In 1995, before the Office of Homeland Security even existed, I stood with my mother outside an arrivals gate at Detroit’s international airport. It was uncomfortably warm in the late August air. There were bodies moving in all directions—people coming, people going, people waiting for those coming, people waving to those going.
We were amongst the waiting, peering over heads and between bodies, shuffling gracelessly around those with overstuffed suitcases. The air was thick with body odor and synthetic perfume. I was a reluctant participant, standing under the florescent lights of the terminal, waiting for my father to return from a three-month absence.
In the earliest days of the internet, my father was connected. At ten-years-old, I was proud to be a member of one of the first families locally to be “online.” In the not-so-distant future, I will be a member of a dying generation of individuals who remember the sounds of dial-up connection—the automated piercing pitches followed by static gurgling. Patience was required when connecting to the “world wide web,” and there were no expectations of what it offered. It was a time before the internet held all the answers.
It held one answer for my father though. At least for a while. Somehow, in these days before Google, before the omnipresence of chatrooms, my father met a Norwegian woman called Bente online. Bente too had a deep and passionate interest in the burgeoning internet and the global connections it offered. How she and my father came to meet, I’m unsure, though I assume it was through some beta form of a chatroom for hobbyist computer programmers. Through the worldwide web, Bente and my father created a spider web of collided lives that can no longer be found on the likes of Netscape and other defunct search engines, but only in decaying corners of memory, not yet swept clean.
It proves an unreliable narrator, memory, particularly when it comes to time. I have no recollection of when I first heard Bente’s name, or how many days or months passed before she came to be a dim image of dark hair and pale, seemingly translucent skin. The bullet points on the timeline of my memory exist as events: receiving European chocolate bars for the first time, trying to grow a wildflower garden with my mother, attempting to hack my father’s email with my best friend.
At ten, Christie and I sat next to each other on a piano bench in front of an old mahogany bureau, trying to push both sets of our growing legs under the desk, tangling them awkwardly in the open space between drawers. We were too young to notice discomfort, too rapt with the keyboard, ‘mouse,’ and screen in front of us. One afternoon, in whispers, we discussed Bente—who she was, and more importantly, who she was to my father. With hesitation and a shot of adrenaline (knowing that if caught, we would be deep in the territory of trouble), we opened the email icon on my father’s desktop. Before we could access a single message, a pop-up window asked us for a password. At ten, secret passwords consisted of the names of crushes, prepubescent boys who hadn’t yet formed interest in girls. My father had a crush; this was why we were trying to access his emails, wasn’t it—to confirm what we thought we already knew? We typed Bente into the password field, and were mildly disappointed when this password yielded no result, though we were not yet deterred. We tried including her surname, removing capitalization, putting everything in caps. We tried every variety two ten-year-old minds could find. We did not think to try my mother’s name or mine. We may have tried the dog’s name, though memory again proves both forgiving and unforgiving—full of its own secrets.
Through the worldwide web, Bente and my father created a spider web of collided lives that can no longer be found on the likes of Netscape and other defunct search engines, but only in decaying corners of memory, not yet swept clean.
We never accessed his email, despite multiple attempts over many weeks. Once at fifteen, years after Bente had been relegated to that unkempt corner of memory, when Microsoft Outlook had updated and upgraded many times over, and my father had fewer secrets, I opened his email browser and searched her name, only to find that every email they had ever sent had been erased. She existed only in Polaroids kept in drawers full of unsorted photographs.
A year after my father died, when I was twenty-seven, I sat on the faded carpet in the guest room of my parents’ home. Sprawled in front of me were hundreds of photos, and neatly stacked to my left were ten new photo albums I’d bought at the local shop. I spent hours sifting through old pictures—saw the deep curls of childhood and the heavy fat rolls of unhappy teenage years. As my hand brushed aside a photo of me at eleven—too tall, too wide, with too frizzy hair and a skirt I wasn’t aware was too sheer—a photo of Bente appeared, unearthed from this archive of memory. I held the white Polaroid in my right hand and stared at her seemingly small eyes. Her hands were clasped in front of her as she stood in front of the fireplace of the home where we once lived. Her folded hands belied her height, and she appeared shy. Looking at the photo, I came to understand why in college I never fully trusted my Icelandic boyfriend’s mother, where my sense of Nordic women arose. The photo showed a woman strong, quiet, and full of snowy secrets.
