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That August, I began gymnasium a few blocks from the plaza at the southern end of the Avenue. My father had secured another temporary appointment at the university and, instead of returning to Long Island, my family had moved into a tiny two-bedroom apartment on the city’s eastern outskirts. A fifteen-minute tram ride from downtown, our apartment sat on a hilltop with a mix of apartment buildings and single-family homes, a plaza with a grocery store, and a small lake ringed by deep woods and rock outcrops. New to my school like all first-year students, I soon made friends in my class and on the schoolyard, a large rectangle of pavement where students gathered between classes. My friends and I greeted each other with hugs on the schoolyard in the morning and in the afternoons strolled down the Avenue or listened to music over a pot of tea in someone’s bedroom. 


My friends shared their lives with an intensity I hadn’t experienced before. While my parents had taught me to deflect attention and not burden others with my thoughts and feelings, they walked arm-in-arm discussing their deepest doubts, fears, and dreams. At first I didn’t know what to say, but gradually feelings and fears that I had considered it self-indulgent to want to speak of with others began to escape my breath: my love of drawing and poetry, worry about moving again, or fear that my mother, who had without explanation begun to only eat raw vegetables, might be seriously ill. Each time a revelatory sentence crossed my lips, my face heated in shame when I replayed my words during the tram ride home. But the following morning on the schoolyard, my friends greeted me with the usual hug and hur e det fatt, how’re things. The daily intimacy of our friendship soon wove like a strong lace through my days.


Shortly after meeting my friends, I started a diary in a journal with cream-colored pages and delicate lines. “I feel like I’ve known them my entire life,” I wrote in my first entry. Every evening, I sat on my bed writing about my day. “I think that’s how I feel too;” “another boring evening with gänget,” the gang; “I love them all!” I recorded my realizations in my neatest penmanship and before turning out the light leafed back through the thickening chunk of pages. Secure in the growing substance of my life, I then placed the diary in the drawer of my nightstand and laid my head to rest on my pillow.


One Friday evening, eight or so of us met as we usually did at the top of the steps in front of the art museum at the southern end of the Avenue. The museum’s massive yellow-brick arches rose to our backs and as water fountained over a statue of the Greek god Poseidon on the plaza below, the broad, store-lined street stretched its lights toward the horizon beyond. My friend Mia passed me a bottle of wine in a paper bag and then eventually rose and pulled me up by the hand, a shawl of brown hair sweeping around her homemade red sweater. I reached my other hand toward Johan and together the three of us walked down the steps onto the plaza and across the street. Our other friends slowly followed. 


As we passed the entrance to the public library on the corner, Mia stopped to read a flier announcing an upcoming talk by a writer.


“Someday I’d like to be a journalist,” she turned to me and said, “write about refugees and famines and people in other places, you know. What about you, what do you want to be?”

During the short internships that I and other students had completed in the eighth and ninth grades, I had worked in a shoe store and an elementary school classroom, positions I had chosen mainly because they were easy to get. 


“A journalist. Wow. Me? I have no idea,” I said. Then after a pause I added, “Who knows, maybe I’ll come up with something like that too.” The sudden thought made me giddy. Sitting over tea in the afternoons, Mia often spoke of the plight of whales and torture victims and the latest poetry she had read. I envied her convictions, her serious mind, and her knack for putting words to possibilities I hadn’t yet formed.


Sweden was a small neutral country with a strong commitment to the United Nations and promoting human rights, peace, and social justice abroad. In general, Swedish schools paid more attention to world history, geography, and the challenges facing underprivileged countries than did schools in the United States. My friends followed the news, read books, and stayed better informed than most of their peers. They pinned Amnesty International, No to Nuclear Power, and End War buttons onto their oversized army surplus jackets and sat over tea debating the merits of socialism and anarchism, what to do about world hunger, and the ethics of eating meat and distributing powdered infant formulas in Africa.  


Several afternoons a week, we sat on a dusty warehouse floor listening to the rehearsals of a punk and reggae band in which our friends Anders and Peter played. The warehouse lay close to a gathering place for punk fans in a former brick brewery that we frequented on weekend evenings, a dozen blocks or so from the Avenue. Peter lived with his mother in a nearby apartment building and, after the band finished rehearsing, we often met for tea in his bedroom. The small room had its own entrance from the stairwell along with a short hall for coats and a separate bath, a not-uncommon arrangement in older buildings where apartments had once included a maid’s quarter. We stepped into our own private space and crowded onto the bed and floor as Peter put on a single by the band Ebba Grön and went after a pot of tea. A leading voice of the young punk movement in Sweden, the band sung of its disdain for the Swedish welfare state and its collusion with capitalism in oppressing the working class.  


