kuivastu harbor blues

Kuivastu Harbor, Muhu Island, Estonia, March 2022

I PULLED THE CAR into the lane at Kuivastu Harbor to wait for the ferry to the mainland. It was still officially winter, and even though the Estonian islands were already warmer and sunnier, and there was the specific promise of springtime in the air, the waters around the docks were full of heavy pieces of ice, and the orange sunset on the horizon only made the place seem more like the Arctic. I love harbors, and found myself wandering the halls of the harbor building, and venturing upstairs to the café, where music was playing, but all the tables were empty, and there was no one at the bar. These places like Muhu and Saaremaa felt farther away from the war, safer. Still, at the Kuressaare Castle, there had been an exhibition about all of the battles that had been fought out in the islands, and some of the weapons that had been left behind were on display, machine guns and the like. There was also a mannequin of a man in a wooden boat that had actually been used to row across the Baltic Sea. He had an old-fashioned hat, a newsboy’s hat, as my children would say, just like the one I have. The same hat I held onto as I walked around the dock at Kuivastu, hoping for a peaceful spring.

I had been trying to keep my mind calm during the war, but this had proved impossible. For the first week of the war, all I did was check the news, from the moment I woke up until the moment I decided I could stand no more. Work completely halted for me, editors sent me assignments, but I could not do them. Who wanted to read about anything else other than the war? How could whatever it was I was supposed to do be any more important than what was going on down there? People across the ocean were bombarding me with letters, urging me to flee this dangerous part of the world. There were serious discussions about where to go, should we have to eventually escape. When would we know when it was time to go? When the government or the embassy said so?

In the castle museum, we had looked at all of those exhibits about Soviet life in Saaremaa. My children asked me questions. What was a Pioneer? What is a kolhoos? What was the komsomol? Of all people in the world, I was left with the task of explaining this complicated system, one in which I had never lived. There were images of Estonian Communists, of Estonians who collaborated with the Germans, of Forest Brothers, who stashed their belongings in milk containers in the countryside to keep them safe. To think, in some ways this conflict between them never ended. Some people are still fighting. But what was it even about? Why were Communism or fascism so important, that so many people needed to die for them? “Which side were the Estonians on?” my eldest daughter asked me. A good question. Every side. I tried to keep my calm, though the war continued to trouble me. The kids sensed this unease, but calmed themselves by wandering around through the gift shop.

I stared once again at the display with the man with the hat in the boat. Now, with the war breathing down our necks, I started to wonder how long it might be before I had to row across the sea. My neighbor back in Viljandi, a Kihnu girl, said that her great grandfather had helped take Estonians to safety by boat. If we were going to be forced to relive history, would we also be reliving this history?

The hotel in Kuressaare where we stayed had long been popular among Russian tourists, but this time, I only heard Russian spoken by a single dark-haired man outside, who was smoking and who looked like someone from the Caucuses. In the halls, there was a young woman vacuuming. When I asked her about the hotel breakfast, she just stared at me, and then said that she only spoke “vuh-nuh keel,” vene keel in Estonian, meaning Russian.

Another woman who worked in the hotel told me the girl was a Ukrainian who had fled the war. She now spent her days changing beds and sheets, washing bathrooms, and getting updates from relatives who were behind. To think, she had fled here for safety, and yet we still felt afraid too. Maybe soon enough we might all have to get on a ship together and go somewhere to get away from it. Like it or not, we were now all in the same boat.

pelé and ophelia

OPHELIA TURNED UP again. Just when I thought I was in a safe place, and I would never have to deal with her hands on hips and domineering personality and she had at last dissipated into the periphery of of my waking awareness, she came bounding into my apartment with her new boyfriend, a Brazilian football star who looked like a young Pelé, clad in his soccer shorts and socks, kicking a ball all around my living room. They demanded food at once and so I started making them dinner, slices of fried halloumi, cuts of plump tomatoes, platters of Greek olives, my usual fare. Ophelia put her legs up on my table and complained loudly that I did not seem happy to see her, and Pelé kept kicking his ball against the wall. They opened the door and windows too and left them open, so that soon the room was quite cold. At one point, while frying some breaded eggplants, I attempted to engage Pelé in a friendly football exchange, but Ophelia intervened. “Don’t even try. Go back to cooking. You know you’ll never be the man that he is. It’s pathetic.” Alas, such was my fate, to cook food for this woman, who gave her sex to some aloof Brazilian football star instead. After they ate, they left, and I was on my own. I cleaned up the dishes and put on an old song by the Canadian group, The Guess Who, called “No Time,” and went to sleep in a bundle of world weariness and misery. Who was she to treat me that way? And why did she have to bring Pelé along? To rub salt in the wounds of my heart? Then one day, a month or two later, I was walking along the coastal road when I encountered beautiful Ophelia again. She was less imperious this time around, and actually seemed happy to see me. I let down my guard and told her that I knew how to fly. “Show me,” she said, with her gold hair dancing in the sea wind. It wasn’t easy, it never is, but with the right degree of concentration, I began to lift off the ground. She wrapped her arms around me, and up we went into the sky. From the air, we could see the entire coastline, and all of the birds that shared it with us. When we landed, a man showed up with two small children. He was not Pelé. I guess they had broken up. This was a Welsh footballer. This, as I understood it, this man was the father of her children. They were headed to a picnic down the beach. “If you want, you can join us,” said Ophelia. I declined the offer, though I did consider it a second. Better to leave others to their stories. Better to leave old dreams alone.

