IN A FRIGHTENING CATACLYSM, I returned to America, its amber waves of grain, hallowed shores, flags waving, fortified floating fortress of a nation, America, where at once a meeting of the five families is called in the Five Points, and Don Roberto, latest patriarch of the Mulberry Street bakers, with his slanting beret and fuzzy beard, Don Roberto counts off my offenses on the fat, flour-dusted fingers of his left or evil hand, sinistra, as the Italians say, and announces to the other heads of the families that I have been a bad Italian-American and therefore must be excommunicated! What else to do? The verdict is final. Fat Billy is there with his hands on my shoulders. He is laughing. “I told you so, I told you so,” Fat Billy says. I have done too many terrible things, and among the most terrible, left America. For this, there can be no forgiveness. I have been excommunicated, you see. It’s done. Outside I encounter Giuseppe, another old padrone of one of the forgotten Canal Street pizzeria clans. He sits beneath a tall, wind-bent Aruban tree. “Ah, Giustino, my friend,” says a sad and defeated Giuseppe. “I haven’t seen you in such a long time. Such a sad and long time, Giustino. Where have you been?” Giuseppe is sad too, too sad for words, for he too has also has been excommunicated. Something to do with experimenting with pineapple. Verboten. He looks up at the branches of the tree and sighs and as he does my feet lift from the ground. Soon they are above the tree and my head is full of purple night and stars. This is how I float away like a hot air balloon over the oceans to Europe, my soul full of cosmos and astral wind. This is how I am returned to my proper slice in the world // ONCE BACK, I am of course welcomed by a dozen nude women on a sandy beach who implore me to make films of them. They are writhing all over each other, breasts descending and rising, and there is good fun to be had hiding among the limbs. There is a carnival feel to the scene, and I come to feel some kind of love for women again, even after all the carnage. At an underground crypt, a wedding is held, the women and bridesmaids all bare-breasted, and later, staggering back from this naked Sports Illustrated-worthy European reverie, I encounter no other than the town mayor, Rando Liivamägi, who is busy consulting with a young man who is showing him a portfolio of artwork. “Come here,” says good-humored Liivamägi in his brown suit with his spectacles nearly dropping from his nose. “Come here, I want you to meet someone. Allow me to introduce Hr. Petrone.” No, it can’t be. “But there are only three men in the world with our name,” I tell the young man. “And now two of them live in Estonia,” he demurs. “But you will always be the Petrone,” he says to me. I am merely a Petrone,” he says. He smiles to the mayor and Liivamägi is pleased. “I am so glad you two finally had the chance to meet,” he says. “I have taken on your namesake as an artist for the city. He specializes in drawing portraits of plane crashes, fires, and automobile accidents.” He shows me pastel-colored drawings of women leaping from windows. They both smile. I walk away feeling disturbed. Very, very disturbed. // NOT LONG AFTER, I inevitably arrive at the island estate of the familiar writer of Once Upon a Time in England. She whose wet legs once wrapped themselves about my shoulders as she implored me to live up to my talent. (“You could be better,” she had once said. “You know you’re so much better than that.”) Yet she is stressed now and her child is hungry and her well-meaning young husband has to escort me out. He even drives me to the train station. A good-humored chap. To see that face of hers, goopy make-up dripping, clad in bathrobe, yellow hair messed like straw. She wouldn’t even look at me, but I have no fear. I still have my knapsack and my soul to keep me straight. I’ll be back and she will be back, and my energy will re-entwine with hers. Then all will be right and whole, yes. The peace of the world, blanketing warm. We can sleep wondering what all that commotion was. Excommunication? Bah! I’ve got better people to do now, places to go, and things to see. I’ve got the writer and she’s got me. A knapsack and a journal and the road before me. What else could you really want?
