The Angel in the Municipal Pool
I. The Complex Girl
"You seemed like such a talented girl, and this is how you ruin your life," said Meriläiskä, and walked out. I wiped the sugar from her donut off the tabletop and watched a splash of water hit the glass. The drops chased each other down, and I couldn't decide if they all fell at the same speed or differently.
The pinball machine jerked awake, said, "You are my prisoner," flashed its lights, and fell asleep again. "Take me for your man, girl," said one of the cafe regulars. "I bet you've never been properly laid." "I'll think about it," I replied. He gulped down the last of his beer, got up, and left. I walked behind the bar and turned down the lights.
The room is much better without the fluorescents on. One wall is made of glass, and behind it, the lights of the swimming hall give a bluish glow. When there are no customers, the cafe has a mysterious underwater atmosphere. The floor is dark linoleum, the Formica tables have black metal legs, and so do the blue plastic chairs. The juke box and pinball machine flash different colored lights and make little sounds. I often stand behind the glass pretending I'm underwater with Jacques Cousteau. But the customers want the lights on and no damn atmosphere, thank you.
I have a bed, a desk and a set of drawers in the back room. I can shower and take my saunas in the swimming hall free of charge. The swimming hall and cafe are underground. Upstairs we have the bank, the post office and the newsstand, and we used to have a grocery store, but that's bankrupt now. The businesses are built in a rectangle around a courtyard. In the middle, plastic bubble windows look down so you can watch the swimmers from an aerial view. This is the Savings Bank of Finland Municipal Complex. It was built despite the recession, because the Savings Bank manager votes Center Party and they have the majority, says Meriläiskä. Because I work and live here, people call me The Complex Girl. It’s a joke.
Everybody thinks the Complex was a waste of money. All anybody usually buys in the cafe is plain coffee. They don't want Meriläiskä getting rich. If someone buys a donut or an ice cream, they make a big deal of it, and I act grateful. Still they come here. There's nowhere else to go.
Meriläiskä's son died in the swimming hall three days after the Complex was opened. That was ten years ago. He slipped on the tiles and cracked his skull. Everyone said, "There you go. Now you see what happened with taxpayer money?”
The year after, Meriläiskä took a loan from the Savings Bank and bought the cafe. She comes in every morning with fresh pastries, then stops in the wholesale market if we need anything, and in the evenings she collects the cash box and goes home. I have worked for her for two years, and lived in the Complex for one. I used to live at home with Meriläiskä, but as we are both adults, it’s better to live independently.
Once in a while I've had these dreams. They're about a boy. It's the same boy but at different ages, between 5 and 15. I'm lost in a huge place, say, a school building that's flooded or an enormous warehouse with sawdust on the floor and broken-down antique furniture everywhere. The boy always appears at the end of the dream. He is blond, delicate, and beautiful. I reach for him with my hand, and suddenly I am full of tenderness like God's love. I touch the beautiful boy and I lay down to sleep next to him and nothing bad can happen. At this point I wake up. For several days I can make myself go back to that feeling. I don't know what this means. Sometimes I think he is my guardian angel, even though I don't much go for angels.
I started to wash the glass wall. The squeegee was leaving stripes of wet at the edges and I knew Meriläiskä was going to lecture me again. A boy, maybe fifteen, was standing with his back to me in the shallow end. He was only maybe six feet from me. I had noticed his wispy, sticky-out hair when he walked into the swimming hall. Then I'd got caught up watching the school principal, who walked importantly towards the shallow end and did some stretches. Every time he came for a swim, he peered over the edge like he was going to dive, and didn't. He climbed down the stairs and swam slowly, holding his head up stiffly, like a snake. When I glanced back at the boy, I realized he was masturbating. His right shoulder was moving rhythmically and his neck was stiff too, but different from the principal's.
I watched him. My breath was making a spot of steam on the glass. He did it for a while. Then he adjusted his shorts, and started climbing out of the pool. I stayed like I was and waited to make eye contact so I could freak him out. He looked up and saw me. I held his gaze. He glanced around in a panic and ran into the men's sauna.
I stood on the ladder with the squeegee in my hand. Meriläiskä walked in and said, "What are you washing that in the dark for? Turn the damn lights on." I knew I was slipping into my dream again. I knew it was the same boy. I thought, this is really stupid, but I couldn't help my knowing.
