By Sofia Rasmussen
Already as a child, I decided I would never be part of a divorced family again.
When I would be old enough, I’d marry the right man, have three dark-haired children with high cheekbones and never ever get divorced.
In my next family there would be no stepmother. There would only be a mother and a father. Everyone would love each other equally as much, and what had once been wrong, would be immediately righted.
But few things turn out the way we imagine them to be, and I met my boyfriend’s son on a spring day in 2009.
Tobias was 4 years old and worked diligently on a collection of insects he would confine in a red plastic bucket. There was something about this blond boy that I did not recognize from my own childhood; he was distant and withdrawn. But I did recognize the world of spiders, yellow buttercups, beetles, and grass on the bottom of a bucket as a time capsule of something we do not get back.
I did not want to be a stepmother. My own experience with having a stepmother was ambivalent. As a child, I often felt that I was on the verge of belonging and not – it was a matter of a few inches – and my stepmother was in control.
I needed to know she cared for me so I wouldn’t lose my footing, and, therefore, I was a chameleon; I could not figure out how to be honest with her.
When she painted a picture or bought some new clothes, she would show me and ask:
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
And I always said yes, always. As if the truth would peel off all my humanity like a third degree burn and reveal an ugly, black crater: I figured it would be easier to love a yes rather than a no.
My parents got divorced when I was almost 3 years old. Immediately after the divorce, I moved into a small apartment with my father. When I was 4 years old we moved again, this time with my stepmother and her two children.
Tobias was also 4 years old when I moved into the house he had shared with his mom and dad.
My boyfriend would not move out of Tobias’ childhood home. From the beginning he made it clear to me – it was here or nowhere, if we were to stay together.
I protested, but eventually gave in. There was nothing I wanted more than to be with the man I loved. Besides, I was good at saying yes.
When I moved in, there was still a self-portrait my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend had painted of herself in the bedroom. As I lay on our bed, she would smile down at me like a neon Madonna.
Her name was inscribed on the door; even months later, letters addressed to her continued being dropped at our doorstep. She was in the teak colored kitchen cabinets and Cuban art in the living room.
My boyfriend and I were like two mourners in a play. I told myself that if I did this one right – if I could rectify this family – I would also be able to mend my own childhood.
Not until much later did I realize how constantly saying yes could lead to losing yourself.
I did not love Tobias immediately. He wasn’t my child. The stance was his father’s, the high forehead his mother’s. He reminded me of the life my boyfriend had had before I came along.
I tried in good faith to embrace the routines Tobias and his father had before I became part of their lives. I also tried to introduce some of my own.
I began by reading bedtime stories for Tobias. My father always read children books aloud to me somewhere between dinner and the news on TV. I can still recall the sound of my father’s voice and my somnolent breathing; those two would weave into one another like threads of love and security.
Even though we were very different, there was something about Tobias that reminded me of myself, and after I had turned off the lights and he was alone in his room, I wondered if he was missing his mother like I had so many years earlier. Then, as though in a daze, I would think about how I, as a 28-year-old, bore the responsibility for another human being, who without having asked for it, had been placed into this family and this childhood.
Already six months after I moved in, my boyfriend got a job in another city which meant that he left home at 7 in the morning and came back 12 hours later.
We had Tobias every other week. Although my boyfriend worked from home once or twice a week, it was often my responsibility to take care of him.
The next 18 months we built a life together. I woke him up, got him dressed, prepared his lunch, and dropped him off at the nursery.
I took off from work early, brought him back home, played with him, cooked dinner, and gave him his bath.
One day, as we walked hand in hand through the small path between the main road and our house, he looked up at me and asked:
“How are you part of my family?”
I sank in thought for a moment. “Hmm… You could say that I am your bonus mom. What do you think about that?”
“That I like,” he said and smiled.
We continued our walk in silence, and I thought about how we both fumbled to find our place in this family.
My love for him came creeping in the same way age does.
You look at yourself in the mirror and there is no visible difference from one day to another, until there comes a day when you see a picture of yourself at age 19 and find that your eyes are now lined with wrinkles and the skin between your breasts has marks, and the freshness of your cheeks are long gone.
Without noticing it, you are no longer young. Just as you cannot fight the passage of time, you cannot resist a heart that is determined to love.
I felt like The Little Prince, who discovers that he cannot be without his flower, even though it is both demanding and irritating.
Because he has watered his flower every day and protected it from the wind, the two are bound to each other. They belong together and no matter how many other planets with roses he visits, there is no other flower like his.
