Country Fiction

The serious Finn who said little in company but a lot in private and cackled like a wanton hag wasn’t the love of my life.

Yet even now, two decades later, when I look at the single photograph of her, something in me comes alive again. I prop up the picture on my desk, between the radio and the pot with the wax flower plant. The plant is an offshoot of the one my grandmother brought from Viipuri in 1944, before the Russians stole her city. On a visit back to Finland, I snipped off two leaves from the sinewy vines, which had taken over my parents’ dining room since my grandmother’s death. I stashed the leaves within the pages of volume two of Väinö Linna’s epic Under the North Star, the trilogy of the Finnish civil war. On the plane, I checked “No” in response to the Customs Declaration Form’s question of whether I was bringing live plants or agricultural products to the United States. In Finnish, the word for “leaf” applies both to the leaves of books as well as to the leaves of plants; it was the kind of delicious linguistic tidbit that the Finn and I used to relish together.

The Finn’s serious blue eyes look out of the photograph, taken not in New York but on the southwest coast of Finland near my family’s summer cottage.

It was surprising how many near-clones of the Finn I found following her departure. On Broadway, a soaring woman with big hair turning at the curb to check for traffic: her face undulating at the end of the woman’s long stalk. A crooked Ukrainian grandmother pushing a cart of parcels down the avenue: she in thirty years. The man behind the liquor store counter, ethnic background unknown, wisps of beard on his pointed chin: the chin like hers. The set of his lips as he focused, all her. Once in a while, I even went so far as to reach out and touch the sleeve or shoulder of someone I believed was her, always to encounter the face of a stranger.

On the radio, a neurosurgeon being interviewed tells listeners that he has discovered, by placing electrodes on people’s brains, that certain neurons light up when a person silently names an object to herself, but not, for instance, when reading the name of that object. The reverse is also true: some neurons only awaken when reading. In one bilingual patient, he found neurons that lit up when the patient was stimulated in Finnish but remained dormant when she was offered English.

I look at the Finn’s photograph. What would I say if we were to ever meet again—you manipulative little slime-mushroom; you crafty, passive-aggressive, thick-neck stevedore, in English; or perhaps, after all, in Finnish, the spouse of my golden days, my last and best bride?

After all these years, my thoughts go to her as if to a summer fair: it’s Sunday, the streets are empty, scraps of refuse spin lazily at the sewer’s mouth, a beer bottle from the night before lies in shards on the asphalt. The sun is at its zenith. I step around the corner, toward her, and all of a sudden harmonicas are playing—Anttila’s Spring Fever song, Anttilan keväthuumaus, juokse sinä humma kun tuo taivas on niin tumma, and stalls are bursting with t-shirts and fairground trinkets and tin-foil-and-hay yo-yo balls in every color, and people are full of joy and hope and dressed in their spring finest. I open my eyes, and I am in New York.

* * *

We met twenty-one years ago this fall, in 1995, after I had just moved in with Mare, my all-American girlfriend whom I’d met at college in Michigan. It was through Mare that I learned about America—to interpret its humor, analyze its politics, and understand its customs. It was Mare who explained the jokes on SNL until I got them on my own, Mare who taught me to make tuna casserole and cheeseballs, Mare who laughed at my earnest Finnish adherence to rules like not crossing the street on red.

Mare and I were still in the process of falling in love when I moved to New York, and I returned to Michigan as often as I could to complement our long-distance phone calls. Falling in love with her, I fell in love with America.

Imagine a midwestern midnight. You have just made love.

In the aromatic night, you open the door of her pickup, start the engine, roll down the windows, and drive down a deserted highway. The smooth road hums beneath your wheels, and far away, beyond the fields, the lights of the city glow and all around you the meadows sigh in the fragrant dark.

That’s what it was like, in Mare’s America. In our America.

When Mare followed me to New York, she moved in with me to the apartment above the Indian restaurant, where in the mornings we woke to the smell of food preparation from the restaurant below. The smells reached our apartment all day long from both above and below; we were sandwiched between the restaurant and the apartment, where the kitchen staff bunked as well as fried the day’s onions.

