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Virginija Kulvinskaitė is a writer. She is the author of three books – the poetry collection Antrininkė (Doppelganger, 2017, Naujas vardas), the novel kai aš buvau malalietka (when i was a malalietka, 2019, Kitos knygos), and the short story collection Keturi (Four, 2023, Kitos knygos). Her writing has been translated into English, German, French, Russian, Latvian, and Ukrainian.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Arvydas Šaltenis, Untitled. Undated, cardboard, oil, 69 x 87 cm. From the MO Museum collection.

 

 

From the book of novellas “Four”

Translated by Erika Lastovskytė

 

 

INGA

 

 

I.

 

Sunday, 3 November: the last day to visit the cemetery.

Inga wakes up late in the afternoon. The hour when light and darkness are the same, but the defeat of light is inevitable, and both opponents know it.

The first thing she looks for every time she opens her eyes is a window. She rarely closes her curtains: the light streaming in through a bare window is soothing. Today, behind the dirty, rainy glass, the wind sways the branches of trees, stripping off the last leaves. Slowly, the sounds come back to her: the rush of the wind, the slam of a car door, the whirr of an engine starting. A seagull shrieks somewhere nearby.

Inga sighs. Tentatively but carefully, she reaches for the bottle of wine next to her bed. Her hand trembles. More than anything, she doesn’t want to knock it over. White. And half-full. The first sip is the most sickening. Sour, warm wine that smells like peat. The sip gets stuck in her throat. Inga gags a few times, and finally swallows. ‘Everything will be all right now.’ She takes a few more sips. The nausea turns into a dull warmth spreading through her throat, and across her stomach. Gently pulsing, it floods her whole body, and reaches even the always-freezing tips of her fingers and toes.

The seagull shrieks just around the corner now. One of those giants recently landed on a balcony railing, while Inga was talking on the phone in the living room (a couple of armchairs, a sofa, a table with curved legs) with a man she had met in a bar a few days ago. He suggested they meet right then. She wanted to, but she fidgeted in the armchair, stroked her skinny, clean-shaven, bruise-covered calves, and murmured in a low voice: ‘I don’t know, maybe next time …’ The seagull stared through the glass for some time, and then flopped down on the window-sill and began to pick at the cigarette butts in the ashtray.

‘Okay, come on up,’ Inga sipped some whisky from a dirty, cut crystal glass.

The man turned up less than half an hour later. He couldn’t come with a condom, so they ended up satisfying themselves. Inga, lying on her back, was giddy from the alcohol, her own wetness, and the sight of the man kneeling next to her with his throbbing cock. The man imagined himself about to jizz on the sunken belly of the writhing woman. Both were almost satisfied.

Remembering that silent, faceless man and his fleshy dick (‘When was that? The end of the summer? Strange, it seems like it was yesterday’), Inga runs her fingertips over her chest; instantly, goosebumps flash through her, her nipples harden. She closes her eyes, her head spinning. She licks her chapped lips, sour from the wine, but resists: today she must go to the cemetery to visit her father. Five minutes with her eyes closed, and she will get up.

 

 

*

 

Inga is thirty-two. Until recently, only an astute observer would have noticed the fine lines on her forehead and her receding gaze. She was not that pretty, rather the opposite: an elongated face, downturned corners of the lip, protruding bones. But she still attracted the gaze like a purse left in plain sight: you know you won’t find treasure in it, but you’re still tempted to check. She wasn’t picky, she had been drinking almost every day lately, and the names of men, dates or places where they met had lost their meaning. The only thing she insisted on was using a condom. It was not so much STDs as pregnancy that scared her: the thought of a new person growing inside her body that would be bound to her for life was terrifying.

In spite of the changing partners, Inga’s life was constant and monotonous. Two days working in a jewellery shop in the Old Town, two days off. She tried to drink less on weekdays. Sex and alcohol disconnected her from herself: everything that didn’t matter was wiped away. The only thing she liked more was the sea. She would sunbathe on a secluded beach in the summer, and walk in the wind in the winter.

‘Is this life? Look at yourself, do you even realise what you have become? What is left of you?’ Tadas, Inga’s ex-spouse, would reproachfully nag her during their occasional meetings. But Inga felt calmer than ever, almost happy. Long ago, in her early teens, standing in the school smoking room, away from the older students, she did nothing but analyse her own actions and those of others, trying to understand all the thoughts and feelings. And now it was enough to experience. She didn’t even think about her deteriorating health: her liver or her kidneys were always aching, she didn’t really know what it was, she was often nauseous, her limbs and face swollen.

