I CAME HOME in the early hours through the vacant streets of the town. It was crisp and cold, and it surprised me that the air could be so dense on such a cold night. Usually, the cold has brought clarity to things, made things easier to see and understand, yet somehow all of the houses and streets and automobiles looked to be wrapped up in a weird swirling white mist. I was coming home from a young woman’s house where we were drinking tea, letting honey dissolve into cups from one of those big jars people gift you around the holidays. Big clumps of honey melting away and lots of talking. Then her child woke up and I decided to leave. I didn’t see a soul on my trek home, not even a bum sipping from a flask at the bus stop. When I arrived at the house, I saw most of my neighbors were still up awake, as all the lights were on. They were no doubt snuggled next to their loved ones chatting or watching a film. I went inside, took off my boots, stretched out on the couch, and pulled a blanket on me. It was January and soon it would be February. After February would come March. I hadn’t yet taken the Christmas decorations down. Why should I? It’s so nice to sleep beneath some twinkling Christmas lights. Recently, I visited an older friend, and she remarked to me that it was such a shame that I was still solo after all these years, for she has known me for a long time. “What a tragedy, and such a beautiful boy too.” “Nii ilus poiss.” The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind until then, and it seemed a strange and different kind of thought. I thought about her words as I stared at the Christmas lights on the verge of slumber. For most people, partnership is the default, and being alone is just a way station, a stopover, a foggy interlude between relationships. One partnership ends and you look around and another soon after begins. That’s how life is supposed to work. While talking with the young woman over tea, I tried to guess the names of her ex-boyfriends by calling out random Estonian names. There had been a Jürgen, she acknowledged, and, yes, a Tõnu, but no Tiit. Not yet. “It depends on how you define ‘boyfriend,'” she said. My life had once been like that. The women in my life were like monarchs. The way we can talk about the architecture of various periods in British history — Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian — I could talk about years of my life. “Yes, that was during the Francesca period,” or, “Those were the Christiana years.” But what was this current period? The “bachelor sleeping alone on a couch under Christmas decorations period?” The “drinking tea late nights with young women in lonely town” period. Whatever this current period was called, it had lasted some time. At last sleep arrived. I often descend through various states of arousal at night. This is common for men, and it may be the case for women. On this night, I kept thinking of a video a friend had sent me from a swimming pool in a faraway country. There she was, swimming away in a white bathing suit at night, and something about the idea of this stretched bathing suit filled out by a very full Scandinavian feminine figure was suddenly all around me. There was something quaint about these visions. It was as if I was looking at one of those postcards of happy beachgoers from the 1920s. Golden hair, white bathing suit, stretched full. I could hear the water being displaced, I imagined the water was warm, and I began to feel safe and well beneath my blanket. In the morning, winter light came pouring through the windows, and I could see there was fresh snow on the ground. The couple that lives upstairs, whom I call “the Norwegians” because they sometimes live and work in Norway, were warming up their car and preparing their children for a trip. The yard was full of neighbor couples shoveling snow, or linking arms to go for a walk. They have come to seem alien to me, the couples, and I wonder why they even exist. Two people, living together? Forever? What a silly idea. Who would ever want to bother with that? Do they really believe they are soul mates? Will they stay together? I still felt the warm waters from the night before and thought about the Scandinavian swimmer in the stretched bathing suit, but the memory of the dream began to fade with my first sips of coffee. I wondered if I did have a heart somewhere, and if it was still capable of love. Maybe it was hidden away in a sealed-off part of me, like Anne Frank, writing secretly into her diary in the Annex in Amsterdam during the Second World War. Maybe the heart was writing its longings into that diary behind those walls just as she once had. Maybe someday I would be able to read that book.
