I apologise a few hundred times, but I know I need to go. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s nothing more than a quiet suspicion – but it’s there, and just like the mosquito buzzing around my head, it’s refusing to let me sleep. I hear him tossing and turning in the bed next to mine. He’s been kind and caring to me all evening, but something’s off. I’ve felt comfortable with everyone I’ve met so far on this trip, but not tonight. A friend texts me. He’s unhappy about a situation he’s stuck in, but isn’t brave enough to leave it. “I don’t feel good, but I don’t want to cause a fuss. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe I’m exaggerating.”
Hearing my own excuses echoing out of my phone pushes me out of bed, and back into my pants and shoes. It’s 30 minutes past midnight, but I know I’ve got to go. I pack my bags. One of them falls over, waking Eimo. He doesn’t understand what’s going on, but he doesn’t stop me. Five minutes later, I’m back on the road, riding through the Finnish woods under a midnight sun.
I had found a spot to park my bike. It was close to one of those little wooden huts, strewn across the Finnish countryside. I wander around the hut a little. No one’s home. There’s a single can of beer on the table. I venture a guess: single, male. Probably over 50 years old. I kneel down next to my bike to munch on my nuts and raisins.
A few minutes later, a car drives up. Once more, I’m in the middle of the woods, kneeling on the ground, eating some nuts in front of a stranger’s wood cabin. Said stranger gets out of the car. He looks 50-69 years old. Big, white mustache, yellowed by the smoke of cigarettes. He smiles at me, and says something in Finnish. “English?” I say. He shakes his head. Looks at me, goes into the cabin. I want to finish my nuts and then leave. He comes back out with two cans of beer. He hands me one with a smile, and sits down with his can on the porch. He lights a cigarette. I accept the beer and sit down next to him. Silence, as the smoke rises from the lit cigarette. “I’m Bot,” I say. “Eimo,” he replies.
Birds chirp in the woods.
He gets up and gestures for me to follow him into the kitchen. “Coffee?” He asks. I nod. He takes a frozen lump of meat out of the freezer. “Elk,” he says.
He begins delicately carving off pieces of meat from the frozen meat.
I watch. He places the meat into a pan. He starts a fire in the oven. The smoke curls lazily around the living room furniture. He drops six potatoes into a pot and places it on the stove. The meat is beginning to sizzle. He adds water and salt. The coffee is warm. “What do you work as?” I ask him. He draws a little picture of a sawing machine and wood for me to understand. He doesn’t use the Google translate I offer to him. I gesture whether he shot the elk himself. He nods. We eat dinner together in silence. He has 2 potatoes – I have four. He’s on his second beer – I’m taking tiny sips from my first.
He shows me the sauna. I ask if he’s built it. He nods. The stove in the sauna is on. I wonder if he’s expecting me to take a sauna with him. I assure myself that saunas are not unusual in these Northern parts of Europe. I remember one of my favorite books “Radar” by Reif Larsen, and how the main characters – who know each other for only an hour at that point – take a sauna together. That thought calms me a bit. “This is normal, no?” My brain thinks. And quickly ignores the second thought that pops up in response: “Wasn’t that book written by an American professor living in Montana though?”
If you ignore the red flags, they can’t hurt you, no?
We go back to the main house. He turns on the TV. We watch a documentary on young recruits to the British army. “I’m willing to kill and to die,” one of the young recruits being interviewed says. I shake my head at the TV. He laughs. Then he hands me a towel. “Sauna,” he says. He’s smiling. He hands me some old plastic shoes, and gestures at me to follow. I look at the TV, as if it might tell me what to do. “War is war,” the recruit says. I follow Eimo.
