Extract from the novel, They Know Not What They Do
The Other Woman
Helsinki, Finland 1994
It was supposed to be temporary: everything would gradually return to normal.
According to the pamphlet from the maternity clinic, you couldn’t put an exact time frame on it – which it then, ignoring its own advice, proceeded to do: three months, give or take, for over fifty percent of couples. But you had to bear in mind that every couple was different; this was a tricky time.
You shouldn’t think there was anything wrong with either of you. It had been a week since Alina left the pamphlet on the nightstand. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but when she saw it still lying there, untouched, she felt something inside her sink. After the break had lasted another three months, Alina raised the issue.
Joe seemed surprised. ‘I thought it would still be too…’ He searched for the right word. ‘Complicated.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Really? Hmm.’ Then: ‘OK.’
They’d tried the first time three months after Samuel’s birth, and the experience had been an unexpected return to adolescence. It was like having to start all over again, concentrate on technique rather than content, guess how things would feel, what might work. Maybe this was what it was like, Alina reflected, for people with brain damage who had to learn how to walk again.
There were articles about it in the baby magazines at the library. Low estrogen levels meant it was natural if she didn’t feel like having sex.
Did she? Her entire body had started feeling foreign to her, fickle. They were going to have to try again, but would it go any more smoothly? Maybe it wouldn’t work this time either, which would raise the bar that much higher.
That evening, after Samuel was asleep, Joe climbed into bed in his flannel pajamas and picked up Masters of Chess. He read about the
game’s world champions every night before turning off the light. Sometimes he would set out the chess things on his nightstand, move
one of the pieces according to the diagrams in the book, and stare at the board, lips pursed, as if waiting for the pawns or knights to speak.
They used to kiss before turning in; sometimes it had led to sex, sometimes not.
She waited. Joe’s eyes skipped eagerly across the pages. Eventually he became aware of her gaze.
‘I thought we… talked about—’
Joe’s eyes were blank.
‘Oh, yeah,’ he said, looking like he still didn’t quite remember.
He set aside the book. They cautiously turned towards each other and lay there, each waiting for a sign from the other, as if the situation and all that it entailed were completely foreign. Joe gingerly reached out and touched her side. As if afraid his touch would hurt, Alina thought. Joe’s mouth was familiar and felt right, but there was something mechanical about the whole thing. Is this what sex would be like with someone you didn’t love? But then she felt Joe’s warm hand on her skin and allowed it to rove at will, and it instantly remembered the route, the familiar contours.
Then the hand paused, made a minute change of course, and continued, but in an unaccustomed way. Alina monitored Joe’s movements and felt something was missing. And she saw that Joe knew it, too.
‘Would you like me to…’ he said. She knew what Joe meant; it’s what she had been hoping for.
‘Mm-hm.’ She nodded, not opening her eyes. ‘Yes.’
Then she saw the girl: sitting on the edge of the bed, gazing at them blank-faced, as if she’d always been there. Alina whimpered and pulled back.
‘Did I hurt you?’ Joe asked, concerned.
‘No, but… maybe it’s still too soon.’’
‘Hmm,’ Joe said. ‘OK.’
She thought she caught a hint of relief in his tone; they wouldn’t have to try after all.
They looked at each other. She had always liked Joe’s eyes. They were the eyes of a kind man. He stroked her hair. ‘It’s going to be fine.’
‘Let’s not rush it.’
They turned away from each other, and a little while later she could hear that he had fallen asleep.
The girl had started in the fall. Alina had seen her staring at her computer screen in Joe’s office, next to the door where there didn’t used to be a desk. She was sitting with one leg folded under her. The position looked uncomfortable, as if she hadn’t been able to decide whether to slump into a normal office slouch or arch over her computer like a cat. She had bobbed coal-black hair and a forehead furrowed in concentration, her lips lightly parted.
As she waited for her to acknowledge the presence of a visitor, Alina’s eyes fixed on the fat silver bracelet on the girl’s slender wrist. You get
to spend all day here, she thought, and then pop into cute boutiques after work to pick out jewelry.
‘Excuse me,’ Alina finally said. The girl turned languidly, as if she’d been aware of her presence the whole time.
‘I was supposed to…’ Alina began. ‘Joe and I…’
The girl raised an eyebrow as if in disbelief. Then she nodded towards the far wall. ‘That’s his desk over there.’
‘I know.’ Alina’s voice sounded more clipped than she’d meant.
‘He should be back soon.’
Alina wasn’t sure if the girl didn’t know where Joe was or if she didn’t want to say. She stood in the doorway with the stroller, and the girl
kept sitting in her peculiar position in Alina’s husband’s tiny office.
‘If Joe comes back, tell him I went to the bathroom,’ Alina said, turning away.
She pushed the stroller back down the hallway, overly conscious of seeming like a frumpy housewife – probably because, she thought,
that’s what I am – and of the girl’s direct view of her as she retreated.
She would have dressed differently if she’d known about the girl… The thought immediately irked her, the need to impress a complete stranger.
But who did the girl think she was? Of course Alina knew which desk was Joe’s. Alina had first brought him here and shown him around,
they’d been here for ages, she and Joe; the girl was the interloper, the one who should have been asking Alina for advice.
Samuel stirred in his sleep and made a little noise, and her coming here with her son in his stroller suddenly struck Alina as embarrassing.