Month: January 2022
the soul of tallinn
IN SOME WAYS today is not the ideal day for Tallinn. The weather is gray, the snow and ice are melting together. The sidewalks are slippery. In a word, one might say it’s depressing. But I noticed how some pigeons flew out of a tunnel by the Baltic Station. That was funny and lifted my mood some. Again, the same Old Town, the site of the Puppet Theatre (and isn’t it absurd that the Puppet Theatre was so successful, and of such high quality? We are talking about puppets here. These are children’s toys. Yet many successful, great actors got their starts there). Then Hirvepark, a noteworthy place in Estonian history. All these houses. All these dwellings. What is it that makes Tallinn Tallinn? An Italian restaurant, an Irish pub? And which is my favorite place? Reval Café? A boutique, a jewelry shop, with Russian sellers. Old LPs in the record shop window, where happy ladies pose sometime in the 1970s, back when sex was still exciting. I searched for the soul of Tallinn everywhere, but it was hard to find. Is Tallinn in Vapiano, where they ask for your COVID pass and identity document, and a Nigerian makes me Insalata Deliziosa? Or in the Õhtuleht Building, where there are beauty salons, cafes, and wedding dresses on display in the first-floor windows? There are people in the streets who are headed somewhere. Russians, Germans. I suppose it’s always been that way. Tallinn. An international place. The trams move forward, the casino lights blink on, and company meetings continue. This is how one gray January day passes in Tallinn. Elegant ladies with small dogs. Young fathers with baby strollers. One even has twins. Somewhere at the edge of the Old Town, I see a poster for a play. There are lots of women on the poster, but one catches my eye. Who is she? I take a photo and then later do some research. I learn that she is a young actress. I just wanted to know what her name was, but so what. Now if I was to meet with her, I would have to tell her the embarrassing story about how I once took a photo of a poster that featured her, because I thought she was a beautiful girl. I am not sure if this is strange or not. At least I haven’t built a shrine to her in a corner of my house adorned with her photos. I was just curious. Good luck with your career, young Estonian actress! Naturally, I find my way back to Fotografiska. A safe place where one can get some work done. Some American dance music is coming from the speakers. A turmeric milk, also known as a golden latte. I hear all kinds of languages. There’s a Russian man at the neighboring table, but the others are Estonians. Women with children, with laptops. The girl behind the counter was born in ’97. Which is no surprise, as she is 25 years old now and works in a café. Completely normal. I don’t want to tell her that I came to Estonia in 2003. I don’t want to hear how she was in kindergarten back then. But at least she speaks with me and looks me in the eyes. It’s nice when a Tallinner looks you in the eyes. Soon I’ll go back to the book shop and buy that Icelandic chick lit I saw before for my daughter. I think she likes these kinds of surprises, that “Daddy brought me something from the capital!” For her, Tallinn is a fantastic place, full of second-hand shops, interesting cafes, new experiences, and friends. I am happy she can discover her own Tallinn this way. I’m not bored here, but where is the soul of Tallinn? Does it even exist? Honestly, I feel pretty lonely here in this café. One woman sits behind a laptop. The next one is behind her laptop. The third is the same. The fourth is looking at her phone. In the hallway to the toilet, there is a portrait of Scarlett Johansson on the wall. To think, I came all the way to Tallinn just to see Scarlett Johansson on the way to the WC. Maybe some people think that all of these trimmings make Tallinn more international, but they also make it more generic. I think I’ll go and have a look around in Kalamaja. Maybe I’ll find some old fat cat there, or see an ancient drunk between the renovated old buildings. At least something without elevator music, turmeric, and quinoa.
This piece was written originally in Estonian and appears in the Estonian magazine Edasi.
LAST NIGHT, I went back to Hawkins Road with my youngest daughter. This is the long winding road that leads from the top of a hill down nearly to the Stony Brook Mill Ponds. At the top of that hill, I used to build makeshift wigwams in the forest with my friends many years ago. We had a little boombox and would listen to NWA, Guns N’ Roses, and the Beastie Boys and play Indian. Once I saw a great snake, and climbed into the trees, because I was so terrified. These aboriginal dwellings were mostly made of saplings bent to construct the frame of the wigwam, and then covered with mats of pine branches. We came up a set of snowy steps at the foot of Hawkins and saw a small wigwam at the entrance to a house, but this one was made up animal skins. This was a deluxe wigwam, in other words, and the house was also luxury. It seemed some changes had taken place on Hawkins in my absence. The hill had once hosted maybe 20 different houses but all of these had been razed and replaced by one over-arching McMansion. My daughter stayed behind to play in the wigwam, and I climbed the steps to walk down a series of long hallways. Beneath, I could see all the accoutrements of success, the indoor tennis court, the massive kitchen with colonial-inspired hearth. In one of the compartments, an older, gray-haired man sat in a button-up collared business shirt while several screens showed different channels’ coverage of the stock market. He seemed to be completely absorbed by his work. I wondered who his child was, the one with the wigwam, and if they really interacted in this enormous monster of a house. Instead, I turned, went down the hall, and came down the steps. My daughter was still playing with the wigwam. “This is somebody else’s house,” I told her. “We need to go.” She protested, but I told her, “We shouldn’t stick around on somebody else’s property. They might call the police.”
