Saturday, August 5, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 14

In the excitement, we have all forgotten about Aino and her heartbreak. Even now, it is possible that all could have turned out well, or OK anyway, but here comes another delay, along with an important lesson about servants. Sometimes they are the real masters. Aino, you see, wants to go home now. She is cold, she is miserable, she has humiliated herself in front of her whole school, been dumped, even been harrassed at a petrol station. She has had a bad night. But Taneli, a grumpy bear of a man, is too stubborn. He wants to fish the Volvo out of its snowdrift, attach it to the steel ball at the rear end of the Mercedes by a chain, and tow it back with us so that he can repair it himself tomorrow (I say 'tomorrow' because there is no 'in the morning' in winter; this is a meaningful difference in Finland, where time itself is fluid and consensual for half the year). So, he has his way. We drive back to where the Volvo is parked and I help him attach the two cars, and then at last we set off for Kauniainen. It is perhaps 23:00, or 11 pm at night, as it would be called in America, and traffic is light.

We travel slowly; when Taneli brakes too hard, the darkened Volvo crashes into us from behind. Aino and I have exchanged places, and now I am sitting in the front with the driver, and she sits in the back with her friends. A loud yellow fire engine goes screaming by us toward the city, its sirens all flashing. By the time we are near Espoo, we are almost the only the vehicle on the road, except for the snow-ploughing trucks. Then suddenly, more disaster. A pair of headlights appears in the mirror like two tiny eyes. A car is far behind us but overtaking us very fast.

Now, in Finland back in those times there were not so many different kinds of automobiles on the road, mostly Volvos, Saabs, VWs, and Opels, and for the rich and important, Mercedes. All of them had very distinctive headlights. But the ones behind us at that moment were even more so. I turned for a better look, and recognized them at once--they belonged to the bright red Jaguar XKE E-Type that Vaino's father had given him as a present for his 16th birthday. This was a very expensive British car, and had its steering column on the right, or should I say, the wrong side, which was legal in those days. The Turuntie road has four lanes, but only the middle two were cleared, so that when Vaino roared past us, his radio playing very loud, the convertible top down and his long hair blowing and whipping in the cold wind, it was on the wrong side of the road, and he was therefore sitting close enough to us to recognize Aino's family cars as he went by. So he suddenly comes to an almost dead stop, and as we catch up to him, he matches his speed to ours. Now he is staring inside our windows and catches sight of Aino. Beside him, we all see, is Heli, wrapped up in his sheepskin coat, laughing and drinking from a bottle of viina. I could not see Aino's face from where I sat, but Vaino could. First he smiled at her. Then he laughed. Then he stuck out his tongue and began to waggle it around in his mouth. 'Tolla kaverilla virtaa kusi väärään suuntaan,' muttered Taneli ('That guy's piss is flowing back to his head'), and slowed the car abruptly. Now Vaino's red Jag shot forward of us, and as it did so, Vaino began to spit at Aino, like a nasty child. Huge gobs of spittle came flying back at us through the air, some of them landing on the windshield and flecking the side window next to Aino. Another fire truck's lights showed ahead, so Vaino cut us off, then drove away in a spray of snow and highway rock salt. The second fire engine zoomed by. 'Ei vittu Saatana,' Taneli said, turning on the windscreen wipers. None of the rest of us say another word all the rest of the way to Aino's house.

The next day, the police will come to Vaino's house and arrest him for trying to start a fire at a university building. But his father is too important for him to be held for long, and Heli will swear she was with him all that night, and that they never went near the university. This is the first, but certainly not the last time Vaino will be arrested, but almost never for the right crime at the right time. At least not tonight, anyway.

