Big-city blues

30 September 2005 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Beige. Eroottinen kesä Helsingissä (‘Beige. An erotic summer in Helsinki’, Sammakko, 2005). Introduction by Tuva Korsström

Helsinki starts – where? Where a country girl will wear white corduroy pants if she’s eight and her pen pal tells her to. Where you’re allowed to jump in at the public swimming pool, and water splashes in your face no matter what you do, and it’s a long way to the bottom, you can’t touch. Unreal. That’s what Helsinki was like. Buildings that you recognized from pictures. A city where pictures were the starting point of your life, not experience. You step into the picture and begin your life. The step takes a long time. An entire youth. The first few days go well. You’re a tourist. The crowd of anonymous, noisy people is relaxed, you feel uninhibited. Nobody pays any attention to you. Then you start to want to feel. To talk. To say hi to somebody. The waiting begins, and there’s nothing you can do to speed it up. You have to live in the city. Ten years and you’re in, maybe, a little. Be there. Stay. You’ll circulate around the triangle formed by Sokos, Stockmann, and Forum department stores. They’re familiar from pictures, you’re wary of the others. The streetcar home. Home and downtown. The city. The lanes. Conduits. Lights. Trams. Taxis. Buses. The first negro. The first stop at a traffic light. The yellow stone building. The colorful cottages at the foot of the bridge. Miniature houses, where city people can experience the countryside in concentrated form. Like they experience everything else: work, love, summer. Tram number six, on its way to the entrance exam for the school of art and design, rumbles over the bridge to meet the bus. On the tram the earnest, anxious, hungry eyes of art students peer past the chocolate bar ad on the window to the geology department’s weather balloon and from there to the horizon, fearing the dawning of the day, the feedback from stage rehearsals, sculptures, dress designs, fearing the slim Doctor of Arts, dressed in black, who gives forth his all explaining art movements – the level of ideas – and leaves out the fact that you artist types are too educated for this country and many of you will end up spending your life working for the postal service. The doctor doesn’t thank them, he doesn’t goad them. He demands more. Extra. He himself is empty, poured onto a canvas. He is a large-canvas man, who painted miniatures when he was in financial straits. Once again he digs into his credit-cardless wallet and resolves that this is the last time he’ll borrow the money for a cup of coffee. He accepts an offer for a five-year contract. He’s perversely abstract and has difficulty talking about tangible things. The more the students’ knowledge increases, the more uncertain they become. Not about the world, but about themselves.

Helsinki was almost familiar. A woman on the street with a shopping bag and a cigarette in her hand. I watched the woman and I was her. I was on the street, with a serious face, sucking on a cigarette, in my other hand a big paper bag filled with items especially suited to my lifestyle: tops, shoes, salad greens. I had a credit card and an unwavering point of view on how to cross the street. I was a little bored with this everydayness, the sameness of every situation. Bored with my hairstyle, which I planned to dye a deeper mahogany, with my husband, whom I waited for at the corner in front of Sokos, who looked at magazine covers with more interest than he looked at me. I pondered whether to buy the beige earrings but decided against it because fine women wear precious metals, and I thought even more about how my every intention was followed by a thought that overturned that intention, so that my thought and action didn’t form a chain, but an intractable state of conflict, in which my thoughts battled each other and nothing changed. The light turned green, I dropped my cigarette into the street. When a car tire sweeps it into the stormdrain there will be nothing to tell that I walked on this street, except for that girl looking at me from the bus.

I wanted to stay on the bus. To fall asleep there. Unto, the driver, told me to get off. Would he let me stay if I suggested doing it on the back seat? I blushed and walked out, clumsily of course, bear-like. This must be where they pick up the shipments to the zoo. At the station a blast of air blew up under my clothes and stayed there. It’s always cold in Helsinki, skin covered in goosebumps and hair standing on end. But everybody dresses lightly any-way, even in the winter. They don’t even wear hats. A scarf on your head might mess up your shine-serum hairdo. The curl glued to your temple might point in the wrong direction. Guys leave girls like that, and what would your girlfriends say? Only Italian tourists wear wool hats, scarves, or quilted jackets.

After I left the bus station I didn’t know where I was. I saw a mass of people. I joined the group. I stopped on red and walked on green. The mass dispersed. I gave my address to a taxi driver. The taxi backed up to my door. The ride cost one euro on top of the base fare. I had walked to the right part of town. The taxi stop was in front of my house.

‘You couldn’t have told me that the house was right next door?’

