Tapio never called. She discovered he didn’t even have a mobile phone. The only phone he had was at his one-man station. But once a week or so, she’d hear him driving down her long driveway. He’d invite her along on his rounds and they’d listen to music. His truck had an older stereo, but it read MP3 CDs, so she burned discs full of things they both recommended.
They didn’t speak much, but occasionally he’d compare something to the forest or trees from his home. Any questions she asked usually got short, to-the-point answers. It wasn’t that he was curt; he just didn’t talk much, which was too bad because she enjoyed his voice.
“You can call me Tapikka if you like,” he said one particular drive, looking over at her as they slowly meandered down a state road.
“Oh?” she asked.
“It’s a nickname for Tapio. Only strangers call me Tapio. Friends and family back home use my nickname,” he said.
Her stomach flipped in response to the smile he gave her, along with his explanation.
“Tapikka it is, then,” she said.
“I like that,” he said, returning his attention to the road.
Things continued like this for weeks. Weeks turned to months. He picked her up on Friday nights and they went to the bar together. The guys smiled but stopped giving him a hard time. They seemed happy he had someone with whom to spend time. Then he’d take her home and wish her good night, never putting the truck into park.
She didn’t have the nerve to invite him in past dark since she wasn’t sure he’d accept her offer. But he was happy to join her for a late breakfast or lunch every now and then. He mostly spoke in compliments about her cooking but occasionally mentioned his mother, usually in the context of whether something tasted like one of her recipes.
All the while, she never found an opportunity to touch him. It never seemed appropriate, and he never initiated any contact himself. As a result, she found herself in the ultimate one-sided crush. She was falling for the awkward forester, but he seemed interested only in her friendship.
“Tapikka,” she said one day as they sat at her oak table.
She had convinced him to help her with a jigsaw puzzle, a change from the regular rides through the forest. Music played from her computer in the background, filling the silence. His curls fell alongside his cheek and shoulder as he searched the sorted pieces.
“Juu,” he said absent-mindedly as he found his small bit of colorful cardboard and fit it into the puzzle.
“I really like the sound of your voice. Couldn’t you tell me something more about your home or family?” she asked.
He looked up, his stare a bit blank.
“There’s not much to say. I have two younger sisters and my whole family is back in Finland,” he said.
“There’s got to be more. Any funny stories about your sisters?” she asked.
He shook his head, his brown hair longer than when they first met.
“Isn’t there anything about me you’d like to ask?”
He paused, tilted his head for a moment, then shook it again.
“I like the Lumi I spend time with. Your past has no bearing on that,” he said.
He was impossible. There was something charming about the way he spent his life in the moment, but she found it strange he didn’t want to talk about his family or hers.
“I was thinking of building a sauna out back,” she said, changing the topic. “Would you help me? Some extra hands would be nice.”
“Of course,” he said.
“You can use it all you like,” she said.
He placed a few more pieces, the silence begging for any sort of response from him.
“I appreciate the thought,” he said. That was his polite way of declining. He never said no to her, not outright.
She wasn’t sure how much more she could take. If she wasn’t honest with him soon, she might explode. She’d say or do something rash, which would probably upset him. Yet, she was convinced he’d shut her out if she was forthright.
She pushed another puzzle piece in, her head starting to swim.
“That doesn’t fit,” he said, pointing to an edge that didn’t quite snap right.
She grumbled and pulled it back out. It wasn’t that she was a big fan of jigsaw puzzles, but her internet was lousy this far out and there wasn’t much to do other than watch whatever DVDs she had. If she was frank, he was the most interesting thing in her life since she moved to her uncle’s cabin.
“There’s a national convention for forestry service people in Portland next month,” he said. “I’d like to go, but I’m nervous about going alone.”
He sifted through his pile of pieces before looking up at her.
“The topics are interesting, but there will be so many…”
“People?” she asked.
He nodded, pressing his lips together in a straight line.
“You’re good with people,” he said. “You won’t care about the technical talks, but it’d be nice to have someone I know there.”
“Are you inviting me?”
“If you don’t mind.”
She couldn’t help but smile, all while hoping she didn’t look too pleased. In all the months since they first met, they’d only been to so many places together, most of their hours spent in his truck, the bar, or her cabin. She hadn’t even been inside his own home. The prospect of going to Portland together was exciting.
“I would love to go,” she said. “I haven’t been into town since I got here.”
That was primarily due to him—she found it hard to pull herself away from any potential opportunities to be with him. She flicked a puzzle piece underneath her fingernail and mused just how pathetic she had become since they first met. The old her would scoff at the sheer amount of her life she let be shaped by the mere potential of interacting with him.
