We whoosh down between dark rock-faces, through hairpin turns, down and around past dry scrub, silver-pale trees and back up, then over a ridge where the car nearly leaves ground and Niklas and I whoop as our entrails become weightless.
The hot Mediterranean air buffets our faces, for all four windows are open. Frederik takes a curve so fast that I grab my headrest. The sea beneath us keeps switching left and right.
Normally Frederik’s never brave behind the wheel, so I try not to be afraid. And the heat makes the rocks steeper, darker, the lemon groves prickling even more tartly in my nose, the sea shining blue like I’ve never seen it before.
Around yet another rock outcrop and suddenly we’re engulfed by cyclists. I scream. A swamp of neon-pink cycling jerseys. I look out the back window: no one’s fallen, but they’ve dismounted from their bikes; clenched fists, open mouths. We round the next curve.
“Frederik, it’s not funny anymore!”
He doesn’t answer.
He lets out a small sigh and maintains his speed.
I observe his long slender fingers wrapped around the wheel. They don’t belong to this way of driving. Once I found them erotic, like miniature versions of his body — tall and thin, a swaying, relaxed body. Not a speed demon’s.
And is it the speed that makes his eyes look deeper? Black-violet massifs. He seems strange, though I can’t say where the difference lies.
Another hard bump and again all three of us rise into the air.
“Stop, Frederik, stop!” I yell.
Niklas has had his head out the window. Now he pulls it back in. “Mom, just leave off.”
“I’m supposed to leave off? I’m supposed to leave off? Your father’s driving like a complete madman! He’ll kill us! Is that what you want?”
It’s the speed, the colors, the heat, and all the outrageous Majorcan beauty. Niklas sighs with precisely the same sibilance as his father and again leans his head out the window.
“Niklas, keep your head inside. It’s dangerous.”
He acts as if he doesn’t hear me.
“Keep your head in, I say. It’s dangerous!”
Still he doesn’t. I don’t care if he’s sixteen now; I turn around and pull him in myself, I use some force, and then he stays in his seat.
The Mediterranean shines so brightly it’s impossible to look at it straight on. It floats up through the terrain and calls us. Like the tunnel of light the dying see: Come, become one with my beauty and eternity. A nudge to Frederik’s hand and we’d swerve over the berm and all become weightless again, and then we’d be lifted out of the landscape too.
I want to say Stop, stop again. Instead I look at our son; he’s having fun. Am I just a killjoy?
An oncoming driver lays on his horn. Frederik keeps his eyes fixed on the road before us.
“They drive like total madmen down here,” he says.
“Will you please drive more slowly?” I ask again.
Niklas and Frederik laugh.
The road twists. And then we’re back in shadow and close to the rock wall. An oncoming truck suddenly fills the space in front of us. Frederik swings our car up against the rock-face. Granite grates against the panels with a sound like we’ve been tossed in a metal grinder. And then we are past.
Frederik says, “We took out full coverage. The rental agency’ll cover it all.” He doesn’t slow down.
Now Niklas pulls on the back of Frederik’s seat. “Dad, stop! Stop!”
And I join in. “Stop the car now!”
But he doesn’t lift his gaze from the road. He sighs like before. I pull back on the hand brake as we drive. He laughs and releases it again.
“Frederik, look at me. Won’t you at least do that?”
He keeps looking straight ahead as he speaks, and as always, his voice projects reason and calm. “I need to keep my eyes on the road.”
• • •
Five days ago, on the day we were to fly to Majorca, I stopped on my run along the wooded path beside Lake Farum, and I gave myself some time to think about how good my life really is. I walked out on one of the short piers, and the breeze chilled the sweat beneath my top. I thought about what has made these years so different from my life a few years ago.
Out on the lake the water rose in small swells that weren’t actual waves, and the woods on the opposite bank looked like they’d gone deeper into autumn than the trees above and behind me. I have a lovely son and good friends, meaningful work, a house we are fond of. But I had all of that three years ago too. The difference — the major, critical difference — is that now I feel loved.
How many people can say that, that they really feel loved? It’s something I should relish. Finally, I thought, everything’s fallen into place. And then I continued my run, down the path through the woods.
