No level of devotion could survive such betrayal. I had to stop thinking about her. I closed my eyes and savored the only thing that could warm me now—alcohol. With a deep breath, I filled my lungs with cigarette smoke. These were my only true companions in life. I reached across the table for a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels. The cap was already off. The next shot went done like all the rest.
My ears were tired of all the sounds. I was fed up with the laughter that reverberated through the soles of my shoes each night. When I started all of this, I swore to myself I’d never get bored.
Somehow, after years of obsession with the joys and nuances of life, I’d grown weary of it all. Things had changed. My life wasn’t all I had thought it would be.
I remember when I was three years old, how my uncle would put on Elvis records and I’d grab up my tiny plastic banjo and strum it madly, like I knew what I was doing. I was a rambunctious little boy but Elvis somehow managed to calm my nerves. It wasn’t until I first heard Love me Tender that I realized how much of an impact the man would have on my life.
“Love me dear,
Tell me you are mine.
I’ll be yours through all the years,
Till the end of time.”
Those words stuck with me through it all. They had brought me to drunken tears so long ago with Susanna, and years later, now, as I think of the mistakes I must have made with Mariiah. I see myself as death sometimes, like frost to a rose around women. Every time I get too close they grow cold and wither away. I never ask for much and I try so hard to be what they want. Still, they fade and I drift away. Like a dead sealion, I am helpless to resist the ocean current as it pulls me deeper and deeper into solitude’s arms.
Dammit! There I go again!
Misery. It’s practically become my middle name: Veikko “Misery” Virtanen. I can’t help it. Call me a fool, but I think I’m one of the few men in this world that prizes the little things. A warm embrace used to make me feel whole. The touch of a pretty girl was a small gesture that I treasured. I’d cherish those things, yet they always slipped through my grasp.
I’m not one for a different woman every night. I suppose the alcohol helps with that—too drunk to feel lonesome. Sometimes it’s nice not to notice the coldness of an empty bed. Even Mariiah, the girl I could have sworn would be my last, had slipped away from me. It was pointless to care, like the moon begging the sun to stay the night. I was all too used to this.
After pulling on my coat and tightening my scarf, I flung open the pub doors and entered the frigid streets of Helsinki. It was dark and the streetlights cast a sickening greenish glow over the sidewalk. I had stayed past midnight and it was well below freezing outside. I could already see thick puffs of breath curling in the air. All of the tram tracks were frozen solid and there was no public transportation running tonight. No one could last long in this cold. Lucky for me, my apartment wasn’t far.
My fingers ached and my head hurt with each breath of frigid air. I staggered my way past several closed shops, clutching my coat tightly around me. The familiar cobblestone walkway wasn’t as beautiful to me as it had once been. Coated with ice, it reminded me all too strongly of the way my heart was beginning to feel.
I made a turn on the corner of Lapin Street and bolted up a flight of aging concrete steps. I was greeted by the black plastic bag that I had hastily plastered over the broken window of my front door nearly a year ago. I still hadn’t gotten around to fixing it. I quickly reached into my coat pocket and rummaged for the keys to my apartment. I unlocked the door and rushed inside, slamming it behind me.
Magazines, newspapers, vodka bottles and a few empty cans of Red Bull were scattered about.
I had forgotten to clean up… again. Of course, it wasn’t like she’d be coming over tonight. Not after what had happened yesterday.
I flipped on the heat and listened.
It was broken again. I had never paid to get it fixed so I don’t know what miracle I was expecting. Tossing my keys onto the kitchen counter, I headed to my bedroom. My old record player was sitting with the lid open, hungrily awaiting its chance to fill the room with music. I wasn’t in the mood.
I grabbed a pile of blankets from my bed, then brushed the rubbish off of my couch and flopped onto it. It would be no use sleeping in my bed tonight. It’d only give me nightmares. Dark, lonely nightmares.
I used to love life. I’d wanted to breathe every moment in twice just to remember the way it smelled. Tonight was different for some reason.
Maybe it’s the weather. It’s always so damn cold and dark here. Finland—nothing but rain, snow and chills down your spine day in and day out. You’d think— having grown up here— that I’d be used to this. I’m not. No warm heart can withstand the icy grasp of Finnish air.
I curled up in my blankets, shivering like a newborn with no siblings to huddle with. I was freezing but I’d make it. My head was spinning from the alcohol and my stomach was starting to feel sick. I was so tired I didn’t care what morning held for me. Minutes later, I passed out.
