WHO IS SHE? Wouldn’t you like to know. Sometimes you only catch a glimpse of her, out of the corners of your eyes. You think you see her coming your way down the street, or that you see her from behind at the shop, examining some bananas, but then she turns around and you realize that it isn’t her and you are disappointed. Sometimes the girl has the same scarf, same build, same boots, same way of walking, but it’s not her. Another good question might be, what is it that makes her who she is? That one is also difficult to answer. You just don’t know. Idiot poets struggle and wrestle and hassle themselves with such questions. Idiot painters too. They keep painting, and the songsmiths keep writing, just trying to get it all down on record or on paper. Is it in the curves of her eyes, the way that she walks, the sound of her voice? God no. There is some kind of radio signal broadcasting from the bosoms of people and hers is the one that is hitting you the strongest, starting to reverberate in your core. The sound continues to fill you. Sound is one word. It’s also like seawater. Remember, how you used to go and swim at the seaside as a child, and you could feel its waves pulsing through you hours later when you were all sandy and sleeping in the back seat on the long car ride home? That’s what it’s like. It fills you from end to end, rolling like the waves, from the hairs on the crest of your head to the final peninsulas of your toes and back again. Naturally, I tried to get away to preserve my autonomy. I told myself all kinds of pleasant lies to distract myself from the truth. She was too young or too old. Too fat or too thin. Her voice was too high or too low. Whatever I was, it was too much or too little. I was overly abundant and inadequate. However the math squared, it would never work out. But math is wicked and deceptive. Thoughts are self-sabotaging. And sometimes there really is no way out. The only way to go is in. I don’t see her always, but she is always there, just beyond sight, a blurred figure at the end of a misty street. The last time I saw her in real life at a birthday party, she was stunning. It was as if someone had cut a piece of the night-time sky away with a pair of scissors and made a woman from this celestial fabric. All of the little lies I had told myself were washed away. I thought everything was normal and tried to convince myself such, but about half an hour later, I started to feel that pull again. The mighty ocean had picked me up and was tossing me about with its heavy waves. I was being sucked out into water. I confided in my friend about what was going on, and she said that it all sounded beautiful. “Go with those waves,” she told me. “Ride them.”
WHO IS FERNANDO PESSOA? That’s not actually his real name. His real name is something like Paulo or Oswaldo, but pronounced in that juicy Brazilian way. Oshwaldo. He has multiple identities and documents. He claims his father was Jorge Ben. He claims to be a capoeira enthusiast. And also a ninja. He claims to be a lot of things, but he’s really just a criminal. And also black. Though these things are not connected. He is one slick street artist though. I met him in an upscale neighborhood in Santos, down those treacherous mountain roads from big city São Paulo, where he used to sell contraband down by the stinky river. In Santos, it’s nicer and you can smoke pot on the beach and play volleyball with girls in polka dot bikinis and still hear Tom Jobim on the radio. That’s why Fernando Pessoa prefers Santos. There are also fine streets lined with Victorian mansions. These were owned by American plantation owners who fled south during the Civil War so that they could hang onto their slaves for a few decades longer. Brazil only abolished slavery in 1888, you know. This is where Fernando Pessoa earns his money, taking part in what he calls live theatre. He pretends to steal things, and then his business partner Seaside Jair comes along dressed like a policeman and arrests him. Local yuppies come out and are so grateful that they toss money into Jair’s hat. Then they take it back to their little shithole bunker in the mountains and cut up the proceeds. I only fell in with these rogues because I was on vacation and trying to get a picture of the ocean. I wanted to post it on Instagram. There I was, walking along by those Victorian mansions, when I witnessed the Fernando-Jair street play. I followed them back to their hangout, but rather than pull a gun on me, Jair, who has one of those long donkey faces you can’t help but love, thought it would be good to have an Italian-looking policeman as part of the skit. “Just like Bolsonaro!” Then the closet fascist euro bourgeoisie in Santos would be especially grateful and give us even more cash for the arrests. That’s how I wound up taking part in the scam. And once, a business lady from Morumbi even gave me a ride in her helicopter for putting Fernando back in chains, where he belongs. There are perks to this gig, you know. We don’t always do Santos, of course. We work the coast. Praia Grande. Vila Caiçara. Guarujá. Jair even says we should go up to Rio de Janeiro. Or even to Buenos Aires. There is good money to be made in racism, if you know how to milk it. As for Fernando, well, once I asked him how he came to bear the name of a legendary Portuguese poet. He told me he had once been arrested, and the jailer had handed him a copy of The Book of Disquiet. “That is when I started calling myself Fernando Pessoa,” he told me. “That’s when I became him.”