II. The High School Across Town
"The maintenance of collar shirts is something that we all have to deal with in life, and that's what we'll finish class with today," said Hiiva, the home ec teacher, and rolled up her sleeves. She kept rolling them up and down, never sure whether or not she was going to get soiled. She wore unnaturally bright-colored collar shirts herself. Her breasts strained against the stiff fabric, and in the back you could see her bra digging into her skin.
Karppi had left the liver they had spent three hours cooking on his plate. You had to taste everything and learn to appreciate new culinary experiences, the teacher always said. He had cut his finger, chopping onion for the stew. He had stared at the wound and wondered what it would look like if he'd cut deep enough to see the bone. Once in home ec, they had cut the meat off some bones, for soup. Tearing at the flesh, he had thought: this is what it looks like inside a person, except it's dark.
He was jerked awake by Hiiva who was pulling at his sweater. "The cleaner you keep your neck, the more trouble and money you save with shirts," she was saying. In her other hand she had a bottle of Eau de Cologne that she shook, holding a cotton ball to its mouth. Karppi's classmates were glancing at each other, chuckling.
Hiiva pressed the cool, wet cotton ball against his neck and started to wipe his skin. She stretched the neck of his sweater and pushed the cotton ball underneath. She wiped up and down, along the hairline in the back and behind the ears, and in the front she pressed on his Adam's apple too hard. The moist cotton was getting warm from his skin, but his neck felt cool and tingly. Karppi was trying to swallow, but couldn't. He felt the pressure tingle down his spine and into his groin. He was getting a hard-on. Hiiva finished wiping and showed the cotton ball to the class. It was stained brown. The class exploded with laughter.
"Now now," said Hiiva, "this is not a question of Karppi's personal hygiene." She wet another cotton ball and wiped her own neck quickly, and again showed the stain to the class. It wasn’t as dark as Karppi's. "It may seem funny now, but wait till you're doing your own laundry!" Hiiva shouted.
Karppi dropped his books into his backpack and walked out of the classroom, even though recess wouldn't start for another ten minutes. He didn't stop until the edge of the schoolyard, where he lit a cigarette. Once, he remembered, in front of the Municipal Complex, a drunk had been drinking Eau de Cologne with grapefruit soda. "House Cocktail," he had said.
III. The Livers
Hiiva loved to walk the corridors after everyone was gone. She loved to step quietly into the empty classrooms, smelling the after-scent of pubescent bodies, their greedy breath, the fetid wetness caught in the chalkboard sponges. She cherished her quiet home ec room, the freshly cleaned surfaces, the treasures stored in the locked cupboards, the identical sets of cutlery. The noisy bodies gone, the room shone with an air of undiscovered possibilities.
She had another four-hour class to teach today. Hiiva stepped into the walk-in freezer and watched her arm hair stand up. She breathed the tingly air and touched a frosty surface. Her skin stuck to it deliciously. She suppressed the weep that was welling up in her chest.
All she wanted was to be seen. Her role rendered her invisible beyond its boundaries. It was hard not to feel disappointed, giving yourself to strangers day after day. Strangers who didn’t look back, who expressed no gratitude, but walked straight back into the steamy jungle of high school.
Her breathing had become rapid. She smiled as she wondered if the air in the freezer would one day run out. She would die and be frozen stiff. It would take days before she was found. She would be nicknamed "Popsicle," and her legend would be told to each new generation of highschoolers.
Hiiva stepped out into the warmth, resuming her duties at the cutting board. She portioned the dark, glistening livers onto bits of wax paper for the next students. With her finger, she pushed a dimple into each. She thought about the boy's neck. His silver necklace had caught in the cotton, and while loosening it, she had softly touched his skin with her forefinger. His hair, on the back of the neck, formed the lower half of a heart. She wanted to gently tug at the wispy tip. Such a strong neck, such wide shoulders on such a young boy. Next time she had a chance, she would ask him which sport he was practising.
IV. Karppi Visits the Complex Girl
I heard the door. Then the steps. They walked toward the bar and stopped. I knew by heart the different steps and where they went. If it was a quiet day, I'd often stay in the back room reading. If the steps were slow and frail and went straight to a corner table, it was probably an old lady who wanted to wait for her bus and rest, and wouldn't buy anything. Usually I stayed in the back and didn't bother them.