I stood up and took the photo to the rubbish bin when my mother, who I had forgotten was also in the room, asked me what I was doing. I told her I was throwing away a photo of Bente. I was startled when she said, “Don’t.” I asked her why, but she just looked at me, the way I sometimes look at my dogs when they are testing boundaries. I held the photo in a hand gone cold, uncertain of where to place this picture—not in a photo album, not in the bin—but where?
I thought of the wildflower garden my mother and I tried to plant the summer my father was in Norway. There was a lonely rabbit burrow there. Months before the wildflowers, a mother rabbit kept her two offspring in the patch of garden near our garage, next to a winding gravel path. I would quietly visit them, keeping a distance as l watched the small, soft spheres of fur sleeping, growing, breathing. One night, our dog, a well-mannered and surprisingly serious golden retriever, stood at the window overlooking the garden and barked. He barked loudly and repeatedly, something unusual, rarely heard in our house. I asked my mother if I should let him outside—I felt strongly that I should—but she felt strongly that I should not. I’ve never forgiven myself for not opening the back door onto the sea-scented lawn that night. The next morning, we found the remains of the two small lives that had just the day before been growing near the rockery. A local cat had attacked and killed the bunnies. If only I could lay the photo to rest with the rabbit skulls gone to dust.
Standing at the airport with my mother, I heard my mother cry out, “Todd!” She released my hand, which she must have been holding, and ran to him, awkwardly pushing her way through the sea of idle bodies. I stood and watched them embrace. He put a hand in her hair and glanced to me—me, now eleven and angry, deeply confused by her heart and the way her body, like a magnet, drew toward him. My body repelled, resisted the return of this paternal intrusion into my vibrational field.
If only I could lay the photo to rest with the rabbit skulls gone to dust.
For the months he was in Norway, when we would speak on the phone (once a week? twice a month?) he would tell me at the end of each call that he loved and missed me. I would only reply with “I love you,” conspicuously leaving out any “I miss you,” with exception of one call when I absentmindedly said, “I miss you too,” and then quietly cursed myself as he melodramatically and tearfully replied, “Thank you, honey.” I didn’t miss him… nor did I think I loved him, though I knew I had to say it. If I neglected to love him, or at least feign such, I would find myself in an ever-increasing swamp of trouble-getting activities.
The mire of his personal life was irrelevant to his role as a patriarch, at least as far as he was concerned. Like so many patriarchs before him, he chose words and sentences from ancient text to suit his situational needs. Once in the kitchen, I heard him growl at my mother, “You are subservient to me. You are the wife. I am the husband. You are subservient. The Bible says so.”
I’m unsure if he used Biblical verse when he asked my mother permission to bring Bente into our family as a second wife. My mother, for one of the few times in her life, said “no” to him. She told him calmly, solemnly, that she would take me and leave. He could be with Bente as a wife, or he could be with my mother as a wife, but not both.
Of course, I did not know then of this conversation, or these discussions. I know now not even when they transpired: was it after he returned from Norway or was it after Bente came to visit us in northern Michigan? And did she come to visit us before or after he went to her? When did I see him, clothed, hovering over her in my parents’ bed? He saw me then and called me into the room. “It’s okay, honey,” he said. The repulsion of my magnetic field already strong, I stayed grounded in the kitchen until my legs took me away.
A few years after Bente, in a “family meeting” forced upon me and my mother by my father who felt maligned, we sat in a room that had gone dark through the hours of his grievances. No one turned on a light. Through growing shadows, I looked to him, took five deep breaths and asked, “Did you an affair with Bente?” His response: a cold no. It was to never be spoken of again, and with some strands of innocence left hanging from my heart, I left the meeting confused, with a quiet anxiety that only dissipated in adulthood, when maturity untangled the lies, and confirmations were offered by my mother, who went into a purgative trance hours after my father’s death. No longer afraid of him, she sat on their bed and the stories poured forth as if their bedroom had become a confessional. Months later, when asking my mother about something she told me then, she looked startled. “How did you know that?” “You told me after Dad died.” “I did?” She has no memory of this trance-like catharsis—the moments fear began to leave her life.
