THE WANT you get for someone, the recurring want, like a warm and fragrant spring, that primitive and delicious want, and ever more want (and ever wanting more want), the want that sweeps and lingers in the flesh, overwhelms senses, and in a blink fades like the aftertaste of something sweet, a spoonful of honey, a face full of honeysuckle. That’s the kind of want I have.
WEIRD DREAMS, JERSEY DREAMS. I returned to the United States and acquired a home on a hill in New Jersey, not far from a major thoroughfare, but far enough to give off the impression of being in the woods. It was a dark house, inside and out, with some German architectural influences. But I just couldn’t stand to sleep in the house for whatever reason. I tried sleeping there, but no good sleep ever came. Instead I hit the road, to Florida, South Carolina. I was on the road because the house was bothering me. At some point, I wound up in Riverhead on Long Island, on the shore of the Peconic Bay. It was all frozen over, like the Arctic, with huge mounds of ice and an apocalyptic feel in the chill air, and there were buses going this way and that. I had no money, but I decided to ride the bus without paying just to get out to the Hamptons, for whatever reason. Then I returned to Jersey, where I inspected the house. There was a room that was full of old toys and dolls, and another that I just didn’t feel like going into, where all the windows were covered in thick red curtains. I tried to sleep in that side room, but rest wouldn’t come, so instead I decided to go for a walk to the store. I didn’t know how long I would have to stay stranded in New Jersey. I thought of the Lenape as I walked sullenly with my hands in my pockets past vast oceans of parking lots and convenience stores. This was their land and they or we turned it into this? Sure, the bagels were excellent, but where did the Lenape go? To Oklahoma? And would the Lenape ever come back? I felt restless and kept on walking. There had to be some way out of Jersey.
I WAS PARKED at an Olerex gas station with a new red jeep when a jolly woman showed up out of nowhere with lots of freckles and wavy hair. She then demonstrated to me how the back of the jeep could be converted into beds, and it wasn’t too long after that I found myself in her warm lush embrace with lips locked and souls blending into rainbow oblivion. That’s right, the good stuff, all in the back of a jeep at an Olerex in Tartu. That was at least satisfying to my soul. Then somehow I wound up on the bridge from Narva to Ivangorod with Raivo H., whereupon we encountered Noam Chomsky crossing the bridge. “Mr. Chomsky, Mr. Chomsky, I have read many of your books!” He was not impressed and rather a dick in person. He just wanted to go to some Russian bistro on the other side and load up on their greasy Slavic dishes. I eventually lost Raivo too, who felt too comfortable speaking Russian to the Russians, and decided I had had my fill of Russia and had to go back to Estonia. In Russia, it was night, and there was a lot of graffiti and garbage and sad-eyed people seated around cafes and restaurants drinking. In Estonia, it was daytime and painfully clean and painfully quiet. Even the Estonian Russians of Narva were silent as they went about gardening and cycling.
THIS YEAR I TOOK IT upon myself to vote in the American presidential election. It was time to end the charades, the silliness, the scandal. I was tired of rioting, death, and pornographic actress intrigues, and yearned for the hand of some sturdy, stodgy lifelong political player to right the ship of state. Take the wheel, Biden, take the wheel and steer us back into the calm seas of unfulfilled political promises and soaring rhetoric based on some vague nostalgia for the Civil Rights Movement.
For this has been the Democratic idea for what seems like my entire lifetime. They have been running on what has mostly been an empty tank, replaying the greatest hits of the Kennedys. Much is promised from year to year, but the best they can deliver seems to be peace and no civil war. Even in the now revered Obama age, the man himself appealed to America to reach for the stars, to achieve its own “Sputnik Moment.” Yet many Americans were not buying.
The inspiring rhetoric and compromised projects led mostly nowhere.
Instead, it seems the whole country is drowning in seas of heavily armed, mentally confused vigilantes. A pirate crew of them was arrested recently for planning to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan. White supremacy, a simmering underground fire in recent years, has burst into white flames across the landscape. Even people who are not Europeans are getting in on it. Social media is soaking in sick deluges and torrents of propaganda. Hatred — of someone and preferably someone else — is the modern American business and business as of late has been good.
This is why it makes sense to vote for a rather average older gentleman from the State of Delaware. Delaware, the miniscule Atlantic state, among the most boring places in America. For in the hellfire of 2020, the Democrats’ boring promises of peace and no civil war actually sound pretty good. We must choose a boring peace, and at least delay or calm the ongoing internal divisions and strife that explode on a daily basis. There is an immediacy to voting in this strange year, a newfound urgency to stopping a narcissistic kleptocrat out to enrich his relatives and turn America into some kind of Latin American family dictatorship while the country suffocates under a pandemic and crackpot apocalyptic militias. The Trumps are to America what the Somozas were once to Nicaragua, watching the streets burn from the comfort of gilded toilets.
