by Barrie Jean Borich
illustration by Kelsey Zigmund
Hearts of smoke bloom from the door in wispy helixes. A girl stumbles out from the neon light, the moon silvering her hair (bona fide Norwegian blonde). Two boys follow, inebriated and tripping in each other’s laces. Vaguely mellifluous music vibrates in the air, booming from their party bus, painted pink with yonic imagery. Fascinated, I hope: a lovely (intentional?) tribute to Georgia O’Keefe. The blonde girl is beautiful, with a necklace of wildflowers around her neck. She speaks in italics when she speaks to the boys: “Yesterday, I fucked a guy behind a garage. It was so dark, I didn’t notice until afterward that he was Pakistani.” She laughs a low laugh, and then they see me. At a tram stop, waiting, thirteen. One of the boys raises his beer bottle in victory.
“Are you ready to be DEVIRGINIZED?»”
“No,” I say, horrified.
“Slutt ’a” (Knock it off). The girl glares at her friends. “You’re scaring her.”
“Sorry, sorry. Do you want my Russ card, sweetheart?”
“OK.” He walks over to me and I take the card, characteristically red with a passport-sized picture and the boy’s name. Beneath his phone number it says “24/7 Amateur Gynecologist.”
I am intimidated and in awe, and the thought of one day being one of them asphyxiates me, makes my heart twist in disbelief. Yet of course, less than a decade later the impossible notion is fact. I am Norwegian and nineteen. I am drunk (but have not yet fucked a Pakistani behind a garage). I am “Russ.”
I am in a constant state of disorientation (only fingertips lucid), recovering from multiple plastic cups of medicinally sweet liquor. It all feels like a surreal video game—one I am bad at. A few nights ago, I watched a circle of guys cheering on a girl couple as they did skin shots with a bottle of vodka and each other’s breasts. I watched a boy have a feverish, furious cell phone conversation in which it was revealed his girlfriend, passed out in the woods, was nearly assaulted after someone spiked her drink with Rohypnol (date rape coladas are internationally ubiquitous). I watched a classmate break up with her boyfriend when he got mad (she was kissing his best friend). I, too, kissed. A pretty redhead. And a boy, because he wore a shirt that said SAVE MARLA SINGER, and I thought the Fight Club reference was nifty. My dearest friend laughingly lost her virginity to a brazen boy who said he was homosexual but “wanted to try vanilla ice cream, just once.” (I later heard him giving one of the vodka girls the same line.) Every night is wild with stars. Everyone’s senses seem heightened, ready for anything and everything. The way people stare, darkly drinking each other in, in the twilight, is at once frightening and almost intoxicatingly beautiful.
The word Russ is believed to come from the final syllable of cornua depositurus: to set aside one’s horns. In the 1700s, students awaiting the results of their university entrance exams had horns fastened to their foreheads as a marker—they were to be mocked by the older university students. If they passed their tests, the horns were removed as a sign that the wild animal in them had gone, and that they had gained wisdom. This modest beginning has expanded into what is today a multimillion-kroner industry focused on making the nineteen-year-olds of Norway purchase various Russ accessories. In terms of income level per capita, Norway is the second richest country in the world. Due largely to this wealth, Norwegian teenagers (or more precisely: our parents) quite casually spend substantial sums of money on everything from the standard color-coded hats and pants indicating our line of study, to lavish sound systems and—most notably—buses. Groups of teens get together to buy large party buses, equipped with a professional driver. In lieu of studying for upcoming exams, teens traditionally drive these buses around their towns starting late April, playing bass-heavy techno songs at night.
Small symbols of our craziness level are proudly displayed with little knots fastened to our Russ hats. Reading the list of this year’s knots gives me the slightly adrenalized feeling I used to get in childhood games of Truth or Dare. According to the 2010 knot list, walking into class in nothing but underwear entitles me to attach a pair of panties to my hat. The knot for teaching sex ed. to first graders (explanatory movements included), is a flower. Tying a teacher to a flagpole and dancing a warrior dance around him gives me the chance to add a piece of pirate paraphernalia. Due to the non-litigious nature of Norwegians, no one gets sued over any of the antics. But principals, parents, and politicians continually worry about the health-hazardous binge drinking and pranks, which end up going too far.
The vast majority of the knots are sexual in nature. Want a piece of a baking sheet for your hat? Have anal sex. Protein bar wrapper? Swallow. Picture of a bear? Have sex with a Russ weighing more than 100 kilos. Another picture, this time of Virgin Mary? Have sex with a virgin. The latter act must be voluntary according to the official rules, something I suppose is nice of them to specify. My favorite knot is sex with a teacher, a feat, which, if pulled off without an ensuing scandal, earns you the right to attach your high school’s logo to your hat—enameled with gold. Alchemy.
