(a Love Story)
by Nick Sansone
It's July again and, as usual, I've been spending my white nights in all the wrong beds. I wait for Dasha on the shores of Pirita Beach, the egg yolk sun beginning its dissolution into the gray dishwater Baltic. It's been nearly a week since I've seen her. It would be approaching our six-year anniversary if we hadn't broken up in ‘92, seven months after their Singing Revolution.
The beach is not crowded. Most people went back into town on the midnight tram, leaving a wake of cigarette butts and ice cream wrappers. The drab brown sand is studded with rusty metal carburetors and soiled T-shirts. Our coastline isn't beautiful, but it's popular. Even after independence, well-to-do Muscovites will go to the hassle of applying for a visa just to come to this shithole of a beach. Tradition overcomes logic.
I see a small knot of shirtless boys fooling around with bargain bin fireworks. A couple is making out behind the Dumpster; the back of the woman's white shirt is quickly going brown as she writhes against the rusty metal. I check my watch. 02:08. Fucking Dasha. Now that we're not together, she feels entitled to waste my time.
"Sorry!" her chipper voice rings out behind me in her lightly accented Russian. "I was running and I thought it was earlier. Didn't have time to shower." She sits down beside me, still breathing hard, her petite abdomen pulsing erotically. I examine her face and notice streaks of sweat shining on her neck. Her face has a lively flush to it, her eyes are their usual vivacious cobalt, and those lips…
Half an inch from kissing her, I suddenly turn my head. "Can't even shower for a guy anymore?"
"It's independence," she says. "I do what I please."
"You never used to run."
"Well I've started." She pushes her cornsilk hair back into a ponytail and ties it in place with a Western-style red elastic band.
"I don't see why. You're not fat."
"Ha! I don't know why we ever broke up. You're such a charmer."
I hate playing games with Dasha. "I was only giving you a compliment," I say. "No need to get pompous. I only said you weren't fat."
"Thanks." Though she is speaking sarcastically, she is now smiling at me. "I should have been on time. I missed the best part of the sunset." Indeed, the soft pinks and oranges of the northern sky have already begun to coalesce into a deep ocean blue.
I shrug. "Chances are, there'll be another tomorrow." I want to touch her hair, but I usually let her initiate physical contact. When we were dating I always took the lead, but since we broke up any initiative on my part has always sent her into a huffy tirade about how I need to move on. Of course, when she wants to fuck there's no talk of "moving on." Typically female, Dasha is as hypocritical as she is duplicitous.
"I guess it's only two hours until sunrise anyway." Dasha sounds tired. During white nights we never get the sleep we should. "How've you been whiling away your time this week?" she asks. She is now halfheartedly rooting in the sand for any krooner that the deep-pocketed resortgoers might have dropped.
Her imperious smile sickens me. "I work, Volodya. I have a country to build."
"Fuck you; you're twenty-four," I mutter. I could work too. I could be like all those other guys who have swallowed their pride and started waiting tables for the tourists, learning English, putting gel in their hair like fags, and capering around, evidently untroubled by the loss of their testicles.
"A young country needs young people."
"Young people need young people." I finally give in and brush her cheek with the back of my hand. It is soft and supple, like every other inch of her infuriatingly delicious body. She doesn't draw back at my touch, but she doesn't move in either. There is hesitation in her eyes—a dangerous sign indeed.
"We have a job for you at the Education Ministry if you want it," Dasha says, fighting her desire to pounce on me and put her gorgeous lips to work. "It's an enormous opportunity; you cannot pass this up."
"What, do I get to be 'phone bitch?' 'Yes, sir, I'd love to fetch your fucking espresso. Want a hand job while I'm at it?'"
Dasha continues as though I haven't said anything. "The starting salary is low, but with hard work you can raise your yearly bonus and I expect that you could move out of your mom's apartment by next summer. Moreover, they will teach you Estonian and set you up with an excellent English tutor."
"Hurrah!" I exclaim, leaping to my feet in mock joy. If I had known Dasha was going to call me out to Pirita at two o'clock in the motherfucking morning just to give me her keynote lecture on "Our Changing Times," I would have ditched her. "Exactly what I want! Estonian! Oh, thank God for that!"
I can tell that I am irritating Dasha, but she is doing everything she can to keep that from becoming evident. "It's our country," she says with forced offhandedness, "and you should learn our language."
"It's my country." First I lost my country and then I lost my girl, and now my girl thinks my country is hers. Priceless. I suppose she wants to carve out my kidneys too.
