I’D ALWAYS LONGED for some deep, fulfilling, forever connection, but these were hard to come by. Most of my loves were new age transients, spiritual hobos, riders of the rails. These free love devotees could see only about as far as the lights of the next city and that was all. If I was lucky, I might be made the centerpiece in some get-rich-and-famous scheme, or just coopted as an accomplice in the survival game. I offered flexible and accommodating company, and going along for the ride provided me with a thrill and some hope. Nevertheless I was left standing time and again at the stations in Bury St Edmunds, Roskilde, Bangalore with that dumbstruck look on my face. I was looking for something grander, but all I got was another ticket to ride. Forever could wait. Their resignation letters were of impressive boilerplate legalese. “It’s not you, it’s me.” “We’re just different types of people.” “Don’t worry, I’m sure your next sweetheart will be arriving soon, on the next train in from Tumakuru already, with a first class ticket on the Vishwamanava Express Special!” And so the latest of these next-in-lines saddled up her knapsacks and charms and disappeared into the chai and samosa porters and dust. I had a seat at a cantina where I ordered myself a plate of Dal Makhani and waited. The train was running on time, an off-duty conductor told me. It should be arriving soon.
I READ THE NEWS about America, but I don’t particularly feel like an American anymore. It feels distant and irrelevant to my daily life. I suppose I feel like a European, which to American ears sounds like having some finesse for bureaucracy, love of fine culture, and enjoyment of good cuisine, but to me means something like, a free and unfettered life. About a decade or so ago, when I was first living here for a stretch, I remember watching some program about UFOs in Europe. It had a horrible electronic music soundtrack, and I thought Europe was just so stodgy and weird, stale and decadent. It was so lived-in and boring that people had to indulge themselves in drugs and orgies just to get that tiny thrill or kick. Recently, I was watching a documentary on piracy in the Caribbean that made me revisit this feeling. This was an interesting documentary, because it showed the internal disagreements within the British Empire (nothing like hearing Charles Vane shout “fuck your fucking king” on his way to the gallows). At the end, the narrator said something along the lines of, “Some say Anne Bonny lived to see the founding of the United States of America.” And I thought, “So what?” Like someone read her the draft terms of the Treaty of Paris and she died happily? Who really cares? As a writer I am an American, in that I am not afraid and have a knack for publishing inflammatory statements that might disrupt society. As an uncultured American, there is almost nothing expected from you here. If you can even manage to tie your own shoes, it is a great feat in the face of these highly cultured Europeans. I suppose I enjoy the best of both worlds, and in and in the true spirit of the Golden Age of Piracy to boot. Maybe Master Vane was on to something.
IT STARTED OFF THIS WAY, some kind of coastal area, with me flying over beaches (and sunbathers) out along the coast, through patches of fog and wisps of clouds, and then landing in a cave complex built into the side of a cliff, like those high bluffs outside of El Pajar on Gran Canaria. The interior of the cave system was lit up with glowing stars, placed in dazzling geometric patterns. These had clearly been installed by human hand, and this turned out to be a new Estonian spa. Jüri the Singer was there with his chiseled good guy face, like some kind of Sinatra on the Baltic, playing some sort of aquatic bowling game with waves and silver metallic pins. I remember the woman at the desk in the spa said, “Oh, Jüri? He comes here every day now.” I joined him in the game. Later I found myself in a school, or some other kind of public building. Merike was there with some other musicians. We were about to leave, but I just couldn’t find one of my socks. I searched through all the cabinets and inspected all the hooks. Then, when I thought I had exhausted my search, who should I see but Jüri, the Baltic Sinatra, standing at the end of a row of lockers. He was leaning against the final locker quite casual, as if nothing was amiss. Jüri the Singer was holding my missing sock. “I believe you’ve been looking for this,” he said, tipping his fedora hat. I took the sock, put it on, and we left the building together.
