Friday, October 29, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 17 (The Darling)

by Zinta Aistars

Oh yes, that, which I had dutifully ignored all day long, but now had to ask: “Have we enough time?”

The boat cruise on the Rīga Canal, circling around the city and out into the Daugava River and back into the canal again, took 35 minutes. Andris glanced at his watch. I refused to wear one. His bus back to Ventspils was departing at a little after 8 p.m.

“Still enough time. Shall we?”

The captain of the sweet little boat, Darling, offered us the interior cabin. It might be a bit cool on the water, he said. Nice, sure, with its cushioned seats and brass trimmings on cherry-stained wood … but Andris and I only glanced at each other to know we were both in agreement. We wanted to be outside, in the fresh evening air coming off the water, there to witness the approaching night, wind whipping about us. I had never seen Rīga from this perspective. As it turned out, neither had Andris. We were both bubbling over with excitement, a couple of kids again.

And yet we weren’t. We were not children. We were not 15 years old anymore. We were no longer bonded by our vows, but by something else neither of us named.

The back of the boat was a tight spot, two small seats facing each other, and the Latvian flag flying from the stern. A life ring hung on both sides, a white circle and the word DARLING on it, and Andris snapped a photo of me beneath it, and I of him beneath his, both of us beaming. What fun! Everywhere we looked, in whatever direction, Rīga astounded with her beauty, and the evening sky, slowly turning pink and lavender and yellow and orange and streaked with threads of gold and red, made us breathless.

We were off! Darling did a little shimmy, bobbed a bit this way and that, and pulled out into the canal. Her engine hummed, and the water parted to either side of us. A breeze picked up and teased the flag, then whipped it about. We went under the graceful arc of a bridge, then another, and another, and there was the National Opera House to one side, up on the hill, white and lit from beneath, and there, the University of Latvia on the other side, and there, a tea house, and there …

… we were snapping photos in every direction. It was impossible not to. Every moment brought a new and perfect scene to our eyes. Occasionally, we caught each other in the camera’s eye, and the changing light painted our faces.


“Oh! Look! Over this way! How beautiful…”

I thought for a moment of my birth city, Chicago, where I had spent many of my childhood summers and special occasions and holidays, even long after my family had moved to Michigan, and how I had never quite seen it, never for what it was, until I had taken a river ride on a boat through its interior and then out onto Lake Michigan, to look at it from a bit of a distance. I was awestruck. I’d never realized what a stunning skyline Chicago had, how diverse her architecture, how the light could paint skyscrapers and catch in their windows and bring the city to life.

Now, I saw Rīga with new eyes. The one city had no resemblance to the other whatsoever. Skyscrapers were rare here. The few that rose above the red-roofed buildings almost stuck out like sore thumbs. I didn’t like them. Their hard lines were jarring against the solid old buildings of this centuries-old city. Their architecture looked failed here, amateurish, unfinished. But most of Rīga consisted of those old art nouveau buildings, like nowhere else, and tall church spires, some sharp, like Gertrude’s church, others rounded and with shoulders, like the Dom cathedral, or a combination of both, like St. Peter’s. She was old grace, a grand old dame, her age that which gave her such personality. She didn’t have to aspire to look like anyone else but herself—the pearl of the Baltic Sea.

Our little Darling puttered around the curves of the canal, under bridges and through tunnels and out into the lavender light again. Green banks rose up to either side, beautifully landscaped, and trees dipped limbs into the water and leaned to watch their own reflections in its mirror. Darling picked up speed and a cool evening breeze felt silken over our faces.

A turn, and we purred past the Central Market, the Autoosta, or bus station which I did not in particular wish to see … and out onto the Daugava River. So many Latvian folk songs put this great river to poetry, sang about her wide banks, her clear water pouring out into the sea, and how she carried in her the souls of the Latvian nation living alongside her.

The sinking sun was lavish with her gold. Surely I’d never witnessed such magical light. I was speechless. Nor did Andris say a word. We only looked at each other from time to time, our eyes wide, lips parted in awe, skin glowing with golden light and sheer joy. This I would remember. This ride, always. This little boat moving out into the river, the water in smooth waves parting into a rippling wake behind us, the silken breeze, the fresh cool air whipping my hair about, the little Latvian flag slapping about its pole on the stern, and the panorama of Rīga, that incomparable ages-old skyline, rising to our side. I felt under a spell. I never wanted to wake.

I imagined, for just one short instant, that boat pulling out into the Gulf, then out to sea, and steering for the unreachable horizon.

The Darling pulled east, turned just past the harbor pier, and back into the Rīga Canal.

We slowed, and our wake bobbed the boats and the gleaming white yachts in the marina. Autumn colors had inflamed the trees on the banks, and they dipped golden branches toward the water. A couple of fisherman watched us pass and waved. We smiled and waved back. The canal narrowed, turned south, and we were heading toward the city center again.