Distracted, she walked too fast, and the stroller bumped into the corner of a table in the hallway. She tried to hum cheerfully and stand up
straighter, but her cheeks were on fire. Once she had the stroller moving again, she glanced back; the girl in Joe’s office was concentrating on
her screen as if Alina and the child did not exist.
She had wanted to mention the girl to Joe. Just remark in passing that she’d noticed a new face at the department, someone who’d been
assigned her own niche. In such a small unit, it made a difference who you bumped into in the hallways. Maybe they’d even see the girl socially
at some point, say at the party they were going to throw? The party, she thought: Joe had suggested it several times, but Alina was afraid of feeling like she was on display. People wandering around, inspecting their apartment, eyeing the food, Samuel and his clothes, toys, and crib, the record shelf, the living-room rug: so this is how Joe’s wife likes things.
When she looked around, she didn’t see much she liked or wanted. There was no light in the living room, because the switch on the lamp
had been shorting out; Joe had promised to have it fixed and then forgotten. The switch and the wire were probably still traveling back
and forth to the university every day in his satchel. She’d asked about it, but always at the wrong moment, and she didn’t want to make a
big deal about something so trivial. The most prominent element of the décor was the drying rack filled with Samuel’s clothing: some of
it from the maternity package given free to all expecting mothers in Finland, some hand-me-downs from Julia’s sister, yet others from the
flea market. The very thought of people from the department in their home, surrounded by the smell of milk and heaps of food-stained
laundry, was embarrassing.
‘It’s not very common to invite your coworkers over in Finland,’ she’d said, when Joe had asked again about hosting a party.
‘It is in the States.’
‘Yes. I’m just saying—’
‘I know, I know,’ Joe said and went to change into his squash gear, and Alina was never sure if he did know.
More than anything, she wanted to repaint the living room, correct her mistake. The walls had turned out too white. On the sample card
the color had seemed fresh, but on a big surface it made other colors look harsh. The tiniest smudges stood out.
But Joe didn’t think it was a good idea to redecorate until things were clearer.
Alina’s heart skipped a beat.
‘You know, like… where we’re going to settle down and…’
She waited for him to continue, and then realized that the sentence had come to its end. It wasn’t like they were going to live here for the
rest of their lives, he finally said.
‘No, probably not for the rest of our lives. But for now,’ she said.
‘Couldn’t we just wait and see?’
‘If we might find something…’ Joe said. ‘Maybe some opportunities back home.’
Back home. How easy it was to use the term in passing, home, its soft sounds, so natural and warm, as if it meant the same regardless
of speaker or place. She stared at him, gulped and turned away.
‘Come on, Alina,’ Joe said, touching her arm, but she yanked it free.
He tried again: Come on, Alina. The way Joe pronounced her name, the stress fell on the second syllable and left the initial vowel silent:
Leena. She’d liked it when they met; she’d wanted to be a person who needed a new, international version of her name.
‘We,’ she said. ‘Did you really say we?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Actually, I don’t.’
That evening, without being asked, Joe changed Samuel’s diaper, fed him his bedtime oatmeal, and put him in his pajamas, all without saying a word.
After breastfeeding Samuel, Alina lay quietly in bed, her back to Joe. She didn’t know if he could tell she was crying.
‘Were you thinking we’d live in Finland for the rest of our lives?’ he asked eventually.
Alina tried to think of the right question to ask back, equally obvious, supposedly neutral, but all she could feel was the tidal wave
of unprocessed emotion crashing through her. A long time later, she heard him sigh, lower his glasses to the nightstand, and click off his
‘When were you planning on telling me?’ she said into the darkness.
‘We’ve talked about various options,’ he said.
Alina was dumbfounded. She was supposed to take that seriously?
They’d played at making a list of all the countries they’d consider moving to; this had taken place in that little hotel room off Piccadilly
Circus, before reality intervened. The list had included Poland and Ghana.
‘Is this because you didn’t get that job?’ she asked. ‘I thought you said you didn’t want it.’
Joe was instantly irritated. Alina’s stomach clenched; she wished she’d chosen her words more wisely.
‘Tell me,’ she said, caressing his cheek.
Joe looked at the ceiling, ignoring the brush of her hand. ‘I feel like I’m surrounded by an invisible wall.’
‘Socially or professionally?’
Joe felt like Finns didn’t want to let strangers in. No one asked him out for coffee or invited him over. Personal lives, Finns seemed to close their social circles to outsiders. ‘Especially if you have no free evenings,’ he added.
Especially since I can’t spend evenings away from home. I’m not keeping you here, Alina thought. You should have said something if
you didn’t want a baby.
Joe definitely didn’t want a second baby. Alina wanted three. They’d tried discussing the matter on a few occasions, but the conversation
grew strained, and Alina felt like she was demanding something her husband was incapable of giving.
‘What are you thinking?’ he asked. ‘Say something.’
She thought about her father, who needed her help on a more or less weekly basis, dealing with the social security office or the bank.
Dad hadn’t ever learned to use the bill payment terminals in the bank’s vestibule, although Alina had taken him there what seemed
like a dozen times and held his hand through the process. How was she going to do that from the States? What if something happened
to him? What if Dad got sick and needed help going to the store or reading the directions on his medication? Ever since Mom had died,
Dad had become absent-minded and listless. It still seemed unreal to Alina that a woman who had radiated vigor and health could die a
few months after the cancer diagnosis.
‘Have you felt this way the whole time?’ Alina said. ‘You should have said something.’
Translated from the Finnish into English by Kristian London.