IN THE WANING DAYS of ninety-three, there was an ice storm. There had already been successive snow falls, and a good base of white powder had built up in the yard. When the ice storm came it coated everything in glass. Icy tree branches tinkled in the wind like chimes. The yard became a rink, and Aidan and I played hockey on it, wearing nothing but our regular winter boots. Then it became a horizontal mountain face, because if you lied flat on the surface of the ice, you could look forward and pretend it was “up,” and that way, slowly, you could inch forward and pretend you were scaling a mountain, like real mountaineers in those glossy photos in National Geographic. “Hand me an ice pick,” I would call “down” to my friend Aidan, who also lied flat on his belly, and he would hand me a hammer, I would reach forward, drive it into the ice sheet, and pull us both along. On the morning of the new year, we went for a walk. We tried to walk around the bay, and came down that hidden gulley in between the Smiths’ property line and that abandoned mansion that had been taken over by a splinter Christian group, the one where there had once been a swimming pool on the second floor in the 1920s, before the water rotted through the floor. Once we had seen a woman dressed in the attire of a Catholic abbess standing on the point beyond there looking out at the sea. She just stood there, the wind making her black shawl dance. “It’s like one of those creepy seventies movies,” Aidan had said. At the end of the gulley, we turned toward the harbor and came around the coast of the bay, mostly sand and reeds. At one point, a flat stretch of shoreline stretched out. I took the first step and found myself waist deep in mud. The mud bubbled all around me, and I could smell dead fish and dead clams. Imagine if the seabed here was deeper, was my first thought. I would be dead already. My head would be beneath the mud. My body would stink like dead oysters. Aidan grabbed a tree branch and I took hold of it. He pulled me out. “I guess we can’t walk around the bay anymore,” I said. “Are you kidding me, man?” said Aidan. “You have to go home now. You’ll freeze!” We came back up the gulley, past the haunted mansion, then down the road to my house. Two girls we knew from school came walking from the opposite direction. “What happened to you?” One of the girls asked, motioning to the lower, browner, wetter part of my body. I was embarrassed and blushed. I had specifically hoped that something like this wouldn’t happen. “I fell in the mud,” I said. “That’s what it looks like,” the girl said. “Happy New Year.” That’s how that very weird year began. Soaked in dead clams and mud and eel bones and other kinds of pungent sea detritus. The ripe stink of the sea seemed to steam off my body. It wasn’t ninety-three anymore. It was ninety-four.
MY DESIRE is for you and I want you and you alone, but I’m not sure where this want comes from. It just appeared to me one day like you did. Now it’s my elujõud that wants to take root and blossom in the warmth of your conscience. Maybe it’s because it’s springtime now that such blooming energies are coursing through me. They flow through me, you see, up and out and through, though they are not of me, nor do they belong to me under my name. They aren’t mine, they cannot be, and I lack the words to truly express them. Even if we cannot say or write things though, it doesn’t mean that they do not exist. All I can think of is pulsating euphoria, all helices of the senses intertwined, so much that it would make one’s soul or heart sing and vibrate. All I can see is jellyfish floating in the stomach of the green sea, umbrella-shaped bells, dangling tentacles, propelling themselves toward tranquil eternity. The incandescent seeds of life traveling underwater, all so deliberately. There is nothing more beautiful than that.
ACCEPTING DEFEAT. The most challenging challenge. Giving up on a dream, a hope, a concept, a plan. Giving up on a connection, a friendship, a love. Giving up and walking away in defeat. Giving up on a core truth. If you give up on the truth, was it ever really true? Is anything true, or is the truth just something we tell ourselves to make it easier to sleep through the night? A fog of insouciance rolls in like the fog into San Francisco at dusk. The moisture of defeat. Maybe none of that was true. Maybe everything you ever thought was true was just a story. These were all just stories and there is no truth. There is only the fog in the city and acceptance of defeat. What else is there to do other than cruise into North Beach to get a bite to eat, order a strong coffee, sit and breath a while. Forget about defeat, forget about the truth, forget your own name. There’s no need for it out here. Out here, all you need to do is sit and breathe. How I miss San Francisco.
