by Zinta Aistars
I let the phone ring three times, then push the off button. Can’t.
I’m standing in the tirgus laukums, the open air market in Ventspils, and watching my family and friends milling around in a happy bunch, waiting for me to rejoin them. My head is still spinning from all the stimulus of the day—returning to Ventspils after such a long absence, just a few years shy of two decades, and trying to absorb it all. I can’t. I can’t.
But there is no time to take things slow. So much to see, so many places and so many faces, so many people with whom I wish to connect again. I’m only two days into this trip to Latvia, and I’m already feeling a little panicked at how to squeeze it all in. A lifetime into a few days. I’m very nearly ready to weep.
The phone rings. Ah yes, caller ID.
We’d met for the first time here, in Ventspils, on Ganibu Iela, where he lived, then 15 years old as was I, with his parents. I had come to Latvia with mine. That trip, too, was an onslaught of nearly overwhelming stimuli on my burdened sensibilities. So much to take in… suddenly, the world my parents and grandparents had told me so much about, since birth, and presented to me as true home, while living in America was to be considered living in exile … that very nearly imaginary world was real. It was real. I was here, in this country whose language I’d spoken before I spoke English. I was here, in this Soviet-oppressed land where people and places were gray, grim, subdued, yet with sparks of vibrant life breaking through here and there, just enough to let me know … we, this Latvian nation, would survive. An empire built on oppression and fear could not last. Even I, a mere teen, understood that much. It was just a matter of time…
I saw that spark in the boy who played his guitar for me. He was passionate about music. In music, his soul could soar, speak those thoughts and emotions that a Soviet government would otherwise censure. I was passionate about literature, and until I was well into my 20s, I wrote creatively only in my native Latvian language. My first tentative experiments in poetry and short stories were all in Latvian.
We understood each other.
It was many years before I understood that look on his face when I returned to Latvia years later with my fiancée. Why that odd look? I wondered. Had I done something to anger or hurt my friend?
There were, as yet, no signs of rust on the Iron Curtain. It held firm and immovable.
Funny, how the numbers worked out. It was about 17 years before we would stand face to face again, on common soil. And the Iron Curtain fell soon after. As did many barriers in our lives. Even while others remained.
I stared at the ringing phone in my hand. Caller ID: Andris. Yes, I said, I would rise from those ten tables. Yes, I would wait for his call. Tonight. Yes. I would wait for him. He would stand at the street corner and wait for me. I would come outside. After that, I had no idea.
This time, though, I already knew how the story would end. I was here for a visit. My heart was free. Unbound and untethered, and I had chosen a life of solitude, in pursuit of my art and an eventual life up north in Michigan—where, it suddenly occurred to me, the surroundings and even the local culture strongly resembled that of my fatherland.
When I told my family I was going out tonight, they handed me keys without question. We’ll have the light on for you, they said.
Why did I suddenly feel like a kid? Like a schoolgirl sneaking out on the town on a Saturday night, my heart beating to see that boy who played in the band, the one with the black leather jacket and long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail?
(To be continued…)