He came in through the bathroom window

Issue 2/1991 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Utslag och andra noveller (‘Rash and other stories’, Alba, 1989). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

He heard a voice behind him:

‘Hey, Aspelin, what are you doing here?’

Awakening from a half-sleep, he looked around as Ilpo approached his seat.

‘I work near here. I’m teaching math to the visually impaired.’

Ilpo sat down next to him. For several seconds they sat without speaking. Then Aspelin collected himself.

‘And you?’

‘Visiting a friend. He lives in Mäkkylä.’

Aspelin looked at the digital letters rolling across the screen in the front of the bus. ‘Today… is… February… 12… Name-day… for… Elma/Elmi… News… An… earthquake… ‘ It was hard to tear one’s eyes away from the stupidly shimmering screen. He searched for something to make conversation about, but could find nothing. He hadn’t seen Ilpo since the days with Christine; Ilpo had been the youngest and quietest of their circle of partying poli-sci students.

‘Have you finished your degree?’

‘I’m only halfway through my Master’s,’ said Ilpo.

When Aspelin thought about his own aborted, long-forgotten studies, he got a musty taste in his mouth – probably the lunch the Board of Education had treated him to in the school cafeteria.

‘By the way,’ said Ilpo, ‘I saw Christine on the street the other day.’

‘Oh… ?’

‘She asked if I knew anything about you. She said the two of you hadn’t heard or seen anything of each other in over two years.’

Aspelin felt a pang of guilt. Why didn’t he and his lovers ever end up as close friends, bosom buddies, the way he’d read in Beauty and Health people who lived together often did a while after their break-up?

‘We’d probably had more than enough of each other,’ he couldn’t resist saying.

‘In any case, she said that if I ran into you, I should mention that you could give her a ring sometime.’

‘Sure, sure.’ He knew that he was practically brushing Ilpo off, but it was irritating to be awakened from the lovely somnolence that always seeped into him on his way home. Furthermore, now that he worked in the trade school for the blind, he found himself split between two worlds: life among the handicapped out in Alberga had very little in common with the glass-encased consumer-city that he had to pass through on his way from the bus station to the subway entrance. It was extremely damaging to one’s self-esteem to walk, for instance, through Forum, the inner city mall, feeling poor, ugly, and frayed at the edges, something he was forced to reflect upon every day on his way home to Åstorget. Sometimes he thought about Hemmo, who had a rare disease which contorted his face so that it looked only faintly human, and about his remark at the swimming hall – that it was a relief for him to work with the blind, who didn’t judge him by how he looked but by what he said and did.

‘I get off here,’ said Ilpo when the first of the verdigris-green presidential statues appeared right after the National Museum. ‘At least I passed on the greetings. Take care.’

‘You too,’ Aspelin managed to say. ‘And good luck with your degree.’

The discomfort of having left the easy, fashionable job at the record store for the White Canes and sad world of Braille out in the slushy meadows of Esbo disturbed Aspelin enough so that more often than he had in a long time he took the subway from Sörnäs and drank himself into a stupor in some inner city bar; in spite of everything, there, in the center, was where he felt most at home. After an evening at the Bulldog Bar, he remembered the meeting with Ilpo. He went into a kiosk at the corner of Mannerheim and Lönnrot Streets, and looked up the number.

‘Hello? Who is it?’

Christine sounded groggy with sleep.

‘So you’ve moved to Tölö,’ he said.

‘I’m asleep. Who is this?’

‘It’s me. Micke.’

‘You? What do you want?’

The line was silent. Aspelin realised that he had only a few seconds.

‘I was in town, and I thought that I… that maybe you could put me up for the night.’

‘Can’t you get home?’

‘I’ve moved too. I live out in Mellungsbacka,’ Aspelin lied.

‘You’re living with someone you want to get away from again.’ Christine’s observation was made in a dispassionate voice, revealing no trace of rancor.

‘No, I live alone. But there aren’t any buses this late. And I can’t afford a taxi… and I feel a little… wiped out,’ he piled it on.