Mare and I were still new, and we made love incessantly; in the morning, before showering or after it, before lunch or after it, instead of dinner, upon going to bed. Sex eat sleep, sex eat sleep.

To celebrate the joining of our single lives, we threw a housewarming party in our apartment and invited everyone we knew.

We were receiving our guests in what we called our “third room,” a tiny square of hallway that was all doors and almost no wall surface, the doors leading to the bedroom, living room, bathroom, kitchen, two closets, and out of the apartment itself. Between the bedroom and living room stood a narrow telephone stand—back then we still used an apparatus plugged into the wall, along with an answering machine, the technological advancement of the day.

The small apartment was full of the chatter of our two dozen guests, and we didn’t hear the telephone. The volume on the answering machine had been turned up though, perhaps by the accidental brush of someone’s sleeve. All of a sudden, right behind me, a voice I did not recognize sputtered out of the speaker. “Hello? Hello?” it said, over Ella Fitzgerald on the phonograph.

The accent was pared down, a sans serif of dialects, and the speaker’s gender ambiguous. Everyone hushed and turned to stare at the machine, which issued a dense hum and garbled breathing. “I am outside,” the voice said. A harsh click concluded the message.

Mare rushed downstairs and returned with a woman in her mid-to-late thirties in what used to be called a man’s suit jacket but is now increasingly only called “a suit jacket.” She was solidly built, her sparse hair thrusting forth like rairuoho, the Easter grass we grew in square vats all through Finnish grade school. As soon as I saw the face above the turned-up collar and the thin, fine hair, I recognized a fellow Finn.

Mare bounced on her heels and wrung her hands with excitement—she had landed on something special, introducing two fellow Finns to each other in a foreign country. She looked from me to the Finn and back, witness to this reunion of compatriots, as the woman and I made our way through halting introductions.

I had immersed myself into America so fully, succumbing to its soft, rolling English with such abandon, that encountering someone from my country of origin felt like a kind of violation. I hadn’t been to Finland in eight years, almost never spoke the language in New York, and considered myself fully integrated. I had long since stopped checking American tree trunks for authenticity, scratching with my nail to see whether it left a mark, as I had done during my first year. I had seen the leaves of the trees grow and fall and grow again, had missed their green shadows in the desolation of winter. I was here. This was real. Finland was a souvenir.

I had no interest in immigrant nostalgia or fresh news from the home front, so when Mare left the two of us to talk—“You must have so much to share,” she said as she went—the timbre of the evening changed and a heaviness settled over me.

The Finn stood silent, as all around us others resumed their conversations and Ella moved on to “Mack the Knife.”

In eschewing small talk, Finland as a nation seems unparalleled, but my Americanization demanded I at least attempt to draw out this guest, whose eyes seemed the only live part of her— they darted around and studiously avoided mine.

On my initiative, we disposed of talk of the weather (unseasonably hot), the date of and reason for her arrival in New York (two weeks ago; visiting scholar) and the expected duration of her stay (eight months).

What about you, she asked. “Entä sä?”

The language felt terse and blunt in comparison with the warm bath of English. “What about me?” I asked.

“How often do you go back?” Her eyes finally found mine.

“I don’t.” I used the consonant ‘k’ like a weapon: En mä käy.

She asked where I was from, as if that might explain my lack of travel. Out of a habit that predated my immigration, I hesitated. “The southwest. Near Turku.”

In Finland, the Turku region, for both its coarse dialect and inward identity, is the New Jersey of America, or the Cork of Ireland. It is an affiliation one utters with both pride and chagrin. 

There is no other word for the Finn’s reaction—she cackled.

Here we go, I thought. Whenever I mentioned the town of my birth to an American, the response was pleasingly ignorant. Whenever I mentioned it to a fellow Finn, depending on the expat’s own status in the hierarchy of Finnish geography, the response alternated between delight if the person hailed from the same region, or amused tolerance, if they did not, as in You’re from Turku and you admit it?

“Originally, my family is Karelian,” I hastened to amend.

