Photo by Olivia Sjostedt
As the wheels hit the ground and the pilot stopped the airplane at Newark airport, I felt right at home. I was landing in the city that was going to be my new home, at least for a couple of years. People had always told me that I should live in New York once, but leave before the city made me hard. But as I watched the skyscrapers and the beautiful rose-colored shimmer that lay like a blanket over Manhattan, I wondered who would ever want to leave.
My boyfriend Andy was waiting for me at the baggage claim. He had been in New York for a few days already, starting his new job, while I was back in Sweden getting my student visa. We didn’t have an apartment yet and were eager to find one. I was starting fresh with the man I loved, the man I wanted to share the good and the bad with. I just didn’t think that the bad would come so soon.
I had met Andy in Chicago three years before at a party I had been working as an au pair for a family with three children, and Andy was working as a diplomat, helping Swedish companies establish footholds in America. My American friends couldn’t believe that I had moved all the way to America just to find a Swedish boyfriend. It didn’t matter; we were drawn to each other like magnets. When my eighteen months as an au pair came to an end, I moved in with him and we started a life together in Chicago. Before I met Andy, I was planning to go back to Sweden and start college, but instead I enrolled in classes at Northwestern and fell in love with the field of psychology. When the day came for Andy to climb the corporate ladder and become the head of his company’s New York location, we saw a chance for me to apply to New York University. The acceptance letter came, and I found myself on a plane to Sweden to get my student visa. Shortly after, I was on the plane to New York.
After meeting Andy at baggage claim, we jumped into a yellow cab. I was surprised that it was just like the ones I’d seen in movies. Our driver drove how I imagined real New Yorkers would—cursing and calling the other car drivers names. He skipped from lane to lane while the other cars honked, making a melody of different tones. When we finally reached Manhattan, I no longer paid attention to his driving because I was preoccupied with looking out at the buildings, the smoke that came up from the manhole covers and the rhythm of the people moving in a coordinated pace on the sidewalks. The city was alive.
My thoughts were interrupted by the abrupt stop we made outside of what was supposed to be our Airbnb. Located above a Japanese restaurant, it looked more like a cardboard box with holes cut out as windows. My initial thought was that no one could possibly live there, but it was what we had paid $2,000 for. When we entered the apartment, we froze in our steps. It was dirty and, oddly, there were mirrors everywhere, even on the ceiling. The couch and the bed were covered in leopard-patterned sheets and everything else was red. I got the feeling that something shady was happening there. We were uneasy. Before we went to bed we covered the cracks in the windows where the cold January air slipped in using extra covers that were stashed in the apartment.
We woke by what we thought was our alarm, but it was still dark outside. The room was freezing. I could literally see the breath coming out of my mouth when I told Andy to turn the alarm off. He went up and grabbed his phone, then realized it hadn’t been our alarm after all. My mother was calling him from Sweden. I was confused and a little upset, wondering why she woke us up at 2 am. She knew it was my first day of college. I assumed that she just wanted to wish me good luck, having forgotten the time difference.
I was dozing off again as I heard Andy repeating “okay” several times. He laid down beside me, handed me the phone and then he put his arms around me tight. I began to sense something was wrong, and he started to cry. His crying came from a place where he had never taken me before, a very lonely and vulnerable place.
Andy handed me the phone and I heard my mother’s voice. She told me that something had happened to my father. Immediately, a million possibilities flew through my mind. I thought he had most likely fallen and was in the hospital. My mother told me that my father had been at our summer house, located in the Swedish countryside about a fifty-minute drive from my hometown Malmo. My family spent all our summers there, and the house was where my sister and I learned how to swim. He was making preparations for the weekend while my mother stayed in the city to work. She was supposed to meet him there two days later.
Now, my mother told me over the phone, our summer house was on fire. No one had heard from my father.
My mother told me to come home. I told her that I would, that I’d come home and find him. I hadn’t accepted the reality that my father was trapped in the fire. Once I hung up the phone, I put on my rain boots and walked straight out into the night. Andy quickly followed and brought me back inside. I rushed to the bathroom and threw up. We couldn’t go back to sleep, so we walked over to his office, where I called my mother again. She laid the cold truth before me: two police officers had come to our summer house, and they had found a body in my father’s bed. I stood up and paced around the conference table. I tried to rationalize the situation, wondering who would have been lying in my father’s bed. It couldn’t possibly be him. If it was, I felt like my life would be over.
Andy tried to calm me down and then his phone rang from his office. He had to answer because it was his boss wondering why he was at the office at 3 am. As he walked over, I sat down at the table, covering my face with my palms, wishing that I could wake up from what felt like a bad dream.
Andy was close with my whole family but especially with my father. They had a special connection—especially over their shared love of wine—and enjoyed each other’s company. My father was happy that he had finally gotten a man in the family, no longer stuck with three women. A life without my father would not only change me but would change Andy, too.
