Monday, October 18, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 6 (From Then to Now)

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.

“Tu piecelies no tiem desmit galdiem…” he had said. Rise from those ten tables of hospitality and make your escape … we had talked of meeting already tonight, Saturday night, and not just on Sunday. So, I wasn’t the only one anxious … yes, to meet again, the two of us, my partner in a lifetime of dappled crimes, crimes of the heart, crimes of kindred souls, sometimes so closely aligned in our frequencies that I thought of Andris almost as more of a mirror self than another and separate person. For years, we had finished each other’s sentences, and even begun them before the other could speak those yet unspoken thoughts.

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.

Letters flew back and forth between countries since that meeting. Well, no, not quite flew. Letters were unglued at the border, behind the Iron Curtain where he lived, and Soviet censors read our letters before they were allowed to take flight. Some never arrived. We learned to write in something of a code, what to say, what not to say, what to disguise in metaphor. A friendship blossomed, perhaps even a crush, but more was unrealistic … that Iron Curtain…

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.

We each had our own lives, each in our own country, spouses, children, artistic pursuits. I earned my degree in literature and he earned his in music. When he joined the new rock group Zodiak, their first recording sold many millions of copies across the Soviet Union, and far away, in the suburbs of Cincinnati, where I lived with my family, I unwrapped the vinyl album that had been sent to me from overseas and gazed long at the photo of my friend on the back, the guitarist.

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.

So long ago. And so much had happened since. Andris had lived in the United States for some years, I had come to Latvia and unpacked my bags with some measure of permanence. Still, we each had our own bonds to our own country… family, obligations, heart strings. We had turned our relationship this way and that, and today, it was something else again. Yet still strong. Because another 17 years had passed, but there was no question we wanted to meet again.

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.

Watching the clock near the hour of that second call, I considered how much I had changed over the past 17 years, and not just physically. I was far more independent, and my independence was hard won and a source of great pride to me. Life had been harsh, but it had not broken me. I was strong, even if I still knew how to weep, openly, with abandon. I no longer needed anyone to hold me up, or to lean on, and I preferred a solitary path. Sure, I had made a connection here and there, but increasingly it seemed to me—it was no longer what I wanted or needed most. I had given my heart, my time, my care, my nurturing to those I had loved, and now, it was my turn. I had begun to enjoy hearing my own voice in my head and in my heart, and I was curious to hear more.

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?

The phone rang on the minute, and I slipped on my coat and hurried to the door. Paused. Then opened it. I stepped outside on that ancient street, and there he was … not the boy in the black leather jacket with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail … but a man with neatly trimmed gray hair, hands thrust into the pockets of his jeans, dark tweed jacket pushed back. Only the eyes were the same. Dark eyes that always saw right through me, and into me, and saw me, whole, saw me, pure, saw me, of all ages and both places, timeless, heart on my sleeve, strong yet soft, saw me, the 15-year-old and the 52-year-old, simultaneously, saw me, with the gray in my hair and the lines at the corners of my eyes and the blush in my cheeks that was as always, still his friend, still his kin, still connected, still, only now, after fumbling the keys in the door to lock them behind me, trotting down the sidewalk and flying into those upraised arms.

(To be continued…)

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