Translated by Ieva Melgalve
Excerpt from the “Little Bump” 2020
We all came from tiny towns and didn’t really know what we were looking for at this school. The diploma guaranteed long working hours at the factory, equipped with noise-muffling earphones: without them, after the long day in the monotonous cacophony of needles scratching the multitudinous patterns, we wouldn’t be able to tell music apart from tyre screeching on the streets. None of us were an offspring of a dynasty of famous machine knitters, and neither we wanted to become the founding mothers of such. However, it was soothing to have met.
In the dorm room, there were three of us. Energetic Amanda was from Rēzekne, she had deep voice and her hair, when she let it down, reminded of rye field in sunshine. Her large, reddish palms, always burned by the winter cold, looked as if they had been borrowed from a much larger person and attached to her too fragile body by mistake. She preferred action to thought, and she could do anything, whether to carry a fridge into the kitchen, work through the night shift during practice or take up a wrestler’s position between Lelde and some overzealous pursuer of hers.
Lelde came from Alsunga, named by her mother, because of a crush she had on Harijs Liepiņš, the actor who was then playing the minstrel Thoth. At the first glance, one could imagine that Lelde’s gentle features could be seen on a shy baby angel of Rundāle castle’s painted ceiling, or maybe you’d think of a season’s greetings card sent from across the border, depicting an sentimental Christmas scene. However, it would take only a single day together with this heavenly being to change this impression. Our Lelde rushed through life as a tiny motor boat in a swarming sea of passion, always getting into storms and rows. It was as if the creator had accidentally given a single person the amount of trials meant for tens. Lelde embodied the Hollywoodian saying of “live fast and die young” per excellence, except for the star-spangled glory and racecars. Thus, she always forced us to consider the fragility of life, or even its meaning.
If a plate broke, it was Lelde’s; if a knife slipped from her hands and fell, it didn’t chink on linoleum but pierced her foot; when picking mushrooms in the forest it was Lelde who stepped on a viper that bit her ankle; and if somebody was free-riding on the tram, then instead of them, the militia took Lelde, as she would have been berating the conductor as a heartless bloodsucker and advancing in an abordage, initiating a minor brawl. That’s not even mentioning her love life. At every disco, she met the love of her life, which changed every time; and sometimes the passionate lover was entirely too ready to enjoy the heavenly blessings bestowed on him right in the cleaning lady’s mop closet. Amanda and me, we usually evacuated Lelde from the road to the stars, even though it was not at all easy to carry her body succumbing in the throes of love, while listening to curses and wails about her life, broken and bliss, denied.
I myself come from Talsi. I mostly prefer to eat Vecrīga cakes, drink milkshakes, dance, love, sometimes draw–and have some peace in the world. However, for love, I wanted something slightly more defined and longer running than what Lelde had.
Our tightest bond was the by the fact that now, as inhabitants of Riga, we were almost urbanites. Even though we lived in the dorms with peeling walls where the showers often lacked hot water and always smelled of wet washing rags, the beautiful sound of “Rigan” left that hard-to-define feeling like the mysterious veil cast by the perfume of the same name. We at least partly belonged to the city. It was our greatest achievement then, which let us crumble the doubt that sometimes cast shadow over the rightness of the decisions that had been made in our too-short lives. Especially in the moments when we squatted, our backs warped, over the knitwork seaming machine, putting hundreds of stitches on the needles to form gray sweaters’ neck joins.
Once per month, we returned to our real homes, where our parents greeted us with pride and hope, having overspent their means for a celebratory table laid with all the best they had–just as one would, for a special guest. Sometimes they, thinking this would cheer us up ad remind us of our luck, reminisced on their own miserable existence at our age. The relatives kissed us and congratulated us on getting so far ahead, without noticing the shiver of disgust that ran under our skin. Discussions about what will happen then, when the big life starts, was the least thing we wanted. Neighbours we met on the streets, the corner-shop assistants, even our old classmates greeted us with the question of how is our Rigan doing, and, no matter what we replied, they said “that’s right, that’s right” or “oh right, you’re so fancy now”. Then we made jokes as usual, to prove that nothing has changed, and felt slightly disappointed in ourselves if our own voices sounded theatrical and fake. As if indeed we didn’t belong to this place any more.
Even though we could not complain of lack of excitement, thanks to the Lelde’s life that swept us away in its waves and torrents, still over the course of the year some routine crept into our everyday lives. With the appearance of Emily, everything changed drastically.
When she moved into the dorms, she got a room of her own. That was the only free space left, the smallest of all rooms resembling a large cupboard, but still: her own. We, the more experienced ones, couldn’t fathom that, and so we secretly envied her.