Now someone was standing at the bar and breathing. My stomach knew it was the boy I saw masturbating the day before. The boy from my dream. He shifted a little to the left, to try and see into the back room, but I knew he couldn't. He walked to a table by the glass wall and sat down. He shifted his feet. Then he got up. So did I.
When I got to the door, he was putting coins into the pinball machine, with his back to me. I had turned the machine off earlier because I didn't want to hear its remarks. The boy was pushing "start," and the machine didn't stir. I looked at his worn leather jacket and thought, what long arms. I walked quietly up to him and said "hi", but he didn't startle. He gave me a nod. "It doesn't work," I said. "Shit", he said, and picked up his backpack from the floor. "You want a coffee, it's on the house," I offered quickly. "No," he said, and walked out.
On Saturdays the cafe has limited hours, so I went swimming. I swam almost fifty meters underwater, my lungs burning and my pulse loud inside my head. I came gasping to the surface and floated, looking at the skylight above. Then I went to the sauna and lay down and thought about how my life wasn't going anywhere.
A powerful gust of wind had blown away my parents when I was eight. I was wearing gym shoes. They were quick to slip on as I rushed out the door after my mother and father. The gravel was coarse and hurt my feet as I ran. My parents were arguing because they had sexual problems. I understood this. My mother was getting saggy. And they already had me.
The wind came just as I was trying to memorize a long new word: "impotence". While doing this and running, I passed a birch tree that had a tumour on its side that reminded me of a cunt. The wind wasn't a howling storm, it was a friendly but decisive neighborhood wind. It rustled the dry leaves and lifted up a plastic bag like a giant butterfly. It lifted my parents off the ground and blew them here and there, like falling leaves, but in reverse. They continued arguing. Soon I couldn't hear them any more. They were gone.
In the middle of the night I was jolted awake by a sound. I sat up in my bed in the back room and listened. I heard the hum of the freezer in the bar, and the clock ticking. The pool made a kind of music, the sound of a tiled space with 350 cubic meters of water in it. Suddenly, there was a thump. My skin pulled itself away from the rest of me, trying to run. Someone was there. I breathed very quietly, got up, and groped around for my flashlight.
I sneaked barefoot into the bar. The exit lights in the swimming hall produced a soft, red glow that reflected off the water, the glass, and the metal surfaces in the bar. It was empty. In the lobby I shone the flashlight around, but saw nobody. I crept towards the men's dressing room. Slowly, like in a dream, I pulled open the door into the pitch black. I turned on the flashlight again, inching my feet forward on the cold floor and letting the beam of light creep up and down the corridors between the rows of lockers. I screamed when I saw something on a bench, and quickly turned the light back to it before I'd panic and run. It was a pile of clothes. A pair of boots was tucked neatly under the bench.
I shoved open the door to the shower room, turned on the lights and held my big, heavy flashlight like a baseball bat. The light in the white-tiled room was blinding. I saw with a glance that it was empty. I crossed the glistening floor quickly and pulled open the door to the sauna. The boy from my dream was sitting there, naked.
"What the fuck are you doing here?” I asked, and my voice was rippled and high. "I'm waiting for you," he said. I looked at him and he looked back steadily. He held my gaze for a long time. I turned down the lights and set my flashlight on the floor. It made a circle of light on the ceiling. I undressed and stood naked at the door. A draft came from the ventilator and touched my nipples and they wrinkled. I went to him and bent my face in front of his and he kissed me.
The sauna was cold and the wooden benches felt like cool silk as we lay down. We said nothing and made love. The boy was sinewy and strong, and his mouth and his hair and his fingers and his neck and his hips and his ass and his dick felt good.
V. The Globe
Karppi strode along the school corridor and rattled his cigarette lighter against the coat racks. He felt a balloon just under his lungs. The Complex Girl had said he could stop by again that evening. The coat racks ended at a storage room door, which was ajar. Karppi glanced around and sneaked in. A gift for my woman, he thought, and closed the door.
Tall rolls of maps stood in the corner, and shelves were stacked with stuffed dead animals, boxes of chalk, tambourines, and triangles. Karppi thought about giving her a stuffed owl, but finally chose the smaller one of two globes that lit up inside. It fit in his backpack perfectly. He peeked out the door, saw that the corridor was empty, and continued on his way. He stopped rattling his lighter.