A minute later, I’m stripping naked in the woods with a strange man and step into the sauna with him. He motions me to sit on the highest seat. It’s warm. The fire crackles in the stove. He throws some water at the rocks sitting on top of the stove. The water hisses as it evaporates. I laugh. He looks at me and throws another pot of water at the rocks. It makes him laugh to see me giggle. But even as I giggle, the tension building up in my chest feels as if its going to snap at any moment. I have no idea how I got here. I know I walked in here voluntarily, but why? Other than the feeling that it would be rude not to follow Eimo as he ushered me towards his hand-built sauna.
As we sit there, he rubs my back with a sponge. He hands me the sponge and I do the same for him – two strangers in the woods. He steps out for some cold air. I watch the door like a hawk, eyes darting to the window. I can’t help but worry. What if he locks me in? I step outside. There’s only the sound of the wind. He offers me another beer, but I decline. He offers again. I decline once more. He opens his, and drinks. I put my clothes back on and head for the main house.
The tension continues to build up. He’s put on another documentary. It’s about two Finnish girls working in an Australian bar to make some quick cash for their travels. “Girls, you’ve got to be okay with male attention if you take this job,” the lady doing the interview says. My eyes are glued to the television, so I won’t have to look at him. He gestures for me to get into the bed beside him. I shake my head and remain seated in the armchair across the room. He puts a second blanket next to him. Once more I decline, and point towards the couch on the other side of the room. He smiles, but I think I see him shaking his head a little. I try to fall asleep as he watches “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, but I have a feeling he’s not asleep. Neither am I.
I’m good at accepting uncomfortable feelings. In some regards, that’s a strength. I can sit on my bicycle seat for hours each day, even when my butt hurts. I’m good at long, boring experiments. I can go on long field research days in the pouring rain for hours, knowing eventually, there’s a warm shower waiting at home. The problem is, that this personal brand of stoicism requires me to tune out the screeching voice in my head that tells me to quit, tells me to leave a situation. That’s great during a long bike ride. But not when I’m in a situation I definitely should’ve gotten out of long ago – like, for example, a bad relationship. Or, an uncomfortable feeling I have about staying in a strange man’s house in the Finnish woods.
The tension in my chest is near unbearable by now. But I don’t think I can just leave. Or can I?
It’s past midnight. The sky is bright outside, the sun no longer sets this high up north. I can hear him breathing, coughing. I’m on high alert whenever he moves. I get the text from my friend. “I don’t feel good, but I don’t want to cause a fuss. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe I’m exaggerating.” I tell him – and by extension myself – that he doesn’t owe anyone anything and if he wants to get out of a situation, he can. After I click send, I get up from the bed. I know Eimo is awake, but his eyes are closed. I put on my pants and collect my things. “Always have your belongings packed and ready for a quick getaway,” I think to myself. Suddenly, one of the bags topples over, and hits the floor with a loud sound. Eimo’s eyes pop open. “I have to go,” I say to him. He points at the bed. I shake my head. “Thank you for everything,” I say, and grab my bags. He just watches from the porch, smoking a cigarette. I launch myself into the bright midnight sun night. A few kilometers down the road, I pitch my tent next to the river Johnny will be taking his exam in. It’s a wild one.
I fall asleep within seconds.
DISCLAIMER FOR YOU TRAVELING FOLKS: The only thing telling me to leave was my gut instinct. I did not feel safe or comfortable in that space, so I left. As someone who has endured years of gaslighting and emotional abuse by people I loved and trusted, this seemingly simple act is something that took every ounce of courage and strength I had in me. I honestly hope most of you don’t understand why I stayed as long as I did if I was feeling so bad about it. It means you are able to set your boundaries and enforce them, and I am very happy for you that you are.
If, on the other hand, you saw a reflection of your own behavior in my story, then I hope I can pass a lesson it has taken very long for me to learn on to you: you don’t owe anyone anything. If you feel uncomfortable, it is absolutely okay for you to leave. Create boundaries. Respect your own boundaries. It’s okay to make a fuss when you’ve physically hurt yourself. It’s okay to leave a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable.
And if Eimo meant well, then I think he would be understanding of why I left.