The guest book

Issue 2/1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract rom the novel Kenen kuvasta kerrot (‘Whose picture are you talking about’, Otava, 1996). Introduction by Pia Ingström

Late at night before going to bed An Lee had turned off all the lights, opened the large bedroom window, breathed the cool air. She had done this often. It made it easier to fall asleep. It was enough to look outside for a moment and to breathe in slowly, and at the same time the bedroom air freshened and changed for the night.

Then she had closed and locked the window, drawn the curtains, and switched on the dim wall light. It might be nice to decorate the space between the double windowpanes with wooden animals, she had thought, not for the first time. They had had some at home, her mother had been a collector of such things. Almost all of them pink and lemon yellow, a whole zoo between the windows, only the panther had been pitch-black, and on one of the elephants the pretty grey color had been scratched and splotchy on one side.

They had to be somewhere, she remembered packing them when she went to college, but that was years ago. Mother had no longer wanted them for the spaces between the windows of her new apartment, and besides, those windows did not open the same way as the old ones: they had all been changed to triple panes, long ago.

An Lee remembered the room of her first year at college, in a building where they had decided to remodel the windows right in the middle of a chilly fall. It had made the place a lot warmer and less drafty. Traffic noise had faded to a distant hum, it was as if your ears had been wrapped in a thick layer of cottonwool, and the first couple of evenings she had found it hard to fall asleep.

When Mother moved, she had first planned on a brand-new place, but the ones that were ten years old were so much cheaper that she had decided to save some money for travel.

Not that she ever thought of heading east, not even to Eastern Europe. An Lee remembered suggesting to her a cheap package trip to Bangkok, saying that could take a local airline from there and perhaps manage to see Father, but she had been appalled by the very thought; she had broken off the conversation and angrily banged the dishes while washing them.

Even though Mother had spent only a year and a half as an au pair girl in Rotterdam, and even though almost all of that time had been spent waiting and worrying, she had never considered changing her mind about her daughter’s name: An Lee. That was what she had promised the man, and the man had promised to return to Holland as soon as he had straightened out things in his homeland. Mother had never wanted to talk much about these things. But there was no way she could be persuaded to take a trip to Asia, or to Holland, or even to London if the flight made a stopover in Amsterdam.

Her mother had not wanted to change her little girl’s name, either. In school she had been called Anni-Leena, or just Leena. Whenever An Lee tried to remember those school years, the first thing that came to mind for some reason was that spring when she had been growing, her wrists and elbows had been hurting, and she had had to stretch her legs from time to time.

By that time she had already known why she wanted to slip her hand down under her nightie. Afterwards, she had always felt revulsion, almost as strongly as when she saw the Venus condoms hung on low pine branches behind the school. They were used, the other kids said, and she had to grin along with them and repeat: a used condom, a used-up rubber.

But then again at night in the dark, no matter how she tried to decide not to do it to herself again, she had nevertheless pulled her blue too-large pajama bottoms a little way down her thighs and squeezed, a couple of times, the spot inside of which she had felt a hot prickling flow. And after a few of those squeezes she had pulled up her hand and raised it to her nostrils and smelled the odor, sweet, musty, and salty all at once, and felt a little revulsion, but had been unable to resist.

Later on, all those little girl’s doings had no longer felt as shameful as then, but rather like a good thing. But you remembered those years better than what had gone before or the many years that had followed. Often those long-ago moments had suddenly popped into her mind, in the middle of everything, in the middle of quite different things. As if she had been pulling along an enormous invisible bridal veil reaching all the way back there, and everything else had attached itself to that veil, like burrs.

A person’s moments were joined together like complementary colors: in back of red there would be a flash of greenish Prussian blue, then bluish purple next to bright yellow, green instantly shading into gaudy magenta. The good was framed on both sides by shame and bitter envy.

That was what she had thought sometimes when she had still tried to teach color theory at the school. Whenever a person had time to spare, gossip started up. And if you wanted to hurt someone else’s feelings, that was easy to do.