I had never been to the Von Rosen estate in Kauniainen before, but for years I had heard many kids at school talking of it. It featured an old stone manor house, which looks a bit like the Von Julin's Fiskars mansion in Uusimaa, only smaller, but is most famous for the 'Statue Garden' behind it. Kauniainen is a little city completely inside the much larger one of Espoo, which is full of wealthy Finland-Swedes who have retreated to live inside there a bit like Boers inside a 'kraal'. The Von Rosen houses (there are four of them ringed around this garden) are on the boundary of these two incorporated cities near Highway 18. But we are not to stay in the 'big house' tonight. We are met at the front door of one of the modern adjoining villas, which are a bit like modern Swiss ski chalets, by the Vietnamese housekeeper, and led inside. Then she disappears back to the last half hour of some TV programme (in those days the two Finnish channels only are on the air until midnight). The servants, all them refugees from Vietnam except for Taneli, have their own separate lodge. In ours there is a huge Christmas tree decorated with gingerbread and white lights; beside it, a fire is going in the big fireplace, and a smorgasbord meal is waiting for us on a sideboard on hot-plates. I discover I am suddenly very hungry. Even Aino eats with us. Matti, giggling, mixes us Marskin ryyppys, so that during the meal, we all get just a little drunk. Now we are acting like grownups in a film and even trying to make jokes in English. It feels very sophisticated and romantic to me, and I am hoping the night never ends. To myself I think, 'Likkanen, this is what money is really for.'

But even though I have always thought of my parents as wealthy, I soon discover I have learned nothing about luxury yet. After we are done eating, Stina starts nagging at Aino, 'Let me heat up the pool so we can have a midnight swim!' Beside the glass sliding doors of the sauna, at the corner between the old house and the modern one, is a heated pool surrounded by a low stone wall. We switch to viina while we wait for the water to warm up. After we have been drinking for another hour or so in front of the fire, we all take our clothes off and jump in, screaming and splashing around.

It has begun to snow again, very heavily. All around us is a quiet rustling of fat white flakes. By now we are all very drunk. We float together on our backs at the shallow end sipping from the bottle, our heads resting against the sides so that we are gazing up at the snow, which spills down as if from a huge salt-cellar. As they hit the fog of mist and steam from the warm water, the flakes melt; occasionally one reaches our faces to stab at them like a tiny prick of ice. Now the girls are trying to cheer up Aino with talk of boys. They mention the names of all the cute ones at school who Aino could have now, but laughing, she finds reasons why each one is wrong for her. 'What's wrong with Lemo?' says Matti cheekily. 'You could have him. He's lovely--and just look at him. He is gagging for it!' That is me--'Lemminkainen' means 'lover-boy' in Finnish, and like all of Vaino's nicknames, it has stuck. She and Stina begin stroking me, which fills me with a strange feeling, of excitement and aversion at the same time. They are treating me like a pagan sacrifice to cheer up Aino. But Aino is not interested. Suddenly she starts to cry.

'I feel sick', she says.

'Come on, pikku kultaseni,' Matti says to her. 'Let's put you to bed. You've had a terrible day.' They clamber out of the pool and disappear inside. Stina and i are alone now, and she moves a little way from me. I am trying not to stare at her. Too much.

'I hope she isn't having withdrawal,' says Stina. 'Matti and I have been worrying about her.'

'Withdrawal? You mean from Vaino?'

'From drugs. Vaino made her take a lot of drugs with him.' This is nonsense, of course. Vaino is famous for his wild habits, but he isn't a heroin addict. Aino isn't going to go into 'withdrawal' from not taking LSD. At least not from what I have read. I am actually too much of coward to take any drugs--plus my parents give me very little pocket money to do it with. So, I decide to change the subject. There is a statue of a very heavy-legged, flat-breasted woman, or at least what I think must be a woman, half-covered in snow crouching on a square column where the two walls of the pool meet. Beyond this, I assume, is the famous garden.

'Are all the statues as hideous as that one?' I ask.

Stina rises out of the water like Aphrodite. 'Come on', she says, her voice low and excited, 'Let's go look for ourselves!' And she takes my hand. We run naked down the stone steps, our bodies wrapped in an envelope of mist, down a path filled with dark, looming human shapes.