ANOTHER STARTUP CONFERENCE, except the genius organizers decided to hold this one on Cozumel in Mexico during Spring Break. There were booths of tech companies hawking apps but also street vendors selling rice and beans and cervezas. I was searching for the men’s toilet, but this was hard to come by. There were toilets for women and transmen, but none for just men. The women’s toilet showed a figure in a dress, the transmen’s toilet showed a figure in pants, but also wearing high heels. But wasn’t there a toilet for people who wore trousers and shoes? What to do? My father was there, but he was younger, from the 1980s, wearing a beige suit and tie, from those days when he would slink away while we were on vacation because he “just had to make a few phone calls” (he was in sales). I said, “Dad, I can’t find the men’s bathroom.” “Keep looking, son,” he said. “There must be one somewhere.” I came around to the bay side of the island’s peninsula, where the water was calmer, and saw there was an underground tunnel with a line leading into it. I thought it must be the men’s room, but then I saw the figure with the pants and high heels. At last, I decided to relieve myself in the ocean. Sometime after that, we were supposed to leave. Atlacamani, the pretty Azteca goddess of storms, was there seated in the back of an old Model T car, and my father, still clad in his beige suit, was in the driver’s seat. For whatever reason, Zorro had decided to come along and was in the back next to Atlacamani. It was time to leave the startup conference. I loaded up the Model T with casks of good Mexican wine. I had on my old jacket, the one that still has blood stains on it from when I cut my hand while sawing down a Christmas tree way back in ’13. I also had on my rubber boots. Finally, it was time to go. I got into the Model T and my father started the engine. I looked back to Atlacamani and Zorro and they nodded and smiled to me. Thus we sped away into the forever sunset.
the old fireplace
THERE WERE TWO HOUSES at the end of Cliff Road in Nantucket. This is the road that leads out of town and is situated along the bluffs with their long-eyed view of the Atlantic. I was up there at dawn, with the gulls crying, and the sun just beginning to scratch through the haze. The air smelled of the sea and of salt. Both of the houses were quite old. The one on the left was a saltbox from the first years of settlement and the one on the right was covered in gray shakes and had belonged to an old captain who had grown fat and rich back in the whale oil boom days. I went up to the captain’s cottage and knocked and Hanna came to the door. I hadn’t seen her in forever and I didn’t know what she was even doing here in Nantucket. There she stood in an old-fashioned gown with her white freckled skin and tangles of red hair and folds of Irish heft, holding a candle. I turned to leave, but when I did, she somehow materialized on the other side of me, or behind me, so that I turned from facing her to facing her again. This time she kissed me deeply and passionately and the wind picked up abruptly, as it always does when I am kissed so passionately. She led me by the hand into the house, down a hall with paintings of ships on the wall that depicted harpooned whales spouting in agony against rough seas and where the tropical mountainous islands of the Pacific loomed in the distance. We walked to a staircase that had creaking steps. “This used to be for the servants in the old days,” she said. “But there’s a secret room down in the cellar. Nobody will look for us in there.” Down in the cellar we came to the old fireplace with its red arching bricks, and Hanna pushed open a door behind the hearth. “Come inside,” she whispered. “There’s plenty of room for both of us.” Inside we began to make love. My hips rose and there were ecstatic sighs. But then I felt something crunching on my back. Hanna lit the whale oil lamp and its light shone on the floor. Hundreds of gold metallic insects were crawling everywhere. They glistened like coins. “Don’t mind them,” Hanna said. “They’ve always been here. The captain brought them back from the Orient. The whole cottage is infested.” When I awoke, Hanna was gone and so were the insects. The stairs on the way up broke as I stepped on them, and the house was abandoned and crumbling. There were no paintings on the walls, just cobwebs and dust. I was lucky I got out of that condemned, ramshackle house alive.
how bizarre; or, the plan to dose hanson
SOME (MUCH YOUNGER) PERSON here has put together a circa 1999 playlist at the café where I write. And so I am revisited by “How Bizarre” by OMC, “MMMBop” by Hanson, “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals, and “Brimful of Asha” by Cornershop. Basically, what was playing in the music store where I worked in ’97 – ’99. We marked up those one-hit-wonder compact discs something mighty. I think OMC’s disc was selling for something ridiculous like $17.99. If it was really in demand, like KORN (but with a backwards R) it might be $18.99. The dream was that some local oligarch would walk in on Friday night half-drunk on whatever, stinking of cigar smoke, and buy out the whole lot. We sold a lot of that Elton John remake of “Candle in the Wind” after Princess Diana died, and, of course, all of the Notorious BIG and Tupac posthumous releases (DMX has now joined them). Hip hop was really gory then. I remember DMX’s album was called Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. This was not Run-DMC or Public Enemy.
