Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 22

'All Russian weather begins here in the Baltic, then blows to Moscow where it meets the Arctic winds and gets churned up just like in an ice machine. Do you know why?' We were inside the Hermitage Museum pretending to look at famous paintings; earlier we had stood under an umbrella just outside and pretended to gaze at the famous Peter and Paul Fortress across the water, which was still, it was said, used as a KGB prison. Maarit had declared that, despite the weather, we would at least act like tourists for the rest of the afternoon. It was like the old joke about Soviet salaries, she said: '"We pretend to work, and you pretend to pay us." They pretend there are sights here to see, and we will pretend to see them.' It was fun, like playing at being spies. Maarit had the knack of making everything a game. On weekends, anyway.

'No, why?' I said now.

'Because the earth spins east to west, of course. Didn't they teach you anything at your fancy school?'

'Just how to pretend to work,' I said. 'And how to lie to our teachers and parents.'

'But not how to lie in Russian,' she said. 'I can only lie in a foreign language, never in Finnish. I think that's why I like to learn languages. Each time I do, it's as if I've become a whole different person, like an actress.'

'Perkele,' I muttered. I didn't want another Stina. I had already become addicted to Maarit's blunt honesty. It was remarkable, though at times quite painful, to be with a girl who always told you the truth. We stopped at the cafeteria for the worst food, followed by the worst coffee, I had ever had. Maarit refused hers after the first few tastes.

'Never mind, the hotel will have better. It will have to have. At least this cost us nothing, since we paid in rubles. Have you ever seen a Russian film?'

'Only "Alexander Nevsky",' I replied, after some thought. 'The one where the German knights drop the babies in the fire.'

'Let's go to the cinema tonight. Maybe there will be something more interesting playing. I'll translate it for you.' And that was how we happened to go to see 'Solyaris', the famous science-fiction film by Andrei Tarkovsky. In those days, not every Russian had a TV set, so films like this were shown on successive nights in two-hour segments. This meant that we had to also come back the next evening (after another dreadful supper; by the time we returned to Helsinki my gums ached, and my teeth felt loose from eating the Russian food) to see the second part. We sat in the dark together in the front row watching this story of a man who cannot escape his dead wife, who has been revived from his memories by an alien planet as a method of communicating with him. Beside me, Maarit whispered constantly: 'Now she is saying that she has no memory of the past, now she is begging him to tell her if he still loves her...' It was like dying or being born again, to sit in darkness staring with wide eyes at a bright, blazing mysterious new world, having it explained in whispers by the voice of the woman one loved. Did I say I had never again been so happy as on that night with Matty and Stina? I was wrong. I was happiest in Leningrad with Maarit.

And it was this very same film Solyaris that caused me to bonk my very first Russian babe. Now this is something you must know about me: even though I am a most liberal fellow when it comes to bonking all attractive young women of every race and nation of origin, still I have never cared for the Russian ones. They are like English girls; not so terribly clean downstairs. And perhaps it is the bad food, but all of them seem to become very stout and unattractive rather soon in life. The staff of the Hotel Sovietskaya, for example, aside from the KGB men, was almost completely cleaning ladies who looked like sumo wrestlers in nurses' kit and sat in a sullen group inside a closet at the end of the corridor, chain-smoking and trading dentures. The younger ones on the streets of the city were more slender of course, but they dressed badly and wore bright make-up like clowns. It is not such an easy thing to do, but they managed to make even Finnish girls look chic. So for these reasons, Likkanen had no interest in them. In fact, I had never bonked any Russian women before 1979 or so. By then many had emigrated to the West and learned how to dress and wash themselves, like gorillas in captivity.

