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!
TALLINN IN SPRING. Pigeons, sunshine, spring birds, even audible at the Baltic Station Market. I find myself seated at a small table within uncomfortable reach of others. There is this feeling that every person you pass, every person you see, every displacement of air, every surface you touch might or could be infected with the virus. The water at the port is pure blue, the Old Town is mostly empty but for some shadows and construction. Yet the Baltic Station Market is still alive with young mothers pushing carriages. Now and then a pretty something will flicker in and out of my peripheral vision. It is not I whom she seeks here. She is looking for a solid man, a regimented man, a man who is fit to breed. He must have a steady job, a decent wage, and be stable of mood and inclination. This is the man she seeks. Then she too can join the mothers at the Baltic Station Market. Then she too can feel the heft of Italian oranges in her palms. This man here is working on surrealistic fiction in a medium-sized handmade journal. On his maiden voyage to this land he was more or less engrossed in doing the same. There are even photos of it. Only a fool — a hull, as the Estonians say — would have children with such a man as this. Only a fool did, three times in fact. The eldest had her first glimpses of the world just around the corner from here in an attic apartment on Valgevase or Brass Street at the dawn of the century. In the evenings she now watches Japanese films with her sister and they comment on the male characters they find most appealing. I try not to pay attention. She has been pushing my buttons lately, trying to see how little it will take to shake daddy up. Maybe if she calls him this or that there will be another scene. I have shifted and assessed different strategies. First, a hard reaction, then a softer, more tolerant one. I had read somewhere once that what women most craved of all things was a man’s steady and unfaltering presence. That only by removing your presence from their lives would they take note of your absence and then, perhaps, reappraise your true worth. So when these button-pushing moments occur, I have often left and moved on to other things. What else can you do? Yet another article I read said this is the worst thing one could do. You should withstand these trivial arrows; this allows the child to feel she is safe in her obnoxiousness. In actuality, these outbursts are just mechanisms for her to test her safety. That was at least what another article said. I’m living things day to day, reflecting on strategy. Local ladies in fine hats are pushing carriages and they are talking about things. My story has gone nowhere. The other day, the girls were watching a show and I happened to pay attention to one of the actresses. “She looks nice,” I said, “but her butt is a bit too small for me.” “How can a woman’s butt be too small?” my daughter asked. “It was a joke,” I said. “A joke.” “You are objectifying women.” “You objectify men here all day long. You do the same thing.” “That’s different.” Maybe it is different. Maybe the best strategy is to just say nothing.
BAND REHEARSAL did not go well, especially because of the lockdown, and I consoled myself with a pot of soup in the hotel lobby that, to my surprise, had a remnant of a human hand in it, complete with hairy knuckles and fingernails. I glanced at the description of the soup on the wall and saw it was marked ‘H’ for human. I spit out the soup and furiously searched my memories. Had I ever had Hand Soup before? I hoped that I hadn’t but I couldn’t be sure. Wasn’t this cannibalism? How were they okay with this? It seemed like a decent hotel. Why was human on the menu? Was the COVID economy really so bad? After the rehearsal, most of the other musicians walked to town. Even though the country was locked down, there was still more to do in Oslo than just sit around in a hotel. There were parks to linger in, for instance, and store fronts to inspect. Still, it was rainy and bleak, and one could only imagine the onset of existential angst that would occur when faced with shuttered up Norwegian bakeries and bistros. I left the hotel anyway, decided to stroll around Oslo. From the port I took a ship for warmer waters, and not too long after, I felt the sun on my face in the Albemarle Sound of North Carolina. We came along the swampy coast past the Alligator River and passed under the fort left by those first colonists at Roanoke Island. The Swedish Chef was with me, and I wanted to introduce him to my friend Graham, the Hatteras Indian, who still lives in these parts in the vicinity of old Indian Town. Graham met us and invited us out to dinner at a fine restaurant, and we dined beneath the portico. From our table, we could see pirate ships moored in the harbor. Not much had changed on Hatteras in the past few centuries, Graham had said, pouring us some fine Carolina red. He had his hair braided in the traditional fashion and later took us along the shore to inspect the pirate vessels. At dessert, Chacha, a Kashmiri socialist agitator whom I had known in college, also joined us for cake and politics. He inquired how I knew Graham the Indian, and Graham furnished a photo from some party in the mountains in my school years. I had no recollection of this party, but there he was, younger, with his braids, and there I was with my turtleneck. On the back of the photo was written, “West Virginia, winter ’94.” The whole thing was so puzzling, plus the fact that both Chacha and the Swedish Chef were also in the photo. What had we all been doing partying in West Virginia in 1994? How did I not remember any of this? It just made no sense.