Farum is a peaceful place, a suburb you move to only when you have two kids, or in any case have plans for number two. Between the charming medieval village and the lake lies an older neighborhood with large houses, the neighborhood where we are so lucky as to live. From this original core, Farum grew more than fourfold in the ’60s and ’70s. In the fields east of the village, miles of new streets were laid out with yellow-brick single-family homes, schools, kindergartens, and then more single-family homes, another school, a few more kindergartens. All connected by a vast network of car-free bike paths surrounded by grass, so that kids can bike from school to the rec center and from soccer to a friend’s house without crossing a single street, while their parents take the train or the freeway home from work in Copenhagen.
We were trying to have a second child when we moved here, not yet knowing that it would never happen. And not yet knowing how Frederik would succeed so unbelievably well in his career, for we were mistaken in that too — we thought there’d only be a couple of years when he’d have to spend all his evenings and weekends at work as he glided from one success to the next.
In one of his many speeches to the children, parents, and staff at his school, Frederik said that he became a teacher and later a headmaster “because helping a child through difficulty is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life.”
Big words, and sometimes I’ve wondered if they weren’t too big. Yet no one can doubt that Frederik could have earned a lot more money if he’d been the leader of almost anything but a school. As for me, I studied to be an architect for a year before I transferred to a teachers’ college. While I was in architecture school, I made a bit of money as a tennis instructor, and the difference I made in the lives of my young tennis students — especially when we talked about something besides tennis — soon came to mean more to me than my studies. Changing schools was an unavoidable outcome of thinking about what mattered in life.
From the lake, I ran a few hundred yards on the path along the railway and soon reached home. On my way up to shower, I knocked on Niklas’s door. He was sitting in front of his computer.
“Have you started to pack?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
“Have you started to pack?”
“Yeah yeah, I heard you.”
His best friend in gymnasium, Mathias, was going to have his house to himself for the fall vacation, and we’d had a hard time getting Niklas to join us, away from the week’s approaching party madness. Mathias composes electronic music, and Niklas spends a lot of energy making music videos for him. They’d planned to stay together at Mathias’s the whole week.
“You’ll be really happy you came, as soon as we get down there,” I said.
My cell phone rang in our bedroom, and I ran in to answer it.
It was Frederik, saying that he would be home later than planned. He apologized profusely, but he had to take care of something with the school’s bank.
“That’s okay, Frederik. Really.”
“But it might make it hard for me to get all packed.”
“I’ll pack for you too. I’m looking forward to seeing you.”
It was the sort of thing that would have once made me angry and unhappy. The day we’re going on vacation, and you can’t even …! But now it’s fine, because our relationship is fundamentally in order — and because Frederik no longer does it every time.
Sometimes it’s hard to be married to an idealist. You feel rejected while at the same time feeling like a huge egotist, just because you think that school kids shouldn’t rob you of your family life.
Fortunately, that’s all behind us. Frederik has made us more of a priority, and the two of us have never had it better.
• • •
Frederik turns off sharply onto one of the small gravel roads, low drystone walls on either side, and we skid in the gravel and scream, strike a stone wall, are flung to the other side of the road, hit that wall too, skid. Stop.
I turn toward Niklas. I want to be beside him in the backseat, clutch his head to my breast to protect him. But the car’s already come to rest. It’s too late.
“Are you okay?”
But I know he hasn’t been hurt. It was only a couple of minor collisions; we’re extremely lucky. I close my eyes for a moment and exhale. My pulse is throbbing in my temples.
“Are you okay?” I repeat.
“Yeah. How about you?”
“I think so.”
I look through the windshield. Frederik is already out front. He kicks the car with a resentful expression, squats to examine something by one of the fenders.
I yell, “Aren’t you even going to see if we’re all right?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Don’t you even care?”
“Well, I can see you’re doing fine.”
I jump out of the car. And for the first time in our twenty years together, I hit him so hard that it’s not just a game. He falls to the gravel and I shout, “What the hell, what the fucking hell? Have you gone stark raving mad?”
Sweat drips off of me and my fists are clenched, my pulse still pounding in my temples. He gets up staggering but unconcerned, as if he hasn’t noticed my blow, and takes a few steps.
“I don’t think I can get it to run.”
“That’s a stroke of luck, you big idiot. Maybe we won’t die today after all.”
“Mom!” Niklas’s voice calls from inside the car.
I breathe deeply, several times. For my son’s sake, I need to be the reasonable one here. And so I manage to pull myself together.