As I see it, the late ’90s were a time when pop music was just a bit more open to new sounds than it had been throughout the ’80s. I wasn’t around in the ’70s — well, for a few weeks — but ’80s pop was less DIY. Everything from Duran Duran to Bananarama to New Order and Depeche Mode seemed so overproduced, and most of the post-glam rock was the same. Even their hair was overproduced. It was the era of overproduction. The idea of some guy making songs in his basement and becoming a big star didn’t really happen until Nirvana broke down the gates, and all of those “alternative” acts came flooding in. Beck arrived with “Loser,” and it actually got played on the radio. That didn’t happen in 1989. In 1989, we had Phil Collins and Billy Joel, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cher and Rick Astley.
There was no “Loser.”
But afterward, you saw these pop groups start to bubble to the surface, and they brought with them guitar-driven, self-composed songs. Hanson were three brothers from Oklahoma. New Radicals was really one person, who wrote and produced all the material. Cornershop was an actual band, with a riff-driven pop song that vaguely resembled some of the material that came out in the very distant halcyon days of the late 1960s. Even Smash Mouth arrived and dared to do a farfisa solo on a record, and it sold amazingly well. They covered The Monkees (!) The doors were again open. You could basically do anything, and if you got lucky, you could be a success.
The late ’90s were a very funny time, I think, in retrospect. The music was ridiculous. The adoration and obsession with celebrities was overboard. The movies — Rushmore, Election, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club — were only getting better and more prescient. And there were all of these teenagers growing up, just a few years younger than me, who seemed much more potent as a collective force. You saw them on these shows like Total Request Live hosted by Carson Daly. It seemed like there were just billions of teenagers all of a sudden eager to buy Backstreet Boys and Eminem records. It was like Baby Boomers, Part II.
I remember talking to one kid at the music store who tried to convince me that Third Eye Blind were the second coming of the Beatles. This was in 1997, so he was maybe 14 or 15. I thought, “Are you joking?!” But he was dead serious. He was walking around with an acoustic guitar slung on his back and claimed to know how to play all of their songs.
PS. I was working with Max, a hippie traveler John Coltrane devotee who was 10 years older than me, in the shop, and we used to joke that Hanson was actually like the 1990s version of the Beatles. Max hit upon the idea that we should slip some LSD into Hanson’s fruit juice, and that they would subsequently produce the 1990s version of Sgt. Pepper’s. We schemed to produce tie-dye t-shirts showing Hanson swimming in trippy psychedelic colors with the slogan, “Dose Hanson.”
I still wish I had made those shirts.
I WAS BEING FOLLOWED, and by an American. I knew he was an American because his eyes were somehow livelier and more naïve than a European’s, yet also infused with a hint of skepticism, distrust, even a slight confusion, as if he truly did not believe in Europe, and that I also must be up to no good if I had moved to such a place and started such a life here. He was dressed casually and his dark curly hair was much longer in the back, leading me to refer to him as the “Man with the Mullet.” I would notice him milling about the corridors of the office building where I work in the Old Town, which also happens to house the offices of Northman Ventures, a major client. I assumed he represented another firm. This is in an old European city made of solid pre-war buildings and, indeed, ours used to be a Swedish textile factory. Sometimes I would see the Man with the Mullet there and he would look at me in passing as if he knew what I was doing. Unfortunately, for both of us, I had no idea what that was. This went on for several weeks, the run-ins with the Man with the Mullet. One day, when I was certain he was not around, I went by the office building to retrieve a few things. I parked in front and went up the white stone steps. A large van roared up in front and several men jumped out, led by the strange mulleted man. They charged into the building and began removing all the paperwork they could from the offices of Northman Ventures where I had a desk. “What’s this all about? Do you guys even have a warrant?” I said. They ignored me and continued to load the van with boxes. The Man with the Mullet then addressed me. “Did you illegally download music on Napster in the year 2000?” “Sure, I did. But everybody was using Napster in those days.” “Our records show that you downloaded all of De La Soul’s album Stakes Is High. And also, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. Do you deny this to be the case?” “I think I copied those from a friend.” “You’re in violation of US copyright law,” said the Man with the Mullet. “But so is everybody! We all did it. Everyone had Napster back in 2000.” “You will soon receive a summons and court date,” he said before getting in the van. “But this isn’t even the US! I don’t live in the US anymore!” “You can tell that to the judge,” he said. After the federal agents left, I noticed they had also taken my pants. So I was left standing there in my long gray coat holding my briefcase which, interestingly, they had not confiscated. I went to take the elevator up. I felt troubled inside, wondering if I would really be jailed for using Napster while I was in college. I got into the old-fashioned, creaking elevator and Liv came in and sat beside me. She was the little sister of one of the owners. She had just had her blonde hair cut in a fringe, and was happy to see me. “But what’s the matter with you?” she said. “You seem really worried. Why are you so melancholic?” “We were just raided by US federal copyright agents for something I did in college,” I said. “And also, I’m not wearing any pants.” “Aha,” said Liv. “Now, I see.” Liv put her warm hands under my coat and gave my thigh a squeeze.