I heard pounding on my front door. I rolled over on the couch and tried to drown out the sound with my covers. My head pulsated with every knock.
“Hey! Veikko! It’s Jesse. Open the damn door!”
I slid off the couch like a tranquilized bear and then dragged my feet to the entryway. I didn’t take kindly to rude awakenings.
I cracked open the door and braced myself against the cold air. “What the hell do you want?”
“What did you do to yourself? You look like shit.”
“Let me in.”
Jesse pushed open the door and came inside. “Jesus, it’s cold in here.” Shivering, he tightened his jacket. “Why didn’t you tell me your heat was out?”
“It’s been out.”
Jesse shook his head and went into the kitchen to get the phone book. “I tried to call last night,” he said, plugging the phone back in. I had been leaving it off the hook for some time. Jesse’s lips curled as he reached for a paper towel to wipe the dust off the telephone mouth piece. “There’s a reason you have a phone.”
I flopped back down on the couch and pulled a blanket up to my neck. I closed my eyes and tried to stay warm while Jesse was making his call.
Over the years, this had become a twisted ritual between us. I’d fall in love with some girl and then end up with a broken heart, left with nothing but scars on my soul. Jesse would bring me out of these endless voids and force me to face each new day. Now was no exception to that fact that if it hadn’t been for him, I probably wouldn’t make it through any of my many heartbreaks.
“They’ll be here in fifteen minutes,” he said, hanging up the phone. “I told them I’d throw in an extra twenty euros if they hurried the hell up.”
“You’d throw in the extra euros?”
Jesse stared. “You got wasted last night. Didn’t you?”
I glared back at him and cocked an eyebrow. “What do you think?”
“Just shut up.” He picked up an empty vodka bottle and tossed it behind the couch. I moved over and he sat down beside me.
“Here’s your cigs,” he said, tossing a pack into my lap.
“Thanks.” I grabbed the lighter off a nearby table.
We sat in silence for awhile. He got up only to let in the electricians and then returned to his place on the couch. I smoked an entire cigarette before he said a word to me.
“So, have you read the reviews?” he asked.
I looked up from my blankets and nodded. “They’re all morons.”
“They said you were great.”
“Hell. They said you were one of the best comics they’ve seen in years.”
“They need to get out more.” I got off the couch and went to my room. My wallet wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Just then I realized I hadn’t changed since last night. I reached into my pocket.
The electricians were happy to be paid in cash and even happier to have gotten a good tip. Twenty extra euros... Jesse must have thought I was made of money.
Who was I kidding? I think I spent that much on alcohol last night.
“Want a drink?” I asked, opening the refrigerator to find some breakfast.
I shrugged and returned to my search.
Milk, likely gone sour. Half a jar of mayonnaise. A piece of birthday cake from God knows when. Cheese. Carrots. Some bagels. If I were a rodent I’d have had a field day.
Strawberry yogurt? Now where the hell had that come from? I suddenly remembered when Mariiah had brought over a pack some time ago. I looked at the expiration date. It was still good. I grabbed a tub and a spoon from the cupboard and made my way back to the couch.
“You’re actually gonna eat that?” Jesse drew his head back.
“No use letting it go to waste. She’s gone. It’s mine now.” I ripped off the lid and buried my spoon into the rose-colored yogurt.
It tasted somewhat bitter. Slightly sweet, but a little tart. I glanced over at Jesse’s look of disgust. “Ish snot tat bad, ya know.” I said, the mouthful of yogurt distorting my words.
“Sure it’s not the alcohol talking?”
I had sobered up by now but my head was still pounding. I set down the yogurt and rubbed my face with my palms.
“Jesus! You’re hopeless.” Jesse got up and went into the kitchen. He rummaged through a cupboard and took something out. He filled a glass with water and brought it back to me.
“Here.” He handed it to me and then flipped the cap off a bottle of aspirin and poured two into my hand. I tossed them into my mouth and washed them down with a gulp of water.
Silence filled the room again and I burned another cigarette three-quarters through before Jesse spoke again.
“So are you alright with yesterday?” he asked.
I looked up at the poster of Elvis I had hanging above my television set. He had such a warm look on his face and was smiling as if he’d never faced a day of loss.
“There’s only one thing certain in my life, Jesse. Him.” I pointed towards the poster and grinned. “He’s never betrayed me. Never made me feel the way so many others have. He’s never taken advantage of me nor asked me for things I can’t give.”