“What should we do?” I ask in a somewhat calm voice.
Frederik doesn’t answer. He climbs up on the stone wall and stands there, surveying the landscape.
Niklas gets out of the car too. His hair lights up in the sun. It’s lighter than mine, almost white. After cultivating a grunge look all summer, he resembles a sixteen-year-old Kurt Cobain.
“It says in the guide that you should ring 112,” he says.
I glance up at Frederik on the wall.
“What’s with you? Why are you doing this?”
“What’s with me?” At last he looks me in the eye. “You’re the one who’s been after me without a break on this trip! First I drive too fast, then I talk too loud in the restaurant, then I eat too much. Whatever I do, you say I’m doing it wrong!”
I look up at him and it seems he’s swinging his arms too much. The wildness of his gestures feels contrived.
“But I only say those things because you’ve been acting strange,” I say.
“I have not! But you’re after me all the time. And then you say I’m happy at the wrong time, and then you say I sleep too late.”
I can see what he means. It’s been a lovely vacation, but I’ve also been oddly irritated. And we’ve argued a lot.
“I promise to stop criticizing you,” I say. “Okay? Will you come down now?”
“It’s that way back home too. And why can’t I stand up here, if that’s what I want?”
“Look. You’ve just driven our car into a wall, so maybe I have a right to—”
“Now you’re doing it again. I can’t stand it! Look at Niklas. He’s not riding me the whole time. So it is possible.”
“Do we really have to go through all of this now, Frederik?”
“And I love Niklas too. He and I … we’re … he can really …” Frederik begins to cry.
I look over at Niklas, who appears moved. I sense that his sideways glance at me isn’t completely friendly.
I step closer to my husband.
“Are you going to weep now about how much you and Niklas like each other? Do you have heatstroke, or what?”
“And now I’m not even allowed to love our son anymore …”
“Of course you are. It’s just that—”
Frederik starts waving his arms around even more wildly.
“You piece of shit, Mia! You big fat piece of shit!”
And then he falls.
We run over to the wall. See him tumble down the mountainside, strike his head against a tree, and stop, caught lifeless at its foot, five yards away.
But he doesn’t move.
The mountain drops away just past the tree. We call 112, stare down at him, wait. And worry that he’ll start stirring and roll free.
I bat my tennis racket against the black chair leg in front of me in the emergency room at the Hospital Universitario in Palma de Mallorca. Eight hours, and Frederik still hasn’t regained consciousness. Then I bat it against the other leg. Maybe he’ll end up in a wheelchair. Could he continue as headmaster then?
I see before me the last day of school at Saxtorph. The headmaster rolls his wheelchair up a ramp to the podium. He’s clad in an elegant suit, the students and teachers prouder of him than ever. A triumphant look lights up his face. I feel proud too; he’s a hero. But then other images arise. At home: Do I change his diaper? Do I lift him into bed? Do we … sex?
And then maybe not. Early retirement. What if he’s not well enough to stay on as headmaster? He sits in his wheelchair while I spoon him soup. I am his nurse and wife three years from now, in ten and twenty, thirty. I am the old woman who drives around the suburban streets of Farum with a paralyzed husband. Thus our marriage; thus our life. I press my face against his loose hanging jowls and we weep, rubbing noses and foreheads and cheeks together. That’s what we’ll be doing in three years, in ten and twenty, thirty.
There are tennis courts in the mountains of Majorca. An odd notion, bringing my racket in the car. Of course I’d never use it. What was I thinking? I bat the racket against the first chair leg again. Look at the clock. It’s now eleven.
The emergency room isn’t like Danish emergency rooms. Cheap metal chairs with vinyl seats arranged in long rows. There’s room for at least seventy people to wait for their number to appear on the big red LED over the receptionist’s glass cage. Like the waiting room in a rundown bus station abroad.
We were supposed to fly home the day after tomorrow. Now I see Frederik’s funeral. His parents, his friends, all of us in black. Hundreds of bouquets and wreaths from school parents and teachers. I see how broken up I am. My hero, my beloved, my husband. The casket is lifted into the hearse. Niklas is a pallbearer, dignified and pale.
I’ll get on Niklas’s nerves soon if I don’t stop batting my racket against the chair. Thock, thock, thock. In a minute he’ll say, Stop it! It’s driving me crazy. I know. I hit the chair legs again, harder, harder.