Recently, when she came back home in the morning, she stopped by the staircase to smoke a cigarette. She threw the cigarette butt into a battered coffee tin used as an ashtray by the building’s residents, and glanced at the empty yard: maple leaves that had been vivid just a few weeks ago turning into sludge on the pavement. Autumn is almost over, winter is coming.

 

 

*

 

A wonky wooden sandbox under the maple trees in the yard. The Roma kids who live in social housing on the ground floor of Inga’s apartment block always play there. There is a clothes line between the trees. Right now it’s fluttering on its own, but in the summer, children’s clothes – little shirts, pairs of tiny trousers, faded dolls’ dresses – always hang on it. On windy days, the rags flap their empty sleeves and kick, as if desperately trying to break free, escape.

Inga doesn’t know how many children there are in the Roma family. A chubby teenager. A polite boy, maybe six years old, who always greets her in Russian in the stairway. A girl with a long, black hip-length plait, a few years older than the boy. Through her bedroom window, Inga often watches the girl playing hopscotch, her plait suddenly rising, bending like a snake, and thumping against her back as soon as her feet touch the ground. She is often surrounded by toddlers scrambling over a rickety, green bicycle, probably twins she is asked to look after. A few weeks ago – no, maybe in the summer – a newborn baby arrived in the Roma household: the mother in long skirts, or a skinny older woman, probably the grandmother, would take the baby with her as she went outside to hang out the laundry.

 

 

*

 

One morning Inga came back so drunk that she fell on the staircase landing right next to the Roma door and couldn’t get up. She was brought home by the mother of the Roma kids. The smell of hot food rose up from the young woman: scrambled eggs or fatty pancakes. The thick smell enveloped the Roma woman like a greasy aura, she smelled of life, from her black curls to her dirty toes sticking out of her rubber slippers.

The women finally made it up to Inga’s flat on the third floor. The Roma woman held her waist firmly, almost manfully, grasping Inga’s protruding ribs with her fingers. She only let go when Inga put the key in the lock. She responded to the awkward thanks with a laugh that reminded Inga of the velvety laughter of the Roma kids, and shuffled back downstairs. The chesty laughter sounded once more, before the door of the Roma flat slammed shut.

After locking the door, Inga kicked off her high heels and rushed to the fridge. Luckily, she had bought some food a few days earlier. She didn’t eat, but rather devoured it, without even tasting it. She cut slices of pink ham on the dirty table, tearing off a loaf of white bread. Slowly, her stomach filled, and a heavy drowsiness came over her: it seemed it would press her down dead, right there, on the kitchen floor, next to the softly humming fridge.

 

 

*

 

Inga didn’t move into a two-room apartment in the port area (Tadas had lent her some money) immediately after the divorce. At first, she didn’t plan to buy an apartment, but considered renting a hovel in a barrack. Her salary would have been enough.

She got a job in the jewellery shop thanks to Tadas too. Believing that Inga’s shyness, her rough reticence, stemmed from a lack of self-confidence, he persuaded her to take part in a port city beauty pageant. ‘You’ll see, it’ll be fun. You don’t know how amazing you are.’ He kept trying to persuade her, until she gave in. Although she got through the audition, she didn’t become the most beautiful girl in the port city. But she got a call from the owner of the company that provided the prizes a few days later. A girl who worked in one of his shops had gone on maternity leave and he was looking for a new shop assistant. Inga was a good fit: tall, slim, emanating a coldness that was hard to describe, but which the owner associated with classiness.

Inga also stayed in the shop after the wedding. Tadas couldn’t understand why she didn’t love the idea of completing a one-year admin course and getting a job in a good office. In Tadas’ office, for example. He was a co-owner of a firm that sold dental equipment. ‘We could go to work together every day, and come back together. It would be fun, wouldn’t it?’ Or even better, Inga could take her state exams and go to university. ‘A bachelor’s degree in English would open a lot of doors. Translators are in great demand right now.’ Inga kept saying she would think about it. In the end, Tadas let it go.

