To Write or Not to Write

Gunnhild Øyehaug

Translation by Kari Dickson

First published in Draumeskrivar (Kolon forlag, 2016)

Victoria can’t decide if she should write or not write to him. His name is Njål, and she met him at an interiors trade show. She was exhibiting furniture, he was a sound technician. They only spoke briefly to each other a couple of times, over the yellow sofa that attracted so many people who couldn’t decide if they were daring enough to make the statement that having a yellow sofa would be, to have it standing there screaming yellow, yellow, yellow in the living room, but both felt something happen, both times. Something happened inside their eyes. If love at first sight exists, this was it, she thinks. She wasn’t able to talk to him on the last evening, at the last party, she said she had to go home, and he said: I’d hoped you’d stay, and she said: Me too, but I can’t. And that was the last time she spoke to him, and now here she is, sitting staring at the email she’s received, which has all the email addresses of all the exhibitors and all the technicians and all the manufacturers in the email field, and she’s found his email address, and she’s found the tunnel out of her present existence, where she’s married and sells furniture and lives in a house, the tunnel she didn’t know she was looking for, she thought she was happy, she thought life was simple and good, that the problem of convincing people to buy a yellow sofa was the biggest problem she had, but now she sees the light at the other end of the tunnel, and it’s Njål. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the Don Juan, Juan Antonio (in the form of Javier Bardem), says of his love for the wild and impossible Maria Elena: “We are meant for each other and not meant for each other. It’s a contradiction. I mean, in order to understand it, you need a poet like my father….”, and that’s how we might understand this sudden tunnel in Victoria’s life, she hasn’t asked for any of it, she’s married to Ottar, he’s a good man, he’s planted a plum tree in the garden, her favourite plums from her childhood so she’ll be reminded of home, so she can smell the plums in autumn and always remember home; she gets up from the computer and goes into the bedroom where her children are asleep, in bunk beds, their bare feet sticking out from under the duvet, she will forever be in this restless state, this state will never leave her, it is who she is, she feels, as she stands there looking at the children, who are hers. She runs back to the computer, she must write, dear Njål, she writes,

I don’t actually know why
I’m writing this to you
and certainly not
why I’m doing it
in the form of a poem
but there was something
about you that made me think
that if I ever were
to write to you
it would be in the form of
a poem,
so there you are.
This is the poem
I thought I would write
if I ever were to write
to you.

She deletes the email. The Dickinson quote is too obvious. She hasn’t written poetry for years now. She suddenly started to question the line breaks, and that was it. No more poems. Two hours have passed. It’s midnight. A deer walks by on the road below, she sees the lonely deer walk down the hill under the streetlights, the clatter of deer hooves on asphalt, its horns turning to the left as its head turns to the left to see a car coming up the hill, it’s her husband, she recognises the car. She hastily writes in prose this time:

Dear Njål,
I have managed not to write to you for six days now, but suddenly my ability not to write has shrunk to zero, frustrating. A deer is walking by my window on the road, as though he were going into town, and my husband is driving up the same road, so I’ll stop writing to you now, after all.

She deletes the email. Downstairs, the front door opens. She writes, furiously fast, as though her language will be lost forever if she doesn’t write something right now:

But dear N,
oh, dearest, dearest N,
how is it possible to meet someone, fall in love, and then never meet again, like a flame tears open the immense darkness for a second only then to let the dark become darker, as dark as all eternity?

She deletes the email, walks down the stairs, feels her nightdress brushing her legs, a cold draft running up the stairs, a blast from the night outside. She hears the car keys being dropped on the chest of drawers, Ottar taking off his shoes, he goes into the kitchen and pours himself a glass of water. She reaches the bottom of the stairs and it’s not Ottar who’s standing there, but Njål, he gulps down the final mouthful of water. He looks at her and smiles, have you not gone to bed yet, no, she says, and tries to hide her surprise, tries to pretend that everything is normal, tries to pretend that this is her life, and that Njål is her husband, not Ottar, no, she says, I wanted to wait, she says and feels a rising panic, where is her husband, where is Ottar, where is her life, for you.

Gunnhild Øyehaug was born in 1975 in Norway, and is an award-winning essayist and fiction writer. She teaches at the Academy of Creative Writing in Vestland, and has an MA in comparative literature from the University of Bergen. Her story collection Knots was published by FSG in 2017 in Kari Dickson’s English translation, followed in 2018 by the novel Wait, Blink, which was adapted into the acclaimed film Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts. In 2022, FSG published her novel Present Tense Machine and in 2023 the story collection Evil Flowers.

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