The driver didn’t answer. Something provincial had come out of my mouth. Words had come out of my mouth. Apparently that was forbidden in Helsinki unless the sentence contained the words ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Finnish’. You weren’t allowed to be Finnish in Helsinki. You should just go to a party there, although after the New York gig you’d hardly have time. Your primary residence was in Berlin, or London.

I didn’t understand Helsinki. You couldn’t take it in courses, you had to take it all in at once. It was too much city for me. I wanted to take cover. The stairwell was cool, the floor was gray, waxed stone. I lived on the ground floor, I had a key in the front pocket of my backpack. The door was brown wood, maybe oak or cherry, the mail slot had the name of the person who had lived there before. Advertising flyers in the little entryway. Frozen food and deli items this week. The walls had just been painted white. The bed, desk and table had been moved to the middle of the room. Trampled newspapers on the floor. Outside the window a homey courtyard, kids from the daycare playing. It was fun watching their tumult from the windowsill, which was wide enough to sit on. There was no shower. I could go to the gym, or maybe there was a shower at the library. I had rented a one-room apartment. My father’s aunt had lived there as a child.

I pulled the bed under the window and lay down on it. The sky was blue and cloudy, you could lay down anywhere and the view was the same, ordinary and extraordinary all at once. I felt relieved. The obligatory time spent with the people back in Hiekkakylä was over. Sandtown. Never again. From now on I would decide for myself what my life would be like and what I would be like in it. Suddenly, at the same instant, the solitude started to bother me. I tried to remember Late, the tech student, and put my hand down my pants. His image had faded. I kept on looking outside and tried to fall asleep, but the thought came to me that someone could see me. Although nobody could. Yes they can, a voice inside me insisted. Yahweh or Allah, for instance. I was embarrassed.

I coughed, got up and got on with my evening; cleaning the floor, moving the furniture, going to the store, making coffee, stuff like that. And I closed the curtains so no one could see me. I didn’t think about it. No.

Through some acquaintances of my dad I got a summer job at a branch library. The library was a low-roofed, brick building. It had once been a store. I got off the bus in front of the library and stared at the display window. The Missing Scream; a collage in mixed media said a label taped to the window. Behind the glass was a finger-painting, stick men with their mouths open. The work was created by the fine arts club: Anni, Pete and Jonttu, it said in big letters underneath.

I went to the side door, turned the latch and slipped down the stairs. I opened my metal locker, hung my backpack on the hook and put my sandals on the floor. I locked the door and pushed the key into my pocket, where it just barely fit. The key had left an imprint in my thigh the day before. You could have made a copy from it. The windowless, yellow brick breakroom smelled of coffee. I took a mug from the cupboard and filled it with water. There was pink lipstick on the rim of the mug. Irkku washed the mugs by rinsing them under the tap. A poorly washed coffee mug was the library’s greatest excitement. I decorated the mug with a ribbon of dishsoap and scrubbed it clean. A spiral staircase, which is usually a symbol of depression or suicide, carried me up to the library proper. In the back room the librarian, Arhippa Pantzar, noted my arrival time in his notebook: 8:20. I had, in my first week, according to the marks in Pantzar’s book, arrived once at 8:32 and once even as late as 8:37. I was making the time up, because my shift began at exactly 8:30. On some mornings I was already shelving the sticky-covered, heavy books by 8:24, but overtime wasn’t deductible and time spent washing dishes in the breakroom couldn’t be taken out of your hours.

‘Morning,’ I mumbled. I spread a Sandtown state of mind around me: staring, obsessing over personal relationships, seeing normal things in a weird light. I stepped stiffly into the library. It was my first time in my body and I didn’t yet know how to walk with it. Today it was my turn to sit at the return desk. There was one chair at returns and two at checkout. The fourth staff member’s job was to give information to the patrons, take care of the magazine section and arrange the childrens’ department and the general stacks. The propeller-heads caused the most work. A propeller-head walks around with Uganda Since Independence under his arm, then picks up Rocks and Minerals, but when he gets to the history shelves he gets another idea and decides to start his general studies project on the Homeland, and grabs some Helsinki history, three heavy editions, and shoves the previous books into an empty space on the religion shelves. When he lines up at the checkout desk the propeller-head sees someone bringing a detective novel to the return desk. This gets him thinking. Why should a propeller-head spend his vacation reading heavier books than other people read? ‘Can I leave this here?’ he asks without waiting for an answer, and departs with a bag full of mysteries. The majority of customers are propeller-heads.