Inga really liked the little shop: she liked the room with dark blue wallpaper and heavy leather armchairs. And she especially liked the display cases, reminiscent of small glass coffins, where she would arrange the jewellery every morning. She imagined that she could have any of those glitzy things if she wanted. But she didn’t need anything.

The dark, tempered glass doors were usually opened by foreigners arriving on cruise ships, intending to spend half a day or a night in the city. Boozy men choosing gifts for their wives or lovers would sometimes actually buy Inga an inexpensive trinket. ‘For pretty eyes,’ they would smile, squinting like cats basking in the sun. She didn’t mind, she just warned them that she was married. She didn’t register these gifts in the till: when the customers left, the jewellery would go back in the display case, and the money into Inga’s purse.

The smoochy men almost always returned before the shop closed. Inga would not refuse to have a drink or two with them. Not because she liked them (most were dull, middle-aged men looking for easy prey), but because she was liked: a stranger’s lust was exhilarating. But she would go to hotel rooms or rented apartments only if she felt the slightest spark. Sometimes she would get excited about a smokey gaze or a meaningless gesture, a funny phrase or an unexpected touch.

She felt no guilt about Tadas. It all stopped being relevant as soon as she closed the door.

 

 

*

 

Inga’s standoffishness surprised and attracted Tadas. He liked that she didn’t rush the relationship. Previous girlfriends had tried to draw him into their circle as quickly as possible and entangle him. But Inga didn’t even try to be possessive; she would always let him make the first move. Being able to decide the course of the relationship made Tadas feel safe and confident.

He introduced Inga to his family a few weeks after they first had sex. Only then did he learn that Inga – in her twenties – was a virgin. She didn’t warn him. When he saw his bloody penis drooping on her stomach, glistening with blood and fluid, he felt as if he had accidentally mutilated someone. And also as if he had won the jackpot at the same time. He was finally convinced of his importance when he found out that Inga had no family, no relatives. Only her alcoholic father, a former long-haul sea captain, whom she didn’t see for months when she was growing up, and her aunt, her father’s sister, who lived in the capital, and whom she saw only once or twice a year.

 

 

*

 

Tadas remembered very well his first meeting with Inga’s father Kazimieras. They had dinner at Bangpūtys, an expensive, old-fashioned restaurant chosen by Kazimieras. The captain was waiting for Tadas and Inga with a glass of cognac at a table with a red satin tablecloth. In the aquarium nearby, silver-sided fish poked at the skeleton of a sunken pirate ship.

Tadas thought Kazimieras was just another drunk who had once had an important position – loud and egocentric, but a good man. As the evening wore on, Inga’s father got really tipsy, called Tadas his son-in-law, patted him on the shoulder, and shared his memories of sailors’ parties at Bangpūtys. He seemed to be interested only in the exotic ports he had visited, the stories of storms and smuggling, the fearless sailors of the older generation, and the modern ones that had no balls, and how sailing had changed since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Taciturn Inga was particularly quiet that evening. This didn’t surprise Tadas, who thought he understood perfectly why Inga and her father weren’t that close. Just before dinner, she told him that she had been in the fifth grade when her mother left. She left suddenly, without warning, leaving everything behind. Gone. Inga still doesn’t know if her mother is alive. Tadas listened with horror. He had no doubt that Inga still blamed her father for her mother leaving.

 

 

*

 

He gave her a ring with a black pearl on a secluded beach, which Inga loved. She looked at him with her big, sad eyes, like the eyes of abandoned long-legged deer in cartoons. It was a windy day, and Tadas thought he could hear Inga whispering over the rumble of the wind and the sea, not with her lips, but with her eyes: ‘Save me. Only you can do it.’

‘You won’t be happy with her, son. You won’t,’ his mother grumbled when Tadas informed her of his intention. Sipping coffee from a porcelain cup painted with roses, she explained slowly in detail, like a primary school teacher: ‘Inga is an unhappy woman, maybe she didn’t get enough of something as a child. Maybe she didn’t get enough love. Or maybe she had too much of something. Maybe someone hurt her. Who knows. But everyone, every single unhappy person, is vindictive and angry. They are not to be pitied. And you feel sorry for her. I can see that you do. And she feels it. You think you love her, but in fact you pity her. And she will hate you more and more.’

Tadas didn’t argue. Mother and Inga were two completely different worlds that would never understand each other.