But he was so damn cute.
“This may surprise you, but I’m not fond of large cities,” he said with an impish expression.
As far as jokes went, this was about as close as he got. She was still toning down her sarcasm around him, as it often caught him off guard. There wasn’t a jaded bone in his body; the reason he disliked being around people didn’t seem to have anything to do with distrust. He was a tad shy, but his hesitancy seemed to stem more from caution than anything else.
“No. You?” she said, giving him a wink.
The moment was interrupted by a loud rumbling, causing him to pause and put his hand on his stomach. She had grown used to cooking for him and didn’t mind since he was always grateful, but he ate more than any other man she’d ever met. Thankfully, he wasn’t very picky—he ate anything she made with gusto.
“I picked up some steaks in Astoria yesterday,” she said. “I’ll get them started.”
“You spoil me, pulu.”
She froze, understanding he’d just given her a pet name. She didn’t know what it meant, but he said it with the same affection as her uncle when he called her pentu when she was small.
“Pulu is a pigeon who lives in the city,” he said, seeing her reaction.
“You make me very happy, Tapikka,” she said. “I love pigeons. Especially the white and brown ones who lived in my alley.”
His face shone with delight at her positive confession, but he avoided her gaze out of embarrassment, instead examining the jumble of pieces under his fingers. She gave his shoulder a brief series of pats as she stood and walked into the kitchen. After she moved several feet away, he turned his head slightly to watch her, his other hand resting on his shoulder where she had touched him.
She wasn’t sure what she had expected when she agreed to accompany him to his conference, but a part of her was disappointed when they checked into the hotel and discovered he had reserved her a separate room. It had been silly of her to hope the man who hadn’t even invited her to his house would share a room, though she had secretly hoped he might surprise her.
She spent her days meandering up and down Burnside while he attended his sessions, then met back up with him for drinks and dinner with his colleagues. His peers were all surprised that he had brought anyone along at all, and when he was asked by a fellow Washington forester if they were seeing each other, his reply was predictably pure. Yes, they saw each other near daily, he told everyone at the dinner table. They all laughed, perpetually charmed by their junior colleague.
It was there she finally learned his full name, printed out on the badge he wore for the conference: Tapio Leppanen. Seeing his last name was strange. She went for so long without knowing it that he’d become mononymous in her mind. But he was neither mystical nor famous, just an uneasy, odd man with a first and last name like everyone else.
While Tapio didn’t particularly like the city, she realized he enjoyed the company of people he considered friends. And contrary to his assertion, he wasn’t actually bad with people. They liked him, and he did just fine as long as he maintained his personal space. Though, he wasn’t especially talkative. He’d stay up late and smile as others chatted around him, slowly drinking a beer. Whether it was the guys back home, at a conference, or in her kitchen, he was happy to just be around. She often found herself admiring his tall, lean frame as he quietly stood there. He never seemed to notice her staring; if he did, he never let on.
The thing that surprised her, though, was just how many of the women at the conference tried to chat him up. He’d clearly been to several of these conferences before since people seemed to know him—she was sure he stood out. Even though he didn’t really say much in response, he let people speak to him as he stood there patiently. It made sense why he had admirers; she just hadn’t expected it. While a part of her initially panicked about his strange popularity, her worries quickly abated each evening they walked to their hotel together.
“You’ve got quite the fan club,” she said one evening as they trekked back from the latest reception.
He cocked his head, looking down at her.
“Oh, come on, Tapikka. Even you must realize all of those women are flirting with you.”
“Are they?” he asked, holding the hotel’s front door open for her.
“Yes, Tapikka,” she said with a level of exasperation to which he’d grown accustomed. He baffled her on a regular basis.
“I didn’t realize,” he said, stuffing his hands into his pants pockets as they approached the elevators. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not interested in them.”
The elevator ride and walk to their neighboring room doors were quiet. She was sure he could hear her vibrating, his statement made her that happy. He leaned his shoulder against the hallway wall as she tapped her keycard on her door. Her hand paused on the handle and she looked over at him, her entire face red. His smile was warm and honest.
“Good night, pulu,” he said.
She nodded and then slipped into her room. He stood there a few more moments after the door clicked shut behind her and stared down the hallway. Before he could turn for his own room, her door opened again.
“Can we talk?” she asked, holding the door wide as an invitation for him to join her.
“Of course,” he said.
He ducked into her room, his hands still in his pockets. She wandered over to the small table by the window overlooking downtown Portland across the river. He followed her halfway into the room and observed her. She was agitated; even he could see that. Or perhaps, his familiarity with her allowed him to see it.