“Hello, babes!” Emily greeted us in the morning, emerging from her bunker, and she felt too loud, too present in the orbit we had assumed: as if she somehow nudged us out. It was not only her sheer being, but also her voice that was just as large and deep, emanating from the immeasurable depths of her swaying belly. Hearing the swishing footsteps in the corridor, one could not make a mistake: it was her, our new neighbour. Her steps smooshed, like a laundry ladie’s who carries a dozen wet shirts in her basket, even if Emily had only a faded striped face towel waving in one hand while the other had casually grabbed a patchy plastic soap container, a wadded-up peppermint toothpaste tube and a toothbrush with bristles bent all over the place, looking like the back of an unkempt mutt. She didn’t move too loud, and her steps weren’t obnoxious, but somehow she was immediately noticeable. She was large, and her steps were guilliver’s, we joked if we happened to be stuck behind her. In whispers, of course. She looked more mature than us, sixteens, even if we had painted our lips in mother-of-pearl pink, or framed our eyelids with black pencil and coloured them in with blue metallic shadows that, upon closing our eyes, looked like smelt’s side. She still looked older. Maybe that was because Emily never wore makeup and treated her meaty face in a rather offhanded fashion–rubbed it with water and towel as if hoping to scratch out everything still containing pigment, while her dark, lanky hair that always fell on her face were held back by a narrow headband. Then we could glimpse her mouth line, delicately drawn, even if her hair and nose always obscured it with their impressive superiority of form and texture. Usually she hummed something, a pop piece of the time, like that Midge Ure tune: If I was, na-na-na-nah. If we took shower near her we always stole a secret glance at her breasts which, too, were impressive, slightly trembling with movement. She didn’t especially bother anyone, and didn’t particularly disturb us. It was just that she was in the same class with Renar.
In the the knitwear studies, guys were rare. In the first year, there were two of them: Aldis, nicknamed Tiny, and Renar. Of course Aldis was Tiny. At that time anyone wearing pants and being under our eye level was nicknamed Tiny, no exceptions. And since the three of us were almost the same height, Aldis had the nickname. But Renar was Renar. And even though he spent the lesson breaks of first day at school being bored, reading old politinformation on the message board, while our glances mercilessly shot at him from all corners, on the second day, much to the surprise of us all, he was thick as thieves with our big Emily. And it was not a misunderstanding, either–even on the third day it was clear that she, Emily, hangs with the most gorgeous guy of our school! We couldn’t get it into our freshly permed heads. That was above and beyond our understanding, our strength and imagination. The guy who had no faults, who smiled and laughed as Peter Pan fresh flown into the window, the guy who, just by showing up and saying, hey, pretties! could paralyze any babe still breathing; the guy who moved as a graceful peacock with his tail fanned–it was rumored that he’d danced sports dances, all those cha-cha-cha’s and butty rumbas. And that man-thing hung with Emily. She was with him all the time, guffawing like a hippo, and slugged in her horrible gait, and he aligned with her. Oh God, how was that possible!
That evening, Lelde went out to drink herself to death with one of the loves of her life. Amanda and me, we had lost all sense of the natural order of things and this time decided to leave Lelde to her fate. We’ve had enough, we’ve had too much. Amanda’s open face showed a full-blown crash of all illusions, which she confirmed by claiming that some of us are not destined to understand men, and went to sleep with her clothes on, without even brushing her long braid. The fate was merciful. At dawn, we dragged Lelde in through the window – she’d been crying, she’d been freezing, she’d lost her shoes. We found her shoes in the next morning, slightly damp, carefully placed on an old Zaporozec parked by the street, next to a men’s shirt with its buttons torn. Lelde chugged down the cucumber marinade lovingly poured by Amanda and remembered only the notion that they should go to the seaside, and getting lost. We didn’t ask about the rest. The troubles met on the road were eloquently shown by black soil lines on her clothing still shedding clumps of earth, as if she’d been sliding down a Sigulda’s glen on her back.
Aftwerwards, Renar often came to the dorms and spent long hours with Emily in her room. We nearly lost our minds, discussing and speculating on what is going on. Her guttural laughter and Renar’s giggling teased us, paralysing our brain that was already short-circuiting, trying to make sense of the network diagrams for electric engineering test tomorrow. Finally, Amanda firmly announced that this can’t go on like this – we have to have some clarity. Even if we’d see things and have to puke, she claimed. We armed ourselves with cups and an excuse: to borrow some tea. After opening the door, we froze and for a good while stared at a single point. The room was so narrow that there really was only one point to look at. Emily was standing on the chair, and Renar crouched on his knees. Both had wrapped bedsheets around their bodies, and checkered shirts around their heads as turbans. Emily paid no attention to us; she was holding a broomstick and accepted some sort of swearing-in from Renar: he declared that he shall follow the polyporite way till the end of his days, and, come what may, shall never betray his comrades, take bribes or kiss moles, and that he shall always read Winnie-the-Pooh. Emily struck his head with a stick, and both, laughing their heads off, turned to us–salt-pillared, stuck in the doorframe. As Emily, bending over in laughter, huffed off the chair, Renar, always the gracious host, asked us to enter, announcing that we have arrived just in time to witness to a holy communion that must be anointed with tea infusion, enriched with a drop of pure knowledge. We didn’t object and anointed whatever that was, still standing, not even waiting for a toast. The pure knowledge of vodka. Just a drop, but enough for Lelde to accidentally break her cup and, in the course of the evening, to step on the only piece we hadn’t picked up, and cut her foot so badly that she had to be taken to the hospital to get stitches. Late at night we returned to our room, already as polyporites, with a wounded leg and painful jaws. We shared a lip balm to cure the corners of our mouths, split from laughing. In the next day, Lelde wore a boot borrowed from Emily and dragged herself to school, with me and Amanda as crutches. In a way, we felt grateful for at least a week of good night’s sleep.
