Jan/Feb 1999  •   Fiction

Is Sex a Verb?

by Gabrielle Bomgren

There are things Anna Karlén prefers to look at from a different angle, even knitting. "Knitting is not about creating a piece of clothing. It's a symbol of a love relationship without sex," she says.

There are also things Anna doesn't tell just anybody. For example, the used Maxi pads she put in Ziploc bags and stored in her freezer the second year of having her period. Research purposes. She still gets her pads free.

"You're a man, but you're not anybody," she tells Jörgen. Pads stored in bags in Anna's freezer made him feel sharply about their love. He asks if she used gloves for protection. She says, "Of course not. Blood is very natural."

"You're a man," she tells him, sometimes. Once when she hadn't told him for a month or two he dried himself dry after taking a shower and then he stood on the toilet seat. He could see all of him in the mirror. And yes, he would call himself a man too.

Somehow the word aimless comes to Jörgen when he's with Anna. Aimless or endless? He doesn't know for sure or why the newness of the words makes him feel close. He looks for her dictionary. "I don't have one. Words can't be defined outside my head," she says and he knows she's looking at something from a different angle again.


Anna and Jörgen are going to Mora for Midsummer. They will dance around the Maypole and sing loudly, but not as loud as they did when they were kids. They will eat pickled herring and strawberry torte, not at the same time of course. And Anna will only eat herring if she can bury the herring and the boiled new potatoes in sour cream and chives.


Jörgen is thinking about creating a new world for them, so he calls their landlord and asks if he has another apartment for rent. "You're lucky," he's told. "An old lady died last week. You can have her home."

Jörgen signs the contract, agrees to pay 1200 crowns more a month. He pays a moving company called We Will in advance and puts the receipt in an envelope with a birthday card and he mails it to their house. Anna loves to get mail.

The new world is located on Per Bagge's street. They go there to look at it together. The windows are tall and dirty. The cupboards in the kitchen need to be repainted.

"I want to make the living room into a bedroom and you do know I can't pay any more rent than what I do now," Anna says. She has a red and purple dress on. It's ugly and she knows it.

"I love you," Jörgen says. "I love you more than what I thought I would the first time I met you." He hugs her from behind. Not all the way.

"That's good," Anna says. She walks into the kitchen. The window is open, the old lady's curtain not yet taken down.

"It's terra-cotta for sure. Now I know. We'll paint it not red or yellow, but terra-cotta," Anna says.


Jörgen has students. His class is called S3b. He's their history and Swedish teacher. He sees them for five hours a week. The school is called Burgården, which is Latin and means the square cage. Yesterday Jörgen wrote his new telephone number on the black board 242239. "I want to make sure that you, my students, know I'm available."


On their way to Mora Anna pulls up to the old church in Rättvik. It's been a long sweaty drive. Anna crosses the parking lot, the lawn, the gravel path, then she feels the texture of the building.

"I have hope for us," Jörgen says.

"Come on, romantic boy of mine. Hope is a girl's name, not for us," Anna says.

But Jörgen does all he can do. He feels the ups and downs of her knitted sweater and says again, "I have hope for us." The church is white.

"One of the oldest in this region," Anna says. "One of the oldest that never burned."


They're staying with Anna's grandmother. She lives in an apartment with windows she can't open. "This doesn't bother me," Anna's grandma says. Anna tries to phone the landlord. He's gone for the holiday.

At 3 A.M. Jörgen wakes up by Grandma making oatmeal. The door to the kitchen is open, the light and the radio fully on. It smells of cinnamon.

"Jörgen, I wondered if you would wake up. I'm not sorry. Are you?"

"Grandma, why are you awake?"

"Oh, do call me Edith. Nobody does these days. I'm an Edith," Grandma says. She is eating her oatmeal with no milk or sugar, only a small amount of dark syrup.

"I'm writing a letter to my ex-husband. I want to tell him about you, and Anna of course. Could you please correct any misinformation?" Grandma hands Jörgen the letter written on a piece of cardboard.


Anna is here. She doesn't say a word about you. I'm sorry. I'm sure she misses you. I sent her a birthday check from both of us. Yesterday she wore the sweater she bought with the money. It's nice, very nice. Jörgen is her new boyfriend. They've been living together for six months. He is fairly handsome, a high-school teacher. He seems to have a love with potential for our girl. I don't think we have to worry about him being like Pontus. I do worry about Anna, somewhat. I don't know if her love has arrived yet, if you'll allow me to be poetic. I think you understand. I also have a question from a crossword puzzle I tried to do last Saturday. Which language is spoken by almost 250 million? Five letters.

Oh, Anna and Jörgen stopped by Rättvik's church on their way here. Do you remember?

"The parts I understand are correct. But couldn't you have written 'handsome' instead of 'fairly handsome'? I'm not even going bald, yet. Be fair," Jörgen says. Grandma grabs Jörgen's chest with both her hands. She pinches him slightly and laughs.

"Of course I'm fair," she says and Jörgen can't do anything but go back to bed.

"Of course I'm fair."


They sleep on a mattress on the floor and have pancakes for breakfast. During breakfast Jörgen finds out Grandmother only reads books if the main character is over fifty years of age.

