decent-paying job with benefits, but my parents didn’t fully trust American employers, police officers, or insurance providers to honor their commitments and do their jobs properly, fearing as the news suggested that they might cut corners or take bribes. The retired man in the Swedish couple my family knew in a nearby town lost his pension when his employer of several decades ran into financial problems. On a street near our home a girl in pants much too short for her got on the school bus every morning in front of a shack-like wooden house and in winter, on days when her younger brother wore the coat the two of them seemed to share, stood at the edge of the road in a thin sweater hugging her arms. Along with our mothers, Ilse and I once visited a classmate who walked with a leg brace and required ongoing medical procedures; her family lived in two tiny rented motel rooms with bare cinderblock walls.

         

Though corruption occurred in Sweden too, Swedes had a reputation for being law-abiding, orderly, and peaceful, and for prizing social equality. By the late 1970s, the country had spent decades building a national folkhem or ‘people’s home’ and established the most comprehensive social welfare state in the world. Supported by taxes and decades of economic prosperity that had begun to end, the Swedish government provided free health care and higher education, extensive housing and other assistance to those in need, subsidized child care and parental leave, and a monthly stipend to help all families cover the costs of child rearing. My parents would have considered it shameful to accept assistance from the Swedish government beyond what every Swede received, regardless of circumstance. But they took it for granted that a family had a right to live secure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t lose its home or dignity to an unforeseen misfortune. 

         

To buffer ourselves against misfortune, we drove an old car, saved money by buying second-hand clothes, and except for on weekend evenings and holidays, when my parents turned on the electrical heat, relied for warmth in winter on a wood-burning stove in the living room and extra socks, sweaters, blankets, and space heaters. We turned off the shower while soaping and shampooing, avoided dirtying towels more than needed by first wiping our bodies with our hands, and when visiting Sweden for the summer rented out the house and traveled by the cheapest combination of air, train, and boat my parents could find. By the late 1970s, however, rising oil prices had pushed up airfares and deepened the recession in the United States. The summer that I was twelve, my parents couldn’t find renters and we instead stayed on Long Island. The following summer, we camped to California for two months while the house was rented out. 

         

My mother, especially, didn’t entirely trust that much of what she saw on television, on the streets of New York, or even in our town might not happen to our family. “There’s no trygghet” here, she would sometimes say with a sigh, using a Swedish word that evoked a deep sense of personal security and trust in one’s surroundings. Enough did happen to my family on Long Island to warrant some vigilance. We had returned from two years in Sweden when I was ten to find that someone had broken into the basement room in which my parents had locked their most valuable furnishings before our move. No one had forced the outer basement door, suggesting our renters as the likely thieves of our television and other items, an accusation they denied when confronted by my father. A man once tried to rob my parents at knifepoint while the four of us walked around the Bronx Zoo in the middle of the day, and one evening when we sat eating sandwiches at the kitchen table scratching sounds came from the door downstairs. My parents always turned off the lights before leaving a room and the house must have looked dark from the street. My father quietly went down the stairs and switched on the outside light to the sight of two men running away. Chisel marks remained around the lock on the door until my parents repainted the house’s trim a few years later, reminders of the insecurity that lurked under the surface of our lives on Long Island. 

         

Each time the four of us left the house, my parents double-checked the locks on windows and doors. Within minutes of driving off, however, my mother sometimes began to fret over whether she had forgotten to check the bedroom window or doors onto the patio from the living room or kitchen. She briefly grew silent, but soon turned the car around and drove back to check the locks again. My father had given up his Swedish passport to become a U.S. citizen, dual nationality between the two countries not becoming possible until many decades later. I was a U.S. citizen by birth, but my mother and Camilla remained Swedish citizens. My mother said that she would never give up her Swedish citizenship, ever. Not only did she consider herself Swedish and not American, but giving up her Swedish citizenship could jeopardize my family’s ability to move back to Sweden in an emergency. The assumption seems simplistic in hindsight, but Sweden, I intuited, was a country I could trust to care for me and keep me safe, unlike the United States.

