THE LETTER ARRIVED YESTERDAY. Why it pains me, I cannot say. Only perhaps because the youth’s voice reaches through to me in a way that few can. She writes wonderfully and I love that. It echoes previous messages though. Riding my bike through a back lot, I remembered another day many years ago, seeing another woman walking her own bike past the brick facades. She was about to leave for abroad, and it was my secret hope that she would find a good man there, settle down, raise a brood, and I would never have to see her again. Then she returned to my life, only to regard me as, I don’t know, a non-man, not a man, not a man worth considering as a man. She would sit on my couch and complain about how a good man was so hard to find. Then, maybe, a glance in the mirror. A smoothing of the hair. Attention to a manicure. Behold, smoldering femininity in its bare grotesqueness. Yet we love them and forever love them. When they send letters, they are like arrows made of crystal. The wounds they leave are cold and incisive, not hot, tropical, festering. As taboo and strange and wrong as it is, this one knows I love her and therefore can treat me with such indifference. I’ll always be there to carry a box, or remedy some inconvenience. “Hold my bag!” You can’t expect a man though to cut off parts of himself for the sake of others. It doesn’t work that way. The very parts that bring you passion, warmth, happiness, and joy. One collapses into piles of coiled ship’s rope without hope. You can’t seriously expect another human being to be that self-denying, as it suits your fancy. Can you? Can you? I never started these things on my own. Something was always given to me, passed along, like a glowing gem. And now you want it back? At the café, yesterday, another one now. A woman dressed in blue with a long lion’s mane of gold hair. She was looking at me. I was looking at her. We looked at each other. Oh no. It was happening again. Oh no.
— Images from Keskpäevane Praam (Midday Ferry), a Soviet Estonian film, 1967.
BLACK AND SILVER. These are the primary colors. The air inside is soft and cool, and apertures in the walls give room to breathe. They allow in silver light that shines on a parade of Osiris, Isis, Seth, Ptah, Sehkmet. Staffs and birds, pharaohs, monks, crypts, fortunes, a hieroglyphic kama sutra. The entity reclines in sprawled anticipation. Her dress is stitched together from silver and gold coins. Her hair is gold too and her body is silver, as are her eyes. The empress is a vision. All the dog-headed gods and holy birds agree. Outside, there is nothing but the sun, moon, desert, distant smells of fruits and trees, and miserable heat. Inside the pyramid, it’s cool. I wish there was more to say.
IT WAS NEARLY TWO YEARS AGO when I met with some colleagues from a partner company at a business conference in Gothenburg, Sweden’s west coast capital. Known for its waterfront, architecture, and openness, Gothenburg sprawls along in an ever-welcoming air of freedom and tolerance, watched wisely over by a giant nude statue of Poseidon at Götaplatsen, the central square.
It was there that I met with several colleagues from their British office, including Nicola, a senior ranking manager, and Martin, the head of marketing. I encountered Martin at check-in at the conference, where he was telling his loved one Alex that he had arrived safely and that he would call him back. Martin is married to Alex, you see, and they are both men. Night after night, we all went out together. As everyone else in our entourage was straight and female, that meant that I was the only person who was attracted to women.
This made for a wholly interesting experience.
Each night in Gothenburg degraded into a succession of restaurants and bars, and more alcohol was always just a snap of the fingers away. Such is the nature of international business meetings. It was amid this Scandinavian bakgrund that Martin, a spectacled, good-natured, gray-haired fellow of about 45 years who begins each morning with a jog, began to reveal the stories of his life. His awakening to his true nature began, of all places, in a public urinal in the Midlands sometime in the 1980s. He was about seven years old.
“How cliché,” he remarked. “Of all the places to figure out you are gay, I was in a men’s toilet.”
It was a curious tale, to be sure, and it had me rummaging through long-discarded memories in the attic of my own childhood. When had I first realized I was attracted to women? Was it watching Madonna prance around to “Lucky Star”? Surely, I hadn’t come to the realization in any kind of public lavatory. Men’s lavatories smelled bad and were full of hairy men. It seemed the least amorous place I could think of. Because of this early encounter, Martin progressed to his membership in this alternative clan, the men who love men and not women. He showed me photos of a resort in the Canaries where only men dared venture. There were beaches and cafes where there were only men. Men swimming. Men eating. Men hugging. No women. Only men.