After his mother had talked herself out, the two sat in silence in Tadas’ parents’ living room for a while. ‘If I could, I’d take him and give him a good shake. Maybe then he would understand,’ his mother fretted. ‘But I can’t. I can’t any longer.’

 

 

*

 

Even now, Tadas finds it hard to say when Inga started to grow distant. At first, the changes were barely noticeable: she became even quieter, staying out more often after work with her new friend, Kristina or Katerina. He never saw that friend after all, even though she offered to invite her over, or suggested the three of them go to a café. At home, his wife drank more and more often. She started smoking more, losing weight, and wearing strange, unsightly makeup. Tight clothes, showing every curve of her bony figure, were more appropriate for a teenager than for a grown woman. She lightened her beautiful, dark, wavy hair. The new colour did not suit her. The damaged hair looked like an old wig.

Tadas realised that something irrevocable had happened when he suddenly caught Inga’s gaze as she walked towards him while shopping in a supermarket. Her eyes, her face, were as if transfigured, unrecognisable. Inga stared at Tadas with the curious yet insidious gaze of a child plucking the wings of a fly to see if it could fly away without them.

 

 

*

 

A few weeks later, Tadas found a used condom under the bed. For a moment, he thought maybe it was his, theirs. Maybe it had been left there from before. But they hadn’t used condoms for years, and this one was quite fresh. Today’s? Yesterday’s? Like a shed snakeskin, caked in pale fluid, just waiting for Tadas to find it.

Inga didn’t even try to explain.

Tadas felt as if a knife had been plunged into his abdomen, the blood flowing out slowly but unstoppably, and dripping onto the floor. Drop by drop, drop by drop. Inga could have said that it was a mistake, that she was incredibly sorry. That she loved Tadas and begged for forgiveness. That she wanted to atone for her guilt if possible. But she stared dully at the floor instead.

 

 

*

 

In the last months of their time together, Inga would spend most of her time staring out the balcony, if she did return after work at all: she would settle on a wicker chair with a bottle of beer and smoke one cigarette after another until darkness fell over the pine trees that surrounded their house. Sometimes, Tadas would overcome the crushing shame of continuing to ask for Inga’s proximity, take a damp bottle from the fridge, and sit down next to her. A small, oval outdoor table resembled a rotary dial without numbers, with a black hole in the centre for an ashtray.

On such nights, he felt as if he had returned to his teenage years, when every attempt to woo a girl he liked was poisoned by the fear of rejection, which eventually turned the monsters of his imagination into reality. As if to confirm that monsters exist, Inga reacted indifferently to Tadas’ attempts to strike up a conversation, offering a couple words out of pity, and then diving back into herself.

Tadas had no doubt that Inga had shut down because he hadn’t done something. Or he had done something wrong. The fact that he had no idea what he had done, where and when he’d made a mistake, made him even more desperate. And he suffered most because the more distant Inga was, the more he desired her. It seemed he didn’t love her as much even at the beginning of their relationship.

And again, like in his teens, he couldn’t fall asleep. Back then he would shudder and wait for his mother to return from her evening shift. And now he was waiting for Inga, smothered in the acrid sweat of a strange man. Even his bedtime rituals had returned, but instead of the valerian and light sleeping pills he used to steal from his mother’s purse, he would drink a glass of whisky in front of the television. He learned to switch channels so that the news was on all evening. He tried to remember every news item, the faces of the presenters, their facial expressions, the colours of their jackets, even the theme tunes. Lying down, he would spin it all in his head over and over again, desperately trying to ignore the anticipation that pulsed like an abscess.

And if she doesn’t come back this time? Twelve o’clock, half past twelve, one, two ... Inga is still not here. Tadas is writhing in the empty bed as if he were dancing a repulsive, somewhat obscene dance with himself.

Finally, the sound of the key in the lock. Tadas’ heart is pounding, as if he were on his first date. A few moments more, and Inga’s body will thump down beside him. Now he no longer cares where she came from or whose sweat stenches off her. The most important thing is that she is back.

 

 

*

 

When he realised that divorce was the only logical option in the situation, Tadas didn’t feel better. Deep in his heart, he hoped that the suggestion of divorce would be like a slap in the face, that it would make Inga come to her senses and understand how important he was to her. But after listening to Tadas, she just sighed, put out her cigarette, scratched her forearm, and, without even looking him in the eye, muttered: ‘Okay, I understand.’