HOT PUNCHY, ravaging energy, the Azteca is as verdant, tropical, pungent and viljakas as the floating gardens of Tenochtitlan. She makes you want to read of bloody temple steps dripping with human sacrifice, to feel yourself scalded in hot chocolate, encrusted in golden flakes of sugar and maize. One must cultivate this feeling. One must navigate these floating gardens using flat-bottomed boats, glide across the surface of the well of skulls, the heaps of sacrificial bones and tiny colorful canal fish, the rows of golden maize glinting up in the sun like the teeth of the gods showing the way out, out through the darkness of the abyss, out into a sunshine world where one breathes to exist, where sex turns up red clay dust and all is in bloom, where the hand reaches down to feel its way through the tangled vegetable patches, the codex lips part to seep and drip like moisture from the old stone walls, away and away into the gardens, the wet lushness of her under-foliage, until all is resplendent and shines polished like obsidian. This is how we lie down to sleep and dream, under the full moon of a place some call Mexico, beneath the high grass and fruit trees. These are the gardens where we drift and dream. Tenochtitlan.
ONE CANNOT FORGET the man with the saxophone. He stood on the deck above the Aloha Bar, bent passionately proclaiming his melodies. First came Wham’s a “Careless Whisper,” then soon after “True” by Spandau Ballet. Around him frolicked many golden ladies in various stages of undress and excitement, each of whom had a drink in hand as the saxophone player grooved among them. I eyed them with a mix of wariness and disgust. To think, I had been running away from the Eighties for 30 years, only to be cornered by them again on some Estonian beach.
Yet not just any Estonian beach. This was the Pärnu Rand, the Nordic Ibiza. Set back among the sand dunes were hammocks and secret gatherings of lithe, pretty people without any cares in the world. Muscled youths played volleyball in the sands, while blondes cycled by, taking one’s breath away with each toss of straw-colored hair. Hidden between the ice cream putkas and burger kiosks was a red van converted into a bar called Põks, from which one could buy tropical drinks — mango cocktails, passionfruit spritzers — and lounge in white beach chairs. There really was no place like this anywhere in the world. Many things in Estonian were stolen from some other place, but the Pärnu Beach scene was its own homegrown experience. It contained elements of the Caribbean, of the East Indies, of the French Riviera, but it was all repackaged into some perfect, symmetrical Estonian wonderland. My daughter loved it. “Just look at this great place, it was just made for bikinis and drinks,” she said. My response was a nod, but nothing more. “Why are you in such a bad mood again?” she asked. “I’m not in a bad mood,” I told her. “Yes, you are. You have the same mopey face that you always have these days.” “It’s that saxophone player. Any second now he’ll start playing ‘Come On, Eileen.'” “It’s not the saxophone player, Dad. You always look like that.” “Well, I’m going to get an espresso,” I said. “Of course,” I heard her say as I stormed away. “You always go and get yourself an espresso.”
The true reason I always get myself an espresso at the Pärnu Beach is because the young woman who makes it has the kind of rare wild and rugged beauty that makes all of the blondes in all their colorful bikinis obsolete. She looks perhaps like many of the other women who work at the many cafes and bistros along the boardwalk, but there is an authority, a sense of confidence, of power and command in her step that always pulls at me, just like her wavy hair and strong build. Such are the rare women who can surpass the heavily armed fortifications that ring my heart. I have never dared to ask her name, nor care to know it, who she is, where she lives, or what she aspires to be. Perhaps she is studying to be a doctor or an archaeologist. This I shall never know, for as long as I do not know, she can flavor my imagination with her mere presence. I can only glance for a moment, as I stand behind half a dozen Finnish men in thong bathing suits who are waiting to order up another beer.