An Lee had left the school for entirely different employment. The colors had become atmospheric, brief moments of persuasion you had to learn to memorize and use selectively in various ways, in brochures and logos and skillfully colored illuminated signs.

In her present job, there was no longer any need to talk about colors, how they were formed and how they were to be mixed and what color a person’s long shadow should receive in each case ….

 

She had thought she was at the bottom of a river, the stream moving above her, the river bottom heated by the sun against her back and buttocks, the rocks burning marks on her skin ….

 

Toward the end of the evening, when things were winding down, An Lee had already decided to invite a former co-worker who was hanging out by the bar, but then someone had come up to her.

He had asked her if she was a foreigner, but his accent told her that he was one himself. At first, he had spoken French, and An Lee had smiled and told him she didn’t, really, and then he had switched to English. They had started talking. He was easy to talk to, because it wasn’t really necessary to say anything. An Lee had replied to his questions as lightly as they had been asked, and she had asked some questions herself, trying to find out if he had anything in mind or was just babbling to make conversation.

In her mind, An Lee had not considered him particularly interesting. But few men were, and late on a Friday night, she had thought, it was enough if he was even passable in bed. While thinking that, she had looked straight at him and smiled. In such situations, she always felt strangely powerful, it was a feeling she had had before: that smile made one feel in charge, on top, and it was also a kind of revenge in advance, just to be on the safe side.

When the man had started·suggesting, in a circumspect and smoothly polite fashion, that they proceed to some all-night cafe or night club, An Lee had suddenly wanted to scare him.

‘We can’t fuck in a cafe,’ she had said, in English, and loudly enough for other patrons to hear.

The man had blanched. Now An Lee had really smiled, he looked so much like a spaniel, she almost laughed out loud. She had bent down and stroked his cheek and whispered that she was sorry, and his eyes had softened. An Lee had been aware that her face had now assumed its sweet doll-like little girl expression.

‘I’m sorry. I always come up with the wrong word in foreign languages.’

Then he had started burbling away about how he himself on his travels had often made mistakes in interpreting expressions, how he had ordered the wrong dish, or bought two pairs of socks thinking that the package contained a scarf. He had been around. Many countries and nations flashed by in his speech. An Lee had listened and had tried to deconstruct what he was saying.

A little while later, they had left together. An Lee had waited to invite him until they were outside. ‘Lähdetkö minun luo? (Want to come to my place?),’ she had whispered, leaning close.

‘What? What did you say?’

‘Et ymmärrä puhetta vai? (You don’t understand what I’m saying, do you?)’ In this way, she had made sure that the man did not speak Finnish, and then she had explained to him in English that she had just happened to slip into Finnish.

She had said that they could walk together in the same direction. He had kept on talking, but An Lee had not paid much attention to what he said. When they had almost reached her apartment, she had interrupted him by kissing him on the mouth, and then she had told him that he was welcome to visit for a while.

Almost as soon as they had taken off their coats, An Lee had taken a blank Guest Book out of her chest of drawers and asked the man to write something in it, anything at all. He had seemed surprised.

‘Here in the North, every home has one of these. There are so few of us here. And this book is so new that you get a virgin page.’ He had stared at the first perforated page of the book and asked her what one was supposed to write.

‘Oh, anything. Some wish. Something nice,’ An Lee had said and sat down next to him. He had taken out a blue felt tip pen and poised it half an inch above the page. Then he had quickly written, in an attractive, angular hand: ‘I hope we’ll meet again. I really hope! Remember this, my little beautiful An Lee.’ ‘Is this all right?’ he had asked, pointing at the book. An Lee had smiled and nodded and leaned her head against his shoulder.

He had placed the Guest Book on his lap and with his other hand touched her leg above the knee. He had turned to look into her eyes and had assured her that what he had written was absolutely true, that he really wanted to meet her again, perhaps even somewhere else in the world. He had suggested places and countries and had promised to pay her fare. An Lee had smiled the way one had to smile so close to a male.