“Mine too,” she said. “Grandmother. Paternal.”

Karelian ancestry was a genuine matter of pride. Karelians had been ejected from southeast Finland by the Soviets and resettled all over Finland during and after the Second World War. Few things could make a Finn tear up, but Lost Karelia was one.

“Grandmother, grandfather, both maternal,” I replied. “Mikä maa, isänmaa, mikä isä, taivaanisä…” Which land, fatherland, which father, heavenly father. It was the beginning of a ditty I had learned from my grandmother, who’d had a lyric or saying for every occasion.

“…mikä taivas, enkelitaivas,” the Finn said—which heaven, angel heaven.

This was an improvement over the conversations I had endured with other expatriate Finns with whom I’d attempted to socialize. Their first questions, invariably, addressed marital status. Ootsä naimisis—are you married—or, Onks sul mies—do you have a man. And: Onks sul lapsii—any children?

As we talked, it transpired we had both spent childhood summers on the same southwestern coast, mere miles apart. Even in Finland I’d never met anyone who had seen those secluded shores, and here I was, in Manhattan, speaking to someone who knew the name of the woman who operated the summer grocery near my family’s cottage; who had, as I had, trespassed to climb to the top of the abandoned lighthouse on Työkinkari; and who could name the two unmarked dirt roads that forked at the base of the village.

A vein opened and I saw her already sailing toward me.

Mare, returning to check up on her experiment, saw it too, and for a moment, her face registered something besides excitement. She self-corrected, but doubt remained in her eyes from that moment on, whenever she and I saw the Finn.

For the first time since arriving in America I felt my two worlds, the past and the present, coming together. As the Finn and I conversed in Finnish, Mare came up behind me every now and then, placing her hands on my hips and standing silently while she listened to the language she couldn’t understand. My body responded to the warmth of her hands, but my mind was beguiled by the mosaic of memories conjured by the Finn: of the northern sky over the archipelago, of a fox in winter, of lingonberries in September, of thieving seagulls snatching custards out of children’s hands, of Karelian grandmothers dyeing Easter eggs with onion peels. Every one of these things I had forgotten. 

* * *

A week after the party, Mare and I were having dinner at the Indian restaurant below our apartment.

“Chicken Vindaloo,” we said in unison to the waiter.

“Oh no, it is too spicy,” he said.

“We like spicy.”

The waiter and the sweaty chef snickered behind the counter as we ate. The dish really was too hot, but we couldn’t give up in front of the two men and emptied our plates with the help of water and mango lassi. Mare looked at me with tears in her eyes and stuck her tongue out to air it, and I thought she was almost unbearably seductive.

Afterwards, on the red door of our pre-war building, we discovered a handwritten note, unsigned and addressed to no one.

CAME BY 19.47. TRY AGAIN LATER

I knew right away who had left it. Only a Finn’s ingrained discretion would reach such heights as to not only omit the names of the note’s recipients (for reasons of privacy and/or uncertainty regarding correct spelling) as well as the note writer’s own name (out of a shyness solidified into determined awkwardness), but also to insist, in the face of overwhelming American practice, on expressing the time of day in what in Finland was known as the European format. The Finn had recorded her precise moment of arrival.

Mare took the note. “Is that military time?”

“No, real time.” I meant it as a wry sort of joke—too real was what I meant. Since the party, I had felt a new low-grade stress that I linked to the Finn. Seeing the note made me realize I did not want to see her again. 

Mare pulled me upstairs. We exchanged curry kisses in the third room, and later, when her vindaloo tongue flickered down me, I moaned out loud—it was as if she were wielding an ember.

The doorbell rang.

Mare raised her head. I pushed it back as the heat spread through my tissues. I thrashed in spectacular pain and came faster than ever. We switched positions on the fly, and I thought: Jaettu ilo, kaksinkertainen ilo, a Finnish saying that meant “shared joy, double joy,” and fell into Mare’s silky surfaces as she gripped the sheet with both hands and the doorbell rang over and over.

