Friday, September 15, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 25

Bjorn and I first met during a playground fist-fight. It was my first day at Middle School, and I knew no one there. But someone there already knew me--and was lying in wait to give me a beating. Typical for Vaino, of course, he did not attack me himself but instead incited a group of other boys to do so on a dusty part of the playground where dozens of us were kicking battered old footballs around during the lunch recess. I was not a complete fool and knew straightway I was in for trouble as soon as these morons marched up to harrass me; in fact, being a true Finn and rather fond of a fight myself, I welcomed the distraction. However, as soon as I had settled comfortably into a punching match with one rather chubby lad, I was grabbed from behind by two of his mates and tackled to the ground. Having grown up in the wealthy, sheltered neighbourhood of Etu-Töölö, I was taken by surprise by this tactic and protested loudly over it until I was winded by being kicked in the stomach. Through a gap in their legs, I could see Vaino standing some distance apart from the action, watching and laughing at the sight. We had never formally met, but he had several times been pointed out to me and was easily recognizable from his good looks and bright mop of corn-silk hair. This was my first experience of his flair for the dramatic, and it was an instructive one--though, sadly, I cannot say I properly learned my lesson at the time. Perhaps I should have, had not Bjorn waded in at that moment.

'This is not very sporting, three against one!' he loudly declared, taking off his glasses and putting them in his breast pocket. His thick hair stood up like a badger's brush, so that he appeared a full head taller than any of the rest of us.

'What's it to you, homo?' one of my attackers wittily replied. Bjorni lowered his head and, butting him in the chest, bowled him over, then turned to deal with the second. Meanwhile, cheered by this diversion, I got up and resumed my punching of the fat one, though he proved largely indifferent to my blows. Seeing the fate of his two friends over my shoulder, however, he decided it most prudent to retreat, and so Bjorn and I soon found ourselves left alone.

'I'm Donho Likkanen,' I said, shaking his hand as if we were adults. 'Thanks.'

'Bjorn Wahlroos,' he said, giving a little imperial German snap of his head in salute. His face was flushed bright red, and he seemed to suddenly have a frog in his throat from embarrassment. And so we became true friends. After all, at that time we were both new at the school, and nobody else liked us. Naturally, we both assumed that this would be the case in boot camp, as well.

What neither of us could have foreseen was that Bjorni would take to army life like a duck to water. You see, Bjorn Wahlroos was a big Communist in those days. Yes, it is true. He was a "Taistolainen", which was some sort of radical 'pure Marxist' movement that was attractive to rich hippie youths, though not to those like me who hated Russians ( However, like Joschka Fischer in Germany, many of our Finnish politicians, such as the president lady who looks like Conan O'Brian and her foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja, were also members of these Red cells, like Baader-Mainhof or Rote Fraktion. This was why Bjorn was going to the School of Economics at the university--to learn about money and thus destroy capitalism from within. Well, it seemed a harmless hobby to me. And besides, Bjorn had always had trouble getting girls. Though the sort of girls one met at Communist rallies in those days tended to look like, well, Conan O'Brian. No, the trouble was that Bjorni was serious. The Finnish army was entirely made up of conscripts; already there were many stories of protests, of mass slacking, even desertions. Well, it was 1973, after all--the Americans were protesting, why shouldn't we? Even though, of course, we lived in the peaceful socialist paradise of Finland and thus had nothing to actually protest about. That didn't matter to Bjorn; his plan was to organize Army cells from the ranks, like on the Battleship Potemkin, I suppose, and I was afraid he would get into big trouble. He was particularly depressed that autumn over the military coup in Chile.

'This is exactly why we workers need to be learning weapons training,' he would say angrily. 'To take the revolution to these Fascist bastards.' Myself, I thought Allende was a KGB stooge and deserved exactly what he got, but I held my tongue. Tongues, penises, these are what you keep to yourself in a military barracks; it is the opposite of sex. And of course, I needn't have worried about Bjorni getting into trouble. Within a few weeks, he had become a pet of the 'Skeba', which is what we called drill sergeants, and was already being offered a chance to go to the AUK, the reserve officers' training school.

'He's just the sort of motivated idealist we need,' the captain told me during his background interview. 'He reminds me of myself at that age. I was always saying everything was unfair, as well. Well, this is the sensible way to view things--after all, the army isn't fair. Life isn't fair!'