Very slowly, he had moved his hand up her thigh and had gone on talking in a low voice, naming more places, cities, and distant beaches.

‘So you’ll come, then. And we’ll have time, a lot of time. Everything will be new to you. A whole other world, a better world.’

An Lee had moved a little closer to the edge of the couch. Her skirt had hiked up a little. She had been trembling a little, and the man had noticed and asked her about it.

‘Everybody trembles in Finland, it’s so cold,’ she had said.

The man had put the Guest Book away and had leaned over to French kiss her. His lips had felt hard and chapped. She had suddenly turned her head, but he had thought she wanted him to kiss her neck. He had leaned over to reach the back of her neck and to kiss it, still whispering, just as if he still had to talk her into something.

An Lee had decided to remain totally passive. Sitting on the very edge of the couch, she had felt his breath on her neck. She had heard him marvel at how fair her skin was at the hairline.

‘Lisää vaan (More, more),’ she had whispered back, but in Finnish, so that he wouldn’t understand.

His hand had moved down to her lap, very slowly.

‘Kyllä kohta (Yes, soon): she had whispered.

He had asked her, and she had replied, oh nothing, she had just used the wrong language again. In her underbelly she had begun to feel warmth and desire. The man had stroked her thighs and her lap.

She had raised her buttocks a little to let her skirt rise up to her hips. He had leaned forward and kissed her neck, and she had whispered that it was time to unbutton her blouse and remove the satin halter and fondle her breasts.

‘What, what?’ he had asked.

An Lee had made her usual excuses. She had stretched out on her back on the couch, her feet still on the floor. He had knelt down next to her and started kissing her again, from the neck on down. He had moved the tip of his tongue like a cat when he reached her nipples and navel. She had lain there, motionless, closed her eyes once in a while and whispered to him in Finnish to make him believe that she was responding to his endearments in kind.

It had been strange to utter those words, because the man did not understand a single one; as if in a dream, or in another foreign country, or as if she had woken up in the middle of the night, alone in her own bed, and let her hands descend to her mound, to open her and allow her to stuff the warm flannel hem of her nightgown inside herself, and then had excited herself and moved by herself and spoken words out loud to the night.

‘Riisu itseltäsi kaikki (Take all your clothes off,)’ she had whispered to him.

He had kept on kissing her, down from her belly to the point where she was still covered by crumpled fabric. She had turned a little onto her side to make it easier for him.

‘An Lee,’ he had said.

He had risen to his feet, she had seen him look at her body from top to bottom, and she had been naked except for stockings, the left one down below her knee, the right still halfway down her thigh. He had started undressing, she had understood from his gestures that that was what she wanted.

After he had stripped off his black and white checkered boxer shorts, he had knelt above her.

‘Kiiltomulkku (Shiny prick),’ An Lee had whispered.

‘I love you, too,’ he had whispered back, running the tip of his tongue over her teeth and lips and cheeks.

‘Minä olen ihan valmis (I’m quite ready),’ she had whispered under his caresses, the heat rising into her genitals and cheeks.

‘What?’ he had stopped to ask.

‘Nothing. Kiiltomulkku, kotkanpää (Shiny prick, dickybird),’ she had whispered and smiled when he stared at her up close.

He had kissed her neck again, and her breasts, her nipples had been as hard as buttons, she had felt the soft flesh’ grow taut from her belly, below her belly. She had spread her legs. When he had first touched her there with the tip of his tongue, she had whimpered.

‘Siitä (There),’ she had whispered. The night light had lit up his shoulders, the shadows had formed a large letter on his back.

An Lee had closed her eyes tight and thought about being outside under the open sky, it was raining, droplets were running down over her skin, she was still a girl, the first time, next to the tent’s green arc, the tent pad under her to keep twigs and roots from hurting her.

‘Nai (Fuck me),’ she had whispered, many times, and he had thought she was telling him not to, and had asked her and explained that he had thought she didn’t want to.