Jesse shook his head as he listened.
“When did you eat last?” he asked, glancing over at the clock.
“Yesterday morning. If you don’t count the yogurt.”
“Damn. Let’s go get lunch.”
“I don’t feel like leaving.” I crouched down in my blankets.
“When’s your next show?” he asked.
“Where’s it at?”
“Hell knows. Somewhere on Kaivokatu.”
He found a flyer sitting on the table and picked it up. “UniCafe?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“No. But does that really matter?”
My stomach grumbled. Jesse went over to the phonebook and picked up the phone again. “You want Chinese or pizza?” he asked.
“Alright then.” He shrugged and then picked up the phone and started dialing.
I sprawled out on the couch and rested my head against the arm rest. I could overhear Jesse ordering food. Chinese did sound good right then. Pizza would have filled my belly just the same, though. I was still hungry from yesterday but all the stress had made my appetite wane.
He hung up the phone and returned to me. “Hey. Are you gonna need a ride tonight?”
“If I go.”
“Well, if you want a ride, give me a call.”
We sat around for another half an hour, waiting for the food to arrive. I could tell he was doing everything to avoid bringing up Mariiah again. Jesse was more like a brother to me than anything else; I appreciated his company. It was true that he annoyed the hell out of me sometimes, but I still loved him.
“Egg rolls, Lo Mein, sweet and sour chicken, beef and vegetables. Have your pick.” He set the individual containers on the table. I was unable to resist the wonderful smells and left the sanctuary of my blankets to get something to eat.
I was too tired to be authentic. Holding a pair of chopsticks incorrectly, I picked at the Lo Mein noodles like an injured bird. They kept falling back onto the plate. Chopsticks. Sober or not, I don’t see how anyone can use the bloody things.
Screw it. I needed a fork. Jesse watched as I fumbled with my food and he went to search for some silverware. “In the bottom drawer,” I said. He followed my directions and took out some utensils.
I ate well that afternoon and I thanked Jesse afterwards for all he had done. The food in my stomach was making me feel better so I decided to do my act that night. My misery was no reason to disappoint other people. At least my hangover was finally gone.
Jesse had started his car and was waiting for me outside. I washed up, changed my clothes and gathered my notes before rushing out the door.
“Watch your step, Veikko!” he said, pointing out his window.
I began to step and stopped myself from stumbling over a bundle of fur. The puppy let out a yip.
“It was there when I came in earlier,” Jesse said. “Someone must have dropped it off.”
“Go away, you little mutt.” I shooed the pup lightly with my foot and headed to the car. “I’ve got enough problems right now. I can’t help you, too.” As I pulled open the door, I noticed a pawing at my shin. I didn’t feel like dealing with the animal at the moment but I certainly didn’t want it getting run over by Jesse’s car.
“Just a minute, Jesse.” I shut the door and reached down to grab the mutt. The alleyway beside by apartment had a few empty cardboard boxes thrown about. I set the pup in one of them so he’d be out of the way. “Stay.”
I rushed back to the car and got inside.
“Maybe someone will pick it up while you’re gone,” Jesse said as he started the car and headed down the street.
“I appreciate this,” I said, honestly happy to have such a friend.
“No problem. Promise me you won’t do something like that again for awhile.”
“No. Never, if I can help it. I think I’ve given up on women anyway.”
He stopped outside the club and let me out. I poked my head back in the window before he left. “Thanks again.”
“You need a ride back tonight?”
It was supposed to be even colder tonight than it had been yesterday but I felt he had done enough. “No. I’ll walk.”
He nodded in reply and waved before driving away.
I turned back around and came face to face with the grimace of a tall, heavyset man wearing a black suit.
“We didn’t think you’d show,” said Teppo, the manager of the club. His signature violet tie looked brown under the discolored street lighting. “We’d heard some bad things happened with you yesterday.”
“Is anything private anymore? I’m here. Aren’t I?”
Teppo shrugged and decided it was best to leave me a alone.
I shoved past and jogged up the club steps.
Tonight, I was not in the mood to argue. I went to my room backstage and sat for a while, smoking. I could never believe how I could make people laugh. It was hard to make others forget their woes when you could scarcely forget your own. I took a deep breath and savored the hollow warmth of my last cigarette before the show. I knew I was killing myself but was too cold to care…
The lights flashed in my room; it was my cue to go on. I could already hear the speaker laying out my introduction. They called me “Finland’s Funniest.” Although I was one of the most renowned comics in Helsinki, I often wished I could laugh at myself the way others did.
