I’m looking at a door. It’s a door to a house, and the house is the house I used to live in, 15 years ago, when I was married to a man named Torvald Helmer.
15 years ago, I left that house and Torvald and my marriage and even my children.
I left because I had to leave. I left – I left not because he was a bad man. He wasn’t. Oh sometimes he was a little unpleasant. Had a lot of hang-ups about money – a lot – and was always worried about how others would see him – his reputation, his status at the bank, and so on.
I left because I was suffocated by our marriage. I left because he thought he loved me. He doted on me. That was nice, for a while. But doting isn't loving, and more and more I came to realize that he only liked the idea of me, of having me around. His little wife. His little admiring, dependent wifey. But that wifey wife wasn’t me, and if I tried to be anything other than that wife Torvald wanted me to be, well there’d be plenty of pontificating over how I should and should not behave.
I left because I went straight from being a child to being a spouse. I never lived a life where I did what I wanted. I never knew what I wanted. Did I even want to be a wife? Did I want children? I didn't know. All I knew was that I was doing what I thought I was supposed to do: marry, have children, eat macaroons, and eventually die.
So I left and I had a life! Lovers and adventures and misadventures. I've had the best life.
Along the way, I became a writer. Who knew that could happen, but it did. I took up writing and found success – a lot of success actually – writing books about women and relationships and marriage and the problems with marriage and why marriage is actually a terrible idea. Controversial stuff. Some people really loved what I said; a lot of people hated it. Those books made me some enemies, but they also made me money. And with that kind of money came a freedom – a freedom I’ve enjoyed for years, a freedom that that has given me a little house by a lake and solitude when I want it.
But now I’m back at the house I left. I had never imagined that I’d wind up back at this door.
So why am I back? Funny story there:
When I left, Torvald and I had an agreement. I’d leave; he’d divorce me. I kept my end of the bargain; he didn’t keep his.
Since 1879 I've been living the life of an unmarried woman while still being married. Turns out that doing that resulted in me technically breaking the law on more than a couple of counts. I had no idea. I only just recently found out the truth, courtesy of one of those aforementioned enemies who took no end of pleasure in telling me all the things he would do to expose me and how much he would enjoy every last one of them.
Now that I know we’re still married, I need to get Torvald to finally make the divorce official so that I don’t wind up prison and lose everything that I’ve worked so hard to get.
It’s a peculiar thing – seeing a former husband. You imagine how you think it would go. You have these little fantasies. I'd of course moved to the other side of Norway, so it was never likely that we'd run into each other. But on the unlikely chance that he'd come to my town, I liked to imagine that he'd pass me by while I was walking down street. He probably wouldn't even recognize me – I've been transformed into a very different person. I really don’t resemble who I used to be.
I even dress very differently now than how I used to dress. I used to wear the kinds of things he liked. He'd say, “Oh, Nora, Nora, how I wish you'd wear this or that." But now I wear what I like – the type of thing he'd probably think was too flashy, too extravagant, or immodest – and definitely not dainty. He had a thing for ‘dainty’.
And watching me walk down the street looking – the word I’d use is “formidable” – he'd be able to immediately sense how well I've done. And could he possibly imagine that I’d done it on my own without anybody’s help? If so, he’d be in awe. I don’t need him to be in awe. But that could be fun.
But also how would he feel seeing how well I’ve done? Would it make him feel weird or embarrassed seeing that I make a lot more money than he does? I know he wouldn’t say anything about it – because saying something about it would be him admitting that I’m in a more powerful position than him. No, I imagine him just sort of shrinking. He’d get sulky.
But now wouldn’t that be interesting: for him to be standing next to me, feeling that I’m the more powerful one. I imagine that would be pretty hard for him. It’s crazy that even in 1894 – that everything is just fine and easy when it’s the woman who’s the weaker, less powerful of the two, but when it’s the man – oh that’s when everyone starts to get nervous.
Also, sometimes I imagine him walking into a bookshop and seeing my book on the shelf. He wouldn't know I'd written it of course; I use a pseudonym when I write, because like I said before, I write some pretty controversial stuff. But I like to imagine him seeing the book on the shelf, and he'd know it was a very popular book because the stores always keep a couple extra copies. He might even see someone walk into the store and buy it and wonder what the book was.
And maybe – just maybe, out of curiosity, he'd take it off the shelf and look it over, and maybe even read a bit. Oh I took so many things from our lives together and put it in those books. I changed all the names, but still, would he recognize that my books are secretly about our marriage? It wouldn't matter. He would read the book and at the very least it would remind him of our lives together, but this time, he’d be seeing things through my eyes, and he’d understand what I was going through, for once.
And I wonder – I do – what is Torvald like now? 15 years is such a long time. Has he changed as much as I’ve changed? I’d like to think he’s well. I’d like to think he doesn’t miss me too much, that he’s moved on, that he has a life that he likes. I definitely wouldn’t get any joy out of him being miserable or broken.
In the years since I left, there have been others since Torvald. Not husbands. But lovers and friends and friends that became lovers then friends again. Torvald has gone from being this giant in my life back to something very very small. But when I knock on that door and walk into that house, will he stay as small as he is in my mind? Why shouldn’t he?
Will I walk through that door and see him and think, “What was I ever thinking?” Will he look the same? I did once find him attractive. Would I still? I doubt it. Would that bother me if I did? Why should it? Will he find me attractive? Who cares. I mean, he probably will find me attractive, but I hope he doesn’t still find himself pining after me. That would be awkward. Because I won’t be pining after him. Oh god, what if I did? That’s not remotely possible.
The goal here is just to get him to deal with the divorce and that’s it. Get in, get the document, get out.
I look at my hand. I’m ready to knock on that door. Is this a terrible idea?
Yes. No. Doesn’t matter because I have some serious problems to deal with and the only solution is on the other side of that door.
I really, really hate this door.
Nora Helmer is the author of three critically acclaimed novels. Additionally, her essays and short stories have appeared in various newspapers, including Dagbladet, Aftenposten, and Romsdals Budstikke.Continue reading the main story