‘Yes, yes yes,’ she had replied, thinking he was stupid to have such doubts.

‘Nai! (Fuck me!),’ she had said in a loud voice and grabbed his equipment. He had stroked her fingers, she had squeezed his fingers and below his fingers the empty space between his balls, so hard that he had shifted a little.

Then she felt the circle of his fingers as he helped himself inside the initially narrow passage. After that she had felt the motion, harder than flesh, a motion felt in her pelvis and cunt and ass all at once.

‘Nyt. Siitä! (Now. There!),’ she had whispered and shouted, she had commanded him and spread out even deeper below him and wrapped one leg around his back and the other almost over his shoulder. He had risen to a half-standing position and fucked her from above, putting his weight behind it. She had shouted and uttered words below him and told him not to come yet even though she already was coming, and he had panted and white pearls of drool had gleamed in the comers of his mouth. She had screamed under him with complete abandon. The heat had spread over her interior walls for a long time, the man had moved his weight on top of her. She had heard herself howling like an animal, and uttering words, and the couch cover had been a messy rope somewhere under her, and the couch had slid up against the wall and pounded the wallpaper like a drum.

Then she had just lain there for a long time, her skin completely wet. She had held her arms tight against her sides to prevent the smell of sweat from coming through her perfume, and to keep him from seeing the mark on her skin. Her pubic hair had been matted.

The man’s hand had still been down there, because he had ended up making her climax once more, quickly, and the gradients of that time had been so steep than she had no longer been able to distinguish his fingers from his penis. It had just felt, for a moment, as if she had been falling, through the couch, through the sweaty blue, purple, black as death, and she had squeezed her eyes shut with her other hand, so hard that it had hurt.

She led him to the bathroom to get rid of the smell of his sweat. They had stood in the shower together, facing each other. She had licked his forehead, he was such a short fellow, and she had already been thinking of her own Guest Book entry for the evening: little sawed-off, sweaty guy, wilted winy.

The water from the shower had splashed over her face and body. She had gone down on her knees to coax his flaccid penis back up, then turned around and offered him her backside.

He had barely managed it, but they had fucked doggy-style on the bathroom tiles, and then An Lee had not been able to concentrate, did not really feel like it anymore, and she had gotten up before he had been able to come. He had stayed there for a moment on his knees, looking a little nonplussed, his stubby penis stilt erect and tilted to the left.

An Lee had picked up the shampoo bottle and without further explanations shampooed her abdomen and then stepped into the shower rinsing herself off carefully. She had walked into the hall and dried herself there with a towel.

The man had followed her soon. An Lee had fetched another towel from the linen closet.

‘And now it’s bedtime for girls,’ she had said, in English, putting on a little smile. The man had started hinting around about staying the night, but An Lee had pretended not to understand and talked about calling a cab.

After he had put his clothes back on, he had stood there in the hall and tried to arrange another date, here, or somewhere abroad. He had told her he would call her every single day, no matter where on this globe he would be.

‘I love you, An Lee, I love you, An Lee,’ he had kept saying.

She had told him she did not want him to call her from anywhere at all, but he had continued his protestations.

At first, she had nodded and made conciliatory noises, but when the man just kept on talking while stroking her cheek or her wet hair and trying to kiss her and gone on about his love for her, she had become angry. All of a sudden, she just wanted to get rid of him as quickly as possible. ‘Silkkimuna, sivuruikku! (Puffball, limpdick!): she had said in Finnish, so loudly and in such a different voice that the man had stopped babbling.

‘What? What?’

That was all he had seemed to be able to say anymore. An Lee had opened the front door of her apartment. The man had bent down to tie the laces of his dress shoe. When he was done, An Lee stepped aside to prevent him from fondling her anymore. He had walked through the door, but had rung the doorbell almost immediately. An Lee had asked him what he wanted, without opening the door again.