 

A large cork board hung on the wall at the top of our kitchen staircase. The board displayed newspaper clippings for upcoming concerts, museum exhibits, and other events that my parents hoped to attend and pictures of Camilla and me and our friends. It also had a calendar on which my mother penciled in family dinner invitations, my sister’s and my ice skating, gymnastics, piano, and horseback riding lessons, her own occasional evening art or photography class, and our family trips over long weekends and school breaks to ski in the Poconos or visit Swedish friends in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. When I was in seventh grade, a skinny man with a heavy German accent began visiting our house on Saturday mornings and the calendar gained a new entry. 

         

Mr. Hobson sat across from Camilla and me at the black Formica table in the kitchen correcting our pronunciations as we read aloud from a beginner’s German language book. My parents had learned German in school and had met as students at the university in Vienna, where my father had studied history and my mother advanced German. Though my mother had hoped to translate her interest in German into a career, on Long Island her lack of confidence in her English skills and desire to be available to drive my sister and me to after school activities and friends’ houses made it hard for her to envision working. Shortly after Camilla and I began taking German lessons, I learned from a conversation that I inadvertently overheard between my parents that my father had applied for a temporary job in Germany. 

         

I didn’t want to move, even if only for a year or so. By now I had a gregarious circle of friends with whom I sat in the school cafeteria and played after school sports. Seemingly outgoing and confident, my friends belonged to the grade’s popular crowd and spent the lunch hour excitedly rehashing the latest games of our school volleyball, basketball, and field hockey teams and nodding enthusiastically over running discussions of the previous day’s episodes of General Hospital, M*A*S*H, Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, or Laverne & Shirley. I was the quietest girl at the table and couldn’t watch much television other than when my parents weren’t home. Slapstick American comedy with its exaggerated behaviors and casual personal revelations caused me to blush in embarrassment instead of laugh and the fifteen minutes of Happy Days I had once seen had bored me. I sometimes worried that I didn’t truly belong at the lunch table. But my friends continued to pass me notes in the halls, call me in the evenings, and include me in their weekend plans. For all its anxieties, life by my teenage standards felt complete.

         

In the end, my father didn’t get the job and Mr. Hobson stopped coming on Saturday mornings, though he and his wife became good friends of my parents. Knowing that my parents were trying to leave Long Island, however, I began hovering behind closed doors in an attempt to eavesdrop on their conversations and figure out their plans. Then one December evening, they told Camilla and me that my father had been offered a temporary job at the university in Gothenburg and we would be moving to Sweden in a month. I hadn’t heard anything about a possible move during my eavesdropping and the news caught me by surprise. Like many young teens, I lived in the preoccupations of the here-and-now. I couldn’t conceive of my friends and myself as anything but fated to remain together exactly as we were in the perpetual present. The thought of moving brought my life to a standstill. I told myself that my father’s job offer would be retracted or something else happen to keep my family from moving.

         

Over the next few weeks, my mother emptied closets and drawers and packed photo albums, books, dishes, and other belongings into boxes, which my father drove to a port in New Jersey for shipment to Sweden. My parents insisted that our move was temporary, six months or a year perhaps. Yet since the last time we had moved we had only taken a few suitcases, I suspected otherwise. We eventually carried our furnishings into the basement and the house became an empty hull. The day before our flight, I emptied my locker in school. Closing its gray metal door a final time, I pictured stepping off the school bus in the morning, giving myself a pinch, and discovering that I had imagined the move.

         

A rare, heavy snow fell outside the day of our flight. Frail white ledges balanced on the branches of the oaks on the hillside and, during the taxi ride to the airport, the snow-draped roofs and trees along the roads looked too serene for me to believe that I would soon cross the ocean. A family with four children had arrived that morning to move into our house, but I hoped that our flight would be cancelled and we would return home. Instead, we sat on the tarmac for hours in the snow, and then the plane took off.

