YESTERDAY, the high lonesome highway. The countryside has a certain Prohibition-era flavor to it. The abandoned, splintering houses, lost to time and graffiti. That empty bottle of whiskey tossed carelessly into a desert-like wheat field at some desperate moment in the winter, only to be revealed by the thaw, like some ancient mastodon. Sometimes I wonder about the local indigent people who might shelter in these discarded structures on the outskirts of the town. Maybe they make bonfires at night and play harmonica. What kinds of horrors have these broken walls seen? In India, I once saw a man sleeping curled up in a rug by the side of the road. I imagine it was something like that, only colder and more forlorn. The countryside is blooming though, stubbornly. One can hear birds in the trees, singing. The birds are social. The people not so much. I have done this route many times, down to the lake, past the Baltic German cemetery in the woods. Sometimes I revisit one spot where I went swimming with a particular lady friend, though our peculiar brand of friendship has since been dissolved. Then it’s back out onto those long elevated roads. Other walkers come by, but nobody looks at you. It would seem that this would be the most opportune occasion to exchange some kind of pleasantries, or to acknowledge each other’s existence. Two strangers meet along a lonely highway on a cool but sunny spring day. I don’t expect much, you know. I understand that this is not California, and there will be no “have a great day” wished upon me by some passing jogger. Still, a nod might do. Or some eye contact. There is nothing. Yesterday, a young woman walked right past me. She was within arm’s distance. I looked to her, just to acknowledge that we existed along the same plane of reality. The wind was playing with her straw-colored hair. Her face was pale, as were her eyes. She looked like an extra from one of those Netflix Viking dramas. I wondered what she was thinking about. It must have been very important. Maybe she was wondering about what school she might get into, or how much her cousin Tõnu’s new car cost. “I wonder how much it cost? I wonder, I wonder.” Then it occurred to me that maybe she didn’t see me. Maybe I was invisible. What other explanation could there be? I didn’t know when my invisibility began to manifest itself. Naturally, the girl didn’t say hello. She couldn’t see me.
Month: April 2023
I WENT BACK to the Esplanaadi, to revisit the scene of the “Esplanaadi Bakeries.” Dulcinea’s Bakery was closed but Strindberg was open and there were clients inside. Interestingly, Dulcinea’s Bakery was actually closer to the Svenska Teatern, Strindberg’s was farther. I remembered it as being the other way around. And I didn’t see any metal ovens inside at all, so how was it possible that I had seen her baking there one morning in November? That was something that was recorded on the spot. Jotted down in the journal. I had not made that up after the fact. All had happened as it had happened. But even my rendering of a scene in real time had been altered by some personal filter. Maybe I was dreaming? It’s also possible that I could return to the site of the bakeries within a few months and what I recall from yesterday will have rearranged itself. The human mind is just not a reliable tool of measurement. There is no line between fact and fiction. Yesterday, I walked past four teenage boys on the ship back from Helsinki. All four of them were seated in an almost catatonic stupor, staring into their smartphones. It was like something out of a science fiction novel. The great zombification of the masses. “Gen Z.” I’ve managed to pull my mind out of “the matrix” for now, but it’s not so easy. Pieces of the matrix remain with you. You are “here,” in the physical reality, but your mind is still “there,” in the digital one. People speak to you, but you don’t hear them, because you are too busy thinking about something you saw in a virtual environment. It takes time to detox. It doesn’t happen overnight. In the morning, it rained in Tallinn, but then the sun came out. I saw a pretty girl outside Viru Keskus and followed her into a shop, just to see her a few more times, so that I might remember her just as she was. She was dressed ordinarily and there was nothing special about her. That’s why I liked her. I pretended to be involved in the purchase of some vitamins. Later, I showed my daughter the hotel that had been built in 1972, complete with KGB listening stations. We’ve been free for so long. How could anyone ever take our freedom away from us? The Old Town had its fair share of foreign women wearing shades and clutching expensive bags, as if they were just fired from some modeling job. We walked past the Rae Apteek, and chatted about the Apteeker Melchior films. They struck just the right balance, I said, of historical accuracy and Hollywood action. Perfect for popcorn. Pure satisfaction. We couldn’t remember the plot of the last film. Something about hallucinations.