Over the course of the night, after the buzzer had fallen silent, the stomach cramps began, and in the morning after a cup of coffee, my entire digestive system was dragged over live coals as the last burning kiss of vindaloo left my body.

* * *

The next evening, the doorbell rang again, and this time Mare answered.

I was in the shower when I heard the Finn’s voice and, darting through the hallway into the bedroom in a towel, I saw Mare and the Finn sitting across from each other at the kitchen table.

After I had dressed I joined them, leaning against the gas range on the slanting, chessboard-patterned linoleum while the two of them chatted about university life. I did not interrupt but occupied myself with preparing the next day’s work lunch—boiling an egg and washing salad ingredients as though we did not have a visitor. The whole time I was aware of being observed, taken in, by the Finn. I felt a growing aversion—the Finn was so Finnish—shy yet jaunty, sitting there like that—as if she had a special right to be there, to show up uninvited and sit down at our table. A bit rude, a bit of a redneck…The formula of my love life: two thimblefuls of distaste, one brimming with attraction.

Mare rose and suggested drinks at the corner bar. In my confusion, I forgot to remove the egg from the gas. Half an hour later, returning for cigarettes, I smelled the fumes from the door. In the smoky kitchen, the blackened kettle was doing a jig on the stove, a pea-sized coal hopping on the reacted aluminum.

The apartment stank for days after her visit.

* * *

The Finn affixed many notes on our red door that fall and winter, swiping curled-up scraps of tape from fliers posted on the payphone, always noting her arrival to the minute and in four digits.

We took her on as a friend but fought about her from the start. Though at first it was I who did not want her with us—because of the invasion of another Finn in my self-made universe—later it was Mare, because of the threat she perceived. The Finn rang the buzzer, we offered her a bed to sleep in and coffee in the morning. When I opened the door for her, she often said nothing and merely glanced at me as she walked in and deposited her backpack in the hallway. Without waiting for encouragement, she strode into the bedroom, the living room, or the kitchen, where she always sat down in Mare’s chair, even after she had been to our apartment half a dozen times and knew for certain whose chair she was lowering her rear onto.

She reminded me of my grandmother, behaving as though she were an unwilling side character even at her own birthday party while never ceasing to maneuver from the sidelines, always in full control.

At parties and gatherings, the Finn was shy and stood in a doorway, her gaze seeking the farthest back corner of the room, where she would slip to the side—behind the table with the bar, on a windowsill—out of sight, out of the way of the action. She believed that everyone else, especially every American, was louder, stronger, bolder, more extroverted, aggressive and space-occupying than she. But when the party was over and others had left, she remained, because she was so small and insignificant that she couldn’t possibly be a disturbance.

And always we let her stay.

* * *

Despite the spicy bliss of our East Village honeymoon, I began to see the relationship between Mare and me from a dual perspective: in English and in American terms, and in Finnish and in Finnish terms. I wasn’t only in the relationship anymore—I now also saw it as if from the outside, from a vantage point not of here.

At the corner bar, during a live performance of a Norwegian rune singer, Mare fidgeted next to me. She looked at people out of the corner of her eye and grimaced. “This music,” she whispered, her hot breath in my ear, her body twitching as if she had an itch that had to be attended. I held my finger to my lips.

Mare had been born in the West and was used to open vistas and sun and bluegrass. She would have rather two-stepped, knees in the air, elbows out, than listen to this music that seemed only to make people serious and sad.

“What should we have for dinner, darling?” she asked during a break between the sets.

“Indian?”

“No…Don’t feel like it, my love.” She had endless pet names for me.

“How about Vietnamese?”

Her pretty features distorted. “Not that either, dear-heart.”

* * *

The Finn and I spent more and more time together, meeting in the city on Thursday nights while Mare taught at the university, or meeting at her cottage, a commuter train ride away from the City.

Her tiny house was perched under an ancient elm and surrounded by soft grass, and compared to the East Village, the place was pastoral. From the first visit, occupying the silence of the semi-rural neighborhood brought us closer to Finland, and as she sat on the front step chewing a blade of foxtail—a scene repeated in countless Finnish films—America seemed to fall away. Her stillness, her slowness, sank into me.