‘Don’t forget, I love you, An Lee, I’ll call you,’ he had started insisting, speaking through the mail slot. An Lfe had leaned against the wall, trying to find words to convey to him, by shouting through the closed door, that he had already lost her.

‘An Lee, I love you so.’

‘Painu helvettiin! (Go to hell!),’ An Lee had yelled back in an upsurge of fury. It had seemed as if everything around her was on fire, she no longer cared about anything. She had started yelling Finnish expletives at him, unable to stop herself even though she had been aware the noise was waking up her neighbors and causing them to open their doors.

‘I love you!’ the man had shouted through the mail slot.

‘Silkkiuikku! (Puffdick!),’ An Lee had shouted back.

She had heard her neighbors ask questions, and had shouted back to them explaining that some heavy breather had appeared at her door after making several phone calls.

‘An Lee, tell these people!’ The man had begged her to explain the situation to the neighbors and to open the door. Every so often he had raised the metal lid of the mail slot to make himself heard better. He had tried to explain both to her and to the neighbors on the landing that this was some horrible misunderstanding.

An Lee had looked at his fingertips showing through the mail slot, and just as the man had been raising the lid again, she had kicked it shut from inside. The man had pulled his hand back with a loud yelp. An Lee had shouted that she would call the police if he did not leave this very instant.

More neighbors had congregated. She had heard their voices, and the man’s voice, still trying to explain, but it seemed as if he was already on his way to the elevator. It had sounded as if someone had been shoving him along, and he had tried to protest his innocence, there had been some kind of mistake. He had complained in precisely the way a poor misunderstood male always complained to others.

‘Goddamn jerk tries to break up the place: she heard a neighbor say after the elevator grille had slammed shut with unnecessary force.

They had stood on the landing, calling the man a miserable creep.

‘Ought to wipe the floor with assholes like that.’

‘Jackoff, comes and looks through a woman’s letterbox.’

Then it had been quiet for a while. Someone had walked over to the window to make sure that the man was walking off toward the City center. A neighbor had knocked on her door.

‘Is everything all right? Don’t you worry now. The creep’s gone now.’ ‘Thank you for your help,’ An Lee had said, adding that she did not want to open the door because she was already in her nightie and had been asleep when the man showed up.

‘Incredible noise, for at least an hour,’ someone else had said, farther away. And that had been it, then, except for the sound of people locking their doors.

An Lee had turned quickly and walked away from the door. She had been shaking after all the shouting and anger, the talk and her own words had reverberated in her head, she had felt hot and incredibly cold at the same time. She had gone to the bathroom and rinsed her face. Her throat was constricted with rising tears.

She had leaned her forehead against the mirror, the glass had felt cold through her hair. If she had struck it with her first, it would have shattered, but it would not have shattered entirely. If it had shattered, it would have shattered the way a windshield does, with the crumbs of glass still hanging inside the frame. She had noticed thinking about something like that in her past, had remembered how a windshield breaks, she had watched someone shatter one with a brick.

Out loud, she had commanded herself not to cry. The mirror had showed her red splotches appearing on her forehead and neck. ‘No, absolutely not,’ she had said, and she had not cried but dried her face with the towel.

She had gone to pick up the Guest Book, and while doing so, she had already known how everything would continue and change, because those two actions were now the same.

She had transferred that Friday night’s page to another folder, dated it, and under the man’s sickeningly sweet ‘my little beautiful An Lee’ she had quickly scrawled her own brief endorsement.

Then she had gone to the living room, pulled off the tangled couch cover, bundled it up and stuck it in the washer.

 

In the morning, things had felt diminished, as if intervening darkness and sleep had trimmed away all superfluity. An Lee had opened the window, and while the place was airing out she had taken care of her ablutions and removed the couch cover from the dryer. Since it was not particularly wrinkled, she stretched it back over the couch without bothering to iron it.

She had gone back to bed and pulled the covers up under her chin for a moment and thought about the shape of the day.

A good day, she had thought. It had to be a good day, she was able to decide that on her own.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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