There is something else you should know about the woman at the espresso bar. She reminds me of someone else, someone I met many years ago when I myself was a teenager captivated by the mysteries of the world, a teenager just like my daughter who loved nothing more than this kind of beach milieu. That other woman, whose name I also did not know, worked at a beach cafe just like this one. I had encountered her one night long ago and was similarly thunderstruck. And I remember how I had thought about her all night and then returned to the cafe in the morning to declare my love for her, only to discover she was off from work that day. It was that very feeling I had come to treasure most in this life, the feeling of being compelled to do something, even if I had second thoughts, even if I was hesitant, even if I was afraid. I was going to ask her name, everything that morning in fact I was prepared to lie about everything — pass myself off as a 19-year-old college student, instead of some 15-year old kid — to somehow ingratiate myself with this older, impressive woman. But I never thought I would see her again until I saw a reflection of her in a Pärnu barista, her cheeks turned pink by a generous August sun. “What would you like?” she asked me at the bar with the kind of cool intonation a lady develops when she has to deal on a daily basis with scores of sad admirers. “Just an espresso,” I said. “That’s all I want from you. Nothing more.” She nodded and made me the drink which I downed in a gulp. I missed my old self, I thought, wiping my lips with my hands. I missed him sorely. I ached for him. I missed that silly boy who would run to a beach cafe in the morning to chase some wild girl he had eyed the night before. Who would even lie about his age! At what point do we become embittered? I wondered. At what point do we turn cynical? And can the process be reversed without the aid of some tantra course, hippie camp, or taoist retreat?
It had to be if I ever was going to allow myself to feel happy again.
MOVING RIGHT ALONG, a kind of peace in me, and well, just peace … Somewhere around 3 AM I felt it, layers of good feeling, like rainbows, except warm, [there must be a better way to describe this feeling] … just eternal Tibetan bliss, a well-spring of effervescent energy, the masks of Pompeii, the icon gold of Rethymno, jars and jars of honey stacked up in markets festooned with cartoon bees, marshmallow ice cream candy-dripping clouds, and soothing ocean blue air above all the four elements, pancake layered, water into air, fire into earth, crumbled and mixed, a respite, an island in the archipelago, gurgling bubbling flow of water, with little chirping birds singing … Something along those lines. There’s not much else to say, all of it so golden and eternal. Just ‘yes, yes, yes,’ and ‘always, always, always.’
Oh, Björk of my youth. With whom I would have gladly quadrupled the population of Iceland. Where have you gone to? To some VIP party in New York full of art school elitists? Or quarantine bunker? Where is Einar? Tell me.
ASTRID WORKS at the hotel reception. She is on duty most of the week. She is polite, cleanly, well-dressed, informative, resourceful, peaceful, and, in general, an industrious, competent worker. Her hair is plain, either pulled back in a neat ponytail, or loose. She has a fine manicure and is restrained with her cosmetics. She looks and plays the part so well, it’s hard to believe this is her first hotel job. For the majority of her adult life, she has been employed as nothing. She met a wealthy older Catalan art dealer called Pablo as a youth and they eloped, his hot blood mingling with hers. She lived the well-coiffed life of a housewife with a strong, dominant man who limited her contact with her girlfriends, not to mention any other men. Her twin sons grew up to admire and idolize their patrician father Pablo, so that when this singing canary decided, at the age of 40, that she had enough of the caged-in life, and departed Barcelona ahead of the quarantine, they took their father’s side in the fight and relations are strayed. But she answers the phone dutifully and does not fear the night watch in an old Estonian hotel, widely rumored to be haunted. “The people you have to really fear in this life are the living,” says Astrid. “I’ve no trouble with the spirits. They can come and go as they like.” Sometimes I stop in and chat with Astrid. I order an espresso at the front desk when there is no one around and we talk. I am pleased to know a woman as fine as she is, as forthcoming as she is. She still has some will power left. My will is broken. I am sad inside, because I know the truth. Other people ignore the truth, or take different pieces of it, construct new narratives, apparatuses, but somehow, it doesn’t hang well, the material is limp, dead. How could it be? It was all stitched together from the truth, yet it’s not the real truth. That’s how it is then, my will, my heart, my soul — these are all broken. I’m a canary in a different kind of cage. I can no longer sing, I cannot muster a whistle. I wet my beak and all that comes out is silence. I rock back and forth, but I can’t even bother to find my way out. So this is what I ask Astrid about the next time we chat. How do you find your way out of a golden cage when you’ve been locked in there to sing? How to cease being somebody else’s singing canary? “I went to sleep with all kinds of awful thoughts,” she tells me. “Many nights I went to bed hoping that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. Then one day, I just decided, this is going to end terribly one way or the other. I told him I was leaving. Then I packed my bags and left. Of course, it’s not over,” she says. “It’s still not over yet. I’m still getting all kinds of death threats. But Pablo can’t touch me here in this fine hotel,” she adds. “He’s far away, and he can’t come here and get me here. In the hotel I’m safe. And besides, we have cameras.” “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “Sooner or later, he will give up. It takes time, but sooner or later we all give up. When our wills are at last broken.” “Well, as they say in Spain, reality is more disturbing than fantasy. All of these disturbing films and books are like fairy tales compared to what we must endure in life.” Maybe really, I think. Võibolla tõesti.