‘All right then, come over. When will you be here?’

He could almost see her shrug her shoulders as she said it.

‘Ten minutes.’

‘I’ll throw down the keys. You can sleep on the sofa.’

When Christine heard his whistle, she was already wide awake. She looked at the clock: sixteen minutes past one. Why hadn’t she just hung up the receiver? Two minutes later he was standing in the hall. As he looked around, his eyes widened.

‘Not bad at all.’

She could see that he was drunk. He’d also put on weight, and was just as winter-pale as she was. Otherwise he looked like himself: the same mixture of naughty boy and absent-minded dreamer. How old was he now, 32? No, he must be 31. As she put up water for tea – Aspelin, starved for company, was babbling on in the doorway – she already regretted what she’d done.

‘Early to bed, early to rise?’ Aspelin said.

‘I’ve got a permanent government job now. Eight on the dot every morning.’

‘Where?’

‘The Education Ministry. I’m public relations director.’ Against his will, Aspelin was impressed.

‘Does Madame Director have any wine in the house?’

‘I can’t start drinking after midnight on a weeknight,’ said Christine, looking at him. ‘You’ve put on weight. Your face is as round as a globe.’

‘Is it now?’ said Aspelin, looking around the kitchen. It was as orderly and clean as the kitchen they’d shared in Hertonäs. He remembered her stuffed zucchinis, and for a moment grew sentimental. Did she have time to cook at home, or did she – as he did – order out four times a week from Pizza Express? He looked at her. She looked just as she had two, three, or five years ago. Or did she have a more distant, resolute expression around the mouth? The nightgown was the short kind: it ended just below the bum. She was wearing light-blue panties, and she hadn’t smiled at him yet.

‘You must’ve gotten your Master’s by now,’ he half-said, half-asked.

‘You’re behind the times. I got my PhD this fall.’

She turned off the burner just as the water began to boil, opened a cabinet door, took out glasses and a bottle of red wine.

‘Just one glass,’ she said. ‘Tell me what you’ve been up to.’

Looking out the window, Aspelin watched her walking along Calonius Street. Typical Christine, he thought: even if she did have her PhD and a job as Director of Public Relations, she still left a person she hadn’t seen in two years alone in her apartment; she’d never lost her faith in people. He turned on the coffee machine and felt content; it’d been a long time since he’d talked about himself to another person.

By 2:30 the bottle of wine had been emptied. Christine had opened another, they’d reminisced about old times and laughed about most of them, including how he’d come into the little store where she’d worked two nights a week selling candles and porcelain elephants, and how he’d stood poking at the elephants until the only customer left, and then said: ‘I’m sorry, but I think that one of us has to move out’ – they laughed about that now, and about their walk up and down Mechelin Street which followed, and about how he’d explained that a feeling of numbness had just suddenly come over him, and then her mournful questions. He couldn’t help wondering about her – he knew that she thought he was a bastard, Mechelin Street was a godawful wind-tunnel in October, and to top it all of he’d gotten engaged with great fanfare two months later – and all the same she could laugh about it now, and when the second bottle was empty she mumbled indistinctly that he could sleep in her bed if he promised not to steal the covers in his sleep.

At first he lay on his back. She did too. His side of the cover had a swelling in the hip area. He felt stupid, like a beggar; she was the one who kissed him, carefully. In the light from the street her face appeared above his, her dark hair swept over his mouth, and then, strangely, their bodies recognised each other. In spite of everything in the kitchen there’d been a distance between them, they’d been strangers to each other, but now that their mouths were silent and their bodies had taken over and were doing what they were better at than brain and speech could ever be, they had remembered.

Aspelin could feel how much he liked Christine; he hadn’t felt that way for a long time. He had no long-term plans in mind, but the idea of seeing her again appealed to him. ‘Thanks,’ he wrote on a piece of paper, but it felt dumb. He added – ‘for morning coffee.’