 

 

*

 

‘The tendency to get attached to a depressed personality who is incapable of feeling empathy may be linked to a fear of commitment. What do you think?’ asked the young psychologist proudly, as if presenting a discovery of worldwide importance after listening to Tadas’ rambling monologue.

She had been recommended as a good specialist by a business partner to whom he had confided in a moment of weakness as they were drinking in a bar to seal a deal. Her loose grey suit, black-framed glasses and blonde hair twisted into a bun made her look like a character in a romantic comedy.

This was Tadas’ first and last attempt to seek ‘professional’ help.

 

 

*

 

Kazimieras passed away during the great heat of August. It was less than two months since Tadas and Inga divorced.

The captain’s departure took everyone by surprise. A neighbour found his cold body in the garage next to the old Mercedes that he used to fix himself. The captain was lying on the floor in an embryo pose, left hand at his throat, his fingers spread out: was he trying to strangle himself, or free himself from an invisible rope? The car door was open, a half-full bottle of vodka rested on the driver’s seat.

The autopsy concluded that the cause of death was a heart attack.

Although legally separated, Inga and Tadas still lived together. Tadas began to dream cautiously that her father’s death might bring them closer together. After all, besides her father, Inga had no one else, just him, Tadas. But the opposite happened. Kazimieras’ passing awakened Inga’s almost feverish level of activity: less than a week after the funeral, she found herself an apartment in the port area, and announced that she wanted to move out as soon as possible. If Tadas wouldn’t lend her the money, she would mortgage her deceased father’s house.

‘You don’t need to move anywhere. I’ll move to a hotel if you want. Or to my parents.’

Inga mumbled that she wanted to finally start living for real, to get back to herself. When Tadas asked her to explain what this meant, she began to postulate that it was her inner voice telling her it was time. She needed to go back to her and hers, or into herself. Tadas didn’t quite understand. It sounded crazy. Inga’s sparkling eyes looked crazy, too. Their conversation reinforced Tadas’ conviction that the frightening personality changes were due to a mental illness that had not been noticed in time: schizophrenia or something like that.

Internal breakdown.

 

 

*

 

Inga’s decision to live in the port area worried Tadas because, among other things, it was not safe there. Probably ninety-nine per cent of the city’s unemployed and poor lived in those ghostly sixteen-storey barracks. It was a disgusting, filthy place. But the docks, the warehouses and the ship graveyards right next to the barracks were even worse.

When Tadas was a teenager, the ship graveyard was a popular meeting place. Sharing a bottle of beer or a joint in the ship cabins, mottled with arabesques of mould, was unsettling. But Tadas never refused: he didn’t want to appear cowardly. The muffled moaning of the ships – the creaking, the dripping water, and the rocking – was especially creepy. His friends kept boasting about bending some slut from the barracks over a stinking mattress in one of the cabins. The girls in the port area didn’t have names, it wasn’t important which one it was, but how far they managed to go. Such talk, although probably idle chit-chat, was sickening: those girls, and they themselves, were still children.

He stopped going to the ship graveyard when a teenager he knew of drowned in a hold of icy, oily water. The rumour was that he had been pushed into the hold by his friends in a fight. The teenager’s alcoholic parents only reported their son missing a week later, when school noticed his absence.

Tadas remembers it well, even now: the local television news showed the rescuers carrying the body out covered with a grey blanket on a stretcher many times. The edge of the fabric fluttered in the wind, and the body itself looked incredibly small. On the news, Tadas learned the name of the boy, Aleksandras. His friends and acquaintances didn’t call him by that name, they called him by his nickname, Snot.

 

 

*

 

Inga wasn’t scared by Tadas’ stories about the port area. What was happening in the outside world recently seemed to matter less and less to her and her actions and decisions.

The ship graveyard in the bay was visible from the balcony of Inga’s apartment in a Khrushchevka building.

 

 

*

 

For the first few nights in her new apartment Inga slept in a sleeping bag. She would wake up feeling as if she had been beaten, and it would take a few hours for the pain and numbness to subside. Tadas slowly bought the essentials: a mattress, a fridge, a sofa and a couple of armchairs, a few stools, and a small kitchen table.