For a long time, we simply watched a beetle wage combat with a plantain leaf.

“Rautalehti,” she said of the greater plantain, and suddenly I recognized the plant, familiar from Finland, for the first time. Unknowingly, I had trampled on it in New York City parks without realizing it was the same one I had grown up with. Afterwards I looked up the English word in a dictionary.

For most New Yorkers, “greater plantain” might not be a vessel for transmitting ancient knowledge; it awakens no memory of a grandmother’s rough hands touching your baby skin, her strong fingers winding a blade of grass around the pliant plantain leaf wrapped around your small fingers, to shield the neat cuts slashed into your soft flesh after you picked up the scythe by its blade, honed lethal against her lump of whetstone and just lying on the ground—because you wanted to help.

Koivikko, kataja, metsälampi, lumme. Would you be my birch cove, my juniper, my forest pond or woodland lily?

I began to think of the Finn more and more, even when Mare and I made love. She would stare relentlessly from the bookcase between G. Stein and V. Woolf, cut off at the neck like a cheap Halloween trick, while Mare held my absent body. I wasn’t sure whose rhythm I was moving to, and as Mare stroked my spine and pressed against me, her hot lips at my ear, she asked challengingly from the bookcase, how does it feel? Miltä nyt tuntuu?

I breathed over Mare’s shoulder in the dark, forcing myself not to stop in the middle of the lovemaking, cheering myself on. A salmon must feel the same as it swims upstream.

Mare got up to use the bathroom. Waiting for her, I turned my behind toward the radiator to warm it up, for her, for Mare, trying to banish the Finn.

Mikä enkeli, musta enkeli.

Which angel, black angel.

* * *

By November, I was riding the train to the cottage nearly every week.

The Finn was not surprised when I mentioned you could cure rickets with the leaves of the red elderberry, the “shit tree.” This is not information one needs here, now, but my grandmother had applied the leaves to my mother’s parenthetic legs to straighten them during the lean war years, and the Finn was the only person in my world who knew the significance of every element of that statement. She nodded when I said, in passing, that seeing a mourning cloak butterfly in the morning meant someone would die that day—on my grandfather’s day of leaving, my grandmother had encountered the black-and-white wings on her walk to the well.

The melding of the Finn and my grandmother’s memories in the present gave rise to cognitive distortions that began to plague me in the midst of everyday living.

A woman waiting for a train on a subway platform. One more step, whispered a voice.

A burn mark on a cheek—someone has put out their cigarette on it.

A scythe slices off a nipple.

A darning needle extinguishes the convex gleam of an eye.

The terror of heights, the suck of the deep.

Who used a scythe when I was small? My grandmother. A darning needle? Same woman. Who walked me to the edge of a precipice, where the emptiness below breathed with the force of a vacuum of space?

What looked beautiful on the outside—our Finnish friendship—was as rotten on the inside as the putrid pulp inside my grandmother’s hand-dyed Easter egg, when the shell finally broke. I knew the Finn wanted more than friendship. 

* * *

Mare and I were sitting on the concrete steps in Union Square, facing the last warmth of the December sun and the bumper-to-bumper traffic on 14th Street, waiting for the Finn. Two heads of cabbage lolled at my feet in a plastic bag; I was planning a stew—probably her presence in New York had inspired the idea. In our mutual childhoods, cabbage stew cooked in enormous cauldrons by burly cafeteria ladies and skinny, pimple-faced apprentices had been a cornerstone of Cold War school lunches.

When the Finn arrived, I was leaning against Mare with my eyes closed. Even before opening them, I felt someone else’s body heat nearing. Mare was up first and held out her hand to pull me up, and in the moment it took for me to stand up the Finn managed to flash me a very quick, very lively look—like the reflection of the sun bouncing off a passing car: a momentary blinding.

Mikä musta, pikimusta

Mikä piki, suutarin piki

Which black, pitch black

Which pitch, cobbler’s pitch

That evening, over drinks in our kitchen, it was settled that she would rent our second room for a week over Christmas while Mare went to visit her family in California.