I can't handle my desire anymore and sneak a hand roughly under her workout shirt. Dasha, indeed, is far from fat. A smooth, gently muscled abdomen greets my eager grope. Instinctively, she grabs my wrist and directs it out from beneath her shirt. A noisy gull flies across the sky. It is as dark as it will be until morning.
"Times have changed, Volodya; don't talk like an idiot," Dasha says, scooting over a foot or so, trying to put distance between us.
"Dasha," I say, my temper quickly escalating. How dare she pretend she doesn't want me? "Half the country is Russian. What about us?"
"Jesus Christ! You put us in concentration camps, and now you're feeling victimized! Dear Lord!"
I breathe steadily and evenly because I know that otherwise I will swipe her florid face with the palm of my hand and then she will just have one more reason to feel entitled to lord it over me. The beach is empty now. No witnesses. Unfortunately, she knows I would never hit her, no matter how much deep breathing I have to do.
"Yes," I mumble lowly, hoping to combat her exasperation with maddening calm. "You're right. I'm sorry." I speak evenly and softly. "We are terrible. In fact, just last week I put your mom in a concentration camp. You see, I'm Stalin. My father, too. Exactly. We're all just the same to you, right? It doesn't matter which Russian you stab in the back, right? One's as good as another to a racist cunt." I think casting out the insult quietly was the correct decision because now genuine hurt and self-consciousness seem to be vying for space with her indignation.
"I hardly think that creating an independent state can be rightfully called 'stabbing anyone in the back,'" she says uncertainly. She stands up and walks a few paces towards the oily Baltic, gazing into the polluted water as if searching for inspiration. After a moment, however, all she can come up with is: "God, you're not making this easy."
She leaves her back to me and I realize that she did not call me to Pirita to talk politics. Something awful is imminent. I know it as surely as I know that my Russian skin is clinging tightly to my bones, puckering into the goose flesh of nervous anticipation.
"Volodya." Her voice sounds distant, as though she were one of the seagulls honking lightly somewhere off beyond the sweet susurration of the surf. Finally she turns to face me. In the low light of early morning, I cannot tell if tears have joined the stale sweat on her cheeks, but her eyes, clearly reflective, are moist. "This is ridiculous. We are adults. Adults and friends, yes?"
I am tense—ready for anything. Fight or flight. Adrenaline pumps through my head, dizzily. I bite back my racing pulse with a shudder and steel my gaze. I give no response to Dasha's ridiculous question, forcing her to continue uncomfortably.
"Okaaaaaay," she draws out, her Estonian accent becoming stronger. "There's no need to keep it a secret. I'm seeing somebody. But of course you and I have broken up long ago. So it shouldn't matter." She emits a terse little female giggle and even has the gall to smile, the poison of her confession having been sucked from her and injected into me. I can feel my testicles shriveling; a low nausea tosses about in my guts.
I stand up, trying not to double over, trying to play it utterly cool. But that bitch … of all the things she could have said … this is the … well … it is the worst.
"Who?" I astound myself by asking this. What does it matter who? It isn't me.
"He's Lithuanian," she tosses at me, as though it is of no consequence.
"He's a fucking hick, then!" I scream, regretfully losing the control I had over my voice. I am practically blind. The night seems ten times darker and the nearly imminent sunrise … well… I can't … quite … think… I should breathe.
Before I know it, though, the words are spurting out.
"Pig fuckers, the Lithuanians. You'll end up pregnant with eighteen Catholic sons of bitches. Fine, fuck it! Move to Kaunas; I hear they've got a post office there, and a feed store. Not happy enough with Estonia, I guess. This grand fucking country—our country—because, well, we're learning to fucking share!… No, indeed, the queen bee of Estonia has decided to buzz her overweight ass down to Lithuania to see what conquests she can incur there! A modern-day Sasha the Great! Really, I'm quite proud."
I hope that at least my outburst will draw fear—make her quake a little. No. She just stands facing me, hands on hips, watching me spend myself and saying nothing.
"Very mature," Dasha replies. Is it my imagination or is there just the tiniest bit of longing in her gaze? "I need sleep and I imagine that you do, too. I've told you what I need to, and now I'm leaving. You have my number and are welcome to use it."
I run laps in my mind, searching for anything intelligent or cutting to say, but, coming up with nothing, I simply allow my mouth to hang open as she walks past me and into the small grove of birch trees that separates the beach from the highway beyond. The irrational part of my brain tells me that she will come back and the sight of her will fill the hollow space she has pounded into my bowels, but of course I know better. Dasha is independent now and once somebody has declared her independence she doesn't return.