The teen-run boards organizing Russ activities are known to take advantage of the odd prestige a hat full of knots signifies. A large number of the knots directly benefit the libidos of this select group in a kind of parody of political power. You may attach a pair of candy lips if willing to kiss any board member. A champagne cork, if the kiss leads to coitus. The regional Russ presidents hold the most power, politically, and therefore sexually. A candy breast may be added if you manage to make one sign your cleavage. A gilded pinecone if you have sex with one. If a single champagne cork was not enough for you, you may get a new white one courtesy of their willingness to offer you a bit of their time (not surprisingly, the price is, again, a night in their beds or bushes). Oddly enough, this deed, too, is specified as one that must be voluntary, leading me to wonder whether the Russ presidents fear rape. It would be a highly interesting legal case, if only for the fact that the criminal motive would be the quest for a cork. If the list of knots sends any message, it is that promiscuity is integral to a good party. Having a girlfriend or boyfriend during Russ celebrations earns your hat a padlock.
Drizzling rain has washed away most of the winter, and new light is making halos around our heads. Everywhere I look or listen, girls and boys are deflowered or deflowering (the defloweree males grateful for a tradition that essentially encourages sluttiness). The virgins are in the minority, but their sex stories are always more scandalized when retold. More interesting yet, are the devirginizing stories of Christian Russ (Which Knots Would Jesus Do? Well, Not Many), and—about as rare as unicorn sightings—stories of Muslim girls removing their hijabs and Russ pants for a male classmates.
The only person I wanted to lose my virginity to moved to a war zone after breaking up with me in Sartre quotes (“hell is other people, love”). Because of this, my partying is laced with bittersweetness and a secret wish that stray shrapnel will pierce his heart, or at least some pages of existentialist literature. “The cure is wine,” an old friend I meet says, in an accent that makes me laugh. He proceeds to confess he used to be in love with me, and I watch him extinguish a cigarette on his wrist (logical in a way I can’t remember: either proving his resistance to pain or the validity of his dream to become an F-16 pilot). I feel I should be wilder, more reckless, have a higher percentage of Absinthe in my veins. But when the aspiring aviator leans in to kiss me, my heart is marble. Merely observing is infinitely fascinating. All the boys and girls falling over each other, and the laughter trickling from their throats. The languid grace of flirting between a girl named Aurora and her admirer. Waves of different perfumes blend in the air, one with an unmistakable scent of poplar trees. My eyes and ears and nostrils are aflame, conquered entirely when the boy tells Aurora she looks “angelic. An ice angel.” While I condone the rampant sex going on all around me (whether it be with plus-sized teens, Humbert Humbertesque teachers, or future leaders of the Norwegian conservative party), I myself have a pitiful hat. I blame it on the fact that I still see ice crystals sparkling in the light, tangles of wilted lilies, and freezing ocean water. I blame it on hypnotic, heartstoppingly frightening dreams of forgetting how my calculator functions. I have only two knots so far. The first is a faux-diamond cross, for (timidly, along with three friends) saying “Hallelujah” after every sentence uttered by my French teacher. The second is an unopened condom—for not having had sex at all.
“I don’t really want to lose my virginity to someone who hasn’t been sober for the past month,” I impulsively offer as an explanation to a girl sitting next to me in the cafeteria when she asks why, awed. The subject came up while I helped her look up the cost of an abortion. “Should have worn this,” she smiles bitterly, fiddling with one of the free Red Cross condoms handed out by the truck loads to mitigate the mass outbreaks of venereal diseases common after every May.
This strange liminal period essentially boils down to the following ideal: celebrating an accomplishment (imminent graduation) at an elusive level one will never be allowed to linger in so lavishly and for so long in adult life. The once-in-a-lifetime nature of the partying might explain why many of us feel as if we are downright entitled to it. Our lawmakers, parents, and teachers had their Russ celebrations. Now it is our turn, and we seem determined to take advantage of every moment. In effect, this means a sleepless month of sex, alcohol, and pranks. In effect, this means a mind-blowing amount of money spent in the space of three weeks. In effect, this explains why a group of girls reportedly turned to the porn industry to finance their 2004 bus costs.
I feel out of place. My Russ cards have arrived from the printer; three hundred small, snarky business cards we keep in our pockets to hand out to excited elementary schoolers (a collectible, to them). Mine, loosely translated, says:
I am one of the few girls who make boys climb in the trees and shake in the knees.
(I’m a female driver!)
Truth be told, I do not have a driver’s license, and I’d like to think I am a feminist. Truth be told, I am not funny, and my lack of candor is leaving me with a base taste in my mouth.
