Thursday, August 3, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 12

Now you must close your eyes (I cannot or I might have another little toilet accident), and imagine that right now it is the year 1971, just before Christmas, which we call 'Joulu' or else 'Jul' if we are 'Finland-Swedes'. Karaoke has not been invented yet; instead Finns everywhere are crazy for 'Rock-nights' or 'Rokki-yö'. Every Finnish school has a band or two, so every Finnish boy thinks he is a great poet or musician, and every Finnish girl thinks she is a great singer or actress or dancer. I have already long since discovered that I am none of these. I am lucky enough to have good looks alone, so I am always being invited to audition for school plays or amateur musical productions, which is the reason I have always been part of the 'theatre crowd', but I have no talent for it. I cannot sing, I cannot read music. I am not shy, but I can play no role but that of Likkanen, because I am not naturally a good liar--I must work hard at it, like any other art.

But I am good at designing stage sets and lighting, and already I have helped to create coloured-oil and slide-projector 'light shows' for a band called 'Blues Project' and later, when they break up, for 'Tasavallan Presidentti' and 'Wigwam'. In fact, my friend who plays in them, Ronnie Osterberg, has promised to come here tonight and maybe 'jam' afterwards with Vaino's band, which is called 'Kantele'. Much as I hate Vaino, I must admit he is very, very talented; he plays two instruments very well, and with his long golden hair, he looks like a young god onstage. The lead singer for the band is Aino Rosen, who is not only pretty to look at, but has a lovely voice. Unfortunately, she is also very delicate and shy--and recently she has suffered a terrible humiliation, which I have not heard about. This will affect the evening very much, as you will see. Ronnie has heard 'Kantele' described, and is very interested to see if they are good enough to tour with; if so, his label, which is called 'Love Records', will likely sign them to a contract.

'Here' is my old high school, the SYK, which is in the Helsinki neighbourhood called Etelä-Haaga. Already it has snowed several times, and the streets and sidewalks and stairs outside are bleak and icy; it is close to midwinter, so there will only be an hour or two of 'daylight' around noon. Inside the school assembly hall, which was built in 1900 or so (and which has since been torn down and replaced with a modern auditorium, I have heard), you will feel a sudden blast of warmth and bright lights and a noisy hum of excitement as you enter it. It smells of wet wool, of burned coffee, of ammonia cleaner, rotting wood, and of course, of terva. See the serious-looking, very attractive boy with the shoulder-length very light brown hair? That is me. I am wearing brown leather Beatle-boots with silver buckles, 'hip-hugger' purple corduroy bell-bottoms, and a buckskin coat with a large rainbow-coloured peace sign stitched onto its back. Beside me is an even taller lad, very sturdy, with a shock of thick blonde hair--that is my best friend Bjorni, who has tried ever since childhood to get everyone to call him 'Nalle', or 'Teddy-Bear'. Behind his back, however, Vaino's cruel nickname for him has stuck and we all call him 'the Walrus'. He is dressed more conservatively than I, in bell-bottomed jeans and a big white knitted sweater. Unlike me, he is extremely energetic and ambitious--and political. Neither of us actually goes to school here, having graduated the year before; now we are at university. I am at the Helsinki University Medical College studying to be a doctor like my father (in what you Americans would call 'pre-med'), and Bjorni is at the School of Economics--along with Vaino, who, Bjorni is telling me, has been expelled that very day and threatened to 'burn the place down' on his way out. How Vaino ever got allowed into it at all is a great mystery, since he dropped out of SYK in his last year here, the year that was our second-to-last--Vaino is precisely a year older than I. Is Vaino even here tonight? We look around the hall, our gaze as lofty as those of a pair of prodigal princes returning home to their rustic village; we both feel much more mature than all these noisy, chattering kids, the boys wrestling and shoving for seats near the prettiest girls, who are directing shy glances at the two of us. I look for Ronnie, who is something like a celebrity here in Helsinki; to be seen in his company tonight will put the seal on my triumphal homecoming coolness.

He arrives just after the curtain goes up, along with his stringy-haired girlfriend, but mercifully minus their loud and nasty little boy, while some pimply kid is up on the stage trying to make magic tricks with a balky rabbit. Rumour says Ronnie's girlfriend is a heroin addict, which in those days is considered very glamourous. We are near the front row and I have saved a pair of the antique wooden seats, polished by half a century of students' bums, in between me and Bjorn for them; next to me is sitting Matleena Linkola, the fourth girl I ever bonked and still an excellent friend and an even better source for gossip. She is a plump, jolly girl with mousy brown hair and a wide smile. She is telling me the latest story about Vaino and Aino, who have been the school's 'magical couple' for the past few years--I am sure you know what I mean, because every school has at least one of these, a pair of lovers richer and more beautiful than everyone else, and who are 'made for each other'. Last weekend, Matleena tells me, Vaino has had a big party at his father's house in Espoo to begin the holiday season, but Aino cannot come to it because her parents are leaving to go to Stockholm for a family Jultid and she must spend the evening at home with them, since it will be their last together. (BTW, I have been invited to this party as well, because Vaino is fascinated with me and invites me everywhere, but I do not go to it, not because I hate and fear Vaino--which I do--but because I am now in medical school, and for the first time in my life I am having to actually study hard, even on holiday nights!)