I don't get home until daybreak. I live with my mother and an elderly boarder named Nina in a boxy apartment building in the Russian part of town. Mother works as a seamstress and so our apartment is always cluttered with moldy rose-patterned comforters and billowy, graying summer shawls. There is no order; I imagine we have mice. Nina makes preserves to sell at the rynok, but seems incapable of cleaning up after herself. The kitchen—which serves triple function as our common room and Nina's bedroom—is splattered in purplish stains and biscuit crumbs. Gluttonous ants imperiously lounge about on the floor and countertops. Sometimes I help Nina to sell her jellies and she gives me a small salary of a few hundred rubley each week. We're supposed to be using krooner now, but the new currency is too expensive for most of us to trade in.
Mother is home, as I expect; she is working, as I expect; and she is peevish, as I expect. She looks up when I enter, her gray hair pulled into a taut ponytail and her square reading glasses making her appear older than her fifty-five years. Once she has glanced at me long enough for her disapproval to register, she wordlessly looks back down to the brown sweater she is mending. I self-consciously kiss her wrinkled forehead. She sighs.
"You kiss your mother with that mouth?" She speaks brusquely as she works. "You haven't been home in five nights. Do me a favor and never come back again."
We do this every time. Ignoring her abuse, I peek into the cramped room I share with my mother and dig out a few rubley from beneath my moldy mattress.
"I'm going for a walk," I call out and head back towards the front door.
"Nina says you haven't been around to help her in more than a week. She'll stop paying you soon." My mother's needles are like clock gears, clicking away in a perfectly constant rotational rhythm.
"I've been busy." My hand is on the doorknob.
"Indeed, busy." Mother's sarcasm is indistinguishable from her normal tone. "You're a rotten boy and a disgrace to our family. I wish you were dead."
"Anything else?" A couple of ants promenade purposefully along the wall and I knock them to the floor.
"I'm making blini tonight. If you're not home, I'll feed yours to the dogs." A couple of stray dogs have been hanging around the back of our apartment building lately. Mother has taken a liking to them.
"Okay, I'll be home."
"Good." Mother registers no emotion, but her needles cease. She throws the sweater onto an unsorted pile and, without missing a beat, grabs a pair of nylon stockings.
"Make yourself useful while I'm gone. The apartment is a mess. It smells like herring." This is my customary exit line and Mother gives the expected answer:
"Leave me alone, you worthless shit."
I have been drinking beer steadily since leaving the house twelve hours ago. This is my third phone call to Dasha tonight and the third time I receive her perky answering machine. "I'm sorry. I'm unavailable right now," she says, first in Estonian and then in Russian, her intonation maddeningly the same every time I call. I hang up the pay phone with a drunken grunt and stumble back onto the street. I've been wandering laps around the city's walls, like a wolf rounding up his prey.
Tallinn's prosperous Old Town is cordoned off from the rest of us by these stately brick walls, occasionally punctuated by medieval turrets. Inside the walls, British holidaymakers are snapping photos, Russians are disavowing any allegiance they once felt to our Union, and Dasha is celebrating the white nights with a Lithuanian. Outside the walls, though, cameras have nothing to capture. Boxy concrete apartment complexes stand like grave markers and gangs of stray dogs undertake constant territorial wars.
I buy another half-liter of beer at a kiosk. The 02:00 sun burns low and bleary on the horizon. I know that I should go back to the apartment and sleep, but I have another half-hour of daylight. Maybe I will walk to Dasha's apartment and wait for her return.
However, the comforting repetition of my revolutions around the Old Town soon smoothes all such thoughts from my mind. I do not want to talk to Dasha until I am sober, and I don't want to return home until I have confronted Dasha.
It is close to 03:30 when I feel the first drop of rain on the tip of my nose. The streets are quiet and the sky is the dusky gray-blue of not-quite night. Another raindrop falls onto my shoulder. My muddy consciousness is stirred by the threat of a downpour. I am thirty minutes from home; maybe I'll duck into an alleyway until the storm passes.
I look around the empty street for shelter, but the buildings lack awnings. Maybe I'll hide out under one of the gates into the Old Town. The peppering of raindrops escalates as I search for an opening in the town wall. Soon, I am being quite assailed by rain. My T-shirt is soaked, my socks collect moisture, and my newly-dyed leather belt dribbles brown down my pants. Many of the streetlights here are burned out, but those that aren't are reflected on the water-polished road. The summer's heat has transformed into a deadly humid clamminess. Screw this; I'm going home.