THIRTY YEARS from now, where will we all be? In 2053? In the yard, sipping espresso, or shots of limoncello, or playing bocce ball? God, I hope so. Then someone will put on Pinkerton. “I don’t want to be an old man anymore.” And Rivers Cuomo will still be writing songs, somewhere. And Weezer will still be putting out color-coded albums, somewhere. That’s where we’ll be, in the yard, playing bocce ball and listening to “Across the Sea,” with grandchildren or great-grandchildren on our knees. We’ll be sunning ourselves tranquilly, by the seaside, beneath the beach pine canopy. That’s where I’ll be in ’53.
i saw you
I SAW YOU the other day, in the shop, buying cognac or vodka or something with astronomically high alcohol content at about ten minutes to closing time. I saw you there in your scarf but you didn’t see me. I didn’t want you to see me, because I wanted to let you be over there, in that new, more manageable universe you have created around yourself, the one where I no longer exist. I’m not actually sure if it was the same you I saw though. Maybe you no longer exist either, or at least the way I once knew you. Maybe that’s over. I remember how just a few years ago we were drinking wine together in your rented room overlooking the street and had some young friends over. We got down and kneeled beside each other and were praying and laughing. What was so funny? I can’t even remember what the joke was. I remember the candles though, and the taste of the wine. That’s one memory I have. It’s just a memory and maybe there is no point in writing about it or talking about it. “Sometimes,” you told me tersely toward the end, “people just go their separate ways.” I did try to forget about you. In fact, I had almost erased you. You were nearly deleted, and when I went in there that night, my spirits were high and my soul was swinging. I wasn’t even upset by seeing you in the back there, with him. You mostly looked the same, or at least your eyes had the same visible vibrance. You always did have beautiful eyes. I will at least acknowledge that. I went to the other side and stood over there so you wouldn’t have to deal with the trouble of seeing me. I waited for a while and read a special magazine about the German occupation. When I looked back, you were gone.
THERE’S AT LEAST one decent bakery on the Esplanaadi this morning but there are many others. The first one is called Strindberg, and it would certainly suit Mr. Strindberg, should he still be among us. But it’s actually quite gray and stuffy in there, without any clients or espressos, and there is no life in Strindberg this morning at all. The next one is farther along the Esplanaadi, down beside Marimekko, where the window displays are colorful and bright and even the mannequins look lifelike. Joggers and students are out in the park and the neon sign of the Svenska Teatern is glowing gold at the end. There’s something reassuring and supportive about that theatre. Inside the second bakery, a young woman is taking cinnamon buns out of the ovens. She’s dressed all in white and her gold hair is pulled back into a messy ponytail. I watch the girl work and I can almost taste the rich texture of those buns through the glass. From behind, she looks just like Dulcinea. I hope my love helped Dulcinea. Maybe something really bad was supposed to happen to her, maybe Dulcinea was supposed to be struck dead by a tram, but it instead she is here baking because of some positive energy balance in the universe. One of my favorite encounters with her was years ago at the beach. She herself came up to greet me. She was so small in the sunshine that day, and I wondered if she really could be the same vivid Dulcinea, the beauty who fired the ovens of my imagination. She was so small and light that day, but gentle and warm too, like a life-sustaining spark, cupped in one’s hands. “How old was that girl?” my daughter asked when she had gone. “Twenty-four or 23,” I said. The sand swirled up in the wind and then she was gone and I mostly forgot about her. I forgot all about Dulcinea and had no idea what became of her. Apparently, she moved to Helsinki. She got a job in this bakery on the Esplanaadi. She spends her mornings inside, baking the buns behind the glass, wearing that white outfit, and walking to work in the dawn light, past the joggers and dog walkers, and the steadfast Svenska Teatern. I did love her though and still do and she doesn’t needs to turn around to know it. I’m at peace with that all now. Not everything has to be hammered through correctly, you know. Not every shape must fit. Not everything has to be as neat and as trim and as perfect as they say it should be.