Mare rose to fill our drinks from a bottle of cheap champagne, and when she opened the fridge, one of the cabbages rolled out of the I ♥ NY bag and lumbered down the slanting floor until it came to a rest in front of the Finn. 

* * *

Aika rohkeeta—pretty gutsy, the Finn said to me, an angry, auburn Christmas moon behind her in the window.

What?

Risking a friendship like that by being together.

She was referring to the friendship between Mare and I before we fell in love.

By introducing the idea of the courageousness of our love, it was as though she had simultaneously introduced the possibility of its failure. If it was gutsy, it was risky.

I couldn’t do it, she said.

Fall in love with a friend?

Fall in love in English, she said.

Why not?

It wouldn’t be true.

A kiss is true.

A kiss and suudelma are not the same thing.

A kiss is a kiss. It’s bodies talking to each other, I replied.

Your body doesn’t have a language?

* * *

On New Year’s Eve, the day of Mare’s return from California, the Finn was gone. I lay on the futon staring at the parquet floor the way one stares at a nearby detail, like the fold of a bed sheet —because it is there and because it doesn’t require thought.

My feet wouldn’t stop whisking.

When Mare came home and we kissed hello, something had changed. The kiss was objectively a good kiss, but its fullness had dwindled, become half.

Mikä suutari, kenkäsuutari, mikä kenkä, puolikenkä.

Which cobbler, shoe cobbler, which shoe, half shoe.

* * *

“I feel more towards you than just friendship,” the Finn mumbled one night in late January, pressing her cheek against the brass bar top. It was Thursday night, our night.

The grin crept across my face like algae. I tried to stop it, but it only spread. We lingered in the bar for a long time, and when I finally went home, an angry Mare met me at the door. I felt the grin stretching my face, it wouldn’t succumb to orders from the frontal lobe.

I walked into her arms, we kissed. I smiled and told her that the Finn was in love with me. I couldn’t stop the algae.

“Is she. What are you telling me that for?”

“I wanted to tell you, I couldn’t not. It’s why I’m late.”

“So when will you two start going out?”

“I don’t want to be with her, silly. I told her I didn’t feel the same.”

“When’s your next date?”

On Thursday. From then on, mostly in secret. But even after I had come home in the early morning hours, smelling of hops and dragging the breaking news onto our doormat, entrails and all, the Finn still came a few times. For her last visit she bought black salmiakki, salt licorice, from the Dutch candy store down the street, and offered it to me but not to Mare. Like an idiot I sucked on the salty round, feeling special because she wasn’t as rude to me as to Mare.

She didn’t stay the night. Mare had lost all motivation to be hospitable—the salmiakki had been offered (only to me) and she had been shown her place too many times (the Finn knew it was Mare’s chair).

* * *

“You’re not going to see that water lily again,” Mare said the morning after the licorice, as I was handing her the top half of a toasted everything bagel.

I sat down.

“And can you please take care of those crumbs,” she said and nodded at the seeds and bagel remnants on the cutting board. “Seriously, clean up first, otherwise we won’t enjoy eating.”

In the name of détente, I dumped the crumbs in the trash. We ate in silence until I got up and went to the fridge to pour myself a glass of water from the filter canister. I replaced the pitcher and sat down.

Mare put her bagel on her plate. “You’re not going to refill the water canister?”

“I’ll do it later—it’s almost full.”

“You really should fill the canister every time you use it.”

“It’s my fucking canister.” It was true—I had gone to great trouble in building all the trappings of a normal life, of a home; I’d had to, in order to feel grounded in America. Physical details like rugs and water pitchers meant nothing to Mare, whose things were in storage in California, near her family. She had brought nothing but her books to our household.

* * *

People’s stories have a tendency to repeat themselves, get stuck in a loop. Loss is a skill we learn only gradually. As we begin to understand love better and more profoundly, we learn to be let down with ever greater finesse.