Later that day, once we had booked our flight to Sweden, talked to Andy’s coworkers and gotten the travel signature from NYU required for me to leave, we found ourselves at the Union Square Starbucks. My father’s favorite song, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, was playing. I took a sip of my coffee and looked out the window, where white birds were flying up and down a building to the rhythm of the song.
Before I left Sweden to move to New York, I hugged my dad, not knowing that it would be the last time. He had driven me to the airport, as he had done so many times before. We laughed and talked about my new life in the city that never sleeps. We picked out the restaurants we would try when he would visit: Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecôte on Lexington Avenue and all the sushi places we could find. My father was a captain for Scandinavia Airlines, and after he retired he often came to visit me in Chicago. The day I moved there, he even flew over the Atlantic Ocean with me, sitting beside me on the plane, reassuring me that everything was going to be okay. I was nervous to move away from my family, to a new country and a different life. Although I was less nervous to move to New York, I was already looking forward to my father’s visits to the city—and I was sure there would be many.
As we hugged goodbye, my father looked at me and smiled. “I’ll see you in New York,” he said. We both thought he was speaking the truth.
After we buried my father and Andy and I returned to New York, it seemed like everyone in the city was crying. I saw a woman sitting on the subway across from me whose tears seemed to stab her cheeks. She flicked one tear after another away. I imagined that I knew what she felt like, that I could meet her in the place she was in, trying to wipe away the pain. I began to never leave the house without my sunglasses on. It was easier to hide the tears that way.
I even wore sunglasses when Andy and I went out to dinner. He took me to one of our favorite places, Mastro’s Steak House, two weeks after I had lost my father. As soon as the steaks arrived and the lobster mac and cheese was decorating our plates, I found myself overwhelmed with grief. Andy silently comforted me as I cried at the restaurant. He let me be one with my sadness, never judging me, sunglasses or not.
I was faced with two new situations: living in New York, and living without my father. When I walked on the streets of the city I was quiet. I began seeing my father everywhere. I saw him outside of the CVS on the bottom floor of our building. I saw him on the subway platforms, in Grand Central, and I realized that I would never be alone in the magnificent city so long as I had his shadow to comfort me. I walked through the city’s endless construction, listening to the sounds a city makes while being built and rebuilt: metal clashing into metal as drills meet the ground. Cars honking and braking, voices yelling and cursing at each other, the dust from the construction stuffing my nose and filling my lungs. I found myself in the middle of it all. The chaos of the city reflected the quiet chaos inside me.
A month or two later my sister and mother visited New York so we could all be together. We wanted to be happy again, to feel joy again. Looking back, maybe that is not quite what we wanted. We just wanted to survive our grief.
We visited the World Trade Center memorial plaza. On our tour, we met a survivor, a retired fireman who had not worked on the day of 9/11 but had lost his son-in-law in the attack. We walked in silence, remembering that day, and honored all those affected, whose grief can never be measured nor understood.
When the tour was over, we stayed and talked to the man. He told us that it wasn’t the fire that killed people in the towers; it was the smoke that slowly poisoned them and, in a horrible way, put them to sleep. I watched my mother’s face turn grey as he explained. My sister looked away, and I wanted to shake him. I wanted him to know that we couldn’t hear those words right then because we too had lost someone. It hurt too much to think about the smoke that killed my father, that transformed him into ash in the house he loved. I wanted to tell him to stop. I wanted him to understand that I needed him to stop. Instead, I looked him in the eyes as if he knew what I was thinking. Then I looked away.
When we left the site my mother whispered, “He had no idea how well we know some of what he was talking about.”
Three days later, on a Friday afternoon, I put my family in a cab to JFK and went to Central Park to gather my thoughts. Being alone inside my apartment was too lonely to bear. I felt trapped in my pain, already missing my family and also missing Andy, who worked all day. As I walked along the south path in the park, a little brown bird with a black string on the top of his head appeared. We walked together. At one point he jumped in front of me and as we passed a little waterfall to the left, he stopped and looked back at me. I watched the small ways he moved.
When I was a child, my father would sit me down to read his bird encyclopedia book with him. He’d point to each picture, name each bird, and try to get me to remember them. The bird with the blue head was my favorite. My father’s favorite was the woodpecker. I remember watching him turn page after page with birds of different colors and shapes, pointing and naming, stroking my back as if that would help me remember.
The brown bird in Central Park made me remember the little girl I used to be, with long brown braids glued to her sides, sitting next to her father. But that day in the park I was alone, following a little bird I didn’t recognize.
Olivia Sjostedt is a sophomore at NYU SPS, majoring in Social Sciences/Psychology. Olivia is from Sweden and came to the U.S 2011. She fell in love with writing at SPS in Aril Krassner’s Foundation to Creative Process class and have since then taking multiple creative writing classes at NYU. Olivia attended the summer intensive where she worked with the poet Nick Flynn. Olivia mostly writes poetry and non-fiction and hopes to soon have her first personal essay published.