When, after an awkward pause, the young doctor delivered the latest diagnosis and began somewhat perfunctorily to describe the various treatment options, never really attempting to hide his certainty that this miserable thing would ultimately kill my friend Johan Sletten, Johan closed his eyes and thought of Mai's hair.
The doctor was a fair-haired young man and could scarcely help it if his violet eyes would have looked better on a woman. He never spoke the word death. The word he used was alarming.
"Johan!" the doctor said, trying to get Johan's attention. "Are you listening?"
Johan resented being addressed so familiarly. Not to mention the doctor's shrill voice--you would think it had never finished breaking, or perhaps he'd been castrated by parents hopeful of some future for him as a eunuch. Johan had a good mind to make a point about first names and surnames, especially in light of the difference in their ages. The doctor was younger than Johan's son, to whom he hadn't spoken for eight years. But it wasn't just a question of etiquette. It wasn't just that young people should refrain from addressing their elders familiarly as a matter of course. Johan had always been mindful of proper distances. Any intimacy between virtual strangers--like the dreadful custom of exchanging little kisses, not so much kisses as grazings of cheeks--struck him as embarrassing, even downright disrespectful.
To tell the truth, he preferred anyone to whom he was not married to address him as Mr. Sletten. He ached to tell the doctor so but didn't dare; it seemed unwise to create ill will between them at this point. The conversation might take a different tack, and the doctor might start saying unmentionable things about Johan's illness simply in retaliation for having been lectured on matters of etiquette.
"These aren't the results I was hoping for," the doctor went on.
"Hm," Johan said, mustering a smile. "But I'm feeling a lot better."
"Sometimes the body deceives us," the doctor whispered, wondering as he did whether the idea of a "deceitful" body might not be a bit much.
"Hm," Johan said again.
"Yes, well . . . ," the doctor said, turning to his computer screen, "as I said, Johan, there is some cause for alarm."
The doctor delivered a brief monologue explaining the test results and their consequences: Johan would have to undergo a new course of treatment, possibly even another operation.
When he managed to get the occasional word in, Johan endeavored to persuade the doctor that he actually was feeling much better and that surely they could agree that this was at least a good sign, whatever deceit the body might have in mind. But when, in conclusion, the doctor remarked, almost as an afterthought, that this thing was spreading, Johan gave up trying. Spreading was a word he had been waiting all his adult life to hear--waiting, fearing, and foreseeing. There is no reason, even now that he is dead, to hide the fact that Johan Sletten was an incurable hypochondriac and a catastrophist, and that this scene--a classic of hypochondria--between the doctor and himself had played itself out in his head again and again ever since he was a young man. But unlike the imagination's rehearsals, thoughtfully staged and incessantly reworked, the real scene, the one that actually took place, was hardly dramatic at all.
"Spreading?" Johan said.
"It doesn't mean, of course . . . ," the doctor said.
"Spreading," Johan repeated.
The doctor was quick to point out that this didn't necessarily mean what it meant in the vast majority of cases. That was what he said, more or less. He wanted to give his patient time to digest the diagnosis: he was sealing a man's fate here, after all, and had probably taken courses in empathy, Johan mused.
"How much time have I got?" Johan asked.
"No way of knowing," the doctor answered. "Everyone's different, and, as I said, we have so many options these days--"
"But generally speaking"--Johan pressed--"how long could someone like me live? From a purely statistical point of view?"
"I don't think--"
Johan broke in again. "Okay . . . but what if it wasn't me sitting here? Let's suppose that I am not me and you aren't you. Suppose we are any two people off the street and you, who would of course not be you, are asked to give an opinion, just in the most general terms. What would you say then?"
"As I said, I'd rather not--"
Johan banged the desktop with his fist. "Time! Give me an honest answer; give me something I can relate to. How much time have I got? Don't you see?" Johan thrust his watch under the doctor's nose. "I need to know how much time I've got."