But in spite of this I had remained in love with Soviet-bloc cinema. And to be perfectly fair, even Tarkovsky preferred to use Armenian actresses, who are very lovely women and quite bonkable, in his films. I think it was 1979, perhaps it was 1980, when his 'Stalker' was finally released in Paris, as part of a 'Soviet Science-Fiction Film Festival' at a movie theatre on the rue des Rennes. It is gone now. It was not the 'Grande' or the 'Galande'--what was it called? The 'Metropol'? I cannot remember. For years I kept the playbill and the schedule, but they are lost. If you know this, please post a message on this blog. This cinema was quite near to me at that time because I was then living in a rented flat at St. Sulpice, in fact, directly beneath a large one owned by Catharine Deneuve. And no, in reply to your natural question, I was never fortunate enough to bonk with this lovely, tragically vulnerable actress and French national sex symbol, though on the two occasions we shared a ride in the lift, she snubbed me most rudely, which is what one expects and even desires from a beautiful star of her magnitude. In some ways, that is even better than a bonk, because the memory of it stays with you longer. The little flat I had had formerly been rented to a 'Miss Kitkat', a Turkish airlines hostess; all that year, at any hour of the day or night, the telephone would ring and guttural male Muslim voices would say, 'Allo, Miss Kitkat, s'il vous plait?' Often they would not take 'non' for an answer and would attempt to forcibly negotiate a price with me. To this day, I cannot even look at the candy bar of the same name without shuddering. Sometimes I would then launder the bedclothes again (and wipe off the receiver with alcohol) after such a phone call, out of sheer hypochondria. Anyhoo, this film festival was showing three films a day for 10 days; not even I had the time or stamina to see them all. Aside from 'Stalker,' I recall quite clearly 'The Savage Hunt of King Stakh' (http://www.russiandvd.com/store/product.asp?sku=41217&aid=6729), the Strugatskys' 'Dead Mountaineer Hotel' (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0204526/), which was Estonian, and Lem's 'Test Pilot Pirx' (http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1809357531/info), which was Polish. The highlight of this last was a scene where the rocket-ships, which had foolishly been filmed horizontally rather than vertically, all had their exhaust flames curling upward from gravity, which made the audience laugh. Well, they were used to 'Star Wars', I suppose.

The theatre was large and cavernous and had once been quite grand, with dark mauve velvet walls, art-deco sconces and railings, and marble bathrooms. Unfortunately, these were so poorly maintained that while I was pissing after watching 'Pirx', which was quite a long movie, the overhead cistern cracked and soaked me with a flood of water. Outside, it was one of those bright, sharply cool days that occasionally race through Paris in the autumn, and I stood shivering and dripping under the marquee with a group of photographers, who were there to snap some expatriate Russian celebrity or other; the theatre served as a sort of cultural centre for the Slavic exile community. A wave of Algerian terror bombings had recently hit the rue des Rennes, so the street was fenced off by a row of grilled metal crowd barriers. As I debated whether or not to try to dash the four or so blocks home in the cold (though of course this was quite pleasant weather for a true Finn), a taxi-cab pulled up directly in front of these, and a very tall, very glamourous young tinsel-haired woman in a brown sable fur coat got out and looked about, scowling. 'You!' she said with a dramatic Russian accent, pointing at me. 'Pay this man at once!' This was Batgirl.

In Paris in those days, there was a class of people, usually foreign, who existed only to be noticed. Some of these wanted to be actors, some clothes designers, some musicians, some merely wanted to become generic celebrities. And this could happen in an instant in that city, and quite often it did. I will give you an example. Not far from me on D'Assas lived a rich young Dutch fellow from a wealthy family, what we would nowadays call a 'Trustafarian'. He and his wife were also terrific hippies; I would often see them shopping at the Vie Claire on Raspail or Le Jardin on the rue du Bac. They would eat only biotically-grown grains and vegetables. They were both quite handsome people with very blonde long hair (she wore hers in flaxen braids) and fancied themselves clothes-makers; they would always be dressed in their latest creations, which were sewn together from bits of bright coloured felt and rather resembled what you might see worn by small children at a 'Renaissance Fair'. And in every sort of weather, rain or sunshine, he always wore a little gilt-edged pill-box hat that he had made himself from stiff felt and brocade. He wore this ghastly thing every day of his life for three or four years, until one night, I saw him at a 'Zoom Magazine' party in the Dixieme chatting up a few lady fashion critics. He was also pimping his wife (whom I ended taking home that night; she turned out to be quite charming, despite her unshaven legs, and was an expert at organic Tantric sexual techniques), but since all the male fashion people there were gay blades, he was a bit out of luck there. No good ever comes to anyone from bonking Likkanen. Nonetheless, the next week his stupid hat was in all the magazines, and a month later it was in the window of Galeries Lafayette. Because those writers who work at magazines have very little imagination. They are easily hypnotized by any bright new thing that is dangled in front of their eyes. Sometimes a single glimpse on a Paris sidewalk is enough to make a career. I have seen this happen with woollen caps from Ecuador and cheap red Korean ear-muffs sold by street-vendors, as well. And, of course, often with beautiful young women like Batgirl.