I DROPPED MY ELDEST off at the airport where, after some difficult situations, she boarded a flight that would take her back to New York via Tehran, the only connection we could find at this time. Then it was down to the port to board a Helsinki-bound ship, a floating hotel of sorts, with a gray-painted clapboard façade, hanging gardens, and networks of stairs within that reminded one of the dark tunnels within the unearthed pyramids of Egypt. Up these stairs into the light, and to the top deck to watch the roll of the waves from Tallinn to Helsinki and the first glimpses of the rocky coastal archipelagos. The Estonian coast is, aside from some bluffs, long and sandy and lined with pines, but the Finnish coast reaches out with fists full of heavy rocks until one soon sees the gray and white dome of the cathedral. I was on a mission of sorts, and there were strange fellows on this ship. I had been trained beforehand by an Indian man from somewhere on the subcontinent who wore a neon yellow jacket, entrusted with a box to store the pirated goods, and even taught a special way of sealing the gems in place, so that it would be assured they had not been tampered with. At sunrise, all of these men from the East began to worship on the deck of the ship, but I refused to bow to the sun, or their gods, a decision that was met with stern stares and general disapproval. The yellow-jacketed man excoriated me in front of the others — “you fucking asshole” were his words — but I still refused to pray to the sun god. When we disembarked, I lost the others in a crowd. Helsinki was warm and summery and the Esplanaadi was thick and fragrant with new gardens and flowers. I took a taxi and to my surprise found myself seated beside some Italian actress, a dead ringer for a young Claudia Cardinale. She wore that blue sweater again and there was buzz in the air of some looming romantic deed. It felt good to be Helsinki though, I must tell you. It felt good to be anywhere.
AN EARLY BERGMAN FILM. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the scenes of postwar Stockholm, the smoky, grimy streets, the primitive eateries, cramped apartments. Working-class Sweden. And I enjoyed the archipelago, and the summery feelings of young love. And I especially enjoyed the “after,” after the summer, what happens to the young lovers who elope and breed. How Harry tries to be a good father, but it’s all too drab and boring for Monika, who wants excitement and affection and attention, and eventually deserts him and their young daughter. One thing it made me yearn for was a world without technology. A world where one just meets someone at a café, goes to a movie, kisses on a city bench, runs away and few seem to notice. Nothing is vibrating, chirping, there are no misread-unread messages or misinterpreted yellow smiling faces. That world I wish I was still in and long to get back inside of.