“How could Americans elect a guy like Reagan? I don’t get it,” Anette suddenly turned to me and asked, her pale, earnest face framed by a short cut of jagged dark hair. 


“Well, maybe not all Americans like Reagan,” I said with a shrug.


“What do you mean? He won by a landslide.” Peter gave me a puzzled look, Bob Marley’s thick locks and face imprinted in reggae colors on his t-shirt.


“Maybe Reagan won because of the hostages, you know, things in Iran, and being strong on communism.” 


I thought my response sounded convincing, but had barely finished speaking before Anders blurted out, “That’s no excuse! How can people let him get away with supporting a guy like Mobutu in Zaire or Pinochet in Chile. The list of dictators is endless.” I looked over at my friend’s broad chiseled face and saw the passion of an intense conviction, then silently gazed out the window and let the conversation move on. 


When I thought of America, I thought of my friends and neighbors on Long Island and of New York City, or places I had visited on camping trips with my family—the Everglades, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Redwood forests, and Yellowstone. My friends thought of imperialism, the CIA, and Third World dictators supported by the United States. They thought of Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, and other examples of what they described as American exploitation and aggression and blamed the United States, along with the legacy of European colonialism, for much of the oppression and injustice they saw around the world. They expected me to know more about U.S. foreign policies than they did. But I had barely heard of the dictators whose names they bandied about and couldn’t have located the countries they ruled on a map.


I envied my friends their ability to know and argue their convictions and attach their lives to causes, to belong to a world that seemed so much larger than my own. Before long, I started to check the daily headlines posted on placards on kiosks on my way to school, watch the evening news, and linger around displays put up by supporters of various causes on plazas and street corners. I bought an army surplus jacket, pinned an Animal Liberation button onto the lapel, and on weekends took the tram downtown to the library and sat by a window overlooking the plaza reading books on colonialism, U.S. foreign policy, and the Third World. Each fact and opinion I gained, each cause I decided to support, firmed up a belonging that didn’t feel only like an attempt to fit in, but an identity grown from within. 


The more I learned, the more I agreed with my friends’ criticisms of the United States. But my friends also watched The Incredible Hulk and Dallas on television, hung out at McDonald’s, and asked me how to pronounce words in American English. Their preoccupation with the United States seemed to hold not only disdain but awe. Either way, it reminded me that I came from the world’s most powerful country and, as I suspect in hindsight, helped sustain my identity as an American. At the time, the Swedish athletes Björn Borg and Ingemar Stenmark dominated the world in tennis and slalom, sports that Swedes followed with a passion. I rooted for their American rivals, John McEnroe and Phil Mahre. Since several Swedish ice hockey stars played for teams in the U.S. and Canada, Swedish newspapers reported the results of National Hockey League games. I hadn’t cared about hockey on Long Island, but in Gothenburg religiously checked the sports listings for the scores of New York Islander games and was ecstatic when the team won the Stanley Cup. Though I disagreed with Reagan’s policies, on hearing of the assassination attempt against him, I felt an unexpected surge of patriotism.


Even though I wanted to stay in Sweden and was Swedish by blood, I instinctively considered myself first and foremost an American. When I eventually moved back to Long Island and lived daily surrounded by other Americans, I no longer consciously felt that I was American, but simply took it for granted. I wonder today if the same happened to my parents’ sense of being Swedish when living in Sweden, each of us nurturing an identity in one country that we lost upon returning to the other.


No matter how thoughtful and informed, my friends’ comments about the United States often struck me as superficial and one-sided. Preoccupied with U.S. actions overseas, my friends showed little interest in understanding American society. They also directed strong criticism at the Swedish government’s promotion of a stultifying mass industrial culture and welfare state. But while they criticized Sweden from within, they judged the United States harshly from the outside. The harshness of their words stung me, as if they had attacked not only the country but me. I kept trying to defend the U.S., but didn’t entirely know why I felt attacked or what I wanted to defend.

A few blocks from our apartment building sat a small lake ringed by rocky knolls and hillsides with stands of spruce, maple, and birch. The lake was by far the most beautiful natural place that I had ever lived within a short walk of. Several times a week, I followed a trail along its near shore, looped around its marshy southern end, and then climbed a short distance up the hillside to reach a large boulder overlooking a verdant dip of ferns and feather mosses. For half an hour or so before continuing along the trail, I sat atop the boulder watching the bulrushes and reeds play in the breeze on the shore. Camilla and I sometimes walked around the lake together, but since we now attended school in different parts of the city and had our own circle of friends, we saw considerably less of each other than before.