He heard a door open behind him, but kept walking calmly. "Karppi," he heard Hiiva's shrill voice. He pretended not to notice and kept walking. The home ec teacher’s heels rattled against the floor as she tried to catch up with him. Karppi sighed and stopped. "Were you in the storage just now?" Hiiva asked. "No," he said. "Could you come in here a minute?" Hiiva proposed.
They went into the home ec room, and Hiiva took him into the small space in the back that she called her office. She sat him down in a chair across from her desk. She smiled at him, wrinkling her forehead. Karppi fixed his eyes on a pencil sharpener on her desk, and moved it slightly to the left.
"I have been wanting to have a talk with you,” Hiiva said. "I think your behavior has changed lately." Karppi moved the sharpener in a different direction. When he glanced up, she was still smiling. "If something is bothering you, I think it'd be a good idea to talk to someone. The study counselor. Or maybe a teacher you feel you can trust."
Karppi looked at the poster behind Hiiva's head. It was the food pyramid, clumsily drawn bread and butter and grains and fish in pallid colors. It made him not want to eat at all. Hiiva smiled warmly.
Karppi sighed. This was the point when you were supposed to tell them about Problems, reveal that your parents argued, and look insecure. Karppi guessed that it made good gossip for the teachers' room. He just couldn't think of anything right now.
Hiiva reached her hand across the desk and tried to touch him. He almost pulled back, but changed his mind and leaned forward, letting her hand rest on his arm. "I lost my virginity last night,” he said. Hiiva lifted her hand off his. She moved the sharpener back to its original position.
VI. Meriläiskä’s Lectures
"I wasted my life," Meriläiskä had once joked to The Complex Girl, "by not becoming a boatswain." She was concerned. A smart young woman like that, and Finland full of schools. Meriläiskä herself was interested in the fine arts. She painted. She preferred cubism. You could paint ordinary things, only first you broke them into pieces.
She dropped her crates of donuts when she walked into the bar at 6 a.m. and saw the boy, from the back only. He was looking at the pool through the glass. He jolted when he heard the racket, and seeing her, rushed to her help. He clumsily picked up some donuts and put them back in the grate. "You think we sell pastries here that have been on the floor?" she snapped. "Besides. We're closed." The Complex Girl walked in from the back room in her nightie. "I see," said Meriläiskä. "Just make sure there's no talk."
"His name is Karppi," the girl said. The boy reached out his hand and Meriläiskä shook it. She felt short of breath. "You're too young," she said. "You’re still in school." "Yes," he replied.
Meriläiskä went behind the bar and started arranging the pastries into the glass display. It was the girl's job, but she stood with her arms hanging limp and stared at the boy. He walked into the back and came out with his backpack. "I'm going," he said, and left.
His parents would ask him where he'd spent the night. Meriläiskä didn't know if the girl understood these things. Her stamp of the outcast had already rubbed off on the girl. If the villagers found out about her 23-year old employee sleeping with high school kids, life could turn difficult. Meriläiskä had struggled to make the girl see there were options.
"Shit," she said to the girl, and shoved the empty crates to the other side of the bar. "He's a child."
"You usually have a sense of humor," the girl said.
"I took you in from the kindness of my heart," Meriläiskä pointed out. "I talked to you about education and cubism. And now, this is what you're going to do? Stay here? Love. Wait. Die waiting."
The girl looked the other way and pretended to be studying the pinball machine. "Is it because he is the same age as your son?" she asked.
"You know," Meriläiskä said. "That didn't cross my mind." She took a rag and started wiping the tables. The girl went behind the bar and turned the key in the cash register. Yellow numbers lit up on the green screen.
VII. The Boat
I stood in a red puddle and tapped my sneaker against the blacktop. I'd been leaving a red streak for a mile. It was raining like hell and the color was coming off my suede pants. Three cars had passed and nobody was picking Karppi and me up. We were two fools in the pouring rain, and on a downhill slope no less.
Karppi stomped his foot in the puddle and splashed me. He looked anxious. I gave him some chewing gum. An oil truck came speeding down the hill and drenched us. I waved my middle finger at it. It started braking and stopped half a mile down the road. I started to run, my wet hair slapping my face, echoing Karppi's steps on the wet asphalt behind me.
We got to the cab and the door opened. The fat driver asked, "where are you girls going?" I said, "where are you going?" and he said, "to the Turku harbor." "Fine," I said, and we climbed in. Karppi said nothing.