Life isn't fair? Hearing this officer in Mannerheim's army talking like a spoiled child in this way suddenly and unaccountably filled me with shame. I detested boot camp and was anxious to be done with my intti as quickly as possible, yet after hearing this I resolved not to do any any more slacking. In fact, if I had not met Maarit I think I might have applied to AUK myself and perhaps even have become a career soldier. In may ways, it is a life that would have suited my temperament very well. However, that didn't seriously occur to me at the time. All I knew was that now Bjorn would stay in for a year, while I, as a mere civilian conscript, would only have to put in 6 months. But things didn't work out for me exactly according to plan, either.

For the first eight weeks of camp, there was no leave, so I couldn't possibly see Maarit. Sometimes on the weekend, I would stand in the long line for the pay telephones in the 'Sode', or base canteen, and try to telephone her, but only rarely was I able to find her at home. I felt like I was dying inside from this, so much so that I scarcely even noticed the training itself, all the many things that the other 'mortti' constantly complained about. Not that we were given much time to complain. We were kept constantly busy running, marching, standing still, learning to salute, learning to polish and fire our 'rynki' (rifle), even how to clean the toilets or our teeth according to regulation. This part was good, because I didn't have to think. The part I hated came much later, when we had to ride bicycles for a hundred kilometres a day. You see, the basic tactic of the Finnish armed forces is to ride bicycles around. This is not a joke. Small squads of bicyclists are meant to retreat through forest roads and trails, constantly sniping at the flanks of the oncoming Soviet army in order to funnel them into the path of our big guns. In winter, we train to do this on skis. This is how we fought both our wars against them, and of course our military never trains to fight any other enemy (or any other war), no matter what they pretend. Who else would invade us? Norway?

No, no, here is the joke. Finland was so short of ordnance and materiel that when it came to be my time to learn to fire these big howitzer guns, I would endlessly train to carry the shells through the rain and mud, to load, to aim, to clean the firing chambers--but we never actually fired the gun! I suppose this is a proper metaphor for all those months I spent in uniform. Here is another: just outside the main gates stood a lone telephone box that someone in communications had rigged to call anywhere in Finland for just 25 penniä. So whenever a company was out in the fields training, we would try to manoeuvre our sergeant close to this call-box in order to sneak off one by one into it. Just before my first eight weeks were up, I managed to get through to Maarit this way.

'What is that noise? It sounds like a real war!'

'It's just the gas attack siren,' I said. 'We're having drills.' I was lying flat on the ground dressed in a waterproof poncho against the 'nerve-gas', but had slipped my big rubber mask off in order to talk to her into the dangling receiver. From time to time there was the rattle of machine-gun fire to keep my squad pinned down, but because no real bullets could be wasted, even the 'training' ones for recruits with wooden tips, these were usually just blanks.

'Are they using real gas?' she asked. Her voice was sweet and warm in my ear.

'No, no, just blue smoke. If they were using real gas, I'd be already dead. Then I wouldn't get to come see you next weekend. Will you keep it free for me?' There was another sudden loud racket; I had to ask her again twice before I could hear her answer.

That night in the barracks I told Bjorn I was going to see her. His was the bunk below mine.

'Well, don't eat any of the nöde from the canteen then,' said Paavo from the next bunk over. 'You won't be able to get it up if you do.' It was a common myth that the army put saltpetre ('jarru') in the Spam in order to render all us new recruits ('mortti') impotent.

'You really should think about asking her to marry you,' Bjorn told me, very seriously. 'Maarit is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of girl.'

'I have thought of it,' I said. Which was true enough, even though in Finland men and women do not normally marry until they are nearly thirty. If ever. What I did not tell Bjorni was that if I asked her, Maarit would certainly say no. He needed no more encouragement, I decided, to become a rival. But Bjorn, of course, was never the one I needed to worry about. Alone of everyone I would ever know in my life, he had old-fashioned ideas of honour. In fact, nowadays the word itself, once typed, resembles the name of a dinosaur.

'Well, let's shut up and get some sleep then. You don't want some bastard sergeant wrecking your leave with detention duty just for talking after lights-out.'

'Who needs a sergeant with you around, Nalle?' Paavo replied. ''Nalle'--Teddy-Bear--was what Bjorni told everyone was his nickname back home, though in fact only his mother had ever called him that. 'Let the man dream.'

'Let us all dream,' called out someone else in the near-dark.

But when I finally was with Maarit again the following weekend, I was impotent, after all. Paavo had been right! It was like a curse from a fairy-tale. Because as soon as I had swaggered off the bus in my combat boots and fatigues, wearing the green beret that all Finnish soldiers wore, and we had checked into a cheap hotel and ripped off all our clothes, I could not have a healthful erection.