Before beginning my new school, I had watched my Swedish classmates from afar and developed a fantasy about their friendships. Viewed from the outside, their friendships seemed to exist in a steady timeless state, rich in small squabbles and hug-filled reconciliations but without major ebbs and flows. Within half a year, however, my small gang began to splinter as several of my friends formed couples that often went their own way. Though I still saw my friends in school and on weekends, we didn’t walk arm-in-arm or share confidences nearly as often. I slowly gravitated toward the periphery of the group, friends of friends who joined us on weekends and lived on the other side of the harbor, on a large island with abandoned shipyards, factories, and high-rise complexes. These friends rarely discussed the latest news over tea and on Saturday evenings blasted the Sex Pistols from a boom box while walking, loud and drunk, up and down the Avenue. 


Shortly before the couples had formed, my parents had told Camilla and me that my father’s temporary jobs at the university had run out and we would move back to Long Island over the summer. Since they had said the same a year before and we had instead stayed in the city, I continued to hope for a change in plans. While my father had a job that he liked on Long Island, and that he risked losing by staying in Sweden, I knew that my mother and sister didn’t want to leave the city either, to give up the easy access to trams, shops, friends, and relatives that granted each of us an autonomy and belonging beyond the home. Yet we didn’t openly speak of the losses that moving would bring. Each of us, I suspect, believed that our losses shouldn’t really matter, all the while secretly knowing they mattered more than we could alone bear, or could express without upsetting the tacit rules of our family life.


I tried to shut the thought of moving from my mind. Yet the change in my friendships foreshadowed the much larger loss that moving would bring. I stopped following the news and sitting in the library and left school early and came in late. On weekend evenings, I stayed downtown as long as I could. My parents, like those of most of my friends, didn’t believe in early curfews. After my friends had left for home in the hour or two past midnight, I dug my hands into my pockets and aimlessly wandered around. The streets gradually emptied of trams, buses, and people and the scents of spilt beer and stale cigarette smoke hung around park benches and sidewalks.  The familiar quadrants of streets, shops, and buildings held me close to my friends and the person I had become in their embrace. The plaza with Poseidon, bridge across the moat, soccer stadium, and orange metal hull of the hockey arena, the landmarks of the city comforted me like the furnishings of a cherished home.


The evening of our last day of school, our original gang gathered at a friend’s house to say goodbye, my friends to each other for the summer before most of them moved to family cottages to work in nearby stores or kiosks, and I to them forever. We sat in a sunken den around a coffee table set with a bouquet of tulips and bottles of wine. As a goodbye gift, my friends gave me a cream-colored journal and told me to pass it around so that they could write down their addresses and a few words to remember them by. Once the journal returned to me, I leafed through the pages silently reading what they had written. Their conversation gradually turned to plans for getting together again the weekend after the school start in August, to a future that didn’t include me. The words began to blur on the page until I could no longer keep reading.


After a while, Mia dug a notepad from her bag and told me to write down my address on Long Island, promising to copy it for the others.


“I don’t know it yet,” I said.


“What do you mean, you don’t know it? You said you’d lived in the same house before,” Johan asked.


“So?” I looked over at the sofa where he lay sprawled in a tight, faded black tee with long strands of blonde hair sweeping across his blue eyes.


“Come on, don’t be silly! You know we want to write,” he said with a firmness that almost made me change my mind. I never did give my address. My friends, I believe today, may have written. But if they could speak of getting together in my absence, and I envision writing to them of a life that had gone on without them, I didn’t think we could have mattered as much to each other as I wanted to believe. Only much later did I realize that our letters could have told me the opposite instead.


After my family returned to Long Island late that summer, I thought of my friends a few times during the first week or two, but rarely thereafter. I couldn’t bear reminders of the intimacy I had lost or the person I had been in their presence. Such memories, as I eventually understood, could have prompted thoughts of other losses too—people, places, and partial selves that had once fed me to the core but that I had cut from memory, even while I continued to long for them. Our last evening together, as my friends eventually started to speak of leaving, I looked around the room and watched their faces until they grew into a remote eternal presence in the moment, a hazy dream that I could tuck into a crevice of memory. Then my eyes fixed on an Oriental-looking landscape painting on the wall, a watercolor wash with a thick trunk that shimmied into hair-thin strokes before vanishing into the air.

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