Ok, so midway through this party. Aino calls Vaino on the telephone. He is drunk and snogging with Heli Maalismaa, who was my girlfriend from a the year before, but who I have dumped when I started my 'new life' at university. This is typical of Vaino--he has always tried to bonk any girl that I have bonked; in fact, I have often been tempted to do it with some horribly ugly old slut with the clap just so that he will have to! While I am laughing inside at this comical thought, Matleena is telling me that suddenly, when Aino asks him who is that talking loudly beside him, Vaino goes crazy. He tells her that he and Heli have been bonking for years and that he is sick to death of her (Aino, that is) because she is so boring and stupid. Aino is naturally very shocked and hurt and starts to cry. It is important to understand that Vaino's father is a very wealthy and powerful businessman, and, highly unusual for Finland at that time, he has several telephone lines connected to amplifiers and speakers so that he can hold 'conference calls' in his home. Vaino pushes the buttons, so that now poor Aino's voice is echoing all through the main living room, crying and pleading with him. She says several things that are very embarrassing and make all the kids who hear it laugh, like 'But why? But why?" and 'Without your penis inside me, I'll die'. The next day, of course, Vaino agrees to stop seeing Heli and promises that everything will be just the way it was before with Aino. But meanwhile, the harm is done; all week long at school kids who have been at this party have spread the story (most of all, Heli, who is a great bitch), so now people are constantly yelling 'But why? But why?' in her hearing. Or coming up to her at lunch and pretending to cry and saying, 'Without that sausage inside me, I will die!' To most kids at the school these words are a new language, like Italian--at home, the parents of most Finns in those days barely speak at all, or if they do, just beat each other when they're drunk. But these are like lines from a Hollywood film, only meant with real feeling. They are fascinating, which is why they must be mocked. As a consequence, Aino has come home in tears every night this week, and her nerves are very upset for tonight's performance. It is at this point in Matleena's story that Ronnie arrives with his wife. A murmur has followed them down the darkened aisle from the front door. He and his 'old lady', as he calls her, are 'real hippies', not teeny-boppers like me; older, scruffy-looking, a bit dangerous. Ronnie is drinking viina from a crumpled brown bag--normally someone would stop him, but not tonight. Tonight all the devils are loose.

Before 'Kantele' will play, we must suffer through a scene from the musical 'Hair!' ('Tukka!'), performed in Finnish by the school drama club, a loud and very bad Suomirokki band called 'JOUKAHAINEN', and a brother and sister who juggle painted balls together to a recording of 'Stairway to Heaven.' Throughout these, Ronnie never stops talking loudly in 'Swenglish', sometimes about himself and his health symptoms, sometimes very funny comments about the untalented acts, which causes everyone around us to laugh but others to yell at him to shut up. Mattii grabs my arm; 'Look', she says, 'There is my friend Stina! She and Aino and I are like the "Three Sisters" these days.' Stina and another girl are presenting a short dramatic interpretation, for which they are wearing nothing but pale pink leotards and body stockings, of a scene between two women from a play by Waltari, as I recall, called 'Paratiisiin Eedenin'. It has been many years, so my memories of the dialogue are not so good, but it is between Lilit and Eeva, who are rivals for Adam and who hate each other. But in this scene they have discovered they have suffered many curses in common at the hands of Jumala, or Jehovah, (who is, after all, a man), including that of having their periods, so their complaints make them friends. No attempt was made to recreate the Garden of Eden behind them, instead each girl is lit by a spotlight in front of the big red curtain, Stina standing on the left side of the stage and Likki on the right, where I cannot see her very well. Because both girls have artfully sewn dark patches at certain places beneath their leotards, in the yellowish stage lighting they look as if they are entirely naked, which is a smart advertisement for any pretty young lady interested in a future film career, and at the sight of them Ronnie suddenly shuts up. 'Wow!' he says only. I peek quickly at the playbill; the two girls are named Kristina Ekblad and Kylikki von Essen. Strangely enough, I will soon spend a year or two of my life with each of them, though at that moment I have no eyes for Likki, in spite of her being the better actress of the two (Stina sounds too theatrical and rehearsed, Likki, on the other hand, speaks her lines as if she's just thought of them herself that very instant. And perhaps she did). But Likki is only 15 or 16 at that time and still looks very immature. Though, unknown to me, she has looked down from the stage and caught sight of my face in the audience while she is speaking her lines and fallen madly in love with me. Or so she will say some years later.