ON THURSDAY NIGHT, Garcia had dinner at the Bryants’ place in East Hampton on Long Island. Ethan Bryant, despite this solid Yankee name, was actually a city upstart who had started his career doing various illegal things but had navigated the family into legitimacy. Tall, strong, with short gray hair and a handful of a chin, he was nouveau riche of the finest crust and had all ten of his fingers in diverse endeavors. Restaurants, theaters, travel, film. I suppose one could say he was an entrepreneur, but there was no industry other than big money that claimed Mr. Bryant. His wife, Tilda, was the consummate socialite but privately restless. Tilda would often do very rash things, like buy tickets to some unknown Francophone Caribbean island and disappear for months on end. She very obviously indulged in affairs, including a fling with Eric Clapton, and it was said that Ethan knew but did nothing about it, concerned as he was with important phone calls, reviewing bottom lines, studying The Wall Street Journal. Like most things in East Hampton, their home was expensive yet somehow dull, dreary, and ordinary. A gray shingled colonial in the typical saltbox style, it was protected by looming hedges. Any such home in Merry Old Britain would be seen as a quaint but rather aged and boring estate, but its presence on the end of Long Island ensured its status, its secure place in the safe and ongoing transfer of European culture to American shores. These were the Bryants. They had everything and were admired. They were also deeply, deeply unhappy. Garcia showed up at the Bryant residence wearing a white suit he had tailor made in the Orient. He supposed to them, he looked like some kind of martial arts star. Of course, being a top travel photographer gets one invited anywhere in the Hamptons. Brunch with Gwyneth Paltrow. Afternoon tea at Roger Waters’ place. Even Dick Cavett begrudgingly had Garcia over once or twice, though in the company of people far more important than himself. The trouble with the Bryants was Tilda, and the trouble with Tilda was her zest for fun living. Tilda Bryant was a voluptuous society lady with gold hair and exquisite tastes. She was also more charismatic and engaging than her at-times slink-away husband. While eating, Garcia, a handsome Spaniard if ever there was one, looked at Tilda the wrong way, because Ethan chewed his food slowly and accidentally knocked his knife on the floor. Then Garcia must have looked at her again the wrong way, because Ethan dropped everything, stood up, and stormed out of the dining room. “Don’t mind Ethan,” said Tilda stroking Garcia’s arm. “Things have been so rough in the stock market these days.” Garcia was rather shaken and asked to be excused and found his way down the hall to the toilet. It smelled like old toilets smell in old colonial houses and the floor was covered with wrinkled stacks of The New Yorker from the Nineties. While he was in there, he could imagine Tilda going to either scold her husband or rub his shoulders as he gazed out the window at his trimmed East Hampton hedge. All this money, all this money and his wife still fucked Clapton in Antigua. Even if he bought himself a new woman, it still wouldn’t be love. Money was a prison. He had built himself a monied Hamptons prison. He had to keep it together though. Friday there would be a reception to support the East Hampton Library. Alec Baldwin would be there. While Tilda was meeting privately with her husband, Garcia wandered the crooked halls of the sad old house. Supposedly a witch had once lived here long ago, when it was also a tavern, but had become too powerful and the East Hampton town elders had her drowned in the village pond. At the end of the hallway, Garcia noticed a door was ajar. He looked in and saw their twentyish daughter sitting on the edge of an old antique bed, swinging her feet aimlessly. She had returned from the Boston Conservatory where she had been studying the violin. The violin case was at her feet. “You must be lonely,” she said looking at Garcia. “You have that lonely look of lonely men.” “That’s always nice to hear,” Garcia said sitting down beside her. “You even smell lonely,” she said. She had dark hair and was as captivating as her parents. Her name was Enid. Garcia reached over and pulled a book off the shelf. It happened to be Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin: Explorers on the Moon. The rocket was about to launch. On board were Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and the research engineer Frank Wolff. “I like the illustrations,” Enid said. They read the book together.
IN THE SPRING last year, I finally got my hands on a new bicycle from a shop on Kaalu Street in Viljandi, the one located above the laundry. It sat patiently for me in the corner, just the right proportions, just the right price, and inscribed with the tantalizing word Adriatica. The Adriatic is the sea between Italy and the Balkans, and it so happens that my forebears came from the coasts of these turquoise waters. That is how the bicycle spoke to me and we reached some agreement. Cash between me and the owners quickly changed hands. Adriatica was now mine.
This spring, I have used Adriatica to explore Viljandi, this town in which I have been anchored for all of the crisis. Days turn into weeks which turn into months and then turn into years. My children ask me questions like, “Do you remember anything that happened in April?” I have my favorite routes. I know that if I take the bike down the hill to the lake, and then ride it all the way down to Huntiaugu at the foot of Männimäe and then back, my mood will improve. Even if I see some small town tragedies. Once I saw a Russian man sleeping in the grass, drunk. He was still clutching his mobile phone. Two Estonians passed him, discussed whether or not they should give him a hand and then decided to do nothing about him and walked away.
I didn’t feel like doing anything about it either.
If I take the bike into shady Uueveski, down streets like Lembitu or Ilmarise, my mood depresses. There are personal reasons for this, but it’s also harder to navigate in Uueveski. Uueveski also has more foliage, and so even on those few sunny days, it is dark in there.
A recent route has been through Uueveski and into Peetrimõisa, which is still unexplored terrain for me. The road into Peetrimõisa is dangerous, but if you hang to the side of the road and stay focused, you can turn quickly up streets like Sõstra or Kreegi. These streets are fun to explore. The neighborhood has both a rundown shantytown feel, but also is the site of relentless renovation and improvement. There are greenhouses where locals grow their own produce, ancient rusting Soviet trucks rotting in backyards. At one intersection, swings have been hung from a tree in a public park. Every other yard features a trampoline or batuut, the status symbol of any Estonian family. You must have a trampoline if you are going to pretend to be someone.
