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?
HOT PUNCHY, ravaging energy, 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 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 green gardens where we drift and dream.
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.’