"I suppose it's because old people aren't able to write themselves and young people don't take an interest in us," she says.

"But you're not very old, Grandma," Anna says.

"No, I'm not. You're right, my girl. But if you were a writer of books, would you write about old people?"

"I can't answer that question."


"I don't want you to come with me to the preparation party of the Maypole," Anna says to Jörgen. "It's not you, it's me. I just need to be a girl again. You'll come to the dinner and the dance of course."

So Jörgen goes for a run when Anna leaves for her thing. She wears jeans, tight with a tucked-in white blouse.

"You're very attractive to me," Jörgen says and knows it was the wrong thing to say. He tries again.

"You are full of summer. Have fun."

After the run, Jörgen reads the book he brought. Poltava by Peter Englund. Grandma is doing her laundry. "Holidays are the best days for laundry," she says. "I have the laundry room all to myself."

"Why don't you tell me about Pontus?" Jörgen says.

"No, why don't you tell me the definition of feisty instead," she says.

"Is this a game? Feisty is an adjective denoting determination," he says.

"Exactly, or I would define it as the opposite to what denotes Pontus. Why do you care?" Grandma says. "I'm tired and you should be too."

And so they remember the words and the movements to the songs this year too. Jörgen and Anna sing and jump like frogs and pigs, just as loudly as the rest of the crowd. The Maypole is tall and covered with the few flowers they could find, mainly wild chervil and buttercup. The folk dancers in red and white and occasional yellow dance to the beat of former Midsummers and future years. It smells of birch and Anna leads Jörgen to the lake. The mosquitoes bite and suck, but Anna won't let Jörgen turn off the flashlight. It's propped up on her backpack. "I want to see you. You are beautiful," she says. "You are beautiful when you feel me, inside." This is mainly a love story and they know it.


Back home in their city Jörgen knows it's not about what is said, but what is thought. He says this to Anna on the phone during one of his lunch breaks.

"Whatever," she says and explains, "Jörgen, this is a good whatever."

That night Anna makes a list entitled "Things to Do on My Way to Work." She takes the tram to the yarn shop she manages.

Finish reading my book
Copy down the Weight Watcher's recipes Grandma wants
Write a note to Jörgen, love included

Anna never knits on her way to work. "I want to come fresh," she says.

"Do you think about teaching when you bike to work?" she asks.

"In a way I do. I go over students in my mind."

"Go over students?"

"I think about their problems and other stuff."

"Do you ever think about their looks? If they're attractive or not?"

They're in the bathroom. She is hanging up towels used this morning and Jörgen is soaking his feet in the bathtub.

"Of course I do. Not for my sake, but for theirs. You see, if they're ugly they might have problems."

"I don't like how you preach to me. We both know beauty can never be fully unselfish," Anna says.


On Friday night Anna and Jörgen are having dinner with Holly and Patrik. They eat and then they play this game Holly learned when she was an exchange student in Wyoming years back. It's called, "If I were you but had the intellect of a Nobel Prize winner." Holly had slightly modified the game. It used to be called, "If I were you but had the intellect of Miss America." Every time they meet they have a different you. Here are some of the people they've been: Ronald Reagan, Patrik's father, Antonio Samaranch, Börje Salming, but never Björn Borg. Patrik doesn't care for him. Tonight Jörgen wants them to be a woman.

"We can be Lady Macbeth or Anna's grandmother. Pick either one," Jörgen says.

"I won't tell you which one I'm doing until I'm done," Holly says and the game begins. There are three requirements for them to fulfill: something written, something drawn, and something planned.

They drink Irish coffee with liquor from Patrik's store, except Holly. The rules of the game give them twenty minutes. Sometimes they stretch it. Antonio Samaranch took twenty-seven minutes, but that's because Holly didn't know who he was at first.

They use the sketching pads in Pictionary and colored pencils Jörgen gets at work for the something drawn. Tonight the something written has to be read aloud.

"You're still small. I look at you and I know you hope to finish love by correspondence. Did you ever let him feel you on both sides? Inside and outside, that is? Did you ever scream across his ears, still on top? Or do old people only wish for a place in books and not in love? You might not believe I love love. I do. I love love. But how can I say that, when nothing is unchanging? And so I don't say it, I only read or write or sex it. Is sex a verb? I'm not ashamed to ask. Did Lady Macbeth curse all women with her wish? Unsex me here and now and rightly so. If I were you (which I am (not) I would be like me. " Anna reads without interruption.

"Who did you pick, Lady Macbeth or your grandma?" Jörgen asks.

"Who do you think?" Anna says.


Later that night Anna and Jörgen are feeling each other's fronts and backs under the covers of their bed. They're calm and desire is hardly a factor at all. And then they stay still with their legs braided like the color scheme of Jörgen's drawing of Edith. Anna says she won't write him a note. "It's not necessary."

"Do you come here often?" she says.

"No, this is my first time here."

"What's your name? I need to know who to ask for the next time I come."

"Jörgen. What's yours?"

"Anna. Nice to meet you, Jörgen."

"The pleasure is mine."