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She’s tipsy. I can see it in her face, in the slightly too big smile. But she doesn’t smell like alcohol, at least not yet. I catch a waft of scent from the crown of flowers she has in her hair, which mixes with the scent of birch and burning wood.
We face the bonfire, two best friends, here in a country alight with wild revelry. I can see people, passing drinks around, both sodas, and the various alcoholic beverages, including one that smells strongly of grapefruit, tempting me to try it.
We’re in Finland, part of a stop on our travels, and we’re at our friend, Kaisa’s summer cottage, enjoying the Finnish festival of Juhannus, or Midsummer.
The bonfire cracks, and someone shoves a drink into my hands. I can feel Sarah’s eyes on me, full of mischief, daring me to take that first sip, and something inside me snaps, I guess you could call it that last shred of self restraint giving way. I raise the bottle to my lips and take a swig of the bitter, hops filled beer.
He’s finally done it. I stare at Sam, with an evil grin on my face, as he takes his first sip of alcohol tonight. I’ve been drinking lightly for about an hour, but he’s been restraining himself, and as I watch his restraint break, I can’t but feel a small explosion of glee.
A man I don’t know, grabs my hands, and spins me around the fire, dancing wildly to the song. I let myself go, dancing with him, feet flying, and I can smell the sweet-but-bitter alcohol on his breath. Eventually, he relinquishes my hands, and moves onto the next girl, spinning away with her, as she laughs.
I find that I’m standing next to Sam again, having come a full circle around the huge fire. I look at him with the devil in my eyes, and say
“Finish your drink, lets go swimming!”
His eyes get huge, and I’m not really sure why. All I know is that when the man grabbed me for dancing, there were no people in the water, and now there are, and boy, does swimming sound good right now.
He leans in close, and says “They’re not swimming with clothes on, Sarah.”
This gives me momentary pause. But then, I smile, grab his drink, take a swallow, and pull my top off. He immediately closes his eyes, and even in the firelight, I can see a blush rising on his face.
What is she DOING, I think to myself. But to my surprise, I hear no wolf whistles, no laughter, nothing out of the ordinary. I open my eyes, careful not to look at her, and glance around. No one is staring. It’s as if this is completely normal.
Kaisa walks up, and as if she can read my thoughts, she says “It’s normal. No-one here is going to bother her. We all swim like this.”
I hear a splash, and glance over, to see Sarah treading water, a huge grin of delight on her face. She calls out, “Come ON Sam, join me, it’s amazing.” Kaisa gives me a light prod in the back, and I take a final swig of my drink, emptying the bottle.
And my clothes come off, like I can’t control my own hands. I drop them next to Sarah’s, and with a screaming splash I hit the water.
The water is COLD despite the summer. And he’s in it. I can’t believe it. No way. Sam can be so reserved. I can’t believe he’s doing this. I smile at him, and he swims towards me. He looks nervous. I can’t stop smiling. I slip underwater, soaking my hair and come up, gasping for breath.
Eventually, the water grows too cold for me and I climb out. Always the perfect hostess, Kaisa has a towel set on top of my clothes, and a new garland for my hair, woven out of limber birch wands and filled with wildflowers.
I dry off, and slip back into my clothes. To my surprise, Sam stays in the water, chatting with some of the other boys who are swimming. I wander over to a group of girls who look about my age, and thankfully they speak English. We chat for a short time and the night slips by us. Eventually, one of the girls says something to the others in Finnish, and they all smile. I glance at them, and a girl that I now know as Jatta says “It’s an old tradition for girls our age to stand naked by the lake and you will see the man you will love.” Immediately, I want to try it. One by one, the girls slip out of their clothes and go to stand by the lake side. Each one comes back blushing, and names are shared around. Then, Jatta turns to me. “Your turn” she says.
I take a deep breath and pull my dress off. Slipping out of the rest of my clothes, I walk to the lake side and look out. No boy stands out, among the crowd of faces. And then, I see him. Or, the back of his head. My gaze zeros in under it’s own power on this one boy, who is facing away from me. I don’t know who he is. And then, he turns around. Sam. I’m looking at my best friend, and he doesn’t see me, standing here, naked, with the heat of the fire on my back, I turn, and walk quickly away, but I can hear a small voice saying “You knew this. You’ve know this.” I hurry back, and Jatta and her friends grab me. “So… Who did you see?”
With a stutter I say “Sam. I saw my best friend.” Their eyes grow wide and they erupt into a bubble of giggles.
I turn, and see Sam climbing out of the water.
The night glides onward. I drink more and more, my restrain totally absent. But I’m not drunk, not by a long shot, when the most shocking thing of the night happens. I’ve been watching Sarah drink, dance, and talk for hours, and haven’t said a word to her. But I’m thinking. I’m thinking about how beautiful she looks with that garland in her hair, how free her smile is, and to my surprise, I find myself getting fluttery every time she comes near me.
With the sun barely touching the horizon, I feel her come up behind me, and I turn slowly around. Without another thought, I pull her in and kiss her. Her mouth is sweet, and slightly bitter with alcohol, and I hear cheering from behind. But nothing matters. Her eyes stare into mine, surprised, and then, they drift closed as she leans into the kiss. With every breath I can smell the sweet garland in her hair. I can feel her soft skin.
He’s kissing me. Everything is perfect. My body reacts to his kiss, leaning in and I kiss him back. I can hear Jatta and her friends cheering us on. I can taste the alcohol on his breath. Then I lean back, and stare into his eyes. They’re full of shock, which soon gives way to happiness. He kisses me again, just a peck this time, and I know everything has changed.
Here, under the never setting sun, with the heat of the bonfire and the singing and the liquor, here on Juhannus, in Finland, everything has changed