When Christine saw the note, a wave of depression swept over her. There was something simply too casual about what had happened – and the fact that it was Micke; it was like winding the clock backward several years. Something in his superficial, boyish charm, and his almost complete lack of interest in other people, attracted her, and now she despised herself for it. At the same moment that the telephone rang, she realised another reason for her dissatisfaction: she’d given up the Pill long ago – she had no permanent protection – and he had almost come inside her out of old habit. And in times like these – who knew what Aspelin had been doing the last several years, and with whom; one could expect anything from him. And she’d already turned 30! God, she was a grown-up woman, had subordinates under her; she had to get her private life in order.

Ilpo’s light, happy voice over the phone didn’t improve her mood; she turned down his appeal (yes, it was an appeal) to have dinner at his place. She was simply too tired. And Ilpo’s attentiveness, his uncritical admiration, could sometimes be tiresome; she wondered if in fact it wasn’t his idolisation of her that kept them from becoming a couple, even from sleeping with each other. She could hear that Ilpo was disappointed.

‘Tomorrow then?’

‘Okay, tomorrow,’ she said without enthusiasm. She thought – he’s so young.

It’s not only his voice and the fact that he just turned 25. He’s even younger with me, like a child, yapping and playing at my feet like a puppy.

She felt ungrateful, and admonished herself: but he’s so nice!

‘I’d love to come tomorrow,’ she said into the receiver, suddenly genuinely eager. ‘I’ll rent a tear-jerker at the video store on the way, okay?’

His joy was unmistakable; the conversation came alive.

‘By the way,’ he said suddenly, ‘I ran into Micke in the bus some weeks ago. I forgot to tell you. He asked you to give him a ring sometime.’

‘Oh.’ Christine made her voice as cool as possible; she had to change the subject quickly – Ilpo was so sensitive.

‘He seemed kind of… distant,’ continued Ilpo, ‘maybe a bit lonely too.’

‘He’s always distant and lonely,’ she almost snorted. ‘He thrives on it.’

Christine was tired of herself. All she really wanted was sleep; spring fatigue was overpowering her. Nevertheless, here she sat in a poorly-lit restaurant with tasteless food, and opposite her sat Micke Aspelin. She suspected that she’d accepted his invitation partly because of the fiasco at Ilpo’s two days earlier. She’d drunk too much wine and started to cry when she saw Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro in Falling in Love. Then Ilpo started comforting her in such an unbearably tender and symphathetic way that in a matter of seconds she turned from kitten to wildcat. The rest of the evening was filled with her sarcastic remarks about him and his childish banality, and finally she’d giggled uncontrollably at him and at herself; just before she left he’d finally acted hurt, and had begun sputtering at her.

With Aspelin she could at least avoid the treacle; the evening at The Anchor consisted of his anecdotes and quips about himself and their mutual acquaintances. Early in the evening, she abandoned her firm resolution that he go home by himself that night; and during the long, expectant walk along the beach to Calonius Street, it became clear that Aspelin wouldn’t sleep on the sofa this time either.

Only a week earlier she’d been wondering whether, in spite of everything, Ilpo wasn’t going to be her future husband. Now the thought felt ridiculous and absurd. She watched Aspelin as he undressed. His body had the first signs of flaccidity and lack of definition of someone approaching middle-age. Something about his body – probably those hints of corpulence – made her think of a plump little boy, a child. And then there was his sex, the thirsty one, already erect in eager expectation. Stiff or slack, long or short, thick or thin, there was something childish and almost pitiful about their cocks.

Christine’s thoughts were interrupted by Aspelin turning off the lamp. That was fortunate; she was on the verge of giggling. In the dark he felt different, and she could take him seriously.

Aspelin was enjoying it. To think that her professional, intelligent, sharp-tongued, career-woman ego could still turn into the same, almost cotton-soft, malleable, nighttime-Christine! Still, he knew that the role-change occurred without her giving up any of her strength. In no way was he controlling her; in her ostensibly shy and yielding fashion it was she who was guiding his hands, tongue and sex. This stimulated him even more; he slid below her breasts and stomach, the telephone rang in the hall, rang and rang but then stopped, he bit her cautiously in the pleat of her groin and then buried his face in the flesh and dampness. A little while later, when he raised himself up, she said with a voice that (so it seemed to him) was soft and distant at the same time: ‘Come inside me. It’s been so long since the last time.’