For me, it was like a scene from a science fiction film or just an ominous dream. A world without women. A sense of dread set in. Usually, in life, being alone with men was part of some kind of punishment. Organized sports, for instance. Or the army. Surely, at any moment, a belligerent coach or sergeant would appear and order these gay men to start doing jumping jacks.
Other than drinking, Martin and Nicola would spend the evenings checking out men. Once they had their eyes on a particular waiter who wore a blue shirt and was in good shape. Nicola, a freckled, voluptuous Scottish woman, wore an open black shirt that left little to anyone’s imagination, with a silver sparkling necklace draped across the knolls of her breasts, as if to rule out any chance that they could escape my notice. She was a stacked, well-built, high-bosomed Celt, and her tangles of red coiled hair were crimson and supernatural. How could Martin not see this? I wondered. How could he not appreciate this? Why was he gawking at a Swedish waiter? Instead, he pulled out his phone to show me a photo of a royal guard he had taken in Stockholm. First he showed it to Nicola, then to me. “Look at how beautiful this guard is. Isn’t he amazing?”
I didn’t know what to say. It looked like a man in a uniform. The uniform looked uncomfortable.
“But what do you think about me?” I ventured. “Do I look all right?” They whispered to each other. “Not in that shirt,” said Nicola. “No one would be interested in a man wearing a shirt like that!” It was some black thing someone had gifted me ten years ago. I hadn’t thought anything about wearing it. Or anything else. They laughed harder. What kind of strange world did they inhabit? A world where Swedish policemen were sexy and Scottish tarts were nothing to lose sleep over? A world where magic took place in public toilets? A world where shirts mattered?
It was Pride Month, and the trams of Gothenburg were festooned with rainbow flags. They shuttled this way and that, like imperial warships of old. One evening, Martin toasted the trams and rainbow flags with his beer. “One month, that’s all we get,” he said. “Eleven months out of the year, we live in shame. Some of our families are ashamed of us, even though they say they aren’t, and we’re also ashamed of ourselves at times. But each year we have this one month.”
By this point, I was exhausted. I wanted to retreat back into my world, a world of women, a world of women who are neurotic and throw things at you even when you try to compliment them, or ignore you, or just do mysterious things you can’t begin to understand. The soothing motion of watery, emotional, curvy women. I was tired of rainbow flags, Swedish waiters, royal guards, men’s toilets, and ugly shirts. I wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin. In that moment, I understood how exhausted Martin must feel. As he said, for just one month out of the year, he could live openly in his world. The rest of the time he was forced to live in mine.
ONE THING I KNOW is that you write every day. You write every day and you’re on the sea. At the dawn of time, among the seaweed and mollusks, jellyfish and other invertebrates, in the yellow sand-wrapped prehistory, you were there under an ultramarine sky, with your cocoa skin and cocoa hair and cocoa breath and awful secrets, playing with small fish in the tidal pools, watching the light dance through the ripples like electricity, licking your fingers clean when the ice cream melted. In the gray spring I was there, standing aloof among the German graveyards, the lifeless lake waters, gray hobbled limbs of trees, gray weathered flowers of moss, cold and chill and grayed, thinking of the sands and of you and of your awful secrets and of the water. This is how we connect through time, like light dancing through gulf ripples, touching sediment and snails, then back up again, bearing sun and fossil fragments of eternity.
THERE WAS A HATCH in the living room floor, one I hadn’t noticed until last night. And there was someone living under the floor whom I could only see when she lifted the hatch to watch me, only to disappear again into the darkness. I want to say it was a younger woman with blonde hair. Her skin, at least, was light. Her eye color could not be discerned in the twilight. She only lifted the hatch, watched my movements, and then closed it when she saw I was watching. I tried to wake my daughter to tell her about the woman living in the cellar and the heretofore undiscovered wooden hatch in our home, but when I went to rouse her, something strange happened. My father was in her bed instead, wearing an old-fashioned knit cap. “What is it?” he said. “Dad! What are you doing here?” “Oh,” he yawned. “I just came in here to get some sleep.” “Dad, there’s a hatch in the living room. A young woman is living under the floor.” “Oh her? She’s always been there. Now, please, boy, let me get some sleep. We can talk about her in the morning.” I walked back into the living room and saw her rather pretty face from underneath the hatch. Then she shut it and retreated back away into her hiding place.
FISH’S WEEK NOW WENT LIKE THIS. Monday’s were spent at the Tallinn Viimsi Spa, followed by a Tuesday residence at Laulasmaa. Wednesday was his Tartu day. He would take his lunch in the atrium at the Kvartal Spa on the top floor of the department store complex, with scheduled appearances in the Finnish sauna and Russian banya at 2 pm and 3 pm, respectively.
Thursday was a day Fish spent on the road, with an afternoon lunch in Suure-Jaani, then an evening alternating guest slot at some of the lesser-favored Pärnu bath houses (the Estonia Spa was his favorite Thursday night haunt, but he sometimes would spend time at Terviseparadiis — the Health Paradise — just to curry favor with the ownership). Most of Friday too was occupied by Pärnu slots, Hedon and others, and then he would helicopter out to Saaremaa for an evening massage at the Grand Rose. This was covered extensively in the local media, and Fish was even offered his own guest column in Oma Saar newspaper.
By Saturday, Fish was in Haapsalu being bathed in hot mud at Spa Hotel Laine. Sundays he took quietly in downtown Tallinn Water World and Spa. It was a tight schedule, and friends remarked on his new ruddy, broiled complexion. Fish had many girlfriends in each of the spas who came to depend on his regularity, and there were many social media posts that featured the handsome, dark-haired man waving, engulfed by adoring blondes.
For whatever reason, I had remained unaware of Fish’s new gig as a regular on the spa circuit, a new concept cooked up by an Estonian creative marketing team called the “spa celebrity.” As far as I knew, he was still working as a tour guide in Vienna, showing tourists around the haunts of Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, Adolf Hitler, and other great men. Each tour would end with an evening at a beer hall and complimentary baskets of pretzels. He led an abstemious lifestyle, and shared a small apartment in the Favoriten District with a local accordionist. Yet he took readily to his glut career as a celebrity spa guest. He became so full of himself that he forget to tell me that he had moved to Estonia. Disappointed in Fish I was, you might say, yet so intrigued.
It was there, visiting Fish during an appearance in Pärnu, that I noticed that the Windy One had returned to work as a physical therapist. There she was with her chocolate hair, full lips, oblivious as always to my love and presence. She just stood there quietly in the corner, folding some white towels, dressed in the light blue shirt of the spa staff. It seemed somehow appropriate that I would encounter this particularly intangible soulmate in some hidden floor of some forgotten spa while visiting someone as otherworldly as our Fish.
The Windy One did not want to see me. She did not want to talk to me. She ignored me, wanted nothing of me. Yet I said nothing as I took her hand and pressed it into mind, and then we kissed each other and the love channels were reopened. “There, see,” I told her. “Now everything can breathe. Now we can begin again.” The Windy One nodded and went back to folding her towels. When I returned to the foaming hot baths with Fish, a surfeit of Pärnu lasses was clinking cocktails around us. Fish said I had changed.
“It’s you, old buddy!” he gripped me by the shoulders. “You’re back! Where have you been these years?”
“I just went to get a fresh towel,” I said.
“Good times, man. Good times!”
I furnished a waterproof dictaphone and began. “How does one become an Estonian spa celebrity? Start with your childhood. Were you always drawn to spas?” And on it went.
EVELYN WAUGH wrote a good novel, this is his first from 1928, and I especially enjoyed the first book within (there are three “books” or sections). His strength is dialogue and capturing the voices of his characters via dialogue. If the whole book had consisted of these lengthy dialogues, it would have been much the stronger. His descriptive writing can be grand, if restrained, but it’s more difficult to read on and on about, say, the house King’s Thursday, when really what we want is the dialogue between Peter and Paul, or Paul and Margot. Also, like Scott Fitzgerald in Tender is the Night (1934), he picks up the tempo toward the end, and introduces some forgettable characters into rather forced and forgettable scenes that could have been left out or minimally recognized. How many characters can we grapple with then? Who was who, what, and when? All together, I enjoyed The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold a bit more, but I will in no way say I did not enjoy nor learn from Decline and Fall. I was relieved to learn that Waugh actually did teach at a school in North Wales, and this was all not just the workings of his imagination, but rather a satire on his real life.
FAVORITE QUOTE: “Anyone who has been to an English public school feels comparatively at home in prison. It’s the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums who find prison so soul destroying.”
RUSSIANS ON MY MIND, some were passing through Viljandi Town, tourists perhaps. Russians are so different. They are not like Estonians. They look at you on the street, they might even make eye contact or acknowledge your presence in some other way. They might even make a little joke. We share this same plane of existence. How refreshing! The Russians don’t need to invade, they’re already everywhere. Yet the Russians are stuck in the 1950s. Hopelessly stuck. The men still have those short haircuts, the leather jackets, the spotless jeans. The women wear generous helpings of makeup, their hair is blond and frosted. They look like they should be on Happy Days. They are heading to a sock hop. The great Russian sock hop. Comrade Buddy Hollyvitch will be playing, “That’ll Be the Day (When Stalin Dies).” Later, I came home and I noticed my room had been ransacked. All my journals had been rummaged through, and someone had written over my thoughts in blue ink, so that it now read, “When the US humiliated Russia by allowing the Baltics into NATO,” here, or, “And that’s why Putin is such a strong resolute leader,” there. Strange, these NKVD KGB FSB ramblings inserted into my journals. Trying to get inside me, inside my mind, inside my inner monologue. Trying. I asked my daughter if someone she didn’t know had stopped by the house. Indeed, someone had. “You mean that strange man in the leather jacket who was smoking?” The smoking man. He fit the description. “He said his name was Dmitri,” she said. Of course, I thought. It had to be Dmitri. Dmitri, Dmitri. Who else could it be?
LATE FOR A BOOK EVENT in Tallinn, the big moment set to start at 8 pm but it was already 7, and there was no way to get there on time, by train or automobile, so I just didn’t show, nor did I inform them I wasn’t coming. Instead, I paced the corridor of my home, a ramshackle shanty house in a cold northern town, a frosty, eerie, tight little space, like that middle floor in Being John Malkovich, where one could hear the crackle of wood furnaces. My neighbors were in the hall too, Freja and Josefine, ladies reminiscent of HC Andersen’s 19th century Copenhagen grimy backstreets, floating in and out, so shapely in their old-fashioned dress, gesturing emotively, and talking as if I was there and not there, an audience but not a participant to their lament. I went down the stairs, stepped outside, and was at last in the open, now a deserted ranch in the mountains, an old cowboy film set like the Spahn Ranch in Los Angeles, except I was the only person there and it was snowing. I liked it there at the Spahn Ranch. It was peaceful, truly calm, cold, crisp and quiet. Nobody could bother me there now, not the Danish girls, not the event organizers, and at last nobody knew where I was. I imagined all those disappointed people at the book event in Tallinn, and how they were messaging me and calling me in digital frenzy, and “How come he doesn’t respond! See pole normaalne! It’s just not normal!” Yet it was just so peaceful at wintry Christmassy wonderful Spahn Ranch, and Charlie Manson was nowhere to be found. Eventually I did return to civilization, sat down in some vacant highway diner, ordered an omelet and some coffee, took a deep breath, a look around. What a strange night. Morales of all people came walking in, but it was high school Morales, with the black chunky hair, you know, looking like a Tex-Mex Chris Cornell. I was afraid he was going to lecture me about missing the event, but instead he told me it was cancelled on account of Covid-19. There had been no event. Imagine that. All that stress for nothing!