|Z in Convent Courtyard|
Last day … forever?
Would not. Stop that. I had the apartment to myself this weekend, with Alda gone to Sigulda and Mazsalaca on her own adventure—there would be plenty of time alone to contemplate … to contemplate whatever might require contemplating.
I answered my phone.
“Shall I go out to the bus station to meet you?”
“No, no! What if we somehow walk past each other in the crowd?”
“I’ll be standing out on Doma Square, waiting for you.”
“I’ll find you.”
“I’ll watch for you.”
I grabbed my coat, threw it on, and trotted downstairs and toward the street. I admit … it was a fast trot. A skip. An almost sprint. One more day. No matter what, one more day.
I stood near the Doma cathedral, in plain view, the cobblestone square spread out before me, the blue sky overhead, the tourists milling along the edges of the square—and I knew myself not one of them.
“Could you tell us, please?”
“Excuse us, could you … where can we find … “
“If you could help us. We are looking for the Lido restaurant.”
I craned my neck to look past them all. Yup, that was a grin, ear to ear. I sighed in undisguised irritation at the interruption and the obstacle in my view, and turned back toward the circle of befuddled faces. By the time I had explained to them where to find Lido, Andris stood at their perimeter, suppressing laughter.
Oh, at last they dispersed. Or was it just that I had shoved my way through them.
“Took you for a local again, eh?” He wrapped me in his arms and held tight, chuckling into my hair.
I stood on tiptoe and hugged back, tight. “Is that a good thing?”
He looked at me. “Well. You are.”
“Saw you coming. I still know that walk.”
“Figured you would. Spotted you across the square.”
It was the ocean between. It was those little faces at those windows, one window on this shore, one window on that shore. There was no greater power, no greater hold on anyone’s heart.
I let go. Some seventeen years ago, I sliced my heart in half, and I let go. But today, for just today, I would take this day as mine, and share it with no one.
“Drīkst?” I asked, tucking my arm into his, asking if I might.
He squeezed my arm against his side. “Bet protams.” But of course.
The day, and Rīga within it, unfolded before us. A white canvas. A blank sheet. An open invitation to adventure.
As before, back in Ventspils, we started to play that game of “do you remember.” This place, that place, this corner, that corner, a meal shared here, and a long pause taken there. We were flipping through an old photo album, walking inside of it, and it was all wonderful, even when it came with the occasional pang. Our very last evening together near 17 years ago, as I recall, was spent here, in Vecrīga, Old Town, and Andris took me by the hand and pulled me into a skip. We skipped down the alleys and narrow streets of cobblestone, like boisterous children, only it was all a sham. If anyone could make me laugh, even through tears, he could, but that night, even he failed. By early morning, my heart was completely broken. Even as I knew, getting on that plane back to the United States, that I was doing the right thing.
I still knew that. But my borrowed joy, even as the clock ticked without mercy, was pure.
It was beautiful. So beautiful. I was struck, again and again, by the beauty of this old city. The old buildings with their little windows, window boxes spilling flowers, church spires rising beyond, shops gleaming with golden amber …
We strolled in and out of those narrow streets, retracing old paths and carving out new ones. We visited Rīga Pils, the Rīga Palace where the president traditionally was resident. We traced old routes past an apartment where Andris had once lived when a student at the University of Latvia, working on his degrees at the Music Conservatory.
|Latvian flags outside Riga Pils|
|Guard outside Riga Pils|
|Lived up there...|
And there, Hotel Rīga, for that very first and fateful meeting. The flags hanging over the door were now our own, but back then, ah back then … and even though Andris was but a boy, and I a girl, I recognized and understood the tension in him when he walked into the lobby under a red flag with sickle and hammer in its corner. He hated the place then, he seemed to seethe in it now, and I remembered that he had come to Ventspils, on a train that time, and offered to take me to the Rīga Art Museum. There, we could talk in relative safety, two kids with their heads together, discussing Latvian painters and art movements. I knew that I knew my stuff … my father, after all, was a painter, and there was a time when his work, too, appeared on these walls. But I was impressed with the boy who knew so much about Latvian art and artistic style. A hard life could beat knowledge into a young mind. His pride in his nation’s achievements in the arts was obvious.