misplaced toys

I WAS BACK IN ICELAND, in Reykjavik, of course. Erland was with me, as was Musi, and we decided to go to Sundhöllin to enjoy the hot baths. But none of my cards worked at the counter, and Erland and Musi went in without me. I decided to prowl around the harbor instead, walking by the old fishing cottages. I came across a warehouse that was full of wooden fishing boats and nets and decided to take a photo of it and send it back to Christa on the West Coast to remind her of the island and its history. Then I retired to my room on Freyjugata. There, in the early hours, I awoke to the sound of a small child playing on the floor beside me. Just playing with some blocks and sighing because he was so lonesome. Later, I got up and went out into the hallway. It was full of beautifully wrapped packages, and my neighbor’s apartment door was ajar. From inside, I could hear the sounds of a birthday party and I could hear my neighbor’s laughter. How disappointing, I thought, not to be invited. I glanced out the door into the street and happened to see a beautiful Icelandic girl with red hair painting her house. I watched each time as she bent over to wet her paint brush, and really marveled at her superb backside. What a lovely sight. Then I went back into my apartment to look for the lonely child I had seen before, but he had disappeared. Even his toys had vanished.


I HAD BEEN AVOIDING certain songs for the very fact that I was afraid of them, afraid that by hearing them I would come once again unglued and fall apart into malaise, despair, and torpor.  One of them was by a singer named Emiliana Torrini and the other one was “Blue Monday” by New Order. It even takes courage to write out the names of the songs, which is funny to me, that I am even afraid of the names of songs. I’m not even afraid of how they sound, or the words, but the names. I think her rejection letter had arrived toward the end of spring. Maybe it was the end of May? I had been watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo one of those nights, which was filmed in San Francisco in the 1950s, and so I somehow combined this memory of the rejection letter with shots of people in suits and dresses climbing into cable cars in the hilly city. It was as if we weren’t here in this country at all, that none of this had taken place in the lanes or shopping centers of Estonia, but there in that Californian city a long time ago, two old characters. Well, one of them was old, or at least older than the other. That seemed to be one main problem. “Given the facts, I just don’t see any perspective here,” I think those were her words to me. I can’t be sure. I haven’t looked at the letter since. I am brave enough to listen to music that reminds me of her, but not brave enough to read that letter again. What took place after that was something I have struggled to describe to my patient and well-meaning psychologist, but have always failed to adequately express. “Yes, I understand, I understand you felt pain that day,” my psychologist said. No. I felt like a building had collapsed on top of me in a cataclysm of dust, dynamite, and thunder. A stone building, constructed in the earlier part of the last century. Maybe Jugendstil? Every single part of my body ached for two days. Every single part. Even my feet hurt, especially my ankles. Later, a friend characterized it as withdrawal. I would explain it as an exorcism. Some kind of soul had left me. Her soul? I couldn’t say. “But this is so unfair,” I told my friend. “It’s like she gave a part of herself to me. And now she just wants me to give it back?” “Yes, she does,” my friend said. “It is unfair, but you have to give it back to her.” From a logical point of view, here in the rational workaday buzzing digital world, where we wake up, drink coffee, and watch people walking by on their way to work, and the phone chirps and people only want you to do more things for them, here in this flimsy pathetic construction, none of this made sense and was at all important. I wasn’t getting paid for being in love anyhow, so what was it worth to me? It was just some girl, and, as I told someone recently when she asked me if I had any women in my life, “but half the world is female. They are all in my life.” This was a lovely one, though, a smart one, a creative one who could leave you with sentences that you turned over and over again in your mind, if only to extract some remaining essence from them, but still a girl, not capable of collapsing a whole fortress on your head. Yet she did, and I was covered with bricks and dust. My ankles even hurt. What had even happened? Now I was afraid to even listen to some Icelandic singer, or British new wave band. They were like doors, shut and locked doors to cellar rooms in my subconscious that I dared not to open. Then, one day, in the winter, I decided it was time to face the music and give those songs a listen. I remembered the first time I had heard of Emiliana Torrini. It was when I visited Iceland two decades ago. One of my friends ran into a young singer in a café. I never met her but I always paid attention to her music after that, remembering the tangential connection. I recalled those lanes of the city, peering into the windows of restaurants at night, and the suspicious characters at the bars. As for New Order, I grew up with the sounds of their synthesizers. They remind me of childhood. These are all memories or pieces of myself, just as the object of my affection had become a piece of me too. Our story went the way it did, with its turns and catastrophes, but that didn’t mean that I could no longer dream of her sunstruck sensuality, or the words she said, or the way she once looked at me outside the cinema. Those parts were as much hers as they were mine. I couldn’t give them back.

This column appears in the March 2022 issue of the magazine Anne ja Stiil.