THE NEXT THING I knew, I was back in Viljandi, riding through the winding back streets and tree-lined alleys with my youngest daughter and her mother in tow. The bicycle was absurdly large though, like something a clown might ride at the circus. I came terribly close to mowing down pedestrians and small children. “Watch where you’re going!” She shrieked. “Don’t you even know how to ride a bike?” “Hey, lady,” I said. “It’s a clown bicycle.” At last we got to the bus station. It was a dimly lit place, and there was an old Soviet-style cafeteria inside, with the steaming tins of cutlets and god knows what else. My daughter ran off to play in the playroom, and I went to get the tickets. But as soon as the bus to Pärnu arrived it drove away. I went back and informed the family. There would be no trip to Pärnu today. My daughter didn’t seem to mind, and her mother reconciled herself to the situation. Later, I went back to my apartment, which was on the top floor of a boarding house. Two little boys I knew came walking down the hallway searching for their mother. I told them I would help find her, and that I had just seen her downstairs in the lobby. Their mother appeared and pretended that all was well, and that she had known where they were the whole time. The boys looked worried, but went away with their mother. Then I went back into my small dingy room. Later, I found myself in the corner of one of the town’s many bistros. I couldn’t remember how I had wound up there, only that Gunna was with me, and I was giving her a foot massage right there on the spot. Gunna from the market, with her freckles and red bangs and weird humor. Gunna only smiled to me and said, “Oh my god, it’s so good, please don’t stop! Whatever you do, just don’t stop!” I kept on rubbing Gunna’s feet, but was really confused by the twist of events, or how any of this had happened.
I HAD TO GO to the city, and there was some kid with me, no idea who he was. Maybe about 12 or 13, private school uniform, precocious, obnoxious, you know what I mean. From some wealthy Nassau family. We went by train, but had to disembark before the tunnel went under the East River. To get into Manhattan, we had to show our Covid passes. When we at last came up the steps, Posdnuous from De La Soul was there to great me. He seemed to recognize me, know who I was. He invited me to a concert, the other Hieroglyphics groups were performing, but I couldn’t figure out where the venue was, or what time it was happening. So I went back to Long Island. I don’t know what happened to the rich kid either. Last I saw, he was on his way toward Union Square. The mansion on Long Island had many staircases. There was a woman a few years older than me living there. She had reddish curly hair and was getting her PhD at the university. Various close female relatives were about. They were criticizing me. I shouted, “Don’t you realize how infuriating it is when other people try to rearrange your life?” Then I went to the wing of the house where the redhead was staying and apologized for the commotion, but she hadn’t heard us, she was doing an interview for her thesis. She seemed rather nice, though a little introverted. She was studying biology.
VÕRUMAA HAS IN RECENT YEARS become a major destination for people, mostly Estonians, who want to live more off-the-grid and delve into their collective heritage of closeness to nature and an agricultural lifestyle. Social media is full of images of freshly bottled pickles and jams, typically on an old-fashioned wooden table, hopefully surrounded by hectares of unspoiled wilderness. There are some reasons for this. One is that Võrumaa is one of the few places in Estonia where people still speak a dialect in everyday discourse, which has some stronger similarities to Finnish than standard Estonian, and the second is that it’s one of the cheaper places to live in Estonia, and trying to go off-the-grid on the north coast is often an impossibility for bohemian-minded families. This is the nook of the country where the country life is “more real” and you can buy that old farm house and fix it up. I suppose it’s how New Yorkers see Vermont, if Vermont is still affordable. “I’ll just go buy myself some acreage up there and live off the land.” Aye, that’s the dream. But in Võrumaa, as in Vermont, you run into, well, the locals, the truck-driving neighbors (not these neighbors here, other neighbors, elsewhere) the typical country problems of old grudges, eh, er, alcoholism, and stuff like that, though to be fair, that is everywhere in Estonia, from the pinnacle top to muddy bottom. Some people have told me that the “forest is strong” in Võrumaa. This is a really interesting idea that even my child has related to me on nature hikes. “Let’s go back to that forest, that one was more powerful, or interesting.” I must admit, I have never heard someone from New York tell me that the forest was particularly strong in any part of Long Island, though it makes sense, no? The vibration, the energy of those woods, speaks in louder volumes, or is more profound. I think Estonians intuitively grasp these things better because this is their land. As such, it’s a bit harder for me to hear what the Võrumaa forest is saying. I keep feeling like I have driven a bit too far north, and somewhere between Maine and the Atikamekw Reserves, there is this little pine-lined neck of the woods. This is lumberjack country, for sure. That is another thing my sojourns down here have proved, you can’t really do anything without a car, or better yet a truck. God knows how they got around in the old days. I can’t imagine taking some horse-drawn carriage down one of these country roads. Maybe they just stayed on the farm and married the neighbor. Seems an easier prospect.