SOMETIME IN THE WINTER, I took a ride out to the woods outside of town. This patch of forest is nothing spectacular, some trails rising and falling, a waterfall in the middle. I almost never see people in these backwoods trails, though now and then there is a white van parked there on the outskirts, which I am sure is used for disposing of dead bodies or doing countryside dope deals. It seems like that kind of place. I went out there to get a woman out of my mind, of course. For days she had been pounding in my head like a furious migraine, and it seemed I could do nothing to rid myself of her spirit. No consultations with a bevy of psychologists, healers, and tarot card readers could alleviate the spell. I wanted her and I wanted her bad and I hated her for how badly I wanted her, and I hated her for making me want her when she was nowhere to be found, invisible to me, and maybe even oblivious to my aching want for her. Of course, I didn’t hate her though. I loved her, if such desire could be called love. The hatred or frustration was actually for myself, the aspect of myself that couldn’t be suppressed or controlled. The part of myself that belonged to her. That part of me that she knew she possessed. There I was, lost in the woods, looking for solutions that couldn’t be found, looking for an escape, a way out. It was inescapable though. With a look, she could make me lift heavy objects, loan her money, give her rides, and — most dangerously — significantly increase the Estonian population. One cannot underestimate the life force that flows through the male body when aroused. It is this energy that led men to erect the pyramids in the sands of Ancient Egypt, or to board ships to circle the globe. The same otherworldly force that makes the waves roll or the heavenly bodies spin. We are at its mercy. So why are we always told that we have a choice? Or, even worse, that we create our own realities. Nonsense. There is give and take, but you can’t really expect me to believe that when a woman’s spirit starts to incubate within your heart that you have a choice. The most infuriating aspect is that many women are aware of the control and sway they have over their men. They know they are inside before we even wake up to this new dawn. They know they have us dancing on their fingertips. They revere and worship the strong man, who doesn’t give up so easily, but only because he has not given them what they want just yet and, oh, how they want it. “Women maintain a variety of energetic connections,” one of these faith healers admitted to me. “They know when someone is close, and they know when someone is far. They can sense it.” They do. How many men haven’t experienced a situation when, shortly after a breakup, while meeting with some new interest, suddenly their phones start to vibrate and ring, because their former partner senses — somehow, miraculously — that their man is slipping away. Even more curious are the cases of the women who leave their men and take on new lovers, but keep the old partner around just in case he is needed to screw in a lightbulb or fix a broken appliance. It is not so much about love, is it? It’s about some kind of intangible telepathic control. Which is not to demonize women or make them out to be manipulative. Not at all, I say. I think it’s just the way things happen, and they are probably just as much at the mercy of their own gravitational forces as we are. They can’t control the men they pull, either but, for whatever reason, they keep on pulling them in like fish. Why do they always pull certain men, while those they desire remain beyond their reach? There are no easy answers, but I continue to study these things out of curiosity. In my study of blues music and folklore, I learned that in the Deep South long ago, Black and Indian women used to carry pouches around their waists that would dangle near their genitals. Into these sacks — called nation sacks, for the Indian nations that wore them — they would have keepsakes of the men they wanted to control — a lock of hair, or some personal item like a ring or coin. This is how they kept their men under their influence. It occurred to me in the woods that day that there were probably multiple women out there walking the land who were carrying pieces of my soul in such little charmed bags. Yet I decided not to resist in the end if only because it was exhausting. Maybe being possessed isn’t worth the fight. It’s better and easier to surrender. And sometimes, you must admit, it does feel wonderful to be possessed.
An Estonian version of this column appears in the April 2021 issue of Anne ja Stiil.