Aspelin got nervous.

‘You don’t have any protection.’

‘I just had my period.’

‘Are you as regular as before?’

To an outsider, discussions like these – taking place as they always did at the last minute – might have sounded oddly matter-of-fact.

‘Yes, just the same as always,’ she said, stuck a warm hand between them and playfully fondled what she’d found.

Aspelin awoke early, feeling completely refreshed. He whispered ‘Hi’ in her ear, dressed quietly, then stood at the foot of the bed and looked at her. She lay on her stomach; she’d kicked off the cover. As far as he could see there was nothing that revealed that she was 30: no nursing had reduced her breasts, no childcare or compulsive eating had, it seemed to him, made her body stooped or coarse. But now he noticed her hands, which were clutching the duvet. He went closer. Of course they weren’t wrinkled, but… he picked up Christine’s left hand, held it in his. She grunted. It was hard to say what it was: perhaps the winter-pale color of her skin, perhaps some tiny liver spots, perhaps also a hint of too-tight skin: the hand betrayed that Christine had aged a little. Aspelin let go of her hand, walked into the hallway, drew a smiley face on the telephone pad, tore the paper off the pad, taped it to the mirror and left.

Informed by her subordinates that she’d called in sick, Ilpo called before noon. He didn’t suggest the usual communal dinner, or that they sit at his place singing along with old Beatles records (their shared, secret vice); he came right to the point – where was she last night?

‘What business is it of yours?’

‘I was worried about you!’

No! He wanted to make her guilty. She wouldn’t have it!

‘I was here,’ she said abruptly.

‘You had someone there, right?’

‘Don’t bother me, Ilpo. I feel sufficiently shitty anyway.’

‘I knew it! I knew it! I couldn’t sleep the whole night!’

‘I didn’t get a lot of sleep either,’ said Christine – needlessly cruelly, she realised seconds afterward, when she’d noticed the double-meaning and his likely interpretation.

‘I can’t stand it! I just can’t stand it’ Was it Micke? Don’t tell me it was Micke.’

‘It was your idea for me to call him.’

‘So you did call him!’

‘No, he was the one who called.’

‘I don’t get it. You went to bed with him. How is that possible?’

‘He came in through the bathroom window,’ sighed Christine (she tried to appeal to his sense of humor and the things they had in common).

‘After what he did to you! And after such a long time!’ said Ilpo without realising that his two sentences might actually cancel each other out.

Suddenly Christine felt totally exhausted; she craved more sleep.

‘Perhaps that was exactly why.’

‘What was exactly why?’

‘Because of what he did to me. I want to go back to bed now. You should too.’

Twenty-four days later it was Sunday.

Aspelin got up right after 12:00, made coffee and unfolded the huge week-end Helsingin Sanomat. His eye was caught by a prominently displayed article about Benito Mussolini’s sexlife.

‘During 1922-1943, Mussolini’s period in power, countesses, nuns, school­girls, farm women, Italian women from all levels of society wrote 30-40,000 letters a month to him. In response to their letters, many of the charisma-­blinded women were invited to visit Il Duce’s palace, where an animalistic sexual experience awaited them’ – he read distractedly, poking his fingers into a piece of bread and marmalade. ‘Mussolini took his “guests” savagely, as a conqueror takes his shackled slaves… sometimes Il Duce preferred the floor to the bed, and rarely did he have time to take off pants or shoes. The whole frenetic operation was over in a minute or two.’

The article turned Aspelin on, which made him feel a little embarrassed. The itch was bothersome, but should a psychologically healthy man masturbate after reading an article like that – and with Mussolini, of all people, as the protagonist? No. He finished his coffee, and decided to clean up his attic storeroom instead.