“You know that I like you,” she said finally, turning to look at him.
“I enjoy your company, too,” he said.
She sighed, shaking her head.
“No, Tapio. I like you. Like, like you,” she said.
He chuckled, his face pinched with confusion.
“I like, like you, too,” he said.
“I am romantically interested in you,” she said as she held up her hands, using them to punctuate each word.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh. Ohhhhh. Really?”
She nodded again, this time emphatically.
“Moni kakku päältä kaunis,” he said, almost reflexively.
She saw a brief panic light up in his eyes after realizing what he had said.
“Sorry, it was… yes,” he said. “Well, that’s nice, isn’t it? You like me. Romantically, even.”
He walked a few steps toward the bathroom, then back toward her, as if lost. He then paced around the room a bit before sitting on the edge of her king bed.
“I guess I ambushed you, huh?” she asked. “I know you’re a little… take this in the nicest way, would you? A little weird. But you’re so nice to me. Nicer than anyone’s ever been. Plus, you’re very tall. Girls like tall guys, you know.”
“Do they?” he asked. “Really?”
“Well, this one does,” she said.
He put a lightly curled fist to his mouth, the first knuckle of his index finger touching his upper lip, and fell quiet in thought. Every few moments, he’d look up at her, then back at the dark TV in front of him. She could feel him working through the situation across the room. Had he really not picked up on her affection at all? Hadn’t he been as affectionate in his own way? When they were together, she felt like the only other person in the world. Had it really just been friendship to him?
She felt her cheeks flush in embarrassment as he sat there silently. She’d been an idiot. She’d put him in an uncomfortable situation, one where he was now presumably trying to figure out how to let her down without making it too awkward.
“I’d understand if you wanted to… go,” she said.
“Go? Why?” he asked.
Her shoulders slumped forward and she lodged a stare of disbelief at him. He was impossible. She was starting to think he was from another world altogether. What planet would a tall, lanky, scruffy forester with wild hair be from? Had living alone for nine years in the forest made him this way?
“Tapikka,” she said sternly. “What’s your deal?”
“My deal?” he asked.
“I’ve known you for a while now and just as I think you’re about as weird as a person can be, you get stranger.”
“Am I that strange?” he asked.
He hummed in thought, looking out the window behind her. After a few moments, he shifted his gaze to her.
“Would it be strange if I like liked you, as well?” he asked.
“No, it’d be quite nice,” she said, feeling like she was losing her mind.
“Well, then I do.”
“You’ve made up your mind just like that?”
“No, I’ve always been fond of you. But I hadn’t considered you might think of me that way. We’re very different.”
“Other than your particular brand of mystery, just what about us is so different?”
“Well,” he said slowly. “I’m a foot taller than you, but you say you like that. I spend a lot of time in the forest, but… you seem fond of the woods, too. I’m very hairy.”
She laughed at the absurdity of his logic, falling into the chair at the small table pushed up against the window.
“Hairy? Hairy? How is being hairy an issue?” she asked. “You’re a forester. It’d almost be weirder if you weren’t hairy. It seems to be part of the territory.”
“If you don’t mind, I suppose it’s not a problem,” he said. “So what now?”
“You’ve never had a girlfriend, have you?” she asked.
“Is it that obvious?” he asked. “I wonder how many things about me are so obvious.”
“Well, I’m willing to take that as slow as you like,” she said. “I realize you aren’t too fond of a lot of physical contact.”
“Oh no, that… it’s out of the question,” he said.
“I could… hold your hand, though,” he said. “Would that be okay?”
She extended her hand, and he regarded it for some time, just long enough to be as peculiar as always, then stood and walked over to her. He sat in the other chair at the table and hesitantly slid his hand into hers.
“I don’t mind this,” he said. “It’s nice.”
“We’ve got a long way to go,” she whispered.
“Can I… hug you?” he asked.
“Of course,” she replied, her expression softening.
After they stood, he looked down at her, his mouth twitching slightly as he battled whatever uncertainty he felt. He eventually reached his long arms out and wrapped them around her, pulling her into him. She closed her eyes and nestled her face into his chest. He was thin for his height but had plenty of mass by virtue of being seven feet tall. There was enough of him for her to feel like she could disappear in his hold.
He smelled like line-dried laundry and evergreens, and he was warm, like a cat who’d been hiding under the covers all morning. She felt his face press against the top of her head, his nose in her hair. She got a true sense of his height for the first time, and she wrapped her arms around him, worried she might swoon straight through the floor.
“I like the time we spend together, Lumikki,” he whispered. “I hope you will always like me.”
She squeezed him tight. She couldn’t imagine ever not liking him.