If you saw us you’d probably hate us. We look like the cast of an insurance commercial: shiny, happy us. The perfect little family, living the perfect little life. Wasn’t that another perfect day? is what we always say at the end of days like these. A confirmation. A promise. A warding-off of any days that might be anything less. But most are perfect here in Sweden, many more than I can count. It’s so beautiful, especially now in the middle of the summer, all dappled, dancing light and gentle sun. The little red wooden house we live in is out of a children’s picture book—nestled in the forest, snug as a bug, with the trees all around and the garden lush and blooming, an abundance of life— vegetable patches thick with leaves, bushes heavy with sun-ripened summer berries, the smell of blooms everywhere, heady and sweet, drawing in the bees with their charms. The summer evenings are endless and still, the sky bright well past ten, and the vast lake pale and calm like the very faintest shade of blue on a color wheel. And stillness—everywhere just the sound of the birds and the rustling of the leaves on the branches. Our lives here involve no traffic, no pollution, no upstairs neighbors blaring music or downstairs neighbors screeching out their misery; no litter on the sidewalk or rotting Manhattan trash or sweaty L-train commutes to work, no crowds, no tourists; no daily encounters with rats or roaches or perverts or street preachers. No. Nothing but this, an impossible life of lightness and dreams.
Sam and the baby and me, on our island of three. Like most mornings after I put the baby down for his nap, I went into the kitchen to bake. Today, a pie from the blueberries we’d picked in the forest this past weekend. I made the dough myself and rolled it out, pricked it with a fork, baked it blind to crisp it. The sun was already streaming in through the big open windows, rays of light casting themselves across the floors of our bright little house. The ripened berries I cooked low and slow, excising out the juices over the heat with maple syrup and a stick of cinnamon, careful not to let it all burn and spoil. Sam in his studio smelled the butter and the sugar and the sweetness of the fruit; he came out to the kitchen to see what I’d made. He looked at me and grinned, just as pleased as punch. See, he said, don’t I always tell you. You were made for this. The pie was good; we ate it still warm with mugs of coffee as we sat out in the garden under the early-afternoon sun. The baby tasted a spoonful of the innards and dribbled it all out again, like a miniature office worker who’d just chewed his blue pen. Sam laughed and scooped it back up into the spoon. Isn’t this kid the best? he said. He lifted him and jiggled him about, so the baby laughed and squealed and spit up some more.
I observed them together. The boys. My boys. Father and son. I smiled, and felt the warmth of the sun against my skin. Down the dirt road that connects the houses on the reserve, one of the neighbors has a paddock full of prizewinning horses nursing their young. The spring foals wobble about on spindly, unsteady legs; the mares nudge them up with their muzzles, coaxing their offspring gently into the world. They are good at mothering. Patient and instinctive. Fierce with love for their young, as nature demands. Sam and I walked the baby over to watch them in the field. Horse, Sam said, and he pointed and neighed, and the baby was in hysterics. I reached out a hand to a chestnut-brown mare who had approached the fence, felt the quiver of life and taut muscle under my fingers. She was beautiful. Strong and certain.
Her black eyes were fierce. Careful, Sam warned. New mothers can be dangerous. We left the horses and made our way slowly back to the house. Our home for a little under a year. It’s around forty-five minutes outside of Stockholm, on a nature reserve bordering Sigtuna, the oldest town in Sweden. The reserve covers a fairly large stretch of land, mostly fields and forest nestled around the lake, with the odd house dotted in between the pines. Many of the homes have been in a single family for generations, the same red wooden cabin extended or repaired over the years as necessary; the walls within witness to the constant comings and goings of the newly born and the newly departed. Sam inherited the house from his grandfather’s second wife, Ida, who was born and raised here. She had no children of her own, but always had a soft spot for Sam, who knew even as a child how to charm her, how to compliment her on her rose garden or her spiced cookies or the gentle Swedish accent that made all her words sound like songs. When she died some years ago, Sam discovered she’d left him the house, with the stipulation that it could never be sold, only passed down. We’d never visited before last year, never even thought much about the house or the country. Actually, our sole point of reference for all of Sweden was one of those little red Dala horses Ida brought back for us after one of her visits. It sat atop the spice rack in our Brooklyn apartment, next to the pepper grinder and the unopened jar of saffron strands I’d bargained for at a night market in Marrakech. Of course, moving here was Sam’s idea.