Up in the attic all he could hear was the sighing of the two pine trees in the back yard. Aspelin moved things around unenthusiastically until he came upon an old Cavalet briefcase into which he looked and found hundreds of letters, notes, old concert tickets and newspaper clippings.

The letters: there were so many. And such nice ones. He skimmed some. This one was warm and friendly, this one too. Here was a slightly accusatory postcard. And then an almost maternal letter. They were such wonderful letters! He couldn’t remember having answered more than a forgotten few of them, and he wondered why. There must have been reasons. No doubt he’d been under pressure. This one: he remembered her. They’d met one summer. He was at her place when he asked:

‘What do you do during the summer?’

‘Stay by myself.’

‘By yourself?’

‘Yes. Take walks. And read a lot.’

In a quiet way she’d seemed happy, and that had seemed incomprehensible to him. She’d liked him a lot; he remembered that he could feel it. The margins of the letters were scribbled all over with small dots which she called ‘cooties’. Hadn’t he liked her a good deal too? Why in Heaven’s name hadn’t he answered? Had she had some trait that he’d considered unpleasant? Rough hands? Yellow teeth? A lisp? A sharp tongue? A bored or blase look when they made love? Or had she believed that all boys should be put into the military reserves to make men of them? Or did she fart openly – he didn’t like women to break wind.

He couldn’t recall anything like that.

At the very bottom he found two letters from Christine. They were written sensitively: one actually smelled of summer. He looked at the date, and remembered an episode from that same summer:

He drives Christine to Kouvola after they’ve spent two weeks in a cottage he’d rented in Anttola. On the way they pass a field with dark-red loosestrife. Behind it is a dark pond. Look how beautiful! shouts Christine. Yes, very beautiful, he says, meaning the pond. When they arrive at the station, the platform is sun-baked and nearly deserted. A soldier waits for a train heading north. A man dressed in overalls is coupling the engine, Christine’s engine that will take her away from him – and he wants this, for he tires of people. A small boy is hanging on the door to the first coupé, asking over and over how the engine works. The man and the soldier laugh. Christine leans forward in the door; her lips touch his. The train is already moving, it disappears over the plains of Kymmenedalen; soon it looks like a mirage. He goes into the station and orders a cup of coffee. He doesn’t feel as pleased as he thought he would; he realises that it’s always something else that he wants.

When Aspelin had finished both letters, he missed Christine violently, but he knew that it was better to ignore it. After a while the attack passed; again he felt calm and content sitting in the attic searching through the old papers, smelling the dust and mothballs, glancing through things that he’d forgotten long ago had ever been written.

The Friday after Aspelin’s crash course in nostalgia, Christine called in sick again with a cold and fever. She took a long walk; she couldn’t stand sitting and waiting. As if pulled by a rope, she began to walk down Mechelin Street, but then she cut herself loose and turned off toward the beach. Due to the warm winter, the ice on Edes Bay had already melted and she stood for a long time looking at the sea. She wondered why it was so hard to take charge of her life. She’d been quite content, content with her work and the video evenings at Ilpo’s; in time she would have accepted his advances.

When she got home she went into the bathroom, turned on the light and took the strip of paper out of the water glass. It was red, deep red.

Suddenly everything was quiet; she couldn’t think. It had happened before, but she hadn’t meant for it to happen again. She fell heavily onto the bed.

When she’d calmed down a bit, she fell asleep, wrapped in double blankets. When she awoke she realised that she longed for another life, one which centered around He Who Came Home Promptly At 5:00 And Asked How Her Day Was but she tried her best to dismiss the thought.

By evening her loneliness began to feel lead-heavy. She held the receiver in her hand for five seconds, perhaps ten, but knew that there wasn’t any choice in the real sense of the word; the word ‘incorrigible’ was now a definite reality, and it was intimately connected to the word ‘Aspelin.’ She dialed Ilpo’s number. He was home.