Because the library wasn’t open yet, I was helping Atte and Irkku with the shelving. The most requested books were put on the express shelf: Danielle Steel, Enni Mustonen, and Reino Lehväslaiho. They weren’t even put in alphabetical order. I turned the last book on its side, lined up the row, and pushed the books in place. There has to be a couple of centimeters of space left. If the books are packed too tight, it’s hard to browse through them. I thought about getting a spray bottle and rag and scrubbing the children’s books, but Pantzar told me to go to the kiosk and buy the afternoon newspapers. The library has an account there. When I came back, the library was open. Irkku sat at returns and Atte at checkout. Mirja sat spreadlegged at the corner of the counter. Mirja was Pantzar’s wife. She was on maternity leave, but she spent her time hanging around the library with her baby. I would have liked to have my spot at returns, but I couldn’t bring myself to put on airs by pointing out that it was my day to work there. It was Irkku’s turn to be at information, where you have to get up and fetch books from all over the library, shelve books, and bag the books to be returned to other libraries in brown paper bags. Irkku isn’t fond of walking.

I put all the magazines from the last two weeks into their little cupboards, stacked chronologically. I kept my eye on the outer door. When the door opened I blushed and checked my pose reflected in the display window. I was disappointed when I saw that the person coming in was a woman. I’d never make it to the end of the workday. I wanted to stretch out on the floor of the library. Things would work themselves out while I was asleep. I longed for the man with the sailboat. The divorced forty-year-old had repented letting me go. He woke up in the middle of the night to the vivid realisation of the truth. Have I been an idiot again? He had driven through the streets in the pouring rain looking for the right address. The house had been torn down, like in a horror movie. With his hair all wet, the man had found my father at the motel. He had to smack him to get my address. Unable to eat or drink, he drove to the city and visited every single branch library. He just had to see me, had to have me. He would come today, before the day was half over. He would insist that I leave work with him, then park his car on the side of the road, and tear my pants off.

I stayed downtown after work. With money I could be part of Helsinki. I grabbed sweaters, bags, creams, jewelry sold on the street. Things. They were a piece of the city, by buying them I got part of Helsinki for myself. Women were alone in the department stores. They moved with focus, just once forgetting for a moment, their thoughts confined to the offers on display in the women’s department, ready to say yes. In the department store I was in balance. There were no men there, and if there were, I forgot about them. I bought everything. A coat, although it was summer. Short dresses, that looked big on the hanger, but wouldn’t go over my shoulders once I got them home. I had the urge to go shopping on Monday, too, and every day after work. I shut my eyes to the fact that my money was running out. I waited for the bus to go past the shops, but it stopped on Mannerheimintie street. The department store mannequins dressed in spring clothes ordered me to get off the bus, fill out a form for an easily approved store credit card, transfer the contents of the display window to my closet, and go into debt. The spending was followed by a bad feeling. Sinful. At home I pushed the door closed. Checked to make sure it was locked. Trusting the wall in the entryway, I leaned my back against it and slid to the floor. Downtown was an engine, a big machine that I had been run through. I was flattened by the noise, by the people for whom I was made to be a mirror. When they looked at people, they wanted to see what they were themselves. They were disappointed when they saw someone like me, because I didn’t correspond to their image of themselves.

No one entered my life. No one entered me. After my exams I had drifted into different sidetracks: the divorced man’s sailboat, the branch library, my spinster’s one-room apartment. The core of life rejected me. I desperately wanted to be. It was too much to ask in my position. I looked out the window: there was no man anywhere. I wanted a man who would be a little older. He would know everything and I could just be. A man should be a like dry island pine or a tundra birch, a little stunted to contrast with my vigour and youth. The kind of man who would appreciate a healthy woman. For him it would be wonderful to sink into soft flesh instead of the sharp bones of a swimsuit model. A Saami would be good, someone whose mouth would reach my breasts. His thing would be enormous, he would have eaten reindeer all his life and his tool would have developed into an oversized freak of nature, and he would be able to keep it up without ever tiring, and it would change into a reindeer, a wolverine, a bear, a wolf.