The doctor didn't flinch. He capitulated, looking Johan in the eye. "Six months, maybe more, maybe less," he said. And then, after a pause: "But as I mentioned earlier . . ." He left the sentence unfinished.
There was silence. Johan looked at the floor, plucking gently at his right eyebrow, a childhood habit that lent him a rather wry aspect, a bushy eyebrow on the left and a bald one on the right. He tried to gauge exactly what he was feeling. The doctor's words could not be retracted, but they were just words, not blows or caresses, and words take longer to make themselves felt. He had, as he'd declared, been just fine for a week now, surprisingly vigorous in fact. There was nothing to stop him from getting up and leaving the doctor's office. He could take a walk downtown and step into a bookshop or a music store, maybe treat himself to something special, or just have a look around. No one had overheard his conversation with the doctor. It could be their secret, and everything would be as before. A walk downtown would cheer him up and refresh him; the doctor's office was hot and stuffy, and the doctor smelled of sweat, which Johan had detected the minute he walked in.
He stood up and said, "I can't think straight. I have to go. Let's talk about this later."
The doctor nodded.
Johan said, "My wife will help me with this." And again he thought of Mai's hair, which (and this was the strange thing) lit up a dark room.
Mai was Johan's wife, his wife number two. Wife number one had been Alice. In stressful situations such as this, Johan thought both of his first wife and of his second.
He tried to hold on to the thought of Mai, but something inside him forced him to think of Alice.
. . .
Johan and Alice were married in 1957. Johan was twenty-five and Alice twenty-six. Two years later, their son, Andreas, was born.
It was an unhappy marriage. Many people complain about their unhappy marriages; many write about their unhappy marriages. Frequently a marriage is said to be unhappy because a deathly hush has fallen between man and wife. That, however, had not been the case with Johan and Alice. Their marriage was a noisy affair, without hush, deathly or otherwise.
Johan often thought that if Alice had not, after twenty years of marriage, been run over and silenced at last by a black station wagon in downtown Oslo, he would have had to run her over himself.
Once, a long time earlier, Alice had hovered, teetering, on the edge of a dock. She couldn't swim, never having dared to try to learn as a child after two little girls, the same age as herself, had pushed her into a pool of water--of no great depth, just melted snow in a ditch--and held her head under until, with sudden and desperate strength, she broke free and ran away. And now here she was, a grown woman, Johan's wife number one, standing on the edge of that dock and basking in the sun.
He could never really explain what made him do it, but all at once he put his hand on her back and pushed--not a gentle nudge but a hefty shove that had the expected effect. Alice fell into the water with a shriek, more surprised than scared, really, as he noted with some interest. Straightaway he jumped in after her and hauled her back onto dry land, unhurt but screaming bloody murder.
"What did you do that for? Are you crazy?" she shouted, water dripping off her face.
She wept, she screamed, she lashed out, her dress plastered to her body, water streaming from her hair, her cheeks, her eyes. Her right shoe was gone, kicked off in the water. She hobbled around the dock, bewildered and forlorn, looking--as he thought with some relish--a bit like a headless chicken.
She planted herself in front of him, made a fist, and punched him in the eye.
"Why did you push me in the water, Johan?"
"I . . . don't know. I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me." He put a hand to his eye. Later it would turn blue, purple, yellow.
She wasn't about to back down. "Why, Johan?"
"I don't know, Alice." He tried to think clearly, tried to come up with an explanation as to why he had pushed his wife over the edge.
Finally he said, "I think . . . I think I did it because I love you."
They stood there, perfectly still, looking at each other, he with just the one eye. Then she bent down and slipped off her left shoe and threw that, too, into the water. Barefoot, she walked away from the dock. Johan stayed where he was, gazing after her. When she turned and called to him, she smiled.
. . .