There is no other say in the matter.
On the weekends, when the Estonians are out, they try to find ways to occupy their time. We are told that life is short and time is of the essence, but it seems they have to find endless ways to entertain themselves with overly ambitious renovation projects that go nowhere, or just the never-ending act of burning brush, so that the streets are filled with the sting of white smoke. These scenes I encounter from the perch of my bike, which seems somehow decadent here. Shouldn’t I also be fixing or burning something? How can I waste my time just cycling around?
But I live in a town apartment, you see. The only thing to burn is old paper bags from Rimi.
From Peetrimõisa, I cycle up and around toward Karula, pausing at that old German graveyard down by the lake, the one with the mossy crosses and mossy stones. Du bist meine rettung. “You are my savior.” All this talk, all this talk about the Soviets and the Soviet era, and all through it these Germans have been sleeping here watching wistfully over Lake Karula, dreaming in eternity. No one minds them, no one thinks of them, and their graves are a mess.
From there, I take the road back into town, past a military installation and some car dealerships. This angle of town also makes me feel lonely. That wind is blowing through and there is hardly anyone around until you get to Uku Keskus, that former prison that now brings so many people such joy. During the lockdown, if you waited and watched, you could even talk your way into Hawaii Express to pick up a bicycle pump, if you needed one, though technically they were only on call for orders. I remember how I used to come up here last year during the last lockdown and wear rubber gloves and a mask, as if I was doing maintenance on the International Space Station. Marek Strandberg had a YouTube video about how to decontaminate products. People were afraid you could get the virus from touching a magazine. I’m not as careful now. Maybe I should be, but in any case, I get back on Adriatica and ride.
I go to Paalalinn too, sometimes, to get some good dark chocolate from the supermarket there. I tend to avoid Männimäe, but not for any personal reasons, but because it’s not on my route. There is also Kantreküla, which yields surprises. There is always a street or house you somehow missed all the other times you have been through it. So much packed in a small town.
Then it’s down to the lake again, where I cruise along that cluster of modern houses in what I have been told was once a sheep pasture. I call this neighborhood “Little Reykjavík” because there are almost no trees there and it looks like the suburbs of Reykjavík, Iceland, that I’ve explored. Seldom do I see people in Little Reykjavík, and only if I peer through the windows can I see a family watching the news from a big screen TV, or maybe a man tinkering with a leased car. By the lake one day I encountered some Finns who were camping. Finns always seem a bit more robust and even a little eccentric. They are like the Estonians’ weird cousins. “Oh, yes, don’t bother with him,” they say about them. “Always been a little strange.”
There by the lake, I look up at all the houses on the hill and wonder if I will ever get back to the real Reykjavík. The hot public baths, the volcanoes, the funny cafes, the tasty soups, all those pretty girls. I suppose I could go, but it still seems complicated and there is always the danger that you might not be able to get back so I’ll have to settle for Little Reykjavík for now.
It’s really not so bad here in Viljandi. We have the lake and we have our bikes. Sometimes I wonder if there is any difference between being there, here, or anywhere anymore.
I DIDN’T WANT TO GO swimming, but it did so happen that I had my swimsuit and a towel (and a bag) and no reasonable excuse not to. When I came out of the apartment complex, I noticed that I was on the other side of the town, far at the end of the lake toward the river delta. There was a long sandy beach, faced by colorful villas, a mix of the south and north. Toward the mouth of the delta was a small island, cut away from the shore by what looked to be a stream. As I ventured closer, I could see the current here was much stronger and few swam in it, except for some kids who had dipped their legs in the waters. I could see the stream wasn’t so deep, so I walked across it and hoisted myself up on the other bank. Here I encountered an abandoned guard outpost, made of weather-beaten logs, broken windows. There was another man there, and he told me he had thought of buying this island and developing it into a small summer restaurant, but that he no longer had faith in the project. “Everything here is wrong,” he said. Down along the coast, I could see there was a white citadel. I walked along the beach and came over the drawbridge. The citadel was maintained by a Chinese aristocratic family of ancient lineage. Their name was Lo. Out of politeness, I was invited to dinner, which included a rich bisque. After dinner, I was invited to a reception upstairs, where I was a guest of honor, alongside Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Paul Kantner. I was surprised, not only because Paul is, at least as of this moment, deceased, but because Grace looked young and was dressed in black. She was kind and we got to talking. “But what am I doing here?” I asked. Grace grinned and said, “Don’t you know? You’re back in San Francisco with us, man. You’re back in San Francisco.”
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.