The next hour or so was a blur—as usual. I put on a fake smile, did my act, made everyone laugh until their drinks tipped over and then wrapped up the show with the thought of money in my pocket.
Preparing to leave, I buttoned up my coat, shoved a beanie cap over the top of my head and tightened my scarf again. The roads were as unwelcoming as ever tonight and were now coated with a film of ice. I held close to the buildings and walked carefully, staggering a bit to avoid losing my balance. It started to snow and the thick flakes freckled my coat with patches of white.
The walk home always seemed longer on nights like this—when I was alone.
Lapin Street. Finally! I was almost home.
I crept up the icy steps and looked for my keys. Just then, I heard a light whimpering. It sounded like a door hinge in desperate need of oiling. Brushing it off, I went back to opening my door.
I slid the key into the lock and jiggled it a bit. Damn! The lock was frozen. I reached into my pocket for a pack of matches and heard the noise again. A pitiful whining sound that annoyed me into wanting to find the source. I shoved my keys back into my coat, went down my steps and peeked around the corner. Nothing but an empty, snow-covered alley. I stared for a few moments and listened. Silence. After a while, I shrugged and turned away.
There it was again! I turned around immediately and saw a small pile of snow bobbing up and down. I jogged over to it and bent down to take a look. I carefully brushed the snow off the top of the tiny mound and almost laughed.
“Are you still here?”
It was the puppy from earlier, half frozen in the alleyway. Some of its fur was even stuck to the ice and it was too weak to break away.
I’ll admit, half of me wanted to leave it there. My other half was already dreading the awful sleep I’d have, trying to put its tiny moans out of my mind. It could barely move and its dark eyes beamed towards me, helplessly. Sadly, I recognized a bit of myself in those eyes. They were scared and powerless.
I wrapped my fingers around the pup’s ribs and gently tugged its fur free of the icy sidewalk. I stuffed it into my coat so it’d be close to my chest and quickly made my way back to my apartment door. I took out a pack of matches, lit one and held it beneath the knob to melt the ice inside.
My key worked this time and I quickly entered and shut the door against the draft. I flipped on the heater and waited. The fan whirred as it started. What a great sound to hear! I tossed my keys onto the kitchen counter and grabbed a clean towel from the cupboard. I sat down on the couch, laid the towel in my lap and set the puppy on top of it. Wrapping the towel around it, I rubbed it a bit to chase off its chill. It didn’t move for a few moments and I was starting to think I was too late to save it. Just then, one of its paws poked out of the towel and it started wriggling about.
“Poor thing,” I whispered. “I know what it feels like to be tossed out like you’re rubbish.” I ran my fingers over its furry white head and tickled its chin a bit. “I do apologize for my behavior earlier.” Against my will, a grin stretched across my face as my fingers stroked its fur. I knew I didn’t really need a dog, but I think the fellow needed me.
“I hope you like Chinese,” I said, thinking of the leftovers in the refrigerator. “It’s the only thing I’ve got, unless you like strawberry yogurt.” I smiled again. He was coming about and trying to climb his way out of the towel. He was a furry little mutt with a white head and random patches of brown and black scattered along his back. I set him on the couch and went to the kitchen to warm up some food. Glancing towards my room, I noticed my old record player atop the bedroom dresser. The lid was still open. I decided to take a quick detour from the kitchen into the bedroom.
As I slid open a drawer and shuffled through my record collection, I could hear the puppy yapping in the living room. “I’m coming! Hold on!” I slipped one of my records out of its sleeve, placed it onto the player and then lowered the needle. I returned to the kitchen to get the pup’s food from the microwave and my heart felt a bit lighter as the familiar vocals of Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel began to resonate through the air.
As I approached with a plate of diced Lo-Mein noodles and chicken pieces, the pup smelled it in an instant and nearly leapt off the back of the couch in hunger. “Careful there, boy!” My other hand snatched him up seconds before he fell.
I set him on the floor with the food and watched as he gulped it down. When he finished, he turned around and pawed at my ankles, wagging his bony tail. As I knelt down to pet him, I was overwhelmed with contentment. Maybe I could use a dog. I scooped him up into my arms and scratched his ears a little. Surely this place would be more welcoming with him around.
The decision wasn’t really a simple “yes” or “no” matter. Honestly, I don’t think I’d felt that good in quite a while. I needed a companion right then, just as much as he needed me.