 

A day later, Camilla and I moved into an efficiency unit in the same redbrick complex in which my family had rented before. Our room had a single bed with a second mattress in a pullout drawer underneath, black-and-white-checkered rugs, curtains, and cushions, and a pine veneer table and bookshelf. My parents moved into an identical unit kitty-corner across the hall. After unpacking, while they went grocery shopping to stock a shelf in the communal kitchen on the first floor, we went downtown. As we had countless times before, we followed the steep street downhill, cut through the park onto the plaza at the southern end of the Avenue, and continued toward the main shopping district. Trams trilled in the distance and my heart skipped at the recognition of stores and cross-streets. The universe in which I sought my place began to shift, from the tables of a school cafeteria on Long Island to the bustling streets of a Swedish city. Late into the night I lay awake under a familiar black-and-white-checkered bedspread, trying to get my mind around a dislocation I wasn’t sure had occurred.

         

A few days later, I started school and sat in the cafeteria surrounded by girls from my new eighth grade class. My classmates were full of questions about America. They wondered if I had eaten often at McDonald’s, lived in a house as large as J.R. Ewing’s on the television show Dallas, or seen anyone get stabbed or shot in New York City. “Are you kidding? Of course not,” I repeated. They asked me to say “America,” “Hi, how are you,” and “Hollywood” in English and then tried to mimic my speech and suppress the British pronunciations they had learned in English class. For a week or so, they continued to gather around me over lunch. But eventually they seemed to run out of questions, or to no longer feel a need to go out of their way to welcome me as a new student. When the bell rang for lunch, they walked arm-in-arm down the hall to the cafeteria in cliques of two or three. I dawdled by my locker, then went through the lunch line alone and ate at my own corner of a table.

         

The same girls that sat together in the cafeteria greeted each other with hugs on the schoolyard in the morning and walked arm-in-arm down the street toward bus and tram stops in the afternoon. Unlike on Long Island, Swedish students stayed with the same small group of peers from grades seven through nine and spent much of the school day in a single room, with one main teacher and others who came and went. Since Swedish schools also didn’t offer athletic teams or many extracurricular activities, few opportunities existed to meet kids in other classes. My new classmates may have sensed the conceit in my answers to some of their questions about the U.S., and eventually a girl did begin to occasionally ask me to sit with her and her two friends in the cafeteria. But the closeness that other girls shared with their best friends seemed more exclusive than that of my peers on Long Island. It left little real room for a newcomer.

         

My classmates all dressed nearly alike and sported an array of pricey, must-have brands. Both girls and boys wore Levi’s button-fly jeans, Lacoste polo shirts under roomy woolen Pringle and Lyle & Scot sweaters, and Gerry jackets or vests. The preference for uniformity fostered an implicit sense of belonging, which I could aspire to by changing my external appearance. Before long, I had exchanged the tight blouses and zip-up denims and corduroys that I had worn on Long Island for polo shorts and button-fly jeans. I had also stopped shaving my legs and showering and blow-drying my hair every morning, which few of my Swedish peers seemed to do.

         

After coming home from school, on rainy afternoons I often sat cross-legged on the table by the window in Camilla’s and my room, a radio with a tape recorder in my lap. Shielded from outside view by the edge of the curtain, I watched people come and go on the walkways while turning the radio dial in hopes of hearing Queen, Meatloaf, the Rolling Stones, or other music that reminded me of Long Island. Swedish radio played a different mix, more of David Bowie, Blondie, Roxy Music, and Dire Straits, which didn’t evoke memories or sentiments for me. At the sound of anything remotely familiar from Long Island, I pressed record. Each song played in my head for hours, but I rarely listened to what I had recorded. What I sought, I believe today, lay not in the music itself, but in the effort I expended on finding and recording it, on trying to preserve a slice of a life that on Long Island I had felt certain I could never leave, but that from Sweden I could barely see my way back into the shadows of. 