I just heard a story of how a girl in middle school was tied naked to a tree some years ago. She was on a black list, a list some Russ compile with names of non-Russ they don’t like. I think back on my first year of secondary education at a school, which, in spite of being Oslo’s most academically competitive, allowed Russ terror days. While terror days are forbidden at most schools, Oslo’s (arguably) most intelligent litter of Russ ran around the hallways kidnapping younger students (a terrified me included), carrying us into the schoolyard to be the subjects of their terrorizing. I was somehow left unharmed, managing to run inside, lock myself in a classroom with two other girls. Our teachers had lunch, and well, this was common practice. From the window, we could see the only guy in our grade with a Jewfro being pushed around in a shopping cart, smothered with eggs and ketchup. A few girls were tied to the volleyball net with thick tape saying CLEARANCE SALE 70% OFF. And we all laughed about it, even those girls. But the reason why we were so lighthearted about it was because one day it would be us, free to be that wild and violent. Now that notion makes me sick, as if the fun is trapped in a nightmarish hall of mirrors, resilvered and distorted. The dizziness reached a zenith when I learned a group of this year’s Russ decided their bus décor theme would be Josef Fritzl. I have seen their Josef Fritzl–inspired logo, song lyrics, and slogan (approximate, non-rhyming translation: “Unless you fuck me, you’re staying in the house”).
I am not sure I like any of it anymore, and I feel lame and weakhearted.
And the strangest things are happening along with my disillusionment. Although everything is now blooming into a green beauty, it just snowed. Spring snowflakes. And how cinematic and surreal it was made me dizzy. I stood still a few seconds in the hallway, staring out at the flakes, wild and hallucinatory and achingly beautiful. On May 1, in which all Oslo Russ usually gather in a park to party together, rain streamed from the sky. I was relieved, that at least nature, in an imagined Old Testament sense, agreed with the discomfort I was beginning to feel. If true to tradition, the partying will only continue to escalate, growing more and more intense, almost desperate, up until the 17 of May. On that day, the Norwegian National Day, Russ from all over Norway will gather in the streets of Oslo for a long march to the royal palace. It is the climax of our celebration. We are supposed to smile and blow our party whistles, and catch a glimpse of the crown prince and princess waving from their balcony. And then?
Nothing. Deep sleep (as if we died). We won’t go to any heaven. We will go to our exams. I will have a biology exam the next day. Dark-eyed and barely sober, I will sit in an auditorium answering questions about neurotransmitters, heart valve functions, and the ethical implications of in vitro fertilization. According to the Russ rules, one is only allowed to throw away one’s (unwashable) Russ pants if one passes the exams.
I have decided not to go the parade. It is not a protest. Just a precaution for an intact future, intact biology grade, intact sanity. But I will go to a party tonight. I will play Lay Lady Lay on Aurora’s iPod, because even forest fucking can become beautiful when you play Bob Dylan (I long to see you in the morning light / I long to reach for you in the night). I will smile.
In the end, there is no denying Russ has harrowing, ugly aspects. But I can’t help but admit that it is also hauntingly beautiful. Because it’s liminal. Because it offers a once-in-a-lifetime freedom to do idiotic things, things you might regret long after, yet won’t, no matter how blush-inducing, eclipse the memory of a time in which you were young and at your most attractive and could afford to be absolutely reckless (what is more luxurious than that?). The Norwegian poet and Nobel laureate, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, allegedly immortalized the spirit of the Russ experience in literature centuries ago, in his poem “I Choose April”:
because it storms, sweeps,
because it smiles, melts,
because it keeps capabilities
(…) it topples forces
in it summer blooms!
I do not know why these words, or the almost ethereal evanescence of Russ celebrations, strike my heart the way they do. Maybe when winter hits and I start university in Chicago, halfway across the world from Norway, I will gain a clearer perspective on the enigma. It would be lovely to simply fast forward, hold the sense of wonder crystallized alongside future wisdom, mind alight. But that is dreamlike, and the dreamlike chapter of my life is closing. What is left is a ghostly memory of inebriated girls with lacy hair, lips pale like lilies disappearing in the night. The least haunting memories are all growing distant already, latent delenda. The future seems sparkling.
Well, it lost a fraction of its sheen a moment ago. Interested in hearing an outsider’s perspective, I e-mailed an Illinois friend, describing in detail the alcohol-fueled madness of Russ. His response chilled me to the bone:
Oh, darling. In America we call that college.
VILDA VIND is a nineteen-year-old Norwegian girl currently studying in Chicago. In Norway, her poetry has been published in a collection of poems by teenage writers, as well as in a nonfiction book on female youth culture. In the United States, her creative nonfiction has been published in Orion Magazine.
KELSEY ZIGMUND is a Chicago-based illustrator and sculptor. Find more of her work here: kelseyzigmund.blogspot.com