Time. There it was again, that hungry beast.

Andris held out his hand for me to take as I climbed out of the Darling and back onto shore at Bastejkalns park. I held my three red roses in my other hand, my camera slipped back into my pocket.

We walked in silence.

We walked south, toward the bus station.

“I’ll buy my ticket now,” Andris said quietly, his voice dropped to near whisper. “We can go sit somewhere then for a little while. Until…”

I nodded.

We walked in silence again, and then he started to talk, of some nonsense, and it was as if suddenly I couldn’t understand this language anymore, that beast out there, it was slinking into me, and I felt a wall come down, a mask, and the windows of my house went dark, the doors slammed shut, the welcome mat was pulled in. Andris stopped in the road, turned to look at me.

I stood there, a stranger.

I had learned how to protect myself. Not all of that was good. But it was still a means of survival.

“Forget all that,” he said, erasing whatever he had been saying, and came back to the instant, shoved time aside, as brutally as it inflicted itself on us here, on this sidewalk, on this lavender evening, if only for one moment before it would win again. He pulled me up to him, held me, hard, almost too hard, and I stood inside that circle of his arms, unmoving.

Time. Time won again. Andris grabbed for my hand and we walked quickly to the bus station. I studied the patterns on the wall while he bought his ticket. My three red roses hung in my hand, blooms to floor. Seventeen years ago. Seventeen years ago this moment shattered me. I would not be shattered again. I. Would. Not. And I would not cry.

He was standing in front of me again. “We still have some time. Let’s go… let’s just go.”

His hand searched for mine, found it, held it hard again, like a naughty child in danger of running away… but where would I run? Where was home? Instead, Andris steered us into the first pub he could find, surely Rīga’s rattiest, a hole in the wall with holes in the wall where electric sockets showed an array of loose wires at shoulder height when we sat at a table, the only two in the place.

“Careful!” he reached across the table as my shoulder sagged toward the wall.

Then he did that thing he does. Had always done so well. Even as I was thinking, must pull myself out of this, must pull free, can’t waste this moment, when it may be the last … the last, and who knows, ever. I shook myself like a dog shaking off rain while he went to the bar to order me a beer. If anyone could make me laugh … but not even Andris could. Yet there it was, a weak and watery grin.

“Bar’s out of beer.”

“Hm?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Yup. This bar has no beer. No Guinness for you.”

“Out of beer. The bar has no beer.”

“I ordered a couple mugs of coffee, yes?”

“Sure.” And the waitress, looking bored, brought us two bright red mugs.

I pulled a small wooden heart from my bag and slid it across the table at him. Just like that, his face went to stone. I could see he recognized it. A Keweenaw heart. He had carved it himself. A thousand years ago, in a previous lifetime, when vows were made that floated out on the waters of Lake Superior. Our window sills were littered with wooden hearts and smooth Superior stones.

He took the wooden heart in his hand and turned it in his fingers, frowning at it. “You’re giving me your heart back?”

I dropped my eyes to my coffee mug, smiled, shook my head. “So what do I want with it?” I teased. He didn’t answer. “No. I have dozens of your hearts back home. Just thought you might want one.”

He breathed. Turned the heart again in his fingers and studied it. “Yes. I remember. And I used to carve little animals for you, too. A squirrel…”

“And a turtle…” I sipped my coffee, melting. “And fish. Still have them on my shelf.”

He took one of the River Canal boat tickets and placed the heart on its back, tracing it with a pen from his pocket. Started to scribble something. A note. I reached for the heart, took it back for a moment, scribbled something on its back and slid it back to him. He slid the ticket to me. We both read. He slid the heart into his shirt pocket, over his heart.

“Heart to heart,” he said, tapping his pocket.

I slid the ticket with his message into my bag. Were those tears in his eyes? I bit back mine.

It was time.

He reached for my hand again and we trotted back toward the bus station, having waited nearly too long. He would be late. We stopped at the tunnel entrance that crossed over to the station. Time was now. Now. Held on, held on, held on hard and rocked, held each other to break bones, but held on.

“So grateful you came … thank you…”

I nodded into his shoulder.

“Pagaidām,” he said. “Mīlulīt. Lidz nākošai reizei.” For now. Darling. Until next time.

I pulled back a moment to look at him. To memorize that face, alongside the faces of a young boy, a young man, an older one now.

“I can’t say otherwise,” he said. “But... pagaidām. One never knows in life, does one?”

I smiled, touched his cheek. Kissed him lightly and let him go. Once again, I let him go. And I refused to look back as I heard his steps on the stairs descending into the tunnel, my own echoing on the cobblestones of Vecrīga.

(To be continued…)

1 comment:

  1. Your writing is truly amazing, I started reading and can't stop!