         

Having visited Sweden over the summers and lived in Gothenburg before, I sensed that our move should have involved little more than an exchange of one bedroom, circle of friends, and country for another. I spoke fluent Swedish, soon dressed exactly like my classmates did, and felt entirely at home in the city. My sister had joined a youth orchestra and made fast friends in her seventh grade class, which had spent only half a year together by the time she arrived. My mother had taken a job and set up a loom in the weaving cottage, and on weekends often visited relatives and family friends. My family rarely spoke openly of feelings of dislocation and loss, which led me to assume that moving shouldn’t warrant such feelings. I took my failure to fit in with my peers and fill my days with new activities as a sign that I was doing something wrong, though I didn’t quite know what. 

         

After eating alone in the cafeteria a few times, I instead began to wander the surrounding neighborhood over lunch. I crossed the street, skirted the lower side of a rock wall, and continued uphill until I reached a rocky, pine-studded outcropping between a few apartment buildings. For half an hour or so I sat on a small boulder, soaking up the fragrance of dry needles and earth and watching the sun and clouds move between the branches overhead. Thin, peeling strips of nearly translucent orangish bark wavered in the breeze on the upper branches. Slowly shedding their bark, the pines looked solid and dependable, full of light and color nonetheless. Every now and then, memories of my school days on Long Island popped like disconnected movie scenes into my head. The images registered without sentiment, distant enough that I could scarcely believe they had come from my own life. I suspected that friends who had once meant everything to me hadn’t actually mattered, and that in leaving Long Island I had lost little worth having. The thought jarred me and I quickly put it aside.

 

 

Inom vallgraven, inside the moat, people said in speaking of the main downtown shopping district that lay within the old stone fortification structure of the early Dutch trade outpost. At least twice a week, Camilla and I went downtown after school and wandered the tight grids of pedestrian streets to window-shop and people watch. Camilla had grown taller than me and, since our move, wore her long sandy-blonde hair in clips above her ears instead of letting it fall haphazardly, a new style that accentuated her large blue eyes and high cheek bones. Together, we wandered in and out of stores, laughed at the sight of people running to catch buses that pulled away as they approached the curb, and sat on park benches munching on pastries and chocolates while speaking of the foods and friends we missed from Long Island. With no intimate rooms to gather in or tend, in Sweden my family continued to spend far less time together than on Long Island. Camilla soon came to feel more like a friend, and not only a younger sister. 

         

Many afternoons when she had a music lesson or activity with friends, I instead wandered the streets alone. Winters in Sweden were long and dark and on the first real days of spring the entire population of the city seemed to crowd onto the Avenue to soak up the sun. Everywhere, people in colorful shirts and sweaters strode in the expectant air of spring, licking ice cream cones and admiring the daffodils that stood in buckets outside floral shops. One afternoon I got off the tram at the northern end of the shopping district. The first McDonald’s in the city and the second only in Sweden had opened a year earlier inside the entrance to a mall near the train station. In Sweden, burgers cost far more than on Long Island and I bought only a shake. Yet entering McDonald’s felt like stepping back into a piece of America and I almost ordered in English. 

         

From the mall I walked up the street sipping my shake until I arrived at a plaza by a busy tram and bus stop south of the bridge across the moat. I had barely begun to cross the street when I suddenly thought I saw my friend Jenny from Long Island on the sidewalk across the bridge. I ran across the street, forgetting to look for trams and buses, and had almost begun to call out her name when I remembered that she didn’t live in Sweden. Stopping short, I could barely lift my feet onto the sidewalk in time to escape the air sweep of a double-bus. Jenny had promised to write and possibly ask her parents if she could visit Sweden over the summer. During nearly four months in Sweden, however, I had received one letter from another friend, but not a single letter from her. My buried longing must have conjured up the image of her on the bridge that afternoon. 

         

As I continued up the Avenue with my melting shake sweating cold water in my hand, the familiar buildings and shops, trilling trams and buses wrapped me an amorphous veil of kinship. I wandered west along the moat through a cobblestoned residential quarter that had formed the city’s first suburb and then onto blocks lined with apartment buildings in stucco and brick, pale yellow and red-painted wood. Around whichever corner I turned, a tidy order of windows and shops contained me. 