The sculptures were all created by Aino's crazy grandmother Ingeborg von Rosen, who worked in Oslo for the famous sculptor Gustav Vigeland as a plaster-caster. That is where she met Aino's grandfather, who was a relative by marriage to the Nazi Hermann Goering. The garden she created to house them is a sort of maze of wandering paths surrounded by walls of different heights. In their intersections are concrete benches and empty, frozen goldfish pools. Nothing is straight; everything, including the sculptures themselves, was created by the 'poured-concrete' method, which means they are now badly deteriorated. They were not much to begin with, in my opinion: muscular semi-naked heroic Aryan figures so poorly rendered that they seem almost deformed, twisted faces leering and gazing upward. Now they have cracks in them, bits of dark moss, whole chunks missing. At the end of her years, all she could manage to make was these faces, it seems--hundreds of contorted masks are stuck to the grey walls or to the arches above the paths. In summer perhaps, filled with flowers and goldfish, this must be a very pretty place; there are pots and urns and pools for them everywhere. But here in the darkness of winter covered in deepening white snow, it is as if the evil witch Louhi has attacked Eden with her winter magic, flash-freezing all the naked Nephilim as they try to escape her fury. White and naked, Stina dances among them, striking poses like a ballerina. I see all of this in the space of a few long minutes, perhaps four or five--then the cold begins to intrude, and suddenly scared by it, Stina huddles against me. In Finnish myth, this is called 'Pohjola', the terrible instant coldness the witch creates, the inspiration, as the Strawberry has correctly said, for that stupid Narnia film.

Ah, poor silly Strawberry, how could you ever compete with my memories of this night? How could your great big awkward American body ever be so pale, so divinely shaped, so young as Stina's? It was the goddess Mnemosyne Paris might have handed the golden apple to, if only he'd been a bit older and wiser. Like me these days.

Groaning and shivering, teeth chattering and clicking, Stina and I barely stumble inside in time. We wrap ourselves up in a rug in front of the fire and drink more viina, holding each other very close beside the sparkling Joulu tree. It is then we begin to snog. Time passes, as in a dream. Then Matti comes back and turns off the pool heater, wearing a bathrobe; at the side of us, she takes it off and clambers inside the rug too, on my other side. So now I am taking turns snogging both girls. Was here ever a boy so lucky? If Stina is bothered by Matti's arrival, she shows no sign of it, and I feel, yes, it is crazy, the tiniest stab of hurt at that. 'I've put her to bed,' Matti is saying. 'I had to give her one of her mother's sleeping pills. I should go back soon and check on her.' She yawns, and it is contagious. We all start doing it. Suddenly all the odd, tiring events of the long night come crowding back into my memory all at once, like a kinescope projection, and I feel utterly exhausted. My body tingles as if I am about to step outside of it.

'It's bedtime,' says Stina.

'OK,' I say, understandably disappointed. I assume I am to sleep here tonight in front of the dying fire on the long, low leather couch, so I get up to look for my clothes.

'Where do you think you're going?' says Matti.

'Yes,' says Stina, her blue eyes glittering, 'You can't just leave us unsatisfied like this. You're coming, too.' Finnish women, it says in Strawberry's guidebook, are famous for their decisiveness.

So that is how the three of us ended upstairs in the big bedroom bonking for the rest of the night. Of course there is no hot lesbo action in this threesome, aside from the two girls snogging each other sometimes to get me excited again and then laughing and rolling their eyes. But who cares? It is a threesome! And I am studly enough for both of them! And although it is true, as I have said before, that in every threesome there is always one who is not the most desired, well, tonight it is perhaps not so cruelly obvious as it might be that it is Stina and i who are the hot ones and Matleena who is not. Poor Matti. With her big heart and her merry laugh, she might have been the perfect woman for me if only she had been a little thinner, a little prettier, a little smarter. But of course, then she would not have been Matti. Sometime much much later in the 'morning', perhaps six or seven o'clock, I remember looking at my little watch dials glowing green, and thinking, this is the best my life will ever be. I will never ever again enjoy a moment this sweet. And you know what? I was right. Perhaps Louhi cursed me after all. In the myths, she sends her beautiful daughters into the world to do just this. And then follows death.