Inga only bought a wardrobe herself. She said she saw it in an advert. It was an antique Art Deco giant that could easily fit a whole adult inside. The walnut wood, coated in flaking lacquer, shone with a dull sheen and radiated the warmth of a living body. When Tadas brought it back from the seller, a chatty elderly man who looked Jewish and kept saying that such beauties were no longer made today, he wondered whether the wardrobe could be reassembled once it had been taken apart. But it came back together again, as if by itself, and Inga’s bedroom suddenly and timorously shrank in size.

‘It looks like a coffin,’ said Tadas about her purchase. ‘What will you keep in it? A kitchen cupboard would be enough for your clothes.’

As soon as he left, she quickly emptied out a black plastic bag that stood out in the corner of the bedroom. A few of her mother’s crumpled dresses, her father’s dress uniform, her own childhood clothes stuffed into a separate bag: that was all that was recovered, that was all that was left of Inga’s former life. She had no coat hangers, so she folded the clothes, which smelled of mould, and put them neatly on the shelves of the wardrobe. Everyday clothes were still out in plastic bags. When she was looking for something she needed, she had to move everything around between the bags every time, but she didn’t even think of putting those clothes in the wardrobe next to the others: it would be like putting the living next to the dead.

 

 

*

 

Inga had brought her father’s, her mother’s and her own childhood clothes, which she stored in a huge walnut wardrobe, from her father’s house. A few days after the funeral, Aunt Aušra called to help sort out Kazimieras’ belongings. Inga tried to talk her way out of it, but she eventually agreed.

When she entered her father’s still unfurnished house in the suburbs, in the spacious living room with its massive leather furniture she saw a heap of what might have been sentimental items already piled up by her aunt. Inga took her time choosing. She sat in an armchair for a good half hour and smoked, sipping on a cocktail of vodka and orange juice; she had brought the drinks, but she need not have bothered, for her father’s bar was full. She made a cocktail for Aušra too, but her aunt barely sipped from the heavy, carved crystal glass. Although she had rinsed her aunt’s glass thoroughly before mixing the drink, there was still some dirt in the cuts of the crystal.

Inga didn’t care about the photograph albums, the giant porcelain dinner set, or the sound equipment. She was only interested in useless clothes. She also took the worn-out children’s clothes she found at the lower shelf of Kazimieras’ bedroom wardrobe. Aušra had no idea why her brother had kept all this. Was it because he had been through too much and was suffering terribly, or because he was hopelessly neglectful?

As Inga was putting her clothes into the bags, her aunt looked her over furtively. Just like in her childhood: a skinny, silent outsider. Only the gaze itself had changed: dull, empty fish eyes. And drinking like her father.

‘Poor child,’ Aušra sighed when Inga had left. Her brother’s family always seemed abnormal to her. Kazimieras, Liuda (was she still alive?) and Inga: all three of them were houses with barred windows and locked doors. No one knows who put those bars there or for what reason, but it was impossible to get inside. And Aušra didn’t try, it was none of her business. She helped Kazys and Inga, who was left without her mother, as much as she could.

 

 

*

 

Before leaving her father’s house for the last time, Inga, carrying all her bags, popped into the yard. A thuja hedge, trimmed long ago, tall, lush, gently swaying grass. In the centre of the yard was an elaborate fountain that was never hooked up. The gaping jaws of a lion squatting on a podium; water should have squirted from them. Next to it, a torn sack of cement and a red hose. How dry the lion’s throat must be.

An old apple tree with gnarled branches indifferently ripens sour fruit.

The head of a dark-haired girl peeks through a gap in the thuja hedge. She stares intently at Inga. Slowly, she opens her mouth. Not a sound is heard. Silence rings for a moment. Then someone shrieks. It takes another moment for Inga to realise that it is her.

 

 

II.

 

Inga jerks and wakes up in her room, in bed. Outside the window it’s getting dark. The sheets and the blanket are damp with her cold sweat. She overslept.

‘It’s just a dream,’ she reassures herself. The dread is dissipating. ‘I have to visit my father today.’

Her head aches and her ears ring, but she throws off the covers, brushes the sticky strands of hair off her face, and whispers: ‘Today is a great day.’

Silence.

‘It’s a great day,’ she tries again as she drinks from the bottle by the bed.

 

 

*

 

Inga’s face, smudged with makeup, looks old and silly in her bathroom mirror. Narrow lines are what remain of her eyes. She will have to curl her eyelashes and apply mascara well before leaving.

