THIS TIME I WAS driving a kind of plastic toy car, like the kind our eldest used to have, down a winding seacoast road lined with pines rising up onto knolls and hills. It was a place like Maine, Scotland, or Washington State. That kind of place. The temperature had just begun to dip below freezing, and there were patches of black ice on the road. I went over a patch of ice, spun around many times, and collided with a black Mercedes parked by the beach. However, as my car was made of plastic, there was no damage, and the owner, a lanky, stiff-upper-lipped British Lord Mountbatten type, merely chided me and told me to “be a little more careful next time, young man.” I apologized and turned my car around and began to ascend the same seaside hill, now covered with fat flakes of wet snow. From its base, I watched a car drive opposite me. It went over the same patch of ice, lost control, went up the embankment, crashed into a tree and was thrown into the side of the other hill, where it exploded into a violent blaze. “Oh,” I thought, watching the red curling flames. “That guy is definitely dead.” I drove on up nevertheless to get a good look. A small crowd had gathered to watch the vehicle burn, and a crane was lifting parts of the wreckage into the air. I didn’t understand it, but they had also lifted the corpse of the driver, and as he was suspended overhead, his head came loose and fell into my arms. I briefly recognized a beard — it was a man — and a hat and then dropped the head in shock and began to run back toward the beach, leaving my car behind. Now I saw there were dozens of corpses piled up in the woods. I kept running and reached an intersection, where my father happened to drive by in a blue sedan and said, “Get in.” And so I got in the passenger’s seat, buckled my belt, and away we went up some road into the hills. “Did you see the crash?” he said. “Terrible.”
THE FULL MOON came and went and I didn’t notice a thing. Usually the tug of the moon resolves unanswered questions, but this time there were neither questions nor answers. Feeling blocked is not a terrible thing, but there is an internalized numbness or indifference that sets in like gray weather. You forget things, you forget your name, you forget your feelings. You do what you need to do, and it is not unpleasant to do it, but it is not pleasant either. It’s neither/nor. When your voice is silenced, when those closest to you shut you down, a hollowing out occurs and you come to doubt your own experiences, your own memories, your own truth. Even the word truth seems doubtful, because it is just your truth, not the truth, the accepted truth, the one truth that others would have hoisted on you like heavy cargo. When your love is ignored or blocked or you are told it’s all in your head, or you are just confused about your own feelings, then you have no love anymore. It’s been blocked. The force was summoned, but where did it go? Nowhere. It went nowhere and led to nothing. Wind in your hands, that’s all. What comes next? I don’t know what comes next. I would like to become unblocked, to flow with energy again, to be in the right, with the current. I would like that very much.
THIS MUST BE ONE of my favorite films. The perfect antidote for a Saturday afternoon. I watched The Shawshank Redemption (1994) on the way to China about nine years ago and again on the way back again. I read the Stephen King story as well, which has some different elements from the film (‘Red’ really is Irish). I remember my cousin also loved this movie too and wanted to name his band Dufresne. As I write this, I can hear a neighbor’s saw and hammer in the yard. I should be working, but my body says it’s time to rest, and no fear of a Lutheran god or hot cup of coffee can convince me otherwise. They sound vaguely maritime to me, that hammer and saw, that metallic clang. I miss ports. Wish I was a longshoreman in San Francisco listening to those seals talk in the fog. Any town in Maine or the Swedish archipelago will do. Maybe I’ll head south to Zihuatanejo like Andy did. You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific. It has no memory.
I KNOW A FEW veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. These are not old men, most of them were born in the 1960s, though some are older. The reason I know they were in the war is that they have alcohol problems. They have trauma. That’s why they drink. Two of them, while drunk, have looked at me, especially when I don’t shave, and had some flashbacks and started mumbling about mujahideen and trying to converse with me in Russian. These people know I am an American and don’t speak Russian, but some switch goes off and they think they are back in the army. I just learned that one of them is now in jail for beating his wife in a drunken rage. As someone said the other night, “The thing about war is that the dead come home but the living stay on the battlefield.”
THIS ALL HAPPENED in some remote agricultural community on the other side of the mountains, a place of rolling green fields and yellow corn pastures, with a silty dark river snaking through it, full of farm run-off and gloomy rocks. At the center was a gray mountain that rose up high into the clouds, its base covered with patches of moss and forest. My grandmother was from the South, true, but I didn’t know she had people here in Kentucky, or that she had left a house in my name. This was a long house, a kind of Swiss chalet, same style of angled roof, with at least five levels, each ringed with balconies. Inside, it was fully furnished with rugs and couches, rotary phones and lamps, mustard-colored curtains and bedspreads. Retro chic, circa the LBJ Years. Yes, it was a fine house, and I was surprised that it had been left in my name, but I had never once considered a life for myself in the landlocked South. Still, the local people were so friendly, far friendlier than the Estonians, I thought. One young local woman, a chummy highlands brunette, even showed up in a plaid dress on the porch and asked me if I wanted to share a bottle of whiskey with her. I looked at her and the high gray mountain, with its slate gray sheets of rock at the precipice. This was like some Welsh mining community, I thought, like Aberfan, the site of that 1966 disaster where the colliery spoil tip collapsed and killed 144 people. This was Aberfan, Kentucky. But there was a house here, a wonderful house in my name, and a woman waiting with whiskey. She was still out there on the porch. Maybe I’d stay.