So voting is the order of the day. Yet it was no easy task. First, I had to fill out a form online, print it out, sign it, date it, and mail it to my local board of elections in New York, where it apparently is still headed with an Estonian flag stamp affixed, one that I hope might arouse some wonder among the local officials. On top of that, I printed out my electronic ballot, marked the circles with a pen, and dispatched it. This process required me to resurrect some elementary school skills. The ballot was folded neatly inside a security envelope, which had to be signed and taped shut, which was then folded inside a mailing envelope, which also had to be sealed. Somehow Amazon had figured out how to confirm my order for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with a simple five-digit code, yet the local Board of Elections required me to undertake this curious, Japanese origami-like art project.
I was undeterred.
Sitting there in a bookstore café, surrounded by pensioners sipping coffee, I had the sense that I was crafting a paper airplane, one I would soon let fly across the room where it might strike an unsuspected café patron in the eye as he was perusing the diaries of Johannes Käbin or Nasta’s new hot astrology book. Yet even these dinosaurs of the Sputnik era could vote in Estonia with their identity cards and a click or two. All they had to do was log in with Mobiil-ID and cast their votes for their politicians of choice. Yes, I thought. Yes, I will vote for peace and no civil war this time. But there is so much more to accomplish once we achieve our long-awaited return to normalcy.
An Estonian version of this article appears in the 24 October edition of Postimees.
LOST ANOTHER FRIEND in recent weeks, not to death, but to marriage. When we are young and idealistic, we take on the costumes and pageantry of relationships without even knowing them, as if engaged in some profound dress-up party, but when you get older, when you observe the mind states of your friends as they evolve or rather transform during the course of their relationships, these occurrences leave room for worry. The woman outside the relationship is open, flowing, free, friendly, supportive, human. The man outside the relationship is bold, rough, adventurous, come-what-may, locked into achieving the whims of his own ego or life force. Yet put them together, and you get a sort of lethargic, post-coital slop bucket of guarded or changed personalities and shared dreams that are all too easily crushed or disjointed. Which is to say, congratulations on your great achievements, friends — and this happens with great frequency in life — but also, so sad to lose you. Up long lanes, they disappear, up long, guarded roads where men stand in trench coats with guns. The militarized estate of the relationship. It’s, as I said, a cosmic depression to watch, especially if your friend has undergone a thorough brainwashing in the wee hours and now can only revert to quoting his/her partner, “Ingrid thinks this,” or, well, “Thomas thinks that.” It’s like the shining of flashlights in bleak vacant windows of a once grand and busy hotel that has now been closed up for the winter season. Come back, friend, come back to me from the brink! One of these days the amnesia will wear off. One of these days you will shine free. One of these days the hotel will reopen.
FLYING ON A MATTRESS by raising and lowering one side in repetitive motion, like a giant wing, we arrived to nighttime twilight Tartu, where the city lights glowed in the distance like coal embers and the sky was gray with plumes of purple smoke. Autumn, cozy autumn, here at last. Cool and cold back alleys between the old buildings. Walking down the ways. There were parties letting out from everywhere, many people I knew behind the warm café window glass, the candles reflecting on mirrors and the sounds of violins and accordions. An old high school friend sat in the corner shooting himself up with syringes. “Diabetes,” he mumbled to me, as if there was nothing more to say. I looked up at the sky and saw the white moon, sun, and north star twirl around each other in some synchronized dance and then shoot off and away, leaving behind mist and tiled rooftops. And then one day, while walking on University Street, a pint-sized ferocious blonde woman with two gray, striking eyes, crossed my path and began to admonish me, but in a playful way, growling. “This couldn’t be her,” I remarked aloud to an unseen audience. “This cannot be the new love of my life.” She only smiled and growled. Ferocious wench. Yet it wasn’t her. There was a young pretty cook who was taken with me some days after that. A fine-looking girl, nothing extraordinary about her but her devotion. She kissed me kindly and told me that she loved me and I melted away into the honey rays of the morning northern sun. It took a while for me to believe that someone actually loved me, loved me just as I am. Or as I was. Or as I will be. Whenever this all took place. What a sensation though. As sweet as sweet potatoes. Unforgettable.
I’M NOT REALLY SURE how I did it, or if I did. Or if it is just another bout of self-delusion? However, the Healer says that our ego often disrupts our natural flow, so that the ego is a disagreeable friend of sorts, constantly bickering with our internal compass that always points the way, the wu wei, telling us ‘no’ while the wave waters flood ‘yes, yes.’ I had it crummy and bad for her for years, but it had to come to an end. Something had to be done to break the supernatural. In her mind’s eye, it was probably all behavior. Words. Käitumine, as they say. Things that had happened, or had been said. Physical realms of possibilities. But … but. But none of that really matters when the love wave crashes over you at 3:30 on a Wednesday morning! There’s a lot of chatter, analysis, but it’s all rather beside the point in the face of the great wave. It couldn’t go on though. It was too wretchedly painful. I had to appeal to the gods to intervene. This was, in all truth, a genuine appeal to the superhero forces of the universe. There was some heavy praying during some performance. In the end, I promised to give my heart to whomever I next saw, which seemed a ballsy move. This was just when the half-Aleut emerged after a brief rehearsal and was hot-struck. Her eyes were all filmy and foggy. It was a weird moment, among the weirder in my life. This is the silent crash of the great wave. The way it comes down, drawing you back into soupy oblivion. The momentary pinprick of celestial light from the cosmos. Later experiments and trial balloons have suggested that this was real and all happened. My ego suggests otherwise. He thinks I made up a new story to believe in. But if we are capable of such story craft, then how come we can’t control our own stories? No. There is some interplay, but the narrative is actually beyond us. We reach for it, we know it’s there, but we cannot push it one way or the other. I’m not afraid of it anymore though. That’s the difference. Once, while returning from a soiree in an English village, I was terror-stricken when I saw the swirling red mist above an Anglican cemetery. Tombstones, ghosts, and crosses. Back then, I turned and ran. I made great haste. When faced with the same spectral light today, I would stay and watch. I no longer fear the phantasmal unknown. I am of it.