​​She sighs remorsefully a few times and starts removing her makeup. The smooth cotton pads and the plastic of the cosmetics bottles feel so soft, so real, and so pure to touch.

After bathing, she shakily shuffles into the kitchen in her dressing gown, but as soon as she turns on the electric kettle, she returns to the corridor and finds a round candy tin in her handbag on the floor: three fairies in green skirts with their red hair flutter and twist on the lid. There is still some hashish left.

After a coffee, a glass of brandy and a spliff, the nausea and tinnitus stop. Her clothes envelop her body like a space suit, her head swings on her neck like a giant fluffy ball of cotton. Her legs feel like they’re made of cotton. Inga struggles with all her might not to burst out giggling: she feels weightless, a moment more and she might take off.

Before putting on her coat, she looks at herself in the mirror. Skinny black trousers, a tight black jumper. A thick layer of powder hides her pale skin and the dark circles under her eyes. Her curved eyelashes with a thick layer of mascara are like the legs of a spider. She decides not to take her handbag, just her keys, phone, lipstick, and some money, in case she decides to stop for a drink on her way back from the graveyard.

 

 

*

 

When her father died, Inga had no idea where or how he wanted to be buried, whether he wanted to be buried next to his parents or alone, buried or cremated, or whether a priest should be present or not. Father never spoke of death. What the hell? Inga believed that he would outlive everyone, anything else was impossible. The funeral was arranged by Tadas and the Seamen’s Union. The deceased was laid to rest in the old military cemetery in the port area. The same area Inga moved to shortly after the funeral.

 

 

*

 

As she approaches the cemetery fence, she’s surprised to see both slopes full of darkened graves. Perhaps All Saints Day was last week? She had expected to see a sea of rising candles, but there were only a few flickers. As she walks through the gate, Inga is surrounded by darkness and the smell of decaying leaves, and rustling, as though invisible animals were running around the cemetery.

She finds her father easily, just a short walk along the fence. A modest gravestone made of black Karelian granite, and a dark space beyond, endless and waiting. On the grave, only one rather expensive candle in a red lantern lies burning on the grave. Aušra had brought it, no doubt. She stands there for a few minutes, wondering what she should say or do, but no thoughts come to mind.

‘Is that it?’

Even she was surprised.

 

 

III.

 

Once, Inga came home early from school (her mother had left a few months before); her maths teacher was ill. They were still living in the Old Town, in an apartment with an incredibly high ceiling. The ceiling was so high that they used to borrow a stepladder from their neighbours to remove the cobwebs from the corners. Her mother was afraid of heights and always thought she would fall, so Inga had to hold the ladder tightly. If the ladder wobbled, there was nothing she could do to help her mother, Inga was too small, too weak. She would hold on, praying for her to fall in her mind.

That day, Inga happily unlocked the padded door of the house. Her father had warned her in the morning that he would be home late, due to union business or a meeting. As she was riding on the trolleybus, she imagined changing, eating, curling up in an armchair by the window, and reading The Man Who Laughs. Yesterday, she had put down the book at the point where the pirates abandon the disfigured boy on the beach.

On entering, she sensed that someone was in the apartment. Her father would always turn on the radio when he came back. It was dead quiet now. But Inga had no doubt: she was not alone at home.

She slinked into the living room as quietly as she could. She glanced into her room. Then into her mother’s old room. She checked the kitchen, the bathroom, the toilet. Nothing.

Her father’s room – her parents’ bedroom – was closed. Inga could only enter with permission. But there was someone lurking in the bedroom, and Inga wouldn’t wait for her father. She didn’t have the patience.

She sneaked over to the door and listened. Opened it carefully. There was a terrible mess. The wardrobes yawned wide open, the drawers were pulled out and hanging open. Clothes were spilling out of them. Clothes on the floor. Large family albums by the bed. Some of the photographs were crumpled and torn.

Her father lay in the messed-up bed facing the wall. The uniform jacket that Inga always hung neatly on the coat rack in the corridor (a self-appointed duty) was also on the floor. Her father’s body jerked occasionally. His familiar wheezing mixed with sobs was somehow strange this time. Why was her father crying? After a moment, she noticed that his face was buried in his mother’s pink nightgown. Inga took a step back. Her father wouldn’t love her like he used to. And she wouldn’t love anyone else.