EVEN THE AMERICANS give up. It may take 20 years, or just 10, but after a long slog in a foreign land, the remaining embassy staff are evacuated and the country falls. It’s incredible how quickly it goes, be it at the hands of the North Vietnamese or Taliban. Liberal democracy is a hard sell in deserts, jungles, and other desperate lands. Religious fundamentalists or Communists do well, for a while, but after a while they too need to make a buck. My own life is a mess, I mean a literal mess. Dishes piled high in the sink. Whirlpools of laundry on the floor, mixed together, clean and dirty. Then the need to generate income in this mess somehow. I am expected to be a fulltime caretaker and fulltime father and fulltime worker. It’s an impossibility. It is impossible to do all the things I am supposed to do, under a cascade of words about how whatever I am doing, it’s not enough, and I should really be far wealthier and better organized given the circumstances. Last night I had some dream about war, but in a really upscale, Scandinavian neighborhood, like that patch of Nørrebro in Copenhagen down near the Søpavillonen, or Lake Pavilion, where the Danish businessmen ride their bikes on lunchbreaks. There were hordes of young scared men running between the houses and some of them were being killed by armed assailants. Some kind of genocide taking place among the fine waterfront buildings and pavilions of Denmark, but I couldn’t understand the reasoning for it. Were they being killed for ideological purposes? Or race? Age? Gender? Sexual orientation? There were men in gray sweatshirts murdering others. Maybe it was somehow connected to these arguments between the vaccine men and the un-vaccine men? These endless bloody arguments? At some point, I came face to face with one of the murderers, but he looked scared and didn’t shoot at me. My countenance was too calm. Then I dreamed of rear-ending some blonde Tallinn businesswoman I know. In a white dress. Sublime that. Sex and murder, from Saigon to Kabul to Copenhagen to Tallinn. I awoke, grabbed my briefcase, and was off to work.
ONLY WEIRDNESS, the rest left unsaid. Sometimes things in life are like this. There is no resolution. There is no resolution to the story with the Icelandic girl you left behind behind the Hallgrímskirkja on a December day. There are memories. An old Volkswagen microbus parked on Njálsgata. Frost on the windows. Mist in the harbor. Long walking streets, hot baths, eateries, pubs, staircases, bordellos. Bricks and lanterns, swimming pools, buses and mountains. There are memories, but there is no resolution, because she had turned her back to you and will not say. She will not say what went wrong and why, and any attempt to contact her is met with silence. She is not talking and so you take it all on yourself. It must have been your doing, naturally, if she cannot even bring herself to utter one phrase or word about it. It must be you and not her. So you walk away with a guilt-ridden conscience, but for what, you can no longer say. It’s probably some complex of yours plucked from a self-help book. Maybe you fancy yourself as a victim or martyr? Or you have narcissistic personality disorder? Maybe you are an autist too? An easy diagnosis and remedy. You’re just confused, that’s all. Just confused. But what else is there to do or say about it? Nothing. You fumble for words, but they can’t bring back the connection. There is only weirdness now. It was just a thing, as they say. Just a thing that happened. You should let it go, friends advise. Let what go? There’s nothing there anyway. It was just a thing that happened. Something that happened. Then it was all over. Then it was nothing.
THEORETICALLY, there is nothing wrong with a 41-year-old, mostly employed writer living in a wooden house in a small provincial town on the northeastern flank of European ennui developing a thing for a 31-year-old American singer songwriter who is far more successful and wealthier than he will ever be, whom he also happens to encounter here and there in the media. Theoretically. But there is also that icky feeling that comes when developing feelings of any kind for someone you have never met, and for whom you are almost expected to have some starburst reaction, just like you’re supposed to thirst for a cold Coca Cola on a dry day, or long to feast on a bag of fluorescent orange Doritos, or gobble up whatever else they are selling you. Yet the eyes don’t lie. For whatever reason, they keep rolling over to Miss Swift. It just happened to me the other day. There I was, in the café, drinking my double espresso in the back room, when I chanced across a photograph in a magazine. Two clear blue eyes and that rebellious ski jump of a nose. There was something rather unruly, mischievous, and punk in those eyes. Who was she? I read the photo caption. Oh no. Not again. Her. Why? Years ago while in Nashville, I had acquired some merchandise for my daughters, including crimson t-shirts with her image on them, and an album they could listen to in the car. I remember listening to that album and thinking, “Hey, I actually kind of like this girl.” These thoughts I kept to my miserable, repressed, father-of-little-girls self, a gray, opaque nonentity that existed to step in and bandage knees, procure ice cream, and chauffeur them from destination to destination. I was a little ashamed, truth be told. But why? Why do we feel shame for our own impulses when clearly the mind has a mind of its own? There is a joy though too, the joy of having a reaction to anything. I have enjoyed my thing for Swift. Let it be, you know, let it all be. Even as I have to grimace through the very dreadful “Look What You Made Me Do,” which is basically her saying that line over and over and over and over again, even then, just let it be. Accept one’s inner Taylor-loving self. Revel in it. Write love poetry, songs, prose. Follow her on social media. When I worked in New York in the mid-00s, I had a similar freak experience when I would find myself drawn to images of Nicole Kidman of all people. My eyes would wander the magazines and billboards and movie posters down on Maiden Lane, Gold Street, Pine Street, Park Place, and seize on this pretty person and ponder her identity, only to realize it was Tom Cruise’s ex-wife, the star of Dogville, and an Australian no less. One day I confessed this passing fancy to my coworker, Waylon, who was from New Mexico and carried a knife, and he had no bones about it. “Of course, dude,” he said when I told him. “She’s a total babe! I’d definitely do her.”