Every time Aspelin is about to be brought into the narrative, one feels on the verge of cliché, but the cliché is still preferable to a prettied-up lie: this time Aspelin was really drunk. He was standing in line in front of one of the late­-night dance restaurants of Great Robert Street, trying to stand up straight and look relaxed at the same time. When his turn came, the bouncer shook his head. Aspelin didn’t argue; even if he never admitted it, he respected people in uniform.

He dialed the number from a kiosk on Bulevarden. No answer. He walked up to Mannerheim and took the last 3B to Tölö.

The pebbles against the window woke Christine. For the first few minutes she burrowed her head fiercely under the pillow, but the quality of the noise changed; it sounded like stones now, and she remembered how persistent he could be. She wrapped the cover around her and went out into the living-room, climbed up on a chair, opened the window and leaned out.

‘What the hell do you want?’

‘Let me in, for chrissake. Why don’t you come and open it ‘

‘Do you know what time it is?’

‘Must be at least 2:00.’

‘I don’t want you to come here anymore! Go home and go to bed.’

‘What kind of talk is that? I’m staying right here. Large as life in front of you. I mean below you.’

‘Go to hell! Do you understand?’

‘Throw down the keys. You don’t want to keep your neighbors awake all night, do you?’

‘I don’t want you here. Go away!’

‘You’re afraid. That’s what it is. I know you still want me. Ilpo said so.’

‘What the hell does Ilpo know about it?’

‘You told him. Don’t you remember?’

‘I never said anything of the kind. You’re building castles in the air. Before you turned up I’d forgotten you long ago.’

When Christine finally gave in (Aspelin had a brainstorm and reminded her of his trip out to Mellungsbacka; did she want him to walk 15 kilometers through the night? Christine remembered their previous hike up and down windy Mechelin Street and a significantly more recent piece of red litmus paper, and was about to say yes, but then threw down the key), Aspelin wanted to do nothing but sleep. For appearance’s sake he protested a little, and not without indecent suggestions, but the door to Christine’s bedroom remained shut; he contented himself with the rough blanket and peremptory gesture that showed him the livingroom with the sofa. Christine waited until he turned off the lights, then went into her bedroom.

The blanket scratched his bare torso, and he turned on the light.

He found a novel in the bookcase and skimmed it. The book was cool and laconic, the delineation of characters left a metallic taste in his mouth – just the way it really is, he thought when he closed the book two hours later.

When he awoke, he remembered nothing about the novel. His eyes were sealed shut and swollen. He got up, washed his face and went to the refrigerator; it was almost empty, only a bottle of mineral water and a jar of olives. He knocked on the bedroom door, opened it; no one there. On the hall mirror was a note written in Christine’s strong, slightly irregular script. It was a big piece of paper – heavy-weight A4 – and the writing was big as well: ‘Please don’t come back again. Christine. P.S. But take care of yourself anyway.’ So typical of her; she tried to be hard and resolute, but she backed out in a P.S.

Ilpo stood indecisively for a long time by the kiosk near the entrance. In desperation he finally decided on an enormous, reddish-yellow Easter Lily, even though the holiday was still a week away. Christine wasn’t in her room. He found her in the cafeteria; she was carrying a coffee tray to a table by the window. Ilpo looked at her: her flat slippers – through which her pale toes protruded – made her shuffle; the flowered, blue and green hospital robe had seen better days; she had dark circles under her eyes. Ilpo felt a lump in his throat.

He sat down opposite her. She put the coffee cup before him, and went to get another.

‘How are you?’ he asked.

‘A little tired. But it’s over now. Everything went very well.’

Christine looked at Ilpo. From a stairway window she’d seen him walking along Topelius street; she’d seen him languishing in front of the flower store, seen him glance anxiously up to the window as he walked across the courtyard. Now he was still sitting with the wrapped flower in hand; it hid half his face. He pressed it against his body, and one of his feet drummed against the floor. All the men who came here were scared and confused: the Scarifying Sisterhood of the Shuffling Slippers, she thought.

‘Don’t destroy the flower.’

He blushed and handed it to her. They were silent again.

‘Can I ask you something?’ he said. She nodded.