IT’S NOT SO HARD to start flying again, even if you haven’t flown for a long time, maybe even years. All you have to do is look down and focus and it will happen, you’ll rise up and the wind will rise with you. People are always amazed when they see it, because they don’t think it’s possible, but it is! All you have to do is try. For this last attempt I felt particularly ambitious. I decided to fly across the country, meaning the United States of America. It was after a high school graduation for some cousin, but I needed to stretch my legs, or rather my arms. I imagined myself dining on a pier in San Francisco in just a few hours, listening to the blue sounds of local jazz and the songs of the sea lions. I set off by the Peconic Bay on Long Island, and in a few effortless minutes had already cleared the sandy bars of Sandy Hook. It was easy, I tell you. Then over all of drugstore, downtown America, laid out in boulevards and avenues, parks, electric grids, square and rectangular counties, all of those cultural ghost towns that were to be experienced in their own right at the local five-and-tens, corner bookstores, backstreet diners, places with names like Centreville or Uniontown, Liberty City or Nowhere Springs. I was headed for the southwest, in general, that area, but I had drifted straight across the north, so I set down in a small city that was bifurcated by an immense rushing waterfall. I came down in the courtyard of a student house for a local university, and a series of good-humored but utterly bored sandy-haired students let me through a variety of doors. In the back of the house, a young blonde woman stood before a mirror, applying lipstick by candlelight. She let me out the final door and I encountered the falls. A series of log platforms had been built on both sides, along with a crossing point. “Welcome to Historic Fort Dulcimer,” a sign said, and a series of geysers shot glops of water into the air, one of which drenched my face. “That’s the historic Dulcimer Rip,” a tourist nearby told me. I decided to pull my phone from my pocket, take a photo, send one back to my father. I felt tired for the first time since I began my over-the-country trek. Maybe I would turn back, like all those other tourists who make it as far as Grand Teton National Park and don’t have the nerve, resolve, or interest to cross the Rockies and hit the West Coast. Or maybe I would sleep it off in that local university town, start tomorrow fresh. From my perch on the platform of Fort Dulcimer, I had a good look at all of the colorful and zigzagging architecture, the custard and red painted balconies, the curling blue chimney smoke. The air high stunk of deep-fried dough and pan-fried white fish. It was clearly française in derivation and reminded one of the French Quarters in Hà Nội or Sài Gòn. Maybe an old trading center of New France? I accosted another tourist group, and the young blonde I had seen applying her makeup before was there dressed in frontier dress. She must have been a tour guide. “What is this place?” I asked, gesturing at the habitation beyond the falls. She smiled and said something in French. It sounded like “Touzants” to my ears, but later, upon consulting an atlas at a local guest house, I learned the name of this commune was in fact Tous-Les-Saints, “all the saints.”
FEW REMEMBER HOW a young Eddie Murphy starred on Cheers, way back in those early seasons that nobody watched. Long before Woody Harrelson and Kirstie Alley joined the cast, there was Eddie Murphy in his red leather suit from Delirious, working the Boston bar with Sam Malone (Ted Danson), barking, ‘Yo, Sam, you better serve them muthufuckas quick or I’ll bust yo’ ass,’ or giving him love advice (‘If it was me, bitch be gettin’ fucked’). But then the slow decline, the drug habits, the unscrupulous characters turning up at the bar, Charlie Murphy, Rick James (‘I’m Rick James, bitch’), not to mention Charlie’s unrequited love for Shelley Long, so throbbing and painful that he quit when she did. And then we were left with Cheers, just Cheers, Cheers with Norm, Cheers with Cliff, Cheers with Lilith and Dr. Frasier Crane. Cheers, where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience.” It wasn’t the same bar without Eddie Murphy though. Just not the same.
PUTIN VERY MUCH wants to be Astrid’s boyfriend, but she is unsure. He keeps coming to me for advice. We meet at the bar of the hotel where she works and he confides in me. Putin usually drinks his vodka neat, and he sips it slowly. One conversation is the equivalent of one glass of vodka. He comes dressed in a beige turtleneck, a sports jacket, trying to play the part of normal Russian kommersant. Putin is well groomed for his Astrid, but she is not so sure. For one, he is older than her, much older. Astrid flits around behind the desks in her dress, with her necklace shining and her dangling earrings sparkling and her eyes twinkling. She is a pretty person and she is much too young for him. He could be her father, easily, and does any woman really want to be touched there by a man who could have changed her diapers? But still … he is Putin. A man of power. He’s had petty liberals poisoned and shot with a shrug of the shoulders or twitch of his cheeks. Putin is not to be trifled with. Of all the women he could have in the world — gymnasts, United Russia party apparatchiks, FSB secretaries, ABBA cover singers — Putin has chosen the completely unknown hotel manager Astrid. She is secretly touched in a way, touched that of all women in the world he has chosen her. “It’s a good hotel,” says Putin. “I like the way she runs the place.” He sips his drink and thumbs a copy of Bertolt Brecht’s 1934 book ThreePenny Novel. “It’s my favorite,” he says. Putin thinks that once Astrid reads the book, she will change her mind, see his heart, acknowledge him for what he is. A glance to the other side of the hotel shows she is aware of his presence, but has more important things to do. There is a conference of Social Democrats in the seminar room, and the coffee has fresh run out. Hands are wringing. Off to the kitchen in those sexy high heels. Bertolt Brecht will have to wait.