i’ll see you in the faroe islands
WE WERE SITTING next to each other in the studio when she told me that she was leaving. Delivered, matter of fact. The young engineer pretended that he couldn’t hear, because he had his big headphones on and was editing the tracks, and making them wet with reverb. His eyes were on the screen. My eyes were on her. I was still stunned by her smallness, and to imagine that she was a full-grown woman, completely bloomed, and that she would never grow any bigger than this. Even when she was an old grandmother, long after I was gone from this world, she would still be this small. Diminutive in the flesh but stellar in the soul. She was so pale with such light eyes, but as sweet and as tart as a red wild strawberry, the kinds that grow out on the islands. But who dressed like that? Wearing those pants? Who held their coffee like that? Who drank it like that, with both hands? She had pretty hands and lithe fingers. She was beautiful. Young ladies drank coffee like that, with fingers just like that, and they blinked wonderfully at the world with eyes like that. She had the eyes of the forest foxes. She looked at the world through her fox eyes and sized it up and then she sized me up. Large, hairy, spent, craggy, but good humored and good natured and well enamored. She told me she was leaving. “I have to go to the Faroe Islands,” she said. “There’s a folk music camp there and I want to work on my music. I need to work on my instrument.” Those islands, those green rocks flung out there in the Atlantic somewhere between Shetland and infinity. She was going out there and of course I was going with her, even if I had to hide myself away in her instrument case. It was decided. I would come too and even try to enjoy the taste of smoked fish. She came to my house the day of the departure. She rang the bell and I heard the bell ring. She was downstairs waiting. I was up in my chaos. There were clothes all over the floor. My daughters were popping their heads out of the mess like prairie dogs and demanding orders of Indian curry. “I want the chicken tikka. And get two orders of basmati rice!” The bell rang again. This was just not going to work out. I was too old and burned out and had responsibilities. I couldn’t even find my shoes! None of them matched up. She buzzed the room yet again. She was down there in her snow boots waiting. Oh, I wanted her so. I just wanted to run away to those islands and vanish into a warm bed of rain-splattered mornings of moisture and everything. I wanted her so, and desperately, and she was right here and it was time to go. The bell rang and I couldn’t find my shoes. When I finally got down, my stuff tossed into a rucksack, journals and such, she had already gone. There was a tiny handwritten note left in the crack of the door. It read, “I had to go ahead, but don’t worry, you can always join me later. I will wait for you and will always be waiting for you. I’ll see you in the Faroe Islands.”
the french riviera
I WAS KICKED out of bed and lost for a good while. Then I reached a mountain village, up in the hills beside the French Riviera. I had to go to the diva’s house. Brynhild. She was on tour somewhere, performing Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, with valkyrie headdress. She left me multiple envelopes full of instructions on what I was to do and not to do while in her palazzo. Inside, there were mountains of old records piled up. Earth, Wind & Fire. Nina Simone. Neil Diamond. It was so dark inside, and yet bright, because all of the interiors were painted white. It was cold, like an ice palace in the mountains. Her dog was there, sniffing around. The house was so cold, especially after the sun went down on the Riviera, and I was up there, all alone. She told me that I had to get a fire started in the furnace, but I didn’t feel like it. I was just too tired for fires and decided to sleep. When Brynhild arrived back from the concert, still wearing her headdress, the house was cold and she was disappointed. Brynhild scolded me and went to wash herself.
A SWANKY EVENT, with wine and cheese and such, and balloons, but I felt overwhelmed and hid in the men’s room. Into which walked an older woman of maybe 55 or 60. An average Estonian woman, though attractive in her own way, blonde, with breasts, and eyes, and lips, and maybe a soul under her business attire. She was an accountant. She didn’t tell me so, but I just knew. They all have that look, as if only numbers interest them, and not men. Of course, I kissed her. “Why did you kiss me?” she asked. “Because I was desperate,” I told her. We kissed again, and then washed our hands and dried them and left. I left the event and walked into a computer classroom. Rows and rows of PCs. Mostly empty seats except for one. Lata was there, sitting beside one of the computers. She looked at me from behind the screen. “What happened to you in there?” Lata asked. “Nothing at all,” I said. I felt bad for little Lata, as if I had betrayed her with the toilet accountant, and left. Rich, an old friend from my college days, came up to me after that. He wanted to know if I had a recording of a lecture on reporting from the prior week. I said I did, and we began to walk toward my room, which was still in the university’s journalism or J school. Rich walked too quickly and soon disappeared into a crowd, and in the atrium, youngsters began to pester me for autographs. “Justin, Justin! Justin, Justin! Sign here, Justin!” I signed as many books as I could, and eventually reached my room. My mother was there on the couch, reading a newspaper. I began to play with some old toys on the floor behind the couch. Then Lata walked in and started to chat with my mother. Mother said, “Has something been going on between you and my son?” Lata addressed me, in Hindi. “Justin, does she know about us?” I answered her, in Hindi, “Not as far as I know.” “Actually, I do know a little,” said mother, reading her newspaper. I felt alarmed, I felt my inner temperature rise. But Lata and her both got to talking. They agreed that it would be a good idea to go to therapy together.