A City without a Name, the 1980’s, Finland.
We were standing in two rows next to the gymnasium wall, the taller kids behind us on top of two long, wooden benches placed side by side, and we, the shorter and younger ones on the floor in front of them.
We were waiting.
The gymnasium floors were newly waxed and shiny, and the color of a honeycomb. The reflections of the old, tall windows looked like long ghosts on the glossy surface. Outside behind the windows it was winter. The snow on the sidewalks reflected back into the air, and from there into the gymnasium, making the room around us a bit lighter, whiter.
We were waiting.
And then the music broke into the room. Silvery metal piano tunes awoke all around us as the music teacher’s skillful fingers slid across the blank keys. The music was shy at first, a slow, melancholy river being weighed down by a sad landscape of naked trees and endless sky. The river moved, silvery, past the trees and despite the gloomy sky, started to rumble, rumble, beating against rocks and logs, defying them, until finally breaking free, expanding and exploding into a gleaming waterfall of strength and hope.
Like the music, I too, had for a moment become free.
I was floating somewhere high up in the ceiling with the piano tunes all around me, my fists softening and releasing, a silent space descending inside of me as the music slowly transported me away, filling me with the river rumbling and a sky that was endless, white, eternal…
We’d been placed side by side in the row as usual. “Let’s put these two girlfriends together,” the good-natured teacher’s assistant said with a wink as she organized our rows before the beginning of choir practice, not knowing that we were nothing of the sort, probably thinking that she was doing me a favor by placing me next to the girl that some people still mistook as my best friend.
I felt her next to me as an agonizing shadow in the corner of my eye. There she stood, so proud and tough. Unmovable like a pole stuck in cement, getting ready to sing her angel song. I felt her arm press against mine. It was covered by a grey, bristly sweater, her favorite one. It had some kind of black birds on it marching across the chest. Maybe crows?
I was standing by her side, stiff as a board, as usual.
White Rabbit: “What were you so afraid of?”
Lisa: “Her eyes.”
White Rabbit: “But why?”
Lisa: “The way they were watching me. Wherever I went, whatever I did, there they were, always with that critical look. Taking note of every little mistake I made, always scanning for problems, looking for a sign of weakness and hoping to find it. So she could punish me for it later. Like on this particular day, when the music made me so unaware of my surroundings and myself. She couldn’t stand it. That I became happy like that. That I became myself.
“Of course it only lasted for a minute.”
When the third song reached its peak I started noticing little stars floating around in the room, and soon after that, little black clouds started gliding past my eyes. There was a faint ringing in my ears too, as I suddenly realized that my head felt very light.
“I think I have to sit,” I started, turning to Maya, but she shook her head briskly.
So I kept singing a bit longer, trying to ignore the ringing and the stars, but the world around me was becoming increasingly patched up with darkness now, and the room seemed to be moving too, dangerously. I knew that my feet wouldn’t be able to hold my weight much longer.
I dropped down on my knees.
“Get up,” she murmured through her teeth, still facing forward, avoiding eye contact. An impatient hand was yanking at my sleeve, pulling me back up into the row. But my body felt so heavy, so very heavy. I collapsed back on my knees, remaining there swaying back and forth for a moment like a reed, trying to get up, but feeling too weak to do it.
When I finally fell I was like a deer falling after being hit by a hunter’s bullet, eyes wide open, silent and accepting, staring into the hunter’s eyes as she came to retrieve her prey.
“Oh My God!”
Maya’s voice was tired and thick with embarrassment. I saw her head floating above mine as she gazed down at me with awkward disgust. I looked back at her from the floor, too tired to care. Other curious faces were joining in a circle around hers, peeking down at me. I closed my eyes to them and chose to look into the darkness instead.
“They said it was because I didn’t eat breakfast. Because the sugar in my blood was low. Look, they gave me this.” I held out my hand. Two cubes of table sugar were sitting on my palm. Maya looked at them suspiciously and wrinkled her nose.
It was recess. We were standing in the Pistachio green hallway filled with prattle, jackets and shoes everywhere, digging for our own through the rubble. As we finished dressing we set out towards the yard.
“Your face was green when they carried you out,” She said as we walked past the stairway crowded by some rambunctious third graders.
I could still see her face before me, carefully watching. Her intense eyes that followed me through the crowd, puzzled, as the music teacher and the assistant carried me out the door. I remember seeing her upside-down, like the rest of the room. I was limp in their arms, but awake, my head dangling towards the floor with my knees up in the air – a roasted pig on a stick being carried away by cheerful aborigines.
We kept walking in silence.
I thought about the music, the song. It was still lingering inside of me, hiding in my belly, like the warmth of the day, all captured and coiled up.
“You know…” Maya started, leisurely, pondering each word with a slightly pleased look about her. “When you sing, your nose goes like this.”
And she stopped in the middle of the corridor and waited patiently for a group of chattering kids to walk by. Then, slowly turning to face me, she started flapping her nostrils, like a bull, ridiculously, eyes closed, mouth pea-sized, with a holier-than-thou-expression on her face, her forehead all wrinkled and comical, looking like a priest, or some uptight governess with a hair bun made of steel, some self-important fool – someone like me – who’d better never, ever, forget who exactly she is.