We attach ourselves to what and whom we spend our time with, and all of a sudden we are entangled in each other, and when that happens, there is no turning back. Our hearts are cognizant about anxiety in a different way than ever before.
If we didn’t fear losing it, love would not be what it is. Love exists contingent upon the fact that one day it will no longer be. And when that day came closer, I made every effort not to face it.
My boyfriend and I had grown further and further apart since that Tuesday night, a few days before my 30th birthday, when I bled a fetus down the toilet.
In the year that followed, my life became just as crumbled and displaced as the fetus that in splotches of blood portrayed a shattered dream.
The episode filled me with a sorrow that dispersed everything to atoms. I did not know how to hold on but I did not know how to let go either.
I rehearsed how to leave Tobias. I imagined that if I stopped picking him up from school, if I no longer prepared his lunches or kissed him goodnight, then it would be easier to say goodbye.
Of course, this was not the case. We cannot train to lose. When it happens, we are just as surprised as the last time, and once again we must try to glue ourselves together as a broken china cup.
Eternalized is only what’s been lost, says the Norwegian poet Henrik Ibsen, but there is just so much loss I do not wish to remember. I do not want to remember how I forgot to breathe when I said goodbye to Tobias.
My boyfriend and I had been through a traumatic break up, and I had spent three months with my mother in a condition where every second I felt that I had lost my connection to the ground and was constantly falling into a black hole.
I could not maintain a relationship with Tobias when I could not maintain a relationship with his father. When all was said and done, Tobias and I were bound to each other through him.
The last time we saw each other was a Tuesday afternoon.
After a cup of hot cocoa and a game of Mancala in the café at the local art museum, we counted all the stairs to the top of the building. We stepped out into the crowning circular walkway made out of tinted glass representing the color spectrum of the rainbow. From there, we could see the entire city and the bay in a different light. Tobias wanted to time how long it would take him to run a loop.
“34.4 seconds”, I said, when he had run through all the colors and stood before me with red cheeks.
He was exactly as untainted as the fox in Karen Blixen’s tale of Peter and Rosa: From head to toe, he was perfect, and I was filled with anticipated longing when he said that I had to run around as well.
I ran, because when I stood still, the world was a cruel place with artificial colors in plexiglass.
I passed the orange, the green, the red, and the blue swatches, and I was a bastard who would leave a child because the label “bonus mom” no longer belonged to me. None of this had ever belonged to me.
As we left the art museum and started walking towards the steakhouse, where we would eat an early dinner, we passed the large Christmas tree by the city hall. The lights were not on. It was still November.
“Where do you actually live?” he asked.
“I live with my mom, but I will soon find an apartment here in the city. You know why I live at my mom’s, right?” I continued.
“Yes”, he said. “Because it did not work between you and dad. But I think it did. Can’t you just move into a house next to dad’s or close to my mom? Then we can play Mancala all the time.”
“I miss you too, Tobias. And I’m sorry we have not seen each other in a while. But you know how sometimes when you get really upset you just want to be alone in your room? Adults can also feel this way if they are very sad; I needed to be alone in my room. But you’ve always been here,” I said, putting my hand on my chest.
“You’re not inside my heart,” he said. “There’s just flesh and blood.”
Pain engraves a deeper memory, as the poet Anne Sexton says, and the other day I dreamt about him again.
When I woke up, I was surprised at how accurately I could recall his face and the long body of the 7-year-old child, as I imagine I will always picture him in my dreams.
He is 9 years old now. About two years ago, I cried into a towel in the restroom of the steakhouse, as he sat at the table on the first floor coloring a picture so we could compete for a prize I no longer remember.
I looked at myself in the mirror while the child who would no longer be in my life sat upstairs and waited for me. I wondered what he would remember as he would grow older. I thought about how I would merely become a distant memory: a girl his father once loved whose face or eye color will be in a blur.
I wonder if he will remember when I would let him play in the garden only wearing his socks even though his father didn’t allow it, or when we would write stories about the Smurfs on his sick day notes for the teachers.
I wonder if he’ll remember that out there, somewhere, there is this person who really loves him.
“When do we play Mancala again?” he asked, before he got into the front seat of his father’s dark blue Toyota and drove out of my life.
“I don’t know,” I said, because that was the only truth I could give him, and with such a question, a child may break your heart.
Translated from Danish by Melanie Valencia and Esben Piper. The essay was first published in Denmark’s leading national newspaper Politiken on June 8, 2014: