I HAD TO GO HOME, if home is the place where you lived when you attended high school. I was down by the village green at dusk, at that forested intersection of Old Stone Street and Welsh Tract Run, where the constable usually sits in his car eating donuts and waiting to catch a speeder or two. That’s when I saw the tugboat pulling the distressed oil tanker into Sowassetville Harbor. I ran down to the pebble beach and began to walk along it, among the high reeds and tangy stink of rotting clams and seaweed. You could see the stars in the purple sky already, and I noticed the faded writing on the bow of the tugboat that read, SS Jimmy Carter. I didn’t realize that the bay here was deep enough to accommodate a tanker of that size. Maybe it had been dredged? It went right by the Smiths’ place, and then a moment or two later was off Dead Indian Point. I followed that tanker toward the opening to the port, which was where my family still lived, only to learn that Hannah and Lewis had started living with them. These were two high school friends who had married and, basically, disowned me for having abandoned them by not living on the same continent. “You ran away from America,” they had always said. This time they were happy to see me though, while reminding me that I owed them about $700, which I didn’t remember borrowing. They had become proper suburban liberals in the meantime. Lewis, with his graying black beard, had even taken to smoking and gesturing with a pipe. Hannah had made a small fortune advising others on what was wrong with their lives. They lived comfortably and had no worries. The children were being battle trained in lacrosse. All food in the pantry had been certified organic. They wanted the money repaid though. “Pay us half up front, the other half in a month,” said Lewis. O’Mara, another high school friend, was there too. In my time away he had been admitted to the bar and remade as the family attorney. He came out to speak with me briefly, playing with a pocket watch from time to time. He wore a three-piece suit. The family was not ready to meet with me. First we had to reach a binding agreement. O’Mara was also disappointed to see that there was a woman with me, Rakel, who was a psychologist from Denmark. Don’t even ask me how we met or what she was doing there. O’Mara the attorney toyed with his pocket watch some more and studied the strange blonde girl in her tight red sweater. He squinted at her through pince-nez glasses. “Officially, she is not welcome at the coming legal proceedings,” he said. “But she seems nice enough. We might be able to make an exception.” After he went back inside, Rakel and I walked down to the Sowassetville seaport. We admired the rusty oil tanker, and that proud little red tugboat, the SS Jimmy Carter. It was a fine ship, and it had helped this tiny New England maritime enclave avoid an environmental disaster. The crew was being celebrated in port. Someone brought out champagne and the captain was waving his hat. Maybe he could smuggle us out.
I WAS ON MY WAY HOME when I passed by the café. There were colorful balloons tied to the awnings and customers out the door and into the streets, drinking coffee and beer and kombucha, and spooning mouthfuls of creamy tort into hungry mouths. Through the glass I could see them hoisting the girl up and down on a chair. “Twenty-one, twenty-two!” Was that how young she was? She already looked different though. Did a few days really age a woman that much? More mature, I suppose. There was something more captivating about the way her dark hair dangled loosely around her shoulders. The young lady saw me briefly through the glass. “Happy birthday,” I mouthed to her, and she mouthed back, “Thank you.” Then I left her alone again, as I had promised myself, and went along my way. Our new house was in some derelict back district, an old tenement building with crumbling brick stairs. The floors inside were just wooden planks laid out side by side. My ex-wife was in the kitchen stirring a black cauldron of stew and listening to a podcast about the end of the world. When I came inside, she told me to be quiet and that she was very busy. I tiptoed across the floor and picked up a sack of books and was out the door. Chan, my editor, pulled up in a jeep with the top down. He was in the driver’s seat as usual, looking like, well, an editor. He wore his glasses and a crisp white shirt. His black hair was combed back and fixed into place. Chan honked the horn and I left the house and got in. Vahtra, an Estonian hippie percussionist, complete with incomplete beard, tribal headband, and bemused look, was also seated in the back. We began to drive and soon we were out of the town bearing down on the Florida Keys. When we pulled into sunny Key West, we cruised past Sloppy Joe’s Bar. There was a shouting match going between some bearded, Proud Boys-looking figures at Sloppy Joe’s and at Irish Kevin’s next door. You know the types, braggarts with Viking rune tattoos and piercings. One pulled out a semiautomatic and began spraying the Irishmen with bullets. An Irish Kevin responded with a blast from a grenade launcher. Chan just kept driving toward the wharf, as cool as cracked ice. He had said there was a boat that could take us to Havana. “Welcome to Florida, boys,” Chan announced, as we drove through the billowing and stinking grenade launcher smoke. “It’s real fucked up.” Vahtra was in the back observing the scene and tapping lightly on a bongo drum. I think he was high. “Why did you even move down here, Chan,” I yelled. “If you don’t mind me asking.” “For the weather,” said Chan.
SILVER WAS ON the north coast. I had never been there before and I wasn’t sure if it had been named after a precious metal or a popular folk musician. The city was located in the fjords somewhere between the Pakri Islands and Akureyri. The architecture revealed both Japanese and Nordic influences. The rooftops were angular, half Shinto, half Norse. It was dusk when we arrived by train and an orange sun was sinking into the cola-colored sea on the horizon. There were long piers along the waterfront. Vendors were out selling ice cream, painting portraits, and strumming guitars. I took a walk out to the end of one of the piers and climbed down a metal staircase. Then it began to rumble. This was another submarine, right beneath my feet! We began to voyage out into the harbor. There is something magnificent and a little terrifying about the stealthy and quiet movements of a submarine. Once far enough out from port, the one below me began to dive. The water levels rose quickly. The dark and warm seawater pooled at my ankles, then was at my knees. So this was it then, the big end. The submarine was going to go down and I was going to drown with it. Davy Jones Locker. I was somehow resigned to this fate, when the submarine suddenly rose again and returned to port. When I disembarked, I saw that the submarine captain — a certain Peter Townshend, the guitar player for The Who — was wiping his head with a handkerchief and pacing on the docks of Silver. “All my friends are dead! All my friends are dead!” There were tears behind his blue eyes. His face was pink from the moisture. I didn’t know what else to do, so I went and tried to cheer him up.
the man who didn’t know he was invisible
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.
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.