Off they go, to much applause and shouts of 'Strip off!'. Now it is time for Kantele. The curtain rises and the stage is filled with dim blue light, obviously in order to evoke the arctic night. The band comes out one by one and picks up their instruments, Aino, very pale, dressed in a white bridal-looking gown that touches the floor, straps on her guitar, Vaino, dressed a bit like a medieval minstrel, takes his, while the drummer and the bass player follow behind. 'Far out!' Ronnie says loudly in English. 'That's an original Stratocaster, man!' He lowers his voice, as an angry chorus of hushes breaks out around us. 'And look at that, an MK 300! I didn't even know there were any in Finland. Iesu Kristi! there must be 10,000 marks' worth of equipment up there.' Vaino goes to the Mellotron and fills the old dark hall with a few lush notes that rise slowly, majestically in volume. Now Aino starts to sing. The first few notes are sweet and pure, then suddenly she stops. The rest of the band stops playing. She apologizes and tells them to start over. There is a burst of nervous laughter from the audience. They start over from the beginning. This time Aino gets halfway through the first part and then hits a false note. She stops again, tries to pick up again where she left off, then she bursts into tears and runs off the stage.

But Vaino refuses to give up. He sets the Mellotron to play the same loops over and over and sings the song himself, playing both the rhythm and then the lead parts on his Fender--he sings very well, and for three or four minutes, the evening is rescued for him, though there is now no one to sing harmony with. The bass player tries, but this is a big mistake. Then suddenly the Mellotron goes crazy. The cycling mechanism jams, and after a moment spaghetti-like rolls of tape begin to leak out of the bottom; as this happens, the pitch and volume suddenly rise and the noise becomes terrible. Without hesitating, Vaino raises up his electric guitar like a fire-axe and smashes it down on the Mellotron. After three or four blows, the machine goes silent, its expensive keyboard smashed in (though the Stratocaster remains unscratched), and Vaino stalks off. The bass player has given up, but the drummer is still making little riffing fanfares out of spastic energy. 'Wow, man,' says Ronnie, getting up to leave. 'Thanks for turning me on to tonight. Those stupid (OK, he uses another word) rich kids could never hope to go on tour, not with the CMCs in that unit. But it wasn't a complete waste of time--they gave me some groovy ideas for my next concert!'

Mattti is also standing up. 'I have to go find Aino,' she says. 'Don't just sit there. Come on and help me!' So I wave helplessly at Bjorni and follow her backstage. He shrugs. As she passed by him, Ronnie's 'old lady' has just reached down and given Bjorni's balls a quick squeeze, so he remains seated.

There are no dressing rooms behind the stage, just a big store-room where everyone has stuffed racks of clothes and a single mirror. Aino is sitting on an old trunk looking like a dying princess in a fairy tale; she is no longer crying but appears to be calm. Stina is there holding her hand; she looks up and waves at Matti when she sees us. Her hair is coppery, not nearly so red as the Strawberry's, for instance, which is very fine and straight; no, Stina's is curly, which is rare in Finland. Matti rushes over dramatically to embrace Aino, and the two begin to talk with each other. 'Vaino has just dumped her again,' Stina says, her large blue eyes staring at me very wide. 'This time I think it's forever. Can't you talk to him?'

'Me?' I said. 'What would I say to him? Besides, I think he and Heli are made for each other.' She stares even wider, with her mouth open. Is this expression one of shocked surprise, or is she laughing appreciatively? Later I will learn that this is how she flirts with all guys and that actually it means absolutely nothing. Stina has read dozens of Swedish and English books on 'How to Get a Boyfriend' and from them has developed a whole range of rehearsed phrases and gestures in order to manipulate men. But she is not after a boyfriend or even a husband; she is far more ambitious than that.

'Don't you remember me?' she asks after a moment.

I squirm a bit, because I don't.

'It was last year on "vanhojen paiva".' (this is a sort of 'seniors' day, where graduating kids are allowed to do whatever they want all day until they are ceremonially kicked out by the class behind them. Naturally, the whole school takes the holiday off from classes.) 'You and I were smoking on the rocks?' I still can't remember. Now Stina grabs my hand. 'I was talking to you, and you just reached over and put your hand here like this'--and she places very firmly it on her right breast--'and said "Not even a handful. Come back when you're grown up".' She blushes. I am still young and stupid enough to fall in love with this blush. Suddenly, Stina seems very grown-up to me.

'Oh yes,' I say now. 'You.' Back then, she was just a skinny little kid from some small Swedish town on the western shore--she even talked funny. Now she talks just like Aino. And she isn't so skinny or little any more, either. Obviously, she has been studying very hard--but not, as I have said, from schoolbooks.

Now Matleena takes my other hand. 'Aino wants to go home, but her parents are in Sweden, and I don't want her to be alone tonight. Want to come to Kauniainen with us?' Oh ho, yes indeed I do. Oh yes! I don't even notice Likki staring wistfully after me on my way out; I barely even bother to tell Bjorni where I'm off to. I exit my old high school hall swaggering like Bob Guccione, publisher and editor of 'Penthouse Magazine', out into the snow with three pretty girls, just as another band begins to tune up inside. This will be the strangest night of my whole life, but I don't know that yet.

Next time: Pissing in cars.

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