Only tonight, death didn't come for me. Suddenly we were woken by a loud screaming and then a crash downstairs. 'Oh my God!' says Matti, sitting straight up in the bed. 'I totally forgot!.' She is still half-asleep. She rushes downstairs at once without bothering to put her robe on. I wrap myself in the yellow blanket and follow her.

Crouched in the sauna, beside the glass doors, is the Vietnamese housekeeper. She is staring up at the ceiling, her hands to each side of her head, rocking back and forth on her heels, moaning and howling loudly in Vietnamese. Her face looks just like one of Ingeborg von Rosen's concrete masks. The clocks say it is morning, but of course, it is still pitch-black outside,and all the lights illuminating the pool have been switched on. From where I am standing, the surface of the water appears white, but there is something dark inside it. Matti begins to tremble and cry; she fumbles with the door handle but cannot budge it. It is chilly in the sauna, and she is covered in goose-bumps. I find my purple bell-bottomed trousers and slip them on, along with my boots, then, still wrapped in the blanket I open the other door and go outside. It is very, very cold. My breath seems to freeze in the air in front of me.

It is one of those situations in life when you know exactly what you are about to find, yet even when you do, it is still a terrible surprise. I follow the sliding footprints of the housekeeper out into the snow that rings the pool. The water has retained much of its heat; only a thin skin of ice and snow cover its surface. Down at the shallow end a dark lump lies suspended just below it, like a big black-currant floating in a glaze of sugared white marzipan. My boots crunch in the snow. I come closer, lean down to look. it is not a big black-currant, it is Aino. Groaning, I wade into the pool, the film of ice cracking and shattering beneath my boot-heel. The shock of the cold water takes my breath away. Aino is lying on her face with only the very back of her head above the ice; she is naked, her skin is whitish-blue and her long, fine hair is spread around her like seaweed. A bottle of viina and an empty pill bottle are frozen nearby. Few people who take an overdose of sleeping pills actually die from it; Aino has been very practical and arranged to drown herself as well. A long trail of white vomit curls out of her mouth, twisting and curling in the water beneath her. My entry into the pool disturbs it, the water surges and rocks, the ice creaks and splinters around me. I am in this frigid water up to my armpits; I reach out and grab Aino's arm and pull her to the side. Shivering uncontrollably, I check her vital signs. She is very dead. There is no rigor, of course, but her limbs are stiff and heavy; she must have come out here and done this while we were upstairs bonking. For an instant I wonder if she heard us. For some reason this idea upsets me very much. Then I rush back inside the sauna.

Matti is at the door. 'I totally forgot to check on her,' she is saying over and over, 'It's all my fault! It's all my fault!' Then 'You aren't going to just leave her there!'

'Matti, she is dead,' I say, between my clicking teeth. The housekeeper has not moved and is still wailing.

'She can't be! You don't know that!'

'I do know it. Matti, I'm in medical school. I can tell when someone is dead. Aino is dead, and I have to leave her where she is for the police.' This is nonsense of course, I have never seen a cadaver before. Well, before this one, that is. I have taken off my wet clothes and wrapped myself up in the rug again. 'Turn on the sauna, will you, before I die, too!'

'What's going on?' This is Stina. She has come downstairs, fully dressed, and seems very unruffled, even elegant. She has taken the time to carefully remove any trace of herself from the big bedroom and put her coat and bag in the small one across the all from it. She has even put on her make-up. This cold-blooded practicality of hers should have been a warning to me for future; later, when I will ask her about her behaviour that morning, she will reply very impatiently 'It's easy for you, you're a boy. And Matti's mother doesn't care what she does, which is why she does it. But I knew we would all be in the newspapers, and my parents are Lutheran and very conservative. It's hard enough for me to get permission to take drama classes at all. Besides,' she will give a little shrug. 'What good could I have done?'