He used to call her the Horse. When she plopped herself down, for instance, ranting and raving, all that weight landing next to him on the sofa, where he liked to sit quietly minding his own business--it was a little like dozing on a peaceful beach and suddenly being surprised by one of those huge waves that sweep away entire villages. Or when she laughed, baring her front teeth. The sight of those front teeth made Johan feel he'd married a horse. On those rare occasions when he came across a real horse, he would beg its forgiveness. Horses were beautiful creatures, Johan thought, undeserving of comparison to his wife number one.
But when she turned and called his name, all barefoot and dripping, Alice hadn't reminded him of a horse. It wasn't just her smile; it was the laughter in her eyes and the way that laughter purled its way deep into his heart. The thought came to him, unfamiliar and unbidden, that she was still the prettiest woman in the world.
There was always this business about money, though. They had hardly any at all, but she had a bit more than he did. When they were broke her father gave her cash--not a lot, just enough to pay the odd bill and buy food. Once, after they had cooked and eaten an expensive dinner with some good wine and a delicious dessert, all courtesy of her father, she turned abruptly to Johan and said, "I've bought you. You're bought and paid for. You do know that, don't you?"
He never forgot it.
When Alice's father died and left her 150,000 kroner, Johan suggested that they get a divorce. Their son was almost grown anyway. He said, "You and Andreas can manage without me now." But she went all sweet and soft on him, saying, "Who cares about money, Johan! Forget the money. Forget all of that. From now on we're going to live like kings. You can have whatever you want."
And then, as luck would have it, she got run over.
Many people mourned Alice's passing. Johan was surprised to discover that she was adored. She had been pretty, of course, not to mention young, too young to die, people said. That's what they always say about anyone who dies before a certain age. Everyone under seventy-five, it seems, is too young to die; when it's someone under forty-five, it's called a tragedy, a terrible and senseless tragedy. Alice was well under seventy-five and not much over forty-five. A parade of people clasped Johan's hand, whispering that Alice's death was a terrible and senseless tragedy. Every single time he had to suppress the urge to shout, No, it wasn't! You have no idea! She tormented me!
Their son, Andreas, no doubt suffered the most.
In the days following the funeral, Johan tried to get through to this heartbroken, still pimply stranger who called him Pappa. He made several visits to his son's tiny apartment, occasionally taking him out to dinner. Once they even went skiing on a Sunday afternoon. Then one day, over steak and french fries at Theatercaf’Ä¢en, the boy looked up at his father and said, "Pappa!"
Johan nodded. There it was again: a slightly contemptuous smile. The word Pappa, or Daddy, or Father, or Pa, couldn't be said without at least one of them cracking this smile, but Johan couldn't say for sure where the contempt had first shown itself, in his son's smile or his own.
"Pappa," Andreas said again.
"What's on your mind, son?"
Johan laid his knife and fork on his plate, giving Andreas his attention. Always the same thing. Conversations that went nowhere. The boy was incapable of finishing a thought.
"I don't know," Andreas answered. "I'm sure there is--there is something I want to say. I just can't seem to get it out."
As a child, Andreas was as spindly as his father. There was something transparent and brittle about the boy's frame.
Alice once said that their son reminded her of an amoeba. Maybe it was Andreas's amoebic appearance that made other children want to hit him.
Johan believed himself generally unlucky with people--at least until he met his wife number two, Mai. It was like that song, she reminded him of that song . . . although maybe one shouldn't mix songs and love. Most of the time it's hard to tell which is which. I sometimes wonder whether this thought crossed Johan's mind during the last days of his life. Had he in fact mistaken his romance for a song?
Oh, who comes rowing in on the foam?
A maiden, Herr Flinck, in a boat all alone!
The wind, the nor'wester, gives tongue!
Who is this maid, like a man rowing there?
'Tis Maj from Malo, so slender and fair.
But hark to my wonderful song.
Mai and Johan were married in the spring of 1979, two years after Alice's death. Mai was thirty years old, and Johan was forty-seven. It would never have occurred to Johan to compare Mai to a horse--or, for that matter, to any other creature.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Grace by Linn Ullmann. Copyright © 2005 by Linn Ullmann. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.