My new summer pants were as roomy as a skirt. Great quantities of fabric swirled around me like a snowdrift, like washed bedlinen rumpled by the wind. Eyeing my backside as I sat down at Pantzar’s housewarming, I had noticed that my underwear showed through the white fabric. I didn’t move from my place. The situation was awkward, because I couldn’t get any food from the table. The continual ladling of drinks caused a bathroom emergency. On top of everything Pantzar and Mirja were kissing. It was some kind of performance. They slipped some tongue in, too. The general effect was like being on a playground where the children are proud of their toys. Although I understood that they were using the kiss to shift attention momentarily from the crisis in their marriage, my stomach started to hurt. I suspected I might be getting an ulcer. Irkku grasped my hand. She avowed that the library wouldn’t make it through the summer without me. They wouldn’t be able get another assistant soon enough. They had me lie down on the sofa. Myself, I couldn’t think of anything but going to the bathroom. I concentrated on holding it. I stared at Pantzar’s home. I imagined myself in it.

Mirja was a woman who had the best of everything. A wonderful home, child, and husband, a faithful provider. The suburb of Vuosaari was the best area in Helsinki. The shore was left empty, like in Greece. There was just the roof of a Chekhovian villa hidden in the birches, and even that belonged to a café where they served lentil soup and tea for five euros. They had their long Sundays, afternoons that seemed to never end. Or maybe their house wasn’t so fine. The windows didn’t let any light in, they were built more for the weather than for enjoyment. Peepholes – that was the only word for them. The walls were grayish-white, not gray or white, but a mixture of the two, like limestone. A prayer from a loudspeaker was all the place needed to complete the resemblance to Tehran. Limestone city. You could touch the ceiling with your fingertips if you jumped. In a certain evening light, the former tenants’ fingerprints could be seen on the white door of the closet. The bathroom, built in the middle of the house, was a windowless space with a blue mat, exuding constant moisture. Pastel apartment houses arose from nothingness overnight, houses that looked alike, so that after you left it was impossible to say what color their house was. Downtown, the bus driver had said to me, ‘Mozambique Avenue?‚

It was put down as racist downtown, but I understood the humor. In the city core it was easy to open up the borders, to speak civilly and be broadminded. You never saw blacks there except for janitors, and they did their work so early in the morning that the academics were still asleep. The internationalization of Finland was happening in Vuosaari, where a policeman from Rovaniemi, a Somali single parent, an Ingrian family, a schizophrenic lesbian couple with a German shepherd, a graphic designer who had gone bankrupt, a former rockstar, and a writer all lived in the same building. Cockroaches were coming up through the floor from downstairs into the Pantzars’ apartment. Mirja reported the problem anonymously, and the building was fumigated, but they kept showing up, one at a time. A gumptious cockroach would scamper across the white plastic mat and Mirja would put an upside-down coffee mug over it and then be afraid to pick it up again, and when she did pick it up, the cockroach would wriggle forward and hasten on its way. Mirja lay awake nights, checked the baby’s bed to make sure there were no cockroaches there, bustled around, fumbling for her glasses and checking the floor, the corners, the bedclothes, the kitchen, as if she had heard a scratching, but there was nothing there, but then there was something there as soon as she forgot about the whole thing.
The others went out onto the balcony, and I quickly got up. I went to the bathroom and tied my sweater around my waist to cover my see-through pants. Pantzar was just getting a drink from the fridge, when he noticed that the sofa was empty.

‘You’re not leaving yet, are you?’ he asked.

You’re not leaving yet, are you. The question was asked without thinking. It came straight from Pantzar’s anxiousness to continue the housewarming without me. His eyebrows went up like a drawbridge. I blushed. I promised to be alright by Monday. Pantzar was already ashamed of his unguarded remark. I hurried to the metro. The bright orange of the train reflected off my pants like the Big Bang. Three teenage boys were making a racket in the subway car. They were proud of their sexual experiences. They were growing black mustaches and talking with grown men’s voices. I didn’t understand the language. I saw them through a brown lens. The color grabbed me. I avoided looking at my reflection in the window.

Some Russian girls were playing around on the jungle gym. They were fat, laughing and making a lot of noise. They didn’t kick the swing into motion and then look at their pose from the outside. The light of the June evening, the old-fashioned playground, a few unhurried hours were enough for them. When an angry middle-aged auntie who was keeping her eye on them from the window, upset by their vitality, told them that big kids should find some other place to spend their time, the girls shrugged their shoulders and giggled. They weren’t giving in to the bad temper of somebody they didn’t know.

I pulled the curtains closed. The sleeve of my blouse was torn at the biceps. I stuffed the shirt in the trash basket and hid myself under a blanket. I was living like a tiny particle in Helsinki, in secret. No one would notice I lived there.

Translated by Lola Rogers