WHEN THE SNOWS had at last thawed, and the water levels risen, all of the streets of the town were flooded, and locals took to traveling from shop to shop on flat-bottomed boats, turning this provincial backwater into a Venice on the Baltic. I had been signed up for some kind of book-related event, but honestly I hadn’t paid much attention to whatever it was my agent was talking about. Things took a more serious turn when Lata showed up and told me that she was the one they had selected to interview me. The producers it seems didn’t know that we had been lovers. She was perfectly cast, actually, we were about the same age, and she was also a journalist, or at least a former one. There were two couches, two water bottles, two microphones. Everything was ready to go. But first, I had to slip into something more appropriate. I went into the dressing room, but Lata followed me in. She sat on the couch as I undid my zipper, bubbling with exuberance, like a sparkling wine. Hadn’t we agreed that we weren’t going to do this anymore? Hadn’t we agreed that it wasn’t what we wanted? I changed my pants and then my shirt, and then I noticed a passenger ship passing by the house, the way some of those larger boats sail around in the canals of Amsterdam. I took my chance and leapt from the window and landed on the top deck. Not long after, we sailed up the Thames and I disembarked in London. I took a bus up to Saint Naram’s Place, not too far from Notting Hill, in search of a very special bookshop that someone had told me about. Only the most in-the-know writers who have been vetted by the writers’ union have been to the very special book shop at Saint Naram’s Place. You had to get off at the square and then walk up two blocks. It’s lovely little house made of wood and brick that’s been open since the 1860s. The windows are full of musty books and old LPs, and it’s had Christmas lights blinking in the windows since Thatcher was prime minister. I went up the steps and inside and asked the owner, a burly old man with a mustache in a gray suit, about Saint Naram. He told me that nobody actually knew the source of the name. “Some say it was named after the Sanskrit word for ‘human being,’ but others say it’s the Sumerian word for ‘beloved.’ There was also a theory that it was originally ‘Saint Maran.’ ‘Maran’ means ‘death’ in Sanskrit, you know.” “Wait. Saint Death? That doesn’t make any sense.” “No, it doesn’t,” said the old bookseller. “But nothing here does. Anyway, how can I help you? Are you looking for a special book at Saint Naram’s? You have come quite the long way, sir.”
the south pole
WHO KNEW there was a bustling city at the South Pole? All you had to do was take the ship from Punta Arenas and you would be there the next day already, or fly in on a small passenger plane, if you dared. It’s not easy landing a puddle jumper between those craggy mountains, yet it is still a sight to behold, all of those lights, and the tiny cars traveling up and down the avenues. Nobody even knows about this place, it’s a kind of Las Vegas at the South Pole, full of mirth and money, neon and strip joints, but without the grunge, desperation, and mass shootings. I suppose Santa’s Village at the opposite pole comes close, but that place is run by elves, this one is run by desperate and degenerate people. I only went there because our band had a gig. I brought my Fender Jazz bass along. It was pretty standard rock music, Zeppelin-derived and all that. After the show, the owner of the venue, a robust Inuit woman who smelled something awful, hunted me down and, well, raped me, at least at first. There is something to be said for surrendering to the advances of a girl from Greenland whose lips taste of vodka, lust, and seal blood. I let her have her way with me, and all was fine and peaceful after that. I saw the ships in the harbor at Cape Menace, with that glowing skywheel circling above, but I had no desire to leave town. The South Pole was turning out to be my kind of place.