I WANT TO TELL YOU about the haunted room. It was in the back of the house. Not a dismal place, actually, but cheerless, blank. White furniture, a kitchenette. It was here though, at odd times in the day, when objects would come to life. The belt, carelessly strewn on the floor, would writhe and rise up, its silver buckle turned to a hissing head. Jewelry boxes hopped happily forward, as if grazing rabbits. They meant no harm. No one believed the room was haunted, but I knew. That’s why I was so terrified to go in there. What was most frightening about the little place was not the animate objects, but the sense of dread that lurked within. There was a green couch in the corner and sometimes I would lie there and try to make sense of things. I would lie there and think of the swimming pool in Philadelphia, the sound of the wind at the glass. How had all these things happened since? Things seemed so honest and good in the swimming pool. There was love in there. And now this? This all had to be a bad dream then. Hissing serpent belts and rabbit boxes? Locked up inside a room of dread. On occasion if I lied still enough, the ghost of the little white owl woman would come and lie beside me and I would feel a fleeting comfort and peace. My soul would at last steam up from me and I would sleep wonderfully and be happy the fantasy even existed. This represented the very pinnacle of my living experience. The drooling comfort before the big sleep. The idyll of white owl woman in a Reykjavik swimming pool. It was all just a blanket, a cover. The belt slept in the corner, coiled. The boxes observed from beneath the table, nibbling. This room was haunted, sure, but there had to be a way to exorcise its demons. Someday, somehow.
IT WAS AN IMPRESSIVE, crooked house situated on a cliff overlooking the ocean. From the edge, you could look down on the vast roll of the salty blue waves, and not only, you could hear the voices of the swimmers diving into the water from the piers. They were as tiny and distant as matchsticks. Of course, it was foggy up there on that street with a refreshing cool air, and there were a lot of such Victorian homes with glass windows, winding staircases. Out of the front of one emerged a certain actor of repute, a Mr. Pitt, best known perhaps for the turmoil in his personal life, but otherwise in high spirits as he stopped beneath the street lamp on the corner to chat with Constable Mahoney on patrol. Mahoney and Pitt eyed me as I came down from the opposite side of the way, hands in my pockets and whistling. I was surprised that Pitt recognized me and there was even warmth there, a kind of a common, “takes-one-to-know-one” rapport. Then I went on along the foggy street to the very end. My own home was poorly lit and cold inside. When I got in, Agnetha was there, with her child curled up in her lap. She was stroking the little girl’s head and eyeing me from behind her glasses. I knew it was cold, but I somehow could not provide for the two of them anyhow. There was just not enough wood for the large, white fireplace at the center of the home and, despite its location in an opulent neighborhood, we were still dirt poor and I was as tawdry and tarnished as a London chimneysweep. Agnetha was still kind to me and we sat a while as she stroked and consoled her forlorn daughter. I had promised them so much. I had promised them a home in the heights, but I had somehow neglected to provide for their warmth and comfort. So it was this kind of love then, a threadbare one. Agnetha pushed her button nose very close to my face, so close, but she refused to kiss me. I could smell her breath but she refused to commit with the deed. Agnetha had frozen up inside too, you see. She could get close to me, but in her core she was far off. “You absolutely must do something,” she said to me, as her freezing child whimpered beneath her staid, calm fingers. “Go rob a grocery store or even the First Republic Bank and then the First Bank of San Francisco. You can take out all the banks on Market Street, if you like. I don’t care,” she said, and tears began to roll away gently. “I don’t care if my husband is a criminal. Better a wealthy criminal than a poor writer!” Of course, I did no such thing. I turned up Market Street, found a music club in the Mission District and was promptly seduced by the violinist. Some half-Aleut girl from up the coast whose name I would bellow as she milked me raw in the wee hours in some hotel while the sea lions barked and humped in the bay twilight. And that’s how I forgot all about Agnetha, so sorry to say. I guess that big betrayal is on me, but, to be fair, the violinist didn’t ask for anything. Just words for her music. Real passion that. I’m not sure what became of Agnetha and the girl. I imagine they are still freezing up in that chilly house on the cliffs. Or maybe she has taken up with Pitt or Constable Mahoney? If so, I wish them the best.
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?