So had many survived, knowledge quietly honed, spirits preserved in stubborn pride, however hidden behind a mask. Those gray faces I remember from that time, they were all wearing masks. I could see that now. They had taken them off, and beneath was the pink of life, as in any human face wanting to survive, and more.
I needn’t worry. Andris knew my tastes and fancies all too well. He ordered a bowl made out of dark rye bread for me, filled with wild forest mushrooms in a cream sauce. He ordered fish, an avid fisherman himself who never tired of anything that came with fins and gills, and we shared a bowl of lēces, lentils stewed with ham chunks. We talked in near whispers over our tasty meal, as if fearing to disturb the medieval trance.
Andris asked if I might mind going into the orthodox church. Why not? My mother had told me about this very one, this church that was a short walk from the Freedom Monument, from Bastejkalns, where she ran through the park and across the bridge to school every day. She would stop here, at this church, she told me, to ask for help with her exams. You just never know. She was a Lutheran, as most Latvians were, but a church was a church, and wasn’t God the same for all of us …
Andris purchased several long, thin beeswax candles at a window just inside the church door. He handed me two.
“Perhaps there is some prayer … “ he said. “I will say a prayer for you.”
He led me around the church as he had done so long ago in the art museum, explaining the icons, the many saints, their purpose and the church traditions. I watched him place his candles on tall tables, where others already burned, a thousand prayers twinkling their tiny flames, in hopes of being seen from somewhere far away yet ever near. One more tiny flame. A silent prayer, between him and a higher power.
I kept my two candles in my pocket, careful not to snap them. I would take them across the ocean.
Andris paused, seeming to forget me in some silent reverie, his eye roaming the flowers. I slipped my arm out from his, and I walked the line of flowers, breathing deep, taking it all in, so much color, the air perfumed, the roses, the carnations, the chrysanthemums, the dahlias, the daisies, the gladiolas, I couldn’t possibly name them all. It was another prayer said, a prayer of the earth, an offering, a show of worship. Rīga was blooming.
When I returned to Andris’ side, he was standing on the sidewalk, gray-haired man suddenly looking like a boy. He held three red roses, wrapped in white paper, in his hands.
“I’m not even sure I know how to do this … “ he shrugged, and I burst out laughing, stood on tiptoe, took the roses he held out to me, and held my old friend, my friend for life, close, close. Held my palm for a moment against his cheek, smooth now, bearded then, but it was all the same, younger, older, we had come a long and twisted path, one I could never quite explain, but felt no need to explain.
“Where would you like to go? Wherever you want to go…”
I held the roses to me, and thought. There, I pointed. A mere block further. I had read about it somewhere, the Skyline Bar, at the top of another hotel, a place on the 26th floor with a view over the city. I wanted to sit in the sky for a while, with roses in my hand and candles in my pocket, and share a drink with my old friend.
“Not bad,” I sipped. Hot with cardamom and cinnamon sprinkled on top, a slice of orange speared on a red stick, and a maraschino cherry. Nor was it especially good. But we sipped, and talked, and laughed, and sat and looked out over Rīga, ancient city made new again in our eyes. One more story added to her cobblestones and crumbling stone. One more memory.
“You’ll need a restroom before we go,” Andris started to look around when we were ready to go down to street level again. I chortled. I felt so known. Me and my twitchy bladder, some things never change, not even over decades.
On and on into the newer section of Rīga, we walked arm in arm again, turning in and out of streets, and I was knocking my head back again to stare at the buildings rising over me. Rīga was Europe’s number one city for art deco architecture.
Looping through the city, we came back around to Bastejkalns park. It was my favorite. How many times had we already walked here? One more time, once more. Who knew when again, or even if … no, I had promised myself that morning that I would not brood on farewells, for once or for forever. But I could see the first twinge of lavender in the sky. The sun was dropping.
We followed the winding Rīga Canal into the center of the park. Trees leaned over the water. Other couples strolled, arm in arm. It was Saturday evening, after all, already evening, and parks were created for such slow, easy strolls, and whispered conversations about nothing.
We looked at each other. Shall we?
(To be continued…)
* Iela means street or avenue.