Why Did You Sink the Red October?

I think this story about Finland starts in Sweden.

It was 2005, and I was twenty-two.

At ten or eleven at night my bus crossed the bridge from Copenhagen to Malmo. The border police got on, singled me out, and pulled me off the bus. I was sort of used to that by then. You could play “one of these things is not like the other” in pretty much any non-squatted space in Europe and I would have been the odd one out. I had long hair and patched-up black clothes, sometimes both a beard and a skirt, and you can sort of imagine a haze of flies around me at any given point.

“Where are you headed?” a guard asked once I was in the freezing night air outside the bus.

“Helsinki,” I said.

“Where are you staying in Helsinki?”

I wanted to say “you’re Sweden, not Finland, so it’s none of your fucking business.” Or I could have been honest: “I’m staying with the girl I loved through all of high school, who I haven’t seen in five years.”

“With a friend.”

They searched my bags pretty carefully, but zine masters of anarchist literature aren’t drugs so they didn’t arrest me or nothing and I continued on my way.

I had about twenty euro to my name, which I was planning on spending on the ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki. The only problem was, I hadn’t had enough money to take the bus all the way to Stockholm. Malmo was as far as I could get. I was going to hitch.
The bus driver took pity on me and took me an hour further, to a truck stop he said would be a decent spot to get a ride from. I got there in the middle of the night. There was frost on the ground. I walked out into a field behind the place, laid out my sleeping bag, and tried and failed to sleep.

It’s strange to say I used to live for that kind of adventure. But already at twenty-two it was getting old. It’s just that I wanted to get to Finland. My fate, whatever it might be, was waiting for me in Finland.

* * *

When I was probably thirteen, maybe fourteen, I fell on top of a girl while crowdsurfing in DC. Her name was A—. Her father was a diplomat from Finland. We fell in love.

At the end of that summer, she moved back to Finland; we stayed together. Mostly she visited me, but I went to Helsinki once while I was sixteen. We broke up my senior year because… well, because I was afraid of compromise, of changing the course of my life to be with someone. That wasn’t the kind of thing I did back then, for better or worse.

So yeah, five years later, I tried to hitchhike across Sweden to see her again.

* * *

I spent a miserable morning with my thumb out outside that truck stop. For hours, no one gave me the time of day. I started getting desperate. I had a maladaptive coping mechanism with which to respond to stress back in those days. Whenever something was awful, like when I was trapped with no money in the middle of nowhere in a country where I didn’t speak the language, by myself, no phone, I promised myself to never put myself into that situation again. “No hitchhiking broke in foreign countries,” I said to myself. “You make it through this, and I’ll never do this to you again. I promise.”

It’s maladaptive because five years later, I was broke in Germany and needed to get to Berlin, so I hitchhiked. Your body punishes you for breaking your promises. It’s better not to make them in the first place.

Eight or ten hours later, as I laughed at the Swedish reputation for friendliness, a trucker finally picked me up. “It’s not your lucky day,” he told me. “Most of the time I drive to Stockholm. Today I’m only going as far as Helsingborg.”

By late afternoon, I was in a park in a city I’d never bothered to have heard of. I found an overnight bus and blew the last of my money on a ticket. I had eight hours to kill, so I went to take a nap in the park in Helsingborg. It was beautiful there, at least. Whatever else was terrible about my situation, at least everything was beautiful.

A group of young women shouted for my attention.

“I don’t speak Swedish, I’m sorry,” I said.

“Come wrestle me,” one of the women said, in English.

“What?”

“I’m getting married, and in order to raise money for the wedding, I’m wrestling men in the park.”

“I don’t have any money,” I said.

They turned their attention back to each other, and I went back to my nap. To this day I don’t know if this is a normal Swedish custom. Sometimes I meet people who, not having met many people from the States, assume my behavior is typical of other Americans. I feel sort of terrible for those people. I don’t want to assume one way or the other that wrestling men in the park is the traditional way for Swedish brides to fund their wedding.

Later, a group of young men plied me with beer to tell them stories of my adventuring. They were on their way to some festival, and laughed at what a crazy and awesome life I led.

After it got dark, I went to wait in the bus station. An old homeless man slept on the bench next to me. A cop woke him up by name.

“Don’t end up like me,” the man said to me, once he was awake and the cop had fucked off.

He couldn’t have said it at a better, or maybe worse, time in my life. I was young, so people saw me as an adventurer and plied me with beer for stories of my travels. Add another decade or two, with the same life, and I was just gonna be a bum.