Five years old, standing in the dark hallway of our apartment building, I reach for the yellow light button on the wall. Should I go to the playground via the cellar, that way is shorter, without having to leave the building and walk all the way around it. But I’m afraid of the dark and decide to take the long way, via the sidewalk, via the light.

Outside I glimpse my best friend Tuomas disappearing around the corner. I run toward the sun, toward him, and catch up, a smile already tugging at the corners of my mouth, when I stop short. A girl from the building next door is with him. Together they measure me and yell in unison even as they run backwards toward the playground and the swings. Lillillillilieru, sulta pääsi pieru! Na-na-na-na-na-naa! You let out a faaart!

I retrace my steps and go home, dragging my body against the cool stone wall as I climb the stairs back up, stopping on the windowed landings to gaze down to where Tuomas and the girl swing lazily.

Life lesson Number One: you can lose anything with no warning.

Inside, my grandmother asks, wasn’t there anyone else there? I shake my head no and draw a picture of our family. It’s one of my best: father, mother, children, cat. Here we are, a whole real family.

I hear Tuomas’s mother calling him inside and check through the window for the girl. She’s gone. It’s my turn to swing.

When I come back in at dusk my parents are home, and I’m dying to show off the drawing, but no one can find it. Finally my father asks what I am looking for and I tell him and his face sags.

“Damn it to hell, how could I have known it was such an important drawing!” He sighs as he watches the grey cat in its feeding nook. It’s licking its paws after a meal of herring, one of them planted in the middle of the drawing, covered in fish scales.

Life lesson Number Two: each subsequent loss is merely a mimeograph shadow of the first disappointment. Once the domino effect has begun, nothing will ever stop it.

* * *

I had not intended to be drunk when the Finn came.

Waiting at an empty Middle Eastern restaurant, chosen for the view it afforded of the street corner where we were to meet, I chatted with the waiter. He gave me a glass of white wine on the house after I found a large moth in the mesclun. He also offered to replace the salad. But moths were part of the tapestry in Finland, bumping silently in the corners of window frames, clamped in floury triangles in the folds of curtains. I insisted on keeping my salad despite the waiter’s raised eyebrows.

He lingered, telling me he was in the middle of a divorce, though he had been happily married until his wife’s mother had died the previous year. She had asked for a divorce immediately after the funeral. “It just doesn’t add up,” he said.

I sipped on the white wine and disagreed, but saw no point in telling him that. His wife’s internal reality had shifted, and she had understood that the reality she had been living had not really “penetrated”—it didn’t match what was inside her. But her mother was real, and now also dead, and it was time for the wife to find the truth that matched her internal landscape. I thought about Mare, teaching in midtown, unaware that I was meeting the Finn.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Finn arrive at the corner and check the time on her wristwatch. She was early, and I finished my third glass of wine and settled up with the despondent waiter.

Outside, she stood facing the intersection. I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned, and I don’t know how it happened or who did what, but her face was very close to mine and without saying anything she kissed me.

She kissed me multiple times, tiny little pecks, like fractions of a kiss, too tender to feed the tension that the daydreams of this moment had fed in me. I tried to catch the tail of one of those dreams, something about the wind pivoting the leaves, grass glistening, she’s taking off my shirt…But it was no use, the connection between us stuttered. 

An acquaintance had once offered me her view of sex between two women. She postulated that there would be a lot of tenderness and endless, rather asexual though erotic, touching, and most definitely copious amounts of caressing of the other’s hair. Disinfected sex, clean as a Q-tip, not-quite-sex.

I thought about the robust kisses Mare and I shared, and I kissed the Finn back hard, to abolish the frustrating gentleness. She made a tiny squeak of pleasure, but I felt formless, bodyless.

We went into a bar. A couple sat near us, arguing, their faces strained as if trying to breathe in a garage filling with carbon monoxide. As we took our time to begin, first the woman left, and a moment later, soon enough so that he could still catch up with her if he wanted to, departed the angry-looking man.

“Love,” the Finn said in Finnish and chuckled. Rakkaus.

“I’ve never liked that word,” I said. “Like a cat coughing up a hairball.”