The driver said he wouldn't have bothered but his daughter was the same age and he didn't have the heart to leave us. He wondered what we were doing hitchhiking downhill. I told him we'd been arguing about which way to go. Karppi looked skinny and his long hair hung wet, almost covering his face. All the way to Turku the driver thought Karppi was a girl. Karppi just stared silently at the road.
In the harbor we said thank you and hopped off. It was still raining, so we headed for the ferry terminal. We took the escalator and walked into the plastic tube leading to the boat. At the gate there was a security guard and I asked him, "is there any work?" "You need to call the office and get an interview," he said, turning his back and looking at the blond woman at the Reception.
Karppi and I went back downstairs and sat on the plastic chairs. I splurged on coffee and danishes because we'd stretched our budget by hitchhiking. "We should have brought the globe along," I said. "At least we could keep rain and talk about places to go." Karppi said it was an old globe and all the countries had changed since.
Suddenly he got up and kissed me hard on the lips. He asked me to give him my purse, and he walked to the newsstand with it. He bought a lot of stuff, and the newsstand woman started to look nervous as she piled everything on the counter. She didn't want to turn her back to him, and struggled to reach on the shelves without turning. Finally, Karppi was done. He gave her the money and she counted it twice, glancing at me.
Karppi came back and handed me the plastic bag. It contained at least ten chocolate bars, bags of liquorice and fruit candy, toothpaste, a map of Sweden, a ferry timetable, a newspaper, Vogue, and a porn magazine. "It's for you," he said. "I'm going home."
He turned and walked out of the terminal. I ran after him. Outside, I threw the plastic bag at him and everything scattered on the concrete. I grabbed some gum balls and threw them at him. He picked up the rain-soaked porn magazine and walked toward the buses. I followed.
We got on a bus. It was warm and smelled of bananas. We sat side by side and Karppi read his magazine. It was dark when we got off at a crossroads a couple of miles from the Municipal Complex. Karppi walked ahead and I followed. I slowed down and hoped he'd stop to wait for me. He didn't. He kept walking until I couldn't see him through the darkness anymore, and barely heard the rap of his steps in the rain.
VIII. The Coffee
Meriläiskä poured more hot coffee for the home economics teacher. Hiiva inhaled the aroma deeply, and her hand shook a little when she lifted the cup to her lips. Meriläiskä had first thought she was a school nurse. There was something about her that made Meriläiskä think that. School nurses reminded Meriläiskä of sanitary napkins, and she felt slightly nauseous.
"To run away like that," said Hiiva and shook her head. "Teenagers do that sort of thing sometimes,” Meriläiskä pointed out. "Do they?” asked Hiiva. "Fourteen-year olds disappear with grown women all the time, you think?" Meriläiskä shook her head. "I thought he was fifteen. And I don’t think they’ve disappeared."
Meriläiskä had barely opened the cafe. Hiiva was the first customer that morning. She had wanted to know if the police had contacted Meriläiskä, if she knew anything. Meriläiskä wasn't sure why exactly she hadn't bothered to tell the teacher that the kids had already returned. They had only been gone one day and one night, and Meriläiskä thought it a bit exaggerated that Karppi’s parents had called the police and the school. Maybe it was because they knew about his spending the night here a few days ago, in the Complex with Meriläiskä’s weird foster kid who was an adult in years if not in maturity. The Complex Girl was sleeping off her fever in the back room. Meriläiskä suspected that the boy was in bed as well, with a hell of a head cold.
She decided to let the home economics teacher get to work, still trembling with excitement and anger and with donut sugar stuck in the corners of her mouth. Someone would tell her that the boy's parents had called and everything was fine. The other teachers would look at her with a hint of gleeful pity, because she was the last to hear.
IX. The Pool
The water fills my ears and hums. I sway slowly. I am floating, staring at the skylight window above. I see gray sky behind it. I see someone lean against a plastic bubble and look down. It is the boy from my dream. I know he is an angel because he can hear the sounds in the cool gray light. I can only hear a muffled, blue hum.
My head sinks lower as I exhale. The water ripples and I bob gently in it. It climbs onto my neck and face and tickles. Will the dream still come? Will I press against the soft, cool skin and fall peacefully asleep, so as to awaken?
The water quivers. I push out the air from my lungs. I sink, and sink, and bubbles come out of my mouth and reach up into the light