It’s the winter of 2007. The taxi driver’s name is in front of me. I have to lean forward to see it clearly. It’s in my middle distance, between close-up, when I have my glasses off, and the far away, when I need my glasses. The name is “Ibrahim.” I say it to myself, careful not to say “Abraham.”
I don’t know what my own name is. Back home in Oklahoma they said “Billy,” when I was too small to protect myself, and then “Bill.” When I was fifteen I went to Mexico for the summer and people there asked “What do you call yourself?” and I started wondering. Seven years later I came to Europe, leaving the US and its Vietnam War behind. I dropped “Bill,” so afraid of the past, started saying “Willi” after the Swedish policeman who interviewed me when I arrived here as a fugitive. This turned out to be a German name, and I couldn’t make out its final phoneme. I still don’t know if my Swedish wife calls me “Willi” or “Wille” or “Willy.” In Oklahoman there wouldn’t be any difference.
Uncoupled from my mooring, I led my Swedish childhood to a place where the neighboring farmer called me “William.” I found that good, and my ears heard almost the whole. Swedes mostly say “Villiam” these days I think, but I let it pass. “William” has become a popular name for babies here. Maybe I started it.
I’m in the front seat. I like to sit up front. There are some things you can do in Sweden that you can’t do in New York City. And you have a better breed of taxis here.
I’m in Gothenburg to remember who I am. I’m at this all the time. I know I’m a grandfather now, and father to three grown-ups, but somehow I have to come to Gothenburg for these facts to come alive. A couple of times a year I return to Oklahoma, where another version of me lives. I used to have the hometown shivers; was afraid of turning into the person I left behind or of being shamed by my home town. But nothing particular ever happened, and there was no other good way of visiting Mom and Dad.
This city of Gothenburg was also one of my homes, but to tell the truth, places mean nothing to me, just relationships. I now live up in the north with my second Swedish wife. I lived here in Gothenburg with my first.
I calm myself and sink into the leather of Ibrahim’s taxi. It’s as if we were in easy chairs at a gentleman’s club.
Up north, we’d hardly call this winter. You can’t expect winter in Gothenburg. The city’s so far south, and so near the sea. I’m not from here any more. I deserted this wife and my career here. Deserted the kids too, or at least it felt that way.
Gothenburg’s like any other city. Pigeons populate it, with their jabbing prance, their croonings, the hollow flap of their wings. Here is only mush, no proper snow, even in the dead of February. The streets have cleared in spots. A black leaf left from fall scuttles across the asphalt like a mouse.
“You can move the seat back,” Ibrahim says. “There’s a lever.”
His Swedish isn’t bad. He reaches over, indicating where I can find the handle.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
He doesn’t seem to expect an answer, so I don’t give him one.
I end up beside dark foreigners because they drive the world’s taxis. This one could have touched me when he reached over. He was careful not to. I wouldn’t have minded.
“I’m not Swedish,” I say to Ibrahim, or to his license in front of me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him paying attention. His head turns slowly in my direction.
Ibrahim moves slowly in general. His taxi cradles like a boat. He doesn’t hurry, and I’m not sure that bothers me. There’s elegance in his way of driving, as if he knew I need to slow down before meeting my grandchildren.
A woman stands by her female bike, at a zebra crossing almost erased by wear. Behind her an irate male, no relation. The male is pacing back and forth swearing into his fist. She seems not to notice. I see in the man a picture of me, in the woman a picture of Ibrahim.
The woman is neither young nor beautiful. Most Scandinavians are good-looking. I like living in a country of well-favored people. She wears a red, woolen overcoat that is practical since in wintertime in Gothenburg you never know if it’ll rain or snow. She smiles at us for letting her cross.
Ibrahim’s taxi waggles along, allowing other traffic to circulate. He would be a good hand with cows and horses.
“I’ve been here almost 40 years,” I tell his license. His license photo has a Mediterranean look, like my mother’s kin. The kids and I are all blond and fair, like my Dad’s side.