Normally, when I bonk a babe, I have to think up a nickname for her as an aide-memoire. This can be quite a chore! Not so with this one. 'You can call me Batgirl,' she said. Well, not just to me, but to the photographers as well, who were now all madly snapping her picture. She had leaned back against the cab and struck a pose, which caused her sable to shift enough so that one could see that underneath it she was wearing nothing but black stockings and garters. I could not help but notice that her hair was not naturally tinsel. She was a very big girl, looking a little like the tennis player Maria Sharapova, but with paler skin and finer bones and more graceful from her training as a prima ballerina. Her first name was perhaps Galina or Ludmila or Alexandra or something, but her patronymic was 'Batkovna', so she told everyone to just call her Batgirl. God only knows what her last name was; I'm sure she changed it every few months. But now, while I bargained with her Senegalese driver to take me home, she suddenly stared at me as if thunderstruck. 'Where are you going?' she demanded.

'Home. Before I catch a cold,' I said.

'OK, I will go with you,' she said, getting back into the taxi and slamming the door. 'I am a good nurse.'

I clambered in beside her while she continued to stare at me, her pupils dilated like those of a feral animal in the dark. Had I met her somewhere before? 'Are you married?' she asked suddenly, lighting one of my damp cigarettes.

'No.'

'That's too bad. I prefer to be with couples--I like it to have a woman wait on me. But in this case, I will be with you only, because I'm a little bit in love with you already,' she went on, with the greatest sincerity. 'It happens to me this way sometimes. I had an orgasm when I first saw you, without even touching myself. How do you say, a spon...spon...'

'"Spontaneous'?' I suggested.

'Yes, yes, spontaneous. I am always very spontaneous. This has only happened to me twice before, so don't laugh at me. You should feel very, how do you say...'

'Honoured?'

She stuck out her tongue at me. 'No,' she said, blowing smoke at me. 'Scared!' In that moment, something about her manner reminded me of Maarit, so I took her home. Perhaps they were cousins. Or perhaps it was just having smoke blown at me. Or, as my dear friend Lou would say, blown up my ass.

The rest of the week we watched Russian films in the day and made hot squishy monkeys all night. Batgirl's sexual technique was simple, and basically it was the same one that she employed for every other activity, like eating or telling a joke; whatever she did, she tried to do it to death. I think this was something very primal from her Slavic heritage as a huntress and herder of livestock. It took a real man to please Batgirl, and I am proud to say that I survived it. But it was about this time that I decided to move to New York. The problem with Batgirl was that aside from making monkeys, she did not actually want to do anything else in life, except eat candy bars and watch TV and films. She had no interest in pursuing her career as a ballet dancer, saying only that she was already 'too old and fat for serious parts'. The one time I got her out of the flat on a grocery shopping trip to Inno, she bought a stack of Elles and Vogues, which she then flipped through indignantly for the next few days. 'I am much prettier than her!' she would exclaim contemptuously. 'I am sexier than this one!' She would then tear the offending page out and throw it on the floor, which soon became covered with debris. As she watched TV, her lips would move with those of the actors, her eyes would well up with tears, or her face would turn bright red while she laughed hysterically. This got even worse when we were watching 'Stalker' at the theatre, for instance, though luckily there were not so many laughs in that film, so she merely wept her way through it noisily. Hearing Russian again, she said, made her particularly emotional. Then why had she ever left, I asked her.

'Oh,' she snarled, 'It is a terrible shit-hole!'

One night while she was alternately shrieking and sobbing her way through a Louis de Funes comedy on FR2, I slipped out for a walk. I needed to think. In Stockholm, where I had lived for several years before moving to Paris, I had been friends with several musicians in the folk-rock bands 'Tretiarkriget' ('Thirty Years' War') and 'Knebnakajse' (the name of a famous Swedish mountain peak). One of these, a guitarist, lived with his wife in a big group house in Bromma, along with a bunch of other hippies, including a medical student. One day the medical student brought a big blonde puppy home. At first everyone loved the little monster, but it kept getting bigger and bigger, until it was eating everything in sight. In addition, it could not be paper-trained; my friend's wife soon spent most of her time either feeding it or cleaning up after it. Then the medical student decided he was sick of the animal and wanted to have it put to death. Naturally, being a tender-hearted chick, my friend's wife refused. The last time I saw the poor fellow, he had quit his gig with the band and he, his wife, and the huge monster dog were moving out to the country. I realized that this was exactly my situation with Batgirl. She was not a human being, she was simply a big blonde pet. Soon she would eat everything inside my flat. Either I would have to have her put to sleep--or else take her with me everywhere I went in life, even to New York. Though she would likely have to be kept in quarantine for several months first.