         

Late that summer, after a few months at the cottage, my family moved into a one-and-a-half story brick house on a steep hillside on the southern outskirts of the city. I began a new school a short walk up the road. Our house had dated shag carpets, curtains, and dark sofas and recliners that breathed with the roots of another family’s life. The students in my ninth grade class were in their final year together before entering trade schools or different gymnasiums to begin the Swedish equivalent of U.S. high school. Most lunch hours, I went home, grabbed a snack, and headed up the street. A rock outcrop with a cluster of pines sat across from our house and neatly tended homes with orange tile roofs rose up the hillside. Where the pavement ended at the top of the street, a path led onto a rocky forested ridge. 

         

As far back as I could remember, my family had spent its free time in the outdoors, walking, bicycling, picking berries, and skiing with thermoses tucked into our packs. On Long Island, few forests had remained around our home that didn’t belong to someone’s backyard, or have a No Trespassing sign nailed to a tree. Swedes, in contrast, looked upon the outdoors as a shared public heritage and Swedish law gave all people the right to wander with care across most private lands. Each time I entered the woods at the top of the hill, shallow roots rose firm under my soles and the trunks of aspen and birch steeped the world in a pale light. I soon reached a large oval of bedrock. As the breeze swept its fingers through my hair and instinctively lifted my face into a smile, I wandered toward a boulder overlooking a boggy eye of water, where I would sit. With the Avenue now a twenty-minute tram ride away, instead of going downtown after school I returned to the ridge top. Each time I set eyes on the rock, familiar shrubs and dips and rises and instinctive memories of past visits evoked the same reassurance.

         

One late winter day, I came home at dusk to find my mother drinking coffee and eating mocha meringue cake in the living room with my cousin Birgit. Birgit was in her mid-thirties and a favorite relative of mine, seemingly ever-cheerful and full of compliments on my clothing and questions about my likes and interests. I went after a plate from the kitchen and sat down next to her on the sofa.

         

“Oh, wow, let me see your new necklace!” Birgit said as she caught sight of the small silver plate that hung on a chain around my neck, etched on the front with my name, personal identification number, and the three crowns that symbolized Sweden, and on the back with my blood type. Many of my classmates wore similar necklaces, slightly smaller replicas of the ID tags that all citizens received at birth. Birgit admired my necklace and, as I began to cut myself a slice of cake, sat back and said in an expectant voice, “So, tell me, are you looking forward to moving back to Long Island this summer?” 

         

The knife nearly slipped from my hand. “What?” I said. From the shadow that fell across my cousin’s face, I immediately understood that Birgit had assumed I knew of my parents’ plans.

         

“Oh no. Don’t get upset, Erika, please don’t. I didn’t want to tell you yet,” my mother said as I stood up and without saying a word walked down the stairs toward the door. While grabbing my coat, I heard Birgit apologize to my mother, who reassured her that she couldn’t have known.

         

My family by now had lived in Sweden for well over a year. I had rarely heard from my friends on Long Island. When my sister’s friend Kirsten had visited the cottage from Long Island over the summer, she and Camilla had argued frequently and no longer seemed to have as much in common. Returning to Long Island, I sensed, would be like trying to step back into a groove that time had passed by, all the while giving up access to the streets and wild havens that had come to ground my days.

         

I soon reached the ridge top and entered the woods. Instead of continuing to the boulder, I veered off to reach an outcrop that I preferred in the evenings for its view of the lit-up valley below and sat down under the arm of a pine. A slow river of headlights flowed through the valley and a tapestry of villas, and the broad lighted bend in the road that I walked back and forth to school, climbed the opposite hillside. The familiar sights wrapped no less serenely around me now that I knew that I would soon be leaving them. Above the valley, the lights had turned the sky charcoal and erased the stars. But high over the opposite ridge the stars still shone and the night suspended me in a womb of twinkling light that turned my world so full of warmth and shelter that I couldn’t feel sad. As I sat on the rock utterly grounded and distant from it all, I sensed that moving didn’t actually truly matter. If I chose, I could live anywhere and remain in the same solid place, enveloped by a stillness and belonging that lay somewhere both beyond and within me.

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