Leaving the Detroit airport, relegated to the backseat of the minivan again, my father carefully handed me a small toy. There was ceremony in his hands and an expectant smile on his face. It was a small sculptural seal with heavy silver fur. I turned it in my palms, wondering where it would live amongst the sea of my stuffed animals—a collection that numbered in the hundreds, with each being loved deeply by my still young heart. Then he said the words, “real seal fur.” I stopped turning the object in my hands and looked at him. Unbelieving, I queried, “This was made from a real seal?” He beamed. “Yes.” Before he could register my expression, he began extolling virtues about the Norwegian culture and people. I looked at the toy seal and felt sick. When he finished, he glanced at me and I handed the toy back to him. Tears formed behind my eyes and he sighed as he reached for the small seal. He tried to explain to me about the eating of seals and the usage of all the animals’ parts, but I only stared at the grey carpet between him and my mother. He flustered, tried to use a small wave of anger to make me take the unfortunate creature back, but he eventually relented. He set the seal on his dresser when we arrived home. I haven’t seen it in years.
She told him calmly, solemnly, that she would take me and leave. He could be with Bente as a wife, or he could be with my mother as a wife, but not both.
Yesterday, I had to drive through a small section of Norway to catch a flight from Oslo--the nearest airport to the home where my husband and I are momentarily living in Sweden. For over twenty years, Norway was a place on an imaginary blacklist—a place I refused to see. My father told us about the fjords—and how the Norwegians mispronounced ‘salmon.’ He loved telling people the ways in which he and his MENSA mind knew better… never pausing to think that words are mere creation, as fluid and ephemeral as ice floes.
I would not have even known the moment that I crossed the border from Sweden into Norway except for my car’s in-built navigation system, which informed me in a soft British tone, “You have crossed the border.” I was alone in the car—and the birch trees that guided the road were quickly turning to pine.
I looked at the houses, thought of Norwegian families—and how recollection tells me that Bente had children of her own—and that they could live anywhere. They could be in a house right over there. My father could have walked near the road taking me to the Oslo airport.
He had, in fact, been to the Oslo airport—the only airport outside of America he ever visited. As I stepped inside, I looked around and wondered what had changed in twenty years. I looked at the wooden slats adorning the upper-level lounges and wondered when Nordic architecture had become so fashionable. He told us a story of how there were no old buildings in Norway, because the Nazis razed everything to the ground. I saw barns on the road larger than any I had ever seen before, and wondered if his story—this history—was true. What was ever true at all?
I have never felt my father after he died—never believed that his presence was nearby, not for fact that I do not believe in such things, but simply because I haven’t. I wouldn’t want to, and perhaps if there is a spiritual realm, he is paying me this one curtesy. Looking at the airport, stepping on foreign ground where he once stepped, it was only the memories that trailed after me through the drive of dying evening light.
I last visited the Detroit airport with my now husband two years ago, in 2015, when we were both in the middle of divorce proceedings from our previous partners. We were two of over 30 million passengers to transit through the airport that year. My mother and her fiancé met us in the arrivals area. It’s been over a decade since families could attend the processional of passengers at the gates. My mother cried out, dropped Greg’s hand and ran towards us. “Julie!” she exclaimed and hugged me. “Oh my goodness, she looks younger! Look at her Greg! She looks younger!” I smiled—an act that ever increases the lines forming at the corners of my mouth. We were there to attend their wedding. They had known each other in college and reconnected on Facebook some thirty years later—my whole life bundled in between. The June sun sat high in the sky when we exited the terminal. My now husband and I sat in the backseat of their car and watched as wildflowers billowed in fuel-soaked air on the side of the highway.
Julie Bolitho, though originally from northern Michigan, has spent the last ten years in Oxfordshire, England. She is a poet and essayist, as well as a teacher of creative writing on various residential programs. She is passionate about yoga and living a compassionate lifestyle and presently has ten furry and feathered residents in her pet menagerie. She is currently writing a memoir. You can find her website at: www.juliebolitho.com.