hills of italy
I WAS BACK in San Giorgio Albanese, but all of the buildings were painted festive yellow, including the massive restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking the Sila with a 360 degree view. There were just some small boulders equally spaced along the edge of the cliff to alert locals not to venture too close. Then a straight drop down of Grand Canyon-like proportions. I was afraid to even look that way. There was a fine bar in the middle of the restaurant, and some of my Petrone relatives were there and I was eating interesting yellow pastries that made no sense to me at all, odd bulky shapes, and sweet but not sugary, so maybe polenta? Some Petrellis cousins showed up and one was the chief of police. I tried to speak Italian but just broken sentences came out, and felt so embarrassed that I couldn’t even string a sentence together. Then grandma died, but not my grandma, Rosaria, my father’s grandmother, and I was asked to make food for the funeral. I made this really nice fettuccine and, yes, there were some tiny clams and shrimp in the sauce, and then, when people started to arrive, someone asked, “Is it possible to get the pasta without the shrimp?” and then I thought, we might as well just order takeout. There was a decent Greek restaurant nearby. Surely they might cater. There was no way I could dislodge or dissect the shrimp from the pasta dish. As is the case in most structures, there was a haunted room in the restaurant, and I went into the haunted room expecting it to be dark, dreary, and full of loathing, but it was surprisingly well-lit and remodeled with skylights. I didn’t sense any ominous presence (usually the ghost of a woman who wants to destroy me). But my daughters were sleeping like angels in a bed in the room, and they said they had weird feelings there, and all was not as safe as it seemed. Later, we all went to visit their old babysitter, but she was not at home. The littlest one was jumping to look in the windows and so I held her up to the glass. All three girls were with me. Then the babysitter arrived, but she was very busy and there was a man waiting in the car outside. The girls looked around the inside of the house. Then we left together.
I WAS GETTING READY to go to the Rolling Stones concert when a Spanish witch showed up. She called herself Lourdes. A vigorous woman from the west Pyrenees. “¡Deja que te lea el futuro!” I allowed this so-called witch or soothsayer to at least tag along, and out we set on our sojourn toward the Song Festival Grounds, at which point, some of her forecasts started to molest my conscience, so I sat down at a bus stop for a rest. Then Lourdes hugged me, rubbing her fleshy dowry in my face and patting my head. I was hesitant to partake at first, but was soon sobbing and licking away. Again I had succumbed to comforts of the opposite sex. “Sí, sí,” said Lourdes, stroking, brushing, caressing. “Conmigo puedes hacer lo que quieras. No hay nada prohibido.” After the concert, we arrived to a manor house, which was more like a chateau. The bedroom was beautiful, just like one of those gilded 18th century Versailles interiors they once displayed at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was our chestnut-haired witch Lourdes, with her great dark olive tree eyes, engulfed up and buoyed in white-tipped waves of soft sheets and duvet-covered blankets, illuminated by wax-dripping candles and candelabras. I thought she was reading a book on sorcery at first, but it turned out to be a European women’s handball video game. Lourdes was quite engrossed. Soon after she began to lecture me about my novel. When would it be finished? How many more pages left? Carla, my other publisher, came in and the two chicas sat together in the Versailles bed, blankets all pulled up. An impromptu business meeting. “Ah, I see you have been discussing your literary plans with this Spanish witch and not with me,” said Carla the publisher. I didn’t know even how to respond. More negotiations ensued. Soon after, my publisher left the room and Lourdes went away to take a shower. When she came out, I beckoned her over and she embraced me and sat in my lap. Then I said, “Is it okay if I dance with you, Lourdes?” “¡Claro que podemos bailar!” the bosomy witch said, and there we began to waltz slowly beside her bed, Lourdes in the dripping nude, me with my hands slowly advancing toward that plush cushion bottom. With a growl of thunder, the manor owner arrived, a Napoleon-like silhouette against the white nocturnal mists that engulfed the chateau, with hat and cutlass visible in the shadows. I climbed out the window and ran to an orchard, and tugged myself up into one of the lower branches of the tree. From there, I watched as Napoleon marched in to inspect his wife and property. Before this happened, Lourdes had cried out to me from the window, “Come back you scoundrel, there is nothing here to fear!” She was still naked and wet. She had yet to dry herself.