I don’t look at the real Ibrahim. I screw sideways and look out on the grayness of the soggy, city snow, huddled into hedges along the streets. In the reflection of my window-glass, I see Ibrahim and partly imagine him.
“Forty years,” he says.
“Almost forty,” I say.
We drive by Liseberg, the amusement park. I remember when my younger son started visiting us up north, after having lived with his mother. He didn’t know what to do with the wild woods where my new wife and I lived. He would stand on our porch and beat at it with a stick, repeating the name Liseberg.
We’re stopped now, and right beside us on the bare pavement is a wet maple leaf, preserved and now freed from the snow, trampled flat by the many winter boots of this part of town. It has kept its orange-yellowness, is blotched with black and lined with veins. It reminds me of my father’s hands and of my own, now turning old.
Ibrahim is still letting people cross in the leaking snow. I consider Liseberg’s façade, keeping up a brave face, shining with thousands of small lights though the grey winter day. One giant, naked tree is outlined in white Christmas lights though Christmas is long past.
“Is it warm enough for you?” Ibrahim asks. I make a grunt that means yes.
Grunt sounds are the hardest part of any language. Swedish has a grunt sound “yes” that is close to an Oklahoma “what?” In later years, when I was visiting my mother, she would hear me grunting “what?” when I grunted “yes” and would repeat things for me. After my time in Sweden, it was hard to switch back to grunting Oklahoman, so I had to speak English.
“My mother’s dead,” I say.
Now the light has changed to red. We were standing still on green, so now we go on standing. If you listen closely, you can hear the light ticking for the blind.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says.
“She was old.”
Ibrahim grunts yes. I wonder about the grunts of his native country.
The light changes and a car behind us honks. This is for me the first time in history I’ve been honked at in a taxi. It’s a small honk that doesn’t bother Ibrahim.
“My mother is in Ankara,” he says.
“And she is well?” I ask.
He shrugs and we drive off slowly.
I look at his reflection in my window again and talk to it. “You have children here?”
He turns and looks at me, as if considering whether to answer. “We’ve seen too many Turks,” he says. “Every day we see the children are a problem here, the parents are a problem. So the wife and I decide no children.”
“No children,” I repeat.
His taxi is heavy and black, probably Asian, but has that Mercedes feeling. The motor sound is low and dependable, like Ibrahim’s voice. The car probably doesn’t have winter tires. Up north we always have winter tires.
You could never get killed in a car like this. You have an air bag to the right of you, an air bag in front of you, safety belts for driver and customer. Ibrahim and I have our belts on.
“How long you been here?” I ask.
I look straight at his license and can see some of the real him as if in a clouded mirror, his arms and a bit of his nose. I’m in no hurry to leave his company.
“I came as a refugee,” I say. “I deserted from the American Army during the Vietnam War.”
“Me too,” he says.
We’re close to my daughter’s house. I show him how you have to drive past it to get to it. You have to go out to a roundabout and then double back along the border of her park.
“I deserted the Turkish Army,” Ibrahim says. “Didn’t want to kill Kurds.”
I see her house as we drive by. I’m in no hurry to get there, but my job is to arrive. Ibrahim’s job is to make this happen.
“We ought to tell them,” he says, easing into the last roundabout, the one out by the filling station. He has a good smell. Maybe it’s his leather jacket. He takes the roundabout twice, very slowly. A bus comes and pushes us out.
“Here?” he asks.
I nod and we turn onto a last stretch of narrow street. My daughter’s name, Sarah, is the same in Ibrahim’s language. That’s why we chose it – my first wife and I – so our daughter could be regular in the whole world. Here on her street, we can drive slowly and it doesn’t look fishy. The trees of her park hold up their arms as if in prayer.
“We ought to tell the young men they can choose.”
William Males emigrated to Sweden during the Vietnam War. The working title of his book of memoir is Ask Me How I Got Here. He received his MFA in writing at Bennington College . His work has been broadcast in the BBC World Service, used in Narrative Magazine’s “Readers’ Narratives,” in Stand Magazine, and elsewhere.