European Beauty 4:
I was at my best friend’s birthday party, to shake myself of her memory. It had been going well, I had met old friends of mine, and some of them seemed genuinely interested in what I had been up to the last one year. I was happy to fill them in on all the details: my trip to Singapore, the change of jobs, the new apartment I had moved in to a few months ago. Of course, I took great care to refrain from talking about Maarja, when possible. And when I did talk about her, I did so quickly, briskly stating the facts. Then, we ate dinner, and everybody chatted lightheartedly around the table. Yet little by little, just as inexplicably as the tide will turn, just as inexplicably did the others gradually seem very distant, and I found myself at the end of a long, illuminated table full of empty glasses, smudged plates and cutlery, with everyone else on the balcony, chatting in the warm, summer night. I stared at the group of my friends outside of the glass sliding door and was again struck by that immutable force, by that desperate, prodding question of whether she’d ever write back again. During the previous week, I would always feel my heart missing a beat at the office, whenever I got the audible e-mail notification; every time, I would check my mailbox and see that it wasn’t Maarja.
The last time I saw her had been in her little flat; I sat up in bed and lit a cigarette, as I watched her touching the giant window which looked onto the grey parking lot at the back of the apartment complex. Her eyes were set aloof into the night and I saw her breath condensing on the glass, like a halo in the moonlight.
Long ago, it had happened to me. My father would always take me to the hotel where he was seeing his new girlfriend; he would leave me in the shabby lobby while he went upstairs. There was nothing in the lobby, just an aging orange carpet, a rectangular, stained couch and a few firns with some leaves already dry. The afternoon sun would shine into the still scene, and I, the boy of nine years, would sit there, patiently staring into space, on the couch. Sometimes, I would get up and press my nose up against the window, and my breath would condense on the glass until the tears would come and my trembling lips would touch the hard glass.
She had told me she could not forget about him, though I had already felt her words before they came. She would go back to Estonia again. She was bathed in the moon’s silver glow. Her eyes had rings around them and her head jutted forward like a sleepwalker’s. She was clutching a bed sheet, otherwise she was pale and naked. Her curled little nose though, and her round face and long hair, that was still the same as the day we had first met.
I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. Once, near the end, we had a class excursion to Oostend, a resort town at the western edge of Belgium, paradoxically. We had gone in the spring, when it was still quite cold. I don’t know who had had the idea. Near our hostel there was a sandy beach, and there was a great sort of pier made of dark, damp granite plates jutting about 50 meters into the ocean. So I walked alone to this place with my long overcoat, because the wind had been shearing relentlessly. The horizon had been obscured in a mess of haze and gray. So I picked my way down the pier into the sea, until I stood surrounded by the breaking waves and my coat flapped violently on my back. On the final slab of granite I stood, and I felt that I would somehow always be on that rock, and that things, as much as time passed, would never really change. It was not really a sad moment, more of a kind of revelation, and I saw myself from a distance, at the end of the pier, with my long, long coat flapping behind me in the wind.
She had been the shy one of the two girls who had just arrived from Estonia; I took a city tour with them in the winter, on one of those days that usually seemed remarkably silent, because of the snow slowly tumbling onto the rooftops, the gothic cathedral, the cobblestone courtyards. I had mostly chatted to her friend, who was a very loud, adventurous and sensual girl. Maarja kept in the background during the day of trudging through the city, but somehow we would approach each other, intermittently, again and again. When I saw her alone, which was quite often, I would go and talk to her. At the end, she asked me for my phone number, before parting. Her hair was golden, her skin healthy with freckled, red cheecks, her smile shy, girlish, yet omnipresent. It was clear to me as soon as we had parted, that all I wanted was to see her again. That was how it had begun.
I spent the first few years of my life in an unspectacular worker’s town in central Russia. It was before my father had arranged for my flying-in to Germany. My mother used to take me to a playground which was surrounded by five-story, crumbling gray apartment buildings. She would take me there, even in the winter, and we would build snowmen or have snowball fights, or just walk around singing in the courtyard, hand in hand, rocking our arms back and forth, with red faces and our breaths forming little clouds. The fresh snow would crackle underneath my little rubber boots as we marched around the tiny, enclosed kingdom. And then, one day, as I had been playing in the snow, I felt a sudden silence and realized that mother was gone. There weren’t many trees or bushes that she could hide behind. The buildings stood towering around me, and I had clear sight on every wall.The whole playground seemed to echo my running feet and my cries. Mama had just left me there in the snow, and no one in my family had ever heard from her again.
The week after we met, I had taken Maarja to the top of the cathedral tower, giggling and laughing the whole way, her face radiating red from running up the stairs. She clutched the safety grate on the top and looked out over the city at the setting sun. That was when we first kissed, and that was also when she first told me about her first kiss, with her childhood friend who had later become her lover. On the way home, we held hands and she told me she still thought of him, sometimes. She said it was over, but that he still loved her and that he was always trying to contact her. I felt her hand in mine, and I tried to change the subject.
I arrived home to my dark and empty apartment. As I turned the key to lock my door, I started sobbing. I walked along the unlit corridor toward the living room and gaped for air, my sobs growing louder. My eyes bulged because of the tears breaking out; I reached the dining table and my sobs became screams, and every time I inhaled my cries were a loud, rasping sound. I beat the table with my fists as the tears came down and my sobs just wouldn’t stop. I staggered to the cupboard, but ended up pressing my head, my lips against it as I felt my cries ricochet off the surface, into the darkness. All the time, I was not sure yet why I was crying; I had already known about the boy the first day. It was just that I felt something would again be lost.
I don’t have a lot of memories of the time when papa and mama were still together. How could I? I was very young. I do, however, have one memory. In the summer of 1983, we went to an orchard where you could pick your own apples. We had bumped our way up the road in papa’s Volga, a dirt road with a broad stripe of green grass in the middle; the road was surrounded by tall trees, but you could see between them into the distance of the yellow sunflower fields and the green corn. At the entrance of the orchard, an old man with a toothless grin smoking a cigarette swung open the rusty grates, and papa parked the car inside. Mama took the baskets out and we made our way into the blooming orchard. Most apples had already been picked, but every time I saw a flash of red among the green, I would exclaim and run to the tree, climb up and pluck the apple into my basket. And descending, papa would pull me close, and hold my shoulders with his heavy hands and mama would complement me and adjust her new straw hat in the scorching sun. And then, I would run off again, far away to an apple that I had spotted, and as I climbed the tree, mama and papa would seem small as ants, so I would hurry plucking the red apple, jump down, and run back with all my lungs, to make them be big again.
Dan, my best friend’s labrador, was gently beating his tail against my legs. It was getting cooler outside, and people were beginning to come back in. Yes, it had been a week since she hadn’t written, since she had left my life as suddenly as she had entered it a few months before.
It was funny, I thought, that I was still hoping for a sign, an email, a letter, anything. Hadn’t I learned to see yet? Maybe not see, but feel; feel myself standing there, with that vast, grey ocean in front of me, and my long, black coat catching the shearing, winter wind.