All the good ones are, he likes to joke. He said it would be like a fairy tale. That we’d be happier than we’ve ever been. He was right. He always is. Pointing us in the right direction; the compass that leads me away from the storms. How lucky I am to have him. Later in the afternoon, the three of us took a long walk through the forest, the baby in the backpack carrier, hitched snugly to Sam. As we walked, we named the trees and birds we’ve learned to identify this past year—a spruce, a nest of finches, Fraxinus excelsior, a common ash. These are our newfound pleasures and hobbies, the things we busy ourselves with over here. We laugh at ourselves sometimes, imagining the people we once were. In the little town of Sigtuna, we stopped for thick rye-crumbed herrings and potato salad at the café by the pier; listened to the sounds of the seagulls and the lapping water as they blended hypnotically with the low chatter of the well-turned-out Swedes. The waitress tickled the baby’s cheek and took our order in flawless English. Tack, we said. Tack.
Back home, I gave the baby his bath and rocked him gently to sleep in my arms. I breathed into his neck and traced a hand gently over his downy golden hair, which was slowly beginning to thicken. I touched a hand to his chest, felt the thud of his beating heart, steady and miraculous every time; doof doof, the echo of life. Sam and I, tired out from the walk and the fresh air, climbed in between the crisp sheets before it had turned dark outside. I curled into my husband’s arms, gazed at his handsome face, the dark eyes, the sharp jaw, that chest of his that feels plated in armor. A solid man, a man who can carry the weight of you, and does. I let out a contented sigh. Wasn’t that another perfect day? I said. Sam kissed my forehead and closed his eyes. I moved my arm to turn over onto my front. No, he said, stay. Yes, it’s just as Sam said. A fairy-tale life in the woods. Sam Today is our one-year anniversary of moving to Sweden. Hard to believe.
A full year, a new country, a new home, a new child. A whole new life. A better one, that’s for sure. To celebrate, I returned home from my meeting in Stockholm with a bunch of fresh spring flowers, a bottle of wine, and a knitted Viking hat for Conor that I picked up in one of the tourist stores in the old town. Merry was in the kitchen, her long dark hair bundled on top of her head, her apron tied around her waist. She smiled when she saw me. I kissed her and she went to fetch a vase for the flowers. Beautiful, she said. As is my wife, I replied. I know she likes it when I call her that. She put her arms around me and I breathed in her smell; perfume and something recently fried. Happy Swede-iversary, she said. Look, I made Swedish meatballs to celebrate. Where’s my boy? I asked, and went to find Conor. He was on the activity mat in the living room, lying on his back, trying to get at the frog that hangs suspended from the green plastic bar.
This child. I can’t get enough of him. Eight months and counting. He’s growing by the day, a little evolution at the speed of light; always changing, always in motion. How’s my champ today, I said, lying down beside him. He smiled at me, the smile that turns my heart on its head: gummy and pink and pure love. I nuzzled my face into his belly, inhaled the smell of talcum powder and diaper cream. I put the hat on his little head and lifted him up to show Merry. Two blond Viking braids hung down from the hat. Conor grabbed one and put it in his mouth. Great, Merry laughed, now he’s ready to lead an invasion. She’s so happy here. Light and happy. Unburdened. I love to see her like this.
It’s all I’ve ever wanted for her. For us. I handed her the baby so I could go and wash up for dinner. She cradled him close, and I paused a minute to frame the scene. Beautiful, I said again. We sat down together around Ida’s old oak table, Con in the high chair I built for him, Merry and I across from one another. She’d unpinned her hair, parted it to the side just as I like best. She was wearing a blue blouse that made her gray eyes appear almost translucent, as though they were portals to some other world, or altogether empty behind. I poured the wine, Merry dished up the food and wiped the rim of the plates where the sauce had spilled. She’d lit candles even though it would still be light out for hours, and set the flowers on the far end of the table. To Sweden, I toasted. Merry held up her wine and we clinked our glasses together. So good, I said, eating a mouthful. Remember when we met, I laughed, you could hardly make a slice of toast. It can be hard sometimes to remember that Merry.
So much has changed since then. Another lifetime, Merry said. Yeah, I agreed. And this one’s a far better fit. She was radiant, the evening light from outside streaming in, painting her edges in a soft golden glow. She was trying to feed Conor, but he kept turning his head away. What have you got for him? Broccoli, carrot, and chicken, she said. Lucky guy. I smiled. Let me. I took the blue plastic spoon from her. Vrooom, vroooom. He opened his mouth wide and was done in no time. See? I winked. He just wants you to work a little harder for it.
Later, after Con was asleep in his crib, Merry and I lay out on the lawn and finished the bottle of wine. I pulled her to me and kissed her deeply. The stars above us blanketed the sky in light. The lavender in the garden floated its scent in the air, a little too overpowering. I could make out Merry’s eyes, watching me, and within them, the edges of my reflection. I lifted her blouse and moved her down beneath me. Sam, she protested. Shhh, I said, we’re in the middle of nowhere. She relaxed under me and shuddered slightly as I pried her open and apart. Besides, I reminded her, we’re supposed to be trying for another baby. Yes. This is the life. This is exactly how it’s meant to be.