‘Is this the first time you’re here?’

‘No.’

They stood smoking a cigarette outside the main entrance. Ilpo’s guilty conscience wouldn’t go away; he felt that the looks Christine gave him were unusually piercing (what she was really thinking was that she wanted them to move in together).

‘If I say forgive me,’ said Ilpo, hesitatingly, ‘would you understand what I mean?’

‘I’m beginning to understand.’

‘It went too far, you know. I didn’t mean… ‘

He saw that she wanted him to be quiet. He also saw that she wasn’t angry, and that she didn’t find him disgusting. Ilpo was in his shirtsleeves – it was an unusually mild April day – and he felt suddenly happy and sleepy at the same time, the way a person sometimes feels when the thing that has been disturbing and tormenting him, struggling to come out into the open, is gone, and he suddenly feels absolutely certain that he is living the right life in the right house and the right city, and the city and time envelop him like a warm cocoon. Ilpo had waited a long time, had felt the waiting-time flowing through him as through a screen; now he suddenly saw the possibility of living in a chrysalis of happiness, never having to think of time flowing and flowing away until, perhaps, just before the moment that he would stop thinking for good.

That summer Aspelin started to enjoy his work at the school for the blind. On one of the first days in autumn he stepped off the bus in the center of the city in an unusually lucid frame of mind. He had taken the youngest students to the Tali Bowling Hall, and, under Aspelin’s guidance, the smallest and thinnest boy had scored a strike. Everyone had cheered, and Aspelin – to his surprise – had joined in the jubilation; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so involved. A wave of warmth had welled up in him, and his inexperience with the feeling was so great that he almost went into shock: he gasped for air as he thumped the boy on his back, shouting, ‘Good, Petri, good!’ The feeling had subsided, but remained inside him. Whistling, he began to walk toward the Central Station. When he crossed Mannerheim he saw Christine standing by the tram stop. Ilpo was standing next to her, his arm around her waist. Aspelin stopped; the light was against him. Their tram came – 3B – they got on, laughing and flirting with each other; they looked so young, like children. Aspelin realised that the sight put him in even better spirits, and he was surprised by the unusual mildness of his mood. Either, he thought, he’d had an attack of sentimentality that prevented him from begrudging other people their happiness, without recalling for him that he wasn’t especially happy himself, or else an invisible burden of guilt had chosen to lift itself off his shoulders that very day.

‘You see, I thought that when you saw what an asshole he was, then I’d be good enough for you,’ said Ilpo that winter evening when they’d drunk three bottles of wine and in their intoxication had begun to analyse what had happened a year earlier.

‘You were always good enough for me. It just would have taken a little more time,’ said Christine.

‘I still wonder why you weren’t angrier at me,’ said Ilpo apologetically.

‘I was angry. If you’d been more astute, you would have figured out that I would go to bed with him.’ She shook her head and then went on: ‘But then I wasn’t exactly an angel to you either.’

Aspelin lived the whole winter in his own version of the story of himself and Christine. They lived together in an idyll filled with common everyday occurrences; sex; small, private, silent confidences; and long conversations in which they finally got to know each other. Ilpo didn’t exist. Sometimes he and Christine squabbled, but they always made up, and in Aspelin’s world, making-up meant imaginative sex.

If someone had asked, Aspelin would have insisted that his reality was as real as the other, about which he still wasn’t completely informed. In his way he was very happy; in his world he (and, through his efforts, Christine as well) avoided the conflicts that he knew from experience could have been difficult to resolve.

At the end of winter another side of him – curiosity – temporarily asserted itself. He dialed the number, and when he heard Ilpo’s voice he understood intuitively that they were already married. The voice was clearly that of the newly-wed husband: naively confident and serene.

When the new telephone books arrived some weeks later, Aspelin immediately thumbed through the pages; she had taken a double-name. With that, his curiosity was appeased and he was still happy; no demands disturbed his tranquillity, and what he had, no one could take away from him.

Translated by George Blecher and Lone Thygesen Blecher

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