But at the time she coolly went to the phone and called the emergency number, speaking very clearly into the receiver in her 'actress' voice. So then followed the usual dreary routine after a tragedy; the sirens, the long, miserable slow parade of police and ambulance attendants and medics smoking and standing around tracking snow and mud through the house, a coroner, a police sergeant who takes statements from each of us and from the servants. Aino's parents are found in Stockholm; they charter a private plane back from Uppsala Airport, they will be here in a few hours. I am hoping I will not have to face them. In the end, my father drives out to Kauniainen to pick me up in his battered old Volvo, looking very grey and grim. He and the coroner know each other from the old days, and the sergeant treats him with reverence, so at last I am free to go.

On the way back to town, my father smokes his pipe, removing it to say only, 'What a shame.' Somehow, I am made to feel I have let him down. Again.

And then the next day we were all over the newspapers. Things were far tamer in those days, and the Rosens were wealthy and respected, so nothing too sensational was said in them. Mostly there was just local gossip. And of course, none of this did any harm to my 'lover-boy' reputation. So it was true, it is easy for boys. I remember once when I was in middle school, I was caught by my teacher kissing with one of the girls. She sent a note of complaint to my mother, who wrote her back, 'Please notify me if you catch him kissing the boys!' Stina was right, of course. She usually was. But still I couldn't help wondering much later--was the make-up for the newspaper cameras? Somehow she even managed to mention to the reporters that she was an 'aspiring stage actress.'

I waited nearly a week before I telephoned her. I wasn't sure of the etiquette for dating a girl one had met in a sex 'threesome'. Would she even take me seriously? Or had I ruined everything possible between us already by bonking another girl in front of her? I had no experience in these subtle social matters, although once I had known an older girl who would bonk with me drunk at parties but wouldn't even speak to me at school. Would Stina treat me in this way? And did I really want another relationship with a girl who would bonk anybody when I wasn't around, like Heli? Was what had happened with Stina unusual for her, a kinky new bit of fun she had been swept away by the excitement of the evening? Or was she like a ginger-haired alley-cat on heat? All these thoughts were in my mind all week while I tried to go about my classes during the day and my studies at night; finally I could stand it no longer and dialled her number. I thought, this is stupid, her mother will answer, she won't be home. But Stina picked up the receiver almost immediately. Later i learned that she answered every telephone call in her house since she was three, and her parents had long since given up even trying to.

And that is how we came to have our first date at a 'real' restaurant at the top of the Hotel Torni tower. It was the first time I had ever gone there, and I wore a tie. There were Joulu decorations everwhere, red flowers on the table and candles that flickered and glinted in Stina's blue eyes. Our table was at the window; below us spread the whole city, lights glowing yellow and green in the wintry dark with flashes of bright white and red where there were lines of traffic. What did we eat? Smoked ham and “rosolli”, served with boiled potatoes and roe fish, and I remember we drank a Rose d'Anjou. I would never touch it now, of course, but teenagers always think it is a good wine. She was wearing her best dress, which was a dark, rich blue cut low across her top and very tight around the waist, and all the waiters stared and made excuses to hang about her. What did we talk about? I can't remember. But I do remember this: over dessert, which was gingerbread and a sweet plum and sour cream pie, I suddenly said to her, 'I don't just want sex--I want you to be my girlfriend.' I used the rather formal term 'rakas', which also means 'beloved.'

She looked up and gave me a very frank, calculating stare of appraisal. 'All right,' she said, and then sipped her wine. Suddenly I felt on fire with happiness. And this is how the Strawberry and her Finnish friend had happened to find me in the Atelier bar of the Hotel Torni, 35 years later but only a metre or so away from where I had sat on that night, sipping a Marskin Ryppy.

I am checking my e-mail right now. For the past few weeks I have been emailing Stina Ekblad at her addresses in Odense and Stockholm, as well as the one on her personal website. I would like very much to see her again before I die, just for a bit of a chat. Just for the sake of old times, you understand. But nothing. No answer from her at all. What does this mean? Why would she avoid me?

Next time: The scents of a woman.


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