Storytime: The Liminal Spaces of Southern Estonia

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: Human connections and human disconnections.

Twelve hours before it happened I was in my home, in Tallinn, where I live. But now I am here. I’m not even sure where here is. I had a panic attack, got on a bus headed for a city I can barely pronounce, and now I’m somewhere. I can’t point to somewhere on a map. For a number of reasons. One those reasons, at this time though, might be the two shots of vodka coursing through my blood. I chalk it up to the fact that I have never been good at maps.

Here, in this place, there are a dozen people and there is a laughter and there is drink. There is the campground we’re staying at with the people I do know and even the ones I don’t know. There is fire too but most of all, there is a sky that is never-darkening because it is the longest night of the year.

It is the never ending sunlight that gives me pause now. Almost 9pm and still no twilight to be found for miles across the horizon. Cooling air that stills into my bones and yet the sun stays still, lazily hanging like an ornament on the tops of the trees.

The lovely matron who owns the grounds has graciously lit a sauna for us. Not in the standard modern style sauna that I’m used to but instead in a small hut shaped halfway between an egg and an igloo, made for a mere three or four bodies. The intimacy and the strangeness of it, sitting huddled on the edge of the lake, is a picture I can’t process. I know the abstraction of the object. I know the purpose of it but its true function is yet to be understood.

But here, nowhere, is where we reach the point in the night where it is inevitable. A few shots in and I feel confident enough to have a new adventure. I am cajoled into the sauna. I knew it was coming and now it is here and for the first 30 seconds I feel the inadequacy of my own body all too acutely. My body is full of thick, soft flesh made purely of stress and dissatisfaction. There is a heaviness to my bottom that weighs poorly against the smallness of my chest. There are the rolls of my stomach and the thick slope of my thighs juxtaposed by the oddness of my protruding rib cage. The softness of my arms, and the thickness of my hips.

Those naked seconds pass with ease though because they are like a secret, hidden until presented plainly for everyone to know as their own. All there is now is aftermath. And as body goes, the aftermath is not notable. My body is not notable. It is simply my body. All of my bodies short comings exist in my head. In reality my body is average, adequate, and simple. And all the same, the way forward is simple as well.

My friend drags me, by the arm, into the sauna. Its door shuts finitely and despite seeing the inside of the structure before, sitting inside it is far stranger than viewing it from outside. My vision blurs as a plume of steam fills the air. My glasses fogging, the window fogging. The hiss of the coals runs down my spine. The choking, thick heat swirling up into my lungs. Grabbing me around my arms. Sweat dripping from my brow. Sweat pooling in the divots of my shoulder. Down my spine. Droplets forming on my legs, on my thighs, and rolling down to the soles of my feet.

I watch her hair. Thick and black and curling up and around her face as the temperature changes. The coals glow and yelp. They scream orange. The steam blows out her face like a flash bang. When she comes back in view I try to memorize every line. I hold onto the sight of her eyelashes. The smell of burning wood. The taste of sweet, thick heat. The swell of her voice, rising with emotion. Oh! Her voice! Her words filter back in and I remember that I am having a conversation, not an inner monologue.

The space is otherworldly though. This isn’t my first sauna but it’s the hottest one I’ve ever been in. It’s the strangest one I’ve ever been in. It’s the first one that makes my heart feel full and makes my shoulders relax. It’s the first one that I laugh in and the first one I cry in. The space feels so soft and so fragile that I feel as if it will shatter me. I don’t understand who I am in this space, so separate from who I was before.

It pulled us away from the party and into a special place. Just for us. I try to cherish it. I try to hold on tight to the feeling of oneness and calmness and understanding. I try to take all her words, muddled under the alcohol, and save them. Save each word. Save each sound. And I smile while tears or sweat runs down my face and warmth flutters in my stomach.

Even when the door opens and the temperature equalizes it doesn’t break the seal. I think I can go on floating through this moment for the rest of my life. I feel new and naked and seen and disappearing into my friend, who will keep me safe – who I will keep safe.

We exit the sauna, smoke pouring out the door, laughter pouring out of our mouths.

Across the field, my music is still playing where my phone is hooked up to the speakers. I dance my way over to look at the next track. Glancing down at my phone:

BFF (25 minutes ago): Dad passed.

I am standing wet from sweat, feeling naked now in a new way as the air blows around me. Sober suddenly. All joy in my heart is shattered, all feelings emptied from my body as if someone had come along and simply tipped me over like a kettle. Doubt pouring out or pouring in fast.

(he needs you and you’re not there. he needs you and you’re drunk in a forest in god forsaken nowhere. he needs you and you left him. you’re too busy being happy. and you left him there, alone, to die. again.)

I throw the phone down on the table like it is on fire and I take several steps backwards. I glance around but nothing has changed. Everyone is still drinking and enjoying themselves. My friend is standing by the fire now, her face lit up like the sun. I want to claw my way inside of her and find the peace we had shared moments before. I want her heart to break the way my heart is breaking. I want to scream and cry and thrash at the unfairness of life.

But life is for the living! I tell myself. There is nothing to be done. I am not there for my friend, and he is not here but the party keeps going. It goes on with or without me.

So I change the track. I dance and I drink and I laugh. No doubt my best friend is dying out there but here, there is nothing to do but drink, nothing to do but live. To try to remember that life is short and we must fill it with as much goodness and as much love and connection as we can muster.

But it hangs around my neck.

When I finally lay down to sleep hours later, drinks later, that’s when I start to cry.  I am not there for my best friend in his time of need. Too selfishly enjoying myself. I had slipped into a space where it didn’t hurt to be alive for a minute and forgot that everyone else had to go about their lives. Forgot to bring him along for the ride.

More than the alcohol, more than the sauna, more than the strange emptiness of the trees, still bright at night, I feel suddenly unmoored. I feel myself slip between spaces. I’m barely a person, starring up at the ceiling feeling so loved and connected and yet so far away and alone.

I lay paralyzed in fear that he is alone. That he is feeling adrift in his body, in the empty space between breaths like I am. I want to comfort and to hold and to hug. I want to absolve him. I want to sublimate his feelings until they turn to sauna smoke. But I can’t. I couldn’t do any of those things even if we weren’t separated by forests and flesh and distance anymore than I could have held onto the joy from the sauna even without these shattering thoughts I inhabit. After all, these spaces are sacred, not eternal.

So I do the only thing I can.

I love you. Take care of yourself.

And then I sleep.

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