She knotted her fingers into tight fists on the table. Comfortable hands, the hands of a small farmer. “Siulla on se ilme.”

You have that look. The lilting Karelian of her siulla, “you,” raised the hairs on my arms. “What look?”

“The one that says ‘I’ve closed the gates.’”

“I can’t see you anymore.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I can’t be both.” I clarified: “Finnish and American. I have to be just one.”

“So not Finnish then.”

“I live here. My life is here.”

“My life could be here.”

No, I thought. It was mine, this life I had made. The Finnish awareness she had brought had only sown disorder.

Our eyes locked in the haze of the dive bar. This gaze would not be repeated with anyone else. What do you see in her, Mare had asked. This, the gaze.

Outside, we both stared at the same spot on the ground—a heap of broken glass, a scrap of paper towel, a crumpled pack of Marlboros. Two Finns in a Manhattan night. She turned and walked away.

I watched her retreating back. Mikä puoli, takapuoli. Which half, ass half.

Mare was asleep when I crawled into bed next to her. I sounded out my body, that traitor, but it had nothing more to say.

* * *

One morning, in a cab on the expressway as we headed to the airport, I pointed out to Mare all the plastic bags I saw through the car window, floating in the wind.

“Bag.”

“Another.”

Next to me, Mare, whom I was accompanying to a conference, hmphhed and ignored me. As we began the turn onto the Brooklyn Bridge, a bird flew past us. It was a pigeon, white, body taut, stretched forward, pitching through the air like a fish, the speed making lace of its wings.

With me and the Finn and the pigeon it would have gone like this: one of us would have noticed the bird, the other’s gaze would have followed that of the first, the bird would have flown past, we would have looked at each other and the bird would have commenced to exist in a new way, a tiny story between the two of us, a microscopic awareness, and together we would have wished the pigeon well, and I would have seen it through her eyes, she through mine, and a fleck of us would have flown with the bird to the other side of town, or the opposite side of the river, where maybe it had a rendezvous with another pigeon in a particular tree in front of a particular window of a particular apartment building, where it and the others waited for the old woman to appear between the curtains and fling seeds into the air out of her hand, and when the driver of a passing car glanced out of his or her window, the flock of pigeons burst in the air, their wings frothing into one another as they plunged after the seeds, beaks gaping, until they had vacuumed the seeds from the air and returned to their stations on the limbs of the tree, and the driver of the passing car would already be veering onto the bridge and smiling without knowing why, as he or she left Manhattan and the bridge rose, mammoth and melodramatic as a movie backdrop. When the bird flew past us.

* * *

It was Tax Day, in April, when Mare left, right after she found a ticket to a concert I had gone to with the Finn on one of those Thursdays while she was working. Mare moved back to California, but first, for fourteen days and nights, we wrangled over it, morning till night. Why, how, with whom, but. She no longer trusted me, she said. Why, I wanted to know.

Because of her of course.

But I don’t love her.

English words had been like empty storage boxes on a warehouse shelf, labeled and soulless, until I experienced what they held inside. Love, longing, despair, heartbreak.

During the day I went to work in Brooklyn and took long bathroom breaks on the 20th floor of my office building and watched the pigeons lined up along a ledge. They looked back at me as I confirmed for myself that if I leapt in a slight arc I would not in fact fall on top of the adjacent building but would go all the way down into the garbage dumpsters. Blup blup, said the pigeons, nodding. On the gym treadmill, sorrow battled endorphins, the tears winning at mile two. At home I raged and roared, throwing boots, magazines, anything, all over the room, without hitting anything, without breaking anything. Mare ran to me and held me the way a mover holds a heavy bureau in a stairwell: if this falls, it will crush me too.

Night after night, after she left, I drank wine in front of the television, set to a channel with only static, and daydreamed of a cottage in the countryside, of trees and grass and a winding road, maybe a vegetable garden, a sunny patch of gravel, a small child with the setting sun in her hair.

I opened my eyes, and I was in New York. Upstairs the Indian men clattered dishes and fried onions and once in a while broke into raucous laughter. I was alone with my Finnish.