Strange Cabinfellows (or 16 Hours)
by Busra Erkara
“Thiz iz,” said the taxi driver, pointing widely at the bleak port that lay to our left. The sun was about to set. I knew that solely based on the time, and not the mercury color that was contrasting with the red, cone roofs of Toompea Castle in the northeast. Just like everywhere else, Tallinn looked better on the cover of a Lonely Planet. Don’t bother going there.
Dragging a dirty carry-on, I quickened my steps as much as I could. I was wearing the only pair of boots I owned at the time, and carrying all the clothes I had. See, I was going through this anti-consumerist phase, partly caused by the fact that my suitcase was stolen on my second day of moving to Sweden. In retrospect, it must have been a way of dealing with minor PTSD, but I had decided to own only one of each item of clothing ever since. The only exception was the self-justified, H&M-bought underwear, and a couple of pairs of woolen socks I had obtained somewhere. I grew out my armpit hair and fancied myself a character from The Dispossessed, except that unlike LeGuin’s protagonists, I didn’t get any..
The terminal for motor ship Romantika was a large, fluorescent-lit room with white linoleum floors and glass walls. Had it not been for the constant flux of inebriated Swedes, waiting merrily to get on the cruise ship, you would think it belonged to a government agency who deported people from the Baltics for not liking it enough. “It’s not like we want to be here either,” the lower rank officials would whisper to me, as their captain went outside to smoke a cigarette or do… whatever the hell he was going to do out in the cold.
I took a closer look at my fellow deportees: A conglomeration of young men, wearing the Swedish Army uniform. Retired husband-and-wives, who, for some reason, were wandering around the Baltics in the not-so-fine month of November, instead of going to Spain or Portugal. Some sulking metalheads coming back from a show, members of a subculture I had completely forgotten about prior to moving to Scandinavia. The occasional solo travelers with whom I didn’t want to identify. After all, what kind of a person willfully chooses to travel on their own?
Cruise ships have an innate sadness to them. I cannot remember if this was what I was thinking upon entering Romantika, but I’m sure it was something along those lines. You get on them thinking you are gonna be writing letters on your desk overlooking the sea, like a Lady Mary Crawley of sorts; and you end up trying not to smell your cabinmate’s shit. At their worst, they are floating resorts, surrounded by sharks, icebergs, and Somali pirates. At their best, they’re Titanic. And you cannot leave them.
With that in mind, I found where I would be spending the night: An 80 square feet, B-class cabin, featuring a mirror where there would normally have been a window. I figured it was going to be dark for most of my trip, so I didn’t bother to pay extra. Tallink Silja Line travel agent had also said I might end up with a roommate with this ticket, but I trusted my luck, and other people’s tendency to dodge misery–my favorite way to fuck myself over. I was sure I was going to be alone. I took off my boots, and sat on one of the two sofa beds facing each other.
Then there was a firm knock on the door.
I got to my feet, took one big step, and opened the door. An old, sturdy woman stood in the narrow hallway. She had bushy eyebrows and wore an all-black coif hiding her hair. Under that was a heavy black shawl, a black trenchcoat, and a washed-out black skirt sweeping the floor. She was carrying an ancient-looking leather duffel. I took her for an Orthodox nun. She waved her keycard at me, and stepped in murmuring something in Estonian under her breath. She was missing a tooth.
I smiled and tried to make conversation in my newly budding Swedish. She didn’t speak, but pointed at her chest, and said “Jutta.” With zero languages in common, we both knew better than to persist in our communication. I pretended to look for something in my backpack, the only way I could try to make our encounter less awkward. She took her coif off, revealing her long, grey-and-white hair. She then started to hover her hands over her sofa bed, quietly mouthing words, as if she were sanctifying it.
A ziplock bag with two slices of pre-baked frozen pizza peeked at me from inside the backpack. I was getting hungry, but didn’t want to leave so soon to make Jutta think that I was bothered by her company. Just as I was considering a game of Snake on my Nokia before finding a corner for dinner, I heard a jingle. Jutta was taking off her coat. She had turned her back to me in a sudden fit of privacy, but I could still see her broad chest from the mirror.
The black lining of her coat was complete with small pockets and bands, holding at least ten cork-capped test tubes on each side. Scared to even breathe, I spied murky liquids, brittle tree branches, earth, and herbs inside the tubes. My eyes widened as my hands got cold. She then sat on the side of her bed, and took her shoes off. Inside black men’s socks, she had the feet of an old person, wide and doughy.
I excused myself by pointing at the bag of pizza and left the room trying to process. Maybe she had visited her homeland in Estonia, and was carrying some of the stuff back. Earlier that week, I had couchsurfed in an abandoned mansion in Riga, where the molded bathtub doubled as a kitchen sink. There, I learned enough about the Baltic mythology to know that the trees and earth were of special importance. I had also stayed in Vilnius, Lithuania, long enough to fall in love with any men over the age of 17, but that’s beside the point.
I found a lobby corner and nibbled my dinner looking at the complete darkness outside. The younger Swedes were already in full party mode, blasting music, and drinking with their cabin doors open. Upstairs, I walked through the two “fine dining” restaurants, where few diners drank wine and engaged in quiet conversation. I then passed through the four bars of the ship, a seemingly high number for our 16-hour voyage. Most Finns and Swedes treated these cruises as drinking retreats: You drank on the way to your destination. You drank when you got there. And then, you drank some more on the way back. I guess it was their way of rebelling against the government regulated, extremely restricted and expensive alcohol.
I sat down and had a glass of vodka at the disco, and watched midlifers sing karaoke to ABBA and dance. In the “Starlight Palace”, a banquet-hall like bar next door, a Finnish Sinatra wore a fedora and sang “Strangers in the Night”.
When I went back to the cabin, I found Jutta in a nightgown, her hair braided into one thick tress. She sat in her bed with her reading light on, chanting from a leather-bound book of Runic hymns. I quickly made my own bed.
Jutta the Witch and I had 14 more hours till Stockholm, and more in common than we did with anyone else on this ship. Soon, I was gonna find out that she was a snorer.
Busra Erkara is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, i-D, and Broadly among other publications. She is a former editor of Nylon and BULLETT magazines, and “Strange Cabinfellows” is her first short story.