But I had forgotten that Russian wolfhounds don't just bark, sometimes they bite. And they always run in packs. There was a human one following me now across St. Sulpice on my way back home. The Place was brightly lit for the tourists, which is pretty but very annoying if your windows overlook it; by the pink sodium vapour glare I saw his sharp face quite clearly. He was dressed like a clochard and had a dark stubble of beard. How did I know he was Russian? He looked like he'd been murdered the week before but had somehow survived the autopsy. He was just too nasty to die. He stood in front of me now, blocking my way. 'Want her?' he said in bad French.

I shook my head. We both knew who he was talking about. 'Nyet, komandir,' I said, thinking of Leningrad. 'You can have her back.' He gave me a very hard stare and flicked cigarette ash at me. I knew that trick.

'Either way it will cost you the same,' he said.

'Forget it,' I said. 'Wait here and I'll send her down to you. All she does is eat.'

'Don't fuck with me, pédé, or I'll hurt you. A lot,' he said, raising his voice sharply. 'Really, it's cheaper for you just to pay me off.' This was a mistake on his part, to say 'vraiment'. It's not something real gangsters say, not even in France. He took me for a Swede, but I was actually a Finn. You see? Again, the wrong dog. So I head-butted him very suddenly, and his nose exploded. Then I kicked him hard in the groin. Well, I was in a bad mood anyway, and this made for a nice distraction. For a Russian, he was not so very tough, but I suppose living in the West had done that to him. Also, he was very likely a heroin addict, since he was also clearly a pimp. A pimp who was very bad at his job, I thought. Perhaps he was a dissident poet; these were always popping up in New York in the '80s. I made sure he had no gun and threw his switch-blade clasp knife down a drain. Then I left him there for some American tourists to rescue. It is tempting in a situation like this to have the last word, like the tough guys in the movies. It is just like dumping a woman; for hours after one's head is full of clever remarks. But take it from me, it is always best to walk away in silence and never look back. It is the Finnish way. It makes for finality. Or 'closure', as the magazines say. I felt that he and I had achieved this. But with Batgirl, it might be a bit more tricky.

Upstairs, Louis de Funes, wearing a Catholic cardinal's robes, had just jumped off a balcony into a manure pit, much to her delight. Well, this simple childlike pleasure was a great part of her charm--I could not resent it. "I met a guy outside who says he knows you,' I said to her. 'A Russian guy.' French has an excellent word for guy: 'mec'. Almost as cool as 'dude', I think.

'It has nothing to do with me,' she said, without taking her eyes from the screen.

'Is he your husband?'

'No, no! He is just some low-life scum-bag I did a few favours for once; now he thinks he owns me. He is always following me around making trouble.' But her mood was spoiled. The rest of the evening she was quite cross, and the next afternoon, she said, 'Why don't you go to the cinema by yourself today? I'm not feeling so very good.'

'Then I'll stay home with you.' I replied. 'I am a good nurse.' Ha!

'No, no, you go. I want to spend some time by myself.'

'That's just the illness talking. Besides, "Solyaris" is playing; I have seen it three times already.'

'What about "Aelita"?'

'I hate silent films,' I told her. 'Just stay in the bed, and I'll make you some soup. It may not taste very good, though--we are running short on groceries.'

Over the next two days, Batgirl grew more and more restless and angry. At one point, she even screamed at me, 'Why can't you just leave me alone? Why won't you just go out, you bastard?' She used the word 'crapule', which I have always had a very great affection for, since it sounds like 'krapula' in Finnish. So I just I pointed out, very reasonably, I thought, that it was actually my flat we were in. 'Well, why is there never anything to eat then?' she said and burst into tears. I think, in retrospect, this was a sign she actually felt some affection for me and was sorry at the direction our relationship had taken. Or perhaps she was just getting very hungry.

I gave her an embarrassed smile. 'No money,' I said. 'I'm sure my mother will send me a cheque on the first of the month--then I'll take you to the 'Tour d'Argent".' Until then, I almost said, we can live on love, but I didn't want to overdo it. The next morning she was gone, along with the television set. Which was fair enough; I was sick of the sound of it anyway. In fact, I still cannot bear to hear a very loud French film playing on TV--this is a trauma from which I may never recover. I had hidden my wallet and passport away in the one place I could be sure she would never look: inside a box of powdered soap in the cabinet under the kitchen tap, along with the other cleaning supplies. So really, I was quite lucky. If I had left the flat at all, the two of them would have stripped it completely. Russians may think all foreigners are weak-minded fools, but Finland has had 200 years experience dealing with them. They do make wonderful films, however.

Next time: Redrum!

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