FOR MORE THAN A YEAR, my friend has lived a vagabond existence. He was the last supposedly happily married one in our gang, and had watched no doubt anxiously as each one of our marriages came undone over the years. One day, it was his turn. He informed us that his wife and the mother of his two daughters wanted a divorce. He denied the divorce, and a cold peace, or separation was agreed. Putin flew in from Moscow for the negotiations, and everyone walked away waving a white paper. It was decided to share the kids, meaning they would be with him some weeks, with her others. Ever since then, he’s been on the road in his off weeks, as far as it can take him in the pandemic era, which is still anywhere. He’s become another one of the rootless middle aged, his home is where he lays his head at night, his heart is a swirl of memories and yearning. He does not seem unhappy. He sends us dispatches from wherever he happens to be, or remarks on the quality of the coffee or reliability of the local wifi. He’s taking it well, I think, or at least I hope. You might think you know who I am talking about, and the truth is that you both do and you don’t. You probably don’t know him as a person, but you have surely met someone like him in recent years. There are many of us, the dispossessed. Legions. Enough to fill Freedom Square in Tallinn with torches and dread. I meet them everywhere in every situation. Just the other day, my friend invited me over for coffee and gave me a new address. “But I thought you lived in the country,” I told him. It turned out that his wife stayed in the country and he had rented a house in town. The kids shuttle between their old house, now called “mom’s place,” and the apartment, now called “dad’s place.” They seem somehow less troubled by it. From the outside, that’s how things seem. I can’t say it’s any surprise to me now, that all of these families are tumbling apart. It’s become a trite and terrible cliché. The only thing that still surprises me is how business-like couples often are about these big decisions. It’s as if after over a decade of life together, the most significant life events one can have, the wives (and according to some estimates, between 70 and 90 percent of divorces are initiated by women) just wake up one day, decide it’s over and then just have to break the news, like a landlord telling a tenant she has sold the apartment and the tenant has a month to move out. Or maybe a Swedbank marketing meeting where they decide to nix one advertising campaign over another. It’s just a thing, you know, lihtsalt üks asi. It reminds me of all of those countries that lined up to go to war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. They thought it would be a little war way back in 1914. A territorial gain here, some losses there, and maybe just a few soldiers would die. A century later and we are still grieving it. There is no sense in trying to understand catastrophe. The only good question is how to stay sane. That question has led me to look elsewhere. It has led me away from questions, from thoughts themselves. For a time, the only way I could even function was to stop thinking. I had to stop thinking and trying to make sense of it, because I was never going to arrive at an answer. It didn’t make sense. All of the folk healers, psychologists, astrologers, witches, and the like, weren’t going to help me either. They tried, they did, but most of it was up to me. I take refuge in memories, mostly memories of myself when I was small, before I could comprehend some of these things. Before I was an adult and before I was married, I was still a person and I still existed by myself. More than that, I always had the right to exist, independent of how anybody else assessed me or evaluated me, or was satisfied with my performance as me being me. This memory of existing on my own, not because I fulfilled someone else’s idea of who they thought the perfect man was, has given me comfort in my days as a vagabond. When I consider my existence, I forget about everything that has happened to me and I forget about everyone else. I don’t want to think about them anymore. I don’t want to remember anymore. I am tired of thinking and I am tired of remembering. I want to be like my friend, head for the islands, or vanish into the snowy mountains, find a café with good coffee and free wifi and write.
I think he’s onto something.
This article appears in Estonian in the January 2022 issue of Anne ja Stiil. The title is borrowed from the Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa duet, “Coração Vagabundo” off their 1967 LP Domingo.