“Don’t end up like me,” the man said again. “You find yourself someone to love, and you just love them, whatever it takes. Don’t end up like me.”

I wondered if he knew how perfectly he was fitting the role of cryptic stranger in the movie of my life. I wondered about the decisions that had gotten him to where he was.

Sure, I thought about A—, waiting to see me in Finland. But I didn’t want to believe the man, either. Life wasn’t about finding someone and clinging onto them, come what may. There was more to it than that. There had to be.

We talked for awhile. He told me about his life in small town northern Sweden. He didn’t tell me about whom he’d loved, about whom he’d walked away from.

“And you Americans,” he said, starting to cry, “why did you sink the Red October?”

I was pretty sure the Red October was fiction, but I didn’t know for certain. I mean, I’m sure now, but I didn’t have Wikipedia in my pocket in 2005.

“Pardon?”

“Why did you sink the Red October? It was our last hope for socialism.”

The conversation never really recovered from that turn into the surreal, and my bus came, and I forgot to bring water with me. At least it was an overnight bus, and I wasn’t sleeping out in the cold. That man from the bus station probably slept out in the cold, since cops didn’t let him sleep inside.

Statistically, I assume he’s dead by now.

Neoliberalism has been creeping into those Scandinavian bastions of social democracy for a long time, and the social nets are failing.

If only we hadn’t sunk the Red October.

* * *

When I got to Stockholm, having spent the last of my money on the overnight bus, I had two different plans for how I would get on the ferry. First, I had a concertina. I could busk and raise what I needed. I was (am) a shitty concertina player. It would have likely taken me all day or into the night, and I would been stuck wandering the streets all night for lack of anywhere to sleep. I went with option two, one of the two times in my life I’d made use of option two. I called my mom collect.

I needed thirty dollars. It was the middle of the night in the US, and the internet wasn’t what it is now. It took her a long time and several calls before she figured out how to wire it to me.

“Call me back in ten minutes for the confirmation number,” she said.

I waited, then called.

“I’m sorry, the number you have dialed does not accept collect calls,” an automated voice told me.

I tried again. Same response. I called the operator, and she told me the same thing the computer had. There was only one number in the world I knew by heart, and it was my parents’ landline. I knew it accepted collect calls; I’d just done made use of that feature ten minutes prior. Privileging out wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped.

All I needed was the fucking confirmation number.

I put the last of my kroner — given to me by a woman on the bus, unprompted — into the payphone. “You have one minute,” the computer informed me.

My mom gave me the confirmation number, and maybe I remembered to tell her that I loved her, and the phone cut out.

I went to Western Union, got my thirty dollars, bought a chocolate bar, barely made it to the terminal on time, and took a ferry to Finland.

I don’t think I appreciated at the time how much I relied on two different social nets for my adventuring. I depended first and foremost on the kindness of anarchists. When I flew to Amsterdam on a one-way ticket, not knowing a soul, I did so assuming correctly that I’d meet anarchists who would take me in. That social net is woven of interdependence: my ability to stay at their squats and eat their food was based on my participation in militant demonstrations, helping open other squats, and foraging for food to share. The other social net I relied on was a middle-class upbringing and parents who, while our relationship was strained by my far-from-typical life, loved me. I didn’t ask them for help often, but just knowing I could was part of my decisionmaking more or less always.

* * *

A— was waiting for me as I got off the ferry, and my heart was near to bursting.

The plan we’d come up with over the phone was simple: she was going to finish up her seasonal job selling fish in the market, then we were going to leave to hitchhike around Europe. Her father caught wind of this plan and offered to buy us both unlimited rail passes instead. Obviously, neither of us complained.

I spent my days reading books in the park and my nights curled up with A— on her smaller-than-twin bed. It wasn’t magic between her and I. It wasn’t awkward either. It just was what it was. I think it’s fair to say we were in love. Neither of us knew how to handle that any better as new adults than we had as teenagers.

One day, one of A—’s roommate’s father died. An older friend, with more money, took everyone out drinking to mourn. I have a lower alcohol tolerance than almost every European I’ve ever met, and I blacked out after the second or third bar. To add to my air of prestige, I’ll admit that I passed out in the gutter.

A couple came out of the bar, one Finnish man and one American man. “Cute boy passed out in the gutter,” they said, “why are you passed out in the gutter?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Why are you in Finland?” they asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Love, probably. And also I don’t have enough money to leave.”

The American gave me twenty bucks.