No sooner have I made the decision than I realize that I have a companion. Emerging from the town walls, burdened with a heavy red duffel bag and an oversized backpack, is a foreign tourist. He's dressed casually, in loose checked pants, a hooded sweatshirt, and clunky black glasses. Bent against the rain, he's moving at a pace that betrays his utter ignorance as to where he is. He scurries for a block, then stops, looks in vain for a street sign, and moves another block. Stupid fuck. What's he doing out here?
I stretch the neck of my shirt over my head, but it is so saturated with water that it does nothing to keep me dry. I approach the foreigner, trying to remain unseen. As I get closer, I can hear him muttering softly to himself under his breath. He walks another block in haste, looks at the dark, homogenous apartment buildings, and reverses direction entirely. He's not in the Old Town anymore, is he? I think about how his holiday must have gone. He probably came for the white nights, got shit-faced at a few bars, remarking good-naturedly that he supports our independence, sent a postcard talking about how "great! Just great!" Estonia looks, and then, congratulating himself on his worldliness and his ability to say "I'll have a beer, please" in earsplitting Estonian, thought about how good it would be to return home and boast of being among the first to set foot in this brand new country. This is the sort of shit Dasha wants. She wants people … Westerners … slobbering adventure whores … to come here and spend the money they never had to work for. I am wet, I am drunk, and I am ten feet from this Western rat.
"You're a botched abortion!" I yell congenially from the shadows, using one of the few Estonian phrases I know. There is a stunned moment in which the foreigner pauses and looks around to locate the voice; when he sees me, he continues faster down the street. However, his bags slow him down and the rainwater collects on his glasses, which he frequently wipes on his shirt to little effect, so I catch up easily.
"Hey!" I say again, once I have come abreast of him. "You're a shithead!" This time I speak in Russian, all smiles. My foreigner plows onward without acknowledging me. I can see that he is trying to reverse his path and get back to the city center.
"Hello." I grasp at my high school English, from which I am able to remember only a few key phrases. "Can you show me how is the way to bus station?"
He turns to look at me through opaque glasses. Water is dripping off his light hair. His bags are completely soaked and I can sense his panic and frustration. With a slightly quivering voice, he says, "I'm going to the bus station."
"Oh!" I say, shivering. "I go Tartu today. Need tickets for go to home!"
The tourist looks for street signs. "Where are we?" he asks. His accent is British.
"In new country!" I reply.
"Please." The foreigner stops and speaks to me slowly and distinctly. Most of it I cannot understand, but I catch "Where is the bus station?" The boy is desperate and for a brief minute I consider letting him know that we are walking in precisely the wrong direction. However, I catch sight of an Estonian flag patch sewn onto his bag. He's been spending money all weekend—those awful krooner—and none of it is coming to me. It's my country. It should be my money. He wants us to be another Eastern Disneyland—to go the route of Budapest and Prague. He wants me to become a spineless, faggy pansy. He'll be on my street, along my beaches, perhaps even in my Dasha's bedroom.
"I must Tartu," I say again. Now I just want to get away. The sight of this guy makes me sick. It's cold and Dasha's off somewhere, and I should just sleep. "Need 100 krooner." I don't know what possesses me to ask, but he must owe me at least that much.
"Don't have any." The Brit shakes his head vigorously and starts running, his duffel back smacking the back of his calves. His sharp, sudden movement stirs me.
"Give me 100 krooner!" I scream.
The Brit disappears into the rain, shaking his head. With a flash of adrenaline, I race after him. Ahead of me, I can hear his cracked voice screaming, "Help!" Too bad for him that such cries are background noise during the white nights.
I am upon him before I know it. He tries to swipe me with his soggy duffel bag, but I take advantage of his disequilibrium and floor him with a light punch to the side of the head. His glasses fly into the street. The foreigner is resilient, though. Still clutching his luggage, he scrambles to his feet. He has the opportunity to get away, but he hesitates momentarily to decide whether to retrieve his glasses and the delay is all I need to slice my toe into the back of his knee. This time, I stun him with another punch—not as light—while he is down. Blood dribbles from his nose. The downpour continues unabated.
The Brit holds up his shaky hands in surrender. Trembling, he reaches for his wallet and shows it as empty. Looking down at him from above, my revulsion is doubled. This man knows nothing about fighting. He is a smooth-skinned coward. He is afraid of his own blood. He is surrendering without getting a single blow in on me.
"But hasn't he gotten a blow?" I think. "This piece of shit is the new Tallinn."