She closed the door, slipped out into the corridor, put on her coat, and picked up her backpack. It was a clear afternoon in early spring. Inga headed for a nearby park, where she walked in circles under the huge trees, buffeted by an icy wind. When she returned home shivering, she found her father in the kitchen, drinking coffee and smoking, holding an open newspaper. He listened to the news in Russian from the socket radio.

 

 

IV.

 

The bar Inga goes to on her way back from the cemetery used to be a tiny Japanese restaurant. The walls are still decorated with dragons, samurai and women in kimonos. The paper lanterns cast a dim light.

First she goes to the toilet. The face in the mirror is foreign to her. She tries to smile. Again and again. She tops up her lipstick.

When she returns and sits down at the bar, the bartender gives her a friendly smile. Inga nods. It means ‘the usual.’

‘An exemplary cocktail for an exemplary client. Double gin and single tonic.’

The lemon peel hanging from the rim of the glass looks like it was polished.

Just a few customers, unfamiliar, but easily identifiable. A couple huddled at a secluded table, cigarettes between the fingers of both. Two freshmen sipping on their beers and chatting loudly about some Romka who never gets anyone a drink. A besuited man in his forties, recently divorced, at the other end of the bar. In a few hours, others will take the places of those who leave.

The recently divorced man is the first to start a conversation: he approaches Inga while she’s ordering her second drink. He had nothing in common with his wife from when their first child was born. He waited patiently for things to get back on track. A second child was born. Children are born, feelings are gone.

A Finnish man visiting on business offers her a White Russian. He likes the architecture of the city. It’s ‘different’, is what he says. Inga sniggers. He likes the people and the country. His hotel is right next door.

A stocky man of indeterminable age in a tracksuit buys Inga a beer. She buys him a shot of rum. The man pulls Inga and the entire bar stool towards him to hug. She doesn’t resist. When she comes back from the toilet, the man is gone.

A redhead of a certain age, who ordered Long Island iced tea for herself and her friend, invites Inga to join them. Her name is Nora, her cleavage is generous, her breasts are sagging satin cushions. Inga’s exhaustion and the feeling that everything is repeating itself grow stronger. But she still sits down at the friends’ table and sips the cocktail they bought her, listening to the clinking ice. She didn’t have to talk much. Both of them are divorced. The redhead is a hairdresser, her friend an accountant. One has a problematic son who doesn’t come back home at night, cuts his wrists.

‘It’s a cry for help.’

‘So what should I do now?’

She orders another beer at the bar. The stocky man returns. He sits down next to Inga as if he were an old friend, stroking her chest and moving his hairy hand towards her crotch. His fingers are thick. But when the man suggests they leave together, she shakes her head. Despite his perfunctory persuasiveness, she pays for her beer, puts on her coat, and totters to the door.

 

 

V.

 

Scarce large snowflakes land on the pavement and melt right away. The first snow, but the smell of wet earth is reminiscent of spring.

It’s just half an hour from the ‘Japanese’ place to Inga’s house. But the journey feels like an eternity. Inga walks and walks, walks and walks, without even moving. At times, her shadow splits in two, and then merges into one again. She has the feeling that someone is following her, but sees nothing when she looks back. She crosses by a dock worker hurrying home after his night shift. A taxi is waiting for a passenger, probably a drug addict looking for a fix at dawn in the barracks. A cigarette smoulders in the driver’s hand hanging out of the open window. A seagull is perched in a puddle that reflects heavy clouds.

Her mobile phone vibrates several times in her pocket. She’s sure it’s Tadas. She finds a few missed calls and a voice message from him yesterday. Doesn’t listen. Wouldn’t be surprised if he was waiting around by the front door.

A girl is waiting by the front door. About ten years old. Inga shudders: the girl looks just like she did at that age. The child stands still. Snowflakes in her dark hair, a yellow quilted jacket. A rickety Roma kids’ bicycle next to her.

Her breath catches, she wants to turn round and run. But Inga comes closer. There are two things you can’t run away from: yourself and your death.

As if in encouragement, the girl laughs. Sharp gaping teeth glisten between her thin lips.

Inga takes a deep breath of spring air, knowing it’s for the last time. She closes her eyes tightly and holds out her trembling hand to the girl.

 

 

 

 

 

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