'What's the matter?' asked Maarit, laughing. 'Gone homo? Too many cute guys in the showers?'

I shook my head. The hotel room seemed unreal to me after so many weeks in the barracks; it seemed so very strange to be alone with her and not surrounded by dozens of others. But of course we were not quite alone, were we? We were having a threesome in the bed now with my jealousy, who crouched in the corner like a shadow.

'Have you stopped wanting me, then?' she asked. I shook my head again.

'No, no, of course not. I've thought of nothing else but you every night.'

'Then what?'

'Have you been seeing anyone else?' You see, I couldn't help myself. It was just like an illness. And that is exactly how Maarit treated me, half-pitying, half-annoyed, as if I was sick with some disease to which she was immune.

'Lemo, don't ask. Seriously, never ever ask any woman a question you don't want to hear the answer to. Even if it's just whether she likes your friends or not. Or how good you are in bed. Now don't spoil our time together by sulking--we only have a few more hours. Do you really want to spend them like this?' I said nothing. She stroked my arms, then my thigh. 'You've gotten hard everywhere else,' she said. 'It must be all that exercise--it's very sexy. OK, Ok, I'll tell you a secret, then...I've missed you. And when I'm missing someone, I'm not so interested in anyone else. That will have to answer your question.'

It took another hour or two and several more tries, but finally the 'jarru' wore off. That was the last time that such an embarrassing thing has ever happened to me, until a few years ago in New York, when it happened again with my doctor. Well, I suppose, it's always a mistake to bonk your doctor, isn't it? That would make most men impotent, I think, especially after a colonoscopy.

'What's a "colonoscopy"?' Esa-Pekka interrupts me to ask. When I explain he nods, as if he has heard of some clever trick to cheat them, while Stig merely glowers incredulously, as if I'm making the whole nasty business up.

'In America, they make you have one when you turn 50,' I tell them. It seems a pretty poor birthday present indeed, now that I come to think of it. We are sitting in a new bar now, the 'William K'. which advertises itself as a 'Dutch whiskey bar'. So Esa-Pekka and Stig have switched to whiskey and begun to drink seriously, but I cannot. I do not have their body weight.

'Why didn't you just get Viagra from the doctor, so that you could bonk her?' asks Esa-Pekka. 'I've tried that stuff, and it's a wonderful invention. Say what you like about the vitun Amerikkalaiset, but they are clever at inventing useful things.'

'Jaap, but their film industry is straight from the arse-hole these days,' mutters Stig.

'I didn't like to ask her,' I tell them. 'Besides, being impotent was really just an excuse to break things off with her.' They nod sympathetically; this is a common Finnish act of male consideration when one loses interest. After all, one doesn't want to say anything unflattering to a woman, but she cannot argue with a limp penis. And with Dr. Astarte, one could not often get a word in edgeways in any case. Whatever caused me to bonk with her in the first place, I suddenly wonder? I cannot remember. That is always a very bad sign with a woman. But she was an excellent diagnostician, in spite of all her New Age nonsense--and I have always found lab smocks and uniforms attractive on chicks, like those of nurses and airline hostesses. Perhaps that was it. Or perhaps it was that i first went to see her with a urinary infection, and that created a sort of instant bond of erotic intimacy between us.

'But have you tried it?'

'Tried what?'

'Viagra!' says Esa-Pekka loudly. Several other people turn to stare at us.

'Well,' I say cautiously, 'I have experimented with it a bit, yes.' Well, quite a bit, actually, but no one really needs to know this.

'Esa-Pekka is quite the ladies' man,' observes Stig with something like envy. 'He has been married three times. I, on the other hand, haven't even bonked with a woman in many years. Finnish women are all lost to materialism these days and cannot be saved.' Saved? Saved from what? Is he some sort of religious fanatic? He glances over at a group of them now; they are in early middle age, and already have the widening waists, sausage-like upper arms, and too-bright lip gloss that signal desperation. But they do not return his wistful stare; evidently they are not yet that desperate. Of course, the night is young. As if he, too, has had this thought, Stig adds, 'But I would like to try it sometime. The problem is meeting anyone. All the older ones care about is what money and security a man has. The young ones, of course, are all little sluts and tarts these days--they are just begging for it.' The rest of his thought hangs unspoken in the air: begging for it, perhaps. But not from us any more. Not from us.

Next: "The Viagra Monologues"


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