I look at his pudgy, bloodied face in the white night's gray light and realize that if I don't move along I will kill this man. A chill wind rips through me. I grab his empty wallet, spit on his prone body, and duck back into the shadows, tingling from top to toe. I move rapidly, putting distance between myself and my action. Where has my self-control gone? I have never picked such an easy fight before. The more I think about it, the more hollow my justifications feel. "He took something from me," I continue to remind myself, but, try as I might, I can't figure out precisely what.
I find a dry spot under the eaves of a kiosk and look in the wallet. Though the main compartment is empty, two twenty-pound notes are stuffed into a side pocket.
The longer I stand still, the colder I get, so I decide that I must name a destination. I should go home, but I do not feel right about it. After such gross bullying, could I get to sleep? I feel as though I have been punched in the face—or, more accurately, the stomach. No. There is one person I need to talk to right now, much as the idea troubles me.
By the time I get to Dasha's apartment, the rain has slowed. The sky's edge is tinged with the yellow threat of sunrise. I knock on her door. After what seems like several minutes, I hear footsteps. The door opens a sliver. The lights are off inside. I can see only half of Dasha's face. Her blonde hair is uncombed, her one visible eye is puffy with interrupted sleep, and there is a long crease on her cheek from her pillow. When she sees who I am, she opens the door wider, but does not invite me in.
"Volodya," she says with surprise. "What are you doing? It's 4:30. Go home."
I can't think of anything to say; in fact, I'm not even certain why I came. I pound the meat of my thigh with a restless fist. "It's white nights, though," I offer lamely.
Her voice rises in exasperation. "Volodya. You've been drinking, and this is completely inappropriate. You need to go home now." She speaks to me as though I were a stray dog she wishes to shoo off—as though she had never orgasmically clawed at my back, begging me never to leave her arms.
I have to say something, though. I can't just let the door shut in my face. This could be my very last chance.
"Dasha…" I manage to say. She is waiting, irritation on her face.
"Um…" I continue. "You can't do this to me, Dasha."
Dasha groans in disgust. "It's 4:30 and I'm not talking about this now. Goodbye, Volodya." She moves to shut the door, but I stick my foot in the crack just in time. Stirred into action by my urgency, I blurt out:
"Dasha. I love you."
There is a moment where I think I see her face soften. She looks at me in wonder before shaking her head slowly: "Volodya, you're drunk and you need to go home."
"I mean it, Dasha," I say. She has to believe me.
Dasha continues to shake her head. I was mistaken. What I thought was softness was only pity—the cruelest emotion. "Volodya," she whispers. "You need to move on."
The door is in my face and I suddenly no longer have anything.
The next evening I am climbing to the peak of the Green Mountain—Zilyonaya Gora— for my last sunset in Estonia. I don't know where I belong, but I know where I don't. The letter I slipped under Dasha's door this afternoon was concise yet honest:
"Dasha—I do not expect that I will ever see you again. I am leaving tomorrow on the first train to Petersburg. I have forty pounds, which is enough for fare. I hope this will take me far enough away that you can enjoy your independence in peace. Pray for me."
I wasn't sure if I should write "love" or "yours," so I just signed it "Volodya."
Mother doesn't know I'm leaving yet. It's better this way. If she knew, she would try to stop me, even though all I do is cause her worry. She still has Nina, so that's good.
The only goodbye I have left to pay is to the mountain—more of a hill, really—that I used to come to in my teens. That was when I still had an imagination. Communism ensured that my dreams were never glorious, but I had a simple view that I might end up a respectable member of the community, with iron integrity and a model family. Everything is less complicated in fantasies.
I got a late start, so I climb hurriedly to get to the top before the sunset. The trail wends through pine stands in a circuit of switchbacks. Every time I come to a clearing, I glimpse the iridescent pink sky like a halo over the resplendent sea. The buttery sun slips lower as I ascend. I look up and see that I've got six or seven more switchbacks before I reach the summit. Every minute, the sky grows bluer and bluer.
I break into a run. The faster I go, the faster the world seems to turn, bringing the sun rapidly under its horizon. I will the earth to stand in its tracks. It is moving too quickly. I cannot miss my last Estonian sunset. For some reason, it is important.
However, two switchbacks from the top, I catch sight of the sky from an overlook. The sun has dipped entirely below the sea and although a few downy clouds still burn with appropriated amber, the sky has become a wash of nearly uniform blue. The sunset's fleeting fluorescence has not waited for me. Now, almost at the top of the hill, I decide that there is no point in continuing my ascent, so I reverse my tracks and start down the mountain face. I'm leaving Estonia; this time tomorrow I'll be somewhere new and the earth will be continuing its revolutions around the sun, regardless of me.