As my memory — weak at the best of times — has it, the exact same thing happened again. A Finn and an American came out from the bar, took pity on the cute crust punk in the gutter, and gave me another twenty American dollars.

A—’s apartment was too far to walk in the middle of the night, so we decided to head to her parents’ apartment, closer to the center of the city. The sun was probably near to rising, and we sat on a swing set in the just outside of a church. I’d sat on those same swings, at sixteen, with her. I’d been lost and anxious then. I was lost and anxious now.

We talked about love. I think we talked about what little we knew of it.

We talked about what it would mean to be together. It wouldn’t be easy. She was in school. I had dropped out to join the revolution, and I wasn’t an EU citizen.

I knew I couldn’t live in her tiny bed in her apartment, not forever, not for longer than a few weeks. Probably not even long enough for her to finish work and us to travel together. I could live in Amsterdam, land of legal squatting, and we could be together on her breaks. Just like before.

Like we were teenagers again.

We crept up to her parents’ apartment and fell asleep together in her childhood bedroom while birds started their song outside.

* * *

We had a few more adventures after that. The G-8, a neoliberal bastion, was meeting in Scotland that year, and anticapitalists from around Europe were converging to try to shut it down. A— and I and some others organized a solidarity demonstration in Helsinki. I’d already been arrested and sent to foreign detention once on that trip, in Rotterdam, so I wasn’t eager to risk arrest again anytime soon. I figured I’d stick to the sidelines on this one. We made giant paper mache heads of the eight leaders of the countries in the G-8. No one told me until the day of the march that I was going to be George Bush. I led the other seven around the city on leashes on an unpermitted march of a few hundred people, and no one tried to throw me in prison for it — that was a good day.

The day after, I was back on the ferry, with plans to meet A— in Amsterdam in a few weeks to begin our unlimited rail pass summer.

A crew of young Finnish men were rather excited about my adventurous life, and they paid for my drinks all night. They wanted to know why I’d been in Finland, and I showed them a picture of A—, and as is the habit of men, they congratulated me on dating someone so beautiful. At the end of the night, they went off to their bunks and I slept on the floor on the main deck.

I woke up to a man screaming at his wife. For longer than I’d like to admit, I did nothing. There was a whole crowd of people who understood what he was saying. They should have done something. They didn’t. He got a look in his eyes, a hateful look, and myself and another person stepped in to stop him. It broke the spell and he calmed down and I wish I’d done more and sooner. I think about that morning all the time, when I need to make myself try harder, act sooner.

I don’t remember much of anything of the bus back to Amsterdam, but I made it back to my squat. Some weeks later, A— came, and it turned out that since I wasn’t an EU citizen I couldn’t have that unlimited rail pass after all, not for the discounted rate. I couldn’t afford the balance, so A— left without me.

* * *

It didn’t work out. I don’t say that glibly. I don’t even mean that one or the other of us fucked up or had a fear of commitment or gave up too easily. It didn’t work out because we weren’t right for one another, not at the end of things. We lingered on as long as we did because…

Because romantic love as a matter of fate, the idea that there is one person you are obliged to be with, is as much a work of fiction as the Red October.

I believe in socialism — well, more specifically, I believe in anarchist socialism, but I will admit that democratic socialism is a lot better than neoliberalism or conservatism — but that doesn’t mean I need to believe in a fairy tale version. That fairy tale version, in which socialism is inevitable and is the pinnacle of human progress, is what gets us all in so much trouble.

I suppose I believe in love, too. I’ve felt it, I’ve seen it. It’s the fairy tale version that ruins people’s lives, I think.

I’m sorry, probably-dead man in Helsingborg. I’m sorry that the world was cruel to you. I’m sorry that cop only bothered to know your name because he didn’t want you to sleep somewhere warm. I hope you’re remembered by more people than me.

* * *

I went back to Helsinki, another five years later, and saw A— again. No illusions, this time. No plans on being together romantically or sexually at all. Hanging out with her was like going on a blind date with a stranger you’ve been in love with half your life. We spent a week happy in one another’s company, proud of what the other was doing with their lives.

I didn’t want to leave Europe, but my visa was running out fast, so I said my goodbyes to everyone and A— drove me to the airport. She cooked me a bag lunch to eat while I was waiting for the plane. It was the first time that I really understood the way that simple, domestic acts can signify love. I’m glad that I learned to appreciate that from a friend, and not from a partner. Because it’s not a fairy tale. It’s just love.

A version of this story was first published in zine form for my Patreon supporters. If you appreciate my writing and want to help me do more of it, please consider supporting me via Patreon.

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