KATA DOESN’T KNOW who her father is. Whenever she asks her mother, she gets silence as an answer. She gets this answer in the third floor of an apartment house in a dusty southern town where the sand lies white beneath the dark pines. She gets this answer down the way from the old village, the old church, the old graveyard, and the old grocery store. On the second floor of the building lives Mati. He has a father but he’s in prison, but only for stealing cars, “not too bad.” This is how they talk about Mati’s father. He may be in jail, but at least he didn’t kill anybody. Across the way, there is a playground and a park. Here can be found on most days an older gentleman who never speaks, but derives pleasure in watching the children play though none of them are his own. He is not from the village though — he’s a drifter who has drifted into town. Across the street, a young woman in tight shorts goes about the business of mopping out the stairs to the apartment. She looks happy as she works. Nearby, the old buildings of the collective farm rot in the heat. The head of the local museum is a witch, I’m told, and denies anything to do with Christ. On certain days, she meets with other witches and they eat porridge cooked in a smoke sauna cauldron, then go out and take advantage of the local men. Outside the houses, the old and young men gather and smoke. When my car arrives, all the heads turn, because they’ve never seen this make and model before in these parts. “Who is that over there?” one gestures with a cigarette. “It looks like Saareküla Kusta’s old car?” “No, that’s not Saareküla Kusta,” another man says. “It’s got to be someone else. Maybe Uustalu Mats?” “That’s not Uustalu Mats,” says a third. “Doesn’t even look local. Must be a foreigner. Yes, a foreigner, I reckon.”
IN THE MOSSY verdant Botanical Garden along the river, so lush-humid and choked with greenery and mist, the land in the middle rises up in rings with a crater set at its center like a Roman theater. At the foot of a wooden staircase, a sign informs the most curious of passersby that this was once a Swedish bastion called Ulrika Eleonora, after the younger sister of Charles XII, and the future monarch of the empire. There’s a mysterious charm to these gilded relics of the Imperial Swedish age in Estonia, as if they were all gold-covered pieces of chocolate. I related the story to my editor over wine at a restaurant a night later, and she too, in her blossoming, billowing yellow dress, was surprised to learn the garden was built on the back of the bastion Ulrika Eleonora, and that on the back of this Swedish royal now grow many fragrant flowers hosting many foot soldier butterflies of the Great Power Era, the stormaktstiden. “It is amazing how little we know,” she admitted, “even about those things closest to us.” The wine was summer white, and there was light off the candles and the perfume of happiness. My belly was full of the butterflies too, for the first time in a long time, and my how they fluttered. This is how I forgot all about the little white owls and Icelandic girls at faraway pools. This is how I forgot everything and was reborn into time. I must thank that dead princess one day for reviving the life in me. Tack så mycket, Ulrika Eleonora. Tusen tack.