a meeting of the baltic foreign ministers
ONE MORNING, I just got tired of it all and left the house and went out on the beach. Brynhild was there in her swimsuit, sunning her lonesome hourglass self, but with her head covered in one of those old-fashioned, big-brimmed hats, and her eyes covered with sunglasses, and her skin covered with cream, and her soul covered with unrequited love. She had given me everything, but I was always distracted. “It’s like you’re not even there,” she had said. I didn’t know how I felt about the thing. Sad, I suppose. There was just sadness. Gulfs, bays, and estuaries of the stuff. I told Brynhild that I had no time for her and that I had to go, and I left her behind too, sunning herself on that desolate beach. For a while I just walked on with the sun in my face like a hot blade, passing ice cream vendors with handfuls of chocolate and strawberry, sprawled tanned sunbathers, and little boys pushing copies of Le Monde. Finally, I arrived to the grand Krusenstern Villa and went inside. A meeting of the Baltic foreign ministers had convened and the hall was draped in the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian colors. The gloomy war criminal Russian foreign minister was there, though he looked sulky, droopy-faced, and mildly bored, as if he had been seated at the children’s table at a big Hollywood wedding. Linda was managing the catering. She’s involved in organizing almost everything in this town. She poured me a drink as soon as she saw me come in and tossed back her hair. We decided to go for a walk down the beach together and when we got tired we stretched out in the sands and I told her my story in all of its tawdry, inglorious detail. Linda is just a friend and she’s a lot older than me. Such had become my lot in life, to go from one woman to the next, like one of those pilgrims of constant sorrow they sing about in cowboy songs. “What all of this means,” said Linda looking at me with those blue eyes and tracing a finger across my chest, “is that all of your old relationships are ending now. When old relationships end, new ones begin. That’s what this all means.” My eyes followed her lips to her neck, and then down to her blouse and its white candy buttons that led beyond. It was as if she had the whole sun stuffed in her shirt, and I lost my patience with those buttons. I ripped them apart and soon was face deep in her topography. “There, there,” said Linda, “There, there.” “But what will the Baltic foreign ministers do without you?” I asked. “And the Russian foreign minister? He looked so grumpy today.” “There, there. There, there. The ministers are all having their coffee break now,” said Linda. “And after that, they will have chocolate cake.”
the royal dragoons
RENNIE AND I went back to England on a fact-finding mission connected with his studies. We took the Ryanair flight into Stansted Airport and then a series of trains, buses, and a rental car until we arrived at the sands of the North Sea coast. We were standing there in a reedy inlet when I first noticed the outline of a large, furry animal in the sands. It was a household cat, but it had been reduced to two dimensions, almost like a carpet. Someone had pressed this cat, as with an iron, or maybe it had been run over by a tank? Up and down the beach, we found other two-dimensional pressed animals and there were some washing up in the waves. I was intrigued by this, but Rennie barely paid any attention to the animals. He wanted to talk about history and nostalgia. In Rennie’s view, nostalgia was eating away the true, tedious work of studying history, the same way that the North Sea was slowly eating away at Winterton Beach. “You’ll notice when you produce any academic work these days,” he said, “that people are no longer interested in the facts, in events, numbers, measurements, or anything concrete that can be defined, no, they want the fluff, the drama, the fucking romance of the era. They only are interested in nostalgia these days, not real history.” We walked along the beach and came to the Royal Museum. Inside there were different kinds of exhibits. One was a life-sized British graveyard that included graves from different eras, ranging from Anglo-Saxon burial mounds right up to the crypts of the Victorian era. Further on, we came to an old industrial mill that was still churning the waters. We went inside, passing through an iron gate. Rennie continued to fume about history. He picked up a large boulder and threw it under the wheel, bringing the whole mechanism to a stuttering halt. “You see this?” he cried. “This is the still-beating heart of British nostalgia!” The pressure on the wheel began to build up and the walls of the mill started to crack. It was like an earthquake. “Come on,” Rennie said. “We’ve got to get out of here before they get the Royal Dragoons after us.” We went back out through the museum, past the cemetery exhibit, and came down a hall filled with tall portraits of the Duke of Wellington and so on. There was a separate back staircase that led down into the staff area of the museum, and we walked through their cafeteria. The Royal Dragoons had already arrived and were filing in, and we passed them as we walked out the door into the sunshine of an English winter day and over towards the car we had rented by the station in Norwich. One of the Royal Dragoons, a beautiful young lady with long red hair, wearing their special red jacket and sash, followed us out and began to pepper us with all sorts of questions. She was a bit shy but seemed genuinely interested in Rennie’s research, but I said we had to go. The Dragoon seemed disappointed, and said she only wanted to know more. “It’s almost as if you’re trying to run away from me,” she said, “as if you don’t like me.” “No, no,” said Rennie. “We just don’t want to miss our flight.” Later, after they found out who had destroyed the nostalgia mill, Rennie and I were both blacklisted from Britain for some time. It was only after the discussions around the Northern Ireland Protocol failed for a 15th time that a magistrate granted the two of us clemency.