That was, at last, clear. There was nothing special between them. Renar still was a gorgeous guy and Emily was… Emily. And polyporites were people who gather bracket-fungi and are loyal to each other, they sometimes get into shit and always protect one another, and, if necessary, would go and smash an offender’s face.
From then on, we often joined when Renar visited Emily. Our guardian lady didn’t object too much as soon as she leraned that this horny youngster–her designation for all the boys–visits Emily. Oh, Emily! Well then. And she benevolently looked another way if Renar left long after the visiting hours, never forgetting to wish good night to the beauties.
In the discos, where the girls were in abundance, we were never the wall-flowers–all of us danced with Renar, undulating this way and that, showing off our flat, firm stomachs and our navel buttons, we would let our hair would flow and mouths open lusciously. Emily always sat down with a good view on the dance floor. We always invited her to join us. Sometimes she did, but more often she insisted on looking after our bags and sacks. We ran away under the disco-balls, yelling encouragements–that she will definitely be asked to dance by a really good polyporite. She yelled back, just as encouragingly, that she has yet to see somebody fitting her glamorous taste. Sometimes we danced slow with Renars. Pretended to be jerks, with shuddering movements entwining each other as mold on the walls. Sometimes we wound around Emily who shuddered slightly in her impression of an electric pole.
It was fun and easy with Emily. With her, our faults became benefits, and all the doubt we experienced in front of the mirror disappeared. She could also get vodka and cigarettes at the shop with no sideways glances and tiresome questions of whether she wants to be childless or die from lung cancer, being so young and a smoker. She didn’t mind. We really loved, no, we adored Emily.
Sometimes Lelde spent the night in her room. The first time, it happened when Emily caught her as a runaway, creeping to the door because we didn’t let her leave through the window. It was quite clear that even if the guardian lady won’t catch her, she would smash the only flowerpot in the whole corridor. It remained a mystery how Emily managed to convince Lelde that sometimes the challenge is to stay put, and we were eternally grateful to her for that. Sometimes, we all spent the night with Emily. We went to her alone, too: to cry out all the brief moments of disgust we felt for each other, and the moments when we didn’t want to go anywhere, and those when we didn’t want anything at all. Emily always stressed that the best medicine is a good polyporite tea with balsam. Then we curled up in her bed, crunched cookies and drank and talked, and I don’t even remember whether it was her answers that soothed, or her silence. Emily didn’t often talk about herself. We didn’t ask, either. We knew only that her mom is a teacher. Once, she allowed Renar, with his perfect radio voice, to read a letter she’d received from her mother. We were embarrassed–it turned out that it is just the letter Emily had sent to her mother a while ago. We were described in there, a little bit about school, and how Emily is doing well; and now she had received the letter back, with all the grammar and style errors corrected. Amanda announced that all teachers are idiots and helplessly balled her too big hands into fists.
Renar, too, sometimes spent the night with Emily. We didn’t know what they talked about. That was slightly disappointing, because when we all fell asleep in a bundle on her carpet, his breath sometimes touched my neck. In moments like that, I tried to hold in my non-existing stomach and arrange my freshly washed hair so that he wouldn’t be bothered.
Once, Emily pierced my earlobe with a sewing needle. She was a true master, or so she claimed, done it many times, including to herself. Of course, there was nobody I would entrust my ear but her, her soft, warm hands that had held my long hair back while I, swaying on my knees, puked my guts out in the toiled bowl–shortly after I discovered that portwine doesn’t mix well with beer. While Emily was getting ready for the procedure, we all got ready too. After drinking the vodka from cups, she used the dregs on the needle, and there she went! Renar amused everybody by reading future in my palm–it promised journeys to mushroom galaxies. Amanda was quoting the part from Winnie-the-Pooh getting stuck in the Rabbit’s front door. But when Lelde in a sudden but entirely predictable impulse felt inspired to become Emily’s apprentice and use my ear for her first pierce, Amanda grabbed her in a steely hug.
I don’t remember the pain. I assume there was pain. The fear in me was mixed with the solemnity. That was the first stab in my flesh that I had chosen on my own. The sewing needle was horrifying, I squeezed my eyes shut. It happened quickly. Emily did a good job. I also took in stride Lelde saying that piercing the ear sounds just like breaking the hymen. For the longest time, I tried to recall it. We were supposed to put gold or silver in the ear, but nobody had any. Emily used an old steel heart from her stock. We all drank to my loss of virginity. The ear hurt, the next day it burned unbearably. For approximately a week, my earlobe looked like a yeast pancake. Every evening we gathered with Emily for a ritual cleansing of the ear. After a while, the swelling subsided, but the earlobe had changed color. I had to let the hole go, if I wanted to keep my ear. Ever since then, there is a hard little bump in my lobe.